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

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.

“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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