“But then there was fire and with fire came disparity. Heat and Cold. Life and Death. And of course, Light and Dark. Then, from the Dark they came and found the souls of lords within the flame.”
– Dark Souls Prologue
Dark Souls is an action/RPG hybrid from Japanese developer From Software. It is the sequel to the critically acclaimed and oddly punctuated Demon’s Souls. I did not play the first and only recently picked up this game as it finally saw a PC release. However, substantial word of mouth and numerous awards raised my expectations for the title. A number of glowing reviews highlighted its combat and story so I was eager to experience both.
Since my ramblings generally favour writing and storytelling, I’ll leave just a quick summary of the actual game. The combat is fun with an emphasis on a melee system that focuses on proper timing with your attacks, blocks and dodges. Bonus damage is awarded for successfully parrying and riposting an attack or if you’re able to manoeuvre and score a backstab against an incredibly small hitbox on your enemies. There is also an archery and magic system which isn’t nearly as intricate and mostly results in you running backwards while spamming your spells and hoping you have enough ‘casts’ to see you to your next bonfire where you can restore them.
Naturally, as an avid fan of Skyrim, I picked a sorcerer. This means I miss out on the varied combos and attack patterns of the different weapon classes and for armour have my choice of three dresses. On the plus side, bosses are incredibly easy since I don’t have to run my face repeatedly into their enormous weapons.
But Dark Soul’s story is an interesting beast.
Unlike most Japanese RPGs, Dark Souls does not rely on scripted cutscenes to tell its narrative. Most are used for quick little boss intros to highlight how much trouble you’re actually in. The only substantial story video is the very opening of the game which gives a rather long, rambling explanation about fire and undead that will mean absolutely nothing to the player on first viewing.
The rest of the story is told through really short descriptions given on items that you collect around Lordran.
It’s a curious format that has received a lot of praise from fans. This puts the onus on the player to seek out information on the story and the world instead of heaping long narrative dumps every three or so hours throughout the game. It’s a style that could really benefit from the interactive medium that videogames inhabit. Traditionally, videogame narratives have striven to mimic the more cinematic approach popular with movies. This creates a disconnect between the game portion and the narrative portion of many games as developers will typically rely on animated cutscenes that remove the player’s agency in order to show them extravagant explosions or witty banter wholly out of the control of those playing.
The great thing about Dark Souls delivery is that it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the game. Players choose when they want to engage with the story by loading up their inventory and selecting through the menus to the item descriptions. It also provides an additional reward for exploration and discovery as the only way to gain more information on the narrative is to seek out as much equipment as they can which leads to investigating every nook and cranny of the level design.
And, because the story is delivered in these short, concise snippets much is left to the interpretation of the player to order the information they’re provided into a more coherent whole.
However, there is one major drawback. Because you’re limited by the number of items you have in the game, so damn little is actually established or said.
Now, you can communicate with the numerous NPCs spread throughout the world but most of them have little to say other than some cryptic statement on your current goal followed by the actors most hammed maniacal laugh. This leaves the player in a constant state of confusion since there is so little direction actually given – both for the overarcing narrative and even for current goals within the game. While it promotes exploration and discovery, what you’re left with is an incomplete framework in which to organize the information you gather.
My issue with this system is that it’s really hard to judge whether Dark Souls has a good story or if it even has a story at all. Essentially, the narrative you weave through your own actions as you make your way through the forty or so hours to the ending is very rudimentary. You have to ring some bells for god knows what reason, get some giant bowel from some large breasted women for god knows what reason, then fill that bowl with juicy souls for god knows what reason. Nothing is every made clear and closing in on the final act I found myself searching online for videos to explain why I was doing all these unrelated actions. I figured the answer lay in those impossible ledges that I couldn’t be bothered finding a path to. So I was content to let more persevering souls explain it to me.
What I found, however, was a wealth of useless information and a sea of shaky speculation. It appears that nothing is ever really explained and most lore enthusiasts are left formulating their own theories on the elements of the narrative. Now, ambiguity is an excellent tool to engage your readership and used effectively can really drive home your themes.
Unfortunately, too much ambiguity and you stifle the discourse on your work. Most of the discussion on the lore of Dark Souls really focuses on minor elements. Almost every video I cam across discussed Lord Gwyn’s Silver and Black Knights, spending valuable time explaining that the Black Knights are not a separate rank but a portion of Gwyn’s soldiers who followed him into a confrontation and were permanently tarnished because of it. It’s a neat little detail but certainly not something that should dominate discussion. However, it’s one of the few details that players are able to ascertain with any amount of certainty.
Which is a shame because the discourse shouldn’t revolve around the fracturing of the Silver Knights or what religion Bishop Havel belongs to when there are such grander elements like the nature of humanity and the meaning of souls.
This brings me to the goal of storytelling. At the end of the day, there is a story that you want to tell and most stories hinge on a theme or conflict. Fantasy stories are able to explore these themes and conflicts in novel ways by introducing us to worlds freed from the constraints and limitations of our own to further highlight your goals that would be either difficult or impossible if you were limited by accuracy and realism. Want to focus on the nature of good and evil? You can create a universal powered by the forces of these two ideas and shift your societies from the complex morality of our own lives.
However, for these worlds to be successful to your audience, you have to create some sort of understandable internal logic that your readers can anchor themselves within. You need them to be able to suspend their disbelief of all the fantastic elements you introduce in your fantasy world and giving them a consistent universe that works on rules and laws that the player can follow is the best way to do that.
Unfortunately, because Dark Souls is so vague and reticent in informing the player on anything we’re never given an opportunity to establish what these laws of the universe are. In the opening cinematic we’re introduced to a world that is suspended on giant iron trees filled with dragons and magic and undead. We’re told of Ages of Ancients and Fire but we’re never told what these descriptors mean. We know that souls are found in the Fire but we don’t know what the Fire is. We don’t know what souls are. We just don’t know anything.
And when given an absence of information, your audience is going to fill in the blanks. It’s only natural that we compose a narrative of the actions and events we experience. And what information are we going to draw upon than elements of our own lives? So the laws of Dark Souls and our own world begin to merge and intertwine in ways the developers had no intention because the players are given so little to work with.
Which brings me back to a point I mentioned earlier. There’s quite a bit of discussion over the religion that Bishop Havel belongs to but unfortunately this discussion is absolutely meaningless. In a world were souls are pulled from some inexplicable Fire, societies are built at the tops of enormous trees that have taken root in an unending lake of ash and some people are born with a sign that designates them as undead, how much weight can we put in understanding titles and concepts that share a name with real world counterparts? How do we even know that Bishop is a position in a church? It could be his first name for all the information we’re given. And what is a god in Dark Souls? Is it someone that possesses a lord’s soul? Is it one of the first people to have emerged from the fire? Is it just anyone that participated in the battle with the ancient dragons?
Without some sort of foundation for your audience to work on everything ends up being pointless speculation. I can’t really talk about this story with my friend since our interpretations of what the hell is going on are going to be so wildly different as we base our understanding on the narrative primary on our own imposed rules and laws than those established by the designers.
And all of this could be avoided and still keep the very simplistic story reminiscent of ancient legend and myth that I’m sure the developers were hoping to emulate. A few more narrative moments, some establishment of common concepts inherent to this universe and a tighter focus on the elements that the developers wish to explore would do wonders.
As it stands, we’re left as nameless wanderers through a world of fog and smoke with only tiny islands of information to find ourselves stranded upon.