Do We Need a Soulslike Genre?
This is not Dark Souls. It’s actually a game called Lords of the Fallen, but you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s one of the Souls games. It looks like Dark Souls, feels like Dark Souls, and borrows most of its ideas from Dark Souls – like stamina management, dropping your experience points when you die, and rolling. Lots, and lots, of rolling. In fact, we’ve seen a whole bunch of games recently that are, to put it charitably, inspired by the Souls series. The Surge, by the same developer as Lords of the Fallen, is Dark Souls done sci-fi. Nioh is Bloodborne with a samurai twist. Salt and Sanctuary is a Souls game in 2D, and so is the upcoming Death’s Gambit.
They all have their own ideas, like stance-based combat and special finishing moves. But they also stick rigidly to the Dark Souls formula, with renamed versions of estus flasks, bonfires, souls, and even something as specific as the homeward bone. Some might call these games clones. Others, including Patrick Klepek over at Waypoint, have argued that these games should be part of an entirely new genre. Call them Soulslikes. Or Soulsborne games. Or something along those lines. And… okay! Let’s investigate that idea, by asking what happens when we turn a game into a genre. First, we need to understand how new genres get made. So, check it – here’s a super-quick, four step guide to making a new genre.
Step 1 – someone makes a game that is both innovative, and wildly successful.
Step 2 – It gets cloned. We give these games a nickname. They copy pretty much everything about that successful game, just with a different theme – and some minor tweaks. DUKE NUKEM: I’m Duke Nukem
Step 3 – The clones keep coming, but they start to make radical changes to the formula – adding new stuff and tossing out most of the features from the original game.By this point, the clones don’t really feel like clones at all.
Step 4 – With just a couple immutable factors linking all of these games, we realise that it’s not just a bunch of clones, but an entire genre. So we change the name. So, I wonder what would happen, then, if a genre never went past step two.
Like, if games kept closely following one specific game, and we were still naming the genre after that landmark game, years and years later. What would THAT be like? Oh. Yeah. It’s easy to forget that Roguelikes are called Roguelikes, because the games are literally like Rogue, which was a randomly-generated dungeon-crawler from 1980. That game was super popular, and – like Doom – led to a bunch of similar games such as NetHack, Moria, and Angband, which all made small tweaks and additions to the formula But, for the longest time, Roguelikes never really went beyond that. In fact, in 2008, a bunch of developers got together to define the Berlin Interpretation of Roguelikes, and listed a whopping 14 high and low value factors that can be used to define a roguelike. It lists everything from permadeath and turn-based gameplay, to ASCII graphics, complexity, and numbers.
So where first-person shooters can allow for military games, abstract puzzle shooters, open world RPGs, underwater dystopias, and more. Most classic roguelike games felt very similar, with minor tweaks to an established template. More like sequels than entirely new games. Thankfully, Roguelikes got a whole lot more interesting when developers stopped caring about ticking those boxes, and started mashing up Rogue’s best ideas with other types of game. One of the first was Spelunky. And in his book about the game, creator Derek Yu says he liked playing games like NetHack for “the variety that the randomly-generated levels offer and how meaningful death is in them”, and so picked those elements – but not the turn-based gameplay, grids, or ASCII art. Instead, he took those systems and paired them with another genre he loves: the platformer. Rogue’s random levels solved Yu’s platformer bugbear of needing to memorise level layouts, and expressive platformer gameplay helped bring Rogue’s ideas to an entirely new audience. Reducing Roguelikes from a whole bunch of factors to just permadeath and procedural generation has given the genre an entirely new lease on life, and opened it up to a new generation of both players and developers.
These games don’t exactly play like Rogue, but I think they capture the same feelings of surprise and peril. And, you see, when we reduce a game down to its constituent elements, devs can copy them and end up with pretty much the same game as the original developer. But if we consider why those features were designed they way they were, and what sort of experience they led to, devs can find different ways to give players that same feeling. Go look at the many games that are inspired by The Legend of Zelda, for example. There’s no Zelda-like genre, and, I think because there’s no easy template to follow, each game ends up very different. Every developer gets to make their own interpretation of what makes a Zelda game special, and use that to influence their own creations. These games all work very differently, but they capture the spirit of the Zelda series. Or, at least, how that developer sees the Zelda series. Anyway. Die hard fans of classic Roguelikes haven’t been too happy about their genre being expanded to incorporate platformers and shooters, and they have some, creative names for these new games.
And I have some sympathy for them. As players, we use genres to find new games that are similar to the ones we love. And if you like playing Roguelikes for their turn-based, grid-based gameplay, you won’t be too impressed by the twitchy arcade thrills of Downwell. If you ask me, the best way to handle it is to just put roguelike on the front of other genres. Easy. But then again, maybe naming a genre after a specific game is not the best idea in the world – because it can effectively canonise that game as some holy text to be forever referred to. In his Medium post Picture in a Frame, which is partly about this type of genre, Amr Al-Aaser says “Often the quality of a game in the genre is judged by its adherence to, or ability to emulate, aspects of the entries considered to be the series landmarks”. Metroidvania – which was once a catty nickname for Castlevania games that played like Metroid, but is now an entire genre of games that…
Play like Metroid – has effectively mythologised Super Metroid as the perfect exploratory game. And so while the genre should be about any game that has you exploring an interconnected world, most developers just copy Nintendo’s approach and use very similar locks, abilities, progression, secrets, and world design. Thankfully, some games do take a different approach, like Toki Tori 2 which has a similar world structure to Metroid but has no items, abilities, or even combat. Instead, it’s a puzzle game and you open new areas by gathering knowledge of the game’s mechanics, not through upgrades.
But it’s telling that Two Tribes said it didn’t set out to make a Metroidvania – it just stumbled into it when it made a world with “alternative paths, a worldmap that marks where you’ve been, and a story that encourages backtracking and revisiting of previous areas”. Holding up one game as the blueprint, can also push aside other games that are doing similar work. Before Metroidvania became a thing, there were other games with interconnected worlds that could equally serve as inspiration. And I think a similar thing has happened with immersive sims. Because while it’s not name-checked in the name of the genre, it feels like Deus Ex has become the defacto formula – and so we end up with a bunch of first-person shooters where you have magic or bionic powers and can play as a stealthy ninja or a mass murderer. Up to you. DAVID SARIF: Lethal it is! But remember, they do have hostages! But this pushes aside games like Thief. For that game, the Looking Glass design philosophy, which would one day be rebranded as immersive sim, was about embodying a character in a realistic world – and being able to tackle problems in ways that made sense for that character.
Garrett is a thief, and so solves problems largely through stealth and burglary, while direct attacks are discouraged. Oh, and he doesn’t have super powers, either. Thief is worthy of study and influence, but the genre almost treats it like a failed experiment, on the path to the perfect immersive sim. The same thing often happens to Demon’s Souls, which gets routinely ignored as just some flawed prototype that led to Dark Souls 1. I’ve never played it, but watch this video by Matthewmatosis to hear more about what Demon’s can teach us. The other effect of this mythologising, is that the genres don’t easily allow for games that go beyond thsee landmark titles. In the early days of the Looking Glass design philosophy we saw it evolve and mutate. But once it became codified as more of a named genre, with a set of expected mechanics, in some ways it feels like the evolution of the idea has stalled.
I certainly felt this when playing through Prey. As much as I enjoyed the game – I also felt like I had played the same thing many times before – right down to the audio diaries, upgrade trees, hacking mini-games, and stealth pathways. It’s perhaps best to take immersive sim as less of a formula and more of a general ethos. As a way of thinking about systemic gameplay and player agency and world reactivity. That can then be applied to everything from Hitman to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, to immersive games we haven’t even thought of yet.
Because a genre like this can make us satisfied with what already exists – when we should be pushing against the boundaries and asking “what’s next”? Don’t get me wrong – it’s absolutely fine to take influence from a specific game. The truth is, every game is built on the titles that came before it. But when we turn a game into a genre, that game can become a formula, that all developers end up following in pretty much the same way. We judge new games by their ability to emulate the original. We erase the contributions of other important games that were exploring the same territory. And because we keep going back to the same game over and over again, the pace of innovation can grind to a halt. It’s the difference between someone saying “hey, I’m gonna use Metroid as a base and build something new!”, and a cottage industry of developers all doing the same thing for years and years and years. So while genres can be very useful – I mean, they help players find stuff that is similar to the games they like, and they give developers more structure than a completely blank page – I’d argue that we want them to be as broad as possible, and not narrowly defined by many of the mechanics of a single landmark game.
Which brings us back to Dark Souls. Look, if we are going to make a Soulslike genre, let’s try not to make it quite so restrictive, yeah? Let’s fast-forward the whole roguelike thing and try and make the genre about just one or two elements. I’d personally recommend the game’s deliberate combat that comes from action warm-ups, animation priority, and stamina management. I think that could lend itself to a whole bunch of interesting games.
We’ve already seen it in Grasshopper’s Let it Die, which is a free to play game with a roguelike structure, and Dead Cells, which is a “Roguevania” God, that’s a whole ‘nother thing. Don’t get me started on that. Uh, anyway. Also: maybe don’t call the genre Soulslike. That’s only going to hamper its growth as every game will be compared to Dark Souls 1, and we’ll run the risk of it taking years before we get games that radically depart from Dark Souls.
But a genre isn’t the only way to pay homage. If you love Dark Souls and want to take influence from the game – there are perhaps better ways to do it than by just reducing the game down an ingredients list and then copying that. Instead, find new ways to capture the spirit of Dark Souls. And like with Zelda, the spirit will mean different things to different people, leading to a wider variety of games than if we define a specific formula. Some might admire the punishing nature of the Souls games, or that feeling of surprise and relief when you open up a shortcut, or the joy of untangling a complex backstory told through item descriptions and statues. For me, the soul, of Dark Souls, was that it was unknowable and obtuse. People talk in riddles, mysterious voices help you spot ambushes, and traps lay behind every corner. Ironically, none of these Soulslike games can capture that feeling, because – at this point – they’re completely familiar. But games like Hyper Light Drifter, can. So I guess my point is – take influence and inspiration from your favourite games.
But be wary about turning those games into genres. That can stifle innovation, and stop developers from coming up with the next game that’s as important, and influential, as Dark Souls. Hey! Thanks for watching. GMTK is made possible thanks to the generous backing of my Patrons. The names on screen are my top tier supporters. Because I hit 2000 backers, everyone now pays per month instead of per video, which should effectively halves your contribution. Backers get access to a Discord, a book club-style GameClub, early access to videos, developer Q&A sessions and more. Doing this video gave me so much more to talk about than could ever fit into a single episode. I mean, we can find examples of genres leading to very similar experiences outside of these hyper specific ones. And there are genres that are more about capturing a feeling than copying a bunch of mechanics. And so, there’ll be plenty more on this subject down the line.
Thanks for reading.