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Ambiguity in Narrative Design
by Tom Battey on 05/12/14 01:53:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Following on from my initial attempt to dissect the narrative design in From Software's Souls series, I wanted to take a longer look at one of the key aspects of storytelling in a Souls title; specifically the ambiguity of story delivery.

Dark Souls and Demon's Souls are games that require the player to do quite a bit of legwork to piece together their stories; rather than offering a straightforward narrative with obvious plot and backstory components, they ask the player to assemble the story from myriad often cryptic clues hidden around the game world.

But even the most diligent player won't be able to piece together the story in its entirety, because the complete story doesn't actually exist, at least not outside the heads of the studio's writers and designers. Players are presented with enough information to make an educated guess about the complete plot, but never enough to truly prove or disprove one another's theories.

It's possible that From Software actually have the complete version of the plot for their games written down somewhere, and have chosen which parts to withhold from players in order to enhance story delivery and the series' trademark sense of mystery. It's also entirely possible that no one really knows what's going on and the designers are just chucking this stuff in the game to be deliberately obtuse.

Now I'm going to give From the benefit on the doubt and assume that someone - most likely series director Hidetaka Miyazaki - knows what's going on, and the game's ambiguity is a considered decision on their part.

Either way, it doesn't really matter - the fact is that Dark Souls and its ilk present a story that is ultimately, deliberately, impenetrable.

Dark Souls Pygmy
The furtive pygmy - what is it? Where did it go? And does it even matter, anyway?

There are both advantages and disadvantages to making a game's story so ambiguous. An advantage to this approach is an increased level of player interaction with the story itself outside of the game. Just google 'Dark Souls lore' and you'll be met with a deluge of forum threads, all full of players passionately discussing their take on the game's story. I'll direct you once more to the work of EpicNameBro, a man who devotes countless hours of his time to poring over Dark Souls lore and speculation on his YouTube channel.

It's hard to imagine such a passionate ongoing discussion taking place if Dark Souls laid bare every beat of its story. It's the ambiguity that draws people in, inviting people to fill in the blanks left in the story with their own imaginations, and creating a story of their own in the process. These people become more attached to the story of Dark Souls because they've invested their own creative energies in speculating about its true meaning.

In this way the story of a Souls game becomes something like folklore, theories passed down and developed through countless forum threads. You see a similar effect with other forms of media when their creators choose to obscure story elements from the audience, whether it's a David Lynch film or the ending of True Detective.

But the interactivity of a game like Dark Souls adds an even greater draw to the community, because there's the feeling that it may be possible to uncover something in the game that could prove or disprove your personal take on the story. Perhaps an artefact exists in some secret unexplored corner of the gameworld that will finally prove the origin of the Dark Sign - and even though we've read all the guides and know such an item doesn't exist, the interactive nature of the game space invites us to search for it anyway.

There's this fantastic Eurogamer article about Shadow of the Colossus that I basically never tire of reading. It tells the story of a group of dedicated players who, years after the game's release, are still poring at the very edges of the game's world, convinced that there must be some hidden secret left in the game that no one has uncovered.

Shadow of the Colossus
Could there really be a 17th Colossus buried somewhere in the game's code?

It doesn't matter that people have now pulled all the game's geometry from the disc to debunk such rumours; that game has such an air of mystery, presents such an inviting yet ambiguous interactive world, that the idea that there's one last secret buried in the static code of the game world still captivates people.

This is the real power of ambiguity in an interactive medium, and it's one that Dark Souls with its thousands of posts worth of speculation captures masterfully; the power to have the narrative live outside of the game, to have players interacting with the story of the world even when they've stopped interacting with the game itself.

It gives the game a greater longevity than one that simply tells a story, because the story lives longer in the minds of those dedicated to working out the hidden details. It doesn't matter that these people will likely never uncover the truth of these details; it's their very absence that will keep the game alive in discussion forums long after that majority of players have moved on.

The downside to this, of course, is that it's easy to to leave a portion of your audience behind. The very elements that make the story of Dark Souls so interesting for some - the legwork required to uncover the story and the ambiguity of the actual story details presented - lead others to conclude that the game doesn't really have a story at all.

Not everyone wants to pore over every inventory item searching for story clues, and not everyone wants to join in a lively forum thread to try and work out what's going on. For these players, the Souls games present an absorbing atmosphere but very little narrative meat.

It's easy to get the impression, wandering around Boletaria or Lordran or Drangleic, that these games are being deliberately coy, keeping information from us in order to create a sense of mystery that isn't fully justified by the actual story being told.

It's a difficult decision to make as a narrative designer, choosing how much of your story to keep from your audience. On the one hand, keeping things vague frees the game from the pace-killing shackles of exposition and invites players to invest in the story outside of the game, but on the other you run the risk of alienating players who would like to experience the entirety of a story within the game itself.

In the end it's a matter of a taste, and a balancing act that's impossible to get right. I for one love the way From Software deliver their stories, but I can understand why it leaves many players frustrated. Not everyone wants to explore a game's story as well as its world - and it's up to the designer whether it's worth leaving these players in the dark to foster the kind of fan community that the Souls series now enjoys.

Tom Battey is an author and person who sometimes writes about videogames. He writes at tombattey.com and does the Twitter thing @tombattey.

His latest novel, the sky pirate adventure Into Uncharted Skies, is now available on the Amazon Kindle Store.


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Comments


Michael DeFazio
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Thanks for the article,
I really love this quote:
"...there's the feeling that it may be possible to uncover something in the game that could prove or disprove your personal take on the story."

which I think is really the work of a true craftsman/storyteller... don't just "give them everything" let them fill in the blanks...(But the world and things in the world have to be interesting enough to get their "hooks" into you.)

One additional point about this that I'd like to make is how (IMHO) writers for big AAA games (more often than not) probably have some main point or "story" to tell, and they feel the urge to "tell their story"

An example where a writer "intended" to tell a story that discussed racism, colonialism, stereotypes, etc. is Far Cry 3... a scintillating interview from rockPaperShotgun with the author revealed his attempts to make the game a satire... it's almost humorous (or tragic, I dunno)

http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2012/12/19/far-cry-3s-jeffrey-yoh
alem-on-racism-torture-and-satire/

As many people who have been critical of the game (they seemed to have squandered the character Vaas who was interesting, well acted and well developed because the writer wanted to make something like Virginia Woolf... ohh the vanity!)

Tom Battey
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One of the problems with big studio games is that they often bring in a writer near the end of development, when the game design and key narrative beats are already set in stone, or else they're written by a team of writers who don't necessarily share the same vision for the overall story.

Far Cry 3 is a great example of a game that is extremely well written in places, and touches on some really interesting ideas, but ultimately has a narrative that just doesn't hang together all. I feel that someone - or some few people - had a really great story to tell in that game, but it was muddied and lost amid the necessities of AAA development.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Good followup to your other article on the subject, albeit I don`t agree with this central sentence:

"Either way, it doesn't really matter - the fact is that Dark Souls and its ilk present a story that is ultimately, deliberately, impenetrable."

If you are saying that on the surface it doesn`t matter for the player/reader if Miyazaki has a grand scheme for all of his Lore or if From is making it up as they go along, then yes, but below the surface the difference is imo a very relevant. It`s the differnce between Myth and Lie, the difference between pointless conspiracy theories and investigative journalism.

If it comes out that you did all this obfuscation only to fool your readers/players all these hundreds of thousands of speculations are nothing more than a waste of time, and you embarrassed yourself and your fans. "Lost" is a very good example for this, in the end the writers had to admit that they never had a real plan to bring all the threads together in an honest way, they had to admit to their mumbo-jumbo big time.

Tom Battey
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I agree with you in the sense that I don't think I've ever been as incensed by a piece of media as I was the time I realised that Lost had effectively been stringing me along a trail of bullshit for hours of my life.

The trouble they had with Lost, however, was that it was ultimately a linear narrative that they had to bring to a close. If you have to conclude something definitively, then you'd better make damn sure you justify all your mystery-spinning that came before, or people will rightfully get angry.

But let's imagine the show got cancelled somewhere around season 4 and we never got to find out story's conclusion. There's a strong chance people would still be writing about it today. I think that's one of the reasons Twin Peaks remains such a cult success; because the show was aborted after the second season, we're left without all the answers, which means we can still enjoy a sense of mystery when we watch/read/think about it. Far better to leave us guessing and wanting more than to conclude a story in a way that is unsatisfactory.

So unless Miyazaki comes out and says 'Dark Souls is actually about THIS' - which, if he's smart, we won't - then it actually doesn't matter whether he knows the answer or not. Without a conclusive theory one way or another, people will continue to speculate, and enjoy speculating, regardless of whether this speculation proves to be 'valid.'

TLDR version; if we never find out whether they've carefully crafted the story or are just making stuff up as they go along, then it really doesn't matter to us as the audience.

Joshua Darlington
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There is a functional reason for narrative designers to use society level crisis and personal crisis in their designs. People enjoy having meaning in their lives. When some one invests 2 or 20 hours in a story, they find that they've enjoyed it more if the story has an element of catharsis or connects to real world meaning (such as overcoming or struggling with real world obstacles).

This meaningful struggle does not have to be direct, concrete, and in-your-face to be effective. Impenetrability has a long tradition as a powerful art/entertainment tool. Think of conceptual art, expressionism, symbolism or any number of isms that are designed to evoke emotion or thought in ways that are oblique or parallel to the requirements of direct pulp-action-genre formulaic-story-outline. A lot of post Lovecraftian-Hodgson horror is rooted in such ambiguity. It manipulates the reader/player/users cognitive background as an instrument of entertainment.

Tom Battey
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This is all true - and there is something Lovecraftian to the world of the Souls series, I've always thought.

Anton Knyazyev
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I'm pretty sure Dark Souls devs were either sloppy with the story or just deliberately made it take a back seat and not interfere with the gameplay. The only thing why DS works is because its unforgiving difficulty drags the players in by appealing to their "I won't let it beat me!!1!" mentality, and then the sunk costs fallacy kicks in and people start seeing incredible depth in what otherwise is a pretty mediocre action-RPG.

Michael DeFazio
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Hey, everyones entitled to an opinion, but I'm pretty sure you aren't very informed about this...

They DO put time and energy into the story and the dialog, they just DON'T beat you over the head with it and leave things to be ambiguous to let you as the player figure it out).

That's not sloppy, or lazy, it requires some work on the players part... that's why I think you'll find more people discussing the narrative and lore in the Souls Series than in ANY other video game or video game series ever made...

(It's the Citizen Kane of video games! (I say this with a smile on my face))

Seriously just google "dark souls lore", then tell me another game that garners this much attention from a narrative or lore perspective.

Anton Knyazyev
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I think that only proves my point, since the only way to keep people looking for answers is to make sure that there are none. There's probably a general idea of what happened in the world, and the designers just threw around some vague clues and bits. In fact, I don't think they even planned this, neither did they expect the game to have such cult following. The goal was probably just to make the story as unobtrusive and "optional" as possible, but without making it feel cheap.

Michael DeFazio
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which point?

the one where they are "sloppy"?
or the one that says it's only good because of "unforgiving difficulty"?

I'm all for conversation, and I'm interested in how other people perceive things, but I'm having a hard time understanding why you'd comment on this article (about the narrative design) and not have any informed facts or theories or negative points we can talk about...it is known that the developers actively removed dialog from the game perhaps because it was too telling.

Here's a negative talking point for you:
The story seems like a mishmash of Arthorian legend and Greek Tragedy, and neither is fully developed...(the story arc the player goes through lacks a satisfying conclusion)

Again the fact the lore in the game is discussed as much as it is is not arbitrary and simply because it does not exist or is sloppily delivered.

On a positive note: Anyone else see the parallels between Seigmeier of Catarina as Winnie the Pooh (a loveable dope whos always sleeping and coming up with plans to get him outta jams)... When someone mentioned that to me I immediately thought "Brilliant"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mqDP9C5INEw

Anton Knyazyev
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the point that DS's story is so highly appreciated not because it's particularly clever, deep, or nuanced, but because a) it's deliberately vague and underdeveloped, and b) people who invested a lot of 'cognitive resources' into the game want to squeeze as much as possible from it, refusing to let it go; a bit (though admittedly not quite) like people would care what color Scarlett Johannson's underwear is, but that wouldn't be because it's an inherently interesting fact by itself.

Michael DeFazio
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Seems like you are holding fast to your opinion:

"...not because it's particularly clever, deep, or nuanced"

but i get the impression youve rushed to judgement without knowing much about the story.

I don't imagine I'll convince you, but to anyone else who's interested I'd suggest looking over some of the lore videos from either VaatiVidya or EpicNameBro... (then decide for yourself whether the story is nuanced and deep)

These videos are intelligent, well put together, well thought out, and not made by people wearing tin foil hats or thinking about the color of Scarlett Johannson's underwear...

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLWLedd0Zw3c5RCXboUsPwHsZJlX B2CzCz

https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL4825DBA198EBE9B9

Anton Knyazyev
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Thanks for the link. I've actually watched quite a bit of it, and ok, I can *probably* take "sloppy" back (even despite the amount of guesswork the guy had to do to fill the gaps). It still looks too bloated and lacking focus though (much like the game's RPG system, but that's off the topic here). In other words, it wouldn't be interesting as a story on its own, well not for me anyway; it can only work as a narrative background for a videgame, which I guess is a "mission accomplished", as that's pretty much what it's used for. Still, I think it could have benefited from building itself more strongly around a central idea, such as inherent darkness of the human soul or whatever.

Michael DeFazio
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"Still, I think it could have benefited from building itself more strongly around a central idea, such as inherent darkness of the human soul or whatever."

Alright, you asked for it... here it is on a silver platter in a 4 minute summary:
http://youtu.be/vBJDBtn2MbQ

(At least there is ONE person's take on it which touches many human characters (and their stories) and the concepts/mechanics in the game.)

Anton Knyazyev
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The only thing that's handed 'on a silver platter' is one person's broad conjecture. What's present in the game is a cast of loosely connected characters with one-note and often cliched backstories (their failure to have achieved something is probably the most common theme). To me even the world itself felt extremely artificial and unconvincing. It's just a set of areas populated with unconditionally hostile and immovable monsters (which also respawn for no other reason than to pad the play time), with a handful of NPCs that feel completely isolated and out of place. Questions like where they get sustenance and who buys stuff from the vendors except for the PC (zombies? giant spiders?) immediately ruin any semblance of credibility.

Michael DeFazio
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I'm not trying to "win" on internet forums, but, did you notice that the lore video's I linked to have hundreds of thousands of views and almost all likes? (While you might not find it worthy of discussion or debate, many, many people do)

do you feel your criticism :
" Questions like where they get sustenance and who buys stuff from the vendors except for the PC (zombies? giant spiders?) immediately ruin any semblance of credibility."

...is worth discussing on a blog talking about the narrative design? Did you think you were buying SimCity or The Sims and were misled?

Anton Knyazyev
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Last one first - sure, I think credibility of the game world is very important for narrative design. How could it not be?
And the amount of likes a youtube video gets is definitely not an indication of, well, anything, really. I was actually intrigued by the universal praise Dark Souls got, both for its gameplay and story, and formed a theory, which I now feel quite certain about (after playing through what's probably like 85% of the game and watching those lore videos). Of course it might very well be a confirmation bias, but it seems obvious to me that it's just smoke and mirrors, with 2 key components - bloating and obscuring. First, you create enough space for speculations by bloating things (dozens of stats and variables in the game system, dozens of characters in the story), and then you obscure them enough to create an illusion of depth. Punishing difficulty makes the gameplay appear deep (although mechanically most fights are extremely one-dimensional and repetitive), and cryptic terse storytelling does the same for the narrative.


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