I don’t think anyone has quite put it better than friend and phenomenal game-reviewer-thinker-philosopher Ed Thorn when he said:
‘The sense of “verticality” in Dark Souls I was an element I relished; you actually felt the weight of the world above you as you moved further and further below the surface, and you could fully immerse yourself in the solemn beauty of viewing the world from the dizzying heights of the Duke’s Archives’ – Can Dark Souls III Be The Best In The Series Yet?
For those who never played Dark Souls, or are not gamers, this element of ‘verticality’ made for a unique gameplay experience. The entire map of Dark Souls was expertly interlinked – every part of the map seamlessly connected – and layered on top of one another. At one stage in the game you plummet through level after level, through the abyssal darkness of the Tomb of Giants and the Demon Ruins, until you reach the lost city of Izalith. At this point, you feel like you are journeying into the bowels of creation itself. As Ed remarked, you can feel the weight of the world above you, you can feel how awfully long the journey back up to light will be. There are places in Lost Izalith where you can drop into what feels like the core of the earth, where Jurassic creatures still exist, unchanged since the dawn of creation. It’s hair-raising.
But what bearing does this have on narrative, or a novel? Well, this concept of verticality, although applied most frequently to video-games, is actually something which has existed in fiction and poetry since the earliest mythological writings.
Throughout history, mythological and epic texts have time and time again recounted a journey of a hero/heroine descending into hell, or if not directly hell, another blasted, degenerate landscape: a place of hopelessness. There are innumerable examples: Odysseus, Herakles, Gilgamesh, Orion, Dante. The ancient Greeks termed this descent katabasis.
Something about this concept of a descent into the darkest place appeals to a deep part of our psyche. We recognise it as a journey we all must make (in a metaphorical sense). There are plenty of examples of it in modern culture – the myth is alive and well. Think of Inception. In this film, the descent is through layers of the conscious and unconscious mind – but as we see, the early Greek myths of hell were, in fact, deeply psychological. What are Tantalus and Sisyphus if not metaphors for the cyclical nature of addiction and how we become trapped inside our own negative thought loops? Inception is its own kind of katabasis, a journey to the heart of hell, the horror of our subconscious, in order to achieve something.
There are often many reasons for heroes/heroines descending into hell. They are retrieving that which is lost (Orpheus, for example, trying to recover his dead wife) or attempting to discover something (Odysseus trying to find out how he can escape the punishment of Poseidon) or even change an aspect of the universe itself (Stephen King’s 11.22.63 – in which hell is the past).
Look at Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and you will see that Frodo and Sam’s journey is, in fact, a descent into the abyss. Mordor is hell, a place of slaves, madness, and the punishing ever-malevolent gaze of the dark master’s eye.
So, when you are writing fiction, consider this trope. Whether you wish to make it more literal (as in The Lord of the Rings) or perhaps metaphorical (a character’s internal descent into hell, such as in The Damnation Game by Clive Barker), this katabasis is a powerful tool for creating a journey the reader finds compelling.
Well, that’s enough from me. Over to you.
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