‘Dark Souls’: The Fire That Never Fades

Alan Wen
Games Xbox
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It’s been two years since the release of Dark Souls III supposedly brought the Age of Fire to its conclusion. But with the recent release of Dark Souls Remastered, the flicker of that original flame has been lovingly rekindled.

In a time awash with last gen remasters, there are few worthier candidates for the facelift treatment than FromSoftware’s 2010 masterpiece. Yet, despite Dark Souls only just finding a home on the current generation of console platforms, its flame has never really gone out.

Indeed, its largely because its dedicated community has kept that fire burning brightly over the years. More popular gaming trends may have spawned during that time, but none have left such a scorching mark on players and developers alike, with Dark Souls‘ influence on video games still being felt to this day.

So as we prepare to return to Lordran, it’s worth asking: just what makes Dark Souls ignite such passion?

Baptism of Fire

'Dark Souls' is notoriously difficult, and without any guides to help them, journalists reviewing it had to form their very own DS support group.

For the games journalists originally tasked with reviewing Dark Souls back in 2011, you could say that love was forged in the fires of great hardship, as detailed by Jason Killingsworth in the book You Died, The Dark Souls Companion.

Without a clue how to handle its treacherous paths, a few journalists found solace in an email thread that gradually included people writing for outlets on both sides of the Atlantic, which co-author Keza MacDonald dubbed The Chain of Pain.

'You Died' Is A Dark Souls Companion book that goes deep into the series' lore and the fan stories that help make it.

“It felt like the Fellowship of the Ring,” Killingsworth tells me. “We were all on this quest reviewing Dark Souls together, as we learn how other people are getting punished, and having their sanity tested. At the same time we bound together to help each other and offered moral support as we were going through the game.”

But it was more than just the baptism of fire that earned Dark Souls a special place in those writers’ memories. Although Dark Souls has a habit of becoming a by-word for difficulty, it’s only one facet of the game. In fact, MacDonald spends another chapter using a player personality test that identifies four distinct characteristics: Explorer, Achiever, Killer and Socialiser – what’s remarkable about Dark Souls is that its systems make it endlessly appealing to all those player types.

Untold Stories

From Software's minimal storytelling has led to lore-chasing fans, making what little story there is in 'Dark Souls' the stuff of legend.

What perhaps makes Dark Souls so different is so much of what makes it compelling is never spelled out. Even if you survive everything the game throws at you, once the credits roll many don’t even realise what it’s been all about, the story having only been teased by a handful of NPCs or through cryptic item descriptions.

“It takes a very unique kind of developer to put so much effort into the creation of a world, only to hide it from the vast majority of players,” says Michael Samuels, who has made it his business to bring that world’s stories into the light.

Through his YouTube channel VaatiVidya, he mines the lore of Dark Souls, as well as other FromSoftware works, like a virtual archaeological site, refining those raw nuggets into coherent and digestible videos that tell emotionally resonant stories.

The fact that there’s no official tome to authoritatively explain Dark Souls leaves a market of people hungry for that kind of content, which isn’t the same as simply creating your own fanfiction, but creatively interpreting the story from your available sources, much like a historian.

“Not only is its lore intentionally hidden – parts of it are also intentionally omitted,” says Samuels. “As a result, Souls Lore is like putting together a puzzle, and it’s genuinely exciting when someone makes a breakthrough with their interpretation of the story.”

Community Ownership

Its players have made many of their own rules for the games, even choosing to repopulate the ageing game en mass, just in order to make it awash with online activity again.

Perhaps the great allure of Dark Souls is that nothing is official. Killingsworth cites creative control as the paramount reason he and MacDonald went down the unofficial route when it came to writing their book. It’s a decision that feels in step with the philosophy of Dark Souls. Without anything ordained by the developer or publisher, there’s a much stronger sense of ownership from its community.

For many modern games, the onus is on the developer to keep players logging in with updates, new content, or time-limited events.

In Dark Souls, all of this has been instigated by the community, such as the Reddit thread that kickstarted Return To Lordran, a global restart event compelling players to start a fresh game at the same time to repopulate the game and recapture the buzzing activity you’d get from a game’s launch filled with phantoms up for jolly cooperation of dastardly invasions.

This extends to the improvisational way PvP duels are conducted with their own unspoken codes of honour, to the point that Dark Souls III’s separate competitive arenas introduced for its DLC felt almost too prescriptive (while arenas existed in the first game’s Artorias of the Abyss expansion, it was something that had to be earned, while even accessing the DLC was fairly opaque).

Even without updates, Dark Souls is teeming with so many secrets that one playthrough will never completely yield. It may have Achievements, but whereas other games badger you with menus of checklists or a map filled with icons, optional quest lines and locations in Dark Souls are never alluded to unless you make the effort to investigate – there’s not even a world map.

As Killingsworth puts it, “A sense of unfinished business is a very powerful magnetic attraction for a certain personality.”

The irony is that some of the unfinished business he alludes to isn’t even handed down by the game designers but by the community. Dark Souls has no hard mode, but players have come up with their own ways of competing with themselves, from speedrunning to the OneBro challenge, where you must beat the game without ever levelling up your stats. The most insane feats involve beating the game through wildly unconventional controls, from dance mats  to Donkey Kong’s bongo drums!

Try and try again

If at first you don't succeed, die, die and die again.

Much of this showboating is gold for streamers, which in turn keeps an old game relevant and exciting for audiences. But while we may marvel at these displays of skill, the more powerful memories resonate from our first time playing Dark Souls, so reliving it through someone else’s first time is just as potent.

Started as something of a marketing lark, IGN’s Prepare To Try series put Dark Souls virgin Rory Powers through the wringer to complete the original game before the release of Dark Souls III. Through his arduous journey, hilarity ensued not just from the schoolboy errors those of us who’ve already experienced it knew all too well, or by mangling the character creation tool to make a Chosen Undead with a face only a mother could love, but also from the spirited camaraderie with resident loremaster Daniel Krupa and bantermaster Gav Murphy at his side.

Not that they were always on hand offer moral support, so much as goad him into taking on black knights he wasn’t prepared for.

It‘s far from the masterclass acts that attract the more popular Let’s Plays. But in the role of the everyman, watching Powers’ failures resonates strongly because we’ve all been there too. We could then also taste the same sweet victory as he grows from noob to parry master, and lands the final decisive hit against Gwyn.

It’s also a well-guided walkthrough, with Krupa on hand on guide Powers to Lordran’s secrets as well as impart his insight on the lore behind items found or character they meet. At the same time, the mood would also go from the sublime to the ridiculous, from wanking jokes to irreverent jabs at ‘lazy’ Miyazaki that would have its most pious fans aghast.

…and again!

PS4 exclusive Bloodborne took the Souls world into even darker and more fantastical territory.

Prepare To Try’s popularity has seen it turned into its own YouTube channel as the lads returned in subsequent seasons for Powers to test his mettle with the rest of FromSoft’s offerings. It’s even gained its own fandom, including someone who made a plush toy of the series’ accidental mascot, Finchy. You might even say, thanks to Gav’s bizarre stories, it’s also been enshrined with its own unique lore.

Ironically, the channel officially launched after Powers had completed From’s gothic follow-up Bloodborne, when it seemed that the task was at an end (though the series black sheep Dark Souls II has been conspicuously skipped), moving onto playthroughs of other tough games.

Meanwhile, almost six years since VaatiVidya posted its first video, Samuels still occasionally surfaces with new things to say about Dark Souls.

But lore is a finite resource, and although other experts are delving in between the lines by analysing cut content and the original Japanese text to see what may have been lost in translation, there’s only so much left to pick from Dark Souls. It’s perhaps no surprise that players and creators alike have tried to explore the next best thing: the Souls-like.

Phantom Invaders

Anticipated indie game 'Below' takes notes from Dark Souls but adds it own unique twists.

Dark Souls’ influence on video games has been huge. It may not have invented dark fantasy or tough games, but Capybara Games’ Kris Piotrowski calls Dark Souls, “a return to form” for reintroducing old hardcore concepts to game design. “AAA moved away to hand-holding and playtesting everything, whereas Dark Souls brought it all the way back and realised that gamers do like a challenge, and they also like to figure things out,” he says.

Nonetheless, signature Souls concepts can be seen across different games since, from its methodical stamina-based combat, to the risk/reward mechanic of reclaiming lost treasure, as well as those safe bonfires. Borrowing certain elements is one thing but more explicit imitations comes with its own heavy burden, namely that it’s such a high bar that you’re practically setting yourself up for disappointment.

'Lords of The Fallen' was the first AAA game to blatantly 'borrow' from the 'Dark Souls' template.

Starting with 2014’s blatant clone Lords of the Fallen to 2D variant Salt and Sanctuary, many have tried and substantially fallen short of emulating the Souls formula, perhaps getting one aspect competently done but missing the bigger picture of what really makes Dark Souls tick.

Samuels’ channel has covered hands-on impressions of some of these titles if he was at a loss for new Souls content, it’s highly unlikely he would delve into their stories in the same rich satisfying way he has been able to with FromSoftware’s work.

Killingsworth is more understanding when quizzed about these wannabes. “I love that they exist – in concept!” he laughs. “It just feels like meeting another fan and having a conversation about Dark Souls, even if it’s not a game you’d ever put on par with it. I never feel like it’s a crass thing – it always felt like a love letter from a game developer, and I’ve read them as such.”

Ashen Ones

CodeVein mia
Bandai's anime inspired take on the Souls franchise shows a rather more original take on Souls inspiration.

Of course, if we’re to believe that FromSoftware is indeed finished with the series, the issue is less about imitating as opposed to finding a successor to take up the mantle, and whether any are worthy. Publisher Bandai Namco already has Code Vein lined up as a potential candidate – dubbed Anime Souls – which explicitly plays on the former IP’s tagline with the teaser, “Prepare to dine.”

Even if developers aren’t looking to make a Souls-like, it gets to the ridiculous point that anything with a dark atmosphere, melee combat or spiky difficulty automatically gets unfair comparisons. Indeed, comparing absolutely everything to Dark Souls has become a writer’s running joke, which gets progressively less funny.

Forthcoming Ashen is an action RPG with challenging combat that relies on a similar stamina management mechanic. However, creative director Derek Bradley still likes to stress that it’s a very different game to Dark Souls, from the “stylised look and feel of the world” to its “seamless passive multiplayer”.

The latter feature is a bit of mystery, though it does refreshingly make it one of the few Souls-likes that remembers ‘jolly cooperation’ is as important to Dark Souls as its world-building or challenges.

Meanwhile, Piotrowski’s game Below has been compared to Dark Souls since its initial announcement way back in 2013. Yet when I finally got to play a build of it at this year’s Rezzed, it also struck me how unlike Dark Souls it is, functioning more as a solitary top-down survival game with an obscure crafting system and brutal roguelike elements. Nonetheless, he takes the comparison as “a supreme compliment”.

“I find that it generally helps quickly communicate what the player should be prepared for,” he explains. “When you say Dark Souls, it just helps people immediately understand what it is the game is trying to do and what kind of mindsets to approach it with, and that they’re going to have to figure it out on their own.”

Returning to Lordran

Shadows Die Twice From Software trailer
Shadows Die Twice is the next From Software game. But unsurprisingly, it's shrouded in mystery.

Where FromSoftware decides to head next is still a mystery, with only a whisper of a teaser given at The Game Awards last year. But in a sense, the release of Dark Souls Remastered acts like a victory lap, while bringing together souls old and new to another plane of Lordran to repopulate with fresh bloodstains and messages, or even a new platform entirely, in the case of the Nintendo Switch.

But even if you don’t pick up a controller to take up the challenge again, those memories stay burned into our minds, from the sleep lost naively fighting the graveyard skeletons to braving every bullshit trick thrown at us in Sen’s Fortress.

For Killingsworth, ‘Laudate Solis’ by Judson Cowan, an artwork which faithfully maps out Lordran on a 2D plane in full like a vertical floating island, is all that’s needed to rekindle the flame from within.

“I have a framed copy in my living room,” he says. “I’m still so beguiled by that place, I don’t even have to load the game any more. All I have to do is glance at that abstract image to immediately summon up different memories that I’ve had. In that sense, I still visit Lordran almost on a daily basis.”

Dark Souls: Remastered launches on PS4, Xbox One and PC on May 25th, and on Switch this summer.

Alan Wen
Games writer, critic, the Japanese games liker. As seen in Kotaku UK, TechRadar, Wireframe, VGC, Eurogamer and more.