Let’s Talk About… Soulsborne

Let’s Talk About it… That Thing, Your Dark Soul

Never has death been so fundamental to a playing process than in the Dark Souls series. Mechanically, philosophically… the nature of death permeates this dark fantasy epic in a desolate sublimity. The road to Dark Souls 3 is long and winding; the roots trace back to Demon’s Souls (precursor to the Dark Souls trilogy) which, though not officially part of the trilogy, shares the same core design mechanics, the same tone, philosophy, and aesthetic. In fact, it’s hard to talk about Dark Souls 3 without talking about all the games that have come before: Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls 1, Dark Souls 2, Bloodborne. So, as of this moment, I’ve decided to change things up. Eventually,  I’m going to tackle each of these games individually, because each of them are near and dear to my heart, and when taken as a whole, they tell a story about the evolution of the development team–FromSoftware–and the series director, Hidetaki Miyazaki.

I was lucky enough to come to the series at its genesis, in 2009. Video games had, at that point in time, become something of spectacle over substance. Now, there are no absolutes (challenging games with depth have always existed) but by and large the mainstream market was filled with immersive, story-driven games that, while still extremely fun to play, lacked a certain type of challenge. I’m talking about what many call “old school” difficulty, where the consequences of death carried true weight.

Reading the rumblings about Demon’s Souls before it came out had me thinking of a time gone by. Of days spent glued to my Super Nintendo, palms sweaty, heart in my throat, as I tried to master a level or boss while on the brink of death, with zero lives and no continues.

And the triumph that ensued when I had gotten good enough.

Demon’s Souls was a return to this old school aesthetic–brutal, fair, unforgiving. Importance placed upon skill, rather than cinematics. The entire series emphasizes this core aspect. And ultimately, I fell in love with this series because I wanted to test myself. Did I still have those reflexes I did when I was a kid? That determination? Or would the games best me?

 

No One Quite Knows Who or What They Are

Allow me to explain the concept of “old school challenge” in the context of these games, just to show how much that games have deviated from “old school.” When Nintendo released their first home console, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) in 1985 [in North America, technically the Japanese release was 1983] games didn’t have the capacity to be large, or long. Instead, they were hard. Difficulty extended length of these relatively short games, but also provided a superior sense of mastery and accomplishment upon completion. Most ‘Triple A’ games now are either massive multiplayer experiences, or completely immersive single player experiences with vast and complex narratives. In other words, awesome. The trade-off for these new types of video game experiences, however, is accessibility. Games are expensive to make, and the more people that play them means the more money they’ll rake in. Which means they need to be accessible. They need to be easy, or rather, easier, than their progenitors. And this is a fine trade-off, mostly–difficulty for immersion.

When Demon’s Souls released, it married full immersion and difficulty in the best, most deliciously pummeling way possible. See, it wasn’t difficult for the sake of difficulty, as in enemies are hard to fight for no reason, or surprises come out of nowhere to kill you. It was difficult because the world it created was harsh by design–built into the philosophy from the ground up, as were all the games that followed.

In the Souls Series, your character grows more powerful by relegating certain experience points into choice attributes, such as the ability to swing a behemoth of a sword, use different types of magic, and take more damage. Basically, like any traditional role-playing game. Yet, the importance of “leveling” is downplayed considerably by the element of skill. You actually have to get “good”: Learn combat timing. Manage stamina. Strategize encounters. Take advantage of enemy weaknesses. Manage scarce resources for healing. Weigh the consequences of engaging in cooperative online play (which opens you up to invasions from hostile, real players). Learn complex level design.

Traversing the worlds of Souls games is always a beautiful, terrifying thing. These worlds are always set in aftermaths of catastrophic tragedies, with survivors trying their best to either eke out whatever living they can, or complete some failing quest to find  a measure of lost peace.

Slain enemies net the player “souls” [or blood echoes in one game’s case]. Souls are experience, which is used to level attributes, which mold the character to fit play-style choice, but they also double as currency to purchase weapons, spells, items, keys, etc.

When you die in a souls game, you lose all your souls. However, if you’re able to make it back the place you were slain (all enemies re-spawn upon death, mind you… just like any old school game), you have a one time chance to claim your lost souls, which add to any you’ve accumulated on the way back. If you die before you make it to your souls, they’re gone forever. (Free advice: NEVER walk around with too many souls/echoes).

If that sounds hard, it is. But it also adds an incredibly compelling level of tension. In these games, you are supposed to die. Death is learning. Death is the horse on the road to mastery. Too much death is penalized. But it is also liberating. Once the weight of souls is lifted, and the desperate loss is processed, one can refocus and approach obstacles and enemies fresh.

Souls games don’t have traditional narratives like their modern day gaming counterparts. Instead, stories are told through lore descriptions of weapons, spells, and artifacts collected along the way, in snippets of dialogue from characters in-game, and in the levels and enemies themselves. Everything is a grand puzzle, rich with history, conflict, and thematic weight. But the player must make the pieces fit. Each game is its own tapestry, unfolding in complex tales of betrayal, sacrifice, curses, avarice, and bravery. Many enemies and characters you meet along the way have fallen victim to the greater machinations at play; some warped and depraved, or monstrous; some desolate and forlorn, or crestfallen. Your quest, always, is to find the heart of the tragedy and remedy it if possible, oftentimes undoing your own curse along the way. How you go about this–the choices you make, whom you choose to help, your backstory, your motivations–all are left for you to decide. More so than many contemporary games, your player character is not a “character” but a true avatar. The choices made in the game, for good or ill, are yours alone.

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…And on Guitar We Have

Hidetaki Miyazaki is the driving force behind the series. He took over directing the first entry, Demon’s Souls, after the studio had thrown up their hands and deemed the project a failure. Upon the game’s success, Miyazaki went on to direct Dark Souls, a mega hit. He acted as a creative consult of sorts and supervisor for Dark Souls 2, again sat in director’s chair for the next “entry,” Bloodborne, and finally shared directing credit on the series finale, Dark Souls 3.

Each game in the Souls series builds on its predecessor, eschewing some mechanics and adopting others, altering combat pacing and gameplay depth. Dark Souls 3 really is a culmination of everything that has come before. Though perhaps not “officially” connected to entries like Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne, the final game in the Dark Souls trilogy is the final game in the Souls/Borne series, and it uses gameplay elements from all four previous games heavily, offering the best elements of each.

A quick breakdown of each game follows. I’ll eventually do an in-depth look at each one, but for now:

Demon’s Souls. Where the series started. Your character’s soul is bound to the nexus in the kingdom of Boletaria. Your past is unknown, but you’ve come to stop the demon scourge that has come with a great fog. The nexus acts as a hub world, in which you access various parts of the kingdom, uncovering the tragedy of each area and how it relates to Boletaria as a whole. While somewhat dated, the atmosphere and story of this game is unparalleled. Mostly influenced by western fantasy, the game is full of knights bound by honor, corrupted officials, witches and sorcery.

Dark Souls. While the mechanics are similar to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls eschews the hub world in favor of an open, interconnected land; Lordran. As you travel, you unlock shortcuts that loop back to bonfires, your only safe spots in the entire game. Everything is hostile and beautiful. Personally, this game has my favorite world design. The connectivity and progression was never matched, though Bloodborne does come close. While still western fantasy themed, Dark Souls eschews demons (mostly) in favor of a pantheon. You are a Chosen Undead, one cursed with Hollowing, to never die, yet go slowly insane, decaying upon each death unless you restore your “humanity” (a consumable item intrinsic to the story and lore). Your job is to ultimately track down the old gods and use them to end the curse hollowing curse for all of humanity.

Dark Souls 2. A true sequel to Dark Souls 1, taking place an undetermined length of time after its predecessor (though speculated to be several hundred years, possibly close to a thousand). Echoes of the beings and events ripple through to this day and age. The hollowing curse is still upon humanity, though the gods are long gone. And yet, even echoes of their twisted souls remain. A new king has grown in power, and after warring with giants, made a folly akin to the one made wins ago. You are the Bearer of the Curse, and you’ve made your way to Drangleic to find the king, who is rumored to have the power to end the curse.

Bloodborne. The first major deviation. Blood replaces souls, though the same general mechanics remain intact. Combat is much much faster, with emphasis placed more on mastering fewer weapons that are capable of more variety, versus the wide array of options with simpler to use moves present in the “Souls” games. However, the biggest change comes in setting and story. H.P Lovecraft and Victorian England are primary influences for this game, which make for a truly horrifying and mind-bending experience. A shot of adrenaline for the series, Bloodborne tasks you with finding a way to stop a hunt of beasts and cure a blood disease, before you yourself become a beast.

Dark Souls 3. The culminating factor. Though only directly linked to the two previous Dark Souls games, both Bloodborne and Demon’s Souls influences, call-backs, and mechanics run amok. The most linear of all the Souls games (which is somewhat of a detractor), it is the smoothest to play. This is ideal Souls/Born combat, and a joy to experience–combing the speed and weapon charging of Bloodborne with classic Souls sword and board. And the ending is breathtaking–a journey through time itself, both backward and to the end, as the havoc the undead curse has wrought finally takes a toll on both everything and everyone. You ultimately decide the fate of whatever comes next for this world.

 

Play it Again, Sam

From Demon’s Souls:

The Tower of Latria. As soon as you set foot in this labyrinthine prison you know something is terribly wrong. The oppression is palpable, the guards a horrific sort of relentless. As you travel deeper, uncovering the tragedy that has taken place, things only get… weirder. Featuring an enemy that summons illusions of itself, with a secret weakness hidden somewhere in the prison, and culminating in a fight with another player(!), Latria truly tests both the your abilities and mental stamina in a beautiful terror that is unforgettable.

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From Dark Souls:

After trekking through swamps, dark forests, sewers, and a forgotten fortress, you finally climb to the abandoned city of gods, Anor Londo. For the first time, perhaps halfway through the game, everything is drenched in sunlight. The architecture is golden, immaculate. Too perfect to be real, especially considering the decayed and dilapidated areas preceding it. Perhaps it is, for the city contains innumerable secrets, revelations, even another world entirely.

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From Dark Souls 2 (Scholar of the First Sin):

Entering Eleum Loyce immediately elucidates the mystery of what has happened to a terrible and powerful entity from Dark Souls 1. As you journey through the frozen city, you free a small band of knights. They honor their pledge to serve their king, who has corrupted himself in combat with the evil lurking far below his city. The knights join you in final battle with the king, as you put him to rest once and for all, your “army” versus his, in the depths of what seems to be hell itself.

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From Bloodborne:

After hunting innumerable beasts in search of the mysteries behind the Healing Church, you find yourself at the abandoned school of Byrgenwerth. You are a hunter, and expect to find perhaps some other corrupted official turned into a monster. However, after investigating the school you find only an old man, the master of the school gone nearly insane in his search for higher thought through use of the Old Blood discovered deep beneath the city. Something about the moon over the lake isn’t right, and though perhaps suicide, you take the plunge into the endless waters. Only then does the truth reveal itself, and the true horror begin. The cosmos call, and the game becomes much more than beast-hunting.

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From Dark Souls 3:

The curse is a cycle, and only you can break it. After besting the game’s supposed final enemy, a new path opens. Here, you travel through history, through ruins of each game in the Dark trilogy, until you reach a hidden city at the end of time itself. Even here, things are collapsing. One man, a human much like yourself, seeks to save humanity. He, like you, has existed from the beginning. In consuming the first soul of humanity in order to destroy it and end the curse, he has corrupted himself. Originally a companion of sorts guiding you through time, he is now cursed with insatiable hunger for souls. At the end of time, in the wasteland of everything, it is you and he. Of course, there can only be one.

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It Would be Extremely Playable… For You

Don’t be scared of the challenge. Expect to die, a lot. Learn from your mistakes. If you approach these games with the mindset you are constantly learning, the difficulty only becomes teacher. You are meant to die. Death is everything. You inch forward, exploring these vast, tragic, and sublime worlds. You learn tales of greed, of honor, of the undoings of vanity, of the curses of knowledge. You seek aid from others, and they seek aid from you. Things don’t always end well. Most times they don’t. And yet, with each death you learn. Perhaps, with enough knowledge, you will become incorruptible.  Then again, perhaps not. Power is a tricky thing. You’d be surprised what it can do to you.

 

Next time: The film Baby Driver. Until then, be good.

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