[Spoilers for Demon’s Souls, minor spoilers for Dark Souls.]
If I were I to step outside my front door right now and walk twenty paces to my right, I’d find myself opposite the old mill in Celbridge. Over two hundred years ago it used to be the biggest wool manufactory in Ireland, an impressively huge building encapsulated by an enormous stone wall on the roadside. It overlooks the River Liffey, which, if you followed it, would send you all the way to Dublin bay and into the Irish sea, so whenever we go to feed the ducks we’ve a decent chance of locking eyes with the imposing building. Nowadays it’s used as a community centre–it hasn’t been a factory in decades, but it still carries the name as a sign of its history.
Opposite the mill is a pub with a sign in its window proudly declaring it as the establishment where Arthur Guinness brewed his first beer, Celbridge being his hometown. If I step out from my front door and walk left instead of right I’ll come across a statue of the man put up last year. A couple of minutes walking straight past the statue will lead me to Castletown House, Ireland’s biggest and oldest Palladian house, built for the politician William Conolly nearly 300 years ago. Everyone in Celbridge loves to walk their dogs around the mansion’s grounds so it’s pretty much a local fixture, a piece of history written into the normal way of the town’s landscape.
I doubt there’s a town in Ireland where you couldn’t say one thing or another along these same lines. Naas, where I lived for most of my life, derives its name from the Irish Nás na Rí as the place where the old kings of Leinster used to meet. My parents live in Rathangan, a small town wedged between the Slate river and the Grand Canal, owing a lot of its architecture to the tastes of the folk who worked on the latter. I just now found out Jedward grew up in Rathangan, so we have that in common.
Easy as it is to spot the history in Ireland, I’d hazard the same can be said for wherever it is you grew up or wherever you live now, that your locale has a sense of place hinting towards what it might have been, once upon a time. There’s a 600 year old yew in Maynooth where Silken Thomas spent his life’s last night of freedom, but to near everyone who passes it on the way to class everyday it’s just a big fat tree. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to overlook or that you just internalise without thinking, especially if you were born and raised being told about this or that piece of living history without having the years yet to properly understand it.
So I like seeing this sense of place carried through to worlds in fiction. It helps to make them feel more substantial and more relatable than just being empty places put in to fill a narrative gap, or in the case of most games, a corridor for you to shoot more guys or a side room to stage a lonely chest. It’s especially vital for games dependant on worldbuilding to project this sensation, since their narrative flounders or flourishes on the sensibility and believability of their world design. How a game’s environment’s are designed isn’t only important in terms of them as a playing field, it’s also a huge component of latent narrative design.
I’ve always thought Demon’s Souls was quite good at acknowledging and reflecting this, since it relies heavily on environmental storytelling to add depth to its relatively simple plot. It’s fortunate that the environments demand a fair amount of your attention if you ever want to reach the end of the game–you’ve the fact that they’re laid out kind of like a music sheet where you have to remember locations and types of enemies and recite combat tactics appropriate to the area, and on top of that they’re like puzzles with the importance of discovering and unlocking shortcuts to facilitate your safe passage. Since there’s so much value to poking and prodding every inch to see what it grants you, these aspects give Demon’s Souls‘ environments a great sense of weight. So it’s wonderful that this degree of scrutiny and attention is rewarded by uncovering narrative detail through the game’s organic flow. Continue reading