“You died” is what players read whenever they fall victim to the large variety of monstrosities or traps from From Software’s Dark Souls 3 (2016). The video game is marketed as difficult, and it very well is. However, it offers more than just challenging gameplay. The Dark Souls franchise tells a tale of a world in turmoil, a fading fire, and the mad effort to keep it going. This all taking place in the well-known theme of medieval fantasy with schemas of knights, dragons, and castles. In this paper, I will be looking primarily at two concepts I’ve found using Clara Fernandez-Vara’s formal analysis techniques from Game Analysis. The first one is how From Software uses the survival horror framework and visuals to immerse the player in their world. The second concept is how the game is structured heavily on Eastern Asian ideas of reincarnation and cycles. In relation to the first concept, I will first discuss how the survival horror genre generally engages the player and how Dark Souls 3 fits into that mold. Then, I will discuss the relationship between the player and the game, in regards to visual qualities, such as setting and enemy representation. Finally, for the second concept, I will mix the two aspects of gameplay and visuals to discuss how the idea of reincarnation and cycles play an important role in the game.
Wait… So it’s a Survival Horror game?
Dark Souls 3, or even the two games before it, isn’t really known as survival horror. Game franchises like Resident Evil or Dead Space are usually the prime examples when people want to explain what the genre is. So, to revisit the initial question, whether or not Dark Souls 3 is a survival horror game, I will explore gameplay mechanics and how it engages the player. Starting with its core rules.
Rules of gameplay largely revolve around getting “souls” or experience from killing enemies. These souls, then, can be used to increase your character’s stats so that traversing the next area will be easier. Off the bat, it seems like the Dark Souls franchise should be classified more as an adventure RPG (role-playing game) with these gameplay elements. However, Laurie Taylor (2009) writes “as with other genres, survival horror is the child of many other genres, notably adventure, but also including action, horror (without the survival component), and the Gothic.” She also points out how survival horror gameplay is more about “surviving rather than thriving” (Taylor, 2009). Arguably, Dark Souls 3 is just that. With the way the game is marketed as difficult, the player finds his or herself trying to stay alive from one checkpoint to the next. The use of checkpoints, or what is diegetically known as bonfires in the world of Dark Souls, is another survival horror gameplay element, that I will cover in the next section.
Level Design and Saved Games
In Dark Souls 3, the ability to save is taken away from the player. Instead, the game has an autosave feature, which triggers when entering certain areas or after death. This is important because it takes control away from the player. There is no way to save and re-load the game in order to undo a mistake. This is crucial in the survival horror framework, as having the ability to “reversing time” detracts from the horror experience. Bernard Perron (2012) writes how in Silent Hill, a classic survival horror franchise, the necessity of moving from one save point to another, or even returning to an early one for safety, creates a sense of tension since the concept of the game is about being afraid to die (Perron, 2012). One thing that Dark Souls does differently then Silent Hill, however, is that death is a diegetic element in the game. The player’s avatar cannot die since they are already dead in the context of the story. Instead, when the player is killed, their avatar is reborn back to the previous checkpoint minus any accumulated and unused experience points (souls). The fear, or tension, felt is not a response toward the on-screen character’s possible death but the possibility of the loss of progress that results from it. The progress lost is both in terms of experience points and the player’s progress towards the next checkpoint, because now they have to re-face each individual enemy and trap to get back to where they died. The player is provided a second chance to recover their lost experience points, by picking them back up at the location of their death, but again, they must survive past the level’s challenging obstacles.
Another aspect of gameplay design that fits the survival horror framework is that the game’s levels are hard-coded, meaning that everything is in the same location for every playthrough. According to Kirkland (2009), architecture, or level design, is very important in the production of survival horror games. The game space is meant to “confuse and confound: (with) mazes of rooms and corridors filled with traps, dead ends and locked doors which the player must navigate” (Kirkland, 2009). Additionally, the point is made that once “players learn their way around these initially-strange environments such spaces lose their uncanny resonance” (Kirkland, 2009). In Dark Souls, death is supposed to be a learning experience, rather than failing for lack of reactionary skill. In theory, the game gets easier once the player becomes more familiar with the environment and its roving enemies. The initial fear created by the game provides the horror aspect in “survival horror,” while overcoming that fear and moving to the next checkpoint provides the former.
In regards to the initial fear felt when experiencing an area for the first time, Dark Souls 3 uses level design similar to previous games across action and horror genres. In the book titled, Rules of Play – Game Design Fundamentals and during the Games as the Play of Pleasure chapter, the authors discuss the game, Half-life. “Much of the success of Half-Life has been attributed to the way that it shapes player experience, creating a thriller-like tension while drawing the player slowly into its dangerous and mysterious spaces” (Salen, Zimmerman, 2004, c. 24, p. 20). This can be said for almost all survival horror games, as fear seems to be more effective when built up slowly and letting tensions rise. Salen and Zimmerman (2004) go on to explain how Half-Life changes the structure of “enemy lurking behind every door” to one that creates uncertainty for when an enemy will appear (c. 24, p. 20). Dark Souls 3 also uses this level design method, as in many cases, a player would turn a corner or open a door, and find nothing. Even if there are enemies, usually they are seen well in advance, walking in their slow patrol patterns. However, there are instances where surprises are sprung on players. An ax-wielding thief might fall on top of them from a high place, or players could be close to an edge where an unseen hollow would lunge out and push them off. Again, this design tactic creates a sense of tension, on top of the already mounting fear of moving further and further away from the safety of a checkpoint. This is both for player enjoyment and developer affordance, as “deploying enemies with restraint, creating a sparse pattern of unexpected, horrifying encounters, results in a more powerful experience through the use of fewer game elements” (Salen, Zimmerman, 2004, c. 24, p. 20).
Gap Between the Player and the Game:
Characters in survival horror games are usually created by the developers in order to tell a story about their survival. Even though they are meant to be individuals, with a personality that could be quite different from whoever is playing, the interactivity of video games puts the player in their shoes. Kirkland (2009) mentions this concept, saying that, “the avatar represents the ‘I’ on the screen. It constitutes the means by which the gamespace is engaged with, and acts as the focal point for the player’s sense of embodiment within the virtual space.” Dark Souls takes a step further and allows the player to customize, for themselves, how their avatar looks. This may or may not further add to the feeling of existing within the world, but it could be argued that there is a stronger connection between the character and the player when customization is an option.
Another interesting aspect that adds to the survival horror feel is that opening up the inventory does not pause in-game action. In talking about the first person shooter, DOOM, Roux-Girard (2009) discusses the mechanic’s contribution to survival horror, “This (accessing the inventory in real time) means that monsters roaming in the area can still attack the avatar while the gamer is attempting to select a weapon or to combine some of his items into another. This characteristic forces the gamer to carefully plan his attacks.” The inventory is where many answers to some in-game problems lie and if opening it pauses the game, this allows the player to deliberate options during the action, which detracts from the encounter. Dark Souls itself has enemies with weaknesses or vulnerabilities to certain weapons. Pausing gives players time to think, which again, hinders the survival horror experience.
Game Difficulty, Dynamics, and Value of Exploration.
Dark Souls 3 handles game difficulty differently than most games. Due to its marketing, and its appeal to people who enjoy challenging games, From Software cannot merely add in a slider that raises or reduces the difficulty. Instead, the game employs a wide variety of mechanics that allow the player to choose how difficult their playthrough is. One example draws on the aspect of being able to customize your avatar. In addition to creating a character’s appearance, the player can choose how to fight. This allows for players to pick a style of play they are more comfortable with. Salen and Zimmerman (2004) talk about the affordance of providing players variations of play, letting them choose their own experiences, and how it appeals to players in most cases (c. 23, p. 10). In Dark Souls, if picking to play as a warrior with a heavy melee weapon, the player effectively plays a reaction game, dodging enemy attacks as they are presented to them. Alternatively, the player might play as a mage or archer, and the gameplay suddenly shifts to a more strategic one, using timing and spacing to deal with enemies. The player might even be able to do both. This allows players to play the way they feel more comfortable with, softening the difficulty somewhat.
There are other gameplay mechanics, such as the ability to summon friends to tackle challenging sections together, that the player has the option of choosing to make the game easier. Players can even decide to make the game harder for themselves using self-hindering methods, like forcing oneself to not using healing items. This framework creates, effectively, an invisible difficulty slider that allows the player to decide how difficult they want the game to be.
The game’s selection of different combat roles has another affordance, besides allowing players to play a certain way. Taylor writes how, “in addition to the changes in the presentation and gameplay, survival horror games also increased replay value by adding additional playable characters and shifting between playable characters” (Taylor, 2009). Dark Souls 3 allows for multiple different playthroughs due to the ability to tinker with character builds. Even though the levels are hardcoded to be the same, each time can be experienced differently using a new character. There is a large variety of weapons and spells which can be experimented with, and due to most being constrained by trait level, such as high dexterity requirements for advanced bows, it is impossible to try them all in one playthrough. With a wide array of combinations, the possibilities of creating a unique experience on each playthrough almost seems endless. In allowing players to experiment with different weapon and skill combinations, there is always a chance for someone to create something unexpected and fun, which also enriches the gameplay experience.
In order to find various weapons, armor, and even magic, Dark Souls 3 requires you to explore its surroundings. Salen and Zimmerman weigh on how game rules affect the player by asking, “how do you teach players what they are supposed to do in the game? Rewards and punishments are one means of shaping their behavior” (Salen, Zimmerman, 2004, c. 24, p. 19). By laying out items, represented as bright, white orbs of light, From Software encourages exploration, allowing the player to fully see the world that they built. On the other hand, due to its survival horror nature, the game also punishes carelessness. The clearest example of this is the “mimic chest.” These are enemies disguised as boxes of loot. Instead of opening one to find a bright orb, meaning an item, the player sees a set of sharp teeth and an enemy that causes a staggering amount of damage. Observant eyes might avoid this by looking to see if the chest is slightly breathing or if the chain attached to it is facing the wrong way. Effectively, the reward for exploration is in conflict with the punishment for being careless. With items scattered around but threats around every corner, the player themselves must weigh the risks and rewards of exploration.
The Horror and, Sometimes, Beauty of Dark Souls
When first starting the game, you might initially get the impression that the setting is a place of melancholy. From the muted colors to the slow movement of your character rising from the grave, all of this gives off the impression of a gloomy atmosphere.
Much of why the color pallet indicates sadness and/or fear is that “for the brightness of images, the greater the color saturation is, the more positive the valence of these feelings is” (Geslin, Jégou, Beaudoin, 2016). Or conversely, the lesser the color saturation, the more negative the valence of these feelings is. This is why, progressing further through the level, when the player reaches a cliff drop-off revealing the sunny landscape of the world, it creates a contrasting image of beauty and thoughts of what the world once was.
Movement, of the player and other beings of the world, also convey a sense of sadness in some places. This is due to the human impression that sadness is expressed through lower movement activity (Wallbott, 1998). In cutscenes showing the player avatar, the character always moves with dramatic slowness, hinting at the melancholy of being undead. In gameplay, however, the player controls the avatar directly, attacking, running, and turning with speed. Conversely, enemy movement is slow in-game, as they shuffle or meander on patrol. Enemy attacks are often exaggerated and slowed, requiring the player to time their dodges effectively to avoid them. However, enemies also mix things up by sometimes attacking with quickness and speed. These brief peaks in movement activity give off the impression of hot anger (Wallbott, 1998), giving more life to the enemies of Dark Souls, and thus a more prominent sense of being dangerous.
The Visual Qualities of Enemies in Dark Souls
One of the most important qualities of what makes survival horror is the representation of the enemies. The hollow soldiers, a standard enemy in Dark Souls 3, are undead, just like the player, except they have decayed and gone made. Their zombie-like appearance is what separates them from the player. Kirkland (2009) writes how people feel “uneasiness concerning the possibility of life in dead things.” The physical appearance of the hollows give a semblance of the “uncanny” as they look to be dead, but they are moving around as if they are alive. This correlates with the psychological notion that “we tend to have an instinctive negative reaction to deformity, decay and certainly operate with underlying schema regarding to threat and danger” (Pinchbeck, 2009). Returning to the last section about movement and emotion, where I said the appearance of more life gives the enemies of Dark Souls a greater notion of being dangerous, both the quickness and burst of life in something dead creates this sense of fear and danger.
Enemies and monsters from Dark Souls use schemas to represent and allow the player easily understand their behaviors. Zombie’s, for instance, are known to shuffle around, look like a corpse, and display no emotion. Hollows in Dark Souls 3 function much the same way, allowing the player to understand their behavior without thinking too much about it. Pinchbeck (2009) states how, “the use of such schema enables a game to utilize prior knowledge and understanding, but they require careful management, as there is the potential for the generation of expectations that are beyond the capacity of the game system to fulfill.” Dragons are another schema that Dark Souls uses. The giant, winged, fire-breathing lizards are very familiar in popular culture, but due to limited game resources, they are usually implemented to block paths using fire, or as a boss in a large, open arena.
Some enemies in Dark Souls do not rely on popular references and often break off from what normally is expected. There are monsters such as a crawling, white torso, which is actually a mass of flesh-eating leeches or a giant dog and lizard looking hybrid that has an abnormally wide jaw with sharp teeth. These unfamiliar visuals of living monstrosities are there to put the player into a feeling of uncomfortable fear. Pinchbeck (2009) writes, “there is also a deeper psychological power of horror that is directly beneficial to defining a specific type of gameplay experience, with particular emphasis upon the manipulation of attention and expectation. By destabilizing our normal conceptual boundaries, encouraging us to enter into a position of reduced power relative to the system, where we surrender a degree of expectational control and accept that things are more sinister and less controllable than they seem, horror helps us forget the boundaries of the screen and plunge into the diegesis, into the dark.” The plunge into unknown dark and unfamiliarity is what many horror visuals try to do. Dark Souls 3 tries to bend and break normality, and this can be most notably seen in the number of challenging boss fights through the game. Many bosses have a second, or even third, phase that changes the pacing or pattern of play. Visually, however, no boss incorporates this idea of breaking reality more so than the first encounter. Iudex Gundyr, looks to be a normal statue of a knight that has come to life. Around the halfway point, though, Gundyr unexpectedly grows a large arm made out of a black, puss-like substance. This corruption of the image of Gundyr introduces the player to the idea that the normal can suddenly be changed, which adds to the element of horror in the visual aesthetics of the game.
Eastern Asian Beliefs of Reincarnation and Cycles
Dark Soul 3’s overarching story simplified is the idea that you, the player, must defeat key bosses in order for you to reach the end, and “link the flame” so that the “age of fire” can continue. The linking of the flame is an event that has progressed since the first game in the franchise. “Dark Souls 3 is the final culmination of the three games where the universe follows medieval and Christian themes, but functions on the basis of Eastern Asian philosophy of the death and reincarnation cycle” (Melnic, Melnic, 2017). The linking of the flame is, itself, a cycle that occurs time and time again, needing a sacrifice in order for the age of fire to continue. However, we see that, through the portrayal of horror visuals in the game, that this is a world which is crumbling and corrupted. Through the schema of medieval fantasy, we might be able to picture what the setting would look like during a better time. It might be said that completing the “fire-linking ritual” will restore order, although the player never really sees this happen. Alternatively, by looking into Eastern Asian beliefs of reincarnation, we might come to the conclusion that repeating the cycle is the wrong thing to do. According to Chandel (2015), many East Asian ideas of reincarnation are based on the principle of leaving the death and rebirth cycle. In Dark Souls 3, there is an ending, which can be achieved through certain means, where the player can choose to not complete the fire-linking ritual and let it fade, thus breaking the cycle.
Gameplay wise, the use of souls as experience almost perfectly aligns with the general belief that, “reincarnation is a concept that souls are continuously reborn in different bodies, times and places” (Chandel, 2015). In gathering souls, the player is gathering knowledge. Their character levels up by converting the souls into skills at the central hub, which then becomes a permanent part of them, to be carried on after death. In an extradiegetic sense, when the player dies and has to return to a previous checkpoint, he or she remembers what had caused their death and can use that knowledge once they are reborn again.
The player uses these souls to then attain a high enough level to beat the game, ultimately ending the cycle of death and rebirth for the player’s avatar. This coincides with the similar belief of the Hindus, the Jainis, the Buddhists and the Sikkhs in the cycle of rebirth. Chandel (2015) writes that “they believe that one will be suffering the cycle of birth and death and rebirth unless the soul attains the purity and reaches the supreme power in its purest form” (Chandel, 2015). The supreme power, in the case of Dark Souls, is gained by beating the game. Even then, unless the player chooses otherwise, the game can go on to “new game +1,” starting over from the beginning while still keeping the same character level and equipment.
Dark Souls 3 uses the survival horror framework to build tension and enhance play by keeping the game engaging. Also, through the use of schemas, the player is treated with visuals that immerse them in the look and feel of the world. Combined, Dark Souls 3 ultimately tells their story and portrays Eastern Asian concepts of reincarnation and cycles. While I did not cover all of Clara Fernandez-Vara’s formal analysis rules and captured all the ways Dark Souls 3 engages with the player, we can still see how the use of gameplay, schemas, and, ultimately, culture can influence a games development and player perceptions.
Chandel, P. K. (2015). Religious interpretations of reincarnation. Indian Journal of Health and Wellbeing, 6(7), 737.
Fernández-Vara, C. (2015). Introduction to Game Analysis. New York: Routledge. p116 – 169
Geslin, E., Jégou, L., & Beaudoin, D. (2016). How color properties can be used to elicit emotions in video games. International Journal of Computer Games Technology, 2016, 1-9. doi:10.1155/2016/5182768
Kirkland, E. (2009, September). Horror Videogames and the Uncanny. In DiGRA Conference.
Perron, B. (2012). Silent Hill: The Terror Engine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Pinchbeck, D. (2009). Shock, Horror: First-Person Gaming, Horror, and the Art of Ludic Manipulation. In B. Perron (Ed.), Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play [E-reader version] (pp. 77 – 93).
Roux-Girard, G. (2009). Plunged Alone into Darkness: Evolution in the Staging of Fear in the Alone in the Dark Series. In B. Perron (Ed.), Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play [E-reader version] (pp. 143 – 166).
Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game Design Fundamentals. Massachusetts: The MIT Press.
Taylor, L. N. (2009). Gothic Bloodlines in Survival Horror Gaming. In B. Perron (Ed.), Horror Video Games: Essays on the Fusion of Fear and Play [E-reader version] (pp. 44 – 60).
Wallbott, H. G. (1998). Bodily expression of emotion. European Journal of Social Psychology, 28(6), 879-896.