Framing Drangleic I: Darkaeology
by Jesse Miksic
Is Dark Souls II the crowning rebirth of Gothic Romance for the digital age?
I’m being dramatic, I realize. The spirit of Gothic has permeated our literary landscape so deeply, influencing so many genres and movements, that it would be unfair to single out any particular artifact as its rightful successor. Nevermind the overwhelming, almost parodic proliferation of Gothic imagery spread throughout the game, from the brooding castles to the inhumanly large swords to the incredibly expressive weather patterns. Disregard the deeper connections: the “secret family history” as a central motif, the use of death and decay as a stylistic treatment, the twisted fascination with corrupt clergy. It’s all just a sheen of appropriation, right? Because this is just a video game.
Or maybe, now that we’ve ventured inescapably into the age of digital storytelling, it’s time to follow these connections deeper. Maybe culture, in taking on new forms, is calling out for us to recognize these artifacts: whether we like it or not, the torch-bearers of the literary flame.
Gothic was obsessed with history and mediation of its texts, and the Gothic authors’ use of framing devices is legendary. This practice goes back as far as The Castle of Otranto, often cited as the very first Gothic novel, which, in its original publication, was introduced as a “lost manuscript,” with the real author listed as a mere translator. A similar sort of framing is integral to Jane Eyre, which was published as the main character’s “autobiography” – an attempt to position the story within reader’s continuity.
There’s another sort of framing that happened with some Gothic stories: the nested narrative frame, in which several parts of a story are presented as being told within other parts of the story. The eccentric, overwrought novelette The Necromancer is an early example of this phenomenon; however, perhaps the most famous properly Gothic use of this device is Melmoth the Wanderer, which is credited as being the last traditional Gothic novel, just as The Castle of Otranto is renowned for being the first.
Nested frames give the author an unusual opportunity: they give characters the ability to cross frame boundaries, so a story can bleed from one frame to another. In both The Necromancer and Melmoth, the central antagonist – the terrifying denizen of the darkness – is introduced to a character via rumor or written account, and then later appears to them in person. In Melmoth the Wanderer, each character – Guzman, Moncada, Stanton – encounters Melmoth as hearsay, and then later encounters him in the flesh. Melmoth is a framing narrative boundary-crosser.
Arguably, it’s a much later author – well outside the traditional purview of Gothic – who perfected these framing devices and brought them together for the most dramatic effect. This is the mad cosmic conductor H. P. Lovecraft, who was thoroughly influenced by Gothic literature’s sense of pessimism and cosmic enigma. Lovecraft frequently used an epistolary or auto-biography frame, positioning the story in the same continuity as the reader. Within these personal accounts, he often included a deeper text, witnessed and decoded by his main character: a family history inscribed in illegible notes, a chronicle of secrets that incites curiosity and requires some kind of esoteric key to unlock. Finally, inevitably, the unspeakable horror escapes this secondary text, invading the lived reality of the hapless protagonist.
The quintessential example is the classic Lovecraft tale, The Rats in the Walls. The story is fully first-person, the personal account of a narrator named Delapore, though the circumstances of the telling aren’t revealed until the end. Within the story, Delapore studies a deeper text, an archaeological and historical record of the ancient priory he’s inherited. When he reads too deeply into this history… eventually embarking on an actual excavation… he discovers his own affinity with the abominations he’s learning about. Through his reading and reconstruction – both metaphorical and literal – he erodes the boundary between his “real” world and the encoded world of history, and at the end of the story, we discover that these horrors have penetrated that threshold and done their damage, if only by infecting the psyche of the protagonist.
Act 1: Excavations
In Dark Souls II, you spend the whole first act – the section of the game where you defeat the four Great Souls and seek out the King – engaged in this same sort of excavation, a journey through a long-dead civilization, only dimly illuminated by textual fragments in non-player character (NPC) dialogue and item descriptions. Like Delapore, you poke around the estate of your predecessor, and you eventually come to occupy their residence, exploring its recesses and delving into its catacombs. Also like Delapore, your journey is informed by a porous, anecdotal mass of second-hand information. The dialogue and item descriptions are your historical records, and the locations are your primary sources.
Archaeology isn’t the point. What I’m saying, rather, is that playing through Dark Souls II, especially in the first act, is essentially an act of reading, in the same way that archaeology is an act of reading: excavation as the reading of man’s traces left in the earth. Your character is Delapore, an outsider, and the land of Drangleic is a text, just as the family castle is a text in Rats in the Walls. As far as you’re concerned, at least for the first act of the game, Drangleic’s history is already written, and the best you can do is to discover it.
One of the key gameplay mechanics that reinforces this theme – the theme of Drangleic as a passive text to be deciphered – is the behavior of its inhabitants. Whether enemy or NPC, every enemy in this act of the game… even the bosses themselves… appear to be waiting for you, suffering from a condition of permanent, enforced inertia until you trigger them. They are all slaves to scripts, devoid of motive, like characters stuck in a book, waiting for you to activate them by turning their particular page.
King Vendrick, founder of Drangleic, is quickly established as the principal figure in this history. Your first directive, issued by your guide (the Emerald Herald), is to find him: “Bearer of the curse… Seek souls. Larger, more powerful souls. Seek the King. That is the only way.” Your first stop is the Forest of Fallen Giants, the scene of Vendrick’s hollow triumph over an army of giants who came to reclaim a stolen treasure. From there, you go on to hunt down and fight the four Great Old Ones, a quartet of bosses whose histories are entwined with Drangleic’s rise as a kingdom. Defeating these four abominations gives you access to the Shrine of Winter, and finally, to Drangleic Castle, where Vendrick is said to reside.
When you reach the castle, your first encounter is with Wellager, Vendrick’s Chancellor, who haunts the castle entrance. Wellager reveals something interesting about your “reading” of Drangleic: you are essentially following in the footsteps of Vendrick, who defeated those four Great Old Ones and “built this kingdom upon their souls.” In this simple bit of exposition, he has significantly reframed your role. First, he’s confirmed that this was indeed an excavation… in essence, you were digging around in the kingdom’s foundation, unearthing its deepest roots, both physical and metaphorical. He’s also given you a credible way of interpreting this history: as the story of Vendrick himself, a protagonist who’s so deeply bound to Drangleic that his arc is basically coextensive with the kingdom’s rise and fall.
And who is this story’s other defining figure? Who is the negative space in Vendrick’s gestalt, the antithesis to his thesis? According to Chancellor Wellager, it’s Nashandra, his queen. This is how he introduces her:
The King had a dear Queen, a woman of unparalleled beauty.
Long ago, the Queen came to us, alone, from a faraway land.
She warned our Lord of the looming threat across the seas… of the Giants.
The King crossed the ocean and defeated the Giants, with the Queen at his side.
The Queen brought peace to this land, and to her King.
A peace so deep… it was like… The Dark…
Indeed, according to the man who was closest to the actual events, Vendrick’s story was less about Vendrick the solitary hero, and more about Vendrick and Nashandra, the doomed lovers. However, as you discover in the castle, Vendrick was the only one who was really doomed… Nashandra is still waiting for someone to come along and replace him. You, as the Player Character, have followed directly in his footsteps, and so you’ve basically designated yourself as his successor… but for now, never mind that. First, you need to see where Vendrick’s story ultimately leads.
The answer, of course, is to absence and irresolution, a crypt deep under the castle where Vendrick entombed himself. The king has wasted away, suffering a slow decline described by some of the game’s flavor text:
A powerful soul is like a curse.
And Vendrick, King of Drangleic used a powerful soul to keep the curse at bay.
King Vendrick sought greater souls, and made the giants’ strength his own, but even still, the curse overcame him.
This text is part of the in-game description of the King’s Ring, and this item also happens to be your consolation prize for finding Vendrick. It’s an item that unlocks several new areas of the game: the pathway to the Throne of Want, the doorway to Aldia’s Keep, and an isolated platform in the Forest of Fallen Giants where the body of the giant Jeigh is preserved.
The King’s Ring is a referred to as “the Symbol of the king,” which seems to refer, at least obliquely, to the crest on the ring’s face. Each of the doors it opens has a large, round seal in the center, and the King’s Ring is required to remove this seal. The ring is also the key to another, more figurative seal: the seal that closed off Vendrick’s story, paralyzing him in his tomb under Drangleic Castle. Equipped with the King’s Ring, a symbol of Vendrick’s power and approval, you are licensed to continue his narrative, searching for a way forward for a king and a kingdom that have succumbed to the slumber of the dark.
Act 2: Escape and Infiltration
Act 1 of Dark Souls 2 was a journey to find the king, and in the process, you decoded the obscure text of Drangleic: a royal family saga, abdicated by a king who could no longer bear his burden. Now that Vendrick’s story has been fully brought to light, it’s time to start Act 2, where a Dragon (or something playing the part) opens the text and allows you to step inside.
This moment of boundary-crossing, the transgression of the threshold between text and reality, does not occur in most Gothic stories. For the ones we’ve discussed, however – Melmoth the Wanderer and The Rats in the Walls – it’s a pivotal narrative development, marked by a potent recurring motif. In Melmoth, the signal is an unearthly music that reaches the ears of Melmoth’s victims. In The Rats in the Walls, it’s the cat, who can sense the physical traces of the eldritch forces that lurk under the castle.
It’s worth noting that in both of these cases, this movement is from the inside of the text to the outside: the character of Melmoth escapes the “text” of verbal and written accounts, and appears in the lives of his victims (i.e. his readers). There is also a sense that the evil forces of the Delapore stories are escaping the text: the landscape under the castle is dead, legible to a team of scholars, but Delapore manages to carry it out into the world in the form of a genetically-predisposed insanity.
The reason I point out this “escaping the text” movement is that it’s very literary… the monsters are inert and non-threatening when they’re within the text, but once they escape, they can wreak havoc in the lives of the reader/victim. Indeed, this device is very horror-oriented, amplifying the reader’s anxiety by eroding the real/fictional boundary. It’s been used to great effect in dozens of horror films, from Videodrome to The Ring, The Evil Dead to Nightmare on Elm Street to In the Mouth of Madness.
After you’ve found Vendrick and the King’s Ring, essentially reaching the incomplete final page of the Drangleic story, your only way forward is to open the doors that Vendrick closed. With his ring, you have access to his secrets, and one of these is his brother Aldia’s keep, and the Dragon Shrine far above. It is here that you meet the Ancient Dragon, a great enigma who stands askance the established text.
There’s not much to say about the Ancient Dragon, except that he seems entirely outside Drangleic’s history. He speaks in an indecipherable tongue, but you can still understand him through his subtitles… and in his short passage of dialogue, he explicitly condemns the human condition, which he calls the “Curse of Want.” Though he’s locked away like a boss, he doesn’t bother attacking you. Other characters imply that he’s a fraud, or a false idol. The Ancient Dragon seems to buck every possible script and subvert every interpretation. More importantly, he gives you a key to shed your witness role and infiltrate Drangleic’s history: the Ashen Mist Heart.
Act 3: Across the Boundary
The Ashen Mist Heart is a “manifestation of ashen mist” which allows the Player Character to “delve into the memories of the withered.” This is Dark Souls II‘s signal that the boundary between text and reality is broken; it is the unsettled cat, the infernal music that drifts upon the breeze. It leads the player to Act 3, where they shed their temporal constraints and become a participant in the kingdom’s history.
With the Ashen Mist Heart, you have the ability to return to the starting point of your journey – the Forest of Fallen Giants – and enter the giants’ memories. Within these memories – the memories of Orro, Vammar, and Jeigh – you may notice something dramatic: here, the NPC’s and enemies don’t wait for you or pay attention exclusively to your incursion. Indeed, they are fighting a war that doesn’t involve your sorry undead self. Unless they see you as a threat, they will ignore you, and if you give them some time, they will expend all their energy destroying each other. This is a sign that you are no longer a mere witness… now, you are a participant, and you are seeing a world that’s alive, working through its own conflicts, actualizing its own destiny.
If you were just floating through these memories, witnessing history, it wouldn’t be that much of a twist. The real narrative significance of this movement – the movement from outside the text, through the boundary, into its vital interior – is that you go from being a witness to a participant. Your fate, it turns out, is to complete Vendrick’s story by personally vanquishing his greatest foe, the Giant Lord. In the process, you’re accomplishing something that Vendrick never managed: defeating the giants, imprisoning their king, and earning their respect in the process. Your prize: an item called the Giants’ Kinship, which, by some machination – of Vendrick, or of fate – opens the way to the Throne of Want, the true seat of the monarch. This promise of power is also the key to drawing Nashandra out of her throne room, so the final struggle for the true throne can commence.
Dark Souls II’s narrative trajectory (from outside to inside the text, from witness to participant) isn’t just a playful mutation of a Gothic trope. It’s also a commentary on the constraints and potentialities of the emergent and traditional forms of storytelling. This commentary may be subliminal… at best, I suspect it’s incidental, not a central intention of the creators. Nonetheless, it brings into focus the relationship between traditional literary Gothic and Dark Souls II‘s ludic departure.
Dark Souls II is, after all, the spawn of a great literary movement, with all the attendant constraints and possibilities of traditional literary media. Authors in the Gothic tradition, working in books, film, poetry, and television, could experiment with permeable boundaries, recursive intertextuality, and material mediation, and Dark Souls II draws from these motifs. However, they could never do what Dark Souls II does, i.e. bringing the player inside the text, reversing the movement from escape to infiltration. In the Gothic tradition, the villain could occupy the world of the over-curious reader, but the reader couldn’t occupy the world of the story. This is a whole new level of curiosity, a whole new practice of embodied archaeology… a shift to a participatory relationship with the text.
Just as Gothic has contributed greatly to literary culture, providing a fountain of raw material for Dark Souls II, so can it contribute to the Gothic tradition, leveraging the strengths of the medium to expand its possibilities. In doing so, Dark Souls II makes an argument for video games as a worthy bearer of the literary torch: as writing improves and production becomes more accessible, literary sensibilities bleed into video games, and this produces a new literary landscape, where a more participatory form of engagement is possible. There’s always a boundary between the text and the world of experience… in the ludic mode, that boundary can finally be crossed in the other direction.
Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. 1874. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 2003. Print.
Maturin, Charles Robert. Melmoth the Wanderer. 1820. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 2000. Print.
Lovecraft, Howard Phillips. “The Rats in the Walls”. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories. 1992. Reprint. London: Penguin Books, 2002. Print.
Shibuya, Tomohiro and Yui Tanimura (dir). Dark Souls 2. Tokyo: From Software, 2014. Video Game.
Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. New York, NY: Classic Books International, 2009. Print.
About the Author:
Jesse Miksic is a designer, critic and content creator living in Brooklyn, New York. Jesse maintains a cinema and media theory website here.