Competitive Playing in Casual Games (Opinion Piece)

Winning gives a great feeling.  I’m sure we all can agree on that.  However, does that feeling warrant potentially ruining the fun of others in a casual game format?  For example: in Magic the Gathering, do you play using a deck that may not be certain to win, but will be a challenge for your opponent?  Or do you play the deck that locks other players into a one sided game?  Is it worth the possibility of annoying other players, just to rack up a “W” in games where the only thing that may be on the line is your dignity?  Or choosing to take advantage of an in game exploit in a video game that will undoubtedly result in other players complaining about what you are doing, just so you can say you won?

One should always take into consideration who you are playing and whether or not there is a reason to win besides doing so.  The adage “Winning isn’t everything” comes to mind in such instances.  Perhaps if something is on the line (i.e. prizes, respect, your grandpa’s soul), then by all means, go all out.  However, if you are playing against people who only want to have fun, maybe you should reconsider bringing your gun to the knife fight.

Recommendation: Souls Games

Bonfire

The Souls games have been a series since the dawn of Demon Souls in 2009. Since then Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and its expansions, and Bloodborne have been released (and we eagerly waiting for Dark Souls 3). All with similar gameplay styles, immeasurable amounts of lore, and kill-self levels of frustration. They have become enormously popular in the more recent years, due almost entirely to its die-hard fan base, which have been sustaining the life-blood of the games by promoting them through all social mediums. (Owed entirely to the fact that From Software does little-to-nothing in the area of advertising for themselves.) However, these games don’t have the best reputation as they are described as being “the most difficult games you will evar play!” But still you will find countless forums, websites, lets-plays, and other fandom all over the internet and YouTube dedicated to these games. Why is that? And why should you, or anyone for that matter play a Souls game? Allow me, if I may, to tell you why.

Let us first begin with the lore. In the Souls games, players are not introduced to lore in the traditional sense of being “fed” information. There’s usually just one little monologue at the beginning of each, where some NPC tells you to go complete “the impossible task.” In Dark Souls, it’s ringing the Two Bells of Awakening which are on the opposite ends of the world guarded by massive demons. In Bloodborne, it’s curing the beast-blood disease that pretty much wiped out the population. And that’s all the information you’re going to get. So you have very little information to go on, and are sent aimlessly wandering on a quest that you’re not entirely sure why you are a part of. But you know one thing is for sure: gotta kill stuff! So off you go, cutting down enemies, opening doors, and finding hidden treasures. Then you look at your loot, and realize each piece comes with a paragraph of descriptor-font. Then you realize that every item in the game has their own individual story, which ties in with the main story of the game. Telling you very general (and sometimes cryptic) things about the past, the present, and everything in between. This makes it so that you have to piece the storyline together yourself, make your own inferences about the story, and build the lore in your mind’s-eye. This is exactly how the director envisioned it, because as a boy, he liked reading European novels about knights and dragons, but couldn’t read English well. So he just read what he could, and pieced the story together from there. The Souls games have been constructed on this foundation, and are completely unique in this way.

Now let’s move onto game design and controls. As previously stated, the player is thrusted into a world they know nothing about, and are not truly giving a set direction. From most of the starting locations in the Souls games, you can choose where you want to go first. The player will certainly find that enemies in any of the directions do massive damage to the player, but some die easier than others. So choose the path of least resistance, and begin you journey. Now as a new player, it makes it an easy decision for you in terms of choosing your path. But an experienced player, may want to take a more difficult path first, because the rewards yielded will help them progress through the game more quickly. Nonetheless all of the enemies have a high potential to kill you, if you’re not on-guard for even a second. The skill required to kill just one “regular enemy” becomes exponentially increased when having to kill three of them simultaneously. So players have to really be on-point for the entirety of the play-through. The controls in the games usually allow the player to be very proactive in their attacks and dodging, while still being able to maintain a defense while assessing enemy attack patterns. The Souls games can feel a little slow, in terms of the character’s movements and abilities, but it was designed in this way to make the player’s decision mean that much more. This is because the game auto-saves at every interval, making each decision you make, a final decision.

Speaking of good and bad decision making, let’s discuss the “punishment-high” effect of the Souls games. I believe that it’s one of the most unique aspects of the games, which brings players back for more and more… just like the good little masochists they are. Everything in these games is designed to kill you… from the enemies, to the booby-traps in the environment, to your own miss-steps that send you plunging to your doom. It’s really frustrating. The level up systems in the Souls games are also to blame for player frustration. If you want to level up you need souls/blood/etc., which means killing stuff. So you go out to kill stuff, accumulate a whole bunch of level up juice, and then… die. Well now your level up juice is in a pile where you died, and you have to start from the beginning of the level again, with all of the enemies respawned in your path. If you reach them congrats! If you don’t, they are lost to the void for all eternity. That’s all included with the boss fights along the way. Some of the bosses seem completely unbeatable, and will literally wipe the floor with your corpse, desecrate it, and mock you. The fierce battle the player has to go through just to get to the boss is crazy enough, just to be met with a foe that crushes you mercilessly… but this is all part of the process. The game is difficult, and it makes it difficult for you to complete tasks, but there is no necessity to grind for experience. The secret is to test things out, find enemy weak points, be patient, and learn your foe – in the gaming world this is stated simply as: git gud (get good). There are suitable strategies for every situation, and it is your job to find them.

Now you may be asking, where does the “high” portion of the punishment come into play? Well… after facing all of the adversity, the impossible odds, the countless deaths, and the demining failures, you will ultimately overcome it. You will defeat the boss with sheer determination, and accomplish what was once thought impossible. In that moment of victory, you will feel a high unlike any other. Filled with joy, content, and achievement… and you know that it was all because of you. It was every little decision you made in that battle. It was all the hard work leading up to it. And when that high hits you, man I hope you’re sitting down for it, cause it’s a really big wave. I think that the desire to move forward in the game spawns from this, even after the player is punished relentlessly countless times.

In the end, the Souls games tell beautifully tragic stories, while creating a world around the player that just begs to be explored. All of the levels and areas are connected either physically or figuratively, and the creatures are as enigmatic as the world around them. The characters are sure to make an impact on you, and are undeniably unforgettable (for better or worse). The Souls games are full of wonders, frustration, and excitement, of which no other game I have ever played has been able to match. Why play a Souls game? Because it’s the greatest experience you can have playing a video game, if you appreciate the games for what they are, and especially for what they do to you.

Credit to 343 Studios

The Impact of Cortana

cortana

“Chief, Chief can you hear me?” We read you loud and clear Cortana, or at least we did… Cortana’s death in Halo 4 marked the end of one of the greatest character developments and relationships in any video game I have ever played. Cortana was the artificial intelligence unit, designed by Doctor Catharine Halsey (head of the Spartan II project from the Halo series). Cortana was created using cloned organic matter of the doctor’s own brain, which allowed her to “learn” more than what her peer AI constructs would ever be able to. However the potential for infinite knowledge comes with a terrifying conclusion, that is, she is doomed to fall to rampancy and ultimately die. But you’re the Chief… you can save her… you can do anything, right?

In the Halo games, the players meet Cortana before they even meet the character they will be playing for many games to come (Master Chief). She’s seen as intelligent, witty, quirky, funny, and dare I say, sexy. The first mission Chief is given is to protect Cortana, which ends up as being a much more lengthy and challenging process as the games continue. Throughout all of the Halos, she gives Master Chief orders, tells jokes about their experiences, explains the most complicated meanings behind the journeys, and is truly the only real connection that the player makes with any characters in the series. She is always there for you to help you through anything, with her guiding voice. She becomes an important character to you, and grows ever closer to Chief over time. Through the Halo series, Cortana and the player develop such an incredible connection! So much so, that the player feels personally responsible for what happens to her… much like the Chief.

I remember when I realized I really had feelings for Cortana, right at the end of Halo 2. Chief is forced to leave Cortana on High Charity (a Covenant homeworld completely engulfed by The Flood), and then completes the next several missions without her as he escapes the planet. I truly didn’t want to leave her there. Those missions were so scary, lonely, and quiet… that’s when I realized that Chief’s character is alone most of the time during the games, and Cortana was the only “person” he had to interact with. The Chief departs promising her that he will come back for her, and she says “don’t make a girl a promise, if you know you can’t keep it.” At that moment I was so determined to save her, I made it my life goal to save her, even if the game designers made it so that you couldn’t save her in Halo 3. I didn’t care! She’s Cortana! I’d do anything to get her back!

It is then, at the start of Halo 3 that the player starts to learn more about Cortana, and starts to see her slow decent into rampancy. In the Halo games before this, my goal was pretty much aligned with Master Chief’s goal to save humanity… but throughout Halo 3, the personal goal of saving Cortana became so much more important. But the game continues on as humanity’s fate is still in Chief’s hands, and knowing that every step he takes towards saving humanity, is one more step away from saving Cortana. Then at the end of Halo 3, very troubling feeling takes root in your gut… Cortana and Chief end up stranded in space on half of Forward Unto Dawn’s wreck, which didn’t make it through a wormhole in time. She says “I’ll drop a beacon, but it’ll be a while before anyone finds us… years even” as she puts Chief into cryo-sleep. And you start to think, will she even be there when I wake up?

Halo 4 was probably the most emotion-wracking, heartstring-pulling experience I’ve ever had in a game. The entire time Cortana is losing the battle to rampancy, and there is nothing you can do. Chief is stuck on a Forerunner homeworld, fighting the most difficult fight he had ever had to face. The Didact (Forerunner leader), with his purest hatred of humanity, attempts to destroy humankind with an incredible machine built for exactly that purpose. Chief and Cortana have no choice but to see the mission through, kill the Didact, and save humanity again. And this time, it is made clear to the player that if Chief could bring Cortana back to Dr. Halsey in time, that she could be saved. By the end, Cortana has completely degraded, and Chief is left with the only option of activating a nuclear warhead on the Didact’s weapon-ship manually… and by that time, I, the player, felt so angry at the Didact, and so defeated that I could not save Cortana… I activated that nuke gladly, truly not knowing what to expect. The smoke cleared, and Chief is standing in protective shield Cortana made for him, as he is not killed by the warhead. The player about as perplexed as Chief is at this point, when he asks “how do we get out of here?” Cortana simply responds with “I’m not going with you this time… I only held enough back to get you off of the ship.” She is clearly so heartbroken as she shows her final expressions of love to the Chief, and fades away. It was literally, unbelievable… It hit me really hard… thinking that I wouldn’t hear her voice ever again. Who will be there to guide me, to make me laugh, and to give me hope?

So what happens now? In every Halo game previous, your goal as the Master Chief was to save humanity from whatever held threat upon it, and “you did it… just like you always do.” That goal and that storyline ran parallel to the story of Cortana’s relationship to the Master Chief. You, as the player, was able to watch as Cortana fell in love with Chief, and tried to make him human. There is a scene in Halo 4 that perfectly illustrates this point. Master Chief is field-cleaning his weapons, after watching literally every human being aboard a space station die, and Cortana says to him: “I can give you over forty thousand reasons why I know that sun isn’t real. I know it because the emitter’s Rayleigh effect is disproportionate to its suggested size. I know because its stellar cycle is more symmetrical than that of an actual star. But for all that, I’ll never actually know if it looks real… if it feels real… before this is all over, promise me you’ll figure out which one of us is the machine.” You were so much more than a machine to us Cortana…

Throughout the games Cortana laughs at characters antics, she get angry and yells, she becomes sad and feels grief for deaths, and she cries during her last goodbye. Master Chief was a battle hardened veteran, who saw the destruction of worlds, and the deaths of billions. He is a man of few words, and even fewer emotions. Cortana became everything Chief could not, and Chief did everything that Cortana was not able to. They were two parts, of one whole, that seamlessly brought the Halo games together. Their story, for some, was more incentive to play the games than finding out what happens to humanity. Their stark contrasts, and their shared love for each other make their story absolutely unforgettable, and makes you feel for the characters in ways unmatched in other games.

“Did you miss me?” – we’ll miss you Cortana