Dark Souls: 10 Years of Dying Over and Over

Dark Souls is an Action RPG developed by FromSoftware and published by Bandai Namco. It was originally released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 in October 2011, then on PC on August 2012. A remastered version was released for the PS4 and Xbox One in May 2018 and for the Nintendo Switch in October 2018. I played the Nintendo Switch version.

Okay, okay, okay, I just want get it out of my system:

Dark Souls is the Dark Souls of video games.

Yeah, I know, I’ll see myself out…

Late into the year 2011, three games were released that would go on to define trends in the video game industry. They’re all turning 10 years old this year, so I thought it would be great to look back on the impact of these games. And the first one is, of course, the masochistic masterpiece Dark Souls.

A Soul is Born

The history behind Dark Souls‘ development is almost as extensive as the game’s own lore. I’m going to try and make the most concise summary as possible. In the 1990s, FromSoftware developed a series of Action RPGs for the PlayStation set in a dark fantasy setting and called it King’s Field. In the mid-2000s FromSoftware tried to create a spiritual successor to this cult classic series. Unfortunately, development did not go well at first and the project almost got canceled. One of the lower programmers at the studio, Hidetaka Miyazaki, asked to be put in charge of the project, and since no one else in management seemed interested, they allowed him.

Hidetaka Miyazaki accepting a lifetime achievement award at the 2018 Golden Joystick Awards.

And that is how history changed.

Hidetaka Miyazaki is an interesting person. I could possibly write an entire game developer series about him (and maybe I will at a later date). He got into video game development a little later than most other devs that we’ve studied. He grew up playing tabletop role-playing games and reading books from the library. Often he would not understand what he read, so he used his imagination along with the illustrations to fill in the gaps. Despite loving fantasy, he never had an ambition or dream to work in the creative arts. He graduated college and initially worked in an IT department.

It was then that an old friend introduced him to the game Ico on the PlayStation 2. This game convinced Miyazaki that there’s storytelling potential in video games. At the age of 29 he changed careers, a personal move not seen in Japan as often it is in the West. As such, FromSoftware was the only company that gave him a job offer. He began working for them in 2004 as a lowly programmer for one of their Armored Core games. After hearing that there was a floundering project of a fantasy role-playing game, Miyazaki asked to be put in charge of it, and they gave it to him.

According to Miyazaki, video games were becoming too focused on cinematics and cutscenes. He wanted to hearken back to the days when narrative was kept to a minimum, and the player had to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. He also wanted to bring back the difficulty of the old NES games, where you learned by failure, and made progress slowly across each level. He wanted the player to feel like they were in an inhospitable world, and yet he wanted to imbue a sense of accomplishment in them from having overcome a difficult challenge.

The project was called Demon’s Souls, and it was released in 2009 to little fanfare. Its publisher, none other than Sony itself, was disappointed in its initial lackluster reception in Japan. It was Atlus who published the game overseas, where it actually gained a much bigger following. It reminded players of the way games used to be — an uphill battle. More than that, players loved the way they could leave messages for each other inside the game world, warning other players of upcoming traps, the way players used to discuss cryptic games such as The Legend of Zelda (1986) on the playground. Miyazaki knew he was making a rather niche game, that not everyone would enjoy it, but it ended up on the top of many journalist’s awards of that year anyway.

Sony was the owner of the IP, and at the time they weren’t interested in a direct sequel. So for his next game, Miyazaki worked on a spiritual successor to Demon’s Souls. He would keep the hostile dark fantasy setting and similar game mechanics — collecting souls as experience points, loosing those souls and having to retrieve them upon death, and messages you could share online within the game’s world. In addition, Miyazaki felt inspired by European architecture to create a more complicated world that would branch out and then connect back in on itself at several hubs. Dark Souls was released in October 2011 with Bandai Namco as the publisher this time. It became the single most popular game FromSoftware had ever made up to that point. Sony suddenly became interested in FromSoftware again, and asked for another game like Demon’s Souls as a PlayStation 4 exclusive. Yet another spiritual successor, Bloodborne, was released to universal praise and massive sales. In 2004, Miyazaki began as a grunt of a programmer. In 2014, only 10 years later, he was promoted to president of the entire studio. His follow-up game, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, received the Game of the Year award at the 2018 Game Awards. Demon’s Souls got a remake in 2020 as a launch title for the PlayStation 5, and it’s safe to say that Miyazaki’s upcoming game, Elden Ring, is creating quite a lot of hype.

Dark Souls made me very curious. Why do some people love it, even though it frustrates them? Why do others hate it, and why has it been the crux of discussion around game difficulty? What caused such division? I had to see for myself.

My Impressions of Dark Souls

Man this game is depressing. From what I can gather, the world of Lordran used to be glorious, but now the Age of Fire is waning, the kingdom is decaying, and humans are becoming afflicted with an undead curse. They are cursed to be revived upon death, and after several deaths, loose their minds and become Hollow. You are one of these cursed undead, who escapes from the undead asylum and seeks to… break their curse? Your motivation is left to the imagination. Eventually you’re given the option to either perpetuate the Age of Fire or let it finally come to an end and usher in the Age of Dark.

It’s certainly a dark fantasy all right.

Almost anything that moves will attack you on sight. Traps lie behind many corners. Make a wrong turn, and suddenly an overpowered enemy will slice you to pieces. Even the most basic enemies can pose a threat if you’re not careful. It’s difficult to even see in this game, as the moody lighting makes the dark corridors and dark chambers difficult to navigate. There’s not even a soundtrack playing most of the time. It’s just footsteps and the clang of metal as you push your way through enemies and take their souls as experience points. You need to always be on your guard. It is the most oppressive virtual world I’ve ever encountered.

It also makes those moments of reprieve all the more sweeter.

Bonfires are your safe place. Interact with one and you’ll heal, though doing so also resets the world and makes all the undead hollow enemies come back. You can spend the souls you collect to level up, or you can change equipment or spells. These fires will be your save point and respawn point after you die. Seeing a bonfire after a long, arduous road always gives me a sigh of relief.

You’ll also encounter friendly NPCs on your journey. Some may give you cryptic exposition, others will sell you items for souls (I guess souls also function as currency? Lordran is such a dismal place…), and still others will help you during boss fights. Of course, there’s also online messages that players will leave behind as well. Most are helpful, while some are trolling you. In fact, I feel like Dark Souls delivers a similar experience to Death Stranding, where it’s important for players to feel the oppression, frustration, and isolation of its world so that the hope and comradery they feel from others becomes all the more meaningful. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hideo Kojima got the idea for his stranding mechanic from the online interactions you get in this game.

And this game will frustrate you. For starters, everyone moves immensely slow, like they’re underwater. It takes a lot of adjusting to realize that your character’s sword swing will not immediately make contact with the enemy. You have to plan and think. Almost every button press requires thought and commitment. Combat in this game is so slow, you might even consider it turn-based. You need to watch your enemies carefully and learn their patterns. Eventually you’ll know exactly when they’re open and how much time you’ll have to strike back. Dark Souls is all about this — memorize the enemies, memorize the world layout (you’re not given a map), and memorize your own moveset. Dark Souls evokes old NES games in that they’re hours-long memorization tests.

The bosses are no different. Initially I’d get bodied by a boss, with barely any time to get a hit in before they killed me. I often would think, “How am I supposed to win? There’s no way I can defeat this boss.” Eventually you learn their patterns, then their new patterns, then before you know it you can defeat them. It may take 5 tries, or it may take 25, but eventually they do reveal their secrets. Dark Souls is a war of attrition, best won with patience. The idea isn’t to win, but just to get farther than you did last time.

You’d think that loosing all of your unspent souls upon death would make you feel discouraged, but I found that it had the opposite effect. I felt like the enemy had stolen something from me, and I wouldn’t be satisfied until I got it back. The retrieval mechanic of going to the last spot where you died to get your souls back is oddly addictive, it tricked me into moving forward during the early hours, at least until I found more compelling reasons to play.

After I defeated the first boss, the Taurus Demon, I felt as accomplished as defeating the final boss of most other video games. The same thing happened after fighting the Bell Gargoyles, and the Lovecraftian horror that is the Gaping Dragon. Once you adjust your goalposts, Dark Souls is all about slowly but surely conquering the nightmarish world set before you.

As intentionally ugly as the world appears, its design is a sheer work of art. Lordran is built as a series of interconnecting spirals, with paths that loop on top of each other. At first it’s bewildering to make sense of it all, especially without a map. But seeing as you’ll fight the same enemies time after time, you’ll take the same paths and learn the layout. Eventually you unlock shortcuts connecting a higher level to a lower one. For example, just before fighting the Bell Gargoyles in the Undead Parish, I found an elevator in a church that took me back down to the beginning of the game, Firelink Shrine. When I arrived, I let out this big, “Ooohhh, wow. Yeah, I get it now. I see why people like this game.”

Dark Souls is a 3D Metroidvania.

Granted, it’s not finding powerups that make the world interconnect, it’s just acquiring keys from bosses and uncovering shortcuts. But it still gives you that experience of thoroughly exploring an area, getting lost in its world, and finding a secret that helps you move forward. Some people argue that you should play the game blind, and yes some discoveries were best left as surprises, but I also think that if you’re pressed for time, a guide is certainly commendable.

To help you even further, Dark Souls is still an RPG. That means that if a certain spot is giving you trouble, you can always find places to grind souls and level up a bit. As Dark Souls is a Western RPG, it emphasizes individual player customization over streamlined party interactions. You begin the game by picking a class and some perks, just like you would with D&D. When you level up, you can pick what stats to invest into. In this aspect, I definitely recommend a guide for what stats to emphasize, given your class.

As for myself, I liked spellcasting, so I chose the Pyromancer class. It has a good balance of spells and physical attack prowess. In the beginning I invested a lot into the Vitality and Endurance stats so that my HP and Stamina would go up. And those stats, more than anything else, helped me survive the world of Lordran. I constantly grinded souls throughout the game — for me, that’s what I needed. I’m also not above cheesing enemy encounters. I might have tricked more than a few enemies into falling to their deaths in Blighttown, and I don’t feel sorry at all.

Dark Souls: The Marathon of Video Games

Dark Souls‘ impact on the gaming industry was quick and profound. Many more game studios deliberately copied its mechanics, including both AAA and indie developers. Some of these games sought to incorporate more thoughtful combat, while others adapted the roundabout way of delivering a narrative through cryptic dialogue, environmental cues, and item descriptions. Examples of such noteworthy games include: Hollow Knight, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Nioh, Darkest Dungeon, and many more.

And of course, what began as a misguided but earnest attempt at conveying difficulty quickly became the decade-long joke of gaming journalism — suddenly every game more difficult than Kirby was Dark Souls. And while it’s true that a subgenre carved itself out as “hardcore, deliberately difficult,” style of game, let’s just say that the joke has worn itself out. Will another game come along to replace it as the go-to reference for high difficulty? Probably not. It’s been drilled into our brains for the past 10 years.

With all that being said, do you need to play Dark Souls? My answer, actually, is no.

I mean, this may sound like a cop-out, but you don’t need to play any video game.

But stop and think about it. Playing video games is like running as a hobby. There are many ways to enjoy running — from casually jogging around your neighborhood to running a marathon. Do you need to complete a marathon in order to enjoy running? No. There are plenty of other challenges, such as 5k and 10k runs. Full marathons may be a good goal to try reaching some day, but it’s up to you to decide how you’ll enjoy running.

That’s perhaps the one thing I dislike about Dark Souls, though this has more to do with a small minority of its fans more than it does with the game itself. Elitist gamers have rallied around the game as a kind of benchmark for being a “true gamer.” What a bunch of hogwash. If you hear someone say that you need to play Dark Souls — they are speaking more about themselves than about you. They needed to play Dark Souls. They found meaning and satisfaction playing Dark Souls. You can find that in other ways. That being said, the vast majority of the community is really welcoming and understands the frustration that comes with playing a difficult game.

Seeing as Dark Souls is often a big point of debate regarding game difficulty, I figure I’d throw my two cents in. On one hand, I don’t think the game needs an Easy mode. Dying, learning from mistakes, feeling discouraged, feeling relieved, feeling accomplished… these are all integral to the player experience and to the story. An Easy mode would dilute that. But at the same time, that does mean some people just won’t be able to enjoy this game. Even if you aren’t being a jerk about it, the simple fact that a game is so highly praised means some people may feel guilty for not playing it or not liking it. In my previous review I fawned over Metroid Dread, which is also a game evoking frustration and catharsis (though not as much as Dark Souls). I realize that in my praise, I might’ve unintentionally pressured people into feeling inferior for not enjoying it. I never want to do that to someone. My reviews are about my experience. I can’t negate what I felt as I played, but I don’t want to invalidate what you felt, either. Both of our experiences are valid.

…What were we walking about again? Oh, right, Dark Souls.

In short, if you feel like a challenge and enjoy slowly overcoming a hostile world, then Dark Souls would be a great game for you. And even if you’re unsure, Dark Souls is still a good game to try. I’ve heard many stories where people didn’t like the game at first, but then they “got it” after their second or third attempt. It’s such a different experience than most modern video games, and it teaches you a lot about patience. While most video games give more immediate gratification, Dark Souls punishes you before you finally begin enjoying yourself in a more tempered way. It’s worth a shot, but if it’s not your thing, that’s totally okay, too. Hidetaka Miyazaki originally intended the game for a niche audience, after all.

Sources / Further Reading

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hidetaka_Miyazaki
  2. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/mar/31/bloodborne-dark-souls-creator-hidetaka-miyazaki-interview
  3. https://www.ign.com/articles/2015/02/05/inside-the-mind-of-bloodborne-and-dark-souls-creator-ign-first
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demon%27s_Souls#Development
  5. https://web.archive.org/web/20130404134819/http://www.edge-online.com/features/interview-demons-souls/
  6. https://www.gameinformer.com/games/demons_souls/b/ps3/archive/2009/11/05/feature-demon-s-souls-director-discusses-difficulty-sequels-and-more.aspx
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dark_Souls#Development
  8. https://www.cgmagonline.com/2016/05/30/dark-souls-history-bloodborne-fromsoftware-ps4-playstation-pc/
  9. https://www.destructoid.com/darks-souls-and-mythology/
  10. https://thegemsbok.com/art-reviews-and-articles/dark-souls-from-software-existentialism-philosophy/
  11. https://www.ign.com/articles/2014/03/13/the-real-dark-souls-starts-here-12-real-life-inspirations-for-lordran

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