In the 1990s, a man named Hidetaka Miyazaki graduated from Keio University with a degree in social science. He began working for an American company named Oracle Corporation wherein he managed accounts. However, he reconsidered his career path at age 29 when a friend recommended a game named Ico to him. Inspired by its design, Mr. Miyazaki sought a career in game design. Due to his age, few companies were willing to employ him. Fortunately, he found one promising studio in the form of FromSoftware. After being hired, he began working as a planner for the then-latest installment in their long-running Armored Core series of mech games: Last Raven. To his surprise, he soon found himself in the director’s chair, overseeing the development of Armored Core 4 and its direct sequel Armored Core: For Answer.
The seventh console generation began in 2005 following Microsoft’s launch of the Xbox 360. It was in full swing in 2006 once Nintendo and Sony released the Wii and PlayStation 3 respectively. The latter was largely criticized upon its launch due to its limited library upon launch and exorbitant price point of $599 USD. Having manufactured the console upon which FromSoftware made their debut, it seemed only fitting that the developer would provide Sony with a hot app. It was to be a fantasy role-playing game intended to be a spiritual sequel to their inaugural title King’s Field.
Mr. Miyazaki was especially interested in the project, though the rest of the company considered it a failure. Not helping matters was its negative reception at the 2009 Tokyo Game Show. Nonetheless, Mr. Miyazaki felt that, once assigned to the game’s development, he would do his best to put his own artistic spin on it. He rationalized that “if [his] ideas failed, nobody would care – it was already a failure”. In spite of its poor initial showing, the game, entitled Demon’s Souls, began selling surprisingly well through word-of-mouth. FromSoftware soon found they had a sleeper hit on their hands. Such was the hype surrounding Demon’s Souls that it caught the attention of Western gamers – some of whom went as far as importing it. Luckily, they wouldn’t have to wait long for a chance to play it themselves because the surprising success of Demon’s Souls allowed them to easily find publishers willing to venture an overseas release. Thus, Demon’s Souls went on to become one of the PlayStation 3’s exemplary exclusive titles.
Having made such a popular game, it would seem only natural for Mr. Miyazaki and his team to rally themselves for round two. As soon as they could, they began working on a new game. However, things were not so clear-cut. Demon’s Souls was published by Sony whereas this new game would have Bandai Namco do the honors. As a direct result of this transfer, the intellectual property rights prevented FromSoftware from making a direct sequel to Demon’s Souls.
Undeterred, Mr. Miyazaki and his team retained many of the same basic ideas from Demon’s Souls to create not a sequel, but a spiritual successor. Working hard over the next two years, the game was finished and released worldwide in 2011 for both the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 under the name Dark Souls. While Demon’s Souls brought the company true international exposure, Dark Souls signposted to everyone that their success wasn’t an accident. Selling over two-million copies over the next two years, Mr. Miyazaki would soon be rewarded for his creativity by being promoted to the company’s president in 2014. To this day, Dark Souls is considered one of the greatest efforts of the 2010s. On the heels of a surprising sleeper hit, how was Dark Souls able to continue this momentum?
Playing the Game
WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers.
The Age of the Ancients saw the world in an unformed state. The land featured gray crags and was surrounded by eternal fog. During this time, dragons ruled everything. This age came to an end when fire was introduced to the world. With it, the world became one of contrasts. With heat came cold, with life came death, and with light came darkness. Emerging from the darkness were four powerful beings: Nito, the first of the Dead, the Witch of Izalith, Gwyn, the Lord of Sunlight, and the Furtive Pygmy. They were aided by Seath the Scaleless – a dragon who turned traitor to his kind, and they brought the Age of the Ancients to an end. Thus, began the Age of Fire – a prosperous time for humankind.
Unfortunately, it was not to last. The flames are fading away, causing the world to suffer endless nights. Upon many individuals’ bodies manifested brands known as the Darksign. Those branded with the symbol live in a limbo between life and death. Though they can be killed, they will not stay dead. Shortly after their death, they are resurrected. People bearing the Darksign are consequently called the Undead. Over time, an Undead is doomed to go insane, losing more and more of their humanity with each death.
On the face of things, the premise of Dark Souls appears to pan out like a typical zombie apocalypse story. A mysterious brand has been appearing on certain people, cursing them to an eternal non-life. Although they retain their sanity at first, they will eventually become nothing more than mindless, aggressive monsters. The populace even reacts as you would expect in a story such as this by quarantining those afflicted, banishing them to a location on a remote island simply known as the Undead Asylum. With so many people having fallen victim to the Darksign, the dwindling numbers have marked the end of civilization.
At the same time, Dark Souls provides a markedly more sophisticated take on the subgenre. A typical zombie apocalypse would usually be brought about through some kind of infection, be it viral, fungal, or bacterial. Simply by taking place in a fantasy realm, Dark Souls stands out from its peers, which are usually set in contemporary times. Although one might argue that the very act of setting such a story in contemporary times is what allows it to be both horrifying and relatable, Dark Souls ups the ante by featuring an apocalypse brought about through magical means. A virus can be contained to some degree, but the Darksign has no such restrictions. Anyone at any time can have the Darksign appear upon their skin.
Before you begin the game proper, you are asked to create a character. In terms of gameplay, the most relevant option regards your starting class. The class system in Dark Souls works similarly to that of Diablo. While it does dictate your characters’ initial stats and starting equipment, there is no hard limit as to how they can progress. There is a soft limit in that certain weapons and armor can’t be reasonably used unless the player characters’ parameters are high enough. It wouldn’t end well for someone of average strength to try to wear armor twice as heavy as they are, for example. However, there’s nothing stopping the player from starting their character off as a sorcerer only to train them in heavy melee weapons or creating a knight capable of casting spells.
All things considered, the character customization in Dark Souls – much like Demon’s Souls before it – is simple, yet effective. One of the most common pitfalls of a game allowing the player to create their own character is that there are far too many options. In such cases, players are liable to second-guess themselves every step of the way. That doesn’t really happen in Dark Souls. The stats of each class are set and cannot be changed. They even begin at varying levels from each other in order to have different distributions without breaking the games’ rules. Each class description also gives a good idea as to how a build plays, which is reinforced by the stats themselves. The interface is also straightforward enough that you won’t need to spend too much time on it, which is handy should you ever need to restart from scratch.
In terms of personal flair, the options that would attract the attention of most are the ones regarding the character’s personal appearance. If the player is asked to create their own character with which to carry out this journey, it’s only fitting that they would be able to give them a unique appearance. Not conforming to a standard fantasy setting, characters you can potentially create in Dark Souls are always human. The standard array of fantasy races that includes elves, dwarves, and the like is not available. Regardless, there are quite a few customization options available to you, allowing you to determine their gender, skin color, and build among other things.
In that regard, the player can spend quite a lot of time getting their character’s appearance exactly right. If this were the case, they would then get to watch all of their hard work be for naught when they actually get a good look at their character. In their character’s stead, they would see only a withered husk – a parody of what they just created. The Darksign has afflicted much of the populace – and your character is no exception. The fact that you can choose your character’s place of origin and social standing is your first clue of the Darksign’s indiscriminate nature. It’s natural going into such a game that your character would be immune to the Darksign because a typical protagonist in this medium in intended to be an ace – or will develop into one as the story progresses. The introductory cutscene puts an end to that venture before you even gain control of your character.
Despite your character’s withered appearance, they are fully capable of rational thought and defending themselves in battle. Like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls is an action role-playing game that is presented entirely from a third-person perspective. The first thing a lot of people would think of when playing Dark Souls for the first time is The Elder Scrolls series – the fifth installment of which, Skyrim, was also released in 2011. Superficially, this makes sense; the most significant similarity between the two games would be the presence of a stamina meter. It is represented on the top-left corner of the screen as a green gauge underneath the red life meter. While many games allow players to execute physical attacks for free, Dark Souls isn’t one of them. Each attack takes away a specific amount of stamina. It can also be drained when running, rolling out of the way of an enemy attack, or using the shield to have your character defend themselves. If the stamina meter is depleted, your options are drastically limited until it refills. The meter refills at a relatively fast pace, but in combat, a second can feel like a minute.
Indeed, one significant advantage Dark Souls has over Skyrim or any of the other installments in The Elder Scrolls series would be the combat engine. Combat in Dark Souls actually is a bit closer to Ocarina of Time and the other 3D installments in The Legend of Zelda franchise in terms of flow. When a hostile character appears, you can press the right analog stick in order to lock onto the nearest enemy. If multiple enemies are present, you can press the stick as many times as you need before you have selected the correct one. Either way, locking onto an enemy ensures your character will always face them. This is especially useful because the enemies in Dark Souls tend to move at the same speed as your character – if not faster. Even with multiple enemies present, it’s still usually a better idea to take out one at a time so they don’t overwhelm your character.
Naturally, you’re not limited to melee weapons when it comes to surviving what the world the Dark Souls has to throw at your character; they can respond to threats with magical attacks as well. Magic works a bit differently than it did in Demon’s Souls. Whereas this game’s spiritual predecessor featured a mana gauge, Dark Souls conforms to a system more reminiscent of Dungeons & Dragons. Spells now have specific number of charges. As one would expect, the more intricate, advanced spells tend to have fewer charges than the simpler ones. This can mean that the simpler ones will win out due to getting the job done faster and having more charges, but it all depends on how you play.
The reason I can say the combat in Dark Souls is superior to that of Skyrim is because of one key factor: better optimization. By 2011, Bethesda gained a reputation of shipping games that only barely functioned. Although they still managed to be enjoyable regardless, their reliance on an increasingly dated engine became impossible to ignore. Combat in those games was primarily a matter of facing the general direction of the enemies and hoping your damage output exceeded theirs. If you proved unlucky, you could restore their health using a potion. The games were even courteous enough to pause the action as you did this, allowing a player character to somehow consume multiple health potions in the span of a nanosecond.
What Dark Souls makes evident before your character has even fled the Undead Asylum is that such tactics will result in their unglamorous death. The tagline of the game, “Prepare to Die”, betrays the imminence difficulty of the experience. If you choose not to heed this warning or assume you’re just that good of a gamer, something somewhere down the line along the line will serve you a large slice of humble pie. Dark Souls is a game that demands its players take it seriously. One of the ways in which the game enforces this is that bringing up the inventory screen does not pause the action. You can still move your character, but the rest of the controls will change according to the game state. Consequently, you must make absolutely sure you’re in a safe place before rummaging through your belongings. Conversely, it’s important to remember to completely exit out of the menus before resuming gameplay lest you get caught off-guard by an errant enemy.
Because it would be inordinately difficult to navigate menus in the heat of battle without the ability to pause, one might wonder how the player could handle a situation in which they need to swap items quickly. Fortunately, the game does allow players to easily switch weapons and items with the push of a button. This is because you can have multiple weapons, items, and spells equipped at a time. You cycle through them by pressing the direction on the control pad corresponding to the item’s location on the interface. You press left or right to cycle through weapons, up to select spells, and down to switch consumables. If you don’t have the correct item equipped for a given confrontation, your only options are to tough it out or die trying. Either way, this aspect enforces the fact that you will have to consider your choices carefully before acting.
Your journey through the Undead Asylum comes to an end when you face off against its de facto warden: the Asylum Demon. It is a massive entity that utterly dwarfs your own character – even if you gave them the largest build. Mr. Miyazaki was inspired to get into the gaming industry after playing Ico. It is therefore highly fitting that the first boss is the size of one of the colossi from Team Ico’s sophomore effort, Shadow of the Colossus. It doesn’t involve climbing the beast and exposing its weak point, although you can strike it from above for bonus damage if you so choose. Instead, you just have to take the threat head-on and drain its health through the method of your choice.
Once you escape, your character is then taken to the land of Lordran where the duration of the experience takes place. There, they are tasked with ringing the two Bells of Awakening, which are located in two heavily fortified areas. A look around reveals that if the end hasn’t come, there is nothing preventing it from coming to pass. Everywhere you look, there are crumbling ruins of what was once a proud kingdom. The Darksign has taken its toll on the populace to the point where nobody wanders the streets alone. It’s very telling that when you do finally meet other characters, they’re invariably warriors of some kind. Anyone without even a token means of defense will inevitably get picked off by the numerous eldritch horrors wandering around.
One of the more interesting aspects of Dark Souls would be the bonfires. Just like a real bonfire, these provide a place for your character to rest. Visiting a bonfire is one of the few things capable of pausing the action, so if you need a break, they’re the ideal place to go. One might get the impression they’re save points, which they kind of are, but there is a little more to them than that. It would actually be a little more accurate to describe them as checkpoints because the game frequently saves automatically. The real purpose of the bonfires is to restore your character’s health and their Estus Flask. The Estus Flask is an invaluable healing item treasured by the Undead that essentially acts as a healing potion. It is significantly more valuable than your garden-variety healing potion in that it can be recharged by visiting a bonfire. Lighting the bonfire yourself ensures it can restore the Estus Flask to five charges.
Resting at a bonfire allows a variety of actions to be performed. You can kindle the bonfire, thereby strengthening it. What this does for you is increase the number of charges your Estus Flask can have. From a fully strengthened bonfire, it can have twenty charges. One of the other notable things you can do is regain your human form. Over the course of the game, you can gather a commodity known as Humanity. This mysterious substance can allow the Undead to become human, though it is only a temporary fix from the Darksign’s effects. The amount of Humanity your character has is indicated by the counter to the left of the health and stamina gauges. It comes in two forms: liquid and solid. Solid humanity can be used at any time like a normal item while its liquid form automatically adds to the counter upon receiving it.
However, there is a slight drawback to resting a bonfire. If you thought you could defeat the swath of enemies blocking your way, backtrack to the bonfire, and charge the boss with full health and a completely restored Estus Flask, think again. Using a bonfire brings a majority of the normal enemies back to life. This means you must fight your way through each and every time you rest at a bonfire. Because of this, one must weigh their options when using a bonfire. It might not pay off in the long term to kindle a bonfire in a remote location for the extra Estus Flask uses – even if the area in question is exceedingly difficult. Another thing to consider is that not all of the enemies actually respawn upon using a bonfire. Generally speaking, if you encounter a normal enemy tough enough to be a boss in their own right, you can usually count on it to not respawn.
Felling an enemy of any kind yields a certain number of souls. They can be used as currency, but their applications are a bit wider than most fictional monetary systems. This is because souls are also the primary means by which one levels up their character. The number of souls one needs to ascend a level gradually increases over time. Ascending a level allows you to put a single point into your one of your character’s attributes. Stats generally give substantial improvements to your character before tapering off some time after they pass forty.
There are eight different attributes to consider when leveling up: Vitality, Attunement, Endurance, Strength, Dexterity, Resistance, Intelligence, and Faith. Vitality dictates the amount of health your character has, making it important for any build regardless of playstyle. Attunement determines the number of spells your character can equip at a given time. It’s important to know that certain spells require more than one slot to equip. Endurance influences how much stamina your character has along with their equip load. Because of this, it ends up being the single most important stat in the game. Stamina is immensely helpful because it means being able to swing a weapon a greater number of times without tiring out.
Then again, even if magic is your primary means of offense, the stat is still useful because your loadout has an effect on how quickly your character can dodge. The basic idea is that the further away your character’s loadout weight is from its capacity, the quicker they can execute rolls. As a tradeoff, heavier armor is typically more effective in terms of damage reduction. Considering that, even with the bulkiest armor available, enemies can inflict large amounts of damage, one may wonder if it’s better just to dodge every single attack rather than taking every single one of them head-on. Indeed, players of Demon’s Souls widely regarded heavy armor as useless for this very reason. Dark Souls answers this quandary with the Poise stat. While quick rolls sound like a great proposition, if your character has a terrible Poise stat, they have a greater chance of being stunned by a successful enemy attack. With a high enough Poise stat, which is a benefit typically conferred by heavier armor sets, your own attacks won’t get interrupted nearly as often, allowing you to potentially steamroll even the hardiest opponents.
Strength and Dexterity are highly similar to each other in that they influence how much damage an equipped weapon inflicts. Strength tends to have an effect on large, bulky weapons while ones that require finesse are aided by the Dexterity stat. These two requirements don’t have to be mutually exclusive. To determine how a stat influences weapon damage, one needs to examine the weapon itself. Each weapon has a grade associated with a certain parameter – “S” being the highest. The higher the appropriate stat is, the more damage it inflicts per point invested in it. Dexterity can also have an effect on the speed at which certain spells are cast, so one must be aware of what they require as well.
If there is any stat that could be considered outright useless, it would be Resistance. It increases a character’s defense along with their resistance to fire and poison, but at an extremely slow rate. Although being poisoned can be a significant setback, it’s usually better just to have an antidote on hand because situations in which it is a threat are rare. There is no reason to invest in Resistance when Vitality and Endurance cover the same bases far more effectively in addition to providing greater long-term benefits.
Intelligence and Faith have a similar relationship to each other as Strength and Dexterity. Intelligence affects how proficient one is in magic. Weapons that have magical properties often benefit from having a high intelligence rating, but it is primarily used for Sorceries. The greater the score, the more Sorceries you can add to your repertoire. Faith operates on a similar principle, though it applies to Miracles and weapons that directly use the stat. These kinds of spells bring to mind the ones wielded by clerics in Dungeons & Dragons in that they can provide healing and other beneficial effects. Finally, Faith also has the added benefit of increasing magic defense.
Regardless of the curious mercies Dark Souls may grant you, one mustn’t get complacent. As you will soon learn firsthand, even the toughest characters can get slaughtered on a regular basis. If your character drops dead upon losing their health, they are revived at the last bonfire they visited. While death isn’t the crippling setback it was in Demon’s Souls, there are repercussions nonetheless. If your character regained their human form, dying will render them Hollow once more. More pressingly, if your character dies, all of their souls will be forfeit. The player can recover the lost souls if they can reach the exact spot they died and touch their bloodstain. However, if you die before then, the souls are completely lost.
This creates an interesting dilemma that actively challenges the sensibilities most players developed playing other games. In most games, players would eventually develop smart spending habits lest they run out of money at the worst possible time. Meanwhile, the central mechanics of Dark Souls actively punish players for being frugal. Sure, you can retrieve the souls if you reach your bloodstain. If you can’t, saving them was all for naught. The optimal course of action is somewhat bizarre because you always want to have a few thousand souls on-hand, yet hoarding them is ill-advised. In practice, the best idea is to make a note of which areas have enemies that yield the most souls and take advantage of bonfires respawning them. This way, you can get the souls when you need them without worrying about losing any in the long term. Should you amass a large number of souls at once, it’s invariably a good idea to spend as many as you can – whether it’s for goods and services or to level up. Another thing to consider is that you will often find large souls in a consumable form. Once used, these items will provide you with a certain number of souls. Because you lose all of your souls upon dying, it is inadvisable to use these items unless you have a specific need for them. Dying doesn’t cause you to lose any items, so as long as you use the large souls carefully, you can partially circumvent the penalty.
Many bosses – especially ones important to the lore – also leave behind a soul. While you could use them in a similar fashion as the standard ones, doing so is inadvisable. You can instead take these souls to a blacksmith who can, in turn, forge the souls into a unique weapon. Indeed, Dark Souls has quite the intricate forging system, allowing you to improve whichever pieces you find in various ways. Want to make a broadsword inflict magic damage? Just talk to the right blacksmith and they can set you right up. I personally prefer this to the approach Castlevania: Symphony of the Night popularized wherein you simply found better weapons lying around. You would get a weapon you were especially fond of only to abandon it once you got your hands on one with an objectively superior damage output. With Dark Souls, you can easily get ahold of an ordinary halberd and fine tune it until it’s powerful enough to fell every single boss in the game.
Although the inability to pause the action does enhance the difficult nature of the game, there is another reason why you are unable to do so. As you journey through Lordran, you may see orange markings similar to the ones providing the tutorial in the Undead Asylum. These messages are not fixed; they were left by other people playing the game. Yes, Dark Souls is, at its heart, a single-player experience, but there is a very real social aspect to it. If your console is online, you can occasionally see ghosts representing other players. If you find a bloodstain that isn’t your own, you can see what happened to a player leading up to their death. Their error in judgement could easily prevent the same fate from befalling your character. Alternatively, it can provide source of amusement when you see them tumble down a cliff.
This isn’t the only way in which the social aspect manifests. You could be walking along minding your own business only for an inexplicably named enemy to appear out of nowhere and begin hunting you down. If this ever happened to you, then you were invaded by another player. Making use of a special artifact, you can invade other player’s games thereby challenging them to a duel to the death – or undeath as it were. The winner gets the loser’s souls and can restore their humanity. Indeed, only characters in their human forms can be invaded and, under most circumstances, if they have not yet defeated the boss of the area. The exception would be if you happened to invade a few too many worlds. Karma has a knack of catching up to you, so if you abuse the social aspect of this game, you might just find yourself on a hit list – the Darkmoon Covenant’s specifically. If you accumulate a sufficient number of sin points, the Darkmoon faction can invade your game regardless of the boss’s status. You can get around this by seeking out a priest named Oswald, who will absolve your sins for a high price that scales with both level and the number of atrocities committed.
Between the ability to place unhelpful messages and random invaders, it would appear that Dark Souls is a certifiable breeding ground for griefers – or people who play games for no other reason than to inconvenience other users. In practice, however, this isn’t exactly true. Recognizing the difficult nature of the game, players are just as likely to help each other out as they are to mess with one another – if not more so. Making use of a magical stone, you can allow your phantom to be summoned when another player is about to encounter a boss. This way, if someone is having a difficult time with a boss, you can step in and make the fight a bit easier for them. Considering that you encounter various in-game characters traveling through Lordran, this is an excellent way to convey such a feeling on a meta level.
Regardless of how much you interact with other players, you will have to exercise a lot of caution playing Dark Souls. The level design tends to be straightforward, but you never quite know what’s lurking around the corner. Throughout the game, you will encounter fog walls similar to the one that led to the demon in the Undead Asylum. They cannot be passed through simply by walking into them; one must press the action button to enter. In most cases, the area beyond the fog wall houses a boss. Although this isn’t always true, you won’t know for sure until choose to enter it. If there isn’t a boss, the wall simply dissipates immediately afterwards. If there is a boss, you’re stuck until one of you dies. In such a situation, you better hope you didn’t bring too many souls to the encounter. If you were audacious or foolish enough to do so, you must spend a portion of the probable rematch getting back to the bloodstain, which could easily cost your character their life.
All in all, Dark Souls has a reputation of being one of the single most difficult games of its day. Delving into the experience and reveals such a proclamation to be entirely true. It is theoretically possible to blaze through the entire game without dying outside of a single, mandatory instance late in the experience. The actual likelihood of this occurring is infinitesimal. If you don’t take the time to understand the combat engine or memorize the level design, the game will absolutely destroy you – no questions asked.
With such a punishing difficulty, Dark Souls seems out of place when compared to contemporaries – whether they’re escapist fantasies such as Skyrim or cinematic experiences such as Uncharted. It would seem as though Mr. Miyazaki and his team took cues from the games of yesteryear when making Dark Souls. However, stacking Dark Souls next to the likes of Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, and Battletoads also causes it to stick out like a sore thumb. The game is punishing and gives the player no quarter, yet of all the words one could use to describe the difficulty, “unfair” is not one of them. Although many games from the 1980s and early 1990s are heralded for their difficulty, they benefitted from a time that left its audience with few, if any, alternatives. As such, these games tended to be difficult in ways commonly considered cheap or unfair. Common issues included unpolished controls, situations players had to brute-force certain action sequences, and an inability to save. Despite how well-liked they continue to be, it is clear few of them have stood the test of time.
Dark Souls may be a difficult game, but the challenge it offers is quite a bit more sophisticated than those of the medium’s pioneering efforts. Once you get the hang of things, you should never cite the controls as a reason why you failed. The control scheme manages the difficult task of conveying a high level of complexity without overwhelming the player through cryptic button combinations.
What ultimately separates Dark Souls from your run-of-the-mill difficult game is that the harshness is applied equally across the board. This is the most obvious when it comes to the game’s complete lack of edge gravity. While certain three-dimensional games prevent your character from walking off the edge of the edge of a platform, Dark Souls has no such safeguard. If you guide your character off an edge, they will fall to their death. While this could have the potential to make certain encounters irritating, the same exact rules apply to your enemies. In fact, you are rewarded with the name number of souls upon vanquishing an enemy by pushing them off a ledge as you would defeating them the traditional way. You can use this to your advantage by defeating strong opponents and getting rewarded with a lot of souls at once. On top of that, there are even a few boss fights you can resolve in such a manner. Generally speaking, the only enemies completely immune to these tactics are the ones capable of flying.
Veteran players of the series may label newcomers who employ these tactics cheaters. However, due to the sheer harshness of the Dark Souls universe, you must realize that, short of hacking the game and subsequently experiencing a hollow victory, you are never cheating. To have any chance of surviving, you will need to resort to every trick in the book – regardless of how dishonorable it may be. After all, you can count on any opponent you face – whether it is operated by artificial intelligence or another person – to do the exact same thing. Sure, it may seem cheap to lure enemies into a narrow corridor where you can easily pick them off, but the alternative is to have them swarm you from every direction. And if you were expecting the old-school, post-hit invincibility to save your neck, you’re far too hopeful. Any strategy that results in long-term progress being made is a viable one.
Although Dark Souls quickly reveals itself to be a deep, intricate game with a sophisticated, ahead-of-its-time combat engine, its true value begins to shine once you have rung the first Bell of Awakening. From that point onward, you might find yourself taking a slight detour every now and again to reach your destination. This is when you realize you’re playing a Metroidvania. Many games tried to capture the style of a Metroidvania in three dimensions, but by 2011, very few had succeeded – Metroid Prime being one of the few titles to have done so.
Other games such as Batman: Arkham Asylum modeled themselves after the Metroidvania format, but it was a little difficult to count them as straight examples of the genre. Along with the two sequels to Metroid Prime, these games were slightly open-ended action titles that usually only opened up once the player reached a lull in the narrative. They were doubtlessly quality products as well, but exploration tended to be restricted by the plot rather than the inability to jump high enough or some other problem to be circumvented by a power-up. One of the games cited as the definitive Metroidvania experience, Super Metroid, enforced its level design in this exact manner. Although tricks unintended by the developers allowed players to break the intended sequence of events, one normally needed power-ups to access certain areas of the game. Once you obtained them, you would often surprise yourself as you opened up new passageways, thereby allowing you return to earlier portions of the regions already explored.
Dark Souls was one of the few three-dimensional, third-person games at the time to truly capture what Super Metroid had achieved in the side-scrolling era. This is evident in how it places its bonfires. Oftentimes, you will find one bonfire fairly early in your exploration of a region only to open up a shortcut that allows you to access it once more. It is truly fascinating to see how everything fits together once you begin progressing far enough. Impressively, even with the lack of a map, the Lordran is so well-designed that you will rarely, if ever, find yourself getting lost.
However, even if Dark Souls managed to capture what Super Metroid accomplished in 1994, the exact manner by which it achieved this goal is slightly different. While Super Metroid had a sizable list of power-ups that gradually opened up the world, Dark Souls typically enforces its intended order by strategically placing powerful enemies in key areas. You generally know you’re going the wrong way if the enemies can defeat you in one or two blows. Interestingly, this still allows for the kind of sequence breaking that many people enjoyed about Super Metroid. Powerful though the standard enemies preventing exploration may be, one can still memorize their patterns or otherwise come up with a unique strategy to take them out. With enough out-of-the-box thinking, one can access certain areas earlier than intended, potentially gaining a big advantage – such as a great piece of equipment – to make the rest of the playthrough that much easier.
Finally, it bears mentioning that Dark Souls was a remarkable technical achievement upon its 2011 release. The universal decision for consoles to switch from cartridges to discs significantly increased the storage space of the average unit. This came with a downside, however. When the seventh console generation was in full swing, load times became nigh-interminable. Simple actions such as entering new areas and restarting after dying went from taking seconds to minutes, which added up as the experiences themselves became longer.
Dark Souls goes about solving this problem in a manner similar to that of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. That is, whenever you’ve reached the border of a new area, the game silently loads the proper assets. The access points in question tend to take the form of lengthy corridors or long elevator rides. Because the point of a Metroidvania is to present the player with a realm that gradually opens up the further they progress, these impeccable feats of programming go a long way to build immersion. Combining all of these subtle touches goes a long way in ensuring the player is engaged for the entirety of their journey.
Analyzing the Story
Going into the 2010s, the storytelling of AAA productions had taken several cues from the film industry – particularly Hollywood. The game most commonly cited for this change was Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid. Released in 1998, it wasn’t the first game to convey a plot through non-interactive cutscenes, but it did popularize the approach, causing it to become the standard in the 2000s. On the surface, it would appear to be a great idea – especially once creators began taking their storytelling seriously. Classics were typically defined purely through their gameplay, so it didn’t really matter if the ending was a single, bland piece of congratulatory text; just seeing it managed to be its own reward. As the plots of games became more ambitious, watching the stories unfold was an extra reward to overcoming an obstacle.
However, as the art of critiquing video games became more sophisticated, experts began to catch onto a distinct contradiction that arose from telling stories in such a fashion. This was especially apparent when parsing the works of Naughty Dog – specifically their acclaimed 2009 game Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. During cutscenes, its protagonist, Nathan Drake was a happy-go-lucky individual with a propensity to crack jokes. He was often brash and insensitive, but he did care about his friends when push came to shove. Absolutely none of this reflected in the gameplay, which, being a third-person shooter with occasional platforming elements, saw him punch, gun down, or blow up hundreds of mercenaries. To have a character kill that many people without it adversely affecting his personality was extremely jarring. Outside of the Naughty Dog writing staff’s occasional propensity to poke fun at their own weaknesses, these issues went largely unaddressed.
In some circles, this disconnect was referred to as “Ludonarrative Dissonance”. Interestingly, the game that inspired the term, BioShock, featured few cutscenes to speak of, instead primarily electing to convey a plot through scripted events. It instead featured more esoteric variety of the disconnect in how it handled its central plot twist. Without resorting to explicit spoilers, the story of BioShock was praised for how it deconstructed the very nature of linear gameplay. The problem is that once the plot twist was revealed, the nature of the gameplay did not change to reflect the revelation. This undermined the commentary the director, Ken Levine, attempted to provide on the medium in addition to rendering certain character motivations nonsensical.
Now, to be clear, a story with this Ludonarrative Dissonance does still have the potential to be good. The problem is that when this problem isn’t directly addressed, many of the author’s best ideas tend to not land properly. It does stand to reason – whenever any project is highly compartmentalized, you get instances in which the right hand is not aware of what the left is doing and vice versa. Then again, by the 2010s, AAA games frequently needed to be a part of a popular genre in order to get funded. In many of these cases, it’s not unreasonable to assume many authors were indeed aware of the disconnect, but had no choice but to ignore it for the sake of making a game that could sell. Regardless, if the problem wasn’t addressed, it invariably undermined the story beats the writers pitched.
With Dark Souls, Mr. Miyazaki acknowledges the subtle intricacies of telling a story in an interactive medium by providing by taking a minimalistic approach similar to Half-Life. Valve Software’s landmark debut game, not unlike BioShock after it, opted to tell its story exclusively through scripted events. At no point in that game was control wrestled away from the player. The result is that plot developments were allowed to speak for themselves. Similarly, the cutscenes Dark Souls presents are all very terse, typically used as a way to allow bosses to make a grand entrance rather than to provide exposition. In fact, the introductory cutscene that lays out the basic plot along with its major players possesses more dialogue than any of the later ones. Once it plays out, you’re left to discover the rest on your own.
Indeed, part of the fun of playing Dark Souls is piecing together the plot from what few clues you can scrounge together. This emphasis on minimalism was inspired by Mr. Miyazaki’s experiences reading Western fantasy. Many of these stories, while regarded in their original language, didn’t make it past the barrier unscathed. In many cases, the translations were outright bad, leaving the future game designer to try to find meaning with what little context he was provided.
Mr. Miyazaki’s experiences precisely describe what the average player goes through attempting to analyze the plot of Dark Souls. You are always given a clear goal, yet their importance and what will happen once you see them through isn’t clear. Every step of the way, you will be speculating the motivations of the characters you meet. Ringing the Bells of Awakening rouses Kingseeker Frampt, a primordial serpent and friend of Lord Gwyn. In spite of his decidedly ghoulish appearance, he ends up being the player character’s guide for the duration of their journey, but he is definitely keeping key details from them. If the player character follows Frampt’s instructions, they will end up prolonging the Age of Fire at the cost of subjecting themselves to eternal torment in the Kiln of the First Flame.
This sounds like a standard dark twist ending one would expect out of such a bleak story, but things are a little more complicated than that. Depending on how you play the game, you could very well end up under the wing of another primordial serpent known as Darkstalker Kaathe. His endgame is, if anything, even more dubious than that of Frampt’s because he intends to bring an end to the Age of Fire – humankind’s most prosperous era. Allowing the flames to fade would then usher in the Age of Dark. This entails the Abyss, which is contained within the lower parts of Lordran, to envelop absolutely everything. On top of that, historically, the people who have sided with Kaathe went insane or became irreversibly corrupt. Siding with him would therefore seem to be the typical “evil” ending one expects out of a game featuring a karma meter.
On the other hand, this outcome too is open to a lot of interpretation. After all, it is likely that the Age of Fire also happened to result in the Darksign’s creation. Keeping the fire alive wouldn’t really solve much of anything. In the end, your alternatives are between preserving a status quo that will see the world end slowly and painfully or euthanizing it right there and then, becoming the Dark Lord in the process. Then again, if you choose to become the Dark Lord, the accompanying cutscene doesn’t make the fate of the world clear. For all you know, you could be ending the world only to start a new, better one from scratch.
The narrative typically refuses to provide a clear answer to these key details, and that is what makes it so intriguing. In a way, the story of Dark Souls is highly similar to the gameplay yourself. You’re given just enough context through the environment and boss fights to make sense of things, yet a majority of the story is in the background. As a result, Dark Souls has no shortage of intriguing lore available for those willing to seek it, yet how much the player invests themselves in the narrative is up to them. It is for this reason that the plot of Dark Souls is one much better optimized for its medium than what most AAA productions were doing at the time.
It helps that the very first piece of evidence one could use to back up such a claim can be observed through the simple act of dying. A significant portion of video games follow the same basic formula. You play through the levels in a sequential order until you reach the ending. If you die somewhere along the way, you get sent back to the last checkpoint until you succeed. Should you lose all of your lives, the game is theoretically over, though once designers began shifting their attention to consoles, they typically gave their audience infinite chances.
An alternate way for the aforementioned disconnect between the story and gameplay to manifest occurred whenever you tried to dissect a given action sequence. To wit, many action-oriented titles from around this time involved a lot of trial and error. You would have to react the correct way in response to the various threats or risk getting sent back to the checkpoint. After a certain point, the main character would seem clairvoyant. How could they possibly know to jump off a platform in a specific way or that a soldier would be waiting to ambush them? It would make sense if they remembered all of their failures, but this is knowledge they couldn’t possibly have. The player is the only entity who could be privy to any of this, yet they cannot share their knowledge with the protagonist – except through key button presses, which narratives seldom acknowledged. The player is responsible for all of the protagonist’s triumphs, yet they are disregarded in these narratives. It was easy for players to accept this odd facet throughout the 1980s and the 1990s when games weren’t sold by the narratives they spun. However, when game creators began to care about the art of storytelling, an aspect that had existed in the medium since its inception suddenly became much less tenable.
What Dark Souls did was take this aspect many people ignored, and wove it into the narrative. It makes perfect sense that your character, after trying and failing to defeat a boss multiple times, would suddenly know what to do. Thanks to the accursed Darksign, your character can never truly die. If their health meter is depleted, they are sent back to the last bonfire at which they rested. They have experienced every single one of those agonizing, humiliating failures along with the player, and their ultimate triumph is the result of everything finally falling into place. One might wonder why, after repeated deaths, your character never completely loses their mind like the countless Undead you encounter throughout the game. The answer to that is simple – the player acts as their character’s determination. Only once an Undead has given into despair will they go completely Hollow. As long as the player doesn’t abundant their playthrough prematurely, such a fate shall not befall their character.
Another source from which Mr. Miyazaki drew inspiration was Kentaro Miura’s acclaimed manga series Berserk. The most striking similarity between it and Dark Souls is the tone. Both are works of dark fantasy wherein you get the sense that everything is plummeting to hell. The narrative of Dark Souls may be a little vaguer, but you don’t get the sense that there is anything even resembling hope for this dying world. The other significant parallel would be the presence of the Darksign. It bears more than a few similarities to the Brand of Sacrifice, which is emblazoned upon the neck of Guts – the protagonist of Berserk. The actual effects are wildly different, but their role in their respective stories is similar, condemning their respective protagonists to a horrific fate that makes every waking moment a living nightmare.
Dark Souls is similar to Berserk from an aesthetical standpoint as well. Despite their Japanese origin, both creators sought inspiration from distinctly European architecture. The amount of detail that went into the creation of Anor Londo in particular, which the player character visits fairly late in the experience, is truly remarkable. Its design is an amalgamation of the Château de Chambord and the Milan Cathedral. It is highly ironic that, in a work so utterly devoid of hope, Mr. Miyazaki and his team managed to create a world with some truly breathtaking visuals. It makes running through these settings bittersweet because as impressive as they look now, you realize they must have been a true sight to behold in their halcyon days.
Along those lines, I also give credit to the team for addressing a trend that had been slowly creeping its way into the medium. In many contemporary efforts, one’s interactions with the world were limited to what was needed to advance the plot. While the visuals had doubtlessly improved since the medium’s early days, it was a little hollow that the elaborately designed maps tended to be one-way streets. Similar to the issue of dying multiple times suddenly not making any sense from a narrative standpoint, this was a subtle problem exacerbated once developers had access to superior hardware. Unless one happened to be playing a game with an explicitly open-world design, these lovingly rendered realms couldn’t be explored in any meaningful way.
This is yet another issue Dark Souls sought to fix. The general rule of this game’s design is that if you ever espy an edifice in the skybox, there is a good chance you will get to explore it somewhere down the line. Whenever you climb a tower in this game, it is immensely gratifying to look out the window and see the land you traversed. You had to complete many trials just to get that far, yet when you’re observing the path you took from a vantage point, you begin to wonder how those problems ever managed to weigh you down at all.
Despite taking many overt cues from Mr. Miura’s magnum opus, it would be remiss of someone to consider Dark Souls a carbon copy of Berserk. The biggest difference between the two works would be their approach to morality. Although the manga’s run began in 1989, Guts was, in many respects, the quintessential 1990s anti-hero, being crass, uncaring, and not even showing the slightest bit of mercy to his enemies. However, because Mr. Miura created his character long before Western comic books began following that trend, Guts also came across as a more sophisticated take on the architype. When the reader is introduced to him, he is at his absolute worst, having suffered for his entire life in a world as unforgiving as himself. Nonetheless, if you ever saw him swing his famed Dragonslayer, you could safely bet the target of his wrath was far worse. He happens to live in a world where even an unapologetic Social Darwinist comes across as a good guy.
Adhering to its ambiguous nature, Dark Souls presents its own conflict in shades of grey. The demons the player character must fight are either non-sentient or fallen heroes who have gone insane. As your journey comes to an end, you get a sense that many of the people you fight would’ve been staunch allies had the circumstances been different. One monster even directs you to the exit, and won’t fight unless you strike the first blow.
The only outright evil entity you fight is Seath the Scaleless, who oversaw the extinction of his own kind for petty reasons borne of envy. From there, he became a duke obsessed with the idea of obtaining immortality. He conducted countless experiments on the populace, mutating them into mindless monsters for his selfish ends. The lore and general presentation affords the player leeway when interpreting a given character’s motivations, yet not for Seath. Compared to the other boss fights, which carry a bittersweet sentiment upon achieving victory, putting an end to Seath’s machinations is highly gratifying.
In fact, one of the single strangest things about Dark Souls reveals itself as you approach the endgame. The very land of Lordran wants your character dead, and it is a mission that it will succeed in – if only temporarily. Yet despite the sheer difficulty of your character’s journey, Dark Souls doesn’t really have an antagonist at all. The monster and demons running amok are a commentary on Lordran’s decay. It’s not as though they’re sent by some insidious mastermind who seeks to bring about the end of the universe for kicks. Lord Gwyn’s Hollow form manifests through sheer willpower to prevent the player character from letting the Kiln of the First Flame die out, thereby serving as the final boss, but he is merely acting out of sheer desperation rather than malice.
Instead, the closest thing this game has to an antagonist is the inevitable, pervasive entropy of the universe – a force of nature. Everything is going to hell, yet nobody is actively responsible for it – even the reprehensible Seath. One piece of information does suggest humanity itself is causing the Abyss to spread. Although this sounds like a typical allegory you would find in a dark fantasy, you don’t get the sense that they wanted such a fate to befall the world. Indeed, a majority of the humans you encounter in the game are cordial and polite. Although some are definitely worse than the monsters you have to fight, you get the sense they’re the exception rather than the rule.
Whether you’re parsing its gameplay or its plot, Dark Souls has a lot to offer those willing to invest the time to complete it. The only thing I don’t like about it is that the final areas aren’t as well-designed. The game opens up significantly once you’ve emerged victorious against the Anor Londo’s primary boss fight. From here, you must obtain the four souls belonging to the Lords of the land. This is the moment in which the game truly feels like a Metroidvania, and to celebrate the change, you are finally given the ability to teleport between certain bonfires.
However, none of the four areas opened up compare to those that came before. One features copious invisible paths, the second requires the player character to run through lava, the third has no bonfires at all, and the fourth is pitch-dark. Considering the game’s track record, it’s a little disappointing that the trials one must face in the final areas reek of the exact kind of artificial difficulty the experience had done such a great job distancing itself from. Sure, the game provides plenty of ways to mitigate these circumstances, but it doesn’t change these gimmicks from being more annoying than challenging. It especially doesn’t help that one of these areas pits the player against the Bed of Chaos. Defeating it requires the character to jump several bottomless pits – in a game that is in absolutely no way optimized for platforming. It also happens to be one of those bosses that is impossible to defeat unless you know the secret. Mercifully, it is also the only encounter in the entire game to effectively have checkpoints. It’s as though the developers realized what a bad idea it was halfway through, and decided to grant players a mercy they wouldn’t have otherwise.
Fortunately, you’re effectively playing through stages that would have been perfectly fine in contemporary efforts – only in a game as incredible as Dark Souls do they actually come across as bad. By the end, overcoming these artificial challenges lends itself the same level of satisfaction as completing any of the ones leading up to them. If anything, this is one of the few cases in which reserving the weaker stages for the end actually worked to the creator’s benefit. As a result of their many, many demises, anyone who made it this far will have the determination to see the perilous journey conclude. What better way to test this drive than by having the game throw everything it has at you only for you to shrug it all off? While most contemporaries were complacent serving players fun in predictable doses, Dark Souls makes them earn every single scrap of it. Every time you win, you will have a sense of true exhilaration few other experiences can replicate.
Drawing a Conclusion
I have absolutely no doubt that Dark Souls is one of the greatest games ever made, yet the story of how it was received makes for an interesting case study. Upon its 2011 release, the game did find an audience, yet its reviews, while positive, weren’t quite unanimously so. People respected it well enough, but taking the numbers at face value, you wouldn’t get the impression that they considered it one of the greatest games of all time. I feel this is because what Dark Souls managed to do was effect one of the most important paradigm shifts in the medium’s history. As developers began placing more of an emphasis on storytelling in their games, they gradually became easier to compensate. On a fundamental level, this does make sense. After all, one isn’t made to undergo a series of challenges to see how a film, book, or television show ends. Such an expectation would be untenable.
Longtime enthusiasts felt that this change brought forth a dark age for gaming. While the games of yesteryear required a significant degree of skill from the audience, later ones could be completed by anyone with enough patience and luck. Somewhere along the line, the driving question of a given game went from being “Can you complete it?” to “Have you completed it yet?” At the risk of sounding a little insensitive, I can see where those longtime enthusiasts came from. When AAA productions became easier to accommodate a larger audience, the quality of the level design declined as well. From a distance, it would appear that these two aspects have nothing to do with each other, but I do think they are more related than one might think.
When an increasing number of games began using internal batteries to record progress, this led to the creation of save points. However, in the 2000s, it became more common for games, especially linear ones, to save automatically via checkpoints. While not untoward by itself, one has to remember that save points forced designers to contemplate if stretches between each one were reasonable challenges or not. However, once checkpoints became commonplace, these stretches became much smaller. This caused designers to stop thinking in terms of whether or not a given stretch was sound. Instead, they often considered their work complete when said stretches could be completed at all. The result is that many games, especially action-oriented ones such as Call of Duty, Uncharted, or Gears of War, were typically a matter of trial-and-error. That is to say, you would be placed in the middle of a chaotic encounter and learn through sheer repetition exactly what you need to do to survive.
Dark Souls goes about resolving this conundrum in a way that effectively gives players the best of both worlds. It retains the ability to save automatically while also setting up checkpoints in a way that encouraged good game design. This is a metaphor for the game’s very nature. When Dark Souls saw its debut, gamers got something that could easily match or even surpass the works of old in terms of difficulty, yet it was unmistakably a product of the then-contemporary design practices. Oftentimes, especially in the indie scene at the time, you would get works that pined for the medium’s ostensible golden age only to demonstrate why the mainstream had abandoned those standards long ago. Dark Souls was something enthusiasts hadn’t really seen by 2011 – a difficult game that acknowledged and incorporated the good changes the medium underwent since the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Despite everything good that can be said about Dark Souls, I can imagine some being hesitant to check it out. A game that prides itself in its difficulty would appear to be exclusionary by design. Anyone willing to endure its extreme difficulty would then have to come to grips with exploring a world having not even the tiniest sliver of hope. There is doubtlessly a wall you need to break through to get anything out of Dark Souls, and the challenge extends to comprehending the narrative as well. If you can get past its difficult nature and grim setting, the rewards are bountiful.
In fact, the dark nature of the narrative is a lot like the gameplay itself. Gamers had seen countless interactive stories that took place in worlds fueled by sheer nihilism. Dark Souls differs from these works because, as strange as it may sound, it doesn’t feel as though the writers went out of their way to make the setting as hopeless as possible. It instead comes across as though they crafted a world that naturally happened to be on its last legs. The ironic result is that by depriving the player of hope, Mr. Miyazaki forces them to find their own meaning. Perhaps the untold suffering of Lordran’s scant survivors won’t be alleviated by the player character’s actions, but there is something undeniably inspiring – human – about steeling the will to fight in a world hellbent on erasing the concept of determination itself.
Final Score: 10/10