Back during the coronavirus epidemic, I visited California for my sister’s wedding. While I was there, a friend of mine lent me his copy of Hollow Knight to play in quarantine. I asked about the genre, but he shrugged and said, “Just play it.”
Strange New World
Since college, or even high school, I found myself entrenched in just two types of games: old-fashioned roguelikes and modern action RPGs. My staples from the ages of 13 to 26 were basically Path of Exile, Dungeon Crawl: Stone Soup, and Steve Yegge’s Wyvern.
So when I opened up Hollow Knight on my girlfriend’s Switch Lite, I was a little disappointed. Not a roguelike, not an action RPG. This was all I had to do for two weeks? Too bad the next Path of Exile league wasn’t starting for over a month.
But something strange happened. As I played through the first parts of Hollow Knight, I came to realize that this was not your average side-scrolling, hack-and-slash adventure. The initial enemies posed grave threats, and I found myself dying countless times to even non-boss foes.
And then something even stranger happened. I realized I… liked it. I liked that I was so, so far away from being an unstoppable monster. Instead, the fragility of the character shined right through the screen, and only my growth as a player could ever cover the gap.
I finished Hollow Knight towards the end of my quarantine. It left its mark on my interests as a player, not unlike how I left my mark on the poor joystick of that Switch Lite. I turned it off and finally asked, what just happened? And what’s next?
I had discovered that games with difficult encounters appealed to me immensely. So I immediately took the obvious, most logical step of eagerly Googling “most difficult game ever”. And this is how I spent the next month playing the FromSoftware masterpiece called Sekiro.
Sekiro turned out to be a little too difficult. There’s a boss, Genichiro, about a quarter way through that essentially demands mastery of the core game mechanics. Needless to say I possessed no such mastery, and the boss continued to thrash me for weeks. Every night, I deeply considered giving it all up for a life of farming in Stardew Valley.
But then, almost without warning, I broke through. The patterns had finally sunk in. I did it! I beat the boss. He keeled over and died. I was ecstatic! The next part of the story began to play. The clouds parted, the sun peeked through, and the boss promptly rose once more as a lightning-imbued demon god for his second phase.
Fuck, I thought. This is great.
What’s a soulslike?
After Sekiro, I jumped in and played countless hours of Elden Ring, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls III. Eventually, I completed each game at level one as well. I’m not sure why but Dark Souls II just felt off and I have yet to finish it.
I’ve come to learn that this genre is called “soulslike”, after the eponymous Dark Souls. The features that really stand out to me are:
- a world and story that seamlessly justify game mechanics
- no one way to play; a true masterclass in nonlinear game design
- an overwhelming number of decisions to make during combat
- powerful enemies with exploitable weaknesses
- death, made meaningful
I think most descriptions of the category will have some emphasis on “difficulty”, but this seems to arise from the combination of “too many things you can do” exacerbated by the fact that exploiting a weakness (easy) first requires identifying that weakness (hard). In soulslikes, information is worth its weight in, well, souls.
Elden Ring blew the lid off the soulslike formula. Everyone and their mother is building one of these bad boys now - it’s mainstream! I just finished Lies of P, and while it’s not perfect, it’s a hell of starting point in an industry where making two, three, or even more games iterating on the same engine is what really drives perfection.
And there are more coming from every corner of the world.
If you know anything about me, you’ll have guessed that I, too, want to make the types of games I enjoy. And right now, I enjoy soulslikes. That means my next game will absolutely borrow some of those elements, although regrettably I don’t have the resources to do a full-fledged Elden Ring clone.
There has to be a way to get a quick Dark Souls fix from my phone while on the toilet. Right? So that’s what I’m aiming for.