The Dark Souls games are praised for their gameplay, but the complex lore is nearly as good. Most players rely on experts to explain what's going on, and VaatiVidya is the most well-known story scholar around. At the moment, however, he's embroiled in a nasty plagiarism scandal.
VaatiVidya, otherwise known as Michael Samuels, has 425,145 subscribers on YouTube. In terms of people making videos exclusively about the Souls games, there are few with a bigger audience than him.
Today's events kicked off when a rival analyser of Souls lore, Aegon of Astora, published a scathing video accusing VaatiVidya of copying his own videos. Aegon pointed to other instances in which VaatiVidya has been accused of improper accreditation, and underscored his frustration by pointing out how he's earning $US5,569.41 per month through Patreon donations.
You don't title a video "Patreon-supported plagiarist?" without hoping to draw some attention, and that's exactly what's happened. After the video was published, it's been the talk of the Souls community. It's the biggest discussion on every subreddit related to the games.
VaatiVidya has since publicly responded to the accusations outlined in the video.
"I respect people concerned about plagiarism, because it's definitely an important topic," he said. "I hope readers can see this from my point of view, so I'll try to be as transparent as I can with my creative process. I don't think there's any other way to defend myself."
The videos below have been embedded at the specific times where the accusations drop.
One of the most common threads between different Souls lore videos is attempting to re-create moments mentioned in the game's dialogue and item descriptions.
Here, the two videos attempt to show Lucatiel of Mirrah riding up an elevator.
"I was struck by the similarities I found therein," said Aegon, "which, I thought to myself at the time, was likely mere coincidence."
It's difficult to visually represent your script when you're editing a "cinematic" Dark Souls video. It always has been. You'll write an entire script then think.."how the hell am I going to represent this?" I'm sure Aegon has the same process as me.
It comes easier to me now. For "there is only one way up in Mirrah" I decided to visually represent the word "up" in the most castle-looking elevator I could find. I didn't think it would suit to have Lucatiel going up one of the grungier elevators in the game.
Next, we have a fencing scene between two rivals, in which the staging and direction is nearly identical in the two videos, right down to the helmets being worn by the participants involved.
This is where even I started to raise an eyebrow, but here's how VaatiVidya explains it:
For the fencing scene..my mind instantly went to the dragon acolyte mask. You've seen the masks they use in fencing — they have the gauze over the front and this is the only mask in game that resembles that. The rest of the Dragon Acolyte set looks like an apron, so I chose heide's set. I thought it suited better. Even with the black chest texture on, I thought it looked foreign enough to anything else in game. I chose the location because that's where I'd always gone for duels..it was always easiest to find a sign up there. It's also an environmental blank slate, which means there wouldn't be anything else distracting the viewer. Lucatiel and Aslatiel fight, and he cheers his victory.
The most curious similarity is the cheering animation, one of among many that could have been picked by either creator. But he's right about the location: it's a common dueling spot in Dark Souls 2. People tend to cluster around certain locations to ensure you'll have people to fight.
The next comparison — again, pulled from the same two videos — concerns yet another staging of lore that's not actually represented by any in-game cutscene.
Again, remarkably similar. However, VaatiVidya argues they're similar because they have to be. Both are pulling from the same limited set of material, so naturally there will be overlap.
You say that "since that event doesn't take place in the game, there is nothing self-evident about the dialogue chosen in this scene". But you're taking it out of context - we both tried to film a climactic fight scene between Lucatiel & Aslatiel, and the resources ANYONE could use are limited. We both were forced to use the same location, the same limited dialogue, and we both make cinematic lore videos from the same limited source material. I apologise if this ever comes across as defensive or nasty — but I didn't take clips from your videos — I made these videos the same way I made the previous 100, and I came to the same creative conclusions that you did. I suppose that's my best defence against your accusations without simply calling it "cherry-picking".
The last time VaatiVidya was accused of lifting from the community was over a 90-page Bloodborne story essay by DMCredgrave. DMCredgrave created a reddit thread about concerns after watching a VaatiVidya video, but his message was removed by moderators.
It's largely believed the lore of Dark Souls is more obtuse than Bloodborne. That's not to say Bloodborne is straightforward, but piecing together what happens in Bloodborne is much easier. There aren't many mysteries left to be solved in Bloodborne, whereas some parts of the Souls games remain open to interpretation.
Aegon says he run the words from each through a plagiarism tool meant to compare compare the text of the two documents. (It's unclear how the tool would deal with overlapping item descriptions, locations, etc.) VaatiVidya claims to have only read one-third of the essay, but eventually stopped, preferring to put together his own analysis of Bloodborne's storyline.
"It was colouring my opinion of the story too much, and I hadn't started my video yet," said VaatiVidya. "When DMCRedgrave made a thread about being wronged, I was surprised. I had made a conscious decision to stop reading his work. I had not plagiarised. I didn't need to. Perhaps elements of his work crept into my own?"
Both the video and essay open with the same Lovecraft quote:
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
The Lovecraft influence runs deep in Bloodborne, so it's no surprise to see both of them pulling from the author. VaatiVidya says the quote was in his video because it was the first quote that shows up on the website Brainy Quote, which he apparently commonly pulls from. (It's true.)
When this was all blowing up, DMCRedgrave quickly responded in a GameFAQs thread.
"I really do believe that my work had influence on his, but at the same time I'm really not so much of an arsehole as to think that I'm the only person in the world smart enough to come to certain conclusions," he said. "At the end of the day I really don't think I'll get an answer that satisfies me, the entire situation has left me very stressed out and very disinterested in the Souls community in general."
The debate continued to rage on for 50 pages.
Aegon then points to one of VaatiVidya's earliest videos from way back in 2012, in which he quickly summarises what happens in Dark Souls in just over a minute.
It's hard to ignore some of the similarities between VaatiVidya's own script...
"Once upon a time the world was grey, and there were dragons, crags and archtrees. Nothing changed, nothing progressed, and nothing died."
...and the infographics it's pulling from, briefly credited in the video and in the description:
"Nothing but grey crags, archtrees, and everlasting dragons. Nothing changed, nothing progressed, and probably nothing died."
Then again, VaatiVidya fully admits he fucked up.
"I've failed to credit people in the past," he said. "I learned how bad this is when I used Deddan's work [the infographics] when I was a smaller channel. I've learnt it over the years as some videos have copied my own. These are mistakes that i've acknowledged, but some people will never let go of — because they exist on the internet."
Elsewhere, Aegon tries to paint VaatiVidya as an elitist for not participating in the community enough or because he described Let's Plays as being easier to make than the videos he puts together. He characterises a recent podcast appearance as "mediocre" because his storytelling abilities were less grandiose in a live environment. Worth noting? It was his first podcast.
Around the time this scandal started, I was in the middle of an email exchange with VaatiVidya for other reasons. I've been talking to him about putting together a feature about his work, since it always struck as pretty amazing Souls fans was obsessed with lore enough to financially support a creator to the tune of nearly $US6,000 per month.
One of my questions was about how he does his research.
"I keep Evernote open while I play, and am constantly adding to it," he said. "Eventually it contains every item description and some tags it's related to. The wiki's are a huge help as well."
The various Dark Souls wikis are incredibly deep, a common reference point for my work, too.
When asked to comment for this story, VaatiVidya pointed me to his public statement, and towards another post by Gary Butterfield, co-host of the Souls podcast he was on in April:
We're all using the same source material and most of us follow one another's work. It's very easy to get a phrase in your head from someone else and repeat it. It's very easy to have a Deep Impact/Armageddon situation as well.
This whole thing touches a nerve with me, a little, because as I've said a million times that, for me, my Souls understanding comes from being a sponge. I come up with my own ideas but I also read what I can and watch what I can. I guarantee you I've inadvertently used someone else's phrasing without even realising it. Shit, I've probably done it to Vaati. So it's easy for me to give him the benefit of the doubt, even in the face of the video.
Of course, to those who think VaatiVidya is lying, that could be seen as a convenient excuse.
There's no denying VaatiVidya has relied on the community to help him build his theories about what's going on in Dark Souls. There's also no denying he's made mistakes in the past when it comes to accreditation for the work he's utilised.
But does Aegon of Astora's video expose a creator who's been lying and cheating for years? That's a damning accusation. The truth is, we can't know for sure. Souls theorists are plucking from the same sources, building upon the discoveries and interpretations of one another. A GameFAQs thread here, a YouTube video there. The rabbit hole goes deep quickly.
"I've never made myself out to be a community representative, nor this amazing artist who does an incredible service," said VaatiVidya. "Some people call me that, but that's their comment, and I'm not what somebody else thinks of me. I've worked hard on what I've created, and I hope that my work speaks for itself without me having to."