The Soul of a Game

Dark Souls Design

I recently finished playing through Dark Souls on the PS3, one of the only games that’s truly grabbed me and made me feel in the last few years. It was an emotional experience for me, due in large part to brilliant art design and often brutal challenges. It did what so few games in the last decade have managed to do.

Because of this, I decided I needed to go back and finish Demon’s Souls, the first game in the franchise. I’d gotten halfway through it when it first came out in North America in October of 2009, only to stop when life called me away. The games are in some ways very different from one another, and after some debate and discussion with friends and other fans of the game, I felt the need to talk about it.

To start with, I’ll say that yes, Dark Souls is definitively a much better game. Coming from that and going backward has been hard. I didn’t have any complaints when I first played Demon’s Souls, so I’m not really leveling most of this at it as raw criticism, just comparison.

To look at the games, you wouldn’t find a wide gap right off. The controls are similar, the combat is similar, the design is similar, and so on throughout; but in getting down to playing Demon’s Souls again, I found I was much less impressed with how things were implemented. The controls, despite being more or less the same, feel looser, less reliable. I was more nervous about falling when traversing catwalks than I ever had been in Dark Souls. The combat too seems indistinguishable from that of the sequel at first, yet I felt like the dance wasn’t the same dance, like there was a layer of control and depth missing from what I’d experienced in Dark Souls. The hitboxes are a bit more finicky, the enemies don’t seem to have quite the same variety in movements and attack patterns, the animations are somewhat clunkier, the blocking feels less weighty.

The basic online components, conversely, seem more prominent. There are more bloodstains and ghosts in Demon’s Souls (recorded deaths and non-interactive afterimages of other players), making the game feel more populated, less lonely. Dark Souls uses these things much more sparingly, and the ghosts all appear in mere rags, looking underpowered and sickly, which does a lot to change the feel. I felt more powerful in Dark Souls in the sense that I felt I had a better handle on things, that my character was reliable and would respond exactly as I intended; yet psychologically I always felt weaker. In Demon’s Souls, the opposite is true. I feel stronger and more confident, yet I don’t feel my character is as reliable, and I die more often in what are generally less direful circumstances.

The graphics and art design also affect the psychological impact of the game. When I first booted up Dark Souls, I actually thought, “Man, I remember the first game looking better than this.” And when I booted up Demon’s Souls again, my first impression was, “Man, this really does look better than Dark Souls.” But observation has shown that the differences in the design, the display, and the environments of the games lead to some wildly different ends.

Demon’s Souls doesn’t use obscure itself through depth-of-field effects, thus appearing a tad sharper, and it’s much darker, much more Gothic, which immediately renders the sunlit qualities of some of the Dark Souls environments with less contrast, making them more homogeneous. The hub levels reflect this in extremis. While the Nexus of Demon’s Souls is a vaguely frightening, oddly comforting, strangely emotive place that begins to fill rapidly with people as the game progresses, Firelink Shrine of Dark Souls is … not. There’s nothing wrong with it, and it isn’t designed to be exactly the same hub as the Nexus was (especially given that the former game is broken up into separate levels while the latter is an open, continuous world), but it feels impotent in direct comparison. It’s brighter, cheerier, with blue-tinted sunlight filtering through a great tree, stone crumbling around the walls of a nearby ruin. It isn’t the adamantine wonder that the Nexus is, crossed with those many statues, the disturbing upside-down iconography, the shifting magical runes that cross the walls in those wide circles.

Yet the people of Firelink Shrine are fewer, the sense of camaraderie less pronounced. The NPCs of Dark Souls have their own ambitions and come and go more frequently, leaving you to sit alone in the stark magical radiance of the bonfire. The Nexus is so visually fascinating and historically intriguing, the initial impression one must have of Dark Souls by comparison is one that’s more subdued.

This follows through with a lot of other areas. Demon’s Souls is, oddly enough given the title of the sequel, darker. It positively drips with dread and fear, with despair and madness. Dark Souls shares some similarities, but isn’t so Gothic, not so covered over in layers of blackness. This makes Demon’s Souls much more striking in a lot of ways, but also less real, more like a dream. The sequel has a dreamlike quality as well, but the sense of place is more profound. The open world and the less evil-feeling environs give you the sense that people could have lived there, that this was an ancient land of beauty where gods dwelt, long forgotten and covered over in ruin in the wake of a curse. The landscape of Demon’s Souls feels more like a giant prison, a place where nothing could ever live, where no one could ever escape, purely hostile and without the vestiges of living history that let it breathe any breath but malice. In this sense I think Demon’s Souls is more striking, yet the ongoing effect is weaker. Dark Souls has a subtlety that may at first glance feel like a step down, but it does more to build the world From Softare wants you to inhabit.

So despite my early exclamations, Dark Souls is far and away the better-looking game. The models, animations, textures, and overall environments are more convincing. In the same way, Dark Souls is—for all the differences between it and its predecessor—far and away the better game. It is more strictly fair to the player, less frustrating, provides far more content and more variety while still being more challenging in the right ways. I’m still looking forward to spending a couple hours here and there trying to knock out the remaining challenges that await me in Demon’s Souls, but I can appreciate now how excellent a job From did building their sequel. And considering how good the first game has turned out to be, it’s no wonder that Dark Souls in turn found its place as a touchstone of gaming culture.

[This post originally appeared at theflyingmonkeyapparatus.com.]

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One response to “The Soul of a Game

  1. Pingback: The Darker the Dungeon | Bookruptcy·

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