Dark Souls and Bloodborne are titles that tell wonderfully weird stories in a fragmented and ambiguous way. Dark Souls is a series in which humanity attempts to manifest itself in a world that has forgotten it. The player plays as an Undead warrior, tasked with determining the fate of mankind in a world of fire and monstrosity. Bloodborne, on the other hand, combines cosmic horror with a Victorian Gothic aesthetic, in which beasts run rampant in a place called the Nightmare. The player is a hunter who must traverse the realms of the Nightmare in order to put a stop to the Scourge of the Beasts.
Although there games do have explicit narratives, a straight playthrough from start to finish without thorough investigation of each entry’s esoterica can leave players feeling confused—and at times, even cheated. This, combined with Soulsborne’s—the common way of jointly discussing the titles—notoriety for being one of the most difficult videogame series out there deters a significant amount of players early on.
Many contemporary videogames explain their stories directly—arguably too directly sometimes, relying on clumsy techniques like twenty minutes of exposition from a dragon on the top of a mountain. In the same way, they clearly lay out their mechanics and gameplay—again, sometimes too directly, with long tutorials that stand in for effective game design.
The Soulsborne games are different on both counts. They don’t hold the player’s hand, and they don’t give up their narratives so easily either. If a player wants to truly delve into the lore that the worlds of these games are built upon, they need to engage with everything that the games offer.
And I mean absolutely everything. The player needs to read item descriptions, pay attention to environmental anomalies, and attach significant weight to the words and actions of NPCs. Even when all of this is done it needs to be stitched together—and no matter how talented a seamstress you are, you’re not likely going to be able to do it alone.
That’s where fans of the series come in. Although “git gud”—a derogatory term that experienced players tend to employ when a newer player asks for help—has defined the Soulsborne fandom for years, it’s become a meme that the series now wears rather ironically. For every “git gud” comment, there are tens more that offer genuinely insightful advice for novice players. The Soulsborne fandom is unflinchingly loyal to the titles it loves, and its investment in the series is evident from its continued presence and activity online.
And in this context, the fact that the narratives of the Soulsborne games are so fragmentary has actually become one of the series’ biggest strengths. People around the world regularly participate in online discussions about the more interpretative parts of the games, speculating on the bits of the stories that aren’t explicitly told. From the more ambitious discussions, there emerges a degree of cohesive and insightful theoretical analysis that one would think impossible of a congregation of anonymous users. Strangely enough, the series that spawned “git gud” is probably the only one that can be discussed seriously on 4chan.
For instance, Ornstein—a boss from the original Dark Souls—survives until at least Dark Souls III according to the series’ canon. However, this information is contained in the item descriptions for the individual parts of the Dragonslayer armor set in Dark Souls III. Fans on Reddit began to discuss what it meant for the armor set to be there, eventually coming to the conclusion that at some point before the player reaches this part of the game, or, for the sake of the argument, this part of the story, Ornstein had died there. This implies by extension that he had emphatically died there, and not in the Dark Souls boss fight from earlier in the series.
The conversations that ensued online then became immediately concerned with the potential implications of this realization. Upon closer examination, the item description reads: “In the dragonless age, this knight, who long guarded the ruined cathedral, left the land in search of the nameless king.” Fans began to hone in on the fact that the armor set is found at Archdragon Peak after the player defeats The Nameless King.
Although this information is provided to players who read the item description, the content of this description has extensive lore attached to it which was pieced together through a community effort. As it turns out, The Nameless King—who is the son of Gwyn, the final boss of the original Dark Souls—was actually the person to whom Ornstein originally swore fealty. It was only after Ornstein’s exile, which followed from his decision to side with the Dragons his father sought to destroy, that Ornstein’s loyalty was transferred to Gwyn.
The discovery of the Dragonslayer armor set in DSIII implies that after surviving the events of Dark Souls, Ornstein went to seek out The Nameless King, likely because Gwyn had died. However, Ornstein’s armor set suggests that he too is now dead, and is likely so as a result of a conflict with the king.
Without the help of the community, this lore could not have been so clearly laid out—and yet, it’s present in the text. A single item, one “shiny”, to borrow the community’s term for an item drop, has at least this much hidden story attached to it. That’s the beauty of fragmentary narrative—once you realize that the skeleton is in fact an exoskeleton, you can get at all of the flesh.
Hidetaka Miyazaki’s implementation of subtle storytelling through minimalist design has, in essence, created a fandom that is entirely devoted to working together in order to unearth the hidden narratives of Dark Souls and Bloodborne. Although theories are a core part of most fandoms, they often remain theoretical until they are either confirmed or debunked by a creator, somewhat spoiling the point. In Soulsborne, theories aren’t truly confirmed—but they enjoy conditional confirmation until they are debunked by other fans. This conditional confirmation becomes essential to the overall narrative that is accepted by fans, which essentially makes them co-authors of the story. Although the above example seems to be entirely concrete and is accepted as canon, it’s still not definitive. However, it is now seen as such.
The Soulsborne community has worked together to uncover some truly spectacular narrative details that couldn’t have come to light without the fandom working as a cohesive body—it’s written the extended stories of Dark Souls and Bloodborne by itself, voluntarily. That is an incredible feat, as new fans of the series can arrive to countless informative threads that have been built upon research conducted by fans before them. And still, fans seek to unearth the latest plot detail, or to cross-examine in-game descriptions in order to debunk a confirmed theory in favor of another. Even though these games are finished products, the narrative remains a living, breathing thing, nourished by the fandom.