Thinkin' about Souls

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Edited By nonused

I'm writing this on no sleep and one cup of coffee (I don't normally drink coffee), so I apologize if the writing comes across...off. I just felt like blogging about Souls.

The Darkest Souls
The Darkest Souls

Dark Souls and, by extension, Demon's Souls feel like a mistake; like, they shouldn't exist. They're games that defy (mostly) every conventional teaching of modern game design, but fans of the industry were quick to embrace them. Their aplomb towards obscuring and withholding, at times, crucial information from the player leans heavily into the series leaving a sour taste in my mouth. And, yet, I can't stop thinking about these games. Not Dark Souls 2, though. I've thought enough about that one.

I keep trying to pin down what it is about the Souls that I find so fascinating, and I keep finding dead ends. It's not the general structure of the games, 'cause that can straight-up go to hell. In fact, that very same structure that is applauded by Souls aficionados is then immediately derided by, what I would presume to be, the very same audience in neighboring games. Maybe that's an unfair assumption. But, to me, there's this aura about Souls that shapes it as a product for the "gamer who takes games seriously". That's what makes the series complete disrespect towards a player's time all the more acceptable; it's for the true gamers. But showcase any game utilizing similar mechanics revolving around trial and error and backtracking, and I'd bet the chorus would resound with, "No."

So, it's clearly not the macro design of Souls that I find so fascinating. I'd even be willing to argue that it's not why the average gamer enjoys the game. But, I could easily be wrong. Well, then, maybe it's micro. Maybe it's the moment-to-moment. I will say, the games feel weighty in a way that a lot of others in the industry could learn from. Combat hits hard (for melee, at least) and encourages a tense style of play. But, it's also clunky. The camera gets to close; your avatar gets caught up on some pots. You swear you hit the dodge button, but the iFrame God determined you weren't ready yet. Your lock-on goes haywire and tracks the rabid dog behind you as opposed to the giant goat-man dual-wielding, what might as well be, your tombstones soldered to sticks.

"I see you're fond of my dog."

Overall: fun, but has its hiccups. Okay. Maybe not so much the combat, then. But I'd say it helps the games more than it hurts them. How about the level design? At times, ingenious. At times, ingeniously infuriating. Looking at you specifically, Dark Souls. You mean to tell me the key I picked up right before the Bell Gargoyles is meant for some door that I passed, what, an hour ago where I was paying attention to the drake spitting Hell from its teeth and his legion of poisonous rats who enjoy knocking adventurers down into the sweet, sweet void? Why would it not be passed the gargoyles? Better question: why is my progress gated by some dude who had some key? Oh, the only reasonable bonfire in Blighttown is hidden in some shadowy cove away from my main destination? The destination all of these environmental graphics are pointing towards? How novel. Surely the developers never intended for me to scale up a seemingly random stretch of tile to get anywhere in Anor Londo. Oh. Oh.... I would mention the second Sen's bonfire here, but I just did.

However, I will concede (pointing to the "ingenious" previously mentioned), that when everything interlocks, it is immensely satisfying. The world feels more alive, and you feel like you're cheating a system that was never really there (see: video games).

While I can certainly appreciate it, the answer isn't level design; it's too much of a mixed bag. That leaves only (I think; I may be overlooking something else) the lore of these worlds. I already know, but you may not know, dear reader, that this is indubitably my favorite aspect of these games.

Pictured above: Lore.
Pictured above: Lore.

In contrast, it is so meticulously crafted and nursed by the developer, that every other facet of these games is left to blush. It's hilarious, too, because it could easily be argued this area of the games didn't need any regard. But FromSoftware did their damnedest to refine something that should have been, historically speaking, aggressively dismissed. Hiding your world within item descriptions? Implied character motivations? Endings without any clear repercussions? Sounds like a train heading straight for "This Reviewer Does Not Think Kindly of the Feature's Narrative" Town. And, I seem to recall, in the case of Demon's Souls, that certainly was the case. But then, fans dug. They uncovered carefully and insanely hidden developments that paved the way for progressive, interactive narrative. I honestly think this might be the best way to tell a game story: nonintrusive, yet begging investigation. Figuring out the games' tales is a game in and of itself. Tales that, by all rights, should have been left to rot.

But, FromSoftware's gamble paid off, on part of what I just realized was a bigger player in this discussion than I had previously realized: the community. It's clear the Souls games were designed with online interaction in mind, in what may be the most redundantly inventive system games have ever had. Considering the environment From was developing in, mad lib note functions became either entirely unhelpful or extremely pointless ("How many notes can we make about boobs, guys?"). It's interesting that notes were their answer for the antiquated systems Souls adopts (I'd assume to mitigate them), as the internet did a much better job. And, I posit, a lot of players needed the internet to progress. Or maybe it was just me; that key bit really confused me.

It makes me wonder: could these games exist two generations ago? Would they work as PS2, PS1 games? Wasn't King's Field a similar deal? Was that not condemned to obscurity? That's not a rhetorical question; I honestly don't know. But I hadn't heard of it, 'til Souls made its way into the industry vernacular. Does the communal aspect add so much as to make them completely different beasts? How many games from the past employed similar narrative techniques, only to fade away into indifference? Are these truly the first?

I don't know. And I don't think I'll ever really know what keeps this series in my head. It's probably just the artistic design or overall somber tone; something two dimensional like that. Could just be how much I appreciate the beautifully crafted stories. Maybe it's all the dissonance regarding the games' praises; maybe it's all those negative aspects that keep me coming back. I don't know. This blog won't have a clean conclusion; I'll keep thinking about Souls, and Souls won't be thinking about me.

Sad Onion People
Sad Onion People

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Ry_Ry

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#1  Edited By Ry_Ry

Fantastic write up. For me it's the lore and watching other people play. DeS, DkS & BB each have a great way of introducing themselves to new players that just never seems to get old.

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hiono

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I think the story telling came about from lack of budget. You said it yourself about how much of the game is actually counter to good conventional game design principles. Its been interesting to see people try to expand the ideas that were now proven by demon souls commercially viable, including from themselves. Don't take it from me though I probably don't know shit haha I would like to see a documentary about the development of these games.

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Sinusoidal

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Great write up. Dark Souls does sometimes feel like a collection of design mistakes that just happened to work incredibly well together. I've spent a couple of hundred hours with each (Dark Souls 2 included, which is an improvement on 1 in many ways, just not in narrative, level design or especially difficulty balance which was the most damning aspect to me) and I feel like I'm done with them, yet here I am watching a playthrough of Dark Souls on YouTube (again) and seeing plenty of things I never saw in the game despite four playthroughs across two platforms and I-don't-even-know how many hours scouring Lordran for every single item I could pick up.They're just fascinatingly dense games. And I don't even PvP.

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SBHAGAR

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Interesting write up. The Soul's series has seemed to occupy that space of what it means to be a "hardcore gamer". However after playing through both Dark Souls and Bloodborne. I find myself at a crossroads. I think i'm done with these games. While I firmly believe Bloodbourne is a fantastic game, In my opinion it failed to capture the magic of DS1. We know what these games are now, punishing games that reward a player's patience and timing. Set in a fantasy setting of blades and magic. With Dark Souls 3 on the horizon i'm not sure if i'll go all in this march due to the fact that i'm not seeing this series grow to the extent i was hoping.

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fisk0

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#5 fisk0  Moderator

I kinda disagree with the notion that these games rely on trial and error and withholding crucial information. I haven't finished either one of them, just played 10-ish hours of each, so I couldn't speak for the latter parts of the games (but with Patrick, Brad, Dan, Vinny and others streaming them, I've still seen most of them), but in my view they are built on the expectation that the player is at all times observant. They certainly overwhelm you at times to make it hard to properly look at the environments, but they don't really throw anything at you out of nowhere, and heavily punish carelessness. If you run blindly around that corner right next to a bottomless pit, you're gonna get kicked down in it by the skeleton hiding there, but if you take the time to observe and move with care, most of those events are telegraphed beforehand.

As for why I keep returning to them despite never finishing them, yeah, I absolutely agree it's all about the somber atmosphere and artistic design. In many ways I'm reminded of Ingmar Bergman's Seventh Seal when playing them.

And when it comes to previous games in this vein, King's Field certainly had the tone, but not really the gameplay - they were essentially Ultima Underworld style games. There was the spanish RPG Severance: Blade of Darkness back in 2001 which pretty much had the Souls movement and combat formula down, but as you would expect, it was a massive commercial failure.

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TobbRobb

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For me Souls more or less gets summed up with atmosphere, min/max and exploration. I just really like the feel, the sound and the look of the worlds. I like spending time in there and finding cool stuff. The gameplay is solid and fun, but the videogame carrot on the stick for me was always the freeform gear/level system. The ways I could mess around with my character to create weirdly specific, amusing and/or horribly unbalanced builds is pretty great.

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ikramit

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#7  Edited By ikramit

Basement Key

Opens the narrow passage leading below at the far face of the great bridge in the Undead Burg.The lower Undead Burg is a treacherous place. Do not turn your back on the wily thieves, or the wild dogs who serve the Capra Demon.

There is only one large bridge in undead burg and you see it from all parts of the undead burg if you look up and if you look down from the burg and pay attention to what the crestfallen knight has to say it's pretty obvious were Lower unded burg is (below you) and you have to go their for the secound bell. Why because he talks about that very thing this is the main reason I like this game not because it's rocket science or crazy hard its neither of those but because it doesn't treat me like an idiot it pushes me forward and has expectations and with observation and careful approach and a decent amount of patience. I did not have a partially hard time with the game on my first playthrough a mouth ago blind as I was. Now on my 5th playthrough never locked on btw because of the reasons you mentoined.
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yinstarrunner

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#8  Edited By yinstarrunner

I refute the argument that the Souls games don't respect the player's time. In fact, they do something that most single-player games these days fail to do. They have a real learning curve, a skill gap that can only be traversed through practice. I suppose if you're the type of person who only plays games for the story, or something like that, then it might feel like a waste of time to beat your head against a boss. But I'd argue that the reason many gamers love the Souls games, is because as you're playing, you can feel yourself getting stronger. Not just on your character sheet, but with your controller. The first time I played Dark Souls, I got stuck on the Belfry Gargoyles. 8 attempts later, and I finally triumphed. It felt great. But now that I've beaten the game three times, suddenly the Belfry Gargoyles fear me. I could easily go through that entire fight without taking a single hit. And that's a great feeling. Very rewarding. So I wouldn't say that the game wastes anyone's time, because you are constantly getting better with every death.

It's not like, say, riddler trophies in a Batman game. Those are ridiculous things that do not respect my time.

I could go on forever about what the Souls games do right. Maybe I will.

The mechanics are thematically consistent. Obfuscating the story and the objectives do more than just build an atmosphere--they frame the world as being openly hostile. It doesn't want you there, or it doesn't care. It was there before you, and will be after you're long gone. It has its secrets, that even the player is too unimportant to know. The concept of reviving at bonfires adds even more to this theme. In most games, death would bring you back to the latest checkpoint, pretend that your mistakes never happened.. Instead, Souls rubs your face in it--makes mortality a constant in their world. And that means that every step forward is a small victory, every deliberate swing that results in damage to an enemy is a triumph.

The most brilliant thing about the Souls games, though, is something you touched on briefly in your post.

Through this hard, terrible, arduous journey, you are not alone. The game does everything to remind you of this: the ghosts of other players phasing in and out of existence, the bloodstains that replay their final moments, the messages that they can leave for you, the summon signs on the ground, and even the terrifying message "X has invaded you." What these mechanics do, is elevate the game to another level. Difficult games are becoming more popular recently, but Souls is not just content with that. Playing a Souls game is like participating in a communal journey, from point A to point B. There are those who came before, and those who will come after. Those who will offer aid and hidden knowledge, and those who offer deception and seek to hinder you.

I think it's these subtle things that cause so many people to actually finish these games. It's the sense of community, both in real life and in the game. It's the idea that those around you haven't given up, so why should you? Peer pressure in video game form. And once you've shared such a long journey with someone, it's understandable that you would grow close. Hence, the community and relevance that has lasted to this day. Brilliant.

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hippie_genocide

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At the risk of being labeled a Dark Souls apologist, I think the OP is blowing their issues with the game way out of proportion

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Shindig

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I dunno. I think, as gamers we're trained to have different expectations. We've been spoon fed directions and tutorials for the past decade and, for all the fun I had with Bloodborne, I had no idea what was going on with the story.

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nickhead

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Nice write up. I'm a huge fan. I'm still playing DS2 because I seriously love that one despite how it turned off a lot of players. And I'm sort of in the same boat - I have trouble nailing down exactly what I love. All I know is that I've been hooked since Demons. I think a lot of it is the oppressive atmosphere and the lack of direction. Some games that leave the player hanging on what to do really piss me off, but the Souls games nailed it somehow.

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mordukai

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@shindig: I think it's because of the very segmented way they tell a story and how a lot of it relies on player interpretation and careful observations. Most players just want to keep moving and go to the next area and kill the next boss that they just don't take the time to just look at the environment or notice the little details or read item description.

Bloodborne is also very different, narratively, to the previous Souls games. In previous Souls games the plot revolved around a singular event that effectvily kickstarted the whole shindig. Bloodborne veers off and instead gives you multiple events that led to the state the game world is. Not to mention that a lot of information is held back and relies a lot more on players filling in the blanks.

If you got some time to kill I recommend checking out The Paleblood Hunt.

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Shindig

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Thing is, both Dark Souls gave you enough to speculate even if you didn't dig into the items. Bloodborne is almost exclusively "Here's an item description. You now know who these guys are." Otherwise its, "Well, I'm in a hunt. Oh, a flashback with two guys who don't get on. Oh, that's a cool moon. Hey, Gehrman. I'd like to get out now."

Just a little more up front might've helped give me a motivation to keep fighting.

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