Zubby Newsletter #8: Soul Stirring

A different format this time, as I dive into anecdotes and analysis about one of my obsessions-

What Is It About Those Souls?

Hidetaka Miyazaki, the developer of Elden Ring, is one of TIME Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People in 2023, only the second video game industry person to ever make it on the list (The first was Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of Mario, Donkey Kong, and Legend of Zelda).

Even though “Soulsborne” titles have been lauded and influential in video game circles for years, Elden Ring broke through with a level of mainstream success no one could have predicted. It launched to sales numbers that eclipsed the lifetime sales of most other FromSoft titles and has fueled a surge of interest as gamers go back to rediscover the rest of the “Souls series”: Demon’s Souls (2009)Dark Souls 1-3 (2011, 2014, 2016)Bloodborne (2015), and Sekiro (2019).

These games have an infamous reputation for being difficult and obtuse, cultivating a fandom obsessed with their challenging game play, mysterious lore, and strange characters.

That rep is rightfully earned:

  • They are difficult, especially compared to most other video games on the market.
  • The game play is obtuse and in-game instruction is minimal.
  • The fandom is obsessed and many enjoy deep-diving into lore, symbolism and connectivity in the games, implicit or implied.
  • The characters and their in-game plot lines are quite strange.

And yet, Souls games are also incredibly compelling.

I didn’t try any of them until 2018 when my friend Ray Fawkes (who I’ve known since college and collaborated with on Murderworld) heaped praise on Dark Souls, telling me how fierce and fascinating the series was. With a level of glee I’d rarely seen in him before, he wove a narrative about his hapless hero stumbling through gloomy corridors, being ambushed by monsters and doing everything he could to survive in the face of near certain death. Violent sword and sorcery is certainly my jam, so I snagged Dark Souls Remastered, installed it…

…And did not see the appeal at all.

Dark Souls seemed crafted from a bygone era of video gaming, one where clear instructions and an intuitive user interface were not a priority. The cinematic opening promised epic adventure, but the starting area in-game was a cramped dank prison filled with tricks, traps, and asshole enemies ready to gank me at a moment’s notice. The action felt awkward and unresponsive, the world seemed small, and I wondered what Ray saw in this that I was somehow missing.

Eight months later, Playstation had a sale on digital games and on a whim I picked up Bloodborne, not realizing it had the same development team as Dark Souls. The twisted gothic setting grabbed my attention and I waded in, unsure if this would be a repeat of my first Souls experience.

Bloodborne is cut from the same cloth as Dark Souls and, in theory, it should have repelled me the exact same way, but it didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the game still felt weird and kicked my ass, but the atmosphere was so rich and locations so interesting that I stuck with it, creeping forward street by street and section by section, struggling to make progress but compelled to keep trying.

I must have spent at least four hours completing the opening section of Yharnam, the sprawling Stygian labyrinth where Bloodborne begins. My character died dozens of times, but my attitude around those deaths changed. It became apparent to me that the game was consistent in its approach and I was the one making foolish mistakes each and every time.

What felt like poor design when I played Dark Souls for the first time began to slowly fall away, revealing something far more intentional. As I explored Bloodborne further, a message started to emerge through the din. It was simple, but also demanding-

“Are you paying attention?”

  • Are you paying attention to the environment around you – looking carefully at where you’ve been, where you are, and where you’re going?
  • Are you paying attention to the enemies you encounter – how they sound, how they move, and what they’re capable of?
  • Are you paying attention to your character – especially the speed and reach of your weapon as you attack?
  • Are you paying attention to your inventory – the items you pick up, their description and purpose?

Many video games want the player to feel empowered right from the start, giving them clear goals and, with a bit of effort, the abilities to achieve them. There will be a certain amount of hand-eye coordination involved, but where you have to go and what you have to do when you get there is rarely in question. These games want to please you.

In comparison, many older video games could feel opaque at times due to awkward design or limitations of fidelity, but there was also a gratifying surge that came with figuring things out on your own or having a friend pierce the veil of confusion alongside you.

Souls Games issue a distinct challenge to the player. They establish a foundation of consequence inside a harsh environment that will try to destroy you. It can be extremely frustrating at times, but the commensurate satisfaction I feel as I figure out each piece of the puzzle and overcome each challenge delivers old school gaming delight magnified many times over.

Bloodborne requires careful planning before each major encounter and then quick thinking once the action kicks in. The game constructs a deliberate atmosphere of mystery and dread before violently unleashing new tests on the player as the environments twist around and through each other.

You can stumble through the whole game and even complete it with no idea why you have to slay these creatures and escape this nightmare, or you can slow down on the journey and start to see tiny threads of motivation and emotion woven into conversations and item descriptions that hint at a larger tapestry, fascinating questions and themes lying just out of reach.

You can rail against the darkness all by yourself or summon help, either through AI-controlled NPCs who are fulfilling their own mysterious plot lines, or via online multiplayer fighting alongside fellow human hunters looking to take down their prey.

I fell in hard, conquered Bloodborne and the Old Hunters expansion, and then played through the other Souls titles (and several other games inspired by them). Once that was done, I went back and ‘platinumed’ many of the games, completing every achievement, no matter how demanding or obscure.

Demon’s Souls was the first game in the series and it shows. At times it struggles to execute on its vision for combat and exploration, but it can also be surprisingly confident in game play precepts that will be honed in future titles.

The Dark Souls trilogy iterates on that original game, expanding character possibilities and the types of encounters it throws at you while also broadening the narrative scope of its epic fantasy world. The environments have branching paths that coil around each other or ‘hub’ locations that act as waypoints so you can choose which way you want to head next. Many of the boss battles are epic and the final decision you’re given, to renew the world with fire or send it spiraling deeper into darkness, feels well earned.

Sekiro is a more focused narrative set in a mythical version of Sengoku-era Japan. It has extremely demanding combat that requires meticulous timing, but also generates an adrenaline surge like no other video game I’ve played before.

I’ve enjoyed them all. These are worlds to be explored and challenges to be relished.

Which brings things back to Elden Ring and the TIME Magazine article about its creator.

Elden Ring is a culmination of sorts. It’s an ambitious and massive open world version of Hidetaka’s previous games. While it has the most content to uncover and can be extremely challenging, it also benefits from 13+ years of design experience, balancing that feeling of uncovering a mystery with abundant character options you can use to traverse and conquer the many challenges set before you.

Souls Games are the peaty scotch of video games – a powerful flavor and acquired taste that many people are never going to enjoy no matter how it’s packaged or presented.

As much as I rave about Souls as an experience, the rawness of the design and age of the engine used to build these games can also hamper them at times – There are weird game play systems that don’t become clear unless you look up a guide online and enemy AI that can be deliberate and fiendish one second and then dumb as rocks when taken out of the combat parameters or specific environment it expects. At times Souls fans hand wave some really weird-ass aspects of these games, chalking even genuine programming and optimization errors up to intentional design to a degree that borders on the delusional. There’s a lot of duct tape holding these monstrous beauties together.

Elden Ring’s scope can also be quite overwhelming at times. The open world approach doesn’t allow for a focused path that carefully amplifies the threat, scene by scene. That means its challenge level swings wildly depending on how you build your character and which way your wanderlust takes you; One moment you’re effortlessly trouncing enemies, the next you slam into a proverbial wall and are sent sprawling to your doom.

Despite all that, you’re never trapped. There’s always another direction to go or location to unearth, giving you the chance to earn experience elsewhere and come back to claim victory down the road. The journey is vast and it can be both breathtaking and ridiculous multiple times within the span of a single play session.

Elden Ring isn’t my favorite Souls game (Bloodborne’s eldritch tendrils still have a powerful hold on me), but I’m glad it exists and has introduced millions of people to these games. I’m also glad Elden Ring has won so many awards and gained so much mainstream attention. I wouldn’t say it’s an experience everyone needs, but I do think there’s gold in them thar hills if you’re looking for a challenging and thoroughly satisfying video game rush…

…Just be prepared for a wee bit of obsession if it finds its mark, the kind that makes you pump out a 1600-word essay about it instead of promoting your own work.

Speaking Of Eldritch Horror and Promotion…

Over on my Patreon, I posted up the script for Rick and Morty VS Cthulhu #4 (of 4), the climactic conclusion to our epic nihilism VS narcissism battle as Rick Sanchez tries to stop the Cthulhu Mythos from infecting his dimension and destroying his family.

There are now almost 300 scripts on my Patreon page, a deep archive of my comic writing where, for the price of a fancy coffee, anyone can dig in and compare what I wrote to the final published version, along with pitches, frequently asked questions, interviews, and more.

My Patreon page grew out of more than 40 free writing and industry How-To articles I wrote over on my main site (check the right-hand column labelled #ComicsSchool for links to the most popular articles), covering common questions around how to break into comicshow to write a project pitchhow to find an artist to collaborate with, the economics of creator-owned comics, and much more. Even as the industry has changed and continues to change at a rapid pace, a lot of that information has remained evergreen.

Talking to a Pair of Rogues

I spoke to the gents at the Rogues in The House podcast all about sword & sorcery, Conan the Barbarian, historical fantasy, and more.

For those of you who are hardcore fans of the Hyborian Age, our Conan chatter gets underway at the 28 minute mark of the podcast. The other stuff is great too, but if you’re focused on that aspect, now you know.

Okay, that’s more than enough this time. Have a good week.


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