Ace, Two, Catacombs, BananaPosted by Tom on 17th May, 2012
In game theory, there are solvable games. These are games for which there is an optimal way to play that can force a desired result. Most smartasses know how to play Noughts and Crosses in a way that won’t let them lose. If you know what you’re doing as the first player in Connect Four, you’ll win every time. If you have the solution in your head, you’ll do better than the person who doesn’t. These games are closed systems with limited possibilities, and as such the player who knows the solution will always triumph.
There’s this card game that we played a lot in first year called Irish Snap. The whole deck is divided between all the players, and you take turns placing cards face up in the centre. While placing cards, the players say the names of the cards in sequence (“Ace, Two, Three, Four”). If the card value that is said is the same as the card that is placed, everybody has to slam their hand on the pile, like in regular snap. Last person to snap gets all the cards in the pile. If you snap when it’s not time to snap, you get all the cards in the pile. If you say the wrong thing, you get all the cards in the pile.
As an additional knot, after a full run from Ace to King is completed, you switch two of the numbers around, or change a number to something completely different. From “Ace, Two, Three, Four” to “Ace, Two, Four, Three”. You still snap on “Four” if a three is placed. When somebody’s out of cards, they stay in the game, but just don’t place cards any more. The card at the top counts as their card. You add more replacements and rules as the game goes on, and play until somebody has clearly lost or everybody’s bored and tired.
As you can imagine, this is an incredible game for drunken first years. It’s physical, it’s competitive and it’s easy to make up house rules for. It takes minutes to learn, and the chaotic appeal is immediately apparent. With the rule about switching numbers around, there’s an intrinsic difficulty curve that you can screw about with on the fly. The only problem is when you play with someone who has solved it.
My sister, Mel, is brutal at this game. She doesn’t drink, so she never falters. She has some kind of magical memory trick that she uses so while everybody else is still stuck on “Ace, Six, Three, Eight” she has already relearned “Ace, Six, Three, Banana” and knows what her next move is long before it’s her turn. Her presence in the game makes it so much harder for anybody else to succeed, by virtue of how good she is at it. Mel, I love you, but you totally broke Irish Snap.
In the Radiolab episode about Games, they explore the story of Chess by the Book. A database called ChessBase was developed to collect all known data about Chess matches. Every move performed in every tournament since the moves were recorded. The original intention was noble enough, simply to record the data in ways that can be statistically examined, to improve chess plays. What actually happened was that players started memorising every single move. Instead of playing by instinct, players were following the guidelines, playing by the Book. The first few dozen moves in every game after this revelation were so rote that people completed them automatically, with no thought at all. The game, some argued, was forever ruined.
Playing Dark Souls, it’s very easy to spend a lot of time going in a direction that won’t help you in the short term. After you leave the tutorial, you have three or four different directions you can travel in, and all but one of them are extremely difficult. Once you complete the first area, you have even more directions you can go in, and while some of them are easier than others, none of them are impossibly difficult. Given this situation, you have a few choices: you can find out what to do next by asking someone who’s finished the game; you can use the incomprehensible NPC dialogue to try to divine what route you’re supposed to take next; you can wing it.
There’s an extent to which Dark Souls is a solved game. Enough people have played through and completed it that the optimal path is mapped out. Ace, Two, Three, Four. It’s all over the internet, if you want it. There are walkthroughs and wikis and strategy guides and speedrun videos and optimal builds that are generally agreed upon. If you discuss Dark Souls online, there will be people ready to tell you what you’re doing wrong.
There’s something special that happened with ChessBase and the Book. An unintended implication of the Book is that when all players have a perfect knowledge of the Book, nobody will lose to moves within the Book. Everybody knows how those stories end. Because of this, as the games go on, the number of times these exact moves have been played goes down. From hundreds of millions to thousands to dozens to three to one to zero. In every match, there comes a point where the players go off Book and are playing moves that have never been played in recorded history. This is pure Chess. Uncharted seas, being explored through creativity and instinct.
When I was faced with five or six options after the first section of Dark Souls, I winged it.
One of the routes from the first checkpoint goes down into a graveyard with skeletons that I couldn’t beat at first, but could beat now. I went thataway, into The Catacombs. I fought skeletons and skeletons wrapped in wheels and giant skeletons and necromancers and creepy floaty faces and a weird boss and then I was in a completely dark area with no source of light and I realised I had been going in the wrong direction that whole time.
If I’d followed conventional wisdom, I’d have gone through Lower Undead Burg and into The Depths. When I got to Blight Town I would have had far less knowledge of how to read my enemies, I wouldn’t have been paying attention to the audio cues when somebody dies, I wouldn’t have kept myself aware of which enemies do and don’t come back after a respawn. I’m not saying the way I went about it was right, I am saying it wasn’t wrong.
Dark Souls is an open world in ways that no other game I’ve played has been. With a completely open class system, areas gated only by your skill and souls acting as all forms of currency in one, the possibility spectrum in Dark Souls is vast. I love that it lets me go in directions that aren’t optimal. I love that I can collect skills and equipment from areas before I have any business being there. Exploration of an unfamiliar space in Dark Souls is time well spent, no matter what the Book says.
Playing by the Book, or encouraging others to do the same, is an extremely inflexible position to take. Optimality restricts your options and stifles the creativity and joy of improvisation that possibility spaces allow for. There’s a reason that adults don’t play Noughts and Crosses with eachother, and there’s a reason that previously unseen decisions in Chess, StarCraft or Street Fighter get people excited.
Fuck the Book.