Heart and Souls: The Online Community Behind FromSoftware's Hardcore RPGs

Heart and Souls: The Online Community Behind FromSoftware's Hardcore RPGs

We profile the masochistic content creators who sacrifice their time and energy to showcase every aspect of the multifarious Souls series.

When FromSoftware's Demon's Souls launched in 2009, it had all the trappings of a game destined to be forgotten by all but a handful of devoted fanatics.

In fact, without the help of publisher Atlus, the Souls series' debut would have been forever relegated to the status of "curious import." But, as more and more people began to experience this unexpected take on action-RPGs, its word-of-mouth appeal became impossible to ignore. While popular design trends during the Xbox 360/PS3 generation made the average video game experience frictionless and forgiving, FromSoftware would have none of that. Demon's Souls practically demands you learn it inside and out, and the assistance provided is cryptic at best. Five years ago, FromSoftware's willingness to buck trends made its new creation absolutely unique-and, for the most part, their status as iconoclasts hasn't changed a whit.

But it's more than just difficulty that makes the Souls games so appealing: Each installment provides layers upon layers of mysteries, like some sort of towering, teetering RPG casserole. Rather than taking the form of a linear, Disneyland-style ride, the world of Souls practically begs for experimentation of the players' part, and provides a wealth of options impossible to explore with just a single playthrough. And the series' intentionally vague style of storytelling opens itself up to endless interpretations by holding back on the obvious answers-instead, it tasks players with piecing together clues from item descriptions, enemy placements, the few bits of available dialogue, and the environments themselves to figure out the confused history of Souls' post-apocalyptic worlds.

It shouldn't come as a surprise, then, that FromSoftware's distinct lack of player guidance has fostered one of the most prolific and benevolent online communities in existence. Do a quick search on YouTube, and you'll find no shortage of meticulously crafted content designed to act as a beacon of hope in the merciless world of Souls. From walkthroughs to lore breakdowns to explorations of cut content, the community behind this devious RPG series seemingly has an endless desire to shine a light in each and every one of these games' darkest corners. And, as you'll soon discover, devoting your free time to take on the status of an unofficial Souls expert requires a particular-and admirable-brand of devotion.

Dave Klein

When it comes to Souls content, Dave Klein is a jack of all trades. His YouTube Channel features a variety of takes on the subject, so it's safe to say he hasn't settled on a particular angle. And while there's no shortage of Dark Souls playthroughs on the Internet, Klein's approach-which adds an unexpected dose of comedy with video effects, music, and clever editing-makes even the most straightforward videos into something special and uniquely his own.

"I try to fun, I try to be funny, I try to be informative," says Klein. "I try to put that all together when I do my Let's Plays. To me, it's like if I'm having fun playing a game, someone will hopefully have fun watching me. That's always been my theory."

Seeing as Klein originally set out to be a game designer, his appreciation for FromSoftware's thoughtful creations shouldn't be hard to understand. But Klein didn't fall into the series immediately: He first discovered Dark Souls via an anti-recommendation from a friend, who couldn't come to terms with the game's difficulty. Klein wasn't about to let that stop him, though.

"Despite the warning, I picked it up anyway," says Klein, "and just immediately was entranced with it. I loved it, the challenge of it was just awesome. It didn't feel it unfair, it felt like I was dying on my own fault."

To be fair, Klein wasn't a complete stranger to the charms of FromSoftware: He immediately connected its developer with King's Field, a previous work of theirs he enjoyed during the PlayStation era-and his channel even features full walkthroughs of these games for anyone curious about Dark Souls' roots. Even with this familiarity, though, the game didn't grab Klein immediately. When asked about the moment Dark Souls clicked with him, he shared an account of when it first left an impression:

"The real moment for me was Hydra in Darkroot Basin. The first time I really saw it was when I was at the bridge overhead, and I looked down and saw the Hydra. And my only thought, looking down from the top of the waterfall seeing that was just, 'No way!' I was afraid to even approach it. It's just a game where you feel powerless, and you really are afraid. And when you finally beat something like that, it's just so rewarding. There's hardly any other games that pull that off."

Fans of the series each have their own "a-ha" moments with Souls, typically when the games throw a seemingly impossible challenge in their paths-ones that put their knowledge of the game's complex mechanics to the test. And, according to Klein, it's this uncompromising, adversarial difficulty that brings the community together.

"[I]t's a game where the entire idea is that people are phasing in and out of your world. And, when you're at a bonfire, and you see someone sitting there as you feel so alone, you're almost always automatically attached to that person. Anytime you can summon someone into your world and they do the 'praise the sun' gesture, you're like 'Thank you! Thank you! So you really feel some sort of gratitude towards anyone who comes into your game."

Though Klein's YouTube channel remains popular, it goes without saying this market encourages healthy competition. When he started, this factor affected Klein's work, but now that he's accepted it, the idea of someone beating him to the punch on a certain subject isn't a concern. In fact, Klein claims the unique spirit of Souls causes content creators to have a collaborative relationship with each other, rather than viewing competing YouTube channels as stealing views, subscriptions, and likes that could be theirs.

"At this point, if I want to make a video, I just make it-I don't worry too much about it. I'm pretty promotional with everyone else. And with the collaborative videos I've made, I really try to bring the community together. I guess that was just for the sake of me growing bigger when everyone else was already out there at the time. I really tried to be like, 'Alright, let's work together! Let's be a team!' And people are really friendly-you'd be surprised.

"I still try to make the best video I can, regardless of whether I'm competing with someone or not. I want to make the best video so people go to my channel, period. But I'd rather promote each other and bring someone up than say, 'Don't check out that guy-his work sucks! I really do respect everyone else's work, and I feel like everyone I've talked to in this community feels the same way."

Klein recognizes the fact that covering a single series like Dark Souls could lead to massive burnout, so his channel provides plenty of other attractions, like the aforementioned King's Field walkthroughs. But his most ambitious project to date can be found in the "Dave Control Super Show," a series of meticulously edited videos that put Klein front-and-center to talk about his favorite games of all time, like The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, Ninja Gaiden, Secret of Mana, and other classics. But even with these projects occupying an increasing amount of his free time-more than that of a full-time job-Klein still finds the appeal of Dark Souls undeniable.

"A lot of games take no risks because they cost so much money, and I understand why, but it's kind of a shame,"says Klein. "Nothing has that same challenge to it [as Dark Souls]."

Mike Villalobos

If the Souls series had its own Evel Knievel, Mike Villalobos-known by his Twitch.tv handle LobosJr.-would definitely fit the bill. His collection of Dark Souls runs (also available via his YouTube page) focus on serious restrictions that most players would view as preposterous, like beating every boss using nothing but the game's ultra-weak joke weapon: an ordinary soup ladle. Villalobos' fascination with these challenge runs didn't start with Dark Souls, though. The first attempt to show off his legitimately impressive skills came from a desire to speedrun a much older game.

"For the longest time," says Villalobos, "I was just playing old retro games-living in the past. And I sat down to play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which is actually my favorite game of all time. I played through it in eight hours and I was like, 'Man, I remember most of the game, but I wish I could enjoy that experience in a shorter amount of time.' So then I looked into trying to get through the game faster. And then I found that there was this whole community of people dedicated to playing through games quickly. That's when I got into speedrunning, and after learning two or three games, I was just hooked. And, pretty much, now any time I see a game, I'm evaluating it, like, 'That would be pretty good to speedrun...'"

And, from there, it didn't take long for Villalobos to fall directly into what he's now known best for: turning the harrowing Souls series inside-out with increasingly unbelievable challenges.

"One day, I decided to sit down with a friend, and we were crazy enough to want to play through Dark Souls blindfolded. One of us would be blindfolded, and the other would lead with vocal commands. And that got me two or three times my normal viewership.Then I started doing restrictive runs. I was like, 'That's fun. I want to play through the game again, but I want to do it differently. So this time, I'm only going to use a bow, or only use a shield.' And it just became a huge thing of challenge runs."

Villalobos' runs certainly display his abnormal level of skill at playing the Dark Souls series, and no playthrough indicates this more than his "Olympic Torch Run," which places a huge set of limitations on the player. Having a torch equipped in Dark Souls 2 means one of your two arms is occupied with a fairly useless item-one that can be extinguished via the normal means of snuffing out a flame. (And, yes, this is truly a feat that needs to be seen to be believed.) There's no denying Villalobos likes to show off-with his abilities, who wouldn't-but his goal goes beyond self-satisfaction. If his audience isn't happy, Villalobos isn't, either.

"I just do what I think will be fun," he says "So, for example, the Olympic Torch run: The idea was to have a torch lit from the the first moment you can until you beat the game. There's no rules for that, so I would basically set the precedent. I just wanted to do the run and have fun, so... I made up this idea that when you reach a bonfire, you're lighting it with the fire that you're carrying. So it's kind of like a checkpoint, there.

"So if you die, well, you did die, and you lost the fire, but you're starting at this checkpoint, and you can just pick that fire back up and give it a shot again. I could have gone hardcore mode and been like, 'Well, if you die, or if that torch goes out, that's the end...' But I just don't think that's a fun restriction. And that's one thing I want to keep doing so I don't get burned out: Make sure the challenges are challenging, sure, but still have a level of fun and are reasonable."

Like Klein, Villalobos sees Souls' popularity as the result of tapping into a kind of experience that's been lost in the passing generations. And his YouTube channel isn't just limited to FromSoftware RPGs; dig back far enough, and you'll find plenty of playthroughs of older games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Bomberman 64, Ocarina of Time, and a variety of other classics. Even so, Souls remains his bread and butter, bringing him fame in the community and a modest amount of income from Twitch.tv subscriptions. And if you ask him why Dark Souls has pulled in so many, it's clear that he fully understands its appeal-and why people can't stop staring in amazement at his awe-inspiring feats.

"A lot of it, honestly, is just the idea of somebody playing the game and going, 'Hey, this game's hard. Come play this," to their friend," says Villalobos. "And seeing how they react to it. There's just the idea of 'this is hard, but I accomplished something by pushing through it and completing it.' I guess you could say it's kind of elitism... But, honestly, I think that kind of obscure way of getting through games is what's caught the fire everywhere. Especially since we haven't had games like that for a long time."

Gary Butterfield and Kole Ross

Kole Ross and Gary Butterfield, founders of the podcast network Duckfeed.tv, had no choice but to make a show entirely devoted to the Souls series. The network's flagship production, Watch Out for Fireballs-a podcast dedicated to classic gaming-found itself constantly thrown off track with tangents about FromSoftware's RPG series, so Butterfield and Ross did the obvious thing and made a show about that subject specifically. The podcast, Bonfireside Chat, has been going strong since early 2013, and acts as a field guide of sorts to Dark Souls, with each episode focusing on a specific area (or areas) of the game. In the nearly two years since the show's inception, the two have covered Demon's Souls, Dark Souls, nearly all of Dark Souls 2, as well as inspirations like the Berserk manga and previous FromSoftware creations, such as King's Field: The Ancient City.

Even though Butterfield and Ross' podcasting style feels like listening in to a conversation between two good friends, the sheer affability and inclusiveness of the two makes listeners feel like they're part of the discussion, rather than on the outside of an inside joke. In the spirit of full disclosure, Bonfireside Chat brought me into the community by introducing me to its most notable members, and I've even had the honor of guesting on a few episodes, despite my lack of Souls-related achievements.

"We just really wanted to talk about [Souls]," says Butterfield, "But also, if you look at the iTunes charts, podcasts about one game do really well. That [approach] actually ends up being pretty successful. There are people who just play [Dark Souls]. The game's been out for a long time, but there are not general gamers who kind of like Dark Souls. They just keep playing it, over and over and over. There are Souls players the same way people are not video game players, but... are Bejeweled players. They're not game players, they have a game that they play."

"Talking about Dark Souls is an inherently fun thing to do," adds Ross, "because of the amount of shared vocabulary that comes up around it. When you talk about things with really narrow appeal, you attract people who are engaged with that. What that has done is given us a really high-quality kind of listener-people who are going to stick around and talk about us."

Though Bonfireside Chat is intended for people who are already on board with the particulars of Souls, both Butterfield and Ross have witnessed fans of the podcast using the show to bring newcomers into the series. And, with the structure of the podcast, it's not hard to see why. When Bonfireside Chat begins discussing a new Souls game, the first episode always goes over the basics, and how that particular installment may differ from others-think of it as a tutorial of sorts, but one that exists outside of the game itself. And, for some players, that's exactly what they need to avoid being overwhelmed by the rude awakening a new Souls experience can bring.

"The best-case-scenario, in my mind, is talking to somebody who is in those first few crucial hours of Dark Souls," says Ross. "So they're interested enough to dedicate a certain amount of time to [our show]. If the service we provide can ease them through those hard times and make them see there's more to it, and then convert them further... I think that's a way we can succeed. And I like us having a role in making someone stick with it, and get as much out of it as we do, because I personally like the idea of people liking a thing."

"I'll see people saying," adds Butterfield, "hey, these are your guys. Listen to this [podcast] as you go through the areas."

Ross and Butterfield's approach differs from those who focus on videos due to the fact that once they cover a particular topic, the subject is essentially closed-outside of any corrections they may need to make afterwards. This requires a great degree of planning on their part, since each episode Bonfireside Chat is intended to be a reference work that can be consulted months or years after their initial recording session. But their encyclopedic approach to the Souls series over the past two years hasn't made them weary about the subject.

"The nice thing about doing all of these different shows," says Butterfield, "Is that it kind of sorts my 'gaming life,' to use a terrible phrase. A lot of my games I play are for assignment for something, but often times, it's interesting and varied. Like, there's the Souls side of it, but then, there's also whatever we're doing for [our other podcasts]. That helps. If I was only doing Bonfireside Chat, it might get tough."

"This kind of game really speaks to me," says Ross, "And I don't know that [this will still be true] if I kept getting several Dark Souls 1 to Dark Souls 2-level variations every three years for the next twelve years-or whatever. I can't exactly speak to that. But, for right now, as long as there is something new, and new questions to answer... then I will still continue feeling content."

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