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Ambiguity in Narrative Design

From Software's Souls series' deliberately ambiguous storytelling has formed a dedicated fan community, with hours of YouTube footage discussing story speculation. What are the advantages and disadvantages to using ambiguity in narrative design?

Following on from my initial attempt to dissect the narrative design in From Software's Souls series, I wanted to take a longer look at one of the key aspects of storytelling in a Souls title; specifically the ambiguity of story delivery.

Dark Souls and Demon's Souls are games that require the player to do quite a bit of legwork to piece together their stories; rather than offering a straightforward narrative with obvious plot and backstory components, they ask the player to assemble the story from myriad often cryptic clues hidden around the game world.

But even the most diligent player won't be able to piece together the story in its entirety, because the complete story doesn't actually exist, at least not outside the heads of the studio's writers and designers. Players are presented with enough information to make an educated guess about the complete plot, but never enough to truly prove or disprove one another's theories.

It's possible that From Software actually have the complete version of the plot for their games written down somewhere, and have chosen which parts to withhold from players in order to enhance story delivery and the series' trademark sense of mystery. It's also entirely possible that no one really knows what's going on and the designers are just chucking this stuff in the game to be deliberately obtuse.

Now I'm going to give From the benefit on the doubt and assume that someone - most likely series director Hidetaka Miyazaki - knows what's going on, and the game's ambiguity is a considered decision on their part.

Either way, it doesn't really matter - the fact is that Dark Souls and its ilk present a story that is ultimately, deliberately, impenetrable.

Dark Souls Pygmy
The furtive pygmy - what is it? Where did it go? And does it even matter, anyway?

There are both advantages and disadvantages to making a game's story so ambiguous. An advantage to this approach is an increased level of player interaction with the story itself outside of the game. Just google 'Dark Souls lore' and you'll be met with a deluge of forum threads, all full of players passionately discussing their take on the game's story. I'll direct you once more to the work of EpicNameBro, a man who devotes countless hours of his time to poring over Dark Souls lore and speculation on his YouTube channel.

It's hard to imagine such a passionate ongoing discussion taking place if Dark Souls laid bare every beat of its story. It's the ambiguity that draws people in, inviting people to fill in the blanks left in the story with their own imaginations, and creating a story of their own in the process. These people become more attached to the story of Dark Souls because they've invested their own creative energies in speculating about its true meaning.

In this way the story of a Souls game becomes something like folklore, theories passed down and developed through countless forum threads. You see a similar effect with other forms of media when their creators choose to obscure story elements from the audience, whether it's a David Lynch film or the ending of True Detective.

But the interactivity of a game like Dark Souls adds an even greater draw to the community, because there's the feeling that it may be possible to uncover something in the game that could prove or disprove your personal take on the story. Perhaps an artefact exists in some secret unexplored corner of the gameworld that will finally prove the origin of the Dark Sign - and even though we've read all the guides and know such an item doesn't exist, the interactive nature of the game space invites us to search for it anyway.

There's this fantastic Eurogamer article about Shadow of the Colossus that I basically never tire of reading. It tells the story of a group of dedicated players who, years after the game's release, are still poring at the very edges of the game's world, convinced that there must be some hidden secret left in the game that no one has uncovered.

Shadow of the Colossus
Could there really be a 17th Colossus buried somewhere in the game's code?

It doesn't matter that people have now pulled all the game's geometry from the disc to debunk such rumours; that game has such an air of mystery, presents such an inviting yet ambiguous interactive world, that the idea that there's one last secret buried in the static code of the game world still captivates people.

This is the real power of ambiguity in an interactive medium, and it's one that Dark Souls with its thousands of posts worth of speculation captures masterfully; the power to have the narrative live outside of the game, to have players interacting with the story of the world even when they've stopped interacting with the game itself.

It gives the game a greater longevity than one that simply tells a story, because the story lives longer in the minds of those dedicated to working out the hidden details. It doesn't matter that these people will likely never uncover the truth of these details; it's their very absence that will keep the game alive in discussion forums long after that majority of players have moved on.

The downside to this, of course, is that it's easy to to leave a portion of your audience behind. The very elements that make the story of Dark Souls so interesting for some - the legwork required to uncover the story and the ambiguity of the actual story details presented - lead others to conclude that the game doesn't really have a story at all.

Not everyone wants to pore over every inventory item searching for story clues, and not everyone wants to join in a lively forum thread to try and work out what's going on. For these players, the Souls games present an absorbing atmosphere but very little narrative meat.

It's easy to get the impression, wandering around Boletaria or Lordran or Drangleic, that these games are being deliberately coy, keeping information from us in order to create a sense of mystery that isn't fully justified by the actual story being told.

It's a difficult decision to make as a narrative designer, choosing how much of your story to keep from your audience. On the one hand, keeping things vague frees the game from the pace-killing shackles of exposition and invites players to invest in the story outside of the game, but on the other you run the risk of alienating players who would like to experience the entirety of a story within the game itself.

In the end it's a matter of a taste, and a balancing act that's impossible to get right. I for one love the way From Software deliver their stories, but I can understand why it leaves many players frustrated. Not everyone wants to explore a game's story as well as its world - and it's up to the designer whether it's worth leaving these players in the dark to foster the kind of fan community that the Souls series now enjoys.

Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.

His latest novel, the sky pirate adventure Into Uncharted Skies, is now available on the Amazon Kindle Store.

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