So I killed a Dragon God yesterday morning. A huge, raging beast awaiting in a pit of molten lava, I had to impale it with two enormous lances first, before smashing its maw with my trusty winged spear +6. It died with a roar and then disappeared, leaving only its soul behind for me to scavenge. When I approached the arch stone containing its soul, I noticed a message from another player on the ground. “Poor Guy” it said. I felt a sting of empathy right there and then.
The Dragon God was after all just lying there, unable to leave, unable to move or even go to sleep, eternally cursed to greet new heroes and roast them to death until they figure out the way to kill it. We had so many chances to learn, get better at what we do and finally slay it, while it was forever destined to repeat the same handful of AI routines and look less threatening every time until it inevitably died and lost its soul.
Dragon God is the first real boss character I managed to slay playing the Asian edition of From Software’s hardcore action RPG called Demon’s Souls. All the previous large foes I have encountered were mere sub-bosses. Dragon God is what can be described as a world-boss, the most powerful creature of one of the five “worlds” in the game, separate subsets of dungeons and pits containing enemies and loot. So I killed my first boss in the game. It took me forty hours to do so.
It’s ridiculous. Forty hours is ridiculous. I managed to complete the entire Knights of the Old Republic back in 2003 in forty hours. I managed to complete Fallout 3 just several months ago in 35 hours. It took me about 40 hours to complete Shin Megami Tensei Digital Devil Saga and that was a game where I spent a lot of time going back into dungeons I have conquered in order to increase my level sufficiently so I stand a chance against the endboss and her minions (er.. spoiler?).
Spending forty hours in Demon’s Souls and being barely able to kill the first boss is ridiculous.
Spending most of those forty hours going through the same set of dungeons with enemies positioned at the same places, killing them in order to level up is ridiculous. This is a game with barely any story to it. A game forcing me to level-grind like some of the most cynical MMOs out there. A game with such ridiculously low chance of valuable item drops that only going through the same section twenty or thirty times will grant you access to some of the better weapons. It’s not just challenging, it’s cynical. It’s not just old skool, it’s archaic in its design. It’s not just fun to play, it’s dangerously addictive.
Yes, Steerpike dismissed the idea of addiction to games the other day, diagnosing it as merely so much sensationalism. And while I don’t think I’d have any physical withdrawal symptoms were my Playstation 3 to break down this evening (Allah forbid), Demon’s Souls has me firmly in its claws. I mean, I dreamed about it last night, that’s how serious it is.
Like most of you reading this, I play a lot of games. Like most of you reading this, I have played games since I was really really young and today it’s really different. Today I can’t just spend my whole day playing games. Today I have a wife and a bunch of family duties to handle. I have two jobs. I have many books and comics to read, films to watch. The battle for my quality time is fierce.
And yet, there are games that crash into my life and just manage to screw all my agendas up. Games that hijack my free time and manage to bite into a number of other times as well, destroying my plans and turning me into an obsessive, antisocial being that is easier to avoid than to understand.
Games used to do this for decades to all kinds of people, hell I am old enough to remember being obsessed with Pong for a while. But here are some of the games that managed to do this in the last several months and why I think they are more than just great pastimes or (possibly) works of art. And when I say “more” I really mean these games are like crack – destroying personalities and wrecking families left right and centre. And, just like crack, we keep doing it of our own free will.
Yes, I did say it took me about 35 hours to complete Fallout 3, its downloadable expansions notwithstanding. However those were 35 hours of fevered, sweaty fun that not even a gazillion bugs could ruin entirely.
Bethesda’s games are notoriously slow to start, asking the player to trust them while struggling with paper-thin characters, boring stories and hostile environment before, after hours of dedicated grinding you notice you’re having… fun? But Fallout 3 managed to demonstrate that the company indeed reviews its games and tries to improve on them. Yes, the story in Fallout 3 is barely worth mentioning and the characters are dead-eyed mannequins like something out of a Silent Hill test run, but what this game managed to do is pack just about enough action into its open-world wasteland to make playing it feel like a permanent sequence of discoveries.
Yes, there are games with larger open-world areas and there are games where the action is packed more tightly, but what Fallout 3 did was hit the sweet spot between the two. It gave the players all the freedom they could ask for but made sure that this freedom is bursting with new, exciting vistas and events waiting at every step.
Fallout 3 was the first game after many years that managed to ruin my sleep cycle. I kept catching myself sitting at the computer and playing long after everyone else went to bed. I was addicted.
The greatest thing to be felt in a game, I say to myself when I think about Fallout 3, is knowing that you are free to walk into any direction and that you will be sucked into a new adventure behind every corner, beyond every hill. Everywhere you look, there are gangs of mutants or slavers scavenging the landscape, there are vaults to be discovered and remains of once great cities to be explored. There are wars to be waged in the wasteland, exotic irradiated animals to fight and unlikely marriages to ruin. Yes, the storyline is not very exciting and the characters are dead on their feet but this is a game where you create your own stories and where the world itself is the most important character.
It must be very challenging making such a game, packing it so full of stuff to see, do and plunder and making sure that it all somehow influences each other. Sure, this is also the reason for it having so many bugs but to me, the good managed to outweigh the bad. When I spent at least three hours embarking on a quest for an antiquated vacuum cleaner, exploring the basements of ruined buildings I have already visited on my own free will, just so I could make a weapon that will allow me to kill super mutants by shooting plush toys into their faces – all of it entirely optional and in no way important for the core game – I knew Fallout 3 was doing something very right.
An entirely different role playing game that I played almost immediately after completing Fallout 3, Persona 4 had me addicted in a notably tidier way.
With most Shin Megami Tensei games I know the deal right off the bat. They feature serious stories, no-nonsense dungeon crawling and challenging combat and I usually spend many hours in them slaying low-level enemies over and over just so I can face the challenging boss characters. Persona 4 was no different, only in this case every element seemed to be polished to perfection.
Possibly in order to attract new audience to the series, Persona 4 spends most of its initial five or six hours showering the player with teen-anime-soap-opera-turning-murder-mystery-turning-supernatural-horror-thriller storytelling with very little actual gameplay happening. It’s a risky proposition of course, as it means that many “hardcore” players may feel alienated by this approach and race themselves to the Internet to proclaim the game a “fail” and a disgrace to the series. But in the end, this is the game’s triumph: Persona 4 will have you hooked through the power of its story. Oh, sure, it never stops being a teenage anime soap opera but if you have any soul left at all, you will love the story and its characters and probably enjoy the occasional bizarre episode (Where Fallout 3 had you shooting super mutants with teddy bears, Persona 4 has a talking ghost teddy bear suit that manages to grow himself a teenage boy body inside the suit through willpower alone. The boy later goes and participates in a drag queen contest. Seriously.)
However, while you will be hooked by the story, you will stay for the gameplay. And this is where Persona 4 managed to force me to organise my addiction neatly. I used to get up at 5.30 in the morning day after day and spend the ensuing two hours playing through dungeons I had previously explored in order to harvest as much experience points and valuable items as possible. Because, Persona 4, like most SMT games has no mercy and the only way for a sub-average gamer like me to push on is ensuring that I stay ahead of the curve at all times.
So, after beating each dungeon and killing each of the end bosses, instead of going ahead and getting more of the story, I would go back and do the whole dungeon again. And again. And again. Up to four or five times, making sure I squeeze every meaningful drop of XP from it. I invested a lot of my time to make sure I survive the next dungeon and this strategy paid in the end.
If this sounds like hard work rather than hardcore gaming fun, I have to add that I was having tremendous amounts of fun. One reason for this is that by this point in human history Atlus have tweaked their core game systems almost to perfection. Persona 4 is a game where every single thing you do ensures you are readier for the inevitable conflict with some kind of a god that you know is coming in the end. You want to redo that dungeon? You will gain one, maybe two levels doing so. You want to go fishing? The fish you catch can be exchanged for valuable items. You want to cook a lunch and share it with someone at school tomorrow? This will improve your relationship with the NPCs and make them more efficient in combat or even allow them to create new, more powerful personas. Every single small and apparently mundane task you can do in this game is part of the larger scheme, of your path to the ultimate victory. So there’s that.
The other thing is, the game keeps feeding you a steady diet of scares mixed with the sense of achievement, making sure your adrenaline/ endorphin balance is just right. This is where the repeated dungeon combat makes so much sense. The first time you fight in a new dungeon you tread nervously, jumping at shadows, not knowing what nefarious enemies lie in wait ahead, scared that hours of progression will be erased in one killing blow delivered courtesy of a large, unknown foe. Then you manage to survive against all odds and kill the endboss. Your adrenaline gives way to the endorphin.
And then you go back into the same dungeon, now knowing what it is you will be facing. And you do it again. And again. Becoming stronger with each pass. The subsequent passes get easier and you don’t do them for purposes of survival but just to farm XP. And what you feel is a slow sense of dominance building inside of you. The foes that could wipe your whole party in one lucky shot two hours ago are now merely XP cows, your careful dungeon progress now replaced by cocksure running tempo and battles more akin to street mugging than white-knuckled tactical tug-of-war that they were on the first run.
With the next dungeon this process begins all over again. And so it goes, until the very end of the game. Unlike some other SMT games, the endboss of Persona 4 is reasonably easy to beat, which was a surprise. Some would even say a disappointment but the way the game managed to alternatively give me the sense of dread and empowerment with every new dungeon ensured a feeling of true bliss. Through the whole of 92 hours it took me to complete it.
Final Fantasy VII
Look, I know. This is a twelve year old game. It’s a gaming equivalent of a one-size-fits-all mass market product that managed to sell millions of Playstations to the uneducated crowds seduced by the sight of enormous swords. It’s not even considered to be the best Final Fantasy game among the FF hardcore.
And yet, the recent rerelease of this mainstream classic through Sony’s PSN was an offer I just couldn’t refuse. And now I am playing it on a PSP, possibly the only less convenient way to play this game than would be to find and hook up the Playstation to the TV and look for the physical copy of the game.
Still, I am hooked. Addicted, if you like, spending many of my evenings in bed with a PSP, while my wife studies for her exams in the other room. So I play until I pass out.
Final Fantasy VII plays differently to the games I have just talked about. It’s quintessentially a mainstream game of the highest order which becomes apparent once you compare it to what we thought were mainstream games of the last winter: Fallout 3 and Persona 4. It has most of the elements those games have: open world and dungeons; an emphasis on storytelling, a lot of different characters and a way to influence the way the game plays through the way you treat characters; a lot of depth in the way you can customise your party to adapt to your preferred fighting style.
But on the other hand, Final Fantasy VII feels more like playing a Zelda game than any of the two abovementioned ones. Hironobu Sakaguchi and his team created an experience that was often criticised as “too linear” but this also enabled them to ensure that at all times the players could be placed exactly where they wanted them. And then they went and told a huge, epic adventure story with lots of likeable characters. And, say what you will about the anime-style graphics and an overabundance of spike-haired emo protagonists in Japanese RPGs, Final Fantasy VII feels as fresh today as it felt back in 1997 because it is such a masterfully told and directed a story.
It’s all in the detail. The way tiny, low-poly characters convey emotion through exaggerated, comic gestures. The way they speak in different styles, Barret all tough and streetwise, Aeris and Tifa strong but still so youthful and carefree. The way the active time combat system forces you to think of time, resources and powers management under constant pressure.
It’s simply a game where every single element was included after careful consideration, discussion and testing and what made it into the game feels comfortable and useful at al times, which is not something you can say about a lot of 12 year old games.
It’s even more of an achievement when you consider how many different and unique settings and situations there are in the game. Remember the resuscitation minigame? Or that brief stealth moment in the Shinra, Inc. building near the beginning? How about that time when you had to pose as one of the SOLDIER’s troops and participate in the parade? Or when you had to dress like a woman? And that first time you sat on Cloud’s bike and fought the opposition with your sword, racing down the futuristic road? Today, many of those elements would be mere quick time events and we would scorn them for that, but in Final Fantasy VII, these are all parts of a neverending stream of fresh, new, perfectly designed little distractions that make every minute of a sixty (or eighty) hour game unique and remembered after many, many years.
So, Final Fantasy VII mixes solid, deep mathematics under the hood with a lot of original, innovative moments that make you wonder what they will throw at you next. It has a great, vast world for its story to take place in and yet it never spams you with information the way some other games do (Mass Effect and its ridiculous quantities of data come to mind). It has loveable, funny characters. It’s also deadly serious in combat. And its brand of addiction is utterly scary as it touches a part of me that never managed to mature, a part that wishes that the adventures that I could only see in books, comics or on TV when I was a kid, were real and that I could take part in them.
Well, in Final Fantasy VII I can. And I do, every day. And when I am not playing, I actively think about the game, wondering what do those tiny, funny, low-poly characters do while I am at work, mechanically punching my keyboard in an attempt to earn a living. It’s an achievement of the highest order, making me feel like part of the gameworld and making me long to go back to it whenever I am outside. There are very few games that ever managed to do this to me, the last I can recall being Deus Ex all those years ago.
Finally, my addiction du jour. As I said in the opening section, this is a game I dreamed about last night, after spending some five hours playing it during the day. It’s addictive. Possibly deadly so.
There are many reasons Demon’s Souls is so hard to ignore when you know it’s barely a few clicks away, despite the fact you are supposed to work, or chat your wife’s parents up. It’s got fantastic level design, its geography and architecture every single bit as devious as the demons that dwell in their bowels. It’s got complex rules dictating the events that take place in the five of the game’s worlds. It’s got tough and imaginative enemies and spectacular bossfights (even though, you know, I only managed to kill one true boss so far). It’s got a very flexible customisation and levelling system allowing you to fine tune your avatar to the most decadent of your combat preferences. It’s got jaw dropping graphics and when you see that Dragon God for the first time, you will shit your pants, make no mistake. It’s challenging. Very much so.
But the secret to its addictiveness is simple: it is a game all about consequences.
Seasoned gamers often complain how modern games tend to be aimed at non-gamers and how there is no challenge in them. The increased budgets demand that more people ultimately buy the game and there is apparently a problem if the game is too difficult to the average person. This is why we have checkpoints, waypoints, regenerating health. This is why we have vita-chambers and an option to change the game difficulty after we die. This is why Nintendo came up with the “press the button and the game will play itself” mechanic announced for their future games. Even really “tough” modern games like Ninja Gaiden 2 and Devil May Cry 4 will make sure you can finally beat that tough boss through sheer perseverance, not forcing you to replay the whole level leading to the boss the way their ancestors did.
Not so in Demon’s Souls. Here you hiccup at the wrong moment – you’re dead. Impaled. Crushed. Cut in two. Burnt to a crisp. And then you’re back at the beginning of the level. Not just that, but you’re at the beginning of the level without any of the souls you managed to collect in the game so far. Since the souls in the game are both the currency you use to repair and upgrade weapons/ purchase items as well as the experience points you exchange for higher levels of your character’s attributes, this essentially means that losing a life in this game means you have literally worked for nothing all those hours. One misjudged spear-thrust at a well armed enemy and you’re dead with nothing to show for it. You can’t level up. You can’t buy more healing items. You can’t even repair your armour or weapons. As they will keep degrading with each subsequent run this means the only way to survive is to keep killing and then periodically retreat to the safety of the Nexus (which acts as the game’s hub to the five worlds) to repair them/ upgrade them/ level up.
Which sounds reasonable. As does the fact that unlike souls you collect along the way, the loot scavenged stays with you even in death. So you are not totally screwed when you die, right?
Well, no, but remember: it literally takes one wrong step and you fall. And die. Or a fireball hits you in the back while you are foolishly engaging a soldier on the roof of the palace, without thoroughly scanning the surrounding roofs first. While trying to triangulate where this new attack came from, you are hacked into pieces by the original foe. In a second. You just lost two levels worth of souls. In a second.
OK, this is merely frustrating as opposed to addictive, I hear you say. This is a game asking you to basically learn every level by heart as you progress few steps further on in each subsequent run, which is a textbook example of obsolete design, right?
No. No way. Because From Software added just a couple of tweaks to the formula. You see, when you die, you leave a bloodstain on the ground. If you manage to battle your way to the stain in your subsequent run of the same level and touch the stain, you regain all the souls you have lost in death. But die before you reach it and it’s gone forever. But, wait, now you have another bloodstain with all the souls you collected fighting your way to that point so, making another run and collecting those souls is also an option.
It’s horrible. It’s the worst kind, I mean the best example of “just another goddamn run and I will go to bed, really, cross my heart!!!”mentality at work I have seen in years.
Let’s say you managed to kill a sub-boss and are exploring a new area for about an hour. You kill many foes and collect three levels worth of souls. And then you die just near the end of the stage. It’s horrible, but it’s not the end of the world. After all, now you know the basic layout of the stage and can battle your way back to the stain and all those souls will still be yours. You start the stage all over again and it takes you thirty minutes to reach the vicinity of the stain. And then you die again.
That’s the end of the world right there!!! God damn IT!!!! You throw the controller across the room and curse like a sailor. All that work for nothing!!!
But wait, there’s still a handsome amount of souls in the new bloodstain, because after all you battled the same foes on your way back so, actually, it makes sense to try again.
25 minutes later, the controller flies across the room again. This time around you died even sooner because you got cocky. You thought you knew the level well enough by now and you tried running through it, killing everyone before they could react. Well, they reacted, or more likely you forgot about that guy hiding behind the corner.
Time to go to bed? No way, Jose, those bastards just made it personal. You will go back and really kill everyone now. Because, even as you’re boiling with anger you notice that you actually are becoming better. Your swordfighting is more efficient because now you know the enemy positioning and their attack patterns by heart and now it only takes three swings of the mighty Claymore to clear the room. They never have time to blink, let alone strike at you. Oooh, you’ll show them now, you will kill everyone, take everyone’s souls and then just restart the level and do it again. And again. And again. Until you can do it in your sleep.
And, before you know it, you will be. You will be doing it even in your sleep. Just like me.
So, yes, my name is Meho and I am addicted. I grind my teeth, I repeat the same motions for hours. I see the same faces and hear the same voices every time. All this just so I can for a brief moment see something new, feel the endorphin rush after I kill that large enemy/ open the access to the new area. And then I die again.
It’s just like heroin. Please don’t tell my family.
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