Editor’s note: We’re delighted to welcome back Gareth, the editor of the fascinating new zine Heterotopias, for another piece exploring the intersection between architecture and video games. You can find his last piece on Resident Evil’s mansion here, and find a copy of the second issue of Heterotopias over here.
“In this land, the undead are corralled and led to the North, where they are locked away to await the end of the world.” This was the line that gripped me when I started up Dark Souls for the first time in late 2011. It’s a line I’ve found myself returning to again and again when I try to conjure up the particular quality of Dark Souls’ world that makes it so enticing. Not that enough thought and words haven’t been expended on the series already: over its six year history, which if From Software are to believed marks both its beginning and end, the writing, debates and other games the series can have said to inspired makes for an impressive volume of work. Even the game’s architecture, my subject specialty, feels like it has been dissected from many angles, its gothic arches and vaults often connected to many different histories of horror and the sublime. However, even with all this activity around the series, it feels necessary, with the final DLC of the final game The Ringed City having passed and settled into its place, to write an obituary of sorts for its particular collection of spaces and structures, at least before the predictable resurrection that the game’s financial success and avid fan base will surely trigger.
The reason I say obituary is because for me, the depiction of architecture in Dark Souls orbits around one central theme: death. Let’s go back to that first line: its poetry lies in the idea of the undead not as rampaging monsters, or mystical beings, but as the cursed; those who have been denied death. Without the comfort of inevitable death, there is only one end that awaits them: the end of all things. And what really makes that line stick in my mind is how it combines this erasure of death with a distinct sense of space. The reference to a kingdom or a “land”, the icy, distant presence of the word “North” and the hollow prisons suggested by the phrase “locked away” give an overriding sense of architecture, and its function as a prison, a refuge, or a container for the dead. This line points to the central architectural image of the series: a crumbling edifice in which the deathless wander, meaning sapped by time from both the undead’s decaying bodies and the stones that encase them.