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Making Souls-Like A Genre Might Actually End Up Hurting it

The latest Game Maker's Toolkit investigates the Souls-like phenomenon.

In the latest video (which contains a nod to Patrick and our Brooklyn Definition) for his Gamer Maker's Toolkit video series, Mark Brown proposes a four-step model of how video game genres form. Someone makes a hugely popular game; someone else copies it; those copies start dropping features from the original; and eventually, the "copies," deviating far from the original template, become recognized as an established genre of original games.


He argues that "soulslikes"—the Dark Souls-inspired games that we've seen pop up since 2014, such as Lords of the Fallen, Nioh, and The Surge—risk falling into the same pitfall that roguelikes did: Spending 20 years copying the original template, never advancing past that first stage. He goes so far as to decry the term "soulslike," saying it promotes thinking about the genre in a restrictive way, which seems hard to argue with.

It's a legitimate warning, and I think that Game Maker's Toolkit is a smart video series that people interested in the nuts and bolts of game design should be paying attention to. But I don't necessarily buy all of Mark's arguments in this video. It seems natural to me that we're still seeing fairly direct copies of Dark Souls. Even though it came out six years ago, the genre it inspired is still in its infancy, thanks to a relative slowness for games culture to really pay attention to Dark Souls.

Mark risks getting too prescriptive with his argument, ignoring the structures around what happened to the genres he brings up. Roguelikes stayed the same for so long because they were a hobbyist pursuit, games made by and for an audience steeped in the history of Rogue and most of all Nethack. When indie titles like Spelunky, Rogue Legacy, and Dungeons of Dredmor had to ask the question of how to make a roguelike accessible and broadly marketable, they came up with answers that advanced the genre enormously.

For now, there's no marketability problem with the "soulslike"—with the Dark Souls series proper having reached a (hopefully very definitive) ending, there's a huge thirst out there for more of that kind of game. But I think we can see the genre advancing already; between Hyper Light Drifter, The Surge, and Dead Cells, new branches are being explored and new design space is being carved out. Arguably, those games could all have done even more to zero in on what it is that makes Dark Souls an enduring classic. But as a designer, I have to sympathize a little with that timidity; it comes from not knowing, just yet, what's baby and what's bathwater.