Winston Churchill supposedly once said: "If you're going through hell, keep going." Assuming he did, he was most likely having a vision of the future to come, of Dark Souls and its siblings.
The deranged difficulty of FromSoftware's Souls series – Demon's Souls, Dark Souls and its sequel, Bloodborne and now Dark Souls III – has been explored time and again. But at least the hardships regular players endure can be soothed somewhat by turning to a guide. Which leaves the curious to rightly wonder: who the hell helps the people who make the guides? Nobody, basically.
To understand the special kind of masochism necessary in your average Souls series guide maker, I spoke to Wil Murray, senior editor at publishers Future Press, and series luminary (and fellow Future contributor) EpicNameBro. As a highly ranked Soulcalibur player, Wil is no stranger to wielding eviscerating weapons, and it was while chasing the edge in the 00s that he was recruited into the Future Press team. EpicNameBro, aka Marcus Sanders, is a Mississippian who spent his mid-20s playing Japanese games in Japan. He was one of the first YouTubers to post English-language walkthrough videos of Dark Souls, but his rep in the community didn't ignite until he pieced together the deep and opaque lore of the series. He now has over 357,000 subscribers.
Now settle by the bonfire, uncork your Estus and hear a tale of woe and wonder.
VICE: How do you even begin a new guide, when a new Souls game comes out?
Wil Murray: You assemble a team and start making level maps. These are as helpful in-game as they are in real life. With those done, we play the game for about a week. Then we request an exhaustive list of assets from the developers – it's usually way more than we know we'll get. But if we don't create it, no one will. There were plenty of things in Dark Souls that the community wouldn't have known if we hadn't printed it.
EpicNameBro: We do our best not to waste FromSoft's time and resources, and From knows that when we ask for an asset, we really need it. Everyone on the guide team has to be comfortable with debugging features and willing to do our own tests. We dig into the guts of the game, figure out how it works, decide what we want to say about it, and then have FromSoft check what we're doing.
What kind of hours were you putting in, the first time around?
WM: We switched on what debugging tools we could and would aim to get through the game 20 times a day, until we were sure we'd got absolutely everything. We only had two weeks and we had to figure out half of the content, at least, on our own. We didn't get all the armour and weapon upgrade stats, like you normally would. So we had two guys taking it in turns to upgrade all their equipment – and they would do that all day long, for three days solid.
It sounds like you take a rigorous approach to the whole thing?
WM: Other publishers don't, but we are more than happy to put the time in.
ENB: I approached the guides thinking: what can I tell players about this game that they wouldn't otherwise know, and how can I summarise information in a way that is easy to understand and fun to absorb? Some information is really cool to know, but is better left to the imagination. It's a hard balance, and a lot of our early meetings were pretty heated. Everyone really cared about what we were making, and we had to butt heads to find the best ideas that were actually feasible.
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How do you know when a guide is done? Is it a deadline, a matter of detail, or both?
WM: It can be a matter of planning if the detail is good enough, but generally it's the looming deadline. We normally have to get everything ready to print a full month before the game is released.
ENB: A lot of people don't realise, but game guides in Japan often release months after the games. There are different cultural expectations from guide buyers. In Japan, no one expects a day one guide at all; in the West, many people write a guide off completely if it isn't day one. But from a production perspective, most Japanese game companies are used to providing guide support after the game is complete and shipped; that doesn't work for a day one guide at all.
Do you specifically approach the Souls series differently to other games?
WM: We knew Dark Souls was a bigger game than normal, and that we had less time. So we tried to be as well organised as possible. That said, nobody got any sleep or any kind of break for six weeks. In most games you walk around in God Mode and your character won't take any damage and you don't have to worry. In Dark Souls, that doesn't really help because, for example, if you walk through some lava without a certain ring equipped you will lose all your armour.
How do you think strategy guides affect the enjoyment of playing a game?
WM: When I first started making guides ten years ago it was incredibly fun, because you got to play the game before anyone else. But the longer you do it, the harder it is to enjoy a finished game, because you look at it in terms of how it was built. It's still worth doing as you get an understanding of the game that you couldn't any other way.
ENB: There are a lot of people who get more out of the game with a little bit of guidance. I think it's exceptionally tricky with the Souls series. They exist as these sort of communal puzzles, and it's hard to make sure the players know everything they need to know but not so much that it ruins that aspect of the games. The lore of Bloodborne in the Old Hunters guide (book) was extremely delicate to handle. The story is complicated enough that a lot of people really needed some help sorting it out; but if we said too much it would detract from the role-playing and sleuthing that the people most invested in the community like to do. The format had to respect the readers, the game, and FromSoft's wishes. Ultimately, the guide should enhance the game rather than detract from it.
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How do you think strategy guides affect the game's community? Are they still relevant in an age of wikis? And how lucrative is the guides business?
WM: It can be lucrative if you don't care too much about which games you work on. The Dark Souls guide is a rare example – it outperformed for us financially, and it was massively enjoyable to play. But typically if you want to make money in the business, you have to work on the huge triple-A titles that sell the most, regardless of whether you have any real interest in them. We try to avoid that scenario, and very often go after less successful games just because we want to play them, like Vanquish and Bayonetta. If you're just doing it for the money then the product won't be as good; it really is essential to enjoy playing the game you're creating a book about.
ENB: A well-done guide will always have a place. The reason is simple: a well-done guide presents the players with information that they can't get on their own. The existence of a good official guide ends up promoting better wikis. Just compare the data that is available online for weapons in Bloodborne compared to other Souls games. A lot of the info you'll find on weapons from the original version of Bloodborne comes straight from my work on the official guide – even the notation format and terminology. I'm really pleased that this level of information is available, particularly where it inspired people to perform original research on the weapons. It does irk me a bit though when people don't give credit or say things like, "Who needs guides, it'll be on the wiki anyway." In some cases, it won't without the official guide.
Okay, so is working on Souls guides the hardest job you've ever had?
ENB: I actually relish tackling a new game, tearing it apart, analysing it, and presenting my findings. That's my jam! But constantly balancing the needs of the community, FromSoft, the game publishers, Future Press, any anyone else, that's hard. Dealing with the reactions after the guide is released is also difficult. I'm just kind of a critical person by nature; it's easy to focus on the negative comments. It's even more difficult when people point out legitimate flaws or omissions, particularly when I know the reason for it but can't actually acknowledge it. It puts me in the painful position of having to ignore people's criticism and have them think I don't care when absolutely nothing could be farther from the truth.
Actually, after thinking about it, this is a hard fucking job. Particularly if you're passionate about these games and their community. And if you're not, you shouldn't be doing this anyway, you know?
So as the First Flame fades once again, we've learned that playing Dark Souls is tough, but writing an exhaustive guide under tight deadlines is even tougher. Decide for yourself whether or not you need help with Dark Souls III when it arrives in the US and UK on April 12.
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