Grandma has been in a nursing home for 8 years now. I don't like to visit.
Don't get me wrong, I love my Grandma but it's a miserable place. The staff try their best to make it nice. Happy cartoon posters on the walls, volunteer guitarists and singers for the occasional afternoon performance, genial soothing voices and endearing nicknames. I appreciate the effort for my Grandma's sake, I really do. But it doesn't do much to cover up the stark reality of the situation. The sight of wheelchairs lined up in front of a TV set playing infomercials. The moans of octogenarians so out of their minds they're no longer capable of speech. The smell of disinfectant and adult diapers.
But worst of all is the blank stare in my Grandma's eyes. The absence of any kind of recognition or warmth. This woman who I grew up visiting every weekend. Who used to go picking apples with me in the orchard, who served countless Sunday dinners. All the hours she spent in vain trying to teach me the basics on piano, the games of "name that tune", the mail days where she would drive halfway across town to drop off an issue of Ultra Gameplayers for my brother and me. She doesn't remember a bit of it.
There is a lot of debate in the Dark Souls community about the nature of the Undead curse and how it works. Heck, there is a lot of debate on what the game is about and what it all means in the end.
I have my own interpretation. I don't know if it was something the developers intended, I don't know if it's something anyone else will get. But to me, past all the monsters and magic, Dark Souls' story is an allegory for Alzheimer's disease.
In Dark Souls, you play the role of an Undead. A human marked with a magical curse known as the Darksign, destined to return from the dead again and again.
The Undead are considered an abhorrence to nature. They're discriminated against, hated, reviled, rounded up and shoved into asylums and prisons, or banished to the Lordran, the so-called "land of the Undead." Little more than a deathtrap filled with monsters and insane Deities. It isn't just prejudice, an Undead is a very real threat. A time-bomb destined to eventually turn Hollow – a mindless aggressive shell of their former selves. A menace doomed to trudge through an endless empty existence, lashing out at the living, devoid of any reason or sentiment.
While the game is unclear what turns an Undead into a Hollow - the passing centuries of an unnaturally long life, repeated deaths and rebirths, or some other factor of the curse – but its clear that Hollowing is the inevitable fate of all Undead. Almost every character you meet bears the weight of the curse, suffering some symptom or another of the Hollowing process. And almost all of these symptoms seem suspiciously like the onset of dementia.
Undead tend to settle into one place or another. Just like the shrinking world of habits and routine of an early Alzheimer's patient, one of the first steps towards an Undead turning hollow seems to be the attachment to a specific place.
The very first character you meet in Lordran is a knight that has all but given into his fate. He's sarcastic, callous, and absolutely refuses to leave his comfortable little spot. He's just waiting for the curse to take him. He even seems to see the loss of his mind as freeing in a certain way. Talk to him enough and you'll see he has a bit of a demented silver-lining to his fatalistic outlook; at least nothing will bother him anymore once he goes Hollow. He'll even encourage you to pull up a seat and wait for it to happen to you too. Apathy is one of the first and most prevalent symptoms of Alzheimer's.
Both the blacksmith Rickert and the Moss Merchant have walled themselves up, seemingly happily, behind bars. Rickert can't stand the thought of going Hollow "out there" and would rather stay safe and sound in his self-imposed cell. The Moss Merchant seems perfectly content to pleasantly welcome passing customers to her filthy hovel in a sewer drain, oblivious to her decrepit state or sorry surroundings. Rickert at least mildly complains about the tedium of his life and is thankful for any blacksmithing work you give him, but not much for conversation.
They all strike me as eerily close to Alzheimier sufferers. They too tend to fall into similar patterns of behaviour, very focused on routine and habit. Coasting through the days on mental auto-pilot, just waiting for the inevitable. Fine and dandy until the slightest upset or wrinkle to the routine, closing themselves off more and more from the outside world. I think the Moss Merchant is just a little further down the same road Rickert is on.
In particular, the sudden shifts in the Moss Merchant's mood reminds me of Grandma on a bad day. When the Merchant's cheery shopkeeper persona suddenly drops and she accuses the player of "thinking I've gone to the other side... Cracked me head and gone Hollow... I can see it in your eyes" in low hissing tones. The paranoia, the suspicion, the projected fear of losing their mind. It's something you see a lot in Alzheimer patients as the condition worsens.
Compared to her, the other Merchant you meet in the Upper Burg seems to have his wits about him. He's certainly less manic, and his advice is even useful. He seems to be doing fairly well for an emaciated walking corpse. Until you notice him stroking an invisible pet.
Talk you him enough and he'll tell you all about his precious "Yullia" a pet he seems thoroughly convinced is reclining right beside him in a basket. Perhaps some cat or dog he had back in his human life. It's easy to shrug it off as a weird quirk, an eccentricity from a junk-shop zombie proprietor. But it stuck with me.
There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching a relative in the thralls of dementia. When they go around the house with a dish filled with kibble, calling for their long dead cat. Or tell you about a "recent" conversation with their departed brother. You can either leave them to their delusion and watch another piece of their mind slip away, or you can correct them. You can tell them that Mort the cat has been dead for years now, watch their heart break all over again. Let them feel the burning humiliation of forgetting something so basic, so vital. Of coming face-to-face with their own mental disintegration.
I stopped correcting Grandma pretty early on. Sometimes I feel guilty about it. Maybe confronting her on those little gaffs might have slowed it down. Maybe it would have just upset her for no good reason. I'll never know.
Out of all the characters in the game though, none of them remind me more of my Grandma than Siegmeyer.
Seig is amazing. A loveable knight wearing one of the most ridiculous suits of armour you'll ever see. He's affable, self-effacing, grateful for any help, and always willing to aid a friend in need. Unlike the other Undead you meet, Sieg isn't about to slow down and let the curse take him, he's set on adventuring till the day he drops. But he is going hollow. In fact, he might be further along than he lets on.
You always run into Siegmeyer in the damnedest places. You'll find him stuck amidst some sticky situation he has no idea how to get out of. He'll be perched on a ledge lost in thought, right underneath an Indiana Jones style rolling-death-ball trap, paying no attention to the blood thirsty Serpent-Men not ten feet away. You'll find him asleep on his feet in the middle of a putrid swamp, in the volcanic ruins of a demonic temple. Every time you rouse him out of his distant thoughts or astonishingly deep slumber, he'll greet you with the same pleasant and welcoming demeanour. Like it was the most normal thing in the world.
In the games parlance, I think Siegmeyer is Hollowing out. Despite his unwavering spirit and wanderlust, he's slowing down. Every time he meets an obstacle he can't immediately clear, he takes a moment to gather his thoughts. And another moment. And another. He gets lost in his planning and strategizing that he never acts on it. You have to wonder, if the player character never came along to help him with his Silver Knight problem or open a gate for him, would he ever leave?
You wouldn't think an Onion shaped knight would remind me of Grandma, but he does. Of taking her out to the mall with Mom. Of finding her an hour later, alone and wandered off, leaning up against a potted plant and staring off into the middle-distance. I remember coming up to her, worried sick, and hearing a pleasantly surprised "Oh, hi Nic! What are you doing here?"
Grandma got good at pulling that trick. Acting like nothing was wrong. Staying pleasant, pretending she didn't totally lose track of the conversation or what we were doing. Siegmeyer is good at the same kind of pretending. It's not weird at all to be asleep above a pack of Chaos Eaters right?
In the wake of Siegmeyer's adventurous wanderings is his devoted, long suffering, daughter Sieglinde. A knight in her own right, and not Undead, she's travelled far and braved the horrors and dangers of Lordran, desperate to find her father and pass her departed mother's final words to him. Like father like daughter, you find Sieglinde in the oddest of circumstances, but her determination never falters. She will find her father - if only he'd stay in one place.
This was the part that really got to me. The idea of a family member trying to take care of someone who seems hellbent on self-destruction. That terrible mix of sadness and frustration. Sieglinde has to deal with a dad that keeps throwing himself into the most dangerous dungeons imaginable. We had to deal with finding paper plates in the oven, or nail-polish mistaken for lip-gloss. That horrible fear that someone you love is going to get themselves killed – be it by getting lost in a toxic swamp in Blighttown, or wandering out of her house without a coat in the middle of a Canadian winter.
Sigelinde isn't just there to pass on her mother's message though. It's also her duty as a daughter to "take care" of her father should the worse come to pass.
"My father? He went on his final adventure. Don't worry, that's just the way he is. Undead or no. Sort of reassuring, really. If he goes Hollow, I'll just have to kill him again." It's a grim duty, an ugly necessity. But when a person is beyond care, they depend on their loved ones to be responsible.
We put it off as long as we could. Too long if I'm being honest. Every day brought some new disaster. She'd get suckered out of hundreds of dollars by some telemarketing scam. This lady who was once sharp as a tack was getting taken by "you're already a winner!" level cons. She'd microwave her soup in a plastic bowl. She'd try to let the house-bound new cat outside, thinking it was the old one. So many near catastrophes and close calls. She needed constant care eventually, more than our also ailing Grandfather could provide. But we knew it would be the end of her.
Ask anyone in the long-term care business, they'll tell you. As soon as you take someone with dementia out of their normal environment and stick them in a nursing home, they go downhill quick.
We watched our Grandmother go hollow in a matter of months. Whatever glimmers of recognition she still held for us in her eyes soon flickered out. She didn't know me as Nic anymore, I was Carl, her youngest son. Pretty soon I was nobody. She stopped talking in coherent sentences after a couple of months, then stopped talking at all. Mom is the only one able to coax even a one-word reply out of her now, and that's becoming harder to get. Of course, she can't eat on her own. Her pulped up meals are spoon fed to her. She's suffered trips and tumbles that have robbed her of teeth and mobility. It seems like yesterday that this was a woman who played backyard badminton with her Grandsons, now she's seat-belted into a wheelchair so she doesn't hurt herself.
She doesn't know who I am. Her golden boy who used to talk her ear off about games, school, and movies - crap she couldn't possibly care about but patiently listened to all the same - is a stranger to her. Some scary man she doesn't particularly like. I can't even get her to make eye contact let alone crack a smile. Maybe her body is still here, but my Grandma is gone.
The very land of Lordran is a muddled and temporally confused place. Heroes of legend rub shoulders with warriors of the present. Events some characters refer to in the long-gone past occur right in front of your very eyes. It gives the game a very dreamlike distant feel. I can only imagine it is something akin to not remembering which President is currently in the White House, or completely losing track of the days of the week, of the month and year. Time goes on, and more and more just slips through the fingers of your mind until you have only a vague sense of things.
Maybe I'm projecting a bit, I don't doubt it. But the parallels between the Undead going Hollow and Alzheimer's disease seem so clear to me that I have to suspect that the idea crossed the designers mind at some point. I'd love to ask director Miyazaki if he's dealt with a family member with Alzhemier's. Maybe that would explain the fixation on Pendants and coins and charms with no purpose but to provide comforting memories, a tangible artifact of memory to hold on to.
The entire message of Dark Souls' story, if it has one, is to accept when your time has passed. The age of the Gods is over, and Gwyn's attempts to extend it has led to the miserable state of things. The deterioration of the pantheon, the corruption of the world, and the appearance of the Darksign, all symptoms of an age that should have passed but has been artificially sustained.
When they say being Undead is a curse, that living on while losing everything that makes a person themselves, when they say that's a fate worse than death, I believe them.
Enjoy your time on this world. Grow old and happy. But don't live too long. In time, It all turns to ash.
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