Dark Souls II Update:
Hoookay. This game is a lot more frustrating than the first one. Most of my deaths have been because either I fell off something (still getting used to the faster control scheme) or because like 4+ enemies ganged up on me (seriously, every area is ganky as fuck). Where the first one felt more tough-but-fair, this one feels like it swings a little more in the direction of "hard just to piss you off." I did a *little* cursing during DS1, but this time there's been a good bit of controller smashing.
In particular, you know how I said the health depreciation wasn't bothering me? Yeah, I take that back. Especially because the respawn limit means you can't farm Human Effigies efficiently, making them a VERY scarce resource (unless you wanna farm in pvp/co-op, which I don't). I got the Ring of Binding now, which will help, but still.
Most of the bosses, though haven't been that bad. The Last Giant, The Dragonrider, and the Flexile Sentry all went down on the first try without much trouble. The Pursuer gave me a little bit more of a headache, but once I figured out the dodge timing, he wasn't THAT bad (I tried to use the ballistas but he smashed them). The first real wall I hit was the Ruined Sentinels--I ran out of effigies and was down to half health and... yeah, that wasn't happening. So I wandered off to another area, found a chest of 5 effigies, came back, summoned the Pilgrim guy and this time, managed to get them on the third go-round.
But I said I was gonna play through the trilogy and I'm stubborn, so I WILL beat this thing.
I’ve realized a flaw in my perspective on renaming Soulslikes; not in my conclusion, more in my thought process
I maintain that “Opportunistic” is a good description for the combat in Dark Souls, and since every Soulslike I’ve seen thus far has mimicked that combat style, it would not be wrong to refer to every extant Soulslike as Opportunistic Action games (which is also coincidentally an indictment of their decision to capitalize on Dark Souls’ popularity)
However, in thinking of how the majority of Soulslikes copy and resemble Dark Souls, I’ve inadvertently done exactly what I was trying to prevent with this thought exercise: I limited myself to games that actively resemble Dark Souls. I tried to avoid overlap with games like Monster Hunter or For Honor because they are not “Soulslike,” despite the fact that you can accurately refer to their combat as Opportunistic in much the same way. The point of distancing the genre from being like Dark Souls is to be able to include and ultimately create things that are decidedly not like Dark Souls. Avoiding other properties because they are too different defeats the purpose
Furthermore, I’ve also been limiting myself to only one term. In my mind, everything inspired by Dark Souls had to be able to fit into just one, universal term, but doing so again limits my options to things that completely mimic the feel of Dark Souls rather than becoming their own thing
The other day I decried Yahtzee’s suggestion of Recursive games because that term is applicable to any game with a fail state, and while I still think that’s true, it also misses the point. Recursive games are games that don’t just include “repetition until mastery” as all games do in some way, but expect and encourage it in unique ways. The currency drop system from Dark Souls encourages one to take the same path as before rather than go somewhere else that may be easier. The Shade in Hollow Knight does much the same thing but is more of a non-option on the basis that it retains some of your Soul Meter, limiting your ability to cast spells; this reinforces that Hollow Knight is a Soulslike game, independently of the fact that the combat is Opportunistic. Shovel Knight, however, does not have Opportunistic combat, but retains and enhances the Recursive elements by retaining the currency drop system and introducing a customizable checkpoint system.
Shovel Knight may not be hard in the same way that Dark Souls is, but it encourages the player to push their own abilities both by reaping the rewards of risking the loss of checkpoints and attempting previously lost challenges again with the added wrinkle of trying to retrieve lost currency. By ignoring the influence that Dark Souls had on Shovel Knight, I missed a major way in which a game can be like Dark Souls without remotely resembling it. Who knows how many games encourage the same kind of skill pushing repetition?
Furthermore, I have heard from multiple sources (GMTK and various friends) that Dark Souls’ approach to lore, being “obtuse and unknowable,” is the most essential part for making a game “feel” like Dark Souls, more so than the controls or mechanics. I initially ignored this because this is more a matter of narrative and worldbuilding than an aspect of gameplay, but it easily can be. The lore of Transistor is unlocked as a reward for experimenting with the weapon combinations, at least subtly incorporating the game’s mechanics with its story. Mystery games like Return of the Obra Dinn base their entire gameplay around the obfuscation of their own lore, requiring the player to pick up the puzzle pieces on their own and shape them into a cohesive whole rather than being fed the answers like most mystery games would. Even if Dark Souls itself doesn’t gamify its lore, that style of obfuscated storytelling most definitely can be made into a major game mechanic. Even if the games don’t resemble Dark Souls, the point isn’t to resemble it, but to refine the mechanics that people associate with it.
Because Dark Souls’ vulnerability-based combat, encouragement of repetition in the face of adversity and obfuscated storytelling are all intrinsically linked to Dark Souls’ identity, a game could take inspiration from any of those and technically be called “like Dark Souls.” A “Soulslike,” however, is generally one that takes two or all three of those and adheres strictly to mimicking the feel of Dark Souls, often removing the other, less closely tied concepts like Exploratory gameplay or RPG customization
I think that is actually what really illustrates the problem with insisting that “Soulslike” is a genre in and of itself. It means that Dark Souls itself is a genre-defining experience that can only be strayed from in the most subtle ways rather than being a point of inspiration for people who would see any number of mechanics as Dark Souls’ most core element
The goal is for those mechanics to form an identity of their own, to develop and change into games that are wholly unrecognizable from their origin in Dark Souls. Most procedural games these days don’t resemble Rogue at all, having completely ditched the turn-based, dungeon-crawling RPG mechanics and focused solely on procedural-generation in other contexts like action platformers (Dead Cells) or recontextualized those ideas by putting it all to a rhythm mechanic (Crypt of the Necrodancer). Whether you can see the traces of inspiration or can’t recognize them at all, the purpose of having a genre is to explore different approaches and perspectives in order to refine and innovate on the base ideas, not recreate the same experience ad infinitum
The only problem is that if so many mechanics stem from Dark Souls to create a variety of genres, Dark Souls itself will fit into all of those genres, so giving a complete picture of what kind of game Dark Souls is will require a lot more explanation. Instead of being an Exploratory Action RPG, Dark Souls would become a Recursive Exploratory RPG with Opportunistic Combat and Obfuscated Lore. Granted, I think many games require multiple qualifiers like that (Action Adventure Survival Shooters with Crafting elements come to mind)
Still, I think that’s just the price you pay for having a game that means so many different things to so many different people. There are so many ways that Dark Souls differentiates itself from other games that it’s not surprising it would lend itself to creating multiple genres, and inadvertently forcing itself to bear the names of all of those genres is really just proof of how influential it is, and should be seen more as a badge of honor than a point of contention
So that’s where I am now. Dark Souls presents too many unique aspects to be summed up in just one term, and thus games that seek to draw inspiration from Dark Souls shouldn’t try to emulate all of those aspects, but choose one and build on it in their own, unique ways. Opportunistic combat, Recursive challenges, and Obfuscated storytelling are all worth analyzing and expanding in their own right and all have the potential to spawn their own incredibly fun and varied genres, much more so than simple clones of an existing, popular title
I still expect to find new developments in this conversation, but I think this is an extremely important step that illustrates exactly why this conversation needs to be had. We don’t want to restrict the possibilities of what can come from Dark Souls or other landmark titles, so it’s only appropriate that we not limit ourselves to deriving only one genre from them either