Published on June 3rd, 2016 | by Cactus

Dark Souls: The Dirty Word in Games Design

Ever since the release of Demons’ Souls in 2009, the series that became Dark Souls has been regarded as a one of the best video game series ever released. They have been praised highly for their superb use of design techniques to build grounded worlds that players are more then happy to lose themselves in for days at a time.

While many would have you believe that these games are nothing but grueling torture chambers for masochistic gamers, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The Souls games are rich with atmosphere and personality – and feature gameplay and concepts so defining, that other games seem trite by comparison.

Where it all began: From Software’s PS3 exclusive, Demons’ Souls (2009), transformed their little-known development company to one of the worlds’ leading video game franchises.

While these games are by no means easy, their difficulty accentuates the hardness of the worlds they inhabit. With that, it is no surprise that many players, and designers, have fallen in love with these games.

It may then be shocking to hear that many developers consider Dark Souls a bad word when is comes to design. It isn’t rare for designers to borrow concepts and ideas from other games, and has been a common trend in all forms of art for centuries. With the way games go in and out of fashion, games similar to Dark Souls were bound to appear eventually, and many have. Then – with the exception of Lords of the Fallen and the upcoming Nioh – why is it that so many developers have rejected the idea of making more of these difficult games?

Dark Souls (2011) expanded the world and lore dramatically with astounding level design, while deepening the intriguing combat mechanics.

I suspect that Dark Souls benefits from its difficulty due to its combat system based around avoiding damage, balancing your loads and managing your stamina. In contrast, a shooter like Uncharted would be completely terrible under the same premise. While both games play in third-person with similar-ish control schemes, the games have to be built to support the level of difficulty. In Dark Souls you can dodge every attack. In Uncharted, no matter how good you are, you probably won’t dodge every bullet. Simply changing some numbers to make it harder would break the game. The RPG leveling system used in Dark Souls allows you to counter balance that difficulty with
determination and training, rather than just a lucky run.

Dark Souls 2 showed off some jaw-dropping scenery and breathtaking atmosphere, while further improving the variety and depth of combat options.

One of the other appealing elements of the Dark Souls series is its story. The Lore, in particular, is rich and mysterious. For example, the characters speak cryptically, so understanding why you’re doing any of this is harder to comprehend. By observing the details in the levels, and reading item descriptions is it possible to find out said reasons. The difference between Lore and Story is a lesson all of its own, and getting this right is a tricky part. Many developers just don’t grasp the complexity of making a well woven story with obscure lore. Considering how many games have stories that fall completely flat on their own, it’s hardly surprising that a well made backstory would be a nightmare to construct.

Dark Souls 3 caps off the masterpiece series with a beautiful game designed directly for current-gen consoles (PS4/XBO).

Dark Souls is hard, but not in the same way other modern games approach a tough difficulty. When the games’ Director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, was asked why he made the games so hard, his answer is that difficulty was never the point. The purpose of the game being hard is to make you invested in the world, to add a sense of tension to events. It was to make finally beating a hard boss feel like the most amazing thing ever. Every mechanic, every area, every object, has been well thought out and considered all the way from the design phase. Dark Souls isn’t a ‘Bad Word’ because developers don’t like it, but because they hope to make games which rival its caliber, with well thought out and understood mechanics.

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