Dark Souls 3’s Ashes of Ariandel DLC is an affront to bird-kind. It ties their wings behind their back and kicks them down a rocky hill. It plucks out their feathers and soaks them in a vat of vinegar until they’re pallid and dripping with mucus. They’re so grotesque and twisted they make Edgar Allan Poe an uplifting read, what with their hunched, bony backs and glass legs and the mangled tumor trailing behind them sprouting long coarse hairs. Their eyes bulge like two distended water balloons filled with dirty dishwater, and I don’t know what they smell like, but I bet it’s piss and sweat and mold and I don’t like it, make it stop.
There’s a new bird creature introduced in Ashes of Ariandel, and it’s the most disgusting enemy in all of Dark Souls 3. But they’re not just a cheap prop for Dark Souls’ notoriously oppressive world—the Corvians, our lovely mutated crow people, serve to characterize the icy realm of Ariandel and represent the best of Dark Souls storytelling. When the environment and creatures within clearly relate to one another, a small, but potent narrative thread emerges that both lore experts and the totally oblvious can latch onto.
Be warned: spoilers for the DLC from here on out.
After worming my way down Ashes of Ariandel’s frozen canyon, a rocky passage opens up to a troubling scene. What appears to be a dozen or so malformed, fetal birds lie motionless in a pool of pale red muck. I move closer and a few spring to life and crawl towards me, clawing at the ground, dragging their mangled torsos behind them. Their eyes are glazed over in milky white to suggest blindness and a few of the bigger ones stop on occasion to vomit up a mist of poisonous acid. There is no Pepto Bismol in this world.
It seems they’re lashing out instinctively, without much clue as to who I am or what I look like. I don’t blame them, reduced to their defenseless state. But because it’s Dark Souls, I expect a twist, some kind of unexpected attack pattern or environmental trap, so I kill every single one. Nothing happens. They don’t pose any threat in the end, and I turn the pool of pathetic bird people into a pool of dead pathetic bird people. Was I in the wrong or did I save them from a terrible existence? I try to live with the latter.
What exactly are these messed up embryonic birds? In a featuring game director Hidetaka Miyazaki and artist Daisuke Satake, Satake describes the Corvians as they first appear in the original Dark Souls’ Painted World of Ariamis as “humans who wanted to fly so badly that they sprouted wings, but rather than their skeletons evolving over time, they instead twisted their limbs into unnatural positions, forcing their bodies into a bird-like shape.” Miyazaki colors their motives further, stating, “They were originally designed as worshippers of the Goddess Velka whose bodies were warped by their devotion.”
Maybe they were too devoted, and in disfiguring themselves so violently, they lost the humanity that drove their devotion in the first place. Either way, they are Forlorn, captive to Painted World of Ariandel, a clearly disfigured realm overtaken by “rot” as the mad, skeletal Corvian that greets the player on arriving in the DLC describes it. He appears drunk on the stuff, content with lying in his “sweetly rotting bed” for all time. Whatever rot is, it’s turning the locals slovenly and contributing to the slow decay of Ariandel.
I continue under an arch and into the Corvian Village where I meet my first Corvian Knight, one of the most aggressive enemies in Dark Souls 3. After a vicious battle, I find the Crow Talons and Crow Quills weapons, and part of each item description reads, “In their infatuation with Sister Friede, the Corvian Knights swore to protect the painting from fire, and to this end, took to the execution of their own brethren.” It’s implied the Corvian Knights betrayed their original cause, drawn in by the teachings of Sister Friede, whose name suggests religious affiliation. Maybe they were tired of suffering, and gave up their original devotions to Velka in the hopes that Friede could save them. Either way, it’s clear the limber Knights derive their strength from her, and the fire the vanilla Corvians are searching for is a threat to their new way of life, so they’re slaughtering them.
A lone Crow Bro hanging out in one of the village houses speaks for the weakling Corvians’ cause. After finding out who you are, he gets excited. “Make the tales true, and burn this world away.” He continues, “I’m so terribly frightened, of timidly rotting away ... Like those fools on the outside.” He doesn’t want to exist among “fools” oblivious to the problems of the world and feels it’s better off wiped clean, himself included. It’s a utilitarian approach to ending their suffering: destroying everything for the greater good.
Fair enough. The world is clearly rotting around them, but the Corvian Knights would rather live in a dying world than not at all, driven by selfish impulse. As for the weakling Corvians, their knowledge is power, sure, it’s just the power to see things as they really are. In Ariandel’s case, they see shit.
After our chat, I step outside to a stream of passive Corvians trudging up the hill. They’re headed towards a library, likely in pursuit of knowledge about the fire. Whatever they’re looking for, it’s well protected. Another Corvian Knight shows up and starts attacking the others. It’s a quiet moral moment I’m too scared to interfere with. I hope some of the smaller Corvians fight back and do some damage for me, but they all die in no time. I feel like I’m watching myself in the bird pool from earlier, killing Corvians just because.
In truth, they’re a harmless creature that to put the player on edge and encourage them to look at the world in a new light. Three entire Dark Souls games taught me that most environments are more threatening than they appear, but besides a few Corvian knights, the village is a breeze. The training wheels are off for a few minutes and the first thing I do is murder an entire cluster of harmless blob crows looking for salvation.
And then when I could save them, I opted to run away and let the AI do the work. What was my reward? The painful truth and a heaping of guilt. The Corvians are innocent, trapped in a slowly rotting purgatory where every now and then some jerk like me rolls in and kills them without a second thought. I’d want the world to burn too.
I may have a chance to redeem myself though. After defeating the boss and kicking off the events that will presumably burn this world to the ground, we find our chatty Crow Bro standing outside, staring up at the chapel where the fire is kept. It’s a hopeful twist to a sad story, that these forlorn worshippers of a destitute god at least get relief after so much misery. That’s the plan, at least. We’ll know for sure when Dark Souls 3’s final DLC expansion releases sometime next year. In the meantime, hug a bird.