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Worlds Worth Believing In: On Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls

What makes the worlds of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls so fascinating? Let's find out!

Ario Barzan, Blogger

September 21, 2015

24 Min Read

The trouble with writing about something you’re infatuated with is that the words can never live up to the inner stirrings the subject provokes. Everything, like language itself, is bound to be an approximation. On top of this, what makes writing about Dark Souls especially annoying is how much its density seems to thwart a starting point that doesn’t collapse into an avalanche of digressions, and how easily those digressions can fall victim to an impenetrable subjectivity. There is also the fact that Dark Souls is a 2011 release, and — being a bit of a phenomenon — one that’s enjoyed countless congratulatory write-ups. But it was in this last snag that I found entry.

Writing another review about Dark Souls that took up the regular critical regalia of its “tough-but-fair” level of difficulty and its “lore” would be redundant at best. This essay, then, is doubly reactionary — a response to both the game and what has been written about it — and it’s done with the belief that there are other interesting ways of talking about Dark Souls that have been marginalized. It’s also done with a feeling of personal necessity: in some ways, Dark Souls is that nameless game I alluded to at the end of a 2009 essay on Super Metroid, and it only feels right to provide a follow-up.

In 2009, a game called Demon’s Souls came out with minor fanfare and just happened to have some of the best level design ever. Its first intentionally visited place, the Boletarian palace — a massive, medieval type of imperial labyrinth, or Forbidden City — devoted itself to establishing a contiguous form and compounding its mass through the sheer, varied density of routes. A later site exhibited a diseased splaying out of makeshift platforms, walkways, and huts in a black, moldering valley. The precariousness of this architectural performance was grotesque, ambiguous, and consuming.

Navigation in Demon’s Souls flows from a hub housing the entry points to individuated locales, or “worlds”, each with their own checkpoints. Differently, Dark Souls presents a totally interconnected landmass whose zones’ layouts often have the spirit of those in Demon’s. It’s in this distinction that a stronger connection can made from Super Metroid to Dark Souls. We are, however, still within generalizations.

It’s worthwhile to tend to Demon’s Souls for a while, though, because it stands as the main model of influence for Dark Souls. From just a once-an-observer’s perspective, I took several principle impressions away from Demon’s Souls’ level design, and they’re impressions I still hold as someone who has now gone through the game’s entirety. One principle was that points of spatial epiphany were built into the worlds. These directed the player towards a conscious view of the architecture. In a later part of the aforementioned valley, where the environment has transitioned to a ground of swamp, thorough players might follow a series of cliffside paths and vaulted boardwalks all the way to a raised plank that could be lowered. This allowed quicker, easier access to the valley’s penultimate enemy. Shortcuts like these often appeared in much the same way one might suddenly find themselves on a familiar street after having, for the sake of a new experience, followed a series of roads different from the usual. As a consequence, Demon’s Souls’ shortcuts — often pure surprises, thanks to the lack of a map and areas’ labyrinthine traits — afforded a twofold-pleasure: they were a reward of convenience for having struggled through the preceding gauntlet, and they further actualized how the places were built.

Occasionally, you’d see out-of-reach sites that teased out the question of “Can I go there?”, and this was often answered in the affirmative. The teasings were exemplified strongest of all in the sequence of Boletarian Palace stages, wherein a distant tower, embraced by the void in a massive geologic form, alluded to a future climactic moment. Less spectacularly, you could also view a long bridge, littered with transportational detritus, from a high spot in the stage’s first part. This bridge would turn out to be the stage’s follow-up. There were vistas all over Demon’s Souls that served as summaries of your progress, too. One of these came at the end of the Shrine of Storms. After the traversal of windswept plateau and a descent into its sculpted out bowels, the player exited onto a craggy coastal zone. If they stood far out enough, they could see a massive geologic rise crowned by that traversed plateau, and upheld by those now-withheld insides.

An uncommon attention was paid to the worlds’ furnishings. One noticed, making their way through that initial fort of brick- and woodwork, that rickety palisades were erected on the grand introductory staircase, here and there a discarded carriage with maybe a horse corpse; in small, pocket-like refectories were rows of beds, and tables bearing cups, candelabras, and bowled edibles; outside of these cells were carts harboring casks of wine and buckets; or that on a long wall-walk was a somber parade of trebuchets, and adjacent to this was an attic for carts loaded with to-be-launched boulders. There was a sense that everything was in its right place, and to weave through these environments was to experience a world that innately lent itself to textured terms of engagement. Running up a series of staircases peppered by barrels full of explosive powder, and haunted by torch-wielding madmen, meant grappling with an incendiary challenge, yet the challenge was holistically ingrained in the objecthood of that world. In that way, spatial dealings, navigational or combative, acquired a flavor of believability.

More than that, these details backgrounded the universe. Things were the way they were because of what had happened regionally and nationally, relative to the overarching story. Each area could be interpreted as a special formal expression of the apocalyptic insanity spoiling the land. The valley and swamp’s constructions conveyed a failure that verged on the pathetic (reinforced by the empathic figure at the stage’s end); the Tower of Latria’s prisonic section — perhaps (in conjunction with its follow-up, the titular tower) the Souls series’ atmospheric highpoint — mired itself in a repetitive power-structure tied to the domineering mind of a mad king; and the excavation site of Stonefang Tunnel, with its messy, factory-like interiors and network of burrows, had a mood of abandoned industry, or industry that had overridden a productive purpose and become its own grim end.

Additionally, Demon’s Souls ran counter to an extant strain of design in action-adventure games that draws a distinguishing line between “combative spaces” and “non-combative spaces.” The least gratifying cases of this strain induce a monotonous awareness of compartmentalization, of there being a manner of space for fights — most often resembling an arena accommodating the spectacle of performance (God of War and its progeny come to mind) — and a manner of space for sites between fights. What made Demon’s Souls a categorical outlier was that conflict could happen anywhere; and that, when conflict did happen, the architecture supplemented it.

A player’s awareness here was of a sort of realism to the environments that were, nevertheless, designed to an almost obsessive degree of exactitude. Near the start of one world, players could reach a parapeted walkway guarded by skeletal archers. Doing so showed that the archers were flanked by another skeleton that rushed in with spiny rolls and sword swipes. A memorable dynamic suddenly emerged: dealing with the swordsman, positioning oneself so that the archers’ arrows were blocked by parapets, and minding the arrows of a distant sniper from an opposite direction. Later on, this swordsman-type appeared in narrow, underground corridors, frustrating the assumption that one would always find them in more open spaces, and necessitating a change of combative strategy.

Miraculously, this happened all over. On more action-bound terms, the game realized a quality of Super Metroid’s (and other excellent games’) level design — that of “…developers understanding what they had on their hands, mechanically, taking a few base elements off the shelf, and then cleverly splitting up those atoms again and again in […] permutations. Rather than having a bunch of plain rooms with a few exhibiting centralized, showy set-pieces that drown out the rest in favor of being The Point, or having every spot be suffocatingly feature-crammed, everything just flows into the next without reserved preciousness.” Regardless of the actual creative process, Demon’s Souls’ environments didn’t feel as though they’d been designed as hell-houses first and given a fantastical laminate second. Their interrelating roots ran deep.

But one principle wriggled its way into me most deeply, and an earlier descriptor feels most applicable: consuming. Demon’s Souls embodied a type of sublimity that hearkened back to the word’s older, romantic inclinations: an enveloping force, the sensation of being in an environment that threatened to overwhelm you with its unknowable, wild hugeness  — a morbid thrill in sensing a union with the world as your own discrete identity diminished. Placing any videogame in this exact dynamic would be melodramatic, but it would also be misstep to discount it at all. Demon’s Souls’, and Dark Souls’, value for me was reviving an engrossment I’d had with games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time — one that I’d assumed was irretrievable — and this was done most of all through the level design’s particular excellences and, on a larger scale, its overlapping, looping self-augmentation.

It’s here that the sub-topic of challenge comes in. As we witness other games jump on the Me-Too Train, interpreting a high mortality rate as the major selling point of the Souls titles, I’m prompted to say that actually dying — or at least dying to the extent of being hyper-aware of my multiplying failures — was never personally important. What was more important was feeling like the environments were making me commit to them — feeling like, as I got further away from the starting point, I was becoming more digested by the anatomy of that world, and witnessing the level design’s density hook into the visuals’ suggestions to the imagination, so that there was a sense of unseen perpetuity. What was important was interactive sublimation. In fact, dying as a repercussive technicality never appeared to be incredibly important to the games either. Rather, death’s proximity was a fact built into the world. It was easy to die because everything had gone to hell and you were, ultimately, alone. Death, a very real possibility, was an expression of the universe’s sublime numina, and not an isolatable offering made to Old School Gamers.

I’m also prompted to say, at the risk of treading into maybe the most subjective of territories, that the games’ level of difficulty has been overstated and often mischaracterized, making its fetishization all the more misled. Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls both encourage (through the environments’ quietly bleak drama and enemies’ set positions) and reward slow, methodical playing the first time through. There is ample room for confident, aggressive playstyles, but only afterwards. In many cases, it is not the specifics of enemies’ actions that create the challenge; instead, it’s the unnerving effect of the yet-to-come unknown (it is also significantly about enemies’ positions; more on this later). To succeed is to familiarize yourself with sites’ layouts so that there is an erosion of anxiety about what might be next, and so that you can act on the confidence lent by that information. This description reads as genuine to me if only because of the dramatic turn towards proficiency I’ve witnessed in myself and others upon surmounting a given gauntlet or environment — a turn that then seemed mysterious precisely because the improvement was not overtly performative.

Nothing better demonstrates this for me than a bit from Sen’s Fortress, a brutish proving ground in Dark Souls, where a treacherously thin walkway must be crossed. Near its end are four anchor-like blades swinging back in forth in pendular strokes. A fall from this walkway is fatal, and stepping onto it exposes the player to a projectile-flinging enemy standing on a ledge to the left. The only way to attack this enemy, separated from you by the abyss, is to use projectiles yourself, or to cross the walkway and take a path on the chamber’s side that leads to the target. At first, this is a charged set of circumstances, and even if one eliminates the enemy before crossing, their former presence breeds a paranoia about other threats that may be out of sight, ready to strike. Despite these circumstances, though, the easiest tactic here is running straight across the walkway as the enemy takes its time to react to your appearance, pausing for a moment to mind the blades’ swoops, and finishing the trek. This is the strange, enticing cross-section of the games’ challenge: a crust and mantle of apparent insidiousness that, when explored, is far outsized by a core of surprising leniency.

Accepting that the theme of death worked as previously defined, then, mechanics aside for the moment, Dark Souls represents a substantive development therein, insofar as it becomes inextricably and inventively nestled in the narrative core. Demon’s Souls was envisioned as an eccentric, horror-tinged elaboration on medieval fantasy, set in a world suffering from demonic outbreak and greed. It placed humanity at the forefront, and, as long as you did the “right” thing, it allowed a somewhat satisfactory ending to the quest. Dark Souls marks a turn towards greater strangeness. Humans here are a marginal biological development, born in the earth’s bowls, and a displacer of the world’s prime inhabitants, dragons (envisioned as almost vegetative, yet intellectual, creatures). In fact, humans, whose default condition is as corpse-like humanoids called “hollows,” only look and behave humanely thanks to a series of primordial, Promethean actions that, by the time of the game’s setting, are faltering. To be human in Dark Souls’ world is to fight a losing battle with nature’s course.

This entropic orientation extends to practically all of the storylines of the people one meets in-game: goodness can happen, but its positivity is counterpointed by loss or the troubled psychologies of those being helped (one may be quick to point out the possibility of saving the knight character of Solaire from violent insanity, but it’s clear through just a few encounters that this man is at best delusional, and at worst crazy and becoming crazier), and either ending the game offers is merely another minor anthropic push against the eventual victory of a kind of heat death. In a larger sense, then, Dark Souls’ thematic web, supported by the particulars of death and entropy, is failure: failure despite best intentions, failure of civilization, failure of development, failure of thermodynamic work. In effect, this makes Dark Souls as much a power fantasy as a fantasy of powerlessness, and it’s rare to see a game avoid the medium’s trend of unadulterated victory and yet have a narrative that works just as well outside of a meta-dialogue of self-criticism.

If there’s a critique to be made here, it’s that Dark’s consequences for death are somewhat conservative. As in Demon’s, you still lose all of the souls-currency acquired from defeated opponents (retrievable by returning to the site of prior death and collecting your sanguine remains), and you must use a particular item, or assist another player, to become “human” again. Besides that, hollowness simply puts a ban on other players helping or disturbing you, and leaves your avatar with a hideous prune of a body. Although Demon’s had less thematic support for death, its mechanisms had a relative shade of complexity: dying and being reborn (in “soul form”) was the only way to be summoned to, or invade, another player’s world; it halved your lifebar; it decreased your defense and increased your strength; and — most interestingly, but also most opaquely — it affected the appearance and hardiness of characters and creatures in each world.

These analyses of death as a thematic and mechanical conceit are valid and necessary, but it’s most appropriate to this essay’s emphases to — with those analyses now out of the way — reframe Dark Souls from the standpoint of its environments’ formal developments. Demon’s Souls was a dungeon crawler that had molted into an action game, and part of its lineage-retention was an architecture that often could best be described as a non-cementitious brutalism, wherein classical western elements had been reduced to “primitive” equivalents amid fantastical inserts — a sort of faceless Roman architecture of the imagination. The Boletarian palace was the game at its most particular on account of its brighter lighting and blatant medievalisms; and the Nexus was the game at its most fanciful, and perhaps most naive, with its strange, abbreviated clusterings of classical and gothic elements and ornamental grooves resembling Hindu or Islamic details.

For myself, that faceless “Roman-esque” was the architecture’s greatest strength and weakness. It was interesting for its evocations of Piranesi’s carceri prints — crude, broad, and menacing assemblies cast in shadow — and for how its vague, blunt character prompted, yet resisted, a deeper emotional spelunking and produced an interestingly inadequate satisfaction; but, in that resistance, it lacked some greater, more particular sense of identity or fictional, historical scope. This was much like the rest of the game, which put a shortly reached limit on what could be inferred from its details. In a sense, the series’ environmental growth into Dark Souls represents a general growth into a better understanding of what the games’ relationships with players could be: systems of mystery asking for and allowing a process of understanding, which never quite ends in complete certainty but cultures a collective, imaginative archaeology.

This is not to say that the environmental growth is an outgrowth. Like so much else in the game, the focal formal cue for Dark Souls’ world, Lordran, is taken from Demon’s Souls. The hostile site players are first encouraged to visit (through a personal elimination of offered routes) in Lordran is a burg — an echoing of the Boletarian Palace with its defensive structures, civic quarters, darkly interjecting pathways, and sneaky offenses of the enemies who leap out of dim corners and hang from ledges, ready to climb up and attack. Yet all about this echoing is a new fecundity of expression. It’s in the glazed, polychromatic brickwork that seems almost too lovely for the state of things; the densely settled half-timbered buildings, fenestrated by small, secretive windows that capture the organic energy of so many medieval settlements; the sunbeamed sky that speaks of some untouched vitality.

, where soldiers everlastingly emerge from two passages on the sides, despite the passages being dead ends. Again, we have to consider the context here: these designs, excluding the exterior detail, are not ridiculous in themselves, but the idea of Drangleic Castle — expressed in the narrative — is not that it is a site repurposed to be a sort of “Legends of the Hidden Temple” gauntlet, but that it is a pale shade of its former glory. Understood thusly, the traps and vacuous box-rooms are unsubstantiated forms of subterfuge.

As long as the relevant negative example is a castle/palace, I’ll reiterate that the Boletarian Palace’s magic was that its architecture discretely realized and blended the inherent themes of defense, housing, and storage. It both came across as a convincing place (again, “convincing” or “realistic” does not mean that the subject has a 1:1 ratio with reality) and engaged the player with design permutations that took hold of the surroundings, like groups of crossbow-firing soldiers blocking the way on a bridge, or darkly spear-throwing creatures in a dim room meant for storing carriages. This is the same sort of thing that happens in Dark Souls’ parish. The parish is gotten to by the bridge that hangs over the burg, and its entrance is guarded by a pyromanic red dragon. While the dragon can be gotten past or defeated, its size and hostility are likely to induce players to instead cross the bridge’s underside. This is a passage with hints of precariousness, and right near its end, where a body-wide course hugs an abutment and leads to a gutter-like room, a pair of rats territorially skitter out. Rats are never a problem in themselves (and are often loathe to start any conflict), but here, their hostility, emergence at a tight spot, and ability to poison the player — who almost definitely has no antidotes — can create an issue.

Scaling a ladder that leads out of the gutter brings the player onto a main road, but there is also a watchtower’s spiraling flight of stairs to the left. The passage is narrow and fairly tall, and only allows the player to see ahead so far. This makes for a somewhat tense ascent, and it’s a tension that’s capitalized on by a Black Knight — one of the game’s few extra-powerful enemies that never reappear once they’re defeated — at the tower’s top. This is a situation different than the rats, but it’s expressing the same idea. The watchtower is a structure pertinent to fortified medieval settlements, especially near their extremities (as the watchtower here is), and the dramatic details of its height and isolation are complemented by the intimidating, surveying figure of the knight. On top of this is an interactive spatial drama. The knight’s enormous sword can plow through shields and has significant range, so the tower’s small top makes for an awkward arena. This might persuade you to retreat, but unless you’ve come from the bridge’s deck and raised a portcullis between the parish and a fountain square, the start of the main road is also limiting, and the only wider space, to the right, is patrolled by other enemies.

In these moments, we’re treated to intelligent, atmospheric game design: an enemy-type harmonizes with a pertinent characteristic of the architecture, and appears in a plausible point of habitation. This is the design germ that builds worlds. It’s much more than the game trying to overwhelm or be tough for toughness’ sake. Dark Souls’ entire parish could be reviewed under this light (and I’ve skipped over a number of points in both illustrations), but I think it’s best, with the essay’s present size, to cut it off here.

As this essay nears its end, I find myself returning to its beginning to add another motive that has driven this project. There is a pattern I’ve seen, shared between conclusive words spent on Dark Souls, that deems the game “worthwhile” based on the satisfaction of overcoming its challenges. Despite my biases, I think that this is an inadequate and uninspiring basis for endorsement, and its dominance among the buzzwords for Dark Souls is agitating, to say the least (as said before, the games themselves have come to be marketed from this easy, traditionalist point of view). Nearly every videogame shares the institution of some resistant structure which calls us to engage a ruleset and create a narrative of personal achievement; and even while we can speak of Dark Souls’ accomplishments therein, to turn that into the critical diadem doesn’t make sense to me. It’s in the seemingly less justifiable parts of this game, in its engagement with and prompts to the imagination, that I’ve discovered the real source of this bond, and it is nonsensical to assume that Dark Souls has maintained its presence in so many people’s minds simply because of its narrative, challenges, and multiplayer features, no matter how well executed those are, and no matter how many people are actually drawn to the game for those reasons.

So what is the worth of these things I’ve tried to celebrate? As easy as it is to judge the act of overcoming obstacles in virtual worlds as useless, it makes some sense. In one respect, videogames are an outlet for acting out delineated narratives of success, which run counter to real life where success is often hard to measure and takes longer to achieve. This is also a reason why we engage kinds of fictions in books and movies. It feels odd to say that the imaginative aspect which I’ve been promoting seems less justifiable than the triumphal aspect, when both of them, broadly speaking, serve the same purpose of leading us to enriched states of mind.

I think there is a contemporary impulse to see the triumphal aspect as more defensible because it runs parallel to a culture of “productivity” that defines worth as something that can only come out of “work” (and is, in a way, salable; but that is a different discussion). Imagination has come to be distrusted as an idea and a word. It has taken on the tone of something attached to childhood — and thus “childishness,” as childhood is a period that is grown out of — or as something that distracts from the facts of life, in the sense of a daydream. It’s this cultural atmosphere that makes it hard to conclude and not feel as though I’m begging the question (i.e., “it’s important to be imaginatively stimulated, because imagination is important”), or makes it hard to feel comfortable in the midst of that question-begging, to accept that it’s as fine of a defense as there is and there’s no pressing need to get molecularly epistemological.

Because we are creatures of fancy, we need works that tap into our romance with possibility. This is sustenance through symbology. The most powerful attracting force of videogames for me has always been their worlds. This force has motivated me to create Zelda-esque dungeons, a fictional island with floral and faunal indexes, and hundreds of labyrinthine cross-sections, the last of which now lies at the heart of my visual art practices.

I can point at Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls and say that both have set off a greater personal interest in architecture; and yet, something is further below, just as there is something further below Lordran, beyond even its root-tangled underworlds and inner sable lakes. If this essay can’t help in understanding what that something is, maybe it can help in better seeing the workings that give it life. Language is an approximation, but that can be okay. Not everything needs a display case and a name.

Ario Barzan is an independent writer, visual artist, composer, and part-time educator. He lives in Boston, and is a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts’ MFA program. He can be reached on Twitter at @Doshmanziari.

Featured images were provided by @OffalAl and @tehMati.

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