Mark Brown Delves into Genre Creation and the "Souls-Like"


#1

This video by Mark Brown just dropped today and it covers something many people here on Waypoint have discussed before: the concept of what does it mean to be a Souls-Like and how new genres are made or if they even need to exist. It’s a really solid exploration of a lot of ideas that listeners of the Podcast may be familiar with so I thought I’d share in case anyone’s interested. I think there’s a lot to unpack here. Love this guy’s work!


#2

I liked this video a lot. I think he’s right in that genres need to be more broad and malleable than the soulslike games are right now. The narrowness of roguelike for years made it a very niche type of game for years.

To me, personally, when I hear games are soulslike, I tend to be put off. Dark Souls evokes a very specific experience in my mind that I don’t necessarily want from other games.

I think you can maybe take inspiration from the design decisions, but when so much is the same, it just leaves me wanting to replay Dark Souls again. I think we just need to take lessons and adapt them to other kinds of games where it makes sense and not try to chase after Dark Souls.

A recent example I’d give is Hollow Knight. It certainly evokes the mystery and uses some systems from Dark Souls, but it’s very much a metroidvania style platformer in a way that I think the marriage of the two elevates the game as a whole instead of trying to tack on stamina management and other systems that don’t make as much sense to me in this type of game.


#3

Still don’t know how collectively it has been decided that Souls-Like is a genre when it’s literally just Metroidvania but in 3D. Which is already redundant because so’s Metroid Prime, so there’s no real reason not to call them Metroidvanias other than the inherent silliness of naming a genre after two examples.


#4

Great video! I’ve liked the other ones of his I’ve seen as well: tropical freeze, the dead space series.
It WOULD probably be a good idea to stop naming genres after individual games. But the whole genre naming thing is more of an organic collective acceptance of something rather than a thoughtful decision, no?


#5

I’ve had some THOUGHTS about this stuff but id probably just end up repeating a lot of my arguments so I’m just gonna link the article he mentions in the video that contains all my thoughts on it:

the short answer is basically that the way we talk about games and the words we use end up directing a lot of the discourse and our expectations.

also: its kind of amazing how much he butchered my name. thats the greatest one I’ve heard yet. tho mostly I’m miffed he got the pronouns wrong.


#6

It’s interesting for me to watch this video coming from a music criticism background. Like all forms of art, “genre” gets an extremely bad rap from the most “serious” music fans and especially the artists creating the music. They worry about being pigeonholed (as this video states) and having their sincere form of expression codified, and therefore limited and, most likely, subsequently commodified. You can certainly apply this to games as well, at least to a certain extent.

I think this is a valid concern, and there’s loads of proof stretching many, many decades back. My favorite example is the term “punk rock,” which began as a derogatory description of the music’s fans. It soon after became a bonafide music term, but many of punk’s progenitors denied the genre description wholesale. The preferred to be described as rock & roll, a genre in and of itself.

ANYWAY, my point of all this is, genres and their related terms are as real as we need them to be. There need not be a consensus on how we interact with them. Creatives can use these conceptual reference points as rigidly or loosely as they like, and I’d argue both have the potential for interesting ideas. “Metroidvanias” and “Roguelikes” are excellent sets of concepts that have been iterated upon to make some incredible and mediocre (and terrible) games alike. And when I use those terms, a large number of you (if not all of you) will know exactly what I’m talking about. Genre terms are tools of communication—full stop.

When I hear the term “Soulslike,” I can reasonably infer what that might be, and if not, I can research the concept. All that means to me, especially as a Souls fan, is that this might be a game I’d find interesting. Then I’d look into it for myself and see if it has the elements of Souls that I personally value—not if it ticks off some prescribed boxes. For me, that’s a useful tool that I see no good in trying to regulate.


#7

I might have missed the idea behind this video but didn’t he make a video cementing the use of Immersive Sim as a specific genre when it hosts of the most diversified set of games in gaming ? Why Soulslike shouldn’t exist then, and I say that as I hate the term for both. As much as I hate those terms, everyone knows what they define, everyone knows that they’re seeking that similar deus ex experience or that similar souls experience.

Also it’s insulting the intelligence of people to say that a naming convention can hinder their creativity.


#8

Yeah. I like this series a lot, but this one kinda missed the mark for me a little bit.

It seems he’s assuming that the progression of Roguelike as a genre is the natural course of things and that it will hamper creativity until someone decides to defy genre norms (rogueslike not exclusively being turn based is the main departure that freed up a lot of design space imo). I think it’s a little presumptuous to think that the same thing will happen to Soulslikes. It could be innovated on at a much quicker pace than Rogue, but we won’t know that for some time.

And he complains about Metroidvania’s being too much like Metroid, but that’s what I want out of those games. I don’t go into a Metroidvania expecting a brand new experience, I go in expecting a finely tuned version of that same experience. I don’t think that’s bad for the genre because there can be 2D action platforms that operate outside the genre conventions of a Metroidvania.


#9

This is a good point about genre definition, if a game’s genre can be so easily defined then it’s probably trying very hard to do so. Axiom Verge makes an effort to be recognised as part of the metroidvania genre. Hollow Knight does. Every example of the two titles making up that portmanteau (obviously) makes that effort.

There are games that don’t so obviously codify as part of a specific genre while still sharing upwards of 90% of the same DNA. The Souls series being a prime example, take it apart and it’s a 3D Metroidvania to the core, leaning heavily towards the Castlevania part. There’s a very deliberate decision being made in games like the Souls games to separate themselves from being immediately associated with an existing genre, as a way of resetting expectations and making the player more likely to notice the things the creators want them to notice.

Following on from that: When you play Bloodborne, Nioh and The Surge for the first time, you look for their “equivelants” of bonfires. And which of the stats correspond to what they are in Souls. What your light and heavy attacks are. Those games very deliberately make an effort to show you what corresponds to which, and how they’ve tuned it. Those are the sorts of things Dark/Demons Souls hid and/or changed to make sure the player didn’t start registering it as a Metroidvania.

If that makes sense? I hope that makes sense.

With that in mind, it’s super interesting and neat that “Souls-Like” has emerged as such a clear subgenre, and a testament to how bloody good it’s systems were that games like Bloodborne, Nioh and The Surge can all exist from the template. Those are some excellent videogames.

Edit: Plus “Souls-Like” is a genre that exists clearely alongside Metroidvania, kind of like Western RPGs and Japanese RPGs, which is also one helluva feat. “Rogue-likes” basically superceded the genre that existed before it, to the point where games much closer to the original Rogue, that defined the genre that spawned Roguelikes, are generally put under the “Roguelike” umbrella. Souls defined itself so well despite it’s clear heritage that it exists as a genre completely separate to Metroidvania in the public eye.

That’s like London declaring itself a city state, then launching itself into the ocean and suddenly gaining landmass the equivalent size of Ireland.


#10

Hmm… I largely get where you’re coming from with this but I have to generally disagree with the idea that “soulslike” games are inherently metroidvania. Forgive me for sounding pedantic here but I’m getting somwhere I promise. Demon’s Souls is based on the King’s Field series, which began years before SoTN and thus before metroidvania could really be considered a genre. So what we essentially have is a 3rd person King’s field with lock-on combat.

Metroidvania games are defined primarily by their sprawling interconnected level design. We could say that Demon’s Souls has some of that, but Demon’s Souls is also a game that has linear levels, which is pretty contrary to the metroidvania formula. The metroidvania style level design only came into the series with Dark Souls, but the existence and success of Demon’s Souls proves that its not necessary to the genre.

I guess my point here is that the reason Souls games differentiate themselves from metroidvania games isn’t because they make a conscious effort to, but because any similarities it shares with the metroidvania genre is, while maybe not entirely coincidental, just a case of similar design philosophies reaching the same conclusion.


#11

This was my thinking. It just feels like a weird thing to expect this stuff to be defined by sober deliberation and not community reaction and marketing.


#12

I think this video is among the more well-made arguments in this ongoing discussion, but the more it went on the less I agreed.

There’s so much collective thought and effort that goes into designing games. To assume that the great gaming discourse is the sole, or even the primary factor in the creative direction of the industry almost belittles the creativity of game creators. If a game creator is inspired by specific aspects of Dark Souls, they could end up making a Souls-like game regardless of the specific jargon the critic community has decided to use. Conversely, if someone has decided they want to make a different kind of open world game (for example: Nintendo with Breath of the Wild), the genre terminology is such a small part of what ultimately makes the game different.

The single greatest counterargument to this video, in my eyes, is Undertale. That game is something like a traditional JRPG, but it doesn’t feel that way because of how it constantly messes around with your expectations. I would say that it’s largely because of those firm genre expectations that Undertale was able to be something surprising.

Regardless of the jargon we use, there is an immense amount of skill required to perceive what makes a game good. Sometimes, developers want to do something fresh and exciting, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to refine a classic, too.


#13

I wouldn’t call Demon’s Souls areas linear, separated into areas as they may be they still structured in the same way as your standard Metroidvania. Plus Kings Field was released the same year as Super Metroid, which is largely responsible for the formula as we know it today. Considering the time gap and the significance of Super Metroid’s release, there’s no way it’s success didn’t influence Kings Field in the 9 months or so between the two releases. Which is besides the point anyway, since there’s Demon’s Souls doesn’t exclusively pull of Kings Field, which doesn’t exclusively pull from itself.

Delving into games development influences like this is a never-ending rabbit hole, and is almost entirely speculative, especially from the perspective of We The Shmucks. So when I say Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls share “DNA”, I mean it’s mechanics are directly comparable to existing examples when held side-to-side, rather than being derived from previous examples.

Hold Dark Souls’ level design up to Symphony of the Night and Metroid Prime, for example, and it shares a lot of the same particulars. Same with it’s story presentation, and the functions of certain items as incentives, etc(you could easily do an awesome video/article on this stuff TBH). But it’s also clearly different because of the small differences in how each of those shared elements are presented. The level design may near-identical in how it’s structured to Metroid Prime, but the lack of a map creates a very different player response off the bat, which also influences the visual design of the environments(more visible landmarks, less standardised design elements).

Which leads back to what I was saying about making these similar elements not seem similar. it’s the same mechanic and basic design, framed different to provoke a different response. Presented with a map at the start of Dark Souls, a lot of folks would start to play it more like a Metroidvania. Take away the map from Metroid Prime, just as many would start to play it more like Dark Souls.

If I wasn’t knackered right now I’d probably go on in this way for ages, so consider yourselves lucky I guess.

This topic is fascinating.