Perfection, thy name is Downwell

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Haydn

When I booted up Steam to check my hours logged on Downwell I began verging dangerously close to shame territory – 23 hours spent on, as the website describes it ‘A curious game about a young person falling down a well, battling enemies with gun boots, and collecting treasure, and sometimes visiting shops’. That’s about as long as I’ve spent playing Cities: Skyline. Was this a damning indictment of my inability to exercise self-control, or a hearty endorsement of this sublime shoot ’em up? Honestly, it’s a little of both, but mostly the latter.

Downwell comes to us courtesy of Tokyo-based indie developer Ojiro Fumoto, who conceived the game as “Spelunky for your phone”. Much to my shame I’ve never really played Spelunky so the comparison is somewhat lost on me. Furthermore, it never even occurred to me that one might play Downwell on their phone. It requires the sort of pin-point precision that seems entirely at odds with touchscreen controls.  I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it would be to decipher the chaotic stream of bullets and bad guys when played on such a tiny screen.

Downwell is nothing if not a busy game. It’s simple, yes, but there is an awful lot going on. If you, like me, aren’t actually very good at videogames, it may take you some time to crack Downwell. Not a single line of text is wasted on explaining the intricacies of the mechanics, opting instead to encourage a “learn by doing” approach. In this context it works perfectly fine, rewarding players who really pay attention and not overly punishing those who don’t. There is a certain satisfaction that comes with pulling back the curtain and revealing the untold secrets of some apparently innocuous detail.

I’m not going waste anyone’s time with the tedium of explaining Downwell’s mechanics and systems in any great detail. Figuring out the game is half of the fun. It’s a randomly generated arcade style shoot ’em up: you have gun boots, you can jump, get upgrades, build combos, blah, blah, blah. When you die, the run is over and you have to start again. It’s simple, but deceitfully deep.

Blissfully ignorant of Downwell’s central conceit, I used a PS4 controller and a massive screen. I played until my thumb was raw from wrestling the D-pad; I could see the hot flashes of red when I closed my eyes; the musical loops played in my brain as though coming from another room, an echo of a happier time – a time when I was actually playing Downwell. 

It’s a frenetic experience with just enough variety to be found in the upgrades and unlocks to keep each run different. These variables can significantly impact the way you play, and it quickly becomes obvious the importance of making small decisions. Do you switch out to an inferior weapon because the pick-up will give you an energy upgrade? Should you clean out the shop now, or hope that the next one will have better items? Is it worth taking some damage to keep this combo going, or end it now for some free HP?

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I think I may have a weird crush on the shopkeeper

Downwell is a game that requires lightning quick reaction as much as it does long term planning and the ability to make split-second  micro-decisions. It’s a game that just begs to be perfected, for you to hone your skills and master it. It’s a game that requires a level of intimacy with its inner workings that, if it were human, the situation would become rather uncomfortable.

I hesitate to call any game addictive, and certainly don’t consider that a selling point. Whenever I see an advert for Age of Beach Storm Fire Clash (or whatever the latest crystal meth iPad game is) with the tag “Most addictive game ever!” I immediately reel back. That’s less than a single step away from the health warnings they put on cigarettes but done with a smile, rather than a picture of some guy with his throat hanging out.

The unfortunate truth is that Downwell is addictive and for people like me, that’s a problem. I was late for appointments and social engagements, sending text messages like “Just need to take a shower, be 15 minutes late” before promptly not taking a shower and playing Downwell until the last possible moment and then a little further still.

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You won’t be surprised to learn that a heart-shaped balloon is rarely the key to success

The key distinction I’d like to make, however, is that Downwell is addictive for all the right reasons. It’s not dangerously addictive like Runescape was for me at the age of 15 and then, much to my shame, again when I was 19. It’s a far cry from the dreaded Skinner Box, where numbers are your only motive. It’s addictive because it’s basically perfect and you keep playing because you know you can do better.

Downwell is such a finely tuned machine that each moment you spend with it is done so with the goal of improving upon you previous attempt. To, as Daft Punk so eloquently put it, “work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger”. The catharsis of descending that mysterious well, with speed and deadly precision, bouncing expertly off the shells of turtles, hovering above a sea of ghosts and spraying them with the latest outlandish upgrade of you gun boots; the momentum of each kill taking you onto the next as your combo number rises… that is bliss in its purest form.

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Pokémon Go vs History – a compromise between reverence and remembrance

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Haydn

Pokémon Go, as it turns out, is pretty huge. I don’t need to tell you quite how huge because the levels of which Pokémon Go is huge serve as the basis for every opening paragraph ever written on the subject. However, in an attempt to offer you a new barometer for how popular it is, let’s just say that even my parents have heard of it, and they heard about it on the news. The actual news. You know, the one on TV.

I had pretty low expectations for what the app would ultimately be, but the fact that it’s a hit just seemed inevitable. All I really wanted was to see a Scyther clipping through oblivious children in Tesco, or perhaps an Onyx taking a shit on the office doorstep of my local MP.

Of course, the reality is much less graphic, but certainly about as buggy as anticipated. To top it all, I’ve had no success getting the AR to work and, as a resident of Bumfuck Nowhere, the lack of solid data coverage is a real problem. I’ve started spending a worrying amount of time hanging around local points of interest waiting for Pokéstops to load, rebooting the app, giving up, and leaving with Pokéblue-balls.

On the other hand, I’ve walked well over 8km a day since the app was released, and I’ve learnt more about my home town in past few days than since I first moved here. I’ll admit that much of my recently acquired knowledge is particularly niche, and certainly not very exciting, but all of a sudden I am privy to odd little details I never knew existed. There are certainly a lot more churches tucked away around the town than I had ever realised, and I even found a secret clock in an alleyway. I feel like my life is the Da Vinci Code,  but written by someone more competent than Dan Brown. Like a toddler, or a UKIP voter.

Despite its flaws, which are numerous, I’ve really fallen head over heels for Pokémon Go. The last year or so has been a peculiar time for me, and getting out and walking was always a good way to keep from drowning in my own brain soup. But, after a particularly bad slump, I stopped going on walks and that quickly led to a vicious cycle of depression. Pokémon Go has given me the impetuous to go on meandering, erratic walks that don’t follow any rhyme or reason, but have a purpose: to be the very best, like no one ever was.

But of course, it’s not all artisanal bread and olives, and as expected, we’ve been treated to the some very on-brand scaremongering, with Pokémon Go being cited in seemingly every mugging, venomous snake encounter, and unfortunate moment of social unrest. Based on selection bias alone, you’d think that Pokémon Go was responsible for all the world’s ills over the last few weeks. I’m surprised the military coup in Turkey wasn’t blamed on some overzealous tank drivers tracking a wild Dragonite.

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This well intended tweet actually provoked a response from the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, asking that players kindly refrain from leaving lures as it creates more problems than it solves.

It didn’t take long for some hack from the Daily Mail to hastily squirt out a few hundred words of half-baked, non-conformist rhetoric about how Pokémon Go is “just one more excuse to gawp at your phone and ignore reality“. The author, Liz Jones, who is clearly more concerned with being snide and contrarian than writing something of worth, suggests ditching the free app and getting a rescue dog if you really want to  more exercise. I can only assume this is because if you’re going to get exercise, you have to do it her way, or not at all. Fuck you, bright-eyed future generations keen to explore the world. Fuck you and you and your newfound love of the outdoors, your sense of adventure and your vibrant community. Get a dog or stay inside like everyone else.

The real crux of the Pokémon Go issue though turned out to be far more surprising than I’d even begun to consider, and unfortunately it’s a complex one. The outrage isn’t born from scores of zombified youngsters breaking into military bases, or whatever ill-advised excursion has consumed the press, but instead it comes from the management teams at memorial sites across the world. Some notable examples are the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Hiroshima Bomb Memorial.

The general feeling is that it’s disrespectful to play Pokémon Go at a holocaust memorial; despite being a reaction I can understand, I feel it’s an unfair one, born from a modest distrust of technology and a blind reverence for the past.

It’s easy to be oblivious to history because, by very definition, it’s not new. History isn’t trending on Twitter and, in this digital age, where apparent moments of significance are forgotten in a flash for the latest hot piece of news, history becomes irrelevant. On top of that, history is depressing. It’s full of horrors we all wish had never happened, and so its hardly surprising that people don’t actively seek it out. Pokémon Go, however, gives people an incentive. The very aim of Pokémon Go is to encourage players to explore the world and, via proxy, engage with it. These memorial sites, which serve as a sombre reminder of how quickly mankind will turn on itself, are perhaps most effective when visited with reverence, but I would argue that awareness of these atrocities is more important than the means by which we pay our respect.

Pokémon Go has a remarkable capacity of drawing hundreds of people to any given location.* To try and close these memorials off from people playing Pokémon Go is to close them off to an entire generation. Yes, perhaps not everyone there is walking around, heads bowed in sullen, mournful silence, but what does that achieve anyway?

As a society, we’ve adopted memorials as a means to enshrine the past in our collective consciousness. We must never forget the horrors of the second world war, because they do not bear repeating. I used to work with someone who didn’t know the first thing about the war, let alone the holocaust; if it takes Pokémon Go for a person like that to accidentally stumble across a site of historical significance, then so be it. Does it really matter how people engage with history, so long as they actually do it?

It may be an unconventional way to explore the world or learn some history, but time moves forward and we move with it. Looking at Pokémon Go as a symptom of a switched-off generation is to look at it all wrong. Whether we like it or not, technology is ever evolving and in 20-years we’ll all look back at this and laugh at how primitive it is. Don’t fear it, don’t fight it, and don’t decry it. Preserve the memory of the past, but don’t put up a barrier.

*Aspiring super villains and despots take note

The worst boss encounters in Dark Souls – Basically, I’m annoyed at Namco again

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Haydn

Dark Souls III is here and, if you know me, you know one thing: I freaking love Dark Souls.  I love playing Dark Souls. I love writing about Dark Souls. I love sitting alone in a windowless room just thinking about Dark Souls.

Given that I am flat-broke and can’t afford to buy Dark Souls III for a few more weeks, I decided to take a look back at some of the best bosses from the series thus far. I’m not joking when I say that I was on the second paragraph of that post when my goodwill towards the series was promptly soured once again by more PR bullshit from Bandai Namco, so I think I’ll take the piss out of the rubbish encounters instead.

For those not in the loop, let me direct your attention to particular offence that changed the nature of this post. In what should have come as a surprise to no-one, Namco have demonstrated an absolute disregard for health of the Dark Souls brand. Instead of seizing the opportunity to provide us with a genuinely nice collectors piece, some cretin in a boardroom signed off on this.

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For only $129.99, you too could own this abstract green lump. By simply harnessing the power of your imagination, it could be anything you want it to be.

The Dark Souls III Prima Official Game Guide was sold for $129.99 with the inclusion of an Estus Flask replica, an item from the game that it is literally impossible to find good replicas of, even on Etsy. So the promise of an official one was enough to peak the interest of everyone with an unhealthy relationship with the series. But Namco, clearly not content with the slow poisoning of the Dark Souls brand, decided to throw a healthy dose of false advertising into the mix, just to really drive home the point of how little they care about Dark Souls and its fans.

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The replica flask as pictured in the promotional material for the guide. It looks like a digitally drawn image rather than a photograph so the fact that it’s not representative is hardly surprising in retrospect.

You could call me petty for turning on the games I love simply because Namco are being terrible again. Surely, you might say, if I were to lambaste the Souls series each time Namco riled me up, I would have little time in life to pursue other interests, such as scouring B&Q car parks for free DIY supplies and waiting in train station cafes for connections I have no intention of taking. You’d be right to call me out like that, but I spend so much time gushing over the Souls games that I feel they deserve a gentle prod. Plus, a disproportionate number of the worst boss encounters are in Dark Souls II which isn’t even that good anyway.

To clarify, I’m looking at just the vanilla Dark Souls Dark Souls II. While I’ll not deny that both Bloodborne and Demon’s Souls have their fair share of less than excellent boss encounters, it only complicates things when you start writing about five different games from three different IPs.

The Bed of Chaos (Dark Souls)

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Totally bodacious, heavy metal tree monster with an interesting place in the lore. Also, a total shit-show from a game design perspective. 

Despite the superb visual design and strong core concept behind the Bed of Chaos, the actual encounter is insufferable. It plays much more like a set piece than a fight, with the player working to destroy barriers around the heart before diving into the writhing mass of flames and branches to slay the tiny but powerful being within.

I love the idea that something so small is responsible for such chaos, both in the room and the wider world, but the actual encounter is a tedious slog through instant death pitfalls and wonky code. Dark Souls was plagued with technical issues due to the sheer scope of the original game and Bed of Chaos is a prime example of where things went wrong.

Executioner’s Chariot (Dark Souls II)

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The screenshot looks like it was taken from Beta because Dark Souls II is ugly as sin. Also, it’s misleading because this fight almost looks interesting. Which it patently is not. 

Upon passing through the boss door, you’re immediately swamped by re-spawning skeletons which you must dispatch while avoiding the actual boss as it rampages continuously around the circular room.

Once you’ve been stun-locked into a corner and died a couple of times, you might make it through to the second phase where, after pulling a leaver, the chariot crashes and you have to fight the horse. The executioner died in the crash presumably but his horse lives on; obviously distressed that it can no longer spend its its days running in circles for seemingly no reason, it’s out for blood.

The actual fight is laughable and amounts to little more than a quick scuffle as you dodge its predicable attacks. The entire experience plays out like you’re committing some urban knife crime towards a horse while riding the London underground during rush hour. The only redeeming feature of this boss is that it’s entirely optional.

The Skeleton Lords (Dark Souls II)

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I was going to make some joke about Motorhead but the actually band had like 100 different members over the years and I figured the only one people would recognise is Lemmy, and then the rest of the joke wouldn’t scan.

Another boss encounter where the most difficult aspect is something other than the boss itself. The Skeleton Lords are three desperately weak and easy mobs that guard the path of progression. However, the skeletons which are summoned on mass upon their death are another question entirely.

With each lord you defeat, a small horde of weaker mobs will spawn and really put the word “cluster” into cluster fuck. The main offenders here are the bonewheel skeletons that zip around the arena at lightning speeds and will instantly pulp you should you not be playing as some sort of uber-tank.

I actually like the bonewheel skeletons as a standard enemy, but what I don’t like is when they appear in my goddamn boss encounters and quickly become the most threatening thing in the room.

The Royal Rat Authority (Dark Souls II)

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It’s like a rat, but it’s also like a dog. The best thing about this boss fight is the environment which reminds me of basalt columns found in places like Iceland. I can say that because I’m a prick and I’ve been to Iceland and I like to make you all think I’m really smart and know things about rocks.

You remember Sif, the Great Grey Wolf from Dark SoulsOf course you do. Well, the best way to describe this shambles is like Sif, if he was a gross rat-thing that destroys all your gear with corrosive sludge, is guarded by two needlessly difficult smaller rat-things, and completely lacked any atmosphere or relevance to the lore.

If you’re lucky enough to dispatch the two smaller mobs before the big fellow gets to you (which, spoiler alert, you won’t) the fight is very straightforward. It’s just a big rat-thing. It jumps, it bites, it pukes on the ground.

Given that you’ll probably fail dealing with the two smaller mobs in a timely fashion, you’ll get stun-locked and destroyed in about two seconds flat. On top of that, the corrosive rat-thing puke will have broken all of your gear so you’ll have to repair it – with the souls you dropped when you died which are… in the room with the rat-thing that just killed you. Do you see the issue here? Ultimately this is a classic example of artificial difficulty but one that is vastly worsened by the chronic item degradation.

The Royal Rat Vanguard (Dark Souls II)

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If you love giant rats, buckle your pants because this room is full of them. In the absence of giant rats, there are even statues of giant rats. 

“But Haydn, this doesn’t look like one of those infamous Dark Souls boss encounters I’ve heard so much about. This looks like a room full of giant rats, the weakest and most boring of all fantasy genre enemies, second only to goblins,” I hear you say.

Firstly, I’d question your ranking system if they’re second to goblins, and secondly I’d say you’re right about pretty much everything else. This boss battle is literally a room full of giant rats. It’s not difficult or cheap like the others on this list (though the sheer volume is quite galling despite being easy to handle), it’s just a room full of giant rats. That’s it.

“Well actually, it’s one giant rat and the others are all decoys-” shut up, you. It’s a room full of giant rats and it’s the second most lazy piece of boss design I’ve ever seen in a Souls game.

Belfry Gargoyles (Dark Souls II)

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I can only presume that this boss was born from over eager copy-pasting. No one realised that Danny the Intern had done it until it was too late. 

The Bell Gargoyle from Dark Souls was a great encounter wasn’t it? You tentatively step out onto the roof, the sky is a dreary grey with gentle spots of blue; it’s beautiful in its own miserable way. The camera pans over to a gargoyle on the ornate bell tower before you, it slowly cracks and moves as it springs into life and descends with frightening speed, smashing onto the tiled roof and letting lose a blood curdling howl.

It’s a pitched battle between you and an opponent with all the advantages; speed, flight, range, fire breathing, an axe for a tail. You get it down to about half health and you’re feeling pretty good about yourself when, all of a sudden, a second gargoyle appears. This one is already weakened and missing its tail but still, you’re outnumbered and things are looking rough. It’s okay though, you have plenty of room to maneuver and the time spent with the first gargoyle has clued you in on what to expect. This encounter is Dark Souls boss design at its finest. It teaches you the ropes, then makes sure you’ve been paying attention.

Such brilliance only makes the mere existence of the Belfry Gargoyles in Dark Souls II all the more baffling. It’s literally just the same from Dark Souls only this time there is six of them and the roof is a little smaller. Once again, difficulty in numbers takes precedent over clever design, a fact which is only made more aggravating by the clear misunderstanding of what made the original incarnation of this encounter so good. Simply adding more gargoyles does not a good boss fight make. It lacks intelligence, purpose, and grace and is the most artificially difficult encounter in the entire series.

Having replayed Dark Souls, Dark Souls II and Bloodborne recently, the absence of game director, Hidetaka Miyazaki, in Dark Souls II couldn’t be more obvious. Both Dark Souls and Bloodborne are on an entirely different level to Dark Souls II,  and the boss encounters are just the superior dressing on what were already vastly superior salads.

Beyond Good and Evil 2 – You probably don’t want it as much as you think you do

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Haydn

Let’s travel back in time over a decade to the most culturally barren era in living memory – the early 2000’s. The wallet chain is an essential fashion accessory, Pop Idol is still on TV, and my hair is irresponsibly long. For some inexplicable reason, I have one particularly vivid memory from those darker times; I’m sat on the floor of my living room, probably wearing a KoRn t-shirt and wondering why life is so unacceptably awful in every single way when, all of a sudden, this advert pops up on the TV.

Immediately I deemed that Beyond Good and Evil was going to be shit. I can’t say why exactly, but I think it’s because I suspected that the combat would be an unforgivable mess. While time may have proven me right in that respect, the opinions of a 13-year-old boy should never under any circumstances be taken seriously.  It’s been a worryingly long time since those days and I don’t remember much else from those days but this one memory, or at least a broad interpretation of it, has stuck.

Presumably, millions of other people shared my same attitude to Beyond Good and Evil because it was a resounding commercial failure. Since then, however, it’s been blessed with the dubious honour of becoming a cult classic and a sequel was even announced in 2008. However, this second installment never appeared and Ubisoft has spent the last eight years coquettishly flirting with the fanbase as trailers emerge, rumors are denied, and Michel Ancel continues to make allusions to “interesting” projects when asked about the status of the Beyond Good and Evil 2. 

The latest news comes in the form of a trademark for Beyond Good and Evil 2 with the European Union Intellectual Property Office. A quick search fails to bring up any results however. While I’m unsure what the significance of that might be, the news has aroused modest levels of intrigue across the internet.

To me, the real question seems to be less about when Beyond Good and Evil 2 is set to materialise, and more whether we even want it to? Honesty, I don’t think fans of the original want a sequel as much as they think they do which sounds patronising, I know, but I’ll be the first to admit guilt when it comes to letting nostalgia hijack my frontal lobe. Far too often I’ve lost my ability to think rationally as I’m overcome by memories of an idealized past that never truly existed.

I first played Beyond Good and Evil nearly five years ago now. It served as little more than a tool to help my waking hours expire and I made no effort to analyse or critique the game. I simply let it wash over me and it was pretty okay. It also had a camera so bad I got motion sickness and things only got worse as it essentially devolved from a hearty action-adventure romp into Gerudo Fortress from Ocarina of Time stretched out over 10 hours. Y’know, that dreadful bit where you sneak around the visual and gameplay equivalent of cold, gelatinous porridge, questioning why you even still exist, unsure what lies beyond this mortal coil but certain it’s better than what you’re playing in that exact moment.

More recently I took advantage of the free HD remake on PSN. I activated the fondness modules of my brain and gleefully dove in. The bits I remembered liking were still there, but they were fewer than I recalled, and certainly not nearly as good. Spurred on by the few shining moments that did little to compensate for the cringe worthy dialogue and tepid story, I begrudgingly made it all the way up the the shamefully designed final boss.

I know it was 2003, but for a game that is so fondly remembered for it’s likable characters, I find myself at an utter loss as to what is so appealing about Jade, Pey’j and their thoroughly tedious plight. Any sense of intrigue in the world of Beyond Good and Evil melted away before the end of the first act. Any new addition to the series would likely struggle to reclaim what it already cast aside.

What is interesting about Beyond Good and Evil however is the genes that it passed on to other Ubisoft titles. Michel Ancel himself noted that “In many ways, [Beyond Good & Evil] is an inimitable game–it appeals to all generations of gamers and is an inspiration behind many of Ubisoft Montpellier’s past and future games.” You can certainly see the similarities when compared with Assassin’s Creed and Ubisoft Brand Videogame Experience. 

This is where we really get to the crux of the issue though (it took me nine paragraphs to get here, but it’s not like you’ve got anything better to do). We’ve seen how Ubisoft treats it’s intellectual properties in recent years; ceaselessly churning out one messy, identikit installment after another. Assassin’s Creed and FarCry have remained practically unchanged with each successive installment and new IPs are little better.

Perhaps you’re a big fan of Ubisoft’s endless stream of functionally identical games, and that’s fine, but the thing that endeared many to Beyond Good and Evil all those years ago was its uniqueness. Much like how AC/DC wrote only one song but kept successfully changing the lyrics , Ubisoft make one game but simply change the aesthetic of the radio tower you will inevitably have to climb.

That’s not to say that these games are bad. I liked Far Cry 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood but later installments in those same series lost any appeal after a few short hours. Why? Because they lost any sense of individuality, a sentiment that I have now extended to effectively all Ubisoft titles, even the Heroes of Might and Magic series; a franchise I adore and one that has been summarily pillaged by Ubisoft as they increasingly fail to understand what made HoMM good with each successive installment.

This isn’t the same studio that made that Beyond Good and Evil all those years ago. It’s the studio that releases a buggy Assassin’s Creed game every year and, when it’s not doing that, its outsourcing the IP to be bastardized by Hollywood. We all know how videogame adaptions turn out so lets not pretend this is going to be any different.

So what’s the appeal in a sequel? Is the story of Beyond Good and Evil so compelling that we need to experience the conclusion? Was the world so full of vigour and intrigue that we need to dive in once more? Was the game itself such an unmitigated delight that we simply must consume every drop we can? No. It was modestly interesting world let down by unlikable characters and a plot development so arbitrary it caused me emit a noise of genuine disdain. What few aspects of the gameplay that were enjoyable or interesting have since be chopped up and recycled in the mundane parade that is triple-A development.

It’s okay if you still want a sequel. It’s totally fine if you think I’m wrong and the original was the greatest game ever made. If anything, I envy your lack of cynicism, but  Beyond Good and Evil has been put on an unworthy pedestal and any sequel will only disappoint. Move on. Let go. Be free.

Art be damned, let’s make some money – The sad reality of Dark Souls marketing

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Haydn

With the UK release of Dark Souls III on the horizon, it’s become impossible to traverse the internet without getting your digital bones crushed in the churning hype machine that publishers, Bandai Namco, have created. It’s like going for a leisurely stroll in the woods with the hope of spotting some wildlife only to have your supple limbs mangled in a bear trap while the bear, for whom the trap was destined, sits in the near distance making fun of your stupid backpack. The point is, it’s uncomfortable and I’d like it to stop.

The Souls games are perhaps the darkest and most lucrative of horses in the industry. From the humble beginnings of Demon’s Souls, developers From Software, built upon that cult success with the creation of Dark Souls, a game into which I have invested countless hours and still maintain to be one of the greatest artistic achievements in videogaming history. Obviously that makes me some sort of teary-eyed, pretentious wanker but I stand by the assessment nonetheless.

Unsurprisingly, the popularity of the series is only growing. The Souls series has been responsible for the birth of a new genre in gaming. Titles like Eitr, Lords of the Fallen, and Salt and Sanctuary are all clearly inspired by this now monolithic franchise and, completely irrespective of whether those games are good or not, it’s a positive thing to see developers exploring the formula. It’s a natural occurrence in game development that we’ve seen a thousand times before from FPS to sandbox.

Of course, in this industry, success goes hand-in-hand with bullshit and Dark Souls is no different. I’ll be the first to admit that videogames are a consumer product and we are consumers. Even if you maintain that videogames have artistic integrity, they are still a product that must ultimately show a return on investment. That’s the free market and that’s the world we live in, right?

That said, Bandai Namco’s latest shit-fest is a complete disservice to the Dark Souls development team and will likely be remembered as one of the most laughable and asinine marketing ploys since the Dying Light: Spotlight Edition which, unfortunately, was little over a month ago because this industry is an absolute mess.

So, tell me, what’s the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Dark Souls? The difficulty? The intricate level design? The crushing sense of loneliness that accompanies you through a bleak, yet strangely beautiful world? No, it’s chicken wings, right? That’s the first thing that crosses our minds when we think about Dark Souls. It’s chicken wings. If anything, it’s almost too obvious.

Of course, you probably didn’t hear about this gross brand mismanagement from me. You probably heard about it from the popular gaming press. After all, that is the very purpose of the gaming press. To promote videogames that we, as consumers, want to purchase. If Namco decide to hold a contest to promote Dark Souls III, it literally doesn’t matter if the event makes sense logically or thematically. Thankfully, the campaign didn’t receive universal coverage as some of the more reputable sites ignored it completely – others didn’t, of course.

Regardless, all that’s required is for the event to actually happen. That’s it. The fundamentals of games marketing dictate that the barest necessity for a successful campaign is to say that you’re going to do something, and then do it. The relationship between the game and the event need be little more than the name. This chicken-wing eating contest might as well be to win a drug fueled Vegas weekend with Peter Molyneux for all of the relevance it has. The marketing guru in charge of this sordid affair has created a tenuous link between overcoming the difficulty of eating very spicy chicken with the inherent difficulty of Dark Souls. 

“We’re very excited to be partnering with such an exciting food group as MEATliquor, whose famous food, individual approach and adventurous challenges have clearly captured the interest of food enthusiasts all across the UK,” said Lee Kirton, PR & Marketing Director of Bandai Namco Entertainment UK.

“Dark Souls III challenges players to overcome the odds – and we hope everyone will also enjoy the challenge of overcoming these incredibly hot wings.”

Is that not just the most tepid marketing drivel you’ve ever seen? Go on, read it again. It’s like a parody of itself. It’s sounds like the sort of thing Alan Partridge would awkwardly stutter before looking down at his shoes and internally conceding that perhaps he’d made a misstep. Is that it? Is Lee Kirton actually Alan Partridge? Is this actually a beautifully realised parody designed to highlight the unsightly disconnect between videogames as art and videogames as a product? No. It’s some grotesque corporate cross-promotion and it’s the unfortunate truth of the industry.

At this point, however, the details are utterly pointless. All that matters is that Dark Souls III is on front page of countless online publication and is tweeted out to millions upon millions of people. The true measure of success in marketing is brand awareness. The whole damn world knows that Dark Souls III is coming out in a few short weeks because of stunts like this. It’s worked and that’s a big part of what irritates me so much.

I am acutely aware that by talking about it, I am actively contributing to the success of the campaign but that’s besides the point. This campaign was always going to be successful and widespread coverage was almost guaranteed. They could have held a contest to see who can sit inside a soggy cardboard box for the longest and it would have had exactly the same effect. That said, I would have infinitely more respect for the latter strategy because it at least exists within the same solar system as some of the common themes in Dark Souls. 

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With this one beautiful shirt you become the human billboard you’ve always wanted to be. Represent MEATliquor, Dark Souls, and PlayStation all at once and show the world what a corporate stooge you are.

You might, at this point, say that I am overreacting. That this doesn’t affect me personally and will in no way impact my enjoyment of Dark Souls III. I’m somewhat inclined to agree but we’d both be missing the point. I find it a worrying trend in games that the more bombastic the marketing, the greater the disappointment. I don’t mean to say that it becomes over-hyped and the final product could never live up to my expectations; far from it. I mean that the marketing, in one way or another, is largely reflective of the final product.

They know their audience and so they build and market the game around that. This unrelenting focus on difficulty, of outrageous challenge, is but one small aspect of the Souls series. The hype machine for Dark Souls II was also of a one track mind – according to the marketing, it was going to be the hardest game around and you were going to love it. It was going to beat you mercilessly and you would beg for more. Dark Souls II more or less lived up to that promise and was, for that exact reason, not very good. It was difficult for the sake of it. It was unfair and uncompromising. I simply cannot shake the feeling that history is bound to repeat itself and Dark Souls III is destined to be as inelegant as its marketing would suggest.

Arrangements like this amount to little more than money changing hands. MEATliquor want publicity as does Namco, and it’s only natural because, as I mentioned before, we live in a free market world. The ultimate goal of Namco and MEATliqour alike is to generate revenue, to bolster the strength of their individual brands. But that doesn’t change the fact that such cynical displays are a flagrant disregard for the artistic integrity of Dark Souls. This cynicism becomes painfully obvious with the latest addition to the PR circle-jerk in the form of Dark Souls Tea.

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Dark Souls and Yorkshire Tea really was the most logical partnership when you think about it. This box, which must have taken weeks to design and is no doubt the magnum opus of the budding artist’s portfolio, should erase any doubt in your mind about the inexorable link between these two iconic brands. They’ve even put one of Dark Souls most infamous boss encounters on there – The Indomitable Sheep, from that standout moment of the series when the chosen undead has to visit Yorkshire for the long weekend and watch the fucking cricket for six hours.

Now, you may say that this should not be held to the same standard because it’s to raise money for charity but I would have to disagree. If anything it demonstrates the abject lack of interest or concern for the charity in questionRaising money for charity is one thing that is considered to be almost universally a good thing. Perhaps we shouldn’t turn our noses up at this mockery, but if the people involved were even remotely invested in this, they would have done more than write the words “Dark Souls” on a box of Yorkshire Tea.

It amounts to little more than me printing off pictures of my own face and writing the words “Fuck Cancer” on them before setting up outside my local Tesco and throwing bundles of them at children. The people at Yorkshire Tea don’t give a toss, they’re just doing it so they can say that they did. It’s lazy at best, utterly disingenuous at worst. Let’s not forget that Yorkshire Tea has been less than studious when it comes to the ethical sourcing of their product in the very recent past. *see editor’s notes

The late nineties and early two-thousands left videogames with an image problem – they had become this gaudy cultural mess and it’s a stigma that’s been fought ever since. In recent years it’s felt like we were finally making some progress, perhaps even winning the debate; that games could finally be considered art. I believe that the original Dark Souls is art and, in that sense, is no different from Van Gough’s The Starry Night, or The Beetle’s White Album. So why don’t we show it the same respect?

Dark Souls is important to me on a deeply personal level so I’m willing to accept that my reaction is an extreme one. That said, the point still stands. The marketing of videogames is a tasteless vortex that consumes everything it touches, perpetuated by morons with no respect for the consumer or the product. It’s a ceaseless tirade of nonsense and seemingly nobody involved in the process cares one iota about what they’re actually pimping or how they go about it.


*Editor’s note: Thanks to some insomnia induced angry tweeting, I got a response from Yorkshire Tea regarding the box. It’s pretty muted and tries to explain the origin and why it’s up for auction. I’m inclined to agree that this is at least a mostly accurate version of events and therefore I have less to be indignant about. Even so, I’m leaving the body of the article unedited; partly for posterity and partly because I’m still annoyed about the whole thing and stand by much of what I said.

I still think it’s a cynical PR circle jerk and I still think it was incredibly lazy and disingenuous. It’s good that they are raising some money for charity, but let’s not give them any Brownie points for it this time. Especially given that Yorkshire Tea has crossed some clear ethical lines in the very recent past, tastes like sadness in a cup,  and is responsible for some brand mismanagement of truly biblical proportions. I will never be able see Yorkshire Tea on the shelves without thinking Dark Souls Tea – if that’s what they wanted, then they have succeed but for that, I detest them even more.

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“This box has clearly pushed you to breaking point eh?” – A pretty accurate assumption of my feeble 3am, Yorkshire Tea induced madness.

 

Three characters from Mass Effect that we’d all rather forget

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Haydn

Perhaps the closest thing we have to a universally accepted truth in videogames is that Bioware consistently delivers good writing in their games. It’s not perfect every single time, but it’s head and shoulders above most other Triple-A studios.

If I was to hand out those ribbons horses get for being majestic or good at cantering, I’d have to give most of them over to Bioware. Not for their ability to look smug whilst jumping slight hurdles of course, that would be ridiculous. No, it would be for their remarkable record of making me feel things. As a studio, they have a knack for creating rich worlds, fleshed out with a plenty of incidental details that add real flavour and depth. Bioware has one of the strongest back-catalogues in Triple-A game development, with Dragon Age, Knights of the Old Republic, and Mass Effect being the big three in my mind.

It can be difficult to get players invested in a world they know nothing about but Bioware succeed every time. The real secret to their success is not just strong plot or the odd little side quests, but the lovable barrel of companions that accompany you in each game. Dragon Age: Origins was just another fantasy world like we’ve all seen a thousand times before, but the perfectly balanced cast of companions made Ferelden worth saving. Without them, all motivation to be the hero quickly evaporates; with them, you’ve got a stake in world and something worth doing all that tedious inventory management for.

Mass Effect is one of my all time favourite game series and it’s a testament to the skill of Bioware’s writers that I was able to give a damn about anything that happened it that game. When the fate of the entire galaxy hangs on the line, it’s easy to become consumed by apathy given the sheer scale of things. What’s the point in helping Mordin Solus find closure for the wrongs of his past? He’s one man in a galactic conflict. Oh wait, he’s Mordin Solus so I would literally kill your real life dog if it in someway helped me gain his approval.

Of course, for every Mordin Solus, there is a Sebastian Vael (remember him? No? Thought not) so today I’m going to cast my eye over those from the Mass Effect roster who should be jettisoned out into the vacuum of space. Be wary, there will be minor spoilers ahead but, on the other hand, it’s for characters nobody gives a toss about.

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Ashley Williams – Too damn many Mass Effect games

I don’t even know where to begin with why I dislike Ahsley Williams. It’s not just her character, it’s her role in the games and her relationship with the player (Commander Shepard), that irks me. Her presence alters the nature of Shepard just by existing and she holds you to ransom for THREE games. Each installment has at least one scene where Shepard exhibits some sort of emotion for Ashely that simply isn’t mirrored by my actions or sentiments.

In the original Mass Effect, you’re presented with the most difficult decision in the entire series; you can either sacrifice Ashley on the planet Virmire and be stuck with Kaiden “let’s not bother talking to him anyway” Alenko, or she lives and then keeps on showing up for the rest of the trilogy. It’s a lose/lose situation.

Kaiden is boring whereas Ashley is an outright space racist. I don’t have time for space racists, not on my ship. The issues don’t stop there either; after being completely unreasonable in Mass Effect 2 about Shepard working with Cerberus, she then shows up in Mass Effect 3, gets hospitalized in the first mission, and then shows again up like 15 hours later to try and stop me from doing my damn job.

I took the opportunity to shoot her dead and did so with glee. However, the interactions with Ashley are written in such a way as to insinuate that her and Shepard are still friends, even after the aforementioned shooting. Nah mate, I shot her because I wanted to. Her very presence affected Shepard in a way that went against everything my version of the character stood for and for that, Ashley can go straight out of the proverbial airlock.

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Jack (Subject Zero) – Mass Effect 2

I like Jack’s character in theory; experimented on by an insane mega-corporation for nefarious ends, escaped, became a pirate, went to prison, now works for Shepard. However, the angst and “badass” levels on Jack have been turned up far too high. She constantly brags about her slew of mad criminal adventures to the point that it just makes her sound like an unpopular kid at school lying for attention.

Jack is, at best, cringe worthy and at worst, really irritating. Whenever you take her on missions it feels like you’ve been stuck with an annoying younger sibling and the temptation to “accidentally” lose her in Woolworths/let her get dragged away by Collector Swarms, is far to strong.

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James Vega – Mass Effect 3

As soon as James “nope, nope, nope” Vega walked through that door during the Mass Effect 3 introduction, I said aloud to my empty room, “Who’s this prick?” and “If he’s my new companion, he’s never leaving the ship.” I was able to keep that promise but, as it turns out, I was so disinterested in the character as to never find out who that prick really was. The only thing I was able to discern about James Vega is that he exudes arrogance – I’m Commander “God Damn” Shepard and if anyone is going to walk around acting like they own the place, it’s me and only me, now get back in docking bay so I can ignore you easier.

Yes, much like Jacob Taylor before him, Kaiden Alenko before that, and even Carth Onasi before that, James Vega continues the age-old Bioware tradition of sticking the player with a generic male so dull as to cause your brain to atrophy.

In fact, it feels a little unjust to bestow this award upon just Mr. Vega so instead of portioning all of the scorn onto him alone, it goes out to every one of his counterparts in every Bioware game; except for Alistar from Dragon Age: Origins because he is actually interesting.

From left to right: Solus “the too boring to have a last name” Elf, Kaiden “let’s not bother talking to him anyway” Alenko, Carth “isn’t allowed on any missions” Onasi, Jacob “enjoyment of sit-ups is my only character trait” Taylor, and Carver “Haydn had to look me up three times to remember who I was” Hawke.

Rhythmic violence – An interview with Thumper developer, Marc Flury

When I think of what the personification of the Triple-A games industry might be, the first image that springs to mind is a man in a suit; safe, inoffensive, gets the job done. He probably has two kids, a wife, and a house in the suburbs. For the most part he does his accounting job, spends time with his family, and occasionally dons a black robe with his friends in an attempt to summon Cthulhu. In this somewhat overwrought analogy, the gentleman’s nuclear family is the likes of Fallout 4 and Assassin’s Creed whereas the eldritch cult meetings he attends on the first Monday of every month is Bloodborne – it doesn’t take up a lot of time, but it’s certainly the most interesting part of his life.

On the other side of the industry, however, we have the indie developers whom I believe represent the artistic core of the videogame industry. That’s not to say the Triple-A scene is utterly barren, because it’s obviously not, but the indie scene is where things start to get really interesting. The indie landscape is strewn with one mad experiment after another and it’s a never ending joy to see what’s lying beneath each rock. The most mind-bending, heart rending, and joyous gaming moments I’ve ever experienced came from indie games. Those tiny teams that slave away on odd little passion projects are the true heroes of the videogame industry.

Last year I gave Thumper the prestigious award of being considered one of the two best games I played at EGX. It’s described by developer, Drool, as “Rhythm Violence”, a phrase which almost certainly makes you weak at the knees as you contemplate the sheer possibility of what this could entail. Now I know exactly what you’re thinking: Dance Dance Double Dragon, right? No, it’s better than that.

Through the power of Skype, I spoke with Marc Flury, the programming half of the two man team behind Thumper, about how to survive as an indie developer, working with Sony, and where on Earth this abstract neon spiral of rhythmic violence came from. As it turns out, it originally came from the mind of Brian Gibson, the other half of Drool, and the pair have been working on it for over four years. Marc and Brian met whilst working at Harmonix and then began development on Thumper as a side project.

I was interested to know how these things start. “I guess for me, I wanted to learn more about everything that goes into making a game, especially from the programming side,” Marc tells me. “I’d like to make more games with this level of freedom and with this size team… We wanted to make a rhythm game that was really stripped down and simple. There are some very early prototypes on our YouTube channel which shows this really simple, grid-based rhythm game and then we just kept taking it further and further.”

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The original concept for Thumper, running at 185 FPS – suck it, Triple-A industry

Thumper has come a long way since those early videos but you can see from the offset that the duo were on to something. There is elegance in simplicity and Thumper demonstrates that perfectly. But don’t let the seemingly primitive nature of the core gameplay deceive you into thinking that work on Thumper is still a part time affair. Marc informs me that it’s “definitely full time” and I’m not surprised. Developing as such a small team is a lengthy and arduous experience which, in this case, is worsened by the fact that Marc lives in Seoul, South Korea, and Brian lives in Rhode Island, USA.

My immediate thought was that such an obstacle would render the development process nigh on impossible at times but Marc reassured me that it wasn’t that bad. “There are certainly times when I wish we were in the same room and we didn’t have to deal with the time difference and the lack of face to face communication. I think it helped a lot that we knew each other beforehand and that we’d spent a couple of years prototyping Thumper together before I moved away. We’re both still very independent in the way that we work and both have different responsibilities on the project mostly.”

I was somewhat tentative to ask about how the average indie developer survives on a day to day basis while still working on their game but did anyway, praying that the answer didn’t involve the word destitution. “I think everyone’s story is different. I know that we’ve been very fortunate. For one thing, Brian and I are kind of old compared to a lot of people who try and become indie developers. We had jobs for a long time so we saved some money…  I have support from a lot of places, like from my family and the fact that I live in Korea means that I have free health insurance. If I lived in America I’d have to pay for that.”

The primary hook for my fascination with Thumper is is not just the machinations of Drool as a studio, but the inherent violence that erupts from the game. Drool’s website describes it best: “There is no blood or gore, but you’ll feel the violence.” In a way that I find almost entirely inexplicable, that statement is true, but where did it come from?

“It was kind of like, once we made the game so simple right, to start with… we could try to push it in ways that other rhythm games hadn’t been pushed,” explains Marc. “When you look at most rhythm games, they might be really fun or beautiful but they don’t feel quite as intense in the way that an action or racing game might feel. There’s not the same sense of physical sensation or sensation of speed.

“It was only like a year, or less than a year ago when we came up with this term ‘Rhythm Violence’ to describe the game. That works effectively in terms of something that people remember… it became this opportunity to exploit something we felt hadn’t been exploited before.” Marc tells me that he doesn’t have anything against violent videogames and plays them just like everyone else, but that he didn’t “really want to make a game that is like violent in terms of hurting people. So I’m kind of proud of the way it’s violent, but without physical violence to human beings.”

Back in 2013, Shahid Ahmad of Sony, gave a talk at the Eurogamer Expo about at the future of publishing and, not only the rise of indie games, but also the difficulty of actually finishing the creative process; a point he drove home with a quote from Robert Fearon, “Finishing the videogame without topping yourself? Hardest.” I was at that talk and the enthusiasm Shahid had for indie games and their future with PlayStation was unquestionable. I’m not going to say that it wasn’t a little overloaded with PlayStation Vita propaganda but the point stands – out of the Big Three, Sony are the only company that seem to be throwing any real weight behind indie developers. I wanted to know why indie games are increasingly coming to the PS4 and PC with no sign of a deal with Xbox on the horizon.

“Everything is a possibility,” Marc says about bringing Thumper to Xbox. “Honestly we’re just trying not to spend too much time thinking about it. Things are always changing. We’ll just kind of see where we’re at once we’ve finished with the two main platforms. It’s already a tonne of work for just the two people. We made a decision that we didn’t want to partner with anyone. We wanted to do everything ourselves, at least for this first version. It might come out on Xbox, we hope it does.”

My immediate inclination for why indie developers go for the PS4 is the dominant market share and, if you can only afford to develop for one of the consoles, you’re going to pick the most popular one, right?

“Yeah, that helps” says Marc, but he’s quick say that it’s certainly not everything. “We had established a good relationship with the people at Sony. We work mostly with Sony America but I also know people in Korea and Japan that have been helpful. They seemed genuinely psyched about the game and then we also have a co-marketing agreement with them. They’re going to help put some marketing support behind the game, they’re showing it at events, stuff like that.”

This reinforced my generally positive view of PlayStation in this respect. I’ll admit that’s it’s an opinion based mainly on anecdotal evidence and the churning PR machine of Sony that wants me to think that, but there is only so much you can do to hide the truth. I believe Sony has a positive reputation among the wider gaming community because they do actually care – at least a little bit. But my main concern regarding the relationship between these seemingly faceless mega corporations and the indie developer is: does PlayStation ever try and wrestle control away from the indie?

“No. In terms of creative control and anything like that, it’s our game, we own the game, we’re paying to make the game… It’s been a positive relationship. It took us a while to get to the point where we trusted them and everything but overall its gone very well so far.”

No matter how positively people feel about PlayStation and their work with indie developers, I still couldn’t help but feel that it was all a persona, little more than a well organised PR move designed to make Sony look like a kindly philanthropist to all of these Dickensian orphans that have inexplicably learnt to program. Last year Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, accused Sony of buying up all of the third party deals, a move that would be considered cynical more than anything else, but Marc doesn’t appear to see it like that.

“I think what they’re doing is good and smart. They’re putting some support, even some altruistic support, behind developers. At Tokyo game show, Sony sponsored the whole indie game section, even though there were a lot of games that aren’t on PlayStation which is really forward thinking and cool. I mean there are so many people that are willing to make games for consoles now, and so many people are doing it on their own time that it makes, I’m sure, good business sense to just let people on their platform and support them. They might just find the next Minecraft that way. They’re not necessarily assuming a lot of risk or necessarily paying for a lot of development.”

Marc sums up my thoughts for me quite perfectly there. Sony are investing in a positive public image with very little risk and a potentially huge reward. The next Minecraft may well appear first on PlayStation 4 and, if it does, it will barely have cost Sony a pittance. However, some support in the right places can help developers flourish and ultimately that pays off for us, the consumer. Sony appears to be a largely ambivalent overseer of indies games in the home console market and I get the impression that it comes in part from corporate necessity and in part from a handful of good people running around at PlayStation who really do care.

At present, Thumper doesn’t have a release date but Marc hopes for it to be ready within the next six months. Following our talk it’s evident that, for him, Thumper is a game worth making regardless of how well it performs and I have a huge respect for his dedication to the project. “It’s a big risk. I don’t know if it will pay off, but of course I hope it does. But, I know that even if it doesn’t pay off financially, I know that it was still the right thing to do. At least it was for me.”