A personal insight on what makes Dark Souls special

I’ve been thinking a lot about video games, as usual perhaps. What’s weird is that whenever I come to a conclusion that there’s something about video games that are or would be really interesting and make me go “Now that’s what video games are capable of”, my mind eventually links it back to Dark Souls, without it being the origin of my thinking, and how I believe that Dark Souls has made some contribution in bringing video games towards something more than what they’ve been doing in the last couple decades.

One of the things Dark Souls does so right to me, under the perspective of a work of art, is that it delivers the emotional impact in a very direct and genuine way. It engages excitement, bewilderment, surprise, coldness, loneliness, inferiority, and perhaps especially, fear. Everything that you hope to be immersed in when playing video games. And the impact is delivered through a very … pure and straightforward way, in that there is no “character” acting as an expressive medium that attempts to make you feel what they feel. Everything in Dark Souls contributes towards delivering the feeling that you are nothing special in the universe. You are a nobody, who, in Dark Souls 1, is no more than a mere pawn manipulated by the Gods, and in Dark Souls 2, a random, unnamed Hollow seeking to reverse the curse of the Hollow. Thus, the impact of those emotions are delivered to you in what I think is the purest form of emotional communication. I’m not saying Dark Souls is the only game that has ever done this, but it is something I really appreciate and think there should be more of.

And then, because of such, there is the strong sense of coldness and loneliness in Dark Souls. Sceneries (including both visuals and sounds), while are spectacular, gorgeous, sometimes realistically disturbing, all have a common mood that basically says “Everything in this world was born beautiful. And they weren’t born to serve you a feast. In this world, you are an ugly creature that belongs to nothing.” Similarly, enemies in Dark Souls, at least from what I remember, never utter even half a word. If you’re seen by an enemy, then you are to be killed. No mercy. No questions asked. In many other games, you’d expect an epic fight in which the protagonist and the villain exchange witty one-liners while battling to the death. None of that here in Dark Souls. Nothing but killing. The brutality cloaked by the coldness, makes for a terrifying, and at the same time, immensely exhilarating experience. That’s not something I’ve seen many other games do. While I could be missing out and wrong, that is something about Dark Souls and video games in general that I treasure a lot. I wish more of them would be mean to me like that, instead of catering to my every need and want (or maybe I’m just a masochist). This is something my friend moon/NewBlack, who surprisingly has yet to play the games, realized before me, so mad props to him for that.

Unlike many other games, narrative in Dark Souls is a different deal. Remember that while cut-scenes are the traditionally useful device for storytelling in many things, there is also undoubtedly the fact that every second you spend on watching a cutscene, is a second you are away from the trademarked interactivity of video games. While in other games, everything in the world is open and welcoming in the sense that they’re almost always ready to tell you something about themselves and the world, Dark Souls lets the story unfold itself around you, as you immerse yourself in the play itself. Games are a fundamentally different medium compared to literature or movies, and I think Dark Souls takes good advantage of such difference. The story in Dark Souls is rich, not because it is told in lengthy reads and conversations, but because it is unfolded sporadically through the structure of the world, and most interestingly, through the description of the very wide range of different items you find throughout your journey. I daresay, 95% of Dark Souls’ story is told through your own interpretation. There are dialogue and cut-scenes for sure, although they’re very very few and occasional. But they are the thinnest slice of traditional narrative that you can ever find in video games so far, and you’re never away from the actual play itself for long. I am actually still in the process of cracking the mysterious lore of Lordran and Drangleic myself through pieces of information gathered from many relevant sources, and I find this process very similar to the process of discovery, very joyful and satiating. This, I think, is a storytelling device that nothing other than video games can do.

This post was taken and reposted from my Tumblr blog.


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for me, Dark Souls made me think less of what they did than what they could have done with the same component parts. the environmental storytelling was largely wasted on establishing the basics of the setting, with most of the interesting elements that made it stand apart from typical medieval fantasy only glossed over or hinted at -- what was the deal with the primordial serpents? if humanity itself is a literal substance inherently corrosive to the world around it, what does that even mean, and why is the primordial state of the world something I might be convinced to restore? where the hell is the Furtive Pygmy? the game purports to answer a few of these in a well-hidden text dump, but that's not only a disappointing way to resolve them, the speaker is also almost certainly lying. a liar giving easy answers would be an excellent method, but only if the real answers were somewhere else to be found, or at least implied -- instead, Kaathe's word is unopposed, with little else to go on if you don't choose to believe him.

Dark Souls 2 did a poorer job of that than the first, too, and never addressed any of the mysteries left behind. buoyed up on the success of the first, they brought in a whole lot of interference to bring it more in line with what they thought people liked about the 'brand', with a lot of blatant nods, reused level design principles, and ridiculous cameos.

but the core principles, of a game that tells you about where you are only in brief and untrustworthy pieces, kind of struck me, and I think it's something worth remembering now that I'm finally maybe getting into a position where I can move forward with things.

(and for the record, the IWBTG comparison is too 'easy' to be true. there are a number of shameful and disappointing spots where the level and encounter designers went 'well, we're making a hard game, right?' and sprung things on the player without warning, but the basic flow of Dark Souls is ruled by internal consistency. new hazards, enemies, and strategies are (unreliably) telegraphed, and the game goes out of its way to reward slower, more investigative playstyles. the end result is something that will still at a few key points present a blatantly unfair challenge and leave you with no alternative strategies (the bottleneck in Anor Londo being the most famous), but on the occasions where they succeed what they set out to do the underlying philosophy is hugely different from IWBTG, which just throws thing at you at random and expects you to memorize them. at its best, Dark Souls will establish rules and teach you to anticipate hazards. it's hardly ever at its best, but the foundation is there. if it weren't paired with a few arbitrary mechanics meant to make failure more punishing, I feel like it would flow much better.)

(basically, Dark Souls has many indefensible parts, but its problems are (mostly) totally separate from IWBTG's problems. we can't try and mix the two together just on the basis that there are a lot of nerds beating their chests about how good they are at hard video games in both cases.)

e: really, though, you can often learn more from a flawed game than a very good one. copying things wholesale isn't a great practice, so starting out with an idea of what you would do differently is excellent. I think this is about half of what I find so interesting about the series -- it's got problems, but they're not the same banal problems that the bulk of the market has right now. they're cool problems, and problems I can think about.
For once in a long while, I'm actually kinda disappointed in RMN; RPG Maker Web handled this same discussion in a far more in depth and overall better manner, even when they disagreed with the article itself. Mad props to mawk in particular for his smart and thoughtful answer.
Your mom is a hero
author=Feldschlacht IV
For once in a long while, I'm actually kinda disappointed in RMN; RPG Maker Web handled this same discussion in a far more in depth and overall better manner, even when they disagreed with the article itself. Mad props to mawk in particular for his smart and thoughtful answer.
Truthfully, I find it hard to relate to anything in this article because I haven't played a new(er) RPG in years... maybe even a decade. So I glibly mentioned the RPG that changed my view on videogames. It was the honest truth. I didn't go into any detail though.
I wish Demons' Souls was a multi-platform release, despite appearing to play similarly it also is structured differently? The Dark Souls games are more open world(?) titles with bonfires as save points, whereas Demons' Souls is a level-by-level kind of design, with no checkpoints or saves in any of the levels - yeah apparently you only get to save once you finish the level.

I'm broke so I own neither a current nor last gen console nor do I a computer that, according to the website Can You Run It?, tells me I can't run fuggin' Shovel Knight, let alone either of the Dark Souls games. So I can't provide comment on these except from what I've seen - that is, speed runs of Demons' Souls and of Dark Souls.

The impression I got of these games is like survival horror placed in a medieval fantasy/swords-and-sorcery setting. Well, the "survival" part fits well at least. But some of the settings and enemies, not to mention what the hell is going on here, why is everything so fucked up here and why is everyone trying to kill me and doing a good job at it kinds of impressions I've gotten are what intrigue me the most, and fit the "horror" mold well. Some of the boss/demon designs are pretty awesome too, the weirder/freakier the better. Like in Demons' Souls the "monk" with the giant bell for a head (which in looking it up it is called "Old Monk" and it is some weird head garb it is actually wearing - huh). And a level that started in some decrepit prison-like place with people in cells retching and manic, and eventually you get to a... giant heart, or something? I also liked that one giant, majestic city I saw in the run of Dark Souls that was beautiful but abandoned. Kind of eerie. And there's a part where a couple of giant stone statues suddenly come to life.

So according to what I'm reading in here there IS actual story to these games. Of course when speed running you want to skip cutscenes and such whenever possible to improve the run but they gave a vibe that there was no real story or "plot" of sorts other than that you're trying to dodge archers, demon knights and shit, trying to stay alive while making sure nothing around you does if possible. In a way it'd be cooler to me if it just did that - no cutscenes, zero set-up whatsoever, once you hit start and make a character you're just dumped off in the middle of nowhere and don't know what to do except kill demons apparently because the world has ended, probably due to some kind of hellmouth or the Rapture or whatever, and that's all there is to do. But I'm reading there are actual characters and stuff. That's disappointing. :( Well, not really (but sort of).

This is something that could describe almost every game from the olden days, you're dumped somewhere and don't know what to do except... do. The very first Zelda or Metroid for instance. There'd probably be stories or outlines of sorts in the booklets but otherwise you wouldn't know. And a bunch of ancient CRPGs that were basically just "explore the cave! Kill monsters! Find treasure! Don't die! Though probably 85% of your time playing the game will be just that last part!" That kind of mentality in game design or world building has sort of disappeared. I don't know if you're saying that Dark Souls recreates this feeling (which if it has cutscenes, it must at least have an introductory one I imagine, so I'm guessing... close, but not quite?) or not, but that's a sense I see you're going with your writing there. That you think it drives forward gaming, could it be in the sense of making something new by looking into the past (I think there's a saying that goes something along those lines, but I don't remember it)?

There were a lot of old games with fascinating ideas that either don't hold up well today, never lived up to its ideas to begin with, or simply could potentially be improved upon today. Sort of like what mawk was talking about, I guess, cool-but-not-all-there ideas that could use a modern update or be served better justice by a more talented team (whether this applies to Dark Souls or not I couldn't say). Really, and I mean really taking a solid inspection of some of these great, old ideas long left behind and seeing how you can enmesh them within the entire framework of a game with perhaps a modern look and some modern design principles is something that I like to see game developers try to do, particularly if they do them well. That is the biggest thing that I think I'm taking from your article, as though Dark Souls is a return to the kind of mentality as found in games like the original Legend of Zelda, dropped into this forest setting immediately upon starting, alone, able to go anywhere, everything trying to kill you and having no idea what you're doing or where you're going except by gradually working things out by yourself, practicing, trial and error (or a walkthrough if all else fails), refreshed, brought back to the modern era like no other game nowadays has. After all even most of the open-world/sandbox games give you a story and clear objectives to follow, like a GTA game or Skyrim. Unless I'm mistaken which I could be. Still, I'd love to see a game like that (I have a hard time getting into the first Zelda - the first Metroid I like better but that one is also not easy for me to get into - I love these ideas I'm talking about found in them though, and a game that takes those and molds them into something that I'd... like, somehow, I guess, would be pretty cool).

A personal example of the above, a game with great ideas that could be better executed (though in this case it's probably more like great ideas greatly executed with one important thing badly executed that makes it hard to appreciate those greatly executed great ideas) for me would be Cocoron (hidden because this is a long, rambly aside that distracts from the discussion - yes it is related to the above paragraph but takes up too much space for comfort),
a cute, colorful action/platformer for the Famicom that plays kind of like Mega Man, only released in Japan (but it's been translated to English you can patch it with). It did almost everything right. So much going for it. Great, colorful art design, one of the best gaming soundtracks for the Famicom/NES (in fact one of its tracks was used for the beginning levels of Eversion - I think even the Steam version still uses it - I don't know how they'd manage to legally clear that), great world setting, cool bosses, that kind of wistful, childlike dreamy atmosphere of games like Kirby's Adventure. It even has a Shyamalan twist ending! No, really! Well, it is a twist ending in any case. and, the best part - its character creation system. It's not an RPG, but it shares some basic principles of RPGs based on character creation. You choose a head, then a body, then a weapon. Sounds cool, if mundane enough, but it's the KIND of heads, bodies and weapons you can choose. Cute varieties of ninja, aliens, monsters, robots, and even a clown! For the body you can get a normal bipedal body, maybe one with a jetpack or go hell with it and get some wheels. Or maybe you want to float above water so get a hovercraft. Then you get to choose your weapon, which include standard fare like shurikens and boomerangs, but in addition there's stuff like, yep, flowers, parasols, baseballs, pencils and music notes, all of which have different firing trajectories, strengths, weaknesses, etc. A game where you at last can be a hoverboat clown that shoots pencils! And during the game you can collect upgrades to power up your weapon, not just to do more damage, but fire differently too, like where as before, a weapon might fire in one direction, with all upgrades it'll fire on both sides of you and upwards. Oh, also what body/head you choose affects some basic stats of yours too. Namely, weight and health. The heavier the character, generally the more powerful with the more health, but the worst at platforming. Lighter weight characters can move across these more easily but take more damage. And that's not to mention the different abilities certain bodies have, like the boat and jetpack as I mentioned. So it is like a mini-RPG in a way without trying to be. This should be like the best game ever made!

So what's the problem then? The level design. Not the art design of the levels, but the ways they are actually constructed. They are some of the most unfortunate I've seen and rely on a gimmick that frankly doesn't work very well at all and just makes things confusing. Every level relies so heavily on either copy-paste, copy-paste, copy-paste, or just doesn't do much of anything at all. And the gimmick? Once you clear a level and select a different one (you can choose any level you want in any order a la another way it is like Mega Man), you will still be in the level you were just in, a version of it anyway, and backtrack. Half the level will be the level you were just in, which then transitions to the level you selected for the last half. An interesting idea badly executed. Chopping levels in half and gluing them together and doing this ad infinitum assuming you're going to be moving around the map repeatedly, is not how to do this. Maybe if the level designs themselves were better maybe it would turn out better but as it is... nah. Only the final levels leading up to last boss are in any way interesting but it's too little, too late. So unfortunate.

Back to the article... so, having not played Dark Souls, as I've said, I'm not really one to get an in-depth impression out of this to be able to chime my own thoughts back, at least not on the game in particular, more the substance of what you're trying to get at. If I have a major criticism of this piece, to be honest this is a very subjective piece of writing. Of course every opinion is subjective but I feel it needs to go more into specifics. All my rambling above is simply an interpretation that I found interesting that may not even be what you're getting across. A lot of what you describe are things that one arguably could use for a bunch of other games, only replace the title with something else. It seems more about the emotions it brought forth to you. A lot of your descriptions, mainly in the second paragraph, do provide interesting thought fodder, but I would say in a review like this that makes it out to be either your favorite or one of your favorite games of all time, especially when written as an article, more deconstruction, dissection is needed.

This is probably the most difficult thing, admittedly, for me, for a lot of people, is truly describing why what they see as the best of its kind is the best of its kind. We get wrapped up in whatever intangible something this thing has that touches us so deeply that sometimes all we're able to do to describe it is to go with generic descriptions of things it does a lot of other things also do, only followed with "awesome!" or "amazing!" or "scrumtrulescentsauce!" Nooope we have to break it open, set aside the basic parts, well-crafted parts, but nevertheless basic, that make it up, for one goal and one goal only: searching for that intangible something like the pesky little boson that it is, catching it and finally be able to examine it, understand it and showcase it to the world, or at least the people you keep company with. I've tried before myself. It's hard, and I feel in most cases it's almost impossible to be remotely convincing without going into poetics so waxing it'd produce enough material for a spa to provide a year's worth of Brazilians (OK maybe that was a crude metaphor, my apologies). That's why when I've reviewed stuff on other websites it's rarely my favorites. A lot of almost-favorites, but just few absolute favorites. It's as though if I were to review the things that I revere truly above all things I'd somehow taint them, normalize them even. Just by writing my own thoughts out I'd be ruining their essence. Of course this is unfounded and ridiculous but maybe unconsciously I don't know it yet and so it still sticks in the back of my head in some fashion.

Wait, where was I going with all this anyway? I seemed to have trailed off in a lot of different directions here. Well the teal-deer end of it (TL;DR - geddit, GEDDIT, HAHahA - ok sorry just wanted to clarify that - bit of wordplay, I hear they call it? Im probably not even the first person to use that that was dumb) is that I enjoyed the read, the passions and enthusiasm the game brought forth from you is tangible, and gave me an excuse to ramble on what makes these Souls games so interesting to me without having played them, which only makes them more interesting to me, and also frustrating that I can't play them ): And it also, intentionally or not, brought up some interesting points about the game that I can't clarify without playing the game in full for myself, and something that we can relate to the gaming industry, hell, gaming development and its history as a whole. At the same time, as an article it should be more... detailed, perhaps. Like, we can start with games that you think attempted this sort of thing but maybe failed, and why this one succeeds. You, being a game designer I can see, how does it affect you from that perspective. What game design principles impress/influence you in particular? OK think of it like this: everyone has a favorite thing, including creative types. These creative types take influence from their favorite thing and follow their example so closely, but it either ends up not as good or maybe just plain badly. Why is that? What is it they're overlooking? What do they need to further understand about their favorite something? That's a good place to start. (so to keep this an much of a "teal deer" as possible for someone who overwrites as much as I do I'm hiding the rest of this, but read it if you want, it's about my experience with the game System Shock 2):
Like, one of my favorite games of all time is System Shock 2. It is wonderful for many things. The ones that stand out the most of course include the character-building system and how much thought you have to put into it, and the horror atmosphere, but that's obviously not all of it. I've finished the game four times, I'm still thinking about it. It's the subtleties that you take for granted but taken away you don't know it til they're gone. The way the character moves for instance. It has a slight slow, clunkiness to it, unless you started off boosting your agility, moving around, and dodging attacks will be harder on you. Put some points into AGI and watch them tap-dancin' shoes a-go go go! After many years of SS2 gaining a cult following heaping praises upon it, and rightfully so, when Ken Levine got the opportunity to lead the creation of another game, he made what people said was basically System Shock 2 but underwater, in the early 20th century with a man reciting Ayn Rand quotes from a speaker system. Haven't played it myself, so... dunno. Even then, the same kind of game but a different, more imaginative setting, great, right? Well it was certainly popular enough. Though some SS2 fans were disappointed with aspects of it. The lack of difficulty has been said to be one problem. I don't know the rest. But basically, the consensus among SS2 fans seems to be, whether Bioshock is a good game or not, it lacks the challenge and complexity that makes SS2 so appealing. Did Ken Levine intentionally nerf the game? Or did he somehow miss these elements while copying everything else? I don't know, I can't read his mind, and again, ANOTHER GAME I HAVE NOT PLAYED AGGHH. But I'd say it goes to show, people who want to repeat past successes (not that SS2 was a financial success, but in that hardly matters in the grand scheme of things, but then again that's not something I'd tell to the faces of the people who suffer these kinds of setbacks) often fail to do so, because they cannot see what it is that made these successes as good as they were. This probably doesn't apply to the Shock titles at all, since they are doing well, financially and critically and Levine seems happy with his creations so far. But there are plenty of others who are far from that. So, something we all should do - try to look through the surface, see the elegant machine moving, and observe how it operates so gracefully. It's easy enough to pick apart bad games, somehow we can sense what is bad about something more easily than what is good about something, but favorite games, let alone ones that change how you view the medium in general, needs more detail for us to be able to sort through. You may end up feeling the clinician at times, but it's only because you actually care, which is what is as important as anything.

I am feeling very tired right now.
I believe that Dark Souls's storytelling is AMAZING, and the hidden lore and narrative is EXTREMELY interesting, and incredibly smart and clever. Finding that little sad note about the boss you killed adds depth and meaning to the world and everything. I loved every minute of this game. Storytelling in it is very smart.

As for difficulty, it's really not hard or as punishing as you think. Sure, you die plenty, maybe. But the game made it not frustratingly grating at all. It's a fun challenge, and this game is successful in having great difficulty without handholding, but it is so very possible to figure out what you have to do yourself, and it becomes perfectly reasonable.

I don't usually deeply disagree with what I see on here, honestly understanding most negative opinions, but most of the negative criticism with this game I just don't buy at all or even believe is a true understanding of what's going on with dark souls. That said, everyone has a right and opinion of there of own, of course. I just find this discussion to bother me deeply, except for the reasonable, smart discussion of course. While I dislike incredibly difficult things, this game is reasonable believe it or not, and the storytelling is genius. I'm sorry for anyone who doesn't see that, but what can you do? If you ever want to make a game clearly to prove what's wrong with Dark Souls, go ahead. But don't tell anyone to "not buy it" unless it's truly broken, because this game isn't and you think it is because of your understanding of what's going on. In the same way, I'm just going to tell someone to think about it, not necessarily to go straight to buying it first, but see what you think or something.

I don't know, that's how I felt about this topic :)
Yeah, I pretty much beat Dark Souls.
At least I got past the second boss.
Cause my computer can only run it at 10 FPS and about a third of the real speed.
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