Ok I know this was 2 weeks ago, but I read some "games analysis" bullshit about the hypersexualization and historical revisionism of WWII in Kancolle and now that has me thinking about games as an art medium and I now I've dropped all my actual important life obligations like studying for my physics test to be an armchair philosopher so I'm going to write a lot about Dark Souls and how its world has an insane amount of story and characterization.
And because I am unable to get my thoughts into one coherent flow of text I am going to separate this into multiple parts that hopefully make sense together. And I will be focusing almost entirely on the first Dark Souls because I have not played much of 3 still and 2 was not made under Miyazaki's direction. I was also originally going to post a bunch of lore videos and shit two weeks ago but FUCK IT.
PART ONE: The Mechanic is the Message
The greatest board game you'll probably never play in your entire life is called Train. Written by Brenda Romero, wife of John Romero, Train begins with a ceremonial breaking of a glass window. Afterwards, three players are tasked with transporting people in boxcars as efficiently as possible. By drawing cards from a deck, players can place or remove obstacles on the tracks to either prevent a player's car from moving or allow it to continue its journey. Predictably, the first player to reach the end of the line is the victor. At the end of the game, the destination of the train line is revealed to be none other than familiar names such as Bergen-Belsen, Belzec, and Auschwitz.
Ultimately in doing so, what does Romero achieve? A game where the narrative is told by gameplay elements rather than dialogue. In Train, just about every aspect of the game is an allusion to historical events. The ceremonial window breaking serves as a representation of Kristallnacht. The people you're carting are presumably Jews, Slavs, Africans, Asians, communists, homosexuals, or the disabled. The game as a whole is an exploration as to whether or not people will blindly follow instructions in a gamified setting. Ultimately, the game is constructed to be upsetting. Therein lies the message.
Using mechanics to deliver a message isn't something that exists in a void within just Train, or even Brenda Romero's entire series of games literally called The Mechanic is the Message. In fact, we often see the same method of storytelling in other games that are commonly considered artistic, though artistic games not restricted to solely mechanically driven narratives. The common examples tend to be games like Flower, Inside, Heavy Rain, etc.... Fundamentally, all these games are designed to evoke certain emotions in the player through gameplay. And while I would argue that the degree of how effective these mechanics are in relation to the message varies from game to game (see ludonarrative dissonance in relation to Spec Ops: The Line and the Bioshock series), storytelling through mechanics is a effective tool to create emotionally powerful stories.
However, the big trouble with video game mechanics are that they are derivative of others. This brings me to my next point: video games as abstract patterns.
PART TWO: Video Games as Abstract Patterns
I think Red Orchestra 2 is one of the best games ever made. It's a gritty tactical shooter set in the Eastern Front of World War II, right in the middle of Operation Barbarossa. It has fantastic 64 player battles set in the Stalingrad area, complete with brutal depictions of death often caused at a player's own hands. The match always begins with both the German and Soviet forces spawning at their respective ends of the map with some officer giving a motivational speech before the entire platoon is likely sent to their death. Every match ends with a final count of casualties on both sides, detailing the brutality of the war.
In other words, Red Orchestra 2 is a game about manipulating the player character's rotation on the x and y axes in order to line up the camera with another game object so the player can give an input to decrease a value representing ammo to hopefully decrease the game object's value representing health to zero.
In fact, this is basically what all first person shooters are. From Maze War to Overwatch, all FPS games are broken down into this same basic pattern. Of course, there are different gameplay patterns from game to game, but they all are based off the same basic pattern. This is what makes so many games of the same genre intuitive to pick up and easy to learn. In a sense, someone who has mastered one FPS game has mastered all of them in the most basic way. As such, games are are really about two fundamental concepts: getting the player to recognize the gameplay patterns and teaching players to analyze any new patterns.
Recognizing gameplay patterns is actually fairly straight forward. The human brain constantly makes connections between various concepts subconsciously. When playing Counter-Strike, a player simply lines up the crosshair onto an enemy and shoots like just about any other FPS. This simple gameplay pattern still holds. However, Counter-Strike is a bit different from other FPS games due to its unique feature of buying guns in game. Suddenly, the player is thrown into a situation with a slightly different gameplay pattern. Do they spend in-game money rewarded each round on buying a nice AK-47 capable of one shot headshots or do they save up for a better weapon the next round? As players become more experienced at the game, they learn this new pattern and are able to stop consciously thinking about it and instead subconsciously think about it. Over time, the economic decisions each round become subconscious as the player learns to track not only their own economy but the team's and the enemy's economies. This trend of learning continues until the player is fully able to play the game subconsciously, where the game no longer becomes mentally stimulating but rather becomes a boring, brainless task. In this sense, games are fun because they are educational.
This is Raph Koster's overall thesis in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design. In it, he argues that all games are edutainment because they teach abstract patterns that are mentally stimulating. All games are simply puzzles for the brain to figure out and master. By doing these puzzles we hone skills that include but are not limited to spatial relationships, precision aiming, exploration, recognizing danger, speed, memorization, and timing. Once we hit the point of mastery, everything simply becomes practice and eventually turns into boring work instead of play. And quite predictably, once we are bored of a game, we move on to another one to analyze, learn, and master its new patterns.
So what does this all have to do with Dark Souls? We start at the Age of Ancients and the beginning of the Age of Fire.
Part Three: Lord Gwyn and the First Flame
In order to even begin to understand the Dark Souls story, one must first understand the very first bit of plot given to the player in the opening cinematic.
Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, is a literal god born out of the first fire along with the other two gods, Nito and the Witch of Izalith. With the help of traitor Seath the Scaleless who reveals to Gwyn that dragons are vulnerable to lightning, Gwyn takes down the dragons with his powers of sunlight granted by his Lord Soul. After the war, few dragons remain. The Age of Fire has begun.
After war, Gwyn begins constructing his kingdom of Lordran, granting Seath the Scaleless a part of the Lord Soul and a research facility known as the Duke's Archives to conduct research on immortality. Gwyn built the capital city of Lordran, Anor Londo, at the highest peak to be as close to the sun as possible. At this time, Gwyn had three children with an unknown mother. The first born, a son, was the god of war who created the Warriors of Sunlight who harassed the power of sunlight much like Gwyn did. However, the first born was stripped of his title as deity and erased from history. His name, now forgotten, is unknown. The second born, Gwynevere, was a well loved daughter who later married the flame god Flann. The third born, son Gywndolin, born frail and with affinity with the moon instead of the sun, was raised as a daughter due to his proficiency in moonlight sorceries. For hundreds of years, Lordran prospered, and various cities of men began worshiping Lord Gwyn under the religion known as the Way of White.
As Seath continued his research, he eventually discovered that the secret to the dragons' immortality were their scales. Though his experiments, he was also able to eventually create life from sorceries. Simultaneously, Havel the Rock, close ally of Gwyn during the war against the dragons, felt betrayed by Gwyn's favoritism toward Seath. Havel, sworn enemy of Seath, built up a hatred towards Seath's magic and developed countermeasures to protect himself from magic. In the basement of Anor Londo, along with Havel's armor, one can find an Occult Club capable of killing the gods. Eventually, either because he was Undead or had his conspiracy against the gods discovered, Gwyn locked away Havel from the rest of the world. As time passed, the Fire slowly faded as everyone's Souls grew weaker. The Dark came and started overpowering the Light. Anor Londo was cast into darkness. This marked the decline of The Age of Fire.
While Gwyn ruled over Lordran, the Furtive Pygmy, the first human born out of Dark, claimed the Dark Soul. While small and weak, the Furtive Pygmy's soul only grew as others became smaller. In doing so, humans gained a mysterious black sprite known as Humanity, a distinct life force from the Soul. As the Furtive Pygmy's Dark Soul grew stronger and more powerful than the Lord Souls of Light, the Furtive Pygmy became Manus, Father of the Abyss, who would destroy town of Oolacile after the town was persuaded by Darkstalker Kaathe to awaken Manus. Manus spread the Abyss, allowing Darkness to grow. As Dark grew, the Fire faded. Knight Artorias, commander of the Four Knights of Gwyn, set off with his wolf Sif to defeat Manus and stop the Abyss from spreading, but was ultimately defeated by Manus.
As the fire faded, Gwyn's great kingdom slowly fell apart. Gwynevere would leave Anor Londo, leaving just Gwyn and Gwyndolin. The Witch of Izalith would attempt to duplicate the First Flame with her pyromancies. This failed and instead engulfed the city of Izalith in great chaos fires, turning Izalith into the Demon Ruins. The Witch of Izalith's daughters would be turned into demonic lifeforms with only three survivors: Quelaag, Quelaag's unnamed sister, and Quelana. Gwyn's Silver Knights were sent off to repel the new demonic threat, but failed. With armor burned and charred black from combat, Gwyn retreated in search of a new way to keep the Fire burning. With his new found "Black" Knights, Gwyn goes to the Kiln of the First Flame, sacrificing himself to the First Flame to keep it burning. Gwyn becomes the Lord of Cinders, guarding the First Flame with his Black Knights. Back at Anor Londo, Gywndolin maintains the broken and darkened Anor Londo by himself, casting an illusion over darkened Anor Londo to create all the guards, gargoyles, sunlight, and even Gwynevere to recreate Anor Londo's former glory. Here, he alone guards Anor Londo and eventually, through the illusion of Gwynevere, gives the Chosen Undead the Lordvessel to succeed Gwyn.
Eventually, the Dark will overpower the Flame and the Fire will die. Gwyn's actions only delay the inevitable of the Age of Dark from arriving. Some time after this, the Chosen Undead awakes in the Undead Asylum.
Part Four: The Chosen Undead and the Player who Chooses
The Chosen Undead is thrust into a cruel and dangerous world with an incredibly high amount of obstacles along the way. They may not be alone in the world, but they certainly have just about every odd put against them. The entire world is literally dying and hollowing. Even the great city of Anor Londo is falling in shambles. Without any purpose in life, the Chosen Undead will simply turn hollow like many other Undead. Whether you're Solaire of Astora, searching for Light in the Darkness of Lordran, or Siegmeyer of Catarina, adventuring for the sake of excitement, there is no happy ending, just hollowing.
All this is similar to the player's actual hardships to progress in the game. The game is physically designed to be hard in order to grant the feeling of extreme accomplishment after an exceptionally hard boss fight or area. Only in by giving up on the game does the Chosen Undead fail to reach the First Flame. In the most literal sense, the game's difficulty is part of the narrative experience. The physical difficulty of the game and the potential anger and frustration it may provoke are reflections of the depression and hopelessness characters have in-game. The only thing that sets apart the Chosen Undead and the player from any other character in the game is determination and willingness to push onwards past tasks of unsurmountable difficulty.
In this sense, the player has the ultimate form of control over the Chosen Undead, literally setting them apart from other Undeads attempting the fulfill the Undead prophecy Knight Oscar described in the Asylum.
But, when looking at Dark Souls for the first time, it's easy to gloss over the story especially since of how convoluted it is. Outside of the beginning cinematic, you're not really presented with any kind of story outside of little bits of dialogue and the flavor text of items which people never read. From a pure mechanics point of view, this makes perfect sense though. The story is never relevant to how someone plays Dark Souls. The only real choices made are in specific NPC side quests or the main choice between prolonging the Age of Fire or starting the Age of Dark. Most people who play Dark Souls completely blind will end up saving none of the NPCs (or at least skipping most of their stories entirely) and prolonging the Age of Fire just because those are considered the "default" routes. At no point in the entire game is it any more advantageous or disadvantageous in the grand scheme to choose either ending over another. Even the NPCs are of fairly minor consideration. Therefore, the game very quickly teaches that the story is for the most part irrelevant to the gameplay and can mostly be ignored despite being incredibly rich and expansive.
It ultimately comes down the player choice as to whether or not the story is of any relevance to the gameplay. While the mechanics still do reflect the story, there is very little necessity to the story to make the game mechanically strong. Dark Souls by itself is a fucking amazing game that handles and plays great (with exception to a couple lazy areas and bosses). I would argue that the story is still incredibly useful to understanding the world and makes the game more magical, but in and of itself that is completely a player choice. The only incorrect thing to do would be to say that the game has absolutely no characterization or story to it.