Search Results for: dark souls

Why I still play Spelunky

Piano lessonI strikes me as a bit counterintuitive that I would enjoy Derek Yu’s Spelunky as much as I do, while I remain estranged from Dark Souls. Aren’t both games super-cruel dungeon crawls, presenting maddeningly difficult challenges while swiftly and severely punishing the slightest error? Perhaps, but they do so with practically opposite attitudes towards the player, a difference suggested by — but much deeper than — the two games’ radically different aesthetics.

Dark Souls treats player error as player failure. Like a draconian music teacher, when you misstep it cuffs you on the ear, sends you back to the start, and growls do it again. Over and over, from the top, until you get it right, or until your hour in the conservatory’s up and it sends you home with a sigh and a vague admonition to practice every day, making it clear with its tone that it knows you won’t.

Sure, this is fair — the notes are right there on the page, after all! You’re either playing them or you’re not, and when you’re not, you have introduced a state of objective error that has spoiled the whole performance, invalidating all your most recent effort. Eventually you’ll do this so many times that — if you’re like me — you’ll start feeling rather distant and disconnected from your past motivation for starting play.

This is not Spelunky’s way. Spelunky joyously scrambles up its world before every play, refusing to provide a rote book for you to follow, and instead handing you a crazy Burroughsian cut-up of a platformer level based on a capricious randomizer which the game itself seems barely in control of. While Spelunky has the visual trappings of an adventure game, I would argue it lies closer in spirit to a pinball game. Like a well-designed pinball table, the layout of a Spelunky level is inherently fair — there’s always a clear path from the start to the exit, littered with eminently surmountable obstacles. But the player’s by-definition unfamiliarity with the level, fresh from the procedural engine, plays the same role as physics does in pinball. While theoretically in total control of the game’s wholly deterministic world, the fallible player is guaranteed to slip up and either drain the ball or deposit the on-screen adventurer onto a bed of spikes, respectively.

Crucially, Spelunky responds to this eventuality by immediately crashing the curtain down with its game-over screen, sharing in a morbidly celebratory tone how well you did this time. Yay! it cries. You just finished another game of Spelunky! Did you have fun? Wanna play again? This is not a game that gapes in mock astonishment that you still haven’t gotten it right, nor will it speculate out loud that perhaps you’ve forgotten which part you’re supposed to blow into. Rather, Spelunky is all about mastery through iterative play. For all its on-screen depictions of death and dismemberment, its high-score tables and clever earned-shortcut system emphasizes the player’s own high-water marks, rather than their most recent mistakes.

As I write this, I know that I can get through the introductory mine levels without problem during most plays, a feat that seemed quite impossible when I was new to the game. While the subsequent jungle levels usually chew me up, I have seen the brutal ice caves that follow them at least a few times, and I know that in time even they will start to feel familiar. How different this feels than Dark Souls, which encourages worry and obsession between play sessions over the current obstacles between the player and the endgame, challenges that they’ll have to throw themselves against again and again until they finally nail it.

I have to admit it: for me, the prospect of mastering Dark Souls involved awakening an certain long-dormant internal voice muttering that my parents are paying good money for this, by god, and why would I have asked for the trombone purchased the game if I didn’t seem to care about playing it right? I realize that not every player would find themselves similarly encumbered. But Spelunky, for all its various surface similarities, does not stir these feelings, even though I must have “lost” at Spelunky an order of magnitude more times than in Dark Souls. This suggests a fundamental difference that isn’t just about me, and tells me with certainty which of the two instruments I’d sooner recommend picking up.

Image credit: a cropped still from David O’Reilly’s amazing, variably tasteful, and entirely not-safe-for-work short film The External World.

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Dark Souls: Pain without Pause

4300012375_05c6e3171b.jpgI’d like to follow up on that last post about Dark Souls, providing a little more context for my reaction. While it occurred against a backdrop of environmental stress that was probably incompatible with such an unusually demanding game, I find the real trigger to lie with a single, curiously underreported feature of this work.

No essay about Dark Souls I encountered before this week has mentioned its lack of a pause button. Pressing start on the controller summons up an equipment-swap overlay where you can futz around your character’s belongings in typical RPG fashion, but it does not stop the in-game action. The only way to make the game halt, even temporarily, involves quitting it entirely.

Thus, if the doorbell rings while your character is under assault and in danger of losing all your recent progress, you will have a certain choice to make. I found this design decision first perplexing, then fascinating. It seemed devilishly in-keeping with the game’s overall attitude of reward for those who learn to play by its rules, and utter disdain for anyone else. Oh, I’m terribly sorry, says Dark Souls to the player looking for the pause button. I thought you had come here to play. Clearly, I was mistaken. I do apologize. Why don’t you come back when you’re ready?

I understand that a rules constraint is also in play here; Dark Souls contains occasional real-time multi-player features, both cooperative and competitive, and pausing during these exchanges would certainly have an uncertain effect. But for most of the game your character is strictly alone in their world; you often see the flickering shadows of other players rushing past, but cannot interact with them in any way. And indeed, I never reached any true multiplayer segment, so as far as my own experience is concerned, the lack of a pause button serves only as another tool the game uses to mold the player into the correct mindset for disciplined play.

Searching specifically for other writers’ commentary on the missing button turned up posts on game-hobbyist web forums, for the most part, and these invariably had responses suggesting that the player desiring a short break simply park their character in a quiet spot. The game has no map-roaming enemies, so if nothing is actively attacking your character, then they can stand in place indefinitely, to no ill effect. The trouble comes during all those other times. And if you live with a loved one, or otherwise need to occasionally respond to real-world attention-calls, players of Dark Souls quickly find that those other times seem to invariably arrive at the worst times.

Allow me to cast this more personally. Years ago, I agreed to a Left 4 Dead play-ban while my partner was home and awake, because that she finds that game’s nonstop Grand Guignol audiovisuals quite irritating. (Frankly, I’d probably feel similarly if I lived with someone who played noisy shooters at all.) That was the only game we placed under such a restriction until last fall, when she asked me to make a similar agreement with Dark Souls — but not because of anything on the TV screen. Her objection instead stemmed from what would happen in the living room.

When playing this game, I became a cretin who would yell BOSS FIGHT! through the front door at his grocery-laden girlfriend, letting her fumble in the dark for her own keys, and unpack in the kitchen alone. I could not help but feel resentful that yet again she had the insensitivity to come home and distract me just when Dark Souls needed my attention the most. What, did she think I’d just happily let the Taurus Demon smash me into the parapet, making me lose all my loot, just to help put the eggs away? I would bite down this resentment when she returned to the living room to chat about the day, and all would be fine for a while — until I rounded a corner where, in thinking about dinner, I had forgotten another bad guy lurked, a half-second away from shoving me off a cliff. Unable to stop the action, I instead stopped the conversation, slamming it shut behind a door of wailed invectives as I desperately worked the controller. I might turn to continue the conversation once I’d settled that matter, but usually she’d left by then.

I’m really sorry about that, I’d say to the game, sheepishly, as I would after finally dismissing any annoying distraction. Where were we? The game would smile, and I felt grateful for its rare, cold forgiveness. We were really getting somewhere, the game and I. I kept playing.

The portcullis incident happened soon after my partner had, after putting up with this for several days, asked me to arrange my Dark Souls play-schedule so as to keep my insufferableness to myself. I stand by every word of my previous post — my feelings at the time of the incident ran just as described. However, being so recently made aware of the effect the game had on my personality, it’s likely that I was semi-consciously seeking a reason to take an indefinite break from the game anyway.

The reader must here trust me that the transformation that would overcome me did not represent how I usually play games. If I usually turned into a nasty, raving jerk over games, I’d long since have either stopped playing them or lost all my friends, and in neither case would this blog exist. This leaves me, then, to wonder why this would happen. I have several smart friends who played all the way through Dark Souls, and as far as I know they didn’t wreck their home-lives in the process. It could be that I am simply somehow incompatible with this game; perhaps it rubs against some unknowably deep-core bit of my personality in just the wrong way, producing a well of burbling acid to poison my normally sanguine demeanor. In which case, alas, I should just never play this game again.

But I think it’s more likely that I simply picked the wrong game to play at the wrong time. When I bought the game in early October, I had made it a third of the way through my semester of teaching a game-studies lab at Northeastern, a job that I found both vastly rewarding and surprisingly stressful. While billed as a part-time job, running the class soaked up nearly all my time and attention for those three months. With most of the semester still hanging over me, I had no head-space left for creative work (hence my total silence on this blog during that time) and precious little time for recreation.

One Sunday, on a whim, I hopped on a bus and picked up this game from the mall. I heard tell of it from both friends on Twitter and from some of my more apt students, and found myself immediately intrigued. I knew about its Playstation-exclusive predecessor, Demon’s Souls, from friends who loved it, as well as from Jeff Howard’s guest blogging on this very website. That an Xbox incarnation of that game had suddenly popped into existence took me by surprise, and it seemed like it might be just the thing to unwind with after a crushingly stressful day.

In retrospect, I now see how Dark Souls might have been a poor fit for that particular task.

The portcullis affair, in particular, occurred a few days after my laptop (along with a bunch of unique classroom materials I’d created) was stolen while I ate lunch at a Panera Bread near campus. While I’d eventually recover it, my time without it may have represented the apex of that semester’s stress level. So when that portcullis slammed shut, denying me even the fantasy of accomplishment at this game — a game that strained, I now knew, my relationship with my significant other — my desire to have any further truck with it also came crashing down. Dark Souls, I decided, was bad for me.

Whether it was bad for me just then or completely unworkable for me at all remains to be seen. I can offer none of this contextualization as an excuse for my behavior; I became an unpleasant jerk while playing this game, and that was awful and I never want to have that happen again. But I recognize all that is good about the game, just the same; I don’t really disagree with any of the comments from last week’s post. I still need time away from it, but maybe, when all that stress is long behind me, I can suit up and wade in again. With luck — and with assiduous use of my phone’s send-to-voicemail button — next time I can constrain my loss of Humanity points to the poor sap on the screen.

Image: Pause Button by Kevin Grocki, CC BY-NC-SA.

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When Dark Souls broke its contract

charlie_brown_lucy.jpgLast semester I found myself needing two copies of Xbox Left 4 Dead so that we could study that game in class. I already owned one, and feeling too lazy to requisition another from the university, I arranged a temporary trade for a friend’s copy. He requested Dark Souls in exchange, having observed my copious tweeting on that topic a few weeks before. The semester’s over now, and my friend had quickly found that Dark Souls wasn’t really his cup of tea. I’ll propose a lunch to reverse the exchange sometime, but I’m in no particular hurry: I don’t really want to see Dark Souls in my house again, let alone in my game console.

To say I don’t like the game would be an oversimplification bordering on falsehood; in fact, the game brought me many hours of enjoyment, and I carry lasting fond memories of certain gameplay moments. As reports from friends filter in that they are finally finishing the game (it takes upwards of 100 hours to traverse), I think back to these moments, and the chance that I’ll give it another look someday rises above absolute zero. But this can’t happen in the near future: my relationship with this game ended so disastrously that it’s really better for both of us to avoid contact for a long time.

I must risk sounding melodramatic to explain why this game so profoundly unsettled me: I had never felt such purely negative emotion about a videogame in my adult life as I did at the moment when Dark Souls betrayed my trust.

The contract between the game and myself was simple, and should prove familiar to anyone who has played or even read about the game: play very conservatively, and you will find reward. One of the first things I read about the game described it as a critique of the power-gamer fantasy present in most single-player action-adventure games. Contrary to expectations set by games such as Arkham Asylum or, indeed, Left 4 Dead, rushing into a mob of common bad guys will almost always result in the player-character’s demise: one solid hit from even a weak enemy sends your character reeling, defenseless against further abuse from any other nearby enemies, who will not hesitate to dish it out. Watching your scary armed-and-armored warrior get torn to shreds by a trio of naked, gibbering wretches is quite humbling, and teaches the player quite effectively that, unlike most other games in its genre, being outnumbered is not a setup for a cinematic brawl that will let the player vicariously exult in the main character’s superheroic prowess. Rather, it’s something to flee from, desperately looking for higher ground or narrower footing, so as to instead confront the baddies one at a time.

This fascinated me, and I bought into it. After the shock of initiation into the game’s reality — the tutorial level is less on-ramp than boot camp, pulling no punches as it beats any action-adventure preconceptions out of your gut — I found myself even enjoying it. This process involved a small but real personal transformation, at least while I was in Dark Souls’ world; I had to unlearn and relearn so much about playing videogames like this, and to take nothing for granted and to focus entirely on the game while I played. Significantly, the game has no pause button, so I needed to coldly ignore (or irritatedly dismiss) any real-life requests for attention or assistance. Dark Souls insists that if you’re going to give it any of your attention, you’re going to give it all of your attention, until you win or you fail. This outrageous attitude only fascinated me more; I was hooked.

As I learned to play by its rules, very slowly, Dark Souls started to reward me. I still recall the thrill I felt when, after hours of play, I found a wooden shield better than the junky, broken one you begin the story with; it was as if my harsh taskmaster casually grunted a compliment at me for the first time. Much later, when I finally bought a reasonably powerful attack spell, and had a fairly good understanding of the world’s initial areas, I felt like I was finally starting to approach the game as a peer.

The betrayal took place at the start of a planned evening with the game, the day after an especially enjoyable and (I thought at the time) successful sally through the sprawling early set of levels called the Undead Burg. After many trials, I had finally wound my way to the other side of a certain portcullis not far from a central save-point, finding a lever there that raised it. I took this as a clear signal that I had completed that area, and opened up a new one. I could see more bad guys waiting beyond, but at this point I had played Dark Souls long enough to know better than press my luck and charge on in: when you die, you permanently lose all the “souls” (experience points, basically) gained since the start of your session, and I was too laden with spoils to risk that. I chose instead to stick to the contract: I retreated, back through the portcullis and to the save point, calling it a night.

At the start of my next session, I reentered the space with the open portcullis; the usual array of enemies surrounded it. (That all enemies you have slain come back to life every time you save the game — or get yourself killed — is one of the first things you learn, so this came as no surprise.) But something new happened this time: as soon as they saw me round the corner, several of the goons in the distance turned and ran through the open gate, towards that lever. A second later, the gate slammed shut. And then the auto-save icon flickered in the corner of the screen, confirming that my progress across the map from the previous evening had been tidily erased from the single save-slot that the game allows you.

As a young teenager, I would sometimes get very angry at videogames. I threw controllers and shouted and carried on just horribly when I spent a month’s allowance to buy Golgo 13 (which looked so cool in “Nintendo Power”) only to discover how ugly and mean it was, or when the hated Blue Wizrobes in The Legend of Zelda made their first appearance, shifting up the game’s difficultly level by a quantum.

In retrospect, of course, I see these as childish reasons to become upset; as an adult, I recognize these rather as reasons to take a break, or at worst to give up and move on to something more worthwhile. Like all well-adjusted gamers past a certain age, as I get older I tend to be much choosier about the games I spend my time with. In Dark Souls, I thought I had found something rare and remarkable, worthy of investing long hours into its exploration and eventual mastery.

In one stroke, with a clatter of chains and an echoing thud, it showed me how just much it respected my investment.

Part of me still expecting an evening of play, I mechanically stumbled on for a few minutes more, like a body that doesn’t realize its brain is dead. My fighter engaged the foes as usual, but the fight had gone out of us. Slowly, deliberately, I placed the controller back on the coffee table, and stood. My character lowered her shield, and stood also. Her enemies wasted no time, and she was already sighing her familiar death-moan — losing the precious powerups that we had won the previous day — as I stooped to press the console’s power button. Then I crossed to the bedroom and sat, silently, as my partner asked what happened. It took several minutes to find the words to even begin describing my feelings, then. I managed a little more on Twitter the next day, and I finally try to express it in full, today, months later.

I found the event a two-pronged insult. Bad enough that the game proposed I re-conquer the same section of the Undead Burg again, repopulated with the exact same enemies and challenges, as if the previous evening’s hours of play had never happened. But the setback came not as a result of foolishness on my part. It would have been one thing had I slipped up, or gotten too cocky, and allowed my character to die; at this point I had long since accepted swift and costly death as the game’s constant risk, perhaps even its central pacing mechanism. But I didn’t die; after winning a little bit of ground, I fell back to regroup, so that I might fight some more another day. I was following the rules. I had maintained my end of the contract to the letter. And then, through the use of wholly unclued events — enemy characters had never before this shown any interest in the environment, lever-pulling or otherwise — the game made up a new reason for failure, on the spot. Lucy pulled away the football, grinning, and as I lay there stunned she invited me most sincerely to try again.

A little out-of-band reading revealed the correct path in this area. The lever is an outright ruse; one is supposed to press on past it, finding an elevator that actually performs the permanent map-expansion that the portcullis pretends to offer. But while I did start up the game once or twice after that, with my skills perhaps dulled by resentment, I never came close to replicating my feat of reaching that area a second time. The more I thought about it, the less sure I became that I even wanted to actually succeed and continue. Now that the contract lay broken, I had no assurance that the game wouldn’t pull similar or worse maneuvers on me in the future. Why would I willingly walk into that? Friends on Twitter understood my plight but urged me to continue anyway, insisting that this event was an anomaly, or that the game front-loads all this sort of player-griefing to its earliest stages. I appreciated the sympathy, but it all came too late: I had been well and truly burned, and just couldn’t play the game in good faith any longer.

I do not regret the time I spent playing Dark Souls. It really did impress me that a solitaire videogame experience could make me feel real-life betrayal, and my experience as a game critic is richer for it. One of my friends, while in the midst of an ultimately victorious Dark Souls traversal, commented that they found it an excellent videogame adaptation of an abusive relationship. The portcullis affair made me feel I knew just what they meant. The game knew that it still had what I wanted, and waited for me to pick myself up and crawl right on back for more. It took an act of will to loan away the disc instead, my way of turning and walking out with my head held high. Perhaps it’s better that my copy of the game stays, unplayed, in someone else’s house for a while longer.

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