Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Light & Darkness | Kingdom of Souls & Demon's Hearts

I've been having quite the itch to play through Kingdom Hearts lately, and at first I couldn't really figure out why. Obviously it was intertwined into my recent playtime with Demon's Souls, as I've been obsessively plundering it for the past week. It was a specific animation that I identified in the end though. This was that I was holding my Great Axe in a similar manner to Sora and how he typically wields his keyblade. After realizing what was causing the itch, I began to draw comparisons between the two. I was kind of stunned by what I found.

Contrary to what some may easily assume, this is not merely a response to a similar comparison I've seen this week1. I've just been slowly eking this one out since last week (though I am startled by the coincidence and appreciative of it as a supplement). The main factor that slowed writing this down so significantly was---well, let's just say I broke 100 hours in Demon's Souls earlier today.

I'm actually a big fan of the first Kingdom Hearts title. To some extent, I still harbor some love for the second game as well, but I've had no intent or desire to pick up any of the new games beyond Chain of Memories. Why? Well because KH2 easily allowed me to see where things were heading, and I've been angry as hell at Square-Enix ever since.

If one looks at Kingdom Hearts's' general fanbase/haters now, they'll generally boil down into two distinctive camps:

  • The obnoxious and overzealous fans who are hellbent on selfishly defending their own meaning and experience without any regard to criticism.

    and...

  • The worthlessly pretentious RPG elitists who are simply bewildered as to why such a franchise has the above following to begin with.

    Of course we could identify these in a substantial number of other titles and franchises as well, but Kingdom Hearts stands out for the intensity that both parties tend to exude. It's not really all that hard to discern 'why' when meaning has been found, this is why the elitists are just as moronic as the unquestioning. Simply watching or indulging pretention as it gets stuck on such a question is akin to getting enjoyment from listening to a broken record skip. It's very rare for any 'story-based' experience to not confront a certain line in which pandering narrative mechanics are called into question (this is different from, but not the same as 'jumping the shark'). Kingdom Hearts formally accomplished this confrontation with the second title, and the roots were presented in Chains of Memories.

    This is what leads me into Demon's Souls, as it's another game where the common descriptors often rely on the basic assumption that it is a storyless game. This is a fallacious claim, just as it is to call KH strictly narrative-based. The problem is that the two titles are truly at diametrical odds, each to their own detriment. Kingdom Hearts relies on its narrative when it's often questionable whether or not it should and Demon's Souls exercises an almost unbearable amount of restraint in terms of how its lore unfolds to the player.

    If we're looking at this from a strictly narrative basis though, it's almost as if the games are exhibiting a Dunning–Kruger effect2 for themselves.

    Insecure Games

    Kingdom Hearts appears to be lost in its own darkness, as since Chain of Memories, superfluous instances of narrative scale simply take all priority from the game proper. An example of this is the degree of linearity inherent in each Disney world that can be explored within the games. It's arrogant to the point where it seems disconnected to the very same narrative it's trying to tell.

    Demon's Souls on the other hand, seems almost overly focused on the most stubborn glimmer of light that's ever been seen. This is what makes actually playing the damn thing so addictive, it just comes off as a timid dungeon crawler basically. The illusion that the game is empty is also further obfuscated by the now-infamous thick haze of challenge provided through the game's ruthlessly uncompromising nature. Some people just simply cannot get over a game kicking them in the nuts and tits when they do something stupid.

    Social Simulation

    The characters in Kingdom Hearts are all handled rather haphazardly considering their origins. This includes both the Final Fantasy cameos and the Disney ones. Most people got so enamored with having the potential of the two world's juxtaposition in front of them, they never really noticed how odd it got at times (I count myself among these). It's really the original characters that the player should be focused on (Sora, Riku, Kairi, etc.), but the games are quite comfortable with hiding behind the cacophonous reality that is slamming Simba next to Sora instead. It's also mildly amusing to note that the Final Fantasy protagonists got dark fangirlish makeovers for their appearance in the game. Yeah, Cloud was NOT that cool. I actually liked him in Kingdom Hearts, thanks for the crossover confusion though.

    Demon's Souls gets described as an intensely lonely game and for good reason. There is a definitive social aspect to it though, even when looked at in a pure offline context. The trouble is that From Software designed most of the characters to be engaged at highly impenetrable times (mostly through the World Tendency system, which I'm still not sure I get the point of). The ones that can be accessed without the world tendency prerequisites hint at the above restraint once again. As an example here, there would have been nothing wrong with giving Yuria an abundance of dialouge (especially since there is a 'Talk' option for most 'unlockable' NPCs anyway). Almost every confrontable character in Demon's Souls is interesting in their own respect, but they come off as just hollow and lightly designed characters when closely looked upon.

    Narrative Nitwits

    Kingdom Hearts as I mentioned above, is obsessed with itself. It prefers to unnecessarily adorn its own world with worthless characters, predictable tropes, and fuckyeahfriendship thematics that almost make me sick. This is actually a betrayal of both the Disney and Squaresoft worlds that most of the characters originate from, especially since most of them stand the test of time by including some of the more darker sides of life within their overall messages (the extent of how contrived THOSE are is another story entirely).

    I don't know why people say Demon's Souls is completely devoid of a tale though. Yeah, it's certainly hiding, but it's not exactly doing a good job of it. The game stumbles upon how this is presented to the player in almost every world. On one hand I can see how this was designed and purposeful, on the other---I just see an awkward implementation that would have been far easier and worthwhile to just fix. There's one popular instance (which I'll get to in the next post), in which everything about the players' motives gets called into question. A certain boss who is almost a pure embodiment of 'light', must be murdered.

    Boy/Girl & Women/Men

    Kingdom Hearts comes off as an action RPG 'for the kids'. On default settings, there isn't one specific encounter in which I couldn't imagine my preteen niece not being able to simply 'mash x' through. The sense of accomplishment in the game is very minimal, often traded completely in lieu of Sora and co. superficially yammering on about 'the darkness'. It consistently takes backseat to the story it's trying to convey, which in tandem with the actual play---just makes the entire experience come off as obtuse (paticularly the second title).

    The first thing anybody's probably heard about Demon's Souls however, is most likely that it's a nigh sadomasochistic experience. What's actually up with this game is that it's uncomprimising, nothing more---nothing less. If one walks into any fight simply 'mashing x' (in Demon's Souls case, R1), the enemy will quickly light your ass on fire---even the Dreglings, the lowest peons in the game, adhere to this rule.

    "The Daddy Mac will make you..."

    I have a bad habit to immediately form a liking for any game that simply lets me jump around, which is why I'd assume I'll never be able to completely let go of any Kingdom Hearts game. Jumping is inherently part of maneuvering the worlds and even if the platforming is questionable at every turn (which is being generous), I'm rarely left in the dark trying to navigate the environment. It's a cognitive connect I've perverted since I was a kid.

    The bitch that is Demon's Souls does NOT let you jump, and yet there are instances of platforming in the game. Mostly this is done through simply letting your character fall off cliffs to reach small alcoves below for treasures, secrets, and shortcuts. The most notable one is in Stonefang Tunnel, which presents an optional route to the Flamelurker boss that would otherwise take ten-twenty minutes if the player decided to take the less dangerous path instead. Demon's Souls continually makes use of dropping off into a a pit of nothingness to explore some dim light shining some 100 feet down.

    >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

    This was actually part of much longer post, but I’ve decided to split it up over the next few weeks as I continue to play through Demon's Souls's ‘plus modes’. I’ve also currently hopped on the Minecraft train as well, but I don’t see myself slowing down in Demon’s Souls anytime soon. So I think I’ll just cut my audience some slack and just break the posts up into digestible chunks instead, as I come across new concepts to articulate and whatnot.

    The point of this post however, isn’t to hate on Kingdom Hearts or even Demon’s Souls for that matter, but merely to express my perspective that Kingdom Hearts as a franchise has prematurely become messy. It will continue to sell as well, because it has its hooks in enough people to do so, which is the greatest tragedy. It will descend into oblivion3 as that continues too. This is once again, in stark contrast to Demon’s Souls, which has done fairly well for itself given the type of game it is---in the landscape of gamers that now exists. From Software is even keeping its oath4 which was 'voiced' with Demon's Souls mere existence, by developing a spiritual successor5 to the game.

    I'll seal this entry off by acknowleding how pointless it's become to simply argue over the 'emergent vs authored' narratives, and I’ll quote Michael Abbott’s post speaking on that specific note:

    "For what it’s worth, I don't see the question as simply emergent vs embedded narrative because that binary frame oversimplifies, in my view. Parts of Etrian Odyssey III's story are authored, parts emerge from the player's experience, and parts seem to fall somewhere between the two, provoked by the game's design, but interpreted by the player in individual ways."

    Demon's Souls fits in that quote as well, and I intend to voice why over the next few posts.

  • Michael Abbott's Brainy Gamer, 'Impotent narrative'