Forgiveness in Dark Souls
What does forgiveness mean to the character and the player in Dark Souls?
Time to Pay the Price
In terms of the lore of Dark Souls punishment and forgiveness is handled by Velka, allegedly a goddess, and Oswald of Carim. Specifically, Oswald is a pardoner, and Velka’s Book of the Guilty is a divine hit-list comprised of betrayers and blasphemers who get hunted by the Blades of the Darkmoon. Set out of the way from many other NPCs (perhaps as an indication that one must make a pilgrimage and choose to seek atonement) Oswald, while sounding cheery enough, is obsessed with the sinful actions of the player.
Velka doesn’t seem to make any appearance in the game, but one fan theory speculates that Velka is tied to raven iconography. Such a theory suggests Velka may be responsible for the raven that takes the player from the Undead Asylum to Lordran. Typical of the game, hard evidence is elusive, and the player must determine any validity to these suggestions.
Run on for a Long Time
In the game’s mechanics, Oswald has the role of absolving the player of sin if he or she requests it and pays the price in acquired souls. As a game-play mechanic, this absolution is centered on forgiving unwarranted aggression toward NPCs, betrayal of covenants made with the factions, and the invading of other players in an attempt to take their humanity. Like many other mechanics in Dark Souls, it challenges the player to consider the risks and rewards of any action. Want to kill Ingward, Patches, or that Undead Merchant? Want to join Solaire’s gloriously incandescent covenant and brush off the Way of White? Want to use that Red Eye orb because Kaathe and the Darkwraiths seem to know what’s up? The player can do all these things, but that also means accruing sin and sometimes attracting the attention of the Darkmoon Blades who mete out vengeance. Of course, a visit to Oswald and a lump sum payment in souls can clear many those misunderstandings, though some can be paid only in the blood of the guilty to the Darkmoon Blades. Nonetheless, it is only human to commit a sin, and Oswald will accept confessions any day.
A Stranger Comes to Town
What about the nature of the player’s character—the Chosen Undead—in the game? Of all the sparse background and demographic information available at character creation, nothing suggests the character is from Lordran. The character is taken via raven from the Undead Asylum to the birthplace of Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight. No matter what character is made, he or she is an intruder in this land and arguably an aberration as an undead. Nonetheless, the Chosen Undead marches into and kills across Lordran at will or even at the behest of other characters like Frampt. The player’s character bursts into Quelaag’s home and murders her. The Bell Gargoyles, Iron Golem, Ornstein, and Smough, are all discharging their duties to protect their locations from the very threat of annihilation the Chosen Undead embodies. Does the Moonlight Butterfly deserve death? Does Sif? It doesn’t take intense reflection to see where the player’s character might legitimately be seen as the villain of Dark Souls. There is no one to punish or forgive the Chosen Undead for all the destruction he or she causes in order to progress in the game. Why? To paraphrase the Oswald: are these deeds, too, not drenched in sin?
“Cometh Thou to Confess? Or to Accuse? For Indeed All Sin is My Domain”
As players witness over the course of the game, none of the other gods of Lordran measure up to their deific status. Gwynevere and all the brilliant splendor of Lordran are illusions, and all but one of the gods is long gone. Aside from Gwyndolin, what remains of Gwyn and the Witch of Izalith, and arguably Nito, there aren’t any other gods to be found. Others are mentioned, but with so much of the lore being questionable it isn’t a stretch to imagine the players inhabit a post-divine world.
Maybe there is no Velka
Maybe there is no Velka, there is no final arbiter of justice. There is only the player, and how he or she decides to carries it. Much like the ambiguous ending, the ethicality of what the player accomplishes in Dark Souls is really determined and given value by that player. Is the world a better place once the Chosen Undead rekindled the First Flame or walked away from its ashes after the regicide/deicide committed against Gwyn? The game won’t say. Velka won’t say. Hidetaka Miyazaki won’t say. As with so much in Dark Souls, the justification, the absolution, and the punishment for what has happened is for the player’s interpretation, and no amount of souls paid to Oswald will help a player sleep better after having to cripple and kill Sif.
This hub was written for Critical Distance and its series Blogs of the Round Table, and other articles in the November series can be found here.
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© 2015 Seth Tomko