Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Evil Within Review

The Evil Within is what you call "a flawed gem." Having played through the game on Survivor difficulty and being about to finish a run on Nightmare, I can say with some authority that the game is seriously bogged down in a lot of frustrating stuff. For example, there's a crate you can hide in one of the game's later chapters. On several occasions (but not consistently), I was "seen" by a patrolling zombie through the crate's wall, resulting in an insta-gameover (you can't be spotted in this section). More generally, the stealth in the game is not implemented well, and the same can be said for context sensitive actions, which are often finicky.

But despite these flaws, there are just a number of things that The Evil Within does well or interestingly that make it a compelling game for me. It's very challenging and demands a good deal of effort from the player. At the same time, it's a quirky game with an off-kilter sensibility and rhythm that make it stand out from the herd. These parts come together and create a kind of synergy.

The first thing we can talk about is its story. Its disorienting and fragmentary presentation is unconventional in the world of videogames. I lot of people dislike it for this reason, but I personally find it stimulating and intriguing. Rather than being direct and concrete, the narrative is dreamlike and abstract. Think David Lynch rather than Cormac McCarthy, because enjoying the story requires a certain appreciation for the surrealist tradition and its willingness to defy logical conventions. You'll have to think about the narrative if you want to make connections between events in the game, and some questions have no clear answers, but the invitation to think and speculate is something I find rewarding in and of itself.

For example, I would contend that the stylistic direction of the game is meaningfully connected to the actual narrative. Both (style and story) communicate the idea that identity and consciousness are fragile constructions of the mind that can be broken and refashioned. TEW's central villain, Ruvik, is a scientist interested in just this, i.e., the constructedness of selfhood and how it can be taken apart and made into something else. Narrative and autobiography play a major role in creating our sense of self, and the fact that TEW is willing to play with this by presenting an incomplete portrait of its events fits into this exploration of the artificiality of the self.

Unique game mechanics also serve to elevate TEW. For example, enemies get up a lot after being shot, even though they seem to be dead. To be sure they won't harass you any further, you have to burn them with matches, which are a limited resource. Viewed "realistically" it's a silly contrivance. You even have to upgrade your character so he can carry more than five matches at a time. However, in the heat of battle, it adds layers of depth and strategy to the game that are fairly unique. You can burn nearby enemies by setting a fallen undead on fire. This leads to tense situations where you use yourself as bait to lure monsters to a body, only to set both ablaze with a well-timed strike. It's nonsensical and gamey, but it's also a lot of fun and unlike anything else.

The game's aiming system is another strength I feel that most reviewers have passed over. What's special about it is that aiming your weapon zooms the camera into essentially a first-person perspective. Where most third-person shooters keep the camera just behind and above the avatar's shoulder, in TEW, you zoom right past that position to look through the character's eyes. This really threw me the first time I used a gun, but in time, I came to really appreciate the way it made battle more immersive and heightened in detail, as it is in FPS's.

As a survival horror game, TEW pulls no punches. The scales almost always feel like they are tipped against you and, for the most part, this is intentional. Opponents are usually faster, stronger, and more resilient. Resources are limited, traps are devious, and checkpoints are erratic. Overall, these design decisions serve to enhance the game.

For starters, by putting the player at a distinct disadvantage, the game embraces survival horror in ways that recent games seem afraid to. TEW isn't scary per se, but it keeps ever mindful of your situation and vulnerability, pressing you to look nervously around every corner wondering what's coming next. The relative slowness of your avatar is as essential to this feeling as is your limited ammunition. It has its shortcomings, but I find this version of survival horror more satisfying than those conjured up in Dead Space and The Last of Us. Dead Space indulges power fantasies by putting the player in the position of a powerful cyborg with advanced weaponry, and relies on jump scares and monster closets for its horror, which becomes tedious and predictable fairly early on. The Last of Us relies on visuals and narrative to shock the player rather terrifying gameplay. TEW, by contrast, achieves its horror through its core mechanics.

More significantly, difficulty is how TEW shows its respect for the player as a thinking, curious, problem-solving human being. The game is rough around the edges, but much of that comes from the fact that it isn't holding your hand and telling you what to do. Instead, the game wants the player to figure things out for him or herself. This can and will lead to confusion and frustration, but it is, perhaps unavoidably, a necessary corollary to letting the player discover things in his/her own way. There's a lot of viable paths to tackling a problem in TEW, and most of them require intelligence and foresight. The third chapter of the game, which pits you against a village full of undead and traps, manages this brilliantly. Occasionally, things don't work well, but this is more the exception than the rule and only becomes genuinely bothersome on the highest difficulties.

I think it's this commitment to serious game design that ultimately sold me on TEW. At every moment, from fighting, to resource management, to upgrading my stats between levels, I felt the game effectively communicated that how things went down depended on me and the choices I made. It respected me to think for myself when confronted with a challenge and to deal with the consequences of my actions. It regularly threw new problems my way and rarely played the same trick twice. As a result, each session felt fresh and exciting.

I'm surprised at how much I've enjoyed playing The Evil Within the past four weeks, because it's a game with serious issues. As many critics have pointed out, the controls and mechanics are opaque and sometimes inconsistent, and in many ways it is a throwback to a long-gone era of gaming. And yet, despite these problems, I've played this game more and had more fun with it than its more polished survival horror stablemates such The Last of Us and Dead Space. Sometimes I wonder if I like TEW because its flaws and not in spite of them as they give it a certain charm. But ultimately I think that in today's AAA culture of playing to the lowest common denominator, it's a pleasure to play a game that isn't afraid to treat me as an adult. 

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bloodborne Multiplayer Needs More Innovation

After watching some of the streams of the Bloodborne alpha today, I can't help feel that, at least in terms of the multiplayer, the game comes off as a little stale. 

I was hoping for some real innovation in this department. So far, things seem pretty much the same, with only superficial differences. Messages, bloodstains, and phantoms are still there, only now the messages appear as a scroll, the bloodstains are a tombstone, and phantoms are more wire-frame. Otherwise, they function exactly the same. Wow, what a revolution!

I haven't seen much of any co-op, but from what I've read, it seems you ring a bell to summon/be summoned. Again, not a huge change.

It might be premature, but it's starting to look like Miyazaki's secretiveness about the multiplayer system was only hiding the fact that there's nothing to hide at all.

It's a shame, because just on my lonesome, I've been able to think up much better things to do with the game. For example, why not ditch the cumbersomeness of selecting text messages and instead let the player hit a button that begins recording their play for 30 seconds. Players could teach other players about secrets and strategies by letting that recording float around the server. Helpful phantoms could be thanked by shaking the controller.

Or how about, for co-op, make it truly seamless by having players enter and exit each other's worlds automatically, without prompting. Determining whether the other player is friend or foe would become a tense, but inevitable, part of gameplay experience. Co-operation would finally have real weight and consequences, as now working together would require an actual bond of trust.

Neither of these things would have been impossible to implement. But instead of pushing themselves, FROM seems to have decided to retread their once revolutionary, but now overly familiar, multiplayer ideas.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Bloodborne's Gameplay and Difficulty: On the Mainstreamification of the Souls Series

With all the recent info that has come out on Bloodborne this past week, I've decided to write-up my own thoughts about the game at the moment. Mainly, I've noticed a couple of things about the game that I think people have generally missed because they require you to read between the lines of all the various press releases, interviews, and demonstrations that have come out over the weeks leading up to and including Gamescon. These points have to do with the nature of Bloodborne's gameplay and its difficulty, as well as with how these things fit into the evolution of Souls series toward what can be called the "mainstream gaming audience."

First, regarding Bloodborne's gameplay: After reviewing the leaked footage from Gamescon and assessing it in light of From's past statements about the game, I've come to the conclusion that although Bloodborne's dark aesthetic is reminiscent of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls, its design is much more influenced by Dark Souls II. In the first place, Bloodborne will return us to Dark Souls II's emphasis on mob combat with renewed force. Watching the Gamescon footage, you will see that players come against many enemies who attack in groups rather than one-on-one. This was a gameplay direction introduced by Dark Souls II and it marked a significant departure from the previous two Souls games which favored single enemy encounters. It's safe to say that the mob combat style will be a staple of Bloodborne as well, as From has said more than once that the threat of being overwhelmed by multiple enemies is part of the game's core design philosophy.

Another point to consider is how Bloodborne constructs player's combat repetoire. Like Dark Souls II, Bloodborne will emphasize the agility of the player. Dark Souls II made this into its own stat within the RPG mechanics of the Souls series. Its function in that game was to increase the character's ability to react swiftly and dodge enemy attacks. In Bloodborne, this stat has been made into an obligatory feature of  gameplay, with evasive swiftness now being a necessary part of the player's toolset rather than an optional playstyle. In essence, what was a new, experimental mechanic in Dark Souls II will now be a crucial, required component of Bloodborne.

There are lots of other little things that suggest that Bloodborne and Dark Souls II are conceptually connected in terms of design. The return of torches and dark spaces in Bloodborne hints that this attempted and seemingly abandoned mechanic in Dark Souls II is being re-attempted in Bloodborne. Also, at least one character revealed in the Gamescon footage appears to be a near copy-and-paste of an enemy from Dark Souls II. I am speaking here of the cloaked monster banging on the gate that appears around 2:45 in this video. The enemy is very similar to the Undead Jailors fought in the Lost Bastille section of Dark Souls II.

I think these links between Dark Souls II and Bloodborne should be seen as very significant. For starters, it undermines a hard and fast division between the two games that many fans have imagined to exist within From Software's development process. In an interview with Miyazaki (the director of Demon's Souls and Dark Souls), it was reported that Dark Souls II was developed by a separate team of which Miyazaki was not a part. At the time, Miyazaki was actually working on Bloodborne with another team. Some have used this fact as a way of asserting that Bloodborne will be cut from a whole other cloth from that of Dark Souls II. I think these initial comparisons between the games that I have made suggest a different relationship between the two games. Rather than happening in separate isolation chambers, it's clear that there was a good deal of communication and shared design ideas between the two teams. Indeed, it appears that the two games grew out of the same pool of ideas and were guided by same overall plan to re-tool the series into something else. It is this something else that I think fans of the first two games should take time to pause and consider, because it is part and parcel with From's apparent plan for the series since the success of Dark Souls.

The plan, in brief, is to make the Souls series into a more mainstream affair--a plan that, however beneficial it may be to the game's creators, conflicts with what some, including myself, would call the "purity" of the series. This purity, for better or worse, has to do with the uncompromising sense of difficulty, both in terms of figuring out how the overall game system works and mastering the individual challenges presented moment to moment, that the series reintroduced to the world. This is probably the most touchy subject for the games. In the past, any hint that their "hardcore" aspects would be pared back has been swiftly denounced by the most ardent fans. At the same time, there has been a consistent appeal from the wider gaming community that the game be made less unwelcoming to less dedicated gamers. Like it or not, From has shown itself to be more interested in reaching out to the latter group than in satisfying the hardcore desires of the former, and this is an attitude and approach that is written all over what we've been shown about Bloodborne so far.

Going back to the game's release at E3, snippets leaking out of a press meeting about Bloodborne being a less difficult game have been making the rounds. At Gamescon, some of these rumors became more concrete through some of From's own statements. According to multiple outlets, its developers are saying that "the sense of punishment is much less" this time around, explaining that they are aiming for a "wider audience." Some high profile fans, such as VaatiVidya, have been quick to dismiss the concerns rising from this, telling us to "trust in Miyazaki." Well, we've already been around that block before with Dark Souls II and its own "accessibility-gate," and we know where that ended, don't we?

Dark Souls II isn't a bad or easy game by any stretch of the imagination, but most fans of the first two games agree that a number of key elements that made Dark Souls and Demon's Souls so special, such as the large gaps between save-points and the regeneration of enemies, were significantly watered down in Dark Souls II. Other areas of compromise included the addition of voice-chat and targeted co-op, both of which I wrote about before the game came out. These were concessions to vocal gamers who weren't happy with the past entries and wanted to see the series remade along more popular conventions. From reps, including a Namco-Bandai Community Manager in response to my article, assured that these changes were not indications of series dilution (see the comments section of my post linked above). Once people finally got their hands on the game, however, it quickly became clear that something had happened to the Souls series over the course of Dark Souls II's development. Its vitality had been lost. Players weren't as moved by it as they were by the other games. Even diehard fans like EpicNameBro seem to have become apathetic to Dark Souls II at this point, despite having worked on the game's official strategy guide. Following its release, he hasn't done anything with the game in months.

Now, on the eve of Bloodborne's announcement, we are faced with the same situation, the same worries and apprehensions. From is once again making sounds about decreasing difficulty to reach a wider audience, and certain individuals are once again out in full force putting down anyone who dares to raise an eyebrow at these statements. My point is that we should learn from history and read these signs for what they are. Since Dark Souls, From has sought to market its series to an increasingly mainstream audience and the consequence of this is that it has become incrementally less compellingly intense and more banally accommodating.

Watching the demo footage from Gamescon and reading journalists' reports, it seems that Bloodborne will continue this trend by being a more forgiving game. Not only is the player character more agile than ever, making dodging considerably easier, the game further decreases the difficulty by installing a "regain" mechanic that lets player's quickly recoup lost health by (wildly, from the footage we've seen) striking back at enemies. In the demo footage leaked, one can see relatively inexperienced players gain back large swathes of health in this way simply by button-mashing. Some will defend this by citing reports that the difficulty of the demo was toned down to let players experience the full package. I remain skeptical of this. If thought about, the idea doesn't make much sense. Wouldn't that be tantamount to deceiving potential customers about the nature of the game, while at the same time alienating the series' biggest fans? I'm of the opinion that From's claim about the demo being dumbed-down is probably just a cover to stop diehard Souls players from finding out the truth until it's too late.

Some people say that we should simply trust in From. The same thing was suggested for Dark Souls II. Others try to blame Dark Souls II's failings on the absence of Miyazaki from the project, and using that as proof that Bloodborne will be better. I say such thinking is naive. There is clearly a great deal of overlap in terms of the concepts and design for both games, developed in tandem. If Dark Souls II failed to live up to the undiminished intensity of the prior games, it was not because Miyazaki wasn't involved in it. Rather, the shortcomings of Dark Souls II reflect From Software's new view of the Souls series as a mainstream title. Far from disappearing from Bloodborne, this broad-appeal philosophy clearly continues to be a driving force in its creation.

I worry that Bloodborne will  likely continue From's search for a wider audience by being a less demanding and less punishing game. I doubt it will be an easy game, and I hope there will be some good challenges along the way, but overall, I can't help but wonder if it will be part of the series' incremental slide to the lowest common denominator of video game culture, at which point violence, instant gratification, and accessibility become king.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Bloodborne Composer Revealed

Last week it was revealed that recording for the upcoming From Software title, Bloodborne, was being done at Air Lyndhurst Studios in London. Now, further information about the game's composer has materialized (courtesy of the Bloodborne Unofficial Blog). It appears that at least some of the music for Bloodborne will be the work of movie and videogame composer Michael Wandmacher.

Here's a little from his work bio:

Composer Michael Wandmacher is one of most diverse talents working in film music today. His resume of over 50 titles includes composing scores for films and television across multiple genres, videogames, songwriting, remixing, producing, and music design. As a stalwart composer in the horror and thriller genres, he provided scores for Patrick Lussier’s My Bloody Valentine 3D, which grossed over $100M worldwide and director Alex Aja’s Piranha 3D. He also created the high-octane action scores for Marvel’s Punisher: War Zone, Drive Angry, and the now-cult-classic actioner Never Back Down.

Wandmacher has also composed music for videogames, including Activision's Singularity and Sony's Twisted Metal re-launch. A brief scan of Wandmacher's work reveals that he specializes in horror scores. This mostly reinforces early impressions about the tone of Bloodborne being darker than prior Souls titles.

If you're curious to hear some of his work, you can find an example here.

I'm interested to find out what fans think of this development. Is this a good or bad step for the Souls series? Does the hiring of Wandmacher mean that fan-favorite composer Motoi Sakuraba won't be involved in the game? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Destiny Beta Review, Or Why $500 Million Doesn't Necessarily Make a Good Game

Like many people, given all the hype surrounding Bungie's new game, Destiny, I had high expectations going into the game's beta test that began on Thursday. With the famed creators of the Halo series behind the wheel, $500,000,000 of funding, and Peter Dinklage's voice, how could the game be anything short of stellar? Unfortunately, it seems that Destiny is something less. Destiny is a well-constructed first person shooter with some mmorpg elements and novel mechanics thrown into the mix. But great it is not. In fact, to be perfectly honest, my overall experience of the beta was pretty bland. In what follows, I explain why.

But first, let's talk about what Destiny gets right, because the game certainly deserves some credit for its achievements.  

Destiny has one of the slickest interfaces I have every had the pleasure of navigating. Everything about it, from the way you move a cursor across the screen to the satisfying manner in which buttons highlight when you hover over them, makes the user feel like he or she is playing on a computer rather than a console. More significantly, the way the interface gently guides you through its various menus for upgrading, messaging, and equipment management is remarkably graceful. The interface lets you know what can be upgraded, what new equipment is available, and how much progress until your next level at a glance, without ever being burdensome. It's obvious that significant thought went into this part of the game and it should be a lesson other developers.

The shooting mechanics also deserve praise. Destiny's guns have real heft to them when being fired. Shots crackle and whiz through the air more impressively than in perhaps any other game today. Control is tight and refined, with the enemy A.I. helping to bring this into relief. Badies duck, cover, and jump around the arena, taking potshots and lobbing grenades at you from multiple angles. Whenever you take out one these foes with a well timed shot to the head, you really appreciate Bungie's expertise in this area.

As the sheen of these achievements fades away, however, Destiny's lack of ingenuity begins to show. As good at being an fps as Destiny is, it doesn't offer anything cohesive that transcends the limitations of the genre that have set in over the past twenty or so years.

Most disappointing are the role-playing mechanics. In Destiny, you level up by accruing XP gained in combat which in turn unlocks new abilities and power ups that make your character ever deadlier. This was something that really appealed to me going into the beta. What I found out, however, was that there wasn't much "role-playing" to this rpg mechanic. In most rpg's, the player makes decisions about allocating points into different stats, creating a unique character-build over time suited to his or her playstyle. Destiny doesn't go this route. Rather, character development in the game is largely automatic, with abilities and power-ups simply unlocking for your use. There's no real thought or design that goes into developing your character. And it's hard to become invested in this process as a result.

A similar point about a lack of immersion can be made regarding Destiny's mission design. What I had hoped for was a big, open world in which I could adventure, explore, meet other players, and quest, i.e., many gameplay loops intersecting each other at multiple points. Instead, Destiny's gameplay loop is much more singular. You choose a chapter to play and you are then transported to the map where it takes place. You then follow the waypoints set by your computer, called a "ghost," and fight enemies along the way until you reach your goal.

There's really nothing to distract you along the way during Destiny's missions, no intriguing ruins or towers in the distance to investigate, no strange creatures prowling about, or npc's asking for assistance. The process is instead highly linear, with you generally following the obvious path carved out for you by the designers. The one exception is the random events that take place on occasion, which are essentially timed challenges where you fight a shipment of enemies being dropped somewhere on the map. But it's so contrived (a big message flashes on the screen telling when it's happening) that I hesitate to call it anything more than a minor diversion.

The beta does have a "mission" option, titled "Explore," that invites the player to roam about the map. But here enters another problem: the world design is so bland and uninteresting that it doesn't provide any intrinsic motivation to venture out into it. Destiny doesn't really feel like a world as such, but a large multiplayer map with some loot scattered about. Some people will be fine with this and will be happy just to run around with other players shooting up various mobs as they spawn and respawn, but I myself like my game worlds to have a little more depth and range.

I think a better version of Destiny would have instead focused on crafting one, huge open-world that encouraged players to venture out and find things to do, people to meet, and mysteries to uncover. There would be towns scattered about where players would trade, re-equip, form parties, and plan adventures. It would be a less designer-centered experience, and more of a player-driven one, all lovingly-wrapped in the flawless fps mechanics and gameplay that Bungie has come to stand for.

I suppose I can't say I'm terribly surprised that Destiny has turned out the way it has. Given the immense financial investment that went into it, you might say it was almost inevitable that it would be a more straight-forward, linear action affair. "Accessibility" is the word here. Bungie and their publisher Activision need to sell a lot of copies of this game to recoup what they've spent on it. Sadly, for most game companies, this means appealing to the lowest common denominator. If a game is too intricate or too difficult to get into at the beginning, it risks alienating players and potential customers. For this reason, Bungie has made the game's level cap extremely unambitious (rumored to be at level 20). As their investiment lead, Tyson Greens said (as reported by Eurogamer): "We wanted levelling up and reaching a cap something you don't look at and say, 'well, that will take me weeks so therefore I can't play with my friends who are already at the level cap.'" No doubt Bungie came to a similar conclusion about making a more layered and intricate game.

It's a shame that game design today is ruled by such narrow thinking and that developers have so little faith in their audience's desire to be challenged in ways that go beyond traditional areas of effective combat. Destiny could have been something truly special. As it stands, at least from what the beta shows us, it is a solid first person shooter with pretensions that it doesn't live up to.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why Are The Newest Next-Gen Games 30 FPS?

The next-generation of gaming has promised consumers a new level of technical fidelity for the games they play. In the early days of PS4 and Xbox One, this meant not only beautiful textures and dynamic lighting presented in 1080p, but rock-steady 60fps (frames per second) gameplay as well, the current holy grail of framerate enthusiasts.

Things looked auspicious in the beginning. Games like MGSV: Ground Zeroes and Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag hit these benchmarks admirably (at least on PS4). But if you've been paying attention to the latest gaming news, you might have noticed that several of the big upcoming releases, including The Order: 1886 and Bloodborne, while holding firm to 1080p, are targeting a not so impressive 30fps. Other games, such as Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Unity, while still reportedly "aiming" for 60fps, are showing signs through early testing that this might be wishful thinking.

So why is this happening? Why would developers slide back on their promise to deliver us butter smooth framerates for our games? Is it because the new consoles simply can't handle 60fps? No, they obviously can and have. So what is the reason?

The simple truth is that the handful of 60fps games that came out at the beginning of the PS4/Xbox One console generation belong to a brief framerate golden age that was destined to pass away quickly. It's not that developers couldn't keep making games that run at 60fps, because they certainly could. It's that while developers are convinced that great graphics help sell their products, they don't believe high framerates have the same positive effect.

Mike Acton of Insomiac Games sums up the mentality succinctly in his company's report on the importance of framerate for sales:

[...]during development, there are hard choices to be made between higher quality graphics and framerate. And we want to make the right choices that reflect our commitment to providing you with the best looking games out there. To that end, our community team did some research into the question of framerate. The results perhaps confirmed what I've known for a long time, but found it difficult to accept without evidence. They found that:
  • A higher framerate does not significantly affect sales of a game.
  • A higher framerate does not significantly affect the reviews of a game.
Most significantly, they found that "there was a clear correlation between graphics scores in reviews (where they are provided) and the final scores." In other words, the better looking the game, the better the final score it received. Conversely, they found "no such correlation between framerate and the graphics scores nor the final scores."

What this means is that developers have a clear incentive to push the graphics of their games to the upper limit of what their hardware can handle, because better graphics means better sales. Developers do not, on the other hand, have any clear incentive to deliver higher framerates, as higher framerates do not tangibly influence sales. Thus, when it comes time for marking hard decisions, developers will almost always give preference to graphics over framerates.

It's important to realize that it will always come down to making these hard choices. Console hardware is inherently limited in ways that PC's are not. Developers can tweak and streamline software to better take advantage of  a console's resources, but they can't add more RAM, for example, should they decide they needed it. A consoles's material resources are, for all intents and purposes, finite and fixed. Every developer has to choose how they are going to allocate those resources. They can choose to give priority to higher framerate or graphics, but choose they must. And the fact is, the choice will always be to prioritize the graphics of a game.

Some might wonder why game developers can't have their cake and eat it too. The key here is to understand that increasing the graphical fidelity of a game exponentially increases the processing power needed for a high framerate. With cross-gen games like Ground Zeroes and Assassin's Creed IV, the graphics could only be pushed so much because the games had to be feasible on the older consoles. That left plenty of room for higher framerates. The newer, next-gen only games, however, don't have that limitation imposed on them. Instead, developers are free to push the graphics to the system's limits. Will developers hold back on the graphics in this situation to ensure they have resources for running the game at 60fps? Absolutely not. And as the graphics arms race continues over the next several years, the chance of anyone getting a game to run at 60fps will be approximately nil.

Just take a look at what Dana Jan, game director for The Order, has to say on the issue:

I don't know of any other games that are gonna look like our game[...]with all the stuff that's going on lighting-wise, and run at 60. I think that's probably the thing that most people underestimate is [that] to make a game look like this—the way that they're lit, the number of directional lights that we have… We don't have a game where you're just outside in sunlight, so there's one light. We have candles flickering, fires, then characters have lights on them. So [to make] all those lights [work] with this fidelity means, I think, until the end of this system most people won't have any clue how to make that run 60 and look like this

Not until the end of this console generation's life does Jan think we will have games looking as good as The Order running at 60fps. This doesn't bode well for the future of 60fps console gameplay. Because you can bet your life that developers looking at The Order today aren't thinking to themselves, "How can I get a game that looks as good as The Order to run at 60fps?" No, they're thinking, "How can I make a game that looks even better than The Order run at a passable framerate?"

Monday, April 28, 2014

Titanite or Tediumite? An Argument for a Purely Stat Based Equipment System in the Souls Series

Going back to the Dark Souls PvP scene, I've found the decision to include a weapon/armor upgrade system perplexing. From my perspective, it only achieves three things. 1) It limits one's weapon options by adding tedium to the PvP process, 2) it creates an artificial gap between players who have time/desire to grind out gear and players who don't, and 3) it results in unfair inequities between player builds. What is truly frustrating about these things is that they are totally unnecessary. They could all be fixed by a simple adjustment: make equipment upgrades a purely stat based process.

First, let me explain the problems as I see them.  As things stand in Dark Souls and Dark Souls 2, fully upgraded equipment is a requirement for competitive PvP. If your weapons and armor are not leveled to the highest degree, you will be at a distinct disadvantage against the majority of opponents you come up against. This means that to have a chance, you will have to collect a large number of items (called titanite) to bring your equipment up to par, a tedious process that will mainly involve grinding enemies in certain areas of the game.

This is especially infuriating given the large number of weapons potentially available to the player. In Dark Souls 2, for example, in theory the player has many weapon types to chose from and experiment with. But in practice, the player will have to focus on only one or two of these in order to consolidate upgrade materials. The other weapons are left collecting dust as a result because without upgrading they remain vastly inferior.

Some will object here and say, "Don't expect the game to cater to casual players." The thing is, the equipment upgrade process isn't about skill, but the willingness to sink large amounts of time into a repetitive process of killing the same enemies over and over again.

This brings me to my second point. The upgrade system creates a gap between players who have fully upgraded equipment and those that don't, and what that gap essentially represents is not a difference in skill but a difference in time devoted to repetitive play. The division here is not between hardcore players and casual ones, but between players willing to engage in hours of mind-numbing gameplay and those who demand that gameplay always be engaging. The former is not something that should ever be encouraged in game design.

Finally, the current weapon upgrading system enables all sorts of loop holes through the checks and balances built into the game. Soul level, and now soul memory in Dark Souls 2, is used to match players evenly with each other. Weapon upgrading can evade this kind of check, especially when you get people "muling," i.e., gifting low level players powerfully upgraded items. It also brings imbalance to the game by allowing magic based characters to wield extremely powerful melee weapons that in theory should only be available to players who have invested in melee stats.

A switch to a purely stat based equipment system would fix all of these issues in one fell swoop. In this system, the strength of a weapon would be determined entirely by the stats it scales with. For example, a greatsword's damage output would depend entirely on a player's strength stat, or some combination of strength and dexterity. The particulars aren't important. What is key is that there is no upgrading of one's equipment independently of upgrading one's character stats.

Consider the impact this would have on the issues I raise above. The tedium of weapon upgrading would be eliminated. By simply leveling the appropriate stats, your equipment will grow with you, becoming stronger as you become stronger. The process is far more elegant, as leveling up is a natural part of the game, while titanite collecting is more an artificial graft/side-quest.

All the weapons you collected would now be viable so long as you invest in the stats that they scale with. Thus, the available range of weapon options would be dramatically widened for players, introducing more variety and more strategy to more players.

Players would no longer be divided into those willing to grind and those who don't. Instead, skill along with effective stat management would become the deciding factor of PvP encounters. It's the players' builds that should be pitted against each other, not their equipment upgrades.

Finally, muling would be rendered a moot point. It won't matter if some experienced player gives a low level player a powerful weapon, because the weapon won't be effective unless its user invests in the stats that it scales with, thus increasing their soul level and soul memory appropriately.

Indeed, this solution is so simple and so effective, it truly perplexes me that From has not already implemented it. The only reasons I can think of for them not doing it are 1) it hasn't occurred to them, or, and more likely, 2) they are worried that certain elements of the fan base would react negatively to it.

Why? From might be concerned that certain "hardcore" gamers thrive on the idea that by investing hundreds of hours into a game they will get a guaranteed competitive advantage over other players. I emphasize guaranteed because this advantage is not about accruing skill but about accruing goods. The difference is this: gaining skill cannot be guaranteed. One can simply remain bad at a game, no matter how long one plays it, if he/she doen't grasp certain fundamentals. Goods, however, will be gained no matter how smart or talented the player is. So what we're really talking about here is a desire for a structural advantage over other players, i.e., one built into the system itself rather than being dependent upon the talent of the player.

I'm very interested to hear others' thoughts on this. What do you think about this stat based system? Am I missing something? Let me know in the comments below.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Is Dark Souls Better than Dark Souls II? A Critique of Nostalgia

Now that we are a month or so past the release of the latest entry into the Souls series, people are beginning to make comparisons between it and the previous game. Unfortunately, many of those comparisons have veered towards the negative. People have been quick to point out Dark Souls II's faults and shortcomings vis-a-vis Dark Souls. And while I agree that there are grounds for criticism, I think in many cases people are letting feelings of nostalgia get in the way of objective assessment.

More often than not, when people compare Dark Souls II to its predecessor, they are viewing the latter through rose-tinted glasses. They aren't thinking about the entire experience of Dark Souls I, but isolated moments remembered fondly, such as the run through Sen's Fortress and Anor Londo. Who could forget  those swinging guillotines or those archers guarding the palace? The icing on the cake was, of course, Ornstein and Smough, perhaps the single greatest boss fight in video game history. People bring such examples up, and feel convinced that the first game was pure and simply better. And no wonder, in such unbalanced comparison (the highlights of Dark Souls versus the whole of Dark Souls II) there really is no question about which appears better. But the truth is, Sen's Fortress-Anor Londo was a mere sliver of Dark Souls, a piece of a long game with high points and low points.

The lead-up to AL is quite good, so long as you ignore the tedious nature of most of the enemies you come up against and the overall linear nature of the journey. You start in the Burg and things are pretty interesting. But then you go down and spend hours fighting rats, dogs, and frogs, baiting them to strike your shield so you can hit them back safely. If the enemy was bigger than this, you circled him and stabbed him in the back.This is pretty much the first 35 hours of Dark Souls. Block with your shield and strike, circle around your opponent and strike. Now get to a bonfire and level up and then continue down the corridor filled with more dogs, rats, and frogs.

The fact is, there is very little adventuring in Dark Souls, especially in the first half. You can briefly visit a few areas early, if you're feeling suicidal, but the reality is, these areas are designed to seriously deter you from going very far into them. Instead, you are pressured to take the "correct" path, and this is how you'll spend much of the game leading up to and including Anor Londo.

Contrast this with Dark Souls II. Once you get to Majula, there are two paths immediately obvious to you. One is clearly harder than the other, but not impossibly so. You could realistically take it on first and there are good reasons to do so, including opening another path. There's also a big, empty well in the town with platforms for you to drop down on. A simple to acquire ring will open this area to you very early as well. So near the beginning of things, you have four different paths to take, each with its own challenges and rewards. Moreover, you aren't stuck with any one of them once you start it, because you can always warp back to Majula and take another route.

This is real adventuring. Carving out one's own path through a game according to one's own inclinations and luck. There's a lot of variety in player experience in DSII compared to DSI consequently. I didn't realize there was another way to get to the Lost Bastille outside of the hawk that transports you after the Pursuer battle until way later in the game. Others found it but never fought or beat the Pursuer. Some went down into the well early. Others waited and ventured into Huntsman's Copse. All were legitimate pathways that made for unique journeys. Locked doors and sealed passageways also gave you fresh reasons to return to earlier areas--something Dark Souls really lacked.

There are challenges that come with this more open design, mainly dealing with enemy difficulty. It was easier for the creators of Dark Souls to consistently match difficulty of levels with the progression of the player, as they always had a fairly good idea of what level a player would be at a given segment of the game. DSII made this calculation much harder because it gave the player real choices. But despite this, they managed to have challenging scenarios and bosses along each path, no matter when you took it.

Speaking of bosses, Dark Souls II has some great ones. The whole line running from the Pursuer to the Ruin Sentinels to the Lost Sinner was fantastic, particularly if you do it early and don't summon. Each boss meaningfully ramped up the difficulty and provided new challenges to overcome. Other notable battles include the Charioteer, Iron King, and the Ancient Dragon. All of these were well-designed bosses that presented unique scenarios for the player to take on.

Dark Souls II has its share of less impressive bosses, but so does Dark Souls. Don't get me wrong, the Gargoyles were intense, and the Iron Golem fight had great atmosphere. But these are the exceptions, not the rule. Most of the bosses in DSI are just giant damage sponges that hit hard and move little. More often than not, the mechanics of the battle are wonky, making the confrontation feel more like a clusterfuck than the elegant dance that is achieved in many DSII encounters.

This elegance, by the way, has a lot to do with the refined combat system of DSII. The mechanics of battle are just flat out better in DSII than Dark Souls or Demon's Souls. Animations are smoother and more realistic. Sword swings are weightier and more visually discernible when incoming. The timing and mechanics of rolling are better implemented too. All around, the battle system is more precise.

Dark Souls II also manages to give us a much better second half than the first game.

And if Dark Souls II doesn't have anything to quite match Ornstein and Smough, it makes up for this with a superior second half. After O&S, you are sent back down to the deep, dark depths of the world. People forget how anti-climatic this is. Narratively, this just doesn't work. You can't repeat the rising structure after it has happened once and get the same results. Going back down is a drag. As a result, the second half of the game becomes a chore. It doesn't help that the bosses and levels in this half aren't very inspired. The main thing motivating you to continue on at this point is the sheer investment of time and energy already sunk into the game and the desire to see it through to the end.

It's a strange fact, but the quality of Dark Souls directly corresponds with the relative elevation of your character on the world map. The higher up you are, the better the game.

Dark Souls II does better. In its second half, there are once again choices to made about which path you will take. They lead to some exciting and devious places, and previews of the game let you know that there are some real treats yet to be seen which keeps you motivated. I was still wondering when I would find the Mirror Knight. I also knew that dragons would come into the picture sometime. Finally, I wanted to find the King. This kept the latter half of DSII a lot fresher and more engaging than the second half of Dark Souls.

Some people have taken issue with the lack of world interconnectedness in Dark Souls II. The incongruous transition from Earthen Peak and Iron Keep is the chief example brought up in this context. This is a good point, and I don't want to come off as simply dismissing it, but people really exaggerate the quality of interconnectedness in the first game. The way some people laud it, you'd think the game is very open and that you can get to all areas of the map from tons of different directions. But this isn't the case. You can see The Demon Ruins from the Tomb of the Giants, but it's not like you can get down there from that vantage. You're still bound to the preset path determined by the game's designers. So the interconnectedness exists visually, not materially. It gives the illusion of depth where there really isn't any, like a matte painting in a film.

This doesn't excuse Dark Souls II for lacking the interconnected of its predecessor, even if it is largely cosmetic, because it did clearly show the care and thought the first game's creators put into it. For me, however, the contrast highlights the need for a marriage of the two in a future game: a deeply interconnected world that also facilitates truly open exploration. 

I haven't mentioned the online components of the games. Suffice it to say, the online component of Dark Souls was a real step back from Demon's Souls. The switch to P2P meant far fewer messages and phantoms appeared while playing. The balance between human and hollowed was totally under-thought in the game as well. The effect of which was to severely diminish the quality of certain PvP elements, namely invasions. DSII, by returning to a server based system and by allowing invasions regardless of the host's status rectified both these serious flaws of the predecessor to some degree.

None of this is to say that DSII doesn't have its faults. It does, certainly. But most of them are faults that are common to the series as a whole rather than unique to DSII. Both games have anti-climatic final boss fights which is something FROM has yet to getting a handle on. The series still relies too often on bosses that essentially require circling and dodging. FROM need to press themselves to come up with more innovative encounters or reduce the number of bosses and focus on making a few great ones.The same goes for level designs. They need to stop re-using the Valley of Defilement/Blighttown template and come up with something new. Also, they need to give the multiple gargoyles boss a rest, because it's no longer exciting.

If Dark Souls II has an individual fault, I would say it is a lack of commitment to some of its best and novel ideas. The torch mechanic ended up being implemented half-heartedly and consequently has no real purpose in the game. The gradual hollowing of the character upon each death (with corresponding reductions to the health bar) was a bold move that FROM significantly undercut by including the Ring of Binding early in the game. Finally, the frightening prospect of always being vulnerable to invasions never fully materialized because of the scarcity of red orbs and lack of incentives for invasions.

On the whole, however, I would argue Dark Souls II represents a substantive step-forward for the Souls series. It loses ground in some areas, such as interconnectedness and having a truly breathtaking, stand-out boss fight, but gains in more important areas such as combat depth, exploration, and online play. So let's take stock of this and try not to let our nostalgia for what never was prevent us from appreciating what now is.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Some Advice on the Eve of Dark Souls II

Before you tear into your midnight release copy of Dark Souls II, consider this:

You will only be able to play this game for the first time once, and that no matter what, a certain magic will be lost for all the subsequent playthroughs.

No doubt the game will have much to reward players with in their second, third, and fourth runs. But, as the cliche goes, there's nothing quite like the first time.

For this reason, I encourage you to take it slow. Test unusual pathways, search for hidden depths, attempt unorthodox strategies. Do not try to rush to the finish line.

I've been noticing the large number of people with advanced copies posting about finishing the game. The fact that they couldn't have had it for more than a week shows me that, in their frenzy to brag about beating the final boss, they squandered the chance of losing themselves in the mysteries of a strange world.

Don't let this happen to you.

Like fine meals, great games are meant to be savored over time. Try to keep this mind when you put that game disc in the system later today.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Kojima's Finest Moment: The Snake-Raiden Affair

In my mind, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, represents the high-water mark of the series. Not only did it constitute a tremendous technical leap over its predecessor, Metal Gear Solid, it engaged in a level of narrative and ludic experimentation yet to be truly rivaled by any other game. Kojima wanted to make a statement with MGS2, and he pulled it off with panache.

Perhaps no moment in MGS2 captures its ambitions more effectively than its most infamous one. After completing an opening prologue in which the player once again takes control of the super soldier, Solid Snake, he or she finds out that for the rest of the main game, he/she will actually be playing as a slightly effeminate and utterly unknown rookie, codenamed Raiden. The move was a total bait and switch. Kojima had carefully concealed the new character from all promotional materials and previews of the game. Many fans of the first installment were outraged, others were simply baffled. It was the memorable character of Solid Snake that had made so many of them fall in love with the first game, and they fully, and reasonably, expected to reprise that role in the sequel.

I don't think it's at all a stretch to say that Kojima castrates the gamer by making him play as Raiden. His notable femininity (long, flowing hair, wide hips and narrow waist, soft voice and smooth skin) all point to an essential unmanning of the player. The same can be said for the introduction of Raiden's girlfriend, Rose, as part of the mission team. She calls Raiden on the codec to discuss relationship issues as often as she calls for mission support. The emotional talk, like Raiden's body and demeanor, has the effect of making the player feel like he is losing control over the situation.

The strong reaction of so many (mostly male) players to the switch supports this reading. The guys did not like having their "Solid Snakes" taken away from them, only to be replaced by what they perceived to be an inferior and androgynous "sissy-boy." They were angered and frustrated because their power trip was stolen from them before it even got started.

The sudden introduction of Raiden in this way, however, wasn't about trolling players, nor was it merely a plot device to make Solid Snake an even more larger than life figure, as a recent Edge retrospective claims. The point was to disrupt the identificatory link between the gamer and the game, to create a critical distance between the player and the "information machine."

The discovery of Raiden was immersion breaking in the extreme. As an act of castration, it severed the player from his connection to the game. Suddenly, he is pulled out of the immediacy of action and pressed to contemplate the meaning of the moment. Amidst that spell, the player is presented with a host of themes and problems to begin to consider.

For instance, riding that elevator up to the top of the Big Shell, each and every player had ask him or herself, on some level, who is this new character?

As it turns out, Raiden represents the player's self as a gamer.

Raiden has no real combat experience. All of his training comes from VR simulation. Like the player, he is the mere image or reflection of what Solid Snake is in actuality.

Although we learn these details over the course of the game, during that elevator sequence, we actually experience their impact for ourselves in real time. We too are mere simulations of heroes, dreamers who forgot momentarily that they were in a dream, and the revelation of Raiden was like a bucket of cold water thrown in our faces.

We don't have to imagine how Raiden feels in relation to Snake because we have already undergone the same realization in relation to the game itself. And so right from the get-go, by cutting us off from the self we invested our egos in, the game involves us in the search for identity that is  the center of MGS2's narrative.

The conversations about the dawn of the internet, VR, meme theory, and genetics that will follow all attempt to approach this concern from different angles. But the switch to Raiden is perhaps the moment in which the issue most powerfully impresses itself upon the player, even if for some it remains latent or unconscious.

This moment of having the rug pulled out from under player was clearly something Kojima felt passionately about. MGS2 was, without exaggeration, the event of the PS2 era. It was the mega-blockbuster console exclusive to end all mega-blockbuster console exclusives. Thus, the financial stakes of the game were immense. Such scenarios are not ones in which game makers and producers are wont to take chances. It would have been easy enough not to rock the boat and just give players more of the Solid Snake they were looking for. But Kojima defied them, and consequently risked alienating them as well as severely undermining the series' future, for the sake of creating a powerful moment to frame a narrative journey that would continue to the game's end.

Kojima did this at a time when hardly anyone was taking video games seriously as aesthetic objects. Consequently, through MGS2, he contributed greatly to the currently developing appreciation of the medium as more than mere entertainment. For this reason, it marks one of Kojima's and the series' finest moments.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

VaatiVidya's Corporate Partnership

A great deal of controversy concerning the revelation of a partnership between the well-known Dark Souls commentator/youtuber, VaatiVidya, and videogame retailer, Gamestop, has flared up in recent weeks. The partnership was leaked through the appearance of a video, authored by VaatiVidya and "powered" by Gamestop, on the company's website. Suffice it to say, the surfacing of the video surprised a lot of people in the Souls community, including VaatiVidya himself, who apparently did not know that Gamestop was going to release it in this manner. More significantly, the video sparked a substantial backlash within the community, enough that VaatiVidya felt compelled to clarify his position both on the reddit forums and on youtube, assuring followers that he was not paid for it and that he had not "sold out."

Let me be perfectly clear and say that I am not persuaded by VaatiVidya's explanations and re-assurances. His claim that he is not being "paid" is disingenuous and misleading. More importantly, his account overlooks the more glaring problems with his corporate partnership. He seems to think that he can go on making Souls videos in an unbiased manner, despite being joined to entities representing the financial interests of the game. This is just wrong and the signs of it are starting to show.

First, it is important to note that VaatiVidya didn't actually come clean about his relationship with GameStop until he was outed by accident. His explanation was more like damage control than genuine transparency, and if we look backwards, we can see that this was something he was doing before the revelation too. Running up to GameStop-gate, people had noticed VaatiVidya's videos beginning to take on an unusually promotional tone, including links to GameStop pre-orders in the "relevant links" section. Many, understandably, were a bit taken aback by this. It became a topic of discussion in the community. Some even posted comments about it on VaatiVidya's youtube channel.

VaatiVidya's response to these criticisms was simply to delete them from his website.

You might say he was just annoyed and decided he wasn't going to let such comments stand. But the fact is, VaatiVidya gets hundreds of comments everyday, some kind, some not so kind, and this hasn't seemed to bother him in the past. The suggestion that he was being less than 100% genuine apparently touched a nerve. Prior to the GameStop incident, one could interpret VaatiVidya's actions in a number of ways. But after the revelation of his partnership, it becomes extremely difficult not to see what did as a kind of covering up

VaatiVidya's apologia posted to youtube and reddit might be said to be equally dubious. On reddit, he made the following statement:

these videos were allowed to be hosted on GameStop's channel and webpage. I don't think it's completely fair to even say they were made FOR GameStop, because i'm not getting paid for them and these are videos I plan on making anyway. I was the one who pitched the concept for each one.

Saying that he is "not getting paid" for these videos is a misleading equivocation on his part. It may be true that neither Namco-Bandai nor GameStop is paying him money for these videos. But they are paying him with content, which VaatiVidya subsequently monetizes. Through his partnership, VaatiVidya receives footage of Dark Souls II that no one else has access to. This access has value, financial value, and the proof of this is in the sky-high number of views he is getting (two to three times more than his videos usually get).

There's nothing wrong with someone getting paid for his or her creative work. It's a labor like any other.  But VaatiVidya's partnering with GameStop and Namco-Bandai constitutes a different case. In legal speak, we have a "conflict of interest."

By partnering with the distributors of the game, VaatiVidya has tied his work to its corporate interests.These interests have the profitability of the game as their and first and foremost concern. All other considerations are secondary. Through his partnership, this set of values becomes his as well. It works like this: Whatever content VaatiVidya creates will inevitably be framed by his own knowledge that his special relationship with Namco-Bandai and GameStop, and the exclusive content it gains him, depends upon his work aligning with the priorities of the corporations. If, for example, he were to decide that he didn't think DSII was as good as the first game, or had serious complaints about major design decisions, and posted a video about it, Namco-Bandai certainly wouldn't provide him with any early access in the future. VaatiVidya knows this and the knowing of it can't help but affect his assessment of the game, even in ways that he might not be conscious of. Saying something that might negatively impact the game's profitability could cost VaatiVidya real financial gain, and there's simply no way that this situation wouldn't have some bearing on his work, even if on an unconscious level. Thus the corporate interests in the game, the interests that place profit above all else, become VaatiVidya's interest, whether he wants them to or not.

As a gamer and fan of the Souls series, I of course have a different set of interests (as am sure you do too). While I certainly wish From and Namco-Bandai well financially, I do not place their bottom line above my own appreciation of the game as an aesthetic object. Accordingly, I feel free to critique the game (positively or negatively) as I see fit, with no ulterior motives about profit influencing those judgments. By partnering with Namco-Bandai and GameStop, however, VaatiVidya has lost that ability by making profit one of the deciding factors for his critical appreciation of the game. Consequently, he will have to judge the game according to a metric that is alien to the pure enjoyment of the game as an aesthetic object. For him, it becomes a commodity to be sold, and when he speaks about it, he does so with this condition in mind.

The upshot is that VaatiVidya has severely compromised his own capacity to evaluate the next and future Souls games in an unbiased manner.

Believing that VaatiVidya could just go on making the videos 'he wants' after partnering with Namco-Bandai and GameStop is just wishful thinking. His own assertions to the contrary are naive at best. The fact of the matter is, he has bound his work to the outlook held by the money-making side of Souls series and as a result, his work will have to incorporate that outlook into his own.

There's a reason why we don't want a judge to decide a case involving members of his family. It's the same reason you don't want a journalist reporting on a company in which he is financially invested. Bias is unavoidable in such situations, and bias unavoidably taints people's perspectives.VaatiVidya has tainted his relation to the Souls series by partnering with forces that value its profit above all else. His opinions will be informed by theirs. And as a result, he can no longer speak to the community simply as a fellow gamer. Instead, he now represents the corporate arm of the Souls series, and all the values that come with it. Take that as you will.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dark Souls II: The Death of a Dream

The recent announcement of preorder bonus items for Dark Souls II disturbs me on multiple levels. Superficially, I'm concerned that certain players will gain an unfair advantage (which they essentially bought) by wielding these weapons, undermining the "achievement through perseverance" ethic that defines the Souls series. But more deeply, I'm troubled by what the bonus says is happening to the series.

I won't beat around the bush, but state straight-out what I mean. The Souls series seems to be being stripped of it's grassroots character. Instead, it is being transformed into a market-driven commodity that is more concerned with profit than it is with the integrity of its game world.

This shift from fan-base to corporate-base has been presaged by several announcements leading up to the preorder bonus. First, the maker's (From Software) partnership with the conglomerate Namco-Bandai for the sequel was ominous. Then, the director's mention of increased "accessibility" set off bells warning of corporate meddling. Many were later assuaged when journalists started reporting that the game was still difficult. But shortly after this, a bombshell hit when From revealed that Dark Souls II would feature voice-chat and mechanisms for facilitating co-op with friends, both changes in design which seemed to go against the core aesthetic of isolation that defined the earlier games.

The preorder bonus is thus just the most recent indication of the series losing its soul. More specifically, it is one of many signs pointing to the intrusion of for-profit ideologies into the very core of the game where once they did not exist.

In Dark Souls, for example, there was the Drake Sword. Though it could be acquired early in the game and would give players a distinct advantage, it was an in-game item only. It could only be acquired through gameplay, either discovering oneself or learning about it through others. The pre-order items are of another class. They are purchased by the player before the game even begins, not played for. The fact that you can also find the items in game (as From has stated) doesn't change this.

The difference is this: the Drake Sword was not COMMODIFIED. The preorder bonus items are commodified. The Drake Sword was a special item whose acquisition was completely bounded and contained within the artistic unity of the game and the free community of players that grew up around it. The preorder bonus comes from a system of values external to the game world and its community, a space governed by capital, i.e., private ownership, profit, and marketing, which the game community has little to no direct control over.

The contrast here between pure in-game items and pre-release DLC is of course one that has been the subject of much debate. For the Souls series in particular, however, it poses a special threat to one of its defining attributes: its community-led distribution. The Souls series has one of the most active communities in gaming history. Its success has largely been driven by a fan base motivated by personal passions rather than profit. The preorder bonus betokens a turning point in which that collective, community-based ownership of the series' past is being subordinated to the private aims of its corporate future.

The signs of this sea change are written all over the wall. Many of the game's most prolific and established community members have already been co-opted. Epic Name Bro, one the biggest voices in the community, has been officially silenced due to his paid work on a forthcoming strategy guide. Another major contributor known for his lore videos, VaatiVidya, after being invited by Namco-Bandai to try out a preview demo of the game, is now effectively doing PR videos for the company in which he dismisses legitimate concerns about the questionable changes to the series and tells fans to go preorder the game now! Other prominent community members have been invited to special preview events that subtly pressure them to talk up the game afterwards. Whereas once these people were free to express themselves as individuals within the community, they are now in part owned by and serve the corporate interests taking charge of the game.

It's sad that this is happening. Some might say it was inevitable. The Souls series could be said to be victim of its own success. The pure, genuine love of fans that propelled Demons' Souls and Dark Souls to Game of the Year status has come to the attention of capital and it is working hard to convert that affection into cash. We all know how it will end. The people that see Dark Souls II as a way to make money will never understand what made the game such a hit without their big advertising budgets and market research. They'll simply cannibalize the good-will of the fans until nothing is left but a hollow husk.

So begins the death of a dream in which art triumphs over greed. It was certainly nice while it lasted.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker Makes No Sense!

I just finished Metal Gear Solid Peace Walker on PS3 and I have to say that the game has left me completely baffled (and frankly concerned) about the narrative future of the series.

The premise and motives behind the game's story simply make no sense. I say this fully aware of the fact that Metal Gear games always border on the absurd and wacky. But no matter how crazy the other games were, at the very least, they were intelligible, even if they required a great suspension of disbelief. Peace Walker is something different. It defies comprehension.

OK, on the most basic level, the story of Peace Walker goes something like this: Big Boss, after completing a mission that forced him to kill his former mentor, has become disillusioned with Cold War politics and the nation-state system. Out of this disillusionment, he founds an organization called MSF (Militaires San Frontieres) and its headquarters, an offshore facility dubbed Mother Base. The latter operates as a kind of haven for disaffected soldiers and mercenaries searching (I guess) for like-minded amoralists to hang out with.

In the game, Big Boss gets involved in a series of operations in Central American (in the mid 70s). The KGB and a new secret organization, Cipher, are involved in the development of a fully automated nuclear deterrence robot that is supposed to be necessary for detente because mere humans don't have the courage/evilness within them to annihilate the planet. Thus they need a machine to do it for them. Classic Metal Gear hijinks ensue, people are double and triple crossed. By the end, Big Boss has stopped at least three nuclear strikes against the United States from happening and acquired his very own Metal Gear prototype, Metal Gear Zeke.

Now none of this is that difficult to follow, at least when it's laid out. It's when you probe deeper into the matter that things become much less clear.

For instance, what exactly is MSF?  According to Big Boss and others, it's an organization without nationality, without a philosophy, without ideology. This is confusing on a number of levels. First off, it is a contradiction in terms. An organization, to quote Merriam-Webster, is "a company, business, club, etc., that is formed for a particular purpose." MSF, following Big Boss's definition, lacks such a purpose (this is what an ideology or philosophy would be). So MSF is an organization with no organizing principle.

Some might object that MSF does have a purpose. Big Boss says (more than once) that they fight for themselves now. OK, fine, but that's not a organizational principle. That's not a code that an organization can function by. That's willy-nilly saying do whatever the hell you want. Good luck running an organization with that notion!

There are a lot of other issues that hang on this lack of direction. Why are the mercenaries willing to serve MSF? What's in it for them? Big Boss talks a lot about the "freedom" that MSF provides, but never defines concretely what that freedom actually entails. The freedom to do what? Follow Big Boss's orders? Are these guys getting paid? I'm not even going to get into the absurd manner in which you recruit these people.

How does MSF fund itself? Does it take contracts? If so, doesn't that compromise its free-wheeling philosophy of no philosophies. Wouldn't that make MSF nothing more than a tax shelter for hired killers? If not, if they do discriminate between clients for moral reasons, how would they do that? Wouldn't that require a philosophy of some sort, i.e., a belief system or, yes, an i-d-e-o-l-o-g-y.

The biggest problems, however, involve Big Boss's motivations. What is he after exactly in this game? Why does he get entangled in the plots taking place in Central America? Again, there is a lot of talk of freedom (always in the abstract, never concrete), distrust of nation-state politics, and peace. But I don't see how a rogue military organization is supposed to help this situation. Are they supposed to act as a counter-force to the super-powers? Are they going to police the world and impose a new global order? But wouldn't such things simply replicate the authoritarian structures of power that Big Boss opposes? I don't see what Big Boss could be thinking here. What's more, Big Boss doesn't seem to know either. He just repeats the same platitudes again and again.

I suspect Big Boss's lack of clarity stems form the inherent lack of sense in the concept of MSF. This really does trouble me, mainly for what it bodes for the future. The next Metal Gear game (Ground Zeroes) follows shortly after the events of Peace Walker. As a result, I don't see how it will avoid getting bogged down in the same nonsensical premise that undermines the narrative of its immediate predecessor. That would be bad. Peace Walker was originally a PSP game. As such, I can see being a little forgiving about its production values in terms of scripting. But it is canon and its ideas and events can't simply be pushed aside in the next game. My worry is that Ground Zeroes (and the Phantom Pain after it), won't be able to put the pieces back together, so to speak, and Peace Walker's nonsense will infect the future games and make them stupid at best, nigh incomprehensible at worst.

But what do you think? Were you able to make more sense of MSF and Big Boss's motivations? Do you see ways that they could be made more intelligible in Ground Zeroes and The Phantom Pain? Post your thoughts in the comments section below.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Will Voice-Chat Ruin Dark Souls II?

The recent demonstrations of Dark Souls II to select members of the press and Souls community members has produced a shocking revelation: Dark Souls II will feature online voice-chat between players. I think this is horrible development. In a moment, I'll explain why. But first, some context:

According to what's being reported by people who attended demonstrations in San Francisco and London held in the last two days, players will have the option to enable (or disable) voice communications. Apparently this feature applies only to co-op, not invasions, but the matter isn't entirely clear at the moment. At any rate, instead of host and summons working together mutely to overcome a boss, they will be able to speak to each other in the game, coordinating moves, making plans, or telling jokes.

So what's wrong with that? Where do I begin? For starters, it undoes one of the most appealing aesthetic dimensions of Dark Souls - it's sense of isolation - and replaces it with mundane chatter. Whereas in Dark Souls it was entirely up to my imagination to flesh out the character of someone playing with me, From has decided to alleviate me of this burden by letting that player's voice come through my TV's speakers. Whoever ends up speaking will never live up to what I would produce myself simply by dwelling on the subject.

Someone might object that you can turn voice-chat off and thus solve the problem. My response is that such a solution is naive and does not think through this shift adequately. Allowing voice-chat will create a new norm and a new set of expectations that come with it. Summoned players/hosts will likely come to expect you to speak to them through the tool. If you have it off, they will probably ask you to turn it on. Going through this rigamarole every time you join with someone will simply become tedious and eventually, you will likely be worn down by it.

Furthermore, turning voice-chat off is essentially imposing a handicap on yourself vis-a-vis other players. No one can think that being able to speak to other players in co-op wouldn't help them take on enemies, bosses, and invaders. So turning it off is deciding to give all the players who use it a distinct advantage over you.

My point here is that those who think that voice-chat is just an individual decision without further repercussions are mistaken. Dark Souls is determined just as much by the choices of the community that plays it as it is by what the individual player does in his or her own game. If something changes in that community, it affects the individual player too.

But what I list above isn't what is worst of all for me. More troubling than anything else, in my view, is what the introduction of voice-chat does to the artistic integrity of the Souls series.

From has opposed the incorporation of direct vocal communication between players since Demon's Souls. This opposition hasn't been easy for them as it has been criticized by numerous players and journalists for just as long.

So what happened? I think it's fairly obvious. From caved to the pressure. And as a consequence, they've lost sight of what set the Souls games apart from so many other products.

You see, unlike practically ever other game designer out there today, with Demon's Souls (and Dark Souls after it) From created works of art. What I mean by this that the Souls games were not designed around what From thought gamers liked or wanted, but what they believed gamers needed. They had a message, a meaning, that they were striving to communicate to us. They wanted the Souls games to reveal something within ourselves that we weren't aware of presently. You can't do this without frustrating the desire of the gamer in some way, because that is the only way to show someone something that he or she didn't already know about him or herself. Many who still complain today that it was all so excessive haven't grasped this point. True art requires bravery and conviction because it challenges the status quo and accepted wisdom. Design by popular decree can never achieve this because it moves in just the opposite direction. Just think what would have happened if Leonardo had used a survey to determine what features should be given to the Mona Lisa.

The lack of voice-chat was an integral part of the artistic expression of the Souls games. It served as a beautiful metaphor for the ghost-like relationships that characterize the digital age in general. So long as From stayed true to that message, it rang clearly through the silence of our collective isolation. Now, it seems that message is about be drowned out by the hubbub of the common rabble.

What do you think?

Monday, January 20, 2014

Darks Souls 2 Covenants Speculation

The achievements list for Dark Souls 2 has leaked and what it reveals is certainly intriguing. In this post, I will discuss and speculate about what the list tells us about the covenants we will find in the game.

Firstly, nine covenants are listed: Brilliant, Protector, Sanguinary, Meek, Gnawing, Clangerous,  Ancients, Fittest, and Abysmal. These are not necessarily the proper names of the covenants but  the achievement titles associated with them.

From the brief descriptions and images attached to the achievements, it is clear that the Brilliant covenant is the new Warriors of Sunlight covenant, Protector is the Blue Sentinels (defenders who come to the rescue of invaded players), Sanguinary is the new Darkwraith  covenant (invaders), and the Meek is the covenant that receives aid from the Protectors.These covenants have largely been confirmed since the beta.

The Clangerous covenant, though not in the beta, is very likely the bell guardian covenant revealed in past interviews (the achievement icon for it depicts a bell). Members of this covenant are said to be summoned to defend a bell against players needing to ring it.

What about the rest? We know of two more covenants that have been described. One is the Mirror Knight covenant, the members of which can be summoned to assist the Mirror Knight boss. The other, reported on in the January issue of Edge Magazine, is a covenant that targets players who have successfully invaded and killed several hosts consecutively.

So which is which? My guess is that the covenant of the Ancients is the Mirror Knight covenant. My reasoning here is that the Mirror Knight is a giant and the giants are known to be an ancient race in Dark Souls. I think the covenant of the Fittest is the avenger covenant. Why? Because they must be the fittest warriors if they are to take on the game's most talented invaders.

I think the Gnawing covenant is a likely successor to the Gravelord covenant for Dark Souls 1. In literature and film, rats are associated with entering graves and feeding on the dead, so gnawing is a fitting description for a covenant of necrophiliacs.

This leaves the Abysmal covenant. Here, your guess is as good as mine. I don't know what this could be.

What do you think? Post your own theories below in the comments.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Dark Souls 2 Will Be Harder Than the Beta

If you thought the closed Beta for Dark Souls II was too easy, you're in for a treat. The actually game will be harder. According to Darks Souls II producer, Takeshi Miyazoe, in a recent article from Edge Magazine, player data from the beta proved the game's initial set-up was not challenging enough. The final product's difficulty will thus be increased. But how much harder will they make it? This is something that From is still debating, but the generally sense is that the final game's difficulty will be closer to the "Hard Difficulty" mode initialized towards the end of the second NA beta test.

I for one am excited by this news. I played both sessions of the NA beta, and I definitely thought the Hard mode made the game more thrilling.

What do you think? Should From make the beta harder or was it hard enough before the difficulty was raised?