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Tag Archives: Dark Souls II

 

 

Pass.

 

 

The living room is dark.

My mother sitting in her work clothes, staring at a paper.

My brother and I know we’re in trouble.

We don’t know why.

My mother looks up at us. I don’t look at her.

I keep my eyes on the slats of afternoon light beaming onto the carpet.

“Do you know…what this is?”

She shakes the paper.

We shake our heads.

An accelerating silence.

“This is a phone bill…”

I nod. I see where this is going.

“The phone company is charging me five hundred dollars…”

Mid-90’s. We just got the internet.

“What the hell have you guys been doing?!”

Dial-up was our only choice.

We lived in Appleton, WI.

We had to dial-in through Green Bay.

The connection was garbage.

We went through Madison instead.

It was further away. It was stable.

It was long-distance.

“I can’t believe this…”

My mother looks at the bill again.

“Can I know what it is you’re doing?”

I shrug.

“I don’t know…looking at stuff…”

She looks at me.

“What stuff, Wasim?…”

We just got a Playstation.

I was discovering games. Finding people.

Getting lost in the strange quiet.

She wouldn’t understand.

“Stuff! I don’t know…”

She starts shouting at us in Arabic.

My brother and I sit on the couch and cower.

In the end, my mother declares no more unsupervised internet time.

We nod.

I know she won’t follow through.

She has too many things on her mind.

I won’t connect through Madison anymore.

I’ll accept Green Bay’s instability.

I’ll pass through it.

And I’ll push deeper into this glowing wasteland:

Sifting through its silence.

Wondering alone.

 

Pipe.

 

Middle School.

We are the first class to have a computer course.

They teach us about the internet.

Our final project: Create our own website.

It can be anything.

I get weird.

I pack my site with Diablo and Doom GIFs.

Black and white pictures of deformed farm animals.

Dilbert comics I don’t understand.

I write a long, conspiratorial rant against the government.

It makes little sense.

This is the internet as I knew it.

Games. Pieces of games.

Lo-fi visual strangeness.

Underdeveloped ideology.

An opportunity to dissolve in front of anyone.

At home I jump between chatrooms.

I talk to people I don’t know.

I try to uncover who they are.

Men become women.

Women become men.

Children become adults.

Multiplayer, text-based, non-linear fantasy.

There is no precedent.

We talk games. Politics. Relationships.

I try to keep up.

I am a Communist. An Anarchist.

I help someone through Metal Gear.

A person claiming to be transgender assists me with fake relationship problems.

I am a Paleontologist.

A doctor.

A writer.

I am the grand experiment:

Watching the chat-streams collapse and break on the shores of sense and language.

Endless reams of text and symbols.

No homogeneity. No fluency.

A million insular, erotic, fluid worlds hovering over the largest stage mankind has ever constructed.

A million people cutting themselves into a million pieces.

A million deaf-mutes screaming through themselves in a place with no echo, in a world of alleys.

In a world devoured.

A world constructed.

A world hegemonized.

A world swallowed whole into a factory of suns.

 

Stick.

 

The quiet is over now.

The internet is a loud, unified place.

A tyrannical megalopolis with no dirt in the corners.

With no place to hide from the eyes and the noise.

Surveillance. Streaming video. Google. Podcasts. Internet radio. Social networks. Marketing algorithms.

A person must be what the world says they are.

I miss the old ways.

The old place.

I miss the curtains. The smoke. The masks.

I miss floating in the imaginations of the world.

I try to find that space again.

In college I meet a girl.

She is from Lebanon. A doctoral student in Comparative Literature.

I enjoy her company. I enjoy walking with her through the city at night.

She smells like the old country, like my childhood.

Like growing up in the mountains.

Our friendship doesn’t last.

We grow distant. We fall out.

She says I am not ‘pure’ Lebanese.

I feel more ‘American’ to her.

She claims my dislike of the Middle Eastern aesthetic and love of Medieval/Victorian/Gothic Europe is a form of ideological colonization.

I become silent.

I don’t expect that from someone who understands the fragile, flexible nature of identity.

It cuts deep. The sting lingers.

The world is a force of labels.

Technology is the disruptor and the accelerant.

As the internet unifies, I try to find holes in other fictions.

Books. Film. Music.

Games.

After the Playstation, games become a fixture of my life.

I try to find a space to relive that original quiet.

That original unsettling.

In 2009, From Software release Demon’s Souls.

It is medieval, slow, and archaic.

Its world is broken and shrouded in fog.

The player is tasked with exploring it. Uncovering it.

Eliminating the source of the horror consuming the land of Boletaria.

The characters residing in this fracturing are themselves broken.

They hide. Their identities change.

The Maiden in Black both assists the player through the game and is revealed later to be partially responsible for the land’s bleak state.

After being rescued by the player, Yurt, The Silent Chief begins killing other characters whenever he is left alone.

Online, Demon’s Souls allows others to leave messages anywhere in the world.

There is little direct interaction.

These messages can be encouraging, enlightening, deceitful.

Only with experience can the truth be known.

These mechanisms coupled with an inconsistent, shifting ‘World Tendency’ which fundamentally determines what the player experiences and Demon’s Souls is a game that plays the player.

It is complex. Genuine. Liquid.

A game about identity draped in a dynamic ruined world.

A place reminiscent of the early internet.

A broken place always in flux.

2009: My final year in college.

Bored. Lost. Confused.

No job lined up. No idea what I am doing.

I spend my nights exploring Demon’s Souls. Churning deep into Boletaria.

I find a remnant of the strange quiet the world left behind.

I find a place to disappear.

A space to revisit a dead era.

From Software continue to develop the Souls formula.

Dark Souls. Dark Souls II. Bloodborne.

Each iteration: A new exploration of silence.

New kinds of fluidity.

New layers of faces.

New branches of Miyazaki’s deliberate, crafted, mistranslation of Western literature.

The early internet is trampled.

Wiped clean.

But the Souls games capture most of what it was.

They are memorials to hiding, to the inconsistent self.

To that dead space where anyone could be anything:

 

Alone.

Together.

 

 

 

 

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Deform.

 

 

When I first picked up Advance Wars in 2001, I had no idea what I was doing.

I enjoyed strategic war games, but I never played them with any tactical focus.

Always brute forcing through missions.

In Command & Conquer: Red Alert, I would spend hours amassing huge tank swarms, sending them into the enemy base at once.

In Age of Empires II, I would scour the map for every last remaining enemy before the mission ended.

I always thought of myself as a strategic person, but I needed a narrative draw to act strategically.

In RPGs, I did well at managing my parties and character abilities.

But whenever the narrative layer was removed, I had no drive, no patience, for strategy.

When I first picked up Advance Wars, I had no idea what I was doing.

The game frustrated me because unlike Red Alert and AoE, I didn’t have total control.

Each mission was tight. The parameters were clear.

There was no free rein to sit back and amass units.

There was no brute forcing the enemy.

Because of the tight margins, Advance Wars taught the player how to be tactical, but only if the player had the right kind of eyes.

Advance Wars required the right kind of mind.

I struggled with the game because I had neither. I resented its limitation.

I hated the game for keeping me focused.

I stopped playing.

 

Contort.

 

Advance Wars lingered in the back of my mind the following years.

Whenever I came across a war game that gave me the space to breathe and slow the game down, I felt like a fraud.

I’d recall my time feeling stressed and pushed to act in AW’s world.

That urgency felt more authentic in a strategy war game.

No one else seemed to get it right.

Advance Wars became the lens through which I would assess myself in other war games:

“Would this strategy have worked in an Advance Wars level?”

The answer was always no.

My tactics, my strategy, lacked all focus and urgency.

I was using war games to fulfill my inherent desire for spectacle and completion.

I was using strategic war games as engines of ego.

I needed to return to a place of focus.

I went back to Advance Wars, 13 years later.

What shocked me was how the game had lingered in my mind.

The controls were so elegant and logical that they were impossible to forget.

The rest of the game struck me as lean and clear.

Now that I had the right kind of eyes, now that I approached the game with a softer mind:

I understood what the missions were.

I understood what the game was.

 

Arms.

 

Advance Wars is a strategy puzzle game hiding within a turn-based war game.

AW is more about solving than attacking. Much like Ikaruga, it is about adapting.

The ‘puzzle’ elements of Ikaruga (switching the ship’s colors to absorb bullets) slow the game down and it becomes a sequence of novel set-pieces.

By not giving the player free rein to hold back or charge forward, digging out the ideal strategy for the mission is much more engaging in Advance Wars.

Unlike other war games, the UI in AW is simple and concise.

The player can do everything  inside of two small menu screens.

It avoids the clutter and bloat of larger games.

It rewards a player’s attention. The proper strategies are not immediately obvious, but also are not buried under layers of difficulty.

They are there if the player chooses to focus.

In spite of all that it does stunningly well, Advance Wars does have its design problems.

Rather than acutely increasing the difficulty each mission, the game increases the options available to the player.

The player might gain a new Commanding Officer (CO’s determine the special passive stats and active abilities that a player has access to) or the ability to build and manage units, or adding new units.

Intelligent Systems did an excellent job in gradually ramping up the player’s options.

But by focusing so much on access to options, the difficulty is uneven.

There is no gradual development of difficulty, only plateaus.

The ratio seems to be 3:1 or 4:1. For every three or four missions, there is one which spikes.

Advance Wars is a game about patience, but it doesn’t take the time to teach the player how to be patient. It operates as if it expects the player to stick through it.

These vertical difficulty spikes were one of my problems with Dark Souls II.

One of the stranger things about Advance Wars is the art style.

It is a war game that does not take itself too seriously. The colors are bright, the unit icons are bubbly, and the dialogue can be childish.

This creates a fair bit of dissonance considering that soldiers are supposed to be dying.

This clash of style and substance has left me with quite a bit of  cognitive dissonance.

On the one hand, I’m happy to play a war game with a different aesthetic: One that isn’t entirely drab and brown.

On the other hand, this is trivializing the worst parts of us.

The way the COs carry on talking as if no one is dying adds to the sense that of avoidance. It’s happening everywhere, but no one talks about it.

Intelligent Systems has worked very closely with Nintendo since the very early NES days.

Seeing as how Nintendo likes to keep their games from tackling cultural issues like homosexuality in their latest Tomodachi Life release, I could see them not having a problem white-washing the brutality of war.

Although, IS is also the developer behind the Fire Emblem series and does not seem to have an issue tackling questions of sovereignty, nationalism, death, and sacrifice in that series.

In spite of these issues, Advance Wars is a substantial game, especially for an aging portable system.

It is a thorough study of excellent design.

With clean controls, a unique aesthetic, and tight levels: It is a strategy game that out-maneuvers nearly every other war game in the genre.

13 years after its release and the game still shines…

long after many have forgotten it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal.

 

 

Demon’s Souls defined the PS3 for me.

In 2009, it was becoming evident that the Playstation 3 had lost the ‘console wars’. Microsoft had the better digital store, better online play, better versions of cross-platform releases, and better exclusives.

Demon’s Souls brought something serious and innovative to the PS3.

It was explosive.

Demon’s Souls sold out everywhere shortly after release. The game tapped into a part of the collective gaming mind that was under-served.

Many often cite Call of Duty as having ruined games today.

After CoD became a phenomenon with Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare in 2007, many other game publishers and developers tried to follow suit by making linear, cinematic games with enormous budgets, little single player challenge, and customizable multiplayer.

What Demon’s Souls did was the exact opposite.

The game presented an alternative that had been forgotten.

Demon’s Souls was the antithesis to what CoD had accomplished: A third-person, dark fantasy game set in a world with a medieval European aesthetic. Little was explained to the player.

Everything from the plot to the leveling system to the global mechanics were left for the player to decipher. There was no exposition here, it expected you to puzzle everything out.

After playing DS for a while, I said to my brother, “Its like playing Dragon Warrior on Saturday afternoons as a kid.”, it captured that lack of noise, the volume of space, and the confusion of trying to figure out what an ‘RPG’ was.

DS was the first game in a long while to not treat the player like an idiot.

By all accounts, Demon’s Souls should not have been successful in a post-CoD market and if not for its asymmetrical multiplayer, I don’t believe it would have been noticed to the same extent.

For a little over a decade the developers of Demon’s Souls, From Software, mainly worked on polishing their flagship Armored Core series which only ever achieved a niche gaming audience.

Prior to Demon’s Souls, From Software also released King’s Field, often considered a spiritual predecessor to DS, which also never really captured a large gaming audience.

Demon’s Souls was arguably From Software’s first big success. A success achieved by filling the void left by Call of Duty.

DS is a game about dread. The player is never at peace with the quiet, at any point nearly any enemy could kill you.

The game expected you to just barely get by. The little help you were granted came in the form of small messages written on the ground left by other players. This was the most substantial interaction you had, this was one of the few and only ways players could communicate.

The writing only amplified the dread and loneliness of the world, the feeling of having just missed someone repeatedly was jarring.

DS also allowed you to view how other players in the area had died. It allowed you to witness their final moments, their final acts.

Demon’s Souls was a love letter to loss, forever being lost.

 

Other.

 

When my mother bought Dragon Warrior for me, she had to coach me through it as I had no conception of how to play that game. I had come off of Mario and Duck Hunt and I had no reference for what Dragon Warrior was.

I didn’t understand how to save, I inevitably replayed the first few hours over and over again. I would ask my grandmother for help when my mother was at work, but she didn’t know English.

I read an interview once with Hidetaka Miyazaki, creator of the Souls series, where he explained the influence behind Demon’s Souls.

As a child, he had attempted to read English fairy tales to the best of his ability. However, he was never able to understand everything that occurred and was forced to imagine what happened in the gaps of his understanding.

This experience was the fuel that drove the broken, dark fantasy narrative of Demon’s Souls.

He was forcing players to confront and explore the emptiness of understanding.

When Dark Souls released in 2011, it wasn’t as much a shock to the gaming landscape as Demon’s Souls was. At that point, the medium had two years to digest what Demon’s presented.

What Dark Souls did was hone further everything presented in Demon’s Souls: A larger environment, more weapons, more subtlety, a stronger plot, more NPCs, more interconnectedness.

Where Demon’s Souls was an exploration of dread, Dark Souls was an exploration of tragedy, morality, and sanity. It was an archaeology of what makes us human.

In Dark Souls, the world is progressing through its own Götterdämmerung. The power of the Gods is waning and because of this no one can die, they are constantly reborn as ‘hollow’ (undead). The more hollow one becomes, the more they lose all sense of self.

The end of Dark Souls presents a question to the player: Do you sacrifice yourself and prolong the rule of the Gods? Or do you turn your back and begin the age of darkness (the rule of man)?

The road to this final question is paved with tragedy: The killing of Sif, the story of Knight Artorias, the treachery and madness of Seath, the self-isolation of Priscilla, the downfall of Solaire.

Dark Souls isn’t just an archaeology of place, it is an archaeology of the self. Just as the player digs into the world of Lordran, Lordran forces the player to delve into the heart of the self.

Like Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls is a quiet game set in an enormous world where anything can kill. The developer evened the odds by having more weapons and armor available to the player.

I often tell people that Dark Souls is the simpler game when compared to Demon’s Souls, but only because it presents things more cleanly while maintaining the narrative and mechanical darkness that made Demon’s Souls so enthralling.

Dark Souls is a literary epic that has been ripped apart. The player mainly gathers information while sifting through the world.

The short object descriptions are a fundamental part of the narrative: The more items you manage to find, the more of the story you understand.

Many often complain that the combat and movement in the Souls’ series is unsatisfying. The character movements are floppy and slow, but this only adds to the feeling of being dispossessed and lost in some decaying surreal spectacle: A lack of coordination.

Dark Souls was a proper evolution, everything that made Demon’s Souls great was expanded.

In Dark Souls II there is only back-tracking and contraction.

 

Young.

 

I spent two years playing Dark Souls, the game was that important.

Sometimes I would simply exist in the world without doing anything, just watching the clouds.

As the release date for Dark Souls II neared, I became excited. Dark Souls meant something to me.

From the second I put DSII in, everything felt off.

The character was quicker than in DSI, the game began with one of the most awful, poorly integrated tutorials I had ever experienced, and there was more plot exposition: exactly what I had feared.

There was controversy during Dark Souls II’s development. Miyazaki was moved to work on other projects in From, and the series was handed over to Tomohiro Shibuya and Yui Tanimura.

The controversy mainly had to do with comments made from the Dark Souls II dev team about how to make the game more understandable and easier in order to increase accessibility.

These comments then set-off a chain reaction of anxiety from embedded Dark Souls fans. They became concerned that everything that made Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls grand and unique were going to be gutted.

The broken narrative of the first two Souls games is poetry. Poetry is a broken narrative of an experience or a thought. No one asks poets to make their poetry more understandable, I couldn’t see why anyone wanted to do that with a series that had proven itself twice.

In the first 30 minutes of playing, I could tell that Dark Souls II was not going to be as engrossing or as challenging, narratively or mechanically.

After managing to burn through the first five bosses, I had to take a break and think about what happened.

The item descriptions had become twice as long. The world was not layered at all, the different locations didn’t fit together in any compelling way, and the enemies were unbalanced.

One of Dark Souls II’s major problems is the difficulty does not scale properly. One minute the player will have control of an area only to be hit with a very difficult enemy type out of nowhere.

Dark Souls’ genius was that it was a constant uphill battle, but the challenge never felt ‘vertical’, it never threw up barriers out of nowhere, the difficulty ramped up meticulously: DSII had none of that subtlety.

The battle with the Ruin Sentinels was a poorly conceived pyramid scheme of fun.

This lack of subtlety in Dark Souls II’s design would not have been an issue had they allowed the player to grind for experience in the same manner as the previous two iterations. Now, the player could no longer go to areas with respawning, high-experience enemies and grind, after a certain amount of time, the enemies stop coming back, and when that happens not only is it frustrating for the player, but the area feels barren and boring.

Couple this ‘wasteland’ mechanic with the ability to travel between checkpoints outright at will, and you have a game that asks so much less of the player than its predecessors while hollowing out its own world.

It’s almost as if Dark Souls II deeply misunderstands everything that made the first two Souls games relevant. It is by far the worst entry in the series.

This is not to say that Dark Souls II itself is a bad game, it isn’t, it just isn’t the game it could have been.

Dark Souls II is a cheap experience that only tries to grasp at the mechanical and narrative shadows cast by its siblings.

What defined Demon’s Souls was its exploration of dread and triumph.

What defined Dark Souls was its exploration of tragedy and loss.

What defines Dark Souls II is cheapness and a failed attempt at ease.

From Software should not be proud of Dark Souls II, regardless of sales. Dark Souls II’s inevitable financial success will only be based on the high quality of its predecessors, not on its own merits. It offers nothing to the series while taking so much away.

From can do better than this and until we begin to see what the next installment in the Souls series holds, Dark Souls I is still the pinnacle of what they can accomplish.

 

Vivisect.

 

Demon’s Souls:

 

Dark Souls:

 

Dark Souls II: