Archive for March, 2022

Dark Souls: Halftime Status Report

Immediately after the tutorial area, you’re told that your mission is to ring this bell. I forget why, but it’s important. It’s magic or something. But shortly after you’re told this, the keeper of the Firelink Shrine chuckles and informs you that actually there are TWO bells, one far above and one far below, and you have to ring them both. It’s a pretty minimal revelation, a modification of information you received less than a minute prior, but it’s an easy way for the writers to convey the intended vibe: that things are going to be harder than expected.

I bring it up now because I’ve now rung one of the bells. It’s likely that I could have done this a while ago; the gargoyles guarding it were entirely too tough for me when I first found them, which is basically your signal to go exploring for a while until you have better stats and better gear, and I spent long enough at this that the gargoyles were fairly easy when I worked up the courage to give them another try. As a result, I’ve seen ten of the game’s twenty-odd zones, albeit only briefly in some cases. I keep finding passages to new zones in areas that I thought I had explored thoroughly but hadn’t — the level design is good at exploiting 3D to hide stuff.

I’ve basically been playing as a pure melee character, but only half by choice. This is one of those RPGs where there isn’t really a hard distinction between character classes, where your choice of class determines your starting stats and starting equipment but both of these things change as you progress. I chose the Wanderer class, who starts off with a scimitar that can chain attacks and a cool coat with a bunch of resistances, and I had a vague plan of being a Dexterity-based fighter, dodging and weaving and killing with a flurry of fast blows. But I’ve wound up sinking a lot more points into Strength than Dexterity, and it’s mainly because I’ve found several weapons with very high Strength requirements and none with very high Dexterity requirements. Also, I’ve come to really appreciate the way the high-Strength weapons end fights quickly, often with a single blow. My preferred weapon for most things other than bosses is a halberd that I’ve upgraded to +5: it has the power of a greataxe and the reach of a spear, and its only real drawback is that you can’t just wave it around in the hope of hitting something like you can with the scimitar; you pretty much have to target-lock enemies to have any chance of hitting them with it.

So that’s me now: the heavy-hitter with a halberd. I’d hoped to have some spellcasting ability by now, if only to try it out and see how spells work in this game, but it hasn’t really worked out. The only spell merchant I’ve met is a cleric, whose offerings didn’t impress me enough for me to put enough points into Faith to be able to use them. There are supposed to be Sorcerer and Pyromancer spells, so where are they? It’s entirely possible that they’re sitting around perfectly accessible in some nook of the map that I’ve passed by a thousand times. That’s the downside to discovering new stuff every time you explore: it means there’s always been stuff you could have found already but haven’t.

Dark Souls: The Beat

If I had to describe the overall feel of Dark Souls in one word, that word would be “rhythmic”. This is a game with a pulse — which is perhaps ironic, considering the subject matter. Your footfalls as you run around the ruins establish a steady beat. When you break into a sprint, your stride gets longer, but your pace keeps the same rhythm. Enemy footsteps are synchronized to yours — sometimes, I think their sounds are my own until I come to a stop. Even the clang of sword-blows seems to fit the same tempo. Combat is all about finding the right timing, and having the rhythm constantly in your head helps, both to find and to remember it.

I suspect this is a big part of what makes the action so comfortable, so welcoming. Following a steady beat is something humans are good at. I’ve seen 2D platformers compared to dancing before, but there’s something similar going on here. And just as music is based on repetition, not just of beats but of higher-level patterns, so is Dark Souls. Either you’re spending a lot of time grinding for Souls, or you’re spending a lot of time trying to get through enemies that are too high-level for you because you haven’t been grinding for Souls enough, and in either case, you’re fighting the same enemies repeatedly, and running though the same scenery repeatedly to reach them. The beat has a slight hypnotic effect that makes this easier to bear. Why haven’t other grind-intensive CRPGs picked up on this?

Dark Souls: UI Thoughts

There’s been a small online kerfuffle about Elden Ring‘s UI. What do I think of the Dark Souls UI?

Mostly it’s fine. It’s designed for a controller, and that’s how I’ve been playing, and it’s serviceable enough. There’s a useful health gauge permanently affixed to the top left, and below it, a stamina gauge that’s less useful, as stamina refills so quickly that it’s going to be full any time your attention isn’t on the stamina-draining actions you’re performing. I think the stamina gauge is mainly there to explain to the player how stamina works, rather than to provide up-to-the-moment information. To give you a strong intuitive sense of why sprinting into battle is a bad idea. At the bottom, there’s a readout of what you currently have equipped, which is a little redundant with what you can simply observe in your character’s hands, but less ambiguous in situations like “I’m climbing a ladder so my hands are empty right now” and “The graphical representation of my weapon is penetrating a wall and partly occluded”.

The one really troublesome part of the UI is the menu that comes up when you press the “Start” button on the controller. This is how you access your inventory, so you bring it up whenever you want to change weapons or chug a potion that isn’t in your quick-select slot or something. And the inventory sub-menus are perfectly fine, just your standard equip-slots and scrolling lists, with a nice set of different information displays to toggle. But the parent menu is troublesome as a result of a combination of two things. First, it’s not a full-screen menu. The sub-menus are full-screen, but not the principal one, which sits up in the upper right of the game, not drawing attention to itself. Second, it doesn’t pause the game. In fact, you can still run around while it’s open — although you can’t do much of anything else, as all the button presses you’d use to perform attacks or interact with the environment are absorbed by the menu. The combination means that it’s way too easy to not notice that it’s still open. A noticeable fraction of my deaths in the game are caused by switching weapons in preparation for the next enemy (fast, unarmored zombies being better suited to a light, quick weapon, while zombies in full plate need something that can punch through it), only to discover too late that I only closed the equipment sub-menu and my attacks aren’t doing anything.

And look, I kind of get why they made it possible to run around with the menu open. This is a game with a multiplayer component, so you can’t just freeze the world. And since the controls for maneuvering around the menu are distinct from the controls for running, the decision to let you run away from stuff while the menu is open is, if questionable, at least understandable. But if you’re going to let me run around, you should really let me perform attacks as well. And contrapositively, if you’re going to lock away my attacks, I’d prefer that you just take away my movement, and in fact all of my in-world interaction. It’s the partial disabling that’s so confounding.

Anyway, I assume that all this has been hashed out online a thousand times already, but you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you didn’t like seeing decade-old games relitigated.

Dark Souls: Zombie Face

A strange thing about Dark Souls is that, although it’s well-known, its reputation has nothing to do with its content. I personally had no idea what it was about when I started playing it, other than that it involved swordfights. So what is it about, exactly?

It’s about zombies. Well, sort of. Sort of, but pervasively. Other than bosses, every single enemy you fight is some kind of zombie. It’s just that the zombies come in various flavors and a lot of them wear armor. In fact, even the player character is an “undead”, albeit one that’s not yet “hollowed”, which I take to mean that you’re not exactly a mindless husk of a human being yet, but you inevitably will be. Undeads are kind of like Gulliver’s Struldbrugs: born with a special mark, cursed with an inability to die all the way, and kept away from ordinary folk in a sort of zombie ghetto. This is the game’s explanation for why you keep respawning when you die. Most games don’t see a need to explain this, but it does have a neat side effect: all the other zombies you kill similarly come back when you do, but the bosses, which aren’t zombies, don’t. Making the respawning diegetic makes it a little weird that the enemies don’t learn from their failures at all, that they position themselves in exactly the same places and fall to exactly the same tactics, but I’m assuming this is because they’re hollowed. They’re incapable of learning, and just carry out the same actions over and over. That’s what separates you from them: you too tend to keep dying to the same enemies repeatedly, but at least you do it in a slightly different way each time.

Now, the first time I played the game, the fact that you’re undead felt like a bit of a bait-and-switch. The character creation menu had me pick a face, but when the game began, I didn’t have that face, I had zombie face. Well, in fact there’s a way to unzombify yourself a bit and get your living-person face back. It hardly seems worth the price, though, because the next time you die, you’re back to zombie-face again. This notion of your whole face instantly changing when you become a zombie irks me a bit, too. Surely the whole reason zombies look that way is that they’ve been decaying for a while? And yet this is not the only work of popular media I’ve seen where the transformation is as instant as if they just put on a mask.

Dark Souls

My Twitter feed is all abuzz about Elden Ring, the latest action-RPG from From, and it’s made me want to, if not exactly get on the bandwagon, then at least catch up with it a little. I’ve had the studio’s breakout hit Dark Souls in my Steam library for some time, probably from a bundle, but previously only played as far as the first boss (the “Asylum Demon”), which means I didn’t make it out of the tutorial area. I’ve gotten considerably farther now — it took a few hours for the game to really click with me, but once it did, I played til dawn. Well, after all, it’s an RPG levelling treadmill. Those are always moreish.

That treadmill also presents a bit of a puzzle. This is a game mainly known for its difficulty. It’s always a centerpiece of debates about the “git gud” attitude and whether games should be obliged to sport an easy mode. But surely a leveling-up mechanic contradicts that, by letting you substitute grinding XP for skill? I’ve seen it argued that it isn’t really as hard as its reputation, and right now, about nine hours in, I’m inclined to believe it. I’m definitely feeling a greater sense of progress here than I was in the later levels of Wonderquest (which I still intend to finish). When I’ve been severely stuck, it’s usually been because I failed to notice an important doorway.

But I’m noticing tricks that the game plays to create a sense of extreme difficulty. For one thing, it makes it very easy to run into enemies that you’re not remotely prepared for. And once you’ve been killed by one, it motivates you to seek it out again, to recover the Souls (XP) and Humanity (???) that you dropped when you died. “Run past it, grab the thing, and vamoose” is a crucial part of your play list. In fact, the first time you meet that Asylum Demon, the only realistic approach is a retreat. This early helplessness enhances the sense that you’ve gat gud when you find your way back to it and can fight it this time, even though it’s really mainly because you’re better-equipped.

Still, it’s early days yet. We’ll see how I feel when I’m deeper in.

Wonderquest: Riddles

In addition to the new (access to) character abilities, Dreams has added one mechanic not seen in the base Master Orion levels: Riddles. Or codes, as the game calls them. There are little shield-like tokens that, when stepped on, bring up a text prompt, and usually some other text items nearby that give hints about what to type. Type in the right thing, and all the monsters in the room instantly die — and I have yet to see a riddle in a room where there’s any other way to kill monsters. Usually there’s a monster completely out of reach, which also means that it can’t reach you, and the only reason you have to kill it with a riddle is to open a room-clear or level-clear gate. But that’s a pattern deeply baked into both Wonderquest and DROD.

The whole notion of “token that kills everything in the room except you” had been brought up before, mind you. Master Orion had a handful of rooms with “Pandora’s Box”, which is the same thing without the riddle part. But that made it the basis for puzzles about reaching the box, typically fighting monsters on the way. You were using the same mechanics as the rest of the game, but the instant-win of it meant that instead of the typical in-room progression of clearing away opposition and making things easier as you go along, the room could just keep on making things harder and harder until your last desperate grab for the box. Riddle rooms, on the other other hand, generally don’t have anything going on other than the riddle. Which is probably a good thing! Imagine solving a difficult mechanical puzzle but then being unable to complete the room because the riddle at the end stumped you.

Nonetheless, the way that the riddles, in effect, temporarily replace the game with a different one is one of the reasons I dislike them. Another reason: The lack of flexibility. The prompt is looking for an exact string; if you use different spacing or punctuation, or type out a number in words when it’s expecting digits or vice versa, it’s rejected. And so, in contrast to the rest of the game, I’ve been cheating pretty freely on the riddles. The text is pretty easy to extract from the level files, it turns out — the characters are all just decremented by 1, which suffices to prevent people from reading it accidentally, but can be decoded by a very simple script.

I kind of see what the author was going for, though. The content of the riddles more often than not concerns the story. It asks questions about what you’ve seen in the story text throughout the game. So it’s an attempt at making that into more than just flavor text, and making it relevant to progress in the game. But it still winds up separated from the real gameplay. Instead of a division between game and story, we wind up with a division between game and (story plus riddles).

Wonderquest: Versatility

Wonderquest has nine playable characters. I’ve described eight of them already. The one I skipped over is Arthur, a teenage boy who, like Sophie, is a non-combatant. Instead of fighting monsters, he can drop decoys to distract them — said decoys taking the form of his “mighty shoes”, which is a little wacky, but the mechanic is solid. He also has the ability to run around on top of crates, although he needs to climb a tower to get on top of them.

Towers have turned out to be fairly versatile things. They extend the range of Nikolay and Cahill’s weapons, they let Rick put up ziplines, they protect you from explosions, they make terrain passible by characters who are otherwise limited, and they block Jax’s path, which isn’t useful to the player but is very useful to the author. It’s always good for a puzzle element to have multiple possible meanings like this. In Dreams, Cahill can construct new towers, given enough wood, and it isn’t always immediately obvious where they’re needed, precisely because they have multiple possible uses.

That’s kind of how the game uses characters, too, especially in Dreams, where the expansion of character special abilities has turned more of them into grab-bags of unrelated traits. Is Cahill included in a puzzle for his boomerang, or his forestwalking, or his tower-building? Even Jax, who seemed at first like the basic, no-frills character, has gained a special skill, consuming Food to dash instantly as far as he can in the direction he’s facing. There have been a few roach-horde puzzles with sundry character-change tiles scattered around, not because you need multiple different characters’ special skills to solve a puzzle as is usually the case, but just to let the player choose among different fighting styles.

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