Archives in Video Games: Dark Souls
What better way to celebrate the latest FromSoftware release of Elden Ring then covering Dark Souls Remastered and the Duke's Archives? Yes, I'm sure you're absolutely riveted, but you're here and you might as well keep reading! It's what the Ashen Ones would want, I assume.
As part of their journey to either rekindle the Age of Fire or usher in the Age of Dark, the player enters the Duke's Archives where they face enemies made of crystal and, eventually, the location's boss, Seath the Scaleless - an albino dragon born without scales.
Playing the game, or in my case, watching people playing the game, there isn't a lot of lore dropped unless you go looking for it. Or you could be one of those players that reads all of the flavor text and any supplemental text within the game. If you are, then my hat goes off to you! Luckily, the wonderful fandom wikis provide plenty of information that satisfy my need for juicy details. So, let's talk about the dragon in the archives!
According to the Lore, Seath was jealous of the Everlasting Dragons, the rulers of the ancient world before the Dark Souls series of games begin. Obsessed with obtaining immortality, he aligned himself with Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight, revealed that the dragons were weak to lightning, and obtained a Primordial Crystal that made him immortal. Gwyn rewarded Seath by giving him a Dukedom as well as a fragment of a Lord Soul which the player needs to obtain.
In the time since his betrayal and rise to power, Seath built up a legendary archive of knowledge which he used for research and conducting "experiments." And by experiments, I mean The Island of Dr. Moreau type alterations that turned innocent people into monsters. Earlier in the game, the player faces the Moonlight Butterfly as a boss in the Darkroot Garden. A large almost alien-like butterfly, they lack any discernible features like a head or legs, but they attack with powerful spells. It turns out, they're one of Seath's experiments, though there's nothing specified about how they came to be. When the player finds themself deeper within the Duke's Archives, they encounter the Pisaca - snake-like creatures with tentacled heads who were once women of the realm. There's even an alcove where you hear the Pisaca's wailing with women's voices. It's also noted in the flavor text that the Pisaca are referred to as "writhing mistakes." Lovely.
So what we essentially have here is a mad scientist dragon who amassed a vast medical archives that he uses to experiment on and corrupt innocent people, mostly women. A little reductive, yes, but trust me when I say that there is a long, sordid history of medical archives and their culpability in the treatment of patients and the acquisition of records pertaining to the history of medicine. It's a lot. If you want to see a more viscerally unsettling version of this in a video game, then go play Bloodborne.
It is important to point out, however, that none of my inferences are baked into the overall plot of Dark Souls. Thematically speaking, the through line is more concerned with the natural cycles of life and death, but also corruption and power and fire in the same way that Bloodborne is mostly concerned with corruption and power and blood...and some weird views on women and pregnancy.
Ya know, I'm starting to sense a FromSoftware theme emerging.
Also, I never said these games were subtle.
But let's take a look at the archives themselves because it is GORGEOUS! It's built like a castle atop a mountain, which makes sense with the ruler of said castle being a dragon who hoards knowledge, but the scale of the building coupled with multiple floors of shelves full of what mostly appear to be books makes a bibliophile like me drool hungrily. There's space for research, the entire building looks clean and well taken care of, and there's even an inner garden with trees, grass, and crystal enemies to destroy. If the place weren't run by a power-corrupted dragon, and didn't have failed magical experiments in the basement, it would be the ideal university setting.
If you wander around before facing off with Seath as the location boss in the Crystal Cave, you have the option to pull books from the shelves and, according to Reddit, all of the books pulled have equivalents in the real world. There's no rhyme or reason to the types of books selected, no thematic connection, but one of the books screenshot was Le Desir de vivre (The Desire to Live), which is, ya know, ironic since you're playing as an undead protagonist in a video game.
Given all of this information, I do find myself wondering a couple of things: 1) is the Duke's Archives actually an archives? 2) is Seath the de facto archivist?
In the case of the former, we have to take context clues from the world in which the archives exists. It's generic medieval dark fantasy, which means the materials that end up in the archives are more unique in their creation. Seath obviously procured published works, which you can find in the game, but the majority of the archives is implied to be garnered through his own research and experimentation. How he's arranged his lifetimes' worth of collected knowledge is anybody's guess, but it's there, nonetheless, ready to be read and studied. Once again, the problem with depicting an archives is that designers default to a library aesthetic, further conflating the two, which is why I kept seeing the location pop up on blogs for libraries in video games despite the location name.
In the case of the latter, there's more of a case to be made for Seath being an archivist than not. The Lore again implies that the majority of the research has been conducted and written down by Seath since he was given his Dukedom. Any other enemies featured in the archives are either crystal knights, Channelers, or the "mistakes" of Seath's experimentation. If anyone worked at the archives as an assistant or an archivist, they're long gone by the time the player shows up. Based on the facts and lack of options, I'd safely call Seath the archivist in this case. And, to be fair, if I was an immortal dragon, I'd probably hoard knowledge too. Gold comes and goes, but knowledge lasts if you know what you're doing with it.
Seath's presence within the archives, even if you never battle him in the archives proper, has some similarities to Wan Shi Tong of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra; massive animals of legend in charge of centuries of knowledge with questionable morality. Well, questionable in Wan Shi Tong's case. Seath is just straight up evil! Still, they occupy a similar position within their respective worlds and I just find it neat to draw those comparisons.
As a quick wrap up, the Duke's Archives served as inspiration for levels in other Dark Souls games: Brightstone Cove Tseldora in Dark Souls II and the Grand Archives in Dark Souls III. I don't know in what capacity the Duke's Archives inspired Brightstone, which is a campsite, but the Grand Archives makes way more sense. It's a much creepier setting, though, darker in its intensity and lighting and apparently knowledge can only be obtained by covering yourself in wax. So that's fun!
Unfortunately, they've really let the place go.