What is Dark Souls About?
Contributed by DJMMT
I’ve written a lot about Dark Souls and the Soulslike genre over the years. It’s a genre I love, even as it causes me much pain. But it occurs to me that when it comes to Dark Souls, and quite possibly the entire genre, we’re not all playing the same game(s). I want to talk specifically about Dark Souls (1 – 3) in this discussion, because those games are specific in a number of ways that don’t necessarily reflect all the other games in the genre. Especially when we consider the games not produced by From Software. I also think Dark Souls is worth focusing on for this discussion because it’s the franchise that most often gets cited in discussions about the genre.
What I mean by the title question is not literally what’s the plot of Dark Souls but rather figuratively what is the experience of playing Dark Souls meant to be focused on? Due to a lack of transparency from developers in the gaming industry, it’s often hard to definitively quantify many things about games today. I consider that one of the main reasons there’s so much debate and hate among gamers. Like imagine how different things would be if say Naughty Dog just flat out told us whether or not Joel was meant to be seen as a hero or a villain. So the question is not what is Dark Souls about so much as it’s what is the intended focus of the experience from the point of view of From Software?
I think this question is important as we continuously have debates about things like accessibility, difficulty settings, invincibility modes. If a game is about experiencing the plot, then the challenge of beating the game becomes less important to progress forward. But if the game is about experiencing the gameplay, especially when it comes to games that lack an actual plot, then the challenge of beating the game becomes extremely important. That’s why I personally disagree with the one answer fits all take on those discussions. Again for this post though, we’ll focus specifically on Dark Souls.
What I have found interesting in the last year or two is that many people, especially newer players to the Dark Souls franchise, are playing the games much differently than we did when this trend first started with Demon’s Souls on the PS3, which I personally remember launching when I was in college. This game, and at that time this genre, was about the difficulty. That’s how it was sold. That’s how it was marketed. That’s how game store clerks talked about it with customers. That’s how gamers described it to each other. Playing Demon’s Souls and the first Dark Souls in their original launch windows were 100% about the gameplay difficulty and overcoming how challenging it was. Anyone who says otherwise is a liar. It was not about the story, which I still consider to be non-existent, because contrary to modern belief lore is not story. Lore enhances story, but a story requires a plot. Dark Souls has a ton of lore. More lore than most games actually. But the franchise has very little in the way of plots. That’s why I always find it weird when I hear people today say they play Dark Souls for the story.
This is exactly why I support transparency in the industry. I’d love From Software to just put the entire debate to rest by coming forward and flat out saying what the intended experience of the game(s) is and what the focus of the player should be. And in a way they kind of have. On multiple occasions, they have stated that they will not add an easier difficulty mode because they built the game with a specific intent for how the gameplay should be, totally accepting that this response and decision can be seen as alienating to many people and potentially hurt their overall sales. The fact that they are comfortable with that says a lot about what they believe the intended experience of Dark Souls should be. But this also brings up another important question. Who actually should get to decide what a game is about? Is it the developer or the paying customer?
We see a ton of entitlement in the gaming community today. I’d argue a lot of the industry side harbors a lot of entitlement as well actually. And there are valid reasons that can be made for why both sides have the right to make demands of the other. Paying customers are the entire reason games exist. If companies couldn’t make money from them, most of them wouldn’t get made. Certainly not expensive productions like HALO or God of War. So you can’t really make AAA games without people willing to buy them. And people won’t buy them if they don’t deliver what the customers want. Or at the very least what they’ve been convinced to think they want. At the same time, games are made by people. Hard working people that pour years of their lives into making a single project. Should they not have some level of control and autonomy over the projects they create? I think about this a lot when it comes to patches that change/remove exploits in games. The first raid in the original Destiny always comes to mind.
Atheon was an unnecessarily difficult boss fight that most average teams of players simply couldn’t beat. More experienced teams could pull it off but groups of randoms who paid money to play that raid simply couldn’t coordinate themselves well enough to defeat this boss fight, after already struggling through several other challenges, in hopes of getting a usually disappointing RNG drop. There was an exploit that made defeating Atheon a cakewalk and many people used it for lack of better options to defeat the boss. Bungie eventually patched the exploit out of the game. No one complained the exploit was unfair to other players. It wasn’t a PVP scenario. Most of the public was fine with it. But Bungie decided that they didn’t like people completing the raid that way so they removed it. Who’s right in this situation? Is it the paying customers who want to play the game a certain way that in no way negatively affects other players? Or is it the developers? I think a valid argument can be made for either side of the issue. But what cannot be debated is that the developers didn’t want people using the exploit. Which means they did not intend the game to be played that way. So if we asked the question, what was/is the Vault of Glass raid about, the answer would absolutely not have been to obtain loot. Because if it was, removing the exploit directly opposes that. In the same vein of thinking, I don’t think Dark Souls is about the story, as From Software has refused to add any changes that would make the game easier for players that struggle with it to experience the “story” to the end.
Note I’m not saying Dark Souls is impossible. I’ve beaten all three of them plus Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne. While I do think they have some balance issues, I have always felt that the developers included more than enough features that make the games manageable for pretty much any player. Often the use of those features requires a player to swallow their pride, but that doesn’t change the fact that most people don’t actually get permanently stuck in Dark Souls. They just don’t want to do what it takes to move forward. And no I’m not referring to “Git Gud” when I say “what it takes to move forward.”
Who decides what a game is actually about? And does it matter what a game is actually about when discussing it? Now my answer to those questions is the developer decides what a game is about and yes it does matter when discussing and critiquing said game. But that’s an opinion that isn’t necessarily the right one. It’s just the one I hold. I do believe people can and often do play games incorrectly. But I also think that games are first and foremost entertainment products and that paying customers should be allowed to have fun with the products they buy in whatever way they want to. If you, like me, think Dark Souls is about the gameplay, then your experience with Dark Souls will be very different than someone who thinks Dark Souls is about the story, lore, or visual art of the games. So the real question is how do we as a collective of gamers beholden to a collective of game developers find consensus on these differences in opinion without crippling the industry from being able to make good, innovative, and original gameplay experiences in the process?