Perhaps I just have a bias against parallel dimensions (as evidenced from my interpretation of Silent Hill's otherworld), but I want to take some time to clear up what might be a mis-conception in the conventional wisdom interpretation behind Dark Souls' multiplayer summoning mechanics. Dark Souls co-op is not necessarily based on parallel dimensions, as many players seem to assume. It might, in fact, be intended to be an abstraction of time travel. I've noticed that many players online already seem to refer to the multiplayer mechanic of these games in terms of time travel, but I've yet to see any wikis, lore videos, or blogs that seem to explain multiplayer as a time travel mechanic.
I want to preface this analysis by stating that the below interpretation is not necessarily the absolutely, 100% correct interpretation. Individual players may disagree based on their own reading of the game, and I'm personally somewhat conflicted on the topic myself. I merely want to propose this as a possible alternative to the defacto "parallel worlds" interpretation. I'm going to point out in-game evidence that supports the idea that Dark Souls' multiplayer is based on time travel, but there is also in-game evidence and mechanical evidence that also contradicts that interpretation. I will address those contradictions as well. So that being said, please keep an open mind, and enjoy the read!
The summoning mechanic
So there are two games in the series that are not part of the Dark Souls franchise, and which have different in-game explanations and rules for the same multiplayer features (more or less). Those games are, of course, Demon's Souls and Bloodborne. Both have asynchronous multiplayer and summoning mechanics that work similarly to Dark Souls.
Demon's Souls summoning operates under the idea of summoning the spirit of a fellow adventurer who's soul is trapped in the Nexus. This is why you must be in soul form in order to be summoned. Bloodborne's beckoning operates [similarly] under the principle of manifesting hunters out of dreams (and I'm still trying to piece together the mechanics of it all). In Dark Souls, you aren't necessarily summoning ghosts (as you do in Demon's Souls), since the undead in Dark Souls are more akin to zombies than ghosts. Also, characters in Dark Souls can leave summon signs whether they are hollowed (dead) or in human form (revived), which is a significant alteration from Demon's Souls. A lore reason for summoning is provided in Dark Souls:
Solaire explains to us how summoning works:
"We are amidst strange beings, in a strange land.
The flow of time itself is convoluted; with heroes centuries old phasing in and out.
The very fabric wavers, and relations shift and obscure.
There's no telling how much longer your world and mine will remain in contact.
But, use this, to summon one another as spirits, cross the gaps between worlds, and engage in jolly co-operation!"
Both Solaire's dialogue, and the White Sign Soapstone (along with other online play items) make references to other "worlds", which leads to many jumping to the conclusion that each player's game is a sort of parallel universe within the Dark Souls lore. However, this may not necessarily be correct. Both Solaire's dialogue and the soapstone also provide explanations for these worlds: "time is convoluted | distorted". This seems to be the explanation for what is meant by "worlds", and it seems that Solaire and the in-game descriptions may be using "time" and "world" interchangeably. The phrasing in the white soapstone's description joins "the flow of time is distorted", and "the White Soapstone allows undead to assist one another", into a single, compound sentence, which definitely implies that the two phrases are linked.
"Online play item. Leave summon sign.
Be summoned to another world as a phantom through your sign, and defeat the area boss to acquire humanity.
In Lordran, the flow of time is distorted, and the White Sign Soapstone allows Undead to assist one another"
The dialogue of Saulden (the Crestfallen Warrior of Dark Souls II) is even more explicit... [More]
I'm going to do something that I don't normally do, which is to muse a little bit on the theories of other fans. Normally, when I write these lore posts, I write about what I believe - my own personal interpretation. In this case, however, I stumbled upon a video and a blog written by two different users that posit two entirely different (and probably contradictory) fan theories regarding the Souls games. Both theories piqued my interest and lead me down a rabbit hole of my own thought and speculation. So I'm going to summarize the theories that these two have pitched, and also throw in my own thoughts.
But first, let's review the conventional Dark Souls wisdom of the cycles of Fire and Dark. According to conventional wisdom, the dragons and archtrees of the Age of Ancients existed at the genesis of the world. The fire then appeared and ushered in the Age of Fire, but the fire faded, and the Age of Dark began. Lord Gwyn sacrificed himself to rekindle the flame and renew the Age of Fire, but it eventually faded again, leading to an Age of Dark. And the world continued in this endless cycle of the fire
fading and then being rekindled.
An overarching cycle of world-creation?
First, I'll start with a video by The Ashen Hollow, which is about the Cycle of Ages, and which speculates that the Soul of the Lords and Age of Dark ending establishes that the Age of Dark eventually gives way to yet another Age of Ancients. This creates a cycle of cycles, in which not only does the world of Dark Souls repeat Ages of Fire and Ages of Dark, but that once that cycle has run its course, it repeats yet another cycle of world-creation. Dark Souls III, therefore, takes place at the end of an Age of Fire, but it also takes place at the tail end of a cycle of world-creation and destruction. So Dark Souls III is a sequel to the first Dark Souls, and also the first Dark Souls is - in a sense - a sequel to Dark Souls III.
"Soul of the Lords.
One of the twisted souls, steeped in strength.
Use to acquire numerous souls, or transpose to extract it's true strength.
Since Lord Gwyn, the first Lord of Cinder, many exalted lords have linked the First Flame, and it is their very souls that have manifested themselves as defender of the flame."
When the fire inevitably fades, there will be an Age of Dark. This we know. The entire game series, so far, has been about perpetuating this Age of Fire for as long as possible in order to avoid the Age of Dark. Though the first and third game gives us the explicit option to initiate an Age of Dark, it's unclear if that ever actually happens in the canon of the series. And even if it does, the ending of Dark Souls II establishes that either course of action will just result in that chosen age cycling back to the other. We've never actually seen a proper Age of Dark, so we know little of what it would be like. Perhaps the Age of Dark is not permanent. According to the Fire Keeper (if given the Eyes of a Fire Keeper), the Age of Dark is not completely without fire, for there will be little embers dancing in the distance, left to us by past lords. [More]
Now that Dark Souls is supposedly over (pending the inevitable DLC for Dark Souls III), it's time to wonder what new games From Software and Hidetaka Miyazaki might decide to make. Will they continue to make Souls-like games (ala Bloodborne)? Will they go back to older IPs like Armored Core or King's Field? All indications seem to point towards the company going back towards making mech games along the lines of Armored Core (though it may be a new IP).
I've played some of the Armored Core games, and I actually really liked some of the PS1 / PS2 - era games. But I would actually much rather see the company try their hand at something different. I'd like to see this company (under Miyazaki's direction) take a stab at a genuine horror game.
Miyazaki has said that Dark Souls is likely over. So what's next for his company?
They've already played around with some horror concepts in some of the Souls games. Levels like the Tower of Latria and Valley of Defilement in Demon's Souls had genuinely frightening atmospheres. The Dark Souls games also had their share of some horror-inspired levels. Sen's Fotress and Tomb of the Giants have the pacing of a horror level. And of course, Bloodborne was a whole game inspired by Gothic horror and Lovecraft.
Granted, these games were all hack-and-slash action games, rather than genuine horror games, but ... [More]
PC elitists now have yet another bragging point. Considering that Bloodborne ran smoothly at 30 frames per second on the PS4 (from my experience), and that Dark Souls III was supposedly built upon that same engine, I expected that the PS4 version would perform on par with (or maybe even better than) the PC version. I was wrong. Both console versions of Dark Souls III are capped at 30 fps, but their actual performance doesn't even meet that standard. This is a big problem considering that the game plays almost as fast as Bloodborne. Dropping a few crucial frames of enemy attack wind-ups can mean the difference between a successful dodge or parry, or losing a third of your health to a single attack. Bloodborne had the load screen issue that was that game's near-debilitating "known shippable"; and now Dark Souls III has its console framerate as being the major launch issue that must be fixed. At least Bloodborne's problem didn't impact actual gameplay...
Table of Content
A challenge to Souls fans
This is probably the hardest game in the lineup. In fact, it may even be too hard in some ways. Enemies are very aggressive and relentless, they are very fast and swift at attacking, and they are very good at tracking your movement during an attack. I feel like the game is sadly front-loaded with excessive difficulty. Oh, don't get me wrong! It's hard throughout, and there's still some definite mid-and-late-game peaks of difficulty. But this game easily has the highest barrier to entry of any game in the lineup.
Dark Souls III is very hard and very much front-loaded with difficulty.
It's one thing to provide a challenge, but the early levels of this game maybe cross the line into outright cruelty. If I weren't already invested in the series, I might not have even made it past the Lothric knights in the High Wall. Yeah sure, Demon's Souls had the Red Eye Knights, and Dark Souls had the Black Knights, and Bloodborne had the warewolves; but in those cases, those difficult enemies were blocking optional paths and items. This is why I can kind of tolerate the mutating tentacle monster on the rooftop that hits very hard, has a ton of HP, obscures half the screen, and causes an annoying framerate drop. Yeah, it's located in a critical path of the level, but it can be easily avoided and is basically just guarding a crystal lizard. The difficult Lothric knights, on the other hand, are placed in critical bottlenecks that must be passed as part of the necessary path of progression through the level, and they will shred new players to pieces! Heck, even that fat, winged knight going around in circles in the courtyard is easier than the Lothric Knights.
And then you get to the Undead Settlement, which is a maze full of ambushes and difficult enemies. Those fat evangelists and the large cleaver undead hit hard and have deceptively long reach and multi-hit combos. This is at a time when your HP and stamina are so low that you can't reliably block their attacks. Their long reach and relentless aggression means you can't back away either. So you're stuck having to stick to close range and roll through their attacks - a maneuver that can result in a quick death if you make but a single slip-up. I had a lot of trouble handling these enemies (as I was still getting used to the new timings for dodging and parrying, and the stamina requirements for blocking), and so I imagine that many rookies will likely be completely overwhelmed.
Dangerous enemies have narrow windows for parrying their attacks, making it hard to practice this technique.
There's a higher skill floor than in previous titles, and the game demands a further degree of mastery of rolling, stamina management, i-frames, and weapon movesets that previous games simply didn't require. Bloodborne also toes with this line, but Dark Souls III seems to go a bit further. The problem here is that enemies become far too fast and deadly far too early in the game, and the player character remains slow and relatively weak. What's worse is that the game breaks with the original's insistence on fair difficulty by apparently completely failing to enforce the rules regarding stamina for enemies! This was also a problem in Dark Souls II, but it didn't bother me quite as much because those enemies had slower attacks that were generally easier to dodge.
There's no gradual ramping up of challenge for the player to learn things like roll and parry timings, and there aren't any large, slow enemies to practice these techniques against. Bloodborne had very fast enemies to go with its very fast combat, but the character was also equally fast. Bloodborne also had the Brick Trolls, whose telegraphed attacks gave plenty of opportunity to practice parrying in the very first level while still making progress. Dark Souls III simply doesn't have this. There's the undead spearmen that are easy to parry, but they're so slow and defensive that you'll likely just get bored waiting for them to attack and miss your opportunity to parry. Sure you could go back to the tutorial level to practice parrying, but then you're not making any progress. There's also a lot more instances early of mobs, including the presence of difficult casters (or even bosses) being among those mobs. Fortunately, the boss is very slow and lumbering, and the casters have good audio cues for when they're casting that help to make these mobs less frustrating to deal with.
The big, armored elephant in the room
Poise has been disabled for players, which means enemies will always stagger you, but you might not stagger them.
Perhaps the biggest contributor to the game's difficulty early on is the completely baffling way in which poise and defense work - which is that they don't. In addition to not being able to upgrade armor to improve its defenses, the poise stat appears to have been completely disabled for all players in the game's code for ... some reason. Poise was one of the best additions from Dark Souls 1, and its apparent removal completely baffles me. Is it bugged and they're planning on fixing and enabling it later via a patch? Is it planned to be part of DLC? "Hey, want poise back? Pay $15 for this DLC!" The value still shows up in the UI, and there's still rings and weapons that exclusively improve poise, so it definitely seems like FROM intends for poise to be in the game. The enemies seem to still have poise, so this situation seems completely unfair. This might be part of the reason why the start of the game feels so difficult, since those damned speedy Lothric Knights can hit through your attacks, but you can't hit through theirs! [More]
While the player character in Dark Souls can be in a "hollow" state, the player never truly does go hollow. At least, not in the sense that NPCs and enemies have gone hollow. According to Dark Souls' mythology, the undead are condemned to repeatedly wander Lordran in search of a cure, being unable to permanently die. But for virtually all such undead, this quest is futile. An undead can temporarily stave off hallowing by absorbing souls or infusing themselves with the humanity of someone else. Eventually, an undead dies one too many times, or is worn down by the daily grind of collecting souls, and loses the will to go on. When this happens, that undead becomes hollow, loses his sanity and free will, and continues to wander the world as a mindless zombie attacking any un-hollowed that it encounters on sight.
It is unknown how many "Chosen Undead" are brought to Lordran, but the Crestfallen Warrior at Firelink tells us that many have come before you. Is it possible that all hollows in Lordran were at some point "Chosen Undead", tasked by Frampt to retrieve the Lordvessel and re-kindle the dying flame? Probably not. A great deal of the hollows that you encounter in the game were likely former residents of Lordran, and there was no need to select a "Chosen Undead" until Gwyn's power faded to a "cinder", and the fire began to die. This presumably took a very long time - a whole "age", to be precise.
The Crestfallen Warrior informs us that we are not the first "chosen undead",
and suspects that we won't be the last either.
Avoiding hollowness with purpose
Many undead adventurers wandered into Lordran (or were abducted and taken there), and they struggle to hold onto their precious humanity for as long as possible, fighting for their lives in the fear that they, too will go hollow. Some, like the Crestfallen Warrior, resign themselves to the inevitability of hollowness, and find a sense of purpose in warning other new arrivals that they, too, are doomed. Others pursue some seemingly impossible goal or objective in the hopes that the journey will provide them with the sense of purpose necessary to avoid (or at least delay) hollowing. And yet others have taken up crafts or vocations such as blacksmithing, vending, or guarding something in order to keep them focused and avoid hollowing. Keeping such a goal may help keep an undead partially lucid, but they also seem to begin to forget everything else, and only the knowledge of their quest or craft remains.
Going on "one final quest" seems to provide adventurers with enough focus to hold back hollowing.
But hollowing isn't just a thematic element reserved for non-player characters; hollowing is also a mechanic in the game that affects the player. Whenever the player character dies, you are reborn at the last bonfire in a hollowed state, unable to summon help from allies until you restore your humanity through the consumption of someone else's humanity. In Dark Souls II, hollowing further handicaps the player by cummulatively reducing your total health each time you die, and only restoring your humanity can refill your health meter. In both these cases, the player is not truly hollow; you are only in a state of partial hollowing.
It's unclear whether non-player characters are able to die and restore their humanity, or if deaths contribute to an irreversible progression towards hollowness. There are, after all, apparently hollowed NPCs such as the undead merchant in the Undead Burg and blacksmith Lenigrast in Majula who are sane enough to have kept their shops open. The presence of NPC summon signs hints at the possibility that they, too, are capable of restoring their own humanity through the same mechanisms that you can, but the game itself justifies this with ambiguous appeals to "time distortion" and parallel realities that obfuscates the matter - particularly where Solaire and Lautrec are concerned.
Summoned NPCs may recover humanity as you do, or they're from another time or dimension, or both.
Solaire's dialogue refers to "heroes centuries old phasing in and out.". Solaire may be using the words "world" and "time" interchangeably. This seems to be the game's justification for how summoning works: you may be literally summoning someone from a bygone era into your own time period. Anytime, you are summoned to someone else's world, you are also being transported to another time (past or future, depending on whether or not you finish the game). Solaire and Lautrec seem to somehow come from another time or dimension, but other characters definitely seem to exist within your world and time: Andre, the Crestfallen Warrior, Rhea and her companions, Big Hat Logan and his apprentice, and so on are all undead who have seen many other "Chosen Undead" come to Lordran seeking their destiny.
In any case, it's not until an undead "gives up" that the hollowing process becomes complete. What do we mean by "giving up"? For an NPC, it means that they gave up on life and went hollow, and the player typically ends up putting them down. For the player, it means that you stop playing the game. As long as you continue to play the game, then your character will continue to hold onto a sliver of humanity and maintain his or her sanity for a little while longer. When you put down your controller for the last time, you have condemned your character avatar to finally succumbing to hollowness, whether you recognize it or not... [More]
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