On the surface, I doubt you could find two games more different than the atmospheric adventure game Journey, and the hardcore role-playing game Dark Souls. One is about a little guy in a scarf walking through a desert, and the other is a challenging game about conquering the odds to take down bosses. At the same time, I think they share something which makes me like both, and it’s not just the random multiplayer feature.
This article is going to touch on spoilers for both games. If you haven’t played either, I encourage you to do so, both are pretty great.
You stand in the remnants of a civilization that came before. You don’t really know where you’re going, but you press on in the hopes of something— anything —better than what’s behind you. You’ve sort of got a goal in mind, but in the moment it’s not about that, it’s about survival in a harsh, uncaring world, and banding together with anyone you can to push forward.
Quick, was I describing Dark Souls, or Journey, just now? Trick question, everything I just said applies to both games. Obviously, these things are just surface similarities though, and anyone who has played the two games will know that, in practice, they’re very different experiences. What they really share is exploration.
Exploration can take many forms in a game. It’s when you’re walking around a world looking at the environment in Journey. It’s when you’re creeping through new territory, unsure of what comes next in Dark Souls. It’s when you’re talking to a million people in The Witcher, learning about what the political structure of this world is. When a game is able to take this exploration, and use that to tell a story, the results can be incredible.
For a long time, games have been striving to become cinematic. It’s been a buzzword as long as I can remember. We’ve finally reached a point where games have figured out how to achieve that, much of the time, and the results can be very striking. The Last of Us is one recent game which managed a very cinematic feel in not only cutscenes, but gameplay, getting a lot of (well deserved) acclaim in the process.
Usually, though, this cinematic feel comes at the expense of a feeling of exploration in a game. They’re not always mutually exclusive, there are parts of The Last of Us which capture this very well, but a lot of the story in The Last of Us feels as though the player is being told a story. When a game approaches its story through exploration, it feels like you’re uncovering a story. This is important, because it’s something only games can do. A movie can give you a window into another world, a game can put you there.
Take Journey, for example. The game doesn’t sit down there and tell you what to think or how to feel about its narrative, the whole story is told with nary a word, it doesn’t sit you down through a long cutscene and tell you “and then the kingdom of Scarfia fell into ruin.” At the most, its cutscenes show you some etchings on a wall, and let you figure out what they mean for yourself.
Likewise, Dark Souls doesn’t tell its story in the way a traditional role-playing game does, often earning it criticism for being too obscure. It opens with a brief cutscene laying groundwork for this world, then tells you “there are two bells somewhere, ring them, and something will happen.” It hides story away in the very environment, or in endless item descriptions, and lets the player choose whether or not they care enough to pay attention to learn what’s going on.
The more you put into these games, the more you get out of these games, very much in a narrative sense. That’s a risky thing to attempt, so it makes sense why this kind of storytelling is still primarily at the fringes of gaming as a medium right now, in things like hardcore role playing games, or obscure indie art games. Asking your audience to really pay attention to minor details in order to uncover something larger can come off as presumptuous, or even pretentious. When it works though, it’s able to inspire passion in a major way, which is why you don’t have to dig deep to find fan videos discussing the lore of games like the Souls series, or discussion on the themes of Journey.
I don’t think telling a story in this way is some sort of requirement for a good video game narrative, like I said earlier, I adore The Last of Us despite much of that game working equally well as a really long movie. When a game really nails that feeling of exploration though, when it drops you in a world and lets you learn about it on your own, those are some of my favorite video game experiences ever, and I would love to see more games adopt that approach.