Soulsborne

I first discovered Dark Souls huddled down in a dingy basement, like one of the lost and despaired corridors so common in the game’s setting.  Since then the series has been one of my favorites.  The second installment made some dramatic shifts to core gameplay elements (backstabs, poise) and felt off, but I still powered through and slaughtered Nashandra.  But it was 2015’s Bloodborne and last year’s Dark souls III that the series hit its high point, mastering the formula.

After what felt like months of battling frustration, I finally beat both Dark souls III and Bloodborne last month (at least the vanilla game), so I feel like I can finally comment on the series as a whole.  What makes these games so appealing?

The fascinating thing about the game design of the series is they take the opposite approach to many of their peers.  other RPGs go heavy on dialog and exposition, Souls is sparse.  Other games rely on randomized enemies and events, everything in Souls is scripted.  Other games polish a user interface util its intuitive and clean, Souls sticks with a barebones tables and text.  It eschews difficulty modes or learning curves.  It simply presents a direct challenge to the player and gives them tools to work with.

All the praise of the original still stand: uncompromising difficulty, cryptic lore, unhelpful statistics, pixel-perfect collision and response.  But III and Borne honed the formula to a fine tip.

I will say that III feels like a remake of the original.  Certain zones are identical, from the architecture to the trash mobs.  Some zones *are* literally the same (Anor Londo), but experienced hundreds of years later, so the stones have experienced considerable weathering.  At times this is a bit of a letdown, that we can’t experience more of From Software’s brilliant originality, but it’s good that those motifs can be experienced on the current HD modern console generation.  III goes beyond the original for a number of zones and bosses (Abyss Watchers, Pontiff) and closes with a nice throwback (Soul of Cinder as Gywn).  

Bloodborne is a different beast.  Probably the darkest video game I’ve played, the setting is an unholy melding of victorian architecture and lovecraftian horror.  One of Dark Souls core mechanic – blocking with shields – has been abandoned (even mocked), in favor of guns, parrying and lifeleech rallies.

Beyond the fights, Bloodborne tells its story in fascinating ways.  Players gain “insight” from encountering and defeating bosses, or consuming Madmen’s Knowledge during the playthrough.  As insight increases, new details are revealed about the world.  Monsters grow dozens of eyes, like spiders.  And instead of merely a bloodred sunset, a huge spindle-legged monstrosity is revealed, climbing the steeple of the central cathedral.   Numerous characters have also blindfolded themselves, removing their vision of the mundane world in exchange for a glimpse of the eldritch truth.

The player’s journey moves through creepy plazas and grand cathedrals, along with dingy villages of wooden huts.  But it also warps in and out of nightmares and dreamscapes, trapped in some recursive figment of cursed and dying adherents of the blood church.

All that being said, Bloodborne’s dark palette and and motifs can be overwhelmingly dreary, and DS III is a nice change of pace to fight on glowing lava fields or sparkling snowscapes.

Even as the Soulsborne games are objectively solid, but it’s is the organic community that’s turned them into legendary hits.  The lore, secrets, and the labyrinthine level design requires multiple playthroughs and hours of erudite study, plenty of fodder for wiki communities to digest.  Beyond that, freakishly talented players have adopted the game as a prime candidate for speedrunning.  The various combinations of achievement possible in the games is astounding.  Some run through and slaughter all the bosses as quickly as possible.  Other’s find glitches and exploits to simply reach the end credits in twenty minutes.  Some even do it all naked, without getting hit once.  Others stick the online PVP gameplay, using exotic weapons, or trolling opponents.

I’ll never be that good, or have that much time and dedication.  I’m content to master the game to the level where I can defeat the bosses, maybe come around again in NG+ and defeat them a second time.  There’s nothing more satisfying than finally executing all the perfectly timed rolls and counter attacks to victory, hands sweaty, heart pounding.  In a way, that rush is behind me, which is a bit bittersweet.

From Software says they’re done with the Soulsborne series, but the formula has been such a wild success, I’m sure spiritual successors will abound.  I’ll be there, dodge rolling and backstabbing with the rest of them.  Praise the sun.

A Rose by any other name

On a dusty bookshelf tucked away in the corner of a nondescript brick building, it sat, yellowed paper and bent spine. Printed in the early 80s, jacket art and overblown font signifiers of the time, newly translated from the Italian. Before the Sean Connery Hollywood adaptation. The Name of the Rose.

On the first handful of pages, an unnamed narrator discovering a lost text in a dusty european enclave, the written testimony of a monk from the 1300s. It’s a theme Umberto Ecco has embraced and highlighted in most of his work – discovered texts, reinterpretation, what of the *thing itself* is lost and gained in transition.

The tale itself a Sherlock Holmes mystery set in a medieval monastery. Adso of Melk, the young protag, accompanies his mentor William of Baskerville across the Italian countryside to an ancient monastery nestled in the mountains. It’s the time of two Popes, split between Rome and Avignon, and church politics play heavily on the workings of the plot. Soon after their arrival, monks start showing up dead of mysterious circumstances.

William fits the Sherlockian mold (Adso the Watson) as close as possible, and there are great scenes where the former bends over a murder scene in his handcrafted spectacles, sniffing out clues. Much of the book, however, is dedicated to obscure theological debates among the monks over minutia, references to the titles of long forgotten books, chants and songs never translated from Latin. It makes the reading a bit of a fractured experience, incredibly dry and long passages leavened with vivid accounts of murders or vicious tactics of the inquisition.

Heresy figures predominantly. Entire sects of monks are labeled heretics due to minor emphasis on the original Biblical text, in this case – Christ’s poverty. What were Christ’s true thoughts on possessions? “Render to Caesar”, of course, but what if the church *is* Caesar? Of course, the rich pope and priests in Avignon would want to legitimize property, if only to maintain lavish lifestyles in gold laden cathedrals. One character even speaks at length of the holy properties of various gemstones. Following all this, the poor monks, who wish little more than to live a life of service and transcribing tomes, are labeled holy or heretic, depending on the political alliances of their order (and are thus burned at the stake).

All this political infighting and background noise brings a hint of conspiracy to the murders in the monastery. Is it a vengeful assassin, enacting the killings to send a message (which appear to mirror God’s judgement from John’s Revelation)? William and Adso are forced to consider both physical and logical facts of the deaths (who was in the vicinity, what time of day), and the tertiary details (a dead monk was transcribing a certain book, was this heresy for a certain sect)?

As is Ecco’s forte, the rabbit hole goes ever deeper, all the way to madness. William and Adso explore the forbidden library, constructed as a labyrinth, tricked out with psychedelic incense and false passageways. Near the conclusion, Adso has a breakdown from exhaustion, envisioning a hellish feast where the entire cast of characters, along with Christ, the apostles, infamous bandits, even the popes commit any and all permutations of heresy. Everything sacred is violated, from communion and baptism on.

The final act of the book wraps everything up nicely (from a plot standpoint), but the open questions persist. If ideology becomes enforced with the rule of law (and punished by the sword and the stake), then everything can become heresy, punished at the whims of a capricious tyrant. If information is incomplete, is deductive reasoning useful, or does it lead to faulty conclusions? Should certain knowledge be taboo, locked away in hidden libraries, accessible only to the select few?

Ecco himself saw many of these nightmares come to pass in Italy during the 30s. Mussolini and the cult of fascism swept through the country. The intellectual elites elevated an ideology and in turn designated what (and who) was heretical. Mob rule, societal peer pressure, government backed thugs forced the common man to march in line. After Ecco died earlier last year, a phenomenal essay was republished on his experiences as a boy and thoughts on fascism’s roots.

The monks, castles and inquisitors of 700 years ago are but dust and fragments of text in lost books. But the root of that nightmare – inflexible ideologies, heretical pronouncements – are as fresh as newly transcribed parchment, the ink yet to dry.

Music 2016

I used to religiously await the end of year lists from stereogum and pitchfork, eager to learn if my own musical preferences and best picks aligned with the lords of taste. This year I completely forgot about those sites (until it was time to research this writeup). Maybe I’m just getting older, and not only feel less compelled by the opinions of taste makers, but more frighteningly, the music-phile part of my aging brain has atrophied. Probably moreso – the taste detection algorithms of Spotify have grown so advanced I no longer need external lists to feed me with a steady drip of quality tunes.

The strange thing is music has become even more personal, solitary. It’s all direct from playlist on laptop to headphones. Rarely played out loud. There’s less “hey, hear this awesome band”. There’s less roadtrip playlists. There’s less sharing a killer viral tune on social media. Even the hip radio station that boast of their taste end up playing stuff you grew bored of 6 months ago.

Maybe it was this weird year. A bunch of legendary artists died this year, so every month or so we were going back and revisiting decade-spanning discographies. And the news was an incessant blare, leaving little room for artists of merit (sans political message or high concept video) to rise above the din. The conglomeration of pop music seemed to continue. The hip-hop industrial complex was even more mainstream and revered, from Beyonce to Frank ocean. Gucci Mane had a feature on NPR. Rock music, the four piece led by drums, guitar and charismatic singer, have completely died. Electronic mixing and techniques infiltrated every other genre.

And I wonder if these trends are precisely because of the change in listening habits. There are the crowned lords and ladies of the rapidly shrinking Grammy – Clear Channel elite circuit. Then there’s everyone else, eeking out tiny fractions of pennies on Spotify and youtube plays, putting out music that’s just listenable enough to get dragged into a playlist, maybe a catchy single for a car commercial to pay the bills. Not bold or passionate enough to fill arenas or change the world, just background music to the million drones in open offices, blocking out coworkers with oversized headphones.

Here’s my List:

school of seven bells
priest
frightened rabbit
go march
postiljonen
mint julep
65daysofstatic
empire of the sun
holy fuck
infinity shred

Most Played Songs:

Reboot

You have an inkling to be better, to get up earlier, so you set an alarm. When it blares in the early dark, still stuck in a dream your wife elbows you in the spine, and you lumber out of bed to brush the grimy sour from your lips. The coffee pot churns like a cranky beast. Your eyes pulse angry red. You stretch your creaking back out on the carpet, flip on the lights, take deep breaths. And when you finally sit down, hunker over the keyboard, awaken the laptop and stare at the screen, you’re confronted with an ugly fact. Now you finally have to type words, and they have to mean something.

That’s the conundrum I’ve been wrestling, lazily for the past year. Why I’ve neglected to write. The preparation, the sanctity of a writing routine isn’t feasible. It has to get squeezed into an already chaotic calendar. And then when I sit down to pound the keys, my mind wanders, forces out a subpar sentence, then pops open a dozen tabs of distraction.

Good writing is the ultimate exercise of being in the moment. Sure, there are the tales of auto-writing, and prolific novelists who’ve fired off entire novels blacked out drunk. But for me personally, the act of writing requires me to align the scattershot fireworks of my own brain into a single laser beam, illuminating single words as they flow sequentially. And that muscle has weakened, grown flabby. Which makes it most difficult to fire it up again, ad infinitum.

And so here I am. Seven am. Bleary eyed, sipping coffee, pecking at the keyboard. exercising muscles.

We’ll see if it becomes any sort of routine.