“Always fear the flame. Lest you be devoured by it and lose yourself.” -Quelana of Izalith
“As you once did for the vacuous Rom, grant us eyes, grant us eyes.” -Micolash, School of Mensis
One of the most memorable sections in Dark Souls comes not in the main game, but rather in its downloadable content, ‘Artorias of the Abyss.’ This add-on enriches the main storyworld as it unravel skey pieces of history and lore. And when taken in context of that larger world, it is an even more effective piece of story material.
In ‘Artorias of the Abyss’ the player travels into the game’s past, to the lost land of Oolacile. Once again, you are tasked with rescuing Princess Dusk – earlier retrieved from a Crystal Golen in Darkroot Basis – though here and now taken captive by Manus, Father of the Abyss. As you move deeper into this pocket world, you first encounter Royal Wood, then a dive down into the sinking Oolaicle Township. By the time you reach the bottom and step into the gaping Abyss, it gradually becomes clear just exactly what is happening here.
In the main game, the player is required to fight the Four Kings as a necessary step to ultimately facing off against Lord Gwyn (the foremost of the game’s de facto deity – and arguably the one most responsible for bringing so much tragedy to this world). To get to the Four Kings, you must walk to the bottom of the abandoned and very haunted New Londo Ruins, flooded below the earth. It is here where you potentially first encounter the Abyss. Put on the Abysswalker’s ring and fall and fall and fall…and arrive deep down into a large empty void for this confrontation.
More fascinating is the connection to Darkroot Garden and Darkroot Garden, which is much more heavily implied. The game (as it is wont to do) never draws explicit connection, but it’s hugely important all the same. Darkroot Basin is where you first encounter Princess Dusk from lost Ooalicile – the same location from where you’re transported into the past. Darkroot Garden is where you fight the wolf Sif, stalwart companion of the Abysswalker himself Knight Artorias.
It’s in walking through Royal Wood that connections can really be made. On the road to Oolacile, stuck in perpetual twilight (echoing Darkroot Garden and Darkroot Basin, trapped in an endless night) there are twinkling flowers, and a familiarity to the landscape. Eventually the player will likely make a stunning realization: Darkroot Garden and Darkroot Basin are Royal Wood. There are all that is left of the lost land of Oolacile after it was swallowed by the Abyss.
The final area of this DLC means traversing down into Chasm of the Abyss, to eventually contest with Manus – a figure that may or may not have been one of the four original Great Lords and de facto deity. The Abyss itself is appropriately terrifying – as is the devastation that it has wrought upon the remnants of Oolacile. Bloated-head creatures are all that’s left of its people, as painful to look at as they are difficult to kill. Faint screaming is often heard through the city – like echoes from a time past, actions enacted upon a now-slain populace. This harmonizes with the increasing dark colors, as the twilight world fades behind and above you. Everything about the Abyss as it’s presented in both Oolaicle and New Londo Ruins offers a sense of foreboding and dread.
This madness is a consistent theme at play throughout the course of the game – indeed, across every game in this series of Souls and its peripheral sister Bloodborne. One of the bigger surprises of the ‘Artorias of the Abyss’ story section has you facing off against a boss in the title character himself – Knight Artorias. Because here in the past, even this legendary knight – sent by Lord Gwyn to investigate what was happening to Oolacile – has succumbed to the madness leaking from the Abyss. In the end, you’ll come to realize that many of the heroic deeds attributed to Artorias the Abysswalker are actually accomplished by your Chosen Undead. Even the greatest and most noble of figures are vulnerable to the madness. A concept that is perfectly in keeping in the ultimate fate of the most powerful of individuals in Lord Gwyn and the Witch of Izalith.
Almost everything witnessed first-hand about the Abyss suggests terror and that risk of madness. And yet Darkroot Garden and the Royal Wood itself present a fascinating contrast to this. They are – at different points in time – among the last remains of a land swallowed by the maddening Abyss. Yet there’s nothing overtly terrifying about either of them. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Of a certainty, there are creatures within to be feared. Fearsome Knights that are masked by the trees; Crystal Golems guard the path to the lake, happily assaulting you with crystal spears; and the Hydra itself is a dangerous encounter, shooting great blasts of water from a distance, doggedly protecting its own territory.
Yet the Moonlight Butterfly, though hostile, bears a certain ethereal beauty. Other-worldly music plays while this majestic creature shoots death rays that are as mesmerizing as they are dangerous. And Sif – the area’s other prominent boss fight – is tragic as much as she is hostile. In the DLC, Sif is rescued by the player from deep within the Abyss after the loss of Artorias. And even if she recognizes you now for the task, she’s still compelled to stand forth in combat against you. She’s driven to guard her master’s grave to the end. She’s not evil – and her goals are tragic and noble. As are the very final moments before her death.
The environment itself further reflects this. In the quiets moments between facing off against hostile foes, there’s a distinct serenity to the landscape. The brush of night air in the wind, a stunning moon overhead; or the sound of birds as the green trees unfold under a pale orange sky. It is utterly tranquil – and in its way, achingly beautiful.
What’s more striking is what has enabled this beauty. Oolacile’s destruction by the Abyss is terrifying and maddening. But in the present, in what was left behind by that madness and terror, something exquisitely beautiful has been crafted. In this world of Lordran, where gods have been driven mad in their desire to maintain their own godhood, where their actions have wreaked havoc across the known world, Darkroot Garden represents one of the game’s most powerful suggestions: that madness and beauty are just a hairsbreadth apart. The two bear far more relation to one another than we realize.
The word “mad” itself has, in the modern day, most often been used as a synonym for “angry.” Yet in its origins, it’s just as often associated with other, more pertinent things: irrationality; or mentally disturbed. In the case of a Souls or a Bloodborne, it could easily be applied to greater specifics: someone who has tapped into a deeper understanding of that which is attainable through normal human perception; or someone driven to a level of insanity that makes them actively dangerous to others.
These games bear all those markings, as the remains of a world and people gone mad is a recurrent theme across all five entries in the series. Of madness, and other states that correlate to that madness. Madness and majesty – beauty and brutality. All are pieces of the same, much larger, oftentimes incomprehensible puzzle. There are always those who will sacrifice the whole world in their designs of making those pieces fit – of achieving or maintaining their own divinity. They are what drives these worlds into madness.