I’ve been talking a lot lately about the benefits of marrying storytelling and gameplay experience. While thinking about it recently, I was reminded that I always wanted to spend a day examining the visual narrative of Dark Souls. So what better time than now, during the summer!
Dark Souls is fascinating in that at first glance, it seems to have a very vague or shallow story. The setup is simple: you are undead. You are in an asylum where undead are locked up for eternity. You are freed from this asylum and set out on a quest to light bonfires before the world loses the gift of light altogether. It sounds like a pretty simple fantasy video game quest, and while very bleak and dark, the world seems pretty typical of fantasy settings as well. However, to risk sounding cliché, not everything is quite what it seems. If you look deep enough, at least.
It’s entirely possible to play through Dark Souls and notice absolutely none of the world-building that’s going on in the dangerous areas you trek through. However, once you start paying that little extra bit of attention, you’ll find an insanely deep world, absolutely steeped in its own history and mythology. It’s a game that proves that it pays to be extra attentive; everything from the slightest bit of flavor text on an item description to the gender of a random corpse has meaning and has been placed deliberately.
The opening cutscene outlines the most basic elements of world history in Dark Souls: long ago there were stone dragons that were eventually hunted down by a group of demigods who brought fire (and, as a result, light) to the world. The main demigod was Gwyn, Lord of Sunlight, who had a following of loyal knights. There was also a witch with several daughters, who all excelled at the use of fire magic. There was a massive skeleton creature named Nito, First of the Dead, who seems to have created disease. There was also a skinless dragon named Seath, who betrayed his own kind to help Gwyn hunt them down. Finally, there was the Pygmy, about whom we get little information.
The cutscene doesn’t say much more than that, other than the overview of who you are, which I already mentioned. We later learn from dialog with various characters that the bonfires created by Gwyn eventually started to burn out, worrying the demigods. The original witch apparently decided to create a new source of fire in her city, deep underground, but the experiment failed miserably. The result was the creation of demons, who took over her city as their own. In the actual game, we know this location (and see the effect of the takeover) as Lost Izalith, deep inside the Demon Ruins.
That brings us to one of the very first examples of visual storytelling I noticed during my time with Dark Souls. It’s mentioned at some point that Gwyn decided to battle the demons and took a handful of his best knights with him, leaving many others behind to guard his own city (the in-game location of Anor Londo). As anyone who’s fought tooth-and-nail to beat Dark Souls knows, Anor Londo is populated by fancy Silver Knights. These enemies are, in fact, the soldiers Gwyn left behind to protect his city (and his daughter). What makes this an interesting example of visual storytelling? We’ve been fighting knights wearing the exact same armor set, scattered throughout the world below Anor Londo. The difference is that the knights we’ve fought prior to the Silver Knights all appear to be a charred black color. As it turns out, the Black Knights we fight in the ruins of mankind’s civilization are the knights that Gwyn took with him to battle the demons. The game tells us through a few item descriptions that the knights who battled demons with Gwyn were charred black by the demons’ flaming attacks.
It seems like a really small thing, even if it is a careful detail, but the impressive thing about Dark Souls is that it is absolutely full of these examples. You can’t take two steps without finding something that was placed, colored, modeled, or written in an absolutely deliberate way. Sometimes, even the way that enemy A.I. behaves will tell you something about the world that Dark Souls takes place in. In fact, my favorite example of storytelling in the game involves the A.I. of one particular boss.
From paying attention to relevant item descriptions and dialog, we find out that the original witch had numerous daughters and a single son. After her failed experiment, most of the witches went insane (and you fight several of them over the course of the game). One of these daughters was killed, and her body placed on an altar deep underground. While descending underground to find the Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith, you encounter a massive molten creature. Obviously, giant creatures like this usually serve as boss fights in the Souls games. However, as you approach the monster and run around in front of him, it becomes very apparent (unless you attack him directly) that he’s not interested in fighting you. In fact, he seems to be staring a little alcove off to the side where a small altar sits. Upon the altar is a very old, decayed female corpse. If you go so far as to loot the corpse, the items you acquire include the very tattered robes that the various witches wore. The second you pillage the corpse, the fiery monster roars in anger and the boss fight with him begins. Killing him opens the way to the lost city down below.
Talk about masterful use of visual storytelling! If you haven’t figured it out already, the giant monster is obviously the lone son of the witch. The corpse on the altar is female, and the items we receive from it include the robe worn by witches. By paying just the slightest bit of extra attention while playing, it’s clear that this is the corpse of one of the daughters and the monster, her brother, is watching over her. Pilfering her enrages him and he sets off to avenge her.
Of course the game never tells you that this is what’s happening outright. It’s easy to just play without paying attention and think “looting that corpse triggers the boss fight.” But when just the slightest extra attention, everything fits together. Clearly, this was all done intentionally. The gender of the corpse, the robes you find upon it, the behavior of the giant monster, the area that opens up to you after killing him; everything has a place and a specific reason. Even more, the robes you get from the corpse have high resistance to fire. If you’ll remember, the witches were talented in fire magic.
While that is my favorite example of the visual and interactive narrative in Dark Souls, the examples don’t end there. There are exceedingly long YouTube videos explaining all the mysteries you can uncover in the forlorn drowned city of New Londo. The game is filled with dozens of hints at the nature of “humanity” as a commodity. There are people who spend great deals of time theorizing who certain characters in the game are, and back up their theories with little bits of text and visual cues that they’ve found while exploring. I honestly can’t think of another game that displays such a great degree of this phenomenon.
At the end of the day, this all just goes to show how impressive video games are as narrative vehicles. Sure, most games will convey a story through cutscenes or audio logs (which I believe we need to move away from). But then there are games like Dark Souls, where every little detail you see or hear in the world means something. I hope we continue to see unique and engaging new storytelling mechanics in games in this upcoming generation because it’s honestly one of the most exciting things in gaming right now.