Pixel Harvest

I usually grab a selection of the best indie games each year, during the Steam Winter sale. Last year, the certified standout was Stardew Valley, an 8bit farming throwback to Super Nintendo RPGs of yore. The amazing and endearing thing about the game, beside the fact that all the programming, writing, pixel art and music was done by one guy, was the good natured charm of the game. There weren’t any dark world-ending villains forcing along a ham-fisted plot. Sure, there’s a little bit of sword slashing, but for the most part, you clear out a patch of land to plant crops, tend to animals, and wile away the hours fishing.

I’m by no means a completionist, but I spent a full year (four seasons) of gametime, growing my meager crops, renovating the cultural center in the middle of town, and catching some record-setting fish. It’s an addictive game, but not purely due the mining/crafting/exploring mechanics, like Minecraft or Terarria. Stardew borrows heavily from the elements of those games, but it’s an evolution of the genre. The biggest change is the clock. Your player grows weary in the evening, and must return to bed at midnight or soon after. If not, you’ll pass out from exhaustion, lose some of your hard-earned cash, and start the next day tired. Instead, if you follow the wise motto “early to bed, early to rise”, you’ll be bursting with energy and productivity. On top of the hourly clock is the march of days on the calendar. Each season is only thirty days. With a change of the seasons comes new weather, new town festivities, new crops to plant and harvest.

Instead of a simple day/night cycle, which passes unceasingly on in the other *craft games, the hard delineation of days and seasons gives a narrative arc to all the crafting and building. There’s only so much you can accomplish in a day. I started thinking of my days being dedicated to certain tasks. A day to clear the dense brush on the back 40, or till the soil, or forage for rare mushrooms in the woods, or spelunk deep into the slime-infested mines. If it was raining, I didn’t have to spend the half hour watering my crops and could rush directly to the mines, unless I was after the rare early-morning catch down on the shore. The townspeople also abide by regular schedules (includes store hours, and happy-hours in the bar). Most stores are closed on Saturday, so you’ll need to do your shopping before the weekend.

In the mid game, once you’ve hewn out your farm and are establishing a routine, there’s a joy to the game. You’ll see your crops blossom, and can bring your prize harvest to the various fairs. Townspeople will send you letters, and you can do errands for them and bring them gifts. You’ll learn their quirks and traits. There’s the jock and the goth and the skater and the science nerd. The cranky old couple, the perky school teacher. The uniqueness and charm of these characters is amazing, crafted with only a few lines of dialog and minimal pixel art.

The thing about all video games is that eventually the “game” part rears its head. Stardew Valley is absolutely lovely, but to truly complete the game you have to mine, farm and fish dozens of rare items. A sprawling farm entails an endless retinue of chores, from milking the cows, repairing the fence, to replanting seeds. I found myself starting up a play session only to race around, mass clicking a screenful of charming devices, watching them whirl and spit out yet more items.

It made me ponder the nature of work, and entertainment, and fun. I was spending my leisure time to play a game that was simulating work. Given, there were lots of charming touches, and all the messy unknowables and chaos of reality were ironed over. But it was still a nested tier of systems to master. All the charming NPCs were just state machines that had predilections for certain consumables. It made me wonder about why I played games. Was the game truly about escaping the daily grind, as illustrated in the opening cinematic, to revel in the freedom of the simple farming life? Or was it just a daily grind of another color?

Don’t get me wrong, Stardew Valley is an instant classic, a game that will stand the test of time. I was enthralled with the pixel-perfect little town, the planting and fishing and mining. Sometimes that life is better when its abstract memory, the wind gently rustling the leaves, birdsong in the air, and there’s not a grid of 64 yams to harvest click.

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.

The Zen of Dark Souls

I played a lot of Dark Souls this summer.

Dark-Souls

I was staying in the basement of my in-laws. My own house had been torn apart by hammers and crowbars, in preparation for a renovation that would last many months. So I had my Xbox and little 26 inch flat screen in the corner of the basement, facing a grungy blue lazy boy. Water pipes gurgled overhead. The bathroom was two flights of stairs up, so I’d often resort to stepping out the back exit of the house to piss out into the yard under towering oaks.

But back to Dark Souls.

It’s considered by many to be the hardest video game of this generation. It’s a fantasy RPG, which means you kill bad guys and get experience points and then spend those points on making your own avatar more powerful. You get weapons and armor which help you kill enemies and monstrous bosses more efficiently.

Most RPG games are a long grind of clicking a few buttons, decimating waves of enemies, and spending your time comparing the attack benefits of a magic long sword + 5 versus a flaming battle axe of ownage +3. You still do that kind of thing in dark souls, but it’s far less of the appeal.

You see, the heart of dark souls lies in single combat between the player and an enemy. The world is grimly dark, some bastardized hybrid of fantasy tropes with ancient mythology. The ancient world is dying and the gods have abandoned the world to fall into darkness blah blah blah. So most of the baddies you fight are undead: zombies, skeletons, liches, etc. Your avatar are also undead, your smiling human face sucked in, leering out of dead eyes. Your armor hangs loosely off your skinny limbs.

And so most of the time, it’s you, a skeleton knight, faced off against another skeleton knight. You both have shields and swords. You circle each other. The enemy may lunge with his weapon. At this point, you can keep your shield up and block, but the force will throw you off balance. You can also roll to dodge or – even more difficult – parry his attack. Once the enemy gives you an opening, you can attack, but the enemy also can block, dodge or parry.

So there’s this rock-paper-scissors match going on for every battle with nameless yard trash (to say nothing of the boss encounters).

The bottom line is you die. A lot. Dying becomes this sort of Zen experience in Dark souls. Every time you perish, the screen fades into a sort of soothing gray, an ambient whoosh oozes from the speakers, and big red letters proclaim: You Died.

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At this point, you lose all your accumulated experience – called souls – represented as a green glowing orb, somewhat similar to Sonic the Hedgehog, spilling all his golden rings.

You have a single change to recover the souls before they are gone forever. Often, you’ll run back to the spot you died, pound the A button to collect the souls, and just die once again from the same threat that took you out originally.

There are sections of the game I played for many hours, getting nowhere. I’d learn patterns to defeat or avoid the enemies, only to have a sweaty finger slip off the controller and send me caroming off a cliff. Or I’d mistime a parry and get impaled instead. Or I’d drink a health potion (named Estus Flask) without running far enough from an enemy, and as my player performed the painfully sluggish drinking animation, I’d get beaten down with swords or arrows or falling boulders.

But the fact was I was stuck in that basement. I had nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. The fridge was so packed with leftovers and 15 varieties of fruit juice I didn’t have any room for a six pack, so I’d take swigs from a brown bagged bottle of Wild Turkey 101.

And so I learned to drop down on the Taurus Demon from above, after applying Pine Resin. I learned how to run through Blighttown, blocking the toxic blowdarts with the Spider Shield. I learned how to aggro the Fire Drake and cut off his tail for the Drake sword, running under the portcullis and into Undead Parish. I memorized the attack pattern of Chaos Witch Quelaag, who I nicknamed Spider Bitchqueen, the animation signaling she was about to breath fire: grabbing the grotesque spider head sticking out of her abdomen and gently urging it to vomit forth magma.

All of these moments eked out with clenched jaw and sweaty controller, usually a few drinks in, a few deaths in, by this point standing up from the sunken lazy boy, not only to concentrate, but to get a brighter view on the LCD TV, which rendered the game incredibly dark when viewed at an upward angle.

Then Ormstein and Smough, biggie and smalls, big guy and ass hole, or just O and Smo. These guys were my reality for a long weekend. I perfected the run-through from the bonfire to their arena. I traded out equipment till I was at the perfect combination of mobility, lightning resists, damage dealing, and defense. And then I dueled with them for many hours.

The thing about Dark Souls is it doesn’t change. The AI doesn’t really include any randomness. Everything is hardcoded to react exactly the same to the player’s actions. The game is deterministic. It’s a system you can observe and memorize. And once you do that, it’s just down to performance. You play the game like the scientific method, coming up with theories and hypothesis, running experiments, almost always fatal, and then coming up with conclusions. The world is unforgiving enough that you can’t really fly by seat of your pants. You have to approach every situation with a plan and exacting will.

And the thing is you can’t just let your hands do the playing. Lots of similarly hard videogames – Super Meat Boy, bullet hell shooters, move too fast to let your brain get in the way. You just have to react on muscle memory. Dark Souls is actually a pretty slow video game. Every animation plays out in full, deliberately. The bosses telegraph their moves with big windups, deep breaths, angry demonic roars. You know what they are going to do before they do it. So you have that split second chance to apply your knowledge of the proper response: block, parry, roll, counter.

I eventually beat Ormstein and Smough, back pedaling through the arena, using the broken pillars as speed bumps. Throwing pyromancies at O until he succumbed, then pounding on Smogh when he was winded from his huge hammer swings. In the end it was easy, played out without any mistakes, hardly any damage.

It was an exhilarating finish to see the big fatty dissolve, my soul count increment by 60000, a new bonfire unlocked. But it felt like some sort of saga had ended. Some endless struggle, some purgatory that was standing in for my own purgatorial stay in the basement, was over.

I went on and beat the whole game in a few more days. None of the other bosses or zones were anywhere near as hard. A couple of the later bosses (Four Kings, Gwyn, Saeth), I beat on the first try. None of that scientific method stuff, just powering through on instincts. The mystique of the game – as this super hard unbeatable thing, that could be conquered by only the most dedicated video game players – was broken. It was over, and all that was left were fun little diversions, alts and speedruns.

My house is still under construction, I’m still in the basement of my in-laws, playing through GTAV.

One day I’ll get out of here, and be back to some sort of normalcy. But the endless waiting doesn’t seem so bad now. I’m making progress, baby steps. I beat Dark Souls, how hard could it be?

Hack the Planet

Ever since my video card died, and I pseudo-permanently let my neighbor borrow my Wii, I’ve had to get my video game fixes from interesting sources.

Nethack, labeled by many as the best video game ever, is basically Diablo, circa 1987. It’s free, open-source, and available here.

Nethack lives comfortably on the top of a genre called “Roguelikes”. In short, there’s a dungeon of auto-generated rooms and monsters. Our hero (who can take on the role of barbarian, samurai, priest, or camera-toting tourist), takes the form of @. Enemies are represented by the remainder of the characters in the ASCII set. If the old-school visuals aren’t to your liking, the latest builds allow you to enable a graphical interface.

The first level of Nethack

The game starts innocently enough – you even get a pet! But very soon you will perish in all sorts of nasty ways. And in this game, one death is all you get. If the monsters don’t bash you down, you can fall through a pit, set off a poison gas trap, or starve to death. Hunger is one of the most urgent matters confronting the player. The trick is to eat the corpses of slain foes. Of course, eat a corpse of the wrong type of monster and you’ll die from food poisoning.

Needless to say, Nethack is a very hard game. It takes people years, if ever, to properly beat it (ascend). The workaround is called “scumming”. It’s a deplorable term for a mostly innocent tactic. Simply save your game, make a copy of the save file and resume. If you die (your original save file is deleted by the game), copy the backup back into the appropriate directory and come back where you left off.

Performing the invocation...

Scumming let me descend my Valkeryie, a sort of female Viking (no, not the Tom Cruise film!) beyond the valley of Medusa, through the trap doors of the Castle, beyond the Land of the Dead – to Gehennom. I killed the Wizard of Yendor, performed the invocation to enter the Sanctum of Moloch and retrieved the Amulet of Yendor. From there, however, things got *really* hard.

Yet another stupid death...

I’ve spent hours on the game and there’s still hours more (at least until I pick up an XBox 360…). I would like to legitimately ascend one day.