The following post is this author’s opinion and does not reflect the thoughts and feelings of Fextralife as a whole nor the individual content creators associated with the site. Any links that go outside of Fextralife are owned by their respective authors. This is Part II of a three-part series of articles analyzing the Dark Souls games. You can find Part I here and you can check out the author’s profile to find Part III, which will discuss the philosophy of Dark Souls.
What is “Soulsian” and why is it important? Let’s delve again into the core of the Dark Souls series, this time to try and define the genre that it has created, and to see whether or not it has a place in our world.
More educated, less caffeinated minds than mine have braved this topic before. Unfortunately, I wasn’t satisfied with their findings and conclusions. And to be honest, I just love these games too much not to allow myself the chance of answering these questions on my own. Whatever answers you may find here are all personal opinions, however, and everyone is free to disagree with them. Dark Souls didn’t come out of nowhere, though, and I think it’s important for us to understand the conditions that lead to its creation.
Setting the Stage
The 90s were a decade defined by technological leaps. New consoles, new possibilities. Optical discs, 3D graphics, analog sticks, and online play to name a few. It is said that art challenges technology and that technology inspires art so, it’s no surprise that, at their core, the genres of that time were defined by gameplay innovation, which showcased the greatest technical achievements of that era. FPSs, Fighting Games, MMOs, Stealth Games, and even RPGs were better categorized by their gameplay mechanics of leveling up and turn based combat, more than anything else.
From the late 90s to the late 2000s, a new market brought in a more varied perspective and the need to cater to them. Women started joining the gamer ranks, the children who had grown up on video games weren’t children anymore, and so the industry had to grow up as well. Immersive sims, The Sims themselves, and others had popularized the idea that video games could be a reflection of our own psyches and world. Even if viewed through the lens of a fantastical setting. Integration with pop culture created an entirely new discussion around our medium: “are video games art?” And that discussion would challenge developers and gamers alike to push the boundaries of video games into areas previously unexplored.
At that time, bigger and better stories were being told, as seen in Mass Effect and Uncharted, and tackling philosophical themes became a thing, as seen in BioShock, all done primarily through cinematics. But developers were slowly realizing what the strengths of their medium were, and player interaction as a storytelling tool began to take its form, as seen in Portal… all of which were released in 2007… good year for gaming, huh?
And it was in this environment, beyond the era of crippling technical limitations, amidst the coming of age of video games, following the niche success of Demon’s Souls, that Dark Souls was created. Much of what makes up the Dark Souls recipe was already in place by 2011, the year it was born, but as Mike Rugnetta pointed out in his PBS Idea Channel video, the soulsian is “a clutch of characteristics and audience responses that have been present in other media but not unified and embodied,” it does not represent a new set of qualities but rather, a group of pre-existing qualities brought together in such a way that the end result surpasses the sum of its parts. Along with the prior examples, Hyper Light Drifter, Limbo, Everything, Half-Life 2… they all have something that resembles Dark Souls even if they don’t share many resemblances among themselves. They are all somewhat soulsian, to a greater or lesse degree, even if they’re not quite there, just yet.
“If I am not mistaken, the […] pieces I have enumerated resemble [Dark Souls]; if I am not mistaken, not all of them resemble each other. In each of these [games] we find the [soulsian’s] idiosyncrasy to a greater or lesser degree, but if [Miyazaki] had never [created Dark Souls], we would not perceive this quality; in other words, it would not exist” (gutted from Jorge Luis Borges’ Kafka and his precursors).
Defining a Genre
Like I said before, gaming genres are mostly defined by gameplay mechanics. But that is merely a vestige of the mindset introduced during the infancy of video games. Games have already evolved far beyond its bare mechanical components, and their true nature is unbound. Calling Spec Ops: The Line a “3rd-person shooter” does it as much merit as calling Casablanca a “black and white movie.” Genres aren’t defined by a group of scholars sitting in a room. They are a reflection of how we classify art, of how we see it. They sum up that which is most important about any given piece of art. The part of it that we can relate to. The part that is at its heart. Games have already evolved, now it’s our turn.
Following that trend, the attributes most largely associated with Dark Souls are its challenge and combat system. Followed closely by its loose storytelling and sometimes by its art style. But none of these stand on its own to represent what Dark Souls really is about. Now, I’m going to take a leap here and argue that, at its core, Dark Souls is the medium for a conversation between the player and the developers, in which they try to teach us about their philosophy.
And I know it doesn’t immediately seem like it sets out to do that, but that’s exactly what sets Dark Souls apart from other games that wear their philosophy on their sleeves. These games try to teach you by talking at you, failing to realize the full potential of interactive media. Dark Souls never tells you about its philosophy. Instead, it invites you to learn through experience. A much more powerful learning affair than any lecture could ever hope to be. It’s an open invitation, you don’t have to come if you don’t want to, but whenever you’re ready, the game will be there for you. Dark Souls is one of those games that evoke a whole bunch of feelings out of you as you play it, and I believe that, even if you don’t realize it, this is the reason for it.
This becomes a bit more apparent once you start questioning the reasons behind the design decisions that they’ve made. Take the challenge for instance. I’m from the coin up generation so I’m quite familiar with difficult games, but the farther away you move from my generation, the less you can see this “difficult games” mentality put into practice. So why did they incorporate such an antiquated feature into their game? Well, Miyazaki himself has talked about it on several occasions, saying that the idea is to give the
player a “sense of accomplishment through overcoming difficulties” and to teach him how to become better at it. In an interview with Metro’s GameCentral, he even goes as far as saying that “there could be an alternative, in order to let players experience a sense of accomplishment, and once I find that out there could be a chance that I could pursue another solution, instead of providing the higher difficulty level.” Combat branches off from this concept and could easily be replaced by a different system, so long as it served the same purpose.
The same could be said about the art style, really. A soulsian game could be set in a sci-fi environment, it could be quirky or cheese, it really wouldn’t matter just as long as the style is used to explore the ideas presented by the game.
Like I said, in the case of Dark Souls, this function is so deeply entrenched in the game that it’s hard to see it at first glance. But if you want to put it to the test, first try looking past its initial hook of hack and slash escapism. Then try to find your own relation to the game since, by finding which parts of the game resonated with you, you’re likely to find the game’s themes. And lastly, just as we did with the challenge, by analyzing the elements of game design you’ll see that all of them are driven by and towards these themes. (The game’s philosophy will be better explored in the next article.)
And this leads us to the second cornerstone of a soulsian game: understanding what it is and accepting it. Too many games hold themselves to the standards of other media, without realizing that these are shackles that will only hold them down. And since we’re on the topic, I have a confession to make… I hate Final Fantasy X!!! And it’s not because I don’t like the story or the characters, even though I really don’t. No, I hate it because FFX isn’t a game at all. Some games have no story, no narrative, gameplay is all they need. Some games use -and often overuse- cutscenes to tell a story tied to the gameplay. And some games, like FFX, use gameplay to fill in time, just so they can call their movie a video game.
And I’m not saying that a soulsian game (or any game for that matter) has to tell its story like Dark Souls does… Currently, Dark Souls’ primarily environmental storytelling is one of the best ways of leveraging the medium when it comes to narrative. But it could be easily replaced by another method that had a similar effect, just like the challenge. Environmental storytelling is a key feature of Dark Souls but what should translate into the soulsian genre isn’t the mechanic itself, but the purpose that it serves.
Story, composition, music, sound… all these concepts must be reinvented to expand the limits of what a game can be. Another example of a game trying to be something that it’s not is trying to fit a three-act story structure into an open world game. The Dragonborn hoarding cabbages and decorating his homestead come to mind… But enough of bad examples. If you want a good one, try checking out Manifold Garden, an exploration game set in a world of impossible architecture. It’s creator, William Chyr, could never have envisioned this world if he hadn’t shed the shackles that hold so much of the industry prisoner to older, more established art forms. Bastion’s narration. Super Hot’s art design. All testaments of ingenuity that their developers understand exactly what a game is, and what it’s not.
The two last concepts/requirements are easy to grasp, but very hard to attain and to measure: commitment and excellence in craftsmanship. No game has to have any given feature, but if you choose to have it, then it better be gud. If a game aspires to be soulsian, then we expect all its many parts to fit together perfectly. We expect consistency. We expect a soulsian game to be demanding of its player base and we expect it to hold its ground when they hold its feet to the fire.
It’s easy to put obtuse storytelling in your game, in fact, it’s much easier than fleshing out a story in all its details, writing and recording all the pertinent dialogue, rendering all the cutscenes… But it’s much, much harder to do it right. It’s easy to get your visuals or your music to match your philosophy, now try doing the same with every single component of your game. Gameplay and level design included. I know there’s no such thing as a perfect game, but if you want your game to be called soulsian, then it sure as hell better try to be.
To sum it all up, a soulsian game must have something to teach (which will, in turn, drive your feelings throughout the game), it must understand that it’s a game and know how to leverage this to its advantage (which can be seen in every layer of game design), and it must always strive to be the best that it can possibly be.
The Sci-fi Knock Off & the Dark Souls of Walking Simulators
One thing that must be understood is the difference between what makes a Dark Souls game, which I have already covered in my previous post, and what makes the soulsian genre. In order to do this, let’s compare two games and see how they fare in the light of our current discussion.
Right now, The Surge is the easy go-to choice when talking about this subject. It’s clearly inspired by Dark Souls. There’s no denying it. All the key points are there: the weighty combat, the unforgiving difficulty, similar mechanics and storytelling... It’s basically a Sci-Fi Dark Souls. But it falls short of its role model. Big time. Why? What’s missing? If all the ingredients are there, then why does it feel so distant from what a Dark Souls game should be?
It tricks us at first, it really feels like we’re in for a true soulsian experience. But for all the ingredients they put in the game, they failed to realize that these components needed a philosophy to drive them. Challenge serves no other purpose, the game feels hard just for the sake of being hard. The level design within the game is actually clever, in its use of shortcuts and interconnecting paths, but it doesn’t convey anything and it doesn’t reflect any themes. And really, whatever themes they may have introduced throughout the game, none of them was fully explored.
What the hell is this game about? “The dangers of technology” falls apart when you realize that an actual organic life-form is running the show, with Unity-like incorporated consciousness and all, and that it (the theme) is also completely betrayed by gameplay. I had a (really small) taste of having a “disability” at the beginning of the game, and then I turned into a devastating goliath through the use of -wait for it- technology!
Individuality, evolution, exploration of the unknown… all these concepts are presented but undeveloped. And they really, really, really don’t seem at all present in the game design. Anything resembling a driving philosophy is also missing from its obtuse storytelling which, let’s admit it, is just obtuse.
Oh! And the song playing in the medbay got really old, really fast. But that might just be me.
The Stanley Parable, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have drawn any inspiration from Dark Souls at all. And yet, it feslt really soulsian to me. It draws you in with the hook of comedy, then the mystery, and as you explore the many endings and possibilities, it finally becomes a conversation. Unlike Dark Souls, this game isn’t shy about the fact that it’s trying to teach you something, but just like Dark Souls, you have to be able to see past its superficial layers in order to see what that conversation really is about. The challenge in this game isn’t in the combat, there is no combat, but rather, it is in realizing that it’s teaching you through experience.
This exercise is so challenging, in fact, to the point where some people even came to find it pretentious. Jonman wrote a piece on this subject, Why “The Stanley Parable” Sucks and the Problem of Engineer Philosophy, and it was clear to me that he had expected the philosophy of the game to be told to you, in literal words, to your virtual face. And it was ironic to me that he had compared the game to Camus, saying that it was nothing like it, given that, at least to me, the game’s theme is precisely that of Camus’ own philosophy. And it was also pretty ironic that he would use phrases like “What good is ‘intellectual humor’ written by a non-intellectual?” when calling someone else pretentious… but that’s besides the point. The point is The Stanley Parable knows that it’s a game, and it embraces it. It incorporates its mechanics into the narrative. Their lesson cannot be seen, it cannot be heard, it must be played. All its design choices are solely devoted to its central theme and the game constantly surprises you when you try to do something completely unexpected, only to find that they had expected you to do that. The gameplay is simple, but there was a great level of commitment poured into the making of this game, and it shows. In my humble opinion, The Stanley Parable really is the Dark Souls of walking simulators.
A Place for Soulsian
In his video “Do we need a souls like genre?,” Mark Brown warns of the dangers of making a genre out of a game. He says that it can stifle creativity, that it can be detrimental to the source material by reducing it to a few core concepts that don’t make justice to its whole, and while I really do immensely respect his opinion, I think he partly missed the point.
I think it’s important to remember the past and to learn from it. Cubism wouldn’t be any less important or influential if it had been named after Picasso, and the same can be said about the soulsian. The name “soulsian” is meaningless without proper context and study, you could call it anything you wanted but, since it’s inspired by the Dark Souls games, then why not name it after them? Dark Souls can be the first of its ilk. A “soulsian RPG” maybe…?
Genres are a very practical way of deconstructing individual media and styles into their core components, so these components can be studied, rearranged, and reincorporated into other works. The problem, I believe, is not in having genres, but in the genres that we have available at the moment. They’re misleading, unproductive, incomplete… they’re just not enough.
Maybe Super Meat Boy and the Trials games should be called “white-knuckle precision challenge platformer” and “white-knuckle precision challenge racing.” Maybe Spec Ops: the Line should be called “social norm breakdown study thingy… 3rd-person shooter.” Maybe “officially” recognizing the validity of the soulsian genre could be the first step on this evolutionary path, that will lead us to a better understanding of the games we play, and that will provide a more promising and supporting environment for game developers to create the games that we love.
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