Artorias of the Abyss Review (final)
This is the end of my coverage of Dark Souls. It’s been 4000 words of blogging about one game, and I need to wrap it up!
Now, for the most part, my talking about Dark Souls has been almost entirely praise. Its narrative is uniquely video game, and I respect that. I think you should choose the best format to tell your story, and most video games try to have a narrative better suited for film or the novel. My praise for Dark Souls’s experimentations with story-telling in the video game format is unwavering.
But today, we’re talking about some of the elements in Dark Souls I find disappointing.
for its various attempts at a uniquely video game narrative. To summarize: Dark Souls at the least should be commended for truly experimenting with how a narrative world can play, be susceptible to play, and encourage a lively deconstruction-and-reconstruction dynamic with its players. By leaving most of the narrative world incomplete, Dark Souls encourages players to hypothesize and join in on the meaning-creation process to a far greater extent than novels or films do. This makes sense: the narrative is interactive, and so should meaning and its world.
Today, however, we discuss the limitations of this model. Let this limit be stated plainly: such narratives run a risk of failing to meet expectations built up in the natural play of the world, as the player heads towards the conclusion.If I, the player, invest meaning into certain elements of the world (for example, if I invest meaning in the primordial serpents, and interpret the information given to suggest their position as the true orchestrators of the Ages) I will be disappointed if the conclusion doesn’t confirm my reading. Yet, if my world offers plenty of free play, I can’t confirm any one reading in my ending.
To be playful, my world must be incomplete. To end the narrative, however, I must chose a finale that inherently places emphasis on some elements, while de-emphasizing others by exclusion. Thus, at least some importance gets imbued and forced on the world constituents, and the results of my play feel hollow as a result. Can a game have an archeological narrative, as Dark Souls does, and end? I do not think it can happen satisfyingly, to be honest. I hope someone proves me wrong.
Artorias is the perfect personification of this issue. Let us recount the information we learn about Artorias over the course of the game, quoting the Dark Souls Wiki:
ir Knight Artorias was one of the four Knights of Gywn, the commanding knights of Lord Gywn’s army. Artorias had an unbendable will of steel, which both helped and fed into his hatred for dark servants, the Darkwraiths of Kaathe in particular. Artorias was unmatched with a greatsword, which was why Lord Gywn had the Wolf Ring made to help further his skill with one. When in New Londo, Artorias discovered the ability of abysswalking, which gave him the name Artorias the Abysswalker and allowed him to enter the home of the Darkwraiths and the Four Kings themselves. At some not specified time in the past, when Oolacile was attacked by the Abyss, Artorias traveled to Oolacile to rescue Princess Dusk of Oolacile.
Artorias, deeply marked by the Abyss (after realizing he was losing against the Abyss), gave his shield which served as a magic aura, to protect his loyal battle-companion, Sif The Great Wolf, (which was very small at the time, compared to the time the player faces him in the present) from the Abyss. Then he was defeated by the Abyss and became Artorias of the Abyss. After that, an unknown hero (the player), who traveled to the past, killed Artorias, releasing him from his wretched state. This helped keep his honor intact, because no one would ever know what really happened to Artorias; he was instead believed to died while facing the Abyss, instead of being defeated and corrupted to fulfill the Abyss’s goals. Then the hero killed the dark creatures of the Abyss and saved Sif, who was being held captive (protected by the magic aura of Artorias’ Shield but unable to escape) by them. This way the player can acquire the Cleansing Greatshield.
Artorias is highlighted as an important figure throughout the plot of the game. In order to compete the New Londo portion of the game – which has been a looming, difficult place accessible to the player from the beginning and therefore continuously reinforced as a looming presence – the player must loot Artorias’s Tomb, and defeat the Great Wolf Sif. This knight Artorias, one of God’s chosen servants (Lord Gwyn), walked into the Abyss where all humans immediately die (possibly due to the influx of humanity) and attempted to defeat the Kings of Londo. But instead, he fell, and became a servant of the Abyss, corrupted. The player is the one who killed him, allowing his fall to darkness to be perpetuated as myth.
That’s all well-and-good, but when the player actually faces Artorias… it’s a simple boss-fight and then its over. Orstein and Smough had more build-up, and a far more satisfying come-down. Artorias essentially serves an example of a living man who walked the same treacherous path as the player – and by his failures, you see where your undead nature gives you advantages. Artorias is the living comparison to yourself, from which you build your own understanding of undeath’s superiority or inferiority compared to actual living. And he dies to quickly? It would be out-of-style to emphasize his death, but because the player who engages with the Lore will obviously have invested him with so much meaning before meeting him… his meeting feels underwhelming and hollow. He is, after-all, at least 40+ hours into the game. He is the name we’ve seen repeated again and again, and heard multiple times. It should carry far more weight when we learn we are his murderer… but it can’t be given that weight, because it breaks the game’s archeological nature. This is the weakness of the style.
Still, though, could he not have at least dropped a unique humanity? Truly, beyond souls (which demons, lords, undead and more all seem to have), the living humans who aren’t undead should have some unique property that could be dropped through his death? A unique humanity that could not be consumed, but only given to Kaathe/Frampt would’ve been an in-style way of giving organic information with the fight. A humanity that the primordial serpents could consume, for they are older than it. But as an undead, this humanity is older than us and beyond our grasp.
Why do the human bosses and characters not drop unique humanity, in general? There are several humans around the world who aren’t undead. A missed opportunity to add more archeology, but the problem would’ve been the same: when any thread ends in this style of narrative, it will feel unsatisfying by nature.