Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ludonarrative Resonance in Dark Souls

This article contains minor spoilers for Dark Souls.

Dark Souls has been widely praised for its minimalist narrative, which eschews the traditional methods of dumping exposition on the player in favor of a slow process of discovery. There are no branching dialogue trees, no bustling towns of peasants eager for help with the rats in their cellar, and no expository cut scenes outside of the tutorial. The setting speaks for itself, with a pervasive sense of melancholy, lost opportunities and a hideously imaginative art design which stirs the primal fear of the uncanny as ably as it oozes menace. But there are many video games which allow the player to speak for themselves, whose story is pieced together through hints from obscure locations and creepy tableaux in abandoned corners of the levels. What really makes Dark Souls' story work, what allows it to capture the imagination despite offering virtually nothing to go on, is its resonance.

I'll define ludonarrative resonance here as a harmony between the gameplay mechanics and the story or narrative of a video game. The major story themes and plot twists are echoed in the game itself, and the characters' actions fit the context set by the game. This is not as easy as it sounds, because a lot of game mechanics don't lend themselves very well to a coherent and dramatic story. The more freedom and choice the player is allowed, the less likely it is that they will find themselves creating a dramatic arc that syncs up at the right moment with the emotional mood the writer expects in the next cut scene. The longer and more "epic" a game grows, the more times the player will put the game down and pick it up later, disinterested and distracted, with only a vague memory of what's going on. The more air time the player receives compared to the other characters, the less likely each one is to be memorable and the less attention will be paid to them. So for a sprawling open-world online action RPG like Dark Souls, the hurdles to jump are tall indeed.

The spiderweb of connections between areas in Dark Souls, combined with only the barest hint of an opening quest, give an almost vertiginous feeling of choice to the new player. Each of the game's first few areas offers multiple branching paths and a complex series of shortcuts back home, but the difficulty level of the enemies is carefully calibrated to offer a smooth progression in only one direction. Every new player will suffer a few nasty deaths to enemies that are virtually impossible to defeat until later in the game, creating the impression of a callous, unfeeling, futile world even though a gentle difficulty curve lies just around the next corner. The story details drip out slowly, with characters encountered in the wilderness casually mentioning they will visit the game's hub area of Firelink Shrine as a prompt for the player to return and discover the next chapter. The second act of the game is even more linear, with an ascent to the heavenly city of Anor Londo providing a suitable backdrop to the introduction of the main conflict the player will be asked to resolve, while offering some of the most difficult and tense encounters in the game. The Firelink Shrine becomes unusable at the start of the second act, and the player arrives with an inventory full of side quests to be completed at the Undead Parish which resides next door to the fortress that the player is given a quest to scale. Just as the storyline recedes in the final act, with a quest essentially to explore to the ends of the earth, the game's fast travel mechanic is unlocked. Where should we go with this new power to go anywhere? You guessed it - the last mini-boss of the second act gives you the key to reactivate Firelink Shrine upon his defeat, where everyone you rescued in the first two acts is there to greet you and offer hints on where to go next. The game's high difficulty level makes the player's journey and difficulties relatively predictable, so that each new character's sparing lines of dialogue will be treasured simply because they come at the right moment to serve as a respite from the grueling slog of gameplay. By the end of the second act, the player feels like a conquering hero; by the end of the game, which drags on for a dozen hours as the player descends deeper into the earth and encounters the more sinister supporting cast, there is only a grim determination to defeat the remaining enemies and carry this sordid encounter to its end. The rest of the characters know this, and cease their soaring speeches. The final boss, Lord Gwyn is not accompanied by the bombastic cymbal clashes and ethereal choirs of Anor Londo, but a mournful piano theme. By now, you have seen what this world has to offer, you have walked in Gwyn's shoes, and you feel only pity for this broken husk of a man even as you know your meeting was inevitable.

But you are not alone in this lonely world. The "massively single-player" nature of Dark Souls means you are surrounded on every side by messages from other players, from ghostly echoes of their presence as someone across the world battles the same enemies that just killed you for the third time. By joining a "covenant", one of the factions within the game, you can choose to help other players or invade their world as additional enemies, chosen always at random so that you can't get too comfortable with anyone. The NPCs (non-player characters) who inhabit the world with you exhibit the same behavior: they belong to covenants, they will appear either as allies or enemies - often both - according to their personality, and they are well aware that they live in a fallen world of a million aspiring heroes and a billion monsters who all come back to life every time those heroes need to rest and recover their strength. They all use the same equipment and the same attacks that the player possesses; in fact, most of the armor available to the player is found on the dead bodies of its owners, who showed it off just a few hours ago. The very first character you meet remarks, "Fate of the Undead, right? Well, you're not the first." Game mechanics are meticulously lampshaded in the style of the Assassin's Creed series to create a sense that the game world is a real, cohesive creation. Every similarity between the player's own experience and the story of someone else going along in parallel gives more confidence that the cryptic, sparse utterances of the NPCs means something to the whole, and it does.

Not only is the story of Dark Souls well aware that it is inside a game, but it offers a narrative challenge of its own for the New Game Plus mode, where the game restarts after completion on a higher difficulty level. The first time you play through the game, your "best friends" - the ones that have been by your side in the toughest fights - will come to a bad end. You can save them, but only by following very specific paths through the game and giving up precious resources. The second time you go through, you are on a mission to save these characters from their tragic fate, even though the original save-the-world plot line is by now utterly predictable. If you are more the rebellious type, you can reject the main quest line entirely the second time through, and find the true story behind Lord Gwyn lurking at the bottom of the inky blackness called The Abyss. With only a couple hundred words of additional dialogue, the player's experience can be entirely different, and the secret explanation is so well-supported that it's not at all clear that the "evil" path through the game is any worse than the "good" one.

One final, masterful example of resonance is inherited from the game's predecessor, Demon's Souls: the deep link between the loot system and the narrative itself. Dark Souls is a game that revolves around exploring the world to find loot - new weapons and armor, new magic spells, and the souls of other brave warriors that serve as currency - as opposed to finding it on the bodies of your enemies, or buying it from a series of increasingly well-equipped shops, or receiving it as a reward for making progress through the game. Paying loving attention to the world is the surest way to develop your character and acquire the wide range of equipment you'll need to tackle the challenges before you. Each item has a description, accessible via the equipment menu, which offers a short summary of what it does and a paragraph of lore about the setting and history of the game. This replaces the books, audio logs, or loquacious NPCs of other games with a completely variable amount of information, visible at the player's discretion. The game's branching, almost directionless structure means the player will be reading these descriptions often, simply to figure out what's going on. To figure out which door your new key fits into, simply read its description. As the game progresses, the items you find start revealing more and more startling things about the story, eventually dropping hints that completely change your picture of the game. Many of these are parceled out in the third act, after the story has been introduced, as a way to keep the player thinking through otherwise boring areas. This magic ring is from Gwyndolin, god of the moon, "the last remaining deity in Anor Londo." So what was Gwynevere, goddess of sunlight, doing there in the second act? Piece together a couple more clues and you can organically figure out what no one tells you explicitly. There are several instances of this kind of puzzle dynamic, so that the player feels they are uncovering the hidden story of the world as they are physically plumbing its deepest depths. Nothing is as shocking as the Talisman of Beasts in Demon's Souls, which is the most useful item in the game and simultaneously contains the game's most devastating plot twist, but that's probably for the better, since this game is more about slow revelation of deeper themes than single climactic moments.

One final ingredient is the collaboration among players themselves. It takes a very courageous game to lock its best musical track, its most awe-inspiring moment, inside one of the most deviously hidden secret areas, a secret wall behind a secret wall inside a tree trunk in the poison swamp. Yet far more players find it than this description would suggest, thanks to the voluminous fan wiki pages. The high difficulty, expansive world, malleable play style, and dozens of secrets in Dark Souls combine to make the game very friendly to guides, wikis, walkthroughs and lengthy YouTube explanations. It's a good bet that anyone who completes the game has relied heavily on other players to help them find those last few secrets. This out-of-game help doesn't feel intrusive because the game is already set up mechanically for players to help each other, via messages left on the ground, via impromptu co-op from strangers, or simply hearing the joyous ringing of the church bell tower after someone else defeats the first major boss. The game is a brutally difficult test, but it's an open-book, open-notes test.

No comments:

Post a Comment