This morning during my drive to work, On Point on NPR was talking with an economist named Mohamed El-Erian. This is the synopsis of the interview with him from the NPR website:
“Mohamed El-Erian looks out at the world economy – and at Gaza and Ukraine and Iraq and Libya – and sees a big fork in the road coming. Our treading water days are about over, says the former CEO of investment giant PIMCO. We are are headed up, or we’re headed down. And the odds are 50/50. Geopolitical crises are mounting, he says. No one’s in charge. Rational outcomes may not prevail. Investors are too confident. Businesses are too cautious. But the road we’re on is ending, he says.”
Sounds about right. Our country’s economy, he says, used to be the G-1 on a G-20 scale of influential economies, and the current state of the world is that of a G-0 scale: no one economy has the power to influence or control outcomes. “The core has weakened,” the core of the global economy being the western economies, and with no strong center to game the system the rest of the globe is on the verge of falling into recession. In fact, some countries have begun isolating themselves from global banking institutions in favor of their own private currency exchanges. It was a very informative interview, and I’d recommend listening to it, but only if you need further evidence that human civilization seems to be in a ‘twilight’ era. History feels like it’s tipping on the verge of collapse.
It’s really scary. One way humans cope with this fear is through re-contextualization, as a metaphor or a theme in a movie or novel or game. Popular works of fiction always reflect the anxieties of the time periods they were created in. After months and months all year long of bad news piling on top of bad news, a lot of things clicked in my head this morning during that interview.
Basically, a video game series I have enjoyed for a long time now has suddenly become more profound.
I haven’t considered myself a serious gamer since adolescence, when I really cut my teeth. I mostly play RPGs and have very particular taste with other titles, and I rarely get excited about new games. Yet the Souls series, developed by From Software, which debuted around the time I graduated college, stand out among my favorite gaming experiences of my life. They are action-adventure RPGs that feature a meticulous real-time combat system, and are of a level of quality with which I now compare all other video games; they are the standard bearers of my personal taste.
Since the release of Demon’s Souls on the Playstation 3 in 2009, the games have earned overwhelming critical acclaim and slowly rooted a spot in the mainstream. Demon’s Souls earned a cult-like infamy due to it’s punishing difficulty level, which has waned over time but remains a foundation of the series’ gameplay. With the recent release of Dark Souls II, the Souls games are at an unprecedented level of popularity and exposure. This growth in the community of players is exciting because of the innovative way the Souls series handles multi-player gameplay. Morality is at the heart of the Souls experience, requiring the player to make sophisticated ethical choices unprecedented (IMHO,) in the medium of video games to this point.
But before I go further into that, let me give you some context by explaining a bit about the plot and themes of the Souls games. Some spoilers might happen, if you care about that or want to play the games fresh.
Demon’s Souls takes place in the ruined kingdom of Boletaria, a once prosperous nation which has been decimated by a horde of soul-devouring demons. Boletaria’s ruler, King Allant, had discovered a way to channel the energy of the soul, which brought power to himself and to Boletaria. Eventually, his greed and thirst for souls awakened an ancient being called The Old One, who releases the aforementioned demons and covers the land in a “deep, colorless fog,” isolating Boletaria from the rest of the world.
You take the role of a foreign adventurer who has travelled to Boletaria, penetrating through the fog to slay the demons that now stalk the land. It is said that the power contained within a demon’s soul is beyond comprehension; will you use their influence to try and restore Boletaria, or succumb to a lust for power and rule over the husk of a world?
Demon’s Souls gives the player this whisper of a plot, forcing you to seek out a meaning to the story and the world through exploration. The history of Boletaria, it’s people, geography and cultures, are conveyed through item and equipment descriptions and brief dialogues with NPCs. This passive method of storytelling forces one to piece together details with speculation to come to a conclusion. It can be compared to reading a novel, where only careful readers will discover the truth within the sub-text. Even then, the truths are heavily veiled and rarely explicit. There are five incredibly atmospheric areas for the player to explore, which are all connected to a hub world called the Nexus, where your character exists in limbo with other non-playable characters encountered through your journey. The Nexus is unique to Demon’s Souls; it’s successors Dark Souls and Dark Souls II each have an equivalent hub area, but the Nexus stands out in its other-worldliness, the disassociation it creates from the kingdom of Boletaria. Your character is bound to it as a phantom; you roam it’s halls as a ghost.
Dark Souls, the second game in the series, is not a direct sequel to Demon’s, but expounds upon the themes and gameplay elements of it’s predecessor. In this game, we are given an even fainter whisper of plot to start with. Through an opening cutscene, we learn the Creation Myth of the world: in the beginning, the Ancient Dragons held dominion over a formless world of great Archtrees. The First Flame was ignited, and within this flame were found four powerful Lord Souls. The bearers of these souls became god-like entities and waged a genocidal war on the Ancient Dragons, ushering in a new Age of Fire. It turns out those Lord Souls were the source of the First Flame’s energy. With the Lord Souls taken, the flame eventually fades, and with it the influence of the Gods who stole it’s power. Concurrently, humans have been afflicted with the curse of the undead, forced into an unending cycle of death and resurrection. Humans must hold on to their remaining Humanity (a consumable item and resource in-game) or risk going Hollow, a state of insanity where memories and personality have been lost.
Your character is the Chosen Undead, who sets out on a prophesied pilgrimage to Lordran, land of the Gods, during the final twilight days of the Age of Fire. You eventually meet and are instructed by Kingseeker Frampt, a “primordial serpent” from the dawn of time, to preserve the Age of Fire and put an end to the curse by “linking the flame.” Alternately, through additional exploration the character can discover a second primordial serpent, Darkstalker Kaathe. Kaathe informs you that Frampt is a liar intending to further the agenda of the Gods by using the player as a pawn. He urges you instead to let the First Flame be extinguished, making room for humanity to rule in a new Age of Dark.
The game ends similarly to Demon’s Souls, with the player deciding whether to condemn or save the world. However, the choice this time around is much more subjective. Will sacrificing oneself in order to link the flame and prolong the rule of the Gods save humanity from the curse? Or would it best serve mankind to cast away the deities of the past and embrace a chaotic new age of unknown darkness?
Are the similarities apparent?
It’s hard for me not to draw parallels between these concepts of corrupted rulers and failed kingdoms to the current state of affairs in the world. A lot of my personal anxiety comes from worrying about the future and everything that could happen: what if the economy collapses so hard we have nothing to eat? On top of all this, environmental disaster grows more severe and frequent, further impeding our attempts at recovery. Political strife is tearing apart many parts of the world, with innocent people dying every day. Another thing I heard on NPR in the same broadcast was that apparently there was a huge massacre of protesters last year in Egypt, with some journalists calling it the single biggest killing of civilian demonstrators in one day. No country, including America: the shining savior of democracy, is demonstrating real reform or change in the face of all this surmounting despair. It’s quite unnerving, and one can’t help but imagine any number of apocalyptic scenarios playing out within the next few decades.
So to bring that back around to the Souls games, where you play as a lone traveler pushing forward through the ruins of civilization, morality comes to the foreground. Where are the morals of our world leaders and powers? Seemingly absent, as they are in the world of the Souls games. Decent individuals, encountered in the game as NPCs, are few and far between, often coming to tragic ends. In fact as the player, you have the choice to act as a do-gooder or a cut-throat. There are incentives to both sides of potential behavior, creating a moral ambiguity similar to real life; does the player work with these NPCs to achieve ends mutually, or do they maintain their own self-interest above all else? In a world filled with soul-devouring demons and monsters, all your resources are precious, and that suit of armor being worn by the friendly knight you just met might suddenly seem like a better option than your own tattered equipment.
In Dark Souls II, the most recent game in the series, I participate in a lot of player-versus-player (PVP) combat. The intricacies of this multi-player system, like I mentioned before, add even more depth to the moral ambiguity players face. You can summon players to your world, or be summoned to theirs yourself, through the use of ‘summoning signs.’ The color of the sign indicates the intended role of the encounter: a red sign summons a Red Phantom, whose goal is to kill the host player for their souls. A white sign summons a White Phantom, whose goal is “jolly co-operation;” to help the host defeat the boss of the current level. Alternatively, there are multiple ‘covenants’ that players can join that focus on different aspects of PVP; the covenant of the Rat King, for example, utilizes two distinct levels that feature a variety of booby traps easily accessed by the covenant members, with other players being summoned to the world of the trap-setting host upon entering the areas.
Anyway, these summoning mechanics are often tweaked by the player community to create unique scenarios. A popular meta-function is the ‘Fight Club,’ in which the hosting player will summon multiple Red Phantoms at once. The Red Phantoms will then duel each other instead of attacking the host, giving everyone present a chance to accumulate souls from the defeated. The Host sometimes acts as a regulator of the event, decorating the arena and healing the victors of a match with an area-of-effect spell called ‘Warmth,’ since Red Phantoms are unable to heal themselves through normal conventions. Of course with no implemented rule system for these scenarios, regulation falls to the players, bringing morals and ethics back into play.
(Above: a standard Fight Club.)
The opposite of the Fight Club scenario is the ‘Gank Squad,’ where a player will be summoned as a Red Phantom only to find themselves cornered by a team of White Phantoms summoned by the host. ‘Ganks’ usually end in defeat for the summoned Red Phantom. Managing to survive this 3 on 1 fight is an ecstatic and glorious feeling, with players who have done so tending to boast on Reddit about their achievement.
(Above: a Gank Squad: not who you want to see when being summoned as a Red Phantom.)
But what matters most, I think, and is interesting about these situations is how the players have chosen to conduct themselves. They have found ways to subvert and twist the system of morals designed by the game developers in order to suit their own ends! Just like politicians and bankers and corporations!!!!
If the themes and story-line of the Souls games can be seen as metaphor for the current state of global civilization, the multi-player communities become a reflection of human nature. Is self-interest our only goal? Are those in power willing to sacrifice the rest of us to save themselves, or can the world somehow set aside it’s many differences in the pursuit of “jolly co-operation” and mutual survival?