Friday, December 30, 2016

Renewal and Stasis in Dark Souls

The original Dark Souls had two endings. If you look at the game from a long distance, with only a rudimentary understanding of the lore, it looks like one is the "good" ending and one is the "bad" one. In the seemingly good one, you Link the Fire. As we find out in the third game (maybe the second, though aside from Demon Souls this is the entry in the series I know the least about,) Linking the Fire has actually become a tradition.

Gwyn, who was basically the King of the Gods, was the first to link the fire, sacrificing himself to burn for ages within the Kiln of the First Flame to prevent it from burning out. The first Dark Souls takes place during an era that you could sort of think of as a second near-apocalypse. There was the earliest Age of Dragons, where things were in a gray stasis, and then the Age of Fire, and then this kind of second Age of Fire after Gwyn sacrificed himself. But with the time bought by that sacrifice running out, you, the player, have the option to Link the Fire and extend the Age of Fire into a third epoch, though it will mean you spend the rest of your existence burning and losing your mind as you go Hollow - not from a lack of purpose, but because whatever you have that can burn (likely your Humanity, though I don't know what exactly Gwyn had to burn) will eventually run out.

What we see in DSIII is that the player character, if they choose this ending, becomes the first (or really second, as we should probably count Gwyn) Lord of Cinder - the name given to individuals (or groups, in at least one case) who link the fire at the end of their epochs and extend the Age of Fire.

The "bad" or more specifically "evil" ending, at least if you look at it without much nuance, is the one in which you abandon the fire. In this case, you allow the fire to fade and walk out into an Age of Dark.

Dark of course has mostly negative connotations in most culture (we're not really nocturnal animals, at least we weren't until electric light made it easier to be) but in Dark Souls it's far more complicated than that.

Darkness is associated with the Abyss, a corruption that seems to spread through the world and turn people into monsters and places into nightmares, but it's also the thing that defines Humanity. Of the four Lord Souls discovered at the beginning of the Age of Fire, the Dark Soul was the one that was found by the Furtive Pygmy, who was either the creator or the literal father of humanity.

As I understand it, the Humanity sprites that we use in DSI are all fragments of this Dark Soul, which the Pygmy gave to his people. Absent humanity, humans would revert to mindless Hollows, which means that the Dark Soul seems to be necessary for humans to have minds and thoughts.

So is an Age of Dark one that is fated to see the spread of the nightmarish Abyss? Or is it one in which humans will gain better self-awareness and power to forge their own destinies? Or both?

There's a kind of sneaky question that pops up in the first Dark Souls game. Gwyn and his fellow Lords rose to power in order to bring about an age of disparity and change. They rebelled against the Everlasting Dragons, who had been happy with the cold stasis of their Age. But Gwyn's efforts have been to prolong his own Age.

In the period of Dark Souls 1, this doesn't seem that unreasonable. Lordran is certainly in a state of ruin and decay, but the world itself doesn't seem totally unhealthy. Refreshing the world and bringing things back to a state of order (closer to what Anor Londo is like) seems like a pretty good idea.

But in Dark Souls III, it's less obvious that the world is worth saving. Pretty much every place in the world is in decay - not just the urban centers of civilization, but also the countryside. Perhaps some of this can be blamed on Prince Lothric's decision not to Link the Fire and the ensuing delay in this renewal, but there's also the possibility that the Fire is just not in a state to be renewed. It's like the difference between giving a 20-year-old a kidney transplant versus a 90-year-old. That young adult will make great use of it and probably be back to normal in a short amount of time, but even with a life-saving surgery, the old person is still not expected to bounce back to their physical prime (apologies to any 90-year-olds who are reading this.)

As Unkindled Ash, it's your job to get the reluctant Lords of Cinder or would-be Lords of Cinder (in the case of Lothric) to do the duties they abandoned, namely to once again Link the Fire. Linking the Fire is in a sense a renewal of the world at the cost of a grand sacrifice (I think we can assume that all the Lords were important people in their day - the Undead Legion of Farron was like a global superpower and Aldritch was almost like an anti-messiah,) preserving the Age but ending the epoch.

So in a sense, it's about sacrificing the familiar world to preserve the world in one form or another, and you could thus make the argument that refusing to Link the Fire is kind of an act of cowardice, preserving your epoch at the cost of the Age.

But maybe that's BS?

After all, this cycle of renewal is actually a cycle of stasis. And we can, under some interpretations, consider this ritual of stasis to be the cause of very unhealthy stagnation. Linking the Fire seems on the surface to be good, partially because it entails something that we in both Western and Eastern societies consider virtuous - an act of self-sacrifice.

But this act also seems to be interrupting a natural order that could, in fact, lead to something preferable.

One thing I wonder about is whether the Refuse to Link ending at the end of Dark Souls 1 is equally canon with the Link the Fire ending. If we abandon the Kiln, does this truly begin an Age of Dark? Does the First Flame die? And if it does, does that mean that the Flames that have been linked by the other Lords of Cinder from Dark Souls III are not actually the same that Gwyn originally discovered? The fact that the Soul of Cinder appears to contain Gwyn as well as previous player characters (not to mention the persistence of some characters like Andre of Astora) make it hard to believe that there's been a totally transformative Age of Dark.

And maybe that simultaneously means that the rebellious act of refusing to Link the Fire as well as the noble sacrifice of doing so are both kind of meaningless. The world does, it seems, always have the ability to bounce back and return to the Age of Fire.

I'm inclined to think that the most interesting ending to Dark Souls III is the "Usurp the Fire" ending, which is the most complicated to achieve and also the most apparently transformative.

Here, we neither allow the flame to burn out nor do we simply preserve the status quo. But if the white appearance of the Sun/Darksign is important (I'd guess yes) then it implies that the fire has truly turned into something different.

What does this new age really look like? We become the "Lord of Hollows," bearing the "True face of man," but that face is, it seems, a Hollow, undead one like how we look with Hollowing (so default) in Dark Souls 1. This is an embrace of the Curse of Undeath. So does this ending imply that the entire world will just be filled with the Undead, but that they will all serve the Lord of Hollows, this kwisatz haderach of the Sable Church? And as hollows, will they be mindless? Or, by taking the flame, does the Lord of Hollows basically grant all the benefits of being Undead while preventing the mindlessness of the Hollow state?

In Ashes of Ariandel, we get a microcosm of all these problems, with a lot of similar imagery. The Painted World, which was meant as an escape from the main world, has been painted over and over, never really getting rid of the old world (interestingly, we see Priscilla's little tower in a valley when it was once high up in the world of Ariamis, not unlike how Anor Londo, which was the highest point in Lordran, is now sunk into the Boreal Valley.) The world is meant to burn, lest it give way to rot, and right now the creator of that world, Ariandel, has been convinced by Elfriede to prevent the burn and preserve that world, despite the rot. Just as in the "real" world, you represent this potential to take part in a cycle of sacrifice and renewal, also involving fire.

But which is really the act of rebellion here? Should the Painted World be subjected to this endless cycle of burning and renewal, or would that lead to a kind of stagnation? Is refusing to participate in the cycle (like Lothric does) actually the truly brave act?

Consider the fact that Elfriede is one of the founders of the Sable Church, which intends to create something new in the "real" world by transforming the fire-linking cycle. What exactly does she have planned for the Painted World? Do we interrupt her before we can discover her true motives?

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Imagining Bloodborne 2

I have not yet played Dark Souls III. I think I'm waiting for a later edition that will contain its DLC (the second DLC hasn't even been announced beyond the fact of its existence as far as I know.) But while I got Dark Souls first, I think the game that really drew me to this series and the one that I've gotten nearly 100% completion on (only one playthrough) is Bloodborne.

I'm an avid fantasy fan, but I also find myself drawn to fantasy that moves past the standard Tolkien-esque medievalism. Obviously, Dark Souls is very, very, very, very, very, very different from Tolkien-style fantasy, but the same fixation on medieval knights in armor is certainly part of its aesthetic.

Bloodborne is a blend of genres - while you get hints from the start, it doesn't become really clear until nearly halfway through that the basis of all the Gothic Horror going on in Yharnam (which is obvious from the get-go) is really a Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror backstory to the world. Horror, I would argue, is in a way (if it involve the supernatural or paranormal) a subgenre of fantasy (I think that if there's a line between horror and dark fantasy it's a very blurry one.)

Dark Souls has been the backbone of the meta-series, with only Demon Souls and Bloodborne existing outside of its vague and mysterious continuity. I know very little about Demon Souls, though I think there are some elements that could link it to Bloodborne (the existence of an "Old One," for example,) but I suspect that they are meant to be independent.

However, it seems that Dark Souls III is really meant as a finale for the Dark Souls series (or at least a huge turning point.) So what comes next?

Granted, there's a possibility that there is nothing to come next, and that From and Miyazaki (not the Princess Mononoke Miyazaki - different guy) might simply move on and make totally different kinds of game. It's also possible that the Soulsborne series as it has come to be called will have a totally different IP for its next installment while retaining its gameplay elements and style of storytelling.

But as someone who now counts Bloodborne as one of his favorite games of all time, I really think there's still meat on that bone, as it were.

One question is what themes would carry over.

Perhaps the first theme that one encounters is the cycle of beasthood. Violence begets violence, and so every generation of Hunters seems to become the beasts that the next generation has to hunt. The origin of the beast curse is also kind of vague, but it does seem to derive from the blood of the Old Ones. When humanity is touched by this eldritch power, we devolve rather than evolve. Perhaps all Bloodborne games would have to involve the Curse of the Beast in one way or another.

Another major theme is dreaming. It's possible that everything that occurs within the game is a dream, though given its Lovecraftian inspiration, that does not mean that what happens is not real. Dreams function as different levels of reality. We must travel into the Nightmare of Mensis in order to silence Mergo, and the Old Hunters are imprisoned within the Hunter's Nightmare perhaps as a punishment for the death of Kos (maybe.)

Less obvious is the theme of rationalism and the unfortunate side effect of pseudoscience. In a sense, the Old Blood is a kind of cure-all panacea like you'd expect a 19th Century snake-oil salesman to sell. Like a lot of those old "cures," the effect of the medicine could be harmful (there was no FDA regulation back then.) Nothing ever went quite as wrong as it did in Yharnam as it did in the real world, but there's clearly this kind of cautionary tale going on in the game about seeking to exploit discoveries that we do not yet understand.

To be honest, having played the game I still don't know if I could tell you who, if anyone, is really good or bad. Ok, the Chapel Dweller is almost certainly a good guy (but even he might be getting manipulated by Oedon.) The Healing Church clearly brought down calamity upon their town, but while the School of Mensis is almost certainly evil (see: all the people kidnapped and fused together in Yahar'gul) I'm still not sure what exactly the role of the Choir was in this, or whether the Hunters were a positive or negative force in all this.

It's pretty clear to me that there are figures that remain on the periphery enough that I could see their roles expanded. Much like how in Dark Souls the goddess Velka is referred to a lot but her role is an utter mystery (though she also seems totally central,) in Bloodborne, we have Oedon, who is not Mergo or Kos (the latter of whom is, I assume, the corpse on the beach in the Fishing Village and whose death is some kind of Original Sin for the Hunters) but might be central to everything that's going on.

By the end of Bloodborne, it seems like there are no sane people left in Yharnam, but did our actions end the insanity? Or, even if the city is lost, we also know that there's an outside world (that our character was originally from.)

I really have to wonder how the lore could be expanded and how some of the deep mysteries of the original game might be illuminated in a sequel.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Nighthold Coming on January 17th

I don't know how most guilds are doing - in fact, I'm not even sure that most players really experience the WoW through guilds anymore - but my guild has, with the help of some former members who are mostly running heroic Emerald Nightmare, made decent progress through Emerald Nightmare. We're 4/7 at this point (Normal mode) and just have Ilgynoth, Cenarius, and Xavius left before we can officially declare the raid beaten.

We haven't actually touched any of those three bosses yet - scheduling can be hard for a guild that's mostly adults - but there's definitely a high ceiling on content to do. The Trial of Valor raid is a big step up from Emerald Nightmare, but I think its timing was really good - guilds that had exhausted the Nightmare on higher difficulties (it is actually a pretty good difficulty for the first raid of an expansion, but that means that more hardcore guilds might find it too easy) got a new raid to work on, and for those of us who are willing to do an half-hour-to-hour-long PUG for a mythic dungeon but are less inclined to do that with a raid, it gave us an LFR raid with worthwhile rewards.

But it's sort of funny to think that, months into this expansion, we still haven't technically gotten our first raid tier.

The Nighthold is the headlining raid for 7.0, despite the fact that it's already 7.1 (shush!) Nighthold will complete the first real raiding tier of Legion, with its real tier set and everything. Thankfully, we already know about the second tier, which I'd expect to launch some time in mid-to-late 2017. That second tier will be the Tomb of Sargeras, but right now that's pretty far off on the horizon.

Nighthold will consist of ten bosses, culminating with our ultimate confrontations against both Suramar tyrant and Legion collaborator Grand Magistrix Elisande (who I believe will be the second-to-last boss) and Gul'dan, who we have been trying to take down ever since we released him from the Dark Portal at the very start of Warlords of Draenor.

The raid will also finish the storyline of Suramar, with the Dusk Lily rebellion finally liberating the city from the reign of terror. It also leaves nothing but the Legion proper for us to fight (which is what we'll be doing in the Tomb of Sargeras raid.)

There is not yet a total schedule for the release of all the raid's various parts and difficulties, but we do know that Normal and Heroic modes will be coming out on January 17th. I think we can assume that Mythic will come out a week later, as well as, potentially, the first wing of LFR.

LFR should be divided into four wings, with three bosses each in the first three wings and then just the Gul'dan fight for the last wing (these are already in the LFR UI in-game.)

I don't know that there's any content outside the raid that will be launching with it, though in a sense we already got that with the 7.1 content. We will be getting 7.1.5 some time around then, likely a week or two beforehand. 7.1.5 does bring with it a few pieces of world content, including an updated Brawler's Guild, but the patch is primarily focused on class balance, reworking talents and legendaries that are either so weak that no one uses them or so strong that people feel they have to choose them.

We'll also be getting Mists of Pandaria timewalker dungeons, which includes all six of the original-to-Mists dungeons (no Scarlet Halls/Monastery or Scholomance.)

All in all, lots to look forward to in the new year for WoW.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Um... is PvP Fun Now?

I've been playing WoW for a little over ten years now. There have been two times when I played anything like a significant amount of PvP. I did some on my Rogue in Burning Crusade to get the "welfare epic" daggers (this was a time when it was considered a lot easier to gear up through PvP than PvE) and then for a time during Wrath when Isle of Conquest came out and I wanted to try it out on my Death Knight.

Beyond that though, I really haven't done much.

Now partly that's philosophical - I enjoy cooperative efforts more than competitive ones. When you beat a tough raid boss, everyone's celebrating. There's no one behind the computer on Ilgynoth who's feeling disappointed that he got trounced.

But a big part of it was also that it seemed like you needed to be really into PvP in order to get anywhere in it - it wasn't something you could just hop in. There was separate gear you needed and a whole different set of skills you'd need to figure out.

In Legion, the new Honor system has really transformed things.

With your regular talents all geared toward PvE, the more utility-based PvP talents simply get activated when you're in PvP combat. And it doesn't take a terribly long time to get at least the first column of them unlocked.

Player power is flattened - there is a standard set of stats for all classes, and your gear can simply raise that by a very small percentage - like 5% at my current gear level.

Also, because that first column of talents is not terribly hard to attain (a lot of PvP World Quests don't actually require you to fight other players, so you can do those to get "leveled" up) and subsequent talents simply become new options in existing rows, you can pretty quickly get yourself to a point where other players aren't really strictly better off than you.

I also think that damage-&-healing-to-health ratio has been balanced in a decently fair way. Players aren't going to one-shot you, and in a one-on-one fight, both players will have opportunities to try out some moves. On my Demon Hunter, I try to hit fast and hard, getting a bleed on them and slowing them with Bloodlet (a PvE talent) and using mobility to frustrate fellow melee attackers. On my Paladin (he got his corrupted ashbringer skin finally and so I figure his longstanding aversion to fighting the Horde is breaking down as he becomes a little more consumed with a desire for righteous vengeance) I'm basically an implacable angel of death, making heavy use of Justicar's Vengeance and the 5-HP-generating Wake of Ashes to hit hard and heal myself up. And if a group tries to swarm me, I pop Shield of Vengeance and usually at least one or two of them really regrets it.

I imagine some people will complain that their gear is not providing them with the boost that they used to have, and to be sure, PvPers aren't getting the most amazing gear - the Gladiator sets this time around are 840 by default, which is on par with Mythic Dungeons.

But I think any sort of player-versus-player gameplay really benefits from having an equal playing field. Certainly more experienced PvPers will have the advantage of knowing better ways to counter their opponents, and in fact, the stat-flattening will prevent some mythic raider from waltzing in and squashing people who play mostly PvP.

Now, I'm sure that there are also reasons beyond what I've thought of that veteran PvP players might not like the new system, but as someone who kind of hated PvP for the last decade, I've got to say that I feel like I can actually participate and even contribute now. And I'd call that more fun.

Making Sense of Death Stranding

Perhaps the most enigmatic upcoming game in the industry is Hideo Kojima's Death Stranding. Kojima famously broke off with Konami, the company that had produced his decades-spanning Metal Gear series (starting in the 80s and going up to the recent Metal Gear Solid V) in what looks like a pretty ugly divorce.

Kojima has created his own production studio, and the company's first game will be Death Stranding.

Hideo Kojima has always had a very cinematic style when it comes to game-making. In fact, his Metal Gear Solid games tend to have very long and complicated cutscenes (I think there's a 45-minute one in MGS.)

Kojima is one of the clear examples of an auteur game director - there are certainly other hugely important game creators from his generation (Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario, Zelda, and a lot of other famous games, is the Walt Disney of video games.) He has always attempted to deal with big, important themes in the medium - usually without a lot in the way of subtlety - and I think has been one of the major forces in exploring games as a serious art form.

So I'm extremely curious about Death Stranding.

Right now, we know nothing whatsoever about gameplay. I don't even really want to speculate on what it might be.

What we do have is a cast and a bit about a setting. There have been two trailers, each with CGI game-versions of characters who are played by famous actors (well, two actors and one director.)

In the first trailer, we see what appears to be a beach covered in dead marine life (Death Stranding is, I believe, a phenomenon documented in marine biology) and there seems to be black oil just about everywhere.

On this beach, we see a naked Norman Reedus (Reedus was going to be in Kojima's Silent Hills, a project that Konami cancelled, which I think precipitated their break.) Reedus' character has some sort of strange umbilical cord that extends to an infant lying near him. He also has a cross-shaped scar on his abdomen. Reedus picks up the infant and holds him, and we actually see a number of light handprints on his shoulders. Suddenly, the infant disappears, and Reedus looks around, horrified, until he sees five human-like figures approaching in the air toward him.

The second trailer I'd say has more content to it, but is still a bizarre mystery.

We see a muddy riverbed that, similarly, has dead marine life all over it (particularly crabs.) However, rather than on an isolated beach, we actually see that we're in a large city that seems to be a war zone.

Walking through this area is Guillermo del Toro, who is holding some strange mechanical capsule. He wears a suit and has a pin saying "Bridges" and "United Cities of America," which almost seems to suggest he's a member of this organization - the symbol on the pin is the 48 contiguous states with a kind of spiderweb radiating out from where Washington is. He also seems to have a scar running in a line along his forehead.

Del Toro shuffles his way under a bridge, but he backs up to see that there are warplanes flying overhead, each with things streaming off the back of them. There is also a rainbow overhead, but it's strangely inverted - the curve seems to be pointing downward rather than up.

Del Toro watches as a tank covered in very organic-looking objects makes its way across the bridge followed by creepy skeletal soldiers.

Del Toro then attaches some kind of umbilical cord - it's not clear if it's attached to him or some piece of technology he's got - to the capsule, and an infant appears inside. The infant then winks at us.

The water rises, and we see a doll drift under the bridge and into some kind of sewer. It briefly glows red, and then the camera moves past it to reveal five soldiers - four are skeletons wearing WWII-era gear while the middle one wears modern combat gear. The middle one gives commands to the skeletons, and they march forward, electrical umbilical cords breaking off and returning to a pack the commander is wearing on his belt.

The commander lifts his night-vision goggles and his helmet completely disappears, revealing him to be Mads Mikkelsen. Mikkelsen looks just as creepy as he did playing Hannibal Lecter in the recent tv show (which holy crap, go see it - just don't eat anything while you're watching.) He sees the little doll drift forward and pump into his foot, and then he smiles.


What the hell is going on here?

In terms of plot, I'd guess that we've got a world consumed by war. We're probably in America given Del Toro's pin, but the "United Cities" rather than States suggests that perhaps the countryside has become too dangerous for civilization to persist. In fact, the label saying "Bridges" almost suggests that they might need alternate means of getting form one city to another, perhaps even teleportation, like how the infant appears within his capsule.

The image of dead animals and oil everywhere really seems to imply that there has been some kind of environmental catastrophe brought on by rampant industrial activity. The skeletal soldiers and grossly biological weapons of war are kind of like the nightmarish extreme of the military industrial complex. Indeed, Mikkelsen is directing soldiers that sure look like they're already dead - the biological has been transformed into tools for the powerful and malicious.

Mikkelsen is presumably looking for Del Toro, or at least the capsule that he is carrying.

There's definitely a motif here of umbilical cords, but the three (living) characters we see are all men. In fact, Reedus' character has that scar on his abdomen that almost looks like a more extreme version of a C-section scar (though that's typically just one horizontal incision.) In Reedus' case, it's clearly organic or at least implanted into his body to have this connection. Del Toro's is more ambigous, while Mikkelsen's umbilicus is purely technological, and rather than connecting with infants, it's connected to the opposite - corpses.

Anyway, I'm super curious, but I think we're going to have to wait a while to find out what this game is actually going to be like.