The Scarcity of Knowledge & Virtual Immersion
This subtle way of storytelling that Dark Souls uses is ingenious really because it uses what I like to refer to as Scarcity of Knowledge. It requires an active player to fully entrenched and interact with the world if they wish to get the most out of it. It also promotes a level of replayability within the game. These are all things that are essential in creating virtual worlds in VR.
An example of Scarce Knowledge, or probably more commonly known as withholding knowledge is from J.R.R Tolkien. In the Lord of the Rings, Tolkien kept referring to heroes and epic sagas from a piece of scripture only then known as The Silmarillion. The Silmarillion was only published about 2 decades after The Lord of the Rings, leaving readers all that time to speculate and imagine what these sagas could be. This led to a far deeper entrenchment in the story then if they had been published together.
To achieve complete entrenchment and interaction, we need players to be able to do Three things when they enter a VR world. They need to Immerse themselves, to actually be in that place. Immersion is achieved through a sense of Presence, that they are there in spirit, and through a sense of Agency, that they are actively participating, that there are a cause and effect, that there are consequence and feedback to what they are doing. So, in the case of Dark Souls, by willfully withholding information, i.e. the story and the plot, the player needs to make the choice to engage with it. What this leads to is what has been termed as “Confluent Narrative” (here’s a video that describes this use in Dark Souls in a more literary manner: Storytelling in Dark Souls
For a narrative to progress, it will always need to be placed on some sort of rails system. The player will always be going from point A to point B to point C. Now the problem with VR so far is that with a 360-degree world, the player can look and move anywhere, thereby avoiding point B and C entirely if they so choose. The effect of this problem is that creators need to either come up with rather obvious methods to guide the player’s attention back to the rails or to create so much branching content for them to explore that it becomes ridiculously costly to develop.
The Dark Souls method of Confluent Narrative is switching that branching out narrative around to a branching in one, and incorporating subtle cues for the player to become aware of the story and continue on a path of discovery. The story is scarce here, the player is effectively in the dark. They are given the illusion of choice here, simply because they are unaware of the choice and its outcome/consequence. Anything they choose will be a surprise, even if they have limited choices. But if there are limited choices they can still make new decisions on another playthrough, they simply don’t have infinite choices.
This concept I need to highlight is key because the illusion of self-directed agency must be given to the player. The story still has a narrative arc, and it still needs anchor points. The agency is that the player needs to move through the world, with whatever choice they make. The player starts off with unknown limited choices, this needs to be given because unlike other mediums, games can block content. And in the case of Dark Souls, it can be blocked to the point of giving up from frustration, but the player can always choose another path. This blocking of content is beautifully explained by the Irish comedian Dara O’Briain. I’ve linked the whole piece as it is funny. But if the game blocks content how do you make the player aware of choices that are unknown to them. This is where the environmental storytelling of Dark Souls comes into play.
The Dark Souls Baseline
The world of Dark Souls, as I’ve mentioned before, is a Storyworld. The narrative is everywhere. It is a rich and beautiful world, and it guides the player to explore all the right areas. This is the abject genius of that world. It is by definition a very small world, and I realize that this technique cannot be used for every genre, but it is simply a baseline to start a thought process from. Dark Souls occurs on a single vertical experience, with sheer drops everywhere, either into nothingness in the air, or water or lava. This wonderful image gives you an idea of it: Dark Souls Map. So, the player really can’t explore laterally very much, they need to move upwards or downwards through the castles and crypts. They need to move through to the anchor points. They only realize this probably on a sub-conscious level. But through this vertical exploration Dark Souls is still guiding the player, a pillar of light hits an entrance just right illuminating it, a bauble, perhaps loot, flashes just at the right moment to be noticed, and an NPC is heard muttering and then seen weeping to just nudge the player along in the right direction. All of these are environmental story cues, converging the story as the player moves through them with agency.
It is this balancing act that is so crucial in VR, the environment as a whole, must be rich enough in visual storytelling that the player is never bored looking in a different direction, by the main story, the unknown rail system needs to be far more gripping to bring the player back to it, to want to explore it. And that is why if there is a sense of mystery around the story, the player will want to know why will want to explore. And most importantly of all, the player will use their own imagination to augment the experience, which is the most powerful tool to immerse someone in an experience, because then it becomes truly unique to them.