Transcript of a talk I gave at Beta Public V in November 2015. [stage directions] indicate where I performed said gestures.
[well! what is it]
This talk is going to be about how animation and choreography can influence how players communicate and perform, with specific reference to the 2011 videogame Dark Souls, and its 2014 sequel Dark Souls II. It’s a bit rough, but I like it.
I’m particularly fascinated by online communication, and how it alters how we perform, and who we perform as. With regards to games, and leaving social media and things like dating and image messaging apps aside, here’s a quick rundown of online communication in gaming: there’s textchat, written communication over keyboard; voicechat, verbal communication over microphone and headset, and what I’m going to term non-verbal communication.
This is the use (or abuse) of controls and animations to communicate through the models already present in the game. Essentially, you work with the body you have, and your limited ability to manipulate it. It requires imagination and creativity, and while it often results in really interesting and experimental emergent interaction – like, say, in Journey – in most games the opportunities for physical communication are often limited to breaks in the action, or at the ends of matches. A popular example would be the ‘teabagging’ in deathmatch games of Halo and Call of Duty, which is the crouch button pressed over the body of a defeated player, to mimic the lowering of testicles into someone’s mouth.
As much as it’s massively vulgar, it represents at least a small creative step in a genre whose primary physical interactions are bullets coming out of guns and going into stuff. When I play Wii Bowling with my mum, and win – well I don’t teabag her – I move my character around like this [bend backwards at waist and rotate, hands in air], while I laugh across the living room at her.
But Dark Souls is a whole ‘nother story.
Released on the Playstation 3 in 2011, Dark Souls is a third-person action medieval fantasy roleplaying game – you fight monsters with swords and magic. It’s a mostly solo adventure, but other players can enter your world, with varying intentions. They’re essentially dumb – interaction is limited to how they move around, swing their weapons, roll, backstep, jump, raise their shields – the usual. But they also have easy access to a vocabulary of very specific ‘gestures’, each sublimely motion-captured:
[well! What is it?]
[praise the sun]
So far, I think, so ordinary – each of these gestures has a title, outlining its intended use. And it would be ordinary, if Dark Souls weren’t all about reading.
And here’s why: combat is extremely difficult – once you or an enemy commits to an action or a movement, there’s no way to cancel it, and animations can be long and difficult to aim. A mistiming or a misstep can leave you open, so you’re constantly anticipating action and measuring distances. Audio cues are specific too, and telegraph attacks. The game is punishing – a death means a significant and often frustrating reset of progress. You’re not constantly engaged in combat, either – there are long periods of walking or waiting, and other players entering your game is rare enough to become a moment of importance.
It’s this focus on timing, and the combination of deep reading, high risk, and spacing of action that prompts in the player what I think is a keener kind of engagement – one I’m actually more familiar with employing when I’m sitting where you are, watching bodies moving on a stage, asking myself ‘what do they mean by that, and what does it mean for me?’
And there are different contexts in Dark Souls: co-operative, duel, invasion, and hunt. Co-operative is a teaming up of friendly players; duel is when you invite a competitive player into your game, or vice versa; an invasion is when an aggressive player forces their way into your game; a hunt is an area of the game in which multiple players can team up to assault you. So I’m reading and performing gestures context-dependently, ‘aware of the scene’, as it were – as an audience would, as an actor might – performatively. The ‘wave’ is a greeting in co-op and duel, but fucking sinister from someone seen through trees, hunting you. Pointing in directions serves an obvious purpose in co-op [point, point, beckon], but chained together can speak volumes about confidence in a duel [point, point down].
Shared etiquettes for beginning and ending encounters emerged when it became apparent that performing these gestures left you open to attack. Communication itself was a risk. Not engaging in communication at all is terrifying, like at the beginning of this talk.
And then came Dark Souls 2. One of the many changes was the ability to cancel out of gestures and start new ones. While this removes some of the risk from expression, it also allows for some of the more important elements of actual choreography – interruption, repetition, and rhythm. For example: the gesture [pump it up], which when cancelled midway and repeated results in this [cancelled pump it up 1], to communicate excitement and preparedness, and when cancelled earlier results in this [cancelled pump it up 2], to communicate ‘wanker’. The increased emphasis on cooperation between more than two players leads to moments of ensemble choreography as well – I’ve seen three players make Diversity-style formations to say hello by combining [warcry], [righty-ho!], and [welcome], and a pair rolling down and across a corridor in perfect synchronicity. Gestures can now be chained together into movements, movements into scenes, scenes into actual dance. All Dark Souls lacks is a system for modifying the texture and speed of these gestures, then you’d have all the ingredients for a bonafide contemporary dance generator.
When I play Dark Souls, I really feel like less of a player. I feel more like an audience, like a performer, like a dancer, like an athlete. All at once. It’s a triumph of both game design and dramaturgy that I interpret animations so richly. The ingredients that make up its interactions and the contexts in which they happen are complex, flexible and interconnected – just like in the theatre, or in a dance piece.
There’s even one weapon that actually makes you dance (like a lunatic) when you use it: the Channeller’s Trident. It has appeared in every Souls game since.