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Andy Astruc

A serious study of FFVIII summons, Part III: Everything is fine and normal

The price we pay for using the GF. This article contains major spoilers for Final Fantasy VIII. You can forget reading this and return home by clicking here.

Hello for the first time, whoever you are, and welcome to this exploration of the messed-up monster pantheon that is Final Fantasy VIII’s summoning system. What’s that? You say we’ve done this twice already? Oh, right; once to go over the normal, brain-devouring god-beings that live in all manner of creature and classroom computer, and again to discuss whether they represent the undoing of all reality and the eternal suffering of all who live inside. Sorry, my memory gets a little foggy sometimes. It’s been firmly established that these spirit beings can bend time and space to their will, but also that you can trap them with enough science, and that—all things considered—the fact that they definitely eat the brains of people who use them is actually a mercy in comparison with their true power. Also some of them are cute.

“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.

Tonberry King

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.

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Re-experiencing Death Stranding in the middle of a pandemic

Tomorrow is in your hands. This article contains mild spoilers for Death Stranding, as well as discussion of COVID-19. Click here to be taken back home.

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.

Even in a dream: Bloodborne, hope, and keeping horror cosmic

Plant eyes on our brains, to cleanse our beastly idiocy. This article contains mild spoilers for Bloodborne. Click here to be taken back home.

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.

Sad dads and dead mothers: The limited misery of in-game parenting

Terrible news: you’ve become a parent. In a video game. Someone died, or something horrible happened, or maybe it was great and magical to begin with and then the horrible thing happened. Maybe you died, and that’s awful because you were a parent and now your child is alone in a dangerous world; maybe everything would be fine except your offspring has been kidnapped. Whatever the reason, you’re the parent or guardian of a human child and you’re in for a rough time.

Unless the game is about children, young people have only two purposes in video games: to be annoying sidekicks (and immediately expelled from your party in favour of a dog, or a drunk old man) or to be a source of trauma and growth. If someone has children, the player will be given the chance to see them struggle with parenting in the worst possible ways allowed by the theme. Their significant other will die and they will have to go out into the world with their son and teach them to survive, which is difficult and challenging even for the actual God of War. They will need to rescue the child from death and worse, all the while thinking of the nightmarish fates that could be befalling them, a la Dishonored, or Silent Hill. Even if things start in a positive place, emotionally stable and functional, the slap of video games’ heavy hand is never far away. Shadow of Mordor kills everyone in the Ranger’s family right after you stealth kiss your wife in the opening, leaving him to angst for all eternity, Fallout 4 shows a glimpse of the joys of being a new father then steals your son 200 years in the future, and The Last of Us spends 15 masterful minutes making sure you appreciate its adorable father-daughter relationship before tearing out your heart and stomping it into the dirt.

The games with traumatic parenting stories aren’t necessarily bad; many of them represent the finest art the industry has ever produced. Here’s the thing about being a parent, though: sometimes it’s nice. In fact, most of the time it’s wonderful. Having kids can be a transformative experience filled with moments of joy, laughter, love and admiration. Is it hard sometimes? Absolutely. I have three boys, and some of the most difficult and stressful times in my life have been because of them. But much of the parenting experience is happy, or normal. Most days are about making lunches and listening to them talk about absolute nonsense for hours, or taking them places and watching them just run around being unfinished human blobs.

Yet the overwhelming purpose of children and parents alike in game narratives is to die and generate sadness, or to live on and be a burden which may or may not lead to an important lesson. This trend is especially brutal when it comes to mothers, who almost never survive long enough to matter much to anyone beyond the emotional value of their memory. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Detroit: Become Human, Fallout 3, Heavy Rain, God of War, The Last of Us, Dishonored, and The Walking Dead to name all kill off their mother figures (or hide them away) with the game barely even begun. There are plenty of others. It’s bad enough that there is a real-life stigma around parenting that implicitly suggests your life after having a kid is a whirlwind of chaos from which you can never escape. This is not an imaginary point that needs to be hammered home by every second video game.

Stories need conflict, you may retort. Nobody wants to see a happy family dealing with nothing in particular. It’s a common assertion about narratives in general that action requires characters deal with obstacles. But defining potential conflict for parents purely in terms of how uncomfortable, stressful and emotionally taxing the act of raising children can be for the characters is narrow thinking. The Sims, while not a narrative-driven game, manages to cast parenting in a realistic light, positioning the act of having children in the first place as a player choice, and attaching positive motivations to them by investing parents and players in their success, however they choose to define it. Dream Daddy does an admirable job of representing characters who manage to be both happy, functional fathers and also human beings who want to date other hot dads. And it may be shallow, but the constant inclusion of a supportive mother figure in each Pokémon game—whom the player can visit throughout their adventure for moral cheerleading and mechanical benefit—is a much appreciated break from the cavalcade of tragedy.

My favourite example of a gaming parent is the King of All Cosmos. Katamari Damacy’s arrogant, clumsy and probably-drunk father figure is an excellent example of how a parent-child relationship doesn’t need to be played as if the game were competing in the misery olympics. The Prince and the King have a strained relationship at best, and the King is by all accounts a pretty horrible, messy person, but the tone is light and the ridiculous dialogue still hints at a genuine emotional connection. They have fun, they connect, they roll up big balls of stuff and it’s not a metaphor for the difficulties of having a dad who’s codpiece is the size of the moon.

Consider, even, that something as vast, varied and vital to the world as parenting could even be used as a positive motivator in game narratives. Imagine if a father adventured out into the wilderness to care for his family, not because they were sick or in danger, but because he wanted to be a good parent. Imagine an RPG about a mother of five who gains her power by connecting to her children and forming some sort of Mother Voltron to smite evil. Maybe it would not entirely break the whole concept of a video game story to have two happy, healthy parents who are alive and care for their living children without spiralling into a pit of despair, and perhaps during the week they are super spies that take down Nazi robots. There’s even a wealth of material sitting, unused, with regard to games that weave the act of parenting into whatever other activities the player might engage in. Why stop at romantic companions in Mass Effect when you could also parent through dialogue trees and watch your space kids grow up to be the perfect space adults?

These are just some possibilities that become apparent if you simply stop looking at parenting as just a way to tell stories about how parenting is really hard. Everyone already knows it’s hard. Think instead about the excitement and magic inherent in the idea of taking control of a new life and guiding it along one of a million potential paths toward adulthood. Think of the feeling you get when you’re allowed to take care of animals in games, or given free reign to design, build and destroy a whole city. Raising kids isn’t a burden, it’s a power fantasy, and games love power fantasies.

Perhaps now we’ve gotten all of these crying fathers and absent mums out of our system as an industry, we could start to look further into the spectrum of life experience that parenting represents. Given the importance of raising children in pretty much any society, it seems a waste to only ever look at things through the grim lens of everything that could possibly go wrong. Many have postulated that the overall increase in stories about fathers dealing with the tribulations of having kids is a symptom of so many game designers reaching their 30s and 40s while also having children of their own. If that’s the case, and given that the overall saturation of video games in society means, statistically, a lot of parents play games, then it might be time for the industry to grow past its “look how grown up we are” phase and start telling a wider range of stories, including ones about happy, healthy parents.

Let’s talk about killing animals in video games

There is no shortage of murder in the world of games. If you play them regularly, there’s a good chance you brutally slaughtered hundreds of people, monsters, aliens in the last week alone. It’s fine, really; one of the more admirable aspects of the hobby is that it allows regular folks to dip their toes into realities that they couldn’t—or wouldn’t—normally access. Call it catharsis, or curiosity, or feeding the brain worms we dragged kicking and screaming from the primal, dangerous origins of humanity; killing things in video games is fun and good. Even if there is way too much of it.

Besides, society was being desensitised to the human cost of violence long before games were dominating the entertainment discourse. Films had a 100 year head start, while books, art and the theatre have been around for at least a century longer, filling the public’s mind with death, dismemberment and daily visions of the worst tortures imaginable.

Then you get to animal murder, and things get a little more murky. Recently there was a minor controversy surrounding the announcement that Naughty Dog’s upcoming post-apocalyptic sadness simulator, The Last of Us 2, allows players the heavy, emotion-laden choice of whether or not to kill dogs. You see, sometimes you will be hunted by enemies with their own attack animals, and if you kill the angry pooches their owners will be sad; loudly sad, in the game, because you killed their dog. The stated purpose of this potential trauma, according to a Polygon interview with Naughty Dog co-game director Anthony Newman, is to heighten The Last of Us 2’s theme of “regrettable violence,” the narrative thrust of the series being to force players into situations where they need to participate in awful acts while also being made to recognise the consequences of these actions. Retailer GameStop made news more recently for a piece of promotional text advertising the game, highlighted in a viral tweet. The text somewhat gleefully (with typical marketing enthusiasm) describes the feature “Dogs” as including moments where NPCs will “cry out in absolute horror when they discover their lifeless furry best friend.”

As games dig more and more into emotional storytelling, seeking to create meaningful narratives rather than simply provide a play experience, it becomes useful to examine how the presentation of heavy material is handled. Basically, we need to ask what it means to kill an animal in a piece of art, and what it means to kill that same animal in a video game.

Despite the wide variety of artworks on offer from the entire history of human civilisation, animal murder still isn’t particularly common. When it does show up, its generally treated as a pretty big deal, substantially altering the plot or the state of mind of a major character. Old Yeller tells the story of a faithful dog that must be put down after a bite turns him rabid, devastating the family; Marley & Me also uses the death of a beloved pet to elicit sadness from the audience, albeit this time at the end of a couple comedy; John Wick’s hero is dragged back into a world of violent professional assassination after his dog (a gift from his deceased wife) is killed. In all of these examples there is an implicit understanding that killing a dog ‘on-screen’ is a serious decision to make, one that ripples outward. Quotes from Naughty Dog suggest that The Last of Us 2 understands this as well, at least enough to play it for emotional effect. But there are two reasons this sort of manipulative storytelling isn’t always fit for games: consequence and repetition.

The consequences in video games for even an action as serious as murder are frequently rather minor. Immediate consequences usually include removing an obstacle from your path, alerting more foes, and, in very rare examples, turning one faction of NPCs very slightly into enemies or friends. Allowing player choice to dictate narrative is a slippery slope, of course, and much harder than the average person would think, but even examples of heinous acts impacting the plot of a game further down the line by design could be counted on a handful of fingers. There needs to a tangible cause-and-effect at play if you want the audience to take anything away from a situation except “thing bad.” Killing dogs, for example, is an undeniably terrible action on paper, but if a game’s only message is that it’s a shame you need to kill these dogs while also very much encouraging you to kill them if you think you need to, then there is no message. Thoughts and prayers for the game universe.

In the Sam Raimi comedy-horror film Drag Me To Hell, the main character, Christine, is a loan officer who denies an elderly woman an extension on her mortgage. The old woman happens to be the very magical kind of old woman, and places a curse on Christine which will see her dragged to Hell after three days. The events of the film see Christine defeat the curse and seemingly escape damnation, but the final scene shows her being pulled into a hellish portal by demonic forces. Why? Well, as part of her desperate attempts to remove the curse, Christine sacrificed a kitten. There is no other point in the film where Christine does anything unambiguously terrible; even the mortgage refusal is in a morally grey area, simply being a nasty part of her job. The cat, however, died for purely selfish reasons. An innocent was harmed.

In comparison, while the game isn’t out yet, the discussion around them centres squarely on the moment-to-moment decision and reaction of dog death. You decided to do something that was bad and necessary, now you have to move on and live with yourself. Which is quite easy to do, since you didn’t really kill a dog, and it didn’t significantly impede your progress. But you regret the violence, maybe. Thing bad.

Players will always have another chance, however, as unlike other forms of media, games function on loops. The most narrative-heavy big budget game still pushes somewhere between 15 and 150 hours, and much of that time is spent replaying existing mechanics. Nothing wrong with this idea, but it does mean that there’s a good chance you will have the chance to kill several dogs in the course of your journey. Perhaps dozens, or hundreds. And here we come up against the second half of the problem: something that was emotionally resonant the first time around will not necessarily retain that resonance the 20th time. Killing one dog is a tragedy, killing a million is a statistic. Because games thrive on this concept of repetition, you can’t simply rip a meaningful misery from a crafted, author-paced story and jam it into a player-controlled universe. The main character in I Am Legend has a faithful puppy companion helping him navigate the zombie-vampire infested city streets, but when the dog is bitten and has to be mercy-killed by the hero on screen, we feel the trauma and import. At the climax, this knowledge stays with us and subconsciously prepares us for the reveal that our hero is actually the villain of the piece, having murdered so many of the aforementioned creatures. While he made the right choice in killing his dog, that image leaves us ready to believe his good intentions are causing harm to others. If the script was rewritten to include the hero actually mercifully strangling 20-30 dogs, most of the audience would likely already see him as a monster well before the twist.

This sort of dissonance isn’t limited to games where you kill dogs, of course. Much has been made of how flippant and friendly Uncharted’s Nathan Drake remains, even as he mows down hundreds of men for flimsy reasons; the Tomb Raider reboot took great pains to show players how distraught Lara was at the idea of killing one deer to feed herself, and even showed her struggling to take the life of a dangerous man attempting to assault her, but several dozen hours of bombastic murder porn dulled that revelation somewhat. There are also plenty of games where you kill normally-lovely animals without a care in the world. The Witcher 3 and Red Dead Redemption position animals as either a threat to your safety or a resource to be hunted, Resident Evil sufficiently redesigns their dogs to make it clear these are no longer creatures worthy of empathy.

Animal death, when given focus, will almost always be shocking, it’s wired into every human to be horrified by the concept, the visual, the implications. Regardless of why that is, it makes for a powerful storytelling tool, but games can’t just use that tool as if this were a tightly-edited film or novel. If you’re going to kill a fictional dog, and you want to convince everyone that you’re making an important point by doing so, then the way you make that point had better be just as thoughtful as your philosophical musings. Using it to make the audience suffer, and allowing the natural flow and mechanical setup of video games to undermine even that paper thin idea, makes for a shallow exploration of violence and morality.

The solutions to the quandary—making game narratives meaningful without undermining them with what would otherwise be good gameplay, and without cheapening the content—could be many and varied. But I’m reminded of a recent experience with the God of War reboot, in which I killed a seagull. There are seagulls wandering the skies of video game Midgard, and it is indeed possible to kill them, watch them explode into blood and feathers. But there’s no purpose to it, no meaning; you get nothing from the experience apart from a general, niggling feeling that your son just saw you kill a bird for no good reason. In a world full of horrifically violent finish moves and constant death, it was a bird minding its own business that made me think about my actions. Maybe that’s part of the answer, devaluing the violence to give players the space to make their own decisions about what feels right and wrong. GameStop definitely didn’t tell me about the seagulls.

The Outer Worlds’ hollow star and why the player’s role matters

French? I can't f***ing read French. This article contains mild spoilers for The Outer Worlds and Prey. Click here to leave the colony.

In the film Groundhog Day, weatherman Phil Connors is stuck in a time loop, living out the same day over and over again. Maybe forever. And he’s super bummed about it at first, until someone points out that a person in his position could literally do whatever they want. Lie. Cheat. Steal. Learn to play the piano. Eat forty cakes and wash it down with ten bottles of whisky. Armed with this knowledge, Phil goes on a hedonistic rampage, living out the dream of a life with no consequences. After an unspecified period of time, however, the novelty wears off; being an unkillable god-like being untethered from the petty concerns of biology and polite society means no relationships, no lasting developments, no impact on the world at large. Phil, unable to move forward, becomes suicidal, depressed and nihilistic. Nothing matters.

Video games always cast us as Phil Connors, in some way. No matter the game, every time we boot up an interactive experience we consent to being placed inside one time loop or another, slowly finding our way towards whatever point this particular universe wants to show us. That means the way the main character is positioned in the story is pretty important, and how they interact with the game world is very different to other mediums.

This is all my very roundabout way of trying to figure out a puzzling question: why don’t I enjoy playing The Outer Worlds? Obsidian’s newest RPG is a fine example of the genre, a worthy follow-up to their other work, and a valid, unsanctioned response to an unspoken request for a Fallout game that isn’t full of bugs. The combat is fun, with time-dilation powers, laser-powered swords and guns that make all the correct boom noises. It has a wonderfully endearing cast of support characters and an interesting, topical story about the dangers of corporations holding power. The artwork is beautiful, casting off all notions of muted colour palettes in favour of the true psychedelia of alien worlds. The music, acting, mechanics, setting, enemy design all range from good to excellent. And yet, it’s a struggle to get from point A to point B; each moment spent with the game feels like an enjoyable slice of something but fails to compel me to move forward. A quirky space adventure with a dry sense of humour and the freedom to do mostly whatever I choose should be a slam dunk.

Part of the problem comes down to me. The ‘me’ inside the game, that is, not the real me. The version of me that I lovingly crafted in the prologue, the one making all those big decisions and riding in the spaceship. The most important person in the universe. At first, I named my hero Jervan Cudgel; the plan was to make him the sort of melee-focused pugilist I had so much fun roleplaying in Fallout: New Vegas many years ago. He would be honest (to his own detriment, if necessary) kind of dumb, and look like the bronzed, curly-haired star of a 1970s pulp sci-fi film. This was the plan, anyway.

None of that matters. The Outer Worlds opens with some remarkably efficient storytelling which lays out a few salient facts: there’s a colony called Halcyon where corporations run everything, it sucks, a ship full of colonists got lost, and a wanted terrorist is going to break one of them out to help him with his plan to overthrow the status quo. Like much of the game, this is actually pretty interesting and engaging, but it also puts the main character in a very distant position from the outset. You, the player, are one of said lost colonists. Because you’ve been in cryogenic stasis for a few decades, you have no idea how anything works on Halcyon, you don’t know anyone, you have no contacts and you can barely conceptualise the societal norms that perpetuate this twisted version of our own civilisation. Unfortunately, the overall effect of this framing device is a trending towards apathy. Since none of these people are important to me, and I don’t even live here, there’s no reason for me to engage with their plight on a personal level. There’s a beautiful synergy that happens in games at times, where the player and their avatar have motivations, goals or emotions that sync perfectly with each other. The result of this is usually a more cohesive and natural-feeling game experience, since you can more easily empathise. Unfortunately, The Outer Worlds hops onto this train too early, giving us a character that syncs with the player’s state of mind, rather than convincing the audience to synergise with the hero. You currently don’t care about Halcyon colony and you have no idea what’s going on? Good news, here’s some dope who also thinks like that.

When you experience the world a little further, you may find yourself actually caring about what happens there; it is, after all, a well-realised science fiction world, full of likeable characters. But once you do, your avatar is still that dope, with no connection to the world beyond the dialogue trees available, no context for his or her actions, and no reason to pick one decision over another. As I decide to shut down the Saltuna factory on Terra 2, saving the deserters and dooming the loyal factory workers, it’s me making the decision I would make as myself; Jervan Cudgel might as well not exist, he has no opinion on the subject.

The main character in Prey (the one from Arkane Studios) enters the world in a similar, baby-like state, unmolested by the complexities of the universe and carrying a big box of Convenient Amnesia. But the very different methods of building the protagonist and the role they need to play in their world make for an interesting contrast. Morgan Yu wakes up to a laboratory in turmoil, with the bodies of people they don’t know strewn all over and an infestation of aliens they don’t understand. Much like The Outer Worlds, Prey provides its hero with access to various computer terminals, many of which contain bits of world-building or character flavour. However, many of these pieces of correspondence refer to Morgan by name, or are actually addressed to them. Those that aren’t can usually be traced to someone on the station who this email version of Morgan Yu interacted with, allowing you to trace their significance back through the chain and connect some dots about who they were to you. Recordings and AI companions speak directly to you, as Morgan, and tell you in no uncertain terms why player and avatar alike should give a lot of damns about everything happening. Family members, angry work colleagues and possible lovers drop in either live or posthumously to offer their opinions and emotions to the main character, cementing the idea that you are very real and vital to whatever happens next.

You could argue, of course, that there are successful stories which lean into the idea of a featureless protagonist shaped only by the player’s own choices. All the recent Fallout games do this, birthing you from the door of one vault or another into a wasteland you never knew, or simply giving you a job to do. But Fallout 3 motivates you with the mystery of a missing father, New Vegas has someone try to murder you and bury you in the desert, and someone in Fallout 4 steals your actual baby. Regardless of how well each of these was handled, they all stick some simple, primal idea in the player’s head that they can agree with the protagonist on. Revenge, mystery, loss. The Outer Worlds has some very grand ideas about the corrupting influence of money and the value of repairing a broken society, but it makes no attempt to earn the hero’s attention on those fronts. If you want me to engage with your universe, I need to be in the shoes of someone worth guiding to that goal, and I have to understand how they work.

The way various mechanics function in the game do it no favours in regard to building a main character with some meat. Everything in Halcyon bends just a little too easily to the will of the player; from persuasion checks to combat encounters, there’s an overall sense that The Outer Worlds really wants you to succeed. It is almost cartoonishly easy to lie and steal your way through the game. The overall effect of this freedom is to make the player feel as though they’re in a sort of inflatable playground where nobody can get hurt and everything will be the safest kind of fun. You can die, like in most games, but you’re psychologically prepared for the inevitable truth: the hero is important and powerful, and they’ll be fine. Plus, they don’t matter, so it’s okay if they do happen to die.

By presenting players with a protagonist without context, The Outer Worlds inadvertently creates a stunted version of Groundhog Day’s Phil. Without the motivation to improve themselves, they never have any desire to move out of the consequence-free simulation full of cake and shrink rays. Lacking the self-awareness that eventually crushes Phil Connors, they are unable to see the value of limitations and complicated relationships. They stay in the loop forever, completing meaningless, hedonistic tasks. Nothing ever matters.

So, is this why I can’t see myself playing The Outer Worlds to completion? Is the lack of a compelling main character enough to soil a game that is otherwise very accomplished? Maybe. Games are defined by their interactivity, and that interaction is primarily delivered through the player character’s perspective. Even if a story isn’t literally told by the protagonist, we’re invited to frame everything as part of their personal journey. So that journey has to matter, it has to be meaningful even while it allows for the spectrum of player choice. Much like picking a narrator for a novel, choosing a game protagonist has the potential to drastically alter the reading of the story developers want to tell. Dragon Age II is the strange, personal RPG it is because it’s about Hawke; Alien: Isolation feels so immediately connected to the Alien mythos because Amanda Ripley is the daughter of Ellen; Oddworld feels desperate and oppressive because we’re cast as a slave who could be turned into a popsicle at any moment.

Oddly enough, the one time I felt really in-sync with The Outer Worlds was in a third attempted playthrough as an unrepentantly duplicitous bastard, lying my way from conversation to conversation without a single care for the consequences. Finally, the Stranger and I were on the same page. Nothing mattered.

Building character: The slow burn of Dragon Age II

Dragon Age II has the longest and most in-depth character creation system ever seen in a video game, clocking in at around 30 hours. After the initial, perfunctory decisions about lip colour and combat class, the game quickly allows players to craft their ideal fantasy protagonist over the course of several years. When they’re done shaping the soft clay of their unique Hawke into the Champion of Kirkwall they always wanted, the credits roll and the game is over; your quest is complete. Flawless efficiency.

In Origins, the first Dragon Age, BioWare created a universe that was brimming with possibility. Like many other big RPGs, it centered player choice and an ability to affect the world around you. The titular origins were important in setting up where the Grey Warden had been in their life, and what contacts they might already have, but there was a strong focus on the idea that the player had a very powerful role in shaping the destiny of fictional Ferelden. Player decisions were largely external, and also very large: save an entire race of people by risking the safety of another, kill mages to avoid them becoming a danger later, execute the ruler of a nation because you don’t like him very much. Dragon Age II instead opts for an inward-looking approach, where the outcome of events is de-emphasised in favour of putting the spotlight on how the main character reacts to narrative moments and the people around them. It’s less important what Hawke decided to do with the Qunari than how it shaped his or her view of the world.

This shift in priorities is reflected in the way dialogue functions in the game. Superficially, it’s similar to other Dragon Age titles, Mass Effect games and other modern RPGs: the player is given a choice of different responses, all of which either embody a particular emotional response or are purely informational. Diplomatic or helpful responses are friendly and non-confrontational, aggressive or direct responses are generally the opposite, and humorous or charming answers are for when Hawke wants to be sassy. What makes the system in Dragon Age II so interesting is that these responses will slowly warp the mind of the player’s Hawke, bending them further towards one of those three personalities. From the very first dialogue choice in the game, a system begins tallying a player’s responses and choosing a general tone for Hawke based on those choices. While early in the game, players might find themselves having to pick the sarcastic option themselves, late-game Hawke might offer a witty barb of their own accord.

This has a nominal effect on the overall flow of the narrative (the game will never take away any important choices) but makes a huge difference to the way the main character is perceived by the audience. Rather than being a simple mouthpiece for player choices, or a static face and class decision made in minute one, Hawke becomes a malleable character who is growing and changing as events unfold.

Altering the concept of an RPG to focus on the long-form creation of one character isn’t wholly done by mechanical means. Everything in the narrative of Dragon Age II is designed to support the idea that Hawke is the centre of this story. The game opens with a simple and oft-used framing device: the storyteller. Varric Tethras has been captured by the Seekers of Truth, and is being asked about the ‘Champion of Kirkwall’ by Cassandra. The Seeker wants to know how the Champion started a war between the mages and templars in the city, and Varric—being a bardic sort of chap—is going to tell her in the most roundabout way possible. This framing of the entire game as a story reinforces the mythic idea of a hero with a benevolent hand in matters far beyond their station. Behold the mighty champion, see how their decisions shape the world we live in. Except the reality of the story fails, on purpose, to bear that out; Hawke is no doubt an important figure in the city and present for many of the mad things which occur there, but Varric’s story frequently makes it clear that Hawke was often swept up in events beyond their control, and that tensions would have escalated regardless. By presenting the audience with the winking and unreliable narrator of Varric Tethras, it invites the player to question not just the events they witness but the role their ‘hero’ might even play in them.

So, if the story of Dragon Age II wants us to see that heroes aren’t always the most important part of a story, what does it want us to see. If you look at the companions in this game, compared with others in the series, there are some clear differences. Where in Origins and Inquisition, the main character is flanked by powerful, important and driven individuals, Hawke gathers a group of misfits, folks barely holding on to their place in the world. Fenris is a slave, consumed by revenge and despised by most; Merril is an elf cast out of her own clan thanks to her relentless pursuit of forbidden lore; Anders is a mage on the run from everyone. Through the story, the characters form a strong bond with Hawke and are drawn into the plot by that bond, rather than a menacing external threat, like The Blight, or a giant green hole in the sky. While not explicitly stated, it’s easy enough to extrapolate that if Hawke had not come to Kirkwall almost every one of her companions would have been killed by their respective obsessions or problems. With this reliance on the player character, the narrative further reinforces the idea that who Hawke is holds more importance than what they do.

And what does Hawke get out of all this peripheral heroism? What do they get as a reward for being the Champion of Kirkwall and offering snarky commentary as magic civil war breaks out? Nothing good. From the moment they arrive in the city, the Hawke family are forced to claw their way back into society, participating in organised crime and generally letting folks step all over their dignity. Where the Grey Warden Hero of Ferelden dies a martyr, or perhaps lives long enough to become a monarch beloved by all, and the Inquisitor becomes a similarly beloved hero, Hawke mainly deals with anger and death. Regardless of the player’s choices, one of Hawke’s siblings will always die in the first act of the game. The other either dies later, is forced into isolated servitude, or actively joins the enemy to the player’s cause. Hawke’s mother is kidnapped and cut into pieces, then reassembled like a terrifying maternal zombie.

Hawke provides the player with a sympathetic, broken canvas on which to paint a picture of what they think a champion looks like. With the narrative framed around the character instead of the events they participate in, and with the mechanical tools already in place to allow for shaping the way they behave, players can take an active role in deciding what kind of character they want to build. And, since the narrative is never structured to require heavy involvement from the protagonist, players can feel comfortable tweaking their personality and world view right up to the final scene. Rather than deciding how the character players envision might react, they can have a more loose idea of their behaviours, and be guided moment to moment, leading to a more collaborative and improvisational process, akin to creating a Dungeons & Dragons character.

So who is Hawke? More than most other RPG characters, Hawke is a hero shaped by whoever plays the game. She or he is the sum total of all the decisions made from moment one to the end of the epilogue. And they’re always changing, just like a real person.

Quick and the Dead: The lie of split-second choices

Asking questions that have no answers is part of being human, Markus. This article contains spoilers for Detroit: Become Human and Life is Strange. Click here to be taken back home.

A shot rings out, and you press X. Too slow, the bullet goes into your stomach. You fumble with the new dramatic camera angle and try to glean some small piece of information about the scene. Again, you were too slow. If only you’d looked a little further to the left, you might have seen the prompt to call for help. Anyway, you’re dead. Sorry. I trust you had an immersive time.

Detroit: Become Human, and many games like it, frequently asks you to make fast decisions to decide the fate of characters and situations. Sometimes the consequences are small, like an ally trusting you less in the future; sometimes they’re big, like death. These quick choices come in many forms—choosing between dialogue options, picking from two paths during a chase, mashing a button fast enough to open a door—and are supposed to simulate the speed of real choices, as well as the responsibility of owning them. But how well do they actually convey those ideas to the player? Does it ever really feel like you have a hand in the fates of these characters?

Let’s discuss Connor dying in Detroit’s news broadcast building, and Life is Strange’s Kate Marsh jumping off a ledge. These are both dramatic, permanent events which force in-the-moment decisions; both of them strip away some player agency to impress the urgency of the situation. Connor first, though. In many timelines he doesn’t die, but we’re only interested in his gruesome, preventable, frustrating death. While interrogating a set of androids, one of them manages to rip out Connor’s power supply and pin him to a table with a kitchen knife, which is rude. Getting out of this situation with your life requires the player to handle a shaky camera (already not Detroit’s strong suit in general) and press a specific sequence of buttons while a timer counts down. The camera difficulty is deliberate here, an attempt to replicate the physical stress and mental uncertainty of a traumatic injury. At this point in the game, regardless of your nuanced dialogue choices or investigative skills, Connor’s future rests on the player’s physical capabilities matching up with the control system’s operational ability.

In the following scene—if you’re still alive—Connor chases the android into a corridor and needs to make a three-way fast decision when the suspect grabs a gun. One of these choices kills you, with almost nothing by way of warning. Again, the game prioritises quick reactions over thoughts, reflex over considered decision-making.

Kate Marsh’s attempt to commit suicide on the roof of the school dormitory is no less stressful. Not only is a friend of main character Max driven to take her own life, but Max’s usual ability to turn back time is out of action, which means anything that happens in this scene is irreversible. Stuck on the roof, alone with Kate, the player must rely on their negotiation skills and the information they picked up about Kate so far. Much like the rest of the game, this scene plays out as a series of dialogue choices, and the wrong decision will lead to Kate leaping to her death. But for much of it there’s no literal timer, nothing hurrying the player along beyond their own desire to resolve the situation; and the mechanics of the scene are in-sync with the previous play experience. Everything you did up to this point has prepared you for the scene, so even though your powers are gone, you feel comfortable making the right call.

Detroit’s approach, while outwardly more realistic, ignores external factors like distractions, accidental button presses, and familiarity with the controls required. It also leaves players feeling unsatisfied because their fate is in the hands of a reflexive, physical action even if the focus of the narrative is normally testing your mental and emotional abilities. The story becomes “did I press the buttons in time” instead of “did i make the right choice.” In addition, a lack of contextual information leaves players unable to make an educated choice; without proper context, the likelihood of an unexpected outcome is high. The end result is players feeling cheated out of their planned path through the narrative, with no easy way to reverse the mistake.

Character death is something of a canary in the coal mine when it comes to this sort of decision problem, even in games otherwise lauded for choice. In The Witcher 3, players can encounter the sorceress Kiera Metz, and eventually come to a narrative point where she and Geralt disagree on a particular issue. Many players will be blindsided by a particular dialogue path, which ends unexpectedly when Kiera suddenly decides to fight Geralt to the death. Wow, we were having a lovely dinner naught but a few hours ago, you’ll think, as an angry blonde woman fires lightning into your chest. Assuming the player doesn’t let Geralt die, they’re forced to kill Kiera and left confused by the interaction. Again, the lack of context is what causes consternation, as there’s little indication before the battle that Kiera will react so poorly; with some digging and hindsight, one can glean the probable reasoning is her fear of being hunted by the mad king, but in the moment, when the decision is presented, players are walled off from the information but still expected to make the choice. It’s a scene which stands out by virtue of the rest of The Witcher 3 being so dedicated to providing narrative nuance.

Contrast these with Life is Strange, a game built with a narrative conceit that allows for choices to be reversed, pondered within a certain time frame. Max can rewind time, up to a few minutes, and (like the player) retains the information she gathered before the rewind. The player’s ability to act quickly is sometimes hinted toward but never becomes the focus of the decision, since players can decide to skip backwards if events fail to go their way. Serious situations are still possible, and they can definitely still end in failure, but they never rely on physical capabilities in a game that focuses on mental acuity. Players can retain the consequences but also take responsibility for their actions, given the appropriate context.

Designers of such fast choices would argue that forcing players to make snap judgements is a better simulation of making decisions in real life. You choose, and life goes on. No take backs just because the outcome causes discomfort. Except, of course, there are a thousand ways to take back a decision in real life, few of which are ever simulated in games. Maybe you say something rude, then apologise; maybe you drive down the wrong road, so you turn around; maybe you get into a fight and realise halfway through that you should back off. What a game like Life is Strange understands is that it’s better to emulate the idea of choice, because a simulation will fall short. You can’t go back and convince a character you didn’t mean what you said, but you can rewind time until it never happened. And just like in real life, even when everything is smoothed over, you still feel the sting of the mistake.

So, should Connor die? There’s no reason to make him immortal, and part of the allure of Quantic Dream et al’s games is choosing your path. The idea of heavy, consequence-laden decisions is perfect, conceptually, for the medium of games; indeed, you could argue that giving players choices and making them mean nothing is disingenuous at best, and poor design at worst. But for the death to be meaningful, for players to actually care about the outcome, and for them to take responsibility for how the story plays out, designers need to let go of the notion that a decision needs to directly reflect the real version of the same choice. Games consistently tweak the time and space of video game situations to present a particular view or provoke a certain emotional reaction. A fast decision doesn’t need to be fast, it just needs to feel fast. Picking a path should test the player in ways that are appropriate to the game’s mechanics and message, rather than be simple motor-skill and reflex challenges. Shocking twists at the hands of player choices don’t need to be spoiled ahead of time, it just needs to feel like the logical result of previous events.

Connor doesn’t die, of course, even if he does. Detroit: Become Human’s story does not function without the awkward detective Pinocchio, and, soon after his blue-bloodied corpse has been appropriately cried over, they dispense another copy from the Connor Factory. This is, perhaps, a tacit acknowledgement by the developers that such a heavy consequence can’t be entered into quite as quickly as the design requires. That maybe the game should treat the survival of the character as seriously as the script. And honestly, most players would probably be fine with a dead Connor, as long as it felt like it was their fault, and not because Connor refused to look left.

Getting to know the human animals of Animal Crossing

There’s an ugly frog living in my partner’s village. His name is Frobert, and he hasn’t done anything wrong, exactly, but she hates him a lot. It’s not been so long since Animal Crossing: New Horizons released, and already a lot of her playtime has been dedicated to making sure Frobert has the worst possible time on her island paradise. Hitting him with nets, refusing to speak to him for days, even reporting him to Resident Services for foul language and inappropriate clothing choices. Frobert has a weird face that makes everyone uncomfortable, and he has to go. Not long after the island settled, a mouse named Chaddar moved in; he is very literally made of cheese. His home is furnished with nothing but toilets and a hot tub. He brings nothing but further hate to the shores of the village.

Something about Animal Crossing villagers provokes strong emotional reactions in players. Superficially, they’re just strange looking anthropomorphic animals who spout limited variations of the same phrases as you walk back and forth breeding rare flowers; NPCs like any other, except perhaps even less than that, given that they don’t even have a particular informational purpose. But they are beloved, reviled, talked about as if they had real personalities, nurtured and punished in equal measure. People form genuine friendships with these bobbleheaded weirdos, some of them lasting decades, and work to predict—or even shape—their thoughts. Every morning I go and talk to Phoebe, the mean girl ostrich who lives near the beach, and every morning I’m hopeful this won’t be one of those times where she makes a passive aggressive comment about my shirt. Yes, Phoebe, that’s right, it’s a normal jumper, again. Oh, you think it’s impressive how well I can pull of basic styles? I should give you tips on how to look so basic?!

Why are Animal Crossing animals so interesting? Because they’re boring.

Boring in a very deliberate, very calculated way. Boring the way that your friends and family are, the way that all humans are boring. Villagers are written to be almost painfully normal, eschewing the standard video game writing style of packing non-player characters with as much quirky uniqueness as possible. Where the biographical information for the average NPC might be “traveled the world and searched for mysterious artifacts before returning to the search for his lost brother,” villagers tend to be summarised with something more like “enjoys lifting weights and fishing in the rain.”

The key to writing Animal Crossing villagers is keeping them mundane and, in a traditional video game sense, useless. Sometimes a villager will give you information about an upcoming event or something happening elsewhere in town, sometimes they give you gifts or ask you to do them a favour, but most of the time they will simply talk to you about their day. A cat wants you to know they don’t like the other cat villager, the local elephant got a new shirt and she thinks it’s absolutely delightful, a monkey you don’t like very much keeps talking about the way bugs whisper to him while he sleeps. None of this is actionable information, nor does it push forward the state of your village, but it makes them relatable. Crucially, it also avoids reducing the villagers to tools or markers on an objective board; without the distractions of guaranteed extrinsic reward, the intrinsic value of experiencing their personalities and interactions can take on greater importance.

Take my friend Ken, for example. Ken is a chicken who likes to wear karate gear, he enjoys crafting things at his crafting bench at weird hours and he is excited about absolutely everything, he knows a lot of foreign words but not what they mean or the language they came from. Ken told me that because I was talking to him so much that day I must have paid for “Ken Unlimited” and he assured me that it was silly to care why eggs came out of rocks because magic is just like that sometimes. Ken is a fantastic, well-rounded individual who brightens my day, and he has never contributed anything of any tangible value to the mechanical experience of playing Animal Crossing. It’s because Ken isn’t just a chicken, he’s a human chicken, with very human thoughts.

Player experience of these villagers is also impacted by the passage of time. Animal Crossing very purposely doles out animal dialogue sparingly; each chat with a villager will be a handful of lines at most, and sometimes they will just tell you it’s a nice day. Speaking to the same villager repeatedly without a break will frustrate them to the point where they refuse to interact. The only way to reliably experience more of what a given NPC has to offer in Animal Crossing is to just live in the village and chat to them regularly, the same way you might learn about a neighbour or new friend. This also lets Animal Crossing simulate some of the anxiety and disappointment of a first impression, as maybe that villager who seemed cool when you met them is actually kind of terrible in the long run and never puts away the mayonnaise even though you’ve asked several times isn’t that right, RICHARD?

The aforementioned Phoebe, whose days on my island are numbered, introduced herself as a perky and cool adventure woman, and in the coming weeks has revealed her actual personality to be more like the evil female protagonist from a high school comedy. In Animal Crossing, as in life, sometimes you have to live with your mistakes.

Animal Crossing games are built on the idea of time—night and day cycles, weather, seasonal events, store opening hours—but in a broader sense, all games operate based on timescales. The fact that it takes actual, real-world time to interact with video games and make progress inside them separates the medium from other forms of entertainment. While it takes time to read a book or watch a film, the chronological journey rarely factors in. Animal Crossing villagers present an idea that really should be carried on through other games: that the experience of interacting with an NPC doesn’t have to just be about the information they can give to a player, that it can be structured so the time spent with the character is a meaningful tool in telling their story in and of itself.

You can see this displayed in other games, in different forms. Dragon Age shoulders you with party members that slowly warm up and reveal more of themselves as the game progresses. Part of this is mechanical, allowing the player to feel rewarded for improving their relationships; but part of it is also the satisfaction of the relationship itself, a decent mirror for getting to know someone in real life. Someone who spills their whole life story on a first or second meeting hasn’t given you any reason to care about what’s spilling out. In Left 4 Dead, characters randomly chat amongst themselves, revealing bits and pieces about their backstories and personalities that only form a full picture once you’ve spent enough time with the game. Prince of Persia: Sands of Time is linear and action-focused, but presents the audience with two characters whose relationship only makes sense and contains meaning because it developed over the course of everything else the player was doing.

Animal Crossing villagers endure because of their relatable mundanity. They’re nothing special, which makes them just the kind of special that works inside a video game. By keeping chats short and grounded, the game forces you to meet them as people, rather than entertainment. Any given session of Animal Crossing is peppered with moments where you seek out a villager to talk to, just to see what they might say. Knowing it won’t be important, and wanting to engage regardless.

There’s a lesson in this for game developers across any genre attempting to tell a story. We hear all the time that games should avoid trying to ape films or other entertainment mediums, without much talk about what that might mean. One way creators can seek to improve their storytelling—and, by extension, their games as a whole—is to embrace this idea that what makes an engaging character in the long term isn’t how many strange personality quirks they have, or how tragic their backstory is, or even how much they matter. It comes down to their value to the player over time, rather than their position as part of a story, and how keen a player is to invest that time.

When I switch on my copy of Animal Crossing later today, Jakey—an excitable bird—will most likely be reading books to my flowers. It doesn’t matter why, that’s just something I know about him. I hope he has a good time.

Fatal Exception: Inventory management and Resident Evil

Pockets are a wonderful invention. Someone looked at a pair of trousers, thought “there’s a lot of unused space there,” and just went for it. Bags are pretty great as well, but for the convenience of carrying just a tiny bit of extra stuff without losing the use of your hands, pockets are the answer. And do you know why pockets are so nice? Because holding items is boring, annoying, it takes effort, it makes your hands sweaty.

Despite this, many games place a lot of importance on the gathering, sorting and using of objects. Shooters give you boxes of scrolling information or radial menus from which to select just the right combination of gun and bullet; in an RPG, there can be literally dozens of screens exclusively dedicated to making sure you know where you keep all the different kinds of berries; a point-and-click adventure will frequently ask you to collect random pieces of scenery and try to jam them together. Unfortunately, most attempts to craft an inventory management system sit somewhere between average and deeply flawed. Games like Skyrim and The Witcher 3 have too many columns and not enough ability to organise all the information the player is given, leading to the frustration of knowing what you want to do inside your inventory and being unable to do it. No Man’s Sky is a mass of boxes crowding your vision and begging for your attention. Mass Effect’s inventories are to space adventure what registration paperwork is to car racing. No matter how big or small the game, you just don’t hear people gushing about the experience of selecting Plasma Rifle V when upgrading from Plasma Rifle IV.

Is this because inventories are awful, time-consuming busywork sent by the game gods to punish us for our hubris? Absolutely. Should they all burn, leaving nothing but linear item acquisition and action-packed setpieces in their wake? Yes please. Except…

Well, there is Resident Evil. Amid the goofy horror and eyeball monsters, the Resident Evil series puts a fairly heavy focus on resource management; it’s about the survival in “survival horror.” An average session in any RE game involves just as much item juggling as it does shotgunning mutated corpses, as the player attempts to figure out what supplies they might need between here and the next magic box teleporter. Oh no, you might say, inventory management. That’s already been proven to be bad in peer-reviewed scientific journals!

Against all odds, however, the inventory management in Resident Evil games is uniformly excellent. And much of it comes down to physicality. Unlike many of the examples above, Resident Evil inventories are undeniably real objects with very tangible restraints. The player is given a limited set of boxes which follow simple rules: only one item can occupy a single box, if an item is larger than normal it takes up extra boxes. Rather than the somewhat nebulous concept of a weight limit (employed by many RPGs) or the even less logical item limit (where you can carry, let’s say, 100 ‘things’ of any size or shape before becoming overburdened by 101 feathers or 101 steel girders), RE stipulates that you have a certain amount of actual space in which to hold items, and that’s it. Moving objects around in your virtual bag then becomes less of a meta-exercise in making sure your bag conforms to the code of the video game, and more of a personal challenge in backpack efficiency.

That desire for efficiency, too, sets the systems apart from the rest of the pack. There’s little satisfaction to be squeezed from moving hundreds of healing potions and iron swords back and forth between your infinite bag of text and Lydia’s similarly bottomless burden carrier in Skyrim; it’s an exercise in practicality. But making sure you have all your herbs and ammunition lined up just-so in Leon’s satchel, allowing you to tote that useful shotgun along, is beautiful catharsis. The experience is akin to making a perfect pull in Jenga, or getting all your shopping to fit into the fridge just right; that feeling of a job well done, heightened by being able to actually look at the fruits of your labour and assess their value.

Resident Evil inventory systems feel tangible, and, more importantly, they feel connected to the larger game world. When you pick up a grenade in Resident Evil 4, it continues to occupy space inside your mind and in the game; when you need a heart-shaped key to open the door in Resident Evil 2 Remake’s police station, you physically grab the key and watch as it unlocks the door. Cause and effect.

Speaking of the RE2 remake, the effort it puts into making sure the inventory system is an enjoyable part of the game should make every other game feel bad. Items are marked as generic versions of themselves—key, book, etc.—until you choose to examine them closely and they’re relabeled as something more specific and informative. Crucially, though, the item in question still works just fine even if you never look at it properly. Once an item has fulfilled its purpose, been used in every proper keyhole or cut through every chain, it gains a small checkmark which denotes the fact that it can safely be thrown away. Any item in the game can be thrown away at any time, which is terrifying power, but this tiny indicator is a life-preserver to nervous players unsure about whether that precious square of space in their bag can be safely flushed.

Finding items in Resident Evil games is a joyful experience. Instead of dreading having to work out what to do with another widget, or simply storing it away without much thought, the player’s puzzle brain swings into action. Can I safely store this important item in my current state, or do I need to make some clever changes to my backpack? Is this item even important enough for me to make that call? Will I be able to combine the red gem with this weird box I’ve been carrying around for two hours? The result of this focus on physical presence is that the inventory feels like part of the game, rather than a separate system designed to act as a big box of stuff. The inventory management is simply an extension of the rest of the management tasks present in the game. Players need to keep an eye on Leon, Claire or Jill’s health, their general physical safety, the status of the room, and, of course, the contents of their pockets. And the inventory system allows bouncing back and forth between all these competing areas without the dissonance one experiences when trying to switch swords in The Witcher or scrolling through 100 near-identical sniper rifles in Borderlands.

If there’s one thing other games could stand to learn from Resident Evil’s inventory, it’s that players need to feel that their items actually exist. It’s not enough to simply be told that I hold five wheels of cheese; I should have to deal with the physical and spatial consequences of holding way too much cheese, I should have some indication from the game that I picked up cheese from this digital universe and it’s mine now. I want to own that cheese. Letting players get their fingers into the nitty gritty of managing an inventory in a way that suits the world you’re trying to make them inhabit might even make this large, inescapable aspect of video games kind of fun. Or we could keep shoving everything into big, nondescript bags.