Playing Dark Souls for the past two weeks has spurred some of the hardest challenges in time gaming. For those of you that haven’t played the game, I won’t do much of a story introduction for it. That’s because, you, the player, don’t get your hand held through anything – especially the story. Aside from a two minute introduction that teaches you bare-bone essentials, this game leaves much of the story to be discovered by the player through conversations with the few NPC’s in the world. This minimalist approach does it’s job with the great voice acting which conveys the plot.
Obviously, a lot of what Dark Souls does is strays from the norm. This game does not hold your hand whatsoever – that’s why it’s so great. Most games really underestimate the player, and literally point their way through the world and have the plot spelt out in giant red letters. Perhaps this is needed nowadays, I can’t speak for all gamers. Dark Souls submits a different take on the game/player relationship. Dark Souls drops you in their world, and tells you, “Two bells, up and down. Ring em. Figure it out.”.
Naturally, I spent the first two days in a graveyard of skeletons, dying over and over again, not knowing of an alternate option besides the immortal ghosts which tore me to pieces. Thinking this was my only option, I stayed and tried to learn the combat system. Fighting and dying over and over again, until I could make it to the bottom lair. Instead of hope of victory, the skeletons I killed now came back to life in a matter of seconds.
I was really intrigued that I sucked so bad at a game like this. I really couldn’t get to the first checkpoint? Over and over again, I stood up, rant to the skellies, fought a few, and then was mercilessly cut down. How could I suck so bad? I wanted to figure it out. (The answer, by the way, was to go a different path and fight things actually close to your own level, and not be a dumbass.)
This brought me to think about what it is that I’m doing with a character when I play it. Gamers learning to control a new character undergo a certain process – we have to become comfortable in the player-character’s skin. Like in the series Evangelion, a show where a boy pilots a giant robot to fight giant evil monsters, the first step is just stepping into the cockpit – You don’t know what you’re doing, what anything does, and you know you’re going to get hurt.. Your first fights – suck. You die. Sometimes, like in Dark Souls, you die a lot no matter how good you are in the pit.
You learn to use your character’s body as an extension of you own. The more you learn, the better integrated you are with character. Tough bosses, challenges, and the like test this acuity. Assassin’s Creed has a side-mission where you have to parkour around a city to catch flags before a time limit runs out. The mission requires the player to not only know the combat mechanics of the game, but also develop skill in having the character move seamlessly through a variety of different obstacles.
All of this is investing the player’s mental energy and time, which can do one of two things: One, the player can choose to not learn the system, put it down, and walk away. Or two, it can make the player care more about the character, about their world, and the story they take part in. The character becomes an extension of you, and you care about what the character cares about. If this weren’t the case, emotional investment would be minimal regardless of the game quality – and we know that’s not the case. People really care about their characters and what happens in games. Players put their time into a long interactive movie they star in and help create. Game mechanics make a great game happen, and make players want to play.
Since most of us were kids, we've heard the same damn things about violence in video games; that it's wrong, evil, promotes violence on Earth, shapes our minds into killers, ect. There have been numerous studies that look for evidence to link violence in games to violence in real life, and they have all come up wanting. Apparently people have been getting pissed over the violence in Bioshock: Infinite - which, if you've played, is entirely necessary in the context of the game. Instead of a witchhunt to find the causal link from virtual to real violence let's make the whole point moot.
In real life, any rational person knows that violence against another person is wrong, (except in self-defense ect.). We all exist in reality, and human life is of the highest value to us. From reality, we draw our ethics and code of values - all fundamentally based in what is real.
Now lets look at games. Games are virtual worlds, or virtual realities - each with their own plots and worlds governed by the programmers (not reality).
Since the laws of the virtual world are different from our own, the player learns these laws and develops their own play styles accordingly.
In reality, actions have consequences. Yet when the player stops the game and turns off the virtual reality, all of the consequences of actions taken in the game stay in the game. Stealing, killing, vandalism, robbery, all of these actions and their consequences end the moment the game is turned off. In other words, the game is not reality. Since the game is not real, "life" in the game has no value in reality, no real value. In truth, there is no real life in virtual reality, only virtual life. As such it has a value only to a virtual existent - the protagonist that the human player is controlling. To the player himself, virtual life and violence is meaningless because it is unreal. To the character being controlled by the player, if that entity could have any thoughts of his own (or free will), the life in the virtual reality would have meaning to him. Yet his nature as the player-controlled character denies this possibility.
As a player, virtual life has no value. The only role of reality's ethics in the virtual world is then roleplay - assuming the identity of the character. The purpose is the plot, which many times sets violence as both necessary and good in terms of the virtual world. Either way, the morality of video games is irrelevant in its very nature as being virtual. The player can pretend the virtual reality is real, and thus "play" morality - yet myself like many other gamers would prefer to simply "play".