Remodelling Dark Souls

Because I'm brave (read: brave on the internet, sometimes), I realised that an article solely cursing Dark Souls for a lack of a developed narrative when I've yet to see that entire narrative would feel somewhat false. And slightly cruel, as this is a retrospective, and they're so often filled with nostalgia and toothy grins. So I decided to tag-team it with a topic I'm sure will have the game’s fans foaming at the mouth.

I'd like to tell you how I would fix Dark Souls.

No, seriously. I'm tired of trying to analyse it in a way that allows me to delve into it at a deep level when playing it feels like work — despite the promise of small tidbits of story and character development hidden behind kilometres of hostile entities and environments with little reward save bragging rights. This game is broken, not because it's low in quality, or because there's something mechanically wrong with it, but because it's not really quite sure what it is. So how would I go about finding it, you ask?

Well, it boils down two my two main issues — the cinematics and the soul system. Honestly, I’d remove them both. While this seems a little extreme and almost game-breaking (read: more brand-breaking, if anything) in the case of souls, there are sound reasons behind why doing so would make Dark Souls a better experience for someone who wants the subtle narrative elements and unsettling theme of isolation to step into the spotlight. First up, the story issue.

Strip out the cinematics.

No, really, strip them out completely. You can't promise people an experience based on a strong back-story and then dump them in a narrative wasteland, with nothing to guide them towards the next snippet of exposition save the odd reasonably-placed NPC. (Although I think "reasonably placed" is a little too complimentary given From Software’s sadistic approach to twisting or removing traditional gaming conveniences).

What I'm suggesting instead is keeping the small snippets — those rare allusions to a greater series of mechanisms operating out of sight of your noble warrior, slowly revealing themselves as time goes on. Dark Souls thrives on mystery, and people celebrate this aspect of it without considering the impact that total narrative isolation would have. In fact, I wouldn't even give you a character customisation screen — I'd fire you screaming into the Undead Asylum and watch you figure it out while all sorts of violent creatures rained potential death upon you.

The reason for this no-holds-barred, minimalist version I have in my head is that Dark Souls is a game that I want to read into on a far deeper level. Take the currency of souls, for example. This isn't the first time souls have been used as a collectible item, but I've yet to see a character in a game, controllable or otherwise, ponder whose soul it is they're picking up. You go through thousands (if not millions) of them in Dark Souls, and despite the exposition awarded to knights, monsters and kings, there's never any mention of the millions that have died prior to your arrival.

Ditch the souls, and replace them with experience bars.

No, come on — put the pitchfork down and hear me out, for a minute. You're collecting souls — why? Because their experience assists your skill increases? Because they're currency? Why are you fighting to get them back again after you die? It makes no sense. Your player character knows the land, knows the enemies — one of them's just run him through with an eight-foot spear. In a world where narrative is so subtle, the world so well-crafted, it seems almost nonsensical to keep a spendable high-score.

I mean, who were they? Why, in a world where ghosts are a viable concept, do they not interact with you? It's an odd contradiction, and one that leads me to believe that fantasy-genre foes such as the malevolent spirits you're likely to encounter during your travels are thrown in simply to be ghosts. What defines them? Are they souls that have rebelled against the system, refusing to be collected and, as a result, are hostile towards you, the collector-in-chief?

The NPCs From Software have designed for both this game and its predecessor Demon's Souls are no different in their mysterious identities. You're never quite sure whom to trust, but let me tell you this: If it were me, I'd not be throwing my lot in with a bloke who sold me a mace for the souls of a thousand dead. So who do you see as the hero, in this piece? The NPCs who trade items for souls, or you, the one who consumes them like marshmallows at a bonfire in order to bolster your own abilities?

Dark Souls is bleak, man. There's no real victory, save the occasional, fleeting mechanical dodge-block-smite that you pull off with enough practice. What I'm suggesting is a little idea, but one I think would fundamentally change the way you read the game, if you're a narrative-obsessed pedant with a desire to choke every ounce of meaning out of the most barren of built worlds [In which case you’re certainly not alone around here. – Ed.].

I have no issues with the concept of souls as a resource, but in a world where you are one individual struggling against the sheer might of the many evil forces arrayed against you, why are they not coming to your aid? Who are you, exactly, that you simply reap the spirits of the dead in order to fuel your engine of violence and death as you drive it slowly towards those ultimately responsible for desecrating this vast land?

Within the genre itself, and the mechanics of the game, the souls system works, but to frame Dark Souls with an intriguing narrative and then devolve your saving of the world into a collect-'em-up does a great disservice to the potential of a tale worth telling. I'm just not entirely sure From Software realised how effective their game world could command exposition and motivation when they penned a melodramatic fantasy explosion to kick it off with.

I suppose this is the crux of my problem with Dark Souls: It doesn't really seem to know what game it is. Is it an elite arcade hack-and-slash RPG, or one of the most brilliantly crafted and subtly delivered tales in gaming history? I've no idea, but then again, I'm also busy preparing myself for the onslaught of angry denial. Are you as confused as I am?

Comments

Hollowheel wrote:

To say that Dark Souls is a broken game is a grossly subjective overstatement, and the solutions the author poses would create an inferior game.

Or, at least, a very different game.

It's like reading Conan and complaining that it's not enough like Lord of the Rings. Both are are examples of fantasy lit, but they are vastly different.

Dark Souls exists to be the thing it is, without compromise (unlike, say, ME3, which seems to want to be everything to everyone). If things changed, it would be something else. And there are other not-Dark Souls things to play and like.

Hollowheel wrote:

This article sounds more Bitmob than Gamers with Jobs. It is well written, to be sure, but it is full of mushy ideas.

To say that Dark Souls is a broken game is a grossly subjective overstatement, and the solutions the author poses would create an inferior game.

I apologise for presenting you with ideas you view as mushy - realistically I only suggested two changes that wouldn't really detract from the overall feel of the playable game. I'm curious as to why no cutscenes and a switch in "experience points" as it were would create an inferior game, but each to their own, of course.

CY, few seem opposed to stripping out cutscenes, except maybe the prologue, which is awesome, but you'll ruin the game by tacking in any conventional experience-points system. Advancement in Dark Souls is more about getting better at it, yourself, and risking/deciding when/if to upgrade your character's stats. "You've reached level ##, and now can choose to learn the xxxxxx spell/ability" is NOT what the fun is about. Would you be satisfied if they just renamed the souls to something else?

Keithustus wrote:

CY, few seem opposed to stripping out cutscenes, except maybe the prologue, which is awesome, but you'll ruin the game by tacking in any conventional experience-points system. Advancement in Dark Souls is more about getting better at it, yourself, and risking/deciding when/if to upgrade your character's stats. "You've reached level ##, and now can choose to learn the xxxxxx spell/ability" is NOT what the fun is about. Would you be satisfied if they just renamed the souls to something else?

If I could re-pitch, I'd probably just deal with the ghosts, instead of the souls, as that's probably the easier one to tackle without having to redesign most of the game - some exposition in dialogue etc about "rebellious souls" would work. I understand there's an emergent narrative, but I just find the immediate adaption of an undead dropped off by a giant crow to walk around collecting the souls of the dead be a little too lacking in realism, for me.

Keithustus wrote:

Would you be satisfied if they just renamed the souls to something else?

The heading he used is misleading, but I think that's what he was actually driving at: the name is the problem, not the mechanic.

This article sounds more Bitmob than Gamers with Jobs. It is well written, to be sure, but it is full of mushy ideas.

To say that Dark Souls is a broken game is a grossly subjective overstatement, and the solutions the author poses would create an inferior game.

CY wrote:
Keithustus wrote:

CY, few seem opposed to stripping out cutscenes, except maybe the prologue, which is awesome, but you'll ruin the game by tacking in any conventional experience-points system. Advancement in Dark Souls is more about getting better at it, yourself, and risking/deciding when/if to upgrade your character's stats. "You've reached level ##, and now can choose to learn the xxxxxx spell/ability" is NOT what the fun is about. Would you be satisfied if they just renamed the souls to something else?

If I could re-pitch, I'd probably just deal with the ghosts, instead of the souls, as that's probably the easier one to tackle without having to redesign most of the game - some exposition in dialogue etc about "rebellious souls" would work. I understand there's an emergent narrative, but I just find the immediate adaption of an undead dropped off by a giant crow to walk around collecting the souls of the dead be a little too lacking in realism, for me.

Problem is the Souls games aren't structured around realism. The narrative feels more like a mish-mash of tone poem and allegory. To use a noir parallel, the Souls games are more Lost Highway/Mulholland Drive than the Big Sleep/Maltese Falcon.

It's kind of the point.

Often times, things are better when they're ambiguous. We don't need to know why.

A "tone poem," as Hallowheel said, is a good description of Dark Soul's approach. It is something that is supposed to be experienced on a certain metaphysical level.

Although I can't fathom why anyone would turn to a fantasy-based video game for any amount of realism. Sounds like the game is simply not what you want it to be. Which is totally fine, as there are other not-Dark Souls things out there.

D_Davis wrote:

Although I can't fathom why anyone would turn to a fantasy-based video game for any amount of realism. Sounds like the game is simply not what you want it to be. Which is totally fine, as there are other not-Dark Souls things out there.

Exactly. But there aren't many "Dark Souls things" out there. Only two, in fact.

D_Davis wrote:

Although I can't fathom why anyone would turn to a fantasy-based video game for any amount of realism.

He surely means realism in the sense of that the fictional world should be both self and logically consistent. As opposed to realism in the sense that it is like literal reality.

Because if your world has logical inconsistencies, it doesn't follow it's own rules about its reality, then suspension of disbelief is hard.

DanB wrote:
D_Davis wrote:

Although I can't fathom why anyone would turn to a fantasy-based video game for any amount of realism.

He surely means realism in the sense of that the fictional world should be both self and logically consistent. As opposed to realism in the sense that it is like literal reality.

OK, but how is Dark Souls' world not that?

I guess I'm having a hard time coming to terms with the point of the article. I mean, there are many things I dislike about, say, Bioware games. But those things are the things that make them Bioware games. The reason why I like other, not-Bioware games is because they don't have those qualities.

And I have absolutely no problem with someone not liking the Souls games - that makes perfect sense. It actually makes less sense that I like them so much!

I simply don't understand the arguments presented in the original article, beyond them being semantic quibbles and the author looking for something else.

D_Davis wrote:
DanB wrote:
D_Davis wrote:

Although I can't fathom why anyone would turn to a fantasy-based video game for any amount of realism.

He surely means realism in the sense of that the fictional world should be both self and logically consistent. As opposed to realism in the sense that it is like literal reality.

OK, but how is Dark Souls' world not that?

Well isn't this point that picking up (thousands of) things named souls yet also having things like ghosts seems like an inconsistency.

DanB wrote:
D_Davis wrote:
DanB wrote:
D_Davis wrote:

Although I can't fathom why anyone would turn to a fantasy-based video game for any amount of realism.

He surely means realism in the sense of that the fictional world should be both self and logically consistent. As opposed to realism in the sense that it is like literal reality.

OK, but how is Dark Souls' world not that?

Well isn't this point that picking up (thousands of) things named souls yet also having things like ghosts seems like an inconsistency.

No. Obviously in the game's lore, ghosts and souls are two different things. Problem solved. I also don't get the notion that the souls in the game are meant to be exact analogs for what we think of when we think of a "soul." I mean, what the hell is a soul, anyhow? By what definition are we even defining the word? The Christian one? A Buddhist one? Is it something more general or specific? Or is it something completely unique to the world of the game?

Why are we looking for realism and/or consistency in a world that contains 50 foot snake things that eat you and then spit you out after warping to another dimension? Or bug-eyed frogs that breathe curse gas. How do you even make cursing gas anyway? Where do those frog things find their dinner? These are all burning logical questions that I don't care about.

Personally I think one of the immense strengths of Dark Souls is that it is almost completely self consistent.

Narratives will always be difficult to pull off in a video game unless the designers put it front and center and make storytelling the main focus, which, in turn limits the amount of freedom you have as a player. It usually means a lot of quick time events.

I have been playing video games for decades and I can't think of any memorable stories. I know there are "story moments" that a lot of gamers remember vividly, like Samus taking her helmet off or the death of Aeris, but all of my favorite stories are either movies or books. I remember those scenes as well, but for the life of me I cannot remember the larger story that those scenes took place within. Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, however, is burned on my brain forever.

heavyfeul wrote:

I have been playing video games for decades and I can't think of any memorable stories. I know there are "story moments" that a lot of gamers remember vividly, like Samus taking her helmet off or the death of Aeris, but all of my favorite stories are either movies or books. I remember those scenes as well, but for the life of me I cannot remember the larger story that those scenes took place within. Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, however, is burned on my brain forever.

Same here. I think games are great at presenting scenarios and moments, but they fundamentally become broken and un-game-like when they focus on narrative.

When I want a story, I turn to a book. When I want to play a game I play a game.

Even the most memorable and best story I've ever encountered in a video game is worse than the most mediocre novel I've ever read.

However, folks like you and I are definitely in the minority these days. I have a feeling that as games progress (or regress IMO) into being more like inter-active movies, I will stop playing most new games altogether. I don't want a "cinematic" experience.

Give me a goddamn video game. This is my shmups are my favorite genre. And probably why I love Dark Souls so much. In many ways, it's very, very similar to a shmup, in that it's all about improving your skills and memorizing level layouts. It's a video game and totally gamey to its very core.

I have been playing Dark Souls with an understanding that souls, the souls used as currency & experience, are basically "undead-life energy". Any attempt to use a more conventional definition like "the perpetual essence of one's being" just makes the game unfathomable, so the many recent posts here are actually making me less comfortable with what everyone does or doesn't want them to be, or how to interpret the game because of them.

I think it can be done. I am very optimistic about the future. Video games are an artistic endeveavor, but with a lot of technical restrictions. Computer are machines that only do exactly what you tell them to do and they will only do it if asked to do it via a logical Boolean argument.

Artificial intelligence, if it ever comes to fruition, could be the means by which story and gameplay can actually compliment each other as oppossed to being constantly at odds.

I want games to develop their own narrative language, and escape from under the umbrella of cinema and literature.

I find it so odd that so many game developers seem to be struggling filmmakers or authors. I also find it odd that so many people are constantly comparing game to films and books.

Let's let games be their own thing.

I want to celebrate games for being games, and hope that they can escape the narrative shackles of the constant comparison to cinema and literature.

DanB wrote:
D_Davis wrote:

Although I can't fathom why anyone would turn to a fantasy-based video game for any amount of realism.

He surely means realism in the sense of that the fictional world should be both self and logically consistent. As opposed to realism in the sense that it is like literal reality.

Because if your world has logical inconsistencies, it doesn't follow it's own rules about its reality, then suspension of disbelief is hard.

This. I think you're confusing "realism" and "reality", here - logical consistency is important to me in games, films, and books, because it's more about something making sense. I turn to a fantasy game because I love the escapist nature of a world full of magic and dragons, but if it lacks realism it just feels a little frustrating.

Garden Ninja wrote:
Keithustus wrote:

Would you be satisfied if they just renamed the souls to something else?

The heading he used is misleading, but I think that's what he was actually driving at: the name is the problem, not the mechanic.

Maybe it was because I, as editor, made sure to read the article unreasonably slowly and carefully (and multiple times), but it strikes me that this thread has a lot of defending Dark Souls from attacks that didn't happen.

D_Davis wrote:

I want games to develop their own narrative language, and escape from under the umbrella of cinema and literature...

...I want to celebrate games for being games, and hope that they can escape the narrative shackles of the constant comparison to cinema and literature.

I agree, but I think we are getting to a point where movies are also borrowing concepts from video games. The problem is how do you craft a tight story that forces an emotional response to a game's story without hamstringing the gameplay?

Mass Effect 2 was a very good marriage of story and gameplay, but it still had several flaws in both. When I lost Jack during the Suicide Mission I felt bad, but it did not compare to the scene in I Am Legend (book btw; the movie sucked) when the dog died; I cried like a baby.

notomtolose wrote:

I'm definitely a huge nerdy fan of these games. I got my 1000 points in Dark Souls, and I'd have a platinum in Demon's as well if it didn't mean probably a full day of grinding for Pure Bladestone... grumble grumble...

If you're still around, you should check our Catch-All for the game. I believe someone has the bladestone weapons to trade around to help you finish that off if you want.

Never mind.

Not worth arguing about.

heavyfeul wrote:

I agree, but I think we are getting to a point where movies are also borrowing concepts from video games. The problem is how do you craft a tight story that forces an emotional response to a game's story without hamstringing the gameplay?

What do you mean by an emotional response? I'm a constant reader (~60 books a year), and I used to be a film critic. However, I can promise you that I've never had an emotional response from a film or book that rivals the way Dark Souls made me feel, or the way a 1 credit run of Ikaruga makes me feel. That kind of emotion is far more primal.

Games offer a different kind of emotional response, one that is bolstered by the gameplay.

I will never, ever forget that cold, wet, and gloomy Saturday I spent going from the Capra Demon to the bottom of Blighttown to ring the second bell. The immersive nature of those moments had more of an emotional impact on me than any film or book I've ever read. I've never felt such despair as I did when I thought about how far from the sun's light I was, but then I looked up, and never felt as elated as I did when I realized I could still see the sky. I thought back about how far I had traveled, what I had been through, and then it hit me - pure fear, because even after it was all done, I still had to make my way back up!

The first time I did that, it took me about 8 hours of non-stop gaming, and those 8 hours were far more emotional and powerful than any 8 hours of reading or movie watching.

That's how you tell a story in a video game. That story is my story. It's not a story told, it is a story lived.

"Fiero."

wordsmythe wrote:
Garden Ninja wrote:
Keithustus wrote:

Would you be satisfied if they just renamed the souls to something else?

The heading he used is misleading, but I think that's what he was actually driving at: the name is the problem, not the mechanic.

Maybe it was because I, as editor, made sure to read the article unreasonably slowly and carefully (and multiple times), but it strikes me that this thread has a lot of defending Dark Souls from attacks that didn't happen.

I don't think the problem lies with GWJ-member reading comprehension.