So this second Dark Souls III video is basically a collection of other things that Dark Souls made me think about while playing that weren’t enough to warrant a video of their own but were more than just an idle thought. Think of it as a grab bag of mini essays. Or… glorified Twitter rants, if you’d like to be less generous. Anyways!
Let’s talk about ‘Git Gud.’ The phrase itself predates Dark Souls – I can find references to it online as early as 2008, and it seems to have stemmed largely from the Metal Gear Online community – but it has come to be something of a catchphrase for Dark Souls’ biggest fans. Like “PC Master Race,” it’s a cynical *Chan-infused games-culture-ism that’s only half-ironic. It’s offered up as passive aggressive advice on how to best enjoy the game for people struggling with it. You can’t beat the boss even after fifty attempts? Git gud, bro! Sometimes it’s a dismissal and an insult to people critiquing the game’s approach to difficulty – the game’s not too hard, you just need to git gud! It’s an obnoxious, silencing catch phrase that’s permeated the game’s culture. And I always found that odd, because the rest of the game is so indifferent as to whether you’re good or not. There’s no scoring system or built-in speed run mechanics or leaderboards or combo system, there’s just the singular challenge of finishing the game which the game’s world doesn’t seem all that concerned with whether you do it or not. After all, plenty of other unkindled don’t make it to the end. So where did this snarky, passive-aggressive attitude to other players and their perceived skill come from?
I’d argue the game set the tone for its own community through its multiplayer mechanics. Dark Souls’ multiplayer is… complicated, but I’ll try to summarize how it works for the uninitiated. In short: After beating a boss or consuming certain items you enter a state the game calls embered. In this state you can use markers placed by other players on the floor in order to summon those players to your game, either to duel them or to have them help you beat a boss. But there’s a catch – when embered you can be invaded by other players looking to gain loot by killing you before you reach the boss. So in essence, in order to call for help you need to risk another player coming in to your game to try and kill you.
Pedants will point out that there are ways around this – like objects that can be used to prevent invasions for a short time. And that’s true – but the fact that the game makes you farm items or do other things to avoid other players is sort of my point. To struggling players the mechanics frame other players as potential enemies, and the act of asking for help comes with an implicit risk unless you take steps to protect yourself. On the flip side, from the invader’s perspective the mechanics frame other players as potential prey. You can farm objects that let you jump into the games of embered players in an attempt to ruin their run. Everyone else is a mark and you might be able to take ‘em (that is, if you’ve Got Gud enough). The game’s invasion mechanic is basically a mode for trolls who like to make other people miserable; it invites mean-spirited or competitive minded players to become part of the game’s harsh, indifferent world – monsters don’t attack invaders by default, after all, so it’s as if you’re one of them. Only instead of the deterministic, reliable monsters you can figure out how to beat with time and patience, invaders introduce a degree of random chaos to the world that’s at odds with the rest of the game. It’s as if it exists solely as a way for those meaner players to mete out punishment against those who don’t have what it takes to beat them; it’s an awkward exception to the game’s “tough but fair” mentality that only serves to frustrate lower skill players while making high skill players feel good.
And so the game’s multiplayer embodies a lot of the “Git Gud” mentality. There’s a seed of genuine advice – after all, there are plenty of people willing to donate their time to helping you beat the boss you’re stuck on, and summoning other players is a good way to do that. But that’s not all – that advice, that help, hides a threat, and behind that threat are a thousand faceless players ready to invade your game and judge your skill for themselves. And that, more than anything, encapsulates what “Git Gud” has really come to embody – the illusion of help hiding the threat of judgement.
As an avid haunted house enthusiast, one of my favorite things about Dark Souls (and Bloodborne and Demon’s Souls) is how it applies haunted house design theory to what is effectively an action game. If you go to enough haunted houses you learn that there’s sort of a game going on between the audience and the designers of the house. The house’s architects are trying to scare you, but you’re looking for where the scare is coming from in order to avoid being frightened. This leads to a lot of attempts to trick the house goer and throw them off the scent in an effort to really surprise them. These tricks are necessary because the scares need to to happen in a real space – in contrast to a movie or game where you can use editing, cinematography, or even straight-up cheat 3D space to scare your audience. From Software seems to have taken a lot of these techniques and blended them into their level design with interesting results.
Like, the most basic setup for a scare is a window or door or blind corner. From Software likes to use this trick a lot. But you may start to expect that, so what if instead there are lots of doors or corners where a monster could hide? Suddenly attacks could come from anywhere, and you’re less certain about where to look. Stables, columned hallways, and forests put this approach to good use. The idea is to keep you scanning every corner, because the more focused you are about the obvious attack vectors the less you’ll expect something more tricky. Like, for example, distractions – setpieces that draw the eye in an effort to make you forget about or look away from a real threat. In a haunted house it might be a creepy dollhouse or disgusting corpse that’s particularly well lit, and you can’t help but look as the scare actor sneaks up on you. In Souls games it’s typically an item that draws your eye – a bright shiny bauble to tempt you to walk towards it without thinking of what could be flanking you.
Sometimes haunts dangle stringy bits of bloody cloth, heavy body bags, fog, or other obstructions in front of you. Depending on the material it can be an attempt to disgust, but it also inhibits your view. Dark Souls does this as well – hanging corpses and fog seem to be favorites that blind players and make the movement of enemies more difficult to foresee. There’s also the old standard “room full of things that look alike – some of which are dangerous and some of which are not” thing. In a haunted house it’s usually a room full of mannequins dressed such that you can’t see their faces, like masks or hoodies. And among them, dressed the exact same way, are real people who will jump out and scare you, but you’re never sure which are which until it happens. We see this in Dark Souls as well – a good example would be the cage spider monsters in the Undead Settlement. You pass several of them who are just creepy environmental props before finally encountering living ones in a hallway. It creates distrust with the environment – you’re never sure which objects may be decorative and which may be monsters lying in wait.
I don’t know if From Software set out to borrow haunted house design ideas intentionally, or if attempts to ambush players meant they simply arrived at a lot of the same tricks as haunts, but it’s fascinating to me all the same. This novel approach seems to do two key things:. First, the haunted house design is all about tricking the audience, about recognizing their guard is always up and manipulating that to the house’s advantage before punishing them for it. In Dark Souls this successfully imparts the game world with a sense of threat and tension even beyond what the stellar art design already manages. It knows your guard is up and wants to subvert that. Second, using real haunted house methods confines their traps to true 3D space. The game avoids monster closets and teleporting bad guys in behind you – it doesn’t cheat. It’s mean, and it’s designed to trick you, but it is fair. Design tactics used to scare people can also be used to create environmental emotion and enforce fairness in action games. Who knew?
Is it weird that Dark Souls is at this point more Castlevania than… well… Castlevania? Until actually playing Dark Souls this wasn’t immediately obvious to me – Dark Souls didn’t have a pale Dracula stand-in as an antagonist and it didn’t really gel with the traditional Metroidvania setup for world design. You don’t, you know, get super jumps after beating a boss that let you go back to all those high up areas you missed before. So I had never really made the connection. But working my way through Dark Souls III it became really obvious that this game is – in one degree or another – something of a spiritual successor to the likes of Symphony of the Night and all those GBA Castlevania games.
For one, they’re thematically similar. An endlessly repeating cycle of an apocalypse almost arriving if it weren’t for the player character showing up to stave off evil for one more go-round. And the adventure happens in a sort of vaguely medieval castle setting as traditional zombies, monsters, and an alarming number of possessed suits of armor try to stop our protagonist. And even though these repeating cycles span several generations, every game seems to take place in vaguely the same time period in vaguely the same place just… completely different. Granted, one is basically a naively optimistic anime and the other is a grimdark tale of woe, but they’re definitely playing in the same sandbox of ideas and tropes.
The two games are also mechanically similar – action RPGs that have awkward magic systems, corridor driven design where progress is gated by boss fights, and item drops that are critically important but not the goal of the game in the way they are in, say, Diablo or Borderlands. And while you don’t get new abilities to unlock new areas, Dark Souls also tends towards complex spaces where backtracking is rewarded as you get keys or open new pathways and shortcuts. Spatially they’re actually not that different despite Castlevania taking place in doors – they’re not open worlds but a series of interconnected corridors that bend back on themselves in ways you may not expect.
If there’s a key difference, aside from the 2D/3D thing and the tone, it’s that Castlevania is 100% about offense while Dark Souls is way more interested in defense. There’s no blocking in Castlevania, and while there’s some light dodging mechanics the focus is on dealing damage and killing things before they hurt you. This makes Castlevania a straightforward action game – charging in and whipping and slicing monsters as soon as you see them. Dark Souls is decidedly more focused on defense. This makes the game slower and more ponderous – you can and do kill things, but only after you’ve learned to dodge or block their attacks. Dark Souls is Castlevania where the focus isn’t on hitting things but rather not getting hit. And maybe that explains their tone difference – in Castlevania you go forth and do as a character with agency! In Dark Souls you focus not on not letting the world beat you down.
Finally, can we stop calling every hard game “The Dark Souls of X?” First, it’s annoying to see “Dark Souls” used in place of the word “hard” or “difficult.” The game has a very particular flavor of difficulty built around a set of mechanics designed to evoke specific ideas, and not every hard game is The Dark Souls of its particular genre. Dark Souls’ difficulty is different from the hardest Guitar Hero difficulty, which is different from I Wanna Be The Guy’s difficulty, which is different from Battletoad’s difficulty. I get the desire for short-hand, and sometimes it’s super convenient to express some complicated or nuanced idea by pointing to another game that did something similar. But especially in critical circles I’d be wary of over-using these sorts of comparisons. I really think we risk stripping surface level attributes or mechanics of their context when we do this. Instead of inspecting what, say, Dark Souls’ approach to a mean, difficult world does to the work as a whole, we just say that any game that does anything similarly hard the Dark Souls of X.
So by all means, compare things to Dark Souls – but contrast them, too. “So-and-so is difficult like Dark Souls in this-and-that respect, but where Dark Souls used its difficulty to confer accomplishment this game uses it to blank.” Let’s not let Dark Souls become another Rogue, another shorthand for a mechanical set. Let’s look at what Dark Souls does, what other games do, and meaningfully talk compare them. And that’s hard to do when referencing other games condenses four paragraphs of explanation down to “it’s like Dark Souls But X.” But changing the way we talk about video games is the Dark Souls of talking about video games, and I wouldn’t expect it to be easy.