How Dark Souls Became Its Own Genre

Dark Souls is one of the most important video game series of the last decade. Here is why.

In the early 90s, if you were so brazen as to release a game that was played from a first-person-perspective and required players to shoot various enemies with a plethora of weapons while vague rock chords trumpeted your actions, your game was called “Doom-like.” Today, we call them first-person shooters.

In early 2000s, if you released a large, open game where you could accept missions from various inhabitants while otherwise being able to play as you wished, then you were likely called a “Grand Theft Auto rip-off.” Today, we call those sandbox or open-world games.

Gaming history is ripe with examples of innovative video games that predated the names of the very genres they would eventually be recognized for helping to form. While some of these genres would forever bear the name of their innovators (the Metroidvania and Roguelike genres spring to mind), most would not.

Of all these cases, however, few are more interesting than the genre being created by Dark Souls.

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Of Demons and Difficulty

The first thing people often wonder when such claims are made is “Why are games always compared to Dark Souls and not Demon’s Souls?” It’s a fair question, and though I’m usually fond of responding to it with a casual dismissive gesture that suggests that I know the answer when I in fact do not, if I had to make an argument I’d say that it’s because the somewhat mishandled release model of Demon’s Souls, it’s console exclusivity, and its unpolished design elements meant that it just didn’t reach the same size of audience that Dark Souls did.

Regardless of the wording, the reason that the Dark Souls games spoke to so many people is that they were a direct slap in the face to the philosophy that drove the mainstream game market at the time. They were bleak, they were ominous, they were vague, and they were exceedingly difficult.

That last one tends to be a sticking point for some when talking about the legacy of the Souls games. There is a large section of Souls fans that argue the game’s reputation for being difficult is actually a negative one that detracts from a lot of the things that this series does well. To be fair, that’s a very well-reasoned argument.

However, it is a bit dismissive of the brilliant way that Dark Souls made difficulty appealing again. Difficulty in Dark Souls isn’t a deterrent, it’s a teacher. While there are certainly instances where the game is just trolling you with difficulty, for the most part failure in Dark Souls is the result of player error. Only by learning from your mistakes and building upon that knowledge can you find success. Many had felt this method of learning a game was long dead, but the Souls series reminded us just how rewarding it can be to accomplish even the most seemingly simple feats in gaming when it is your force of will alone that allows you to do so. 

Of course, if you want to talk about the true difficulty of the Souls games, let’s talk about how difficult it was for From Software to design a game in which next to nothing is explained to the player from a story or gameplay standpoint, but still manages to have a game rich in lore. It’s one thing to create one of the deepest mythologies ever seen in a game, and quite another to do so while designing the story in such a way as to allow players to enjoy themselves without ever fully grasping what is happening.

With the exception of its opening cinematic, much of Dark Souls’ story is merely suggested at. Item descriptions hint at what once happened long ago, while the seemingly innate babbling of many NPC characters actually contains vital plot points for those that choose to decipher them. Much like how the difficulty of the game’s combat rewards players appropriately for applying additional effort, this “show, not tell” method of storytelling proves that the deepest stories require a little extra digging on the part of the player. 

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The difficulty of Dark Souls from a narrative and gameplay standpoint is indeed its most important aspect. Not because it’s more impressive than any other design element, but because that was the game’s most obvious opposition to the trends of modern, mainstream design. Its unapologetic difficulty screamed directly into the face of the gaming industry, and demanded to be heard. 

It screamed so loudly, in-fact, that the indie game scene couldn’t help but poke its head out to see what all the ruckus was about.

Into the Indies

Indie gaming may be a fairly innovative market that’s always looking to provide something different, but it’s no less susceptible to trends than any other field of entertainment. Just like the traditional gaming industry, a game can come along that will stir the imaginations of video game developers everywhere and inspire them to try their hands at something similar.

The funny thing about Dark Souls, though, is that it really didn’t inspire that many similar games at first. While there were a couple of browser games and direct knock-offs that have long since faded into obscurity, Dark Souls wasn’t a game that was easily copied. A couple of games, like Bound By Flame and Lords of the Fallen, wore their Dark Souls influences on their sleeves (which is a nice way of saying rip-off). For the most part, though, the influence of Dark Souls was initially limited to an increased interest in making games where the difficulty was the star.

That has changed, though, in the last year or so, as a new breed of Dark Souls-like games have begun to emerge. Salt and Sanctuary, for instance, essentially serves as a 2D version of Dark Souls, but manages to use the familiar characteristics of that game as a jumping off point for a truly ominous world and punishing playstyle that may have turned people away once upon a time had the Souls games not re-introduced how satisfying such things can be. Oblitus is another game that excels at converting certain Dark Souls elements to a 2D game, while also incorporating more traditional 2D side-scrolling elements to showcase the versatility of the basic Dark Souls formula.

The most notable recent examples of this approach have been Titan Souls and Hyper Light Drifter. Both of these games copy certain Dark Souls elements, like the difficulty, the obscure narrative, and the open navigation, but these are far from copies. They don’t use the same art style, combat, or mechanics. They are genuinely trying to build off of the more intriguing elements of Dark Souls to create a genre that doesn’t have to be forever associated with a single game.

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Titan Souls is much more of a puzzle game where even the relatively simple combat requires you to solve a series of miniature, logic-based obstacles. However, it intelligently incorporates the minimalist storytelling and brutal difficulty of Dark Souls in a way that makes it feel like a grand, RPG adventure as opposed to the series of puzzles it ultimately is. In that regard, it’s similar to how Portal put a first-person-shooter twist on the puzzle genre.

Hyper Light Drifter may be even more interesting. Essentially, Hyper Light Drifter answers the question of what would happen if Dark Souls, Metroid, and The Legend of Zelda had a video game love child, but rather than simply copy those games it really examines what would happen if they were combined into one uniform product. The game highlights both exploration and combat, while also adding role-playing elements to the weapons and character. Developer Alex Preston wanted to replicate the feeling of playing a challenging game on the SNES, according to an interview in Polygon. Preston put an emphasis on telling the game’s story through visuals than dialogue, not unlike Dark Souls. The result isn’t perfect, but it is one of the most fascinating case studies of what the future of the action RPG and adventure genres will look like in a post-Dark Souls world through the deconstruction of classic game tropes.

It is through these games that the true legacy of Dark Souls is revealed.

“Speak Friend and Enter”

See, in these games, Dark Souls isn’t just a name-dropped influence. It’s a passcode. A secret phrase used among fans and gamers to get into the speakeasy and share time around the bonfire sipping estus.

Dark Souls is a game that broke away from the traditional, modern game industry for everything that it was and wasn’t doing. A game like that is not going to become another simple genre used to separate the shelves at the local GameStop overnight.

Instead, the Titan Souls and Hyper Light Drifters of the world invoke the name of Dark Souls to announce themselves to those in the know that they are games that understand the elements that really made Dark Souls such a revolution. Actually, more than understanding those elements, they are ready to pick up that mantle in a time when From Software has said that they’re done making Dark Souls. It’s these games that will begin the long line of successors charged with finding new ways to refresh the formula. 

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This isn’t to say there isn’t a value to the more obvious Dark Souls-inspired games. In fact, Salt and Sanctuary is actually one of my favorite games of the year. However, it is becoming more and more apparent the further we get from the release of the original Dark Souls that its true legacy will be that of a rally cry for the new generation of titles it inspires made by developers who believe that greater reward is found through a greater challenge to both themselves and the player.

It’s why I’m looking forward to a game like Death’s Gambitwhich examines what a 2D Castlevania game might look like if the 2D iteration of the franchise had been allowed to continue in the post-Dark Souls era. It’s why NECROPOLIS is so fascinating as a procedural dungeon-delving game that really focuses on the consequences and frequency of death more than any game in the genre ever has. It’s why The Surge’s use of Dark Souls ambiguity and difficulty makes it look like the sci-fi game that might finally be able to advance the sci-fi genre beyond its usual action and narrative confines.

We don’t know for sure what the future of the Dark Souls franchise will be following Dark Souls III. What we can be sure of, though, is that a new generation of developers who are just as inspired by these games as the players will indeed one day create a definable genre that honors the revelations and revolutions of the Souls series. Whenever that genre escapes the shadow of its forebearer, I have little doubt that it will be held in just as high of a regard as the first-person-shooters and sandbox games of the world.

Until then? There are worse things in the world than being called “Dark Souls-like.”

Matthew Byrd is a freelance contributor.