In preparation for the imminent release of Dark Souls 3 I’ve been replaying the first two games and thinking about one of the more common criticism people had about Dark Souls 2: The fact that it somehow just didn’t fully capture the excellent feel of the first game. The combat was fun, the dungeons were interesting but at the end of the day it somehow didn’t have the same impact as the original. Still a great game, definitely worth playing but somehow lacking that special something.
Many people blame this on the fact that the game had a different director than the original. And that probably played a part.
But I think the bigger issue is that Dark Souls 2 was a sequel to a story that didn’t need a sequel. Even the best of directors is going to have trouble given that sort of prompt.
You see, a big part of what made the original so fascinating was the fact that the entire game was one big cohesive mystery revolving around the questions of “Why is civilization dying?” and “What happened to the gods?” The opening cutscene makes it clear that at one points the gods had built a pretty awesome civilization so why is the world you wind up exploring such an awful place?
From that starting point every location you visited, every item you picked up, and every scrap of lore hidden in a weapon description all worked together to weave the history of the ruined world the player was fighting their way through. Do even a half-decent job of finding and piecing together these story fragments and by the time you finished the game you had a solid idea of why the Dark Souls world was the way it was.
Sure, there were dozens of minor questions left unanswered and the ending was a little open-ended but the core mysteries all had satisfying conclusions. The game felt complete all on its own.
Now enter Dark Souls 2.
The developers’ goal was to build the same sort of mystery adventure that fans of the original loved so much. The problem is, you can’t just reuse a mystery. No point in asking “What happened to the gods?” when your veteran players already know the answers.
So Dark Souls 2 needed a brand new mystery to drive the adventure.
But even with a new core mystery Dark Souls 2 was still a Dark Souls game and had to have the same general look, feel and background lore as the first game.
And I think this is what ultimately dragged down Dark Souls 2. In the original every aspect of the game was carefully designed to tell a specific story, but in the sequel the new story was forced to share the stage with countless nostalgic references to the previous game.
The end result is a mildly muddled story that lacked the cohesive punch of the original.
So let’s play “What Could Have Been” and brainstorm what the game might have looked like if it had been a standalone title and allowed to focused 100% on it’s own themes and setting. This shouldn’t be too hard. I mean, Dark Souls 2 had a ton of really cool and original content. We just need to think of a way to move it to center stage.
For starters let’s identify what the core mystery theme of Dark Souls 2 actually was.
Well… half of the Dark Soul 2 main game and all three of the DLC areas focus on exploring the ruins of ancient castles and learning about the royalty that used to live there. You learn bits about how various kings and queens grew to power as well as how their various character flaws lead to their downfall. The “Scholar of the First Sin” edition even has a mysterious NPC who shows up on a regular basis and asks you “What does it mean to be a king?”
So there’s your central mystery. The player is stuck in the middle of a country filled with the ruins of multiple generations of failed kingdoms that leave him asking: Who built all this cool stuff? What went wrong to leave it a ruin?
Since the core theme is the rise and fall of kings, so let’s call our hypothetical standalone version “Royal Souls” and move on to how we might edit the existing game to fit our new mold. Strip out the undead and the old gods and what do we have left to work with?
As a reminder, the actual plot of Dark Souls 2 begins with the character realizing they have the undead curse from the first game and finding themselves drawn to the land of Drangleic. The player then encounters a mysterious lady who points them towards a distant castle and suggests that going there and talking with a certain king might help with the curse. But to get to the castle they need to gather four ancient souls (all with possible connections to the first game).
In our theoretical Royal Souls we could instead begin with the character (who isn’t a cursed undead) still finding themselves irresistibly drawn to the land of Drangleic. The player could then encounter the same mysterious lady who points them towards the same castle and tells them that the reason they have been drawn here is because they are destined to meet the King.
But wait! Without the undead curse how do we make the game work? Reviving when you die is a core part of the experience. And what about the bonfires? What do we use for check points if we don’t have the First Flame and bonfires from the Dark Souls series?
Well… what if we replaced the bonfires with ruined thrones that player can sit on? And when the player dies he returns to the last throne he sat upon?
You see, in Royal Souls the main driver of the plot wouldn’t be souls and humanity and curses and gods but instead the fact that the Royal Soul’s version of Drangleic is a mystic land that desperately needs a new king and naturally attracts people with the spark of royalty. The land itself then keeps them alive until they either go mad from their many deaths or finally achieve the goal of ascending to kinghood.
The four ancient souls the player needs to collect before opening the path to Drangleic Castle? They now become four royal souls, each belonging to a different king who at one time ruled Drangleic before falling into ruin and/or madness (which shouldn’t be a hard change since two of them fit that description anyways).
The player then eventually makes it to Drangleic Castle and discovers that the current king is mad or dying or cursed or maybe missing entirely. There’s some sort of final dramatic boss fight and the game ends with the player, having proven their worth, becoming the new king of Drangleic. The truth is finally revealed: The King they were questing to meet with was themselves all along.
And yet… after spending the entire game learning about the failures of a half dozen previous kings, can the player really say with any confidence that their reign will last? Maybe there is no such thing as a True Royal Soul.
So that basic plot sounds good enough. Gives the player a reason to explore a bunch of dungeons and has a nice but not too crazy twist ending. All that’s left to do now is flesh the world out with details about the various failed kingdoms. And since we’ve dropped all the Dark Souls references we have more than enough room to do so. Instead of “wasting” half of our equipment and most of our spells on references to Dark Souls we can make sure that every item description relates directly to one of the half-dozen kings of Drangleic.
For example, instead of pyromancy spells that constantly reference the old lore of Dark Souls we could have similar but new “Iron Works”, a unique brand of metal and fire themed magic invented during the reign Old Iron King. The player could then learn more about the Old Iron King by collecting Iron Works in the same way that Dark Souls 1 players learned more about the Witch of Izalith by learning pyromancies.
At this point you probably either think I’m crazy or are already half-way through your own redesign of the lore and setting of Dark Souls 2.
Either way it will certainly be interesting to see what happens with Dark Souls 3. They’ve brought back the original director and his recent work on Bloodborne shows he still knows how to tell an amazing standalone story. But can he pull off a sequel? Can he find a way to blend the lore he wrote in the original with the lore he wants to create for this third game?
I certainly hope so.