Recontextualization

In one of his many excellent videos, illusory wall proposes a “design trick” that the developers at FromSoftware, or at least Game Director Hidetaka Miyazaki, employ for narrative and worldbuilding purposes, albeit rarely. While even he struggles to define it, the basic concept is that certain things, such as items, are actually something other than what is stated, with the intent of reflecting how the average person in the game’s setting would perceive them versus the objective reality. By presenting them in this way, the developers harmonize the player’s misperception with the characters in the setting. However, I believe his difficulty in even describing this supposed technique is because it doesn’t actually exist. To begin with, if a technique is used so sparingly, then one must question if it isn’t just cognitive bias making a false pattern recognition. As illusory wall himself admits, the script as a whole can and should be inherently trusted, and any of his examples to the contrary by themselves can simply be attributed to human error. It is only their cumulation which holds serious value. In that case, let us evaluate their validity individually.

The first example concerns the basilisks possessing Eyes of Death. The premise is that a basilisk’s large bulbous eyes aren’t its real eyes, and so them being called “eyes” is disingenuous to the reality of the setting. This presupposes that a basilisk’s giant pair of peepers being its fake eyes, which Miyazaki confirms in a Game no Shokutaku podcast, means that they aren’t eyes at all. If so, then they are remarkably convincing facsimiles, but this would be true even if they are actual eyes. The item name and menu graphic indicate that we are collecting a genuine eyeball from the corpse, one which bears a strong affinity for death and can thereby spread more entropy on Gravelord Nito’s behalf — just look at the summon sign’s resemblance to Nito’s own aura of death. If anything, obtaining nonliving eyes from only humans victimized as part of the covenant or basilisks highlights the latter’s uniqueness.

Why that species specifically? There are plenty of enemies with similar ocular organs, beasts or otherwise. Perhaps the eyes were dead before we even killed the animal? If so, then it would imply that they were nonfunctional, vestigial. And after noticing the second, smaller pair of eyes beneath the first, that notion becomes all the more apparent. That obvious pair are dead eyes, oversized ornaments; the ones the creature actually uses are “hidden” beneath them. In other words, the menu graphic and description serve as an in-game clue for players not privy to Miyazaki’s direct statements on the subject. Indeed, it is one among many elements that the game director doesn’t expect most players to notice, as he has expressed in various interviews.

The same can be argued for the second example. The premise is that the Obsidian Greatsword’s description refers to Kalameet as one-eyed when he clearly has three upon closer inspection. Again, one can argue that the text implies the other two to be vestigial rather than reflecting the in-universe perception of Kalameet. Since the black dragon only ever uses the one eye for combat or even blinking, it is difficult to verify that the other two are functional. Even if we assume that they are, one can make a case for a point which illusory wall disregards: it is a mistake. While it is generally unwise to distrust the text in specific instances where its logic isn’t immediately apparent, the writers behind a game’s script are still just as fallible as any of us, and there are undeniably errors in FromSoftware titles.

The most obvious example is the Resist Curse sorcery from the original Dark Souls. (DS1) The spell’s English description references sacrificing Humanity to remove curses, but its actual effect is only to reduce the build-up for the curse status effect. This obvious disconnect is unique to the localization, with the Japanese text accurately reflecting the spell’s in-game mechanics. But the mistake itself is too wild a deviation to be simply attributed to a localization error, and the supposed effect is similar to the actual curse-removing mechanic performed by the spell’s owner Ingward. Therefore, it is very likely that the Japanese text did at one point reflect the English description but was changed later in development. This change was, for one reason or another, never passed on to the localization team, leaving a huge disparity between the two versions in the final product.

Sorcery of the red-robed remedician. Ingward, guardian of the seal in New Londo. Sacrifice humanity to undo curse.

Abhorrent curses eat away at the core of one’s very existence, and cleansing oneself of curses is no easy task indeed.

Sorcery of the red-clothed Ingward, a sealer of New Londo who is also called a healer. Reduces the accumulation of curses.

Terrifying deaths by curse eat away at the source of existence. This sorcery is one of the few means to resist curses and keep away deaths by curse.

Most typos are far more difficult to discern, but the fact that they exist means that the possibility must be considered at least equally to the concept which illusory wall proposes. That being the case, one can argue that the Obsidian Greatsword description writer was simply remiss or forgetful about the fact that Kalameet’s model had more than just the one obvious eye that the rest of the game solely emphasizes. These other viable interpretations muddy the example for illusory wall’s point, which is surprising since a far stronger example could be derived from the following line in the same item description: the claim that Kalameet is last of the ancient dragons. However, qualifying a statement due to exaggeration, hyperbole, or additional context is merely an extension of inherently trusting the text. What we are potentially dealing with in illusory wall’s example is an actual mistake on the writer’s part, likely motivated by a desire to reference the one-eyed black dragon Guyra of FromSoftware’s King’s Field series. In that light, it is difficult to think it reflective of the in-universe public perception.

The third and final example is perhaps the weakest and most self-defeating. The premise is that the Archstones of Demon’s Souls are casually dubbed stones when they appear to look like a head upon equally casual observation. By illusory wall’s own admission, this verifiable animal form to the Archstones doesn’t exclude them from being stone. This is also the only example which is based entirely on terminology and not a particular item description. With that in mind, an Archstone, or keystone, is literally a “stone” which is “necessary” for something, in this case serving as an anchor for binding reality together. It being a stone is inherent to the terminology, and there is no reason to consider it anything but literal. Perhaps if a complete Archstone was its own item, its description would reference its resemblance to Japanese baku. But even if it didn’t, this still doesn’t change the underlying issue with the example.

There are plenty of details which item descriptions don’t illustrate. The White Hair Talisman acquired in Dark Souls III, for instance, has one such detail which is similarly easy to overlook. The hair knot is secured by the Old Witch’s Ring obtained in DS1, calling back to the ring’s use in communicating with the hair’s owner. This neat reference goes unmentioned in the item’s actual description, but it doesn’t need to. Neither is the lack of mention indicative of the average person’s awareness in-universe. Unlike the player, a character in this setting isn’t bound by a third-person perspective on their own body. They interact with these items through their own eyes, and anyone actually wielding the White Hair Talisman is sure to notice the bright red ring with golden script — even if they are unlikely to realize its significance. The same can be said for anyone interacting with an Archstone. Who puts their hand over the sword and doesn’t notice the rock it is stabbed into looks like an animal head as they gaze down? Put simply, it isn’t that these details aren’t important, it is just that they don’t need to be explicated.

In essence, the beams supporting illusory wall’s hypothesis are rotten, so I can only be skeptical of the conclusion in sum. That said, I do believe there is a kernel of truth in so far as the description of the item doesn’t strictly reflect what the item actually is. To be specific, I am referring to when items are found in circumstances impossible to reconcile with their description in full but whose placement cannot be immediately faulted on developer error or exaggeration either. Rather, the environmental context requires that we exclude those problematic elements from analysis to understand the intended meaning. I will call this technique “recontextualization” for the sake of simplicity. Instead of relying on the text as our primary source, we recontextualize the item in its environment to reconile contradictions with the script, as the developers intended. I shall illustrate this with my own three examples.

First up is the man eater shell encountered in both Ash Lake and the Duke’s Archives in DS1. This otherwise unassuming creature carries purging stones, the description of which claims are treasures produced by Earl Arstor. Since nothing else connects this enemy or the areas it inhabits to Carim’s shady aristocrat, this description seems nonsensical. However, recontextualizing the item without the data concerning Arstor resolves the issue. The stone’s graphic features a skull etching — presumably representing the human transformed into it — and we find dozens of human skulls overcrowding the membrane of this enemy’s mouth in place of a pearl, albeit unnaturally smooth and blue-hued. The shell’s appearance and original name of “five-legged bival” (五足のバイバル) also reference bivalve mollusks, which form pearls out of countless microscopic crystals to encase foreign entities. Taken together, the bivals’ human prey have been similarly coated in layers of crystal and transformed into naturally-occurring stones with the same function as Arstor’s artificially-produced variety — same concept, different origin.

A similar discrepancy sees DS1’s elite knight set referencing Oscar when it is actually found on a generic corpse in Darkroot Garden. Cut dialogue confirms that there was a planned encounter with Oscar in the garden, but we can only kill the knight and his Hollow at the Northern Undead Asylum in the final game — an event referenced in the set’s description. Considering that we can read this description before even committing the deed, it is impossible for this to be his specific armor. However, recontextualizing the item ascertains the developers’ intention. The armor is worn by characters besides Oscar, so what we acquire would naturally just be another one of these generic copies. The writer only chose to reference Oscar specifically because we would have most likely acquired it directly from him originally, similar to his weapons. When this evidently changed during development, Miyazaki either didn’t notice or feel the need to update the description accordingly. In all fairness, the text is still accurate, just in a more general sense.

Finally, there are characters like the unnamed female black phantom haunting the Valley of Defilement. The woman is equipped with only the meat cleaver and old ragged robes, but both are associated with specific characters — the Adjudicator from the Shrine of Storms and Yuria, respectively. Despite her corrupted spirit, the woman is neither that demon nor witch, so we are all but forced to recontextualize these items for any clarity. First, a meat cleaver is a fairly generic weapon by itself, the description only clarifying its use for carving and eating human flesh specifically. The old raggedy robes have a likewise straightforward aesthetic, conveying poverty more than arcane witchcraft. And so, when stripped of its established connections, this equipment says a lot about this black phantom, namely that she was a cannibal living in destitution — perfectly fitting for a resident of the valley.

In short, the developers do sometimes change the stated nature of an item, but not something so fundamental as to misrepresent the facts. A purging stone is still a purging stone, and a meat cleaver is still a meat cleaver. It is only specific elements revealed solely in the text which are ignored, not the essential concept. The developers have one item with one description being used for disparate purposes. Some of this confusion could have undoubtedly been rectified. There are certainly examples of identical items with slightly edited descriptions to account for their unique context in various FromSoftware titles. However, this only occurs with unique items acquired once in a single playthrough, which cannot apply in most cases. Furthermore, it is far easier for developers to reuse existing items than to create entire new assets to convey the same idea. In the case of weapons and armor, we oftentimes won’t be able to obtain those items from the NPCs wearing them anyway. All in all, the evidence supports recontextualization over the concept that illusory wall hypothesizes. It is simple a fortiori.