The Video Games That Come Full Circle

I remember the precise moment when I fell in love with Dark Souls.

Prior to this moment I was enjoying the game. I was engaged. Trundling through the world with my shield held high, encountering increasingly difficult enemies, adjusting. Dying. In the process of understanding why Dark Souls was so intoxicating.

I was desperate for another bonfire. Desperate. The ‘souls’ (the game’s currency) I had accumulated weighed heavy. I knew a single wrong turn could result in hours of progress evaporating from my hip pocket. The thought terrified me.

Then, a castle. A safe haven. Surely. Surely there would be a bonfire in here.

Of course not. Instead: three knights. At that particular moment it felt like a death sentence.

But I make it. Goddammit I make it. By the skin of my teeth is the cliché. More like the atoms of the film of the skin of my teeth. The kind of victory that comes with an exhale and a trembling controller. I fucking did it. I am alive. I am alive.

Next: I approach what looks like an elevator. Shield raised because I don’t know what the hell is going to happen. I don’t know where I’m going.

Then, the elevator trundles slowly down. The damp stuffiness of medieval architecture is replaced by a cool, clean blue sky. What is this place? Where am I? The music sounds familiar. It clicks. I am at the Firelink Shrine. I’ve been here before. For all intents and purposes I have returned to the place where this game began. Full circle.

There was no need for a new bonfire. No need for a new safe haven. After hours of exploring, after hours of slowly plodding, shield in front, I returned to this place. This familiar place that now feels like home.


I worried that Bloodborne wouldn’t have that moment. And in my first playthrough it didn’t. Not really. That is to say there was no overwhelming stand out moment of that calibre. I maintain that Yharnam is the best ‘space’ From Software has ever created – just in terms of its sheer density – but it never really had that ‘moment’. I fell in love with Bloodborne for different reasons: the boss design, the combat, the commitment to detail.

But last night, in my New Game + I began to explore the Forbidden Woods. I was certain I’d seen every nook and cranny of this place – a space that openly rewards exploration with a seemingly endless supply of loot drops and bizarre enemy placement. On my first playthrough I enjoyed the Forbidden Woods but it felt far less precise than the closed off corridors of Yharnam. Second time around I’m revising my opinion.

The Forbidden Woods is deliberately obtuse. It is a space that seeks to confuse players, to give them the feeling of being lost. The overwhelming sense that you are going the wrong way. It’s an oppressive feeling. Each subtle hidden path seems too loop in on itself. At moments I felt certain I was about to find a new area, or make progress, only to find myself in the same spot I was five minutes ago. It takes a wild type of genius to convince players that a static, unchanging space is endlessly morphing and shape-shifting just to fuck with you.

But on more than one occasion, that’s what I thought was happening. In fact, I was certain of it. That in and of itself, is tremendous design. That’s what a place called the ‘Forbidden Woods’ should do: draw you into a confusing embrace, break you down psychologically. Make you feel ‘lost’.

At one point: a path within a hidden path. Turned out I had missed an entire section of the Forbidden Woods during my first playthrough. I was too eager to progress, too afraid of getting lost. Now, more confident, I took the time to explore. A small hidden cave gave way to a larger set of caves, which soon expanded into brilliantly lit, poisonous lake inhabited by giant, terrifying trolls that literally threw snakes at me.

Little did I know I was about to have my ‘falling in love with Bloodborne moment’.

The elevator was replaced by a set of ladders. Massive, Snake Eater scale ladders. As I clambered up I wondered to myself, “where could these lead? Where could this possibly lead?”

I should have known.

It led, of course, back to the start. Where else? A stone’s throw from the First Floor Sickroom in Yharnam. A stone’s throw from where it all began. Full Circle.


I’ve been trying to explain why that felt so good. Why I – and others presumably – take so much pleasure in being led from point A to points B, C all the way through to Z and then somehow have that all conveniently link back to point A. Why does that feel so good?

I think, at base level that pleasure comes from the overwhelming sense that you have been interacting with a world intricately built for your enjoyment. The sudden realisation: this has been painstakingly designed. For you. The moment when the work becomes immediately apparent: wow. Point A somehow connects to point Z? That’s… incredible. How?

It’s a magic trick. A flourish. The ‘prestige’ of being gazumped. You thought you were over there but you are actually here. It’s that perfect balance of intricate design coupled with a universe that feels under-designed, a space that somehow manages to mask its design. That’s the art of it.

Imagine a spectrum. Take, on the one hand, a very deliberately constructed ‘designed’ gaming space – a Pac-Man maze. That’s the left side of the spectrum. Fully designed. No pretence. On the right? Perhaps something completely randomly generated – like a Minecraft map.

Each has their own distinct pleasures. A well-designed Pac-Man maze is ‘fun’ because it provides a specifically designed space that works well with the game’s core mechanics: a game of hide and seek essentially. A Minecraft map provides a different sort of pleasure. Those moments of beauty, those select times when a Minecraft map provides something spectacular to look at, that is pleasurable because it wasn’t designed. Because it could never be replicated. It’s the difference between marvelling at the intricacies of an expensive wristwatch and gazing upon the wonder of the natural world – even if Minecraft’s maps were created according to a set of specific algorithms.

Moments like those – the moments that made me fall in love with both Dark Souls and Bloodborne – they’re tied to that spectrum. Bloodborne’s world is as precisely designed as any Pac-Man map, but retains that power: to induce the wonder of that naturally occurring Minecraft vista.

And that’s the magic trick. The ability to grab opposite ends of the same spectrum and tie them together seamlessly. Like a full circle.


Comments

    I really love reading your writing on Souls games Mark, just the story of it - I think I could really enjoy a novelised Souls book or fanfic.

    This feeling is unfortunately precisely what Dark Souls 2 was missing. There were other niggling issues, but the lack of a cohesive, purposely crafted environment was the biggest let down for me.

      Couldn't agree more. I'd be way more excited if they decide to remaster DS

    Not sure this is the same but as a kid I loved playing Zelda link to the past. It had everything and changed my view of games I would then purchase and play in the future. I recently purchase A link between worlds. I was enjoying the game and very impressed with the quality. As soon as I acquired the ability to transform on walls I was blown away and was obsessed with the game and the evolution of the world.
    It truly felt like so much thought and effort had gone into making this game a better experience

    I love when a game designer can create a location and then, over time, make you associate feelings with that location. Firelink shrine is a perfect example of this, it starts as a 'ruined temple in the forest' but quickly becomes 'safety'.

    On a separate note:
    I, too, had the NG+ experience in forbidden woods where it goes from "This is poorly designed, I'm so lost" -> "This is a perfectly designed area evoking a 'lost in the woods' feeling".

      I'm not ready to say it's my favourite area in the game, but it's amazingly designed.

        It's one of my favourites too, but I think I like Yahar'gul Village and the Cathedral Ward a bit better. Old Yharnam is also good, as is Central Yharnam. Oh, who am I kidding, it's all fantastic!

          For me Bloodborne zones are based on creepiness factor. I don't enjoy playing through unseen village(hell the place terrifies me!). But i am fascinated by it. Kind of like those disturbing paintings in an art gallery where you just stand in front of and wonder why its so terrifying yet you can't look away. The statues of people in the walls reminds me of Rodin "Gates of Hell". I guess for me it's Cainhurst Castle, i love everything about that place. It's what i think the next gen Castlevania games should be like instead of the trash we are getting from Konami now.

        My wording wasn't too clear, it's definitely not 'perfect', but I admire the craftsmanship of creating an area that can allow you to get convincingly lost that also feels like it isn't cheating (every hallway in a building being exactly identical would be an example of cheating).

        For the record, cathedral ward is my favorite area, and my favorite movement was my first fight with vicar amelia, but that's largely because of the shocking sound design of that battle.

      I agree, but fuck those subterranean poison lakes though. I died several times to those bastard worms that you generally can't see until they launch themselves at you. Those giants were also pretty full on. The only consolation was that I got some pretty sweet gems out of that area, and of course, access to the clinic :-)

    You have fought your way through numerous buildings, halls, cathedrals. You have watched the sky turn darker as the day goes on. You are now in a bunch of a woods, and only moments later are in a deep dark cave with a poison lake. You are at that place farthest from. It was a life time ago that you were at the clinic with the cold cobblestones. But now look at you, surrounded by trees, dirt, mud, and rocks. And then it happens. That transition. One moment you are in an underground cave and the next... back at the start? I can not agree more with this article. I stood at the top of that ladder in dumbfounded awe when i first climbed it. "The sky and the cosmos are one!"

      Ha ha, was it you who left that note at the top of the ladder? Good note!

      (on a sadder note, that area was my first encounter with a brain sucker)

    Great article, I had the exact same feeling when I discovered this link. I was so astounded by it that I didn't even notice I was back at the start until I passed thru that first tutorial like part where you fight the werewolf with your bare hands.

    Here's hoping they are already working on a sequel (or better yet a sequel to Demon's Souls)

    I had a similar moment with the first Dark Souls - barely dodging that Dragon on the bridge and going down two sets of stairs only to find I could kick down the ladder in the Undead Burg Bonfire room which was previously out of reach. That blew my mind and it was the moment the game got its hooks into me!

    At first I didn't really understand. But then once it was explained like "you went through all this and thought you were over there, but are actually over here" it suddenly made me think of experiencing the exact same thing in RE4, popping out and seeing the familiar but from a new angle, suddenly realising how it all interconnects. It's a great feeling.

    Wow an article praising Dark Souls! Such a rarity!

    But seriously though, God of War did this a few times and it was always mindblowing.

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