The ‘Souls games can be unrelenting, brutal and dark; true tests of mental willpower, emotional fortitude and grim resolve. Whilst playing, the majority of the time you’ll likely be inching your way through labyrinthine dungeons, shield raised in front of your face, awaiting the next lovecraftian horror to whip out a twisted limb from the darkness and send you to another early grave. Yet each game in the series has also contained at least one area of melancholic beauty, a place to rest your weary head, to catch your breath, to find some modicum of peace; a “happy” place. These areas are often referred to as ‘hubs’ by the gaming press, distinct areas of the game world, which are often the central connection through which you return over-and-over again in order to level-up and prepare yourself for the next stage of your journey. But the association of these areas within the player runs deeper still, and over the many hours invested in these games, these “happy” places become something cherished and something warm to look forward to. Maybe it’s the juxtaposition of these places with the larger outside world, where everything is dangerous and out to kill you, which causes such deep feelings of comfort to come from returning here.
It all started with the Nexus in Demon’s Souls. This is a place where lost souls congregate, their life-force bound to the black marble temple, never to escape the endless cycle of death and rebirth as they throw themselves into another hopeless quest. Sitting on the steps to greet you here is the Crestfallen Warrior, a spectre of a broken man, a phantom, who has given up on any idea of noble crusades to save the world and who awaits his eventual demise. This is a recurring character in the ‘Souls games (although absent from Bloodborne) who you’ll find in these areas of sanctuary and who offers you some “friendly” advice; usually trying to dissuade you from playing the game at all, but eventually giving you some progression hints once you’ve hassled him enough. In his first two appearances he also eventually meets his end: by fading away and dropping his soul in Demon’s Souls, and by going insane in New Londo in Dark Souls, forcing you to put him out of his misery. The Crestfallen warrior is not the only character to congregate within the Nexus and many other faces, both friendly and sinister, eventually end up populating its melancholy halls. There is even a power struggle in Demon’s Souls when a certain character, freed from confinement in the Tower of Latria, decides to kill off the other residents one-by-one, forcing you to stop him before he kills Thomas, the guy who looks after your whole damn inventory.
Dark Souls carried on the tradition of the “happy place” with Firelink Shrine, which unlike the Nexus was not actually a separate area, but is sort of a crossroads in the larger interconnected open world. This place also has its fair share of murderous drama, as once again a previously imprisoned character takes it upon himself to smite the fire keeper, causing the bonfire to go out and Firelink to be useless for a while. These recurring characters create linking themes between the previous game and its spiritual successor, but they also help to make these sanctuaries living, breathing, spaces and not just a brief moment of pause. Another thing that the two sanctuaries have in common is the haunting music, which is both soothing and serene, but also incredibly moody and ‘lonely’, despite the growing cast of characters throughout the game. The Nexus used a very simple recurring motif, broken by long pauses of silence, which became a melody of rest and recuperation during the hours of your nightmare adventure. Even now when I hear that tune it brings me comfort. Firelink Shrine has a much more beautiful and swelling orchestral score, which better reflects its important position both in the crux of the narrative and as the centre point of a sprawling fantasy world. The fact that Firelink’s music can be heard softly in the distance and intensifies as you approach was a lovely touch, adding to the ethereal nature of the place.
Majula is Dark Souls II’s sanctuary space, a sun-soaked section of beautiful coastline, the sound of waves crashing against the rocks below you adding to the sense of serenity and calm. Majula has an almost meditative effect on the player, with its twinkling music and wide open vistas, it really is a wondrous sight when you first break out of the dark caves and are blinded by the sunlight. I would love to visit there. Similar to the first two games, various characters congregate here, who will provide you services and drop hints of story if you speak with them. It is also here where you’ll find an amalgamation of the first two games levelling system as there is both a bonfire, used for fast travel from this pseudo-hub, and a lonely female character called the Emerald Herald. This character is a thematic throwback to Demon’s Souls’s Candle Maiden, in that she is an enigmatic and powerful figure who seems isolated and detached from the other characters; there to serve the player she provides the service of increasing your stats as well as some important dialogue to further the plot of the game. This “lonely female figure” is once again revisited in Bloodborne’s sanctuary area, and The Doll is often the only character inhabiting the Hunters Dream.
Bloodborne’s Hunters Dream is a strange place, and quite different from the other “happy places” in that it is usually devoid of any other characters, usually just the Doll and occasionally the old hunter in the workshop at the top. It is a detached area, like the Nexus in Demon’s Souls, and once again acts as a disassociated hub from which you warp to other areas using gravestones (similar to the Archstones in the Nexus). Once again there is hauntingly beautiful music, closest in style to Firelink Shrine, and a serene calm to the place. It’s also frightfully lonely and melancholy with the only beings to interact with being the Doll or the little spectres that live in the various baths scattered about the place. As I write this, I’ve not finished Bloodborne yet, I’m taking my time and exploring all optional areas and chalice dungeons, and the Hunters Dream is already becoming a safe familiar place in my psyche. The music, the lighting, the moody atmosphere, suits this game perfectly and provides the ideal “happy place” for such a twisted and nightmarish game. The soft focus moonlight flittering through the gnarled trees and the strange pillars in the mist surrounding the place make it actually feel like a dream, and I cling on to each moment I spend here before I have to tear myself away and dive back into the chaos once again.
I don’t know what the future holds for the ‘Souls series, whether there will be a third Dark Souls game, or more spiritual successors to Demon’s Souls, but I can’t wait to visit more of these beautiful areas and have my anxiety, fears and nerves calmed once more. If you have enjoyed this article why not read more from my “Month of ‘Souls” by visiting one of my other blog posts over April, such as my round up for all previous ‘Souls games before Bloodborne. Please check back for more articles and features regarding From Software’s seminal videogame series.