I remember my first hour with Dark Souls. It was 2011. I was slowly creeping back into video games after being away from them for four years. Chatter about Souls’ difficulty had been flying about my social network feeds for weeks. Friends from college who didn’t play games kept talking about how amped they were to play something that harkens back to the punishing difficulty of old-school adventure games and platformers.
As someone who spent hours upon hours of his childhood tackling Mega Man and ridiculously obtuse text adventures, I was in. I bought Dark Souls from a Target down the street, pushed it into my Xbox 360’s disc tray and sat through the lengthy installation process. When the game finally loaded up, I was treated to a stunning introduction filled with dragons and necromancy, a hodgepodge of maddening poetry from which I could discern no straightforward plotline. There was something about the age of men, a rebellion, some sad dude holding a little flame in malnourished arms as well as an old woman narrator fond of the phrase “ah yes, indeed” for some reason.
I was awestruck. Enchanted. And totally, hopelessly confused. What exactly was I getting myself into here? The first segment didn’t really do much to clear up matters, casting me as some poor fool waking up in a dingy jail cell. But by that point it didn’t matter. Within the first five minutes, Dark Souls had sold me on its world of mysteries with the steady drip of questions it produced in my mind. What the hell happened to this kingdom? Why did Gwyn link The First Flame? What the devil is The First Flame? Why is that dragon being such a jerk and not letting me cross this bridge?
The Souls series never really bothers to answers the questions its stories present in any direct way. Instead, fragments of fragments of answers are given to the player through item descriptions and cryptic dialogue. I’m unable to tell you the specifics of what happened to make the kingdom of Lordran the way it is before Dark Souls begins, though I’ve played through the game to completion four times now. I can’t tell you anything about the mysterious Mergo, whose presence haunts Bloodborne. However, the pieces of lore I’ve collected from playing through the Souls series and its offshoot, like Old King Allant’s sad greed-driven descent into madness, are often powerful enough that they’ve stuck with me more than most games that feature fantastic linear, easy to digest stories. The universe of this series is so mysterious that it makes me forgive the majority of its problems—the glitches, the abysmal framerate drops—because the pursuit of these crumbs of story is enthralling.
A large part of the appeal of these frustrating, obtuse stories is that I often feel like I’m actively engaging with the game to come to some sort of meaning about what’s going on. Souls is particularly good at nudging the player with just enough enticing details to push them into breaking down the pieces they’re given to try and derive meaning from it, resulting in players all over the world creating their own interpretations and clashing over analyses. One of the more famous interpretations is a free, massive treatise on Bloodborne’s lore called The Paleblood Hunt. The best ambiguous stories often create these sorts of community efforts to solve or debate narrative riddles.
This sort of intrigue goes beyond From Software’s works, of course. People still argue about Ellie and Joel’s exchange at the end of The Last of Us and whether or not she knows he’s lying. Years later, there’s still a debate about just how deep the connection between The Shadow of the Colossus and Ico goes. Those examples succeed because they make the right elements ambiguous within the respective context of each game. Ellie and Joel’s conversation works because the world that The Last of Us is set in is one filled with moral ambiguity and the journey brings these two characters close enough to the point that one of them has, possibly an unhealthy, dependency on the other. It intertwines nobility and selfishness and earnest love in an unsettling way that refuses to paint anyone as good or evil, but instead as people trying to make the most of their lives in chaotic times. Both The Shadow of the Colossus and Souls game get by on their ambiguity because it's an essential part of their respective settings, encouraging the player to constantly project meaning and explanation on dreary kingdoms and beautiful desolate vistas.