Monthly Archives: January 2013

On Dark Souls as a Nihilist Manifesto

When people talk about Dark Souls, they often talk about how hard it is. That’s because it’s hard. Just over the New Year’s holiday, I got to watch a good friend play it for the first time. It did not go well for him. He died over and over and over again, falling down pits and being immolated by his foes. He built a good deal of character that weekend.

It was fun watching him die over and over again, but one thing about his experience really stuck out. He was asking me what character class he should choose and a after a good deal of stuttering and thinking, he and I came to the conclusion that it didn’t matter. I had some time to think on the way home after the holiday and came to conclusion that the developers didn’t give anything in Dark Souls any intrinsic value. That’s because Dark Souls is a nihilist manifesto. Mind games are normally reserved for PvP, or player versus player, games, but this is one single player game that has them in spades.

I’m not well versed in the theory of nihilism, so we’ll use the popular definition that people are generally familiar with:

a viewpoint that traditional values and beliefs are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless

Dark Souls goes to great pains to show the player that the things that are normally thought of as being “important” in video games are not important. Checkpoints, bosses, and visual gratification are not the goal here. In order to overcome Dark Souls, the player has to find satisfaction in growing their skill enough to pass through the game rather than a neat cutscene or piece of exposition.

Now to the numbered paragraphs. All good essays are constructed with numbered paragraphs.

  1. Character CreationDSN1
    This was what solidified this idea for me, so I’ll start here. Unless the player has very specific intentions for your character, the character class you choose at the start of the game doesn’t matter. Any class can wear any armor or accessory, wield any weapon, and cast any spell or miracle provided that their stats meet the prerequisites. Each class starts with different stat distributions, but characters level up so quickly early in the game that any differences between characters of different classes can quickly be erased.
    Further, no matter how awesome you make your character look in the character creation screen, the default state for characters to exist in in Dark Souls is “undead,” which translated means “looks like a burn victim”. As a result, until you get much better at the game and can sustain some humanity, your sexy lady avatar will look like a burn victim.

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  2. Loss of souls
    When a player kills something in Dark Souls, they gain souls and humanity, which are the game’s currency. When a player dies, they drop those souls and humanity in a bloodstain. The dropped souls and humanity can be regained by reaching the bloodstain and touching it, but failing to do so results in a complete loss of the bloodstain and everything in it. The game just forgot all that cool stuff you did. Sorry.
    This ties into my next point:
  3. Bonfires
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    Bonfires refill a player’s health source and allow them to level up among other things like upgrading equipment and picking what spells you want to use. Bonfires act as the player’s only respite from the constant feeling that they”re going to die. However, they also re-spawn all of the enemies that the player has killed since the last bonfire. While this might lead one to believe that the game just forgot all of the cool stuff you did again, it also allows the player to regain any souls that they may have lost after failing to reach a bloodstain or just grind for souls to level up. Bonfires erase all of the good things you do, but they also have the ability to erase all of the bad things that are happening to you.
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  4. Inscrutable story
    Most games propel the player character through a series of events with a combination of cutscenes and in-game dialogue and events. This is not the case for Dark Souls. This game eschews the normal trappings of story and requires that the player dig for a story if they’re interested in it. The game gives the player a beginning cutscene and one of two ending cutscenes. Past that, the player must divine the game’s story from NPC, or non-player character, dialogue and the item descriptions in the player’s inventory. If you read the item descriptions and learn about the in game characters, you’ll soon learn that all of them died attempting what you’re trying to do. The only reason the dead characters have any tangible importance to the player is that they can use the powerful equipment that their corpses may hold. Of course, the player can just use their equipment without reading the item description at all, which further negates the importance of story in this game.
    DNS10
    Let’s jump to the end of the game. Many people  had problems with the ending because it’s short (as in less than a minute) and it doesn’t tell you anything. The player kills Lord Gwyn and then the player can either leave his chamber or “rekindle the flame” in the center of his chamber. Regardless, you get a 30 second cutscene and then your character magically appears back at the start of the game. The character retains their stats from the end of the game, but all of the enemies are now much stronger. This method of beginning a “New Game+” offers the game a Sysiphean feel. Other games have a “New Game+” feature ,but Dark Souls is so abrupt about it that it seems to say, “Nothing you just did mattered.”
  5. Connectivity between player worlds
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    When the player first meets Solaire of Astora in the Undead Burg, he alludes to the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls with this statement:
    The way I see it, our fates appear to be intertwined.In a land brimming with Hollows, could that really be mere chance? So, what do you say? Why not help one another on this lonely journey?
    We are amidst strange beings, in a strange land. The flow of time itself is convoluted; with heroes centuries old phasing in and out. The very fabric wavers, and relations shift and obscure. There’s no telling how much longer your world and mine will remain in contact. But, use this, to summon one another as spirits, cross the gaps between the worlds, and engage in jolly co-operation!”
    Apart from birthing an obnoxious Internet meme, Solaire is explaining the diegetic reasons for the way the multiplayer system works. Each player’s character has their own world that they work through and other characters enter the world to help with bosses or attack the character as an invader. Regardless of the outcome of these visits, only the host’s world is altered; the invader’s/phantom’s world isn’t changed at all.
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    In addition to this, you can see how other players die by examining their blood stains and reading messages they left for you.
    Each player has their own world that’s important to them, and what happens in other players’ worlds matters only insofar as they give you some humanity or try to kill you. What you do is  important for you and your character, but no one else cares.

So if there all of these ways that Dark Souls tries to negate the significance of player actions, why have so many people played and enjoyed it? Like most games, the only real purpose of anything that happens is created by the player themselves, but Dark Souls is more blunt about making the player need to self-motivate. There will be no cutscene of your character taking on hoards of enemies alone or lightly dressed blue girls to give you some eye candy after a tough fight. The only reward the player ever receives are the words “You Defeated” flashing across the screen and a bunch of souls that are just as easily lost as the rest of the souls in the game.

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Dark Souls actively tries to make the player feel like they don’t matter. The enemies and environments in Dark Souls are difficult to survive, but a more significant challenge is overcoming the constant demoralization and clinging to the small goals you may have set for yourself. In spite of how lonely Dark Souls is much of the time, one of the major themes is the importance of creating meaning in personal improvement and interactions with other players rather than any single action. You simply survive and move on to the next thing or you don’t, and that’s all there is to the game.

Further Reading
The Three Metamorphoses of Zarathustra by Mark L. Dotson

On the End of the Royal We

And that I was done with the royal we on this blog because it was over.

On Another Poorly Constructed Final Boss

We understand that creating a boss fight, particularly a final boss fight, must be really difficult. Here, the developer is burdened with creating an enemy who is much stronger than the ones you’ve met before, but not strong in a dumb way that negates all of the mechanics that you’ve used to reach them. However, understanding the pain doesn’t mean we can’t criticize bad boss fights when we see them, and that’s what we’re here to do.

We talked a couple of weeks ago about the crappy final boss of Gears of War 3, and here we have been faced with another one in Borderlands.

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Borderlands is so good. It’s like Diablo, but fun! Let’s have a brief discussion of what we mean by that so that we understand each other. Both are loot games, meaning that character progression through leveling and cool weapons is what drives them.

The difference is that Borderlands is a kickass first-person shooter and Diablo is a fantasy mouse clicking simulator. You might think that we’re just being reductionist and unfair with Diablo here. Every game is a mouse clicking or button pushing simulator if you want to go that far, after all. Diablo, however, is in a breed all it’s own. The player character, as a mouse cursor, clicks around the landscape to move their character, clicks enemies to attack, and right clicks to use special moves. All of this while the other hand hits an occasional potion hot key to make sure the avatar doesn’t die. The point is that there is just so much clicking and that is quite literally all you do. You have, after all, taken on the role of a mouse cursor.

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In Borderlands, the player takes on the role of a sassy character with a penchant for carrying lots of guns and killing things. From a first-person perspective, the player shoots things, explodes things, and hits things with pipes/swords/daggers/phaseblasts. That is scientifically proven to be this much cooler than being a mouse cursor.

We brought up Diablo for a reason apart from demonstrating why it’s just ok, and that is the way its boss fights are handled. If playing through the game is a series of moving the mouse around and clicking on terrain and enemies and using potions, the boss fights are clicking on the exact same spot on the screen over and over again and using potions. Sure, the bosses are pretty neat. They’re great big detailed sprite monsters that are well animated and say things like, “Ahhhhhhh fresh meat,” when they see you. That does nothing to remedy the fact that they don’t really move around and you just sit there and click a lot. By taking away the need to move the player avatar by clicking, the game cuts out precisely one third of the player’s fun, the other two thirds being clicking to attack and pushing a number button to use a potion.

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Borderlands does a good job through most of the game of not falling into this routine. Since it’s a first person shooter, the player spends a good deal of time preoccupied with aiming and taking cover. This carries over to boss fights, which consist largely of aiming and running away. Bosses usually have legions of minions that also try to kill you, but primarily function as repositories of health and ammo. If the player dies, they regenerate at a checkpoint just outside of the arena and any dead enemies stay dead, but anything that is alive recovers it’s health completely. This includes the boss enemy. Let it be known that this, as far as we at Feral Joystick are concerned, is far more engaging than the mouse clicking of Diablo. There is tension in running and hiding and hoping your shields come back enough to survive the next encounter with the boss enemy and his minions. There is not tension in clicking one spot on the screen.

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For all of the boss encounters that Borderlands does so well, it falls flat on it’s face with the final fight with the Destroyer. There are several problems with this boss, listed here:

  1. The boss is an immobile mass of tentacles. Remember how we said earlier that running from the pursuing bosses and minions to find cover is half of the fun? You don’t have to do that against the Destroyer because it is an immobile mass of tentacles.
  2. In an effort to flush the player out from behind cover, the Destroyer will sprout purple tentacles that shoot exploding spores that can hit you behind cover. Unfortunately for the Destroyer, his purple tentacles have enormous glowing weak spots that will either make them retract for about 30 seconds or completely destroy them for over 60 seconds when shot. They also seem to sprout when the Destroyer reaches certain life percentages, but the point is that they are no match for Lillith and her SMGs.
  3. The Destroyer has two other attacks. The first is an enormously powerful purple beam that will almost kill a character if it connects. Unfortunately for the beam, it cannot go through cover, and with no effective way to flush the player character out of cover, it is useless. The second attack is a cover-ignoring shock wave whose radius grows as the Destroyer loses health. Unfortunately for the shock wave, there is always effective cover just outside of it’s range. Even more unfortunate is that if it does kill the player by knocking them off of the arena, the character regenerates at a checkpoint inside the arena and the Destroyer will not recover it’s health, unlike every other boss in the game.
  4. The final issue with this boss is it’s health bar. Friends, this boss has so much health. It must work out or something. Indeed, there is absolutely no conceivable way that a single player can carry enough ammo to kill this boss in one go. In order to have enough ammo naturally, the player would have to have at least one decent gun out of each category (pistol, revolver, shotgun, etc.). Now while any character can use any gun, each class is proficient with two weapon types. Further, your character has been building proficiency with the types of weapons they’ve been using throughout the game that add damage and accuracy bonuses to weapons of like types. Luckily, our siren has a class mod that spontaneously makes her regenerate smg ammo given enough time, but this is a dumb way to have enough ammo to kill something. We would shoot at the Destroyer for a full minute and then watch YouTube for 4-5 minutes before having enough ammo to go back at it. As Devin Townsend once said, Oh My Fucking God. This fight took 15 dumb minutes of shooting and hiding behind a rock while our ammo regenerated. At least we got some good Street Fighter matches watched. This kind of thing is fine if you’re doing some specialized playthrough of a game or even if you’re fighting a raid boss, but not if you’re playing it normally.
  5. As an addendum to point 4, this boss fight is being discussed as experienced on playthrough 2. The boss’s health, while still a terrible pain in the ass on playthrough 1, is not nearly as big of a deal. However, the other issues still exist and it is still not fun.

That is our piece on the Destroyer. Where the bosses in Diablo take away the need to move for the most part, the Destroyer takes away both the need to move and the need to heal, which takes away quite a bit of the player’s fun! You might even say it Destroys Fun. Maybe Gearbox was being ironic and twee?

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Given what we’ve experienced in recent weeks, it seems that developers tend to make awful boss fights when they try to do something completely different with a boss in an attempt to have them be Exciting or Thrilling.

In fact, the final bosses of Gears of War 3 and Borderlands are awful for exactly opposite reasons. Gears of War 3 completely does away with the safety of cover that has been keeping the player alive for the whole game. Borderlands, on the other hand, makes cover far more powerful than it was for the rest of the game and suffers for it. Gears becomes an impossible challenge and Borderlands becomes a YouTube marathon.

In other words, don’t fix what isn’t broke.