Wandering and Wondering

I’ve been paying extremely close attention to two video games, one of which already exists for players, and another which is nearing completion and is available (in a limited capacity) to a select number of people. I wondered (ha, title reference?) if I should cram both of these games into a rambling write-up, because my mind has been preoccupied with both of them, and I quickly decided that I’d do my best to cover both of them, and my feelings toward them. So here I go: bear with me, friends, as I try to shove my thoughts into lines and paragraphs that make some semblance of sense.

Wondering About Series Progression

The first game, which released almost two years ago at the very beginning of the pandemic, is a wonderful life sim called Animal Crossing: New Horizons. You may have heard of it. If you’re someone who doesn’t play video games at all, then I respect you and I welcome you to this space, and I will inform you that this post is gonna talk about two video games at length. And you’re some of the only people who have maybe not heard of Animal Crossing. But I doubt it – the internet puts its grubby claws on everything these days! Anywho, uh, I keep stalling ’cause I’m not entirely sure how to fuse two subjects into an “essay” anymore. I may have lost my touch. Eh, I’m not too worried. I’ll plod on and do my best – here we go! (How many times will he say “Here we go,” you may wonder … at least a few times!)

Animal Crossing is a life simulator that blew everyone’s minds back in the early aughts due to its clever use of the Nintendo GameCube’s internal clock: the game kept track of time, in real time! If your console’s clock was aligned with your real-world time, and it was 2:00 PM in your time zone, it was 2:00 PM in the game as well – holy shit! You may scoff now, but back then, this concept was fucking revolutionary. “Sweet Jesus, man, you call it a life simulator – are you born into the game world only to die eventually, just like real life?” No, hypothetical reader/TED Talk audience member. You are instead thrust into a simulated world of debt, responsibility, and the choice to save up your hard-earned money to get a bigger house, or use your Bells (in-game currency) to buy, like, whatever. But if you buy more stuff, you need a bigger house to properly display it and store it. And your friends can live in your town, which was saved locally to your memory card, or they could play separately in their own towns. Which you could visit by train, if your friends inserted their memory card into your GameCube (that’s somehow the sexiest non-sexual video game thing I’ve ever said .. woohoo?!).

I’m getting ahead of myself by diving way too deep into the first Animal Crossing’s gameplay, and I haven’t even scratched the surface. Fuck. In essence, the game starts with you on a train, leaving your home behind and embarking on your own; in a way, it is like a birth into a whole new world. You have no money, but you somehow agreed to buy a house anyway. You can catch bugs and fish to sell for money, or to donate to a museum, and oh gosh the feeling of being the first of your friends with a full museum is fucking phenomenal … I’m doing it again. I’m getting carried away.

Animal Crossing is, and always has been, a game about doing whatever the hell you want, within the game’s parameters. You can work your ass off to pay off your home loans and expand your house, or you can live a modest life and use your money for other stuff. You can spend all day fishing in the rivers, or the ocean. The second game added a cafe to the museum, which you could visit to purchase coffee. This is one of the greatest innovations in any video game series ever. Don’t fight me on this, the update to the current game speaks for itself … okay, I’m doing it again.

The third game, which is the one with which I have the least experience (even Animal Crossing burnout is real), introduced a whole separate shopping plaza, which you could fund and populate with the various shopkeepers and peddlers who wandered around at random in the first two games. This meant that there was less hoping and crossing of fingers – if you want to see a particular vendor, you need only travel to the shopping plaza.

The fourth game, which moved ahead to the 3DS, saw you take over as the mayor of your own little town. In previous games, an aging tortoise (turtle? I am not well versed in zoology) named Tortimer presided over each town/city in which you lived. He showed up for important events and holidays to give you cool knick-knacks. Well, in New Leaf, Tortimer was moved to an optional island for mini games and fun, and you took over the running of the town. This meant that you could decide which “Public Works Projects” would decorate the exterior spaces of your town. This was huge – previously, you couldn’t place stuff outside your house. You couldn’t place anything on the ground, but there were still cool things you could add to your very own town. It was fun, and addictive.

Now we finally arrive at the fifth and current Animal Crossing game, a gem called New Horizons. It involves permanently living on your very own island. You’re not the mayor, but you may choose to be the “Resident Representative” of your island. This means you make all the final decisions about where new residents will live, and where to place shops and new developments, and bridges and inclines and holy moly there’s so much. The game also added DIY “recipes,” which are essentially crafting options. All that furniture from the old games? Sadly, it’s not all here in New Horizons. I believe, to save themselves the trouble of thinking of recipes for all the old furniture, they simply chose to scale back the sheer number of decorative items. We all noticed this scaling back, and it bothered many of us. Do I still enjoy the game? Hell yeah – finding new crafting recipes adds a whole new element to the game, and it’s super rewarding to save up resources and build new things every day.

Another missing element, however, was the cafe. The blessed, blessed cafe. This upset most of us, and rightly so. The game also released without a dedicated shopping space, so we all had to wait patiently for certain vendors to grace our islands with their presence. It was random, and it was awful. What if I was working so often that I couldn’t play every day? This is definitely reality for many people, and the concept of checking your island every day to see if Crazy Redd is docked is just not friendly game design.

But thank the stars, New Horizons was updated about a week ago. The cafe is back, and better than ever. Harv’s island, which previously only housed a photography mini-game (which I personally don’t find interesting, but eh, to each their own), may now become the permanent home of all those wandering vendors. If they’re not on your island making sales, they’re on Harv’s island, hoping you’ll swing by and look at their wares. Even Tortimer is back, just to make us old-timers happy!

There are also a whole bunch of new items, and crafting recipes, and you can cook food now! Isabelle, your assistant from New Leaf, has also been improved: instead of prattling off inane bullshit about her tv binges, she informs you of which vendor or traveling person is currently wandering around your island. There are so many improvements. The game feels like it went from a scrawny hollowed out version of Animal Crossing to a fully fleshed out, strong Animal Crossing. Not that I hated it before: I played it, enjoyed it for about two months, and promptly put it down for a long time. This update really fills in that hollow space. But speaking of hollows …

Wandering a New, Deadly World

The second game is the latest game in FromSoftware’s Soulsborne … family? Series? Anywho, Demon’s Souls is arguably the first in this style, and it was followed by Dark Souls, and Dark Souls 2, and Bloodborne, and Dark Souls 3, and Sekiro … we’re actually not sure what to call this whole collection, but so far, Soulsborne has worked pretty well. As you may know if you play video games, these games are pretty tough. When I first played Dark Souls, I likened its difficulty to the old NES days of pattern memorization and tell recognition: if you fought the same enemy enough, you’d know their tells and their patterns, and you could respond accordingly to win eventually.

This style holds up remarkably well, and the “Nintendo hard” glory of Soulsborne games has pulled in many a gamer, myself included. I fucking love Bloodborne more than the other games, and I think I may count it as the best game I’ve played in my life thus far, but uh … the newest game looks to be even better than Bloodborne. Which, I think, is what we all want from a software developer/video game creator, right?

Oh my stars, I haven’t even mentioned what this game is called. Soulsborne vets already know what I’m about to say: the game is called Elden Ring, and it looks. Fucking. Amazing. A bit of context may be in order here.

A few years ago, Hidetaka Miyazaki, the director of most Soulsborne games, revealed that he was working on a new game. George R.R. Martin was namedropped, and it was revealed that he was collaborating with FromSoftware on this new title. Nerd radars went off all over: the acclaimed writer of A Song of Ice and Fire (known to many as Game of Thrones) was working with our glorious team at FromSoft? On a new game? What beautiful fantasies were they putting together? My god, how violent would this game be? HOW DEEP WOULD THE LORE BE? AHHHHH, it’s almost too much … I doubt you could even imagine it!

Okay, internet jokes aside, we learned of this awesome collaborative force. Then, like, nothing. We got no news. We heard whispers of the game’s continued development, but only received bits and pieces of information. Like a drip feed, tangled and snarled to the point of no release. Dear God, the game will still release, right?

We fans clamored for news. We made up lore, and gameplay mechanics, and memes, all to bide our time. Then we all received cryptic internet missives: the Summer Game Fest of 2021 may include information regarding Elden Ring. The host, Geoff Keighley, was jokingly stuck in “gamer jail” for neglecting to reveal possible Elden Ring news in the past. This was his big chance to free himself, we all joked. If he could deliver us anything about Elden Ring, he’d be free from gamer jail.

To avoid dragging this out any longer, he did it. He freed himself from gamer prison. Geoff beamed as a brand new Elden Ring trailer started to play.

We all ate it up. We drank all of it in. We fucking consumed that trailer like it was nectar of the gods. Which, in a way, it was: sweet nectar from the developer gods at FromSoftware, who were working to create this fantastic world for us to explore.

“Wait, sir – what’s so different about this world?!” Well, I was gonna mention it earlier, but I sorta forgot to do it. Elden Ring may best be described as Dark Souls meets Breath of the Wild. Go on, hold your applause – I’ll explain what most of us gamers already know and accept.

Dark Souls set the standard for gritty fantasy games with difficult bosses and enemies. For the past ten years, so many developers have taken leaves from the book written by FromSoft when they created Dark Souls. Open world games have been a thing for decades now, but Soulsborne games are somewhere else on the gaming spectrum: their worlds are sometimes interconnected, with levels and areas meeting back up with other areas, but more often than not, there’s a linear progression to them. Until now, with Elden Ring.

You see, Elden Ring features six areas and bosses that we all assume are required to be defeated in order to beat the game. However, instead of systematically working one’s way through a linear progression of areas that culminate with a final boss, we have … a whole open world to explore, and bosses to defeat as we see fit, in whatever order we choose. Or so it seems thus far. We may go through the game’s big, beautiful world in the ways we see fit, with the gear and abilities we prefer, in the order we choose. If there’s an easier way to progress things, most of us may opt for that route … but it looks like we may be able to run to even harder areas and enemies, if we think we can take them.

Dark Souls sort of offered options like this, but there were definite gameplay barriers for certain points. A linear progression. Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, allows gamers to rush to the very end of the game, if they want. Gamers may play the game and explore at their leisure, and approach enemies and challenges with their preferred methods – it rewrote a lot of the “open world” formula to allow for many answers to the game’s questions.

And it looks like Elden Ring is embracing Breath of the Wild’s fresh take on exploration – do it at your own pace, and focus on the things you enjoy. But when you decide to engage in combat, it’s got all the cool options FromSoft has explored in their journey here: the grueling difficulty of Dark Souls, the fine-tuned stealth of Sekiro, the pacing of Bloodborne, but THERE’S ALSO MOUNTED COMBAT, which is totally new.

There are so many options, and they’ve all been refined over the years that FromSoft has spent making games we love. Their old games are linear, and still really good. But Elden Ring, well, it’s open world. It’s letting us all decide how the hell we approach its challenges, and we like that.

I’m speaking for FromSoft fans here, and maybe that’s unfair. I should just say what I enjoy. I’m looking forward to Elden Ring so much that I already paid for it on Steam. The day it releases will see me sitting down with a bunch of snacks, and sandwiches, or fish, or something, maybe with a bunch of soda and some beers. I’ll sink into this whole new world, and I’ll get lost, and I’ll wander to all these beautiful places. And I’ll love every second and every pixel of it.


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