The First Six Hours or So

This summer’s weekends have been spent playing Demon’s Souls, the oddball niche of 2009 that found a rabid fanbase.  I had the game on my shelf for a bit, but it took Atlus to announce a server shutdown for me to peel off the plastic.  Though the Demon’s Souls pseudo-multiplayer was scheduled to end on the last day of May, the increase in those wanting to get their last fix in justified a longer life.  So it’s still here, and though I’m late to the party, I’m still playing it.

If you’ve heard anything about Demon’s Souls, it would be the insane difficulty.     This works as both a turnon and turnoff to different types of players (check out Giant Bomb’s quick look, back before the franchise truly caught on), and neither side is necessarily wrong.  The specifics of the game aren’t “difficult” in the traditional sense.  Combat isn’t too hard, platforming isn’t too hard.  Rather, the penalties for failure are extreme.  Demon’s Souls forgoes all the updates of the past twenty-five years in favor of soul-crushing discipline.  When an enemy kills you, you begin at the start of the level, with decreased health and all the money you had carried on you missing.  If you make it to your bloodstain, the point where you died, you can regain everything.  If you die again in the act of getting there, it’s gone for good.  This can be maddening for someone wanting to quickly breeze through to a story’s conclusion.

What Demon’s Souls reminds me of is walking on tiptoes.  The animation isn’t slapped together, but meticulously rendered.  Rather than rely on speed, like a Super Meat Boy, it puts split-second timing on its slowness.  When an enemy arches his sword back, ready to thrust, you had best not lower your defenses.  This is a game for those who enjoy reading horror stories without any clear description of the monster.  From Software, the developers, ask you for extreme amounts of patience, thoroughly describing a haunted house without immediately showcasing its haunted residents.

The story, characters, and settings of Demon’s Souls are rich in backstory and vague in upfront appearance.  I don’t mean to imply anything bad about this world, but it doesn’t do a good job at explaining anything (both story and gameplay included).  Its characters have lengthy names that are only said once or twice, mostly on loading screens, and you are plopped directly into this fantasy world without a sense of who you are or what you’re doing, besides “fight. monsters.”  A story exists, but it is almost Biblical, full of begats and untold history.  After a few minutes you forget a name, and start to refer to characters as “Veil Lady” or “Monk Kid”.  Fans of the series in-depth can surely pour through endless Wiki articles on the history of Boletaria, but the game doesn’t do a great job up-front giving you a reason to care.  Maybe that’s part of the charm.  The game has much in common with the original The Legend of Zelda, open-ended and about exploration and discovery.

The criticism of “brown-ness” is one applied often in today’s gaming scene, as military shooter after military shooter uses the color in an effort to look “real”.  As a contrast, Demon’s Souls seems to have a perpetual filter of brown over its world, and this ends up making the game look sickly.  The subdued yellows and dimly-lit passageways create a feeling of absolute despair.  In this case, the grim aesthetic isn’t bad or overutilized.  The art direction of Demon’s Souls is actually one of the best things about the game.  Despite being straight from Japan, which shows in the gameplay, the characters look pulled right out of a medieval European story.  Castles, knights, and weaponry aren’t Eastern-ized like Fullmetal Alchemist, but honestly look like those old paintings come to life.  What’s absolutely killer, though, is the scale and design of these monsters.  They can be gigantic in comparison to your character, but still defeatable.  It’s also refreshing to see them not (always) be direct ripoffs of Dungeons & Dragons characters.  Some enemies are downright creepy, yet put into a game where horror isn’t the main goal.  Defeating these monsters is tough, but it’s doable.  From Software has left it up to the player to succeed on their own accord.  You have the tools, and it’s up for you to utilize them properly.  There are no holding hands here.

The inner circle of gaming nerds like to say that Demon’s Souls is a divisive game, and some measure of that is true.  Some will slave away at it while others will run away, but I’ve found a nice spot inbetween.  This game is one of an ancient structure, not as “incorrect” as it is “unused”, and if everyone were to acknowledge it as such I imagine the series could have an even larger fanbase.  Demon’s Souls is a long one, trumping over the modern glut of six-hour experiences with more content and excessive punishment.  My regular course of action is to finish one game before moving on to the next (which, sadly, isn’t working out too well), but I doubt most will be able to finish this game in a few sittings.  Demon’s Souls can be frustrating, but it’s a frustrating that puts a smile on your face after the fact.  In so many ways it is the past, but the past is a nice change of pace to the constant present.

Top 10 Most Promising Games from E3

There were a lot of good games present at E3 this year, despite what Impotent Nerd Rage has to say!  Enough to have to cut many of them out.  Despite all that, here’s what I found most interesting for 2012.  It doesn’t mean they’ll be great, it may not even mean I’ll buy them all, but right now they show promise.

10. SimCity

9. Lego City Undercover

8. Project P-100

7. Halo 4

6. PlayStation All-Stars Battle Royale

5. The Last of Us

4. Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

3. Rayman Legends

2. Watch Dogs

1. Dishonored

(5 Unlisted Honorable Mentions: Star Wars: 1313, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, Pikmin 3, Need for Speed: Most Wanted)

E3 2012: “Just Place an X on the Life Line in the Appropriate Place”

Angry Birds is on my iPhone.  It’s a neat little game.  Somehow, it’s been downloaded over a billion times across multiple platforms.  It’s neat, and it’s little.  Angry Birds is a more simplified Worms.  That’s what it is.  It’s Worms.  That PC game (even available for DOS!) from 1995 is now what your grandmother enjoys.  What your father enjoys.  That you enjoy, sometimes, on a long bus ride.  Angry Birds isn’t as remarkable as it is accessible.  There’s nothing wrong with it, nothing to stomp feet over.  I am still amazed when I see t-shirts of it being sold in your local Kohl’s.  Its success is extraordinary.  Unearned, maybe, but not bad.

2012’s E3 was, if I’m pretending to be a games writer, “a mixed bag.”  Press conferences consisted of ultraviolence and the occasional product marketed to those who don’t know better.  Ubisoft quickly transposed Just Dance 4, part of the series best known for fooling audiences into believing the dance game has more fidelity than a CD player and empty water bottle, with Assassin’s Creed III, a traditional game about stabbing Brits in the face.  Microsoft touted Bing and Internet Explorer as “features” (for those who buy a computer to use just once a month), but ended on mass explosions.  Sony was perhaps the most egregious of them all, stopping a show of impromptu elephant-man brain surgery to showcase the Wonderbook, a fascinating peripheral with the Harry Potter license.  If I were six years old, I’d be fascinated.  But what six-year old is watching this press conference when the next game shown is one with a homeless man getting his face blown off (with no regards to his screams of “Don’t!”)?  Who is this for?

Gaming has come to separate these into groups, the “Casual” and the “Hardcore.”  Many games, including the Gears of War series, incorporates these terms into the game itself.  “Easy” becomes “casual”, “hard” becomes “hardcore.”  You aren’t easy, sweetie, you’re just casual.  You aren’t just playing on hard, you’re HARDCORE!  These terms are marketer-driven.  They give us something to hold on to.  We choose a side, because some higher-up demanded it.  What defines this difference?  Are you hardcore because you’ve played Super Mario Bros. before?  Or would that be considered “just casual” now?  Angry Birds is Worms.  I imagine Worms would be called hardcore, but why is Angry Birds casual?  Because it’s more successful?  Is that how we differentiate it?  But Call of Duty is also extremely successful, and it’s hardcore.  What about Rayman?  While it appears whimsical and pleasing to the incoming demographics, the platforming gameplay stacks up with the best.  I’d imagine that’s hardcore, but more people than thirteen-year old boys like it so it’s casual, but it’s still a deeper experience than most iPhone games so it’s hardcore.  Right?  You can imagine just how much of a confusing mess this is.  This separation.

I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that “casual” and “hardcore” are buzzwords created specifically to avoid the greater talking points of “good” and “bad.”  Critiquing anything, no matter where it lay on the scale, is backed by a chorus saying “This isn’t for you.”  If you don’t like faces being blown into smithereens with no emphasis on character or personality, go play Angry Birds!  And if, somehow, you don’t consider Angry Birds the greatest game you’ve ever seen, why not teabag some homophobic euphemisms?  This shouldn’t be an either/or debate.  E3’s press conferences swung hard right or left and never went down the middle.  Do I think The Last of Us will be a bad game, despite its potential ultraviolence?  No, I can’t wait!  Do I think the Wonderbook is a poor product because it targets children?  No, I bet it’s really cool, and if I ever walk into a Target without insecurity I’d maybe pick one up.  But Internet Explorer and Just Dance?  Yeah, no, those are bad.  It’s because they’re bad that they’re “not for me,” not because you keep targeting those that don’t know better.

Before E3 began I had started clicking around on Tumblr, trying to get a feel for the general consensus.  As always, there was no lack of enthusiasm.  I noticed something different, though.  I’d stumble across blogs of sixteen-year old girls all excited over the press conferences, partaking in the same partisan nonsense most traditional young boys get over by the time they leave high school.  They knew about E3, they joked about it, they loved it.  They’d even call themselves “hardcore.”  I question that.  I don’t question their fascination with games, I just question what constitutes “hardcore.”  They had the looks of the commonly-accepted pretty girls of later puberty, so a Sony or Microsoft executive would obviously drag them into a “casual” camp.  But they claim to be “hardcore.”  Do they mean they’ve played Call of Duty before, a franchise that sells millions and isn’t particularly exclusive?  Or does “hardcore” mean they play the Japanese-only versions of Romance of the Three Kingdoms till their fingers fall off?  There’s no way to know, because the terms are so broad and interchangeable.  You say you’re a hardcore gamer, I don’t know anything about you.  Do you eat, do you breathe?  What do you consider The Sims?  Is it better or worse than Ikari Warriors?  Which did you get more upset about during E3, the ultraviolence or the ultracute?

During the show I received a number of texts and Facebook messages saying things like “GOD this is the WORST show EVER” or “Did you seeeeeeeee this bullshit?!”, and I can’t help but wonder what went through their minds.  Which hard swing are they mad about?  Left, right, or both?  I hope both, because I tire of this separation between “casual” and “hardcore,” like they represent separate ideologies.  There isn’t such a thing as a “casual” game, your mom just doesn’t have anything to compare FarmVille against.  What’s “hardcore” about wordlessly murdering hundreds of people?  Is Braid more “hardcore” because you solve puzzles that tie into a deeply mature storyline, or is it more “casual” because you aren’t killing people?  I guess my biggest takeaway from E3 is that I’m sick of the separation.  There are great games at E3.  Even the games that marketers decided fall into one camp or the other can be great!  Many look that way.  But the press conferences focused on the hard swings.  You’re black or you’re white.  Take your side.  Post it in the “About Me” section on your blog.  Whittle down your beliefs till they fit on a bumper sticker.  All that separates the “hardcore” from the “casual” is the recognition of that difference.

What I’m trying to say is that E3 2012 was fun but frustrating, and that Angry Birds is a good game.  It’s not the best game.  It wouldn’t do you harm to never play it.  But the people who do love it, or at least start playing it during awkward social functions, don’t do so because they fit into a pie chart.  It’s not a “casual” game, it’s just…kinda good.