Dark Souls III is the latest release in the “Souls” series that began in 2009 with Demon’s Souls for the PS3. In honor of the crazy amount of frustration that myself and others are willingly subjecting ourselves to this week, it seems like a good time to take a look back and examine what it is that gives these games such a huge fan base. In order to understand the appeal of this franchise, however, we first need to take a look into the history books and gain a little perspective.
When I was about five years old, my console of choice was a good old fashioned NES. I’d stay up for hours playing Super Mario Bros, Duck Hunt, Little Nemo: The Dream Master (if you remember that game you’re a God among men to me) and a whole host of other thrift store gems. But the one that really got to me, the one that taught me to curse before I learned to write in cursive, was The Legend of Zelda.
If you’ve never played the original Zelda title, it’s a very different beast than the games that came later in the series. This was a time where strategy guides were an invaluable tool, and without them, you’d go into many games totally blind. You’re given very little information to start with if you don‘t have the accompanying book, or if you’re five and don‘t have the attention span to actually read through it. You’re dropped into an open world and tasked with exploring, figuring out where to go and what to do to actually progress. This being the era of 8 bit graphics and chip tunes, there were also very few story elements that were explicitly laid out for you. Sure, there’s the hero, Link, the villain, Ganon, and the princess, Zelda. You quickly figure out their roles in the game, but you’re left to speculate a bit about their roles in the world’s lore.
I loved this. I didn’t need any writers holding my hand and guiding me through the story – I’d craft my own. As I explored, locating new dungeons and caves and shops (It’s dangerous to go alone, you know), I’d give a backstory to characters who would later be fully fleshed out but at that time were complete mysteries to me. The shop keeper was a former explorer who gave up his arduous quest to sell his goods and assist the player. The Zora were a sea faring species who were wary of land walkers and would attack you for approaching their precious sea shore. Et cetera. It was the best thing you could give a kid.
Fast forward about ten years to 2005. I’m now the proud owner of a Playstation 2, which may be my favorite console of all time. My catalogue of games is growing steadily more extensive, but one game keeps getting replayed – Shadow of the Colossus. If you’ve never played Team Ico’s masterpiece, here’s the breakdown: you play a hero (who, if I recall correctly, is never named in-game but is later revealed to be a man named Wander) who has wandered (heh) into a cursed and forbidden land with the love of his life – or her corpse, anyway. His goal is to restore her life by defeating sixteen colossi who live in different areas of this expansive and beautiful land.
The twist to this game is, there are no smaller monsters to defeat, no NPCs standing around to communicate with, and no towns to explore. There is you, your horse, your dead girlfriend, and sixteen of the most immersive and epic boss battles that I’ve ever encountered in a game. That’s it. The only character that you actually speak to is an omniscient God-like presence that communicates with you through the ceiling of the shrine you begin in. Other than that, you’re on your own. The deity gives you a brief description of the next colossus that you’ll need to face, and you use your sword and the sun to locate the are on the map that the boss inhabits. After that, you and your horse head off into this strange world, completely unsure of what you’ll find but ready to face whatever awaits you on the other end of your journey.
No other game that I’ve played invoked that same sense of open-endedness that I was introduced to with The Legend of Zelda the way that Shadow of the Colossus did. No game gave me the freedom to craft my own narrative around the developer‘s skeleton of a story, or motivated me to explore a world where I never knew what was around the next corner, or gave me such insurmountable challenges that I’d want to quit entirely when I lost and want to shout to the heavens when I succeeded. This was the continuation of that spirit, that perfect blend of freedom and difficulty. And then Demon’s Souls released, took that spirit, and sent it straight to Hell.
Demon’s Souls begins with a cutscene discussing what you are and where you come from. It has characters littered throughout it’s world who will explain tidbits about the land you’ve found yourself in, and who’ll help you in a variety of extremely useful ways. It even has descriptions on many of its items that further flesh out it’s surprisingly deep backstory. And yet, despite all of this, it still manages to be a game that is driven by a sense of blind exploration. It sends you wandering cautiously into its castles and dungeons and forests with no idea of what you’ll discover, and every implication that whatever it is wants you dead.
What’s more, the Souls games have a completely unique multiplayer aspect that allows players to interact directly with your solo experience. The game is constantly online, and other people can anonymously leave notes for you scrawled on the ground. It’s up to you to determine whether these tips are meant to be helpful or misleading. Additionally, players can be summoned to assist you with your game, or even invade your world at any given moment and face off against you in heated combat. Yet it’s still one of the loneliest and most isolated feeling gaming experiences that I’ve ever had. It is all the more amazing for it.
The Souls series is about exploration. It’s about challenging yourself to defeat the next tough enemy or seemingly impossible boss, feeling that sense of satisfaction when you finally overcome the odds, and pressing on to the next challenge. It’s about figuring out your place in it’s world, the roles that other characters fits into, and the way the games tie into one another. It’s about breaking controllers, only to buy new ones and try it all over again. There are huge communities dedicated to exploring every nook and cranny of each game, fully fleshing out each subtle story element. A franchise like this only appears once every blue moon. And for die hard fans, it’s a beautiful thing when they do.