Thursday, May 24, 2018

Dark Souls - The Burden of Legacy

Legacy is a funny thing. Everyone strives to have one. Everyone wants to be remembered, everyone wants to be known as doing something. It's not a bad thing to want, so long as there is something else, something more, that drives you. Maybe you want to be the best racecar driver. If all that's there is the desire to be the best and not prove anything, maybe you're missing something. It's a hollow legacy. Sometimes, these people who have a legacy, who have something they must strive for, are burdened by it. They have to carry a certain weight or prowess about them that; this is seen nowhere better than the 2011 From Software video game, Dark Souls.

I was inspired to write this little piece by one of the best episodes of the original Twilight Zone, "A Game of Pool." In it, we see Jesse Cardiff take on Fats Brown, the greatest billiard player there ever was. Fats, though, tries to steer Jesse away from just the sport, but to live. To go outside and see more than the world. Being the best, and only being the best, doesn't mean anything besides putting a target on your back and having to bear the weight of the sacrifices made to be the best.

I thought about that, and how powerful the idea of knowing what to give up or not to truly become the best at something, and realized how striking it is in comparison to the world and lore of Dark Souls. For those who don't know, the basic premise of Dark Souls is that a divine being known as Gwyn once used the power of the world's First Flame to defeat Ancient Dragons and hurtle the world into a prosperous age. However, the fire began to fade, and Gwyn bore the burden of keeping it aflame. You, who we shall call the Player, are sent on a quest to end the Age of Fire or to prolong it and usurp Gwyn as the Lord of Cinder.

But the game isn't really about you. The legacy of the First Flame isn't about you, it's about those that cheated death and allowed it to stay for as long as it did. Dark Souls is a game that relies heavily on visual narrative. It shows a world collapsing in on itself, a world on the brink of shadow. Its characters bear both pride and hatred for themselves and others.

So what does this have to do with legacy? What does it all mean, what does this have to do with carrying the weight of sacrifices?

It all comes down to the world, to Lordran, the land of Gods. Lordran is a world crumbling under the power of the thing that once fed it life. Imagine it this way: If a boxer stays the best for so long, it's incredibly difficult for the sport to flourish or innovate. Things need to adapt and change in order for the world to adapt and change. So keeping something like the Age of Fire alight for so long does indeed guarantee that the Gods remain in power, but the world at large suffers since this is not the natural order.

Thus, we come to Gwyn. Throughout the game, Gwyn's name is spoken with great reverence. He is the savior, he is the one who defeated the dragons, he is the one who kindles the First Flame. But, really, he's also the one tearing the world apart. He is the one who is letting the world fade all around him, the world that he created, just to preserve this First Flame. He guards it with his life, and sacrifices everything he once gained in order for it to remain lit.

Gwyn shoulders all of this for an idea. While this may seem noble to some, Dark Souls does not shy away from showing the negative effects of this, particularly with the New Londo Ruins area of the game, where we see countless Undead suffering under the burden of the Undead Curse (a curse that only came about as a result of a prolonged First Flame being kindled).

Legacy plays a major factor in the story and world of Dark Souls also through some of the major players that we meet throughout the game. Gwyndolin and Seath the Scaleless come to mind most prominently; Gwyndolin exists solely to preserve the legacy of his father as a great man, and to keep Anor Londo preserved as this ideal place for people to come to. Gwyndolin creates this visage for Anor Londo as heaven, basically, but the cruelty of it is that he does this despite so many burdens and curses placed upon him. One has to wonder: what if he left? What sort of life could he have led? Could he have usurped the First Flame from Gwyn?

Seath comes into play in a bit of a darker fashion; as a dragon, he technically ranks level with that of the Gods in terms of power, but he was there before Gwyn, he existed before the First Flame could splinter into the Lord Souls. He is the last of the living Ancient Dragons we can directly encounter in Lordran, and all of his knowledge remains preserved by madmen or men turned to creatures.

Perhaps the most tragic bit of legacy we see in the game comes in the form of Sif, the most trusted ally of one Artorias, one of Gwyn's four most trusted warriors. Given the tragedy that befalls Artorias, Sif, when we encounter her, does not want the past to repeat itself. For so long, Sif bore the burden of propping Artorias up as this great, noble knight, when, in reality, he turned into one of the most dangerous warriors in the known world in his final moments, one that betrayed all of his ideals and fell into the darkness because of the Abyss's corruption.

Sif, Seath, Gwyndolin, and Gwyn all shoulder this incomprehensible sacrifice upon their shoulders, and for what? Well, for a few, it's for selfish reasons. Gwyn and Seath keep their legacy alive so they can remain in power, so no one can upset the balance of the world they've created. Gwyndolin and Sif retain legacies of their friends and loved ones for the sake of the world, for some sort of false hope; which is certainly morally grey and is something that has been discussed at length since the game released seven years ago.

Reflecting back on the Twilight Zone comparison, though, how are any of these characters, or any others, like Fats Brown or Jesse Cardiff? Fats carries this legacy around by accepting all challengers, but he does so to show them the error of becoming so corrupted by the idea of conquest and being called the best and forgetting that it's the path to becoming the best that means the most. Jesse, on the other hand, just wants to be the best to prove it to the world. Sure, he puts in hard hours, but, as Fats points out, at what cost? Similarly, Gwyn remains the best in the world, he remains top dog, he's the one that everyone respects...but then, everyone's dying, aren't they? And if they aren't dying, they're losing their minds.

The great tragedy of Dark Souls is that there are only two truly noble characters in the entire story, and even then, their stories can ultimately end in failure or corruption. Even the Player must make an impossible choice at the end. The legacy that Gwyn preserves is left behind for no one but himself. He became the best and retained that title for what? For pride, for glory? Did he hold out hope for the world to get better? If he did, why does he shut himself away in the Kiln? It's to preserve his prize, and it makes him weak, it makes him frail and old and gross.

The thing about how Dark Souls treats legacy compared to, say, Bloodborne or Dark Souls III is that while "Bloodborne" does have legacy characters in it, they're still making their mark on the world, and the Player has the power to stop them before things get entirely worse, and "Dark Souls III" is mostly dealing with Gwyn's legacy in a second-hand type of manner. "Dark Souls," though, has us dealing with characters' stories after they've been told, but while they are still trying to tell them. Seath does not leave the Duke's Archives because he's a proud, intelligent dragon; Gwyndolin stays behind in Anor Londo because he thinks it's what he needs to do.

Dark Souls shows us that the aftermath of what one does is important, but what's more important is the memory and acknowledgment of how one got there. Gwyn's conquest of the dragons and the ultimate succession of his power is a story worth telling, but what's even more interesting is seeing how far he falls because of this same ideal regarding conquest. He has to stay the best because, for him, there is no other way. If there is? He loses and loses more than just the world. He loses his legend.

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