Disclaimer: This article has been a long time coming. At this point, I’m actually a little reluctant to write about video games on here instead of just post straight writing talk, but, like I said last post, I feel I deserve a break and this post is ultimately about writing anyway. Still, just to start us off, apologies if you’re a writer but not a gamer.
This one is a bit of a guilty pleasure.
Because there’s a really, really great chance you’ve already played Dark Souls. I have to acknowledge immediately that last gen, I was incredibly close-minded about the series I played (for a long time, it was almost totally Playstation 1 era series or GTFO). So, forgive me, but I still haven’t played Mass Effect. I haven’t played any of the Dead Space’s except for the last one. I gave Assassin’s Creed two minutes before giving up on it.
And, until it was offered for free on XBL a few months ago, I’d never played Dark Souls. I’d never played Dark Souls and I was really, really tired of hearing people go on about how awesome Dark Souls is.
And now, of course, please humor me as I go on for way too long about how fucking awesome Dark Souls is and explain why it’s probably one of the best series a prospective Fantasy writer could ever play.
For the sake of not just ranting, I will do this in two direct points that support one bottom line: for a game with extremely little actual story, Dark Souls has a weirdly moving story exclusively because of really subtle but strong world-building.
Point 1: The Bosses Have So Much Charm / Mystique / Whatever That They’re Characters
So, I posted a link a while back on Twitter about the music I was using for a writing session. This is the song I linked. It’s the music that plays while you fight Gravelord Nito. And, really, if you haven’t played Dark Souls, just from reading this paragraph, you already know almost all there is to know about Gravelord Nito; his name, you fight him, he’s in Dark Souls. Here—I’ll round out your knowledge of him; he’s “the first of the undead.” He’s a god made of skeletons that are mashed together. He wears a cloak made out of darkness and he wields a big sword. There. That’s about 90% of all there is to know about him.
That said, I… love… Gravelord Nito. I definitely didn’t do him justice with my description in the last paragraph because I really can’t; I gave you hard facts and, as there are for most of the bosses in Dark Souls, there are next to no hard facts to be had about him. I can tell you as much about Gravelord Nito’s definitive personality as I could tell you about any other boss in Dark Souls—nothing.
But… there is a ton of characterization that I simply can’t explain because you’d have to experience it to understand. Gravelord Nito isn’t just awesome because he’s a (truly) awesome looking, giant skeleton(s) man with a sword; he’s awesome because it takes you, the player, many—many—hours of struggle to get to him. He’s awesome because you have to go through the Tomb of Giants to find him and the Tomb of Giants is incredibly dark, terrifying and dangerous. He’s awesome because, despite being Dark Souls’ god of death, he’s tucked at the back of a nondescript hole in a wall deep underground. He’s awesome because he’s sleeping in a giant coffin in that hole but he comes out to kill you when you show up; and because, at the start of his boss fight, he slowly walks out of the dark to face you.
And—before I keep just listing these minute, seemingly throw-a-way details—what do any of these details say?
Well, hours of struggle to even get the chance to be killed by him immediately gives him a huge degree of godly mystique—he’s so important that not just anyone can turn on the game and face him.
His being beyond the pitch black Tomb of Giants, with its giant skeletons (all untouched until you come along) says that no one has faced him in ages—it says that he is beyond an unfathomable depth.
That he’s tucked at the end of a weird, small hole in a cave says all kinds of potentially terrifying things about the mysteries of the unseen; according to Dark Souls, a god could be sleeping at the end of a cave in my local park, which is, immediately, more terrifying than placing him at the end of a huge, obviously evil castle. But, to bring this back to Nito, it says that he’s possibly beyond human trappings and flattery; he’s beyond needing a temple in his name somehow—a cave is fine for his slumber just as a grave is fine for any human.
And, of course, the fact that he’s sleeping when you find him and the way that he slowly walks around to face you speaks volumes about how ancient he is. The design choice to make him hunch-backed adds to this idea.
All of this… conveyed… with subtle detail. It blows my mind. It blows my mind even more because this is a fraction of what Dark Souls conveys about one boss. Just about all of the bosses in this game have that much silent detail worked into them. My reflex here is to just rattle off a bunch of boss names and a handful of their details, but it will mean absolutely nothing to you if you haven’t played it, so instead, I’ll just say this:
If you’re a Fantasy writer, I can honestly not think of a better lesson than Dark Souls on how to give your monsters and villains real, evocative mystique and story with almost no dialogue. In a really weird, writery kind of way, every boss in this game is beautiful. Seriously, for the first time in ages, even though I knew next to nothing about him, I actually got upset when I killed the last boss.
Phew… Okay. I have to move on now.
Point 2: The Settings Tell a Story
As you may have noticed, I got derailed on one of my points about Nito and started talking about how his cave was oddly terrifying in how normal it is. I didn’t take that out because, ya know, laziness, but that environmental element is one thread of the really dense tapestry of Lordran, the setting for Dark Souls.
I do not want to start the Ever-Rant again and I also don’t want to get spoilery, so I’ll cut my explanation down to this: at one point, you start to venture down beneath the starting area. The starting area is a town, so what’s beneath it winds up being, at first, a large, weird cellar. In that cellar, waiting around a collection of long tables, there is a large group of Hollows (feral undead [there are undead who aren’t feral, like your character]). In this same room with the Hollows, on a sub level, there’s a giant, undead butcher cutting large pieces of meat. If you defeat all of these enemies and then happen to explore the hole directly behind the butcher’s table, you’ll fall into a pit, landing directly onto a large pile of discarded bodies. It’s gross—I know. But not as gross as the huge, undead rat that’s on the level below, a spear sticking out of one of its eyes.
And, seriously, the point is not to gross you out. The point here is to give you a good example of the completely silent but weirdly detailed storytelling that’s all over Lordran. The butcher is preparing meals for all of the Hollows that are waiting above him. What the butcher doesn’t use, he throws downstairs, meaning that he’s serving humans or undead to the Hollows above for whatever reason. But regardless, downstairs is where the giant rat eats what he throws away (growing gigantic from left-overs its been scavenging for years, presumably). For bonus points, the spear in the rat’s eye implies that someone was thrown down here in fighting shape and tried to defend themselves.
This kind of detail is everywhere. And, sure, there are just strange, video gamey locations too that are clearly designed to get the player from point A to B. But then, there are little spots like the area directly before Nito, where a large group of ancient, lifeless skeletons are all kneeling in worship, facing the portal that leads to him, until they fall apart at your touch.
Despite having pretty much no dialogue or plot, Lordran is incredibly alive with story. And, of course, working in details like these shouldn’t compromise your writing (for example, I’m definitely not suggesting that you wedge the armory where your lizardmen make their giant lizard swords into a story just to show that, hey, this is how they get their swords [especially not when world-building like that is easiest in a medium like video games, where ambling and looking at everything is natural]). But it’s always a good thing to remember to make your world that alive.
As countless other areas in Dark Souls showed me, the setting is a place that exists without your character’s influence.
The Bottom Line: Even Though It Doesn’t Have a Story, Dark Souls Has Tons of Story
Even if you’re not convinced, you should still give Dark Souls a try if only because the very last area in the game is—I promise—beautifully evocative. It placed so much mystique on the final boss that, like I said, I was actually upset when I killed him, as if I was making a mistake. It was a feeling I’ve only gotten one other time—at the end of Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, and that game had the benefit of a million cutscenes and tons of dialogue. The fact that Dark Souls got the same emotion from me with next to no dialogue, will always blow my mind.
So, if you haven’t played Dark Souls, I promise it will positively impact your Fantasy writing. Even if you’ve already played it but didn’t pay attention to the fine details, play it again with a keener eye. Look out for all of the subtle things it does and, if you haven’t, just look up all of its secrets (because this is the kind of game that has huge, completely missable secrets). I promise that you will not regret at least seeing the subtlety of Lordran and its cast of silent characters.
Well, apologies if this post was a little short, but it was seriously an effort not to go on forever about this game and spoil everything for you. Still, I hope that you enjoyed! If you did, I’d appreciate a Like and a Follow!
In the middle of the month, I’ll come back to straight writing talk. In fact, I might—might—come back with the most difficult topic I possibly can. At least, it immediately feels like a difficult, dangerous topic. We’ll see. If you don’t want to miss a post about something I’m even reluctant to mention here, you should Subscribe! Cause I’m probably going to write about it anyway…! … Yay!
But, regardless, thanks for reading! And, as always, write well!
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