Just over a year ago, I returned to my abandoned save file on Dark Souls after reading this recently republished article by Rich Stanton on getting every achievement in the game. As he mentions, it takes multiple, different playthroughs and completions of the game in the difficult NG+ mode in order to get them all, which in of itself is a huge challenge. What drew me back to the game, however, was not this story of him overcoming this challenge, but the way he set up the unlocking of the final achievement to take place at a certain plot point. And not just any plot point, but one that he himself had given some bizarre (at the time) personal meaning.
I ditched the game just after the first bell. I really struggled with the Bell Gargoyles and then got frustrated making no headway into Darkroot Garden, a combination of not really understanding the ways to make myself more effective, not being entirely convinced I was going the ‘right’ way and my own (now obvious) lack of ability. At no point, in these frustrating hours, was I aware of anything resembling a deeper story outside of the intro sequence. Not just any story, either, but this article hinted at at least one character with a deep backstory, one that is open to personal interpretation. The way that the battle with Sif was described hinted at elements that I genuinely didn’t think were in this difficult action-RPG, and are things that I really enjoy in my games. The way Far Cry 2 let me carve my own narrative, the way Zelda games give you subquests that occasionally paint characters in completely different lights and the cast of Silent Hill 2, the way they all have their own secrets that you discover through means that aren’t just lengthy cutscene explanations. It looked like Dark Souls had some interesting narrative tricks up its sleeve and I had somehow missed the lot of them!
I went back, loaded up my old save file. I persevered and I was not disappointed. Dark Souls became the best videogame I have ever played.
Without sounding like I’m being some kind of massive show-off, but I don’t find Dark Souls difficult any more. Three very different playthroughs have ensured that I know the game like the back of my hand. The tricks and traps that caught me out in that 80 hour first run through I fly past, some I even use to my advantage. The systems behind character and weapon improvement I now fully understand and can even game them, allowing me to have a ridiculously powerful character within the opening hours. I know the game, and with Dark Souls, knowledge is power. It isn’t actually that difficult (I know, right?!), it just requires a very different way of thinking - a way that modern games simply do not need any more. A way of thinking that got you through games like Castlevania. Like Manic Miner. Spelunky, not Bioshock Infinite.
I know and have learned the game through experience, learning from others and repetition. There are no surprises left in the gameplay. I have wrung it dry.
Despite not thinking there was much of a story to Dark Souls at first, a year later it is still the richest vein. I somehow managed to save Solaire on my first time through the game, and therefore fought alongside him during the final battle. On its surface, I met a friendly knight who was committed to ‘jolly co-operation’, so of course he’d be on hand for the final battle. Reading deeper into his tale and the various interpretations of who or what he may be was mindblowing. Learning about Lordran and its inhabitants became as rewarding an experience as the game itself, and encouraged me to play through the game again, seeking out the story strands of the weird characters dotted about the land. Discussing theories with fellow players, watching lengthy YouTube videos detailing the backstory of Seath the Scaleless or even just noticing something that affects my own interpretation of something, then antagonizing over whether or not that actually makes any sense!
A similar storytelling device is used in Gone Home, a game held in the highest regard for not only the tale that it tells, but the means it uses to flesh it out. From the word go, Gone Home only has one ending, but the various things you find as you explore the house add background and weight to both further revelations and what you already know so far. Of course, Gone Home is entirely focused around this experience and therefore goes way, way deeper into the various story strands, but a character like Siegmeyer of Caterina and the way he goes from cowardly, comedy looking fat knight to becoming an absolutely tragic hero is a heartbreaking tale that other games that pride themselves on their storytelling (I’m looking at you, David Cage) don’t even get close to. It is another great example of a kind of storytelling you only get with videogames.
Another truly great thing is the sense of place and purpose almost everything in the game has. Not a weapon or suit of armour, and even some basic pickups actually have a reason for being where you find them that ties into the lore. An Occult Club found in the secret stash of Havel the Rock insinuates that he was plotting against the Gods he apparently served. Black Iron Tarkus’ armour found on the floor of the huge chapel in Anor Londo creates the story of him falling to his death from the rafters above. My favourite is the theory behind the brilliantly-named boss ‘Ceaseless Discharge’ and the Chaos Ember. When you defeat him and he falls to his death, at the exact point where he would’ve hit the floor is a single human corpse holding the Chaos ember. Some players believe that, now dead, his cursed, deformed body was freed from the effects of the ember, returning him to a humanoid form. This all might be utter bollocks! It might be people looking for something that isn’t actually a thing at all! It might just be a massive coincidence! In a game with such importance placed on the way items found can add to the rich lore of the world, you just can’t count out such theories!
A year later, there’s still very few games that hold a candle to the storytelling and depth of character I found in Dark Souls. Most games do little more than tell a story that a film could do better, because the film wouldn’t be asking you to take part in some arbitrary shooting sections every five minutes. It’s a shame, as videogames offer so much more in the way of being able to dive into a story and see so much more depth.
Dark Souls 2 is released in a few weeks. Although the time I’ve had with it has been limited, clearly any fears about the gameplay being simplified or the game being given concessions to easy, modern gaming have been quelled. It is very much a sequel to Dark Souls. If it is anything like the original, I will play it and I will learn it and I will master it, as that is the only way to truly succeed at Dark Souls. I can’t wait, and it’ll be a great few months as my friends and I try to work out all of the little intricacies of the various parts of the game.
Eventually, we will. The game will be mastered. There will come a point where all of the weapon stats and methods to best bosses will be uncovered and posted on the various wikis dedicated to the subject. I hope that Dark Souls 2 includes the deep, rich lore that I got so much out of in the original. Every time I talk about the game, I learn something about the world of Lordran that I didn’t previously know, and it all adds up to being the most incredible world I’ve ever had to explore in a game.
A year later, I might know everything about how to play the game, but Lordran still grows. As many plaudits Dark Souls deserves for its gameplay and approach to it, I believe it deserves just as many for creating a world full of individual little stories that can be fleshed out by those willing to dig a bit deeper and make their own conclusions. That stuff lasts forever.