Dark Souls 3: Leviathan, or Why “Usurpation of Fire” is the Only Good Ending
Once I’d finished Dark Souls 3, I wandered around on a few Discords, talking about some of the lore and, in particular, the endings. One common disagreement I had with others was the designation of “good” or “bad” endings, as I often found myself alone in claiming that the Usurpation of Fire ending was the “good” ending. I’ll try here to explain here some of the philosophy that justifies this notion, and also why it rejects the standard ending and the End of Fire ending as “bad”. (I’ll stay away from the secret ending… for now.)
Something is Rotten in the Chaos of Lothric
What is it that makes us human? You may say that it’s the capability for language, and you would be mostly correct. But it’s a bit bigger than that– it’s the use of language to create culture. Without our mythology, our holidays, our history, and all the arbitrary customs and practices founded on them, humans even now are little more than animalistic husks in a world of steel. Now, here is the critical bit that we will borrow from Hobbes’ Leviathan: this culture, these stories, this meaning only exists in the framework of society– that is, where “natural” order has been overthrown.
NATURE hath made men so equal in the faculties of body and mind as that… the weakest has strength enough to kill the strongest…
Where an invader hath no more to fear than another man’s single power… others may probably be expected to come prepared with forces united to dispossess and deprive him, not only of the fruit of his labour, but also of his life or liberty. And the invader again is in the like danger of another.
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain… no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.
Whether or not you believe that this “natural” order ever existed historically, it’s clear that it exists in DS3: it’s the present. As you wander around Lothric, you come across many humans who are now but mindless husks ready to kill you. Even of those who do retain their senses, several of them will eventually kill you if you do not kill them, including Anri and Horace. Outside of the last remnants of Gwyn’s society, there are no humans with whom you can create culture and knowledge, as you do with the pyromancy teachers once bringing them to Firelink (*DLC discussion in another post).
Fundamentally, the problem is that a lack of security– or alternatively a lack of certainty– prevents both lasting peace between and around people, as well as the cultural products that necessitate peace. We speak often of the Lost Generation– those who, growing up during the ravages of World War 1, lost sight of what it meant to live in society. Thus, whatever our solution may be, it must be one where we offer security, peace, and a serious basis upon which we may create arts, letters, culture.
The King is Dead…
It’s debatable whether or not Gwyn’s government was a “good” one for humans during its prime, but regardless, it definitely is no longer. The Age of Fire, insofar as it represented a society protected and ruled by Gwyn, once could offer security to man against whatever terror lay beyond the gates. But in DS3, the gods are long gone and long forgotten, and the Age of Fire is a society in name only, not effect. By extending the Age of Fire, you are effectively doing nothing with regards to the Hobbesian question: man’s life is uncertain both before and after your useless deed, and man will continue to suffer, without culture and without meaning.
No Man's Land
It’s easy to see what the political parallels are that make the End of Fire ending “good”: a yoke of historical repression, then a gentle overthrow and a possibility for a new future. But is this really what’s happening?
In DS3, unlike in most literature, there is only one minor “city” (as in, a society of nonhostile people), both in gameplay and in story, and the rest of the world is out to kill you. What this ending does, then, is destroy the very last city, Firelink Shrine, which only exists as a fragment of Gwyn’s society. There is no promise for a rebuilt society, no promise of security, no promise of certainty. The life of any human is still in severe danger from war against other humans and the lingering terrors of the Dark Souls world. Nobody in the DS3 world has created a bastion of lasting security for humans (DS2 takes a very different perspective on this).
Framed against the final ending, you can read this ending a bit more poignantly: You had the chance to use the remnants of the old orders to establish a new one. But instead, you chose to remove the last crutch of human safety in the world.
The Lord of Hollows
Nobody has created a bastion of lasting security except, of course, the Sable Church of Londor. It may not be the most savory or democratic organization, but it nonetheless offers “salvation for Hollows” (Black Dress). And while it is small and limited, it has already begun to spin its own culture: “tales that portray the suffering and conflict of Hollows” (Dark Blade). The Sable Church is the only group of humans in this world which can be said to have created a meaningful society (*DLC discussion in another post).
Why, then, must you wrest the flame from its mantle? Why can you not just let it die, as Kaathe wished in DS1? What is the Sable Church looking for in the flame and in you?
In order to create a great society, you need power. Regardless of whether your enemies are other societies,the Dark Souls world, or civil unrest, you need authority to establish society and guarantee peace. For the Sable Church to become the society of all Hollows and truly free them from Gwyn’s legacy, it follows that they should expropriate the flame which is simultaneously the power necessary to do so and the last remnant of the gods.
Is this not what the anonymous Hollow is referencing when he pleads for you to “make Londor whole” (or in the Japanese, “guide Londor”)? You have taken responsibility for the full establishment of a new order. You are the sovereign. Through your authority and guidance, rule of law can and will be established across the world, and the nascent culture of the Sable Church may expand and flourish. You are Prometheus. By bringing to man the flame of the gods, you have enabled human civilization and human progress. By unifying man with the power of the gods, you have made man divine, even in a post-religious world.
Furthermore, this ending is the only one which solves the existential problem of the end of society. Trivially, if we are to feel secure in a society, we must be confident that it will not end any time soon. But if we think on cultural terms, we must nevertheless fear the ultimate end of society– not a transition from Fourth Republic to Fifth Republic, but a reversion to that primordial state of nature where our cultural products will be little more than firewood. This problem is stamped all over Endings 1 and 2: the flame will soon fade regardless of whether you kindle it, as will the legacies of the gods, and whatever is made in the Age of Dark will be destroyed by the return of fire. But when light and dark are unified under the empire on which the sun never sets, we have only to fear the end of the world itself.
Long live the King.
You may notice that I switch freely between the designation “hollow” and “human” in this writeup. Lorewise, Hollows are derived from humans, and Yuria refers to them as the true form of man. With regards to real-world comparisons, the game makes it clear that language and will, which are all that is fundamentally required to create a real-world human society and culture, are characteristics that Hollows share. Being hollowed doesn’t necessitate mindlessly wandering around and attacking people (just look at Yuria!), so we must recognize that a Hollow society is fully valid as a literary expression of real-world human society.
I think we must generally be careful not to project our own politics onto the politics of fictional worlds. I feel that people generally read the second ending with a parallel to something like a province declaring independence from a decrepit empire, but fail to recognize that the societal structures that validate the province do not exist in the Souls world. Society is so fundamental to how we think that we may find it hard to imagine its absence– but once you do, the world of Souls becomes that much more terrifying.
I’ve had these thoughts scribbled around for a while, and I enjoyed compiling them and structuring them like this. I wanted to discuss the way the two DLCs also play into this dynamic, but that would make this piece too long, so I’ll save it for another one.
I plan to write a piece about Bloodborne soon, since I recently finished that game. I’m a bit late to do lore analysis, but I’d like to look at real-world moral implications, just like in this post. It’ll be interesting, given how exquisitely they mutilate the hero’s journey.
Until next time.