I am going to posit that Dark Souls is a better survival horror game than most of the titles that fall under the genre name these days.
It’s no secret that I play video games a lot. I’m a male college student, it goes with the stereotype really. Dark Souls is certainly filled with stereotypes and clichés, but it takes them in a comparatively unexplored direction. It plays off of the old knights-and-dragons type of lore, but put in a disturbing setting that more or less amounts to ‘after the apocalypse’ that retains a tangibly dense and pessimistic atmosphere throughout, with everyone either out to get you (enemies) or on the edge of it due to their plummeting sanity (every other living thing). Dark fantasy, I believe it is called. Its main themes are those of life and death, which are certainly generic but are done mechanically in-game in a way that works, which for me qualifies it as survival-themed. Now, onto the horror part.
The ‘story’ of Dark Souls is more or less a lonely traveler (you) braving the hordes of evil which this world seems to have a predilection towards. Fairly straightforward stuff, but stuff nonetheless. Am I saying Dark Souls is a narrative game? No way in hell, and that’s part of what makes it so effective. It’s teeming with many unknowns: who are you, why are you here, where the hell are you, who should you trust, etc, in a way that many “story” driven games could learn from, and it does it almost entirely without any significant dialogue. There is a bit of segregation of story and gameplay- the monsters you kill aren’t always going to significantly reflect anything in the overarching plot (although some do) and one usually finds out bits of story from the flavor texts of items and conversation with non-combative NPCs. The enemy design is effective: there is no enemy that you fight in this game which isn’t in some way discomforting to look at. I will go on record saying that the design is scarier than the previous few Silent Hill entries (then again, between Downpour’s being ‘grey people’ and Homecoming’s ‘what does this have to do with anything’ enemies, that’s not a tall order).
There are some mechanics in place that create a certain type of tension that I recall having in older survival horror games that utilized save points: when you die, you lose a lot. In the old days’ case, it was progress; in Dark Souls’ case, it is also progress, but in multiple ways other than ground covered- experience is lost, the enemies are back, and save points here are very few and far between. The game actively punishes you for dying, but not in a way that you can’t come back from. It maintains a consistent level of difficulty, but one that can be figured out. It makes you earn your progress, not unlike the earlier Resident Evil games that had ‘ink ribbons’ that you had to find and use, as in you basically had to earn the right to save your game.
Another point I noticed and enjoyed was the harkening back to the Boss system of classic video games. Indeed, this is a very ‘video game-y’ video game, employing a lot of old tropes. The specific trope this game hones in on is the one of gigantic bosses- nine times out of ten you’ll be fighting something that absolutely dwarfs you. Shadow of the Colossus did this brilliantly, causing what I call a “are you fucking kidding me I have to fight THAT thing” effect.
It creates a feeling of futility that isn’t found in a lot of games anymore, one that is actually actively combated by ‘anti-frustration’ measures a la the Vita Chambers in Bioshock (or the weird time door/Elizabeth reviving you in Bioshock Infinite). However, this feeling of futility must not be an overwhelming one, or else it sucks out that whole ‘fun’ thing that these things are allegedly about, but a fight against hopelessness ending in a victory creates a greater sense of catharsis than if there is no challenge whatsoever.
I’m a firm believer in a game punishing a lack of skill in certain contexts, and Dark Souls doesn’t really hold back in that regard. Hell, it even punishes you for saving/resting at a bonfire (which restores your health/magic/etc.) in that it revives all the enemies you just killed- making your safe haven less a haven and more a simple necessity.
In the long run, a game is a series of trials of various skills in (usually) increasing difficulty; the story is usually there to thread these together thematically in order to facilitate a sense of purpose, which is often why 99% of games’ stories are crap and the few that aren’t we laud as ‘revolutionary.’ Dark Souls is very much a video game first, and as a result it achieves the tension-release dynamic of the challenge with flying colors. The fact that it achieves more in atmosphere and worldbuilding than most modern ‘cinematic’ cutscene-fests that yank you out of the action is more a damning testament to a lack of originality in the industry’s narrative approaches than it is direct praise towards Dark Souls’ general lack of narrative, but I’m giving credit where credit is due. In fact, its lack of a plethora of specifics is part of why the atmosphere of the game works so well- it lets you speculate about what’s happening and fosters a lot of ‘unknowns’, which to me is somewhat refreshing in stark contrast to the massive exposition dumps that a lot of games (don’t worry I still love Metal Gear Solid) tend to cling to. It immerses you in the universe, it lets you discover what’s going on rather than spoonfeeding it to you.
At the end of the day, a narrative, no matter how ancillary, has to give you information to create context or else it fails as a narrative by not existing. I’ve mentioned Lynch a couple times before, and his films are perfect examples of the information of the narrative being presented to create confusing context to disturbing effect. It’s often why Eraserhead is billed to people as a ‘horror’ film. Utilizing very little information in a narrative is often a good way to create mystery, then slowly revealing enough to the point where, at the very least, some form of conclusion can be drawn. This technique can also be a result of poor planning and fail miserably- hack and slash games like Ninja Gaiden II and Devil May Cry 3 (both games I adore) fail to give almost any context and often end up being nonsensical at best because of it, which narratively speaking, is unsatisfactory. We as media consumers like our narratives to be coherent- it’s why we love twists when they’re done well and abhor them when they’re done poorly. When a twist is done well, it’s because there was sufficient information leading up to it but not directly spelling it out- the viewer/player feels fooled but in a way they can accept because they ostensibly could have come to the conclusion on their own. Poor twists, by contrast, are often the result of no prior information being given- the viewer/player feels intellectually cheated because there was literally no way that the narrative conclusion could have been reached and, consequently, often doesn’t make sense within the logic of the universe. Dark Souls’ twist, though minor, isn’t out of left field and makes perfect sense in the universe’s schema- an overtly bleak and hopeless universe would certainly foster a narrative where the end result is overtly bleak and hopeless- the two choices being eternal immolation or plunging the world into darkness.
Dark Souls takes what little information it has and displays it in ways that create tension and curiosity about the world, the story, etc. The story itself isn’t great, but the way it’s told works together with its presentation in a way that many games- especially modern horror games- don’t seem to be able to pull off. Everything in the universe makes sense as a part of that universe, and since it happens to be oppressive and dark, I consider it better horror than most horror games of late. Obviously, it’s not actually a horror game, I wasn’t scared to play it like I was Amnesia: The Dark Descent. But it certainly did something right to have me blab on about it like this for this long.