My muse and inspiration for my latest ramble is my good friend, archery legend and YouTube influencer, Grizzly Jim. He had been fighting a losing battle for some time to try and get me to play hard as nails, multiple death bastard, Dark Souls. It became a bit of a running joke and any game which was mildly difficult, from Wolfenstein to Overcooked, would receive the appraisal “In many ways, it’s a lot like Dark Souls.”
I can say that after finally completing, and dare I say enjoying, Dark Souls I’ve made Jim proud. But it did get me thinking, there is actually a lot of truth behind that joke, and I keep seeing Dark Souls mechanics everywhere!
In 2011 Dark Souls was unleashed on the gaming public. Set in the fictional kingdom of Lordran, you play a cursed lump of human jerky bound to fulfil a prophecy to either keep those home fires burning or turn out the lights for good. My first experience of this game was a bad one, there was no pause, no map, no waypoint and I’d rolled a mage which is apparently the difficult option.
And so it gathered dust until I decided to give Bloodborne a go, thanks to the PS Plus “free” monthly games subscription. Again I experienced exactly the same frustration but this time I began to understand how these games worked. I couldn’t just charge in waving a sword around and expect to come out on top.
I realised that a huge part of the Soulsborne franchise is exploration. Finding shortcuts and alternate routes, treating everything with suspicion, and being prepared to fight Ornstein and Smough about a million times! There was also nothing quite like the ultimate relief of finding a bonfire or the desolate rage of losing thousands of souls because you got cocky or accidentally backed off a cliff.
Dark Souls is now generally hailed as a masterpiece and can routinely be found high up in various top video games of all time lists. Once I would have railed against this, but Dark Souls was unlike anything I had played before, and it changed my perception on many modern games.
It’s no surprise then that Dark Souls spread its influence far and wide and spawned a few sequels, Dark Souls II in 2014 and Dark Souls III in 2016. Bloodborne was a little nugget of gothic delight in 2015 and this period sparked something of a trend as more releases seemed to be, in many ways a lot like Dark Souls.
Sci-Fi RPG The Surge by Deck 13, came out in 2017 and with a sequel released in September 2019, still causes much division. Some call it Dark Souls with robots and others maintain that it’s so much more than that, but either way it’s pretty clear to see where the inspiration came from. Other notable Souls inspired games also hit the shelves that year.
Nioh from Team Ninja switched out bonfires for shrines, and dark and dreary fantasy landscapes for supernaturally corrupted Japan. It also had a similar asynchronous online multiplayer feature and while it wasn’t quite PVP, you could fight AI controlled versions of other players. You could also play nice and summon others to help you take down particularly nasty bosses.
2017 also saw the release of Metroidvania games Dead Cells from Motion Twin, and Hollow Knight from Team Cherry. These might not seem like obvious comparisons after The Surge and Nioh, but again these games share very similar dynamics. I experienced the same grief when I lost all my carefully collected cells in Dead Cells and I was overwhelmed with the same sense of joy when I found a bench to relax on in Hollow Knight.
If I’m honest ever since playing Dark Souls I keep seeing it everywhere and in places I didn’t expect. The Last Unicorn, a game I pretty much slated had cherry-picked aspects of Souls. Games like Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Assassins Creed Origins felt more Souls-like in their fighting mechanics and in the case of Assassins Creed, it was the reinvigoration that the franchise desperately needed.
Assassins Creed is a series I love. It has its problems, generally around the unfathomable Precursor nonsense, but I do enjoy stabbing my way around history. However, Ubisoft is one of the worst publishers for pushing out copy and paste games.
Assassins Creed and Farcry are essentially the same in terms of gameplay and to an extent, content. Farcry can be boiled down into; climb high things to unlock map, kill things to make pouches, rescue friends from dictator/religious nut job/other unhinged dickhead. Assassins Creed can be summarised as; climb high things to unlock map, meet loads of historically significant people who are coincidentally in the same place at the same time for reasons, kill bad people who may have actually had a point.
Assassins Creed: Origins was a huge breath of fresh air. The story was no great deviation from previous titles, the animus and shiny Precursor apples are still a thing, but my God was Bayek an absolute pleasure to drive. Climbing and fighting was a more freeing experience, no longer constrained by hunting out the slightly different coloured parkour paths. The “Souls” style of fighting was more interactive and involved. Instead of just mashing attack and counter, you had to think more tactically, which was more rewarding and fun.
The only problem is, with everything starting to feel a little bit Dark Souls, I need something new and different again.
Tropes and trends in video games are nothing new and there will always be games that follow and borrow formulas. There is after all something comforting in the familiar, be it the silent protagonist, the chosen one, if you dick about with science there will be consequences etc. But there are occasions when I long for an original IP, something truly different, and I think I found it in one of 2019s most surprising and runaway successes.
Get ready to honk, I’m talking about Untitled Goose Game.
In a torrid sea of seemingly never-ending battle royale games (even bloody Tetris has one now!) Untitled Goose Game is a non-violent, slapstick, stealth puzzle game set in a village so quintessentially “British” there might as well be a Beefeater hurling Victoria sponges at your face, while someone gently weeps over a biscuit breaking off into their tea.
It’s one of the most deliriously joyous games I have played since Overcooked. Its beauty is in its simplicity, the bright and cheery shaded art style makes it feel like an interactive storybook. The score features musical passages from Claude Debussy’s Préludes, so it’s practically cultural. Then there is the Goose, the honking protagonist.
I have always played the paragon. I saved every little sister, I restored Dunwall non-lethally and with zero chaos. I even stood in a radioactive chamber furiously necking all the RadX and Radaway I had because how bloody dare they sacrifice me when there’s a sodding Super Mutant out there who could be doing this! I have occasionally treated myself to the occasional renegade action, after all who doesn’t enjoy punching space journalists? But I’ve never been very good at being bad.
So being a Goose was hugely liberating. It was so utterly joyous waddling around the English countryside essentially being a massive dickhead. Rake in the lake has become a war cry, chasing a bespectacled schoolboy into a phone box is an absolute treat and it’s also really bloody funny running off with someone’s slippers and honking at them over a fence.
Within its first two weeks of release on the Nintendo Switch Untitled Goose Game sold more than 100,000 copies worldwide. It topped the Switch sales charts in the UK, Australia, and the United States, keeping anticipated big-hitter The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening at bay.
You could read too deep into why it’s done so well. Is this game an anti-establishment statement on rural England? Maybe. Am I a high-functioning psychopath? Possibly. Is the goose a honking great symbol of freedom and liberty? Absolutely. But my personal opinion is that this game felt like such a breath of fresh air. It’s a happy little gem that at its core appeals to the slap-stick loving child inside all if not most of us. It’s the simplest form of wish fulfilment, to be silly and annoying and get away with it, and what could be more British than the German emotion of Schadenfreude?
So Dark Souls, while I love you, sometimes I need things to be a little more Goose.