From Software to Soul of Man – Dark Souls Trilogy Critique (Intro & Prelude)

From Software to Soul of Man – Dark Souls Trilogy Critique (Intro & Prelude)

Context is perhaps the most fitting word to
describe the SoulsBorne genre, a condition of understanding how and why circumstances
came to be before you can parse their meanings. Out of all the allegorical forces of the Dark
Souls trilogy—between good and evil, the desires for power or for knowledge and the
fear of the unknown, the desires of fate and the futility of existence as well as the value
and the meaning of humanity—context is perhaps the most formidable foe from the narrative’s
obfuscation of universal truths to the deliberate gameplay that emphasizes every action with
purpose. Much like respect, context is not simply granted
to you but earned through hardship. Even outside the domains of these games, the
context of Dark Souls manages to pervade discussions of other games no matter how absurd as its
context is not limited to one series. In a manner of speaking, one does not finish
Dark Souls when he or she complete the game; its impact on the player remains until some
closure is found one day when everything finally comes together. It’s for this very reason that until I had
completed the series as well as reflecting on the years I’ve listened to others share
their stories and their perspectives have I come around to appreciate the resolution
of that long journey. Given the emphasis here on context, it should
go without saying that if you haven’t played the trilogy of Dark Souls games you probably
shouldn’t watch this video. As much as I believe you can’t spoil these
games because they are heavily reliant on hearsay, I state this information upfront
for those sensitive. Another important detail is that this video
will not cover Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, although I have played the former a long time
ago thanks to an ex-stepbrother. Emulation nor PlayStationNow’s service were
neither fitting substitutes, yet I’m familiar with both titles from various channels. Examples from these games will be used, sparsely,
to reference ideas inherited from one series to another, and it’s thanks to channels
like Matthewmatosis and Joseph Anderson that I feel confident in discussing them. One other important note before we can begin
is that I am going to focus my attention on the original Dark Souls release and the Scholar
of the First Sin Edition. The remastered version of the original is
not something I desire for $20, so you’ll have to forgive me as I will be using the
original release that doesn’t like my widescreen settings even with DSFix. Finally, before we can begin, I want to illustrate
the structure of this video as I believe it will make more sense if properly explained. The first section is broken up between two
major issues I have with the SoulsBorne games, namely the emphasis on difficulty along with
a discussion into inherent storytelling problems from these games. Afterwards, this video will examine the merits,
the drawbacks and the alterations from each entry as well as their DLCs, and it’s these
sections which will be heavily gameplay focused with some narrative discussions. Instead of a level-by-level examination common
to these critiques, my intentions are to use enough examples to get the point across without
being exhaustive. (Tim Schafer’s rule of three is enough for
most games to get the point across, so why not the same for a game analysis video?) At the summit of this video when all the series’
heights have been scaled, this final section will summarize my thoughts on how the series
has changed, what has been gained or lost with time, and what remains yet unexplored. Bearing these thoughts in mind, my goal is
not to unravel every mystery that will forever remain in the Dark nor to demystify the magic
behind these beloved games; it is but one’s man journey as well as his many ponderings
to come to understand what compels him to seek further adversity when all meaning seems
to elude him. If there is any quality of the SoulsBorne
genre that precede its name, it’s undeniably its reputation as a difficult game. As much as marketers of Bandai Namco, games’
media outlets and players emphasize the more frustrating elements, it’s often overlooked
how accommodating these games can be for those observant. Difficulty and accessibility are two concepts
that do not always have to be antagonistic towards each other, and the Dark Souls series
is a prime example of how to accommodate both without marginalizing the value of either
one. However, this emphasis on describing these
games as only insurmountable challenges is largely reductive; more importantly, this
conversation sets an expectation that future games must be even more difficult to inherit
the series’ legacy. The problem with this line of thinking is,
in reality, it’s always the first SoulsBorne game you play that is the hardest, and the
other games are made easier as well as they are colored by your first exposure. Now this virgin effect is not some great underlying
truth only about the SoulsBorne titles as it is a description for any seasoned player
who plays many games. As a result, difficulty is often a relative
discussion that is hard to find empirical evidence to support; however, I want to illustrate
there is often a bias associated with every player’s first experience by showcasing
several statements about what these four players think is the most important element from these
games. Again, these examples do not prove my initial
statement that these games become progressively easier with more experience, yet I highlight
these five videos because they display a wide range of what people think makes these games
as great as they are. One individual can focus on a particular mechanic
like the stamina system, the healing system or the amount of health for enemies. Another person might focus on the interplay
between major and minor gameplay systems like the Estus Flask as well as dismiss the value
of its narrative whereas someone else thinks the narrative is what elevates these games
beyond their mechanics. The last clip from Matthewmatosis is perhaps
the most telling of preferential treatment as the video laments how combat focused the
series has become, which can be summed up by his statement, “This is no longer a series
where you outsmart your opponents [(referring to a trap where arrows track your movements
while in flight)] it’s a series where you press the roll button at the right time.” People will always have their own opinions,
and none of these opinions I have shared here are ones I disagree with, yet the disparity
between these preferences should illustrate that as a series the SoulsBorne games face
an uphill battle with their own audience. The purpose behind giving you all this information
is to highlight that when it comes to these games difficulty is often not something most
players consider as the most important; it’s often the quality of the experience as well
as what aspects they desire that matter most. This goal is something that the developers
also strive to create as they prefer to think about the satisfaction rather than about the
challenge from the obstacle. In an interview with Alex Donaldson before
Dark Souls 3, director Hidetaka Miyazaki chooses his words carefully when discussing the difficulty:
“Well, there were of course several moments where I had to stop things and take a step
back and consider the difficulty,” he says with a smile. “But it’s not necessarily that I say ‘oh,
this is too difficult,’ but instead the term I usually use is ‘unreasonable.’ So, that’s the term I tend to use when I
have these conversations with the development team.” “When you think about it, the difficulty
in the Dark Souls franchise so far has been something that players have eventually been
able to overcome. So when I show concern to the development
team members, that’s why the term I use is unreasonable – basically, we don’t
want to go too far. It’s about striking a balance.” Unreasonable is a subjective word, which I
imagine if you were able to prod the man further for insight he could tell you more about what
he meant, yet that idea of balance is a quality you can see that is often overlooked. Traps are often—though there are some exceptions—foreshadowed
well in-advance as well as being punishing to remind you of them. Dying in any one of these games often comes
with some minor benefit as well as a drawback. Notes litter themselves everywhere to help
and to confuse players who are struggling. The summoning signs for NPCs or other players
come with the caveat that other players can invade you, and if you summon help for a boss
fight that will give the boss a health bonus as well as fewer souls as a reward. There are dozens of other examples you could
mention here; however, it should be obvious how often anything beneficial also has some
consequence to counteract its effects for players who may or may not use these features. All too often people are quick to remember
their failures or to focus solely on the consequences when the game always provides you the means
to succeed, and this balance rarely favors one method of play over another. This is the balance I believe Miyazaki meant
by his statement, and it’s what should be discussed instead of how fair or unfair are
these games. If the Souls series has proven anything, people
will take a challenge no matter how impossible it may be or how elusive is its significance. As much as the series has been critiqued to
death for its gameplay, it’s surprising how little these games have been discussed
from a narrative standpoint. Perhaps from the fact that many people are
left with too many important unanswered questions. If you have any experience playing these games,
then you would understand why that is the case because many answers are purposely withheld
from you to generate speculation. The most interesting stories within these
games are often generated by the player’s imagination from item descriptions, which
makes these narratives heavily reliant on group-discussion, lore enthusiasts, or going
into the game’s code as well as perusing the many Wikis available to obtain some coherent
idea of the story. The question you must ask yourself when evaluating
the merits of this storytelling is the following: Is this method a viable way to tell stories
in games, and if so, why do other games like Destiny or Final Fantasy 13 suffer from the
exact same issues that people praise in Dark Souls? Now if you are an introvert like myself and
do not like going outside of a medium to get necessary context for any story, then you
will probably find this storytelling inherently flawed. If, however, you are some extroverted individual
that likes piecemealing scraps of stories with others to create your own take, then
you will probably love this style. This distinction is overtly simple, yet it
speaks to the types of audiences that will resonate the most or the least with these
games. My purpose in this section is to illustrate
to the latter camp why these games’ narratives are not compelling to people like me from
objective storytelling issues that From Software has yet—and probably never will—fully
address. These issues stem from five major problems
with this narrative design: (1) the legitimacy of cut-content, (2) the mistranslations from
localization teams, (3) the sparse plots in each game, (4) the issues of clarity when
it comes to seemingly synonymous terms, and (5) the lack of internal consistency. Before we delve into how these problems apply
to the Souls trilogy, and in case someone is watching who has no idea what these issues
are, it would be better to illustrate these problems on a microcosm scale with a short-story,
“The Hills Like White Elephants” by Ernest Hemmingway. You don’t have to pause the video if you
do not want to read it, but it’s available online for free and it takes only five minutes. Although these are two separate media, Hemmingway’s
iceberg theory of storytelling—or more known as the theory of omission (more on the topic
soon)—is reminiscent of Miyazaki’s storytelling with emphasizing subtly over direct information,
which may be false if Miyazaki’s intentions were to inhibit players’ literacy to mirror
his own childhood experience of not understanding English. In one interview with Wired, Miyazaki answered
the following question: The Souls series is known for environmental
storytelling and implied lore, rather than a direct narrative players work through. What appeals to you about that approach? First of all, I don’t dislike direct storytelling
— people seem to think that about my games! Actually, the truth is, I’m just not good
at implementing direct narrative in my games. Another side is, I want to leave the interpretation
of the world’s stories to the player. That’s actually my biggest reason for focusing
on environmental and subtle storytelling. Rather than the game itself automatically
telling the story, the player gets more value from it when they themselves find out hints
of plot from items or side-characters they encounter in the world. For the purpose of this video, the iceberg
theory is not only a useful visual metaphor to help illustrate these core issues but also
to explain how videogames benefit from that style of storytelling. We should also keep in mind that when we are
talking about storytelling we have to separate the plot from the lore; the plot is in the
foreground much like a person in a portrait whereas the lore is in the background meant
to provide additional details to the subject of the composition. Anyway, by the time you have listened to my
ramble, you have probably read through the short-story; so did you realize the two characters
were talking about getting an abortion? No? If you did, you probably read the story before
in a literature class or you read the Wikipedia or Cliff Notes entry instead. The Iceberg theory, as the visual demonstrates,
is the idea that you should only draw attention to the most surface-level parts of the story
by omitting details that draw readers to search for meaning below the surface. As Hemmingway states in his book, Death in
the Afternoon: “If a writer of prose knows enough of what
he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is
writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the
writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is
due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does
not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.” We can see this difference quite clearly in
his short-story. The whole first page’s purpose is to draw
attention to the fact that the American and the girl have something bothering them while
they are not openly discussing what that problem happens to be. It’s only when the American implies everything
tastes like licorice to her does she show any aggression towards him. Given the story is set at a train-station
somewhere in Spain and it refers to only one of them being an American, one could infer
these two have not known each other for too long. In addition, the girl’s ignorance of Spanish
implies she might be from another country with this man on some romantic getaway, and
their romance becomes the focal point about some “simple operation.” Now we never are explicitly told what sort
of operation it is, and that is a large part of the realism involved as no one openly discusses
taboo topics without some euphemistic language such as “They just let the air in.” However, we can infer that it is about an
abortion from the description of the hills across the valley being white and infertile
of trees as well as the countryside being brown and dry—these images portray something
once thriving now dead. At the end, we’re left wondering what was
the resolution as the girl passive-aggressively states that she feels fine when it is obvious
the problem wasn’t solved. Out of all the questions you probably have
about this video, the most important one you are likely wondering is what the hell does
this “story” have to do about Dark Souls? It may not have dragons, high-fantasy or your
Sunbros, yet it does capture the appeal of these types of narratives as well as their
share of problems because without any context the story is indecipherable. Time is perhaps the most crucial one as this
story was written in the 1920s, so some of the language may sound strange in modern times. In addition, if the girl was actually pregnant
she shouldn’t be drinking alcohol if she intended to keep the baby, yet that information
was not known at the time whereas now—oh, maybe we haven’t learned that lesson. Context is one of those ironic things where
it never stays the same, and it often contradicts itself afterwards; it’s something that changes
with the times as well as with reiterations, which is apparent in the Souls trilogy as
the sequels have retroactively patched some looser threads. To illustrate this point with Dark Souls,
let’s take a simple example with the story of Gwyn’s Firstborn. (No, it’s not Solaire no matter how hard
you imagine a head-cannon.) Perhaps as a result of his jovial nature and
his fixation on being an Icarus symbol, Solaire was mistaken as Gwyn’s offspring whom many
believe lost his deity status because he lost the annals of history, and people who propagated
this misunderstanding from cut-content or from mods wanted to have him link the fire
to redeem himself as well as his “father.” The irony is that although Dark Souls 3 addressed
this mistake there is the correct interpretation in Dark Souls 1—the problem is a poorly
translated item description, which showcases what happens when you leave mistakes in a
narrative that relies on endnotes. Here’s the source of the misunderstanding
from the Ring of the Firstborn: “Lord Gwyn’s firstborn was a god of war, but his foolishness
led to a loss of the annals, and rescinding of his deific status. Today, even his name is not known.” From this statement, it’s easy to see why
people were confused because the description suggests the Firstborn foolishly lost the
physical annals. However, if we examine the Sunlight Medal,
it states something completely different, “This symbol represents Lord Gwyn’s firstborn,
who lost his deity status and was expunged from the annals. But the old God of War still watches closely
over his warriors.” Instead of losing the physical annals, the
Firstborn is now lost to the annals because his name was erased due to losing his deity
status. In addition, the fact that the symbol remains
a badge of honor and it is associated to the Firstborn must mean that Lord Gwyn values
its significance, and that respect is reciprocated by the Firstborn who places the Sunlight Blade
on his father’s coffin. One simple revision that addresses the problem
would be: “Lord Gwyn’s firstborn was a god of war, but his foolishness rescinded
his deific status from the annals.” You still have no idea what foolishness led
to his removal, and you only get glimpses in Dark Souls 3, but you now have a better
understanding of the Firstborn as well as his relationship with Lord Gwyn. This one example isn’t the only one as there
is the cut-content narrative of Oscar of Astora in Dark Souls, the mistranslations for the
Pursuer in Dark Souls 2 as well as Bloodborne’s many gender-related pronouns that omit the
interpretation of female Hunters. Sometimes these files are left in the game
completely unused for data-miners to extrapolate or fans have to retranslate the lore from
Japanese to get a better understanding. If these files are in the games yet they are
not coded, are they canonical even though you have to access them outside the games? These are the larger problems that come with
the speculative nature of the SoulsBorne narratives, and it’s nothing in comparison to the annoyance
of seemingly synomous terms used in-game. Giants include these figures from Dark Souls
1, 2 and 3, yet Lord Gwyn, King Vendrick and other seemingly gigantic people are not giants—and
they cannot be called giants because humans shun them with prejudice like Yhorm. Demons take all shapes and sizes, and they
are often explicitly referred as demons, yet skeletons and specters are neither undead,
hollows nor demons. It’s not as simple as in Demon’s Souls
where every non-human entity could be considered a demon because the whole game was about fighting
demons. These issues might seem pedantic compared
to others, but if you cannot refer to beings and creatures without clear distinctions the
whole logic behind these narratives falls apart before it ever gets started. Now I understand mythologies do not have to
be one-hundred percent consistent as the ancient Greeks and Romans made gods out of anything;
it’s what significance they represent that matters more than internal logic. In fact, in spite of the issues I’ve illustrated,
the one thing the Souls games have gotten right is using proper symbolic language that
suits the gameplay as well as its themes to create a world open to interpretation. Coming back to the question I asked at the
beginning about why Dark Souls gets away with its storytelling, it’s easy to see how consistent
these symbols are as they complement the gameplay and the setting. Bonfires, the Age of Fire, the Age of Dark,
the Abyss, the Dark Soul of Humanity, Ash, Kiln of the First Flame, etc. In contrast, Destiny suffers with its similar
themes about the Light versus the Darkness because it is not consistent with the gameplay
nor the sci-fi setting. Enemies have names like the Fallen, the Cabal
or the Hive, and players use ballistic and laser guns, melee weapons and psionic abilities
in addition to an unexplained entity called Light by Ghosts granted from the Traveler. As for Final Fantasy 13, which can be a fair
comparison with how much narrative is hidden in the database, it relegates the narratives
all through cutscenes, so you find yourself having to rewatch these scenes after reading
the entries because the characters do not provide exposition. The Souls games are primarily gameplay focused
through the item-descriptions, which are questionable inclusions as we don’t know how or why we
can read boss souls or armor for details. It’s often the location of these items as
well as the environmental storytelling that provides more information. This last aspect manages to combine not only
the exploration elements of the games as physical rewards but also the community driven elements
as everyone uncovers more of the world and the narrative together. Again, as much as I do not prefer this style
of storytelling that relies on community involvement because I
happen to be a social-troglodyte in real-life, my goal
is to present the problems that the other side
may or may not be capable of putting into words. (Given how defensive most fans are about their
lore or their head-cannons I cannot imagine why people would be afraid to critique these
stories. As far as discussing the series’ issues
about plots, I will save that discussion for each individual game.) Whether or not this framework is the best
method of storytelling for videogames or an elegant way to structure gameplay with the
narrative, I leave that decision up to you if these pains are worth their insights.

2 Replies to “From Software to Soul of Man – Dark Souls Trilogy Critique (Intro & Prelude)

  1. Great analysis of the plot, really enjoyable. Keep it up! I am curious though, is there anything that you about how From Software gives their plot that you enjoy/respect?

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