Dark Souls and the Lifespan of a Masterpiece
Our comprehension of a contemporary videogame’s impact is bound by the achievement of games which came before. This collective portfolio of past work is the center of our critical understanding, and every new release is judged against the previous in order to understand its individual content. The greatest of the form emerge in contrast to established conventions and initiate unforeseen trajectories in the evolution of videogames. Each title which fails to do so falls in line with the others, cementing itself as a product of industry or a failed experiment which cannot hold the mantle of ‘art’.
Dark Souls illustrates the moment of divergence from the flock that occurs when something new is created, and seven years later the wake that trails its design has yet to be eclipsed. For this reason, its prestige as a masterpiece endures for now.
The dominant tradition in AAA gaming at the time of Dark Souls’ release insisted on over-tutorialization to the point of patronizing agony for those rooted in the hobby. The intent to demystify play on a commercial scale with incessant instruction characterized the practice which Dark Souls would go on to negate.
From Software’s now famous and deliberate obfuscation of its systems and mechanics assembled the necessary rules to deliver players sublime satisfaction in their domination of the play space. Dark Souls’ design tenants can be understood further when surveyed with the historical momentum of the concurrent traditions. This perspective is useful for shedding light on all relationships between historical works and new art.
By definition, the new is necessarily foreign and unrevealed when compared to old works but goes on to appear as inevitable in hindsight. The new presents an antidote to what was previously unsolved by invalidating norms which no longer hold, and its solution builds the bridge between past and contemporary.
However, this is not a decree that a videogame must destroy all previous practices in order to be considered a new masterpiece. Dark Souls was able to rest its innovation on the foundation of established third-person controls, stat progression typical of RPG’s, and classic UI conventions that communicate enemy and player status. In fact, the very software development kits and middleware used to make the game were a product of years of iteration.
In the moment that the new is realized and released to all for consumption, the surrounding industry deifies its discovery. Dark Souls’ reinvention of death, unapologetic difficulty, narrow dodge roll, and meticulous checkpoints were dispersed by inspired developers as a package of meaning that fans categorized as genre. This set of portable, extra textual constraints defined the “souls-like” or “soulsborne” classification and helped to shortcut the necessity of learning new rule-sets when starting a game fashioned in From Software’s image. A sizable audience fell in love with the language of its play and henceforth a culture was created, distributed, and integrated.
Currently, the critical reputation of Dark Souls carries a manner of timelessness symbolic of all masterpieces. Even so, the inroads leading to the demise of such prestige are latent in every magnum opus, for timelessness is a myth which is never fulfilled. Just as Dark Souls existed as a negation to designs which previously reigned, something new will usurp From Software’s discovery and present to us knowledge formally undiscovered.
This fall from majesty is already in motion. Pixel-perfect speedruns, no-hit performances at the upper limits of new game plus, and a total excavation of the game’s underlying code demonstrate our complete colonization of the play space. After every possible move in Dark Souls is made, and every external constraint is recorded and conquered, it will die. The life of all aesthetic forms is tied to our lasting engagement with them. When all meaning has been extracted and each state encountered, play will cease, and Dark Souls will become a historical work rather than an modern aesthetic object.
An even more anticlimactic possibility exists at the behest of technological progress and newfound development techniques which could render From Software’s masterpiece into a dated expression at the limits of possibility in the history of videogame development.
The greatest hope for the endurance of Dark Souls against time is delivered through the aesthetics of its rich fiction presented in the item descriptions. The tale of Lordran provides an abundance of interpretive choices and open ends that make room for endless speculation within the overarching narrative structure of ‘The Age of Fire”.
Ultimately, Dark Souls maintains its legacy in the present. Its leadership in the industry has yet to waiver, and its lessons in choice, uncertainty, consequence, and satisfaction still stand. Even after its assured expiration, unexposed players will still feel the otherworldly fulfillment concealed in Lordran’s dense, interconnected environment. The exuberance that comes when opening a shortcut to the Firelink Shrine or ringing the Bells of Awakening speaks to the aesthetic mastery still waiting to be enjoyed.
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Edited by Malia Hamilton