Scanlines, CRTs, Faux Retro games and whatever

So I was browsing 4chan, as I often do (because I make bad decisions) and decided to drop into /vr/. Without fail there will be a thread about scanlines and NTSC/CRT/RF shaders. I actually find this interesting, because despite not caring about the aesthetic, I do want to have some sort of filter for Brave Earth that isn’t just “lazy scanline overlay”. So I ran into this and found it hilarious.

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Personally, the appeal there for me, is baffling and I’m no sure it’s going t make people wish indie devs were “more accurate” with retro stuff. My first memories as a child involve me playing on my mom’s Atari 2600 and my uncles NES after that. All on crappy old CRT sets over RF. Hell we had one of those hilarious furniture looking console TVs. Maybe it was building sprites in Mario paint, or the better pixel quality of computer monitors and making games in ZZT and megazeux, but the whole “retro means blurry and with scanlines” thing never quite clicked for me. I see thing as pixels. When I play games on the CRT I still use for console games because I’m cheap more than anything, I don’t “see” blurry phosphors. Since our brains fill in a lot of details for us, in my head I’m seeing pixels. So games emulated on LCDs are a plus to me. I like big clunky sharp pixels. Other friends I have look for stuff like framemeisters or buy line doubles and scanline generators to get something closer to what they see in their heads when they play retro games. That’s all cool. It’s awesome to try and recreate things in the past to preserve it for the future. IT’s why stuff like Higan (a super accurate and CPU intensive multi console emulator) are important, even if I will never bother using it.

Still there is a growing number of purists I see getting mad about this stuff. It won’t be a big deal if it was just crazy people /vr/ or those crazy shmup forms or whatever, but I’ve seen even people I know say shit like “this game couldn’t run on the original hardware” or “this isn’t what retro games look like”! I even had one person I know complain that Jamestown had too many bullets for a Neo-Geo game, which is absurd since Jamestown doesn’t claim to be anything. So here are some thoughts on all this, because it’ll probably only get worse once BEP is out (in 50 years).

But old games were designed to be viewed on CRTs!

This is mostly bologna and the thing you need to ask your self is, for any technique, would the art designer NOT have done that if their art was on a LCD or better quality display? Things like dithering come up a lot. Something like say the contra logo… on a CRT the colors blur together more, making the gradient smoother. But the technique of dithering has been used quite often on LCD screens (Just look at Jim’s portrait in this EWJ gameboy port) or in PC Games forever. Acting like LCDs and CRTs is silly — they obviously have visual differences, but there are really very few techniques you’d use exclusively on a CRT. Besides, this is basically any unfalsifiable anyways since we can’t know what the artists were intending or not intending. I would imagine you’d see both artists glad to see their art viewed crisply, and ones who are disappointed by it.

with modern indie stuff where this stuff is thrown around (like with the picture at the beginning of the post)… well, I’ll have more to say about that later, but for now I just wanna say… Play the games on a CRT. Why is it the game’s responsibility to pretend it’s something else? If you plug an NES into an LCD it doesn’t give you scanlines and blur. Internally, for the purposes of this discussion, “retro” indie games and old video games are sending the same thing — an array of pixels. How the device they’re connected to displays them is the displays business.

Besides, this all doesn’t matter anyways. Many greek statuses were intended to be painted, but we prefer clean white marble. Modern statues and modern pixel art reflects that change. Even if it’s not accurate, it’s what most people enjoy and prefer now.

This game claims to be like a (insert console) game but it does this that and the other thing wrong!

If we wanted to make a perfectly accurate game, we’d probably all do what Battle Kid did or what Retro City Rampage tried to do. Most of us don’t. What we want varies. Some of us are just using lo-fi aesthetics as they’re one of the faster style to make while still being a style people respond to well (and remember, making games is hard, especially by yourself. Try it sometimes, it’s fun!). Some care a little bit more about the whole package. When this discussion comes up with people I know, oftne they’re like “Oh but you’re using colors and stuff in a mostly authentic way, you’re okay”… Like, am I? I modified the NES palettes to give me new colors I didn’t have, I don’t obey rules regarding sensible sprite sizes. I have far to many objects on screen at once and like megaman, these already large sprites would need to use MORE sprites just to get the density of color of some sprites.

In fact, adding those extra colors on Naomi was a big thing to me. When I made a mockup and asked people if I should give her more colors (technically possible, but not in the overall picture of the game), people pretty much universally said “Yes. Do it. Why wouldn’t you do it?”. For most people, they want the style up until the point where it interferes with the game. That’s why BEP has a third button. Oh sure I can say it’s start or whatever, but that’s an excuse.

This is the thing with art and fashion. When someone takes stuff from the 80s and 90s, no one (sane) ever goes “OH YEAH WELL IN THE 80S NO ONE WOULD WEAR THEIR HAIR LIKE THAT” because that’s not how fashion works. We take aspects we like forward. We take things that are familiar and transform them. I personally feel that if everyone who made “retro” games tried to, collectively, be more accurate about this stuff we’d be WORSE off. We’d just be wanking nostalgically to things that have already been done, instead of using the past as a spring board into the future… and that’s someone who loves when people maintain history. Making games for old hardware is some awesome digital SCA type stuff. But it’s historical more than anything.

Brave Earth started relatively more accurate earlier on and has gotten progressively more ridiculous in some of the things I put on the screen. But I don’t regret this — when I started this was supposed to be a small free project that didn’t have to move things forward. Now it’s something far more ambitious and better offfor it. It has an identity beyond being “Castlevania but with a sword”. Retro City Rampage also moved on once the shell of the NES got too hard for it to be contained inside and while some may bemoan that all that’s left is a prototype rom, most people are happier for the change. If all retro graphics mean to you is reliving your childhood and everything that comes with it, well… I don’t think much retro indie games are even meant to appeal to you.

We need to understand, lo-fi and pixel art and all that is a STYLE. Do you think the superbrother games are trying to be like a “retro game” and that they would look better if their games seemed more ‘authentically 8/16 bit’? No, and that’d be completely missing the point. People will point to Ridiculous Fishing as being “retro” when the art in the game is composed almost entirely of triangles. There is a huge gradient hereof how these styles can manifest and anyone is free not to like them…but to act like a certain kind of style is somehow more noble is ridiculous. You can still criticize how a style is executed but we have to realize that most of this is a matter of taste and priorities. We all have different desires and developers have different goals. I get driven crazy when games that MOSTLY get it right do things like transparency and sprite rotations, personally. I’m sure Brave Earth will set off people on different issues. But then people will complain that IWBTG doesn’t maintain a consistent pixel density and uses rotating sprites and stuff and it’s like… seriously? Did you miss the point that hard?

The past is a tool and we should not be slaves to it… and that said, I’m still going to try and get construct to do some amount of CRTish effects as a toggle option because I hate my self.

Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance Mini-Review

Not going to do one my big breakdowns for this one, but I enjoyed it enough to say some stuff about it. As usual, I’m going to assume you basically know the details about the game, try reading another review or something first to get up to speed. Or play the game, it’s pretty good!

I’m a big fan of Platinum. They’re loaded with talent I like. Hideki Kamiya is a pretty boss mo-fo and Clover never did me wrong (I <3 you, God Hand). I'm also a huge Metal Gear fan -- bigger than my other gaming opinions might apply. So once reviews made it clear that the game had overcome it's production problems and wasn't a trian wreck, it immediately became a 'must buy'.

Bayonetta, but…

I love Bayonetta, full stop. Rising feels like it’s made from Bayonetta’s basic components. Comboing has the same sort of rhythm to it, you execute moves in the same way and overall it has a very similar feel. It even has Dodge Offset on the one dodge move you can unlock.

The big realization in Bayonetta though was that it was a game about defense. The dodge and witch time really influence how the game feels. Dodging has secretly been the core of 3d action games for some time, from Monster Hunter to Dark Souls.

The goal of Rising was clearly to make defense ‘aggressive’. In Bayonetta, you could madly roll around until you got a lucky dodge. In Rising, you must parry in the direction of enemies, so you can’t stall nearly as easily. While I still find parrying to be fairly easy (once you know what the game wants), it is, compared to dodging, very attention and timing intensive. The game is also much more grounded. Raiden lacks even a double jump (which drives me nuts when I see him jump 100 feet in a cutscene but can’t climb a relatively low wall). Raiden is like a truck — he can be very fast and powerful, but he can’t just fly around like crazy, so the game actually ends up playing very grounded. The parry is cool — the game is still technically largely about defense (especially since a perfect parry is one of the few ways to kill enemies in a timely manner. More on that later), but the purposeful act of pushing an opponent’s attack away makes the game feel a lot more aggressive. Even the ‘dodge’ is an attack.

You also have Blade Mode. It’s a cute gimmick but I feel conflicted. The game seems to designed to give excuses to use this system but it rarely gives a good reason to use it. The game wants enemies to die from blade mode. As such, many enemies are unreasonably beefy and almost require a perfect counter to defeat in any reasonable time, making speedy fights a matter of luck, hoping the enmy does the right attacks. This is offset by Jack-the-Ripper mode, which is basically an armor breaking Devil Trigger. The game hits it’s stride when your JTR moding through big enemies only to pop smaller enemies like little energy packs. The pacing is great as long as you don’t slip up. Sadly limb and weapon cutting isn’t terribly interesting. The only interesting application of blade mode outside of bossfights I found in the game is slashing a blocking Broad Sword cyborg to break his guard. It’s not a bad system, but I can’t help but to feel the game is too far balanced toward Zandetsu. The fact that it fills all health and blade mode completely with one grab I think is a concession that Platinum didn’t have enough time to truly balance the system. Their solution is less elegant but very safe and still fun so I can’t complain too much.

Two additional nitpicks. The games secondary weapons are lacking. Most aren’t very good, and the SAIs are oveprowered and boring. This could be salvaged if they could be quickly transitioned between, Devil May Cry style, or if the menus were truly Metal Gear style, but switching is just tedious enough to discourage it in all but a handful of occasions. Atop that, I’m a annoyed that optimal DPS seems to be doing Raiden’s back-foward launcher over and over again. I guess it’s not that big of a deal, since usually it’s not an optimal way to fight groups of enemies, but it’s kinda silly looking where applicable.

Still, combat wise, I feel like Rising almost has the edge on Bayonetta and I hope to see a Revengeance 2 where Platinum can polish this wonderfully aggressive system.

As for the content — some people complain about short games. I love short games. Especially mastery driven games that I can play through over and over again. Once JTR mode is unlocked semi-immediately on NG+, the game flows much better. To salvage the original Rising content in a reasonable time frame, Platinum made a really lean game. Some of the of the visual content gets recycled a lot, but the enemy related challenges keep ramping up appropriately.

Another random note: The music. Oh my god the music. Not the sounds themselves. Most are okay at best (though there are one or two gems), but the manipulation of music so things like the vocals kick in, or the music crescendos when big moments in boss fights happen? That’s AWESOME and I wish more games would do it. The game also uses QTEs quite well. There is a bit of ‘press X not to die’ but it does a great job of legitimately making you feel awesome. Ending a lot of these segments with blade mode also add a deal of expression to the action. I kinda always wanted more ‘analog’ QTEs where the players input influence the action more, even if the results are largely the same. Blade Mode segments after QTEs are close.

The plot is hilarious. It’s like an Arnold Palmer of 50% Metal Gear and 50% DMC. Some of the exchanges have a level of corniness that can only be describes as Devil May Cry. The game is hammy as hell. The only real disappointment is I wish it struck a balance better. Metal Gear is great at taking it’s self seriously, while not taking it’s self TOO seriously. It’ll laugh with you at it’s self, but it never acts like it’s a joke. Rising does. Which is okay. It made me laugh a ton (the last boss says so many amazing lines that he’s basically a walking ball of memes. Monsoon would be proud). Not much to say about the plot. It’s hard to follow and barely matters. There are a few good segments. The Sam sequence where Raiden hears the voices of the cyborgs he’s fighting is pretty cool. It seemed very Metal Gear-y (even down to the soldiers saying the most corny stuff as it happens, just like in MGS3’s The Sorrow sequence). It seems a little oddly misplaced in Rising, but whatever. It’s better there than not there, but I’d love to see more tonal consistency in a sequence.

So basically it’s a pretty great game, but it does show some seams from being a salvaged project. The fact it does so good despite these hardships is a good sign. I hope Platinum is allowed to continue the series.

In Response to EpicNameBro’s “Future of the Souls Series” Video

The video can be seen here. EpicNameBro (also known as Marcus, which I’ll use from here on out because it works better in sentences!), a staple of the Souls community, talks about what changes should be made to the series in future installments that we have to assume are coming. He makes many astute points and it’s hard to peg anything he says as flat out wrong or bad. So this will be more of an… addition to that discussion. Some of this might be redundant with my previous writing on the Souls games, but whatever.

I mostly will be talking about the multiplayer aspect, much like Marcus was but I just want to note some stuff on story…

Storytelling

Marcus and I are mostly in agreement on this, but I really do think the Soul’s game need to put a LITTLE bit more forward to the player. The game get’s too many complaints about being hollow and storyless for this to stay. It kills me every time I hear it. I’d say the Soul’s game need…. like, “10%” more story. I don’t know what 10% actually means in StoryTellingUnits, but I think it invokes the right idea. A substantial but still minor push. I’d like to see more things that are on item descriptions be things that NPCs say offhandedly. I don’t want there to be any pre-boss-fight monologues, but I would like if NPCs added a bit more to your knowledge of whats going on. Just enough to give some sense of propulsion. I want the vagueness and mystery to remain, I just want some more clues to be put in plain sight to tell the player. I agree that cutscenes is not how the Souls games tell stories, but I don’t think item descriptions are a particularly good way to do it either when that represents such a large percentage of the information in the game. Ultimately what I want is for more people to be able to notice and enjoy what is there. I doubt, under that context, Marcus would even disagree but it is somewhat contrary to wait he said in his video.

The Gordian Knot of PvP

Marcus probably caught a lot of flak for referring to the multiplayer as Garbage and I don’t much disagree with him. That said, I thought a lot of his solutions missed essential and fundamental problems. It’s also a problem that changing one system almost kinda breaks the game. Many knobs need to be turned in unison to progress the Souls series along, making this a tough topic to theorize about.

The first thing in the video that made me want to comment was his thoughts on the Bottomless Box glitch. He stated that From is clearly okay with Gankers and has to be up on stuff like that and the dragonhead glitch if that’s the case. Technically that’s correct, but that is an unrealistic expectation. You can not make perfect software with any sort of confidence that it won’t break. Atop this, is tacit approval of over-leveled griefing really something worth preserving?

You cannot ever be sure that stuff like the Bottomless Box glitch or the Dragon Head glitch won’t happen. So all you can do is design your game so that if they do happen, their damage is limited. Non-scaling weapons are a pox upon the game. For a character at level 1 to 10 to do as much damage as a 120 vit-gouge build is absurd and it is madness that PVP match making is balanced round level when gear makes up the majority of a character’s strength. If gear properly scaled or had certain requirements along certain upgrade paths, then you could effectively limit how overpowered a low level character could be. This means that a skilled player who got a character through the game at a low level would be able to troll low level players better than another player, but that it wouldn’t be like being practically invaded by a level 120 character. Sure, their health and endurance is a lot less, but when the best weapon you could hope to have is the Drake Sword, the difference is almost invisible to all but the most skilled players.

AR, like defense, should scale with level. By doing that, an elemental build and caster builds could have decent weapons according to their level, but would not be unstoppable godmonsters at level 1. This also means people invading or being summoned can be stronger enough than the host for things to be meaningful, but not so overpowered that they trivialize the experience. Atop this we also got to assume that the invading player already has the skill advantage anyways.

If I were to be more radical, I’d say the next Souls game perhaps should not even have levels. Exact stat configurations in Dark Souls are not particularly interesting and are mostly focused on what equipment you want to use. Being able to switch your build on the fly via equipment could lead to equipment with various types of synergy bonuses (A Thief’s armor could improve backstab damage and be synergistic with light and stabbing weapons while a big set of armor might give synergy bonuses to large weapons). The only thing that makes me not like this approach is aesthetic reasons. I almost feel the same as Marcus about wanting to dress up to look cool. I want armor choices to be meaningful, but not so complex that I have to forgo a nice looking combination because not wearing an ugly mask is just not being competitive. You could do some things with specialty armor and weapon upgrades too (and thusly you can basically ‘change characters’ by changing equipment sets) but that is approaching a level of gaminess that might not fit right in Dark Souls. Personally I always felt rubbed the wrong way by characters who’s strength came primarily from their equipment too, but given that this ALREADY is true in Dark Souls I could perhaps let it slide.

Fortunately this stuff can be changed without fundamentally breaking the system, but lets talk about netplay. Marcus talks a lot about LAN support for the game. Regardless of the validity of that idea, I want everyone to think about something. If the game was played without any lag, how good would parries be? If you answer anything besides “Totally game destroying”, you’re fooling your self. The attack speed in Dark Souls is such that, without lag, a high level player would be able to parry most moves in the game on reaction. The competitive answer to this would be to speed attacks up, or remove parries. Speeding up attacks removes a lot of the personality from the game and removing parries removes a very cool PvE feature. You can’t make parries slower either, because then you make them even WORSE for PvE and they’re already on the borderline of “something a player might never use because they never figured out how to”. The needs of PvE, vs PvP, plus the knot of weird bugs and exploits that hold PvP together lead to a strange game that is hard to change without re-envisioning it. Lag also allows stuff like Pivot Backstabs to work and between that and glitches like Dead Angles, you’re able to overcome shields. Improved netplay (which I think is technically achievable AS IS while still introducing the same issues as Lan play — just to a lesser extent) changes backstabs even more for the worse, making their punishing capabilities better while making the positional, lag focused jukes to find an advantage less good. All these systems are, in a sense, degenerate, but it’s a huge question that will reshape the series to decide what they need to be replaced with. Like Marcus, I think grabs could be good. Ultimately we need ways to break turtling and for position to matter more and those are great for that — not currently, possibly if designed with that purpose in mind. And considering how many interactions happen with large enemies where parries are useless, having a multifunctional grab (I guess roughly like Dragon’s Dogma) has some obvious advantages and gives a way to balance mechanics between modes.

Another general issue is that Dark Souls PvP is far too all-or-nothing and it’s painful that a lot of the stuff I shared above is so damaging yet so essential. It feels lame to fish for backstabs but at times it’s the best thing you can do. Nerfing backstab damage was one of the best changes made to the AotA expansion. Between that, stunlocking attacks and ridiculous magic that has to be overpowered to be good in PvE but as such has to miss a lot in PvP to avoid being overpowered. That’s a huge problem. Spells like Dark Bead and Dark Mass wouldn’t be so god awfully retarded that they needed a special item to get around them if they didn’t have to do so much damage to be useful. Dark Mass is an amazing concept for a spell, and Dark Bead has the most interesting zone of control out of any spell in the game. But they end up being grossly degenerate now because either players will die immediately to those tactics or will survive them with relative ease. Magic in general is an area where the Souls games need a lot of work and the first step to doing so will be getting past the idea that spells are big nukes to use against dumb AI. Even the roll system possibly needs revisiting, though perhaps medium roll and even to an extent, fat roll’s semi-viability is a vast improvement from the vanilla game (Funnily, I think the best part of the DWGR nerf is that the roll is much shorter range and thusly makes it harder to pivot backstab slow-rollers. I agree with Marcus fully on things like how offhand weapons should work and such, as well as with covenants. Still, I think for the PvP to really shine without detracting from the PvE, a lot of deep, fundamental changes must be made. The basic control scheme can remain, but systematically, a lot of huge changes will be required, else Dark Souls PvP will always be a silly, semi-casual affair.

Tevis Thompson’s “Saving Zelda” Article is Garbage: The Dangers of Nostalgia and Entitlement

I feel like I’m in a good position to criticize Thompson. We’re both of the same generation. We grew up enjoying the original Zelda. Of the 3d Zeldas, Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker are the ‘exceptions’ and we both deeply enjoyed Demon’s Souls and difficulty in general. I’m also ‘barely’ a Zelda fan at this point. I have no fandom defensiveness going on. I can barely tolerate to play any of the new games. Regardless, his conclusions, to me, seem utterly bogus. When I first saw his article, I ignored it because it seemed poorly reasoned within the first few paragraphs. He wrote well — better than I ever do — but I’ll take a good argument over good prose any day. I only come to it now because I keep seeing it pop up here and there and I’ve finally come to read it.

Occasionally someone will say to me “You only like old games because of Nostalgia” and I’ve used the same answer for awhile. “Not quite. I like Castlevania or Contra because they’re good. I like Dinowarz because of Nostalgia”. If you look at kids going back and playing NES games now, none of them are playing Dinowarz, or Festers Quest or Karate Kid, or a huge amount awful games we learned to like. There are two games that are rarely enjoyed by the younger generation though that are, to many of us who grew up with NESs are thought of as sacred. They’re Metroid and A Legend of Zelda. Both innovative games in their time that have been ravaged by time and are almost unplayable to most people now.

Tevis Thompson is both a victim of Nostalgia and seems to have an over inflated sense of entitlement. No game is going to live up to the child like wonder you had when you first played it and youth makes for the rosiest of tinted glasses. Now, appreciating something due to nostalgia is no crime in it’s self. The problem comes when you assume your fond memories mean that something is inherently better and even worse to assume that is the solution for everyone’s ills. The fanbase for Zelda is not built on old men anymore. The series is no longer about what it was about once, in it’s first incarnation. We should be asking our self what Zelda should be for the people who love it, not for a few old men. Even among old men, the original Zelda is rarely considered the “best’ (LTTP and Links Awakening get that honor from the old guard in my experience).

So first thing that hit me was his comments on difficultly. Zelda should not be harder. Zelda should be EASIER. Zelda was not Demon’s Souls even during it’s time. Every game on the NES was hard, but Zelda was one of the few you could beat, with time, due to it’s save system. Even if it was a Contra, or a Castlevania, its original incarnation is not important at this point. Also it shouldn’t be easier because just because I say it should be easier. I like hard games! I wouldn’t even enjoy Zelda more if they were easier. This decision is contrary to my own personal desires of tastes. It should be easier because Zelda has teetered on the edge of accessibility for so long, but has never committed. The stealth segment at the beginning of Wind Waker means I can’t have any of my younger relatives get through the game. They also tend to have a ‘difficulty’ ramp up at certain points (such as the water temple) that are mostly invisible to experienced gamers, but significant to new players. The games have been, since LTTP, adventure games more than Action games and I think it benefits from dancing in that direction. I think making the game easier is the best way to grow the player base while not bothering the majority of pre-existing fans (who no longer have the idea in their head that Zelda is supposed to be ‘hard’). Now I could be wrong in my assessment, but i am -not- making it off of my personal preferences. If more games were like Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls, I would personally be happier, but I don’t think gaming would be better off for it. Tevis should be less selfish. If Demon’s Souls is what he thinks Zelda should be, he’s fortunate because Form Software will probably have more games to give him! Now, I’ve said that I think Castlevania should emulate Dark Souls and that the soul games are the true Castlevania successors, but modern non-metroidvania Castlevanias never found their voice like Zelda has. Zelda has a voice — a flawed, unpolished voice that is often abused (in many ways that Tevis was right about, but also mostly stuff most people already knew). The answer isn’t to scrap everything and go back to Zelda 1 (if you want that, there is also 3d Dot Game Heroes which I ALSO enjoyed, but also suffered from being painfully obtuse), it’s to make it good at what it’s trying to be. I don’t have the answers to how (and really, I don’t like Zelda enough to care), but I know that Evis is coming from the wrong place. His blindness to his own nostalgia makes him as guilty as the people who say that Zelda needs to go back to being more like Ocarina of Time. For all Tevis has to say about his feeling of loneliness and isolation and a mysterious world, kids who grew up with OoT could match his praise. They would talk about how mystified and amazed they were when Link first traveled through time, or talk about the bleakness of the town in his adult form or how Epic fighting Ganondorf felt. The praise will be very different, but will still be bathed in childlike wonder.

This isn’t to say that this means the two are equal games. What it means is Tevis and the young fans who mindlessly defend OoT are equally wrong in their approach. When Tevis insults Aonuma for taking the ‘teeth’ out of a hardcore series, he fails to realize that, at the time Ocarina game out, that Zelda had already been a not-hard-core series for longer than it’d been hardcore. But no, since Demon’s Souls panged some Zelda Nostalgia in his head, THAT must be the answer! It’s embarrassingly “id” based thinking.

It’s unfortunate because he is right about many of the symptoms. Zelda IS too caught up in its own conventions. It’s content to stew on its big name and mediocre design. Most of this was already somewhat well-known and having a well written repository for that information would have been good… But the solution stinks. Even if some of it could work (reducing story, for one!), it comes from such a wrong place that for any of his suggestions to be taken seriously they have to be decoupled from Zelda 1. If the plot should be reduced it’s not because that’s how Zelda 1 did it, or to get back to its roots. It should be done because most games could deal with having their plots reduced! Zelda needs to change to truly thrive again, but the last thing it needs to do is be slave to the old ways. Mr Thompson’s fond memories are not the same fond memories shared by most of the current fanbase or even my self.

Tevis’s hubris would sooner betray the fanbase than save the series. Don’t let your own tastes or nostalgia get the best of you.

I hate Skullgirls IPS system

I really really really am starting to hate this system. For those who don’t know, Skullgirls’ IPS stands for “Infinite Protection System” and is the system the game uses to make sure you’re not doing infinite combos. It does this by detecting looped sequences and ‘discrete’ parts of combos. If you do an ‘infinite’ the other player can hit a button to burst out of it.To quote Mike Z…

I’m not sure why people think this IPS is complicated […] the rules are still simple to explain – “don’t start a chain with something you already hit with, and your combo is always legit.” You get 2 free sections before moves are even counted toward this limit (your first and second chains) and one more free section where moves are kept track of but the limit isn’t enforced yet (the entirety of your jump if you’re in the air, or your next chain if you aren’t). That’s it. You can determine exactly whether or not a combo is possible just by writing it out: “Did I already use s.LP? OK, can’t start another chain with that.” And if something doesn’t work, the hitsparks change color and you immediately know which move caused it. You also immediately know why, because the ONLY THING that would cause it is you having used that move before.
“Don’t start a chain with something you’ve already hit with” is the only rule. The exception is your first jumpin sequence, first ground chain and first air combo.

Okay, so it stops infinites and dumb loops, right? Well, no. It really doesn’t help any problem at all, and makes certain problems worse. All it succeeds at is limiting the length of combos. Not to a reasonable length either, just enough to make sure they eventually have to end. What the system demands is very carefully planned and practiced combos with very few liberties. Adding an extra jab somewhere can lead to another part of the combo not working. It stifles mid-match creativity. It doesn’t even stop loops. As a Parasoul player, most of my combos have this segment…

… LP->MP->HP->HP->LP Tear Shot
LP->MP->HP->HP->LP Tear Shot(sometimes allowed when starting in the ‘free section’)
c.LP->MP->HP->HP->LP Tear Shot
LK->MP->HP->HP->LP Tear Shot
c.LK->MP->HP->HP->LP Tear Shot

It looks sometiming like this. And you might go “That’s not too bad”, but then it gets included in a competent combo and you get this. Desk shows another ‘loop’ with Cerabella. You also get issues where the order of segments effect the IPS. For example (to make up a fake combo), something like, Launcher -> j.LP – .j.MP – j.HP relaunch j.MP – j.HP would trigger IPS, but j.MP – jHP relaunch j.LP – j.MP – j.HP would not. It’s a quirky, dumb thing that’s hard to keep track of mid match, leading to a reliance on pre-canned combos you read online, just like every other game.

So what does the IPS do for us?

Well, it makes sure combos end, like I said, but so does gravity, increasing pushback and hitstun decay. Does it do anything better? Well, for one it’s very deterministic. Gravity, hitstun and pushback are very “analog” and hard to track. IPS is super reliable, which IS a plus. But what else does it do?

*Promotes very long combos where players can continue until all their buttons are exhausted.
*Makes improving combos on the spot very difficult.
*Makes combo corrections for things like height and stuff very difficult since one errant move throws off the whole combo.
*Makes improvisation much harder in general.
*Makes memorization harder, since loops have to be ‘obfuscated’ from the IPS.

It really doesn’t have any positive qualities outside of it’s very clear, obvious deterministic nature. Everything else seems like a straight con. Funny enough, I still get messages from people when I complain about it saying that it promotes creative combos when that is so obviously not true. It has all the old problems of any old system, just slightly rearranged and much more rigid. It almost makes me wonder if these players are even good enough at the game to know what they’re talking about. “Lemme just copy combos like I always did but the devs tell me it’s more creative so imma think I’m bein’ more creative!” Okay maybe that’s being a little unfair, but whatever.

While the system sounds good on paper, in practice it seems like a hamfisted, awkward solution to a non-problem. Alas, Guilty Gear will continue to have the best combo system out of any chain combo based game. A shame too, because I like the rest of the game soooooo much.

Improving PvP: Weight and PvP Diversity

So I hear people complain about diversity a lot in Dark Souls. In a sense, I don’t think the situation is too bad, but it could use a lot of improving. Still, many people look at several ‘over powered’ options that are commonly used and suggest that removing one would improve the game. I think this is missing the point.

Dark Souls PvP lacks diversity because, mechanically, Dark Souls PvP lacks diversity.

Okay, that’s not satisfying, but the point is, the diversity isn’t there to be unlocked, because Dark Souls is loaded false choices and relatively meaningless options.

Lets start with rolls. There are 3 weight classes in Dark Souls. Under 25% equip load, under 50% and over 50%. The Dark Woodgrain Ring ( one of the several items people want to see disappear) gives a roll slightly better roll than 25% equip rate and the same walk speed at 50% equip, but for all intents and purposes it’s the 25% equip rate ‘class’ of movement’.

And it is only that class that is viable n any way. If you are slower than your opponent, you can’t do too much to avoid a backstab. Even a defensive roll can often end up with you getting backstabbed. The faster player can also kite you indefinitely. To be viable you HAVE to be in the fastest possible weight class. It’s suicide otherwise.

What of Armor? Armor has 3 factors. Stamina Penalty, Defense and Poise. Well, and weight, but generally you’re picking the armor for the weapons.Stamina penalty is almost ignorable, defense is weak on most things and poise is the most meaingful stat, which helps you not get staggered by hits. Playing with 0 poise is a doable, though not very recommended thing though. so generally you get a certanin amount of poise (usually 55 for those wondering) and try and get as much defense as possible while looking cool and staying under weight. It’s mosty meaningless though. Poise does matter, but not to a great deal. Even if Light Armor was ‘viable’ all it would do is change how people look for the most part. No interesting choices are being made because armor isn’t particlarly interesting.

As already established, most magic is also not viable in PvP.

For rings, we have a few usable options. Wolf Ring (give spoise), Hornet Ring (increased damage on parries/backstabs), Dark Woodgrain ring (see above), Havels (doubles equip load. Only worth using in conjunction with DWGR for super weight bonuses) and the Ring of Favor and Protection (which boosts health, stamina and equip burden but breaks if removed). There are a few other rings that are somewhat usable, but generally these are the best and most run DWGR and the Ring of Favor and Protection.

The issue here is not that these rings are ‘too good’. It’s that most other rings are “30% Fire resist”. The DWGR and the RoFaP are possibly too good, but in general, the problem is that most rings are just damn boring.

That leaves weapons, which has a lot of samey choices, but is still relatively good.

As such the only real choices you have are ‘what weapon do I use’ and a few supplmentals. “Do I use buffs and/or scaling weapons”. As the game is now, it’s good that you can wear a lot of armor and carry a bunch of weapons, because mixing and matching weapons/shields is possibly the only way you can really make your character have any sort of flavor.

So how do we fix this? The sad answer is, we don’t. Not in Dark Souls at least. Maybe they’ll somehow patch the game with some carefully made decisions that will turn things on their head, but that’s not the type of stuff I can theorize about. So what can a sequel to Dark Souls do? This is tricky because the changes will also exist in PvE too.

Okay one of the big problem is that attacking is inherently risky and defense is really strong. It can be quite tricky to do real damage to an overly defensive player and your aggression opens you up to the ever dreaded backstab (or even getting parried!). Part of this is it’s hard to catch up with a retreating opponent who has his shield up and tag him with a slow weapon. If you can’t keep that aggression up, they can put down their shield and recover their stamina fairly quickly. So lets start with a few things. Backpedeling should be slower than normal movement and moving while blocking should also be slower. I also constantly think that Dark Souls needs a way to punish people who block to much directly. Some sort of guard break. Sadly the Kick doesn’t function in this role quite well enough. The guard break should be slower, but far more effective. Perhaps a benefit for certain weapons or heavy shields (better shield bashes would be sweet)? Perhaps in exchange for even slower movement while in use. Conversely a dagger might not have a shield break, but it’s low stamina drain and speed of attack allows it to put on pressure and chisel down an opponent, while also letting it punish roll attempts. Less damage resistance amongst smaller shields could also work. Limiting 100% resist to great shields so chip damage could play a better role.

Then there are weight classes. I think that all weight classes should physically move at the same speed. This might not be required if other abilities were in place (like say, being able to have a charge attack or something to close distance). Turn speed should definitely be the same for everyone and the medium roll should be better (It should be of AVERAGE utility, not awful). Hopefully with this, they wouldn’t get backstabbed all the time. Also linking armor type to the various rolls would probably help. Like, if Heavy Armor could NEVER do a 25% roll or something. As part of the tradeoff.

So now heavy and light armor need to be viable. RIght now heavy armor doesn’t defend THAT much better than light armor and it’s mostly the poise. First, having armor that DOES stuff is awesome. Be it light armor that increases critical damage, or ability to use magic or whatever. This might make playing dress up harder, but could be fixed by making it an element of a Demon’s Souls style upgrade tree, allowing all armor in a class to have various abilities (maybe even the charge, or other types of buffs). Stamina penalty if necessary could also be higher to offset the improved defense while also maintaining PvE balance.

Spells are their own thing, but making them usable would do a lot to help the game..

So basically, while I put out some suggestions, the whole idea goes like this

*First, the weight classes have to matter.
*Then the armor has to matter (and no, poise isn’t enough)
*Then aggression in combat has to matter.

Once you get those 3 things, you can start adding in all sorts of other elements (like better magic and rings) and then get a game with some actual diversity going on. Basically what you need are meaningful choices to make betwen different ideals. Dark Souls lacks this. There is one viable weighclass — not because it’s the best, but because the slower weight classes lose to it cleanly. There is no armor variety because armor has very few properties to meaningfully distinguish pieces. Weapons DON’T have this problem because there is something to be said about fast weapons compared to slow ones. One is not clearly superior. In fact, the Lighting Zweihander people complain about is not nearly the ‘best weapon’. It’s slow attacks leave it extremely unsafe, but it only has to hit you once or twice. A fun and interesting tradeoff! So if we do that for armor and make attacking a little safer, we know have a ton of new design space and everyone wins!

Improving Dark Souls: Covenants

I don’t know if I’m going to make a series out of this, but I might as well set my self up just in case. Anyways, this should be a quickly.

The Covenant system is both one of the biggest differences between Dark Souls and Demon’s Souls, but also one of the least polished parts of the game. While everything functions to a somewhat acceptable degree, there is clearly room for a lot of improvement. That said, it was probably time rather than effort that lead to such a flawed covenant system and I’m sure many of the things I mention were at one point planned or talked about. Doesn’t mean we can’t talk about it, though!

Also before anything else, let me just say that every covenant would benefit from the changes I suggested in my in-depth review. Lower level cap, better matchmaking, etc. So I’m not going to bother talking about any of that unless it’s extremely relevant.

Way of the White

Lets start with the most boring. Clearly this is the least spectacular covenant. You gain nothing material — simply matchmaking and, by virtue of the dedicated server-less lobby system, less of a chance to be invaded. The covenant has no rank and little purpose, outside being the baby version of the Warriors of Sunlight. Perhaps this is fine, as it is the first covenant that you encounter and can be seen as a way to coddle new players. I would speculate that the coin Petrus gave you would have been a covenant item in the same way as the sunlight medals would be. Due to the complete emptiness of this covenant, it could be improved any way someone wanted (sunbros-lite, story based covenant where you level up by doing things like getting the rite of kindling and kindling bonfires, etc etc). Any of these would work. Personally and fluff wise, kindling bonfires seems like the best way to level up this covenant.

Princess’s Guard

Almost, but not quite as unspectacular. This covenant gives us some direction. I would imagine both the miracles that are exclusive to this covenant would have been given as covenant items (perhaps using the gold coins, but that is entirely speculation). Clearly the way to improve such a covenant would be more support miracles (a spell like the channeler’s dance, mayhaps!), but the question remains: How do they gain covenant items? In a way this is the same problem that plagues Way of the White. Do we need three different sunlight warriors? Perhaps they were to function in the same way as the darkmoon ring, before it was decided that it was a better fit for the Blades of Darkmoon (probably due to them having a hard time getting matches). That said, I think, assuming the way of the white had a non co-op leveling system, that it would be okay to have a second style of Sunbro. While the Sunlight Warriors gain offensive spells, the Princess’s Guard gains healing.

Blade of the Darkmoon

These guys are so broken. They have a naturally hard time finding matches and their covenant rewards require an absurd amount of kills. Obviously that can be fixed, but that’s not mechanical. Two things would particularly help though – the level cap I said I wouldn’t get into (but it would make being summoned into Dark Anor Londo less of a joke), and, humorously, making it easier to be a Darkwraith (but we’ll get to that later). Blades of the Darkmoon SHOULD be able to invade and be summoned to any sinner, anywhere, but that clearly doesn’t work well with the lobby system. Perhaps another system that might be workable would be using the book of the guilty to display players that are currently playing and then selectively invade them. Problem there is while it is probably possible (in the same way the lobbies share messages with each other) but would probably be too much of a network burden. Invading darkwraiths who are alive, regardless of whether they defeated the areas boss is probably the best solution, though that could create a chilling effect among darkwraiths. Perhaps what would be the funnest, but most technically challenging solution is ALSO having the ability to “counter-invade” and come to a phantom’s aid. The biggest difficulty would the host getting offed before you can connect, so the idea is sadly probably not workable.

To make the ‘invading darkwraiths anywhere’ thing work, I think it would have to be linked to the Darkwraith invading. Perhaps a way to do both is that an invading Darkwraith leaves a mark (or may, depending on their current level of sin?). By touching the mark, the Darkmoon can either invade the Darkwraith OR whatever game the darkwraith is currently invading. Perhaps a little difficult to implement, but it would certainly be fun.

Warriors of Sunlight

One of the few fully functional covenants in my opinion. The Sunbros are pretty great. They have great rewards, a great requirement and are all gold and awesome. No changes required, outside of more rewards for later covenant levels (Solaire’s stuff without having to kill him plz). Jolly Co-operation is apparently its own reward, though.

The Forest Hunters

I always have mixed feelings about the Forest Hunters. The forest is one of the goofiest and most unreliable PVP zones as far as ‘fairness’ is concerned and the only places that the zone attracts is trolls. That said they have some of the best rewards and an amazing merchant. I think the best way to make the covenant work would be to make it possible to invade players who are hollow and nonhollow and to have the invasions occur regardless of the state of Sif. If you litter some more goodies throughout the zone and make it an even better place to farm souls, then it should receive the attention it needs from non-troll characters.

Chaos Servants

Clearly a lot was planned that never came to fruition. Straight forward leveling mechanic with only sporadic rewards, a lot of room for more fluff an d a servants roster with no particular purpose. If I were to guess, an original purpose of the covenant would have been to infect online players with eggs. Instead of having another redundant PVP covenant, they made it a rather lackluster one. You pay 30 humanity and get two spells and a shortcut. Linking it to Queelana may have helped make it more valuable but would make less sense for fluff. Perhaps another zone like the Forest and Dark Anor Londo would be good, where infection gives the rewards of humanity. It could almost be seen as taking Queelag’s place. Though what this covenant more needs is a bit more story progression and more spread out rewards. Temporary plot driven covenants seem like they would be both fun and a good alternative for players who aren’t much interested in the online elements of the game.

Gravelord Servants

Ouch, if only this covenant worked as well as everyone hoped. The concept is so cool, yet it has no tactile feedback. This is the first issue. Originally everyone thought you gained souls by having people die in other worlds and this should be brought back. It gives tactile feedback and could come with a message (“Player XXXX was defeated at the hands of your minions”). The sign should also be visible and show how many worlds you have infected, just to let the gravelord know it’s working. I have a suspicion though that gravelord infections and invasions are not perfectly interconnected. I think it may be possible that if you invade a gravelord through a symbol, you might invade ANY gravelord in the area, not the one that was infecting you. Upon success, you would get a flag that you’ve successfully defeated a gravelord (thus stopping any BP enemies). If this is the case, giving you souls would be extremely difficult. Gravelords in an area would either have to help communally or we’d have to deal with the broken system we have now. Perhaps Form feared that such a system would plunge the game into permanent “Pure Black World Tendency”. If these limitations are true, that’s a shame, because this covenant NEEDS tactile feedback to be successful.

One way to also do this would be to let the gravelord lay down multiple signs that each spawn BP enemies in their vicinity. Since we know how White Soap Stones work, we can assume this method would also work. This would add to the level of planning a Gravelord could do and make sure that gravelords weren’t ‘hiding their summoning sign’. What would make this a homerun would be if the Gravelord then could go to his symbols, collect the souls and eyes they collected by killing players and perhaps then even watch a bloodstain of that players death. I’m sure From would have loved to do something like that, so we can only hope they succeed at it in some other game (or.. in DLC D:).

Path of the Dragon

The Path of the Dragon functions and gives some of the coolest rewards. If the game threw in a few dragon weapons in the covenant rewards, things would be perfect (outside of matchmaking issues). While those matchmaking issues can be problematic, for the most part this covenant works as intended.

Darkwraiths

Mechanically, Darkwraiths work great. They even have a full reward tree! The problem is, they don’t work for everyone else per-say. To re-iterate what I said in my in-depth review (since it IS extremely important here), being a Darkwraith SHOULD be easy. This makes it so worse players are invading. This makes more sinners, for the Darkmoon Blades, and this leads to less curb stops. Combine this with a reasonable level cap (so Darkwraiths also don’t get mercilessly stomped themselves) and you create a healthier ecosystem with less incentive to twink (again, if you beat the four kings at a low level, you’re ALREADY twinked, so why would you ditch your gear?). This still isn’t the perfect world where gear factors into matchmaking, but it helps.

Anyways, that might not be the most interesting thing I ever wrote, but it only took a little bit and was fun to think about.

Dark Souls: In Depth

Before I begin, let me thank long time listener of TMT, Trynant, for sending me this and Demon’s Souls. I had no idea the joy I was depriving my self of by passing them up.

My Other M: In Depth post was a tear down of a significantly flawed game. This time is different. Now it’s time for me to heap praise on a superficially flawed game as well as an analysis on how future games of it’s ilk can improve. It’s time for me to expound the virtues of perhaps my favorite single player experience in the last five years and time to get into the nitty gritty of why this game works. So if you’re looking for a spoiler free review because you don’t know what to do with the GameStop gift card you got for Christmas, all I can say is “If you like hard, skillful games, buy it”. So just like last time, be wary of spoilers (not that the game has many). So anyways, lets do this thing!

The Premise and Mechanics

The Sunk Ruins of New Londo

Dark Souls is a dark fantasy themed, metroidvania-esque, combat driven action RPG, with a heavy focus on combat mastery and accumulating knowledge. Despite putting an emphasis on learning, the game also has many ways to instill a fear of death in the player. Death often involves replaying long sections of an area again — forgiving checkpoints are a rare. The player can also risk losing all of their unspent currency/experience in the game by dying. A bloodstain is left where the player died, but if the player dies again, it’s gone forever. This is problematic because the game is also trying to do everything in it’s power to kill you. Unlike most action RPGs, levels and stats play second fiddle to skill. The game, played by an expert, is beatable at level one (though using powerful equipment). You are never expected to be able to tank near-unavoidable damage and running up to a boss and mashing at them blindly is often a fatal strategy.

The player character is a classless entity (the classes at character creation are merely starting kits) comprised of numerous stats, most of which only have to do with equipment pre-requisites and damage scaling(Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Faith, though dex does decrease spell casting time), and a few others. Attunement gives you more spell slots, Vitality gives you more health, Endurance gives you more equippable item capacity and Resistance does what it says and should never be leveled up (the stat probably shouldn’t have been in the game). Every level up also increases your defense a little bit. How generous! You got 4 weapon slots to define your offensive capability with and two actions for each hand (mapped to the appropriate shoulder buttons). Left is defensive (generally block and parry, but for wielding two weapons, one is often a block and the other is an attack. Or an attack and a parry), right is offensive (two attacks. You’ll attack even with a shield if you put one there). There are tons of melee weapons, shields, bows and three classes of magical implements (talismans for miracles, cataylists for sorceries and pyromancy flames for.. pyromancy!), so what you equip your self with really defines the capabilities of your character. Sure, you can change equipment in the menu, but considering that the game plays even when you’re in the menu, that’s not always practical. Thus, your loadout is an important decision making process.

Kindling a Bonfire

The key ability in the Souls games is the roll. Much like Bayonetta and newer games, avoiding damage is one of the biggest challenges. Unlike new games, Dark Soul’s roll does not have staggeringly large windows of invulnerability (well, unless you get a certain ring…), doesn’t give you any bonuses for dodging successfully and doesn’t always give you a brisk recovery. Yet somehow this move is of critical importance. The reason is, unlike games like Bayonetta, attacking is very dangerous too. You need to use your ‘mediocre roll’ to survive until you get into position to attack. You also need it to cancel a portion of your attack’s recovery when you whiff. Contextually, this weak roll is amazing and given both your flawed offensive and defensive abilities. As such, even simple foes can do significant damage if you’re not careful! Despite these flaws, your attacks still feel powerful. The slow windups just add to the impact of individual hits. Which swing is a build up and release of tension and a key point of excitement and fear. Instead of feeling like a loose and clunky game, it feels like a tight game where every decision matters — because every decision DOES matter.

Attacking, blocking and rolling all use the stamina bar. The stamina bar recharges very quickly (in a few seconds while not holding any buttons), but in the heat of combat, it never fills up fast enough. It’s a resource to manage and it makes even blocking relatively weak. Damage done while blocking is turned into stamina damage (With some portion hitting your actual health, depending on the stats of the shield) so if you attacked too much, you cannot roll to escape and any hit to your shield will stagger you and do normal damage. When you run out swinging and mashing attack, you have to either expect your enemy to die or prey you will have just enough energy to roll away when you’re done. This adds a rich tension to combat. Even relatively easy enemies require a methodical approach to kill safely!

The player has two states — human and hollow. By using a semi-rare humanity item (or doing some other stuff that’s not worth talking about) the player can resurrect themselves. This has only a small handful of advantages (unlike Demon’s Souls where you lost most of your life!) — the ability to summon other players and get invaded, as well as the ability to kindle bonfires. The exact mechancis of humanity are arcane and silly, so we’ll just ignore them and move on to the kindling and the bonfires.

The bonfires shattered about the world act as both a source of healing and your checkpoints. Going to one fills your health bar but resurrects all (non boss/unique) enemies in the stage. You have no ready access to stores of healing items like Demon’s Souls. Large stockpiles of grass have been replaced with the Estus flask. Every time you go to the bonfire you get 5 swigs of the flask, which provide significant healing that must be rationed carefully. You can kindle your bonfire with humanity to give you larger amounts of Estus (Normally you can only kindle once to get 10 flasks, but later you can kindle more for up to 20 flasks) and you can upgrade your flask to have it heal more per swig. This controlled healing gives the developers a better way to balance levels and bosses as well as giving the player a new resource to manage. It also removes the desire to ‘horde’ healing items, while also punishing their overuse. In short, it gives the player the perfect amount of healing! With about two bonfires per boss, you get a pretty traditional level structure, despite the game’s free roaming nature.

The rest of what you do is simple. You proceed through parts of the game to achieve relatively simple tasks. Less ‘fetch quests’ and more ‘just kill all these fuckers’. So you roam the land finding new areas to clear and more fuckers to kill, with any progress in any direction bringing you closer to the end of the game.

I suppose I also should not ignore the difficulty of this game. It’s hard. Very hard and very unforgiving. But it is also fair. Luck in Dark Souls can always be replaced with skill and planning. It is when one relies on luck that one dies the most. Sometimes you die because the game is teaching you a lesson. If you roll with the punches, next time can always be different and you will get a little farther. This game questions the entitlement gamers have to not die. Despite the punishing aspects of death, as soon as one stops worrying about losing souls, the game gets a lot easier. The pressure is relieved and you can just continue to play through this fierce meritocracy. Many reviewers paint the game as horrible, oppressive, soul crushing experience, but I find that to be downright hyperbolic. If you’re the type of person to like a real challenge and self improvement, you will find the majority of this game to be deeply enjoyable because you will have earned but of success you receive. If you’re soul is getting crushed, it’s because you’re probably not respecting the game. You are hoping to luck your way through a boss battle that you have to learn and it’s just not going to happen.

Enemies in this game are dealt with through careful observation. Often a new area may seem overwhelming, by analysis of their attack patterns. Getting to a new room might lead to quick, brutal death, but each subsequent attempt will increase your ability to cope with your situation. Your handling of a situation will get progressively more refined until once difficult sections become relatively easy. Each Boss often starts out feeling like an effort in futility, but knowledge is power. Often when you finally win, you don’t feel lucky, you feel mastery. You might often feel like if you fought the boss again, it’d be easy! It’s that deeply satisfying feeling that drives a player through Dark Souls.

Wonderful Level and World Design


Outside the combat, one of my favorite thing about the game is how the world is constructed. Not so much the lore — we’ll get to that later — but the structure. Firstly, the world is amazingly and complexly interconnected and incredibly easy to navigate. If you can see something in the distance, you’re probably going to go there at some point. The world is so interconnected that often it’s surprising how to areas link, but once you find the link, it makes sense. The world is also ecologically sound. Areas reasonably blend into each other and, in fact, the deeper you go, the more you can infer about the world. The dark and shadowy places of the world are deep in the lower ravines of the world. Looking up from the dark sewers of Blighttown, you can see the sun, sky, and the walls of the castle above you. It doesn’t cease to exist because they demanded a dark atmosphere for a segments of the game. It’s right there where you can see it, confirming the validity and persistence of the world. It’s a place you could draw a map, if not for the staggering 3d aspect of it. It’s also darn easy to navigate and this is accomplished with a few simple, but invisible tricks.

First, main path branches never lie to you. Forward is virtually always forward. Rare do you come to a crossroad, not sure which direction to go in and even rarer does the ‘wrong’ path have any significant length to it. Going down these harder to reach, short paths usually reward the player with treasure and other items before quickly setting them back in the right direction. This might seem minimalistic and rather shallow, but this conceit allows them to construct a staggeringly 3d world. Another tool is showing you what is ahead. In say… the Prime series, you are restricted by doors. While mostly a concession of the times, these doors created sealed environments that that often prevented you from telling what was ahead of you (that said, I wanna play a 3d Metroid that goes “Metal Gear Solid 3” and embraces a super open map, but thats another story). The only hints you get are the door frames. In Dark souls you can SEE the tower where you fought the Demon and the Dragon and you can just run in it’s direction and mostly find your way pretty easily. Remember a few key sights and paths and you can get virtually anywhere you want with minimal effort. While being open ended, the world is, for the most part, a series of linear paths with a hand full of relatively large areas that have very obvious goal points.

Dark Soul’s dense cylinder of a World perhaps navigates better than any large 3d game I have ever played and does so without a map screen.

Individual areas are designed for distinctness and well crafted combat encounters. They are not afraid to put enemies in the most annoying spots possible and as such, they squeeze all the mileage they can out of their enemies. This is a design trick used famously in older Castlevania games but has been forgotten in modern times. But as long as a situation can be learned, it can be dealt with. The decaying nature of the world also makes it easy to create a world that plays like a level while not breaking suspension of disbelief. Collapsed walls, makeshift bridges and destroyed structures are a staple. The areas that do not abide by the decaying aesthetic are designed to resemble places. The pristine Anor Londo has bedrooms, filled with paintings and furniture. It has a church, a tomb and other important sites. Not-pristine-but-not-decaying Sen’s Fortress gets a pass, having been DESIGNED to be a complex, trap ridden structure. The aged nature of the world also makes it great for creating dangerous and precarious combat encounters where falling to your death is a real possibility.

Dark Souls also hits it’s aesthetic elements spot in. it embraces the classical medieval look and feel in ways that their competitors cannot not. Some games go crazy and anime-esque with their armor (which is fine), while others tole and rot in almost a medieval uncanny valley, much like Oblivion and Skyrim. Dark Souls owns it’s look. It’s equipment feels real and functioning. Function surpasses the rule of cool and when the rule of cool is applied, it’s because some weapon or set of armor came from an unlikely source, such as a demon or long dead entity. It embraces the awkward helmets and odd armors that rarely make an appearance in fantasy and use them to add a sense of reality to the world. It’s simple, yet amazingly distinct.

Story and Lore


A criticism commonly levied on Dark Souls is it’s poor, primitive story. I want to set the people who say this on fire. The story and lore of Dark Souls is “shown”, not told, and it is shown so subtly that one can blink and miss a lot of it. Details of the world, bits of dialog and small excerpts from item descriptions allow the player to piece together many details. The world is not centered around you — the world of Dark Souls feels no responsibility toward you and doesn’t require that you understand it. You stand as ignorant as the numerous NPCs that inhabit Firelink Shrine. In a world like Dark Souls, why should you be any different? This might even add to the joy of victory one feels while playing. Your success is not preordained in a significant way and even when the weight of the plot is finally put on your shoulders, it’s hard to tell if you have the whole truth. You are just an entity in a dying world and while you can piece together quite a bit you will never have all the answers.

Let me give an example of a deduction that can be made in Dark Souls.

In the Duke’s Archive (a mad laboratory for a crazy magi-science dragon), there is a section filled with Cells. There are a bunch of squid-headed-snake like enemies — Picasas — crawling about and being driven to attack by a sound. When you turn this sound off they hang around in a cell and if you fight through them, you’ll notice two at the back that avoid you and won’t attack you and seem to be crying. If you kill them, they scream out like women and drop two spells. One of the spell descriptions reads…

Bountiful Sunlight

“Special miracle granted to the maidens of Gwynevere, Princess of the Sun.
Gradual HP restoration for self and vicinity.

The miracles of Gwynevere, the princess cherished by all, grant their blessing to a great many warriors.”

Well this isn’t going anywhere nice. Lets read more item descriptions! How about some of the jail cell keys!

Archive Tower Giant Cell Key

“Key to the giant cell below the Duke’s Archives Tower.
The giant cell once imprisoned countless maidens, but is now empty, save for a few key persons. They struggle to uphold their sanity, as the horde of “mistakes” writhe at a fearfully close proximity.”

Archive Tower Cell Key

“Key to the cell of the Duke’s Archive Tower.
The Archive Tower, once a trove of precious tomes and letters, became a prison after the onset of Seath’s madness. The serpent men who guard the prison know not the value of what they hide. In the basement of the tower are the writhing “mistakes” of the terrifying experiments which were conducted there.

Okay so these things are probably Maidens of Gwynevere who have been horridly experimented on…. Oh wait there are these enemies called Channelers in the level! Let’s read what their weapon description is!

Channeler’s Trident

“Trident of the Six-eyed Channelers, sorcerers who serve Seath the Scaleless in collecting human specimens. Thrusted in circular motions in a unique martial arts dance that stirs nearby allies into a bloodthirsty frenzy.”


Well isn’t that wonderful. It makes it all the worse when the hollowed body of a female NPC end up there later in the game. An NPC who you saved. From murder. By someone who claimed to be her friend. Several characters in the game game warn you about Petrus the Cleric and most of them are unsavory folk. Somehow this guy is looked at pretty lowly by some of the biggest creepers in the game. if you do enough talking you can find out at one point that she abandoned him and hints at wanting her to die. If you save her and leave the two of them unattended for too long, he’ll murder her. And you’ll know he murdered her, because after you find her body, you can kill her and find her casting talisman on him. Oh such sweet little details.

A lot of this might feel like “telling” and one could make the argument that it is, but I think the big difference is this sort of plot discovery leads to active thought among the player. They feel like they are putting together a puzzle if they choose to look. It’s active participation. This also clears the game up of a lot of the cruft, such as cut scenes and other non-interactive elements. Not that cut scenes are necessarily bad, but they certainly do something to the tone of the game and that change of tone is not befitting of Dark Souls melancholy world. None of the Bosses give you a pre-bossfight speech. Only two optional bosses talk to you at all and the final boss doesn’t even have an intro cutscene. This does not necessarily mean the bosses are aimless and shallow. For example, we can learn that Queelag was using the second Bell of Awakening as a place to hunt adventurers to collect humanity for her dying, blight ridden sister. You can find the bottom of the world — a giant sea of ash with giant arch trees that support the world above it. In there you can find a large fledgling Dragon, pulling into question the accuracy of things said in the introduction as if it was a story told to you and not necessarily the truth. The world does not feel like it’s there for you — it seems like the answers are there, but you are simply not privy to them. Not out of spite, but because the player can only gather information that would naturally come to him. This helps paint a world that is beautiful, sullen and lonely.

Only one character, Kaathe, ever goes out of his way to illuminate the truth of the world to the player. His “Truth” though can be hard to swallow and possibly not even honest, but serves to call into question which of the games two endings are the good and bad ones. This game, which is derided for it’s shallow story and world have spawned numerous threads and conversations involving individuals nit picking every carefully chosen detail in the game to squeeze every ounce of knowledge they can out of this fantastical, dying world. Dark Souls tells it’s story in a way that is hard to emulate, yet so perfect for the medium of Video Games.

Online Elements


While the game stands without it’s online elements, they do add significantly to the game experience. Unlike Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls does not use a central server, but still has all of the features of it’s predecessor (just with more connection issues). Without ever even being alive, the transparent phantoms of other players can occasionally be see, fading into existence and either running off or getting killed before fading away again. You can look at blood stains to see how other players in an area died. When sitting at bonfires, you can the transparent aura of other characters who are playing at the same time. The two bells you have to ring in the game toll when other players close to your network(the ad-hoc network the game forms to make up for the lack of central server). You can also leave messages from from a pre-existing list of terms to try and give hints to others, telling them about ambushes, secret passages and suggested tactics for dealing for enemies. Even when not directly interacting with other players, the world feels like an occupied, haunted place.

The interactive elements are pretty good too. One gets a stone early on that allows the player to be summoned for co-op in exchange for humanity. Only human characters can summon (and can only summon two phantoms at a time), but if someone succeeds in helping someone else, the idea is that he can unhollow and then summon help of his own. Human players can be invaded by other players though (assuming they haven’t beaten the area boss yet), who will attempt to kill them for various rewards. Thus being able to summon help comes with the risk of PVP combats. Phantoms that summon and invade are likely around your level but cannot access their estus flask (though when the Host uses his flask he will heal any phantoms he summoned to help him). so the invader has to be skilled and have strong gear for his level to stand a chance. Fighting another player can be one of the biggest rushes in the game and, for an unprepared human player, one of the scariest.

There are covenants that the player can join that can help with both co-op and invading. Three of the Covenants are Co-Op based (Way of the White, Princess Guard and The Warriors of Sunlight). Not only do they tend to make you favor networks with other people of the same covenant (thus reducing invasions and facilitating PVP), successful PVPing can grant you access to new spells and equipment. For the PVP side of things, you have the Covenant of the Eternal Dragon, which allows players to partake in mutual PVP in exchange for dragon scales (used to level up the covenant and upgrade dragon weapons). By doing this, members of the covenant can earn items that allow them to convert their head and torso into that of a humanoid dragon. The Darkwraiths are a hard to join covenant that allows members to freely invade other players without using a normally limited item. By defeating their enemies, they gain humanity that they can turn over to their covenant in exchange for gear. The Blades of the Dark Moon allow players to invade the worlds of Sinners — players whom have invaded other games, betrayed covenants or murdered innocent NPCs. This allows players who don’t want to be jerks the ability to invade other games and feel like they’re delivering justice. They also receive a ring that, when warned, basically will randomly let them invade the world of players in ‘Dark Anor Londo’, an area that can only be accessed by killing one of the world’s Gods. The Forest Hunters have a similar mechanic. By wearing the appropriate ring, players may be summoned to defend a second of forest and can also bypass the usual “single invader” limit. The Gravelords (which unfortunately don’t work too well) can lay down a sign that will corrupt 3 game worlds, populating them with stronger enemies. If they kill the player of those worlds, the Gravelord collects a portion of their souls. If the player finds their soul sign, they can invade the Gravelord and attempt to murder him, thus ending the corruption of your world.

As such the game has countless ways for players to interact, but in this strange, impersonal way that is befitting of Dark Souls.

Criticisms and how the Souls games can Improve

First I’m going to talk about PvP and what is both great and bad about it. At this point, it is perhaps my favorite aspect of the game while also being heavily flawed. First off, despite all the stats the game has to offer, characters play mostly the same. Currently, levels could be discarded and the game could be built around equipment/spells. Unfortunately, while this method would be simplier, it is perhaps better to induce more character variation into the game. Many weapons are viable currently, but they all fit into a handful of classifications. Off the top of my head, Fast weapons, slow weapons, weapons that can attack while blocking and weapons with reach. Sometimes these things are combined (Spears for example can attack while blocking and have reach) but in short you deal with most of these problems the same way. Sure, you might have a trick or too for getting in against a spear user, but ultimately you get in and smack the shit out of your opponent. The game has another problematic element. Attacking is also not a very strong option! This game can be very turtlish, especially among competitive, level 120 1v1 pvpers. It’s much easier to wait for a mistake than to attack and ‘chip’ damage is usually insignificant (until you run their stamina down, break their guard and hopefully murder them). Boring games are created when inaction is the best strategy.

Most spells are not particularly useful either and also have the worst kind of balance (Does insane damage but shouldn’t reasonably ever hit) with a few exceptions. Most useful buffs in the game only increase damage output. No spells increase stamina regeneration, teleports, stun or allow you to move faster or to lay traps, or have any decent area denial (all the clouds are far too weak for that purpose) or basically any kind of spell that would be common in a competitive game. I could think of a million spells that would be super cool in the game and the only one that exists is Wrath of God — a fast cast, area of burst damage that does a lotta hurt. It’s rather ‘lame’ but has that ‘it’s so good it’s fun’ feel that a lot of spells need. I could go on forever describing spells that would have rocked in Dark Souls for PvP and PvE but they’re just not there, leading to a lot of saminess. Equipment is also pretty boring. A few novelty weapons are cool, but there are few interesting effects granted by equipment. You basically pick the weapons you want and pick armor to get as much poise as possible while keeping to the weight class you want. As such I never found much fun in the mutual PvP stuff. I think From Software was actively trying to discourage it, but that’s a fools game. Still, invasions are where it’s at for me. The host has a purpose — to get to the end. You have a purpose — to kill the host. He can heal and is probably well supported. You can’t heal, but probably have much better equipment and can create ambushes with the enemies. It’s the massive situation asymmetry that makes things shine.

That said, there is still too much variance in who you get matched up with. You cannot re-spec your stats and builds are easy to mess up. Since PVP players are going to know this better than new players, PVPers will have better stats for their level. An unaware player can be, strength wise, 10-20 level lower than what is appropriate for the invader. Also the level cap is absurdly high (level 711, compared to the level 1-200 most people get to). Invaders have no upperlimit on who they invade, just a lower limit, so invading a world with 3 max level characters and getting ganked is somewhat common. Now, in the multiplayer ecosystem of the game, you take your lumps with the gankers and get lucky with unprepared newbies and then a get a few fair fights, but that’s not OPTIMAL. The upgrade system isn’t optimal either. Weapons that scale with stats are outclassed by elemental weapons that are the same strength at any level. Why do any weapons not scale? Perhaps SOMETHING could not scale, but that should not be a common thing. All this allows is for invaders to have overpowered weapons well before their victims can. Now, this is necessary with how the game is now, but you could balance it in much better ways. Why can’t invaders heal? Why isn’t say, their health tied to how many phantoms their are? Or maybe them being able to heal is enough? Then you can remove the elemental weapons that dominate the sub-100 level range. The numbers could be crunched in so many other ways that aren’t as abusable and scale better with levels. When levels are the determining factor of who fights who, why does equipment matter so much more? It’s far from optimal and just barely works. When it works, it’s brilliant — a brilliance that eclipses any flaws the multiplayer has. This shows how much room this “Genre” has to grow. You can adapt to the players who want to do 1v1 while also enhaving PvE and invasion gameplay. You can improve the matchmaking and help players not ruin their characters and help equipment scale better off of your level. You can cap levels at a reasonable point that doesn’t lead to insane shenanigans and focus on a limit that forces interesting choices. By doing so you improve all aspects of the game — the guys who want to 1v1, the guys who want to invade, the co-op guys who can run interesting support spells or even the guys who are playing Solo. Limiting the levels also helps put players within reach of each other, maximizing the amount of players available to play with at any given time. The games that follow in Dark Souls footsteps have a lot of room to improve from the multiplayer component that that’s amazing.

The game also seems to have over-reached it’s budget and schedule. The Covenant system is somewhat broken and unfinished Rewards are limited and often too come quickly or far too late. Some covenants don’t even have rewards, or rewards after the first level. Gravelord BARELY works. Actually seeing powered up enemies due to a curse is super-rare. Some of the later areas, while architecturally interesting, are lacking in interesting enemy encounters Lost Izalith was clearly rushed, both in enemy placement AND the bed of chaos boss battle, which is perhaps the worst in the game. I also imagine that the Valley of Drakes was originally hoped to be a bigger area (possibly with a hellkite wielding a spear, like was pictured in many early screen shots). Demon’s Souls clearly had a lot of cut content. The Land of Giants (I wonder if it became the Tomb of Giants? Most probably, but I’m not sure). Every archstone was also probably intended to have an additional area. The game reduced it’s self a way Dark Souls couldn’t — with grace. Perhaps it was for the better to have those weak areas instead of no areas at all? I’m not entirely sure, though the 1.05 patch did smooth out the worst bits, making those sections at least somewhat worthwhile.

As wonderful as I find the story, I do sort of wish there was more direction and a little bit more “showing”. Not in the ‘hunting for clues’ way, but literal showing. Just the tiniest, most careful bit more, to just give a little be of cohesion to the game and allow for a few areas of closure. It is definitely that they were conservative with story elements, but they haven’t quite struck the perfect balance yet. Having to really examine the world to understand it is amazing, but the fact people think it doesn’t exist is a real tragedy. Just enough needs to be shown to help encourage players to look harder. They just need to know that something is there, waiting to be unearthed.

Most of Dark Soul’s flaws are very easy to get over. If the game play the game provides jives with you, you will probably enjoy even the worst segments. It’s faults instead point to a greatness that is yet to exist. Perhaps from From Software, perhaps from future clones like Dragon Dogma that might truly establish these conventions as a genre. If they do, it will be a victory for gaming in general.

Edit: E-W-G-F, a prominent Dark Souls youtuber wrote a nice rebuttel to some of my points on reddit. While some weren’t entirely applicable to what I meant, it’s all interesting. So please, give it a read.

Comments on Kids Playing Violent Video Games and Rating Systems in General.

This is going to be a situation where I just repost something I wrote in a comment. It’s a waste to leave it there, where it probably will never get replied to. Anyways the article is from, Grumpy Daddy where he writes about people being lazy parents about buying violent content for their kids and ignoring the clear age labels on the case. But by what merit are these age criteria established and why should we agree with them? Is it lazier to let them play violent video games, or trust some nebulous rating organization to dictate what is or is not moral for a kid to see? The comment I left on his Blog follows…

(also remember, if you read his article(which you should), he’s the Grumpy Daddy, so part of his rage is his shtick, so try and ignore some of the hyperbole)

We actually don’t have real rules for movies — not in the same way as alcohol and tobacco. Movie ratings have no legal merit or weight, it’s all self enforcement. Just sayin’.

Now, while lazy parenting is certainly a problem, I don’t think you paint this issue fairly at all. Granted, you are the Grumpy Daddy, so I’m ready to accept some hyperbole, but I think you’re putting far too much stock into what other people determine.

The MPAA rating system and the ESRB are not made up of brilliant child psychologists trying to carefully determine, with strong moral conviction, what is appropriate for what age group. It’s a bunch of people with a guideline and some opinions trying to avoid government regulation. While them supplying a content guideline is useful, who is to say they know more about how to raise their children than me or my parents? Is it okay for a 14 year old to watch the Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, where a beating heart is ripped out of a human being, but not okay for him to hear the word “Fuck” and see some breasts? Now, maybe they shouldn’t be watching the Temple of Doom either, but ultimately these ratings do not come from infallible moral authorities.

Same goes with alcohol, which also is not as clear cut as you make it sound. Many European (Italy and France I think, possibly among others) cultures commonly give some amount of wine to kids at a young age and it is legal to do this in a number of US states. Now giving your 12 year old a 6 pack of natty-ice and a copy of Mortal Kombat 9 to play over XBLA would clearly be a pretty outrageous thing to do, there is still a lot of moral wiggle room.

I know personally I grew up with a lot of media outside of my age range. Terminator 2 was one of my favorite movies in my early teens and I was playing Mortal Kombat 2 and 3 over the SNES modem service, XBand. I’d go to a friend’s house who would have various nudie games on his computer like Leisure Suit Larry. His mom was from England and they apparently don’t care as much about breasts as we do (apparently at the time, nude ads were frequently in British newspapers). My parents were invested in me, though. I grew up, going through Special Education with an undefined (and possibly non-existing) learning disability which required constant interaction from my mother to make sure I was developing in a healthy manner. None of my issues were ever behavioral or violence related. I was also a late reader, but video games helped, rather than hindered. They were an important part of my development and are also now game design is my trade.

… If I have a child, why should I think he is less capable of separating reality and fantasy than I was? Why should I think the MPAA or ESRB know perfectly well whats fit for my theoretical child or any child? So while I partially agree that there is a ton of lazy parents, I think you’re putting too much stock in the guidance of some non-government organizations (not that a government organization would necessarily be much better).

Also, is it worse to expose a child to violent images or deprive them of modern forms of social interaction? It’s hard to say and I could see it going either way. I know violent images didn’t turn me into a fuck-up (I was in special ed way before Mortal Kombat was around), but I know what stunted social development can do to a person and I did not like it one bit.

In short, all I’m saying is that this isn’t nearly as simple as you’re making it out to be.

As always, if I get an interesting reply, I’ll repost the discussion here.