Dark Souls

It is said there exists, somewhere in the world, a Dark Souls bible. The primeval design document for From Software’s opaque opus. It may be kept in rotting cell, or a locked chest. It may be stashed in the cavernous hollow of a primeval tree, grown damp with dew and thick with moss. It may not exist at all. Another pendant. A prank by Souls puckish auteur, Hidetaka Miyazaki.

And if it does exist, don’t you think we might be better off never knowing?

For better, worse, or parodic overload, it’s difficult to imagine modern gaming discourse without Dark Souls, and impossible to imagine Dark Souls without the essential mystery that defines it. Every gap in the fabric of Miyazaki’s esoteric masterwork provides us with an entry for speculation. Every deliberate stitch, some new paradox of design that feels at once innovative and timeless. A nostalgic reminder of where gaming has been, and a glimpse at where it might be going.

In You Died: The Dark Souls Companion, Jason Killingsworth says:

Read James Joyce’s Ulysses 100 times, write essays about it, parse it endlessly with strangers on the internet, and you’re a scholar, but do the same thing with a videogame and you’re a….fanboy?”

To enjoy Dark Souls is to become intimately acquainted with it. For all the discussion around difficulty, all the Souls series has ever truly demanded of us as players is that we engage with it mindfully, and – perhaps strangely for a series so drenched in the macabre – lovingly. So are the writers, creators, and community that have given it so much time and thought scholars, or…fans?

I don’t think many of them would mind admitting that they’re both.

Undead Asylum – Learning to Navigate the Dark (On Mechanics and Design)

“In thine exodus from the Undead Asylum, maketh pilgrimage to the land of Ancient Lords…”

Dark Souls starts to reveal its subversive nature before even granting the player agency. Whether we lovingly customised our characters or rushed the creation process, the first sight to greet us upon starting is a sunken, decomposed mockery of our fresh-faced avatar. Years of internalised logic is inverted in an instant. Death not as failure state, but as starting point.

“Even after extended play has resulted in mastery of the game, there remains at least an opening for the possibility of surprise and further revelation”

In “No Mastery Without Mystery: Dark Souls and the Ludic Sublime”, Daniel Vella defines “the aesthetic effect resulting from the foregrounding…of mystery”. Exploring the fundamentals of Dark Souls’ ludic poetry, Vella looks at how the games’ systems “arrest the player’s judgment and prevent her from arriving at a stable cosmic understanding”

“In various ways, Dark Souls works to actively remind the player of the limits and the inadequacy of her perceptual opening onto the milieu of the gameworld, the computational systems underlying it, and the space of possibilities they structure.”

For James Margaris, Vella’s mystery arises from a philosophy that “rejects much of what has become conventional design wisdom”. Margaris’s tight systems study unpacks Dark Souls‘ “NES-era priorities“, and how “the fiction of the game and the mechanics” compliment one another.

Not everyone views this rejection as a positive. In “Critical Switch: Republican Dad Mechanics”, Austin C. Howe looks at the effects of a “a design trend that Dark Souls has largely fathered”, teaching the player “parental conservatism”. Austin laments a risk-reward structure that creates “the carrot on a stick that forces (him) into nonsensical loops of actions”. Michael Thomsen asks if “a 100-hour video game (is) ever worthwhile”, a question Erik Kain refutes.

Dan Olson’s video “The Stanley Parable, Dark Souls, and Intended Play” explores Dark Souls’ capacity to anticipate confrontational player “misbehaviour”, and how its permittance of divergent approaches acts an an essential part of the text.

For the Problem Machine, “the simple extraordinary elegance of the estus flask is often overlooked.”, and the “beloved balance of the game rests” on this healing mechanic.

The interplay between Dark Souls’ systems often makes them difficult to analyse in isolation. Joseph Anderson’s extensive series covers Dark Souls in its entirety, with special attention to mechanical consistency – or lack thereof – throughout. Errant Signal’s thoughtful analysis video looks at the series’ wider design considerations in retrospective, through the lens of Dark Souls III. In “Prepare to Die by Simple AI”, Tommy Thompson dives into the specifics of enemy behaviour, and how this, in turn, dictates player engagement. Kyle Bolton offers a multi-page “Deconstruction of Dark Souls”, covering genre, narrative, and mechanics, and how they appeal to different player archetypes – a subject also covered at length in “You Died: The Dark Souls Companion”

Firelink Shrine – Spectres at the Bonfire (On Community and Culture)

Dark Souls players fought side by side in crumbling ruins, crystal caverns, and basalt hellscapes, but it was the wikis and forums where the community came together to excavate the game’s delphic depths. In a time where many games’ secrets are laid bare just days after release, Dark Souls evoked memories of playground whispered cheatcodes, of arcane riddles, and of design confident enough to bury its most surprising encounters. For many, the game captured a certain nostalgic essentiality. And perhaps, along with its place as arguably the most difficult modern game to achieve comparable mainstream success, this is the quality that ensured its ubiquitous metaphorization.

Dark Souls, like Franz Kafka, has created its own precursors”

Is Dark Souls necessary, vital, canonical even? In “The Dark Souls of Idea Channel Episodes”, Mike Rugnetta unpacks the ubiquitous ‘Soulsian’ metaphor, with comparisons to Kafka and Borges. Christian Donlan reflects on the feeling of visiting Lordran as thoroughly mapped landscape. In “Sex is Like Dark Souls” Kris Ligman (editor note: Kris is our Director of Finance) writes of cultural and societal gatekeeping, and the ‘the ‘canon’ of human experiences’

So when I say that ‘sex is like Dark Souls,’ I also mean ‘Dark Souls is like sex,’ in that there is a culture of acceptance… in how we talk about certain experiences as being either universal or ‘should be universal.’

.In “I Can’t Take This: Dark Souls, Vulnerability, and the Ethics of Networks”, Matthew Kelly asks “how the gameplay mechanics of Dark Souls actively inhabits and manipulates the unique ethical dimensions of an always-on, always-interconnected cultural paradigm.”

“Each message persists like an orange-hued scar from some other player’s traumatic learning experiences; every hint operates as a byproduct of someone else’s own failures and frustration, which we can resonate with yet never fully comprehend seeing as there is no way to directly communicate with a note’s original author.”

Dark Souls’ interconnected nature is a defining aspect of its appeal.  In “The Real Dark Souls Was Finding the Community to Help Me Beat It”, Cameron Kunzelman documents his experience uncovering the positive aspects of a fanbase notorious for elitism, noting that “a community can warp a game’s image so much through their interactions with others that a game can be obscured entirely behind it.”. Similarly, In “Here With Me”, Brendan Keogh finds the “sensation of an overwhelmingly supportive community helping each other” both within and without Dark Souls delineated multiplayer. Both Patrick Klepek and C.T Casberg also ruminate on the joys of jolly cooperation .

Undead Burg – Ladders to Nowhere (On Art and Architecture)

For many of us, the revelatory relief of rediscovering the Undead Burg bonfire after narrowly avoiding dragon fire on that scorched bridge represents something fundamental to Dark Souls. It’s a moment where the twisting, interlocking nature of the level design first becomes apparent, where poetic qualities that sing of the game’s deeper themes of hopelessness and triumph begin to arise from the art and architecture of the world.

“It’s hard to think of another game series that so readily quotes the masters of its art; confidently repurposing the weighty aesthetics and themes of gothic romanticism and yet still maintaining a taste for the weird and the comedic, for parody and perversity.”

In “Visions of Hell: Dark Souls‘s Cultural Heritage“, Gareth Damian Martin traces the series’ artistic lineage through Friedrich, Kuniyoshi, Doré, and the manga Berserk. In “Videogames and the Digital Baroque“, Roman Kalinovski writes:

“the worlds presented in the Souls games lack most surface trappings of the baroque but, on the levels of narrative and interactivity, are conceptually indebted to the problems of thought that influenced artists of the baroque and digital eras alike.”

Doshmanziari explores “How Dark Souls Concept Art May Have Deep Ties To It’s Environmental Design“, finding the concept art to have “a drama of definition.”

“The imagery is just as much about establishing an atmosphere as it is about zoning in on memorable characteristics of the space”

George Weidman explores “The Evolution of Dark Souls Level Design (and Bloodborne!), analysing the game’s ‘interconnected, vertically stacked worlds” through encounter placement, spiraling architecture, and exposition as defined by Greg Kasavin’s GDC talk on the subject.

Blight Town – No Progress Without Struggle (On Difficulty and _ Motivation)

The player’s first hint at the existence of the dreaded Blight Town is the Crestfallen Warrior’s insistence that he’d “die again before I step foot in that cesspool”. Granted, by this point we’re aware of his flair for the melodramatic. Nonetheless, something in his tone lingers with us, a terrifying shadow of things to come. The descent through Blight Town is Dark Souls indifferent cruelty made manifest. The ascent – personal triumph writ large.

“You are really not welcome here, and the game wants you to know it”

In “Why Blighttown Really Matters“, Hamish Black looks at Blight Town as a microcosm of Dark Souls’ challenge, seeing its descent as a subversion of the verticality to be found elsewhere, and charting the emotions this evokes in the player.

“When you finally emerge from the overwhelming darkness and return to Firelink, you don’t feel mighty or powerful having bested an enormous enemy. You feel small. You feel insignificant. But importantly, you feel like you have truly earned the sun shining on your face.”

In “Jolly Determination: Dark Souls, Undertale & Player Motivation“, Yussef Cole views the difficulty itself as secondary to the player’s own responses to it.

“being controlled by a human player in Dark Souls grants your chosen undead a sense of determination unparalleled with anything else in the game world.”

In “Dark Souls: A Time To Grind“, Brendan Keogh explores how the repetitious nature of play captures themes of temporality and cyclical limbo. Matthew Schanuel compares Dark Souls‘ trials to religious asceticism, and play to meditation.

“Engaging in Dark Souls is like engaging in my own mortification of the psyche, submitting myself again and again to emotional and mental punishment”

In “On Dark Souls and Easy Modes”, Cameron Kunzelman looks at arguments to why an easy mode wouldn’t work for Dark Souls. In response to works by Matt Lees, Chris Franklin, and Adam Smith Kunzelman argues that the game’s challenge stands in the way of a specific type of player interaction – “one where I am able to walk around the space of the game without having to be hyperfocused on the world killing me” Conversely, for Chris Dahlen “The primary language of Dark Souls is difficulty”.

The Duke’s Archives – Cursed Knowledge (On Narrative)

“The tomes stored in these archives are truly magnificent! A great pool of knowledge, the fruits of superior wisdom and an unquenchable desire for truth.”

Esoteric enough to facilitate the need for what George Weidman has called “A cottage industry of internet bards”, Dark Souls narrative can appear so obscured that first time players may be unaware of its existence at all. To its story, the game extends a philosophy of anything worthwhile being worthy of struggle. A struggle well worth it, when we come to terms with the depths of what we’ve excavated.

“In order to gain any narrative knowledge a certain ludic achievement has to be met. And every in-game gratification is hard-fought in Dark Souls—why should it be any less difficult when it comes to narration?”

Franziska Ascher’s “Narration of Things” explores the ways in which the player becomes an ‘archaeologist by looting’, uncovering Dark Souls narrative through items and the environment. Rich Stanton compares this minimalist approach to storytelling against that of Skyrim – a game released close to, but perhaps the antithesis of, Dark Souls. Approaching the game’s sonic reinforcement of a sense of place in “The Sound of Dark Souls, David Canela explores how the binary nature of the music “helps communicate the dual structure of the gameplay”.

In “Present Tension”, Jim Ralph explores how Dark Souls distorts the sequential grammar of experience.

“Dark Souls adeptly conjures a living experience of the present it simultaneously problematizes our sense of the in-game past and future.”

Franziska Asher unpacks the gender archetypes in Dark Souls, writing that the firekeepers:

“are so well suited for a demonstration of the consequences of such far-reaching playful freedom because their classification is so clear. They are female and are shown passively by their attachment to a place”.

Stephen Beirne and Nilson Thomas Caroll both look at Dark Souls through the lens of existentialism. One through Nietzsche, the other through Kierkegaard, Camus, and Sartre. First Person Scholar discuss “difficulty, Heidegger, spatiality, narrative and aesthetics” in a Dark Souls Roundtable” podcast. In “How Dark Souls Presents the Hero’s Journey“, Sole Porpoise compares Dark Souls to Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth.

Ash Lake (Personal Reflections)

At the very bottom of the word, at the base of an ancient tree, lies Ash Lake. As haunting as it is serene, it seems to suggest a place before time. A place where a weary hollow might collect their thoughts, and reflect on their journey. After all the questions on what Dark Souls means for design and difficulty, of what it means for games, the only thing left to ask is what it means for us.

“So find your purpose, arm yourself with hope, and step out into the world ready to praise the sun. And one day, if the gods are kind, you too shall have the chance to be as grossly incandescent as the sun itself.”

In “Lighting the Bonfire: Dark Souls as an allegory for depression” , Lindsay of Femhype.com writes candidly and movingly about how the game reflects her own experiences of hopelessness.

“I am the chosen undead, but I’m not the only one who could be that chosen undead, and that  makes me both special and nothing in the grand scheme of things.”

Hamish Black’s powerful video essay Dark Souls helped me cope with suicidal depression” explores his own difficulties, finding the game to be “a celebration of life, rather than simply a showcase of death and sadism”

In Dark Souls Needs to Die: My Complicated Relationship With the Series That Helped Me Beat Cancer”, John Learned traces his battle with illness alongside the growth, and stagnation, of the series. In two different but equally illuminating pieces, Both Jynx Boyne and Steven T. Wright explore Dark Souls and anxiety. Michael Abbot finds parallels to the mindfulness and flow of martial arts in “Soul Dojo” .

“When I play Dark Souls mindfully, it’s possible for me to experience a fully-unified sensation. Last night, I sustained it through a perfect run of the New Londo Ruins. I executed every move efficiently, with minimal effort and maximal effect. I knew exactly where to be, what to do, and how to do it. I was elegant and precise. It was less like fighting than dancing. It was beautiful.”

In the illuminating “Feeling In The Dark: The Power of Dark Souls, Samantha Allen writes about her gender transition, and finds a mirror for her own experiences in the game.

“Near the end of Dark Souls, you find yourself at the bottom of a spiral staircase in the New Londo Ruins. As you look down from the bottom step, you see nothing but blackness. The only way to figure out what lies below is to jump.”

Artorias of the Abyss (Sealing the Gaps in History)

Despite this compilation’s focus on analysis and personal interpretation, the deeply esoteric nature of Dark Souls means that any work that has gone towards elucidating the game’s narrative or mechanics sits as a vital part of the continued discourse. Special mention should go, then, to Souls community members EpicNameBro, VaatiVidya, DaveControlLive, and A German Spy. Their collective works remain a key part of Dark Souls cultural impact and accessibility.

The sadly defunct Bonfire Side Chat podcast provided weary hollows a comforting flame for many years, with just the right amount of manic laughter you’d expect from any inhabitant of Lordran worth their souls.

For players first passing through the fog to the wider discussion surrounding Dark Souls, You Died: The Dark Souls Companion by Keza MacDonald and Jason Killingsworth is a hallowed tome worthy of a place of pride in the Duke’s Archives, and features one of the best interviews with auteur Hidetaka Miyazaki available. Similarly, Giant Bomb still hosts a translation of the fantastic Miyazaki interview from the Dark Souls Design Works.

Even today, Lordran’s fully charted territory still exudes monolithic intangibility. The writers, players and – yes – scholars that have given their time and thoughts to Dark Souls have made the seemingly incomprehensible welcoming to any fated travellers that might care to take this journey in the future. Their work ensures that even long after the shapes at the bonfire have faded away, something of them remains. A spectre, subtly guiding new wanderers forward through the dark.


Editor’s note

For a little while last year, our Patreon was at a level high enough to allow us to commission this kind of near-comprehensive rundown of almost everything written on a particular game or topic. Pieces like this are pretty special: Critical Compilations make the discourse on a game more accessible to new voices; they provide an extremely valuable starting point for anyone writing about or thinking about a certain game; and they could become a remarkable historical resource in the future, because thanks to our archiving plugin, most of the content will continue to be available even if the original sites go down.

Unfortunately, we’re not always able to fund this kind of project, and right now our Patreon needs your help. If you’d like to see us continue commissioning Critical Compilations, as well as other extra content, please support us on Patreon.

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