With the coming release of Dark Souls Remastered, it occurred to me that there is value in me being prudent enough to write a bit about what captivated me so much in this series and what has me so hyped about the release of the remaster of the one title I never really quite had the chance to completely devote myself to (the brunt of my experience with the series comes from Dark Souls II and III).
The three big categories that I will explore further below are the level design, the encounter design and the most elusive one – that special way in which Dark Souls blends mechanics with storytelling. So without further ado, here’s my self-centered, pretentious wankery on why I love Souls. Enjoy.
The Fengshui of game design.
Number one, and probably the simplest one to explain, is level-design of Dark Souls. As all the fans of Souls know, in every game of this series, the world is divided into distinct, named regions, each themed differently, each containing different types of enemies, utilizing different mechanics and most containing a boss connected to that area.
The first aspect of what makes the level-design so great is the interconnectedness of each location– there are no loading screens between areas, you could, if you wanted to, traverse the entire world in one, long journey. There are exceptions to this: some areas require special actions on the part of the player to enter and are distinctly separate from the overworld, which goes as far back as Dark Souls I with the starting area, the Undead Asylum, being disconnected from the main hub area/connecting nexus, the Firelink Shrine, by journey in the clutches of a giant raven. Even those separated areas always make sense in the scope of the game and are thematically distinct, such that it never feels jarring to travel from one location to the next.
Now, the world of Dark Souls II was famously geometrically crazy, with locations mashed together in a pile if you looked at the 3D mapping of the game. At one point, you could travel in a lift going upwards from an area with a clearly visible sky to a fortress nested in a lava lake. How that would work in reality is anybody’s guess, but it could be argued that it makes sense in the game’s lore. But even in Dark Souls II the feeling of the world being connected, constituting one chunk of land, was retained.
The second factor that contributes to why the level-design in Souls is so great is the care and attention that went into building each specific area. Every single one of them seems like a puzzle to be solved, with strategically placed shortcuts, secrets that reward players for getting off the obvious, beaten path, they are visually distinct and full of identifiable landmarks, making the routes easy to memorize, which is absolutely crucial for being able to traverse the world with confidence. Even the most convoluted and despised locations in Dark Souls such as Blight Town, have a distinct, understandable structure to them.
In a sense, locations in Dark Souls are a part of the challenge of the game– they have to be beaten just as you have to beat the bosses and once you master them, traveling through worlds of Dark Souls is like a walk in an old, familiar forest, where no nook or cranny is strange to you. I have played so much of Dark Souls III that I’ve memorized the location of every single distinct item and it’s not just me sinking way too much time into that game, the level-design does half of the work for you.
Lastly, each area is thematically distinct, from the fiery hellhole of Lost Izalith, through the imposing windmill of Earthen Peak to the frozen valleys of the Painted World of Ariandel, every single level communicates itself perfectly to the player and every time that theme features into the challenges the player is going to face. The lava in Izalith burns, but you could, in theory, stack enough fire resistance to simply walk through it. The swamps of Farron Keep are poisonous, slowly killing the player, but spread through the level are clumps of Purple Moss that will reduce the poison build-up and heal the condition. Each place feels challenging, unique, organized and thematic. THAT’S what’s so great about the level design of Dark Souls in a nutshell.
A fight is more than just a fight.
The second big one on my list are encounters and this point ties heavily into the combat design of the game. As you are all well aware, combat in Dark Souls is slow, deliberate and methodical. You have a limited resource in the form of Stamina that can be spent on attacks, dodges and parries, so you have to carefully balance offense and defense. Moreover, you can’t cancel animation mid-attack, you have to commit to it fully.
What this means is that you must pick the precise moment to attack. Making a mistake here puts you in a vulnerable position. In addition, maintaining aggro range of enemies is crucial as encounters with larger groups of enemies will almost always end tragically, unless you are prepared for them, however, crowd control options in Souls games are limited and mostly inefficient. Opponents take huge chunks of your health with each attack, bosses even more so. You have to pick your battles carefully.
But that’s just the thing, within the confines of this system a whole lot can be done and has been done by From Soft. Enemies take time to wind their attacks up, their strikes are as deliberate as yours and form a predictable pattern you can master with practice. In time you can learn to master the encounters with each and every opponent and because level progression makes you only marginally stronger and tends to unlock new options, always with specific flaws, NOTHING in those games is unbeatable, not even your level matters.
It’s only ever a matter of time and effort. There is also distinct audio-visual feedback that the game always offers – huge, hulking enemies armed with great weapons are not going to be fast, small and nimble hounds are going to be predictably aggressive. Adding to that, players can use the environment to their advantage, luring opponents into dangerous territory and making what would be their doom into their salvation.
Boss encounters are a separate thing entirely, always featuring some unique twist of the mechanics, forcing players to adapt, to produce a varied sequence of moves, to confront these bosses as a puzzle to be solved. The biggest part of it is how each encounter is solvable and it’s solvable on your terms as a player. A solution may be more efficient than others, but you are welcome to tackle ANY obstacle, ANY way you want, at ANY point. I’ve become so adept at Dark Souls III now, for example, that I just routinely fight one of the end-game bosses that can be triggered very early, almost right after starting the game, just because I can.
And on that note, the encounter with the Dancer of the Boreal Valley, the boss in question, is absolutely marvelous. You have to adapt to her flowing moves with dodges and well-timed attacks of your own, but always staying close to her, turning the fight into a beautiful dance.
What is it trying to tell me?
Number three, and the trickiest one to explain is the way in which story and game mechanics are tied together in Dark Souls. We all know that the plot of the series and of each game is hopelessly convoluted. There is no straightforward plot progression and much more is implied than is outright said. And this is a deliberate attempt because Dark Souls is less about a cohesive narrative and more about themes and profound ideas that go beyond the scope of the game and describe the human condition itself.
The message the games crafts about the greed of mankind, the way we struggle and succeed against impossible odds, the pondering on what is it that makes us human and whether being human is even good, bad or neither, is, at least to me, way more interesting than the story of Gwyn the First Lord, his merry bunch of sidekicks and what happened after they defeated the Dragons.
And what’s fascinating about it is that the delivery of these ideas is never ham-fisted, we learn practically nothing through expository dialogue or cut-scenes, every part of the game’s lore is presented to us through game mechanics, through environmental cues and through item descriptions. These, together, form an interconnected web that slowly unravels before you a story, like showing you a puzzle set, piece by piece, stimulating you to wager a hypothesis on what the next piece is going to look like.
It makes you want to connect these things, to make predictions that may or may not be true, but which will always leave you richer invaluable perspective. Environmental cues and item descriptions by an omniscient narrator are straight-forward enough, but the most fascinating aspect of this presentation is game mechanics.
For example, in each series of the game, your character can go hollow, losing a resource called Humanity. As you go hollow your character will become more and more decrepit. You can recover this Humanity in a number of different ways depending on the game in the series, but the implications that come from this state of things are incredibly fascinating – it means that in the setting of Dark Souls Humanity is not something we inherently have, it’s something added to us, to our characters, the “real” state of a human being is, well, a hollow.
This Humanity also has properties in the game’s world, it’s tied closely to what the game names The Dark or The Abyss, a mysterious “place” where fire does not burn. This Humanity is neither evil nor good, but it is spelled out as voracious, as willful. And in a masterful twist – we prove that concept as true, by playing the game. See, hollows devoid of humanity are mindless creatures, little more than zombies, shambling around from place to place, attacking everything that lives. This includes you, but because of what has been added to you, because of your humanity, the humanity YOU the player grant your character, you can keep going. You can break the confines of the Curse and continue for as long as you have the willpower to do so. At any point you can just put away the controller. And if you do… You went hollow. Your character can no longer continue the journey, not without the will to go on. But you can return at any point and continue your journey.
There are more ways than that, there’s for example, the fact that one of your character’s statistics is spelled out as Faith and increasing your Faith will make you more effective with Miracle spells and will make you deal more damage with Holy weapons… But will also at the same time, make you more effective with Curses and Dark weapons, hinting at the dual nature of Faith. Like Humanity, by itself it merely means power, it’s how you use it that dictates what happens.
There’s more still than that, but I think I got my point across- this kind of presentation is why I consider Dark Soul’s narrative to be masterfully crafted, not because it’s gripping or entertaining but because it is all expressed by the mechanics of the game itself, it’s not separate from it, it IS it. And it goes beyond simply being a story in an alternate setting, it breaks the 4th wall and delivers a message that is pertinent to us here, in the real world.
That was a mouthful, wasn’t it?
So that’s it, those are the reasons for what made me personally fall in love with this series of games and what makes me want to sink into Dark Souls I again. I will be sure to give the game as much time as it deserves this time around and enjoys every aspect of it as I outlined. To rekindle the love I have for this series, to remind myself of what makes it so great is exhilarating. It feels… So grossly incandescent!