US: 26 Jan 2016
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.
You play as a warrior mouse (because why not) in the corrupted land of Hazath. Your travels will unravel the truth behind that corruption as you fight your way past bulls, birds, and other mice. It plays like Dark Souls, but from a top-down perspective and with a substantially more stylized aesthetic. The whole game plays out in silhouette, as if a light were lit below the world, shining upwards. Walls and trees and living things are black. The ground, be it sand or grass or stone, is made up of gradients of yellow. The yellow is a wonderful choice as it gives the environment an aged look, like old parchment—a sense of a weathered and withered world—without the need for all that time consuming graphical work. It’s an effective way to evoke a similar atmosphere as Dark Souls on a fraction of the budget.
But its smartest trick is how it mimics that game’s online community. There is no true online connection, no true community, because this is a cheap indie game that can’t afford to host a massive server farm, let alone the manpower for all that extra programming. So it does the next the best thing. It mimics the feel of a community.
Over the course of the game, you’ll find little effigy dolls. These dolls create ghosts of your former self after you die. This being a Souls-like, you’ll naturally die a lot, and when you do, you’ll respawn at a bonfire with a ghost of your past self, equipped with the weapons that you were using when you died. This ghost is a companion.It doesn’t just rerun its old path automatically, repeating its past actions. Instead, it follows you around like a summoned player in Dark Souls. The more effigies that you find and the more that you die, the more ghosts appear to fight by your side. Die five times at a tough enemy, and you’ll spawn with a little army at your bidding.
The ghosts feel like a real group. It’s not just that there’s more than one of them but that they each seem to have their own personalities. One ghost might follow you like a puppy, while another runs ahead looking for the closest thing to fight. They may be past versions of yourself, and they may exist to help you, but they also act on their own like another player would. They’re helpful but unpredictable and that unpredictability is integral when trying to translate an online interaction.
Online interactions are always unpredictable. That’s what makes them fun and frustrating. Emphasizing that here with AI ghosts, shows a deep understanding of that interaction, and of how it affects our game on an emotional level, not just a mechanical and practical level.
The similarities to the active multiplayer of Dark Souls are obvious, but what’s neat is how it evokes that feel of an active online world while still keeping our interaction passive.
We don’t summon the ghosts. When we die, they’re just there, all of a sudden, whether we want them there or not. We don’t take an active role in their creation. They’re also not with us for very long. They only appear as long as we continue spawning at a single bonfire. The moment that we rest at a new place of safety, they’re gone. The internal counter resets, and if we want to see a ghost again, we must die and respawn again at this new bonfire.
In this way, they’re less like a summoned player and more like the bloodstain specters. They may be able to interact with the present world, but they’re still very much figments of the past. They represent something that happened, not something that’s happening. They’re not a living player who can show me secrets and open shortcuts that I never knew about. They’re just reflections of my past self that are incapable of doing anything new. Their presence makes the world feel more alive in the moment, but their disappearance reminds me that I’m actually alone.
The present is so dead that the only life that we can count on for help is a past life. We can forge a sense of community with the ghosts, but it will only ever really be a community of one.