The Souls Still Burn

Years on, Dark Souls con­tin­ues to res­onate through­out videogames. Here, play­ers, de­sign­ers and fa­mous fans un­pick its in­flu­ence

EDGE - - CONTENTS - BY KEZA MACDON­ALD Im­ages www.dead­endthrills.com

Game e de­sign­ers and fa­mous fans un­pick un­npick the cease­less ap­peal of the orig­i­nal Dark Souls

It’s un­der­stand­able that games such as Su­per

Mario 64 and The Leg­end Of Zelda: Oca­rina Of Time would prove enor­mously in­flu­en­tial, be­cause they set the stan­dard for dif­fer­ent types of 3D worlds back when 3D worlds were new. It’s un­der­stand­able that games such as Doom and

Wolfen­stein would be cited so of­ten as foun­da­tional works in the videogame form, be­cause they wrote so many of the early rules of the first­per­son shooter. When it comes to Dark Souls’ in­flu­ence on game de­sign, though, it didn’t in­vent new rules, or set new tech­no­log­i­cal stan­dards, or change the con­cep­tion of what a videogame could be. What it did was make peo­ple think dif­fer­ently about how a game could be, and what play­ers would ap­pre­ci­ate.

Dark Souls proved that peo­ple ac­tu­ally re­spond well to be­ing treated like adults and trusted to en­gage vol­un­tar­ily with a game’s chal­lenges and sys­tems, with­out hav­ing them ex­plained to death be­fore­hand. It proved that, as a game de­signer, you don’t nec­es­sar­ily have to be so wor­ried about scar­ing peo­ple off; that if a game is good enough, play­ers can be trusted to find their way with­out hav­ing their hand held. It’s a very lib­er­at­ing con­cept for many game de­sign­ers.

“The best word to de­scribe the Dark Souls se­ries is ‘con­fi­dent’,” says Greg Street, of League Of

Leg­ends stu­dio Riot Games. “The games sub­verted con­ven­tional wis­dom in a num­ber of ways: the dif­fi­culty of the bat­tles, the pun­ish­ment for fail­ure, and a gen­eral lack of ex­pla­na­tion for how any­thing works. Dark Souls knows ex­actly what it wants to be and who its tar­get au­di­ence is, and isn’t in­ter­ested in try­ing to at­tract play­ers look­ing for a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence. The per­cent­age of play­ers who beat the fi­nal boss is al­ways low, and the game is fine with that.”

Dark Souls has a lot of fa­mous fans in the world of game de­sign and pub­lish­ing – in­clud­ing Shuhei

Yoshida, the pres­i­dent of World­wide Stu­dios at Sony Com­puter En­ter­tain­ment and one of the key fig­ures be­hind the com­pany’s PS4. Dark Souls ac­tu­ally in­spired el­e­ments of the con­sole’s de­sign.

“The game de­sign of De­mon’s Souls and Dark Souls has been a good an­tithe­sis to the in­dus­try norm, when game de­sign­ers are usu­ally wor­ried about stop­ping play­ers’ progress in the game, and pro­vide lots of tu­to­ri­als and as­sists,” says Yoshida – who, as a long-time Sony em­ployee, had also played and ap­pre­ci­ated De­mon’s Souls when it launched on PlayS­ta­tion 3. “The harder dif­fi­culty of the reg­u­lar en­e­mies, cou­pled with low health points for them, cre­ated a tense but al­ways solv­able sit­u­a­tion for the player through­out the game and gave a much larger re­ward in the sense of ac­com­plish­ment when you do suc­ceed reach­ing the next check­point. The clever 3D level de­sign is with­out match in the in­dus­try: it has a beau­ti­ful and in­trigu­ing level struc­ture that as­sists pro­gres­sion.

“The asyn­chro­nous so­cial con­nec­tiv­ity in­tro­duced in De­mon’s Souls was truly a vi­sion­ary fea­ture, pro­vid­ing the play­ers with a sense of play­ing to­gether but not mak­ing it too in­tru­sive like reg­u­lar on­line mul­ti­player games. This fea­ture has been an in­spi­ra­tion for many con­tem­po­rary game de­signs, and now pop­u­lar ‘Share’ fea­tures have been de­vel­oped [on PS4], ex­pand­ing on the ex­pe­ri­ences that De­mon’s

Souls pi­o­neered.” Yoshida’s favourite Dark Souls mo­ment is the fi­nal bat­tle with Gwyn – even though he ended up watch­ing from be­hind a pil­lar while two more ex­pe­ri­enced play­ers par­ried the fi­nal boss to death. “I would’ve liked to beat the boss by my­self, but I felt that this was none­the­less a le­git­i­mate way to suc­ceed in this tough game – Miyazaki-san would be proud to hear my tri­umph us­ing his gen­er­ous game de­sign,” he laughs.

Many game de­sign­ers point to­wards Dark Souls’ lack of fear as a par­tic­u­larly fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect of its de­sign, con­trast­ing against con­ven­tional in­dus­try wis­dom, which dic­tates that you can’t piss off a player too much, oth­er­wise they’ll give up and walk away in anger. The fact that Dark Souls man­aged to walk the line so suc­cess­fully be­tween sat­is­fy­ing and chal­leng­ing its play­ers and mak­ing them want to de­fen­es­trate their con­trollers is one of the en­dur­ing mys­ter­ies of its de­sign, and game de­sign­ers have var­i­ous ideas about how and why the ap­proach works.

“When I first played Dark Souls it was such a breath of fresh air, and re­ally showed me that games don’t have to be too easy or hold your hand too much,” says Sig­ur­dur Gun­nars­son, one of the co-cre­ators of EVE: Valkyrie, a spinoff from MMO

EVE On­line. (He has just started his fourth playthrough of Dark Souls 2, ex­per­i­ment­ing

with a DEX/rapier build.) “Peo­ple should be trusted to ex­plore and dis­cover things on their own. What I find fas­ci­nat­ing about the Souls games is the emer­gent game­play, and how you learn by [a mix of] try­ing and pure pat­tern recog­ni­tion. You can’t re­ally say the game is un­fair – it is con­sis­tent and to­tally up to per­sonal skill.

“It’s a great ex­am­ple of a game that is easy-ish to pick up but hard to mas­ter, some­thing we’ve wanted for Valkyrie from the start. I plan to em­body more of what the Souls se­ries and that kind of game­play stands for into my fu­ture projects.”

“Dark Souls does things with dif­fi­culty curves and risk as­sess­ment that I’ve never seen be­fore in a game,” says Zach Gage, the con­cep­tual artist and game de­signer be­hind ti­tles such as Spell Tower. “Once you’ve beaten the game and start re­flect­ing on its struc­ture, you start to no­tice some very clever things go­ing on in the way the level de­sign and dif­fi­culty curves in­ter­min­gle. Dark Souls is struc­tured like one long path wound around it­self, sprout­ing off branch­ing paths that some­times re­con­nect and some­times don’t. The long main path has a rel­a­tively grad­ual dif­fi­culty curve: the be­gin­ning is eas­ier than the end of it, and each area is slightly harder than the last. The branches, how­ever, have ran­dom dif­fi­cul­ties. Some of them are eas­ier or the same as the part you are at, and some of them are sub­stan­tially harder.

“When you pair this with the risky econ­omy of the game, with the om­nipresent risk of los­ing your souls, it creates a re­ally fas­ci­nat­ing sys­tem. The struc­ture of the level de­sign, the va­ri­ety of weapon strate­gies, the learn­able na­ture of the bosses, and the way you move around the world all come to­gether to present a fas­ci­nat­ing puz­zle of op­ti­mi­sa­tions and risk. As de­vel­op­ers, it’s rare that you get to play a game that does one sin­gu­lar truly new thing, but

Dark Souls was just like from an­other planet con­cep­tu­ally. You can look at those aspects of its de­sign and it’s just not fol­low­ing any of the paths that things be­fore it did, and it pulls off all of its new ideas just per­fectly. De­mon’s Souls was the prac­tice run for th­ese ideas, but Dark Souls reaches a kind of

Mario per­fec­tion, but in an al­ter­nate uni­verse where videogames are about com­pletely dif­fer­ent things.”

For Ricky Haggett, de­signer of the wildly cre­ative Ho­hokum, Dark Souls brings him back to a time when games were more mys­te­ri­ous: when play­ers got their in­for­ma­tion by talk­ing with other kids in the play­ground rather than watch­ing YouTube walk­throughs. “The game’s full of se­crets,” he notes. “The sense you get when you play Ho­hokum,

hope­fully, and def­i­nitely Dark Souls and The Leg­end Of Zelda: A Link To The Past, is that as you’re walk­ing around there are all th­ese se­cret things, some­times com­pletely hid­den, some­times just below the sur­face. You got it in Doom as well: below the skin there are tan­ta­lis­ing, won­der­ful places you can get to if you can only fig­ure out how. I mean, a lot of games have se­cret stuff hid­den, but most of the time the stuff you find isn’t very in­ter­est­ing, be­cause the game it­self isn’t very in­ter­est­ing

“Dark Souls had the balls not to put mas­sive fuck­ing sign­posts ev­ery­where to make sure you see ev­ery­thing. That feels su­per-spe­cial be­cause even when you found a weird lit­tle thing in A Link To The

Past, it was su­per-cool, but it was quite mea­gre – it might be a room with a weird guy in it who says a cou­ple of lines of di­a­logue. Whereas in Dark Souls you find whole fuck­ing worlds that had sig­nif­i­cantly more time and en­ergy spent on them. In 95 per cent of other de­vel­op­ers’ games they just would’ve gone, ‘Well, no one’s go­ing to see this, so we have to make sure some­one sees this!’” That depth – the knowl­edge that, as you play

Dark Souls, there are count­less things you won’t have seen, and might only find out about years later dur­ing a con­ver­sa­tion, or while watch­ing some­one play it on­line – is what fas­ci­nates Seth Kil­lian, one of the most prom­i­nent de­sign­ers in the world of fight­ing games. “I some­times feel like a lu­natic watch­ing peo­ple swoon over other games,” he says. “Mean­while, I’m feel­ing like I’m play­ing some­thing that does sev­eral of the seem­ingly dis­con­nected things that other games do, at the same time, bet­ter, and also does seven other things that no­body ever even brings up.

“I get so crazy that even when some game site gives Dark Souls its Game Of The Year award. I’m all, ‘Yeah, but you don’t even know, man!’ The only ex­pe­ri­ence I can com­pare it to was be­ing a young

Street Fighter II nut, with its slow un­furl of po­ten­tially bound­less depth, all while watch­ing the game be deeply mis­un­der­stood by ev­ery­one

else, even as they pro­fessed fan­dom and while the game was at its ar­cade heights. Miyazaki games are like find­ing Doestoyevsky’s Notes From The Un­der­ground stuck into a comic-book rack at your lo­cal 7-11.” ‘Flex­i­ble’ isn’t a word of­ten as­so­ci­ated with

Dark Souls; in­deed, at times it feels in­fu­ri­at­ingly the op­po­site, as you bang your head against the same wall for hours on end. But Jochen Mis­ti­aen, whose first game, Male­bol­gia, was heav­ily in­flu­enced by

Dark Souls, sees so much in the game that can be ab­sorbed and re­pur­posed in new, in­ter­est­ing ways. “You could in ef­fect strip down Dark Souls’ com­bat, take away the var­i­ous weapons, stats and equip­ment builds, but still re­tain the core and sat­is­fy­ing en­emy en­coun­ters and sys­tem, with its em­pha­sis on tim­ing and tac­ti­cal move­ment,” he says.

“The nice thing is that they can be stripped down yet still re­tain their ap­peal. In other words, I could as a de­vel­oper cre­ate a smaller world with a more sim­plis­tic com­bat sys­tem yet still cre­ate some­thing fun to play. It’s eas­ier to copy, in a way. Com­pare it for in­stance to RPGs, which need elab­o­rate stat sys­tems and sto­ries, or other ac­tion games – Devil May Cry, for ex­am­ple – which need many dif­fer­ent en­emy and weapon types, or first­per­son shoot­ers that re­quire long cam­paigns or a very ro­bust mul­ti­player. The core el­e­ments of Dark

Souls can be so eas­ily repli­cated – in the­ory – that as a de­signer, you can more or less take any set­ting and scope, and visualise in your head how it would play out. It trig­gers the imag­i­na­tion in a way few other games have done be­fore. I can visualise the game­play and level de­sign, rather than, as with many other gen­res or se­ries, only story or set-pieces.”

Look­ing back, you may re­mem­ber that videogames went through some­thing of an iden­tity cri­sis in the mid-’00s, dur­ing which they con­tin­u­ally tried to ape films, as if the cre­ative apex of the videogame form was to be ex­actly like a movie. As graph­i­cal ca­pa­bil­i­ties fi­nally be­gan to ap­proach some­thing close to re­al­ism, many big games started as­pir­ing to the uni­ver­sal ac­ces­si­bil­ity and emo­tional scope of film – and to achieve it, they em­ployed the lin­ear pro­cesses of filmic sto­ry­telling. It took a good while for games to emerge from this phase and re­alise that it didn’t need to be this way; that they have their own ways of telling sto­ries, their own ways of get­ting into your head. Dark Souls didn’t start that coun­ter­move­ment, but it was a large part of it.

“For decades there was a largely fi­nan­cially driven move­ment to make games more and more ac­ces­si­ble to hit an ever-larger au­di­ence,” re­flects Tom Cad­well, vice pres­i­dent of game de­sign at Riot Games. “Some­where along the way, the in­dus­try – in the race to make ever-more-ac­ces­si­ble games – started to lose sight of how re­ward­ing and chal­leng­ing, and pos­si­bly pun­ish­ing, games can be. There has been a re­cent trend of re­newed in­ter­est in mod­ernising th­ese old game de­sign ap­proaches and in­tro­duc­ing them to a new gen­er­a­tion of gamers. Dark Souls was one of a few crit­i­cal games that launched this re­nais­sance by re­mind­ing play­ers and de­sign­ers alike that mas­ter­ing a chal­lenge is some­thing hardcore gamers love.

“We’re see­ing this trend con­tinue in other games through the con­tin­ued in­ter­est in Dark Souls- like ex­pe­ri­ences, the revitalisation of the Rogue­like genre, the con­tin­ued growth of MOBAs like League Of

Leg­ends and Dota 2, and the pop­u­lar­ity of sand­box open-world PVP games like Rust, DayZ and Ark.” That’s a lot of im­por­tant games, all shar­ing some­thing in com­mon with Dark Souls.

Per­haps we’re just at the be­gin­ning. The true ex­tent of Dark Souls’ in­flu­ence may not be felt for an­other three, five, even ten years. “While Souls has ob­vi­ously had a tremen­dous im­pact on the in­dus­try al­ready, I think that the true ef­fects are still a cou­ple of years off,” reck­ons Mar­cus San­ders, bet­ter known to the Dark Souls fan com­mu­nity as pop­u­lar YouTu­ber EpicNameBro. “There are peo­ple in stu­dios all around the globe right now who have been in­spired to do some­thing dif­fer­ent with games – just as Fu­mito Ueda in­spired Miyazaki-san. Some of them are indies, some of them are ju­nior de­sign­ers at large com­pa­nies… A lot of them don’t have a lot of vis­i­bil­ity right now, but they’re there. And they’re much more con­nected to each other than you would ever imag­ine.

“That’s the real power of this se­ries. It draws peo­ple out and re­veals their bonds. The com­mu­nity is al­ready linked to­gether in their ideas and in­ter­ests.

Dark Souls just il­lu­mi­nates those con­nec­tions and makes us ap­pre­ci­ate them. And each other. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s the damn truth.”

FROM TOP SCE World­wide Stu­dios chief Shuhei Yoshida; Sig­ur­dur Gun­nars­son of EVE stu­dio CCP

FROM TOP Ricky Haggett, de­signer of Ho­hokum; Tom Cad­well, VP of game de­sign at Riot Games

This is an edited ex­tract from You Died: The Dark Souls Com­pan­ion, pub­lished by Back­Page Press on April 15. Visit freight­books.co.uk/ you-died.html to pre­order the book

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