This essay contains major spoilers for the Dark Souls series.
To live in the year 2020 is to be filled with the sense that the world as we know it is coming to an end.
It’s hard to pinpoint just one piece of evidence, but take your pick—an imminent climate collapse heralded by apocalyptic storms and wildfires; a rampant global pandemic; the descent of nations around the world into authoritarian fascism; failing institutions unable to contain the viral spread of disinformation. It’s not the dystopia we’ve been taught to expect. Instead of giant meteors, zombie plagues, and other numbingly cliché scenarios, ours is a harrowing reality of slow-burning crisis-upon-crisis that has never been adequately captured in speculative fiction and pop culture.
As far as I’m concerned, there’s one game that comes close to evoking the vibe of our end-times, and that’s the bleak, decaying world of Dark Souls.
For a game with lots of exploration and very little dialogue, the lore of the Souls series is astoundingly deep. Using environmental storytelling that rewards patient and perceptive players, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s trilogy is a profound exploration of human nature, fate, and how those with power can distort our perceptions of the world. In my reading, it’s also a parable about the end of capitalism—and what lies beyond it.
Just bear with me, okay?
In each installment of the Dark Souls series, you play a nameless Undead hero cursed with the unsavory task of reigniting the flame that gave birth to civilization as we know it. Long ago, the gods found this flame and used its power to create the current age. But now the flame is dying, and it’s your job to rekindle it. Or not.
This all sounds pretty simple, but like in most of Miyazaki’s works, the truth is far more interesting and sinister.
Bonfires in Dark Souls are literally kindled by the remains of your fellow Undead, to aid you in restoring the gods' fading power.
The first time I played through the original Dark Souls, the choice seemed obvious: link the fire, save the world. The “Good” ending, or so I thought. We are meant to believe that the flame is necessary for humankind’s survival, and that without it the world would be lost in darkness. The gods certainly want you to believe this, and many characters who act as their proxies throughout the game beseech you to link the fire and restore the world to its former glory.
Throughout the series, there are hints that something isn’t right. There is something unnatural—and unsustainable—about this holy flame and your fated quest to restore it. If you choose to link the flame at the end of the first game, the screen fills with a dramatic explosion as the engine of the world is reignited and a new cycle of civilization begins. If you choose this option at the end of Dark Souls 3, the flame barely grows to consume your character—a pitiful shade of the gods’ former power, having grown weak from repeating this process over untold millennia. The game’s prelude deceptively foreshadows this inevitability: “Soon the flames will fade, and only Dark will remain.”
The more one explores the lore of the Souls series, the more you begin to question who ultimately benefits from reigniting the flame, and whether this spooky Age of Dark is really all that bad. It’s very clear from the outset that the character is compelled to bear this burden. The Darksign, a black circle surrounded by a ring of fire, brands the bodies of those cursed with Undeath, doomed to suffer and die again and again. Even further, you come to learn that humans in fact originated from the Dark—the “Dark Soul” of the series’ namesake. But that true nature was hidden from humans, and they were bound by the Undead Curse to continually—and unnaturally—restore the gods’ fading power.
It feels like a crushing satire of our reality, with working people struggling through countless boom-and-bust cycles, each time expected to bear the brunt of the latest crisis so that a wealthy owner class can sustain its own power. COVID-19 has put this arbitrary cruelty in plain view for all to see, but it's hardly the first time. Workers in the US were asked to endure economic hardship as banks were bailed out during the 2008 financial crisis, which was caused by Wall Street speculators crashing the housing market with junk bonds. Before that, the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s and 90s had already set the working class back decades while the rich and powerful further expanded their wealth. In the ensuing decades, productivity soared while wages remained stagnant.
Until recently, the Souls games’ themes of sacrifice would have been more metaphorical than literal, but reality has overtaken allegory. Millions of low-paid service workers were forced to return to work during the peak of a pandemic with little protection or reassurance, once again sacrificing their well-being to the altar of capital so that the Dow can go up a few points. In the midst of a public health crisis, our government tells us that universal healthcare is impossible while creating trillions of dollars out of thin air to bail out Wall Street. Millions of workers—disproportionately people of color—continue to lose their jobs and face mass-evictions as the world richest billionaires exploit the pandemic to grow even more astronomically wealthy. And yet, the working class is expected to labor on all the same, creating wealth and shareholder value for a system that ultimately doesn’t serve them.
Even as the world crumbles around us, we are asked to prolong the existence of a system from which we’ll never truly benefit.
Even with this grim reality laid bare, we are constantly told there is no other way, that better things aren’t possible. Presidential candidate Joe Biden promises salvation from the nightmare of Trump, but nevertheless reassures the rich and powerful that “nothing would fundamentally change.” Abolitionist demands to defund the police and redirect resources to healthcare, education, and social programs have been widely dismissed by pundits and politicians, despite generations of Black scholarship on the subject.
The entire 2020 election season feels like the end of another cycle in the Age of Fire. Even as the world crumbles around us, we are once again being asked to prolong the existence of a system from which we’ll never truly benefit.
But Dark Souls is not a pessimistic game. If anything, it’s a game about transcendence—overcoming seemingly impossible odds in pursuit of a world beyond our current misery. In what is undoubtedly the most interesting of the possible endings in Dark Souls 3, the player uses the power of the dying First Flame not to restore the Age of Fire, but to begin an entirely new one. Unlike the alternative “dark” endings, where you either let the Flame die out or take its power for yourself, the rest of the world be damned, this ending suggests that the player has claimed it in service to their Undead kindred. Your character rises as a “Lord of Hollows,” allowing humanity to finally free itself from the power of the gods and define its own future.
As Yuria of Londor, the character who nudges you toward this ending, puts it: “The Age of Fire was founded by the old gods, sustained by the linking of the fire. But the gods are no more, and the all-powerful fire deserveth a new heir. Our Lord of Hollows it shall be, who weareth the true face of mankind.”
Like the world of Dark Souls, we're all living in the Cool Zone—that period of history where anything seems possible, for better or worse. And if Dark Souls teaches us anything about 2020, it’s that we can no longer afford to simply follow the path laid by those who hold power over us.
As governments and institutions continue to fail the most vulnerable among us, the ability to self-organize has taken on a new, critical importance. This self-determination has caused a surge of interest in mutual aid—efforts that have been practiced by anarchists, indigenous people, and marginalized communities for generations. As the COVID-19 crisis took hold, communities took matters into their own hands, distributing food, supplies, medical care, cash bail, and more directly to those most impacted. Rather than wait in vain for the government to help, these volunteer efforts give us a glimpse into a world beyond capitalism, where we define our own fate and keep each other safe, rather than repeat the cycles of the past.
Miyazaki's world may seem bleak and unforgiving, but it actually challenges us to believe in the possibility of transformation. The eerie grimness of Dark Souls feels authentic to crises like these. Breaking these cycles, opposing fate, means taking a frightening leap into the unknown. That's a scary proposition for many people, especially those who live in some measure of comfort. Like the cursed humans of Dark Souls, we've been told there is no alternative to the current system, but the truth is that we simply haven't been allowed to imagine it. To paraphrase Ursula K. LeGuin, the power of capitalism seems inescapable, but so did the divine right of kings.
In 2020, that's exactly the message we need: a call to recognize the truth of our collective power, and work together to bring about the world we deserve.