With the release of the first Dark Souls 3 DLC just around the corner I thought it might be a good time to take a look back and really try to get to the bottom of what it is we love about the Dark Souls series.
Fromsoftware have achieved something truly special. The Souls games (including Bloodborne) are among the best of the last two generations of gaming. From Demon’s Souls all the way through to Dark Souls 3 Fromsoft have enjoyed cult, critical and commercial success. And with the release of games such as Lords of the Fallen, Salt and Sanctuary and Nioh (coming February next year) we are seeing the emergence of an entirely new genre, the “Souls Like”. But what is it about these games that we find so appealing?
It could be the challenge they offer. Fromsoft games are notorious for having both a steep learning curve and high overall level of difficulty, but what they are not is punishingly difficult. Each game has a clearly defined set of rules that are never broken, allowing players to properly analyze the problems they are faced with. This prevents the tedium that comes with a trial and error approach. You can learn to understand these systems and become more skilled as a result. The game isn’t totally reliant on twitch mechanics and superhuman reflexes which provides a much deeper experience.
One of my favourite examples of this is near the beginning of Dark Souls 1. Just before a tough fight against an armoured boar you can find some “Alluring Skulls” which attract enemies when thrown on the ground. This early in the game, the boar can be a real challenge in a straight fight, however an observant player will notice the fires around the edges of the combat space and think back to a previous encounter with a dragon which burned a group of undead warriors to death. By carefully considering what the game has shown them up to this point the player can solve the problem more efficiently. There are other ways to win the fight but throwing one of the skulls into a fire will always result in one dead boar. All the player has to do is observe and understand the rules of the game. This is the difference between a Souls game and something like “Battletoads” where the player has no way to dynamically work around the problems they are faced with, resulting in a far less engaging experience.
Another reason for the popularity of the Dark Souls games is their unique method of storytelling. Games are not films and while cutscenes can be enjoyable, they are not always the best way for a game to convey its narrative. The Souls games take a very different approach. Rather than through traditional cutscenes, the story is revealed through the mechanics, the world and item descriptions (which some may find a bit much). This kind of narrative design is a much better fit for gaming than cutscenes ever will be. They don’t interrupt game flow and allow players to be as involved in the story as they want to be. If you really aren’t interested you don’t have to wade through exposition in order to enjoy the gameplay. These techniques have actually been used in several other games, such as Portal, Bioshock and Journey.
I’ll use another quick example from Bloodborne to illustrate my point. Lining the streets of Yharnham are coffins. A huge number of coffins. Many player may ignore, or simply miss them all together, but a player who is interested enough in the story might take a closer look. Upon closer inspection you realise that the coffins are actually chained shut. This creates so many questions, making the player more curious about the story and wanting to learn more. By allowing these kinds of moments to occur naturally Bloodborne is playing upon our natural desire to know “why?” and making us all the more curios about whats going on.
But what really sets Souls apart (at least for me) is the sense of real discovery and achievement. Knowing that you have been carefully directed down a predetermined path kills any sense of exploration and Fromsoft are keenly aware of this. They have never been worried about people missing bits of their games and understand that finding or doing something that feels unique to you is an incredible feeling. The games don’t bend over backwards to make sure everyone has the same experience. They reward people who are actually willing to put in a bit of effort. And these days there aren’t a lot of games that do that.
There are of course other reasons these games have enjoyed such success. The Multiplayer and PvP content, the lore itself, the impeccable combat. But to me those are just icing on the cake. At their core the Souls game are about rewarding the effort that you as a player, put in to them. There’s nothing else quite like it. So if you’ve ever dismissed the Souls games as an exercise in patience, or a masochists paradise then maybe give them another chance. You might find yourself enjoying them a lot more than you thought you would.
So there you go. That’s why I think Fromsoftware have achieved such success, by making challenging, confident games that don’t dumb themselves down for broader appeal. Lets hope we see more great games in the future, both Souls and “Souls-Like”.