There are few series that have such a signature look and feel as the Dark Souls franchise does. Each entry is brimming with haunting tales, grim back stories and a horrific aura of mystery that leaves the player constantly struggling with a feeling of genuine unease.
These signature elements are present in every entry of the series, and even permeate into the more tangentially connected games in From Software’s wheelhouse, Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne. However, no game in this quintuplet excels at establishing the central concept of these games, that of a dying world, better than Dark Souls III.
A lot of fantasy stories explore the idea of the end of the world. Hell there’s a whole subset of horror, fantasy and science fiction which is completely centered around the idea of civilizations adapting to a new post-apocalyptic world. However, very few stories focus on a world itself that seems to be aging and dying around the protagonists, though Stephen King’s The Dark Tower saga is one notable example.
It is this chief plot element that Dark Souls III attempts to communicate to the player with every facet of its depth and design. As the final entry in a revered series that has constantly focused on the idea of aging worlds, fading civilizations, and the death of reason, Dark Souls III makes sure to echo these themes home, again and again, throughout the 60+ hours of playtime required to sift through the final layers of ash, and confront the end of the world head-on.
Speaking of which, ash itself becomes a major visual cue with which the designers continuously remind players that this is by and large the most dire and destitute version of this nameless world we’ve seen yet. Both Lordran and Drangleic, the accursed kingdoms of the first two games, have fallen by the time we find ourselves in Lothric. Their echoes live on however.
You see a ruin here, a piece of armor there, and occasionally come to realize you’re literally standing in the same place you stood in Dark Souls, only thousands of years later. The feeling this translates to the player is something akin to a mixture of keen nostalgia and dreadful sadness. And then there’s the ash.
There is ash everywhere in this game. In fact your protagonist is even dubbed the Ashen One, and not just because that sounds like a sweet name for a metal band. You see the idea of fire as the key element of life is a very important part of the world of Dark Souls. Bonfires are the games only safe havens, Firekeepers are generally the only characters in the series that are legitimately on your side, and the act of Linking the Fire is seen as the only way to offer salvation to a dying world.
With that in mind, it’s easy to see why ash becomes the central way to show that this is truly the final version of this world, and that the stakes of this realm have never been more dire than they are in this timeline. As the fire fades, only cold ashes remain, and this is a world of ash.
Like its forebear, Bloodborne, Dark Souls III also uses the sky as a canvas to paint its dark vision of the end of days. As the player continues throughout their quest to link the fire one final time, the sun is slowly blotted out by a solar eclipse. Since the sky is so often a part of the background in the Ashen One’s journey, it serves as a constant reminder that you are running out of time, or that the world may already be too far gone to be saved a final time. Some fires cannot be rekindled after all.
It’s a world which is brimming with sorrow, yearning through pain, and nearly aching to die. And because of this clear vision of what this world is, and what it means to the player, it is a world that demands to be explored to its greatest heights, and to its most heart-breaking depths.
*All screenshots captured by the author.