Pretty much everyone knows that already, right? A masterpiece for sure, and all that, I absolutely adore this whole franchise, but this is closer to of a clinical examination of DS1...
The thing is, Dark Souls is a very different game to almost every game I've played,even From Software games , those differences are significant, it really helps the game's almost otherworldly status.
First, I wanna start with one of the most important and significant differences to other From Software games starting with Demon's Souls, the lack of the Waifu.
This is a really big deal!
From Software has history of providing a comfort character to the player, a tender person (even if somewhat forced) that wishes you well and that you always come back to in order to level up (or upgrade your flask, in Emma's case).
This connects to one of my central points, that this game has no chill, you don't get a mom, you don't get easy fast travel, you don't get a real central hub, you're dropped by a bird in a shrine and now you have to go around by foot to everywhere, and you better like it (I do!).
DS1 has similar stuff to the rest of the bunch, sure, you technically have a firekeeper, but she's mute, she's tucked away. and Firelink Shrine is more or less like a hub, it is a central piece of the world that is extremely helpful, but its more like a very important crossroad on a bigger picture, NPCs come and go, since you can't just warp back at any moment, who knows what happened when you weren't there for a while, it's a more transient place, like a camp, not a home.
So those are very important things that DS1 doesn't have, you don't have a mom, or a house, but you aren't alone in lordran, you have bonfires.
And bonfires, your precious checkpoints, are more important in DS1 than in pretty much any other game, they are carefully placed, they can be individually enhanced, and globally upgraded with different tools and features, they are ALWAYS a relief to find, you can choose which bonfires can be your homes, Andre's is particularly one of my favorites, and all them level you up, fire itself is your waifu.
Dark Souls created and is the best manifestation of the bonfire concept, it really is a place to gather yourself and prepare, not just a mere checkpoint to warp back at your hub, closer to a Resident Evil safe room, with typewriter included.
And this bonfire emphasis loops back to my final talking point, Dark Souls' insane, almost unbelievable world.
And I cannot think of this world being anything other than a very happy accident, something that kinda happened, because this degree of world building is pretty insane.
Dark Souls 1 has about 6 levels, the undead asylum, the entirety of lordran, the painted world, Anor Londo, the kiln of the first flame and the DLC.
Yes, Lordran has many areas, but, to my understanding, most of Lordran has a single, cohesive collision map, the game doesn't has any loading screens, it's all very seamless and smart in its implementation, and the whole world works in this very vertical way, with viewpoints to previous areas that show, yes, that area REALLY is over there.
(images not mine)
Of course, when looked from above, this is a big mesh of polygons and places, but in reality it's an absolutely fantastic illusion, one that makes Lordran feel real, a massive, cohesive (and somewhat coherent, if not fantastic) place.
I invite you to consider that, how many games do you know that do this? level selects exist, there's ways to make the player teleport to a distant area and seem seamless, this is fully uninterrupted level design, this is wholly unnecessary, this is madness.
madness that doesn't last, because it's not only the fact that the whole level works seamlessly, it is that it loops back on itself on fun and unexpected ways, areas connect, not by trickery, but by being exactly where they are supposed to be, and on the second half they entirely give up on the concept.
It must have been extremely hard to make lordran the way it is, and when it's time to wrap up the game, the game stumbles on that concept, it gives you fast travel, and 4 important boss fights on dead ends, no more road after them, you're just supposed to warp back, not walk back (on a new, unexpected path).
and why do I call it madness? because they never do it again. the world is never as intrinsically connected and looping in the other games From Software games, and they give you fast travel by design, not necessity, Dark Souls 3 hits a lot of the same notes, but the world is closer to a line with branching paths, and while still impressive, that is way more feasible in my head. (I've heard Bloodborne tries harder to do so, but i haven't played it yet, no PS, and i still really doubt it still reaches this level).
And I don't know any other game that does something like this to this absurd degree. Some games, like Prey (2016), have very cool setpieces, like the whole outside of the entire game level is explorable, but there's loading screens, it makes sense.
It's great design, not only on the micro level, but on the macro level, but this design can be made with less workload and planning, and that's probably what ended up softening the later half of the game, they just could not keep up with it.
(Amazing piece by Judson Cowan)
I really like this artwork, a very stylized take on the Lordran, yet still rather accurate, and extremely recognizable if you've played the game, this is very close to how lordran would look, like a tower of levels carefully arranged and stacked together, even if covered by duct tape in the end, and with glue leaking out, it's still tremendously beautiful to me.
And it is on this hauntingly believable world, that you trek by feet, orphaned, lonely, and sometimes with newly made friends, and forging alliance to covenants, making blind bonds with these unknown people by the fire, and the choice to break those bonds that the true Soul of the game comes in, and no other game has really done anything like that, not even other "Souls-likes".
Or maybe Death Stranding too, idk, I haven't come around to playing it yet, like many other games.