I recently had a poem accepted by Josephine Corcoran for her And Other Poems blog. It’s a poem I wrote for NaPoWriMo in fact! You can read ‘The Four Seasons as Husband’ here. Many thanks to Josephine for choosing to publish!
Dark Souls is beautiful game.
Beauty isn’t something often mentioned in the same breath as this game, from what I can find online. People mention the extremely high difficulty level, the satisfying/ infuriating challenge, the various trophies and secrets they’ve uncovered, but I can’t seem to find anything about how meticulously thought out its component parts are, how skilfully orchestrated its story, and just how devastating it feels to complete the game having spent weeks and weeks absorbed in its world.
Dark Souls is admittedly baffling at first. There’s a very loose set-up introduced, detailing the age of the everlasting dragons giving way to the age of gods and fire. To sum up the story’s origin simply, there is something called the First Flame, which, thousands of years ago, began to fade. Gwynn, the king of Anor Londo, fearing the first flame’s slow decline, asks the Witch of Izalith to create another flame using a soul. It goes wrong. The Witch is turned into a giant tree-like womb of hell, spawning grotesque demons. Gwynn then travels to the kiln of the First Flame, taking his trusted silver knights with him. He attempts to re-kindle the flame, only to have it consume him and use him as its fuel. The flame also incinerates his knights, charring them black, leaving them as restless spirits, and seemingly burns everything else in sight. Your character then steps into the fray, and it is your mission to either sacrifice yourself to the flame to let it burn longer and maintain the era of gods – or let the flame go out, and usher in the dark age of man.
The rich history of this world is not overtly explained to the player. You learn titbits of information from the weapons you pick up, the items you collect, and the scant stories told by the few inhabitants of the world. And it is a haunting world, almost completely empty, a dreamland of crumbling ruins, empty castles, dense forests, lava-drenched palaces, poisonous swamps and cities frozen in eternal dusk.
With such an engrossing atmosphere, there are so many memorable moments. The giant red dragon Hellkite perched atop the crumbling bridge – and how, if you manage to run past him, he takes off, drifting down the sky before the cloud-obstructed sun. It makes the world feel real, lived in; you wonder where that dragon is off to… There’s an incredible battle with the iconic duo of Ornstein the dragon slayer and Smough the royal executioner – a pair of gold armour-clad nightmares that’ll destroy you time and again before you manage to beat them. It’s spine-tingling stuff.
You have Seath the Scaleless, a blind albino dragon, encountered in a glittering crystal cave; the great grey wolf, Sif, fought in a moonlit graveyard; the battle against the ghosts of the four kings, deep in the blackness of the abyss; your first glimpse of the kiln of the First Flame, a gutted tower beneath sulphur skies where the ghosts of the black knights wander solemnly. And, possibly the most touching final boss battle I can recall in a game – the confrontation with Gwynn himself, who is now Lord of Cinder. Rather than the obvious “epic” boss music, you simply walk into the cave in which Gwynn guards the flame, and a sorrowful piano orchestration plays as you attempt to free him of his burden in the flickering firelight. There is no introductory cut-scene, no build-up – it feels like a very downplayed, very sad ending to a tragic man and a tragic world brought to ruin. It’s perfect.
Once you master how to play the game, when to block and when to strike, which areas to explore first and which to leave until you’re stronger – and once you’ve tasted the adrenaline of bringing an enormous boss to its knees after multiple tries, Dark Souls becomes a compulsive, enthralling, beautifully dark world you cannot bear to be away from for too long.
In the wake of the Coin Opera 2 Kickstarter project, I wanted to try to articulate, maybe through a couple of posts, what it is I find so wonderful about games in general.
It’s difficult to tell people who see games as a frivolous waste of time exactly what it is about games that have the capacity to be so enthrallingly beautiful. I suppose if it could be surmised in a sentence, it wouldn’t be so special; the best things in life seem to inhabit spaces whose periphery words can only seem to settle on like little moths, but never penetrate. Hence, why a whole book of poetry about the subject is such a good idea.
In my mind, a really well-crafted game is a kind of modern ancient artefact, a self-contained pocket world. It’s like spying through a keyhole and finding a forest on the other side of the door. It’s a dream that you can interact with and inhabit at your leisure and make sense of. It’s the beauty of ice caverns and palaces in the snow and spooky woods and mysterious monoliths and everlasting sunsets. It’s the ability to visit a favourite moment and re-live it over and over.
I’m not talking about the types of games that gain all the publicity. Games in which you are a soldier trudging through some war-torn village hurling grenades into houses and shooting everything in sight, to me, are not the true spirit of gaming. They are devoid of imagination. They have no tools to set your heart on fire or make your insides leap with the exhilaration of wonder, as they are simply grim renditions of the already grim world they replicate. The kind of games I have in mind can make you cry with their atmosphere, soundtracks and stories.
Take for instance the fairly recent indie game, Journey. You play a cloaked figure that awakes in a sprawling desert. The game does not tell you anything. You simply wake up, the camera tilts in the direction of a distant mountain on the horizon emitting a brilliant light from its summit, and you assume, without words, that this is where you’re supposed to go. And so you ski and leap and twirl through the sparkling dunes, occasionally meeting other cloaked figures along the way.
These figures are controlled by other people currently playing the game online. You have no way to communicate in any known language with each other, but you can each emit a series of musical bleeps and trumpet calls and gibbers. The two of you may set off together, side by side, frolicking as you journey like a pair of love-struck budgies.
The final segment sees your character caught in the flow of a constant up-draught, your scarf and cloak billowing as you soar higher and higher up the mountain, all about you a confetti of similar cloaked figures being buffeted up through the azure sky, as the orchestral music sweeps you along in its majestic arms. It’s as if you’re ascending toward heaven.
With cinema increasingly churning out the same stories and ideas re-packaged, with little choice between superhero movies and uninspired horror, it really is in computer games that the beauty of dream and vision is starting to find its wings.
As readers of this blog will know, hopefully, I have contributed to the brilliant Coin Opera 2, a bumper book of poetry inspired by computer games, from some of the UK’s (and farther afield) finest poets. The only stalling point now is raising funds so that the book can be printed. The editors are in the middle of a Kickstarter campaign, so please consider backing if you have either an interest in computer games, poetry, both, or neither but want to read something dazzlingly creative!
All of the contributors have been rendered as Neo Geo pixel characters, and appear in this stunning image:
My own sprite is below. As my poem is to do with Shadow of the Colossus, I’m equipped with a bow and arrow (which, quite coincidentally, would be my preferred weapon of choice were I an intrepid adventurer/ hunter type character). I’ll be posting more about Colossus and computer games in general over the coming days, but in the meantime, do consider donating whatever you can afford to the Kickstarter campaign!
I don’t normally post music here, but this is a little different. Crystal World is the solo album of Helen Marnie, from electronic band Ladytron. The whole album is beautiful, but without doubt my favourite song is Laura. Pristine as an arctic crystal, it embodies perfectly a dreamy combination of pretty and strange. The reason I’m posting it here is that listening to Ladytron’s music actually inspired my first published poem, which appeared in Poetry Wales in 2009. It’s the element of dreamy, almost heavenly music (usually found in the songs towards the ends of their albums) that seems to tap directly into my creative streak, and it’s become apparent that Helen Marnie is the ingredient in the band that inspired those more divine songs. Already, listening to Crystal World, I’ve started to find my mind filled with otherworldly images of glowing gold cities, futuristic castles suspended in mist, forests of jewels, and more. So, here is Laura, and I strongly recommend the album too!
While I’m posting poetry news, there is this:
Coin Opera 2: Fulminare’s Revenge is a sequel to 2009’s Coin Opera, from forward-thinking press Sidekick Books. It’s going to be a bumper book of poems all inspired by computer games. Personally, poetry and games are my two favourite things, so I had to be involved in this.
It will be my first appearance in an anthology, plus I’ve collaborated for the first time with poet John Clegg, too, so I’m extra excited. Lovely editors Jon Stone and Kirsten Irving need £1,500 to contribute toward the printing costs, and you can pledge money at the Kickstarter Website. There are levels of rewards for those who contribute, including the book itself, extra pamphlets, a poster, and a personally tailored poem based on a game of your choice. The project was recently featured on cult website and former article writing-haunt of mine, Den of Geek (thanks guys!).
Anybody who loves gaming and is curious to see their favourite characters/ levels and bosses appearing in literary form, or conversely, anybody into poetry looking for something different, should try this!
A poem of mine, Meanwhile, In A Pub, Two Men Discuss has been published in Astronaut magazine issue 2. It’s a lovely little magazine with a good mix of poetry and illustration. You can purchase the issue from the website. The poem itself has a film noir theme, so here’s a little clip from The Blue Dahlia to get you in the right frame of mind!