Tag Archives: video game

Dark Souls preliminaries

Channeler (source)

Channeler (source)

Dark Souls has captured my attention like no other video game before. The basics of the game are relatively simple. You have a set amount of resources, including health, a number of healing potions (called estus flasks), and perhaps some spells depending on your advancement and equipment choices. You set out from a bonfire to explore an area, collecting souls as you go. Souls are acquired by (mostly) killing enemies and (occasionally) found as treasure. If you rest at a bonfire, resources are replenished and all recurring enemies respawn. Bosses and mini-bosses (for lack of a better term) stay dead once killed. If you die, you lose all souls that have been gained from killing enemies (though not those found as treasure, which remain in your inventory until you convert them to actual souls that can be spent). You can reclaim any souls lost if you return to where you died before you die again. Souls can be used to level up (increasing your choice of any one stat) or as currency to purchase items.

These dynamics should seem extremely familiar, because other than a few nuances, they almost entirely replicate the OD&D game approach of recovering treasure to gain XP using a limited number of resources, such as HP and spells, which replenish between excursions. Every action you take is a balance between risk and reward. Do you want to go a little bit farther, risking the souls you have accumulated, or do you want to return to a bonfire to replenish resources (and perhaps level up)? Is now the time to challenge a boss, which, if defeated, will permanently alter the game world, perhaps opening up new areas?

Pinwheel (source)

Pinwheel (source)

The twin factors that make Dark Souls so remarkable are extremely tight gameplay and an aesthetic sensibility that manages to be both restrained (in an almost classical manner) and wildly creative. The style is primarily brooding European gothic, with plate armor, visored helms, western dragons, gargoyles, and so forth, but, as with many Japanese fantasy games, there is also a smattering of East Asian gear and many of the creatures have a vaguely Shinto demeanor.

Being primarily* a one-player, action RPG, combat is the main element of gameplay, and almost all PC capabilities and equipment are geared towards combat efficiency. That said, running away (or past) enemies is often a viable strategy, and, in addition, many dirty tricks are possible, such as knocking enemies over ledges or into the path of traps. Dark Souls combat is real-time and highly positional, though minimal reflex is involved. Combat is paced, almost languid. Almost all actions have very explicit animations, allowing the player to predict and react to enemy attacks and maneuvers once they are learned. This also extends to PC actions, such as drinking a potion or casting a spell. The time taken often exposes you to enemy attacks, meaning that every choice must be carefully weighed and could potentially have consequences. The game rewards careful approach and intelligent tactics far more than quick reaction times.

The regions (stages?) are topologically relatively simple, sometimes almost linear, but the connectivity between regions provides a much more vivid sense of extended world than many more open games, which often contain large amounts of open expanse that feel blank and under-detailed. Further, the connections between many areas are somewhat concealed, requiring careful investigation (though no pixel bitching). There are several areas, including some near the beginning of the game, that I did not discover for a long time due to oversight. Finding a new area to explore always felt like a major accomplishment, either by coming across a hidden path or defeating a gatekeeper boss.

Skeleton wheel (source)

Skeleton wheel (source)

Though the difficulty of Dark Souls is overstated (I am not very good at video games, and have been able to make considerable progress, though I have not yet finished the game), it does not coddle the player. I can imagine that this might feel frustrating to some people, but I have found it refreshing. There are no undo mechanisms, not even a way to reload an earlier saved game. Once you make a change to your character or the game world (such as by choosing which stat to increase during a level up), it stays changed. If you accidentally kill a friendly NPC (as I did with the first merchant I met), it stays dead. Congratulations, you just made the game more difficult. (In my case, I was unable to buy crossbow bolts until reaching a significantly distant area). Because of this design, defeating a difficult enemy or finding a way around a devious challenge feels all the more satisfying. Personally, I have maintained a strict embargo against looking up strategies online (with the exception of some mechanical issues, like figuring out how to aim the longbow), and would highly recommend this approach, as it makes investigating the world far more engaging.

Titanite demon (source)

Titanite demon (source)

This game is so amazing that this only scratches the surface. I would particularly recommend those interested in traditional D&D, especially OD&D, to give it a spin. Many elements will be recognizable, and, in addition, the design decisions that are different have been (for me) quite fruitful in inspiring ideas for tabletop games, both in terms of setting and game mechanics. You will need some patience to begin with, as you get used to the dying in order to learn how things work, though that passes relatively quickly. Don’t worry too much about which class you start with, as you will be able to level any character into any abilities. My current game (still the first and only character that I have created), is up to around 130 hours. It is the only video game that I have played where I expect to make a new character immediately after finishing the game to see how it plays with other advancement choices and perhaps tackling regions in a different order.

* There are some online features that allow other players to leave signs within your game or assist during fights, but I have not used them and based on my understanding they do not seem important to the experience of play.

Final Fantasy IV iOS

Final Fantasy IV (originally released as FF II in the west) just recently became available (iTunes store link) for iOS. It’s on sale right now at $8 for I’m not sure how long (which is 50% off, I think). The sequel Final Fantasy IV: The After Years is also coming to iOS sometime this november, which means I don’t have to pick up a PS Vita at some point to play it. Final Fantasy IV was #5 in my Appendix NES list.

This is a remake with new graphics, not just a port, which has both upsides and downsides. I haven’t played that much of it yet, but the controls are excellent. The old sprites left more to the imagination than the new 3D character models, which detract from the mood somewhat, but that is just a minor complaint.

This is probably my second favorite Final Fantasy game (VI being the best), and IV might have an even more inspirational setting for tabletop RPGs. Something about the setting of VI seems more appropriate for the telling of an epic story, whereas I can more easily see adventurers exploring the lands of IV. Also, IV has underworld tank dwarves (Google image search pointed me to Papers & Pencils, hah).

VI will also supposedly be coming as an iOS remake (finally!), if the IV games do well.


Final Fantasy IV iOS remake (personal iPad screen captures):

IMG_0438 Final Fantasy IV iOS

IMG_0439 Final Fantasy IV iOS

IMG_0440 Final Fantasy IV iOS

IMG_0441 Final Fantasy IV iOS

IMG_0446 Final Fantasy IV iOS

IMG_0449 Final Fantasy IV iOS

IMG_0451 Final Fantasy IV iOS

IMG_0452 Final Fantasy IV iOS

Original SNES presentation, for comparison:

SNES Final Fantasy IV (source)

SNES Final Fantasy IV (source)

Appendix NES

Because this post idea by Reynaldo is too good not to bandwagon, here are a list of the video games that have most influenced my tabletop RPGs. I don’t have nearly the knowledge of obscure games that Rey does, so most of these are probably not new to you.

I am not actually (and have never been) a very heavy video game player, and my attention span for video games has gotten shorter as I have gotten older. Video games have always been primarily of interest to me for tabletop gaming ideas rather than as independently valuable experiences. Partly because of that, I enjoy watching interesting games being played almost as much as actually playing them myself (is that strange?). I haven’t played any of these games within the past 10 years, so I’m going almost entirely from memory. I have ranked the games based on how much they have influenced me, not in terms of their quality.

A few honorable mentions that don’t quite make the final list: Mega Man, CastlevaniaGolden Axe, Diablo, Diablo 2, Final Fantasy XII, Shadow of the ColossusŌkamiMass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins. Those have all influenced my tabletop RPGs also, but not quite as much as those listed below.


11 – Tunnels of Doom. This may have been my first RPG, period. It ran on the TI-99/4A, which was kind of a proto-console, half pretending to be a full-featured computer as well. It is about as simple as a dungeon crawl game can be, but wandering around and finding magical fountains still fired my imagination.

Tunnels of Doom

Tunnels of Doom (image source)


10 – Resident Evil. I didn’t play this game much myself, mostly because it was hard and I wasn’t very good at it (particularly the manual aiming). Luckily, I had several friends who did like playing it, and so I got to watch it being played extensively. The mix of exploration and slow-burn survival horror was a huge influence on me. I specifically remember running an adventure centered on an inn that was taken over by plant-zombie doppelgängers that owed a large debt to RE 1. The more recent sequels seem to focus more on cut scenes and plot to the detriment of exploration and mood, which is unfortunate.

Resident Evil

Resident Evil (image source)


9 – The Legend of Zelda. The spareness of the original Zelda left a lot to the imagination. I still love the understated puzzles that don’t announce themselves as puzzles and the various ways to modify the environment (such as bombing the walls). It’s also a great example of open sandbox design with multiple areas available, though I don’t think I noticed that back then. I still have fond memories of the shiny gold NES cartridge.

The Legend of Zelda

The Legend of Zelda (image source)


8 – The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Probably the first game that started to get me interested in the possibilities of modal dungeons (for example, flooding or draining in order to gain access to new areas). The dark mirror world concept is something that I would like to work into a tabletop RPG, especially if it could be done in a more structural way than 4E’s Shadowfell (I’m thinking about needing to map various areas and maybe find entrances back and forth to shortcuts or access routes).

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (image source)


7 – Shining Force. A characteristically JRPG mix of fantasy and weird technology. Has ways to upgrade character classes. Most notable is probably the grid-based combat system which runs full battles rather than the more common abstract group on group skirmishes as used by most other video game RPGs of the era. This series was the reason to own a Sega Genesis console.

Shining Force

Shining Force (image source)


6 – Final Fantasy VII. Amazing techno-magical setting realized with stunning painted backgrounds. Great atmosphere, with most of the expected Final Fantasy elements (summons, chocobos, airships, Cid, etc). FF VII walks up to the edge of seeming too modern (a problem for me in some of the later games in the series, such as X and XIII), but in the end seems to maintain a balance between technological and fantastical elements. The story gets somewhat lost in grandiosity by the end (I’m still not sure how all the parts are meant to connect), but that doesn’t take away from the tremendous aesthetic achievement of this game. The sense of brooding menace that the best sequences in this game evoke is probably what influenced me most. Something like limit breaks would be fun to incorporate into tabletop RPG classes.

Final Fantasy VII

Final Fantasy VII (image source)


5 – Final Fantasy IV. Probably the first video game I played that actually had a good story. Most of the characters are actually interesting. Also, you get to go to the moon. And transform a character from dark knight to paladin.

Final Fantasy IV

Final Fantasy IV (image source)


4 – Tomb Raider. The original Tomb Raider is almost my ideal dungeon crawl game, despite the lack of fantasy elements. The underground locations have an open, expansive feel and are an interesting mix of natural caverns and built complexes. Like A Link to the Past, many of the Tomb Raider puzzles also involve things like flooding areas or activating bridges. The separation of the look controls from the aim controls also made the game feel just as much about exploration as about killing enemies, which was rarely the focus (though there were a few boss monsters). I’ve been playing Tomb Raider 2013 recently, which is also an excellent game, though the experience feels more linear than TR 1 (despite the fact that TR 1 is, objectively speaking, probably more linear due to the level sequencing).

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider (image source)


3 – Final Fantasy. The original. This is the first video game I remember beating. It has far more traditional fantasy elements than most of the later Final Fantasy games (more elves and dwarves, less mecha). In retrospect, it’s quite linear, with quest A leading to quest B, and rarely any choices even about the order in which to do things. Despite that, it’s still a great game, and has a simplistic though fascinating cosmology of elemental fiends, which has persisted in modified form through many of the later games in the series. I used my Nintendo Power strategy guides pretty much as D&D supplements (somehow).

Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy (image source)


2 – Dragon Warrior. An extremely simple game, but somehow so satisfying. Totally unique style without resorting to “metal” or spectacle. It has an almost pastoral feeling, while being legitimately difficult (and also somehow avoiding being frustrating) at most points.

Dragon Warrior

Dragon Warrior (image source)


1 – Final Fantasy VI. A perfect blend between the more traditional fantasy of earlier FF games and the technology of later games. Halfway through the game, there is an apocalypse followed by a whole new game. A coherent storyline, even to the end, with fantastic characters, which is something that got lost in many of the later games. Though Final Fantasy XII, for example (which is the most recent FF game that I have played through to the end), has beautiful settings and character designs, is there even one really interesting character? FF VI has plenty of fun mini games that don’t seem to take away from the main game (esper collection, the arena, unlocking secret characters). I still find some of the music from this game haunting, and I don’t think it’s because of nostalgia.

Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI (image source)