Dark Souls 3 (1/3): Narrative Ambition

Having just concluded my playthrough of the Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls 3, I have exhausted all the Miyazaki-directed Soulsborne content there has ever been – and, according to the reports coming out of From Software, all such content there will ever be. As I’m sure everyone who reads this blog knows, I am something of a fan of the Soulsborne series. Aside from the superb gameplay, the fascinatingly weird lore and stories being told, and the truly beautiful aesthetics across everything from environments and buildings to enemies and items, their commitment to intricate worldbuilding remains a major inspiration for me in the construction of URR’s world. They inform how I think about the effects I want the underlying PCG systems to have on the player, primarily through the creation of a world that shouldn’t feel too much like a video game world, but like a space where a tremendous amount of things are taking place, and have taken place, but might have happened off-screen, or might be happening now but in another part of the world, and so forth. In the process, this means ensuring such a high level of detail that one can interrogate the world however deeply one wants, and still find detail and the minutiae of culture and history to reward the player’s interest; as one would in the real world.

Therefore, for the next three weekends, as I continue slowly working on conversation variables for URR’s long-time-coming and (I hope!) long-awaited 0.8 release in the spare moments between finishing off my first book, I’d like to give some of my thoughts on Dark Souls 3, the many many things it does right (and the tiny number of things it does wrong). All these entries have been already written, and therefore – for the first time in some time! – I’ll be able to ensure a regular and consistent set of updates within a series, whilst I continue working on 0.8 in my spare time, and crunching on finishing my book in my “main” working time. In terms of DS3, I’m particularly interested in the kinds of stories it tells, the questions it answers from the original game, and the experimental bosses it trialled with both success and, sadly, failure. Naturally, spoilers abound – Soulsborne games are best played when one knows nothing about them, so if you intend to play DS3 and care about the worldbuilding, lore or story in any meaningful sense, then I would suggest turning away now, and coming back next time when another URRpdate should, hopefully, be ready for your perusal.

Otherwise, this week (spoilers abound), we begin with…

Narrative Ambition

The first thing that stuck out to me, and which I think is particularly worth talking about here, is the narrative ambition of Dark Souls 3. Now, Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1 and Bloodborne have not exactly told small, modest stories; they have always been concerned with the rise and fall of civilisations, the (generally unseen and obscure) factions, powers, creatures and gods who control those civilisations, and (as I hope to talk about in greater detail in some future writing) the cycles and historical contingencies/regularities within these worlds. However, Dark Souls 3 goes one step further. Although I recognise Dark Souls 2 was (nominally) set in the same world as Dark Souls 1, it barely feels like it; the only references back to DS1 come in transparent fan-service, rather than any meaningful or deep engagement with the world produced in the original game, which are now seeing thousands or tens of thousands of years in the future. Dark Souls 3, by contrast, takes on the immense narrative/thematic challenge of looking at a world a vast length of time in the future from when the player last saw it, and “playing out” the conflicts and questions we saw in the original game to their conclusions, and simultaneously telling both its own story, and telling a story deeply rooted in the original game.

Dark Souls 3 makes it clear one is living in the same world as the original game, but moved on thousands of years. One segment in the game in particular made this especially clear; climbing to the top of a great architectural conurbation, the player finds themselves approaching a rotating stone lift, of the sort that ferried players upward in Anor Londo, without doubt one of the most iconic and well-known parts of the original Dark Souls. Upon ascending that lift – and all the time wondering “hang on, is this…?” – the player is then greeted with the site of the cathedral from the original game, and the name Anor Londo appears on-screen. This site of so much of the drama and lore importance from the original game has survived the ages, but it has not survived unchanged; the inside of the cathedral is ruined and decrepit, broken down and rotting, and inhabited by worshippers of “the deep” and a grotesque spider-like creature of the Abyss.

This reflection on what the world of Dark Souls 1 might look like millennia later is continued, and in my view presented wonderfully, when one reaches the centre of the cathedral. In the original game, one fought Ornstein and Smough, committed defenders of the existing order of gods and the false illusion of light and safety holding sway over the city. Here, instead, we enter a room with ruined pillars, sludge running across the floor, and a boss – Aldrich, the Saint of the Deep – who has apparently consumed one of the old gods, Gwyndolin. In Dark Souls 1, we are given the option of killing Gwyndolin (if one finds out how to gain access to that boss fight, and then decides to actually initiate the boss fight) but Dark Souls 3 assumes we did not – but after we left him alone, another creature came along and actually consumed him, in the process leading to the downfall of the old gods more fully than anything the player achieved in the original game, and the corruption of Anor Londo into something very, very different. For me, this was one of the most compelling moment of the game – the idea of a character from the original game being killed off-screen reinforces the common feeling of Soulsborne games as being within a living, changing world, but the consumption of the character left a troubling and unpleasant feeling, and one which really highlighted how little power the original gods/royalty hold in the world, that new powers have arisen, and that the world will continue to spin on without them.

There is a tremendous range of other examples I could draw on here to further this point, but I’d like to particularly focus on three. Firstly, in Dark Souls 3 we encounter a number of scholars who have been studying the ancient history of the world, and in doing so have come to influence some of those who might otherwise be expected to link the fire and preserve the existing world. Most wonderfully, one item description mentions that some actually doubt the linking of the fire ever happened. This is the act which maintained the ongoing age of fire for the first time, and required Gwyn to sacrifice himself in order to keep this age he created – and as we learned in the DLC, he created through even less pleasant means than we first thought. Indeed, this is the event we see in the introductory cutscene of the original game, and on which the entire series is based! But now, millennia in the future, we discover that some don’t believe this ever actually happened, and are basing religious beliefs on the back of this, as well as potentially influencing the shape and fate of the entire world. I loved this as yet another Soulsborne example of how history shifts over time, how accepted history is not necessarily a recording of the absolute truth, and that new ideological and intellectual currents can upset and shift what was previously taken for granted.

Secondly, I was struck by the continued, yet quite puzzling, presence of the Primordial Serpents. In Dark Souls 1, as I’m sure many of you remember, the player would ordinarily encounter a strange, giant, leathery creature known as Kingseeker Frampt – or at least, the upper part of Frampt’s unseen body. If one took a far harder and less-likely route through the game, the player would instead encounter Darkstalker Kaathe. It became apparent the two serpents opposed one another, with Frampt wishing to preserve the fire, and Kaathe wishing to usher in an age of dark. Their motivations were central to lore speculation in the original game, especially when considered in light of the other clues the game offered. For example, the game also featured a shield portraying two serpents joined together into one two-headed serpent (many thought this might imply they are two parts of the same creature, instead of two creatures of the same kind), a range of items whose descriptions shed a little bit of hints on the relationships between “serpents” and “dragons” and other creatures of a generally serpentine/draconic sort, and so forth. Nevertheless, in Dark Souls 3 the serpents are nowhere to be seen, but there is a ranged of fascinating clues about their continued presence. In Lothric Castle we find statues of one of the serpents transformed into an “angel”, complete with wings (but did they always have those wings unseen?); in the chapel where we fight Friede and Father Ariandel there is a fascinating mural showing black-robed individuals slaying two serpents; in the Ringed City we see other serpent statues, displaying a truly bizarre body more reminiscent of medieval bestiaries than anything else. The lore implications of these are beyond the scope of this piece (although some Googling will assist), but much like the above example, we seem to see the serpents still being important behind the scenes, the world changing and developing beyond what we saw in Dark Souls 1, and these are all sets of references that only make complete sense to those with a strong knowledge of the original game, and the ability to piece together the clues about what has happened in the intervening period.

Thirdly and lastly, those who delve especially deeply into lore have demonstrated that the “Way of White” – a holy, miracle-based religion and order of knights from Dark Souls 1 – appears to have metamorphosed into the religion of the “Deacons of the Deep” in Dark Souls 3, those who use abyssal or at least humanity-focused magic, worship Aldrich who devoured Gwyndolin, and are generally a very strange and far-from-holy selection of individuals. It appears that they became gradually corrupted by “the Deep” – whatever that actually is, which remains unclear and uncertain – and although they continued to use the miracles of the Way of White, they also became increasingly interested in the magic of the Deep; what we find in game is a strange melding of the two. Given what we know in the original game about the Way of White, and the implied length of time between the few games, this is a fascinating example – how many other games have done this? – of a religion shifting and changing over time, drifting away from its original principles, or adopting a new syncretic mix of its original tenets and new spiritual concepts. I recommend a Google if you’re interested as what I’ve written down here is only some of the explanation, but the way that story is told is, again, a deep engagement with the world of the original game, and a fascinating – and unsettling – exploration of how things have changed over the intervening millennia.

To conclude this first look at Dark Souls 3, I would argue that there is a fundamental difference here between the last two Souls games in how they referred back to the original Dark Souls 1. All the “references” to DS1 in DS2 felt, to my mind, like mere fan service. Many of them made little sense in their placement or location and had no particular lore consequence; they were shoe-horned into what was, effectively, an almost completely new world with only the loosest threads of the connection to the world that had come before. Dark Souls 1 was taken to be a source of elements without any deep connection; ideas, concepts, images and names severed from their actual original impact, meaning and position, and reproduced as a way to attempt to rekindle some of the excitement of the original game. I’m also not saying Dark Souls 3 is free of the illogical-fan-service trope – why is Andre back?! – but those examples are very few and far between, and beyond those all the engagements with Dark Souls 1 take place in a deep story sense, building on and developing that original world and referring back to it when appropriate, but referring back in order to build a new story which exists by itself, but reflects and iterates on its origins.

In a broader sense, I also think that telling one story over such a period inevitably upsets everything we think we know about the pacing and flow of narrative structure. By having two games so far apart, they were able to not just have the first story inform the second, and have the second shed new light on the first (which I’ll talk about more in the next entry), but to tell a truly epic story which would normally be confined to the backdrop of one game, but instead takes place in, and between, both of these games. It allowed them to tell stories and convey information to the player in a way that few other games can, and to really take the Soulsborne series’ use of environmental storytelling to, I think, a very new level, by relating to multiple games and multiple stories (the pre-DS1 story, the DS1 story, the between-DS1-and-DS3 story) at once. At its conclusion, I truly felt – this is the same world ten thousand, a hundred thousand years in the future. This is what the world might look like at that point; we know how this world functions, we know the “factions” and the “elements” (in the almost alchemical sense – light, dark, chaos, dragons…) in this world and we can see how they have changed and evolved over time… and we see that however mighty and powerful the powers of the original game are, all empires fall and change, but they don’t just disappear; later powers and empires come along, and build upon those, and change them. It’s an amazing trick they managed to pull off, and one which could have easily failed, but From Software managed to present it in such a way as to really convince the player about the time gap between the two games, and it’s overall a very impressive, and very compelling, narrative move.

Next Time

Next time I’d like to take a look at the other half of this storytelling in Dark Souls 3 – how it returns to some of the questions of the original game, answers some of them, and lets the player reflect back on and finally answer some mysteries posed half a decade ago. Although naturally never shifting from the standard obtuse, obscure storytelling the series is known for, the third and final Dark Souls sheds a tremendous amount of light on the original game world, doing so in such a way as to really show what kind of storytelling can happen when one plays the “long game” with game narratives, takes advantage of the time across releases, and lets developers build up the kind of questions and answers we rarely see in any form of media. See you then!

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One thought on “Dark Souls 3 (1/3): Narrative Ambition

  1. Pingback: Dark Souls 3 (3/3): Gimmick Bosses | Ultima Ratio Regum: The Roguelike

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