The year was 2009. Demon’s Souls had just entered the scene as a niche PlayStation 3 exclusive solely for Japan. But the Western market caught a glimpse of this action RPG and clamored for a localised version. FromSoftware, a relatively unknown studio unless you played games like Armored Core or King’s Field, had unknowingly produced a title that would go on to spawn one of the most impactful series of this decade.
Demon’s Souls’ success was inevitable. The game was the perfect mix of reaction-based gameplay, brutal yet fair difficulty, flexible RPG mechanics and brilliant world-building. Once people started playing, they were hooked.
Teaming up with Bandai Namco, FromSoftware went on to create Dark Souls, a more expanded permutation of the original Demon’s Souls concept. Breaking the mold for the Metroidvania design, but with important changes and improvements on virtually all fronts. FromSoftware’s action RPG was by far one of the most comprehensive and intricately designed games in the Xbox 360/PS3 generation, and its effects can still be felt today with the ever-rising prevalence of Metroidvania style games, both in 2D and 3D form.
To get an understanding at how Dark Souls paved the way for Metroivanias to flourish, we must first take a look at what constitutes a Metroidvania game and why this is such a powerful distinction. Metroidvania is a term used to describe games whose design is inspired by the classic Metroid and Castlevania games. There are a lot of common features that you will see in games of this persuasion such as non-linear map design, progression that is gated to abilities or items that are generally found by defeating the game’s bosses, and a variety of economies that include experience points and general currency.
For a while, this was a torch carried by The Legend of Zelda. Much of the design philosophy behind the Zelda games was enhanced and refined by Metroid and Castlevania. This subgenre is perhaps best known for brilliant usages of a singular map and backtracking to add unexpected depth to previously explored parts of the world. Things that seemed inaccessible would all of a sudden open up, with players eager to discover what secrets awaited them.
As games of this ilk became decreasingly popular in the AAA gaming space, the Metroidvania subgenre endured in the indie scene, with a healthy array of games that unashamedly borrowed key design elements from the aforementioned games. However, none of these games were able to truly capture and popularise the design philosophy of a Metroidvania quite like Dark Souls.
Dark Souls is a huge game and there is a lot to digest in the first playthrough. You, the player, are thrust into a wholly unwelcoming world. The land is decaying, its inhabitants wild and the key figures ruling the land are voracious in their quest to maintain what little power they have. The world is at war with itself and it’s a losing battle. People have been afflicted with undeath, losing their minds and going hollow as their purpose loses all value and their homes are destroyed. This is all the result of a king who is too scared to relinquish his people’s power, artificially extending his reign through unnatural means and consequently cursing humans.
As you might have guessed, Dark Souls is an incredibly melancholic game and its core principle is choice. But it’s a principle that isn’t directly conveyed to the player and instead communicated subtly through the world. FromSoftware has been praised to no end for its great strides in world and level design, and rightly so. The world of Lordran quietly coerces the player in the right way to proceed, but won’t stop them from taking an unintended path. It’s one of the many ways that Dark Souls modernises the Metroidvania formula.
While most games of this ilk have hard progression gates that require tools and/or abilities to get through, shoehorning players into a singular progression path, Dark Souls affords the player the ability to ignore the intended progression path and tackle the game in any order they see fit. The brilliance of this is not solely the fact that you can go any way you please, it’s how the game uses this design as a teaching mechanism for all players. Whether you are an expert in the game or it’s your first time playing, there is always a lesson to be learned within FromSoftware’s action RPG.
Dark Souls is perhaps best known for its punishing gameplay system. This is admittedly imperfect but also easy to learn yet hard to master. It is by far one of the most communicative forms of gameplay, wanting the player to achieve perfection while also not expecting said perfection. So even though the game won’t refrain from punishing you for your mistakes, it’s forgiving enough that you can afford to make them in the first place, and rectify them. It’s a very fine line to walk but Dark Souls does it tremendously well. Let’s take a look at its first boss, the Asylum Demon, as an example.
Found in the Undead Asylum (the tutorial area for the game) the Asylum Demon acts as the first roadblock that players encounter. There are two ways that you can go about defeating this boss and both are beautifully indicative of what’s to come. Players can either butt their heads against a boss they are severely under-equipped to handle or they can explore the room for an advantage. If they explore the room, they’ll find an exit on the left side, near where they first entered. This allows the player to pick up the gear intended for their starting class and learn how to properly play the game. There are two lessons being taught here:
- Always be aware of your surroundings because you’ll never know when you can find something that skews the odds in your favour. This also goes down the path of exploration, which is one of the key components of Dark Souls. Throughout the entirety of the game there are almost always branching paths that can lead to new items or even new areas. The world of Lordran has a lot of secrets to hide so it’s entirely up to you to figure out how to find them and what to do with them.
- With enough patience and perseverance, you can overcome any obstacle that you might come across, no matter the size or the strength. If you decided to kill the Asylum Demon, this is probably the most extreme obstacle you’ll encounter, but it’s an apt lesson nonetheless. The freedom afforded to the player like this is what has allowed Dark Souls to become such a thriving game, with each playthrough offering the possibility of a wildly different experience. If you so please, you could even make one of the mid-game bosses (Great Grey Wolf, Sif) your next boss fight, following the Asylum Demon.
Credit: E.H Macmillan
Everything that Dark Souls throws at the player is a test and a lesson at the same time. Miyazaki and his team balance the world and its inhabitants perfectly to serve both of these purposes. Every boss is designed to push the player out of their comfort zone, something which is shown excellently in the Capra Demon fight. While technically an optional fight, this will more than likely be the first major hurdle that players encounter in their first playthrough and it tasks the player with a few things. So far, the only enemies in the game that are hyper aggressive are the undead hounds, which the player would only just be getting accustomed to. This is also the same area where players are introduced to the bleed mechanic.
Bleeding is one of the various status effects that can be afflicted on the inhabitants of Lordran and it’s one of the more immediately punishing statuses. When afflicted, it will immediately take either 30% or 50% of the player’s health (depending on the weapon). This early in the game, it can be devastating. At this point, it’s unlikely that players are using any weapons that inflict bleed, unless they started with the Thief class or they murdered the Undead Merchant in Undead Burg for his Uchigatana (one of the four Katanas in Dark Souls), so for much of the early game, the player is likely to be on the receiving end of bleed damage
The Capra Demon fight puts the player in a tight space against two dogs who inflict bleed damage, as well as a new monster: the Capra Demon itself. The area leading up to this boss channels the player through a tight alleyway and aims to catch the player off-guard with ambushes and traps that can mean an untimely death if the player isn’t quick to adapt. It’s the perfect build up to a tight, frantic fight with the Capra Demon. It’s also a fight that expertly teaches the player about situational awareness and how to use the environment tactfully to steer the odds in their favour. Additionally, it serves as a lesson on how to deal with the next area, The Depths, which is rife with tight corridors and small spaces. Of course, the game won’t bombard the player with hazards or threats like the Capra Demon in The Depths, but the boss fight in question exists as a worst-case scenario.
Perhaps one of the most important lessons the game teaches the player is spacing. This is something that remains relevant and vital to every boss, and combat engagement for that matter, in the game. Every boss tests the player’s grasp on spacing in their own way, but there are definitely a few standouts.
Arguably the earliest point the game that challenges the player’s understanding of spacing is the Gaping Dragon in The Depths. This is easily one of the largest bosses the player will face and it’s moveset features a variety of moves that cover different distances. None of them are particularly hard to read or counter, but they’re a test nonetheless.
The biggest check that the game has for a player with poor spacing is the Gaping Dragon’s slime attack. This move can easily catch unaware players who position themselves poorly. An easy strategy for players to take control of a situation against the various enemies in Dark Souls is to position themselves in a way that forces the opponent to move to a more favourable position. Doing this correctly can skew the odds heavily in favour of the player as the fight is now on their terms. Learning how to use spacing to favourably position the Gaping Dragon will immediately change the slime from an incredibly threatening manoeuvre to a minor inconvenience, as there is now far more space for the player to retreat to in order to stay safe from this attack. Mastering this spacing sets up the player to tackle any challenge thrown at them with ease.
Rewards are another area of design where Dark Souls raised the bar. Most Metroidvania games separate experience/skill points and currency. Dark Souls doesn’t. Experience points and the currency are one and the same. In a way, you can look at it as just one currency where your stat increases cost money – similar to how the Yakuza games handle it. This decision allows for a few things, but it was mostly made so that the concept of choice can really shine.
Something that the majority of the fanbase, myself included, loves about Dark Souls is the flexibility and depth of its character building. Even though the player can choose a starting class when they create their character, the game never actually forces the player down a certain path for character building – you can change what your character’s stat focus is at any time. The starting classes are mostly chosen by players based on the gear that each class starts with rather than the stats. The classes serve more as a recommendation than an irreversible choice.
Choosing a specified starting class allows the player to have the building blocks already laid out, so early investment in the character can be more easily made to encompass a variety of things. For instance, you can start with the sorcerer class and very quickly allocate some stats into melee weapons. There are no rules for how you build your character outside of the specific stat requirements of the gear you wish to use. You want to be a sorcerer who can also harness the power of faith and miracles, throwing bolts of lightning as well as casting enchantments on your gear? You absolutely can. There are a huge number of builds available to you, which can dramatically affect the difficulty of your gameplay.
A facet of Metroidvanias that sometimes goes overlooked is how effectively they communicate their stories through art. Games of this ilk are commonly known for how refreshing their backtracking can be due to how varied the areas are. Even games like Ori and The Blind Forest or Hollow Knight, which have an incredibly consistent and unique art style, offer enough variance to keep things interesting and memorable.
Dark Souls’ introductory areas are distinctly medieval. You progress through a number of castles and even a cathedral, but the dilapidated state of these areas is so meticulously designed that you can’t help but understand the awful experiences of the inhabitants. Living quarters are ransacked, the bodies of residents are strewn across open ground. In these starting environments, you quickly learn how the Hollow affliction has taken hold of Lordran.
These ideas are only further cemented when you enter Anor Londo, the main keep of the kingdom. Where most infrastructure languishes in a melancholic state of decay and disrepair, Anor Londo looks notably well-maintained. The bricks are cleanly cut, the guards have more polished armour, there are fewer environmental obstructions and the enemy behaviour feels more calculated. You quickly see a governing body that caters only for itself and attempts to keep up appearances (read: Scott Morrison). You observe the priorities of the kingdom and understand why it has collapsed in the way that it has, and this is all illustrated with subtlety and restraint.
In the kingdom, the art becomes increasingly powerful as you progress into the deeper areas of the game. The Duke’s Archives is arguably one of the most unique areas. The archives are a library filled with the wealth and knowledge of Seathe, the Scaleless – a dragon born without scales who coveted his brethren’s immortal scales. The archives are a mess. Seathe conducted his own research to attain immortality, which is where he then stumbled across the power of the Primordial Crystal. As he conducted further experiments, exposing his test subjects to the crystals, they slowly became hollow. His research and books are tossed everywhere, almost like it was ransacked in a desperate effort to find a cure for the Hollow.
The archives are in their own state of disrepair, but in a different fashion to the previous areas. The way that the archives are broken down is methodical and purposeful. You can tell that people were scrambling for answers, continually coming up short in the archives. Whereas in the earlier parts of the game, the Undead Burg and Undead Parish are destroyed in a much rougher and more aggressive way. There was an air of respect when the archives were ransacked, but in the Undead Burg there is no such thing, just aggression and malice.
Perhaps the best and most effective use of art as a form of storytelling sits within the game’s only expansion, Artorias of the Abyss. One of the most consistent depictions of evil and darkness in the game exists within an entity known as the Abyss. It is most often described as a never-ending darkness that corrupts the hearts of anything it touches. You quickly get the idea of how unending it is when you traverse The Abyss in the main game to fight the Four Kings, only to be thwarted by the all-encompassing black void, which completely throws off your depth perception, but I digress.
The entire premise of this lone expansion sees the player travel back in time (sadly, without a flux capacitor) to the earlier days of the Darkroot Garden, when it was still the land of Oolacile. The town is under attack from The Abyss as it aims to rise closer to the surface and encompass more and more. One of Lord Gwyn’s Four Knights, Artorias (who would have guessed), went down into the depths of Oolacile to fight the Abyss and its driving force, Manus. Naturally, he lost his fight against the Abyss and Manus continued to wreak havoc on Oolacile. As you make your way through the various areas within the expansion, you see the effects of the Abyss on the environment and its inhabitants. Most of the environment is reminiscent of the Darkroot Garden, which players would recognise – a choice that was probably made to play with the player’s familiarity.
Most of the enemies you fight within these initial areas seem just like the hostile inhabitants of the Royal Wood. Enemies like the Scissor or Pitchfork Scarecrows and the Treant Gardener don’t show the horrid corruption that you’d expect from beings close to being exposed to the Abyss, if not exposed already. After defeating the corrupted Artorias, you quickly see how aggressive and alarming the Abyss’ corruption can be. The inhabitants of the Oolacile Township are twisted and their behaviour is of an aggressive one-track mind. With elongated arms that swing erratically, and piercing red dots for eyes in a head that resembles a peach pit, they really give off the idea that they have been mutated horrifically against their will and their minds have been corrupted.
The residents aren’t the only area where the art serves as the key storytelling tool. The infrastructure is significantly destroyed, algae and greenery have begun to take back the land against the stone brick of the township. With bridges that have collapsed and paths so narrow that you constantly risk falling to your death, the Abyss has not been kind to Oolacile. The bluish-purple goo that is characteristic of Artorias and the Abyss becomes increasingly common as you delve closer and closer to the Oolacile Township Dungeon and the Chasm of the Abyss. Any semblance of civilisation slowly becomes more contorted as you approach the heart of darkness itself, Manus.
The last area we’ll look at for the expansion is the Chasm of the Abyss. As you explore this dark, uninviting area you’ll notice there are weird phantoms in the distance. Upon closer inspection, you realise they have quite a familiar shape – the shape of the humanity consumable item. While it seems just like a cool easter egg, this actually serves to stand as a core message as well: humanity and darkness can often be found in close proximity to one another. It’s an idea that Dark Souls has constantly played with and hinted at within the lore of the world. There’s always been a theory that the Dark Soul itself was fragmented and became what we know as humanity. So, when you factor in these points it makes sense that the humanity sprites would congregate incredibly close to where Manus resides.
Going back to the base game, we’ll look at the final area, Kiln of the First Flame. There are quite a few things we can take from the environment but one of the most powerful statements this area makes is with the enemies that reside within. The Kiln of the First Flame is where the (appropriately named) First Flame burns, its burn artificially extended by Lord Gwyn in fear of man. Naturally, this caused a massive burst of fire to leave the Kiln itself and burn everything in a nearby radius to a crisp. Ash covers the ground, acting as dirt, and the developed infrastructure is completely charred.
The enemies that reside within are Black Knights, a visually darker and more hardened form of the Silver Knights which players would remember from Anor Londo. While these Black Knights can occasionally be found in and around Lordran, they are predominantly found in the Kiln of the First Flame. As the story goes, the Black Knights were once Silver Knights who aided Gwyn in venturing to the Kiln. These Silver Knights knew it was a one-way trip and loyally served their Lord until the very end. When the First Flame was artificially lit, the Silver Knights were engulfed in flame, charring their armour and turning it from polished silver to a matte black. Not every knight survived . When you first enter the Kiln of the First Flame, you walk down a staircase that is populated by spectral forms of the Silver Knights. The white light these knights emerge and disappear into matches the transient fog that acts as the one-way door for boss fights. This suggests that these walls of transient light are formed by the souls of the dead to protect those still living from whatever horrors may be on the other side.
Music is an aspect of Metroidvania games that is often at a very high standard. Many composers have learned how to convey the atmosphere of a game and its scenarios with music. This isn’t something exclusive to games of this kind but, given the 2D style that a majority of Metroidvania games use, it quickly became commonplace for games of this ilk to use cleverly composed music to communicate atmosphere and tone. Dark Souls can be quite different in this aspect. While it does have a variety of music composed to an incredibly high standard, it uses music a little more sparingly in its moment-to-moment gameplay. There are only a small handful of areas with background music. Outside of these areas, however, there’s a distinct lack of music. Players are subjected only to the sounds of the world. This perhaps isn’t more perfectly employed than in Sen’s Fortress. Throughout the entire area, all you hear are the inner-workings of the fortress itself. You hear the pendulum axes, the giant balls, the hissing of the serpentine enemies and the dart traps which are throughout the entirety of the fortress – the chorus of the fortress is its own soundtrack and sets the atmosphere of an area that would rather chew you up and spit you out than welcome and intrigue you.
In all fairness, though Dark Souls tends to be sparing with its use of music, the instances where music is used are superb. A majority of the soundtrack is reserved for boss fights in an effort to make them more memorable. If you were to ask anyone who has played through all of Dark Souls about one of the most memorable and iconic pieces of music within the game, chances are they would respond with Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. Composer Motoi Sakuraba hit the nail on the head with the use of a single, simple motif in the music for this fight. Where a lot of games would opt for an intense and busy piece of music, full of musical ideas and rife with accompaniment, Dark Souls opts for a very simple and thin piece of music. Gwyn’s piece is creatively plain, there is a single motif in the melody that plays and builds throughout the majority of the piece. The motif is the key hook of the piece and, tonally speaking, is an incredibly sombre motif that sets the pace of the entire song and communicates the melancholic nature of the fight. The Gwyn fight is not a happy fight, not by any means. You’re practically fighting the burned husk of a Lord to either take his place or to usher in a new age that could potentially backfire.
Dark Souls has never been a black and white game with its morality. It places you in this morally grey area and throws incredibly compelling arguments on both sides. It’s such a consistent idea that the only time you know that you’ve really done something wrong is when the “You Died” text pops up on your screen. Virtually every action is met with a reaction that makes you question what you have done and the music for Gwyn does this excellently. At no point does the music ever try to shift to a brighter tone and instead doubles down on the idea of making you question your own choices. The sparse nature of the music means that players and listeners experience the melancholic tone of the engagement. It’s the perfect way to conclude a heavy and tonally dark game. There is no light at the end of the tunnel and you never actually find out if your choice was the right one or not.
A personal favourite boss fight of mine in Dark Souls is Knight Artorias. Now, I could go on for quite a while about how excellently designed this boss fight is, down to the point where it punishes you for trying to approach it like you probably did with all the other large bosses in the base game but, instead, I will just discuss the music. This fight has a strangeness to it. You’re fighting one of the four knights of Gwyn who ventured into the depths of Oolacile in an effort to contain the Abyss and protect the people. Ultimately he failed and his last action was to protect his partner, Sif. You can immediately tell that it’s going to be a tough fight because the first few chords are harsh and dissonant. There is this constant menacing tone that perfectly complements the weighted and possessed feel of Knight Artorias’ moveset.
Much like Gywn, Knight Artorias’ music never gets dense. While still busier, the density builds and falls where appropriate, all without undermining the intent of the previous musical ideas. The music also plays against the player’s understanding of Artorias as a character. Throughout Dark Souls, there are references and stories about what a great knight Artorias truly was. He was given the Wolf Ring by Gwyn to assist him in his unmatched ability to wield a greatsword. He had an immense hatred for servants of the dark and was the first person to learn the ability of Abysswalking – an ability that would allow him to venture into the home of the Darkwraiths and the Four Kings. After being defeated by Manus in Oolacile, the very last action Artorias made was to protect his loyal friend, Sif. By using his shield to protect his friend, his left arm was shattered, which is why it basically hangs in the fight. This portrayal of Artorias is why the menacing tone of the music is so excellent. It makes you question your understanding of Artorias and still has the tension that a boss fight should.
While Dark Souls as a game and a series has lived a rather…tumultuous life, with a myriad of issues like poor representation by its publisher coupled by an incredibly vocal minority of the fanbase behaving like children which all added to the perception that the games are absurdly difficult. However, it’s hard to deny the impact that the title has had on the secular gaming industry and, more importantly, the Metroidvania subgenre as a whole. It did sprout games of its kind like Nioh and The Surge, but it also paved the way for games like God of War to truly embrace the idea of Metroidvania design in a 3D world. Even in the 2D realm, developers all around the world truly began to grasp what really makes a Metroidvania game special, and their labours of love really began to shine (I love you, Hollow Knight).
FromSoftware themselves have progressively learned more and more of how to build their worlds and characters. Dark Souls stands as a true beacon of masterful design in the modern age, even after its initial release almost nine years ago. Here’s to hoping Elden Ring keeps up the trend of impeccable releases from the studio.