Dark Souls is a game known for its punishing level of difficulty, and not its gripping story. But that's not to say From Software doesn't have one to tell; the developer has lovingly woven a narrative that's appropriately dark and definitely depressing.
The following is an excerpt from You Died: The Dark Souls Companion, a book about Dark Souls and the delightfully mad people who play it by Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth. It's currently available in paperback (worldwide shipping), or on Amazon or iBooks as an eBook.
I remember sitting with a friend over some beers, trying to do what every single Dark Souls player has done at some point: persuade the uninitiated that it’s the best game of the past decade. Well, this particular friend wasn’t entirely uninitiated. He’d gotten as far as the Taurus Demon before stopping. "It’s just not my kind of thing," he told me. "I like games with a good story."
Naturally this vexed me, not just because I am afflicted (like most Souls fans I know) with a mania for converting people, but because Dark Souls has an amazing story, one of the best, most intriguing, most complex, most intellectually involving stories in all of video games. It just does everything it can to hide it from you.
It is totally possible to play through Dark Souls in its entirety and have no idea what actually happened. There is no shame in this. Dark Souls’ story took months – even years – to fully uncover. It required careful excavation. This is because enjoying Dark Souls’ story is not a passive experience; it’s not told to you. Instead you have to find it. You have to hunt for hints in item descriptions, in the sparse snippets of dialogue, in your surroundings, in the forms and lairs and implied histories of the bosses you encounter, in the game’s one and only narrative cutscene (the prologue). And it’s been a collective effort: Dark Souls’ story has been uncovered over the course of years by thousands of individual players, each contributing their own observations, deductions and – of course – wild conjecture.
Even years down the line, there are still parts of Dark Souls’ story that we can’t decipher. The Artorias of the Abyss storyline answered some of the lingering mysteries about what on earth happened in Lordran’s past, but many remain. Plenty of things are still debated – for instance, the true identity of the Furtive Pygmy, a character mentioned only once, in the game’s prologue. (The prevailing theory is that he and Manus – the antagonist of the Artorias of the Abyss portion of the story – are one and the same, but as with most things in Dark Souls, this isn’t absolutely certain.) Many of the accepted conclusions about the backstories of Lordran and its inhabitants are essentially received wisdom; there’s good evidence, but we cannot know for sure.
What follows is a guide to what actually happened in Dark Souls, to either refresh your memory or fill you in. More detailed explorations of each individual character follow in the next chapter.
In the Age of Ancients,
The world was unformed, shrouded by fog
A land of grey crags, archtrees, and everlasting dragons
But then there was Fire
And with Fire came Disparity. Heat and cold, life and death, and of course... Light and Dark.
Then, from the Dark, They came
And found the Souls of Lords within the flame.
Nito, the first of the dead
The Witch of Izalith, and her daughters of chaos
Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and his faithful knights
And the furtive pygmy, so easily forgotten
With the Strength of Lords, they challenged the dragons.
Gwyn's mighty bolts peeled apart their stone scales
The witches weaved great firestorms
Nito unleashed a miasma of death and disease
And Seath the Scaleless betrayed his own, and the dragons were no more
Thus began the Age of Fire
But soon, the flames will fade, and only Dark will remain
Even now, there are only embers, and man sees not light, but only endless nights
And amongst the living are seen, carriers of the accursed Darksign.
-Prologue, Dark Souls
In the beginning of the world, there was no fire, and therefore no life, except for the immortal dragons who lived amongst the Archtrees. But then, suddenly, fire came into the world in a place that would later be known as the Kiln of the First Flame. With it, four powerful Lord Souls came into existence and were claimed by four different beings: Nito, the Witch of Izalith, Gwyn and the furtive pygmy (the most mysterious of the four, and the progenitor of humans – we’ll go into that later). The souls gave the four of them great power; they became something close to deities.
And with that, he dies
Emboldened by the power of the Lord Souls, Gwyn decided to go to war. There raged a great battle, with Gwyn leading the Witch of Izalith and Nito against the dragons. Seath the Scaleless – one of the dragons, born without scales and therefore mortal – joined the Lords and helped to defeat his brethren, thus ushering in the Age of Fire. The Age of Fire seems to be as good as life has ever gotten in Lordran; a long age of prosperity ensued, and other lands sprung up around the kingdom. Lord Gwyn made his home in Anor Londo, and ruled from there.
After that, things start to get murky. Decades, centuries, possibly millennia have passed, and the fire of the First Flame is fading. In the Lordran we know, time is distorted. Demons are everywhere. Every human in Lordran is slowly dying or – worse – turning Hollow. Many theories exist concerning what happened between then and now, but the thrust of it is that darkness and death have nearly completely overtaken Lordran, despite some desperate attempts from Gwyn and the Witch of Izalith to preserve or rekindle the First Flame. A curse, the Darksign, condemns humans to an eternity of death and rebirth, but with each death they lose something of themselves and gradually become Hollow, turning insane and violent. The balance of light and dark, death and life has been disrupted by this curse. And that is where you come in.
As one of the cursed Undead, you’ve been incarcerated in the Asylum with your Hollowed brethren. It’s not clear how long you’ve been there; quite probably, hundreds of years. You are suddenly rescued by Oscar, Knight of Astora, who pushes a corpse down into your cell, bearing a key that will secure your escape. Oscar, like you, is Undead, and close to going Hollow – so he selects you to continue his pilgrimage. He tells you about the legend of the Chosen Undead, a tale passed down through his family:
…Thou who art Undead, art chosen… …In thine exodus from the Undead Asylum, maketh pilgrimage to the land of Ancient Lords… …When thou ringeth the Bell of Awakening, the fate of the Undead thou shalt know.
And with that, he dies, and it’s up to you to inherit the quest he was unable to complete himself. Incidentally, if you come back to the Undead Asylum later in the game, you’ll see him again – but he’s gone Hollow, and attacks you on sight.
You make your way through the asylum, encountering the guardian who probably finished off Oscar – the Asylum Demon. After one or two (or five, or twenty) deaths, you manage to defeat it and escape. You are whisked away to Lordran – the Land of the Ancient Lords – by a giant crow and deposited at Firelink Shrine.
So there you are: a cursed Undead with a distinction, possibly the only one to ever escape the Undead Asylum, given no more direction than "ring the bells". One bell is up at the top of the Undead Burg, guarded by the Belfry Gargoyles. The other, deep in the bowels of the earth, lies beyond Chaos Witch Quelaag.
After you’ve rung both bells, and encountered many more interesting and horrifying things along the way, there’s a bit of a shock waiting for you back at Firelink: Kingseeker Frampt, a primordial serpent who has presumably been around since before even the Age of Fire. Frampt offers you more guidance: seek Anor Londo, find a powerful artefact called the Lordvessel, and succeed Lord Gwyn as the next Great Lord. (He doesn’t tell you what this actually means, of course. You won’t find that out until the end.)
Once you return with the Lordvessel, after suffering through Sen’s Fortress and Ornstein and bloody Smough, he tells you to fill it with powerful souls to unlock the way to Gwyn’s resting place. From there you head off to find and defeat the Witch of Izalith, Gravelord Nito, the Four Kings, and Seath the Scaleless, feeding their souls to the Lordvessel. Eventually, you gain passage to the Kiln of the First Flame, where Gwyn awaits, surrounded by the ashes of his army.
You must fight this husk of a once-proud deity, who has been trapped for a thousand years in this ashen prison, fallen from the Lord of Sunlight to the Lord of Cinder. Once he’s dead, you can take his place in the Kiln, lighting the bonfire and sacrificing your body and soul to prolong the Age of Fire. Hooray?
There’s another way, though. A way that most Dark Souls players will never have encountered.
There’s another primordial serpent whom you might meet, you see: Darkstalker Kaathe. His aims are very different to Frampt’s. He wishes for you to defeat Gwyn and usher in the Age of Darkness, and is also the source of most of the concrete information about humans in Dark Souls. But you’ll only encounter him if you neglect to place the Lordvessel at Frampt’s request, and go on to defeat the Four Kings, meeting the serpent in the Abyss. Most players will never meet Kaathe, but he is crucial to understanding Dark Souls’ ending, and he provides the only concrete information on the origins of humanity and the mysterious fourth Lord Soul: the Dark Soul, the one claimed by the Furtive Pygmy right at the story’s outset.
Kaathe paints Gwyn as a selfish, deluded deity who tried to subvert the course of nature by prolonging the Age of Fire. He tells you that the Age of Darkness is the age of man, a new era. If you walk away from the bonfire in the Kiln of the First Flame after defeating Gwyn, as Kaathe implores, the fire will die and the Age of Dark will begin. Instead of replacing Gwyn, you become his antithesis: the Dark Lord.
What happens after you either sacrifice yourself or walk away? Perhaps prolonging the Age of Fire is futile; we’ve already seen how far Lordran has fallen, and you’ve already killed most of what was left there. The whole game was, structurally, a way to dupe you into taking Gwyn’s place. But will Lordran stay in a state of suspended animation, as you slowly burn in the Kiln of the First Flame? And if you walk away and become the Dark Lord, do you become the liege of humanity, shepherding its ragged, disparate remnants and creating a kingdom of your own? Or does everything end up enveloped in darkness, leaving you the Lord of nothing? We can’t know. As with so much of Dark Souls, the beauty is in the ambiguity.
The supplementary narrative running through the Artorias of the Abyss content, however, set several hundred years prior to the events of Dark Souls’ Lordran quest, sheds more light on what happened to cause the spread of the dark in Lordran, as well as the thematic connection between humanity, darkness, souls and fire.
The Kingdom of Oolacile – which you visit once you’re sucked through a portal down in the Darkroot Basin – provides a clue as to how inhabiting the Age of Darkness impacts one’s quality of life. The local township’s inhabitants aren’t exactly feeling tip-top. Seduced by a serpent (probably Kaathe, who really does seem to get around), the inhabitants of Oolacile were duped into disturbing the grave of the ‘primeval human’ in search of the fourth Lord Soul: the Dark Soul, claimed by the Furtive Pygmy way back at the beginning of the story, when the First Flame came into being. The results were very, very bad indeed. They ended up unleashing the Abyss.
Anyone who comes into contact with the Abyss is kinda screwed
So, what is the Abyss? It is the embodiment of Dark, the opposite of the First Flame. It’s a formless subterranean void. How did it come to be? It was spawned by a malformed creature called Manus, the Father of the Abyss, the primeval human whose remains the sorcerers of Oolacile disturb. He may or may not have once been the Furtive Pgymy. His rage at being awakened ended up spawning the Abyss, which may be formless but it wouldn’t stay empty for long. It became a kind of limbo-like domain for those who’d succumbed to the Dark.
Anyone who comes into contact with the Abyss is kinda screwed. Like the theoretical two-headed trout spawning in the pond next to a nuclear power plant indulging questionable waste-disposal practices, the appearance of the Abyss causes a blight to seep into the local populous. That’s why Oolacile is in such dismal shape.
News of the plight of Oolacile eventually reaches Gwyn and the other lords up in Lordran, who are already scared shitless of the encroaching Dark by this point. Sir Artorias, one of Gwyn’s most trusted knights, heads off on a rescue mission, after Manus abducts a member of Oolacile’s royal family, Princess Dusk (tellingly, the concept of dusk refers to the gradual transition from light to darkness, which is precisely what Oolacile’s fall embodies).
Dark Souls ain’t no happy-clappy fairy tale. The noble Artorias became the first outsider capable of traversing the Abyss through the use of an enchanted ring, but even he couldn’t hold up under it indefinitely. While hunting Manus in hopes of freeing Princess Dusk, he and his close companion, the grey wolf Sif, are overwhelmed. Artorias uses his Cleansing Greatshield to create a magical barrier around Sif, sparing his young comrade, but he himself becomes irreparably touched by the Abyss, going mad and hunkering down in Oolacile’s colosseum. That is where the Chosen Undead finds him and puts a violent end to Artorias’ equally violent suffering.
The lesson is clear: even men of Artorias’ exalted stature have reason to fear the dark. But if Princess Dusk can revive from her slumber after being rescued from Manus, maybe there’s a way to retrace one’s steps back to the light. The Broken Pendant, a modest possession which Manus sought to recover with the ardency of Tolkien’s Gollum clawing about for his misplaced precious, is described in the game as having "a distinct air consisting of both reverence and nostalgia". Maybe the Broken Pendant represents Manus’ nostalgia for the light, a memory of warmth that’s so easy to forget in the nearly pitch-black Chasm of the Abyss.