Fires Burn, Fires Fade: Dark Souls and a Decade of Difficulty
The easiest thing to do this decade when writing about video games was to compare something to Dark Souls. From Crash Bandicoot to Cuphead to Assassin’s Creed to Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order Hidetaka Miyazaki’s now legendary creation became the base comparison for difficulty in a lot of different games. That was the key word: difficulty. Not world design, minimalism or even combat.
Games had been difficult before Dark Souls and they would be difficult after Dark Souls but none of them would ever be Dark Souls. It’s a game we’ve talked about throughout the decade and will continue talking about well into the next few as well. Dark Souls threw down the gauntlet and since 2011 it has defeated all-comers.
When it first hit consoles eight years ago Dark Souls was a very enigmatic game. Little was known about From Software in the mainstream. They had created the little played but well regarded Demon’s Souls as well as the mech combat Armored Core series so Dark Souls’ success was a surprise to say the least. By the midway point of 2013 it had sold nearly two and a half million copies. It stood to reason then that critics, the gaming press and players themselves latched on to the difficulty of the game before anything else. It was, after all, Dark Souls’ main though not necessarily its best feature.
After awakening as the Chosen Undead in the Undead Asylum far from the mainland of Lordran the player is dumped by a giant crow at Firelink Shrine. This opening area acts as a hub for the large, dangerous world players will go on to explore. It’s also quite open-ended to begin with and only opens up more as the game goes on. This is because once you find one secret in Dark Souls you can’t help but try and find them all.
A lot of things in Dark Souls feel like taking baby steps; finding a new weapon, discovering the switch for a previously inoperable elevator or just coming upon a random lost soul that adds to the game’s gloomy atmosphere. But each tiny step forward feels like a victory in it’s own right even if you have to smash though an army of skeletons to get there.
Dark Souls’ difficulty is revealed through its world. The Undead Asylum at the beginning functions as a tutorial, never really alluding to the game’s difficulty other than the Asylum Demon boss battle. It’s when you reach Firelink Shrine that Dark Souls opens up in terms of its world and its challenging gameplay. There are two routes the Chosen Undead must take in order to ring the Bells of Awakening required to progress. There is the path through the Undead Burg to the Undead Parish and there is the Depths that must be plumbed in order to reach Blighttown and, further in, the domain of the Chaos Witch Quelaag.
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After the tutorial Dark Souls doesn’t tell you much, instead players must learn by doing and, yes, dying. The easiest way to tackle the opening stages of the game is to head for the Undead Burg fighting through poison rats, undead fencers and an armoured boar to the top of the Parish to ring the Bell of Awakening after of course beating two huge gargoyles. Like I said: easy. But Dark Souls doesn’t tell you that this is the easiest way to play this game. Rather it teaches you.
No matter how bad the tight corridors of the Undead Burg or Parish were they’re certainly a better teacher than the wide open but still oppressively dark spaces of Blighttown. The Undead Burg teaches you how to block and parry and fight. After the ringing of the first Bell Dark Souls demands you apply these skills in your journey into the Depths and upwards to the high cathedral towers of Anor Londo and finally into the Kiln of the First Flame.
In terms of influence Dark Souls is up there with the likes of DOOM, Metroid and Resident Evil. It’s reach is long and it’s grasp is wide. When Assassin’s Creed was looking to reinvigorate it’s combat systems it turned to Dark Souls. Lords of the Fallen may as well have been a direct rip-off. Independent games like Hollow Knight or Dead Cells were influenced by Dark Souls’ dying world aesthetic and maintained a certain degree of that infamous difficulty. As we grow further away from Dark Souls the influence of its difficulty slowly fades especially in 2019.
Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is perhaps the peak of the Soulsborne difficulty wave even though Sekiro isn’t really a Soulsborne. On the other side of this wave, the downward slope if you will, we have Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order. Whereas Sekiro was uncompromising in its difficulty Fallen Order introduced customised difficulty settings in favour of the accessibility Dark Souls’ influence had long shut out of gaming.
Dark Souls was a benchmark for difficulty in the 2010s but while the desire to play difficult games still exists among a great many players there is definitely a point of over-saturation. The longer these games have existed for the easier it’s become to admit that I don’t mind if there is only one Bloodborne or that we don’t need another Dark Souls.
Maybe I’m just fatigued but I find the idea of the next challenging Hidetaka Miyazaki directed game, Elden Ring, tiring even if George R. R. Martin had a hand in its writing. I didn’t complete Sekiro, I hit my skill ceiling with the Guardian Ape and at a certain point I got sick of banging my head against that wall. But Dark Souls’ gameplay was not the only challenging part of its design, it’s lore has had a great effect on gaming as well.
Any of the Souls games can be played without ever really knowing what’s going on story-wise. From Lordran to Drangleic to Lothric the story of the Chosen Undead or the Bearer of the Curse or the Ashen One is buried in the history of each game’s world. It’s challenging storytelling as players are required to build the story for themselves out of brief cut scenes, item descriptions and conversations with their fellow cursed NPCs.
Various YouTubers have made full time jobs out of deep dives into figuring out the stories behind Yhorm the Giant’s regret, the origins of the Emerald Herald or whether Solaire of Astora is actually Gywn’s son. It’s rare that a fictional world will have its own historian. The entire Soulsborne series from Demon’s Souls up to Bloodborne has a dedicated community digging up the bones of vast and complex skeletons.
For both good and ill Dark Souls challenged notions of game design across the board and was challenged itself. How difficult should games be? Do creators have a duty to make sure everyone, whether able-bodied or not, has a chance to play their game? Can storytelling really be left up to the players? All of these questions and more were posed, intentionally or not, by Dark Souls. It remains the guiding light by which we judge challenging games. It’s a distant bonfire in the darkness and who can say where we go from here? After all, fires will burn and fires will fade…