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The Strengths of Optional Narratives in Dark Souls

A look at the use of optional narrative in Dark Souls through the characters Solaire, Siegmeyer, and Havel.

Tristan Postley, Blogger

December 9, 2014

17 Min Read

The narrative in Dark Souls is not often mentioned as one of its defining characteristics. When describing the game to a new soul, most people will focus on what they believe really sets it apart from everything else. They will talk about the combat and difficulty of the game, the many weapon types and playstyles, heavy armor and light armor, dexterity and strength, failure and the sweetness of success. The MDA Framework describes narrative in games as “Game as drama” but I would contend that Dark Souls is an example of some of the strongest narratives in recent games though I would not describe many of those narratives as “drama” (Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek, 2004).

Most people would not mention the narrative format which Dark Souls has made use of in such a different way, discussions of the narrative are held between fans of the game who have already played through multiple times and experienced as much of the narrative as they could find. This is because the many narratives in Dark Souls are pieces of the game that actually contribute to it being a game. The player must work for each and every piece of the story and connect them and even then the player has to think about what they believe is the whole which all the narrative fragments add up to. If the player does not do the work to find the narrative themselves, they receive only a tiny fragment of what was available to them. An ancient history about a dark fantasy, a gloomy landscape, a few bells, giant monsters, an intimidating man with a flaming sword, and a general sense that it all might be connected.

Fans of books and movies might even call this a shortcoming of Dark Souls as a storytelling medium but what they would be failing to realize is that a great deal of the expansive narrative within Dark Souls is optional. The reason why the land has become the way it is, the effect of the undead curse on the scattered characters, why there are monsters around every corner, and the strings that tie everything together are all pieces of information that won’t simply be given to the player, they have to find them. I will be examining the stories of three NPCs in the game that give a taste of what optional narrative has to offer, which is: a greater sense of immersion and a desire in the player to learn about the story rather than simply be pulled along it.

Knight Solaire of Astora

Knight Solaire of Astora is a fan favorite character who acts as an ally for most of the duration of the game. The player meets him directly following the first boss fight of the game, but even this meeting is optional. Solaire is not visible from the doorway the player enters the area from, the player must walk slightly out of their way to see him silently staring out over the landscape at the sun. At this moment, before even talking to him, Solaire has taught the player to look around themselves at the environment just as he is doing. By interacting with Solaire, the player finds the first friendly person they have met since beginning their death filled journey, the very first ray of sunshine. Solaire is cheerful despite the bleak environment and readily speaks of his goal of finding his own personal sun before offering aid to the player and giving them an item that can be used to offer aid to others.

If the player follows Solaire’s advice and chooses to engage in jolly cooperation at the next boss fight, he will be there to help against the hardest boss so far which includes two fire breathing gargoyles on a precarious rooftop. This is the role that Solaire plays for new players, he is the strong ally who teaches and guides them, assists and struggles with them in this dangerous world. Solaire is looking for his own sun but to new players he is the shining light of the sun that guides them on their journeys. Just like a friend who has already played the game and is helping you along, Solaire is there occasionally offering assistance but not doing everything for you. Every new place the player finds Solaire he looks evermore depressed and slowly loses his identifiable cheerfulness.

Eventually the player will find Solaire in the Demon Ruins when he comes at them from out of the darkness with a sunlight maggot on his head. This time, however, Solaire is not there to offer assistance. The despair he felt at not being able to find his own sun slowly drove him crazy and the fake sun that he has found caused him to go hollow and attack the player. For new players, that is the end of Solaire as they must kill him or not progress further.

For experienced players, who have played through the game enough times to no longer need Solaire as their shining sun and have found some of the secrets hidden in the strings which connect everything, Solaire can be saved. By taking a difficult to access shortcut, players can access the Demon Ruins from another direction and kill the sunlight maggot which corrupts Solaire. By doing this and proving that as a player you have surpassed Solaire you become his shining sun and save him from his madness. Once Solaire has been saved he is available to help the player fight the final boss and according to VaatiVidya in his video describing the journey of Solaire, this allows Solaire to become the brightest of them all by surpassing Gwyn the Lord of Sunlight (VaatiVidya, 2012).

At no point is player ever forced into talking to or fighting alongside Solaire and it is only by repeatedly seeking his person and his aid that the player can learn his story. From a computational point of view this would be what Ian Bogost looks down on as a “data intensive program” because, strictly speaking, all that is happening with Solaire is a series of flags are being raised to make him appear in certain areas if the player has interacted with him previously (Bogost, 2012). The player input doesn’t cause Solaire’s story to vary but rather for it to continue or not.

This, I will argue, is an example of where process intensivity is not a better alternative. By making the program behind Solaire and all of the other NPCs simple Dark Souls was able to tell a story that meant something to players rather than many possible outcomes which would diminish their meaning individually. Though his program was simple and he was not even a required part of the game, Solaire is a core member of the Dark Souls universe for both the new players and the experienced veterans but not for those who walked by him and chose not to experience his gross incandescence.

Siegmeyer of Catarina

“The Onion Knight,” also known as Siegmeyer of Catarina is another character within the game who portrays a separate player as Solaire does. Unlike Solaire, however, Siegmeyer does not aid the player in combat and does not exist to represent another experienced player. The first time the player can see Siegmeyer is outside of the gate to Sen’s Fortress before the gate has been opened and the area made accessible. He is seen sitting on a ledge staring at the ground while wearing a full set of the very large Catarina armor. This area is impassable at the moment and there is no reason for the player to have come at all so when Siegmeyer offers no path forward the player can understand that this is not the right direction.

The next time Siegmeyer appears is inside of Sen’s Fortress, once the gate has been opened. He is on an out of the way ledge that the player will only find by trying to run the wrong way past an obstacle where boulders are being rolled downhill or if the player is knocked off the walkway they might see Siegmeyer contemplating. Either way, the player will only find Siegmeyer through failure and once they have he will talk about his predicament of being too plump to run past the boulders in time. A player is most likely to have been foiled by the boulders if they were using a heavy build for their character which would have made them slow just like Siegmeyer. By pointing his own problem out, Siegmeyer tells the player that they will be able to run past the boulders if they are wearing lighter armor. Once the player has overcome the boulders they are able to redirect them away from the path and allow Siegmeyer to continue as well. This is the soul of Siegmeyer, he teaches the player through his own failure and in turn the player helps him overcome the obstacles which they both face. Siegmeyer appears in many places in the world and each time gives the player a hint if the player chooses to pay attention.

Each time Siegmeyer shows up he gets successively more drowsy and seems to be doing less in his adventuring efforts. The key to Siegmeyer’s own narrative is actually his own name; Siegmeyer means victory. This is not information found anywhere in the game but the context it provides to the rest of Siegmeyer’s story is critical. By always helping Siegmeyer where he had failed the player deprives the man dedicated to adventuring from true victory. In a parallel with Solaire, the story of Siegmeyer comes to a turning point in Lost Izalith, the area which the Demon Ruins lead to.

I will dissect this encounter with Siegmeyer according to the steps of Salen and Zimmerman’s “Anatomy of a Choice” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2003) The player finds Siegmeyer standing above a pit looking down at a group of vicious looking monsters with drill shaped mouths on their backs. In all of the encounters so far Siegmeyer has merely been thinking about the problem in front of him but in this encounter he proposes to the player that he will jump down to distract the monsters while the player escapes the pit.

No restrictions have actually been put on the player so they have all the choices available to them that they have had throughout the entire game. They are able to receive Siegmeyer’s gift and escape or stay to help their comrade fight the monsters which could kill him. The player makes the choice through their actions, no text will appear to ask what the player wants to do and doing nothing is a possible choice in addition to running or helping. The result of the choice is whether or not Siegmeyer lives on, if the player helps him and he does not take too much damage Siegmeyer will live and drowsily thank the player for rescuing him once again, if the player does not help him Siegmeyer will die for their sake. If he lives, Siegmeyer can be found one more time in the game, dead on the sands of the Great Hollow.

As VaatiVidya points out, Siegmeyer slowly gets more and more hollow the more the player helps him. By being deprived of his victory which he saw as his entire reason for being Siegmeyer lost all of his humanity and went completely hollow (VaatiVidya, 2012). The “good” ending of Siegmeyer’s narrative is the one where he is able to die with his honor, fighting for the sake of his ally. Arguably the real “good” ending for Siegmeyer is for the player to have gained enough experience to not have ever needed his aid and chosen not to interact with him or solve his problems. It is the player’s choice, which they consider to be the better ending for Siegmeyer, to live having never known allies at all or to die for the sake of another.

Havel “The Rock”

Finally, Havel “The Rock” (no, not that “The Rock”). Everything about Havel and his story is different than Solaire and Siegmeyer. Most evidently, Havel is an enemy. He is not a character the player talks to, nothing about his existence seems to be designed for the betterment or benefit of the player, and nothing about him could be considered friendly. There are only two points in the game which include any information about Havel. The first, the actual encounter with what is generally assumed to be Havel, located in a shortcut between the Undead Burg and the Darkroot Basin, where he attacks the player on sight and poses a major threat that will almost definitely kill new players.

The second is hours of game time later, in an area completely unrelated to Havel’s original location, in a dark room, behind a hidden door. Since Havel does not speak to the character and no other character speaks about him, all of the information given to the player is through the item descriptions of his gear and the proximity of another item to the hidden location of his armor. The item descriptions related to Solaire and Siegmeyer also gave important background information to their stories but I left those parts out for the sake of brevity.

The fact that the only mechanic, as defined in the MDA Framework, for telling Havel’s story is the text found by examining items makes it fundamentally different than the other two characters whose stories include a relationship with the player (Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek, 2004). If the player kills Havel he will only drop “Havel’s Ring” whose description tells the player that it was named for Havel the Rock by Lord Gwyn, an established God in the game already, and that Havel’s men wore it to carry a heavier load. The effect of the ring is that it increases the carry weight of the player by fifty percent.

The mention of Gwyn is the only hint the player gets to the location of the rest of Havel’s gear which is in Anor Londo, the castle of Lord Gwyn. In an out of the way room in that castle there is a fireplace with a false wall which the player can pass through to find a room that is almost pitch black with chests in it. The chests contain all of Havel’s armor, his greatshield, and his Hammer “Dragon Tooth.” There is one more fake chest which attacks the player in that room but that chest contains an “Occult Club.” The benefit of the Occult upgrade path for players is bonus damage against gods.

o why would Havel, a “battlefield compatriot” of the head god, store an occult weapon with the rest of his equipment? Answering that question is where the dynamic, from the MDA Framework, really shines through with the optional stories (Hunicke, LeBlanc, Zubek, 2004). The descriptions on Havel’s equipment are all very similar in saying that each piece is cut from a solid piece of rock, hence the name “The Rock,” and that the armor was worn by Havel’s followers who never retreated. These descriptions are the whole of the mechanics which FromSoftware used to convey the story of Havel and the dynamics are the active process the player must participate in to interpret what they believe about Havel.

Every step of the process with Havel’s story is something that the player must choose to be a part of. First they must choose to fight him in the first place, after the first surprise encounter he can simply be avoided; then they must choose to look for the hidden room with the rest of his equipment, and remember that there was an enemy named Havel; most importantly they have to take the step of reading the item descriptions for all of the items they have found, not to mention remember that the Occult Club was found together with Havel’s gear; and finally they player has to actually think for themselves how these elements add up to a story. Why was Havel apparently guarding nothing of importance, far away from Anor Londo? Why did he have an Occult Club guarded by a mimic? Why does all of his equipment have such a strong theme of weight and carrying a burden?

Many people believe that it was not actually Havel who attacked the player originally but one of his followers because Havel’s set all says it was worn by his warriors but does not mention being worn by himself. The number of possible stories players can come up with by being given a few of the pieces of Havel’s story is far greater than if players were simply told everything about him. Simply by being optional and allowing for players to take the action of thought in regards to him Havel became an engaging part of the narrative and immersed players in the lore of characters who do not exist in the forefront of the game.

Games have the unique opportunity over other storytelling mediums to provide consumers with optional narratives. The most surface level benefit of this is that players can choose to be engaged by the stories they are intrigued by and ignore the stories they aren’t. Unlike in other storytelling mediums where the author chooses what to tell the consumer and the quality of the story is determined by how much each person liked the way the author told the story, with optional narratives players are making the decision to put more effort into learning about a story and that decision makes them more invested in the story itself.

Games are a medium of action, despite this the narratives in games have often taken the lead of other mediums and forced the player into inaction while the story is fed to them. By substituting optional narrative for traditional narrative formats games are able to be more unique, to set themselves apart from older formats, and to further take advantage of what gives them more depth than static novels, plays, or movies. Choosing to take part in the action of interpreting the narrative causes players to think about the game world that has been created as a whole and leads them to be more immersed in that world which, I believe, is the goal of any story no matter the medium. The more immersion, the higher quality the work must be. With this goal in mind, I think more games should take Dark Souls lead in taking advantage of the action that both defines games as a medium and sets them apart from the rest.

Works Cited

Bogost, I. (2012, May 23). Process Intensity and Social Experimentation. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://bogost.com/writing/process_intensity_and_social_e/

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M., & Zubek, R. (2004, January 1). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/pubs/MDA.pdf

VaatiVidya. (2012, November 2). Dark Souls Story > Solaire and the Sun. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skV-q5KjrUA&list=PLWLedd0Zw3c5RCXboU sPwHsZJlXB2CzCz&index=3

VaatiVidya. (2012, October 19). Dark Souls Story > Siegmeyer of Catarina. Retrieved December 8, 2014, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdliu3JOSYQ&index=11&list=PLW Ledd0Zw3c5RCXboUsPwHsZJlXB2CzCz

Zimmerman, E., & Salen, K. (2003). Interactivity. In Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

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