Put ten game designers in a room together and there's a pretty good chance someone will bring up Dark Souls.
Lots of people like From Software's Souls games, but few love them in quite the same way as the people who actually make video games. With the recent release of the studio's terrific horror opus Bloodborne, the video game community has once again been talking about how From's games work, and just what it is that makes them so appealing.
I've long been fascinated by this discussion. I've loved some of the previous articles we've published on the matter, particularly Leigh Alexander's "In Praise of Hard Games" and Chris Dahlen's beautiful tribute to one of Dark Souls' best levels. Now that I've fully caught Souls fever myself, I want to talk with people about the games more than ever.
A couple weeks back, I put a call out on Twitter: Would any game developers, designers or otherwise, want to talk to me about Souls games? What do they like? What don't they like? Why do they think game creators are always talking about these games?
I heard back from a bunch of people, and emailed with about a dozen game developers for this article. Full disclosure: I've probably tweeted friendly things at a few of them at some point in the last four years; I'd guess they are probably all cool people and appreciate that they took the time to respond to my questions. I've made some minor edits for typos, length and clarity.
Souls Games Don't Tell You What To Do
"At their best, Souls games do away with lore dumps and learning about the world becomes an ongoing conversation between you and the game," says Scott Benson, co-creator of Night In The Woods. "You skim along the surface of this giant lake and see how deep the water is as you go. No maps, no codex, no endless books of lore scattered all over the world. You poke a little, it gives a little."
"You're set loose in them to do as you like," says Katelyn Gadd, programmer on Escape Goat 2 and Grim Fandango Remastered. "Exploration is unguided and you're permitted to fight bosses at your discretion, with light guidance from story. I love the atmosphere this creates, and it's satisfying to feel like I defeated the game without a helping hand."
"The Souls games are sometimes praised for their supposed indifference or disregard for the player," says Greg Kasavin, writer and designer at Supergiant Games, makers of Transistor and Bastion. "On the contrary, the main reason I love them is because of how much faith they have in me. If only everyone I'd ever met believed in me as much as this!"
You Can Miss Huge Chunks Of The Game
Ghost Song developer Matt White talks about what he calls The Ash Lake Moment. "I was exploring the ground level of Blighttown (and getting there was quite a hellish time, being my first playthrough and my first Souls game) and ended up exploring a hollowed out tree off in the corner. Inside is a chest. Behind the chest was a hidden wall, which lead down a vast hollowed out tree that just kept going deeper and deeper. Eventually leading to Ash Lake.
"Discoveries like this are not possible in most games," he continues. "Most games make sure you see all of their worthwhile content."
"To make a world seem alive and gripping you have to have the possibility that the player may miss things, big and small," says Night In The Woods' Benson. "So many games desperately want you to see everything in them, and that's fine, but I feel it does a disservice to the experience of exploring a world. The Souls games will let you walk past half of the world, or wander into the darkest places with little warning. That's a world that feels alive. You can miss so much and that means that finding something — be it a clue about the world, the odd NPC off doing their own thing, a strange little area — means something. It's beautiful."
They Promote Community
One of my own favourite things about getting into Souls games has been discovering the thriving community that exists for each one. Players unite online to help one another plumb the games' depths and solve its deepest mysteries. Jordan Pailthorpe, a Producer for the Engagement Lab at Emerson College, agrees.
"Dark Souls isn't didactic in its design," Pailthorpe says. "It clearly has ideal paths and playthroughs, but it expects you to find them and learn how to master them. It effectively creates a discourse community and brings others together to figure out how to parse its systems.
"I think there is a disconnect between why there is a fervent community of people who like the Souls series and how they are represented collectively," he continues. "Sure, there are those who identify as 'hardcore gamers' and feel Dark Souls validates their misguided elitist perspective, but I think that's a very minor group. I think the majority who appreciate these games do so because it forces people to talk to each other. The game intentionally creates a viral moment of interest where everyone is trying to parse the game together, to uncover mechanical secrets and share strategies for progressing that would be incredibly difficult to do alone."
They're Full Of Memorable Moments
"I think the part where you inevitably are killed in the tutorial of these games is really what says it all about them," says Supergiant's Kasavin. "You get confronted with some massive monstrosity that looks like it will annihilate you in one hit. This in and of itself is not strange for a video game, but the difference is in God of War when that thing hits you it will shave off a sliver of your health, but in Demon's Souls it kills you dead, just like you expected it ought to, but didn't dare think it really would."
"In DS1 there's a chunk early on when a slime drops off the ceiling, lands on your head, and instantly devours you," says Massive Chalice project lead Brad Muir. "It's shocking, unexpected, ridiculous, and completely unfair. In a world of modern game design where there's a ton of "smoothing off" of rough edges like this one through focus testing it's just really refreshing to have a game punch you in the mouth like this."
"The boss battle with Sif is one of the most powerful experiences I've had in a video game," says Escape Goat 2's Gadd. "The point where you realise that you're the aggressor & the intruder, you just want to let her live but you can't. She whimpers and limps as you chip away at her health, but pity is worthless because the game's mechanics do not permit mercy."
"The Storm King from Demon's Souls summarises the loop of the series in a single concise encounter," says Alex Gold, writer and designer of Dark Scavenger. "When the battle begins, you are overwhelmed and underpowered, scrambling to stay alive while your presence poses a minimal threat. Through your own exploration, however, you discover a new strength (in this case, the Stormruler) which allows you to overcome your once indomitable foes. When the final fiend has fallen, you walk away with an unparalleled sense of satisfaction."
"The single experience which best sums up the Souls games for me is when I first encountered Yurt the Silent Chief in Demon's Souls," says Chad Taylor, lead graphics programer at Guild Wars 2 studio ArenaNet. "I found him in a cage hanging deep in the bowls of the Tower of Latria, clad head to foot in the most sadistic looking plate armour you can imagine. He tells me he is on my side and asks me to free him. For some reason I decided that this was a solid plan and chose to let him out. I was half expecting him to attack me as soon I opened the cage, but he didn't and I breathed a sigh of relief when he thanked me. Then off I went on my merry way, completely forgetting about him. But this is Demon's Souls, and I shouldn't have been so stupid.
"Many hours into the game, and to my utter horror, I start finding dead NPCs in the Nexus," he continues. "At first I didn't think anything of it because they weren't characters that provide any meaningful function within the game. Why should it matter? Then characters that did matter started to die and, unlike the player, when an NPC dies they are permanently dead from the game. In a minor panic I turned the game off. You can't pause or reload and I was afraid of more dead characters. After some quick Googling I find that that bastard Yurt, whom I had entirely forgotten about, was sneaking about murdering everybody in the Nexus. From this point it was pretty easy to find him and put an end to his rampage, but the lesson stuck with me: If you let a sadistic looking death machine out of a cage, don't be surprised when he sadistically murders everybody."
Souls Games Can Inspire Envy
"Devs often bounce half-serious ideas off each other for bizarre or cruel things to put into a game over lunch, mostly for amusement," says Escape Goat 2's Gadd. "The Souls series is filled with these ideas that would otherwise be discarded."
Massive Chalice's Muir says that "there's hardly any tutorialisation in the Souls games. Developers kind of hate putting complicated tutorials in their games and it's nice to see a complex game succeed without them."
"I think game makers generally like taking systems apart, and looking at their interlocking elements," says Brandon Sheffield, director of Necrosoft Games. "Souls games have a lot of micro decisions (use this potion now, save it for later; carry all this money around, or head back now) that appeal to the simplest idea of risk/reward. And game devs sure do love thinking about and talking about that!"
I asked everyone I emailed with for some about things they didn't like about the Souls games, and got some interesting responses. To begin with…
It's Not Cheating If The Game Is Hard (?)
"The difficulty of the games can be a bit daunting and I think that this leads to some weird AI or scenario cheesing" says Muir. "Things that feel like bugs end up becoming community-sanctioned methods of proceeding through the game. That's weird to me!
"The giant rat in DS1 is a great example of this," he continues. "It's tough to fight it fairly, but if you squeeze yourself into an alley you can attack it without retaliation. This isn't 'fun' in a traditional sense but I think that some people mistake it for fun. The game is so hard that when you cheese the enemies it can make you feel clever, but I'm pretty sure you could lower the overall difficulty a bit and remove these weird cheesy parts and you'd have a better experience!"
Everyone's "Supposed" To Like Them
"There's this huge feedback loop where everyone is 'supposed' to like this series," says Necrosoft's Sheffield, "so they find reasons to. I get so many people on Twitter telling me 'you'd like this game,' even though it's really not my thing! I'm supposed to like it because the zeitgeist says so!"
"I dislike how constantly and consistently a new Souls game dominates all conversation for months after it comes out," says Tanya Short, the design lead at Kitfox Games currently working on Moon Hunters. "On Twitter I can just kinda ignore it, but in person, at lunch, at social occasions... it doesn't stop! Most of my colleagues don't find the time to play any other games, or if they do, their heart just isn't in it in the same way. As soon as you start talking about level design, game design, system design, marketing — designers are just obsessed! [Souls games are] definitely over-represented as an influence, in my opinion, even adjusting for general popularity or quality."
There Are Lots Of Technical Issues
"Historically, technology has undermined every Souls game," says Gadd. "Every one of them has had framerate & graphics quality issues. Bloodborne's long load times & confusing AI/network bugs just add to this.
"I guess you could call this the 'trademark From gamefeel,' though," she notes, jokingly.
"In games where skill is so essential to success and the margin of error is so small, it is absolutely infuriating when death only occurs because technology got in the way," says ArenaNet's Taylor. "Whether it be loosely defined geometry on a pile of rocks, an animation bug, or the camera doing all the wrong things, these things happen and they make the otherwise well-designed and tight design of the games feel muddy."
"Sometimes their ambition of their boss designs seems to overreach their animation system," says Short, "and it bothers me how beautiful the game is while the giant and especially quadruped characters spin on their heel weightlessly like an MMO entity. Breaks my immersion a bit, but again, mostly because everything else is so lovingly detailed and intentional. I understand why it's 'necessary' given all of their other constraints, but I can't help thinking of how something like Shadow of the Colossus reached outside the box to solve that problem. So I'd be curious to see what [director] Miyazaki and his team would do, if they actually decided to tackle a world that felt like things moved more according to physics."
The Combat is Great... Or Maybe Not
Supergiant's Kasavin is a fan of the Souls games' combat, calling it a "precise and nuanced" system. "Fighting games and role-playing games are my two all-time favourite game genres," he says, "and I think Souls is easily one of the most successful and interesting combinations of the two that I've ever played."
Necrosoft's Sheffield feels differently. "The Souls games require precision while feeling sloppy in terms of inputs, to me," he says. "I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this, but I feel like I'm swinging a sword underwater when I play a souls game, and I like my action snappy.
"I primarily dislike the lack of immediacy and tactile feel to the attacks," he continues. "For me, combining a slow attack with a lot of animation ramp-up, with gotcha moments and monster closets cheapens my experience. The game doesn't make it enjoyable for me to learn these timings or patterns, the way I might feel with something like Gunstar Heroes, where weapons have different shapes and properties, but give you so much feedback and friction that they're interesting to learn."
Of all of the things the people I emailed with said about the games, almost all of them agreed on a single point:
Souls Games Don't Compromise
Game development, like any ambitious creative enterprise, often requires a great deal of compromise. It's exceptionally rare that a game won't need to be changed in some small or large way that deviates from its creators' original vision. Many of the developers I spoke with mentioned their admiration for how uncompromising the Souls games feel.
"So many modern games aren't the way they are because the designers were passionate about making them that way," says Ghost Song's White. "Most games with big budgets are mandated to be very careful to not risk offending anyone, and make their game playable by as many people as possible. When doing that, though, when taking away everything that might offend someone, you end up with a very tame, and, in my opinion, boring end result."
"[Souls games are] clearly driven with a very, very clear and unapologetic vision of a specific player experience," says Kitfox's Short. "It is such a beautiful poem to a specific niche audience, you almost don't see that anymore — most executives run the numbers and realise that alienating the mainstream is just too big of a risk. So Demon's Souls was really paradigm-shifting, and continues to be one of the highest-quality examples of a certain kind of rare player experience — skill-based, emotive, evocative, demanding. All things that are not really associated with high production values. Very cool and fresh, for developers in general, but especially designers, who often feel they have to compromise and curb their design in order to cater to a wider audience."
"I think the Souls games are very brave," says Kasavin, "and give the impression that they were crafted with confidence and uncompromising vision, with a great deal of respect for the player's capacity for mastery of complex systems. The Souls games fly in the face of the common wisdom that accessibility is key to a blockbuster game. Instead, they are evidence that depth is more important in games than all else.
"I think for many game designers this is just an intoxicating combination," he concludes. "We don't just love the end result, we love what we think must have been the thought process that could have resulted in games likes this being made at all. Games created with courage and conviction are easier to admire than games that give the impression they were built because of trends."