This article was going to be about Dark Souls, the 2011 action-RPG by From Software. Not as a traditional review, mind you. If you already know anything about Dark Souls, it’s that the game is definitely worth your time for its challenging gameplay and its great world design and atmosphere if (and that’s admittedly a big if) you can get past the extremely punishing difficulty and the complete failure from the game to properly explain its mechanics. Oh, and you may also know that it’s about an undead protagonist in a dying world encountering and fighting all sorts of monsters and creatures. In many ways, Dark Souls is what a 3D Castlevania should have been.
But all the enjoyment I got from playing Dark Souls could not hide the eventual feeling of disappointment. Dark Souls’ minimalistic style of storytelling fits perfectly well with its tone and atmosphere. And while the storytelling itself is worthy of praise, it’s with the actual story that the game unfortunately fails. There is never any context to your actions. You are vaguely told the things you should do with no real understanding of how it will help or why your character would want to do those things. None of the side characters’ optional stories end in a remotely satisfying way, and the final boss himself does not even have an introductory cutscene, let alone a single line. And the game’s ending is quite literally ten seconds long, no matter which final “choice” you make. (Although, interestingly enough, the fight against the final boss has a beautiful, sad piano song. It was strangely both jarring and actually very fitting considering what you can learn about said final boss, and it also made me realize that 1), the music of Dark Souls was composed by Motoi Sakuraba, one of my favorite video game composers, and 2), as the ending of Mass Effect 3 has shown me, I tend to forgive a lot of a game’s flaws if there is a sad piano song at the end. But let’s not digress anymore.)
Normally, I would develop more on the story’s problems and why they detract from the overall experience. But the more I thought about it, the more I wondered if they could really be considered problems. It might only be my interpretation, but I eventually came to a more nuanced understanding of Dark Souls.
Dark Souls is a game about failure. While most games are essentially power fantasies (with varying degrees of blatancy), Dark Souls forces the player to constantly struggle to make any progress. But you are expected to learn from your mistakes. Every time you redo a boss fight, you know a bit more about its pattern. Every time you die while exploring a dangerous area, you know a bit more about what to expect. Because of its constant challenge and its clear “trial and error” nature, Dark Souls is very much a metaphor for life. And when you see it that way, a lot of its storytelling choices suddenly make sense. In Dark Souls, much like in life, you may ultimately feel like a small, insignificant part of a hostile and frightening world. You do not have much direction other than vague objectives, and you don’t know what to expect from the future. And while every step forward is difficult, your accomplishments don’t really mean anything in the grand scheme of things. There is (usually) no cutscene after you defeat a boss or reach the end of an area, no congratulations, and the state of the world stays essentially the same. Dark Souls does not have a lengthy ending in the same sense you don’t “win” at life.
But even if they don’t mean much to the world, those accomplishments mean something to you, the player (and by extension, your character). What you achieve might not change, save, or fix the universe, but it is worth as much as the effort you put into achieving it. And that is the real strength of Dark Souls, and how its storytelling works on a more personal level that it initially seems. (As a side note, many players have wondered why your character never turns hollow (i.e. a mindless undead) as opposed to pretty much all the non-playable characters. I’ve seen the theory that it’s all because of the player’s will. If you give up and quit playing the game, your character presumably turns hollow, but as long as you don’t give up and keep playing until the end, despite the difficulty and constant failures, your determination reflects your character’s determination. This is what allows him/her to cling to his/her sanity. I like this theory not only because it’s consistent with my interpretation of the game, but also because it shows a clever example of story and gameplay mixing.)
So, all right, let’s say Dark Souls is excused for the initial disappointment it made me feel. But remember what I wrote five (admittedly long) paragraphs ago: this article isn’t simply about Dark Souls. Or rather, my original issues with Dark Souls made me want to discuss a phenomenon I’ve observed since quite a while. It applies to fiction in general, in any kind of media, but for the sake of this article, I’ll keep it to video games. Let’s call this phenomenon the “Sliding Scale of Good Writing Versus Good Story”.
Basically, most video game stories seem to place themselves somewhere on this scale. Before I ended up classifying it as an odd case, I saw Dark Souls as a game that sacrifices its story for the sake of its storytelling. This is unusual, as I’ve also noticed that Japanese games tend to often place themselves on the “Good Story” side of the scale. Meanwhile, Western games tend to favor the “Good Writing” side instead. I must stress that this is definitely not a value judgment, as both approaches are equally worthwhile (and it must also be stressed that, obviously, not all Japanese games and all Western game follow the same storytelling format).
A good example is the Metal Gear Solid series. Both fans and newcomers to the series will probably agree that the Metal Gear Solid games are, let’s face it, badly written. They are full of exposition, characters telling each other things they already know, dialogues that go on forever between the playable sections… But what the Metal Gear Solid games can also never be accused of, is to have dull stories. In the past, I’ve described Solid Snake (the protagonist) as a mix of James Bond and Jack Bauer, which should give you an idea of the level of silliness and entertainment to expect. The plot of each individual Metal Gear Solid game and of the series as a whole is very complex, and the characters are incredibly fun and memorable. Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is often remembered for its last part, not only for its twists giving a completely new meaning to the rest of the game, but also for its innovative use of fourth-wall breaking and philosophical reflections while mixing story and gameplay. Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater offers a more focused story, and centers on the relationship between the protagonist and his former mentor (and almost mother figure), up to its heartbreaking conclusion.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Bioshock, a game that is often considered the absolute standard for good writing in video games. And it is indeed extremely well written, from the world building to the audio logs. The game is particularly notable for its exploration of objectivist philosophy in a dystopian setting. But a close examination of the actual plot quickly makes it fall apart. The main antagonist’s entire plan is based on an absurd number of variables, including decades-long psychological manipulation, all to accomplish a goal he could have much more easily and reliably accomplished on his own. And after a particularly brilliant and famous reveal at the middle of the game, which has yet again this rare quality of mixing story and gameplay, Bioshock runs out of steam. The player then has to go through a bland and repetitive second half with not much driving the plot anymore.
Again, the goal here is not to determine which game is better between Metal Gear Solid and Bioshock. They are both classics and excellent games in their own rights. My point is that they are opposites in their philosophy of storytelling.
Now, one could wonder why games should necessarily have to choose one side on the Sliding Scale of Good Writing Versus Good Story. Wouldn’t having both a great story with great writing be the best of both worlds? Evidently so, but here is the paradox. On one hand, video game writing is the most difficult kind of writing. This is because there are significantly more variables to take into account than in any other medium (length, interactivity and player choice, occasional branching storylines and/or dialogue, ludonarrative dissonance, gameplay and story connection, pacing…) But on the other hand, it’s also the medium with the least incentive to have good writing. While a novel and to a lesser extent a movie can only stand up on its story, a game can get away with an acceptable or less than acceptable story as long as the gameplay is able to carry it.
Still, while we may never get the perfect video game story, it’s probably a sacrifice worth making if it means we can have such a diversity of approaches to storytelling. Whether it’s Dark Souls’ minimalistic style, Metal Gear Solid’s complexity and wackiness, or Bioshock’s mature and well-researched writing, there are just as many ways to tell stories as there are stories.
– Number 5