Love it or loathe it (and there are plenty who do), Dark Souls is undeniably one of the most influential games of the last decade. Whether it's the "git gud" meme, the "X is the Dark Souls of Y" template, or the ways many games shamelessly pluck mechanics from it, Dark Souls clearly represented a paradigm shift in the way many gamers viewed the medium. Not many games name genres; Dark Souls can join Doom and Grand Theft Auto in those illustrious halls. However, for all modern games claim to be influenced by Dark Souls or to copy its mechanics, they're all missing something, and it's all in Lordran's geography.
The first half of Dark Souls is masterful in its design. The way in which the interconnected world gradually unfolds paints a picture of a real place with logical, sensible connections. Though this brilliant interweaving of familiarity and exploration falls away by Dark Souls' second half, when warping is introduced and the world becomes more granular, it's still enough to leave a mark all these years later. All the games that have aped this formula, including From Software's own followups, have tragically left this feature behind, but it's a huge part of what makes Dark Souls feel so brutal, so unforgiving, and so unique.
Choice and Freedom in Dark Souls
There's a single moment that encapsulates the genius of the first half of Dark Souls for a lot of players. After making your way through Undead Burg and Undead Parish, you'll come across a cathedral area in which a towering knight waits to slay you. Once you beat him, you'll notice a small elevator across from where you came in. Hopping into this elevator - which gives you no indication as to where it might lead - eventually drops you back in Firelink Shrine, a ways up from the central bonfire. This is the moment where many players audibly gasp at Dark Souls' genius; this isn't a separate level artfully concealed by loading screens, but a single, holistic world.
That impression is reinforced by the ways in which you can begin Dark Souls if you have a head for orienteering. There are a number of potential "first levels," and many of them connect to one another. If you've got the Master Key (an item you can choose to start the game with), you can access the notorious Blighttown before you ever set foot in Undead Burg. Make your way upwards through Blighttown and you'll find a connection back to the Burg. This kind of networking is evident everywhere in Dark Souls' first half; you'll exclaim, "Oh, that's where I am!" more than a few times before you reach the crux points of Sen's Fortress and Anor Londo.
This is part of Hidetaka Miyazaki's development philosophy. In an interview for Souls successor Bloodborne, Miyazaki says that creating a game world that is kind to players is "not how [he sees] the real world," and that nature is often "harsh and unkind." Creatures often make their homes in inconvenient places for humanity, and that's what Dark Souls' interconnected level design implies, a world in which things and people live wherever they see fit, and it's the Chosen Undead's problem if they happen to be in the way. These aren't levels, they're places.
Okay, Dark Souls, But Why Can't I Warp?
If you've played latter Dark Souls titles and haven't touched the first one, you might not know this, but Dark Souls memorably doesn't feature fast travel. In its second half, the Lordvessel item opens up the ability to warp between certain bonfires; all of them aren't accessible, but this certainly makes traversal easier. However, the lack of an ability to move wherever you want is a huge part of what makes the first half of Dark Souls work the way it does. Being stranded in the middle of Blighttown, an unfamiliar and hostile place where everything wants to kill you, just makes you yearn for the comfort of the Firelink Shrine all the more.
When you discover a shortcut leading back to a familiar place, the sense of relief is immense. Finally, a known quantity. The constant pressures of Dark Souls' world, in which pretty much everything that moves hates you, can be alleviated for just a brief moment. Even if it's a bonfire in the middle of a demon ruin, you still know what it is; you've been here, you've dealt with the challenges it throws at you. Without the tribulation of getting lost in a poison hell-swamp, there cannot be the overwhelming warmth of returning to an area you understand.
It's this quality that allowing warping from the very beginning, as every single subsequent Souls game does (including Bloodborne and Sekiro), removes. When you can warp anywhere, returning to a bonfire doesn't feel like coming home; it feels like going back to the start of a level. No amount of kicking down ladders, riding elevators back to the top of castles, or opening ancient gates can make up for the fact that very few areas in subsequent titles have the same widescreen feel that the first half of Dark Souls does. If you're in trouble, no worries. You can just warp back to Majula or the Hunter's Dream, and the Doll or the Emerald Herald will have a warm mug of cocoa waiting for you.
So What Happens In The Second Half Of Dark Souls?
Once you ring both Bells of Awakening, as you're directed to do in the first half of Dark Souls, you're granted access to Sen's Fortress. This is, in essence, where the linear portion of Dark Souls begins. Sen's Fortress has some clever shortcut moments and some excellent moment-to-moment level design, but it's a straight run from bottom to top. Reaching the peak and battling the Iron Golem, you're carried to Anor Londo by some gargoyles, literally removing you from the world you've just inhabited and placing you in what might as well be a completely new one.
Defeating Anor Londo's main boss, the notoriously brutal double team of Ornstein and Smough, grants you access to the Lordvessel. With this item, you can warp to certain bonfires within the game world. Suddenly, all of the qualities that made Dark Souls' world feel so unforgivingly huge have disappeared. Now, you are its master. It bends to your will. This makes a certain degree of sense; arguably, Ornstein and Smough represent the greatest non-DLC challenge Dark Souls has to offer, so you've already completed your grueling Undead pilgrimage to a certain extent. Your next task is to harvest Lord Souls, which are held by creatures who were once mighty but are now little more than shadows of their former selves. You don't need to feel like a tiny ant anymore. You are becoming a legitimate threat.
The Lordvessel reduces Dark Souls to what it is: an excellent video game, but a video game nonetheless.
That being said, the hostility and brutality of Dark Souls' world feel distinctly unlike a video game in its first half. The reason that it's such an immersive experience is because when you descend the Great Hollow to end up in Ash Lake, you have to physically walk all the way back up (assuming you go there before the Lordvessel, of course). That quality gives the world an uncompromising feel, a sense that you will have to inhabit it as best you can. There's a kind of ancient nobility and power to the world in this state, but the Lordvessel reduces Dark Souls to what it is: an excellent video game, but a video game nonetheless.
Dark Souls, Weaker Level Design, And You
At this stage, you have seen the best of what Dark Souls has to offer from a design standpoint. Individual levels can still excel; the Duke's Archives is a winding maze of passageways and enormous bookshelves with a chilling prison tower at its core, and the Tomb of the Giants is a terrifying excursion into the unknown. The problem, though, is that they're just... straight lines. There are no clever moments where you spot a lift that takes you back to a familiar place, no "aha!" shortcuts. It's just a straight shot to the Lords and you're done. You can choose to tackle them in any order you wish, but you're just selecting which strand to pull.
Looked at another way, this could be seen as a strength. Given their waning power and the way in which the world is fading, the Lords have chosen to sequester themselves as far from others as possible. They want to make it difficult for you to reach them, which is why they place themselves at the end of glorified gauntlets. This makes sense from a narrative perspective, but it's hard not to feel disappointed when you reach the very end of Seath the Scaleless' Crystal Cave and are greeted with a single forlorn bonfire inviting you to warp back.
It's not as if the potential wasn't there for connections, either. When you're in the depths of the Tomb of the Giants, you can clearly see the Demon Ruins that lead to Lost Izalith in the distance. A giant tunnel between the two may be a little lazy, but there could have been some way to interlink the two areas and make the world feel just that little bit more real again. Similarly, a connection between Anor Londo and the Undead Burg (or even the Undead Parish) could have established a worshipful connection between the undead villagers and their far-off gods. As it stands, these levels are visually impressive individually, but they feel isolated and disconnected.
Dark Souls' Legacy Is Assured, but Misunderstood
Whether you think Dark Souls' influence on the gaming world is a good one, it's undeniable. Even games that don't declare themselves to be Soulslikes crib mechanics from it; Shovel Knight, Deathloop, and Nier: Automata all feature the ability to retrieve items from the spot where you died, and although that may not be unique to Souls, it's certainly an iconic element. It often feels like developers have understood the surface of what makes Dark Souls special, but haven't taken the time to truly analyze its approach to level design.
Sometimes it's okay to make players feel something other than comfortable.
You can even see this in the recent Demon's Souls remake. In many ways, Bluepoint's revisiting of the 2009 classic points to Dark Souls as a flash in the pan; its structure is strictly level-based, and while it has a lot of the clever shortcut discovery of Dark Souls, it has none of that game's interconnected feel. Dark Souls truly feels like a team reaching for something huge and ambitious, and what's frustrating is that it feels like they more than pulled it off, but lost their nerve and gave in at the last hurdle. Players may have been inconvenienced by having to trek everywhere, but sometimes it's okay to make players feel something other than comfortable.
I'm still waiting for that special game that replicates the first half of Dark Souls, but keeps that sense of wonder up until the end. The closest title I can think of to come close to achieving this is 2017's Hollow Knight, which also understood how Dark Souls achieves its melancholy tone and moments of real emotional resonance. Soulslikes may clone the combat and misappropriate the mechanics of Dark Souls, but they never understand that it's the level design of its first half that gives it staying power. Without that, most games trying for the Dark Souls crown feel... hollow, somehow.