Note: This is an article in a series dissecting the good, bad, and horrid of Dark Souls 2. Rebuttals to the arguments presented here will come in future articles, but feel free to disagree in the comments below. These opinions are my own, and are informed by others as little as possible.
We’ve looked at both boss design and map design in these articles on how Dark Souls 2 is awful. Of course, we’ve not examined the characters of Dark Souls 2. In any story in any media, the character is perhaps the most important plot driver a writer/designer has in their toolbox. Think how utterly dead any of the Souls games would be without even one relatable character. If you think about it, and I hope you’ll forgive the schmaltz here, everyone in the world is technically a character in their own story: the narrator. So where did Dark Souls 2 fail? In almost every way.
It’s the story of a dying world, not a rising man
Forgive me again if I spoil something here spoiler warning incoming, but at the end of the game, the Emerald Herald describes that the entirety of Dark Souls 2 was only to perpetuate the choice made at the end of Dark Souls 1. Link the fire, cast away the Dark, free the world from the Undead, only for it all to be a moot point when events play out again some distant time from now.
Explain to me how this is not the story of a dying world. I beg you.
It seems like From Software decided somewhere along the line that the story of Lordran or Drangleic or whatever you want to call that kingdom in the north, that it shouldn’t be the focus. Instead, the player should be the nexus around which the story revolves. The trouble is, much like the first Dark Souls, players are simply told that the goals of the game are their goals, regardless of their actual wishes.
Where Dark Souls 1 skirted the issue was in the Chosen Undead concept. Buried in the lore yet all the same set in stone was the player’s destiny of destroying Gwyn. It didn’t matter whether you listened to Frampt, Kaathe, or both, you as the Furtive Pygmy’s descendant gave you divine right to Gwyn’s ashen throne.
In Dark Souls 2, there is no such precedent. You enter the game on a pretext, told to go somewhere because that’s where everybody goes “without really knowing why.” And I’ll be damned if that doesn’t set the tone of the entire game. I don’t know why I’m doing anything, even more than I didn’t in Dark Souls 1. Why should I care about this kingdom, it’s lost king, or the myriad monsters that people it?
Game, you established that players have nothing left prior to coming to Drangleic, and then go far enough to say, multiple times, that our journey would be fruitless. If being a “pawn of fate” is indeed the alternative to a desire for kingship, where in the lore is that fate set?
In short, players shouldn’t have to answer those questions even after playing the game and learning almost everything there is to learn. And more to the point, I don’t really care about the character I create, as I’m given no reason to. Like Yahtzee said in his Zero Punctuation review, the Souls games are as much if not more about the world in which they take place and how that world affects those people living in it.
Where has the world pushed certain people, how has it trapped them? Me freeing Laurentius in the Depths tells me something about the world. Talking to any number of NPCs for the simple reward of making them more accessible is nothing but a game mechanic disguised as story.
Give me focused depth, not a horde of shallow
While I’m on the subject, the NPCs of Dark Souls 2 are, by and large, inferior to their Dark Souls 1 counterparts in nearly every way. Without going into an exhaustive list, I’ll see if I can break down the major points in general.
Like the world of Lordran and the objects that fill it, the way NPCs are stationed around the Dark Souls 1 map tell a story about them, and helps to inform the setting as a whole. We know Big Hat Logan is a lazy, bumbling genius because he’s constantly being trapped in places it would be simple to escape from. We know the Crestfallen Warrior takes sick pleasure from watching other Undead fail because he sits at the Firelink Shrine waiting for them to run to their deaths. As each character moves throughout the world, or don’t, give us a picture of them as people and of their place in the world.
Such could not be said for any NPC in Dark Souls 2. Instead of being people with interests, hopes, jealousies etc., they are either lore storage containers or, in the worst case, roadblocks. Not once did I care to listen to an NPC and think, “Wow, that really moves the story forward,” or, “That really sheds some light on my place here and how this character affects it.” From the Emerald Herald (don’t get me started) to the old hag lady and the Undead blacksmith outwards, there are no characters (save McDuff) who give me any clue as to my place in the world or how it’s turning.
If I could sum this up, then, I’d say that I wish there were about three fewer characters so the writers at From could have spent that extra time making the good characters (McDuff, Straid, among others) actually worth a damn. As they are, as I’ve said, they exist only to block your way or grant you the great Knowledge of Dark Souls Lore. I wanted them to move about, change, give me a reason to want to talk to them. As it is, the only person I want to talk to is myself and what fighting a person made of people was like.