Sunday 13 April 2014

Dark Soulmates

Firstly, let's go back 14 years...

Anyone who watched that SpaceWorld 2000 clip at the time will remember the excitement. It’s like Zelda, but next gen and purdy! Imagine what it'll be like…

The Wind Waker’s ‘Celda’ backlash was petty and reactionary but proportionate to the positivity generated by that 25 second GameCube tech demo. It wasn’t that Wind Waker looked bad – with time, most people calmed down and accepted the bold new art direction – but ideas were kindled by that Link/Gannondorf duel. A Zelda that builds on the Z-targeting combat system developed for Ocarina, and layered with tactics and swordplay and sexiness? Imagine it!

Twilight Princess eventually delivered something superficially closer to what the people wanted, but it was years too late. The formula had lost its sheen and Okami showed the world that the competition had mastered the grammar Nintendo invented. Zelda needed to evolve to avoid stagnation, and still needs to. Skyward Sword felt like a culmination of the series’ very best, with motion control weaved throughout in a way the Twilight Princess Wii port promised but couldn’t deliver. But motion control was never going to change the series and, in truth, we’ve been playing the same game since 1998.

Yet that SpaceWorld ‘what if’ Zelda does exist. FromSoftware took that darker, tactical path with the Souls games. Yes, they have the same elemental vocabulary and the faux-medieval furniture, but Nintendo co-opted those from elsewhere. What Souls really channels is the thrill of the unknown. That feeling of wonder when you step out into the forest for the first time. It’s a loneliness that Nintendo have moved away from since Wind Waker as the overworld/dungeon divide widened, but something that infuses the NES and N64 games. With each subsequent iteration more oddballs were added and it began to feel like more of an ensemble piece. But The Legend of Zelda began as a lonely adventure and the parts that really resonate are when it’s just you breaking into a new area, inching forward, sussing out the environment and the enemies. Think of your first steps into Ocarina’s Forest Temple, or the Shadow Temple filled with shambling Redead. The now-requisite cucco minigames and enchanted MacGuffins developed in tandem, but it’s still the gallant knight, sword-in-hand, facing dark bosses with a shield and a torch imagery that fires the imagination - the loner journeying through an old kingdom, growing his skillset along the way. Dark Souls simply dispenses with the accumulated baggage and dives deep into the combat and levelling.

And Link does level up. FromSoft put the stats on the screen and increase nuance and choice, but Link collects souls too. What’s that ringing, rotating heart piece every boss leaves floating after their banishment if not a soul? The extension of that lifeline at the top of the screen is Zelda’s levelling system, and inspires ‘3-heart runs’ identical in theme to a SL1 run. The magic bar is equally upgradable. In Zelda II the player earned EXP to upgrade Life, Magic or Attack as they chose. Skyward Sword introduced the Stamina Meter ripped straight from Souls. Nintendo keeps things simpler but the system is there.

There’s a similar focus on gear, though combat in Dark Souls takes precedence over doohickeys and their associated puzzles, thus avoiding the item gimmick cycle Nintendo seem locked into. Zelda has been iterated to the point of cliché whereas FromSoft aren’t weighed down by tradition. In The Gutter, a rickety network of wooden platforms and huts hanging in a pitch-black cavern, I impulsively lit all the sconces expecting a chest to appear with a Zelda-style jingle. Of course, nothing happened, but the video game grammar laid out by Nintendo is so pervasive that I lit the lot, assuming that was their purpose. No, these (shock!) provide only light. And very welcome it is too; the area is genuinely dark, not just ‘darkish blue’. There are no clues or signposts leading the way here – you’re on your own and light itself becomes a precious commodity in a way Nintendo could now only justify in a 60-second puzzle room. Eiji Aonuma and co. are in the unenviable position of having to evolve the definition of a 'Zelda' game while curating all the accumulated facets fans believe are essential to the experience. Contrary to belief, Zelda is not an item-get jingle.

Comparing the series' protagonists, both are essentially blanks filled in by the player. This is almost forgotten now in Zelda games, though again, perhaps that's more due to the players than the games. What discerning fan names the boy in green anything but Link? But the option to personalise is ever-present.

Dark Souls eschews the novelty of minigames, and it’s easy to point at the unrelenting bleakness as an identifier. Yet its multiplayer offers joyous frivolity and the black humour is evident in everything from item descriptions to NPC dialogue to the creative messages constructed by players using FromSoft’s framework. And the comedy provided as a freshly summoned ally immediately backrolls off a ledge to their firey death is priceless. Yes, an ally. Definitely not me. Three times. No sir.

Given the baseball and the archery competitions and bicycle-powered balloon shops, it’s also easy to forget how bleak Zelda can be. A boy adventures alone – oftentimes an orphan – crossing a land of evil creatures, magicians, traders, zombies and weirdos because…, well, legend fortold it. It happened before, it’ll happen again. The moon will always fall. Every victory is tinged with melancholy due to its impermanence. Even the delightful Wind Waker has faceless automaton knights and other Souls-esque moments. Battling through the Lost Bastille, all I could think of was Forsaken Fortress. The backstab, the Z-targeting, the timing – all that’s missing is the musical flourish with each strike.

Dark Souls takes influence from other games too. The tone and palate of Resident Evil 4 can be felt, though it’s difficult to know whether that’s simply a by-product of that game’s European/rustic/castle setting. Shadow of the Colossus is also brought to mind, with its themes of corporeal and geographical decay. It also has the player questioning the motives of the protagonist. Why do these creatures deserve to die? Because that’s the game? Who here killed the Queen Ant creature in The Gutter? Me too. It’s the game what made me do it, guv’.

Though people highlight its challenge and inscrutability as innovations, it’s the multiplayer/multiverse system that I feel is Dark Souls true contribution to games. I was unprepared for the joy of reading those messages and summoning allies as I quested. As gleefully impenetrable as it is, the hints and help provided by other players make the experience accessible and inclusive in a way Nintendo would surely endorse. It shows a glimpse of what an online Zelda might have been – not an openworld MMO, but a singular quest shared with the interaction and empathy Nintendo now prioritise (and instruction too, without reams of laborious tutorial text). It will be interesting to see where Zelda goes next, but there’s really no need to fret. We don’t need the game of that SpaceWorld 2000 demo. We have it already. Hurrah!

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