john wick 4 is my favorite dark souls game

surely, this topic — or at least the more general “hey john wick is like a video game” — has been covered ad nauseum by now. if nothing else, the fourth movie (which I just saw in the theater — god I missed movie theaters) has triggered some takes regarding certain scenes’ clear video-game influences.

still, because it’s fun and before we get into the meaty bits, let’s delight in some the mechanical and aesthetic respects in which john wick is a particular kind of video game franchise:

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OK cool. so now let’s talk wick thematically and narratively as a video game, or rather let’s describe it by instead describing its clearest cousin: dark souls.

the dark souls trilogy is implicitly and explicitly about the simultaneous futility and necessity of cycles of violence and conquest. each game stars a functionally mute “chosen” warrior who is at once doomed and sainted. if it is implied that this warrior had a past, that exists only to make the present maximally tragic.

dark souls presents its broken-before-you-got-here world without much comment or context. you can go deep on the lore, chewing on the details of your favorite weapon or armor, but after a point that’s all secondary to the thematic runner of a world that has draped the tattered remains of law and order atop a bed of chaos.

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you never truly die in dark souls, because you are already dead and so is everyone else. when you’re trampled or stabbed or exploded, you get back up and go again. sometimes a dude hits you so hard that you fall down a lot of stairs. hiding behind pillars is important. combat is simultaneously choreographed and improvisational. the sense of progression or personal achievement comes from the apparent effort of victory, but not from the knowledge that you’re closer to your “goal,” because what is your goal, really, except more death, obliteration atop a throne of skulls?

the only approach you have to leave this cycle is to murder it the way it wants you to murder everything else. in this attempt, friends and allies betray you and are damned, or die as heroes in your service, or otherwise fall to bitter ashes. you will prepare to die, but again, you will never actually die, even after burning the world and yourself. rise again, chosen undead, whether in new game plus or in the sequel; keep only the memories that allow you to resume the massacre.

john wick is the chosen undead, destined to wield death. he’s a harbinger of ruin to friends and family. his happiness is a loose memory in service of his bloodthirst. he has a lot of lore and backstory (“with a fucking. pencil!”) but very little characterization, because he is not so much a character as a logistical cipher for the audience/player to experience patterns of vicarious struggle and triumph.

john’s world is built upon baroque, arcane rules and strictures of violence; even as he bucks against these rules, he still follows them, if only by the nature of their consequences. he cannot escape because escape is meaningless. you cannot fall off the side of the sphere while it is revolving; its gravity is omnipresent.

as the wick franchise goes on, the mythos expands into itself, ouroboros-style. the stakes can’t heighten from life-or-death, so instead the spectacle grows while base actions and consequences remain static. new objects of power and honor suddenly have always existed. worlds appear beneath worlds, but all worlds lie under the heavy hand of fated violence, and everyone must be servant, conqueror, or ronin. (john himself is all three, as befits the chosen one.) in the face of this, heavy, knowing weariness pervades every recurring character, every major boss battle, every small taste of peace or quiet. (weariness, but also joy, of a sort; more on that in a moment.)

john’s late wife is not a character but a permanent backdrop, a pretext for the next war. in its absence, another violent cause would sprout. john wick 4 has a scene in a Parisian art museum where two characters stand before la liberté guidant le peuple, a depiction of the July Revolution: a violent french upheaval that begat the next violent french upheaval, and so on. the truth, says john wick, is that you cannot revolutionize a corpse. at the end, business is concluded the way it always must be: with blood and fire.

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here’s the thing: wick movies perpetuate this overtone of gothic, cyclical hollowness yet remain both deliriously, delightfully surreal and fun as hell. and this tension is why the video game and souls comparison resonates so hard for me.

violent AAA video games hardly need to justify their bloodshed, but they have often tried one way or another. some crafted stories orthogonal to their mechanical violence — and in doing so basically created the whole modern genre of video game criticism, thanks to everyone’s favorite omni-relevant topic, LUDONARRATIVE DISSONANCE. some played cute “gotchas” on the audience, failing to respect the dynamic of empathetic distance created by the artifice of gameplay loops and going full spec ops: the line.

and some, like dark souls, used the mechanical necessities to reinforce the thematic resonances. dark souls is about the haunted cycles you inhabit by playing dark souls. and, crucially, the game is not shocked or horrified by your play. via its NPCs and bosses and cinematics, it respects and loves you for choosing to exist, to rebel, or otherwise to play in its universe — to burn alongside it. endings in souls games don’t differ much because play is the point. you’re chosen because you have chosen to enter. you cannot break the cycle, but there is satisfaction in admiring the wheel and in playing your role as well as possible.

john wick is about what an action movie protagonist does by being an action movie protagonist, and the logic that must exist (must have always existed) to support his creation and his path. both narratively and meta-textually, it’s about why cycles of futility are nonetheless satisfying, necessary, or even fun — and must be all of those things, because they’re all we have.

it’s definitely better than dark souls 3, though I’m not sure it dethrones bloodborne.