Time to reflect, with Dark Souls (Part 2)
I've already touched on Dark Souls' world, Lordran, in Part 1, and how it's one of the most fascinating worlds in videogames. Part of this is how interlinked everything appears, both in a literal sense, and with regards to the deliberately vague lore surrounding it. Every part of it feels saturated in mystery, with individual stories wordlessly told through the different areas; nodded and hinted at within the architecture and artefacts, building up Lordran's tale around you. More often than not, it's all left to speculation, where the more inquisitive players are rewarded with tantalising glimpses into the true nature of the place, but are never told the history in certain terms.
This approach to building a fictional world is pretty much the antithesis of something like Skyrim, where the fiction is often relayed to you directly, either through words or speech. Dark Souls meanwhile rewards the imagination and persistence of those with a genuine fascination in the lore, rather than a more casual curiosity. The desire to uncover its secrets builds throughout the game for those that it hooks, even though you are rarely, if ever, actually certain you truly understand those secrets. It feels as though the confidence and expertise with which the game has been designed is able to deliberately utilise the player's imagination in order to fill in the blanks, adding meaning to the world without ever ceasing to be mysterious. It's a similar notion behind the more gripping ghost stories: the monsters are scarier if you can't see them. In Dark Souls' case, this strange world is made all the more interesting by keeping its nature and history just out of plain sight.
There are two regions of the world that, for me, epitomise this perfectly. Both are positively dripping in this defining mystery, and are also both at once obviously, and obscurely, linked. I'm of course talking about Anor Londo, and New Londo Ruins.
The two Londos are two of the most spectacular looking places in the game, but for different reasons. As far as 'moments' go, the first time I saw each of them resonated with me like few other gaming moments have come close to. First comes Anor Londo. By the time you reach this lofty place, you've undoubtedly invested heavily into Dark Souls in terms of time and effort. You've already seen and overcome Blighttown and Sen's Fortress, and you've already conquered the gargoyles, hell's impersonation of Spider-Woman, and that most Freudian of sewer-dragons. As such, you may have started to think you've seen much of what Dark Souls has to offer in terms of spectacle. Then you get carried up on the wings of gargoyles, and realise how wrong you were. It's one of the most jaw-dropping reveals I've witnessed in a game, for reasons twofold.
Firstly, the artistry of the city is just downright magnificent. It's very rare that a game area's sheer beauty can cause you to stop what you're doing just to admire it. That is literally what I did the first time I saw it though: I just stopped. I put down the controller and gawped like a simpleton at it. Secondly, it's a completely unexpected sight, given what you've experienced up until that point. Prior to Anor Londo, the environments of Lordran have often been confined, imposing, and at times, claustrophobic. You were offered teasing peaks of the paths and places further along, but here, the entire city is laid out at your feet for you to wonder at, like a wonderful visual reward for making it so far. And of course, it being Dark Souls, it is not only a marvellous sight, but marvellously intimidating. You just know that something this incredible to look at has some incredibly nasty surprises hiding within its grandiose architecture. And unsurprisingly that sense is soon vindicated, and attests to the sheer amount of talent the level designers have in terms of evoking a sense of dread in the player, even when the designs are more beautiful than grotesque.
In stark contrast to the extravagance of Anor Londo, is New Londo Ruins. Unlike Anor, you can visit New Londo as soon as the main thrust of the game starts. Having started playing Dark Souls some time after its release, I'd heard whispers of New Londo from those who had already finished the game. They told of unspeakable perils that were actually speakable, because they spoke them. Still, drama. And the point is, before I descended into the depths of New Londo near the start of my game, I knew that I wasn't meant to actually tackle this infamous place until much later on. So it was with mounting trepidation that I set foot off the elevator, and through the gate. 'Boom,' went the signal that I had entered a new area, and before me stretched out New Londo Ruins.
Suddenly, that trepidation I had felt exploded into outright fear, which is an emotion that a game had failed to evoke in me for a very long time. Certainly not since I was a kid playing Turok 2, and trying to overcome my intense arachnophobia to get through the second level. A tunnel of spiders, are you fucking kidding me? You see, whereas Anor Londo takes your breath away with its scale and beauty, New Londo makes you stop dead by its intense sense of foreboding. Again, ostensibly the entirety of it is immediately visible; dark, ominous, almost luminous in its presence, and it is again a lesson to all designers in how to create atmosphere through spectacle and artistry alone. Around you, minor enemies themselves appear to have become deranged, and don't even acknowledge you. You are in no doubt: this is Dark Souls' horror story, and it can't wait to tell it to you.
However, while in Anor Londo, you are climbing up towards the sun for your prize, in New Londo, you must descend as far as you can conceive. I've spoken before of how verticality is a key theme in Dark Souls, and here that is again emphasised. Smough and Ornstein wait for you in the palace on top of the world; the Four Kings meanwhile lurk in its deepest, darkest depths. This is hell as envisioned by From Software. An empty, black nothingness with only those who reign over it for company. Music again has a role to play. Here it's as deep, dark and twisted as the terrifying place you've found yourself trapped in, with only death or victory to liberate you.
Heaven and hell. That's perhaps the most obvious analogy for the two Londos. But there's another, final theme to consider. Illusion. The setting sun that adorns Anor Londo with that brilliant glow is actually nothing but illusion, and the city is in fact just as dark and dead a place as New Londo. A tomb preserved in a living death, by an inability to let go of the past. Here, you're told lies dressed in absurd beauty. In New Londo, you have the chance to learn a darker, but perhaps truer alternative, if you have the foresight to see through the fabrication you've been sold. The horror story in fact contains the real story. In this you have the most obvious, yet subtly delivered metaphor for the true nature of Lordran itself, and your quest. Do you maintain the illusion of light for the benefit of perpetual fantasy? Or do you accept the darkness that actually presides over the world beneath the veneer of insipid beauty, and free it from the purgatory that it suffers in? Anor Londo or New Londo? If you choose darkness, the true nature of the world reveals itself. Choose light, and you maintain the illusion of heaven and hell, but doom the world to remain in its living death.
The two Londos: places of stark contrasts, subtle connections, and unforgettable moments.
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