Why I Love: Dark Souls

Death and Conflict

For clarity, I played Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition, not the Remaster.

Dark Souls.  What a troubled game.  Remember when I talked about that toxic culture in the article Why I Love: Celeste?  Well, I’m not going to talk about that here.  We get it.  

Dark Souls is an action RPG with paced combat.  The absolutely fantastic artistic direction makes this fantasy game very beautiful and interesting.  It is brutally difficult and challenging.  Wait, did I say brutally difficult?  I meant, it’s brutally different.

I played through so much frustration thinking to myself, “I just need to get good.  I just need to practice.  Everyone says this game is so hard so I just gotta train myself to be more skilled.” 

After a series of frustrating boss fights, I told a friend, who is really into Dark Souls, “This game is just stressful and frustrating.  There is a limit to certain design elements that just make it seem lazy.” 

And he replied by saying, “ No, it’s just eccentric.”

I continued my argument of game design, but I also continued to give his side more thought.  And then after more frustrating failures against the enemies of Dark Souls, it finally dawned on me.  Earlier in the game my friend said that I just wasn’t good enough.  Which was not very nice of him to say, but now he said something different that was the solution to everything.  The game isn’t hard.  It’s just different.

And then everything clicked.  The game isn’t difficult.  It’s just different.  Here I was floundering about for hours without end because all I was trying to do was get better, when in reality I was supposed to just learn how to play differently.  Dark Souls went from “the thing I’m trying to enjoy” to “the thing I am enjoying a lot.”

I think the whole idea of this game being super insanely difficult really dug into my mind and misguided me. Dark Souls is hard, yes, but I think one of the things that could be more important against certain aspects of the game is that sometimes it’s more about how you go about doing things, rather than how good you play.  It’s more about thinking of different ways, than being more skilled.  I rooted out the idea of not being good enough, and replaced it with, when, what, and how should I do anything.  Or…if I should anything at all.  If I should just watch and think.  I think the problem is that I was so used to just getting better and better at doing the main thing in a game, like jumping, aiming and shooting, using combos and elements, or building in better patterns.  So while skill is important in Dark Souls I think there is a process of interpretation that is just as important.  

Dark Souls’ main game mechanic is that when you die you leave behind your souls, which acts as both experience and currency.  If you don’t spend your souls on stat points or items in stores, you are prone to dropping them upon death.  After you respawn, you must go and grab your souls.  However, all the enemies respawn, and should you die again, that old pile of souls despawn to make way for your new corpse’s souls.  

I played through the game with a broken controller, and which button was the broken one?  Ah yes…  the block button.  So I was extremely frustrated playing as a melee character.  The block button only worked some of the time, and “sometimes” is not a good way to go about blocking.

I struggled a lot in the beginning.  I didn’t know my block button was broken yet.  I thought it was me being terrible, but once I realized that I found out how to rely on the times when the button did work.  I did this by holding down the block button when it worked so I don’t have to risk pressing it again only to not raise up my shield.  And if my shield was down, staying out of combat until the time when pressing it did work.  A bit dreadful.

And the second thing is time.  I hate wasting time.  I don’t like sleeping.  I don’t like taking breaks.  And I especially do not like my souls going down the drain after killing a boss.  See, in games like rogue-lites and other RPGs your exp and new unlocks/equipment are always a little step forward after you die.  Even if you die, the time spent is usually accounted for by loot or some exp leftover after an exp loss.  Or maybe you unlocked a new item.  But in Dark Souls…they dump your time into the abyss.  And that makes me really upset. 

Until.  Until I realized that is exactly what Super Mario Bros did to me as a wee child.  Because in old Super Mario Bros and in Dark Souls, sometimes the only thing you have after your death is the skill you gained in playing and nothing else.  Personally, I think this was the biggest thing to overcome for me in my entire playthrough.  It was understanding how to not be frustrated with myself.  This is something that I have trouble with all the time in real life.  If I am not showing progress, I get really upset and sad (or angry).  But Dark Souls is like any other game concerning how it handles your time.  And if you’re not looking at the right way to go about things, whether it’s getting more skilled, being patient with yourself or the game, or learning how to interpret the game, I think it can be pretty frustrating.

Someone else questioned me about why I was trying to play a game that made me so angry in the first half when I was not enjoying it.  And honestly, the thing that kept me going, were the boss designs.  Wow. Most, if not all, of the boss designs are just so good.  From an art standpoint, they’re designed so well.  It gives me goosebumps.  They’re innovative, yet clear.  They’re themed and emotional.  So, that’s what pushed me.  I just really wanted to see these things and fight them.  In the half of the game where I learned to enjoy it, it became a joyful experience to have a new enemy to learn to understand. 

I guess this can feel like an enormously large and vague explanation of why I love Dark Souls, but it all ends well I believe.  I think the whole game is an unconventional way of allowing the player to interpret how to approach enemies without having systemic game design like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Dishonored.  And I honestly really like it.  The semi-open world feel fits well too.  I think it takes the idea of “every enemy is different” from games like The Legend of Zelda series far enough to make you have to work hard for it.  To die for it in many cases.

And so that kind of leads to my last points.  I’d like to make a statement about “souls-likes”.  I hate when people develop a game just for it’s difficulty, because it creates a very toxic environment.  There have been a plethora of souls-like games that try to copy the formula and many of them do not do it well.  I think they put too much focus on the game being hard or having slow and/or paced combat.  I really don’t think those are the things that make a souls-like game.  I think the souls system makes a souls-like.  I don’t think any of the previously mentioned aspects are without purpose in Dark Souls.  The game is difficult, but in a way of design and approach.  The game is slow and paced, but in a way of allowing you to observe, think, and react.  And the souls system backs up the paced combat, forcing you to do those aforementioned things because your experience is on the line.  

And…. maybe that’s just it.  It doesn’t do things “just because.”  It’s different for the sake of game design, and not just for being different.  Dark Souls is so great because it is so deliberate.  And the way it’s designed makes it so we have to be deliberate in everything that we do in the game.  That kind of design is what makes some of the hardest games I’ve played challenging, and not frustrating.  And Dark Souls has managed that in possibly one of the best ways I’ve ever seen.

Dark Souls: Prepare to Die Edition is #82 on the Ultimate Loosely Thought Ranked Analysis, or the ULTRA, which is basically my top games list.  I guess at this point is getting less and less loosely thought.

Thanks for reading, and I hope that Dark Souls doesn’t turn out to be a toxic or super frustrating experience for you if you play it. As much as I am not wont to say it, take breaks if you need to.

Blast that broken block button though.
– Elise

Why I Love: Celeste

Humble Beginnings, Humble Endings

My Introduction to Indie and Thanks to Maddy Thorson

Sorry for the hiatus.  I had an unfortunate episode with something, but now I am back and hopefully that doesn’t happen again.

The origins for me loving Celeste go all the way back to when I was young and indie games were a super niche thing.  My family didn’t have a lot of money, so games were a special occasion.  However, I began to wander the internets for more games that I could get for free and stumbled upon indie games.  The ones that really stuck to me were a group of developers that seemed to be connected.  A lot of them proved to be so in a website that, unfortunately, no longer operates today: the eo community.  Then from there my interest in indie skyrocketed.

One game I obsessed over was released a couple months before I got into all of it: Jumper 2.  I was tired of the glitchy platformers that inhabited many indie websites, but when I found Jumper I was so excited because platformer games were the thing back then.  The graphics were great and the game wasn’t glitchy.  The main character is a failed experiment named Ogmo, who looks like a red block with legs.  Ogmo is adorable and I love him so much. I bet I can find sketches of him in the margins of old school notebooks if I somehow have not thrown them away yet.

And that was it.  I was sucked into the world of indie games.  I made levels in the editor all the time.  I wasn’t super good at platformers, but I think I managed to make it an okay distance through the game while not being pro.  I have followed Maddy Thorson’s career ever since.  I even got my friends to play Jumper: Redux on LAN.   I’ve seen how Thorson grew over time in their designs and it has been an incredible journey.

And then Celeste was released and it took me a long while to play that one.  I was bogged down in everything in life.   Eventually Celeste was being given for free on Epic Games Store.  It brought a renewal of attention, so I decided I would finally play it.  I am immensely grateful for this game.

Why I Love Celeste

Celeste is not an easy game, and it is not a hard game either.  In fact, I don’t know what to say about difficulty in Celeste.  For me, the difficulty curve is the prime example of well done difficulty curves.  And yet, I can say that it was not easy.  

Good video game design usually involves teaching the player without having them read blocks of texts or having them look at a video.  But I would like to propose the idea that Celeste takes good design one step further than pretty much any other game I’ve ever played so far.  The game is humble.  This is not because the game is modest in content or gameplay or anything.  The movement designed in the game is insanely well done.  No, this game is humble because it feels more like a teacher and it feels more like a human, than any game that attempted psychological strategies (or even tricks in the case of some horror games) that I’ve ever played.

Celeste already does the established good designs with good level layouts and quick respawn with little consequence.  Through the game’s story and mood, the game helps you with one more thing that so few games do: it wants you to improve and it makes that clear.  I’ve recently finished Dark Souls 1, and while the game has many good designs in it, the whole attitude and system it has encourages a strong culture of gatekeeping, which is a definite no-no.  There’s always the “You’re Not Good Enough, Scrub” attitude.  I said that it encourages, not creates.  While the culture definitely surrounds it, and I found friends whom I didn’t expect to be enveloped in it too, it does not create it.  Because of the universal struggle in the game, there have been good experiences with other players as well.  But I just can’t say that the culture of the game is good.  It unfortunately, just isn’t.  It wasn’t a good experience, but I’ll talk more about Dark Souls in its own “Why I Love.”  (So at least I still love it.)

Celeste successfully brings difficulty without that kind of attitude.  It shows its tough side with extra objectives and B-Sides to stages for those who want to push themselves to breaking limits, but it does all this with the note saying “You can do it,” or “If you want to.”  I don’t feel like this aspect is “weak” in any way.  In fact, I think it shows that it knows the player, or rather I should say, the person.  

The best professionals and inspirational people in my life are always the humble ones.  The ones that made it through without becoming hardened.  The ones that chose to stay soft so that they can truly uplift.  It is never the easier choice.  These are the kinds of people that when they teach, they teach with heart because they still choose to remember what it was like to struggle not only with the limited skill set of someone just beginning, but also the limited knowledge as well.  

The honor of their prestige is based on being able to share their experiences rather than boast about how others cannot get them.  I think this is what Celeste embodies, in both story and gameplay.  This is why I love Celeste.  The game is no slouch.  It will push you, but in a way that allows oneself to commit to learning and becoming better.  It teaches the player to push themselves more than the game pushes them.  That’s what I’m all about, I’m sure you know.  It is something that I hope that schools one day better integrate into their systems.  It is the optimistic hope that humans can be like that to help each other, because let’s face it, life is not easy alone.  

Celeste is #9 on the ULTRA.  Thanks for reading.  Stay safe out there.  I hope that we all can stay humble, remember to stay soft, and remember that it is not a weakness to help others.


– Elise

Why I Love: Alan Wake

Two Sides

I love Alan Wake, for the same reason a lot of people found it mediocre.  Alan Wake is a third-person action (shooter?) game.  Alan Wake, a writer of a thriller series, goes on vacation to a lake house, only to be haunted by shadowed entities that remind him of his own works.  He can expose and destroy these entities by shining a flashlight at them.  That’s mostly all you need to know about it for what I want to talk about today.  

It is a good game.  It is very crisp, and it feels like playing an episode of The Twilight Zone.  Were it not for good game design it probably wouldn’t be on the ULTRA.  But what I really like about this game is that it is truly a simple game about fighting the darkness, both outside and within.  

I don’t feel like Alan Wake is that psychological, but it’s what defeating darkness within sometimes feels like.  It feels helpless and frustrating (not game design-wise, just for Mr. Wake).  It feels like we’re in an episode of a TV show we can’t get out of.  Ultimately, it’s a fight of light and darkness.  We can also mean that literally because of his flashlight.

I remember when my brother and I were so excited for Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, and we were watching the trailer.  In the trailer Raynor says, “Because the one thing I know; some things are just worth fighting for.”  And I remember my brother saying something about how that is so, so cheesy.  I love cheesy things, and over time I’ve learned why I love cheesy things like that line or the fight between light and darkness.  I love cheesy things because they’re the most real, and Alan Wake emphasizes that in an age where we’re supposed to be so unique in themes.

The struggle against ourselves and knowing what is light in our lives is real.  That’s a real thing.  Knowing what you fight for?  That’s real.  “I’m doing this because I love you”?  I need that.  I wonder if the reason we don’t like cheesy things sometimes is because they remind us of what is real.  This is why I love Alan Wake.  We’re just some random person fighting to find their way out of the darkness. 

Isn’t that what most of us want to do?  We want to be a light to those around us.  We want to truly find light and what is good in all the travails of life and use it to banish the darkness.  When it comes to those that we love, isn’t that what we want to do for them?  It’s cheesy, but it’s true, and Alan Wake embraces it.  That is one of the big reasons why I love the game.

Alan Wake is #116 on the ULTRA.  I hope that we can all endeavor to be a light in the darkness especially during these strange times.  Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.
– Elise

Why I Love: Team Fortress 2

Less is More is Less

I said I would talk about some of the design side of video games.  I have been sitting on this idea for almost two weeks, because the more I think about it the more I realize this is such a big chunk of something that I do not believe I have the skill capacity to do so.  I may have bitten off more than I can chew, but even more so, it’s just so much.  

But I said I would.  It’s going to be watered down, but I’m going to do it.

Clarity is something the developers choose on whether or not it is an important factor.  It is not something that is required, but in many cases it is helpful or important to the game.  Fast arcade style FPS games are a good example of good clarity.  You want the brain to be spending as little time as possible understanding what you’re shooting at.  Team Fortress 2 is an excellent example of one of the most common forms of clarity in design, silhouettes.

Team Fortress 2 consists of 9 classes, each with very different functions and important approaches one must consider to remove or run from.  They’re all men, and most of these men are of similar body type.  These characters move through bright terrains and shadowed caverns, which means things like contrast, in color and line, are not always up for consideration.  Let’s take a look at Breath of the Wild.  

Just looking at the trailer, you can see how contrast is used.  Shrines stick out like a sore thumb because of their bright contrast with the desaturated landscape, towers break from the silhouetted forms of the hills, and enemies bring your eyes to them with their many tangenting and crossing forms of line.  The simplicity of other colors, brings your attention through complexity.  Line, value, and color contrast are all done in Breath of the Wild.  But color and value are diminished in an environment that can have the lights be on and off like Team Fortress 2.

And that’s where the strong silhouette design comes into play.  One of the reasons personality is such a strong concept to push for in Team Fortress 2 is because it shows in their demeanor, and that gives a perfect idea/excuse to change silhouettes.  The squat stance of the Scout makes him stand out.  His running animation has his legs swing wildly compared to other characters, which makes him even more obvious.  This is especially important as the Scout will almost always be moving when you see him.  The Medic’s trenchcoat sways in a shape that is not common with other characters.  Small things allow for extra clarity: the Soldier’s poofy clothes, the Pyro’s smooth suit, the mountain that is the Heavy, etc.

It really wouldn’t be so much of a complaint if we saw them all pretty similar.  There are plenty of games where realism is the focus, and clarity may be a matter of combat awareness.  But having the characters just different enough so you can tell from their shape helps in such a hectic environment. 

This is just one of the many things that Team Fortress 2 does so well in visual design that makes it stand out as a class based shooter.  Unfortunately, a lot of this deteriorates when everyone is wearing hats and holding different guns, but in return they (the guns at least) provide a different gameplay variety.

There is more to just these that make Team Fortress 2 a great design though, and there is definitely more that I would encourage you to check out from their developer commentary in game.  I choose Team Fortress 2 as a model multiplayer game, not because other games are bad design, but because Team Fortress 2’s designs are the most clear cut and obvious to a normal player that has no experience in design.  It is sometimes difficult to find out the why behind game designs, but Team Fortress 2 does an amazing job at that.

These kinds of things are also the reasons why “feedback” from players in a competitive environment is oftentimes more dangerous than helpful.  The spectrum of skill that spans the players always looks different when you’re supposedly very skilled, because developers don’t design only for the very skilled, and to encompass all of that without creating two separate games is just terribly inconvenient.  Team Fortress 2 takes in a lot of those variables and makes things like level design, gameplay mechanics, and art design work together as best as possible and makes a fairly balanced game within all of that.  Too many times I read of players who want something changed without considering all sides of the equation, which is to say programming, art, and balance at high levels, low levels, and those in between.  

There are SO many things that Team Fortress 2 does well in art design that involve the other elements, but I love that the silhouettes work so well when all other elements are absent.  So please check out the developer stuff to learn about those other things if you have the time.  The game is free to play and is available on Steam.

Team Fortress 2 is #105 on the ULTRA.  And it’s still a fun game to play now.  I really wish I could speak more in a better descriptive manner, but I’m just a normal person who plays a lot of games.  I just have a desire to talk about games.  I hope I can point you in a direction that helps you appreciate games, as that seems to be the best I can do for now.  Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.

Why I Love: DOOM

Not Just a Nostalgia Thing

The classic game DOOM is an obvious icon in video game history.  The series still lives on today with the newest release of DOOM Eternal.  But all the way back in 1993, this little thing came into the house through a set of floppy disks and introduced my family to first person shooters.

I admit there are some games on the ULTRA that, although good, have not aged very well.  They are upheld by my emotional values and experiences or their historical achievements.  But DOOM is still a strong contender even today.  The most common things that do not age well are graphics and movement processes, and DOOM still conquers both.

I used to say graphics are the least important part of judging a game, but I realize that the point isn’t being given clearly when I say it like that.  What I mean is, the generation of graphics is the least important part of judging a game.  Bad graphics can make a game less appealing, but good quality graphics at the time make them stand out more.  This doesn’t necessarily mean the graphics have to be insanely amazing, but rather that the graphics have to be good at conveying what they mean, and DOOM successfully does that.  It’s entirely clear what you’re shooting at, whether demon, barrel, or just a wall.  Just two or three years before DOOM, there were games where some of the sprites, I really have to use my imagination to understand what they are.  I will write an article on the design aspect of that next.  I feel like it is a concept that I only recently learned as an artist and I want others to be able to learn about that from a game design perspective.

But moving on from that, the character movement of DOOM is one of the things that makes DOOM such an easy game to play as of 2021.  DOOM is one of the first, if not the first, to set off on the arcade style FPS.  The time it takes for your character to go from standing still to top speed is very short, and that top speed is no slouch.  Reloads are minimal and, in this case, non-existent.  The movement is contemporary.  So many games don’t age well because things like movement are outdated.  Characters walk super slow (or can’t even run), dialogue is sluggish, or doing random tasks take five times longer than they do now, regardless of load times.  DOOM is smooth like butter compared to most games of its time.  It even outpaced its predecessor Wolfenstein 3D.

If you open up DOOM today, it feels like some indie FPS game.  Few things about it have really felt out of place.  Okay, so maybe the movement is a little bit slippery, but arcade shooters are still like that today.  I think it’s important to learn video game history, and DOOM is a fun way to learn what it was really like back in the days when it took several floppies just for DOOM to run, and then you realize it was a shareware copy all along.  But it didn’t matter, because back then we had a ton of shareware and it was pretty much like free games for a kid.  

So yeah, DOOM is still an amazing, relevant game, even though it’s super old.  Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
They also just updated the multiplayer in September last year.  Definitely still relevant.  DOOM still holds its place at #133 on the ULTRA.  …oh man, I am not going to get anywhere near the top at this rate.  Although I want to say, “Keep up the pace, Elise,” I also don’t want to write articles that are not as fun to talk about, so I am cherry picking a little more as we make our way to the top.

Thanks for reading.  I’ll see you next time~

Being an Active Audience

No Backseat Directing

I’ve talked about this before, but it’s something that I always feel so pushed to emphasize all the time.  This applies to books, movies, games, or really, almost any medium that delivers a story or rise in interaction.  

You’ve run into them before.  You know, the people who say they saw that plot twist coming, or the person who knew that character arc.  “Ah, this character is this trope again? I’m so bored of that trope!”  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with understanding the workings behind how a story tells itself, a character arc has its growth, or a game design teaches you how to play.  In fact, these are all things I have had to study as I go along my gaming and art-ing life.  Recently, I read a post on social media platform X on how learning how to write books sometimes takes the fun out of reading books.  You know the designs and the elements.  You know the turns and the descriptions.  Sometimes, for worse and for better, you can see the mistakes.  “Oh, I used to do that too!”

So after all is said and learnt, are these things not fun anymore?  This is where I think there begins a need for effort on a player’s part.  An effort…to make less effort.  To let ourselves be tricked.  To let ourselves be gobsmacked.  The same way we let ourselves take the expected (and sometimes super unexpected) parts of children’s imaginations and go with it, especially if we’re the parents.  To act like a humble student and take it all in as if the world was filled with wonder again.

Sometimes plot holes exist.  Ahem, plot holes always exist, but perhaps, hopefully by an accidental existence, they are now there to be filled with our imagination.  I guess there are people who, when brought a movie, expect the films to do it all for them.  And the same way for books or games.  I suppose the perspective of what it means to be the audience differs from one person to another.  But, should you feel that you are not being satisfied because they’re too predictable, perhaps taking a step into letting ourselves be stunned again, is the step to take.  

Skeletonizing a game or a movie can also take the fun out of it, if you let it.  Stories and designs, when stripped of their emotional and cosmetic bearings become technical rigs and concepts, with little entertainment value.  These shells and skeletons have their functions, but if we rip everything off of it, how can we expect more?  I can’t help but feel like it’s a little pretentious when people start talking about how the story wasn’t enough to entertain them or how it was so predictable.  

In the end, it’s not really a wrong perspective.  I mean, without hindsight bias, if they really found out, then they really found out.  But, I don’t know.  Were they thinking about it the whole time or were they watching the movie?  I guess it’s easier in games ‘cause there’s a good amount of downtime in between plot points.  It just feels really weird that people are setting up their own roadblocks to getting entertained by what they want to be entertained by.  I guess the reason I argue for the other side is that this is Game Praisers.

That’s what we do.  We take whatever is good.  That doesn’t mean that we ignore the bad, but the more we appreciate what we can appreciate the less we act as if starving kings and queens who can only partake in the exquisite.  You can be ahead of the game, but you don’t have to be snooty.  Ultimately, it’s also one of my goals in life to just be more accepting and open-minded to what can be good.  To never forget that just because we eat better food now, doesn’t mean food in general is forgotten of what it provides.  Of course the top-notch games and films are what we’d like.  Of course we love the non-broken game design, but we never, ever forget humble beginnings and the child-like wonder that made video games so fascinating in the first place.

Thanks for reading, I’ll see you next time.
– Elise

Nintendo Games Can Be Difficult

Remember the Struggle

I was ignorant in gaming for a long time.  I don’t mean racist or a straight-up gatekeeper or anything, but like a….kind of almost ignorant gatekeeper?  I hate when people say Nintendo games are for kids.  They are fit for them, but that doesn’t mean they’re designed solely for them.  It’s the same way how some animations are really well written and they’re for kids, but adults can definitely enjoy them.  I think a lot of the time, they’re even better as adults.

So, I grew up with the SNES and Nintendo 64.  Platforming games were the thing back then, so I played a lot of Mario, Kirby, and Donkey Kong games.  I think it was just a ton of privilege and I am very grateful for that.  Fast-forward to Super Mario Maker 2, and I was making levels that I felt were fit for the audience, only to find out that the success rate was pretty low on the level.  Now, I’m not a pro at platforming games or anything.  I am not that, but my vision of what a platforming game player was skewed.  And that’s when I realized I am super privileged when it comes to most Nintendo games.

Most people who are playing Nintendo games are younger, and most Nintendo games are platforming games.  I have yet to see a young gamer who, having received a present from their parents, do what I believed to be “well” on a new Nintendo game.  In fact, I remember being young and not being able to make it past certain worlds.  As I got older, the amount of worlds I would get to would go further and further.  I wouldn’t actually finish a Mario game until like, middle school or high school.  You know, the age when kids think they’re so cool and Nintendo is done and away with.

That’s the first set of audience, and the second is adults who want to start to play platforming games.  Introducing people to games or the genre has made me feel so ignorant.  I mean, I’ve done that a lot, but I never realized what a terrible teacher I was.  I believe I’m pretty good at teaching, but for some reason I never applied the proper teaching skills I used before on what I loved the most.  I am patient with the person, but I was just so ignorant.  New gamers don’t know what they can and can’t do.  That’s something that when you play as a younger gamer, you just kind of leap over because you’re a kid and you’ve got time and audacity in your hands.  

Especially for adults, they’re hesitant on what they believe they can do and move like.  Looking back I feel so dumb for not opening that door for them.  Not only that, but then there is the huge gap of just spending time to get better that I don’t really have to worry about anymore because I’ve played so many games when I was younger.  So, I think you get the point.  I just really had to check my privilege here.  But it’s also made me very grateful for opening my eyes to this understanding, and makes me grateful for how well Nintendo designs their games to be enjoyable even when you’re past these stages.  

I think in a way I was kind of soft-gatekeeping people by placing my expectations way high.  I never got upset at them, but in my mind I would still set that expectation, and I would rather I root that out than let it grow into something negative.  I want to be welcoming to all levels of gaming.  The best people in any profession always seem to be the ones that still remember what it was like to struggle, because they’re the ones that are the best at helping people.  Like my entire life with things I study, I want games to be a positive impact on my life, so I will do my best to keep humbling myself and remember the struggle.

Thanks for reading.  I’ll see you next time.

The Power of Implied Lore

What You Don’t See

Some people have a strong focus on lore in video games.   There are modes in games that are meant for the story, characters, and history of the world to shine.  I love lore in video games.  I may not have the greatest memory, but I sure do love to store as much lore as I can into my brain.  I love reading Mass Effect’s history of the planets.  As a biologist, I am so happy that they got a lot of the chemical and evolutionary biology correct when it comes to how life develops in other worlds.  The fascinating connection between what is real and the fictional elements are so brilliant.

But perhaps even more so are the things that are just mentioned.  The strange labyrinth of an ancient unknown race from eons ago.  Just through the story we think we know of old, old aliens, but these structures are unknown.  Or what about in Path of Exile, where many of the legendary items speak of old proverbs, that are absolutely fantastic and usable in real life, that mention great heroes or villains that are not part of the story anymore.  With the divination cards we hear murmurs of stories that take place in small worlds like one that really only involves only a lover and their lost one.  What happened to them?  Or what caused madness in another implied legendary figure?

I love implied lore.  It’s the kind of thing that makes science so captivating for me.  Science and mathematics always implies something bigger or stranger.  When mathematicians begin to see patterns in the way numbers are organized, or chemists recognizing similar chemical patterns in a far away planet, these things imply there is more to the picture than we know about.  That sense of curiosity is sort of a thing that encapsulates my mind.  My name in my native language was originally going to mean “wonder”.  I think that defines pretty much how I feel about these things.

The same feelings happen in real life when we see empty office buildings or abandoned industrial structures.  What history happened in these places?  What are their daily lives like when they’re active?  And what about right now, empty?  What is it like?  You don’t need to show every bit of history to let the player know there is history.  Let it be explored and excavated from the recesses of the virtual world.  Make legends and tall tales for the players to see glimmers of leftovers in the world.  There are few things so exciting as seeing a sly reference in the world when you first read or heard it in a game’s books or myths.  

I think implied lore is just as important and wonderful as concrete lore, because it allows you to explore the imagination of what the world is like, just as we do in real life.  
Thanks for reading!  I’ll see you next time!

Elise

The Responsibility of a Series

A Chip Off the Old Block?

This is just one big perspective thing, so if you don’t agree with it within reason, that is fine.

I think one of the interesting things about video game series, and well, any series that is in the entertainment industry, is the responsibility they have being a series.  Is there the obligation to continue being the same thing?  Or is it possible that finding the better thing is the right path?  And even more so, does the audience have a say?  Should they?

We love sequels.  I mean, at least when the game was good, we want more.  But do we really want more of the same?  If we look at sequels that people love, we can see that they gave us a brand new and great concept.  The sequel might look the same, but the development and design have definitely evolved.  I am talking about things like Super Mario Bros. 3, Dishonored 2, Half-Life 2, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between worlds.  They seem to play just like the predecessors, but there are new concepts that are brought in.  So…the same?  I don’t think so.  Can they kind of feel the same?  Yes.  Half-Life 2 does indeed feel like Half-Life 1.  Does Half-Life 1 have many physics-based puzzles and a gravity gun?  No.

So, I guess we want sequels that are not just improvements, but developments in design.  That is what we want and should be asking for if we want a sequel, not more of the same.  But…are the developers obligated to do so?  And should they?  I think… not?

“Wait, Elise, wait.  What about Mass Effect Andromeda?  That game–”

Yes, I know, it wasn’t amazing.  But if we take a closer look at what Mass Effect Andromeda feels like, it actually is more like Mass Effect 1.  Mass Effect 1 is still a great game.  So, why didn’t Andromeda feel like that?  It still feels like Mass Effect, just a very different, and older Mass Effect, but some core things have been tweaked just enough to make it not as comfortable.  Long, fetch-questy missions, and exploration that felt free, yet restricted at the same time made it feel…inefficient at feeling like Mass Effect.  Constant radiation restrictions, a lot of collectible side quests, and change in playstyle pushed fans even further away.  I think it was done in a style of Mass Effect 1 with some bad gameplay elements.  Personally I feel like the gunplay change was a good thing, but again, it was different.  Could Andromeda be the same while still being satisfying?  Yes.  I think with the same lore and content material it could’ve been better if the game felt a little bit leaner.  And saying that, yes, I think it could be that different weird Mass Effect 1 mix while still being Mass Effect.

“Okay, but how far are you going to let that go?”

I think if an idea is different enough, developers shouldn’t be using the same lore and name, because that brings up that responsibility of it having to be like the previous games.  I think it all comes down to lore.  We see games with very different lore and yet they can play similarly but still be distinguished as two different games.  Starcraft 1 and 2 feel very different.  But they still feel like Starcraft in the way that they approach the lore.  

Let me talk about two examples that have jarring differences in the audience response.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is considered a huge keystone now because of how amazing it is.  It is very different from the previous games.  It is now an open-world game with only a few small dungeons, and dozens of micro-dungeony things.  Crafting is a thing, and getting owned because you ran into a difficult monster is definitely a thing now.  Link can now climb and jump, which is very strange for the series.  The lore is still the same though.  It retains and is accepted as a new Legend of Zelda game.

Paper Mario: The Origami King is a great game with a very different fighting style than the previous four Paper Marios.  It is now more like a puzzle-adventure game.  You…kind of have partners and bosses are real life items.  You don’t level up at all.  You still have the durability item system.  World-building is fairly different.  Lore is largely the same without extremes as in Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door.  And …people are still hesitant to accept it as Paper Mario.  Now, you might say, well Paper Mario did GREAT with it’s first two and they shouldn’t have changed it up.  You’re right, but The Legend of Zelda also did amazing with its many predecessors.  The gameplay in Origami King is also not bad either.  Sure, it’s not like Breath of the Wild’s, but I cannot deny that Origami King is a great game in its own right.  But it still isn’t accepted very well.  So what gives?

Does the audience know what they want?  Yes.  Will they accept anything else?  … The audience of Paper Mario has become so adamant that the first two games are the only way.  A lot of Zelda fans, without hindsight bias, believed the old Legend of Zelda was the way as well.  And the big difference is that Paper Mario decided to jump off the face of the Earth and try things.  Some things worked, like Super Paper Mario, and other things didn’t, like Sticker Star and Color Splash.  Color Splash had at least a few things going for it though, I must admit.  The thing is, that is part of the process of innovation.  You fail, and that is because if you don’t you’ll never find something new.  Nintendo has a habit of taking that risk with games like Splatoon or ARMS.  Most of the time they do well.  Most of the time.  

Every time Intelligent Systems took a wrong turn, the fans strengthened their idea that the originals were the way to go.  The Legend of Zelda didn’t have the disparity of having games in the main series that were not well received.  I mean, there was Triforce Heroes, but nobody even mentions that.  I can understand the doubt with EA Games concerning their upsets with Battlefront II, Battlefield V, and Anthem, and when they finally bring something good, like Star Wars: Squadrons, people are hesitant.  Most people agree that Squadrons is a good game.  But Intelligent Systems took this one step further.  They didn’t use something familiar.  Squadrons hearkens back to the old days of 3D dogfighting, while The Origami King did something so strange and different.  

The lore still feels like Paper Mario to me.  And as a game, it is good and fun, and is that not the responsibility of a game?  

I think there is a heavy burden on developers of series to be like their predecessors, and I don’t feel like it is necessary.  I think developers have to be unafraid of changing things up to make great games.  Sometimes even to the extreme of The Origami King.  The difference between me accepting The Origami King as a good different successor and Andromeda being a mediocre successor all points to two things: is the lore the same?  Is the game still fun?

If we say yes to both, the game has met the responsibility.  Is it unfortunate that we likely will not return to the original Paper Marios?  Undeniably yes.  We may not even return to the Origami King.  But it is also fortunate that we can experience something like Origami King.  If you only choose to like one style, then you have chosen.  The truth is that they can both be great.  I think accepting that kind of breaks the status quo, and people don’t like doing that, especially as the consumer.  I am fortunate enough to be both a consumer and creator, both as a scientist and an artist, so maybe my view is very skewed. 

I think as just a consumer this can all seem kind of unfair, and, you know, that makes sense.  Unfortunately, I can’t really say that restricting what I enjoy to a narrow group of games doesn’t really seem that enjoyable to me.  

I think that’s the one thing that people despise me as a Game Praiser.  I enjoy everything, and that is both a blessing and a curse.  I place my thoughts here on this blog because I feel like it is a fairly unique viewpoint, especially with a video game audience.  I’ve met very few people who just really like gaming as a whole, and I want to share my perspective.  Maybe you completely disagree.  Haha.  That is fine!  This is just meant to be a perspective piece.

Thanks for letting me talk this out.  I’ll see you next time.

Checklist or Game? Both?

There are a lot of arguments against games that send you off on a checklist, especially if it is an open world game.  You might wonder how these games still sell when you’re just being led by the hand all the time.  This is like games that tell you exactly what to do in the quest objective and everything makes it pretty obvious: a glittering line, a ping above someone’s head, or pop-ups that tell you when something is going to happen or there is something you need to do.  Then there are side-quests or small things you can do, but they’re just pins on a map that need to be completed.  The same thing here or there.  Why do these kind of games still thrive?  I was just thinking about that this morning and I realized that it’s because although they are not exactly great game design, they can still be satisfying.

You want your player to explore and find the way by themselves.  Signposts and rules can only feel so…explorey.  But if you look at games like The Division, the Assassin’s Creed series, sometimes Skyrim or Fallout, and some others, they just pile on objectives and little collectibles everywhere.  In the end, you’re not really playing a game, you’re just doing a checklist.  Yes, you could explore without looking at the map, but since everything is already marked on the map, how much exploring are you actually doing for yourself?  

But we’re talking about why the checklist style is still present in some games.  I think it comes down to the combination of two things.  One, is just the base that checking off a list really can be satisfying.  The focus can end up focusing on checking off a list, but it’s still satisfying.  We do this with things like chores or goals that we set for us to do during quarantine so we can feel good about ourselves.  And we are doing things, so we are legitimately feeling accomplished.  

The second thing that combines with this is that video games make us feel good.  They are entertainment and art, and those two things cover such a vast distance of things that the satisfaction of checking off a list can feel like it fits in there.  I think there are times that playing a game just to check off stuff on your quest list or pick up items is not necessarily a bad thing.  Sometimes that’s what we need at the end of the day.  We just need to feel like we’re getting stuff done.  And…I guess we are.

This satisfaction is not the same thing as playing a game with good game design though.  It is a similar trouble with art and the layman.  Both amateur and professional art can be appreciated, but the difference is difficult to distinguish for someone who doesn’t understand how the painting process or color theory works.  Both levels, and all that is in between, can still give a feeling of satisfaction, but not the same understanding of what makes an art piece seem to be at a higher level.  

I said sometimes Skyrim or Fallout, because concerning the main exploration, all the guidance is is a marker on your compass to tell you that something is nearby, which is not too bad of a hand-holding thing either.  Just enough for you to get lost in the world.  The smooth tutorials of Half-Life 2, the extremely well designed difficulty curve of Celeste, and landscape design of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild bursts into our playthroughs.  We can feel that these games push us forward and make us feel like we’re out there in the video game world doing something great, without having us check off a list.  It makes us feel like we’re doing it because we ourselves are making our own list or trudging our own way through the land.  That feeling of fun is from good design.  At the right times, I think it is possible that satisfaction of checking off a list suffices, but can be misunderstood as that same fun from good game design.  Guidance doesn’t have to be removed from a game, it is how they approach it that makes it feel good.

Entireties of games are not just the checklist though.  There are still many good gameplay and design elements in these kinds of games.  Remember that this (hopefully) does not make the whole of the game.  I personally feel like they may bring the game down a notch, but I don’t think it should cause the whole game to feel like it collapses on itself.  There are good games that are like this, and that may be because of other elements in the game that hold up what may be a lackluster guidance in the game.  Because games are such a mixed media, no one pillar of games, whether it be graphics, gameplay, sound, or something else, can really bring down the whole game, at least not easily.  

You know, I think the reasons for playing a game are really up to you.  I’m not saying to not support these games just because they have this design.  If you really enjoy them, by all means, you should play them.  But we have to remember that these two types of entertainment are indeed different.  The checklist is using gaming as a medium, while the good game design is emphasizing that it is a game and works on engineering itself to be better at that.  I’m not going to say that the checklist style is good design, just like how I wouldn’t say that my art is professional, but just like how I can still appreciate my art even though it’s not perfect, games can still be appreciated for the level or style of design that they present to us.  I mean, unless they’re a glitchy mess or highly inappropriate or something.

This is Elise.  Thanks for reading!  We’ll see you next time.