Games We Grew Up With: Super Mario Land

If you are reading this article there is a good chance that video games have had quite a significant impact on your life.

Whether you still frequently sit down to play your favourite AAA title or you occasionally check out a video game news site to keep track of what is going on in the world of gaming, you will no doubt have fond memories of your first gaming experience.

In this series of articles I am going to share some of my formative experiences of video games as I grew up, partly to reminisce fondly, and partly to see if my experiences are shared by any of you.

After all joining together with other people in a shared experience is one of the more enjoyable aspects that video games offer us.

So where would we start with this trip down memory lane? Well, I think it is best to start with my first console; the Gameboy.

Game-Boy-FL
The nostalgia begins…

I don’t recall exactly how old I was when I received my Gameboy. I remember that it came bundled with a carry case, which allowed me to both store the Gameboy and many games, as well as two games; Super Mario Land and Super Mario Land 2: Six Golden Coins.

This is where my gaming fever began.

Whilst I remember fairly little about my first forays with those games, a few key memories stand out to me.

With Super Mario Land I struggled with some of the platforming. I remember I could get past world 1-1 and 1-2 but I don’t think I ever frequently made it past 1-3. I remember the first time I made it to ocean level being baffled by the constantly scrolling submarine, whilst thinking it was very cool I could now shoot the enemies, and the desert level with rolling boulders and the heartbreak of falling off a rock into a spike pit on my last life.

Devastation is the only way to describe that experience as a young child.

My next memory is when we had family come to visit us from Australia. I had an older cousin who was firmly in her teens as the time, and she wanted to see the games I had. I remember watching over her shoulder with awe as she blitzed her way through levels I struggled with, and then the joy when she would get to a level I had not played and she would pass the Gameboy to me to have a go.

I would inevitably run the lives down and feel bad about causing a reset, but she didn’t mind. I still remember being in awe when I saw her complete the game. Something I could not do at the time so I knew how skilled she had to be to be able to do it!

It’s funny how excited I was watching someone else play my game, but it was a team effort. It was my game, she was playing, and it was our victory. Even if I did, objectively, bring very little to the team.

But this experience is one I feel is common to those of us that enjoy video games.

When you see the modern world of entertainment revolving around e-sports, streamers and let’s play videos, it is clear that this sensation of joy and excitement of experiencing video games alongside other people is something that unites gamers.

Maybe that sensation is routed in nostalgia for the games we used to play, but the effect is very tangible.

The entertainment industry is being shaped by our experiences of huddling around the screen of the one friend who had the one-player game we wanted to watch them play, so we could experience it together.

What was your first gaming experience?

Leave a comment below and share your story! I will tie some of these experiences into future articles in this series.

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Giff Wars Session 3 Part 2: The City of Alder

The continuation of the journal of Nei, a Paladin in the service of House Organo.

The Party

 

I called over Eddie, Alicath, and Geoff. We looked at the object discussing what it could possibly be. It was getting dark however and so we agreed to rest until morning.

As we turned to go below deck I noticed Geoff had just finished his giant wing, leaving only the rigid bones behind. He gave it a powerful throw and it became lodged in the ship’s mast. Geoff looked at the damage to the mast with delight and yanked the bone back out, adding it merrily to his arsenal of weaponry. The airship itself continued to fly just fine, the masts were evidently purely decorative.

When we awoke, the city of Aldar was much closer and it had become clear what the object was from the night before; an absolutely mammoth giff airship. We called Ubi to the deck and he looked grave. ‘So, it’s true,’ he said. ‘That used to be my ship, although it appears that the Giff Empire have made some alterations.’ In the middle of the ship there was a large green crystalline structure that protruded from the top, which Ubi informed us was not part of the original structure, and two large propellers pointing down. Underneath the ship, two streams of small supply ships ferry back and forth, one entering, and one leaving the ship.

San said that we couldn’t get much closer to Aldar on the ship we were on, as we were likely to be spotted. We agreed that we would take the lifeboats to the shore and make our way there on foot. Ricktar chose to stay behind and help lead the crew for the escape. The lifeboats were released and hit the water with a splash, and San chucked a rope off the side of the deck. I went first, but wearing heavy armour and gauntlets do not a fine climber make.

Nei Slides
Nei slides gracelessly past a featherfalling Alicath and Ubi

I slid rapidly down the rope smacking into, and capsizing, one of the lifeboats before tumbling clumsily into the water. I heard a heavy splash as Eddie hit the water badly near me. I struggled to get back out from under the boat, but was grateful for the air pocket that under the boat. Geoff flipped the boat over with Eddie and myself inside, saving us. As I surfaced I saw that Alicath was perched on Ubi’s head, who was resting in the water lazily.

Alicath and Ubi
Alicath keeps himself dry

Geoff helped us, but didn’t take his eyes off Ubi, muttering something about how a giant Hippo-oid can be so dextrous and he was so creepy.

We headed to the shore with Ubi in one boat and everyone else in the other and the he walk from the shore to Aldar went undisturbed.

Aldar itself was quiet and the area we arrived in looked particularly run-down. Troops in giff armour were stationed around the place, but the diverse range of sizes and shapes suggested that these are not giff. Geoff is familiar with the criminal network in the area and said that he had a contact here that owned a safe house we could use. He did a special knock on the door and a slot opened up revealing a shady-looking elf.

Stealthing through Alder
The party makes a criminal contact

Geoff spoke with the man and said we were flying with the legendary smuggler San Holo. The man ushered us in and closed the door behind us, looking around as he did so.

The man said his name was Joey, and he asked how he could help. Geoff explained the task at hand and Joey said he could provide two giff uniforms in exchange for our royal armour and civilian clothing for the rest. I reluctantly handed over my embellished shield to Joey who exchanged it for a subtler buckler shield. Joey handed Geoff a quiver of seemingly endless depth for his weaponry, along with two speaking stones. Eddie and Geoff took civilian outfits, and Alicath and myself dressed in giff armour.

Alicath and Nei
Alicath and Nei enjoy the perfect disguise

Joey said the king could be in the castle but had heard rumours that he had been imprisoned in the giff ship above us. In light of this a plan was hatched to board one of the supply ships.

We stealthed over to the docks. The docks weren’t heavily guarded, perhaps only five giff guards were there, the majority of people bustling around were dock workers, a couple were bloodied and beaten. On the right side of the docks sat wooden boxes of all shapes and sizes. On the left were the lanes for supply ships arriving and departing. Ubi found a box big enough for him and climbed inside. Eddie and Geoff share another empty box. Alicath and myself dart to a third box but find it is almost completely full of sweetcorn! We squeezed inside and struggle unsuccessfully to completely close the lid. In the corner of his eye, a worker noticed one of the boxes lid’s moving. We could hear him muttering about damn animals stealing all their food, as he walked over to investigate.

The box with Alicath and myself inside starts to open…

Written by Chloe Wakefield

Artwork by Jess Butcher – www.friendlyurchin.com

Edited by Aaron Surnaym

Previous: A Moment’s Respite

Next: Infiltration

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Giff Wars Session 3: A Moment’s Respite

The continuation of the journal of Nei, a Paladin in the service of House Organo.

The Party

 

Master Ubi disregarded the strange sight of the creature’s shadow, explaining that the beast was called a peryton and that they’re delicious! Eddie looked sceptical. Nevertheless, master Ubi disappeared into a back room with the beast’s decapitated head, and returned to collect its carcass, leaving a dark smear of blood as he dragged it behind him.

‘I’m bloody starving,’ grumbled one of the airship’s crew. San decided to head downstairs to look for food before he had a mutiny on his hands. He returned shortly after looking flustered. ‘Our food stocks are low;’ he exclaimed, ‘and all the barrels are open! I believe we may have a stowaway on board!’ I gripped my warhammer tightly and Eddie drew his flaming sword. Heading cautiously below deck it became immediately obvious that we were not alone. I traced a trail of crumbs with to a dark corner of the food-storage room where a large raggedy man lay sleeping, covered by a dirty quilt.

Eddie stepped forward and drenched the figure with summoned water. The barbarian woke with a start, falchion at the ready, and very angry. He was quite a sight; teeth bared, two of them golden, wearing a scrappy leather jacket, and bloodshot purple eyes. He also appeared to be wearing a rather familiar set of military armour. ‘What’dya want!?’ He barked, ‘N’ who ar’ya!?’ I stepped forward, warhammer poised.

‘You first,’ I said resolutely, eyes narrowing. Just behind me, a frightened Alicath silently created a zone of truth.

Geoff
Geoff the Barbarian is ready to split some skulls

The man weighed his chances and yielded. ‘M’ name’s Geoff,’ he said.

‘I knew we had a stowaway!’ said San, pushing past, and staring at the man. ‘

Oo’ya callin’ a stowaway? Oi were ‘ere first!’ replied the man incredulously.

happy barb
A barbarian defends his honour

‘Well I think you’d better start explaining yourself, and how you come to be wearing our armour,’ I commanded, warhammer held threateningly. The man explained that he served King Organo and that he was on the same ship we were, escaping when it came under attack, and landing on the island. From there he travelled to Port Isley and snuck on board an airship for shelter.

Eddie and Alicath, examining the man, noted that he actually seemed familiar. ‘You’re not the infamous corporal Geoff? We’re big fans!’ The man straightens up proudly and beamed a disgusting smile.

‘T’ very same,’ he replied. Once the nerves of the encounter begin to simmer down, the intrusive stench and grossness of the room became very apparent. ‘Oi’ve bin ‘ere four fuckin’ days. Whad’ya expect?’ Geoff replied to our complaints.

‘Well,’ quipped Eddie, ‘at least you were wearing your brown pants!’

Ricktar, unamused, declared he’s not touching any of this food and left the room. Alicath, Eddie and I followed suit. Alicath chucked Geoff a lemon. ‘You’re looking like you might need this,’ he said. Geoff devoured the lemon whole. San went to leave but hesitated, gingerly grabbing some food for the crew before heading upstairs.

‘We need to do something about Geoff,’ Ricktar said, and we agree to bring him to see master Ubi. We entered Ubi’s quarters and were hit by a second wave of stench, this time of strong chemicals and rancid flesh. ‘As above so below,’ I muttered. An enormous boiling pot sat in the middle of the room pouring out thick, foul-smelling, steam and Ubi was busy in the corner preserving the deceased peryton’s head.

‘We found a stowaway aboard the ship,’ announced Eddie but Geoff protested,

‘Oi’m nor’ a fuckin’ stowaway!’ Ubi peered through his monocle, taking in the man, but remained largely unconcerned. ‘Tha’ goin’?’ Geoff asked, gesturing to the large wing sitting in the pot.

‘But of course!’ said master Ubi, passing the nauseating meat to Geoff. Alicath attempted to cast blindness on himself to dull his sense of smell, which was somewhat too effective; numbing his tongue in the process.

Tasty Snack
Geoff enjoys a tasty snack

‘Leb geb oubba here,’ he blubbered heading to the door. Eddie and myself needed no encouragement and we leave the room gasping for fresh air. Meanwhile Geoff happily gnawed on his leathery wing.

One of the crew approaches me and tried to pass me a rotten skull on a stone necklace as an offering to the gods. ‘There is only one true god,’ I proclaims stoutly, slapping the offering away.

20190626_155039.jpg
Nei momentarily forgets the religion she has professed to the bugbear crew

The bugbear, indignant, turned away sadly. Rolling my eyes, I called after it apologetically saying I’ll take the offering. The bugbear smiled and left. I cast the necklace over the side of the airship and watched as it fell away. Dumb bugbear. Raising my gaze, I looked to the horizon and could see the city of Alder in the distance.

Just above it however, through the clouds, was something unnatural, something big…

Written by Chloe Wakefield

Artwork by Jess Butcher – www.friendlyurchin.com

Edited by Aaron Surnaym

Previous: To the Skies!

Next: The City of Alder

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Giff Wars Session 2 Part 2: To the Skies!

The continuation of the journal of Nei, a Paladin in the service of House Organo.

The Party

 

According to Alicath, he and Eddie played a delightful tune. In fact, it was quite literally the best thing the pub-goers had ever heard and the band they forced out was not remotely pleased.

Dragon Bros
Alicath and Eddie, Dragonbros!

The band told Alicath that him and Eddie had ruined their livelihoods now! They had only ever played one tune – and it’s four notes, the crowd wouldn’t want them back again! Alicath promised to teach them at some point, wondering about the crowd’s standards… Eddie meanwhile engaged a small unscrupulous crowd who seem interested in crewing a ship for him, for a price.

Meanwhile, I was emboldened by the success of my first round of recruitment, and attempted another! I engaged the captain of one of the larger ships who was by the pier talking to his crew. ‘Can you help me?’ I asked, ‘I am on a mission from God.’

The captain was not impressed so I tried a different approach, pulling out a sword and pointing it at his chest. The captain however pointed out I was vastly outnumbered and had no chance. He calmly yet firmly suggested I head on my way, something I agreed with. I went to the tavern, pulled up a bar stool beside Ricktar, and ordered my own stiff drink.

Eddie and Alicath regrouped with Ricktar and myself at the bar. Eddie said he had agreed with a man called San that he would take us to Aldar for five thousand gold pieces.

San Holo
San Holo, the charming rogue…

Ricktar suggested we should get Ubi and he left. However, on leaving the pub he saw two Giff guards engaging an official-looking man. The man was pointing directly in our direction and talking urgently. Ricktar returned to warn us and we escaped out of the back of the tavern.

Alicath disappeared back into the tavern to his surprise was almost immediately intercepted by the guards. However he successfully bluffed them, apparently saying, ‘Me no speak common.’ The guards let him pass through and continued their search.

Ricktar reached Ubi and informed him we met a man called San who will do the job for five thousand, wincing as he said it. The Giff however did not wince. He grabbed a bag from his satchel and threw it to Ricktar. ‘That should cover it’ he said.

This Giff clearly did not mess around.

The Giff guards left the tavern and I headed back inside. The ten-strong crew I recruited earlier were impatient and wanted to go. I told them to wait for us at the pier at dusk. Eddie told San the same.

At dusk we reconvened at the docks.

We climbed up to one of the smaller airships in silence, and we can see it is tied down with ropes, laden with bells. Clearly an effective anti-theft measure. That is, if you’re not expecting a lizard blizzard wizard. Eddie Izzard stepped forward; a gleam in his eye, knowing his time to shine had come.

He carefully manipulated the seawater into the bells, and froze it in place. He then swiped with his sword at the knot tying the ship down and the rope fell away. There was a not-inconspicuous splash as the rope smacked into the calm sea in the port below.

In the town bells rang out.

As the airship receded from the shoreline our minds returned to the mission at hand and the unlikely chances of us coming out alive. We are so few against such great odds. Our thoughts however didn’t remain undisturbed as a crewmember yelled.

‘Incoming!’

We peered over the sides of the deck and several large flying creatures were headed our way. Eddie shot an ice-spear right through one of their wings, but the creature carried on flying, barely perturbed by the hole in its wing, flying in a way that seemed almost unnatural.

A spell burst into the air, which immobilized three of the beasts. One of the beasts body-slammed into Alicath leaving him practically at death’s door.

20190626_154423.jpg
Alicath crushed beneath the strange beast

Eddie threw his flaming sword, magically guiding it straight into the beast’s eye. Ricktar came at its flank and, with an almighty swing of his greatsword, decapitated it.

The three beasts behind us broke free of their charm, but the airship had moved on and they turned away, knowing they can’t catch up.

On deck we nurse Alicath back to health, but Alicath was staring at something much more sinister. The dead beast’s shadow was not beast-like at all; it was human.

We are not far from Aldar…

Written by Chloe Wakefield

Artwork by Jess Butcher – www.friendlyurchin.com

Edited by Aaron Surnaym

Previous: Port Isley

Next: A Moment’s Respite

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Giff Wars Session 2: Port Isley

The continuation of the journal of Nei, a Paladin in the service of House Organo.

The Party

 

The Giff’s hut sat in the middle of a large peaceful clearing. There was a quaint little lake just at the back.

Inside the hut, the Giff bumbled around; slightly too large for his surroundings he knocked a pile of books off the shelf as he walked by. ‘Dearie me!’ he laughed to himself. ‘Tea was it?’ He asked us.

‘Yes, Oolong if you have it!’ Alicath replied. Ubi offered us all some bright purple bourbons.

‘Delicious!’ I couldn’t help but cry out.

‘Yes… delicious,’ said Ricktar, eying the remaining bourbons on the shelf with a suspicious longing look in his eye. The hippo-oid came back shortly after with oolong for everyone and joined us next to the crackling fire.

‘Let’s get down to business’ he said addressing our group. He told us about magic and machines and how he had served alongside the princess’s father in the Ascension War. Taking out the letter, he inspected the seal. ‘This letter is from King Organo himself, and imbued with magic,’ he announced,  ‘Watch this…’ He picked up some tongs by the fire and, clasping the letter, delivered it into the flames. The letter burned away and just as something metallic dropped into the grate, the flames took on a life of their own, dancing around violently.

In the flames an image started to form of the King. His booming voice emanated from the fireplace, although more hollow, and with a tinge of desperation. ‘Ubi, my old friend,’ he said. ‘The Giff Empire has resurrected your airship. The resistance will have no chance if it remains in the enemy’s possession. You know it’s power; continents *will* be destroyed. Help us defeat it. You are our only hope.’

The flames died down and Ubi retrieved something from the fireplace. Turning it over in his hands, light bounced off the sigil of House Organo.

‘This is grave news indeed,’ Ubi said, breaking the silence. ‘We must go at once to Alder and speak to the King, but first,’ he said standing up, ‘there are some things I think you will do well to take,’

He led us into his storage room and dug out a box full of sword hilts. Eddie had a quizzical look at this development and Ricktar asks gruffly what use a box of hilts is. Ubi guffawed and said that these were not mere hilts. He passed one to Eddie and told him to press a small button on the side. Eddie was unfortunately unsure what a button was. But I knew what these were; sunswords!

Alicath Pose
Alicath admiring the sunswords, pre-burn

I took a hilt, pressed the button and instantly a long flame burst out of the end. Overzealously I flourished it around enthusiastically but ended up badly burning myself and singed Alicath in the process. Ubi handed out more hilts to the party, and various complaints, and some fixes later, including the manufacture of a sungun and a sunstaff, Ubi then gave Ricktar and myself two metal canisters. ‘Be extremely cautious to keep your flaming swords away from these if you want to live,’ he smirked.

‘What use are these?’ Ricktar grumbled. Ubi led us outside and threw one of the canisters at the distant trees. A blinding light and one enormous explosion later, several trees were flattened and we were slightly dazed even at that distance. Ubi turned around and said,

‘Now you know why there’s a clearing here. Keep your flames away.’

We headed back inside briefly to gather our belongings. By the shelf Ricktar was stuffing an ungodly amount of bourbons under his armour.

Ricktar Bourborns
Ricktar dealing with an unfortunate addiction to bourbon biscuits on the road.

A short time after, we set off into the jungle towards Port Isley.

The journey went undisturbed and it was midday by the time we arrived at the outskirts of town. The port below us was bustling with a diverse variety of people. At the sea was a pier with airships above and seaships below. The largest ship, an Empire ship, appeared to have cannons on it!

Ubi is disapproved of our outlandish outfits and sensibly handed us each a cloak from his bag. We agreed to head into town and for Ubi to stay behind on this hill. On the way towards the port however we disagreed on how to proceed. Ricktar and myself wanted to take the big Empire ship, but Alicath and Eddie wanted to take a smaller ship and go for a more subtle approach.

The team had a dispute and decided to split up!

I found a group of airship crew and persuaded them to join me in crewing a ship as “we are on a mission from God[unspecific]”. The crew eagerly agreed and I said I would give them direction later.

Nei on a mission
Nei on a mission from a god, but dont ask which one…

Ricktar meanwhile headed to a nearby tavern where, it turned out, Eddie and Alicath were currently playing a song on stage. Ricktar shook his head at the display and ordered himself a stiff drink from the bar…

Written by Chloe Wakefield

Artwork by Jess Butcher – www.friendlyurchin.com

Edited by Aaron Surnaym

Previous: The Hunt for Ubi

Next: To the Skies

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Dark Souls: Video Game Literary Classics 101

‘If only I could be so grossly incandescent…’

Dark Souls

You sit in a cell in the Undead Asylum.

You cannot die, but you can be left to rot.

And so you wait.

You cannot remember who you are or how long you have waited, losing your humanity…

…until someone drops your key to freedom through a hole in the ceiling.

And with that key hope is kindled.

It is hard to be part of the modern video game and media world without being at least familiar with the name of the game Dark Souls. It became particularly popularised in internet circles for its punishing difficulty and the associated catchphrase ‘Git Gud’ which is often the only advice offered to individuals who struggle to progress with the game.

But if a high difficulty were all that made this game notable it would be quickly forgotten. After all a real challenge is presented by many video games out there, and other options can often be more accessible than Dark Souls, offering players difficulty sliders to fit their challenge preferences.

So what sets Dark Souls apart?

There is no simple answer to this question, which I think is part of the game’s beauty, but in this article we can explore some of the threads of this answer that I am more drawn to.

1) Your character is not special

When you start there is nothing spectacular about your player character. You are a husk of a human. You cannot die, but that is true of many in the world you inhabit. It is not a glorious immortality you experience, but a debilitating curse.

You spend the game trying to break this curse, but you are just as well equipped as any other undying human to do this. There are plenty of humans more skilled at fighting than you, better equipped, and you live in a world filled with fantastical beasts and lovecraftian horrors.

At no point in the game does your character become anything close to invincible or overpowered.

You could be strong enough to fight the final boss, and still be quickly killed by enemies in the starting area if you are careless. A fact that many people showcase when they perform runs of the game without levelling up at all.

So what impact does this have on the player experience?

When someone experiences a story they need a character that is their proxy to provide the experiences the reader needs to feel.

This is why you start the Lord of the Rings in Hobbiton with Frodo; you have a character that lives a simple ‘country life’ where events and happenings are a close analogue to our real world. Frodo has little knowledge of the world outside those borders, any of the more fantastical elements of the world. But then Frodo moves out of Hobbiton into the unknown, and as he learns about the complex world he lives in, so do we. Frodo is our proxy.

In Dark Souls we are given that character; unskilled in combat, unknowing about the world, and unprepared for the task that is ahead.

But you get better.

The more you fight the more you learn how to respond to the enemy and how to beat them. Your character does not gain any special abilities to shortcut combat, but you personally get better at the combat that is functionally the same at the beginning of the game as it is at the end of it.

Your characters ability is directly proportional to your personal ability, and if you are not winning in a fight, you can only, generally, win if you personally learn how to be better at fighting in game. This dynamic is what gets commonly reduced to ‘Git Gud’ on forums. There is not a shortcut to success and death is part of the experience.

With that in mind.

2) Failure is part of the journey

You will die in Dark Souls.

If someone says that they have played Dark Souls without dying I would be confident in calling that person a liar.

Why?

Because you are meant to die in Dark Souls.

This was a fact I personally struggled with when I first started playing the game, often switching off the console before the death properly registered and autosaved.

It was rage and frustration that led me to do this.

In most games death is a fail state, a sign that you were not good enough to succeed. It is something I have been trained over the years to avoid as much as possible. And the impact of this attitude was obvious when I first played Dark Souls.

I was afraid to progress.

I was afraid of moving away from safe-zones, and areas where I knew the layout of enemies.

Because I was afraid of dying in game.

But the game is more fun when you take the plunge and accept you will die. You still need to be cautious and careful to progress, but if you fear the consequences of failure you will not progress at all.

Death in Dark Souls is part of the story. The game continues after you die. You return to life at the last bonfire you rested at. Items you used before your death are gone, but your experience remains. This is because your death is canon within the game. The thing that sets your character apart from the hollow undead you see scattered around the world is that you keep striving to reach your goal, whilst the hollows stopped trying.

You as the player keep playing, keep trying and keep learning from mistakes of the past.

In doing so you work out how to overcome the challenges you face and if you persevere you will eventually succeed.

You succeed in the same way as your character succeeds. Dying constantly and learning from that experience.

In this the game does something clever. On one level it helps you the player to learn that it is okay to not succeed. Failure is not a permanent state, nor is it a final state. It is just a step that you, and everyone else, must experience in the continued story that is life. Learning that failure is not the end is an important lesson in life, and Dark Souls incorporates this lesson into the heart and soul of the game.

On another level your character reaches their goal by learning that lesson as well. They are a human that is only remarkable in one respect. They persevere. That is the story that Dark Souls tells. An unremarkable individual with no particular talents or abilities will defeat the strongest creatures in the world, because they persevere and do not give up despite the setbacks they face.

3) Your character does not achieve the goal they set out to complete.

This part of the article contains major story spoilers, so if you do not want the ending to this game spoiled before you can play it, I would stop reading now and return once you have played it.

When you first start the game you have no particular goal. You are given a goal by way of a prophesy from the man to rescues you from your cell; to end the curse of undying.

To do this you must ring the bells of awakening.

And so your character sets out, fighting through enemies and monsters. But you never actually manage to end this curse.

It is something beyond you.

You are informed by Kingseeker Frampt, the primordial serpent that is awoken by the bells of awakening, that it is your job to succeed Gwyn, Lord of Cinder.

You must succeed Gwyn and preserve the Age of Fire by linking the first flame.

Which involves burning yourself in the first flame that will feed off the eternal strength of your undying soul.

You are destined to sacrifice yourself to keep the first flame alive and stop the growing darkness. You are told this will cure the curse of undying.

Unless you meet Darkstalker Kaathe before Kingseeker Frampt.

Darkstalker Kaathe is hard to find accidentally in game, but he lets you know the truth, or a kind of truth.

Kingseeker Frampt is not your friend.

He seeks only to keep the fires lit, a failing and ultimately fruitless task.

If you meet the Darkstalker you can instead choose to let the fires die, and you walk off into an uncertain future.

You do not learn what becomes of your character in this ending. All you know is that the light has died and darkness will grow.

So what is important about this choice? Surely the Darkstalker’s plan is evil? Shouldn’t light live on?

Maybe not.

Your character is told a story where light is good and dark is evil, and so preservation of the light prevents evil from growing.

But your character is lied to.

At the Kiln of the First Flame you meet Gwyn, Lord of Cinder. A husk of what he once was. A hollow shell, like so many of the undying that you have met before him.

The light is slowly failing and the world is stuck in a strange limbo. People don’t die, much like the fires of the first flame, and the world looks tired.

Maybe, just like how it is natural for people to die, the flames should be allowed to go out.

Maybe there is potential for something new, in a world of ashes than the world of the dying flame.

After all the Age of Fire came after the Age of Ancients, in which nothing changed and everything was stagnant. Gwyn felt this was not good but now fights to preserve his own unchanging age, fighting against the most fundamental of processes in life: change.

Dark Souls plays off of our traditional pre-loaded notions of good and evil.

Humans are naturally phototropic beings, being drawn towards the light.

But the world of Dark Souls is not our own.

And that instinct is being used to manipulate us.

Ultimately your character does not manage, as far as they know, to break the curse of the undying.

They will either let the flame die and usher in the age of darkness, or they will spend the rest of their lives burning, until the Kingseeker finds a new undying to take your place, and an endless cycle continues.

The ‘good’ ending is unknowable.

They are both debatable.

Both have dire consequences. You and your character have no unique insight into the situation.

You lack the full understanding of as to what the consequences of your actions are.

But you must choose to do one or the other, or consign yourself to slowly hollowing, losing what humanity you have left.

Conclusion

These are just 3 aspects of Dark Souls that make it the classic game it is. Much more can be said about the game, which I may touch on at a later article, but for now I will conclude with this.

Dark Souls tells a human story.

An unremarkable human without perfect knowledge sets out to try and help the world.

They face challenges and setbacks, but they grow, and develop as they learn from their mistakes and overcome their challenges.

They reach points in their life where decisions need to be made, but they are uncertain as to what is the best course of action.

They have the power to shape or change the world by their perseverance, but do not know how they actions can affect everything.

And you the player join them through this experience.

You make the choices in imperfect knowledge, build up the skills, test your perseverance, and are left unsure as to whether or not you made the world a better place or a worse one.

You can convince yourself either way.

But you will never know.

This game is a classic because is speaks to those fundamental human drives of overcoming adversity, and finding purpose.

But you do not know what impact your life will have.

And that is all part of the human story.

This article is part of Backlog Crusader’s Video Game Literary Classics 101. If you are interested in more of these articles follow this link to read more!
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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

A defeated shinobi sits in a well. No companions. No sword. No hope. An unknown figure drops an item down to them, an item that gives them hope as they pick themselves up to fight another day.

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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice opens on a familiar note for a From Software game, and one that harkens back to the first Dark Souls game, which truly brought From Software into the mainstream gaming consciousness.

Since its release Sekiro has garnered a reputation for being punishingly difficult even for, or maybe particularly for seasoned From Software fans. This issue in essence revolves around the difference in combat that From Software introduces in this game; the emphasis on parrying. In Demon Souls and Dark Souls you can block and roll your way to victory, in Bloodborne you dodge and parry when you can to go in for the kill, but in Sekiro you stand your ground and parry until your opponent’s posture breaks, leaving you with an opening. That is the basic design and combat flows, with variation, around this core combat component.

I have played Demon Souls, Dark Souls, Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne. I have only completed Demon Souls, and as such I view myself as an experienced player, but not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, and I have the strong tendency to play these games offline for fear that an invading player will decimate me. My enjoyment tends to come more from the exploration of these immersive worlds rather than the PvP elements, a view I am aware is akin to sacrilege in certain circles. Out of all of these games Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice is the game that I have found most accessible.

The first thing to be said about this game is that it is beautiful. It is set in a fictional 15th century Japan and brings all of the known From Software artistic style to From Software’s home country, stepping away from the pseudo-european settings of previous games. Your character runs and glides through the air, climbing pagodas and cliffs, with a range and freedom of movement that has not been seen in the games the company has produced so far. Your character can run and jump and climb, and this is augmented with a grappling hook that allows you to take to the rooftops and approach the game from a different angle. This freedom of movement makes the game all the more fun to explore than the previous glued to the ground games that From Software has made.

This freedom of movement also results in a new way to approach enemies that again was never a formally implemented system in other games; stealth. I love a good stealth game, and Sekiro has an effective stealth system that works fluidly with the combat mechanics. You can get through most combat situations by stealthily killing targets before they see you, and most bosses can have their first health bar wiped out by a stealth attack. Sometimes stealth can feel a bit like cheesing the game, but combat is challenging enough that occasionally running away and hiding becomes a vital part of surviving the game. You are, after all, a shinobi; a ninja. You attack quickly and quietly and slip back into the shadows before you can be caught.

The game is a challenge and is filled with mini-bosses that are designed as skill checks to keep your abilities honed, but it is not the impossible game that it has been portrayed as by many individuals who have played it. The checkpoints are far more frequent In Sekiro when compared to previous From Software games, so lost progress is rarely significant, and losing money and experience rarely feels like the anxiety inducing panic it can be in other From Software games. This worry over death is further reduced by the fact that you cannot recover lost money and experience. When it is gone it is gone. The feeling of finality removes the stress of the second run to recover lost items that is present in all previous From Software games. The Dragonrot mechanic counterbalances the reduction of these death penalties. The more times you die in Sekiro the more the NPC’s you interact with suffer with an affliction called Dragonrot. This affliction prevents NPC stories from progressing further, so if you want to follow those stories you need to keep those deaths down. If however you are less interested in the world building then it means you can focus on the gameplay with minimal death consequences, which allows you to bounce back into combat quickly after death.

This reduction in death penalties means that I can sit down with the game for a about an hour and beat a boss with minimal backtracking from the 1-5 deaths it takes to find the best technique to beat them. This game structure is perfect for gaming in your spare time when you have a busy life, whilst still feeling like you are making significant game progress.

The combat is fast, and unforgiving, but deceptively simple. You time your blocks with the enemy attacks and strike back in the openings you make. There are several kinds of unblockable attack you must dodge or counter to avoid, and you can then punish the enemy with the opening you have created. Every fight fits this pattern, with different emphasis put on different aspects of the combat system, without fully breaking away. Coming from Dark Souls, where a visibly heavy attack must be dodged and not blocked for fear of having your block broken, it takes some getting used to. You are able to block and parry the moveset of creatures twice your size, and once you adapt to this you feel incredibly powerful in combat, despite the vulnerability of your flimsy life gauge.

If you enjoy a From Software games it is likely you will enjoy this game, but you will have to adapt how you fight (Remember parry, don’t roll). If you find From Software paced too slowly, then this game may be what you are looking for. I love this game and it fits my gameplay style perfectly. I will always recommend this game, but with the following caveat. The game does require a base level of skill in relation to timing. As many reviews have highlighted, if you don’t adapt to the combat you will not have a good time. If you are familiar with modern gaming you probably have all the skills you need to enjoy this game, but it does not go easy on you if you if you do not meet that base requirement. However if you do, then there is not a From Software game I can recommend more to someone who has not played one before, or someone who is looking for something fresh from the makers of the Soulsborne games.

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Stardew Valley

A Beautiful journey into the countryside idyll.

Stardew Valley opens with your character working a dead end job for the mega conglomerate Jojo Corp. Tired of the city rat race your character turns to an envelope gifted by your grandfather on his deathbed. Opening the letter you learn that your grandfather has left you his farm in the quaint Pelican Town in the eponymous Stardew Valley.

Stardew Valley is a game that never stood out to me as a game I wanted to play when it first came out; farming simulators are not my cup of tea, or so I thought.

I have played the game for several hours, picking it up on a commute or in a lunch break, and the game fits this style of gameplay perfectly. It has beautiful pixel graphics and a charming soundtrack, two things that I loved about publisher Chucklefish’s own game Starbound. Stardew Valley invites you to dip your toe into the country bumpkin lifestyle, growing crops, farming animals and making friends with the residents of the small town trying to cope with the difficulties of village life in a world increasingly based around city economies.

The stress of actual farming (crops unexpectedly failing, trying to find a buyer for your produce, business management) is stripped away leaving a zen plant, wait and explore dynamic, which is peaceful relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable. It is the perfect game to experience the escape to the country dream through.

The game has a variety of farm maps to pick from, although you only choose once per save file, in the character creation screen, and you can customise the layout and interior of your farm buildings, if you choose to have any. You can grow crops or farm animals, you can process the products these produce into more valuable artisan goods, you can explore and fight monsters in mines, or you can go around the town making friends with the NPCs and start a family with children.

The game has a tight knit play-cycle, with 1 hour on the in-game clock equating to roughly 1 minute real-time, meaning each in game day is 15-18 minutes long in real-time depending on when you send your character to sleep. This short day cycle fits a mobile game perfectly, it is designed for you to be able to spend 20 minutes enjoying when you have a moment, and it is a genuinely relaxing 20 minutes.

The short play-cycle does lead to the old ‘I will do just one more thing and stop playing – oh dear how did I keep playing for another hour?’ situation, but as this is not a game designed to get you addicted in the manner of many mobile games, and you incur no penalty for just ending playtime for a while, there are no daily rewards or in-app purchase systems to dig into your brain. I have an addictive personality when it comes to those kinds of games and it was a genuinely stress relieving experience to realise that I can come away from the game and miss no limited events or daily bonuses if I forget to play one day. I can truly play at my leisure.

If you have the money to spare and even a passing interest in what this game has to offer I fully recommend purchasing it. I was uncertain about it prior to purchase, and it has turned into one of the most enjoyable games own, a window into a beautiful pixel world, and a perfect break from the stress of city life.

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God of War

Kratos has killed the entire pantheon of Olympus, and the world is torn asunder.

Everyone is dead.

The world is flooded.

But through it all, like a butterfly from Pandora’s box, there is a trace of hope.

If you are looking for an experience similar to the God of War franchise of old, this game is probably not for you. Gone are the fixed camera angles, floaty combat and quick time events. But the developers have replaced these things with something unexpected. They have given God of War a heart.

The old God of War games were well known for the way they fitted every teenager’s idea of what makes a game cool. Blood, guts, giant monsters, sexy women willing to sleep with you for no apparent reason, more blood and guts and a whole lot of extreme anger towards everything and everyone. It was a teenage angsty game, and much like those who played it in the early 2000’s, it has grown up.

The game opens with a much older-looking Kratos, cutting down a tree in the woods, with a young boy – his son. The first thing you do is finish preparing a funeral pyre for your wife, the mother to your son.

It is slow.

It is intimate.

It is heartfelt.

Your wife’s last wish?

To have her ashes scattered at the highest peak in all the realms.

This is the basis for your journey, and so you travel with your son to complete his mother’s last wish. Atreus, or ‘boy’ as Kratos tends to call him, has lived a sheltered life and is learning about the world and, importantly, about his father. It is apparent that there is not much of a relationship between Kratos and his son, and you, the player, are taken on the journey as they come to learn more about each other and about the world that they share. And they kill a lot of things on the way.

The game is not as gratuitous as in previous titles, but it does not shy away from violence. Kratos still tears enemies apart, but combat has been reworked to feel heavier, and more methodical, appropriate for an old god that has lived with all the sins of his past. You fight alongside your son, who slowly becomes a more proficient fighter as you fight alongside him, until by the end game he becomes a force of nature by himself, able to dispatch enemies before you have to. The game is at its core still an action platformer, that has been reworked for a modern audience, and the action is tight, taking influences from the evasive combat of Dark Souls, and the fluid multi-attack combat of the Batman Arkham games. The most you get for quick-time events will be occasional finishing moves against larger opponents, but the loss of these is not necessarily a bad thing, in a world where QTE’s have been done to death, following the early God of War games. The game’s story is linear but there is a large central hub for exploration if you wish to tickle that free-roaming itch, which is appropriately awards players who care to look with lore and skills and items to help you make things deader faster.

The game itself is set within the nine-realms of Norse mythology, a world that it captures beautifully. The icy environments are simply stunning, as snow blows around a grizzled and bearded Kratos, the world feels real. I thought the game was so beautiful that I bought the God of War Art Book so that I could revel in the juicy concept art that made such a visually delightful game.

But for all of the tight combat and beautiful graphics, it is the story where God of War truly sets itself apart.

The parent-child dynamic feels deeply personal. Seeing Atreus grow and who he is becoming becomes a central theme throughout this game and it is one that feels particularly hard-hitting given the knowledge that you the player and Kratos have about who Kratos is and what he has done. The story is emotive as Kratos hides who he was from his son, in the hopes that his son can be different, and not shaped by his own past, but his son is still affected by Kratos’ issues with emotional communication, which are a consequence of everything Kratos has done.

This game is a solid action platformer with beautiful graphics. I have completed the game, and have almost got a platinum trophy from completing all the side-quests, so I have squeezed about as much as I can out of the game, and I have enjoyed every second of it. The older God of War games were not particularly to my taste, but if you like a good character exploration story, with healthy doses of Norse mythology, and tight action, then the new God of War will be right up your alley.

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No Man’s Sky – A Zen Exploration

I have a full-time job.

I have a young child who I have to put to bed as soon as I get home after a long work day.

I have very little mental capacity to focus on anything when I finally sit down and rest.

No Man’s Sky has been my game of choice for these days.

I have Dark Souls, The Witcher 3, and even Metal Gear Solid: Phantom Pain in my catalogue of games I need to finish, but these are all games that require more thought and mental activity than I can muster at the end of a long day, as I am sure more than a fair number of ‘grown-up’ video game fans can attest to. It is in this exhausted mental void that I discovered the beauty that is No Man’s Sky.

At its launch No Man’s Sky was a monumental flop with everyone who had been interested in the game. I was not one of those people, having heard of No Man’s Sky in video game media, but nothing about it seemed to spark my curiosity. This is something I am incredibly grateful for, as it means I have not approached the game from a place of previously being burned by it. In the years since initial release No Man’s Sky has had several large updates, including Atlas Rises and NEXT. After these updates I found it selling for £10 on the PlayStation Store, and noted that it had started to get some positive reviews. I figured I would give it a shot, if the game was rubbish I wouldn’t need to cry over it. With this in mind I took to the stars.

This is not so much a review, as there are plenty of those elsewhere, as it is a record of my experience with this controversial game. I really love this game. I have recorded about 32 hours gameplay, and it has been a relaxing exploration through the vast emptiness of space. I have a handful of personal ships and one large Freighter, which I treat mostly as storage for the various items I collect. I have the beginnings of a base, which I initially built simply to further one of the in-game quest lines, but have slowly started to add to as my desire to do so has grown. There are lots of ‘bits’ to do, lots of quests, which are generally not my cup of tea and I simply activate so they can be fulfilled in the background to reward my own exploration, but they mostly follow the same formula and get repetitive easily. However the exploration truly is the name of this game.

My favourite thing to do in No Man’s Sky is land on a planet I like to look of, so no scorched or barren ones thank you very much, and just explore. Scanning all the animals I can find, looking for strange new plants on the surface, then hopping in my ship, flying a bit further around the planet, and hopping out again to see if there is anything I have missed. Ensuring I stop by any outposts on the surface, and have a good old-fashioned loot, is simple and repetitive, but the infinite variation of kinds of animals and plants makes this experience a tranquil one. With headphones on you become your traveller, listening for the squeaks or creaks of animals, exploring caves, or just stopping to get a beautiful view of the procedurally generated universe. The photo above I took on a toxic planet, which I just thoroughly enjoyed exploring. I can’t put my finger on what it was about this planet that kept me exploring for several evenings in a row, but it was an immersive and compelling experience, that truly helped me to relax at the end of a long day.

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Giant antlered care-bears are the perfect way to relax at the end of the day.

With the approach I take to exploration the piecemeal storyline and drips of information as and when you find specific monoliths or computers works perfectly. I am not playing this game desiring a story, and so the little bits I pick up on different planets make me feel like an archaeologist picking through the pieces of an ancient civilisation. I can see how this game is not everyone’s cup of tea, and in a different life I think I would be among those people, but when you are exhausted, sometimes it is nice to just take to the stars and see what you can find.

There is a kind of multiplayer in this game, but I don’t enjoy other people entering my game-space. I like multiplayer in other games, but when it comes to No Man’s Sky, having another player on your isolated planet is like having someone trampling on your freshly planted flowerbed, it interrupts the very thing you are there to enjoy. Whenever someone starts to connect to my currently habited galaxy I always get that feeling of ‘out of all the galaxies in the universe you had to warp into mine’. Which is quite funny given the name of the game. The feeling of isolation is one that I crave in-game, and this is probably due to the strain of being an introvert working in a very extrovert-centric job.

This game is a real joy. Is it perfect? No. is it grindy? Kinda. Is fun? Absolutely. This limitless, isolated exploration is something that will keep me coming back to No Man’s Sky for years to come, when I get tired of the story driven games I tend to be drawn to, and with its recent update, that I will soon be playing, I am looking forward to many new and interesting things to discover.

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