Dark Souls III: A Lesson In Immersive Worldbuilding

I think Dark Souls III is one of the most fascinating and immersive games I have ever played. This is a strange claim for several reasons. Firstly, the game deals with concepts that are unfamiliar and non-standard in fantasy world-building. It lacks general supplementary items, so the lore is fairly decentralized (the game is so reserved in giving information that a hallmark of the franchise is the fact that it doesn’t tell you very much at all).

Despite Dark Souls III not telling you very much about the world, the characters at play, the “rules” of the magic system, and the timeline of events, it remains an enthralling game. Dark Souls III is immersive because of its clever level design and the way it arranges locations to tell a “sense-of-direction” story in the exploration of the world itself.

This might clue you in that the type of immersion we’ll be looking at in this article is physical, established entirely by the geography and design of the world. I think this aspect of the Dark Souls III world is generally overlooked, which is a real shame. Modern gaming circles like to talk about the Souls franchise for its difficulty and mechanical fidelity: infrequently, they talk about the stylistic choices. These stylistic choices are grand and imposing, and the level design is seamless.

The Flow of Dark Souls III

By seamless I mean that the in-game environments have a flow. This is a difficult concept to explain, but, like a ripe fruit, you’ll know it when you taste it. Just because a level has flow does not mean it’s streamlined, nor does it mean it’s simplistic.

Take for instance Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Each map has a level of complexity at first but, after it is learned, there is smoothness in how it plays: there is flow. Flow is about making the player not feel lost. It’s about giving the player landmarks and places to go. It’s about setting up a world that guides the player’s movement without the need for road signs and flashing arrows and without having them wonder “which way is the road going, now?” (I’m looking at you, racing games).

Dark Souls III executes a level of flow exactly as you might expect from a game in the series. The maps are not open-world – far from it. Dark Souls III is very restrictive in where you can go and how you can get there. Instead, the maps feature layouts that almost always guide the player along a single path while still giving room for Dark Souls antics, like hidden enemies and illusory walls.

What makes the level design so good is that it never feels like you’re being forced anywhere. The player is driven by a desire to explore, and the game’s level design ushers them along on their exploration. The game very rarely taunts you with an “almost clear” way to get to any given location. After I had learned the basics of the game and gotten past the first boss, every standard area in the game felt rewarding and intuitive to explore.

I think one of the best examples of this level design is the very start of the game. Like blinders, walls of stone block the sides of the starting graveyard, leaving you to go in one direction. Despite this, it doesn’t feel like a hallway. The player can see in the distance a light breaking from an opening in the solid rock cliffs, and, like a moth, feels inclined to reach that opening – a vantage point. Along the way, the player doesn’t bolt down a straight path. The floor plan is organic, winding in some parts, and straight in others. Starting enemies give the player an opportunity to plan an approach. If they so desire, they can even go to a miniboss arena and fight a crystal lizard, then continue along the path.

This is only one example of many where the game supports player freedom but gently guides the player to their objective. Such experiences in world design are everywhere in Dark Souls III.

A Sense-of-Direction Story

Once the player leaves the stone barriers that they started inside of, they finds themselves standing over a sea of mountains. The world seems to open up, though their path is just as linear as before. Exploring around this area (and the arena of Iudex Gundyr), the player gets a magnificent view of the walls of Lothric. This is the first part of the “sense-of-direction story” that the game tells: it makes the player ask a question. “What is that wall?”

Lothric Castle, as seen from the Iudex Gundyr shrine.

What’s inside that castle? Will I get to explore it? How big is it? Dark Souls III is subtle: it doesn’t make the castle the first thing you see after leaving from the Cemetery of Ash. By keeping subtle, it makes the player ask questions on their own. There are no cue cards. Of course, the answer is yes: you will get to explore that castle. As a general rule of thumb in Dark Souls III, if the question is “will I go there?” the answer is “yes, you will.”

After the player teleports to the Walls of Lothric, they might not actually realize where they are, which was the case for me. The disorienting change of scenery made me completely lose my sense of direction. This happens to be the next step in the sense-of-direction story that the game tells. After the player’s interest is piqued by a given sight, structure, or location, the game tends to follow it with a sweeping change in scenery.

So, while the player starts in the grey Cemetery of Ash, they are transported into the tan and orange High Walls of Lothric. Instead of a sea of mountains, they suddenly have a sea of towers and Gothic buttresses. The moment this change of scenery happens, the player asks a different question: “Where am I now?” This does not mean the player is lost – in this instance, the question doesn’t come from a place of confusion. Instead, this question comes from a place of awe and a desire to explore.

Exploring along the grand battlements for a time, the player is likely to realize they’re on the castle that they could see from Iudex Gundyr, and with this the understand a little bit more about the geography of the world they’re in. This happens completely on the player’s own accord: there’s no in-game map or NPC exposition dump. The player gets a sense of satisfaction from figuring it out on their own. Indeed, a great deal of satisfaction comes from eventual discovery rather than immediate understanding.

This completes the first cycle of the sense-of-direction story. From wondering “What is that?” to wondering “Where am I” to realizing “I’m here… and I saw this place from over there!”

Telling the Story Again

Of course, from the High Walls of Lothric, the player can start the first piece of the sense-of-direction story over again. Looking out from the wall, they can spy all sorts of little locations in the distance. What’s that tower for? Where does that bridge go? What’s that little building hidden in the forest? Once the player defeats Vordt of the Boreal Valley and they are transported to the Undead Settlement, they again have questions answered. There’s a huge change of setting, a sense of awe that inspires exploration, and then an understanding of where the player is in relation to where they were previously (in this case, the walls of Lothric Castle).

Lothric Castle as seen from the Undead Settlement.

Each time this “question -> explore -> understand -> change scenery” cycle is completed, the player gets a more complete view of the world they are in: that is immersive. When the player learns that the Undead Settlement is accessible via a bridge that lurks over the Great Swamp and that the Great Swamp houses the entrance to the Catacombs of Carthus which lead to Irithyll of the Boreal Valley, they are building a mental map of how each of these places exists in the world in relation to one another.

Each location in Dark Souls III is rooted to an area: it isn’t some confusing, nebulous, alternate part of the world like you might see with different levels of a Mario game. Through seeing landmark locations (like the tower of the Undead Settlement, where the giant hangs out), the player can understand the layout of the world and build their locational awareness.

The Undead Settlement as seen from the Cathedral of the Deep.

Piecing the Story Together

The built understanding of the world is the final piece of the sense-of-direction story. When the aforementioned cycle is completed for any given area, it is almost as if a new puzzle piece is added to a pile. When all the puzzle pieces are added, the player has the opportunity to form a story from what they’ve discovered.

Take for instance the Cathedral of the Deep – one of my favorite locations in game. From the High Walls of Lothric, you see it as a small rectangular building in the distant woods. In person, it is a grand, imposing, magnificent Gothic cathedral. This is a frequently impressive thing that the game achieves: exploration in Dark Souls III invokes a sense of scale that makes travel feel real and significant. This sense of scale is strongly reinforced and made impactful when the player understands each location’s relation with another.

The sense of scale is only part of what I enjoy so much about this location, because I also love the story it tells. Completing this story “puzzle” requires “pieces” from the High Walls of Lothric, the Undead Settlement, and the Cathedral of the Deep itself.

The Cathedral of the Deep is only a short walk from the Undead Settlement. The traditional religious imagery here of lofty cathedral walls and solemn graveyards is played to excess, as is the Dark Souls way. The game invites the player to think back to what the cathedral may have been in ages long-passed when the settlers (who, likely, weren’t undead) could travel freely on the roads and head to their church services. What was the service like?

Instead, the player gets the opposite. The cathedral is now a house of death, and decay fills every part of it. The waterlogged stone floors are covered in filth, and disgusting, unholy abominations relish in it. The undead deacons move in horrible, droning lifelessness. No life and no hope. No elevation and no holiness.

The sense-of-direction story with the Cathedral of the deep is built off of its relation to the walls of Lothric and the Undead Settlement. It tells a story of death and decay (a very common theme in Dark Souls), but it also tells a story of cataclysmic shifts in way of life. The player can feel that something horrible has happened long ago – or maybe recently. They feel the cathedral’s distance from the holy city of Lothric and it’s closeness to the now miserable undead settlement. In a Gematsu interview, FromSoftware director Hidetaka Miyazaki said (in regards to the world of Dark Souls III): “The sense of something having ended, or destruction, is stronger.”

This isn’t because the game tells you that everything is all ruined (though the game does do that). The sense of destruction is achieved when players explore a world just like they might explore their own town, pointing out landmark locations. The player sees the world in a connected way rather than as a compilation of individual set pieces.

Understanding the Effect

Dark Souls III evokes curiosity and fear with this design. It creates a space in which the player wants to explore and understands the setting more because of it. At the same time, the player is constantly wondering about what lies elsewhere: if the game is so expansive, what lies beyond the mountains? What horrors lurk where I will never see? The world is vibrant because the player understands how it is arranged and how grand it is, not because of hundreds of side quests and characters that flesh it out.

Most of all, the world tells a story. This story has fantastical elements, like a massive castle filled with dragons, knights, and magical monsters, but this story also has darker elements. Stories of ruined houses and soulless undead. A broken bridge, cutting the holy castle off from the rest of the land. Endless decay, biting at all corners. Hopeless embers that can barely keep themselves lit, struggling to feed a failing fire. All of these stories are experienced first from the world design and then from the “actual” story.

The immersion lesson from Dark Souls III has many parts to it. Get the player curious about your world; don’t force-feed them lore and exposition. Create a sense of scale and create relationships between your locations. Let the player do the legwork in piecing things together. Get the player experiencing awe, not confusion.

Just because a game isn’t a sandbox-style open world doesn’t mean it’s boring or un-immersive. If you can create a flow and make it seamless, you have a winner. In Dark Souls III, the reward for exploration, in terms of immersion, is understanding of the setting and a frame of reference. For someone who likes exploration, this is a grand reward indeed.

I’ll leave you with one of the most amazing views in Dark Souls III.

“Gorgeous view ahead.”

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