Over the years, players from all over the world have been drawn to FromSoftware games for a plethora of reasons—the brutal action, the intense difficulty, the fragmented lore. However, one of the most integral aspects of these games is the way in which they communicate meaning through architecture.
Although all FromSoftware games have their own distinctive aesthetic, whether that be the earthy palette of Dark Souls or the dark hues of Bloodborne, it’s easy to pick out a game that’s been directed by Hidetaka Miyazaki at just a glance. What’s not so easy is breaking down what the visuals of these games actually mean, which is why we’ve got to dig deeper in order to unearth what the architecture communicates about the games’ stories.
In Dark Souls, you wake up as the Chosen Undead in the Undead Asylum. You're tasked with escaping from your prison cell after Oscar of Astora drops a key down to you, but this action is designed to be deceptive. In that cell you’re free, unobliged to do anything about the crumbling world. Once you leave, you’re truly imprisoned within immortality.
Because of Dark Souls’ bonfire mechanic, which acts as a sort of checkpoint and rest-stop for you, the game world resets itself every time you die. As opposed to being an ordinary load point though, this has narrative significance; both you and the enemies are undead, and what is dead may never die. As philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche discusses in his book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra:
“The greatest weight. What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more’ ... The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!"
Those not cursed by the Darksign—a brand that marks its bearer as undead—don’t respawn, because they can retain their humanity. On the contrary, those who wear the mark are cursed with immortality, and will continuously be brought back to life until they go hollow—a degenerative state of mind not unlike the idea of zombification in other stories.
The Darksign forces one to adhere to what Nietzsche calls amor fati, or “love of one’s fate.” Because you no longer have the ability to die, the world, and by extension life itself, becomes your prison. Seath’s Archives, Sen’s Fortress, Blighttown, Darkroot Basin; all these areas in Dark Souls make you feel as if you’re free because of their imposing edifices and wide-open plains. The truth is, they’re just another place for you to be denied the freedom of death, designed to subvert the idea that you ever left that prison cell right at the beginning of the game. The fact that the end of Dark Souls just leads on to Dark Souls 3 just further reinforces the fact that life itself is the prison, and the architecture in the games is constructed based on that fact.
From the Prison to the Church
Bloodborne is often discussed as having been influenced by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, and that much is undeniable. With words like “augur,” “bulwark,” and “eldritch,” FromSoftware wasn’t exactly subtle in relation to its source material. However, aside from its tentacled monsters, Bloodborne’s aesthetic is influenced by something else entirely. Yharnam’s churches and towers are ostensibly Gothic.
Calling these structures “Gothic” doesn’t really convey the whole picture though, as they’re actually modeled after Victorian Gothic revival architecture. The difference here is that the Gothic revival movement came several centuries after the first surge of Gothic design, and was actually initiated as a power move by the Catholic Church in 18th Century England.
This occurred after the Reformation in Europe, which brought about a schism in Christianity, introducing the new denomination of Protestantism. If you’ve played Bloodborne, you’ll likely be familiar with the schism that split the Church into the Healing Church, the School of Mensis, and the College of Byrgenwerth. Gothic revival architecture was intended to reassert the power of the Catholic Church in England post-schism.
Bloodborne’s magnificent cathedrals can easily be understood in the same way. They tell us a whole lot about the Healing Church's desperate attempt to hold on to the power that they were losing hold of in Yharnam, and their sublimity is brilliantly juxtaposed with the chaos of the world outside them. People in Yharnam bolt their doors shut, terrified of the Scourge of the Beasts outside, but the churches are open, standing tall over the world they were constructed to keep at bay.
FromSoftware’s newest game Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is due to be set in Japan’s Sengoku period, which was a time of social upheaval directly following the newly-dismantled feudal system. When you consider the significance of architecture in the studio’s previous titles, you’ll be able to see that Sekiro is likely going to have its own architectural symbolism in play too. However, perhaps most intriguing of all is the fact that this is going to be Miyazaki's take on a real-life historical setting as opposed to the fictional Lordran or Yharnam.
A Tale of Blood and War
So if Dark Souls’ structure is founded upon the prison and Bloodborne is concerned with the Church, Sekiro will inevitably concern itself with the idea of bloodlines and political intrigue in Sengoku period Japan. Although very little is known about the game yet, we do know that the eponymous Sekiro, or “one-armed wolf,” must set out to save his young lord from the antagonistic Ashina Clan. Although this period of Japanese history sought to disempower the feudal system, the fact that it is the young lord’s bloodline that causes him to be kidnapped paradoxically subverts the idea of undermining feudalism.
So how can this be implemented into the game’s architectural structure? Very easily, actually. Since Sekiro is a reimagining of history more so than a retelling of it, FromSoftware can offer a more historiographical interpretation of the period. Although Sekiro does seem to feature some supernatural elements, such as the sheer size of the Corrupted Monk from the gameplay trailer published by PlayStation, its aesthetic doesn’t indulge in fantasy that much, and happens to be quite a faithful visual representation of 16th Century Japan.
Sekiro’s buildings are elegant and inherently noble. Compared to the imposing edifices of Bloodborne and confined prison spaces of Dark Souls, they have a sort of subtle majesty. However, they are destroyed. There are holes blown in the walls; support beams jut out in every direction they’re not supposed to. These buildings are products of blood and war in Sengoku period Japan, with the former being the direct instigator of the latter.
The event that actually led to the Sengoku period was The Ōnin War in the late 15th Century. As Japan suffered from earthquakes and famine, the shogunate was challenged due to an unstable economic climate. This led to a militarized nation, and although the fighting was initially contained to specific regions, it quickly began to spread outward into adjacent provinces. Naturally, this caused the destruction of many Japanese towns, most of which had their feudal architecture pummelled into ruin. This sentiment is echoed by the aesthetic of Sekiro, which tells the tale of a domestic conflict based on what separates one person from another: family blood.
If Sekiro is a game about the blood running through people’s veins, then its architecture will subvert this thematic motif in the same way that Dark Souls and Bloodborne are influenced by theirs. Sekiro will show that no matter what family your blood ties you to, everything that makes you prosperous—your land, your property, your followers—can be stripped away and smashed into nothingness. Even amidst the beauty of nature, a perpetual war will wage until people become defined as individuals as opposed to bloodlines.
In FromSoftware games, architecture isn’t just designed with visual integrity in mind. Rather, it tells a story of its own, which often begets more truth than the story presented at face value. In Dark Souls, the world was designed to confine you, while Bloodborne’s buildings were constructed to teach you about the Church’s misdirected power. But in Sekiro, we'll likely see how the world is shaped by the misguided belief that one person’s blood is worth more than another’s. In any case, storytelling through architecture is one of the most integral parts of these mysterious games. It may be easy to overlook, but once you dive into the deeper meaning of the buildings and structures in these games, you can see that they’re all tied together by an investment in environmental storytelling. FromSoftware games are best known for their action, difficulty, and lore, but they should be celebrated for so much more.