This article contains spoilers for the Dark Souls series, and especially for Dark Souls II. Header image by Stephan Graham.
There's a particular image from Dark Souls that haunts me, as if it bled out from the screen and into my life. I see it everywhere. I am reminded of it daily.
Just last week, for example, it came to me while I was listening to The Strokes. Now, The Strokes are my favorite rock band. Please understand that when I say this I don't mean 'the 2001-era Strokes, who released that album everyone likes, were at that time my favorite rock band.' I mean I've enjoyed every major Strokes release for fifteen years, a fact that as I type it strikes me as remarkable and tragic.
For today's critics, the story of The Strokes is that of their long decline. We imagine a time when they were the very hottest band in the world, and them now as a faded relic, suspended in a state of undeath by the long shadow of Is This It, their breakout album. For today's audience, the story hasn't changed in fifteen years: "In many ways, they'll miss the good old days / Someday / Someday."
But I don't think these stories music critics tell of a band stuck in time are really about the members of The Strokes. I think they're about the power of our collective memory, and the way that power persists. This is why I think of Dark Souls every time I hear their music. I imagine a room, once on fire, which has long burned down to cinders. I imagine frontman Julian Casablancas standing stone-faced in its center. I imagine him crooning, over and over again, to no one in particular, that 'The End Has No End.'
"One by one, ticking time bombs won", croons Julian Casablancas in the song's opening lyric. The bass drum ticks while the snare drum tocks, each matching the precision of a drum computer; Albert Hammond Jr's rhythm guitar plucks along a hair behind them, contrasting precision against cool.
They play three distinct choruses, traveling from calm detachment through a barrage of noisy guitars and back again. There's a solo in the middle, because of course there is; soon, however, the band accelerates to terminal velocity. Guitar strings sizzle, and the drum kit slams, and we meet torrent upon torrent of Casablancas' trademark raucous wailing: "The end has no end," he cries eight times in succession as it all goes spiraling through the floor.
That Dark Souls image I mentioned—the one that haunts me—is in many ways the exact same image of Casablancas singing alone in a room on fire. It involves my encounter with a character named King Vendrick from Dark Souls 2.
Image courtesy of Bandai Namco.
The Dark Souls series is legendary for the tenacity it demands of its players. You always begin as a lowly adventurer in a Tolkienesque fantasy world gone sour (picture Middle Earth, except the bad guys won the war). You encounter some creepy monsters who (you suspect) used to be human, but who now insist on fighting you to the death. Then you encounter some stronger ones, decked out with shields and helmets, who also insist on fighting you to the death. Then you encounter a twenty-foot-tall demon-thing who crushes your skull using its 300 pound war hammer.
Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately) your character has been cursed to rise from the grave each time they fall in battle. It's like a black metal version of Groundhog Day: You fight the demon as many times as you need to, getting your skull crushed over and over again, until at last you learn to dodge and strike at just the right time. You triumph over the demon in a stunning display of grit and martial prowess. As you strike the killing blow, two thousand souls flow from its body into yours. You will use these souls as currency to purchase a slightly sharper sword; you will use the sharper sword to hunt something called a 'gaping dragon', which awaits you in the depths beneath that miserable-looking city in the distance. Wipe the blood off your helmet, weary adventurer. Breathe for a second or two. Gaze down towards your feet, and find the message someone scrawled for you in flaming print: "The true Dark Souls starts here."
Although every Souls game follows the same traditional structure, Dark Souls 2 carries this to extremes. Thus while I can scarcely remember any details about the plot, I nonetheless know precisely how it went: First I traversed the traditional series of dead places—abandoned fortresses, haunted temples, poisonous caverns—in order to reach an imposing old castle. As was tradition, I killed everything inside this castle. I then located the traditional tunnels running beneath it and followed them into the traditional weird crypt.
Down there, however, things make a break towards the interesting: I meet what's left of the infamous King Vendrick, who was ruler of these lands before the undead curse turned everyone into a shambling suit of armor.
Vendrick stands twelve or thirteen feet tall, like one of the biblical giants. He is naked, save for a rag to cover his penis and a crown to cover his head. His flesh is rotten like a zombie's. He is, in the parlance of Dark Souls, a "hollow": Someone who becomes cursed with the inability to die, and fades over decades into a thin shadow of their former self. As is the cursed tradition, I raise my shield and prepare for the giant health meter to stretch across the screen. Yet it never does. Gradually I realize this is not the boss fight I was expecting.
Not only does Vendrick decline to attack me, he doesn't even notice my presence here, in this boss-fight-shaped sepulcher half a mile beneath the earth. He merely staggers in circles around the chamber, over and over and over again, the tip of his sword scratching along the stone.
I stand there for a long time. The closer I examine my situation, the more dumbstruck I become. I think about the banality with which history, like clockwork, always manages to repeat itself. Here is Dark Souls 2—the annualized sequel to a spiritual successor of a spiritual successor to old forgotten franchises—presenting me yet another undying monarch (the successor to countless other undying monarchs) who is himself both old and forgotten. But where those kings were all fierce combatants, Vendrick is an idiom writ large: A man who shall literally walk in circles until the shinbones rot out from under him, each step marking the seconds until eternity.
I think about the quest that brought me here, which has reduced me to a cog within the very same clockwork as Vendrick. I must lift today's undead curse so that there can, in Dark Souls 3, be yet another undead curse for yet another doomed hero to lift. I wonder why it is that the world's been ending for a thousand years and yet, as The Strokes have said, it seems the end has no end.
I realize now why Dark Souls has gone on haunting me. In presenting a world where it's too late for heroes yet too early for the apocalypse, the series mirrors one of our greatest contemporary anxieties.
In the previous age, our worries resided in things like atom bomb: Our sudden and final erasure from the world, everyone gone in a flash of light as if we'd never even been here. Presently, however, we fear our demise might be more protracted. We fear climate change, and the exhaustion of all our non-renewable resources. We fear the thought that as a species we've passed over that great hill, and we've made all these irreversible bad decisions, and now all that's left is to pace forever in circles while the light never quite finishes dwindling.
Had we been born in the time of the atom bomb having the knowledge we do today, we could have met these problems with defiance. We could have spoken truth to power, back when such things might have mattered. We could have declared with youthful vigor that 'the emperor wears no clothes', denouncing the world's tyrants and smashing the traditions that would otherwise doom us.
Yet of course this is never possible. Here, in the present, stands an emperor whose clothes have wasted away. Here stands the power, and the power can no longer hear us, and the power does not care.
My favorite piece of Dark Souls analysis was written by the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin. It's called Theses on the Philosophy of History, and it is exactly 20 paragraphs long. It's a famously cryptic work, even by the standards of German-language philosophy. Oh, and Benjamin wrote it in 1940: an impressive 71 years before the first Dark Souls was even released. ("In Lordran," as they say, "the flow of time is distorted.")
Benjamin believes the mistake we've made when constructing the modern world—and, I think, the mistake most critics make when thinking about Dark Souls—is that we've adopted a "teleological" view of history. This means we've crafted our own story as one of continual improvement: linear cultural development, constant technological innovation, and so on.
It's a notion that pervades almost everything we produce, from games like Civilization to the public schools I attended as a child. My textbooks, for example, claimed that my people (that is, 'the Canadian people') originated in ancient Rome, then became the followers of Charlemagne, then progressed through the Renaissance to become the French and British Empires. Onward and upward, straight ahead, hopping across the peaks of the world's most written-about civilizations.
Since history is usually written by the victors—and since mine is a nation of said victors—the stories I find in textbooks are (as Benjamin notes) usually about how today's most powerful people were also yesterday's most powerful people. This is how, as a white guy, I can claim to be descended from Romans regardless of whether any of my genetic ancestors ever set foot in the place we currently call Italy. To write 'history', my textbooks suggest, is to present a definitive account of precisely what happened in the past: An ordered list of names and dates enumerating, in some very factual way, all the building blocks that compose today's great superpowers.
A story told by victors befits a victorious nation. Yet what happens when, inevitably, our nations cease to be victorious?
Picture King Vendrick at the height of his power, sitting high upon some massive throne. Picture the nightmare fog descending over his kingdom, as it does in every Souls game, and the undead curse setting in. Those of us included in the 'post-9/11 world' need not wonder how he felt; we face too many nightmare fogs even to count. A teleological narrative, obsessed with continuous and inevitable improvement, cannot account for tragedies like 9/11; they appear as inexplicable monsters arriving out of nowhere. A teleological narrative cannot account for the onset of climate change, or the way bafflingly-racist political views seem to surge from the woodwork long after people thought they'd gone away.
Here is where we can choose to take a non-teleological view of history, which accepts that events seldom march forward in the direction of progress. Sometimes they go backwards, or sideways; sometimes they run amok in places we can't see. Benjamin writes that "to articulate what is past does not mean to recognize 'how it really was'. It means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger."
The past, in other words, is not a sequence of cold dead facts; it's a living memoir, shaped by people and politics and circumstance. It lets us trace the roots of our present-day tragedies backward to previous tragedies. It lets us discover, for example, that while 'the sun was never setting on the British Empire,' said empire was draining it from the sky above the places we now accuse of harboring terrorists.
The 'undead curse' is in truth the curse of the past, which refuses our best efforts to contain it.
It's in America, I think, that Benjamin's "moments of danger" arise most clearly. They are crystallized in cell phone recordings of police violence and reflected in the rallying cries of racist demagogues (including but not limited to Donald Trump). Movements like Black Lives Matter struggle to restore America's memory of its past, which far from remaining fixed in 'cold fact' has always seemed split between divergent realities. There are some places where you can find heroic statues of Abraham Lincoln, or even view his head carved into the side of a mountain (a distinctly Dark Souls thing to do). But then there are other places where it appears the Confederacy won the civil war; where people remember a dispute over "states' rights" rather than the brutal institution of slavery. In these places it's as if the war never ended: as if, on some psychic battlefield, it's going to rage forever.
When months ago I saw a man at a bar wearing a confederate flag on the back of his shirt, it again conjured memories of Dark Souls. He resembled those shambling suits of armor, pacing back and forth across a ruined courtyard as if daring someone to attack. In a way, I suppose this is what he was. This is what Dark Souls is: a series about the psychic battlefields of history made real.
The 'undead curse' is in truth the curse of the past, which refuses our best efforts to contain it. Our memories, once living, can never quite die; our victories, once gained, may in time slide back towards defeat. Our recent near-apocalyptic tragedies are in truth the sum total of a thousand smaller tragedies, piled one atop the other, obscuring our view of what happened.
If everything reminds me of Dark Souls it's because Dark Souls presents stories about an end which has no end; in our time, this becomes the story of everything. Rock stars become priceless relics to us the very moment we first hear our favorite songs. National disasters occupy the past only in the sense that they began there, the weight of them rippling across generations. Civil wars cease only in the sense that the gunfire stops. Benjamin claims it's all of one piece: that all tragedies are part of one great trainwreck, piling upwards, twisting about, spreading toxic chemicals beneath the surface. Time, for him, is merely the measure of tragedy's expansion.
Theses on the Philosophy of History may or may not be the last piece Walter Benjamin ever wrote. He had fled to France eight years previously, when Hitler first came to power. (Being a well-known German Jewish philosopher, Benjamin saw the writing on the wall.) When the Third Reich captured France he negotiated a travel visa to the US. He intended to fly there via Portugal, but was detained along the French–Spanish border in the coastal town of Portbou (it seemed the visa rules had stiffened mere hours before his arrival). Hotel staff discovered his corpse the following morning.
Most people believe Benjamin overdosed on morphine to evade capture by the Nazis (though of course there are all kinds of theories). We are quite certain he died alongside a leather briefcase; a companion of his would later claim it to contain his 'new manuscript' (an item Benjamin judged more valuable than his own life, and for which today's scholars might well be driven to kill). After the war ended, many people came scouring through Portbou. Yet they could not locate the briefcase, nor the manuscript, nor Benjamin's body, nor even his original grave. The mystery is unresolved to this very day; we might say, for the moment, that his end has no end.
I think it fitting that he should flash to mind now, in our present moment of danger. There are many would-be dictators, in all the places my textbooks say I came from, seeking to solve their countries' problems in the same manner as the Third Reich. It's important, when possible, not to let tragedy repeat itself as farce. I've saved Benjamin's most famous paragraph for last (quoted, like the rest of them, from Dennis Redmond's translation of Theses). It is the most Dark Souls thing I've ever read:
"[The Angel of History's] face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment ... to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high."
The storm, Benjamin concludes, is called "progress."
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