By Thomas Welsh
I love Bulgaria. I have had some of my best meals there. I have had some of my best nights out there. I have seen beautiful scenery and architecture there. I have fallen in love with the country and its people (and with one in particular – my girlfriend is from the beautiful city of Plovdiv). Every day I spend here in my own rainy, grey country, I dream of being back there with her.
I also love Dark Souls. While Bulgaria has some of my favourite real-world landscapes, my virtual homeland is Anor Londo and Lordran. When I stare off into the distance on long train journeys or during meetings, that’s where my mind ends up. And of all the places in Lordran, Sen’s Fortress is where my gamer heart lies - probably on an altar, guarded by some form of undead knight.
So on my last trip to Bulgaria when I travelled into the mountains and I came across a road sign that said “Sen’s Fortress”, I couldn’t believe my eyes. (And I was right to disbelieve them: I had only seen part of the sign. This was Asenovgrad, also known as Assens Fortress.)
Nonetheless, I immediately resolved to visit it, half-expecting to meet giant stone golems or rolling rock traps or a dark and sinister knight leaning casually on a cracked, patchwork brick wall.
A twisting road winds around the mountain on the approach to Asenovgrad. The views of the valley are stunning, and when I visited it was perfect walking weather. You can see Asenovgrad from very far off, peeking out of the treetops. Much like Sen’s Fortress, it is surrounded by thick dark green forest foliage, and the spire points upwards, with rocky summits layered below a plateau at the top that would be fit for any boss fight.
While I was still playing make-believe that I was approaching the real life Sen’s Fortress, I started to pick out features that Asenovgrad had in common with its virtual counterpart. The fundamental shape and structure of the building was different, but many of the architectural features looked similar. At least at a distance.
The ruins that snaked around the central peak – the collapsed walls and walkways and paths – felt very familiar. As a whole the fortress was very different, but if I looked at specific parts there were some parallels. I explained my excitement to my girlfriend, who patiently listened while I regaled her with historical details about a made-up castle. Her ability to absorb (or at least endure) this non-information while taking me on a tour of a location of genuine historical interest is just one of the reasons that she’s more valuable than a Gargoyle halberd with a +5 lightning enchant.
When we arrived at the fortress we were surprised to see that a visitor centre had been built, a positive sign of Bulgaria’s attempts to regenerate historical sights to attract tourists. I was glad to pay the three leva (about a pound) to be able to explore the area. The money had allowed the local council to build some safer walkways and paths around the fortress, and apparently paid for wireless internet. It’s certainly the first time I’ve connected to a siege weapon’s wireless access point, but I hope it’s not the last.
It’s hard to convey in these pictures, but there’s a real vertiginous nature to the whole area. You’re always close to a very steep drop of hundreds of feet, and Bulgaria is not a land of stringent health and safety guidelines; if you aren’t careful, you might not be around much longer.
Asenovgrad awakens that same feeling of desolation that I experienced throughout Dark Souls. Terrible things have happened here, and real world deeds of heroism too. The exposed nature of the location is in contrast to the relative security it would have offered. Fortresses like this were made to dominate the landscape – to impose and aura of invincibility while inviting your enemies to attack them if they dared.
The country has an incredibly liberating approach to personal liability. Sitting on a parapet we swung our legs over the edge, and the road we had walked was barely visible far, far below us. We lasted five minutes before the vertigo got too much, and I suggested we eat our packed lunch somewhere less precarious. One prominent warning sign next to the sheer drop, translated somewhat brusquely into English, read: “Past this point: your problem”.
I am fairly sure I was not supposed to take pictures within the fortress as one section was a chapel, but I managed these snaps of some Saints on the walls. As I looked at these faded depictions of historical figures I didn’t recognise, I imagined the ones with missing heads might be Gwyndolin. As you can see it is a really stunning structure. The depth and breadth of Bulgaria’s archaeology is vast, but largely unseen by those who don’t live in the country.
Outside the chapel there’s a maze of paths and broken stone walls. These paths wind round the outside of the mountain, and they’re the most “Sen-like” of any part of Asenovgrad. It’s when you look at specific features in isolation that you see the similarities. There’s a corridor that runs off to nowhere, and it looks just like the place where the stone boulders come crashing through. There are trestle gates of the exact shape and outline that inspired Dark Souls’ medieval aesthetic, along with that medieval stonework.
Obviously, this is not Sen’s Fortress. This is not even a place that the Japanese developers have ever been to, in all likelihood. Maybe I could have gone to almost any other half collapsed castle or fortress and found that same medieval aesthetic that has inspired so many game locales.
And yet….. games locations don’t spring from nothing, fully formed in the minds of environment artists. These creative individuals meticulously research the real world for inspiration. They scour history, taking the best bits from throughout the ages and moulding them, like digital Gods playing with virtual clay. Assassin's Creed lifts ancient worlds of the past and makes them modern playgrounds. Other places – like Hyrule and Cyrodil and Lordran – are recreated from history, but they’re not of history.
It’s really inspiring to think that those doorways and fireplaces and drawbridges and parapets were designed thousands of years ago, and thousands of years later would be repurposed in virtual worlds. What would those original designers think if we could go back and tell them? Could we even explain what a virtual world was? Would they be happy to know that their work lived on not just in our world, but in a whole new one we created from their design?
I love Bulgaria, I love traveling and I love games. Perhaps it’s infantile that I look at so much of the beauty of our world and think about how it reminds me of video games I’ve played. But those video games are an artist’s reflection of this real world. It’s like I’m in a hall of mirrors, and no matter where I look, whether it’s reality that reminds me of a virtual world, or virtual reflections of reality, all I can see is beauty.
Praise the sun!