When gamers and the game media describe Dark Souls, a few key words usually come up: “challenging,” “punishing,” “unforgiving,” and “hardcore.” Even the marketing campaign for the game had the simple slogan, “Prepare to Die.” Not to say that this kind of campaign wasn’t effective. After all, it was what initially drew me to the game. The masochist (another description easily thrown around) in me expected a controller-smashing experience like Ninja Gaiden or Megaman, but I came away from Dark Souls with a feeling akin to the one I had toward Shadow of the Colossus.
It’s a strange, comparison, I know. But after thinking about it, I realized that Dark Souls has some major similarities to Shadow of the Colossus—and not just that both games were spiritual successors to underappreciated classics. Dark Souls takes and expands on quite a few of the themes that made SotC so special.
Saying Just Enough
Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls both tell a story without very much explicit narration. The player is only given a simple premise and then simply sent off to explore the world. In Shadow, you are to destroy 16 colossi in order to resurrect a loved one. In Dark Souls, you are an undead warrior embarking on a pilgrimage to the land of the gods. With only a few cutscenes and almost no dialogue throughout these games, their plots are skeletal (arguably the point of a plot anyway), but it is enough to frame the story for the player. The rest of these respective tales is told through the exploration of the world itself, in the hints the characters populating the land give, in the architecture of the world, and in the feelings and thoughts the atmosphere instills.
Creating a Lonely Atmosphere
Atmosphere is crucial for both SotC and Dark Souls as it sets the tones for these stories. Both games actually portray the same kind of atmosphere with similar techniques. Shadow of the Colossus imparts on the player a sense of loneliness. The feeling of solitude pervades the game— brought about by the fearsome proportions of the land, by the absence of thematic music and the sounds of life, and of course by the world’s emptiness. There are no cities and towns, nor are there people ready to regale the player with rumors, lore, and personal problems.
Dark Souls provides the same sense of isolation with its setting. The world is huge and imposing; from the dank, dark quagmire that is Blight Town to the golden city of Anor Londo. Every setting is there to make the player feel insignificant. And just like the thudding of hooves on the ground in Shadow, the sound of the player’s footsteps and the clash of weapons provide the majority of the soundtrack in Dark Souls.
As for emptiness, well, anyone who’s ever played Dark Souls would hardly call it an empty place. It’s densely populated by terrible things trying to turn you into a bloodstain. Yet, the world has an undeniable bareness to it. Take, Anor Londo, for example, Dark Souls’ city of the gods. Its architecture is grand, its scale huge, and the light of the setting sun scattering among the towers creates a perpetual twilight and a sense of tranquility. Yet as the player explores the city, he comes to the realization that there is no one there. The gods abandoned this husk of a city long ago. The player is given the impression that even the hostile creatures occupying Anor Londo are nothing more than reflections of the city’s inner decay. The haunted New Londo Ruins and the lava-flooded lost city of Izalith are also great examples of how to impart an atmosphere of loneliness to a hostile environment. In fact, every section of Dark Souls’ world exudes this same sense of decay and abandonment.
Bringing Life to the World
A consistent and powerful atmosphere does wonders to bring a virtual world to life, but so does giving the world a rich history. What Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls have in common in terms of back story is, again, saying just enough. They both give just enough information and use the world’s structures and context (along with a little imagination from the player) to do the rest. I remember being enthralled by the lore of Shadow of the Colossus, picking at every little piece of dialogue and detail in the setting. This forbidden land that I was exploring seemed full of untold stories: massive ruins, shrines, coliseums, dams, and bridges. As I traveled, I found myself wondering what these places were like when there were still people around. This led to questions about what the place was like when Dormin still ruled, and eventually to why they turned against their deity. Every structure elicited questions. Though physically empty, the world of SotC allows the player to fill it with his imagination. It is this sense of mystery mixed with just enough concrete information that makes it special. It makes the world feel lived in, and hints at a bigger setting than the one we can traverse in-game.
Dark Souls had the same effect on me with its lore, with every section of the world having a story to tell. Where Dark Souls adds to the ideas in SotC is in its use of its items. Weapons, armors, rings, and other miscellaneous objects have text descriptions that provide little hints of the history of the world. Rather than restrict the player’s imagination, these item descriptions provide a jumping of point to ask more questions and find more answers. The real beauty of using item descriptions is how they interact with the architecture in the world.
Take for example an item found in Anor Londo called Ring of the Sun’s Firstborn:
"Lord Gwyn's firstborn, who inherited the sunlight, once wore this ancient ring.
Lord Gwyn's firstborn was a god of war, but his foolishness led to a loss of the annals, and rescinding of his deific status.
Today, even his name is not known."
This little excerpt is not just an offhand piece of text. Earlier in the game, I found the Sunlight Altar in the undead parish which contains a broken statue of a god figure. This statue does not appear anywhere in the city of the gods, where the other god statues are displayed prominently. Other items that I picked up such as the Sunlight medal and Sunlight blade refer to this first-born son as well. There is a hidden story here that the player has to piece together.
Another example is the “Orange-charred ring” found in the possession of a boss near Lost Izalith:
“An orange ring enchanted by a witch.
Reduces lava damage.
Since his sores were inflamed by lava
from birth, his witch sisters gave him
this special ring. But fool that he is,
he readily dropped it, and from that spot,
a terrible centipede demon was born.”
Earlier in the game, I faced a grotesque creature with lava spewing from its body. It didn’t attack me as I approached. Instead, it seemed to stare longingly at a nearby corpse. It was only after I looted the corpse for its witch’s gear that the creature bellowed and attacked. This attention to detail is what brought the world alive for me.
Companionship through Shared Experience
In addition to lore and history, Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls both share a common way in presenting the people that populate the game world. They both subscribe to the idea that bonds can be created between the player and characters within the game naturally. It can be done without the game needing to devote special events and side quests to developing the relationship.
I didn’t realize how attached I had grown to Agro, my horse in Shadow of the Colossus, until right before the final boss fight. The impressive thing was, the game didn’t even try all that hard to endear Agro to me. I now realize that I really didn’t know much about who Agro was. He’s my character’s horse, sure, but the game never delves into their history together. There was no dialogue between the two of us, no flashbacks to establish our connection, and no complex facial expressions to show that my character cared about him. And most of all, I didn’t need to do a lengthy side-quest to solidify the friendship. Not having these things didn’t stop me from falling in love with Agro. SotC simply let our journey together develop our companionship.
Of the few non-player characters in Dark Souls, most tend to speak very little and keep to themselves. Some will tell the player outright to leave them alone. We only really find hints of their background through what characters may say about each other, as well as the descriptions in the items they carry. But, these characters are still compelling. Though they don’t journey alongside the player like Agro does, they still share the experience of the journey. Solaire of Astora, a knight who initially appears in the undead burg, is one of the player’s first npc encounters. Solaire comes to Lordran, the setting of Dark Souls, in order to find his “very own sun.” He appears at points during the player’s journey to offer advice and friendly banter. In addition, he can be summoned to help fight certain boss battles (all these encounters are optional). Though I only met him a few times in my quest, he really felt like a companion. And it was not because he was an affable guy and spouted lines such as: “Oh, hello there. I will stay behind, to gaze at the sun. The sun is a wondrous body. Like a magnificent father! If only I could be so grossly incandescent!” I felt invested in him because he was searching for something just as I was, and his successes and failings seemed to mirror my own.
It’s for this reason that even the most minor characters (and even online players) can have emotional significance for the player. Though they all have different goals, they all share, with the player, a journey through a hostile world, facing the same threat of death and perhaps, inevitable, hollowing.
Empathizing with Giants
SotC and Dark Souls take the same non-narrative approach in bringing their boss characters to life as well. Other games, in order to make these adversaries mean more to a player than simply a larger obstacle to overcome, may use cutscenes to detail tragic pasts or monologues to emphasize misplaced idealism. Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls approach this matter using understatement. In Shadow, the thing that makes the player empathize with the colossi is that each colossus seems like a unique, living being. Each has its own habitat and mannerisms. Though some are very aggressive, most will leave the player alone until attacked, and even one seems oblivious to the player’s presence throughout. Every rumbling cry of pain, anger, fear, and every frantic movement that the Colossi make as the player assails them forces the player to view the battle from the bosses’ perspectives. And, when they eventually fell, the visual contrast of the corpse to what was moving before, weighs heavily in the player’s mind.
Dark Souls is filled with gruesome boss monsters, and I put down many of them without a shred of guilt. But, Dark Souls does have its share of emotionally impactful boss fights. The most obvious of these is the one against the great wolf, Sif, in Darkroot Garden. Just like with the colossi in Shadow, this encounter made me feel like an intruder. Here was this wolf protecting her master’s grave, and I was invading her territory to kill her and claim an artifact. It was a tough fight. The boss was strong and fast. But, I noticed as the battle dragged on, she began to succumb to her wounds. Her actions got slower, her breathing got harder, and she had to stop for rest after an attack. She also began to limp and struggle to hold the Greatsword in her mouth, yet she continued to fight on. It was at this point that I realized I wasn’t just defeating another challenge in this world, I was actually killing something.
Many of the boss fights in Dark Souls have an underlying bitterness to them with themes like a lifetime of discrimination (Painted World of Ariamis), protecting a loved one (Queelaag’s domain), and being the one left behind (Darkmoon Tomb). These are all done with context rather than explicit narrative, and must be discovered by the player. Perhaps the ultimate example of Dark Souls’ context-driven boss fights is the final battle. Without an opening cinematic, and with no words exchanged, the battle simply starts. The significance of the fight is, again, told through context—from the way the boss looks, to the type of environment picked for the stage, to the music (how it contrasts with the rest of the boss themes in the game), to even the name above the boss’s health bar (when put in the perspective of the rest of the game’s story). To me, it was an experience just as moving as the ending events of Shadow of the Colossus.
Dark Souls is a tough game, and it deserves all the praise it gets for this design choice. It’s challenging but fair and precise, it gives a real sense of accomplishment, and it goes against what the majority of modern games try to do. It’s easy to see why so many people define the game by its difficulty. But, to describe the game in such a way is really missing a lot of what makes Dark Souls really special: telling a story in a way that only a video game can.