Dark Souls & the art of sadism: From Software speaks

Friday, 21 September 2012 16:37 GMT By Dave Cook

Dark Souls was a cult hit for Japanese developer From Software. VG247’s Dave Cook speaks with the studio to reflect on the game’s development, success and future.

From Software was founded in Tokyo during 1986, but chances are you didn’t know about the studio until it released Dark Souls last year. It’s one of those Japanese developers that has a lot of games under its belt, but for some reason or other, it never had a strong Western voice.

In 2009, Demon’s Souls launched in Japan and the game quickly became a thing of cult legend. Once the West caught wind of its unique online features, crushing brutality and thoroughly rewarding progression, we wanted to experience it for ourselves.

But still, as creator Hidetaka Miyazaki tells us, while critical acclaim for the game was high, sale forceasts were woeful, “at the time when we just wrapped up development, the evaluation and sales forecast in our company were not good, so I did not even imagine that I could be given another opportunity to develop a similar title again.”

But eventually, the persistence of Western critics saw Demon’s Souls imported and reviewed in droves. The game finally had a footing in the West and eventually it was licensed for Europe by Namco Bandai as Demon’s Souls: Black Phantom Edition. It had a limited print run, but that initial wave of copies was quickly snapped up by gamers as word of mouth spread.

Regardless, Miyazaki’s peers weren’t convinced that a sequel would see the same success, “I had to convince company board or other members of the team but I did not tend to do that actively to be honest. I was reluctant to convince them when I was working on Demons Souls. That’s my bad habit.”

“Dark Souls is a game offering a feeling of accomplishment which may be relatively rare among other games nowadays.”

Miyazaki may have felt sheepish about pushing for the development of Dark Souls, and who could blame him given the financial risk involved? After all, the success of Demon’s Souls could have just been a fluke.

But something must have worked because fast forwarding to today, From Software is now gearing up to launch Dark Souls’ first DLC expansion, ‘Artorias of the Abyss’ on PS3 and Xbox 360. The studio’s fan base has swelled considerably and demand is finally in place for more of the studio’s output.

The combined force of From Software’s vastly expanded ‘Souls’ format in Dark Souls and the marketing clout of Namco Bandai – not to mention its infamous ‘Prepare to Die’ slogan – paid off, and according to VGCharts most recent tally, the game has shifted over 1.67 million units worldwide.

Miyazaki offers us his own take on why he feels Dark Souls is a superior game, “One of the main achievements is the feeling of exploration given by the connected multi-level map. Another favourite is that players can share a moment of the bell ringing in online mode. As a creator of the game I have experienced both success and failure but I feel that our policy of creating a game that all gamers, regardless of different nationalities can immerse themselves in, was not wrong and it was supported by our development team.”

Finding a new fire in Dark Souls gives you an overwhelming sense of relief.

The release of Dark Souls was a global event, rather than a staggered spread like Demon’s Souls, so it’s touching that Miyazaki and his team wanted to make something that was globally inclusive. Collaboration with strangers is a key element of the game after all, with in-game messages and a vast Wiki guide community all growing and working together to help everyone beat the game.

It’s hard, so very, very hard, but it’s not the same kind of difficulty that comes with just bumping the challenge up to hard or expert mode. Instead, part of the gruelling experience is learning to be disciplined.

Run hastily around a blind corner, raise your shield too slowly, or simply swing weapons like you’re playing Bayonetta, and you’ll find yourself extremely dead, extremely fast. Discipline is the key, so in many ways your biggest enemy in Dark Souls is yourself.

But when you succeed and land that final killing blow on a particularly tough boss that’s been putting you through hell for hours, man does it feel sweet. Gratification makes the punishment bearable, and few games can match Dark Souls’ level of risk-reward, because everything is a potential risk.

Miyazaki knows it too, and while this angle was entirely deliberate, it wasn’t a sly shot at the easy nature or lack of creativity in the industry today, “what Dark Souls is offering is a feeling of accomplishment. That is the game concept of Dark Souls, so it looks a difficult game. Dark Souls is a game offering a feeling of accomplishment which may be relatively rare among other games nowadays”

“However,” he adds, “this does not mean [the industry] lacks creativity, but a shift of values offered by games. If the game industry lacks creativity, this will result in a stagnation in value that games offer, but I believe that games are still a media providing players with new and diverse value.”

Games today do feel easier than their old-school counterpart – by and large. After all, you wouldn’t take a game like the original 1987 Mega Man and say that something like Halo was easier, because it’s absolutely not. Instead, it’s the context of the challenge that sets them apart.

“I am grateful for all who have played and highly evaluated Dark Souls, and honestly glad of the fact that people say it was a success.”

One tasks you with memory mapping stages and hazards, while the other tests your ability to react on the fly. So which is Dark Souls? It’s both, and in greater measure, which understandably resulted in many players abandoning it before they really got started.

Regardless, Miyazaki wasn’t prepared to go easy on you, “Ideally I wanted players to feel despair at first and then tiny hope while facing bosses. Enemies that do not drive players hopeless are not fearful at all, and can not offer that feeling of accomplishment once you beat them. Without a tiny piece of hope players may give up facing them. or struggling to beat them up.

Do the latter and you’ll earn yourself the elation that comes with beating the seemingly impossible. It’s seriously worth the heartache just to feel it, and those who have felt it will likely agree that few games can match that same sense of achievement.

Arguably one of the toughest areas of Dark Souls is Sen’s Fortress, a dank, depressing husk of a castle rammed full of thin walkways, swinging blades and merciless rolling boulders. We ask Miyazaki to explain himself for his crimes against humanity, “I personally enjoyed designing connections of the overall map, and the trap of the giant rolling ball. Our development team called it “Mugen Goro goro” that means ‘endless rolling’ in Japanese.

We ask Miyazki if he can shed light on any elements of Dark Souls that were perhaps chopped or changed radically, but as is the nature of From Software, he’s cautious of giving too much away, “As for evolution through the development process I remember that the location of Darkroot Garden was changed by the development term. The dungeon was actually placed to be reached after Anor Londo.”

Whatever its final form, Dark Souls has upset, frustrated, depressed and brought joy to gamers across the world. It’s a testament that people are willing to give new ideas a chance, and more importantly, to trust in relatively unknown Japanese quantities like From Software in the West.

But as From Software are now known to a wider, global audience, could Miyazaki see his team returning for a third ‘Souls’ game? He tells us that while he would jump at the chance if fans demand was there, the decision is ultimately, not his to make.

However, Miyazaki is a man humbled by the success of a game that is basically designed to grind you down into the ground, before giving you the gift of short-lived accomplishment, “I am grateful for all who have played and highly evaluated Dark Souls, and honestly glad of the fact that people say it was a success.”

What’s your view? Share your best and worst Dark Souls moments with us below.

Dark Souls: Artorias of the Abyss launches on PS3 and Xbox 360 across Europe October 24.