Games these days tend to fall into traps when it comes to narrative. Many games rely on trope "crutches" such as NPCs and cutscenes to explain their story to the player. It's not that these methods of storytelling are necessarily bad. They're tropes for a reason. However, it's when these devices are used improperly that they become ineffective methods of storytelling. Excessive exposition can get in the way of the player experience and is counterproductive as a result. Dark Souls (2011) takes a different and unique approach in terms of explaining its story. It makes use of "environmental storytelling" to explain its complex world, background, and characters. This device enhances the player's experience and level of investment in the game, as well as lending itself to support the overarching theme of the game. To help accentuate this point, I will conduct a comparison between the storytelling methods of Dark Souls and Skyrim (2011).
I can't really say I've come across a game that handles story as uniquely as Dark Souls does. In the game world, there are items scattered everywhere, as is typical with any RPG. Items serve a primary purpose of giving the player more power and higher odds of surviving the challenges ahead. Each of these items has a description attached which describe what the item is, what its stats are, what its level of durability is, and so forth. All of that is pretty normal, and can be seen in plenty of other games of similar genre. What makes Dark Souls' descriptions so different is that each and every item has story lore attached to it. This is a genius concept. It's genius because it means that as player collect items and become stronger, they are also gathering background story one tiny piece at a time. It also means that players have zero obligation to follow along with the story if they don't want to. They can just as easily skip over the lore descriptions if that better suits their play-style. In this way, Dark Souls' story isn't forced upon players, which goes to strengthen the narrative. For those that choose to investigate the story, it's up to them so piece it together on their own, which lends to create better player investment.
Overall, this method of storytelling is highly effective. Due to Dark Souls' minimalist nature, every little bit of story the player finds means something even if they aren't completely sure what it means or how it connects with other elements. Players don't find themselves overwhelmed with information. They have the opportunity to take the narrative in and think about it. They receive enough story to keep them interested, but not too much as to give anything away or overwhelm them. This makes for a less cluttered experience. The notion that the story is truly optional is also extremely effective. This accommodates different play-styles, and allows players to experience the game in the way that best suits them, be that with or without story. Attaching lore to items also grants the action of finding items a sense of "double satisfaction". Not only does the player find some new item that can greatly help them overcome future obstacles, but they've also discovered more about the background from the lore piece.
This environmental storytelling also helps to support and intensify the main theme of Dark Souls, which resides in its dark, depressing nature and its strong feelings of emptiness and mystery. This is done through the lack of NPCs and visually-oriented cut-scenes. The few NPCs that are present don't take on the role that NPCs in most other games do. Their purpose is not to have lengthy discussions wherein they completely spell out the story and give the player a sense of placement in the environment. NPC dialogue is usually cryptic and difficult to comprehend. This strengthens feelings of emptiness and loneliness. The few cut scenes in Dark Souls in that aspect as well. With a few exceptions, they are solely visual, and have no verbal or written narrative attached. This allows the environment and mood to sink in, and puts emphasis on the surroundings as opposed to words, subtitles, or character speech.
Because the story is so vague and in the dark, it actually serves to make it more interesting and mystifying. This demonstrates a strong relationship between the narrative and the theme, and how together they tell an effective story (Conroy, 2005). The story's level of vagueness also allows it to be interpreted in many different ways. This open-endedness allows each player to away something unique from the game. These unique interpretations opens up discussions about various story aspects, where players can share their perspectives and experiences with one another. It's fascinating to see how passionate and invested players are even in the smallest of background story elements. Discussion topics include the rivalry between Havel the Rock and Seath the Scaleless, the identity of Lord Gwyn's firstborn, and the truth behind the background of the mystifying and ever-popular Solaire (phreakinpher, 2012). It's these kind of discussions that keep the game and it's community alive. If the story were more clear and had answers to everything, than people would wind up taking on identical perspectives, and little discussion could be had because there wouldn't be any contesting ideas.
Dark Souls is a great example of the old adage "show don't tell". It does exactly that. It presents a world to the players, but it says nothing about it. NPCs and cutscenes provide hardly any exposition to explain the narrative. They have to explore this world down to the lowest depths and up to the highest peak, searching in every last corner to find items if they wish to develop an understanding of their environment and its background. It's a new and refreshing take on narrative that lends in strengthening the game and what it represents in its theme.