In the Age of Ancients the world was unformed, shrouded by fog. A land of gray crags, Archtrees and Everlasting Dragons. But then, there was Fire and with fire came disparity. So begins the intro cinematic of Dark Souls, a game renowned for its ruthless, difficult but highly rewarding combat revolving around player skill instead of arbitrary stats. While the game is much more well known for its technical finesse, any player who starts to get addicted to the game realizes that the lore hidden throughout the game is just as nuanced as the combat system. Indeed, the world that the developers built is so heavily infused with its own mythology and life that the utter lack of actual, in your face storytelling is at first odd. In fact, the only time there is a real ‘story segment’ is the intro cinematic, and even that isn’t much more than setting up the atmosphere.
It’s interesting because in the JRPG genre, players have come to expect long, exposition laden cut scenes and a heavily narrative driven world. Typically, you are the chosen hero of the world and everything revolves around you completing your quest to save the world. To accomplish such, there will be hoards and hoards of supporting characters that explain every detail of the world and story to you with one press of a button. You expect quest trackers, long scrolls with details on the quests and, ultimately, a boat load of unnecessary reading that leaves nothing to the imagination.
In Dark Souls, exactly none of that happens. Every single cut scene, dialogue, block of expository text is completely skippable and, aside from a clue about a Macguffin at the very beginning, none of it is necessary. A player who decides to ignore every piece of dialogue can beat the game just as well as someone who chooses to talk to everyone and read everything and enjoy it just as much. A player who decides to go out of their way to learn everything about the world and history of the game will be able to do that without hindering his progress. The truly remarkable aspect of Dark Souls is that absolutely nothing is given to the players for free. Everything is earned in this game. Whether you’re progressing through the game and learning combat, or talking to everyone and coming to understand the world, the onus is on the player. Once past the tutorial, the game will let go of the reins and let the player take the lead.
As we were discussing last week, while building a vibrant world full of mythology and lore and people and places is great, it’s no use if the player doesn’t care about it. Often, the easiest way to make the player lose interest is to force the narrative and background down their throats. As soon as the player loses that sense of curiosity, you’ve built your world for naught. This is an especially harder task with video games where, often times, the game is approached from a puzzle-solving mindset rather than a storytelling mindset. In the case of most JRPGs, as the world and characters involved grow larger, it ends up being that the players remember less and less of the various Macguffins, and hone in on those key events. Aeris dies, Sora sacrifices his heart, Crono dies, SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE! Ultimately, while those key moments are highlighted, the rest of the game fades away. Players will follow along, hitting those key moments, but they don’t care to look further, to learn about the innkeeper and the shop owner because everything they need is given to them.
As well as this may have worked for certain franchises, it’s the world building and storytelling equivalent to the gigantic tutorial screen with the button layout coming up every time you run into a monster. Press A to punch. Press B to block. There’s no sense of learning, no satisfaction of curiosity. It’s important because the itch of curiosity is one of the strongest driving forces behind player interaction. That sense of satisfaction when you’ve figured something out is addicting and often the best games are the ones that introduce it in the first place.
How does Dark Souls do it? Simple. All the lore is in the item text. The entire story is in the item text, and none of it is straightforward. Each item will have a couple lines of fluff text and a couple lines of informative text and by reading the descriptions of every item, the player can begin to piece together the vast world. NPCs throughout will have both useful information, as well as just talk about themselves and their view of the world. In fact, the developers went so far as to add an item that does absolutely nothing just to throw players off, and yet, there is still rampant speculation on its role in the lore. What Dark Souls does is trust in the player to learn about the world themselves. If the player is interested, everything is available for him to piece together and make sense of. Otherwise, it doesn’t affect how the game is played. By giving the player freedom, the developers have ensured that those who care will be ensnared by that itch.