Writing about Dark Souls was always going to be a difficult task. Published in 2011, the game quickly became one of the most influential and beloved ever made, and for good reason. The theme of my last article was “the artistic potential of games”, approaching the question from a more theoretical standpoint. In this article, I intend to use Dark Souls to illustrate one singular, but specific, point. It seems almost criminal not to discuss a broader selection, but with this game arguably being one of the greatest of all time, there are just too many facets and too many disparate elements to discuss in one short article. So instead, I’m going to focus solely on how the game achieves immersion.
Dark Souls takes place in the fallen world of Lordran. It’s a world populated by the dead, the dying, and the insane, and even those few with remaining sanity are cursed to become undead. Thus, the undead you fight aren’t simply standard enemies, as the game constantly reminds you that only a few steps separate you from them. Both narratively and mechanically, Dark Souls refuses to spoon feed you, and plunges you into this decaying and depressing world with a seemingly impossible task that thousands before you have failed – to rekindle the dying flame that has been keeping the world alive. It’s dark, it’s depressing, but at the same time the most atmospheric world I’ve ever played in.
So how does any of this help facilitate player immersion? Well, immersion is essentially the extent to which the player considers the world he’s playing in to be believable, to feel real, or perhaps to put it another way – it’s about how little you’re able to question the world around you, the extent to which it allows the player to suspend his disbelief. Dark Souls achieves this by combining all of its various elements together to contribute towards an over-bearing, oppressive tone. It’s a fundamentally difficult world – that’s half of what the game has built its reputation off – and only part of that is achieved through traditional, mechanical difficulty. It’s also difficult to actually piece together a narrative from the world around you. Sometimes the clue to what happened to a particular building or character can be found in the name of an unrelated item halfway across the world, sometimes in a scorch-mark on the floor, sometimes as part of a fleeting line of dialogue – the game never hands anything to you easily, and has thereby become one of the most tonally satisfying games ever made. It’s a rewarding, implicit narrative philosophy – it’s blink-and-you-miss-it, minimalistic storytelling, and it’s woven into the very landscape and architecture of the world.
This sort of narrative philosophy is successful in immersing the player because, although it’s often hidden rather than explicitly provided, at the same time it also manifests itself as a shockingly expanded lore. You will never access most of the narrative depth behind this world, but there are constant demonstrations that said depth is there to find. Lead designer Hidetaka Miyazaki intentionally leaves narrative breadcrumb trails, such that understanding the story is in many ways harder than the notoriously challenging gameplay itself. But with every clue pieced together, the world becomes more immersive and organic. As with the incredible sense of achievement from overcoming adversity that the gameplay provides, realisations and understandings of the story become their own rewards.
One of the other elements that contribute towards an overbearing tone, a resoundingly depressing atmosphere, is Miyazaki’s use of architecture and landscape in Dark Souls. The world often contains expansive settings such as cathedrals, not just because the gothic-esque locations beautifully add to the Dark Souls theme of fallen glory, but also because they provide the perfect example of the game’s discretely complex relationship between narrative and landscape. Especially when used with a technique called “Contract and release”, borrowed from contemporary architectural practice (in which small, constricted spaces give way suddenly to a vast, cavernous open area), settings like cathedrals can seem threatening in their enormity – a belittling reminder of the relative unimportance of the protagonist in the context of the gigantic world around him. Often this environment mirrors the gameplay – small, protected corridors offering a feeling of safety before opening into a vast, dangerous boss area. “Contract and release” is a technique well-employed in other games as well, such as in the opening segment of Bioshock, where the opening, context-providing cut-scene is instead shown diegetically on a screen inside the claustrophobic safety of an underwater pod, eventually opening into the underwater city of Rapture.
Dark Souls is a notoriously and overwhelmingly difficult game, but at the same time fundamentally fair – it fosters in its players an almost masochistic enjoyment of dying, of being outsmarted – every time you’re beaten, you know that it was preventable, you attempt to devise a different strategy, a different way of facing the problem, a way of getting around a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. It’s a glorious example of successful game design, of interweaving elements that beautifully compliment each other. If you haven’t played it yet, I honestly can’t think of a game I would recommend more highly.