Cracking a Cold One with the Void – Gamers and Despair
In 2016, one of our feature editorials asked: “why do we love to die so much”? The question is a really good one, and it gets to the heart of one of gaming’s core themes. Indeed, there are some gamers who now rejoice in despair. Obtuse storytelling and mechanics that are difficult to grasp are nothing new, but they’ve been provided with a certain limelight over the past four or five years. My title is only half a joke, buried in an old meme. The ‘void’ and ’emptiness’ has transcended from being themes within games to be a state of mind. Gaming, through its audience, is entering into a form of romanticism.
Gamers and Difficulty
Let’s begin with the question, “why do we love to die so much”? There is an odd pleasure in the masochism of loss that a game can provide, but also an elation in eventual victory. Pioneers like Castlevania and Super Metroid laid the groundwork for modern interpretations like Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. Yet difficulty is only acknowledged as legitimate when it ‘makes sense’. The anger many feel around bosses in games like Destiny 1 exemplifies the fact. A term coined by the community, ‘artificial difficulty’, seeks to separate additional health from a legitimate challenge.
Games like Dark Souls have fed on this distinction, providing players with a predictable system in which they can take on the game and come out on top. Injustice in Dark Souls is associated with environments, the player builds considered unfair and ‘overpowered’ weapons. Yet in competitive spaces, players flock to websites which provide optimal builds within the confines of the game. What we define as acceptable difficulty changes from game to game and depend on the stakes.
Weather Factory’s recently released Cult Simulator demonstrates another aspect of difficulty. Through its fabulous confusion inducing gameplay, it demonstrates how lack of instruction in gaming was once a result of the medium itself. To see that, think back to Majora’s Mask. A player’s guide was necessary to find all the masks, yet the bizarre ways by which you obtained them only provided the game with a cult following. Now, a lack of clear instructions is replaced by well-maintained Wikis and player run environments.
The difficulty is thus not only venerated for its existence but the impetus it provides for the gaming community to come together. Banding against challenges which are surmountable, against purposefully difficult puzzles or hidden content will remain a staple of our community.
Finding beauty in desolation
The theme of death, through mechanics, is inherent in video-games. You die, you lose. With some very notable exceptions, this has formed the rationale for most of our upbringing as gamers. The chief difference in our day and age is that death in games is venerated as a testament to either emotion, trial, or perseverance.
Nier: Automata is one of my all-time favourite games. Yet at its core, Yoko Taro has snuck a common existential dread that has clearly resonated with a majority of the gaming community. However ambivalent many some may be on the protagonist or her attire, the game’s themes, like its predecessors, are particularly dark.
It’s become an increasing trend that sense and emotion are communicated to the player over a rational storyline. Nier: Automata is a perfect example of that orchestral-music infused despair. Characters are introduced only be torn asunder, the overarching quest (no spoilers) is also fraught with complication and hopelessness. The use of an android surrogate to tell real-world anxieties removes the player from an experience only to some degree.
Visually, many games are also inspired visually by the sublime. Putting the player character into perspective is only one of the amazing things God of War does. Dwarfing the player visually only makes our accomplishments more triumphant, just ask Team Ico.
Rooted in Individualism
Indeed, like the romantic movement, gamers are experiencing an increased need to pit themselves against the world and come out on top. If we put aside the other implications on nationalism, romantics need individual validation. Recent trends in Battle Royale games like Fortnite and PUBG or the continuing endurance of competitive online games like Overwatch and League are all demonstrative of that need. PUBG went through weeks of flack because of an increased presence of hackers and players with aimbots. The necessary feeling of equal opportunity, which is central to the battle royale genre, is flustered.
In fact, the practice of microtransactions has been present for over a decade in online games. It has only recently had it come under considerable legal scrutiny. Their expansion out of the MMO sphere and association with DLC heralded their demise. It has made them a prime target for a gaming community that is increasingly at odds with publishers. The anger of the community now clear, the industry will need to adapt or risk losing really good developers.
SO WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN
It means we love to be challenged. Many of us, by no, means all, like to die in games because it forces us to adapt. The gaming community increasingly separates itself by venerating individual skill. Simultaneously, it provides spaces where those who are uninitiated can learn from those who have beaten the games. Thinking of games, whether it be Dark Souls, Majora’s Mask or PUBG as a trial where one is defined by perseverance in the face of adversity and confusion is the best way I could put it.
It’s up to gamers to make the most of these romantic impulses, history knows not all of it is good. While emotion, individualism and a touch of pastoral obsession will provide masterpieces like Kingdom Come and Nier, it must also be framed within the participation of our community as a whole.
Like my ‘pa used to say, whether you invade as a wraith or put down your summon sign for co-op, you’re still looking to interact with another member of your community.
He didn’t say that.
But I stand by it.
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