Some Thoughts on Narrative Consumption, or, Why Fantasy Writers Should Play Dark Souls

I guess you wonder where I’ve been…

Well, I’ve mostly been reading things, writing things, and obsessing over thinking about Dark Souls 3. And since I don’t want to tweet every good blog idea I have, I figure it’s best to go ahead and knock this month’s post out before April gets here.

Reading Things:

I’ve not read a lot of short fiction this month, probably owing to the fact that I read a lot of short fiction in my writing group and for PodCastle, where I’m slushing. The best short fic that I’ve read in recent memory was Benjanun Sriduangkaew’s “That Which Stands Tends Toward Free Fall.” I honestly have no words to describe how dope this piece feels (think Ghost in the Shell, but better), so just read it. Also, I’ve been picking through Nisi Shawl’s “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction“, which is required reading if you’re a frequent visitor here.

I have been knocking out novels, though. My longform reading this month has been a sausage fest. Gonna fix that in April. March’s reads were Victor LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom, Peter Tieryas’ United States of Japan, and Tade Thompson’s Making Wolf.

black tom

A lot of discussion on LaValle’s The Ballad of Black Tom focuses on its address of Lovecraft’s themes by breathing new life into the plot/characters of “The Horror at Red Hook,” but to leave an analysis of Black Tom at that does the work a disservice. We follow one Tommy Tester, bluesman pretender, scammer, and perpetual hustler, as he makes moves through his world. Tester, like so many hustlers, gets caught up. What stands out is how prescient Black Tom is:

Imagine a universe in which all the powers of the NYPD could not defeat a single Negro with a razor blade. Impossible.

In the end, Tester makes a choice that I don’t think many black people would shy away from, either now or during his time.


United States of Japan is a take on Philip K. Dick’s The Man in The High Castle that really cuts close to the soul of the book, only in Peter Tieryas’ alternate history, Japan has taken over the USA instead of Nazi Germany. What I appreciate most is how real Tieryas makes the alternate universe feel–this is not a caricature of what Japan-controlled America would be (even though there are mecha in the book, posted gleefully on the cover.)

Tieryas gives us a stratified view of how oppressive empires chug along by consuming themselves and the bodies/souls of their people. The action and quick plot is underscored by a very human pain, and that kicked my enjoyment of it up a notch. Here, have a poor choice on my part: I compared one of the heroes of the book, Beniko Ishimura, to Kisuke Urahara from Bleach, because of their similar personalities and because of the fact that they were both lowkey the man, and nobody knew about it for a long time.

United States of Japan is a *great science-fiction novel*, perhaps not in the sense that purists would like, but in the sense that it is fully literature of the imagination–and the message of it stays with you, makes you examine the known by using the what could be/could have been. Good stuff.
making wolf

Making Wolf is a hell of a thriller by Tade Thompson that takes the idea of the mystery novel and fires it from a railgun. Making Wolf is a ride that shows us that innocence is an outdated concept and neutrality is something that you *really* have to work for. In Alacacia, the brutality of humans is matched only by the brutality of the systems that humans create.

Weston Kogi (I can’t in good consciousness call him hero), the protagonist, pulls his best Geralt of Rivia here and tries to stay above the crud that he once escaped from: violence, corruption, existential unfairness. Over time, we see Weston journey from performing neutrality to becoming what he sees is wrong with Alacacia–if, in fact, he was ever this neutral position is in question from the moment he steps off of the plane. If you pick this one up, i’d advise you to simultaneously brace yourself and let go of your preconceptions: of African countries and culture, of thriller novels, of fairness of systems.

Why Fantasy Writers Should Play Dark Souls

dark souls

Popular opinion surrounding the Dark Souls franchise of games is that they’re the most difficult games that you’ll ever play–thus, only meant for the most skilled of hardcore gamers. That’s the selling point of the series: Prepare to Die, death not necessarily being the end of your experience with the game (ymmv) but definitely the only setting on the difficulty slider and the core function of the game’s driving mechanics. Dig a little deeper into reviews and the fandom (not too deep, this is a gaming fandom which means toxicity is close to the surface), and you’ll get some explanation. The difficulty is a way of teaching the game’s mechanics. In lieu of a tutorial, die. Start over, and think about what you did wrong.

The Souls series of games, beginning with 2009’s Demon’s Souls, is a narrative experience that I think contemporary Fantasy writers should dig into. The storytelling of a Souls game seems sparse on the surface. NPC’s speak in archaic riddles. There is no ghost, cortana, codex, or audio logs to help you gather the story as you traverse the gameworld. Instead, Souls makes you read. But not in the “750,000 words of flavor text” way that most action RPGs do it. The story is told on the descriptions of items, in the subtext of NPC dialogue, in inference, smoke and darkness.

Souls stories are obfuscation at their finest. Obfuscation is, in my opinion, key in all kinds of storytelling–and a skill that i’d like to build in particular, as my stories seek to brids sword and sorcery with noir or mystery fiction. In those kinds of stories, controlling the flow of information is so important, but one can only withhold key pieces from the reader from so long before it begins to feel contrived. The best mystery stories confuse, mislead, and obfuscate the path to figuring the story. In a similar way to completing a Souls game, when the reader figures out the resolution to the story, there is a sense of triumph.

A lot of this is rooted in creator Hidetaka Miyazaki’s interaction with Western literature, in particular sword and sorcery:

Growing up, as a kid, I loved to read. I liked to read books that were above my range. I always tried to aim higher and read difficult books. What would happen is, although I could read them, sometimes — because I was so young — I couldn’t read TOO deep into them. Maybe I would understand half of the story? What would happen is that my imagination would help fill the other half, and that imagination element would just blow up. That’s kind of the part I enjoyed as well, filling the gaps of where I didn’t understand the readings, where my imagination took me eventually to think that I understood what I was reading.

Indeed, Souls series stories, the interconnected universes of Dark Souls 1, 2, and 3, are intentionally disjointed, full of gaps, and some would say, clunky. (There is a lot of argument to this theory in the case of Dark Souls 2, which handled the lore clumsily at best.) But it’s execution that matters to me. There are the bones of a universe, and the Souls games invite readers to put together the pieces through scattering the story across worlds and inviting the reader to piece them together from these scraps, to create their own meaning from the pieces of these once-formed worlds. The last thing that I read that pulled this kind of storytelling off successfully was Kai Ashante Wilson’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps.

Dark Souls‘ value to me and my fiction didn’t hit until I started digging into the lore of the first game. It is easy to get caught up in the marketing hype, the game mechanics of constant death and frustration and eventual triumph. But to dig into the stories of the characters and universe, you have to actually look at the world, at its art and the leftovers of its culture. The game forces you to take it slow, but the story reasons for taking it slow don’t themselves apparent at first. You kill a monster, and maybe it drops a weapon, saying that it originated in Carim. Where is Carim? You’ll never get a chance to go there, but this weapon might give you an idea of what the people there are like. Why did a “surreptitious sorcerer” from the Vinheim Dragon School need a ring that masked his noise? Who was this surreptitious sorcerer, and what was his intent?

The way that Souls builds its stories draws in readers, but only if they take the time and have the desire to be drawn in. And as they walk through the world, killing well designed enemies and looking at beautifully rendered levels, they start to get the idea that even the bricks in the walls have a story, and then the player is drawn in. They start to make their own investigations and connections. It take a thoughtful sort of skill to build a world like that in a video game. It takes even more thoughtful skill for one writer to build a world like that in their novels.

I’ve flirted with starting a tinyletter, but this is where I started sharing my thoughts with the world, and this is where I’ll stay. Recommend some short fiction for me to read, if you please.

10 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on Narrative Consumption, or, Why Fantasy Writers Should Play Dark Souls

    • Black Tom was so good. And yes, I have read Wildeeps. It puts me in the mind of Delany’s Nevèrÿon, in that it’s packed so much in there in such a skillful way that one read of it is almost like taking a masterclass in the form. I’ll be revisiting it soon, and often.

  1. Great post, Troy! I’ll have to make time for USOJ and Making Wolf once I’m done with First Last Snow. I’m lucky enough to have both of them on my shelf, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. And I thoroughly enjoyed Black Tom.
    I’m especially intrigued with your thoughts on Dark Souls. Before reading this post, I mainly saw it as something that would frustrate the crap out of me, but now you’ve got me interested.
    Short story recs: I’m not sure if you’re familiar with Cassandra Khaw’s work, but I highly recommend you read “In The Rustle of Pages” if you’re looking for something sweet and heartfelt. If you’re searching for something gritty, I’ll point you towards “The Oiran’s Song” by Isabel Yap. The writing is very atmospheric and chilling.

  2. Nice post. I totally agree that obfuscation is a skill and it’s something I’d like to work on more as well.

    In terms of short fiction, I recommend some issues of FBP, if you have the time, or Lazarus. Also, The Voiceless by Camus might be worth checking out.

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