Souls Without Darkness

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Following the March release of Dark Souls 3: Die Dark Souls Die, the table has again been set with discussions on how an easy mode would attract onlookers to finally dig in. This is an old discussion at this point and it’s worth considering why it resurfaces by coming from a place of forlornness, from the quiet wishes of a scattering of people who want to enjoy something they can’t—from reactions to wistfulness rather than manifestos, from tweets not petitions.

So Cameron Kunzelman wrote an interesting piece on how the addition of an easy mode would incite him to give Dark Souls another stab. While he finds it to be a fascinating study, he lacks the patience to dedicate his time to a game which routinely sends players back to do it again.

I don’t know if you can quite call his favouring an easy mode an argument, but he positions it in opposition to the pro-Dark Souls coven of Matt Lees, Chris Franklin and Adam Smith. These readings cover the gist of what attracts people to its difficulty: Smith denies the inaccessibility of Dark Souls is necessarily a negative trait; Lee tells of how our intrigue would wither were patience not a prerequisite; Franklin focuses on the difficulty and its subsequent systems as existential to the text. Each is worth your time.

As the topic is divisive, I want to stress what’s at stake when we talk about the ramifications of a hypothetical Dark Souls easy mode:

Nothing. Nothing is at stake for those who currently enjoy Dark Souls, who have already done it and gotten theirs and remember it fondly. Realistically I don’t believe anything will come from a few people saying in increasingly louder and better reasoned manners how an easy mode would improve the experience, but even if From Software decide to patch one into Dark Souls 1, it would not besmirch your memory of the Capra Demon. What’s more, for critics such as myself who play up the existential argument and acquiesce to the developers as designers of their own game, were they to instil an easy mode in a future instalment, we would be some mad bloody hypocrits to then turn about and say it’s antithetical to the point. That easy-moded sequel may not be the Dark Souls we knew and loved, but no Dark Souls, not 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 or 6, could ever be.

On the other hand, for those who have yet to enjoy a Dark Souls, what’s at stake is the possibility of finally enjoying a Dark Souls. If no easy mode ever came about, they would continue to live with nothing being changed. I suspect they would find a way to survive.

With this now said, bear in mind that discussion of an easy mode is a thought experiment, not an asteroid. What arises from it is usually a conversation on the particular textual analysis of Dark Souls, and the general role of mechanics and systems within narrative frameworks.

So while the prospect is not dangerous, it’s easy to view it as a threat for reasons of sentimentality. (There is also a troupe which feels threatened by how it would dilute the pretend aristocracy of folks who have finished a videogame, which is a petulant viewpoint and another issue entirely.) Much of that sentimentality is irrational but human and I find it hard to find too great a fault in it. My feelings are complicated, since I think it would be great if Kunzelman could enjoy Dark Souls like I have, but at the same time I agree with Smith that not everything needs to be for everyone, and I agree with Lees and Franklin that much of what puts Kunzelman off the series is intrinsic to what makes it provocative.

Kunzelman responds to Lees and Franklin by describing a mode where baddies take fewer hits but everything else is more or less the same—in essence, a version where players die a lot less. What he seeks is an abbreviation of the routine of dying and retrying, to expedite passage past monsters before they grow too familiar, to see its famed architecture and read lore at a leisurely pace. Whereas the Dark Souls routine for most fans means to waste and wallow and regather and triumph, he wishes to skip straight to the triumph. It’s a destination without the epiphany, and maybe it’s a blindspot in what he hopes to enjoy, or maybe he already sees what’s to be gotten from the journey and is confident of his disinterest in it. To him, nothing is gained by dying and being reborn, so there’s nothing in his easier version incomparable to the experiences of those who, as he rightfully says, have bought into how it currently is.

There are many ways to read into this. A common thread in discussions about hard videogames is that those who dislike the game do so by a measure of a senseless, inarticulable yardstick of skill, where players with enough of this mystical attribute are good and players with too little are bad. I interpret Kunzelman’s insights as distinguished instead by a matter of attitude. Excluding the bollocks aristocracy, I don’t think anyone will find it controversial for me to say Dark Souls’ difficulty is largely psychological, much in the same way that Project Zero’s scariness is psychological. It’s a difficulty born out of your nervousness and recklessness, but where those who act cautiously and learn to adapt get by easily enough. Compare this to something like Trauma Center which demands an impossible standard of highly precise and rapid inputs in order to do something as basic as brain surgery.

This, for me, makes Kunzelman’s insight noteworthy as his appreciation of Dark Souls leaps over its characteristic mentality. It suggests affection for a story composed of tidbits and residue, excluding as irrelevant the significance of these elements in context of the whole. He’s not interested in the whole, just the tidbits.

What first impressed me about this position was how convincing it was, even as a response to fans for whom this approach can easily seem wrongheaded. Off the top of my head I can think of a dozen games I have zero interest in playing but whose fiction and worlds I find attractive—I’ve always been curious about the lore of Gears of War but can’t stand to play it. It seems sacrilegious to target Dark Souls with that same half-apathetic, half-curious attitude because of my sentimentality towards it especially as a cohesive whole; I recognize this reaction as silly, born out of aversion to entertain the irrelevancy of what I love about this series. Why is Dark Souls so personal? Why do I exempt it from cherry-picked analyses?

I believe it’s because of the same reason so many people want it to have an easy mode. Because Dark Souls is special. It is not coincidence that of the billion games with variable difficulty levels, few attract the attention and analysis Matt Lees describes. It is not a coincidence that of the fewer games without variable difficulty levels, people seldom clamour for the introduction of a mode that would make it accessible to newer or less skilled players. The discussion focuses on Dark Souls instead of Super Mario Bros because Dark Souls inhabits a distinct cultural myth. Even though Super Mario Bros is a much harder game, even though it requires just as much repetition albeit with less reward, and higher and more precise demands of player skill to complete, it’s culturally placed not as a difficult game but as a ubiquitously nostalgic lark.

Dark Souls however is cursed by its projection of a sense of difficulty, despite how it mitigates that conceit through a robust system of player co-operation and in-game messages, and which fans gleefully diffuse through community wikis, online conversation and ten thousand or so Top Tips listicles. While this sense of difficulty is on the most part a fabrication—an aspect of its social fiction—it is pivotal to its allure as a cultural text.

Which brings me to The Great Gatsby. In 2011, on hearing that a simplified version of the novel was entering the US school curriculum, Roger Ebert demolished the wretched incarnation:

The first is: There is no purpose in “reading” The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald’s novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby’s lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald’s style–in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

Despite the phenomenon of talking about a game’s language in terms of its verbs—jump, shoot, run, solve—there is still not much an appreciation for play as prose. Fundamental to the experience of playing is that it intimately and unavoidably conveys narrative through the sensation and psychological effect of its moment. No-one cared about the narrated story of Thomas Was Alone, whereas everyone praised how the character interactions conveyed a message of community and relationship.

Kunzelman wants to play Dark Souls without having to go through the burden of playing it. And yet, he wants to play it. Reading the wikis and watching the lore videos and Let’s Plays isn’t enough, it’s not the same as playing a game first hand, of experiencing that embodiment and bathing in its prose. And for we who have bought in, this is entirely why there is no point in “playing” Dark Souls unless you actually play it. Why it would lose all intonation about time and temporality. Why it would decimate its esprit de corpse (which in hindsight is what I wished I had titled that piece).

His assurance that for what he wants to get out of it an easy mode would affect no ontological change is the crux of Kunzelman’s article and the reason why I feel, however ridiculously, like Tevye the Dairyman. My summaries of Lees’ and Franklin’s videos should not be thought adequate representations of their humour and earnestness, nor my rhetoric the conviction of Kunzelman’s article. Likewise, a summary of Dark Souls stripped of its narrative backbone, which fronts leisure and abandons hostility, is not Dark Souls. It is irrevocably something different, like a Fiddler on the Roof where everything works out in the end, a Ghost in the Shell movie about America, or a Gaeltacht where everyone speaks English. More accessible to some, perhaps, but doubtlessly misshapen. If all you’re looking for is a film with songs or plastic tourism, you may be satisfied with it.

But I wonder, if the boulders were inconsequential and the giant hurling them friendly, if Sen’s Fortress were Sen’s Creche, would this resemble the Lordran that intruiged you? Would the impact of its discovery be undiminished? Would you still envy the accomplishment of your friend atop the ramparts?

How Game Criticism is like Cooking a Roast Chicken Dinner

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What follows is the rough script and a selection of the slides for a talk presented at the Eargoat 2 event, a meetup for creative types in the greater Dublin area, held on the 14th of November, 2015. This talk covers my opinions on game criticism as a creative medium and presents an overarching argument for criticism as a craft in and of itself, rather than merely a vassal of videogame development.

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Embassytown: Before the humans came we didn’t speak

Embassytown: Before the humans came we didn't speak

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You should first know two things about China Miéville’s Embassytown. One: it has a pullquote on the front cover from Ursula K. Le Guin branding it as “a fully achieved work of art”. Two: the back cover summary so confused me that I fled to the nearest young adult fiction, which happened at the time to be Railsea, as I was cornered by a small army of Miévilles as if in ultimatum.

Keep those in mind when I say, to talk about the structure of Embassytown is to juggle sand. It’s a wonderful, fascinating, elusive beast, in part because of a thematic richness to which I can’t do justice here, and in part because of its structural metacommentary on left-wing politics in colonial states, to which I can. It’s mainly elusive because of what the end of Embassytown says about the start of Embassytown. And since this is a book interested in describing the breach of a world-shattering status quo change, it’s elusive because in the fuzzy emotional space of newfound self-awareness, my mind four hundred pages ago is estranged to my mind now. Continue reading

Irish Travellers and American Blindspots

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I’ve written several times in the past on what it’s like to be Irish in the midst of the loose amalgamation that is the culture of videogames. I’ve tried to emphasise my surprise and suspicion that comes in hearing an Irish voice, an Irish character, in a game, and my delight in finding something I feel sincerely speaks to Irish narratives or identities.

What little cultural background I gave usually came in the form of brief anecdotes about how little we see Irish folk in games, which of course is proportionate to the country’s contribution in the grand scheme of the industry. Through negligence I withheld the more substantial context of the lack of presence of Irish identities in media beyond that of only videogames. Since today I’m writing about ethnicity and whiteness and representation, and I’m writing from a perspective that I’m increasingly learning is distinct from the bulk of my peers, this context is kind of necessary. Continue reading

God’s Work

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Today over tea, Laura picked from my head with uncanny intuition the question most bothering me this week: “why do you write about games?” She didn’t need to clarify the peculiar thing about my writing about games, specifically that I only write about games. I don’t write about books or movies or cats even though I also enjoy these things, even though I am probably fully capable to that end. If cornered I call myself a media critic—sheepishly, because people expect it’s a euphemism—but the truth is, I don’t write broadly enough to encompass the generality implied. I write about one specific type of media.

I don’t know why, I said half-honestly. I could write about films, but I don’t want to. I like to talk about films the way I write about games, but that’s as far as it goes. I hope someday to actually sit down and write that article on Return to Oz that’s been in my head since 1986. I don’t exactly know why I relegate my writing to just games other than I enjoy writing about games.

The best proper answer I can come up with is that when I was very, very young, my Dad confided in me the secret cause of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s huge arms was from having played so many videogames (which he enthusiastically demonstrated with thumb movements). This might also account for my silly interest in Schwarzenegger movies, disproportionate to their quality. I was impressionable, so it was impressed on me that games were wow amazing.[1] Continue reading