Franziska Ascher is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Medieval German Literature at LMU Munich. She is also an editor and author for the e-journal Paidia. Her current research interests include performativity, environmental storytelling and structural analogies between medieval epic poetry and computer role-playing games.
Editor’s Note: The following article comes from our partnership with Paidia, one of the first German-speaking journals for game studies. The original German version of this essay was published in September 2014 on Paidia. It was translated by Sebastian Heilander (Publicly Appointed and Sworn Translator) with minor changes.
If the games of the Dark Souls series (Dark Souls (2011) / Dark Souls II (2014) ) are renowned for one thing, this would be being literally murderously difficult. In Dark Souls every mistake can end deadly, for every opponent can kill the avatar, no matter how innocuous he might appear. All it takes is a tiny moment of carelessness. For narrating stories, other games are renowned—for example the Witcher or Dragon Age series or the recent games by Telltale Games,[foot]E. g. The Walking Dead (2012) and The Wolf Among Us (2013).[/foot] their narrative quality stemming from the momentous decision-making; or author games by David Cage[foot]For example Heavy Rain (2010) and Beyond: Two Souls (2013).[/foot] whose gameplay don’t always live up to the standard of their cinematic narration quality.
Dark Souls’ gameplay is above any reproach. Even if it may appear unfair if one has to start over an entire chapter only to face the boss once again that one couldn’t kill on the first attempt, the player would have to admit that their avatar was killed because of a mistake of their own. Dark Souls requires perfection but compensates with a high degree of fairness. If this wasn‘t the case, this kind of game concept would not likely be successful: already Demon‘s Souls (2009), the precursor of the Dark Souls series,[foot]But taking place in a different narrative cosmos and thus not being part of this analysis.[/foot] might be long forgotten as one of many bad games with an unbalanced complexity factor. [foot]In that case, Dark Souls would probably never have seen the light of day.[/foot]
Dark Souls’ narration is often marginalized compared to its gameplay. Declarations like “Dark Souls is a mediocre game with almost no story” or “Dark Souls has little to no story” are rather frequent, and it really is easy to enjoy Dark Souls as kind of ‘pure gameplay’, as is proven by the flourishing speedrun scene existing around this game.
Nevertheless, comments like those above are based on a fundamental error: they suggest that a game must narrate in the same way as a movie since both movies and videogames are visual media. Missing cutscenes with dialogues doesn’t mean that narration is missing. Even though a high frequency of cutscenes is a rather good indicator for a game with a narrative focus,[foot]Just think of the Metal Gear Solid games.[/foot] cutscenes are basically just an easy and therefore popular method to impart narration into videogames.
Dark Souls features an intro with movie trailer quality that provides the story framework for the entire game in form of a voice-over narration: the mythical narration of an Age of Fire in which the Three Great Lords (Lord Gwyn, the Witch of Izalith and Gravelord Nito) challenged the Everlasting Dragons, eventually destroying them. Intermediate film sequences during the game usually don’t continue the narration but rather introduce boss opponents, explain journeys to specific points in the game’s world (e.g. in the claws of a giant crow) and visualize new regions.
But the lore of the Dark Souls games is almost as debated as the story of Bioshock Infinite (2013). Since one of the virtues of the videogame medium is without a doubt that it can assimilate forms and functions of older types of media, process all visual, aural, and textual forms conceivable, and re-enact all types of games and material subjects,[foot]Cf. Venus 2012, S. 104.[/foot] its narrative potential is not limited to imitating other forms of media.
What is it? There’s nothing to talk about
There are many RPG games that are highly narrative and don’t rely on cutscenes. These games usually provide narration via NPCs; however, this is not so in the dark fantasy universe of Lodran, the world Dark Souls is set in. There are some NPCs that provide important information in Dark Souls[foot]Above all, the two PrimordiaI Serpents Frampt and Kaathe, must be mentioned who try to influence the player avatar.[/foot] but in contrast to other games like the NPCs overloaded with information in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (2011) they are not forcing knowledge onto the players.
Many NPCs are too stoic or too desperate to provide notable information, keeping their distance with sentences like “What is it? There’s nothing to talk about. We’re both cursed; Undead[foot]Undead are in Dark Souls – unlike in most other games – not only opponents but also the avatar; the only difference to its opponents is that it is not (yet) “hollow”, i.e. it is not yet a literally ‘soulless’ monster. Hollow can however mean only the looks of the avatar who is losing more and more of its human looks with its death and is looking more and more like a living corpse.[/foot]. But what’s there, really to moan about?“ (Rickert von Vinheim), “We’ve no time to fraternize. I have my mission, and you no doubt have yours,“ (Rhea von Throrolund), or “Please, if you have any heart… Leave me be…“ (Anastacia von Astora). Only if the players are rather stubborn do they provide a piece of information—just like one might give coins to beggars to be left alone.
The words of the Crestfallen Warrior at the Firelink Shrine to the avatar after the end of the tutorial area in the Undead Asylum can be seen as deterministic:
“Let me guess. Fate of the Undead, right? Well, you’re not the first. But there’s no salvation here. You’d have done better to rot in the Undead Asylum… But, too late now. Well since you’re here… Let me help you out. There are actually two Bells of Awakening. One’s up above, in the Undead Church. The other is far, far below, in the ruins at the base of Blighttown. Ring them both, and something happens… Brilliant, right? Not much to go on, but I have a feeling that won’t stop you.“ (Crestfallen Warrior)
This extremely scarce introduction into the game world is the only information the player gets about its ‘main quest’—which isn’t even a proper main quest since there are no classic quests in Dark Souls; at least none featured in a quest log or the outcome of which are either known beforehand or guaranteed. There is only the spatial progress characterized by killing opponents. Nevertheless, the knight is right of course: the player will ring the two Bells of Awakening due to the lack of narratively motivated reasons. On the gameplay level, the mission and the gratification are unambiguous: ring the Bells and the game continues.
Items in Dark Souls are much more informative than NPCs: their history might provide clues to the player to understand the proceedings around him. A rather unusual but highly interesting case is Petrus of Thorolund—this cleric really puts a coin into the hand of the chosen undead. But coins are entirely valueless in Lordran, as stated in the item description:
“Coin made of copper. Its face shows Old Man McLoyf, god of medicine and drink. Even coins of great value in the world of men have little value in Lordran, where the accepted currency is souls. Those who dream of returning to the outside world are fond of carrying these around.“
Thus in all his disdain, Petrus of Thorolund gives the player something of value: a piece of information on the game world which is not necessarily decisive but still inspiring for speculation. Is Petrus dreaming of getting himself healed of being an undead, leaving Lordran and returning to Thorolund? Or does he no longer believe in this illusion, getting rid of the coin by passing it on to ‘the next fool?’
Every item inside the game world possesses a more or less comprehensive description, providing the player with handy tips for their application, like the vital information that only Blooming Purple Moss Clumps can heal poisoning. Moss clumps are merely common consumables but in the case of unique items, their descriptions often exceed the value of a mere description of function.
Killing as Means of World Disclosure
One can learn about the sorcerer Logan by ‘reading’ his hat. He is also called Big Hat Logan because his gigantic hat “completely hid his face […]. Famously antisocial, Logan used it to block out noise and people’s stares so he could focus on his own thoughts, but it does not possess any special magic powers.”[foot]Item description Big Hat.[/foot]. The hat is accompanied by a robe that “is said to have been from his apprentice days at Dragon School, but it is so worn out, no one knows what it originally looked like. Logan, who cared little for his appearance, no doubt ever bothered to change out of it.”[foot]Item description Sage Robe.[/foot] The sorcerer further wears a pair of travelling gloves and boots “indistinguishable from the ordinary kind.” Logan’s Catalyst[foot]Wands are called ‘catalysts’ throughout the game.[/foot] is originally the same catalyst employed by the Vinheim sorcerers, “only terribly strengthened over time due to Logan’s use.”[foot]Item description Logan’s Catalyst.[/foot]
All this paints a rather lively picture of an eccentric but still ingenious scholar on the quest for knowledge. That his clothes do not possess any special power only highlights his ingenuity since his power (unlike the avatar’s) is not relying on items—on the contrary, his power is strong enough to transform a common item (the Dragon School Catalyst) into a special one by merely using it. Even though Logan is a figure in the game’s present (unlike most of the people of which one is reading via item descriptions), all statements are set in past tense. This is the case because the player must have killed Logan in order to possess these items.
The immense knowledge in the Duke’s Archives that has driven this region’s boss opponent (the white dragon Seath the Scaleless) mad is also overwhelming Logan. Thus one meets Logan in the same place as Seath, naked apart from his hat, armed with a catalyst “[u]sed by Logan after his fixation on Seath.”[foot]Item description Crystallisation Catalyst.[/foot] He casts “White Dragon Breath” a “[s]orcery developed by Logan during his infatuation with Seath the Scaleless. Emits crystal breath of Seath the Scaleless.”[foot]Item description White Dragon Breath.[/foot] His nakedness should be interpreted as a mad imitation of Seath who is also ‘naked’ being scaleless. All this information can only be accessed once Logan and Seath are (hi)story—quite literally, since the past tense telling of Logan’s death is also the traditional mode of literature.
To understand an entity in Dark Souls often means to kill it. Frequently, one knows next to nothing about an opponent (or an NPC) before killing it. The fights are usually quite protracted: due to the difficulty of the game, the player can only defeat an opponent once he knows him well—every one of its movements, every one of its attacks. And once the opponent has been killed, the player gets to know its soul or its personal belongings, who it was and often also the details of its (hi)story. But even if the player knows the opponents’ stories beforehand—which is common in New Game Plus Mode—they would not have been able to act differently since this is the only way to proceed in the game. The remorse potential is thus intrinsic; the result is similar to a classic Greek tragedy: knowledge does not protect from the tragic result. The perspective is similar to that of a biologist who can observe an entity and collect information on it but must dissect the body to find out its nature—irretrievably destroying his/her centre of attention.
Narrating in Fragments
But the player can also become an archaeologist by looting. In the streets of Blighttown, one can find the Crimson Set, the parts of which are narrating the history of New Londo. The descriptions of robe, waistcloth and gloves report unanimously that they were worn by “the sorcerers who flooded New Londo to seal away the Darkwraiths, and the Four Kings who descended into Dark. The Sealers were once known as healers, and the bright crimson was a symbol of that.” [foot]Item description Crimson Set (robe, gloves, waistcloth).[/foot] Additionally, the headpiece of the set, the Mask of the Sealer, tells that the sealers of New Londo put on the masks as symbols of “their resolve to keep the seal shut forever and their atonement for all who were sacrificed, but two of the three forsook New Londo upon tiring of their duty.”
The healer Ingward—the only sealer who stood fast—is still living in New Londo. Another one is fighting in Anor Londo alongside Lautrec of Carim, the murderer of the Fire Keeper of Firelink Shrine—clad in crimson but coherently not wearing the mask. The third one obviously met his death in Blighttown. Who she was can be learned from another item, since next to the body with the Crimson Set a chest can be found that has the spell “Remedy” on it, adding to the spatial a semantic proximity to the Crimson Set. Its description says:
“Sorcery of the red-robed Yulva, one of the Sealers of New Londo. Reduce bleeding and poison build-up, and undo various poisonous effects. One of the New Londo’s unique healing sorceries. Perhaps she abandoned her Sealer duty to take her healing arts back to Blighttown.“
It is significant, however, that Yulva’s motives are not reported as facts but rather as speculations. There is thus a narrator who is authorial but not omniscient. The item description is therefore exposed as fragmentary and possibly unreliable. It is not presented in the form of a first person narrator, which would be the classic case of unreliable narration, [foot]Cf. Fludernik 2005, p. 40.[/foot] but as noted in Dorrit Cohn’s theories, a heterodiegetic narrator can be unreliable as well. It may be difficult to question the reliability of a heterodiegetic narrator since it usually is the only source of information in the narrated world, but in a videogame, this world is experienced immediately and the item description is just complementing this experience, weakening the narrator’s position.
Dorrit Cohn describes an unreliable narrator as someone who is incapable or unwilling to recount what ‘really’ has happened.[foot]Cf. Cohn 2000, p. 307.[/foot] Both are possible in the case of the item narrator since its information is filled with gaps and in rare cases doesn’t fit the circumstances of experiences in the game world.
Kirk, Knight of Thorns, is described as a “notorious member of the Darkwraiths”[foot]Item description Set of Thornes.[/foot] making him a devotee of the Primordial Serpent Kaathe.[foot]Effectively the dark alternative to the Kingseeker Frampt – which does not mean that Frampt can be identified as good and Kaathe as evil. Kaathe’s objective to install an Age of Dark might appear as one of the common denotations of evil but is handled equally to an enhancement of the Age of Fire which is Frampt’s objection.[/foot] Once the player has beaten Kirk three times, one finds his corpse at the hidden bonfire of Quelaag’s sister, one of the Daughters of Chaos, who followed the Witch of Izalith. Was Kirk really a servant of the fatally ill Daughter of Chaos? And were ultimately good intentions hidden behind his intimidating armour? According to their oath, the Chaos Servants fight only in order to remedy the pain of their “Fair Lady” by collecting the humanity[foot]The abstract concept ‚humanity’ is concretized as item that can restore the human looks of the undead avatar which enables the player to play online, amongst other things. The item description states that humanity is a “[r]are tiny black sprite found on corpses. Use to gain humanity and restore a large amount of HP. This black sprite is called humanity, but little is known about its true nature. If the soul is the source of all life, then what distinguishes the humanity we hold within ourselves?”[/foot] of their slain opponents. This would rule out a pact between Kirk and Kaathe who also demands humanity from its devotees, but for much darker purposes.
Of course, the location of Kirk’s body doesn’t prove anything, but one starts thinking since in Dark Souls, items are usually not only placed for gameplay[foot]The abstract concept ‚humanity’ is concretized as item that can restore the human looks of the undead avatar which enables the player to play online, amongst other things. The item description states that humanity is a “[r]are tiny black sprite found on corpses. Use to gain humanity and restore a large amount of HP. This black sprite is called humanity, but little is known about its true nature. If the soul is the source of all life, then what distinguishes the humanity we hold within ourselves?”[/foot] but also for story reasons. If the item narrators are really unreliable or only poorly informed, the truth cannot be verified with finality. The location of his Set of Thorns provides Kirk with a narrative horizon that clearly exceeds his title as “murderous Kirk”[foot]Item description Set of Thornes.[/foot] in the item descriptions, thus questioning its truthfulness.
Thus, maybe splitting the narration in reliable gameplay information and potentially unreliable story information is the only solution; although both are inseparable in the item description genre such descriptions are only attainable through game play. For the advanced item descriptions in Dark Souls, this balancing act between factual information and speculation is absolutely typical. “Was the Ash Maiden locked in this dark prison for some transgression, or by her own will?”[foot] Item description Soul of the Ash Maiden, Fire Keeper of Firelink Shrine.[/foot] “[W]hat madness caused old Big Hat to appropriate this frightful power of the ancient dragons?”[foot]Item description hite Dragon Breath.[/foot] “If the soul is the source of all life, then what distinguishes the humanity we hold within ourselves?”[foot]Item description Humanity.[/foot]
These questions are posed throughout Dark Souls but never answered, but the game’s handling of this deficit makes it plausible that it might just not be the game’s task to answer those questions: this is delegated to the player. The item descriptions are left to the interpretation of the player. The descriptions pose questions that might appear to the player’s mind. Instead of answering these questions the player must find the answer for himself on an empirical basis—and maybe contemplate these questions with other players. By doing so, every item adds meaning exceeding its mere usefulness: since even if one cannot and doesn’t want to use the item, its narrative ‘appendix’ can include interesting story elements.
Narration and Gameplay in Tune
In order to gain any narrative knowledge a certain ludic achievement has to be met. And every in-game gratification is hard-fought in Dark Souls—why should it be any less difficult when it comes to narration?
In Dark Souls, information on its gameplay is just as scarce as information on its narrative. If the player has successfully finished the tutorial area, he/she does not know that his/her avatar can jump or roll nor how to backstab an opponent.[foot]If executed correctly, backstabbing triggers an animation rendering the victim entirely helpless and getting more harm than during a normal attack.[/foot] Both are, however, absolutely necessary to be successful in Dark Souls (especially in PvP). Another absolute requirement for gaming success is to acquire items; however, reading the item descriptions is not (in most cases). These are the key, however to getting a rough picture of the lore of Dark Souls.
In many games, there is a large difference between story and gameplay. A classic example is Nathan Drake, the protagonist of Uncharted (2007 / 2009 / 2011), who is illustrated as the nice guy next door and who has, in the beginning, a reservation against killing people. At the end of the third game, however, he has killed several thousand human beings, a logical result of the gaming mechanics of a third-person shooter—but this doesn’t show on the story level.[foot]Tobias Unterhuber has done research on plausible character development in games with shooter mechanics on the Laura Croft games. See http://www.paidia.de/?p=2272 .[/foot]
Dark Souls’ avatar is a blank space—mute and interchangeable, literally hollow[foot]After each death, the avatar becomes a so called “hollow“ due to losing souls and humanity – but at the same time, it is a hollow box to be filled with the imagination and fantasies of the player.[/foot]; therefore, there is obviously no character development taking place here either. But the general situation in Lordran is so desperate that any ethical digressions are reasonable or, at least, plausible. In Dark Souls, although the narrative aspect is rather minor compared to the gameplay, these two components closely correspond based on the fact that both are equally challenging and must be deduced by the players themselves.
Cohn, Dorrit: Discordant Narration. In: Style 34/2 (2000). p. 307 – 316.
Fludernik, Monika: Unreliability vs. Discordance. Kritische Betrachtungen zum literaturwissenschaftlichen Konzept der erzählerischen Unzuverlässigkeit. In: F. Liptay & Y. Wolf (Hrsg.): Was stimmt denn jetzt? Unzuverlässiges Erzählen in Literatur und Film. München 2005. p. 39 – 59.
Unterhuber, Tobias: Die Geburt des Menschen Lara Croft aus der Tragödie. http://www.paidia.de/?p=2272
Venus, Jochen: Erlebtes Handeln in Computerspielen. In: GamesCoop (Hg.): Theorien des Computerspiels. Zur Einführung. Hamburg 2012. p. 104 – 127.
All pictures in this article are original icons from the game and have been taken from the following Dark Souls Wiki: http://darksouls.wikidot.com/