The Philosophy of Dark Souls
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on The Philosophy of Dark Souls, where we dive into the deeper meaning of the beloved video game series. 1) Back to the Womb 2) Castration 3) Endless Misery and Frustration Reserve
Written by: Alfie Bown and Jared Bauer
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Additional Artwork by: Jacob Salamon
Assistant Music Supervisors: Robert Tiemstra and Christopher Bohsung
The Philosophy of Dark Souls
Dark Souls is about wanting to climb back in to your mom’s womb, getting your dick cut off, and being endlessly miserable. we are completely serious about this. I’m Jared and welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Dark Souls series.
Dark Souls- Fighting, magic, fantasy and perhaps most importantly, infinite frustration. Not only is the gameplay excruciatingly difficult, the storyline is incredibly cryptic. It really is impossibly baffling. Namco has even offered TEN THOUSAND dollars to anyone who can explain the story.
Many have tried to puzzle it out, but their efforts have only yielded more of what the game already doles out in spades- feelings of defeat and utter frustration.
But what if we’re looking in the wrong places? What if the so-called plot is just a distraction? Humor me for a second.
A story that deliberately leads nowhere may seem silly to some of you who read every item description and obsess about lore, but it’s not as uncommon as you might think.
Pioneering Italian filmmaker Michaelangelo Antonioni, for example, did this constantly. In his most famous film “Blow Up,” the audience is seduced by a tale of intrigue when a photographer accidentally stumbles upon evidence of a murder in one of his photographs.
Oh you wanted to know who the murderer was and why it happened? Too bad. We never find out. The plot was a distraction. The movie is actually about a character study about a narcissistic artist mired by ennui.
Or his film La Aventura, about a woman who goes missing during a Mediterranean boating trip. Oh, you wanted to know what happened to her? Too bad. You’ll never find out. The film is actually about the hollow decadence of her spoiled friends.
You might be thinking that these practices are fine and dandy for Avante Garde filmmakers, but games? Really? I ask you to note that we’re not dealing with just ANY game developer here. The man behind Dark Souls is the enigmatic and elusive video game maestro Hidetaka Miyazaki.
Just as Antoninioni created meaning through character and visuals, today we’re going to argue that Miyazaki creates meaning in Dark Souls through tone, design, and atmosphere.
For instance, at the beginning of Dark Souls 2 we see an old lady spinning yarn at a sewing machine. If you’re trying to find clarity in what she says- good luck. But if you just focus on the visuals, you’ll notice that Miyazaki is making a reference to the Norns of Norse mythology: old women who spin the yarns of fate. See? Now we’re getting somewhere.
Although the sparse dialogue may not point to any kind of narrative clarity, it still echos the game’s thematic core.
Indeed, the game seems to about piecing together a broken past and figuring out who we are. At the character creation screen, the game even deliberately prompts you with the question: Is this your TRUE self? Dark Souls is a nightmarish descent in to the unconscious, where it explores our identity and our deepest desires.
Let’s start at the beginning. The first Dark Souls begins with a visual birthing scene. The camera plunges into a crevice that is, let’s face it, deliberately shaped like a vagina, through a tunnel that is not unlike an ovary and into a pit that resembles a womb, which is full of… things being born. Yes, we’re absolutely going there.
At the beginning of Dark Souls Two we have a similar scene only this time structured in reverse: we begin the game inside a labyrinth of tunnels, tubes, and caverns and we have to work our way out until we go through a vagina-like crevice into the light.
This ‘tutorial’ section of the game takes place in the womb, and when we are developed enough, we get out. Now that we are born, we can begin our quest. These images are not just at the start of the games either: the whole landscape of THE games has the feel of being womb- and ovary-like.
Yonic (or vagina-like) imagery is quite common in popular media. Whether it’s Fight Club, Rick and Morty, Aliens, or Videodrome, artists know they can always turn to everybody’s favorite orifice when trying to implement themes of birth, rebirth, or sex.
Even when we escape the womb, the games continue to abound with further images of birth. We find mysterious eggs which contain secrets and treasures.
We visit The Demon Ruins, which are covered with hideous eggs threatening to hatch. We can even get infected with a horrible egg head. We encounter pregnant monsters hidden in cages as if we have repressed them. Later we find little skeletons which look like x-rays of babies.
In Bloodborne, characters talk about the bloody scenes of birth and the scream of pregnant women as you collect parts of an umbilical chord to put back together.
The game finishes with a bizarre, lovecraftian baby alien. The blood dregs look suspicsiouly like semen, Various creatures have various births and some have even speculated tha tthe blood that we drink the game could be menstrual.
These moments highlight our complicated feelings towards birth and re-birth, something the game explores in depth. But instead of having a freaky alien within us, we are the creature moving around the alien womb-world. The questions is: are we trying to get out or back in? We don’t seem to want to escape this womb, and we keep plunging deeper within it, trying to get to the secrets held inside thse depths.
Whilst Tomb Raiding is a familiar trope in video games, Womb Raiding is something unique to Dark Souls. So why this obsession with birth? Well, it goes back to the fact that this is a game about lost identity and about working out who we really are.
Game-changing psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud thought that because we all find our own identities so complex and hard to understand, we look back to our very origins trying to work out who we are – all the way back to the time we spent in our mother’s wombs. Actually, Freud says, we look back even further to our very first moment, the moment our parents had sex. Freud calls this the ‘primal scene,’ the event which started us, and that, according to him, we always dream of.
The first line of Dark Souls Two is ‘perhaps you’ve seen it, maybe in a dream. A murky, forgotten land’. The premise of the game is how to get back to this murky forgotten land which we can never remember- an endless search for our forgotten identity that leads us through a world rife images of birth, pregnancy and conception.
But just because re-entering our mother’s womb is impossible, it doesn’t stop us from trying- metaphorically at least. One of the opening shots of Dark Souls 2 is a hand desperately reaching for a mother. We often have a crack at getting into our moms, but, as Freud explains, social taboos and prohibitions prevent us from ever accessing them in this way again. For Freud, it is the father who says ‘no’ and prevents us from getting access to the mom. Once again- metaphorically. Dark Souls is full of metaphorical moments like this, where we are confronted with a dark tunnel which we want to access, only to have our path blocked by a series of male guards with big, erect, throbbing uh… swords (weapons)..
Its pretty impossible to ignore that we are dealing with castrators blocking us from entering crevice like passages. In fact, the vast majority of enemies in the game are guards – and its not entirely clear what they are guarding and why. The guards, from monsters to suits of armor, are almost exclusively castrating figures wielding large sharp swords, spears, halberds and other phallic weaponry.
There is even a boss in Demon Souls called ‘The Penetrator’, who ya know.. sticks it to you good. For Freud, swords are always the symbol of castration. Like our fathers, these enemies threaten to cut off our penises as we attempt to get to the mother. METAPHORICALLY!
Now, if you’ve played one of these games, chances are you’ve seen this screen one, two, or 500 times. The average person sees this deflating message over 700 times in the course of completing Dark Souls Two. You die a lot, and as such, the game creates a feeling of being a constant failure. This sense of impotence is exactly the atmosphere of Freudian castration.
You know that final giving up when you heave a great sigh of defeat, put the controller down and slope off to bed? You’ve been castrated and are filled with impotent failure.
Nothing quite deflates your manhood like being destroyed by a giant hulking male giant wielding a formidable phallus. Really? Does the sword have to be that big? These guys make Cloud Strife look like a bitch.
On top of he-men packin huge dongs, the game also features some interesting depictions of women enemies. When we approach Scorpioness Najka in Dark Sozuls 2, you might be thinking “Oh damn she’s kinda hot. I wonder what’s below the belt… OH SHIT.” An attractive top-half but weaponized bottom half can also be seen in Mytha the Baneful.
Another major female enemy, Queen Queelag, has monstrous teeth in place of a vagina, sending the message that trying to re-enter the womb is the ultimate social taboo. Don’t go there, or you’ll get bitten.
This classic symbol of castration is rooted in the concept of the ‘Vagina Dentata’ (literally meaning ‘a vagina with teeth’).
The vagina dentata began as ancient folklore tale but then became an important concept to philosophy and eventually to psychoanalysis: it’s the idea of a vagina with secretly hidden ferocious penis decapitating fangs. In previous centuries, prohibiting fathers even made chastity belts with metal teeth to make this terrifying myth a reality.
Thus, in Dark Souls we’ve got a visual embodiment of Freud’s idea of castration anxiety: The idea is to show us our desire, and then, instead of letting that desire be fulfilled, attack and symbolically castrate us, leaving us weak and unfulfilled.
The ending of Dark Souls Two reverses the birthing scene of the beginning. Going through the very obviously vagina-like door, the hero is welcomed back into the seat at the heart of the mother’s womb by a comforting female voice. The Throne we sit on is even based on a ‘kiln,’- a type of oven.
Kilns have been associated with wombs throughout history. You know how pregnant women sometimes say they have a bun in the oven? Well there ya go.
The throne here is called ‘The Throne of Want’ – is it the embodiment of ultimate desire – the place where we have our deepest and most repressed wishes fulfilled.
To get there you have to defeat more penis wielding giant alpha males. Look I don’t want to be crude here but I think we all know these dudes are probably swingin a way bigger dick than your hero. I don’t care how you speced. Finally our hero sits in the Throne of Want, and feels something we all want – satisfaction.
But how do we feel, as the player of the game – are we now fulfilled, along with our character? It’s unlikely. I mean… what the hell just happened? Why did I just spend 60 hours grinding my teeth to finally sit my ass down on this fucking throne with just more vague dialogue? The Curse wasn’t even lifted! Wasn’t that the whole point?? Indeed, we feel frustrated again. Ultimately, we’ll never work out the puzzle of our desires or our identities.
The mysterious female voice even says “souls will flourish anew and all of this will play out again.” The most influential follower of Freud was fellow psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, who argued that we can never be fulfilled because as soon as we get what we want, we stop wanting it. Kevin Spacey explains the idea:
In Dark Souls 2 the Ancient Dragon even tells us this Lacanian argument directly, that ‘the curse of life is the curse of want’- We are destined forever to be unfulfilled, always unsatisfied.
On a rare occasion when Miyazaki commented on the Dark Souls series, he said that the games are about the strange crossover between life and death. He says he wants his games to explore questions like: what is death, and for that matter, what is life?
Looked at through this lens, Dark Souls could be considered a metaphor for life itself. In Dark Souls 2, You are developed in the womb, then you are born, then you are plagued with endless desire, frustration, and misery until you confront death, and through death, you return to the peaceful oblivion of your mother’s womb.
Dark Souls visualizes our horrific unconscious desires, our complicated relationship with birth, and our endless failure to be fulfilled with a nightmarish flair. And despite all that I’m still jazzed as hell for Dark Souls 3!