Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain and Final Fantasy XV featured some of the best stories in video games, and I thoroughly enjoyed them. However, when I speak of how great their stories are to others, they act as if these games had some of the worst stories in their respective franchises. This phenomenon had me stumped until recently, when I realized why I found the stories of games like these to be so appealing: Dark Souls had conditioned me to piece stories together in order to see the grand picture.
In Dark Souls, or any entry of the Soulsborne series really, players are given virtually none of the story in a direct manner. The vast majority of the game’s story comes in the form of item descriptions and context. Where an item is located can change a player’s perception of world events. To illustrate this, I’d like to speak briefly on the side story of the legendary Dark Souls character Black Iron Tarkus
Minor spoilers ahead for Dark Souls lore regarding Black Iron Tarkus
During the events of Dark Souls, the player will be forced into combat against a giant Iron Golem atop a fortress. In the lead up to this encounter, the player may summon the soul of a hero from another time line to assist them in battle: The Legendary Badass Black Iron Tarkus.
Upon defeating the Iron Golem, the player is whisked away to a beautiful ancient city, where their progress is blocked again, this time by a platform that has been retracted. At this point, the player must climb a flying buttress of the nearby church, and enter through a window that someone had previously shattered.
Once inside, the player must perilously cross the rafters, fighting agile Painting Guardians while dealing with the treacherously narrow footing. After crossing the rafters and making their way to the ground floor, the player may fight their way through the remaining Painting Guardians to discover a great reward and a sad sight: The armor of Black Iron Tarkus, on the legendary warrior’s corpse.
From the positioning of this corpse, and the context of everything leading up to this point, we can understand the full story: After arriving in the city, Tarkus was forced to climb the church buttress. He shattered the window to gain entry into the church, and continued on. Unfortunately, Tarkus’s obscenely heavy Black Iron armor put him at a distinct disadvantage in the rafters, and he fell to his death, his corpse unceremoniously dragged into the corner by the Painting Guardians that watched over it until the player arrived.
This is how Souls games tell their stories, and it’s a method that seems unique to the franchise. There’s something refreshing about a developer letting players miss the entire story if they don’t work for it. Many Western developers will put excessive checkpoints on maps and specific colors in the environment (yellow means progress in Naughty Dog worlds), as if terrified that players will miss any of their hard work. Meanwhile, From Software puts world shattering story revelations on a throwaway piece of equipment that’s left on the ground somewhere.
The effort required to experience these stories, paired with the ambiguity surrounding them, has led to them being discussed for many years.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom pain goes about its story in a somewhat similar manner, and it’s probably the closest another developer has come to the Soulsborne style of storytelling. Without going into spoilers, there’s a surface level story that plays out in the cutscenes, and a much deeper story that’s hidden in the various cassettes. This is why many were disappointed by the “bare bones” story: They never realized there was a lot more to it. After seeing the cutscenes, the next layer of depth comes when pouring through the cassette tapes and learning about what happened behind the scenes. Placing the events of one tape into context with a cutscene or another tape will provide a clearer picture, and a deeper story.
The rabbit hole goes deeper still when the events of MGSV are further put into context with the events of other entries into the Metal Gear saga. The significance of seemingly minor events becomes a huge deal, and those who dig through the series’ lore eventually learn of how the events of MGSV set the stage for plot lines seen in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty. The origins of Fox Die, both S3 plans, and the creation of nano machines all have their roots deep into the plot of MGSV.
Despite Konami meddling in the game’s development and making sure it never ended as intended, MGSV secretly has an amazing story.
What about a game that has players piece its story together due to poor storytelling and rushed development instead of by design? Turns out that it doesn’t matter: Telling a story poorly doesn’t mean the story itself is bad. If the underlying story is good enough, the act of piecing it together becomes fun.
Final Fantasy XV sees players piecing the story together, but it’s clearly not by design. The development of FFXV was troubled, and Tabata was put in charge over Nomura to make sure the game was finally released. The story had to be hacked to pieces, modified, and rearranged, which is why it was told so terribly. The scale of FFXV was also walked back quite a bit, and it feels as if the cut content was spun out into a multimedia project and stuck wherever the team could fit it. On top of hunting down the entries of the Cosmology spread throughout Eos, picking up on obscure hints, and understanding disjointed cutscenes, players should wade through the movie and anime to put the story into proper light.
This is seen as a chore by many, but as someone that has spent the better half of a decade being conditioned by Soulsborne games to hunt for story in video games by combing every area, flow charting events in my head, and theory crafting until the story fits, I sincerely enjoyed the story scavenger hunt. While FFXV has a lot of rough patches, the content of its story is not one of them. The tale of Noctis is the best the franchise has seen since Final Fantasy Tactics. Once a player pieces it together, a bro trip to a royal wedding becomes a story with a unique twist on the destiny trope. One that successfully avoids devolving into convoluted crap like the Final Fantasy XIII games.
Delivery is an art unto itself. There are people that can spin mundane acts into spellbinding yarns, like the Don Quixote equivalent of taking out the trash, while others turn a life or death struggle into yawn inducing drivel. However, Dark Souls has inadvertently given some poorly told stories a new lease on life, by teaching players the fun of piecing them back together.
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