Skyrim and Dark Souls, Challenge and Art in Video Games: Thoughts on “How Will Videogames Pass Go?”

So I just read Ryan Kuo’s “How Will Videogames Pass Go?” and I wanted to offer some thoughts.

Dark Souls vs. Skyrim is an interesting contrast, but I wish Kuo went further than chalking it up to cultural differences. Dark Souls is ultimately tyrannical, it is incredibly carefully executed – it can’t glitch the way Skyrim glitches because any glitch would make its tyranny cruel rather than inviting.

The games illustrate different ways of achieving success, of progressing. Dark Souls never, ever lets up. It teaches you that unless you are patient, and careful, you cannot move forward. If you even once think you can take some easy route, or breeze through some fight without paying attention, without observing the rules of combat and following them meticulously, it will fucking kill you and rob you and send you back.

Skyrim asks patience only in that it takes time for you to become powerful. If you dedicate time to the game your character will become something that can win any fight. You must observe the mechanical rules for progressing your character, rather than yourself, through the game.

Dark Souls is a continuation of the original video game, it is a direct line from Mega Man or Mario, that challenged you to learn controls and reactions and levels. Skyrim is a new thing (well, it’s a continuation of Morrowind, but, you know…) in that the primary challenge it offers is the challenge of exploration. It doesn’t ask if you can master its controls and tasks – those are easy – it asks if you can discover all it has to offer. In essence, though, both styles are about the player unlocking more of the game.

I think that’s why he picks out Passage. There’s nothing more to unlock. You live, you meet someone, you die. It’s miniscule, and it asks you only to read its message. Yes, it’s simple, but it undermines that very basic premise of games.

Trying to understand a piece of art is like playing Dark Souls. This is where Passage falls short, because it still places challenge not in understanding it’s message, but in completing it. You know you’re partner is going to die if you keep moving, you know you are going to die, but there’s nowhere else to go. You’re challenged to walk into death.

Now what would be interesting is a game that challenges you the way Dark Souls does when it comes to understanding, but lets you in the way Skyrim does when it comes to progression.

There’s a moment that comes close in Metal Gear Solid 4. At one point you find yourself in Solid Snake’s memory, and his memory is a moment from a PlayStation game. The graphics become archaic polygons, the control scheme reverts to one created for play on an entirely different controller. The level itself is simple and relatively easy to complete, but you have to recall or intuit an entirely different way of interacting with the game in order to do so. It’s both a new interface and an old interface at the same time.

I also don’t think I’ve entirely parsed all the implications of this moment; what it has to say about games, about memory, about history. It’s an incredibly rich experience that demands patience and care in seeking understanding. Let your mind get lazy, and you’ve got to start back at the beginning of your thought – as with any art.

I think Kuo’s comparison to the Rennaisance is apt.  Games are learning to be art, and I think they’re primed for a real explosion.  Right now they’re in a sort of Don Quixote phase, where they have to deal with their own legacy and meaning before they can expand into the broader world.  Once games understand themselves the way Don Quixote understood the novel, they’re going to explode.  I can’t wait.

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