It’s half past twelve in the afternoon, I have to leave for work in two hours, and I’ve just been killed by gigantic lizard men in Sen’s Fortress. For the sixth time. In the past ten minutes.
I’m playing Dark Souls, the word-of-mouth hit from 2011. Famed for its high difficulty level and satisfying combat mechanics, it’s almost universally adored on the various gaming forums of the internet. It’s easy to see why: in an era of games that seem to aspire to little more than interactive films, Dark Souls hearkens back to a time where games were campaigns of player versus machine, where you worked for weeks, even months, to succeed. I’ve put about 25 hours in so far, and I’m having an absolute ball. It’s fresh, it’s compulsive, and it’s very challenging.
It’s also getting a little bit annoying.
Let me be clear. I’m no stranger to difficult games. In fact, I love them. I’ve completed 2D precision games such as Super Meat Boy, Ikaruga and Contra III, and thoroughly enjoyed learning and playing obtuse strategical games like Dwarf Fortress, Europa Universalis III and even Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup. I’m drawn to hardcore games like a moth to a flame. Twenty years of playing video games will do that to you, because once you’ve had a drop of the hard stuff, it’s hard to go back to Bud Lite. I’m far from a pro, but I know a couple of tricks. And in spite of this, Dark Souls is beginning to test my patience a little, because it rigidly adheres to a trope I call “Don’t Buzz the Wire”. It’s not the difficulty that’s frustrating – I love the difficulty – but the way in which it’s presented.
Let’s go back to the gigantic lizard men. They’re guarding the entrance to a fortress I need to get to the top of in order to reach the next stage of the game. Luckily, there’s a save point just outside, so when I die, I’ll respawn right at the front gate. Now, this is generally an ideal situation, but a general rule of Dark Souls is that you need to be on your guard. Even enemies you have long surpassed in strength can surprise you if you’re not paying attention. This isn’t a game you can just mindlessly bash through. And that’s a great thing. I appreciate being made to think about my play.
It’s just that… well… I’ve beaten these guys at least 30 times now. I have to beat them every time I die inside the fortress and get warped back to the beginning. They’re not really a challenge if I’m paying attention and playing carefully. So no sweat, right? Just pay attention and you’ll be fine. Yeah, absolutely – but I’m getting real sick of paying attention to the same fight I’ve been through 30 times before. The boring “circle around them and backstab for a couple of minutes” fight. I’m caught between two unappealing options: do the same part of the game carefully every single time I die, or run the significant risk of being killed because I wasn’t paying enough attention.
There are at least six things in this picture that can kill you, not including your own hubris.
Today, I picked the second option. Which is why I died six times in ten minutes. I wasn’t trying to cheat. I just wanted to get back to where I was before so I could, you know, continue playing the game. And Dark Souls wouldn’t let me. “Sorry!” it seemed to say. “At least an hour of your life is going to be spent doing this menial challenge so you can inch yourself closer to completing this section.” It’s like a book that forces you to re-read the last chapter every time you get distracted.
“Don’t Buzz the Wire”. Remember those games? Maybe you had one at home, or you played one at an event. You have to guide a loop around a winding wire. If the loop touches the wire at any point, a small electrical charge causes a ‘buzz’ and you have to start again from the beginning. They’re great fun for a while. You get very involved in trying to make it to the end. You know you can do it if you just pay close attention. But after a number of failures you get tired of starting again from the beginning, of doing the same parts you’ve already completed over and over, the same parts that have an equal chance of sending you back to the beginning if you slip up. And you decide it’s not worth it, and you go do something else. Because your time is more valuable to you than the questionable reward of reaching the end.
There are ways to ease the pain of starting again. The aforementioned Super Meat Boy contained no punishment for dying, and threw you back into the action instantly. Sure, it may have been frustrating to die just before the end of the level, but if your technique is good, you’ll be back there in a matter of seconds. You won’t have to spend several minutes backtracking every time you die. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup has not only the ongoing freshness of randomly generated levels (ensuring you don’t get bored facing the exact same challenges every single time you restart), but also a number of time-saving tools such as auto-explore that allow experienced players to breeze through early stages without the drudgery.
Games have moved on from the late 80s and early 90s where unreasonable ‘challenge’ was king. Some may argue they have moved too far into the realm of hand-holding, but surely there is a balance. I like my games hardcore, but I don’t want them to waste my time with mind-numbing repetition. I have no doubt I’ll pick up Dark Souls later tonight and breeze past those gigantic lizard men, and make my way further into Sen’s Fortress. Perhaps I’ll even defeat the Iron Golem waiting menacingly at the top and reach the next area. But for now, the honeymoon is over.
I’m tired of buzzing the wire.
You’ve probably come here looking for more pictures to share. I don’t really have any – sorry! But I do have this:
It’s an animated short I did to encourage people not to give up. You’ll tell yourself you’re worthless a thousand times over, but in the end it doesn’t matter as long as you keep at it.
So keep at it.
Actually, I do have these gifs I made. You guys like gifs, right?
I haven’t been updating as often as I’d like. This is because I’ve been losing faith in my ability to write. I’m not a writer; never have been, and I make no claims to be. Since any website/blog I’ve run in the past 15 or so years has been an entirely personal affair, that’s never bothered me before. But it’s starting to bother me now. I’ve written over 50,000 words since I started updating regularly in July last year, and being able to evaluate such a quantity of work all at once has allowed me to compare the good with the bad.
In other words, I’ve developed some standards. And for someone who has little faith in their ability to write well, that’s poison to productivity.
Sometimes I’d spend as little as 30 minutes writing something, anything to maintain the schedule. The Idiocracy rumination, which caused a minor furor on the Internet and garnered 350,000 hits last August, is one of these. Sometimes I’d simply copy and paste something suitably lengthy that I’d written elsewhere, like my defense of pretentious artists. Occasionally, though, I’d spend a couple of hours attempting to write something decent, and those are the ones I look back on most fondly. Like the one about old colour photographs, which for all of its rambling, stands as the piece of writing I’m most satisfied with. It had my favourite title, at least. Or the one about popular internet criticism. Or the story about the time I got my photo taken in the street. I especially liked describing myself as a “furious C3PO”.
I’m running into similar problems with my next ‘big project’, which is a home-recorded album of mostly-acoustic music that, if a personal success, should function as a summary of everything I’ve been trying to say and do over the past year or so – a focus on honesty, personal expression, attention to detail and a truthful attempt at creating something very real and genuine. A natural progression from How the Whole-Hearted Live. I certainly hope people like it, and that someone finds some value in listening to it, but that’s not really the point. I just want to be able to listen to it and think “yeah, that’s me, warts and all.”
The trouble is that those standards are tricky buggers. I’ve been working on this thing since November 2011, and I have one completed instrumental track to show for it. That instrumental track took 50 hours. It’s the best thing I’ve ever recorded by a long shot, but to my ears it still doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as it should. Every time I hear something by a friend or colleague, I want to bin the whole thing, because they sound effortlessly good and I sound like one more try-hard twat with a shitty acoustic guitar. But it means everything to me. I know I sound a little crazy when I say that, and I know I’d probably be a lot more successful if I wasn’t so devoted to my ideals and I treated my work as, well, work. That would probably be healthier… but I’m afraid it wouldn’t mean the same.
But what’s to be done? It’s not like I’m ever going to ditch the album, or the blog. This stuff’s too important to me. I just need to whine about it once in a while. So here’s some details about this album that means everything to me and precisely zilch to you. It means precisely zilch to you right now, but if you ever find yourself feeling lonely at night, and you feel like you stand out in a crowd, and you feel like you live far too much in your own head… it might mean a little more to you when you hear it. I’ve never been able to say that about my music before, and it’s exciting to be able to say it now.
- It’s an 8 track album called “The Secret of the Way Things Are”.
- This is a provisional track listing, subject to change:
1. House of the Gathering
2. Hiding in Plain Sight
3. Duma and the Elephant
4. Courtly Matters
5. A Wastrel Errant
6. Drawing Moths
7. The Secret of the Way Things Are
- It’s mostly acoustic, ie songs I can perform by myself with nothing more than a guitar.
- It’s quiet and sparse, because I’m sick of hearing badly-arranged loud loud loud music that doesn’t really need to be so loud. It’s a headphone album.
- I’ll be performing it live once I get some experience of getting up on stage again.
- It is indebted to the work of Carl Jung, Bill Callahan and Mike Nisbet, who I’m certain is one gushing compliment away from filing a restraining order against me for excessive fanboyism.
- It will be a digital release, for free, but it will have cover art. Really good cover art, too. I can say this because it won’t be me who produces it.
- I really hope to be able to get it to you around March time, and then maybe I can play it for people live and hopefully they’ll dig it.
So I won’t be giving up on the album, and I won’t be giving up on the blog. It’s just that the realisation that I should’ve been doing better is the very thing that bums me out and keeps me from doing better.
I never even thought about it that way until I just wrote it out there. Funny business, this writing lark. Maybe I’ll record something tomorrow.