Dark Souls II: Beams and Washes

The vibe of Dark Souls, enhanced by the dreary color pallet and ambient lighting of each named area, is no doubt characteristic. It plays an active role in the psychology of the game – successfully in some areas where light affects gameplay, and not so much in others where the environment is just an afterthought. I want to see Dark Souls II to be all the more oppressive and stressful, and this can be done in part by maintaining a strong sense of environment in every staged area of the game. Adroit use of light will accomplish just that. So, I have some suggestions.

To begin I shall briefly cover some of the staged areas of Dark Souls where light successfully played an active part in the environment and thus affecting gameplay – with the hope that the vibe of the sequel can follow suit.

Firstly, Lost Izalith. Down, down, down, down, down. The world of Dark Souls’ Lordran is not a sprawling vista stretching from horizon to horizon; It is topographical, and Lost Izalith is at the bottom. It is a cavernous area flooded with lava. Your only safe way of traversal is on gnarly tree roots and scattered debris. This wouldn’t be so bad if the lava wasn’t so blinding..


Yes. In a brilliant artistic gesture, Dark Souls chooses to blind you to a degree with lava light in the deepest area of the game. The blindness is skillfully akin to the sunglare of a setting sun. The effect is not crippling but impeding enough that, as seen in the above photo, roots and the craggy feet of 20-foot horned monsters can be difficult to immediately discern. Cruel.

The other area of mention is probably the most infamous in the entire game: Tomb of the Giants. The use of lighting here is successful because… there is none. Without the skull lantern, which needs to be equipped thus denying you a shield or 2nd weapon, you are a rat scrambling in the dark. The terrain of TOG is like a Pakistani cave system (because I’ve been in so many): sharp turns, sudden drops, dead ends. All the while the area is populated with some of the hardest-hitting enemies in the game. Should you choose to go without the skull lantern – and maintain some sort of defense in this dark dreadful place – the faint, jittery glow of these skeleton monsters are the only indication that you’re not alone. Equip the lantern, and you can move forward, though sometimes players may much prefer the dark:

So, for every area of successful lighting – for every Lost Izalith, Tomb of the Giants, New Londo Ruins (I’ll include Depths, though it would sort of go against my better judgment) – there are other areas that are not quite up to par. Duke’s Archives is the main offender, while Catacombs had the potential and will get by with only a misdemeanor. Though I praise the area for its interactivity, Duke’s Archives is nothing more than a box with uniform midday lighting. It is butt. I would gladly exchange rotating stairways for a dim place with halos of light given off by a grid of hanging lanterns. The midday lighting conflicts with the presence of the luminous attacks of the Summoners that are placed throughout. The Archive’s main halls are big enough that, were they not completely lit, the Summoners’ charged attacks would be the only sure points of orientation. And that’s totally cruel – Dark Souls cruel. Perhaps, another idea, the vaulted ceiling could be a source of light – the only source of light – throwing down heavy shadows.

Duke's Archives: Blaaaaahhhhhh

Duke’s Archives: Blaaaaahhhhhh









Outdoor areas such as Undead Burg and Anor Londo are a welcome relief from the claustrophobic, dungeon crawling ones. This is wrong; The only place of relief and rest should be the two meter radius around a lit bonfire. To change this wrongdoing, I suggest giving the outdoor active weather systems that can affect character movement. Thus, during a rain shower, taking shelter under an archway or extended bridge would bring sure-footing but would also surely attract enemies seeking the same strategy. Likewise, a gray and dreary sky is neat but quickly becomes familiar and easy to be complacent with. Perhaps shifting shades of gray, a shadow cast by something so large that it even casts through an overcast sky.

In summary (read: tl;dr) I’d like to see more use of direct light, sometimes trailing off to light more of the area, sometimes acting as an immediate dynamic of the gameplay. Dark Souls II should do without the easy ambient washes like Duke’s Archives and Anor Londo and create areas that are distinct in the shadows and glow that are their makeup. This will lend itself to the psychology of the environment, affect the gameplay and thus maintain the universal oppressive vibe that I long for in Dark Souls II.

Doing More With Less: What I’d Like to Feel in Dark Souls II

I am not wont to making top-10, top-5, top-x lists. Nor am I comfortable being forced to decide on a ‘all time favorite whatever‘. My interests are far too wide and my attention is far too short. But if you pressed a talon to my jugular and prompted me to pick a personal “Game of the Year” for 2012 I would, without even flinching, declare it to be Dark Souls. I shall not delve into the reasons but suffice it to say that the dank, musty world of Lordrain and the demanding gameplay therein had consistently drawn me deeper and deeper and deeper – more so than any game had since perhaps Diablo 2 (I must have a thing for dank, musty places). Therefore, the few details, snapshots and demo videos of Dark Souls II that are seeping out of FROM Software’s studios are filling me with an odd mix of excitement and anxiety: Excitement in that a sequel is now all too real; anxiety in that I hope it doesn’t – for lack of a better word – suck. In fact, these few details and snapshots gave me pause for reflection, specifically concerning the atmosphere and environment of the first Dark Souls – the vibe – and ways in which they can be improved in order for the sequel to be all the more devastating.

Part of the masochistic appeal of Dark Souls is all those inconvenient spaces one must battle the enemy. The first thing that comes to mind is the Capra Demon boss battle. This gladiatorial event is not fought in a spacious arena; The 10-foot, dual-meat-cleaver-wielding, goatskull demon (and his two vicious bloodhounds) is fought in a narrow, cramped courtyard in the Lower Undead Burg. Another instance is fighting a black knight on a spiral staircase in The Perish; or an armored boar in the entrance hallway to the Duke’s Archives; or those two Anor Londo archers flanking your narrow path – on a buttress –  up to a 2-foot ledge on the side of the castle. These are examples of immediate gameplay design within the named staged area – and the sequel should not alter these.

I suggest that the designers take a step back and assess the composition of these named staged areas, the aesthetics, and the potential vibe these elements can create. I am not calling for a more lavish spacious place to battle – do not confuse my idea of environment as a place with greater graphical detail. The environment I am envisioning is a dynamic, foreboding place that enhances the ever-present sense of danger. And Dark Souls achieved this in specific areas of Lordrain; in other places however areas feel flat. For Dark Souls II to achieve a universal sense of oppression and danger I propose over the next few posts the adroit use of two very basic elements: light and sound. Keep the inconvenient battle places the way they are, enhance the environments, and you’ll have one intense and exhaustive sequel that will not only stand tall over its predecessor but find itself in top-x lists for years to come.