Coming Home: Character Hubs in Dark and Demon's Souls

[Here be spoilers, but mostly for Demon’s Souls and the original Dark Souls. Dark Souls II gets a lighter discussion.]

The warriors who entered Boletaria’s fog couldn’t find their way back out, and you’re just one of many to end up trapped there. It’s fitting to bump up against the edges of your cage. Demon’s Souls is self-contained and claustrophobic, with no true escape regardless of the choices you make or how far you progress. You can defeat the world’s demons. You can try to help people, or take on assassination contracts and start picking them off one by one. You might eventually gain an amazing amount of power but you’ll still be bound to the Nexus, constantly returning to this hub in an unbreakable cycle. It’s a sanctuary for many, creating rest and safety at the eye of the storm, but also a prison.

Demon's Souls Screenshot

The Nexus.

A Demon’s Souls level is like a cleverly constructed dollhouse. Everything is neat and connected into a single coherent space. Progress can be measured in opportunities to step back and see how everything physically fits together. It makes everything seem smaller, and you along with it. The game’s broader structure is created by a series of portals, which connect each world to the Nexus. You continually warp back from each area to the centre before setting out again in an ongoing loop. There’s a vague order to things, but it’s often left relatively open, so a new player might find themselves exploring a bit of this and a bit of that, chipping away to see where they can forge through, or where a barrier or challenging section would force them back. Even without this you’ll keep coming back for practical reasons. To level up, repair equipment, store collected items, and so on. The looping structure makes jumping around from place to place fairly natural.

Some sense of home develops through familiarity, as you return to the Nexus over and over again, but it’s a dreary place hosting desperate refugees and a few self-righteous old masters. The hub is fully enclosed, like a windowless cathedral with deep shadows and imposing columns. It’s spacious enough, with high ceilings and multiple levels, but that only makes it feel emptier. The few inhabitants find their own quiet corners, the faith- and magic-based characters segregating themselves to opposite sides, each spouting insults about the other.

The Maiden in Black forms the heart of the Nexus, acting as the primary functional character (required for levelling up) and also representing one of the greatest mysteries of the Nexus and Demon’s Souls as a whole. The Souls games have a slight obsession with maidens, but the Maiden in Black doesn’t seem pure or innocent. She’s an ancient demon with mysterious powers and uncertain loyalties. She’s practically part of the Nexus itself, and says she has always been here and cannot die while she is bound to the place.

[Note: Purity and demonic nature are not separate concepts in themselves. In the case of Maiden Astraea her pure compassion led her to be counted among the most corrupt of demons, as she betrayed her faith in a desperate attempt to ease the suffering of others. Is she pure or corrupt? Yes.]

I’m not going to pretend I understand everything that’s going on with the Maiden in Black, since the lore is open to interpretation, but I find she gives the Nexus a greater sense of secrecy and deception. I never felt like I could trust her, and that if she wasn’t outright lying she was at least keeping important details hidden. She appears as a young woman, who keeps the candles lit and serves the warriors who find themselves here. She seems submissive and vulnerable, frequently apologising and deferring, with bare feet and eyes blinded by a wax coating. Her appearance and demeanour seems crafted to evoke a reaction. That you might feel protective and sorry for her. Possibly to be seduced by her (“touch the demon inside me”). Certainly that you might underestimate her.

Maiden in Black

Maiden in Black fanart by DunkleMaterie on deviantART

If the Nexus is home it’s a toxic sort of home, feeling safe only in comparison to the violence and madness going on elsewhere. There’s a more subtle game going on, and we’re much too small to see all the pieces. The Demon’s Souls intro sequence says that being granted a soul brought humanity clarity but I’m not feeling it.

***

The original Dark Souls has you break out of a prison, into the open air. Not the same sort of prison of course — this takes place in another universe to Demon’s Souls entirely — but it’s an interesting development anyway. The undead were corralled and herded to the north to be imprisoned in the asylum, but really your own cursed nature is more of a trap than anything in the world. Where in Demon’s Souls you knew you were just one of many lost warriors now you are presented as a “chosen one” destined to complete a prophecy. One of many chosen possibilities, really, and it’s a transparent attempt at manipulation. Still, I think Demon’s Souls characters were more likely to lose sight of broader aims and chase personal, selfish power. Here the higher purpose remains in focus even if it’s not entirely legitimate.

Dark Souls opened up into a single large world instead of a series of smaller ones, but retained some tight dollhouse-like elements. It’s a neat compromise between open and constrained. Firelink Shrine is the closest the game has to a Nexus, with several paths looping back there but it’s a transient space, more campsite than home. Firelink Shrine is green and melancholy; softer than the stone of the Nexus, but a long-dead place of crumbling, overgrown walls. Where the citizens of the Nexus were afraid and had nowhere else to go, those at Firelink Shrine often have stronger goals and adventures to pursue, and might just as well pass through as stick around. You don’t need to spend as much time here either, though it’s certainly possible to become fond of the place.

Dark Souls Screenshot

Firelink Shrine.

The single world of Dark Souls might seem like a more natural place to explore, but the downside is a mix of both too much and too little direction. There is no clear, labelled order to the paths out of Firelink, but there is often a “best” or intended direction to be discovered (at least in the early to mid sections of the game). Rather than chipping away at a section before jumping to another it’s more a matter of finding the current optimal direction and seeing that path through to the end. This is probably a more familiar way to progress, but seems more likely to encourage grinding if you find yourself struggling.

Another maiden-like character, Anastacia of Astora, is the Keeper at Firelink, bound here to tend the candles bonfire. If Anastacia is the heart of Firelink the place is sadder for it. She’s easy to forget, being hidden quietly away in a cell below the bonfire. She had her tongue removed to prevent blasphemy, and seems to believe in her own impurity. She’s a victim, who can be a damsel to rescue but honestly can’t really be saved. Even given the ability to speak she would prefer to stay silent and be left alone.

The serpent Frampt appears at Firelink later, and possibly makes a better comparison to the Maiden in Black in the sense that he has his own agenda. Deception is still a big part of this hub, it just feels like I don’t have to let myself be dragged into it. I can keep moving and don’t have to listen. Though I suppose at the end it always comes back to the same choice about who or what to trust. Frampt destroys some of the shrine’s peacefulness, brining loud rumbling snores and allegedly a dreadful smell.

If Firelink Shrine is home it’s temporary with no proper chance to put down roots. And you just never know when a giant serpent might move in and spoil your day. We’ll be called back here eventually, but we don’t need it in the way we need the safety of the Nexus. Both these homes can be threatened, but for Firelink the danger is less dramatic. There’s less to lose.

***

Dark Souls II’s Majula wants to hit you over the head with spectacle. Emerging from a dark cave you encounter overwhelming brightness, and need to wait a moment for your eyes to adjust. The cliffs overlook the sea, with a permanently-setting sun that has no business being this bright. The ocean is choppy and has a dark, swirling vortex down below. Next to the sea cliffs Majula itself feels barren and lifeless. All bare rocks and crumbling buildings without Firelink’s softening vegetation. Everything’s a bit too spread out among flat, uninteresting scenery. It lacks the Nexus’ grand architecture or Firelink’s multi-level sections. If Firelink is long-dead Majula is practically worn away. As the cat Shalquoir comments, this place is already dead and waiting for rebirth. In the meantime it’s aimless to the point of discomfort.

Dark Souls II Screenshot

The approach to Majula.

And yet Majula seems aimed at once again giving us a proper hub (possibly a home). As usual, the population gradually grows as we meet more people. The game achievements frame collecting new residents as a worthy goal, as though this is a place worth developing. But Majula itself doesn’t develop along with the people. No construction or repair, and the environment remains as dull as ever.

The Emerald Herald performs the same levelling function as the Maiden in Black, which tethers us back here. Without having finished the game I don’t have much to say about The Emerald Herald, and what I do know I’m not ready to share. By Souls standards she blurts out a bunch of blatant exposition and guidance. There’s a mystery here but it will have to wait.

We keep coming back to Majula, but the game structure doesn’t fit neatly around its hub the way it does in Demon’s Souls. That tight level design I love is all but lost. The game sprawls, and where things link together it’s in a much less interesting way. Shortcuts rely heavily on hidden doors, or inelegantly breaking walls. It’s possible that the world makes proper geographical sense, but it sure doesn’t feel like it in places. It’s so rare now, to step back and see how it all fits together.

There is more of everything. More bonfires; more characters. Taller structures with longer lift rides. Levels are handed out like lollies, but each one feels less significant. The dialogue also does less with more. Characters are chattier, blabbing away about rebirth, memory, and so on. There are still plenty of intriguing lore snippets to weave together and invent theories about, but Dark Souls II is more heavy-handed than its predecessor.

If Majula is home it’s a home I resent. I’m not developing fondness through familiarity anymore, just putting up with a dash of tedium. Laggy menus contribute to the vibe. Responsibilities drag me back to see this patchwork collection of residents I’m not invested in. The most interesting characters are the ones I don’t need to talk to much.

There’s still so much Souls here to love, but it can’t create a home like this. Just stick to the wandering adventurer vibe if your structure is going to ramble around so much. Better yet, chill out with the sense of scale and spectacle, and remember how to condense your environments into something more intimate and comprehensible. I miss my dollhouses.