Most approachable? A dialectical review of Elden Ring

Dark Souls and other games made by FromSoft are legendary for their fans’ elitism. The phrase, “git gud”, archetypically spoken to the souls newb who asks for advice on game forums, resonates throughout gaming discourse. “Souls-like” and “The Dark Souls of” are practically synonymous with video game difficulty, and the conversation around it.

But when FromSoft released Elden Ring this year, I loosely followed the fan subreddit, and found that elitism was not nearly as common as reputed. The phrase “git gud” was rarely used, and only then as a joke–and not a funny joke either, but the kind everyone else would groan at. Perhaps I’m looking at the wrong fan-sites, but my impression is that the fans have moved beyond elitism. They have come to recognize that, actually, it would be great if more people enjoyed this series, so that they could make more of it.

It’s possible that fans and critics and have overcorrected for past elitism, now declaring that Elden Ring is FromSoft’s “most approachable game yet.” Other critics have pushed back, highlighting how the game can still be unfriendly to newcomers. To explore this issue, I present two reviews from different perspectives.

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It should have been a walking sim

Since getting into the habit of writing a bit about each of the games I play, I find myself using a catch phrase: It should’ve been a walking sim. It’s a way of praising the narrative and world design of a game, while playfully disparaging all the gamey obstacles they throw in your way. After all, these are human creations, the obstacles didn’t need to be there.  We could have just been enjoying the in-game rewards without having to work for them, only having to walk for them.

It’s also a slightly subversive thought experiment. What if we removed all the combat, the platforming, skill-based anything? What if we only had press w to move forward, mouse to look around, dialogue, environmental storytelling, audio logs, item descriptions, cinematics, choices that matter, and a dash of light puzzling to taste? Walking sims are so simple, surely it should be easy, right? We shall see.

Some of these hypothetical games may sound horrible.  That’s okay, just remember: they don’t really exist and can’t hurt you.

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Is queerness wholesome now?

A couple weeks ago, I was following the Summer Games Fest and other video game presentations. And because I’m so interested in queer media, I asked myself, of all these different presentations, which is the queerest of them all? It’s hardly a question, because the answer is so obviously the Wholesome Games Direct.

The next day, I read a story about proud boys creating a disturbance at a Drag Queen Story Hour, and I thought, of course. Of course the queers would be doing something so wholesome as reading stories to children, and of course the edgy fascists would hate that.

Is this a thing? Is queer wholesomeness a thing?

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Not for Broadcast’s bizarre politics

Not for Broadcast is a comedy FMV game about managing a television broadcast. This essay is emphatically not a review, meaning that I have no intention of recommending one way or another whether you ought to play it. Rather, I’m interested in discussing its story about liberal fascists. I will also get into spoilers—warnings when I get there.

What is Not for Broadcast?

Not for Broadcast is at its core a multi-tasking game. You must divide your attention between cutting between multiple cameras, bleeping out swear words on a two second delay, adjusting for interference, and don’t forget to actually pay attention to the show that you’re editing, so you can follow the story.

There’s no mechanical benefit to following the story, so in my experience, it got lowest priority. The game delivers a unique experience where the narrative is delivered through a fog of distraction. This aligns with the narrative of the game, which is about a government that distracts from the real issues by filling broadcast news with fluff. Of course, to actually appreciate what the game was doing, I watched the archived footage afterwards. Paying attention would often cast segments in a whole new light.

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Eliza’s realist vision of AI

Content note: I’m not going out of my way to spoil the game, but I’ll mention some aspects of one of the endings.

Eliza is a visual novel by Zachtronics–a game studio better known for its programming puzzle games. It’s about the titular Eliza, an AI that offers counseling services. The counseling services are administered through a human proxy, a low-paid worker who is instructed to read out Eliza’s replies to the client. It’s an exploration of the value–or lack thereof–of AI technology, and the industry that produces it.

As a professional data scientist, media representation of AI is a funny thing. AI is often represented as super-intelligent–smarter than any human, and able to solve many of the world’s problems. But people’s fears about AI are also represented, often through narratives of robot revolutions or surveillance states. Going by the media representation, it seems like people have bought into a lot of the hype about AI, believing it to be much more powerful than it is–and on the flipside, fearing that AI might be too powerful. Frankly a lot of these hopes and fears are not realistic, or at least not apportioned correctly to the most likely issues.

Eliza is refreshing because it presents a more grounded vision of AI, where the problems with AI have more to do with it not being powerful enough, and with the all-too-human industry that produces it.

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A history of ranking Dominion cards

In “Review scores: a philosophical investigation“, I pointed out all the weird things about review scores that we tend to take for granted. More broadly, I have questions not just about review scores, but also ratings and rankings. What do they mean, what purpose do they serve, and how do we produce them? Here I examine a case study: the Dominion fan community’s many ways of rating and ranking Dominion cards.

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Logic puzzles, overexplained

By “logic puzzle”, I don’t just mean puzzles involving logic, but rather a specific genre of puzzles, whose most famous types are Sudoku and Picross. There are many other types of such puzzles, and creators of logic puzzles can create entirely new types, if they are so inclined. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, or if you’re just interested in finding logic puzzles, at the bottom of this post I’ve included a list of places you can find them.

I’m fairly good at logic puzzles. I’ve done the US Puzzle Championship for over a decade, and I placed in the top 25 once? So not like top-of-the-world good, but decent. And I’m a generalist, which is to say that relatively speaking I’m not very good with Sudoku, and I do better with other types of puzzles, including entirely new types.

My goal here is to overexplain my understanding of logic puzzles, and solving strategy. I am not confident that this is actually helpful to someone trying to get better at solving logic puzzles, but that’s not really the point. The point is to explicitly describe what would otherwise only be understood intuitively.

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