While the pandemic has uniquely affected each of us, a sentiment I’ve often seen expressed and felt myself is that the longer this goes on, the more time itself has broken. Trapped indoors and lacking any meaningful frame of reference for my life, the last year has increasingly blurred together into a vague haze, time somehow simultaneously both stretching and compressing itself. Things that seemed important only weeks past feel like they happened lifetimes ago. In the meantime it has become harder and harder to remember a time when things were, if not good, at least less awful, when my government didn’t abdicate responsibility while over a thousand people died every single day.
Dark Souls II asks a simple question: in the midst of disaster and cataclysmic collapse, what if there were no before-times to look back to, no vision or memory of a time where the world fitted together and made some sense? What if there is only the now, a chaotic present, where undead walk the shattered lands they once inhabited, stripped of their memories, purpose and self, reduced only to expressions of violence or mindless repetition of their forgotten lives?
The curse of the undead the player is burdened with means that each and every time you die, you are brought back against your will. You are forced over and over again to be reconstituted into a hostile land with no respite, never truly understanding why you’re doing what you’re doing. Each time you die, a little more of yourself falls away. In visual terms, you lose pieces of yourself each time you die, your skin cracking, turning green and slowly rotting away as you succumb to the curse. Simultaneously your maximum health is chipped away, a small but insidiously hostile loop to match your visual decay. The small upside is that this is reversible, but only temporarily. Human effigies, a crude wicker representation of a person, allow you to temporarily push back your memory loss, projecting and reinforcing your self-image onto the effigy.
In the game’s most desperately sad series of encounters, you meet Lucatiel. As with all the other characters, she crosses your path seemingly at random, unbound from any temporal relation to your own journey. With each meeting, she seems to have lost a little more of herself. Piece by piece her memories, her sense of purpose and self are unwillingly torn from her until she barely recognises you. In the end she simply asks you to remember her name. There is no death or body after that, no descent into violent mindlessness, simply an absence. You never encounter her again. This is your fate and the fate of everyone you will ever meet, a slow fade into oblivion.
I haven’t seen my siblings or friends in person for over a year, but a great source of comfort has been the online interactions we’ve been able to share. As ephemeral and lacking as these can feel compared to in person meetings, I shudder to think what life would’ve been without those fragile but incredibly meaningful interactions. They have kept me alive in these times, a reminder that the world is larger than just the inside of these tiny rooms.
Similarly a small bright spot in the game is the coastal town of Majula. Set to the tones of a celeste and captured in the light of the dying sun, it’s one of the few genuinely peaceful locations in the game. You return here over and over through your journey, gradually filling it with some of the travellers you meet. Like you, they’ve been drawn into the ruined kingdom and are gradually losing themselves. The blacksmith’s daughter tragically settles in front of her father’s shop, forgetting that she even has a connection to the man ten feet away. Limited as these characters are, they’re a welcome reminder that there are signs of life, humanity and genuine connection even in the crumbling world of Drangleic.
In the end, Dark Souls II feels like impotent cry: an expression of rage and fear against an incomprehensible and unchangeable world. It finds some solace in its smaller moments, but sees us all trapped by events larger than ourselves, doomed by fading memory to a slow and wearisome decline. I’d like to say that I entirely reject Dark Souls II’s brand of nihilism in favour of more positive vision, there’s enough doomerism in the world, especially online, that does no good, but I can’t deny that the melancholic mood and malaise resonated surprisingly deeply.
“I've found my thoughts growing hazy.
My memories are fading, oldest first.
The curse is doing its work upon me.
I am frightened…Terribly so…”