February 29, 2012 by aakang
As videogames have become the subject of much attention, the idea of ludology and narratology in the field of video games has become a key issue. DarkSouls, a video game that came out in 2011 for the Playstation 3 and Xbox360, sheds light on this controversy. Dark Souls, the successor of Demon’s Souls, revolves around the Undead that will eventually ruin the world; the player controls an Undead avatar in this setting. The video game follows the RPG style set by Dungeons & Dragons as players customize their avatar’s equipment, attributes, and physical qualities. The game offers players a lot of freedom such as the choice to kill certain characters, which alters objectives and the direction of the game, and the option to go wherever they please. In general, graphics and sound do not offer anything revolutionary for its time. However, eerie creatures, darkness, and grim music do instill anxiety. Another element that creates anxiety is the difficulty. It is not uncommon to die at least fifty times in order to get to the boss and fifty more times fighting the boss; at the same time, each victory becomes that much more rewarding.
Although Dark Souls does have some semblance of a narrative, its difficult gameplay is what makes it noteworthy. Many scholars attempt to look at games using a narrative lens. However, it is often necessary that they look at video games more so from a ludological perspective, especially when the video game has a strong emphasis on gameplay. In the case of Dark Souls, a narrative approach fails to analyze the game; it is difficult to look at the game’s essence, its rewarding difficulty, without putting primary emphasis on the rules that are important in ludology. At the same time, narratological approach does not reflect much about the game when the narrative is subservient to the gameplay. In terms of narrative representation, Dark Souls has minimalistic plot. Cut-scenes are lacking, dialogue is shallow, and significant events are underemphasized. For example, NPCs and other characters do not have many lines that are significant to the narrative; they mostly speak about trivial matters such as their gratefulness. The narrative does not impose and is instead free. Thus it is able to complement the game’s freedom, the customizability that Dark Souls provides in playing an RPG. In the case of Dark Souls, it is appropriate that the narrative is subservient to the gameplay because the video game’s appeal comes from its free and difficult gameplay. Many games like Dark Souls emphasize gameplay over narrative in these and other ways. Thus it may be much more helpful to analyze games like Dark Souls using ludology instead of narratology.
An analysis of the game’s rules demonstrates that a ludological perspective may reveal more about video games. In Chapter 5 of Understanding Video Games, gameplay is defined as dynamics and the feelings involved in playing a game; it arises as a result of the interaction between the game’s rules and geography. Video games cannot exist without rules but can exist without a strong story. For instance, Tetris has been a classic favorite despite its narrative weakness. Rules make up the core existence and experience of games. The rules of Dark Souls reward and punish many type of behavior. For example, players are rewarded for killing enemies and bosses as well as exploring the geography; they are rewarded through souls, which are used to upgrade character attributes such as strength, and various equipment that are necessary to fight tougher enemies. Also, players are rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction after overcoming a boss that may have taken 20 attempts to beat; players are able to win after following the implicit rules that one needs to recognize enemy attack patterns and that one needs to be well-prepared for battles. The game strives to instill feelings of accomplishment when players finally defeat a boss while attempting to give players a strong sense of control through the availability of many different weapons. The feelings of satisfaction and control are the gameplay effects of Dark Souls. These effects are very important to gaming; focusing on the ludological rules that reward players makes it possible to examine both of these gameplay effects and the sources of these effects.
On the other hand, players are punished for dying, which is very common in Dark Souls. Upon dying, the player loses all of his or her souls and can only retrieve them by collecting the corpse without dying again. Also, the player is punished for not being well-prepared for battles in which players need to restart at the last checkpoint, retrieve the lost souls, and fight the same enemies again. This video game creates feelings of anxiety and frustration, especially when one loses to a boss in two hits and needs to clear the area all over again. These feelings of frustration and anxiety are important gameplay effects, which can only be analyzed by looking at the rules that punish players. Furthermore, although the game’s rules can be punishing, the game can potentially reward players even more through a strong sense of accomplishment. After losing dozens of times, players feel more accomplished finally being able to defeat a boss. All these effects and their combination are best understood through the rules. Together, these rules work to create a very difficult yet one of the most rewarding videogames ever made. Dark Soul’s punishing difficulty along with its rewards for getting through seemingly impossible levels constitutes the essence of this game. Thus, ludology serves the purpose of analyzing the video game’s essence.
To look at Dark Souls using a narratological lens obfuscates the true focus and intent of Dark Souls. A narratological approach does not provide insight on understanding the selling point of many games: how players are actually challenged, punished, and rewarded playing the game and the feelings brought about by these rules. The combination of rules dictating how to win, what ways one can lose, and the limitations of what can be done constitutes the game and the gaming experience. Narratology denies Dark Souls its essence, the rewarding difficulty, which is brought about by the ludological rules that attracts and intrigues so many players.