Sunday, March 4, 2012

Analyzing Narratives: Storytelling in Dark Souls

            In this second part we look at how storytelling works in video games. To be blunt, storytelling in video games is weak. In fact, it’s not an understatement to say that the entire industry suffers because of the failure to implement storytelling in games in an effective way that’s also unique to its medium. The art of storytelling is different depending on what is available to us. The Egyptians used pictures to tell stories while the Greeks used the written language to tell stories and after that plays became a massive; and now we have movies. Each medium offered a unique method of storytelling. How do video games play a part in this?

Look at that setpiece!

            Although games such as Mass Effect or Uncharted received much praise from critics for having amazing stories, its method of telling the story is rather poor. The developers of these games have opted to create an experience similar to watching movies. The story is then told in cinematic sequences where players watch one cutscene after the next to proceed with the plot. This type of story isn’t unique to video games; instead it’s a copy of what movies do. Video games are unique piece of entertainment because they allow interactivity, unlike books and movies. You feel sad when you are forced to kill an innocent child in Bioshock, you feel satisfaction when you save your partner’s life in Call of Duty, and you feel attachment to you companions when interacting with them in Mass Effect. Sequences such as these are only unique to video games but only exist in small segments instead of larger portions. If storytelling unique to video games existed that made up the entirety of the game, what would it look like. Dark Souls defies typical storytelling conventions in the video game industry and it does it effectively.

Dark Souls’ lacks cutscenes almost altogether. With the exception of the introduction, ending, and the boss entrances, Dark Souls adds up to a mere hour of cutscenes. Mass Effect and Uncharted, full of story, has hours of cutscenes. What is the difference between Dark Souls and these two games? The difference in the amount of cutscenes reveal that storytelling in Dark Souls is not done through cutscenes or cinematic sequences. In fact, a testament to this is the fact that you won’t find the narrative of Dark Souls comprehensible or coherent if you just breezed through it. Why is Dark Souls designed like this and how is the story of Dark Souls told? Discovery. The designers of Dark Souls wanted you to discover the story for yourself through the various pieces of the world that it offers you. Many games now hold your hand and force you to experience every bit of the story. Dark Souls doesn’t do that, instead it wants you to find it.

You have no idea why you have to beat this dude to ring the bell.
Because of the idea of discovery, Dark Souls doesn’t force you to watch certain events unfold; rather you have the ability to discover the story at your leisure. As far as exposition goes, you wake up in a jail cell inside of an asylum as a Hollow, a being not dead but no so alive either. After you trek to the end of the road you find Humanity, which is the living essence of a human, and use it to transform yourself into a human. You’re kidnapped by a giant bird and flown into the land called Lordran, which it doesn’t tell you at first. When you land in Firelink Shrine, a soldier on the verge of insanity greets you. He wonders if you’re “the one” and advises that you ring two bells one which is located somewhere high and the other somewhere below. You don’t exactly know why the bird grabbed you and dropped you off in Lordran, you don’t know why you have to ring the bells, and you don’t even know why the soldier called you “the one.” Beyond the introductory cutscene and this initial sequence, that’s about all the spoon-feeding you’ll get. From here on out how does Dark Souls tell its story?

The first and initially best way to learn about the narrative of Dark Souls is through journeying. Dark Souls is an excellent world to immerse yourself in as the medieval castles climb high filled with monsters and undead. Slowly you began to realize that almost all of Lordran has become like this. The game doesn’t have to spell out “Lordran is overcome with monsters and undead. Chaos runs through the land.” You discover that Lordran is ruins and come to this conclusion yourself. No stupid little cutscene is needed. Exploring the world helps to craft the world that the story takes place in and as a result, the narrative becomes more vivid. The setting of Dark Souls is set but what about everything else?

This is the map of Lordran. It's not in the game.

Another fine method that Dark Souls uses to tell its tale is through items. To be more specific, the each item possesses a description and it tells the lore of Lordran and its neighboring kingdoms. Not only this but it goes on to detail characters that may be still alive or dead. You use a key to enter a locked room but a berserk knight wearing extremely heavy armor attacks you. After defeating him, you pick up a ring called Havel’s Ring. It reads, “This ring was named after Havel the Rock, Lord Gwyn's old battlefield compatriot. Havel's men wore the ring to express faith in their leader and to carry a heavier load.” There’s a lot lore that’s here. You learn that there was a soldier named Havel and was a partner of Gwyn. However, there are things you don’t know such as the true identity of the soldier that attacked you. Upon discovering this item, you have learned so much about the world of Dark Souls and consequently, the narrative of Dark Souls.
Items are not exclusive to each other. In fact, many items are related to each other. There are pieces of armor that belonged to Havel that you can buy. After wearing it you realize that this is the exact same armor that the mysterious attacker wore. Suddenly it hits you. The mysterious attacker was Havel, but why was he there? If you read the description of the key that unlocked the room where the soldier was in you discover that it’s rumored a dear friend locked away a hero turned Hollow. It’s ambiguous but at the same time somewhat clear. The only known friend of Havel was Gwyn. You can piece those two pieces of information together. This method of storytelling is unique only to video games. Books have to spell out or explain certain details. Movies are also similar in this way except done through scenes. Being able to interact with the world and piece together the information that you find in the world is extremely clever and is only possible on video games.   
Meet Quelaag. Nice... pet? Why is she like that again?
The descriptions and the visuals of the items are not the only purpose they serve. In fact, location helps to flesh out the narrative of Dark Souls. Items are not found at certain locations by some random coincidence. Everything is there for a reason. The Witches of Izalith all have some similar names. Chaos Witch Quelaag and Quelaana? I don’t think that’s coincidence. Quelaana wears a dark robe on that you can find on a sacrificial pedestal in an area near Lost Izalith. A monster that’s more than 100 feet tall also guards it. Why is the robe just lying around in the middle of nowhere and why is a monster guarding it? The robe was placed there near the area near Lost Izalith to indicate that the robe belonged to one of the Witches of Izalith. Not only this but the monster is guarding it because either the monster is a deformed Witch or a close companion of the Witch. The location helps to form the lore of Dark Souls and this is only one instance of it.
While items most depict the lore and the past of Lordran and its neighboring kingdoms, what is the story in the present told? Your conversations with the various sane characters in Lordran help to illuminate the narrative in a clever manner. Each dialogue line has an important detail. Take for example Laurentius a man dressed in ragged and tattered clothes. You rescue him from the sewers and he explains why he was there. He came from the Great Swamp in search of greater Pyromancy arts. You learn that there is a land beyond Lordran called the Great Swamp and its dwellers wear something odd, at least by judging Laurentius’ clothings. Each spoken line is just like a description of the item and helps to pain the bigger picture of Dark Souls. Laurentius tells you that Lordran is known for the Witches of Izalith that were famous for their Pyromancy. A cutscene or some entry in a database didn’t tell you the information about the world, you learn about it. Just like a child discovering the world for the first time and learning things as they go, the same applies here. The storytelling in Dark Souls is crafted through the interactivity that only video games offer and in this case, dialoguing will help to guide the player in understanding the narrative of Dark Souls better.
There are various stories besides the main narrative that Dark Souls tells and it is told in through a combination of all of the mechanics mentioned thus far. Under Lordran is a sunken area called Blighttown. As you explore you are attacked by Chaos Witch Quelaag, who is part spider and part woman. There’s no way out of this fight so you kill her and proceed to the next room. Upon tinkering with the architecture you find that there’s a hidden room leading to another Witch that looks like Quelaag surrounded by webs and large spider eggs. However, unlike Quelaag, this witch trembles in place paying no attention to your entry. You attempt to talk to her but she doesn’t answer, however, with an item called Old Witch’s Ring she will talk. In fact, the item’s description says it seems to have no use but upon connecting the dots that a Witch’s Ring is required to talk to the Witch you can finally talk to her. The Witch mistakes you for Quelaag and addresses you as “sister” and now you have learned the two Witches’ connection. She goes on to reveal that she is blind, overburdened with eggs, and is constant agony. In order to put her at ease she needs Humanity. Finally the story unfolds and a revelation is made. Quelaag didn’t attack you because she wanted to. Quelaag attacked you because she needed Humanity in order to relieve her sister’s pain. Games like Mass Effect or Uncharted would’ve put this entire sequence into some cutscene that you are forced to watch. What Dark Souls does is something different entirely. You run into Quelaag and kill her and begin to slowly learn the background of Quelaag and the connections to her sister using the environments of the world, items, and other characters. It’s very organic and nothing feels forced. You discover this narrative rather the game just handing it to you.

She lacks the color that her sister has...

The same can be said for the main narrative of Dark Souls. As you journey across Lordran meeting new characters you discover that they are all depending on you to defeat Gwyn and take his throne to continue the Age of Fire. However, upon reading the items you pick up and talking to key characters that have to be found, you discover that the Age of Fire is not all it’s cut out to be. You also begin to question what your true destiny is. Kathe, a guide, reveals to you that you’re destiny is not to take Gwyn’s throne rather lead Lordran into the Age of Dark and you have been deceived into believing that the Age of Fire is what is best. Without discovering key lore and plot points using the game’s clever storytelling mechanics, this choice wouldn’t have been made known. The game doesn’t offer binary choices that are good and bad. You must discover the choices that are available or you will end up continuing on blindly believing that there is only one path.  Just like how you discover your role and your destiny, you discover the narrative that Dark Souls has to offer.

The best way to describe storytelling in Dark Souls is unique. It’s unique not because it is a method that is only possible in video games but it’s also because there’s no other game that tells a story like it does. Even among its peers, Dark Souls stands out differently from others, so much so that people have to wonder what they just experienced. Narratives are told differently depending on the medium and for video games it should be no different. Video games offer something that movies and books cannot: interactivity. Even so, developers have opted to go for the cinematic film experience. If I wanted to watch a movie then I’d watch a movie. I don’t want my video games to play like movies. It’s not even play. I want stories in video games to be told uniquely. Instead of holding your hand and watching the story unfold right before your eyes, Dark Souls just throws you right into the world with nothing but a small exposition. The player has to uncover the mysteries that Lordran hides and it’s this very mark that makes Dark Souls so special. You start from nothing but by the end you have gained so much. Dark Souls is a step in the right direction and in a generation where storytelling in video games are heavily influenced by blockbuster titles, it’s a refreshing take on what this medium has to offer.

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