For better or for worse in the west, FromSoftware has largely become known as, "the Dark Souls company." The truth of the matter is that while many Americans and Europeans may have first heard of From with the release of 2009's Demon's Souls, the company has a robust and eclectic back catalog of games. Apart from its incredibly lengthy (and extremely popular in its native Japan) Armored Core series, From also developed the likes of adorable and criminally underrated co-op platformer The Adventures of Cookie & Cream, gonzo mech shooter Metal Wolf Chaos, creepy cult horror title Kuon, and dozens more.
Of course, it's hard to deny the Dark Souls series (for the sake of simplicity I'll say this includes both Demon's Souls and Bloodborne) is its most developed, nuanced, and richly detailed game universe. When Demon's Souls began with its tale of a world corrupted by greed and hubris, it kickstarted a deep and lengthy exploration of what it means to be truly human that came to an appropriately amorphous conclusion in Dark Souls 3. Over the span of five games we witnessed loyal warriors sacrifice everything for meaningless causes. We saw madness claim brilliant minds that only sought out truth. Countless heroes sank into a bottomless mire of despair. However, when the world seemed at its bleakest, a few precious ounces of hope were claimed by a handful of souls with the bravery, persistence, and luck to find them.
But the rich landscape of the Souls series' mythology and themes didn’t spring from whole cloth. The seeds of what eventually would become Souls were sewn across any number of earlier From titles. The brutal, spartan King's Field series has often been cited as the true progenitor of the Souls series, and while it certainly is the crucible that birthed what would eventually become the Souls series' uncompromising gameplay, it may actually be a pair of long-forgotten Xbox-exclusive brawlers that truly gave the Souls series its soul.
Spoiler Warning: Ahead there are plot details and spoilers for the Otogi and Dark Souls series.
The Xbox Brawlers That Started It All
Released in the U.S. in 2003, Otogi: Myth of Demons and its sequel Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors (released in 2004), may seem odd candidates to lay claim to Dark Souls' paternity. Both are unequivocally action games with a particular emphasis placed on speed and aerial combat, and both are loosely set during the Heian period of feudal Japan. But dig a little bit deeper, and the similarities start to leap out.
The opening of Otogi bears a striking similarity to that of Demon's Souls. In both games an ancient and venerable kingdom is struck by a sudden calamity when a barrier separating the human world from the spirit world is pierced, releasing a horde of monsters and evil spirits onto the unsuspecting populace. Those unable to escape are either killed or corrupted by the dark energies and turned into monsters. In the end the kingdom is left in ruins, populated only by those creatures that have been consumed by darkness. The only one who can set things right is a warrior who now exists between life and death and has been tasked with finding out what happened, destroying those responsible, and restoring balance to the spiritual energies of the land.
In Otogi, that hero is Raikoh Minamoto (extremely loosely based on the historic figure Minamoto no Yorimitsu), an assassin for the imperial court who survived the devastation due to the timely intervention of the mysterious Princess. Though Raikoh’s wounds were fatal, the Princess managed to preserve him in a state of undeath in which he may endure indefinitely but only so long as he continues to slay demons and absorb their energies. The sequel, Immortal Warriors, once again opened with the revival of an undead Raikoh, this time brought about by the ritual suicide of four warrior generals who were then also trapped in a state of undeath (and thus functioned as the game’s alternate playable characters).
Similarly, in Demon's Souls the protagonist is an adventurer who, after being killed by demons during their initial foray into the corrupted realm of Boletaria, is rescued and preserved in soul form by the mysterious Maiden in Black. The only way for the protagonist to continue their journey and restore their human form is to slay demons and other corrupted humans to take their soul energies.
As the Souls series progressed it would heavily lean into this idea, with Dark Souls refining the concept of the soul form. A potentially uncomfortable but ultimately benevolent state, soul form simply allowed the protagonist and other assorted heroes to fight on against the fiends of Boletaria even after their physical body was killed. Introduced in Dark Souls, the curse of the undead was a wretched, disease-like condition that at best would lead to exile. If untreated it would culminate in madness and a total loss of self, a state which the game describes as going hollow.
There is no indication in Otogi that Raikoh's undead status is at all degenerative, but the game makes it clear as it progresses that he survives as an undead in a state of bondage. In fact, his foes in both games often mockingly refer to him as a puppet, an unthinking slave cursed to forever fulfill the will of another. And truly Raikoh lives on only so long as he continues his mission of execution; if he were to sheath his weapon and attempt to walk away he would immediately perish.
If the protagonists of the three Dark Souls games were to give up on their task of relighting the bonfires they would soon decay into hollows with no memories of their past and no goals apart from murdering others to take their soul essence and humanity. The protagonists may not be getting sent out on assassination missions by the likes of the Fire Keepers, the Emerald Herald, or the Primordial Serpents, but they ignore the goals of their guides at their own peril.
"Kill others so you may live… That is the law of this world. The act of living itself is sin," says the Princess after a particularly tough mission in Otogi. While Dark Souls never makes things quite as explicit, the thematic sentiment is much the same. The undead stave off hollowing only so long as they continue to kill others and take their humanity and souls. Their very survival is in essence a transgressive act. In both series this gameplay mechanic serves to make the morality of its protagonists considerably grayer. Can Raikoh or the heroes of the Souls series claim moral superiority to their foes if the actions they take are not particularly different? Both series would seem to imply the answer is no.
Conflict Is Inevitable
Both the Otogi series and the Dark Souls series have few of what could be considered traditional villains. In most cases those the protagonists fight are simply those with goals different from their own, or in some more unpleasant cases, those who have something they require. In Otogi, foes like the early game boss the Yasha Raven King and final enemy Michizane are beings banished beyond the seal for reasons that are never made entirely clear and seem potentially unjust. As such, their goals of escaping the spirit realm and righting the wrongs done to them are not drastically different from those of Raikoh and the Princess.
The Dark Souls series has countless similar examples. From the benevolent Saint Astraea in Demon's Souls, to the proud Lords of Cinder in Dark Souls 3, to the tragic beasts in Bloodborne, the series is overflowing with countless scenarios where the protagonists must seek out essentially non-hostile people and kill them for a perceived greater good.
There is a tone of sad inevitability that permeates much of the combat in both Otogi and Dark Souls, as if neither party truly wants to fight, but conflict is nonetheless inevitable. This only serves to support a central theme of both games, which is the struggle to exercise free will in a universe that seems largely predestined. In the Otogi series, Raikoh is clearly bound to service. He must obey the Princess' commands, and those of the priestess Seimei in the sequel, or perish. Those he fights such as the Raven King or the Crimson King proclaim that, though they die, they die free. Unlike Raikoh, they choose to accept death rather than bondage.
However, it was this very choice that banished them to imprisonment beyond the seal and ultimately brought death upon them in the form of Raikoh. Can choosing one’s form of imprisonment truly be considered freedom? Though the games take time to examine the choices of various characters to obey or rebel, these characters all play out roles that seem largely preordained. As Seimei says in Otogi 2, "deciding one's fate is in itself a dream." While she is speaking of herself, her words resonate with the actions of most other characters throughout the series.
The Dark Souls games may initially appear opposed to that line of thinking. After all, each game has at least two endings dependent upon choices the player makes. In Demon's Souls, the player may put the Old One back to sleep or ally with it and continue its reign of corruption. In Dark Souls, the player may choose to relight the First Flame or allow it to go out, and a similar if somewhat more nuanced choice is offered at the end of Dark Souls 3. But regardless of what choice is made, the cycle always continues. The curse of the undead will strike again. The Old One stirs from its slumber again. The throne of Dark Souls 2 calls out for a new king. Even in Bloodborne, where the game can potentially conclude with the protagonist essentially becoming a god, the way the Doll scoops them up and playfully chides them in the ending cinematic makes it clear the hunter has not escaped the cycle of the hunt, but merely adjusted their place to the top of its hierarchy.
The undead of Dark Souls may choose to join with any variety of allies or masters, but ultimately their fate is not theirs to choose. When speaking to the chosen undead about the realm in which Dark Souls 2 takes place, the old woman in the opening states, "one day you will stand before its decrepit gate. Without really knowing why." Like Raikoh, the chosen undead must too obey.
"Life Itself Is a Struggle"
There was something very powerful about the final battle in the Dark Souls 3 DLC, the battle which essentially served to conclude the entire pentalogy of games. The protagonist, the lowest of the low, has found their way to the end of the world, and faces another lowly undead, a slave knight, who has also not only made it there but miraculously claimed the Dark Soul. Over the course of their journeys each has accomplished great things and obtained immeasurable power. They are now the two mightiest warriors in history, and yet the outcome of their battle is essentially meaningless. Regardless of who falls, the victor will bring the Dark Soul to the Painter so that she may use it to create a new world. The world of Dark Souls has ended, but there will always be a new one waiting to come into being. The choices of individuals may vary slightly, but ultimately destiny cannot be denied.
"Life itself is a struggle," says the priestess Seimei in Otogi 2, and that is certainly a quote that could be applied to Dark Souls as well. Its succinctness somewhat echoes the glib, "Git Gud," meme that has flourished wherever the series is discussed, but in a way it offers a note of hope that is found buried in each series.
Both seem less concerned with the outcomes of decisions than with the strength and integrity displayed by making those decisions. The ultimate outcome is less important than the journey, the struggle, to reach that outcome. In the alternate ending to Otogi, antagonist Michizane speaks warmly to Raikoh as he expires. Though he was defeated in their duel, they both fought for what they believed in, and he finds comfort in that in the end.
Similarly in the Dark Souls series, there are countless great warriors the protagonist must slay, from Ornstein, to Artorias, to the Ivory King, to Ostrava of Boletaria. In each instance these heroes are brought down by loyalty, duty, or even love. Though they typically die as monstrous shadows of their former selves, in the universe of Dark Souls they are still heroes, lauded by their survivors. Their sad ends do not undo their great strength of character.
If the Dark Souls series has become known for anything (besides the strange, "Praise the sun!" pose), it is for presenting a tiny light of hope in an ocean of darkness. While typically discussed from a gameplay perspective, the way the series depicts this within its narrative is equally as important for establishing its unique feel. The player is not simply struggling against the difficulty of the game, but the protagonist is also struggling against the darkness within the story; the player's despair echoes what their in-game avatar must surely be feeling as they face what feels like an insurmountable challenge.
One need only look to any of Dark Souls' countless inferior imitators to understand why it just isn't the same when gameplay and narrative aren’t working together harmoniously. And for that narrative tone Dark Souls undoubtedly owes a debt of gratitude to its older sibling Otogi. Fittingly, though Raikoh may be dead and buried, his soul lives on at the core of one of the most popular, influential game series of all time.