[11 April 2014]
Years ago I wrote about how Demon’s Souls represented the future of survival horror because of how it evoked the same sense of helplessness as that common video game subgenre, but in the context of an action game. I wrote that after playing the game for several hours, but not getting very far into it that I still hadn’t gotten comfortable with the world. Now, after having put days into both Dark Souls games, I realize that I was ignoring how empowering the action can be and how it is that empowerment that drives you to confront the horrors of the game. Dark Souls (and by extension Demon’s Souls) is still a great survival horror game, but it’s also a great action game. It succeeds at both genres because it doesn’t try to mix the two. Instead, Dark Souls uses a much maligned trick of level design to give each genre its time to shine.
The key element in this trick is “backtracking,” the process of moving through the same environment multiple times. It’s our constant backtracking that allows Dark Souls (or more specifically Dark Souls II, but let’s be honest, they’re pretty much the same game design-wise) to be a wonderful template for the popular and ever-tricky action/horror game.
The first time that we enter a new area it’s frightening because we’re surrounded by unknowns—strange new enemies in a strange new landscape filled with strange new traps—and it is here that the famed difficulty of the Souls game is important: We’re scared of these unknowns because they’re genuinely dangerous. Our fear isn’t just based on creepy aesthetics and psychological tricks but on the practical considerations, safety being the dominant one.
You will die, the unknowns will kill you, and you will run through the level again and again and again, and in that process, you’ll learn that level. You’ll learn all its nooks and crannies and secrets and shortcuts, you’ll learn its enemies (how to fight them, where to fight them, when to fight them), and throughout all of this, the once frightening unknowns become familiar and cease to be scary. It’s this repetition, this backtracking, that allows Dark Souls to morph from a horror game into an action game, and that evolution from one genre to the next is thrilling to experience because it represents a growth in our character and in ourselves. We’re not just killing scary looking monsters, we’re killing scary looking monsters that once slaughtered us, and more than that, we’re killing them with confidence. All horror games demand that we confront our fear in order to progress, but Dark Souls is the one horror games that demands that we overcome our fears to progress. Then, we beat a boss, enter a new area with new unknowns, and the cycle repeats.
It’s an incredibly effective structure, but it’s also a difficult structure to copy because it’s so reliant on repetition, and most games (and gamers) abhor repetition. A vast majority of horror games, even those of the genre’s celebrated past, contain levels that are designed to be played through once. They’re singular experiences that lose their effectiveness with each subsequent playthrough. That means action/horror games have to find a way to cram their action and their horror into the same environment, which invites tonal conflicts.
To be fair, Dead Space and Dead Space 2 were also great action/horror games that used ammo to determine your current genre. They would drip feed you ammunition for an hour until you were packing serious heat, then you’d enter a large room and all hell would break loose, forcing you to run and shoot until you were left with just a few bullets and a neurotic paranoia that another horde was around every corner. It was effective. Unfortunately Dead Space 3 was nothing like that, it was just an action game, but it was also what Dead Space needed to become.
The difference between Dead Space and Dark Souls is that the action and empowerment of Space is based on spectacle, and spectacle can’t repeat itself or it loses its power. Each sequel has to increase the spectacle, and that inevitably overwhelms the horror. The action and empowerment of Souls, on the other hand, is based on strength, on our victory over a stronger foe. Each sequel (and really each boss) has to increase in strength, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that your foe has to get bigger, just stronger. The first boss in Dark Souls 2 is a literal giant who is not very tough. The next boss is a knight not much larger than your own character who is a royal pain in the ass. Spectacle is tied to size, strength is not, which means the template of Dark Souls is more sustainable in the long run as an action/horror franchise.
The Souls games are good at evoking fear, tension, and anxious excitement, but such horror will always be a niche genre. The popularity of the Souls games mainly stems from its action elements, from that empowering thrill of overcoming horror, and that process is only possible because each genre is allowed to be separated. They are not forced into an uncomfortable union. Instead, they’re allowed to bleed into each other, which provides a smooth transition from horror to action and back again—over and over and over. And even when it ends, it just begins again in New Game+. It’s an endlessly repeatable template.