Video games are present a stark contrast to their contemporaries as a storytelling medium. the interactive nature of games allows for the creation of experiences that can, at their best, incorporate a level of engagement that’s often not present in television, books, or movies. Ironically though, many games tend to ignore the advantage this gives them and focus on the gameplay experience rather than the story. That’s not to say that’s a bad thing, it can often feel like a missed opportunity though when games end up telling a linear story that you could have easily seen in a movie. Non-linear, interactive storytelling isn’t completely absent in games of course, games like Telltale’s the Walking Dead and Fallout: New Vegas are both excellent, fun to play games with well-crafted interactive narratives. One game though, manages to stand out amongst its contemporaries and embraces this concept and runs with it though, the 2011 action role-playing game, Dark Souls.
Interactive storytelling in games often follows one of two general categories, the parallel story or the branching story, this isn’t to say these are the only two, but these are the two most prominent in in gam design. A narrative structured with parallel storytelling branches out into two or three general paths, often converging in on a single plot point multiple times no matter what changes the branching may have caused. This is usually popular with studios as is it presents the illusion of choice and ultimately presents no more than 3 endings to players. An excellent example of parallel storytelling is Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Branching storytelling is a large story that changes often and has numerous endings. It’s more open ended and rarely converges in on singular story events. Games like The Stanley Parable use branching narrative exceptionally well. Dark Souls follows none of these storytelling methods, and arguable a more linear story, yet it’s method of conveying that story is what makes it the extremely interactive.
The Setting of Dark Souls
Dark Souls, as mentioned above, is an action role-playing game that was released in 2011 critical acclaim. The game itself is set in a grim medieval fantasy world, which draws inspiration from other games like Shadow of the Colossus, to the works of H.P. Lovecraft. The only piece of story you are given in the beginning is what’s told to you in an intro cutscene. The world of Dark Souls was once a primordial grey landscape inhabited only by dragons. Eventually fire came into existence and with it brought the disparity of life and death, light and dark, etc. Four individuals found the flame and used its power to slay the dragons and bring civilization into the world. However, the fire would not last forever, and now it is fading and the once great individuals are desperate to prolong its embers. After being given this information, the player is told that they are the victim one of the side effects of the fading fire, a disease which makes it so that people can no longer die but will also turn people mad over time. As a result of this you begin in a prison cell and the game begins once an unknown knight throws the key to your cell to you. Following this, there is very little of what could be considered storytelling. The other characters within the game rarely contribute to anything close to the larger narrative alluded to in the intro, and it’s entirely possible, even likely, to miss most of the content within the game.
Dark Souls is far from lacking in story though and rather than present it in a clear linear fashion, it is hidden away in pieces. An item description here, some cryptic dialogue there and even in the design of the environment you can find the pieces of a story scattered. This “Jigsaw storytelling” results in fans attempting to quite literally put the pieces of the story together from not just what’s given in game, fans have examined content that was cut from the games, and even different translations of the game to gain insight on the meaning of the story. There is not always enough information to fill in what could be considered a complete story though, forcing fans to use what they had to fill in the blanks. This leads to a whole community of fans forming around the idea of completing the story that’s been laid out for them. becoming much more attached to the story as they have, in a way, helped to put it together.
Hidetaka Miyazaki, Creator and lead director of Dark Souls and its sequels, based this non-linear story layout on a surprising element of his childhood, his reading skills. As a child his family was “tremendously poor” his family couldn’t afford new books for him, so he borrowed what he could in the local library. Not every book he found was at his reading level, leading to him not understanding everything within the stories he read. Miyazaki had to fill in the blanks himself, using his imagination. When designing Dark Souls, he sought to create a similar feeling having the players develop a feeling that they co-authored the story. This is a feeling that just isn’t possible in any other medium.
A Deep World
This non-linear, exploratory element is not present is not exclusive to the game’s story, in fact, it permeates every aspect of the game. The game world is complex and inter-connected, incorporating a level of verticality that so that you can clearly see how far you’ve come. This is to the point where everything on the horizon is typically a location you’ll end up at some point in the game. This style of inter-connected design is called Metroidvania, named for the two game franchises that were responsible for popularizing it, Metroid and Castlevania. Dark Souls used modern technology capabilities to present its 3D world using this design methodology, allowing for players to discover the world as they move through the game. This is similar to how they discover the narrative. On top of that, every enemy, from undead knights found near the cities they once defended to demonic beasts that become more prevalent the deeper in the world you go. This is done to the point where miniature stories can be told by enemy placement alone, you find one undead knight outside of room where two, already dead, knights were found inside along with empty treasure chests. Unlike other knights this one will not attack you on sight, just looking out into the horizon. Hidetaka Miyazaki commented on this design philosophy on his twitter, stating “a well-designed world could tell its story in silence.”
The gameplay too has many narrative explanations behind each mechanic. For example, respawning, the act of a player-character coming back after a death , is a presence in nearly every game imaginable, allowing players to hop back into the game. In many other games that’s all it is to it, the game mechanic of respawning is just there. In Dark Souls though, there is narrative reasoning for your apparent immortality you and the rest of humanity are victims of a cursed disease in which makes you immortal, although as time passes your skin will rot, becoming hollow. The checkpoints are bonfires that you light as you move through the world and you find yourself back at the last one you visited upon your death as the curse is linked to the aforementioned great fire fading. This gets all players, even those who are uninterested in the story to learn pieces of the narrative
“a well-designed world could tell its story in silence.”
-Hidetaka Miyazaki, 2013
A Grand Reputation
Thanks to its initial success, Dark Souls, garnered a large fanbase and something that could be described as a very niche was now front and center. Unfortunately, however the difficulty of Dark Souls and all the games that follow it are typically the major thing at the forefront. This is really a shame, because in a time where developers, especially big budget “Triple-A” developers, are so fond of building games that are “cinematic.” In some cases campaign and story modes are slapped onto a game, just so they can say they have one. They are seemingly ignorant to the true strengths of the medium and are reluctant to taking a more experimental approach.
There should be more stories like that of Dark Souls, woven through a game world that is not shown directly but left for players to figure out is the core of great interactive storytelling were the story is not just a singular aspect of the game, but present in every facet of it. On top of that is another layer of storytelling, a community of players attempting to piece together a full store from fragments, and in the process become the authors of the story they’re looking for. There is multiple levels to how this story is told, through the world, the characters and those trying to piece it all together, this interactive aspect defines a truly unique narrative experience that other entertainment mediums rarely come close to.
“Metroidvania (Concept).” Giant Bomb, Giant Bomb, www.giantbomb.com/metroidvania/3015-2440/.
Miyazaki, Hidetaka (@HidetakaMiyazak). “A well designed world could tell its story in silence.” 21 April 2013, 1:21 PM. Tweet.
Parkin, Simon. “Bloodborne Creator Hidetaka Miyazaki: ‘I Didn’t Have a Dream. I Wasn’t Ambitious’.” The Guardian, Guardian Media Group, 31 Mar. 2015, www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/31/bloodborne-dark-souls-creator-hidetaka-miyazaki-interview.