Environmental Storytelling

You run the gauntlet of Sen’s Fortress, dodging shadowy traps — only to get knocked down into the tar pits below, by a scythe. Seeing that all-too-familiar white light flaring in the distance, you slowly wade your way over. Loot the corpse, and, lo and behold, you found the scythe. Dark Souls (DS1) is filled with these cheeky little ironies, and it speaks volumes of FromSoftware‘s environmental design — not to mention sense of humor. Items are deliberately placed based on their relevance to a given area, and these areas are arranged so as to tell a broader, interconnected story about the world. Spot a curious landmark clearly visible on the horizon, and chances are that you will be making the trek to it later on. Look back at where you came from, and you can trace your journey all the way home. Kick down a nearby ladder, and you discover a logical shortcut back along a path you previously took. This internal consistency and attention to detail with world design rightly earns Souls games praise. But, it is not immaculate.

Look up to the distant Duke’s Archives atop the mountain and then enter the tunnel before you. Count your paces to the lift up to the area, and you will realize that you have nowhere near covered the distance to be directly under it. Game developers are illusionists, and Fromsoftware constantly manipulates our perception, mainly through line-of-sight, to makes us feel like we have journeyed farther than we have. Although these low-detail recreations are usually still situated around the same place as the actual areas in-game, more or less, some areas would cut into each other if actually authentic to the game world. The Gaping Dragon’s boss room would plow straight through Blighttown, both Izalith and Nito’s domains would marr the scenic view of Ash Lake, and the path bridging Darkroot Garden to Darkroot Basin parallel to New Londo’s bridge would be just an open ravine for the Valley of Drakes. Compromises in realism are made for the desired image of the given area, and they mostly go unnoticed with everything else distracting the player — though you occasionally can see the seams looking at angles that the developers clearly never intended you to: anywhere but straight ahead.

The same can be said for the individual areas themselves. Each area can often be identified by a particular style and iconography, thereby associating it with a specific culture. We can therefore extrapolate the origin and history of certain buildings based on these unique markers to some extent. However, these inferences must be counterbalanced with some measure of skepticism; buildings in two completely different areas might share similar architectural design because the developers reused assets to save on time and money. Likewise, one has to be careful with looking too deep into the more generic iconography. Sometimes an icon isn’t depicting anyone or anything specific, sometimes a floral pattern is simply an artistic decoration, and sometimes an arrangement of random shapes is just that: random shapes. Even in more specific cases like legible text written in a foreign language, it is almost exclusively a random stock image of something entirely unrelated to the game.

Trying to force meaning in something that might easily be designed to impress a certain ambience only derails serious analysis, thus my focus is always on the bigger picture, only considering specific elements within the general layout when their form and significance is obvious from casual observation. Indeed, many of the most pertinent details aren’t to be found in a minuscule symbol in a large ruin, but the more time-sensitive elements scattered around it. Because Souls games lack a proper day/night cycle, the time of day, brightness, saturation, and hue are typically tailored to the intended atmosphere for each area. While they do simulate a degree of realism, each is ultimately a static time of day, a snapshot of how the area is supposed to look when we are intended to first visit it. This extends to certain objects within said area, like large bonfires or piles of rotting meat, and also holds true for the local NPCs and items.

Like actors on a stage, NPCs usually just stand in position, waiting for their cue to react to the player. Often enemy setup relates to creating interesting gameplay, but they can also inform us about the relationships between NPCs in their environment, always queued up for whenever we arrive. Various items found off corpses or stored in chests likewise exist in their context. Corpses in particular can be considered their own characters, and while the cadavers’ personal stories in particular are typically short and unremarkable, they and the chest speak volumes about the greater whole. Meanwhile, chests convey ownership, with their location in relation to NPCs saying much about their owners’ identities and intentions. Alive or dead, characters possess a given item due to one of the following:

  1. It is personal property
  2. It was stolen from someone
  3. It was collected from the vicinity
  4. It was ingested as or with food
  5. It is a bodily byproduct

If I loot an Egg Vermifuge from a twin-headed lizard in Darkroot Garden, I can infer that the animal had eaten this acorn from the forest trees that it climbs. If I see corpses, chests, and enemies in the Tomb of the Giants providing certain titanite, then I can assume that such stones are found in abundance there. Each factor builds upon one another to form a specific image, often in correlation with item descriptions and dialogue. As enemies and chests, mimics are the perfect amalgamation of these factors. Aside from the first instance where we encounter one in Sen’s Fortress — where it is one of many snares — you only secure your possessions in a trapped chest for one or some combination of the following:

  1. To protect something particularly valuable to you
  2. To seal away something particularly dangerous to you
  3. To hide the fact that you own something

If a chest is juxtaposed beside a mimic, then you can be sure that the owner wanted to secure one item over the other. This composite chest enemy has become its own factor to contextualize. Not all items will speak strictly to the narrative, of course. We can find a sickle off a corpse in the Catacombs, for instance. There is no particular narrative reason for a simple farming tool to be in a graveyard, but the sickle has long been associated with the Grim Reaper, and so placing it in a place of death serves the meta-narrative as a humorous reference. The items in themselves may not be especially relevant to their backdrop, but their associations can still shape our interpretation. Ultimately, a picture says a thousand words, and following these criteria for contextualiztion paints a fuller picture.