When it’s you

When it’s you

Professional Book Slammers

The point of interaction between created work and end user is a dynamic one. There’re a lot of reasons for making art and one of the most common is to create some kind of effect in the audience (there are exceptions but they’re not relevant here). So, this dynamic point is where someone or a group of someones’ intentions interact with another human. Dara Ó Briain has famously stated that this point of interaction is so pronounced in video games that they are the only medium to kick you out for not doing it right. A book doesn’t slam itself shut if you aren’t picking up on the themes. This is somewhat inaccurate, as the book will shut if you’re not getting it, it’s just the agent in this case is you. Videogames take what all other art does and makes it official.

In this, there is a lesson that there are rights and wrongs with art, and that sometimes the wrong party is you. Games make this clear and yet it is still such a difficult thing to get people to realize that sometimes the fault isn’t external. The blame for this process being harder than it should be lies with the types who lord their knowledge over others, or craft a thin personality from the illusory prestige that comes with swaddling oneself with socially constructed high art. But a third party making a point look bad isn’t the same thing as a point not existing. Sometimes it’s you. But to make this easier on you, the rest of this will be about how I’m the idiot.

We, Aaron and I, well, he, played Sekiro recently for some dumb YouTube channel and at the point when that video was recorded, I’d only played a little bit of the game. In this time, I had formed several thoughts about the nature of it, its pros and cons, and expressed a few of them over the course of the video. Being already aware of this as a problem already, I’d prefaced these with the disclaimer that my experience with the game was short, and my feelings did change over the course of the video (particularly in regards to the environment bounding). But by the time of this writing, I have played a lot of Sekiro and, over that time, learned just how much of the problem was mine.

It’s important to reflect on things like this because failing to runs you the risk of missing out on fun things as a consumer, saying dumb things as an internet talker, and/or not growing as a human. And god help you if you call yourself a fucking critic.

Cratin’ for Granted

Just because you are good at something doesn’t mean you’d be a good teacher of it. Much like how you don’t have to actively think about walking or getting a fork into your mouth, the things we practise a lot become automatic and we lose sight of them as they become parts of larger patterns. Remaining aware of these pieces is a key skill for educators. This is why watching my lady-friend, who only ever plays games like Factorio, play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey has been a great refresher course.

There’s a point in Odyssey where your genetic VR avatar has to get a beam of light to point at something. Even if you’ve not played the game, this is probably already creating a picture in your head. Twisting and shoving a mirror about, that sort of thing. You’ve probably already solved it without even seeing it, and you’d be right. So I was concerned when my lady-friend was hopping all about the place and grumbling about how hard it was.

The kind of craftiness it would take to hide severe mental retardation from me would still require at least an average IQ, so I dismissed that as the problem. Then I sat there and watched. She jumped about, swung the camera over the obvious solution, didn’t see it, and jumped about some more. This repeated several times. Then I finally got it. The obvious “shove these things about” signals, like a bunch of rectangular and square boxes within a bounded shoving zone, were meaningless to her because she’d never seen them before. Show an illiterate tribe some words and it won’t even occur to them that they are a thing to be decoded let alone begin decoding them.

But this isn’t about her. This is about how long it took for me to figure it out.

Stand. Lion. Two Reeds. Stool. Twisted Flax. Folded Cloth.

The mistaken idea that hieroglyphs are ideograms, pictures representing ideas, is something that’s still fairly common today. It’s not an unfair thing to think, as few writing systems use characters that are so recognisable as representations of objects in the world, but they’re actually letters that represent sounds similar to modern alphabets (they can also be the things they represent as determinatives when combined with spelled words but that’s not relevant here). A researcher from the 5th century CE, Horapollo, is mostly responsible for this. He believed the writing system to be ideogrammatic and his treatise on it shaped its understanding until the Rosetta stone allowed proper translation in the early 1800s.

Prior to that, every attempt at understanding them began at an incorrect initial assumption which was only going to produce incorrect understandings.

I am very familiar with the languages videogames use to express themselves, but this does not mean I am immune to misunderstandings. Horapollo wasn’t malicious or even necessarily bad at what he was doing. He made a basically understandable mistake and that shaped his subsequent work. Illiteracy is not the only means of misreading, and this was my problem going into Sekiro. I was familiar with languages, even ones very close to the one I was currently reading, and this is typically something beneficial. Unless you’ve made an incorrect initial assumption.

Praise it.

The language of From Software games is distinct enough that, while perhaps not the originators of it, they are certainly now the most prominent speakers of it. It is something so profoundly identifiable and describable that one can almost know exactly what to expect when buying one, a fact reflected in their odd but dedicated fan base. It’s a language I love, but it was exactly that familiarity that brought me to fault in my understanding of Sekiro.

I am a Beef Unit. A cube of mass atop slow but sensible legs that can’t move out of the way of attacks but has since learned to absorb an awful lot of them. I tend toward this approach in my games as well, but this has been particularly prominent in my Dark Souls builds. I swaddle myself in thick armour, grab something large or long (the halberd was a favourite in DS1), and then wallop whatever is in front of me while showing little regard for nonsense like parrying or moving.

I beat all three of the Dark Souls series this way, without summoning, so while I’m not one of those lunatics who do a throwables only run using a disagreeable rat as a controller, I don’t consider myself bad at the series.

So in I dive to Sekiro. Like Horapollo, I am presented with things that very closely resemble things I am already familiar with, so I approach the game with tools I already have. Because Sekiro is so familiar in so many ways, I’m not actually listening to what it’s telling me, and what it is telling me is pretty bloody obvious when I went back over it.

Firstly, there’s no stamina bar. This should stand out. The absence of a whole meter should be fairly obvious, but I was still playing the game like I was a strong but otherwise out of shape goon in a metal shell. You don’t get to be too aggressive for too long when you’re gassed after 3 swings. Gabe, there is no fucking stamina bar in Sekiro. You don’t have to retreat to catch your breath, doing this just lets your enemies regain their balance, you are to press hard and parry when needed. The game is built around this aggression, you are not rewarded for the kind of fighting I’d used in Dark Souls and yet it took me ages to figure this out. By the time I did, I realised that formerly daunting bosses like Fatty Drunkospew were actually fairly simple.

Secondly, the parrying. This game doesn’t have dozens of possible forms of weapon and it doesn’t even have a shield, so the parrying is exactly one reaction point that is based around the point of impact. Couple this with the 60fps frame rate and, with a little practise, I was getting to understand the ways this, combined with the aggression, made for some excellent swordplay. One could poke and whittle an enemy’s life down but it was far more fun, though riskier, to learn parry patterns and push for the shinobi kill.

None of this was hidden behind a Byzantine series of NPC conversations. I didn’t have to look this up on a wiki. All of this was presented in plain English at the start of the game, but I was too front loaded with preconceptions to recognise it. I have seen many pictures of ducks, so when I saw another one, I failed to see any other possibility. And that is the important element here, the I. I failed to see something, the game didn’t fail to communicate it.

“I don’t know” is the first step toward wisdom

No games slam shut. You die, that’s it. The game is still there. It doesn’t uninstall itself and send your family your internet history on the way out. You just lose and don’t want to go back. Like the book, you are the agent of its ending, even if it is more explicit in telling you that you aren’t getting it. Sometimes you won’t want to go back because the game is a genuine piece of shit and there will be more of those than good games you mistakenly abandon.

But like with the hieroglyphs, this is teaching you an ultimately bad lesson. It turns you into a blind spot, the impossible option that makes every issue the fault of the art. To say every game is an unappreciated gem is obviously incorrect. To say you have never been wrong about one is as obvious. This goes for largely any work. I’ve returned to things I’d dismissed and immediately felt like an idiot for doing it. You gain nothing by defining yourself by terrible art you don’t engage in, so aggressively manning that wall will just cut you off from good things. I tend to be a little gentler in my approach today and that’s an approach I’d recommend as, after all, the problem could always be you.

By Gabriel

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8 Replies to “When it’s you”

  1. That was pretty much my first week experience with Sekiro. Took nearly 12 hours of me trying to brute force through bosses as if I was playing Dark Souls, attempting to dodge everything and blocking instead of parrying. Once it hit me I started the game over and got through it far more smoothly, covering more ground in less time and dying a lot less. first time in a long time that I realised I was effectively playing a game wrong.

    As it is now I’ve nearly come to quitting again because of one particular story related boss thats been kicking my ass for a few days. This time around I know what I’m meant to be doing, just need to get good at it.

    1. There’s a few bosses that eschew what you’ve been taught. There’s a spear toting general who you’d think is for the spear counter thing but you actually have to dodge him. Then there’s the Corrupted Monk. If there’s a real way to beat her that’s NOT cheesing it, I’m yet to see it.

      1. I got her by a lot of deflecting and punishing her leaping attacks. And in her final phase, punishing her vomit attack.

        1. The True Corrupted Monk is a more interesting fight. If you zip line up to the tree behind her the second you come in, you can get a stealth kill to take down her first lifeball. When she’s making the shadows attack, keep moving between the branches with an eye on the ground, she’ll appear kneeling occasionally and you can get a leaping kill for the second fairly easily. I didn’t discover a trick for the final phase, but the usual routine of punishing her ridiculous overswing is made easier by the improved damage you have by that stage.

  2. This was a fascinating read, and it’s helping me put together stuff about the game and people who didn’t like it. I could tell that a guy who derisively called it “playing Punch-Out” was playing too “rigidly” and expecting his defensive/evasive options to just be Simon Says, but I couldn’t tell why he couldn’t work out how to think less rigidly about it.

    Certainly something to bear in mind for myself, going forward.

    1. Most games boil down to things like that, though, and often with even less variety. You react to x with y and are rewarded or you react to x with z and are punished. This is one of those things where the attempt to minimise the game reveals more about the person making the comment.

  3. I’ve recently experienced something similar to this. A friend of mine, who adamantly detests FromSoft style, 3rd person melee focused games recently picked up Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order. It’s been fascinating to experience the game along side him, as he considers it “Dark Souls but with a little less bullshit.” Bear in mind this is a man who couldn’t be assed to make it out of the Undead Asylum in DS1.

    He doesn’t speak the language at all. To him, the idea of backtracking through a level is something put in place because something needed to be padded out by force of laziness. Or the concept of slowing down and looking ahead, is unacceptable. Head down, tuck the shoulder, barrel through.

    And I really can’t blame him, he’s never played another game quite like this due to his preconceptions about the genre. Though, last we spoke he did concede that once he decided that dodging was an acceptable tactic, the combat felt quite rewarding. Jury’s still out on the concept of parrying.

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