Well I’m back from PAX, and it was amazing. Spent most of my time at the Gunpoint booth helping to demo the game, and it was a lot of fun. Tons of people stopped by the booth to tell us they loved the game, including the guys who created Left 4 Dead, like, all of Telltale Games, and several of my indie game heroes, including Alexander Bruce from Antichamber and Jim Crawford, who exploded my brain with Frog Fractions. Others had never heard of Gunpoint before and got to play it for the first time. All of those people were better at the game than me, and several whipped out their phones and bought it over Steam the second they were done. Wow!
But I’m actually not here to talk about PAX today. I’m here to talk about Dark Souls, because a game that routinely abuses me until I am naught more than a blubbering mess crying into a haphazardly-poured bowl of Cocoa Pebbles really speaks to me. That probably says something negative about my character, so don’t read too much into it.
Before I left for Seattle, I wrote a post about Dark Souls and debuted a new track based on it. The music is one of my favorite aspects in Dark Souls, but if you were to actually put the track I wrote in the game, the whole thing would be ruined. In fact, for most of the game, there is no music at all, and if the designers had decided to include some, the entire experience would’ve been less effective. See, environment itself becomes the music in this game. Because I am a nerd of Urkelian proportions and because I need excuse to use all that fancy pants book learnin’ whats I got up tuh univer-i-tay, that’s what I want to talk about.
Quick recap for people who would rather make the world a better place than play a game about getting stabbed in the kidneys by a procession of eager monstrosities: In Dark Souls, you play the Chosen Undead who is, well, undead. A curse has fallen on the kingdom of Lordran, and those afflicted can’t die. Well, actually, you can die, and you will. A lot. But each time, you come back, and a little bit crazier than before. Eventually, people with this curse simply give up and go Hollow, which means you go from a smelly half-dead guy with agency and cognitive abilities to a smelly half-dead guy jabbering mindlessly and swinging a 2 x 4 at everything that passes by. Dark Souls basically turns you into That One Guy at every Greyhound station in the country, except it’s for eternity.
The game has a fantastic soundtrack, but the only time you’ll hear it (with a few exceptions) is during boss battles. Most of the game is spent traversing dark forests and crumbling castles without any music at all. At least, no music in the traditional sense. Hang on tight; here’s where shit goes into full blown dork mode.
In grad school, I studied a guy named John Cage. He was a 20th Century composer who practiced a lot of cool, experimental ideas on music. Like using random chance (i.e. dice) to decide elements of his compositions, or making modifications to common instruments to create new sounds (he famously jammed pieces of wood and bits of metal between the strings of a piano to alter its tone).
But Cage is probably best known for his thoughts on silence. He spent a lot of time obsessing over the idea of “true silence,” that is, the complete absence of any sound whatsoever. Stop and think about that for a second. How many times in your life can you say you’ve been in complete silence? No air conditioning humming. No traffic or wind rustling outside. Not even the sound of your own breathing.
Probably never, right? Cage felt the same way, and it bugged him. So much so that he traveled to Harvard and spent time in their anechoic chamber, which is snzzy science-talk for a super soundproof box. When he came out, he told the technician running the thing that, even though the chamber was supposed to be completely devoid of sound, he still heard a low pitched tone and a high pitched tone. The tech told him he was hearing the sound of his own circulatory and nervous systems running, respectively.
Cage realized that there’s essentially no such thing as true silence; whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re always hearing something. He took it a step further with the idea that all sound, however natural or incidental, has the potential to form music. With this in mind, he wrote the piece he’s probably most famous for: “4’33.” If you haven’t heard of it before, you’re probably capable of making a wild guess at what it is before exclaiming out loud, to no one, “No. Academia is weird, but it’s not that weird. It’s got to be something else.” But you’d be right. It’s four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence.
The musicians come out on stage, take hold of their instruments, and then simply wait. Instead of the sounds of horns and brass, the audience instead is left alone with the whir of cars passing outside, or the guy four rows down with the persistent cough, or the sightly uncomfortable sound of seats shuffling throughout the room. Or their own heart beat, or even the sound of their own inner monologue asking “what the hell is this?” The surroundings become the music.
And that’s what’s happening in Dark Souls.
In many video games, when you stand still (and there are no enemies nearby), the game is essentially quiet. Aside from the blaring soundtrack, there’s nothing to listen to. But in Dark Souls, you might hear the creaking of trees in Darkroot Garden, or the sound of water droplets plunking against rock in the Catacombs. Or the lonely echo of a cathedral bell ringing in the distance, signifying that, somewhere, another player has managed to defeat the gargoyles in their game and climb to the top of the tower the monsters defended.
Combat is the same; instead of a rousing battle theme, your only accompaniment in battle is the rattling clang of an axe smashing against your shield, the clatter of your armor as you roll to the side, narrowly avoiding a deadly blow from a club. There is sound all around, you, but instead of a collection of dissociated noises, the cues work together to create a sparse, bleak composition that narrates your journey as effectively as any orchestral score. In the absence of music, the sounds of Dark Souls become music.
I don’t know if the designers had John Cage in mind when they made the decision to limit music to boss battles only. I don’t even know if they have any idea that John Cage was, like, a guy who existed. But in a game where everything, from the landscape to the enemy design to the placement and content of treasure chests is purposeful and tells a story, I find it really hard to believe that they didn’t have this philosophy in mind. They created such a musical environment, that there was no need to add anything. This game orchestrates itself.
Below is a great example. The player is exploring an area called the Crystal Caves, because in a game that’s all about the frailty of the human condition and the bleak march toward death, why not include a location that sounds like a place the cast of My Little Pony would go spelunking?
Listen to the way the character’s armor clinks as they run, or the tinkling sound of crystal flakes drifting toward the cave floor, or the way footsteps echo on the cave’s (invisible) pathways. It all comes together to for an amazing tapestry of sound, which is surely a sentence that would’ve gotten my ass kicked a decade ago in high school.
The video ends in a fight against one of the game’s bosses, Seathe the Scaleless, who is a big freaky dragon tentacle thing and a professional doucehebag. The juxtaposition between the gloomy choral score that assaults you when he appears and the environmental music that softly accompanied your arrival is awesome.
So, yeah. Cool, right? Next time someone says video games don’t have anything intellectual to offer you can tell them some guy on the internet said a bunch of things one time, and then won’t they look stupid.