I’ve covered some pretty big games here on the Platinumist and I’ve made some pretty big claims and opinions here before. However, one opinion that I vehemently believe in is that the Dark Souls story kinda sucks. I hold this belief for a lot of reasons, which as always I will go into detail down below. I know I’m going to offend some people here, but I ask you simply this… Are you prepared to dive? Into another Unpopular Opinion!?!?
Destiny, Dark Souls and Accessible Stories
This may sound like a weird comparison to make, but stick with me. If you have played either game then you should understand where I am coming from. Dark Souls explains very little of its story to you. You are typically treated to an in-game cut-scene early on, then some opera style music and to top it all off a dragon or two that are flying in the air. Eventually you will then awaken as a corpse type being from a coffin or just you know in the field. You are always referred to as either the unkindled, ashen one or you know the cursed one. No matter what colorful noun they use to describe you, the point is this, you are garbage.
It’s a pretty good point to make that regardless of what you want your character to be you are worthless in the beginning and that you are alive by some miracle or magic story plot device. You aren’t the hero of the story and in some endings you know this by the ending of the game. The point that I’m making here is that no matter where you fall on this opinion, whom you are in this world is pointless. Whether you are a cursed ranger or a unkindled assassin, your characters story in this world doesn’t matter.
(Sorry to tell you lord alien face…but your services….are pointless)
The reason I compare this to Destiny is in the way that the story is hidden from the players. Now hiding a story is perfectly okay, if it makes sense to do so. If anyone remembers a few years ago when Destiny released there was a major complaint about it. I mean besides the game not living up to the hype and it being an overall washout of what was promised by Bungie and Activision. Sorry…I might be a little sore there. One of the major complaints though came in the way of Destiny’s story and the fact that it was hidden behind these little things called Grimoire cards. Why didn’t people enjoy them? Well mostly because it was the story, but you had to go online or the Destiny app to actually see the story they created.
Now I know what you are going to say here. “BUT DARK SOULS IS DIFFERENT!!! IT’S STORY IS ALL IN FRONT OF YOU, YOU JUST HAVE TO PAY ATTENTION TO IT!!!”. To which I say, yes, but no. These two games have virtually the same story issues. Go ahead…Argue. My point is this if, If I have to take a pen and paper and record everything that I have done in the game to tie story plots together that take place over thousands of years, is your story honestly accessible? No it’s not. That was Destiny’s problem. To learn about the story of the game you literally had to leave the game to learn it.
(A true dark souls lore aficionado could make an entire book about that tree)
If you have to ever stop playing a game, which by the way is designed to be played, to comprehend or understand the story elements it’s a badly designed story. I know that you may also be saying well that’s how environmental storytelling is designed, to which I say. I’m glad you brought it up.
Dark Souls and Environmental Storytelling
Now if there is one thing that dark souls does above all else it is in the creation of a world. I mean the world of dark souls is just fantastic. From enemy placement to traps, everything has a reason to exist. I’m a sucker for environmental storytelling and in my early days of the Souls series I loved the way that they enacted their own brand of unique storytelling. That is until I started to think a little bit more in-depth with how the storytelling works in the souls games. The souls games misses the mark on how an environmental story is supposed to work.
In my mind environmental storytelling is a supplement to the main story. Think of something like Bioshock. The entirety of the world design fits the story. Seeing bodies laying in the streets or the water logged halls of Rapture makes sense because you know that there is no more law and order. The fact that splicers are currently roaming the medical pavilion or even the arts district is because they are looking for ADAM. Stores being looted is just one result of all that. The environment is supplementing the main story by giving visual cues that don’t need to be explained.
(This is environmental storytelling)
In something like Dark Souls this doesn’t exist. Think of games that excel at environmental storytelling. The Last of Us, The Unfinished Swan or even the aforementioned Bioshock are great examples of games with environmental storytelling. The problem is that the storytelling and lore of Dark Souls isn’t clearly established in the first place. I can buy an overall plot of you being a cursed soul and that your main duty in life is to rekindle the bonfires or even to gather the ashes of the lords of cinder, but does that story match what the environment is selling to you?
The environment of Dark Souls is a pretty one to be sure and its setting is one of the reasons I truly love this game series. The problem is that the stories don’t coincide. I know that the people of Andor Lando and the Undead Parrish have gone crazy or something of the like, but what does that have to do with the overall plot. Enemies like the Pursuer from DS2 or even the Covetous Demon have extended lore that does nothing to progress the overall plot of the game. I find this big demon in the middle of an arena and I have to fight him to progress. Why does all of this lore exist?
(Knowing that he used to be a king who cheated on his wife does not make this game any better)
I mean there are people out there who make a living just breaking down the lore from these games. My biggest problem here is that I don’t think the story is worthy of even having a lore as big or as vast as it claims to have. Take for example Ornstein and Smough. The amount of lore and backstory that is given to just two bosses in this game is insurmountable. Don’t get me wrong here, obviously From Software is on to something, but is the world building honestly that good?
My personal opinion is that this is a story that was developed to be completely interpreted by the players and the developers just threw cool things in seeing what would stick. Instead of making a story or lore that is deep and has multiple twists and turns they made everything super obscure, which honestly works better for this type of game. Instead of telling you who Ornstein and Smough are, you have to investigate and come to your own conclusions. Then some players take it to the extreme and make wild connections to the world and every little detail claiming that it is “environmental storytelling”. Players pay attention to some of the smallest things like what color the cathedral was while fighting, what hand was a boss wielding a weapon in, what colors were the feather in their cloak? HOW MANY TEETH DOES THE BOSS HAVE!?!?
(I just want to mention that under this is pure air…how are flowers growing in this area?)
It’s freaking exhausting looking at the lengths that players will go to make a connection to the world. The point is that this isn’t true world building or even environmental storytelling. It is developers avoiding making a solid story and instead they fragment ideas so that you put the story together for them. It’s like if you came across a sword in a stone and on it is inscribed some ancient wisdom. You make some kind of epic story to go behind how the sword got there but in reality it was just that some idiot stuck the sword in cement and forgot to pull it out before it was dry. Of course our story is cool, but we don’t even know what the original creators intent was for the story.
If you think that they honestly made this type of intricate plot then you are most likely sorely mistaken. In fact most of the “amazing” environmental storytelling in game is probably nothing more than pure coincidence. Take for example the fight with Ornstein and Smough. If you kill Ornstein first then Smough smashes his hammer down and then the real fight begins. Fans theorize though that there is animation where Ornstein holds his hands up indicating that he is still alive and then Smough kills him because he is the executioner. So Smough actually kills Ornstein!?!?!?!
(That little brief 1 second at the end when he raises his hand a little is why this idea exists…seriously)
…..Really. I can buy some of the lore and stories that are peddled, but I don’t believe for one second that this was something done on purpose. In fact I would almost say that maybe it was a dramatic situation and they were trying to sell the fact that you killed him. I like the idea of environmental storytelling and looking into every animation and cranny, but I think that maybe we have been overanalyzing Dark Souls and the breadth of its story.
Dark Souls Story Is Pointless
For a series that is widely regarded as being hard and brutal it is hard to believe that the story is beloved by so many. Most individuals who play the soul series would probably say they know nothing about the story, or they just enjoy the gameplay. There are quite a few that will tell you that it is awesome and that the story is worth replaying time and time again. Here’s my problem with the base story that is present though, It doesn’t matter what you do…Nothing changes regardless of the actions in the story.
(Nothing ever changes)
That is probably the crappiest part of the Dark Souls stories. Regardless of your actions as a player, the ending doesn’t matter. Whether you linked the bonfires or decided to extinguish whatever proverbial flame exists now, your actions are pointless. This is proven every time they release the next game in the series. Every new entry proves that your ancestors actions didn’t matter one bit. The land of Andor Londo still ages, people remain cursed, creatures inhabit the lands and poor adventurers like yourself try to link the flames. It’s a never-ending cycle of….well death. Which to be honest is a pretty good allegory for the game itself.
The real problem here is that the plot isn’t actually all that exciting. I mean If this story was in any other genre (except maybe an RPG), most gamers wouldn’t care about this story one bit. In fact most individuals would say that the story is dumb and that it ends up being filler. Somehow though, Dark Souls gets a pass. I can at least understand why people like the lore, I disagree that it is as deep as everyone says it is. That level of fanaticism I could never agree with. The problem is that I cannot fathom why anyone likes the story that is being told though…
If I told you that at the end of your game nothing mattered, would you still play it? Would you still care? Probably not, unless it had some deep meta reason for explaining that nothing really matters. If you played a Mario game and at the end of Peaches castle and then a toad jumps out and informs you she’s been dead this whole time would you feel a little cheated? Yeah…probably. If the game treated you to slaughtering Goombas, stomping on Koopa Troopas and then eventually eating the unborn fetuses of toads to get a 1-up on life, would you complain then? Of course not, because the game was fun. That ending didn’t matter in the long run. Welcome to the world of Dark Souls.
In The End
I’m aware that Dark souls is a beloved franchise and you know what, I love it too. I’m a fan of its combat, deep RPG systems, and just the overall gameplay experience. The problem here is that the story and the lore never grabbed me. I found some plots and stories to be interesting but never phenomenal or well written, and why? Because the story isn’t written out. Lore has to exist within a story that is told to you. Look at games that have deep lore. They have this lore because their stories are well established and they took the time to write it all out.
(This series has a more established story and world than dark souls…which is painful to say)
Dark Souls doesn’t do this. It does something completely different, which is let you, the player, create the story. It’s not that this is a bad design. In fact it’s quite brilliant, but it does lead it to one major problem. The story and lore just isn’t that good. In fact in some ways it kind of sucks. Hiding story elements is okay, but Dark Souls merely just implies things, it never gives you that satisfying answer. That’s the problem with Dark Souls story. And that’s just one more unpopular opinion.