One surefire way to ruin the drama of any story is to have a protagonist that doesn’t care about the drama of the story. Unless you’re making a comedy, the protagonist of any story should take that story seriously and should not actively undermine the dramatic tension of climactic moments. Having a character who does this consistently in an otherwise straight-faced drama is just poor storytelling.
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Everything is online now. As someone who mostly plays single-player games but who still has his console connected to the Internet, there’s no escaping the omnipresent community of friends and fellow gamers. From multiplayer to leaderboards to player-generated content—heck, even the faux-online feel of offline games like DarkMaus—I can never forget that I’m part of a larger social group.
This is not a bad thing. I like the hyper-connected world that we live in, and I can manage my online presence just fine, but knowing/assuming that I’m always connected can result in a weird and (wonderfully) fascinating disconnect from reality in those rare moments when I’m not actually connected to a larger community.
One of the biggest innovations of the Souls games (including Demon’s Souls and Bloodborne) is their online component. Not the competitive online part that has us invading other players’ games, or even the cooperative part that has us summoning other players into our game to help with bosses and tough enemies. The real innovation is the passive interaction that we have with the unknown multitudes of players online—the notes we can leave for strangers, telling them about secrets, about treasure, about traps, or just tricking them into jumping off of a cliff with the promise of something great below. We could have all those interactions without seeing another player. We only ever saw their past—the bloodstains where they died, their messages, their ghosts—evidence of another life that made the world feel more friendly for the help and more harsh because of the obvious end of that other life.
DarkMaus is an indie game made by one guy, Daniel Wright. It’s a “Souls-like”, a game clearly inspired by Dark Souls that mimics the same pacing and difficulty and many of the same mechanics, but with a few important and truly clever tweaks to the formula.
I wrote this about the difference between exploration and wandering some time ago:
Exploration is not an aimless activity. It’s a very goal-driven activity. We might not know what our goal is initially, we might not know what we’re looking for, but we know we’re looking for something. It’s the knowledge (or assumption) of that “something” that drives us to look closely at the world, to explore it. Without that “something” to tempt us, our movement ceases to be exploration and becomes wandering. The former has a purpose (we move with the intention of learning), but the latter has no purpose. That’s why Skyrim gives us a compass to point us in the direction of interesting discoveries. Bethesda understood that without some sort of goal in mind, players can only wander, and wandering is boring.
I think the distinction still holds true. There’s a fine line between exploration and wandering, between something fun and something frustrating. The Elder Scrolls and Fallout games have achieved immense popularity because they expertly straddle that line. Surprisingly, so too does Pokemon Go.
The Way of the Pixelated Fist is a side-scrolling action platformer in the tradition of Prince of Persia, but it looks nothing like Prince of Persia, nothing like any game really. It instantly sets itself apart by how it frames its action. Most of the screen is black at any given moment, with only a thin slit of a window in which any gameplay takes place. It is counter intuitive framing, blocking out as much of the world as possible, but in practice, it serves as a clever way to emphasize movement and action as well as a workaround for its graphical limitations.