The Dark Souls series by Hidetaka Miyazaki of FromSoftware, Inc. are a series of Japanese video games set within a medieval dark fantasy setting. The games heavily draw upon the aesthetics of western historical art movements. Miyazaki and designers from FromSoftware have gained a reputation among video game critics for linking to tell the story of their games in a minimalistic fashion, not through text or dialogue, but through the environments, and in specific the designs found within the game itself. The series brings to light many philosophical issues such as the value of life, death, and nihilism
The visual designs of the world and characters of Dark Souls, the application of the formal qualities of art to achieve certain emotions, atmospheres and its aesthetic drives the series forward in terms of its artistic integrity. The Dark Souls series is set apart from other commercially produced video games through the idea that each design found within Dark Souls has a purpose and relevance towards the narrative of the game. Instead of just being designed to please the average adolescent gamer, it is a game that throws the player into a world of decay and destruction, with only its visuals acting as a medium of communication from artist to audience. Here I will seek to analyse what techniques have been applied during the games design and what historical artworks have influenced the works aesthetic qualities and meaning. I will also explain what effect the stylistic choices of the game have in terms of its narrative aspects and how this may affect the viewer. The viewer may also be referred to the as the “player” depending on the context of the discussion.
The design of specific characters will be observed, considering themes, composition, colours and any other corresponding formal qualities of art. It will be explained how each may have influenced Dark Souls III directly, or indirectly and what overall meaning everything has in the game. Most of the research for this essay has been done through internet articles, the game itself and books with commentary on the selected artworks and romanticism.
Section I: Religion, Symbolism, and Semiotics in Art
Rosaria, Mother of Rebirth is a non-playable character featured in Dark Souls III that shares certain similarities with the Virgin Mary and her representations in the Madonnas, primarily those of the Renaissance. Although we are not directly observing the Renaissance period throughout this essay, the Madonna and other religious iconography are not specific to the period and still prevalent within the art of the following centuries. The designers have created a juxtaposition within aesthetics and theme to create a character that feels malevolent and inhuman, and maternal and caring at the same time.
Figure I - Rosaria, Mother of Rebirth
Rosaria is portrayed as resting on her knees and looking down at a deformed and grotesque grub like creature. Her hair has strands of tan of in it, as if coated in a sort of pungent slime. It is overgrown, covering her face and flowing over herself and the creature like a religious veil. Her skin is dark, like a corpse, and her dress loose, with the overall feeling of the character being sombre but oddly alluring and warm. Rosaria does not exhibit the natural proportions of a human being. She appears significantly larger than the average woman giving her a sense of authority and godliness. The warmer colours of the flesh contrast against the leaden and colder colours of the background curtains and her black hair and dress. The colour of the raw flesh is putrid and like rotting meat. It is so visceral and unwelcoming, yet she is shown to care and cradle it, like it is her child.
A piece chosen to compare to Rosaria is Gustave Dore’s “Madone” depicting a standing Virgin Mary and Jesus. Gustave Doré was a French artist born in 1832 and dying in 1883. Doré was an active artist during the romantic period of the arts where he was commissioned to illustrate a version of the English bible and spent his life illustrating for many other religious works of literature.
Figure II - Madone, Gustave Doré
Depictions of the Virgin Mary, known otherwise as “Madonnas”, have been common within religious art spanning several hundred years of human cultural development. Mary, by western civilisation, has been turned into an Icon of fertility, maternity and youth and has been transformed into an iconographical theme herself. The mere presence of the Virgin Mary immediately raises themes that must be considered in any artistic context. Doré presents us with his own version of the Virgin Mary, much like the many artists before him, such as Michelangelo and William-Adolphe Bouguereau, who also worked during Doré’s lifetime. The simple portrayal of Mary in an artwork is not merely an illustration of her and her baby Jesus, but a celebration of life, using the most ideal figure of maternity and motherhood. Miyazaki uses this symbolism that has been ingrained into western culture in Rosaria from Dark Souls III, but deconstructs the culturally accepted meaning and twists it to create a new meaning for himself and players of Dark Souls III. For example, instead of Rosaria being the mother figure to a child, she is the mother figure to an abomination. Her name and title also suggest that unlike the Virgin Mary, who is celebrated for giving birth to Jesus, she is the “Mother of Rebirth” thus not celebrating life but instead reincarnation or resurrection.
The concepts of life and death are explored within Rosaria. She looks young, her skin shows no sign of wear or any blemishes, and she wears a dress that I believe represents maidenhood. However, her overgrown hair and the rustic colours used within her design indicate towards us that she has been existent for a time unbeknownst the viewer. She manifests herself as a beautiful and slender woman, representative of maternity and youth, but caring for beings so forlorn and grotesque you cannot claim that they once may have been humans. The Virgin Mary is the mother of Jesus, and thus the mother of “God” creator of humanity. Rosaria I believe is a mother of life, whether it be to those who live a miserable existence or those that live able. These contrasts I believe are representative of the dual nature of being. I believe that she is a symbol for the acceptance of flaws, the idea that dualisms will always exist and that one must be able to accept them.
In terms of composition both works feature triangle compositions that solidify the presence of the subjects within. Triangles are often found in nature, examples being in pine trees and mountains. The human eyes are familiar with the shape of the triangle, to us it is naturally pleasing to observe. Aspects of the design of the poses in both figures work in unity with the composition to guide the viewer’s eye to what matters. As you can see with Rosaria, the creatures flesh curves in the direction of her forward leaning head. Her flowing hair then leads the viewer’s eye to what seems to be the torso; the head of the creature she is holding and reveals to us her slender caressing hand. This compositional choice makes it easier for the viewer to recognise Rosaria as benevolent even though the colours and the environment she is in present her otherwise. Similarly, in Dore’s sculpture, Mary is facing towards the baby Jesus in a maternal gesture.
To further analyse the design behind Rosaria I must explain a concept crucial towards the progression of this essay: semiotics. The definition of semiotics is as follows:
The study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behaviour; the analysis of systems of communication, as language, gestures, or clothing.
Semiotics is the study of symbols and signs and their respective meanings in the context of a global human culture. For example, on a warning sign, the colour red would indicate danger. The colour red is the signifier and danger is the signified. Together these two ideas form a sign. As a whole, these concepts form a semiotic code. A semiotic code is a set of conventions, a system of signifiers, the signified and signs used to communicate meaning, a popular example being a cowboy hat, revolver and a bandana signifying the idea western style outlaw.
What I see is that Miyazaki has purposefully utilised semiotics to create an engaging character that illustrates the previously stated themes of life and death through juxtaposition of the semiotic code associated with the Virgin Mary with other systems of codes. The Virgin Mary is a symbolic sign and the relationships between the signifiers and the signified have been created through culture. Firstly, the Virgin Mary holds baby Jesus indicating maternity and the celebration of life and secondly, she wears a veil, representing virginity. These are within the semiotic code for the Virgin Mary. What Miyazaki has done is take this code and apply it to his own character, but exchanged the pure and godly image of the Virgin Mary, for a gruesome and inhuman imagery. To the viewer, who most likely is aware of western cultural symbols, the spirit of maternity and virginity is felt within Rosaria, but the visuals do not match up. There is a disconnect between the characters semiotics and aesthetics, in other words Rosaria feels like a benevolent and caring figure, but the visuals tell us otherwise. This genius interplay between semiotics and aesthetics is what allows this character to have such an enrapturing appearance, whilst simultaneously deepening the philosophical and theological meaning of the character.
Section II: Atmosphere through Colour, Gesture, and Themes
Many locations in Dark Souls III fall subject to a basic principle in art, utilisation of warm and cold colours. Traditionally in art, warm colours are used in conjunction with each other to create feelings of comfort, aggression, and euphoria (Figure VII), whereas cold colours are there to represent things like distance and tranquillity (Figure X). Locations in Dark Souls III change colours schemes drastically to prevent cohesion between each location. This is done to increase the impact the first viewing of each location has upon the viewer. A reoccurring theme in Dark Souls III is the contrast of colours. Cold and Warm colours are constantly switched between throughout the game.
Each colour used in the scene is a form of blue. The figure is surrounded by darkness with the only blue light emitting from the gothic rose window and illuminating the figure. The light source being directly behind the figure draws the attention to it and creates a threatening and eerie effect. This monochromatic colour scheme reinforces the raw, glacial and eldritch atmosphere created within the room. This kind of colour scheme is also highly atmospheric since some things may be represented in colour that they naturally would not take on, such as bluish skin, giving the effect that the work has been covered in a sort of ethereal haze.
Figure III - Dancer of the Boreal Valley
The utilisation of monochromatic colour schemes can be seen in many historical works of art, exemplar are the etchings of the romantic artist Doré.
Figure IV - Farinata degli Uberti, Gustave Doré (1861)
Monochromatic colour schemes are soothing and easy on the eye of the viewer. Since there are no strong contrasts created by opposing colours, the entirety of the painting serves as a zone for the eye to rest and in combination with the dark and lights, create a serene yet eerie atmosphere. Since there are no variations in colour, the viewer is forced to pay attention to other aspects of the work such as intricacies in design or textures. The above example by Gustave Doré has strong shadows and darkness cast by a single light source from below to create an unearthly atmosphere within the etching. Each section of reflected light is portrayed through a long horizontal line on the bodies of the subjects in the etching. The contrast between the light and dark elements of the etching allow the intricate etch marks to be easily seen and appreciated.
This concept applies to and works especially well with The Dancer of the Boreal Valley fight in Dark Souls III as the character is the sole subject of the scene. As the level progresses, the dancer will progressively set fire to a hall, now changing the colours of the entire scene to warm oranges and golds from the initial cold blue hues as seen in Figure VI.
Figure V - Dancer of the Boreal Valley
Now, due to a simple change of lighting scheme, the entire feeling of the scene has shifted. The armour of the dancer is highlighted and captures the warm glow of the flames engulfing the vicinity. Her elongated figure and inhuman proportions ensure that the angle you view her at in-game is always from below. This low angle as shown above achieves two things; the stature and gesture of the dancer are exaggerated; the perceived threat from the image is increased, and secondly the design and intricacies of the dancer’s armour are fully revealed towards the viewer.
Her gesture is hunched over as if preying on the viewer. Her veil creates a flow that seems to elongate her body even further and emulates the beauty of an animalistic mating dance. A certain elegance is hidden beneath her vile characteristics. Exaggerated gestures are often featured in Baroque style of art, in which largely exaggerated gestures were used to produce drama or for an imposing effect. The contrasts between light and dark and warm and cold are here to represent a drastic change of heart and mind. We get the idea that she once was an eloquent dancer but something has changed her, and what she now stands as is an empty husk of her former self. Flames carry connotations of the life, vigour, desire and passion, but also, corruption, chaos and wrath. The atmosphere created by the combining elements of her design with the environment create a tragic but beautiful emotional experience. At the end of the level, the dancer disintegrates into ashes and extinguishes all the fire in the room, returning it to its original cold colours.
Various parallels can be drawn between the atmospheric quality created by the works of Gustave Doré and Dark Souls III. Doré was often commissioned to illustrate epic poetry , a traditionally long and serious form of poetry considering significant events such as the fall of man in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” (1667) and Dante’s journey through hell in the “Divine Comedy (Inferno)” (c.1400 – 1500). Doré’s often highly exaggerates movement and gesture in his etchings to create grandiose and striking scenes that emphasise the grand aesthetic quality he seeks to convey. It is this same graceful yet strong movement and quality that Hidetaka Miyazaki and the designers of Dark Souls III want to capture within their work. The exaggeration of emotions and extravagant portray of events to create a sublime image is found here but has its origins in the Romantic art movement.
Figure VI - Paradise Lost, Book III, Gustav Doré
Section III: The Sublime
The Dark Souls series is globally noted for its tendency to communicate its narrative mostly through the environments presented to the player. Much is left untold and is up to the player to interpret. The environmental designs of Dark Souls III can be compared to the artistic movement of Romanticism in the way that they create generate largely melodramatic views of scenery.
Romanticism was an artistic movement spanning from the 1800s to the 1850s that focused on intense emotion as being a source of beauty in artwork, especially when in face of nature. The aesthetic beauty of nature was empowered within Romanticism to evoke desired emotional responses within the viewer.
Figure VII – The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, John Martin (1822)
The above example of a romantic landscape by John Martin explores the power of the environment. Figure XI places people into the painting and subjects them to an environment of an immense scale. Here, large shadows are cast within the scene that create a sinister and imposing atmosphere. The storm brewing in the distance and red colour of the mountains and clouds give the environment a presence within the scene, as if it were an entitiy and alive. John Marin uses the epic and destructive force of nature to express a unique form beauty in the emotions felt as one stands before it. The same feeling is captured as if you were really to stand before these huge plains and be in awe at the sight of forces beyond you. This is called sumblimity or the sublime.
Below (Figure XI) is a screenshot of a location in Dark Souls III. The player is teleported from a previous location into the future prior to this image. The game immediately zooms out the camera and gives the viewer an immediate sense of scale through the inclusion of manmade objects in the scene. Smaller buildings covered in sand can be seen in the foreground and entire castles in the back. The ashen yellow colours and light from the sun are reminiscent of the luminosity found in many romantic landscape paintings. The dunes cast waves of darkness across the image.
Figure VIII –The Ringed City
The designers and artists of Dark Souls III make use of this composition to empower the emotions of despair and dread throughout this section of the game. The fact that the ending of the game is approaching in this level is not communicated through dialogue or text but through the presentation of the environment towards the player. This communication is made effective through the application of techniques commonly found within paintings of the romantic period. The yellowish colour pallet in this case does not create a warm atmosphere, but instead contributes towards the feeling of desolation by emphasising that the location is in fact an apocalyptic wasteland deteriorated by countless years of ruin and erosion. The viewer can comprehend the magnitude of time since passed through the image. Entire ruins and castles seem to have been shifted and pushed by sands. There is a significant contrast between light and dark tones in the scene that give the work a dramatic quality. This dramatic quality is supported by the gusts of wind that drag sand across the scene; the power of the environment is displayed.
Video games area unique medium through the idea that interaction is an essential element; the player is playing the game and completing the artwork by doing so. Here the player is themselves set against this empty and desolate environment. They themselves act as the “human within the romantic painting” experiencing the emotions facilitated through the environment. In this case, the player is alone in the world, everything is already wasted and destroyed with no hope in sight. Dark Souls III utilises this sense of the sublime to push emotions and narrative towards the player. A quote from Miyazaki, said to Dark Souls artist Masanori Warugai, reinforces this idea of sublimity. Miyazaki, after refuting a design from Warugai, was quoted saying:
“This isn’t dignified. Don’t rely on the gross factor to portray an undead dragon. Can’t you instead try to convey the deep sorrow of a magnificent beast doomed to a slow and possibly endless descent into ruin?"
Miyazaki wants to create is an experience akin to the sublimity of romantic paintings. A feeling of veneration in the face of something far greater than the viewer that does not attempt create emotion through superficial illustrations of genre or theme, but through the awe and reverence of experiencing it. This idea is found all throughout Dark Souls III. In its countless environments and character designs, the sublime never fails to appear.
Figure IX –The Painted World of Ariandel
Caspar David Friedrich is another romantic painter that Hidetaka Miyazaki seems to have taken influence from while designing Dark Souls III. Friedrich is noted for his allegorical landscapes that, like John Martin, place man into the heart of the awesome expanse of nature which Friedrich sought to depict as a "divine creation, to be set against the artifice of human civilization" according to art historian William Vaughan. Friedrich’s Wanderer above the sea of fog is described by historian John Lewis Gaddis as "suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. We see no face, so it's impossible to know whether the prospect facing the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both." The man in the painting can only do as much as look and wonder, for he is nothing when set beside nature. The painting is the culmination of the concept of the sublime with it left open what emotion Friedrich wants us to project onto the piece. Whether it be astonishment or fear that resides within the subject, the work is filled with an exhilarating emotion that is reflected within Dark Souls III.
Figure X – Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, Caspar David Friedrich (c.1818)
Figure XI – Raising the banner to Lothric
Not only does this vista from Dark Souls III visually resemble “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog” but it also perfectly captures its many associated meanings and connotations. In Figure X we see a man gazing into the vast bed of clouds, mesmerised by the sight, and as Gaddis says, “suggesting at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. What is important is that this banner raising scene above, takes place at the beginning of the game, and instead of placing a human into contrast with nature, it places humanity into a parallel with decay and destruction, presenting a gothic beauty that thrives on the feeling of something great once having been but that greatness now fading. The scene is representative of the main characters insignificance within Dark Souls III where they are at whim of the decaying world around them, without the ability to make an impact much like the insignificance of the figure in The Wanderer that can only do as much as watch.
Dark Souls III is a neo-romantic video game that acts as a homage to the ideals and theories behind romanticism and the respective artists from the 1800’s. It draws from the many facets Romanticism and it's artists and uses it's core aesthetic to to enrich its own profundity. Miyazaki's fascination with the cultural and artistic heritage of western civilisation has led to it being embraced and re-imagined within Dark Souls III to create a meaningful experience that reflects the triviality of man in the face of the sublime.