Stories are best told in a way that plays to the strengths of their medium. It’s the reason books usually focus so much on letting you delve into the minds of the characters and why many comic books use brightly clad super heroes and focus so heavily on action. Films can draw atmosphere from music, acting, visuals and plot and deliver it in a concentrated two-hour dose. TV shows can do the same but give us far longer in the world that has been created for us.
And so what about video games? In theory they should excel at all of the above. Like a book we are close enough to a character to really delve into them and their world (More so perhaps – we are them!) but they can also take the visual and audio aspects from other media. The biggest difference between these mediums and video games, and arguably video games’ largest strength, is that the person following the story has choice and control. We often see this working in opposition to the narrative (known as ludonarrative dissonance) but games can mesh together mechanics and story to create something no other medium can. There are a few games that get this right, but I’ve seen this most strongly in Dark Souls.
At first glance, the story to Dark Souls seems rather thin: You are a cursed undead and you must fight your way across this land to light a bonfire that will rejuvenate your world. It seems like a standard fantasy affair, certainly not up to the standard of modern Zelda or Final Fantasy. But of course, this is just the surface. Dark Souls wants to you to extract its story from playing it. It shuns the idea that a story is told in cut-scenes and dialogue (though it does contain a limited amount of both) to allow for the gameplay between and instead embeds narrative into exploration, atmosphere and challenge.
Some very light spoilers for Dark Souls to follow.
Challenge is how most people bring up Dark Souls, no doubt putting off a large section of the gaming community. But challenge – and death – are not just there to up your gamer cred: Dark Souls is about death. From Software planned for you to die often and so made you undead. Dying makes sense to your story, as does your constant revival. It’s your curse and your aim is to lift this and allow the natural process of life and (permanent) death to return to the land.
Death is made to feel natural. You may be known as the chosen undead but you’re not known for your strength or combat prowess. It feels natural when some random skeleton takes you out. This is also helped by the slow, animation-locked combat system which lets you own every mistake and (pretty much) every death feels fair. Compare this to how strange it feels in any of the Arkham games, when you can hear how scared the waiting thugs often are, to have them cheer as they pump you full of bullets once you touch the ground. In that moment you don’t feel like batman at all and isn’t that the whole point of the game? The tale you are being told is one of hardship – like many fantasy tales – but here you can feel it in a way no other medium can make you.
There’s also a meaning to death: when you die you lose your souls (which are both XP and currency) unless you can retrieve them, and dying before you can when you’ve accumulated many is a crushing blow. As something that is integral to the story and gameplay, it is apt that it has such an impact. Some games’ only punishment for failure is to spawn at a checkpoint you pass every couple of minutes but the Dark Souls games treat death seriously.
This really drives home victories – the payoff in many narratives. In a fantasy film the hero will often triumph over evil, it’s a given. While victory may look difficult, the tension is lessened somewhat by this knowledge and the all powerful evil can seem less so. As you die to a boss for the fifteenth time, you will feel its power and you will know the struggle. When you get it down to a sliver of health, and have a split second to decide whether to swing or attempt to roll through its next attack, you will know true tension. When it falls to your feet and you are rewarded, you will know triumph beyond any celebratory scene at the end of a film series.
The World That Tells a Story
Add high stakes and gritty dark fantasy visuals to a stark soundtrack and it creates an oppressive atmosphere. In this world only bonfires are safe: here, your estus flask (your means of healing) is refilled and enemies return to their default. You can also spend your souls to become stronger and dramatically reduce the cost of death. It’s a mechanic as a check-point system but linking them is the entire point of your story. You feel safe at a bonfire, a rarity in this world and so to spread that has a bigger impact on the player than saving a princess you saw in the opening cut-scene.
This is heightened by how lost you will feel. The world is labyrinthine and intentionally baffling. A first time player will spend hours roaming its land, the stakes rising as they accumulate souls and drain their flasks, as they search for the next bonfire. They will be forced to scour this land for pathways along with items and souls, all the while the tension is building as new and grotesque monsters leap from the shadows. The fear the character would feel when approaching a huge enemy blocking the path is mirrored when you know you have to face it with so much to lose.
As you travel you will begin to notice its interconnected nature, so that it feels like a real world and not just something you are being pushed through. As you traverse it, you may link what you’re seeing to some cryptic message from an NPC or you may see that you are now stood upon a once distant view. You may come across a statue of a great knight, only to meet him in battle an hour later. It makes moments like stepping into Anor Londo mean something, as you’ve heard it spoken of in revered tones long before you set foot there. The ruined world contains lore and story if you observe it well.
Compare this to corridor-like games (Final Fantasy XIII for example) where the world exists for you to rush past, likely ignoring everything as you fly to a marker on your mini-map, or truly open world games like Skyrim where the world is a playground and the real narrative exists only to move you from the slide to the swing-set.
You can only piece together the lore of this world through exploration – through snippets of dialogue and item descriptions that could so easily be missed. It’s another form of challenge that adds an air of mystery to the world around you. For many it will mean nothing, but for others it will bring an extra layer of engagement. The lore takes on a mythological feel: take the famous duo Smough & Ornstein, who are known for being the toughest boss fight in the game. For some they are just a difficult fight, but for others they are a link to the old world that came before this one was ruined.
Other games attempt something similar. They hand out diaries, journals, e-mails; all of which are thrown in front of the player. Depending on the gamer, this can become an obligation. The game is saying that this should be read, but due to the lack of engagement it is often forgettable padding. Each scrap of information in Dark Souls is a piece of a jigsaw, most of which will mean very little or be uninteresting until the player is engaged with the history of the world they are exploring.
Many games go a step further and explain their world right to player, unwilling to let them miss anything. When playing through Metal Gear Solid 4, straight away you are fed cut-scene after cut-scene, making sure you take in the overview of this near-future world. The game is peppered with them, which caused me to feel as though every 10 minutes or so Kojima was tearing the controller straight from my hand. The series has always been cinematic and likely helped the rise of cinematic games but much of it in the earlier entries focused on the story at hand. Metal Gear Solid 4 is so desperate to spoon-feed you its tale of global conspiracies that it often lost my interest. ‘I just want to play a video game!’ was a recurring thought. It’s disappointing as a life-long fan of the series that it took until the major reveals towards the end for me to be hooked on the narrative.
There Are Others
Dark Souls is a crushing tale of one person’s journey through a hostile land and their attempt to bring it to its former glory. Everything about the game adds to its narrative and, if you let yourself become absorbed by it, allows it to swell in your head. To be taunted by fragments of a perfect fantasy world only to be shown its ruined and belligerent remains - while linking perfectly to the mechanics and tone at hand - is a true achievement that could only be done in video games.
Should all games do it like Dark Souls? No. There are a thousand good ways to write a book or direct a film and it’s the same with games. But many studios could look at Dark Souls and see how they use the game, instead of forcing a story into a playable format. It’s not that I dislike either of these approaches – in fact, I have only mentioned games from my favourite series – it’s just that games that do this elevate their story and show the true potential of this medium. There are a few more out there: Undertale did it well, and though I’ve never played it, I hear Spec Ops: The Line does also. I’d still love to see more.