A Recipe for Horror: PT’s Psychological Torment Explored

Spoilers ahead. If you own a PS4 and you haven’t played PT you need to stop reading this and go do it immediately. Once you’ve done so you should come right back, of course. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

How do you make a game scary? There’s clearly a recipe to it, but it seems like arcane and forbidden knowledge. When experienced it seems obvious – music, lighting, pace – all these things combine in some alchemical way to create fear, but how? Knowledge of the ingredients alone clearly isn’t enough. There’s some secret to their preparation. Maybe they have to be dry roasted first to release essential terror oils. Maybe the tension doesn’t rise if the oven door is opened. Or maybe it’s in the presentation. Pile them up to create some unsightly mess, but place them delicately and expertly and you’ll have the diner filling their pants in no time at all.

Choosing a food preparation analogy for fear creation now seems foolhardy, but bear with me. The point is that the creators of PT know their recipe and like other horror games – Dead Space, Outlast, Amnesia – they have cooked it to perfection to engineer tension and jump-scares in exactly the right places. There’s something else here, though. New studio 7780s has discovered some rare herb to add to the mix and the result is more than run of the mill jump-scare horror. The tension in PT simply doesn’t end. There’s an eeriness to it that’s utterly relentless. It plays on typical horror tropes mercilessly but has a Lynchian flare to it that sends it into uncharted territory for a horror videogame.

P.T._20140817163423PT’s setting is stunningly realistic. 

It would take quite an impressive act of ignorance to not know by now what PT is. A “playable teaser” that ends with a trailer for a new Silent Hill game directed by Hideo Kojima and Guillermo Del Toro (and starring that bloke from The Walking Dead that’s not Andrew Lincoln) has set the gaming world alight with anticipation. It’s an exciting prospect to say the least. A master of horror storytelling teaming up with, well, Hideo Kojima, could surely produce something special. Unless, of course, it ends up being the gaming equivalent of A.I., or worse still, that chilling collaboration between Bowie and Bing Crosby singing ‘Little Drummer Boy’. Just a thought.

For now all the signs are good. PT is terrifying and if the final game manages the same quality of horror we’re in for something special indeed. It’s time to return to that mystery ingredient, however. There are a few candidates worthy of discussion and as I was playing the game a few things impressed me greatly (during those brief moments of respite where I wasn’t cowering in fear).

Repetition. PT revels in it. From an assets point of view, this game is a work of genius. The whole thing consists of an empty room, an L shaped corridor and a manky bathroom. You start in the empty room, emerge into the corridor, explore the bathroom (if it’s open) and then move on to the corridor’s end. Going through the door at the end of the corridor places you back where you started. The first time it happened I grinned from ear to ear because it only takes one time to send a clear message: there is no escape. You will walk this corridor until the game is done with you. You, the player, are not in control. You can choose to move forward and backward and you can turn off your console, but that’s it. Best get going back down that creepy ass corridor, worm.

P.T._20140817164249Even this neglected bog started to look appealing after a few minutes of sphincter clenching terror.

Realism. PT is about as close to photorealistic I’ve seen a game get. It helps with the horror because when the horrible things happen – and believe me they will – it’s all the more unsettling. Squint your eyes and you could really be walking down the corridor of a suburban domicile just about anywhere in the world. Ok so your house is (hopefully) less littered with empty booze bottles and discarded blister packs of spent pills, but the lighting and level of detail in the game’s setting are simply staggering.

Lynchianism. I’m a sucker for David Lynch and PT is definitely taking some cues from his work. When I encountered a skinless almost-baby making distorted mewing sounds in the sink I was immediately reminded of two things: Eraserhead and the need for some new undergarments. It can only be praise to say that after completing the game I was gagging to watch Eraserhead and Twin Peaks for the millionth time. Lynch is the king of surreal, unsettling horror, so his influence in PT is a welcome one indeed.

P.T._20140817164301David Lynch called and he wants his ideas back.

Horrible, horrible jump scares. Until playing PT I had only ever screamed involuntarily while watching The Orphanage, and in that circumstance I got away with it because everyone else screamed with me. Sitting on my sofa, playing PT with my partner beside me, it happened for the second time in my life. I walked past the radio, which was telling a gruesome and chilling story of murder, only for it to be interrupted by a voice telling me not to turn around. Obviously I turned around, and was immediately set upon by a ghostly woman, who promptly devoured me. It doesn’t sound particularly scary in the retelling, but it led to both my partner and I screaming aloud and waking our six week old from a rare moment of slumber. We laughed afterwards, but only to mask the fear.

There’s also a fridge covered in blood, bound in rope, suspended from the ceiling and emitting the sounds of a terrified child. I’m not sure further explanation is needed because that’s a thing you have to put up with in PT, and it’s bloody ‘orrible.

P.T._20140817165523

I’m not sure any one of these things is the mystery ingredient that makes PT so special. It’s probably fair to say they all combine and are responsible in their own way for adding to the horror of the experience, but they bode well for what’s to come. If Silent Hills (the unnecessarily pluralised name of Kojima/Del Toro’s entry to the series) can sustain the same feeling of terror present in PT we’re in for a treat when the game eventually arrives. Many horror games are adept at using jump-scares and while PT is no exception, it’s the psychological aspects of its horror and the intelligence of its design that makes it stand out from the crowd.

 

Day Z: Zombie Boxing Simulator

Zombie Boxing Simulator logo

I was genuinely scared of returning to Day Z. Not that silly kind of fear usually associated with videogames – the moment of tension followed by a jump scare and a giggle – but rather scared in the way a retired boxer must feel returning to the ring for one last bout. The retired master, coming back to seek their former glory, puts their whole reputation on the line for another few minutes in the limelight. That was me. Ok so I’m no master, but the feeling was the same. I’d left the game at the height of my powers, having amassed an impressive collection of survival gear and here I was, downloading a 1.1GB update file and knowing that within no time at all I would be dead, my gear lost and gone forever.

It turns out that feeling like a boxer was pretty apt, as within minutes I had not only lost all of my lovely gear, but I had engaged in several bouts of fisticuffs with the undead hordes and I had lost every one. My return to the ring was a shambles. I was fat and out of shape, a victim of my own hubris and I was learning the hard way that quitting while I was ahead had been a smart move. If anyone remembered me now it would be for my pathetic attempt at a comeback. They would gather in groups to laugh at how I found a pristine shotgun and clung on to it for hours, only firing it once before losing it to a zombie who looked like Hitler in a pathetic exchange of blows and bites.

Zombie hitler

See? He really did look like Hitler!

And then, as is the way with Day Z, I entered the cycle of respawns and embarrassing deaths. Lost fist fight after lost fist fight ensued. Between each bout I would cower on the floor, pathetically tearing my t-shirt into rags in order to patch my gaping wounds, buying me just enough time to become lunch for another zombie. Before long I became resigned to my purgatorial state of existence. I spawned, saw the nearest zombie and just got punching. None of the game’s survival features mattered any more. It had become an undead punching simulator. It seems Dean Hall and Bohemia have taken their project in a new direction and instead of going up against Minecraft and the MMO scene; Day Z is actually a direct successor to the Fight Night series.

Thank God for my brother, Joel, who had been listening to my escapades and had spent the entirety of our session so far hotfooting it across the country to come to my rescue. In between deaths he would stop for an update on my latest spawn location and adjust his course to suit. He’d even stopped to pick up some gear from my corpse and was ready to hand it over just as soon as we could work out how to pronounce the name of the town I was currently fighting in. Day Z is nothing if not completely impenetrable, and this extends to the language of its signs, which is incomprehensible and unpronounceable to the average, linguistically ignorant English speaker. As far as I was concerned, I was fist fighting the undead hordes in a town called Conheyhbin (Солнечный). It did well enough as a moniker and after a few more humiliating bouts Joel was alongside me and our adventure could begin properly (about an hour after we had logged on).

2014-07-30_00019

Nothing like a bit of lens flare to help you forget the endless zombie fist fights.

Day Z really is a special game when it all comes together. Ok, so getting it to come together can occasionally be borderline impossible, but I’ve a feeling that without that it wouldn’t be quite as special when it does eventually work. Joel found me. We made gestures. He gave me my canteen back, and off we went inland to slay the hordes.

It was beautiful. In a few minutes we managed to string together a zombie apocalypse survival narrative of the highest standard.

It started with a good old fashioned bit of scavenging-amid-the-eerie-ruins-of-a-once-thriving-society. Standard zombie stuff. We crept through dilapidated, abandoned buildings discarding rotten fruit and ruined clothing. We managed to find a few semi-edible tins of sardines and even, somehow, a fresh orange. I found myself a rather fetching bicycle helmet and a child’s backpack, putting me in odd contrast to my brother’s similarly-helmeted but adult-backpacked bad-assery. It didn’t matter though, because now I could carry stuff and I was feeling like I might manage a few more minutes without having to engage in fisticuffs with a horde of the undead.

Then Joel got attacked. It was my fault. I should have been paying more attention, but I was too distracted by rotten kiwis to notice a zombie in army fatigues bearing down on Joel while he fumbled with his rifle, trying to ready a shot. I got to the door to see the situation unfolding before me and I readied my new axe just in time to plough in and put things right. Thankfully, disaster was avoided and we were able to continue our looting.

2014-07-31_00015

Ignore the child’s backpack. Focus on the axe and the heroism. 

We picked through a few more buildings, scavenging what meagre supplies we could, until we came across another human being. I’ve read enough issues of The Walking Dead to know what happens when you start trusting strangers in the zombie apocalypse, so I went for him. Farce ensued. Joel tried to shoot him, instead missing wildly and panicking as he thought he’d hit me instead. I was too intent on running, full pelt, axe raised to give much of a damn. I gave chase to my hapless victim, who pleaded over voice chat for his life and managed to get away with just that after I failed to connect with my axe blows. Turns out I’m a pretty useless murderer, but I think I’m ok with that.

2014-07-31_00013

It’s the shadows that tell the story here. I almost feel guilty. Almost.

Our session ended with a difficult decision.  Crawling through the undergrowth, we spied a lone zombie in the distance. Its back was to us and it was unaware of our presence. For the time being we were safe, but we’d have to find a way to deal with this potential threat. Joel’s rifle was low on ammunition and the shot was difficult at such range. Were we to risk taking the shot, potentially alerting any other local zombies? Or perhaps we could go for the quieter but more physically dangerous melee approach? I felt genuine tension and nervousness as Joel lined up his shot and we discussed our options. In the end I crept forward, axe in hand while Joel covered me. It was thrilling and it worked. Planting my axe in the back of that zombie’s head somehow made up for all those ridiculous fist fights from hours before, and I was reminded again of just how wonderful Day Z can be.

2014-07-31_00031

Joel puts our zombie victim in his sights as a quiet, heated discussion takes place about the best plan of attack.

Hoorah for Electronica: OlliOlli, Wayward Souls and Nidhogg

I used to play games with the sound off. It feels a little weird and dirty to admit that, but my memories of the N64 years consist of me playing Blast Corps, Ocarina of Time, Goldeneye and Mario 64 all with the TV muted and my own, specifically chosen music alongside them. I’d grown up not really thinking about the soundtracks of games and if you’d have asked teenage me you’d probably be met with dumb indifference where game music was concerned. That’s not to say there weren’t many, many examples of wonderful soundtracks already in existence for games, but this was an era where the mp3 was in its infancy and we were just on the cusp of CD quality music within games becoming the norm.

In short, I thought I had better taste than those clueless nerds that were programming my games. As far as I was concerned, Korn was the perfect accompaniment to just about any activity, be it flower arranging, decoupage or extreme sports. Forget tone and atmosphere. I wanted downtuned guitars and misery ALL THE TIME.

Thankfully, as the ability of consoles to play ‘proper’ music matured so did I, and I slowly drifted out of my habit of muting the TV (and of listening to cack nu-metal). I can’t imagine Halo being as captivating to me without that score, and the old time musical selection of Fallout 3 remains one of my favourite things about the game. Whether it’s licensed tracks or a specifically tailored score, the music helps make the experience tense, or relaxing, or eerie, or anything in between. Which is why I’m surprised there isn’t more electronica in games and amazed by three recent games that make excellent use of it.

OlliOlli

OlliOlli-banner

OlliOlli is addictive and very hard. Like all games that use their difficulty as an asset, it requires constant restarts but these somehow fail to become frustrating. I’ve lost many hours to its trickier challenges and even though I feel like I’m fairly decent at it I have no hopes of ever beating its every challenge. Part of the reason it’s so easy to settle into a rhythm of restarts is OlliOlli’s quite frankly sublime soundtrack, which is a perfectly curated selection of relaxing electronica tracks.

There isn’t a weak track in the list, and all of them share a chilled out tone that’s perfect both for skater credentials and for encouraging the fluidity of locomotion required to rack up a high score. It’s pretty common for a game to have a ‘just one more go’ feel to it but in the case of OlliOlli I often succumb to more of a ‘just one more track’ approach. Not that it ever works, because the next track starts and I realise it’s great and I may as well hang round to raise my high score while I listen.

Two tracks in particular stand out to me and I want to share them here. I can wax lyrical about them for hours but all you need to do is listen and you’ll see what I mean.

Long Arm – The Roots

This track has a beautiful hip-hop beat that kicks hard but its use of jazz horns and piano is what makes it truly stand out. It sounds like walking the streets of a deserted city. It’s simultaneously evocative of a dark urban landscape and the cool, smoky jazz clubs of yesteryear. Since discovering the track on OlliOlli I have bought the album and I recommend that if you like what you hear here, you do the same.

Sweatson Klank – I Can’t Explain

A little more on the electronic side, but no less satisfying to listen to. It’s the vocal sample that’s so alluring here. I can barely tell what’s being said, but it loops round my head for hours afterwards and creates an itch that can only be scratched by booting up OlliOlli and setting a new high score. Again, this track is relaxing to listen to, making it the perfect medicine for any failure based frustration in the main game. Just melt into it and let the high scores set themselves. You can find out more about Sweatson Klank here.

Wayward Souls

WaywardSouls

An iOS roguelike, Wayward Souls may be different in genre to OlliOlli but it similarly uses a beautiful electronica soundtrack to set what some may consider a rather strange tone for a traditional fantasy dungeon crawler. The pace of the music, which is specifically written for the game by Joey Grady, is very slow and downtempo pretty much throughout. Like in the case of OlliOlli, this is perfectly matched to the game’s approach. Restarts are less frequent in Wayward Souls. It’s less score attack and more endurance based and this is well reflected in the music.

Stand out tracks to me are The Undead Rise and The Shadow Consumes. Sadly there are no convenient YouTube videos for these tracks. All I could find at the time of writing was a single video containing the whole OST in one.

Listen to the whole soundtrack using the YouTube link above, but this video seems to be unendorsed by the game’s makers and it doesn’t contain any links to their website. You can purchase the whole Wayward Souls OST here and learn more about the game itself here.

Nidhogg

nidhogg-steam-fencing-game-review-1

I’d be mad not to include a game that is lucky enough to have its score composed by the mighty Daedelus. Just like OlliOlli and Wayward Souls, this is an addictive game that screams to be played over and over. It’s a perfect multiplayer experience that takes a simple but perfectly balanced fighting system and lets two players go at it for matches that could less anything from a minute to an hour.

The chaotic and high tempo fights are well matched by Daedelus’ more chaotic, drum n bass inflected style of electronica. We’re no longer in the realms of relaxation here. This is much more adrenaline pumping and exciting. It’s the perfect soundtrack for stabbing your mate in the eye and then running like a maniac to safety, only to be stopped at the last second by a kung-fu kick to the face and a dramatic turning of the tables.

Daedelus – Clouds

Probably my favourite track from Nidhogg, Clouds starts off with a steady beat and almost hummable melody but quickly adds layers upon layers to become complex and exciting. I often find it’s the track that stays in my head after a Nidhogg session, and just like OlliOlli I’m often compelled to return to the game as much to hear the music as anything else.

It makes me pleased and excited to see one of my favourite genres of music making more of an impact in videogames. This is a very personal thing and I would never go so far as to say games should use musical styles not suited to their systems and genres, but electronica is as varied and malleable as gaming itself and I’ll be a happy man indeed if more games make use of it in future.

Grim Gaming Moments #7: Bioshock’s Twisted Surgeon

Rapture still looks amazing. Its Art Deco design and intricate layout will never get old, but I did worry that returning to Bioshock might expose the game’s age. Technological change is not kind to videogames, but I’m pleased to see Bioshock is, so far, holding up rather well. I’ve been loving strolling its eerie corridors and beating its twisted inhabitants with a well-placed wrench or two. One thing that strikes me this time round – something I don’t remember from my first playthrough – is how much of a horror game it is. Rapture is packed full of nail biting moments and the whole place is dripping with claustrophobic atmosphere.

One moment in particular really hammers home how horrific a place Rapture has become since its fall. The game’s second level is set within the Medical Pavilion, which is under the control of genius-gone-mental surgeon Dr Steinman. Opening the door to the pavilion reveals walls plastered in deranged messages, each of them rendered in congealed blood. Black and white medical photographs line the walls depicting radical surgical procedures and surrounded by more insane ramblings. It’s a great way of sending a simple message: here, there be grimness.

Image

 

That’s one hell of a greeting, Dr Steinman.

Bioshock is a trendsetter in just about every department. Its influence is everywhere in modern gaming, and one of its perhaps more maligned innovations is its use of audio diaries. Bioshock does them well, of course, and they’re used perfectly in the Medical Pavilion to help the player realise just how twisted Steinman has become. Each diary adds a little more to his personal story, helping chart his descent from respected physician to monstrous butcher. It’s a hell of a ride.

Steinman never doubts his abilities. Rather than question the quality of his medical care and surgical skill he instead seeks to further his profession through slightly more worrying means. “What if now it is not my skill that fails me…but my imagination?” he asks. Oh dear. There’s a thought that’s so full of grim foreshadowing it simply cannot be ignored.  

Further rooting around uncovers what is probably my favourite audio diary in the whole of Bioshock. It would appear Steinman no longer sees himself as a surgeon, but an artist. He compares himself to Picasso, observing how his abstract representations of humans had him hailed as a genius. Steinman is tired of traditional. He’s fed up of conventional ideas of beauty and thinks himself capable of Picasso-esque surgery. When I heard that diary I shivered and then laughed out loud. It’s ridiculous, it’s insane but it’s the dark humour of it that appeals to me most.

Image

I listened to the Picasso diary while wandering around the crematorium section of the Medical Pavilion. It’s a great place for Irrational to have put the diary as Steinman’s ramblings are visually linked to the deaths they undoubtedly caused. A coffin sits in the middle of the area and at each end is an easel telling the player that its occupant is one Winston Hoffner. On one easel, we see a handsome 1950s gent with a side parting and moustache. The other easel, however, has been altered. It bears Winton’s name, but his face has been moulded into a twisted, Picasso-esque creation. On the floor, written in blood, is Steinman’s signature. Either Steinman opted to practise his revelatory new techniques on the dead, or his experiments on the living were too much for his poor victims. Either way it’s grim and served to highlight Bioshock’s lesser mentioned horror credentials.

Image

 

Poor Winston. What did he do to deserve such treatment?

All this listening to audio diaries and taking in the “décor” of the Medical Pavilion is preparing the player for a confrontation with the man himself. The audio diaries keep coming, but none are quite as unsettling as the Picasso diary. Some are certainly more graphic. One that can be found later on is a recording by Steinman’s nurse, who desperately but unsuccessfully tries to stop him as he butchers a patient on the operating table. It’s more gory and fraught with emotion than the Picasso diary, but it doesn’t allow the player any further insight into the motivations of such a crazed individual.

And then the final battle happens. Steinman, obsessed with surgical perfection, is going through patients at a rate. They’re hanging all around him and are revealed in a wonderfully dramatic fashion as he gets to work on his latest victim. From behind an observation panel, he looks up and sees the player. Out comes the Tommy Gun, on comes the battle. It’s brief and fairly standard, but there’s little to regret in taking down a monster of this magnitude. Pump enough bullets in him and he drops to the floor, allowing progression to the next level and an exit from this hell hole. Leaving is a strange feeling. On the one hand it’s great to get away from such an awful place but on the other the story here was so well crafted and the grimness so heavy it’s hard to accept it’s over. It is, though, so it’s best to just get moving and enjoy the rest of this wonderful game.

Image

 

Steinman notices the player, moments before the final battle commences.

 

The Destiny Alpha is Solid Gold Bungie

I’ve been a bit lax on the blogging front recently. I blame impending parenthood for my writing drought, but I find myself posting this short piece simply to acknowledge how much fun the Destiny Alpha currently available on PS4 actually is.

It’s great. My first few hours were a little more than lukewarm but when I came back to the game today it clicked and I’m loving it. It’s Bungie at their best, and the multiplayer mode is like an improved version of Halo. That’s probably to be expected, but I was concerned that Bungie had bitten off more than they could chew with this game and until the last few days I wasn’t sure what to expect at all.

The game has several aspects to its combat. None of them are groundbreaking in any way, but they’re balanced and well implemented and they make you feel like a true hero to use at times. I found myself fighting a pike earlier (a hovering vehicle ripped straight out of Return of the Jedi) and I took it down using a combination of shotgun blasts, melee, grenades and psychic mumbo-jumbo. When it blew up and the points came up on my screen I grinned and immediately pressed my PS4 share button – something I thought I’d never do when I first got the machine. I present the kill below so you can see what I mean. Look at all that purple magical psychic energy stuff. It looks ace.

So Destiny already has me using the full range of features on my PS4 and grinning like an idiot in every game I play. It’s gone from being a game I was a little worried about to being a solid day 1 purchase, probably with a pre-order to boot. They might even swing me on a season pass. Ok, maybe not.

Papering Over the Cracks: When Narrative Masks Mechanics

Think back to your first experience of a Mario game. Remember how, despite its greatness, you couldn’t escape the feeling that it was just a bit…well…far-fetched? Remember how you weren’t able to think of it as being truly brilliant because it just wasn’t believable enough? Me neither, because that didn’t happen. For anyone. Except, it would appear, many of those young people that went on to write videogame stories as grown-ups, and are currently pedalling their own airtight, convincing and immersive narratives to the modern gamer. People like the writers of Assassin’s Creed, for example.

Assassin’s Creed is widely accepted to have a pretty terrible narrative conceit at its heart. Anyone that’s played a game in the series will be familiar with the Animus – a machine ripped straight from The Matrix that allows its user to relive the memories of their ancestors, stored in their DNA. I’m no scientist, but I remember guffawing madly at that particular idea in Assassin’s Creed 1 and then in every instalment of the game since. But it’s not even the horrific abuse of genetic principles I have an issue with, it’s the reason the writers felt compelled to create the Animus in the first place.

As far as I can tell, the whole reason Assassin’s Creed features the Animus is as a way of explaining away features of videogames that gamers have been comfortable with for years. It’s a panacea for all those things that don’t make sense in games – you know the ones – extra lives, invisible walls, health bars, HUDs. All the things that make games playable but don’t have a specific narrative reason for existence. These things are the “cracks” in the metaphor of this piece’s title and, as far as I can tell, the only people they annoy are the people going to such ridiculous lengths to cover them up with spurious narrative justifications.

Assassin’s Creed explains away a lot of gameplay mechanics using its ‘well it’s a game within a game’ justification. Hit an invisible wall in Assassin’s Creed and it’s because your ancestor never went beyond that point, so has no memory of it. That health bar at the top? It’s a health bar. You know – like the ones you get in videogames, only this one makes sense because it is a videogame, within a videogame where there is no health bar, so that’s ok. These explanations are neither satisfying nor necessary. Health bars and invisible walls existed long before Assassin’s Creed. In the case of the former, they made players realise they were going the wrong way. In the case of the latter, they provided players with a handy way of knowing when they were about to die. They are necessary features of games, and narratives do not need to apologetically explain them away.

Image

“Desynchronization” is what any other game would call death. It’s one of the many features of Assassin’s Creed that completely fails to convince the player they’re not playing a videogame.

Unfortunately, the Assassin’s Creed series is not the only series blighted by this apparent need to apologise for its mechanics through narrative. It’s everywhere. Bioshock’s Vita Chambers are another great example. Die in Bioshock and you will respawn at a checkpoint. That’s a standard videogame mechanic. In Bioshock though, this has to be explained lest the player realises they’re in a game (buying it, downloading it and interacting with it through a lump of plastic of course being things that have gone unnoticed thus far). In Rapture the player’s DNA (I’m spotting a game-narrative theme here) is stored, handily, within a machine that recreates the player every time they die. Death in Rapture is, therefore, nothing more than a painful annoyance. The wider narrative implications of this idea, and the questions it naturally brings about, are seemingly secondary to its apparently ultimate goal of explaining away player death within a videogame. Why aren’t the main antagonists also plugged into this system? Why are their deaths final when the player’s isn’t? Doesn’t it make the whole thing a little one sided? None of these questions matter, it seems, because the big question of ‘why have I just come back to life when I died a moment ago?’ has been answered. That no-one ever asked that question in the first place, is apparently unimportant.

Thankfully, not every game developer gets it wrong. There are games out there that integrate story and mechanics effectively – usually through simply acknowledging that they are games. Metal Gear Solid is a great example. Critics of the series are quick to point out that MGS games tend to be more cut scene than game – that Hideo Kojima seems to want to be a screenwriter rather than a game director, but the argument doesn’t last when the games are played. Characters make frequent references to the systems and mechanics required to keep Snake alive and kicking. They do not talk around the fact they are in a game – they acknowledge it wholeheartedly. One of the best examples is that great moment in MGS1 where the player is directed to look at the back of the game box to find a required communications frequency, but it happens on a small scale too. The button presses required to control the game are discussed and acknowledged openly. Why not do it that way? This is a videogame and videogames can’t be enjoyed without knowledge of their mechanics.

Image

Dark Souls is an interesting game when it comes to the relationship between narrative and mechanics. It’s quite possible to level Assassin’s Creed style criticisms at it. It’s another game where pretty much all the mechanics are explained as part of the narrative, but here it’s at least done well. Player death and endless respawning are explained in Dark Souls through the player’s undead status. The use of souls as currency and a means of levelling up are also explained. In fact the whole world seems to exist around these mechanics and that’s why it gets away with it. It doesn’t feel like the writers have taken a ‘normal’ game and then papered over its cracks with narrative (a la Assassin’s Creed); instead the narrative and gameplay mechanics have been developed in tandem to complement one another. Dark Souls’ world is so vastly different from our own and its surrounding lore is so rich that its narrative justifications for gameplay mechanics are acceptable even if they’re not wholly convincing.

Great games are made on their mechanics – not their narratives. While games are making excellent headway in terms of telling mature, convincing stories they can never forget that they are games and as a medium they have never been enjoyed for story alone. A game can have a nonsensical story (or no story at all) and be a classic videogame on the strength of its mechanics. It cannot have an interesting story but be unplayable in a gameplay sense because it will fail immediately. The story does not need to explain the gameplay mechanics. It just needs to tell a good story and let the mechanics speak for themselves. Let’s hope that by Assassin’s Creed V Ubisoft have realised this and find a way to do away with the Animus once and for all so we can just enjoy the historical romp the series should have been since day one. Let’s hope the next generation of games writers grow up on a diet of Dark Souls and MGS, so that in another ten years the trend for papering over the cracks is a relic of a bygone era – like extra lives and continues are today.

 

 

This article was inspired by a conversation with a more casual gamer friend of mine who acquired a PS4 some months ago. His first exposure to Assassin’s Creed was with its fourth installment and he immediately spotted how ridiculous the ‘real world’ elements of the game are. I believe his comment to me was that I should write a blog post about ‘games that disappear up their own backsides’. Well, Al, it’s taken a few months but I got there and I’m not sure I’ve managed to be any more effective in my summary of 1200 words than you were in a handful. Al has a blog of his own which deals with Issues and Opinions and things that actually matter. Read it here.

Child of Light: A Review in Awkward Rhyme

Image

Have you heard about Ubisoft’s latest?
The graphics are lush, but the script’s not the greatest
Someone decided that rhyming was in
But their knowledge of poems is clearly quite slim
It’s true the lines rhyme but that’s not enough
To avoid an effect that’s unpleasantly rough
There’s little consideration for rhythm or meter
And each line that’s uttered gets weaker and weaker
Half rhymes abound and feel rather awkward
But the writers plough on and try to move forward
With a story that’s marred by the way that its told:
A poorly rhymed script that gets quickly old
The main character here is a girl called Aurora
Her design is quite sweet – you’re bound to adore her
Her animation is lovely; she’s a joy to control
It’s just such a shame that what she says is so droll
When she opens her mouth it’s often to emit
A series of lines that have been forced to fit
Just so they rhyme and match with each other
It happens repeatedly and causes some bother
Because it’s not needed and the effect is weak
I find myself wincing at this shoehorned technique

Good things can be said about Child of Light
The art is amazing, the music’s a delight
Combat is turn based like a JRPG
But it has an interesting twist that helps it feel free
It’s not just a case of forward and back
A timer determines who’s next up to attack
Interruption can happen to ruin a turn
This aspect of fighting is important to learn
And this is where co-op becomes of use
A second game pad allows some helpful abuse
Of enemies who fear the blinding light
Emitted by Igniculus – the second player’s sprite
His power allows him to slow down the ticker
So the player’s attacks appear to be quicker
It makes for encounters of tactics and guile
That allow you to forget the awful rhymes for a while

Writing in rhyme is not easy – this poem shows that
You can work and work and still it falls flat
So why would one bother with this broken approach?
When instead it could not rhyme and there’d be no reproach
From players who expected a beautiful game
And got one but found the script is so lame
That it mars the experience of player interaction
And sadly creates a somewhat ugly distraction

At the end of the day Child of Light’s a good game
I’d recommend it to all who can ignore its script’s shame
Give it a go but remember you can skip all the chatter
Simply ignore all the text and the poor rhymes won’t matter

 

I hope that in the ‘poem’ above I have articulated my thoughts on Child of Light, so I won’t repeat myself here. When my partner and I played through the game’s opening on co-op the other day we were struck by its charm, but also by the poetic ineptitude of the writers that produced it. I feel bad knocking a game for poor poetry, particularly when I have demonstrated I can do no better, but it does have an impact on the player’s experience and I don’t get why the writers persevered with the approach. Writing an entire game in convincing poetry is really, really hard and no one would have even noticed if Child of Light’s dialogue had not rhymed. When we could have been astounded by the beauty of the game’s art style (which is, alone, enough to make it worth recommending) we were too busy laughing and wincing at its awkward poetry. Ultimately it doesn’t ruin the game, but it does make it far harder to praise universally when one important area is so poorly executed.

Image

 

I’m not being mean…that dialogue is awful, right?

Dark Souls: The Best and the Worst

I finished Dark Souls. Seventy-five hours of monsters, marvel and misery and the whole thing came to a head in the ash covered, decrepit ruins of an ancient city. The moment the titles rolled I was unsure what to feel. Elation? Depression? Relief? I felt all of them to some degree, but when the titles finished rolling and I was immediately placed in new game plus I found myself eagerly running through the game’s opening again. It occurred to me that were it not for Dark Souls II sitting on my hard drive awaiting some attention, I would undoubtedly dive back into Dark Souls and go through the whole thing again.

Image

 

Really, nothing says ‘endgame’ better than a knackered Colosseum.

Since completing it yesterday I’ve thought of little else. I wonder how I’d deal with it as a magic user? Could I manage some kind of mage/knight crossbreed? What if I went as a Cleric and did nothing but miracles? And I’ve always fancied a DEX build too, so that might be worth a go. And what if I did things in a different order? I could go to the Undead Parish early by way of the Valley of the Drakes then Darkroot basin, then I could go to Blighttown. I could have both bells rung and be in Sen’s Fortress in no time. That I now realise these things shows how intimately familiar the player has to become with Dark Souls’ world. The possibilities are endless and I simply can’t leave it as it is. I don’t think it’ll be too long before I’m back in Lordran.

I now understand why podcasts like Twin Humanities and Bonfireside Chat work so well. Talking about Dark Souls is surely the only way of covering everything without writing a novel length analysis of its various parts. I have so much I want to say about Dark Souls but no idea where to begin. I’ll have to settle for a few blog posts and accept that I simply can’t cover everything.

Instead, I’d like to present the game’s best and worst moments. These are, of course, completely subjective and reflect more on me as a player than they do the game as a whole. To be fair, Dark Souls has few ‘bad’ moments – just things that don’t match up to the times when it’s at its best. It’s a great game that everyone should play so take this post with a pinch of salt wherever negativity is concerned.

Best Boss: Black Dragon Kalameet

This is a stunning boss fight. It epitomises everything that’s great about Dark Souls. Kalameet is majestic and powerful, and like several other bosses in the game the only reason the player can challenge him at all is because he’s already weakened. Artorias has just one arm, Gwyn is old and Kalameet is nursing a rather nasty arrow wound courtesy of Hawkeye Gough. The game does a great job of making these boss fights seem just possible. Were these enemies on top form there’d be no stopping them.

Image

 

Hawkeye Gough takes the shot that makes Kalameet a boss that can be fought and killed.

I spent most of my time fighting Kalameet at a distance with my jaw on the floor. His design and animations are superlative. Watching him lash out at those attacking him is great to watch, but each movement’s likelihood of causing a death makes it also incredibly tense. I decided to summon some help to take him down, and was lucky enough to find someone clearly knowledgeable and skilled. I ended up killing Kalameet twice in quick succession as once he was defeated in my world my newfound friend requested help taking him down in his. I obliged and my second run was much more up close and personal. I even managed a difficult tail cut – a moment which prompted a surge of adrenaline and a frantic search for an appropriate celebratory gesture.

I was sad when the fight ended and should I find myself returning to the game, I will most certainly be making this optional boss top of my list for co-operative play.

Worst Boss: Bed of Chaos

Image

 

Part of the problem with this boss is that it looks great. It’s just not that much fun to fight.

I don’t get this boss. It breaks the mould, and not in a good way. There’s a general rule to Dark Souls bosses that goes something like this: if you whack it repeatedly, it will die. The amount of whacking required varies based on factors like weapon choice and strength and HP and so on, but that rule holds up pretty much everywhere. Except here. The Bed of Chaos must be defeated by three specifically placed hits. Trying to fight it in the traditional sense is futile as it will simply wear the player down to the point where death is inevitable, and the boss’ health bar will still be full.

There are two dome type things that must be destroyed before the pathway to the monster’s heart is revealed. Said heart can then be stabbed and it’s game over for The Bed of Chaos. The whole things feels cheap and obvious, and isn’t much fun to do. I died a lot of times fighting the Bed of Chaos, but only because I was fixated on the three specific points I had to destroy. Upon the heart’s destruction I felt relieved only because I was able to progress, not because I had come out on top in a fight against impossible odds, which is what pretty much all the other bosses in the game had me feeling.

Best NPC: Siegmeyer of Catarina

Image

 

No worries Siggy. I got your back, bro.

I’ve written about Siegmeyer before. The man is a legend. How he manages to be so jolly in the face of all this misery is beyond me, and every bit of dialogue had me smiling. He has a calm but quiet resolve despite his apparent inability to progress through Lordran without the constant help of the player character. Every time I found him I was eager to help him out so I could see where he’d end up next. When his story came to a head I was devastated.

In my game, Siegmeyer sacrificed himself to save me. After so many occasions on which I saved him, he finally paid the ultimate price as thanks. I tried to help him out one final time, but his bloodlust was so strong and the poison lake we were fighting in was so crippling I just didn’t have it in me. I died and frantically ran back to see if I could still save him, but instead I just watched his final, heroic moments in horror. I felt like a true failure. For all my earlier heroics I wasn’t able to save my friend when it mattered.

But like so much in Dark Souls, there’s plenty of ambiguity to revel in here. I discovered the excellent lore videos of VaatiVidya and learned what would have happened if I had managed to save my friend. It seems I probably achieved the ‘best’ outcome without realising it. Siegmeyer died a hero, his honour intact. Had I saved him once more he would have lived longer but his story would have had a much more bleak ending. His whole story is another reminder that there really are no happy endings in Dark Souls.

Worst NPC: Griggs of Vinheim

Image

Griggs is so dull I didn’t even screenshot him. I had to get his picture from Google. I think I was unconsciously trying to avoid his bland existence.

This guy is a boring wuss. He’s first encountered pleading for help from behind a locked door, and he then spends the rest of the game meekly expressing endless gratitude for having his life saved. How he manages to go so long without hollowing completely is beyond me.

When Big Hat Logan turns up it becomes clear that Griggs is just a star struck student with nothing to do but fawn. Looking back, I don’t know why I didn’t just kill this guy. I never bothered buying his spells as I wasn’t much of a magic character, and every time I spoke to him he just annoyed me. On my next playthrough he’s going down.

Best Area: Anor Londo

Image

Hardly surprising, really. It’s just so beautiful. After the misery and squalor of Dark Souls’ first areas it feels like a genuine reward to be sent somewhere that has sunlight and cleanliness in abundance. I felt the constant desire to screenshot everything as it was such a beautiful setting.

The castle, populated by silver knights, is a tough but brilliantly designed level. Like so many other areas it has very cleverly placed one way doors to allow the steady unlocking of shortcuts to the sublime final boss fight. Walking around its empty halls with just the clink of armour and thud of footsteps is wonderfully atmospheric. The player can’t help but feel a strange sense of isolation, like all life has been removed from the world and time has stopped (which, as it turns out, isn’t a million miles away from what has actually happened). Even if it’s all an illusion, its one I was happy to revel in. Let’s just not talk about all those invasions.

Worst Area: Tomb of the Giants

Image

 

What’s that? A giant stone coffin? Oh I’ll just climb in then, because that makes sense.

This place almost did me in. I really enjoyed the preceding area – the Catacombs – but the Tomb of the Giants was too dark and too difficult. As an area, this one is actually pretty small. The distance between bonfires is tiny when you know the way, but the oppressive darkness and horrific enemies make it a nightmare to travel through. There were times when the Tomb of the Giants had me swearing out loud, and while pretty much every area had me doing the same internally, I couldn’t help but let it out when scrabbling around in the dark here.

The darkness is one thing, but it’s the giant skeletons, crawling on all fours and snapping like giant dogs, that had me on the brink. I found them almost impossible to deal with thanks to their remarkable ability to drain stamina. Again and again I’d have one close to death but it would then kill me before I had chance to react. I’ve never been so happy to arrive at a boss as I was when I faced Nito. I’m glad he was relatively easy, because I couldn’t have taken much more of that area without quitting.

The end of an era…

So there we have it. Dark Souls is complete and Dark Souls II awaits. I may well blog about Dark Souls again in future, but I think it’s time I turned my attentions to some other games. I have quite the backlog thanks to hours spent in Lordran, and it’s been a long time since I wrote about any particularly grim moments. I’ve had an incredible experience with Dark Souls and fully expect it to be a yardstick for just about everything from here on in. Expect it to be my new Hotline Miami when it comes to casual comparisons. You’ve been warned.

Dark Souls: Anor Londo(n’t you dare invade me again)

Sitting down to write this, I feel like I’m reluctantly attending therapy after some traumatic experience. It’s been weeks since I left Anor Londo behind and in terms of progress I’m very near to completing Dark Souls. I think I can say with some confidence that my experiences in the second half of Anor Londo will stay with me as some of the most challenging hours of gaming I’ve ever faced.

Image

 

Ornstein and Smough. They’re a couple of lookers…well…it rhymes with lookers…

Smough. There’s a pretty unpronounceable name. Is it pronounced Smow? Or Smoe? Or perhaps Smuff? All seem possible to me. I can’t remember an instance in the game where anyone speaks the name aloud, so I guess it will have to remain a mystery. Unclear pronunciations annoy me, and I should have taken it as a hint at what was to come that before I even reached this boss fight I was finding it irksome.

To be fair, the fight itself was nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. Before getting stuck into Dark Souls I heard a lot about the Capra Demon and the Ornstein and Smough boss fights. Both were repeatedly mentioned to me as particularly difficult fights and my experiences with Capra suggested that the second would be just as bad. Thankfully, it wasn’t.

The first time I tried to battle I went in alone. It was late at night and I knew I was in need of sleep, but I’d spent hours fighting through Anor Londo and I wanted to at least see the boss fight before bed time. I went in expecting to die, and die I did. I knew that would happen though, so I wasn’t too worried. I went to bed. It was a holiday, so I knew I could get up the next day and pick up where I left off. I was so wrong.

It was pretty clear to me that having help would make Ornstein and Smough easier. I had heard that I could summon Solaire to aid with the battle so resolved to do exactly that. This would mean using some precious humanity to reverse hollow, which I did at the bonfire as soon as I reloaded my save.

And then the invasions started. I took about two steps outside the bonfire room and that dreaded invasion text came up on the screen. I was quite excited at first as I’d only been invaded a couple of times before, so I was up for a scrap with a real human being. I knew I wouldn’t win, but I could give it my best. The invader was on me in no time and made embarrassingly short work of me. It annoyed me that I had wasted some humanity and not made it to the boss, but I had plenty more so I could reverse hollow again upon my resurrection.

That’s what I did. I reverse hollowed and left the bonfire room to take on Ornstien and Smough…and I got invaded again. Pretty much immediately. Different invader this time, but just as powerful. He killed me in pretty much the same place as last time. This experience was a little more annoying than the last as I wanted to get out of Anor Londo. Back to the bonfire I went. More humanity used on reverse hollowing.

And then invasion after invasion after invasion. It would appear that I had chosen to take on Ornstein and Smough in the middle of some kind of invasion festival. I couldn’t make it to Solaire or the boss room before being killed by an invader every time. Each time it happened I became more annoyed until the point where I felt I might snap my controller in half. When I started getting messages from my invaders simply saying ‘lol’ I simply couldn’t take it anymore.

Image

 

An early idea for defeating the invaders was to summon help. It felt good for a while, but it didn’t work.

So I did what I usually do when Dark Souls is winning. I went to Twitter. I received the required sympathy, as well as some sage advice. Go offline. What a revelation. I wish I’d thought of it. I couldn’t find a specific option to go offline within the game menu, so I just removed the Ethernet cable from the back of my PC. The game realised I’d done this almost immediately and booted me to the menu, explaining as it did so that it wasn’t going to let me play with the big boys online if I wasn’t going to plug my internet cable in and do things properly. I seethed and went back into the game, ready to take on that boss fight.

Finally able to summon Solaire, I made my way to the boss room. I could moan for hours about the two Royal Sentinels outside the boss arena. Instead I’ll just say this: the developers at From are horrible people for putting two unbearably tough, respawning enemies right outside the arena of one of the game’s toughest boss fights. That, and thank God for falling strikes.

Royal Sentinels defeated, internet disabled, Solaire summoned, I went for it. Summoning Solaire certainly made the fight easier. He distracted Smuff while I killed Ornstein, which wasn’t too bad. Then Smuff got all upset about his mate being killed and became mega Smuff, but no big deal. I kept my distance, jumping in when possible with two handed sword strikes, then getting out again. It worked. He died.

Image

 

Those moobs really are quite unattractive.

My elation was heightened because I knew I could play the game online again and (probably) avoid the constant invasions. The whole experience did leave me beginning the doubt Dark Souls’ online functions to a degree, which is surprising. Up until this point I, like everyone else that’s played the game, really admired the integrated multiplayer features. Invasions and co-op play are wonderful ideas implemented very well for the most part. I couldn’t help but wonder if they’re as perfect as many people make out though if my only real option to progress was to disable the online features. The developers clearly don’t want the player to do this, and doing it made me feel a little like a cheat, but I’m not sure what else I could have done. I can’t suggest a decent way of dealing with the problem beyond capping the amount of possible invasions, but that would really ruin things for a PvP community. I guess I’ll just have to do what the game wants from me: get good or die trying. Curse you, Dark Souls.

Dark Souls: Childish Prose, Progress and Pain

Image

Say what you like about the ability of children to write prose, they are at least capable of cramming unbelievable amounts of stuff happening into single paragraphs. It may not be sophisticated, or readable, or interesting but the story gets told with none of that nonsense stuff like punctuation or detail. I say this because I’ve made a lot of progress in Dark Souls of late. I have to write about my recent (nightmarish) experience of Anor Londo, but for the sake of completeness I should also cover my time in the preceding areas – Blighttown, Quelaag’s Domain, Demon Ruins and Sen’s Fortress. I could write about each area in detail but by the time I’d finish I’d be half way through Dark Souls II. What to do in such a situation? I pondered this for a while and then had a brainwave. It’s time to let loose my inner child. You’ve been warned.

I couldn’t be bothered to go the Depths way to Blighttown so I went through New Londo Ruins and the Valley of Drakes which was quicker until I got to Blighttown itself where there were big fat men with clubs that dropped their toxic turds as collectibles and loads of mosquitoes who I couldn’t hit with my sword and they poisoned me lots until I almost had no moss left then I went to the bottom of Blighttown and found a hole into a nest where I fought a woman spider called Quelaag she looked evil but it turns out she was just protecting her sister who was also a spider and was a bit sad and her brother who was a giant lava monster that I killed just by running away from him then all the lava went away and I explored a bit but there were Capra demons as normal enemies so I laughed and cried a bit and ran away to Sen’s Fortress which was full of traps and lizard men but there were no Capra demons so I was happy and I kept getting crushed by a big rock but it wasn’t too bad really the only bad part was when I got really embarrassed by summoning someone to help me fight the boss and then he watched me roll off the edge of the boss arena and die within five seconds of going through the fog gate but then I went back to take the Iron Golem on alone and it turned out he just sits down if you hit him enough so I hit him lots and he sat down and I didn’t stop hitting him and then he died and I took his soul.

Image

Quelaag’s male-model brother – the incredibly named Ceaseless Discharge. If you look closely you can see that he does actually have a face.

Now you’re up to speed, let’s get to Anor Londo. Iron Golem defeated I was thrown immediately into a cut scene in which some truly horrible looking creatures (I’m sure they had their brains on the outside of their heads – surely a pretty daft way to wear a brain) carried me off. At first I thought I’d done something wrong, that this would turn out to be some elaborate death animation as a result of missing something earlier. It wasn’t. What it was was beautiful and astonishing. The monsters carried me over a mountaintop to reveal a truly stunning city ahead of me. I was immediately struck by how unlike the Dark Souls I had known so far it was. The first sections of Dark Souls are generally dark, oppressive places which, if they were real, would probably be made out of solid cholera. This was a stone city akin to something from the Roman Empire – all white stone and marble with a glorious sunset behind it. I couldn’t see any plumbing, but I bet it was there, buried beneath the stone, keeping all that cholera out of sight.

Image

 

No caption needed. Just look.

Not long into my time in Anor Londo I found myself walking along an elaborate set of ludicrously thin church rafters, fighting agile enemies as I did it. The whole experience had me grinning from ear to ear because I could perfectly imagine the laughter in the From development studio when they came up with that section. I did of course die a few times but before long I was in front of a giant painting, which promptly sucked me into it to experience the Painted World of Ariamis. This turned out to be a devilishly hard section of the game with a distinctive colour palette and feel that I will save for another time. I spent hours there before emerging stronger and focussed on getting out of Anor Londo alive. Onwards I pressed.

I found myself in front of a cathedrally castle-like structure that comprises about two thirds of Anor Londo as a level. The brain-on-the-outside-monsters were out in force and caused me numerous problems until I discovered they could be easily knocked off the edge of the level (despite having wings) using a well-placed soul arrow. I used this tactic to help me get into range of a couple of archers that caused me no end of grief until I employed the old ‘do it naked’ trick to run past their oncoming arrows (which were massive, by the way). I got past them and found myself at the area’s third bonfire where a brief encounter with Solaire had me blushing through my black iron helmet.

Image

 

He’s a smooth talker, that Solaire.

This was where things got really, really difficult. Remember how I recently bragged about having got my parrying sorted out? You can forget all that nonsense. It turns out that parrying the zombies of the Undead Burg is nothing when compared to the Silver Knights of Anor Londo. Those guys are numerous and completely unforgiving. I should have learned this by now. Dark Souls does it again and again. You think you’ve mastered something. You think you’re safe. You’ve grown as a person and you’re ready to take on the world and then a new enemy turns said world upside down. The Silver Knights did exactly that. I had no choice but to accept my parrying was going to have to improve further. I died again and again and again. I do have an improved parry to show for my efforts, but it’s not there yet. I’m not sure it ever will be, but it’s enough to ensure progress and that’s all that matters to me at the moment.

So I battled through the rooms of the castle, steadily unlocking more of Dark Souls’ perfectly placed shortcuts until I had opened a relatively easy path to a large hall with a fog gate at the end. Beyond that fog gate I’d find Anor Londo’s bosses – Ornstein and Smough – as well as a new understanding of what it is like to feel frustration. My horrific experiences within this room were threefold and they almost broke me. Each requires some detail, so I will cover them in part two of this post. I thought Anor Londo was tough, but nothing could prepare me for what I was about to encounter. I’m breaking out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.