Almost as cliché as calling Dark Souls the most important game of the last five years is the joke response that maybe Candy Crush Saga was really more important. This particularly annoys the sort of insecure internet types who want everybody to know games are serious business now. But it’s not just winding up cretins that makes this a question worth asking.
I want you to try something for me, or the very least imagine it as a little thought experiment. I want you to go on Twitter and ask the people you follow on there, presumably people like yourself who not only play videogames but enthuse about them, read about them and discuss them, what the most important game of the last five years was.
It might not be unanimous, but there’s a fairly good bet you’ll hear the name Dark Souls crop up more than once. After that, though, I’d like you to leave the echo chamber that is Twitter and go to Facebook. I want you to ask the people here – your dad, your nan, your co-workers and that one person you fancied at school who you can’t bring yourself to unfriend even though they’ve turned out really racist – and ask them what games they’ve even played in the last five years.
Most of these people won’t have heard of Dark Souls, but the odds of seeing at least one player of Candy Crush Saga are close to 100%. Popularity isn’t everything, but neither game’s impact can be ignored, and as painful as it is to admit, an argument could be made that Candy Crush is the more impactful of the two.
On numbers alone, although both games are success stories, only Candy Crush has articles written about it in Forbes. From Software recently announced the Dark Souls series has sold more than eight million copies. Candy Crush Saga, on the other hand rakes, in close to a billion dollars a year, spread over more than 93 million players.
Comparing the two games seems ludicrous at first, serving only to show how much the medium has evolved. Much as television can encompass everything from Big Brother’s Little Brother to Breaking Bad, so videogames now stretch from match-three puzzlers on mobile phones to complex, epic tales rewriting the rules of storytelling as we know it. Keep looking, however, and some comparisons can be drawn.
Both games made big pushes for social gaming. Dark Souls’ innovative multiplayer elements like soapstones, jolly co-operation, and the complex systems and subtle lore that naturally invite players to go online or to the water cooler and discuss the game even when they’re not playing, all make for a game changer.
More cynically, Candy Crush demands its players invite their Facebook friends to play or beg them for extra lives and tickets to the next level. Despite the irritation, it clearly worked to drag people in. Seeing the little faces on the world map, showing the high scores and levels reached by friends, does have an appeal, even if it is crasser than the convoluted time of Lordran.
Sociality isn’t the only comparison between the two, nor their only huge impacts on gaming. Calling a game “the Dark Souls of” a genre has entered the lexicon of gamers, a buzzword for excellence, depth, difficulty and a level of care and attention. Meanwhile, “Candy Crush style” describes less the gameplay than a financial model, that very particular type of free-to-play that can drive people to spend obscene sums in order to scratch the itch.
It’s easy to imagine Dark Souls defining how gaming evolves, but safe to say we haven’t seen it yet. Candy Crush is redefining the mobile gaming industry right now.
Dark Souls’ storytelling smarts are in doing something only games can do, using item descriptions, snippets of character and a richly detailed world to slowly reveal its narrative to the player curious enough to look. We’re still not seeing this approach adopted by many games, dependant as it is on absolute creative control and supreme confidence in the audience, but slowly it is having an effect. Indie darling Her Story plays with narrative convention in a similarly ambitious way, while triple-A title Shadow of Mordor hid much of the characters’ backstory in messages attached to collectible trinkets.
Candy Crush’s free to play model has become the standard, to such an extent that app stores have a special page for games that can be bought outright. Facebook notification boxes everywhere are filled to the brim with game invites and requests for extra lives.
To the so-called hardcore gamer, it’s difficult to accept that a phone app could be more significant than the much-praised Souls. This feeling isn’t a meaningless gut reaction, but the thing we should be holding onto. The Candy Crush revolution could have happened with or without King and their game; the free to play market is a lucrative money-spinner. The gameplay, the world map, the art style weren’t original and didn’t sell the game on their own.
Dark Souls owes all its success to fantastic game design. The marketing wasn’t anything special, the game is ready to play out of the box with only one fully-featured expansion as DLC. Word of mouth, constant gushing praise, made it the success it is today. The gameplay obviously owes a debt to predecessor Demon’s Souls and the classic RPGs from which it took cues. The narrative genius was the next step down the bath Bioshock started along with Rapture’s intelligent layouts and hidden audio logs.
But all of it works so well because no single item, enemy or background object is there without a reason and a staggering amount of thought. One only needs to look at reactions to the Miyazaki-less Dark Souls II to see how his efforts turned a great game into a masterpiece, an all-time classic that deserves the praise it receives.
A google search of Candy Crush Saga, after the official websites, brings up posts with titles like “Candy Crush: Addictive Game, Incredible Business” and “Candy Crush Saga addiction stories”. Searching for Dark Souls brings up lovingly crafted wikis, endless discussions and fanarts, whole popular youtube channels dedicated to exploring the characters and the world. When a person puts down their phone, they ask themselves “why did I spend so much time playing that? Was I even having fun?” When they step away from the games console, they ask themselves “Why am I not playing Dark Souls right now? How can I maintain that fun even with the game completed?”
As gamers, there’s an urge to become armchair industry analysts, to scrutinise sales figures and board meetings. Now that the “are games art” debate has been put behind everyone but the most change-resistant Tory voters, perhaps it’s time to stop worrying about whether From Software has a high score and just be satisfied with the artwork they present to us. Who cares if Dark Souls has the most sales, or if many games take its lessons on board? What matters is the legacy it leaves in the hearts of players. Talking to those fans, it’s clear that Dark Souls is the most important game of the last five years to them. To many, this is the most meaningful, touching and personal story they’ve come across in any medium. That’s all that matters.
Don’t worry what the rest of the world thinks. Your nan’s never going to cry about Siegmeyer of Catarina, but you’ve found your sun, and that’s what counts. Dark Souls is important because of the lesson it teaches us, to keep on going and trying lest we turn hollow. Taking that lesson into Candy Crush could let you defeat it without spending a penny. Trying to transfer knowledge the other way would probably leave you crying and banging your sword on a wall in New Londo.