The DNA of Dark Souls: What made the games great

We dissect From Software's Souls series to find what made the first two games great, and what the upcoming Dark Souls 2 needs to do to follow in the lofty footsteps of its predecessors. Part one of the two-part series looks at the mechanics of the series.

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Editor's Note: With the recent release of more Dark Soul's 2 details, David Craddock dissects From Software's Souls series to find what made the first two games great, and what the upcoming sequel needs to do to follow in the lofty footsteps of its predecessors. Part one of the two-part series looks at game mechanics of the series.
In 2010, From Software announced Dark Souls, a spiritual sequel to 2009's Demon's Souls. Tension was high. As rewarding as it was punishing, Demon's Souls was heralded as the savior of hardcore gaming among legions of dedicated players who had grown tired of casual game tropes such as heavy-handed tutorials and adventures more linear and directed than a moving sidewalk. Our fears were unfounded. Dark Souls left fans broken, bleeding, but grinning as they gasped out, "Thank you, ma'am, may I have another?" Late last year, From Software responded with the announcement of Dark Souls 2, due out not nearly soon enough. Excitement for the game is high, but once again, uncertainty dogs it. Series director Hidetaka Miyazaki is trading his director's chair for a supervisor role, turning the reins over to newcomers Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura. The dual directors have stated their preference for directness over subtlety, which has some fans apprehensive. Do these guys have any idea what made Demon's and Dark Souls so great? We do, so let's help them out. Through Dark Souls DNA, I and various helpful members of the Shack citizenry will dissect Demon's and Dark Souls to determine which elements shared between the two existing entries was stronger, and how Dark Souls 2 will handle that element. This entry puts each game's world structure under the microscope to determine which implementation served the series best.

Demon's Souls let players visit five worlds in any order they chose ...

In Demon's Souls, the Nexus acted as a hub that granted players access to five worlds. Each world was broken up into multiple levels. Defeating the boss at the end of a level opened up a new level as well as an Archstone, a sort of spoke on a wheel that players could use to travel back to or return from the Nexus. Dark Souls eschewed the hub system in favor of a seamlessly connected world. Each new area opened into yet more new areas: moonlit forests, crystal caves, cities caught in perpetual twilight, caverns boiling over with lava, and trap-infested fortresses. To reach these and other zones, players had to travel on foot. Approximately halfway through the game, players earned the ability to warp between bonfires, rest stations where players could recharge spells and healing flasks. Which world structure worked better? Shacker Begawkiness sided with the hub. "I felt like Demon's Souls was more rewarding, probably due to its more linear nature with the stones instead of the open world. When you killed a demon you were transported back to the nexus with a big pile of souls and returned to human form. You could then warp right back to where you had left off. It was all kind of relieving/rewarding after a really tough boss fight."

... whereas Dark Souls asked players to navigate through contiguous environments.

The Nexus hub offered other advantages. To mollify players who suffered tragic demises after making significant progress, From Software's designers added shortcuts in each level such as bridges and gates that players could activate to cut right into the heart of the region the next time they passed through. Unlike enemies, shortcuts did not reset when players died. Activating a shortcut was like planting a flag in enemy soil: They had conquered, so they could return at will. Other Shackers sided with Dark Souls, preferring its vastness and interwoven lands. "I like the open world of Dark Souls as it felt like everything was connected and you explore the world at your own pace," said Shacker DHAvatar. "Demon's Souls felt more like playing stages of a game with how the worlds are split, even though they're technically related to each other." Shacker EvilDolemite agreed, saying, "Demon's Souls is more punishing and bleaker. However, the levels feel 'gamey' like they were designed. Dark Souls has a cohesive world that is fantastic with no loading [when traveling between areas]." Like its predecessor, Dark Souls populated most regions with at least one shortcut to cut down on travel time. But realistically, an open world can only feed into itself so far. Some areas simply could not offer passage into others. The bonfire system served as a compromise, a more versatile way to warp from region to region. Unfortunately, not every bonfire was a warp point. Players could warp from any bonfire, but only to a select few, most of which were set far away from oft-visited NPCs such as blacksmiths.

Demon's Souls planted shortcuts in each level to expedite future trips through the area.

I get the logic behind the decision to limit warp points. Survival in Dark Souls meant staying never letting your mind wander further than what's around the next bend. The trouble is, fighting my way to the blacksmith in Undead Parish, or to the other smiths scattered here and there, is only difficult when I'm unfamiliar with the lay of the land. The third, fourth, and twenty-fourth hike through an area isn't difficult or nerve-wracking. It's a chore. The Artorias of the Abyss expansion more than doubled the list of warp points, making travel to critical NPCs and areas much simpler. But I should have been able to warp to any bonfire, not just the ones the designers deemed appropriate. In Demon's Souls, beating a boss allowed me to jump right to its Archstone from the Nexus. That logic should have carried over to Dark Souls. I should have to earn the ability to warp by passing a grueling challenge; such a powerful tool shouldn't be at my disposal by default. But once earned, warping should let me go to any marshmallow-roast site I have activated. Flaws aside, I and many other Shackers preferred the open world structure of Dark Souls due to an interest in how the game's many areas relate to one another. "Another reason the single world is good is because the designers were able to weave a certain degree of story into their game simply by having certain monsters appear in different areas," Shacker Grumbeld said. "Think of the Golems and Moonlight Butterflies. Where are they? They're in the Crystal Caves. However, there are just a few also in Darkroot Forest. Does this mean that Seath was doing some experiments in the Forest? I'm sure there's a reason for them being there."

Defeating Ornstein and Smough granted players the ability to warp, but only to certain bonfires.

Dark Souls 2 director Tomohiro Shibuya has already confirmed that the sequel will play out across a contiguous world similar to Dark Souls, and that's as it should be. For as much as I enjoyed Demon's Souls' levels, Dark Souls' structure was organic and finely crafted. It felt like a world, and that's what I want from games like these: worlds, not video game levels. One thing, though. We saw in the gameplay reveal this past Wednesday that Dark Souls 2 will use bonfires again. The game world will be larger than its predecessor's, so we can assume warping will return in some fashion. Please, From Software: once I am able to warp, let me jump to every node I've activated, not just a chosen few.
In part 2 of Dark Souls DNA on Monday, we discuss the difficulty level of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, and discuss why overcoming adversity is just as important to a Souls game as adversity itself.
Contributing Editor

From The Chatty

  • reply
    April 12, 2013 9:30 AM

    David Craddock posted a new article, The DNA of Dark Souls: What made the games great.

    We dissect From Software's Souls series to find what made the first two games great, and what the upcoming Dark Souls 2 needs to do to follow in the lofty footsteps of its predecessors. Part one of the two-part series looks at the mechanics of the series.

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      April 12, 2013 9:46 AM

      Dark Souls DNA, part 1: wherein wise and illustrious Shackers are quoted regarding their experiences in THE HARD GAME CLUB.

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        April 12, 2013 9:53 AM

        Uh oh, has HGC gone mainstream now?

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          April 12, 2013 10:01 AM

          C->*, all must experience the greatness of Dark Souls.

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          April 12, 2013 1:40 PM

          S Rank in Shattered Soldier!!

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            April 13, 2013 9:29 AM

            How does Shattered Soldier rank in terms of challenge against Contra 4? It took a while, but I did end up completely beating Contra 4 on the DSi in all the modes it offered. There was some serious memorization that had to be done for that. Probably never will be able to do it again now that I have put it down for a few years.

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        April 12, 2013 1:46 PM

        When did you start writing for shacknews??

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          April 12, 2013 1:48 PM

          There are two answers to that question! I wrote for the Shack from 2005 through 2007. After last fall's "Stay Awhile and Listen" chapter reveal (http://bit.ly/RifGI9), John Keefer asked me to stay in touch and send him ideas for articles. I love the Souls games and wanted to write about them, so I came up with the DNA concept.

          And here we are! I'm not a regular staffer, but I'll visit the front page every so often.

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      April 12, 2013 1:14 PM

      Bump for the Friday afternoon crowd.

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      April 12, 2013 1:21 PM

      Thanks for the article! I love reading about this series. Both of them are really standout games of the current generation for me. They just do so many things right, kind of came out of nowhere.

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        April 12, 2013 1:53 PM

        Thank you, and I agree. I've fallen in love with so many new IPs this generation, and that only makes since; the generation will have lasted 8 years by the time PS4 releases this fall, and it only makes sense that so many new IPs would have debuted in that time. But even in the face of Batman: Arkham, Dead Space, and BioShock, my other standouts, Souls just does it for me. I haven't been so excited about a series since the first time I played Diablo way back when. ;)

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      April 12, 2013 1:27 PM

      Good article! Would read again, but I don't need to yet. Give me part 2 now, and I promise not to leak it.

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      April 12, 2013 2:01 PM

      This here's some good writing y'all

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      April 12, 2013 3:42 PM

      Good to see you back!

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      April 12, 2013 4:03 PM

      Sweet. Looking forward to part 2.

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      April 12, 2013 5:47 PM

      Oh hey I'm totally quoted in this! Good article btw, looking forward to part 2.

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      April 12, 2013 5:51 PM

      I disagree with some of this:

      Other Shackers sided with Dark Souls, preferring its vastness and interwoven lands. "I like the open world of Dark Souls as it felt like everything was connected and you explore the world at your own pace," said Shacker DHAvatar. "Demon's Souls felt more like playing stages of a game with how the worlds are split, even though they're technically related to each other." Shacker EvilDolemite agreed, saying, "Demon's Souls is more punishing and bleaker. However, the levels feel 'gamey' like they were designed. Dark Souls has a cohesive world that is fantastic with no loading [when traveling between areas]."

      Dark Souls may have been connected and singular (aside from Anor Londo and the Painted World and DLC), but a lot of those connections are more "gamey" than the world of Demon's Souls.

      To me, much of the level design in Dark Souls feels deliberately constructed to fit these different areas within the space of the other areas, while disregarding what that means to the overall sense of place.

      Demon's Souls' 5 main worlds are unique, sprawling, and more natural in design, with sub-levels that are very cohesive to the overall main level. They don't feel compromised or arbitrarily concocted to fit within a larger world. The result is these huge levels that feel like significant chunks of a larger, more varied world, rather than a larger world condensed down into a video game world like Dark Souls. Where you have one level connected to the next, but you also have some very jarring transitions form one to the next in style, atmosphere, and architecture. Which I know some people don't care about, but I preferred the design of Demon's Souls in that regard. Sure, the Nexus and choosing where you want to go and when is gamey, but so is the ability to warp anywhere once you earn that in Dark.


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        April 12, 2013 6:35 PM

        I'm on my phone and don't feel like typing too much, but you raise points I'll address shortly.

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          April 12, 2013 6:42 PM

          Don't bother. I've heard them all before!

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            April 13, 2013 5:01 AM

            Of course I'll bother! I love talking Souls.

            Yes, warping in Dark is arguably as "gamey" as Demon's' hub world system, but it's necessary, just as the Archstones in Demon's are necessary. Players need a fast-travel method as an option because, as I mention in the article, hoofing it on foot gets old after a time.

            I also see your point regarding areas in Dark Souls being made to deliberately fit within a certain mold. I just don't see that as a problem. In fact, it's one of the most enjoyable aspects of the game. Being able to look up from the entrance to Sen's Fortress and see the bell tower where you defeated the twin gargoyles begets a tremendous sense of progress; you can see how far you've come both in terms of distance and in terms of your character's growth. Once, those gargoyles gave you so many problems. Now they're just one more victory in your rearview.

            I also enjoy being able to look ahead and get a sneak peak of upcoming areas. You can go outdoors in Anor Londo and see the Duke's Archives on its hilltop perch. In the Tomb of Giants, you can look down into the Demon Ruins, which you may or may not have already finished by the time you're inching your way through the darkness of the Tombs.

            Does being able to see the road behind and ahead make Lordran feel like a video game world? Certainly. But Lordran is no different from most other seamless/open worlds in that regard. I favor its design over Demon's' hub because it feels self-contained yet sprawling, organically connected yet populated with areas that feel unique from every other area.

            Each group of levels in Demon's Souls also feels self-contained yet sprawling, but only within itself. And that's okay! But again, being able to look back and forward in Dark Souls to take stock of what I've overcome and wonder at the challenges that lay ahead in a completely different place convinced me that Dark's model was superior--if only marginally.

            Where Demon's Souls pulls ahead is pure atmosphere. I focused purely on world structure and layout in this article, but in terms of atmosphere and setting, Demon's is superior. I absolutely love each world in Demon's Souls... except the fifth. ;) The quiet, foreboding desolation of Boletarian Palace; the dark and gritty mines of Stonefang Tunnel; the claustrophobic cells and chilling sounds of octopus men patrolling the broken corridors in the Tower of Latria... Those examples more than any other gave each world in Demon's such a strong sense of identity, and stir up trepidation and a cozy familiarity every time I play.

            But, again, this article focuses on structure. As much as I love how each of Demon's' separate worlds flowed within themselves, and the atmosphere and identity of those worlds, Dark Souls' seamless world just fit together so well. And I also enjoyed the individuality and epic fantasy-like atmosphere of each region in Lordran, even if none of them were as compelling as the dark-fantasy/horror worlds in Demon's.

            The gameplay footage from Dark Souls II actually has me convinced that we'll get the best of both preceding games: a huge, interconnected world, and atmosphere more in line with dark fantasy/horror than epic fantasy.

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              April 13, 2013 9:22 AM

              I agree with your take here. The warping points are necessary late game, and also a great reward for reaching a certain progress point in the game (The Lord Vessel being acquired). This was the moment that you knew that you had really broken through into this game, and had the confidence to finish it, despite what horrors you knew awaited.

              I've said it before, and I'll say it again. Dark Souls is the best Castlevania game since Symphony of the Night. It does in 3 dimensions everything I ever wanted out of a modern 3d sequel to SotN, and the moment that you gain access to the warp points reminds me of when you unlock all the warp points in SotN and have the ability to more comfortably send yourself through the castle and squeeze even more gameplay out of your quest with the new abilities and items that you have acquired.

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      April 12, 2013 5:54 PM

      I wonder if they'll decide to let you warp earlier in Dark Souls 2. You only get that ability around half way through the first game.

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        April 12, 2013 5:58 PM

        I don't know, it comes at the perfect time in Dark Souls. It also makes the Smough/Ormstein fight so much more amazing as there's an incredible reward for defeating them.

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        April 12, 2013 6:50 PM

        The director said you'll have the ability to warp sooner in an interview I read. Which I think kind of sucks but we'll see how it's implemented.

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          April 13, 2013 9:27 AM

          As long as it makes sense, I am fine with whatever placement they come up with. It worked great in DS1, the placement of the ability, as has been mentioned a few times above. You didn't NEED the warp points until then. Anor Londo was the first place, once you really got all the way into it, that really made you feel you were WAY off the beaten path and traversing would just feel a chore. Everything up to that point was condensed to the more hub-like areas within easy reach of Firelink, or just off areas that connected to Firelink.

          As long as the structure makes sense for the warping, I don't mind if it's earlier. So far they seem to be very mindful of what makes Souls games so damn amazing, so I am hoping that that continues into this aspect as well. I don't want the game to be easier in any way, I just want any changes to make sense within the structure of the game.

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      April 12, 2013 5:57 PM

      I will say that the news that they've released so far for Dark Souls 2 has been promising. I'm upset that IGN didn't ask about character creation. I'm still concerned that we'll have a central character. If that occurs, how will it meld with invasions / warp ins?