Published on February 6th, 2013 | by Christian0
Dark Souls – Emergent Narratives
Story has become an increasingly important element of video games, especially in recent generations. Many early games didn’t even have stories, I mean, can anyone tell me what Balloon Fight or Bubble Bobble are about? Today, if a game’s story is bad enough, there might just be legions of disgruntled fans screaming so loudly on the internet that whole endings get retconned via patch. If it’s good enough, a game might saunter its way onto the year’s best-of lists on the strength of narrative alone. Today, I want to spend some time talking about how story doesn’t matter, or rather, how a game can create a multitude of stories without having much of its own.
I’ve played Dark Souls for roughly 50 hours. If you were to ask me right now what the narrative of Dark Souls is, I would tell you two things. The first, is that I haven’t got the slightest idea of what it’s about. There’s a really pretty info-dump cinematic at the start of the game, and then your character wakes up in the Undead Asylum and his or her quest begins. In the first 10-15 hours of the game, you might not speak to more than two characters who advance the plot at all, and even once you do you’re lucky if you have the faintest clue what the hell they’re talking about. Nearly every line of dialog in the game is delivered with a kind of exhausted hopelessness that makes it seem like the characters know they’re wasting their breath. It’s actually kind of charming, in its way, and it goes hand in hand with the game’s design. The second thing I’ll tell you about the story in Dark Souls, is that it is one of the best game stories of all time. Let me explain.
Dark Souls is more a role playing game than most that count themselves among the genre. In most RPGs, you follow a well-defined character on his journey to fulfill his destiny, usually along the lines of the archetypal Hero’s Journey. You’re not so much role playing as you are watching a role get played. In Dark Souls, the character is you. The game’s silent protagonist is never characterized in any way, and is as far as you can tell just as confused as you are about what’s going on. You’re thrust into an uncaring world that is intentionally designed to frustrate, trick, and wear you down. There’s no hero’s journey, no chance to be reluctant about your call to greatness, and no learned sage to show you the path to enlightenment. You’re on your own.
Silent protagonists have been used in games before (e.g. Half-Life; Dead Space), and generally the effect is that the “character” becomes your personal avatar in the game, rather than just some stranger whose exploits you’re watching on-screen. This isn’t a new idea, obviously, but there’s a key difference. In Dark Souls, your actions have consequences! If you die you lose all of your progress since the last time you rested. Enemies re-spawn, and any unspent souls (the game’s currency and experience points) are gone. The only way to recover them is to make it back to the spot where you died without dying again. It often plays out tragically. There’s a stone at the bottom of the hill, and all you can do is push the stone up the hill until it becomes too steep for you, you lose your grip, and the stone rolls back down the hill. Most of the time it crushes you on the way. Oh, and by the way, the hill is completely fucked! Everywhere there are roots to trip on, mud to slip in, and rocks threatening to twist your ankles. Eventually, you’ll get to the top of the hill, rejoice briefly, and then you’ll notice you haven’t crested so much as you’ve just hit a flat patch before the hill goes on.
Two things happen now. The first, is that fear of dying makes Dark Souls the most effective horror game you’ve ever played. The second, is that this fear primes your flashbulb memory, which is a kind of memory you use when remembering something in the context of a dramatic or shocking event. When something is trivial, it’s rarely dramatic, so it’s unlikely that it’ll get burned into your long-term memory. So, constantly you’re playing this game as though something terrible will happen to you at any moment, and rest assured it will. Unlike a regular horror game where you’re surprised, die, reload your save, and succeed now that the surprise is gone, when you die in Dark Souls it matters because there are consequences! Your hard work is potentially gone, rendered meaningless by the game’s well-documented unrelenting difficulty. There are no saves to reload, no way to undo your mistake except to hopefully make it back to where you died without failing again. The first trip was bad enough, but the second one will have you on the edge of your seat now that the stakes are raised. The end result is that many of your deaths matter, they are of consequence, and you remember them because they’ve been burned into your mind in a flash.
I didn’t realize it at first, but over the course of my 50 hours with this game I was actively participating in a story with consequences, that was meaningful to me even if I didn’t know what it was about. It’s the story of my avatar, Rex, who long ago woke up in the Undead Asylum, and now I’ve got a myriad of memories from that time stuck in my head. Those memories are ‘the story’ of Dark Souls, more than whatever the game’s opening cinematic lead me to believe. It’s a story that resonates with me because it’s my story, and as far as I know, nobody playing the game is seeing things exactly the way I am. It wasn’t told to me through cut-scenes or character dialog. It just came out of the gameplay, born of the game’s design. It is, because of all these things, also one of the best stories a game has ever had.