The Beauty in Desolation - DARK SOULS III
DARK SOULS is a series about cycles and stagnation — the constant fading and relinking of the First Flame. After generations of this, people begin to lose hope and begin to realise that maybe the First Flame isn’t quite the salvation it seems.
The first game really begins to drive home the importance of the First Flame from the initial moments. The introductory cutscene showcases the sheer power and reverence of Lord Gwyn, along with the other Lords of Cinder, going straight into the Undead Asylum and seeing the Hollows. For at least the first few hours, very few people will even begin to consider any other options aside from relinking the flame; that's your purpose, and it wouldn’t make much sense to stray from that path. Doubt may begin to set in during moments, such as meetings with Kaathe, who wishes to enlist your help to avoid relinking the flame and bringing about an Age of Dark, yet this feels without a doubt like the morally evil thing to do; the world is seemingly coming to an end, and the few people with their sanity left are practically relying on you alone to save them and what's left of this world, or at least that’s what we’re led to believe. Gwyn, a being revered as a god who previously linked the fire, is seen as a hero, which is what we should strive to recreate. If you pay attention throughout the game, reading item descriptions and taking note of certain parts of the environmental storytelling, you’ll realise that Gwyn sacrificing himself to link the flame wasn’t a heroic sacrifice; it was a selfish attempt to stave off his all-encroaching fear of the Dark. Many believe this to be due to Gwyn’s fear of losing his power. As the fire fades, the “gods” will lose their strength, and humanity will rise to power.
DARK SOULS II takes place generations later, after the rise and fall of many kingdoms, and once again, the fire is beginning to fade, and you once again take the role of an Undead on the brink of Hollowing. Within the kingdom of Drangleic, King Vendrick himself has Hollowed, and the kingdom has begun to fall apart. While this was initially due to Nashandra, Vendrick’s queen. She was also an incarnation of one of the shards of Manus, a being from the Abyss wanting to claim the “Throne of Want” for herself to help bring the world to an Age of Dark. Once again, you’re given the option to either claim the Throne for yourself, essentially continuing the cycle, or abandoning it and ending the stagnation. Dialogue explains that Gwyn committed the “First Sin”: the linking of the flame, starting the undead curse, and that no matter what happens, the curse will continue. If we walk away, another will take our place.
DARK SOULS III begins, and we find out that the Lord of Cinder, entrusted to relink the flame, has refused, leading to many past lords being brought back to take his place. Despite this, only a single lord has decided to follow his fate and sit on his throne. One by one, we kill the lords, claiming their ashes and placing them atop the thrones to open the way to the First Flame. This begins to show the truth of the situation; you aren’t the only one who’s realised that maybe this cycle is the true end of the world and not the encroaching Age of Dark. The world itself feels tired of the cycle; locations, both new and old, are crumbling and falling apart. For example, Anor Londo, which was once the golden city of the gods, is a dark, miserable shell of its former self. The giant blacksmith from DARK SOULS is now dead in his old forge, along with an incredibly concerning influence from the Dark, with Aldrich and his followers roaming the halls. This extends even further and even more obviously to the Ringed City and the Dreg Heap, which exists at the end of the world. The Dreg Heap is a melting pot of previous areas all folding in on themselves. This extends directly to the ending of the Ringed City DLC, the most obvious instance of the Age of Fire coming to a close. This has you fighting one Slave Knight Gael, the only other undead left, who succumbs to his hollowing right there in the expanding depths of nothingness. This whole situation feels incredibly miserable, but there's a beautiful sense of finality, which is almost never felt anywhere else in the whole series, but here it really works. DARK SOULS III gives you the usual choices, but here, continuing the cycle almost feels wrong. Everyone in Lothric wants things to be over; the Lords of Cinder want nothing to do with the Age of Fire. During the fight with Prince Lothric, the Lord, who refused to link the fire specifically states “the fire linking curse, the legacy of lords, let it all fade into nothing”, knowing that there’s no benefit to continuing this further.
DARK SOULS III itself, when contextualised correctly, feels pointless. There’s no point fighting anymore; the world is ending. The more cycles that go by, the worse things get, and you finally have a chance to change things. Gwyn’s first linking of the flame was a selfish act driven by his own fear of the Dark. There’s nothing in the world that implies that the Dark is inherently evil, but Gwyn’s lone fear drove generations of people to fear it the same way he did. The finality of DARK SOULS III feels like it was made to be the end of the cycle, and while it still pushes the idea of the Fire being the driving force behind the world, it does a wonderful job of telling the player that maybe it’s not as good as it seems.