All posts by Stephen Stofka

About Stephen Stofka

Writer, blogger, critic. Moonlighting as an engineering student when I've got the cash.

There’s More than One Way to Create a Story

I’ve been getting into the Souls series lately. No, not by playing the games, which are well known for being fiendishly hard — I don’t have the equipment to — but by watching other people play them.

Something that has really caught my interest is the very unorthodox way in which Souls stories are delivered. By this, I mean: Stories in games are almost always delivered as narrative. Whether in platformers or RPGs, action-adventures or FPS’s, the gamer in effect controls a character in a set narrative environment. There’s only ever one way to go, akin to a film or a novel.

This is not how Souls games approach stories. We often use “narrative” as a synonym for “strorytelling”, because narrative is overwhelmingly the most common form of storytelling, but it is not the only one. No: instead, Souls games elaborate their story and their world almost entirely through interaction. Much of the worldbuilding occurs in item descriptions, fragmentary nuggets of information we have to piece together and discern the story behind. It is Havel’s gear, for example — where and how it is found, and what is found nearby — that clue us into Havel himself having been locked away at the bottom of that watchtower in the Undead Burg and left to Hollow. It is the item descriptions on rings that clue us into Gwyndolin’s desperate illusion in Anor Londo. It is nothing more than the similarities in place that suggest that Darkroot is the lost ruins of Oolacile. And so on.

A similar note is struck by dialogue in this game. We need as much of it as possible to piece together as much of the lore as possible, because the lore in a Souls game is how we understand the world and our place in it. And because there are so few characters, there’s a lot of work put into making them rich and vibrant. We can understand and empathize with Solaire, with Siegmeyer, with the Crestfallen Warrior and even with less sympathetic characters like Petrus or Lautrec because we get a lot of interaction with them, and because so much effort has been put into making them complete characters.

So story in Souls games is not moved forward by our understanding of the grand narrative and our place in it, at all. We’re moved forward in the game armed mainly by a half-forgotten prophecy giving us a hopeless quest. And this is what makes Frampt’s appearance more than a little jarring — he’s the only character to give us Zelda-like advice that clearly relates to the grand narrative arc. He’s breaking the fourth wall, appealing to our sense of, our need for narrative in a game where there has hitherto been none — it’s transparently manipulative. More red flags are, of course, raised the more we learn about him and his role in the story. Is he Gwyn’s confidant as he says he is? Is he working with Gwyndolin? And so on.

The bottom line here is that Souls storytelling is not narrative; that it, in fact, represents a radically new and different way to tell a story. But to appreciate that, we have to first appreciate just how deeply our need for narrative storytelling runs.

Narrative in Storytelling

Storytelling has been about narrative from the dawn of humanity. Even in our oldest tales, the epics of the ancient world, there is a strong sense of narrative — not just a sense of connected events, but of pattern in these connections that are thematically laid bare in a temporal order. Take the oldest known epic, Gilgamesh, for example. Here we have the clear narrative around Gilgamesh’s life, how his friendship with Enkidu turned him from being an arrogant, uncontrolled demi-deity; how Enkidu’s death catalyzed his own quest for immortality. The underlying narrative of Gilgamesh is its hero’s increasing humanity.

This conception of story — as narrative, as a pattern or linked chain of events — thus goes back all the way to the dawn of records themselves. To this day, when we engage with any storytelling medium, we expect this interplay of pattern and theme. We expect things to be obvious, and this obviousness is really what we think of when we say “narrative”.

Take, for example, Zelda games. They’re usually quite obvious in terms of what your goals are, what the next step you have to do is to open up more of the game world. This is true in literally every video game ever — even in Elder Scrolls games, famed for their open-world gameplay, the next step in advancing the story is transparently obvious; it’s up to you whether to take it or not.

When we play these games, we are not making our own stories. We are instead interacting with a story already put together. A video game, in this sense, is little more than an interactive novel. But this is a cop-out, a device video games can lean on in a way their pen-and-paper kin cannot.

What is in a Game?

Final Fantasy, famously, got started as an 8-bit D&D port by a desperate company, Squaresoft, on its last legs and about to close up shop as a development house forever (hence the “Final”). So too did the first Elder Scrolls games. In fact, every RPG ever made can be traced, if you go back far enough, to D&D.

Video games can present to you a world in which the rules and narrative are defined. You are the hero out to save the day and you have these tools to do it. Getting better at it is represented with leveling, and so on. But the key here is: the world is defined.

D&D does not, in fact, define a world. Rather, like all card games or board games, it defines rules, and it is with these rules that you can in turn define and construct your own world. How could it define a world? The information in even a simple video game, such as the original Final Fantasy, would be far thicker than every D&D guidebook put together. Rather, what D&D sourcebooks or individual Magic cards or what-have-you all offer, is something to put into the world you’re creating, as well as defined ways that thing interacts with other things in the world. You, ultimately, create the world.

In this way, this type of game can be seen as a type of creation, rather than a type of narrative. You can add a narrative, but the narrative is not implicitly there in the source material; descriptions can suggest connections, and connections can suggest a story, but you have agency in the process.

So What Does this Have to Do with Souls?

Remember how I described Souls games’ primary storytelling mechanism? There is no clarity and only very hazy goals in this game. It’s through snippets of dialogue, through item descriptions, and through simply paying attention to your surroundings that the lore of the world comes into play, that your role in other characters’ lives becomes obvious, and that the story starts to form. This is essentially the same way that you worldbuild with D&D descriptions or with Magic cards — hints and pieces that slowly accrete into a cohesive whole. And you always have a choice in Souls games. In fact, in Dark Sous, five of them: You can choose to follow Frampt or betray him; to follow Kaathe or betray him; or to follow neither (though this route doesn’t lead to credits, and there isn’t as much piss-off-main-plot content in Souls games as there is in Elder Scrolls games).

It is also your skill at exploration, at putting pieces together, that is most rewarded in Dark Souls. Other than Anor Londo, the most visually impressive parts of the overworld (the Great Hollow and Ash Lake) are off the beaten track with no plot elements to send you there, ever. Put enough pieces together and you can dispel Gwyndolin’s illusions and reveal Anor Londo for what it truly is. Your choices determine whether any character you meet throughout the course of the game Hollows or not. It keeps going like this.

But there is very, very little handholding at all in this game. Goals are murky, rhetoric is self-contradictory, themes unclear at best. It isn’t a narrative-driven game. It isn’t driven by the sensation of playing out a novel at all. Instead, what Souls games give us is so much more: we’re just dumped into this world and have to make sense of it at the same speed our character does.

Kind of like being alive, really.

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Skill or Spectacle

zelda-bosses-eoxWhen it comes to video game design, there are two major approaches to handling bosses. Players expect bosses to be harder, better, faster monsters than any they’ve met up to that point — a test of their skills. We’re wired that way. Yet at the same time, there are two ways to evoke that emotion: either through a real or perceived difficulty spike or through an increase in the spectacle.

This is because most bosses are unique enemies, and so they and their arenas can be synergistically designed — i.e. that the boss’ lair is truly a playable set piece. As such, a good boss is inherently not just a difficulty spike, it is also a spectacle. Your character is Daniel in front of the lions, and you the player are the audience.

One of the first things Nintendo figured out was how to make their bosses into spectacle. Think back to Super Mario 64. Although the graphics, by modern-day standards, are rough polygons, and the use of a second joystick for camera control was a Sony innovation that wouldn’t come about until the development of the Dualshock controller (still the Playstation standard) — resulting in fundamentally broken camera controls to modern-day eyes (it was good enough in 1996, mmmkay?) Super Mario 64‘s major bosses successfully evoke spectacle.

The first boss we meet in that game is the Big Bomb-Omb, at the top of Bomb-Omb Battlefield’s mountain. This is a neat design trick: the boss level is actually a mesa fully integrated into the rest of the level. Nintendo did the same thing with Thwomp’s arena in Thwomp’s Fortress and (rather less successfully) with the Big Boo being on the mansion’s roof.

hqdefaultIn fact, in Super Mario 64, there are only two bosses that have dedicated set-piece arenas: Bowser — and Eyerok in Shifting Sand Land. The former are the game’s major fights: Bowser in the Dark World opens up the basement; Bowser in the Fire Sea opens up upstairs; and Bowser in the Sky is the final fight of the game — and this is what makes Eyerok’s set-piece arena so surprising.

Unlike any of the other bosses, whose set pieces are part of the level and as such can be entered and exited essentially at will (King Bomb-Omb throwing you off the mountain basically resets the fight if you live; the same happens if you miss a jump against the Big Boo on the roof and end up on the ground), there is no way to exit Eyerok’s lair once you’ve committed to the fight — and this is what makes his lair a true arena.

So we have here the sense of the boss as spectacle integrated into the very genesis of 3D game design. (Remember that Super Mario 64 is single-handedly responsible for around half of the major 3D game design tropes.)

But there is also a sliding scale to be had between difficulty and spectacle. Super Mario 64‘s bosses are not difficult for a skilled player. Yes, hitting that final spike bomb in Bowser in the Sky can be tedious and annoying, but the bosses are extremely straightforward, and — once you’ve mastered the controls — literally run circles around. (Indeed, this is the dominant mechanic by which enemies are defeated.) By contrast, Final Fantasy bosses — particularly in the purely turn-based era — were substantially more difficult to defeat. This is because, where Nintendo focuses more on spectacle and entertainment value, Square Enix has historically focused more on skill in set pieces, relegating spectacle to cutscenes. (The nadir of this trend was in the mid-2000s, when excessive cutscenes were clearly detrimental to gameplay in, say, Kingdom Hearts II.)

And that brings us to our now extremely buried lede. Zelda bosses focus on spectacle over difficulty. Anybody who’s ever played any Zelda game ever (i.e. most of us) have noticed how easy the set pieces become after about the second or third playthrough. But they also do this so well that we rarely notice — or, more accurately, the way we notice is that the bosses don’t last long enough.

By focusing on spectacle, Zelda is able to pull off some extremely epic set pieces: bouncing up and down on Bongo-Bongo’s drums; running Goht down as a Goron in Snowhead Temple; smacking the Helmaroc King’s helmet off, or pulling Molgera up out of the sand; and in Twilight Princess, pièce de résistance of Zelda‘s boss-as-spectacle trend, a very long litany of memorable set pieces ending with a midair battle against a dragon, a complex multistage fight against your now-insane primary antagonist, and a one-on-one sword duel with Ganondorf on Hyrule Field. These are not easy fights — certainly an order of magnitude more difficult than most Mario fights — but they also pale in terms of difficulty with major Square Enix bosses, many of whom are designed to take a long time to defeat even when you, the player, have the requisite skills to defeat them.

gohtNo 3D title can dismiss the power of spectacle in a set piece; it is not a coincidence that most of the most difficult bosses ever made were made for 2D games. Arenas designed around bosses, such as Gohma’s in The Wind Waker, are much more difficult to construct when there is no Z-axis available. Even in the king of 2D Zelda games — A Link to the Past — most, if not all, of the major boss chambers are recolored boxes. When Nintendo rebooted 2D Zelda with Phantom Hourglass (no device in the Game Boy line was ever able to deliver a truly 3D experience), they still elected to make the boss arenas 3D (I found Eox‘s particularly memorable, despite ever playing the game once — a decade ago.)

This is because 2D bosses have to sacrifice skill for spectacle, or vice versa, in ways 3D bosses do not. A Final Fantasy XII boss like Hell Wyrm or a Metroid Prime boss like my nemesis Thardus* can be both spectacular and tricky, while the spectacle of 2D bosses is generally relegated to the cutscenes. Platformers can construct arenas around bosses — consider the classic first encounter with Bowser, where Mario has to somehow get around Bowser to toggle the switch that drops him into lava — but RPG bosses of the era, which mainly relied on menu-based gameplay, were entirely about your skill at managing your party in the face of scripted AIs. There is no spectacle there.

metroid_prime_thardusEvery dimension comes with opportunities and challenges. 2D bosses, more often than not, sacrificed spectacle — delivered it on a more limited scale, if at all — in order to deliver on skill-based gameplay. 3D bosses offer the opportunity to combine skill and spectacle in a deeply satisfying combination, but at the same time, this is a continuum, and games marketed towards different demographics will often step up or step down the skill level required to beat them.

One last thought: There is no purely boss-based game than Shadow of the Colossus, the antithesis of Square Enix and other studios’ mid-2000s cutscene overload and still considered one of the greatest titles to ever grace the PS2 platform. There is nothing to do in Shadow of the Colossus except explore a vast wasteland and encounter and defeat the Colossi, some of the most brilliant blendings of skill and spectacle that have ever been devised.


* I only ever beat the bugger once, and my howl of pure unadulterated rage after I died before being able to save that one time I beat it was enough that my mom took the game away and I never saw it again.

Interpol’s “Roland”

One of my favorite songs is “Roland” by Interpol. It’s the ninth track on their debut studio album, Turn on the Bright Lights, and is quite possibly lyrically one of the strangest songs I have ever seen … that works.

Part of that is almost certainly Paul Banks’ singing style — which draws from Joy Division’s Ian Curtis’ bass-backed baritone — but is simultaneously stubbornly hopeful in a way that Curtis, who left his demons in his lyrics, never was.

Let’s take a look at how this plays out in their lyrics, shall we?

My best friend’s a butcher and he has sixteen knives

He carries them all over town — at least he tries

There is no real poetry in this opening couplet, is there? Nothing there to indicate it’s meant to be sung rather than spoken. But that is the point: this sounds like something the barfly next to you might say, and then you swing in because this has the ring of a good story. And, as if to set the scene, we get the following lyric — seemingly out of nowhere:

Oh look, it stopped snowing

The bent is getting increasingly conspiratorial. By directing your attention away from the story they’ve started, they’re whetting your appetite. (Incidentally, this sets time as well as place: it’s the middle of winter.)

My best friend’s from Poland and, um, he has a beard

Now we’re getting some more details about their best friend — namely, that he’s a Polish hipster. The second part of the lyric, set off by the spoken halt, is also curious. It seems almost as if they’re forcing a rhyme, but they haven’t had a lyric that ends with a word that rhymes with “beard”.

But they caught him with his case in a public place

That is what he had feared

Oooh, now things are getting juicy! Notice the internal rhyme between “case” and “place” — you’ve been completely suckered in, and you need to know what happens next. Also note that we have a rhyme for “beard” — “feared”. Putting the forced rhyme before the natural rhyme is unorthodox, to say the least.

He severed segments so secretly — you like that?

I like the alliteration in the first part (so much so that I always mentally insert “so” even if it isn’t in the lyric book). Ending on the query — you like that? — increases the conspiratorial bent to the song.

Incidentally, why is a butcher “severing segments so secretly” anyway? Isn’t a butcher’s job description essentially, well, “severing segments” with sharp knives? Methinks this Roland isn’t butchering critters he’s supposed to be butchering … but that is only ever hinted at in the lyrics, and hinted at here.

He always took the time to speak with me and I liked him for that

He was growing on me

He was growing on me

This lyric has a kludgy feel — more natural English should be talk to me — but, more importantly is the bit of emotional information Banks has allowed. Roland, our possibly serial-killer be-bearded Polish butcher, was Banks’ best friend because … he always took the time to speak with him? Also, didn’t Roland started out as Banks’ best friend … and now he’s just growing on him?

This is a clever subversion, and marks a deeper theme to the song: that Banks is lonely. And this is also what I mean by the difference between Banks’ voice and Curtis’. Ian Curtis’ lyrics suggest someone who felt apart from the world, rather than a part of it. But here, Paul Banks uses lyrics that intimately tie him to another person while at the same time subverting that established intimacy. We see this all the time in Interpol’s lyrics. Oftentimes songs will be subtly dedicated with names either in the lyrics or in the song title: Rosemary in “Evil”, Stella in “Stella Was A Diver And She Was Always Down”, and so on.

“Roland” also has another device — an unusual one for Interpol — and that is allusion. Roland, of course, is just not implied to be Banks’ best friend’s name: it’s also the name of the Frankish knight from The Song of Roland, the French national epic. Nor is the name Polish: in fact, it derives from Hruodland, a Germanic compound name meaning “famous land”. (Other examples of Germanic compound names include Richard, Robert, Roger, and Baldwin.)

So, all told, we have all the ingredients for a good song, all implied — narrative, emotional weight, and even more subtle elements such as allusion, all in a compact one-verse song.


Was this a good article? Do you like the idea of me bludgeoning a song’s lyrics to death? Do you have any ideas for other songs I ought to bludgeon to death? Leave a comment!

1491

ebvutoeok4gabapevcysIf you haven’t read Charles Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus yet, you should. Written in 2005, 1491 is a fascinatingly deep survey into turn-of-the-millennium American anthropology. The Americas were more populous, more densely populated, and more technologically advanced than we were ever taught — or so the literature says.

But what makes 1491 particularly important — not just in terms of Mann’s light, easily-readable style (he’ll suck you in and won’t let go) — is the amount of rigor he has put into the work. Take a look at the notes and bibliography: the latter takes up a huge chunk of the back of the book, while the former delves even deeper into a topic that clearly fascinates Mann than the main narrative does.

Moreso, Mann has given all the voices their fair share. While it is clear that he is more persuaded by the more recent literature, as he weaves his tale together he makes sure to give very staunchly critical voices — such as the Smithsonian’s Betty Meggers —  room to breathe. This is a level of rigor Mann never needed to put into what is, at the end of the day, a popular work — and a survey, at that; nothing too in-depth on any specific subject — and it is perhaps why 1491 is so deeply and richly successful.

Anybody who is interested in American anthropology needs to have this book on their shelves. Not only does it present an early-2000s snapshot of the discipline, but it also yields up a legendarium’s worth of tales — not just of the conquistas, but also of the rise of the Aztec and Inca empires, of the wars that rended the Maya poleis. It also gives a much more jaundiced view of the Puritans’ meeting with the Wampanoag, and shows that Mixtec and Zapotec history go deeper than previously believed.

Any time I try doing a worldbuild centered on the Americas, 1491 is my primary source. Can there by any higher honor?

Is It Wrong to Try to Pick up Girls in a Dungeon?

Well, here’s an interesting little anime. An addictive 13 episodes, it’s easy to blitz through in one evening. Despite the whimsical lede of a title, Is it Wrong…? does not actually involve all that much dungeon crawling for the sake of meeting chicks. Instead, it follows the adventures of one Bell Cranel, favored of Hestia (an impressive classical reference, that), whose crush on a much more experienced dungeon crawler leaves him blind to the fact that he’s dropping the panties of everyone around him — including, ironically enough, Hestia’s.

Perhaps the most traditional subversion of the harem comedy genre — the oblivious harem head.

But what makes this anime so enjoyable is that it’s so much fun. Bell Cranel is essentially our Final Fantasy or Skyrim characters turned into an anime, somebody who sucks donkeyballs at the beginning of the first episode (when the aforesaid dungeon crawler saves his ass and he falls hard for her). And after that, he turns into a determinator, whose skills and experience — along with a certain bit of divine favor — compound quickly. By the middle of the anime, he is the fastest person to ever reach Level 2, eclipsing the previous record-holder’s. And by the end, there’s a full-fledged WoW-style raid. Continue reading Is It Wrong to Try to Pick up Girls in a Dungeon?

The Expanse

Based on James S.A. Corey’s hard sci-fi series, The Expanse is perhaps Syfy’s best new show in some time. In it, interplanetary travel is common; Earth is run by the UN, Mars is independent, and the asteroid belt and Jovian moons have been colonized. A major colony, perhaps the largest, is Ceres, whose water was stripped away as the asteroid was turned into a shipping hub linking the inner and outer planets.

Meanwhile, far away near Saturn, an ice hauler, the Canterbury, works to deliver ice to Ceres — ice that will be converted into potable water, fuel, and a host of other necessities. It responds to a distress signal from a freighter, the Scopuli, kicking off the plot.

On Ceres, a detective (kept on because of his useful incompetence) is handed the file of a missing person, the wealthiest bachelorette in the system. As his infatuation and obsession with her grows, the only five people who know what happened when the Canterbury answered the Scopuli‘s distress call make their way inward, first via a Martian battlecruiser and then doing contract work for the OPA, an organization whose goal is independence for the Belt and beyond.

And then there is this mysterious blue gunk — which may or may not have been engineered — and which is swallowing people whole.

It’s hard to talk about The Expanse without massive spoilers, but that’s part of the beauty of the show. It has a singular arc, a novel (Leviathan Wakes) turned into a season, and the show is paced like a ten-hour-long … novel. Characters come alive as we follow their interactions, the spacecraft feel realistic for what we would see 200 years from now, and the tension — as it becomes increasingly clear somebody wants to start a war between Earth and Mars — keeps rising, right up to the end of the season when Eros’s fate’s revealed.

Fortunately, Leviathan Wakes is not the only Expanse novel. The next, Caliban’s War, is almost certainly the next season’s framework. That will air early 2017 — better get your popcorn ready!