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Among other ways to think about games, one that I rarely hear spoken of is their capacity as attention engines. Among the many social and emotional needs we have as human beings is our desire to be heard – even more than to say anything specific, we just yearn to be able to jam a flag into the dirt for people to see. Having someone listen to you, even passively, can be hugely rewarding, emotionally and even intellectually, as you feel connected with the world.

Before most games, we had ELIZA. ELIZA is a simple chatbot made to emulate a psychotherapist, one who answers every question with a question. “What are you thinking of?” “How did that make you feel?” “Why do you say that?” Despite being created with an almost parodic intent, to show the superficiality of human-machine communication, people felt a genuine connection with ELIZA, and sometimes even a degree of therapeutic benefit. Now, in 2017, there are lots of ways to be listened to by machines. Most of us have a machine in our pocket who will answer our questions as best as it is able, and will listen and respond to anything we say no matter how inane – though, perhaps, not in a very satisfactory way. Still, unsatisfactory answers are not necessarily too different from what we’ve come to expect from genuine human social contact either.

A lot of what we want from games is for them to just respond to what we say to them. a game lives or dies on its ability to react to us, to listen to what we are trying to say. Because real artificial intelligence is a very long way away still, our methods of communication are usually greatly restrained in games to enable them to react in a satisfying way. A game’s controls are the language we use to speak to it: Frustration ensues when a game misunderstands what we are trying to communicate, or when it doesn’t allow us to communicate the thing that we desperately want to. We describe these sorts of problems as control issues, which I suppose says as much about us as it does about them.

This is what people really want a lot of the time when they ask for non-linearity. They don’t care about replay value and they don’t care about getting the sex scene for the character they like, they just want the sensation that they are being listened to. They want the video game equivalent of someone nodding along and saying “Mm, wow. Interesting. Huh. I see.” That those multiple branching paths and endings and romantic partners are available is chiefly valuable because it reifies that sensation, makes it feel solid and responsive – that there is, indeed, someone listening. And, perhaps, there was, 18 months earlier, a designer who listened to them by way of the player proxy voice who lives in his head, who he designs for.

A little while back the game Passpartout: The Starving Artist became a small-scale hit. Passpartout is a game where, playing as the titular starving artist, you paint using an extremely simple art program, and passersby choose to either buy your paintings or not, occasionally giving explanations as to what they like or don’t like about the picture. Now, the engine for evaluating these paintings is seemingly pretty simple, apparently rewarding the artist more frequently for time spent than for technical skill, but it serves its purpose, effectively convincing the player that the game is paying attention to what they are creating, that they’re not just creating into a void – which it all too often feels like artists are.

Unfortunately, Passpartout is quite similar to a prototype made by Jon Blow called Painter. He released this prototype for free on his site, and in talking about it he described it as a failed prototype because it failed to realize his vision of a strategy game where you create paintings to appeal to different gallery owners and curators and achieve success. Some statements made on Twitter suggest that he was dismayed that a game so similar to his failure could be a success – but there was no actual reason for the Painter prototype to be a failure except that it failed to achieve the vision he’d had in mind. The element of trying to appeal to tastes was never actually very interesting. What’s interesting was making a painting and having it be seen and acknowledged, of being told that something you’d made had worth. All the judging algorithm had to do was make it so the game could reasonably successfully determine which you’d worked hard on and which you’d hastily crapped out and evaluate them appropriately, just to ensure that you knew it was paying attention.

This may seem fake or trivial, but this loop of the player communicating something and the game responding is the core of what a game is. It doesn’t need to be a real or detailed response, it just has to be real enough to show the player that someone, or something, is listening.

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I’ve been playing a lot of Dishonored over the past couple of weeks, and I’ve been, for the most part, loving my time with it. Of course, the more I enjoy a game, the more frustrated I get with the few things that stand out to me as issues. I went over this a bit a few days ago, about how difficulty changes which are usually used to push a player to explore a possibility space can, when used without care, constrict that possibility space. Modifying the difficulty of a stealth game can be tricky: After all, there are a lot of easy handles to grab to modify the challenge of a traditional action game, numbers such as damage, health, speed, powerup effectiveness… It gets trickier in a game that’s not based on overpowering force, but on sight-lines and motion, suspicion and awareness. In stealth games, what is difficult or not is often based on intricacies of positioning and movement, rather than whether one number is bigger than another.

Because of this, it’s entirely understandable that Dishonored’s attempts to increase in difficulty over the course of the game, and across difficulty settings, largely boil down to the game becoming more punishing of mistakes. That is, rather than asking you to succeed against a greater challenge, it mostly asks you to succeed against the same challenge but with a smaller margin for error. This is not completely ineffective, since it does add some tension – but since the actual consequences, in a game with quickload, are so negligible, it doesn’t really change the experience of playing the game except to make it more finicky. Heightening the consequences of mistakes just removes any chance to recover from them, any chance to retreat, to improvise, and replaces these with just reloading your last save. Does this incentivize more careful planning? Not especially effectively, when the worst that happens is a quick load screen and then another attempt at navigating the same challenge.

I suppose some might say that this is an issue with the player being able to freely save and load, and I think this is not an invalid perspective, but I prefer to look at it differently. I think the issue is more that the designers approached the creation of more difficult enemies as a way to push people away from the using the exact same tactics that were discouraged by every other enemy, but more punishingly and aggressively. Ideally, each new enemy would add some new factor the player had to contend with, a new and different challenge that forced the player to approach it in a new and different way. The tallboy enemy type, essentially a set of armored stilts, does this quite effectively: This enemy type cannot be choked or easily stealth killed, and also can see into areas other enemies cannot because of its height. However, other enemy types, such as the Music Box Overseers, and even the late-game basic enemy types with improved attack abilities, mostly just serve to make it less feasible to recover from a mistake while still being vulnerable to the exact same tactics.

I thought it would be an interesting design exercise to consider how I would try to improve the game – at least what I would consider to be an improvement, I know tastes vary. What follows are my notes for a fantasy patch for Dishonored, one which would push the player to vary their approach to the game’s obstacles while still allowing for different generalized styles of play. Having not played Dishonored 2, it’s entirely possible that I’ll say something that appears foolish in light of the changes made in that game. Oh well.

Fantasy patch notes:

Cannot knock out opponents using the choke-hold on very hard difficulty. On all other difficulties choking works on any opponent from behind, regardless of alert status

More objects are throwable, including all vases and dishes as well as swords and armor dropped by enemies.

Throwing enemy bodies, dead or alive, at an enemy causes a long stagger.

Damaging alarm stations in any way now sets off the alarm.

Enemies are now staggered by attacks that hit them during their attack, but only after their attack is complete.

Enemies sometimes do desperate attacks while staggered, which increase their stagger time but can be dangerous when careless.

Tallboy models revised with heavier armor, drop attack no longer possible, have a blind spot directly under them beneath their sight-line.

Music Box Overseers are visibly armored front and back, though there are enough gaps to make choking and stealth kills possible. They’ve selected elite troops to carry the music boxes, so they’re all visibly taller and the armor has red highlights. Music boxes now, rather than disabling all magic use, rapidly drain mana – once mana is drained, they continue to quickly drain health. This effect is weaker the further away the player is from the music box, and up close the drain is enough to kill the player in about 3 seconds. This drain rate is percentage-based, so the same regardless of current mana/health, and the lost health and mana will regenerate if the music box is removed. Some Music Box Overseers are set to constantly play, and will only stop if knocked out or killed. A new effect has been added to make the range of the music box more clearly visible. Being behind a wall will offer some protection from the box, but it continues to affect the player. Music box no longer slows down player movement.

Armored Butchers no longer have a ranged attack and deal damage that results in near-instant death at melee range. They now always explode on death or knockout, alerting everyone nearby and dealing slight damage. This makes knockouts impossible on non-lethal and ghost playthroughs. However, the player can also pickpocket the oil tanks powering the armor, leaving them immobile, though they can still cry for help. While immobile they can be picked up and moved like any other body.

The intent with these changes to create a game that’s a bit more dynamic. Meticulous planning is still the strongest route to success, especially with the new types of obstacles and complications you have to plan for, but you also have more room to improvise a recovery, both in lethal and non-lethal play. I tried to make the aspects I dislike less obnoxious without actually nerfing them – that is, I feel that these versions of the Music Box Overseer and Armored Butchers are actually much more challenging and dangerous than the extant versions, but also more interesting to play against.

Kaiji is a manga about a young man named Itou Kaiji driven into a series of increasingly desperate and outlandish gambles to escape debt and save his own life. The first two parts of have received animated adaptations, but currently the manga itself is partway through its fifth series. I would highly recommend at least the first season of the anime, which is a fairly well self-contained arc that captures most of the themes of the series. The tension falls off somewhat in the second season, and though it remains interesting, the tone is less desperate and the implications are less dire.

Kaiji is a one-two punch, where the gambles themselves are intriguing and compelling games of deduction, logic, and chance, but the significance extends beyond the momentary intrigues and into the larger implications of being willing to gamble your life, and what could drive someone into that situation. Come for the head games, stay for the heartache – because, while at first gambling may seem to be a relatively frivolous and lightweight topic compared to the grand and bloody conflicts that are often grist for our fiction, for those stuck in poverty, money is often equivalent to life, and the battles over it are seldom bloodless.

While Kaiji’s possesses extraordinary luck, cleverness, and will to survive, perhaps his strongest trait is his ability to see the best in people, which is often interestingly played off against his opponent’s uncanny ability to see the worst in people. He sees strengths and plays to counter or use them, while his opponents see weaknesses and seek to attack or shore them up. Because he wants to see the best in people, though, he is often exploited and betrayed – the debt that originally ensnares him wasn’t even his own, just a contract he naively cosigned on for a friend, and he only gradually learns not to blindly trust those who seem friendly. His opponent’s, perhaps correctly, see this as a huge weakness – but are ignorant when they consider it solely a weakness. His ability to believe in people is also the strength that allows him to succeed, both to trust allies and, perhaps more crucially, to respect his opponents’ abilities to be clever and insightful and to play against the best version of them, rather than choosing his moves based on some simpleminded strawman of his imagination.

Some might consider the way that Kaiji wins games to be cheating: In many cases he twists the rules of the game, changes the situation in ways that shape the odds in his favor. However, since the games he plays in are inevitably rigged in the first place, set up to be almost impossible to win, his opponents seldom feel that he has broken any rules. Can you accuse someone of cheating when the primary thing that their gambit achieves is exposing and undermining the unfair advantage you’ve already given yourself? Certainly, if the game were otherwise fair, taking the advantages he takes would be cheating, but they aren’t and never were. Fairness and honor are fine ideals, but their most common usage in practice is to prevent people who are weak and isolated from usurping power from those who are strong and backed by institutional power. Who created the idea of honor, and who benefits from it?

Money is important to everyone, but the significance it takes on in Kaiji is monstrous, outsized and harrowing. Those who participate in the games do so because they have little choice, because their debts have become so extreme that passing up any opportunity, however dangerous, to make a large amount of money at once would be unthinkable. And, by being forced to participate in these gambles, more of them lose out than gain: After all, the house always wins. The house, in this case, is The Teiai Group, holder of all these debts and runner of all these gambling events. Even those who win these brutal gambles are usually left still deep in debt, still needing gamble again for any hope of escape – and, in the meanwhile, those running the show can enjoy the bloody spectacle while they profit off of it. Because, once you accept that a human life can be measured by money, the rest – death, mutilation, slavery – is just haggling over numbers. Perhaps few people would agree that human life is worth money, stated in those words – however, as societies, we assume it to be so, assume it to be good and just that food and medicine and other necessities for survival should cost, blithely and easily believe, deep down, that what gives money its value is that it can feed us and shield us, but that its power as a magic talisman is lost if no one is out there goes starving and unsheltered for its lack.

It’s sometimes difficult, when making a story about struggling and surviving in the face of societal evil not to, in so doing, accidentally justify that evil – that is to say, most stories we tell are told of heroic characters succeeding despite tremendous odds, and unfortunately this tends to dovetail into the many myths of meritocracy that are used to prop up systems that exploit and abuse. Many of the ongoing themes of Kaiji are about never giving up hope and always figuring out a plan of action instead of praying for luck to carry you through. From one perspective, this could easily be seen as a story about rugged individualism, about being exceptional and rising above your circumstances and winning freedom by any means possible, about survival of the fittest – certainly, this is how The Teiai Group views their games, as opportunities for the strong to prey on the weak. However, the fact that injustice can be struggled against should never blind us to it being unjust: We can plan all we want, be as clever and strong and smart and lucky as possible, but when the deck is stacked against us the best we can ever manage is to somehow even the odds. When your opponent controls the every mechanism of the game, it’s impossible for most people to win – though it can still happen, sometimes, very rarely, and these rare examples of victory serve to justify the game, demonstrate its fairness and equitability, even as it chews up and spits out human lives by the hundreds and thousands.

At the same time, though, as it highlights the vicious abuses enabled by money, this series laments the inaction and poor decision-making that brought the debtors captured by Teiai’s machinations, and places much of the responsibility for their predicaments upon themselves. They were reckless and driftless, treating everything that came their way as though it were a game, never grasping at an opportunity or truly dedicating themselves, and their lives would never go anywhere without taking a risk – a deadly risk – a desperate gamble. But, in the end, everyone ends up worse off for having taken the gamble, for taking the risk, the proffered opportunity, and Teiai profits. It is an irresistible bait: Advancement, safety, recovery, redemption. Placing this bait is an ingenious method of creating competition, division, and violence among those who would otherwise recognize Teiai, and the profiteering in human suffering they represent, for what they are, and strive against them with all their might.

This method of dividing people with petty rewards is extremely common in the real world as well, in ways only barely more subtle than Teiai’s blood sports.

Kaiji recognizes this evil and rails against it, but in many ways he is powerless to resist. As the series progresses, he comes to crave the sense of meaning and purpose he finds in these do-or-die games of wits. Whenever he’s not on the verge of disaster, on the verge of losing everything and dying ignominiously, he feels purposeless, aimless. Though the series has not yet concluded, at this rate it seems that whatever he wins he will never be able to keep, and ultimately it will end up sieving between his fingers and back into Teiai’s coffers, because he doesn’t know when to stop. Is it addiction? Is it post-traumatic stress? In this situation, is there a difference between not knowing what to do with your life when it isn’t in danger and being let go of the grudge and sorrow of past gambles?

Maybe the house really does always win. If so, we need to change the game.

Most games are power fantasies. It would be nice, perhaps, if games focused on providing more diverse and interesting experiences, but, still, there’s nothing wrong with a good power fantasy… right? However, sometimes creating that fantasy of capability involves undermining the actual ability for the player to express their personal competence. Sometimes we create a fantasy that no longer has a place for the player.

Let’s look at level-up systems for a moment. Originally, in the Pen and Paper role playing games where they originated, they were a way to create a sensation of character growth and progress, increasing their agency within the world created by the dungeon master (sometimes to the DM’s dismay). Later, in video game RPGs, they maintained the sensation of growth but without really adding to the player’s agency, since they were still constrained to the sandboxes the developers had devised for the player. Later still, in MMORPGs, levels became a way to restrict the player, hiding game content behind challenges that were beyond them and drip-feeding that content to the player as they slowly grinded up.

All of the above may seem similar in concept and in practice, but the slight differences – from having challenges constructed for your un-mighty character, to having challenges constructed to funnel your un-mighty character into becoming mighty, to challenges constructed to keep you busy until might was, inevitably, in the due course of things achieved, end up creating a vastly different experience. The difference is in the goal that is presented. In the classic pen and paper RPG, the goal is to complete the adventure: Experience and treasure are things you accumulate along the way to ensure that you are prepared for a bigger better adventure next time, but the current adventure is always your primary concern. In the classic video game RPG, the goal is completing the grand adventure, ensuring that you tackle the game’s challenges in the proper order to complete the quest that is the game. In most MMORPGs, the goal is to get to the maximum level, which is where the real game starts since you’re finally at a high enough level to hang out with the big kids. Now, once you actually reach that level there are other goals that are dangled for you – PvP arenas, high-level dungeons, mini-games, and so forth, but these are mostly gated behind reaching that maximum level.

We’ve created a collision between min-maxing mentality of creating the best adventurer that can do the best adventures against the role-playing mentality of trying to create the most interesting adventurer that can have the most interesting adventures – and, sadly, and the former has decisively won. Higher level characters are more powerful than low-level characters – therefore you should always prefer having a high level character – therefore any low-level game content is, by definition, there to be rushed through as fast as possible so you can get to the biggest, therefore most impressive, and therefore best, part of the game.

It’s an experience that’s difficult for me to get excited about. To me, becoming strong is far more interesting than being strong, doing important things is more worthwhile than being an important person. Thus, what should be the most interesting part of the game, the story of how your hero became heroic, becomes a rote exercise, becomes an extended tutorial. But what is the appeal of ultimate power, when it comes to playing a game? It’s much harder to make a good Superman game than it is to make a good Batman game, but MMORPGs presume that we’d rather play Superman than Batman.

It’s saddening that, in a genre full of so many possibilities, this is what has become the industry standard. Why have leveling at all? Why have a journey to reach mastery if all that happens on that journey is trivial and unimportant? If the real story of the game is about the struggles of demi-gods, why even bother making the player chew through a 50 hour preamble about the birth of those demi-gods? In the end, we have a genre of games which are all uncomfortable compromises between the many things they are assumed to be, paying tribute to all and committing to none.

I don’t like making recommendations.

Other people seem to be very comfortable with it. For many, the calculation seems quite straightforward: “I enjoyed it, so I recommend it. I didn’t enjoy it, so I don’t recommend it”. I envy the simplicity of this approach; merely contemplating it fills me with anxiety.

Here is a partial sampling of the things I worry about when I am considering recommending something:

  1. Did I enjoy it?

  2. Does the fact that I enjoyed it imply a likelihood that this person I’d recommend it to would enjoy it?

  3. Do I think my enjoyment reflects well on me?

  4. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will I resent them for it?

  5. If they don’t enjoy it as much as I did, will they lose respect for me for recommending something bad?

  6. If they do enjoy it as much as I did, will they never shut up to me about it?

  7. Will they enjoy it for the wrong reasons and I’ll have to pretend to agree with them?

  8. If I recommend it to them, will they resent the implicit pressure to engage with that recommendation and never actually check it out when otherwise they might have done so independently?

  9. If I recommend it to them, will I make them feel so pressured that, when they eventually do check it out, it becomes a joyless exercise?

And so on.

Maybe the issue is that I don’t really believe in mass communication. All communication ultimately boils down to a connection between two people: One, encoding a thought process into words and gesture, the other interpreting that through their understanding of verbal and body language. It is so personal: How can a general statement like “You should check out this awesome game” make any sense if it isn’t tailored for one specific person? How can we declare that something is good or worthwhile without taking into account specific tastes?

Most often we just don’t. Critics talk about their personal experience, what worked for them or didn’t work for them, trusting the reader to measure that described experience against their own preferences to decide whether this seems like a worthwhile experience. However, the audience for video games criticism is notoriously hostile towards these sorts of personal experiential statements, which puts game critics in quite a pickle since it’s really the only way to actually evaluate anything in a way that makes sense.

All of this might seem like splitting hairs. It might seem like I’m willing to take every step that one would associate with a recommendation or endorsement – the enthusiastic and specific praise, the testimonial, the frequent mention of interesting and unique features – but detest taking the final step of saying “you should go play/read/see/eat that game/book/movie/pasta.”

God help me if I ever get popular enough to acquire some kind of sponsored monetary backing – my anxious honesty will be my undoing. Actually, my anxious honesty may already be largely responsible for my lack of being done in the first place.

Anyway Hollow Knight is a good game, Colossal is a good movie, 1Q84 is a good book and basically all pasta is good.

PLAYERUNKNOWN’S BATTLEGROUNDS is a very silly name for a very strange game. The oddness of this game isn’t apparent at first: It looks and sounds like the most generic first person shooter ever made, where a hundred players are dropped into an island arena scattered with weapons and whoever manages to be the last person (or group) standing wins. PUBG is only the latest of what seems to be a burgeoning genre of battle royale games, and improves upon its predecessors by consolidating and simplifying boring mechanics while adding a lot of interesting and (sometimes) useful items to find, along with a few choice subtle nods to realism that mostly add new ways for things to go hilariously wrong.

None of this sounds strange, of course. No, what makes this game strange is that it’s incredibly popular while being blatantly, overtly unfair. This is so interesting to me because the idea of a game like this being successful even a few years ago is unimaginable to me: A game with the trappings of a hard core competitive tactical shooter, where skill can frequently be overcome by dumb luck – who would possibly want such a game? But now people do want it, and I wonder about what has shifted to make this something that we crave.

What’s changed, I suspect, is that people no longer expect fairness. PUBG feels right: It combines skill and luck in a way that feels real in a way that most shooters with more realistic graphics don’t – since most of those games are compelled to hold true to certain game design ideals of skill-based meritocracy. In the battlegrounds, finding good loot early on rolls into ‘finding’ better loot later, as you can easily kill less well-equipped opponents and take theirs. However, clever play can easily make up for an equipment disadvantage, and a well-timed ambush will easily leave an opposing team dead and their resources at your disposal. And yet, as the playable space is closed off, even if you have all these advantages, if you just so happen to be in a bad location you’re still at a huge disadvantage. Resources, skill, and luck: You usually need all three to survive.

It sounds awfully familiar.

It makes sense that it’s a game we crave now. It makes sense to model the gaps and myths of meritocracy, to reify this growing suspicion that the world isn’t fair and all we can do is our best and hope that it’s enough. It feels like we’re playing paintball themed around the collapse of capitalistic ideology – made all the more poignant by the game environments themselves being themed around soviet ruins. And, in the end, whether we win or lose, we’re given a few virtual coins – which we can use on a new coat or pair of shoes, to take away the sting of losing, over and over and over.

Which, too, seems familiar.

To play PUBG is to resign oneself to dying over and over and over again. Even very skilled and experienced players seldom can manage better than a 10% victory rate. We try to do the best we can, and give ourselves to fate.

And, if we can spend time with friends while we do so, so much the better.

Most games only give us weapons. Yes, some also give us a button for talking, and a handful allow us to guide a conversation but, more often than not, all we can do is shoot or cut. Our only windows into the worlds of these games, then – worlds of love and loss, myth and legend, tragedy and comedy – are the holes we carve into them for ourselves. Our perspectives of violence shape these worlds, and our experiences within them, but a world far vaster and more meaningful than our small, mean, and violent place within them can still be implied. Even if a vast cathedral becomes just set dressing for a gunfight, even if it has nothing to do with us at all, it still implies a religion, still implies builders, still implies history.

It’s impossible not to feel a little out of place, even if this church is made explicitly to have a gunfight happen in it. We are still intruders against the spirit of what this place might once have been.

Game designers have started acknowledging the strangeness and off-puttingness of this innate violence more explicitly in their designs. Yet, despite knowing that these constructs will always seem weird and artificial, we are still loath to pass beyond the types of games we once loved. We still want to fight nazis and zombies, dragons and aliens – but now, perhaps, we’re more interested in having a good reason to do so. It becomes difficult to ignore the suggestion that every enemy must once have been a person like us – and, if so, what does it mean about them, and about us, if we kill them? Even when it’s all make-believe, it still has to make a certain amount of sense – and what’s implied when you think about it too much, or think about it at all, was all to often very ugly.

So now we play ghosts, terrifying beyond comprehension, imbued only with the power to deal death. Revenants, returned from the grave to right wrongs. The last few games I’ve played, Dark Souls and Axiom Verge and Hollow Knight, feature a protagonist who stands at the boundary of life and death. These characters return from beyond the clutch of the grave to fix the world that wouldn’t allow them rest. We, as players, occupy these border characters, avatars of the boundary separating life from death, and fight to bring peace – even if it’s the peace of a shared grave. We are recontextualized from a murderous opponent into a kind of shaman, helping long-restless spirits find peace at last.

As I develop my game, write out its story and characters, I find myself walking this same path, creating this same archetype. The framing is different but, still, my protagonist stands at the boundary of life and death with the others, poised to guide misplaced souls from one side to another.

This might not seem new. After all, heroes have brushes with death all the time: “No one could have survived that” is a cliché for a reason. What’s changed is there’s an explicit acknowledgment that even if we fight for the right reasons, even if there really was no other way, we are still beyond the pale. We have no place in the world we are fighting for. We are remnants of the trauma that made us. At the end of the ghost story, the ghost is laid to rest, the haunting past uncovered and resolved.

Perhaps, as time moves forward, we will create games more comfortable with non-violence. Perhaps, as well, we’ll find new and interesting ways to contextualize our violence into a world and story in ways that don’t seem crass and tone-deaf. If so this may be a discrete generation of games we can look back to: The twilit years of Dark Souls, where we all stood on the boundary of the afterlife and judged who might live and who must die.