Lore in the Ruins: The Soulsbourne Games

Sword wrought from the remains of a god who should have lived a life eternal.

Thoughts on what the weapon portends are many and varied. Some consider it the mark of a great sin, or a sign of great devastation. Some think of it as the end of an age, while others; the beginning.

- English-language item description for the "Sacred Relic Sword" in Elden Ring

Those who have never played a “Soulsbourne” video game, which refers to the video games created at FromSoft (primarily under the direction of creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki) that build on the formula and stylistic approacg introduced by Dark Souls, may be mystified by the forthcoming Abyssal Archive, an illustrated, elaborate text of over five hundred pages that exists to document and interpret the lore of Dark Souls. This elaborate work of textual criticism is the passion project of “Souls scholar” Lokey, whose devotion to the world of the FromSoft games is not an isolated phenomenon, as the view counts on the countless videos from online creators such as VaatiVidya, SinclairLore, SmoughTown, Aesir Aesthetics, and others testify.

No games inspire such intensely textual focus and devotion as the Soulsbourne games. The games almost uniformly embody the same, unique approach to storytelling. Narrative detail is embedded into visual design and catalogs of item descriptions and cryptic dialogue exchanges. To understand the story of a game like Dark Souls, or its most recent successor, Elden Ring, is very much like solving a puzzle. You must reconcile texts to one another, using the design of the world to form connective tissue between the fragments.

The vibrant, passionate community that has formed to pour over the texts of these games approaches the task with the rigor and fervor of rabbinical scholars studying the Talmud. Every word is significant. Inconsistencies between patched versions of the games are scrutinized. Discrepancies in translation and various localizations are hotly debated. Datamined cut content from the game functions like non-canonical epistles, both illuminating and obscuring the final, canonical text.

Indeed, the lore of the FromSoft games is profoundly satisfying precisely because it is left partially incomplete; it forms a clear shape and then tasks its audience with filling in the outline. Understanding the world and characters of a games like Dark Souls and Bloodborn and Elden Ring is a collaborative and creative experience; it is a game unto itself.

This exercise proves satisfying because the games are, at their best, thematically provocative. Dark Souls portrays a universe that is continually stuck in cycles of artificial rebirth, the product of warring powers that resist or invite apocalyptic change. It may broadly be seen as an exploration of stagnation versus movement, an underlying theme in the entirety of the Soulsbourne canon. To resist change is to invite rot and decay. You enable flourishing by accepting impermanence.

The much-celebrated Elden Ring directly extends from Dark Souls, though where Dark Souls focused on the broadly death existential anxieties of survival, Elden Ring (which, in its early stages, was informed by some worldbuilding by George R.R. Martin) explores this through a world divided in ideology and race. Elden Ring suggests that religious and political orders (in Elden Ring, as in much of human history, religion and politics are indistinguishable) can only survive through flexibility, perpetually finding new forms of harmonization.

At the heart of Elden Ring‘s history is the enigmatic goddess, Marika, who is, among other things, a ruthless conqueror, a religious figuredhead, and the vassal of a cosmic, alien deity known as the Greater Will.

Exemplifying the kind of cryptic mythology that runs through the FromSoft games, Marika, in a nod to the alchemical Rebis, is One and also Two. Unbeknownst to the world of Elden Ring, she shares a body with with her male consort, Radagon. The game is explicit on this point but is willfully obtuse in regards to the nature of their relationship, and even as to precisely when they merged into one being. Nevertheless, the suggestion seems to be that if they were ever united in purpose, Radagon and Marika ended up at odds with one another over a fundamentally religious difference (Radagon turned into a fanatic, Marika turned into a heretic), and now they are dormant husks and the world is caught in the resulting stalemate.

The entire game maddeningly teases you with a world of oppositions and doubled personages, each of which, in turn, reveal themselves to be illusory or arbitrary. The appeal in piecing it all together lies in the concrete, peculiar detail that so often suggests greater stories, such as seemingly major players that are only mentioned a handful of times in item descriptions (the endless community churn around the nature of the “Gloam-Eyed Queen” has yet to yield any kind of consensus). It’s a bit like piecing together The Silmarillion if had been separated into five-sentence fragments, and four-fifths of those fragments had gone missing.

That probably sounds painfully academic. It’s not, in no small part because the games are incredibly fun to play, with detailed, thoughtfully constructed worlds that are a pleasure to inhabit. It’s one thing to read about a demigod who merged with an ancient serpent in the hopes that he might devour the world. It’s another thing entirely to actually engage that serpent-consumed demigod, beautifully rendered in all his terrifying glory, in virtual combat.

Indeed, FromSoft’s gameworlds often invite the same kind of collaborative exploration that its lore does: just go a little further, dig a little deeper, and you might find something special. This is why the sprawling, dense world of Elden Ring is perhaps the apotheosis of FromSoft’s Soulsbourne series: even after hundreds of hours of gameplay, there’s still more to discover.

Having given it its due, I must conclude by noting that for all of Elden Ring‘s magnificence, my heart belongs to the smaller, more focused mythos of Bloodborne, FromSoft’s quasi-Lovecraftian universe. In Bloodborne‘s mythos, to transcend human existence and become a Great One is to reach the top of the evolutionary ladder and find oneself alone. Bloodborne‘s Great Ones cannot successfully procreate and so they hunger for surrogate children. A universe in which such a pitiable desire is the driving force of an entire cosmic history is a universe I would like to ponder.

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