No Mastery Without Mystery: Dark Souls and the Ludic Sublime

Dark Souls succeeds partly on imagination: Not because of what it tells the player, but by what it chooses not to. #Kant

In this text, Daniel Vella digs into Dark Souls as an example of games that tickle your imagination by refusing to tell you the whole story.

Our understanding of the world around us is guided by our senses: Because we can touch a teaspoon and use it to stir coffee, we understand what a teaspoon is but what it does. But our senses don’t tell the whole story, because there’s a lot of the world that we do not see, like electromagnetic radiation, gravitational fields and the like.

More succinctly, this applies to the world of art: You may look at a painting and deduce the artist’s intent from the image, but there’s no telling if that’s actually what the artist wanted to convey to the audience. It may be something completely different instead. Philosophically speaking, sometimes art is understood strictly as a process, where the creator went through a specific set of steps to create it and had one clear intent in mind, while others think of art is something more than that. Art that is not just open to interpretation, but escapes it – in a word, sublime. As it’s understood in philosophy, the sublime is intangible, beyond our understanding, so vast and ill-defined that we can never fully understand what it is.

So how does this apply to video games? Unless you have direct access to the game’s source code, you can never really tell exactly how everything about the game world works and what its rules are in explicit terms – you can only hope to interpret it as you play the game. Sure, your interpretation can still be pretty close to the developer’s intent, but you’re still only looking at it from the outside. Dark Souls especially plays with this phenomenon in unique ways, according to Vella: It’s a game that never quite tells you exactly what everything does and what’s going on, and as such there’s lots of room for interpretation and conjecture. You can look at a distant building and not know for sure whether it’s just background decoration or a place you can actually visit. You can find items whose function is never explained, but discovered – if they even have a function. You’ll have to personally experiment to find out how central game mechanics work, like what Humanity is and what it actually does. There’s even an item you can start the game with that tells you it has no useful function, so of course in a game that’s so cryptic and full of mystery you assume it has to do something, right? But it doesn’t. It’s literally useless. Except, of course, in provoking that sense of mystery and wonder about it.

This kind of sense of wonder about its world gives Dark Souls a unique position among its peers: When other games are so willing to reveal their bag of tricks right away, Dark Souls is subtle and mysterious, tickling that part of your brain that begs you to dig deeper and find out what’s really going on.

Title: No Mastery Without Mystery: Dark Souls and the Ludic Sublime
Author: Daniel Vella
Published in: Game Studies, Volume 15 issue 1, July 2015
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