Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Dark Souls' plot obfuscation is fantastic - Opinion

[contains minor spoilers]

Gaming is a unique medium in a multitude of regards, but no aspect is more important (and central) to it than player agency. Being able to actively influence a digital world is what has defined gaming for generations, and every title has tackled this in a different way. The range can run the gamut from low-input kinetic novels to sandbox-style open worlds, with the player's interaction swaying between being vastly inconsequential to entirely defining the experience. Player agency is one of the reasons why games that proclaim "your choices matter!" (Mass Effect, Heavy Rain, Life is Strange) can receive both a massive following for their interactions, as well as a lot of criticism for their stumbling.

A facet that's not often discussed at length, but is an important concept regarding player agency nonetheless, is player comprehension. The absence of any meaningful gameplay mechanics is a blemish often tied to the walking simulator genre, but games in that vein (Gone Home, Dear Esther, Passage) are more thoroughly concerned with comprehension over any kind of "fun" variability. For some people the lack of depth and precision regarding player input can be extremely off-putting, however advocators of the genre would likely argue that grappling with the story (or lack thereof) is what makes the experience so invigorating.

Comprehension is expected out of any medium of course, but here the player is given the ability to actively miss opportunities to comprehend. When you read a book or watch a movie, you're often given the same exact experience as anyone else is, only missing out on important events if you're not paying attention or unable to parse certain subtext. Since games allow you to explore a space, you're not only engaging with those factors but you have to manually search for and find the plot in the first place. While it's true that a majority of titles funnel all story events to you directly through cutscenes, the Souls series (including Bloodborne) takes great advantage of the comprehension component: you encounter the plot in medias res and are only nudged towards the conclusion, much of the context scattered along the journey's roadside.

Make no mistake about it—stitching together the plot of the Souls games is a difficult endeavor, as many story threads and specifics are purposely left absent. Summarizing the core events in each game may be simple, but attempting to decipher the motivation and connections of all the characters and areas can become daunting on your lonesome. Yet that's part of the fun—each of the Souls games has a living, frightening world that's filled with absurd characters and unknown wonders. Simply being told whom your enemies are and why you should fight them takes away the opaque shroud of mystery that's so deeply entwined with the allure of the series.

You act as both a pioneer and archeologist, venturing into forbidden depths and scavenging for items that serve as clues about the bygone (or horrifically transformed) civilizations. When you first arrive at the Tower of Latria or Anor Londo, the furthest thing from your mind should be "I understand what's going on"—the Souls games thrive off of your fear and curiosity, propelling you forward so that you may uncover the world's twisted tale. The enemies and architecture are the first thing imprinted on your mind, and as you loot ancient tombs and plunder residential stashes you begin to form a picture of whom resided there and what life was like for them. Often do you realize the legacy and importance of the major players after battling them as a boss, your presence reduced to a veritable wrecking ball directed by each game's puppeteer (Monumental, Frampt, etc.), which greatly adds to the melancholic futility plaguing each world.

It's important to be able to miss details and context because it adds to the mystery of the universe. Whether it be the realization of Yurt's motives or having to decide who dies when Pate and Creighton duel to the death, you're given pivotal moments where your comprehension is tested. The notorious aspect about Dark Souls's ending (besides its brevity) is that you're given a choice—something many players (including myself) weren't aware of the first time. But with enough guidance from Kaathe you'll realize that the Age of Fire isn't meant to go on forever, and it may very well be better for the world to usher in the Age of Dark instead. There are a plethora of these choices sprinkled throughout the world with some outcomes being surreptitiously hidden (like Rhea's fate or the death of Gascoigne's daughters), only adding to the feeling that the world is not only alive but actively hostile towards its own inhabitants. Many games try to convey how dangerous your task is and how frightful its villains are, but the Souls games overwhelmingly succeed at making you dread nearly every step you take, wary that your handful of allies can permanently die if you're not vigilant (RIP my Cathedral Ward friends).

Detractors will argue that sloughing the game's plot onto its item descriptions can be purposely obscure and somewhat archaic, which is an entirely valid point. Similar to how the gameplay punishes those that are impatient, the story mercilessly punishes the unobservant. It's not the ideal way to experience a tale (especially since it's likely you'll have to use wikis for clarity), and it's clear its delivery wouldn't work with many other plots, but the obfuscation is married to the Souls' theme so well that I wouldn't have it any other way. The games are entertaining enough on their own without dipping into the lore, but comprehending the broken world you're trespassing through greatly enriches the experience. The fact that these games are uniquely isolated in this method of storytelling makes me cherish their presence even more, and I eagerly await the unraveling of Dark Souls 3's convoluted plot.

I want more memories like when I was cursed and kept foolishly attempting to explore New Londo Ruins at a low level, all because I heard the passing rumor that a healer was residing there; give me the chance to figure things out and screw up along the way.

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