An essay on video games!(?)

Abstract

 A staple of role-playing games is the way in which, to varying extents, they allow the player the freedom of choice to mould both play style and play time to their own desires.  However, the majority of such games still follow a distinct, story-driven route.  Through reference to and analysis of games such as Pokémon and Dark Souls, this study aims to dissect those games that provide the player with little in the sense of direction other than trial and error, in a bid to convey how these too can not only offer enjoyment, but be steeped in intrinsic lore and motivation – provided the player can commit to piecing more subtle hints and narrative strands together in an endeavour to achieve this knowledge and/or fulfilment.


From Pokémon to Dark Souls: An Unreliable, Emerging Narrative on our Desire to Tell Stories through Video Games

Video gaming has become a rapidly expanding, culturally evolving phenomenon.  As a by-product of such extensive growth, there exists no longer the unappealing and generic ‘gaming’ stereotype that was once the dominant view of those who indulged on a regular basis – rather, ‘a game player could [now] be your grandparent, your boss, or even your professor’ (Allaire, for Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 2014: p2).  One explanation that may account for such seemingly universal appeal is a desire, ingrained perhaps from the very conception of intelligent thought, to create and partake in the art of story-telling.  This art takes many forms within the constraints of the video game.  Titles such as Naughty Dog’s blockbuster The Last of Us (2013) rely on polished, linear story-telling to create an intense experience, deeply rooted in the cinematic; others, such as the Grand Theft Auto series (Rockstar Games, latest incarnation being GTA V, 2013) blend linear ‘quest lines’ with open-world play to create a narrative experience far more dependent on the way the player interacts with the world presented to them; others still, like BAFTA Games Awards nominee Monument Valley (Ustwo, 2014) use only the most basic of narrative ploys to provide tenuous links between each stage, immersing players by creating a desire to unravel each puzzle with the hope of gleaning more information about the spaces they traverses.

The notion of this ‘open-world’ gaming experience, however, poses some problems to the effectiveness of many prevalent narrative techniques.  The appendage of an open-world description to the concept of narrative implies that the player is free, via their respective avatars, to traverse and interact with the game environment, with their actions only limited by imagination.  Yet it is certainly ‘implausible to think that a game could ever exist where players could continually find a consistent, long-term level of fascination without the aid of game-provided elements that are already narrative’ (Cross, 2009), because this would ultimately act to ‘deny the machinations of the designer [and] their construction of a world, a chain of actors, and a set of rules and motivations that propel multiple narratives through that game space’ (Cross, 2009).  To summarise Cross’ argument here, the player must feel that their actions have noticeable influence within the designated game space in order to be left satisfied, and this impact can only be achieved if, at some point, it has been pre-encoded within the design of the game.  A failure to provide any semblance of ‘reward’ in such an instance creates disconnect between game and gamer, destroying immersion and ultimately leaving no reason to return to that space.  Cross exemplifies this notion with reference to Grand Theft Auto: though the player may initiate ‘random’ fire fights as frequently as they like – and though these may, in turn, chain react and generate a multitude of scenarios within the gaming world – such events cannot be labelled narrative as they are simply ‘opaque, meaningless occurrences between human like entities, [they are] empty of content’ (Cross, 2009).

The article from which these early examples derive from discusses the recent concept of emergent narrative.  This style of narrative adapts the ‘game space’ to how the player interacts with it, yet it is not reliant on this interaction for individual narrative strands – nor on the space as a whole, to evolve.  This should create a ‘living’ world that can ‘continue to function without [player] input at each juncture’ (Cross, 2009) and, as such, this makes it ‘possible to miss [certain] events and characters, and thus have other events cut off from [player] purview’ (Cross, 2009).  This technique is very often utilised within the framework of the role-playing game (RPG), naturally with varying success.

From this point, more specific analysis will be carried out on two particular and, at a glance at least, entirely unrelated titles: Dark Souls (From Software, 2011) and the original incarnation of Pokémon (Game Freak, 1996).  The methods of story-telling within each of their unique game spaces will be explored, with a focus being placed on the extent of the effectiveness of emergent narrative, particularly within the framework of Dark Souls.  This analysis should allow an expansion to the exploration of unreliable narration within both games, displaying how these elements combine to create vibrant, ‘living’ game spaces abound with their own unique, intrinsic lore.  The analysis here should allow us to discern why games that employ their narrative techniques as efficiently as Dark Souls and Pokémon do are generally able to stand the tests of time, achieving classic and/or cult status to this end.

Firstly, the appeal of the RPG is rooted in Roger Caillois’ ‘nature of games’ (1961), and specifically this lies amidst the four categories that he has divided them in to – agon (competition), alea (chance), mimicry (imitation) and vertigo (movement) (Caillois, 1961).  Caillois deigns that games, and thus these four categories exist within a ‘continuum between two opposite poles’ (Caillois, in Henricks, 2011: p167).  The poles which he describes are that of paidia, or playfulness, and ludus – formal and rule-based behaviour (Caillois, in Henricks, 2011: p167).  Though it flirts with the categories of agon and alea regularly, the RPG aligns itself most directly with mimicry in that it is orientated around the creation and development of the player avatar; that is, escapism in the form of another ‘body’ is essential to the overall success of the experience.  This provides the ideal setting for the creation of emergent narrative: fantastical worlds occupied by a cast of characters that interact with, but also react to, a changing narrative environment.  This change occurs as player action, reaction and progress steadily shapes this environment – in this way both ‘character design and the narrative environment… support intrinsic motivation in various ways’ (Dickey, 2006: p257).  Due to the ‘great input into the development of their characters, players often feel an emotional proximity’ (Dickey, 2006: p258) to their avatars, and therefore immersion is greatly intensified.  Combined, these elements lead to an inert desire to care for the avatar and see them through whatever journey they may be on – this unique hook in turn becomes an enabler for the narrative environment of the RPG to be explored in more depth than perhaps the environment of a shooter with a generic or typecast avatar.

The similarities of the Souls and the Pokémon franchises lie in this idea of an interactive narrative environment – ‘the focus of gameplay is on uncovering the narrative during the advent of gameplay’ (Dickey, 2006: p259).  In Dark Souls, the player adopts the role of the ‘chosen undead’, a character destined to determine the fate of the dying world of Lordran; in Pokémon the player avatar undertakes the role of a ten year old child who wishes to be recognised as ‘the very best trainer’ in the region of Kanto, by means of encountering and overcoming increasingly difficult opposition in Pokémon battles, and ‘catching’ all one hundred and fifty one available pocket monsters over the course of the game.  Both narrative environments are typical to the Japanese RPG: Pokémon adopts a traditional, tile-based dungeon approach with randomised and scripted encounters fuelling narrative challenge, where Dark Souls employs quirky (read: ‘often terrifying’) ally and enemy design alongside mercilessly difficult, yet exquisitely crafted area structures.

Within their respective narrative environments are embedded a multitude of extraneous ‘short narrative storylines’ (Dickey, 2006: p259).  This implies that ‘rather than the focus of gameplay being on uncovering one major narrative storyline, the environment is a network of narrative spaces in which the player interacts and, in limited ways, helps shape’ (Dickey, 2006: p259).  Thus, such a ‘design model fosters exploration’ (Dickey, 2006: p260).  This ‘fostering of exploration’ becomes evident from even the earliest moments within the environments of Lordran and Kanto – in both players are thrust in to an entirely alien space with little in the way of direction or ability. This notion echoes Dickey’s intrinsic motivators in that it is curiosity that drives the initial stages of adventure.

In both Dark Souls and Pokémon, character advancement within the environment heavily depends on gaining experience points (dubbed ‘souls’ in the Dark Souls universe) to strengthen certain attributes and increase the ‘level’ and prowess of the avatar.  Experience can only be gained through involvement and interaction with the pre-ordained narrative environment.  This takes the form of overcoming adversary and gaining reward based on the difficulty of these feats.  For example, a boss encounter will yield far more ‘souls’ in Lordran than, say, killing a rat; similarly, there will be a greater XP (experience points) boost for defeating a Pokémon of a higher level than the player’s own.  However, as mentioned, such advancement is not simply limited to interaction – exploration of the narrative environment is also required in order to make significant progress.  Delve in to both worlds and it soon becomes apparent that they contain numerous resources which often prove advantageous to the player.

It cannot be stressed enough that for the most part, and certainly on the majority of first ‘playthroughs’, the locations and effects of these resources are left to be discerned largely by player experimentation, unless knowledge of certain elements has previously been shared.  A prime example of this is contained in the narrative environment of Pokémon, upon encountering the ‘Dark Cave’ area.  The avatar enters this area and immediately the screen is thrust in to total darkness, bar vague ‘boundary’ outlines.  There is no way around or shortcut through this stage of the game.  It would not be far-fetched to assume that many, on reaching this stage, proceeded to laboriously traverse this area through trial and error, only to emerge blinking on the other side rather irritated at the developers for including such infuriating level design.  However, this is where the intricacies of such a complex narrative environment, when applied correctly, can shine.  In the town visited before reaching the ‘Dark Cave’, there is an area known as ‘Diglett’s Cave’.  There is no tangible narrative motivation, explicit or otherwise, to explore this area – it does not progress the narrative in anyway.  However, if the player does choose to divert to this path, they will discover it reveals a shortcut to a secret area in the very first town encountered within the Kanto region.  This area contains one of Professor Oak’s (the in-game mentor) aides, who grants a Hidden Move (HM) to the player, provided they meet a certain requirement – that being to have captured ten or more Pokémon by that stage.  If this requirement is met, then the HM is gifted: this HM contains ‘Flash’, and when taught to a Pokémon capable of using the ability, it can be used outwith battle to illuminate blacked out areas – effectively, it destroys the most challenging aspect of the ‘Dark Cave’.  Without exploration, this aide, and technique with him, both still exist within the narrative environment – they simply remain void of use without player interaction.

Areas such as the ‘Dark Cave’ draw many parallels with the boss encounters from Dark Souls; not least because of reliance, again, on Dickey’s ‘intrinsic motivation’ providing the desire to explore to the fullest extent the environment the avatar occupies in attempts to glean advantage.  Intimidating at first and usually infuriating after several attempts, there is usually a deceptively simple method to overcome these obstacles.  Whether it be as simple as the discovery of the plunging attack that rips off over half of the health of the Asylum Demon – Dark Souls first area boss – making the rest of the fight drastically easier; or the discovery of items such as ‘resins’, which imbue the avatar’s weapon with certain powers that some enemies may be particularly susceptible to.  This notion is summarised incredibly accurately in a humorous video review by Ben Croshaw, under his alter ego ‘Zero Punctuation’, stating in reference to Dark Souls that ‘that boss fight is easy peasy, as long as you’ve got the orange listerine ring, which you must have found because it’s right there in the open, in a chest, in a basement, in a different postcode behind two secret walls and a fire’ (Croshaw, 2014[1]).

Statements such as this also serve to emphasise the importance of shared knowledge between peers in gaining the most from the universes of games such as Dark Souls and Pokémon, and echo a theory coined by Consalvo which denotes the ‘active gamer’ (Consalvo, 2003: p323) by highlighting a walkthrough culture in communities associated with these games.  Consalvo argues that ‘gamers creations of these walkthroughs, then, can serve as an aid to creating a storyline to a game’ (Consalvo, 2003: p331), which, as has hopefully been indicated, is a requirement for those inclined to participate in their own active exploration of the vast narrative environment discussed here.  Consalvo also reinforces Dickey in the notion that inviting the player to ‘identify as the central character of the story’ (Consalvo, 2003: p331) deepens the relationship between the gaming environment and the player, thus generating once more this inert, intrinsic motivation.

Dark Souls does take these gameplay mechanics a step further than Pokémon.  This is due primarily to its effective employment of the emergent narrative described by Cross, combined with the provision of intrinsic lore and hidden context.  Essentially, all the clues required to unravel the various narratives are contained within the games diegetic text – it is simply up to this ‘active gamer’ to piece these together and form their own conclusions.  For example, on defeating bosses, the player is usually granted an item and given access to their equipment at a later stage of the game.  Every item in Dark Souls comes with a brief description.  By linking certain descriptions with dialogue from non-playable characters (NPCs) that occupy Lordran, or with information gleaned from other descriptions, the active gamer can begin to illustrate certain plot points and illuminate many of the hidden narratives that reside within this carefully constructed environment.

These notions are exemplified by the interactions with, and narrative strands of, several of these NPCs.  For instance, the interactions with these NPCs are not vital to the avatar’s own quest. Rather, and interestingly, the avatar becomes intrinsic to the NPCs storyline instead.  This notion shall be illustrated by examining perhaps Dark Souls most interesting, and almost certainly most tragic, NPC storyline – that of Solaire of Astora.  Fan theory dictates that Solaire is the son of Gwyn, Lord of the First Flame, known as a god in Dark Souls’ lore. This not technically canon – it has never been explicitly confirmed.  What is made apparent through the textuality of Dark Souls is that Gwyn had three children.  Two are explicitly named and encountered as Gwyndolin and Gwynevere, and have statues erected in their honour in the Anor Londo area.  However, where a third statue should be, there is simply an empty podium.  The only textual evidence as to this third child’s story is that he was a god of war, who had his powers rescinded after losing something of immense value.

Solaire is first encountered in the Undead Burg, a welcome interruption to the hordes that have just tried – and probably succeeded multiple times – to end the chosen undead’s progress.  Solaire’s quest, according to his dialogue, is akin to the player’s own – at this first encounter he states ‘the way I see it, our fates appear to be intertwined.  Both undead, both imprisoned in the asylum and now we both end up here.  In a land brimming with hollows, could that be a mere chance?’[2]  This short utterance alone provides the player with several clues.  Firstly, it reminds them of a prophecy told by Oscar the Fateless – if the player has interacted with him in the early stages of the game that is – which, when placed in context with the completion of the game, provides one of the most effective clues to uncovering the lore of the ages in the Souls universe.  Secondly, it indicates that Solaire became, voluntarily or otherwise, undead in an attempt to fulfil this prophecy.  Upon further exploration, evidence of Solaire’s birthright is hinted at too – in the Undead Burg, far from the desecrated altars of Anor Londo, there is a statue of a woman, holding close a child that bears a sword not dissimilar to Solaire’s.  Later in Solaire’s narrative, we find him silently gazing at this shrine.  The dialogue here also notes the possibility of co-operation between the two characters, and indeed at the next boss fight it is possible to ‘summon’ Solaire to your aid.  This ability to summon reinforces the notion that, through textual knowledge, the game difficulty can be greatly reduced.  Importantly, this summoning is only available if the initial interaction has taken place.

Solaire is found again in three separate areas of the game: Anor Londo, the Demon Ruins and Lost Izalith.  His quest can be categorised as emergent narrative as it does not rely on player input to progress – Solaire continues with his storyline regardless.  Player interaction, however, does determine the success of this quest.  The player has the option to join a covenant which grants access to an area in which lies an enemy known as the Sunlight Maggot.  If the player kills this enemy before Solaire can reach Lost Izalith and summons Solaire to their aid in every boss encounter that he is available – of which there are four – he can be summoned to partake in the final boss encounter; this is the only path to what may be considered a true reflection of a ‘good’ ending.  Failure to follow this procedure leaves Solaire entranced by the Sunlight Maggot in Lost Izalith, which causes him to lose his mind, hollow, and turn against the player, thus forcing the player avatar to end his suffering.

Emergent narrative is not limited to Solaire’s journey through Lordran.  One of the main challenges to the player’s perception of the world is that several of these narratives intertwine and oppose one another, thus deeming all, to some extent, unreliable.  However, it could be argued that ‘as consumers of fiction, we have become skilled at recognising unreliable narratives’ (Currie, 1995: p19).  The problem with the emergent narratives in Dark Souls is that the player is often susceptible to unreliability because at face value, much of the dialogue appears credible.  To reinforce once more, it is only through deep exploration, both physical and textual, of the game environment that the player can discern true credibility.

There are two NPCs that highlight perhaps the most major source of unreliability within the Dark Souls universe, and this becomes evident through the ‘disparity between the world of the novel [or, in this instance, the game] and the claims [made] about that world’ (Currie, 1995: p19).  The disparity initially comes from the ‘primordial serpent’ Kingseeker Frampt, located in Firelink Shrine, an area which acts as a hub of sorts for activity in Lordran.  Frampt charges the chosen undead with acquiring the Lordvessel and the four Lord Souls – light, dark, life and death – from their possessors in order firstly to satiate the original flame, and secondly to be consumed by the fire, taking Gwyn’s place and prolonging the Age of Light.  However, on opting for this ending to the game, it becomes apparent that this may not be the ‘good’ ending as was promised – not only does the chosen undead sacrifice themselves, but this sacrifice appears to be in vain.  This is because it simply delays the Age of Dark, serving only to prolong the illusion of power that the gods have weaved during the Age of Light.

If this is not the solution to the prophecy, then what are the alternatives?  If you choose to ignore Frampt’s advice regarding the Lordvessel, then it is possible to encounter another primordial serpent, Darkstalker Kaathe.  Kaathe’s intentions differ vastly from Frampt in that he wishes the chosen undead to usher in the Age of Dark and with it the uprising of man, destroying the gods in the process.  He reveals the manipulation of Frampt in his efforts to keep Gwyn’s illusions from crumbling.  Yet the discoverable fates of two areas – New Londo, and Oolacile in the downloadable content – cry out against Kaathe’s plan, as both of these areas accepted the Age of Dark prematurely, and fell to chaos and ruin as a result.  This would ultimately imply that the Age of Dark could also never be a truly ‘good’ ending.

In both these instances we see the ‘intentions of [an] implied author determining what is true in the story’ (Currie, 1995: p20).  Yet this is where games, particularly those with open or emergent narratives such as Dark Souls, can serve to actively challenge these intentions, as opposed to the medium of film or novel, despite this ‘implied author [being] easier to conceptualise’ (Currie, 1995: p20).  This is due to a gamer involved in such a narrative environment being afforded more ‘mental economy’ (Currie, 1995: p20) over the story itself, essentially becoming an authoritative figure within the emergent narrative through their individual and unique interactions.  In this vein, the player can not only ‘perceive narrative unreliability when we perceive disparity between the intentions of the implied author’ (Currie, 1995: p20) but they can act on, and subsequently alter the course of the narrative according to their own desires.

Though Pokémon perhaps does not contain the narrative depth afforded by Dark Souls, one can draw parallels with these moments of disparity and the Mew/Mewtwo lore hidden in the incarnations of Pokémon Red and Blue.  Though it is physically impossible to capture the mythical Mew without exploiting cheats or glitches within the Pokémon game code, its presence is hinted at through text dispersed around the Kanto region.  Again, it is down to player investment, and their own active motivation, to piece together clues which ultimately discern the nature of what occurred in the process of creating Mewtwo via genetic experimentation on Mew.  Unreliability rears again however when, if the player does manage to complete this optional quest arc, Mewtwo’s dialogue directly challenges those memoirs inscribed by humans – narrators whom we must then ‘imagine to be controlling’ (Currie, 1995: p21) for the sake of preserving their own credibility but recognise that this is always with ulterior motive.

In conclusion, it is evident that video games provide a space in which – similar to the artistic mediums of literature and film – multiple narrative strands can play out simultaneously.  Through compliance with the human desire to tell stories, such narrative environments as Dark Souls and Pokémon shine as a canvas on which many intricate narratives can be painted and intertwined in numerous ways.  They exemplify the precision that developers can craft their narrative techniques and storylines with, as indicated by the depths of lore in only subtle nuances that are pieced together over time.  Though challenges do exist within the notions of unreliability in any medium that acts to recount the story of another, it is evident that the video game holds unique authority in the way in which, through emergent narrative, the interactions within this environment can serve to challenge any processes of the unreliable.  This in turn allows video gaming an elevated status in the art of story-telling through these distinctive mechanics, provided it nurtures the desire to intrinsically motivate correctly; and therefore the form can undoubtedly creating a fulfilling venture.


[1]Dark Souls (Zero Punctuation), 2:26, available at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STrYyhEwkbY>, [last accessed: 06/11/18]
[2]Dark Souls Story > Solaire and the Sun, 2:10, available at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=skV-q5KjrUA> , [last accessed: 07/11/18]

 


Bibliography:

 Caillios, R. (1961).  Man, Play and Games. Barash Translation (2001).

Consalvo, M. (2003). Zelda 64 and Video Game Fans A Walkthrough of Games, Intertextuality, and Narrative. Television & New Media,4(3), 321-334.

Cross, T. (2009). Gamasutra. Analysis: Story and the Trouble with Emergent Narratives. <accessible at: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/115255/Analysis_Story_And_The_Trouble_With_Emergent_Narratives.php>. [Last accessed: 2/4/15].

Currie, G. (1995). Unreliability refigured: Narrative in literature and film. Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 19-29.

Entertainment Software Association. (2014). 2014 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry. [PDF]

Dickey, M. D. (2007). Game design and learning: A conjectural analysis of how massively multiple online role-playing games (MMORPGs) foster intrinsic motivation. Educational Technology Research and Development,55(3), 253-273.

Henricks, T. (2011) Man, Play and Games, An Appreciation and Evaluation. The American Journal of Play (Fall 2010), 157-183.

Filmography:

Escapist Magazine. (2014). Dark Souls (Zero Punctuation). <available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STrYyhEwkbY>. [Last accessed: 4/4/15].

VatiiVidya. (2014). Dark Souls Lore (Playlist). <available at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLWLedd0Zw3c5RCXboUsPwHsZJlXB2CzCz>. [Last accessed: 4/4/15].

Ludography:

From Software/Bandai Namco Games. (2011). Dark Souls [PS3].

Game Freak/Nintendo. (1998). Pokémon [GBC].

Naughty Dog. (2013). The Last of Us [PS3].

Rockstar. (2013). Grand Theft Auto [PS3].

Ustwo. (2014). Monument Valley [Android].

 

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