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.