/SP/ | Artorias of the Abyss | Dark Souls’s Dead Hero

I decided to bring these back given that I still haven’t fully come down from the third game and thought it would be fun to retrace my steps through the series. Specifically, I’d like to talk about each game and how they all put their feet forward in terms of their most dramatic encounters.  They’re all pretty well done and are easily my favorite parts of the Souls games.

I’ll be starting with Dark Souls because in all the ways that matter, I’ve already done Demon’s Souls[1]. Dark Souls, for as lukewarm as I was on it in the end, had a good chunk of some of the best storytelling that the series ever saw. Also, where the other games had moments and sequences that stood out to me above the rest, Dark Souls had three or four that I thought were all worth talking about. The one I chose to focus on is of course is the Artorias battle in the game’s DLC.

A sizable chunk of Dark Souls’s primary narrative revolves around Lord Gwyn and his four knights: Ornstein, Artorias, Gough, and Ciaran. Gwyn[2], while being the primary goal to reach, is arguably eclipsed by the implied narrative around his knights. At the end of the day, he’s just a sad old man clinging to a false hope---his primary mode of existence simply being present for the player to usurp.  The base game only shows us Ornstein and depending on how you look at both Dark Souls 2 and 3, the combatant you fight in the first game (by and large this title’s most infamously difficult fight) is most likely an illusion. A dragonslayer clad in gold, he’s given the role of Gwyn’s most loyal and reliable knight (possibly the sect’s leader as well? I’m rusty on the lore for the first game…). 

He seems to share a lot of his moral/loyal compass with Veldstat from the second game; a silent gold-clad warrior who punctuates one of the most difficult battles in their respective games.
Beyond that, there’s Ciaran, Gough and Artorias, who all make their debut to the player in the DLC, taking place in the past. All three seem more welcoming to the player as a character rather than just outright attacking them for trespassing as some interloper. I mean to put Artorias into this category even though he only appears to the player in aggression. This is because Artorias by the game’s measure is laid out in the most heroic fashion compared to the rest (arguably more than any character in the entire series too); and by proxy Gough makes him an honorable individual as well by vouching for him, in a manner of speaking. Gough being the friendliest of the knights, helps you multiple times over the course of the DLC and he’s the one who rewards and happily acknowledges your neutralizing Artorias.

The base game overtly acknowledges the legend of Artorias on multiple occasions; a knight who traversed The Abyss, the dark aether of the Souls universe that is inherent to man while simultaneously serving as the lifeblood for some of the franchise’s most powerful and corrupt monstrosities. While Artorias was stated as driving this void back, none acknowledge him actually returning from the ordeal, leading to the assumption that was dead (whatever that means in this series) or being simply consumed by it. Turns out it was the latter and Gough expresses gratitude that you to put him down as a means of granting peace and mercy to his comrade.

You don’t get to meet Gough until after this encounter however, which I think is fantastic because it allows the player to conclude who this character is on their own (you know---before the game’s health bar pops telling them).

Definitely one of my favorite encounters in the entire series.

What appears before you isn’t some hero, it’s a husk of armor literally spewing darkness, nursing (sort of) a broken arm, and moving like very pointedly like a marionette being aggressively yanked around. Dark Souls always brings its A-game when it comes to the humanoid boss fights and Artorias is one of the best examples of that. Contextually his movements, phases, and even his death all feed into the narrative of what he’s become (DS3 has a spiritual successor encounter that is also very narrative focused, I'll trace that in a minute). One of the most unique things about Artorias specifically is his dying cry. Some characters in this game (and series) may release a howl or gasp upon death but it’s typically very muted and somber---like the rest of the game. Artorias actively SCREAMS when you kill him and it stands out in a jarring and almost eerie manner[3].

While Gough celebrates his friend finally being at peace, two others seem to be more in a state of mourning. These two being Ciaran and Artoria’s pet/friend/comrade Sif, the great grey wolf. The latter is probably the game’s next most memorable moment (and in many ways it’s more evocative of Artorias’s passing than his actual fight). Taking place in a moonlit yard while circling Artorias’s grave with his master’s sword in his mouth, the Wolf’s most memorable claim to fame is his battle animation as the fight progresses. He begins to limp, becomes far more easy to kill in the last 20% of his health, and in his dying breath---honorably acknowledges you as a formidable warrior before passing on (such a small scene that got added later which goes a long way).

It was Dark Souls’s Astrea moment---where the player is forced to come to terms with the measures they’re actually taking to claim these souls. There’s even multiple ways to read Sif’s reasoning for fighting you. As I said before, this fight in many ways outclasses Artorias in sheer emotion, but it served a bigger endgame by tying in to the latter’s fight later on in the game. There’s also the cameo Sif makes as a much smaller and younger wolf in the chasm to the Abyss later in the DLC (and after that as a summon for the DLC’s final boss), not too long after you defeat Artorias. Sif’s presence in the game serves to bookend Artorias’s tragedy and “current” state[4]. As such, the encounter with Artorias resonates much more when you take Sif into account. Ciran is encountered after the fight kneeling in the area you previously faced him in and it’s implied she loved him. Not much is granted to her other than a somber thanks to you and acceptance of what Artorias wound up becoming.

So yeah, Artorias of the Abyss was easily my favorite part of the first Dark Souls and was definitely the most memorable encounter I came across during my time with the game. I should give a shoutout to the aforementioned Abyss Watchers in Dark Souls 3 (as I probably won’t have time to relate it when I talk about my favored encounter from that game). They’re basically a group of overzealous fanatics, formed around Artorias’s legend, driven to eradicate The Abyss and composed of insane warriors reduced to absolute madness, eternally fighting and killing each other over and over[5].  It’s a narratively intense fight as the player can hear these figures killing each other from a good distance off before actually fighting them. Upon entering the arena and seeing the cause of the constant clashing and tearing flesh, players are thrown into a fight as a third wheel, being only secondary in priority to these "lords" fighting each other, in an arena where the ground is literally corpses of other Abyss Watchers.

Between the first and third game, Artorias is Dark Souls’s greatest hero and in series-fitting fashion, everything about him is a tragic mess. His legacy is revealed to have been reduced to ruin for centuries to come, all his friends had to witness his complete corruption while being unable to do anything for him, and his greatest achievement (i.e. failure) left him a slave of the very existence he sought to destroy[6].

Such is Dark Souls.

1. I apologize for the aged formatting and such, I’m too lazy to fix it, but it’s still there to read either way: http://www.snakelinksonic.com/2010/10/shattered-perversion-maiden-astraea.html

2. Gwyn would probably be fourth on my list of Dark Souls’s most dramatic encounters, but everything about his battle is only made relevant by all the players’ experience preceding him (that and a very melancholy piano theme). The encounter itself is fittingly "hollow".

3. The Internet is a wondrous wondrous place: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7iLVLZfSM0

4. “I hate temporal mechanics.”

5. I also appreciated the nice attention to detail regarding the Watchers' fighting style. Wild, aggressive, and somewhat difficult to react to in a swift manner. It was very reminiscent of the encounter with Artorias in the first game.

6. Personal Note: By the time I made it to this encounter in Dark Souls 3, I was actively angry at Artorias’s failure.

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