Today we bring you two announcements!
Firstly, weekly blog entries are now resuming. I’m coming to the end of this intense period of work and I’m now making a push towards resuming development on 0.8 either next week or the week after next, and I’ll be trying to release 0.8 some time in January. Thanks to everyone for your patience with this delay; I assure you I’ve disliked it as much as you all have, but it is now coming to an end and URR will be slowly ramping back up in the very near future, starting next week or the week after with a blog post that’ll take stock of where 0.8 is and what little needs to be done – basically just finishing speech – before finally getting it released. Things are about to return to normal!
Secondly, this week we have a guest blog entry from Dr Madelon Hoedt, which examines the game mechanics and narratives surrounding “knowledge” in two games – Darkest Dungeon, and Bloodborne – both of which are relevant, or have been previously talked about, here on this blog. I’ve wanted to add guest entries for a while to help me get through this period, and to help me keep weekly updates coming when I do return to URR coding in the next couple of weeks, and I’m really excited to show you all this piece. Hope you enjoy, do leave any comments or thoughts below, and I’ll see you all next week!
So, without further ado:
What We Need, Are More Eyes…
Although reviews of big open world games are rife, little has been written about the process of world building and how players experience these environments. Whether connected to story or mechanics, the feeling of “being in a place” is one of the key attractions of this type of game. This “place” can be fantastical or founded in technology, it can be exotic or barren, but the experience is ultimately about wanting to be there, wanting to find out about who lives there and to hear their stories. There will be items to find and locations to visit. Developers want players to interact and to explore, to learn about the world they have created for them. They want them to know that place. Yet what if the game takes the player down a darker path? What if the world is hostile and its inhabitants do not want them to be there? What if the themes of the game inform both narrative and gameplay mechanics, creating an experience where exploration is still necessary, but not without risk? What if knowing about the world they are in could kill the player in an instant?
This perception of knowledge as dangerous is of course not exclusive to games; rather, it is a key trope in much horror fiction. The work of H.P. Lovecraft, in particular, is famous for the use of this theme and often features protagonists who stumble across forbidden insights that change them forever. Lovecraft himself has described his intentions in the writing of his fiction, most notably in the essay Supernatural Horror in Literature from 1927. Alongside a discussion of the weird tales produced by the writers of his time, Lovecraft sheds some light on what he considers the ingredients for the ideal supernatural tale, stories that are often set in a universe where knowledge, or the lack thereof, holds a central position. The essay opens with the now famous quote: “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” In many of Lovecraft’s stories, it is the lack of information that functions as the catalyst for the horror, but elsewhere, this relationship with knowledge changes: “…though the area of the unknown has been steadily contracting for thousands of years, an infinite reservoir of mystery still engulfs most of the outer cosmos, whilst a vast residuum of powerful inherited associations clings round all the objects and processes that were once mysterious, however well they may now be explained.” As science and technology advanced, more of the world’s mysteries have been investigated and dissected, their inner workings laid bare for society to scrutinize. Yet this process of exploration and explanation was, as Lovecraft argues, not always enlightening: the universe still held (and holds) its fair share of mysteries, and even those ideas and inventions that can now explain and offer new knowledge cannot be truly understood. Ultimately, Lovecraft draws attention to the tension between what we, as humans, do and do not know, stating that “…men with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars.” What we do not know can still hurt us, and there is a risk in finding out.
Our Venerable House
Lovecraft’s oeuvre has often been used as inspiration for videogames, with varying degrees of success. Although design elements based on the author’s stories (read: anything with tentacles) can be found everywhere, very few games have managed to incorporate the deeper themes of Lovecraft’s writing. Two recent titles that have attempted to implement the concepts of the terrifying unknown and the dangers of knowledge are Bloodborne (From Software, 2015) and Darkest Dungeon (Red Hook Studio, 2016). Both are arguably horror games and in their take on the genre, they rely on atmosphere and gameplay rather than overt storytelling to convey their themes. Relevant for the current discussion, the games, in good Lovecraftian fashion, use the notion of dangerous knowledge and place it at the core of their experience. In each game, information is a necessity, but also a dangerous commodity, yet obtaining knowledge is inescapable as both titles use exploration as a core element of their gameplay. The worlds of each game invite players in, but those who enter are quickly punished for their curiosity, and each title uses a specific feature of their gameplay to further drive this point home. For Darkest Dungeon, this mechanic is Stress; for Bloodborne, it is Insight.
Your Resolve Is Being Tested
The core gameplay of Darkest Dungeon is that of a procedurally generated roguelike. At the start of the game, players arrive by stagecoach into the Hamlet, which will be their base throughout their journey. After assembling a party of heroes, players can venture away from the town and into the Ruins, the Warrens, the Weald, to descend into the depths of the world in order to slay monsters and discover what happened to the family who lived in the house above the moor. In their quest, the heroes will be affected and become afflicted by their journey and the horrors they witness within the dungeons they explore. A descent into madness is the most likely path for each of them. In the game, the Stress mechanic charts this degeneration: as the characters venture out of the Hamlet to explore the nearby dungeons, they accumulate stress, which functions as additional statistic alongside the usual stats for health and attack power. When the stress reaches the value of 100, the resolve of the hero is tested, with an outcome that is either positive or negative. The character may become virtuous, resulting in higher stats, the ability to randomly heal, and to offer buffs to the other members in their party. In the case of a negative outcome, the hero is afflicted: they will disobey the commands of the player, hurt themselves or other party members, and refuse heals and buffs. Most notably, their affliction will raise the stress of the other characters as the mental state of one hero affects the outlook of those they come into contact with.
The accumulation of stress is triggered by certain game events. Some of these may be obvious: the stress level of the party rises when they first enter a dungeon or when they are attacked by enemies. In turn, it can rise through the special attacks and critical strikes performed by certain foes. Of interest for the current discussion is that stress also rises during exploration: the movement through any of the dungeons affects the heroes, as well as the amount of light they have at their disposal, which is a resource directly controlled by the player. Similarly, certain items (known in the game as ‘curios’) may trigger a stress event as the heroes explore each location. It is primarily curios associated with knowledge that affect the level of stress in the heroes. A bookshelf, a stack of books, an occult scrawling, a pile of scrolls, and more, it is these that offer insights that cause stress to those who choose to peruse the knowledge held within.
Unlike the damage gained by combat, however, the amount of stress does not diminish upon returning to the Hamlet. Although ways of relieving stress are available in the town, the effects of the encounters the ongoing exploration of the town’s environs linger, even after the heroes leave the dark depths behind. The things they have seen continue to weigh on their mind. Their afflictions will stay with them and continue to influence their actions, even when the stress is reduced. The knowledge they have gained has changed them forever, and will stay with them until the hero dies. Although exploration in Darkest Dungeon still offers its own reward, if only because the player is forced to leave the Hamlet if they wish to play the game, stepping outside the town and discovering the unknown becomes a perilous act for both the characters and the player.
Great One’s Wisdom
Although the gameplay and narrative of Bloodborne are arguably more complex than those of Darkest Dungeon, the use of mechanics in order to flesh out the themes of the game is present in here, too, yet there are a number of differences. The Stress mechanic in Darkest Dungeon largely affects the game in a negative way, imposing a variety of burdens on the players as heroes fail to obey commands and harm others. Although characters may become virtuous, this bonus does not outweigh the impact of afflictions and or the stress relief required upon returning to the Hamlet. In the case of Bloodborne, the function of Insight is more complex. Rather than a statistic, Insight acts a resource, much like the blood echoes in From Software’s game, which allow players to buy items or level up. Indeed, Insight can be used as a currency to buy certain items; in addition, players can spend it in order to connect with other players. The level of Insight players have builds steadily as they progress through the main game as the resource is gained from a variety of game events, and is awarded for entering new areas, encountering and defeating bosses and interacting with certain NPCs. Lastly, it can be acquired through the use of two items, Madman’s Knowledge and Great One’s Wisdom, which grant the player one and five Insight, respectively.
Yet it is not just a resource in how it affects the experience of the player, instead hinting at a context that is closely tied to the lore of the game. Indeed, the official strategy guide for Bloodborne states that “Insight is an inhuman knowledge and represents your awareness of the nightmare’s effects.” Initially, these effects are positive. In the Hunter’s Dream, the safe haven within the game, players gain access to a shop, which allows them to buy items using Insight. In addition, the figure of the Doll comes to life and players can now interact with her, allowing them to level up. Beyond this point, however, the game changes in more unexpected ways. Certain enemy types change appearance and become stronger, whereas in other locations, previously invisible (or non-existent?) enemies now appear. Although not all are hostile, some of these are more menacing as players with 30 or more Insight are able to see giant, alien creatures clinging to buildings in areas they previously thought of as safe. At the final stage, when players gain more than 50 Insight, they start experiencing what the guide refers to as “auditory hallucinations”. The music in the Hunter’s Dream changes and a baby’s crying voice can be heard in many of the world’s locations. Yet the game remains ambiguous as to the implications of this, and as the guide states, “your character may experience visual and auditory hallucinations at high levels of Insight. Or perhaps they are not hallucinations at all…” Gaining Insight offers players a hidden knowledge about the world of Bloodborne, allowing them to see the unseeable and know the unknowable.
This level of knowledge does not just affect how to the players experience the game world, but it profoundly changes their character, as well. Beyond appearances, Insight also influences the player’s stats, in particular in relation to Beasthood and Frenzy, both of which give information about the state of mind of the player character. The first, Beasthood, offers certain abilities to the player: using specific items in conjunction with their level of Beasthood, players can temporarily become stronger whilst lowering their defence. The stat does have a wider implication, however, indicating the proximity of the player character to being a beast, something base and inhuman. Indeed, many of the enemies encountered in the game appear in varying stages of becoming a beast, having lost their sense of reason and humanity. The more Insight the player has, the lower their stat for Beasthood, as it is an understanding of the world that separates man from beast. By contrast, the Frenzy statistic is tied directly to knowledge and its dangers. Being exposed to certain information, to enemies and environments that are perhaps beyond human comprehension, the player’s Frenzy meter rises until full, upon which they are dealt a large amount of damage. As the guide explains, “those who delve into the arcane fall all-too-easily into madness”, and this is reflected in this stat’s relationship to Insight: if their amount of Insight, and thus the player’s and awareness of the world, is high, their resistance to Frenzy, to the madness brought on by forbidden knowledge, is significantly lowered. If we describe Insight as the player’s knowledge of Bloodborne’s hostile environment, learning about the world makes them cultured, more man than beast, whilst at the same time driving them closer to the frenzy of complete insanity.
In the case of both Darkest Dungeon and Bloodborne, the lore of the world points towards the dangers of gaining knowledge and the risks of what the player might learn about the world. Through the implementation of Stress and Insight, this idea is expanded on, shaping the player’s experience of the game world. Rather than being told about these risks, players are able to experience them for themselves: we wish to know the world and explore it, but we are hurt in the process. As we play, we realise that something is out there, a something which is unknown, which cannot be known, but which can certainly harm us. Lovecraft manages to capture this feeling and argues that “a certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain – a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
It is a knowledge which is available, which we should not wish for, but which we covet all the same, and ultimately, it is knowledge which we cannot escape as the lure of exploration is too great, the world we find ourselves in too enticing to be left alone. Perhaps the item description of Madman’s Knowledge from Bloodborne is most telling here: “Skull of a madman touched by the wisdom of the Great Ones. Making contact with eldritch wisdom is a blessing, for even if it drives one mad, it allows one to serve a grander purpose, for posterity.” Or indeed, as Darkest Dungeon reminds the player, “there can be no bravery without madness.”
Dr Madelon Hoedt is a part-time lecturer at the Faculty for Creative Industries of the University of South Wales, teaching on the “Computer Game Design” and “Theatre and Drama” courses. Her research focuses on performance and (pervasive) games, in particular examples of the Gothic and the horror genre.