Thinkin' about Souls

I'm writing this on no sleep and one cup of coffee (I don't normally drink coffee), so I apologize if the writing comes I just felt like blogging about Souls.

The Darkest Souls
The Darkest Souls

Dark Souls and, by extension, Demon's Souls feel like a mistake; like, they shouldn't exist. They're games that defy (mostly) every conventional teaching of modern game design, but fans of the industry were quick to embrace them. Their aplomb towards obscuring and withholding, at times, crucial information from the player leans heavily into the series leaving a sour taste in my mouth. And, yet, I can't stop thinking about these games. Not Dark Souls 2, though. I've thought enough about that one.

I keep trying to pin down what it is about the Souls that I find so fascinating, and I keep finding dead ends. It's not the general structure of the games, 'cause that can straight-up go to hell. In fact, that very same structure that is applauded by Souls aficionados is then immediately derided by, what I would presume to be, the very same audience in neighboring games. Maybe that's an unfair assumption. But, to me, there's this aura about Souls that shapes it as a product for the "gamer who takes games seriously". That's what makes the series complete disrespect towards a player's time all the more acceptable; it's for the true gamers. But showcase any game utilizing similar mechanics revolving around trial and error and backtracking, and I'd bet the chorus would resound with, "No."

So, it's clearly not the macro design of Souls that I find so fascinating. I'd even be willing to argue that it's not why the average gamer enjoys the game. But, I could easily be wrong. Well, then, maybe it's micro. Maybe it's the moment-to-moment. I will say, the games feel weighty in a way that a lot of others in the industry could learn from. Combat hits hard (for melee, at least) and encourages a tense style of play. But, it's also clunky. The camera gets to close; your avatar gets caught up on some pots. You swear you hit the dodge button, but the iFrame God determined you weren't ready yet. Your lock-on goes haywire and tracks the rabid dog behind you as opposed to the giant goat-man dual-wielding, what might as well be, your tombstones soldered to sticks.

"I see you're fond of my dog."

Overall: fun, but has its hiccups. Okay. Maybe not so much the combat, then. But I'd say it helps the games more than it hurts them. How about the level design? At times, ingenious. At times, ingeniously infuriating. Looking at you specifically, Dark Souls. You mean to tell me the key I picked up right before the Bell Gargoyles is meant for some door that I passed, what, an hour ago where I was paying attention to the drake spitting Hell from its teeth and his legion of poisonous rats who enjoy knocking adventurers down into the sweet, sweet void? Why would it not be passed the gargoyles? Better question: why is my progress gated by some dude who had some key? Oh, the only reasonable bonfire in Blighttown is hidden in some shadowy cove away from my main destination? The destination all of these environmental graphics are pointing towards? How novel. Surely the developers never intended for me to scale up a seemingly random stretch of tile to get anywhere in Anor Londo. Oh. Oh.... I would mention the second Sen's bonfire here, but I just did.

However, I will concede (pointing to the "ingenious" previously mentioned), that when everything interlocks, it is immensely satisfying. The world feels more alive, and you feel like you're cheating a system that was never really there (see: video games).

While I can certainly appreciate it, the answer isn't level design; it's too much of a mixed bag. That leaves only (I think; I may be overlooking something else) the lore of these worlds. I already know, but you may not know, dear reader, that this is indubitably my favorite aspect of these games.

Pictured above: Lore.
Pictured above: Lore.

In contrast, it is so meticulously crafted and nursed by the developer, that every other facet of these games is left to blush. It's hilarious, too, because it could easily be argued this area of the games didn't need any regard. But FromSoftware did their damnedest to refine something that should have been, historically speaking, aggressively dismissed. Hiding your world within item descriptions? Implied character motivations? Endings without any clear repercussions? Sounds like a train heading straight for "This Reviewer Does Not Think Kindly of the Feature's Narrative" Town. And, I seem to recall, in the case of Demon's Souls, that certainly was the case. But then, fans dug. They uncovered carefully and insanely hidden developments that paved the way for progressive, interactive narrative. I honestly think this might be the best way to tell a game story: nonintrusive, yet begging investigation. Figuring out the games' tales is a game in and of itself. Tales that, by all rights, should have been left to rot.

But, FromSoftware's gamble paid off, on part of what I just realized was a bigger player in this discussion than I had previously realized: the community. It's clear the Souls games were designed with online interaction in mind, in what may be the most redundantly inventive system games have ever had. Considering the environment From was developing in, mad lib note functions became either entirely unhelpful or extremely pointless ("How many notes can we make about boobs, guys?"). It's interesting that notes were their answer for the antiquated systems Souls adopts (I'd assume to mitigate them), as the internet did a much better job. And, I posit, a lot of players needed the internet to progress. Or maybe it was just me; that key bit really confused me.

It makes me wonder: could these games exist two generations ago? Would they work as PS2, PS1 games? Wasn't King's Field a similar deal? Was that not condemned to obscurity? That's not a rhetorical question; I honestly don't know. But I hadn't heard of it, 'til Souls made its way into the industry vernacular. Does the communal aspect add so much as to make them completely different beasts? How many games from the past employed similar narrative techniques, only to fade away into indifference? Are these truly the first?

I don't know. And I don't think I'll ever really know what keeps this series in my head. It's probably just the artistic design or overall somber tone; something two dimensional like that. Could just be how much I appreciate the beautifully crafted stories. Maybe it's all the dissonance regarding the games' praises; maybe it's all those negative aspects that keep me coming back. I don't know. This blog won't have a clean conclusion; I'll keep thinking about Souls, and Souls won't be thinking about me.

Sad Onion People
Sad Onion People


Catching Up With My Childhood: Super Metroid

Well, not really my childhood in this case. I was still writhing in my glass vial at this point. Regardless, I played this game, and it came out in the '90s. Childhood.

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All I knew about Samus before getting into this game was that my dad liked to play as her in Super Smash Brothers. Then he figured out she was a girl, said, “Really?” and got back to doing boring, Dad stuff. I have also heard numerous individuals cite her as one of the best female characters in games, which really ruffles my feathers. I'm not gonna get into it here (that's a whole other can of sexist worms), but she's barely even a character. It's like calling Gordon Freeman number Whatever. Let's get to the game.

So, I don't know a lot about the Metroid series in general, just that it was a pioneer in backtracking game design. I don't mean that as an insult. I liked Arkham Asylum. I wanted to like Symphony of the Night. I also just recently watched Alien for the first time. I could never be more prepared for anything in my life. And, boy howdy, is this game is a hoot. From design to style to action, this game tries its damnedest to make me like it, and who am I to deny it?

Well, I am a pretty crabby motherfucker; I need absolute perfection before I even think about respecting a game. And Super Metroid isn't without its blemishes. Or maybe I should say, “It hasn't aged well.” There. I said it. Wait, a quick addendum: “It hasn't aged well, but it has aged better than most games from the '90s.” There. Put that on the back of the box.


I think I needed a manual for this game. Or some sort of button layout. Super Metroid has a tendency to throw these rad, new abilities at you constantly, and you're so excited to use them. You just don't know how. Now, I'm not saying every game should tell me how the controls work constantly (I'm looking at you Bioshock Infinite), but at least gimme a little primer, y'know? Don't just give me the ability to morph into a ball and then say, “Fuck it, you figure it out.” I never felt I was stuck in the game because a puzzle was super hard or the enemies were the next kind of challenging. It was always, “Okay, I know I can do this. Just, how do I do it?” That first morphball part is a good example. I knew I could do it (because it said I could, but mostly because I played Super Smash Brothers), but obviously I didn't know the combination of buttons it required. Maybe it was expecting that I had some prior knowledge of Metroid or something. So, after spending entire minutes pressing every button on the controller, I decided to head back above ground to see if there was anything that I'd missed. I was pretty sure there wasn't, but I wasn't about to be fooled by no game. DOWN DOWN. Down down is the answer to the question that I'm sure you were screaming into the heavens. That's how I morphball. Was this in the manual, Super Metroid experts? 'Cause, if not, I'm not sure I could handle it. Now, I get it game, maybe you don't want to tell me. Maybe you're playing coy. And you don't have to. Just...just give me a hint. Like, put two statues in the room with the morphball and have both of 'em point down. I realize that might be problematic regarding your ESRB rating, but I'm a grown man. Also, all this morphball talk brings me to my next point.

The n00b bridge.

No Caption Provided

I can see it now. All the Super Metroid veterans knowingly nodding their heads while simultaneously laughing at my plight. The morphball confusion is nothing compared to this. Again, Super Metroid, if you want to be opaque with your game mechanics, that's fine. I can hit buttons. I can figure out what they do. But sprinting? Did this game even need sprinting? Why include this mechanic?

For those of you unfamiliar with the n00b bridge (it may have been where you stopped playing Super Metroid), it's a bridge with collapsing platforms that you have to run across. This is key. Any time you try to meander across the bridge with your slow-ass, standard walking speed, you immediately fall down to the disturbingly average pits below. And so you fall and fall and fall and fall again, wondering, “What the hell am I doing wrong? Oh, well. Maybe I'll go to another zone. See if I missed anything.” “Nope!” says Sakamoto. “You get to attempt crossing this shitty bridge FOR ETERNITY!”


The game locks you in the room with the bridge, offering no alternative for progression. Now, this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it tells the player that (assuming the game isn't broken) they're going the right way, they just gotta think about it differently. On the other hand, the game never tells you how to sprint (unless, I'm gonna assume, you own a manual). And there's no reason to sprint before this point. All the areas are easily traversable with the standard movement speed. In fact, it feels like the game was designed around this speed. And I realize that they have to convey the sprint's usage to the player, but this was not the way. It's like teaching someone how to play the guitar by saying, “Now play C.” I'd very much like to, Professor Whitta, but if you could just tell me how to do that. I mean, I didn't even know what a C was until fifteen seconds ago; I'm still reeling.

I'll confess, I don't really see how they could've done this better without explicitly telling the player, but that's just the thing. Why not? Why even have a sprint in the first place? Again, I'l address the fact that I didn't have a manual, and that may have remedied the situation. But, still, I don't think this game needed a sprint. Were people clamoring for this shit back in 1994? Like, “back-of-the-box” clamoring? Was sprint the iron sights of yesteryear?

Honestly, though, these were just minor roadblocks to an otherwise fantastic game. Maybe I shouldn't say minor, but they were certainly overshadowed by all the smart stuff this game did. Like that first boss fight. Was it a boss fight? When you get the rockets and the statue goes Indiana Jones on your ass. That was amazing! And terrifying. Seriously, I was impressed with how effective that reveal was at a sprite level. And when I figured out that jumping as an evasive maneuver was the pits and that I could just roll between the guys legs – brilliant. Applying what I had learned about the morphball, no matter how frustrating the process, was absolute brilliance. That's how video games should be, guys.

"He keeps DODGING us! I don't know what to do..."

I'm of the opinion that video games should strive for this level of detail as well. For an SNES era game, there's a lot of world packed into this tiny cart. And it's all yours to desecrate! Super Metroid joins my extremely exclusive list of exploratory games that exemplify why its better to have designers craft subtleties into a world than have it all be procedurally generated. When I find a secret, it feels like someone was trying to hide it from me, not like a computer put a random chest in a cave somewhere. It feels like actual, intelligent beings designed these traps and encounters, making you believe you're traveling through a lost, alien civilization. And when the world is full of these secrets, the vibrance and desire to explore it increase tenfold.

To be honest, I'm surprised this is a Nintendo game. I was mentioning the detail of the world before, and it's no joke. However, it's the direction that detail goes that intrigues me. There's a horror element to all of this. I said before that I had just watched Alien and I am getting mad Alien vibes from this game. Everything seems like it's just designed to be some kind of foreign parasite or bug-man-thing that has no qualms with fucking your shit up. The walls are made of something...biological? It seems like it. If the planet's alive, I wouldn't be surprised. I can see why Nintendo might not be focusing on this IP as a first party title, and I'm curious to see where they go with it.

But, that's neither here nor there. This is about Super Metroid, and I'm happy to say that I enjoyed my time with it. In fact, I'm just happy that I get to try out all these older games from an era where I never really had the chance to. Which brings me to my next question: any games from your childhood that you've wanted to play? What are your thoughts on Super Metroid?

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Catching Up With My Childhood: Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask

Hey, team. This is something I've been wanting to try for a while now, but I haven't really had the time. Now that I have the time, lemme give you the lowdown. I've been getting the urge to go through some games that came out when I was a kid that I never really had the chance to play, whether it be because I was enjoying the bliss of youth or because my parents thought them damned videogames would turn me into an unhinged psychopath. Dodged a bullet there. But they can't stop me now, and I've been digging through videogame history to find some hits that I can enjoy/hate.

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I decided to start with Majora's Mask. Maybe that was an odd choice. Based on all the praise Ocarina of Time has gotten, you'd think that I would've went for that. Well, I didn't. You don't know me. Regardless, I played through (what I would assume to be) two-thirds of Majora's and have come to the resounding conclusion that it's...ehhhhhhh.

Maybe I should start with my history with the Legend of Zelda series. I played Twilight Princess back when it came out. That game was super boring, and whoever came up with the idea that switching to wolf form was fun should be dragged into an alley to be verbally assaulted. The graphics were neat and stuff, but wagging that Wiimote® around always made me feel dirty. I thought that Phantom Hourglass game was the bomb, but stopped at the point where some asshole merchant wouldn't give me an integral ship part unless I screamed, "Give it to me!" into the DS microphone. I don't care how badly I need the part, that shit ain't gonna fly on an airplane.

"Yes! I want it so bad!"

So I moved on with my life, avoiding Zelda for about three years or so. Three years without well-to-do grass, half-naked rock men and excitable fairies. I dunno how I lasted so long. I got that itch again recently and decided I'd try the lesser loved Zelda. Not just 'cause I'm outside of the mainstream, man, but also because of how it related to my childhood. There is no way in hell that I could've played Majora's as a kid; it was way too scary for my elementary mind. I was also a pussy. Still am, really.

Entering this game with a more adult perspective has definitely helped absorb all the creepy. Like that mask salesman. Dear God. I'm sorry I didn't get your mask, okay? But it's clear you're not mentally stable enough to handle that kind of responsibility. And, obviously, the moon incites an almost Pavlovian sort of weeping. He certainly provides plenty of reason to rewind that clock. Speaking of which...

I really like the mechanics of theory. I love that it tries to make sense of all the different design choices that go into making the game (the owls acting as save points, time rewinding itself to start the adventure over). However, eventually, it runs into the Far Cry 2 issue of becoming more frustrating than practical. Sometimes I wanna be able to quit out of a game without having to worry about finding a goddamn owl statue. Things come up, sometimes I have to turn of the machine. And I sure as hell am not rewinding that clock to save.

Hello, owld friend.
Hello, owld friend.

Which brings up the issue I'm sure many have with the game. The retreading of the same ground can be maddening. I wonder if this is a Zelda staple, though. Again, I ain't no vet, so maybe that's some of the appeal. I will say, at least that the environments that you have to spend a lot of time in are worth exploring and have some fantastic art design. Really, the game looks great all around, and I don't mind wandering off to admire the scenery at some points. It's just...don't obscure the progression of the game so much that I have to dig my way out of the crop circles I've found myself in.

Majora's, much like the other two Zelda games I've played, has no problem keeping necessary information away from the player. Not as far as the mechanics go, I mean to get through the game. I don't mind if that's for side stuff, that's fine. You can keep that stuff secret all you want. But for the love of all that Eiji Aounuma holds dear, don't hide the essential path of your goddamn videogame.

I almost stopped after the Goron Elder part. My god, I couldn't figure that out for the life of me. And why should I be able to? Who in their right mind would go around punching giant snowballs (whose destruction requires you to be in Goron form, mind you) in search of an old man who is thought to be at the top of a mountain? I'll answer that question so you don't have to. Not me! Here's the worst part, though. After looking up online what I needed to do to progress, the left side of my brain deflated due to the realization that I had totally wrecked the snowball the elder was in earlier. It's just, his scripting hadn't gone through because the events that triggered said scripting hadn't occurred at that point. I fumed so hard that my roommate had me evicted.

Looking back on Majora's Mask, though, I can't help but give it kudos for trying. It was a daring move on Nintendo's part to put this game out, especially if their target demographic was kids. I'm definitely not gonna forget this game, and I'd imagine that it left an impression on those young'uns of my generation that got to play it. However, it's time for me to part ways with it. Fuck the Goron Elder.

No, wait! I take it back!
No, wait! I take it back!

What do you think of Majora's Mask, though? Love it? Hate it? Why? Any games from your childhood that you wish you hadn't missed out on?

P.S.: I like when they totally ripped off Dark Souls.

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It all makes sense now.
It all makes sense now.


This Is the Last Time I Post About Dark Souls, I Swear

I’ve been playing Dark Souls. I’ve also been flagellating myself. But mostly, I’ve been playing Dark Souls.

I can’t believe how solid everything in this game is. Just everything. The design, the art, the world, the music, the…Solaire. EVERYTHING. However, I’m uncomfortable living in a perpetual state of disbelief and sought to find out why everything about Dark Souls clicked for me. And I think I’ve found it, guys. I think. The jury’s still out.

It’s context.

It’s gotta be, right? The lengths the game goes to create a “1 to 1” relationship with the player and the world deserves some kind of medal. Preferably one made from the sins of mankind and goat hair.

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But perhaps I need to explain why the context in this game is so damn important. Or, at least, my reasoning behind making it so important. I think it would be difficult to argue that an abundance of context would create a lack of immersion. I mean, if we can’t get passed that, I’m not sure this bit of text is going to get anywhere. But, if you wanna make a case against my assumption, go for it. I’ll be here. Waiting.


Before our dramatic knife / dance fight, however, lemme try to show you. Lemme try to explain to you why the context of this game is so very, very important. Also, as a sort of disclaimer, I have a responsibility to inform you that the following words are going to contain what you might consider spoilers. In fact, the letters your brain is registering right now are 20% more likely to contain spoilers. However, the points behind explored are more conceptual than lore based. I’m not gonna be discussing the plot. That being said, if you harbor a desire to play Dark Souls and haven’t yet, you might wanna stop reading now.

No, seriously.

Is he gone? Christ. Fucking hate that guy. Anytime you hint at flagellation, he comes running. Keeps trying to tell me about his fucking ant farm. Bleugh.

Back to context. I’m not even sure that word correctly describes the idea that I’m trying to explore. Hang on, I’m gonna go to Urban Dictionary. Alright, I’m back, and I’m not sure Urban Dictionary should be your go-to source for words. But it did help me (a little bit). A lot of the definitions for “context” revolve around its literary meaning, with books and words and all that boring stuff. I guess I say context in the same way everybody in videogames says it; creating a sort of attachment to the player and the world. In doing so, a greater meaning is applied to the creation as a whole, harkening back to the original definition of context.

You sure do, Urban Dictionary. You sure do.
You sure do, Urban Dictionary. You sure do.

That could also be considered immersion, but in the case of Dark Souls, there’s more support for the idea of context. By making the player channel Sherlock Holmes to get the most out of the world, the inherent value of discovery is multiplied by about a billion and the player’s place in the game is recognized. Even more than recognized, I think it could be argued that the player’s existence is integral to that of the world’s.

Case in point, the idea of Hollowing. It blew my goddamn mind when I discovered what Hollowing was and how it related to the player. If you don’t really get what Hollowing is even after completing Dark Souls (no one’s blaming you, that shit was obtuse), lemme do my best to explain. When an undead in the Dark Souls universe loses any sort of desire to cling to unlife(?), they become Hollow, losing all reason and making their next death their last. Those branded with the Darksign (like you) have the ability to resurrect at any of the bonfires, but still possess that potential to go Hollow.

And that’s what struck me as so curious. You’re constantly told not to go Hollow, by pretty much everyone. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that they’re goading you; that your Hollowing is inevitable. That asshole at the Shrine certainly seems to think so. But, if you possess the ability to revive whenever and wherever, and if you yourself are in complete control of your avatar’s actions, what threat of Hollowing is there? Is it just something the designers put in there for story purposes? For immersion purposes?

"And then I told him, 'Actually, there are two bells....'"

No, I don’t think that’s the case. I think the developers had something to say with their ever-present threat of Hollowing the player. In fact, that threat is foreshadowed within the game’s marketing of all things. The player’s Hollowing may have happened to you even. Did you beat Dark Souls? No? Too difficult? Did you keep trying, or did you give up, detaching yourself from it completely? Well, then, you’re Hollow.

You ugly motherfucker.
You ugly motherfucker.

Or at least, your avatar is. But since that’s you, we’re gonna go with you. You’re quest is over. Never going back to that game, your destiny as the Chosen Undead is a failure, and one of the many other undead (see everybody else that bought the game) have picked up the torch. You’re insane; you’ve lost any will to go on, forever distraught at the insurmountable odds placed before you.

Don’t take that as a slight if I just described you. Game’s tough. Trust me, I know. I just wanted to express that THAT is your story. You gave up. Your tale is one of misfortune and tragedy. And it’s all thanks to that beautiful, beautiful context we were talking about earlier. Without the concept of player Hollowing, I wouldn’t even be writing this nonsense. The game would be over, and you would return it to the Blockbuster with a bad taste in your mouth. But, now that we both get Hollowing, a greater meaning is applied to your experience as a whole and the product feels more complete.

And that’s why I think Dark Souls is fucking awesome.

I actually had more stuff that I wanted to go over (as in, other examples of context in games), but this seemed to be getting kinda long. Oh man, but so many things! I’ll just ask you.

What are some examples of context that you can think of in any game that you’ve played? I’m actually hard pressed to think of one that does it better than Dark Souls. Oh wait…


May I Ask of You Directions, Sir?

I’ve been trying to play some CRPGs.

Key word: trying.

Christ. I just gotta enter this alien mindset. Just gotta remember, “This was made during a time when you couldn’t check the e-mail from your toaster, Nonused. Get ahold of yourself.” But I can’t, me! It’s so goddamn crazy! Well, ok, not that crazy. It’s just—I’m spoiled. I guess.


More often than not, in modern videogames (specifically RPGs), you get a quest, open a map, and there’s a pretty piece of geometry that says, “Go here, stupid.” If not that, it’s usually a clear path (I call it the funnel) to your destination, linear or quasi-linear. Makes it pretty clear what you gotta do. Go to the dot, kill that guy and you get your jink. Or, if you’re feeling extra saucy, you could use your silver tongue to get something off him and THEN get your jink on. I feel this is a modern RPG quest at its essence, and these old-school CRPGs have thrown that shit out the window. And with a sink!

But first, I’d like to clarify what games I was playing that got me into this thought process. For you, lovely reader! No, seriously, I adore you for who you are. And your curves, but that’s second to your winning personality.

The original Fallout, Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura, and Planescape: Torment. Those are the big three that got me into this fun little mess. Got ‘em from If you haven’t heard of it, take a look, and read your bibles, fellow videogame player.

Obviously (or not so obviously), I got hooked when Fallout became free. Played it for about half an hour. It’s just—I really like voice acting, guys. It adds so much to a character-driven game like an RPG. Again, I’m spoiled. Sue me. I will law your ass. Actually, please don’t sue me. There’s a reason I got Fallout for free. Remember, you’re lovely for who you are. Don’t let them take that away from you.

But I was still intrigued. I really liked the feel of the combat, if that makes sense. Loved V.A.T.S. in FO3, and since that was the focus in the original, it was a match made in—well, not quite heaven. So, like—the pearly gates. It was a match made at the pearly gates. And I liked some of the adventury bits of it. I played a sly devil named Harrison Ford and, on my way to the first village, I ran into a pack of asshole scorpions. Mr. Ford’s keen wit was no match for five stingers to the face. Real shame. What good’s persuasion if I can’t circumvent the REAL issues? But the combat was genuinely terrifying with those scorpions. The SPRITES were scary to look at. And when they cornered poor Mr. Ford at the bottom of the screen—I don’t wanna think about it. It’s too much.

So, you're telling me you HAVEN'T left the vault?
So, you're telling me you HAVEN'T left the vault?

The game had piqued my interest, however, and I scoured the internet for a game with a more modern feel. Arcanum sounded perfect. Troika? Never heard of ‘em, but a couple of guys who made Fallout made this. It might be the best game ever. 2001? You couldn’t get more modern if you tried.

Man, guys. MAN. This game. I want to love it. It has orcs in suits working as bodyguards for rich gnomes. My half-elf was the most dapper son of a bitch I’ve seen in a long time (not as dapper as you, though). It’s like a math equation with my name in it. But everything within the awesome aesthetics is so fucking ugly. Actually, the aesthetics themselves can be pretty disgusting. I know graphics aren’t everything in a videogame, but—2001! Half-Life looked better than this! I look at my character model, and he looks nothing like the portrait I so carefully selected! Actually, the character creator is pretty awesome. You should try it some time.

The combat was pretty bad too. But that wasn’t what really turned me off this game. It was the lack of direction. The lack of handholding. Or, maybe handholding is the wrong word. Lack of—conveyance? I didn’t know what the fuck I was supposed to do! I didn’t know who had quests and who didn’t. I didn’t have a fun little exclamation mark to say, “Hey! Talk to this fucker so I may be free!” He pines for the fjords. I had to talk to everybody and everyTHING to obtain a grasp of what objectives were available to me. No assets really guided me any direction But, then I wondered, “Is that wrong?”

That’s the question that kept nagging at my brain. Still is. But regarding Arcanum, it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ve pretty much given up on that game since those side quests that aren’t immediately apparent are pretty much imperative to your progression through the main quest line. So when I ran into a legion of zombies in P. Schulyer and Sons, completely under leveled, I threw up the birds.


But that question was still in my head when I decided to buy Planescape a few weeks later. “1999? Oh shit. Mathematically, it couldn’t possibly be as good as Arcanum,” I say. “You shut the fuck up,” says Internet. “You love it.”

I do. I do kinda love it.

It amazes me that this game is two years older than Arcanum and has better production values all around. The voice acting, the animations, the writing. THE WORLD. God, the world. I don’t think I know how to describe it. No, wait. Yes I do. It’s what fantasy should be. Not fucking dragons and trolls and elves and dwarves and magic and bullshit. I mean, it has some of that. But it tries to stray away from that samey formula. It tries to make its own world and atmosphere instead of utilizing clichés that appeal to—y’know what, I don’t even know who high fantasy is supposed to appeal to anymore.

But that’s not the focus of this—thing. No. It’s that lack of direction that I’m so curious about. Planescape, so far, has hit the nail on the head I’ve felt. Not once has there been a maniacal piece of punctuation highlighting the critical path. No funnels. Just a town that I navigate through loading screens. But I am still given a sense of direction. “Go northwest to the moratorium,” says crazy death lady. “Get your jink on.” The map contains thumbnails expressing which building is which. I never truly get lost. But I am not explicitly told where to go for a quest through a map or quest log.

All hail!
All hail!

Case in point. Fork quest. I can’t remember the guy’s name. Let’s call him Nigel. Nigel’s crazy and getting his jink on in an inn. Innkeeper wants him out. Me, being the good-looking Samaritan that I am, offer to help. I go up to Nigel asking him politely to leave. He says, “Fuck you, gimme my fork! Find my fork and I’ll leave!” And then he van Gogh’s it up.

Now, a couple of you lovelies still reading this (why are you still reading this?) unfamiliar with Planescape may be saying, “Sure, seems reasonable. Go get his fork, Nonused!” But wait dear reader! That’s not so simple! Not by 1999 conventions!

I have no idea where to look. Crazy doesn’t give me directions to his fork. There’s no helpful funnel or bread crumbs to tell me where to go. This man is being unreasonable, so I get unreasonable. I’m all like, “Don’t make me fight you,” and he’s all like, “(Rasberry).” So I killed him. I killed him because I had no idea where to look for his fork.

But that makes sense, right? Normally, I’m all good and shit in my RPGs. Always willing to go out of my way to help because I can. Because I’d usually be doing the same shit if I was evil anyways. And the critical path is clearly displayed in front of me. It really isn’t that much of an issue to act as the ideal character. But, in this Planescape situation, it is completely. All because of a lack of navigation. It’s not the game’s fault though. Why would crazy give me a map to his fork? He doesn’t even know where it is! But I really wanted to rest at the inn (innkeeper would let me rest or free if I got rid of Nigel). Incorporating my solution, however, was not to the benefit of anybody. Well, that’s not true. I slept like a baby. But innkeeper technically hired a killer to be rid of crazy. That’s fucked up.

And for what? FOR WHAT?
And for what? FOR WHAT?

And this specific situation got me thinking about the use of navigation and direction within videogames. How the correct implementation of conveyance could completely negate any excuse they’d have for existing. Well, I could be wrong. Actually, I’m most likely wrong. I’m thinking in terms of RPGs, don’t really have my head set anywhere else. I just thought that this whole situation was crazy, in terms of design and choice. I didn’t have to kill him. I didn’t even have to do the quest. But, y’know, free bed. And it’s all ‘cause the developer decided not to show me where that fork was. Crazy.

But, in general, I guess what I’m getting at is this: do you like the “direction” (tip your waitress) player direction in videogames is going? With the exclamation points and shit? Or do you think that it might be a byproduct of lazy design? Or maybe you think everything’s hunky-dory and that RPGs (or anything , really) have never had it better? Or maybe something ELSE (gasp)? Please, jot down your own thoughts!

P.S.: Don’t sue me.


Games and Interpretations

Sometimes, to make your work hit home, you gotta let the audience fill in the blanks. 
At least, that's how I feel about interpretive art. And it seems to me that most game developers aren't too keen on following this concept. 
I've been thinking about this quite a bit lately because I've realized how well interpretive elements work for me in other media. Ergo Proxy and FLCL are a couple of the best shows I've ever watched, undoubtedly due to my own interpretation. Bands like Circa Survive and O'Brother sell their music by letting me draw my own conclusions. Countless paintings have remained obscure in order to let their viewers develop their own connections. Why aren't more games trying to follow suit? 
Before I go on, however, I want to address a potential issue. Yes, there are games that are hella interpretive (see Braid). But, in what seems to be all cases, these games are indie. It is nice to see that  independent groups are interested in leaving interpretation, but it seems that the larger titles are heading in the opposite direction. 
The majority of games are very concentrated on delivering an easy-to-swallow plot for the player. Sure, there can be twists and major points scattered throughout, but it seems to be an unwritten rule that the story be relatively easy for the player to follow. On the other end, there's a minority of games that contain convoluted plots, which can be easily mistaken as interpretive. There is a difference, however. A convoluted game wraps itself so deep inside its own rules or fiction that its difficult for the player to follow (see Metal Gear Solid, Kingdom Hearts). A supposed interpretive game would not have its own rules or fiction. It would be up to the player to fill that void. In order to have the player do this, however, games need to embrace something they've been giving awkward glances for a while now. Surrealism. 
Yes, we've seen surrealistic elements used in games before, but mostly in art style. It all seems to be window dressing for rather derivative windows. I'd like to point to  Ōkami as an example. The player controls a wolf through fantastical lands in a style that is reminiscent of a Japanese watercolor. Sounds pretty crazy until you pull back the curtains and realize you're just saving the world from the ultimate evil. Again. The surrealism needs to bleed into more than just the look of the game in order for it to be interpretive. Think Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The characters are weird. The setting is weird. Alice's whole situation is weird. Carroll gives the reader a very blurry image of what it is exactly that is being conveyed. All the reader has to do is squint. 
And that's what games need to provide in order to be interpretive. Shady context in regard to setting, plot, or even mechanics. I feel that following this idea through will allow players to develop very powerful connections to games through their own interpretations. 
How about you? Do you also want to see more interpretive titles? Do you like the way games are now? Something in between?


You Got Cinematography In My Interactivity

I have constantly read that cut scenes in videogames are banes.

“Taking control from the player to watch a five minute cut scene is bullshit!”

“Why can’t I be doing that instead of watching it?”

 “What makes you think that I want to watch adolescents with obnoxiously great hair mope for a mo?”

 These are not real quotes, for the record.

But I wanna play the devil’s advocate for a second. What’s wrong with well-done cut scenes in an interactive medium? Is it the loss of control? Is it the overly-expository dialogue? Nope. Cut scenes are only bad if the player has no interest in the happenings of the game. It could be well written, have the best acting, and have some of the most gorgeous graphics of any generation, but if the player doesn’t give two shits about the interplay between characters or the world itself, the cut scene is destined to fail.

It would be easy to cite Final Fantasy XIII as a case and point, but I’m gonna go with God of War. The second one actually.

There’s no denying that the God of War series has one of the best presentations of the previous and current generations. It’s goddamn pretty. Candy for the eyes and cake for the ears. It’s such a shame that I didn’t give a fuck about anything that revolved around the grotesque, Greek world.

The first in the series was alright, forcing cautious empathy upon the player regarding Kratos and his actions while still providing a big baddy to hate. There was the drive to get through the game, and the interest to see the cut scenes unfold. When I cut up that hydra in a QTE, I knew it would be worth it, as it would lead me further to the answer. “Who is Kratos? Why is he so pissy?” I listened to Athena babble about gods and their drama because I wanted to see how they related to Kratos, what he had done to deserve their hate. With such a backbone, the game propelled me to find out more about the context of Kratos’ situation, and thus each cut scene was a blessing. The story fell apart for me around the half-way point, but I commend the admirable effort and recognize that it just wasn’t for me. Kratos was too much of a douchebag and I lost interest in Greek mythology around the 6th grade.

So, okay, Santa Monica had created a semi-tragic Greek hero with a gory, if clichéd, background. I can dig it. I would watch those cut scenes no matter the lack of control or level of melodramatic writing, because I want more on the story. Cut scenes can’t eat away at interactivity, unless they are done in poor taste.

God of War II bathes in that poor taste. Don’t get me wrong, the game is a marvel to behold, and the first boss fight is one of the most memorable in video game history, but the game literally adds nothing to its world. Same gory Greece, same jackass Kratos, same steroid-abusing gods, same goddamn premise. And you know what? The player is expected to care! Care enough to get through the ten to twelve hour story, care enough to side with Kratos in his mission for revenge. No! These plot devices have simply diminished from the first game. They’ve become old and stagnant while still expecting you to think they’re pretty.

How does this affect the cut scenes? It makes one loathe them. It makes one wish that they would just end because they have little to no interest in what is happening to Kratos or any of the gore sacks the game likes to call characters. This situation has already been done, why would one care about it a second time?

If any game tries to pull a God of War II with its stories, the cut scenes will not just suffer; they will wither and die, no matter the production values. To hook the player in, developers have to make them care about something the game is trying to sell, whether it be the world, a character, or some major theme revolving around the story. A cut scene can only help expand on one of these things that interest the player.

That’s my hypothesis on why cut scenes are getting so my flak from the videogame community. It’s not because of the lack of control, rather, the lack of interest. But I could be totally off base or just speaking from my own experience.

What do you think? Do you think the inclusion of cut scenes helps or hampers videogames?