The evolution of Dark Souls has truly been remarkable to behold.
The nature of the Dark Souls gameplay system has been endlessly analyzed, so I don’t want to belabor the particular merits of the series’ brilliantly “fair” combat, elegant level design, haunting atmosphere, opaque yet fascinating lore, wholly original online system, extensive replayability, beautiful visuals, and general level of astounding mechanical-narrative coherency. Slowly but surely the Souls franchise has emerged as one of the most influential series of the modern video game era, with small indies like Salt and Sanctuary to AAA titans like Witcher 3 breaking down and integrating components of the Souls design into their systems. This is an enormous accomplishment which cannot be understated.
Instead I want to draw attention to series’ overall design philosophy. That is, the process by which From Software creates and directs sequels within the ongoing series and its spin-offs.
Hidetaka Miyazaki and From Software started the series in 2009 with Demon’s Souls. Since then, they have carried the franchise over a reboot, two sequels, and a spin-off with a unique design philosophy which oddly reflects the in-game narrative of Dark Souls. Just as every Souls protagonist journeys to “link the first flame” to restart the Age of Fire to continue the world’s cycle of golden ages, From Software crafted every new game on the ashen template of its predecessor, with only small, strategic alterations to the core design. The idea was not to re-invent the wheel with every sequel, but to experiment at the fringes of the Souls design, to see what works and what doesn’t work. Successful experiments produced fun designs which carried over to the next game while failed experimental products were forgotten.
Dark Souls 3 marks the final cycle in the Souls series. Like the player-protagonist who snuffs out the flame to allow an age of darkness to take hold of the world, From Software is allowing its flame to fade. While I will be sad to see Dark Souls come to an end, I think this is also the right choice. Dark Souls has been an absolutely brilliant series, and DS3 is the ultimate expression of its mechanical design, but nothing short of a reboot will enliven a formula which has started to split at the seams due to overuse. Fortunately, From Software has already crafted that reboot in the form of Bloodborne, a potentially equally proficient series which carries on the legacy of Dark Souls.
(To carry on the DS narrative analysis, Bloodborne could be From Software’s Age of Darkness assuming you believe Kingseeker Kaathe and the hollows’ claims about the connection between darkness and humanity… but I digress.)
Above all, the Souls design philosophy is conservative. Yet it is not conservative in the feet-dragging, non-innovative, cost-saving form of Ubisoft’s Far Cry and Assassin’s Creed series, nor the eternal stagnation of Madden or post-Modern Warfare Call of Duty’s. Rather, Dark Souls is conservative in the sense that From Software is risk-averse from a design-perspective, and prefers incremental, precision evolution to large-scale re-designs.
The only other company I know of to take a similar long-term approach is Paradox Studios. Their Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Hearts of Iron series are all predicated upon a unique development approach wherein the initial vanilla product serves up a basic game template which is then evolved over the course of years with heavy patching and paid-expansion packs. Crusader Kings II was initially released in 2012 and has since received 10 expansions, the latest of which came out in January, 2016.
Similarly to Dark Souls, Paradox introduces minor experimental innovations in each expansion based heavily on direct player feedback via forums. Successful experiments are maintained and expanded while unsuccessful experiments are heavily patched into functionality (like the endlessly see-sawing revolt system). Admittedly, the Dark Souls and Paradox systems aren’t exactly comparable, since From Software relies on sequels instead of expansions, and focuses most of its innovations of core-mechanical tweaking rather than expanding the scope of the content itself (ie. CKII’s in-game timeframe has expanded considerably). But still, the long-form, conservative nature of Paradox development serves as an interesting point of comparison to From Software’s famed series.
While 2009’s Demon’s Souls and 2016’s Dark Souls 3 may appear similar on a surface level, the latter game was actually a product of an extremely deliberate evolution process. DeS (Demon’s Souls) was truly uncharted territory at its release, with a combat system, online system, level structure, and general progression nearly entirely unlike anything that came before it. And though DeS was a great game in its own right, it had plenty of room for improvement. Rather than risk disrupting the coherency of the game’s system by significantly altering any one component of its design, From Software chose to strategically tweak aspects of the mechanics and lore for its next title.
Thus two years later From Software followed up DeS with Dark Souls, a spiritual successor rather than a direct sequel. I don’t know for certain why this decision was made, but I suspect the cult success of DeS came as quite a surprise to the company considering the game’s mid-level budget and ambitions, so they decided to reboot the series to place it on a similar but new narrative footing better fit for future sequels.
Aside from creating a new setting for the mechanics, DS implemented the first barrage of mechanical and system alterations to the core formula, to nearly universal acclaim. The combat was polished and given greater depth with more weapon variety and magical dimensions. The cluttered inventory system was streamlined. The hub level design was exchanged for a flowing, vertical spider web (which many people, including myself, consider to be one of the best game-worlds ever made). The health system was revamped to be simpler but more tension-inducing. The graphics were moderately upgraded. The game was longer over all.
The result was a resounding success. Dark Souls elevated its core system from an odd cult hit known only for its cruel difficulty and Zero Punctuation’s legendary review to a modern classic. Despite its seeming niche appeal, DS had fantastic sales and attracted legions of diehard fans. Pundits poured over the intricacies of the game’s design to figure out why this mechanically aloof, narratively opaque game felt so good when it kicked a player’s ass for the billionth time.
The Souls series became a huge hit.
Then Dark Souls II came along in 2014 and showed everyone that From Software’s team wasn’t infallible. Not that DS2 was a bad game by any means, just that it was weak by the standards set by Dark Souls and it failed to live up to the inescapable hype built by its predecessor. The game was plagued by technical issues from the start, leading From Software to scrap their much-touted lighting system late in the development period. The combat was clunky, the stat system was confusing (good luck trying to figuring out what poise is, how to get I-frames in your rolls, and when the hell to use adaptability), level progression was a mess, the lore was less interesting, and overall DS2 felt like a step down in general quality.
The conventional wisdom attributes DS2’s relative failure to the absence of DeS and DS’s lead designer, Hidetaka Miyazaki. While that sounds plausible, it’s also worth noting that the design leap from DS1 to DS2 was greater than the transition between any other Souls game (not counting Bloodborne). In other words, From Software introduced a greater concentration of experimental innovations in DS2 than in DeS, DS, or DS3. The estus flask system was restricted and hybridized with a DeS style system of health pickups, the core combat was altered to account wider weapon variety and more balance with magic, and From Software attempted some ambitious technical upgrades far beyond what the mid-budget Souls series was used to.
So while DS2 is rightfully universally considered the worst Souls game, it at least needs to be recognized as a failure of ambition rather than incompetence or apathy. That’s the good kind of failure. (Plus, as I said before, it’s not actually a bad game, just not as good as a bunch of other great games).
After DS2, Hidetaka Miyazaki was put back in the director’s chair for the creation of Bloodborne, a spiritual successor which promised to carry on the superb systems of the Souls games onto a new console generation.
Bloodborne represents the manifestation of From Software’s conservative design philosophy on a higher level. If each Souls game alters roughly 10-20% of the previous game’s mechanical system, Bloodborne was closer to a 40-50% divergence from DS2. The combat was still lethal and famously difficult, but tweaked to be faster with a far greater emphasis on maneuverability and offense rather than stamina conservation and defense. The setting was taken out of medieval-fantasy Europe and implanted in an intriguing Victorian Lovecraftian world. The endless weapon array was streamlined for balance and simplicity. And a healthy technical upgrade brought the new art style to life.
Yet Bloodborne was still a Souls game at its core, with all of the difficulty, labrynthian level design, and efficacious progression the fans expected. Just as From Software uses the same core game systems in every Souls sequel but with minor alterations, the company created a new series based on the tried-and-true Souls systems but with a much larger cluster of design alterations to give the new series its own identity.
Whether it was due to the return of Hidetaka Miyazaki or the lessons learned from DS2, Bloodborne was a huge success despite being the riskiest endeavor yet for From Software. The company successfully transposed what works best about Dark Souls into a new game series which can carry on its legacy in a fresh and exciting form.
The recently released Dark Souls 3 is the final entry in the Souls series and as such it represents the ultimate demonstration of From Software’s design philosophy. DS3 may not be everyone’s favorite entry in the series, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not the most polished and well-designed Souls game at a fundamental level. The combat is silky smooth, the levels perfectly fit together in their trademark-verticality, and the hair-pulling difficulty feels eminently fair at the end of every session, even if the Nameless King will make you want to punch a hole in the wall while you’re fighting him.
All of From Software’s tweaking and experimentation over the last four games came to a head in DS3. It is the apex of Dark Souls design. A perfect realization of the original idea of Demon’s Souls and a phenomenal send-off to an iconic series.
But Dark Souls 3 also feels a bit tired.
That’s because just as DS3 represents the apex of From Software’s conservative design philosophy, it also represents its limit. DS3’s fundamental problem (and arguably the only problem in the entire game) is that it feels like a mere greatest hits collection of everything that came before it. There is little experimentation, only the refinement of well-used systems, like the estus flasks, the bonfire transports, combat speed, and the intertwining level structure. As great as the ultimate manifestations of all these gameplay systems are, I couldn’t help but get fatigued at running through the same ideas for the fifth time.
The best example of this is the level themes. DS3 has the best level design in the series. All of the enemies are placed at perfect points to create a natural flow and progression for the player that fuels an irresistible desire to explore every spare inch of the impressively large play-spaces. But I have already been through medieval castles, cathedrals, villages, toxic swamps, dark forests and lava lakes more times than I can count. Also, I have also already fought all shades of gimmick bosses, “dudes in armor,” and shapeless monstrosities which kill me with tentacles. And I’ve had enough anti-climactic endings followed by absurdly addicting “new game plus” playthroughs for a good long time.
The Dark Souls system is a beautifully complex method which has enchanted players for more than half a decade and has undoubtedly been one of the most influential approaches to game design of the last two console generations. The masterful execution of this series’ progression must be attributed to the uniquely conservative design philosophy of From Software and Hidetaka Miyazaki who carefully built a great video game concept into one of the greatest video game concepts.
But it’s clear at this point that system has run its course. In yet another wise decision by Hidetaka Miyazaki (who now runs From Software), the Dark Souls series is coming to a well-deserved end. Only a sizeable divergence from the established formula is worthy carrying on From Software’s flame of creativity, and fortunately Bloodborne is a deserving heir.
We should celebrate everything the Souls series has done: where it started, what it went through, and where it will go. In an industry where so many great products are ground into generic sludge, the Souls series is one of the rare brands fortunate enough to exist under the stewardship of a far-seeing creative team.
I will be sad to see the Age of Dark Souls end, but I cannot wait to see where the Age of Bloodborne will take me, it’s legion of fans, and the video game industry as a whole.