A few years ago I was at my friends and I had just picked up a game after a heavy recommendation from him, Dark Souls. I never understood the love for a game that was designed to be a total jerk to you and just kill you in as many unfair ways as it can. But I soon learnt that this was not the case, that in fact the game is very fair, and after my first death riddled playthrough I was hooked. The Souls series soon skyrocketed to my favourite game franchise of all time. These games do something not many modern games do; they do not hold your hand and guide you through. Instead they choose to let you learn via the gameplay itself, much like games of old. Let us take Megaman as an example, in Megaman when you are presented with a new enemy that acts in a way that no enemy has done before the game gives you a small window in which you can see the pattern of movement or attack that enemy is going to take. It lets you see what is coming and it expects, rightfully so, that this should be enough for you to realise what is going on. In a similar sense Dark Souls throws you into an area with three different paths as soon as you finish the tutorial area. One path leads you to a graveyard full of skeletons and another leads to an underground ruined city full of ghosts. Now these two paths have one thing in common, the enemies will do tons of damage to you and you will do next to none to them (that is if you even manage to figure out how to hit a ghost). The third path leads to the actual first area of the game, and this is all the guiding you get. The game wants you to realise that this is the way you should go via the fact the other two ways are super hard. Sadly this wasn’t always the case and led to a lot of early quitting of the game. But I describe this because it is what I want to talk about today, the way in which the Souls series presents its narrative, and why it is amazing for the way that it does this.
Souls games tell you their narrative in a few ways. First there is cutscenes. You will usually get a bit of an info dump at the start of the game and that is about it for story telling in cutscenes until the end of the game, the rest tend to be showing paths opening or showing a little character interaction like an all too familiar face kicking you off something yet again. The second is item descriptions. No game I have ever played has given so much insight into the world’s background from just reading the descriptions of things you pick up as Dark Souls did. These weird and wonderful little details has led to the amazing Dark Souls community that sit around theory bouncing back and forth until a consensus comes about, and that is a whole side of Souls that I love that is totally separate from the game and really shows how many people really care about these games.
The third is where I really want to go into a bit more detail. Character dialogue and interactions. There is so much you learn from simply talking to people in the world, it can vary from what is happening in the world to just learning of some part of the characters personality. And this is the real beauty of the games narrative, you can learn of so much from people and take part in so many different mini stories that you really feel a part of. The characters in the world seem all too aware of what is going on around them and overall can give you details of what is needed of you to progress in the story as a whole. But it is in the side stories where character narrative really starts to shine.
We shall take an example from Dark Souls 3 as it is the most current in the series. Heavy spoilers ahead. You are in the Undead Settlement, very early on in the game, there is a man sat guarding a woman who is locked away behind a cage door. With some exploration and buying of a key you can find your way to her. Irina of Carim, a blind lady that asks you to place your hand upon her as to aid her loneliness. She offers you her services as a person that can teach you miracles, and so the side story of Irina begins. The man from outside the cell is Eygon, from him you learn that Irina was meant to become a fire keeper, but failed in doing so. You learn that although he is a bit rough around the edges, he does care for her. “I am allied to you as long as you assure the girl’s safety. And only for that long…” Yet these are only the interactions you come across if you do nothing to further the plot. You have the option of giving Irina divine tomes that she can use to teach you extra miracles than the few she starts with. This is where the magic in the story telling of this game really shines. Give her a tome with dark miracles within it and she will warn you of “the dark tales that lurk deep within men”. This is where you the player get the choice, and one that has no more outlining than the warning she has given you. There is no press this button the take the dark path or this button to be the nice mister hero. No, you are just giving a simple yet clear piece of dialogue and the choice to heed her words is totally up to you. If you do proceed and buy these dark miracles then her questline will take a dark turn. Eygon will take her away to protect her from you, “Even a broken woman deserves her dignity” are the words he tells you as he attacks you. Irina is indeed broken if you take the dark path, she wishes only to feel Eygon’s touch and for him to end her life as promised. Even though this is the darker path to take I really do think people should do it at least once, these pieces of dialogue and the actions they both take really do highlight the care that they have for one another, something you would not guess at from the man keeping watch over a locked cell. You of course can choose not to buy and dark miracles at all, this itself does not forward her light questline. To get to that you must first buy every good miracle you can after giving her all of the tomes in the world. Though this leads to much less in terms of dialogue it does allow her to progress to becoming a fire keeper, her original goal. This is a perfect example of what Souls games do well, they allow you to figure things out for yourself; nothing is forced down your throat and instead hinted at gently. It allows for a lot more open discussion on what things mean also, hence the giant community I mentioned before. The simplicity of just buying a dark miracle or not affecting everything in such a complex way.
And this is a much lesser example of what the game has to offer, not wanting to spoil anything big for players that may not have played the games I choose something that did not have a big effect on the game as a whole. Sadly a lot of these pieces are lost amongst the people that skip through everything said to them; people see the universe in these games as something with hardly any story behind it. This is just not true it is just presented in a much different way to most games out right now. The world within the Souls games is probably richer and more detailed than that of even modern RPGs, and with the added benefit of being a joy to find.
One more thing…
Do you enjoy the way the Souls franchise presents itself or are you just in it for the epic gameplay? Have you had any character questlines that have really stuck with you? Who is your favourite NPC?