author: Sebastian Kasparek
Modest Man Who Changed the Industry Forever. Who is the creator of Dark Souls?
We take a look at the author of the Dark Souls series and see what are the creative motivations that led him to making genre-defining games.
Curiosity in is one of the most important ingredients of experiencing games. Similarly, it's worth to read, talk and expand our knowledge of the people who shape our favorite industry. That's why today, we'd like to look at the author of the Dark Souls series to see what motivates him during the creative process. This might give you some additional context about the modern games of FromSoftware.
Just twelve years ago, Hidetaka Miyazaki as a developer was an entity as unknown as the obscure narratives of Dark Souls. However, he is a man who happily shares his extraordinary views of the world in various interviews. Apart from these, he comes across as a modest and quiet person. He avoids online showiness, and, in this respect, his demeanor couldn't be farther from Hideo Kojima's, who combines his visionary art with a more exposed, celebrity-like lifestyle. However, they both have at least one thing in common: they are outstanding individuals and extremely creative artists when it comes to the philosophy guiding the design of their games.
Humble lifestyle of a prominent developer
Talking about his childhood, Miyazaki mentions that he comes from a poor family. He couldn't afford to buy books and manga, so he used the library's resources. There, he reached for some works that he could not fully understand. So, he used his own imagination to fill out the missing pieces. Sound familiar? That's pretty much exactly how the storytelling in Souls and Bloodborn series works, where Miyazaki encourages interpretations and appreciates players' personal analyses. Indeed, he perceives the players' impressions and interpretations as one of the key elements of his games. He's a guy who loves to read fans' theories and knowingly leaves large parts of his vision in the realm of guesswork.
Hidetaka also mentions that he wasn't a typical child. He didn't have a dream that he would follow from an early age. He says that when compared to his peers, he also wasn't the most ambitious person in the room. Years later, he decided to get involved with the gaming industry when he encountered the artistic and emotional Ico. Sony's title made Miyazaki realize the incredible potential of this medium and wanted to create something of his own. Give a part of himself to the interactive entertainment.
Now, he's not only a creator, but also a nerd, passionately in love with table-top RPGs, board games and video games alike. He also enjoys cooking, and his favorite dish is curry rice. In an interview with Vice, he said that he loves shoujo manga, i.e., works mainly addressed to girls and young women. I also share his passion for the anime The Vision of Escaflowne. He even once said that he dreams of creating a game in a convention similar to that series. A production that would touch on similar motifs and would neatly combine the themes of mechs and a fantasy setting in an unusual way. On another occasion, he commented on his private life in the following way:
I don’t have much free time when I’m not working, but when I do, I consume all kinds of content of various forms. It could be a film, a game, or a book. I really like tabletop games.
I’m an omnivore when it comes to sources. I’m mostly an indoor person, so I spend my free time playing games, reading books, or cooking.
I play all varieties of video games. My favorites are open-world RPGs and simulation games. I’m not very good at RTSs, but Civilization is one of my favorites.
From an interview conducted by Game Informer, we could learn that he honestly loves what he does. So, he's not an ordinary craftsman, but a person with a great passion for interactive entertainment.
I only have a few opportunities to take a day off, but aside from being president [of From Software], game design is actually my personal hobby. So, if the company [continues to ask] me to work on game designs, I'll definitely work on that forever.
It is true that Miyazaki hit a stone wall with the rest of the studio's employees a few years ago, when they had said that following certain directions was too difficult, or even impossible. Today, however, like few people (or even no one) in the AAA biz, he enjoys an extremely comfortable position. If anyone can afford to make a game they'd like to play themselves, it's Miyazaki. Of course, things are different in the indie segment, because there, completely different creative principles are in place.
An example of Miyazaki's creative freedom is Deracine. This is a niche VR production, created as a whim of the chief executive. This title, although it has several signature elements of this team, has been developed in a much more intimate way. The goal was not to conquer the market, but to fulfill a vision and make something unique.
All this is also interesting in the context of the importance of a single person in game development and their impact on the final shape of games. Miyazaki is the creator and at the same time the CEO of a collective of several hundred people. When he took over the studio, he did not demolish or magically transform the old FromSoftware. Instead, with the help of a few trusted associates and senior workers, he reformed and streamlined a few things in the company's operations. The team, until now creating unconventional, but often unpolished and rough games, could finally tap into their full potential thanks to the new policies, and at the same time show a new face.
His character is still very palpable in Miyazaki's games. Sam points out that the first productions he worked on tended to be unintentionally unintelligible, opaque and not very intuitive. This was the case with his directorial debut, the initially criticized Armored Core 4. He notes and confirms that the mech game only became more accessible and easier to control with the sequel called For Answer. A similar evolution has taken place in Souls. Especially if we compare the first Dark Souls with the final installment of the trilogy. This wasn't achieved with changing nor curbing the idea that the game was supposed to be constantly challenging. It was rather the result of facilitating the delivery of the message and the way in which the vision was shaped by the creator.
Darkness, realism, abstraction
Miyazaki is not a fan of realism. He suggested in conversations that in his perception, realism was a barrier, curbing creativity and freedom in game design. He became better known through his statements as a man who embraces dreams and favors fantasy over observable reality. My take is that he found ordinary life too boring to show much of it in his works. He openly states his desire to explore more abstract forms of fantasy and incorporate ideas outside the action RPG genre in the future.
However, this doesn't mean that he completely rejects the mundane. Darkness is one of key ingredients of Miyazaki's world-building. The overtones of melancholy and sadness are intentional, as he seems to think these emotions better represent our reality. The player deliberately searches for beauty, and once it's found, it resonates even more among the complete corruption of that world. Taro Yoko similarly exposes such themes in the NieR series, at the same time claiming that his games aren't just sad stories. In both cases, destruction is a cathartic new beginning, rather than something to bring you down. The dread of inevitable doom is merely ostensible; what matters is the positive value we can derive from it.
If you pay enough attention, you might even see the fleeting nature of happiness, discovering renewed hope as you venture through the lands that have been decaying for past centuries. According to Miyazaki, these ideas are more representative of the real world, which is much more of a hostile wasteland than we think. Life is simply hard and often unpleasant. At the same time, we shouldn't be depressed by this, but rather use this as inspiration to keep going.
This trope of humanity unshaken is type of beauty that was strongly romanticized in his recent games. This is clear in how the player, cast into this world, must not only question the surrounding reality, but also face it. In these games, the odds are against us, and danger is lurking at almost every step. Exactly like the main character of Berserk, manga by Kentaro Miura, a work that Miyazaki often quotes as inspiration. After all, he once stated that the top shelf in his personal library is reserved for volumes of Berserk and another equally popular manga, Devilman.
We emphasize sadness and loneliness, too, which can be seen in both the environments and life forms within the game. What we want to communicate to the fans is that there's an inherent beauty that can be found within everything, beyond all the withering and decay.
After all, the first Demon's Souls, and the games following its unexpected success, were based on the philosophy of human perseverance. It's no accident that the reality in Souls and other games of the genre is as bleak as it gets. Knowledge, instead of blooming happiness, brings extinction, the fall of kingdoms, disintegration of societies, the death of legends and corruption of deities. The wheel of life as presented by Miyazaki is usually a reflection on a perpetual catastrophe.
In his opinion, happy, colorful worlds are not credible. Hence the aesthetics, usually pessimistic, perhaps even nihilistic at times. The darkness in these games isn't purely an artistic decision. It is also significant for the narrative and the morale of the game. Finding happiness in these games is still possible, and with all this gloomy setting, its reception is additionally intensified. Beauty is given an even more unique status and resounds with that much greater force when we finally meet it. I believe that Souls, despite being almost maliciously frustrating, are soothing in their own way, allowing you to find zen in a very surprising place.
Human perseverance and self-confidence
The man is often considered a sadist who loves to bully players. He prefers to call himself a masochist who derives not just pleasure, but also energy from suffering. Hidetaka Miyazaki is a traditionalist, and the idea for Demon's Souls came from a desire to return to the roots of games. It's about a gameplay design, where the overarching goal is to take more and more confident steps while trying to meet the seemingly insurmountable challenge. It was extremely brave, because the industry at the time looked completely different than today. Demon's Souls was rebellious in every way.
To be honest, while the game was still under development, we weren't being fully understood and it was very difficult for us. We weren't interested in following any trends, but I suppose we weren't paying attention to a practical world view, which was rather difficult.
The misunderstanding happened on part of Sony itself, which didn't want to release the game outside Asia. Shuhei Yoshida, who's associated with PlayStation, described this FromSoftware’s game along the lines of "terrible garbage" that no one would want to play. Of course, after the years he admitted he’d been mistaken, making it clear that he regretted this instance of hasty criticism. Recalling the creative process of Demon's Souls, Miyazaki recalled:
From the outset, we started making it based on a 'back-to-basics' concept. We wanted a 'game-like game,' something that was fun in the way games used to be, and we were confident that we could do it.
FromSoftware trusted the players and it paid off. Without a sufficient marketing budget, the game quickly rose to fame by word of mouth, slowly becoming a worldwide hit. And that's the best testament to the quality of the game – the sheer production value and unique form were the only foundation the game needed. Once misunderstood, Miyazaki and FromSoftware took risks and ignored the prevailing trends. Instead of making a game according to a template, they had a message and a vision they were sure of, and they created their product from that. The most important thing was earning the progress and responding to the actions taken by the player. This is the essence of Souls – giving meaning and value to individual actions. When the Japanese school of game dev seemed to be on the decline, Miyazaki shook the foundations of the gaming world and achieved commercial success by denying compromises.
We don't really feel our games have created a standard. I have no concern over others making similar games, it just shows that players wanted games that were like this, that are difficult, and wanted other studios to make challenging games that achieve the same level of satisfaction. We enjoy those games and their approach to creating them are never the same, anyway. We enjoy seeing the differences. We're totally fine with seeing more games come out that borrow aspects. Our main focus is keeping game creation fresh for ourselves.
Today, FromSoftware, led by Miyazaki, are the trendsetters (contrary to what the man himself modestly claims). Once niche Souls are now achieving a huge success, which shows that the decision was right. Miyazaki, around his latest release, Elden Ring, stated that he had no idea what was causing such an explosion of popularity. The truth, however, seems extremely simple. People wanted more challenging gameplay, and the market responded instantly.
It's no incident that he is the progenitor of the soulslike subgenre and that numerous other teams are now following the formula developed by FromSoftware, who hold all the authority here. Miyazaki sports a great reputation; he's also noticed and appreciated by the world. His Elden Ring was the most important game of 2022. In the same year, Hidetaka was awarded the main prize of the Japan Game Awards given by the Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. Almost everyone admires his ideas and it's impossible to deny him the status of a living legend who will probably join figures like the amazing Shigeru Miyamoto in the video games' hall of fame.