video games

Steaming: Dark Souls

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

I never thought I’d get to write this. I started playing Dark Souls years ago, but due to one thing or another, I’d never been able to put much time into it. Dark Souls is, to the beginner, punishing and frustrating. It doesn’t hold your hand at all and does little to guide you through any part of the experience. It’s hard to bring yourself to spend time on it when you don’t know what you’re doing. I decided, foolishly, to play through it blind. This was a terrible mistake.

A while back I decided that I was too casual a gamer to do this kind of thing: the hardest difficulty setting is not for me. I’m there for the experience more than the challenge, and the lowest difficulty setting is usually quite tough enough for me, thank you. Dark Souls doesn’t have a difficulty option though: it just has the option of googling for answers, or not. If you do, you’ll find a reasonably pleasant game that will push you but is ultimately a fair, consistent system which is a pleasure to pick apart and learn. If you don’t, you will die a lot. Over and over again. In the same spot.

My first Dark Souls attempts are something that I’m quite proud of because they demonstrate that I am, if nothing else, persistent. I made it to Anor Londo in 50 hours. I fought bosses 20, 30, 50 times, who knows? I spent over 2 hours on the Anor Londo archers. I was terrible at the game. I decided to give up on the blind thing, start fresh, and learn about the game. I wanted to be good at it.

I learned which weapons were the most practical (to its credit, there is no “best” weapon in Dark Souls, only different ones), how to upgrade them effectively, and which armour to get hold of first. I looked up maps of the areas. Suddenly, the game became not just playable, but incredibly fun: I stomped through to the same spot I’d reached in my previous game in around 12 hours, I think. It’s still not fast, but perfectly acceptable for me. Most importantly, I really, really enjoyed it. I took time to appreciate the game’s world and level design and found that when you can see the map, each level is actually quite short, and the time between bonfires is no longer hours but minutes. Those save points went from being far too far apart to almost too close together for a game with this reputation. I felt like I was finally seeing the game that the world fell in love with.

Dark Souls is a poster child for the idea that games are all about environmental storytelling. Almost none of the plot is explained to you outright, there are few cutscenes, and you’ll only interact with the handful of characters in the world on rare occasions. Instead, the plot is all around you. The world tells the story, the environments you work through provide clever hints at something bigger. The game doesn’t give you any clues as to the ways that you can change the storyline, but it’s actually wide open: your actions have real effects on the world.

A part of me wants to write that Dark Souls would be better if it had more of a tutorial, or just a few more guidelines. I don’t know if that’s true. It’s certainly true that learning more about the game enabled me to enjoy it, and the game didn’t provide a way to learn that suited me. Is that ok? Is it part of the game to uncover those mysteries? It was refreshing to play something so opaque and deep and weird, but I’m glad that someone else is out there making the guides that allowed me to enjoy the game. I hope they had as much fun making them as I had using them.

Hotline Miami 2

I’ve struggled for a while with what’s worth saying about Hotline Miami 2. The reviews out there cover it quite well, and if you’re trying to figure out whether or not you want to buy it or not, I’d recommend you read Andi Hamilton’s words over at Midnight Resistance - I think he covers a lot of it very well, and I almost canned the whole idea of writing anything about it because anything else feels redundant. I can’t quite let it go, though: I feel like the great bits of this game have been missed by the masses.

Hotline Miami’s soundtrack is the icing on the cake to an incredible game that elevates it from being great to being one of the best games ever made. The audio design as a whole is simple, elegant and brutal. Hotline Miami 2, unbelievably, improves on this. The more varied levels lend themselves to a more varied musical background, allowing the developers and composers to work out something truly imaginative and special. The build-up of Carpenter Brut’s Roller Mobster is a wonderful example of how this game uses quieter moments in an otherwise unrelenting soundtrack to emphasise the tension that’s present in the game.

Tension is a theme in this game. Where Hotline Miami’s story was vague and meandering, Hotline Miami 2’s is always working towards something, and it’s always something horrible. Every character is searching for an answer, but it always feels like it’s going to be a Seven-style head-in-a-box answer that no character really wants to reach. We watch as The Soldier desperately seeks a way out of the war, but we feel like it will never really end for him. We watch The Writer give up everything in pursuit of understanding the events of Hotline Miami. The world is falling apart for every character we play as, one way or another, whether it’s the corrupt cop who abuses his position to kill for fun, or The Fans, morally bankrupt kids who emulate murders for kicks. It’s left a little unclear whether people are deliberately corrupting the world, or the organisations we see are merely symptoms of the human condition.

The ending didn’t satisfy me, but that felt ok. I don’t think that every story has to be what you want it to be, and these stories, these lives, feel like unsatisfying ones. The characters are all missing something vital, something that makes them whole human beings, and they end their time broken and lost.

Is it any good? As a game? Well, that’s more complicated. What everyone else has said is right: the levels are so big and open that it becomes more of a stealth shooter than a combo-busting brawler at times. The AI is frustrating and broken in places, and the random seeding of levels can make them laughably easy or maddeningly hard: one level I tried was nearly impossible because I couldn’t get my hands on anything other than a 2-cartridge shotgun. I quit the game, tried again the next day, and every enemy was boasting a fully-automatic machine gun, meaning that I was able to breeze through the level first try. That all said, I finished it, and I enjoyed it. It tries too hard and does too many new things, but anything less and it might have been branded as “more of the same” and “unimaginative” - it’s a fine line and I think they did the best they could. This is not a bad game, by any means - it’s just not going to sit in the hall of fame alongside Hotline Miami.

Steaming: Binding of Isaac

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

As far as I’m aware, it is impossible to not own Binding of Isaac, so writing about it feels a little redundant, but it was next on my pile of shame, and it was the next game I played, so here we go.

Binding of Isaac is a rogue-like that plays a little like Smash TV, designed by Edmund McMillen, one of the guys behind Super Meat Boy. The story goes that Isaac’s mum receives a message from god demanding the life of her son, so Isaac legs it into the basement which is full of monsters. He battles through until he defeats mom herself. It is quite quick to play through, but being a rogue-like (one of the first in the latest spree of them, I think?) you die and restart a lot.

I am terrible at this kind of game. I like them, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time on them, but I just can’t get good. While many of my friends whizzed through Binding of Isaac shortly after release, I plodded along for a long, long time, until it rose to the top of my pile and I forced myself to achieve something. Given the nature of the game it is a little hard to define “complete” - while I could have attempted to 100% the game, I decided that defeating Mom’s Foot, the initial end-of-game boss, would do. Strictly, killing the foot only opens up another section of the game, and I could continue to unlock more, but this will do as far as clearing my pile goes. I have more important games to get to. BoI isn’t really the kind of game that you ever completely stop playing, so I expect I’ll pick it up again and get further in future.

Binding of Isaac is, initially, divided into 6 floors - 3 chapters with 2 floors each. When I first started playing, I thought that the first two floors were hard, and I wouldn’t get through them every game. I fought on, determined to clear this pile of shame that weighs over me, heavy with the knowledge that I was only on my second game of the list, and then only on B - Braid, Dark Souls, down to XCOM all waiting in the wings. I switched from keyboard to gamepad, using JoyToKey, and eventually found that getting down to level 5 was a reasonably easy task. That level 5, though. When you get down to the depths, things change up a little - everything hits you harder and a few enemies can’t be attacked from the front, so movement becomes even more important.

Then, one day, after a few warm-up runs, I had the perfect game. I got the right items in the right order: good orbitals, powerful shots, a whole ton of health, and, wonderfully, Spirit of the Night, granting the ability to fly. From there, it was on. I swooped through the depths and found myself at the last floor. Could I make it to Mom’s Foot? Of course I could. For the first time I stepped into Mom’s room - full health, all the powerups I could dream of, but knowing, deep down, that you never, ever kill a boss on your first go. I didn’t even know what moves she had, what patterns she ran though. Deep breath. I make it through a few rounds of stamping, I kill some adds, I’m doing damage, and then I take a few hits. My health isn’t looking great but her health bar is looking low, so I get a bit sloppy trying to increase my damage output. I take a few more hits and I have maybe 2 hearts left, but she falls. I have, in a sense, completed Binding of Isaac. Onto the next game.

Steaming: Antichamber

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

Antichamber was top of my steam list. It is an indie, first person puzzle game, with simple graphics and a unique brand of puzzle. I picked it up in a sale a long time ago after seeing a let's play video, thinking it looked like my kind of thing.

Antichamber starts out great. It looks completely unique, starting out in a small room featuring the game settings on one of the walls. The idea that you’re stuck in-game and that everything is first person lends really well to the minimalist feel of the environment. There are no textures, no real lighting, no enemies, no other entities: just you and a series of cell-shaded corridors and rooms, mostly decorated in black and white. Each puzzle is marked by a zen-like proverb and a cute drawing on a black panel, which serves as a navigation tool. The initial puzzles are fantastic - they play with perspective and your perception of the environment in ways only matched by Portal. Shortly afterwards, though, the use of the game’s “weapon” is introduced: you are given a gun which can pick up and drop blocks in the environment, and the puzzles become based around using the blocks to hold doors open and push switches. Over time, you gain upgrades to the gun which allow you to move blocks in the environment instead of just placing them and eventually you’ll find yourself creating new blocks. It’s a great idea, in theory: it creates the idea that if something seems unsolvable now, it’ll become easier once you find the next upgrade. Unfortunately, that didn’t often seem to be the case for me - it mostly turned out that the way to solve the puzzle was something that felt rather glitchy and unintended, such as just catching the edge of a block, or nudging blocks around inch by inch until I could leap between them, and I didn’t need the upgrade at all. Everything just felt fiddly.

Ideally a puzzle game stumps you for a while, but never for too long. It makes you feel stupid, and then makes you feel smart. In Antichamber, I just felt stupid, and when I did achieve, I felt like I’d cheated or glitched my way through. I had to use guides for a few of the puzzles, but I did complete it. Steam says it took me 6.7 hours.

What I Played Last Week Stag Edition Pt. 3

Last, but not least, I wanted to chat a bit about the video games played at my stag weekend. I am so excited by the recent return to same-room co-op that we’re seeing in games, and I can’t pass up an opportunity to mention a few. Well, to be honest, I’m only really interested in telling you about one game: Mount Your Friends. The others are a footnote.

Mount Your Friends

Mount Your Friends is a skill-based physics game that theoretically supports more players than you have friends, but realistically plays best with 8 players or fewer. It is turn-based, so, a little like a rowdy game of ten pin bowling, you’ll be cheering each other on as you go about each turn. As the timer in the top corner ticks down, the crowd around the active player will become louder and louder, and each successful turn is always met with cheers from the crowd and groans from whoever has to take the next turn. The tension builds throughout the game and you’ll all be screaming by the time you’re down to a 1v1 climb to determine the champion. This is a fine example of sport transposed into video games and you all need to play it.

Oh and by the way you all play as men wearing nothing but banana hammocks and your dongs swing in the breeze as you mount each other over and over again.

Nidhogg

When you first play Nidhogg, the 2-player sword-fight-em-up you never knew you needed, you think it’s mostly button-bashing and you don’t understand how anyone can ever actually be good at it. Then you play a second round and realise you were so, so wrong. You figure out that you can throw your sword, punch, jump kick, dodge, parry and disarm. You realise that, in fact, it is possible to be good at the game, and you probably never will be.

Nidhogg looks gorgeous, sounds gorgeous, and plays incredibly well.

Crawl

Ok so I didn’t actually play Crawl that weekend, I just watched a bit, but I've played it before and it is so innovative that I can’t leave it out. This is a 4 player dungeon crawl in which one player becomes the hero and the rest take on the role of the monsters in the dungeon. if you manage to kill the player, you swap roles, and suddenly the team of monsters you were working with are against you, and you’re on your own. Levelling up the player gives the monsters levels too, and there’s a whole tree of monster advancements you can work on as well as a shop full of treats for the player. I love the way you swap from being friends to enemies in moments, and it doesn’t hurt that the game plays really well and looks great.

Crawl is in development, and my only criticisms of it feel like things that will change as they develop it: it needs more variety to stay fresh. Therefore, it might be worth waiting for a full release, but I absolutely recommend keeping an eye on it.

I'm Still Dwarf Fortressing

Another fortress crumbles and I start again. I thought I was building near a river last time, but when I embarked, there was no river to be seen. Perhaps, I thought, it is underground, and my dwarves dug and dug until they all died of dehydration.

I start again, gazing once more upon the world screen where I chose the location for my next little (vast) dwarf house (fortress). This time, I make sure I am near a river. It transpires, through a conversation with Charlie, that I was not near a river at all. It turns out that, when on the embark screen, looking at the world map, the region map, and the local map, you don’t actually embark onto the entire local map. You embark onto a tiny square inside that, lit up, and movable using yet another set of keys that I hadn’t even spotted on the cheat sheet along the bottom of the screen. I was never near a river. My dwarves had dug in vain.

Turns out, you don’t even need a river, says Charlie. Dwarves need beer, not water. I had simply forgotten to brew. What kind of a monster denies a dwarf beer?

I start again, making extra sure to include a river in my starting region this time, and building a still very early on. I appoint a bookkeeper early to train him up and make sure that I always know how my beer stocks are looking. For some reason, a year in, he still isn’t too clear on it. I need to figure out what’s up with that at some point. First, however, I need to figure out weaponry. I have a small militia, but they’re all forced to become wrestlers, because I simply have no metal. I dig deeper and deeper, and strike gold, but gold is no use to my warriors. You can’t make hammers out of gold. I dig deeper.