The Dark Souls Effect

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Dark Souls is a 2011 role-playing video game developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco. The game continues the design and gameplay of its spiritual predecessor, Demon’s Souls. It is specifically known for its difficulty, vague instructions, and complex storytelling that must be pieced together through the environment and through objects and descriptions within the game. Due to the design, style, and especially the intense difficulty, there has been a recent trend in gaming where a game is referred to as “Souls-like” or “The Dark Souls of…”. For example, Cuphead is “The Dark Souls of two-dimensional side-scroller platforming games” or Thumper is “The Dark Souls of rhythm games”. It’s obvious that these comparisons are rather exaggerated, and Dark Souls, as well as the other Souls games developed by FromSoftware, are unique. The only “Dark Souls of” anything is Dark Souls itself, however, due to the breakout popularity of the Souls franchise, game developers and journalists have resorted to drawing comparisons between their properties and the Souls games. It’s not a foreign concept, as movies pitched to studios have often been described as “it’s Die Hard meets Lord of the Rings” or “Star Wars meets Titanic”. Drawing comparison to a more popular property makes it easier for companies to convey what they want people to think of their properties. In the case of Dark Souls though, the comparisons have been blown out of proportion to the point where anything even remotely difficult will be compared to Dark Souls. This is all related to something I like to call, “The Dark Souls Effect”. I’m going to be discussing what exactly “The Dark Souls Effect” is, its upsides and drawbacks, and how it will impact the future of gaming.

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The Souls games consist of Demon’s Souls (2009), Dark Souls (2011), Dark Souls II (2014), Bloodborne (2015), and Dark Souls III (2016).

I first picked up the original Dark Souls in 2014, and after struggling through only the first fourth of the game, I quit in a fit of rage. The game was simply too hard for me. Each enemy felt like a major threat, and the bosses were massively intimidating. I had also convinced myself that the game was simply unstylish and had clunky mechanics that made the difficulty artificial (I still think the game is a little clunky even now). I didn’t touch another Souls game until 2016 when Dark Souls 3 was released. Though I was still hesitant, under peer pressure and some considerable hype, I caved and bought the game. After some learning, I quickly fell in love with Dark Souls 3, and it is now in my top 5 greatest games of all time. Hungry for more Souls, I went back and played the original Dark Souls, this time playing through the whole thing and beating it faster than I did Dark Souls 3. I then played Dark Souls 2, and then Dark Souls 1 and 3 again multiple times. In the past two years, I’ve invested at least 300 hours in the Souls games, and I recently bought a PlayStation 4 primarily so that I could play the PlayStation exclusive Bloodborne, which is also a Souls game but with a different setting and story. I think it’s safe to say that I’m pretty experienced when it comes to the Souls games. What sets them apart from other games isn’t just the difficulty, but rather the minimalistic approach to guiding the player, and the vastness of the detailed worlds in which the games take place. When you first play the original Dark Souls, the world is interconnected and massive, crawling with enemies and teaming with areas to explore and items to discover. The world is also bleak, harsh, and dangerous. As the player, you don’t feel powerful, you feel insignificant. Everything in this world is bigger than you and can crush you in an instant. Because of this, it feels immensely rewarding when you overcome such overwhelming odds. It feels as if you triumphed over something that you weren’t meant to, like David against Goliath. There’s also the exploration aspect of discovering hidden areas and new helpful items. The fact that the player has to piece together the story and also figure out themselves what they have to do in the game makes it more active rather than passive. There’s also no pause button so you really have to be engaged and focus in. Then there’s the boss battles, exciting action set pieces against a single foe with a large health pool and high damage output where dodging and understanding their move set is key. These boss battles invoke something that transcends passivity in gaming. I can describe in detail the way I feel in many boss encounters in the Souls game: elevated heart rate, sweaty palms, and eyes glued to the screen. Then there’s beating the boss, a feeling of complete joy and triumph swells inside me as I either take a deep sigh of relief, jump for joy, and in some cases, cry tears (Yes I literally cried tears of joy when I beat the hardest boss in the Souls series). These moments created within me an obsession with these games, where the only thing I wanted to play was another Souls game, or something similar. When I ran out of Souls games to play, I played them again, and when I was done with that, I searched for other games that had the same kind of difficulty. Dark Souls and anything similar became like a drug for me, I just had to have my fix.  It’s likely that other gamers felt this way too, and so the industry responded by pushing out “Souls-like” games. This push for higher difficulty, more RPG elements, and intricate level design in games is what I call “The Dark Souls Effect”.

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Dark Souls thrusts players into a massive, interconnected world with dangerous foes.

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Intense boss battles take place throughout the game.

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The benefit of “The Dark Souls Effect” is that it’s a counterbalance to games like Call of Duty and movie-based “handholding” games where every aspect of the game is told to you through visual cues and arrow signs. The lack of in-game microtransactions, longer story, and greater emphasis on fluid gameplay also benefits the gaming industry. Games like Nioh and the new God of War have been successful in creating a variant of the Souls style of combat. Not every game is successful in copying the Souls formula, however, and games like Lords of the Fallen or The Surge came off more as imitations rather than their own experiences. Many developers in the industry have misunderstood the true greatness of Dark Souls, and have instead tacked on difficulty to their games. The thing is that Demon’s Souls, the Dark Souls games, and Bloodborne are unique in their overall package, through design and gameplay just as much as difficulty. It’s perfectly fine for other games to take inspiration from the series and try and improve their level design, gameplay, and world-building, but games coming off as lazy Dark Souls clones like Lords of the Fallen are happening more and more. It’s the same issue with Battle Royale modes from Fortnite and PUBG being copied. Call of Duty Black Ops 4 doesn’t need a Battle Royale mode but it’s doing it instead of a campaign mode to exploit the popularity of the Battle Royale mode.

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Games like The Surge, Lords of the Fallen, Nioh, and God of War have borrowed some elements from the Souls games, though God of War doesn’t simply copy them and has its own franchise to draw inspiration from.

Now, E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo for major game developers is right around the corner. Amongst the lineup, FromSoftware is teasing a new game called “Shadows Die Twice” which some have speculated to be a sequel to Bloodborne. The Souls formula hasn’t shown any signs of slowing, and we will likely get more games similar to Dark Souls. This is all fine and good, if there will be more Souls-like games, odds are some of them will be good and some won’t. I myself am conflicted on the continuation of the Souls series. Many have argued, and it is believed to be so, that Dark Souls creator Hidetaka Miyazaki never meant for a sequel to Dark Souls itself, and instead wanted to continue making passion projects with the same style of gameplay and level design like Bloodborne was, but the studio pushed forward with a Dark Souls sequel after the popularity of the original game. To that end, I hope the Souls formula continues but with new creative stories and periods. Demon Souls was clearly a medieval dungeon/castle crawler whereas Dark Souls was an open world, full-scale dark fantasy, and Bloodborne was Victorian Gothic. Though I’d be more than happy to play a Bloodborne 2, I would be just as thrilled or even more thrilled to play something fresh and new that adapts the Souls formula in new and innovative ways.

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The Souls games are some of the best games ever made. They have shown that video games can be challenging, thought-provoking, adaptive, mature, and still be extremely fun. There’s a true sense of engagement and accomplishment when playing through these games, and the impact they’ve made on the video game industry should hopefully continue with a greater focus on fair and rewarding difficulty. Challenge is one of the most important features of a video game. Much like a story needs the characters to overcome obstacles, the gamer needs obstacles to overcome in the game. Dark Souls boldly challenged players to take control of their characters and learn and discover how to play through a dark and formidable world. Though none of the games are perfect, they are all masterpieces in their own right for furthering the formula. The importance of “The Dark Souls Effect”, is that regardless of its quality, it highlights the need for detail and passion in creating challenging and fluid gameplay, complex world building and level design, and greater player interactivity and control. “The Dark Souls Effect” stirs up attention for a debate in gaming that is necessary and vital to the industry as a means of combating the rising corporatization of games. It presents the promising prospect of the gaming community asking for more games like Dark Souls that will improve gaming as an art form.

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