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?