Little Things in a Big World: Terrain, Proportion, and Mobility in Dark Souls
by Joel Jordon
Dark Souls is keen on ensnaring the player in its many environmental traps. In one area, after the player goes carelessly to grab some treasure, the floor gives out and drops him or her down to not just a pit but a pit within a pit that contains poisonous water and a number of many-eyed squid creatures. Because the poisonous water not only poisons the player but also slows his or her movement down drastically, these squids’ attacks are very difficult to avoid, and one of their attacks involves spraying acid that actually breaks the player’s equipped weapons and armor, making them useless until repaired. If the player still manages to kill these enemies somehow, he or she is nonetheless stuck wandering while poisoned in this pit within a pit and will find only what appear to be two more pits—these ones bottomless—and no escape. These two pits turn out to have thin areas on the sides of them that can be walked along, and the walls that appear to be directly behind them turn out to be set slightly back to make room for hallways that open up to ascending stairways, but by the time the player discovers these, the game has already thoroughly proven the environment is in control here.
Floors constantly give out in Dark Souls, sending the player tumbling to unknown environments from which he or she must figure out how to escape. Even when not being propelled forcefully downward, though, a lot of the game is spent moving further and further underground. These labyrinthine underground environments wrap around the player, inducing claustrophobia. Occasionally, the game creates the opposite sensation, as in the agoraphobic Anor Londo, a majestic city that evokes evil royalty with its huge open spaces leading up to a monumental building. Even here, though, the player is forced, the first time he or she arrives, to enter the back way and walk dangerously on top of a thin buttress that connects to a broken window opening into the top of a tall church; the player must then walk across even thinner paths making up the support for the roof while enemies throw daggers at him or her, the whole thing reminiscent of the brilliant bridge scene in Half-Life 2. Terrain across which the player can actually move is often limited and only dangerously crossed. The environment always seems to be setting out to show the player it is his or her most treacherous foe.
Jumping, an action so fundamental to games there’s a whole genre for it, doesn’t usually help much in navigating the dangerous environments of Dark Souls. Executing a jump, for one, is far more difficult than just pressing a button like in Mario. It requires holding a button down, pushing the analog stick in a direction to gain speed, letting go of the button, and then tapping the button again. Before that last button press, the analog stick has to have been pushed in precisely the right direction, because also unlike in Mario, the player relinquishes all control once in the air.
Even if the player can perform this accurately, jumps aren’t actually high enough to help him or her climb up to anywhere. The jump is used exclusively to cross gaps horizontally. The environment controls whether ascension is allowed in any given place by providing a stairway or a ladder or not. But if jumping doesn’t help much, the game’s frequently downward-expanding environments often mean its opposite—falling—does. This couldn’t be more appropriate: it’s the ultimate in relinquishing control.
It’s hard to aim a drop onto a platform below, and it’s not really possible to accurately measure one’s distance from it. After stepping off or rolling off a cliff, the player can no longer do anything to the controller to change where he or she will land, and these drops usually end in either death or the discovery of treasure.
Mechanically, much of Dark Souls is about committing to a move and giving up control to it. Interactivity is what makes games emotive in a way unique from other mediums, but Dark Souls shows that disabling interactivity at the right times (with something more appropriate than a cutscene) can actually heighten tension and increase the importance of making the right decisions when in control. This is all the combat is: a contest of timing between the player and the enemy, in which both are simply choosing when to drop their shields and commit to attack. Until an attack animation has played to its completion, the player or enemy has no control and is vulnerable to being attacked him- or herself.
But although the player may find him- or herself in this precarious space between interactivity and noninteractivity often, Dark Souls is, more than anything, a game of exploration in the tradition of Metroid and Castlevania. The giant game world opens up slowly and branches outward, allowing the player to explore and find shortcuts connecting one area to another and sometimes even to the safe zone of the first area of the game. Old and new areas can often be seen in the distance, always indicating that this whole world actually fits together logically and spatially.1
This overwhelming sense of unity is matched by a sense of scale, which is created not only by the game’s environments but also by the enemies populating them, many of which are much larger than the player. The player can sometimes find versions of normal enemies, such as rats and skeletons, that are scaled up to enormous size. These giants otherwise look exactly the same as their smaller counterparts, which can make the first sight of them both horrifying and hilarious. A scene in this game’s prequel, Demon’s Souls, even makes use of optical illusion to trick the player into believing a large enemy is a small one. After fighting a series of relatively easy enemies, the player can see what appears to be another enemy of the same type up ahead. But this one is framed in the entryway to a building, the interior of which cannot be seen by the player from where he or she is standing so that it’s impossible to get a sense of this enemy’s proportions by comparison to other elements of the environment. Having been trained to believe he or she can easily handle this type of enemy because a series of them have just been dealt with previously, the unsuspecting player usually approaches this one without much caution, only to discover it’s much larger (and more powerful) than the others.2
The player-avatar’s small size next to all the dangers in this world creates the atmosphere to go with the game’s cycles of punishment and reward. The contrast in proportions promises, in an immediate visual way, from the very beginning, that this is going to be an uphill battle. But success is thoroughly rewarded, as it should be. The player is, after all, only a small, lonesome thing in this big world.
1 The only time this isn’t true is in the final area of the game, which is underground, directly beneath the first area of the game, but has a sky. This is used to dazzlingly disorienting effect.
2 See this here.