Many people have heard of Dark Souls, the notoriously punishing game set in a dark fantasy world. I’m sure many have also heard of its successors or even its predecessor, Demon’s Souls, which has recently been remade for the PS5. Amongst gamers, the Soulsborne series is considered both an example of gaming elitism (git gud) and a masterclass in world design. This is for good reason: no narrative is unravelled in such a masterful way as in these games.
The narrative of Soulsborne games follows a unique formula that provides just the right level of mystery and player involvement. Item locations are pre-determined (apart from enemy drops), and each item has a tooltip revealing information about the world. NPCs also offer crucial information about where to go next, or why the world is in an apocalyptic state. In progressing, players gain knowledge about the areas they have been traversing and the foes they have been facing.
In the case of Dark Souls, the player finds themselves thrust into a ruined kingdom long abandoned by the gods. This beautiful, dead world is one of my favourites in gaming; I even love Blighttown in all its swampy glory. Through cryptic clues, they must uncover the ‘main quest’ which must be pieced together from NPCs or exploration. This plot is largely interpretative, and a quick browse of YouTube will uncover thousands of videos interpreting the games’ narratives and structures.
Though dangerous, the enemies in the games have clear weaknesses that can be exploited. Each death is a lesson. Very rarely do deaths feel cheap or unavoidable (looking at you, camera controls), and so while rage-inducing, this rage can only fairly be directed at the player themselves. As such, the player feels themselves growing and their own personal story is developed alongside their understanding of the world around them.
Each subsequent game uses this formula or a similar variation of it. Besides Dark Souls, Bloodborne is a masterful interweaving of gothic and cosmic horror in the vein of Lovecraft. It places the player in surreal situations without any prior knowledge, requiring the unpicking of item tooltips to make sense of things. It is this very structure that results in the effectiveness of the story beats that underpin its beauty. (Bloodborne is also the best reason for owning a PS4).