Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The Chosen Undead - Beneath the Surface

Welcome to my 101st entry and the second in my Beneath the Surface series. Today's character is going to be somewhat non-standard, as they are not a character in the traditional understanding of the term. Rather than being a thinking, speaking individual in their own right, the object of this entry never speaks and serves as little beyond the avatar of the player. Yet, I feel that there are several things we can say about him.

Due to the nature of this game and this character, some of what is said in this entry will be my own interpretation of things from the game, so I expect and encourage you to challenge me on some of what is written here. 

Without further ado, I introduce our subject of discussion: The Chosen Undead of Dark Souls.

Image posted by Retro Time Attack

In The Beginning

When one begins playing Dark Souls, one quickly realises that the game gives you nothing easily and this works on two levels. Yes, the game is significantly harder than most others (at least for someone like me who plays games for the story whilst usually being absolutely awful at the mechanics (especially when those mechanics involve the possession of actual reflexes)) and it makes you work in order to progress, turning death into a mechanic for learning. However, secondarily, the story itself, the characters you meet and the lore of the world is never given to you in an information dump such as is evident in other roleplaying games like Skyrim (nothing against Skyrim, it is an amazing game, but the storytelling is rather straight forwards). Dark Souls is an incredibly rich game, leaving a huge amount of stuff open to interpretation by the player, leaving tiny little hints and facts, rather than presenting you with a single, complete narrative. 

So, you load up the game and create your character and then you are met with this...


After watching this introduction (which I personally think sets up the atmosphere perfectly) one immediately notes that your character only appears at the end, and is not mentioned in the voice-over. Aside from knowing that you have been led to the Undead Asylum, no history is given to your character. 

All that is known is that you are a human who has been branded by the Darksign, which has appeared on your flesh, marking you as undead. As an undead, you cannot truly die, instead awakening after each death by a bonfire, which is a piece of the First Flame, whence came the four Lord Souls, as stated by the introductory video. With each such resurrection, the undead begins to Hollow, a lengthy process in which the individual loses themselves, eventually passing a point of no return, when the undead is a mindless creature. Only once fully hollow can the undead be permanently killed. Hollowing can be postponed, however, if the undead acquires humanity, a black sprite (presumably part of the original Dark Soul found by the Furtive Pygmy) which represents human ambition, drive and purpose. In offering humanity to the bonfires, thus fueling the flames, an undead an reverse their hollowing. Thus, the undead have great incentive to gather as much humanity as they are able. 

The Silent Treatment

Apparently, the Chosen Undead was given no voice, save for the occasional grunt when wounded or slain, in order to allow them to become an "Everyman" character. Such characters have been used throughout literary traditions, especially when the story itself is being used as a kind of allegory. Commonly, everyman characters have little in terms of personality and background, allowing them to be equally empathised with by everybody and serve as placeholders for nobody in particular. Notable examples of this can be found in the work of H.P. Lovecraft, who uses such characters to represent humanity in general, which cannot begin to comprehend the Old Ones and various other creatures he presents in his Cthulhu Mythos.

I certainly think that we can read the plot of Dark Souls as allegorical to human experience, especially when it comes to the concept of the undead. The Undead are given, practically, eternal life and yet this is a curse to them, for it leads to their eventual Hollowing, losing themselves before they die. In order to prevent themselves from going Hollow, they must gather humanity, which can be understood as the spirit of determination. Furthermore, Hollowing is slowed, if not reversed, in those who have a strong purpose, who live for some cause.

Image posted by Lovelife-Bepositive

Likewise, in our lives, continuing to survive is, on its own, not enough. We need to live and that involves giving our lives some kind of purpose, even if that purpose is simply to seek comfort and pleasure. Indeed, some purposes are more noble than others, one could argue and one could argue that a whole branch of moral philosophy and ethics is devoted to analysing which purposes are worthy of devoting one's life to. 

Dark Souls provides a series of purposes your character can devote themselves to, though it does not attempt to evaluate them for you, instead allowing you, the player, to weigh the benefits of each. The end you devote your character to is what ultimately defines the Chosen Undead. 

We shall now devote some time to each such purpose in turn. 

Part of the Prophecy

During your flight from the Undead Asylum, the protagonist will encounter Oscar, a knight of Astora, the individual who throws the hollow corpse into your cell, granting you the key and a chance at freedom. Originally intended to play a greater part in the story, Oscar's role changed during development, leading to his death during your attempt to leave the Asylum. However, before he dies, he says something important to your character.
"Thou who art Undead, art chosen...In thine exodus from the Undead Asylum, maketh pilgrimage to the land of Ancient Lords...When thou ringeth the Bell of Awakening, the fate of the Undead thou shalt know"
Oscar introduces this to the player as a saying that has been passed down through his family, though it does not take a keen eye to note that this mere 'saying' has prophetic undertones. So begins your journey and several of the characters you shall meet seek to encourage you to follow this prophecy.

The general gist of the prophecy is that the Chosen Undead shall make pilgrimage to Lordran (the land of ancient Lords) and ring the bells of awakening and thus open their way to Anor Londo, the City of the Gods, where the Chosen Undead can receive the Lordvessel from Gwynevere, Queen of Sunlight. This Lordvessel can be filled with power souls, notably those of the Witch of Izalith and Gravelord Nito, to open the way to Lord Gwyn, who has given himself to the First Flame in order to preserve it for a little longer. Ultimately, the prophecy declares the Chosen Undead to be the one who will defeat Gwyn, who has become Hollowed, and who will then, in turn, give themselves to the First Flame, linking it and allowing the Age of Fire to endure a little longer.

I bequeath the Lordvessel to thee.And beseech thee. Succeed Lord Gwyn, and inheriteth the Fire of our world.Thou shall endeth this eternal twilight, and avert further Undead sacrifices.

Thus, we could read the Chosen Undead as simply that, an individual who is destined to fulfill the prophecy and sustain the Age of Fire. If so, your quest is a righteous one, your intentions pure. On this reading of the Chosen Undead, they are seen as a paragon of what is expected of them, devoted to others, stereotypically (one might say) good. Naturally, it ties with religion, as linking the First Flame empowers those Gods who have fled from Anor Londo, possibly allowing their return, as well as playing into the hands of Gwyndolin, the great manipulator, God of Moonlight.

Furthermore, in linking the First Flame, the player gives up their very life, dying for the world. An act one could quite easily compare to a certain Messiah from Christian theology.

Oscar, Knight of Astora
Oscar gave his own life trying to serve as a catalyst for Prophecy.

One could view that Chosen Undead who pursues this purpose as a champion of the status quo, or as one who restores the world to a state of Light and prosperity, even if there exists this rigid hierarchy in which the Gods rule over humanity. They can be seen as an individual who stands against the corruption of the Abyss and of uncontrolled humanity and darkness.

Or, one could view them as the pawn of prophecy.

The Liberator / Scion of the Dark

The prophecy states that the Chosen Undead shall defeat Gwyn and link the First Flame, allowing the Age of Fire to continue and the power of the Gods to endure. Yet, all this talk of Prophecy and Pilgrimage and setting oneself aflame, all of it could quite easily be propaganda, a tool the Gods (in particular Gwyndolin) are using to trick a powerful undead into sacrificing themselves in order to restore their power, allowing them to retain their dominance over humanity.

"Your ancestor claimed the Dark Soul and waited for Fire to subside.And soon, the flames did fade, and only Dark remained.Thus began the age of men, the Age of Dark."

Certainly, Darkstalker Kaathe thinks so, encouraging the Chosen Undead (should they meet) to defeat Gwyn and like the First Flame die, ending the Age of Fire and ushering in the Age of Darkness (which is interestingly called the Age of Man). It is argued that this is the natural course that the world must take, that all fires must die and that all lights must go out, so why prolong the wait for the inevitable? Why defy the course of nature?

You must destroy the fading Lord Gwyn, who has coddled Fire and resisted nature,and become the Fourth Lord, so that you may usher in the Age of Dark!

Thus, the Chosen Undead can be responsible for ending the Age of Fire, allowing the power of the Gods to die, allowing the world, as we know it, to come to an end.

Perhaps we should read this Chosen Undead as the true hero, for they liberated us from the influence of the Gods, freed us from their tyranny, evened out the playing-field by removing their power and allowing us all to become equals. 

And yet, we can see clearly from Oolacile what becomes of humans afflicted by the unchecked corruption of the Abyss. They are no longer people, but monsters, twisted and abused. So overwhelmed are they by their own humanity that their bodies become hideously altered and warped, more monster than human. Without the light of the First Flame to keep the darkness of the Abyss in check, what is to stop the same fate befalling all of us?

Bloathead Sorcerer
This is what becomes of those humans who fall into the Abyss.

Thus, perhaps we should consider such a Chosen Undead to be the ultimate nihilist, rather than a hero. 

The Explorer

Perhaps the Chosen Undead does not devote themselves to prophecy, yet does not take the approach of staunchly opposing it. Instead, they simply seek answers, searching everywhere, killing those which get in their way if they have to, yet otherwise sowing no unnecessary harm. Through gathering the pieces of the puzzle and assembling them into a picture of the world, the Explorer is able to understand what is going on and ultimately discover what their place in this world can be.

I would consider all players to exist as Explorers at one point or another. Starting a game with little context and without much to guide you beyond the cryptic hints given to you by strange NPCs tends to leave one very much in the dark. All this talk of prophecy and of being Chosen can seem to ring very hollow (no pun intended) when one knows nothing of the world, nothing of who you are and how you link to that which is going on outside of Lordran. 

One must understand the world before one decides whether or not it is worth saving. 

With no context given, the character thus begins the game with no external ties, and thus nothing to define them beyond those options selected at character creation. Your gender, appearance and general skill-set is yours to chose, but as for where you came from, who you are, nothing is provided, thus you must chose who you are solely through your actions in the game.

A character who becomes a true explorer, one who passess through the world on a never-ending quest to amass as much lore as possible will eventually have to kill to get it, thus tying them to the fourth and final kind of Chosen Undead. 

Image posted by Unforgettable Gaming Moments

The Egoist

Caring little for prophecy or lore, the Egoist is the Chosen Undead who quickly realises and embraces that the more things they kill and defeat, the more power they gain for themselves. Thus, this is the purpose they strive for: bettering themselves at the expense of others. They strike down all they encounter, as soon as they have no more use for them, gorging themselves on souls in order to augment their own powers. 

In truth, there is little difference between such characters and the Hollows and Demons they encounter, for all are but seeking to increase their own strength without any great end in sight (one could argue that the demons indeed to have some further end (the protection of the Chaos Flame which birthed them)). 

Such Chosen Undead are a bane to everything they meet, for they consider all things to be a means to their own end. Their morality is severely lacking, for they have not a shred of empathy with those they encounter, rarely stopping to consider the implications of what they are doing beyond whether or not they could be more effective at that which they are doing. 

Image posted by Unforgettable Gaming Moments

Thus, we have the four archetypal identities of the Chosen Undead.

Thanks for reading!

1 comment:

  1. this is great! so glad i stumbled upon your post. i love dark souls, it has such an amazing depth i have never seen in a game before. the lore of the game is so rich and can be interpreted in so many different ways, it's like analyzing poetry. i've always been extremely interested in the thematic aspect of the game, but never thought to examine the archetypal categories the chosen undead could fall under...so this was a very interesting read! i always play as the "dark lord" myself, darkwraith 4 lyfe.

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