Forbes, Erik Kain, 6 April 2012
Is gaming its own reward, or do games suffer from a lack of deeper meaning?
Michael Thomsen’s peculiar reviewof Dark Souls displays a deep misunderstanding of what a game isand why we play them. Just as troubling, it appears that Dark Souls is only a convenient whipping boy for Thomsen’s ire; gaming itself, Thomsen argues, is simply not worth doing when so many other more enriching experiences could be had. The length and difficulty of Dark Souls serves merely to underscore this reality.
Thomsen spent 100 hours battling his way through From Software’s admittedly masochistic game, and he came away feeling the worse for wear. Such a long game, and such a difficult one, is problematic enough, he argues, but especially so because it teaches no deeper lessons about the Meaning of Life.
“In roughly 40 hours of reading,” Thomsen writes, “Tolstoy covers the range of human existence: love, premature death, villainy, class, the limits of friendship, the crucible of debt, the idea of humans as helplessly caught in the tidal forces of history. Dark Souls leaves you with the intimate knowledge of when to roll out of the way of an ogre’s club swing.”
Naturally, nobody in their right mind plays a game for the same reason they read Tolstoy. Nor should they.
The Art of Play
This is not because games can’t touch on serious themes; nor is it because games are intrinsically less artistic or meaningful than novels. But games are meant to be played, and that act of playing is key when we think or talk about video games. ”Play is a primal exercise, perfectly capable of being its own reward,” writes Jason Killingsworth at Edge.
Some of the things novels are good at, such as exploring “the range of human existence: love, premature death, villainy, class, the limits of friendship, the crucible of debt” and so forth are very well suited to Russian literature; they are not quite as well suited to a fantasy action-RPG video game. The reverse is true as well.
Saying that Dark Souls doesn’t satisfy all the same thematic desires in a gamer that War and Peace achieves for its readers is like saying that your pizza isn’t as chocolaty as that piece of chocolate cake you just ate and is therefore a complete and utter waste of time.
In other words, Thomsen is making no sense. If you’re the sort who prefers spending forty hours reading Tolstoy, read Tolstoy. If you’re the sort that prefers a hack-and-slash RPG like Dark Souls, play the bloody game. Indeed, the reason you eat chocolate cake and the reason you eat pizza may be entirely different, and yet you may find you enjoy them both largely because of their differences.
“Dark Souls takes so long to play because it refuses to tell you its basic ground rules, then kills you over and over again for failing to understand them,” Thomsen argues. “As a player, you proceed not by thinking through problems but by randomly trying anything and everything until something haphazard sticks. The game is teaching you, but it’s not teaching you anything worth knowing.”
Except, of course, the mechanics of the game itself; the lore underlying the visually unique world of Lordran that creative director Hidetaka Miyazaki and the Dark Souls team has crafted; the stats and other “rubbish” that make any role-playing-game worth playing.
Gaming As Its Own Reward
“When making the case for Dark Souls, almost every defender stumbles into the affective fallacy, wherein the value of a work is tied to the emotions it dredges up from its audience,” writes Thomsen.
“What no one talks about when they praise Dark Souls,” he continues, “is what it means—what immemorial questions of human nature its difficulty and disorder evoke. Instead, the game is good because playing makes you feel good, and that goodness is amplified by the recent memory of having been very bad at the game, of taking wrong turns and mistiming attacks against zombies. Think of Dark Souls as a self-esteem kit for people who can take marching orders from giant talking snakes called Kingseeker Frampt and Darkstalker Kaathe without withering a little inside.”
I’m sorry, but what does this even mean?
The value of a game like Dark Souls is at least in part due to the emotion in dredges up from its audience; indeed, this is the case with many works of art. Emotional impact is one legitimate criteria for judging the value of a piece of art. Certainly we need to do better than simply talk about our emotional response to a game, but I also suspect that Thomsen is being selective in his choice of critics and their actual arguments.
Dark Souls certainly engages our emotions: mainly fear, but also exhilaration, puzzlement, surprise. Lots of things you hope to feel when immersed in a game. Games are emotional experiences, and it’s hardly dipping into the affective fallacy to note how they made you feel, and to point out that the good ones especially resonate.
It’s weird to suggest that what makes the gaming experience itself so rewarding – “the game is good because playing makes you feel good, and that goodness is amplified by the recent memory of having been very bad” – should be so derided. Such sneering seems out of place in a review of any game, and reveals a deep animosity toward gaming itself.
“Imagine if War and Peace were 5,000 pages instead of 1,400, and imagine if, whenever you came to a word you didn’t understand, a gust of wind appeared and pushed you back five pages, forcing you to reread everything you’d made it through up until that point,” writes Thomsen. “How long would you last? And what would be the point in trying?”
This is hardly analogous to the experience of dying in a game and having to replay parts of levels. The reasons these two things are not the same are quite obvious to anyone who has ever sat down with a game.
For instance, when you die in a game, you tend to learn something about whyyou died. No random wind simply pushed you back to the last checkpoint. The next time you play through, you might notice a new way to move through a level, or a new way to fight a certain enemy. You may just get lucky. Unlike a book, there are variables that change each moment of play (though to be fair, even in a book you might notice things you missed on a previous read.)
Indeed, it’s this act of puzzling out how to proceed through a game that makes it valuable to begin with, that makes us keep playing.
“The words “trying” and “gaming” are always interchangeable,” writes Killingsworth. “Progression may grind to a halt when you’re revising your strategies for overcoming a given obstacle, but the game itself doesn’t. Each pass constitutes a unique slice of gaming because you are constantly becoming more skilful at negotiating the game’s mechanics. When you read the same five pages of a book, the progression of words fall in precisely the same order. Theoretically, you could attempt Dark Soul’s most ornery boss battle – Smough and Ornstein – a million times and no two attempts would be exactly alike. This dynamism is what makes games living organisms in a way that films and books can never be.”
Dark Souls is a good game for many reasons. It has remarkable level design. It pulls no punches in combat, and rewards players who want to learn each enemy. It’s never unfair, even though it’s very hard. The system of bonfires, shortcuts, and elaborately connected maps can be infuriating, but is also one of the finest examples of game design I’ve seen in years. Opening a shortcut can be more gratifying than beating a boss.
The variety of items, bad guys, bosses, and items is staggering.
Very Serious People Don’t Read Fantasy Novels
What I don’t understand – what truly baffles me about this review – is that Thomsen wants this game to be something it was never intended to be in the first place. He wants “immemorial questions of human nature” when instead he should be looking at what makes it a good (or bad)game. Why should anyone interested in playing a game like this “wither inside” because their character takes orders from a giant serpent?
It reminds me of criticism leveled at anything broadly defined as “fantasy” by mainstream reviewers. Game of Thrones is silly because it’s not Tolstoy. OrJohn Carter is bad because it doesn’t address the issue of slavery.
It’s an old trick, comparing some genre fiction to the classics and pretending that the latter is better because the former isn’t mainstream. If it hasn’t been written by some depressing Russian genius or their spiritual successors in “serious” literature, it’s obviously not worth your time.
“Literary types will tell you that pulp genres are ‘cages,’ things that need to be dismantled, ‘deconstructed,’ when in fact they’re much more akin to dialects, different ways to communicate to different readers,” writes fantasy author R. Scott Bakker.
So are games. “Because games vary in their mechanical rules, each one offers a slightly different ‘dialect’ to master,” Killingsworth writes. “To adore videogames is to be an insatiable linguist.”
Thomsen’s complaints ring as hollow as those literary types bemoaning genre fiction. Gmes should be more like Russian literature, or watered down past recognition, draped them in the gaudy drag of film. Games shouldn’t be games at all, in fact. Why even bother?
Storytelling in games is very important, of course. Nobody is arguing otherwise.
But the way these things are conveyed in a game is going to be tangibly different from the way they’re conveyed in a book or a film or a television show. Each of these mediums has its strengths and its weaknesses, and video games place play at the top of their list of “literary” devices.
We’re all still just learning what shapes storytelling can take in games. Dark Souls does this in a way that few other games have attempted.
Why doesn’t Dark Souls batter us with deeper meaning?
For the exact same reason War and Peace doesn’t require me to kill skeleton knights.
War and Peace is a very good book; it would almost certainly be a very bad game (or at least an unrecognizable adaptation in game form.)
Likewise, if you play Dark Souls and expect Russian literature, you’ll be sorely disappointed. I’m tempted to say that this just another example of Slate’scontrived contrariness in action, but I’ve seen too often this derision of nerd culture, this sneering at anything with swords, sorcery, or dragons.
Very Serious People have no time for ogres.
“Dark Souls invites us on a journey that makes the sights of middle America pale in comparison,” Killingsworth writes. “If Thomsen were to counter this point, he’d have to discount the worth of virtual experience itself. But he’d do so at great peril, because you can’t marginalise virtual experience without casting aspersion on the life of the mind. Because thoughts and ideas and creativity and inspiration all exist in a virtual space – sparked into immaterial being by the chemistry of our own brains. The return journey between New York and Los Angeles takes you across a continent. Dark Souls invites us to criss-cross a world. To adore games is to be an insatiable wanderer.”
Perhaps ironically, to adore books is also to be an insatiable wanderer. The same sparks that light up one’s mind while trekking through War and Peaceglimmers across the mind of a gamer wandering the halls of Anor Londo, or gazing out across one of the many gorgeous views sprinkled throughout Dark Souls. There is a strong argument to be made that too many games leave too little to our imagination these days, but Dark Souls is hardly one of them.
The comic pretentiousness baked into the exercise of comparing all culture to the greatest classics is lazy at best, passive aggressive at worst. How many points does one score with the serious crowd by laughing at video games? Isn’t it easier and more honest to simply say that this sort of game is just not for you and leave it at that?
Thomsen has every right to dislike any game he chooses or all games, to gnash his teeth over time he feels he wasted plowing through it. But treat Dark Soulsfor what it is and what it’s meant to be. Compare it, if you must, to othergames.
Instead, Thomsen concludes that art gives “you something you can carry with you. There’s no reason video games can’t provide that, and many do. But none of them take 100 hours.”
Which ones? What does this have to do with the length of the game? Thomsen won’t say. He merely asserts that it is so and expects us to ride along. I’d rather not. Too many dark halls left unexplored, too many demons left lurking about.