In Dark Souls and Demon's Souls stories emerge naturally from the environment, or from scattered information. It's a puzzle with many pieces missing, but there's enough information to see the basic image. Occasionally, a small revelation will make me smile or gasp. A few lines of dialogue have more impact than I've seen in half-hour cutscenes elsewhere.
The Souls games are beautiful examples of organic and restrained storytelling. There's room to discover my own sense of the world, but still plenty of scripted elements. Finding information in a natural way lets me feel the story instead of just understand it.
The stories I find suggest there's something more than just this. These places have history, but I can only guess most of it. As I engage more deeply with the environment every wretched enemy and abandoned set of armour seems to have reason behind it. I can never know most of their stories, but they hint at who was here before. My own story could end too, quietly swallowed by the diseased swamp or incarcerated and left to rot.
Unearthing so many tiny pieces of information takes patience and dedication. Initially, all there is to go in is a crappy introductory cinematic. And some description from the manual, I suppose (yes, I still read them).
The introductory cutscenes are one of the weakest parts of the series. They're info-dumps, with pretentious narration and too much name-dropping. It's a terrible way to introduce newcomers, and quickly forgotten. The tutorials set the scene better, or at least make a more lasting impression.
The Demon's Souls tutorial is about hopelessness. There's the opportunity to learn basic controls without too much danger, but it's primarily about being killed and left severely weakened. It's a primer on how to feel, not just how to play.
Dark Souls' tutorial feels more like a miniature level. It demonstrates exactly what these games require to succeed. Initially the Asylum Demon seems like an impossible threat, but the odds can be changed by gathering better equipment and paying attention to the environment. It's a lesson in when and how to pick your battles.
As a mechanical tutorial this works perfectly, but it completely changes the emotions involved. Where Demon's Souls made me feel helpless, Dark Souls made me feel like an arsehole. Essentially, I beat up some asylum inmates, many of whom were too weak to fight back, then hacked through the guard in a couple of axe swings.
I have the advantage of experience, but even if I'd found this difficult, a challenge designed to be overcome is a more powerful beginning than a challenge you're expected to fail.
My Demon's Souls character was a hero caught in a really shitty situation. Her freedom was taken from her, and there's no real way to escape that once the cycle begins. Dark Souls has similar themes, but (at least on initial impressions) it's about slowly crawling out of hell instead of being pushed into it. My Dark Souls character is a wretched creature scavenging scraps of power and becoming a chosen one. Not the chosen one, mind, but there's more sense of being someone special. It frames my failures and successes in terms of destiny instead of circumstance.
It's an unfortunate shift of perspective. I have countless games I can play if I want to feel powerful and important, and it's not what I'm looking for here. I hope the broader storytelling will set things right (where right in this case is probably rather hideous), but in the meantime I feel more like a typical RPG protagonist than I expected. Even if I am an arsehole about it.