Salt Without Owner and Sanctuary Without Name: A Sense of Place In Games

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This game has far more salt involved than just the stuff dropped by dead enemies.

So, I’ve been neck-deep in finals for a bit, but on a positive note, that’s given me a bit of time to think about the most recent game I sank a lot of time into, and that’s Ska Studios’s Salt and Sanctuary. A Dark Souls homage through and through, I picked up Salt and Sanctuary as a way to bide my time until Dark Souls 3 launched, and, now that Dark Souls 3 is out, I’m honestly debating pushing it back just a little bit more so that I can finish Salt and Sanctuary. It’s really good.

The problem, though, is that I have a nagging feeling with this game, one that’s ruined every draft of this post I’ve written thusfar. It was only until I took that long break that I was able to properly see it: this creeping, looming feeling that’s in the back of my head whenever I think about or play this game. It’s not enough to ruin the game, not even close, but I think it’s worth talking about, especially since it ties into my last post. That problem which I think the game has is a lack of place.

That’s sort of vague, so let me try to explain using this game’s obvious inspiration: Dark Souls. In that game, you’re very obviously dropped into a location with a lot of history, one where characters rose and fell and did great deeds. Dark Souls is a game that uses sparingly few cutscenes, yet it begins the game with one of the game’s longest ones to set up the setting.

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“And then Spooky Skeleton Man dooted across the land, and all was good”

Dark Souls spends its precious opening moments on a cutscene because, to that game, having a sense of place is important. With few characters, little direct storytelling, and merely the faintest glimmer of what most people would call a “quest”, you need something to anchor yourself to the world, and so that anchor is your sense of place. That sense that everything your finding and doing has a connection to the history of this world. Dark Souls rewards its narrative-focused players by tapping into this sense of world.

Some of the best bosses in Dark Souls are ones which have a definite, grounded place in the world of Lordran. Gwyn. Nito. Ornstein and Smough. Sif. Artorias. To the story-seeking types, these fights are great not just for the mechanics of them, but for the fact that these characters have well-established roles in this world, roles which are referenced long before and long after their fights.

Sure, the game’s not obvious about it, but everything in Dark Souls belongs in this world, and has a meticulous placement in this setting, both literal and narrative. The reward for the narrative-focused player for progress is that every step fills in the bigger picture of this setting a little bit more, and you really feel like you’re uncovering this epic story.

It’s the absence of this sense of place that gives Salt and Santuary this nagging sense of incompleteness. Every time I learned about or encountered something new in Dark Souls, I felt like I was getting one more piece to a jigsaw puzzle, squealing with glee as I was now able to complete the image of a king or a dragon amongst the irregular edges and incomplete blobs of the half-finished puzzle. Salt and Sanctuary also feels like a jigsaw puzzle, but as I manage to connect more pieces, I realize I’m not connecting this big, single, epic scene, but rather a bunch of small, more mundane scenes, all inexplicably printed on the same puzzle.

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What’s he Untouched by? Greater story significance.

In my mind, nothing emphasizes this feeling like the bosses. Where Souls games invoke this sense of “Whoa, oh my god, it’s you” when you encounter bosses, and even after you encounter a boss their role in the world continues to reveal itself, Salt and Sanctuary bosses are just sorta…there.  None of the bosses I’ve encountered thus far feel like products of, or agents of change in, their world. They all are just sort of big scary video game bosses. There are some exceptions, such as the Untouched Inquisitor pictured above, but even his influence on the world is restricted to within the zone you find him.

Speaking of zones, the literal setting also makes it hard to establish that sense of place. One of the less obvious benefits of Dark Souls being in a 3D space is that you can look in weird angles to places you haven’t been yet, either down below or on the horizon or above you and so on. These sorts of vistas make it easier to connect the areas of the world together, and make it all the more satisfying when you get to a new area, look down, recognize some landmark below, and go “Oh, I’m up here now”. Salt and Sanctuary‘s 2D perspective doesn’t allow for that sort of worldbuilding, and when you combine that with this sense that the Island feels like distinct areas stitched together, and now there’s no strong setting to ground all of these characters against.

Also contributing to this lacking feeling is the sense that some things that should contribute to the worldbuilding as a whole do not. The game haphazardly mentions the greater geopolitical landscape of this world, even going so far as to force players to pick a home city during character creation, but I have no sense of identity for any of those places, nothing to distinguish any of them from one another. Dark Souls doesn’t exactly give you a history book about the nations of its world either, but it still distinguishes them. Catarina is the place where the jolly onion knights are from, which is silly, but also adds character to an otherwise throwaway location name.

Furthermore, you have the game’s Creed system, which is mechanically excellent. Narratively, however, I don’t feel like the Creeds have as much of a grounding in the world as I’d like. In other Souls games, you can meet people who are in the different Covenants, whose reactions and dialogue will change depending on your own Covenant. Covenants influence playstyle, they have distinct moods, visual styles, and character tropes associated with them. You find items referencing either the Covenant directly or a member of it.

In Salt and Sanctuary, the Creeds are utterly absent outside of the Sanctuaries themselves. At the point I’m at in the game, you never meet a character in your Creed, never really see a Covenant mentioned in flavor text, and Creeds definitely don’t affect your playstyle in any significant way. One Creed, the Iron Ones, is said to hate magic and magic users, and yet I, as a magic user, am still more than free to join their Creed, and you can still buy spells from an Iron One Sanctuary as long as there’s a Mage there, so what’s the point?

Salt and Sanctuary is still a very good game, and I definitely plan to sit down and complete it when I have more time. I just wish that they really nailed that greater sense of place in this game, because it would really compliment how great the rest of the game is. For me, and the kind of player I am, exploring the world and discovering the roles and actions of those within it is as exciting as leveling up or getting new gear, so not having that avenue of satisfaction in this game is slightly disappointing.

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Horrible Bosses

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Not what I…nope.

So, in my recent spree of completing games that I own, I recently managed to tie a ribbon on the main story of Middle Earth: Shadows of Mordor. I’m aware that the games press and bloggers as a whole have pretty much dissected every iota of this game, mainly because the year it came out in was so sparse for big, AAA games, but it’s new to me, dammit, so I want to talk about that game. Specifically, I’m going to look at it as a case study for the boss battle as we know it in traditional video games.

For those of you who don’t know, Shadows of Mordor features some…pretty bad boss battles. There are, by my recollection, 5 bosses: The Hammer of Sauron, The Ghul Matron, The Legendary Graug, The Tower of Sauron, and The Hand of Sauron/Sauron. And all of them are absolutely unfun to play.

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I would, however, absolutely love if the film Horrible Bosses had Jason Bateman, Charlie Day, and Jason Sudeikis try to kill these three.

Let’s get the easy one out of the way: the final boss fight, against Sauron, is hot garbage. It’s three Quicktime Events. You destroy Sauron, the greatest darkness of the entire land, an actual demigod, and the titular character of the entire series, with three button presses. It’s terrible. But, everyone’s already talked about this to death. Let’s have a bit more of an interesting discussion than that.

Let’s talk about the Legendary Graug. This fight occurs about 2/3 of the way through the game, and there are some interesting things to talk about with it. Unlike Sauron, who just sort of shows up out of nowhere thanks to some nonsense magic the game explains 2 seconds before it happens, the Legendary Graug has backstory: Torvin, your hunter buddy, attempted to take on this monster years ago with his brother, only to fail and lose his brother in the process. Talion, your character, agrees to join in this hunt because the Graug has, in its lair, a treasure capable of restoring a memory to Celebrimbor, the wraith currently possessing Talion’s body.

Cool, we’re building a reputation of the boss before we get to it, we have vested interest, we have a big scary monster, it looks like we’re cooking with gas.

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Not pictured: cooking with gas

How does this boss fight fail? Well, Talion completes his hunter training with Torvin, which teaches him how to tame the wild Caragors (which are to lions as Worgs are to wolves) around Mordor, and how to fight and slay a Graug. Armed with this knowledge, Talion and Torvin ride atop Caragors to the Legendary Graug’s cave and….dismount? And just leave the Caragors? If the only thing I learned whilst training was how to ride Caragors, and we’re not going to use that in this fight, doesn’t that mean the training was useless?

OK, so any and all satisfaction and confidence I got from completing my training and getting a handful of new skills is completely gone, now that I know it’s all going to be useless. So, alright, whatever, let’s go in the cave, fight this Graug, and find the treasure that will restore my mem…oh, it’s right here. Literally, the first thing Talion does in the cave is find the treasure. Well, there goes my vested interest, so I guess let’s leave. It’s in character to leave, because Talion’s not supposed to really care about anyone else until he falls for Lithariel later so…why don’t I leave?

Alright, whatever. Torvin and I are still going to triumphantly slay the beast and avenge his brother! Isn’t that right Torvin! Torvin? Oh, the Graug just cold-clocked him, so I guess he’s not going to be in this fight. I bet he’ll be so proud of himself for avenging his brother by being absolutely goddamn useless through the whole fight.

Great, so the fight hasn’t even started yet, and we’ve already invalidated all preparatory work I did for this fight, gave me my incentive for the fight too early, and utterly neutered the narrative lead-up to the fight. Well, this is a game that really shines in its mechanics, so the fight itself should be solid.

Hey, I’m gonna stop my story for a second to ask you a question. Have you played a video game before? Literally, any video game?

You have? Cool. Did that video game have one of those bosses where they charge forward, and you have to somehow blind or stun them mid-run such that they hit a wall, and when they do hit a wall, you then run up and score some damage on them?

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Like this one.
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Or this one.
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Or even this one.

You probably have, because it’s a boss fight so common, TV Tropes has a page dedicated to it. And, yeah, that’s just this fight. So, as the cherry on top, the final, actual boss fight is a derivative, boring boss fight based on the general flow of a thousand boss fights before it. Even more annoying is the fact that this isn’t even how you learned to fight a Graug earlier in the game!

Alright, so, anyone can just shred apart a bad bit of game design. Let’s learn from this. The most obvious thing to do is invert the complaints, and try to make a good boss fight by negating a bad one. I listed four complaints with the Graug:

  1. All of my preparation leading up to the Graug was utterly useless, as none of the skills I learned were relevant in the fight
  2. I received my reward before the fight, making it unclear what motivation I had for fighting at all
  3. The narrative buildup to the fight was completely deflated
  4. The mechanics of the boss fight were derivative and forgettable

So, hypothetically, we can develop some tenants of good boss design by reversing these:

  1. A good boss should require the player to apply the knowledge they’ve obtained leading up to that fight
  2. A good boss should provide ample incentive for both the main character and the player to fight them
  3. A good boss should be built up to
  4. A good boss fight should be designed in a unique and interesting way

Most of these sound pretty obvious, but when you check them against good bosses, you see that someone seems to be following them. A lot of the best bosses in video games are ones players were gearing up to fight long before a boss health bar appeared on the screen, ones that inverted or hyperbolized the mechanics of their games in interesting ways, ones which players revel in killing, if only because it stood as a test to prove that the player had mastered the mechanics.

Despite the tendencies of modern games to stray away from the boss fight as a design concept, some of the most memorable moments in video games are boss fights. However, to achieve such a thing with a boss fight, we as designers need to make sure that they are as momentous an occasion as the name implies.

The Dreaded Backlog

Whenever I mention wanting to buy a new game in front of my friends, I always get the same look. It’s a look I’ve gotten very used to, and what it roughly translates to is “Do you know how many goddamn video games you already have that you haven’t played?”

For the uninitiated, this collection many gamers have of games they own, but have not played (or similarly, that readers have of books unread, or film buffs of movies unwatched) is frequently called a backlog. And mine is disgustingly large. I tried approximating how long it would take me to clear my backlog, and I got pretty sad pretty fast. To demonstrate, let me cherry-pick ten games from my backlog, and show how long completing just those ten would take.

  1. The Witcher II: Assassins of Kings – 33.5 hours
  2. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt – 96.5 hours
  3. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 – 107 hours
  4. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 – 85.5 hours
  5. Dragon Age: Origins (plus expansions) – 74.5 hours
  6. Dragon’s Dogma: Dark Arisen – 63 hours
  7. Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn – 87 hours
  8. Divinity: Original Sin – Director’s Cut – 75 hours
  9. Final Fantasy VII – 57.5 hours
  10. Lost Odyssey – 70.5 hours

By pure coincidence, those numbers all add up to a nice, clean seven hundred and fifty hourswhich is just a smidge over a month of nothing but playing games. Granted, I intentionally picked large, mostly open-world RPGs, but keep in mind I have more games in that genre in my backlog than these ten. Do you know how many games I have? Because I literally do not anymore. 600? 700? How many of these are untouched, or I played so little of so long ago that I basically would have to restart? 50%? 60%?

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This doesn’t even account for games I got partway through then dropped, like Fallout 4, or games that I want to play again with a new character, like Mass Effect.

How did this happen? Well, the answer is multifaceted. One: I’m an idiot and make bad purchasing decisions. I’ll concede to that. Another answer is that there was a period between when I graduated high school and about the end of my freshman year of college where I had a steady, well-paying job. At the same time, my scholarship with UTD covered most of my school expenses, as well as my rent, while my meal plan covered all of my groceries. With those covered, I was free to blow every paycheck on 10 years of games I had missed out on as a kid.

Another factor is the sale-and-bundle culture which permeates video games right now. I’m sure that when I said how many games I have, a lot of people correctly thought “Oh yeah, Steam sales and Humble Bundles”. That’s definitely a factor. I’ve bought 13 Humble Bundles for $123.56, and received 100 games ($1.24 a game is a steal, by the way, especially when you account for the fact that I also got GameMaker Pro somewhere in there). My Steam Library is 223 games, and I’m sure most of that was purchased during a Summer Sale or a Winter Sale or the Lunar New Year Sale or the Yom Kippur Sale or the Pagan Solar Festival Sale.

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I may have made some of those up.

On top of that, though, pretty much every major game retailer has tried to keep pace with Steam and Humble Bundle, and as a result there are pretty much insane deals on bulk games happening all the time. I remember one holiday season where GameStop was having a B2G1 free deal. I remember walking in, buying three games, and being pretty stoked at the deal I got.

I then went in the next day and bought nine more games. Good games, too. BayonettaBorderlandsGears of War 2.

There’s a root cause here, one that I have trouble bemoaning, and that’s that it’s kind of just a really good time to play video games. Between the AAAs and the indie spaces, there are just a lot of good games coming out right now, at a pretty consistent clip. It used to be that January-August was pretty much a garbage season for games, as big publishers held their franchises until the holidays, but now big AAAs come out pretty much every month, and when they’re not, indie masterpieces are.

This is then combined with the extremely consumer-friendly way games are priced right now. Sure, big AAA games launch at sixty bucks, but prices drop fast for all but a few tentpole franchises (PokemonCall of Duty, and Grand Theft Auto come to mind). Publishers are pressured to match a game’s used price at GameStop, and before long every game is subject to a massive price-gouging sale. Indie developers just want their games to be seen amongst their peers, so they’ll resort to price gouging much quicker, which is impressive given their lower base price point. Suboptimal for developers, sure, but fantastic for consumers.

Compound both of these with the way gamer culture works. When a big, cool release comes out, the internet goes abuzz with hype. People want to talk about new games, share cool stuff and screenshots from those games, dissect in great detail why that new game is either the most incredible thing ever or utter garbage. Then, those games don’t necessarily go away, but they retreat into the background as a new hot game takes the spotlight. Right now, that game in the spotlight is Stardew Valley. Before that it was SUPERHOT and Devil Daggers. In a couple of weeks, it’ll be Dark Souls III.

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There is some real tonal inconsistency within that list.

Conversely, playing a super cool game long after its day in the light kinda sucks by comparison. While not a game, my friend just started watching Breaking Bad a week ago. He’s almost done, and he loves it and wants to talk about it, but he’s stuck because, for the most part, everybody already said and thought everything they want to say and think about Breaking Bad years ago. Now, everyone’s talking about the new season of House of Cards, and getting hyped for the new season of Daredevil.

The point I’m getting that is that gamer culture, and pop culture in general, is no longer built to get people to slowly enjoy games at their own pace. It’s designed for people to pick up the new hotness, play it for a week, then go talk about it on social media, argue about it on Reddit, and get a word in edgewise in the global discussion of the game, before finally moving on to the next new thing. This cycle goes all year long, and while it certainly picks up in the winter, it’s always going.

Oftentimes, there are multiple games in the spotlight at the same time, so you pick up both, but only get around to one, or you pick up the other on sale a month later, remembering the hype that surrounded it. All of a sudden, you accrue this massive pile of games which you haven’t touched not because they aren’t good, because they are, but simply because keeping pace with the hobby has become a Herculean feat.

Or maybe I’m just shitty at making financial decisions.

 

Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is…so close

On paper, Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga should be a game I love. There’s a unique setting constructed by shoving Hindu and Buddhist mythology into an anime post-apocalyptic setting. There’s a deep RPG combat system, there’s a big upgrade tree. It’s character driven! And yet…

Lemme back up.

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Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga is a JRPG from Atlus, and the start of one of the many subseries which compose the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, the most famous of which is Persona. In the game, you play Serph, leader of one of the clans which populates the Junkyard, a future-y, post-apocalyptic, Hindu inspired wasteland. A decree from the central Karma Temple rules over the land: whichever clan may triumph over the others may rise from the Junkyard and ascend to Nirvana. Cool.

A wrench is thrown in when your clan, the Embryon, is fighting against a rival clan, the Vanguards. On the battlefield, you find a strange…thing, which proceeds to open, shooting magic…stuff across the Junkyard. There are 4 things which occur as a direct result to this.

  1. The magic…stuff brands everyone in the Junkyard, giving them all the power to assume a demon form.
  2. Along with this demon form is an insatiable hunger which plagues everyone, one that can only be temporarily quelled by consuming other people.
  3. A girl, Sera, appears out of nowhere.
  4. On top of the previous condition, Sera must be taken to the Karma Temple for a clan to ascend to Nirvana.

So that’s pretty cool. With all of this, Serph and his rag-tag group of cannibalistic demon warriors goes on a quest to destroy the other clans and reach the Karma Temple to ascend to Nirvana. I, on paper, should love this game. The reality of it is that I’ve put in about 7 hours, and I think I’m done.

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Nor do I, Gale

The reasons why I don’t love this game are probably best described by detailing each aspect of this game that should make me love it, and then the reality.

Let’s start with the setting. The Junkyard is a post-apocalyptic wasteland with heavy Hindu inspiration, from the names of locations (such as Svadhisthana, an early dungeon) to the architecture to the concepts of Karma, Atma, Mantra, and Nirvana. Combine this with a heavy dose of anime, and you should have a setting which sticks out in my mind as one-of-a-kind.

In reality, though…eh. Karma doesn’t really behave like Karma, it’s just a fancy name for XP. The Mantra system doesn’t behave like Mantra, it’s just a skill tree. The locations may be intended to draw their inspiration from Hindu architecture, but that hardly matters one way or another when there’s so little in the world. For the most part, areas are just utterly barren, except for save and restore points, and maybe the odd puzzle or friendly NPC. It’s hard for the setting to do anything for me when it’s just so devoid of…anything, really. Everywhere the game could have embraced the uniqueness of its setting, it instead feels like any ol’ RPG.

OK, but how about the combat system? I like the Press Turn System quite a bit. For the uninitiated, you’re allotted a number of moves equal to your party size at the beginning of combat. Perform moves that your enemies are weak to, or get crits, and you’re awarded with bonus moves. Miss, or perform moves that your enemies resist, and your turn will be cut short. Both you and your enemy are subject to these rules, so you have to constantly learn and take advantage of your enemies’ weaknesses, while also accounting for your own. Pretty good stuff.

Well, yeah, but no. You see, in the Shin Megami Tensei game I had previously sunk into, Shin Megami Tensei IV, you had this rotating posse of demons. Each could only learn a certain pool of moves, and each one was weak to certain things. As a result, you’d constantly be rotating demons in and out of your party to try and have the best possible loadout for the monsters in the area you were in. Furthermore, you could fuse demons together, which would require you to sacrifice two or more demons to get a new demon that shared moves with all of its progenitors but, more importantly, had its own weaknesses and moves to learn.

Digital Devil Saga has none of that. Your party changes at a snail’s pace (I just got my first new party member at about the 6 hour mark), and so you’re pretty much always staring at the same dumb group of idiots, all of whom’s weaknesses are constant. On top of that, the Mantra Grid means every character can learn every move, depending on how you spend your Macca, so instead of needing to make meaningful decisions about what you do with your demons, instead you just sorta keep adding new moves to the same guys, trivially swapping out what moves they can use in combat at a moment’s notice. All of that dynamic party changing that SMTIV has is gone here.

On top of that, the few battles which do require a tactic more interesting than “HIT ‘EM WITH THE THING THEY’RE WEAK TO” just serve to emphasize how many of the fights are just that. There are some cool ideas. There’s one boss fight early on where you have to end the boss’s turn early, or else he will always use his last action to raise a shield that deflects any attack. When I figured that out, I actually said out loud “Oh, shit, that’s neat”. And yet, this sort of design methodology is so unbelievably rare amongst the fights.

You might have noticed that I called my party “a dumb group of idiots”. That’s because, for a game that has so much potential to really develop some cool and interesting characters and factions, everyone in this game sucks. One-note characters abound. Argilla is super nice and doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Heat is an asshole. Gale talks like a robot. The enemies fare no better. Nothing distinguishes any of the enemy factions, they’re all just “people who can turn into demons and are jerks”. Nothing unifies any of the enemy factions together, nor does anything set them apart from the other factions.

Does Digital Devil Saga go somewhere really cool with its premise and characters? Probably. Atlus are known for making really good games with really good stories, and considering this is one of the few Shin Megami Tensei games that is in an actual chronology (although only with its sequel), clearly this story goes somewhere. I just wish there was something interesting to keep me going, and while this game certainly has hints of interesting stuff, it somehow manages to make it all bland and boring instead.

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At least some of the demons look cool