I hammer on a lot about storytelling in games. About how I am dissatisfied with the current way most games immerse the player into their tales. And how I believe we are heading towards a proverbial renaissance. One in which video games will one day be considered “on the level” along side other great pieces of literature in film, TV and prose writing.
As much as current interactive narratives annoy me, there are a few stand-outs that I have come across over the last few years that give me hope that we are headed in the right direction.
Because I don’t want to be a negative Nancy and be that guy who points out what the industry gets wrong, I thought it would be cool to look at two games that I reckon get stuff right in regards to narrative and why.
The two games I want to look at here are Dark Souls III and Bloodborne.
Okay, so right off the bat, I’m kind of cheating. Both of these games are developed by From Software and both are incredibly similar in certain ways. They do, however, have a very interesting style and are worth our consideration in regards to narrative theory.
Dark Souls III starts you off as an undead warrior, raised to hunt down some seriously badass dudes, called the Lords of Cinder, and convince/force them to return to their thrones for a kind of ritual sacrifice that will save the universe from Armageddon.
Bloodborne, on the other hand, follows the exploits of an unknown foreigner who awakens in the city of Yarnham with no memory and only one instruction - to seek out the pale blood. Upon exploring Yarnham, you discover it has been overrun by vicious monsters, as well as a bloodthirsty organization of “hunters” intent on clearing them from the streets before sunrise.
Both of these games are incredibly hard. They punish you for being bad or lazy, and pit the odds insurmountably against you. On the other side of the coin, both games reward you for perseverance and exploration by giving you new weapons and snippets of story.
Minimalist Storytelling and Storyworlds
That last bit is why these two games are a hit. They both have incredibly rich mythologies and both of them give you their mythologies in a very interesting way.
The storytelling in these games is often described as minimalistic. It is entirely possible to play through them to the end without having a clue of what is going on. However, for those willing to engage and truly lose themselves in the worlds by paying attention to their surroundings and reading fragments of paper and item descriptions, there are a plethora of interesting stories to be told. This is due to a technique we call Storyworld Building. In the context of transmedia, this technique essentially means to create a kind of fictional encyclopedia. You can then mine for hundreds of stories. In the writing stage, it includes everything from geography, culture and religion, to family histories, literature, scientific journals and news articles.
Now, I’m not saying that the creators of Bloodborne and Dark Souls intentionally accommodated this technique for their games - to the best of my knowledge, neither are currently part of transmedia franchises. However, they stumbled upon the concept of having a full-fledged story world is irrelevant. What is relevant is how this technique effects the plot of each game and the way it is delivered to the player.
Show, Don't Tell
In the writing industry, we have one golden rule: Show, don’t tell. Showing your story is always far better than exposition heavy dialogue or prose.
In fiction writing, it is often done by removing any kind of “feeling” word (felt, thought, loved, hated, desired, etc). Instead, the writer is forced to unpack how a character feels about something in longer form through body actions, expressions, and dialogue.
In film, since it is a much more visual medium, directors and writers need to rely on their actors to show what is going on through facial expressions and mannerisms. Film also has the advantage of things like music and environment to do this. It is film that we need to pay close attention to, as they are most similar to video games. However, most games aren’t quite up to par with complex facial expressions, yet, as ways to show story instead of telling it, and that, unfortunately, is where a lot of it fails.
Why It Works
In Bloodborne and Dark Souls, an incredible amount of work has gone into fashioning the story worlds which players will reside in for hours upon hours. Instead of having huge chunks of dialogue where we are told all about this and that, From Software essentially creates a capsule for us to step inside. On the inside of this capsule, we find a full-fledged universe. History and plot are divulged to us in a subtle, more natural way. Yes, at times it is told through dialogue or item description, but it is always fragmented and ambiguous. Often times the story is given to us via seeing for example a toppled over statue, or the rotting remains of soldiers marked with a particular crest. Knowing what we know about particular parts of the fictional world, we discover creature design corresponding with and unpacking more information.
Much of Bloodborne and Dark Souls is left open for the audience to connect dots and create their own understanding of the plot and of the complex histories that weave these worlds together. It allows players to truly enjoy gameplay and story without being stopped every two minutes for a lengthy cutscene.
There are definitely other games out there that incorporate other fantastic storytelling techniques, but we will save them for another day. Both Dark Souls and Bloodborne are important because they incorporate a peculiar style of storytelling. They don’t drip feed us the plot. Instead they focus on seducing and enticing us to discover it for ourselves, and, in my humble opinion, this is a direction worth learning from.
Remember, it is always important to hold story and play in tangent with one another. If one gets too big than the other, the game will suffer, and that’s not at all what we are about is it?
As I said at the beginning of this article, we are headed towards a storytelling renaissance. If we pay attention closely to those games making new ground, and give those who know story and the craft of writing a chance, you’ll be amazed at what will be accomplished.