Dark Souls: What Makes Gamers Endure the Pain?
The gamer finds themself decked out in cool armor with a weapon in hand, standing in front of their third fog gate. They’ve just spent the past six hours battling their way through a huge city of the undead. Their expectations are high; the first fog gate hid an insanely hard tutorial boss fight, the second merely connected to a new area. The player takes a swig from their Estus flask and prepares for whatever ridiculous monster the game expects them to fight next. If they were lucky enough to find it, they may even place some Gold Pine Resin over their weapon for an added edge.
The player pushes their way through the bright white fog, and finds themself standing on a massive castle wall. Across from the player is another tower but no boss. They cautiously push forward, which rewards them with a shot in the back with an arrow. They look behind them and notice two undead archers perched atop the tower they have just stepped out from. The player finds and climbs the not-so-well-hidden ladder, and kills the archers without much effort. The boss must be coming now; this fight has to be awesome. Silence. Something is definitely off, but part of the player is really enjoying how relaxing things are. They head back down the ladder, and almost make their way across the bridge—and then it hits. The music kicks in and a massive Minotaur crashes down on the bridge. He roars, the player rolls, he swings, the player dies.
Welcome to Dark Souls.
Analyzing the Franchise
Whether it’s rage quitting in the Tomb of Giants, Drangleic Castle, or fulfilling masochistic tendencies in Yarnhem, it seems rare to find more-than-casual gamers who haven’t played, or at least watched videos of, a game from the Souls series. Drawing from many inspirations spanning many decades, From Software introduced the Souls series to the gaming world in 2009 in the form of the game Demon Souls. Demon Souls, a Playstation 3 exclusive, quickly became infamous for being one of the most difficult games to date. Demon Souls’ developer From Software’s legacy spanned many console generations, with games like Tenchu and Armored Core, but arguably From Soft hit its stride in creating the Souls series. Since creating Demon Souls, From Soft has published 3 games: Dark Souls, Dark Souls II, and Bloodborne. All four of these games follow the same formula: make the learning curve high and the environments and enemies look gorgeously disgusting.
Demon Souls and Dark Souls did an amazing job combining some of the greatest aspects of retro and modern games. The eerie and challenging nature of retro games placed into the open and non-linear world made popular by modern games. The Souls series’ story is the devil in the details, and the details are deadly. Very little of the true narrative of the Souls series is simply handed over to the players. That’s exactly what From Soft wants: to bring to life an undead world, and just like real life the world is not explained to the players when they enter it, but only through serious observation and analysis can some sense of the great big world be made.
As great as these qualities are, however, they are certainly found in a multitude of other games. Arguably one of the most well-known games of the past decade, Skyrim, presents a large open world where the lore of the world is found in the side quests and tomes scattered and hidden through the world. Games like Shovel Knight and Mighty No. 9 are challenging re-imaginings of classic NES-era games. In fact, that is one of the greatest things about modern gaming; the people who grew up playing games, and falling in love with games, are now old enough to spend ridiculous amounts of money on them and, more importantly, create them. That is why gaming has seen such a focus on merging the old and the new; bringing old video game tropes to new gamers with modern technology. The Souls series does this spectacularly, and in a new way, but it is not alone.
So what exactly makes the series so popular? What keeps gamers constantly crawling back for another beating? Sure, the graphics are beautiful and the game play is fun, but neither are largely unique, and can be found in dozens, if not hundreds, of other games. So what exactly makes the Souls series so addicting and original?
Building the Community
Souls is a series that generates community in a way gaming hasn’t truly seen since before the age of social media. With every “+” players places after “new game,” they earn a new level of respect from the community. With every monster beaten, the players now have a brand new war story to share with the gaming community. The series is not the most challenging or most difficult in the world of gaming, but From Soft may have found the perfect balance between challenge and entertainment value. With a high learning curve, and enemies returning every time players die or rest, every victory feels transcendent. After dying in the same spot for the twentieth time, finally finding the perfect combination of rolls, strikes, and parries make players feel like gods and gets them excited to push forward again. Learning to beat the game is like mastering DragonForce on expert—slowly learning the right formula to get to the end, leaving players feeling proud and powerful.
But, here is the most beautiful thing: the right way to beat the game is different for every. Single. Player. This is when the community is at its best; having a healthy argument about the best strategies for the Gaping Dragon, or whether it’s okay to cheese the Dragonrider into throwing himself off the side of the arena. Video games offer unique experiences to every player but, in this writer’s humble opinion, the Souls series has mastered this formula in a way that makes each entry the perfect combination of frustration and elation. This feeling is what most games strive for, but only some have obtained. Community and an affinity for the heart of gaming are what truly make the Souls series rise to the top.
Mastering the Formula
So how exactly did From Soft master this formula? How did they create an environment where players love to be tortured, and, more importantly, tell others all about it? Surely these discussions are found in other games, right? After all, the Souls series is not the only game being talked about out there. Shovel Knight nearly brought gaming journalist to their knees with elation with its mastery of the classic-gaming formula. In fact, it brings to the table a lot of what the Souls series does: diverse worlds, challenging and unique bosses, and an utter sense of transcendent joy that comes from beating them. Yet, as praised as it was, Shovel Knight still doesn’t come as close to the level of community discourse that any of the Souls games have brought. Hour-long discussions are still held over Demon Souls—a game that is now six-years old. While it has yet to be seen whether Shovel Knight can do the same, the Souls series is the champion to beat.
It would seem, then, that it is nothing the gamers do that makes the Souls series the powerhouse of a franchise that it is today. Instead, From Soft has tapped into the secret of game-making that completely revolutionizes the way gamers play and talk about games. That magical thing that From Soft has mastered is the moment all artists strive for.
Killing the Buddha
For those unfamiliar with term attributed to Zen Master Linji, it basically means that on one’s path to enlightenment/ perfection they will come across what they consider to be the ideal version of perfection (the Buddha), and what every person must do is metaphorically “kill the Buddha.” One must strip away all notions of what perfection is before they can ever hope to reach true perfection. This is exactly what From Soft has done. The gaming community as a whole has often deliberated what the perfect game would be, and what qualities make a game the pinnacle of gaming excellence. What From Soft has done is taken these ideals and turned them on their head. Instead of a game that is easily accessible, they make games with ridiculously high learning curves. Instead of creating games that max out the processing power of modern hardware, they focus on creating unforgettable enemies and locations. From Soft has killed gamers’ Buddha, and put in its place the series gamers never knew they needed.
This moment is what separates the hobbyists from the artists. Arguing that video games are art is no easy task, but From Soft has certainly given the more academically-inclined gamers a good platform to do it from. What From Soft has given gamers is the same thing that Van Gogh gave painters, and what Nietzsche gave philosophers: artistic credibility, the thing that makes an art form truly stand out, the thing that lets those outside of the community know that they need to start re-considering what they include in their definition of art. The type of community that the Souls series has inspired is exactly like the communities that have been created by the art of great painters and great authors. The kind of art that stimulates years, and decades, worth of discussion and contemplation. While the Souls series is still in its infancy, it shows no signs of going away, and gaming has already shown how long discussions of great games can last. Since From Soft has truly killed the gaming Buddha, it is safe to say that discussions about it will last for a very long time, especially since From Soft will certainly be adding to the series for years to come.
Bloodborne the Newcomer
So, with the newest iteration of From Soft’s franchise do these principles still ring true? Absolutely. Selling over 1 million copies since its launch in late-March, it is hard to find a gaming-themed forum or group that is not still talking about Bloodborne. Players begging each other for tips on defeating Rom, or day-long discussions on what exactly happened in the story. While not technically a Souls game, it would be hard to argue that Bloodborne doesn’t fit in perfectly with games like Demon Souls and Dark Souls. That perfect combination of challenge and enjoyment, and certainly the community surrounding it, make Bloodborne an undisputed successor in the successful Souls series.
From Soft has already stated that there will be downloadable content for Bloodborne, which will ensure that players will be returning to its punishing Gothic world for months to come. From Soft seems to have found their niche, and shows no signs of slowing down. Gamers have yet to show any signs of tiring of these games, and From Soft has yet to disappoint its ever-growing fan-base with an unfinished or broken game. The Souls series has certainly dominated the minds of players for six years (nearly an eternity for gamers), and has only begun to truly hit its stride.
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