‘Show, Don’t Tell’ in From Software Games

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a staple of advice given to everyone who tries to tell a story. The purpose behind this advice is to avoid excessive exposition; the temptation of every storyteller who wants to let the reader know everything about the characters they have designed and the world they have built.

In every medium the storyteller must work on the balance between showing and telling. Tell too much and there is nothing to engage with, just facts on a page or read out to a listener, like a historical timeline or scientific analysis of an experiment. But if you don’t tell enough then there is no story, just events happening, without the insight that telling provides.

From Software games take this concept to heart and strip down the story telling experience to some of the barest bones that one will experience in a non-indie game, whist still providing an enormous amount of story to explore.

Many people who play their games feel that the storytelling technique employed by From Software falls into the category of events just happening with no story, and there is no real insight into what events take place between the beginning of the game and the end.

This is a view I strongly disagree with, and in this article I will attempt to illustrate the ways that From Software pushes the boundaries in ‘show, don’t tell’ storytelling through two key avenues; Item Descriptions and Item Placement.

This article follows on from my previous article on Dark Souls’ story telling, and contains spoilers for the Dark Souls Trilogy, Demon Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Environmental Storytelling

Environmental storytelling is what it says on the tin. The reader understands what has happened, not because the narrator has told then what has happened, but rather because the environment makes it clear what has happened. This is commonly used in video games when you encounter a pile of dead bodies before a major environmental hazard or enemy. The player understands that these bodies are here because something has killed them.

An example taken from Dark Souls would be as you enter Anor Londo. You can summon Black Iron Tarkus to help fight the Iron Golem. He is heavily armoured and incredibly strong. He can almost beat the boss single-handed. And once the Iron Golem is defeated you travel to Anor Londo, which requires you to traverse across the narrow beams of the roof of a cathedral, whilst being attacked by quick and dextrous enemies. On the floor of this cathedral you can find the body of a warrior in giant black armour. It seems that Tarkus may have been able to handle the great Iron Golem, but lacked the manoeuvrability and dexterity in his armour to traverse the cathedral roof, falling to his death.

Tarkus
So close, and yet so far…

From Software uses the placement of items throughout their games to add to the strength of environmental storytelling. This is subtle, and can easily be missed if you are not paying attention.

For an example of item placement being used in environmental storytelling we can take a look at Bloodborne. In Bloodborne you can encounter a young girl who hides inside a house. She can be convinced by your character to try to make it to the cathedral, but you never encounter her there. It is not clear what happens until you kill the giant pig in the sewers. The pig drops a red ribbon, and only drops this item if the little girl sets out from her home.

A player might talk to the girl and kill this pig without ever really thinking about the items they have picked up. This missable story adds to the depth and darkness that is found in Bloodborne; the little girl never made it to the safe place, due to being caught and eaten by the pig, and she only left her safe place because of you.

Pig
It’s twisted grin just makes it all the worse…

Another example can be found in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The Guardian Ape drops the item ‘slender finger’ and can be found with a sword embedded in its neck. By sharing drinks with the Sculptor you learn that he used to train in the Sunken Valley with a friend who used a finger whistle. When you bring the finger to the Sculptor he appears to recognise it saying; “What’s that you have there…Where did you get that finger?…I see… To think it was in the belly of an Ape… Let me see it. I’ll fix it to your prosthetic arm.” 

Finger Whistle
A sad story for so simple a description…

The Sculptor never explicitly states it, but if you take in the information presented with you across these different locations and item descriptions you realise the finger is the same finger that belonged to his friend, and you have confirmed the death of his friend by presenting him with the finger, which was not something he was aware of. It is possible that the sword belonged to the Sculptor’s friend, Kingfisher, and the ape killed her when it regenerated from the deathblow she inflicted upon it. It is never confirmed, but there is an interesting story that is told using the environment, without ever explicitly forcing it upon the player.

This second story adds another element of story telling which ties well with environmental story telling, but is distinct. Micro-exposition.

Micro-exposition

Almost every item in all From Software games provide world lore information that the player would not have access to, but not in the form of a large info dump.

You get little nuggets of information and the responsibility of the players to piece these nuggets together.

For example, in Bloodborne the ‘Great One’s Wisdom‘ item has the following description:

“Fragments of the lost wisdom of the Great Ones, beings that might be described as gods.
Use to gain Insight.

At Byrgenwerth Master Willem had an epiphany: “We are thinking on the basest of planes. What we need, are more eyes.”

great ones wisdom
Madness follows…

This micro-exposition might not make a huge amount of sense in isolation, but for a player who pays attention to the Environmental Storytelling and the details of these micro-expositions, a story begins to take shape. Around Yharnham and the College of Byrgenwerth are lots of unspeakable horrors covered in eyes. From these kinds of micro-expositions one can learn that the Scholars at Byrgenwerth undertook experiments to attempt to gain more eyes to achieve the wisdom of the Great Ones, Lovecraftian higher beings.

Although not directly explained, suddenly the monsters you encounter begin to make sense.

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice an item named the Ceremonial Tanto has the following item description:

‘Dagger with a stark white blade and hilt. Converts Vitality into Spirit Emblems.

Resting replenishes its charges.

Originally, this tanto was used in a ritual offering to the dragon, in which an emblem would be cut from one’s own life force and set adrift on the Fountainhead waters.

The blade is inscribed with its true name: “Devoted Soul”.’

tanto
Carve emblems from your body…

This item gives players an insight into the world that they are living in. We do not know why this ritual was performed or what it sought to achieve, but it gives the player a taste of information that encourages interest in the player and adds to the depth of the game more effectively than if the player had been given a larger exposition dump on how the dragon was worshiped.

You get an aperitif of story, that builds the experience without overloading it with large volumes of text that often go unread (*cough, cough, Dragon Age: Inquisition, cough*).

Tying Storytelling Together

The storytelling philosophy of From Software undeniably attempts to embody the concept of ‘Show, don’t tell,’ with varying levels of success. The fact that many gamers struggle to follow the story of earlier titles they have produced shows that this is not something that they have always done as effectively as they can, although the work of fans like VaatiVidya shows that the deep and complex stories are there to be found.

With From Software’s latest release, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, From Software seems to have found a good balance of showing and telling. The story is easy to follow, and we still have a glut of world building that happens only in environmental storytelling and micro-exposition, adding to the depth and enjoyment of the experience.

Seeing how these techniques work for telling stories in video games is something that should be studied by both video game creators and writers of traditional fiction.

The translation to paper of these techniques may be tricky to master but should lead to effective and creative storytelling and world building.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

A defeated shinobi sits in a well. No companions. No sword. No hope. An unknown figure drops an item down to them, an item that gives them hope as they pick themselves up to fight another day.

Sekiro_03

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice opens on a familiar note for a From Software game, and one that harkens back to the first Dark Souls game, which truly brought From Software into the mainstream gaming consciousness.

Since its release Sekiro has garnered a reputation for being punishingly difficult even for, or maybe particularly for seasoned From Software fans. This issue in essence revolves around the difference in combat that From Software introduces in this game; the emphasis on parrying. In Demon Souls and Dark Souls you can block and roll your way to victory, in Bloodborne you dodge and parry when you can to go in for the kill, but in Sekiro you stand your ground and parry until your opponent’s posture breaks, leaving you with an opening. That is the basic design and combat flows, with variation, around this core combat component.

I have played Demon Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne. I have only completed Demon Souls, and as such I view myself as an experienced player, but not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, and I have the strong tendency to play these games offline for fear that an invading player will decimate me. My enjoyment tends to come more from the exploration of these immersive worlds rather than the PvP elements, a view I am aware is akin to sacrilege in certain circles. Out of all of these games Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the game that I have found most accessible.

The first thing to be said about this game is that it is beautiful. It is set in a fictional 15th century Japan and brings all of the known From Software artistic style to From Software’s home country, stepping away from the pseudo-european settings of previous games. Your character runs and glides through the air, climbing pagodas and cliffs, with a range and freedom of movement that has not been seen in the games the company has produced so far. Your character can run and jump and climb, and this is augmented with a grappling hook that allows you to take to the rooftops and approach the game from a different angle. This freedom of movement makes the game all the more fun to explore than the previous glued to the ground games that From Software has made.

This freedom of movement also results in a new way to approach enemies that again was never a formally implemented system in other games; stealth. I love a good stealth game, and Sekiro has an effective stealth system that works fluidly with the combat mechanics. You can get through most combat situations by stealthily killing targets before they see you, and most bosses can have their first health bar wiped out by a stealth attack. Sometimes stealth can feel a bit like cheesing the game, but combat is challenging enough that occasionally running away and hiding becomes a vital part of surviving the game. You are, after all, a shinobi; a ninja. You attack quickly and quietly and slip back into the shadows before you can be caught.

The game is a challenge and is filled with mini-bosses that are designed as skill checks to keep your abilities honed, but it is not the impossible game that it has been portrayed as by many individuals who have played it. The checkpoints are far more frequent In Sekiro when compared to previous From Software games, so lost progress is rarely significant, and losing money and experience rarely feels like the anxiety inducing panic it can be in other From Software games. This worry over death is further reduced by the fact that you cannot recover lost money and experience. When it is gone it is gone. The feeling of finality removes the stress of the second run to recover lost items that is present in all previous From Software games. The Dragonrot mechanic counterbalances the reduction of these death penalties. The more times you die in Sekiro the more the NPC’s you interact with suffer with an affliction called Dragonrot. This affliction prevents NPC stories from progressing further, so if you want to follow those stories you need to keep those deaths down. If however you are less interested in the world building then it means you can focus on the gameplay with minimal death consequences, which allows you to bounce back into combat quickly after death.

This reduction in death penalties means that I can sit down with the game for a about an hour and beat a boss with minimal backtracking from the 1-5 deaths it takes to find the best technique to beat them. This game structure is perfect for gaming in your spare time when you have a busy life, whilst still feeling like you are making significant game progress.

The combat is fast, and unforgiving, but deceptively simple. You time your blocks with the enemy attacks and strike back in the openings you make. There are several kinds of unblockable attack you must dodge or counter to avoid, and you can then punish the enemy with the opening you have created. Every fight fits this pattern, with different emphasis put on different aspects of the combat system, without fully breaking away. Coming from Dark Souls, where a visibly heavy attack must be dodged and not blocked for fear of having your block broken, it takes some getting used to. You are able to block and parry the moveset of creatures twice your size, and once you adapt to this you feel incredibly powerful in combat, despite the vulnerability of your flimsy life gauge.

If you enjoy a From Software games it is likely you will enjoy this game, but you will have to adapt how you fight (Remember parry, don’t roll). If you find From Software paced too slowly, then this game may be what you are looking for. I love this game and it fits my gameplay style perfectly. I will always recommend this game, but with the following caveat. The game does require a base level of skill in relation to timing. As many reviews have highlighted, if you don’t adapt to the combat you will not have a good time. If you are familiar with modern gaming you probably have all the skills you need to enjoy this game, but it does not go easy on you if you if you do not meet that base requirement. However if you do, then there is not a From Software game I can recommend more to someone who has not played one before, or someone who is looking for something fresh from the makers of the Soulsborne games.

If you like this article check out more video game impressions here.