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: 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

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

What Makes an ULTRA Game?

What are the determinant factors that trend on the Ultimate Loosely-Thought Ranked Analysis?  

I believe there are two main factors.  Is the game entertaining?  Games are entertainment after all.  Does the game provide a good gameplay loop?  How does it handle design and difficulty curve?  Does it provide more artificial difficulty or natural difficulty?  How is the game feel?  Is it just fun to play?  Is it just…fun?

Games that have a greater focus on entertainment are things like DOOM, Dungeon Siege, Megaman 2, Star Fox 64, and Super Mario Bros.  The stories are not really a huuuge part of the game. The story is a platform for the action to take place.  There’s nothing wrong with a game that focuses just on the fun!  You don’t need to be a tea-sipping fancypants to know good games.

The other factor is whether or not it is inspirational.  Do they have good stories and characters?  Is the world built and designed well?  How well is the player’s emotion directed?  What innovations are there?  These are games like Final Fantasy VI, What Remains of Edith Finch, Baldur’s Gate, Genshin Impact’s character arc quests, and Psychonauts.  Characters don’t need to be super deep.  They can just be fun, have great synergies, or present the world in a way that makes you think about life.  Stories don’t need to be entirely plothole clean.  You gotta use your imagination too!  

I am a little biased because I tend to lean towards more story-telling, world-building, inspirational games.  That’s just who I am, but all gamers are different!  And that’s okay!  There’s also a third mini-factor that I also recognize: the history and context of the game.  What did the developers have to go through to make this?  What was development culture like?  How have they approached this game in the franchise as compared to the past?  What artifacts and history lie beyond the game?  Game history is important.  I love art history, and I think video game history is just as important.

Something that I’ve noticed as we get near the top of the ULTRA is that the games start to converge on both ideas of entertainment and inspiration.  The top ones are usually brilliant at being both.  These are things like Dishonored 2, Celeste, Bioshock, Guild Wars 2, Starcraft, and Hollow Knight.  

I think video games can be such an inspiration and entertaining thing at the same time.  I feel the same for films.  Artistic vision backed up with great cinematography makes amazing films.

I just wanted to let you have a little more insight into the way that video games are seen in my mind.  Although I’d like to believe I have a lot of insight on video games, as it has been a focus and study of my life, this list is definitely not going to be 100% solid for other people.  That’s why we like different games. 

What are some foci that represent what you like in a game?  
Thanks for reading, and 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.