Spoilers of the Dark Souls series ahead.
Content notification on depression.
At the end of the blood-soaked road stands Gwyn, the valiant God of Light. Your mission was to cut him down, to slay him and usher in an age of dark, or continue the unending cycle of doomed light. Yet, your choice leaves no lasting impact.
The flame flickers in its wavering dance. A dimly lit bonfire awaits in place. A lone, fading, husk of a man – a shadow of Gwyn’s true self – stands, sword in hand, defending the cause even he has forgotten. Surrounding his shrine to a clouded memory are charred knights draped in black metal armor, wielding powerful weapons capable of swiftly cutting down any would-be challengers before they can even reach the mystified wall of fog.
You’re presented with a choice: you can be deceived into ushering in an ‘age of dark’ by an eternally stretched midnight snake or conned by the propaganda-churning machine of Lordran into linking the flame. Neither makes a difference. Abandoning the flame of old, leaving it to the dark, is a choice you make — but one that is undone by other would-be ‘heroes’ in a world that lies between black and white. You may walk off to a rousing carpet of ink-clad eel-like monsters reaching out to you, appearing as a corrupted hydra, but the subsequent games prove one thing — even if you pursued the decision to abandon the flame to its winding fate, someone else crawled along that path, tooth and nail, biting their tongue, just to do what you could or would not. The cycle always continues. It’s unending because no matter what, some old fool, be it Solaire or another ‘Chosen’ Undead, will link the flame and usher in another age of the gods.
That’s what’s so appealing about FromSoftware’s approach to storytelling, especially when it comes to Soulsborne. It extends beyond Dark Souls to its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls, and to its spiritual successor, Bloodborne. Your ultimate choice means nothing. Even with the convoluted temporal story that wraps around unto itself in Dark Souls 3, touted as the finale, as the flame’s cycle can still continue should you choose.
Let’s circle back to the first installment. Slaying Gwyn, putting the old man to bed at long last, only pushes you back into the prison to begin anew. But what differentiates this from other New Game+ experiences is the sequels still hammering in that your choices made no difference. The old King Vendrick succumbed to the alluring flame, the abyss reincarnated, the challenges returning under new masks. It’s a Groundhog Day drenched in the blood of the thousands slaughtered on your path.
The personalities you meet along the way who succumb to the curse they cannot escape, and in the gargantuan, soul-infused villains you topple simply to open corridors to the pointless reset. There’s an illusory initial feeling of weight in your choices, but a weightlessness in how it all wraps up, as it quickly begins anew, the world reset. If you should stumble and the jolly Solaire ends up with a false sun clinging to his head, a parasite that takes over his bodily functions, leading you into a heartbreaking fight nobody wants to take part in, then you can simply wait it out until Gwyn is felled once more. But even still, we know he goes on to become a renowned hero of the ages by the time of Dark Souls 3, his armor still lingering on.
The repetition is comforting, the ability to try again takes away a large amount of pressure, and the knowledge that your choice is faux keeps the momentum going. The cycle’s continuity pushes you into a tougher world, and then a tougher one, and then another. Each step you take beyond the death of Gwyn leads into a more onerous journey, until eventually you hit rock bottom – it can’t get worse.
The hollow, cyclical nature of Dark Souls acts as a manifestation of my own depression, and that’s what made it so enticing as an outlet, an escape from the confines of my own mind through toppling those same challenges that persist in my head, albeit through a sprawling virtual depiction come to life. There are the growing challenges, the people around you fading away, the overwhelming feeling of nothing mattering. Yet, while it encompasses all those rich emotions, it’s ultimately exactly that – an escape. Depression is a tough pill to swallow, and it never truly goes away – those scars, even in the best of days, linger. You can deal with it, push through it, and perhaps for a spell feel relief, better even, but there’s that chance that one day it might come back in full force again, just like the cycle continuing. It’s liberating to dive into a title that relishes this idea only to conquer it and push past it.
Gwyn dedicates his life to a singular goal so much so that he loses himself, hollowing away, fading into an ash-ridden totem of his former self. He’s deprived of all identity and character, succumbing to his own twisted narrative. It’s like staring into the worst that it can possibly get. But there’s power to confront, and eventually to defeat. Sure, the video game trope launches you into the same narrative, starting over, only that everything’s harder now. But you still press on and persevere. The cycle makes your choices meaningless, the sequels to boot, but that exhilarating feeling of freeing yourself only to have a chance to go at it again with more weapons in your arsenal and a better understanding of the world, makes that second journey all the more enjoyable. A weight is lifted.
Even when you’re facing the worst that life can throw at you, there’s that light at the end of the tunnel, and whether you succumb to the alluring dark or embrace the light, you’ll keep your experiences, power through the challenges once more, and just maybe, you’ll cope. Depression is tough. Not everyone gets that liberation from powering through and facing it head-on, refusing to let it consume you, and I had that for the longest time. It was like staring into the abyss with no end in sight, a twisted monster that consumed everything, every shred of hope and happiness, akin to the hollow-eyed Manus. Gaming as an outlet was my savior. It’s not always easy to fight back, and if you can’t, there’s nothing wrong with that. Depression is a horrible, tortured beast that isn’t always so easy to take down. It took me years and years of therapy and self-healing, but Dark Souls, Demon’s Souls, and Bloodborne were an invaluable outlet on that journey that helped immensely, and that’s what’s so beautiful about their bleak nature.
Gwyn represents that abyssal pit of depression, and defeating him was akin to shining a light on that looming shadow following your every footstep. It gave me a chance to relinquish what I had lost, and begin anew with my history in-tact. This extends to the sequels, bringing forth new worlds to venture into – meaningless choices alleviate the pressure once more. This meaning served as a lesson to take life at face value, enjoy the company of those around me while I can, and refuse to give into the worst of the emotions that scream that I don’t matter. During the worst of times, it’s comforting to know there will always be another chance, and now, more than ever, that poignant message stands tall.