Old and new

claw of the

Looks like my blog completely bypassed the octave of Christmas, leaving my Dickens audiobook hanging. Perhaps next year I’ll get around to the second stave of A Christmas Carol. It’s still not quite over yet, so – Merry Christmas!

Speaking of unfulfilled tasks, I’ve begun re-reading The Book of the New Sun. Anyone who’s spent some time on this blog knows that this book means a lot to me. So much so that I began a chapter by chapter exegesis a year or so ago. My hope is that this re-read will help prime me to resume that project.

I’ve also recently had the opportunity to play Dark Souls, a 2011 game (I know, I’m always late to these things) which has been hailed as the best of its generation. It also, by coincidence, makes for a good companion to The Book of the New Sun:

Both of them carry a reputation for difficulty, to the point where it becomes a part of their mystique. Dark Souls’ difficulty was even a part of its marketing campaign (“Prepare To Die”), and is renowned for making difficulty into an aesthetic choice. Meanwhile, The Book of the New Sun is known as a complex and tricky text that requires careful reading and re-reading on the part of the reader.

-Both take place in surreal, dying worlds where the audience’s perspective is limited in such a fashion that figuring out what the ‘big picture’ is remains an inductive exercise.

-Both are interested in exploring the nature of suffering, death and violence. The Book of the New Sun emphasizes this by making the reader identify with a professional torturer and executioner, while Dark Souls combines difficulty with high-stakes gameplay to make an an almost Sisyphean experience.

-Both are a bit difficult to pin down in form and genre. BOTNS is sci-fi in fantasy garb, and attempts to tell an epic adventure story in a fashion that feels closer to Proust and Nabokov than Tolkien. DS, meanwhile, is ostensibly an action RPG, but its sense of progression and world design feels closer to Super Metroid, while navigating any particular challenge requires the sort of trial-and-error memorization required for an old-school Mega Man, Contra or Castlevania.


But the ultimate significance of these themes is where the two seriously diverge. BOTNS is rife with sacramental, Catholic subtext, albeit not necessarily in the most straightforward manner: Christianity as we know it does not exist in the world of BOTNS, but its absence casts a shadow over the narrative. This is a world which needs redemption, and where suffering is a mystery that reveals a key.

Dark Souls, on the other hand, is perhaps the most stoic game ever made. Its locus is not redemption but rather how to live in a world where suffering is the norm and death is the inevitable end. DS’s gameplay rewards players who are capable of practicing a stoic detachment from the inevitable feelings of disappointment and frustration that the game will provoke.

Of course, I’m not nearly far enough in DS to make any sort of definitive pronouncement on it (although I’ve already had a fair amount of it spoiled for me). Still, I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that Epictetus was required reading for the dev team.


About Josh W

Scribbler and doodler
This entry was posted in fragments of culture, pop culture and its discontents, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Old and new

  1. T Martin says:

    It’s okay; I’m also behind the times on video games. When I told somebody recently that Half-Life 2 was the most well-made video game I’ve ever played, he was like, “Really?” I guess that’s my advantage because I can still enjoy it.

    • Josh W says:

      I think good game design is timeless. Even though they’re two decades old, I’m still willing to defend Super Metroid and Chrono Trigger as the most perfectly executed games I’ve ever played.

      • T Martin says:

        Chrono Trigger is one I want to play down the line. My brothers played it when I was a kid, and I tried to play it myself, but turn-based RPGs couldn’t hold my attention for long.

    • T Martin says:

      Plus, given that Half-Life 2 has two mini-sequels, I still haven’t actually finished Half-Life 2 (though, apparently, neither has Valve).

  2. Reblogged this on Medieval Otaku and commented:
    Some of my dear readers have likely played Dark Souls. This article by Josh W makes a very interesting connection between Dark Souls and the Book of the New Sun series by Gene Wolfe. Having read the first book of this series and watched the game, the comparison strikes me as quite apt. I really need to start reading the second book in the BOTNS series.

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