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.

Video Games: The Art of the Future

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There has been a certain social stigma against video games for as long as I can remember. Many people consider video games to be a lesser form of art and even more refuse to consider video games as an art form art at all. Of course, most of these people have either never seen a video game, or never played a video game and are only basing their conclusions off of viewing other people play games. What I’m saying now isn’t an opinion. Video games cannot and will not be denied the right to be considered a form of art. Wikipedia defines art as “a diverse range of human activities in creating visual, auditory, or performing artifacts (artworks), expressing the author’s imaginative or technical skill, intended to be appreciated for their beauty or emotional power”. By this definition, which I would say is a pretty holistic definition, video games qualify as works of art without question. Yet, in our current society, video games are seen more as mind-numbing forms of entertainment meant to distract kids and sedate teenagers. It’s funny because there was a time when other forms of entertainment such as movies and comic books were considered distractors and sideshows that wouldn’t qualify as art. Over time, these mediums eventually became accepted into the prestigious world of high art, complete with their own prestigious awards and snooty critics. Art is about immersion, reflection, connection, and appreciation. How is admiring a landscape painting by Frederic Remington different from appreciating the painstakingly crafted digital atmosphere of the new God of War? Actually, there is a difference…the art presented in video games is more immersive and advanced in regards to interactivity than many other mediums. That’s why I believe video games are not only a rich medium of art but also the medium of the future. There are more and more people buying and playing games each year, and I believe that as time goes on, public perception will change about video games and they will join the pantheon of high art. There are, however, some roadblocks that need addressing that will hinder the progress of games becoming recognized by the general populace as art. I’ll touch on these as we move along assessing what makes video games so incredible as artworks.

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The first thing to recognize is that like movies, video games are an amalgamation of multiple mediums. Just like a movie has music, acting, cinematography, set design, and much more, video games have writing, music, voice acting, motion capture work, digitally rendered environments, interactive gameplay, and much much more. A game like Cuphead has beautiful animation and an incredible big band score. Games like The Witcher series, Uncharted, and Horizon: Zero Dawn are praised for their gorgeous visuals and environments. If you’ve ever seen a collection of cutscenes in video games, you’d see how cinematic they truly are. I’ve seen some counterarguments stating that the things surrounding the video game such as art design, visuals, and music are components that could be considered art, but the gameplay and the full product itself can’t be considered art, but quite frankly that’s ridiculous. When you play a game, the immersion depends upon whether or not the decisions of the player are accurately translated by the game. Multiple people dedicate time to making sure the movements of the game avatar precisely match the commands given by the gamer. There has to be a flow to the gameplay, effectively serving as an extension of the gamer’s own being. A game with bad gameplay is like a poorly made sculpture. In a game, you not only soak in the music, visuals, story, acting, and dialogue, you also soak in the gameplay. Another reason that the full product of a game is art, is the underlying primary objective of any work of art. The elements of any medium, be it visual or aural or sensory, is to tell a story.

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Everything a video game does is to tell a story. It can be a tale of adventure and excitement, fire and fury, survival and horror, etc. Everything, including multiplayer games like Fortnite and Call of Duty, requires a narrative that can either be told by the creators of the game or presented as a blank canvas to the player to create their own stories. When it comes to the traditional linear narrative, video games happen to have some of the best contemporary works of our time. The Halo series crafted an expansive epic filled with additional literature and lore that mirror the literary works of Tolkien. Games like The Last of Us take the player on an emotional journey where they grow with the characters. And my personal favorite game, BioShock, is a reflection of the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand.

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Like I said, there is that special factor to games that makes it the art of the future: immersion. A video game is controlled by the player, therefore the direction the narrative takes is determined by the player, or at the very least the connection that between the player and the narrative runs deeper than other forms of art. If you think about a game like Halo, there’s a silent protagonist, the Master Chief, that is always behind a suit of armor so that the player can project themselves into the game as that character. The Master Chief is given little development so that the player feels like they are him when they go through the events of the game. When you watch a movie, you see the protagonist overcome the challenges, but in a game, you overcome the challenges yourself. You earn the moments by overcoming the challenge. You don’t just remember passively being there, you remember the experience of you doing those things. Challenge and immersion are the golden tools from which a game gets its power. Players want to feel more immersed in the game, they want to feel the intensity. A video game with no challenge can be bland, repetitive, and uninteresting. A challenging game like Dark Souls gets a player’s heart rate up and gives them a sense of accomplishment when they achieve victory. To add to the immersion factor of games, choice can often be a key component of a game. Role-playing-games like Skyrim present the player with a whole world to explore and engage in storylines on their own and at their own pace. In Mass Effect, how you talk to a character determines your relationship with them throughout the game. Because of these interactive games, the experience is different each time. Characters can change and adapt to how you play, and the story adapts to the choices you make. In this way, games are adapting pieces of reality and embedding them into their art more so than other mediums. Entire worlds can be built in games like Minecraft and Little Big Planet.  Art often mirrors reality, and games are becoming more and more like real life. With the advent of virtual reality, video games will only continue to become more life-like. Through this increased immersion, video games are transcending other mediums and doing things that no other mediums can do.

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This renaissance of gaming and its movement towards greater recognition should continue to develop as long as story and immersion continue to shine over the commercial aspects of games. As long as games are treated like works of art by their distributors, and not capitalized by shady monetary tactics, then games should be well on their way to high art status. Unfortunately, companies like EA are treating the consumers like dirt and commercializing the art of gaming by introducing said shady tactics. These tactics came in the form of in-game microtransactions. Microtransactions were originally used in free to play and mobile games as a way for them to make money, but of course AAA game developers thought why not add them to $60 games. High priced DLC (downloadable content) already served as a way to get extra money from consumers, and with games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront the $60 product ended up being completely bare bones and unfinished in every way while the $50 season pass was marketed front and center. Microtransactions were an added bonus for games to make more money, and for good reason. Microtransactions make video game companies massive amounts of money, sometimes even more than digital sales for the games. The biggest form of microtransactions is randomized loot boxes. This means that players can purchase in-game content that is given completely at random. So you might be asking, what’s the big deal? So what if games have microtransactions it’s not like the gamer has to buy them? It’s not like not buying them affects your ability to play the game right? Well, that’s where the controversy lies. In some games, microtransactions are just annoying. It used to be that you had to unlock certain things in a game like more playable characters or skins. It felt like an accomplishment to get more in-game content. Now, everything is randomized, so even if you get a thousand loot boxes, you may still not get the content you actually want. In games like EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II, however, loot boxes are tied to progression, and purchasing microtransactions in the game allows you to unlock content much faster than people who don’t (for example, you can buy a hero for $10 or spend 40 hours unlocking them). Another unfortunate fact is that microtransactions are nearly in every major game, from Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty, to even single player titles like Middle Earth: Shadow of War. Microtransactions are something that the gaming community may just have to live with for some time.

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The ever-expanding world of video games is facing some of its biggest challenges while it brings in an increasing audience. Companies like Activision and EA have prioritized earning money over providing a quality product and treating their customers with respect. The harmful strategies of these companies do not have to be the norm in the gaming industry. As long as games like God of War, Cuphead, and Dark Souls continue to be made, the high art that is video games should triumph over corporate greed. I know I got off on a bit of a tangent with the microtransactions rant, but the truth is that video games are very near and dear to my heart. Video games inspire me to soak in new worlds, learn new music, and engage in new and interesting narratives. The beauty of video games is under attack by these corporate models, and so I wanted to highlight the issue facing the industry as it continues to gain more recognition.