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The Rebirth of Classic Tragedy Through Sublime Artistry of ‘Dark Souls’

In 1872, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche published “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music.” Much like Aristotle’s landmark “Poetics” from the 4th Century BC, it’s a work of dramatic theory that is dedicated to identifying the prerequisites for tragedy.

In 2011, Hidetaka Miyazaki released “Dark Souls.” Commonly recognized in terms of its extreme difficulty, countless stories have been written about “Dark Souls over the last seven years. However, despite the significant amount of fantastic writing that exists on “Dark Souls,” it has not yet been recognized for what it is: a tragedy.

When you view “Dark Souls” as a tragedy in the classical sense of the form, it becomes clear that Miyazaki’s game is not just meritable in terms of the “git gud” culture. “Dark Souls” is the best tragedy that has been written in our time.

In “The Birth of Tragedy,” Nietzsche introduces two states of being: Apollonian and Dionysian, or order and chaos, respectively. In order for a tragedy to work, there must be consistent tension between the two; go too far in either direction and the cord will snap.

In “Dark Souls,” Apollonian and Dionysian forces are potent. Solaire of Astora, a companion who can be summoned to help with some of the most iconic boss fights in the game, is the epitome of the Apollonian state of mind. However, he neglects the Dionysian chaos necessary to balancing the scales of his destiny. Eventually, he will succumb to the temptations of the chaotic, martyring his sanity by falling victim to the Sunlight Maggot. Lautrec, a truly Dionysian non-player character, is unable to conform to order in even the most minor sense. His chaotic mindset keeps him from ever actually doing anything, and the chaos that surrounds him swallows him whole as part of it.

Although the supporting cast in “Dark Souls“ embodies the two forces in a particularly on-the-nose way, it is the protagonist that makes “Dark Souls” the greatest tragedy since the works of Sophocles and Aeschylus. The Chosen Undead wakes up in a jail cell and his hamartia, or tragic flaw, is written in the stars from the moment of his awakening. They are committed to pursuing the knowledge necessary to save the world from the Age of Fire, yet are ignorant toward the fact that there is no salvation.

The hamartia, therefore, comes from the miscalculation made by the hero that they have the power to actually change something. The plot revolves around the consequence of the flaw, as opposed to the dichotomy between good and evil that is deceptively imbued in the illusion of choice at the end of the game.

The differences in the ostensible outcomes are merely cosmetic, as consequence is to be the same regardless of what happens on a microcosmic level. Nietzsche wrote: “Many are stubborn in the pursuit of the path they have chosen; few in pursuit of the goal.

The Chosen Undead’s hamartia of pursuing forbidden knowledge energizes them as they bound onward down a path, yet the goal is one that is ultimately pointless.  For instance, the Great Grey Wolf Sif will recognize the player if they have completed the downloadable content prior to the boss fight. In an effort to protect the player from venturing further into the Abyss and following in the footsteps of its previous companion, Sif will fight to the death. The player stubbornly kills Sif, who is no more than an obstacle on the path to an obfuscated goal that is neither visible nor important.

This evokes katharsis, or purgation, in the spectator, who is the witness and, considering that this is a game that is played instead of a play that is watched, the instigator of the tragedy. The ending is perfectly tragic in that involves an act done in the name of knowledge, but as a result of ignorance. The player knows that they must choose to either link the First Flame or allow the encroaching Abyss to swallow the world; what they don’t know is that neither of the choices is any better than the other. It is the discovery of this ignorance at the last moment of the game that allows the tragedy to culminate, as the world is filled with suffering either way.

Why does this matter? Well, for Nietzsche, Greek tragedy was pessimistic in appearance, much like the ostensible endgame of “Dark Souls.” However, the function of tragedy was to violently riposte against the ideas of nihilism that denoted the world as meaningless on a fundamental level. The Greek spectators who viewed tragedy confronted the depths of the abyss, opting to recognize the suffering that synonymized with human existence as opposed to ignoring it. In doing so, they were able to perceive meaning on an individual level, as the whole of the human condition was being acted out before their very eyes. Tragedy is the truest form of art because tragedy recognizes the whole picture.

To return to Solaire and Lautrec as examples in the grand scheme of “Dark Souls,” the Apollonian and Dionysian states of being are not just rooted in individuals, but in the order of the world itself. The Apollonian, or the orderly, orders things in a way that differentiates them; the Dionysian does the opposite, attempting to eradicate the things that differentiate objects from each other. Solaire and Lautrec serve as explicit examples of the Apollonian and Dionysian presences in the world, but they are just individually potent cases of what is at play on a macrocosmic level.

If the Dionysian can be seen in the aesthetic of the world of “Dark Souls,” the Apollonian exists in the form of language. The dialogue of characters and the item descriptions that contain the fragmentary story are conspicuous attempts to restore order to a world over which chaos reigns. Ironically, the ordered parts of the world accentuate the chaos, as it is order that gives form to chaos.  

The Age of Fire plunges the world into chaos regardless of whether the player opts to perpetuate it or put an end to it. However, it is the fact that the suffering contained within the story is inevitable and unending that allows the world to exist as part of a harmonious dichotomy with the real world. The tragic elements of “Dark Souls” are a product of a creativity that is deeply human, which means that the suffering is endowed with humanity, and the tragedy is art in the most essential and pure sense.

In Ancient Greece, those who watched tragedy experienced Dionysian energies tamed by Apollonian structures. It was a safe way of engaging with the dangers of chaos, as katharsis was given precedence over all else. The theater, on a functional level, was committed to making its spectators aware of their vitality, of the order and chaos that had come together in order to ground them here and now amidst the maelstrom of matter and energy that is existence.

This alone is where meaning can be found, as, despite the pain and suffering that is so intrinsically linked to being alive, it is the fact that being alive is the product of emphatically living that makes life gain meaning. Nietzsche wrote: “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable: intoxication.”

The intoxicated state of chaos is the well from which all art is drawn; the Apollonian forces of the world ground this art, make it palatable, comprehensible, yet the art is at all times vitalized by the Dionysian. “Dark Souls” is a Dionysian work of art that recalls the energy that made Greek tragedy powerful in the eyes of its spectators. It is the world within our world that is capable of communicating the inevitability of suffering in a way that marks our own existence here as something important and meaningful.

In 1872, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote that tragedy had died. In 2011, 111 years after Nietzsche passed away, tragedy was reborn. “Dark Souls” instigated the rebirth of tragedy, and for that, it deserves to be recognized as the vitally important work of art that it is.

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