From Software (yes, that’s the actual name of the company) seemingly came out of nowhere in 2009 with the sleeper hit Demon’s Souls, which was followed in 2011 by its better known and hugely successful successor Dark Souls. Well, it came out of nowhere for most people: Me, I have a history with From, and they’ve shaped the way I play games and my relationship with the medium nearly as much as titans like Valve and Squaresoft.
Let’s go back to the year 1997, almost two decades ago now, when From Software had another small-scale sleeper hit, Armored Core. This game, and soon series, didn’t really take the world by storm the way that the Souls games eventually did, but I’m surprised by the number of people nowadays who are familiar with it, so it must have found some degree of success. In Armored Core, you control a giant robot, and mostly end up fighting other giant robots. The hook, though, is that these robots are modular, built out from the ‘core’ component that houses the pilot (thus the title), and the player gets to select what modules comprise their battle machine. This is a detailed process, involving selecting not just weapons, nor even just external components, but getting into the inner modules – well, in the first game it’s mostly just selecting a generator that will serve your needs, but this aspect of the game was built upon until it became too complicated for most players, until selecting a mismatched generator and radiator would almost instantly turn your robot into a useless grounded hunk of metal – at which point it was, understandably, scaled back for the next title.
So in or around 1997 a friend told me about Armored Core, and for the next 5 years we played it and its successor games obsessively, getting together a group of local fans of the game to play regularly on weekends, some of whom I’m still friends with, tweaking and optimizing and building new robots when we weren’t playing against each other. Some came to the game through an interest in giant robots, usually fostered through anime series; some came through a love of competitive gaming, this being just another kind of fighting game; some came from an interest in car racing, finding the technical details of building a giant robot of similar interest to those of building a racing vehicle. Myself, I guess I came to it for the same reason I later came to programming, a love of the details coming together to create a whole. We got the rarely used Playstation link cables so we didn’t have to play split-screen, we did road trips to nearby cities to play with the people there, and I personally ended up running one of the bigger forums for fans of the game, after a couple of predecessor sites died when the owners lost interest in the series. Well: That was fun, but we drifted apart. There were personality conflicts and people got older and more busy, and most of us decisively lost interest in the series when it jumped from PS2 to PS3/360 and changed gameplay style significantly in such a way that our skills didn’t really carry over.
Today, playing the Souls games, I find it startling how similar two incredibly different series can be. One is an action-packed but highly technical third person shooter, the other a slow-paced deliberate gothic-horror action-RPG, but the similarities are as striking as the differences. Now, as then, I find myself thinking, when I’m not playing the game, about new configurations, about different combinations of weapons and armors, about new and interesting ways to play the game and win battles. Both games tend towards the fatalistic, forcing you to fight the same battles over and over again throughout different generations of warfare, knowing that no matter what choice you make it likely only puts different flavored sprinkles on the sundae of your doom. Both games provide challenge with a relative minimum of bombast, epic events without the cutscenes or editing tricks trying to amplify its importance beyond what is self-evident to the scene itself. Both tell their stories through fragments, in one case a lost soul wandering through a land of the undead and trying to understand what went wrong through the fragments dead civilizations, and in the other a mercenaries-eye-view of an unfolding political-corporate war.
Gameplay-wise, the management of energy is the most notable common thread between the series. In the Armored Core games, your generator has both output and reserve stats, and along the left side of the screen is a bar telling you how much energy you have remaining. Using your boosters to fly or dash, or firing energy weapons, all of these deplete your energy bar, and when that runs out your generator sits there and recharges, leaving you unable to boost at all, essentially making you a sitting duck. Souls games, meanwhile, have the stamina bar, which similarly is used and replenishes: Attacking, rolling, running, or blocking attacks uses stamina, while just holding a shield up causes it to regenerate more slowly. The consequences of using up your stamina are less noticeably dire than in Armored Core, simply going into negative numbers and removing your ability to use anything that takes stamina until it’s positive again and removing your ability to run until it recharges completely, but in the intense combat of Souls, where a single attack frequently makes the difference between victory and defeat, the actual consequences are immediate and harsh.
What makes me truly love these games and keep coming back to them is the unparalleled degree to which they allow the player to express themselves through gameplay. Whether you run a light or heavy robot, use tank treads or quadrupeds, whether you use a rapier or greatsword or bow or sorcery, whether you paint your machine with bright orange and black tiger stripes or wear nothing but a skirt and a helmet shaped like an onion, whether you hound your opponent relentlessly with a shotgun or run away firing missiles or hide behind a shield or try to parry them with a dagger, every choice you make within these games expresses something about who you are and how you like to approach problems.
And the world hears you. And the world responds.