Guest Post by Paul King
The most recent time I loaded up the game Dark Souls, my character unsheathed a sword from her back and drew her shield. And then I noticed a message, written maybe two steps away: â€œGrief.â€
The world of Dark Souls is, as the title would suggest, dark. Itâ€™s a classic, worn down fantasy world where everything is crumbling. Your character begins in a prison for the lost and undead; your default state is one of decay. Even as you continue to a city meant for gods, all is in dangerous, ruinous disrepair.
And most of the game is spent alone. Save a few neutral, stationary characters, any sort of dialogue is non-existent. Your hero never speaks, only grunts in the heat of battle, and these stationary merchants quickly run out of new phrases, things to sell you, or purposes to exist.
But at a certain point, your character may buy (or steal) a chunk of soapstone from one of these merchants. Once you obtain the soapstone, you may use it to write, coating the floor in incandescent orange scribbles that, upon interaction, reveal their text.
During the course of Dark Souls, no fix for the broken world emerges. At times, other characters hint that the universe has descended into darkness from a former glory, and your lone heroâ€™s quest might be the thing to restore it. But nothing you do on your journey really changes anything; felled enemies reappear upon your death and subsequent rebirth, and also upon the saving of your progress. But while your standard fantasy actions yield no change and are easily erased, the soapstone allows you to impact the gameâ€™s world in a singular, everlasting way: through writing.
Thereâ€™s a multiplayer component of Dark Souls that allows players to enter the world of another. One can invade or be summoned, and these are adversarial or cooperative interactions, respectively. Both are temporary.
Messages penned with the soapstone, on the other hand, are permanent. Quit the game and return days later, they will still be there. And perhaps more importantly, while invasions and summons are constrained to a single instance of the game worldâ€”that of the invaded or summoning playerâ€”messages, instead, are universal. Write a message on the floor of a chapel within your game, and the same message appears in the same chapel of another personâ€™s game.
And there they sit, for any other player who happens by it. But much like the world of Dark Souls, the system in which messages are created is opaque and difficult.
The soapstone may be used to write a variety of messages, but only from a template. You choose a formatâ€”for instance, â€œTry _____â€ or â€œBe wary of ______.â€ Once youâ€™ve chosen a format, you can then choose from a list of categories to fill that blank. Options here include orientation (â€œTry left,â€ â€œBe wary of rightâ€), objects (â€œTry sword,â€ â€œBe wary of chestâ€), and attributes (â€œTry fireâ€).
Because the messages are selected from a template, speech is limited, and as such, messages become muddied. As with the world, story, and mission of the game, the onus is on the player as a reader to determine the intent of a message. And as with the rest of the game, the system can be frustratingâ€”authorial intent easily becomes unclear, especially in the wake of present danger due to the gameâ€™s refusal to be paused. Pick the wrong moment to write a message, or linger too long on selecting the correct Mad-Libbian phrase and it might instead spell death.
And Dark Soulsâ€™ closed language system isnâ€™t immune to classic video game juvenility. At a certain point, my character encountered the message â€œAmazing chest ahead,â€ but instead of referring to what would make the most senseâ€”a treasure chestâ€”it was instead placed in front of a female character as an unfortunate reference to her anatomy.
While this example is depressing, itâ€™s fortunately rare. It also serves to underscore what is an even more important facet of the closed language: context. Not only may players choose what combinations of message to write, they may also choose where to place it within the worldâ€”for it to be a static element in the world of others. The same message becomes manifold depending on its placement.
A canned, writable phrase in the game is â€œPraise the Sun!â€ This is one of the only phrases that does not contain a mutable component (alongside â€œGood Job!â€ and â€œI did it!â€). Its placement is intended in relation to one of the gameâ€™s religionsâ€”meant to be written in a peaceful, brightly lit area upon which the sun shines. A prayer.
I found it once at the bottom of a sewer. Surrounded by the carcasses of massive, dead ratsâ€”think The Princess Brideâ€”here it was: â€œPraise the Sun!â€ In this context it served as an entirely different message, rife with a sense of irony not possible if placed in a different area. Though the text said differently, the message was obviously one of despair.
Just before an encounter with a massive, angry beast, somebody had written â€œtry jumping.â€ And after dying to the creature several timesâ€”an event that happens with most encounters of the difficult gameâ€”the message clicked. And indeed, it was jumping from a ledge and plunging a sword into the monsterâ€™s waiting back that proved to be the best strategy.
Elsewhere, I found the same message written on a set of uneven stone stairs, a crumbling railing beside it. â€œTry jumping.â€ I angled my view downward, past the railing, and saw only an endless descent, one that would surely kill me.
It did. After I learned a lesson about trust, I discovered another message, not far away: â€œBeware liar.â€
And what begins to emerge from identical phrases is a changing language, one dependent entirely on a static world. While some messages are incredibly straightforward (my favorite is â€œIllusory wall aheadâ€), others are incredibly vague.
One of the more interesting categories to choose a â€œblankâ€ from is â€œConcepts.â€ The category sits at the bottom of the list, beneath â€œCharacters,â€ â€œObjects,â€ and more, almost as if it were an afterthought. It is from this list some nameless stranger chose to pen â€œgrief.â€
What strikes me especially about the use of â€œgriefâ€ is that it is wholly unnecessaryâ€”the entire world embodies â€œgrief.â€ Though â€œhappinessâ€ is present on the list of concepts, the use of the word makes little to no sense in the context of Dark Soulsâ€”there is, ultimately, nothing happy within the game.
But within the constraints of the language system, these awkward, single words can be used in new ways that don’t necessarily pertain to the game. Before a particularly trying monster, instead of writing â€œTry lightningâ€â€”the monsterâ€™s supposed weaknessâ€”one could instead place â€œTry hope,â€ stepping outside of intended use.
Whatâ€™s interesting about these concepts is that they were placed in an otherwise interesting and well-thought out system; one that plays to the same difficulties and themes of the game. It is only when we as players make a conscious decision to write a specific message does the system break down, distancing itself from in-game tips and evolving into something poetic. When the system breaks, it allows players to leave an effective mark on not only their game world, but the game worlds of others.
Because while all messages might be eternal, the ones that conform to a useful fantasy systemâ€”tips, locations, or secretsâ€”ultimately interact with the world by blending into it, not changing it. The jumping tip about the monster led me to a strategic shortcut, while the deceitful note on the staircase created a new, interactive game experience. Those that reference nothing in the world but language concepts create new experiences entirely outside of the game.
Much of Dark Souls deals with the idea of immortality. Your character, like most video game characters, is seemingly tireless. Die, and be brought back again, and again, unceasingly until the game is done. The environments and enemies around you never change, and the latter is in seemingly endless supply. Even when your quest is over, the only option is to start over, either as a new character or the same one, this time in a harder difficulty.
Though the entirety of the game is caught up in this idea of perpetual fantasy, it promotes an unchanging stasis rather than an everlasting immortality. The player created messagesâ€”which ultimately exist outside of developer boundary or intentâ€”are the only things that truly seem to point towards immortality. While standard, intentional messages quickly blend into the context of the gameâ€™s world; those that break the mold escape the world and its shortfall. When a message references nothing external in the static game worldâ€”through the intentional or unintentional garbling of the closed systemâ€”it turns into a testament of itself. As a result, it transforms the writer from a player, into an author, leaving an indelible mark.
Â Paul King is a poet, writer, and video game enthusiast currently living in Chicago, IL. He grew up in Austin, TX and graduated from Bard College with a BA in Liberal and Written Arts.