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A Dark Souls of VR would be wonderful — here’s how you’d make it

A Dark Souls of VR would be wonderful — here’s how you’d make it


But actually developing it will be really, really hard

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"The Dark Souls of X" is such a common cliche that there’s an entire Twitter account dedicated to mocking it. The phrase is usually an unnecessary substitute for saying a game is hard: Super Hexagon is the Dark Souls of mobile games, Super Meat Boy is the Dark Souls of platformers, Homefront: The Revolution is the Dark Souls of cooperative multiplayer. But in virtual reality, it’s not just empty marketing, but positive inspiration. Chronos, one of my favorite Oculus Rift games, took a lot from the series, transplanting the fighting system into a new world and adding interesting puzzle components.

For all its good points, Chronos could have been made for a console, not a VR headset. For something that feels genuinely of VR, you might look to Left-Hand Path — a literally and figuratively dark fantasy game whose creator has described it as Dark Souls for the HTC Vive. Left-Hand Path is the perfect example of how someone could build an amazing VR project on the Souls formula, and a reminder of how hard it would be to do so.

The Dark Souls of being a virtual reality wizard

Left-Hand Path’s hour-long demo is one of the most frustrating yet compelling VR experiences I’ve had recently. Like Dark Souls, it’s an action game that rewards caution and repetition. But instead of trying to replicate button presses or even real-world weapons, it uses magic. You’ll draw glyphs in the air with one hand and aim spells with a staff in the other, casting things like fireballs, a mystical sword, or a barrier-breaking charm. You’ll move by either walking inside the Vive’s boundaries, or pointing at a space and teleporting. None of these are new mechanics, but Left-Hand Path is the first time I’ve seen them all combined in what feels like a deliberately designed narrative game, not a proof of concept.

Even for an Early Access project, though, it’s ridiculously rough. It’s simultaneously full of glitches and so arbitrarily, confusingly difficult that I’m not sure I could have finished without them. It’s promising, but it’s far from the Dark Souls of VR, if such a thing exists. But since I’m sure that more developers are out there somewhere plotting to build one, I figured I might as well lay out what I’ve learned while playing.

Steal mechanics shamelessly

At some point, specific game mechanics become generic conventions — they let you build novelty onto a proven foundation. Left-Hand Path creates a whole new fighting system while cloning how you live, die, and level up from Dark Souls: you kill enemies and steal their "husks," spend them for powers (at a creepy whispering skull instead of a bonfire), and reset the world every time you die, leaving only shortcuts and boss arenas permanently changed. With the limited funds and resources most VR developers are working on, this means that a smaller number of locations can last longer, since players expect to make their way through them multiple times.

Developers need to adapt to the fact that people move differently in VR

Conversely, there are things that don’t work well in VR, like huge menu screens full of numbers. Getting rid of these, as Left-Hand Path does, isn’t necessarily dumbing down the game. It’s just recognizing that learning to inhabit a virtual reality body is already complex enough. Granted, this can go too far, especially since VR developers love stripping out interfaces altogether. Partly because it’s a prototype, Left-Hand Path gives you so few details that it’s hard to actually figure out what’s going on. I don’t need a literal health bar next to a game boss, but I’d like to at least know if I’m hurting it.

Don’t turn your back on the monsters

Here’s where everything starts getting messy. Teleporting is the best way we’ve found to get around in VR, and it’s fine for slow enemies. But it’s awful for Left-Hand Path’s faster ones. It’s difficult to retreat without taking your eyes off the enemy, looking backwards, firing your teleporter into the distance, and hoping you can find your target again before you’re dead. From the third-person perspective of Dark Souls, dodging backwards took a tap of a button, and the camera locked focus on the attacking enemy. VR needs to adapt to the fact that for now, you just don’t have the freedom of movement we’ve come to expect from video games. Instead, you need a way to create distance without moving.

There are probably several ways to do this, but my personal preference would be that old Dark Souls standby, the shield. Magic is already breaking the laws of physics, and I would kill for a protective spell that knocks enemies back and leaves me in place. It could require complex timing, conserving stamina, or some other limiting factor. But I wouldn’t have to blindly pop around the room and get my bearings every time I moved.

Look beyond dark fantasy

Evoking the feel of a beloved game franchise is great for a Vive game in the short term. But if the genre keeps maturing, it dooms something like Left-Hand Path to being the store-brand VR version of Dark Souls, instead of something inspired by it. There are many, many ways to get at a sense of decaying grandeur without directly copying a style that From Software has effectively laid claim to. That means no castles, no keeps, and for god’s sake no more undead knights.

Temper your hopes

No matter how good the fiscal projections for virtual reality are, VR game developers are serving a minuscule market where the hardware is changing so quickly that games can feel outdated before they’re even released. Most major studios seem to see no point in developing huge projects, and most indie developers are too short on time and money to do it.

There's just not enough of a market for giant VR-only games

Why does this matter? Because the beautiful thing the Souls series does is create elaborate worlds you can get lost in, and there’s simply nobody to make those for room-scale, motion-controlled VR. If what other big studios have produced is any indication, even From Software itself — which is apparently planning a game with VR support — probably won’t do it. A spiritual successor would be big, mechanically sophisticated, artistically compelling, and tough but fair. In VR, getting even one of those things right is a triumph. By the time the "Dark Souls of VR" is actually possible — if VR gaming takes off at all — it could be so far in the future that the idea will just seem archaic.

That’s no reason to give up. Left-Hand Path is set to be somewhere around 8 to 10 hours, and I’m looking forward to it, assuming there are some serious revisions along the way. Sure, it will remind me of the frustrating catch-22 of adopting a new platform that could foster great things, if only there weren’t so many barriers to making and playing them. But at the same time, after years of trying to figure out what VR gaming means, more and more people are creating projects that carve their own space in the medium — and hopefully, one of them will become its own genre-defining work.