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10:22 AM on 01.10.2012

Dark Souls: Oh, the Humanity!

You know, in retrospect, Dark Souls is pretty damn easy.

Now that I’ve got your attention, let me make two things perfectly clear: the above sentence is a lie (Dark Souls is FUCKING hard), and I think that the game is brilliant.

When I first heard that developer From Software dropped the complex “Tendency” system in Demon’s Souls for the comparatively simple “Humanity” system in Dark Souls, I was all “OH NOEZ, GAM3 IS BEING SIMPLIFIED FOR N00BZ!” Good thing I didn’t cancel my pre-order.

I’ll come right out and say it: I love the Character Tendency system in Demon’s Souls. To me, it was one of the first examples of a true multiplayer morality system, and it is one that fits perfectly within the context of the game. The world of Boletaria – the setting of Demon’s Souls – is one where (go figure) demons run rampant, hunting (again, go figure) souls. Now why would souls be so lucrative? You don’t need to be a savvy player to guess at the right answer: souls give their users incredible power, ranging from increased life to enhanced magical prowess. In fact, the only way that a player can survive in Boletaria (short of being hardcore Asian, at least) is to gather souls and use them for power, much like the very demons they fight.

The multiplayer aspect of the game becomes a perfect extension of this mentality. Players can directly interact with other players through one of two methods: by entering their worlds as Blue Phantoms to help them, or by invading as Black Phantoms in an attempt to kill them.

It is here that I, as a poor writer, must cut myself off in order to exposit. There are two distinct states in Demon’s Souls: Body Form and Soul Form. Soul Form is the form that the player takes on when they die in Body Form; their maximum health in this mode is cut in half, and trying to restore their body is a long and arduous process – much like everything else in the game. It is here, however, that the multiplayer aspect of the game opens up, as players are now able to enter other worlds as the abovementioned Blue or Black Phantoms. This is where Demon’s Souls’ intrinsic morality system kicks in.

Please move aside, Mr. Shallow Morality System.

Killing other players as a Black Phantom will yield great returns: they will regain Body Form, and if they killed any Blue Phantoms, they would get souls. Furthermore, the player’s character tendency will shift towards black, reducing health in Soul Form but increasing attack power as a Black Phantom. On the other hand, the helpful Blue Phantom will receive souls and their body upon helping the host player defeat a boss. Their character tendency will move towards white, increasing their attack power in Soul Form and as a Blue Phantom. The interesting thing about this dynamic is that once a player starts down either path, it becomes increasingly hard to shift to the other side. Players with black character tendency are encouraged to be in Body Form as much as possible (as health in Soul Form is reduced), and are given the tools to do so (attack power increases as a Black Phantom). On the other hand, players with white character tendency are encouraged to stay in Soul Form and to continue helping other players as a Blue Phantom (attack power increases in both cases). The more a character’s tendency moves towards either extreme, the harder it becomes to perform a radical and unwarranted change. It is through this that Demon’s Souls makes players really roleplay, as well as delivers its artistic message. It’s easy to get caught up in the ways of old, no?

Fast forward to Dark Souls. From Software changes both the mechanism and the message. Souls are still of paramount importance, but close behind it lies a new metric known as “Humanity”, which, according to the in-game description, “symbolizes human nature”. Is that description legitimately deep or just pretentious? Maybe it’s a bit of both, but I’d lean towards the former.

Let me start by clarifying a few things about Humanity. It comes in two forms: one is “held” while the other is a useable item, which can be converted into the former. “Holding” Humanity is akin to holding souls, in the sense that it’s a number on your HUD. Held Humanity confers a number of benefits to the player, including increased damage, defence, a higher item drop rate, and more. Using a point of Humanity is the only way for a player to turn from Hollow Form (analogous to Soul Form) to Human Form (analogous to Body Form). In short, having Humanity is a damn good thing.

So how does one go about earning Humanity? Much like in Demon’s Souls, the easiest way manifests itself in the form of multiplayer. And oh, is Dark Souls’ multiplayer amazing (when it’s not bogged down by technical issues).

I couldn’t find an error picture so let me just point out that this games’ website is called

See, Dark Souls is a game with an interesting duality. When playing alone, the game is about death. It is about a lone warrior who faces extreme adversity, time and time again, until he reaches his goal or finally quits. Online, however, is where the game becomes something about life and community. While the game remains a relatively solitary experience, it never lets you forget about the existence of others. Occasionally, you might see the outlines of other players resting at a bonfire, preparing themselves for the journey ahead. Sometimes, you might hear the ringing of a bell, and know that someone has triumphed over a great adversary. And you will most certainly come across bloodstains, which, when touched, will show you the last moments of another player. These moments are brief and fleeting, but nevertheless offer those who experience them a little respite. It’s like being lost in a forest and looking up to see a star-filled sky. While a star is basically just a mass of plasma and hydrogen, it’s not hard to think of them like yourself: lone points in a vast, dark cosmos.

This is where Humanity comes in, not just as a game mechanic, but as a measure of how we interact with others. How you gain Humanity is up to you, the player. Remembering that Humanity “symbolizes human nature”, Dark Souls asks you a simple question: which part of your nature would you like to indulge? Certainly, one could choose to extinguish the stars in the sky – conflict has been, and still is, one of the most important parts of the human experience. It is natural to want to fight and conquer others, whether it be physically, in social situations, in a sport, or of course, while playing video games. Invading others is, therefore, a perfect expression of human nature, and will naturally let you rake in Humanity. Survival of the fittest, after all. Don’t forget, however, that removing a star might make the night a little bit darker. Perhaps there will be one less person sitting at the next bonfire you come across.

Of course, one can also gain Humanity by helping others. Aid can be rendered directly, through entering another player’s world and helping them on their quest. Or it could be indirect – the game allows you to write simple messages that other players can read and rate. Make one that warns people of the dangers ahead or offers them a small laugh and you stand to gain some Humanity. You can even use Humanity to help others: by offering a Humanity to kindle a bonfire, you and everyone around it will gain a little extra health. Yes, you can shine a light to make the night sky a bit brighter and a little easier to navigate.

Praise the sun!

So, what am I trying to say in my long and disorganized rambling? Well, that it’s the little things that make up Dark Souls, as well as life. We change the lives of others by helping or hurting them. Hell, even inaction is a form of action. These gestures can be big or small, meaningful or meaningless, a one-time deal or a regular occurrence; it doesn’t matter. Living and interacting with others – that’s what being both a Dark Souls player and a human being is all about. There is little difference between the man who tosses a homeless person a five or a phantom who helps another player defeat a boss; by that same token, there is little to distinguish two people competing for a position at work with two players exchanging sword blows. All acts are a part of human nature. All acts express humanity.

Originally posted on GameSparked.   read

9:23 AM on 11.25.2011

Skyrim is teaching me how to perform "rim jobs" and other homoerotic maneuvers

I don't know if you guys have seen this already, but it's hilarious anyways.

I think it's satire. You?   read

8:52 PM on 10.28.2011

Why I Love Sony Firmware: Three Simple Reasons

Guys, I'm gonna be straight up. I love Sony firmware. In fact, Sony firmware is the reason why I prefer the PS3 to the Xbox 360. If you're too stupid to realize the edge that good firmware conveys to the PS3, I'll tell you directly:

1. Long install times
You wanna get bang for your buck, right? Well, in this case, Sony firmware reigns supreme. The 360 takes, what, five minutes or so to update? Pssh. The PS3 easily takes double, or even triple that time to update. Since playtime is proportional to quality, I think that the victor here is clear.

2. There are virtually no changes between updates
You know, if there's one thing I hate, it's change and innovation. I like my things to stagnate and remain predictable. That's why I think that Fallout 3 is one of the worst games in history - not only did it change so much from Fallout 2, but it dumbed things down for the console kiddies (and when I say this I am obviously referring to those damned Xbots; PS3 4 lyfe)!

3. There are so many of them
Look, we never stop eating our favourite food just because we've eaten too much of it, right? The same thing applies here. I don't want to wait fifty billion years for Half Life: Episode 3, goddammit! I want my stuff now! That's where Sony delivers. PS3 firmware is released on a regular basis, ensuring that no fan tries to put him or herself into a coma between installments. Furthermore, there have been more updates for the PS3 than the Xbox 360 - therefore, the PS3 is closer to perfection, and thus, closer to God.

So there you have it. Problem?   read

4:09 PM on 08.14.2011

East vs. West: A Shameless Worship of Heroes

Another Monday, another musing - and this week, it’s a big one. East, or West? This question, albeit deceptively simple, is immensely challenging. To choose means to take sides on a war, and what a war it is! It is a war of design philosophies. It is a war of technological innovation. And, much to my dismay, it is a war without compromise. So I must choose. But how am I to do it, amidst such abundant genius?

History, as they say, is written by the victor. When reflecting on a war, we look to the great triumphs for inspiration, ignoring the ignominious defeats. The implications of this idea for this particular war, then, are clear: examine and detail the great triumphs of both East and West, and from that, extrapolate the victor. A fine way to discern who is better while still giving the other credit, is it not? So for this I shall make a list of the most influential videogames of all time. Yes, it is clichéd.

Before you go about criticizing the idea of a list, saying that it in no way proves anything, keep in mind that current trends in the industry are momentary. Developers, much like the market, have their ups and downs. We must examine the history of both East and West in its totality if we are to truly see who had the greatest influence, and thus, the most skill in game designing.

How might I go about beginning such a monumental task? The first would be to set a limit for the list: eleven games, no more. If I were to look at every single influential videogame ever made, I would never finish this blog in my lifetime. Ten is a standard number for lists, and eleven allows me no compromise. Unless Bioware and Nintendo got together to make a groundbreaking game (which sounds amazing, btw), the winner should have a clear majority. Now, for the most important question: what is the standard for an influential game? If I am to make one that is completely objective, devoid of my personal tastes, we shall lose the zest that accompanies personal adventure and surprise. Also, with something of this nature, being completely objective is an impossibility. Finally, I shall endeavour to list these in descending order of their age, not of their influence. So, without further ado, let us begin.

11 - Shadow of the Colossus (East, 2005)
At once, the flaming begins. Wait! Before you scroll down to the comments to leave a hateful message, give me the chance to explain myself. So, why should Shadow of the Colossus be on our list when there are so many others that are far more appropriate? Well, let us see. Whenever someone makes an argument for games being art, what example do they most frequently cite? You guessed it: Shadow of the Colossus, and for good reason. Shadow of the Colossus is the art game par excellence. It fully utilizes interactivity to immerse, characterize, and underscore thematic significance. It is one of the rare examples of a game that can transcend cultural and linguistic barriers to deliver a story and message that resonates with the human experience. Because of this, we call it “art” - and this is very important. With Shadow of the Colossus, a paradigm shift in gaming occurs. The medium changes from one of mere “entertainment” to “art”. The power of interactivity suddenly becomes even more enticing. And so Shadow of the Colossus makes this list, as it, more than any other game, has convinced the gaming (and perhaps non-gaming) populous that videogames are art. It will be interesting to see this new and emerging attitude push the gaming industry to ever-greater heights.

10 - Super Mario 64 (East, 1996)
The phrase, “think outside of the box,” is often touted by those who strive for creativity. Well, in the gaming world, it was Shigeru Miyamoto who informed the world that the square had become a box. That was a terrible metaphor for the jump from 2D to 3D. I apologize. Let’s try something else instead. I, Robot (the first videogame to use 3D polygons) was the door to the 3D world. It was Super Mario 64 that opened it. After that, the world of possibilities for the industry shined anew. This Nintendo 64 launch title showed everybody how gaming in three dimensions ought to be done. The camera control, the skillful use of the analog stick; both would become staples of modern 3D gaming.

9 - Myst (West, 1993)
Oh yes, we all know Myst. How many people do we know who have beaten it? Probably none. Here it is: the game that popularized the CD-ROM, one of the most important media devices in modern times; the game that attracted a legion of computer-users to gaming; the game that redefined the adventure genre, and ironically, acted as the catalyst for its “death”. SCUMM could not keep up. Instead of explosive action or copious character interaction, Myst made a stand as a rather quiet, cerebral game. It set the tone for adventure games to follow, and the rest, as they say, is history.

8 - Wolfenstein 3D (West, 1992)
The influence of this game hardly requires an explanation. Here we see the birth of the first-person shooter, one of the most expansive genres in all of videogames. An what an important genre it is! Without this game, Doom and Quake (Wolfenstein 3D’s younger, sexier brothers) would not exist. What else would have happened? Without Wolfenstein 3D, there is no Half-Life. Without Half-Life, Valve does not release its engine for modding, eliminating a large chunk of indie potential. Without Wolfenstein 3D, there is no Halo. Without Halo, Microsoft fails to ground the Xbox as a competitive console. Without Wolfenstein 3D, there is no Duke Nukem, Deus Ex, GoldenEye 007, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Bioshock, or any of the first-person franchises we know and love today.

7 - The Legend of Zelda (East, 1986)
The Legend of Zelda - one of gaming’s most enduring icons. What is this games’ most important feature? A big open world, fifteen years before Grand Theft Auto III would popularize it? A skillful hybrid of action, exploration, puzzle solving, and RPG elements which would lay the foundation for all action adventure games to follow? Nope! What is most important? The ability to save on a console! What would Resident Evil be if we could not save between intense zombie fights? What would Street Fighter be if we could not save the characters we unlocked? What would Call of Duty be if we could not save our online stats? What would any modern role-playing game be if we could not save? To be fair, though, all of us intellectuals would be part of the PC gaming master race, so maybe it’s not all bad. *swirls brandy while pressing the save key*

6 - Super Mario Bros. (East, 1985)
Ah, Shigeru Miyamoto. Once we are all dead and gone, this man will doubtlessly be remembered as one of the great geniuses of the videogame industry. In the face of his massive achievements his errors become tiny specks of dust, flittering around a universe whose size is beyond comprehension. In him, we see the same courage and vision that fueled the great artists of history. Beethoven never stopped composing even after he became deaf. van Gogh never stopped painting, despite his complete lack of commercial success. Just like them, Miyamoto refused to stop creating games in the face of the videogame crash of 1983. The result? The revival of the gaming industry, the creation of the platforming genre, one of the most prolific icons in pop culture, and the establishment of a home console led by one of the biggest and most influential companies today. It all started with Super Mario Bros.

5 - Tetris (West, 1984)
It is here a conflict occurs. When Alexey Pajitnov programmed his little puzzle game, he was most certainly living in Russia, which is in the East...but for the sake of this article, we shall call it Western-made. But this minor detail is trifling when examining Tetris’ influence. Simply put, portable gaming would not the be same without this. Had the Game Boy not included this in its repertoire, the small system may very well have not succeeded, and portable gaming might be a dream that is as pipe-ridden as a Mario game. Tetris outlined the quintessential elements for a good portable game: fun and easily played in short bursts. It also marked the start of the puzzle genre as we know it today, inspiring games such as Dr. Mario and Bust-a-Move.

4 - Adventure (West, 1979)
Before Mass Effect, and Demon’s Souls, and Dragon Age, and Fable, and World of Warcraft, and Chrono Trigger, and Parasite Eve, and Baldur’s Gate, and Diablo, and Fallout, *inhales* and Ultima, and Star Ocean, and Pokémon, and Phantasy Star, and Megami Tensei, and Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest, and Wizardry, and Rogue, and countless others, there was Adventure, a humble little game for the Atari 2600. Although by no means the first role-playing game ever made, Adventure is what (relatively) popularized the genre by putting an affordable RPG into a widespread console. This game marked the advent of when people would take notice of the brilliant blend of fighting, exploration, and treasure-hunting on their televisions. It opened the door to things such as menu-driven, party based combat, which is a staple of console JRPGs. This also marked the beginning of the hidden easter egg!

3 - Space Invaders (East, 1978)
If we are to look at one arcade game for inspiration, it would be this. Here we see the end of the videogame crash of 1977. Here we see the widespread expansion of the videogame industry. Here we see the groundwork for the shoot-‘em-up genre, and shooters in general. Here we see the popularization of the high score mechanic. Here we see the first killer app for the Atari 2600. Here we see the inspiration for Shigeru Miyamoto. The importance of Space Invaders can never be understated.

2 - Spacewar (West, 1962)
Two people are sitting alone in a room. It is entirely quiet, save for a few select blips. Ahead of them lies the front panel of a PDP-10. On it rages a war; a space war. To this game we cannot name a single creator. Although Steve Russell programmed it, several other people had a hand in modifying it, making it the classic we don’t really remember today. Here is an impressive achievement of technical prowess. It has two features that make it particularly noteworthy: physics and multiplayer. Without physics, how could any game operate properly? Imagine a Mario game where you’d jump up and keep going up. Without multiplayer, would gaming even be considered a social activity? Imagine a Halo game without multiplayer. I think everyone would agree that these games wouldn’t be the same. Also, Spacewar is perhaps the first videogame ever to be “enjoyed”. This was, needless to say, a crucial step in the evolution of the medium.

1 - NIM (West, 1942)
What is NIM, you might ask? Well, according to Wikipedia, it is the first videogame ever created. But let us not confuse ourselves. This spot isn’t for anything specific, as the “first videogame ever created” is an extremely controversial and sketchy topic. So, whether it be Pong, or Tennis for Two, or NIM, know that this spot refers to the first videogame ever made. Does its influence even need to be explained? Here we see the beginning of one of the biggest entertainment industries ever created, and possibly one of the most powerful forms of art. Here stands a testament to the power of man’s mind, creating an interactive experience using the power of his calculations. Here we see one, lone game, gently flickering on a screen, ready to pave the way for one of humanity’s most profound creations.

So in the end, the West won. But does it really matter? Now go STFUAJPG!   read

5:32 PM on 07.06.2011

Freedom: The Appeal of Modern Role-Playing Games

This is my first blog post, so go easy on me.

What makes games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect so popular and fun? Is it due to their superlative shooting mechanics? Certainly not. If one wanted to blast their way through hordes of mindless drones, they’d go to something like Gears of War or Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 187 instead (oh yes, even in multiplayer you’d face mindless drones). On their own, games like Fallout 3 and Mass Effect would fail as shooters. So where’s the appeal? If you haven’t already guessed from the title, it lies in the fact that these games allow you to play a role.

Why do we humans love to role-play? Is it because we can escape from our normal lives? Become someone else? Fulfill our dark and sexual fantasies? It’s probably a combination of the three (although we wouldn’t like to admit it). When we take the sum of these components, we can see the underlying appeal behind role-playing: it liberates us. It frees us from the shackles of routine.

This is why RPGs – especially the Western-made ones – draw us in for hours upon hours. In Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas, the large freedom that the game makers allot the player allows for an unprecedented amount of self-definition. In short, a player can colour (yes, I am Canadian) the world of Fallout much more vividly than, say, Call of Duty. Every time the player picks a perk upon levelling up, changes his karma, or completes a quest, he is contributing to his own unique experience – no two playthroughs of Fallout are alike (unless you’re a twat who follows a walkthrough). The freedom in the game world allows the player to explore wherever he wishes and find whatever he may. The freedom found in character definition allows for a diverse number of unique and inventive builds.

The same holds true for the Mass Effect series. In Mass Effect, every choice on the dialogue tree contributes to a larger definition of the self. Although the worlds of Mass Effect are, in actuality, quite linear in design, the freedom in the games allow the player to pick what class, what powers, what squad and, perhaps most importantly, what predisposition they bring to the battlefield. This freedom is what makes us love these games so damn much. From North American game designers – who come from a place built upon the principle of individual freedom – games such as Fallout 3 and Mass Effect are perfect extensions of their own personal philosophies.

Compare this to a Japanese-made RPG, such as the controversial Final Fantasy XIII. Most of the complaints directed at the game centred around its “linearity” – the linearity of the world, the linearity of the character development, etc. These complaints, although valid, reveal an interesting phenomenon. Perhaps the reason why Western gamers prefer Western-made RPGs isn’t because the JRPG is stagnating, but because they are too linear. In most JRPGs, the player suffocates from an almost debilitating lack of freedom – he is typically thrust into the shoes of a character he cannot define and finds himself in a story he cannot alter. He fights in battles which are repetitive and completes quests which have a single outcome. In short, the player is forced to become subservient to the game. He plays a role, but does little to define it. And while this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – linearity is often the key to creating tightly-woven narratives – it can drive a player from the West, who is so attuned with his freedom, to insanity.

As you can see, freedom may, even subconsciously, be playing a big part in how you approach role-playing games. The amount of freedom a game has, whether it be in its world or in your character development, may correlate to the degree to which you can escape from the real world, which in turn, affects immersion. Almost every Western-made RPG – from Two Worlds to The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion – follow this design philosophy: give the player a toolbox, and let them do what they will with it. The human mind is at its most creative when it isn’t bound by rules and regulations, after all. Meanwhile, the large majority of Japanese RPGs simply close the toolbox and tell the player to carry it to another location. Not only is this boring, but it limits our freedom. Although there are a few notable exceptions – the Shin Megami Tensei series comes to mind – I believe that this is the reason why the schism between eastern and western role-players is as big as it is.

Perhaps JRPG makers need to get in touch with their inner sense of freedom. It may be the first step towards crossing the monumental gap that divides one of the greatest genres in videogame history.   read

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