Story where there is none: how Demon's Souls and Dark Souls tell perfect video game stories.
[Editor's note: Expect spoilers, such as they are.]
Gamasutra recently featured a great little article by Robert Boyd about the surprising relationship between the perceived and actual difficulty of Dark Souls - a game which flaunts its difficulty, but uses that very fact to draw in (and keep!) a large audience. It's a neat piece which succinctly considers the way the game generally depends on the player to determine difficulty.
Boyd notes, for instance, that the flexibility of the leveling system gives the player freedom to play any way they like, to tackle any challenge using any strategy they conceive, and the option is always available to summon another player to help.
Overall, it reminded me that I did a lot of thinking about the storytelling in Dark Souls, and its predecessor Demon's Souls, when I wrote my undergraduate thesis. So, as a companion to Boyd's meditations on how gameplay is fruitfully directed at the player's experience, it might interest some to consider one specific design decision which makes the story as flexible and rewarding as the gameplay itself: the banishment of exposition to item descriptions! It may seem absurd, but that one decision may be the only thing that makes the story in the Souls series successful at all.
Of course, some people will express some degree of incredulity at the notion of the series having "successful" stories, since more than a few players generally came away with the sense that there was no story being told at all. This is somewhat true, but to be more accurate, it's merely a recognition of how flexible the games are with their storytelling.
Players can't really be faulted for thinking there's no story, when the medieval fantasy RPG as a genre often trains people to look for very specific narrative markers. When people think of MFRPGs, they think of large-scale games like the Final Fantasy series (which may be a dated example, but remains an example I love for its cultural weight); games like that often sink a lot of narrative material into cutscenes, very direct instances of narrative intrusion into the gameplay experience.
There are other ways to achieve similar effects - scripted sequences, for example, which take place within gameplay, but effect situations which cannot be interrupted by the player - but the DSs totally avoid this structure. Other games, meanwhile, have taught us to look in different places for story clues.
The Elder Scrolls games have taught us to mind our bookshelves, as the multitudinous in-game books are informative, fun, and can boost our stats. It has long been the case in RPGs that non-player characters populating the world can provide useful information, with the extra tint of unreliable character biases. But the DSs go in a different direction entirely.
What do you accomplish, as a designer, by doing a whole bunch of work creating a vast, rich, multi-faceted world, only to reduce much of it to verbal descriptions of one or two sentences, buried in an inventory screen? Two things.
First, you put control in the player's hands. I think that's important for nearly any aspect of a game, and I think a fair number of designers would agree. A game is meant to be played, and the more pieces you give the player to play with, the more rewarding the game. It highlights and explains, moreover, the diverse responses to the story in each game. Many players would say there was little or no storyline at all; others would say there was a fairly complex one.
Both are fairly accurate descriptions. I'd hazard a guess and say that the different impressions of the situation are highly motivated by the biases of the players themselves - the narrative system creates a kind of index of players. The players who are more interested in the gameplay system will largely ignore the story, because they're not profoundly interested in it in the first place; those players who are explicitly interested in the story will find it when they look for it.
The story is optional, to rather bluntly oversimplify the point. Ultimately, the decision to nestle narrative information in a secondary screen strikes an effective balance: it's readily available, but never gets in the way of playing the game. Unlike lengthy cutscenes, which deliberately monopolize a player's time, this system only gives the player precisely as much information as they want at any one time.
However, we'll also find that secondly, and more importantly, this system somewhat ingeniously finds a way to bridge the gap between these two stereotyped groups of players (we'll say play-types and story-types, broadly). The specific linguistic form of the "item description" is one particular to video games, and as such, it's wise and effective to make use of it when telling a video game story. It only exists in games, and more specifically, only exists in games which place an emphasis on having a variety of interesting items to collect, match, improve, and utilize in combat.
In most RPGs, and certainly in Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, much of the essential activity of the game is in exploring the world, collecting items, and using those items to do more exploring and fighting. By placing narrative exposition in this tiny niche, the designers intimately tied together these two impulses - collecting items, and discovering more of the story.
A player whose major effort is in creating a sweet build for a character will invariably pick up some juicy storyline details; a player who wants to learn more of the story will do so by picking up some new pieces of armor or unique superweapons. Neither detracts from the other. Each bolsters up the other. The result is a game experience whose balance is determined by the player, and which will ultimately be rewarding no matter how that balance is achieved (heavy on story, heavy on action).