Gaming’s Subverted Catharsis of Set Up / Pay Off or (Why We Love Dark Souls)

[Originally published August 2, 2016]

Narrative theory is this weird, amorphous beast, because it tries to quantify the unquantifiable – that being: human catharsis. We absorb fiction because it makes us feel something. We all like to feel, unless you’re some type of robot sociopath, I guess. It’s in our nature to seek out emotion.

“Fiction is what it means to be a fucking human being” – David Foster Wallace.

A central tenant of narrative theory is the ‘Setup/Payoff’ (hereafter referred to as “SUPO”) feedback loop. In its barest form, this means: ‘element is introduced, then element furthers the action.’ Thing is introduced. Later on, Thing becomes integral to the progress of the narrative, and we recognize Thing from when Thing showed up before. We go ‘hey check it out! Thing is back!’ and we feel Very Smart because we are good at recognizing Things, good job, we’re so special, we’re so intelligent, would we like a treat. This reductive definition envisions SUPO as some sort of A-to-B device – one without any steps in between. This is where we get Chekhov’s Gun.

Thing is introduced – so it must be important, and it must be important exactly once. A-to-B. Introduction. Reincorporation. Better, smarter works try to toy with this notion – make it relate to the central themes of the narrative. Take Bioshock. Most critical praise of Bioshock invokes the ‘Would You Kindly’ twist, even though WYK has very little to do with the actual twist. The capital-P Plot beat of said twist reveals your avatar to be Andrew Ryan’s clone son.

Yo. Guys. That’s a hella dumb twist. Partly because ‘secret clone son’ is a stupid, video-game-ass-video-game plot point, but mostly because of the game’s absolute refusal to set up the clone elements. There’s really no evidence to suggest Andrew Ryan had made a bunch of clones until the moment that that the game decides to reveal your true identity. And that’s why we never talk about the whole ‘secret clone son’ part of the twist.

We talk about ‘Would You Kindly.’

Every single one of the voices in our avatar’s radio drops the phrase ‘Would You Kindly’ before they tell him to perform an action. WYK is a fairly common phrase, so we as audience members don’t think much of it. Then, Andrew Ryan tells us its true purpose. ‘Would You Kindly,’ it turns out, is the phrase that ‘activates’ our character. He moves because he is compelled by psychological coding, just as we – the player – move because we’re compelled by play. We do as we’re told because the mechanics demand momentum of us, no matter the cost. This is what I’m talking about when I say SUPO. ‘Would You Kindly’ becomes this subtle, invisible nag in our ear, until its true nature unveils itself and we go ‘holy SHIT it was there THE WHOLE TIME.’

Again: this is why we define the Bioshock twist by ‘Would You Kindly’ rather than ‘Clone Boy.’

As such, WYK has come to represent what is maybe one of the most scathing indictments of gamers to date. ‘You would have to be some sort of stunted, bred-to-kill, trigger-activated clone to do the things gamers do without question.’ This is both Bioshock’s greatest strength and biggest weakness. It riffs on our willingness to perpetuate madness in the name of the sick compulsions of play, but it never asks why – it simply points an accusatory finger. I would argue that the reason ‘why’ ties back to the catharsis of SUPO. Games are just as much mechanical works as they are narrative works. We’re enticed by the promise of play. Mechanics are the draw – the setup. Our action is the payoff. Great games feel good when you play them. Theorists refer to this as game feel. The actual act of play feels nice. On the opposite end: were you to strip out all the aesthetic elements, mute all the dialogue, and turn every character into a cube person in a game like, say, Duke Nukem Forever, it would still lack any sort of cathartic payoff. DNF fails to deliver on the implicit mechanical promise of FPS – the satisfaction of first-person play – and therefore lacks any sort of mechanical catharsis. It just doesn’t feel good to experience. By its mechanical nature, it delivers a promise of genre without the catharsis of good execution.

One final note before we move on to Dark Souls. Some narratives are non-linear, which poses the question: how can SUPO work in a non-linear narrative? Well, the answer is that non-linearity inverts our understanding of SUPO. In a non-linear narrative, the setup is often the chronological climax of action – the Point B – simply placed in front of the series of events that lead up to said climax. Writers use this to toy with our expectations and understanding of dramatic catharsis, and turn the mundanities of chronological setups into narratological payoff. This is why we get excited seeing Jules Winnfield and Vincent Vega at Marsellus Wallace’s bar in their goofy, bummy clothes; they don’t actually doanything, but – when we see them sitting around, making jokes – we feel good because the mundanity provides the payoff of context. Their presence allows the viewer to chronologically place themselves in the narrative despite its non-linear progression. We gain chronological context, and that feels good – even if the source of catharsis doesn’t come from action or narrative momentum.

Now, bearing this all in mind, we can talk about why SUPO’s so special within the Souls Series.

Praise the sun – he’s finally getting to the point!

Think about what a ‘Plot’ is, for a minute. Plots are just a series of events that happen that present challenges for a character to overcome – challenges that ultimately result in the growth of said character. What ‘happens,’ then, in Dark Souls? All the important events have already occurred, and we’ve just barged in in time to watch the end of the world. We’ve entered at Point B. Anything that ‘happens’ during the course of our playthroughs is more or less meaningless when it comes to the characters that inhabit these worlds. Boss deaths are the only ‘happenings’ of the ‘game’ part of a Soulsgame, and – even then – those ‘happenings’ possess very little narrative momentum. We kill people. Their deaths have no impact on our character’s understanding of their goals. Boss deaths change nothing about the structure of the world. Sure, the sun goes out if you kill Gwynevere, but the fabric of DS’s reality remains unchanged. Our mode of progress remains unaltered. The core challenges we have to overcome – that being: slashing enemies super-duper good – withstand the violence we weave. Our presence doesn’t even actually matter in the grand scheme of things. Hundreds of ‘chosen undead’ have come before us, and hundreds more have yet to make their journeys. True to form, Death in Dark Souls is wholly meaningless. For us, it’s a temporary hindrance. For the world, it’s… nothing. It simply means the absence of an object in a space. And we continue move forward, like some murderous automaton. The mechanisms of momentum in the Soulsgames are about as ‘video-gamey’ as things get.

We’re stuck at the Point B of the narrative. The chronological end point has now become the setup. So where’s the Point A? Where’s our payoff? The Souls games aren’t non-linear, even though they toy with the notion of time, so how do we get our SUPO fix? The answer lies in action.

Though the actions of our journey do little to nothing when it comes to the actual Plot of the world, it isn’t devoid of any growth or change. This personal progression simply takes the form of weapons, armor, spells, etc. Mechanical elements. Things that change the damage we take, the animations we make. Our avatar’s ‘personhood’ doesn’t change, but their ability to conduct their grim business does. Our modes ofaction are what defines a playthrough, and what lies within these tools of action?

Lore. Buckets and buckets of sweet, succulent lore.

This is where we find our Point A. We find our payoff in our collected tools of action. We read an item description and go ‘oh, wow. That Smough guy really seems like a pile-on.’ We attain the catharsis of context that we’ve come to associate with non-linear narratives. But think, if you would, about what separates this process of SUPO from that of a film.

In a film, we’re shown everything. Images flash across the screen. They’ll be the same images every time, no matter what. Film delivers SUPO unto us, bestowing it like a benevolent narrative god. In a game, however, we might miss something – an optional boss, a hidden area. By their interactive nature, video games cannot consistently deliver SUPO. They just have to find way to trick their players into experiencing that dramatic catharsis.

This is the central struggle the Souls series wants to tackle. Most folks will tell you that the Souls games are about death and perseverance. I think they’re about action. Specifically, they’re about action in video games, and how difficult it is to reconcile set narrative catharses with the unpredictable nature of player action.

This is why the payoff of every Souls game requires action on our part. In order to understand the world around us – and thereby attain the catharsis of context – we must act and read the descriptions of ourtools of action. It’s no mistake that every single item in the game possesses some sort of importance when considering the broader narrative of the Souls series; it’s a thematic mirror to the action we – as players – take in pursuing the back half of SUPO. These items are what influence our movement through the world, and thereby change the shape of our mechanical catharsis. In the same way, they influence our narrative catharsis when we choose to read and move through them. The process by which we reverse-engineer the context of a Souls game is what these titles are really about, because that’s the route they take to cultivate our relationship with their SUPOs.

The Souls games aren’t the only titles to take this approach. Gone Home is actually quite similar, in that the payoff comes from absorbing the action that came before. The recently released Hyper Light Drifteralso goes for something similar – albeit using visuals instead of text. Audio logs are, in general, a symptom of this style of SUPO world building. The Souls series is different, though. There’s a rabid fanbase that centers around uncovering the lore of these games (I would consider myself among this number). There are people who make a living off of this – e.g. Dark Souls Lauriat, VaatiVidya. Sure, you could attribute this to the Souls series’ uniquely desolate sense of fantasy, but ‘originality’ isn’t why people latch onto works of art. People love art because it makes them feel, and From Software understands how to cultivate feeling within the medium of Video Games.

From Software is a studio that makes games about dragons, and giants, and demons, and they get what it means to be a fucking human being.

Thanks for reading.


When he’s not trapped in a quagmire of narrative theory, chaboi – Tom Loughney – writes about video games. You can find those writings here. Follow him on twitter @tloughnessmnstr

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