Dark Souls Preview

Dark Souls Preview

Dark Souls Preview

Hidetaka Miyazaki’s desk isn’t unlike that of so many Japanese videogame makers. A small army of rubber and plastic figurines battle for space with a PC, keyboard, mouse and an Xbox 360 development kit across its laminate surface. Bottles of sake and whiskey – birthday presents that haven’t yet made it home – patrol the periphery, while pens, calculators and unopened games from rival developers stake their claim to whatever space remains.

The creator of Dark Souls – unofficial successor to 2009’s most unlikely global hit, Demon’s Souls – does, however, have at least one unique piece of desk décor: a Sony digital photo frame placed at the rear of his desk, facing outwards towards the neat rows of workstations at which his team toil away. You might expect the frame to cycle through images of his family, or snaps from a relaxing holiday to distract from the burden of fans’ expectations. Miyazaki, however, loaded the device with hundreds of pieces of user feedback on Demon’s Souls, quotations from players outlining what they loved about the game and what they hated, each statement sitting resolutely on the screen for a full 30 seconds before making way for the next.

For many, these daily reminders of past shortcomings might be discouraging, but in the context of Demon’s Souls, they seem curiously appropriate. After all, here was a game that enabled you to help other players avoid pitfalls by scrawling words of caution on the ground, which then materialised, red and glowing, in their gameworlds. Demon’s Souls also promoted punishment as the quickest route to victory, the relentless setbacks it heaped upon players intended to steel their resolve, not dissolve it; to educate and improve them, not dishearten. “I am a difficult director to work with,” Miyazaki says with a wry smile. In fact, by that admission, Miyazaki is a difficult director, producer and game designer to work with, as on Dark Souls he has assumed all three roles.

“It’s how I’ve always worked,” he explains. “It’s just how I like to create videogames. I don’t feel the pressure in terms of the workload. But I do feel the weight of expectation in providing a strong game. I actually love the pressure. I thrive on it. Perhaps in the future it will be different and I’ll need to distribute the work among others, but at this moment in time, it’s how I want to work.”

Miyazaki may come across like an arch-auteur, and in many ways that label is applicable, but he is as eager to share praise among the rank-and-file workers as he is to show them what players think of their work. “I’m lucky enough to have an extremely talented team to back me up.

If I come up with an idea out of nowhere mid-project, my team is able to take that and put it on the screen. Some of my ideas seem impossible to implement at first, so I am grateful for a team that continues to strive to fulfil all of my requests. The way I work is only possible because I have such a loyal and trusting team around me.”

It’s an approach that paid dividends with Miyazaki’s first action RPG, PlayStation 3 exclusive Demon’s Souls. The dark-fantasy game, heavily inspired by From Software’s own 1995 title King’s Field and the classic Fighting Fantasy roleplaying novels, cast players as a lone warrior thrust into a dark, foreboding world of red-eyed skeletons, hulking dragons and near-insurmountable odds. While the game may not have enjoyed lavish graphics, endless combos or firework displays of special effects, with its quiet innovations it caused something of a revolution.

Despite a very slow start – the game sold in the region of 30,000 copies in its week of release in Japan – word of mouth saw the game steadily succeed, first in its home territory, and then around the world, with hundreds of thousands of players finding wonder, rather than frustration, in the game’s unforgiving depths. As such, a sequel seemed inevitable.

“Dark Souls is not the sequel to Demon’s Souls.” Miyazaki is adamant that his current game is a separate entity, despite it sharing not so much a similarity as a full likeness with his previous one. With a new publisher, however, it seems likely that the name change is a political one rather than a creative one. Regardless of how the developer spins it, the facts are that work began on Dark Souls immediately after Demon’s Souls was released, that 80 per cent of the team is shared between the two projects, including all of the lead roles, and that, beyond similarities in character and enemy design, even the typefaces used on the loading screen are identical.Regardless, Miyazaki refuses to be drawn. “It’s not that we couldn’t use the Demon’s Souls name,” he says. “It’s that we chose not to use it. Thematically, and in terms of ideology, the two games are very similar, but in terms of world and story they are completely different.”

While it would be an overstatement to say that Dark Souls’ world is a departure from that of Demon’s Souls, it is clear that efforts have been made to expand upon the unflinching gothic drabness of the first game. One area the director shows off reveals a castle kissed by a warm sunset, ivy draped lazily over cobblestones aged by time and footfall. It’s similar to the medieval feel of the first game, but the lighting and foliage give the area a verdant refresh.

Miyazaki is quick to point out that from this starting point a variety of game areas blossom outwards, ranging from whispering, mist-covered forests through to high fantasy peaks in addition to flat, smooth concrete spires and resolute obelisks. “The main aim was to increase the variety of locations that were found in Demon’s Souls,” explains lead artist Sato Makoto. “We wanted a far greater range of architecture types on offer; a sense of chaos, even, with different styles clashing together. Many ideas for locations came from influences that have nothing to do with fantasy, but are from my own personal experiences. When you draw inspiration from yourself in that way it’s both exciting and frightening, as any criticism becomes far more personal.”

It’s not only Makoto’s ego that’s at stake. Every game area takes about six months to complete, so the investment of time, energy and money in each is significant. “We spend around two months just creating the assets for an area, getting the look and feel right, settling on the colour scheme and architecture we want to use,” says Miyazaki. “During this period we carry out the structural designs in parallel. For the actual creation of the graphics, we plan roughly three months, which is then followed by fixes, tuning and increasing the overall quality. It’s maybe not the most efficient
way of working, but it works for us.”

In contrast to Demon’s Souls, the various regions of Dark Souls’ gameworld connect seamlessly. The team is hoping to eliminate all loading screens from the game (apart from when your character dies) in time for launch. “It’s an immense challenge that Miyazaki set for us,” explains Jun Ito, programming lead on the game. He heads up a team of ten coders, who are in turn supported by an R&D team at the studio, creating tools and libraries to support the development. “Our task is essentially to predict the future,” he says of the challenge to eliminate loading in the game. “If we truly give the player freedom within the world and allow them to go any place they want to, then it’s our job to cater to the player’s will.

“Will they advance with trepidation? Or dive into a cave they just found? Or perhaps head into a dense forest? In one moment a player might choose to climb a ladder to reveal a beautiful horizon, and in the next they could fall from the ladder to land in a deep dark cavern. We need to predict what you will be doing ten seconds on from where you currently stand, and then create the world around you in anticipation. Regardless of how hard it is to omit loading for us, we believe our task is to create a game in which people can explore the world of Dark Souls freely, without interruption. But, even so, can you imagine how difficult this might be?”

Nevertheless, it’s a difficulty the team appears to have overcome, and with a high framerate, the boundaries for exploration have been widened seemingly without cost to other areas of the experience. “One of the core differences between Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls is that the earlier game focused almost exclusively on battle and swordsmanship,” explains Miyazaki. “I want this game to focus far more on the RPG aspect, especially with regards to rewarding player exploration. In fact, collaboration and exploration are the key concepts for the game.” Certainly the team continues to excel at drawing our eye to points of interest and drama, not by way of a Gears Of War-style ‘object of interest’ camera button, but rather through careful framing that leads your viewpoint naturally.

As Miyazaki rounds one corner, we see a giant red griffon, ten times the size of his character, hunched atop a suspension bridge high above, craning its neck with half-closed eyes. It’s a moment of simultaneous wonder and terror. Wonder that such a monster, framed in such a way, could look quite so striking, even appealing. Terror in the knowledge that, should you choose not to creep in silence through the network of tight, dank corridors underneath the bridge, praying to avoid detection, and instead run up the stairs for a head-on confrontation, your chances of survival are slight.

Demon’s Souls defied prevailing game design fashions. Where other developers continue to fall over themselves rewarding players for the most humble achievement, here was an experience that demanded its player learn and master its systems or else face crushing setbacks. Players hone the skills necessary to progress in Demon’s Souls through repetition. Each venture inches you a little farther into its dark world before death, which swiftly punishes the briefest lapse in judgment and slaps you back to where you began, forcing you to mount yet another attempt. It’s a brutal approach that, prior to the release of Demon’s Souls, had been largely consigned to history in action games, where fashion now equates ease of progress with best practice. Demon’s Souls, by contrast, appreciates the difference between lip service to achievement and genuine accomplishment. The thrill of overcoming one of its hard-hitting boss characters proves one of the most memorable gaming exploits in recent years. Nevertheless, the unforgiving nature of the experience prompted many to dismiss it as too difficult, too demanding to be considered entertainment. With that in mind, does From Software have any plans to make Dark Souls easier on the player?

“I have no intention to make the game any easier,” says a defiant Miyazaki. “In fact, I want it to be more difficult. The way I put it to my team is that we are trying to make the most difficult game that it is possible to make, which at the same time can be conquered by those who persevere. It has to be firm, but fair. There’s a contradiction there, I realise. As such, we have five key criteria on which the difficulty level is judged. We want any player to be able to clear any obstacle simply by learning from mistakes and paying close attention. Then, the reasons for failure must always be clear and understandable. Every problem must have multiple solutions, so that players can tackle it in whichever way they want. The game’s controls can never be a factor from which difficulty is derived. And finally, we want to make sure that there’s the possibility for miracles to happen; those magical moments that spread stories outside of the confines of the gameworld.

“So long as an obstacle passes those five criteria, we are happy that we have achieved the maximum level of difficulty, while retaining the necessary element of fairness. Perhaps the final and most important test is that I am able to complete a task. I guess it’s a little ironic for the creator of a game like this, but I’m actually not very good at action games. Nonetheless, that makes me a good benchmark for creating something that anyone can complete with dedication. In fact, I’m probably the worst Demon’s Souls player on the entire team.”

Creating a game that is welcoming to newcomers yet can challenge those players who dedicate their lives to its mastery has always been one of the tallest challenges in game making. Makoto pulls a VHS tape from a brown envelope. “I was sent this tape this morning,” he explains. “It’s footage of some of the most dedicated Demon’s Souls players completing the game using the weakest character class. This is the level of devotion that the game inspires.”

Demon’s Souls emboldens novice players via its asynchronous multiplayer system, whereby more experienced players can leave messages on any empty piece of ground, warning of impending dangers and pitfalls. A sort of in-game FAQ/camaraderie system that allows players to reach into the singleplayer campaigns of others, these messages prove invaluable when broaching new territory, and it’s a feature that has been expanded for this pseudo-sequel.

Now, as well as warning other players of traps, or powerful monsters lurking around corners, it’s also possible to trick fellow Dark Souls players. In Demon’s Souls, messages were almost always used as generous advice. But now there’s a keener competitive edge to the game, and the systems allow you to help or hinder those players around you. “It’s how you play with people’s minds, how you help or trick other people,” explains Miyazaki. “It is another tool which has evolved in Dark Souls – it’s not necessarily about how skilled you are, but how smart you are.”

For the magnanimous, it’s now possible to assist other players by lighting a beacon of sanctuary in the gameworld and leaving recovery items there for other players to visit in their own campaigns, sharing assets and items, not merely words of advice. For Miyazaki, this detached use of co-operation remains his favourite feature in the game. “I’m the type of person who becomes very attached to the games we create,” he says, “and so there are several aspects of Dark Souls that I love. But if I were to name a favourite, it would be the beacon-fire system. When playing in a dark, cold, gloomy world, the one place where the player can get some rest is the brightly lit, warm beacon fire. That players can set these fires up for other adventurers playing in their own game adds to the sense of co-operation, even if it’s in a remote way. This is the feeling that probably defines Dark Souls more than any other.”

Part of Demon’s Souls’ appeal in Japan was the way in which the game allowed players to work together or against each other, but in an isolated manner, without the need for the vocal interactions that typify western multiplayer experiences. Once again, this innovative feature makes a return, except this time players are connected not via servers, but dynamically with those who are playing around them geographically in the game.

Player vs player makes a return too, meaning it’s possible to invade another’s world in order to help or hinder, one of the few times this essentially singleplayer game (albeit one with collaborative features) begins to look more like an orthodox multiplayer experience. And for a weaker player being tracked by a stronger foe? Miyazaki has a solution: a new ability to disguise yourself as an inanimate object within the gameworld, and hide via transforming into, for example, an innocuous-looking broom or barrel.While the game can be played mostly as a solo adventure, there are some missions that demand visiting other players’ worlds, as Miyazaki explains: “For example, one player may be tasked with hunting down a certain item that another has in his or her possession. There will be several quests or missions in the game like that. It’s usually posed a bit like a competitive version of Lord Of The Rings in which one player has the ring and the other characters must find him, attack him and attempt to claim the ring for themselves.

“These kind of battles are built into the game. It ebbs and flows seamlessly between single- and multiplayer, so that those distinctions are no longer really relevant. I think we have found a delicate balance in which sometimes players must compete and sometimes they must cooperate. That tension is interesting to me.” It remains to be seen how Dark Souls’ design will accommodate players who lack the capacity to play online and experience its multiplayer components.

As in Demon’s Souls, death is a core theme of the story, although there is no purgatorial Nexus as such. “The characters that you play as used to exist in the human world,” Miyazaki explains, “but somehow they were cursed and made undead, and transported to a different dimension, a third world, the world of Dark Souls. In this dimension characters have their own individual goals that they are pursuing, be it to find their way back to the human world, or something else.”

There’s an overarching tension to the story too, as over the course of the game your character’s mind deteriorates. “If the mind becomes too far gone then the character will become a zombie or monster,” explains Miyazaki. “That is what you are fighting against in the game; this curse of not being able to face death. Within that framework we are really trying to give the player the freedom to pursue their own goals, be it to help all of the other characters, or to lift the curse that’s befallen them or even to cause all-out destruction in this dimension. We’ve provided the base and the tools. From then on, it’s up to the player to create their role.”

Does that mean there’s no endgame, we wonder? Any game constructed from non-linear, optional goals doesn’t fit easily within the traditional win and fail states of most games, especially one that is attempting to scrub away the boundaries between single- and multiplayer. “Yes, there will be a way to ‘finish’ the game,” says Miyazaki. “In fact, there will be several ways to end the game, similar to how it was in Demon’s Souls. But the endgame is not really the focus at all. In a sense, I dare not require a player to complete the game. There is a completion point, but it’s a game where the user can choose not to complete it, just live in this world for eternity.”

Hoping that players will continue to play your game for ‘eternity’ is ambitious, to say the least, but it’s a desire that reflects Miyazaki and his team’s unflinching belief in their game. Having struck gold with Demon’s Souls simply by adhering to its own vision, From Software is in the enviable position of having a global hit that has found popularity precisely because it bucks trends and ploughs its own furrow away from current notions of what a blockbuster should look, play, sound and feel like. Miyazaki is the keeper of the secret formula, and he knows it.

So what is the secret? “As in Demon’s Souls, our aim is to have the player feel rewarded simply by playing the game,” he explains. “Not for completing a quest. Not for finding a prize. Not even for winning loot, but simply by experiencing and playing the game.” And – if Dark Souls is as difficult as promised – replaying and replaying and replaying the game, too. As its predecessor proved, when failure becomes its own reward, it’s easy to get hooked on the hard stuff.