I Have No Map, and I Must Guide: Directing the Player in Dark Souls

[yes, I’m talking about Dark Souls again – sorry!]

Expansive 3D world games often use maps, quest markers, or locked paths to direct players to their goal. However, can gameplay itself be used as an alternative navigation tool? Dark Souls tackles this challenge in three ways.

When arriving in the main landmass of the game, players are faced with two paths that, on surface, look equally viable. There are no signposts, no markers, and no map. It is only through gameplay itself, and in actually taking the incorrect path (the graveyard) that players understand which way will lead them to the goal.

Figure 1: Skeletons. *Not* friendly.

Entering the graveyard, players are greeted by skeletons blocking their progression (figure 1), leading them to engage in a fight. However, it quickly becomes apparent that starting players are very under-levelled for these enemies, as they can kill the player in a couple of swipes while starting players will struggle to dent their health. The positioning of the enemies is also meaningful: arranged as a line on a very narrow path, they make escape impossible… and death unavoidable. Indeed, as highlighted by Hunter (2011), enemy placement is a useful way to help players navigate through a level.

Should players manage to progress further, they soon realise that any equipment looted in the area will be high level and require stats that are out of reach for starting characters. This reinforces the message that players may not be in the right place at this point of the game, in other words using the level and what it contains to communicate “important narrative elements to the player without disrupting gameplay with a cutscene or scripted piece of dialogue” (Solarski, 2013).

Figure 2: Bloodstain from later in the game, replaying a player death (white shadow)

Finally, Dark Souls uses a visual clue to further warn players: other players’ bloodstains, replaying how other players died if interacted with (figure 2), are plentiful in the area. An observant player will notice their proliferation and get a sense of danger, further reinforcing, along with enemies and loot information, that they are not on the right path.



Hunter, D. (2011) ‘Directing the Player (Part 1)‘. Available at: http://www.vg-leveldesign.com/directing-the-player-p1/ (Accessed 30 January 2018).

Solarski, C. (2013) ‘Framing and Centering: Directing Player Attention in Open 3D Worlds‘. Available at: https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/ChrisSolarski/20130621/194798/Framing_and_Centering_Directing_Player_Attention_in_Open_3D_Worlds.php (Accessed 30 January 2018).


Dark Souls – Bloodstain (2012). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=732Uw2CCX0U (Accessed 30 January 2018).

Dark Souls – Graveyard Skeleton (no date). Available at: https://giphy.com/gifs/graveyard-fZJnz32xcHPVu (Accessed 30 January 2018).

Dark Souls – You Died (2017). Available at: http://www.manic-expression.com/triple-nerd-score-gaymer-edition-i-suck-at-dark-souls-and-this-is-not-a-bad-thing-no-really/ (Accessed 30 January 2018).


Operant Behaviour: Crime and Punishment in Dark Souls

For anyone who knows me in person or has read this blog, it’s no revelation that I hold Dark Souls (From Software, 2009) in high consideration, and consider it a huge inspiration in terms of games design. I’m forever amazed that no matter what games design theory you think of, Dark Souls has an interesting application for it. This blog will briefly explore one I have studied recently: operant behaviour in games design.

In the 1930s, psychologist B.F. Skinner brought forward the theory of operant behaviour, arguing that behaviour is learned through a set of reinforcements and/or punishments (McLeod, S., 2015). As Salen and Zimmerman note, this is an important concept in games design, as it allows designers to “shape the actions players are likely to take in the future” (Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E., 2004, p. 345). Three of these reinforcements are of particular interest for this post: positive reinforcement, negative punishment, and the more subtle negative reinforcement. Read on to find out more…

The Dark Souls series uses a fairly straight-forward way to reward players for killing enemies: they gain points. These points, called “souls”, are an in-game currency allowing the players to level-up but also to buy items. This is positive reinforcement: a positive stimulus (souls) after desired behaviour is exhibited (killing things).

In most games, rewards such as experience points and money are never lost and can be spent at the player’s convenience and whim. Not so in Dark Souls: in order to spend their reward, players must either find a merchant in the world or, to level up, reach one of the “bonfires”, safe places dotted through the levels. A very real challenge occurs here: if the player dies before reaching a merchant or bonfire, they lose all the souls they have accumulated. This is effectively a negative punishment, removing a positive stimulus (souls gained) after undesired behaviour is exhibited (dying).

However, the game uses an interesting mechanic to turn this punishment on its head: the player can recover the souls if they reach and stand on the exact location where they died; furthermore, the game only allows the player one chance (one “life”), after which the souls are gone forever. This is in the realm of negative reinforcement: removing a negative stimulus (losing the souls) after desired behaviour is exhibited (reaching the place of death and not dying), adding an interesting layer of complexity in the way the game handles punishment.

Schell (2015, p. 223) explains that taking risks in games is exciting, but that this must be balanced with efficient use of punishment. It’s interesting to note that Dark Souls asks the player to take risks for both punishment and reward, an unusual proposition. Indeed, Dark Souls is not just a “git good”, tough game – it is a game that embraces operant behaviour theory to play with its players’ complex minds, making punishing gameplay all the more rewarding. Ornstein and Smough* salute you!

*A diabolical duo teaming up for one of the toughest boss fights in the series. Yes, I summoned Solaire to beat them. The game designers wanted me to!


From Software (2009) Dark Souls. Namco Bandai Games.

McLeod, S. (2015) Skinner – Operant Conditioning | Simply Psychology. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html (Accessed 30 October 2017).

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Schell, J. (2015) The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

All images my own.


Dark Souls and Flow

  Psychologist and theorist Csikszentmihalyi conducted decades of research to understand how certain pleasurable activities induced a phenomenon called “flow”, which he later defined as “a state of peak enjoyment, energetic focus, and creative concentration experienced by people engaged in adult play” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). As noted by Salen and Zimmerman (2004), flow is important to video games as it is precisely the feeling that game designers seek to elicit from the players. They further this point by remarking that “games are one of the best kinds of activities to produce flow”. How does Dark Souls fulfil this potential?
  Dark Souls quickly establishes its unforgiving nature. The player starts with a small pool of health points and very little armour, a set-up made worse by the fact that encountered enemies can kill them with as little as two attacks. This feeling is further amplified when coming across level bosses, enemies who often dwarf the fragile player and deal devastating damage (figure 1). The character’s fragility even manifests itself in the player movement: the game makes it is easy to fall into holes, to run into a trap, or to approach a hidden enemy the wrong way, often resulting in immediate death. These mechanics serve to introduce a key element of flow that Csikszentmihalyi calls “the merging of action and awareness”. Indeed, Dark Souls requires the player’s full mental and, through the controls, physical attention to stay alive in the game. This single-mindedness manifests by the player being at one with the game: when dodging, the player does not consciously think of pressing a button to dodge, they simply think of the action, and reproduce it physically without a single thought; in Csikszentmihalyi’s words, “the action carries us forward as if by magic”. While this is common to most games, Dark Souls’ constant level of threat enhances this feeling and makes it even more vital for the player’s survival, thus starting the process of flow.


  Early in the game, Dark Souls also tackles the challenge of “clear goals and feedback”, another of Csikszentmihalyi’s key requirements for flow. Games can be defined as computer programs made of rules, and their gameplay relies on creating understandable goals and feedback. However, as Baron (2012) points out, it should also be considered that “there are inherent limitations on how much information we can parse at any moment”. Dark Souls takes this into consideration and uses an interesting strategy to induce flow: making goals and feedback as simple and discrete as possible. In the first section of the game, the player is given one simple mission: find and ring two bells, and, quite simply, survive this mission. The player quickly realises that all the available areas in the game will lead them to the goal; reaching it is simply a case of moving forward. Furthermore, there are no given side quests, or even a quest menu. Feedback is given an equally minimalistic yet efficient treatment: in Dark Souls, every hit matters and results in your life bar diminishing, each amour can be tested immediately, each move costs stamina, a limited resource that can be depleted, and each leveling-up is indicated through numbers. If you fail, you die, and if you survive, you progress. Such is the vital feedback for the player, further exemplified in the bare but informative user interface (figure 1).

By its implementation of information, its ability to engage the player mentally and physically, and the single-mindedness its gameplay creates, Dark Souls therefore combines several of what Salen and Zimmerman (2004) call “flow activities”, helping trigger peak engagement from the player. Csikszentmihalyi labels this particular combination the “concentration on the task at hand”; he describes it as a state that induces the player to focus all their attention on the activity, leaving room from nothing else in their mind, be it their surroundings or everyday worries. Another logical consequence of this intense concentration is the phenomenon of losing track of time, or in Csikszentmihalyi’s words the “transformation of time”.

As the player’s concentration hits its peak and obscures time, their mind is now free to refine their in-game survival skills. In another application of flow, playing Dark Souls becomes “a challenging activity that requires skills”. As seen above, the player must survive against difficult odds by learning the necessary playing skills to progress. However, in order to be conducive to flow, the game’s learning curve must observe a very precise balance between challenge and skills (figure 2), following the principle that “in flow, the players are balanced between boredom and anxiety” (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997); when successful, this balance creates a flow channel or, as Chen (2006) also calls it, the flow zone. Interestingly, the wording of this chart is not innocent: as observed by Rogers (2014), the concept of difficulty promotes “pain and loss”, but challenge promotes “skill and improvement” instead, the latter offering a very different dynamic that is significantly more conducive to flow. Dark Souls places itself firmly in the challenge camp and avoids a pure difficulty approach with a key mechanic: reliable patterns. While very difficult to defeat, enemies and bosses all have unique patterns of attacks and timing, and regular attempts to defeat them allow the player to observe and memorise them. This gradual mastery helps the player build the skill they need to progress, and prevents prolonged anxiety as defeat always leads to an opportunity to better their skills, and the belief that this knowledge will eventually tip the balance in their favour. The game also avoids boredom by constantly introducing new enemies: their patterns are not known yet, but the player knows they can be.

Screenshot 2017-01-16 15.20.38.png

  This gradual knowledge can also be linked to the “paradox of control”, which occurs when “players attempt to assert control by taking actions” (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004). In Dark Soul’s hostile world, where every step is dangerous, the world itself becomes an enemy; this is something that the player, a participant and not the maker, cannot change. However, Dark Souls once again finds an interesting solution to this design challenge with bonfires. Bonfires can be found throughout the game world and are kindled by the player; they remain dormant until the player activates them, and represent the only way a player can fully heal, replenish healing potions, level up, or, later on, travel quickly through the world. Importantly, these allow the player to establish an enclave of their own in the game where usual rules do not apply: enemies will not approach, healing occurs spontaneously, and, in a game where there is no pause button, the world can effectively be stopped for as long as the player wishes while they sit around the bonfire. By subverting its own rules with this mechanic, Dark Souls allow the player to assert control. It could be argued that the game offers another way for the player to assert control: memorisation. By memorising the game’s geography and enemy patterns, as seen previously, the player is also able to gain the upper hand on some of the game’s traps and challenges and gains a measure of control.

An interesting side-effect to the finely tuned challenge and to the way the play can exert some control in the world is the resulting “loss of self-consciousness”. Csikszentmihalyi explains that this occurs when “the self that the person reflects upon is not the same self that existed before the flow experience: it is now enriched by new skills and fresh achievements”. This can be taken almost literally for a game as demanding and yet rewarding as Dark Souls. Indeed, because its challenge curve through patterns is so well balanced, the player gains a strong sense of achievement as they progress through the game and learn patterns: they gain skills to defeat what were previously very challenging enemies; they memorise the world and avoid traps; they understand weapons and armour and how to use them efficiently; they assert some control in a previously totally hostile world. These constant rewards help the player reflect on their experience and create a positive feedback loop, further enhancing flow.

If Dark Souls achieves flow so well, however, why do some players not enjoy the experience or ever reach flow in the game? Salen and Zimmerman (2004) tackle that question by remarking that “there is no guarantee that the game you design will be put to use by players that are ready or able to experience flow”. Indeed, flow has an unpredictable human element, and as Chen (2006) notes: “like fingerprints, different people have different skills and Flow Zones”. Dark Souls’ tough but fair strategy may therefore make the game seem uncompromising to many players, who would conclude that the flow state is too difficult to reach. Conversely, this strategy is the key reason why other players reach perfect flow, which a less precise system may not have allowed for. It could be argued that the designers therefore decided to prioritise the few players who could reach perfect flow over the ones less susceptible of doing so.

Dark Souls successfully exemplifies all of Csikszentmihalyi’s elements of flow, and achieves them through varied and efficient means. However, it should also be noted that not all players will respond to this implementation of flow positively, as flow is strongly dependent on the individual.


Baron, S. (2012) Gamasutra – Cognitive Flow: The Psychology of Great Game Design [online]. Available at: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/166972/cognitive_flow_the_psychology_of_.php ?print=1 (Accessed 28 November 2016).

Chen, J. (2006) Flow in Games. MFA Thesis. USC School of Cinematic Arts. Available at: http://www.jenovachen.com/flowingames/Flow_in_games_final.pdf (Accessed: 4 December 2016).

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1991) Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Performance. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, p.67.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1997) Happiness and Creativity: Going with the Flow, Futurist (Sep/Oct 1997), Vol. 31 Issue 5, Special Report on Happiness, pp 8-12. Available at: http://www.sristi.org/ispe_old/s3_r1_Happiness.pdf (Accessed: 6 December 2016).

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000) Beyond Boredom and Anxiety. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

FromSoftware (2011) Dark Souls . Namco Bandai Games.

Hamlet, (2015) Dark Souls 1 Asylum Boss [image]. Available at: http://iam.yellingontheinternet.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/2015-03-27_00015.jpg (Accessed 28 November 2016).

Rogers, S. (2014) Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design. 2nd Edition. Hoboken: Wiley, p.361.

Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge: The MIT Press, pp.336-339.

A Space of Your Own

Spatial awareness in games is ubiquitous – so ubiquitous, in fact, that players often don’t realise that they automatically internalise its rules. Players are used to the rules of space in real life and understand how to move through it as well as what an obstacle is, and how to navigate around one. Fortunately for us gamers, this conveniently translates to understanding most video game worlds. Ubiquitous does not mean unimportant, however, and as Aarseth, Smedstad and Sunnanå (2003) noted: “space is a key meta-category of games. Almost all games utilize space and spatial representation in some way“. While there are many ways to think about space in games, there is one theory that I find particularly compelling: space as a way to create a sense of ownership.

Most games allow players to move through the world, but don’t always allow the player to make a mark on it. You can shoot an enemy, go from A to B, or solve a puzzle, but what about more permanent and concrete changes? Let’s look at three games that buck the trend.

Far Cry 3. Red alert! (Far Cry 3 Relic Location map, no date)

In-game maps are not always the most engaging UI element. They help, and can look pretty, but tend to leave the player cold. Well, not so in Far Cry: 3. By climbing radio towers throughout the map, you can “liberate” an area and defeat the bad guys’ influence on a particular region. Because the map starts red, and your actions gradually make it green, there is a real sense of progression and of changing the game world to make it your own. You can see at a glance which areas you have successfully won over, and this even translates to less enemies in the green areas. A win-win that makes the player feel very engaged with the world itself.

Fallout 4_20151103155703
Home Sweet Home! (Fallout 4)

Fallout 4, while not a pioneer in the genre, uses a very interesting technique to let the player make their mark on the world: settlement-building. After liberating an area swamped by all kinds of enemies, the player gets to chose how to make it look and has access to a Sims-like building menu, complete with structures, decorations, workshop items, and free standing walls. The player can even display trophies they have collected throughout the game in the structures they create, as well as sleep or craft new items. A barren ruin can become a bespoke settlement with a sense of investment, and suddenly the world feels a lot more personal.


Bonfires: a welcome sight

Finally, what happens when you’re lost in a hostile, dark, and forbidding world? And you can’t even save your game? You find a bonfire! At least that’s what you do in Dark Souls. Space in the Dark Souls franchise is used to highlight the player’s insignificance in the world, and to threaten with danger at every corner. Typically, one area ends with the famed bonfire: the only place where the player can save the game, heal, and take a virtual breather; nowhere else is really safe. This is reflected in the bonfire’s very primal representation: once a player reaches one they kindle it and spark a camp-like fire, a powerful symbol of light, warmth and homeliness in a hostile environment. A visual and emotional way to own a little part the world.

As Schell (2008) notes, “game designers can learn a lot about creating meaningful and powerful spaces from architects“. And indeed games are very capable of using space to represent ownership, either by reflecting the player agency, allowing them to become the architect themselves, or giving them the opportunity to unlock a safe haven away from home in a dark world.


Aarseth, E., Smedstad, S.M. and Sunnanå, L. (2003) ‘3. A Multi-dimensional Typology Of Games’, Proceedings of the 2013 DiGRA. Available at: http://www.cogsci.rpi.edu/…/new%20topology%20of%20games%20A.%20Arsneth.pdf. (Accessed 22 November 2016)

Fallout 4 (2015) [image]. Available at: http://www.psnation.com/2015/11/09/review-fallout-4-ps4/ (Accessed 22 November 2016)

Far Cry 3 Relic Locations Map (no date) [image] Available at: http://www.realsg.com/2012/12/guide-far-cry-3-relic-locations-map.html (Accessed 22 November 2016)


Schell, J. (2008). The art of game design. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann, p.368.