Trespassers in Forbidden Lands: Journey, Dark Souls and Shadow of the Colossus
Shadow of the Colossus, Dark Souls and Journey are some of the most haunting games ever made. They’re also quite different from each other. SotC is an action-adventure faintly reminiscent of The Legend of Zelda games, but stripped-down to bare essentials. The game is set in a vast, open world that is devoid of life except for 16 colossi that must be killed. These boss fights punctuate the otherwise serene experience; they are frantic struggles demanding various acrobatics such as climbing and jumping on moving creatures. Dark Souls on the other hand is a complex RPG with attributes, classes, and a myriad of different items to use. Its world is vast and interconnected, but never ‘open’; rather than riding through wide fields, you’ll be navigating dense labyrinths filled with traps, hordes of enemies and secrets. To survive these ordeals, slow and methodical play is just as necessary as flexibility and experimentation. Journey, lastly, fits conventional genre descriptions even less than these other two, being frequently and vaguely described as an ‘art game’. Rather than an open world or an interconnected labyrinth, Journey relies on a linear series of separate levels, which, however, are often substantial in their size and allow for free movement. There’s no fighting whatsoever in Journey, and challenges in a traditional sense are deemphasised. Instead, the level design encourages you to use your set of moves in expressive and playful ways, allowing you to fly gracefully or glide over the sands.
‘Common sense’ and conventional ways to think about genre tell us that these games are very different beasts. You could even go so far as to say that Journey is the antithesis to Dark Souls, the latter being the quintessential ‘hardcore gamer’s game’, while the former is casual and artsy, a beginner’s or non-gamer’s game, or, as some would have it, not a ‘real game’ at all. Yet these games also have strong communalities that are more central to their experience than the differences which may obscure this common ground. Most obviously, they share a mood of taciturn dignity, loneliness and a strong sense of focus or purpose that is rare in other games. I’m certainly not the first to realise that I love these games for much of the same reasons, and it is no secret that both Dark Souls and Journey were influenced by Team Ico’s minimalist and revolutionary Ico and SotC. Nevertheless, popular notions about genres still encourage us to separate these games conceptually, even though examining the subtler bonds that connect these games would allow us to think about genres in a more fruitful way.
When we describe games, we most frequently focus on their mechanics, affordances and goals. We call a game that enables and requires us to fire guns a shooter. A similar logic applies to jump’n’run, racing, puzzle games, and more. Our point-of-view, which influences everything from control scheme to level design, has mechanical ramifications. As a result, we have terms such as side-scrolling shooter, third-person shooter, and of course first-person shooter. Categories like the RPG are also mechanically suggestive but are very vague when it comes to affordances and goals. You’ll likely be able to customise and develop one or several characters in an RPG, and conventions evoke images of fighting monsters and looting treasures, but it is possible to speak, among others, of RPG shooters (Deus Ex), or even RPG puzzlers (Puzzle Quest).
An example for a very different kind of genre is the horror game. While you may associate the term with certain kinds of gameplay like stealth or the resource management of survival horror, it mainly refers to games that 1) use the established aesthetics and tropes of horror (let’s grossly oversimplify as darkness’n’monsters) and 2) are trying to evoke dread. 1) and 2) usually overlap, but they don’t have to. After all, not every frightening work of horror relies on monsters and dim lighting. In the end, the term ‘horror game’ doesn’t really describe a certain kind of mechanic, game design philosophy, trope, or aesthetic, but only the ‘culmination’ of all its parts, namely its capacity to scare or disturb.
So, how would one go about finding a genre description that applies equally to SotC, Dark Souls and Journey? We have already seen that they share little in terms of mechanics, affordances or goals. They’re all 3rd person games, but while this is relevant – as we’ll later see – it is of course not enough to justify lumping them into the same genre. They’re all fantasy or ‘fairy tale’ games of some kind or another, which isn’t a coincidence either, but they don’t have much else in common with most other fantasy games. Since their strongest commonality is the mood that they conjure, their hypothetical genre might be comparable to the horror genre, since both are mainly defined by how their individual parts add up to something that is greater than their sum in its effect on the player. The analogy isn’t perfect, however. Horror, whether in games, films or literature, is an extremely variable genre. Horror can be solemn, crass, goofy, contemplative, self-indulgent, anarchic, reactionary, and much more. The genre of SotC & Co. is much more specific, and unlike horror, these games do have a certain philosophy of design and aesthetic that unifies them. Still, the horror analogy works as a decent crutch, so please bear with me.
So if horror could be called the feeling we experience when the integrity of body, mind and soul are threatened, how can we best describe what the hypothetical genre of SotC & Co. evokes? I’d call it the experience of trespassing on (un)holy grounds. SotC is most explicit about this; the intro cut-scene quickly establishes that the protagonist Wander has performed a blasphemous act just by crossing the bridge to the forbidden land. The player will meet no other living humans in these enormous lands until the very end of the game. Dark Souls and other From Software titles are almost as clear about this. Their landscapes are full of religious imagery such as cathedrals and churches, idols and altars, tombs and graveyards. Their characters allude to gods, priests and ancient rites that keep the world turning. In the first Dark Souls, you escape from the Undead Asylum to Lordran, the land of ancient lords and gods. This is called a pilgrimage, but in the same way Dark Souls collapses the distinction between holy and unholy, this pilgrim is also a trespasser; it is his or her destiny, but s/he also doesn’t belong there. Journey, perhaps, is more ambiguous, but here too it becomes clear that the player is on a pilgrimage, and that s/he’s walking over the literal and metaphorical graves of a lost civilisation. To go to the mountain and perform the hero’s journey is a sacred duty, but as in Dark Souls, pilgrim and trespasser are not that different. For every moment of harmony when the player glides through the sky alongside a helpful stranger there are moments of adversity in which the player struggles against sand storms, coldness, angry spirits and loneliness.
The player’s status as a trespasser on holy ground isn’t just communicated to you through dialogue or cut-scenes. Instead, every aspect of those games is designed to emphasise this point. SotC and Journey present the player with open landscapes that can be traversed with few restrictions. Through a convergence of aesthetic design, pure size and free movement, these virtual spaces evoke a feeling of sublimity and grandness. Even Dark Souls, which is far more claustrophobic, uses masterful tricks to communicate the scale of its labyrinthine world. On a micro level, there’s the convolution of individual levels with countless hidden paths and secrets, as well as the sense of constant danger that makes every step seem like a journey. On a macro level, there are the moments when the individual levels suddenly seem to fall into place in a coherent whole, whether this is achieved through a shortcut that leads to an unexpected, familiar place, or through vantage points from which you may see places in the distance which you already visited, or are going to visit. All three games draw heavily from aesthetic traditions that emphasise the sublime, that is the smallness of the individual faced with immeasurable greatness: high fantasy, the post-apocalyptic, romanticism, gothic horror, etc. Their landscapes are defined by majestic ruins and mountain ranges, endless fields and distant horizons. It is no coincidence that they all share a 3rd person perspective. Unlike a 1st person camera, which hides the body, or a top-down camera, which conceals sky and horizon, the 3rd person perspective is ideally suited to pit the body of the player character against the space that surrounds it. It never lets us forget that we inhabit a frail, lonely body in an enormous world.
Struggle, not fun, distraction or even immersion, is the central tenet of these game worlds that resist the trespasser not through spite, but sheer indifference. This should be self-evident for anyone who ever played or even heard about Dark Souls, but even though SotC and especially Journey aren’t known as being extremely hard, they too emphasise hardship in their own ways. The battles against the colossi of SotC are often drawn-out, exhausting affairs. Also, victory isn’t triumphant as it would be in other games, but accompanied by melancholy music as Wander is invaded by the shadows that weaken him after every victory, whether you try to escape from them or not. And in Journey, struggle is conveyed through restrictions of your movements. One moment you glide freely and elegantly through the air, the next you are bogged down by heavy masses of snow and thrown around by wind. Even the pacing of these games is designed entirely to make sure you feel your character’s struggle. All three have two alternating ‘states’ that express this struggle through stark contrast. In Dark Souls, it is the cycle of death and rebirth. In SotC, it is the calmness of the journey through open land that follows and precedes the stress of the battles against the colossi. And in Journey, it is movement vs. stasis.
Few other games have such a clear structural focus. Instead, they add countless features and ‘stuff to do’ into bloated messes lacking any coherence. There are no useless collectibles in Journey, no diversions or mini-games in Dark Souls, no books full of trivial lore in SotC. These are of course not the only games that rely on minimalism (most arcade games do), but they are the masters of its potential to help make meaningful games. There’s little fat to them, and barely anything you could cut away without endangering their identity. They’re almost barren in many ways: there are few words, few cut-scenes, few inhabitants of their worlds, few things to do. Even Dark Souls with its dozens of weapons, spells and stats that can overwhelm at first glance is a good example of minimalist design, since all that variety and complexity serves exactly one purpose: to help you survive in its hostile world, and nothing more. Of course, this minimalism is only a means to an end that allows the richness of other aspects to shine without any obfuscation, and to engage the imagination of the player, compelling you to fill its generous, deliberate gaps.
The sparse story of Dark Souls, the almost abstract forms of Journey’s landscapes, the vague intro cut-scene of SotC: all of these and many other instances give you just enough to provide vague outlines of their worlds, to tickle your curiosity and let you do the rest. And what else could you expect from trespassing on sacred realms? After all, these places aren’t there for your consumption or convenience. They are indifferent to you and your trivial desires. They exist for themselves as otherworlds or heterotopias, and when you turn off your machine, they somehow manage to still be there. At least, this is the masterful illusion these games conjure.
So, how would one sum up this ‘trespasser genre’ in a concise definition? Let’s try:
The Trespasser genre is a type of video game in which the player assumes the role of an avatar in a world characterised by aesthetics of the sublime, and whose movement through and interaction with this world is defined both through struggle against it and minimalist affordances.
Note that this definition makes no mention of specific plot points, a fantasy setting, a 3rd person perspective or even 3D environments. All of these points are relevant in a discussion of specific games, but ultimately coincidental. This definition clearly applies to Journey, SotC and Dark Souls, while also possibly accommodating related games such as Hyper Light Drifter or Brothers.
But why do we need this genre definition in the first place? Isn’t it highly reductive to lump three very different games together in one category? Doesn’t this disregard their individual artistic achievements? The games I’ve discussed are certainly very different from each other, even if we disregard mechanics entirely and focus on their ‘softer’ aspects such as mood. After all, SotC is melancholic and tragic, Journey is hope- and playful, Dark Souls is morbid and despairing. So why would we pretend they’re ‘the same’?
The categories we think with should be clearly defined, but also provisional and fluent enough to not act as a homogenising force, either in our interpretation or creation of things. Traditional genres used in gaming discourse often fail in both regards, being both too vague and prone to let certain types of games slip through the cracks. Vague and borderline useless terms like ‘art games’, ‘interactive experiences’ or ‘walking simulators’ are nothing but crutches that are only used because our entrenched way of thinking about games has produced a crippling vocabulary that cannot cope with games that don’t conform to our expectations; they mean too much and too little at the same time. And this vocabulary may obscure the most central aspects of games in favour of superficialities such as ‘what you do in it’. Dark Souls is an action RPG, SotC an action-adventure, and Journey… well, it’s art or whatever. Yet despite these names, Dark Souls is far more similar to SotC than, say, Diablo, and SotC has more in common with Journey than it has with a Legend of Zelda game. That doesn’t mean that we should give up and call them ‘art games’, even though they certainly could be considered art (a debateable term in the first place). Instead, we should attempt to engage with these individual games on their own terms with as few preconceptions as possible, and only then, after we’ve seen past the basics, attempt to draw parallels. For some games, a label such as ‘first person shooter’ may be just right, but for certain others that wander off the beaten track into forbidding and uncharted territories, we might need a different approach.