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A beginner’s guide to Kierkegaard, via Dark Souls 2

A beginner’s guide to Kierkegaard, via Dark Souls 2

“At no point can I find the necessary resting place from which to understand [my life] backwards.” —Søren Kierkegaard

In From Software’s Souls series, ramifications of decisions are instantaneous, and death is ubiquitous, but is no longer intransigent. The countless deaths of ghostly strangers—reenacted in fragments through the ether—cryptically guide your path, and your own deaths serve as both punishing reminders to tread lightly and the genesis of an overarching question: why do I press on? This question is one answerable only by the player, as the game exists only to ask it. In this fashion, individuality, free from the constraints which would otherwise shape it, has been reduced to its truest expression: will, and will alone.

Kierkegaard may have respected the Souls series' extension of existentialism.

It is unlikely that Kierkegaard would have personally enjoyed the forced reminiscence described above, with its requisite subjugation to unceasing reminders of futility—a fear which haunted him constantly. He wrote his most incisive prose under the pseudonym of Johannes de Silentio, not simply because of his fear of being perceived as anti-Christian, but additionally because he knew that his selfsame stature in the Christian community would undermine his attempts to critique it. Yet, doubts surrounding his decision to write certain works under a pen name surrounded him until his dying day. When Kierkegaard shuffled off his mortal coil, he was still uncertain in what he had accomplished, if anything at all. But I think he may have respected the Souls series’ extension of his philosophical perspective on existentialism. The games, moreso than any other artwork, create the condition he declared necessary for true individual transcendence in Fear and Trembling; that is, “infinite resignation.”

Existentialism is the thinking that emerges from one’s attempt to grapple with the simultaneously liberating and dreadful realization that life does not come tethered to an innate purpose: that our recognition of our own sentience allows us to act beyond biological urges, but that we have no universal animus to guide us in doing so. Transcendentalism, in its most rudimentary form, emerged from existentialism, primarily as a means to quell the immense angst that existentialism brought about. Unsatisfied with the discomfiting rigidity of determinism and the difficulty it posed with respect to the immutability of total free will, transcendentalists posited that the highest form of individual progression of thought, or transcendence, came not from a blind acceptance of “fate,” but from utter self-reliance.

In this narrow sense, Kierkegaard was the seminal thinker of the movement. In Fear and Trembling, he wrote, “I can resign everything by my own strength and find peace and rest in the pain; I can put up with everything-even if that dreadful demon, more horrifying than the skeletal one who terrifies me, even if madness held its fools costume before my eyes and I understood from its face that it was I who should put it on.” This was the first metaphorical outline of “infinite resignation,” a situation in which brutal exigency is met with stark, solemn solitude, eventually thrusting the individual into their highest plane of self-awareness. In the Souls series, the skeletal demons may terrify you, and you will face severe challenges, but your character donned their fool's costume the moment you started the game.  

“Only that which has no history can be defined.” —Friedrich Nietzsche 

In each iteration of the Souls series, the player creates a character that is devoid of overt ambitions, backstory, or a sense of self, beyond the will of the player. The potential consequences of actions are rarely made evident, and the range of said actions are nearly limitless. Certain bosses can be skipped entirely. Covenants can go unexplained, un-joined, undiscovered. Crucial NPCs can be killed swiftly and mercilessly, typically to the immense detriment of the ease of your progress but with no consequences meted out by figures of authority.

The result is a strictly Nietzschean morality, wherein “a system of evaluations partially coincides with the conditions of a creature’s life.” The conditions of your character’s life are bleak. Greed and fear are the inextricably intertwined motivators, and their every interaction is arbitrated by violence. Currency is souls, and they are obtained only through blood; the blood of your enemies, the blood of the fallen you come across, the blood of those who fall beside you. Greed may cause you to kill the gatekeeper and steal her key, rather than pay her toll of souls to have her use it. Fear may keep you from killing the merchant whose wares you covet, as he may not bequeath them all in his death. But fear of societal repercussions does not exist. There is no brigade of seasoned, mudcrab-slaying guards barging into the scenes of your murders, decrying you as the culprit in their attempts to subdue you. There are only the remaining merchants, content to never discuss your deeds, so long as you keep the souls coming and keep your weapons still.

Your character’s last breath means only that you’re several moments from being cast back into peril.

So while the conditions are external, the evaluations are solely your own. The freedom therein is terrifying. This terror is reinforced by the main conceit—the lack of game-breaking failure or the general capacity for opting out of made choices. Characters you kill stay dead. There are no “Game Over” screens scrawled in blood cropping up when your character is speared off a cliff, no prompts asking you to reload the last checkpoint or to restart the level when your character is bludgeoned to death by Cyclopes. Your character’s last breath means only that you’re several moments from being cast back into peril. You are instead told “YOU DIED” and, in mere moments, are kneeling at the last bonfire you’ve visited.

This screen, like the bow and hand icons in Shadow of the Colossus, is one of the Souls series' few extraneous elements. Death is always clear. You know intuitively that your character did not survive the plunge off the cliff-face, nor did they stumble away from the bone-shattering beating at the hands of the Cyclopes. However, the philosophical sentiment is direct, maintains the isolating sense of the journey (a “Game Over” screen would have undermined the mood severely) is cruel in its likely repetition, and illuminates the completely temporal aspect of the phenomenon of your death. You are forced to begin anew, under a marked disadvantage, rather than being given a choice of resuming from some crystallized instant of time you designated. By eliminating any player agency, it emphasizes the inescapability of both death itself and of your own futility. Death, for all the dread surrounding it, is man’s ultimate release. Denied that, what is left? The truest form of “infinite resignation” imaginable.

In Dark Souls 2, the spiritual and likely chronological (the setting seems to be Lordran, several hundred years in the future) successor to Dark Souls, the existential mire is deeper, more manifest, more consuming. You stumble, quite literally, into a swirling abyss, and are deposited into a world where, in the words of Sartre, “at any [corner], the absurd can strike a man in the face.” There is no obfuscated Faustian bargain, ever-churning in the background propelling your actions, as one might expect given the way it is in similarly epic games like Shadow of the Colossus or God of War. Instead, you attempt to keep a tight grip on your slackening humanity in the face of the absurdity of clinging to reason, cosmic indifference, and human machinations. The absurdity of reason is on display in both broad strokes (the return of Ornstein) and finer ones (paintings which can curse you), but the predominant basis for these design choices is to reinforce the idea that rationality cannot be relied on as the sole method for coping with the world.

Rationality cannot be relied on as the sole method for coping with the world.

Mirroring reality, human reason is ill-equipped for justifying the irrational. The word itself implies something that defies reason, therefore rendering it impossible to fit into the carefully spindled links of human understanding, predicated on expected behaviors and expected traits of familiar objects and situations. The developers of Dark Souls 2 are essentially required to present players with the irrational in order to keep them perpetually off-balance and tense, but also need the game to feel fundamentally “fair” (challenges are difficult, but surmountable). And so a delicate balance has to be struck between utilizing the inscrutably dangerous, illusory nature of the world to gloss over certain irrationalities and presenting the player with situations that—while still challenging—don’t require a suspension of disbelief.

But the best instances come from subversion, when the game fosters the need to be reactionary, and to suspend knowledge by description in favor of knowledge by acquaintance. Take, for instance, in a sprawling forested ruin, the large urns embossed with hellish faces, seemingly guarded by minotaurs. Videogames to nearly a fault have entrenched the neutral or incidentally beneficiary nature of pots and urns. Smash them to find a health orb, or coins, or—in the case of the Souls series—a corpse laden with souls and/or loot. In this particular area, the minotaur guards and the Souls series' own history reinforce this assumption. Yet, step within several feet of these urns, and your character will start to become cursed. While the urns can be broken, in doing so, you risk coming into triggering proximity of another, and finalizing your curse in the process. Knowledge by description in this case has misled you, and knowledge by acquaintance now dictates that you can’t trust even assumptions formulated through experience within the Souls universe.

At first, this seemingly unified behavior of the world at large to obstruct you would seem at opposition with the idea of cosmic indifference. Enemies swarm in droves to kill you, and when they have succeeded in doing so, they return to milling around their designated four-foot patch of earth/cave/lava castle. Bosses seem to exist only to frustrate you into keeping your infinite resignation truly infinite by breaking your will to continue to face them. But upon closer inspection, the pervading indifference becomes more obvious. The problem is one of perspective. When you begin to view yourself as the intruder and the aggressor, the behavior of the monsters you encounter, be they foot soldiers or colossi, starts to make more sense. The soldiers do not seek you out, nor do the statuesque bosses pursue you (in spite of one being named to the explicit contrary). Instead they react to your appearance in the same manner they would to the appearance of any other armor-clad, weapon brandishing stranger in a world filled with violence—they assume (correctly) that you mean to kill them, and they attempt to kill you.

Human encounters are not drastically different, if less immediately violent. It is rare to encounter fellow travelers, and rarer still to meet ones worthy of trust. Their ambitions, like your own, are unclear. Conversations center on the hopelessness of your collective situation, the shrouded history of the ruins cresting the tree line, and the rumors of great treasure just beyond those traps. After several encounters with certain individuals, they will enter into an uneasy alliance with you, and will reveal more about themselves. Yet, inarguably, there is not a single sentence of dialogue uttered that is strictly necessary to advance the narrative. The majority of the characters you meet know little about the world they inhabit, often being in the same situation as you, having only recently arrived under mysterious circumstances. The ones that do or should possess a modicum of knowledge, ostensibly, are mum on the subject. Lore is culled from found items and weathered cenotaphs; the knowledge imparted by the few friendly NPCs you encounter early on is quickly transcended through your own exploration. Information doled out by latter characters you come across is often obvious skullduggery or is less obviously denigrated by their slowly withering sanity.

Your burden is not shared, verbally or otherwise, and is thus borne only by you, the player.

Fittingly, this minimalist approach to narrative grounded by player suspicion further bolsters the underlying existentialism pulsing through the story. The isolation necessary for infinite resignation to occur is not one strictly confined to the external: the mere presence of others does not prevent its occurrence. Instead, it stems from the forced self-reflection which is brought about precisely by the lack of knowledge of other characters, and the unwillingness of those with knowledge to divulge it to you. Your burden is not shared, verbally or otherwise, and is thus borne only by you, the player.

“What good would it do me if Truth herself stood before me, cold and naked, not caring whether I recognized her or not, and producing in me a shudder of terror rather than a trusting devotion?” — Søren Kierkegaard.

With social dynamics thus boiling down to superficial interactions between individuals, no moralistic power structures in place to contend with, and no higher directives other than from optional covenants (whose views would, logically, align with yours; otherwise, why join their ranks?), truth and souls are the only forms of power in Dark Souls 2. Souls are finite, and their uses are numerous. Building a ladder down a certain treacherous well requires many souls. Weapons at the height of the craft can only be obtained with the souls of bosses. Empowering your character to be faster, to swing their weapon with greater force, to endure increasingly severe beatings all require souls. Truth is trickier and subsequently more precious. Most significantly, there is no ultimate, universal, game-dictating truth. If there were, it would likely not be pleasant, given the state of Drangleic and the emotional and narrative inclinations of its designers. It would also completely undermine the nearly unyielding mood of isolation and drift, as the anxiety and directionless nature of the journey would be sapped by the intrusion of tasks which needed to be accomplished in order to reach or adhere to said universal truth.

“The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea that I can live and die for.” — Søren Kierkegaard.

This conscientious lack of an ultimate truth under which to strive means the emphasis is placed on finding an individual truth in order to derive satisfaction. In order to reach this truth, particularly in the face of the cosmic indifference and absurdity of the world of Drangleic, a “leap of faith” is required. Kierkegaard phrased it initially as a “leap to faith,” and in some ways, his original phrasing, while drastically altering the meaning, better expresses the idea behind it, and its embodiment in the player of Dark Souls 2.  The leap itself is not itself noticeable, as it is a mindset shift rather than a true action. At a certain point, specific to you, you reach the realization that your character’s ambitions are wholly your own, that the world was not crafted to provide explicit instructions for progression through it, and that all truth in Dark Souls 2 is relative.

All truth in Dark Souls 2 is relative.

This may occur the moment you first emerge from the tree-darkened grove that comprised the tutorial. Or it may occur after you slay a certain monarch, breathing in that dying shriek. You are id and super-ego, free to impart your will on a blank canvas with no concerns for the psychological abstractions that stem from playing as a fictitious character with “their own” expected behaviors. At this moment, you will unwittingly decide whether or not to press on, and for what reason you do so, and the hermeneutic circle is sealed. Like Gren, you may wish to baptize the world in blood, invading other players to assassinate them. Like Solaire, you may wish to engage in jolly cooperation. Or you may wish to explore the darkest depths of your own world with the aid of Grandahl (good luck). Regardless of the motivation, the feeling behind it fuels the leap, causing you to no longer search for external reasons like narrative or characterization to continue playing. The initial rush from the sense of exploration has been subsumed by the satisfaction of—in a bit of oversimplification—finding your niche.

"The most dreadful thing of all is a personal existence that cannot coalesce in a conclusion." — Søren Kierkegaard

Many people who have played Dark Souls 2 were dissatisfied at the lack of an “evil” ending, most notably present in Dark Souls, wherein you choose not to link the fire, thereby casting the world into darkness. First, there is the matter of the problematic descriptor of “evil.” By most accounts, not linking the fire leaves man to his own auspices rather than under the delusional hope of the return of the “old Gods.” In a game so philosophically dependent on the significance of free will in the face of seeming determinism (your curse), it seems naive to think that a doomed self-sacrifice (which first created the Age of Fire) would be preferred to letting the Age end while continuing to struggle through your existence. Furthering this line of thought, Dark Souls 2 is almost assuredly set in a future where the fire was not linked, given the prevalence of dark magic, the still-scattered Lord souls, and the general chaos besieging the familiar locales. Most importantly, this line of complaint fails to acknowledge the particular existential philosophical message accentuated in purposefully guiding the player into one obscure conclusion; not that you must struggle aimlessly because of the cruel nature of existence, but that ultimately, the truth you reach in your struggle is much more significant than any decision made thereafter. You define the nature of your own existence, but not the byproducts thereof. The “leap of faith” is the goal, not where the leap takes you.