At the VGA awards this week the sequel to Dark Souls was announced, imaginatively called Dark Souls II. As a fan of both Dark Souls and Demon Souls I greeted this announcement with enthusiasm and excitement (I wet myself a little). However, reading about the announcement further, I became intrigued about the direction the new game is possibly heading. Specifically the new directors of the game, Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura, have suggested that the sequel will be ‘more straightforward and more understandable’. This aspect to the Dark Souls announcement is interesting to me for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve wanted to write about Dark Souls’ approach to storytelling for a while and this is a good entry into that topic. Secondly, I’ve never completed either game.
As a fan that has yet to finish either game there is a certain attraction to the Souls series taking this new direction. After all, much of the difficulty experienced in the game is due to its ambiguous nature. There is very little explicit signposting about where to go next or what to do in order to progress the story. Many an hour can be spent hunting for your next challenge and a good illustration of this is that when it first came out reviewers, playing offline without the help of other players, took to emailing each other for advice and tips. More obtuse still are the levelling and crafting systems, which can be extremely mysterious. And when they are as time consuming as they are, that mystery is not always helpful (anyone that’s wasted twinkling titanite on a particularly shitty weapon upgrade can attest to that!).
In my opinion even if gameplay mechanics like combat and punishing death stay the same, the developers decision to privilege accessibility in the sequel would be a very large step in the direction of making the game much easier to complete. To some extent this would be a good thing. It would make the series open to people previously put off by the games difficulty although the marketing teams decision to scream PREPARE TO DIE at anyone interested in Dark Souls might be part of the reason they were put off first time round… And in uncertain economic times when companies routinely struggle with new IP’s you can’t blame From for wanting to make sure that their games appeal to as wide an audience as possible (Kingdom of Amalur anyone? Hello?).
But is straightforward and understandable the way to go with Dark Souls? Unlike an easy mode, new death mechanics or any other number of ways that the game could be made easier I think making it more straightforward would have the biggest adverse impact on the quality of Dark Souls II as a game; and I say this because Dark Souls is a game that has kept me playing for over a hundred hours without completing it. There are areas that I’ve still not explored and yet I still play it, I still enjoy it and I look forward to exploring these new areas in a way I’ve never felt in gaming before. And for my money that’s because unlike many, many other games Dark Souls uses ambiguity and obtuseness to create a game in total harmony with space, narrative and the player.
Game designers don’t just tell stories. They create worlds and sculpt spaces that support a games narrative. This next bit might be unpopular or divisive so I’ll just clarify: Film is a useful and relevant form to compare with games, although I also believe that narratives in a game should be necessarily different to those found in films. Whereas films typically follow a classical narrative structure of exposition (beginning), conflict (middle) and resolution (end), the very nature of computer games can radically disrupt this formula. And the main disruption is the role of you.
Rather than watching a film, playing a game is far more interactive – players are unpredictable, they move in ways that make pacing for this classical narrative structure difficult. Take Gears of War 3 for example; a game that I believe takes this classical narrative structure and welds it onto a computer game in the worst way. It has ten minutes of beginning, six or seven hours of conflict and then three or four minutes of resolution. Which I feel is also total shit. There are some twists and turns (about his idiot father who seems to have made some terrible decisions) but that’s basically it. Imagine that set up in a film. It’d be unwatchable, like a teenagers wet dream. Or watching a Michael Bay movie. And worse of all, it ignores the beauty and brilliance of computer games as a medium.
Alternatively, Dark Souls embrace environmental storytelling with the story element infused into the physical space of Lodran. While most of the story in Gears of War is delivered through cutscenes (particularly the motivation for the main characters), in Dark Souls it is the physical space that does much of the work in conveying the games story. The mysterious world creates an ambiguous narrative that asks, no, it demands that you go and adventure and most of all explore.
You explore everything – the games mechanics, the lore, your quest, and your own motivation. Nothing is spelt out simply and that is how it should be. Imagine playing Dark Souls with an arrow on the screen guiding you to your next quest. It would be enough to break the whole game. If you knew what was happening, why feel the need to explore?
Side rooms, ledges, dialogue with NPC’s, everything is tested, prodded, pondered over for the merest hint about where to go next, what chain of events to start in order to progress, eager for the merest scrap of knowledge that can give you an edge on the challenges ahead. It is the palpable desire to explore that keeps the player coming back again and again.
The ambiguity of the game makes the world, the narrative and the game play work to an almost unprecedented degree. From Software have created a perfect gaming eco system that is given balance – not through graphics or tight game play – but through a commitment to ambiguity and mystery. If the new directors aren’t careful the sequel could be much worse for being straightforward.