It’s taken me a bit of time to really appreciate that Dark Souls is over. For about as long as I’ve been an adult, I’ve always had a Dark Souls game somewhere in my sights: I was about sixteen when I played Demon’s Souls and got absorbed into the dark fantasy RPG. Then, I saw the amazing Bartholomew Trailer for Dark Souls 1 (which I still credit as one of the best trailers for a game ever made, and one of the few that actually understood what Dark Souls was actually about), and then waited on pins and needles for the second game. Not long after that I had Bloodborne, which was what finally forced my hand into getting a PS4, and while the blood was still hot from the adrenaline of playing Bloodborne, Dark Souls 3 was unveiled and immediately pre-ordered, because sometimes I’m that guy I frequently warn you from becoming.
And now, I look to the future and I see nothing… at least, nothing pertaining to Dark Souls. I’ll admit, the anti-ending of the second DLC has me thinking that there will be a third, surprise DLC that will wrap up all the loose ends, and were this any other series, that suspicion might even be a prediction. But it’s just so like Hidetaka Miyazaki and the Dark Souls team to do something like this, given they’re the same people who pulled that trick with the Pendant, to make such a dry, hollow gesture as the final farewell to the series that engraved their names in the annuls of gaming history.
It seems like From Software have well and truly moved on, having announced a vampire-themed hip-looking action brawler called Code Vein, which couldn’t look less like Dark Souls even if they hadn’t teased us with the “Prepare to Dine” thing. The creator said he’s done with the series (and it’s been shown time and time again he’s the linchpin to an authentic Dark Souls experience), and will move on to more colorful, playful games, and some sci-fi stuff, which have my interest, given his proven acumen as a developer. And while I stand by the fact that Sony could yet demand another Bloodborne, outside a rumor that something like that might be revealed in E3 2017 (a rumor that has basically no basis) there’s no evidence to suggest it might actually happen.
Outside, you know, common sense.
But looking at a future with no Dark Souls games doesn’t mean we’re looking at a future where there’s an absence of it. A lot like God and the NSA, it’ll always be with us in some form or another, now that it’s made its mark on the gaming world.
I guess the big question is, what will those long-term marks actually be? Because short-term, the immediate effects of the Dark Souls popularity boost is quite obvious: people are making their own Dark Souls games, with different names. We’re talking Lords of the Fallen, Salt and Sanctuary (which was really good, by the by), Nioh, Ashen, Eitr, The Surge… “Souls-like” has basically become a sub-genre of RPG, and it’ll probably stay popular for the next few years.
But trends fade. I’m less interested in the games that immediately copy the Dark Souls formula (even if they add their own novel twists) and more about the wider, industry-wide impacts it’ll make. Because I don’t think it’s unfair to say that Dark Souls affected the gaming industry beyond its own genre, and impacted both the humblest indie devs and the most pronounced game makers currently on the stage… and it will certainly be a point of reference for the future developers who will be making our games for years to come. How Dark Souls will be spoken of in the same sentence as Super Mario Brothers or Halo in the wider discussion of games that re-shaped our medium.
And yes, I would argue Dark Souls belongs in the same category of those games, even if it is far lower on the list. No one here is arguing that Dark Souls is somehow ever going to be more impactful than, say, The Legend of Zelda, not when you can see so much classic Legend of Zelda in its own design. That’s an inevitability of being late to the party, I’m afraid.
One of the changes I would be most hopeful to see would be Dark Soul’s approach to storytelling. And no, I’m not talking about how it’s vague and basically unknowable: while we’ve all had fun with VaatiVidya pouring over the lore and trying to figure out the true story behind the game, I certainly don’t think that’s the best part of the Dark Souls story. What really fascinates me, and what I’ve been seeing more of, is deliberate and extremely mindful storytelling through level design. The placement of corpses and the items they’re holding, the enemies that surround them, the objects in houses and the statues in temples… in Dark Souls, those are all key components to telling stories, while in most games they’re merely decorations, obstacles, or window dressing thrown in to give the world some appreciated but ultimately hollow depth. And we can do that, too, without sacrificing the monologues and exposition that I know games these day live on, it would just add an extra layer of depth and add some genuine life to the game. Skyrim, for example, already does this really well, and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided actually does some fairly stellar storytelling that way as well. All too often, though, they rely on the crutch of sound bites or lore scrolls to fill in gaps that could have been filled with unique visuals, and I’d really love to see more games where every dungeon tells a story the moment you step foot inside of it. It’ll take a while for games to really be able to lean off the text, but when we get there, we’ll be better off.
...for a lot of games, anyway. I don’t suppose we’ll ever learn why city planners in the Sonic Universe decide highways need loop-de-loops and springboards.
Another adoption would be the “gaming community” that Dark Souls builds for itself. Of course, more games than ever have multiplayer elements now, for a plethora of reasons, but what Dark Souls does is infuse the game experience with a sort of lively loneliness that reminds you that you’re never alone. Forgetting even the ability to summon people or be invaded, the mere presence of messages and bloodstains helps build a silent community and remind you that you’re never alone: and their mere absence is enough to make games like Demon’s Souls feel all the more bleak, even if it’s perfectly functional by itself. And the cool thing about this is that it’s easy to do across genres: just little ways to show that you’re not alone, and mark progress. Racing games have ghosts and leaderboards, but Dark Souls shows the true versatility of the system, and I look forward to seeing more games with systems like that in the future. Heck, I’d be genuinely surprised if Code Vein didn’t use something like that, no matter if it’s single-player or multiplayer.
Finally, Dark Souls is a game about trusting players, and that’s a philosophy that’s really caught on. The most obvious example, a hands-off tutorial, may not have been a revolution of the gaming medium since Dark Souls didn’t exactly pioneer it, but more games than ever before are using their approach of “insurmountable challenge turned easy”, and trusting the users can figure out how to, say, move. But trust extends beyond that: it’s a willingness for games to let you fail, to miss content, to truly award those who play according to its rules. When Dark Souls hit the market, which allowed whole bosses, areas, items, and covenants to be missed entirely, you suddenly started seeing that kind of stuff all over the place. In-game secrets aren’t new: but games that don’t railroad you even in a linear experience is still something of an innovation, and Dark Souls being willing to let you make mistakes is something sorely missed by certain genres, such as most FPS’s, where the closest you have to freedom is the “freedom” to spend 20 minutes walking around a map looking for collectables.
That said, while I argue that Dark Souls is certainly a revolution, and will have lasting impacts on the industry, it’s revolutionary not for what it innovates, but for what it masters. Dark Souls didn’t “create” any of the features listed before, it just combined them in a deliberate, synergized way that no game before it could hope to match. If nothing else, Dark Souls will always be remembered and cherished for its craftsmanship, which will be held up as an exemplar of the genre and the industry for as long as gaming is a thing. Dark Souls will stand as a reminder of the virtues of perfectionism, and set a bar that others will follow for years and years and years.
If developers only take that away, then Dark Souls will have done its job admirably.