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

My answer: yes.

Garden Ninja wrote:
I apologize if it came off glib. That wasn't my intention. I was honestly trying to put a name (even a bad imperfect one) to the set of assumptions I was talking about, and explain the ambiguity. And yes, I think this is mostly a civil discussion, but some of the posts (in general, not yours specifically) seemed to indicate that CY was an idiot for bringing it up. I hope I was reading them wrong.

No offense taken and no apology necessary. "What words mean" conversations are tricky, particularly when they're asynchronous and there's not an obvious tone of voice. It's harder to say, "Okay, here's this idea - does this make sense? If not, I can go into further detail, but I'd prefer to keep this moving" like you might in a regular conversation (though have fun transcribing/editing that!).

The point I was getting at, is that the terms are already defined in a players head. The license to redefine you mention happens subconsciously. Unless you make up terms and explain what you mean by them, there is no way to avoid that.

Personally, my reaction to this apparent mismatch between terms and functions (if I even noticed it) would probably be to wonder what tradition they are drawing from, or if there is a translation issue at play. CY's is to point out the mismatch and say "Hey, what gives? Maybe there is a better name for this thing?" I don't think either approach is invalid.

Agreed. I'd have quit contributing my hot air to the thread a while ago if I didn't think that both were valid. The differences in process and the subsequent difference in experience is fascinating.

CY wrote:
...I can only hope that the pieces I'm working on right now inspire as much conversation, but without my slinging controversial design change ideas into the mix.

That's cool for the pieces you're working on now, but as for controversy, I say, "Nah, go nuts!" Your brand of controversy doesn't seem to be of the "ho ho, surely *this* will offend someone!" school. As long as you're making some sort of case, and as long as you're getting an egaged reaction, it's worth it.

Now, make that your gimmick? Yeah, you'll get called out for it. But please don't dodge it if it comes to mind and you think it'll be worthwhile. I started following GWJ because I don't see as much interesting conversation on games and game-related subjects elsewhere. I'm very happy to see that there's no sign of that stopping anytime soon.

The point about translation is seriously good, and I think it's something worth exploring - in fact, something worthy of an article of its own. I'd be interested to find out what those words meant, pre-translation, although I have a feeling that "soul" is the same, as evidenced by the way they're presented (and the branding of the games themselves).

Seconded. Maybe some help can be enlisted from the multiple wikis the Souls games have spawned?

The thing with Dark Souls is it's just so ridiculously deep. I could analyse that goddamn game for years. In fact, I think it's going to pop up in my podcast tomorrow night, as I can think of few examples of narrative so cleverly told.

There are some *extremely* interesting videos about the mythology of the game world put together by YouTube user Quelaag at http://www.youtube.com/user/Quelaag#... If you haven't investigated these yet, I'd advise you to do so. It's not only added a lot to my gaming experience, but raised enough deeper questions to the point where I've found myself having dreams about playing the game and stumbling upon answers. No joke! This game is that engaging to me.

I do wonder, though - am I seeing a story because I want to see one, or is this (please don't kill me) a blank-slate action-RPG with some dialogue and characters chucked in that just happens to appear to the pedantic multitudes as something infinitely deeper?

I don't think that it is, but I think it's perfectly valid to play it that way. More importantly, you *can* play it that way and get away with it without much trouble at all (except you'd probably find the ending baffling or infuriating, although if you don't like story stuff anyway, there's a chance you might not care. Having the option to ignore a story in a way that doesn't require skipping a bunch of cutscenes or dialog and yet the story's still there if you choose to look for it, and it's pretty involved and not a throw-away framing device? That's interesting. That's cool. More, please.

Also CY: what's your podcast's URL? Just generally curious. I promise not to deluge the comments with my prattling.

CY wrote:

I do wonder, though - am I seeing a story because I want to see one, or is this (please don't kill me) a blank-slate action-RPG with some dialogue and characters chucked in that just happens to appear to the pedantic multitudes as something infinitely deeper?

I would counter by asking this: does it matter one way or the other?

In other words, if you're seeing it, it's there.

I think the Souls conceit is, essentially, the whole story. It's like Pokemon that way. There may be some plot points about Team Rocket and whatever, but the story is really just about you being a kid who plays a game and wins a tournament.

Souls tells you: you're in hell, other people are there too, killing the monsters is super hard, and lots of people get stuck or give up. To me, that's the story and everything else is very, very secondary.

CY, there was nothing unacceptably wrong with your argument, or the content of your article. What did make Dark Souls lovers like me rage at was the subheading to ditch the souls for experience bars. Now, granted, a careful reading of the content of that section is reasonable and is pretty thoughtful and makes me look at the game in a different way. So please keep writing. There was a very interesting discussion because of how you conflated the potentially related terms "souls" and "ghosts" and how that could suggest potential holes in the game's internal logic. I'm really interested in knowing more about the translation now because of that.

What I would caution is to ask yourself: "Could the title, any subheadings, or any strongly worded statements be easily taken so out of context by folks already engrained in a certain game or genre? Is the heading making me appear to make a claim I do not advocate?" I'm sure there would not have been any anger thrown your way had that section been titled something like "Souls: experience or obstacles to kill?"

ianunderhill wrote:
Also CY: what's your podcast's URL? Just generally curious. I promise not to deluge the comments with my prattling.

It is here, my friend. You can also find us on iTunes, as "CY & J."

HockeyJohnston wrote:
I think the Souls conceit is, essentially, the whole story. It's like Pokemon that way. There may be some plot points about Team Rocket and whatever, but the story is really just about you being a kid who plays a game and wins a tournament.

Souls tells you: you're in hell, other people are there too, killing the monsters is super hard, and lots of people get stuck or give up. To me, that's the story and everything else is very, very secondary.

That's an excellent point, and definitely one I reluctantly have to agree with, as part of me wonders whether the subtle narrative within the playable section of Demon's and Dark Souls is actually an intentional feature, or a lucky accident.

CY wrote:
HockeyJohnston wrote:
I think the Souls conceit is, essentially, the whole story. It's like Pokemon that way. There may be some plot points about Team Rocket and whatever, but the story is really just about you being a kid who plays a game and wins a tournament.

Souls tells you: you're in hell, other people are there too, killing the monsters is super hard, and lots of people get stuck or give up. To me, that's the story and everything else is very, very secondary.

That's an excellent point, and definitely one I reluctantly have to agree with, as part of me wonders whether the subtle narrative within the playable section of Demon's and Dark Souls is actually an intentional feature, or a lucky accident.

How relevant is that, though? Are you intending to talk about some mythic intended version of the game, or about the game that you played and loved?

wordsmythe wrote:

How relevant is that, though? Are you intending to talk about some mythic intended version of the game, or about the game that you played and loved?

Indeed. There's a loose narrative that can be interpreted or ignored. Gain, you don't have liscence to go, "Ah-ha! I suggest that this is the story of an ancestor of Tyrone Slothrop, and Humanity is the antecedant of the Schwarzgerrat!*", but it's pretty much either a) you make sense of the presented fragments of narrative on your own terms or b) you ignore it. There's really not a whole lot in between. I'd even go as far as to argue that those folks willing to butt heads over the narrative's mythology ("Solaire was/was not blankety-blank relevant to Gwyn!") are still dealing in their own experience of the game. We even go further and talk about broader collective interpretations of those things, but until we get people who actually worked on the game to come forth and tell us about elements X, Y, and Z, we're speculating as to how it was constructed, and that's nowhere near as interesting as what we've taken from the experience of the game.

EDIT: * I guess you can, but this is the sort of thing that is bound to earn you a punch in the mouth sooner or later.

Why can't we all just get along?

What part of genial conversation isn't "getting along"? People can have different points of view from one another. When people do that without shooting at each other or saying what their deity will do to others not walking some particular ideological line, it's pretty groovy.