Dark Souls' grand vision

31st Jan 2012 | 09:21

Despite the relentless influx of new titles always coming to market, there are some games that we just can’t seem to permanently eject from the console. Dark Souls has a way of stubbornly finding its way back into rotation. After spending roughly 120 hours living – and dying, and dying, and dying – in the dark-fantasy world of Lordran, returning to a place filled with so many indelible experiences offers a nostalgic headrush on par with visiting the home in which you grew up.

Dark Souls' grand vision

Despite the relentless influx of new titles always coming to market, there are some games that we just can’t seem to permanently eject from the console. Dark Souls has a way of stubbornly finding its way back into rotation. After spending roughly 120 hours living – and dying, and dying, and dying – in the dark-fantasy world of Lordran, returning to a place filled with so many indelible experiences offers a nostalgic headrush on par with visiting the home in which you grew up.

Here, we sit down with Dark Souls creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki to discuss the game’s design and artistic vision in more granular detail.

This interview discusses enemies and tactics from later on in the game, and as such contains spoilers.

How much did having the existing template of Demon’s Souls help ease the development burden of Dark Souls?
There were definitely many areas in Dark Souls’ production that were made easier due to Demon’s Souls, but on other hand, there were many areas that were pulling us back and were quite difficult to handle, so overall it wasn’t all that easy. We experimented a lot with the system, and also removed the server. On the surface they may seem to be similar, but we put a lot of effort into the content of Dark Souls so it was rather difficult. Plus there were a lot of expectations from fans because of Demon’s Souls so it probably made things more difficult in certain ways.


Creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki

The vast, seamless world of Lordran is one of the game’s greatest achievements. What kind of design principles guided its construction?
Because the entire world in Dark Souls is connected, it had to look natural as players walk from one area of the map to the next. However, we didn’t want to bore players by having everything just look the same, so our design process this time was executed with emphasis on providing variation in the map within a reasonable scope and introducing changes naturally.

Demon’s Souls was divided into five sections and therefore we were able to simply cut things into five pieces. However, this time we were actively considering how to connect everything together and lose that sense of disconnection. We tried to take advantage of the continuity by letting players feel the differences as they travel from one area to another. The idea was that the higher-up area would be more beautiful, more fantastic, then as you literally walked down the stairs into a deeper, nasty, muddy area like Blighttown, you’d be able to experience the change. If you’re just jumping between areas, you immediately see the contrast but you don’t feel the change gradually happening.

When we journeyed down past Blighttown through the tree hollow to Ash Lake, it felt like the bottom of the world and this dread settled over us, this claustrophobic feeling of not being sure if we’d ever make it back to the surface.
I’m glad that you were able to feel that. The journey and the exploration is a big part of this game – going deeper, deeper, deeper. Getting the feeling of not being able to come back up is definitely something that we wanted players to feel, that gloomy emotional side of what we were trying to express in the game.

We kept thinking our descent had hit rock bottom and then another stratum would open up. Did it become a game on the development side to see how many times you could surprise the player in this way?
A lot of information has already surfaced about the game’s world, but we wanted players to feel like there was no end to the hole or how far down you could go. The idea was to have a stage that was called something like The Bottom Of The World, but then you find out that there’s an even lower level, and then another even lower level, and after you beat that boss then there’s still another level below. We wanted players to experience the surprise of not knowing where the world ends.

Critics writing about the game have called you ‘cruel’ and ‘sadistic’ – to mention a few of the more polite adjectives. Are those fair accusations, given the game’s extreme difficulty?
If I had to say for myself, it’s actually the opposite – I’m more masochistic. Because I created Dark Souls while thinking about what type of game I would personally like to play. I wanted somebody to bring out a really sadistic game, but I ended up having to make it myself.

You obviously had a very clear personal vision of what the Dark Souls world looked like. How did you translate it for the designers on your team?
For the most part, I directly communicate with each designer. In terms of the design work, I really wanted refined work, so I asked all the designers not to design anything indecent with too much blood or gore. For example, I consider anything grotesque or full of blood to be indecent, so I told them to stay away from it. Therefore, we’ve made everything, even the evil village [in Blighttown], with refining finishing touches. We collectively do not believe that anything disgusting will work, and that’s how we approached our designs.

The basilisk scampering around in The Depths is pretty grotesque.
I make fun of the Basilisk because he has large eyeballs but spits poison. I’m rather fond of his character because of it, but players don’t like him. Even during play testing, there were many players who didn’t like the Depths, so we created a method of clearing the game even if you don’t clear the Depths. I wanted the player’s gameplay to become the story itself, so his fossilisation and curse are a calamity that has fallen to the player rather than just being a simple plot point.

Given your refusal to compromise the game’s difficulty in so many other respects, was it a hard decision to nerf the curse’s stacking ability in a subsequent patch?
We may have gone a bit overboard with the curse. Once you reached a quarter of your health bar, we didn’t think that anybody would be cursed further than that, and they’d be able to cure themselves. We expected very few people to reach 1/8th or 1/16th of their health, but it turns out a lot of people found themselves in that situation. When we balanced the game, we had all our testers play it, but after a certain amount of playing, test players get immune to all the difficulty in the game. We didn’t think it would ever happen. For people who did get cursed down to 1/8th or 1/16th health prior to the patch, I’ll say this: it’s an important experience you’ve had with the game.

Speaking of memorable experiences, whose idea was it to have the Black Knight archers perched on the cathedral ledge in Anor Londo?
I think I was the one who placed that obstacle. I wanted to place some obstacles that people would remember and talk about. The archers can be poisoned, so if you hit them with a poison arrow and wait a while, they will die if it isn’t treated. Including these kind of cheap strategies, I want people to have fun with strategising.

Our strategy was equally cheap. We rolled under his arrow and got him to fall off the ledge. It can be comical watching enemies leap to their doom. Did you design those behaviours to be exploited?
Yes, that was definitely something that was intentional. There’s one approach to combat that involves a head-to-head collision, but luring enemies and using cheap strategies is one of the joys of this game as well.

Certain areas of Dark Souls – particularly in the New Londo Ruins and Blighttown – suffered from crippling frame-rate drops. Did the scope of some of these environments prove difficult to manage on the technical side?
Yes, there were technical difficulties. I don’t believe that it’s okay to have them, but realistically speaking, it was quite a large-scale game – even in terms of budget and expectations. So we’re very sorry for the trouble we’ve caused by our processing errors and bugs from Japan. It was a title that we haven’t really experienced in all aspects, so there were areas where we felt our technical side couldn’t keep up with the game’s scope, like an increasingly growing ache. I didn’t mind the growing pains. We accept the game as it is, and that it’s just a part of the learning curve.

Are there any discussions underway about making another game set in the Dark Souls universe?
We don’t even know if we’ll have another chance. We have the confidence that we can improve from our mistakes this time and create an even better Dark world, but we don’t know if the users will forgive us for the mistakes, so I cannot give an exact answer.

Before we wrap up, what are your top three RPGs of all time?
Legend of Zelda: Link To The Past, Dragon Quest III, Wizardry, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivionand Magic The Gathering.

A true RPG fan can’t stop at just three, right?
[laughs] Exactly, there are a lot of great RPGs out there.

From Software Design Level design Dark Souls Action Adventure PlayStation 3 Hidetaka Miyazaki
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