Dark Souls 3 and the terror of repetition Dark Souls 3 and the terror of repetition Dark Souls 3 and the terror of repetition Dark S…
“Pete and Repeat are sitting on a fence. Pete falls off – who’s left? Repeat.” So says a clown in Bruce Nauman’s 1987 installation, Clown Torture. The artwork, made up of TV monitors, shows looping clips of clowns telling jokes, balancing fishbowls, jumping up and down, or screaming “No” over and over again.
Nauman’s artwork is deeply unsettling. It is also funny. Watching a clown flail on the ground, pleading and waving its arms in the air is, to say the least, unnerving. At least it is the first time around. The second time it’s amusing. The third time it’s hilarious. The fourth time it’s depressing. The fifth time it’s tragic. By the sixth time you watch the clown, your emotions have passed from fear to glee to pity to terror. History repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. Then as tragedy again.
Repetition is the lifeblood of Dark Souls 3, as it has been throughout Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne. Even if you haven’t played the games, you’ll likely be aware of the setup: every time you die, enemies are reset – every time you push forward, you’re faced with the same obstacles. You die easily. You trace the same paths. You see the same zombie break through the same crate over and over and over again, until the jumpscare becomes a slapstick pratfall.
If you’re an experienced player, your backstabs and parries honed to perfection after weeks and months within Hidetaka Miyazaki’s strange labyrinths, then this recurrence is a minor, temporary setback on your spree between bosses. But if you – like me – are far from an expert, Dark Souls’ crumbling castles and broken villages quickly shift from gothic landscapes to oppressive arenas of repeating bodies.
While other games give an artificial sense of life to the characters in their worlds – guards going about their duty in
While other games give an artificial sense of life to the characters in their worlds – guards going about their duty inSkyrim, or bandits bickering in The Witcher 3 – Dark Souls places its unreality centre stage. Enemies move about the world like clockwork marionettes, NPCs wait in dark caverns like lost ghosts. The sparse conversations you have in the game are looping cycles of obtuse phrases, muttered without reciprocation from your silent protagonist.
BioShock and The Magic Circle developer Jordan Thomas described the sense of terror in Dark Souls as “the horror of purgatory”, as if all the characters are in the game exist within “some great cosmic rock tumbler and all the edges are being filed off. Eventually they won’t recognise themselves or one another.” Like Estragon and Vladimir in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the inhabitants of Dark Souls games are only vaguely aware of where they are, or that they are repeating themselves. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine Beckett’s characters grouped around a bonfire in Dark Souls 3, standing up from another failed fight.
VLADIMIR: May one inquire where His Highness spent the night? ESTRAGON: In a ditch. VLADIMIR: A ditch! Where? ESTRAGON: Over there. VLADIMIR: And they didn’t beat you? ESTRAGON: Beat me? Certainly they beat me. VLADIMIR: The same lot as usual? ESTRAGON: The same? I don’t know.
There is an icon for all this in the centre of Dark Souls 3. Within Firelink Shrine – the game’s hub and safehouse – in a central room at the end of a central walkway, is Blacksmith Andre. Stooped over an anvil, Andre hammers incessantly at nothing in particular, stopping only when you speak to him to upgrade equipment.
Andre is himself a repetition from the original Dark Souls. In both games the ceaseless clunk of his hammer permeates the world like a metronome, measuring out your many deaths. He is consistent, and a reliable source of weapons, but he is also a reminder of the unremitting encore facing the player as soon as they step out of safety.
Unlike Andre’s endless work, the player’s task is far from Sisyphean. There is clear, authored meaning in Miyazaki’s level design, not to mention the fact that you’re pursuing a specific, accomplishable goal. But the terror of Dark Souls happens when you forget all of this. It happens when you hit a wall, and keep hitting it until you think – if only for a moment – that there is nothing outside of it.
Like watching Bauman’s clowns, the horror of playing Dark Souls comes from believing the repetition won’t ever stop.