In their haste to make “soulslikes”, devs have forgotten what makes Dark Souls unique – its level design

I finally completed Dark Souls III [official site] last week, a world that I have been dipping in and out of between bouts of listlessness since its release in April last year. It didn’t grip me like the first revered Dark Souls, but it still made me sad to know it was all over. Where could I go now for my Souls fix? The answer, it turns out, is loads of places. The games industry is quietly reverberating with the series’ influence. From small games boasting “souls-like” combat, to bigger games doing weird things with death and player messages. Meanwhile, our PlayStation brethren got Nioh, which took the “pocket full o’ souls” idea and simply renamed them “Amrita”. There is a popular complaint that everything in the industry is now being compared to Dark Souls, and it’s easy to forget that games embraced difficulty and strangeness long before the Bed of Chaos made you weep with frustration. Nevertheless, the mechanics and the tone of Miyazaki’s magnum opus is leaking into games everywhere.

That there’s an influx of Soulsian disciples out there isn’t a problem to me. My problem is that they are learning all the wrong lessons. At least, they are neglecting the most important one. But first let’s look at what sly tricks are being lifted from the series, and who is lifting them.

Challenge

In the kind of cursed circles we games critics skulk in, any talk of difficulty in Souls games is greeted with gaseous sighs and eyes rolling around in skulls like wild pinballs. There is nothing to be said about the toughness of the game which has not already been said. The most recent soundbite I’ve heard is: “Dark Souls isn’t hard, you just need to learn!” – an analysis that screws up my face to the point of granting my eyebrows sentience, because it is like saying “that boiling hot cup of tea isn’t warm, you just need to slurp.” It is hard, it is famously hard, and we shouldn’t need to redefine an agreed-upon term just to find something new to say about a videogame. But we do, because, Jesus, we are exhausted.

For developers, that interest in difficulty seems not to have abated in the same way. Many devs have struggled through Anor Londo or Blighttown and concluded that challenge and difficulty are the things to take away from all of it. Hyper Light Drifter gives you a slowly-expanding set of moves to deal with numerous hard-hitting foes. Learning to time your dodges and take opportunistic potshots with a sidearm makes it feel at times like a top-down Bloodborne viewed through a pixelising Photoshop filter. You’ll die and you’ll have to try it all again.

More recently, the platformer Rain World adopted the use of Bonfire-like checkpoints. Your slugcat needs these shelters to survive a regular downpour of lethal rain yet are often placed far apart, stashed in as-yet unexplored places. You die easily to animals in this harsh landscape, with one-hit kills coming out of nowhere. Sometimes you become trapped in one area, unable to proceed or go back the way you came (although this has been eased thanks to a recent patch). But it also embraced the randomness of a real ecosystem, the deadly, uncaring attitude of nature. You could be going from one screen to another and be eaten as soon as you appeared on the other side, with no possible recourse. In this sense, Rain World is tougher than Dark Souls. Because it has done away with all sense of fairness.

There are other examples, mostly from independent developers. Salt and Sancuary, Titan Souls, Devil Daggers. They all have an emphasis on repetition, punishing overconfidence, building up your reflexes, observing enemy patterns, learning to intuit a foe’s movements. But not everything is done in pixels or platformers. Lords of the Fallen and Bound By Flame tried too hard to copy the big boy formula and both came away feeling uninspired. The point is: all of these games have their strengths and weakness, but they all take the challenge of Dark Souls to be its defining element. An understandable stance, since it is the most obvious and most praised aspect of the series. Hell, it’s first on this very list of “things wot Dark Souls teaches”. But it is not the only thing developers are learning.

Obfuscation

At no point during my first run of Dark Souls did I have any idea what I was doing. Not only in terms of the story, if it can be called a story, but also in my actions. A strange man would ask me a question and I would answer in the affirmative, not understanding why. I would equip a new weapon and wonder why I was suddenly rolling more slowly. A frog would burp on me and I’d panic that half of my health bar was now missing. Many of the systems and consequences are now rooted in players’ heads, like angry parasites, but it was not always so. Developers reminisce on games like this and conclude that a sense of mystery and discovery have been absent from videogames for far too long.

Thus, we are faced with oddities. My Summer Car is a comedy game that obfuscates its end goal in an extreme manner, asking you to build an entire car from scratch without a single clue, right down to the tiny bolts that hold each component in place. Attempting this challenge without help from YouTube is a time-consuming conundrum for anyone but a trained mechanic. Its insistence on having you build this rusty, ruinous old machine has led to the industry joke that “Dark Souls is the My Summer Car of RPGs”.

Rain World, again, hides many details from the player. It refuses to tell you the various hidden abilities of your slugcat (he can backflip, store things in his stomach, dash when squeezing through a pipe, and more, but none of that is explained) and there are moments of desperate cluelessness. Where am I going? What does this plant even do? Why are these glowing gold ghosts all flocking to this cavern?

Starseed Pilgrim tells you absolutely nothing about what is going on. I still do not understand what I was supposed to be doing in that game.

Harnessing mystery and discovery in strong ways like this can lead the player into any intriguing cave you want. But there is a point in which obfuscation turns some people off, especially when it comes to the story you are telling. Pulling too many veils over your story, far from granting it mystery, can simply feel like a cheap trick designed to make the player do the heavy narrative lifting. Dark Souls is certainly guilty of that and it has encouraged others to adopt this faux-Lynchian style of story-telling.

I always think of Kentucky Route Zero here, although I’ll be in the minority at Castle Shotgun for jabbing at it with an accusatory finger. It puts style and atmosphere over story, relegating connections between characters and events to the player’s own mind, never giving you a truly cohesive vision of its world or characters. It is random and it is vague. That might be grand for some people, but to me it is like finding a writer’s notebook – they might be a great writer, with a cutting turn of phrase and all the flair of Calvino, Borges, Atwood, or whoever your favourites are. They might be masterful, their sentences might ring off the page like songs. But you are still only reading their notes, there is no tale here, no rounded characters. You are squinting at scribbles.

And although the games are wildly different, that complaint is true for Dark Souls too – its story is bunk, half-formed lore gleaned from item descriptions and strangely translated utterances does not a storyline make. The appeal, yes, may be in filling in the blanks, but there comes a point when we, as readers, must ask: where the hell is the rest of this book? It’s, like, two-thirds blank. It’s possible to have mystery and mysticism, or a lack of direction, resolution or closure, and still have created a satisfactory story. You only need to look at any movie by the Coen brothers to know that.

The difference between Dark Souls and its growing clan of inspired descendants, is that it had something else to fall back on. When both challenge and a mysterious atmosphere was not enough, and it’s something no disciple has since been able to replicate: a single, exquisitely crafted level.

Lordran


So here we are. Developers have taken so many tissue samples from Dark Souls that it is starting to look like one of its own goofy skeleton warriors. They’ve sliced off some of the challenge, and they’ve sucked up some of the mystery – all with varying degrees of success. But it is the boring, beating heart of level design that they should have extracted from its innards. Lordran has a unique sense of space, there is an idea in the first Dark Souls of “home” and of “camp”. We have all been stranded in some dark place. Maybe we were stuck at the roots of a tree or trapped in a cold, dark and gentle painting. But we have all felt, sometimes without knowing it, a longing to be back at the Firelink Shrine. And after a long slog, when you climb up that ladder, or open that crypt door, or step onto that mechanical lift, you discover yourself back there, and you are awarded a sense of relief and recognition unparalleled in other games. In this way, it is unlike its apostles, who seem to follow in its footsteps, but never reach the final destination.

The truth is that no game has learned that lesson, of investing in a nigh-perfect vertical-meets-horizontal level design, because even the Dark Souls series itself did not hold onto that philosophy. A shortcut in the first Dark Souls almost gave you as much of a buzz as defeating a towering dragon. A shortcut in the second feels like joyless mandatory inclusion, if it is there at all. And there are some shortcuts in the third that are virtually pointless.

It is why Demons’ Souls, with its hub world, doesn’t compare to the follow-up, it is why the sequels have never held a torch to the first, despite literally trying to. Their dogged insistence on immediately available fast travel and a shrine that is virtually disconnected from all other locations has turned what once felt like a journey into a matter of hopping up at your destination through a loading screen, like some sort of weird, teleporting rabbit. It’s a flaw I’ve mentioned before and others talk about constantly. Again I can already feel the pinball eyes of my critic pals rolling around in their heads with multiball chaos.

But if that problem is so obvious, why has it not been fixed? In the sequels you are offered this fast travel as a magical elevator, its muzak the gentle caress of loading screen tips. An elevator that conveniently stops in every rotten neighbourhood you’ve already encountered. If the true spirit and level design of Dark Souls had been retained, this would have manifested itself as an actual elevator. Or more likely, a warren-like system of shortcuts and detours – lifts, ladders and ledges – all created with a web-like consistency to bring you back the way you came. For a game with so much imagery and symbolism of cycles, Dark Souls III was a hundred times more linear than its elder brother.

To me, that descent into more conventional level design, with obligatory fast travel that was originally given later as a reward, is the result of a clash between what players think they want and what they truly want. They want to go on an epic journey, an adventure. But they don’t want too much hardship. They don’t want to travel long distances to return to a previous place they’ve already been. Yet in the first Dark Souls there was plenty of backtracking, and far from being something to complain about, it gave the game its soul.

I remember the exact moment I realised I loved Dark Souls. I had taken a long detour back to that old witchy undead woman near Firelink Shrine who sells poison arrows. I splashed down the sewer toward her hovel. I think it had taken me almost an hour to return here. But I had done it, and it was a revelation. The designers of Lordran wanted you, as the player, to know their land. The crumbling medieval ramparts, the rocky ledges of the canyons, the narrow brick corridors of the depths. They wanted you to know this world, not from a top-down perspective, or as list of places on a menu, but as an inhabitant. As a rat who knows what direction to take in his own labyrinth from nothing but a searing, instinctive memory. It is a critical attribute of Dark Souls, as a series, that it has no map. And yet, every one of us rats who got lost in its first labyrinth could probably draw you one.

I understand that this is just my view on it. The Souls series is special in that it is all things to all gamers (with the exception of those hollows who put the pad down at the Capra demon and decide to exact their madness elsewhere). But to me this is the takeaway lesson: there were hard games before Dark Souls, and there were mysterious games before Dark Souls, but there was no game with such exquisite and cyclic level design before Dark Souls. That the lessons interned in Lordran, lessons about what architecture and geography and mechanisms can add to an adventure all about hardship, could potentially be forgotten and put aside, for whatever reasons, would be the saddest loss of game design in a generation.

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  1. Premium User Badge

    Swordfishtrombone says:

    I actually disagree with your qualms about how the 'story' is delivered in Dark Souls. To me, Dark Souls is almost an archaeology sim (or an "archaeology-'em-up" to use the correct RPS terminology), where a large part of its atmosphere and sense of helplessness comes from trying to figure out - with almost no prior knowledge - what the hell went wrong in this bizarre, terrible place you've found yourself, and who on earth all the strange characters are who inhabit it. The vagueness of item descriptions means that your own desperately patched-together narrative doesn't get shredded by bloated exposition, and leaves you to infer things from an item's name, appearance and even place of discovery as much as anything else. I hesitate to say this because comparing any Souls game to real life is patently ridiculous, but it feels more like the way you would naturally learn about a strange place simply through exploring it alone.

    Though, last time I asked my brother he reported that he didn't bring a Zweihander to his last dig site, so maybe this isn't how archaeologists work after all.
  1. Greg Wild says:

    Totally agreed. I’m playing through them all for the first time at the moment, currently just finished Drangleic Castle in DS2. Drangleic feels much more traditional in its design: it’s a series of levels to conquer, not a world to unravel.

    As an aside, DS2 feels like it throws far more “that’s just bullshit” sections at you. DS1 was hard, but the only time I actively thought they had made a shitty design decision was those _fucking_ archers in Anor Londo.

    • GameCat says:

      I like to think about Dark Souls 2 as an arcade brawler with simple thematic levels.

    • Xzi says:

      IMO DS2 was really easy after playing through DS1. DS3 is harder than either in some aspects (NPC invaders have much better AI and act smarter), but auxiliary effects like poison are a lot easier to deal with than they were in 1/2.

      • Greg Wild says:

        I agree for the most part. Most of the bosses are much easier. Aside the gods damned Smelter Demon and his ridiculous auto-tracking.

        But, it does throw some totally crap situations at you, that mostly come down to wearing down the enemies till they stop re-spawning.

    • djvecchitto says:

      The Anor Londo archers are bullshit when you’re playing the game, but now I think back on them nostalgically… I will remember that encounter for the rest of my life and you probably will too!

      • Greg Wild says:

        You’re probably right, though it’s still too raw. Right now it feels like I wasted like two hours of my life :P

  2. LeMondeMerveilleux says:

    “but there was no game with such exquisite and cyclic level design before Dark Souls.” King’s Field II, Playstation, 1995. Less hype…

    • GameCat says:

      I’ve tried to play it on my PSP, it aged not very well. The combat and controls are very clunky and not really fun.
      The world is impressive though, especially that if I remember right they pulled off seamless levels on PSX. That’s some programming magic.

    • Blake Casimir says:

      YES! King’s Field seems forever destined to be relegated to gaming history because of its aged graphics. In fact, they are excellently designed dungeon crawls with precisely the same explorative atmosphere as Dark Souls. Particularly 2 and 4 with their expansive interconnected worlds.

      Damnnit! Why is no-one making first person dungeon crawlers like this any more? No, I don’t care for grid-based turn-based ones. I’m desperate for another King’s Field!! :(

    • Artea says:

      I’d argue games made by Origin Systems and Looking Glass had more impressive level design. Ultima Underworld and System Shock did the whole ‘hostile, interconnected world’ decades before Dark Souls.

  3. haldolium says:

    I don’t necessarily agree on your choice of comparisons entirely – or more specifically would exclude Rain World due to it’s very own magnificent design choices that are way beyond Dark Souls – but this is in general absolutely correct.

    If anything, developers should strive for the almost-perfection of many of Dark Souls series levels and the general world design.

    To be fair though, it has been often praised and been a constant topic of discussion as well, so I guess everybody should know by now.

    • poliovaccine says:

      I was just about to post to say, “I totally agree, except about Rain World…”

    • Kitsunin says:

      Yeah, saying Rain World has done away with all sense of fairness is patently false. The example used is literally false (if a predator is waiting in front of a pipe for a meal, you can just go back to the last screen instead of jumping into its mouth, no recourse my butt). Its difficulty varies hugely depending on chance, sure, but I’m reasonably certain cases where you can’t wriggle out of death through no fault of your own are one in a million (though still existent).

    • mashkeyboardgetusername says:

      I’m also going to disagree about Rain World, mainly because there ARE areas that fit together like Lordran does. I remember taking a fairly linear route through the Shaded Citadel first time because I couldn’t see anything (a horrible, but damn memorable, gaming experience) and wanted to just get through. Coming back later with a light and seeing (ha ha!) much more of the level was wonderful, and going down some deep windy path and suddenly realising you knew where you were, and how it all linked together, was a joy. A lot of Rain World actually has pretty cleverly designed levels.

      Except The Leg. The Leg can fuck right off.

  4. EDPVincent says:

    I completely agree with the article. The best thing about Dark Souls for me is the level design: no other game as ever made me remember to such fine detail the lay of the land even after only going through once, and then made me use it constantly by the clever usage of shortcuts. Even the fast travel is made so you can’t teleport exactly where you want to go, but it’s a two minute walk to wherever if you know your way around.

  5. Babymech says:

    Why is the Full Throttle remake not on this list?

  6. fuggles says:

    Sad thing is I read this with super déjà vu.
    link to kotaku.co.uk

    Sadder thing is I don’t even have dark souls, nor have ever played it, yet have read two similar articles. Sigh.

    • Rizlar says:

      That article is pretty much bang on my thinking.

    • trollomat says:

      I was reading that earlier as well, and have to say it’s more spot on than this, imho.

      Brendy gets extra cheers for mentioning Calvino though. :beer:

  7. Premium User Badge

    subdog says:

    KRZ may seem disjointed and obscure (or at least meandering), but I think at least Conway’s story has a cohesive through-line that grounds the whole experience.

    I don’t think these experiences are necessarily comparable. Dark Souls lives in a genre where “lore” and world-building have some pretty well-worn expectations. KRZ puts itself in a deliberately experimental space that isn’t saddled with those same expectations.

    A more apt comparison could be Morrowind, which is from the same genre and certainly has no shortage of lore and worldbuilding (a bit of an understatement), but leans heavily on the player for interpretation of deliberately obscured or contradictory information.

  8. Rizlar says:

    The level design is indeed something special. But I think the real lesson to take from Dark Souls is just ‘make it really fucking good’.

    Like the combat, for instance, isn’t good because it has a stamina bar and a fat roll and a system of upgrading weapons. It’s good because each enemy has been crafted to challenge the player with something characterful, that you can learn from and adapt to in a variety of ways using all the other game systems. Stuff like Bed of Chaos seems to be the exception that proves the rule.

    Or the setting, which draws on a bunch of heroic, fantasy archetypes and undermines them, creates a surreal, psychologically charged, imaginary space with strange and compelling denizens that plucks on your brain for some deep emotional responses.

    Like the lessons people seem to be drawing from Zelda:BotW, the craft and cleverness that has gone into every element and how they all work together is evident and key. It’s just really fucking good.

  9. phanatic62 says:

    I started Dark Souls for the first time this weekend.

    I’m using a Steam Controller.

    Next I think I’m going to stab a hot poker in my eye.

    (On topic: I am looking forward to experiencing the level design. I’ve heard great things about it. If I can actually make it far enough to see much of the game.)

    • Crafter says:

      The port is a nightmare to deal with.

      There are several mods out there that might make your experience easier. I am pretty sure that there might be one that allows you to display steam controller hints.

    • Premium User Badge

      MajorLag says:

      The PC port of Dark Souls is possible the worst port ever made. No, scratch that, Doom for the Jaguar was the worst port ever made, but Dark Souls for PC is close.

      • Aethyn says:

        At least it works. The framerate is still 30 and some things break if you go above that, but should you use a gamepad, at least the game works.

        Remember Arkham Knight, if you want a contender for worst port ever.

  10. Banks says:

    It is not the level design per se, it’s the sense of exploration, every step feeling frightening and the huge punishment for losing what made Demon’s and the first Dark Souls so special. The second and the third were just the mechanical structure without any of the charm of the previous games. They were, honestly, fucking boring.

    Bloodborne was good shit tho.

  11. narbareck says:

    I’m surprised no one mentions Hollow Knight. I haven’t played console exclusives like Nioh but, IMO, so far this game is the only one that’s captured what made Dark Souls enthralling, perhaps imitating it too closely.

    – A tale about a ruined kingdom ravaged by an unstoppable blight that you are urged to explore? Check
    – Lore explained through scraps of dialogue, item descriptions and visual cues? Check
    – Sparse NPCs with personal quests that often end in despair or morally gray decissions? Check
    – Everything covered by a dense aura of melancholy? Check

    It’s not as memorable as Dark Souls, but it understands what made you want to go forward. It looks great, sounds fantastic, plays well enough and it’s dirt cheap. Definitely filled my itch for ‘Souls-like’ for a while.

    • Turkey says:

      Ugh. Can’t wait to play it, but I’m one of the few players who’s getting severe lagging issues. There’s a bunch of us waiting for a patch.

      • sub-program 32 says:

        I too am very suprised Hollow Knight was not cited here, one thing you didn’t mention, perhaps most significant of all, is that it *actually follows the Lordran aspect* – the thing this article is talking about the others not getting! It’s perhaps not quite as good at it for sure, but multiple people I know have cited the soulslike feeling of the unexpected shortcuts in HK, and it’s fast travel system is just spaced well enough to avoid the flaws of the later dark souls games – the stag stations arent sccattered all over every location and boss, but are distinct locations, and some areas don’t even have any at all!
        (I read John’s review before I saw anything of the game, and so was not mad about it then cos I knew nothing. Now I know this game very well, and am very frustrated at the raw deal he gave this game, more focused on comparing it to Ori than as it’s own game)

        • narbareck says:

          Game’s great but also has a few faults:

          – I felt the game wasn’t very challenging. Anyone who can finish a Dark Souls game will probably die less than a couple dozen times before reaching the normal ending. There are no instakill traps, and rarely are you pressed for health. The hardest parts are optional/secret, might constitute the last 5% of the game, and while the challenge is appropiate it doesn’t approach the levels of Dark Souls most common difficulty spikes (Disclaimer: I’m a terrible Dark Souls player)

          – Bosses are mostly forgettable and, with some exceptions, a minor nuisance at best. This is probably what Team Cherry failed to (or didn’t intend to) translate from FROM’s games the most

          – While the game is atmospheric and has its own personality, you’ll be drawing parallels with Dark Souls all the time. You can’t stop thinking “Oh, this must be insect Solaire/Andre” or “This must be insect Anor Londo/Duke’s Archives”. Not sure if everyone likes that

          • sub-program 32 says:

            Regarding the bosses, I do agree that it is easier than souls bosses for sure, and mechnicical simplicity is part of that. But I would not call the main bosses forgettable. While some minibosses were faiirly generic, the more proper ones had their own kind of scenario, be it an honour duel against the leaders of a warrior clan or a rooftop battle against a powerful sorcerer. And those don’t really repeat, with one specific exception, and certainly make the game memorable for me.
            And while there certainly are Souls npc paralells (I know exactly who the Andre is for example) I personally didn’t instictively link every character to their souls equivilent. Like, it took me writing this post for me to realise the paralells between Solaire and Quirrel, becauuse I had never thought of it before. There’s also the factor of backer content, which is responsible for a suprising amount of the side characters in-game, including two traveling NPC’s and all of the Warrior’s Grave bosses. Question is, does this factor swing it closer to Souls by the backer’s shared interests, or does it bring more originality to the game instead? It interests me for sure.

          • sub-program 32 says:

            Also while I see souls paralells in several HK NPCs I do not agree the same on the areas. The only way I can associate Anor Londo/Duke’s Archives with their equivilents in Hollow Knight is by breaking them down to the generic template that has existed long before both games (eg great fallen city and place of knowledge gone horribly wrong). They do avoid a lot of direct traits – for example, while the Duke’s Archives is flooded with crystals everywhere, the crystal zone of hollow knight is nowhere near the Soul Sanctum, and generally speaking the mood of the place is substantionally different to their souls equivilent.

          • Someoldguy says:

            Seeing reduced difficulty as a fault is just a matter of perspective. There are tens of millions of players out there who love games like the Witcher 3 but simply don’t have the hand-eye coordination to succeed at games that need precision to enjoy. A game that delivers an extremely high quality experience without barring most of its potential customers is not a bad thing.

  12. heretikeen says:

    That has actually been my main problem with Nioh as well.
    Well done, game, you thought you copied out all the good stuff from Dark Souls and even improved on it with new moves and even story sequences!
    And afterwards many people noticed that it did so without realising what made DS truly magical, but the game already had its metascore of 90ish (IIRC).
    Note: Adding a completey superfluous story to your Soulslike shows you did not understand DS at all.

    • vahnn says:

      I bought a PS4 specifically to play Nioh, and grabbed Bloodborne while I was at it. Nioh bored me to tears, and Bloodborne’s 15-30 fps drives me absolutely insane. So I’ll likely never finish Nioh (I’ve played maybe 10 hours so far), and Bloodborne is on hold until they release a Pro patch for us PS4 Pro owners. Or it’s ported to PC, but I doubt that.

  13. RuySan says:

    Well, anyone can make a hard game, and maybe even a mysterious one. But good level design is a serious skill, and that’s why there hasn’t been many games like the original DS, and that it wasn’t by lack of trying from the competitors.

    On the other hand, the difficulty of DS is vastly overrated. I finished the game, and I’m not that good as a player. Any gamer who grew up during the arcade golden years and the 8-bit and 16-bit era laughs at the idea of Dark Souls being hard. Not only that, but it’s a game with an RPG character system, so there is always the option to grind if the playing is feeling the game is too hard.

    • poliovaccine says:

      Eh, while it may not be so hard once you get ahold of it, up until that point it has a bitch of a learning curve. Coming from combat systems ranging from Morrowind to FEAR to XCOM to Skyrim to the Far Cries to… etc. No matter what your background in skill, you had to learn that game.

  14. FreshHands says:

    I agree.

    On the other hand, while I felt strangely attracted to DS1 from the beginning, it was only with DS2’s better playability(?) that the series really won me over.

    Nowadays, all these games are essentially one grand experience for me, with different pros and cons.

    I wouldn’t go as far as saying level design is the big one. DS&BB are really prime examples of being more than the sum of their parts.

    Also a wellspring of inspiration.

  15. gabrielonuris says:

    When I’ve read the title of this post I literally screamed: YES!!!! FINALLY!!! But in my language, of course.

    There is a saying here where I live about trying something, and it says: “this isn’t for whom wants to do, but for whom CAN do.”. It’s like that Yoda’s saying: “Do or do not. There is no try.”

    What I’m trying to explain is that games like Salt And Sanctuary, Lords of The Fallen and Bound By Flame couldn’t have that world building, and I think the developers didn’t even try. Salt And Sanctuary for instance is almost impossible to navigate without a map. And the game doesn’t even have one, like Symphony of The Night had. That kind of world building can’t be accomplished by any developer; not even From Software could accomplish that again with Bloodborne, DS2 and DS3. If it was easy, every game would have it.

    Talking about not even From Software accomplishing Dark Souls again, let’s take what the masses talk about Dark Souls. You see people remembering the game as a difficult one, frustrating, hard to beat, hard to finish and all. I think some developers didn’t even play Dark Souls, they simply listen to what the masses talk about it and goes all: “that’s it guys, our next game will be hard, because that’s the thing now, that’s what the kids are finding cool nowadays.” But they forget that Dark Souls’ difficulty comes with fairness, with accomplishment and joyfull delight. Yes, it is hard. But it isn’t frustrating. DS2 is easier, but it has more frustrating parts for the sake of being hard. While playing DS1 I never thought: “that’s BS, WTF designed that?! That’s impossible.”, but while playing DS2 the game was full of those rage moments: gank squads, The Three Sentinels, Heide Knights and their insta-hit frames, the FUME KNIGHT…

    People are struggling to nail even the fighting mechanisms, even more the world building. I think the secret recipe of that kind of world building is thinking as if the map was small and circular. That’s why Firelink Shrine has a “home, sweet home” feeling about it. It’s in the center of the universe. It’s as far and as near as everywhere you need to go. You talked about backtracking, yes, it has some; but it isn’t a big deal, because the shortcuts makes everything seems even smaller.

    As an example I like to point at STALKER Call of Pripyat: at each of its zones you have a central safe zone, like Skadovsk on its first section; Skadovsk is as far away and as near from anywhere you need to go. It’s a safe haven, a home, because of that. Shadow of Chernobyl had a rectangular map, with Cordon being at it’s base; by the time you got near Pripyat, you had to be a masochist to backtrack to the Rookie Village in Cordon, because the lack of fast travel and vehicles would make that a hell of a trip.

    Oh, and talking about similar games, try the first Soul Reaver. Not the second, neither Defiance. The first Soul Reaver. It has the same kind of world building, and I’m pretty sure someone at From got inspirations from that game to build Lordran.

  16. baseless_drivel says:

    Top five methods to help make your own uninspired bandwagon software:

    5. Take a gameplay element(s) from Souls series, and tweak and rename/rebrand/recolor it. Or hell, just straight up copy it.

    4. Use a DARK and gritty color palette.

    3. Include messages to the player reminding them how hardcore your game is when they die.

    2. In advertising your game, be sure to include terms like hardcore and unforgiving. Bonus points if you can somehow include roguelike, love letter, or how “casuals” are destroying the game industry.

    1. Add the word “souls” in your title.

    Anyhow, a notable I’m a Souls Game Too game not mentioned here is Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight. I haven’t played through much yet, but the core gameplay seems solid, and the 2D pixel art is actually well drawn and animated.

  17. Pilchardo says:

    Thank you so much for this article. I’m forever boring people with lengthy diatribes about how incredible Dark Souls’ level design is. This says everything I try to convey about a hundred times better.

  18. RickyButler says:

    Momodora IV: Reverie Under the Moonlight riffs off of Dark Souls SO WELL. My favorite game of 2016. Beautiful pixel art, a moving soundtrack, intense gameplay, a seamless world to explore — all tokens from the Souls series while holding its own personality.

    If there was any chance the DS team ever played it (sincerely doubt), I’d swear the Sister Friede fight from DS3’s DLC was inspired by Momo 4’s Pardonner Fennel and Archpriestesss Choir battles.

    • narbareck says:

      Momodora IV is certainly a solid metroidvania heavily borrowing on Dark Souls. I enjoyed it, but in the end Hollow Knight stuck with me more, even though Momodora’s combat is probably the better of the two.

      By the way, Momodora V was announced the other day but it looks…eh

      link to gematsu.com

    • Turkey says:

      Yeah. I was so impressed that I stopped playing so I could go through the rest of the prequels first. 1 and 2 seem to have a lot more in common with Cave Story than DS.

  19. Premium User Badge

    Swordfishtrombone says:

    I actually disagree with your qualms about how the ‘story’ is delivered in Dark Souls. To me, Dark Souls is almost an archaeology sim (or an “archaeology-’em-up” to use the correct RPS terminology), where a large part of its atmosphere and sense of helplessness comes from trying to figure out – with almost no prior knowledge – what the hell went wrong in this bizarre, terrible place you’ve found yourself, and who on earth all the strange characters are who inhabit it. The vagueness of item descriptions means that your own desperately patched-together narrative doesn’t get shredded by bloated exposition, and leaves you to infer things from an item’s name, appearance and even place of discovery as much as anything else. I hesitate to say this because comparing any Souls game to real life is patently ridiculous, but it feels more like the way you would naturally learn about a strange place simply through exploring it alone.

    Though, last time I asked my brother he reported that he didn’t bring a Zweihander to his last dig site, so maybe this isn’t how archaeologists work after all.

    • Imperialist says:

      I can agree with the whole “exploration is story” thing, though i feel its execution is all over the place. NPCs talk in what sounds vaguely like a child’s interpretation of “medieval speak”, and the creator clearly felt the need to act like the whole thing is symbolic and poetic, when it really just isnt. It dabbles in heavy handed metaphor when there really isnt a payoff, or a reason in general.

      Also, how can human civilization thrive at all during this doom cycle, and why do they reach the same technology level with zero advancements (yet can construct incomprehensibly huge structures we cant even make today) and then are completely unprepared for anything bad happening? The whole lore structure is a double edged sword. I find it to be a great series, but far from a benchmark for world building and storytelling.

      • sansenoy says:

        The whole ‘repeated cycles of linking the fire’ thing is just franchise building Bandai Namco bullshit, none of which pertains to DS1. There’s only one apocalypse event in Dark Souls.

        There is a very clear distinction between Lordran and the rest of the world (other lands, specifically). Many deeply unnatural things happened in Lordran at the onset of the undead curse, turning it into a fog-laden, time-distorting, demon-infested place with strong connections to all the major players possibly linked to the curse appearing. The other lands are simply scrambling to contain the undead, with no mention of any unnatural phenomena, no time phasing in and out, no fog gates, no dangerous rituals made to appease the flame, just a world falling apart as Lordran should have…

        Lordran is a deeply surreal place, you can’t look at it through the lens of some human society gone kersplash, it is Purgatory incarnate. It is a place out of time, completely devoid of life, propped up by whatever powers the bonfires tap into.

        Who we are, what we are and when we are in this world are the question to answer, not why is this castle built so tall…

        You’re right about the flowery language, DS has its share of ghost writers and they’re not that deeply involved, sadly…

    • Zeusexy says:

      The problem with the story is that even after 3 games and 6 DLCs they didn’t manage to end it properly. It began promisingly but they kept adding new places and characters (but mostly questions) without explaining the previous ones and answering the old questions. The story became so thin and vague after dark souls 1 and the fanbase could only make speculations and theories to justify that clusterfuck of events and characters. In the end it didn’t work, their metanarrative was inspiring but poorly executed and Miyazaki wasted all the potentials of a good lore (you’ll understand what I’m saying just by finishing ashes of ariandel and the ringed city) with a bland, anonymous ending that left sooo many questions unanswered.

    • Rumpelstiltskin says:

      The archaeology comparison sounds rather appropriate, in that 95% of your findings are useless rubbish, and whatever story you can piece together from the rest is usually fragmented and boring.

      • Kurdishcurse says:

        Rumpelstiltskin- good thing you arent an archeologist. You wouldve been a failure.

        • Rumpelstiltskin says:

          That sounds like one of the weaker tier 1 insults from Monkey Island.

    • Flavorfish says:

      Demon’s Souls did lore so much better. It had enough of a preamble to excite the imagination, but really had that sense of discovery tied to learning about the lore. It reminded me in the best way possible of how Team Ico designs lore through worldbuilding and architecture.

      Dark Souls lore was just hollow (hehe) and weak. It had many iterative gameplay improvements (especially estus flasks), but it was a less imaginative and interesting game.

  20. Baines says:

    The title to this article has something of a flaw. As with many such trends, the devs (and particularly publishers) rushing to make “soulslikes” likely never properly knew or understood what made the Souls games popular in the first place. They just do a surface copy.

    It is the same reason none of the Monster Hunter-inspired games ever come close to duplicating Monster Hunter. You get surface elements like giant monsters, cutting parts from monsters, and crafting new equipment from the parts. But you don’t get the core stuff. The knock-offs don’t really try to model natural creature behavior, so it isn’t really “hunting” and you instead just get generic boss monster battle design. Some don’t even bother to try to rise above worry-free button mashing combat.

    “Roguelike” today means something that is at best only tangentially related to what the term once meant.

    Publishers jumped onto open worlds, Arkham-style combat, and various other well-received ideas with little understanding of why those ideas succeeded.

  21. Premium User Badge

    basilisk says:

    Sorry, but no. Lots of things here are true, but DS1’s story is not “bunk” by any standard. In fact, it’s one of the best stories in all of gaming. Seriously. Because it pulls off a trick that could not be pulled off in any other medium, as it actively works with your expectations and your desire to be the hero of the story. Because when you go off the beaten path and put in the effort to understand the plot and gather all the pieces together, which is deliberately quite difficult to do, you’ll realise that you have not been the hero at all, but only a stupid pawn who did what they were told because it was sugar-coated by cheap flattery and died an ignoble death for a cause they never even understood.

    So it’s incredibly opaque for a very good reason. It’s a very thorough deconstruction of the whole “saviour of the world” trope with one of the smartest villains in all of RPG-dom who’s pulling the strings from behind the curtain all along and whom you probably won’t even meet during your first playthrough. Sure, lots of people will miss this aspect of the game completely, but that’s pretty much the entire point.

    • dethtoll says:

      This is correct.

    • keefybabe says:

      *spoilers* I still remember seeing the crestfallen knight go hollow, and although it’s not explained, it’s clear he did so because he’d started to regain his hope because of what you were doing. Then there’s Queelag’s story. Jesus.

      Dark Souls is more like one of those movies that tells you the story through inference. The problem is that pretty much all other games are closer to generic action movies with gobs of exposition and no room for interpretation.

      Its closer to Requiem for a Dream than a Bourne movie

  22. Shockeh says:

    I’m way more in tune with Richard’s linked article than Brendan on on Souls. I don’t even get WHY people like the series, much less like it myself.

    Is it because it’s too difficult? No; In fact, I quite enjoy that aspect. But it feels mostly like playing a mid-90’s VoodooFX-era RPG, with no rationale for why I should care and not so much as ‘find your path’ as ‘Whatever, kill this, or not, we don’t care’.

    I have tried to play Dark Souls many, many times, and every time I just can’t get any adhesion. Within a couple of plays I just feel Hollow (pun intended) and go find something more engaging.

  23. Improper says:

    Calling Kentucky Route Zero “squinting at scribbles” is pretty apt. From what I played it I can kinda appreciate it (I like the atmosphere and wish more games went for it), but it ultimately failed to make any strong impressions. I usually love stories that rely on mystery, hinting at something otherworldly or arcane. Some stories like KRZ can’t handle it well and just feel like they’re being obscure for the sake of it. Maybe I should take another crack at it since I last played like 2-3 years ago, at least I will if the last act is ever done.

    That said it is pretty baffling that the game was chosen for GOTY in RPS and others in an unfinished state (well it is playable, but story isn’t done I think?). I mean sure, if you’ve absolutely enjoyed what was offered even before you get to the last meal, it won’t necessarily void your fun even if those last bites are bland by comparison. Though not all people are that amicable.

    I guess it ended up being a lot more work than thought and/or it didn’t sell as well as hoped, however it’s not great that a fairly expensive game 4+ years on pseudo-Early Access still doesn’t have a timeline for completion. Also it’s given free through Twitch Prime at the moment, I suppose they get some compensation from that anyway but still a bit ridiculous.

  24. tslog says:

    Most come to souls for overcoming its difficulty within a basic base combat system that is considered acceptable enough.

    Even with the more notable level design, it’s the combat most come for. Since its the only gameplay.

    With none actually mentioning it’s awful AI. An endless array of idiotic enemies over committing to a heavy/kamakazie attack that leaves them rediculously exposed.
    A DNA of repetition of combat tension completely dominating over AI, done, over and over and over again.

    It’s a set up that I noticed from the 2nd enemy I faced from Demons Souls. Traditional boss battle set up with all Souls mob enemies across the board… or is that, bored. Boss battle set up for mobs but with less attack patterns, zero defence, and less health…..and more.

    AI is never mention in Souls, because it’s a source of shame.

    • skyst says:

      I love challenging games and pretty much game exclusively on the hardest difficulty when given the option. I generally agree with your post and I feel that this series is overrated.

      I purchased Demon’s Souls on PS3 way back when and got about halfway through it before losing interest. The only bit of the game that left an impression and also led me to quit playing was a boss fight with a dragon along some lengthy bridge with gates or some manner of parapets breaking it up into segments (perhaps someone more familiar with the game will know what I’m trying to remember). The dragon had a short loop of an attack pattern with obvious audio cues as to when it was susceptible to a ranged attack. I lived in a small, studio apartment at the time and was able to walk around my place, to the kitchen, to the bathroom, to my PC, all out of line-of-sight of my TV. I did this while listening to the stupid dragon loop its way to an eventual demise as I shot an arrow every 20 seconds or so.

      I tried Dark Souls well after release, having acquired it cheap on Steam during a sale. I bought it because of all of the praise it received for being a great, super-hard RPG. I modded it properly to make it look a little nicer and play smoothly on my PC; I recall it being locked in potato resolution and being nearly unplayable on kb+m. I never got very far, despite starting the game 3 or 4 times over the years. I remember encountering a rather difficult swordsman in one of the earlier zones and dying because his sword swings kept clipping through stone walls that I rolled behind – not breaking down the walls, slashing over them, around them or thrusting his blade through them – just kind of disregarding their existence and hitting me anyway. Frustrated by this so-called great combat, I eventually led him up a nearby tower and tricked him into falling off; he foolishly followed me up time and time again until he died.

      At this point, I give up on the series.

      • Flavorfish says:

        The clipping is really something that boggles my mind. It feels intentional and yet it’s both totally immersion breaking and ‘challenging’ for all the wrong reasons. The worst is Ceaseless Discharge, a boss halfway through the game whose attacks could literally clip through mountains to kill the player.

    • Flavorfish says:

      I agree, the mechanics have some depth but I’ve never really engaged with that depth because the AI has been a rote series of patterns where the only challenge comes from memorization.

  25. TheBeret says:

    I always thought someone needed to write this exact kind of article about Goldeneye. Hell if nobody wants to I’d be keen to write it myself, given the 20th anniversary is coming up this year. Does RPS accept guest articles?

  26. mitthrawnuruodo says:

    The level design makes Dark Souls unique I agree. But the game sells so much because of the difficulty gimmick, not because of level design. Gamers will do anything to look “hardcore” – that includes pretending to love something and spend lot of money for it, despite having a horrid time with it.

    Good level design requires work, and thought. Difficulty gimmick does not. So the “soulslikes” go for the later more readily than the former.

  27. Frank says:

    “The Souls series is special in that it is all things to all gamers”

    I mean, maybe, if I wanted to own a controller and spend hours counting animation frames while cursing. I didn’t like Streets of Rage, so I don’t see why its humorless descendant would be for me either. I’d be happy to find out I like it, but it sure does not look like it’s for me.

    • keefybabe says:

      Yeah, to run properly you need DSFix. Chimped port fixed by the community.

      It’s an incredibly elegant game with a really tough door of entry, and you’ll probably hate the first 6 hours. I bounced off it so hard initially.

      But it’s worth persisting.

  28. CartonofMilk says:

    Pretty sure what makes dark souls unique is its SHITTY combat.

    Fine fine…ill see myself out.

  29. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    I tentatively disagree with your point regarding Demon’s Souls and shortcuts.

    Admittedly, the hub design can be seen as being inferior, but the levels still have intriguing shortcuts throughout. I can’t think of a single level that doesn’t twist back on itself numerous times, with my personal favourite being the outstanding Tower of Latria.

    But then, Demon’s Souls was my first Souls game, and by far my favourite. Old Monk is still for me the standout moment in multiplayer gaming in the last decade.

    I hold that Souls games are like MMOs in that respect: your first is your favourite, and the yardstick by which all others you ever play will be measured. And inevitably, all others will be found wanting.

  30. Menthalion says:

    “any movie by the Coen brothers”, really ?

    I like a lot of their work, but their movies are all over between
    “chaotic/complex but everything ties up” (Fargo, Millers Crossing)
    to
    “Pretty simple story dressed up with a bit of weirdness” (Lebowski, OBWAT)
    to
    “What the fuck have I just been watching and even more importantly, why ?”
    (A Serious Man) rivalling the crap David Lynch churns out.

    • Halk says:

      If that’s what you thought of A Serious Man, I’d recommend reading some opinions on what the movie wants to say and how its details connect to it.

      • Menthalion says:

        If any work of art needs external explanation, it has failed already.

        • Brendan Caldwell says:

          I guess Dark Souls has failed pretty spectacularly then!

  31. golem09 says:

    I actually prefer the DS3 level design. To me that is where the series really excelled. I like my areas to be just a bit linear with a lot of interconnected sidepaths, it’s just more fun to me that way.
    A new shortcut is a cool thing, but ultimately just a nice gimmick. Like a cameo in a movie. It’s nice, can be cool, but doesn’t actually add anything substantial.
    I really loved all the huge hidden areas in DS3, and also how ultimately connected everything is. Replaying the game made me realize how often the game presents you something you’ll visit later or have visit already. It also made me realize at some point that the entire game just has two areas + hub. There is one single point that you traverse by cutscene, and through the rest you can travel by foot without any loading screens. It’s not as interconnected, but realizing the landscape they built for this and looking at it from different angles is a delight for me.
    That said what still amazes me the most about the souls games is not even the level design, but the enemy and weapon design. Just like with Binding of Isaac, people don’t seem to understand that having well designed and varied enemies that you have to approach very differently is the core of the experience. Dark Souls just goes one step further with that, and not only gives you one or 5 movesets to approach them, but nearly as many as there are weapons.

  32. ambidot says:

    this article glosses over multiple titles in a single sentence. Salt and Sanctuary got the level design down. the others listed games didn’t or aren’t applicable to the topic of level design.

    on a separate topic, DS1’s level design is immersive and entertaining in its own right, absolutely. however, most of that merit is aesthetic, and not a gameplay improvement over any other Souls’s level design.

  33. montorsi says:

    What makes Dark Souls unique is that it manages to do what it’s trying to do and doesn’t get in its own way. If the combat were bad, the ambient storytelling uninteresting, the monsters less varied and fun to fight, etc, no one would give a rip about the level design.

  34. Chaoslord AJ says:

    Agree with the dungeon building analysis. Being lost and bogged down in those basilisk-infested sewers was marvelous. Finally reaching the bottom of Blighttown and realizing you need to get back up there (although there are shortcuts with different perils) and then there’s like Ash Lake going ever deeper vertically. It feels like a dangerous journey there and back again instead of being instantly safe via conveniently placed teleports.

    But like some of the readers above I don’t really share the dislike of the lynchian story. I don’t need to have the story handed out to me on a plate. I’m fine with not knowing what humanity is exactly, what lord souls are and what they do, why there is some Nito guy who looks like a bunch of corpses, where the pygmy went etc.
    I can have forgettable fantasy stories by the dozen but believable mythos world are rare. Tolkien did that with middle-earth, intentionally leaving stuff vague like what Gandalf can do with magic exactly, the names of the Nazgul, what Sauron looks like in the third age and so on. For one part story told you feel there are 9 parts “world” out there you don’t get to see.

    • Premium User Badge

      DantronLesotho says:

      100% agreed. I took the DS story as similar to old epics like the Odyssey or Gilgamesh. There is a character thrust into a play of a world around them, trying to navigate established world parts while not understanding them, in order to accomplish a singular(ish) goal. DS differs from say, Diablo, in that its characters all have their own motivations and backstories. In Diablo for example, can you think of anything that the demons want to do other than “be evil and corrupt the world”? Whereas in DS you have each of the Lords trying to reign over their own domains, and working to preserve them in their respective ways. I think this is sorely missed from a lot of games as well, especially ones where there is distinct good and evil.

      • Chaoslord AJ says:

        Exactly one of those generic stories I had in the back of my mind with the first Diablo being a kind of rogue-likelike having a similarly vague setting only to have it explained away in later entries.
        Dark Souls feels more like Gilgamesch in the way as if they had broken the stone tablet and lost most of the tale.

  35. Premium User Badge

    DantronLesotho says:

    What I love about the Dark Souls level design is exactly what was illustrated in this article. I think few game designers come to realize that at a certain point of your game world expanding, it will need to have a way to reduce tedium when backtracking or people will bounce off of it, knowing how much work they have to do to backtrack. Case in point of games that ALMOST get it but not quite: Guacamelee and Axiom Verge. Both excellent games in their own right, but Guacamelee’s traversal of HAVING to solve difficult jumping puzzles EVERY time you want to go from one location to the next, and AV’s giant head transporter taking you to the different sections of the world works invokes tedium.

    The advantage that DS and other similar games have is the bidirectional level design and vertical central corridor connecting them. DS even missteps on this later on in the game where the crunched together levels are no longer sufficient, and the level designers wisely let you teleport between bonfires at that point. I think there should be a metric similar to the old “Time To Crate” (from Old Man Murray) but for how much backtracking tedium you have to do before you put in a shortcut or easement.

    tl;dr make your world design shaped like a doughnut and/or magnetic field.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      As you mention Axiom Verge, Super Metroid (3) is possibly the best metroidvania of them all including the dungeon building.

  36. UW says:

    I must admit I sit firmly in the “Dark Souls isn’t that hard” camp. It may be that my early-game memories have eroded over time but I think a lot of the reason for this is that “hard” implies frustration and unfairness (at least to me – I know this isn’t what “hard” really means but I think this is what it conjures up in a lot of people’s minds) but I rarely felt that. The thing about the game is that it teaches you so well that it doesn’t take all that much effort to master many aspects of it. For the most part, whenever I died in the game I usually knew why and how to avoid it in future, and I rarely even found death to be particularly upsetting because once you have mastered a section of the game it becomes an almost effortless ballet, a joy to traverse. I think a lot of Dark Souls’ difficulty is an elaborate illusion that makes you feel all the more badass when you become adept at it.

    I suppose what I am saying, and this may sound silly, is that it is easy to call Dark Souls hard if you consider every death to be a failure or a setback – yet the game somehow makes most deaths feel like meaningful progress. Even when you are repeating the same section, you are still moving forward in a way and for me that meant that the game never really felt hard at all.

    • Rumpelstiltskin says:

      I don’t think that appearing harder than it is is actually a good thing. To me it sounds like the opposite would be a more desirable/commendable quality. Also, I think a lot of confusion is caused by mixing hardness as in “requiring discipline and precision” and hardness as true/objective complexity.

      • UW says:

        I see where you’re coming from, but I think the feeling of overcoming a seemingly impossible challenge is very satisfying. I often hear discussed that truly brilliant puzzle game design is about designing puzzles in a way that the game sort of leads you to the solution without you realising and make you feel like a genius for solving it. I think a similar concept applies here, Dark Souls makes you feel incredibly skilled but in reality you have just been following the trail of breadcrumbs laid out by the designers of the game.

        Where I think the perception of difficulty is a problem is that many people simply aren’t interested in games that are described as “hard” and will never play Dark Souls for that reason alone, which I think is a shame. Certainly the game is not for everyone but I think many people who would enjoy the game do miss out on it. I came to the Souls party very late for this exact reason. Additionaly, sometimes there is an unjustified aura of smugness and superiority amongst people who have completed the game (nowhere near the majority – overall the Dark Souls community is very pleasant and welcoming).

        I understand that I am “redefining an agreed-upon term” as Brendan mentions in his article, but honestly I think that the way Dark Souls’ difficulty is generally perceived absolutely justifies a clarification of exactly what difficulty means. I’m sure Souls games are far from the first to be thought about this way, but I think it has occurred on a much larger scale than any other series in history.

  37. Urthman says:

    You know what game has learned all the right lessons from Dark Souls? Zelda: Breath of the Wild. BotW not only fixes most of the long-time complaints players have had about the Zelda games, it also fixes everything that’s wrong with open-world games like AssCreed, FarCry and Bethesda RPGs. And it picks up on what’s good about Dark Souls combat and map-less interconnected exploration (BotW has a map, but it forces you to explore by looking at the world rather than burying your nose in the map).

    I really hope every game developer spends lots of time sitting at the feet of and learning from BotW.

    • Chaoslord AJ says:

      BotW is extremely souls-like, from the weapons, the mostly forlorn lands, the gothic castle, the hinted-at story, the breaking weapons but then I felt there was always a connection betweeen the two series.

  38. Monggerel says:

    As the legendary grandmaster of lore, spoken of in legends, of lore, I can 100% definitely for sure confirm that EVERYONE ELSE BUT ME is 100% definitely for sure way the god damn off the mark and has not the slightest clue what makes Dark Souls, Dark Souls.
    It ain’t the levels.
    It ain’t the souls the bloods the swords the clubs the shields the rolls the memes the walls the rings the fashionable builds.
    It ain’t the solitude or the air of sorrow-tinged desolate beauty.

    Dark Souls is about
    THE
    GIANT WOMEN
    WITH MASSIVE BAZONGAS
    (and sometimes a tail)
    (or a hat)

    Dixi.

  39. Paul.Power says:

    Haha, I’ve just realised a game that captures Dark Souls’ sense of level design and building a world that fits together properly really well: The Witness.

    It forces you to walk around and connect the important locations together and develop a mental map, with the occasional thrown bone of a shortcut, and unrelated to Dark Souls it even has that beautiful fakeout of “oh, so here’s the fast travel syste… oh, or should I say slow travel system…” (and yes, SPOILERS: environmental puzzle solving system).

  40. Kingseeker Camargo says:

    Their dogged insistence on immediately available fast travel and a shrine that is virtually disconnected from all other locations has turned what once felt like a journey into a matter of hopping up at your destination through a loading screen, like some sort of weird, teleporting rabbit.

    I always took that as one major flaw in DS2. When it was announced that universal teleporting would be available in DS3 as well, for a little while I hoped Miyazaki would give it some kind of spin to have it not ruin exploration –not so.

    I tried a DS3 playthrough without teleporting, and it turns out that trying to navigate the world naturally just feels weird for the most part, and almost breaks the game a few times. At best, it makes abundantly clear that you’re just *supposed* to rely on teleporting, and that some areas were never intended to be visited more than once.

    The Ringed City DLC is the worst in that regard: It’s so aggressively linear you can’t even take 10 steps back without forcibly *having* to teleport, making it physically impossible to go back on foot.

    As much of a genius as I think Miyazaki is, sometimes I think he came up with the masterpiece that is Lordran’s worldbuilding almost by accident, and he’s just unable to replicate it.

  41. floogles says:

    Great article, thank you. I think another big element that defines DS is the atmosphere, and this gets forgotten by devs as well. It also takes a lot of skill to create.

    I think Vagrant Story gets very close on this aspect.

  42. Kurdishcurse says:

    Blatantly disagree with the “cheap trick” story of dark souls bit. I find that statement thoughtless and not well-researched. Other than that, good article.

  43. Kurdishcurse says:

    I also find your view on lordan blindly bias. Although ds1 is the best in level design BETWEEN areas, i find many individual areas in yharnam and lothric to be vastly better designed than many ds1 areas.

  44. Arglebargle says:

    Hairshirt design for flagellant gamers. Not for me.

    Especially the problematic PC port.