Last updated on January 18th, 2017
What does it mean to combine Dark Souls and Elder Scrolls? An ‘Elder Souls’ experience if you will. This question came to me as I was contemplating making a mod for the recently released Skyrim SE, and I wondered if I could make a Dark Souls style level in it. Of course, to do that I need to be clear in my understanding of both games. What is Dark Souls to me? What about Elder Scrolls? The goal of this essay is to explore this, and to identify how exactly one would go about creating an ‘Elder Souls’ level.
Before I dig into the meat of the theory, I do want to address some technical issues first. To be clear, I’m not trying to explore how to create a game that is a mix of the two, despite my use of the ‘Elder Souls’ label. I want to make a mod for Skyrim SE that captures the spirit of Bethesda’s celebrated RPG that also evokes feelings of Dark Souls. However, I will not be using any external assets. None. The mod will be fully contained within the Creation Kit. I’ll hit on the reasons for that later on. So with that out of the way, onwards!
Defining The Games
Let’s start with Dark Souls. What exactly is a Dark Souls game to me? Of course I hope others share at least some of the same feelings, but I believe a broad summary of the franchise looks like this: Dark Souls is a tactical action game with intricate level design and indirect story telling. The level design in particular is interesting. There is a lot of environmental storytelling, which contributes to the indirect nature of the story allowing the players to define the depth of their experience. The level design often loops back in on itself, so as you explore a region, you unlock different paths and shortcuts.
With that broad framework established, let’s look at the Elder Scrolls, specifically Skyrim. To summarize the game is a sentence we can say the following: Skyrim is a light-strategy RPG where you create your own story within a living world. Yes, I know I’m getting some raised eyebrows over the strategy bit, but bear with me as I’ll get to the whole tactics/strategy thing in a moment. The real pull of Skyrim is not the level design or combat, but the ability to build your own story. According to Steam, I have about 350 hours in Skyrim and 170 in Dark Souls 3. I couldn’t describe an area in Skyrim in any great detail, but I can talk your ears off about some of my favorites from Dark Souls 3 like the Undead Settlement or the Catacombs of Carthus. What I can do in Skyrim, however, is tell you about the stories of my characters. We all have stories of our own world saving hero, who became the head of guilds, had adventures at the College of Winterhold, was a master of lockpicking and brought order to many a town.
When you compare the core structures of both games, there is not much in common. The two games are fundamentally different experiences. While there’s certainly an overlap between people who enjoy Dark Souls and people who enjoy Elder Scrolls, by no means is it a large overlap. So how can we combine these two together? Let us start with the primary action that both game share, something that you do all the time in both: Kill Stuff.
To Kill & Be Killed
Now I return to the tactics and strategy concepts I mentioned before. In Dark Souls, things are very tactical. There is some strategy involved with build planning, but it’s very minor. Everything is about using the equipment loadout you have right now, in the situation you are in, to accomplish a specific goal. Which is usually ‘Don’t Die.’ Also, the combat is very action oriented, requiring decent reflexes in most cases. Skyrim is almost the reverse of this. There are very little tactics involved in a Skyrim fight. There are a handful to be sure: don’t aggro the entire dungeon at once or if there’s a bunch of ranged foes try and use cover. But really it boils down to ‘Are you prepared for this fight?’ This is where the light strategy comes into play. Prepping your potions and spells, ensuring you have the right gear ready to swap, but not overloading yourself to the point you can’t pick up any loot. With a good strategy the dungeon is easy to clear, with the wrong one the boss will slap you around.
What does all that mean for a mod, then? Well, it means the only way you’re going to get even close to Dark Souls style combat is to completely redo the entire combat system in Skyrim. This includes drastically modifying animations. This also means not happening for my mod. Remember earlier when I said the mod would be contained entirely within the Creation Kit? The reason for that is I want the mod playable on both PS4 and Xbox One, which means I cannot use any resources outside the Creation Kit. Blame Sony. No really, it was one of the requirements they had for allowing mods on the PS4.
Using Level Design To Tell a Story
Well, what does that leave us with then? Level design and story. And, finally, the point. I truly believe that using the existing assets within the Creation Kit, you can create a level and indirect story that invokes the feel of Dark Souls. Looking at dungeons in Skyrim, we can already see hints of interconnected levels. For example, the Dwarven Ruins link the surface world with Blackreach, providing a variety of access points into that region. That does assume of course you unlocked the gate first. We can also see this in most dungeons, with one-way doors leading back to the start, or back out to the surface. Admittedly, Bethesda is very ham-fisted with this, to the point that I make it a game of ‘Spot the Exit Door’ every time I enter a dungeon in Fallout or Skyrim.
That does mean it can be done more elegantly though. There shouldn’t be any problems in making intricate levels that connect back in on themselves, giving the player a sense of rewarding exploration and discovery. This taps in to the hallmarks of both franchises and shows a thread that connects their development. Yes Bethesda has said that Survival Mode in Fallout 4 was inspired by the challenge of Dark Souls, but I think making things harder for the sake of it misses the magic of Dark Souls. Dark Souls is about exploration and unfolding, and the difficulty of the game is only there to encourage careful scouring of every inch of the world.
Bringing that unfolding to the storytelling will be a little trickier. The primary reason for this is that you can’t connect text to general items. I can name items, so I can have an axe called ‘Grunther’s Bane’, but I can’t attach any story text to that axe. To make up for that, there is a very well developed note and book system in the game, so story telling will heavily rely on those items. Picking up those notes and books will be how the mod delivers those cryptic morsels and in the absence of exposition players will rely on them to understand just what is going on. It will also serve as the player impetus for deeper exploration. Just like in Dark Souls, if you want the whole picture, you’re going to have to go digging for it and this mod is no exception.
Of course, narrative through level design itself is also a big part of Dark Souls. Skyrim has a lot of items that can be used when laying out a level, making the toolset a powerful aid in careful design and planning. A table, a lamp, a piece of cheese in a carefully placed spot can tell the most compelling story, and these illuminating moments of placement are some of Skryim’s most shining moments. Coupling that with the lore note narratives of Dark Souls means an entire dungeon can be its own storybook, dialogue and cutscene be damned.
Stitching It All Together
In summary, this fusion is going to be accomplished via careful level design, item names, notes and books, and level-based narrative. A daunting task for certain, but a very doable one. So what are my next steps? First is reacclimation of the arcane Creation Kit which itself is in desperate need of an update. Next we will design a storyline that fits well within the lore of Skyrim, and also lends itself to the indirect storytelling of Dark Souls. Of course, it needs to be entertaining for those who prefer to skip the lore and go directly after the phat loot, of which there are many in both Skyrim and Dark Souls fandom. Over the course of this experiment I will be writing follow-up entries, chronicling my efforts. I’ll do my best to limit the spoilers, but as we all know, game development is impossible to talk about without some spoilers, and if we took the Dark Souls story approach nothing would be said at all!
Thoughts on the project and its evolution? Let me know your thoughts in the comments and keep checking back for more updates!
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