I’ve been getting into the Souls series lately. No, not by playing the games, which are well known for being fiendishly hard — I don’t have the equipment to — but by watching other people play them.
Something that has really caught my interest is the very unorthodox way in which Souls stories are delivered. By this, I mean: Stories in games are almost always delivered as narrative. Whether in platformers or RPGs, action-adventures or FPS’s, the gamer in effect controls a character in a set narrative environment. There’s only ever one way to go, akin to a film or a novel.
This is not how Souls games approach stories. We often use “narrative” as a synonym for “strorytelling”, because narrative is overwhelmingly the most common form of storytelling, but it is not the only one. No: instead, Souls games elaborate their story and their world almost entirely through interaction. Much of the worldbuilding occurs in item descriptions, fragmentary nuggets of information we have to piece together and discern the story behind. It is Havel’s gear, for example — where and how it is found, and what is found nearby — that clue us into Havel himself having been locked away at the bottom of that watchtower in the Undead Burg and left to Hollow. It is the item descriptions on rings that clue us into Gwyndolin’s desperate illusion in Anor Londo. It is nothing more than the similarities in place that suggest that Darkroot is the lost ruins of Oolacile. And so on.
A similar note is struck by dialogue in this game. We need as much of it as possible to piece together as much of the lore as possible, because the lore in a Souls game is how we understand the world and our place in it. And because there are so few characters, there’s a lot of work put into making them rich and vibrant. We can understand and empathize with Solaire, with Siegmeyer, with the Crestfallen Warrior and even with less sympathetic characters like Petrus or Lautrec because we get a lot of interaction with them, and because so much effort has been put into making them complete characters.
So story in Souls games is not moved forward by our understanding of the grand narrative and our place in it, at all. We’re moved forward in the game armed mainly by a half-forgotten prophecy giving us a hopeless quest. And this is what makes Frampt’s appearance more than a little jarring — he’s the only character to give us Zelda-like advice that clearly relates to the grand narrative arc. He’s breaking the fourth wall, appealing to our sense of, our need for narrative in a game where there has hitherto been none — it’s transparently manipulative. More red flags are, of course, raised the more we learn about him and his role in the story. Is he Gwyn’s confidant as he says he is? Is he working with Gwyndolin? And so on.
The bottom line here is that Souls storytelling is not narrative; that it, in fact, represents a radically new and different way to tell a story. But to appreciate that, we have to first appreciate just how deeply our need for narrative storytelling runs.
Narrative in Storytelling
Storytelling has been about narrative from the dawn of humanity. Even in our oldest tales, the epics of the ancient world, there is a strong sense of narrative — not just a sense of connected events, but of pattern in these connections that are thematically laid bare in a temporal order. Take the oldest known epic, Gilgamesh, for example. Here we have the clear narrative around Gilgamesh’s life, how his friendship with Enkidu turned him from being an arrogant, uncontrolled demi-deity; how Enkidu’s death catalyzed his own quest for immortality. The underlying narrative of Gilgamesh is its hero’s increasing humanity.
This conception of story — as narrative, as a pattern or linked chain of events — thus goes back all the way to the dawn of records themselves. To this day, when we engage with any storytelling medium, we expect this interplay of pattern and theme. We expect things to be obvious, and this obviousness is really what we think of when we say “narrative”.
Take, for example, Zelda games. They’re usually quite obvious in terms of what your goals are, what the next step you have to do is to open up more of the game world. This is true in literally every video game ever — even in Elder Scrolls games, famed for their open-world gameplay, the next step in advancing the story is transparently obvious; it’s up to you whether to take it or not.
When we play these games, we are not making our own stories. We are instead interacting with a story already put together. A video game, in this sense, is little more than an interactive novel. But this is a cop-out, a device video games can lean on in a way their pen-and-paper kin cannot.
What is in a Game?
Final Fantasy, famously, got started as an 8-bit D&D port by a desperate company, Squaresoft, on its last legs and about to close up shop as a development house forever (hence the “Final”). So too did the first Elder Scrolls games. In fact, every RPG ever made can be traced, if you go back far enough, to D&D.
Video games can present to you a world in which the rules and narrative are defined. You are the hero out to save the day and you have these tools to do it. Getting better at it is represented with leveling, and so on. But the key here is: the world is defined.
D&D does not, in fact, define a world. Rather, like all card games or board games, it defines rules, and it is with these rules that you can in turn define and construct your own world. How could it define a world? The information in even a simple video game, such as the original Final Fantasy, would be far thicker than every D&D guidebook put together. Rather, what D&D sourcebooks or individual Magic cards or what-have-you all offer, is something to put into the world you’re creating, as well as defined ways that thing interacts with other things in the world. You, ultimately, create the world.
In this way, this type of game can be seen as a type of creation, rather than a type of narrative. You can add a narrative, but the narrative is not implicitly there in the source material; descriptions can suggest connections, and connections can suggest a story, but you have agency in the process.
So What Does this Have to Do with Souls?
Remember how I described Souls games’ primary storytelling mechanism? There is no clarity and only very hazy goals in this game. It’s through snippets of dialogue, through item descriptions, and through simply paying attention to your surroundings that the lore of the world comes into play, that your role in other characters’ lives becomes obvious, and that the story starts to form. This is essentially the same way that you worldbuild with D&D descriptions or with Magic cards — hints and pieces that slowly accrete into a cohesive whole. And you always have a choice in Souls games. In fact, in Dark Sous, five of them: You can choose to follow Frampt or betray him; to follow Kaathe or betray him; or to follow neither (though this route doesn’t lead to credits, and there isn’t as much piss-off-main-plot content in Souls games as there is in Elder Scrolls games).
It is also your skill at exploration, at putting pieces together, that is most rewarded in Dark Souls. Other than Anor Londo, the most visually impressive parts of the overworld (the Great Hollow and Ash Lake) are off the beaten track with no plot elements to send you there, ever. Put enough pieces together and you can dispel Gwyndolin’s illusions and reveal Anor Londo for what it truly is. Your choices determine whether any character you meet throughout the course of the game Hollows or not. It keeps going like this.
But there is very, very little handholding at all in this game. Goals are murky, rhetoric is self-contradictory, themes unclear at best. It isn’t a narrative-driven game. It isn’t driven by the sensation of playing out a novel at all. Instead, what Souls games give us is so much more: we’re just dumped into this world and have to make sense of it at the same speed our character does.
Kind of like being alive, really.