8 min read

On the design of Dark Souls

Dark Souls seems to be a game where the the tradeoffs inherent in game design were embraced. Each enemy and environmental component seems meticulously thought out, but in a way that not all players are likely to appreciate.



     I've wanted to write about Dark Souls for a while - in part because of the strong feelings I have about the game, but mostly because people aren't talking about the things that seem the most prominent to me.  


    Everyone seems to comment on its difficulty but it (so far) hasn't seemed overwhelmingly difficult - and compared to games like Super Hexagon or Cat Mario it feels quite reasonable.  I tend to be about 5 to 10 years behind whatever is popular (I just finished Portal) and haven't played most of the current games that people compare it to, especially when talking about other contemporary games being easy.  I had heard many players complain that nothing is explained to the user; so I was quite relieved that the basic user controls were tutorialized in the Asylum and that there were item descriptions in the inventory.  Growing up in the Atari/NES era we weren’t usually so lucky (try figuring out Yar’s Revenge without reading the directions).


    Getting to the point - Dark Souls seems to be a game where the the tradeoffs inherent in game design were embraced.  Each enemy and environmental component seems meticulously thought out, but in a way that not all players are likely to appreciate.   


    Let’s take the choice to avoid using a map as an example.  This affects the way that players think about and interact with the space.  At any given moment after the Asylum there are at least a few possible paths open that the player.  The player must then commit to memory each of these directions rather than check the map for unexplored threads.  On the one hand this asks more of the player, but on the flip side it adds more intimacy with the environment.  It’s a trade-off.  What’s more, other design decisions highlight this choice and make it feel more intentional.  The re-spawning of enemies and repetition of segments make the task of remembering the environment second-nature, almost like the route you’d take to get to work.  


    As an example: suppose I said that I just left a bonfire and there was an archer directly ahead of me, with a soldier coming up some stairs from the right to attack. There is a bridge that stretches in front of me and up but slightly to the left there are 3 enemies throwing firebombs down at the bridge.  Across the bridge I can see a soldier with an axe waiting in the shadow and a soldier with a shield out a door to his left.  If I went down the stairs to the right I could hang a left and break some boxes revealing a stairway down to a merchant.  Is there anyone who has played the game who doesn’t know EXACTLY where I’m talking about?  To most of us we can barely contain the name of this village as we read this description.


    But the (lack of a) map is only one example of of intentionality that runs throughout the game.  Everything seems to have cause that exists within the gamespace - that is to say there aren’t many things that are merely set pieces.  For instance, the first time I got firebombs lobbed at me while traveling up away from the Firelink Shrine - it didn’t really occur to me that there was a character tossing them that could be eliminated.  I kind of assumed that it was just an obstacle from a random spot - a baddie hidden in a place you can see but not get to… But there’s a kind of tightness to the fact that you can get to that tactical attack spot where that character is…  And more importantly this seems to be the case with everything in the game.  


    Things don’t just come out of nowhere.  And once you get used to looking for the sources of things that attack you, they often become a kind of subtle clue as how to proceed.  The archers that sit above the metal fang boar don’t just shoot at you → they also suggest a sniper point that you can also occupy.  The snipers during the Taurus Demon boss fight serve the same function: both to add challenge (if you’re not paying attention)-- but also to give a cue that there is another physical place you should explore. To me these bits with dual functionality give a certain kind of tightness to the design.


    As I said earlier, the developers seemed to embrace the idea of trade-offs in the design.  Two of the biggest risks the developers took were the choices to

1. not arbitrarily gate off difficult areas and  

2. leave out explicit directions on where to go or how to use things


    For these two reasons many players - both casual and ‘hardcore’ (perhaps more so the hardcore gamers, as it may be different than what they are accustomed to) - have difficulty getting into the game. 

    These design choices have some obvious negative consequences, which include limiting the audience to players who are willing to invest enough effort to understand the game.  But there is one aspect that these decisions affect in a very positive way: creating mystery.  There are secrets in Dark Souls... And they would not feel the same if the game explained them to you.  


Let me explain with a comparison (forgive me):


    My experience of playing Dark Souls was very similar to playing the first Zelda on the NES:  I did not know to go into the cave and get the sword so I meandered around avoiding enemies for the first 15 minutes or so. I could not understand why people were talking about this game so much… But the mechanics were engineered so that each time I died I would start again at the same spot.  Eventually I tried the black dot on the rock and - lo and behold! There was this secret cave with a dude giving me a sword!  As a kid playing Zelda: I found myself burning down trees with my newly-acquired candle… And - what’s this? - level 8? I hadn’t gotten through level 3 yet and I could explore level 8?


    Fast-forward 25 years - In DS after talking to the crestfallen warrior and exploring a bit I went down the steps and into New Londo.  I spent almost two hours trying different strategies to get past the ghosts but eventually gave up.  Then I found the steps leading up toward the Undead Burg - I’d somehow missed them before!  Later - another surprise: after running through the Burg for the 15th time or so - I accidentally crashed into some boxes and there was stairway there!  I thought I knew the lay of the land like the back of my hand… But here was a secret only feet away from my character!


    Now let me say this: I am not hardcore.  I have problem looking for explanation or help if I get badly stuck (you heard right - present tense - I haven’t completed NG: I just killed Capra last night).  But the act of seeking out information is both exciting (like trading Zelda secrets as a kid) and community building (also like trading Zelda secrets as a kid).


    But the game’s mechanics do allow for people more masochistic than I to figure out the secrets without assistance.   Both through the subtle cues the game gives… But also simply through the repetition.  So far I’ve been through most areas forwards and backwards (which feel different because the order of enemies is reversed) and sometimes sideways as well.  The repetition with variation cumulatively make it less likely to miss many of the secrets.    


   There is also a very strange quality about the repetition in this game: it’s usually fun (at least for me).  When I’ve done a stretch so many times that it becomes static, I’ll try something different.  Maybe I’ll try to parry EVERY attack.  Maybe I’ll try a weapon I’m unfamiliar with.  Sometimes I equip my shield as a weapon (this gives me great pleasure).  Other times I’ll try to run through and see if I can get to the destination without conflict.  


   The repetition also tugs at the mind.  I find myself frequently thinking about stretches of the game when I’m not playing - a modern day Tetris Effect ( ).  Even when I decide to put it down for a few days to try to get work done I feel a pull to explore that exotic world.


    Although some of the design decisions may be unpopular, Dark Souls is a meticulously thought out game that embraces trade-offs. 


    Thanks for reading!  Praise the sun!

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