Mystery and mechanics in Dark Souls and Skyrim
Over the past few days I’ve been reading this summary of the plots, characters, and places of Demon’s Souls. I’m amazed at one thing in particular: how everything in the world has a cause. How everything has a story behind it. How the world is there to engage with if you, the player, wish to.
There’s a sense of space to it which lends a real legitimacy to its fiction. Like with many of its mechanics Dark Souls is offering us a modern recreation of the little things of retro games. While titles like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI didn’t have the most in-depth worlds they created spaces which let our imagination run wild. When I was younger, the Kingdom of Zeal was the most evocative place I visited in a video game, not because of what actually happened there but instead because of all the holes left around the edges: the characters who pointed out buildings that were physically impossible to go to, the cities that felt so mysterious. Dark Souls recreates this feeling perfectly through its locations, and takes it one step further: you look off to the horizon to see terrifying fortresses, and later in the game you’re in the bowels of those places. Go through the catacombs and you’ll see a giant, fiery hollow: that hollow is underneath Blighttown, and it’s another place you’ll imagine before you go there.
And that’s what we like. We, as gamers, love exploring. It’s the video game equivalent of the U.S. Historical phenomenon of Manifest Destiny: if we can see it, we want to explore it. We want to run over every mountain, through every forest, and stick our proverbial flag in the ground, announcing, “We’ve been here.”
That’s the core principle of the Open World RPG (a term a vastly prefer to the “Western RPG” for reasons to become apparent): a world with stuff to do in no particular order. The ways this is accomplished differ tremendously. Games like Skyrim and World of Warcraft create propulsive engines by making player development the focus, taking their lessons from games like Diablo 2. The quality of quests, the quality of narrative, doesn’t matter a whole lot, because players will play for sixty hours just to craft doubly enchanted glass armor sets. This leads the games to de-evolve into gamification of the modern day churnalist media: an overwhelming flood of “go here, do that” at its most basic. Not just quest markers, everything is reduced to its most basic, video gamey elements.
Meanwhile, the Souls games compel you out into the open world by offering you mystery. You do things in Dark Souls not to level up (though you’ll spend a couple hours farming in the forest because you want things to be easier) but instead because over the next hill there could be a brilliant sight, an enemy who’s going to decimate you and force you to reconsider how to play the game.
If you try doing that in World of Warcraft, some dragon’s going to eat you. They’re definitely at odds with each other.
Is one of these approaches better than the other, the classical or the modern? I, obviously, have a thing for the mysterious classic approach, where the unknown is fabricated into goals for the player-character to experience. It certainly fosters more excitement, and the best purveyors of mystery do so in a way where that same feeling will be cultivated when you replay the game—Demon’s Souls definitely does this properly, as replaying the game creates a lot of the same feelings as it does the first time (through nostalgia or otherwise). Skyrim and games like it, though, do have their interesting moments: they’re the candy of the video game world, and sometimes you need something delicious if, in the end, empty.
The big mechanical difference is that I’m more compelled to explore Dark Souls‘ world than Skyrim‘s. If I walk over a hill in Dark Souls I’ll find new enemies, new challenges, new ideas to engage with actively. If I, say, go to the city of Windhelm in Skyrim, I will, by necessity, find the same things I found in Whiterun: innumerable quests designed to push me slightly closer to my personal goals, people who don’t matter, buildings that don’t matter. Skyrim presents a self-obsessed real world, where nothing is interesting and everywhere is, deep down, the same, with only the player having any agency over it. Dark Souls presents the dreamer’s reality: everywhere is fascinating, everyone is someone worth talking to even if they have nothing to say. In Skyrim everything’s about you, while in Dark Souls everything is about everyone but you.
Both of these realities may be fun, but I know which one will tell the more interesting story.