Since Dark Souls release in 2011, it has had a large and lasting effect upon the gaming world. Every difficult game seems to take inspiration from Dark Souls, and the dark and atmospheric theming of many games in the last few years seem reminiscent of it. The game has easily redefined the entire perspective by which players and game designers view difficulty, story-telling, and even the mindset with which players approach a game. Frankly, Dark Souls might be one of the most important games ever released.
There is an extensive list of games that seem directly or indirectly inspired by Dark Souls, including a glut of action RPG games with a similar gameplay to Dark Souls, such as The Surge 1 and 2, Lords of the Fallen, Nioh 1 and 2, Ashen, Mortal Shell, and more. Games that take an indirect inspiration, focusing more on the thematic elements and story-telling, or even just the hard-as-nails difficulty – and translating those aspects into entirely different genres of gameplay, but still preserving clear aspects of the origin – are games such as Blasphemous, Hollow Knight, Salt and Sanctuary, Dead Cells, or Titan Souls. Dark Souls even reaches into the Triple-A scene, with games such as God of War (2018) taking a clear slice of inspiration for its combat, and The Witcher 3 distilling the basis of Dark Souls combat mechanics into a much simpler, easy to play format.
But what exactly made Dark Souls into such a massive source of inspiration and innovation?
First of all, the story-telling. Many of the stories found in Dark Souls are interesting, but few of them are clearly outlined. Many of them ask the player to figure it out for themselves, with much of the story coming from item descriptions rather than from the mouths of characters.
In addition, the story-telling is intricately linked to the actual level design. Every area in the game is exquisitely detailed, with a variety of enemies, dilapidated castles, and run-down villages, each of which prompt the player to ask - “What am I looking at?” This whets the players' thirst, and by doling out little tidbits of information, players who don’t enjoy the story won’t need to bother with it. As for those who do, the tidbits given by the game were tantalizing. There’s enough lore for the game that almost every area has an intricate backstory, and many of the characters have as rich a background as any character in a role-playing game. Ironically, it is this very lack of explicit story-telling that seems to be the revolution that Dark Souls made.
The atmosphere is another part of the story-telling. Instead of focusing on the idea of a plot alone, Dark Souls focused more on the ‘story’ of the player overcoming the challenges found throughout the game. Some of the primary themes of the game are overcoming the impossible, and conquering evils that are previously thought unbeatable. The player’s character is afflicted with the very same disease that causes almost every enemy they meet to be hostile, and the primary difference is that they have not yet lost hope. This mirrors the player, who might be said to be ‘full of hope’ at the beginning of the game. Yet as they continue their journey, they might run into an obstacle that they cannot beat. If they give up, never returning to the game, it could be said that they ‘become hollow,’ as the game terms those who have lost hope and have lost their mind.
This focus upon the player as the character instead of a pre-defined personality makes it much easier to use atmospheric story-telling as a device to affect the player. This forms the challenging gameplay and journey through the game into a story of its own – the story of the player. You get to watch as you slowly become capable of dealing with all the challenges the game has to offer. Eventually, you might even return to one of the earlier areas with the realization that every struggle you once had here is now gone.
In addition, the atmosphere of the game is not just oppressive – it also has just enough light and hope to make it feel refreshing when the player manages to make progress. One example of this is meeting Solaire of Astora. His character serves as an example of the Light in the Darkness, not least because he touts the sun along on his tabard, but because he is one of the first NPC’s met who doesn’t seem moments from utter despair. It’s nice to see a friendly face. The fact that he is summonable, someone you can count on to help with some bosses, makes his kindly nature even more endearing in a game where help is all too often unattainable.
The atmospheric elements of Dark Souls have been widely copied since the game's release. Many games have taken the dark and oppressive atmosphere and run with it. One such game is Hollow Knight. It incorporates the Dark Souls]elements into a tough-as-nails metroidvania in the remnants of an underground bug civilization. The majority of the game’s areas are darker, with cool colors and tones. It’s easy to feel lost, and the game reinforces that risk through its map mechanic, in which the player cannot see their location without taking up one of their upgrade slots. In addition, the map only updates when the player saves their game, meaning that the first time you explore an area, you might get lost trying to find your way around. Hollow Knight somehow manages to exude as much, if not more, charm than its inspiration, though, probably because of its 2D art style. It manages to take the many and numerous bugs found throughout the game and give them a clean and charming aesthetic, in addition to several memorable and interesting NPC characters. I’ll never forget the little hum of the mapmaker, or the amusing relationship between the mapmaker and his wife. Zote’s annoying arrogance, the last stag’s willingness to ferry me throughout the kingdom of Hallownest, or Cloth and her dedication to fighting to the last, despite her fears - all of these characters, and more, provide a delightful charm to the world of Hollow Knight.
As for the combat of Dark Souls, it just feels good. It feels tight, weighty, and, overall, like what you do is, and needs to be, intentional. You can’t just mash the attack button and expect something to go well – many enemies will punish that, quite quickly. The game is a marathon of dancing and weaving through combat, minimizing the amount of damage taken while proceeding forward. Players are required to temper their aggression, determining whether it is time to attack or to wait. Often, this game of patience can be a player’s undoing, because they will want to quickly jump in and do some damage, despite the fact that it may be impossible to escape unscathed. I, myself, have died to many bosses hoping to do just a little bit more damage – but get killed on my way out of their range. Frustrating though it may be, it becomes obvious that all of it is avoidable, and taking damage is almost always the fault of the player, and not the game being unfair.
The reason it all works is that the player can often predict what the enemy will do, or at least play around the possibilities to a point that it seems like they can tell what enemies will do next. Despite the heavy consequences of getting caught in an enemy’s attack, often almost immediately requiring the usage of some healing, Dark Souls' attention to detail has made it so that the player can, with enough attention or experience, determine where it is safe to be, and when they can be aggressive.
The various gameplay styles are a wonderful aspect of the game, too. Dark Souls has multiple different weapons, and each of them have a different moveset. These different weapons allow the player to explore the way they approach the game, whether using gigantic weapons to deal huge amounts of damage, or a shield and sword to stay as safe as possible. Magic spells and bows allow the player to use ranged attacks. The combat isn’t perfect, but it is satisfying and fun.
The importance of the combat aspect of Dark Souls shows in the amount of times it has been copied. There are numerous different games which attempt to mimic the feel of Dark Souls combat, in addition to the direct sequels to Dark Souls itself, each of which attempt to push the same ideas further, or with small variations. The mechanics introduced by Dark Souls have had such an effect on the gaming industry that even some games that don’t wear the Dark Souls inspiration on its sleeve have taken nods from its combat style.
God of War (2018) is a good example of this. The latest iteration in the franchise takes its combat and reworks it entirely by giving the gameplay a weightier feel, with a slower-paced, and more punishing style than previous versions. Despite this, it is in no way as difficult or punishing as Dark Souls. Many enemies have more health than in Dark Souls, and the combat style is focused more upon combos than Dark Souls. It is also easier to swap around gameplay styles, moving quickly between close-ranged attacks and mid- to long-range attacks with the leviathan axe or the other weapons Kratos uses. Enemies can be punishing when they get at you, similar to Dark Souls, but it is not quite as demanding to manage multiple enemies in God of War, compared to Dark Souls.
In some respects, the combat of God of War is distilled and redesigned enough that it hides its inspiration from Dark Souls. However, the Valkyrie fights found throughout the game truly show its Dark Souls roots. These fights are punishing and difficult, with lots of highly damaging attacks and a need to observe and take advantage of every opening. Players are required to be patient rather than just rushing in, which is a notable departure from the combat in a large portion of the remainder of the game.
A similar case can be found in The Witcher 3. At the time of its release, the combat was startlingly reminiscent of Dark Souls, especially in comparison to the previous iterations in the series. Though distilled and simplified, the combat focused more upon dodging in and out of combat, avoiding damage, rather than stepping toe-to-toe with an enemy. While The Witcher 3 didn’t push it nearly as far as other games, distilling the gameplay perhaps too much, it did take enough of the good parts of the combat to make a system that didn’t necessarily detract from the game – it, perhaps, simply did not highlight anything special, either.
This points to a number of important aspects around the Dark Souls combat design. First, the gameplay revolves around minimizing damage taken, often through dodging. This requires the player to pay attention to the combat, investing themselves and focusing on enemies. Often, this requires learning the tells an enemy may have, allowing the player to determine what attacks will be coming. This manifests as a sort of mini puzzle aspect, where the player must recognize the patterns of an enemy to effectively defeat them.
Second, this combat design works best with a certain level of difficulty. In The Witcher 3, there is little punishment, at least on lower difficulties, for making mistakes. The player can easily defeat nearly any enemy, and enemies do little damage to them if they are of a similar, or lower, level. This makes developing the player’s skill in combat feel unrewarding. Further, the RPG mechanics of The Witcher 3 make it so that even enemies that did, once, provide some level of challenge can be outleveled and eventually feel like just another minor obstacle that takes only a few swipes of a sword. This trivializes the game to a point that, even despite the solid basic ideas, the combat simply doesn’t live up to the promise of a game in a universe where monsters are meant to feel like actual challenges, where a single monster could potentially wipe out whole villages. Ironically, a feeling which it nails early in the game, before you manage to level up enough to destroy anything you encounter. Perhaps the witcher’s combat would have been more interesting if it focused more on using potions to buff you for each encounter, and otherwise your power is static - capable of destroying individual nekkers or other small monsters with a swipe, but still in danger thanks to their numbers. This preserves the feel of living through Geralt’s life, where the skills of a witcher are the only thing keeping death’s door shut.
In contrast, the significantly more punishing difficulty of Dark Souls itself makes each and every challenge feel - though somewhat frustrating - like an accomplishment. The difficulty emphasizes the quality of every aspect built into the combat, and simultaneously implies that the journey of the player is also, in fact, the journey of your character through the game. This melding of each journey - both inside and outside of the game - is only possible because of the seemingly oppressive difficulty.
One of the oddest aspects of Dark Souls is how it almost single-handedly redefined the way game developers thought about difficulty. While many games had different levels of difficulty, Dark Souls eschewed the mechanic of choosing a difficulty in lieu of placing all players on the same field. Players were simply expected to overcome the given challenges, not to lower the difficulty. Even today, there are discussions and arguments against this sort of design, arguing that high difficulty levels can prevent some players from ever experiencing a game. Anecdotally, this seems absolutely true. Many people outright refuse to even try the game because they’ve heard it called extremely difficult, even to the point of a meme.
Nonetheless, the unadulterated difficulty of Dark Souls is undoubtedly one of the reasons it works so well. Completing a challenging part of the game gives a feeling of accomplishment unmatched in many of the games where failure is almost impossible. The frustration of repeated failure becomes a reason for the enjoyment of that final victory, in the moment where a hard boss is finally, finally, defeated.
Finishing the game feels like a major accomplishment. Overcoming the difficulty of Dark Souls is freeing, in a way, as it makes other difficult feats feel achievable, too. It’s a valuable lesson both in the game and out of it. The completion of Dark Souls feels like a rite of passage, where you’ve learned the skills not only to overcome a game like Dark Souls, but how to make sure that you can adapt to, and overcome, other difficulties, too.
There are quite a few different reasons Dark Souls persists even to this day as the hallmark of its own genre. Whether in homage to its bare bones storytelling, or the tight, tough as nails combat, Dark Souls has had a greater impact on games than perhaps any other game in the past decade.