Revolution without End
This is a translation of my article “Revolution ohne Ende” which was originally published in WASD 11 “Revolution – Games & Change”. (c) WASD, 11/17.
Marked by ruins and the undead, the world of Dark Souls may seem apocalyptic, but the old order is still very much (half-)alive. This Ancien Régime haunts the world and encompasses it like a decaying husk, barely keeping it from falling apart. God-kings and their vassals cling to their past glory. Together, they form a degraded elite that would rather condemn their domain to the paradox of an eternal downfall than face their end.
This is where the Chosen Undead, the player’s vessel, comes in. It is their mission to topple the former sun god Gwyn, who keeps the First Flame from dying using his own body as tinder. Because of this, the world hangs suspended in a twilight state of limbo, neither here nor there. Whether the Chosen Undead decides to renew or extinguish the Flame, Gwyn stands in the way of necessary change.
Every time you die, you experience that status quo first-hand. Each “You Died” functions as a punctuation in a series of cycles that return the player to the last bonfire and resurrect any enemies you may have killed. If you fail to learn from your previous mistakes, it will be difficult to tell one disastrous cycle from the next. In Dark Souls, dying means becoming part of cosmic stagnation. In the end, the player, like the undead inhabitants of Lordran, may become despondent and desperate. In a word, ‘Hollowed’.
Each triumph, on the other hand, is a miniature revolution, cheating death and breaking the cycle for at least a short while. The bosses of Dark Souls are the ultimate champions of the status quo, and their demise is like the sudden opening of a blockage, allowing flow and new momentum after long stagnation. The seemingly Sisyphean endeavour finally pays off and opens new paths and opportunities.
In other words: the Chosen Undead’s quest is a revolutionary struggle against the end of history, a hypothetical concept that envisions an age in which historical change lies in the past. Instead of the teleological promises of salvation offered by Millenarianism, Communism or liberal Democracy, Dark Souls’ end of history comes in the guise of entropy, or rather, an indefinitely delayed heat death of the universe.
Dark Souls isn’t an apocalyptic game, in any conventional sense. After all, the apocalypse has been successfully prevented by Gwyn and his followers. Moreover, it’s not clear at all whether the apocalypse would be a worse fate for Lordran than a twilight, half-life existence. The real horror of this world isn’t the end of the world, but the end of history. Dark Souls leaves little doubt that flow and movement are always preferable to stagnation, and no-one understands this better than the players who throw themselves against brick walls again and again until they crumble.
Of course, a successful blow against the system only leads to the next challenge, the next cycle. Even if you beat Gwyn, Dark Souls will immediately drag you back to the very beginning of the game, daring you to face it all again at a higher difficulty. Unless you stop playing, Dark Souls refuses to end.
The revolutions of Dark Souls are an ambiguous affair. They’re not idealised upheavals paving the way to a utopia (the end of history in another guise), but rather recurring agents of renewal and rejuvenation. As recurring events, revolutions are themselves part of an all-encompassing cycle that moves for the benefit of the world and that is threatened by Gwyn.
The ideal state of Dark Souls’ cosmos would thus be neither an endless paradise nor linear historical progression, but a circular flow, which is always in movement and yet never really distances itself from its source, and which repeats without ever stagnating. This is a cosmological understanding that is very different from the primal myths and concepts of revolution of the West, but resonates with belief systems held in many parts of the world, for example Buddhism or Hinduism.
Apart from its usual political or historical usage, the world ‘revolution’ also has an astronomical meaning. In this sense, revolution can refer to, for example, a planet’s orbit around its sun, and connotes regular cycles that can be measured and predicted far in advance. It seems like the precise opposite of what is usually associated with revolutions in the historical sense: sudden changes, unpredictable cataclysms, violent jolts to the system.
Due to From Software’s obvious cosmological interests, it is tempting to think about revolutions in astronomical terms. After all, Bloodborne’s stagnant moon presents a powerful symbol for a world out of joint in which even the flow of time has run dry. It’s not that easy, though. Unlike the cycles described by the planets, the revolutions of Dark Souls aren’t inevitable consequences of natural laws, but the result of the player’s blood, sweat and tears. Herein lies a paradox that brings the ambiguous meaning of revolution into focus: revolution is both a singularity as well as a fundamental property of the universe without which it couldn’t function normally.
The fact that the player can never reach a point in time after the revolution also reveals a truth about videogames in general. Due their procedurality, games are undisputed masters of repetition. Players enter a cycle of predetermined actions, whether they blow up a thousand demons in Doom or jump across a thousand obstacles in Super Mario. Repetition can be a powerful and meaningful thing, but many games fail to live up to its potential. Some, like the Diablo series, fetishize repetition in endless orgies of clicking and looting. Others, like the Uncharted games, try to divert from their essential repetitiveness by regularly introducing new set pieces.
While enjoyable in their own right, neither of these approaches would be ideal to tackle the issue of revolution. Dark Souls, on the other hand, employs repetition to a different effect. Unlike most other games, it unapologetically embraces its own repetitiveness. And yet, it manages to create moments that feel earth-shatteringly singular. Finally resurfacing from Blight Town or overcoming Ornstein and Smough after hours of cursing and despairing seem like acts worthy of being recorded in the annals, even as the next terrifying Moloch waits around the next corner.
Dark Souls isn’t the only game exploring revolution through repetition (Papers, Please is another interesting example). But it is perhaps unique in the way it turns revolution into a mythical, primal process of the cosmos. You, the player, are both the engine of this process as well as an integral part of it. Revolution as imagined by Dark Souls is a basic necessity of life which always already affects and includes all the beings within the world. It’s a unique way of looking at revolution that can be expressed best through the language of videogames.