Or: I struggled my way through Dark Souls and all I got was this lousy gender.
Spend more than five minutes browsing Dark Souls content on any social media platform and you’re bound to see some mention of transfeminine people being absolutely feral about (and uncannily good at) any Dark Souls game. It isn’t uncommon to see Twitter users joking about getting “girldick” by asking a transfem to explain the “deep lore” of Dark Souls or any of the games in its offshoot “Soulsborne” genre. Dark Souls is notoriously difficult, cryptic, and hostile to the player both in its mechanics and atmosphere. It’s no surprise that such a series would attract a devoted cult following. But why are transfeminine people in particular associated with this cult following? Is taking exogenous estrogen really the secret to “gitting gud” and getting past that boss you’ve been stuck on for weeks?
In 2011, I was fourteen and had just begun to attend mental health therapy for the first time. I had recently become aware of The Closet and my unwilling position within it. I began to bury my trans and queer feelings in music, drugs, and video games; if I was distracted, I couldn’t think about things better left untouched. Dark Souls fell into my hands a week or two after its September 22, 2011 release, and I obsessed over the game for years from the moment I hit the starting screen. I’ve always had a difficult time pinning down just what, exactly, about the game was so enchanting to my younger lost, confused, and closeted transfeminine self. The answer, for me, lies in the resonance between the game’s narrative design and my experiences as a closeted transfem (and queer person more broadly) in a world hostile to those very elements. These experiences are by no means terribly unique to me; I’m not the first transfem to escape my feelings through video games in adolescence. Video games were—and still are, sometimes—perceived as a natural hobby for “boys,” which gave me a socially acceptable way to hide away from the world. The world I found in Dark Souls, I think, confronted me with a reflection of all the ugly parts of my own world that filled me with dread.
Dark Souls begins with an introductory cutscene that lays the foundations for the world:
In the Age of Ancients, the world was unformed, shrouded by fog.
A land of grey crags, archtrees, and everlasting dragons.
But then there was Fire.
And with Fire, came Disparity.
And so the Four Lords seized portions of this First Flame, which granted them godly abilities to dethrone the eternal dragons that ruled the earth. Rather, three of them. The Fourth Lord was the Furtive Pygmy (a pejorative I hesitate to include, but I’ll come back to it soon), “so easily forgotten,” the ones who tenaciously scraped the bottom of the barrel after the other three had taken the lion’s share—these furtive folk would become the humans of the world. The tiny scrap of flame bestowed to the Furtive mixed with some innate essence of humanity and became the Dark Soul. The Three who claimed godly powers are fueled by flame, and flame needs fuel to burn bright. What better source than the tenacious humans?
Gwyn, a sun god All-Father of the trio, creates sprawling kingdoms for the glory of him and his built on the backs of humans. Humans are to be born, procreate, worship the gods in veneration, and then die. However, as the First Flame begins to burn its fuel to cinders, the Age of Fire nears its end, and the power of the Furtive grows with the darkness. The Darksign appears, and certain humans begin to experience true immortality. Nothing can kill them but themselves. When the gods began the flow of time, they put an expiration date on their rule. Of the Three Lords, only Gwyn is really important here: he looms over humanity with Gothic architecture and European naming conventions (evidenced by his children, Gwynovere and Gwyndolin) and religious structures. It’s all very European-inspired fantasy to its core. So much so that every release of the game only has English voiceovers available, even in the developer’s home country of Japan. If humanity stems from a being called the “Pygmy,” itself a very racialized (and often pejorative) term tied to certain African peoples, and humanity is ruled over by a white sun-god father figure that demands fealty and sacrifice for his lineage, the racialized and colonialist undertones of the game’s story should be apparent. As a result, the game takes place in a hyper-patriarchal, racialized world, where Gwyn—who is the current fuel for the First Flame that is running dangerously low—has the world bent to his desires long after his death.
The opening cinematic concludes with a shot sweeping down a hallway of the Undead Asylum, rotted and rusting. The Asylum houses those whom the gods fear:
The Darksign brands the Undead.
And in this land, the Undead are corralled to the north, where they are locked away, to await the end of the world… This is your fate.
Yes, you! You, dear protagonist, are Undead, an accursed Darksign bearer and literal black sheep of humanity. And you have a thirst for souls—those tiny, pale shards of the First Flame that grant power (and the ability to use bigger, cooler swords). A man named Oscar of Astora frees you without a word from this purgatory and begs you to take up his mantle to fulfill the prophecy of reigniting the First Flame. He does so with his dying breath with no obvious wounds or cause of death, bathed in rays of sunlight filtering in through the dilapidated Asylum. Presumably the machismo of his ordained quest and the anxiety of failure were too much and killed the poor man. The prophecy asks you to make a pilgrimage and offer your body up as tinder to continue the Age of Flame and the cycle for gods who have abandoned you. Become the Chosen Undead—because of course you, very special player, are the very special Chosen One. How convenient for the powers that be that you, their savior, have been freed from a prison they definitely did not build.
But wait, you say, this is supposed to be about trans people and Dark Souls, not a rehashing of the lore and its patriarchal/colonial undertones. Shouldn’t I be talking about Gwyndolin, the bespoke and be-serpent-ed trans icon; the transgender-fication coffin of Dark Souls 2; or the gendered animation swap ring from Dark Souls 3? I want to offer something new without treading well-worn ground. These are all important factors, but I think the core of what resonates so strongly with me and other transfems in Dark Souls is the meta-narrative reflected in the game’s narration, characters, and atmosphere. Dark Souls presents us a dead and decaying world built on power structures that have long since ceased to function, if they ever did. Like a shambling corpse, they trudge on and demand you play along, too. They demand that you care about them and sacrifice yourself for their sake while—and I cannot stress this enough—the game never gives you a reason to care about the Prophecy you are meant to fulfill. There’s an overwhelming stink of compensatory masculinity and bravado to the whole thing that jars against the desolate, quiet, and depressed nature of the world. The hero’s journey of Dark Souls is, at first glance, a relatively stock-standard one. First glances, like an illusory wall, are never to be trusted.
Lordran is the ground zero at the heart of the world in Dark Souls. It trudges on because it must, because it was made to; this is seen in the behavior of the Hollows, Undead who have given up hope and thus have no Humanity, that were once the humans who populated Lordran; they shuffle to and fro, digging through refuse, milling mindlessly around places they once called home. The poor fools who populate Lordran but aren’t fortunate enough to go Hollow aren’t much better. They are broken and battered, strung along by the same prophecies that lead you, or else they are searching for a temporary remedy in the face of societal collapse. The item descriptions, Dark Souls‘ primary means of conveying story and lore, wax wistfully on a brighter yesterday and the dwindling light of today in faraway lands. Lands you can never reach; you are stuck in the lowest circle of hell.
Remember how Dark Souls only has one English voiceover with no other languages available? The voice acting is equal parts haunting, stilted, and jarring. There is something missing in every voice. The laughs, most infamously, are hollowed out or horribly overcompensating to appear “normal.” There’s panic and resignation lurking at the edge of every line, bursting out of every laugh. Blacksmiths go about their business, as if murderous lightning demons are not lurking literally five feet away. Solaire of Astora, a famously jolly character and Enjoyer of Cooperation, has his sights set far away from the dismal land around him. His eyes are glued to the sun until he is literally and metaphorically blinded. He meets a terrible demise, same as every other character in the game. Solaire of Astora, as a worshiper of Gwyn, should of all characters have unshakeable faith in the rightness of the world around him. The best he can settle for is a heavy-handed metaphor of blindness and staring into space.
Back to fourteen-year-old me. I knew something was deeply different about me. Something about my feelings was deeply wrong by all conventional wisdom. I hid from these confusing feelings in video games. The worlds and rules there made sense. Dark Souls upended that. Bumbling through a cryptic world, dealing with the harsh reinforcement of gendered norms I didn’t understand and being saddled with gendered destinies I understood even less that required suffering for ends not my own, I foolishly thought this new and exciting action RPG would let me experience something other than that. Like Skyrim, where I could be the Super Cool Dragon-Hero Who Killed Dragons and Ate Fifty Cheese Wheels. I saw nothing short of my own misery and bewilderment mirrored in the silent protagonist’s journey in Dark Souls. Melodramatic, sure, but so is the game and the imagination of a closeted fourteen-year-old.
Thou who art Undead, art chosen…
You are a faceless nobody saddled with an ancient prophecy, a destiny only you can fulfill. In Lordran, everybody has a chip on their shoulder. Everybody is deeply dysfunctional. Yet, instead of leaving, they insist you stay, just as they are. You must suffer, just as they do. Quitting simply isn’t an option, for reasons unknown. Many of them are bent towards a single purpose: helping you light the First Flame and fulfill your pre-ordained purpose. It is your duty to the world and your fellow Undead. Worst of all, should you turn from this path, you will be a Hollow. These are your two options: do or die. Nobody will tell you why this is your purpose, or even who you are. Everybody accepts these things as the nature of the world, of course. Nobody will tell you that there is a third option. All you have are a few belongings from another life. There is a particular dissociation from your starting equipment; they are tools to survive with, nothing more, yet there is a felt absence of meaning where your starting equipment should mean more to you. Looking at you, Pendant.
For transfeminine people, I think, there’s a gendered resonance to the narrative due to the machismo of it all. Gwyn is the radiant all-father, the patriarch of civilization, kingdoms, and hierarchy. Without him humans would be, as the intro narrative shows us, sad and pathetic figures squatting in the dark when they could be erecting palaces to his glory and the lineage of his loins. And you, yes, you, are the Special Chosen One to be battered, tortured, and killed for somebody else’s grand project of patriarchal father-worship. Growing up being perceived as a boy by those around me, there’s a particular self-sacrifice expected of boys that is held up as the masculine ideal. “Boys don’t cry,” “suck it up,” “grow some balls,” etc. We’ve all heard these phrases. The forced compliance to stoic self-sacrifice grows all the more intense the further one drifts away from masculine norms. Boys are asked for this rigid self-sacrifice in the name of something. That something is never explained; it’s just the way boys are supposed to be.
The most obvious ending is defeating Gwyn’s husk, usurping his place as fuel for the First Flame so that his order may live on. Watching the Chosen Undead self-immolate filled me with a sense of melancholy I couldn’t understand. All that struggle to become a charred husk? It wasn’t until after a short hiatus from the game (and some soul-searching during that hiatus) that I learned there was a second ending, the third alternative to doing or dying: the Chosen Undead can walk away. Despite what the world tells you, despite the constant reminders of your destiny, despite the disempowerment and the literal silencing of the Chosen Undead, you can still say no. You can choose a different path. After beating the hollowed-out husk of Gwyn, you can simply leave. In the cutscene that follows, you become the ruler of the darkness for rejecting the martyrdom expected of you. What this entails is left unclear, only that the current system is dead. I only experienced this ending once I knew that the “Chosen Undead” was a sham, much like my assigned gender. I experienced this ending playing as a woman, now with a tougher skin to take the ridicule from others for not playing a man. It’s then that I understood why the people who populate Lordran seem so stilted and hollowed out: the world of Lordran cannot continue. They have been given no alternative, so they break. I, much like the Chosen Undead, finally felt free to live as who I had to be. The only other option was breaking and never understanding why, both for the Chosen Undead and for trans people.
Evelyn Grey is a media critic, cryptid, and Forever DM. She writes at the intersection of queer experience, class, and games.
You can find them tweeting at a brick wall over at @Sidereal_Star. When not speaking to inanimate objects, she’s probably retweeting Pokémon fan art and game news.