Monday, 1 September 2014

Part 2: Dark Souls, Todestrieb and That Thing we Don't Know we Know is Missing

Donald Rumsfeld may well be remembered for his somewhat paradoxical "Known knowns... known unknowns... unknown unknowns"*. He forgot one though, didn't he? The unknown knowns, things we don't know but which determine our actions and identity: the unconscious.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Death Drive

 Freud asserted that we are unconsciously guided by drives, one of which being the Pleasure Principle (Eros) - that we seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, in his Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he explains that there must be something else. When creating Dark Souls the developers wanted a focus on repetition where the player has to repeat difficult, frustrating and even unenjoyable situations until they either overcome or they give up. Such a process can be seen in opposition to the Pleasure Principle where Freud observed that it was common for people to relive painful and difficult situations repeatedly. From this Freud came to the notion of death drive(s) (aka Todestrieb or Thantos), that there is a drive towards death, a return to the inorganic, to exhaust a thing until the situation mirrors the state before said thing existed. It was and still is an idea that is widely criticised and unaccepted. Freud openly admitted in Beyond the Pleasure Principle that it was highly speculative but continued to have faith in his notion until his death.

Not many games have such a strong focus on death as Dark Souls and many aspects of the game seem to illustrate the idea of death drive. Firstly, the goal of the game is to undo a state of deathlessness that has cursed the world, to bring about a state of non-existence. This idea is akin to Buddhist enlightenment where an escape from endless rebirth is the ultimate goal (an opposite goal to Abrahamic religions that aim for an eternal life in the afterlife)**. This overarching plot is the very essence of death drive. Secondly, a result of death drive is self destruct, the situation the world of Dark Souls finds itself and which the player becomes part of. A further outcome of death drive is when aggression is turned inwardly***, creating masochism. The developer of Dark Souls has confessed to having masochistic tendencies, so do many players of Dark Souls and critics of the game often fob off the player-base of Dark Souls as masochistic.

Although many didn't accept death drive, Lacan embraced the idea explaining that: every drive seeks it's own end and that every drive involves the subject of repetition until any joy experienced turns into suffering. By Lacan's understanding death drive was not an autonomous drive but was a fundamental aspect of all human drives. Lacan therefore placed death drive in the Symbolic (see previous piece), in our human mechanics. Within the mechanics of Dark Souls is the same repetition; areas are reset intact until overcome - albeit without treasures - and even the game is reset once completed - albeit with added challenge. A player can continue to play until the want to play has dwindled (often after 100s of hours).

Finally, Freud put death drive as a counter drive to the Pleasure Principle. The dominating aspect of the Pleasure Principle is sex and it's pursuit (of which the energy Libido is in conflict with the energy of death drive Mortido). In Dark Souls almost all sexuality is removed (almost) or worse. The world is full of asexual creatures, nude sexualised forms of females have their lower torso replaced with a hideous insect-like deformity, all children and ideas of procreation are removed from the game (character models of children were found in the game files and so must have been consciously removed) and the only inclusion of children are a  few skeletons. This denial of all things sexual really makes the game a testament to death drive. It seems there was an active focus by the developers to desexualise the game... with one exception (more on that later).

Freud's Structural Model & Dark Souls

The game employs a sense of vertical importance where, from a central starting point, the player either ascends or descends. The starting hub is a place where a majority human interactions are made, where the reality of the game world is explained and the non-player characters express motives. If the player ascends they find structures of power; castles, fortifications and ultimately a legendary city of gods. Should the player descend they will find darkness unto an abyss, primordial beasts and death. This structure corresponds directly with Freud's psychoanalytic theory of personality, where the personality is made of three elements; the Ego, Id and Superego.

The Ego is the part of the personality that develops around age three and understands the needs of others. It mediates between the wild needs of the Id and the reality in which we find ourselves and is there in the preconscious, conscious and unconscious. The Id is that which is present at birth with the beast-like striving for what it wants at any moment, slave to the pleasure principle. It is placed in the dark of the unconscious. Freud believed that the Id was the source of all psychic energy (this is also echoed in Dark Souls, where humanity is described from the outset as coming from the dark). The Superego is the place where ideal forms of the Ego exist, ideas of authority, internalised standards of society, gods.

The One Instance of Sexuality in Dark Souls

After one of the most grueling tests in the game the player reaches a climax in the game's pacing and is rewarded suitably. The reward is bequeathed by the most overtly sexualised character  in the game, Gwynevere, replete with soft lighting, reclining position, prominent breasts and hips (breast and hips being almost universal physical traits of fertility). This character is described as a "Princess of Sunlight" and an only daughter, "sunlight" a symbol of fertility and "daughter" a result of procreation. She seems somewhat out of place in a game so focused on death and it has been hinted at that Hidetaka Miyazaki (the game's creator) wasn't pleased with the character's design. 

There are two interesting qualities to Gwynevere. Firstly, that she is an illusion created to deal with another character's nostalgia. Freud and Lacan both saw nostalgia as a result of the death drive with the latter describing Death Drive as a nostalgia for lost harmony, a desire to return to the preoedipal fusion of the mother's breast. That Gwynevere isn't in fact real but is a projection of nostalgia works to explain the prominent chest. A second, more interesting quality of Gwynevere is her positioning in the City of Gods, the Superego tier of Dark Souls. Libidinous drive is usually confined to the Id but when such designs are made in the Superego one definite conclusion can be made: the Superego isn't functioning. 

 Dark Souls 2 in Contrast

The sequel borrows a lot from the first game but sadly doesn't have the same psychological depth. The areas of the game world have no clearly defined relation to each other and just appear as places along a journey. There are both sexualised enemies and non-player characters, almost needlessly so with the feeling that more creative designs could have been made. There are various lore elements of romantic ties (queens and their kings etc), albeit without any clear results of procreation. Dark Souls 2 isn't completely without psychoanalytical worth but surely has little of the wealth of the initial game. 

NEXT WEEK: Part 3: Link's Father

*This and the vicious illegal war he promoted.
** Given the choice of returning to the inorganic or an endless existence I know which I'd prefer.
*** Outward aggression is not seen as a result of death drive as it (usually) has the function of reducing pain and/or creating pleasure


  1. Jack, this is indeed a very great article. Loved it. It makes me eager to play Dark Souls myself too. Wow, very intersting thoughts You have there, about the game compared to Freudian theories and the Todestrieb. It is impressive, to see how deeply a videogame can be, and I never have thought, Dark Souls is such a piece. But then, I think Japanese videogames were/are far more deep and mature than other videogames in common, and also in the very beginning of videogaming, japanese videogames always had very difficult and unenjoyable situations until the player either overcome or give up trying. I love that. Also, you have done your homeworks very very thoroughly. Well done and very interesting. Good work.

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