While Demon’s Souls (2009) served as a proof of concept for a new genre of RPG, it was From Software’s spiritual sequel Dark Souls (2011) that established the Souls brand and the Souls-like subgenre of RPGs. As the name may have given away though, the defining features of the “Souls-like” genre is based on similarity to the From Software Souls games. The term is as nebulous as the rogue-like genre, based on Rogue (1988), and while there are certain specific mechanical similarities players of souls-like games expect, the genre is rather defined by how these mechanics come together to create a specific emotional arc of player experience.
So what is it that defines a Souls game; what is the soul of a souls-like? The first word you’ll hear from ten thousand mouths is difficulty—Souls games have a reputation for being extremely punishing or difficult. Players tend to be fragile and often have limited means to defend against attacks that can kill them in a single hit. Sometimes enemies are hidden around corners or positioned to fatally ambush players. As a result, the Dark Souls lived up to its “Prepare to Die” advertising tagline. However, that isn’t to say that the difficulty isn’t fair.
There is a palpable sense of fair play in all Souls games. Death is handled in a very particular way in Souls-like games. Many games require players to start over from a previous save when they die. Death is considered a failure state in the game. In a souls-like, death is little more than a setback. Players are returned to the last bonfire they rested at (a form of checkpoint) with all of their equipment and possessions. They don’t get to keep the treasure/currency they collected from the enemies they killed before dying. In order to get those resources back, the player must return to the location the last died and recover the treasure from their own bloodstain. All the enemies they fought are reset to their original locations. So enemies are extremely powerful, but their attacks are limited and predictable. Players frequently die in ambushes, but they’ll be ready for them when they come back for their bloodstain.
So the play loop consists of slowly dying your way through the level, slowly learning its layout and learning how to survive its monsters. Each failure, each death, is a learning experience. It places players back a few steps and says, “try again.” The only way to lose a Souls-like is stop playing. This makes up the core emotional loop in playing a Souls-like game, however, they further elaborate on this loop by distilling a version of these loops into concentrated forms with boss fights.
Boss fights in a souls-like are defined by the same features as the rest of the game, but bigger, unique, and more powerful. Players must learn the behavior of each boss enemy, their attack patterns, how they telegraph certain attacks, when to time dodges, and generally how to defeat them… usually while dying over and over again. This is the same process of dying over and over before overcoming a significantly more powerful foe.
These are the mechanical features of a souls-like, but as I mentioned earlier, it’s more important to the genre what effect these features have on player experience. What is that effect? Players with the determination to navigate to the end of an area and defeat the boss enemy there, they’re left with a massive sense of accomplishment. They managed to make it to this point alone, unaided except by their own wit, grit, and fast reflexes.
This sense of accomplishment is especially heightened by the fantastic nature and scale of boss enemies. The game rewards persistence and simple memorization, even if players aren’t particularly skilled. Remember that souls-likes are a subgenre of the RPG, the Role Playing Game. This emotional loop rewarding persistence with the feeling of accomplishment is perfectly situated by From Software’s minimalistic story in Dark Souls. The player character is a hero fulfilling an ancient prophecy—so the gameplay should make the player go through the emotional journey of becoming that hero. And it does through the sense of accomplishment, finally succeeding where no mortal could have.
Perhaps the genius of this move in Dark Souls specifically, however, is that while the game does not technically punish the player for abandoning it (leaving it unbeaten, and reaching the closest thing to a lose state) it does contextualize that player choice in the world of the videogame. The reason the player can be killed over and over again without serious issue is because they are undead—which is nothing special because everyone in the world is cursed with being undead. All of the otherwise ordinary fantasy heroes the player meets in game are undead too. The undead flock to the game’s setting in the hope that they are the “chosen undead.” But the undead characters are always talking about “hollowing.” While the undead cannot truly die, they can still “give up” and go hollow. They let go of everything that made them motivated, caring, rational beings with identities. They warn the player repeatedly not to “go hollow” on them. The player even gets to see some of these characters go hollow themselves, slowly losing hope in their various personal quests. The implication seems to be that if they player does abandon the game, their player-character simply went hollow like so many other unfortunate undead.