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Dark Souls

Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

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Op-Ed: Games Are Funny, But They Could Be

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

Dark Souls, Animal Crossing AND Persona in one paragraph? Quickly, fire up the Built to Play drinking game!

Games make me laugh all the time. Not usually on purpose, but they do it anyway. I laugh when I die yet another stupid death in Dark Souls. I laugh when an Animal Crossing character asks me to deliver something to the guy standing next to them. I laugh when my character in Persona gets away with two-timing every girl in the city, because that's insane. My being a part of these tiny worlds lets me laugh at them in some way. When something insane and ridiculous happens in a movie, it's either a brilliant on-purpose joke, or campy nonsense that drags down the film for most viewers. But when it happens in a game, I did it, I caused the insanity, I'm the one who broke the fifth wall of seriousness and turned this whole world into some elaborate joke.

I'm the comedian, and this whole game can be mined for jokes.

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it  THE PAIN?

Is this Nic Cage? Or is it THE PAIN?

Everybody's seen the clips from the Wicker Man where Nic Cage yells about being covered in bees, or the Judge Dredd clip where Dredd is the LAWWWW, and outside of the context of a full movie, those clips are hilarious. But inside the theatre, for the people who paid to sit and watch these movies, those are the things that break the flow of a film, ridiculous, awkward scenes and stilted dialog that break our brief immersion into whatever world we're trying to be a part of. Games however, no matter how hard they try, can never really be immersive as a medium. It's sort of impossible to be mechanically driven and also immersive. There are games that choose to put aside mechanic complexity in favour of serving a deeper interactive narrative, which is a totally rad prospect, but those aren't, and probably won't ever be, the majority of games. As countless smarter people like Merritt Kopas and Darius Kazemi have said, games do what they do best by letting a player explore their systems. Systems and mechanics stacked high to the ceiling, bursting from a game to be able to convey a message or a story. It's what makes games a unique medium, our ability to interact with them in a deeper way than say, books or movies.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

Samus' eyes are actually just a radar in the top left of her forehead. It's why she wears that helmet all the time.

But systems aren't terribly immersive. When you see the way the sausage is made, it doesn't quite seem like a sausage anymore, and the less abstract your systems are, the more of the sausage factory a game is showing. Heads-up displays, like health bars and ammo counts immediately come to mind as something that tips me straight out of the immersion. Some games do a better job of presenting that info diegetically; Halo puts ammo counts on the backs of it guns as tiny LED displays, and Metroid Prime portrays your HUD as part of Samus's visor, occasionally fogging it up in intense heat, or showing a reflection of Samus's eyes if there's a flash of light. But even diegetic info doesn't feel quite right at times. The fact that I have health in the first place is sort of weird, and at the end of the day, I'm separated from the game by a screen and a controller. During a movie, I'm part of a captive audience, sitting in a silent room with mostly motionless people, all staring at one screen. There's something to be said for the immersion you can achieve when the outside world is locked away. Movies can do that, mostly because they run in controlled environments and last 3 hours maximum. Games are usually played at home or on the bus, where there's noise, movement and getting up to go to the washroom. In fact, a pause button is totally unimmersive. Movies don't stop when you need to pee, the characters' lives go on. In a game the world stops for your every whim. You're god, and being god isn't a terribly immersive experience.

The point is, you can't be ridiculous and immersive all at once. But that's an advantage that games have, and can use to tell better jokes than pretty much any other medium. The first time you die in Dark Souls II is guaranteed to be a stupid, ridiculous death. You can die in the tutorial zone, you can mess up a jump, you could fall off a cliff in the starting town. Anyway you slice it, your first death is going to be careless and stupid. Which is why the game rewards you with an achievement called "This is Dark Souls". It's a great joke. It plays off your expectation that you're going to die in this game famous for being hard, teases you for dying so stupidly, and then makes a nice little point about the game that you shouldn't really worry about death, because you're going to die a lot. Interactive jokes are sort of like a knock-knock joke in that way. One side opens the joke, the other side fills out the middle, and then the first side delivers the punchline.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

Before we had vision cones, we had looney-toons style vision lines that made Metal Gear approximately a thousand times harder.

A joke can be made funnier if you let the audience in on it. There's a really great joke in Moshe Kasher's stand up special where he has a member of the audience give him people and things to mime. Of course, the audience member is comedian Brent Weinbach, and they've rehearsed the bit, but for the audience, seeing the comedian react to what they think is one of them and play off of it seems even funnier. It looks like brilliant improv, or at the very least shows that Kasher has some great reactions. There's an element of surprise there. Jokes are all about surprising the audience with something they never thought of before, and letting them fill in a bit of the joke makes their expectations more solidified. They don't expect something, they know something, and playing off of that is even funnier.

Similarly, games with interactive jokes work off of flipping around what you thought you knew. At one point in Jazzpunk, for a split second, your damage indicators and noises turn into those from GoldenEye. It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it sort of thing, but it works. It plays with a mechanic you already know and understand. I mentioned the frog joke in this month's primer, but it's really my favorite joke I can tell without spoiling the whole game. A frog asks you to help him get to other side of the road, which turns the game into Frogger. Then, when you inevitably fail, the frog is bandaged up and wounded. Every time you try again, he gets more and more injured, begging for you to stop hurting him with your awful Frogger skills.

I don't know what happens when you win, but I don't care. The initial joke was having to play Frogger all of a sudden, then I filled in the middle by playing it, and the punchline was that the frog was reacting properly to my failure. For that moment, I knew the game was frogger, which brought a whole new, different host of expectations from knowing the game Jazzpunk. And then it blew the whole thing out of the water by whiplashing me back into Jazzpunk. It's a great joke! I thought it was hilarious! I ruined a poor frog's life!

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

Goat Simulator is a harbinger of great things. And also goats.

We tend to like things more when we can participate. In a slightly weirder way, shooting someone in Call of Duty is more visceral and powerful than watching the same scene on youtube, or even in a movie. Action gives us something. It’s one of the reason spreading jokes through memes is so popular. Having a joke template allows someone else to dictate the terms of the joke, ie. the format, concept and context, and allow the other person to fill in the punchline. It’s funnier to us because we had a hand in its creation. There’s a lot to be said for the power of interactivity, in learning, in entertainment, and even in comedy. If someone learns better when they do instead of read? Why not laugh more when they tell part of the joke, instead of just hear all of it?

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

That's flippin easy! That's friggin medium! That's flag'aphli'dl'kj''''' hard!

Of course, that style of humour isn’t for everyone, and the kind of singular focus and clever writing required for a game with comedy as its primary gameplay element (read: an adventure game) pretty much automatically means any comedy-genre game you’ll ever play will be an indie game. But between Jazzpunk, Goat Simulator, and even simpler concepts like Don’t Shit Your Pants, we’re living in a comedy game golden age right now.

So let’s get cracking on that knock-knock joke simulator, huh?

 

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

The last time I got fundamentally lost in a video game, like, I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going-I’m-pretty-sure-we’ve-circled-this-one-tree-five-times-already lost, was in Shadow of the Colossus. I was following the light beam from my magical sword to the next Colossus when I hit a wall. More literally, it was the side of a mountain. Then, I turned to try and find a path around the mountain, got distracted by a lizard scampering across a plain, and by the time I caught the lizard, I had no goddamn clue where I was.

The mountain wasn’t rendering anymore, so there went my landmark. SOTC has a map, but I wouldn’t call it detailed, so using that was out the window. My mad dash for sweet lizard meat found me standing on the edge of the world, looking over at some seagulls flying over the ocean. I didn’t catch the lizard, and for a few minutes, I was pretty sure I wasn’t even going to find a Colossus out there. The edge of the world is a lonely place, after all. Of course, I quickly remembered I could pull out my magical sword again and follow its light back to the mountain, but for a brief, shining moment, I was totally lost. And no matter how big open worlds get, it’s never happened since.

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

I don’t actually play a ton of open world games. I often find the lack of direction frustrating, and I’m more likely to finish something that gives me motivation on a regular basis, not just whenever I happen to be in the right mood to push myself along the critical path. That’s mostly just a symptom of the kinds of games that use open world design though. Traditionally, open world design meets sandbox-style gameplay and they go hand-in-hand forever into the night, but that’s not necessarily a given. You can have a sandbox without an open world, just take a look at Animal Crossing or SimCity’s sandbox mode, and you can have an open world without a sandbox, like in Shadow of the Colossus or Dark Souls.  The latter is uncommon, the former barely exists, and the combination of the two is pretty much every game in existence right now. Grand Theft Auto is the progenitor of the open world sandbox genre, sure, but Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs, and all manner of dog-and-non-dog-related games occupy that same ever growing category.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

But clever open-world design can actually add a lot to more traditional, directed genres. Recently, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds applied the open world concept to the entrenched and unchanging Zelda formula to pretty interesting results. By giving players access to every tool in Link’s arsenal from the beginning of the game, the traditional dungeon design had to be rethought and refocused on the player’s potentially wider tool belt. Additionally, being able to leave a tricky dungeon to go try another was a welcome change from having to bash my head against the impenetrable wall known as “Zelda logic”. Dark Souls takes a step further, giving players a huge open world and absolutely no tools with which to work off of, but works in that same action-RPG context.

Dark Souls as the glowing exception to the rule though, these worlds tend to be sterile. Link Between Worlds uses the same overworld map from Link to the Past, a 23 year old game. Wind Waker, another Zelda game with a relatively open world, is content to situate its Great Sea on a grid, only letting each square contain one island. The recent Tomb Raider reboot lets you travel around an open world, but then railroads you down action set-pieces that block off exploration. Maybe you’ll go back to an earlier area later to pick up a few trinkets and collectibles. You probably won’t though.

You definitely won’t get lost.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls are, in some small sense, bastions of an older kind of game design. Of building a huge world and refusing give players direction in exploring it. SOTC leads you to the next colossus fight with its magic glowing sword, but you’re sure to miss the helpful stat-boosting lizards and birds along the way. Of course, they aren’t necessary, and most people’s major complaint about SOTC is the lack of things to do in its huge world. It’s a fair one too, considering that the enormous map is entirely empty outside of the next colossus you have to fight. But that’s what makes the world so appealing to me. It’s not a terribly well designed world in the gameplay sense, there’s nothing really funnelling you towards the colossi or any interesting challenges outside of them, and the arenas where you fight the colossi are pretty barren for the most part. But aesthetically and atmospherically, it’s second pretty much only to Dark Souls in setting a mood for a living, breathing world. Though, in SOTC’s case, it’s much more of a dead, barren world.

Play undead. Good boy,

Play undead. Good boy,

Huge expanses of nothing, ruins that serve no purpose, every little bit of SOTC’s map tells a little story about the world, or is at the very least fascinating to look at. That doesn’t make it a super fun game for everyone by any means, but the world enamours me. It makes me want to get lost. Dark Souls’ Lordran hits me in a similar way. It’s much tighter and livelier than SOTC’s barren wasteland, but it has the same sort of lore-revealing efficiency in its world design, with the added bonus of constantly teaching you how to play while forcing you into battle. Fighting the dogs in the tight corridors of the thieves’ down beneath the Undead Burg teaches you about how easy it is to stab them as they leap at you, which is a skill you’ll find comes in very handy during the Capra Demon boss fight, where two attack dogs stunlock you before the demon slams his axe down on your head.

To go back to Zelda for a second, the worlds remind me a lot of Zelda 1. Of course, Zelda 1 suffers from a lot of the same problems that SOTC and Dark Souls do. The open world often lacks direction, you’ll sometimes find yourself with a lack of things to do, and you cane stumble into areas far beyond what you can handle. But they’re also scary, lonely worlds at times, without much in the way of a home base or safe zone. Mind you, SOTC doesn’t have any enemies anywhere, but the world is enormous and labyrinthine for non-gameplay reasons. It feels threatening in a way that a world designed around constant combat just can’t. It feels dead, and that’s not “right”. You never feel at home. Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls may be the centre of the world, but it’s definitely not safe, and Zelda 1 starts on a non-descript square at the bottom of the map with no location-significance whatsoever.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

There’s a sort of focus to building a world like that. An open world that isn’t meant to lead you down one path or let you do anything you want. Go anywhere, but do only a few things. It doesn’t sound like a very good selling point, and that’s probably why we don’t see too many games like that, but in my experience, it lets the world speak for itself, with atmosphere and character all its own.It makes for something very different from having the world be defined by dozens of minigames and pointless encounters created to pad the experience.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

Big worlds are so often full of junk that isn’t, well, interesting. I enjoy Saint’s Row IV, but its rows of cloned skyscrapers are punctuated with, for the most part, variations on minigames I got bored of halfway through my first time playing them. And the bigger a world is, the less likely it is to have constant unique elements. Everything has to serve some player purpose, and the purpose is usually to keep them engaged and entertained from a gameplay perspective. At least SOTC’s emptiness serves the purpose of being negative space for the colossus fights, that’s something unique.

I don’t want to get lost in Liberty City, I don’t want to get lost in Skyrim. In fact, there’s no way I can get lost in them. There’s something around every corner, every nook and cranny has purpose. That outcropping with the seagulls doesn’t really serve a purpose, and there’s something realer about that. Or at the very least, something a little more magical.

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

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Diaries From Drangleic- Dark Souls 2's Open World

In Dark Souls 1, I never really felt safe in the Firelink Shrine.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

What you can't see is the the skeleton army. Or the zombies on the bridge. Or the giant serpent that chills in the pool.

From the moment I was dropped unceremoniously next to the bonfire by a massive crow, Firelink Shrine felt like a place I was in not because it was in the centre of the world, but because it was the only spot that was free of enemies within a 30 second walk in any direction. Firelink Shrine scared me. It was dark, there was weird snoring coming from the pool in its centre, and that weird cleric off to the side was always cackling evilly. But, it conveniently connected three totally different areas that required totally different skill levels to conquer. Of course, that meant me, a first-time player, had a ⅔ chance of walking into an army of giant skeletons, or falling into an abyss full of untouchable ghosts. Firelink wasn’t a base of operation, or a home, or even a hub world. It was the scary gate to an open world full of horrors that would chew your face off and have your hands for dessert.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

The Capra Demon's diet consists of your hands, your feet, and your face. They are delicious.

Dark Souls 2, on the other hand, tries to make me feel as safe as possible at any given moment. Every bonfire is just a loading screen’s worth of fast travel away from beautiful, seaside Majula, a magical town without an enemy in sight. Majula is not only home to every NPC you “save” over the course of the game, but also a handy-dandy covenant manager, level-up mistress, and merchants and blacksmiths galore. It’s bright and gorgeous, with probably the nicest fictional sunset I’ve ever seen outside of an anime ending credits sequence. Plus, like Firelink before it, Majula also connects to at least two other locations right off the bat, and more as you explore. Of course, unlike Firelink, those two areas are actually both fairly manageable your first time through. Even though speedrunners and high-level DS1 players found more efficient paths, the Undead Burg was usually your first stop after Firelink. Majula on the other hand hooks you up with the Forest of Fallen Giants, a fairly simple beginners area, and Heide’s Tower of Flame, which is patrolled by seven-foot-tall Knights who wield greatswords twice their size and make you turn around screaming “nope” all the way back to the bonfire.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

A view to die for! Repeatedly, and painfully.

But Heide’s is manageable for a player who’s quick enough on their feet to dance around the lumbering knights. As a bonus, it's also home to some items that could make the early game much friendlier for a first-time player. Emphasizing that, both Heide’s and the easier forest loop around to the same end location after a while, merely approaching it from different ends.

But the way from Majula to Heide’s doesn’t feel terribly organic. The path is through a tunnel that goes through some sewers before spilling out to a beautiful ruin floating in the ocean. You can’t see Majula past the high cliffs, and you definitely can’t see the underground catacombs that Heide’s will lead you to by the end. It’s a distinct shift from DS1, which delighted in showing you what was coming, only to pull the rug out from underneath just before you got there. You see the foot of the Undead Burg’s drake long before you see the drake itself, and the first bell is visible from the moment you walk into the city. The world doesn’t only let you go anywhere, but it’s willing to show you everything, almost as if to say “you see that belltower? It’s not just scenery, you can climb it.”

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

My god, it's full of shortcuts.

That’s part of what made DS1’s open world so enticing. Everything was not only interconnected, but also visible from anywhere else. Everything fit together and became accessible in logical ways. The Valley of Drakes opens up to the Darkroot Garden, which leads to a backdoor into the Undead Parish, giving a smart player a quick shortcut up to the first bell. Learning the world and its labyrinthine connections was as much of a strategy as learning how to fight.

But I still haven’t gotten that feeling from DS2 yet. Sure, it took a few months and constant speedrunning to find out how to best use DS1’s dense, tightly wound world to avoid challenges and run through the world without a care, but the evidence was there from the beginning. Everything up until Anor Londo was deeply and intricately connected in a way that made sense- in a way that made Lordran feel like a real world. DS2’s Drangleic feels more like Peach’s Castle from Mario 64 than anything else.

Basically Dark Souls.

Basically Dark Souls.

It’s classic hub and spokes design. Majula branches into three or four areas as the game goes on, each in turn then branches out again. Some of these branches intersect, but nothing ever winds back into Majula. Peach’s Castle opened up into dozens of areas, including new floors of the castle when it came time to open up a few more levels. Of course, Drangleic is a little bit more open and intricate than that, but it’s the same basic design philosophy. Lordran was tightly wound to the point where some levels suffered from having to fit back together into a greater whole, but it led to a dense, cohesive world. Each of Drangleic’s areas are vast in scope and feel like fantastically designed individual challenges, but never quite come together as a single unit. I know that Majula and Heide’s are both by the sea, but I honestly couldn’t place them on a map for you.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

No, that tower ISN'T Heide's, nice guess though.

The problem is only exacerbated by fast travel, which DS2 gives you from the word go. You’ll need it, because areas are much bigger and getting between them would be a pain without it, but I get the sense that the chicken came before the egg here. DS1 gave you fast travel as a reward for finishing half the main game and making it to Anor Londo, the bottleneck-y, hyper-linear, vipers nest of an endgame. Fast travel was meant to be freeing and empowering, giving you control over this world that you’d been struggling to navigate for the last thirty hours. The designers may have reacted so positively to it, they gave it to you at the beginning this time, which made them able to make much more compartmentalized levels. It all smacks a little bit of Demon’s Souls, the predecessor to the Dark Souls series, but since I haven’t played a lot of Demon’s I can’t really speak to that.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

Majula is beautiful, ruined, and toothless.

I’m not sure if that really matters in terms of designing an open world though. It’s nice that DS1 is a tightly wound coil of a world, endlessly circling back into itself again and again, but DS2 features such incredibly different areas, all with fantastic, individual designs. At the end of the Heide’s/Forest loop, you’ll find an area called the Lost Bastille, which can be approached from whichever entrance you happen to find first. It’s a beautifully designed level that is challenging both forwards and back, and has a sort of high road/low road balance that makes it super fascinating to explore over and over. But, you get there through what basically amounts to warping. The Lost Bastille doesn’t really feel like it’s part of the same world as Heide’s and Majula, but if it had to open to those, I can’t imagine it would have the same scope or style. It looks nothing like the rest of Dragnleic, which is great and refreshing, but stops it from feeling like it’s as real a world as Lordran.

Then again, DS1 started extremely open before completely bottlenecking you towards the middle chunk of the game, and DS2 shows no signs of slowing down the rate it gives me new areas to explore. A big part of what made DS1 so open was also the master key, which opened almost every door in the game, and was available on the character creation screen. There’s no item like that anywhere in DS2, as if to say off the bat that you aren’t going to get to dictate your movements through the world as easily this time around. It leads to DS2 being a much more directed game, with more set pieces and planned ambushes. It’s a great game, but I’m not sure if it really uses the open world concept quite as effectively.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

Press X to Enter the Mis-wait wrong game.

It’s interesting, however, to see DS2 take a much more classic stance on open world design, drawing directly from Super Mario 64, the granddaddy of 3D sandbox games. The world is huge, but it is it really a world? Or just a collection of levels hidden behind paintings?

Actually, DS1 had a world hidden in a painting as well, so it tried that too. Nevermind, Dark Souls 2 sucks, everyone go home and play Mario.


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The Primer- Open Worlds

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The Primer- Open Worlds

This month, we're all about open worlds, so we decided to take a look back at some games that tried to do something new and interesting with the open world concept at the time they came out. Assuming you've already played Grand Theft Auto and its ilk, you're probably pretty well acquainted with the standard concept of an open world sandbox, so how about something a little more offbeat?

Super Metroid:

Super_Metroid_title.png

So, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game in the way we traditionally think of one. It doesn't have a wide open sandbox, the limits of the world are pretty clearly set out, and there's a very clear linear path you're meant to follow to the end of the game. But, the thing about Super Metroid is that it was one of the earliest games to successfully implement an open world structure into a traditional action game framework.

Even from the beginning, Super Metroid never tells you where you need to go. Hints are dropped frequently, and places too far along the critical path are locked until you find a specific power up that will let you through the gates, but you're never given specific directions. From the moment the game gives you free reign over the environment (pretty much when you enter Brinstar), the linearity takes a backseat to teaching you how to play with carefully constructed, subtle challenges, as well as always giving you enough rope to hang yourself with. You'll never get stuck, but you'll always know you're just tantalizingly out of range of one more secret.

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Super Metroid's constantly expanding map told you where you were and where you'd been, but when you zoomed it out, you could start seeing where secret passages might be hidden, items might be tucked away, and shortcuts might be explored. You would start to find hooks, places you could explore off of the directed path that led towards Mother Brain and the end of the game, and find non-essential power ups and items there. The X-Ray beam and Spring Ball come to mind, but so do dozens of missile expansions and energy tanks.

So no, Super Metroid isn't quite an open world game, but if you want to see a masterclass in how to make a game more interesting by properly implementing open world design, it's one of the first, and still easily the best.

Dark Souls:

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Dark Souls takes what Super Metroid started, and pumps it full of open world steroids. After the tutorial area, you can start poking around the Firelink Shrine and end up in the nearby graveyard, which is meant to cream any player not already a decent chunk of their way into the game.  If you're quick on your feet and figure out the lay of the land though, you can run by tricky challenges and use the doors between areas to get around anything in your way.

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But, unlike Super Metroid, the doors aren't gated according to what gear you've found. It's hard to get around Super Metroid's Marida until you've found the Gravity Suit, which will let you move freely in water. In Dark Souls, however, there's nothing stopping you from running right through late game areas at level one. The only real gate is Sen's Fortress, which doesn't open up until you ring the two bells, which you can of course ring in any order you like.

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Dark Souls is so open to varying playstyles that you can go through the entire game with nothing but a shield. Dark Souls emphasis on atmosphere and careful, measured combat makes that sort of big open world fun rather than frustrating. It's always easy to tell when you're biting off more than you can chew, and retreating isn't terribly hard. Dying only costs you souls, your global currency, and those can be recovered from a bloodstain left when you die. The real measure of your progress, your personal experience as a player, goes nowhere. You're encouraged to fail and try again, and maybe take one of the dozens of different paths to your goal, or even just take up a new goal entirely.  It's a fantastic expression of what the open world concept can do when applied to a genre that isn't "generic third person action game".

Shenmue:

Shenmue-Graphics.jpg
shenmue.jpg

Shenmue came out in North America on November 8th, 2000, just a month before Grand Theft Auto III set the world's love for open-world sandboxes aflame. Shenmue came out for the commercially unsuccessful Dreamcast, while Grand Theft Auto III was a fairly early game for the PS2, which I don't know if you've heard of, but it was the most successful console in history. Shenmue was so expensive to make that it's often cited as one of the reasons Sega got out of the hardware game, while Grand Theft Auto III was so successful they can still afford to blow a quarter of a billion dollars on the latest entry in the series, GTA V.

What I'm saying is that no one really remembers Shenmue, which is a shame, because it is in almost every way the anti-GTA sandbox game. Instead of a huge city to explore, protagonist Ryo Hazuki explores a comparatively tiny town, with just a few locals hanging around. But, instead of Liberty City's sterile, interior-less environment, Shenmue took incredible care in detailing every single aspect of the world. You could open up cupboards and closets, gardens were fully featured, right down to that bamboo thing that fills up with water and then makes a *donk* noise when it falls down to empty out.  You could even swap out the randomly generated weather effects for the historical weather records of that part of Japan in 1986, when the game is set.

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You can eat off of GTA III. There's very little detail to its world, to the point where it's almost not even a world at all. It's a playground, where you can jack cars and shoot blocky polygons with awful controls. Of course, it has the upper hand on Shenmue is about a dozen other ways, but imagine a world where Shenmue became the open world game every developer wanted to copy instead of GTA. All martial arts, no guns, driving forklifts all day through a hyper-detailed, if sort of tiny, town.

We'd live in a very different kind of open world.

Far Cry 2:

The famous story about Far Cry 2 goes that while testing the in-game fire effects, they blew up an explosive barrel, which set fire to the surrounding grass. Then the nearby hut. Then the trees. Then a propane tank, which exploded in a dozen directions, lighting up everything in its path, including an enemy guard who ran into a friend of his, lighting him on fire too. Within two minutes, the entire world was on fire. Obviously, they had to tone it down pretty quickly, but the core idea was now permanently in the game. Everything burns, and if you want to, you can set fire to the world to see what happens.

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Far Cry 2 is a fascinating expression of the sandbox concept, because it never puts any restrictions on players. Want to kill your story-relevant partner characters? Go ahead, they stay dead. Want to play as a suicidal madman who doesn't take his malaria pills until the last second? It's an option. Gearbox's Anthony Burch once held a GDC lecture on how playing the game with permadeath turns into a powerful, meaningful experience on the nature and pragmatism of evil. Any way you want to play Far Cry 2, it's there, and it's probably super cool. The possibilities for emergent gameplay are endless.

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I doubt we'll ever see a game as open and willing to let the player muck around as Far Cry 2 again. Even Far Cry 3 was a much more prescribed, directed experience. That sort of openness and freedom invites dozens of flaws, most of which Far Cry 2 suffers from on a regular basis. Clint Hocking, the game's designer, left Ubisoft a few years ago, and is now working on mystery projects of his own. But Far Cry 2 came at this fascinating delta when open world games were the single most popular game in existence, and first person shooters were just coming off of the high from the initial Modern Warfare. A first person open world game was both innovative enough to draw top talent looking to do something new, and could also get the kind of budget to not be a horrible disaster. We might not live in those times anymore, but Far Cry 2 is like $5 at this point, so you have no reason to give it a shot and party like it's 2008 and we still had hope for the industry.


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Love and Games - An Introduction

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Love and Games - An Introduction

There's just something about games that make me want to love them.

Not romantically or anything. I've never wanted to go to the movies with Dark Souls, or take Spelltower out for a candlelight dinner. There's just this spark in some games that's so powerful, so fascinating, that I can't help but want to like them. There's a soul, a beautiful soul, to the best of games. A kernel of passion that proves beyond a doubt that this is something you should want to love, even if it's flawed. 

But this month isn't about loving games, it's about love in games.

Games have tried to approach love for years. Love interests in stories, romantic options for your player character, dating sims, even erotic games can all trace their roots back to the early stages of the medium. We've always been fascinated with digital love, and now, we at Built to Play want to explore that. Love is a pretty mysterious concept in the real space, but its extension into the digital space of videogames is something worth thinking about. Why do we want romantic option? Why do we want to fall in love with things we know aren't real? Why do we let dating sims put the wool over our eyes, and give us an illusory love?

Of course, there's a flip side too. Why do we hate? People hate certain games strongly enough to do something with that rage, same as love. Our primariy interaction with almost any game isn't one of love, it's one of hate, or at least disinterest, why is that? And back to taking Dark Souls out on a date, why do we get so passionate about these things, both positively and negatively? What can we use that passion for?

Love isn't something we can put a label on an understand, and that's not what we're trying to do here. We want to ask a different question. We know why love and games intersect. That much is clear. Love is something we as people crave, and thus it permeates pretty much every artistic medium we have available to us. We want to look at the points that love intersects with games, and see why those intersections matter. And also, why the absence of those intersections matter just as much.

Or in the famous words of Otacon: Do you think love can bloom even on a battlefield?

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Dark Souls II E3 Trailer

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Dark Souls II E3 Trailer

None of the E3 press conferences have gotten me too hyped up just yet, nothing has been too surprising so  far, but Microsoft did manage to show off one trailer that I was expecting, but still blew me away. 

 Dark Souls II's trailer is suspiciously low on deaths, as well as high on editing that makes it look like more of a traditional action game, but it's unmistakably Dark Souls. Hopefully, Namco Bandai's recent statements that they're positioning the game as the next Skyrim, and that it's their next "AAA" title, will only affect the game's marketing. From Software doesn't have much experience developing big budget titles, and I'd rather not see them make a mess of a sequel to one of my favourite games of this console generation. But hey, at least that extra money in the budget is going to making this game look gorgeous. I'm pretty pumped for next March.

 

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