Souls Without Darkness

fiddler-on-a-roof-image

My work is community funded. If you like like what you see and wish to support me, please consider visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

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?

Advertisements

Thoughts on nearby covers

Thoughts on some covers - Alien Trilogy

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

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

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

Level 99 Capitalist

When Crytek Nottingham announced they would be releasing Homefront: The Revolution, a game where grassroots American militia engage in guerrilla warfare against North Korean occupiers, they told Debbie Timmins of The Average Gamer that they don’t want to make it political. This, the sequel to a title whose marketing department spent a fair share of energy trying to convince everyone it was written by the hand that wrote Apocalypse Now and Red Dawn. It’s hard for me to say whether the original Homefront quite lived up to that conceit—I played just one level and never returned—but given how it so swiftly tumbled into obscurity, I’m going to hazard a guess at “not very”. So, this time around, Crytek Nottingham are nipping that in the bud: this game with a politicized setting, from a series with politicized marketing, will not have a politicized narrative.

Meanwhile, a few weeks prior, Nintendo fell over themselves to adopt the same stance. By pure fluke, Tomodachi Life originally released with the option of same-sex relationships, but as soon as Nintendo caught the error they patched it out. In doing so they thought they were restoring the world to its rightful state, a world without gay people, thereby describing their ideal of family friendliness as heteronormative and implicitly homophobic. To not patch it out, however, might have been seen as progressive and accepting or at least tolerant of homosexuality (heaven forbid), so they went ahead and toed the line they’ve always toed.

In that moment, the company found itself in that impossible position of having taken a political stance simply by acknowledging an issue exists. The truth of the matter goes deeper: even if they had never accidentally made Tomodachi Life lovely and gay, it would have still been characterised as political by virtue of their intended heteronormativity, whether or not they were adopting that stance consciously.

It hasn’t been long since the marketers of gritty and politically inept titles had a go at spinning their ineptitude as thematically brilliant, I’ll believe you’ll find, even if nine times out of ten those feints at political themes turned out to be little more than opportunistic marketing techniques. Maybe now we’re starting to see a turn away from all that, as publishers and marketers are realising it does them little good in the long term to advertise their games as snake oil, a miracle cure-all for your narrative needs, and now instead are trying to entreat with the spirit of gaming yore and accept that they don’t have the wherewithal to deliver on promises of narrative intrigue.

And this is wonderful. It’s almost a breath of fresh air. Not because “we should let games be games” or some such dreadful truism, but because, look at how preposterous these statements are! Look at how these intrinsically political media texts trip and perfectly nut themselves on the fence they were trying to straddle, revealing their authors as mortally, irredeemably clumsy.

It’s not just that this approach of theirs, their fear of the political, is at least honest on their part when compared to that of the gritty snake oil salesmen, and so is less condescending. Though there is that—it’s a more pleasant way to be lied to. Moreover, it represents a slight change in the way these creators of art and entertainment view themselves and the world they operate within, a shift towards a future consciousness where their art and where all art is politically imbued, even if that shift is here marked by a very silly attempt at denying that future.

So I take great joy in these attempts to remain apolitical, because counter to substantiating the belief that such a thing is possible, they highlight the intrinsic capacity for politics within any media text of this nature and they show it to be inescapable. Much like Nintendo emphasising a political narrative merely by acknowledging it, such feeble bids to absolve themselves of responsibility only reveal the political narrative already latent in the text, whether it’s a wargame afraid to talk about war, or the limiting heteronormativity of a happy life simulator, or misogynistic plotpoints that publishers are suddenly finding themselves needing to be aware of, or a mindless action romp with delusions of satire, or any of the abundant examples that leap to mind.

In turn, attention flows from the politics of a game’s overt setting and plot to the politics of a game’s ludic narrative—the intrinsic meaning embedded within gameplay and its design, such as how Papers, Please lures you into becoming a dehumanizing bureaucrat, or the clash of BioShock Infinite’s gung-ho gunplay with its aspirations of criticising US patriotism. These archetypes of game design aren’t just suddenly political, they’ve always been political. Perhaps it’s more discrete because, well, designers have traditionally neglected to look for it.

By now it’s old hat for many games critics how prolonged exposure to the norms and values in our culture has ingrained them into our minds, and through us they seep back into the art we make, deepening, proliferating. How the politics we’re raised into affects our own, how our politics influences the media we enjoy, and vice versa. The payoff for the critic is in coming to recognize the little nuggets of culture in our media that were previously invisible, using this knowledge to better understand a game, and sharing with the community in order to collaborate towards building better games for everyone.

One such nugget, I think, is the ideology of capitalism as narrated by economic exchanges of labour and wealth, which takes shape in the design archetype of levelling up.

Mechanically and systemically, levelling up usually constitutes this: as the player achieves ludic goals, they’re rewarded with points or toys to increase their proficiency at completing future ludic goals. It’s a cute little economic process devised around accruing and storing wealth, since that’s what experience points represent: a quantitative measure of one’s power and successes, an abstract currency to be traded for self-improvement, although ‘self-improvement’ in this regard mainly extends to ‘improving one’s ability to collect currency.’

As a result of this abstraction of experience into a currency format, self-improvement and self-actualization become acts of consumerism. The more a game’s design succeeds at hooking players into a consumerist mindset, the more addictive it becomes—it feeds into a hole in our lives created by the needless want for more possessions, an avarice necessary for capitalism to function but which must remain perpetually unfulfilled. Here in the virtual world it has almost the scent of an achievable goal, so we often pursue it as a substitute solution for the unhappiness in our lives. The game serves as a power fantasy and a narrative fantasy, but also as an economic fantasy for the attribution of possessions-as-personal growth.

So, if we consider the process of levelling up as a capitalist narrative, what does it describe? Capitalism is founded upon an exchange of labour for wealth, where labour is the product of a labourer to be bought and used by others in pursuit of their own wealth. In terms of a videogame, labour would be the activities involved in generating the player’s wealth, such as combat in Final Fantasy IX and questing in Skyrim. Much of the time these activities aren’t inherently enjoyable but still we tolerate them for the rewards, accepting them as part and parcel of the labour trade agreement between ourselves and the game. There’s already the linguistic likening of the labour of combat in a JRPG as a grind similar to a dreary 9-to-5 job: just put in the hours, you can enjoy yourself on the weekend.

In this exchange of labour for wealth, you farm baddies to be able to better farm baddies. Baddies in this sense are little more than little packets of experience points waiting to be freed up and collected by the player. As one ingests food for physical nourishment, we slaughter enemies and absorb their remains—their loot and experiential value in Final Fantasy IX, their souls in Demon’s Souls (since the game has the head on it to make the exchange properly sinister). In the scheme of capitalism they’re nary more than resources waiting to be cracked open and consumed, and through their consumption the player-character grows more fulfilled as a person, stronger, as their skills develop they become more capable, more wizened.

Societies that have become enamoured with capitalism dictate that the more numbers a person has in their bank account, the higher they’re elevated above their fellow humans in terms of social status and legal freedom. Similarly, the more money they have, the more free time they have within which to spend it and enjoy life, since money is a prerequisite for this, so spiritual actualization is linked to the privileges unlocked through wealth. Not so with those affected by poverty, who are shamed for their lack of success within the system and depicted as villains, wastrels, parasites—scapegoats for social woes. Poor folk instead have to find contentment in their work, short of which perhaps solace might be scrounged from thoughts of them being the lifeblood or soil of society, or God’s chosen people, or whatever other transcending fancy that makes it easier survive a humble living.

Levelling up has the best of both worlds. On one hand, the process of labouring is valued as core to the game’s entertainment factor, even in games where the addictiveness barely serves as a haze to conceal the soul-destroying monotony of the labour transfer—games like Borderlands. And on the other hand, it produces such wonderful fruits as to render the player undeniable as a profiteer, through rewards like thousands and millions of experience points or wonderful, beautiful weapons only available to the most exclusive of this world’s warriors. By entreating the player as both a labourer and a profiteer, it humours them as successful capitalists without really elevating them above their current station, and points towards the exchange of labour as the source of their fulfilment. Maybe so that they may learn to accede to the benevolence of capitalism in the real world.

By amassing experience points the act of labouring is an act of growing as a person through accumulation of external wealth, a sort of imaginary cyborgization via capital. It’s not about learning lessons and emotionally maturing and growing mentally content with one’s lot and comfortable in one’s existence, which are usually the things we attribute to self-fulfilment, because these things are not measurable through a capitalistic exchange of labour. Instead, self-fulfilment is narrated within the cyclic act of labouring and consuming: “in consuming you find happiness, so consume!”

In her 2014 GDC talk, Lana Polansky identified this narrative as inherent to the capitalist doctrines surrounding winning and losing, win states and fail states. This limits the experiences games can offer a player by virtue of the difficulty in measuring and quantifying things like interpersonal, emotional connections and gamifying them as rewards. Polansky remarks, however, that by subverting the obsession with metrics and win states, games can deliver us to a point of epiphany where these intensely valuable human experiences actually manifest. And it’s simply by ceasing to treat the player as a happy, obedient vessel for capitalism, and instead consider them as a human soul.

Polansky’s talk is largely focused on addressing attempts at instilling legitimate emotional experiences in games through the use of capitalist metrics, so the solutions she provides are with this scope in mind. But like Polansky, I believe that alternative models of growth, be it personal growth or growth in one’s expertise, already exist in games on a whole through the use of epiphany (e.g. grasping and internalizing game logic in Portal) and the natural development of one’s skill at a task (e.g. honing tactics in Demon’s Souls).

So what’s the benefit of seeing all this in this way? Knowing that systems of levelling up are but one way to represent character growth can be beneficial for designers when choosing what structures to put into their game. And being able to recognize that design archetypes are also narrative structures can enable greater harmony between a game and its authors: does the capitalist narrative fit in with the intended themes or does it clash? Do you want to represent the freeing of slaves as a gathering of collectibles and currency, with the act of ‘liberating them’ little more than an exchange of their ownership?

Whether you want them to or not, these narratives exist within games as a matter of fact and interpretation. A lot of the time, they’re political. The irony of denying it is that, in hiding from the consequences of your actions, you inherently make a political statement and the narrative you were trying to deny as apolitical becomes irrevocably political anyway. But it was always political, as are we, by virtue of having been raised in politically-minded societies. Hopefully ten years from now we’ll all look back and laugh at the naivety, this desperate bid to remain impartial and exempt from the world around us.


 

 

This piece was community funded. If you liked this article, please consider supporting my writing by visiting my Patreon and becoming a patron.

Worldbuilding and Demon’s Souls: Boletaria’s present history

[Spoilers for Demon’s Souls, minor spoilers for Dark Souls.]

Demons souls and worldbuilding: Boletaria's present histor

If I were I to step outside my front door right now and walk twenty paces to my right, I’d find myself opposite the old mill in Celbridge. Over two hundred years ago it used to be the biggest wool manufactory in Ireland, an impressively huge building encapsulated by an enormous stone wall on the roadside. It overlooks the River Liffey, which, if you followed it, would send you all the way to Dublin bay and into the Irish sea, so whenever we go to feed the ducks we’ve a decent chance of locking eyes with the imposing building. Nowadays it’s used as a community centre–it hasn’t been a factory in decades, but it still carries the name as a sign of its history.

Opposite the mill is a pub with a sign in its window proudly declaring it as the establishment where Arthur Guinness brewed his first beer, Celbridge being his hometown. If I step out from my front door and walk left instead of right I’ll come across a statue of the man put up last year. A couple of minutes walking straight past the statue will lead me to Castletown House, Ireland’s biggest and oldest Palladian house, built for the politician William Conolly nearly 300 years ago. Everyone in Celbridge loves to walk their dogs around the mansion’s grounds so it’s pretty much a local fixture, a piece of history written into the normal way of the town’s landscape.

I doubt there’s a town in Ireland where you couldn’t say one thing or another along these same lines. Naas, where I lived for most of my life, derives its name from the Irish Nás na Rí as the place where the old kings of Leinster used to meet. My parents live in Rathangan, a small town wedged between the Slate river and the Grand Canal, owing a lot of its architecture to the tastes of the folk who worked on the latter. I just now found out Jedward grew up in Rathangan, so we have that in common.

Easy as it is to spot the history in Ireland, I’d hazard the same can be said for wherever it is you grew up or wherever you live now, that your locale has a sense of place hinting towards what it might have been, once upon a time. There’s a 600 year old yew in Maynooth  where Silken Thomas spent his life’s last night of freedom, but to near everyone who passes it on the way to class everyday it’s just a big fat tree. It’s the kind of thing that’s easy to overlook or that you just internalise without thinking, especially if you were born and raised being told about this or that piece of living history without having the years yet to properly understand it.

So I like seeing this sense of place carried through to worlds in fiction. It helps to make them feel more substantial and more relatable than just being empty places put in to fill a narrative gap, or in the case of most games, a corridor for you to shoot more guys or a side room to stage a lonely chest. It’s especially vital for games dependant on worldbuilding to project this sensation, since their narrative flounders or flourishes on the sensibility and believability of their world design. How a game’s environment’s are designed isn’t only important in terms of them as a playing field, it’s also a huge component of latent narrative design.

I’ve always thought Demon’s Souls was quite good at acknowledging and reflecting this, since it relies heavily on environmental storytelling to add depth to its relatively simple plot. It’s fortunate that the environments demand a fair amount of your attention if you ever want to reach the end of the game–you’ve the fact that they’re laid out kind of like a music sheet where you have to remember locations and types of enemies and recite combat tactics appropriate to the area, and on top of that they’re like puzzles with the importance of discovering and unlocking shortcuts to facilitate your safe passage. Since there’s so much value to poking and prodding every inch to see what it grants you, these aspects give Demon’s Souls‘ environments a great sense of weight. So it’s wonderful that this degree of scrutiny and attention is rewarded by uncovering narrative detail through the game’s organic flow. Continue reading