What brings you into a virtual world? Is it the idea of feeling something you can’t feel in real life? Or maybe you’d like to step into the role of someone who cannot possibly mimic your real-life existence. Different gamers have different reasons to exist in a world made by someone else. To live a life beyond their own goals, hopes, and expectations.
Storytelling has been a strong tool for games – indie and AAA alike. Studios of all sizes make sure their teams excel at bringing their lines of code across multiple platforms and personalities. Truth be told, it’s a big gamble. How can a developer be sure of their game? Do they know if players will hopefully (and willingly) connect with their vision?
Maybe, there are ways of ensuring this happens. Maybe, not everything has to be a gamble.
And that’s when we have a look at a studio that excels at a unique form of storytelling – FromSoftware. A team known for making challenging, deep, and gorgeous worlds that inspire a generation of players to take a plunge and dive into games that test their skills and patience.
You’re on your own
FromSoftware tells a story without holding the player’s hand. While many studios guide their players through basic things like, “go there”, “pick this up”, and “level up before you proceed”, FromSoftware’s take on this is pretty straightforward – throw the player into a dark world and let them explore who they are.
Let’s take the original Dark Souls, for instance. The game starts with the player in the middle of nowhere, with no purpose. As they explore the spaces around them, they realize the darkness and history behind every object, character, and situation they encounter. This builds momentum – they now know what they’re facing and how strong they can grow through this journey. Eventually, they become the thing they used to fear- a terrifying entity that no one would dare to go against. And that’s what the early games in this genre were all about.
With Elden Ring, however, FromSoftware eased players into this journey. They could now navigate through the world through map markers, choose whether or not they wanted to go against a specific enemy, and even summon NPCs that would aid their battles, much more easily.
However, FromSoftware did this at the cost of minor experimentation. They knew they were not sacrificing what made Soulslike games so special. They only added to their game the design. The result? A new approach to the genre, with a newer, larger fanbase willing to give their games a chance.
Challenging the notion of ‘difficulty’
“Soulsborne? Soulslike? Aren’t they extremely tough games?”
A common phrase heard by players who either tried these games and quit after the first hour or so or players who didn’t have fun being challenged.
Initially, FromSoftware struggled with the idea of the player’s world making sense to them. There was no clear narrative. Nothing to take them forward to a goal. However, this is where things got interesting. FromSoftware’s clever map design and leveling system made it so that at every ‘stage’ they passed through, players would sense a ‘connect’ between different environments.
The biggest aha moment for many players took place when they realized that these games weren’t difficult, they were just non-linear in terms of their progression. Sure, there were no switchable story arcs or dialogue options that would change the course of their gameplay…but, the way their character leveled up wasn’t linear.
If they couldn’t defeat a boss, they would look for other ways to do so- magic, strength, stamina, health, etc. These weren’t character traits; they were non-linear paths to building a character that would eventually scratch the surface of what the game could offer. To what the game could be.
Fans of FromSoftware could see this nonlinear practice take place through multiple different themes. Sekiro has a learning curve that depends on sharp reflexes, multiple combat options, and a story that keeps the player hooked onto a solid sense of purpose. Bloodborne has a dark atmosphere with heavy environmental storytelling, where enemy types and NPS have connecting storylines that the player explores through the game’s setting itself.
Check out how the world of Dark Souls cleverly connects the sum of its parts to create a single map:
Game design that evolves and inspires
The high degree of difficulty, intricate gameplay mechanics, and atmospheric storytelling that define the Souls-like genre is something that inspires many creators to build such mechanics into their own ideas. Games from FromSoftware frequently take place in gloomy, gothic, or medieval-themed settings, featuring complicated level design and secret passages that may only be found by careful exploration and observation.
It’s important to note that FromSoftware’s Soulslike genre’s popularity has been largely attributed to the community-driven approach that the developer uses to create its games. FromSoft encourages online tip and strategy sharing, and the games frequently contain easter eggs and hidden features that require cooperation among players to find. Shout out to you, VaatiVidya!
Despite the fact that every game adheres to the same fundamental design principles and concepts, there is always a significant deviation from the norm that keeps these games from ever seeming overly dependent on their predecessors.
The formula was first created by Demon’s Souls. Then, in Dark Souls it was expanded into a compact open world with a strong focus on exploration. While Dark Souls 3 combined elements of Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 took a slightly more linear approach and altered a number of gameplay mechanics. Along with a completely new dark Victorian aesthetic, Bloodborne completely altered the combat focus to be more aggressive. Sekiro switched from RPG to action, while Elden Ring eventually moved everything into the realm of a vast, almost unrestricted open world.
‘The better Souls-likes have a sense of loneliness and overbearing struggle that almost oppresses the player’, says Kiron Ramdewar of Mortal Shell publisher Playstack. ‘Their world-building and atmosphere are just as important as their tight hitboxes or twisted enemy design.’ Good Souls-likes, according to him, maintain ‘a sense of mystery that is becoming rare nowadays’ by hiding mysteries in their settings and letting players miss them. Success and discovery are even more satisfying when mistakes or discoveries may be made very quickly.
A Souls-like must involve risk, according to Alex Kubodera, co-founder of Death’s Gambit: Afterlife studio White Rabbit. “Every player action is a balancing act of risk and reward,” he claims. The limitations of patience and endurance increase the danger and produce a genuine sensation of ecstasy when the rewards are realized.
FromSoftware may have created a foundation for a genre that humbles down into interesting sub-genres, but studios are only beginning to test its possibilities and create experiences that inspire newer themes and challenges for players to be a part of.