In categorization as official as trashy YouTube Top Tens and Steam curation forums, Dark Souls has become so formidably iconic in the industry that it’s used to brand other games, often for difficulty alone, as “Dark Souls-lite” or “Souls-lite.” The relatively small grievance of reducing Dark Souls to its traits is overshadowed by the whole industry’s tendency towards creative compartmentalization, even in production – an inability to make a platformer that is not “Super Mario-lite,” a shmup “Gradius-lite,” an adventure “Zelda-lite,” a shooter “Goldeneye-lite.” These would be the real genres, if video games had any literature behind them that wasn’t a technical manual.
Developers have been making erroneous clones of trendy games for years. Whole franchises like Sonic The Hedgehog and Medal of Honor were designed to cash in a creative deficit in an economy where fool’s gold sells like the real thing. The difference is that Sonic was grasping for a fresh identity against Mario in the thick Red Ocean into which it was born, while Nioh and Salt and Sanctuary are unabashedly self-aware in their synthetic response to the Dark Souls mechanism, even copying its menu structure, controls, and appearance.
The industry literature (most would say “clickbait”) would love to lump these together on superficial aesthetic grounds. But the game experiences can only collude if their intentions are comparable. Dark Souls always strives to teach the player what they need as a player, sometimes coming out of nowhere with unfair challenges that only reveal themselves to be emotional learning opportunities much later. Its many imitators cannot match its luster because they were not made this way: they were constructed from their basest source code only to give a specific audience what they think it wants. Salt and Sanctuary, perhaps by changing the visual perspective, comes the closest I’ve seen to becoming the object of its affections.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is as much “Shadow of the Colossus-lite” as “Skyward Sword-lite,” and more so, since both are grand adventures where a voiceless wanderer rides a mysterious land in search of adventure, conquest, and the love of a princess, but only one feels like it. Breath and Shadow are united by a common spirit to turn movement itself into a myth distinct from game progression (imagine Shadow with fast travel). Breath accomplishes this precisely because it does not aim directly at Shadow or at its audience: its intentions were self-actualizing.
This is why genre is actually a scam in the video game industry – games are sold as a comparison to a trend or franchise more even than as a clever design. I was bedazzled once by a game called 3D Dot Game Heroes, a game with every intention as a “Zelda-lite” dungeon adventure, complete with a unique visual scheme that plucked my nostalgia strings. But after playing it, I discovered that the sinew was gone – the exploration adventure had been replaced with a chatting companion on my shoulder, subbing for the developer as a hand-holder and adventure normalizer. Its appearance and marketing evoked a spirit that it did not contain. By contrast, Breath of the Wild was so shocking because it didn’t feel like recent Zelda games at all: it exceeded the comparisons of its franchise trappings to become into a true genre.
In proportion to how unique Dark Souls is, articles pop up giving its love secondhand to the developers that have copied it. But the best I’ve seen of the attributable terms is “Souls-lite” in the truest sense – Dark Souls diet, reduced and with the flavor changed. At the worst they are like Lords of the Fallen, stuffed with more Dark Souls buzzwords than new ideas. This compartmentalization fails because a game’s appearance has almost no bearing on its essential – through gameplay – reaction in the player. How the player is postured against the game world emotionally is a far better gauge of a game’s place among other games than its appearance.
For instance, the weighty caution you adopt to play Limbo is the same as that in the original Prince of Persia, despite their aesthetic divide. The Binding of Isaac has everything in common mechanically with Robotron 2084, but is more essentially a “Zelda-lite” – the plodding dungeon exploration followed by shorts bursts of brutal, yet methodical, combat. Star Fox 64 has far less to do with Star Fox Adventures than Vanark.
You might have loved Star Fox 64, berated the tepid adventure schlock on dinosaur planet, and still never have heard of Vanark. This is because the industry thinks in things. Microsoft didn’t invent the Kinect out of creative instinct: they threw it at the wall Wii Sports had built, hoping it would stick without ever needing to care about the kinds of people who might play it, when, and where. Neither Star Fox Adventures, Star Fox Assault, or Star Fox Zero has successfully recaptured its own audience’s affections, no matter how much official licensed stuff it throws at the wall. A game that is truly like another will never be promoted as such. The successor to Super Metroid was not Metroid: Samus Returns, but Hollow Knight. Those who loved Shadow are still playing Breath, I would like to think, more than the Shadow remaster (perhaps that’s too optimistic for now).
Video games have to think of themselves as a medium that goes beyond the normal senses of sight and sound stuff, as film had to when it decided to start writing films, not about “a train going fast,” but about, essentially about, longing or acceptance or adventure. A game must tailor its elements to promote the emotions it desires for its players – only this can be arranged into a category. “Top Ten Best Games Like Dark Souls” articles are more my problem than yours. But if they reveal anything about the developmental imagination working in the industry, they shouldn’t be. In exact proportion to how much you care about video games, they should scare you.
M.C. Myers is a graduate of English Literature and a geek even when it’s in vogue. When he’s not writing about video games he has a semi-regular column on Bright Lights Film called “Watch it Again.” He can be reached at his email: firstname.lastname@example.org