The Most Beautiful Place in the World - Undead Burg

</img> Dark Souls is a game that increases in scale and majesty as time goes on. You start fighting (or getting brutalized by) the lowest of the low - skeletons, hollow warriors, and giant rats. By the time the game ends, you are fighting and defeating the Gods out of legend. The scale and spectacle of the Dark Souls finale makes the early levels seem drab and brown, without much of interest. But they are at the same time beautiful under a deceptively mundane outward appearance, and one of the best - and most instructive - examples of level design out there.

The artistic value of this area - as well as Firelink Shrine and the Graveyard, I would say - is quite obvious. So much of the game is about this cycle, of repetition and madness in the face of immortality but also stagnation - and more than any other place in Lordran, this starting area feels that way, all the time. The architecture is dilapidated, the atmosphere sunny but cold, the colors muted and worn down - while much simpler than the cathedrals in Anor Londo, it feels somehow older.

The enemy design is also excellent, despite relying on only a few different types. There is something both pathetic and frightening about the hollow warriors and their desperate, flailing violence, or the skeletons that draw themselves up from scattered bones lying discarded on the ground. When you find the Black Knight, standing alone in a cramped corridor, it feels very much like you’ve stumbled somewhere you shouldn’t have. The whole town is like a ghost town, except in a world where no one can die anymore, the ghosts would stick around.

It all paints a picture of a world in disrepair, but also a world that has motion and activity beyond your participation in it. The dragon thay guards the bridge, or the two demons taking up residence above and below - it all seems somewhat accidental, like the after affects of some larger conflict taking place elsewhere. Which just shows the storytelling strength of the area.

But it is the level design that truely shines. The Undead Burg is a tight, interwoven area that is deceptively small, but feels massive. The moment when you climb down from the bridge and find that faithful Bonfire for the first time is unforgetable, of course, but in lost of small ways Dark Souls builds this place for you from the ground up. We’ve talked visually, but the Undead Burg is most memorable mechanically.

Lots of games encourage exploration, and plenty have beautifully rendered geography. But what Dark Souls does, particularly in here, is make that geography matter, mechanically. And that in turn, make it memorable. I am quite fond of the visuals and gameplay of Hyper Light Drifter, but they do not always match up. The locations are gorgeously rendered, but aside from that, they don’t mean anything to the progress of my game - perhaps as a result, I had trouble navigating by the game world alone. And while the counterintuitive layout of the Undead Burg is directionally confusing, conceptually it is remarkably easy to understand.

This is because, I believe, the level design is full of choices directly relating to the environment, even though there are no real ‘environmental’ abilities aside from falling. From the Undead Burg bonfire, what do you do? Crossbow first, then take care of the two, maybe three coming up from below. Once that’s handled, time your way across the bridge but don’t get stuck in the doorway, and once you’re through that room make sure to check to your right for the one (or two) hollows hiding inside. Ok, ready now? Time to go up the stairs and circle around.

An experienced player could get through all that in thirty seconds, but every moment still feels important, and even in that rudimnetary description, background and environmental objects kept creeping in. Even later in Dark Souls nothing feels quite this intricate in how every aspect of the game works together.

It’s interesting that for an area that is, thematically, dead, it feels so alive. The open, mindless hostility fits the lore and the mechanics perfectly. Later areas like Lost Izalith or the Tomb of the Giants felt a bit artificial, when you have squandrons of giant monsters sitting around inactively, waiting for you to arrive. It felt much more like a game level, and less like a place. So all this is to say that it would be a lovely thing indeed if we could all take a little bit more from that beautiful place, the Undead Burg.

Written on June 9, 2016