Dark Souls is widely regarded as an outstanding game for a variety of reasons, such as the “hard but fair” ethos in which its only demand is that you prove your growth as a player at each step. The world is similarly praised for its clever interconnectedness. I want to illustrate the level of thought that went into the level design, using a series of highlights progressing through the game. This is somewhat inspired by this analysis of Super Metroid, a game which itself is clearly an element of the Dark Souls pedigree. Many of the concepts described in that article apply to this game as well, but Souls has to maintain a special focus on one particular element: quietly helping the player endure the intense difficulty that the game itself created.
One of my goals is to refine the image that both fans and non-fans have of Dark Souls, as being defined solely by difficulty. Perhaps its best-hidden secret is that it does not actually leave the player lost in the wilderness with no direction and death awaiting at every turn, but rather guides and supports them in subtle ways. The game fulfills two roles at once: presenting a seemingly crushing challenge, but also, behind the scenes, doing what it can to make it more likely that each player finds a way through. The defining emotion of Dark Souls is the thrill of both facing the challenge and then eventually surpassing it, and the game succeeds because it does everything it can to provide both of those experiences.
This post will take us through ringing the Bells of Awakening. Many of the themes of the level design are shown most strongly in this first segment, when it’s critical to give a player an understanding of how this game works, and most importantly, to give them the tools to succeed in what comes after it.
The game opens with one of the very few moments that I’m going to question. Before its threadbare tutorial is even complete, it throws the player into a boss fight, the Asylum Demon, where the solution is not to fight, but to escape through an open door elsewhere in the room. I’m not sure what this is intended to teach, since nowhere else in the game is there a boss fight that you can run away from; you’re always sealed in (there are occasional large non-boss enemies you can run from, such as the Bridge Hellkite or the Hydra, but they’re in open outdoor spaces that make it obvious anyway). These opening minutes are precious for hooking the player and starting to teach them, and adding a potential sticking point with no teaching utility is not parsimonious. Arguably, one hint is that the boss fight is completely unfair (you don’t have a real weapon yet, so no non-expert player has a chance), but it’s too early to rely on the player’s trust that Dark Souls is never unfair. Building that trust is a key goal of the early levels.
After finishing the brief tutorial and getting their starting weapons, the player returns to fight the Asylum Demon for real, which is where they prove they’re ready to begin Dark Souls proper. Making the player do this before they can begin exploring the world is a technique that will be used throughout the game: the gatekeeper encounter. Asylum Demon is harder than the basic enemies you’ll fight for a little while (many new players will take some time to reach the next boss, Taurus Demon), so this seems like an atypical placement of a boss fight. This is done to ensure that you’re not struggling to learn combat against the basic Hollows while you’re also starting to explore the world. This is hallmark Souls pacing: move some of the struggle to the front to make sure the player’s skills are at least somewhat shipshape for the upcoming area. This ensures they can explore the area without being hamstrung by an inability to kill basic enemies along the paths. Asylum Demon is a special use of this technique because the “area” here is the entire game.
Firelink will be your only home for the entire game, and the first hub in the complex network of the game’s central levels. Once you arrive at Firelink by bird, you will not take any mode of transport again for a long time, not until the end of Sen’s Fortress (other than revisiting the Asylum if you want). This is the first impressive feature of Dark Souls, that everyone probably notices quickly. The entire first half of the game is one continuous “level”. It has different named areas with different looks and feels, but there are no breaks. This is used for more than merely the immersive effect of avoiding loading screens, but allows (most of) the game to be one large 3D space you can explore. Most dramatically, it allows for impressive reveals where the game takes you back to a place you’ve been, along a new route, without your realizing it until you get there. That effect would have no power if you hadn’t been traveling along an unbroken path the whole time. I won’t repeat this point every time it comes up throughout the game, but the discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning it.
Giving you a home as the first stop as a way out of the tutorial area is not a trivial gesture. Places where you can feel safe will be a rarity, and one that you can always come back to is an important comfort. We’ll see how the game pushes you away from Firelink and then returns you to it a few times across the early acts. On a smaller scale, each bonfire serves a similar role as a root for your exploration of the local area.
For purposes of our discussion, the most important features of Firelink are the paths out: up the hill into Undead Burg, into the Cemetery right next to the Shrine, and down the elevator into New Londo Ruins. The Burg is the right one for a first-time player, and the other two demonstrate two different approaches to the important design goal of silently but firmly turning you away. New Londo is the harsher and more obvious approach: you cannot fight the ghosts there because your weapons pass through them, immediately causing all but the most stubborn players to try something else. The Cemetery is more deceptive: nothing is obviously wrong with fighting the skeletons, but they outmatch you numerically for now. Unlike New Londo, players might vary in how long they take to give up here before trying the Burg. The game and the player haven’t yet had a chance to come to a meeting of the minds on the right level of stubbornness to cultivate. The difference between the Cemetary and the Burg paths are the first two data points: the former is more punishment than even Dark Souls desires to inflict on you, and the latter is business as usual. Calibrating the player’s sense of what to expect, in much more detail than “I heard Dark Souls is hard” will be important going forward.
There is a fourth path: down the elevator and through the locked door into the Valley of Drakes, provided you took the Master Key as your starting gift. This will be discussed below.
Once you do make your way into the Burg, things are mostly linear for a bit. Simple exploration will find the first Undead Merchant and a bonfire. The only major diversion is a Black Knight at the end, but that doesn’t open new routes. There are no explicit shortcuts that loop back yet, because the path to Taurus Demon from the bonfire is quite short anyway (the area’s length is probably calibrated to still account for frequent deaths to Hollow packs). Even with no shortcut, it exhibits a standard property of Dark Souls levels: once you know the enemy placements, the path from the bonfire to the boss can be sprinted with no fighting and comparatively few complications. Bosses are designed to take many attempts, and there’s no question that this can produce a pacing problem—newcomers frequently cite the frustration of reclearing to the boss after every death. The fact that this can mostly be avoided simply by trying is a lesson that’s good to start early, in the hope that players will pick up on it sooner rather than later.
Soon after Taurus is the Hellkite bridge, which the player will start to walk down and then be slaughtered by fire from an unseen dragon, who only after this will take up his visible perch at the end of the bridge. A near-unavoidable (without prior knowledge) death, especially immediately after giving the player a lot of souls from a boss, seens oddly harsh at first. They may wonder what the lesson is here. Still, the player is now adept at getting back to Taurus’s room, and retrieving souls from the bridge is likely. The firm suggestion that the bridge may not be the right path will at least ensure the player meets Solaire on a nearby platform. Eventually though, they must brave the bridge—it is the only path, and the church is visible behind it—with the notion of either killing the dragon or somehow getting past it. It turns out that either of those options is possible, but a third will present itself: a route from the midpoint of the bridge, under the dragon, and into the Parish. The purpose of the initial fiery death was to increase the tension surrounding the decision to attempt this.
Once again, at the start of a new area, the path is laid clearly ahead for a while, with the biggest change being some new enemy types. There is a formidable gatekeeper encounter involving a number of Hollows and a Fang Boar, an advanced enough enemy that it’s more like a miniboss at this point. The room contains a lot of geometry that can be exploited to remain safe from it.
After some mostly-linear rooms, the player arrives at the chapel, which contains a large number of interesting things:
- Across a short, quiet bridge from the hall, a safe area with another bonfire. Only the second that’s been seen since leaving Firelink.
- An elevator that provides a shortcut all the way back to Firelink, the second reveal that shows off the connectedness of the world.
- Near the bonfire, Andre the blacksmith, likely the first one found.
- Two more paths: the gate (currently closed) into Sen’s Fortress, and past an imposing Titanite Demon into Darkroot Garden.
- The first Fire Keeper Soul, a very rare item. Its dramatic placement on the altar indicates that it is something special.
- The stairway up to the bell tower, with the boss and ultimate goal of this area.
- Two more non-respawning enemies in the chapel hall (the large Berenike Knight near the altar, and the Channeler shooting from the balcony).
In addition to the usual role of non-respawning enemies, providing tangible progress through the zone, these two have an added function. Killing them makes the chapel hall into a safe place. Since it’s directly connected to Firelink (a fact which already brings a huge sense of relief and comfort), it is now an extension of your home, stretching all the way to the blacksmith’s area. Making you conquer your new space is much more rewarding than simply presenting it empty.
The boss encounters themselves are not the focus of this discussion, but the Gargoyle pair guarding the bell tower is by far the hardest yet. The nearby connections to Firelink and a blacksmith provide easy opportunities for improvement and preparation if the fight poses a problem. A thorough exploration of the area also will allow for two NPC helpers to summon if needed, which is unusual. After defeating the Gargoyles, the ringing of the first Bell provides the first major success of the game.
The way forward will be into the Depths. This requires going through Lower Undead Burg, whose entrance is a bit out of the way, but the Basement Key that was found in the Parish spells out the location in the item description. I won’t say too much about Lower Undead Burg. It’s a small and generally linear area whose most notable feature is a hard boss fight (Capra Demon) which is often a sticking point for new players. It reinforces the themes seen so far by including shortcuts back to the Undead Burg bonfire and back to Firelink. Killing Capra Demon gives the key to the nearby entrance to the Depths.
The Depths and the Curse
Descending into the Depths presents nothing unusual for short while, merely a few new enemy types. The layout of the level is still interesting in that you have to either encounter the giant rat, or drop into the sewers (probably accidentally), but not necessarily both, to get to the end. It does add a new twist with a bonfire behind a locked door, but the key is only separated from you by a few ordinary rats.
The big drama of the Depths is what will happen to most people shortly after their fall into the sewers:
They’re comfortable enough with you now to try a harsh presentation of a side quest: suddenly you have a big problem to solve before you can continue any further. Of course, if you either never drop, or never get hit twice (probably) by the Basilisks’ breath attack, your reward is skipping this quest. This is a case where there doesn’t have to be a backup plan to get the player to a certain path: never getting Cursed and simply continuing on is perfectly acceptable.
The reason I call decursing a side quest is that it will play as one for many players. If you have a Purging Stone already, this won’t happen, but they are costed to make it unlikely that you will. You could have bought one for 3,000 Souls from Oswald, whom you met after Gargoyles (when that was likely to be an entire level’s worth), or for 6,000 from the Undead Merchant near the Depths entrance (same). Prudent types who made the investment regardless are rewarded by removing the Curse immediately, but this is set up so that a lot of players will have to make the trek out of the Depths with reduced HP, which is a significant task. The player will also have 0 Souls after having been Cursed (safe retrieval from the sewer is unlikely), so they’ll have to farm up 6,000 and/or burn any soul items they saved. After all this is done, the reward is having to go back to the Depths and make it through safely this time, with an intense fear of Basilisks, the only enemy so far that can inflict a fate worse than death. Getting Cursed again would be crushing, but it’s unlikely as Basilisks are not too difficult to fight. The fear of the Curse, more than the reality, is used to give tension to the level. Notably, the eventual shortcut from the Depths bonfire (pictured above) bypasses the Basilisk tunnels. The game is not mean enough to make you risk another Curse during your repeated runs to attempt Gaping Dragon or progress in early Blighttown.
One concern about this otherwise well-executed diversion (and to be sure, a side quest whose only purpose is to instill fear with a painful lesson is not easy to pull off well) is that the reference to New Londo seems like a trap. In theory the player could trek all the way to Ingward to be decursed for free, but that would require fighting through one of the hardest combat rooms in New Londo (a set piece where ghosts trap you in a room), at low level, with half HP. Especially to a player who doesn’t remember on what merchant they saw a Purging Stone, finding the healer may well look like the intended path. They know where New Londo is, and the curse lets them kill ghosts, reinforcing that this is the right idea. The signals lead you this way, by far the least practical way of getting decursed, which is a misstep.
Blighttown opens with another gatekeeper encounter that introduces important enemies—not the two club-wielding giants, but the bridge with two Infested Ghouls on it and a Blowdart Sniper firing on you from the darkness. As always, this is designed to ensure you probably don’t advance without 1) seeing the Ghouls’ attacks, including a dangerous grab, and 2) figuring out what in the world keeps debuffing you with Toxin out of nowhere. The game is being gentle by showing this to you in close range of the entrance. The later and more devious placements of Snipers on difficult-to-reach ledges is fair because the possibility was demonstrated up front. Springing that on you deep into a segment is the sort of “difficulty” you wouldn’t find here.
As with any non-respawning enemy, the Snipers are also used to mediate progression throughout the difficult segments between bonfires in Blighttown. Finally, players who both diligently explored the Depths and also read their item descriptions will have the poison-blocking Spider Shield as a nice reward to give them a leg up along the way.
The bottom of Blighttown is a large area with a generally simple layout. It’s a large swamp, but easy to get lost in due to the darkness. Exploring well reveals a variety of items and potentially a well-hidden entrance to an optional side area (The Great Hollow). Hopefully at some point the player happens to look up and realize that they can see all way back to the surface, and furthermore, that the giant stone pillars in the swamp are in fact the bases of the huge buttresses supporting the city they have been exploring.
It’s possible that, in exploring, the player will find the waterwheel and the exit route back to Firelink before finding the boss. This is generally fine if those two things are done in reverse order. If they leave Blighttown without ringing the second Bell, they know they’re not done and have to go back, and discovering the path out will still be useful. The fact that the boss’s area is named as a new zone when you enter it (“Quelaag’s Domain”) may be minorly confusing for someone specifically hunting for the Bell, as an NPC back in town said that it was in “Blighttown”.
Return to Firelink and the Key to New Londo Ruins
The waterwheel climb is a difficult but generally linear path to the Valley of Drakes, which is a new area. But right next to you is an entrance back to Firelink, in yet another major shortcut reveal (see below regarding what happens if the player tries heading along the Valley instead).
The arrival back at Firelink is a rare use of plot drama:
The Fire Keeper has been murdered. Furthermore, this is a serious practical problem, since you need to touch a bonfire to consummate your escape from Blighttown. After calming down a moment, you remember that the practical problem is fine. Your home has a second bonfire now—you can take the elevator to the Parish bonfire and rest there, without having to fight a single enemy. On the way, a bizarre new NPC, Kingseeker Frampt, tells you some of the plot, one of the few times that happens in the whole game.
There are three ways to know that the next leg of the game will be to head into Sen’s Fortress. The cutscene after ringing the second bell shows you, if you remember what the gate looks like. Frampt tells you if you talk to him. But most importantly, the game has ensured that the only place you feel safe now is the Parish bonfire, which is directly in view of the Fortress gate.
One item acquired on the way from Blighttown back to Firelink, whose significance cannot be overemphasized, is the Key to New Londo Ruins. It opens the gate from Valley of Drakes (right near the Blighttown exit) to New Londo (right near the Firelink elevator). Your home base is now expanded to not just the Firelink and Parish bonfire areas, but the Valley of Drakes, itself a small secondary hub that gives direct access to Blighttown and Darkroot Basin. It shrinks the world by putting all currently important areas within a few minutes’ run from each other. Later on the game, Dark Souls will give in and provide a form of fast travel, but only at an appropriate time, after there has been ample time to master the known areas. For the first half of the game, the goal of maintaining practical travel between all the areas while growing the world, without offering any transportation, is accomplished solely through ingenuity in the level design.
The Key to New Londo becomes even more interesting when you ask: why does it exist? That is, why is it a key instead of a one-way shortcut door (an example of which was recently seen in the Depths)? The key is in plain sight on the path back to the door, producing the same result as the standard shortcut mechanic. The reason is that there is another way to open it, the Master Key. The significance of this one junction that connects so much of the world together is that an advanced player using the Master Key can have access to all those areas from the very start (for example, starting the game and going directly to fight the Gargoyles and Quelaag without ever passing through the Burg, most of Parish, the Lower Burg, the Depths, or most of Blighttown). The Master Key opens a few other doors, but this is the one that matters. This one door is keyed so that the Master Key can exist as an option which, true to its name, unlocks the whole game.
The only loose end that must be tied up, given the choice to use a key here, is what happens if the player misses it. Creating a sticking point just before the triumphant return to Firelink would be a problem. But look at how cleverly this is handled: a player who arrives at the New Londo gate and finds it locked has only one new way to go, down the Valley of Drakes. With lower New Londo still flooded, that exit from Valley is blocked, and the only exit is an elevator up to Darkroot Basin. Basin has a few exits, but coming from this route you will arrive right next to the exit to Parish. The other exits are much less accessible, being guarded by the Hydra and by Havel the Rock. There is even a bonfire along the way so that, if you probe at other parts of the Basin first, your death doesn’t send you to back Blighttown. There is only one path with little resistance along it (the biggest problems are a Black Knight and a Drake or two that you can simply run past), and it leads directly to the Parish bonfire, exactly where you’re meant to wind up.
The Key to New Londo example is a perfect demonstration of how Dark Souls‘s exploration-oriented gameplay works far more subtly than simply letting you roam randomly in a large, unfriendly world. It carefully considers where the typical player is most likely to go next, and how to carefully cue them to (unaware of the game’s thumb on the scale) go in the direction that will be best. The player is absolutely free to choose, and can choose differently, a sacrosanct axiom of Souls. But this world was created by people with the staunch hope that your choices will always see you through to the way forward.
Everything about Dark Souls, from its reputation, to its cold use of player deaths/failures as a teaching tool, to the pervasive swagger of its fans, suggests hostility at every turn. But make no mistake. Underneath the facade, like a devoted parent, this game desires one thing above all: to see you succeed.