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?

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Thoughts on nearby covers

Thoughts on some covers - Alien Trilogy

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One of my most vivid videogame-related childhood memories is this. In July of 1996, my brother, the middle one, had done our mam no favours by asking for a copy of Alien Trilogy for his birthday. Despite the game having launched four months earlier, which in modern terms would have made it a hundred years old by July, nowhere in our area had any copies in stock. By which I mean, none of the three local video rental shops had it in stock, because this was Ireland at a time when the commercial exchange of games was a novel quirk and not a viable business angle.

Packed into the car were we for a rare trip to The Tallaght Square, famous in our minds for reason number one of being the only remotely accessible shopping centre in the greater Dublin area at a time before Blanchardstown and Liffey Valley. Reason number two for its fame was that it was pyramidal, not square, and this for us, pre-internet, constituted a joke whose humour was always worth revisiting.

So it was immediately a bit of a journey just to find this game, and when we did recover a copy in The Square, it felt all the more of a treasure. I’m sure there were other errands on that trip but my memory tells me it was the only thing we came away with. My brothers and I passed the box around for the long drive home, poring over the manual and delighting in anticipation of what the box cover suggested, foreboding the Alien’s imminent pounce. Once at home we put it on and certainly thrilled in the experience, but now I suspect I didn’t enjoy it half as much I did its prelude.

Perhaps it’s because back then we had fewer games and an over-abundance of free time that we would so patiently gorge on a game’s extra material like aesthetes at an art museum. Now, as I have no lack of the former but absolute lack of the latter, I seldom consciously dwell on a game’s cover as intensely as I used to. While I still variably note my appreciation for or dislike of any given box art, I don’t study what I enjoy about it and savour the anticipation or place it in context, beyond exceptional circumstances. I miss that.

So, with my limited vocabulary, I’d like to take a spell to put that sort of mindfulness to a platoon of games stationed at hand beside me, them dust-coated sentries what have kept me company these past years of working and writing. Continue reading

On the much hated and woefully overlooked Codec radio

On the much hated and woefully overlooked Codec Radio

This piece is community funded. If you enjoyed this article, please support my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron. 

In a recent video on Persona 3, I talked about how the dating sim-slash-dungeon crawler uses its menus to overlay a certain optimism towards the glacial crisis that was—and still is—complicating the future of Japanese society. This aspect of Persona 3’s menus arises from an assumption I make, and I don’t think it’s too controversial an assumption, about menus existing in games as a mode of introspection.

What do I mean by this?

In an alternate universe I provided a couple of examples to give this interpretation more weight, one example of which was the codec menu in the Metal Gear Solid games. Unlike that marvellous alternate universe, however, time in our universe runs at a rate of one second per second, and to keep the video short and within its scope the example of Metal Gear Solid had to be cut. Instead, I’d like to expand the idea in this article, partly as a complimentary piece to the Persona 3 video, and partly to justify a shabby and safe assumption about videogames that as far as I can tell nobody has contested. Continue reading

This Week We Read: 09/11/14

Well folks, it’s time for another This Week We Read.

In case you’re new to these, each week I ask a group of peers, colleagues and strangers to share with you between three to five articles they read over the previous seven days. The articles they contribute can be a day old or a year old, they can be highly academic or light as a feather, they can be noteworthy for their originality of perspective or they can be utterly, delightfully derivative – the only criteria is that they found it interesting enough to recommend to you.

In previous weeks this used to be a videogame-centric collaboration insofar as anything contributors linked to had to potentially be at least tangentially of interest to a readership that tends towards the medium of games. My hope in outlining such a loose demand was to encourage people to contribute (and read) outside of our usual tiny corner of the world, in order to advance an interdisciplinary model of game criticism curation.

From this week onwards I’m completely dropping this criteria – now contributors can suggest any piece of text from any field without needing to justify it to videogame-centricism. What I hope to achieve with this is to promote a healthy, outward-looking diet, rather than contributing to an ouroboric critical culture. (I do enough of that in my own writing.)

To this end, I want to emphasise that you don’t need to be a game critic (or a game-anything) to contribute to This Week We Read: we accept guests from any field or discipline.

Contributing this week we have Zolani Stewart, Jess Hyland and Dom Peppiatt. If you’d like to volunteer as a contributor for next week’s post, you can of course contact me on twitter @stbeirne. Now, for articles exploring sculpture as an artform, the self-imposed indie dev caricature, and sound design in Dark Souls, on with the latest This Week We Read.


 

Zolani Stewart, Canada – Games and Art critic, Founding Editor of The Arcade Review, @Fengxii

Last Week, the Abstract Critical twitter account linked a pdf of the April 1969 Issue of the Metropolitatian Museum of Art Bulletin, and in it is a short and sweet piece of writing on the sculptures and paintings of Jules Olitski. Dissatisfied with the limitations of painting, Olitski used sculpture to explore the foundations of color and surface, and the relationships within color and shape, or what Kenworth Moffett calls “shaped surface.” It’s an engaging read, and a nice gateway for anyone new to criticism on abstract sculpture. And it even helps my own thinking on videogames and their relationship to abstraction and abstract art.

Exteunt Magazine is my current fix for great criticism on theatre and performance art. One of my favourites is Catherine Love’s really expertful review of “An Enemy of The People,” where she explores the show’s own political contradictions, and how they reflect the almost ironic struggle between the intellectual dissatisfaction with capitalist culture and the middle class desires formed by that culture.

At Ricochet, Canada’s newest independent Left publication, Andrea Houston writes a *crucial* piece on the racism that was rampant during Toronto’s Election Campaigns, an issue mostly overshadowed by Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual abuse case.

And lastly, there have been some debates in the black intellectual blogosphere about the term “politically black” and its uses. Here is Nathan Richards arguing caution for the term, claiming that its use has been a tool for non-white non-black scholars to gain credibility in ethnic studies off the backs of black scholars who have less opportunity, and responding is the blog Native Species on how these claims are unfounded, and the assumption of identities trying to climb over others plays into cynical perspectives on identity politics. Obviously I appreciate these kinds of nuanced debates on racial identity/politics that go beyond what I tend to read in the U.S left writing. Here identity is acknowledged as more of a complex, nuanced space than it is a strict grid of identities that operate under strict understandings of how we think power works. It was somewhat refreshing reading it, so I encourage anyone interested to take a look.

Jess Hyland, UK – character artist; @floofyscorp; www.floofyart.co.uk

Cliff Harris’s description of the young, hipstery ‘indie game developer’ stereotype made me squirm a bit, but only because it’s so familiar. He’s raising an interesting point – are indies really as diverse as we like to think they are? Are we missing out on potentially valuable contributors to the indie games space just because they don’t fit the profile, because they aren’t accessible enough?

Have you ever come across a piece of fan-musings that paper over the disappointing elements of a work in a way that just makes you really smile? The total absence of dwarf women in Tolkien’s writings is something that always felt wrong to me, but these fans building their own interesting reasonings for it brightened my day right up.

I’m fairly sure almost everyone on Earth is sick to the back teeth of GamerGate by now, but this long, slightly rambling essay by Film Crit Hulk (which you may want to translate into sentence case with this tool) is heartfelt and somehow brimming with empathy for almost everyone ensnarled in the controversy.

A three-part article by Tim Schneider which is unusual, to me at least, in comparing trends in videogame art to those in fine art. Having never encountered my medium being taken quite so seriously before, I was delighted to read about the debate, both then and now, over the goal of visual fidelity versus aesthetic appeal. History repeats itself, in pixels as in paint.

Dom Peppiatt, England – games journalist – games™, SciFi Now; gamestm.co.uk, @dompeppiatt

John Hopson – a triple-A game design veteran and lead researcher for Bungie – writes about Behavioural Game Design back in 2001: an interesting read when you consider the majority of addictive qualities mentioned have been wrangled to fit into Bungie’s Destiny, over a decade later. A concise and clear breakdown of how developers see their audiences psychologically, and relevant in relation to how Bungie has managed to hook over 9.5 million players on its newest MMO-FPS hybrid.

Nissa Campbell gives a rundown of Red’s personal arc (Transistor) in Finding Her Voice, eloquently deconstructing what it is for a games writer to tinker with self-awareness and metafiction for a protagonist in a game that otherwise plays its narrative straight. Observed with a feminist slant and – if you want to read it a certain way – gaming’s obsession with the power of the phallic icon.

I also happened upon David Canela’s The Sound Of Dark Souls – a reflection on how the sound design/musical direction in From’s seminal action-RPG emphasizes the game’s structure. Describing how a binary musical skeleton and seemingly random rebellions against its own aural rules allows the developer to create an unsetting kind of dread you can’t put your finger on at first. Worth a read for anyone interested in psychogeography, in real or virtual worlds.


That wraps it up for the latest TWWR, folks. Once again, if you’d like to volunteer as a contributor in next week’s post give me a shout on twitter @stbeirne. Thanks for reading and have a good week.

 


 

And you with it, speck of dust

And you with it speck of dust

[Endgame spoilers for Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2 to follow.]

As I prepared to sit down and finally write this piece, I did a quick Google search for the key words “Dark Souls” and “nihilism”. I thought I might get one or two hits with the game loosely orbiting the themes of existentialism, since that’s what usually happens when you go looking for specific matches of a game to a theme. But this time was different. The first, I don’t know, ten results wore their investment to the subject matter on their titles: Dark Souls through Sartre and Camus, Kierkegaard and Dark Souls 2, Dark Souls as a nihilistic manifesto.

Well. These are writers who clearly take their jobs seriously, who know what they’re talking about. Just that in itself can be quite daunting—you need a certain level of emotional investment to live up to the standards they’re setting for you as a reader. Maybe you don’t need to know any Camus or Kierkegaard before going in, they’ll explain everything as you’ll need it, but you still have to retain everything they’re throwing at you if you want to satisfy your end of the bargain. And it’s heavy stuff, trying to collapse decades-worth of a fellow’s life work down to a few summary paragraphs, trying to make sense of such a big thing as existentialism at the same time as relating as messy a videogame as Dark Souls.

But sure, it’s not just Dark Souls—every videogame is messy. They’re enormously complicated machines of narrative and function. That they’re often made by so many people, they’re the product of so many different societal factors that smudge and obfuscate and interrelate and form entirely new spheres of interaction. At one of their basest levels they speak languages we’re still puzzling out ways to decode. In a cultural space where half of us are yet figuring our arse from our elbows, officially speaking, as to what, in actuality, a videogame is.

It’s tiring stuff. And true to form, after reading a bunch of these articles, I was wrecked. I felt exhausted even keeping up with the gist of what they were saying. In that, they’re children of the medium, at least. I think there might be a vein in games criticism that values this capacity to affect exhaustion, if only to pay homage to the source. As I typed that out it was a joke, but the longer I stare at it…

You’ve already gathered that I overcame my exhaustion and took to writing my piece. I could say that this was all an allegory for themes of existentialism in Dark Souls, insofar as I stumbled face first into paralysis and dread at the sight of my physical, intellectual and spiritual limitations, but eventually climbed these obstacles and exerted this aspect of myself triumphantly. I could say that, and thematically it would be very nice if it was true. If there are any themes of existentialism in the preceding story, it is only through the accident that I am a person who exists. Which might be enough to prove the point, but since we’re getting into the realm of telling a story about my story, let’s not. Continue reading