In Activate the Three Artefacts and then Leave, players are left without character; without avatar. Even in traditional first-person-shooters where the avatar is not necessarily shown at every opportunity, there’s a sense of the body: glimpses in mirrors that reveal a self, a gun peeking into view as an extension of the hand, or movement that is defined by running, walking, and jumping. Artefacts instead exists solely in a space designed for the player, the person at his or her computer. It strips away the artifice of a designed world, of character, of setting, or of plot, and instead, like a math problem, is a task designed for completion, one contained within its title.
It proves to be similar to a constructed toy: a Rubik’s cube, or a disentanglement puzzle (where two interlocked pieces must be made single). In simplicity, Artefacts is, like these, a parlor game: an object whose goal seems to be defined by its physical presence. With its goal laid bare, there is no universe at stake; there is no character needing rescue. There is only the player; there is only the object.
And it’s both maddening and relaxing at the same time. As far as games go, it’s relatively simple: the player moves at a slow, deliberate pace through three-dimensional space. Where in most first-person games one might walk or run, here you float in space, as though you were a calm, digital fly, surrounded only by an infinite, white space, its only inhabitant a massive globe of polygons. Move toward it and an entrance is revealed, a small hole not unlike the exhaust port on the Death Star. But instead of a large planet of pipes, metals, and clones, Artefacts’ planet is made entirely of whitespace and black lines, a simplicity that comes together to form a great construction of geometric off-shapes, their corners never really touching at right angles, their walls never really indistinguishable upon exploration.
This is the main conceit of the game: one’s eyes are practically useless, and it doesn’t really set in until too late. I had just entered the great orb when I turned around and realized that the entrance would need to be an exit, and the great expanse of outer-white had blended into the same white surfaces that made up the walls which now contained me. After a panicky five minutes of bumping into every surface available, I found it, but realized it did not matter—I had to continue deeper. Deeper through great halls of jagged edges filled with floating boxes, their edges seemingly impossible. But the player isn’t meant to navigate by sight; the player is meant to navigate by sound.
There’s a secret area in the game Limbo—a moody and atmospheric platformer defined by a stark, deadly world of children portrayed in blacks and grays—that is entirely dark. The only visual cues there are the two white orbs that are the bright, scared eyes of the protagonist. While in the majority of the game, the player guides him (and his eyes) safely away from obstacles such as sawblades or giant, nightmarish spiders by visuals—in the same way one plays a Mario game—this stage is entirely unseen. Here, to avoid a sawblade isn’t to jump over its sharp, rotating edges, it is to jump over its sound—the caustic, cutting hum as it moves from right to left across the stage. It’s a lovely twist that subverts the dominant strategy of not only the game, but the visual medium, and moves a different sense—hearing—to the forefront of the experience.
Artefacts accomplishes the same not by putting the player in the darkness, but by offering a world that features no real features. In the same way James Turrell’s pieces (such as Wide Out) play with perspective and a sense of space by subverting corners and joints, Artefacts does the same by offering so many of them. It’s not an absence of walls; it’s an abundance. And while sight is necessary to discover rooms and float about, getting lost isn’t just easy, it’s nigh unavoidable: the jaggy sphere is massive, continually unknown. You might recognize the same set piece, but there are no visual bearings.
There are, however, audial ones. Depending on where the player is in the great sphere, they’ll find themselves immersed in great pools of noise: statics, whites, pinks. It’s a quick and obvious realization that in order to navigate in any real way, one has to be paying attention with their ears more than their eyes: to distinguish between a pure white noise, or a white noise blended with a gentle static, or the same static on its own, tiny crackles forming a recognizable beat that echoes within the skull.
After you find an Artefact—a gently floating object that stands out easily among the geometric sphere-scape—light, calming hues of color finally pop into being, only if to let you know that you’ve activated it, that you’ve taken a step towards the completion. It might seem like the only friendly system in an otherwise nightmarish world, but it’s not. It’s the statics that want to help bring you home, navigate the quadrants of a great, imperceptible object whose joints are needles against the eye, against spatial perception. They fill in like voices aware that they aren’t saying anything, but still screaming as a constant landmark in a giant shape that seems to shift and catch you in a circle again and again. They’re this strange, white world’s equivalent of a street sign, or a friendly local pointing in the direction of a tourist attraction. Only here, you can’t just look; you need to listen.
Like most of Increpare’s games, Artefacts is free and available for a variety of platforms. Check it and them out here.
Post-holiday greetings! I hope youâ€™re in a pleasant haze filled with too much food (and family). I wanted to take a post to highlight a handful of the awesome, independent games that came out earlier this year. Theyâ€™re all very interesting in their own rights, but they all feature interesting mechanics or storiesâ€”things I considered outstanding, specifically in relation to some of their larger peers: the Call of Duties of the world. Most of them are also perfect for new gamers, or introductions into gaming, as most eschew the traditional difficulties or reflexes associated with the medium.
Youâ€™ll find Gone Home on nearly every â€œbest ofâ€ list this year, and for good reason. Though I wrote about it earlier from a perspective of player/protagonist relationships, the game also shines for storytelling, sexual-identity exploration, and a 90â€™s Riot grrrl soundtrack. Trips around an empty house will find homemade cassette tapes, childhood drawings, and evidence of hidden and open family dramas. Itâ€™s an eye-opening exploration of whatâ€™s possible in a young medium, and well worth the praise itâ€™s receiving.
Papers, Please combines the retro visual-style of the original Nintendo with the social and political themes of a crumbling Eastern-European society. Self-described as a â€œdystopian document thriller,â€ Papers Please welcomes the player as a worker who has drawn the job of immigration inspector. By day, you process the documents of hopeful immigrants, poring over their passports, visas, and vitals to determine if they are allowed through. Stamping no can be heartbreaking; sometimes stamping yes can be, too. Part of the game is managing a desk full of reference materials, shuffling pictures, maps, text, and speed all at the same time. When you dive in, what surfaces are political plots, corruption, and a nightly mini-game where you must decide how to use your small funds to comfort your family: with medicine, food, or heat. Bleak house.
The Stanley Parable
While Gone Home was a first-person exploration of home life, The Stanley Parable is, at first, a first-person exploration of an empty office building. Today is different than yesterday, but itâ€™s not clear why; it isâ€”and isnâ€™tâ€”your job to figure out why. As you explore, the game unfolds easily into rumination on jobs, life, destiny, and games, all narrated by a velvety British voice that describes your every move. Follow his instructions, or set out on your own; the branching paths are many, and the outcomes satisfyingly differentâ€”or similar.
Antichamber is similar to so many war-like shooters in that one of its focal points is a gun. Antichamberâ€™s gun, however, is one of creation, not destruction. Players must navigate a mostly-white world that features devious, mind-bending puzzles filled with impossible spaces, rooms, turns, and other spatial discrepancies that seem to occur when backs are turned. Learning to explore and navigate the illogical space is both nightmarish and Zen-like. At times, you feel trapped or hopeless; at others, filled with countless Eureka moments or realizations. Either way, it feels like a world to which Bill and Ted might have accidentally taken an unprepared Euclid in the middle of a proof. He wonâ€™t need that geometry here, anyway.
When my mom visited town at the beginning of the month, I got her to sit down and play her first (ever) video game. It was Proteus, and even she enjoyed it. I previously wrote about the gameâ€™s exceptional relationship with the player, but truth be told, it excels for so many other reasons. She liked encountering the stone circles, a favorite formation of hers, but others would find it comforting for its soft sounds and soft edges that roll through different seasons on what feels like commentary on life, death, and existence. Proteus is filled with hidden machinations and the feeling that thereâ€™s something deeper below the surface. But at the end, the game itself is beautiful, even at its surface, and offers up something that is well worth the visit.
Starseed Pilgrim would be a terrible dinner guest, mostly because it doesnâ€™t bring a whole lot to the table. A brief mention of seeds and youâ€™re on your way to discovering the intricate methods (and madness) of its intrinsic system. While Starseed Pilgrim would be easy to dismiss as shallow, the truth is anything but. Players who persevere will discover a challenging yet fair world that they will literally build, planting different seeds that create different sections. Most game reviews refuse to discuss games in-depth because of plot spoilers; Starseed Pilgrim reviewers were afraid of spoiling mechanics. Theyâ€™re definitely worth the wait.
November 25, 2013 · Print This Article
When 140Â begins, youâ€™re dropped into near silence. A single tone plays: low and bassy, it seems to emanate from the flat, monochromatic setting of the world. Your avatar is a lone recognizable shape: an unmoving square. Move to the left or right and transform into a circle; or jump into the air, turning briefly into a triangle before landing.
140â€™s protagonist-shape is instantly familiar, because itâ€™s derived from a universal visual language. Those gentle geometric shapes are the stuff of childhood learning, the foundational building blocks of concepts such as color recognition, addition, and geometry. The square, rectangle, and triangle are a mark of simplicity, their functions instantly recognizable in motion.
Whatâ€™s wonderful about 140 is that every component of the game is at itsÂ most basic, most recognizable. The colors are just as sparse as the landscape, a single-color expanse thatâ€™s all right angles save for the occasional circle. Whatever origin the gameâ€™s character came from, the world came with it.
In the Nintendo classic, Super Mario Bros., numerous pits and enemies roll across the screen at a somewhat uneven pace. The game is a pillar of the platforming genre it helped popularize. Platformers are the side-scrolling titles that defined early consoles, where a 2-dimensional protagonist such as Mario, Sonic, or 140â€™s shape runs and jumps between obstacles and platforms. Â But though the game is legendary, it can be unforgiving, confusing, and ultimately, frustrating, especially in a modern context.
While modern games are usually prefaced with in-depth tutorials requiring memorization of a vast button- or combo-system (and sometimes to the detriment of ease),Â Super Mario Bros.Â suffers from a lack of explanation. The only way to become good at the game is learning its game-design language, usually by trying, failing, and tryingÂ again until you succeed. Such as it is, itâ€™s somewhat difficult to get into without the determination of a child, applied in full force.
This is, in part, due to expectations about difficulty. Early video games were the stuff of quarter-gobbling nightmares, an intersection between entertainment and commerce. Looking back, most games from the era seem to be defined by external forces, external expectations: we should expect games to be hard; we should expect ourselves to adapt on our own time, determine the gameâ€™s world as an adversary, and conquer games such as Mario from within ourselves.
Mario and 140 certainly share a skeleton. Their challenges are similar ones, of jumping over pits and obstacles. And while both are without explanatory text, in Mario, this feels like a technological oversight. In 140, however, it feels purposeful; the game relies on no textual explanation. Like its shapes, the gameâ€™s instructions are spoken in a language thatâ€™s universal, that we’ve all known our entire lives: music. Where there might have been lengthy tutorials, planted signposts explaining mechanics, thereâ€™s instead narrative silence. Thereâ€™s no princess to rescue in 140â€”thereâ€™s just a song that wants to be complete. And the game is tuned entirely around creating the feeling that the player should feel invited.
140â€™s title is derived, presumably, from the BPM of gameâ€™s ever-present soundtrack. As the player progresses through 140, theyâ€™re treated to an ever-growing blend of electronic music. While the entry of the game is a low rumble, the introduction of the gameâ€™s first challengeâ€”a moving platformâ€”adds a rhythmic thrum, and each subsequent challenge increases not only in difficulty, but in musical complexity. By the end of each section, the soundtrack is varied, and as it pulses, the background of 140â€™s world pulses with it, as though it were an overly-reductive music visualizer.
Though the player and her shape are dropped into a world of visual and audio silence, the player progresses naturally into a world filled with vibrant color and sound. The playerâ€™s goal is to seek out a dual-colored circle that floats, and when touched, follows you. But the disc also emanates a sound pattern, as though it were calling out sonar, asking you to come get it. And when you do, you take it to another circular pattern embedded in the world, at which point the disc jumps directly into it, drawn by certain magnetism.
At this, the world explodes. Color erupts, painting you, the land, and the background in new, effervescent colors, and the music, previously a lilting silence or dull drone, turns into a celebratory ecstasy.
The landscape changes, too. Where platforms were once stationary, they now move on fixed lines, ski-lifts taking you to previously unobtainable heights. And every round they make, a familiar noise occurs, a component of the now thriving soundtrack that signals timing to player. And in the background, a beat acts as a metronome for your action, counts the moments before you need to jump.
Death in video games is usually met with a loss of lengthy process, or a dwindling of your â€œlives,â€ a holdover from the arcade days of tokens, or quarters. Lose them all, and the penalty is usually grave, can sometimes result in a loss of all forward progress.
140 has no lives, and true to its nature, checkpoints are common. These are tiny beacons of light that shoot skyward when you touch them, celebrating your progress. The music momentarily hits a filter as you falter, plunging into static after mistiming a jump. But when you return to that point, the beat of the soundtrack is there, timing the obstacles for you, for as long as you might need to internalize it.
Later, as the challenges and music build further, greater obstacles are encountered. Pits of static which ostensibly â€œkillâ€ you send you back to a previous point, although the length of loss is generally minor. Blocks shift back and forth, disappear and appear in time, or expand and contract. Floors glow and bounce you into the air. Itâ€™s all incredibly joyful, even more so because it all serves to underline a distinct, obvious fact about 140: above all, it wants you to succeed.
In one of PC gamingâ€™s most famous series, Half-Life, players take on the role of Gordon Freeman.Â Across numerous games, the Half-Life series sees its hero traipse through dangerous environments, mostly as a result of an initial scientific accident that calls forth alien hordes. Throughout all this, Gordon is an obvious example of the â€œsilent protagonist.â€ The silent protagonist is one who, quite literally, remains silent. Even in conversation with another character or the face of apparent death, Freeman makes no sounds.
The opening sequence of Half-Life is famous for an engaging establishment of its environment. The player, as Freeman, is transported via a futuristic railcar to a desert facility named Black Mesa, an amalgamation of shadowy government experimentation. As Freeman, the player takes in vague sights and listens to the monotonous drone of a pre-recorded speech extolling safety procedures. The first character Gordon Freeman interactsâ€”and I use the term looselyâ€”with is a security guard. The guard, upon opening the railcar door, greets him: â€œMorning Mr. Freeman. Looks like youâ€™re running late.â€
This bit of dialogue is one of a small collection of identifying information about Gordon, but ultimately, it doesnâ€™t reveal much. All the player knows is that he has a prior line of history and existence with this facility. In essence, the player knows he is returning to his day job. The comment is an allusion to this characterâ€™s constant existence, his place in the gameâ€™s narrative.
In games, characters, narratives, and environments are essentially defined through two aspects. The first is that which already exists, coloring the history and environments that define the in-game world and people within it. The second is that which colors the player-characterâ€™s present, which is intrinsically tied to the gameâ€™s actionâ€”essentially what we as players see and experience. A more important distinction between the two is that the history and narrative are defined by the developer or creator, while the present of the game and the characterâ€™s present, is defined by the player and his or her actions.
As he is silent, Gordonâ€™s interactions with other characters are defined solely by the dialogue and intent of those that interact with him. Freeman meets a variety of characters on his journey through the games, and some even develop close relationships with him. Just as the security guardâ€™s comment solidified his history as a scientist, those interactions which occur during the actual game fill out his nature as perceived by both the characters around him, and the environment in which they existâ€”all as predicated by the developer. Developer-dictated detail and narrative is that which the player cannot affect, but only know and learn passively.
This is the opposite of that narrative detail which is defined by action, and as a result, the player. A large part of what begins to define the character relies upon and is determined by player actionâ€”and this action sometimes occurs in direct opposition to character history.
When a player plays as an established heroâ€”say, Batmanâ€”the action that occurs during the player-defined portion is usually entirely in agreement with that characterâ€™s history. That is, when a player controls Batman and beats up a gang of thugs, this action is fully in line with what players expect from Batmanâ€™s colorful and storied history. His historical, developer-defined narrative transitions seamlessly into the player-defined action.
Whatâ€™s perhaps most odd about Gordon Freeman is though his established history is scarce, what shines through results in direct opposition with his player-controlled present. Gordonâ€™s day job is that of a theoretical physicist. His physicalityâ€”prominently displayed only on some editions of the box art, in the gameâ€™s menu, and briefly during spin-off gamesâ€”paints him as an obvious ectomorph. Yet his player-defined narrative has him leaping over pools of caustic acid, wielding numerous firearms with incredible accuracy, and dispatching hordes of aliens and marines alike.
This isn’t an argument that the game should have been a scientist simulatorâ€”one that, given the events of the game, would have probably ended in premature death or hiding in a reinforced closet. But the developer-defined aspects of Freeman as a characterâ€”his history and his relationshipsâ€”donâ€™t come together with the player-driven narrative to create a complete, acceptable portrait. And when this happens, the relationship between the protagonist and player is not as fulfilling. Rather than portraying Freeman, the player is portraying a fantasy, and Freeman is merely a replaceable vessel.
This year saw the release of The Fullbright Companyâ€™s Gone Home. Much has been written about Gone Home, and for good reasonâ€”the game deals eagerly with a non-violent plot and consists of relatable family life complete with uncomfortable discovery, a 1995 setting with a Riot Grrl soundtrack, and celebration of sexual identity.
But in addition to thatâ€”which alone makes the game worth exploring, ten times overâ€”it offers a refreshing version of the player-defined narrative, one that creates a unique relationship between player, protagonist, and environment. One of the geniuses of Gone Home is that its environment is not only entirely unknown to its player, but that its environment is also entirely unknown to its protagonist. The protagonist, Kaitlin (or Katie) is an elder daughter returning from an extended overseas trip. In the meantime, her family (a father, mother, and younger sister) have moved into a house willed to them from the fatherâ€™s estranged uncle. Her return finds the house empty, leaving her and the player without a guide or character with which to interact.
This single aspect defines the environment an exciting way: one that is entirely unknown to both the player and the protagonist. This allows for the player to more closely identify with Katie as a protagonist, sharpening the relationship. And when the relationship is a closer one, the player-driven action becomes more relevant in moving towards meaningfully defining a character and world.
Gone Home is essentially a story about relationships, told via intelligent discovery and modern archaeology. As the player-as-Katie moves through the home, mysteries unfold via papers left out. Notes from Katieâ€™s younger sister Sam provide the central narrative, while crumpled notes, pamphlets, and other documents fill out the mother and father in addition.
Whatâ€™s interesting about Gone Home isnâ€™t just the unified developer-defined narrative, but the narrative that develops as defined through the playerâ€™s action. Rather than shooting aliens or (gleefully) breaking crates as in Half-Life, Gone Homeâ€™s interactivity is defined by searching and discovering. While the playerâ€™s actions on a most basic level defines Kaitlin as a snoop without any sort of respect for boundaries, they, perhaps more importantly, serve to define the environment around them. Much of the gameâ€™s content is bound up in secrecy, waiting to be unleashed, and only with careful searching does the world come into focus.
Historicallyâ€”and in games such as Half-Lifeâ€”the environment and the characters within it are developer-defined, and as a result, the protagonistâ€™s history is as well. But in Gone Home, the lack of external characters ultimately means a lack of active developer-driven meaning, and instead the player finds something that feels more personal.
And while of course, all of the content in Gone Home has been placed there by the developerâ€”they are still the writer and creator of the game, after allâ€”the playerâ€™s action is what actually serves as the access point. Though the player in most games propels the action simply by playingâ€”in the same way a reader reveals the action by readingâ€”the player in Gone Home serves as a more active propellant of the slow reveal of the environment and its characters.
What begins to develop, then, is a picture of Gone Home as a game where the player-as-protagonist is the driving force for the narrative. This is because Gone Homeâ€™s player-action is one that paints a picture of the protagonist and the relationships around her in the exact way the protagonist would on her own. This allows the protagonist, and the resulting player/protagonist relationship, to feel incredibly powerful. Because when the player-as-protagonist defines the narrative or the environment, the player/protagonistâ€™s action defines the way in which that entity interacts with them. In a sense, they become the driving force behind the gameâ€™s emotional impact. When a player-as-protagonist feels as though they have the power to drive forth the narrative, defining the environment and protagonist through their discoveries and actions, gaming as a medium truly shines.
But perhaps more importantly, as the player gains control and the ability to define the narrative through the interactivity of the medium, the developer appears to exert less control. And when the developer wields less control, they fade from the experience of the game, allowing it to stand on its own. While the relationship between the player and the developer is an interesting one (and well worth exploring at another time), they happen to be at direct odds with eitherâ€™s direct relationship to the game and the protagonist. In a sense, the developer must be able to release full control of their creation, their child, to the player, and allow them to determine the protagonistâ€™s existence and relation to the game as a whole.
September 30, 2013 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Paul King
The most recent time I loaded up the game Dark Souls, my character unsheathed a sword from her back and drew her shield. And then I noticed a message, written maybe two steps away: â€œGrief.â€
The world of Dark Souls is, as the title would suggest, dark. Itâ€™s a classic, worn down fantasy world where everything is crumbling. Your character begins in a prison for the lost and undead; your default state is one of decay. Even as you continue to a city meant for gods, all is in dangerous, ruinous disrepair.
And most of the game is spent alone. Save a few neutral, stationary characters, any sort of dialogue is non-existent. Your hero never speaks, only grunts in the heat of battle, and these stationary merchants quickly run out of new phrases, things to sell you, or purposes to exist.
But at a certain point, your character may buy (or steal) a chunk of soapstone from one of these merchants. Once you obtain the soapstone, you may use it to write, coating the floor in incandescent orange scribbles that, upon interaction, reveal their text.
During the course of Dark Souls, no fix for the broken world emerges. At times, other characters hint that the universe has descended into darkness from a former glory, and your lone heroâ€™s quest might be the thing to restore it. But nothing you do on your journey really changes anything; felled enemies reappear upon your death and subsequent rebirth, and also upon the saving of your progress. But while your standard fantasy actions yield no change and are easily erased, the soapstone allows you to impact the gameâ€™s world in a singular, everlasting way: through writing.
Thereâ€™s a multiplayer component of Dark Souls that allows players to enter the world of another. One can invade or be summoned, and these are adversarial or cooperative interactions, respectively. Both are temporary.
Messages penned with the soapstone, on the other hand, are permanent. Quit the game and return days later, they will still be there. And perhaps more importantly, while invasions and summons are constrained to a single instance of the game worldâ€”that of the invaded or summoning playerâ€”messages, instead, are universal. Write a message on the floor of a chapel within your game, and the same message appears in the same chapel of another personâ€™s game.
And there they sit, for any other player who happens by it. But much like the world of Dark Souls, the system in which messages are created is opaque and difficult.
The soapstone may be used to write a variety of messages, but only from a template. You choose a formatâ€”for instance, â€œTry _____â€ or â€œBe wary of ______.â€ Once youâ€™ve chosen a format, you can then choose from a list of categories to fill that blank. Options here include orientation (â€œTry left,â€ â€œBe wary of rightâ€), objects (â€œTry sword,â€ â€œBe wary of chestâ€), and attributes (â€œTry fireâ€).
Because the messages are selected from a template, speech is limited, and as such, messages become muddied. As with the world, story, and mission of the game, the onus is on the player as a reader to determine the intent of a message. And as with the rest of the game, the system can be frustratingâ€”authorial intent easily becomes unclear, especially in the wake of present danger due to the gameâ€™s refusal to be paused. Pick the wrong moment to write a message, or linger too long on selecting the correct Mad-Libbian phrase and it might instead spell death.
And Dark Soulsâ€™ closed language system isnâ€™t immune to classic video game juvenility. At a certain point, my character encountered the message â€œAmazing chest ahead,â€ but instead of referring to what would make the most senseâ€”a treasure chestâ€”it was instead placed in front of a female character as an unfortunate reference to her anatomy.
While this example is depressing, itâ€™s fortunately rare. It also serves to underscore what is an even more important facet of the closed language: context. Not only may players choose what combinations of message to write, they may also choose where to place it within the worldâ€”for it to be a static element in the world of others. The same message becomes manifold depending on its placement.
A canned, writable phrase in the game is â€œPraise the Sun!â€ This is one of the only phrases that does not contain a mutable component (alongside â€œGood Job!â€ and â€œI did it!â€). Its placement is intended in relation to one of the gameâ€™s religionsâ€”meant to be written in a peaceful, brightly lit area upon which the sun shines. A prayer.
I found it once at the bottom of a sewer. Surrounded by the carcasses of massive, dead ratsâ€”think The Princess Brideâ€”here it was: â€œPraise the Sun!â€ In this context it served as an entirely different message, rife with a sense of irony not possible if placed in a different area. Though the text said differently, the message was obviously one of despair.
Just before an encounter with a massive, angry beast, somebody had written â€œtry jumping.â€ And after dying to the creature several timesâ€”an event that happens with most encounters of the difficult gameâ€”the message clicked. And indeed, it was jumping from a ledge and plunging a sword into the monsterâ€™s waiting back that proved to be the best strategy.
Elsewhere, I found the same message written on a set of uneven stone stairs, a crumbling railing beside it. â€œTry jumping.â€ I angled my view downward, past the railing, and saw only an endless descent, one that would surely kill me.
It did. After I learned a lesson about trust, I discovered another message, not far away: â€œBeware liar.â€
And what begins to emerge from identical phrases is a changing language, one dependent entirely on a static world. While some messages are incredibly straightforward (my favorite is â€œIllusory wall aheadâ€), others are incredibly vague.
One of the more interesting categories to choose a â€œblankâ€ from is â€œConcepts.â€ The category sits at the bottom of the list, beneath â€œCharacters,â€ â€œObjects,â€ and more, almost as if it were an afterthought. It is from this list some nameless stranger chose to pen â€œgrief.â€
What strikes me especially about the use of â€œgriefâ€ is that it is wholly unnecessaryâ€”the entire world embodies â€œgrief.â€ Though â€œhappinessâ€ is present on the list of concepts, the use of the word makes little to no sense in the context of Dark Soulsâ€”there is, ultimately, nothing happy within the game.
But within the constraints of the language system, these awkward, single words can be used in new ways that don’t necessarily pertain to the game. Before a particularly trying monster, instead of writing â€œTry lightningâ€â€”the monsterâ€™s supposed weaknessâ€”one could instead place â€œTry hope,â€ stepping outside of intended use.
Whatâ€™s interesting about these concepts is that they were placed in an otherwise interesting and well-thought out system; one that plays to the same difficulties and themes of the game. It is only when we as players make a conscious decision to write a specific message does the system break down, distancing itself from in-game tips and evolving into something poetic. When the system breaks, it allows players to leave an effective mark on not only their game world, but the game worlds of others.
Because while all messages might be eternal, the ones that conform to a useful fantasy systemâ€”tips, locations, or secretsâ€”ultimately interact with the world by blending into it, not changing it. The jumping tip about the monster led me to a strategic shortcut, while the deceitful note on the staircase created a new, interactive game experience. Those that reference nothing in the world but language concepts create new experiences entirely outside of the game.
Much of Dark Souls deals with the idea of immortality. Your character, like most video game characters, is seemingly tireless. Die, and be brought back again, and again, unceasingly until the game is done. The environments and enemies around you never change, and the latter is in seemingly endless supply. Even when your quest is over, the only option is to start over, either as a new character or the same one, this time in a harder difficulty.
Though the entirety of the game is caught up in this idea of perpetual fantasy, it promotes an unchanging stasis rather than an everlasting immortality. The player created messagesâ€”which ultimately exist outside of developer boundary or intentâ€”are the only things that truly seem to point towards immortality. While standard, intentional messages quickly blend into the context of the gameâ€™s world; those that break the mold escape the world and its shortfall. When a message references nothing external in the static game worldâ€”through the intentional or unintentional garbling of the closed systemâ€”it turns into a testament of itself. As a result, it transforms the writer from a player, into an author, leaving an indelible mark.
Â Paul King is a poet, writer, and video game enthusiast currently living in Chicago, IL. He grew up in Austin, TX and graduated from Bard College with a BA in Liberal and Written Arts.