Tag Archives: video game

Waltz of Souls

Dark Souls encodes a number of fundamental play dynamics that produce a particular kind of satisfying play. In this post, I am going to discuss a way the game supports and rewards an enterprising but focused player stance toward the unknown.

First, the game penalizes both reckless and overly cautious play. A player of even a relatively high level character can still be messed up substantially by some of the weakest and simplest enemies if the player fails to pay attention and take the threat seriously. In contrast, a player that is too cautious will always be on the back foot, and less able to take advantage of opponent weaknesses. In this way, courage in the face of danger and a spirit of enterprise serve the player best for developing their own skill, improving their fictional avatar, and deepening the complexity of the imagined world. In short, the game entices player engagement and rewards persistence in the face of failure (amplified by many other design decision that are beyond the scope of this post), rather than providing participation trophies for just showing up or presenting a passive media entertainment experience. (Post continues after 80 second video fighting an Old Knight in Dark Souls 2.)

Knife fighting with an Old Knight

Second, this reward and penalty structure creates a cybernetic feedback loop. Feedback loops are powerful, but can also topple into degenerate cases. The most engaging forms of feedback loop for gameplay involve adaptation rather than return to static equilibria. The system improves itself. If a feedback loop reaches a static equilibrium, the “game” ends, even if the players continue to engage due to habituation (perhaps analogous to how a thermostat maintains static conditions). If the feedback loop is negative, at some point the game ends because the activity as pattern destroys itself (similar to how a democracy can collapse into tyranny, a market bubble can pop, or a virus can burn itself out by killing all the hosts). In an adaptive feedback loop, each iteration of feedback produces a more complex, satisfying, resilient whole.

The play iterations of a tabletop roleplaying game can manifest similar dynamics. In one example of a degenerate case, players learn to avoid play by creating elaborate scripts to mechanically deploy when presented with any challenge. In OSR/etc. games, this sort of script may manifest as something like: always look at the ceiling, tap the floor with a ten foot pole, listen at the door. Disconnected from any context or cost, such scripts represent rote mechanization rather than adaptive learning. Players indicate by such behavior a way that their own motivational architecture is to some degree incompatible with or in tension with the game mechanisms or the particular campaign instance.

In the adaptation case, players learn how to navigate challenges by developing skills, along with the contextual knowledge of when to use the skills, and in so doing increase competence. This allows a player to face more complex challenges that incorporate, but move beyond, the existing skill. A simple example trajectory of several iterations might be fighting one troll successfully (to learn troll weaknesses), then fighting many trolls, then tricking other opponents without access to troll weaknesses into fighting trolls, and so forth. Ideally, the player would learn such details through play rather than outside of play by memorizing facts from an official rulebook.

Dark Souls, being a computer game, might be a purer example of this dynamic compared to a tabletop roleplaying game, since options are more constrained, but the template applies to some kinds of successful tabletop roleplaying games. The various versions of Dark Souls, and specific challenges within each, embody this ideal design to greater or lesser degrees; sometimes the game misses the mark. Though Dark Souls rewards certain kinds of creativity when approaching challenges, it has a basic combative frame which limits the learning potential. Additionally, sometimes the challenges degenerate into tedium—such as some long approaches from bonfires to bosses which require the player to pay a relatively boring tax to attempt a previously failed challenge again. But the abstraction is still clear enough to be a useful exemplar. (Post ends with 112 second video fighting The Lost Sinner in Dark Souls 2.)

Fighting the Lost Sinner

(Videos are personal play recordings, all Dark Souls 2I apologize for inflicting my poor technique on the viewer.)

Please relax and enjoy the show!

…an immersive visual and audio experience…

I last played Final Fantasy VII when it came out originally. I liked the original, and probably count as a fan of the franchise generally, though my favorite iteration remains Final Fantasy VI, and I have slightly less experience with the modern action-leaning incarnations (X, XII, XIII, XV, and various spin-offs). Playing Final Fantasy VII Remake was probably the most sustained attention I have directed toward a video game in the past 10 years, taking about 40 hours total. While this may partly be due to the current shelter-in-place pseudo-quarantine context, it nonetheless speaks to the engaging spectacle and beauty of the reimagined Midgar. So keep that in mind as you read on. There may be spoilers throughout regarding the original FF VII storyline, as well as some spoilers near the end about the way the remake approached the material.

In the train graveyard

The original game was linear—almost all FF games are linear to some degree—and especially so during the initial Midgar sequence, which is the only material the remake covers, ending as Avalanche leaves the city. Since I started writing this review, I also played through the Midgar sequence of the original on Nintendo Switch, which took me about six hours, meaning the expansion/inflation is about sevenfold. Though lengthy for a prologue or tutorial section, the Midgar sequence works well in the original partly because the railroad feels subjectively like it opens up once the player finally reaches the overworld map and can begin to explore the mysteries of the Ancients and Sephiroth in a more self-directed manner (though this is somewhat illusory, as there are often a limited number of choices and a clear next step). In contrast, the Remake is one scene—quite literally—after another, leavened somewhat by numerous side quests (though many of the side quests are thematically weak “find lost cats” style collect tasks). The side quests seem inconsequential most of the time, and are limited to particular chapters. The strongest aspect of Remake is the visual care with which it was clearly constructed. In comparison to the original, the way the developers maintain and add detail to the original designs is impressive. Even putting aside the new plot elements—which I will discuss more near the end—the game aspect of Remake also has some shortcomings.

Memorialization

These gameplay shortcomings include some strange difficulty/balance issues, intrusive minigames, and confusingly modeful play. As a brief aside, Remake offers three difficulty modes: classic, easy, and normal. Hard mode becomes available after you beat the game. “Classic” is a nod to players desiring something closer to the original combat system. This is realized by replacing player controls with AI for basic attacks, dodging, and blocking, leaving the player to only select special moves and spells when the stamina bar (or whatever it is called) fills. Hard (which I have yet to try) only becomes available after beating the game; hard mode prevents the player from using items and makes rest areas only restore HP (no MP replenishment). Classic mode makes the combat much easier, rather than just changing the style, to the degree that it almost feels like cheating. I would say that the combat difficulty is moderate near the beginning of the game (probably easy for anyone even slightly better than me at action RPGs) and gets steadily easier. I defeated every boss on the first try except the Airbuster robot and the motorcycle sequence monster truck thing (which uses a different combat mode). So, the game has to be pretty easy, even on the highest difficulty mode available initially. I deferred to Classic mode twice early on, once with the rabid dog quest and once with the first Reno encounter (because he is twitchy AF). This is a long way around to say that the goal of FF7 Remake seems to be more sumptuous visual novel than gaming experience.

Picking flowers

The minigames are either forgettable or mildly frustrating. Further, they tend to be separate from other gameplay skills and unique to the particular minigame, rather than building on previously developed skills. In the Remake’s defense, the minigames in the original are just as distracting (and far more prevalent than I remembered, even just limited to the small portion I replayed). However, the original generally has clearer breaks between game modes, allowing the player to easily predict how the game will behave, whereas in the remake gameplay, cut scene, minigame, and in-between modes blend together and functionality sometimes disappears or shifts confusingly. The Remake also has issues with communicating contingency to the player, by which I mean connection between what the player does and what happens in the game world. Sometimes it is unclear whether you are just pressing a button to advance or performing some skilled action. For example, I still have no idea whether Tifa’s progress in jumping chandeliers in the Shinra building had any connection to what I did with the controller, but I ended up with a keycard in the end so whatever. I suspect the Remake would be improved without most of the minigames. (It seems like the developers recognize this at some level, because one of the perks unlocked by beating the game is the ability to skip the motorcycle sequences when replaying chapters.)

This calls for a song

The combat is satisfying, and fits the FF VII style, especially once you get the hang of some basic tactics. There is a slow motion, bullet time effect that occurs when you pause the action to issue commands, which is realized beautifully. Most of the strategic decisions involve distributing materia—the items that enable casting spells or using other abilities such as summoning—between characters. There is a subsystem with a separate experience point economy for upgrading weapons, but the choices seem hard to get wrong so the whole subsystem could probably have been automated and hidden from the player without loss.

No promises

Now I am going to discuss the Remake-specific aspects of the story. The game has a lot of potentially meta content, as in communication from developer to player directly rather than through storytelling, so much that it has to be intentional. Throughout the Remake, mysterious ghost things (“whispers”) intercede to shape the narrative, and while a final interpretation will need to wait on the next installment, it seems like the whispers will be an excuse to write a new plot going forward, especially given the final premature encounter with Sephiroth which, no matter the direction future games take, short-circuits some of the slow burn of discovering the nature and power of Sephiroth in the original game. The strange title and marketing also makes more sense in the context of future divergence; it is not Remake part 1 because part 2 will be a different story. I suspect the subtitles of future games will make this clear; perhaps the next installment will be called something like Final Fantasy VII Rebirth. The closest analogue to what I think the developers intend is the rebuild of Evangelion, the first installment of which roughly kept to the original anime. However, the second and third Evangelion Rebuild movies became steadily more baroque additions with new plots and characters.

Cloud chilling

The neo VII project more broadly—perhaps a series, perhaps a nascent “cinematic universe”—is ambitious and as yet unclear, though it seems from the signs in Remake that the creators are comfortable taking a demolitions approach to nostalgic fandom. While I have no trouble maintaining distance between the new and the old—after all, the previous game remains unchanged and cheaply available on many platforms—I suspect that many other fans feel differently, so this seems like a strange stance to take on the part of the developers. In total, the game was enjoyable and visually striking enough that I can see myself playing it again at some point, but as such a small portion of the original plot and with cumbersome retcon groundwork, Remake also feels like a opportunity missed.

(All images are screenshots I took during my play-through.)

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)