Dark Souls, La Invención de Morel and the Role of Art in Society

Thoughts on my time with Dark Souls, the Painted World and the Novel of Adolfo Bioy Casares. Spoilers for Both

“You are a observer of the piece of art, not part of it. I’m not your waifu”

When I was in college, I used to play the game Dark Souls with my friend Dan. The game is known for being wickedly hard, but in my opinion, that was more a marketing gimic over anything else. Dark Souls is a game about patience: slowly learning the move sets of enemies, how to roll, dodge, use different weapon types,and avoid the repeated deaths that are the trademark of the franchise. This learning curve is often very frustratingly steep, causing players to give up on the game. This phenomena is reflected in-universe by the concept of “hollowing”. Since most humans in the universe of Dark Souls are undead, they cannot die. Instead, they gradually lose their memories and purpose, becoming little more than zombies. This is the implied fate of the player character when you stop playing the game.

Dan and I made it pretty far in Dark Souls, beating the first game and getting two thirds of the way through the second. We traded places every time we died, which was much more frequently for me than for Dan. Dan was good at Dark Souls, as he was at pretty much everything else: running, guitar, girls, school, and being a good person. I looked up to him like a brother, even when my failure to put “bros before hoes” strained our friendship.

Dan taught me a lot about Dark Souls, and after he graduated, I replayed the game and beat it myself, the super-hard double bosses, Ornstein and Smough, and all. Shortly after, I stopped playing video games and went hollow for good.

Dan lives on the other side of the country now, and I’ve only seen him once since both of our graduations. I’d always known that Dan was a lot more than Dark Souls, but seeing him again last December made me realize how much I had not seen. How much he had not had time to teach me. That Dark Souls, though it brought us together, was but a substitute to real life.

A Painting of the Painted World

There is a level you can access in the game through a painting in an obscure room in a castle in one of the most challenging areas. But only if you have a certain doll in your inventory. Which you can get from returning to the tutorial area of the game, something that I didn’t even realize was an option the first time around. The level is strangely quiet and peaceful; even if there are a bunch of enemies that want to kill you (just like every other level). However, when you reach the end of this painted world, where there’s usually a boss, you meet Priscilla, a human-dragon crossbreed. Who Priscilla is and why she is here is not entirely relevant to this post, but you can find a ton of lore speculation videos on YouTube if you’re interested. Rather than fight you she tells you:

Who art thou? One of us, thou art not. If thou hast misstepped into this world, plunge down from the plank, and hurry home. If thou seekest I, thine desires shall be requited not. Thou must returneth whence thou came. This land is peaceful, its inhabitants kind, but thou dost not belong. I beg of thee, plunge down from the plank, and hurry home.

You can disobey this commandment and fight her if you so choose, as this is Dark Souls, but it is interesting that you are given the option to flee. In fact, she is almost begging you to. You are not of the painting, and you no more belong in it than in a Monet watercolor.

The rest of the game makes does not invite you to stay either. The vistas are universally in decay. Almost every aspect of the environment is trying to poison you, push you off ledges, or stab swords through your chest. Dark Souls takes every opportunity to remind you that you are not of Lordran, its world. Just like a painting in an art gallery, or a challenging modern novel, you are here to learn what you can. Lordran, like Hogwarts, or 15th century Venice, can never be your home.

Modern Art is a totalizing experience: You can almost forget there’s a real world out there

Modern Society, however, has forgotten this fact about art. So many people so desperately wish places like Narnia, Hogwarts and Disney movies existed here on earth, that we’ve actually built them, in the form of tacky theme parks. Even if you don’t ever make your way to Florida, modern fandoms are a totalizing experience: you can immerse yourself in podcasts, YouTubers and franchise related merchandise until the day you die. You can almost convince yourself that Harry and the gang are one day going to come knocking on your door with your Hogwarts letter.

Except you know it’s not real.

I finished reading La Invención de Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares in the original Spanish a few weeks ago. The plot follows a Venezuelan criminal who ends up on an island inhabited by projections of dead people played on an endless week-long loop(which takes him most of the short novella to figure out). This is horrifying enough, but it gets worse. He has fallen in love with one of them, describing it as thus:

To be on an island inhabited by artificial ghosts was the most unbearable of nightmares,- to be in love with one of those images was worse than being in love with a ghost (perhaps we always want the person we love to have the existence of a ghost).

We will never, ever go to Hogwarts, no matter how much Harry Potter merchandise we buy. We will never, ever live in Lordran, no matter how many hours of Dark Souls we play. Morel will never, ever meet the person he has fallen in love with. And wishing for these things will drive us mad. The main character of Morel eventually inserts himself into the projection and then dies of starvation, as he cannot bear to be apart from Faustine (his love), even if “he” won’t actually be alive inside the dead copy of himself that the projector creates.

From the Ashes a New World

What then is the proper role of art in society? In the third Dark Souls game, set in an even more bleak and decayed world than the first time, where even the ashes have burned down to cinder, there is another painted world. This world was created as a refugee, a new flame to reignite the passions of the tired, old, and fading world outside its canvas. Perhaps this is the role of art then: to inspire and reinvigorate the real life out here. To kindle friendships like the one that Dan and I shared. To help us see the beauty of the world that we do have.



“To the contrary, that the very genes do not lose a miRNA that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.” Musings about biology, learning and literature

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Deus ex Vita

“To the contrary, that the very genes do not lose a miRNA that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.” Musings about biology, learning and literature