Dark Souls 2 & a little bit more Final Fantasy 7

I made it to the final disc(final dungeon, really) of Final Fantasy 7 and it’s drawing my attention to what people seem to say about the game: that it gave rise to a problem with visual fidelity being more important than gameplay, that cut-scenes were now a necessity.  I have to be honest these don’t seem to be why the game succeeded.

   The amount of time true cut-scenes as we think of them today, CG/no control/”directed”, take up in the game is probably less than 3 or 4 minutes at most.  Though there are longer sections where gamers watch the weird polygonal figures interact this was an outgrowth of where Final Fantasy games had gone in the past.  The real reason the game seems to have succeeded was the fact that you could play it however you wanted, as well as the differences in kind.  

   Whereas many games slowly raise the numbers on enemies and weapons/armor over time, which is a necessity to some extent, the game loves differences in kind.  From the variety of weapons to the different games found within the larger game the story constantly  pushes people to do things besides the main combat.  This might be the real problem with the game, you can only get people interested in towns or mini-games so much until eventually this original combat problem is recognized since many other games have moved on from turn based systems.  

   But I bred a Golden Chocobo.  I’ll never get that time back.  Seriously though my real goal is to beat the weapons, the optional bosses with huge amounts of health.  But the problem is that if you build your team up to take these optional bosses out you’re probably going to destroy the actual final dungeon.  Honestly, I probably passed up that possibility a while back.

   Though what I’ve been keeping up with is Dark Souls 2.  Eagerly anticipated, however you look at it, to either achieve or fail to live up to fan expectations.  While Demon’s Souls was really a dungeon crawler but Dark Souls expanded this idea into something better than it’s simple roots.  The parts of Demon’s Souls that worked were advanced into something quite unique but also all things to all people.

   Those that didn’t like it felt it was too similar, and too hard.  Those that liked it often had problems explaining to others why it was such a standout experience.  The game had it’s problems, from modded accounts ruining your day in PvP to trolls in PvP(notice a pattern) the real selling point of the game was the intriguing multiplayer component where summons could join your game(whether just for a boss or for a stretch in a level) to phantoms who invaded and caused havoc until someone died or the invaded bit the bullet and jumped through the boss fog.  Getting the game for the PS3 has been pretty stark.  Every time I’ve turned into a human, thus been able to be invaded, I’ve been invaded by someone with way better gear than me.  Low level invasions are the real problem with the game, since some people can fight through the difficult parts in the beginning and get to the better gear later in the game while others don’t even have their stats in suitable condition for multiplayer.   I’m more the latter, always willing to let my health slide so I can put one or two more points into magic or dexterity.  When I finally get my character’s other stats right then I finally pump the health, though this also allows for some real challenges on the bosses I decide to deal with before this.  

   However, when I first thought of getting the game I wondered if there would be people doing the weird, asymmetrical experience, would it just be me alone?  That’s been the real driving force behind this game, even months later people are still playing it, possibly for years.  I thought just because I didn’t play in the first 6 months the audience would dissipate like many other online audiences, but the Souls community doesn’t dissipate.  

   The community has in fact elevated, from the two English Wiki’s and at least one Japanese the community has spawned countless youtube videos and posts on every message board with even the slightest gamer culture.  This is a game that came out in 2011 and it’s still growing.  

   Part of this is due to the PC release, which when tied to a magical mod that allowed the game to run well, compared to how it ran on consoles, the people who had been posting youtube videos could now make really good looking videos meaning people could appreciate more about the experience of the game.  From actually being able to appreciate the environments to the games few NPCs, there was a renaissance in the souls community as more people realized this game was something they would like.

   Who were these people though?  Part of me thinks they had my path, Dark Souls coming out in 2011 one of the biggest years in gaming ever, it was easy to miss coming out within a month of Skyrim.  But the “slump” that was 2012’s first 2/3 allowed for some much needed re-examining of less popular titles from the year that brought us Skyrim, and I think Dark Souls really stood out in that market.  The audience that had played things like Skyrim were looking for something different, nothing would ever really get at what Skyrim could do, but the field was open when dealing with what Skyrim got wrong.

   Dark Souls was everything Skyrim got wrong.  From fast and fluid combat with real danger, to sparse and atmospheric areas interspersed with dungeons.  The first few minutes of Skyrim were all fanservice to Elder Scrolls fans, more or less, the first few minutes of Dark Souls showed an entirely new panteon rise, and then fall, before the player has any control.  Yet, this information has very little context within the first 1/3 of the game, basically not being brought up.  As well the game purposefully tries not to give players too much information about the world, allowing for a picture to form somewhat but not fully realized.  Though there are only a handful of NPCs in the game each is in the last legs of their journey, all approaching their death, or undeath if you will.  

   To hell with the Nords of Skyrim, a gamer might say having tasted their first well tested victory against a difficult opponent in Dark Souls, this is the real Viking bezerking.  But like I said, most of this audience grew over time, and over time the game began to be hailed as a classic, not a game that was too difficult but something for a select set of video game fans, those with time and possibly youth.  However, I really wonder if Dark Souls 2 can handle this new audience. 

   Are the first few minutes of Dark Souls 2 going to be full of fanservice to their community?  From the first advertisement played during the VGAs last year the Souls community has been mirred in tiny debates about tiny things.  Some dumb-like the fear that the player character won’t be a blank slate- some actually bothersome-like that the game is going to falter with a new director or that the ending of the original game might not really leave much room for…well…that’s not the type of blog I’m writing.  What matters is that this community that usually spends their time figuring out what katana is best in the game, or how to defeat a boss at the earliest possible time, is now dealing with something much tougher to talk about-there’s a game being targeted for at them.  

   It’s easy to decide you’re the “alternative” person.  TV and other media designed for most people leaves you feeling like an outsider, your views don’t fit with the majority, but those who are outsiders tend to find each other.  In some ways that’s what happened in the Souls community, everyone was connected because at one time or another they played these games and felt something, whether a charge of energy from defeating a difficult boss to noticing the little details developers scattered through the environment.  

   When Dark Souls was developed the success it was following was Demon’s Souls, a sort of advancement on a known quantity, but Dark Souls 2 is something else entirely.  Expanding on the core design components of the first game won’t necessarily mean this next game has the same popularity as the first, or that it’s considered a classic.  And I think there are a lot of people in the Souls community worrying that somehow any shortcomings of Dark Souls 2 will reflect back on Dark Souls.  That’s what I’ve been wondering about, obviously the adage that “George Lucas ruined my childhood” doesn’t make sense-if you have good memories in the past they can’t be unmade like that.  But I think some people are worrying that what was great about the game is a bit like a ball of yarn, they’ve built it up and if the new game starts pulling at it the whole fantasy of the first might come apart.  

   Honestly, I had a lot of problems with Dark Souls.  People have said that the game has a story, it doesn’t.  Hear me out, please.  Video games aren’t books.  They don’t work like a novel, needing certain things like characters and plotting and a world.  What Dark Souls has is meaning.  The game is a “mechanics as meaning” story, while I already stated I won’t spoil the game the 2 Souls games have final bosses that are that sort of thing.  These villains have stories, they have a world, our character supposedly comes from that world and spends the entirety of the game encountering and experiencing the problems of that world, but the story isn’t really changing you’re just defeating obstacles-most of which exist because the main villain created them/put them in motion.  

    This is what really makes Dark Souls stand out against the backdrop of so many other games.  Skyrim has a story, you’re the dragonborn, you meet up with a former member of the blades, go to the greybeards monastary, pick up an older guy who takes you to the blades old diggs, the Dragonborn holds a summit for the civil war in Skyrim, then captures a dragon and uses it to enter the afterlife to party with Olaf One-eye.  Yet, as a role playing game there are problems, you don’t really see the world change that much, nobody really realizes you’re different, you just don’t feel things change that much.  Yeah, you get way more powerful, calling a dragon whenever you want pretty much ends any conflict you get involved in.  But the point of the matter is not that much changes, dragons continually try attacking the character, and the realities of life in Skyrim continue.  Dark Souls works because you aren’t doing that much to change things, NPCs move from place to place, you enter into covenants, but the game doesn’t force any of this down your throat.  I remember in the Witcher 2 there’s a decision you make at the end of the first chapter that completely changes what happens in the game and the world actually looked completely different, a hint would be that it was on fire.  But your choice drastically affected the outcome of this section.  While Dark Souls didn’t give the player as many options as Skyrim, it didn’t pretend to either.  

   The other great aspect of souls games are the quests.  While Skyrim(not to pick on them) had a tab just for all the quests you’ve picked up a souls game doesn’t really tell you you’ve started a quest.  Often they take a long time to finish, but really they’re stories.  By keeping tabs on characters and seeing what happens to them you finish the quest, often rewarded with unique gear or upgrade materieals.  Though Skyrim has a plethora of very well done quests, and great quests that were stories, Dark Souls had some really interesting quests.  Exhibit A: The Onion Knight.  

   Siegmeyer of Catarina is is a knight.  Though most laugh at the “onion-like” shape of their armor, Catarinan armor is very sturdy.  The man is first noticed waiting outside a giant gate, a very stark image as every path in the game so far has lead to a lot of danger, but next to a church is a path that leads to a giant closed gate.  You can tell on your first game this is important.  When you ring the second bell the gate opens and you continue to run into him from time to time, every few time you meet he gives you something.  However, when you are in the Duke’s Archives you find a golden crystal golem, these are unique because people are imprisoned in these golems.  Breaking it open reveals Sieglinde of Catarina, his daughter.  She is on a quest to find her father, and this begins the B-story of this quest as you keep running into his daughter.  While Siegmeyer has a way of seeming at once ready to tackle the problems of this world and at the same time expressing a need to be very careful, Sieglinde is all business as finding her father is important.  The reality, as you come to understand, is that he’s going hollow, he is slowly losing his humanity.  Expelled from these knights his daughter is chasing him down, possibly to spend some time with him before he’s gone, possibly to end his plight, possibly on a blood mission for the knights of Catarina.  However, Siegmeyer has progressed to Ash Lake, the entrance to the Way of the Dragon covenant, joined by those attempting to find the secrets of the immortal ancient dragons.  Presumably Sieg was going to lay himself before the Dragon if possible, and find a way to survive.  But when you make it to Ash Lake Sieglinde sits next to his corpse on this likely last leg of her journey too, now, if you’ve been as helpful as possible to Siegmeyer you get her Titanite Slab and can now smith the highest tier of weapons or armor.  I think it’s a double meaning, not only is she giving you this as a reward for paying attention, but she’s giving up on using it herself, without any family, and far from home, she’s possibly not going back to Catarina.

   That’s the type of story you get from a quest that happens in Dark Souls, and it’s entirely interpretation, I am right about some of it, but so many things, like where is Sieglinde going and why Siegmeyer ended up in this game, leave you scratching your head.  I really hope Dark Souls 2’s development team understand how important stories like this were in giving meaning to the original game.  That would really have me excited.

 

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