Roguelite, roleplay, and repetition. The Dark Souls Trilogy nails all three. Let’s talk about how and why the games’ strengths have such an addicting effect on those who play them.
First at bat is “Roguelite”: A subgenre of the “Roguelike” video games, which are games like Rogue. That sentence looks disgusting, but I promise everything you need it is in their. Just to be clear, “Rogue” is a classic game that popularized the top-down dungeon-crawling random-looter perma-death kinda’ game. “Roguelite” video games, collectively, fire from the hip when making associations between themselves and Rogue. That is, some Roguelites will have Rogue’s perma-death mechanic, while others will be dungeon crawlers, and some will be random looters. Dark Souls as a trilogy is a very mild mix of all three. For the purposes of this article, let’s focus on Dark Souls 1 as an example.
Dark Souls 1 features Roguelite mechanics in the form of its randomized loot drops, a severely punishing checkpoint system that, thanks to the difficulty featured in the game, approaches the punitive feeling of perma-death in other games, and, when looked at from a certain perspective, can mask its open world as multiple large dungeons to clear. Again, some of these descriptions can be contested, but the point is that Dark Souls very loosely shares some its mechanics with Rogue, even if indirectly.
This serves as the foundation for the game’s addictive nature. Because the game features randomized loot drops, a punitive death system, and the sprawling feel of a large dungeon in need of clearing, bit by bit, every single action taken by the player feels like improvement. Dying might result in a reset to the last checkpoint (bonfire), but some information on the AI might be gained, giving the player an edge the next time around. Or, perhaps, some random loot will be dropped before dying that helps give the player character (PC) stronger weapons or tools to overcome an obstacle. All of this works to give the feeling of tangible improvement even when no ground has been made in-game.
Dark Souls 1 leans into these strengths by making it very clear that a new player should expect to be lost, at a disadvantage, and to die often. The correct direction(s) are often not very clear and the promise of another bonfire after clearing a particularly difficult area is non-existent. In short, these aspects of Dark Souls make each section feel like an entire game on their own, and something to be celebrated after conquering. And that feeling of victory is strong thanks to how brutal the game can be to the uninitiated.
At the start of Dark Souls, you’re asked to pick your starting character. All characters can become more or less the same eventually, but start out very different and will reflect the player’s wishes on what kind of role they wish to pursue. Longtime readers of mine will know that I’m big into the Roleplaying genre, and so it only makes sense to me that being able to roleplay in Dark Souls would serve to enhance whatever strengths the were to be exhibited in the rest of the game.
The benefits of roleplaying in a game that asks you to overcome extremely difficult-to-manage enemies is multi-faceted: The fact that your character is teching into a specific playstyle means that you’ll be stronger at one or two particular forms of offense / defense, making your playstyle easier to navigate and enemies easier to take down as apposed to having a complicated, expensive, and mediocre playstyle that branches out over all of the game’s content. Additionally, this type roleplaying makes each playthrough unique to the one that came before it: a mage build will vary from a melee mage build, which will vary from a melee build, which will vary from a faith-based spell caster build, and so on.
Effectively speaking, this provides Dark Souls with that “itch” every player feels when getting roughly halfway through a playthrough they weren’t prepared for. That “itch” often coming in the form of a thought that resembles something like “Oh my god, if only I had spent my souls a little more effectively, I could get through this part easily!” or “If I had just upgraded this weapon instead of that weapon, my character would be far stronger!”. THAT thought right there is the source of your addiction, believe it or not.
And what do we do when we have that thought? Generally speaking, I’m willing to bet that most of us play for another hour at most before rerolling our character to be slightly (or greatly) improved. After beating it for the first time, that’s certainly how I’d play. And its all thanks to the roleplaying elements in Dark Souls foundations, helping to differentiate one playthrough from the next.
There’s one key aspect of Dark Souls that ties the roguelite and roleplay elements together like the greatest present ever devised: and that’s the game’s repetition. More specifically, the game’s rhythmic gameplay. First and foremost, it goes without saying that Dark Souls has extremely addicting mechanics. The satisfaction one gets from overcoming a boss or difficult foe by making use of the smooth combat system is simply unmatched by 99.99% of games in existence. There’s no contest in that regard.
But more specifically, the rhythmic gameplay is ever-present but ultimately lost on a great many players, which is why the source of the addiction Dark Souls seeps onto its playerbase often remains unseen: everything from walking, running, attacking, dodging, leveling, and blocking function in tandem with the rhythm programmed right into your opponent’s moves. From attack patterns and mobility, to defensive habits and AOE spells, each enemy obeys a rhythm that allows the player to react. This rhythm tends become quicker with the more recent FromSoftware games, but its still a rhythm nonetheless. And this rhythm is the key to Dark Souls’ satisfying repetition of gameplay.
This isn’t to say that the gameplay itself is repetitive. The game features a constant, satisfying rhythm that repeats itself and provides the gameplay, which varies wildly, with enough breathing room to be fun all the way through a 50 hour playthrough (or three).
Roguelite mechanics, roleplaying foundations, and a masterclass in satisfying repetition are all you need to search for when finding the source of your addiction to Dark Souls. The real question after all that is deciding whether or not its worth cutting it out of your life. (Just one more playthrough?)