Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Goblin Brain: Free Range, Dorito-Fed, Organic Gaming Experiences

As some of you may know from my Crypt Cities posts, I am a mild fan of Dark Souls.

I wasn't always one, though. I used to dislike the concept of them quite a bit.

I still might, actually.

Years ago when it was first released, Demons' Souls sailed right past me without my having a clue. A few years later, I heard or saw the name Dark Souls pop up here and there, mostly in relation to this fanboy flame war that I still can't wrap my head around, eight years later.

(Seriously, the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Dark Souls are such fundamentally different beasts that it seems like the only common ground on which to pit them against one another was that they were both some form of RPG and they both happened to come out in the year 2011. What was the beef?)

Anyway, I grew dimly aware that Dark Souls was some sort of brutally punishing game with a form of progress loss that was by no means as bad as roguelike permadeath, but still unforgiving. It seemed like the antithesis of fun to me at the time, and I gently avoided it.

A couple of conversations with a peer in community college on the eve of Dark Souls II's release in 2014 got my mildly curious as to what the big deal was since the game had done well enough to earn a sequel. I think I also saw a Game Grumps Steam Train series on DS2 at some point that involved a bunch of commenters getting angry at some ironic "MLG Pro" video thumbnails with swag-hats and Mountain Dew...

But again, it didn't go anywhere.

It wasn't until late in 2015 that I took a more active interest in figuring out what this series was, because the YouTube channel Extra Credits had just started up its new LP project called Side Quest, partly to look at animation and game design, and partly to die a whole bunch. I was familiar with and fond of at least one of the Dans of Extra Credits, and that was my means of bridging the gap now, even if it sounded weird not to hear him pitch-shifted- I thought we just had similar voices.

So I tagged along and witnessed the ruined land of Lordran for the first time. As I watched I grew more interested and wanted to find out what would happen next. But I grew impatient in waiting for episodes to release according to schedule, so I began to peer beyond that playthrough. I started to browse the game's wikis and click on the other DS-related videos I saw on my front page. I had no means to play the game and experiencing it first-hand, so I did so vicariously through others.

Eventually I found ways around my usual lack of resources and gave the first game a shot, first playing to keep up with the progress of the videos I watched using a similar character, but soon overtaking them and forging on ahead. Except I wasn't really forging anything. I was stuck in my newly formed habits, still consulting the wikis and going into each new zone or encounter with as much knowledge as I could reasonably obtain beforehand.

This trend continued into Dark Souls 2 when I tried out Scholar of the First Sin, and repeated again in Dark Souls 3 some years later. The number of hours that I played while unaided and in the dark could probably be counted on both hands. I was also entirely offline for all three experiences.

And in doing so, I think many fans of Dark Souls might feel that I ruined the essence of the game for myself.

A core part of the game to many fans, at least according to the impression I've gotten, is blundering through those experiences naturally, by yourself. To fall for the ambushes until you learn to anticipate them, and then falling for the second one in a row once you've felt an instant of hubris. To not find every treasure chest or hidden room until your second or third playthrough of the game. To either carefully piece together the lore, ignore it entirely, or give up and go watch a VaatiVidya playlist so that you can act like a know-it-all to your friends. Phantoms are free to come and go, but you need to experience the game without the middleman of guides or LPers.

But if I did that, I would die. And dying is an embarrassment to be avoided, at least according to the myriad of "git gud" memes out there. My logic was--still is--if I won't be able to do it perfectly the first time, mastering every challenge while still learning it, in order to impress or at least not coax boos out of a (completely imaginary) crowd of expert spectators, then there was no point to really trying at all. The games stopped being proper games for me, and became more like interactive checklists that I needed to satisfy in order to feel like I had done not-wrong.

When I encountered NPC quest lines in particular, I was faced with the same shattering feeling that I'd get when was faced with morality choices with consequences or quests with multiple endings in more traditional RPGs like Dragon Age- If I didn't get the 100% golden ending for everyone at once, I as a player, as a person, was failing them. I grew physically sick when I thought I had missed a Lucatiel or Siegward of Catarina encounter. It became a reflection of my real-life fears that by not doing perfectly, I was actively damaging the life experiences of everyone around me.

I couldn't just "hold that L" when I was already over max equip load with a Havel's suit of armor made out of other Ls.

But I still wanted to do the video game thing because the areas, spells, and gear were interesting and there were still some forms of positive feedback that I could enjoy and want to return to. So my every strategy was based around the idea of trivializing the challenge the game was designed for. I was shielded up with an over-leveled health bar whenever I wasn't spamming sorceries or using outright exploits to get past non-mundane enemies. I shot Manus almost to death with a longbow from outside his boss arena, and juked the Dragon Rider into falling off of his platform.

I dreaded ever boss battle, which I thought of as nothing but a roadblock, and a check on my enjoyment of the 'fun' parts of the game, which I can't even define adequately. Ornstein & Smough, the high point of Dark Souls I for countless fans, was an annoying and tedious mess that I quickly forgot all details and emotions of after I got past them on the 11th or 12th try. Meanwhile the almost universally panned Prowling Magus and his Congregation in DS2 was a-okay in my book because of how brief and inoffensive it was.

I never finished a Dark Souls game, not all the way through at least.

My armored lady-knight in DS1 was eventually abandoned after I had burned out on grinding tens of millions of souls from the Phalanx Hollows in the Painted World- I really wanted to have my Elite Knight set on while doing Dark Wood Grain Ring backflips, and that needed a lot of Endurance.

I technically killed the final boss of vanilla DS2 with my greying old lightning cleric, but that was only after I gave up on the DLC zones, so I never saw Aldia and the like. Also I was feeling guilty for enjoying DS2 because at the time the feeling that it was not as good as DS1 was in full swing on the internet.

In DS3 I got to the isolated walkway where I could literally see the room where the Soul of Cinder shows up, and I even circumvented it to enter the arguably harder Dreg Heap and have a shot at getting the fiery scimitar pyromancy catalyst thing that I wanted for my pyromancer. But it just never happened. I never reached any of the endings.

And yet, when I switched to other games in order to get a breather, the feelings carried over with me.

The Banner Saga, one of the first games I ever wanted to back the development of (but lacked the money to), had to be played with a walkthrough handy. I even tried to no avail for hours to get a glitch to work where you could recruit Ekkil while also saving Egil so that no party members had to die in this grim, icy world where people are expected to die.

Multiplayer games of any sort always gave me performance anxiety, but after seeing the way your shame can be immortalized in Dark Souls invasion fail compilations, I just can't. It's impossible to imagine co-op anything, let alone PvP where the options are to lose or ruin another person's fun.

I've been staring at an installed copy of Ashen on my desktop for a few weeks now, after hearing that it was a somewhat less intensive "Dark Souls for people who don't really like Dark Souls".

Maybe I'll get around to it without reading too far ahead? It's hard to say.

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