Telling Tales: Skyrim and Dark Souls
From the archive: When the mountain won't come to Muhammad.
Every Sunday we dust off an article in our archive that you might have missed at the time or we think you'll enjoy again. On the eve of Dark Souls 2's PC release, here's Rich Stanton's take on the differing styles of storytelling at work in the original game and another great RPG of the year it came out, Skyrim. This article was originally published in December 2011.
How do you tell a story? Once upon a time there were two games, games of similar leanings that turned out entirely different - Dark Souls and Skyrim. Both have their tales to tell, a myth-hoard parcelled out through audio, text, environmental details and other characters. One stops being a game to do this. In the other, it just happens. Dark Souls is about looking and learning; Skyrim, looking and listening.
Both are fantasy RPGs, but the methods they use to engage players in their worlds are wildly different. Skyrim is a much larger canvas, an opulent and detail-packed space of boggling scope where everything's upfront - conversations, thousands of pages of in-game books to read, and exhaustive quest descriptions. It's a sprawl that's absolutely packed with things to find.
Dark Souls' narrative approach is ambient and minimalist - the tiniest details of its world fit together, rarely is anything made explicit, and understanding what's going on requires a considerable investment of time and brainpower. Though it's smaller in terms of acres, Dark Souls' world uses 3D space much more elaborately - all places are in an exact relation to one another, their deranged architecture unfolding and pulling back together like an accordion.
How each game's lore and narrative weave through these spaces is the difference. Skyrim's methods are familiar from Morrowind or Oblivion - NPCs with buckets of dialogue and plenty of voluminous volumes to read. You're constantly being fed new information, and the average resident is an exhausting bag of facts and opinions.
It's a stale template, a thought that solidified as I picked up and threw down book after book without reading any just to see if I'd bag a skill point. Such an undercooked attempt at incentivising suggests Bethesda's designers weren't quite sure what to do about all these tomes either. It's not that the books are terribly written - some are, some aren't - but that they're a symptom of Skyrim's biggest narrative flaw. The banal attention to detail in its world-building is boring. This is a universe that's constantly being fleshed out, and one where I skip nearly every conversation.
But perhaps you don't - and are doubtless salivating at the prospect of reading Waughin Jarth's A Dance in Fire (Chapter 4). The problem is that Skyrim is a video game, and when it's in narrative mode it stops being one. This passive delivery is the rock on which Skyrim's lore founders - flicking through virtual pages or skipping through conversations counts as interaction, just, but it's of a rather dull variety.
Dark Souls' approach is the opposite of overbearing. Scraps of information are at a premium and there's almost no exposition beyond an intro video and what can be gleaned from the brief lines of a rare NPC. The pithy descriptions of items and the clues in its environment's details are where Dark Souls' story lies. Everything can be ignored, in other words, without your having to skip through it.
But it's there. Armour might have a clue about its origin, someone's weapon might be linked to their accomplishments or a ring might bear a legend. The city of Anor Londo's beauty dazzles you to its fundamental untruth, yet almost every detail is perfect - after dispatching Ornstein and Smough, a little and large boss pair, you find two differently proportioned elevators at the end of the hall. Every location and its layout implies detail upon detail, and when at their least obvious they're often most important. I personally adore the fact that you can trace branches you see in Firelink Shrine down to the trees that hold up the world - and what lies at their roots.
It would be impossible for a world of Skyrim's magnitude to possess such detail, but even so it exacerbates things by re-using interiors again and again, from the books residents read to the recurring cave interiors. Valve's book about the making of Half-Life 2, Raising The Bar, mentions that before creating any environment its artists would be given short stories set in those locations - because they were built with that context of past events, Half-Life 2's places feel real in the details. It doesn't matter that players never saw those words. Skyrim's rooms never feel like this. Even those that should be showpieces, like throne rooms, just feel like they've had the chairs rearranged.
And what of the people populating these places? It's clearly unfair to make a general comparison between Skyrim's hundreds on hundreds and Dark Souls' thirty-six, but we can look at how they operate in relation to the player. The stakes are upped by Dark Souls' save system, which gives things a persistence Skyrim couldn't and wouldn't dream of - pass up on the chance to speak with someone, and that chance may never come again. NPCs in Dark Souls appear and disappear because of different and oblique triggers, creating a convincing illusion that they're all on their own little quests in this world, and each has their own arc. Attack an NPC and they'll be your enemy forever. Be there at the right time or they're dead.
The seeming independence of these arcs from your quest when combined with the world's persistence leads to one of Dark Souls' greatest narrative tricks. It's dependent on its multi-playthrough structure, whereby completing the game resets things and ups the difficulty for your ongoing character, and the Knight Solaire's appearances are a good example. First encountered gazing into the sun, he muses aloud: "If only I could be so grossly incandescent." What a bizarre phrase. It's typical of how Dark Souls' NPCs speak - gnomic utterances with weird but precise vocabulary.
As you progress, Solaire pops up to help with bosses while engaged with his own adventures. Then, near the end of the game, you find him mad - his brain infested with a shining parasite, Solaire finds his grossly incandescent end. Then you kill him and loot his sweet armour. Joy mingled with sorrow, and the idle thought that maybe you could have done more - and sure enough, you can pre-empt this outcome. To do so requires knowing where this arc ends, and a roundabout journey that requires considerable resources and time to get there early - knowledge you have second time around, if you know how to use it.
Dark Souls initially seems linear, but has an unusually freeform and well-hidden structure - and working out where and when you can break into it is a matter of paying attention. Every time you work out how to take things down another path you find more of the whole picture, and there's so much more to say about Solaire - the hints he's the firstborn of Dark Souls' uber baddie Gwyn, a former deity cast down, his covenant. But you'll never quite find out everything. There is no revelation moment.
Many of Skyrim's NPCs can be alive for your whole adventure, but even when they have their own questlines it never feels like they actually have an independent existence within its world - worst of all are the ones that, when their quest is complete, stay in one spot or follow you like a dog until they die. In Skyrim you're always prompting everyone else to move - the centre of the universe that directs every step. In Dark Souls you feel like one actor in a world full of them.
Connecting the dots takes attention, apprehension, and time - all the while wondering if you've drawn the right lines. Perhaps what's most remarkable is that you'll never know everything for sure. Dark Souls heavily implies things, but it never gives you the whole picture or ties up every loose end. But the depths it reaches through these methods is remarkable - an amazing FAQ on the lore in Dark Souls' predecessor Demon's Souls shows just how much detail can exist in universes built on these principles. It's like reconstructing a jigsaw without a guide or, ultimately, all the pieces - but what a picture.
The great lie about Skyrim is that we love it because it's an epic. The truth is it's a game about cow-tipping bears, stealing stuff and looking at postcard views. The lore just kind of washes over you in a sea of forgettable names: Tiber Septim, the timeline of the third era, the Jarls, The Ruins of Kemel-Ze. None of it matters. What does it mean when a game's narrative methods never convince or invite curiosity?
It means you never believe, or even get close. Grappling with narrative is a messy and mixed-up business. It's not that the ingredients, or even how they're used, can't be identified - more that the stew at the end has a kind of alchemy to it, where it tastes of everything but not one thing. The coherence Dark Souls' environments, mechanics and lore possess is an incredibly rare combination. And Skyrim?
Too much fat and gristle. Skyrim has a lot going for it, but it's a world that operates with little narrative sophistication. There are plenty of welcome cosmetic improvements over its predecessors but everything's built on the same old shonky foundations. Skyrim's focus on freedom comes with a loss - you can choose your own adventure, but the world as a whole lacks any clarity of purpose. Things don't connect. And we should expect more than that. Games have always used crutches for the problems that seem too impossibly big to solve, whether that's cutscenes or text terminals or constantly yapping NPCs - none of these is, or will ever be, the best method for telling an interactive story.
Dark Souls delivers two lessons that games in general, nevermind other RPGs, should take to heart. Just because you're delivering a narrative doesn't mean you have to stop being a game. If your backstory's rich and detailed, that doesn't mean it all has to be written down. Putting faith in a player's dedication is as close as AAA games get to a revolutionary act these days, and exactly what Dark Souls does. Skyrim's approach positions the player as passive receptacle, and delivers a good dose of text at every opportunity. That's why you skip all the conversations and never read the books. Both are great games. But where the world of Skyrim feels like a glorious place from an imagined past, Dark Souls plays like the future.