From Software's Dark Souls has gotten a lot of attention for featuring an extremely high level of difficulty, however it would be unfair to dismiss it as just another masochistic game. In this article, I examine nine areas that Dark Souls excels in and discuss how we can apply those lessons towards improving game design.
Level Design - Dark Souls has some of the most complex sets of level designs I've ever seen in a game. Each level typically has one main path but countless detours, secret areas, and shortcuts, and is usually connected to a number of other levels at various points as well.
Despite the high level of complexity and my horrible sense of direction, I've rarely gotten lost in the game DESPITE the complete absence of an in-game map! The fact that the game can maintain such a high level of map complexity without completely confusing the player is a testament to the skill of the developer's ability to create memorable areas, both through the visual style and through the memorable events that happen therein.
One aspect of the level design that bears special mention is the game's use of 3D space. The game is full of stairs, inclines, ladders, and cliffs. Rarely a minute passes where the player isn't going up or down in some way.
Even when there are not actual parts of the level above or below the player, there are always interesting things to look at in all directions such as the cavernous roof with a small opening for strange light in the top of the cave that you're exploring or the valley below the cliffside undead village that you're fighting for your life in.
If you're a professional level designer, you need to study the level design in Dark Souls to gain a better understanding of how you can improve your craft. If you're making a 3D game, take advantage of that fact and build your levels in every direction, not just x & y.
Sense of Scope - This aspect goes along with the level design but is sufficiently important to be worth discussing individually. Not since Shadow of the Colossus came out in 2005 have I seen a game that has such a great mastery of portraying the scope of its world to the player.
While you're exploring an area in Dark Souls, you might see a castle on the distant horizon. In most games, that castle would just be a nice piece of background art that the artists drew 'cause it looks pretty. Not in Dark Souls. Keep playing and no doubt before too long, you'll actually be exploring that castle (and have found something new on the horizon that you'll explore later).
This sense of scope also applies to the game's enemies. There are moments where you might see something in the distant that's so far off that you're not even sure what it is. Get a little closer and you may realize to your abject horror that the huge thing you see is alive and will probably destroy you without a moment's thought if you get any closer.
By portraying a sense of scope to the player, Dark Souls makes its world, enemies and quests feel epic in a way that simply having a long game would not accomplish. Dark Souls does this through its use of levels and enemies, but there are other ways to give a sense of scope.
For example, in the old SNES RPG, Lufia, the game begins with a playable introduction that lets the player use a group of legendary heroes. By seeing their power and the power of their foes firsthand, it gives a clear sense of the range of power in that world right from the start.
Enemy variety - It boggles my mind how so many big budget games today can have huge worlds, and then fail to populate them with interesting enemies. Take Deus Ex: Human Revolution for example. It's a good and often great game, but in the first 6 hours of playing it, I only saw one real enemy archetype - guy with gun.
Sure, some of the guys were walking and others were standing around, some of them were soldiers and others were punks, some had sniper rifles and others had machine guns, but for most practical purposes, the vast majority of enemies were very similar to each other, both visually and mechanically. How boring.
Not Dark Souls. Just in the first hour or two, I saw skeletons that won't stay dead, ghosts that could only be hurt under specific conditions, undead soldiers with a variety of weapons (including fire bombs), poisonous rats, well armored knights, and some impressive bosses. Sure, many of the enemies were fantasy archetypes, but they each had their own distinct visual style that set them apart and more importantly, they behaved differently from each other thus resulting in more varied gameplay.
Environmental combat - Walk to an arena. Have enemies spawn. Kill the enemies to unlock the next arena. Repeat. Bleh.
When did we forget that the environment can be a great way to add variety and depth to combat? Exploring a tight passage way in Dark Souls? Guess you'd better put away that huge broadsword since its wide swings will just bounce off the walls.
On a narrow ledge high above a deadly fall? Be wary of using fast, weak weapons because you might just combo yourself into an early grave. Better yet, you might decide to knock off that tough enemy off a cliff and avoid an otherwise hard fight.
Just fighting can get old. Add non-enemy factors like the environment to keep your combat engaging throughout the entire game.
Death matters - Stuck on a relatively hard part of your typical AAA game? No worries - just keep trying until you get lucky. Death doesn't matter since you can just reload whenever you mess up.
In Dark Souls, death hurts...some of the time. You lose all of your souls (the game's currency) whenever you die, but if you can return to the spot of your death without dying again, you can reclaim them. Dying does return you to the last bonfire you've activated, but those are usually never more than a few minutes away, what with all the shortcuts you unlock.
It's a far cry from the old 8-bit games where you could have been playing for an hour or two and have to start the entire game over due to running out of lives, but there's still a penalty involved for failure. And hey, sometimes you can take advantage of the death system - items are not lost upon death so making a nearly suicidal run to grab a valuable piece of equipment or treasure before your demise can be a valid strategy at times.
When failure has no penalty, tension is lost and victory becomes a matter of inevitability and loses its feeling of triumph.
Freedom of Solution - I'm currently playing a sorcerer in Dark Souls who wields a giant holy halberd. A halberd, for those unfamiliar with ancient weaponry, is basically a spear with an axe at the end. A wizard who is a master of the giant spear/axe - how often have you seen that in a game?
Dark Souls gives the player a wealth of possible equipment, stats, spells and items to play with and lets them forge their own solutions to the game's many challenges. Not only that, but the order that the player attempts those challenges is largely left up to the player (although some areas are easier than others).
By allowing the player to dictate their style of gameplay, you let them play the game they want to play and not the game you think they should be playing.
Style and creativity trump technology - Dark Souls doesn't have the most advanced engine out on the market. The frame rate suffers in the more demanding areas, the ragdoll physics sometimes result in laughable results (like when an enemy corpse gets stuck on your foot and you start dragging them around), the textures aren't always the highest quality, and the camera doesn't always do what you might want it to.
However, in 10 years, when people will have long forgotten many of the more technologically advanced games released this year in favor of even more technologically advanced games, people will still be going back and playing Dark Souls and thinking "What a beautiful game this is!" The game presents an amazing and cohesive world filled with terrifying enemies and that's what matters.
A great engine is nice, but vision is more important. The engine should serve the design's purpose and not the other way around.
Progression isn't just stats - About 5 hours into the game, I decided I wanted to start over and try a drastically different character build. I was able to surpass my progress from the first time in less than half the time that it had taken me the first time around.
My stats weren't any better the second time, but I had gained experience and understanding into the game's mechanics, the enemies, and the levels that allowed me to make much more rapid progression.
Allowing the player's character to level up is great. Allowing the player themselves to level up is even better. Well designed games have enough depth that the player can constantly improve themselves.
Multiplayer for people who hate multiplayer - I'm not a big fan of most multiplayer games. Sure, it's fun if you can get your friends together to play some co-op, but with most of my friends scattered around the world and all of us with our own jobs, families, and lives, it sometimes feels like more work than it's worth to arrange a multiplayer game session.
Playing with random strangers is an option, but from past experience, I've found that for every decent mature player that you run into, you're bound to run into twice as many immature ones. Again, it doesn't feel worth it.
Dark Souls handles multiplayer in a way I can appreciate. You can read and leave messages for other players offering tips (only using a set vocabulary and syntax so you don't have to worry about long strings of obscenities).
You can occasionally catch a glimpse of another player in your vicinity. And players can join other players as both friends and foes using certain items. However, if you want to, you can ignore all this (just stay undead all the time if you're worried about invading players).
Would it be nice for the more multiplayer inclined players out there if there was a robust matchmaking system that let you team up with your friends? Oh, probably. However, the way it is currently set up is ideal for people like myself who aren't fans of traditional multiplayer experiences.
Conclusion - Dark Souls is not a perfect game but it is a well designed one. As game designers, we would be well advised to learn the lessons it has to teach.