The Souls games and how regular death encourages awesome level design

As many of you know, I’m a huge fan of the Souls games (Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2). These games are often regarded as hard, and to some extent that’s true. You’ll die when playing any Souls game, and you’ll do it a lot. It’s baked into the game’s core mechanics. It’s one of the defining traits of the series. It also encourages some of the best level design I’ve ever witnessed.

For those that don’t know how things work in a Souls game, let me give a brief synopsis of the “death loop.” Each game in the series has some sort of “checkpoint” – in Demon’s Souls it’s archstones, in Dark Souls is bonfires. When you die, you’ll respawn at the last checkpoint you “touched.” Further, touching one of these checkpoints refills your health and magic (and healing potions in the case of Dark Souls), but it also respawns nearly every enemy (bosses and a few other mobs excluded). You’re free to touch one whenever you’d like (even one that you’ve already visited), but you pay the price because of the respawning enemies.

You also can’t quick save (or choose to save at all) – the game is constantly saving your character, and there’s no way to reload a previous state. If you die, you die – there’s no way around it. You even lose any souls (which act as a currency to both buy things or level up) that you’re carrying. If you can make it back to where you died without dying again, you can pick them back up – if you die on the way though, they’re lost forever. This sounds crazy when you compare it with most other modern AAA games – checkpoints, quick saves and easier difficulties are now the norm.

After I finished Dark Souls 2 on the PS3, I moved to another game on my backlog – Dragon’s Dogma. I had been playing for an hour or so one night and by an unlucky chain of events (and a little stupidity on my part) I died. At that point I realized that I hadn’t saved and/or hit a checkpoint in a very long time. I had made it a good chunk of the way through a rather long walk between areas, and now I was back at the beginning. I sat in my chair and realized that there was nothing I wanted to do less than make that trek again. The journey wasn’t interesting or even particularly enjoyable. Sure, some of the scenery was nice, but the encounters were boring. Collecting herbs or whatever was boring. Everything about that walk was boring.

I died a lot when playing Dark Souls 2. There were a few times that I became frustrated and didn’t want to go on, but that feeling was always gone by the next day. Why was I willing to go at it over and over with Dark Souls, but a single death nearly ended my Dragon’s Dogma play-through? The answer is level design.

I’ll exercise a bit of license here and say that my definition of level design is all encompassing – art, architecture, “findables” and even enemies and their placement. The Souls games know that you’re going to die regularly. Because death is a given in Dark Souls, levels must be designed in a way that is, at a minimum, tolerable to work through multiple times. The Souls games miss here and there (the lead up to the Chariot boss or the optional area in the 3rd DLC come to mind), but for the most part the zones are interesting and well-designed. They’re large, but much of the exploration only has to (successfully) happen once – you reach that ledge and grab the treasure, then you never need to come back. The direct path from one checkpoint to the next is usually not that long, and where it is there’s usually a short cut to open up, acting as a mini-checkpoint on your way. The levels aren’t necessarily welcoming, but they’re far from boring and they rarely feel like a waste of time.

Compare that do the long walk I made in Dragon’s Dogma, and the differences are startling. The walk was was probably meant to be made once. Collect some widgets, gain some experience fighting generic baddies, reach your destination and advance the story – that’s where the meat is, anyway. In Dark Souls the gameplay is a huge part of the player’s story, and because of that the designers *must* create interesting levels or the game wouldn’t be fun at all. If Dragon’s Dogma has a couple of crappy areas that add very little or are just bad, it’s not a huge deal because the player will likely only trudge through them once. They can afford to pad out the world with uninteresting areas because they’ll only be uninteresting once.

In the end, I realized that a large reason that the Souls games are some of my favorites is the level design. It’s not something that’s immediately obvious because the set pieces aren’t super impressive like an Uncharted or a Bayonetta. It’s a subtle thing, but it makes all the difference. By creating games with steep difficulty and regular death, the developers have put themselves in a situation where their level design *must* be top-notch. I’m grateful that for the vast majority of their games they’ve risen to the challenge. I can’t wait to see what’s next.


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