Monday, February 25, 2013

Let's Talk About Dark Souls!!!

You may have noticed that my reviews and ramblings aren't, as a rule, peppered with video game references.  This is because I don't play very many video games.  I sometimes think I am the only adult pony fan who isn't also a "hardcore gamer," but it's just not where I typically chose to invest my time.

Anyway, occasional ponyfic author and all-around sentient being Chicken Vortex clearly noticed, and has taken it upon himself to address this glaring oversight, and in so doing help my blog find gamer relevance.  More to the point, he's put together a nice collection of solid writing advice for your perusal, below the break.
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Guys, can I just geek out on you for a minute? I love Dark Souls. If you’ve played Dark Souls, then feel free to geek out too, but if you haven’t, then just go ahead and be happy about how happy it makes me.
Anyway, isn’t it cool how cutting off dragon’s tails not only makes it so they can’t tail swipe you, but also gives you a unique weapon as a reward for doing it? I think it’s totally cool.

Or isn’t it cool how, at some parts of the game, you can actually see other parts of the world? Like in the Tomb of Giants, when you’re at the ledge near the bottom, you can look out and see the Lost city of Izalith? Or if you go to the very bottom, you’re actually level with the top of the trees growing up from Ash Lake?

And you know when you fight the Gaping Dragon, and he peeks his head up over the edge, and at first you’re all like, “Hey! Look at that! I just want to go over there and give ‘em a big ol’ hug!” and then three seconds later, you’re all, “Wait—what’s that?” and then three seconds after that, you’re all, “OH NO OH PLEASE I’M SORRY I DON’T WANT TO FIGHT ANYMORE LET ME BACK THROUGH THE GATE I WANT TO GO HOME!” and then, when you fight Quelaag, you have the exact same reaction, but in reverse? Haha... yeah. That’s awesome.

To me, Dark Souls is a perfect snowflake among a snowstorm of video games, ranking above even my first true love, Shadow of the Colossus. It’s an example of things done right, and this is because, in my opinion, it accomplishes exactly what it set out to accomplish. So, while I have your eyes upon me, I’d like to share with you just a few of the things it does that I find most important, and explain how the same techniques can be used to help in writing as well. Come, dear readers, and let us go over them together in jolly cooperation!

1 - YOU. WILL. DIE.

Those three words are the motto of Dark Souls, and as you play the game, you discover very quickly that they mean it. Even before you finish learning the controls, they throw a boss at you ten times your size, then give it a hammer that it can use to crush you from halfway across the room. The first time I encountered this, one sweeping swing sent me flying out the door and across the courtyard outside, at which point a bounced into a well and fell to my death. It was the most fun in a tutorial I’d ever had.

Dark Souls knows what it wants to do. It’s going to kill you, and throughout the game it tries to do so in every way it can. In your writing, know what you’re trying to do, and stick with it. This doesn’t mean your story has to only be about one thing, but it does mean that the underlying message should be unmistakable—at least to you. A focused beam of light is always more powerful than a scattered one. In your writing, know what you want to do. Maybe it’s to teach a lesson about the consequences of naming inanimate objects. Maybe it’s to share an experience, such as what happened when your water bottle started talking to you one day. Maybe it’s just to show something, like how things look from the perspective of a crazy person. Point being, stick to it. Don’t let fragments of superfluity scatter the light of the story you’re trying to tell.

Something I do with my stories is to write the ending first. If you know how things are going to turn out, then (for me, at least) it’s a lot easier to keep things on track. If you’re writing a longer story an outline is helpful as well, but even then, I still like to have my ending set in place. Outlines are a map before the journey, and when I actually set out on my writing adventure, it’s still too easy for me to get distracted by something shiny off to the side of the road. More often than not, if I didn’t keep my goal in sight, it’s gone the next time I look up. Better to come back once the journey is complete than being forced to backtrack and re-plan your entire route repeatedly along the way (i.e., Worry about adding more to the story during editing after the first draft is complete. Hindsight makes everyone a genius, after all.).

2 - Weapons Have Weight.

This is just my personal opinion, mind you, but there’s nothing more satisfying than watching your character swing back a greataxe, sparks flying as he drags it along the ground, then thrust it skyward, causing any poor soul caught in the arc to go bouncing across the ground like a ragdoll full of meat and ball bearings. That’ll teach them to stab me in the back when I’m trying to heal!

The lesson here is twofold. First, don’t stab me in the back when I’m trying to heal, or you’ll get the greataxe. Second, this experience is so satisfying because everything about the exchange feels real. Better than real, actually. It feels magical. In Dark Souls, such care is put into almost everything. The placement of burn marks and charred corpses on the bridge where the hellkite wyvern waits to attack; the way the ground shakes harder as the royal sentinels of Anor Londo come lumbering toward you; even the way the titanite demons remain perfectly motionless as they stand guard over their treasure, yet if you look closely enough, you can still see their chests rise and fall as they breathe.

Magical! Magical I tell you! That, my friends, is the secret of making a quality story. You’ve all heard the old, generic phrase of show, don’t tell, but let me add a little more to that, because honestly, whoever made that up was doing a very bad job of following their own advice. If a pillow is soft, don’t just say it’s soft. Focus your sexy dialect on a few tantalizing aspects of “soft,” then make it dance. Draw the image up to the surface where it can be viewed in superhuman detail. Perhaps as the hero rested her head on the pillow, it gradually compressed, and soon she was blissfully wrapped in its downy embrace. Perhaps the pillow is so cool and silky smooth that its touch reminds her of floating along the surface of a slow-moving river on a hot summer’s day, or maybe it’s fuzzy, with each hair on its surface standing straight up, static electricity causing them to reach forward eagerly and tickle the hero's cheek as she presses against them.

The point is to get in close. Make the words make the reader make their brain make a connection to the sensation you’re trying to convey. A good way to know if you’ve done this is if you can feel it. If that’s the case, they probably can too. To make a good image, you don’t need to bog the reader down in exhaustive detail, however. Your dialect should be sexy because it’s graceful, not prolific. The ability to move smoothly from abstract ideas to concrete facts will make a description more appealing overall, but for them to be most effective, take care to never make them longer than is necessary. For example, here are a few short descriptions I’ve come across that have stuck in my mind, simply because they described what they were trying to say so well.

“Like putting rats in a jar and watching them scratch.”

“More difficult than tucking an octopus into bed.”

“Silent as fish.”

Something I like to do as a kind of training is to take something complex (like an entire series of books, or the life of someone I know well), and then describe it as a box. What does it look like? What is it made of? What condition is it in? What’s inside? If you feel so inclined then go ahead and try it. The only rule is that you can’t do yourself. One must be outside the box in order to get a proper view, after all.

3 - Everything Hurts!

Burning, getting impaled, getting poisoned, eaten, crushed, having my soul sucked out through my mouth, falling off cliffs, and sometimes for no clear reason whatsoever. All these things and more (blood loss, birds pecking out my eyes, getting distracted while wearing a carnivorous hat!) have caused me serious injury or death in Dark Souls. Every one was a cringeworthy and often terrifying experience. Hooray!

One of the things about Dark Souls that makes it so unique is that even the simplest of enemies has the potential to kill you dead if you’re not careful. It makes it difficult. It makes you paranoid of every blind corner or seemingly empty hall, because you know that something might be hiding there—something terrible. Most importantly, though, this makes it fun! It’s unpredictable and dangerous, and despite the comforts that safety and stability can provide, danger is something every brain needs in order to feel satisfied with life. Everyone wants it. You want it, but the nice thing is that to get it, you don’t actually have to put yourself in danger. You just need to use your imagination!

Like I said, in Dark Souls, even the littlest zombie can do you in if he catches you off-guard, yet in other games this concept is too often overlooked. I don’t usually write in bold, but this point is so important that I’m willing to, so listen up. Never ever allow the conflict of your story to leave the reader feeling like the characters in your story are safe. I don’t care if the antagonist is a preschool teacher or Kra’akar’ana’themin: Eater of Worlds and Destroyer of Good, Who Shatters Men's Minds With One Gaze Like So Many Shards of Brittle Clay©. If, at any point, the threat no longer puts the hero in danger, then the story is over. Something always has to be pushing the hero in the right direction, and something always has to be pushing back, even if that thing is just the invisible hand of fate. Otherwise the hero will fall over and won’t be able to get back up. The only exception to this is if you’re hero only feels safe, at which point the baddies will come crashing down on him twice as hard. Speaking of which....

4 - Jolly Collusion!

Collusion, in case you didn’t know, is the evil twin of cooperation. As said by Mr. Dictionary, it means, “a secret agreement, especially for fraudulent or treacherous purposes; conspiracy.” When writing, you should be actively planning your characters destruction every step of the way. In Dark Souls, this can be seen when they bait you into walking over a spot where the ground breaks away and drops you into a pit you can’t get out of that has an angry sword-wielding knight waiting at the bottom, or when you’re being chased down a narrow hall by a demon, and suddenly two giant acid spitting millipedes burst through the ceiling and surround you, or when crossing that bridge with the freaking hellkite wyvern! Seriously! It gets me every time!

But that’s good! Forcing characters to deal with situations (especially ones that they would have otherwise avoided if given the chance) is what makes them interesting. It’s fun to see what they’ll do when they have to rely on gut instinct—but don’t make it easy for them! As said by Pixar in a list of storytelling tips, “Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.” If the hero of your story has a plan, ruin it. Throw something in that he didn’t expect. If the fate of the world relies on him retrieving an ancient artifact to defeat an equally ancient evil, put a banana peel outside the big baddie’s lair so he drops it down a storm grate at the last second. The ideal situation is for your hero to be so amazingly SOL, that even you don’t know how he’s supposed to succeed. It’s at that point that things get fun, because he’s going to have resort to something crazy, and you get to figure out what that crazy thing is.

In my life, the best examples of this have been in my few D&D (and blah blah variation) experiences. The best of which were in sessions of what my friends and I entitled, “Make a Reflex Save.” MaRS was based off a game style that one of my friend’s older brothers used to do when they played D&D, which was to put themselves in situations where they would all inevitably die at the end (such as starting in a rocket ship falling toward earth that was missing all its engines) and try to figure out how to survive in a set amount of time. During each game, we would start by making a reflex save to avoid some decisive danger. Only after that was done, did we actually figure out what was going on. To be honest, I didn’t survive very many of those adventures (I’m not good at remaining boring under pressure), but nonetheless, those are still my most memorable D&D experiences, simply because when I was in constant danger, I always had something to do, which brings me to my final point.

5 - Campfire Stories.

In Dark Souls, one of the most subtle, yet at the same time most interesting features, are the bonfires. All throughout the world of Dark Souls, there are small fires that your character can rest at to restore his limited supply of healing items, level up, and organize his spells. The whole game is centered around the idea that the fires of creation, which created light and dark, are going out, and if they do, only dark will remain. As such, these fires are more than just fire; they’re symbolic of the struggle to survive in a dark world. As you go through the game, you get the ability to kindle these fires, making them give you more healing items to help you on your quest, as well as doing something else special; they allow you a brief glimpse of the shadows of other players in their own respective games who are resting at the same fire as you.

All heroes need to rest eventually, but when they do, what will they remember of their adventures? This is an important thing to consider, seeing as whatever sticks most strongly with them is most likely what should be sticking with whoever reads your story as well. What pain was their most painful? What was their biggest victory? Their worst mistake? Did they redeem themselves for this, or will it forever be their greatest regret? Did they take anything with them in the end that brings to mind fond memories, or is their adventure something they would rather forget? Most important of all, what, if anything, did they learn? It’s these things that should be taken away once the story’s final syllable fades.

Bear with me here, because things are going to get a little bit meta, but imagine if the characters of your story actually were gathered around a campfire together, both bad and good. If they were to tell their versions of how things went down, how would the different individuals tell it? The noble leader might reminisce about the final battle, where he, alongside his closest friend, lead his army to glorious victory. His closest friend, on the other hand, might tell a story about how he watched the hero grow from a frightened child to a fearless warrior, focusing on all the events that molded him along the way, instead of just how things turned out in the end. The villain would obviously see things from a very different perspective, as would his underlings, as well as any random civilians that got caught up in the struggle. What about you? If you, the creator, were there with them, how would you tell the story?

That’s probably the most essential thing to know, because that’s the story you’re going to be telling, and of all those around the fire, it’s the one everyone will want to hear the most.

Thanks for reading, readers. If you have any questions or comments, perhaps about descriptions, perhaps about Dark Souls, or perhaps about boxes, then please, do share, and as always, stay classy.

18 comments:

  1. I've never played Dark Souls, but you're the second person I've heard talk excitedly about the high death rate (the first was Arin Hanson). It reminds me of old school D&D, so that's got me kinda interested. I've always been more of a platform gamer though (Diddy's Kong Quest! WHOO!!!) Not gonna lie, I geeked out when you mentioned D&D towards the end. I have to ask, which edition did you play? I'm guessing either 3rd or 3.5 (ick!) from the mention of Reflex saves

    Your writing advice was solid. Sorry I don't have anything further to say about it, but I'm having trouble thinking about anything other than D&D right now (and I wonder why my friends think I'm autistic). Um... what would you consider, from a purely aesthetic perspective, to be the ideal dimensions for a box?

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    1. 10cm X 8cm X 8cm, but I admit that my box aesthetics are a bit biased due to me already envisioning what would be inside. That's not exactly what I meant by "describe a box," though. What I meant was to describe the sensory details to get your brain warmed up for that sort of thing. For instance, one I've done before that's relevant at the moment is Fallout: Equestria. Fallout: Equestria is a beaten up box made of folded sheet metal with jagged edges and corners, inside of which are several of bricks of gold submerged entirely in used motor oil. See what I mean? Now you try! Now everyone try!

      As for D&D, I played 3.5, and pathfinder, and the Star Wars version, and well as D20 modern, though I never actually made it past level 5. As far as MaRS goes, however, pretty much all those campaigns were in D20 modern.

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    2. Oh, I know that's not what you meant. I just thought it was funny how your last paragraph made it sound like we could ask you about boxes in general

      You should try original 3E. All the fun of the d20 system without all the stupid changes

      I tried d20 Modern, but I couldn't enjoy it at all. We kept forgetting about action points, and I don't care for dissociated mechanics in roleplaying games anyways. Part of the problem may be the genre though, as my eyes glazed over whenever reading about guns and mechs

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    3. Oh, forgot to describe a box

      Diddy's Kong Quest is brine soaked English oak, rotting in places and crawling with beetles, but inside is a trove of Five Guineas

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    4. Ayyyyye!
      (Snappy finger-pointy motion)
      Nicely done.

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  2. Man, I used to be a hardcore gamer, but I slowly have been giving up video games in favor of ponies. I don't play anything at the moment (that may change when Pokemon X and Y come out), and haven't for quite some time. Add to that that I never got a lot of modern titles, and I really have no idea what this post is going on about.

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    1. To Future Present Perfect:

      FRIEND CODE!!!!

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    2. Only if the 3DS is compatible with my wifi. :|

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  3. I'm not much of a gamer, either. I haven't actually bought a game in about 6 years now. It just got to the point that I couldn't justify the constant upgrades required of your console/computer to keep up with the software.

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  4. "I sometimes think I am the only adult pony fan who isn't also a "hardcore gamer," but it's just not where I typically chose to invest my time."

    I can put that thought to rest, because I am by no means a hardcore gamer. In fact, even calling me a "gamer" would be quite a stretch. I have no games of my own, and the only time I ever play anything is when I see my folks and out of morbid curiosity start playing with their Wii or the Xbox.

    Anyway, excellent writing advice! I love that Pixar tip. I'm gonna have to remember that one...

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  5. Like Chris, and other people who've commented, I'm far from a hardcore gamer. I only seem to play video games once every blue moon nowadays. I have heard of Dark Souls, though, from one of my gamer friends and it does seem pretty hard, if nothing else. However, if you say it has somehow managed to be even better Shadow of the Colossus (my personal favourite video game, back from when I used to play them) then that's certainly enough to get my interest. I won't say I'm definitely gonna get it, but it's at least in the back of my mind now on the list of games I want to play--including games such as Journey, Limbo, and Portal 1 (I've only ever played Portal 2.)

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  6. Okay, gotta pull this up. I lane with Teemo and gank towers for... maximum AP? ...Yeah, not much of a "hardcore gamer" these days either, but I enjoy a good single player experience every now and again.

    I mostly play freeware indie titles (screw the hardware arms race and design-by-comittee sequels), but I do buy the occasional triple-A title. It's just hard to find time to play them (still gotta finish Spec Ops: The Line). For what it's worth, I think I get your analogies and I might check out Dark Souls.

    Out of interest, here are the rest of Pixar's story rules.

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    1. Also, I think you are the only person who can make !!! work, ChickenVortex. It is a dubious honour.

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    2. Hehe, your posting of the Pixar list is funny to me, Ezn. I don't want to completely give away why, but let's just say I was waaaay ahead of you. Also a fun fact; originally there were 5 exclamation marks, but apparently the powers that be thought that I was being too much of a loose cannon. A shame, since it nullified one of my favorite obscure references.

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  7. As 100% of the people above me have stated, I, too, am not a hardcore gamer... but Dark Souls. It's got what I want and lots of it. It's one of the few games that's actually good good, and not just okay and hyped-up by reputation. Perhaps not everyone will find as much enjoyment in it as I do, but I would be hard pressed to believe that anyone who appreciates quality and devoted some time to it wouldn't end up being impressed.

    Also G-E-N-E-R-I-C. That's my favorite game on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Play that too.

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    1. Just tried that G-E-N-E-R-I-C business.
      I'd say that was like an ordinary cardboard box, no bigger than one you've wrap a christmas present in, with a really cool toy in it.

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    2. And I'd say you'd be right! Seriously. So cool.

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  8. The last video game I played:

    Was "Tank" thirty years ago, but I enjoy anything that gets me thinking about structural elements in storytelling. And this sure did that!

    Chris, you and your crew have really got a great blog here.

    Mike

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