//The following article contains some general spoilers for Doki Doki Literature Club, for some reason
I know, I know. Dark Souls? Arbitrary definitions of genre? Axiomatic declarations of truth? Man, I’m about to call out Pretentious Game Design Blog Bingo here. The reason I think this blog is worth writing is not that whether or not the Soulsborne games’ genre really matters, but rather, the thought put into to deciding it does. That is to say, the conclusion of the argument matters much less than understanding the argument to get there.
Allow me to make my case. Say I walk into a physical game store, and I go up to the dude behind the counter. I say “Hey man, do you have any recommendations? I’m looking for something new to play, something super different.”
After some deliberation, the guy snaps his fingers. “Oh man, I know the perfect game for you. It’s a game with a super heavy focus on its combat mechanics, to the point where you’ll feel like you’re absolutely getting your ass kicked early on, but as you progress you’ll feel amazing as you start to get used to it. You really have to learn about your enemy’s attack patterns and respond to them, instead of just mashing buttons.”
“There’s not really a heavy focus on dialogue or traditional narrative,” he continues. “And all the characters that are there are kind of bizarre. You have inventory management, both in the form of items and consumables, and have some stats that you can upgrade over time. Ultimately, though, none of that matters, because of you’re good enough you can go through the whole game with trash weapons and no stat increases. There’s a bunch of secrets to find, and also, it has a bunch of crazy boss battles and this insane Gothic aesthetic that’s just dripping from every room.”
“Dope!” I respond. “I’ll take that.”
With that, the clerk goes over to the shelf and grabs me a copy of Bayonetta.
I know, I can hear your arguments screaming through the computer. Bayonetta doesn’t really have that many skills to upgrade, just Health and Witch Time. Dark Souls has a veritable Excel spreadsheet of stats to manage, and tons of items to collect and equip and use. Bayonetta just has melee weapons, that’s all. And Dark Souls has this rich, immersive lore-filled world full of deep characters and interesting motives, and you get to make choices! Bayonetta just has a linear story about punching God into the sun or something.
Herein lies my critical point: while Dark Souls has a bunch of gameplay features that we traditionally associate with role-playing games, what it actually does with them puts it much closer to the character action games that Platinum puts out, like Bayonetta, than an actual role-playing game.
I think the biggest point at which to start here is the stats, that omnipresent table of numbers that define who you are in a role-playing game. Dark Souls‘s stat screen is certainly intimidating.
Here’s the thing, though. Literally none of the numbers on this screen affect who your character is, and they provide no wider a suite of options to the player as a selection of gun in a first-person shooter. To compare, let’s look at the “stats screen” of a true-blue role-playing game, Dungeons and Dragons.
There are numbers on this sheet that describe how well a D&D character hits things, of course, but these numbers have a much greater sweeping effect on your character than that. The column of attributes down the left side inform the specifics of how your character behaves, what kind of person they are. Are they funny? Are they smart? How’s their critical thinking ability? Are they kinda shifty? Or big and brutish?
Go back and look at the Dark Souls stat screen. How faithful is a Dark Souls character? How much does that change when you increase your Faith stat? Turns out, you have no idea, and not much at all, respectively. Similarly, it’s not like your character has such better ideas when you increase Intelligence, merely the weapons that arbitrarily do more damage based on Intelligence will…do even more damage.
This is because of one simple truth: a mechanic does not make a game what it is, it’s what you do with that mechanic that matters. Dungeons and Dragons (and Planescape Torment and Pillars of Eternity and what have you) have numerical stats and use them as a way to precisely describe the distinct characteristics of a character in quantifiable terms. Mechanics are a way to represent what makes characters unique, what makes them, y’know, people. They are there to reinforce the idea that you are now this character, by giving you a better idea of who that character is.
Mechanics in Dark Souls do absolutely none of that. The numbers on a stat screen do not exist to help you get a better idea of who your character is, but rather they are variables to fit into the game’s mechanical calculus, elements to introduce to your strategies and tactics. They’re used as a way to fine-tune your combat strategy, to shore up parts of the combat where you’re weak, and make your preferred tactics more viable. In this way, they actual bear more resemblance to a scope in Call of Duty than they do D&D’s Intelligence stat. While a role-playing game’s stats push you closer to the character you’re inhabiting, stats in Dark Souls are merely modifiers to your combat aptitude.
I could go on with other aspects of the game, but I feel as though my argument is the same. The use of equipment and items in Dark Souls is merely used to modify and enhance combat strategies, and in no way is a reflection of the character’s identity (weapons as a reflection of identity in D&D can be seen in class restrictions in usable weapons. Since only certain classes can use certain weapons, using a weapon is an expression of that class).
The amount of story and narrative in Dark Souls also doesn’t make it a role-playing game, obviously. Plenty of games that aren’t role-playing games have deep stories. Metal Gear has a deep story. Touhou games have a deep story.
Now, some of you might be asking, what is my definition of a role-playing game? And my answer is that it doesn’t really matter. I’m just using this genre discussion as a vehicle, a sort of Trojan Horse of clickbait through which I want to make my real point: when it comes to identifying the soul of a game, intent shines through much greater than the actual mechanical building blocks themselves. It’s how Dark Souls takes all of the mechanics of role-playing games to build a solid action game, how Thomas Was Alone uses the mechanics of a platformer to build a character drama, how Doki Doki Literature Club builds a horror game out of a visual novel.
This can also be seen in less homogeneous mixtures. Borderlands points role-playing game mechanics in the same direction as FPS mechanics, creating a single harmonious thing. The same thing happens when Brutal Legend points open-world action-adventure mechanics to run parallel with a strategy game.
Of course, saying that mechanics “belong” to a genre at all is stupid. Mechanics are just mechanics, and a good designer can make any mechanic feed into the central philosophy of any game, with proper tweaking. A stat block can be used to enhance combat, a gun can be used to solve puzzles (Portal), a player’s movement can be used to cast judgement upon them (The Stanley Parable), and so much more. So unshackle mechanics from their context and really run wild with them, and see what you can make.