Don’t panic, but they’ve released Skyrim again. With the 10th anniversary of The Elder Scrolls V’s initial release, Todd Howard, that little scamp, has graced gaming enthusiasts everywhere with the aptly named Anniversary Edition. We’ve seen all of this before in one form or another (although now there’s fishing, apparently? I promise not to make this about the fishing), and Skyrim itself has rightly become a memetic representation of the industry’s laughable slide toward endless remakes and remasters. The Anniversary Edition was preceded by the Special Edition, which came after the Legendary Edition; you can play the game on PC, 14 flavours of Xbox, Amazon Alexa, select refrigerators, and simply by closing your eyes at night and allowing Bethesda to jack into your dreams. I fully expect to be greeted at the gates of hell upon my death with a copy of Skyrim’s Inferno.
And yet, here I am, lined up to have one more adventure across the frozen wastes of Tamriel, prepared to finally be awake, saved by circumstance, ready to choose no sides in a war between bad people and bad people from slightly further away. Why? What is it that compels me—and thousands of others—to return, over and over, to this world? Ten years on, it’s abundantly clear the primary target audience for Skyrim isn’t fresh faced youngsters, it’s people who have already played the game multiple times. It’s practically a guilty pleasure by now, friends sheepishly noting that they were playing Skyrim again, trying not to make direct eye contact with the dozens of untouched new games that have come out in the interim.
Skyrim is not a masterpiece of narrative, nor is some mythic pinnacle of game design. It is, however, a near-perfect expression of player agency. Many, many jokes have already been made about Todd Howard’s infamous pseudo-quote “See that mountain? You can climb it,” referring to the supposed limitless possibilities and grandiose scale of the RPG. While there are certainly mountains you cannot climb in the game, because a game simply cannot code toward infinity, the core message in the quote does ring true. Do whatever you want, have fun. Skyrim’s central theme is not the discovery of new and exciting story beats, the overcoming of challenges, the chance to meet compelling characters; its guiding principle is to be interactive, to encourage play. In that light, many of the game’s limitations actually begin to look more like boons.
Players interacting with the world of The Elder Scrolls V are essentially akin to children given unfettered access to a full toybox. Inside, there are brightly-coloured figurines, spooky cave sets, plastic animals, dragons, shopfronts, even a CD player. Like a box full of toys, there’s minimal value to knowing the contextual importance of particular characters or locations. Ulfric Stormcloak has as much narrative value to me as decades of Batman comic history has to my 8-year-old. He acts as a gateway to my own exciting adventures, more than a fully-formed character.
Near the beginning of the game, if you’re playing without any time and space-bending modifications, you quickly end up in the town of Riverwood. Inside the Riverwood Trader—the town’s only shop—you can quickly pick up one of your first irrelevant quests, as the proprietor wants you to help return a golden dragon claw that was stolen from his shop. If I do go to Riverwood, I always pick up this quest, even though it’s been completed a thousand times. There’s a warm and familiar comfort to meeting Lucan Valeruis and his sister Camilla, hearing their argument about the theft, offering to be the hero who saves the day. The content of their discussion isn’t vital, they’re archetypal characters: a shop owner in distress and his attractive (and available) sister. You can almost picture a dozen variations of this scene playing out while I hold my Lucan, Camilla and Dragonborn action figures, doing all the voices myself and smashing them together if this is the one time I decide to rob them instead of helping.
Characters and situations in Skyrim are paper thin, largely pointless affairs, which certainly isn’t a compliment to the game. And yet, it’s hard to imagine a more rich universe like ones crafted in titles like The Last of Us or Horizon Zero Dawn ever supporting similar levels of engagement. Context is demanded in these games, where the why matters as much as the how, and your enjoyment is linked to how much you connect with the narrative. In Skyrim you’re dumped into a world made of LEGO blocks and objects designed to help you have fun at the expense of everything else. It inspires a kind of admiration to recognise how deeply the game cares about entertaining you by leveraging methods largely unique to games as a medium.
This inherent malleability means players can interact with the Skyrim box on any number of levels without having to experience significant cognitive dissonance. A wolf glitching out and flying 200 feet into the sky, or an NPC trying to arrest you after they already died, isn’t breaking any immersion, because we were only ever immersed in the play itself. If all the world’s a stage, and we merely players, then everything is part of the show.
Similarly, this blasé attitude to the complexities of worldbuilding and storytelling explains why Skyrim is so heavily and gleefully modded by almost everyone who plays the game. Plugging in new mods to change the way people look, add new adventures, change the genre of the combat, yank out vital parts, or turn all the chickens into kaiju is just throwing more toys into the toybox and encouraging more imaginative play in a world where it was already all about your own imagination. Where discussion might swing toward artistic intent with more narratively and mechanically meaty games, here it seems to practically beg for experimental button-pressing—even before Bethesda’s Creation Club codified and commodified the whole idea. You can’t play Skyrim wrong, any more than you can eat a delicious pie wrong. Stick your fingers in the middle and shove it straight in your mouth if that makes you happy. It goes some way to elucidating why nobody ever really goes out of their way to finish what counts for the main plot in game; you simply take what you need from the story until you’re full, then you leave the table.
Viewed through the lens of play, rather than a deliberately coherent experience, the constant replaying and rereleasing of Skyrim becomes much less puzzling. Nobody begrudges a kid for returning to their favourite toys, and it’s actually a healthy part of developmental psychology for them to exercise their brain in coming up with new versions of familiar scenarios. In a similar vein, there’s no shame associated with owning a train set or some other kind of endlessly tweaked hobby. So, as I head into Whiterun, again, to be told that I need to climb the 700 steps and learn to do magical screams, again, I’m doing so with a clear conscience and a new appreciation for a game that has consumed hundreds of hours of my life. Because it’s okay to just play for the sake of play, sometimes.
When I first started playing Watch Dogs: Legion, the game gave me the opportunity to pick who I wanted to help to rebuild DedSec, this universe’s inexplicably large and suspiciously benevolent hacker collective. Naturally, I selected a wet noodle of a human being named Gavin or Steve, who’s defining characteristics were that he had failed his motorcycle license test, and that he spoke like he was always five seconds away from a well-actually. He really sucked; like, as a person, he was a lousy example. This set the tone for everything that came after in that particular adventure, given that he was doing the recruitment. I found a middle-aged man with irritable bowel syndrome, a street hypnotist who couldn’t stop flirting with everyone, an esports champion. These were not the best and brightest London had to offer, but it was the best Steve (or Dave, or Mike) could do on short notice.
All of this was very funny and ridiculous, but the problem is that Legion isn’t trying to be funny. It’s not a comedy, and the story is arguably the furthest from comedy you could imagine, what with all the fascism, murder, corporate overreach, fascism and government corruption. So there’s a bit of a disconnect between what the game does, and what it is; what tools the player has at their disposal does not fit with what they are asked to immerse themselves in.
What’s worse is that the emergent comedy of Watch Dogs Legion is—despite being very secondary—what the game is best at. It is genuinely and unexpectedly hilarious that the game’s procedural algorithms decided to give Dave his own personal motorcycle, but also make it canon that he failed his license test, as if he so disagreed with the test result that he went and bought a fancy racing bike out of spite. It’s very funny to watch a man in a purple dinner jacket take time out from saving London from the oppressive jackboot of fascism to earn a few extra crypto-dollars playing his trumpet on a street corner. In comparison, it is aggressively uninteresting to break into a gang base to steal files for some reason, again. There is nothing at all exciting about making sure the bad guys can’t do that horrible thing they want to do with technology, or guns, or whatever else. Legion’s systems are bristling with the potential for comedy and emergent gameplay, but its story and world are less interesting than a Netflix Original Film.
They also clash, badly. Despite the well-meaning intention by the narrative to create an evolving cast of ordinary people who rise up to save the city from evil, the goofy characters are often at complete odds with the story being told. Marceline the construction worker who likes gambling should not be thrust into the centre of a human trafficking conspiracy, where organs are being cut out of the corpses of immigrants. She’s going to lose her goddamn mind. She’ll have nightmares forever, and be unable to relate to her friends and family due to the darkness she witnessed and the lives she took. You can’t just focus on how fun it is to have a remote-controlled spider robot and electric knuckles when a scientist is threatening to upload humanity into the cloud, or the government is putting people in prison camps. Legion jumps the shark twenty times an hour, flipping madly between deadly serious fate-of-the-world business and the frankly nonsense people who are supposed to fix it.
Despite the narrative intentions, Watch Dogs Legion wants to be an ensemble comedy; and it would be better for the change. Exceedingly boring main characters like The Woman Who Gives You Missions, The Deeply Annoying Computer Voice, Angry Fascist Man and Powerful Hard Lady Who Runs a Gang want your attention, but never really do anything to demand or deserve it. Every story mission feels like an interruption, and they’re all painfully rote open-world busywork.
Imagine what this game might look like as a real comedy, for a moment. Currently you can do all sorts of tiny, silly things to disrupt the fascist society around you. Distract police officers* who are interrogating innocent citizens and watch the citizen beat the hell out of them; use hacking powers to control army vehicles and cause havoc; steal from authoritarian jerks and then make them look stupid chasing after a housewife in a pig mask. These should be the core of the experience, rather than side activities. When you have systems as potentially interesting as Legion, the narrative should be about those systems. As it is, the story feels like a corpse at the centre of this dynamic world.
I’m not saying you can only tell a happy, fun tale filled with rainbows and robot butterflies, the meal just needs to match the ingredients. Part of the reason a guy whose farts alert the enemies to his position is such good comedy is the contrast between the seriousness of the situation and the ridiculousness of the outcome. But wow, it does not have to be so unrelentingly edgy and dark. If the Ubisoft writers need some assistance, kid’s animated shows are practiced experts when it comes to pairing light, fun times with serious topics. An episode of Justice League Unlimited or She-Ra is undeniably skewed toward a young audience, but they also manage to balance the talking horses with references to war crimes—without ever resorting to literally showing a surgeon about to cut out someone’s heart.
It’s frustrating, because Legion is very clearly a game that doesn’t know what it wants to be, hamstrung by what it thinks the market wants. The narrative is about the evils of absolute power, but it creates a third-party villain and mostly absolves the real government of responsibility. Unchecked technology is supposed to be a villain, but your partner is a perfect AI who gives you infinite access to autonomous robots. For every serious moment there are a hundred ragdolls flying comically from bikes or characters wearing hot pants and skull masks. Ubisoft wants to tell a story about fascism that mirrors the current rise of similar movements in various countries, but it also wanted to advertise that story by showing everyone how hilarious it would be to see an old lady do a stealth takedown. Discussing anything about Legion feels complicated and difficult precisely because it cannot pick a damn lane; every part of it is messy, it’s difficult to see what the purpose of one idea could be without catching a dozen other ideas in your peripheral vision.
All of these problems could have been solved by making it a proper comedy. Giving it a real focus. Lightening up the tone would have given the game more freedom to tackle more serious issues without the cognitive dissonance that infests the experience now. It would have strengthened the concept of a group of ragtag nobodies attempting to overthrow the government, because they genuinely would have come across like underdog weirdos instead of superheroes with the equivalent financial backing of a hundred James Bonds. Being less beholden to the false idea of realism and more free to build a world that suited a tone—any tone—would have given the universe a direction, context, the space to use subtext instead of painfully blatant text all the time. And it would have been truly funny, instead of a very boring, ordinary story punctuated by farts.
*Yes, I’m going to refer to the Albion troops as “police” even though Ubisoft is too cowardly to have the police be the bad guys.
The blacksmith’s name is Wagner. This isn’t information I had to research, nor is it useful to know, it’s just a fact about the city of Mondstadt in Genshin Impact. At a very basic level, I know there’s a blacksmith because I need to use a blacksmith to play the game. Everyone in Mondstadt knows Wagner, though—the knights and guards go to him for their weapons, the food stall owners run into him at work, random residents see him hammering away near the gates—and as a result they bring him up in conversation now and then, or ask me to go speak to him while I’m doing a side quest about ghosts or potato supplies. Rather than being just a faceless NPC, he exists; Wagner is a three-dimensional piece of the Genshin universe.
Everything in the game follows this philosophy, a desire to make sure each person, object, concept, god or piece of fruit has a place to be and a role to play in the ecosystem (literally or figuratively). Often when players enter an open world playground they’re presented with a thousand disparate pieces, shiny characters and places that serve their purpose and then step politely back to make room for the next piece. Go here and find this item, speak to the man at the corner to get a quest about the old shack on the hill, climb a tower and search for the next man on the next corner. In the world of Teyvat (where Genshin Impact is set), all things are part of the greater clockwork of the universe, because that’s how it works in the real world, more or less. Genshin achieves this not with one silver bullet solution, but by using myriad mechanics and writing tricks to draw the player in and constantly feed them more information about—and empathy for—the world.
Through ordinary gameplay and dialogue, Genshin is constantly reassuring you about the continuity of the world, and making sure to organically merge the two sides. Upgrade materials include all sorts of flowers, rocks, plants and seeds from around the map, but these aren’t just items to be collected; characters frequently reference the fictional fruits, flora and fauna in quest dialogue and friendly exchanges, reinforcing the idea that this is a real world you’re living in, not just a sandbox for video game adventures. When characters talk about their favourite food, or discuss going out to eat as part of their interactions and quests, the food they mention always exists as a recipe the player can obtain and make themselves. There’s a constant flow of practical and narrative information, back and forth, keeping you from losing that belief in the reality around you.
It brings to mind the potions and mutagens of The Witcher’s universe, where Geralt calmly discusses the ingredients he will need to do his job, but now writ large over an entire open world ecosystem. You can easily imagine NPCs being able to direct you to the crafting ingredients you need if you could simply ask, without the need for layers of abstraction.
Let’s not forget about Wagner, though, or any of the random denizens of Teyvat. Characters are where Genshin Impact really shines, and, while they might not be blisteringly clever portrayals fit to put the stars of classic literature to shame, they manage to feel more like real people than most other games in the same space. Again, this comes down to respecting the ecosystem of the universe. Wagner forges weapons for many folks around town, including Noelle, one of the potential playable characters and a maid-slash-assistant to the Knights of Favonius. His weapons keep getting broken by Noelle and he eventually works out it’s because she’s ridiculously strong and basically shattering them with her raw anime girl power. Every quest you pick up, or piece of dialogue you scroll through, is full of these kinds of connections. One quest for Venti, the bard, involves him inventing a pair of goggles that let you see people’s imaginary friends, which leads you on a merry adventure around different NPCs, but makes one stop at the local pub to watch two of the male characters—Diluc and Kaeya—have one of their many sassy exchanges. This adds nothing to the quest itself beyond the satisfaction of knowing who these people are and enjoying the interaction. The value is in the context.
Genshin Impact fosters these connections to its characters by treating the players’ relationships with them as an ever-evolving, dynamic thing. Unlike in many open world titles, where NPCs primarily exist in their piece of the story, as part of their quests and narrative moments, before fading out of view, Genshin characters are always being constructed from several perspectives at once. When you unlock a character as playable and put them in your squad, they begin accumulating Friendship Rank, which is essentially a measurement of how much you’ve used them while playing. Higher ranks mean accessing more voice lines and backstory details, so you gradually get to know that person better, and they slowly become more well-rounded characters, even without any emotional dialogue scenes or dramatic moments. This slow-burn method of unveiling the details of a character feels truer to the way an open world game flows than simply dumping information into cutscenes; building a relationship with someone over the course of a journey feels more natural in a game than passively watching them in cutscenes.
As of the 1.4 update, Genshin added Hangout Events, which are essentially small outings you can go on with specific characters that have dialogue choices and multiple endings. Hangouts turn the game briefly into a dating sim of sorts, and they offer another way to get to know characters outside of a traditional quest. Also, crucially, while they do have multiple endings, the endings aren’t exactly mutually exclusive; rather than providing a series of what-if scenarios where you decide what might have happened if you said the right or wrong thing, the hangout stories play more like a set of possibilities that are all equally true. That means replaying them is less like creating an alternate universe and more like just learning more about your date. When singing deaconess Barbara meets you in the forest, it is equally plausible that you helped her chase off an over-eager fan and that you shared a quiet moment learning her recipe for alcoholic chilli. Both of these adventures happened. It’s another excellent example of how Genshin Impact takes advantage of the specific advantages of telling a story inside a game, where continuity is optional and time has no real power.
Now you can even invite your companions (unlocked playable characters) into your teapot for a nice, relaxing afternoon. At a certain point in Genshin, in case you’re confused, the main character is given a magic teapot, inside which exists a pocket dimension that the player can decorate like a tiny private estate. The 1.6 update added the ability to invite a couple of your friend in, and then wander over to speak to them about how they feel, or what they think of the magic teapot universe you filled with fruit stands.
How much they have to say while they’re visiting is tied to their Friendship Rank, and you can get into some reasonably meaty conversations with your favourite people. It speaks to the overall feeling you get while in the world of Genshin that this is a living space with characters you can spend time with, learn from, build relationships with. These aren’t simply cardboard cut-outs here to dispense sob stories and adventure hooks, they’re part of the same cities and stories and universe as you, they have agency and dreams, they have more to show you if you just take the time to pay attention.
That’s what sets it apart, really, that respect for the passage of time and how it interacts with a gaming experience. An open world game in particular is designed to be a leisurely experience full of discovery and immersion, but many games in the genre treat the concept as more of an excuse to checklist a bunch of cool experiences that have very little to do with one another. Genshin is a set of strings on a board, all connected to one another, and when you pull on one of the strings it shakes everything else just a little bit. The end result is a very satisfying experience, because it rewards players who invest in the world with more of the world they already love. Quests get easier because you understand the environment, stories become more engaging because you’re motivated to be engaged, not just for this piece of narrative but for all those in the future. Genshin Impact is a true open world, rather than a sandbox. And Wagner is going to keep being rude to me for a long time yet; that’s honestly so like him.
Time passes. And with the passing of time, comes the end. In Final Fantasy VIII’s world, the end means the compression of all time and space, so the end is also the beginning. Are we any closer to finding out what exactly Guardian Forces are and how they work, after all this? They’re pretty much everywhere, for one thing, and they eat your thoughts; they can control the flow of time and space with their god-like powers even though they seem eternally trapped; and they’ve been subjected to endless experimentation that nobody really wants to talk about. It’s tempting to cast them off at this point as a sort of unknowable anomaly in Squall and friends’ universe, but at the same time their ubiquity suggests they must play some vital role in how things work. At the end of the official GF list, there’s even a strong indication that they are involved in the shaping of reality itself, with their forms and powers far outstripping anything other entities are capable of, apart from Ultimecia.
“GF gives us strength. The stronger the GF, the stronger we become.”
There are no more Guardian Forces to pick apart, though, right? The list is complete, the endgame approaches. Actually, it turns out there are a few optional, pseudo-GFs floating around the game that are surprisingly relevant to the discussion. And, despite FFVIII’s reputation for a scattered and unfinished narrative, one of them might be the key to figuring out what the whole game is supposed to be about. That’s right, it’s been at least two discs since summons had any visible role in the plot, but maybe it’s about to turn around. Which would be particularly nice given the effort the game puts into making them seem like a big, scary, mind-eating problem at the beginning, all the while jamming them indiscriminately into the heads of children.
Deep in the Centra Ruins, beyond the tonberry infestation and past the giant metal diamond, a god lurks with a challenge. Get to a specific room in the ruins within a 20 minute time limit and you are confronted by a huge masked figure on horseback who demands you to demonstrate your strength. This is Odin—named after the Norse god of war, death, and a dozen other minor concerns—and he will become your companion if you can slap him enough times before the clock hits zero. Curiously, Odin doesn’t fight back in this battle, but if the timer runs out at any point he unleashes his signature attack, Zantetsuken, which instantly kills the party and ends the game. Beating him doesn’t add him as a controllable force, but actually gives the player a 12.9% chance of Odin appearing to Zantetsuken enemies in any battle (excepting bosses, tonberries and cactuars), granting an instant win. When he appears, the sky darkens, he rides in on his trusty white steed, and his sword literally cuts the 3D models in half.
What’s interesting isn’t so much Odin himself, but the place in which he appears. Centra was a civilisation said to be extremely advanced and doing very well for itself right up to the point where monsters exploded from the surface of the moon and reduced the entire population to a dusty memory. Yes, in case you had somehow forgotten, monsters in the FFVIII universe come from the moon, and periodically get space-blasted down to the planet’s surface. With a little research, I discovered the reason this happens is because of gravity; when all the moon monsters gather on one side of the moon they all just get dragged off into space in an event very poetically referred to as the Lunar Cry. This had been going on for tens of thousands of years, but part of the reason it destroyed Centra was that it brought down a massive pillar of crystal with it, obliterating almost every sign of the world’s largest civilisation. The only pieces left are the Centra Ruins, Sorceress Edea’s orphanage, and the mobile shelters that eventually became the Gardens. Keeping up? Don’t worry, none of us are.
Centran architecture is a strange mix of Roman styles and futuristic technology, and the ruins provide plenty of both. Odin’s room houses a giant throne and is decorated on the outside with gargoyles, but pipes and wires run inside every wall and piece of flooring. Entering the final area requires moving gemstones and then putting a security code into an ancient device. It’s seemingly impossible to discern what these ruins were designed to be before the Lunar Cry, in much the same way that details about the Centrans is basically non-existent.
But hold on, that throne is bothering me. It’s huge, and it’s clearly part of the ruin, which means it was built to specifically be that size. That could mean Odin was around and functioning as some sort of Guardian Force before the calamity. However, the huge chair does fit with one theory that Centra was a society of very large people. Giants, even. This is based on a lot of conjecture, of course, and bits of evidence that might not really connect, but stick to the path for a moment. Adel, the other evil sorceress in this game, is demonstrably giant, towering over every other person in the game. Her size is never explained, and sets her far apart from the other characters in the game in terms of physical form. It’s conceivable, given the diaspora of the surviving Centran population, that she descended from Centran stock, and her size—combined with her sorceress abilities—allowed her to gain power in Esthar. Centra was also, incidentally, very into the whole idea of sorceresses, which would mean Adel having power passed down to her through living in that magic-friendly society makes a lot of sense.
With that in mind, Odin’s throne perhaps isn’t a seat of power for some outrageously-proportioned god, but a throne for a normally-sized Centran. Without knowing the purpose of the ruins before the pillar, it’s hard to extrapolate much more. But, given that GFs can clearly be shaped by environment, thoughts, and events, perhaps Odin is a reflection of what happened to Centra. It could be that all that death, all those lost souls, coalesced into one masked figure of vengeance that was doomed to seek out the strength that could have saved its people. And like the chaos of a moon-based apocalypse, he can only even manifest that cursed power at random. The wire-filled room where you find Odin also continues a theme throughout FFVIII of melding technology with magic, and perhaps hints at the idea Odin was partly created through those memories and souls continuing to exist in a digital form.
If the player collects Odin before boarding the Lunatic Pandora to find Adel, they will be confronted by Seifer and Odin will automatically be summoned. In this case, Seifer will use Zantetsuken Reverse to turn the tables on the GF and slice him in half, permanently killing him. Odin’s sword will then cut a hole in the fabric of spacetime and another entity, Gilgamesh, will retrieve the sword. If the battle lasts long enough, or if Seifer’s HP is depleted, Gilgamesh will appear to cut Seifer down and join the party. Gilgamesh also appears at random, with a 3.5% chance, but has four swords to choose from. One is Odin’s, and acts the same as it would for him; Excalibur and Masamune do heavy damage to the enemy, while Excalipoor does exactly one damage to foes.
All of this is very exciting, and Gilgamesh’s design is pretty neat, but as a Guardian Force he is essentially a collection of Final Fantasy references wrapped in a nod to an Akkadian poem. As such, there’s not much he can tell us about the world of Final Fantasy VIII, save for affirming its obsession with random events.
Boko, MiniMog and Moomba
Hold on, do you remember the PocketStation? It was basically a memory card that doubled as a Nintendo Game & Watch, it ran various software connected to different PlayStation games, and it was very hard to ever see one outside of Japan. If you did somehow have one, you could have used it to play something called Chocobo World and in turn used that experience to level up a Chocobo in FFVIII called Boko. This tiny chocobo can be summoned into battle using a specific item, and may put “being murdered by a baby chicken” at the top of the list of most embarrassing ways to die in the game. If you play even more of PocketStation classic Chocobo World, you can even unlock a moogle called MiniMog, who can heal GFs, and a Moomba.
All of this is nonsense, and not even the good kind of Final Fantasy VIII nonsense with time travel and secret parents. However, let me just say that Moombas are fascinating because they are actually one of the final evolutionary stages for the Shumi, and melty slug people who turn into tiny lions is exactly the right kind of nonsense. Shame it doesn’t tell us anything about Guardian Forces.
Speaking of lions, Final Fantasy VIII, in its very quirky and unhinged way, actually decides to drop the wildest and most telling piece of Guardian Force lore into the very final battle of the game, with the nonchalance of a smoker flicking a cigarette butt into the gutter. During the fight with Ultimecia—the reality-bending witch from the future—reaches into Squall Leonhart’s mind and plucks out a Guardian Force. Screaming about it being “the most powerful GF,” the sorceress casts into the floor, and an anthropomorphic purple lion with bat wings crawls out of the abyss to ruin your day. In the Japanese version, Ultimecia states that she is summoning the entity Squall sees as the most powerful, and when Griever lets loose with his big-time attack, Shockwave Pulsar, Ultimecia describes it as the GF’s true power. Shockwave Pulsar transports the party to a featureless energy field, where a beam of energy whites out the entire universe. Yikes. Griever takes on whatever name the player decided to give to their lion ring during the Battle of the Gardens, cementing the idea that this creature is a pure manifestation of Squall’s thoughts.
Okay, wait a minute, now we have definitive proof that Guardian Forces can be formed from nothing more than the anxious thoughts of a deeply-traumatised teenager. Griever didn’t exist, and then Ultimecia just brought him to life so he could slap the hell out of the party. This is moderately terrifying information, as it suggests that there exists the power inside any individual in the Final Fantasy VIII universe to create a literal god from nothing. Think hard enough and suddenly something infinitely worse than Doomtrain is setting off a nuclear magic bomb in the main street. Yes, it required history’s most powerful sorceress, but Odin appeared out of nowhere, Diablos exists outside of time, Pandemona crawled out of the abyss unprompted, Eden was a failed experiment, and Cactuar is literally just a cactus that got angry. FFVIII presents us with a world where the gods are as fickle as the ancient Greek pantheon, but can also spring from nothing like the worst Stephen King horror story. It is a nightmare universe.
Then you beat Griever, maybe, and the nightmare is over. Except that Ultimecia junctions herself to the GF, melding their bodies and powers together in an unholy mass of flesh. And that reminds us immediately of another case where this happens: on Lunatic Pandora, Adel increases her own power by junctioning herself to Rinoa. Body horror aside, this is upsetting news for the delicate barrier between reality and the chaos beyond the curtain. There is no functional difference between a Guardian Force and a normal human being; on a practical level, they occupy the same mechanical space. But we’ve just learned that GFs are also pure thought transformed into reality, which means that every character in FFVIII is half a step away from being nothing but a thought. Nobody really exists, outside of the fact that other people think about them existing. And then we remember that Centra is a nearly forgotten civilisation, that people are encouraged to erase their memories by junctioning GFs, that the central villain wants to remove all perspective from reality and exist in a single point. All of this runs through your mind as a mad witch climbs inside the physical manifestation of your own anxieties right in front of you. Griever is the single most existentially terrifying moment in this game, and, I remind you, he turns up as a final battle afterthought, 60 hours into the story.
Simply losing our minds
This series started with a simple question: what are Guardian Forces? Four articles later, the answer appears to be that they are everything. No part of the Final Fantasy VIII universe escapes their grasp, from the advances of technology, to the psychological effects of war, to the deaths of millions, to the workings of reality itself. At certain points it appears they were created by humanity to serve a purpose, but many of them simply seem to exist, or were brought into being by accident. They represent our greatest fears, our conflicting values, the desire to protect and destroy; they serve humanity, but this seems like a voluntary position that could very easily be reversed at a whim.
Ultimately, GFs seem to be an attempt by the game to represent the collective unconscious, which is an interpretation that fits nicely with this Final Fantasy’s more holistic approach to worldbuilding. Nothing in FFVIII makes sense in isolation, yet everything is connected in the end. Centra’s destruction, the creation of the Gardens to fight the sorceresses, a lost father who becomes the head of a secret civilisation, these are all utterly bonkers elements that end up fitting together conceptually, if not literally. The GFs are much the same; each of them represents something about the world of FFVIII without necessarily fitting into it. It’s easy to imagine a different story about this universe, where the role of these vastly-powerful thought monsters is scrutinised thoroughly. But maybe that’s what happened to the scientists at the undersea research base, they looked into the abyss and it looked right back at them.
What’s wild is these summons could have easily just been big monsters that appear when you want to hit things. Yet they exist as this kind of commentary on the tenuous relationship people have with reality. Every time the main characters summon a GF, a little piece of their identity is devoured to make room. Each time they fight, the world they fight for slips away a bit more. Whether you view them as a commentary on the damaging effects of war, the nature of reality, or a dozen other plausible ideas, Guardian Forces are a pervasive energy in Final Fantasy VIII. And much like the game, they seem to resist understanding by design.
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I spent the early part of my first full day in Night City punching cops in the face. In my defence, it was the direct result of me trying to be a good person; I found a woman being assaulted in the corridor outside my apartment, so I shot the guy in the head. The woman thanked me, then started screaming because I had a gun out, and that’s what NPCs do when you have a gun out. Anyway, somehow my frankly heroic action alerted the cops, and when I went out onto the landing two of them started shooting at me. Naturally I punched them until they were unconscious, which takes 3-4 punches, in case you’re curious.
More cops came, more punching. Suddenly I realised exactly how easy it is to bottleneck the police and keep beating them until they pass out. Uh oh.
Eventually they stopped, I’m not sure why. Perhaps they just ran out of police, or they realised it wasn’t worth it to lose thirteen police officers to a mad redhead in the slums. A few minutes later, when I accidentally used a poison gas grenade on a food stall vendor, I discovered something horrible and sinister about why the police kept coming until they stopped coming: they don’t actually exist. Rather than walking in from some pre-approved outside location or being dropped off by cybercar, they spawn in from nowhere, pre-filled with sound and fury signifying fascism. Four armed officers and two NCPD drones manifested from the inside of a pile of boxes. In a more metafictional environment this would almost be a clever interpretation of the relationship between the police and civilians, cops representing an omnipotent force that watches your every move and isn’t beholden to the rules normal people are forced to follow. Like physics. Here it’s more of a shortcut to avoid coding in a more complicated solution to getting the police to harass you. Still, the end result of this—and the fact that apparently LOOKING at cops for too long makes them angry enough to shoot you in the head—is a fear of the police that I’m far too jaded to experience in a more realistically-coded setting. These officers are moody, unpredictable, chaotically violent and duty bound to cause harm. I’m going to do my best to stay away from them.
The inconsequential, unnamed NPCs in general have a similar transient quality. Like Schrodinger’s Citizens, they only have form when you look straight at them. When I ran from that merchant I poisoned, he fled his stall while suppressing the urge to vomit; when I backed up, his stall was already being looked after by a brand new procedurally generated gentleman. NPCs are swiftly removed and replaced as you walk around, which is, I’m sure, a technical boon, but is also a big kick in the nuts for my sense of immersion. Nobody you meet matters, even by the standards of a video game nobody, because they’ll be wiped and reformed anew before you can say Creepy Watson. Again, this would be a pretty cool setup for a story about reality being a simulation, and the world of Night City even has its own virtual reality system, but in our reality it’s just a curious quirk of the code.
Since we’re moaning about NPCs, it really bugs me that Cyberpunk 2077 keeps up the grand sci-fi tradition of portraying poor people as hunched, miserable losers, huddled in their garbage slums and trying not to be too oppressed today, thanks. Most folks in this first area (inside the Judge Dredd-style apartment block) mope around like someone took a big shit in their cereal, or sit outside literally begging. It may come as a surprise to developers that low income folks, even in a dystopia, are perfectly capable of having a normal, happy day.
On a more positive note, I did run into a loud man spouting conspiracy theories in the street, and not only could I engage him in a bit of conversation, but after a minute or so some California-accented tourists came to get a selfie with him. There are brief moments where the world of Cyberpunk 2077 feels very alive, and they’re very appreciated.
V goes to the Ripperdoc—one of Cyberpunk’s cyberdoctors—and gets some new eyes, a new hand. We get dragged into a big new job that will set us up FOR LIFE. It definitely won’t go horribly wrong. For one half of the planning process we need to go visit the woman who requested the heist. I kind of like that we have to wait until night time because it’s a bar. She gives us a briefing in a room with a very naked hologram and then we get our first taste of a BRAINDANCE, which is a fancy way to say “virtual reality tape recording.” These sections allow you to walk or float through a recorded event and pick up little details that give you necessary information. In this case, we get to case the top floor of a fancy hotel so we can get around the security later. It’s fancy and I like it. Reminds me of the memory breaking bits from Remember Me. Remember that game? Probably not. It was fine.
I’m getting distracted because there’s a LOT going on in Cyberpunk now. These sequences really bring into sharp relief how linear the prologue was; V can chat to various NPCs, decide in what order to do things, go off to check out a few side missions rather than advancing the story. It feels more like the game it wants to be now. A corpo woman named Meredith wants to help me get a thing for the thing we have to do as long as I let her upload a virus to the gang who currently have the thing. I speak corpo back to her with a special dialogue choice and she gets angry and drives off. It feels good to have a little control, and to see the shape of my V emerging. Now all I have to do is head to this gang hideout and get a machine from them as efficiently as possible.
Okay, I can explain. See, Jackie didn’t want to sit down and I wasn’t paying attention to my responses so… anyway we had to kill them all.
They seemed like they wanted to rip us off anyway, and now we have the thing! But I had to destroy a lot of lives to get there. It turns out that my V is a big fan of swords and shotguns, and specifically the pleasing effect of switching between them while running around like the world’s clumsiest ninja. Didn’t need to sit down afterwards. Particularly liked that the end of this section gave me the option to sneak around the boss to escape, then it gave me the option to not brutally murder him after I refused the first option. Anyway he’s dead.
Before the big damn heist section, I was contacted a few times by a cop with an eyepatch who wanted me to do cop stuff. In Cyberpunk 2077 you can trip over crimes in progress (assaults, robberies, people not filling in their tax returns correctly) and intervene to gain a reward and the respect of the police force. No thank you. The woman on the phone will also send you bounty jobs, the first of which is to literally kill or otherwise neutralise a “good” cop who wants to expose corruption in the force. I cannot for the life of me figure out if this is supposed to be irony, or satire, or completely straight-faced villainy. Suffice it to say, I’ve been deliberately ignoring any possible way to assist the police. It’s perhaps unintentional, but refusing to do anything they want me to do actually instills a weird sense of pride, as if V was shouting FUCK THE POLICE from her car window.
Act one snowballs pretty quickly towards this big job, which requires a lot of hacking and sneaking and includes a bunch of enormous plot reveals I’m not going into here. It was a lot of fun and the writing here is pretty solid. I may have even felt some emotions. Also the robot cab driver is a good example of how to do fun AI characters so take note every other game that isn’t Fallout New Vegas.
It does get a little prologue here for a while, in the sense that it throws a big plot reveal at you every 30 seconds for what felt like an hour. This explodes, that character dies, this character dies, this person was really this other thing, betrayal, emotions, you get dumped somewhere terrible, you come back out, a car chase, another explosion, a crash, a blackout, a montage of being incapacitated, more talking. It’s all good, mind you, but there’s a long time when you’re just watching interesting things happen to a character you’re supposed to be controlling. There appears to be a struggle the narrative designers had with working out how to tell the story and allow any sort of player choice at the same time. It makes me think of the Hades approach, where every story tidbit is isolated and fed to the player while they go about their actual gaming business. Here, the story sometimes feels arbitrarily walled off from the flow of the open world, actively working against the pillars it’s built around.
Somewhere in this maelstrom of CONTENT, the actual title card comes up, now we’ve been playing for hours. Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077, I guess.
SPEED ROUND: Don’t Threaten Me With A Mixed Time
RIght at the start of this act you find out that there’s a fight club in the city. Why is there always a fight club?
All the advertising and posters in Night City still feel like they come from a different game with much stupider writing.
I came across a minor accident scene where one guy had rear-ended another and they were on their phone trying to sort it out, and that felt pleasingly authentic.
There was an unexpected instant death moment in the plot maelstrom and I am here to tell developers DO NOT.
Don’t put musical instruments in your video game if you won’t let me play them.
I still don’t know why you’d bother going non-lethal in this game, nobody has explained it to me.
After what seemed like a very lengthy prologue, we finally get into what Night City is actually about: accidentally causing huge amounts of violence and telling the cops to get in the sea. I may have missed the point, or maybe the game isn’t making any points. Next I hope to get more involved in the sidequests of Cyberpunk 2077 and put even more points into sword powers.
Here’s something weird about Cyberpunk 2077: You’re not allowed to be ugly.
That’s ugly by the game’s very narrow definition, mind. You can’t have one wonky eye, or fish lips, or unusually large hands; you can’t be overweight, underweight, muscular, shorter or taller than average; your skin must be one of the eight-or-so approved human colours; you can have rude bits, as long as they are big, small or default. Characters must be symmetrical, they must conform to some variation of the two genders, their scars must be aesthetically pleasing.
Some of these are likely design limitations (everyone being the same height makes it easier to program character interactions, a small range of model sizes prevents collision detection issues, etc.), and NPCs get to select from at least one other body type, but when you start creating a character in Cyberpunk there’s an immediate feeling of being constrained. Invisible walls erected to keep you from making anything unacceptable, anything that isn’t cool enough to let you hang with the many cool NPCs in their cool future clothes, standing in overwhelmingly cool neon-soaked environments.
Welcome to Cyberpunk 2077. We’re in the bathroom, and we just threw up. For my class… uhhh background? Upbringing? Oh right, LIFEPATH. I’m a Corpo, which basically means one of the bad guys by all logic of the cyberpunk genre. Arguably the bad guys by present day reality as well. Please enjoy this biting social commentary I’ve just made, which surpasses anything you might spot in the opening of the game.
“Corporates are the Armani-wearing, Machiavellian mega-yuppies you see in the RoboCop films. Being wealthy and persuasive, they can muster favors and resources beyond what most people can even hope.”
That’s what the wiki for Cyberpunk 2020, the pen and paper tabletop game 2077 is based on, has to say about Corporates. Their special ability in 2020 is RESOURCES, using their vast reserves of cash and influence to get things done. In 2077… well, let’s have a look.
What strikes me about this is how it says… nothing. It feels like it was written for someone who already knows what being a Corpo entails. Be either a winner or a loser, something about secrets, be a bastard of some description. But it also reads like a knowing wink to the fact that this high-flying corporate lifestyle won’t be a concern for very long. Maybe something awful is going to happen that renders our character’s background choices mostly meaningless. I don’t know, just a feeling.
Anyway we were in a bathroom. The Arasaka building, where our V works in their role as part of counterintel, looks exactly like you might expect. All clean lines and soulless interior design. It’s a little too cool, to be honest. Like, it seems like an interesting place to work, if you’re an asshole. Which sort of ties back into what I mentioned earlier about the character creator: Cyberpunk 2077 is a game that wants to be cool, and wants to give you the opportunity to be cool. You do not have a choice in the matter. You’re going to look awesome and say clever, pithy things; people will want to be your friend; your office will have futuristic cyberwalls and you’ll stick glowing USB sticks into your cyberhead. So of course the bad guys (this particular set, anyway) work in an outrageously stylish mega-skyscraper. It feels too nice. Too inviting. My head expects an environment as repellent and dead inside as the corporation. Something like the TV station from Detroit: Become Human, Neo’s office from The Matrix, or the distressingly clean and bright dystopian interiors of Mirror’s Edge. Empty, emotionally draining; dark and oppressive capitalism, rather than dark like the inside of an expensive liquid-cooled PC. Much of cyberpunk as a genre is concerned with the idea of rebellious elements dragging themselves out from under the boot of crushing capitalism, but this makes the space under the boot seem pretty comfortable. Maybe that’s part of the point, though, that it gets comfortable under there; or maybe I’m giving CDPR too much credit.
V heads upstairs, her boss is angry about something, her boss’s boss is a bad person. Blah, blah, blah. He kills a bunch of people with remote computer powers while you watch, because he’s evil. He complains about his boss, and of course that means you have to kill her. Or facilitate her death, at least.
The NPCs, in the prologue at least, are not particularly reactive. They tend to offer one piece of information or flavour only once V pays attention. This person discusses the disasterous job in Frankfurt, another talks about how the media will react to the aforementioned computer assassinations. My boss asks me to take a seat, and if I refuse he pauses for a while before asking me politely to take a seat. And if I still don’t then he really loses it and asks me to take a seat. Sir you are willing to murder half a dozen human beings to make a few cyberbucks, I don’t think you should accept this sort of employee behaviour. Characters just sort of… stand around, like participants in an amateur production of Waiting for The Main Character. There’s no sense of life to the world in here, everything is happening for my benefit. In fact, the only people you properly meet in this opening sequence are folks directly related to V in some way: her assistant, her coworker, her boss, this guy called Frank. We met during Icefall.
Side note: running is a lot of fun in this game. The combination of the sprint animation and the satisfying pounding of my expensive shoes makes me want to run everywhere. I noticed this while sprinting past Frank as he repeatedly called me rude.
The whole prologue is on rails like this. Conversations pop up as if we’re a movie character turning on the TV at the exact moment the news is discussing our brother’s arrest. It’s fun, it just feels staged. An odd choice, forcing the player through a very linear opening to introduce a game that purports to be all about choice and living your dream cyberpunk lifestyle. A good opening sets your expectations for the rest of a text. Think of pushing the broken-down car with your boyband friends in Final Fantasy XV, navigating a guard-filled dock at the start of Metal Gear Solid, or dashing straight out Peter Parker’s window and swinging across the city in Spider-Man. The start of a memorable game is often a microcosm of the game itself, and players are subconsciously aware of this.
Cyberpunk’s Corpo prologue mostly means being told what to do and then doing it. You get told you can use the car outside so you go and use the car outside, you head to a bar to find your friend because your friend told you to, you get betrayed by the corporation, of course, and forced into a life of cool crimes for cool people.
Not that you care about losing your job, of course, since you only found out about it 10 minutes ago and V already hated it. The lifepath deal feels like a stab at the Dragon Age: Origins style of bonding a player to their character by investing in their past, but it’s so fast! When I played a city elf in Dragon Age I was given a whole district to explore and a complex mix of intrigue, racism, sexual assault and forced marriage to pick through; in Cyberpunk your boss asks you to do something and then some goons tell you not to do that thing.
Oop, hold on, we’re doing crimes now. Or stopping crimes, I can’t tell. Mainly this section is designed to teach you how the action sections of the game work. We need to sneak up on this guy and decide whether he lives or dies. Then we have to kill everyone else, which is a little confusing. Why are we given the option for a non-lethal takedown on this one poor shirtless mook, when the game knows full well we’re about to murder six men in the next room? As teaching moments go, it’s poor. Despite being a tutorial, it says nothing about WHY you might want to use a non-lethal option, what the benefits might be versus the downsides. The only upside of keeping this one alive seems to be the idea that he’ll wake up later inside a freezer and quickly discover all his friends are dead.
The shooting feels good, so far. Weighty enough, and enemies don’t quite take so much damage that you wonder whether they’re immortal. There’s a decent flow to battle when you use your hacking powers to distract people, lob grenades and make use of cover. It’s just a taste, anyway. A sample. A dead body did lodge itself in a doorway, which doesn’t seem planned. Also, a still-living enemy flew out the window and kept shooting at me from inside the window frame. And if we’re talking about bugs, I feel obliged to mention that my breasts burst out of my shirt for a while.
At this point in the story we find the infamous woman in the bathtub and save her life, the ambulance-cops turn up to lift her away, and we’re left to drive home. This is absolutely just a chance for the game to show off its fancy city at ground level and tease some new things you’re likely to come across later. There’s a car chase which ends with an explosion, some people get gunned down by Cyberpunk 2077’s equivalent of SWAT, there’s rain, there’s more neon. And you arrive home at your apartment, which is entirely too big and too nice to make sense for your character at this point in their lives but HEY, gotta be cool. Narratively, the prologue ends at a weird point where the start of something has happened but there’s no indication of the shape of things going forward. Basically you’re just this badass who was betrayed and now you… do jobs. Nothing says punk like agreeing to carry out tasks for folks in positions of authority.
SPEED ROUND: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Have Even More Thoughts
I like that you can shower in your clothes for that true Overwhelmed By Life feeling.
Tutorial via holograms is a strangely common technique in video games these days and it’s a really boring design choice. Then again, at least they let you skip it.
The TV so far comes off like it’s trying to be GTA-style satire but it’s not wild enough to be funny so it just feels like a satire of Cyberpunk 2077.
Making it so you can only look into mirrors when you log into them is actually a neat and sneaky way to avoid having to render reflections constantly.
You can buy an extra-large burrito from a vending machine in this future so how can it be bad?
When you look at a sink it says “flush” instead of “activate” or “turn on” and that means every water source in 2077 is a toilet.
My goal for this playthrough was to stretch the game by playing contrary to the rules on purpose. Sadly, the prologue doesn’t offer much opportunity to do this, and wants you to stick to the path quite rigidly. Hopefully that becomes less of an issue now I’m headed into the open world. Now excuse me while I lie down sideways on my cyberbed and have some cyberdreams.
My dad was a workaholic. He grew up on a dairy farm with a strict father figure, and carried that attitude through the rest of his life, for better or worse. Mostly worse, to be honest. Dad never could separate the difficulty of a task from its inherent worth; if something wasn’t hard to accomplish then it was essentially pointless. In his eyes, the struggle was an important part of the task. So he would work very, very hard all the time, to the point of absolute exhaustion, as a way to prove to nobody that he was doing something worthwhile. Anything relaxing was meaningless and needed to be stamped out, including anything anyone else in the house might be doing to relax. My childhood was a little stressful, at times.
Video games have a similar challenge-focused mindset, wherein worth is often measured by the effort and skill required to master or complete the game. The colloquial “git gud” mentality everyone who plays has heard when referring to the difficulty of Dark Souls or the addition of a permadeath mode to The Last of Us Part II. As such, there’s an emphasis across the board on survival. Survive the obstacles thrown in your path to reach the end of the level; survive the enemies trying to stop you; survive the elements. Survive even being alive. There’s even a whole genre dedicated to the concept of eking out a life under harsh conditions with limited resources—we call them survival games, and they come in a variety of flavours: crafting, open-world, massively multiplayer, etc. As you might imagine, survival games are viewed through the standard video game lens, which means they are scary, violent, deadly, harsh, dangerous, frustrating, exacting and punishing experiences, designed to test the limits of human pain and endurance. They’re filled with moments that aren’t fun, per se, as much as they are a chance to triumph over something horrible.
But is that really what survival is all about? Struggle?
Certain games take a softer approach, taking players by the hand and saying “hey, this is a tough situation, but I want you to have the best chance of success.” These games ask you to survive in a more sedate, realistic sort of way, encouraging improvement instead of punishing failure. They’re nice, but they’re also still about surviving. After all, surviving the real world is often a matter of degrees rather than brutal game over screens.
Astroneer is a sandbox crafting game, set on strange, uncharted planets and superficially similar to something like No Man’s Sky. Players are dumped on a landmass with few materials, an unforgiving landscape and no particular goals. Unlike Hello Games’ infinite procedural playground, however, the world of Astroneer has very little desire to kill you. There’s no need to protect against radiation poisoning, plants and animals aren’t out for blood, and deadly robots won’t pitch a digital fit because you touched the wrong tree. In fact, the only major hazard in Astroneer is running out of oxygen, which is very much in your control and easily avoided in most cases. The experience of playing Astroneer is peaceful, even serene. Guiding your tiny astronaut around the surface of the planet is more about exploration and progress than fighting against insurmountable odds.
And yet, it is a survival game in its own right. Players begin with a small base and need to conquer the environment to carry out more complex tasks and therefore explore further. Adapt to the world around you, or fail to make progress. Creatively utilise limited resources. Scavenge materials from your own rotting corpse.
Crucially there is no urgency to anything in Astroneer, however. Survival games like ARK: Survival Evolved, Don’t Starve and even Minecraft run on a series of interlocking clocks. Sate your hunger and thirst, manage the dual dangers of day and night, keep your fire burning to cook and scare away beasts but think about how staying too close for too long will leave you light on resources later. Wheels spinning inside wheels, keeping the player alert at all times to the many time sensitive challenges, maintaining a solid baseline of intentional anxiety. Obsidian’s Grounded, which is a delightful 1980s take on the genre, currently falls prey to the same need for constant management; hunger and thirst meters drop rapidly while you try to carry out simple tasks, requiring characters to eat and drink far more frequently than a normal human being. The result is a persistent sense of being unbalanced, of barely keeping your plates spinning no matter how much control you exert over the game’s systems. In contrast, Astroneer’s oxygen supplies are limitless when connected to a base or vehicle, and even the portable oxygen canisters deplete at a respectably sedate pace. Day and night cycles occur, but they don’t represent any sort of line in the sand between danger and safety, instead simply providing more or less favourable lighting conditions. With no resources dedicated to micro-survival—making sure you make it to the end of the day, or the hour—Astroneer allows the player to step back and take in concerns of a larger scale; survival becomes less about keeping up and more about moving forward.
The question games like this ask is: can survival gameplay mechanics be fun? Many games in the genre are entertaining, challenging, complex, but much of the pure enjoyment is wrapped in stressful timers and false scarcity. Often to even reach the fun parts of a game like this you’re forced to metaphorically or literally punch trees to get the required resources for a mediocre starting weapon, or the water skin that will keep you alive long enough to punch more trees. Don’t worry, the game promises, a bunch of cool things are coming, and you glimpse on the horizon a smorgasbord of possible story content, complex machinery, and exciting locations. Hopefully you have the time and energy to reach it.
By contrast, Animal Crossing: New Horizons (yes, I’m comparing Animal Crossing directly to Minecraft, Lost Oasis and Don’t Starve, stay with me on this) almost trips over itself in offering the player power and agency. The game immediately telegraphs its intent to ape the style of a survival experience, dumping the player on an empty island and asking them to collect twigs. But the zeitgeist is upended by the sheer cheerfulness and overwhelmingly player-centric nature of the adventure. Welcome to this deserted island, devoid of resources, now here’s your free tent and by the way you are the most important person in the world. Yes, you need to mine for materials, but instead of building a rickety fence to keep out the dino-zombie cannibals, you’re constructing a museum to keep track of your accomplishments and discoveries. Many survival games eventually make a pivot from ‘getting by’ to building a life, the experience evolving slowly away from avoiding destruction and towards the act of creation itself; but Animal Crossing, Astroneer and similar games shift that experience to the early game, rather than treating it as a reward for hard work.
It could be argued that by removing the challenges of basic survival from a ‘survival’ experience, you render the genre somewhat pointless. After all, if there’s no chance of failure, how does the player measure their success at surviving? Really, though, it’s all about shifting the perspective on what counts as success and failure. Failure in these more peaceful, forgiving environments amounts to an inability to create what you desire, falling short of grander goals, not being capable of designing the perfect machine or most self-sufficient village. Success is superficially similar to a harsher mode of play—explore, master the world around you, increase the range and scope of your crafting abilities—albeit with a shifted overton window regarding the minimum capabilities of a human being presented with five rocks and three coils of plant fiber.
Removing barriers to enjoyment also incentivises exploration; since players don’t have to dig through the basics to get to the complexities, they’re more comfortable striving for larger goals and taking greater risks. Constant management of hunger, thirst, stamina, sanity, light, bowel cancer, invading monkey-cats, manure supplies, climate change, necrotising fasciitis, and juice levels has sapped the motivation clean away from many of my own playthroughs in countless survival titles well before things got interesting. Yet in Astroneer I’ve put dozens of hours into crafting mobile science bases complete with alternating renewable energy power sources; my Animal Crossing island is replete with commerce and a complicated maze of hybrid flowers; planets in Starbound are covered with elaborately decorated skyscrapers full of furniture I stole with zero consequence.
None of this is to suggest that survival games as they currently are—dangerous hellscapes designed to test the limits of patience and panicked ingenuity—shouldn’t exist, they clearly have a place and an audience. But, like most of the gaming landscape, there’s a very narrow, violent and challenge-heavy focus where something much broader and more inclusive could be blossoming. Just because a game is about surviving, doesn’t mean it has to be hard, or painful. We’re all just surviving out here in the real world too, after all.
“So if we keep relying on the GF, we won’t be able to remember a lot of things?”
Right on time for a story that began in a school and is about to go into space—because space is where they keep the giant magic dictator lady shrink wrapped for everyone’s protection, even though her mad thoughts still infect all TV and radio transmissions, yes that’s extremely messed up—the way you find summons, and the summons themselves, begin to lose cohesion. At the beginning it was clear that these were powerful spirits which lent their power to those seen as worthy, but lately it’s beginning to look more like they might be manifestations of will not tethered to any particular ideology.
Do GFs even exist outside of the user’s mind? When we went to the Fire Cavern on the first disc, were we simply bringing Ifrit to life by thinking hard enough? That would certainly explain how every student is supposed to catch him to pass their exams, even though only one Ifrit exists. I need to centre myself if I’m going to unravel these mysteries. Let’s calm down and look at the next GF.
Okay, it’s a train with a skeleton for a head. Doomtrain is a mile-long, fully functional steam train that also happens to be entirely organic and situated in the cold depths of space. When summoned, a track made from magical fire stretches into the heavens and the cursed locomotive rockets through the void before slamming into the enemy at full speed. Doomtrain causes minor poison damage, but its main reason for being is inflicting every status effect in the game, all at once. Think of it as a giant, skin-covered STD carrier with a screaming humanoid face on the front. Yes, the bulk of this summon is actually constructed of bone and skin, presumably from the bodies of its many victims. Then again, it’s hard to ignore the fact that it also has a tail, meaning it must be a whole creature of some kind. Why the Doomtrain exists in space is unclear, but it can’t be a coincidence that the most likely time to pick it up is when the characters themselves are journeying into orbit.
Perhaps it exists as yet another reminder that the universe is vast and terrifying, filled with unknowable entities who care nothing for the petty squabbles of man. Maybe there are worse things out there than an angry sorceress who wants to make a time sandwich, and some of those things are trains.
Accessing the Doomtrain summon is only possible by obtaining an item called Solomon’s Ring and a collection of strange objects. All this information is found in a magazine called Occult Fan, which documents strange occurrences in the style of a trashy “aliens are real” tabloid. The four issues detail the existence of the ring, and obliquely refer to three types of item: tentacles from a Marlboro, an upgraded remedy, and steel pipes. Players need to grab six of each—yes, that makes 666, the number of the beast—and use the ring, which is definitely how you set up a satanic ritual and should not have been allowed. Nobody is supervising these children and so far they have absolutely brought at least four actual nightmare demons into the world.
Doomtrain is part of a long tradition of ghost trains in legends and folklore, and a similar tradition in Final Fantasy games. FFVIII in particular is full of trains, has a train heist minigame, puts you on several trains as part of the plot, situates an entire rebel force on a train, and has one of the main characters dangerously obsessed with riding on trains. So perhaps it isn’t the most left-field thing to suddenly have a demonic train, rife with disease, rattling down from the cosmos to enact judgement on the enemies of the cause.
Let’s step back from the precipice of madness for a moment, shaken as we are by the spectre of an organic death train, and look at something a little more grounded. By Final Fantasy VIII’s standards. Late in the game, after you have your own personal spaceship, you can discover a hidden location out in the middle of FFVIII’s vast ocean. Landing here reveals it to be a Deep Sea Research Center, a mobile facility designed to research draw points and replicate or improve existing para-magic technology. If none of that made sense to you, don’t worry, half of this information isn’t even available unless Zell is in your party when you land, because this game hates to just give you anything. Apparently, the researchers travelled all over the world looking for the largest magic draw point on the planet, and found it here. At some point it was a abandoned, and, given the researchers are still around, it’s safe to say they left on purpose.
Side note: what is it about mobile buildings in this universe? Both Galbadia and Balamb Gardens were “coincidentally” built on flying research stations, and now there’s this research center. Also the largest concentration of scientists in the present day live in space. I guess when the world is full of moon-spewed monsters, the idea of not having to walk around is very appealing.
Anyway, inside the station you can find a large glowing core that spits out an astonishing amount of random encounters. Approaching it will trigger a dialogue in which you must answer questions-three. After the first two correct answer you need to fight Ruby Dragons, and after picking the third invisible option (yes, that’s right) you are thrust into battle with Bahamut. This dragon is blue, with red wings, and honestly fits fairly solidly into what one might expect from a fantasy dragon—except that it shoots energy beams from its mouth. Like Ifrit and a scant few others, Bahamut also speaks directly to the party; the aforementioned quiz confirms the creature as the archetypal “only those worthy may challenge me” sort of big bad. At the beginning of battle, Squall refers to it as “the great GF,” which means this is a summon at least those trained at Brain Spirits University have already heard about, and that it’s considered to be one of the more powerful examples. Further information about the Research Center, as well as the fact that Bahamut is there at all, suggests the researchers were studying Guardian Forces there, and seeking to harness their power to aid their probably-sinister cause. Bahamut’s response to this is to be surprised by the use of the term “GF,” and the realisation that they are there to suck him non-consensually into their minds causes him to reveal his fear of humans. This is strong proof for the idea that the people of this world are basically keeping summons as powerful slave workers, drip-feeding them experience and pet food in exchange for indentured servitude.
Before we move on to something else very weird, we should briefly mention the Phoenix, an avian Guardian Force that can be obtained by using a Phoenix Pinion in battle. A pinion is a round gear used in drivetrain mechanical systems; it’s also a word used to describe part of a bird’s wing. There’s no way to tell which meaning the item name refers to.
Phoenix, after being summoned the first time, will appear in 65/256 cases when the party has been killed or petrified, reviving dead party members. It does not cure petrify, because Final Fantasy VIII actually hates you and wants you to suffer. Outside of Final Fantasy, a phoenix is a mythological bird which is either reborn from its own ashes or is born from the ashes of a dead phoenix, depending on who you ask. It seems thematically appropriate to have this creature constantly immolate itself to save the lives of teenagers thrust into the fires of war by adults who could not care less for their safety.
There’s a cactus wandering around the world map that is so gigantic it can be seen from space. Nobody wants to talk about it, but it’s out there, waiting, shooting needles across national borders, twirling its Dick Dastardly moustache. It lives on the aptly named Cactuar Island, which we can assume is an island so uniformly populated by Cactuar that humanity decided to let the terrifying, dead-eyed plants hold sovereignty over the entire landmass. If you land on Cactuar Island and approach the giant cactus, you get to fight the Jumbo Cactuar, which looks exactly like the other enemies here except for the moustache. And it’s flipping huge. Defeating the big boy will automatically give you one of the small boys as a GF, perhaps as an offering from the Cactuar Nation in exchange for leaving them alone.
The line between Guardian Force and Just Some Monster We Keep in a Box gets a little blurry here, since the Cactuar GF is basically just a Cactuar that has to do your bidding. By now though, you should already be desensitised to the suffering of other living creatures so it doesn’t matter too much. Anyway, did you know the Cactuar is called Sabotendā in Japanese? Which roughly translates to “cactus pretender.” Whereas Cactuar translates to “cactus you are” or something. I made that up because Cactuar is meaningless.
Continuing the theme of ordinary monsters becoming summon magic, Tonberry is another GF which requires wading through a bunch of normal enemies, then fighting a giant version. Unlike the Jumbo Cactuar—which appears instantly on the map—the Tonberry King only makes an entrance after you kill at least 20 regular Tonberry in the Centra Ruins. Basically, once you are considered a Tonberry-themed serial killer in the eyes of these tiny green creatures, their leader and most powerful hero steps in to save their society. And you murder him too. Tonberry, when summoned, emerges from a sort of portal in the floor, slowly walks across the screen and stabs the enemy with a really big knife. That sounds truly awful, but it’s actually okay and even good, because the victim has a little cute sweat drop first and the knife makes a funny DOINK! sound effect that appears in a cartoon speech bubble. Funniest stabbing I’ve seen for ages.
There is an interesting rumour surrounding Tonberry which posits it might be the GF that Selphie junctioned when she was younger. When the party all realise they grew up in the same orphanage and just forgot because of the Ghost Brain Worms, Selphie admits to once junctioning a GF while training one day, but laments not remembering its name. Tonberry does have a quite high starting affinity with Selphie, and it is conceivable that her Garden sent her to train near the Centra Ruins because it’s a dangerous and stupid place to train literal children. Like most FFVIII theories, this is all unprovable and probably wrong.
Throughout this entire exploration, you’ve no doubt been thinking that these summons are not nearly bonkers enough; that their animations aren’t as outrageously long as they could be; that there’s room for so much more haphazard religious referencing and unhinged art design. Good news: we’re going to talk about Eden.
At the bottom of the Deep Sea Research Center, where you may have already captured Bahamut, there is a vast dungeon. Reach the bottom of this dungeon and you get to fight Ultima Weapon, one of Final Fantasy’s recurring challenge bosses, put in many games just so players can show off how much grinding they’ve done. Inside this weapon, you can find the Eden GF, which is a big disc that has wings and the body of some form of angelic torso on the underside. While the other summons, apart from Pandemona, have some sort of recognisable design which allows the human mind to comprehend their form, Eden is a nightmare of runes, body parts, allusions to technology, and vague shapes and colours. Its name is a twofold reference, calling to mind the Christian Bible’s Garden of Eden, where humans first learned to hate their bodies, as well as Final Fantasy VIII’s use of Gardens as a PR-friendly name for harsh military schools. Is Eden a failed attempt by the research teams to merge a Garden with a Guardian Force? Did a GF that resembles the Gardens manifest itself after the Garden schools rose to prominence? Are all Gardens a psychic memory of Eden, filtering through into the design ideas of the Garden architects?
Eden’s attack is called Eternal Breath, and it is frankly a little difficult to put into words. First, the screen fizzes with electronic static as Eden’s face (or face-like object) appears; Eden drops down into a digital grid, overlaid with satellite images and video screens of blueprints. The grid extends to encompass the enemy, then the unfortunate creature is dragged across the field of view until it lines up with the large blue gem on top of Eden’s disc. A strange symbol appears under the enemy, and we zoom out further to reveal that the entire planet displays the same symbol, and it transforms the celestial body into an impossibly huge magical egg timer. The symbols activate, firing the enemy out from inside the planet and into the void of space. The beam of energy carrying what must surely be the most unfortunate monster in the game continues into the centre of a nearby galaxy, which detonates violently and becomes a supermassive black hole. Nobody should ever summon this horrible thing, lest we all disappear, screaming and inside-out, ejected from reality forevermore.
Watching each individual moment of the Eden summon is upsetting, and trying to piece it all together is a fool’s errand. Parts of the summon suggest the entire world of Final Fantasy VIII exists within a simulation controlled by Eden, and that all concerns of sorceresses and teenage soldiers are petty squabbling conducted by worthless ants. If this is what the researchers pulled out right before shutting their work down, you can understand what made them run. If Pandemona and Doomtrain are harbingers of the cosmic end, Eden is the apocalypse of horror knocking on the front door.
And that’s it. No more summons to look at, and the world of Final Fantasy VIII is eternally doomed by its inability to perceive the vast scope of nightmares that exist just beyond the veil of reality. May the gods have mercy on them all. Actually, no, hold that thought, because there are just a few more Guardian Force-related issues to discuss. Next time we delve into the most unsettling, forbidden place of all: the mind of a teenage boy.
This article was made possible by my generous patrons Dillon, Elise Kumar, Harley Bird, Simplicus, Maggie McFee, Kim Wincen, Stef Peacock, and Lauren. If you want to support my work you can pledge to my Patreon for as little as a dollar per article! It makes you a cool person.
You may not believe this, but there was a time when the COVID-19 global pandemic did not exist. Mere months ago, folks were going about their business, blissfully unaware that the established world order was about to be upended, laying bare the inadequacies of particularly hubristic tin pots and oligarchs. It’s possible, in this utopia of ignorance, that one may have heard about a video game called Death Stranding, which is a walking simulator designed to show off high-end rock technology and Norman Reedus’ buttocks. While we may never know exactly what Death Stranding means according to its creator—because Hideo Kojima is an AI construct sent from the future—it’s easy enough to loosely interpret the experience as some amalgam of commentary on a modern lack of human connection, the encroaching shadow of climate change, and the dangers of putting psychic children in bottles.
Now, we’re all worried about the virus. Some of us have been shut in our homes for weeks, others will be stuck inside for much longer. This isn’t the world into which the game was originally released. In some ways, it seems a lot closer to Kojima Productions’ fiction than before. What better time to turn back the clock and live through the first couple of episodes, with the benefit of hindsight and from inside our very own Death Stranding. How does the game feel, when played in these unprecedented times?
Lonely. As I begin a new game, the opening cinematic presents a screensaver-worthy slideshow of beautiful-yet-empty environments. Cliffs and hillsides and rivers, all devoid of life, and serving to highlight the familiar but oddly alien nature of Death Stranding’s setting. These are elements we’re used to seeing, but put together in an unusual way; landscapes familiar to Iceland or Scotland, perhaps, but the game tells us this is the remains of the United States of America. Now that strangeness, present before, takes on a new meaning. The quiet feeling of isolation isn’t unusual because it’s at odds with reality, it feels odd because it fits better now. As we watch Sam Porter Bridges speed across a rocky landscape on his future bike, it seems obvious that he would be alone, that there would be nobody around to witness. People are supposed to stay indoors, after all, it’s dangerous to go outside. Walking around the streets of Wellington, New Zealand right now feels far more surreal than a trip through the bleak majesty of Death Stranding; it’s hard to look at people out in public and not subconsciously judge them for making the choice. Surely they should be staying home, and not just strolling down the street as if there weren’t 300,000 dead from some nightmare you can’t even see.
There’s the other thing that’s immediately striking about the game now: the ever-present menace of an invisible threat. BTs are ghostly entities that roam the land, only manifesting as inky hand prints until it’s too late; connection with the unseen danger of a virus—particularly one that can be carried many times over before it reaches someone who becomes symptomatic—is inevitable. The beached things of a stranded universe cause immediate loss, and permanently alter the way society functions, just like an uncontrolled disease. They craft a feeling of fear that is only made worse by the uncertainty about their nature, their form, and how to deal with them. Viruses are, in many ways, terrifying because we don’t really know what to do with them when existing systems fail; we lean on vaccines and the concept of pushing through an illness, but beyond that there’s really nothing in place. So we end up locked away, just like the population of every Knot City, stuck between believing the problem will be solved eventually and preparing to be trapped in a new paradigm indefinitely.
Early on in the game, we get to see the first signs of Sam Bridges’ aphenphosmphobia, his fear of being touched. When I first began playing Death Stranding, it was refreshing to see something superficially similar to my own anxiety portrayed by the main character, someone who clearly seeks out human connection while also being repelled by it. In the present day, of course, we’ve all been burdened with a sort of artificial touch phobia: increased hand-washing and the looming threat of invisible germs necessitates a cautious approach to other human beings. I felt an increased connection with Sam during his first visit to the beach, his desperate clutching of the mysterious baby to his chest reading as a cry for the physical attention he (and all of us in various stages of crisis management) can’t access in the real world.
Flashes of other thematic puzzle pieces litter these opening chapters, and hold their own altered meanings from within the pandemic. Rain in the game has transformed into timefall, a strange phenomena that causes the raindrops to age whatever they touch. This deadly rain forces everyone inside, and the way it steals time, life and any sense of progress from those trapped in it warps into a kind of twisted metaphor for the months COVID-19 and its associated effects have stolen from millions. Interactions occur through holograms and radio transmissions out of necessity, much like the video calls currently becoming the norm for businesses, families and students. The sick, injured and dead are a liability in Death Stranding and much is made of the need to deal with or dispose of them as quickly as possible; the parallels with current political discussions—mainly on the right—about how valuable the aged and infirm really are to society, and how many deaths are an acceptable sacrifice, gave this player some pause.
The way Sam and the other couriers are elevated to heroic, near-deified status is also disturbingly familiar. The game places Sam Porter Bridges very much as a sort of front-line worker in this universe, forced to endure the huge risks of his profession and stay at work so that others may carry on with their lives, uninterrupted by the realities of the situation. Death Stranding is replete with this sort of figure: everyday people who need to keep doing what they do so society continues to function. Instead of hospital workers and supermarket employees, we have porters and distribution officials. Most of our experience of the world of Death Stranding is through the eyes of these working class people, no doubt very deliberately. The population of Capital Knot City, for example, is 42,187, but we never see any of the ordinary citizens of this, or any other, population centre. The only time Sam interacts with people who don’t have to struggle with this new world order is when they’re asking him to retrieve buckets of paint or carry them over a hill so they can see their boyfriend. Sam is frequently referred to as a hero in the game, and given various legendary monikers to demonstrate exactly how amazing his work is and how much he has done for America. People constantly infer—and often outright state—that only Sam can do what needs to be done. However, much like the current situation in our universe, it isn’t always true. Most of his deliveries could easily be completed by someone else utilising the same technology; Sam’s ability to ‘repatriate’ and come back from the dead is a useful safety net, but it doesn’t make him as indispensable as those in charge would have him believe. The only thing preventing Die Hardman from putting on some overalls and making deliveries is that he’s the boss. The class divide is as real in Death Stranding as it is in pandemic-ravaged 2020.
Most encouragingly, what playing through the start of Death Stranding mid-pandemic reveals is the importance of the smaller things, those moments and activities which were perhaps lost in the bustle of normal life. Much like our own world problems, the issues that Sam Bridges’ universe faces are vast, bordering on cosmic; there is no useful way to comprehend or impact them at an individual level. So we find joy in the minutia of smaller tasks: retrieving a box that fell into a nearby river, reorganising our sock drawer by colour, walking over a nearby mountain without falling over. We focus on the parts of our life that we can control, and build routines around the familiar aspects of the day. Sam can’t rid the planet of the dead, beached nightmares which stalk every known location; he can’t unravel the political machinations of masked powers or terrorist organisations. But he can take an order for six printers over the waterfall and deliver it without a scratch. It is perhaps the nicest thing about playing Death Stranding now, amid all the reminders of a broken world, that you can find satisfaction in simply doing what you can to make the world a better place.
While there are plenty of games that provide respite in tough times, either by allowing players to escape or simply giving them something to distract themselves while the world grinds to a halt, playing Death Stranding now is a surprisingly thoughtful experience. I was intrigued to find that the game takes on new meaning and significance just by virtue of my own altered perspective. Kojima reportedly set out to make a game that provided positive interactions as an allegory for what the interconnected, but very separated, modern world could become. It’s rather poetic that as the world drifts apart—temporarily or otherwise—Death Stranding provides a more encouraging message than ever. Tomorrow is still in your hands, even if it looks a bit grim.
Bloodborne opens in a dark room, with the player lying on a doctor’s examination table. A silhouetted figure in the darkness speaks of blood and mysteries to be solved, and a contract to be signed. Even when he rolls into the light, his face is obscured by hair and bandages. The player passes out, and wakes to a nightmarish world plagued by dessicated werewolves and tiny, pale messengers with sideways mouths. But we never see the world outside this bad dream, so maybe it was always like that.
Cosmic horror is difficult in any medium. By definition, the genre is concerned with the unknown and unknowable, the idea that the reality we take for granted is a tiny box that exists in a grander, more terrifying universe. Lovecraftian stories invite us to think about what makes us most uncomfortable, and discover everything is many, many times worse than we could have ever imagined. Good cosmic horror is characterised by a certain sense of hopelessness in the face of unrelenting and incomprehensible forces that exist at a scope which makes humans less important than the dust in their lungs. But it also walks a knife edge, presenting stories in which characters are always seeking that unattainable knowledge, looking for answers, believing that a mystery can be solved and everything can finally be okay. Comic horror is about struggling, even when the robots say resistance is futile, even when the cultists finish their chant and the sky opens, even as they lock the door to your padded cell.
No game understands this contradictory interplay between the known and the unknown better than Bloodborne. What begins as a gothic adventure as obsessed with blood as Castlevania and as keen on hats as Abraham Van Helsing slowly and expertly peels back its own skin to reveal darker and darker truths underneath. Bloodborne drags players down so gradually and with such sweetness that you are likely to have a moment, far too late, that leads you to wonder how things got quite so bad on your watch. What Bloodborne sees, more than any other game in the genre, is the need for hope.
Players, like the protagonists of a cosmic horror story, need to believe there is a reason to keep struggling. They need to see a way forward, even if the path is made of eyes and the moon that lights their way turns a sickly orange red. Which is why every tiny mechanical choice in Bloodborne works in service to that goal, as the world itself sprouts segmented legs and the flesh falls from its cursed bones.
In the opening alone, you can see the perfect setup: a mysterious figure sets up the existence of a mystery, sending you in the direction of further knowledge, and character creation is tied to the signing of a contract, which unambiguously positions the player as making a choice to experience whatever comes next. You are very explicitly asked to shape your whole experience around this conscious desire to unravel the mysteries of Yharnam. This is key to the cosmic horror experience, characters frequently reach a point where they could easily back away from the shadows ahead, but instead they move forward. It’s akin to the broader horror trope of the teenager entering the clearly-dangerous haunted mansion, except the cosmic horror protagonist enters mind open, seeking. After a scene involving monsters big and small, the game gives players control and situates them inside a familiar setting: a medical clinic.
Familiar, yet different, of course. Everything in the early parts of the game is a creepier, more unsettling version of something at least passably recognisable. The townsfolk are townsfolk, although they seem far too tall and far too violent; the buildings are impossibly tall as well—and arranged as if they grew organically from a central point—but they recall memories of real-world gothic architecture; werewolves feature prominently among the city’s threats, but their fantasy origins are well-entrenched in the public psyche, meaning they are, for a scary story, a kind of expected occurrence. Because of this groundwork, placing the familiar among the unsettling, when recognisable aspects fall away it feels all the more horrible. When the werewolves slowly become discoloured and eventually mutate into twisted wolf marionettes, burdened with extra human arms and legs where none should be, we remember what they used to be, and the dread of realising how far from reality we’ve drifted is brought home.
But you have to get there, first; keep your spirits up long enough to get to the cold, unfeeling end of the world. One big way Bloodborne does this is with From Software’s skillful use of shortcuts. Exploring the world can be a confusing and daunting experience, since the geography of Bloodborne’s universe is only euclidean because the PS4 demands it. When players head down a stray alley, or jump from a hidden ledge, only to catch an elevator back to an earlier location, the euphoria is a direct response to the dark and pointless world surrounding them. You’re not just excited because you unlocked a shortcut, you gouged the smallest, brightest nugget of hope out of the impassive wall of nightmares blocking your path.
Finding a shortcut in Bloodborne is a sign that progress can be made, even against the worst horrors. The game, despite its difficulty, wants to be explored, picked apart; it wants to be known. So it encourages discovery, and the foolish cosmic horror protagonist, buoyed by their meagre success, slips a little further towards madness.
The game brings otherwise mundane mechanical aspects of the experience and ties them to the specific needs of the genre. Healing is accomplished by consuming blood vials, used in what Yharnam refers to as “blood ministration,” meaning that with each use the player is being drawn in and becoming a part of the town. Using the Madman’s Knowledge item, encountering bosses, or witnessing other important game events gifts the player with insight, a consumable resource that can be used not only to help with certain character stats, but also to warp the world. Previously invisible creatures appear in all their mind-burning glory, inanimate things come to life, new enemies begin to crawl in. Active participation in the world of Bloodborne is mandatory for all of this, and the many positive and negative results of this provides another intoxicating push.
Many of these mechanics have familiar counterparts in the other Soulsborne games. But where a game like Dark Souls provides them as tools to survive in a harsh fantasy world filled with dark creatures, Bloodborne makes it very clear that every action you take as a player is weakening your tether with reality. Knowledge is dangerous, fear is justified, and ignoring those ideas is a choice you are making. Even From Software’s penchant for leaving world-building to be discovered rather than gifted to the player is a service to the cosmic dread. Learning about how the mechanics and items work, examining the bosses and enemies, is necessary to play the game, but is also inviting further decay into the mind.
Cosmic horror is often shorthanded to large space monsters with face tentacles and madmen screaming in spooky asylums. But the core of the genre is far from the vast, unknowable intelligences that oversee reality; at a human, knowable level, it’s about the feeling that something isn’t right. Cosmic stories are the shadow that looks like a man standing in the corner of your bedroom until the light reveals it was only a coat, except the light never turns on. They’re the niggling feeling that you could know more about the world, and the knowledge that you shouldn’t. Where other games unceremoniously slot in Cthulhu-adjacent monsters and sanity effects, Bloodborne is content to be the slowly spreading smile on the lips of a helpful doctor. It sits, confident in the horror that exists below the surface and perfectly fine with the idea that you might never get far enough to see it. The fingers were always there, softly stroking your forehead.
Perhaps there’s a little Lovecraftian DNA in every From Software game. Each of them asks players to trust the game to lead them to something interesting, slowly absorbs them into the world, teaches them secrets that are incomprehensible to an outsider, and leaves them not viewing anything in quite the same way afterwards. A hunter is a hunter, even in a dream. And there’s no way back.