Sticking the Landing

Red Metal and I have been going round and round these comment sections, complaining about when the plot turns sour at the end of video games for a long, long time.  And with good reason.  Dropping the ball on the plot like that is pretty much like giving the player a nice, delicious dessert, only hiding a big ‘ol rock in the middle of it.  You’re going along, enjoying yourself, and then bam!, all your teeth are shattered and you hate everyone who delivered that to you.

But, you know, plot is not the only way a game can fall apart at the end.  I don’t know if it’s even the most common way a game can fall apart.  Plenty of games fall apart gameplay-wise, as well.  In fact, thinking back, it’s hard to remember the last time I played a game that didn’t somehow just drop in gameplay quality at the end.

Fact of the matter is that most of the people who start your game aren’t going to get to the end.  As it turns out, not everybody can muster up the commitment that I do so magnificently all the time.  So, it makes sense that they’d put most of the quality up front.  That’s where the reviewers are going to focus, that’s where your first impression is developed, and really, that’s where you know most people are going to be playing.  From a pure dollar/value standpoint, of course that’s where you’re going to get the most impact for your operational inputs.

Of course, it may not be a conscious decision to focus on the start to the detriment of the end of the game either.  Oftentimes, if you’re making the end of the game at the end of the development process, you’re just running out.  Running out of funds, running out of energy, running out of creativity, it’s kind of natural you just wouldn’t be able to bring it the same way you were earlier.  Compounding this, one of the ugly truths of the video game industry is that crunch time is a standard practice.  When your game is getting close to being ready, your life will quickly become hell.  And you’re still supposed to squeeze out the magic there.  It just can’t happen.  So if crunch time is overlapping with you capping off the game, of course the quality’s going to suffer.

Just like a plot going down the tubes at the end can derail the whole experience, so to can the drop in gameplay.  I was actually enjoying Fallout 4.  I know not everyone enjoyed Fallout 4, but I did.  Until the end.  Which hit a really weird moment.  That was the point at which the plot was reaching its most tension, with all the factions I had been moving along having their irreconcilable differences finally coming to fruition, and with that pushing things forward, it really should have been at the game’s height.  The gameplay just wasn’t matching it, though.  The game completely ran out of anything new or different to deliver, leaving me fighting the same old goons without anything really special to it, glitches started popping up a lot more, and balance all went out the window.  The quests had the highest amount of emotional release in the game, but aside from the Brotherhood trying to get its troops at me through a toothpaste tube, which was kind of cool, the gameplay was all same old, where it wasn’t lacking.  It kind of made the experience feel a bit hollow.  Part of me was into it, part of me wasn’t, and I ended up suffering through the bad parts and not enjoying the good as much as I would have otherwise.

Don’t have much of a point here, just a bit of a rant.  But, while it’s easy to complain about a bad plot twist spoiling a game for you, and while a disappointing last level may not ruin the experience as much as a failed ending, it really amounts to a bit of lost potential.  I finished Fallout 4, and haven’t cared to go back, but a game that sticks the landing can have me coming back again and again.

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The Bloodborne Mumbles

I’ve been playing and publicly humiliating myself at Dark Souls for years.  I finally got myself through that.  You might think I need a break from that, but nope, apparently not.  After a scant few weeks away, I started playing Bloodborne, and stepping back into that engine, that design philosophy, that world of challenge… well, it felt good.  It felt right.  So much so that, after spewing so many words at Dark Souls, it just feels like there’d be something wrong with the world if I didn’t do the same for Bloodborne.  No Let’s Play here, because I don’t know how to get screens off my PS4 I want to play this one for myself, but I’d still like to get my first sessions’ thoughts down about the game.

Let’s make this happen.

  • First things first, the Otaku Judge and I’ve been in each other’s spheres for a good long while now. So when I finished up my Dark Souls run, he suggested Bloodborne to me, thinking I would like it, unaware that I had already picked it up and it was already on its way through the black magic and the mail.    And hey!  He was right!  I do like it.  Great minds thinking alike and all that.
  • Dark Souls was a very hard game to stay unspoiled from. I ran into things by accident.  Knowing I’d eventually be interested in playing it, I’ve been a lot more careful with Bloodborne.  This will be about as pure an experience as I can get here.  Very little spoilers for me.
  • We plug the game in and… not off to a great start. I’m really starting to get tired of always being asked to download and install a patch every time I buy a new game.  I get this thing, I want to play it.  I don’t want to spend my limited gaming time with this new piece of art I’ve been looking forward to just slapping some files together.    Screw that.  I don’t get to play online because of it, but whatever.  I’ll just try it out later.

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  • Dark Souls’ opening was full of lore and backstory. High concept fantasy stuff.  Bloodborne’s is a lot different.  The big thing they’re delivering is unanswered questions.  Hinting at the lore to come.  I’m a paleblood, whatever that is, and I’m here for blood ministration.  Going by the dictionary, that’s ‘the provision of assistance or care’.  To my blood.  I’m here for a transfusion with some of Yharnam’s super cool pimp blood, then contracts are mentioned, then character creation screen.
  • You get a lot of options with character creation. As is my wont, I spend a lot of time here.  I’m really attracted to the options you get with the skin color.  I briefly consider popping the Incredible Hulk in there, but since girls aren’t watching and I don’t have to show off, I go with something a lot more basic.  I end up with a willowy muse, who just happens to be very, very blue.
  • Demon Souls let me have my characters face, but didn’t have a lot to play with in creating it. Dark Souls was less limited, but in one memory I actually find really funny, totally played me by making my character completely skinless.  Kind of wondering if Bloodborne will end up jerking me around the same way.  I’m hoping they will, actually.
  • I originally intended to base my starting class on which one had the sexiest hat. Unfortunately, none of the classes change your equipment layout.
  • So, the embarrassingly long amount of time I’ve spent fine-tuning my appearance is over, back to the intro. I pass out, creepy wheelchair doctor disappears, here comes a werewolf made of blood.  Just like a Tuesday morning for me.  Werewolf burns for no reason, then from around the bed I’m strapped to, here pop a whole lot of creepy baby Ghoulies.

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  • Okay seriously, I don’t like these guys. Don’t want to look at them.
  • Oh hell they’re touching my face!
  • Okay, that was horrifying and I’ll never be clean again. I’m free now, though.  Let’s play with the controls.
  • Okay, that is totally just Dark Souls. I can’t block, and my dual wielding button is moved, but otherwise, right at home.  The path I’m on leads me to a werewolf.  Let’s test my knowledge of this out.
  • Considering I’m unarmed and doing 12 damage a shot, I’m actually doing quite well. The werewolf can’t touch me.  At least at first.  But one difference from Dark Souls, when you’re locked on, your dodge is a quickstep rather than a roll.  The timings a bit different.  While it’s clear from the first time I used it that there’s some invincibility frames in there, I don’t know where they are, exactly.  After smacking him like twenty times with my bare fists, I get caught, and that’s the end of that.
  • That seems to have been the intended path, though. That makes me even more frustrated at that loss.  I bet I’d have gotten something super sweet if I had managed to get past that first werewolf.  In any case, upon death, I’m transported to the Hunter’s Dream, which seems to be the hubworld for everything else.  Big flashbacks to Demon Souls here, but unlike that time, it wasn’t something super sick wicked that killed me.

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  • Weapon time, though! I almost gave up on them, given that the Ghoulies have touched all these weapons and they’re super icky, but I’m not into that much abuse.    I know very little about how Bloodborne differs from Dark Souls, mechanically, but I do know that it requires a more aggressive playstyle, focuses on counters over guards, and has you fight groups of enemies a lot more often.  In light of that, I opt for the faster weapons over the stronger ones.  Figure mobility is more key here.  On top of that, this gives me the option to beat down werewolves with a cane, like the gentleman I was always meant to be.  Sweet.
  • Fast forwarding a bit, the first bits of lore you get about the game you find from talking to jerks hiding in their houses. And they’re always jerks.  Anyways, that’s some great use of light.  There are lots of doors, given that you’re fighting your way through city streets, but all the ones that will talk to you have a lit lantern next to them, or light peeking underneath, or some other use of lighting that just draws your eye to them.  Clever, and it feels really natural.
  • So, yeah, lore. The city of Yharnam is pretty screwed thanks to ‘the Hunt.’  I am a ‘Hunter’ and it’s up to me and ilk to slay ‘beasts’ such as those werewolves and all the other jerk townsfolk I’ve been smacking around.  Also, I’m an ‘Outsider’ and that means everyone ‘hates’ me even though I’m somehow supposed to make everything better and they can all go ‘die horribly in a fire’.
  • A few werewolves have been crucified and set on fire. Not necessarily in that order.  So far, I’ve mostly been smacking around a bunch of townsfolk who’ve gotten a little too bigheaded, rather than the beasts everyone’s talking about.  I wonder if this is going to end up being me just going mad and slaughtering everyone, my insanity driving me to think I’m some great liberator as I’m doing so?  The pieces all fit.

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  • The Dark Souls engine was never great at having you fight groups. The camera’s too close and controlling it uses the same thumb as your vital dodge button, your defenses are pretty uni-directional, and the margin of error is way too slim.  Bloodborne keeps some of those problem, but fixes others, so overall, it is a bit better suited.  Namely, your dodge roll/quickstep is faster than it used to be and actually has some invincibility frames, so you can weave through multiple attacks a bit better, and, I don’t know if every weapon has this, but the alternate blade-whip mode of my cane was great for keeping groups of enemies at bay.  I still had to employ a good bit of my old Dark Souls scumbag tactics to get through, but I’m comfortable with that.  Positioning is very important, taking control of choke points or at the very least getting everyone to come at you from all directions, but so far, the levels seem designed to give you ample opportunity for that.

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The Survival Horror Balancing Act

Ever since survival horror became a thing, video games and horror have gone together like peanut butter and chocolate.  Like cheese and wine.  Like me and everyone else’s girlfriends.  The inherent nature of video games lends a lot of tools that really compliment the necessary design for good horror.  The immersion.  The unpredictability.  The lack of story compression.  It’s ironic that a genre once defined by its mimicry of film elements has so quickly developed into something all its own.

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I played Fatal Frame 3 recently.  It scared me.  Well, until the last few chapters at least.  And in a totally manly way, that reflects no weakness on my part, of course.  It also made me wonder at how long it’s been since I’ve actually felt that kind of tension from a game.  Most of the big publishers have been going for more of an action horror ever since RE4 rocked the world, with even Shinji Mikami’s efforts to bring survival horror back to its base in Evil Within seeming to hew too close to the action side.  The action horror just doesn’t bring the same level of stress so necessary to horror.  The indies have been filling the gaps, but personally, I don’t think I’ve come across an indie game that quite gets the survival horror mix right.

Horror is not an easy thing to deliver.  I’ve tried.  That work will never see the light of day.  And horror in video game form requires a very specific mix of elements that seems to be increasingly difficult to get right as the medium goes on.

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The big thing at the center of video game horror is stress.  Which is kind of counter intuitive with most games, as stressing out the player is a sign you’re doing something wrong.  In survival horror, though, that’s central to the experience.  A lot of it should come from having some sort of empathy with your central character who’s in this situation so above them, hence why your character’s are always pretty weak and generic rather than being a true doom murderhead like me, but what’s unique about video games is that a lot of this stress gets imposed directly onto the player as well.  Necessary resources are always scarce, controls are deliberately clumsy, and viewpoints are pretty limited.  You end up having the player fight with the mechanics as much as the character fights with the terrors facing them.  Having your character comparatively weak to the enemies they’re facing is a big one, but you, the player, are weakened as well.  Taken outside its context, this would make for an absolutely horrible time, but because the goal of these games are not to be fun, but to fill your pants with dread, they get to use that as part of the experience they’re building.

The stress has to be very carefully managed, however.  That’s part of why the good survival horror games are so slow, and work entirely at the player’s pace, because it’s easier to manage the necessary stress that way.  You want a slow buildup there.  Time to realize that the next room may have a whole bunch of enemies and you’re down to your last healing energy drink.  You need to be able to suffer from the poor controls and camera angles without being overwhelmed.  You need to be pressed to the limit, ever fearing that last nudge that will push you over, but then taken back some so that being at the edge doesn’t grow stale.  And you need to be very, very careful not to push the stress too far.  It is so easy for that level of stress to rise from the tension necessary in good horror to frustration, killing the mood of the game.  A death is a pretty common trigger for that, not only breaking the immersion but providing a relief to the pending fear in the form of anger as the player now has to deal with the punishment that comes with the failure state.  Survival horror has a very thin line that it has to walk in order to be effective, and good designers both guide and push the player along it, keeping them at just the level of stress necessary.

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Most of the modern games I’ve played seem to have lost that balance entirely.  Usually it’s on the side of not building enough tension in the first place.  Now that the genre’s making way for action horror, most of the stress built is instantly relieved just by blasting away at your foe.  The big problem is not just that you can kill your enemies, but you can kill them comfortably.  Fighting them doesn’t have as much pressure when you’re carrying an arsenal and every fight is not this whole new struggle.  And not only does the pressure not get built up in the first place, you get immediate relief by overcoming it, so things don’t get built from conflict to conflict.  Also, it’s a little hard to be scared on behalf of your character when your character is such a badass.

So far, a lot of the indies I’ve played seem to take it too far in the opposite direction, going for an even longer game than standard survival horror, and not building enough tension up in the first place.  I know I’m going to have to hand in my keys to the internet for saying so, but this was my big problem with Amnesia.  You play that game for so much time without much happening, that any sort of threat the intro and mystery builds up just fades with time.  A lot of indie horrors focus on the more puzzle/adventure aspect that comes in with the genre, and you do want to give them that, as well as give them time to absorb the story and get the suspense built up.  But suspense and fear come from two different sources of tension, and any attempts to induce one will fall flat if efforts up to now were largely towards building up the other.

I’m sure there are still some good examples of classic, solid, fearful survival horror out there.  I just personally haven’t played any that have come out since the PS2 era.  And there’s a reason for that.  It’s just so hard to get the balance for horror quite right.  It takes a lot of personality put into the game, a lot of preparation for the player’s actions, and a lot of manipulation of the player without letting them onto it.  It seems to become a much rarer form that those who do undertake this endeavor do so well.

The End of Dark Souls

Last time, on Aether Plays Dark Souls… you know what?  Forget about last time.  Forget about all those last times.  Except don’t really, because those last times were great and they make the world so much better, but maybe forget them a little bit, because it’s all about what we have ahead of us now.

For we are at our moment.  This is it.  This is that moment upon which the fate of the world will fall.

How long has it been?  How many deaths, both mine and others’?  How many tears, conquests, falls and rises?  How many friends have I gained and lost?  How many times have I truly proven myself the best chosen one?

And all around me, how many other people on their own adventures, dealing with their own plague of the darksign, making their own quests?

Tonight, that all ends.  When dawn comes again, if it ever does, the world will be changed.

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But a man can’t change the world unprepared.  I have some things to do.  First step, make use of the rite of kindling and build Firelink’s bonfire as high as it can go, filling my estus flask to bursting in the meantime.

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Second step, use the soul of the darkmoon knightess to make my estus even stronger.  It’s not the best way to honor her death, and I feel I owe her more than this, but you know what?  She tried to kill me.  I don’t care.

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Third step, head up to Frampt and cut him in his big stupid lying…

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I mean, try to cut him, but fall down the giant gaping hole in front of him instead.  Boy, do I feel stupid.

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There’s some magic there, to cushion my fall.  Who left it there, I don’t know.  But for once, I don’t get hurt.  I could get used to that.

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And here I am.  That which I’d been seeking to open on this whole ‘murder everyone’ fool’s mission. Continue reading