The plot in video games is governed by its own laws. Contrary to at least the lion’s share of movies, the presence of a good intrigue is not necessarily needed. Therefore, without major problems, it can be clichéd and pretextual, without hindering the title from rising to the heights. After all, there are also games that do not have a plot as such – possibly have it, but in trace amounts, leaving a lot of room for interpretation. Then the tendency to “adding” certain motifs by the player increases – that is, emergent narration. It consists in creating your own, individual story throughout the game by, for example, using windows between empty plot points in a strategy game, building scenarios in your head based on skirmishes in a shooter, and so on. The type of narrative found in games such as Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls trilogy, Bloodborne, or recently Elden Ring, I like to describe as post-fiction, complementary to emergent.
Author: Szymon Góraj
When I think about the structure of the universes brought to life by Hidetaka Miyazaki and his team from FromSoftware, the analogy of archaeological excavations comes to mind. The basis of this profession are attempts to reconstruct the cultural and social past of man on the basis of material remains of the achievements of the studied civilization. Both the process and the fruits of this reconstruction are always more or less murky. After all, they rely on the analysis of time-bitten materials, which in turn means having an incomplete data set. The archaeologist tries to get as much useful information out of what he has at his disposal. He is often forced to fill in the gaps with hypotheses to get as close to the facts as possible. It works very similarly when we enter the world of Boletaria, Lordran or Yharnam in the titles of Japanese developers. Only Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice from 2019 turned more towards the traditional narrative, diluting the formula a bit.
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The FromSoftware concept, which has been developed for several years, is not particularly intuitive. In the case of a significant part of the games, the creators try their best to clearly explain the rules of their gameplay to us at the start with various more or less direct tutorials. Then, their goal is to highlight the results of their work, while ensuring that the player does not miss any key element in which so much effort has been put. This often leads to considerable exaggeration. A great example is the majority of modern Ubisoft games with the Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry series at the forefront. Dozens of flashy markers on the location maps and tutorials that lead you to do the trick speak for themselves. The most important information about explored places, characters or goals in the game is at your fingertips. Characters, on the other hand, can be walking exhibits, making sure that the player doesn’t get lost and necessarily goes where he needs to. The Japanese, led by Hidetaka Miyazaki, go against these tendencies.
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For example, during the first few hours of playing Dark Souls, I was thrown into a whirlwind of events without an “instruction manual”. After creating a character, followed by a rather vague video showing the mythology of the world, we are immediately given the reins. We break through the first enemies – including a bulky boss – and when we finally succeed, we are kidnapped by … a giant raven. This one brings us to the right part of the land in the game, where if we travel a bit, we get literally one clue to start: hit two bells. So much. The rest of the search depends on our level of inquisitiveness. There is no denying that such a threshold of entry has already scared off many.
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While later FromSoftware games have a bit more clarity, the principle is similar. Mystery is the basis of the narrative. We won’t get signposts, the design of the world doesn’t look like it was created just to make us reach our destination like a thread to a ball. NPCs who do not want to kill us are unlikely to be accused of exuberance, moreover, they have quite limited knowledge of this. It is worth noting that there are situations when a given NPC simply lies to us or gives us an extremely subjective point of view, not necessarily in line with the facts. Not only that – it happened that the prophecies or motifs that make up the main plot lines are interpreted in reverse, and in extreme cases are the effects of manipulation.
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As a result of these efforts, we find certain scraps of history in From’s games that are never clearly explained, leaving a huge field for interpretation. This is where the vulnerability to emergent narration is particularly noticeable. Points that are unclear (or that we simply did not find during the game) are often supplemented with our own more or less developed theories. The enigmatic structure of exploration is the foundation of FromSoftware games, having a powerful impact on everything else. You could say that this is the first layer of their narrative, where we will discover as much as we choose.
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Miyazaki respects his audience. It does not impose the way of passing its titles, it does not force you to read tons of dialogues and learn its concepts. Either we will limit ourselves mainly to improving our character, learning mechanics and defeating more opponents, or we will start to explore the descriptions of items, analyze dialogues and elements of local architecture, or perform unsigned side quests. We then become unconventional explorers of the fallen lands, trying to discover its secrets on our own – no matter if we are dealing with a cursed land straight from medieval fantasy or a twisted, multi-layered dream with concepts inspired by the works of HP Lovecraft and gothic artists such as Bram Stoker.
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The past has always been more important than the story we are developing at any given moment. The latter is usually straight-forward, consisting in reaching successive points (usually reaching specific bosses) to achieve the chosen goal. Hence the term “post-fiction” weaved by me. Not because the plot is no longer there, but because it plays an extremely subordinate, superficial role in relation to the lore – given in an extremely vague way. As it is aptly stated in the foreword to the book Dark Souls. Beyond the Grave – Volume 1, souls games “(…) explore not so much a simple adventure as a myth. No one knows exactly when Odysseus left and returned, or what particular path he took, but we do know that he encountered cyclops, mages, and terrible creatures along the way.” This translates into freer interpretation of encountered threads. At the same time, it is worth paying attention to the starting state of a given world at the beginning of the game, which is basically the basis of a kind of “archaeological” approach in Japanese projects. Therein lies another key.
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A fairly traditional maneuver in games is to bet on the climax of a given period. I am particularly referring here to fantasy titles, where the axis of a given narrative is a conflict on a wider scale, but not only. Apart from some exceptions, we generally have a clear and bright intrigue, and the plot – even more confusing – is placed in a fairly clear framework. Usually, it is then necessary to destroy the ancient evil that is raising its head, to overthrow the power that threatens the population, etc. The stakes are high, and happy ending for our protagonists, it is a rule from which there are at most some exceptions. In FromSoftware games, “better tomorrow” was yesterday. There is no struggle for peace, prosperity or spectacular victory of any “good” or “bad” side here. We are surrounded by scorched earth, degenerate villages and neglected, devastated palaces. All golden years are gone, the countryside is a shadow of its former glory, and heroes have died or worse, become grotesque versions of themselves.
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Let’s take Lordran, which is the arena of events in the first part of Dark Souls. In short, the mythology of the game presented in the opening intro tells about the Age of the Ancients, where dragons ruled the unformed world, and the Age of Fire, when the gods in a truly Homeric rebellion killed the previous rulers of the world, subduing the earth. We are at the sad end of this second era. Fire – the mystical source of power and glory of that period – is maintained only thanks to the sacrifice of the leader of the gods, and it is slowly dying out anyway. The greater part of the population has lost its mind due to the curse of immortality, and the subsequent locations are symbols of decay and decline. In Bloodborne, the arena of events is Yharnam – a Gothic city whose scholars once stumbled upon a trace of an ancient civilization, and as a consequence, beings that elude human comprehension. When our character gets there, he finds a grotesque version of a once cozy place where most of the inhabitants have lost their minds or turned into bloodthirsty beasts. It’s quite easy to find a common denominator here – as in other Miyazaki games.
The structure in FromSoftware games means that we will never fully discover the secrets of the explored lands. As in the case of archaeological research, it is impossible to extract the truth in its entirety – all that remains is to rely on interpretations.
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FromSoftware’s world-building faithfully adheres to the traditions of gloomy, pessimistic dark fantasy, initiated in the literature of the seventies of the last century. It is not without reason that the lore of last year’s Elden Ring was successfully written by George RR Martin himself, the creator of A Song of Ice and Fire, perfectly fitting into the adopted vision. Along with the already legendary specific difficulty level, it is based on the construction of devastated worlds, full of ambiguities and secrets, some of which cannot be fully unraveled. Thrown into them, we can only walk on the surface, mastering the combat mechanics and smashing all the bosses along the way – or delve into the heart of darkness, trying to extract what we can from the cursed lands. Whether we choose the second option (and above all to what extent) depends only on us.