Post Script

Bor­rowed but never bet­tered: a look back at one of gam­ing’s most in­flu­en­tial se­ries


Hide­taka Miyazaki comes across as sur­prised – even a lit­tle em­bar­rassed – at the suc­cess of the Souls games. If you’re the type to gen­er­alise, you might think that’s just an ex­pres­sion of the kind of hu­mil­ity for which his coun­try­men are renowned. Were he a west­erner, mean­while, we might sus­pect false mod­esty, a me­dia-train­ing sheen de­signed to keep the cus­tomer base sweet. But in his case, it can only be gen­uine. He can­not pos­si­bly have known, when he was sat sketch­ing out De­mon Souls’ Tower Of La­tria or dream­ing up its World Ten­dency sys­tem, that his game would be­come a cult hit around the world. That it would lead to one of the finest trilo­gies in videogame his­tory, or give the maker of the best-sell­ing con­sole in the world its fastest seller to date.

He cer­tainly must never have thought that his ideas would per­me­ate across the in­dus­try, find­ing their way into games of all stripes, but that is pre­cisely what has hap­pened. The Souls games haven’t been in­flu­en­tial in the same way as other era-defin­ing games. Su­per Mario Bros sparked a wave of side-scrolling copy­cats; Res­i­dent Evil 4 ush­ered in the era of the third­per­son shooter; Call Of Duty 4 gave the world the short sin­gle­player cam­paign and the mul­ti­player perks-and-un­locks sys­tem. FromSoft­ware’s in­flu­ence has, ap­pro­pri­ately given the sub­ject mat­ter, been a lot sub­tler: Souls is not ref­er­ence ma­te­rial, but a source of in­spi­ra­tion.

That is largely be­cause From’s games are too dis­tinc­tive to imitate whole­sale. Deck-13 tried that with the quickly for­got­ten Lords Of The Fallen, which showed the world that a di­rect com­par­i­son with the Souls games could only ever be un­flat­ter­ing. Souls is about more than a sin­gle sys­tem, style or set­ting; it’s very hard to clas­sify, and there­fore im­pos­si­ble to copy with­out be­ing bla­tant about it. It is, how­ever, ripe for pil­fer­ing from, and the in­dus­try has hap­pily obliged.

Ubisoft, weirdly, is per­haps the big­gest cul­prit. In 2014 Watch Dogs ar­rived with an am­bi­ent mul­ti­player sys­tem that al­lowed other play­ers to in­trude on your sin­gle­player game. For Ubisoft, and the big-bud­get, open-world ac­tion game, it was pre­sented as some wild in­no­va­tion by the cre­ative dreamweavers at Ubisoft Mon­treal. It was in re­al­ity a re­pur­posed Miyazaki idea.

The pub­lisher has car­ried on. For Honor might as well be called Dark Souls Team Death­match. Far Cry Primal styles bon­fires as safe­houses: they’re rest ar­eas, respawn points and fast-travel des­ti­na­tions. Primal and Tom Clancy’s The Divi­sion are van­guards of a new Ubisoft ap­proach to open-world de­sign, in which you be­gin the game by res­cu­ing a team of ex­perts in var­i­ous dis­ci­plines, who’ll take up res­i­dence at your base of op­er­a­tions and pass on their ex­per­tise. Just as Big Hat Lo­gan comes to Fire­link to show you ad­vanced sor­ceries and a de-pet­ri­fied Ros­a­beth teaches py­ro­man­cies by the Me­jula bon­fire, so The Divi­sion’s Dr Kan­del re­turns to Madi­son Square Gar­den and teaches you heal­ing skills. Primal’s shaman Ten­say, mean­while, joins the Winja vil­lage and shows you how to tame wild an­i­mals. This wasn’t ex­actly a From in­ven­tion, ad­mit­tedly, but we doubt Ubisoft took the idea from Skies Of Ar­ca­dia.

One of Ubisoft’s ma­jor ri­vals has also got in on the act, though EA seems to spend more time com­ing up with fancy new names for mi­nor up­grades to its pre­ex­ist­ing fea­tures than wor­ry­ing too much about what other peo­ple are up to. Yet in Need For Speed Ri­vals it at least nod­ded to the Souls game’s pro­gres­sion sys­tem: XP earn­ings would be lost for­ever if you failed to ‘bank’ them at a safe­house be­fore you were busted by the cops.

Big com­pa­nies can’t com­fort­ably ad­mit to bor­row­ing ideas from else­where – they fancy them­selves as lead­ers, af­ter all. When we put the Souls ques­tion to Watch Dogs’ cre­ative di­rec­tor Jonathan Morin at E3 a few years ago, he ducked it with the grace and poise of a man who knew it was com­ing. Oth­ers are more hon­est about it.

Of­ten – and in­creas­ingly – it’s ob­vi­ous. Eitr and Salt & Sanc­tu­ary are es­sen­tially Souls de­makes. Bri­tish-made pixel-art boss rush Ti­tan Souls even bor­rows the name. Capy’s forth­com­ing Below bears an ob­vi­ous Souls in­flu­ence, and the stu­dio’s cre­ative di­rec­tor once ad­mit­ted to be­ing heart­bro­ken when he first saw De­mon’s Souls be­cause From had made the game he’d had swim­ming around in his head for a cou­ple of years.

Oth­ers sim­ply pay trib­ute to it. Des­tiny hides its Dark Souls homage away in an in­ven­tory screen. The War­lock armour Heart Of The Praxic Fire de­scribes some­one as be­ing “as wholly lu­mi­nes­cent as the Sun”. It’s a fairly ob­vi­ous nod to So­laire Of As­tora’s fa­mous line, “If only I could be so grossly in­can­des­cent,” but if that’s not clear enough for you, the chest-piece’s fi­nal un­lock­able perk spells it out. It’s called Praise The Sun.

Never has a sin­gle se­ries of games cast so wide a net, but it’s fit­ting that the Souls lin­eage has had such a wide ef­fect on peo­ple who make games, since it’s had one on play­ers too. This is a game that in­spires al­most un­matched de­vo­tion: the SL1 in­vaders, the pants-run play­ers, the wiki ad­mins and PVP build­mas­ters. The gui­tar-con­troller con­querors of Orn­stein and Smough, for heaven’s sake. Ev­ery­one who loves Dark Souls loves it in their own, unique way, for their own dif­fer­ent rea­sons, and ex­presses it in a dif­fer­ent way. If, as they say, im­i­ta­tion is the sin­cer­est form of flat­tery, staff must walk From’s halls with per­ma­nently flushed cheeks. Much as he would de­cline to ad­mit it, it means Hide­taka Miyazaki will be re­mem­bered as the most in­flu­en­tial game de­signer of his gen­er­a­tion – and likely for a few more gen­er­a­tions to fol­low.

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