Why I Can't Wait For Elden Ring, And Why From Software Are Making The World's Best Video Games
Hi everyone. I hope you’re all okay and coping with our crazy current global health predicament. Hopefully this post will help to take your mind off it with something a bit lighter... well, ish!
Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know it’s a scattergun splurge of everything I’m interested in, so it would be remiss of me not to post an entry enthusing about my favourite active video gaming franchise; namely, From Software’s Dark Souls series, as well as its spin-offs, gothic Victorian masterpiece Bloodborne and blood-soaked samurai fable Sekiro.
[For simplicity, for the remainder of the article I’ll use the term that the internet has coined for this collections of games, namely Soulsborne (as distinct from ‘Souls-likes’, which is the broader term used to encompass other companies’ games that are heavily inspired by the From Software originals either in terms of theme or gameplay mechanics). It’s also worth noting that Demon’s Souls, the predecessor to Dark Souls, should certainly be considered part of the Soulsborne canon, but to my shame I haven’t been able to play this yet due to no longer having a PlayStation 3 when I belatedly crossed paths with these fantastic pieces of software.]
I want to talk about why these games are so good, why I strongly recommend that you dive into the series if you haven’t already, and why I am absolutely beside myself with anticipation for the latest instalment, a new and standalone game called Elden Ring which fans like me have been clamouring for since its announcement almost a year ago.
Before I get started, a quick word on Elden Ring itself: since the original trailer, details have been staggeringly sparse, a remarkable achievement in an industry where leaks of news and gameplay footage are commonplace. All we know about the game is that it will retain the core mechanics and ‘feel’ of the other Soulsbornes, although it will now feature a completely open world as opposed to the more linear structure of the other releases, and also boasts a world whose history (or ‘lore’ to use video gaming parlance) has been created by George R.R. Martin, the world-renowned author of the Game Of Thrones books! He and Hidetaka Miyazaki (the president of From Software, who directed the original Demon’s and Dark Souls games) are reportedly huge fans of each other’s work, so this heavyweight collaboration promises to be a real delight for fans of both!
If you’re as intrigued as I am by this project and haven’t yet seen the baffling (and, I’ll admit, somewhat cheesily-voiced) trailer, check it out here. Otherwise, read on for my attempt to distil some of the reasons the Soulsborne games are the best things since my last visit to Silent Hill.
[There are some very minor spoilers here, so if you’re already intending to have a crack at one of these games, it might be best to come back to this at a later date.]
The sense of decay and melancholy
From the moment you set foot in Firelink Shrine in the first Dark Souls game, surrounded by crumbling ruins and a haunting piece of music (to get you in the mood, click here to listen to it playing on a loop for the rest of this article!) that is one of the few background songs to feature – most areas are soundtrack by nothing more than the sound of swirling wind, distant water dripping, and the occasional moans and snarls of your enemies – you know you’re playing a game absolutely drenched in atmosphere.
This is not a functioning fantasy world, or even one teetering on the brink of destruction; rather, the destruction happened aeons ago, and you’re wandering through the dust-strewn remnants. The game is like nothing more than a long, tragic lament, a ballad sung by some misty-eyed troubadour encountered in a tavern, or the mutterings of an old man who claims to remember a time before the great kingdom fell.
In all of the Soulsborne games you wander, initially, with very little purpose, following scraps of information dispensed by a cast of dejected-seeming oddballs (the voice acting is excellent and perfectly compliments the mood, boosted by the likes of actor Peter Serafinowicz, who enjoyed the first game so much that he contacted From Software to beg for a part in Dark Souls II) as you gradually unearth fragments of the plot. The sense of sadness, of a once-great world that has unravelled almost entirely, is overpowering, rivalled only by the sense of wrongness, that some malign force of decay and corruption is at play behind the scenes, turning great castles to rubble and warriors into the gibbering husks that attack you, their actions seemingly driven by confusion or impulse rather than hatred.
Unlike the vast majority of games, which are power fantasies with musclebound characters around whom the world and its events revolve, these games create a powerful sense of a place that would quite (un)happily tick away without you, its shuffling undead denizens resigned to their miserable fates. You are not a hero, nor are you particularly important – aside from Sekiro, the games cast you as an anonymous protagonist who, even in the denouement, is at best a minor player in an endless and dismal cycle.
The worlds and their lore: a new kind of storytelling
I once heard someone describe Bloodborne as a game where the plot is happening on the other side of a wall, with you glimpsing it only occasionally through cracks in the brickwork. This perfectly sums up the feeling of playing these games: something significant has happened, or is still happening, but the game will only permit you scant glimpses of this overall narrative. These meagre morsels are conveyed in the written descriptions of some items you collect, in the amnesiac mutterings of the characters you encounter, even sometimes by the scenery or the monsters that inhabit it. Nothing is properly explained, your hand is never held, and most players will reach the end of their first play-through scratching their heads and wondering ‘what exactly did I just achieve’?
Miyazaki famously said that he used to read untranslated western books as a child, his imperfect grasp of English meaning that he often had little idea what was going on, having to piece together the story from the pictures and the half-understood words. He said he wanted to recreate this feeling for his players, and allegedly stripped out lines of dialogue and exposition from the games to ensure they were kept appropriately murky.
I bloody love this. While playing these games I felt like a pawn, like an entity being manipulated and misled throughout. I ended up trusting nobody, although often the characters I met were not malicious, merely as confused as I was. The sense of forgetting permeates the games, and results in some crushingly tragic mini-stories such as a character searching for her brother who, by the time she finds him, cannot remember who he is or what she was trying to do in the first place (some have speculated that the Dark Souls games are complex metaphors for dementia, and this only adds to their gravity).
So, at their heart, these games are stories with words missing and pages torn out. There are books and movies that have attempted something similar (the often-impenetrable symbolism of David Lynch springs to mind, or some of the works of Iain Banks) but never have I seen this vision accomplished so successfully. It is important, though, to stress that there is a detailed and comprehensive story here – this is not an example of ambiguity as a cover for underwritten plot. In fact, the amount of restraint demonstrated by withholding information (including huge, optional sections of the games) from the player is remarkable to behold.
Sounds like it might be time to go and delete some chapters from my latest novel!
The horrors lurking within
If these games were onions (bear with me here…) and their outer layers were sad, melancholy crusts littered with ruined castles and fallen empires, then peeling these away would reveal more and more of the rot that seeps outwards from their dark, leprous cores. From Software make disgusting games, games that force you to wade through metre-deep sewage to battle grotesque abominations in the dark, to witness humanity twisted into disturbing, repulsive forms. Apparently inspired by the gamebooks of Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone (which I’ve covered in a previous blog post), particularly the deeply twisted Sorcery! series, Miyazaki’s deteriorating worlds are plagued by disease and corruption – it affects the blighted scenery, it infests the warped creatures, and it certainly manifests in some of the more memorable boss encounters.
Whether it’s Bloodborne’s inescapable curse of beasthood, the buried evils of Dark Souls, or even some of Sekiro’s weirder antagonists, these games will present a feast of depravity for your eyes to gorge upon... if that’s your sort of thing.
A perfect distillation of its dark influences
I’ve already touched on Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! and The Lord Of The Rings as influences on Miyazaki, but there are many more that litter his work.
I’ve just started reading the manga series Berzerk, and enjoyed seeing a few of the Dark Souls components (armoured knights, ridiculously oversized swords, a penchant for people dying with crossbow bolts jutting out of the visor of their helmet) appearing in a much more grisly and cartoonish tale. Another manga artist whose imagery may have inspired some of the games’ twisted visuals is Junji Ito, the famed creator of such horror classics as Uzumaki (here’s a sample of the horrors that await you inside that particular tome - lovely stuff):
Another powerful influence is undoubtedly H.P. Lovecraft, manifesting more so in some games than others, but clearly undercutting every entry in the series. Lovecraft’s recurring theme of the pursuit of knowledge leading to madness and physical corruption has clearly had a profound impact on Miyazaki, and one of the Soulsborne games in particular has been described as the greatest indirect Lovecraft adaptation ever made.
Until some visionary director gives me a perfect movie version of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment.
The 'clockwork' world design
These worlds are not split into ‘levels’; rather, they are sprawling interconnected realms that permit the player to wander freely, although forward movement is often cleverly gated to ensure that progress is made in a reasonably linear fashion. However, there are some opportunities to undertake the games’ (significant) challenges in different orders, and other areas that often remain completely hidden (a particular secret area in Dark Souls III left me genuinely open-mouthed when I stumbled upon it).
But this is a disservice to just how intricately-designed these spaces are, particularly the ‘clockwork' world of the original Dark Souls. You can be hours-deep in the bowels of some horrific catacomb, immersed in filth and darkness, only to emerge blinking into sunlight… and find yourself unexpectedly back at a familiar location, perhaps on the other side of a locked door, or staring down from some previously-overlooked peak. The feeling at these moments – of relief, surprise, delight, awe, all mixed together – is genuinely unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in gaming.
Then you usually get stabbed in the back by some wandering horror because you were too busy enjoying the pretty sunrise.
The challenging gameplay
I’ve deliberately left this to the back end of the article, because those familiar with From Software’s output will know of their games’ reputation for being, to put it mildly, flippin’ rock hard, and I am frustrated that this seems to have become the single most famous feature of these brilliant games (‘Dark Souls? It’s meant to be really difficult, isn’t it?’) Sadly, even the company themselves seem to have gotten carried away with this ‘USP’, and the games are undoubtedly getting progressively more challenging, culminating in the most recent release, Sekiro, which in my opinion is actually somewhat spoiled by its excessive difficulty level.
Don’t get me wrong – I agree with From Software’s ethos of making their games tough, in particular the epic boss battles. This challenge gives the games the feeling of an arduous quest, and makes your progress and achievements feel worthwhile and hard-earned. Time and time again you will hurl yourself at a seemingly insurmountable enemy, and time and time again you will be defeated… but with each death, you will learn something about your opponent’s behaviour, or spot a potential chink in their (usually rusted) armour. This recurrent death mechanic is even brilliantly baked into the games’ narratives, along with a fiendish risk and reward mechanism: rather than simply restarting where you left off, you lose all of your collected ‘souls’ on death, meaning that every foray into the game is a balance between making progress and losing this vital in-game currency. You can always cash in these hard-won resources at the scattered campfires (or lanterns, or idols, depending upon which game you're playing), but doing so will bring all of your slaughtered foes back to life...
However, I am wary of this upward incline on the difficulty graph, and my biggest worry for Elden Ring is that an amazing piece of art is sabotaged by an attempt to satisfy the seemingly insatiable craving of some elements of the online fanbase for more challenge, more inaccessibility, more feats of boss-battling dexterity to upload onto their YouTube feed. Yes, completing the first Dark Souls with a Rock Band guitar controller using only your toes is impressive... but I do not believe it is what these games are about.
The mini-rant in the previous paragraph might have made it sound as though I dislike the online Soulsborne fan base; in reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. These games have spawned a community that is genuinely amazing: hundreds of thousands of people sharing gameplay tips, fan fiction, fan art, music compositions inspired by the games, funny memes (usually about how bloody hard the games are), mods for the PC versions, and of course endless hours of discussion and debate over the stories and lore. There are YouTube channels (Vaatividya is my favourite, making thoughtful and well-reasoned story analysis videos along with moving recaps of some of the games’ more poignant side-stories) and even podcasts (Bonfire Side Chat is a regular listen of mine, going into immense depth on each and every one of the games' locations and characters).
The games also allow online play in a hugely innovative way: although these are essentially single-player adventures, you can leave messages behind that players in other ‘worlds’ will be able to read (some are helpful hints, others are the handiwork of shameless, but often hilarious, trolls), or even summon other players to your game to assist in a moment of crisis. Conversely, online invasions by other players seeking to undermine and humble you are commonplace, and add yet another wrinkle to the rich tapestry of gameplay on offer here.
After Sekiro shifted away from an online component, as well as presenting a slightly more conventional and fully-explained narrative, my hope for Elden Ring is that From Software return to their roots to ensure that their latest game has a rich online following for years to come.
So there you have it! I hope I’ve given fellow From Software fans a knowing smile or two, and that I might just have convinced a couple of people that have never played the games to splash out on Dark Souls Remastered. I also hope that my non-video-gaming readers have found this post interesting; as a writer, I strongly believe in video games as a unique way of telling stories, and that we are starting to see true classics emerging that simply could not be replicated in movies, TV series or books. In this regard, the Soulsborne games are certain to go down as revered cornerstones of the medium in years to come.
Until next time,