Melancholy comfort in Majula

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Unless stated otherwise, the source for all images is Dark Souls 2.

It’s been nearly a year since my last post on this blog, and I’ve decided to end that period by penning something that’s not related to anime or manga. Today I’m going to write about Majula, the player hub in Dark Souls 2, and what it means to me.

And to some extent, what precedes it too – Things Betwixt and the start of the game. Spoiler warning for DS2 and its sequel, which I’ll dive into first for context. Suggested listening:

My first entry in the Soulsborne franchise was Dark Souls 3, which I ended up enjoying after an extremely rough and bitter time at the beginning. I’m sure many fans of the series might scoff at this playing order or at the fact that I haven’t played Dark Souls at the time of writing this, but I’m happy with what the two games I’ve finished, and one day I’ll surely wrap up the trilogy. That’s enough for me, and I don’t think the things I’m missing will impact the weight that Majula holds for me.

These days when I think back to DS3, the words that come to mind are ones like ‘despairing’, ‘mournful’, ‘resigned’, ‘ancient’, ‘quiet’. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the game’s focus on kindling the flames and the Ashen One, most of my memories of it lie as buried lumps of grey, dull ash. Just as Majula is my go-to memory for DS2, DS3’s Firelink Shrine feels emblematic of my feelings for that game, where those consigned to their end  gather and conspire to either prolong a dying world’s stay, or bring about its passing.

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Source: Dark Souls 3

Even as I helped populate the hub with more Undead, it truly felt bereft of life, of energy or hope or levity. As an Unkindled, you have but the most faint of personal motivations underlined throughout the game, singlemindedly and silently pursuing the goal of defeating the Lords of Cinder and acting upon the First Flame (whichever way you choose to do so). This lack of personality strengthened a sense of loneliness and detachment in my character’s quest.

Many of the places you explore feel tragically grandiose and booming with pride of ages past, aided by the orchestral soundtrack backing every boss you encounter. And yet…. To me, the world always felt like it was in an unstable equilibrium, quiet and still, built up just for the player to deliver a killing blow of some kind and lay it all to rest. Like beautiful portraits made out of dust, that you pick up and admire as they crumble and fade away. Even as I return to its greatest musical pieces time and time again, once I left the world behind after finishing the game, it remained dead in my imagination.

By contrast, DS2 shines all the brighter in my memory. It all starts with Majula, and at the same time it doesn’t.

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For me, Majula is… less like a place and more like a sensation. Climbing an endless desert dune, with a beautiful sight all around, yet it might as well have been pitch black for all it matters. Like Sisyphus rolling his rock up a hill, except there is no rock and no end to the hill in sight. Wandering and staggering through a timeless maze, hungerless and thirstless like a disembodied head or a ghastly Undead, and stopping every once in a while to check your bearings. And you stop in Majula. All the while you’re still just as hopelessly lost, yet stopping to catch your breath and look around gives you some sense of security, some measure of hope for the future.

Majula is a comfort in these times. No matter what truths you learn about the world or what hard choices you’re offered, you can always rest in Majula, stare at the sea and listen to its soothing melody. It’s a placebo, a place that is more of a passageway than anything else. In a way, Majula and its inhabitants are emblematic of the Undead curse.

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Slow and insidious forgetfulness that creeps into the villagers, who sometimes seem alone while sitting beside each other. Neither they nor you know where you’re going, but you’re going somewhere, surely? And sooner or later, something might happen. Assuming you ever truly leave Majula to begin with.

Unlike the Ashen One in DS3, you as the Bearer of the Curse during DS2 have a clear reason to be in Drangleic – it felt remarkably easy to put together a picture for why someone would desperately cling to life and to their memories, and venture into such a crazed world in search of help or answers about the curse. Even as you stumble into eldritch beings, conversations about dark ages, kindling fires, humanity and souls, there’s a personal tinge to your actions that makes my memories of that time far more vivid. You’re not necessarily there to acquire souls or put ancient beings to rest or end humanity’s malaise, you’re there because you want to remain yourself.

Majula5After you land in Things Betwixt, the setting feels surreal, macabre, bizarre, like a cursed Undead feverishly dreaming up a solution to their troubles. Part of this was tied to meeting the old ladies in the Fire Keeper’s Dwelling, cackling and smirking. Like they’ve seen it all countless times, and know exactly where you’re headed, and what you’ll learn.

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Struggling for understanding, for stability when faced with the overwhelming task ahead, you end up in Majula, where the people walk in and out, and it’s like maybe they weren’t there to begin with. Sitting by the sea inside ramshackle houses that nevertheless stay together, where the sun shines but there’s no heat or cold, the winds don’t push nor pull, and the tides never ebb. Living inside a still, beautiful painting where the scenery seems warm and you can feel the emotion on everyone’s faces even as the colors slowly fade… Clinging to sanity. Nobody knows how long the painting will last, but it still does, and people still live.

A sense of community is fostered among all these residents brought together from distant ends. Somehow all their stories line up at the same place, no matter how different they were or whatever they seek or care about, they all ended up at Majula.

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They teach their pupils, sell their wares, swindle fellow travelers, stubbornly watch while hammering away. Stare mesmerized at a map sculpted in stone, softly sighing. No one really plans to stay in Majula for long, and yet they still do. Everyone keeps on living regardless of who they used to be or what brought them there in the first place. And then they’re gone because they left, or maybe because they didn’t.

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Nonetheless, they truly lived and maybe still do to this day. However you dealt with the world, Majula feels like a place that still displays a beating heart. Even as the madness grips more of folk’s minds, their hopes and dreams lay bare for as long as they last.

 

Firelink Shrine was something waiting for an end, but Majula is never over, a permanent transition and stopping point for everyone’s lives that seemingly keeps bits and pieces of them embedded in the fabric. Always there for you. Throughout it all, it rings with a strange sense of comfort that echoes despite the uneasiness permeating the land.

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Escaping from your duties, your responsabilities or the weight of your desires, to a land where none can stay forever, but countless many rest for a time. Who those people were and how long they were staying, these memories can be washed away with the tides. However nothing can take away the parts of their lives that became a part of Majula, and the part of Majula that lives on in their eyes. That image still grips me firmly and holds up the game in my memories even as the rest of it slowly crumbles, as most things do.  That’s why I keep revisiting it. Sometimes I wonder if I ever left.

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