Roleplaying in Re:Zero, the Dark Souls of Isekai


As someone who used to play games more actively, watching Re:Zero – Starting Life in Another World dredged up old memories of playing Dark Souls. Fans of both franchises could probably draw some easy comparisons. They’re both dark and often bleak fantasy series known for their brutal and challenging “content.” The isekai main character of Re:Zero and most new players in Dark Souls die easily and often in encounters. Then they come back to life and face them again. Then they get killed, revived, and start the cycle over. Natsuki Subaru and practiced players get stronger and more skillful over time as they persevere through death and frustration, and eventually, they prevail over the challenges in front of them before facing ones further up. Media essayists like me write at length about how the cycle builds character in Subaru and some players.

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Not to say analyses about people overcoming adversity with the help of media consumption aren’t worth reading, but for this article, I’m interested in discussing a type of play less connected to these franchises’ action-adventure: roleplay. To roleplay is to play the role you don’t normally identify with. It’s a form of play that’s not exclusive to hack-and-slash and magic blasts and can even be done alongside it, a kind of play that mediates how I engage with games like Dark Souls and how Subaru approaches his ordeals in Re:Zero. Much like how I roleplayed in Dark Souls to protect all the non-playable characters (NPCs) I like, Subaru also roleplays to protect those he loves. We used game-breaking tools and spoiler-y knowledge that no one else in these dark fantasy settings has access to because, by whatever means, we want to save people and we want to be better.

I Roleplay in Dark Souls

I roleplay whenever I enjoy games that feature player choice and non-linear storytelling, Dark Souls being no exception. Besides challenging but rewarding combat, it allows for tons of player expression. From a mechanics standpoint, despite its reputation for difficulty, the game allows players to tackle its challenges by providing them with myriad stat builds and playstyles. Some approaches to combat challenges are more efficient than others, but even the less optimal ones can be made viable with enough creativity or skill. From a narrative perspective, NPCs with their questlines dot the lands of Dark Souls, and it’s up to players for the most part to interact with them. Most can be ignored or murdered, and the game will go on without anything crucial missed. You can also talk with and help them, affecting gameplay and story outcomes here and there for the player, the NPCs in question, and others in the world.

Depending on how NPC questlines are explored, you can get good outcomes at first and worse ones later on. Take one NPC, Laurentius of the Great Swamp. I called him Pyro Bro because he’s just the nicest, chillest dude. Trapped in an urn in the Depths, you can discover and free him, and he’ll be blubberingly grateful. Calling you friend, he’ll come up to the surface and freely share his knowledge of pyromancy. I always checked up with him when passing by while off to a different area. He always bids me to stay safe when I finish chatting with him and lets me know I’m in his thoughts when I’m away. There are different types of pyromancy in Dark Souls, and further down than the Depths is an even more dangerous area where a powerful and primordial pyromancy is practiced. Laurentius was delving below in the first place because he was seeking to learn this pyromancy.

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Returning from even further below the Depths after acquiring some of that ancient and awesome pyromancy, I was faced with a decision: Should I tell him where I found it? Second to him being one of the kindest NPCs in Dark Souls is his dedication and ambition to his pyromancy craft. Who am I to deny the nice man good news? Yet from reading wiki entries and watching lore videos, I knew sharing that information would send him to his doom. Probably most players go into games fairly blind, yet not only did I deliberately “spoil” myself on the game’s story, but I studied up the exact details of his and every other NPC’s questlines, all to avoid making decisions that’d push Laurentius and others I’d treasure towards death or worse. I wasn’t going to let him go down there if I could help it, and I certainly wasn’t going to carelessly lead him to his end. Once I progressed far enough in the game that he’d start to question me about the pyromancy from down under, I avoided him.

Later to my relief, I realized I wouldn’t screw his life over just by talking to him. I would only need to lie when I next spoke with him. Deceiving him wasn’t great, but true to his character, he took my word as his friend and I ensured my Pyro Bro stayed safe.

Subaru Roleplays in Re:Zero

Keeping his loved ones safe is an integral part of Subaru’s character in Re:Zero, what keeps him putting up with all the dangers that hover about like miasma around those he cares for. If he doesn’t, they suffer horribly and die permanently, and he tries so hard to counter that and protect them.

Subaru doesn’t start with many advantages like other isekai protagonists. He isn’t especially strong or bright compared to his isekai world’s denizens. His knowledge of his original world doesn’t help him much in his ordeals, and what special knowledge he can acquire to eventually give him the edge comes from his peculiar ability to “Return by Death.” Like game checkpoints, the ability returns him to set moments in time after he dies, his memories of previous loops carrying over. It seems like an awesome ability, to not only plan around but potentially redo encounters an infinite amount of times with “spoiled” knowledge. Then you realize those events are convoluted to fully understand and devastatingly brutal to everyone it affects, only so much information can be gleaned from a loop before the next inevitable death, and dying repeatedly hurts like hell and is debilitating to the mind. It can be frustrating for less skilled Dark Souls players to progress through an area or past a boss. Yet Dark Souls players never actually die or get hurt; Subaru dies repeatedly, and often suffers horribly for it.

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Subaru has a habit of making and taking up with friends that the universe seems out to get, none more so than Emilia. With her resemblance to an infamous figure responsible for bringing ruinous calamity to the isekai world and her determination to keep herself in the public eye as a ruling candidate for a kingdom, she is the target of malign and lethal forces who will spare no kindness to her and her camp. Subaru doesn’t know any of this when he first swears to support her as the first person in the isekai world to show him kindness, yet with a determination out-rivaling most Dark Souls players, he endures it – multiple timelines of trauma of being brutally killed and seeing loved ones brutally murdered – all so he can protect those he treasures. His efforts work out for a time, yet at some point, he faces an ordeal so difficult and painful that his will buckles. He admits bitterly to another loved one, Rem, that he’s been roleplaying the amazing and competent hero from the very start, but it’s becoming too painful and forced now for him to continue the facade.

To roleplay implies acting as something you normally aren’t. How can you pretend to be yourself when you are that person? Re:Zero‘s story is divided into Arcs, and even by Arc 3, no one knows much of Subaru beyond his isekai world antics. He keeps quiet about most of his old life until he hits rock bottom and feels more guilty not disclosing it. To his isekai friends who know him from the loops that succeeded, he is an amazing and competent guy who knows just what to do and pulls off insane feats that always save the day. Part of him thinks he can be that man, yet part of him deep down thinks he’s a fraud – the agony of failed loops reinforcing prejudices about himself he can’t help but partly agree with. Deep down, he thinks he’s empty, nothing, a waste. He was a shut-in before who leeched on his parents and felt insecure around his amazing dad. He thought no one knowing the old him in the isekai world would give him free rein to roleplay someone else without backlash – a heroic person, a good person – and he kept that useful act up so people liked him and wanted to be around him. Then he slipped.

We Roleplay to Be Better

By roleplaying his ideal, Subaru hoped he could become something from nothing, fake it until he made it, and eventually be that person. Roleplaying is usually understood as a form of enjoyable make-believe, but no more than that. There’s no world I could be a warlock who shoots hellfire from my fingertips because of a pact I inadvertently made with a fiend, but thinking about it can be fun for me. There’s no universe I could be a demon lord who savors the wailing and teeth-gnashing of innocents, though that could be fun for someone. However, you can roleplay in other ways, and Subaru and I choose to roleplay to be better.

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I’m at a stage in my life where I have enough confidence to call myself a broadly good person. I like helping people and dislike seeing others suffer, though I could be more empathetic and I have my insensitive oversights. I also grew up relatively comfortable and privileged, so I’ve never had to be confronted with making really hard choices that would put my morals to the crucible. The lands of Dark Souls are ones of ruin and decay. Everything around you looks like it’s depressed. Nihilism is a common disease its denizens fall into. It’s a dark fantasy post-apocalypse. Its mood discourages altruism. Selfishness matches the atmosphere. In a place like that, I feel even more compelled to show kindness to those few souls where glimmers of kindness still flicker. I celebrate small kindnesses when I find them in folks and feel aching pangs to protect those who still allow kindness to guide them.

Strip it of its fantasy and apocalypse, and I don’t feel that the Dark Souls world is vastly different from our real one in vibes. I skim through the news and find endless polls, stats, and examples of people exploiting one another and decency being a premium. My frustration with the state of my world and my powerlessness to change much about it informs how I see myself when I roleplay in games with bleak settings: I want to provide justice and comfort even if the state of the world embodies neither. I maneuver my character to reward goodness when I can and right wrongs where possible. I can never control my character to do something cruel out of curiosity or completionism and never prioritize their profit when good and innocent folk might be severely put out. In lands as bleak and hostile as in Dark Souls, to reject the creeping erosion of nihilism and still try to do the right thing is self-affirming to me – even when the choice to do so is costly, isn’t clear cut, is a tiny ember in a cold universe.

I want to believe in the kindness of others, but I doubt myself constantly. I roleplay saving good and kind NPCs in games to keep my faith in those beliefs up and be better.

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Subaru wants to believe that others can like him, but he doubts himself constantly. He roleplays as a hero and goes through so much injury and grief in Re:Zero to live up to those expectations and be better.

Subaru is at that stage in Arc 3 where he’s about to give up any notion he’s anything approaching the good person he’s been roleplaying as Rem tells him that she believes in him. Even for those who could guess the broad outlines of his “Return by Death,” most could never truly know what it’s like to endure the horrors Subaru’s chosen to shoulder to protect Emilia and the others. It’s his choice though. He could easily decide to stop associating with Emilia and run away, and the Re: If spin-off novel confirms those horrors wouldn’t follow him if he did. It’s just that Emilia and those with her would be doomed. Probably most people wouldn’t have gone as far for Emilia and the others as Subaru has until now, however nice Emilia was to him. Yet Subaru can’t claim giving up on Emilia is good morally as Emilia is a genuinely kind person who doesn’t deserve the universe killing her. He gave it lots of good shots though. With Rem by his side after deciding to abandon Emilia, he pleads with her to flee with him. He bitterly admits to her that he tried hard, but he isn’t and can’t ever be a good person, though at least he could help save her.

Rem can’t fully understand what Subaru has been through, but there’s no way he wouldn’t have gone through the absurd lengths he’s implied to protect everyone if he wasn’t a good person deep down. Rem… has also been roleplaying the amazing and competent girl, wanting to be the woman who can take care of everything her twin sister Ram no longer can, but thinking deep down she’ll always remain a fraud. Rem also felt empty, like nothing, and thought herself an insecure waste compared to her once amazing twin sister. Ram got herself maimed to protect her, and yet the notion of no longer needing to be compared to her now that she was disabled comforted Rem and then ate her up with guilt. She felt like no one would like her if she let her useful act slip, and ultimately, she felt she wasn’t and couldn’t ever be a good person no matter what she did. Then Subaru in Arc 2 goes to absurd lengths to protect her from endangering herself when her resurgent guilt causes her to demon-berserk. Given she was also suspicious of him back (and while she doesn’t remember, caused his death in past loops), why would he do all that for her?

It’s because he believes she’s a good person, and likewise, she believes he’s a good person. Even knowing each other’s insecurities, as she fully admits to him in Arc 2 and he fully admits to her in Arc 3, neither Subaru nor Rem believes the other is pretending.

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Contrary to how Subaru and Rem see themselves, identities are social constructions. They aren’t immutable. They respond and react constantly to people and events, and over time, they can reform and evolve in significant ways. That being said, many people can’t easily change how they think of themselves. People’s minds can have a hard time letting go of old patterns and prejudices, especially if they were born from trauma.

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I have to constantly tell myself that people are generally nicer than the headlines often suggest because I’m so cynical and I’ve been treated poorly before. Subaru and Rem have to constantly appear to be useful to others because they fear those they want to be around will abandon them if they don’t. Yes, we may roleplay in part to cope, but we also roleplay to be better. As we stumble due to our doubts and are stood back up by others who believe our roleplay is or can be real, we make some strides toward change.

My Pyro Bro Laurentius lives and will continue to greet me warmly whenever I pass his way, and my real-life friends assure me I’m not wrong for trying to be decent even when it has led me to be taken advantage of before. Rem asserts to Subaru that he already proved he’s a good person by saving her when she felt it was undeserved. If he can’t always be amazing and competent, then she’ll support him like he’s offered to support her when she can’t always be one or the other.

Giving up on Emilia and the others isn’t something she can accept for Subaru though, because that is not what a good person like Subaru wants. The Subaru she has seen and she knows wants to be and is a hero, a hero for her and for everyone that he cares for. With the explicit affirmation of someone he treasures, believing in her who believes in him, Subaru makes a new decision more fitting of her and him, swearing he will save the day as the most awesome hero ever.

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His roleplay is gradually becoming a reality.


Social Scientist & History Buff. Dabbles in Creative Writing & Anime Criticism. Consider checking out his blog, Therefore It Is.



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