End of Souls Transcript
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- World after world, cycle after cycle, the endings of the original Dark Souls are that in which the powers that be deal in the persistence of the world. Through the First Flame, the world is sustained in its current state, enabled by the sacrifices of those who link it. Through leaving it to dwindle and choosing to simply rule with the powers granted by the souls gathered in the journey there, the Dark Lord ignores this chosen duty, living free of the burden of expectations placed upon them. While these endings, especially the Dark Lord ending, can be read with finality due to the blanks left in lore and interpretation, given the nature of the world, games, and settings I also think its fair to say that both happen. The flow of time is distorted in Lordran, and regardless of how the game ends the player must begin again. A constant cycle of Chosen Undead rise, either sustaining the world through their sacrifice or letting it dwindle. The effects of that dwindling flame become clear in Dark Souls III, where frost and flammable corruption spread throughout the world. Even with the fire burnt to cinders, two endings still evoke those of the first game: linking the fire or usurping it to become a Dark Lord. Even as they take the flame into themselves, the world still has light, allowing room for a possible continuation of the cycle as long as the flame remains, however tainted. It’s only when the Fire Keeper puts out the flame entirely, does all go dark, the Keeper asking if her voice can still be heard. And if the Ashen One snatches that flame from her then light returns, further implying that even when Dark overtakes, the flame still burns in the world.
- This persistent cycle is one of sacrifice. The culmination of linking the fire is evoked through Lord Gwyn. Desperate to cling onto the flame, he became the first to link it, allowing himself to hollow and burn for the sake of keeping the world he’d built sustained. Said world revered him as a God, and because he allowed the world to continue as it was they sent others to fill his footsteps in the form of Chosen Undead. But such a fate is an ending of the individual, burned away as fuel for the world. The Chosen Undead are not revered, they are forgotten, their only legacy a still dying world and a place as the Soul of Cinder. Through following in the footsteps of another in replicating his deeds, they eternally remain in his shadow, as the Soul of Cinder’s final phase is that of Gwyn, shining brightly over the countless Chosen Undead who followed him to their last. But one can chose not to follow that path. To reject the state of the world is to accept humanity, to accept the Dark. Coalescing this idea is Slave Knight Gael. Possessing the Dark Soul, Gael’s actions were a blight to the world around him, his battle fought in an utter wasteland, the world reduced to dust beyond ashes. In his desire to provide pigment for Ariandel he consumed all else until the Ashen One put a stop to him. These two extremes ultimately explore the ideological limits of that which they represent: living for one and living for all. Gael is one who lives, enslaved by his own desires, and that desire to live came at the cost of everything around him, where he consumed until nothing was left. Gywn, however, sought life in the world around him, the world he built, at the cost of the rest of his own life. As a soulless hollow he remained in the Kiln underneath a world that still dwindled in spite of everything he offered. All things come to an end, yet the cycle is sustained by those who desperately cling to the embers that remain. It is that conflict without end that rages throughout the series. In Dark Souls II, the Curse Bearer is given the choice to take the throne, which will allow them to either link the flame or ignore it, just as the Chosen Undead might. But they can also abandon the throne, ignoring the conflict entirely and going beyond light and dark to, well, nothing. The insatiable desire for more simply removes them, the Curse Bearer having gone to find an answer with no clue as to whether success or failure was the end result.
- The Curse Bearer eschewing the choice allows them to be free of that burden, free of being a slave to either desire or to the world’s flame, but that only allows one flame to burn slowly on its own, and the choice still remains for all others, those who continually sustained the world until the third game. And the one who was finally able to transcended that choice was the union of the Fire Keeper and her forbidden eyes, allowing her to see a future of dark beyond the life of the first flame, perpetuated by smaller lights. The forbidden end she sees isn’t really an end. While the world as it was, one of endless cycles, indeed comes to stop, it is also another beginning, and in this is the central philosophy carried even by the gameplay itself. The Souls games are ones where the player cannot lose. Game over is not a force quit to menu, continuing is not a choice that acts as though the previous failure didn’t happen. The character dies, and they return to the world with any items they had and a bloodstain left in their place with any accumulated souls and humanity left behind. The world retains the failure, but does not hold the player to that failure. The bloodstain is exclusively placed shortly before where they died. As items are retained and one can only level up at a bonfire or Maiden, the character is, in most regards, just as capable as reaching that bloodstain mechanically as they were before, leaving it entirely up to the mentality and skill of the player to achieve the same level of progress they need to in order to retrieve the souls, now armed with more knowledge from that failure. Another failure is certainly a possibility, as are many more, and the fear of losing the souls through yet another death will inevitably affect how they play. But in specifically placing the bloodstain near where the player failed before, it incentives them to try again. It’s an open ended game where at many times multiple routes are open to the player, but after a failure, though many options may remain open based on progress, through the bloodstain they are pushed not to go another route, but to try again. And if they fall, the bloodstain will still be there once more, furthering the endless cycle that comes to a close when the player persists and succeeds, or gives up and stops playing. Miyazaki even says not to let the obstacles and deaths hollow the player, leaning into the idea that the player character cannot hollow as long as they do not give up. To go hollow is to fall to the despair of defeat, and it is the fate of many of the undead that you encounter. But the player can persist beyond that failure. And because of the efforts of those prior lords, smaller flames still exist in the world even after the first is snuffed out, meaning the world will not be endlessly dark. To become the Dark Lord is to give up hope in the world and rely purely on oneself at the expense of everything. To link the fire is to desperately cling onto hope to the point of giving up on oneself if that means keeping the world alight. The first flame is hope to the world because it decided that, feared that if it did not exist, the world would be nothing. The hidden ending has the Ashen One take the fire back, holding it up to the sun like an offering. Whether they are becoming a slave to the world’s hope or a consumer of everything, it is an ending which persists, the cycle that the Fire Keeper sought to end. A cycle that persists through the cost of life when the possibility exists of the world burning on through smaller flames, much like the individual must hold on to their hope, their small flame, to overcome the trials the franchise has to offer, even if it’s as simple as taking back a bloodstain.
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