Dark Souls, a 2011 video game developed by From Software, is a work focusing on themes of corruption and the eventual fall of all things. The concept of fire itself has begun to die, and humanity is beginning to be branded with the Darksign, which binds their souls and bodies to life. The undead, who slowly lose their sanity as they fail to die over and over, are corralled away from normal people. The story follows a “Chosen Undead”, the player, who escapes the Asylum and tries to solve this problem. On its face, you appear to be questing to restore the age of fire and the gods to the world. Alternate, hidden paths allow you to realize your benefactors may be lying to you, and to bring about the end of fire altogether.
Dark Souls is a notoriously difficult hack and slash, pitting the small player against titans and hordes and giving them few tools to succeed. The main method of advancement is foreknowledge of your obstacles; each death returns you to the bonfire with all enemies returned to life and the player knowing a bit more. The player can also collect souls from their enemies, which they can barter with for gear or use to infuse their character with more power. Souls and humanity are lost at death, but remain in the gameworld in a bloodstain on the ground, encouraging the player to keep forging along their current path to recover their resources.
The atmosphere of Dark Souls is dreary. Fog and darkness covers the land, which is rotting from disuse and scattered with corpses of the dead. Music only plays while facing a boss, and it is often grand and at odds with the environment, bringing to mind the former glory of your foe. Actions are deliberate and weighted, and even the fastest foes telegraph their strikes.
The game brings the player through various locations in the world, with an emphasis on fallen glory. Each location was clearly once beautiful, but destroyed by rot and insanity. The best example of this is the Anor Londo area. Anor Londo appears to be the beautiful city of the gods, the only place still standing. Through various means, it can be revealed that the god you meet is long dead, and her brother is projecting an illusion onto the entire ruined city to avoid facing his reality. Even the people you meet fall to this. If you manage to help someone accomplish their goal, they often lose meaning in their unlife and go insane, eventually attacking you. In order to save anyone, you have to deny them their dreams.
The main theme, however, is that of humanity in all its forms. Most heavily, the gameplay encourages these themes. The player is always shepherded towards showing perseverance and continuing their current path. The easiest path through the game is to sabotage and destroy nearly everyone you meet, including other players, and it’s a moral, human choice whether to do so. Hope is also a theme. Many players place encouraging messages before tough enemies, and many characters speak optimistically about the future. The corruption of power is shown: many locations are in ruins solely due to the greedy or misguided actions of their rulers, and many powerful or experienced players choose to ambush and steal mostly from new players to avoid a challenge.
Trust is the most common human theme in Dark Souls. Players can meet each other in the gameworld, and can choose to either cooperate or ambush each other out of greed. Various characters do the same; one destroys the life-giving bonfire at your home base, and another aids you consistently in the hopes of finding his own sun. Players are also encouraged to share hints and secrets with each other, and are able to scrawl short, vocabulary-limited messages on the ground to aid or mislead. Often you will find a message near a deadly cliff reading “Try jumping”, or a message reading “Beware of enemy” in front of a mimic pretending to be a treasure chest. There is also no way to know if characters in the game are lying or not, and a thorough investigation through multiple playthroughs suggests that nearly all of them are.
Dark Souls hides much of this away from a casual observer. Much of the story is attached to the descriptions of hidden items, or in minor details of the environment. Other details are inferred or remain merely theory. Players are encouraged to cooperate to analyze the work and determine the story for themselves. Overall, it’s not a work to be taken lightly. It takes dozens of hours to complete a first playthrough; a thorough inspection takes over a hundred.