One of the things that irks me the most when people talk about the Soulsborne games is when someone glibly says, “Oh, there’s no story there.” I’ve heard actual games journalists say this, and it irks me every time. There is a story to each game–a pretty deep story with several NPC storylines. It’s just not handed over to you in cutscenes (though there are a few of those. The ones in the beginning are surprisingly explicit); you have to dig it up mostly on your own. Or, if you don’t have the patience for it, read up on it on the wikis.
I will say that you don’t have to understand the story in order to play the games and have a satisfactory experience. The gameplay itself stands up if you’re willing to put the time and effort into learning it. I’ve learned from ‘the community’ that the controls are shit, but I didn’t know that because it was the first time I’d ever used a controller. Any control scheme would have been foreign to me, and now, the Souls schematic is the one imprinted into my brain. I reinstalled MHW because Ian is powering through the end game, and his enthusiasm has perked my interest again. It’s hard getting back into the controls, though, because I’ve been playing Souls games in the meantime.
I was switching back and forth between Souls and MHW for a bit, and that was really hard. When I go back to Souls games, though, it’s like coming home. It’s one of my biggest gripes about Souls clones that they would copy everything about the formula EXCEPT the controls. If you’re going to be a Souls clone, then copy the control scheme. B is forever roll, and I will fight anyone on this.
Anyhoooooo. Back to the brilliance of Miyazaki, and this is specifically related to him. In each game, there are several NPC questlines. You have to do them in a specific, byzantine order in order to fulfill the quests. I’ll give you an example. Solaire is one of the most famous and beloved NPCs in the whole Souls series. The whole ‘praise the sun’ and ‘do you even praise the sun, bro?’ memes are about him, and the funniest part is that he never says the phrase at all. It’s the emote you get when you join the Warrior of Sunlight Covenant (his covenant), and you perform it by crouching slightly, then raising up as you hold your arms up in a V. If you’re summoned as a SunBro (nickname for the members of this covenant), you perform the gesture automatically as you enter your host’s world, and you’re a brilliant golden color as opposed to white.
In the video above, the RKG (nee Prepare to Try) boys are doing a ‘Save Solaire’ run in Dark Souls Remastered, and in this episode, Krupa has a shopping list of things he wants Rory to do in preparation for saving Solaire. In the original series, Rory had to kill Solaire, much to his dismay and anguish, which is what most people have to do on their first playthrough if they haven’t looked the questline up on the wikis.
In a normal playthrough, you run into Solaire in several areas of the game. It’s quite easy to miss one of them, and then you can’t finish his questline. The normal sequence is to meet him on the overlook of a bridge in the Undead Burg as he gazes out into the sky. One tip: You have to talk to each NPC several times and max out their dialogue each time to make them move to their next spot. The joke is to keep going until you see repeat dialogue, but it’s true. You want to make sure you exhaust their dialogue so you don’t have to return to talk to them again.
The second place you see Solaire is by the bonfire in Anor Londo. He is a welcome sight after the nightmare that is the two Silver Knight Archers. He’s chipper and glad to see you, and he evenly makes a mildly risque joke upon seeing you. After that is by the bonfire right before Lost Izalith, and he’s desolate when you run into him. He can’t find his sun, and he’s in despair. You can also see him by the Altar of Sunlight after Anor Londo and before Izalith, but that’s optional to his quest. This is where he starts to become a bit depressed, but he’s still somewhat hopeful.
If you meet him by the bonfire right before Lost Izalith and then proceed into Lost Izalith (as you will, of course, because progress), then you have walked down the path to him being attacked by maggots, going crazy, and you having to kill him later on in Lost Izalith. It’s a ‘what the fuck’ moment, and it was actually sad. You’re traveling this world of darkness and despair, and you have this grossly incandescent friend who is one of the only lights. Seeing him with the Sunlight Maggot (helm) on his head (the maggot attached to his brain and drove him mad), shouting about how he found his sun while he’s throwing lightning bolts at you is a shock to the system. In the video below, Rory nearly cries when he actually has to kill Solaire (in the first series). It’s a weirdly sweet moment because Gav and Krupa got him a present, knowing he would have a hard time with this moment.
I hated killing Solaire even though he is not my favorite NPC by far in the series. In the original Dark Souls, my favorite is probably Laurentius of the Great Swamp because he’s the pyromancy trainer. Still, killing Solaire was like giving up all hope, which was pretty hard to come by in the first place. It was a reminder that no one was safe in a Souls game and that anyone could die. Worse yet, he had to die by my hand, which was the cruelest cut of all.
Saving him is hard to do. I knew it was possible, so I looked it up before my second playthrough. There are three ways you can save him, but the most common way is also the most time-intensive. It’s also beneficial to me as a pyromancer, so it’s what I did. Once you beat Quelaag, you have to become a Chaos Servant (covenant) and offer 30 (!) humanity to The Fair Lady in order to achieve rank 2. Once that happens, you get Chaos Storm (a pyromancy) and the shortcut to Lost Izalith is opened. It’s the latter that is important to saving Solaire.
Once you have the ability to open the shortcut (and you MUST get this before you see the Lost Izalith screen, otherwise you’re fucked. Again), open it and kill the sunlight maggot. It’s the one with red eyes and will give you more souls than the others plus the Sunlight Maggot, and then you’re on your way to saving Solaire. When you run into him at the Izalith bonfire, he’ll still be depressed, but you’ll be warm in the knowledge that you won’t have to Great Chaos Fireball his ass later on.
This could be the end of his questline if you want it to be. You’ve saved Solaire, and, yeah, he’s not happy, but at least he’s not mad with a Sunlight Maggot on his head. If you want to continue his questline, you can go back to the shortcut door after going through Lost Izalith, and he’ll be sitting on the ground, depressed because he can’t find his sun. Not the happiest of endings, but again, maggot-free! And alive!
The final piece is that you can summon him for the final boss, Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, and it’s epic. It’s by far my favorite way to fight Gwyn, even though I have no problems with him, and it’s so cool to be pelting Gwyn with fire while Solaire zings lightning bolts at him. In one run, I was so OP, we killed Gwyn in something like 15-20 seconds. It was a rush.
I also like fighting with Solaire because of the lore implications. The fan theory about Solaire was that he was the son of Gwyn, the one who sided with the dragons and was lost to the annals of history. The first-born son of Gwyn was a war god, and he was stripped of status and name. So, bringing him into the fight has extra meaning under those circumstances.
At least it did until Dark Souls III. So many people were hoping for the return of Solaire, and the fact that Siegmeyer of Catarina was back (albeit with another name, Siegward) fanned the flames of hope. There were items whose descriptions suggested he was back, such as the Ring of the Sun’s First Born:
Ring of the Sun’s first born, who inherited the light of Gwyn, the first lord.
Greatly boosts miracles.
The Sun’s first born was once a god of war, until he was stripped of his stature as punishment for his foolishness. No wonder his very name has slipped from the annals of history.
You get the talisman to join the Warrior of Sunlight earlier on, but it doesn’t mention Solaire, and this only added to the fan speculation that Solaire was the first-born son of Gwyn.
He’s not. The Nameless King is, and it’s one of the most satisfying reveals in the whole game. Again, it’s not explicitly stated, but it can be pieced together by reading the item descriptions. When the truth finally dawns on you, it’s like everything clicks into place. It’s a masterful stroke of storytelling on Miyazaki’s part, and what a payoff over three games and 4 1/2 years.
*End of spoiler*
I will say that I’m one of the minority that thinks Dark Souls II is a good if not great game, but this is one area in which it falls flat. The NPC questlines aren’t as fulfilling, mostly because it’s simply finding them in certain areas and having them fight with you in boss fights. I did like that Lucatiel’s brother invades you and the Pate/Creighton storylines, but the latter needed to be fleshed out more. I still haven’t managed to keep Benhart of Jugo alive for three boss fights, so I don’t have his gear or weapon. I think I may actually kill him the next time I play just so I can get his shit.
I love that the story is opaque. I love having to dig for it. I love reading the wikis to get bits I hadn’t found myself and to read the fan theories. I love that you can go as shallow or deep into the lore as you want, and you’ll still ‘enjoy’* the games. My way of playing a Souls game is to go through it without knowing anything about it–as much as I can. I broke that rule for Bloodborne because I thought I’d never play it, and I really wish I hadn’t known everything before going in. It’s still an incredible game, and I still had so many emotions playing it, but it would have been fucking amazing if I didn’t know all the secrets before playing it. Then again, it’s the one I’ve played the least for a variety of reasons, so it probably would have frustrated me that I’d have to play it again to get all the secrets.
Speaking of playing the games multiple times, if you’re any kind of completionist, you’ll have to play them more than once. Each game has multiple endings, and Dark Souls III has four. Well, three, technically, but there is a variant to the second ending that while you don’t get an achievement for it, it’s pretty grim and one of the more interesting endings. It’s also something you could miss easily, and I only discovered it after watching a video on it.
There are also storylines that have to be done twice to get the different endings. Much like Solaire’s above, there’s Anri of Astora in DS III in which his two storylines** are completely in contrast to it. If you want to do one ending, you have to do something that makes Yuria disappear from your game.
I think the saddest story in the original game, however, is the Onion Knight–Siegmeyer. After you meet him all over Lordran, helping him out of one pickle after the other, you also meet his daughter (if you do the thing to make her spawn inside a Golden Golem right before the Crystal Cave). She talks about him fondly, but she worries about him because he’s always traipsing about getting into trouble. If you do his questline up to the point in Lost Izalith, it is very easy for him to die here unless you do a specific thing. If you manage to keep him alive, well, let’s just say it might have been better for the Onion Knight family if you had let him die.
Once you keep him alive and very healthy in Lost Izalith, you have to speak to Sieglinde one more time at Firelink Shrine. This kicks off the final bit of their shared questline. I’m getting sad just typing this because I like the Onion Knights even more than Solaire in the original game. You have to go down to Ash Lake after you finish all of the above. By the bonfire will be Siegmeyer’s prone body with Sieglinde standing over him. He’d gone mad because you saved him yet again in Lost Izalith after he intended to save you, which made him think he was useless, and she had to slew him.
It breaks my heart every time, and it’s even more bittersweet because she gives you a Titanite Slab (highest upgrade material) after you’re done talking to her. There are only 2 in the main game that you can get every time if you do certain things (they are rare drops by the Darkwraiths and the Crystal Lizards in the Great Hollow), and 1 in the DLC. The sequels have tons more, which is nice, but also a bit extravagant.
I am looking forward to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice for many reasons, and one of them is to see if Miyazaki continues his trend of wonderful storytelling through esoteric means. I can’t wait to see what NPCs I meet in Sekiro.
*I always struggle to describe my feelings while playing Souls games. It’s not happiness, joy, or fun in the normal sense of the words, but I can’t think of any word that really nails it. Engaging? Engrossing, Absorbing? Yes to all of those. And, now that I’ve played them so much, I would add relaxing and comforting at some points.
**Hers if you play as a guy.