“Magnificent,” says Kaathe. “You are the true lord of men, the Dark Lord. Now go and kill the enfeebled Gwyn. I will wait.”
I step to the Firelink Alter and imbue it with the power of the final two Lord’s Souls.
With a flash of flame, the Alter consumes the Souls, and the door is opened.
I step to the light. Before me are stairs shrouded in rolling white fog–the same stuff that marked my passage through Lordran? I can see the ghostly forms of Gywn’s Black Knights patrolling, but as ethereal as they are, they cannot interact with the living world, and don’t seem to be hostile.
Kiln of the First Flame
The most obvious parallel for the Kiln is Lost Izalith. The first time I saw that place, when I was above the Demon Ruins and only saw its vast outer shell, stuck with me. (The giant roots sticking out of it should have been dead giveaway that it was related to the Bed of Chaos.)
There was also this, found after the fight with the Centipede Demon.
As suspicious as that was, I think it’s just a crack in a wall of dirty rock, not an ancient, magically sealed doorway like the one leading from Firelink Alter to the Kiln. On top of everything else, it’s leading away from Izalith, not toward it.
However, Izalith’s outer shell is still suspect, and so is the area in which I fought the Bed of Chaos. Enough that I wonder now how the Witch’s thought process worked, whether she jury-rigged a kiln out of what she had, or built Izalith with the intention of lighting a new Flame. Perhaps not having a properly set-up kiln contributed to the disaster, as unlikely as it was that she could have succeeded under any circumstance. Before actually getting into Izalith, I had thought that metal disk was something more important, and I might even have taken it for the Kiln of the First Flame. Where that Kiln actually is, I’m less certain. There is a lot of space underneath Firelink Shrine, most of it unseen and buried under endless tons of rock. The Kiln could be anywhere in there, though that ghostly white light (and all of those ghosts) suggests that there is also an element of Gwyn’s time displacement at work.
That’s as far as my assumptions have carried me. What I find inside is the epicentre of a profound failure.
Before me, in the near distance, is a crumbling cylindrical tower, which seems to be a running theme in Dark Souls. Around it, around me, is a hell-blasted landscape. Trees that have been turned into jagged charcoal, and the sky, or whatever passes for a sky on the inside of a massive metal tinderbox, is dark with burnt clouds.
The ground is covered with a thick layer of ash that has been around long enough to form dunes, though how there is wind blowing around in this place is a mystery to me..What is this? Evidence that what Gwyn has done is against nature, or what passes for natural in a place where magic exists. The evidence here is that the First Flame was not lit in such a disastrous fashion, or at least didn’t stay that way. For thousands of years, the Kiln was a shrine, likely a place of worship–why else keep a temple at the Firelink Shrine instead of hiding it away? There were trees, and the tower built there as well, a place where the gods and their people could visit for quiet reflection. Until the day someone noticed that the Flame was dying. Could they have averted that panic by closing the Kiln off to the general public? Perhaps the increasing numbers of Undead were demanding more attention already.
I think it’s more likely that Gwyn had no idea what sacrificing himself to the Flame would mean. Why would he bring half of his army with him if he was sure they would die? Especially after the Witch of Izalith’s failure. He knew that he would lose himself in the process, sure–why else would he have left so much of his power behind–but he didn’t know how spectacularly it would end.
For Gwyn is a matter of desperate times requiring desperate measures, and the state of the Kiln of the First Flame reflects that perfectly.
There is a small contingent of Black Knights inside, spaced so that I fight them one at a time, and they’re carrying all of the weapons that the Black Knights I’ve killed throughout Lordran were armed with. A heavy bastard sword, the giant axe, a massive greatsword, and a vicious halberd. A single body on a remote ledge holds the entire set of Black Knight armour as well.
I use my tools to get through the Black Knights with little trouble. I have the range to zone them, and they have the brain-dead AI that keeps throwing out attack after attack that has no chance of hitting. There is no need to roll: I very rarely roll at all, because why waste the stamina when I can just move out of the way on my own? Most likely, if I’m in a situation that demands rolling I’ve screwed up already. Spacing is key in fights, especially those that involve weapons.
Soon, I am at a doorway of white light. Seems that just like the Tomb of the Giants, this area is much shorter than I expected it to be. Had I known that, I would have done them both together and saved time.
What makes a good final boss? That depends greatly on what that final boss is meant to represent.
In most linear action games (and this is a loose definition of the genre that includes everything from beat ’em ups and 3D action games, to platformers and SHMUPS), the final boss is nothing more than the last challenge. Often they are also most difficult boss, but not always–but even when they aren’t, that is probably how they were intended. These bosses are designed to test the limits of the player’s grasp on the game’s mechanics through harsh patterns and multiple forms. That is the most traditional form of a last boss, featured in games as far back as the Contra, and the Metal Slug series.
For the most part, those games had action-oriented bosses because they were action-oriented games. There is nothing to them, often, besides some vague motivations, the knowledge that they are the evil bad guy, and a desire to see the game through to the end. They are allowed to be how they are because the entire game is a series of incremental steps leading to them, and it’s the challenge of that last boss that is the main motivation for taking them down.
Then came the story-based final boss. These were found in linear JRPGs. (Not to mean that CRPGs didn’t also have last bosses, but the majority of those were dungeon crawlers, so the last boss was often just a big demon or dragon designed to be the ultimate challenge.) Beating that final boss is less a test of the player’s skill with the game’s systems as it is a cathartic, plot-motivated showdown. The player didn’t seek that final challenge because it was the most difficult, but because it was the most rewarding from a story perspective (at least, they hoped it would be). At that point in the game the player just wants to see it through and kill the jerk that has been making their life miserable for so long, and is less interested in a roadblock fight than in something that makes it feel as if they’ve accomplished something and have earned an ending.
Players still needed that ultimate challenge, though. Developers realized that, and used the non-(or at least less)linear nature of their games to add challenges that would test the player without being an obstacle for story progress. That is when optional dungeons and bosses began to appear. They usually came well before the final boss, but had to be sought out. These were ideal, because the players who wanted a challenge could look for it, and the players who wanted to get to the next plot point could skip right past it. Think of most Final Fantasy games, and how the final bosses in them are rarely as difficult as the big optional encounters with an Omega Weapon or Ultima Weapon.
As action games became less linear, they began to adopt the same styles of optional content as RPGs, and as action games more and more RPG-like systems, they ended up with the same difficulty/rewards ratio problems. Beating the ultimate optional boss usually means acquiring the ultimate weapon as well, which will reduce the challenge of further enemies on top of them already not being as difficult as the optional content. Some games try to get around that by putting the big secret bosses in levels or dungeons that are accessed in the post-game or new game+, or even DLC, but most do not.
I wasn’t sure what I expected out of a final area and boss in Dark Souls. It wasn’t going to be the Mega Man-style boss rush and remix stages, it wasn’t going to be an Onimusha-style gameplay switch-up (I still remember that last boss in Onimusha 2, a game about a samurai killing demons with his sword, that ended with a fight as an Oni shooting lasers at a giant statue.), it probably wasn’t going to be an arcade-style gameplay and pattern ramp-up. It’s not as if Dark Souls doesn’t have optional bosses and areas, but I wouldn’t call them more difficult than the main game. Perhaps the DLC would count for that, but I’m not clear on when the player was meant to tackle it, unless they assumed that the majority would have already beaten the game before they bought it, or would have beaten most of it before discovering the way to Oolacile. Certainly, those bosses and areas were more difficult, and better designed, than the ones in the base game, but it can also be accessed after the player is only half way through the game.
On top of all of that, I am well aware that what I expect and want from a game is nothing like what others expect and want from a game. If I had it my way, every one of them would end with something as ridiculously over-the-top, intense, difficult, and creative as Metal Slug 3’s final stage, but at this point I settle for a final stage and boss that don’t feel like they’re half-baked afterthoughts.
Gwyn, Lord of Cinder
I enter the boss area. Immediately, a piano theme starts up in sombre notes, emphasizing the sacrifice of the Great Lord. No words are spoken on either side. I fear Gwyn has gone Hollowed long ago, so it’s not as if he could say much anyway. There is no grand speech to justify his actions, just a man with a big, fiery sword.
Gwyn attacks with a particular ferocity. The only bosses comparable to him would be Knight Artorias and Manus, but even they had a back and forth to them. Artorias especially rushed in for attacks, and then used his great speed to gain distance. A vain attempt to zone me as I would zone him, but without any intelligence to back it up. Gwyn has a more straightforward approach: he rushes at me, and then stays as close as he can while swinging his sword back and forth.
His blade is wreathed in mellow flames, and they seem to extend his range well beyond what I would expect, as well as giving his attacks fire damage that goes through my shield. Even without that extra damage, I cannot maintain a defence against him for long, as my stamina is drained completely in only a few attacks. There is no way I can block his attacks and have the time and resources needed to retaliate. Sometimes he throws out his arm in an obvious grab attempt as well.
My first attempt is only to see what he can do, and I think I see it well enough. He’s going to stick to me like a bad stench and wave that fiery butter knife in my face until I die.
I believe that I have figured him out already, though it will take a bit more work to confirm my ideas and get them right. My second attempt nearly solidifies my theories, but goes awry when I try for a flask charge at the wrong time.
For my third attempt, I try something a little different by going for a shield parry and riposte, but quickly realize that not having played for so long has dulled my reflexes for that (which weren’t so great to begin with, since I rarely bother with parries), and it would take some work to get that timing down. I attempt once again for a back stab critical, but, like every other attempt, it fails, and I die thanks to another ill-advised flask sip.
For my fourth attempt, I go back to the original plan: keep my distance and exploit his most obviously exploitable attacks. Up close, his multiple sword swings will drain my stamina whether I block or roll, leaving me little opportunity to counterattack (which is one reason I suspect that they can be parried). When I back away, though, he is forced to use one of his long-ranged lunging or diving attacks, which are easy to see and even easier to avoid. I know he doesn’t follow them up, so every time I roll it’s a free hit, and if I stay far enough away I don’t have to worry about his sword combos. The only other worry is his grab attack, which displays the kind of vacuum properties I haven’t encountered outside of 3D fighting games. (What I mean to say is that they hit well outside of what I expect their range to be, so I am more wary of them than seems necessary.)
The only problem with this single-minded approach is that I do ignore other opportunities for attacks. I should be counting his 4-hit combo, and whenever I have stamina left after the 4th hit I should go for him.
My strategy pays off anyway, as he is forced to use the attacks I want to counter. I do think that the fight would have been much simpler with a heavy shield and a decent spear, as I could have blocked those sword swings without having to worry much about stamina. I could have stayed in his face and kept jabbing away.
Gwyn is dead. I gain his Soul.
All in all, it was a pretty easy fight.
Dark Souls is best when it’s doing atmosphere, and both the Kiln and Gwyn are dripping with that. Would I have liked more from them? Sure, but I wasn’t expecting that much, and what I got was trying to tell me something. It was trying to make it personal. Gwyn is not in the Kiln twirling his moustache, and I was not a hero trying to topple an evil empire. He was not going to explain anything to me, and I was not going to try to win him over with the power of friendship. It was the music that drove the point home: this was a battle of ideals, in an arena that decides the fate of the world. It’s no surprise that the building in which we fight has a colosseum motif. This was the final, dying ember of the old gods facing off against the ugly, scrappy truth of humanity’s dark future. That was all the fight was, and it was all it needed to be.
Which surprises me, because initially I was disappointed when I struck the final blow. Gwyn has the same design flaws as nearly every other Dark Souls enemy, but for once that didn’t matter. I felt that I was getting what I needed from the fight–not a test of my skills, or all that I had learned on my journey, but a capstone, a point being driven home with an unmistakably sober finality.
More than anything else, Dark Souls is a game of second chances. It is a game that encourages mistakes, that even exalts in their aftermath. Every being I meet, every place I go, is a testament to a world of failure.
The second chance represents hope, but the game also recognizes that hope is a trap. Hope is what drives the ones I meet to pursue their goals despite the world falling to pieces around them, and it is what finally puts them in a situation where their mistakes catch up with them. As dire as their circumstances may have been, and as defeated as they seemed, hope kept like a spark in their hearts, keeping their flames alive long enough for them to make things worse, or die in the attempt.
Hope (mixed with some arrogance) is what caused the Witch of Izalith to make the choice to kindle her own flame, setting off the chain reaction that turned Lordran into the forsaken land that it is today. Hope is what kept Ingward’s vigil in the darkness of New Londo, as he waited patiently for the Chosen Undead to arrive and do battle with the great evils he had buried, even after his comrades had fled. Hope is what helped Rhea brave the Tomb of the Giants, what kept Laurentius of the Great Swamp sane while he was trapped in a barrel and waiting to be eaten, how Griggs calmed himself in much the same situation, and how Solaire battled through so many enemies alone, searching for his sun. Yet hope was also what killed them all. Even that mopey guy who hung around at the Firelink Shrine for half the game succumbed to his better nature when he decided to go and “do something about it,” which ended with him becoming Hollowed.
How does a person deal with hope in a hopeless world? Arguably, the best way to stop it from becoming a consuming, blinding drive is acceptance. Who are the most grounded and well-off of the Undead that I met in Lordran? Rickert, the sorcery-trained smith who hangs out in a cage near New Londo, a man who knows his best bet for survival is to stay locked up, and his only ambition seems to be making stuff for others, if he gets the chance. He has accepted his situation, and is the better for it. Ingward seems to be much the same, though I said he was also hopeful that someone would tackle the Abyss for him, he was also fine with just standing there for as long as it took for the real Chosen Undead to show up. Domhnall, who cared only for collecting and selling oddities. Given enough time, it’s probable that each of them would have gone Hollowed, but that would be as much a function of entropy as anything else.
Of course, that’s a very pessimistic outlook, and though the world of Dark Souls invites pessimism, I don’t think that’s the point of it. It’s easy to look at it in broad strokes and see that everyone who tries either fails and goes Hollowed, or dies a painful death, but it’s important to see the nobility that they display. These are not poor saps who are too stupid to know better, they are humans who are willing to take risks, and that makes them admirable.
As for myself, I am still puzzling over the meaning of the Chosen Undead. It’s clear that there have been many who received the label, and that nobody really knows what marks an Undead as Chosen, aside from their actions. At the same time, I am markedly different from every other Undead meet. The way I resist becoming Hollowed, no matter how close I get, or how little Humanity I have. That I can apparently die and come back endlessly. I believe that the setup is a sly way of incorporating gameplay elements into the classic blank-slate, infinite capacity hero. I will start out weak, much weaker than others, but I have the ability to grow far beyond them. Which is exactly what I do, only with Humanity added to the mix. I start with none of that at all, which, by all accounts, should make me Hollowed, but I am able to gradually acquire more of it than anyone else.
Based on what Kaathe says, that could be the true mark of the Chosen Undead. A vessel for Humanity beyond even the Fire Keepers, who are a possible perversion of that idea. That must have been the purpose of the Darkwraiths, who all walk around with the ability to steal Humanity from others. Perhaps he thought he could create an artificial Chosen, and they would become the Dark Lord–a human who could absorb all of the Humanity required to become something more than merely human. Only, the Four Kings weren’t human, and the Darkwraiths weren’t Chosen Undead. I assume that’s also why he wanted Oolacile to wake up Manus. Maybe he was just becoming impatient, and thought such an ancient human would serve his purposes.
All evidence points toward Humanity being a corrupting influence on those who don’t have the capacity for it (Aside from everyone in Oolacile, what’s up with those giant rats? They live in the remains of human cities, they’re Undead, and they drop Humanity when killed. Could it be that feeding on the dead and dying humans, somehow ingesting bits of Humanity from them, is what corrupted them and caused them to become giant Undead rats? Because the alternative is that Undead Burg had always been full of rats that size, and I would imagine that the locals would have made a better effort toward exterminating them if that were the case.), yet without it, Undead become Hollowed. It’s a catch-22 for Kaathe, but since most others don’t seem to be able to directly absorb Humanity from fellow Undead, it wasn’t as important a problem for them.
If I wanted to justify my actions as anything more than a mistake, I would say that I was not doing as Frampt and Gwyndolin asked of me by reigniting the First Flame. I am well aware that doing so would be what they wanted, but they’re already dead. Could I have made the choice to let the Age of Fire wither away at last? Yes, I could have. But, I also succumb to hope at the end, because of the people I have met in Lordran.
It isn’t all up to me. I think the Age of Darkness is a not-so-subtle reference to the Dark Ages, the supposed period of intellectual barbarism that overtook Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Gwyn and his pantheon have faint echoes of Greek and Roman gods already, so I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to view their passage as something that would lead to an equally dark period in history.
As far as I can tell, there is nothing solid about what would happen during the Age of Darkness. It’s feasible that it’s just a label applied by Gwyn and the Church for something that they never want to have happen, and for them it would certainly be a bad time. What’s strange is that the curse of the Undead, which is a driving force in the game, seems to be a bit of an afterthought as it goes on. I am told that by linking the Fire I would end the curse, but only by one character, and how would she know that, and why does it matter that I do it when Gwyn linking the Fire had no effect on the curse at all? Is it because I am human, that my Humanity would in some way augment the Flame and undo whatever the curse has done? Or is it that I am using all of the power that Gwyn didn’t? Ending the curse seems to be the only tangible benefit for linking the Fire, and there is nothing said about not linking extending the curse of the Undead.
That’s the fundamental problem that I’m dealing with: a choice based on ignorance. Which really isn’t much of a choice at all.
I may be the Chosen Undead, but that doesn’t make me the fit ruler of humanity, nor does it mean what I do is correct; Gwyn’s law may have been might makes right, but it’s not mine. When it comes down to it, my options were either to preserve the status quo, or to dismantle it. Without the facts, I could not make that decision in good faith, so I went with the easy way out. Because of hope.
Hope is what allows me to believe that extending the Age of Fire will give humanity the chance they need, the chance to figure out what I could not, and to eventually make the decision I could not. Hope is why I burn, because I can believe that, given more time, they will be able to make that choice with their eyes open.
I don’t believe that Gwyn won, even though I lit the Flame. Just as I don’t believe Kaathe deserved to win, either. Even if they never find the answers, whatever time I give to humanity is time that no god could, or would, have given them.
In the moment of my ignition I can see every child yet born, every lover’s embrace, every new discovery of knowledge that makes the world a little better, and that every beautiful sunset will not be tainted by worry over the next sunrise. I would die a hundred times for that, and that alone.