Monday, December 17, 2012

Far Cry 3

What can I say about Far Cry 3? I can come up with a dozen reasons why it is shallow, lacking the emergent panic that Far Cry 2 was so good at generating or the narrative punch of Spec Ops or the thematic cohesion of Dark Souls. Yet I liked it enough to play all the way through to the end and complete every optional side quest, every collection-based achievement, every time trial leaderboard challenge. The core feedback loop that drives the player to feel good about mastering this beautiful, refreshing virtual environment is refined to within an inch of its life, always giving the player the benefit of the doubt and enabling them to play however they want, even if it's a sub-optimal decision.

Not many people liked Far Cry 2, which was a highbrow attempt to put you in the shoes of a mercenary in war-torn Africa. Everything about the game is deliberately unpleasant: the infinitely respawning enemies with armed jeeps, the randomized malaria attacks and constant gun jamming, the need to frantically look down at a paper map while driving, the interchangeable corrupt factions. The side quests took the form of requests from your buddies to commit war crimes, each more vile than the last, until by the end of the game you have devastated the entire country and even the arms dealer is more noble than you are. The most effective way to smoke an enemy out from behind cover was to set the entire jungle on fire, and the best you could expect from the local shop most of the time was an AK-47 in working condition, which was significantly better than what your foes were using. If you want to make a best-selling video game, regardless of how incisive your social commentary is, you need players to be enjoying themselves long enough to experience it. So Far Cry 3 erases or minimizes all those distinctive quirks, in favor of a more traditional open world power fantasy. Your guns are completely reliable, ammo and health are liberally dispensed to the point where you can whip up a half-dozen med kits and an invincibility potion in the pause menu, and there are not only civilians but an entire local resistance (helpfully color-coded) who will be pathetically grateful for any of the favors you grant, despite being able to mount competent sorties from their secret base even without your help. All the random odd jobs littered around these tropical island will shower you with money and skill points, and the only serious resource constraint is tied to how assiduous you are about hunting animals and skinning them for better equipment. Do you want to sneak around with a silenced sniper rifle? Do you want to barge in with a dozen grenades and a machine gun? Do you want to run around with a knife and a longbow? How about encouraging tigers and bears to attack your enemies? All these are joyful, easy, and actively rewarded by the game. Come on in, the water's fine, it says.

Simultaneously, Far Cry 3 has a narrative which half-heartedly calls all this into question. As an entitled rich white dude with no combat training, your mission is to parachute onto this remote tropical island and colonize it like the British Empire, in the name of saving your fellow spoiled buddies. Many interesting themes are alluded to here - there are frequent quotes from Lewis Carroll, allusions to Apocalypse Now, and all boss fights are replaced with mystical visions that are some combination of ancient forces, bad drug trips, and your player character being an unreliable narrator - but these themes all disappear after a couple lines have been said about them. Virtually every other named character is either a romantic interest or a double of your character, but the "good ending" simply leaves all those questions and themes hanging, letting you insist that you are not in fact a crazed killer who spends most of his free time hunting sharks with assault weapons, then go right back to doing so.

It is the very friendliness of the game that undermines its narrative pretensions, in fact. The villain Vaas, in a superb performance, points out that you have become just like him in your wanton quest for power at any cost - but almost every quest you undertake has a clear villain, a half-dozen remorseless killers in front of him, and a pure virtuous innocent whose bacon you are saving. Your girlfriend, another great character whose actress nails the line between horror and concern, worries that you are becoming a totally different person, but you rudely shrug her off, probably because whenever she calls you she is undercut by the presence of an impending mission whose urgency is undeniable. If she picked up the phone to nag you about how you spent the last two hours stealing ancient relics from the natives you were supposed to be saving so that you could earn those last couple skill points, it would strike a lot truer. There are 3 or 4 poker games in the plot, and a fully implemented set of poker games you can go to, but you never have to play the game itself because a scripted event will occur before you could possibly lose. The last third of the game showers you in new areas, weapons, and abilities, but you have already become an impossibly powerful death-dealing machine, so all you can think about is how much more boring this corporate villain and his mercenary band is than the flamboyant, scrappy pirates you were up against earlier. The center of gravity in the story is Citra, apparently the only eligible female on the island, who (of course) falls for the player immediately, providing everything from super powers to tribal tattoos to sex to an excuse to kill more dudes. You get the impression she does this act with every foreigner who parachutes onto the island, but only you the player are able to set events in motion. There's no reason to mistrust the patently unreliable narrator when it's clear that everyone involved wants Jason to do one of two things: (a) embrace the jungle and become an unstoppable killing machine, or (b) kill a hundred people to save five innocents and kick back with a Mai Tai. Nobody pushes back against you, so you have no reason to doubt yourself.

Still, the escapist fun of this game has a strong pull. Hunting animals, hang gliding and sky diving and exploring the wilderness, climbing tall towers and planning your assault on enemy outposts: all these things set the bar very high for an open-world game, be it Assassin's Creed or Grand Theft Auto or Elder Scrolls. The game is loads of fun, but it doesn't really mean anything anymore.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Rob's Spoiler-Free Dark Souls Tutorial

A friend of mine recently started playing Dark Souls, which has a beautiful design but a grudging reluctance to explain any of it to the player, and an interface with some bizarre features. So here's my guide to what the manual should have told you. I'll try to explain it as quickly as possible.

Game Concepts

  1. This game is designed to provide a sense of accomplishment through effort, not a power fantasy.
  2. You cannot pause the game, but you can walk around while using the menu. Press Start to close it.
  3. Always read the item descriptions. They replace the standard audio logs as both in-game hints and story content. For instance, reading a key will usually tell you which door it unlocks.
  4. Don't stress out over your "class", as any class can do anything if you spend enough levels on it. All stats are useful up to at least 40 points, except for "Resistance" which is worthless.
  5. Resist the temptation to grind for souls. Exploring new areas is far more profitable.
  6. "Humanity" is an overloaded term in Dark Souls, since it's a major theme of the game. Using the Humanity consumable item or winning a multiplayer session will give you 1 humanity point (the top left number in the UI), which you can keep around for a stat boost or spend at a bonfire to become human ("Reverse Hollowing") and kindle bonfires.
  7. Most multiplayer features are restricted to human players, except for joining a co-op game. As you progress, you will discover the nine "Covenants," factions which have both online and offline effects.
  8. Stealth doesn't have any on-screen indicators, but enemies will be less likely to notice you if you walk slowly, wear light armor, don't hit walls, etc.

Interacting with NPCs (Non-Player Characters)

  1. Your decisions are permanent. NPCs can be attacked and killed, but will never be friendly again. If you leave without helping someone, they might die while you are away.
  2. NPCs will usually have additional dialogue each time you visit, but shops never update their inventory.
  3. If you are human, most areas have an NPC who will either invade you or offer to help.
  4. Some very important people are hiding from the world. You'll need to prove your worth before they reveal themselves. If you side with their enemies, you may not even be aware they exist.

Weapons, Armor and Equipment

  1. In the Equipment menu, you can assign two weapons to each hand and wear up to 4 pieces of armor. The total weight of those 8 items is your "Equip Weight", which you can see on the Status menu. Your running and rolling ability changes dramatically at 25%, 50% and 100% of maximum Equip Weight.
  2. Your character is right-handed, so put your shield or off-hand weapon in the left hand and your main weapon in the right hand. Magic and bows work equally well in either hand.
  3.  Wielding your weapon two-handed raises your Strength by 50%, which also counts towards stat requirements. For instance, a Halberd can be used 2-handed at 11 strength instead of the normal 16.
  4. Try out a lot of different weapons in the beginning of the game; virtually everything has a unique move set, and upgrades are expensive early on so find something you like before investing in a +5 weapon.
  5. Heavy armor has a "Poise" stat which allows you to take damage without being staggered. Heavy weapons and 2-handed attacks deal more damage to poise.
  6. Shields have a "Stability" stat which allow you to block without losing stamina, and "Damage Reduction" stats which allow you to block without taking damage. These are percentage-based, so keep your eye out for a shield with 100% physical reduction and good stability.
  7. Most weapons scale with your character's stats. Different upgrade paths can emphasize different stats.


  1. To jump, hold B to run, then release B and tap B again quickly.
  2. To slide down a ladder quickly, press B.
  3. All weapons have unique attacks after rolling (direction + B) and after backstepping (tap B).
  4. To use a bow:
    1. Equip a bow and arrows.
    2. Press the attack button to nock an arrow
    3. Lock on (R3) and press RB to fire arrows. The closer you are, the better the damage.
    4. Press LB to go into first-person sniper mode, then RB to fire or RT to swap arrows.
    5. Crossbows can't snipe and use bolts instead of arrows, but their upgrades are extra effective.
  5. To use magic:
    1. At a bonfire, "Attune Magic" and equip spells. To equip more spells, upgrade your "Attunement" stat.
    2. Equip a catalyst/talisman/flame. Use the D-pad to toggle which spell you're using.
    3. Press the attack button to cast the spell. To fire at a specific enemy, lock on (R3).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ludonarrative Resonance in Dark Souls

This article contains minor spoilers for Dark Souls.

Dark Souls has been widely praised for its minimalist narrative, which eschews the traditional methods of dumping exposition on the player in favor of a slow process of discovery. There are no branching dialogue trees, no bustling towns of peasants eager for help with the rats in their cellar, and no expository cut scenes outside of the tutorial. The setting speaks for itself, with a pervasive sense of melancholy, lost opportunities and a hideously imaginative art design which stirs the primal fear of the uncanny as ably as it oozes menace. But there are many video games which allow the player to speak for themselves, whose story is pieced together through hints from obscure locations and creepy tableaux in abandoned corners of the levels. What really makes Dark Souls' story work, what allows it to capture the imagination despite offering virtually nothing to go on, is its resonance.

I'll define ludonarrative resonance here as a harmony between the gameplay mechanics and the story or narrative of a video game. The major story themes and plot twists are echoed in the game itself, and the characters' actions fit the context set by the game. This is not as easy as it sounds, because a lot of game mechanics don't lend themselves very well to a coherent and dramatic story. The more freedom and choice the player is allowed, the less likely it is that they will find themselves creating a dramatic arc that syncs up at the right moment with the emotional mood the writer expects in the next cut scene. The longer and more "epic" a game grows, the more times the player will put the game down and pick it up later, disinterested and distracted, with only a vague memory of what's going on. The more air time the player receives compared to the other characters, the less likely each one is to be memorable and the less attention will be paid to them. So for a sprawling open-world online action RPG like Dark Souls, the hurdles to jump are tall indeed.

The spiderweb of connections between areas in Dark Souls, combined with only the barest hint of an opening quest, give an almost vertiginous feeling of choice to the new player. Each of the game's first few areas offers multiple branching paths and a complex series of shortcuts back home, but the difficulty level of the enemies is carefully calibrated to offer a smooth progression in only one direction. Every new player will suffer a few nasty deaths to enemies that are virtually impossible to defeat until later in the game, creating the impression of a callous, unfeeling, futile world even though a gentle difficulty curve lies just around the next corner. The story details drip out slowly, with characters encountered in the wilderness casually mentioning they will visit the game's hub area of Firelink Shrine as a prompt for the player to return and discover the next chapter. The second act of the game is even more linear, with an ascent to the heavenly city of Anor Londo providing a suitable backdrop to the introduction of the main conflict the player will be asked to resolve, while offering some of the most difficult and tense encounters in the game. The Firelink Shrine becomes unusable at the start of the second act, and the player arrives with an inventory full of side quests to be completed at the Undead Parish which resides next door to the fortress that the player is given a quest to scale. Just as the storyline recedes in the final act, with a quest essentially to explore to the ends of the earth, the game's fast travel mechanic is unlocked. Where should we go with this new power to go anywhere? You guessed it - the last mini-boss of the second act gives you the key to reactivate Firelink Shrine upon his defeat, where everyone you rescued in the first two acts is there to greet you and offer hints on where to go next. The game's high difficulty level makes the player's journey and difficulties relatively predictable, so that each new character's sparing lines of dialogue will be treasured simply because they come at the right moment to serve as a respite from the grueling slog of gameplay. By the end of the second act, the player feels like a conquering hero; by the end of the game, which drags on for a dozen hours as the player descends deeper into the earth and encounters the more sinister supporting cast, there is only a grim determination to defeat the remaining enemies and carry this sordid encounter to its end. The rest of the characters know this, and cease their soaring speeches. The final boss, Lord Gwyn is not accompanied by the bombastic cymbal clashes and ethereal choirs of Anor Londo, but a mournful piano theme. By now, you have seen what this world has to offer, you have walked in Gwyn's shoes, and you feel only pity for this broken husk of a man even as you know your meeting was inevitable.

But you are not alone in this lonely world. The "massively single-player" nature of Dark Souls means you are surrounded on every side by messages from other players, from ghostly echoes of their presence as someone across the world battles the same enemies that just killed you for the third time. By joining a "covenant", one of the factions within the game, you can choose to help other players or invade their world as additional enemies, chosen always at random so that you can't get too comfortable with anyone. The NPCs (non-player characters) who inhabit the world with you exhibit the same behavior: they belong to covenants, they will appear either as allies or enemies - often both - according to their personality, and they are well aware that they live in a fallen world of a million aspiring heroes and a billion monsters who all come back to life every time those heroes need to rest and recover their strength. They all use the same equipment and the same attacks that the player possesses; in fact, most of the armor available to the player is found on the dead bodies of its owners, who showed it off just a few hours ago. The very first character you meet remarks, "Fate of the Undead, right? Well, you're not the first." Game mechanics are meticulously lampshaded in the style of the Assassin's Creed series to create a sense that the game world is a real, cohesive creation. Every similarity between the player's own experience and the story of someone else going along in parallel gives more confidence that the cryptic, sparse utterances of the NPCs means something to the whole, and it does.

Not only is the story of Dark Souls well aware that it is inside a game, but it offers a narrative challenge of its own for the New Game Plus mode, where the game restarts after completion on a higher difficulty level. The first time you play through the game, your "best friends" - the ones that have been by your side in the toughest fights - will come to a bad end. You can save them, but only by following very specific paths through the game and giving up precious resources. The second time you go through, you are on a mission to save these characters from their tragic fate, even though the original save-the-world plot line is by now utterly predictable. If you are more the rebellious type, you can reject the main quest line entirely the second time through, and find the true story behind Lord Gwyn lurking at the bottom of the inky blackness called The Abyss. With only a couple hundred words of additional dialogue, the player's experience can be entirely different, and the secret explanation is so well-supported that it's not at all clear that the "evil" path through the game is any worse than the "good" one.

One final, masterful example of resonance is inherited from the game's predecessor, Demon's Souls: the deep link between the loot system and the narrative itself. Dark Souls is a game that revolves around exploring the world to find loot - new weapons and armor, new magic spells, and the souls of other brave warriors that serve as currency - as opposed to finding it on the bodies of your enemies, or buying it from a series of increasingly well-equipped shops, or receiving it as a reward for making progress through the game. Paying loving attention to the world is the surest way to develop your character and acquire the wide range of equipment you'll need to tackle the challenges before you. Each item has a description, accessible via the equipment menu, which offers a short summary of what it does and a paragraph of lore about the setting and history of the game. This replaces the books, audio logs, or loquacious NPCs of other games with a completely variable amount of information, visible at the player's discretion. The game's branching, almost directionless structure means the player will be reading these descriptions often, simply to figure out what's going on. To figure out which door your new key fits into, simply read its description. As the game progresses, the items you find start revealing more and more startling things about the story, eventually dropping hints that completely change your picture of the game. Many of these are parceled out in the third act, after the story has been introduced, as a way to keep the player thinking through otherwise boring areas. This magic ring is from Gwyndolin, god of the moon, "the last remaining deity in Anor Londo." So what was Gwynevere, goddess of sunlight, doing there in the second act? Piece together a couple more clues and you can organically figure out what no one tells you explicitly. There are several instances of this kind of puzzle dynamic, so that the player feels they are uncovering the hidden story of the world as they are physically plumbing its deepest depths. Nothing is as shocking as the Talisman of Beasts in Demon's Souls, which is the most useful item in the game and simultaneously contains the game's most devastating plot twist, but that's probably for the better, since this game is more about slow revelation of deeper themes than single climactic moments.

One final ingredient is the collaboration among players themselves. It takes a very courageous game to lock its best musical track, its most awe-inspiring moment, inside one of the most deviously hidden secret areas, a secret wall behind a secret wall inside a tree trunk in the poison swamp. Yet far more players find it than this description would suggest, thanks to the voluminous fan wiki pages. The high difficulty, expansive world, malleable play style, and dozens of secrets in Dark Souls combine to make the game very friendly to guides, wikis, walkthroughs and lengthy YouTube explanations. It's a good bet that anyone who completes the game has relied heavily on other players to help them find those last few secrets. This out-of-game help doesn't feel intrusive because the game is already set up mechanically for players to help each other, via messages left on the ground, via impromptu co-op from strangers, or simply hearing the joyous ringing of the church bell tower after someone else defeats the first major boss. The game is a brutally difficult test, but it's an open-book, open-notes test.