Mental Health in Video Games: Metal Gear Solid V

This article contains massive spoilers for the Metal Gear Solid franchise.

Metal Gear Solid V is a mixed bag of a game.

It has excellent, polished gameplay, offset by cut content and erratic storytelling. But that does not prevent the finale to this iconic video game saga from moments of heart-wrenching storytelling brilliance.

The theme of the game is in the title, ‘phantom pain’. The sensation of feeling something you have lost. The experience of living after trauma and the scars that you bear as a result.

This is represented physically in the loss of Snake’s arm, but goes so much deeper in the storytelling than that.

Trauma

The game starts in Ground Zeroes with a rescue mission. You have to save a child soldier, Chico, and an enemy spy, Paz, from a US military base situated on Cuba, which is a representation of Guantanamo Bay in all but name.

ground zeroes

If you have played Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker this opening is particularly impactful. These are two characters that were an uplifting and friendly presence throughout the game, as you built up Militares Sans Frontiers, and your Mother Base. Right up to Paz’s heel turn at the end of the game they are friends, and even then Paz seems forced into her betrayal, wanting to spend just one more day with the new family she has found.

Snake goes in to rescue them, and finds them horribly broken and abused, victims of sexual violence and torturous surgical procedures. It is the darkest Metal Gear Solid has ever been and it is deeply upsetting and uncomfortable to see, bringing a jarring level of grittiness to always slightly wacky Metal Gear continuity.

You manage to rescue both and exfiltrate the black ops site, ready to return home. But then the real horror sets in. Paz has a bomb stitched inside her and the support team and Big Boss have to perform emergency surgery to remove the bomb whilst still in transit. No anesthesia, no antiseptic, just blood and pain.

paz

The bomb is removed successfully, but what awaits the rescue team on their return is nothing but further horror. They come back to Mother Base, the base you the player built in previous games, to find it under attack and burning. A surprise assault, and everyone was caught off guard. Everything you built is being destroyed. As you try to escape the onslaught, Paz awakens from her pain-induced stupor. ‘There is another bomb!’ In a panic she gets up and runs to the helicopter door. ‘Somewhere, you wouldn’t look,’ she says darkly, as she jumps out of the helicopter to save you, but it is too late. Paz explodes a few feet out of the helicopter, sending it and you crashing into the sea.

You awake 9 years later, in a hospital. Your face and body are scarred, a piece of bone-shrapnel is protruding from your head; it was embedded in part of your brain and could not safely be removed. Hundreds of pieces of bone and tooth shrapnel were removed from your body, but it was not safe to remove the pieces near your brain or your heart. Your arm is missing. The representation of the horror you just experienced.

But that is not the end.

You establish a new Mother Base, a new company, the Diamond Dogs, a new life. But the ghosts do not fade. As you explore your new Mother Base you come across an unexpected surprise. Paz is sat in a hospital bed in the Medical Wing. She is happy to see you and apparently has no recollection of the trauma she experienced. “She is experiencing some kind of dissociative disorder” your right-hand man announces as he stands next to you, she can’t seem to remember anything about what happened and seems trapped in her schoolgirl persona.

Suddenly you remember! The bomb was found! She said there was another and the medic managed to remove it in time. The helicopter crashed when it was attacked by a missile launch, not because of Paz exploding, which must have been some incorrect memory, or nightmare.

But she is clearly not well and is suffering from some kind of amnesia. You need to collect photos from old Mother Base staff to show her, to remind her who is really is and what happened.

Paz hospital

The collection of photos seems to bring back recollections but it does not sit well with Paz, leading her to feel increasingly sick and nauseous. And then it happens. You walk into her hospital room one day to see her facing away from you. Blood pooling on the floor beneath her. She turns around to face you and you see with horror she has cut open her belly and is digging through her own intestines as she cries out about there being another bomb inside her. You try to stop her. She is safe. You got the other bomb. And then she pulls it out. The second bomb. Suddenly you are back on the helicopter crying out for her as she jumps from the vehicle only to explode in mid-air. You awaken outside the medical ward to find it still under construction.

She never survived. You never had the conversations with your right-hand man about her. You are suffering from the dissociative disorder. You can hear her voice as she tells you she died long ago, and you need to learn to live with that. She is gone and she cannot be brought back, no matter who you kill or what you do.

The game’s twist ending is that you are not Big Boss. You are the medic from the helicopter, you missed the second bomb and your brain invented a world where you never made that mistake, where Paz didn’t die.

Snake mirror

In your comatose state you underwent hypnotherapy and cosmetic surgery to be a body double for Big Boss, and as the hypnotherapy wears off you remember everything.

Reflecting Real Life

In my life, I have had two experiences that resulted in emotional trauma, which impacted how I perceived the reality of the world around me, and both occurred within a relatively short period of time.

The first was the death of my Grandmother. It was sudden and unexpected, and I was close to her. For months after her death I would dream that she was alive and everything was normal, and these dreams would feel like memories. Being at her house it felt like she was just in another room. The reality that she is gone is one that feels more unreal than the belief that I might see her at any moment. I have had to consciously remind myself that she is dead many times, as my brain tries to hide that painful fact from me.

The second was the birth of my child. I was nervous about the dangers of childbirth, but after some perinatal classes, my fears were more settled. On the evening that my wife was in labour everything was progressing well, until it wasn’t. Unexpectedly my child turned its head and suddenly the doctors needed to rush us to the theatre. I have never felt such an acute sense of the possibility that I could lose the people I love the most dearly in my life, and that there was nothing I could do to help. I was stood there, forced to watch and unable to help as all my horrors seemed to be realised. Thankfully they were not. My wife and child were fine, but the emotional damage was present.

Sometime after the birth we were all home, when I went to go get a drink when I saw a water bottle we had used at the hospital. Suddenly I was back in that hospital theatre, panic and fear flooding my body. I had a panic attack. It felt completely real. I was back there again.

Catharsis

The way that Metal Gear Solid V explores the mental health of Punished (or Venom) Snake, is deep and impactful. It is hard to describe the experience of living with emotional trauma, but the final entry in the Metal Gear saga does it well.

Snake is not the only one left with emotional scars. He struggles with hallucinations and damaged memories, whilst his comrade Miller experiences a massive personality shift, driven by anger and rage, he loses the charming, cheery approach to leadership that he brought in Peace Walker.

In a similar way we all experience trauma differently. It can be hard to look at the pain you have experienced and find a way to process it. But sometimes naming something and experiencing something by proxy can help the process of healing. For me, playing The Phantom Pain has been part of that process. Seeing someone give words and pictures and sound to my experience, has helped me find catharsis.

Impressions: The Spyro Reignited Trilogy

My first Spiro game was Spiro: Year of the Dragon and I remember loving it. It was simple, it was fun, it had some platforming based puzzles, which were perfect for a young gamer such as myself at the time. It was a light experience.

Because of this, my nostalgia hype-o-meter hit dangerously high levels when I discovered that a remake of Spyro was going to be made, only updating the graphics to current generation specs, whilst maintaining all of the old gameplay.

I was excited, after all this would be the perfect opportunity to experience the older games I never played in high fidelity, as well as getting to re-experience Year of the Dragon. So I had no choice but to get the eloquently titled Spyro Reignited Trilogy upon its release.

Spyro Game Case

My first impression upon loading up the game? The graphics are beautiful. This is Spyro as I remember it, but so much more polished. The colours are vibrant and the character models are crisp. Every level has been painstakingly recreated with precision and it feels like there is some love in there too.

This collection does not feel like so many ‘HD Remasters’ that we see frequently, which are in essence ports of older games with a bit of spit and polish, that are released, sometimes successfully, and sometimes like the infamous Silent Hill: HD Collection, very unsuccessfully. This collection is a remake, where the game has been rebuilt from scratch to bring it to us, and Insomniac Games were brought back, to work alongside the developer Toys for Bob, to ensure that everything about this project managed to get Spyro just right.

Spyro has never looked so pretty

I enjoy playing challenging games, but as many of you will be aware, there is only so long you can play difficult games before you need to take a break. The Spyro Reignited Trilogy is that break. It is a relaxing breath of fresh air. Simple puzzles are enjoyable to play, and this is a game I will be able to let my child play much sooner than Bloodborne or Metal Gear Solid. The flying levels are an actual challenge and a pain to get 100% completion on, but some challenges are to be welcomed when you have such an easy and relaxing time playing the rest of the game.

Furthermore, the trophies available in the game are a little bit outside of the box compared to the usual progress check trophies that are found in modern games. Trophies are granted for slightly more novel exercises, which take some intention to do. They are nothing complex, but it adds to the experience, making them similar to the classic skill points that still be obtained in-game.

I am enjoying working playing my way through the Spiro Reignited Trilogy, and it provides a crisp and nostalgic breath of fresh air to the modern line up of hardcore challenging games that I tend to spend more of my time playing.

The Shining: Watch It Or Read It First?

This article contains minor spoilers for both the book and film adaptation of The Shining.

If you are reading this there is a good chance that you know the drama that comes whenever a film or TV series based on a book comes out. Do you watch it straight away or try to read the source material beforehand?

I am a habitual read the book firstperson, and the worst kind of person to watch a book based film with. Throughout the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Lord of the Rings films I have had to constantly consciously hold my tongue to stop me whispering my insider knowledge to my irritated family I am seeing the film with. Often with the announcement at the end of the film that the book was better’.

But with time I have learned to appreciate and respect the differences between the two story telling mediums. Following these points of personal growth, I did what once I thought was unthinkable, and saw a film before reading the book.

The film in question?

Stanley Kubricks iconic film The Shining.

The Movie Poster (Shining)

The film is so interspersed in our pop culture that many scenes in the film will be familiar to watchers by virtue of parody in other shows such as The Simpsons, which is why I thought it was a prime candidate for this experiment. And with the experiment now complete, I am ready to share the results with you, to help you make the decision on whether or not you want to break with tradition and watch this film before reading the book.

What are you wanting to experience?

Whilst both mediums tell a similar story each has a different focus that fundamentally changes the experience for the reader/viewer. Both book and film tell the story of the haunting experiences of the Torrancefamily whilst they are snowed in at the isolated Overlook Hotel over the course of several months. But how that story is told varies distinctly, and naturally when you have experienced one medium, some of the tension is pulled out of the other by the reader/viewers foreknowledge of the events that are going to unfold. In fact I believe that this foreknowledge is what was likely to be responsible for my issues with the pacing of the book, which I highlighted in my review last week.

The book has a distinct focus on the more supernatural elements of the story, looking into the dark history of the Overlook Hotel, and the obsession that starts to grow within the Torrance family, in relation to this storied history. In this regards it is much clearer what is happening in the book when compared to the film. There is some distinctly odd imagery in the film that seem unexplained and weird for weirdness sake, however it becomes more clear what this imagery is in reference to upon reading the book. Further the titular shiningis explored with much greater detail in the book and is a relevant plot point, whereas it seems to be a vestigial story element in the film, and could be entirely cut without removing anything significant from the story.

The film by contrast focuses on the mental trauma of isolation and the growing madness it causes. Haunting events still occur, but the question in the viewer’s mind is Is this happening or is it all in their heads?As a note of personal preference I find this horror to be more effective, as it feels more grounded in reality. The film continually utilises long cuts to build tension which works perfectly with the more psychological horror theme of the film. In a more artistic note the film uses single-point perspective extensively, clear inspiration for Wes Anderson’s later work. The combination of long cuts and single point perspectives build a sense of the enormity of the Overlook Hotel and the isolation the Torrance family are experiencing.

Both mediums explore themes of toxic masculinity and the damaging effect of patriarchal norms on men and those they love, however the book treats Jack Torrance in a distinctly more sympathetic manner than the film. Jack Nicholsons portrayal of the head of the Torrance house has a continual undertone of an unhinged individual, complicit in his own madness, whereas the book paints the picture of a sincere man struggling to fight his own demons despite his best efforts. Neither can be said to be objectively better than the other as each portrayal is directly linked to the greater thematic focus of each medium.

Does one story completely ruin the other?

The short answer is no. The long answer is that in addition to the different narrative and thematic focus of the book and the film, there are important set-piece differences between the two mediums, which I was surprised to discover. Without spoiling both the film and book completely there are distinct differences between the film and the books climaxes, which are each suited to their own medium and story, and would be less suited to the other should the scenes be switched.

Because of this you will not ruin the film by reading the book first and neither will you ruin the book by watching the film first. It comes down to a point of personal preference which you watch or read first, which hopefully I have helped to advise you on. In either case I would fully recommend experiencing both, as it is rare to find such an effective example of how to tell the same story in two different mediums and how one can effectively adapt a book to a film without sacrificing the artistic integrity of both mediums.

Book Review: The Shining by Stephen King

‘REDRUM’

The Shining Book Cover

When it comes to the horror genre there are few authors as established as Stephen King, with ‘The Shining’ being almost as well known as the author himself.

This is in part, due to Stanley Kubrick’s iconic adaptation of the novel, which launched Jack Nicholson’s career. But this is not the article to discuss the film. Here we are discussing the book.

‘The Shining’ follows the Torrance family as they take over residence of the Overlook Hotel, which closes down business for the icy winter months. Jack, the patriarchal head of the family is hired to be the caretaker of the hotel whilst it is closed, performing necessary maintenance and ensuring the central heating pipes don’t burst from the cold.

But the Overlook has a dark and sordid history, and as the snowdrifts close in, that history starts to come to life.

An Introduction to Horror

I do not have a large exposure to the horror genre when it comes to novels, so this book was something of a toe in the water for me. And I have been left intrigued in the genre, but would not consider myself sold yet.

The book switches from the perspectives of several characters, including each member of the Torrance family. This gifts the reader with interesting insights into the mental states of each character, which is particularly gripping when we are shown things through the eyes of Jack and Danny. But between moments of gripping tension are lulls that seem to go in for a bit too long. Wendy is not written sympathetically, and her self-doubt drags the tension built by the other characters’ perspectives.

There are also moments of awkward, hammy foreshadowing that feel too on the nose to compliment the subtle sensation of growing evil that King is trying to kindle in the reader.

But these hiccups do not undo what King does right. Dark toxic relationships and self-delusion are explored wonderfully, adding a grounding dose of reality to the growing madness that takes place at the Overlook. Whilst the book is undeniably a supernatural horror, the human, non-supernatural elements ratchet the tension, making the supernatural occurrences all the more terrifying.

The crescendo of the story has the feel of a false start, losing tension too quickly but when it does pick up the pace again the climax is tense and disturbing.

Overall I enjoyed reading this book. The Shining is not a masterpiece of writing; scattered with a few too many obscure metaphors, and the pacing issues I have spoken about above, but what it does well it does very well. It is a satisfying read and I am looking forward to exploring more of King’s writings to see if they offer more of the tasty morsels that I found in this book.

Flashback Friday: “Rage of Demons: Lizardfolk”

It’s another Flashback Friday, where we look at an old article I wrote a a year ago. This weeks article is a continuation of the model painting articles I first started this site with!

I hope to revisit some model painting articles in the future when I have time to break out my paints once again! Until then I hope you enjoy!

Rage of Demons: Lizardfolk

This article was first published on 22nd September 2018

Following on from my Banshee post I decided I would post another model that I only had to ink for me to be completely satisfied with the end product. That model is a Lizardfolk that I got out of the same set of Rage of Demons boxes that I got the Banshees out of.

How the Lizardfolk model looked out of the box.

Once again the modelling on this particular model is beautiful and precise. This is joined with an excellent paint job; one of the best paint jobs I have seen on these models. The paint is on the correct parts and does not overlap onto sections it should not be, even the printed on face is precise.  This figure looks almost exactly like the artwork in both the Monster Manual and Volo’s Guide to Monsters.

The only thing I was unhappy with was the fact that all of those beautiful details were not emphasised by the painting. With that in mind I watered down some paints again!

I mixed a very dark, almost black, shade of green and watered it down into an almost ink-like texture once again. I then carefully painted it only over the green and brown painted parts of the model, making sure that it stuck in all the needed cracks and crevices. Once I had done this I mixed a dark yellow; not too dark, but enough to add some shade to the cream coloured scales that were on the Lizardfolk’s belly and underside. In the same way I then inked the cream scales and left it all to dry.

How the Lizardfolk looked after ‘inking’.

As can be seen the adding of the ultra-thin paint just makes the model ‘pop’; you can even see detail on the shield that I had not even noticed before painting, and the whole model is lifted to a new level.

I will post up some images of more extensive paint-jobs soon.

 

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Impressions: Persona 5

“Take your heart!”

Persona-5

The Persona series of games is well known in in gaming circles as an incredibly popular Japanese Roleplaying Game. Being hailed by some as the greatest JRPG of all time is what drew my attention to Persona 5.

I have a love-hate relationship with Japanese Roleplaying Games. When they are good, they are incredible, with my first exposure to them being the Pokémon games, followed by the Final Fantasy series and highlights in my experience including Dragon Quest VII and Ni No Kuni. But when they are bad they are long, boring, repetitive and grindy.

Persona 5 is, without a doubt, an excellent JRPG.

The first noticeable thing about this game is the lively jazzy music that accompanies the introduction sequence. The music is upbeat, and sets the dynamic atmosphere of the game so perfectly. The next thing you are introduced to is the beautiful anime art style that is eye catching and matches the music’s dynamic jazzy theme.

If you enjoy high quality anime animation, you will enjoy the cut scenes and art style of Persona 5.

But there is more to this game that music and animation.

The game follows Joker and his Phantom Thieves as they try to make the world a better place by changing the hearts of evil people by ‘stealing’ their twisted desires.  The way this works is very abstract and not the most clear, but in essence Joker and his Phantom Thieves can enter the subconscious world and through this can change the hearts of those around them.

Does it make perfect sense?

No.

Does it work?

Absolutely.

Take your Heart
Calling card of the Thieves…

The game structure takes the form of a series of heists that the Phantom Thieves have to complete as their world becomes increasingly complicated as the stakes and drama escalate.

The game is divided between ‘downtime’ activities where you can level up your personal stats, buy equipment and spend time with your ‘confidants’ who are friends you make along your journey, and ‘heists’ where you try to steal someone’s heart and have to fight shadowy monsters in turn based combat.

Combat works in a similar way to most turn based JRPGs; you have a team of characters that utilise a variety of attacks that have different elemental types, against enemies that have a variety of weaknesses. If you manage to hit an enemies weakness you can stun the enemy, and if you manage to stun the whole enemy team you can hold them up, either to attack them with a massive team attack, or to try to demand money or items from them. Successfully completing a hold up generally ends combat, so it is best to work out enemy weaknesses quickly in combat.

PT
Ready for action!

Your team also have weaknesses to certain elements, which can result in enemies chaining attacks against you. This means that combat can be over very quickly, either in your favour or a by way of a quick TPK.

The system has its ups and downs and combat swings from exciting to boring. It feels exciting when you work out an enemy’s weakness and suddenly have them at your mercy, and certain boss fights have dynamic battle elements that make those battles unique and more interesting. On the downside when you know an enemy weakness, every subsequent battle becomes a mere interrupt from the main exploration screen, because the battles have no challenge when you know an enemy’s weakness.

In an attempt to balance this there are some enemies that have elemental weaknesses but have such a large pool of hit-points that you do barely any damage even when hitting its weakness every turn. I find these fights frustrating as I have had encounters where I know an enemies weakness and spend 5-10 minutes hitting its weakness and holding it up and attacking, only for it to pull out an unexpected move chain that one-shots the party. Then I have to fight the start over with only a minor variation to account for that new move, but the slog of ‘hit the weak point’ makes this process tedious.

My greatest fear is enemies that have no weakness. These are dangerous because you are unable to stun lock them, unless you score a critical hit, but they can stun lock you. But when there is no elemental weakness it does mean you have to bring more strategy to combat, which is a good thing.

These niggles with combat only come out occasionally, and for the most part combat is fast paced and exciting, which adds to the dynamic feel of the game, and makes it exciting to play.

The story the game presents is very interesting. I have already written one article on how it explores anxiety and mental health issues, and have another planned on how the game explores identity and the Japanese concepts of honne and tatemae. There is a lot the game has to say about the human condition, and it is fun to explore these ideas in the manner the game presents them, and I have more articles planned for the future that will explore these ideas, giving them more space than I can offer them in this overview.

I can see why this game is so beloved. If you are not a fan of JRPG’s this is not likely to sway you, but if you are uncertain about the genre, it is hard to find a better example of a quality JRPG that is worth exploring the genre through. Suffice it to say this game is essential playing if you are a fan of JRPGs.

Persona 5 is the first game I played in the series and has a self-contained story, much like the Final Fantasy games. Because of this Persona 5 forms a perfect entry point to the series for anyone who is curious about what Persona has to offer.

I have not yet finished this game and am so excited to see what else this game has to offer. I will be sure to share future thoughts on this game with you, so feel free to follow this site or my twitter if you want to be updated when I post new content.

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Flashback Friday: “Rage of Demons: Banshee”

Now This is art, not real life is one year old, I can start to flashback to some of my older posts. If you haven’t seen these before this is the perfect oppertunity to read some new content, or see where this website started!

With that in mind this Flashback Friday I want to take a look back at the first post I ever made on This is art, not real life.

Rage of Demons: Banshee

This article was originally published on 15th September 2018

I bought a few boxes of the Dungeons and Dragons mini-figures for Rage of Demons. I have recently bought the Out of the Abyss adventure and as I was reading through it I thought I would see how the mini-figures look, and I was very impressed.

The figures are very well molded, and very nicely detailed however unsurprisingly the paint work on them as a lot to be desired. Often the printed-on eyes look much better than I could achieve with paints, but they are often not placed accurately, and the rest of the paint on the models is, generally, of a low quality.

With that in mind I have decided to record my painting of these models. The first models I painted were two Banshees I picked up from two different boxes.

20180915_160408
How the Banshee looked out of the box.

As you can see the molding is very detailed and the plastic it is made out of works perfectly for a ghost-like enemy, along with the printed on face, which is very accurate on this figure.

Personally I prefer my models details to be emphasised, and this being a Banshee I wanted it to be illuminated in a slightly sickly green-blue hue, to emphasise the unnatural nature of the creature.

With that in mind I mixed some green, blue and black acrylic paints and watered the dark turquoise colour down heavily until the consistency was similar to ink. I then washed the models with the ink, allowing it to sit in all the models details, using a brush to manipulate the ink as it dried.

20180915_160612.jpg
How the Banshee looked after the paint dried.

As you can see from the image above, once I let the paint dry the thinness of the paint I applied allowed the figure to retain its translucency whilst it gained a bluish tint, and greater definition of its features. Because the paint was thin it also had the benefit of not completely removing the face that was printed on the figure.

Now I have two good looking Banshee figures, that could also double as Ghosts, Spectres or other spectral undead in a game of D&D.

 

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Games We Grew Up With: Crash Team Racing

For some people their first racing game was Gran Turismo or Mario Cart, but for me my first racing game was Crash Team Racing.

CTR cover

In fact this was my first Crash Bandicoot game. I had played the original crash bandicoot at a friend’s house, but had never got further than the second level.

Crash Team Racing was a high quality cart racer. This game is one I remember because it was very accessible to my brothers and I as young players, and it really allowed us to play together. When my brothers played there were lots of moments where I as the older brother was asked to help get past a tough stage, and we shared in victories together.

Final Boss
Look at this cheat…

Whilst I have vague memories of the single player campaign, along with a final boss that would cheat by starting the final race before the countdown was to start the race was complete, where the real joy of this game came out was in the Battle Mode.

Pick your favourite racer and try to blow up the competition. This was a versus mode that my brothers and I played endlessly. We did not have a multi-tap for the ps1 and so only could play 1-v-1, and we would play winner stays on, obviously the most fair way to play that totally didn’t mean that I, the oldest brother could just keep playing endlessly. It was a good way for us to let out that sibling competitiveness.

Battle Mode
Let family fun commence…

This was a game that brought my brothers and I together, both when we were trying to get past a hard race, or in the arena, joined in rivalrous combat.

Something that is funny about looking back at the these games that I grew up with is not always the single player experience I remember, but rather how these games brought me closer to my brothers, and how those experiences were something we could share in together.

I am aware that Crash Team Racing has recently been remastered, but I am not sure that it is a game I will pick up soon. My brothers don’t have PS4s and we have all have our own lives in different parts of the country, it is hard to sit down and play together.

But in a few years my child will be old enough to start playing games. And Crash Team Racing might well be the perfect way for us to share in a piece of my childhood together.

Did you ever play Crash Team Racing? Did you prefer it as a single player or a multi-player experience? Share your stories in the comments below!

 

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‘Show, Don’t Tell’ in From Software Games

“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

‘Show, don’t tell’ is a staple of advice given to everyone who tries to tell a story. The purpose behind this advice is to avoid excessive exposition; the temptation of every storyteller who wants to let the reader know everything about the characters they have designed and the world they have built.

In every medium the storyteller must work on the balance between showing and telling. Tell too much and there is nothing to engage with, just facts on a page or read out to a listener, like a historical timeline or scientific analysis of an experiment. But if you don’t tell enough then there is no story, just events happening, without the insight that telling provides.

From Software games take this concept to heart and strip down the story telling experience to some of the barest bones that one will experience in a non-indie game, whist still providing an enormous amount of story to explore.

Many people who play their games feel that the storytelling technique employed by From Software falls into the category of events just happening with no story, and there is no real insight into what events take place between the beginning of the game and the end.

This is a view I strongly disagree with, and in this article I will attempt to illustrate the ways that From Software pushes the boundaries in ‘show, don’t tell’ storytelling through two key avenues; Item Descriptions and Item Placement.

This article follows on from my previous article on Dark Souls’ story telling, and contains spoilers for the Dark Souls Trilogy, Demon Souls, Bloodborne, and Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice.

Environmental Storytelling

Environmental storytelling is what it says on the tin. The reader understands what has happened, not because the narrator has told then what has happened, but rather because the environment makes it clear what has happened. This is commonly used in video games when you encounter a pile of dead bodies before a major environmental hazard or enemy. The player understands that these bodies are here because something has killed them.

An example taken from Dark Souls would be as you enter Anor Londo. You can summon Black Iron Tarkus to help fight the Iron Golem. He is heavily armoured and incredibly strong. He can almost beat the boss single-handed. And once the Iron Golem is defeated you travel to Anor Londo, which requires you to traverse across the narrow beams of the roof of a cathedral, whilst being attacked by quick and dextrous enemies. On the floor of this cathedral you can find the body of a warrior in giant black armour. It seems that Tarkus may have been able to handle the great Iron Golem, but lacked the manoeuvrability and dexterity in his armour to traverse the cathedral roof, falling to his death.

Tarkus
So close, and yet so far…

From Software uses the placement of items throughout their games to add to the strength of environmental storytelling. This is subtle, and can easily be missed if you are not paying attention.

For an example of item placement being used in environmental storytelling we can take a look at Bloodborne. In Bloodborne you can encounter a young girl who hides inside a house. She can be convinced by your character to try to make it to the cathedral, but you never encounter her there. It is not clear what happens until you kill the giant pig in the sewers. The pig drops a red ribbon, and only drops this item if the little girl sets out from her home.

A player might talk to the girl and kill this pig without ever really thinking about the items they have picked up. This missable story adds to the depth and darkness that is found in Bloodborne; the little girl never made it to the safe place, due to being caught and eaten by the pig, and she only left her safe place because of you.

Pig
It’s twisted grin just makes it all the worse…

Another example can be found in Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. The Guardian Ape drops the item ‘slender finger’ and can be found with a sword embedded in its neck. By sharing drinks with the Sculptor you learn that he used to train in the Sunken Valley with a friend who used a finger whistle. When you bring the finger to the Sculptor he appears to recognise it saying; “What’s that you have there…Where did you get that finger?…I see… To think it was in the belly of an Ape… Let me see it. I’ll fix it to your prosthetic arm.” 

Finger Whistle
A sad story for so simple a description…

The Sculptor never explicitly states it, but if you take in the information presented with you across these different locations and item descriptions you realise the finger is the same finger that belonged to his friend, and you have confirmed the death of his friend by presenting him with the finger, which was not something he was aware of. It is possible that the sword belonged to the Sculptor’s friend, Kingfisher, and the ape killed her when it regenerated from the deathblow she inflicted upon it. It is never confirmed, but there is an interesting story that is told using the environment, without ever explicitly forcing it upon the player.

This second story adds another element of story telling which ties well with environmental story telling, but is distinct. Micro-exposition.

Micro-exposition

Almost every item in all From Software games provide world lore information that the player would not have access to, but not in the form of a large info dump.

You get little nuggets of information and the responsibility of the players to piece these nuggets together.

For example, in Bloodborne the ‘Great One’s Wisdom‘ item has the following description:

“Fragments of the lost wisdom of the Great Ones, beings that might be described as gods.
Use to gain Insight.

At Byrgenwerth Master Willem had an epiphany: “We are thinking on the basest of planes. What we need, are more eyes.”

great ones wisdom
Madness follows…

This micro-exposition might not make a huge amount of sense in isolation, but for a player who pays attention to the Environmental Storytelling and the details of these micro-expositions, a story begins to take shape. Around Yharnham and the College of Byrgenwerth are lots of unspeakable horrors covered in eyes. From these kinds of micro-expositions one can learn that the Scholars at Byrgenwerth undertook experiments to attempt to gain more eyes to achieve the wisdom of the Great Ones, Lovecraftian higher beings.

Although not directly explained, suddenly the monsters you encounter begin to make sense.

In Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice an item named the Ceremonial Tanto has the following item description:

‘Dagger with a stark white blade and hilt. Converts Vitality into Spirit Emblems.

Resting replenishes its charges.

Originally, this tanto was used in a ritual offering to the dragon, in which an emblem would be cut from one’s own life force and set adrift on the Fountainhead waters.

The blade is inscribed with its true name: “Devoted Soul”.’

tanto
Carve emblems from your body…

This item gives players an insight into the world that they are living in. We do not know why this ritual was performed or what it sought to achieve, but it gives the player a taste of information that encourages interest in the player and adds to the depth of the game more effectively than if the player had been given a larger exposition dump on how the dragon was worshiped.

You get an aperitif of story, that builds the experience without overloading it with large volumes of text that often go unread (*cough, cough, Dragon Age: Inquisition, cough*).

Tying Storytelling Together

The storytelling philosophy of From Software undeniably attempts to embody the concept of ‘Show, don’t tell,’ with varying levels of success. The fact that many gamers struggle to follow the story of earlier titles they have produced shows that this is not something that they have always done as effectively as they can, although the work of fans like VaatiVidya shows that the deep and complex stories are there to be found.

With From Software’s latest release, Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, From Software seems to have found a good balance of showing and telling. The story is easy to follow, and we still have a glut of world building that happens only in environmental storytelling and micro-exposition, adding to the depth and enjoyment of the experience.

Seeing how these techniques work for telling stories in video games is something that should be studied by both video game creators and writers of traditional fiction.

The translation to paper of these techniques may be tricky to master but should lead to effective and creative storytelling and world building.

Games We Grew Up With: Spider-Man

‘Greetings true believers and newcomers alike…’

Spiderman.jpg

Spider-Man on the original Playstation was one of the first games where I ever played as a super hero, and also one of the first games that gave me nightmares.

The game starts with a splash screen where you can pick the difficulty. My brothers spent too many minutes enjoying the different voices that announced ‘kid mode’ every time it was selected, scrolling through the voice actors for each of the villains in the game.

I did not want to play on ‘kid mode’ because little nine-year-old me was not a ‘kid’ anymore…after struggling with the first level for quite some time I returned to that kid mode, and began the game in earnest.

This game was everything a comic fan in the early 2000’s could want, a very complete roster of Spider-Man’s villains, guest appearances from many other comic heroes, vocal performances by Stan Lee and solid web-slinging action!

The graphics were as blocky as one would expect given the limitations of the Playstation, but that did not matter; the art style was vibrant and the gameplay was fun.

spiderman comic cover

My first Spider-Man comic, was a collection titled Spider-Man vs Venom, and I remember absolutely loving that Venom made a key appearance in this game. In fact he and his species, the symbiotes were a key plot point. Because symbiotes were resistant to the damage you could cause you needed to get special fire-web to burn them, don’t ask how that works, the answer didn’t matter to me at the time.

But despite how fun it was I never completed this game. I got stuck in the final encounter that pitted you against the ultimate horror for any 9-year-old.

Monster Ock.

monster-ock.jpg
Literal nightmare fuel…

A twisted combination of Doctor Octopus and Carnage, this boss screeched inhumanely, could not be fought, and was an instant game over if it caught you.

All you could do is run…through a convoluted vent system with janky controls.

I lost so many times I had nightmares of being chased by Monster Ock, all whilst he was screeching ‘it’s not over yyyyyeeeeet!’

Whilst I never returned to the game there have been  even more delightful Spider-Man games that have been made in the 15-years since them, which have expanded upon the delightful gameplay and comic experience that we were first introduced in this Playstation classic.

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