‘He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you’
That there is the first passage that pops up if you google ‘Nietzsche quotes’ (or in my case ‘neitszche quotes’ – spellin r hard). Many readers will be shocked to learn that Nietzsche was in fact not talking about From Software’s 2011 masterpiece Dark Souls when he wrote these lines in his 1886 book Beyond Good and Evil, but was rather offering aphoristic existential advice or something similarly trivial.
The shock I mentioned is understandable because holy crap Dark Souls literally has an in-game setting called ‘The Abyss’ and an expansion called Artorias of the Abyss that features a knight who physically delves too deep into that aforementioned abyss and thus invites said abyss into himself and becomes a monster and wait, wasn’t the marketing slogan for Dark Souls 2 literally ‘Go Beyond Death’, and aren’t both Dark Souls and its sequel famous for their morally ambiguous endings that expose each game’s chain of events as cyclical and mundane and your painstaking efforts as ultimately pointless on a cosmic scale? Aren’t souls and humanity reduced to currencies that you harvest in the wake of absent gods?
Yes. All of this is true. Our suspicions are aroused. So just how Nietzschean is Dark Souls? Is the Chosen Undead some kind of post-god Übermensch? Not quite – Dark Souls rather echoes that existential Kafkan joke: the impossibility of reaching the end or of returning to the beginning, with man stuck in the middle (with you). The Chosen Undead, like Kafka’s go-to protagonist, finds himself caught up in just such a cyclical, purgatorial, and fate-less scenario. Nietzsche, in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pre-empted this Kafkan scenario, writing: ‘Man is a rope stretched between the animal and the superman – a rope over an abyss. A dangerous crossing, a dangerous wayfaring, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous trembling and halting’.
Anyone who has suffered through beatings by Ornstein and Smough or stripped off all armour to sprint past those two bastard archers in Anor Londo can certainly vouch for the latter sentence’s relevance, but it is the former descriptor of man’s suspension that is at the heart of Dark Souls. After all, the Chosen Undead is likewise suspended – between ages, between hollow animalism and impossible godhood, between the dark age of man-alone and the fire age of theocracy, between each NG+ Undead Asylum and each Kiln of the First Flame. Every check-in to the YOU DIED hotel reminds the player that the figure of the Übermensch remains, for the human, necessarily unreachable.
One may argue that the Chosen Undead cannot be an existentially marooned hero since he/she is ‘chosen’ – but this is not so. This moniker is only ever granted in-game by characters that ‘choose’ the player-character to further their own ends: the knight of Astora; Kingseeker Frampt; and Darkstalker Kaathe. And suitably, the player is free to choose his own obedience to these figures. The darker, more explicitly Kafkan alternative to this choice is enforced by Dark Souls 2, within which the player arrives in Drangleic seeking a cure to undeath, before forgetting his personal mission and getting caught up, pawn-like, in a pre-set mythos that ends in futility and stasis.
After all, the gods in Dark Souls are in no position to be choosing undead saviours; their age of fire is passing, and besides, they’re all either mad, incompetent, or absent. The game’s lore is rife with gods failing to earn their titles, and Gwyn, the final boss, is a god reduced to a hollowed undead state. Nietzsche, like Albert Camus, claims that in a world devoid of gods and eternal values, one can either choose to rebel through independent establishment of moral order, or face dissolution (for Camus this was – as in The Myth of Sisyphus – suicide, whereas for Nietzsche it was madness. In Dark Souls it’s a combination of the two: hollowing). The Chosen Undead chooses rebellion (wouldn’t be much of a game otherwise), and Dark Souls is shaped to reflect the vitality and importance of this decisive act of individual expression.
This focus on the individual will to power (to borrow another phrase from Nietzsche) comes across in the lack of an overarching system of in-game morality. Other RPGs will often prevent a player from killing friendly characters or NPCs, but Dark Souls offers no such constraints; every creature you meet in-game can be murdered without any kind of omnipotent figure or invisible system stepping in to arbitrarily label you ‘evil’. The game goes on to hammer this moral absence home through its competitive multiplayer, which involves the anonymous invasion of other players’ worlds. Kill too many players and you’ll amass sins, but these pointedly have no in-game effect and are absolved simply through paying a creepy and crooked priest-figure the appropriate number of souls (which are themselves reduced to secular currency in Lordran).
Dark Souls then offers no cosmic spectrum of right or wrong; even the surviving gods turn out to be unworthy of the moniker and can be killed or saved depending on the player’s whims. Consequently, any moral meaning that exists by the time Gwyn lies slain is carved entirely by, and known only to, the individual player. The impossibility of extending this self-forged morality across a godless mankind is what drove Nietzsche to despair and madness, and what inexorably drives the player again and again towards the final empty choice at the game’s end and, ultimately, each new NG+ cycle.
Dark Souls may just be the most secular game with wizards and priests in that I’ve yet encountered. The absence of coded moral absolutes and the consequent space-to-be-filled is why it’s always a treat to talk to other players about their own experiences with the game – look out for those who insist the game ‘has no story’; they might just be amoral sociopaths.