The first time I descended into the Darkroot Basin in From Software’s Dark Souls, I never made it out. A black knight burst from a mossy cave and jousted me into the murky depths, knocking a half-dozen Humanity and twenty-thousand Souls down into the abyss with me. After falling victim to the harrowed spearman’s assault a second time, I could only shake my head as my resources evaporated into the fog that surrounds Lordran, never to be seen again.
Thoroughly humiliated by my hubris, I decided to retire for the evening. The next day, I awoke determined to enact revenge, but my PS3 admitted a completely different kind of defeat – it refused to turn on, blinking a putrid yellow light at me in the dim morning haze. By the time I got it fixed, I could barely remember the crumbled kingdom of Lordran; after all, I had other games to play, and I never really could appreciate a brutal challenge.
Now, years later – after stumbling my way through Lordran, and Drangleic, and Yharnam, and Lothric, again and again and again – that first doomed expedition to Souls country strikes me as almost unrecognizable, the remembrances of a completely different person. Though that might sound a bit histrionic, these games have captured the essence of my gaming life to a frankly baffling extent, with my enthusiasm meted out over dozens of playthroughs and a combined hour count well north of the five-hundred mark. And now, after playing them back-to-back, year-after-year for a half-decade, I find myself bereft. There was no mysterious land of misty forests and shadowy snowdrifts to plunge into this year, or the next, or maybe even the next, full of foes to conquer and secrets to unravel; no, just two modest expansions for Dark Souls 3 that, though vigorous in their own right, did little to staunch my yearning for a more complete experience.
Though I have a ravenous desire for more Souls at seemingly any cost, the undeniable truth is that the base series has very little left to say. For all its famed thematic complexity – damned realms that reflect the tedium of endless cycles ever-recurring – one could certainly accuse the series of repeating itself, especially in 3, where every micron of its dusky world feels like a reflection of what came before. When FromSoft futzes with your expectations by revealing the ultimate fate of a beloved boss, or the remnants of a once-proud city, it occasionally ignites the same sense of surprise and discovery that made the first game such a revelation. But when Fromsoft drops in a portrait of a fan-favorite or punctuates a lackluster boss fight with an extended reference to Demon’s Souls – the genre-pioneer that allegedly shares no continuity with the other entries – it can feel as though creator Hidetaka Miyazaki is trying his hand at the grim yet lucrative art of pandering.
Of course, you can point to the hordes of imitators that have cropped up over the past few years to quench my thirst. But while these games vary from middling (sci-fi limb-lopper The Surge) to legitimately excellent (love letter to feudal Japan Nioh), they seek to replicate the moment-to-moment broadsword-swinging and spell-slinging of their inspiration rather than their enigmatic spirit. These games know how to seduce many different kinds of player: a broad swath may love to prepare to die as they roll past a dragon’s every swipe – their chainmail jingling with every tumble – but they’re less keen to watch a twenty-minute lore video on how exactly the once-proud beast ruined its glittering scales. These games have managed to light an unparalleled enthusiasm for world-building and “lore” across a wide player base, and this sense of wonder and possibility has proved almost entirely inimitable. Indie beacons like Hollow Knight and Undertale might inspire a deluge of forum threads and fan-theories alike, but entire YouTube dynasties have risen on the strength of their Souls analysis alone.
While opinions on the individual entries in the series vary, there’s no denying that Miyazaki’s best ideas come when he’s working with new material. After all, look at Bloodborne, his 2015 dalliance with Lovecraft. By abandoning the dark fantasy environs of his previous work, Miyazaki manages to embody a distinctly different set of ideals and themes – sanity and esoterica rather than fates and flame. Not only that, but he manages to tell a far more complete story with more fully-fledged characters than the mythic dragons v. gods ur-conflict of Souls, and tell it in a fresh way, through the whirl of dream logic and nightmares within nightmares rather than just a wikiful of verbose item descriptions. Since Bloodborne is easily my favorite of his games, intellectually, I long-ago realized that FromSoft needs to blow out the embers and leave Gwyn and his spawn behind. Now, exploring the abandoned lands, I feel as empty as the tombs of the gods I have defeated so many times.
So what else can I do? I go down, once more, into the mossy cave in Darkroot Basin. The spearman lunges at me, but I mastered the likes of him long ago – I impale him in the back with a bastard sword and kick him into the abyss. I know I will find a bonfire in the cave, and past that an elevator that leads down into the Valley of the Drakes, where dragons will fire at me with azure beams that sparkle in the fading light. I do not know what I hope to find in Lordran, or Lothric, or any of these depleted worlds. Yes, there are many mysteries left to solve, but, after six years, how can there be any solutions left to uncover? As Dark Souls 3 teaches us, sometimes the answers doom the questions. The glint in the dark lures us in – we spend years illuminating the chamber, only to find an ordinary stone that happened to catch the light just right. I’ve learned to stop asking such questions. Much like the heroes of the series, a dim sense of propulsion carries me forward. Few pieces of art will give me this sense of composure, of catharsis, of resolve in the face of absolute annihilation. And even as Miyazaki breathes life into new lands and the old ones crumble into corpses, to me, I know that they’ll never quite go hollow.