Opinion: Long live the long RPG
Is a 100-hour videogame worthwhile? This is the question – a fair one – posed by journalist Michael Thomsen in a recent Slate article cataloguing the various resentments that piled up during his tour of fantasy-RPG epic Dark Souls. “Everyone who has played a game of [Dark Souls’] length knows too well the hollowness that waits at the end,” he writes with an implicit sigh, “brain numb, uncountable weeks and months piled on the trash heap at their backs, and no idea of what to do next. Why did I do that? Why did I keep playing? What was I after? Where am I now?”
Denizens of virtual worlds are entitled to their own existential hand-wringing. And while twig piles of minor gripes burn calmly in various facets of his screed, the one Thomsen has kindled to an infernal roar hinges on this belief that Dark Souls lured him into chasing an objective that offered little reward. His complaint bears the shrill timbre of an aspiring fiancé that’s been conned into spending several months’ wages on a diamond ring, only to realise too late that he’s been sold a hunk of costume jewellery. When it comes to spent time, the no-refund policy is well established.
Thomsen opens his piece by listing a variety of respectable pursuits that could be undertaken in the roughly 100-hour span that Dark Souls asks of players who hope to reach its closing credits. You could read Tolstoy’s classic War And Peace, and a few other novels beside, he suggests. You could take a life-enriching roadtrip from New York to Los Angeles. You could get the jump on learning a foreign language. You could train for a marathon. With his set-up complete, he uncorks his punchline: Or you could play Dark Souls. In short, it’s framed to sound like a laughable proposition.
Thomsen may aspire to do nothing more than give Dark Souls a few reciprocal lashes as payback for its cruel gauntlet, but his article pulses with disdain for the videogame past-time in a far broader sense. After all, there are plenty of impeccably designed games that have no completion state. What about somebody who’s spent 100 hours fragging buddies in Call Of Duty multiplayer? Or refining tactics in the puzzle game Drop7? Or becoming the Yngwie Malmsteen of Guitar Hero’s instrument peripheral?
Thomsen doesn’t bother to cite any narrative-driven games which offer a corrective to Dark Souls’ perceived bloat. He simply offers his assurance that “many do”. Let’s hypothetically say one of those games takes 25 hours to complete. What if somebody loved that game so much she played it from start to finish four times? At what point does the time investment become wasteful? A more honest strap for the Slate article would be: is playing hundreds of hours of videogames ever worthwhile? Dark Souls is simply the unlucky virgin chosen at random to be heaved into the volcano.
I respect Thomsen for having the courage to stick his neck out. Internet discourse is such that anybody who utters a negative word about a popular game franchise immediately gets battered with accusations of trolling fans to net a cheap boost in web traffic. Mounting an assault on a person’s motives is, of course, a cowardly tactic, as there’s no tangible proof any writer can offer to confirm otherwise. It’s a www.itch trial. And like a lawyer attempting to smear a witness’s character, these anonymous plebeians seek only to discredit, not meaningfully interrogate.
Thomsen’s Dark Souls essay warrants a far more exacting response. After all, nobody aspires to squander their life on a frivolous hobby. We must decide if the innumerable hours we spend playing games amount to – allow me to borrow Robert Ashley’s inspired phrasing – a life well wasted. If not, we’re just raking them into a pile like dry leaves and burning them to cinder. Dark Souls is not a concise game, and I hope you’ll forgive the fact that this is not a concise piece of writing.
I see two core arguments in Thomsen’s piece: 1) games are capable of offering their audience gratification, but ought to be enjoyed in moderation so as not to distract from more enriching artistic works and real-world pursuits, and 2) Dark Souls is an evocative, handsome and needlessly stubborn piece of game design that outstays its welcome by taxing players with dozens of hours of stultifying trial-and-error. I’ll start by countering the larger assertion and then seek to address some of the specific complaints levelled at Dark Souls.
Let’s talk about Tolstoy. Thomsen repeatedly invokes the venerated Russian novelist’s War And Peace to describe a work of art that proves the shallowness and triviality of Dark Souls. This hits below the belt for a multitude of reasons. False equivalence is always a nasty, misleading business. How many times have you heard somebody claim that a particular movie was good but the book from which it was adapted is far better? After my eyes return to their uncrossed position, I’m always tempted to ask, what aspect of the book’s cinematography did you find superior? Was there something more lyrical about the book’s orchestral score? Did the characters in the book offer more believable performances? What about the book’s costume design? Makeup? Lighting?
Though it’s possible to debate whether or not games are art, there’s no room to argue that games are books. They function in dramatically different ways and games arguably become weaker the more slavishly they aspire to mimic the conventions of other mediums. Alan Wake’s protagonist is an author, no less, and yet the game’s delivery of story through manuscript pages remains the most unwieldy ebook that technology has yet devised.
It’s a noteworthy coincidence that Thomsen, in his opening paragraph, talks about Dark Souls distracting its players from potentially spending time learning a foreign language. In practice, Dark Souls does nothing but tutor players in foreign language. Because games vary in their mechanical rules, each one offers a slightly different ‘dialect’ to master. Some languages are quite different. The grammar of Drop7 is as different to the grammar of Assassin’s Creed as Mandarin is to German. To stretch the analogy a bit further, the gameplay language of Gears Of War and Uncharted would be more akin to the nuances separating Spanish and Portuguese. To adore videogames is to be an insatiable linguist.