The Dark Souls Trilogy is known for its punishing difficulty and fever dream plot. Set in a world where characters fight and claw at the dying of the light, the games have made a lasting impression on gamers far and wide. Today on the Season One Finale of Origin of the Series we are going to examine at how those games came to be, starting with the founding of From Software and venturing forth to present day. Welcome to Origin of the Series: Dark Souls.
From Software and King’s Field
By all measures, 1986 was a tremendous year for video games. The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Dragon Quest, Bubble Bobble are just SOME of the games that were released in that year. What also makes 1986 remarkable is that Naotoshi Jin would have a life changing experience that led him to found From Software. That experience was a motorcycle accident that left Jin bedridden while he convalesced. While he was injured he considered what he could do with the money that he received from the insurance that he was paid after the accident, and decided to start a software company. Out of the wreckage of the accident, From Software was born. Initially From Software created business and commercial applications, such as agriculture software that managed pig feed.
Then in 1990 an economic slow-down hit Japan, prompting From Software to begin thinking about ways to diversify or change industries. Several employees within the company had already become interested in 3D modeling and it’s potential application with game design. Jin, despite loving the idea of getting into the gaming industry, was not sold on the hardware capabilities of any current PC or Console. From Software ended up waiting several years, until an opportunity arose in 1994 with the introduction of the Sony PlayStation.
The Sony PlayStation, currently in its fourth generation (fifth if you count the upcoming PlayStation 4 Neo), was something of an oddity born out of a failed partnership with Nintendo. The common method for playing games at the time was via cartridge – the PlayStation eschewed this in favor of more cost effective Compact Discs. Naotoshi Jin and From Software saw an opportunity to get onto the new console, which would be looking for third-party support. The result of this effort was a first-person dungeon crawl RPG titled King’s Field.
King’s Field told the story of a young royal who was looking for his father while dealing with an evil that has been spewing forth from an abandoned cemetery in the land of Verdite. Something I love about the From Software games is that all the kingdom names have a certain chewiness to them. Verdite, Boletaria, Lothric, to name a few. The game was a brutal challenge and featured dark, dank locales that remind one of a lo-fi version of the later Soulsborne games. King’s Field would be released on December 16th, 1994, only 13 days after the original PlayStation went on sale. It was the first RPG to arrive on the new system and was a success in Japan, successful enough to warrant a sequel.
In an interview with Game Informer in late 2015, From Software Managing Director Masanori Takeuchi mentioned that despite the massive success of the Souls games, King’s Field, to him is the most important game that From has released. Not only because it was their first, but because it encapsulates the consistent world view and game design aesthetic that From has been known for since its release in 1994.
King’s Field II would see a release in the United States, and would be titled simply King’s Field. Re-numbering for different markets was customary in the 80s and 90s. Other examples of this happening include the Final Fantasy series which saw Final Fantasy 4 and 6 released in the United States as 2 and 3, as well as Super Mario Bros, which had its sequel retitled as “The Lost Levels” and another game, Doki Doki Panic reskinned to be Super Mario Bros. 2.
Nothing happens in a vacuum and the King’s Field series is evidence of the essence of the Soulsborne games existing within the walls of From Software long before their development. From would continue to the series with two more King’s Field games, but their attention in the late 90s and early 00s shifted from dark dungeons to massive mechs with the Armored Core series, which is where Hidetaka Miyazaki would get his start.
If you talk to Hidetaka Miyazaki today and asked him what his influences are, he would have a laundry list of books, manga, and more. Among those he readily lists are Devilman and Berserk, as well as works by George R.R. Martin and Umberto Eco. He also keeps RPG rule books close at hand. That is today, but as a child, he lived a very different literary experience. Miyazaki was born in a poor family and as a child, rarely had the opportunity to purchase books. This led to him finding his way to the library, which he would use to borrow books that were often somewhat above his reading comprehension.
Whenever he came to a passage that he couldn’t understand, Miyazaki would often use his imagination to fill in the gaps in the story. When he grew up he attended Keio University where he obtained a Social Sciences degree. Miyazaki sums up his childhood this way: ““Unlike most kids in Japan, I didn’t have a dream. I wasn’t ambitious.” We are all our own harshest critic, but I can certainly relate to Miyazaki’s feeling of aimlessness as a youth. Discovering passion can sometimes take time, and for Miyazaki it would be a few more years. After attending University he landed a job at Oracle working as a typical salaryman job of Account Manager. He would work there for several years.
It wasn’t until he met up with some friends from University that Miyazaki’s life began to find the spark that he had felt was missing. One of his friend’s suggested that he check out the game Ico. For those of you unaware, Ico is the first game by the team that created Shadow of the Colossus and The Last Guardian and puts the player in control of a boy named Ico as he attempts to escape a castle with a princess named Yorda. The game, much like the subsequent games that Team Ico has created relies in minimalist design and 3D puzzle solving.
Playing the game awoke something in Miyazaki. He began to applying for jobs at game studios across Japan and eventually was accepted by one. From Software. As part of his early duties for the company, Miyazaki would find himself directing sequels for the companies somewhat popular Armored Core series. After several years wrangling Mechs, an opportunity arose within the company, and it was a perfect match for Miyazaki.
Demon’s Souls was the first game that From Software collaborated with a publisher on, as well as the first game that they had the intention of a world-wide release for. Per Masanori Takeuchi, the project initially started around 2004 or 2005 as an attempt to create a new game that had the same game design philosophy as King’s Field. The game however was a failed project. Which, Miyazaki thought was a perfect opportunity. In an interview with The Guardian, he said this about it: “I figured if I could find a way to take control of the game I could turn it into anything I wanted. Best of all, if my ideas failed, nobody would care—it was already a failure.” Unfortunately, the project was floundering. Miyazaki’s work and leadership completely revamped the game. However, as a game on the precipice of failure, it launched with very low expectations, especially after a poor showing at the Tokyo Game Show.
Demon’s Souls had poor initial sales and a lack of support from its publisher. Sony head of WW Shuhei Yoshida thought due to the game’s challenging nature, the game was unbelievably bad. Because of this they passed on publishing the game in North America and Europe. Demon’s Souls though found itself in a strong lineage of games, like prior Origin of the Series subjects: Civilization and The Elder Scrolls, that vaulted into cult status based on a strong word of mouth campaign.
Hardcore gamers in North America found themselves importing the game across the Pacific, and eventually the overwhelming urge for the game prompted Atlus to pick up the publishing for North America, and Bandai-Namco to publish the game for Europe and Australia. With a global market finally available for the game, it thrived as a title that enticed gamers looking for something new and challenging. In a testament to the games popularity, the servers hosting the online portion of the gameplay have remained online well beyond the planned shutdown date in 2011.
The story of Demon’s Souls is somewhat more straight forward than later games. It centers on the Kingdom of Boletaria which has become enshrouded in a hellish fog after its ruler, King Allant conducted a dark ritual to gain more power. The ritual unleashed The Old One, as these rituals tend to go, the fog, and legions of demons into the kingdom. Knights from neighboring kingdoms have often attempted to broach the fog to never return. Your character is a plucky knight who managed to breach the fog and even make his or her way deep into the castle before coming upon a demon called The Vanguard. This is one of those planned death things.
From there, your soul awakens in the Nexus, and you are told you can never leave. You can get your body back however. From the Nexus, you can travel to different parts of the kingdom to take on hordes of evil that are infesting the kingdom.
Demon’s Souls features a combat system that feels like future Soulsborne games. Caution, defense, and timing are all paramount as you face off against enemies that can kill you with a well-placed combo. My personal feeling having replayed a bit of Demon’s Souls after extended sessions wish Dark Souls 3 was that the difficulty while an extreme challenge, is not quite the white-knuckle experience that later games would be.
In an interview with Game Informer, Miyazaki stated that he doesn’t like using the word “difficult” and that difficulty isn’t the true goal. Instead that he wants the players to feel a sense of accomplishment when they overcome obstacles. “The element of failure… was necessary to give players a sense of accomplishment.” In that same article, written back in November of 2009, Miyazaki hedged on whether there would be a sequel to Demon’s Souls stating, “he’s just an employee at a company” but that he would like to have another chance to implement the things he learned on Demon’s Souls.
Miyzaki did not have to wait long to get his chance at improving upon the concepts of Demon’s Souls. The next game, Dark Souls would be disconnected however and a brand-new IP, giving From a chance to select a new publisher for the game. When the game was first announced, From played coy with the details, only teasing a logo and a title, “Project Dark” no doubt the internal project name for the game. The game made its formal announcement with title and details in February of 2011. The intriguing thing that changed between the initial tease and the wide announcement, other that the title, was the games exclusivity. Originally planned as a PS3 exclusive, the game was also announced for Xbox.
Despite looking and playing similarly, there were a number of key differences between Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls. The hub model would be deemphasized, and in its place a more seamless world. Soul tendency, a function in Demon’s Souls would not be making the leap into the new franchise. Another difference is the difficulty, or out of respect for Miyazaki, challenge. Miyazaki and team wanted Dark Souls to be much more challenging than the previous game. A quote from the game’s producer Daisuke Uchiyama is telling. “We want the players to scream, yell and be frustrated.” Not as eloquent as Miyazaki and Takeuchi espousing that the theme is the sense of accomplishment of overcoming obstacles, but just as accurate.
The story of Dark Souls is very minimalist. It would be unfair to say that it’s shallow though. The plot of Dark Souls is like a rabbit hole. On the surface it doesn’t seem like much but once you start going down you become surprised at how far you’ve traveled and you have really no other choice but to reach the bottom. I’m not going to go into the lore here, there are several channels that have thorough recaps of the lore. I will link a few in the description below. The brief version is that a long time ago dragons ruled the land and everything was gray and undying. There was no disparity. Then from the depths of the earth came a fire, giving power to the humanoids who dwelled there. Among those that took power included Gwyn, and he and his fellow lords strike down the dragons, bringing life and death, darkness and light to the world. When Dark Souls starts, it is now much, much later and the initial fire is going out. And when it does, the world will be plunged into darkness. Bad times.
It only took one week for Dark Souls to outsell its predecessor, positioning From Software further into the realm of high level developers.
Dark Souls II and Bloodborne
When Dark Souls II was announced at the Spike Video Game Awards back in 2012 there was much excitement around getting another entry into the Souls-verse. Excitement for some fell away to consternation though as it was eventually revealed that Hidetaka Miyazaki would not be the lead for the project, only acting in an advisory role. Instead, the game would be handed over to the founder of From Software himself, Naotoshi Jin. Some fans posited dismay at what they were considering to be the From Software “B” team, a somewhat harsh assessment of the crew that created the sequel.
There were some rumors though that started to bubble up. One of the gaming blogs I perused during my research phase even had a post around the time that wondered whether Miyazaki was working on another huge project and couldn’t commit to Dark Souls 2. This would turn out to be correct.
Dark Souls 2 was designed with the same philosophy as the previous titles. The game’s director Yui Tanimura started in an interview that he felt this was two fold: first the sense of accomplishment in overcoming challenging obstacles, and second, the indirect connection with other players in that sense of accomplishment. On that second point part of the team’s goal was to create a stronger bond between the players they struggle through the game. From Software tried to remain very sensitive to not changing the core of the game, however they understood that things needed to change in the sequel. Tanimura in the same interview mentioned that: “…if we try to keep everything the same, this prevents us being able to provide a new experience and world to the players.”
On March 11th, 2014, the game was released to massive critical acclaim. It has gone on to sell nearly 3 Million copies world wide and won numerous game of the year awards. With the success of Dark Souls II, From Software was riding high in prestige and value. They would be acquired by the Kadokawa Corporation in May of 2014, and a corporate reshuffling took place. Naotoshi Jin, who just designed a tremendous success in Dark Souls II would step down from the company he founded and into an advisor role. Hidetaki Miyazki, would take his place. The following month, in June of 2014 at E3, fans of the Souls series would discover why Miyazaki was absent on Dark Souls II main crew list with the announcement of a brand new IP, Bloodborne.
Bloodborne is similar to the Dark Souls games, in some aspects, different in others. The setting of the game is more similar to a Victorian era England as opposed to an King Arthur Meets the Upside Down medieval fantasy. The development for Bloodborne began while From was putting the finishing touches on Dark Souls: Prepare to Die edition, and ran in parallel to Dark Souls II. Prior to the announcement of the game, footage of gameplay had leaked online with the title “Project Beast” attached to it, which led to some speculation as to what From had been working on.
Bloodborne, a PS4 exclusive was also a massive success for From Software. Though it didn’t have the cross-platform exposure of the other Souls games, it still did exceptionally well, selling over 2 million copies.
Dark Souls III and Legacy
Rewinding a bit, it’s interesting to realize how busy From Software must have been in 2013. Development of Dark Souls II and Bloodborne was ongoing, and then suddenly, Dark Souls III materialized with Miyazaki pulling double duty to finish Bloodborne, and begin the process of getting Dark Souls III of the ground. Miyazaki has been saying for quite some time that he views Dark Souls III as a turning point for both the franchise and for From Software. Often when people think of that phrase they assume that something is going from good to bad, or vice versa, but in this case Miyazaki simply meant change. Dark Souls III would be the last game he would work on as a game designer and not a game designer-slash-president.
Dark Souls III for some is seen as taking the best elements of the original game, as well as Bloodborne and finding a balance. Combat was a lot more aggressive in Bloodborne but in the Souls games, aggressive play was often foolish. Dark Souls 3 still espoused being somewhat conservative when it game to attack but allowed the player a little bit more room to act. Despite this, the game was as challenging as ever.
Much like in the previous games, Miyazaki didn’t think in a scale of difficulty, but rather “unreasonableness.” While this may seem like a semantic difference, I can understand what he means. The famously difficult level in Battletoads isn’t simply difficult, but also unreasonable. The expectation of having to develop such muscle memory to execute in such a perfect manner is unreasonable. On the flip side, Dark Souls III presents you as the player with an opportunity to overcome a tremendous challenge, and to learn how to overcome that challenge when you die.
Dark Souls III ends the trilogy and the current story. The storyline is as vague and difficult to grasp as ever, but the elements needed to make sense of the three games are there for those willing to look. Something that I read in an interview with Miyazaki was very intriguing when it comes to Miyazaki’s relationship with plot. As I mentioned earlier, Miyazaki would often fill in the gaps of stories he couldn’t comprehend with his own imagination. In an article for The Gaurdian, which featured an interview with Miyazaki, writer Simon Parkin wrote: “…the story is hazy. You, like young Miyazaki, must fill in the blanks with your imagination, co-authoring the narrative…”
When coupled with the idea that Miyazaki has a “most correct” story for the Dark Souls games in mind, with all the different endings, yet doesn’t share what that is, it suddenly gives you a satisfying picture of Miyzaki’s overall design aesthetic.
Dark Souls III, like the previous games has been another critical and financial success for From Software. While Miyazaki intends it to be the last in the series, he would not dismiss the idea of another From Software designer asking to pick the series back up in another ten years. Miyazaki, for his part, has completed the trilogy. For fans of his though, he assures that despite now being president of the company, he will remain a presence in the game design process and that From software already has new IPs in the work, as well as a return to an old one, Armored Core.
This episode is different than previous episodes because of the relative freshness of the series. To assign a legacy to the Dark Souls games would be a little premature. So on that note, I’ll end on a quote from Miyazaki himself:
“To be honest, I’m really not interested on how I’m viewed as. The only thing I’m interested in is to keep creating something special.”
Thanks for watching everybody. I will be leaving a list of the sources that I used to put this video together in the description below. If you enjoy this type of content, please consider leaving a like, comment and subscribing to the channel. As always, if you find something that is factually incorrect about the video please point it out in the pinned comment down below. Eventually I will be doing a corrections video on my first season of Origin of the Series. This officially ends the first season of Origin of the Series, I don’t have a date planned quite yet for Season Two but follow me on twitter @spoilerkevin and I’m sure I’ll be making an announcement there soon enough.
But that is all for today, and until next time, take care everyone.