The Dark Souls video game series is an anomaly of uniqueness in a market oversaturated with shooter and sandbox games. This series, created by Bandai Namco Entertainment and From Software has a special difficulty curve, which leaves the player in a strange state of frustrated satisfaction. The Dark Souls games are immensely challenging to new players, but always fair, and progression in the game always cultivates a sense of earned achievement. Dark Souls is a beautiful game, with solid controls, but another aspect of the game is even more alluring—the storytelling and lore.
The in-game world of Dark Souls is explained mainly through item descriptions and the artwork of the environment: each playable area has a story to tell in its archeology, and the weapons and equipment gathered in these areas tell the player a little bit about what things were like in the game-world’s heyday. The sparse friendly characters scattered throughout the Dark Souls universe also give small riddle-like statements about the history of the cursed land.
When the pieces of lore are combined into a narrative, a compelling creation story is formed. Here is a very concise summary of Dark Souls lore: In the beginning there was only grayness, but within that static realm there was the First Flame housing four souls (fire, dark, life, death). Four titan-like beings kindled that flame, starting the Age of Fire. The Age of Fire, ruled by the titan-like beings, was supposed to transition into an Age of Dark, ruled by humans (hence the name Dark Souls). Regrettably, this never came to be, for the leader of the Age of Light somehow linked the Age of Fire to humanity. This made the Age of Fire eternal, but also caused humans to become undead whenever the First Flame began to dwindle. The result was a cycle of golden ages and undead apocalyptic worlds. In every cycle, a human hero arises and rekindles the flame, or lets it die out. Yet, the action is futile, for the cycle always seems to return. For a more comprehensive account of actual game lore, check out Vatividya and EpicNameBro.
Though the Dark Souls world is fantastical, it surprisingly has several striking similarities with both the Buddhist religion and ancient Gnostic Christianity. Knowledge of Buddhism can lend understanding to the mechanics of the game—difficulty curve, rebirth and the recycling of ideas and characters. Gnosticism helps explain some of the lore—the original world of grayness and mankind’s mixture of fire and darkness. Here are 8 ways the Dark Souls games parallel Buddhism and ancient Gnostic Christianity.
1. The First Buddhist Noble Truth: Life is Suffering.
Anyone who plays a Dark Souls game will attest to the fact that life for many of the inhabitants of the game’s universe is nothing but suffering. Humans infected with the undead curse become feral and hostile, forever bound to the world. The playable character of the Dark Souls games wanders through cities, villages, fortresses and places of worship, yet friendly faces are a rare occurrence. The Dark Souls games always occur, in a sense of timeline, right after the golden-age of fire has fallen and civilization has fractured into madness. The player must navigate through whole communities of humans who have lost their minds to their curse of endless rebirth. The only safety of the game can be found around bonfires (kindled by human souls), but resting at these locations gives the maddened and cursed humans time to rise from the dead and block the path forward, once more. The world of Dark Souls is suffering: you deal out death to cursed beings that cannot die, even if they want death’s finality. Even the player is cursed to be reborn as long as it takes to fulfill what must be done—continuance or escape from the cycle of fire and darkness.
The themes and storyline of Dark Souls, though fantastical, has many similarities with Buddhism. According to Buddhism, the future Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) discovered four truths about humanity and the lives humans live. His truths were based on observations of the natural decay in the world: human bodies get sick and die. He combined his observations of human impermanence with his admiration for the lifestyle of monks, and the result was his Four Noble Truths. The first of the Four Noble Truths was the statement: “Life is suffering.” This truth holds for the Dark Souls franchise.
2. The Second Buddhist Noble Truth: We Suffer Because of Attachment and Desire.
In the game’s creation story, an Age of Fire—led by Lord Gwyn—was born out of grayness. When the Age of Fire began to dwindle in favor of the Age of Dark, Gwyn devised a plot to prolong the life of his era. He bound the dark souls of humanity to the flame of the Age of Fire. This combination of fire and dark, however, was unnatural, causing an undead curse to spread into the human population. Lord Gwyn’s attachment to his Age of Fire, and his desire to keep his age alive, led to all of the suffering in the Dark Souls world. Gwyn’s linking of the fire to humanity proved to not be desirably efficient, so Gwyn’s powerful friends attempted other ways to keep the First Flame alive. All attempts not only failed, but also made the situation worse. Abominable demons were mistakenly created when one Age of Fire titan attempted to keep the fire alive through pyromancy. There is no way to deny that attachment to the Age of Fire is a major cause of suffering in the Dark Souls universe.
Many Dark Souls players will agree that their own greed and desire can also lead to suffering. Imagine a glowing faded-green ball of light floating in a narrow corner of a room with a hostile, angry and oversized man-beast waiting to pounce. The green orb is Dark Soul’s currency (souls), so envision a floating pouch of gold, if it helps. If the player dies while the orb is still floating unclaimed, then the souls disappear, never to be seen again. Most experienced players would ignore the money until the threat is defeated, but for many newer players, their attachment to hard-earned souls is too much to handle. Unfortunately, this action often leads to the player becoming cornered and killed. The player’s attachment to material wealth causes suffering—the player will be reborn at a bonfire, and will need to fight, once more, through arisen undead.
There are more ways attachment and desire can cause suffering or death in players. Cornered in a dead end? Dead. Didn’t check to see if a dusty old chest was actually a monster? Dead. Miss a jump to a piece of loot balancing precariously on a narrow ledge across a chasm? Dead again. For context, there is an incredible abundance of bottomless pits in Dark Souls. Once the player reaches these items (after numerous deaths and rebirths), often he/she finds that the item is something hardly ever needed during the game—that, right there, is some true suffering.
Buddhism, too, blames desire and attachment for our sufferings. Buddhists believe that the tendency for humans to desire material wealth, and a memorable historical legacy, is the root cause for much of the suffering humanity experiences. The more a person invests in the world—with both emotion and capital being the resources invested— the more the person will be attached to the world. As long as a person is attached to the world, there is no way to avoid the suffering of life. This truth is applicable to Dark Souls, especially for newer players too bound to their attachments.
3. The Third Buddhist Noble Truth: Our Suffering Can Be Overcome.
The unforgiving game design of the Dark Souls franchise requires persistence and fortitude. Many a player has reached an enemy boss that seems impossible to beat. Some players, at this point, quit the game and never return. Those special players, however, who respect and love the game’s challenge, will keep on dying against the obstacles in their path until they seize victory. No matter how difficult a Dark Souls game seems, there is always a way to win. With patience and persistence, every player can finish the game. If we get lost along the way, there are ways to regain direction. Players of Dark Souls must continue to keep hope and perseverance.
Players of Dark Souls can learn from Buddhism how to respond to suffering. Even though the Buddha saw suffering all around him, he decreed that human suffering could be overcome. If suffering is the result of attachment and desire, then suffering can be ended by detaching from what is material, and focusing on life itself and its place in the spiritual realm. While the feat of ending attachments and desires is incredibly difficult, it is not impossible. The same is true for Dark Souls—the game has a notable difficulty curve, but persistence will lead the player to triumph.
4. The Fourth Buddhist Noble Truth: The Middle Path Can End Suffering.
Many new players of Dark Souls may find that they need a path to follow. The game-world can be a confusing maze at times, and the undead haunting the land are always a potential problem. It may be a comfort to the weary player that they need not face the game alone, there are always hints and clues for direction. The game has a message system that allows players to leave hints for each other—they reveal secrets, suggest techniques and provide encouragement to wearied gamers. If players of Dark Souls games ever lose their way, they can find the guidance of veteran players and YouTubers—‘gamer Buddhas’ of sorts—to regain hope and direction.
The way to nirvana in Buddhism is also hard to find without direction. Fortunately, the followers of Buddhism have a powerful compass to direct them on their journey. The Buddha paved a path for later Buddhists to emulate. His teachings show Buddhists the general direction for reaching enlightenment; yet, each person must still make a path of their own.
The tool the Buddha left behind for those who would follow him was the Middle Path (also known as the Eightfold Path). The wheel and lotus symbols that are often used to depict Buddhism comes from this path, each prong or leaf representing one of the eight virtues that are required to reach enlightenment. By making these eight ideals a code to live by, Buddhists believe they can eventually achieve nirvana, as the Buddha did before them.
5. Reincarnation and Rebirth
Depiction of Buddha by Nomu420
There can be no denying that reincarnation and rebirth is a theme and motif present throughout the Dark Souls franchise. Humanity is trapped in a cycle of rebirth whenever the First Flame begins to dwindle, turning formerly peaceful metropolises and towns into war zones of endless hostility. Characters from previous games—which are supposedly set millennia apart—can be found in the newer games (specifically, two characters named Andre and Patches). There is also a rebirth of a chosen hero to link the flame or allow darkness to arrive. ‘Lords of Cinder’ continually link the First Flame throughout the history of the game, extending the Age of Fire. Even if the hero allowed darkness to set in during the first two games of the series, the cycle of fire and dark continued—allowing a third addition to the franchise. Only Dark Souls 3 allows an end choice that appears to be outside of the cycle: there is a chance for the players to be able to harness the power of the First Flame for themselves. As to whether this truly breaks the cycle of fire and dark, however, there is only the trademark Dark Souls vagueness.
Paralleling the game series, Buddhism also envisions a universe where beings are recycled endlessly until nirvana ends the cycle for the enlightened. Based on the karma a living thing attains, at death, the being can either ascend or descend the hierarchy of creation. Even if a vitally important person in the world has become enlightened, and will not be reborn in the cycle of life and death, another will take his/her place whenever necessary. According to Buddhist tradition, the title of Buddha works in this fashion—there were Buddhas before Siddhartha Gautama and there will be more in the future. One of the stories of the Buddha that explains this most clearly is that of the golden rice-bowl. In the story, the Buddha meditated under a tree located by a stream. A girl spotted him, and realizing him to be an important figure, she gave him a gift of rice in a golden bowl. When the meal of rice was finished, the Buddha then placed the bowl in the nearby river and the bowl floated upstream, prophesying that he would attain enlightenment that day. The bowl then sunk beneath the surface of the stream and made an audible clink as it settled atop a pile of golden bowls left on the bottom of the river by past Buddhas. Just as a ‘Lord of Cinder’ appears when the First Flame needs to be reignited, another Buddha appears on earth whenever Buddhism needs to be rekindled.
6. The Gnostic Creation Story—A World Born From Grayness
The lore of Dark Souls states: in the beginning, there was only gray. Neither black nor white, the universe was only a solid grayness of potential. Out of this grayness, the First Flame was harnessed, the Age of Fire was born and the Age of Dark was supposed to take form after the first flame dwindled. According to the scattered bits of game lore, that is how the world of Dark Souls was formed.
Ancient Gnostic Christians wrote of a very similar beginning. The codices of the Nag Hammadi Library house a description that sounds very similar to the lore of Dark Souls in an untitled find that scholars have dubbed, On the Origin of the World. The date at which the piece was written is still debatable, but many think it to be approximately near the end of the 3rd century. The Text states:
“Seeing that everybody, gods of the world and humankind, says that nothing existed prior to chaos, I in distinction to them shall demonstrate that they are all mistaken, because they are not acquainted with the origin of chaos, nor with its root. Here is the demonstration. How well it suits all people, on the subject of chaos to say that it is a kind of darkness! But, in fact, it comes from a shadow, which has been called by the name darkness. And the shadow comes from a product that has existed since the beginning. It is, moreover, clear that it existed before chaos came into being and that the latter is posterior to the first.”
The Gnostic that wrote On the Origin of the World envisioned the creation of the universe in a way that was eerily similar to Dark Souls lore. For this Gnostic, in the beginning there was shadow—not a complete darkness and not light—it was a mix; there was only gray.
7. Gnostic View of Humanity: A Forced Combination of Opposites
Dark Souls lore suggests that humans were unnaturally connected with the Age of Fire. Vatividya theorizes that in Dark Souls, humans were somehow intertwined with the flame that keeps the Age of Fire alive: explaining why humans can be reborn at bonfires and rekindle the First Flame. The unnatural injection of fire into the souls of humans who were once destined to inherit the next Age of Darkness was so corrupting that a curse developed—the undead curse.
Ancient Gnosticism had a surprisingly similar view of life. Origen of Alexandria was a proto-Orthodox (very early Catholicism) Christian figure of renown. Origen’s 3rd-century theological work, On First Principles, tells of souls in heaven that became so corrupted that the weight of the corruption caused the once-light souls to “sink down and become earthbound.” The result of this was an effect much like the combination of fire and darkness found in Dark Souls. According to Origen, sacred souls from heaven have been forced to mingle with profane matter. In Dark Souls, this combination of opposing forces created a curse. In Gnostic Christianity, the mix of the sacred and profane created existential suffering, until the soul was free, once more, in the afterlife.
Another clear example of the way Gnosticism parallels with the Dark Souls concept of humanity can be found in the Nag Hammadi Library’s, On the Origin of the World. This text wrote of a creation story very different in nature from those accepted by most Christian churches, today. This particular creation story told of human souls trapped in matter by enemies of God. The pure souls became corrupted, “And their modeled form became an enclosure of the light.” This Gnostic text presents an inverse of the Dark Souls human predicament—in the game, humans are beings of the dark infused with fire, but in Gnosticism, humans were beings of the light encapsulated in darkness.
8. Unity of All Souls
In the Dark Souls franchise, souls are not necessarily individual things. Souls from all sorts of creatures can be gathered and combined. Looted souls from powerful beings can be broken down and assimilated into the pool of souls the player gathers throughout the game. There is a oneness to all of the souls in the game. The player and important figures drop unique souls: the player’s being a greenish orb and boss souls being many shapes and colors. Despite the uniqueness of some in-game souls, there is not a single soul in the Dark Souls franchise that cannot be broken down and assimilated into a unity. This aspect of the Dark Souls franchise has parallels to Buddhism and Gnosticism.
In Buddhism, there is a connection between everything, both spiritually and physically. All of the deaths and rebirths of animals, humans, and spiritual beings blur the lines of identity, making existence much less solid than it seems. As a single thread of life can inhabit many forms, much of individual identity is an illusion (maya). The result, according to Buddhism, is that all in existence is equal. Just as the souls of the mightiest and weakest of Dark Soul’s creatures can be combined into a unity, Buddhism teaches that there is a oneness to all existence.
Ancient Gnosticism also had a view of souls that was incredibly similar to that of Dark Souls. On the Origin of the World claimed that the soul was a piece of God’s light trapped in matter. The souls originated in the light and would return there, again. Origen of Alexandria somewhat agreed with this belief. In his Homilies on Genesis, he wrote, “a human, who has been placed in a body, will also himself be called heaven.” Just as is the case in the Dark Souls franchise, Gnostics believed that human souls were from a single original source. In the game lore, souls all trace back to the creation story and the First Flame. In Gnosticism, souls all originate in light and heaven.
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