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'How Dark Souls II' Revels in the Horror of Repetition

This too, shall pass. And the horrors will begin again.

by Cameron Kunzelman
Nov 20 2017, 9:47pm

All images courtesy Bandai-Namco

There is a fundamental question that all sequels ask: Where do we go from here? Some games, like the Destiny franchise or the Assassin’s Creed games, choose to deliver more of the same. You get the same world, the same characters, and the same general feeling that is augmented and “improved” on. Other games go for a radical change: Jak 2 or Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts are perhaps the most extreme examples of the sequel that breaks with its predecessor.

It’s rare to have a game sequel in the mode of Dark Souls II. The Souls series, which is contained in the three Dark Souls games, is a kind of sequel series to Demon’s Souls, which was itself a kind of continuation of the King’s Field games that began all the way back on the PlayStation. The critical difference is that DSII presents us with a narrative universe built on cycles and uses it to ask players to consider what we even want in a sequel.

Dark Souls is a game that continues to pride itself on two things: It has an opaque story, and it is difficult. Some players will take issue with either or both of those propositions—there are those who feel the story is clear to anyone paying attention, or that the game is easy once people understand what it asks—but as a series these games live and die based on their reputation for delivering those things. The marketing copy on Dark Souls II's Steam page even plays up the series’s “renowned obscurity” as a selling point.

From the perspective of the franchise’s relationship to its fans, then, Dark Souls II needed to be a sequel that produced obscurity and difficulty. It needed to repeat those basic experiences for its player base. However, there is a basic paradox at the center of this. A sequel needs to be a repetition of certain things so that those who are familiar will stick around, but it also needs to have substantial differences so that they won’t get bored with the game. In music and film, we might call this the tendency of the sophomore slump, or the idea that the second effort always overcorrects either toward sameness (making a boring thing) or toward difference (making something unrecognizable). Dark Souls II, then, needed to be obscure and difficult, but also the same as a predecessor that players had already figured-out.

Dark Souls II folds this anxiety into its very narrative fabric. Similarly to Metal Gear Solid II: Sons of Liberty, DS II understands that it is possible to address player expectations at the level of narrative. You can make your audience feel better about an experience by letting characters, setting, and plot points directly address the fact that this is a sequel and that it is, fundamentally, a continuation of something that they have already done before.

In the context of DS II, the plot is concerned with the kingdom of Drangleic. It seems that the world has been consumed, to some degree or another, with the undead curse that plagued all human beings in Dark Souls. This curse, which prevents humans from dying and eventually turns them into mindless, immortal zombies, is supposedly defeated at the end of Dark Souls if the player chooses to “link the fire,” which essentially hits the reboot button on the world’s cycles of life and death. Now, in the kingdom of Drangleic, much further along in time from Dark Souls, the same problems have cropped up again, and it is the job of the player to come fix everything one more time.

We can see how the wax and wane of the sequel (and the financial stakes that a company has in the success of a sequel to a very popular game) might come to function as an allegory for the process of play and consumption. This needs to happen again for various reasons, so here we are, again. There’s a cynicism or a pessimism inherent in this, of course, and there’s also a sense of melancholy. If a sequel is about doing the same things again, with slight differences, then couldn’t we just play the first game again? Couldn’t we just not expend all of this effort?

Dark Souls II, even in its “complete” edition of Scholar of the First Sin, feels like it lives in the shadow of its predecessor. Some sections of the game have a spark of pure originality: One section of the game takes place entirely within a brazen bull, and another is among the sunken ruins of a sea-claimed city. These places have heart, but they exist against the backdrop of medieval ruins, stone hallways, and small-arena boss fights with limited move palettes. Many parts of Dark Souls II feel like you are going through the motions.

This is, I think, the power of a game that has profoundly allegorized its own legacy into the gameplay itself. As a sequel, it must tread familiar ground, and if it doesn’t the fans will abandon it in droves. And so we get familiar ground. The same Lord Souls from Dark Souls appear again, the same undead curse animates our journey, and the same melancholy infects this world that appears to be spiraling toward darkness during every moment.

Dark Souls II is not just a sequel. It is also a game that is fundamentally about coming after, about following up, and it meditates on the difficulty of continuation after a story is supposedly finished. The game’s plot, which has the player searching for the powerful King Vendrick, reaches its culmination when we find him in a dark tomb. He’s gone hollow, and his mind has completely left him; he’s a husk, and we find out that it is precisely because he realized that he was in a sequel. He was living in the after, and after him there will be more, more game, more time. In response to that, he gave up, and had no interest in continuing.

The Dark Souls franchise, of course, continued to march forward. The third game in the series is supposedly the last. But it is hard to play that sequel, or any sequel, with the knowledge that we are all King Vendrick in some way. We’re locked in the tomb of repetition, playing cycle after cycle, open world after open world, monetization strategy after monetization strategy, spiraling further down a drain of negotiated consumption. We are chasing the same gameplay experiences again and again, all of which are designed by an industry of that is doing the same, and I often wonder when you or I will finally give up, exhausted, unable to fork over any more attention to the grist mill.

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