Life, Death, and Level Design: The Brilliant World of Dark Souls
Dark Souls has a lot to teach us. Within the depths of its master code are mysteries, only to be discovered by the most diligent and thoughtful of gamers. It is a game that not only entertains, but can teach you something about life, death, and level design.
The world in which you play is the foundation in the house of coded cards that is a video game. Without it, you have a character, a story, but no setting. You’d be floating in an endless abyss with a body and motivation, but nowhere to act upon those desires. To create a truly unique world that complements the story, characters, and gameplay perfectly is a rare thing. When it happens, that game grabs you by the scruff and pulls your limp, awestruck body into its world.
Dark Souls does this more brilliantly than any game I’ve played of late. Not only does it create a convincing world that is a joy to explore, but it flaunts conventional level design and presents you with a land created from circles stacked upon circles interconnected with yet more circles and the occasional oblong oval.
The setting is no longer just a setting, but a character in and of itself. The world sits there whispering in your ear as it guides you from one safe bonfire to the next. The land dictates pacing, emotion, and your sense of accomplishment. For instance, your first experience in the land of Lordran is fairly linear. You wake in a prison cell in the Undead Asylum and have to get your wits about you. Like a mewling child, you need time to make sense of the world and how to get your body moving. You want to take a couple of swings with your weapon and test out if the dodge button is useful. The game gives you this time by keeping the area simple and straightforward. The way forward is always in front of you, and the enemies are placed to make you learn the combat as quickly and efficiently as possible. You spiral slowly to the top of the Asylum to literally get the drop on your first boss. Lordran is not a friendly place, but it is a fair one.
Only after you’ve done some adventuring, and opened up some of the many shortcuts, do you really start to get a sense for the interconnected lay of the land. No matter which fork in the road you choose, you usually end up doubling back on yourself and dropping back onto a path on which you’ve already left bloody footprints.
The circular paths that lay throughout Lordran are not just horizontal, but vertical too. This first becomes evident when you unlock the elevator in the Undead Parish. Stepping onto that platform with bated breath, you descend towards an ominous mystery. But you can find yourself back at the always welcoming hub of the Firelink Shrine. This sense of height gives the world of Dark Souls so much more character. You’re suddenly aware that this cleverly organized jumble of coding allows you to become spatially aware of the entire world. You start understanding the world as a whole rather than a jumble of stitched together parts like you find in many other games.
While evidence of this circularity appears all over the vertically-integrated world of Lordran, where it becomes most evident is in the city of Anor Londo. Pieces of this labyrinthine city start to resemble the painting Relativity by M.C. Escher. All of the staircases in Anor Londo lead somewhere, but many times it isn’t where you’d expect. But if you keep forging ahead, you’ll find yourself ascending a pair of interwoven staircases that lead to the always helpful shortcut and the impending boss battle.
M.C. Escher's Relativity
What do all of these interconnected circles mean?I think it is up to you to assign your own meaning. Maybe they represent the infinite quality of what exists within each of our souls. Traverse your imagination and just see how infinite it is inside your own head. But when you interact with someone else, like in the inventive online component of Dark Souls, those infinite circles interact and intersect for a short time. It may be a metaphor, for the unity of all things on the planet, each one being a ring in a larger chain mesh. It could be a symbol for the circularity of life and death, because death only provides more energy for natural life.
Maybe, just maybe, the designers simply meant to make an organic and believable video game world to grab you by the nape of the neck and not let you go until you’ve experienced every wondrous bit of it. That is reason enough.
The design Lordran is a work of sheer, dark, mind-bending brilliance. It is a painting with pixels. Intersecting circles. The world of Dark Souls is like a Venn diagram in three dimensions where character, philosophy, and design all intersect.
Raise an Estus flask with me and let us toast to the designers of Dark Souls for a job well done.