Minecraft: A Review

If you’re a human being, then it’s just about guaranteed that you’ve at least heard about Minecraft, even if you have no idea what it’s all about. This simple little block-building game has been around since mid-2009 and is still kickin’, continuing to do incredibly well for itself. With a whopping 74 million monthly active users, Minecraft still maintains a massive place in the gaming world. People obviously still love the game, and as an avid block-breaker myself, I can understand why.

The main draw to Minecraft is its large open-endedness. When you create a new world and spawn in for the first time, you’ve nothing but your fists and a fresh, blank canvas the size of the Earth itself (well, approximately 8 times the size actually). Most players start out similarly: punch trees, get wood, make basic tools, build a simple shelter, etc. Then from there, well that’s completely up to you. You could go mining deep underground for resources and minerals, go monster hunting, craft a rod and start fishing, or gather up some animals and start a farm. Soon you’ll likely start plotting out larger, long-term projects, such as mapping out the land within a 1-mile radius of your home, scaling that mountain in the distance and constructing a secret fortress lair at the top, raising the ultimate army of wolves and ocelots to follow you into battle, or using nothing but sponge blocks to dry up the ocean nearby. These kinds of projects are going to be a big reason to get you to stay, and of course, having a few friends to jump into your world with you makes it all the more enjoyable.

But that’s just the survival mode of Minecraft. You have a health and hunger bar to deal with, as well as the danger of death with the consequence of that being the loss of everything you have on you. And maybe that doesn’t sound like compelling gameplay to you. Well, keeping in line with Minecraft’s open-ended nature, there are many different ways you can play. Rather than survival, you may play in creative mode instead wherein you have infinite access to every block in the game as well as the ability to fly. With the creation powers of a god, you can build some insane things if you know what you’re doing. Really though, running a quick Google search of “Minecraft builds” is all you need to do to understand the awe-inspiring artistic potential these little cubes offer up. So if you fancy yourself a builder and like the concept of creating freely without restriction, then creative mode is for you.

If you’re looking for a more structured Minecraft experience, you can explore a variety of adventure maps created by the unendingly-creative community. Adventure maps are essentially stories/adventures that take you through a world built by someone, usually with some kind of narrative attached to it. These maps may involve traveling the land, finding loot, and fighting enemies and bosses; some adventure maps are almost like video games themselves. Some are quaint and simplistic, while others are complex, massive in scale, highly ambitious, feature beautiful builds, and introduce completely new game mechanics.

As with many games, Minecraft has a large modding scene as well. So if you find your Minecraft experience a little bit too vanilla, or you’ve otherwise grown tired of the content available in the base game, mods can add that extra spice you’re looking for. The kinds of mods available range from the addition of simple little backpacks designed to give you more inventory slots, to the ability to craft rockets you can use to ascend into space and visit other planets. And in a similar vein to adventure maps and the more structured gameplay they provide, certain mod “packs” (a compilation of multiple mods) are available which feature specific quests and tasks that must be accomplished in order to reach some ultimate end goal. And all the while you get to experience the strange and exciting new additions that these various mods introduce.

Ah, but maybe you’re more into playing with other people, PvP or otherwise. Well for that you’ll find plenty of public servers to play on, some of which are more centered around the base vanilla game, while others feature custom minigames or special rules and mechanics. Many servers even feature MMO elements, such as player progression, gear and loot to find, and PvP combat, again providing Minecraft with more structured gameplay.

Still not satisfied? Alright well how about this: on top of all these ways to experience and play the game, Minecraft also features a number of console commands which, when combined and arranged together just right, act as a pseudo-programming language within the game. This unlocks amazing possibilities, such as adding the Infinity Gauntlet, working cars, or complete other games into Minecraft. In the case of the latter example, one person coded the entirety of Pokemon Red/Blue into Minecraft. Graphics, mechanics, and all. It's as ridiculously awesome as it sounds. These are all within the vanilla game, by the way. No mods, by its definition. The only thing that's used to make these is that in-game coding language I mentioned. I guess one way to describe these types of additions would be "vanilla mods". Personally, this is the most compelling creative aspect of Minecraft for me. I love seeing what weird or crazy things I can code up.

So if you’re the type of person who thrives in an environment where creativity is king, where the amount of fun had is largely a product of the level of effort you put into the game, then Minecraft is likely just the fit for you, if you hadn’t already discovered it by this point. Truly, the game is a creator’s paradise. Whether you’re a builder, engineer, programmer, designer, artist, modeler, or even an animator, Minecraft is rife with creative potential and entertainment for you. I myself purchased this game nearly 7 years ago, and to this day I regularly return to it, and happily. Oh, and did I forget to mention that to this day and for the foreseeable future the game receives 100% free updates? Because there's that too. These include smaller updates, as well as massive updates jam-packed with additions that drastically change up the game.

Conversely, I will warn you that although Minecraft is immensely popular and praised by many, if you’re not the type of person who enjoys making their own fun, you may not like this game. Minecraft is “mechanically loose”, straying away from the structure found in many other games. This means no quests, NPC dialogue, a detailed story to follow, etc. And while there are opportunities to engage in more structured content, as I had mentioned, it might not be what you’re looking for. The activities you participate in and busy yourself with will largely be conceived by your own imagination and willingness to do them. Yes, there is a massive, stonking, intra-dimensional dragon you can find and kill, but there isn’t any sort of quest or narrative revolving around any aspect of that. Ol’ Harold of Wintermere won’t be coming around to say, “Oh thank you traveler, that dragon had stolen McMuffins my cat. But he’s safe now thanks to you! Here, as a reward you may have two gold pieces and a cheese wheel”. Nah nah nah, you would kill that dragon because you truly want to, not because someone else made you do it. Lousy Harold.

Consumer Culture: Materialism

           Many games place a focus on gathering possessions, both physical and intangible, living and non-living. It can be a bit difficult to think of a game whose mechanics don't involve the collection of something, be it money, resources, armor, weapons, experience, followers, etc. Games such as MinecraftFallout 3, Pikmin 1 and 2, and The Sims are just a few examples of games that have materialistic elements. Though perhaps the concept isn't always at the forefront of these games, the focal point that drives the game forward, that ideology still persists within the background.

           Minecraft has no set goal. Players have to take it upon themselves to discover their own method of play. Though the game offers essentially an infinite number of ways to play, players tend to follow a common path. This involves building a basic house, mining for ores, making weapons and armor, and gathering crops and animals for food. All of these activities have one thing in common, that being the underlying idea of materialism. All require the collection of a resource in the game world. As players progress through the game, they tend to collect more and more, adding to their wealth of possessions. Their once humble homes transform into grand fortresses adorned with great halls and pillars, their small animal pens become pastures filled with dozens of animals, and their single chest of swords and a few stray bows is expanded into an armory. Once players have exhausted their ideas for activities and have acquired more than enough ores to suit their needs, the "end" goal becomes to simply collect as much ore as possible for the sake of bragging rights. Players dedicate treasure rooms to show off this accomplishment.

           RPGs probably have one of the largest focuses on gathering items than any other game genre. The entire concept of an RPG is to find, buy, and/or craft new weapons, armor, spells, accessories, among other things. Players must always better themselves in order to continue taking on the challenges ahead. The only sensible way to do this is to constantly acquire new gear. Take Fallout 3 for example. In this open-world, post-apocalyptic, role-playing-game, players start out with nothing other than some basic armor, a few beaten-up weapons, and some other miscellaneous items. Though the game doesn't directly order players to find better equipment, it leaves a strong implication that they must. And so, Fallout 3's core gameplay element involves scrounging around the wasteland, gathering up weapons, ammunition, money, armor, and sometimes useless junk like scrap metal or cherry bombs. Soon, players inventories are filled with countless weapons, hundreds of rounds of various ammunition types, a variety of armor, on top of thousands of caps. By the end of the game, players have more physical things than they know what to do with.

           The Sims franchise is very similar to Minecraft in that it has no specific goals, though it implies a path for players to follow. The idea is for players to find their sim a job, get promoted, generate great wealth, purchase things for their gradually expanding house, while also gathering friends and possibly starting a family. In this way, The Sims appears to measure player success based on how much money players have generated, how large their homes are, how many possessions they own, and possibly even how many good relationships they've developed with other sims. Though it is entirely possible to pursue other goals in the game, mechanics such as "buy mode", which allows players to purchase from an exhaustive list of items, seems to place emphasis on collection and materialism.

           Pikmin 1 and 2 have some pretty strong themes of materialism, which are in some ways more apparent than those found in the games I've already gone over. In Fallout 3 the goals revolve around completing the main quest and side quests, and underneath that construct is materialism. Pikmin 1 and 2 specifically revolve around the collection of something, portrayed through narrative and mechanical means. In Pikmin 1, Olimar (the player character) crash lands on an alien planet, and is tasked with locating and recovering the fragments of his ship so that he may return home. In Pikmin 2, the company that Olimar works for runs into debt, and Olimar is sent back to the alien planet to collect rare treasures in order to repay the debt. In both scenarios, the narrative is centered on item collection in order to achieve some goal. The same can be said of the main mechanic of both games, in which players amass an army of plant-animal hybrid creatures named pikmin. Players can command them to attack enemies, destroy path-blocking obstacles, eliminate environmental hazards, and most importantly, carry objects the player needs. The more pikmin a player has, the better chance they have at survival, and the better off they are in general, which promotes the concept of having as many pikmin as possible. In the case of Pikmin 2, players may continue to collect treasure even after the debt has been paid, just for the sake of obtaining every last treasure and unlocking a secret cut scene.

           What is also worth at least mentioning is that when players pay off the debt in Pikmin 2, the player ship is refitted with golden plating as a reward. This new plating doesn't give the ship any special new abilities or functions. It is purely aesthetic. However, this helps to reinforce the idea of materialism. It's not that it necessarily promotes the idea of it, though it does seem to idealize it. Though the new ship has no extraordinary capabilities, it is gold, which is supposed to be the reward in itself. It's supposed to lend some sort of legendary or high air, as if just having the golden ship makes the player better in some way, even though it is no more special than the regular ship. And that sort of ideology is what lies under materialism, that having more things or visually better things makes the owner superior or at least special in some way. This principle can be seen in other games, such as the Call of Duty franchise, where "top prestige" players can purchase golden skins for their guns. Golden guns have no additional functions or benefits, other than letting other players know of their owner's status.

           It's difficult to imagine a game that doesn't involve collecting in some sort of capacity. Many games have players gather something, and that isn't always a bad thing. Though it does raise the question: why do so many games feature goals that involve collecting something? Maybe it stems from the fact that when players engage in a game, they like to know how they're doing. The act of collection can act as a guide for players, to let them know where they stand in the game world. Tangible objects or numbers provide a concrete and immediate way to represent progress. If the player has x amount of gold or score, they can use that as a point of reference to determine if they are "succeeding". In Minecraft, players may measure success in the amount of diamonds they've managed to find. In Fallout 3, the acquisition of powerful weapons may let the player know they're in a good position. In The Sims, players might feel a sense of satisfaction once their sim has reached the top of their career and can afford the ritziest house. In the Pikmin games, observing as Olimar's ship is slowly put back together piece by piece (Pikmin 1), or watching as the player's funds gradually increase from discovered treasure (Pikmin 2) gives players solace that they're making steady progress. Regardless, the prevalence of materialistic themes in games suggests that perhaps we are too attached to objects. We allow them power and influence over our lives. We allow them to be the measure of our success. We allow them to dictate social classes and classify dividing lines that separate one group of people from another. We forget who is really in control here.

African American Voodoo/Mysticism Trope

           Much like gender and sexual representation, race has become a very "tropey" subject in video games. Different races of people fall into very stereotypical roles, and to a noticeable degree. It seems that no group of people is the exception when it comes to assigning roles and characteristics that aim to delineate a race in essence, For this post, I'll focus on a trope based around African Americans. It's known as the "Voodoo/mysticism trope", and portrays African Americans as practitioners of voodoo or strange magic, often putting them in shaman or witch doctor roles. This trope can be observed in World of Warcraft (2004), Diablo 3 (2012), and Hearthstone (2014), games all developed by Blizzard Entertainment, as well as in Minecraft (2011), albeit in a very different sense. These games give insight into one of the societal perspectives in which we view African Americans, and put them into these ill-contrived tropes.

           World of Warcraft is host to many different races, and players have the freedom to choose from any one of those races in their journey to form guilds, travel the world, and complete quests. Along their way, players may encounter the Darkspears, a race of trolls who are witch doctors and practice voodoo. Their leader, Vol’Jin, is given a Jamaican-esque dialect, which implies an African American ethnicity. Sen’Jin, the father of Vol’Jin, is given a similar dialect, which can be gleaned from Hearthstone (2014) when his card is placed on the field. Diablo 3 is perhaps a bit more controversial in regards to this trope. Though there is a collection of classes to choose from, players can’t experience similar freedom when it comes to choosing their race. Apparently, the only way a player may choose a dark-skinned avatar is if they opt into the Witch Doctor class, which speaks for itself in terms of how it supports the trope. Why Blizzard has it this way is unknown, though it would be interesting to hear their reasoning behind this design choice.

           I mentioned that this trope can be found in Minecraft, though technically speaking, it is not the design of the developers, but rather a product of the community. I just felt that this example fit the trope so very precisely that it might be worth mentioning just to give further support to the prevalence of the stereotype.  On YouTube, a group known as the Yogscast produces daily Minecraft videos. They’ve created quite a number of Minecraft-related series, their most popular one being the “Shadow of Israphel”. This almost completely scripted series follows the journey of a spaceman and a dwarf (played by Lewis Brindley and Simon Lane respectively. They are the founders of the Yogscast). The two set out to put a stop to a great evil that threatens the land of Minecraftia (the canonical name given to the world of Minecraft in general). In their quest, they meet a wide collection of interesting yet usually bizarre characters. At one point, they come across an African American woman by the name of Madame Nubescu, who makes use of strange voodoo magic to tell the future of the two heroes. While it is true that this character is purely the creation of the Yogscast, and has absolutely nothing to do with the developers at Mojang, I think it perfectly encapsulates what this trope says about African Americans. And does it matter if the trope was fostered by consumers as opposed to developers? Either way, it demonstrates a cultural perspective society has of African Americans.

           It’s fascinating how such small details can leave large implications about a group of people, and help to develop a false image of them as a result of these implications. Though none of the games I discussed were necessarily offensive, perhaps maybe with the exception of Diablo 3, they demonstrate a perspective we've developed of African Americans that isolates them. Voodoo magic is portrayed as a strange study, of which little is known to the majority of society. It is therefore viewed as something to avoid due to its ambiguous nature. So by placing African Americans in the role of shamans and witch doctors, as masters of this mysterious magic, it synonymizes the race with the art. In other words, it defines African Americans as a mysterious, alien race, which serves to “other” them. It implies that they are different from us and should be avoided, just like voodoo.

 

Self Fulfillment in Video Games

           The idea of a sandbox game is an interesting concept. As opposed to other games, where specific content is given to the player in the forms of rules, goals, and rewards, sandbox games task the player with coming up with all of that on their own. Within reason, there are no guidelines or restrictions that prevent the player from playing the way they want to. Most likely the best example of such a game is Minecraft (2011). Since the release of Minecraft, we've seen an influx of games that focus around the idea of player-defined goals, otherwise known as paidic goals. Examples include Terraria (2011), DayZ (2012), Cube World (2013), Don't Starve (2013), Starbound (2013), and Rust (2013), just to name a few. All of these games in one way or another send off the player to just explore the world and take what they will from it. The idea that players must make their own fun almost sounds like a silly notion, one which players wouldn't buy into. Regardless, these games have still managed to gather healthy followings, especially in the case of Minecraft. The question I'll attempt to address is why these games are so popular and what makes them so attractive to some people.

           Let's look at the typical Mario game just to put things into perspective first. Nintendo has taken a liking to making Mario games in the style of Super Mario Bros. (1985) in recent years, so I'll take a look at that particular formula. It's very clear what the player must do to play the game "correctly" and how to go about winning. The concept in these games is fairly simplistic, and very structured, following a point A to point B system. Mario begins at the start of the level (Point A), and must make his way to the end of the level (Point B). This is the main goal for both each level individually, as well as the game as a whole. To beat the game, players must make it from the first level (Point A), to the final level where the final face off with Bowser takes place (Point B). To make traveling from point A to point B more interesting and challenging, hazardous obstacles in the form of enemies, bosses, fire, spikes, and pits are placed throughout each level. As a result of these factors, the main rule becomes to avoid contact with enemies unless you can act correctly to remove them from your path (jump on their head, hit them with a fireball, freeze them, etc.). So in short, players must reach the end of each level, avoiding hazards along the way. This is in essence what comprises a Super Mario Bros.-style game. The reward of these games, the sense of satisfaction and accomplishment players receive, comes from completing the goal laid out by the developers.

           In sharp contrast, Minecraft doesn't have such structure. It's premise is completely centered around player-driven goals. Players aren't given a set of instructions, either concrete or implied. Players simply must explore their surroundings and work out what their task is, which they soon realize is anything they want it to be. Minecraft serves very much as a template as it does a game. What I mean by template is that the game lays out a framework for players to add their own content and craft their own stories. For example, dungeons in Minecraft are pretty sparse and small. They aren't styled like typical dungeons in other games which are filled to the brim with enemies and treasure. They tend to feel like maybe they're missing something. This is where mods and adventure maps come in to fill them up and flesh them out. Mods can make these dungeons bigger and more interesting, as well as outright create new dungeons. Adventure map makers can do the same by building onto these dungeons and customizing them into more dynamic places. The dungeons are there for inspiration in a way. They act as a basic outline, like a blank canvas for players to make whatever they want. Minecraft as a whole shares this characteristic.

           Mods are a massive part of Minecraft. Mods are probably one main component that keeps the game alive and strong. They add new features such as enemies, biomes, items, weapons, and in some cases they create tangible activities for the player to complete. Adventure maps also play an integral role in Minecraft. They serve to create stories to become invested in and specific goals for players to achieve. Separate from community-created content, players may also set out on their own to make goals within their worlds. Some players might set out to make a massive farmstead filled with hundreds of rows of every crop, perhaps with a large fenced off pasture to the side for their vast collection of animals they spent hours gathering and breeding. Some players may strive to amass wealth in the form of diamond and gold, maybe even to the point where they construct a grand castle out of diamond and gold blocks. Some players may just want to build and nothing else, setting out to construct towns, cities, factories, towers, pirate ships, temples, lairs, and countless other builds. Unlike the Mario game formula where reward comes from a pre-made goal, players feel rewarded from games like Minecraft as a result of developing their own unique goals and then completing that goal. There's a sense of self-fulfillment there, which is stronger than fulfillment gained from completing developer-made goals. This is the case because players feel accomplished for taking the game into their hands and completing tasks they themselves decided to take on.

           Funnily enough, even in games with specific goals, players may actually go out of their way to create their own goals, even though it isn't necessary. In Dark Souls (2011), players create their own custom challenges, such as using only a certain weapon, to make the game even harder. This is really important to consider. In a game infamously known for its grueling level of difficulty, there do in fact exist players who desire to make their experience even more challenging. That speaks levels to how players like the idea of creating and completing self-made goals, even when these goals create challenge upon a game that is already challenging. Given that, it's certainly understandable why a game like Minecraft, whose focus is on player-made goals, would be appealing.

Negativity in the Games Industry

           Given the somewhat recent deal between Notch and Microsoft, there’s a topic I’d like to discuss for this post, that being the idea of negativity in the game industry, and how it has driven some developers to sell off or abandon a franchise they created. Specifically, I want to respond to some statements made by Jesse Cox, a YouTube celebrity, regarding this issue. He harbors some opinions that I can’t say I agree with, and with which I’d like to discuss and contest.

           Jesse Cox is currently most known for his role as co-host on the Co-optional Podcast, a regular podcast on YouTube. Totalbiscuit (John Bain), Dodger (Brooke Lawson), as well as a guest host alongside Jesse, and the group discuss various game-related topics, such as games they’ve been playing recently, new game releases, and news in the game industry. On the 50th episode of the podcast, they had a conversation about Markus “Notch” Persson in light of his then-recent deal with Microsoft wherein he sold his company, Mojang, for $2.5 billion. Notch stated that he never meant for Minecraft to become as big as it is. He had no intention of becoming a famous gaming icon, or for any of his games to change the industry, as people told him Minecraft had. Jesse had a difficult time understanding why Notch would walk away from his incredibly successful company instead of continuing to reap the rewards of Minecraft. He also seems to have this image of Notch as pompous and narcissistic for stating that the spotlight became “too much” for him to handle. This subject has actually come up before on the podcast. On episode 25, the latest news in gaming was that Dong Nguyen, creator of Flappy Bird, took his infamously addictive game off the app store. Again, Jesse couldn’t comprehend why Nguyen would take such action considering he was making large amounts of money every day from ad revenue. Regarding people like Notch and Nguyen, Jesse said that “to walk away from it you’re an idiot…and I have no sympathy for you…If you have an audience like that, embrace it don’t run from it. You are a lucky human being” (Cox, 2014). There’s one key reason both of these developers opted to leave their respective games. They left because of the negativity that crept into their lives from the internet.

           Before I respond to Jesse’s comments, first I’d like to put the game industry into perspective a bit. As exciting and thrilling as the game industry can be, it also has a darker side, just like any other industry. For every positive influence the game industry has (a well-respected company, a specific developer, a strong community around a game, etc.), there is a negative influence to counter that. And given the heavy integration between this industry and the internet, I think it’s appropriate to say there’s a greater potential for negative influence in comparison to other industries. In the games industry, the audience is the internet, which is the largest audience in the entire world. When anyone, not even just a game developer, puts some form of content up on the internet, they’re setting it in front of the eyes of a massive audience who are not afraid to speak their opinion. Unfortunately, the internet has no filter. People are rude, hurtful, inconsiderate, and unrelenting, and their actions reflect that. Between video sites like YouTube where gaming-related videos are a staple, and countless video game forums and blog sites like GiantBomb, Destructoid, Gamasutra, or Polygon, plenty of opportunities are available to scrutinize games. The anonymity of the internet makes it so easy to make disrespectful comments. The internet allows people to hide behind faux identities and unleash their most blunt and destructive criticisms. This is why people will lash out at developers, even going as far as sending death threats. They feel protected by that anonymity, and feel entitled to bring others down for whatever reason. These are the harsh realities of being in the game industry. If by some chance you manage to develop a well-known game, chances are that you will come face to face with plenty of negativity.

           With all of this mind, let’s consider what it may have been like for Notch as Minecraft grew into what it is today. According to his statements, he clearly had no intention of becoming a famous developer. He just enjoyed making little game projects and living a quiet, happy life. This changed drastically when Minecraft started to become big. Notch suddenly found himself flooded by messages, comments, feedback, and tweets, both positive and negative. It must have been jarring to go from a fairly private life to suddenly having the entire world trying to communicate with him, or in some cases insult and badger him just for making a game. Considering how famous Notch is, the amount of negative messages he got from people must have been overwhelming. So between this mass negativity and overall attention he was receiving in general, I think it’s totally reasonable Notch decided to sell Mojang. There’s only so much a person can take before they reach their breaking point. Notch made a good point in saying that, “It’s not about the money. It’s about my sanity”. He never wanted all of the attention in the first place, and when he saw the opportunity to escape from that and return to his roots, he had every right to take that opportunity. Though Nguyen’s case is slightly different, the same sort of principle can be applied. He had lived a quiet life prior to Flappy Bird. Sure, he had great financial success because of his game, but that success was interfering with his life, as it was with Notch’s. Nguyen expressed this on his Twitter account, where he posted, “I can call ‘Flappy Bird’ is a success of mine. But it also ruins my simple life. So now I hate it”.

           Jesse just couldn’t understand why these Notch and Nguyen would want to leave their positions of success when they were making so much money. However I can completely understand the viewpoint that the overwhelming amount of negativity and attention was more than these two wanted from making games. The notoriety was interfering with their daily lives, and they had to decide whether or not their success was worth that.

 

Dark Souls' Mode of Storytelling

           Games these days tend to fall into traps when it comes to narrative. Many games rely on trope "crutches" such as NPCs and cutscenes to explain their story to the player. It's not that these methods of storytelling are necessarily bad. They're tropes for a reason. However, it's when these devices are used improperly that they become ineffective methods of storytelling. Excessive exposition can get in the way of the player experience and is counterproductive as a result. Dark Souls (2011) takes a different and unique approach in terms of explaining its story. It makes use of "environmental storytelling" to explain its complex world, background, and characters. This device enhances the player's experience and level of investment in the game, as well as lending itself to support the overarching theme of the game. To help accentuate this point, I will conduct a comparison between the storytelling methods of Dark Souls and Skyrim (2011).

           I can't really say I've come across a game that handles story as uniquely as Dark Souls does. In the game world, there are items scattered everywhere, as is typical with any RPG. Items serve a primary purpose of giving the player more power and higher odds of surviving the challenges ahead. Each of these items has a description attached which describe what the item is, what its stats are, what its level of durability is, and so forth. All of that is pretty normal, and can be seen in plenty of other games of similar genre. What makes Dark Souls' descriptions so different is that each and every item has story lore attached to it. This is a genius concept. It's genius because it means that as player collect items and become stronger, they are also gathering background story one tiny piece at a time. It also means that players have zero obligation to follow along with the story if they don't want to. They can just as easily skip over the lore descriptions if that better suits their play-style. In this way, Dark Souls'  story isn't forced upon players, which goes to strengthen the narrative. For those that choose to investigate the story, it's up to them so piece it together on their own, which lends to create better player investment.

           Overall, this method of storytelling is highly effective. Due to Dark Souls' minimalist nature, every little bit of story the player finds means something even if they aren't completely sure what it means or how it connects with other elements. Players don't find themselves overwhelmed with information. They have the opportunity to take the narrative in and think about it. They receive enough story to keep them interested, but not too much as to give anything away or overwhelm them. This makes for a less cluttered experience. The notion that the story is truly optional is also extremely effective. This accommodates different play-styles, and allows players to experience the game in the way that best suits them, be that with or without story. Attaching lore to items also grants the action of finding items a sense of "double satisfaction". Not only does the player find some new item that can greatly help them overcome future obstacles, but they've also discovered more about the background from the lore piece.

           This environmental storytelling also helps to support and intensify the main theme of Dark Souls, which resides in its dark, depressing nature and its strong feelings of emptiness and mystery. This is done through the lack of NPCs and visually-oriented cut-scenes. The few NPCs that are present don't take on the role that NPCs in most other games do. Their purpose is not to have lengthy discussions wherein they completely spell out the story and give the player a sense of placement in the environment. NPC dialogue is usually cryptic and difficult to comprehend. This strengthens feelings of emptiness and loneliness. The few cut scenes in Dark Souls in that aspect as well. With a few exceptions, they are solely visual, and have no verbal or written narrative attached. This allows the environment and mood to sink in, and puts emphasis on the surroundings as opposed to words, subtitles, or character speech.

           Because the story is so vague and in the dark, it actually serves to make it more interesting and mystifying. This demonstrates a strong relationship between the narrative and the theme, and how together they tell an effective story (Conroy, 2005). The story's level of vagueness also allows it to be interpreted in many different ways. This open-endedness allows each player to away something unique from the game. These unique interpretations opens up discussions about various story aspects, where players can share their perspectives and experiences with one another. It's fascinating to see how passionate and invested players are even in the smallest of background story elements. Discussion topics include the rivalry between Havel the Rock and Seath the Scaleless, the identity of Lord Gwyn's firstborn, and the truth behind the background of the mystifying and ever-popular Solaire (phreakinpher, 2012). It's these kind of discussions that keep the game and it's community alive. If the story were more clear and had answers to everything, than people would wind up taking on identical perspectives, and little discussion could be had because there wouldn't be any contesting ideas.

           Dark Souls is a great example of the old adage "show don't tell". It does exactly that. It presents a world to the players, but it says nothing about it. NPCs and cutscenes provide hardly any exposition to explain the narrative. They have to explore this world down to the lowest depths and up to the highest peak, searching in every last corner to find items if they wish to develop an understanding of their environment and its background. It's a new and refreshing take on narrative that lends in strengthening the game and what it represents in its theme.

Overly Emotional Female Trope

           Over the course of many generations, stereotypes of all kinds have nestled their way into society, and they don’t appear to be going away any time soon. It’s an unfortunate aspect that gnaws at essentially all cultures. Branching off from stereotypes are tropes, which share these characteristics. Tropes feed off of and are strengthened by stereotypes, in fact. A trope refers to recurring themes or ideas. They are abundant in all forms of media, and video games are certainly no exception. Tropes aren’t always necessarily bad, though many of them have become so much part of the norm and generally accepted that we tend to not even be aware of their existence. This is where problems can crop up. While there are many tropes out there, this post will hone in specifically on a particular “genre” of tropes, that being gender representation in video games. More specifically, I’ll take a look at a female trope wherein women are often portrayed as overly emotional. The game I will use as my focus is Super Princess Peach (2006), a platformer developed by Nintendo for the Nintendo DS. As a side note, Super Princess Peach is not a bad, ethically-void game. The purpose of this post is rather to demonstrate the prevalence of this trope, and how we might hardly notice that. It’s easy to glance over things that are considered normal. This kind of behavior is what fosters tropes and stereotypes and allows them to remain as they are in culture.

            Super Princess Peach is a very interesting title. For those who follow the traditional Mario games, it’s well-known that Princess Peach, the ruler of the fictitious Mushroom Kingdom, has this strange tendency of being captured by Bowser, the series’ antagonist. For whatever reason, it always comes as a surprise when he shows up on the doorstep of Peach’s Castle and takes her by force even though this has happened on many occasions. Regardless, the duty to rescue the princess has always been put upon Mario, the series’ protagonist. Super Princess Peach aimed to mix up the formula just a bit. Bowser has come across an artifact known as the vibe scepter on an island near the Mushroom Kingdom called Vibe Island. The scepter has the power to change the mood of both the user and those around the user. Victims can be put into a fit of rage, a bout of gloominess, and other mood states. Using this new power, Bowser storms into Peach’s Castle and uses the scepter to incapacitate the guards and to steal Mario and Luigi, as Peach isn’t there. So instead, Mario and Luigi have been captured by Bowser, and Peach must make a journey through Vibe Island to save them. Though maybe not a drastic change, it served as a different twist on the story as well as a unique opportunity to play as Peach, which isn’t offered in a majority of Mario games. Players were probably excited to see what Peach could bring to the table in terms of new gameplay mechanics to set it apart from the traditional Mario title. Super Princess Peach certainly delivers new gameplay not before seen in a Mario game, though it may not have been what some players wanted from the princess.

            Though video game tropes may not always make themselves transparent, the “overly emotional woman” trope is essentially right on the surface of Super Princess Peach. The trope can actually be found in the game’s most central mechanic, which revolves around Peach using her emotions to defeat enemies, solve puzzles, and find secrets. Peach has four emotional states, which are joy, gloom, rage, and calm, each represented by different-colored heart icons on the bottom DS screen. When joy is activated, Peach is granted the ability to fly. When in her gloomy state, large streams of tears burst from Peach’s eyes, which can be used for puzzle purposes, such as watering and growing a plant to reach higher areas. In rage mode, Peach is engulfed by a giant flame, and can plow through anything in her path. She can also create earthquakes by jumping and landing on the ground. Finally, when calm, Peach is surrounded by a bubble which restores her health. In these ways, Peach is very much portrayed as overly emotional. She hasn't had the chance to star in any of her own games, and when finally given that chance, she isn't represented very well. She’s represented as an individual whose only method of defending herself (aside from her umbrella weapon/companion) is through the use of her exaggerated emotions. This isn’t empowering for Peach. Funnily enough, other games where she doesn't play the primary role represent her in a better light than Super Princess Peach. This can be seen in both Paper Mario (2000) and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door (2004), both developed by Nintendo for the Nintendo 64 and Nintendo GameCube, respectively. In both of these titles, Princess Peach has been kidnapped, but instead of standing around idly and waiting for Mario to come to her rescue, the player is given gameplay segments whereby they can control Peach. This is used as both a way to further the narrative of the game, as well as a brief break from playing as Mario. These segments usually involve Peach sneaking into areas she shouldn’t be in, all in an attempt to gain control of the situation she’s in, to gain light on what’s going on around her. She doesn't sit in the corner feeling scared and helpless, she doesn’t go on an angry rampage, and she doesn't start to cry uncontrollably. She maintains control of her emotions. She steps outside the overly emotional female trope, and she develops a respectable character and personality because of that. These games represent how females ought to be portrayed. Super Princess Peach doesn't do its protagonist very much justice. In that game, her personality is defined by her emotions, which should never be the case.

Games as Art

           For a long time, video games have fought a battle. They've fought for a place in society, for the right to be accepted for what they represent. They've been ridiculed as a media, and often cited as harbinger's of violence in those that play them. There has even been attempts to limit or outright ban the sale of games to certain consumers through government legislation, as seen through such cases as Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. Despite all of this fighting and struggling for a spot in culture, games have survived, and are definitely beginning to make their way into the mainstream. Games aren't considered as the life-wasting toys of basement-dwelling creatures known as "geeks" or "nerds". If anything, these people were the trend setters, as all kinds of demographics take part in video games. Whether their young or old, male or female, "serious" gamer or "casual" gamer, it seems games have drastically increased their audience. They are considered as a serious medium, field of study, as well as pursuit of interest. In fact, they are considered so serious that they are news-worthy, as seen with the current # GamerGate debate. This is good because it shows games are not dismissed as pointless past times. It allots them a certain level of attention and respect. Though issues like #GamerGate aren't exactly light-hearted and positive, it at least shows that they're considered important topics of cultural discussion.


           With all of this in mind, it seems that games have breached the forefront of culture and continue to gain momentum. People are now beginning to ask serious questions to truly evaluate games. At long last, video games are not completely condescended to. They are put on the same level as other cultural staples like books and movies, or at least enough to be asked these questions in the first place. One of the bigger and highly debated questions is whether games can be considered as Art. Not as in art, which is any expression of human creativity. But rather Art as in a high art. I really believe games have already demonstrated they can be Art. Drawing upon Ernest W. Adams' "Will Computer Games ever be a Legitimate Art Form?" I will take a look at a few games I believe to be Art based on criteria Adams attributes to Art in other forms of media.

          Adams mentions that Art has an aesthetic, that it appeals to us. This means there are certain elements to the Art we find engaging enough so that we become attracted to it. This can definitely be said of games. In fact, there are many different kinds of aspects that make games appealing to people. Games like the The Last of Us or Watch Dogs are appealing to people who desire games with high graphical quality. Gang Beasts andSumotori Dreams appeal to players seeking an absurd and silly gaming experience. Minecraft and Terraria appeal to those who want freedom from conventional games designed to be linear. They want to forge their own method of play.

 

           Art must also contain and express ideas. The experience of the Art must be able to persist beyond the initial interaction with it, perhaps through rich discussions for example. One example that comes to mind, and one often cited by advocates of games as art, is Gone Home (2013). The entire basis of this game is that it's centered on an idea, an idea that is very much relevant in real life. It expresses this idea in a meaningful and heartfelt way that many people can probably relate to. And that is what's most important about ideas within Art: that whatever's expressed reaches people. Gone Home does just that.

           One more characteristic I'll touch upon is that Art should create a feeling inside its recipients. Whether it be confusion, sadness, or shocked, it should emotionally effect the user in some way. Dark Souls could be considered as such a game. The atmosphere is thick with emptiness and sadness. It's difficult not to feel something as players watch grim side stories unfold. Take Solaire, for example. He is a proud and dedicated figure. He has a goal set in his mind, and he intends on achieving it, no matter the cost or peril. He happily fights by your side throughout the course of the game, always boasting that strong spirit. However, as the game progresses, something changes in Solaire. He loses that one trait that kept him so strong. He loses hope. He can't "find his sun", and this causes disparity for him. Later, the player will find Solaire,driven mad by a parasitic bug on his head, finally defeated over failing to complete his mission. After spending so much time fighting with Solaire, it's depressing to see him in this way. Solaire's story holds emotion behind it, something I'm sure many people feel.

 

           Some people believe games are not an Art, and won't be for some time. I honestly have to disagree. Games have already shown their capacity to be Art, and continue to deliver memorable experiences that are more than just about "having fun". They've proved themselves as a creative medium with meaningful messages and experiences. Considering the trend that games are slowly becoming more accepted, there's no doubt that they will someday be uncontested as a legitimate art form.

Adams, E., W. Will computer games ever be a legitimate art form? [PDF document]. Retrieved                   from: http://www.lee-                                                                                                                                 web.net/pdfs/330/adams_will_computer_games_ever_be_a_legitimate_art_form.pdf

 

Rules of Dark Souls

          First I'll discuss perhaps the largest rule of Dark Souls, the fact that when the player dies, they are sent back to the last bonfire rested at, and all souls and humanity are lost, but are recoverable if the player can make it back to the point of death and recover their power. This outlines one of the main mechanics, as well as one of the reasons why it’s deemed a difficult game.

          This rule confines the player from achieving the goal of the game because dying is generally a massive setback for players. It means all the souls and humanity they spent time gathering is now potentially lost. Because souls are used to level up, lost souls means lost levels. Leveling up is so crucial in Dark Souls because it's the only way the player can continue to grow progress and face new challenges. With these thoughts in mind, players must spend time getting back to their death point to attempt soul retrieval, which takes even more time. It essentially prolongs the time it takes to complete an area and the game itself in general, especially if the player continually dies from trying to retrieve souls. If the player is unsuccessful in soul recovery, they must spend additional time gathering even more souls to compensate for the loss. Being sent back to the bonfire is generally a large setback as well, as it usually means re-travelling long distances, redoing difficult tasks, or fighting tough enemies again.

          In terms of behaviors this rule prevents/enables, players are much less likely to act recklessly when attempting to complete a level or defeat a boss, as the consequence of being hasty is significant. Being patient is truly a virtue in Dark Souls, as it can save the trouble of re-traversing long distances or losing souls, and therefore levels. Personally, as I went through the game, I was always very careful whenever I reached a new area. I was aware the game was keen on throwing in traps, ambushes and other sorts of surprises around every corner, so I knew to be cautious. Rather than dashing through an area, I would take slow and methodical steps forward, shield up at all times. And being a mage-based character, I even threw up a homing soulmass at times so that I would be “notified” if enemies were hiding nearby. It was only when I knew a particular area very well when I felt comfortable traveling at a more brisk pace.

          Depending on how the rule is changed, Dark Souls could completely change. What keeps the player in a near-constant state of tension comes from the knowledge that any slip up or small mistake could mean death. Whether that be falling off a tall ledge, being smashed to bits by a larger foe, or being shot by lethally poisoned darts, almost everything is a hazard to the player. What adds to this tension is knowing that everything will be lost upon death. Even though it is possible to recover every last bit of the souls dropped, there’s still the matter of making it all the way back to the point of death without dying a second time, while also dealing with enemies fought previously. So this overall concept of having everything on the line, and all the time, is part of what makes this game experientially unique. Say we changed this rule though. Let’s say instead of losing all souls upon death, you lost only half. Suddenly, a lot of pressure is taken away, because the player knows that even if they die, not all is lost. Conversely, if the rule had even more restrictions on it, the level of tension and difficulty might be too much for players to handle. If souls and humanity were not recoverable, Dark Souls would suddenly become a very different game. So because of the nature of this rule, changing it could very well create a completely different game.

          I discussed a very much written rule, but now I'd like to discuss an unwritten one, specifically about the PvP elements of the game. As Stephen Sniderman asserts in his piece, essentially all games in culture have the idea of good sportsmanship attached to them. Much like many games with PvP elements, it is an unwritten rule to be respectful towards opponents in Dark Souls, and to give everyone a fair fight. That being said, players have the option to not be respectful, as everyone has the freedom to act however they want. However, again as Sniderman points out, people aren’t very fond of disrespectful behavior, and will equally not be fond of such players.

          I definitely wouldn't say that this rule keeps the player from meeting the goals of the game because being polite and respectful to fellow players hardly seems like it would hinder the ability to complete the game.  However, it definitely affects the way people act toward one another. Being respectful implies that players don’t make use of cheap tactics, or unsportsmanlike behavior in general. When I say “cheap tactics”, I mean using gimmicks or tricks to take down opponents. For example, a friend and I were playing together in Blighttown, only to be invaded along the way. We were traveling along a bridge that overlooked a very long drop, and suddenly the invader was behind us. He got right up to my friend, and used emit force, a miracle that sends people flying backward. Unfortunately, my friend was a bit too close to the edge, so he went flying off to his demise. Needless to say we were frustrated. This is what I would classify as a cheap tactic. From what I observed, it seemed like this individual was specifically camping out this particular part of the game solely to use that miracle to easily defeat his/her opponents. Now, though I admit it was rather funny to watch my friend soar to his inevitable demise, this was not a fair fight. We were frustrated because we felt cheated, like there was nothing we could have done to prevent what happened. We would have preferred a “real” fight, where the measure of our skill would be put to the test, something I feel most players want, especially in a game like Dark Souls. This rule does however encourage players to act with proper conduct towards opponents, and optionally to bow to one another, which is a sign of mutual respect.

          If this rule was altered, so say being respectful wasn’t necessarily important, I imagine it wouldn’t actually change the game very much. Though there will always be rude people who will play according only to their own unique rule set, this can also be said of well-mannered people. Some people place value in honesty and fairness, and many of these people would continue to play respectfully, regardless if the rule changed. They would do this simply because that is what they stand for as a human being, which takes a sort of Kantian approach of being good just for the sake of itself.

 

Sniderman, S. (2006). Unwritten Rules. In The game design reader: A Rules of play anthology (1st ed., Vol. 1, p. 478, 481). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.