Storytelling in Dark Souls: Ambiguity or Arrested Adolescence?

DARK SOULS BABY

DARK. DARK like my SO- oh, wait, that’s just redundant.

I love Dark Souls. I’d have to – I’ve invested over 100 hours and I don’t plan on stopping. It’s a great series and well deserving of most of the excessive praise it gets.

Most of, because a ton of that praise focuses on the game’s approach to its story; something I struggle to understand since it doesn’t have one.

You see fanboys throwing around statements like…

‘You just have to work to get it.’

Well yes and no, because you work like fuck to get it and what you get is fuck all. Dark Souls tells its story in tiny scraps which don’t ever piece together into a big picture.

Some details can be found by chance, but these are infrequent, easily missable, and invariably insubstantial. Weapon descriptions and snippets of character dialogue may hide the backstories of bosses or some small fragment of overarching story, but more often than not these things simply go unexplained. And even if you go to the bother of collecting them, these hidden details barely add to the story. They’re snippets of a nonexistent whole.

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Fallen London is a Lousy Sandwich

'BLT Sandwich + Fries' by punctuated on Flickr, used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License

Fallen London is a lousy sandwich.

For years I resisted playing it, knowing from the barest descriptions that this game would hook me like cocaine. But last night, in a moment of weakness, I gave in, hid my wallet, and signed up.

It’s…not been the addictive marathon I was dreading.

I understand the theory1 behind the dragged-out, drip-fed mechanics: to stop players from gorging themselves sick. To show them this perfect sandwich, where the bacon is just the right side of crunchy and the lettuce is crisp and the tomatoes, oh, the tomatoes, and to allow them one scrumptious, savoury bite and then to take it away. The anticipation will make the bread softer, the mayonnaise…marginally less disgusting, and the whole experience will just be one of delicately delayed bliss.

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Bioshock Infinite: Empathising with the Handyman

Handyman

Live Forever with Bettermen’s Autobody!

The carnival advertisement reads. Below, a suited salesman shouts promises of eternal life to a captivated, chattering crowd. Despite his massive, hulking frame, none of them see the Handyman at his side. They see his immortality, the possibility that they, themselves, may never have to die, but not his sobs as he cowers from the flash of the camera; shielding himself with brutish metal paws. Not how his ‘second chance’ was bought with his humanity.

These disproportionate cyborgs can be considered Columbia’s answer to Rapture’s Big Daddy, but the similarities stop at ‘metal suit’. BioShock’s rusting protectors are incapable of free will. Handymen, on the other hand, are deceptively human and seemingly in control of their actions. The exposed head and boxed heart tell us that this giant was once human; his words tell us he’s still capable of emotion and feeling, but his suffering suggests that his miracle is also his puppeteer. His iron saviour has made him a slave of Columbia.

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Thief 4 Screenshots: Have Eidos Captured the Spirit of Thief?

After 2011’s leaked concept art, I had high hopes for Thief 4. While the fandom was busily picking fault with a handful of sketches – “The angle of his right calf clearly indicates that Eidos are reimagining Thief as a racing game!” – I was getting my love on for the pretty, pretty possibilities.

Today, all those possibilities came together and danced for the pleasure of my fangirl heart. Look at this beautiful slice of game. If these screenshots were a woman, I would forgo the wine ‘n dine and head straight for the sheets. The only thing keeping me from smooching my monitor is that I know where it’s been.

strikeapose

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Halo 4: Sound Effects Sound Effective

Halo 4

No spoilers here, guys. Proceed without caution.

Sound effects are an underappreciated element of most games, really. I hold up my hands here, I’m as guilty as anyone, never taking note unless they’re exceptional or exceptionally recognisable stock sounds – my ears are attuned to Half Life’s hitting-metal clink and every-game-ever’s Wilhelm Scream, to name but a few – which Halo 4 is refreshingly devoid of.

Halo 4 really pulls you into its world in a way few other games do. Stepping out from Forward Unto Dawn –  one foot still braced on unforgiving metal, the other pressing down into soft grass – into the bliss landscape of Requiem, triggers one of the game’s prettiest tracks. You hear the tones of discovery, of trepidation and amazement, and then the distant humming of Covenant Ghosts zipping away, the slight distortion of weapons firing. All resonating as one, you’re there, and it feels just spectacular.

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The Thief 4 Demo Reel Makes Me Happy In My Pants

Written 30/07/2012. First posted here.

When the Thief 4 ‘trailer’ leaked last month, the internet went mildly enthusiastic. Intrigued individuals and 200-word articles as far as the eye can glance. Bit of forum activity, even.

Less a big splash than a skipping stone, but that was to be expected. It’s a 30-second clip for Thief goddamn 4; the next in a series which most people have never played, and which Eidos Montreal have released Sweet F.A about. Most of the attention it got consisted of ten words and a video link, or a sweet little teaspoon of rampant paranoia about The Creeping Inevitable Doom That Has Fallen Upon This Game.

Me? I was pretty psyched, because look at this motherfucker:

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Mass Effect 2 is Overrated

Written 07/03/2012. First posted here.

Mass Effect 2 isn’t a particularly bad game; but it certainly isn’t a perfect one, either. After the almighty critical success of the first, people expected a follow-up that was practically perfect in every way. That’s what they got… or so they like to believe.

When you ask someone if they like Mass Effect 2, you’ll get one of two responses: that they love it unconditionally, or that they liked it but it wasn’t amazing. Seldom do you find someone who outright hates it, which is rare for a popular series.

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Narrative Kinks: Surprisingly Safe For Work

Written 04/01/2012. First posted here.

What are Narrative Kinks? Well, for a start they’re not normally capitalised but I like them that way. You could almost say it’s a grammatical kink.

Narrative Kinks are story or world elements which push your buttons. While this includes genre to some degree, it’s a lot more precise and tightly focused – you don’t have a Narrative Kink for fantasy, you have a Narrative Kink for ‘rag-tag band forced together by destiny’ or ‘the clash between magic and emerging technology’. They range from being major plot elements to simple character types. For example: I really like non-combative male thief characters, to the point where I’m more likely to buy something if I know there’s one in it. A friend of mine loves settings where magic is treated as a science.

(Those being some of the less embarrassingly petty options, as anything from ‘the badass fighter needs rescuing’ to ‘meaningful conversations next to streams at night’ can count as Narrative Kinks.)

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Tom of Gameland

Written 14/12/2011. First posted here.

Max Payne 3

If, like me, you’ve been gazing at that picture of Max Payne in faint bemusement (possibly wondering where his suit went and what asshole slipped him those steroids), you might’ve been too busy to notice similar imagery in other games. To sum it up: butch is big, and so are the male character designs.

Max’s transformation from a whiny angstbucket in cheap polyester to Interchangeable Gritty Mercenary 375 is disappointing, but hardly comes as a surprise. Games design has been heading down this track for a long time. If they’ve got muscles, put muscles on top of those and if they don’t, re-write the character until they do. Gamers are, apparently, incapable of enjoying a character who couldn’t moonlight as a bungalow.

This is bullshit.

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How Not To Screw Up Writing a Gender-Neutral Society

Written 08/11/2011. First posted here.

When creating a world for the player to romp joyfully in, many writers start with the intention of making it a completely post-patriarchal society. Speciesism runs amok, class warfare may be rampant but whether you need a little extra in your breastplate isn’t an issue. It’s especially common in RPGs, where the designers are understandably disinclined to fuck over anyone who doesn’t want to play a dude. The problem is that they’re often not very good at it.

Oh, they try. Your badass barbarian babe won’t face a single gender-based criticism for solving every problem with her axe, but they’re not quite so on the ball when it comes to anything else. Visual differences are common: the tunic skirt cuts a little higher, the neckline a little lower. (‘A little’ is generous. Armour that covers Conan throat-to-knee loses two square foot of fabric when Sonja pulls it over her head.) This isn’t standard by any means – Morrowind clothing is the same badly-displayed monstrosity on everyone – but it is frustratingly ubiquitous.

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