Let It Rot
In my review of Dark Souls III, I grappled with the series’ obsession with cycles. It’s a theme that makes for fascinating discussion and mythology, but it’s also a nice narrative explanation for why the series has repeatedly invoked the same character and location archetypes. For the most part, all you ever get to see are ruined towns and churches and the deadly wilds that surround them, yet you’re tasked—in rather vague terms—with seeking out a method to ensure the continued survival of this land and its people. So The Space Pope had to wonder, are these places really worth saving?
So does anybody actually live in these beautiful, bleak, doomed worlds? This style of game really isn’t my thing, but I’m curious about the setting. Whenever a game or story or what have you is set in one of these “dark fantasy” worlds, where everything’s covered in mud and there are zombies and cursed knights around every corner, I have to ask: Why exactly is this world worth saving? Who am I saving it for? Do people still farm and trade and build? Are there towns full of people depending on heroes to save them? Or is everyone just another shambling revenant, going through the motions of life that have long since lost their meaning, like the countless enemies who seem to just sit around all day waiting for some random yahoo to wander by and be disemboweled? If this is preferable to the apocalypse, then what the hell is an apocalypse?
I had a similar problem with the Dragon Age games initially. They’re fun to play, but as I learned more about Ferelden, I had to ask if this was a world that was really worth all this effort. Everyone’s racist, doing magic gets you either a leash or a demonic possession, and the ground is full of monsters who are guaranteed to show up and wreck everyone’s shit every few years. Eventually I got over it and enjoyed the games for what they are, but the general principle still nags at me. I’m all for complexity and shades of gray in my fantasy worlds, but it’s not much fun to play around in a world that’s nothing but gray.
Dark Souls’ mythology is infamously obscure, but several commenters stepped up to try and answer this question (myself included, although my answer is a little more concerned with interpreting the broader implications of “saving” and “not saving” this world). Here’s Drinking_With _Skeletons’ explanation:
The Souls games are always set in ruined areas to which your character travels, and your character is always somehow set apart from the general populace. In DS and DS2, you are an undead striving to end the curse of the undead, and you have to travel to forgotten regions to do so. This is especially highlighted in DS2‘s introduction video. The characters you meet are also from other regions and often discuss the reason they set out on their own quest. It’s usually for a similar reason.
Having said that, there are some signs that the worlds in DS and DS2 aren’t bound by normal laws of time and space. The whole cooperative aspect is explained as pulling people from alternate realities into yours, and based on the geography of DS2 and some subtler signs in DS1, I suspect that not all areas of the world you explore exist in the same timeline and/or dimension.
So in short, the areas you explore aren’t places where civilization really exists, but the world continues on outside of them.
As for the other fantasy series The Space Pope mentioned, Grumproro recalled being similarly torn:
I sometimes felt like that with the Dragon Age games too. I like that Inquisition was actively trying to get you to question whether or not any of this was worth saving in the end. And as someone who plays as an elf, I kind of wanted to watch the world burn. But by the end of each game I always feel like I want to save the world for the sake of my character’s love interest. So at least they have that? I don’t know much about the Dark Souls games, but I assume there’s no romance.
Whenever we write about these games, we always get a handful of comments from readers who would love to get into them and experience their beautifully crafted worlds, but just can’t or don’t want to go through the hassle of playing them. It is a shame that there is such a high bar for entry preventing so many people from experiencing these marvelous creations. But Sandler’s List points out that some of the games’ most exquisite moments are effective because of how difficult it was to reach them:
I think of the first time you lay eyes on Anor Londo. In my opinion, it’s one of the most stunning moments in all of gaming. Nothing in the game up to that point has prepared you for what you’re going to see when you come over the top of that wall, and in a single unexpected instant, the scope of the world snaps into focus, and you feel like you understand something that you didn’t before. But one of the things that makes that moment work so well is that it comes right after the grueling deathtrap that is Sen’s Fortress. It’s so cathartic to see that after having completed the long progression from getting killed the moment you set foot in the door to finally laying out the asshole Iron Golem in his asshole tiny arena.
I mean, one of the things that makes Dark Souls Dark Souls is that it really doesn’t seem to care if you ever win. It feels like the game world is just sitting there whether you play it or not. If you give up and walk away, that’s part of the game—you weren’t the Chosen Undead, and you went hollow like the rest. If you stay with it, you can be assured that it will always play fairly with you and be consistent about following its own rules (although it will still surprise you with how inventively cruel it can be within those parameters). It’s that fairness that makes me feel like an easy mode would just go against what this game is about. When you see those glowing messages on the ground, you know those are from people going through exactly what you’re going through, and I wouldn’t want to mess with that.
We put forth another Gameological Q&A this week. This time around we wanted to hear about the games you’d rather watch than play yourself, whether they’re competitive titles you prefer to leave to the pros or maybe just something you loved sitting on the couch and watching a best friend get through. We got a wide array of answers from the commentariat. A Rising Ape mentioned a relatively untraditional competitive game:
Rocket League is extremely watchable. I am not that good at it, so I get a kick out of seeing skilled people play. It replicates the ebb and flow of a proper sports game—with the added bonus that I actually care about what is happening—and the mechanics make it a perfect generator for spontaneous comedy and suspense. And of course, TRICK SHOTS!
Vyolynce brought up a very specific and ridiculous type of Magic: The Gathering play:
I really enjoy watching people play Vintage Magic: The Gathering (specifically the Vintage Super League), but I personally would not touch that format (or Legacy). I appreciate the thought and effort that goes into modern Magic design, and those other formats tend to be dominated by the horrible design/development mistakes of ages past, contained as best they can (read: restricted to one copy per deck) while still allowing them to be played. That’s what makes those formats fun, to be fair. But I like my Magic to be more Modern in its sensibilities. If I want to play a game of over-the-top effects and overpowered nonsense, I’ll pick up my copy of Epic Card Game (designed by a Magic hall of famer, it should be noted) where at least the power level is intentional.
Like our own William Hughes, Duwease is more interested in Let’s Plays of the screenshots-and-text variety:
I’m glad William brought up screenshot Let’s Plays, which have always been the only ones I’d bother with. Hell, way back when they were just random threads on the Games sub-forum at Something Awful, those were the only type that existed. I read the hell out of them then, but as the transition to video became more and more complete, I phased out of it.
Maybe it’s the extra effort it takes to catalog the screenshots, type up the text, and format the post, but the work just seems to be of a much higher quality. Plus, it’s easier to skim, which I’ll probably do to see the different content in Persona 4: Golden when I’m done with vanilla Persona 4.
I’d be dropping the ball if I didn’t use this to introduce possibly the best Let’s Play of all time, a screenshot tour of the truly, truly, truly outrageous ’90s PC game Harvester. This game defies all attempts to explain it. It’s just…like if a Troma movie got even weirder and more disturbing.
And NakedSnake described the changes that happen when you’re the player being watched—by your children, anyway:
I’m sort of on the other side of this situation. I have two kids below the age of five and they can’t play video games to save their (virtual) lives. I’ve let them mess around with the controllers before, but while they like the idea of playing the games, they will usually get bored of dying all the time pretty quickly. And so they hand the controller to me, and the fun begins. They are really into the virtual worlds, the interactivity, the visuals, and the fact that it’s something we can share. (Plus they can tell me what to do, where to go, etc.) For my part, having an engaged and enthusiastic audience has transformed how I experience games. Suddenly, all the little flourishes and details that the designers have put in the game are drawn into focus. The jokes are funnier; the scenery is more awe-inspiring; the action is crazier. At this point, I’m now drawn to games that would excite my kids, even if I would never have the patience for them if I played them on my own. I guess it is just another example of one of the basic truisms of parenting: Your kids let you see the world with fresh eyes.
That’ll do it for this week, Gameologerinas. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you next week!