Robert Boyd, designer of Cthulhu Saves the World and Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 carefully explores the design of the popular but often misunderstood action RPG hit.
Dark Souls has gained a reputation for being an excruciatingly difficult game. Yet despite that, the game has seen a great deal of success, both commercially (selling over a million copies in the U.S. and Europe as of the end of the publisher's last fiscal year) and critically (with a current Metacritic rating of 89).
Why has Dark Souls achieved mainstream success and has not remained merely a cult favorite? I'd like to argue that a major factor behind Dark Souls' success is the disconnect between its perceived difficulty and its actual difficulty. Dark Souls presents itself as an impossible challenge to the player outwardly, but inwardly, the game is subtly designed in many ways to help the player achieve the impossible.
(Note: this article includes a few spoilers.)
The publisher of Dark Souls actively sought to brand the game as a difficult game from day one. Just look at the name of the game's official website: PrepareToDie.com. Marketing the game as being extremely difficult increases the game's perceived difficulty without changing the actual difficulty at all.
2. It lets the players make their own rules
After stacking the odds against the player (with a huge, hostile world), the game starts stacking the odds back in the player's favor. First things first -- Dark Souls doesn't force the player to play the game in any particular way. Want to play a heavily armored knight, a light-on-her-feet warrior, a mage, a priest, or all of the above? Sure thing. The game lets you use the style of hero that you feel most comfortable with. Although the player chooses one of several set classes at the beginning of the game, class selection only determines the player's starting stats and equipment; where you go from there is entirely up to you.
3. It's difficult to truly mess up your stat progression
Dark Souls lets the player allocate their stats bonuses from level-ups however they wish. This gives the expert min-maxer a great deal of flexibility to create the ultimate Dark Souls destroying machine.
But what about the less experienced player who doesn't know what they're doing? No problem -- the design has taken that into account as well. There are several effective tools available to the player that have little to no reliance on stats, like elemental weapons, armor (armor increases weight but doesn't have specific stat requirements), and powerful fire magic called pyromancy, that the player can use to dig themselves out of the hole they've created with poor level-up choices.
All level-ups give a slight boost to the player's overall defense, so no matter what you choose, you're always getting slightly more resilient. And it's possible to max out all stats eventually -- so in the end, poor choices can be fixed with grinding.
4. We're all in this together
Although it's possible for players to fight amongst themselves, players can help each other, both through posting hints for other players and by joining other players' games to help defeat Dark Souls' many bosses.
Bosses give drastically more souls (the game's currency) than normal enemies do, and helping another player is the only way to defeat a boss more than once -- so the player has a definite incentive for helping out others. The game creates a feeling of "us vs. the game" and not just "us vs. us."
5. A deadly non-linear world... except, not really
Non-linear worlds are inherently more difficult than strictly linear worlds because the player is less likely to know what they're supposed to be doing and is more likely to run into areas that they're unprepared for.
Dark Souls appears to be very non-linear at first glance, but in actuality it's a lot more linear than it seems. To start, individual areas tend to be very linear -- albeit with hidden treasures to be found in various side paths. But as far as the game's overall progression goes, Dark Souls has a heavy reliance on gating. The game opens up a portion of the game to the player and then to access the next set of areas, a certain task or series of tasks must be undertaken.
Excluding the tutorial area, there are basically three major goals that must be accomplished in order to reach the final boss. The first goal is to ring two bells (each of which is guarded by a boss). Starting in Firelink Shrine (the initial hub area), there are three areas the player can travel to -- The Catacombs, New Londo Ruins, and Undead Burg.
Powerful skeletons that come back to life soon after being killed guard The Catacombs, and New Londo Ruins is filled with ghosts that are invincible unless the player is cursed, or uses a certain item. In contrast, Undead Burg has enemies that are similar to the enemies in the tutorial area and is the obvious choice to start out with. Right from the start, Dark Souls is subtly funneling the character into the course of least resistance, and it continues to funnel the player through the entire two bells portion of the game, by giving the player keys that indicate where they should go next.
After the two bells have been rung, the second part of the game begins with a cutscene that shows the player that a huge fortress that was previously locked has now been opened. The player's course is clear -- explore the fortress and the area beyond it. This portion of the game is one of the most linear, with two areas that must be completed in succession and only one optional area. This section acts as an exam: If the player can completes these two areas (some of the hardest in the game so far), they're deemed worthy for the third main portion of the game, where the entire world (minus the final boss area) is opened up to them.
By gating the areas of the game in this manner, it allows Dark Souls to have a more measured difficulty curve than a truly non-linear game would allow. The areas opened up in the third part of the game tend to be more difficult than the areas in the second part of the game -- which, in turn, are more difficult than the areas in the first part of the game. This helps to prevent the player from getting truly confused and lost like they might if the entire world was accessible right from the beginning.
6. Provide hints to the player, but don't be too obvious about it
Probably my favorite example of how the game provides hints to the player is early on, at the beginning of the Undead Parish. The player runs into an armored boar enemy that proves to be much more powerful than anything the player has had to fight so far. A frontal assault is likely to prove ineffective, but there's a set of stairs to the side that the player can escape to.
After a few relatively easy fights up the stairs, the player discovers several monster lure items on a ledge directly above the armored boar. What the player should do soon becomes obvious -- throw a few monster lure items into a nearby fire, and watch as the armored boar commits suicide by running into the fire.
A lesser game would have had given the player a message like "Try throwing the monster lure at the fire to kill the armored boar!" when they picked up the monster lure items. By not explicitly telling the player what to do but by leading them towards the answer, Dark Souls allows the player to feel clever for figuring the solution out.
7. Combat is a replenishable resource
One of the smartest changes Dark Souls made over its predecessor was the switch to the bonfire system. The previous game, Demon's Souls, uses a traditional resource system where the player can restore their health and magic points (MP) with items that they can find and purchase. However, in Dark Souls, the player is given a set number of heal potions to use. Additional potions cannot be found; however, the player's potions are restored every time the player rests at a bonfire. Likewise, the player is given a set number of spells they can use each time they rest at a bonfire.
The replenishing resources bonfire system has a number of advantages over the way that Demon's Souls did things. It encourages the player to use all of their magic arsenal instead of just the spells with the greatest return-on-MP investment. It prevents the player from stockpiling huge quantities of health and MP items, thus rendering the resource system largely irrelevant. And it removes the need to grind out money and item drops when you're low on potions. Through the bonfire system, the player is encouraged to use all of the resources at their disposal, since they know they'll recover them next time they rest rather than having to worry about hording resources.
8. Exploration is a limitless resource
Zelda has bombable walls. Dark Souls has fake walls. The difference? In the Zelda games, you can only test walls as long as you still have bombs left in your inventory -- but in Dark Souls, any kind of attack (even just a harmless roll) is enough to test if there's a hidden passage behind a seemingly solid wall. The player is thus encouraged to search for the game's many secrets -- because there is no penalty if they guess wrong.
9. Their bark is bigger than their bite
An easy way to make a game feel harder is through appearances. A great example of this is the classic horror game, Silent Hill 2. Mechanically speaking, Silent Hill 2 is a pretty easy game, but by making the monsters and locales in the game look horrendous, the game feels a lot harder than it actually is.
Dark Souls enemies are almost universally grotesque and are frequently much bigger than the player character. But Dark Souls takes it even further with many of its early bosses appearing above the player before crashing down in front of them. The implication is clear -- the player is insignificant to these monsters and they won't hesitate to squash him or her like a bug.
However, the experienced player will soon realize that many of the scariest-looking bosses in Dark Souls are also some of the easiest bosses, with easy-to-read tells and attacks that are easy to dodge and counterattack. By making the bosses and monsters look intimidating, their perceived difficulty is increased even if their actual difficulty isn't.
10. Combat doesn't require fast reflexes
Most difficult games require lightning-fast reflexes. Not Dark Souls. Combat in Dark Souls is a methodical affair: Block then attack. Dodge then attack. Attacks are slow, and easily punished if missed. Even drinking a health potion takes several seconds (unlike most action-RPGs, where it's instant). The game rewards the players that can keep their wits about them and actively punishes mindless button mashers.
11. The stakes are high... for both sides
Yes, enemies in Dark Souls can deal massive damage to the player. But you know what? The smart player can deal massive damage to the enemies as well. From massive swords that can kill a group of enemies with a single strike to arcane spells that can decimate bosses from a distance in next to no time, there are many ways the player can become the scariest thing in the entire Dark Souls world.
One of my favorite "tricks" to breaking the game early on is through the use of the 2-handed button. Equip the easily obtainable hand axe (a few other early game weapons will work as well, but the hand axe is the best for this strategy). When you see an enemy with a shield, switch to the two-handed stance and then just go to town on them. The hand axe has a high stagger stat so, in no time, your assault will knock the enemy's shield out of the way, allowing you to defeat them easily. In a typical game, enemy shields would be impenetrable, but in Dark Souls, the enemies play by the same rules that you do (at least, until the enemies start to dwarf you in size).
Observant players can find even more tricks to break the game, like powerful weapons hidden just off the main path, and shortcuts that allow access to areas long before they are traditionally reached. Dark Souls rewards the player who isn't afraid to fully explore and then break the rules.
12. Death is punished... some of the time
At one end of the death/punishment spectrum, you have your typical roguelike with perma-death, where a single death means you need to start the entire game over. At the other end of the spectrum, you have your average game these days, where death sends you back to a recent checkpoint.
Dark Souls finds a happy medium between the two extremes. If the player is killed twice in succession, they lose their current souls and humanity, an important (but renewable) status. But if they can successfully return to the place where they died last time, they don't lose a thing. Also, both souls and humanity can also be obtained via certain items that are not lost upon death, allowing the player to safely save them up for when they need them (like for the next new merchant). The player also spawns from the most recently used bonfire, meaning that even physical progress isn't necessarily lost.
Dark Souls is a difficult game; there's no question about that. However, by making the game appear even more difficult than it actually is and then by subtly lowering the difficulty in a variety of ways, the developers have made the difficulty in Dark Souls manageable -- and fair. And when victory is achieved, it is made all the more sweet for appearing to be more difficult than it actually was.