Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of The Counter of Death and Tap Hero, two mobile action games. They’re relatively simple games, especially within the action genre. Both use only two “buttons”. The Counter of Death actually has two virtual buttons, and Tap Hero splits the screen in two with each side becoming an invisible “button.” In each case, the simplicity of the controls belies surprisingly difficult games, but they’re not difficult because of their mechanics. They’re difficult because of my natural human limitations.
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One of the most common words used to describe No Man’s Sky (common, at least, when being positive about it) is “lonely”. PopMatters’ own Erik Kersting wrote a piece just last week about its “vast loneliness”.
But for a game that’s supposedly so lonely, there’s a crap ton of life everywhere you look. There’s a space station in every galaxy, and every planet is littered with crashed ships, outposts, transmission stations, and ancient monoliths—markers of intelligent life and civilization. Not to mention all the plants, every planet has some plant life, so there are no truly dead worlds. In fact, I’d say there’s too much life in No Man’s Sky. No matter where you go, you can never escape the presence of the three big spacefaring species. I think the review by the A.V.Club has the best description I’ve read of the game, “Your traveler is not really an explorer—you never visit a planet unknown to the galaxy’s intelligent species—they’re a pilgrim, traveling towards their sacred destination slowly and alone.” This universe was discovered, charted, and colonized long before we ever showed up. We may be traveling alone, but we are also never truly alone.
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.
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.