“Prepare to Die” is a phrase you may have heard more often than usual recently. That’s because it’s used as a tagline for the Dark Souls series of games. The greater Souls series (including the PlayStation 3-exclusive progenitor, Demon’s Souls, and last year’s PlayStation 4 exclusive, Bloodborne) is one of richest and most nuanced video role-playing games on the market, so to hear it reduced to a single defining element, its unapologetic difficulty, is always a little depressing, although I understand why the game media does it. Difficulty and virtual death are a universal language, immediately understood by the general gaming community, and there is a bit more nuance to the tagline (you will spend the majority of your time in Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls as a desiccated undead or an ephemeral phantom, respectively). The point is, though, by focusing on one easily invoked, easily grasped concept, by constantly ringing the death knell, most writers drown out the games’ other notes, the artistry that surrounds these frequent deaths.
The Souls series has many strengths and many curious through-lines. With the release of Dark Souls 3, the fifth title in the greater Souls universe, I thought it would be appropriate to revisit some of these, particularly as the Dark Souls universe edges closer and closer to the world depicted in Demon’s Souls. For now, I would like to return to where it all began, the fog-shrouded Northern Kingdom of Boletaria, and examine some of that game’s masterfully subtle storytelling (at the time, it was often criticized for “having no story” in comparison with other video RPG’s). If you are playing Dark Souls 3, you may find some curious echoes in the border kingdom of Lothric.
On the first day, man was granted a soul. And with it, clarity.
On the second day, upon the Earth was planted an irrevocable poison, a soul-devouring Demon.
In the distant past.
Under a benevolent rule the world was unite’d, owing to the soul arts.
Until, a lust for power caus’d the awakening of the Old One.
Across the land seep’d a colourless Deep Fog,
and the world faced extinction at the hands of the Demons.
Thanks be, we were able to lull the Old One back to Its slumber,
yet only after the loss of innumerable souls,
and half the world, lost…eras’d by the fog.
In order to mend the fabric of what land still remained,
we entrusted six elders with six precious Archstones.
One to the king of a small yet diligent land,
one to the king of the burrowers underground,
one to the wise queen of the great ivory tower,
one to the chieftain of lost and ill-fortuned souls,
one to the shaman of the tempest-worshipping shadowmen.
And the last to the great giants of the Northern Lands.
O brave warrior, savior of this land,
Let me be thine guide within this accursed land,
Where the ravages of Demons have extinguished the souls of men,
Leaving nothing but empty husks, racked by madness,
Hungering for that which was taken from them.
Soul of the lost, withdrawn from its vessel.
Let strength be granted so the world might be mended,
so the world might be mended.
–The Maiden in Black
You came for Demon Souls? Or to save this land, and be remembered as a Hero?
Bah, it’s all the same. You’re just another prisoner of the Nexus. We’re welcome here as long as we keep slashing up Demons.
The Nexus is the refuge of souls and the web of worlds. It was formed by the Monumentals in ages long past as a prison for the weakened Old One and a bridge between the disparate realms that had survived the coming of the colorless Deep Fog. Their work finished, the Monumentals transformed themselves into half-living statues, nigh-immortal sentinels over the slumbering Demon. However, true immortality is beyond the grasp of even the Old One, and over the millennia all but one of the watchers’ candles have died out.
The Nexus is your soul’s anchor, the beginning and the end of your quest. Its physical structure reflects its true purpose: concentric, rising rings of occult signifiers perched on or hanging from precipitous curved stairways, their power concentrated on a spot at the center, the seal that traps the slumbering Old One. Directly above this seal hangs a mirrored statue, a duo of Tarot symbols: above, Justice, with inverted sword; below, The Hanged Man, arms bound; both wear hooded robes that hide their faces, so that you cannot tell if they are saints or Demons. Smaller statues, both upright and inverted, decorate the upper bounds of the Nexus, signifying…what, exactly?
The Nexus realizes its contradictory nature as both a prison and a sanctuary thanks to Demon’s Souls‘ visionary online functionality. Demon’s Souls is strictly a single-player game, with no separate multiplayer component. You will strive through Boletaria’s pitiless landscape entirely on your own. However, the Nexus serves as a bridge between worlds, and when connected to Demon’s Souls‘ servers, gossamer phantoms of the other players will occasionally cross over into your reality, insubstantial but somehow comforting, undergoing their own parallel struggles. You will see them fold under monstrous blows, flee from unseen threats in the inky darkness, and hack wildly at unyielding flesh, armor or scale. Due to the Nexus’ central placement, these reassuring images are never in greater attendance than here. Eventually, the Nexus takes on some of the sensations of home. On the other hand, you can’t travel far in Boletaria without the Nexus yanking on your soul’s tether; you are as bound to the place as are the Monumental, the Maiden in Black, and the Old One itself.
The lowest, central set of stairs supports the Archstones, your only link to the world of the living. One of these tablets, decorated with runes and bas-relief sculptures depicting rulers long since relinquished to corruption, slumps defaced and inert–the Kingdom of the Giants, the first land to fall to the colorless fog. In a vain effort to stop the spread of fog and Demons, the archstone was destroyed, forever isolating the land and its inhabitants.
In long, circular galleries rising above and around the Archstones wait the Monumentals, child-like statues looking like discarded Buddha dolls, their shaven heads lolling in death. Only one Monumental remains to explain, in a voice redolent of The NeverEnding Story‘s Childlike Empress, Boletaria’s present plight: “We contain’d the Old One inside this Nexus, and banned the soul arts. … However, man’s memory of history is o’er short…and the short-sighted King Allant once again aroused the Old One.” Your mission: to lull the Old One back to its slumber, or supplant King Allant at its bosom.
However, you aren’t the only warrior the Monumental has called to this task. Shepherded into the Nexus by the Maiden in Black, a mysterious candle maiden whose eyes have been occluded by wax, souls innumerable strive and strain side by side to overthrow the forces that have brought chaos to Boletaria. Ironically, the strength required to defeat the Old One’s Archdemons can only come from the consumption of lesser souls, a process the candle maiden refers to as “seeking soul power.” “Go forth; touch the Demon inside me. Let these ownerless souls become thine own.” Dark Souls 3 players might hear a familiar ring to those words.
Those strong enough of will and body to venture through the Archstones don’t spend long in the Nexus. As a consequence, it has become a trap for the frail, the hopeless, and the corrupt. At the beginning, you will only find a few scattered souls:
Stockpile Thomas, a kind-hearted but cowardly widower. “Sometimes I stop and wonder how I ended up in the Nexus in the first place. Why didn’t I protect my wife and daughter, even if it meant being slain by the Demons? Hahahah, please forgive me. I am over it now.” There’s some evidence that his wife and daughter were killed, not by Demons, but by their fellow men in the early days of the chaos: you will find their bodies hanged from one of Boletaria’s circular towers. His wife carries the Old Raggedy Robes armor set and a selection of spices, the tools of a witch. “It’s covered with tears, unsightly open seams, and numerous unsightly insects wriggling within it. No sane person would dare wear something like this….” Thomas plays a vital role in Demon’s Souls, allowing you to deposit or retrieve unneeded weapons, armor and items. Encumbrance is a word familiar to any RPG player, and Demon’s Souls, unlike later games in the series, slaps you with two weight limits to worry about: an equip burden and an item burden. Wearing heavy armor and wielding greatswords might offer better offense and defense in terms of raw numbers, but surpassing these burdens slows your reaction speed, leaving you less able to dodge and, eventually, unable to walk at anything beyond a slow, heavy plod. Because you must consider your inventory as well as your equipped items, you might reach this state while deep in hostile territory, surrounded by monsters, forcing you to make painful decisions about what to leave behind.
Blacksmith Boldwin, an “ordinary blacksmith” with a deep brogue and an avarice for souls. “It’s simple. Just bring me all the souls you can. … With your souls, I can eke out a living, and with my weapons, you can go on living. Not a bad deal, eh?” Far more boisterously performed than his Dark Souls counterpart, Andre of Astora, Boldwin’s booming voice temporarily expands to fill the sepulchral emptiness of the Nexus, and his equipment repair and reinforcement services are sorely needed. At the same time, there’s something slightly menacing about the way he discusses your transactions, paid for in souls of the fallen, including his words of parting: “Do come back alive. I need yer business.”
The Crestfallen Warrior, a would-be hero like yourself who has given up hope of retrieving his corporeal form. “Have you lost your nerve? No matter. Have a seat; we can sit here forever! At least we will be safe! Hahahahah….” This apathy rots both his memory and his very soul until eventually he fades away completely, leaving behind another soul for you to consume. The Crestfallen Warrior is another throughline for the Souls series: you will encounter one in the central hub area of each game, giving you an early taste of the world’s true, soul-crushing nature.
As you explore the lands beyond the Archstones, the detritus of souls will grow. But not all those who seek asylum here are as gentle as poor Thomas. Bitter disputes flare up almost immediately between the two schools of magic, who snipe at one another passive-aggressively from opposite ends of the vast hall like squabbling children. On one side are the devout, including Saint Urbain and his disciple. On the other are the students of the soul arts, most notably Sage Freke, the Visionary, and his own apprentice. Even the mages can’t get along; when you rescue Yuria, a witch imprisoned in Boletaria’s dungeons, Freke has this to say about her:
“That witch Yuria is quite a compelling woman. She uses a different type of magic than I. Hers is powered by emotion; a lesser type of miracle. I wonder if it is related to her gender?” (Yuria’s “lesser” magic forms the basis of the Great Swamp pyromancy in Dark Souls, now formally delineated from the more erudite and orderly sorcery practiced by the Vinheim Dragon School.)
For her part, Yuria expresses “great misgivings about Freke,” and adds that, while she too once “lusted after the power offered by Demon souls,” “My thirst for Demon souls is no more. On the contrary, I find such power dangerous.”
It’s hard to tell which side is the more deluded. The devout are blindly hypocritical. With no trace of irony, Urbain’s disciple states that “A miracle is a heavenly act, but spells are the acts of Demons, the work of soul arts. They have similar effects, and yet one is clearly evil, and the other is clearly good.” Of course, both miracles and spells draw their power from the same source: Demon souls. As you defeat the bosses and Archdemons lurking at the end of each area, you will recover “a Demon’s Soul…and a power that is beyond human imagination.” You can consume these for massive amounts of smaller souls or trade them to Urbain, Freke or a special blacksmith to unlock new miracles, spells and weapons. Urbain explains, “Heavenly miracles occur in Boletaria through the talismans. God has granted this accursed land with a special power. … After the dark arts spread across the land, holy miracles were witnessed once again. The will of God is clear.”
Sage Freke, on the other hand, mocks the holy for their faith. “Prayer is for the foolish, quaint, and soon-to-be dead. And heaven forbid the day you find out what their so-called God really is….” What could he mean by this? Should you obtain a Talisman of God and examine it closely, you might find some resemblance to the ovoid form of the Old One. When the seal of the Nexus is finally broken, Saint Urbain does not recognize the Demon’s voice. “That is no Demon. It sounds more like a poor hungry child.”
Freke is no better. In his fervor to unlock the secrets of souls, he frequently courts megalomania. Witness:
“I know of three human leaders who became Demons. King Allant of Boletaria, Astraea of the Valley of Defilement, and the golden elder of Latria. They have proven that humans can evolve to a higher state. We were wrong to assume that only Demons could do demon work.”
At other times, he contemplates prolonging the plague of Demons and madness: “The scourge of Boletaria has activated all souls, and energized all magic. Perhaps, then, we should work to preserve this state of heightened reality?” He quickly dismisses the idea, but when the seal vanishes, he recognizes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity:
“There is a question I have long had in my mind. It is whether we are right to banish the Old One. And I now have the answer, and it is a resounding no. Listen closely. The Old One must not be cut off from us. If the candle maiden tries to entrap it, kill her. Then absorb the souls of the Old One for yourself. The Old one is an unfathomable deposit of energy; it contains all the souls collected by the Demons. You will gain the power of a King, and I will gain knowledge from beyond. And that, my dear friend, is the righteous path. You must not allow trifling matters to dissuade you. The Demon souls shall be ours!”
Freke is far from the most corrupt soul to pass through the Nexus, however. One such rotten scoundrel is Patches the Hyena. Patches is, oddly, another series throughline. While the anonymous Crestfallen Warrior is a mere cipher, a representation of the average hero who has given up hope in the face of a relentless, uncaring world, Patches is a true personality who somehow appears in Boletaria, Lordran, and Yharnam, despite all 3 lands being part of presumably different worlds. Patches’ main function is that of a vendor. “I’ve found some really nice trinkets. Well, we’ve been long acquainted, so I’m willing to part with them at a special price, but only if you buy today!” An unsuspecting warrior might spend several thousand souls at Patches’ shop before realizing that the prices are actually inflated well above those asked by any other merchant, and his means of acquiring the “trinkets” is…less than honorable. If you encounter Patches in the world beyond, be wary of his tricks; he loves to set traps for heroes then loot their corpses to stock his wares, though he will deny it. “Nothing here is stolen, I swear. I no longer partake in the whole corpse-robbing thing. Yeah…. No, I’m completely free from my vice. My old Mother would be proud indeed! Aren’t you proud of me too?”
Patches is something of the trickster god of the Souls universe. In Lordran, he’s fallen back into “the whole corpse-robbing thing” and goes by the nickname “Trusty” Patches. In Yharnam, he walks on 8 legs and goes by Patches the Spider. Lothric, the apocalyptic setting of Dark Souls 3, features yet another incarnation of the wily, cowardly sociopath, Unbreakable Patches. Whenever and wherever he appears, Patches spells trouble, setting elaborate death-traps for player and NPC in the hopes of stripping the armor and weapons from their corpses and reselling them at exorbitant mark-ups. In true trickster fashion, though, his traps are always baited with genuine treasure; his prey are, on some level, victims of their own greed. (The “heavenly” Saint Urbain is one such Nebuchadnezzar.)
An inveterate liar, Patches has a keen eye for the vices of others. But for one particular character, you’d be wise to heed Patches’ warning. “There’s a rumour that the silent chief Yurt has infiltrated Boletaria. Yurt’s a mercenary; he’d kill his own kin for the right price. Now, I’m not a saint, but compared to Yurt I’m as saintly as they come.” And for once, he’s right.
Yurt, the Silent Chief, wears a pitch-black armor set topped by two long, narrow horns, reminiscent of Gwyn’s charred Black Knights in Dark Souls. Like most other characters you come across, he shows up in the Nexus after you assist him in the world beyond the Archstones. While his appearances might seem imposing, he shows no outward signs of aggression. However, once he appears in the Nexus, things start to change. One by one, the other Nexus inhabitants turn up missing; you will return from slaying Archdemons to find only a glowing orb, representing a pile of belongings, where a human being once stood. It’s Demon’s Souls‘ own mini murder mystery. First some unnamed bodies, then Freke’s Apprentice and the Acolyte of God, and then important characters start dying off: Patches, Saint Urbain, Sage Freke, and the witch Yuria. There’s no clear evidence pointing to Yurt until it’s too late. After the last name on his “hit list” has been crossed off, he’ll turn on you, stating, “My work in Boletaria is almost complete. I have murdered every surviving human…except for one.” His dying words are no less enigmatic than his living deeds: “Why, you…! Mephistopheles was right about you.”
Yurt’s crimes are so impactful because of Demon’s Souls‘ boldest and most effective feature, its sense of permanence. Unlike most other RPGs, Demon’s Souls does not allow you to save your progress. More accurately, it is always saving, so that the prior save state is constantly being overwritten. If you make a dire mistake–say, killing poor Thomas–there’s no option to reload and redo; you’ll have to finish out your quest without access to his handy storage box. This concept originated with the Roguelike subgenre, but those games tend to play out in self-contained 1-2 hour dungeon crawls. As far as I know, it’s still pretty much unheard of in a game of Demon’s Souls‘ scope, which might take 50 hours for a single playthrough. Moreso than its difficulty, this permanence is the Souls series’ defining attribute, lending the worlds a remarkable sense of tangibility and atmospheric weight.
So when Yurt kills off your only sources for new spells and miracles, it stays with you, even if you’re not likely to make the same mistake more than once. I’ve already mentioned that the Nexus begins to feel, over time, almost like home; suddenly, there’s a viper loose in the nursery. It’s a delightfully mean trick by From Software’s developers. But what of the assassin himself? What are his true motivations?
To find out, you’ll need to achieve pure black character tendency. (Character tendency and world tendency is one of several ambitious but unwieldy mechanisms that were dropped, thank goodness, after Demon’s Souls.) By killing NPCs, invading the worlds of other players, and other dastardly deeds, you can blacken your own soul until Yurt’s invisible confidant, Mephistopheles, reveals herself to you. While she may seem reminiscent of the Faustian devil of the same name, Mephistopheles is in fact a moral character, at least to the extent that anybody in Boletaria can be said to be moral. Wearing a golden masquerade mask and a gold-lined black robe, her appearance and bearing are somewhat reminiscent of the followers of Velka, Goddess of Sin in the Dark Souls series; the similarity is compounded by the fact that she wears a gold, serpent-shaped ring called the Ring of the Accursed, “once used to mark criminals, [who were] continuously pelted with stones and spat upon.” She hunts only those with knowledge of the soul arts, the same practice that led to the awakening of the Old One, in order to keep the “secret of the souls” safe.