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The Dark Souls of Shooters, Part 1

Which elements of Witchfire are inspired by From games?

Which elements of Witchfire are inspired by From games?

„It’s like the Dark Souls of shooters” came up quite a few times already, and that’s kind of expected, considering we’re a dark fantasy game the creators of which both love and are inspired by Soulsbornes.

But is Witchfire really going in that direction? Is making a Soulsborne shooter even possible?

There are four major components to any Soulsborne:

  • The way the story and the world are sold
  • Audio and soundtrack that only has two settings: off and boss battle
  • Visuals that create a certain atmosphere of dread and hopelessness
  • Last but obviously not least, that signature gameplay

It’s too early for us to address the details of the first point, but we’ve already mentioned that we’re definitely going in the same direction. Focusing more on the lore and indirect story-telling rather than good old cut-scenes and linear progression.

Nothing on the audio, we’re not there yet.

I can, however, and want to talk about both the visuals and the gameplay. Let’s start with the former, and then talk the latter in the next post.

Last week we posted a 3D photo of one of the enemies on our Facebook page, and this was one of the comments:

Tomasz knows his stuff, he’s the creator of Lord of the Fallen, a Souls-like. While I disagree that our enemy is “so much”, the eyeless helmet bolted onto the chest could not be more obvious, right?

Surprisingly, I guess – but no.

Before I get to that, a disclaimer. We are, in fact, inspired by Soulsbornes. These are genius games with genius designs, in basically every area. We love them as creators, we love them as gamers.

It does go further than love. Because we share the same sensibilities when it comes to visual design – I often repeat that Dark Souls and Bloodborne are the only games that treat the theme of dark fantasy with taste and respect – we’re often using From games as pointers for our outsourcers.

Here’s an example. When we were testing various 3D artist for one of the enemies, that’s what I wrote in the character guide in the Symbolism section:

With the visual design, we’re trying to somehow sell the idea of suffering and compassion. […] Usually the designs of such enemies are made so they look the most bad ass and powerful, “look at how much of a mofo I am”. In Soulsbornes they subvert it wonderfully, because even though the designs are still very attractive visually, we almost feel compassion for all these poor souls that some mad god enslaved. And so the enemies in these games are often slow, possessed, sad, full of elements with negative associations: bars over the eyes, armor too heavy, unnatural proportions, old, rotten clothes, etc.

So yes, definitely, Souls are important to us and inspire us. We see nothing wrong with the same way we see nothing wrong with Bloodborne being inspired by Lovecraft.

This is actually a very useful comparison. Because what From did with Bloodborne is they did not just copy Lovecraft. Their game is not yet another superficial take on the cosmic horror, “let’s have some tentacles and that’s scary, right?”. They understood what Lovecraftian dread means, they understood what Lovecraft tried to say with his work and why, and offered their own take on it all.

And thus, by analogy, if you want to make a game that’s as impactful visually as Soulsbornes, you don’t take from From, you take from the same place that From takes from.

Okay, that was a really weird sentence, but the point is: if you’re into the serious side of dark fantasy, you can’t just copy what From does. You have to understand why they do what they do, find the source of that river, and drink from that water.

And now rotating back to the helmet…

We knew we wanted our guy to manifest three things:

  • He’s a knight of sorts
  • His will is not his own anymore, he’s the witch’s puppet now
  • He was a human, once. Now, not so much.

All right, how to sell this?

You research a metric fuckton of stuff. You see how Soulsbornes or Silent Hills solved this, you watch fantasy and horror movies and anime, you study artbooks, you write down a list of fears and phobias, because…

…and then one day you stumble upon this:


Just so we’re clear: all of these helmets are real, actual helmets, e.g. from 15th and 16th century Italy. Aren’t they beautiful and absolutely bonkers?

Slap some rotten armor on him and expose his old bones (no longer human), make proportions feel off with prolonged neck and arms (abomination), set him on everlasting fire (subconscious connection to the burning of witches) and boom, you have your unnatural slave that you almost feel sorry for when you shred him with your machine gun.

In other words, we ended up with an element that looks like from Souls not because we took it from Souls, but because we and From take from the same pool of archetypes and ideas, with the same sensibilities when it comes to what dark fantasy means.

Here’s another example. Well before the reveal of From’s Sekiro, we made this guy:

We thought we had something original, and then this guy was revealed in a Sekiro trailer…

Not quite our “ogre”, but certain elements – the pillory, the chains – are similar. But obviously not because anyone took anything from the other. It’s just that when you have a certain similar design foundation and guides – the dark fantasy theme, the idea of compassion for the enemies, etc. – you will end up in the same place quite often.

I hope that explains why you might see a Souls-like thing in our game every now and then. But that’s mostly for characters and some architecture. What about the broader visual strokes?

Soulsbornes do one thing I respect very, very much, and that’s their use of color. This is something that, for example, movies have mastered, using color to convey mood and ideas. Like here in The Incredibles, where Mr. Incredible’s incredibly boring work is emphasized by grey, washed out colors.

Soulbornes are fearless here, with their almost monochrome tone mapping that helps with the whole cosmic dread thing.

I don’t expect us to go the same route. One, I don’t think we have the balls to do it, at least not for the entire game. Two, with all the spells and bullets and enemies on the screen, we need color to help the players understand the flow of a battle. But we’re still experimenting, so we’ll see.

I guess that’s more or less it as for the comparison of Dark Souls and Witchfire visuals, and in the next post I’ll try to explain how the Dark Souls of shooters is quite quantum: both impossible and possible at the same time.

Question of the Week

While we’re not making a horror game, there might be elements of it that may frighten the gentler of souls, especially in the sound department.

We’re in the witch’s cursed land, after all.

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