Screenshot: Dark Souls/Dark Souls Wiki

In Session

In this week’s What Are You Playing This Weekend? thread, Karlos gave an update on his progress through Final Fantasy VI and used it as an opportunity to open up about using games as a means of mental-health therapy:

I’m about eight hours into Final Fantasy VI, and I hope to get a couple sessions in this weekend as well. I think I’m getting close to where I left off the first time I played the game 10-15 years ago, having reached the Veldt in the prolonged Sabin/Cyan sequence. I’m trying to play without the benefit of guides, which is proving to be a challenge for my anxious, FOMO-addled mind. Especially since I remember those halcyon mid-’90s days of being a non-importing PAL gamer salivating over FF3 coverage in British gaming magazines, my adolescent mind boggling at all the hidden side quests and secrets. There’s so much I’ll probably never find on my own, my vague memories assuring me that there usually was more to unearthing that stuff than the customary exploring and scenery humping.

As I might have mentioned last week, I’m trying to use this as an exercise to work on my anxiety a bit. In my more serene moments (few and far between), I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing wrong about accepting the limits my own skills or intelligence impose on a gaming experience, so long as the game’s still fun to play and I still feel challenged. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong about playing a game like this with a guide in hand. I’m saying that, for me, the impulses that make me want to use that approach have often ended up keeping me from playing full stop. I’ll hit up a guide, the guide will detail the bottomless complexities of a battle system, a crafting mechanic or what have you. When I next return to the game, I find myself not enjoying it anymore, because I feel like I won’t get the most out of it if I don’t reach the obsessive, optimized depths of play outlined in the guides. I’m not trying to throw shade in the direction of guides, nor complex systems, I’m just saying I don’t deal with them very well. Which is why I’m trying to find a way to handle the anxieties that keep me from enjoying them. Maybe I’m approaching this from the wrong angle, but it does feel like it’s working at the moment.

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Several commenters responded about how they can relate. Here’s Chum Joely:

I’ll jump in and say that increasingly, as I play more and more games at my more “mature” age (I’m just over 40), I find that video games are a really interesting way to structure my thinking about otherwise vague or fuzzy aspects of my internal emotional or mental life.

I mean, it seems a bit ridiculous to write it out (at least, most people I know in real life wouldn’t understand), but for example, when I was working on quitting drinking—and failing repeatedly—I was also starting to play a lot of roguelikes (like FTL, to pick a random example). At some point, I hit on the correlation between my repeated failures in the game and my repeated failures with changing my drinking habit (and all the little behaviors around it), and it was a bit of a revelation. To get better in the game, you just look carefully at the many interacting mechanics and work on improving your interaction with them bit by bit, always keeping an eye on how that’s affecting the big picture. Think ahead and don’t fall into obvious traps and dead ends. Mapping that to a difficult recurring real-life situation actually helped quite a bit (along with lots of other factors too, of course).

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And doyourealize brought up a recurring connection:

I’ve seen videos that go into detail about how Dark Souls has been extraordinary for people dealing with depression, in one instance helping someone recover from suicidal thoughts. Not only that, but it’s been presented as an allegory for depression (there’s several videos about this, and I can’t check right now to see if the link is the one I watched). Speaking for myself, Demon’s Souls was a huge aid in getting me through a part of my life when I was unemployed and basically mooching off my current wife (she didn’t see it that way, but I did). So I wouldn’t call it “bonkers”, and you’re certainly not alone in using video games as therapy.

Best Kept At A Distance

Screenshot: Arms/Nintendo

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This week, I reviewed Arms, the new stripped-down fighting game from Nintendo. For all my high-falutin talk about it, it was Wolfman Jew who pointed out one of the big design principles that makes it work:

There’s one aspect of Arms that I think deserves some more attention: How it uses distance. I know this isn’t the first fighting game to have extendable weapons or fighting from a distance, but it’s so central to the premise. As far as I can tell, you simply can’t go up to the opponent; both parties need to be far enough apart from each other that they get closer to an older Quake-style shooter than a more conventional fighting game. And distance has always been an important part of the genre, whether that’s Dhalsim’s arms or Scorpion’s hookshot or the shooter characters in Smash Bros., but it’s so fundamental here. It looks almost like an absurdly deliberate shooter at times.

Arms also makes a big push for the Switch’s Wii-like motion controls, something that had people decrying it as a “Wii Boxing 2.0” waggle party. Duwease realized maybe it’s that distance factor that makes all the difference:

I think the distance is the missing piece that turns the motion-controlled punching into a viable, entertaining game. They tried up-close boxing in Wii Sports, and without the distance, it was just a flurry-fest. They added advantages to blocking to compensate, but it just wasn’t enough. Flailing like a mad person still had major advantages that even familiar players couldn’t get around. And if they slowed the flurries, the actions would be disconnected from the movements enough to feel weird and flaky.

With distance, now they can control flurries without adding a disconnect between movement and screen. It restricts the player into committing to an individual move, so strategy actually comes into play. It’s pretty clever, but it makes me wonder about how restrictive motion controls are to game design overall.

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And that got SingingBrakeman thinking about the creative limitations, or lack thereof, that existed with motion controls:

Your last sentence opens up such an interesting discussion. I would agree that motion controls are extraordinarily restrictive—I’m not sure I’ve yet heard of a game that pulled off free movement in a large 3-D space using motion controls—but I’m not sure they are significantly more restrictive than standard controls. We have been brought up with a fairly standard set of controls hitched to an increasingly standardized controller design, but it’s fair to argue that controller design actually inhibits creatively thinking about input mechanisms. There’s a cool video on the subject here.

Nintendo tried to alter this pretty drastically with the Wii, and I’d argue the move was largely unsuccessful. Specific game developers, including Katamari creator Keita Takahashi and TumbleSeed creators Benedict Fritz/Greg Wohlwend, have innovated input schemes using traditional controllers, but they are few and far between. Just think about how central the idea of “Left Stick = Move; Right Stick = Camera” is for 3-D games, and how that impacts the way that games are designed. It’s actually a bit tough to get outside that box, isn’t it?

With that said, I’m happy that motion controls haven’t been abandoned and that VR is offering the potential for new and innovative input mechanisms. Only a handful of games effectively make use of extensive motion controls (in my mind, Metroid Prime, Skyward Sword, and Arms), and Skyward Sword‘s implementation remains quite controversial. That said, they may point the way toward more visceral interaction with game worlds in the future, and that has an effect on how people experience these games. The combat of Skyward Sword and Arms, in particular, remain among the most engaging combat simulators I’ve yet encountered. Hopefully future games iterate on these successes, rather than retreating to the tried-and-true yet limiting standards associated with traditional dual-stick controllers.

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And that does it for this week, friends. Thank you all so much for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!