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Zen and the Art of Dark Souls II - Destructoid

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Oh, hello. I didn't see you come in. I hail from the now-defunct 1UP and am looking for a new home/community for the grand reopening of my blog. Why I didn't think of Destructoid earlier is anyone's guess, but it seems like things will be a good fit here...or at least I hope they will. If you like esoteric ramblings on small, nitpicked issues in gaming, you've come to the right place. Maybe I take things a little too seriously, but I like to think of it as passion rather than pretention. Please to enjoy.
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After finishing my first playthrough of Dark Souls II, reflecting on the experience left me with a feeling of awe. Awe not at its improved combat systems, leveling mechanics, or game engine, but rather at its story. Specifically, the story of the protagonist him/herself. The narrative surrounding the protagonist has always been an intriguingly obtuse component of the Souls series, and while the protagonist's narrative has been similar throughout all three games, it has culminated in such clarity and poignancy in this third installment that I believe I finally understand From Software's vision for players and their experiences with Dark Souls II.

For the uninitiated or the unobservant, the narrative I refer to follows closely along these lines: the protagonist begins her quest seeking to right some wrong that has befallen either herself or the world at large. Through toil and hardship, the protagonist succeeds in conquering whatever it was she set out initially to conquer. However, being bound by some otherworldly force, either by fate or by curse, the protagonist is doomed to repeat this cycle of conquest again and again ad infinitum. It is a pitiable fate, to be sure, but one that is expertly presented in Dark Souls II.

How it differs in Dark Souls II from its predecessors comes largely by way of the narration within the game's opening cinematic. Its cryptic tone bears no small resemblance to the opening of the first Dark Souls, but its actual content couldn't be more dissimilar. Rather than introducing the player to the world and its lore, Dark Souls II's narration instead introduces the player to the role she is about to assume: a person in the most dire of straits, traveling to a land shrouded in mystery and rumor with hope of a cure. A person cursed with an appetite for souls and a memory swiftly fading. A person of cyclical fate, doomed to exist in perpetual strife for all time. While this role is consistent with the Souls series' protagonist narratives, more than in any previous installment, it becomes clear that this narration isn't directed solely at the player's character; it is directed towards the player as well.


En route to Drangleic

The player, by seeking out some manner of fictional entertainment, is turning away from her life in some respect, if only temporarily. That isn't to say her life is in a similar state of disrepair as the protagonist's appears to be in Dark Souls II, but perhaps there is some real-world impetus for her seeking out works of fiction, be it loss, disappointment, or sheer boredom. In any case, both the player and the protagonist find themselves in the world of Drangleic for their respective reasons. Yet once they arrive, as is our human wont, merely existing within that new world fails to suffice. The urge to explore sets in, be it the physical space, one's physical limitations, or the extent of one's agency within the world. Through their exploration, the game eventually pits the player against enemy combatants should they wish to proceed onward. Initially, the enemies she faces are relative pushovers. In time, they grow in both strength and numbers, until eventually, she cannot best them. At least, not in her initial state. That is when the thirst for souls, the economic and leveling currency in the Souls series, sets in. For it is through souls that the player can gain enough power to best the foes impeding her progress. Eventually, given the sheer difficulty of the game and its enemies, souls become virtually synonymous with progression in the mind of the player, and the pursuit of souls becomes ever-engrossing. Yet even after every facet of exploration has been exhausted, every boss slain, every weapon and spell acquired, every secret unearthed, the desire to explore and grow fails to tire. Eventually, the player elects to begin the cycle anew, albeit with stronger faculties and against stronger enemies, allowing herself to continue pushing the boundaries of her prowess with each repetition, time and time again. And thus, the narration's prophecy comes to fruition for protagonist and player alike.

Furthermore, what's equally intriguing about the prophecy of Dark Souls II is its remarkable and presumably intentional similarity to the metaphysics of self in Buddhism. For those without any degree of familiarity with the religion, the grossly oversimplified version goes something like this: life is suffering. Suffering is begotten from earthly desires. So long as one still suffers by maintaining these desires, one remains in an infinite cycle of death and rebirth. Only by achieving enlightenment and transcending those earthly desires can one be released from this loop and finally extinguished. Now, by replacing the concept of life here with one's time spent playing the game, and earthly desires with the pursuit of progress and souls, does this not sound virtually identical to the situation the player finds herself in in Dark Souls II? One continues experiencing the same hardships again and again in the pursuit of a currency that will only temporarily alleviate some of one's suffering. The only true end to one's strife lies in recognizing the futility and fruitlessness of that pursuit and removing oneself permanently from that cycle, i.e. cease playing the game.

These same parallels could be sussed out of both Demon's Souls and Dark Souls as well, to be sure, but it has only been made obviously clear in From Software's latest. Which makes sense; launching a series where the player's explicit goal is to stop playing the game would likely not have fared terribly well, and even in Dark Souls II, while every other aspect of the player's condition is explained upfront, its remedy isn't. Which is somewhat unfortunate, I think. To have a game whose expressed goal is for players to stop playing it would be fascinating to say the least, especially if it reached the same heights of popularity as the Souls series has, for that would surely mean that players were intentionally disobeying the game's orders. But I digress. To have a game that implies as much is fine for now, I suppose.
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