Meet the Dark Souls detective uncovering Lothric's cut content

Lance McDonald spent several months uncovering Bloodborne's alpha cut content. I, on the other hand, spent the same time praying to the Watchdogs of Farron for the indie dev-turned-hobbyist game engineer to switch to Dark Souls so we could write about him on PCG.  

I praised the sun, then, when McDonald announced a Dark Souls 3 series by showing us how Oceiros' baby wasn't always invisible. With this in mind, I caught up with the Soulsborne sleuth to learn more about his process, the similarities between Bloodborne and Dark Souls 3 behind the scenes, and his plans for future cut content projects.

PC Gamer: Tell me about your relationship with the Soulsborne series—have you always played these games?

Lance McDonald: I started playing Demon's Souls when it was released in South Korea, which was back when most fans thought there was no chance the game would ever see a release in the west, let alone ever spawn a series of spiritual sequels. It was a very poorly translated version of the game, but it's still the only version of Demon's Souls I own, so the weird broken-English phrases such as "This is harsh, evaluate me" still hold a place in my heart. Since then I've followed the series very closely, except Dark Souls 2, the freak of the series. Just kidding.

How and when did you decide to dig a little deeper into Bloodborne and Dark Souls? 

When SanadSk started finding unused files in a leaked dump of the game files and uploading renders of what he saw, I started looking into how these files got dumped onto the internet and reversing the process to get the files back onto a PlayStation 4 and working in-game. I had never worked with the Souls games before this, so a lot of the process specific to these games was very new to me, but I have a lot of experience with editing and modding video games, so I was able to bring a lot to the table in that regard.

Did you always plan to move into Dark Souls, or was this a natural evolution after exploring Bloodborne?

Bloodborne was a fantastic target for new content because it is a PlayStation 4 exclusive, meaning that data-mining is fairly hard, and modding the game live on a console is almost impossible. The Dark Souls series has always had PC ports, meaning that 90% of the content in those games has already been seen, but there were PlayStation-exclusive alpha tests for Dark Souls 2 and 3 that were built long before the games were finished, so there's always a good chance you'll find unused content in those if you can dig it out. 

Speaking of Bloodborne, is that series finished/on hold while you look into Dark Souls? 

I do my best to create one video per week, and depending what I find throughout the week, I decide what I'll put in my next video. I am currently working extremely hard on restoring the full debug menu in Bloodborne, as well as getting Dark Souls 3's alpha test to boot into a few different modes that are in there. I'm also working on Nier Automata's PS4-exclusive demo as it appears to have some debugging functions that were cut from the final game. I just do what I can throughout the week, and then put a video together on weekends.

Is the process of uncovering cut content in Dark Souls 3 at all similar to that of Bloodborne? 

Absolutely yes, Dark Souls 3 uses an engine that was forked from a very early build of Bloodborne, so interestingly, there's actually content that was cut from Bloodborne inside Dark Souls 3. Aside from that, the maps are 90% the same format, so I was able to quickly dive into Dark Souls 3 and within a few hours I was able to move bonfires to arbitrary locations to teleport anywhere in the game fairly easily. Back when I was first learning how to modify Bloodborne it took me over a week to do the same thing, so the knowledge definitely carries across the games.

Can you explain the process of uncovering cut content—where do you start, where do you focus, how do you recreate assets in-game, how do you decide where to stage them in-game? 

I typically play through the vanilla game with no patches applied and just take note of interesting things like locked doors or weird things in the distance, then I'll open up the map files and take a look at things that stand out. I'll go into the map files and look for unexpected assets being loaded that don't seem like they belong in an area, and then I'll start corrupting or deleting 'events' to see what strange things start to appear in the game. 

Sometimes I'll accidentally cause an enemy to appear in an area they don't belong, so I'll slowly reverse the process to discover why there's an event hiding an enemy, and I'll find left behind scenario data from an older version of the game that was 'switched off' at the last moment. It's a slow process, but one-by-one, I can remove events that are being used to disable cut content and tease out unseen things.

Once you're over the initial shock of seeing a baby smashed into the ground, the entire scene is actually kind of hilarious and really destroys the seriousness of the fight.

In other cases, all that remains is an enemy file that never actually appears anywhere in the game at all, so I find an existing enemy that has lots of attacks and wears a variety of clothes or weapons, and I'll inject an unused enemy into their place to test out all the movesets of a cut enemy. A lot of the footage I upload shows me placing cut enemies in very specific places, and that's because the enemies I'm replacing had a large variety of attacks and outfits which helps quickly discover unused movesets.

Dark Souls 3 is often compared to Bloodborne for its gothic look and speed. Have you found the cut content to be similar—i.e., have you found things in Dark Souls 3 you'd expect in Bloodborne and vice versa?

A lot of the cut enemies in Bloodborne absolutely look like they would be more at home in Dark Souls 3, so I wonder how much back-and-forth there was in the development process of the two games. It's likely that a lot of very early Dark Souls 3 content was created at the same time as early Bloodborne was being built before a significant fork occurred between the two. 

Dark Souls 3 is a very clean game, tonnes of auxiliary files and developer notes have been deleted from it, but Bloodborne has a lot left over. It's hard to know if Dark Souls 3 was just scrubbed clean so that the PC port wouldn't get datamined too much, or if the developers were just more careful to delete every unused file before shipping it.

You've so far taken on Oceiros from Dark Souls 3—do you have any idea/are you able to say what you've got planned for the Souls series beyond that?

I have a lot of old map files for Dark Souls 3, and at an early look, they're about 80% the same as what we got in the final game, except all the enemy placement is different. I'd like to just document those a little, although quite a lot of them don't load correctly so I'll just have to do what I can. I am also interested in getting the PS3-exclusive Dark Souls 2 Network Test up and running (it was a limited-time event that has long ended, so I need to bypass the online-checks to get it to work) to explore an older version of that game, even though I am not actually much of a fan of Dark Souls 2.

Will you also delve into Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2?

I'm very eager to check out Dark Souls 1 a lot more, I know that the PC version has been scraped clean, but I'm still interested to look myself just for the fun of it all, really. Dark Souls 2 is definitely at the bottom of my priorities, below Demon's Souls.

What's been your favourite piece of cut content/most valuable to the overarching lore that you've discovered so far?

While SanadSk was the first to discover that Maria from Bloodborne once had a massive dialogue tree and was a fully realised NPC, I was extremely excited myself to discover that she can actually be brought to life in-game, rather than just being dead as she is in the final game when you find her. I haven't released any content around this discovery yet because I'm not finished with her, but she is a much beloved character in the series so I want to make sure I tease out any content regarding her that I can.

Is there anything you've been disappointed to see cut? I'm of the view Baby Ocelotte was better left out, but I wonder if there's anything you wish had been kept. 

Ocelotte was definitely right to be cut, not just because it's a shocking thing to see in the game, but quite honestly? Once you're over the initial shock of seeing a baby smashed into the ground, the entire scene is actually kind of hilarious and really destroys the seriousness of the fight. There's no way on earth that 'Oceiros smashing a baby into the floor' would not have become an instant meme if it was actually included in the game. 

I'm disappointed that the Warp Chairs were cut from Bloodborne, as there's so much lore around them left behind. Micolash is sitting in one, Maria is sitting in one, the hallway after the first boss in the Bloodborne DLC is full of them. It's clear that they were originally a significant plot point. Hard to be sure, but I think they were cool.