Over the last two month or so, Dark Souls has managed to escape obscurity and force its way into the minds of gamers all over the world. I, like many others, can’t help but be drawn to it despite its many flaws and technical troubles. With a 90-hour save still present on my 360 hard drive, I need to figure out what makes Dark Souls so compelling to me. What is it about this game that keeps bringing me back in a way that other RPGs haven’t done for years? Perhaps more importantly, what could other developers learn from From Software’s latest release?
1. Exploration and Discovery
Perhaps the biggest draw to Dark Souls, and Demon’s Souls before it, is the sense of existence in a complete world that’s there for you to explore. The limited direction in the game, which it sometimes gets criticized for, allows the player to discover everything at his or her pace. Obviously, this means a much less efficient and sometimes confusing experience, but it also brings the player deeper into the world and its mechanics. It asks more of the gamer, and expects them to figure things out as they go along. There is an “easiest” way to do things, but Dark Souls isn’t concerned with making sure your experience is easy. Rather, it is concerned with your experience being uniquely your own. The exploration and discovery in Dark Souls is heightened and perhaps only possible because of how little it holds the player’s hand.
2. A Sense of Community
The Souls games have one of the most unique multiplayer systems I’ve ever seen in gaming. While the games are still single-player experiences at their core, the signs system enables a level of involvement with the community that feels integral to gameplay. Notes left by other players can inform the gamer of things like fake walls, invisible platforms, boss weaknesses, and serve as an outlet for general elation in the rooms following boss fights. There are parts of Dark Souls that I can imagine being incredibly difficult without the information provided by other players. This one-sided interaction is only the tip of the Dark Souls community iceberg, though.
There are also innovations in the way players interact with one another. Dark Souls provides summoning signs that allow one or two additional players, completely unknown to one another, to be brought into a gamer’s world to help fight a boss. If the boss is defeated, everyone involved gets rewarded for their efforts. There’s something very powerful about a player being welcomed into your world, assisting you in a difficult fight, and then disappearing into the ether he spawned from. It’s a limited form of co-op, but a powerful way to bring you closer to other players.
Lastly, the inclusion of Covenants in Dark Souls takes their PVP gameplay from something mostly for greifing and personal gain, to a more structured experience. For example, one of the NPCs you run across can hand you a ring that, when worn, will automatically transport you into other players' worlds to kill them for trespassing in the area. I will admit, the entire depth of the Covenant system still eludes me, and I find that exciting, but it is much more elaborate than people may immediately think. From Software has created a community in and around their game, without the need of outside forums or FAQs.
3. The Architecture
The structures and presentation of said structures in Dark Souls may be unrivaled. Every time I entered a new area, I was taken aback by how unique and new the scenery had become. More than that, I became stunned at the sight of giant gates or castles off in the distance, hoping to one day cross them. Through the course of traversing the area, you will always wind up inside those elaborate edifices and eventually treated with a long-shot back to the spot where you entered as if to remind you of how far you traveled. There are many places to visit in Dark Souls, as with plenty of games, but you feel much more accomplished with your travels because of how it is presented. The buildings and areas themselves are also ingeniously pieced together to allow shortcuts, but they never feel forced. Every part of Dark Souls’ world feels purposefully made and placed by an unknown character inside the world and not by an omnipotent game designer.
There are few games that give the player a sense of accomplishment and victory like Dark Souls does. Perhaps the best comparison would be to the first XBOX Ninja Gaiden title. In that game, much like this one, any enemy could kill you if you were not careful enough. Since there is no such thing as fodder enemies in these games, every fight allows you to walk away feeling victorious. Where Dark Souls surpasses Ninja Gaiden is in its boss fights. Almost every boss fight is a massive, fantastically designed, intimidating monster that would make you shiver in fear if that didn’t leave you open to its attacks. The power of the bosses in Dark Souls is a combination of the monster’s visual design and the design of the fight itself. Bosses have just enough health to be a challenge, but never enough to feel impossible. The only thing more powerful than finally taking down that boss that has been giving you trouble, is doing so with another player at your side.
5. Tension and True Loss
Lastly, Dark Souls offers something that has been locked away in our gaming past for too long. Forcing the player to return to their bodies to retrieve their souls creates a risk-reward system that permeates the entire experience. Once enough souls have been gathered for use, such as for leveling up or purchasing a required item, a decision has to be made to return to spend the souls or continue pushing forward. This is a straightforward system, but there are situations that complicate it. Imagine the route back to the bonfire is less obvious, for example. Maybe you fell down a hole or took a one-way shortcut. Now the decision has been made for you, and you must press on until you find a new bonfire or a way back, gathering more and more precious souls in the process. These moments are not uncommon in Dark Souls, and they create some amazing tension in a way that only an interactive medium can.
Do we need these 5 things in every game? Absolutely not. I shudder to think if every game was as tense as this one. Plus, part of Dark Souls’ charm is that it is unique and breaks many of the expectations set by its peers. Not every title needs to be as demanding as Dark Souls is, but there is a lot to be learned. Modern video games are made to be finished, and have increasingly become more and more passive. This isn’t inherently bad, but things like Quick Time Events, extended cutscenes, and lengthy tutorials harm the interactivity of the experience. It’s a dangerous trend that doesn’t take advantage of what makes video games unique as an entertainment medium. Dark Souls stands as proof that an intelligent, well-designed game doesn’t need to hold your hand to be fun. Praise the Sun!