On the Levels of Dark Souls (3)
With the release of Dark Souls 3 a debate about level design that started with Dark Souls 2 was reignited. Many fans of the series swear by the world of Dark Souls, ridiculing Dark Souls 2 for linear areas and a linear path through the game, with few optional areas, looping paths, or side areas. There were high hopes for the design of Dark Souls 3, as FromSoft president Miyazaki was back in charge of the series. Many fans were initially disappointed with the levels of Dark Souls 3, So, I’d like to ask the question is the level design of the original Dark Souls really that much better than Dark Souls 3?
The world of Dark Souls is undeniably complex. From the start of the game, you can access three or four different areas immediately, depending on your choice of starting gift. It is possible to skip bosses entirely, and still not lose access to areas that are supposed to be “behind” those bosses. The most notable example of this is the Taurus Demon, many players’ first real boss after the tutorial area, who grants access to the Undead Parish, and Andre the blacksmith. It is possible, however, to get to Andre without defeating the Taurus Demon through two separate paths that go through Darkroot Garden. On its own, Darkroot Garden is essentially a connector area between the back of the Undead Parish and the Undead Settlement, which reflects how Dark Souls handles shortcuts.
For reference on the normal Dark Souls progression path, check here.
Shortcuts in Dark Souls are largely through opening new connections between areas, rather than unlocking shortcuts within the areas themselves. This gives the world of Lordran an undeniable sense of realism, and you learn its geography as you are forced to trek back and forth between important locations through the first half of the game. This time that the game forces you to spend walking back and forth is therefore worthwhile in a tangible way, and it covers up the weakness of this style of level design. It is really easy to get lost your first time through. While the sense of discovery as you learn and stumble upon familiar scenery is wonderful, it can be disheartening and frustrating to wonder and wander and die over and over again. If you get what Dark Souls is trying to do, that is okay, but when you’ve just arrived in Firelink Shrine and aren’t sure where to go, I’m not sure that is always a strength.
Despite this wonderful complexity, which I really do love, the individual areas of Dark Souls are very straightforward. By straightforward, I mean there is one path of progression through almost every area in Dark Souls, and when you reach the end of that path, you enter the next area. When you open a shortcut from one area to the next, it is simply a door that opens onto a section of this path. The only exceptions to this are a few loops such as those present in the Undead Burg. The overall complexity of the world masks this general linearity, but it is worth bearing in mind as we move into Dark Souls 3.
Dark Souls 3 is much more linear than Dark Souls. In terms of area progression, there are really only 3 “side areas” (Archdragon Peak, Consumed Kings Garden, Smoldering Lake), which do not reconnect to the main game path. There are some other areas that you can enter early, for instance fighting the Dancer of the Boreal Valley before beating the first 3 Lords of Cinder. Other than these small options, however, Dark Souls 3 proceeds in a very straightforward fashion from The High Wall of Lothric down to Irythill, then back up through Lothric Castle.
For reference on the normal Dark Souls 3 progression path, check here.
While the areas of Dark Souls 3 lack the interlocking design of the original, many of the levels contain shortcuts, loops, and side paths within themselves. Even relatively simple areas, such as the King’s Consumed Garden, contain a loop back up to the initial bonfire, and there is some really great trickery done with elevators that have multiple places to jump off. Perhaps the best example of this in Dark Souls 3 is the Grand Archives. Besides having a winding path up through the interior of the level, the Archives have two separate elevators that open up shortcuts, paths back down on top of the many book cases in the area, and a path down through the rafters. The area is massive, but once you know where a few of the shorter shortcuts are, a ladder between balconies, and how all of the different paths work together, the Archives are split nicely into manageable chunks. The level lets you access every part of the Archives, from the very base up to the top of the roof.
What this means when comparing the level design of these games is that what Dark Souls does with its world design Dark Souls 3 does with its level design. This means that Dark Souls 3 feels more disjointed between areas, and the game is more linear from area to area, but each individual area is anything but linear. In Dark Souls, however, each area is very linear, but the world twists and turns upon itself that everything feels much less straightforward. So in certain ways both games could be described as linear. Dark Souls definitely feels less linear, but the design of each area in Dark Souls 3 is highly impressive. But which is better? I’d say that each game represents a different approach to level design, and although Miyazaki has commented that he wishes there had been more inter-connectivity between levels in Dark Souls 3. I would agree with Miyazaki about this being compensated (slightly) by the complexity and size of the individual areas in Dark Souls 3.
Also, my interest in the design of each area individually does not mean that the areas in Dark Souls 3 do not mesh together at all. They do, and in such a way to reflect the high quality game that Dark Souls 3 is. I am focusing so much on the levels to highlight the difference between the design philosophies that seem to be behind each game. Dark Souls seems to have been built as a world, with the connections between all of the areas requiring careful planning, and implementation almost as if the whole world map was one continuous level (which it isn’t). Dark Souls 3 is constructed in such a way that it could be planned as a series of levels, which all connect to form a world. So although each game is essentially the same mechanically, a series of game levels carefully designed with a path from start to end in mind, they feel very different.