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8:57 AM on 02.04.2013

The Ambiguous Bond of Ornstein and Smough: A Dark Souls Discussion

(Warning! The following is positively dripping with spoilers and speculation)

Dark Souls is a bit of an oddity when it comes to story-telling. It doesn’t lock the player into lengthy dialogue trees and it doesn’t bind you into unskippable cutscenes. There are no shelves of readable literature and no conveniently discarded notes to flesh out the backstory. In Lordran, narrative is ambient and information is at a premium. All we have are item descriptions, word of mouth, and heaping barrels of online speculation.

For this particular dive into the hazy realm of Dark Souls contemplation, I’ve hovered over the summon sign of Dtoid user, Chechosaurus (also known as Haydn Taylor), to help unravel the secrets behind Dark Souls own illustrious double act: Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. The relationship between the pair is cryptic to say the least, but if Dark Souls has taught me anything, it’s that any problem can be solved with a little ‘jolly cooperation’.


I think the logical place to start in analysing such a curious relationship is by separating canonical fact from our own rambling conjecture.

Dragonslayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough guard the hallowed halls of the Anor Londo Cathedral. They doggedly protect the illusion of Gwynevere and act as a final test before the Chosen Undead is entrusted with the Lordvessel. Through armour and weapon descriptions, we’re informed that Ornstein is believed to the captain of Lord Gwyn’s four knights. A famed dragon slayer, he earned his title with adept use of his lightening-infused spear that would bury ‘deep within a dragon’s hide’. Smough, on the other hand, is a little less graceful than his lithe companion. From his title, we can only assume that he acted as Gwyn’s royal executioner, scuppering his chances of knighthood by grinding ‘the bones of his victims into his own feed’.

Personally I have a few doubts as to whether or not Smough sought a knighthood. Swift with a hammer he may be, but smashing shit to pieces and using bone-dust as table salt is hardly the behaviour of one eyeing up a promotion.Instead, I think of Smough more as an unwieldy psychopath kept on a very tight leash: a mad dog in need of the strictest of owners.

How these two wound up together in Anor Londo is another of Dark Souls abundant mysteries. It’s a tantalisingly unanswered question that gives birth to wild theories and rampant speculation. It’s one of the many unknowns that drape Dark Souls in an unmatched air of intrigue that, much like Ornstein and Smough’s agonisingly tricky boss battle, keeps me running back for more beautiful punishment.


I have to resist the urge to write off Ornstein and Smough’s relationship as ‘Brokeback Anor Londo’ but I was determined to shoehorn that in somewhere, so there you go. Moving on from my schoolboy attempt at humour, I do genuinely see the relationship between these two as one of the more fascinating aspects of the Dark Souls lore and, like nearly every point of interest in the game, you don’t know how much you’re interested in it until long after you’ve done it. There exists a certain bond between the Dragon Slayer and the Executioner and although it is an ambiguous one, I believe that it’s a bizarre form of begrudging friendship. This is primarily illustrated through only a few nuanced interactions whilst the bulk of their individual natures are expanded upon through the classic medium of item descriptions which allow us to further understand what sort of relationship they shared.

Given the surrounding evidence, I am certainly inclined to agree that Smough falls into the ‘unwieldy psychopath’ category. However, the description of his hammer makes him out to be as mad as a bag of genies on crystal meth; it also explains how his perverse actions were responsible for ‘ruining his hopes of being ranked with the four knights.’ This leads me to believe that Smough’s story is a little more complicated than we originally suspected. My initial response to this is how Smough, after being discovered as a no-good bone eater, decided to embrace that part of his personality and his depravity consumed him entirely. However, this does not explain why he has remained in Anor Londo with Ornstein to guard the illusion of Gwynevere. What business does he have guarding the Lordvessel? The only explanation I can forward is that his connection with Ornstein holds him there – whether it is due to a sense of duty towards Ornstein or because he has no choice is a matter of contention. However, he certainly presents an imposing form and an appropriate test to any would be adventurer seeking the Lordvessel. Perhaps that is his only purpose now?


It’s funny that you mention ‘purpose’ as I think the term applies more to Ornstein than it does to Smough. As the commander of Gwyn’s personal guard we can only assume that the Dragon Slayer was fervently committed to his master’s protection and defined himself accordingly. With his true lord out of the picture his allegiance passed down the line of deific command. That leaves us with two options: If he’s unaware that Gwynevere is an illusion then his loyalty lies with her, duped into her protection by the outcast Gwyndolin. Alternatively he’s complicit with Gwyndolin’s deception and is thus in league with Anor Londo’s last deity. Either way his presence boils down to an unshakeable loyalty to Gwyn’s household. With the head honcho gone his sole purpose is to obey and protect his master’s offspring. Luckily for Ornstein, he achieves it by doing what he does best: introducing that spear into the gooey confines of his opponent’s bowels.

Smough, however, is much harder to get a read on. I highly doubt their present coupling is an accident. The fact that Smough was even considered for a knighthood proves that, in my opinion, some sort of extended history exists between the pair. If Smough was in line for promotion then it’s likely that, as the four knight’s commander, it was Ornstein who put forward his name for ascendancy. Therefore, something must have happened that convinced Ornstein to take Smough under his electrically-charged wing. The specifics of that may be another of Dark Souls mounting mysteries, but it’s clear from the way Ornstein handles Smough’s death that he showed some form of respect for his fallen ally, no matter how crazed Smough became as time wore on.


I would suggest that Ornstein is unaware of Gwyndolin’s deceptive illusions. The illusion of Gwynevere, and by extension the sun, is essentially to keep up appearances. Anor Londo has already fallen to dark so who is Gwyndolin trying to deceive? The player? I don’t quite buy into that. Dark Sun Gwyndolin hardly commands the respect of his peers – Gwyn raised him as a girl, there is no statue of him in the halls of Anor Londo, he retreated to his father’s tomb where he lives vicariously through the only one of Gwyn’s children who appears to not have been disowned. To me, this suggests that the only way he could persuade Ornstein and Smough to stay in Anor Londo was to make them believe that Gwynevere remained. There is no evidence in the city of Anor Londo which would even imply that Gwyn had a third child and it is more than likely that Gwyndolin’s existence was kept a secret (a point which opens up a different debate entirely).

One of the more interesting matters regarding Smough is how he has a statue dedicated to him in Anor Londo. Was he really so revered as an executioner that his was to be preserved in stone forever? Also, we have no indication that he was ever considered for a knighthood but we do know that he had hopes of one according to the description of his hammer.

You mentioned how Ornstein handles the death of Smough with sombre resignation, which does indeed suggest that the Dragon Slayer felt some form of responsibility for the Executioner. However, if Ornstein falls first, Smough shows no such courtesy – he does not hesitate to smash the still warm body of Ornstein which, if you look closely, is still breathing. This would suggest one of two things – Smough harbours some sort of resentment towards Ornstein or his ‘eerily gleeful’ disposition negates any sentimentality he may have for his handler/comrade.


Aha! I was hoping we’d touch on Smough’s rather psychopathic bereavement process. Of the two options you’ve forwarded it’s tricky to settle on which is the most likely. In the case of the former we’d have to theorise as to why Smough would begrudge Ornstein to the extent of scoring a gory final blow. Could it be jealousy, perhaps? If Smough had his hopes of knighthood crushed then an existence alongside the order’s captain must eventually cause some ill-feeling. You smash my hopes, I smash your body. In a way it’s all rather fitting; although I doubt the notion of poetic justice is within Smough’s personal lexicon.

If not jealousy then perhaps he has no choice in his current charge? As we’ve said it’s difficult to find a line of reasoning that clarifies as to why Smough is tasked with defending the Lordvessel. Perhaps the reason is that Smough has not been entrusted with Gwynevere’s protection and is instead kept there against his will by Ornstein? But doesn’t it just beg the question as to why a statue of a prisoner would be raised in honour outside of their gilded cage?

That leaves us with the possibility that Smough’s splattering of Ornstein is down to a crazed bloodlust brought on by a pitched clash with the player. It certainly wouldn’t be out of character for a bone-munching executioner who ‘loved his work’. For all we know it could be beyond the Executioner’s control. Maybe Smough has long-since degenerated into a perpetual state of sadistic brutality and the care of an old ally has become Ornstein’s secondary purpose. It would explain the Dragon Slayer’s lament at his passing, and if Smough has lost himself to the baser aspects of his personality then that would explain the crushing of his erstwhile companion. It may be an unfitting end for the captain of Lord Gwyn’s esteemed knights, but after all, this is Dark Souls.


It is interesting how you suggest that Ornstein was the one to smash Smough’s dreams of being a knight. Based on what we have seen, it does seem to be rather likely. Ornstein clearly places a great deal of significance on duty and honour and it looks to me as though he would be unwilling to accept Smough as an equal given his bone-related inclinations. However, that is not to say Smough wasn’t met with at least some degree of reverence within the upper echelons of Anor Londo. I would suggest that his statue was constructed prior to Smough’s mental collapse and the exodus of the Gods.

However I would agree with your suggestion that Smough has long since degenerated into a personification of his worst traits. This is a sound explanation as to why Ornstein reacts in the way he does - ‘the care of an old ally’. As we have established, Ornstein is a man of honour and despite what Smough may have become (or may always have been) Ornstein has some sort of unbreakable loyalty or attachment to the Executioner. For me, this is furthered by the music during the encounter with Ornstein and Smough which appears to reflect their individual characteristics. The honourable knight Ornstein is represented through triumphant and proud wails from the brass, whereas the darker string and organ sections, coupled with the vocal drones, play off Smough’s malignant nature. The radically different aspects of the music are tied together in much the same way as they are – two very different beings, inextricably attached.


1:36 PM on 01.20.2013

The Heart and Soul of Dunwall: The Brilliance of Dishonored's Minutiae

"If he really wants to meet me, all he has to do is be a little more interesting."

‘The Outsider’ on Anton Solokov

It’s a rare feat when a game’s environment intrigues me more than the characters that inhabit it. Bioshock may have had the erudite charm of Andrew Ryan but what kept me coming back was the broken dream of his legacy: Rapture, the submerged utopia gone awry.

Going further back, I recall when I first threw myself into Morrowind that the story was of secondary concern. What mattered for me was the isle of Vvardenfell, a harsh spit of fantasy landscape with an alien quality its successors never quite mustered.

In both cases the environments evolved into living, breathing characters. I got to know these worlds. I learnt their ticks and their foibles; their history and their culture. With every fresh piece of information gleamed their personalities became more overt, effectively dwarfing the personalities of NPCs I was supposed to empathise with. As I skulked and slashed my way through the city of Dunwall I felt a familiar sense of a world I’d fallen in love with, a world with fleshed out idiosyncrasies communicating an astounding sense of place and culture.

It’s no wonder the Outsider spends all his time here, this is one of the most interesting settings I've seen in years.

From the moment Corvo breaks from captivity the diseased playground of Dunwall is yours to explore. Decaying buildings cut into the sky like the putrid ribs of a colossal whale, whilst all around you the policies of a repugnant Regent chip away at an already crumbling city. The hastily scrawled response from Dunwall’s lower orders is the anti-establishment graffiti that litters the slum districts. The aggressive etchings of its citizens may be a small touch, but it acts as a subtle means to emphasise the desperation of Dunwall’s dying class. It’s these minute details that bring this decaying metropolis to life. Everywhere you look there’s a new story to be found and a new facet of Dunwall’s culture to be unearthed.

Possibly the bluntest way that Dishonored achieves this is through a swathe of text. Books and notes litter Dunwall’s many alcoves, but what else would we come to expect from one bearing the mark of Bethesda? In many ways the stories they tell are irrelevant. Nobody needs to know the core rubrics of the Abbey of the Everyman and nobody needs to know the eating habits of the isle of Morley. But by virtue of telling these stories the world feels far larger than Corvo’s vendetta. Dunwall’s history, sociology and culture are laid out before you, and if you don’t care, then it’s easily ignored. When the lore occurs as an optional bonus for the committed then it doesn’t have to bloat the narrative by existing as spoken dialogue. Flavour text is an acquired taste, but for those looking to immerse themselves in Dunwall’s dank underbelly then each discarded tome is a must read.

Dunwall’s prolific authors may dump servings of backstory with admirable rigour but the details that really shine are subtle. It’s only when you stop to absorb them do you appreciate their value. Take the posters that fight a ceaseless war for space amidst the intruding graffiti. From an aesthetic standpoint they add a welcome dose of colour to an otherwise drab pallet, but beyond the visual rests a much deeper significance. Each seemingly insignificant detail - such as a local dog-fight or an advert for jellied eels - forms an energetic whole, injecting a tragic measure of life into Dunwall’s decrepit thoroughfares. It feels as if there was once a lot more to this withered burgh: An electric atmosphere that was sapped by rampaging disease, kept alive for the elite through the Gatsby-esque frivolities of the Boyle Estate. When contrasted against the heartrending reality of disease and brutal oppression we get a true sense of Dishonored’s grim (yet brilliant) tone; revealing a wonderfully crafted world built on a strong foundation of tiny details.

The magical gifts of the Outsider go a long way in aiding Corvo in his quest for vengeance, but one gift in particular has a power more potent than any other: the power to change the way you play the game. Rock Paper Shotgun’s Paul Walker describes the ‘Heart’ as a perfect symbol of Dishonored’s fascinating blend of enigmatic mysticism and post-industrial squalor. Stating that it’s ‘characterised by the intersection of the mystical and the technological, it distils the very essence of the pseudo-Victorian steampunk landscape in which Dishonored’s tale unfolds’. On the surface the Heart is a useful tool for tracking down occult trinkets, highlighting them on the HUD and beating fiercely as you zero in on their location, but beyond its practical application rests a compelling gateway into Dunwall’s hidden secrets.

Point the Heart at an object, person, or hulking mass of architecture and it responds with a succinct datum, ranging from inner turmoil to long quashed hopes and dreams. The secrets it whispers throughout Corvo’s journey inject life into characters you might otherwise have stolen it away from. They become more than just walking shells for Corvo to inhabit or eradicate on a sociopathic whim; they become people, walking products of the dank city that’s become their prison. Thanks to the Heart, the plight of the poor and the avarice of the elite are subtly highlighted, giving dark meaning to Dunwall’s unjust social structures.

Even literal structures can’t escape from the Heart’s omniscience. With it we learn of the deaths accrued in the construction of Kaldwin’s Bridge and of the watered-down wine in the Hound Pits Pub. With the insider knowledge the Heart grants the significant structures of Dunwall are bestowed with a history of their own. They have a place amidst the rats and the rubble. They feel a part of Dunwall, not just a convenient corner to disappear into the shadows.

Much like the other intricacies, the Heart and its secrets are completely optional. You could finish the game quite contented without ever using it; leaving it to stain whichever pocket Corvo stashes it in. Its role in the narrative may be a secondary one, but to ignore would be to dash through Dunwall with blinkers on. It illuminates aspects of the game that otherwise stay draped in darkness. It’s an old, trustworthy voice that disentangles the mysteries of an enigmatic city with secretive citizens, and in many ways is one of the only constants throughout Corvo’s journey. The Heart’s grim self-awareness and the relationship it shares with Corvo add a tragic layer that could be missed entirely if ignored. Towards the games closure I felt a strange attachment to the Heart. It had evolved into more than inventory item, it had become a companion.

When Corvo’s adventures came to an end I was sad to see the back of this enchanting city. Its rundown streets and complex history had gripped my imagination and I was eager to discover more. It’s a testament to the worlds creators that each carefully crafted detail can form a space I can’t wait to dive back into. If you’re planning a plunge into Dunwall yourself just remember these tips: take it slow, breath in the atmosphere, and always, always follow your Heart.   read

10:54 AM on 12.09.2012

Smashing up a Developer's Hard Work in Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers

I was a bit of a prick when I was a kid. If my brother slaved away at a monolithic Lego structure it eventually wound up smashed into piles of polychromatic rubble. The twisted glee found in sending those plastic bricks soaring across the living room eventually grew into something of an obsession. Destruction became the end-goal of everything I'd come to build: sandcastles, box-forts, card houses; smashing that shit into oblivion seemed well worth the painstaking effort of putting it all together.

Whilst playing through 'Tiny and Big: Grandpa's Leftovers' by Black Pants Studios, that long-dormant character trait seemed to resurface.

In Tiny and Big you play as Tiny, a safety-goggled humanoid looking to reclaim a pair of mystical underpants stolen by his nemesis, Big. It's not exactly on par with War and Peace but I wasn't there for the story; I was there to wreck stuff. Tiny comes equipped with a laser (for slicing), a rope & grappling hook (for pulling) and an inexhaustible supply of rockets (for propelling masonry through the air faster than my brother's Lego bricks). You'll be hard-pressed to find any part of a level that can't be hacked to pieces, and although linear paths to your goal often exist, there's little stopping you from crashing through the level like a laser-toting hurricane.

Each area presents a wonderfully crafted playground that must have taken months of arduous work to piece together. Mighty pillars stand proudly, tribal statues hang precariously over adorable mole-like creatures, and large aggregations of debris are held aloft by single shaky pillars; at every turn the game tempts you into destruction. The laser cuts with a satisfying slice, causing rubble to fall with a resounding THUD! The visceral thrill is only enhanced when the levels start fighting back. Once you've sliced and pulled an object it'll come tumbling down in your direction, leaving you no choice but to high-tail it to safety before you're crushed by your own hubris. The cinematic delight in slicing a boulder that's rocketing straight at you is hard to match, and before long you'll be chuckling to yourself at the thought of the cataclysm you've wrought.

Don't act too proudly, though, as often the environments get the last laugh. Swing that laser around too liberally and you may just slice apart the only ramp that leads out of the level. This is a unfortunate byproduct of the liberating openness that Tiny and Big offers, and thankfully, game-breaking situations are a rarity. The gods of Tiny and Big's physics engine are cruel deities, also, and if you haven't sacrificed their very specific breed of goat prior to booting up the game then they'll think little of throwing a vital piece of bridging into a yawning abyss.

Yet, for all the irritations I can't help but feel it's all worth it. The freedom of Tiny and Big doesn't come for free, but it's definitely worth the price.

Unlike my brother, mournfully staring at his destroyed Lego, I get the impression that this is exactly what Black Pants Studios wants me to do. They've given me the bull's reigns and left the keys to the china shop on the table with their back knowingly turned. It may only have clocked in at a few hours but for making me feel like a child again I can't help but praise it, and I urge you to give it a go. Just watch out for crumbling chunks of ruin, a few frustrating moments and a reawakened passion for fucking up Lego blocks.


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