I love Souls games. Admittedly, I got on the train a little late: I’ve never played Demon’s Souls and I have Dark Souls II and III queued up, ready to go. When Dark Souls was released for PC, I gave it a try, finding it horribly unwieldy with PC controls, and giving up after being killed by skeletons at the first bonfire five or six times, but once I used a controller, things got better. I also absolutely adore Bloodborne.
When my best friend first recommended the Souls games to me, he touted the games’ stories as being unparalleled, told in a way unique to the franchise. I sat down to play Dark Souls, and I found myself playing a challenging, rewarding game, set in a series of stunning locales, with great enemy design, and an attention to detail that I absolutely adored. What I did not play was a game with an unparalleled story.
We’ve all seen this screen before
Before prompting a pitchfork-wielding internet mob (including James) to demand blood, I should explain myself. Dark Souls gives you an opening cutscene that’s a couple of minutes long, which tees up the game beautifully. However, from what my friend had told me, I was expecting every aspect of the game to be richly saturated with story, like cutscenes and dialogue. In reality, the game’s story is told in fragments. It’s told in a handful of admittedly compelling conversations with NPCs. It’s told in fights with bosses which force you to adapt and overcome. It’s told in scribblings dotted around Lordran, and in striking flavour text for items you pick up.
It is not broken up with cinematic cutscenes or a permeating consistent narrative, like The Last of Us or the Uncharted games. After a few hours, I understood what my friend had meant; The story was told in a unique way. It places you in a world you barely comprehend, with a detailed and intricate lore you must discover. If you are not skilled, patient, or even ready enough to advance through the game, you will not discover it.
Most of Bloodborne’s story is given to you in this format
The majority of responses to this train of thought boil down to one; in providing a series of unconnected bursts of lore and flavour, FromSoftware want you to craft your own experience of Dark Souls, and your own experience of its story. The same stands true for Bloodborne; all you’re told is that you need to end the nightmare. I don’t know what I know about the Hunters of the Healing Church or the Scholars of the College of Byrgenwerth because I have pried about them with an NPC, as I would in Mass Effect or Fallout for factions. I know what I know because I have cobbled together the comparatively minimal amount of information about them and made my own conclusions. I’ve explored the Healing Church Workshop and the Upper Cathedral Ward. I’ve journeyed through the Forbidden Woods to Byrgenwerth to find the secrets of Master Willem and his pupils that lie in wait there.
So here is my first point: Souls games do not excel in the art of rich storytelling. They invert that concept in a very clever manner to make the player excel in the art of discovering the game’s story. Tied inherently to this art of discovery is the series’ signature challenging combat. Just as you get closer to another area you can explore for the nuggets of information that lie within, a Father Gascoigne, or a Capra Demon, or if you’re particularly unlucky, an Orphan of Kos, drops in on you, to remind you that you must work to earn your discoveries.
These franchise ‘favourites’ are one of many obstacles standing in the way of comprehending Dark Souls’ story
This practice of discovery is not limited to the games themselves. Once completing the games and speculating, a number of people take to the internet to provide their take on the stories, and some of them are fairly astounding. Reddit user dmcredgrave has drafted up a document entitled The Paleblood Hunt, a staggering 108 pages which sheds light on just about every aspect of Bloodborne and how it’s all interconnected (well worth a read for those who have completed the game). This secondary process of discovery makes being a fan of the series incredibly satisfying for enthusiasts who seek to learn and think more on the games, and truly rounds off the Souls fanbase as one-of-a-kind.
However, this astounding fandom for some becomes a problem for others. The story, through these numerous processes of discovery, becomes inaccessible for a general audience or casual gamers, though FromSoftware, and Souls players, don’t really seem to mind that. Not everybody has time to scour the internet for theories and links and arduously slave over boxes of flavour text, but the argument is that if you don’t feel compelled enough to do so, then perhaps you’re not truly meant for the game. Forcing your players to dig deep might be good storytelling for some, but it’s certainly not the traditional manner of doing it.
We don’t all have the time to speculate and research the meaning of ‘eyes on the inside’
For all the rich environments grounded in their bleak worlds, and the fragments of seemingly untethered story dotted around by a developer that wants you to work hard for some understanding, a general audience could argue that FromSoftware should make the story bolder and tied together more explicitly. However, here we encounter the catch-22.
Due to the bleak, detailed environment and the nature of the gameplay, with a narrative already-rich brought to the surface, two things would happen. First, it would become a game which wouldn’t warrant its own difficulty. The process of discovery and the concept of individual player experience is so heavily tied to the Souls games that in removing them it would become a challenge and a story: two separated elements. As it is, it remains intertwined.
A different kind of discovery
Secondly, without the nuance and the subtleties of the Souls games, the stories would not be as good as they are. Think about it; if you’re unloaded upon with all the narrative FromSoftware has to offer from the word go, the story is going to feel threadbare and simple. It’s classic orchestration of writing adage ‘show, don’t tell’. FromSoftware are showing us the story in individual chunks and forcing us to make the links. To tell us would be to devalue it in its entirety.
The way everything folds together in a Souls game is satisfying, but it is not traditionally good storytelling. That’s not a bad thing. What FromSoftware does, they do with a degree of mastery that I haven’t seen paralleled in game development in a very, very long time.