GAME DESIGN & UX
What You’re Getting Wrong About Soulslikes
If you are designing a “soulslike” game, it’s important to understand what makes the Souls games tick in the first place
I am dedicating some space in my upcoming book on roguelike design to the growth of the “soulslike”, which has become a sub-genre unto itself in recent years. There’s a great deal to say about this style of game design. But as more and more developers attempt to build their own soulslikes, I think it’s valuable to consider what they can get wrong when creating their own spin.
Lore, story, and the approach to both
From Software’s Souls games featured a number of innovations. One of them was the approach to storytelling. Most games focus their story on the player character and/or a series of protagonists who are at least adjacent to the player character. The emphasis is usually around the particular struggles these characters experience through the adventure.
But the Souls games completely discard this long-standing approach. In fact, it could be argued that they don’t care about your character at all. These are worlds where the good guys are dead, and there’s little — or nothing — to save. It’s not just that the odds are overwhelming, it’s that you’ve arguably lost the battle well before it has even begun. The best you can hope for, usually, is simply to move the ball forward in some small way. This is the antithesis of games like Mass Effect, The Witcher, or Skyrim, where the player is central to global events, and plays an outsized role in influencing and shaping the world around them. Another way to explain this is to say that the Souls games are concerned with the lore of the world rather than the story of your character.
It’s not just that the odds are overwhelming, it’s that you’ve arguably lost the battle well before it has even begun.
This lore is typically communicated through information associated with item drops, rather than through extensive character exposition. That boss you just struggled with for 30 minutes? Chances are you’ll be able to pick up some item (often a body part) they have dropped, which will reveal an extensive backstory around how they came to be who/what they are and their role in the broader world.
There’s an inherent mystery to this approach, given that players are asked to dig for this information rather than having it fed to them by the developer. When other developers attempt to build soulslikes, though, it can be all too easy for them to leave in place too much mystery — to the point where there’s actually very little to discover about the characters or the world itself. An example that comes to mind is the game Hellpoint, which I played only recently. The game’s hook is that it it’s a futuristic soulslike with a Dead Space/Event Horizon theme. But when you jump into it, you quickly realize that there’s nothing about the world — or the surrounding lore — for the player to dig into. Item descriptions are brief, bosses don’t drop anything lore-related, and you get text logs that aren’t actually stored for future reading or re-reading. This is a game that clearly finds inspiration in the Souls games, but that arguably doesn’t actually follow through when it comes to one major aspect that made those games so powerful — the lore.
Souls games are concerned with the lore of the world rather than the story of your character.
In fact, there’s only one non-From Software game I played that really nailed this. It was the indie game Gloom. Gloom is a shorter experience designed to be played for around 10–15 minute sessions. Every item (and boss) has lore that goes along with it. Even better, Gloom actually improved the formula by allowing players to peruse a lore book (separate from the inventory) that puts lore information in context without having to hunt through individual inventory items to read everything.
But lore isn’t the only important ingredient here. There’s another — even bigger — component that I’ve yet to see a developer match when it comes to From Software’s work.
Dovetailing environmental design and level design
Some time ago, I wrote about the difference between environmental and level design. Level design is about building obstacles and challenges. Environmental design is about architecture and space. The combination of the two has contributed greatly to the success of the Souls games. It’s not just about designing challenging obstacle courses, but also building a space that makes sense in the context of the game’s world and lore. These games have architecture and spaces that look like they could functionally exist with or without the player being there. It’s not simply about moving from one corridor to the next.
In addition, every area has a unique aspect to it that sticks in the player’s mind. This is important, because it enables players to create a mental map of the world without constantly referring to an in-game HUD. This approach also naturally leads to a sense of progression as the player moves through the adventure. One element that is fairly unique to Souls games is that I can be standing in one area, but I can often see other locations in the distance — not only do I know I can go to these places, but I can actually see how all the locations are logically connected. It’s more about creating a living, breathing world rather than a giant maze.
Level design is about building obstacles and challenges. Environmental design is about architecture and space.
Every other soulslike I’ve played tends to create a mishmash of corridors with little care about how these spaces are supposed to connect. Often, paths will lead to dead ends with nothing in them, and many areas look the same. And in case you’re tempted to jump in with a comment here, I should say: no, including a bunch of fast travel points doesn’t make this acceptable.
Here’s a real example: The Surge. It can be confusing to navigate. One part of the problem is that developers may focus on highly-enclosed areas where you can’t see the broader world around you at all. When you are moving from one enclosed space to the next, you can’t easily determine how they are related to each other. It’s analogous to being in a neighborhood where you can see different buildings and businesses and their spatial relationships, versus being in a giant office complex where every hallway looks identical.
In Dark Souls, you can stand atop Blight Town and look down at the mass of shanties and pathways that you’ll be traversing. In Mortal Shell, the starting area is a confusing swamp. At one stage you can find a shortcut that somehow wraps around from one side of the area to the other.
It’s analogous to being in a neighborhood where you can see different buildings and businesses and their spatial relationships, versus being in a giant office complex where every hallway looks identical.
When thinking about why this happens, and why developers can get this wrong — I think it comes down to the fact that developers will often tend to emphasize either environmental or level design, where a good soulslike will consider both equally. There’s a whole lot more to be said about how great design can guide the player through a world. It’s a game design masterclass unto itself, but is well outside the scope of this piece.
Needless frustration and poor UX aren’t valid forms of “difficulty”
There’s a final point here that is often misunderstood by developers looking to create soulslikes. It relates to difficulty. When the first Souls game launched — Demon’s Souls — it really brought difficulty back into the conversation around AAA games. That is, difficulty as a deliberate feature of the design.
It is tempting for many to see difficulty as a badge of honor — something you need to work for, something that must be overcome by earning it through hard work and sacrifice. It’s a source of pride for many gamers. But designing a challenging or difficult experience is a source of trouble for many developers. There are many nuances involved, and there’s a very fine line between challenge and frustration. A hard game isn’t necessarily a good game.
To put it another way, making a game that is frustrating to play doesn’t make it a challenge — it just makes it frustrating. I’ve lost count of the number of cases where players ask for quality of life improvements in various online forums, only to be dismissed by other players for “not getting it”.
A hard game isn’t necessarily a good game.
Frustrating elements and pain points are bad design, full stop. They are one of the major reasons why I put games down and don’t return to them. There isn’t one video game in history that should be proud of possessing bad design. I have seen people argue that “frustrating elements” serve a deliberate purpose (perhaps as a way of proving that you are committed to playing the game), but that’s nonsense in my book.
The true motto of Souls games shouldn’t be “Prepare to Die”. It should be “Tough but Fair”. Are the Souls games perfect from a user experience standpoint? No. But I’d argue that these games get more things right than they get wrong, especially when compared to the games that try to imitate the formula.
One example where Souls gets it wrong is around the principle of avoiding punishments or difficulty increases for players who struggle to get through the game. This was one of the complaints about the world tendency system in the original Demon’s Souls. Players were unaware that they were making the game tougher by failing. Deliberately punishing struggling players was the exact opposite of what From Software should have been doing — so, I’ll be curious to see how this system works in the Demon’s Souls remaster.
One example where Souls gets it wrong is around the principle of avoiding punishments or difficulty increases for players who struggle to get through the game.
Putting emphasis on user experience doesn’t “dumb down” a game, it only makes that game more enjoyable and approachable. Another way to think about this is to pay attention to the people who are arguing about difficulty in your game. If less than 50% of your player base is making it past the first hour of the game, that should be a clue that something is going wrong in the onboarding process (at the very least).
Understanding the games that inspire your design
Soulslikes have become increasingly popular in recent years. But it’s vitally important for developers to understand the formula they are trying to mimic when designing these games. A big part of that is ensuring that user experience is front and center, and that needless frustration isn’t a valid part of the game’s difficulty. To that end, looking at Dark Souls and thinking only about its difficulty is an exercise in missing the point — and missing all the important nuances involved.
I recently discussed Doom Eternal, which is another game that polarizes opinions on difficulty and design. Understanding what the game wants you to do is half the puzzle. The other half is figuring out what tools are at your disposal to win. This is a game that has a higher skill floor when compared to many other games out there, but it also does a better job of onboarding the player and ensuring difficulty doesn’t turn into needless frustration (especially when compared to many of the soulslikes out there).
There’s a lot more to say about pain points in game design; it’s something I plan to discuss further in a future piece. So please stay tuned for that.
If you enjoyed this article, consider joining the Game-Wisdom Discord channel. It’s open to everyone.
For more on my thoughts on roguelike design, my third book Game Design Deep Dive Roguelikes will be out by the end of the year and acknowledgments are currently open on my Patreon.