Improve Your Storytelling by Learning from Dark Souls

[Artwork Credit: From Software]

After sitting down and beating Shadow of the Colossus I realize that I learn so much about storytelling from the media I consume. So I want to start a new series on how to improve your storytelling by learning from some examples. As the title suggests, this first one I am going to be using my favorite video game series: Dark Souls.

I would like to take this notoriously difficult game and talk about its storytelling. I don’t expect you to run out and play the game or to “git gud scrub”, because I am aware that the game is not for everyone and some people just will not get better at the game. It requires timing, careful observation, and memorization that some individuals are just not suited to enjoy. Even if you can’t enjoy the gameplay, I encourage you to head over to the YouTube channel VaatiVidya to learn the lore of the game. We even have a playthrough of the first game on our own YouTube channel, but it is quite dated.

Opening Cutscene

This cutscene is one of my favorites to watch. I will watch it over and over again just because I enjoy it. Apart from that it plays an incredibly important role for the player: it introduces them into the world itself. This is generally the point of the opening cutscene, but Dark Souls sets its tone very well. If you have studied Dark Souls lore then you will also notice that their word choice is very specific. It sets up that there are four major characters that influence the world of Dark Souls, and that an age is ending. You get a little bit of history but not enough to get the whole picture which is something that will repeat itself for the rest of the Souls games.

What you can learn from this is that it is paramount to setting up your world and including only the information your players/readers will need. In tabletop games it is the session 0. For books this is usually spread through the first several chapters or even in an prologue. Leave just enough missing to keep your consumers interested and wanting to know more.

The Undead Asylum

This is the tutorial region of the first game and quite honestly the reason I tell people to play the first Dark Souls games before playing the others. It is well crafted to make sure you understand the mechanics of the game. However that is not what I’m going to be covering. Instead it is the introduction of your character, your interactions with the Oscar of Astora, and the level design. This is largely because it has the most raw and immediate showcases of the design of Dark Souls.

Character Introduction

After you get a dump of information about the world you are suddenly pulled into a prison. From here you hear the narrator say:

“Yes, indeed. The Darksign brands the Undead. And in this land, the Undead are corralled and led to the north, where they are locked away, to await the end of the world... This is your fate.”

You also get to see your character locked in a cell. This shows you where you are, it plants you into the world they just finished setting up for you. The specific line “This is your fate” is key, because it makes it personal, and actually drives home an interesting point later on that I will cover.

Oscar, Knight of Astora

I will not be covering every NPC you come across in this game. That is just way too much work and honestly more fun if you figure them out yourself (or just go watch the videos). This NPC sets the theme of how other NPCs will communicate with you. Your first interaction with him is in a cutscene where he is dropping a body into your cell. Not just any body either, the one with the very key to your cell. The game says nothing about it. No words. Just actions. When you later speak with him you gain a little more insight into why he might have done that but immediately you know that he is an ally. This hammers home another point, that actions are louder than words. His motives may be confusing but you didn’t need some cheesy dialogue of him saying “I’m here to help.” or “Don’t be alarmed. I’m a friend.”

Later on you will encounter him behind a wall with no entrances, lying in a pile of rubble. It is only until you trigger a trap (and you will trigger it) that the way opens up. In fact you can’t proceed without talking to him, he has the key to the door. For dungeon masters this is a technique you can use to direct your players towards certain person or location. This gate ensures that the player will interact with him. When you speak with him he appears to be dying and he tells you about a prophecy from his land assuming you don’t say no(your first real goal in the game!). Based on his first interactions and the information you learn from him, it seems that he is purposely letting Undead out in attempts to fulfill the prophecy. Just as his dialog finishes up he says “I would hate to harm you after death… So, go now…” He directly says that more happens after you die. Later on in the game you can return, and if you come back to where he dies he will attack you being true to his word. For the rest of Dark Souls a large majority of your quests will be conveyed this way. There is no quest tracker, there isn’t even a journal to recall what NPCs said. You listen to their words and you go, some events will unfold with our without your participation, some will not happen if you don’t participate.

His death is not an epic one, in fact it doesn’t even happen when you are nearby. At this point you may have noticed that you acquire souls (the ingame currency) when you kill something. As you walk away you hear the noise from when you pick up souls, even if you didn’t kill anything. This is the indicator that Oscar has died. Through its mechanics, through the simple obtaining of an item/currency, the game has told you “He’s dead”.

Level Design

One thing I love about the Souls series are their levels. They are beautiful if not confusing sometimes, but they are carefully thought out. No detail added is one wasted. In the undead asylum you can catch a glimpse of this walking out of your cell. If you look to the right you will see a massive creature. Later you will find out that his is a demon, one that is keeping you from leaving the Asylum. You will also notice near the end bars that have been bent inward and a corpse stuck to it. This implies that the demon caused this damage, or is the most likely candidate. They chose carefully what you saw and where you saw it, because it speak volumes about what is going on in the world. A guard near a well may be surveying the street, but if that well is in an unpopulated area then what could that say about the guard? Is he waiting for someone? Is someone he knows down in the well? Just placing a character in a location can raise so many questions and pique curiosities.

We are going to take a step back to talk about Oscar again, but this time it’s about the area you find him in. When you first see Oscar he is on the roof of the asylum. The very next time he is in a room with no open doors in a pile of rubble with a hole in the ceiling. You discover this after encountering the Asylum Demon boss for the first time who just so happen to drop from the ceiling wielding a massive hammer. Not to mention Oscar is about to die. Since you have encounter nothing else so far that powerful the best guess is that the Asylum Demon fatally injured him. Once again, no words just placement and small details to tell a story. A story that unfolded while you were wandering out of your cell.

The Crestfallen Knight and Knowledge Gaps

This is the last NPC I will be covering as he hammers home another point. This is the first NPC you find when you first get out of the Undead Asylum and make it to Firelink Shrine. When speaking with the Crestfallen Knight he makes it clear that you are not the first “Chosen Undead” and that there is not just one “Bell of Awakening” but two, good luck scrub. He even tells you where they are. This informs us that the information we have might not be complete, which is the entire direction that Dark Souls takes with its lore. There are gaps in really inconvenient places for our curiosity, some so obviously placed that it seems that we are meant to fill in some of the lore ourselves, tell our own stories about what transpired.

This is by design. The creator, Hidetaka Miyazaki, used to read fantasy books as a child but was unable to understand or read everything that was going on in the books. In a way he was building his own story using the gaps in the books. He brought this love of filling in the gaps and of reading fantasy to his designs of Dark Souls. While there is a lot you can infer, that is all you can do. Any hard evidence of actual events or intentions are all covered by placement of characters or items.

Items and Placement

If you have ever searched through your inventory in a game you sort of expect that there is a description somewhere that talks about what the item does. In the case of Dark Souls not only do they describe (sometimes poorly) what an item does but also some backstory to it. If you blaze through an area and pick up some unique item and run off to read it later you might miss some of the context in which the item is referring to. Later on in Anor Londo (city of the gods, go look it up) there is a broken window in a cathedral giving you access. Near the floor (because you are near the ceiling in this bit) there is a body with a set of armor on it. That armor just so happens to belong to an NPC that you can summon to help you get into Anor Londo. It might seem like coincidence, but fan theories speculate that when he passed through here he broke the window and fell to his death because of his heavy armor. Once again all the story needed was some items on a corpse in the right places.

Now you probably don’t want to write the history of an entire item into the story for everything your characters or players interact with. There is another good piece of media that showcases this very idea however: Lord of the Rings. While you the reader know the history (or some of the history) of the ring, the characters only have a few clues to go off of and certain other characters that do know more about it. Imaging picking up a magic item only for it to give you visions. Taking it to town you end up talking to a dealer about selling it only for them to be terrified of it, claiming that it has a dark past that involves a tyrant of an age past. For more answers you must head to the Dwarven city that forged the item. These bits of detail can add more depth to your world and create new quests and theories about the world around you.

The Player Character IS the Player

As I mentioned earlier the narrator says “This is your fate”, not “This is the story of Bullshrimp the Undead Knight”. This is their hint that the character you are playing is you. A concept that keeps coming up in the game is the idea of Hollowing, which more or less is an undead losing their mind and losing all sense of their former selves. This seems to be a key mechanic of the world but your character never seems to experience it or have to struggle with it themselves. That is because the game doesn’t have to handle that for you. You are already handling it. The challenge of the game keeps beating you down, making you want to rage quit or losing your mind from trying to do the same thing and always failing. The moment you set down the controller and quit Dark Souls your character has gone Hollow. The main sources that cause an undead to go Hollow in Dark Souls is that they lose purpose, they lose drive, they give up.

Discovering this idea about the game blew my mind. I think it's the point that really made me fall in love with the game. The story had become about my own struggle against challenges. I got to weave my own story. This is something I’m not entirely sure that a book is able to convey, at least not easily. Tabletop RPGs on the other hand do exactly this. The best storying telling you can do at your table is to make the story about the characters, make the players struggle with their own decisions and challenges. Make it personal. It’s one thing to save a town from a dragon. It’s another to save your hometown from a dragon. Convince your players that they are their characters using the story and the world.

Conclusion

Now I have rambled on for over 2000 words about tiny details and how they can be used for interesting storytelling in an incredibly difficult game whose lore is hard to find and even harder to understand. It is a game of intense concentration and an expectation of commitment and skill that not everyone can enjoy. I won’t admit that it is the greatest game of all time, or that it is the paragon of storytelling. It is difficult for me to dismiss however how the lore and gameplay have pulled me in. Not all media should be targeted for all audiences. The bigger the audience the harder it is to keep everyone satisfied. From Software chose a specific gameplay and accepted that not everyone would play it. There is much that you can learn from it, and even get some inspiration for your own stories.

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