From Nietzsche to Hegel: Perspectives on Humanity in ‘Dark Souls’

[14 August 2014]

By Erik Kersting

Images: Dark Souls, Namco Bandai Games, 2011


Art has long considered the nature of humanity and whether humans are ultimately good or evil. Some works champion humanity, the good qualities in people, and have a positive outlook on life, despite the negativity and sin in the world. Others have a negative view of humanity and its effect on the world, believing that the world’s evil far outweighs its good. Regardless of the viewpoint, most works that consider the broad nature of humanity also want to convey to the viewer whether or not humanity is good or bad and act as arguments for or against other points of view.

Dark Souls by FromSoft bucks the trend of feeding the audience a viewpoint on mankind and rather gives the player a choice in determining whether or not humanity is good or evil. Nilson Thomas Carroll makes a similar claim in his article “The Existential Hero: Dark Souls through Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sartre” that the player “is ultimately in charge of his own destiny” in the Dark Souls series and like a nihilistic hero, able to make decisions on mankind and what is good or evil (“The Existential Hero: Dark Souls through Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sartre”, The Artifice, 31 January 2014).

The entirety of the games is focused around mankind, both man’s virtues and vices, and the player explores a world that has been corrupted by humanity and symbols of humanity. A once great civilization is now filled with hollowed out shells of people and deserted ruins showing the destructive power of man’s greed, lust, thirst for knowledge, and pursuit of power. Yet, as the player traverses this strange decaying land, they also find characters who embody the best in humanity, whether it be loyalty, selflessness, honesty, or honor.

It is not only the narrative of Dark Souls that explores themes of man’s virtues and vices, though, but also its gameplay. Through the game’s multiplayer, which runs parallel with the single player experience, the player interacts with other players who can also represent good or evil. Some will help the player complete objectives and defeat difficult bosses, but others will actively hunt down and kill the player for their souls, a form of in-game experience and currency. The gameplay, therefore, seems to also show both the good and the bad side of humanity.

Despite putting on display both the virtues and vices of man, Dark Souls does not make a judgment call about humanity, but rather leaves that up to the player. In the final moments of the game, the player is given the choice and is forced to make a decision, to link the fire and sacrifice themselves to extend the age of fire and thus the age of humanity or to walk out on mankind and usher in a new age as the king of darkness. By presenting the player with both the most extreme good and evil that humanity can represent and then forcing them to make a judgment on mankind, Dark Souls grants the player’s perspective control over the meaning of the game, but also shows that those who think that the world is evil contribute to that evil and that those who think the world is good contribute to the good that they see.

The game’s opening cinematic reinforces this binary of good and evil. The narrator explains that the world was once formless and filled with everlasting dragons, “But then there was fire, and with fire came disparity, heat and cold, life and death, and of course, light and dark.” Right off the bat, the player is shown that the world that they are going to inhabit is one in which the binaries of light and darkness or good and evil are prominent. This is considered “disparity” and the game refrains from claiming one side is better, morally or in strength, than the other, but rather just shows that both sides exist and that they inform each other.

The player is immediately thrust into the evils of the world, as the narrator explains “Amongst the living are seen, carriers of the accursed Dark Sign. Yes, indeed, the Dark Sign brands the undead, and in this land the undead are corralled and lead to the north, where they are locked away to await the end of the world. This is your fate.” Immediately comparisons to mental illness, insane asylums, and the way society has treated such maladies of the mind in the past are conjured up, in fact the area where the player begins is called the “Undead Asylum”, implying a sort of institutional nightmare of sorts. The player is constantly reminded while playing Dark Souls of the terrible things that people can do to other people, and the Undead Asylum reinforces these ideas. The player is locked inside a prison cell and more cells with countless depraved undead litter the area, but despite going hollow, they don’t attack the player, but rather just weep at their misfortune.

Yet, as Dark Souls often shows, good and evil reside together, and you cannot have one without the other. Right after the player has become resigned to their fate, locked away in the asylum, a character, Oscar, Knight of Astora, drops the jailers’ corpse into the cell, which has the key to break the player out of his prison. Oscar is a good man with noble intentions and chooses to free the player, though this act does not benefit him at all. The player meets him shortly after being released but finds him on the verge of death. He is noble, even in death, and asks the player to continue his quest saying “Regrettably, I have failed in my mission. But perhaps you can keep the torch lit.” He has hope for humanity, as he says “I can die with hope in my heart.” He also cares for the player, even though no relationship has formed between them, saying before he dies and turns undead, “Now I must bid farewell… I would hate to harm you after death.” Through the way he expresses hope and treats the player, Oscar shows that there is still humanity and goodness in this fallen land, and that despite the negativity surrounding Lordran, one can still see that goodness in the world.

The embedded narrative and different areas of Dark Souls consistently reinforce the idea that man’s evil undoes and destroys him. As the player explores the ruins of Lordran, he finds himself asking, “What happened here?” For instance, the player must go down into The Depths of the Undead Burg, where they find piles of corpses and naked undead, including two butchers who are eating people. The Key to The Depth’s description helps reveal what happened, as it reads, “Those banished from the Undead Burg eke out their existence in the Depths, a damp lair with no trace of sunlight.” These individuals, now hollowed and destroyed by their existence in the sewer, once again show the evil of man and his punishment. As a different key in the depths reveals, “In any community, a few bad apples are sure to exhibit insatiable greed.

If they were turned Undead, and banished to the Depths, would they reconsider their ways?” “Justice” was served to the people banished to the sewers, but this justice was worse than death, to go undead in the sewers with man-eating rats and cannibalistic butchers. Here, Dark Souls is shows its audience how physically disgusting man can become if placed in the wrong circumstances. The evil of man is shown, whether in the justice given to the greedy or in the way that they are butchered in the sewers. To emphasize this greed, the boss of The Depths, the Gaping Dragon, is an accumulation of those inside The Depths. The Gaping Dragon’s blind hunger inevitably turned it into just one large mouth, and it became an abomination for its sins, just like the cannibalistic and greedy residents of The Depths.

The dark sewers of The Depths and similar areas are contrasted by the bright, regal area of Anor Londo, or the city of the gods. Even the way that Anor Londo is revealed to the player is an attempt to show the glory and power of man at his best. After completing almost half the game, going through infested sewers, poisonous swamps, and trap filled fortresses, the player is picked up by some angelic-demonic(this strange contrast once again highlights the duality of good and evil) creatures and lifted over a large wall.

Waiting on the other side is the splendor of Anor Londo, shining in the sunlight like gold. The grandness of Anor Londo is important because it shows that not all mankind makes is filled with despair, like The Depths or the Undead Asylum, but that man can create amazing things with his hands. Yet, the corruptibility of man is still present in Anor Londo, as the player learns that the glorious refractory light of the city is only an illusion. The stunning architecture is still present and marvelous, but in the dark of night it loses its luster. Dark Souls makes it very clear that while man can create grandness, all things are temporary, whether good or evil.

The characters in Dark Souls also reflect the binary of good and evil and how perspective shapes one’s view of the world. The first character that the player meets after escaping the Asylum, the Crestfallen Warrior, unlike Oscar, has lost all hope for the world. He says to the player upon their first meeting, “You must be a new arrival. Let me guess. Fate of the Undead, right? Well, you’re not the first. But there’s no salvation here. You’d have done better to rot in the Undead Asylum.” Oscar believed that the player could “carry the torch”, but the Crestfallen Warrior has become so pessimistic that he sees no salvation for anyone in the world and that occupying the Undead Asylum would be better than existence in Lordran. His pessimism has led to him to just sitting in the Firelink Shrine (the beginning area of the game) and waiting to turn hollow.

Here we can see how perspective can affect individuals and their relation to the world. Oscar has purpose despite poor circumstances, and he actually achieves some before he dies, as he freed the player and sends you on your quest to redeem the world. However, the Crestfallen Warrior takes a look at the same world and only sees overwhelming darkness and now is cursed to always be in that darkness.

Those who do good are not always rewarded for their valiance though, and sometimes evil prevails. Vince and Nico of Thorolund are two unassuming knights assigned to protecting Rhea, a priestess of the Way of White, one of the good covenants within the game. These characters are on pilgrimage looking to help others by finding the Rite of Kindling and bear no ill will towards the main character or anyone else within the game world. They are tricked by “Trusty” Patches, a thief and pushed into a pit, in which Vince and Nico die and become hollow. Here we can see that being good does not always lead to a good outcome and that those who are evil can get away with their treachery.

Yet even in this example, the player has a choice and can act in a good way if they so to do choose. When the player finds Rhea, Vince, and Nico in the hole (after being pushed into the same pit), Rhea asks the player-character to free Vince and Nico by destroying their hollowed out bodies. The player can then choose to free their bodies and can also choose to punish “Trusty” Patches for his transgressions. We can see that earlier than the final moments of the game the player can make choices regarding justice and the nature of the world, as well as what is worth fighting for and what is not.

Another character who is not necessarily rewarded for doing good is the fan favorite, Solaire of Astora. Solaire is a good man, out to make his mark on the world in a positive way. He helps the player defeat bosses and always has a positive attitude, saying when the player meets him, “Now that I am Undead, I have come to this great land, the birthplace of Lord Gwyn, to seek my very own sun!” He does not view being undead or cursed as a bad thing, but rather as an opportunity to seek out his own sun, a new future and a new hope.

Solaire is always willing to help, unlike many other characters within the game. He says later in the game, “Anytime you see my brilliantly shining signature, do not hesitate to call upon me… I would relish a chance to assist you.” He actively seeks to help the player, and his positive attitude reflects the positivity that mankind can have. Solaire even offers the player the chance to join his covenant and become a warrior of sunlight, in which the player helps other players defeat bosses and overcome obstacles. If Solaire has a strong impact on the player’s attitude, he can also have a strong effect on their actions and in doing so shows the infectious nature of goodness.

This idea links with how Dark Souls’ s multiplayer also reflects the notions of good and evil present in the game. For example, the player can join Rhea’s covenant, The Way of White, or the Princess’s Guard, or Solaire’s covenant, The Warriors of Sunlight, which, if joined, gives the player a much higher chance of connecting with other players for cooperative missions. The game rewards the player for choosing these good, cooperative paths by giving them access to high power miracles that help them help others and complete the game. These powerful miracles can be gained often only through helping other players, so the game is implying that by helping others, we as individuals gain something, whether it be friends, allies, or just power. This is important because not every good character needs to end up in a bad situation as a result of their actions, like Rhea and Oscar, but rather doing good can lead to good for the player.

Yet, doing evil can also lead to good things happening to the player. The Darkwraith or the Gravelord Servant covenants could definitely be considered “evil” yet they reward the player for doing bad things to other players. Players in the Darkwraith covenant invade other players’ games to steal their humanity, their essence. Players in the “Gravelord Servant covenant invade other player’s games and infect their worlds with more enemies, making the game harder for other players, as well as inviting other players into the player-character’s world to steal their souls. Here we can see that the multiplayer of Dark Souls encourages the idea that if the player has a negative perspective on humanity and just sees other players as a means to an end instead of as people that that perspective will influence how they treat others. If the player has a negative attitude, they contribute to that negativity.

However, it is also not always as simple as choosing good and evil in the multiplayer. Some covenants straddle the line between good and evil, helping show the moral gray areas present in our world. In The Blade of the Darkmoon covenant, the player invades other players, but only those who have sinned and thus provide justice and retribution for those sinned against. This “eye for an eye” covenant seems to be neither fully good, as they are not helping others, but rather hunting them, nor fully evil, as they are not pursuing their goal for a selfish purpose. Meanwhile the Forest Hunter covenant only serves to punish those entering the forest and nowhere else, so while once again the player is hunting down other players, they are doing it for noble, not selfish reasons. These ethical gray areas are important for helping define the player-character and how they see the world. Is the player, as a Forest Hunter or Blade of the Darkmoon, truly seeking out justice and nobility, or are they simply seeking the benefits offered by these covenants? The answer to this question reveals the player’s motives and their perspective on the world.

This perspective would not mean much if it didn’t add up to something by the end of the game, but it does. After the player has defeated Gwyn, the Lord of Fire, who ushered in the age of humanity, he is given a choice regarding humanity’s destiny. The player-character stands at the Kiln of the First Flame, where humanity began and grew into the powerhouse that Gwyn helped create. Here the player chooses to take all the power, souls, and humanity that they have collected throughout the game and sacrifice them to the fire to make it continue burning and to allow the many human characters within the game like Solaire to continue on their paths or to walk out on humanity and join the Primordial Servants as The Dark Lord.

It is no coincidence that the same character who allows the player to join the Darkwraiths, the most evil covenant, Darkstalker Kaathe, is also the character that attempts to convince the player to usher in an era of darkness. He seems to be a nihilist and says to the player “I can guide thee, and illuminate the truth. Undead Warrior, conqueror of the Four Kings, is this not your wish? To know the truth of men… Prove you must, that the truth becomes you… Show the world that the truth becomes you.” Truth is relative to Kaathe, and morality and truth “becomes you” as the player-character chooses what is right or wrong, and as a result, determines that they themselves are the truth.

Kaathe’s words are eerily similar to how Frederich Nietzsche describes the overman Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as Nietzsche writes, “The overman is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the overman shall be the meaning of the earth!”(Thus Spoke Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, Modern Library, 1995, pg. 3). If the player chooses to become the Dark Lord, they become like Nietzsche’s overman and choose their path to become their own truth and meaning for the world. This is Nietzsche’s nihilism in its fullest form, as the player’s choice is dictated by their own belief in right and wrong and not by any universal morality imposed upon them. This is the same thing that fuels the Darkwraith. What he believes is right or wrong influences his decisions, so he invades others and takes what he wants, rather than allow the perspective of others to influence his own decisions.

Kaathe’s opposite is Kingseeker Frampt, who prompts the player to become a king as well, but a king of light, and thus by sacrificing himself to the first flame the player can allow humanity to continue. Frampt, like Kaathe also wishes to speak “truth” to the player, as he says, “I wish to elucidate your fate. Do you seek such enlightenment?... Your fate is to succeed the Great Lord Gwyn. So that you may link the Fire, cast away the Dark, and undo the curse of the Undead.” If the player follows Frampt’s advice, they will being doing good in the world by undoing the curse of the Undead and helping those that they have met along the way become human again.

Like Kaathe, Frampt’s language does not entirely standing on its own, but rather references philosophy. However, instead of a nihilist like Nietzsche, Frampt is channeling Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Frampt says repeatedly to the player that they “are the righteous successor to Gwyn, the new Great Lord.” This is reminiscent of Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, in which the master is constantly struggling with the slave. The slave, or person who has submitted their power to the other, wants more power because he has less and wishes to assert his will, and the master wants an equal because he has none. As time goes on, Hegel theorized that these two opposites would become more and more equal. In this instance, the player has begun the game as a sort of slave in the Undead Asylum, but now stands to become equal with Lord Gwyn, the king of all the land.

This idea is deeply rooted in understanding that other people have perspectives separate from one’s own and that understanding those perspectives helps the individual understand something about themselves. Hegel writes in Phenomenology of Spirit that the individual “[o]n approaching the other has lost its own self, since it finds itself as another being; secondly, it has thereby sublated that other, for this primitive consciousness does not regard the other as essentially real but sees its own self in the other” (Phenomenology of Spirit, Clarendon, 1977, pg. 111). The individual does not understand himself until he understands others in relation to themselves. The player who decides to become a Darkwraith asserts their will over the other in a primitive fashion, but the player who decides to become a Warrior of Sunlight instead seeks to help the other. Hegel would see the latter as being further along the chain of the master-slave dialectic, as they have moved past asserting their will on others and now seek to be equals with the other.

This chain fits perfectly well within the narrative of Dark Souls as the player usurps the previous king. The player is the slave and is now powerful enough to become equal with the master, who is in this case Lord Gwyn. The player can choose to assert their will over Lord Gwyn after defeating him in combat and become The Dark Lord, or they can choose to come alongside Lord Gwyn after releasing him from his undead form and sacrifice themselves to link the fire so that humanity can continue. Whichever the player decides says a lot about that player. If the player-character chooses to become the Dark Lord, he will rule over a corrupted and decaying world but will have all the power that he desires over that land. He will be acting like the Darkwraith before them. If the player chooses to become the King of Light, then they must become Christ-like and sacrifice themselves. This sacrifice benefits the other and is the ultimate form of putting someone’s needs above one’s own. Just like Solaire and the Warriors of Light, you are treating others as equal or better than yourself, rather than as a means to an end.

Ultimately, this decision falls on the player, neither choice is portrayed as a morally right or wrong decision, but from the perspective of each decision, the other becomes wrong. The player who chooses to view humanity as a negative contributes to that negativity by destroying humanity, and the player who chooses to view humanity as a positive contributes to that positivity by becoming a model of goodness in the world. In its ending Dark Souls holds a mirror before the player, asking him to take a long hard look at himself to decide what he really believes about reality and the nature of the world.

Erik Kersting received a B.A. in English at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is currently working with his wife, Deborah, overseas.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/184676-from-nietzsche-to-hegel-perspectives-on-humanity-in-dark-souls/