The World Design of Dark Souls | Boss Keys


There are a lot of memorable moments in Dark
Souls, but there’s one very specific part that stuck out for me. After arriving in Firelink Shrine, you venture
into the Undead Berg, fight the Taurus Demon on the bridge, narrowly avoid getting roasted
alive by a dragon, find your way to the Undead Parish, fight past giant soldiers in the church,
take this random elevator down, and arrive all the way back at… Firelink Shrine. It’s at this moment you realise that the
world of Dark Souls is very different to most other games. It’s not a linear series of zones – but
a complex, maze-like world that branches off into different areas, then loops back around
on itself through shortcuts and elevators. It seems to snap together like a fancy 3D
jigsaw puzzle, and exploring this world feels like navigating a Metroid map, or a Zelda
dungeon. Which is why I’m dedicating this special
spin-off episode of Boss Keys to the world of Dark Souls 1. I’m going to be looking at how this world
is put together, the advantages and disadvantages of non-linear world design, and how Dark Souls
has even more in common with Zelda than you might think. So, buckle up and come with me, Mark Brown,
on a journey to the fantasy kingdom of Lordran. To start, we should identify the basic structure
of Dark Souls. And I think this game fits quite neatly into
five distinct acts. There’s the intro, in the Undead Asylum,
where we learn the ropes and defeat the first boss: the Asylum Demon. Then, for act two, we’re in Lordran proper
and must ring the two bells of awakening. One can be found after we fight the Bell Gargoyles
on top of the Undead Parish, and the other is behind Quelaag, down in Blighttown. You can do these in either order, but most
first time players will do the church first. Then, for act three, it’s off to Sen’s
Fortress – which is a sort of nightmare funhouse. And then we head to Anor Londo, where we fight
Ornstein and Smough, and receive the Lordvessel. Now, in act four, the game tasks you with
retrieving the four Lord Souls. These are collected by defeating bosses who
are found in new areas – but ones that are just off from places you may have visited
before: there’s Gravelord Nito in the Valley of the Giants, Seath the Scaleless in Duke’s
Archives, the Four Kings in New Londo Ruins, and The Bed of Chaos in Lost Izaleth. These often have other bosses along the way,
like Sif and Pinwheel, and all of this can be done in absolutely any order you like. When you’ve got all four, it’s on to the
final area and the last boss, Gwyn: Lord of Cinder, for act five. So, I think this works really nicely. Acts 1, 3, and 5 are very linear and have
a sense of forward momentum to them. While acts 2 and 4 are more open, and branching. It’s an accordion like structure that is
actually… very familiar. You see, the basic outline of Dark Souls is
near identical to the basic outline… of Zelda: A Link to the Past. In that game there’s an intro, and then
some early dungeons that can be done out of order. Then the path constricts for Hyrule Castle,
but then branches out widely as you re-explore old areas, now with access to the dark world,
to tackle the tougher dungeons in largely whatever order you like. Then the path constricts one final time for
the battle against Ganon. Perhaps it’s not surprising, given how Souls
creator Hidetaka Miyazaki has spoken about his admiration for the Zelda series, but I
think it’s a very interesting parallel nonetheless. But then again, while this does describe the
path that most players take – this isn’t a completely accurate portrayal of how Dark
Souls is laid out. You can actually do lots of stuff out of order. You can kill Pinwheel at any time after arriving
in Lordran, you can kill Sif and the Four Kings before ever visiting Anor Londo, and
you can kill the Ceaseless Discharge as soon as you’ve finished off Quelaag. And you can skip some of these bosses entirely. If you take a secret route to Blighttown through
Darkroot Basin, you can skip the Capra Demon and the Gaping Dragon. If you help out Solaire you can skip the Demon
Firesage and the Centipede Demon. And if you choose the Master Key as your initial
gift, you can even dodge the Taurus Demon. There sure a lot of Demons in this game. They should have called it Demon’s Sou…oh wait. Uh, plus, there are also four entirely optional
bosses – Moonlight butterfly, Stray Demon, Crossbreed Priscila, and Dark Sun Gwyndolin – that have
no impact on the structure of the game whatsoever. They just give you cool goodies. So the structure of Dark Souls really looks
more like… this. Not quite as attractive, is it? But it’s
a good visual reminder that Dark Souls is a game with lots of branching paths. Like, when you get to the Undead Parish you
can explore the church, or go fight the Moonlight Butterfly in Darkroot Garden, or fight this
hydra in Darkroot Basin, or go off into the Lower Undead Berg and explore from there. And right from the very beginning of the game,
in Firelink Shrine, the player is expected to travel up to the Undead Berg but you can,
instead, head to the Catacombs, or New Londo Ruins. All of this gives Dark Souls a very liberating
and adventurous feeling. You rarely get the sense that you’re on
a predetermined path – but, instead, you’lre making your own decisions and following your
curiosity through the world. And while some of these areas are complete
dead ends in terms of overall game progression, there are often items in these late game areas
that you can get early if you’re brave enough. Even a low level player can find the useful
Fire Keeper Soul in New Londo Ruins. And then run out of there in fear. That’s because the area is filled with ghosts
that can’t be killed with conventional weapons. Likewise, the catacombs are filled with regenerating
skeletons who will probably kill you if you’re at a low level. But getting killed is a good way to create
a lasting memory in the player’s brain. If you go into the Catacombs and get wrecked
by skeletons, you’ll spend the next 10 hours of the game thinking about coming back to
tackle that area when you’re at a higher level. Which is handy – because that’s where one
of the four lords is hiding. Now, as i said before, Lordran doesn’t just branch
out but it also loops back on itself, with connecting points between many of the game’s
locations. Knock down this ladder, for example, and you
not only get to rest at an old bonfire – but can quickly skip all of this stuff to quickly
get from the Undead Berg to the bridge to the Undead Parish. And then look at Firelink shrine. While it initially connects to Undead Berg,
the Catacombs, and New Londo Ruins – later in the game it will also connect up to the
Undead Parish and the Lower Undead Berg. This is achieved through doors that only open
from one side. So, when you first move through this aqueduct
just off Firelink Shrine, you’ll find a locked door. But later in the game, you’ll permanently
open it from the other side. This means you’re not overwhelmed with options
and branching paths at the beginning – but as the game goes on, the world becomes steadily
more complex. So keeping the connected world of Dark Souls
in your head is a difficult job, especially because the game has no map screen whatsoever
– perhaps a throwback to NES games like Metroid 1 and the first Zelda. But there’s a quiet satisfaction in being
able to navigate this complex kingdom through memory alone. Whether that’s figuring out the best way
to get between two areas, or remembering the location of, say, Andre the Blacksmith, or
the shopkeeper who sells Purging Stones – and then knowing how to get there efficiently
and safely This sort of spatial memory is reminiscent
of games like Resident Evil, where a big part of the challenge is creating efficient pathways
between areas in the Spencer Mansion. That sensation is largely gone in the other
Souls games, where you can simply fast travel between areas, or wrap back to some central
hub to find all the shops and upgrade stations. I much prefer the way it’s done in Dark
Souls 1 because not being able to warp around also creates a pretty strong feeling of isolation
and, I suppose you could say, homesickness, when you venture deep into certain areas. Going further and further into the Catacombs
or Blighttown, feels legitimately unnerving as you’re moving further and further away
from safety and familiarity – and if you want to return to the surface, you’ll have to
literally climb back out. You can’t just warp. I feel like you also gain a much better understanding
of the world by exploring on foot. And what a world it is. The extremely vertical nature of Lordran lends
itself to an initial sensation of going deeper and deeper. The game practically trolls you, giving you
a place called The Depths that isn’t even close to being the lowest point in the game. That area drops down to Blighttown, which
drops down to Demon Ruins, and down to Lost Izaleth. This give the world a real sense of history. Stuff built on top of other stuff. Strata. And then, in stark contrast, Sen’s Fortress
and Anor Londo, are are all about climbing up, higher and higher, which has a very different
feeling. You get a sense of ascension. Rising action. It makes you feel heroic. Miyazaki has said “After ringing the bells
and overcoming the traps of Sen’s Fortress I really wanted to player to feel ‘Yes! I’ve made it’.” It’s worth noting, however, that Dark Souls
does not ever suffer from a sense of samey-ness – despite the fact that all of the game’s
areas must link up to one another. Each zone still feels distinct – visually,
and often from a gameplay perspective as well. You’ve got the pitch black Tomb of the Giants. The twisting staircases in Duke’s Archives. The hazy pathways of Darkroot Garden. Traps in Sen’s Fortress. Pitfalls in The Depths. Invisible pathways that kinda suck to be honest
in the Crystal Caves. And then Anor Londo – which is clean, pristine,
untouched, and completely different to everything you’ve seen before. Now, choice, non-linearity, branching paths,
and interconnectivity makes for fascinating world design, but it does pose two significant
problems that any game of this sort has to overcome. One, is direction. If the game isn’t super linear and straightforward,
and maybe requires some backtracking, how does the player know where to go? And, I mean, Dark Souls is a famously obtuse
game. There are no waypoints, no compass, no map
screen with a big red X on it. You just have to find things for yourself. For the first major quest, ringing the two
bells of awakening, the execution is… mixed. The first bell is very easy to find. The route to the Undead Parish is largely
straightforward, and the top of a church is a natural place to find a bell. But the second – which is deep down in the
ground, is more tricky to discover. So, the bloke at Firelink Shrine does give
you some help. He’ll say “There are actually two Bells
of Awakening. One’s up above, in the Undead Church. The other is far, far below, in the ruins
at the base of Blighttown.” But the route to Blighttown is hard to find. The main path has you find this key in a location
that you never need to visit, and then open this rather random door on the bridge with
the dragon. Look, if you want to seer a door into the
player’s memory, make it like the crest door in Darkroot Garden, or the massive locked
door at Sen’s Fortress, where Siegmeyer talks about how it’s locked up tight. Those doors are hard to forget, whereas this
tiny wooden door is easy to miss. There is, at least, another route, but this
requires finding a semi-hidden cave in the ramp down to Darkroot Basin and then dashing
through the very difficult Valley of Drakes. Having two routes is good. And of course, forcing the player to actually
explore, read the item descriptions, and venture out into unknown areas is also fun. But I’d say this is a tad too obtuse and
may send players running to a walkthrough. A similar thing happens after finishing Anor
Londo, when you are given a very brief, vague, and non-repeatable cutscene showing three
orange fog gates disappearing throughout the world. Basically, in three random areas throughout
Lordran, there are now zones that you can get to, so you can go off and fight the Four
Lords. I hope you’re in an exploring mood. Luckily, there are probably lots of places
you visited earlier in the game, but ran away from with your tail between your legs, like
New Londo Ruins, the Demon Ruins, and Catacombs. And because you’ve got nothing better to
do, and because beating Ornstein and Smough will make anyone more confident to explore
scary locations, you’ll find yourself back in these areas – and then naturally stumbling
upon the next sections of the game, and the four lords. But at the same time, I do think some cryptic
clues, purchasable hints, and that sort of thing could be good. Wandering around looking for the next area
is only fun until you give up and check a walkthrough, at which point the game’s sense
of mystery just falls away entirely. Anyway. At this point in the game, you’ll have unlocked
something very special. Just like classic Zelda games, you are eventually
given the ability to fast travel, as you can use the Lordvessel to warp between bonfires. In some ways this is good. As you barrel towards the end of the game,
you maybe don’t want to be revisiting old locations and backtracking through finished
areas. You just want to get on with things But I actually think that this is where Dark
Souls can lose some of its magic. Where the first half of the game felt like
an actual world, where I had to think critically about how I would traverse it… the second
half felt like a bunch of disconnected levels. In some ways, the fast travel almost feels
like it was stuck on at the last minute, because the game already has a good way to get around
quickly: the Valley of Drakes. This is an underground network of paths and
bridges that connects New Londo Ruins, Blighttown, Deeproot Basin, and a path that will take
you to Firelink Shrine. The difficulty of the enemies means it’s
largely inaccessible to new players, but experienced players can use it to speed between areas. However, by the time you’re strong enough
to fight these drakes, you’ll have unlocked fast travel – making the area pretty much
useless outside of one trip to collect a few scattered goodies. The designers could also have introduced some
more shortcuts and connection points, such as some speedy way to get from Anor Londo
to the main world. This fast travel also removes a key part of
Metroidvanias, which is the thrill of revisiting old spaces with new abilities and skills. Now, on my first playthrough, I did have to
re traverse Blighttown because the warpable bonfire near Quelaag is hidden behind an illusionary
wall, and I completely missed it. So I needed to backtrack on foot to get down
to the Demon Ruins. And you know what? Beasting my way through an area that once
gave me real trouble was a pretty brilliant feeling that can otherwise be lost in Dark
Souls’s second half. I should note, however, that this can also
be accomplished by having old bosses return as normal enemies. Taking down Capra Demons in two hits, and
the Taurus Demon in four strikes feels pretty good. At least not every bonfire is a warp point,
which still allows for some navigation of the world, and also strategy as to which bonfires
you spend humanity on for kindling. Okay. So the other challenge designers have to overcome
when making non-linear games is dealing with difficulty curves. In Dark Souls, the Four Lords and their respective
areas are roughly the same level of difficulty. Which means you can happily tackle them in
any order – but it also means your character will keep levelling up to the point where
the lords you tackle last will be pushovers. But I, mean, what are the other options here? You could make the bosses have different difficulty
levels but then the player may randomly stumble up on the hardest boss first and get frustrated,
and this basically just creates a largely linear and expected path through what is supposed
to be a completely non-linear act in the game You could theoretically scale the bosses in
relation to the player’s current level. I talked about how Uncharted: Lost Legacy
does something like this in its non-linear Western Ghats chapter, where no matter which
order you climb the three towers, you’ll always face this puzzle in harder and harder
variants, because Naughty Dog magically swaps in the correct puzzle before you get to it. Maybe something like this could work for Dark
Souls. But whatever the case, the actual game keeps
the difficulty curve of this act quite flat: though some areas are arguably a bit tougher
than others. And while this absolutely allows for open
exploration and player choice, in my experience I quickly lost sync with the game’s challenge
and was rampaging through Lost Izaleth like a boss. So this video is mostly about the global level
design of Lordran. About structure and non-linearity and direction. But I do want to touch on more local design
for a spell. I think the defining design philosophy of
Dark Souls is that the designers just want to mess with you at every opportunity. Look at Undead Berg. This enemy snipes you from afar, forcing you
to either be defensive or aggressive. But too aggressive will see you walking into
a trap, as this dude bursts out from behind a wall. Then there’s a section where you have to
dart along a bridge and into a building to avoid firebombs, but then you’re right in
the middle of multiple guys. Then there’s a building where an enemy is
hiding behind a corner. A flaming trap rolling down a staircase. An enemy that can shoot you from atop a tower. It’s a nightmare! The ideal way to play Dark Souls is to move
slowly and carefully, and fight enemies in one-on-one bouts where you have lots of room
to move. But the level design and enemy placement does
everything to mess with this, using thin walkways, archers and spell casters, traps, narrow corridors,
and more. The other consideration that the Dark Souls
designers have to consider is the placement of bonfires. From is quite generous in the early game. but makes you wait longer and longer as you
get deeper into the game. Having zero in New Londo Ruins is a bit of
a bummer, and only having one at the very top of Sen’s Fortress makes the whole ordeal
even more perilous and tense. The world is also dotted with secrets. Pretty much every push to explore will reward
you with some new item, and the glowing white markers challenge you to make tricky jumps,
or lure you into an ambush. One of the biggest secrets though are the
illusory walls. These look like normal walls but then fade
away when you hit them. They actually work a lot like the bombable
walls in Zelda 1, in that they are genuine secrets and not clearly signposted “secrets”. But we’ve come a long way since 1986. So you don’t have to waste bombs – but at
the same time, the fact that hitting walls degrades your weapons will stop you from having
to hit every wall you see. Also, everything is optional. You don’t need to whack a single illusory
wall to finish the game. And the clever note system in the game means
other players will be able to point out these walls, though often with some good-natured
trolling. These walls generally hide bonfires and treasures,
but also an entire area; The Great Hollow, and its nearby Ash Lake. To be honest, one of the most remarkable things
about Dark Souls is that it is happy to hide huge amounts of content in areas that some
players will just never find. Take the Painted World of Ariamis, which is
one of the most intriguing areas of the game but to get there you need to roll off a moving
elevator, make a difficult jump, and roll up in a ball in a bird’s nest. This lets you fight a secret boss, get a special
item, and then present it to a painting on the other side of the world. I mean ultimately you’ll just find out about
it on the internet – but still, it’s cool, and lends the world a sense of mystery and
surprise. So the world of Dark Souls 1 is pretty special. Branching paths let you explore by following
your curiosity. Non-linearity lets you create your own adventure,
and is perfect for second playthroughs and speedruns. The interconnected pathways encourage you
to memorise the geography and architecture of the world. The lack of fast travel makes every journey
feel more perilous. And the game’s accordion structure offers
both moments of exploration and moments of forward propulsion. But this sort of world design creates interesting
problems for designers when it comes to difficulty curves and direction: and Dark Souls isn’t
perfect in either regard. Plus, the late game switch to fast travel
takes away from one of the game’s most interesting factors. Instead of trying to perfect this structure
in future games, though, From Software largely ditched this sort of interconnected world
design in the Dark Souls sequels, and Bloodborne. I mean, these games do still thrill with their
level design. The sequels are arguably more complex from
a local perspective, as an area like Yarnham is a loopy, branching maze-like miniature
Lordran – even if the overall world map is more linear. And there are also lots of shortcuts that
take you back to Bonfires and Lamps, which provides that warm and fuzzy feeling of knowing
where you are. Plus, there are still many optional bosses,
moments of non-linearity, and opportunities for backtracking. But it’s never been quite the same as Dark
Souls 1. It’s not like using your brain to figure
out the quickest way to get from Darkroot Garden to New Londo Ruins. Or stumbling down some random cave and accidentally
skipping two boss fights. Or taking an elevator from the Undead Parish,
and suddenly finding yourself back in Firelink Shrine. So here’s hoping that, one day, From Software
might revisit this very special flavour of world design that it showed, in Lordran. Hey! Thanks for watching. This is a one-off episode so please
don’t expect future videos on the world design of Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls 3 or Bloodborne or whatever. Never say never, but it’s not something
I’m planning right now. Instead, I’ll be tackling a different franchise
for Boss Keys season 2. I’ll see you then. Thanks so much to my Patrons for making this sort of content possible.

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