How do you make an RPG after Dark Souls?

This piece is part of our Future of Genre series. Read more here

Dark Souls is inside everything now. It rose into space and became pure energy. It comes back in the stones and secrets of new worlds. It’s in the black courtyards of Dark Arisen, the Agent Hunt invasions of Resident Evil 6, and the graffiti of ZombiU. It’s in Destiny, Star Citizen, Lightning Returns, Republique, Payday 2, The Witcher 2, Lichdom, Betrayer, Lords of the Fallen, Catacomb Kids, and The Evil Within, if you believe the makers of those games. It’s inside the PS4, if you believe Shuhei Yoshida. It mapped something into the minds of its players, jagged branches marked in soapstone.

In 2009, the world wasn’t ready. A light drawing-room conversation was taking place between the grand old RPGs before Demon’s Souls walked in screaming. It sounded like it was asking: What if all your forms and traditions are just stuff suffocating our ideas? What if all that comfortable repetition is deadening every live nerve in your work?  Now the old fellows are having some trouble resuming their conversation. Two games on, the Souls games have grown into a general feeling, a shift in the World Tendency of the game industry.

“It’s almost like punk,” Lone Survivor creator Jasper Byrne said of Demon’s Souls, “shaking up the system by doing something brash.” To him, the game was a “massive fuck you” to the “modern on-rails, tutorialised, audio-logged, cutscened … blockbuster ‘campaigns.’” He sounds a bit like Craig Adams’ “Less Talk, More Rock” manifesto from 2009, which listed Demon’s Souls as one of the few games preserving the “old magic” of play in an industry that had forgotten its purpose.

Byrne is part of a new conversation, as one of several Souls fans designing RPGs that pick apart and build on the best ideas from the series, just as Demon’s Souls took from Wizardry and Fighting Fantasy. The wave of Souls-inflected indies includes NEW GAME+, Oblitus, Ghost Song, Star Citizen, Barkley 2, Shovel Knight, Titan Souls, and Cornerstone. Look too long at the pitches, and you start to see Dark Souls becoming one with the universe: Dark Souls meets Wind Waker (Cornerstone), Dark Souls meets Shadow of the Colossus (Titan Souls), Dark Souls meets the NBA in the “Post-Cyberpocalyptic Wasteland” (Barkley 2). (Terry Cavanagh is working on a “really simple Dark Souls meets JRPG meets Street Fightergame, but said he didn’t want to comment until it was done.)

Adapting that singular rhythm has become a common goal. 

Byrne’s own project is NEW GAME+, a “Soulsian” dungeon crawler with touches of Dungeon Master and Zelda. If Demon’s Souls cut out the fat of RPG convention, NG+ looks to shave the bones: on his devblog, Byrne talks about wanting to “reduce an RPG to the fewest elements I can while still being able to feel like an RPG.” The interface and player inventory will be minimal, with everything drawn to look like a lost Amiga classic. Over email, Byrne summarized the project’s Soulsian bent:

It’s the movement. Rolling as spacing, instead of jumping, stamina as a way of putting limits on things, the idea of having two hands and what you choose to hold in them being really important…But also the rhythm, the fact that it is slow, and that enemies and you must both wind up to a move, telegraphing it, and of course also recover from a move (the enemies more than you), and these deliberate pauses in the flow are what make it fascinating to me…”

Adapting that singular rhythm has become a common goal. Nick Wozniak, a Shovel Knight developer, praised the Souls series’ ability to magnify regular confrontations into “epic, one-on-one encounters.” A Dark Souls battle feels like an elemental “push and pull between two forces…a flow of attacking, blocking, and dodging,” Wozniak wrote. Shovel Knight pulls together strands from several 8-bit platformers, but the fluent combat of Souls could be a radical addition; the setpieces of a (great) game like Castlevania III never had much give-and-take to them, but rather one sure timing and path.   

The cut-and-thrust of Souls combat also stuck with Connor Ullmann, who has worked to bring it into 2D with Oblitus, a dark sidescroller about exploring “an unfamiliar realm full of huge, ancient terrors.” Ullmann says the art takes a few cues from “areas like Blighttown and the Royal Wood,” and the desperate, rolling combat is unmistakably informed by the mobility and tension of Dark Souls. “It’s much harder to include the same depth of choices in movement and attacks that Dark Souls maintained when you take a dimension out,” he said, so he opted to “speed things up a bit.” The game may be a ways out (a Kickstarter is forthcoming), but the skittering little figure of Parvus, the game’s overmatched hero, already looks distinctively nimble and fragile.

As in the Souls games, he wants players to face the possibility of devastating losses. 

The reach of the Souls games extends from these tumbling earth-bound bodies all the way up to the stars. The sense of risk and hostility that Byrne imagined shaking the industry awake also resonated with Chris Roberts, the famed designer of the Wing Commander series. His devblogs for the massively crowdfunded space sim Star Citizen often cite Demon’s Souls as a reference for the systems of consequence and community his team is building. Over Skype, Roberts said:

It reminded me of the benefit of having real consequences. Some of the things I thought made games in the old days work really well had been lost over time in a never-ending quest to make the game more accessible … it went too far, basically. You lost the things that gave you your sense of accomplishment, especially in a single-player game … I thought Demon’s Souls [showed] the value of not making a game too easy, and the value of having things at risk and things you lose when you play.

As in the Souls games, he wants players to face the possibility of devastating losses. “Souls are kind of like cargo … If you think about the ship being a character as opposed to your actual character, that’s what you’re risking,” Roberts said. “It’s probably even worse than Demon’s Souls,” he added, because other players might scoop the loot before you reclaim it. Roberts wants pilots in space to have the same internal debates he did when approaching bosses in Boletaria, wondering if they should turn back to preserve their valuable freight or “double down,” pressing on for greater rewards. It’s one of the cruel old ideas that Demon’s Souls brought back from the silver age of dungeon crawling, when a greedy party might lose hours of progress by overreaching.

Some of the best-loved series in the world are pouring all their art into an imbalanced mold, casting wobbly games that rest on one better half. 

Star Citizen’s instancing system, as Roberts describes it, also has roots in Demon’s Souls. Wingmen and human foes will drop into single-player spaces in a manner he has compared to Blue and Black Phantoms. “Demon’s Souls did a good job of making it your world and your story, with other players sort of affecting it … having spaces that you create and drop, that was initially inspired by how the mechanics of Demon’s Souls were working,” Roberts said. “I saw I could take this [summoning system] and go further with it, make it more dynamic and more in the background, so that the game’s controlling it…the game itself will automatically join people to your world instance and automatically take them away.” He wants players to truly confuse NPCs with human pilots; the Souls games like to blur the same line, with named AI invaders and the player-controlled Old Monk boss.

Following the wild directions taken by Soulsian games, we wind up pretty far from the backyard of traditional RPGs, the ones with trailing chains of errands and matryoshka menus and numbers in their names. But some of the best-loved series in the world are pouring all their art into an imbalanced mold, casting wobbly games that rest on one better half. The Souls games are a new model, a fully engaged design where the cracks between moving and fighting and talking don’t show. They were a departure, and their descendants are traveling further out, pushing the frontiers of the RPG. They might take only one of the elements in the peculiar Souls formula: rhythm, weight, mystery, or loss. But it feels like they’re carrying the best parts of the genre with them.

The brutal setbacks of Lordran have been brought to lonely, enclosed worlds as well as teeming galaxies. Titan Souls uses the bonfire runs of its namesake as punctuation, forcing players to trek all the way back to the boss from a central stone every time they lose their single hitpoint. It’s a stark reminder that, beneath all the fictional exchanges built into games, their real currency is always time. “Running back became a task you had to think about [in Dark Souls],” designer Mark Foster said. “you had to learn how the enemies/environment are going to act and try and fit into the flow of that path … Since our runs were very sparse and dead, it lacked some of that flow.” But that deadness, to me, also felt like the point: it was a blank to fill in with our plans and resolutions, as we returned to try again.

Foster was also struck by the screen-shaking blows landed by Dark Souls’ bosses, the “weighty and realistic” feel of its weaponry. The same words appeared in many designers’ comments: solid, heavy, real. (The “heaviness” of Demon’s Souls was the subject of the first article I ever saw on the game, written by Quintin Smith.) The most precise measure of the weight of Souls came from Tales of Game’s, the makers of Barkley 2, the open-world action-RPG sequel to Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden. Beneath the “gun’s,” “Zaubers,” and “unique and erotic sense of humor” touted on Barkley 2 devblogs lies a bedrock of robust physical interactions. A joint email from ToG’s Tobias Svensson, Francis Coulombe, and Liam Raum included a breakdown of Souls combat, worth quoting at length:

“This feeling of weight and solidity to things is something we wanted to include in Barkley 2 to make the combat feel real and intuitive. Every character and every piece of equipment has a weight and stability, every attack has a certain amount of force. A lighter, smaller character will get knocked back into the air from an explosion, but with some weight and resistance, you’ll barely move. You’re going to need a lot of force to have any impact on say a large cyborg … but for a smaller critter, not so much. With enough force you can stagger your opponent, which is often more important than just dealing damage to him, as you can interrupt his attacks and movements or lower his guard for a split second.”

For Ghost Song designer Matt White, it’s the structure of Souls’ world, rather than its combat, that stands out. “The world of Dark Souls is indifferent to your existence,” he said via email. “Yeah, that painting leads to a secret world if you happen to have the right item, just don’t expect anyone in the game to tell you that.” He wants to create that sense of true discovery in his own game, which resembles a wild-haired, haunted relative of Super Metroid. “I’d be remiss if I didn’t include instances of rich, interesting secret worlds hidden behind incredibly unlikely places off in the corner of nowhere.” (Several Soulsian projects share this love of secrets—Ullmann wants to keep much of Oblitus “optional and hidden,” giving players “room to find things on their own” and to avoid boss fights.)

“By this point it may seem a bit played-out to pitch your project as being influenced by Dark Souls,” White wrote. But he sees his favorite game as a “textural” influence on his own work, rather than a blunt signifier of difficulty. Ghost Song’s save rooms, he says, will work like the bonfires of Dark Souls to “‘refresh’ the world, trigger the respawn of common enemies and roll dice for a few specific random types of things that can happen.” More broadly, White wants to evoke the fragmented tragedies that Souls players saw in passing, meeting doomed travelers in crypts and jail cells:

Anyone who has played Dark Souls will feel rather at home the first time they meet a strange character in some dark corner of the world in my game. Some of them have story trajectories of their own, often with unfortunate endings. They often speak cryptically to the player, and while the player character does not speak, you as the player are sometimes given a binary choice to respond to certain situations in the positive or negative…

Above all, White was linked to the other designers I spoke to in his genuine enthusiasm for the Souls titles, his happiness at having sunk hundreds of hours into the games. When talking about their first time playing Demon’s or Dark Souls, everyone still sounded intoxicated by the rush of the new. The series has blown off the hinges of the RPG, leaving the door open for interpretations far afield of classical grinding and chatting. Aside from general advocacy of real-time combat and reduced exposition, no two designers have taken the same cues from it.

Viewed from afar, the Souls games themselves may look like the honeycombed domains of Lordran, spinning out from the hub and wrapping around each other, climbing upward and out. We can never quite work out how these places all fit together (the map is actually out of joint), but we’re sure somehow that they are all one piece. We touch the roots of archtrees in Ash Lake and Lost Izalith, see their stalks stretching to the roof of Blighttown, spot their canopies in the distance from Firelink. We should know the zones are too different in temperament to actually touch; roots shouldn’t descend into lava. But a trick sighting of where we’ve been, a second spent looking at the pits of the Demon Ruins from Tomb of the Giants, brings the whole project together in our heads.

Genre works like this, I think. The Soulsian games are alien to each other in look and tone, the products of fantastically individual efforts, but they’ll feel continuous to us, like some long and twisting limb is reaching all the way from Firelink to touch them. You’ll be trudging over glowing fungi when you spot a bit of the old growth from the corner of your eye, and think Ah, there it is. The trunk.

For a lot more from all of the designers, check out our companion piece on Tumblr

Header by Zach Kugler