Dark Souls is an incredibly popular dark fantasy action RPG series. Created in 2011 as a spiritual successor to niche hit, Demon’s Souls, the game garnered a cult following. Dark Souls II, released in 2014, became the game that put the series on the map with solid first year sales, mixed reviews, and a suitable DLC story/addition. Dark Souls III, released in 2016, combined the best elements of I and II, returned to the original setting, and for now, closed out the story of the Dark Souls Universe.
More than its brutal gameplay, fancy armors, and quality memes, Dark Souls is considered one of the best “stories” in recent games history. Many fans, myself included, attribute this to its extensive item descriptions, visual storytelling, and quiet but whole character arcs. The game’s lore presents a fully fleshed out Germanic style dark fantasy world. The games all together tell countless millennia of an entropic cycle of forces, sacrifice, and the spectrum of good and evil.
But does Dark Souls as a whole tell a good story? Or is it simply an illusion of clever world-building and the game’s visual experience? I would say yes and no. I’ll break this down game by game.
Dark Souls (2011): The first game in the series. A Twilight of the Gods style story where a millennia ago, strange humanoids discovered the powerful Lord Souls, became walking gods, and overthrew the Dragons. As the gods carved up the world, one race (humanity) was subject to become their servants and vassals. The game’s world follows a relatively traditional dark/high fantasy golden age that lasts for a thousand years. Unlike most fantasy settings though, things go from bad to oh shit by the time the game begins. A hundred years have passed since the appearance of the Darksign, a swirl like mark that brands humans and curses them with undeath. These Undead, soul devouring monsters, are shepherded away to various prisons around the world. The First Flame fades, and you, a nameless undead, are tasked with saving the world.
Dark Souls has a pretty standard 90s fantasy plot: kill several powerful figures, collect a macguffin, and then fight NotOdin/Zeus at the origin of life. That’s simplifying it but that’s the core of DS’s story. As a whole, DS is light on actual narrative but heavy on lore, world-building, and little subplots. There are very few elements that are original (basilisks, skelly men, necromancers, dragons? Pretty much your standard DND setting). However, the game’s rendition of those familiar elements is what makes it relatively unique. You play an Undead, you’re not expected to succeed, the world is dying, and your allies are as crazy or shady as you are. The game doesn’t provide much roleplaying other than yes/no responses, and what people you can attack/kill. Most subplots are quiant and sad but don’t have as much impact as hardcore fans would believe. Some characters have no resolution (Quelaan?), and it becomes irksome. Artorias of the Abyss is actually more satisfying given your role in the world, the supporting cast having small arcs/resolutions, and a genuinely satisfying ending to a standalone story that provides massive setup for the second game. The original game’s two endings are ambiguous and led to fan theories for three years…
Dark Souls II (2014): My favorite of the trilogy. Many fans find II a mixed bag gameplay, lore, and storywise. The reason why Dark Souls II I believe is the best of the trilogy is because it tells its own take on the core myth, develops an interesting setting influenced indirectly by the previous game’s sidestory, and expands upon certain world building elements (The Curse, The Abyss, The Cycle). II follows the story of the latest kingdom to rule the current age. Drangleic is ruled by King Vendrick, a beloved human king who used his strength to subdue foreign giants and claimed a foreign woman as his bride. He built a great kingdom, gained great insight into the soul, and he reigned well. Like before, the Undead Curse arises. Unlike I, the gods are oddly absent. Humans are the dominant race of the age, and it reflects in its setting. Drangleic is built on the ashes of previous kingdoms. Most locations you visit/traverse, are ancient kingdoms conquered, controlled, or left to rot by Drangleic. Most of the enemies are humans twisted by the curse, became demons of their own accord, with a mix of traditional setting enemies like dragons and chaos demons. II’s story is all about humanity, what it means to be human, and what it takes to break the curse. II isn’t perfect. The NPCs are slightly blander save Benohart, Lucatiel, and the memey Gavlan.
However, II’s best NPCs are easily Vendrick and Aldia. Unlike in I where you fight Gwyn, II allows you to meet and actually form a relationship with Vendrick that leads to a pleasant lore/story resolution. Unlike in I, Vendrick is cursed by the time you meet him. He is pitiful and there’s no grand battle like Gwyn. In the Crowns DLC, you mentally travel back in time and meet Vendrick before he hollows. Vendrick is an incredibly sympathetic and nuanced character. Prideful, remorseful, and despondent, he provides a ton of information, commentary, and essentially guides your character to become his successor. Aldia, his elder brother, is very much the same but ties back to I’s plot. He tried to escape the cycle Gywn created but failed. Immortal and undying, he challenges you to look beyond the cycle and perhaps find another path. In the updated ending, Aldia is the final boss of the game. While not a particularly great boss fight, thematically, Aldia is a threshold guardian. He’s curious why you do what you do. You’re not of noble blood, of great fame, you’re a nobody. But as the game reinforces its primary theme, you stand before him, slayer of the Kings of your age, and conqueror of Dark, a man or woman with no great claim, has the potential to inherit the throne. There are two endings: inherit the world’s order (link the fire or become the new dark lord), or, like Aldia and Vendrick, the game’s second ending is one of the best endings I’ve seen in a story, regardless of what medium. It encapsulates the game’s story and themes in a fitting narration by Aldia. There is no real path to breaking the curse, others have tried and failed, but like your mentors before you, you endeavor to seek what lies beyond humanity’s cursed fate. It is a bittersweet ending to a story that does not need a sequel.
Dark Souls III (2016): Set in the final Age of Fire, you are an Unkindled, an Undead who linked the First Flame but was reduced to ashes. Reborn in an unmarked grave, it’s your task to kill and retrieve the ashes of the most recent Lords of Cinders. III is interesting. It feels like what II should have been and II feels like what III should have been. Unfortunately, II’s story is largely downplayed/ignored in favor of I’s Gotterdamung plot. As a whole, III has a slightly better cast of characters but a somewhat weakened plot compared to I and II. While the game returns to the conflict of the gods and humans, it borrows liberally from II’s elements, themes, and conflicts. It feels like Miyazaki took what he wanted from II and repurposed them for III.
III’s cast is a quirky bunch of outcasts, expies, and returning characters from previous games. They are interesting but some have rather boring outcomes, repeated plot elements, and dead end stories like II’s weaker NPCS. The best npc is the game is Yuria of Londor. A founder of the Sable Church, she helps guide you to what is either the best ending or worst, depending on your interpretation. Yuria is a Darkwraith, a follower of Kaathe from I. Despite her ominous personality (killing a would be rival with little evidence doesn’t exactly inspire confidence), she is surprisingly well meaning. If you complete her questline, she becomes devoted to you and implores you to free humanity by becoming a new type of Lord. What III excels at is its final conflict and four different endings. While II still remains my favorite thematic ending, III provides four different satisfying conclusions to the trilogy as a whole. The first in the traditional link the fire, and keep the world running. Same as before, but the flame is very weak. The second ending splits between two endings. One, you let the fire flame finally die, and darkness settles in. It is implied a new flame will ignite one day born of the dim ashes left behind. Some people interpret this as you and the Firekeeper being the only two characters left in the world, which makes zero sense, given humans can and have survived close to the Dark. It is a somber ending but a rather fitting one. The other is the dickhead ending. You kill the Firekeeper, steal the First Flame, and essentially enjoy the end of the world.
The final ending is arguable a conclusion to II’s break the cycle. The Sable Church has weird connotations (true monarch? spouses? It all sound similar to Vendrick and Nashandra’s story but who knows?). After defeating the final boss, you literally become a vessel for the first flame, absorb its power, and stand over the ashes of the first flame. The dying sun turns a dark sun with a white ring, reflecting the Dark Sign. Yuria, your spouse, her sister, and various reused Hollow NPCs bow before you. She implores you to make Londor whole. It is supremely badass and ominous but unfortunately doesn’t give you much closure. It’s clear you’ve broken the cycle Gywn created but at what cost? Once again, Souls’s often ambigious endings are great food for thought but can be frustrating for what was advertised as the final entry in a series.
The two dlcs tell a standalone story that connects back to I’s world myth. It recontextualizes many characters, the history of the world, and provides an explanation for the origin of the curse. The final battle of the DLC is arguable a perfect end to the end. Two nobodies fight each other, both seeking the same goal, at the end of the world. Honestly, it is a very good thematic end to the series as whole.
Dark Souls as a whole is flawed story. It often lacks proper closure, introduces dangling elements never explored, and its fill in the blanks storytelling can lead to wonderful headcanons that are none the less fanfiction. However, Dark Souls is a monomyth. It is extremely similar to the Legend of Zelda. Each game is a sequel to the previous but essentially tells a different interpretation of the monomyth. And this is why Dark Souls exceeds its flaws. Each game tells a different version of the core story. It is similar to traditional myths from antiquity. Dark Souls is not a perfect story but it is an interesting one that tells three different versions of the same story. It is also a great rendition of high fantasy juxtaposed with the Dying Earth.