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