The ludonarrative brilliance of Dark Souls

Kinja has no lack of posts praising the Dark Souls series, but there is one particular aspect that I felt few have touched upon so far, and that is how brilliantly it has tied the core gameplay loop with the story. In Clint Hockings now-famous words, it has an extremely small amount of ludonarrative dissonance.

For those unaware, Dark Souls revolves around the acquisition of “souls”, which is a resource gained by killing the various NPCs that populate the world. Harder enemies grant more souls upon defeat, with special boss enemies granting massive amounts. These souls can then be taken to an NPC called “The Firekeeper”, where they are consumed in order to level up your character. Basically classic RPG stuff. However, if you die before you use the souls you have collected, you lose them.

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RPG Gameplay elements like levels and stats have traditionally been rather underexplained in the games that contain them. Why, exactly, can your character in World of Warcraft reach incomprehensible levels of power compared to when you start out? What exactly does it mean to level up? These questions are rarely explored, and the systems tend to be simply accepted as a crude illustration of the necessary increases in power of the player character in order to enable them to face stronger adversaries.

However, Dark Souls takes a different route.

In Dark Souls, the essence of the world is said to be connected to something called the “First Flame”. If the flame dies, so too does the world, and flames go out when they run out of fuel. However, the flame can be strengthened through a rite known as Linking the Flame.

You play as something referred to as an Undead. These Undead are branded with the Darksign, something said to appear as the flame becomes weak, and are said to be chosen ones, destined to journey to the ends of the world to seek out powerful souls, and become strong enough to link the flame.

However, over the span of the three games it is revealed that the fuel needed to link the flame are the very same souls that you consume in order to increase your power. It literally means to throw yourself onto the fire.

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But why would your character want to do this? Don’t worry, they covered that too.

The whole thing about you being “a chosen one” and being “destined” to link the flame is a lie, a religion constructed to turn the undead into willing fuel to propagate the power of the gods. Throughout the series, this is hinted at through environmental details, vague comments from NPCs and various items you can find, but it is never quite confirmed until the end of the third game (ish). You are told that linking the fire is a glorious thing, and unless you pay close attention to the details, neither you as a player nor as a character have any particular reason to question it.

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Through this, the developers have masterfully woven together the story-related “goal” of the game with the core gameplay mechanics. The story requires you accumulate souls, but not for the sake of enabling the story. Rather, the accumulation of souls IS the story, and the world is constructed around this, resulting in a near-perfect marriage of gameplay and story.

Dark Souls has a lot very confusing and vague narrative that requires a lot of puzzling and piecing tidbits of information together in order to construct a greater picture, and a lot of things are left to interpretation. However, it shows a lot of respect for the player, and binds all the different pieces (story, gameplay, art) together in a beautiful way that truly makes it stand out.

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