The Depleted World: how Dark Souls III comes to terms with being a sequel
This article contains spoilers for later areas of Dark Souls III.
Players who encounter Dark Souls III as their first entry in the series will find Smouldering Lake to be another iteration of the fire level, a video game trope that has been with us for 30 years now. But people who played the first game might recognize the familiar shape of the giant columnar archtrees littering the place. Smouldering Lake is what happens when the lava-flooded Demon Ruins, built around the corpse of Izalith and the Chaos Flame, collapse into Ash Lake. Or, to put it in terms that aren’t mythopoeic word salad: Smouldering Lake is the dry rot in the foundations of the world. It’s an optional area, easily missed, like the original Ash Lake in Dark Souls; but it also comes relatively early in the game. It’s the first time you encounter a direct reference to a level in Dark Souls. In that, it serves as a sort of thesis statement.
The word “post-apocalyptic” has been applied to Dark Souls on occasion; certainly in all three games you spend your time sifting through the ruins of the world. That world is implied to be incredibly old. Undead Burg is like a mediaeval arcology, a castle town so built up over the years that you can’t really see the ground level. Lost Izalith is overgrown with roots (or perhaps the branches of trees growing up through the ground beneath it; it’s hard to tell) that are both massive and long dead. Dark Souls is the logical endpoint of the static medieval society of fantasy fiction; thousands of years of stone castles and gilded cathedrals being built on top of one another.
Dark Souls III, the direct sequel that Dark Souls II wasn’t, is something more than post-apocalyptic. The world isn’t just broken, it’s depleted; the tone is not loss but exhaustion. Going back to Smouldering Lake, there we find numerous statues (or, perhaps, petrified remains) of demons, which use character models straight from Dark Souls. The use of previously unique or rare creatures as a reusable environment design prop seems to reflect on the cyclical nature of the Souls mythology; over concurrent cycles of death and rebirth, the world has iterated so often on the same ideas, the same beings, until those too were depleted. The few demons you fight in Dark Souls III are all bosses and minibosses, wandering in remote corners of the world, implied to be the last of their kind.
If you pay attention, you can spot more signs that the world is running out of itself: The Grand Archives seems to have run out of shelf space, its wax-dipped caretakers resorting to just piling the books into great mounds; there’s simply too much lore to go around, or perhaps too many revisions of the same basic story. The wealth of the Profaned Capital is laid around in gleaming piles of gold and silver; the world ran out of use for greed. Several bosses eschew the dramatic entrance in favor of laboriously rising from a prone position. This sense of exhaustion comments on the risks of creative depletion that a long-running franchise faces.
The AAA game industry is littered with such franchises. Installments in the Assassin’s Creed franchise had started to blur into one another long before Ubisoft decided to take a break. Call of Duty has gradually shed every bit of specificity about itself other than the pillars of the brand: Guns, grotesque masculinity, and imperialism. Each new iteration has to come up with a new bombastic gimmick to give it the veneer of novelty, even though the multiplayer gameplay that makes the bulk of its value has been solved years ago. Dark Souls III is borne out of the same commercial pressures that led to Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare.
As such, the great creative challenge facing FromSoftware was to make something that could fill the role of a sequel without falling into the traps. Commenting on the idea of sequels and cycles, of stories repeating and retreading themselves, is one way it does that. In the end, Dark Souls III is better for assuming the mantle of what it is. It doesn’t run away from its roots; it builds on top of them until, quite deliberately, the whole edifice collapses.
Besides the self-aware commentary, FromSoftware’s other tool is nostalgia. Weapons and armor sets from the original Dark Souls are also found all over Lothric. In online play, players are often seen cosplaying as beloved characters from the original game. The only way this works, the only way it feels genuine and not like pandering, is because of Dark Souls III understands what nostalgia actually is; algia, after all, means ache. There’s an indelible layer of sadness to all of it. Even Smough, that asshole who killed you a thousand times with his unfair steamroller attack, is recast as a tragic figure in the item descriptions of mementos you find lying around. But at no point does the game seem to be making fanservice out of that. It’s all predicated on a return to your memories from the first game, but that return is never allowed to be emotionally unambiguous. That’s key; the player can indulge in that nostalgia without it feeling mawkish or hollow. The implied centuries of myth between you and that piece of armor from the first game give it a veneer of import that makes it more than a prop.
Even though it seems so much more aware of it, even though it contains so much more discourse about it, Dark Souls III is more comfortable in its role as a sequel than most games. It feels like an ending; it feels very much like it was planned, from day one, as the last game in the series. This deliberation and discipline is emblematic of Miyazaki’s design, as ever. To make Dark Souls III work, first one has to cut off the possibility of future sequels; one has to make it final. That expanded backstory is crucial in creating that finality.
Of the four Lords of Cinder that appear as bosses in that game, three have focus put on them right from the opening cinematic: Aldrich, saint of the deep; Yhorm the giant; and the Abyss Watchers. All three are characters we haven’t encountered before; all three have some relationship to figures from the preceding games; all three have a long implied backstory. In stretching the franchise’s own history, it turns the arc of the first game into a mythic cycle that gets repeated in the history of its world.
Lothric is described as “where the transitory lands of the Lords of Cinder converge.” Anor Londo has travelled to this place, perhaps dragging parts of Lordran along with itself, in preparation for the end. And so have the Profaned Capital, Farron Keep, and the Cathedral of the Deep, each one implying a hypothetical prequel whose final boss has been recast here as a stepping stone on the Champion of Ash’s journey. By implying this cycle of side games and sequels that never existed, it drives home that sense of exhaustion. Dark Souls III is skipping right to the triumphant return to form followed by an ending, after the series was run into the ground by dozens of cash-in installments. Except those other games never actually happened.
Lothric, one of the last bosses in the game, makes it explicit: He doesn’t want to be fuel to keep the Age of Fire going. But when you kill his brother Lorian so you can advance in the game, Lothric deigns to get down from his throne and resurrect him. You can’t see the eyeroll, but it’s audible in his voice: Fine; I’ll keep bringing the boss back to life for you. Is that what you want?
And not long after you defeat them, at the very end of the game, the eclipsed sun has a thread of light running from its corona down past the horizon, like a dripping stream of honey falling from a spoon. I pictured what was beneath that horizon: the sun being drained from the bottom, its light and warmth collected in a jar somewhere, ready to go into storage; whatever creator entity that world still has putting away its toys. That, for me, is the enduring image: A world begging to be put away, to leave room for building something else.