Dark Souls and Anti-Cinematic Storytelling

It seems to me that every AAA title these days, especially ones made in the West, requires cinematic storytelling. The Uncharted series is the perfect example. Nathan Drake’s journey into the unknown is a straight shot from point A to point B, with very little side exploration required or even possible. Cutscenes come frequently to move the plot along. Even when cutscenes aren’t happening, Drake chatters to his compadres and himself, as if afraid of a moment’s silence. Cinematic games are designed to feel like movies, so constant sensory stimulation and dialog is required, as well as a plot that storms forwards without many distractions.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing. Cinematic games often have wonderful gameplay (like Uncharted), and the stories are often charming and exciting (like Uncharted). The problem for me is that I grew up in the 16-bit era. Back then, it was rare for a platforming or action game to have much of a story, at least in terms of cutscenes or dialog. Games that did have stories were text-heavy RPGs, which felt more like novels than movies. Modern games attempt to blur the line between games and movies, but something about that makes me feel vaguely unsettled, like a taboo is being violated. That’s totally a “me” problem. It’s my nostalgia bleeding through and coloring my perceptions. But because of that, I’ve always had a special fondness for games that eschew cinematic storytelling in favor of aesthetic storytelling.

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Dark Souls, released in 2011, is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. You could play through the whole game and completely miss most of the story. There are very few cutscenes, and most of them are boss intros that use in-game graphics. Only the first two cutscenes feature voice over narration; the others are silent. The game also features very few NPCs to speak to, and many of them you could walk right past if you weren’t going out of your way to explore. Only two NPCs require you to interact with them to finish the game, and it’s from those two alone that most players will learn about the plot of the game.

The bulk of the storytelling in the game is optional. If you go out of your way to track down and speak to every NPC, they offer some insight into their circumstances, but only rarely do they talk about the history of Lordran or the plot of the game. It’s through reading the flavor text of items and equipment that you get the most insight into the world and its inhabitants. You have to spend a lot of time tracking down rare items just to read a few lines of text that raise more questions than they answer. The story is an elusive phantom, and you have to work hard to recover the tiniest fragments.

Because all of this text and dialog is tucked away where players might not even discover it, the primary way the game conveys information is through aesthetics. The world itself is a storybook, and you learn by observing. Just about anyplace you can see, you can visit. Early in the game, you see a church high above the city. When you climb to the belltower of the church, you can see a wall atop a ridge even higher above, and in the far distance, a tower built on the highest pinnacle you can see. Your travels eventually take you above the wall to that tower, mostly by walking there the old fashioned way. The designers planned this layout meticulously to give players a sense of how the world fits together.

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Observance also gives the player an idea of the history of the places you visit. The New Londo Ruins is a great example. From talking to NPCs and reading items, we know a few thing about New Londo: it was a city, it was governed by four wise kings, the deity Lord Gwyn gave them a fragment of his Lord Soul, the kings were eventually seduced by darkness, and the city was flooded to seal them away. We have to observe and infer everything else. New Londo is in a cavern, so its founders must have wanted to be away from the light. It was built to be flooded, suggesting that Lord Gwyn feared the darkness of the Abyss that might grow in the cave. We also know that when the city was flooded, presumably by Gwyn or his children, the people struggled against the locked floodgates. How do we know this? Because their drowned corpses are piled in front of it.

Dark Souls New Londo

By showing us all of these things rather than telling us explicitly what’s happening, the game engages us on a visceral and emotional level. It encourages intelligent reflection. We experience everything as if we were really there, drawing inferences based on what we see. Understanding the game world and successfully completing each level go hand in hand, because both depend on paying careful attention to your surroundings.

Dark Souls certainly isn’t the first game to be constructed this way. On the PS2 we had Shadow of the Colossus and ICO, and the PC Myst series exemplified aesthetic storytelling. Way back on the Super NES we had Another World, a game with no dialog whatsoever, only some brief text at the beginning before the player is hurtled through time and space to an alien planet. The NES had a number of games, like the original Castlevania, that relied entirely on aesthetic storytelling due to hardware limitations. But Dark Souls (and its prequel, Demon’s Souls, and its sequel, Dark Souls II) is one of the few big budget games in modern times to take such a minimalistic approach. Journey, the 2012 indie hit, is a great example of aesthetic storytelling, but it’s only about three hours long. It’s a shame that the big studios won’t put resources into more robust minimalist experiences.

I enjoy cinematic games, and I enjoy minimalist games. Minimalist games are what they are because they exist in relation to cinematic games, like a shadow cast by the sun. The world needs both schools of development. But when nearly every major release plays out like a tightly-plotted Hollywood movie, I appreciate minimalist games all that much more when, every once in a while, they get made.

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