Narrative Design in Dark Souls
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
This post doesn't contain any spoilers for any of the Souls games, so rest easy, fellow undead.
I've been meaning to write about the Souls series' unique approach to narrative design for a while, but, well, I've been playing too much Dark Souls II. But as I'm bearing down on what must be the end of a 70-ish-hour playthrough I figure now is as good a time as any to discuss the way these games tell their stories.
I remember first playing through Demon's Souls back in 2009 and thinking to myself 'this game is awesome, but would be way more awesome with a proper story.' It seemed at the time to be a game heavy with atmosphere, but light on storytelling.
By 'proper story' I meant the way most roleplaying games deliver their narrative; via dialogue, cutscenes and text dumps. Wouldn't it be better, stupid, unperceptive 2009 me thought, if Demon's Souls featured lengthy dialogues with its characters, cutscenes depicting their exploits, and Elder Scrolls style text books to expound its lore?
No, 2009 me. It wouldn't be better. It took me a few playthroughs of Dark Souls before I really understood how elegant the story design is in these games, and how much more interesting this approach is than that employed by most other games in the genre.
In the Souls games, the narrative is woven directly into the world of the game. There are three primary ways the player can access narrative information; through the dialogue spoken by non-player characters, in the descriptions of the items found strewn across the world, and from the visual design of the world itself. Only by engaging with all three of these narrative devices can a player begin to get a wider picture of the game's larger story.
The real genius here is that this approach allows the player to interact with the story - or not - as much as they like. The game never breaks its flow to force it's narrative upon you; it instead gives you the choice of whether to delve into the deeper narrative or simply to take the game world at face value.
Most games that identify as story games will frequently break the action to deliver narrative exposition; it's something of a necessity if you intend to tell a traditional linear narrative in a videogame. The Souls games never pull you out of the game world to force story upon you; character dialogue is brief, usually only a few lines, and only expounded upon should the player choose to repeatedly engage a character. The lore of the game is tied primarily into item descriptions on the inventory screen.
This means that a player absorbs the lore of the game whenever they manage their equipment. The story beat about the fallen knight who once wielded a silver shield is encapsulated in the same piece of text that tells you how effectively the shield deflects magic damage. Again, it's entirely up the player whether they choose to engage with these fragments of story or not.
There are few game narrative techniques that I consider as lazy or as pointless than the in-game text book. Now I'm someone who likes rich lore in my games, who actively seeks out narrative details of a virtual world, and even I can't bring myself to read in-game text books. There's nothing more passive, less videogame-y, than sitting down in a game and reading a wall of text. And recording the text and playing it over actual gameplay as an audio log is hardly better - if a player really wants to listen to it they'll still have to find a quiet corner and sit still, as our brains (well, my brain) can't process words and actions at the same time very well.
What's great about the Dark Souls approach is that most players will check the item description page as part of the natural flow of the game - they'll want to find out what a new piece of equipment actually does. When they do, they also encounter a snippet of lore which they can choose to retain or completely ignore as they please.
It's not just the description of the items that help tell the game's story; it's also where they are found in the world. A character might mention a legendary archer who was seen wandering into a forest, and later whilst exploring a forest ruin you find an enchanted bow on a corpse - this can either be nothing more than a sweet piece of loot, or a tragic tale of a hero who lost their life exploring the same ruin, depending on how to choose to approach the game.
What's great about this in terms of the wider field of narrative design is that this is a truly interactive narrative; it requires real engagement from the player to appreciate the deeper story of the game. Piecing together the grand narrative of a Souls game plays a bit like detective work, and requires a player to look at the game with an actual intent to find story - uncovering the full story of a Souls game is a game in itself.
It also mean that players who simply don't care about the lore of the game can ignore the story entirely and still experience the atmosphere of the world without feeling like they're missing out. Roleplaying games in particular have struggled with how much story information to push onto their players, and experiments with the genre have turned up narrative disasters like Final Fantasy XIII on one end of the scale and games like Skyrim and Mass Effect that carry their monstrous lore around in the form of entire novels worth of text on the other.
The Souls series elegantly embraces this issue and presents an approach that allows a game to have an incredibly deep lore - here's a video of a man talking for 30 straight minutes about one specific part of Dark Souls' lore if you don't believe me - without ever having to force this lore onto the player. From Software have created a narrative that is driven by the player, rather than one that tries to drive the player, and I find this approach suits an interactive medium far better than constant text dumps and reams of static dialogue.
The one issue, perhaps, is that players used to having a game's story fed to them in obvious chunks won't realise that they have to actively pursue the story and simply assume the game doesn't have one - that's the issue 2009 me had with Demon's Souls. I do hope, however, that more games embrace this gameworld-encompassing approach to storytelling, and that as they do, our expectations will change. We'll get used to having to actively engage with story in games, and our gaming experiences will be richer for it.