The idea of Implicit Game Design
Dark Souls design choices are unique in that they allow the player to learn via playing the game. The gameplay teaches you how to play. It utilizes death as a tutorial. This type of design choice is something VaataVidya calls implicit game design.
"It [implicit game design] is when a game doesn't tell you how to complete an objective. Hell, it may not even tell you what the objective is. It's when a central game mechanic is hidden, but still in effect. It's implicit, it's cryptic, and it's actually part of the game to puzzle it out." (VaataVidya, 2013)
The player finds no up-front tutorials, no hard-to-miss explanations, no guides on the stat system, but is simply shoved out into the world and given boundless agency to explore. I believe Dark Souls is a success because it doesn't help the player, and instead lets the player teach them self through observations about the world. I love that. I love when a game doesn't hold my hand. There is always enough information at the player's fingertips to solve any problem the game has to offer. Dark Souls doesn't give direction, but any of the innumerable directions you move in hold unique, compelling experiences.
A branched world that gives the illusion of boundless choice
After a brief 'tutorial' area, you are given freedom to explore the game world. After being dropped at the main bonfire (bonfires act as checkpoints in the game), you can go in any direction you desire. And while there are some invisible borders and locked doors in the game, none of them are immediately evident. You're able to defeat some end-game bosses having only just taken baby steps, and while this choice is masochistic in nature, it is most certainly a choice that is yours to make (albeit an excruciatingly difficult one).
The main bonfire, Firelink Shrine, branches off into seemingly hundreds of directions. But in reality, there are only 6 main paths. Due to some unique and creative level design, the area surrounding Firelink has a plethora of rabbit trails and small paths that lead to loot, enemies, or a mix of the two. It was a blatant design choice, one that drew me into Dark Souls and made me want to play more. It gives an illusion of choice to the player - it makes the world feel massive.
As James of Extra Credits puts it, "One of the things that's really interesting to note is what this is as a new player experience, because there are a million ways to go. It's actually pretty daunting. There are actually a very limited number of ways to go, but it feels at the outset like there are so many." (Extra Credits, 2015)
Connected to the main starting areas are multitudes of harder, more challenging, and more rewarding areas. Lost Izalith, Blightown, the Duke's Archives, Anor Londo, and the Valley of Drakes are just a few of the 32 total areas in the world of Dark Souls (darksouls.wikia.com). These levels twist and bend over themselves in a dance of mossy pathways and cascading gothic arches. Hundreds of shortcuts are available to the player through a combination of progress and exploration. Dark Souls guarantees that however you choose to explore, a reward is waiting for you. The game gets right what so many other games get wrong: the level design compels and incentivizes the player to explore fully.
Design that encourages creativity
Levels also encourage the player to think. I remember my first play through. I climbed a tower with some promising loot prospects. From that tower, I was able to see a burning barrel in the distance with an enemy poised to shove it down on the next lackadaisical adventurer to come his way. What did I do? I pulled out my bow. There are no range limits in Dark Souls, which can lead to unique solutions to problems. Do you want to kill that dragon guarding the bridge from the safety of a parapet? Sure! Snipe away, my friend. Provided you farmed up a few thousand arrows and have an hour of Netflix to watch, that dragon has it coming. Most games will "nerf" these exploitative opportunities in the mechanics, but not Dark Souls. Dark Souls poses the question, "Well, if the player is smart enough to find loopholes, shouldn't we let them be used?" At first glance, it seems like lazy design. But then comes the realization that an experienced player can detect traps before they are even sprung. Dark Souls is a frustratingly difficult game, but feeling like a champion after figuring out how to bend the rules is something I think the design team tried to help the player achieve. One of the most common things I hear said about Dark Souls is that it is punishing, but fair in its punishment. The intentionality behind every trap being detectable and avoidable is subtle, but it truly puts a layer of polish on the level design I don't often see in games.