ghosts

Betraying First-Person Action Norms

by Paul Schumann

A respect for history, faith, and humanity separates Betrayer from many of its peers. Like other first-person action games, Betrayer features a variety of ranged weapons — bows, flintlocks, and tomahawks — but the most important gameplay function doesn’t involve violence: a listening mechanic allows the player to seek out key sections of the map for audio clues. This mechanic makes Betrayer more aesthetically pleasing, as there is no minimap or obnoxious arrows leading from one objective to the next. Listening also adds to the atmosphere as cursed totems beckon the player in for a trap and lost souls weep into the ether. This design fulfills the purpose of Betrayer’s storytelling.

In the 17th century New World, you play as an anonymous settler/adventurer washed up on the shores of Virginia, the sole survivor of your vessel. You discover you are not alone: a mysterious girl stalks the woods warning you to avoid these lands, a shadow world of ghosts, demons, and skellingtons. You gradually discover how the lives of the former colonists demonstrate the foibles, passions, and potential for brutality of human nature.

From time immemorial, going back to the Garden of Eden, human beings have had the potential to do good or evil. To Betrayer’s credit, the lost souls aren’t presented as backward sods just because they lived centuries before us. They all have their own motivations, whether based in pride, lust, anger, fear, greed, patriotism, faith, or despair. There’s the Catholic who came to the New World for a new start away from the religious persecutions of England, yet he comes to find religious conflict inescapable. There’s the mother who is driven to despair after her son accidentally dies by his own hand. There’s interracial liaisons between settlers and natives. There’s the threat of conflict between marauding Spaniards, hostile natives, and English settlers. Very real human tragedies all.

The manner in which the stories are told further develops Betrayer’s approach to fallen human nature. The truth is only gradually revealed. The first wraiths you encounter can hardly remember more than their names. The ghosts tend to recall only the best parts of the people they were, but pieces of their lives return as you find clues.  One ghost insists his friend died by accident until you reveal evidence showing foul play. Another ghost reminisces about warning his son not to play with a firearm and his sickly wife going for a walk. Finding the graves of his wife and son leads the man to remember that his son had shot himself and that his wife committed suicide in her grief.

The poor souls in Betrayer are cursed to walk the earth until they’ve come to terms with their guilt. The theology is a bit iffy, sounding more like the legend of the Jack O’ Lantern — a soul stuck between heaven and hell — than traditional Catholic eschatology. In that sense, it’s almost fitting that the non-denominational Protestant colonists are cursed to such an obscure fate. The story also explores apparent demonic activity and the supposed presence of witchcraft. The natives regard the deep woods as a dangerous place, not merely for hostile tribes but for evil spirits. Moreover, an accused witch is executed by burning, but the game reveals that nothing supernatural is at play, just mere skulduggery. Betrayer’s handling of witch hunting has historical merit: most instances of witch burning took place under Protestant authority, in contrast to the various Catholic Inquisitions that took a more measured and lenient response to such accusations (see work by sociologist Rodney Stark).

Betrayer’s ideas about treatment of the dead can be traced back to ancient Greece. Daniel Mendelsohn writes in the New Yorker: “The souls of the dead were thought to be stranded, unable to reach the underworld without a proper burial.” From The Iliad and The Odyssey to Sophocles’ Antigone, the necessity of burial as a sacred rite is clear (the protagonist of Antigone states “Hades requires these rights.”). In Betrayer, some ghosts cannot rest because evil spirits have stolen their skulls from their graves.  The endgame of Betrayer begins when you discover the source of the darkness — the brutal double murder of a young woman and her unborn child. The woman’s sister Allison (the sole survivor of the settlement) informs the player that she had attempted to burn the corpse to set her sister’s soul at peace. Yet this was not enough. The sister’s spirit wandered the woods near the scene of her death exacting vengeance on the flora, fauna, and natives.

To resolve this predicament, the player is advised to set the souls of the other settlers at rest before dealing with the sister. What follows is not theologically orthodox but makes for a thought-provoking conclusion. You return to old sections of the map to conclude their stories once and for all. You give the spectres an ultimatum to realize what’s done is done, to leave their haunting grounds, and to face their judgment: “You cannot undo what was done. You must surrender your regrets and be at peace.” The protagonist may sound forgiving or pitiless but is clearly not deciding their fates. At the same time, Betrayer doesn’t show what happens to the souls condemned to torment (as opposed to the souls you release). Likewise, your fate is never revealed. Allison, however, finally buries her sister and releases her to meet her maker. In some respects, Allison resembles Antigone, who uttered these words in Sophocles’ play: “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living, for in that world I shall abide forever.” Allison will also remain among the dead in the woods, though she still walks in the land of the living.

Wrong-headed and clumsy use of religion in games is usually a point of annoyance for me, but faith and the supernatural in Betrayer are treated without undue scorn and with just enough accuracy to blend into a believable historical backdrop. The game succeeds not with its attempts at theology but in its humanistic insights to the passions driving our choices. Betrayer shows that the fantastical fails without human experience.

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Digging Past the Hype

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: I played this game on the 2DS.

Much has been said about Shovel Knight resembling an updated NES game. Whether parts of the game could have worked on the old system amounts to tech trivia and marketing. But that’s far from the silliest commentary: IGN asks, “Is Shovel Knight an early game of the year candidate?” Shovel Knight might have the polished shell of an NES game and the ardent support of critics, but it lacks the soul of a classic.

References to an NES “aesthetic” don’t explain why Shovel Knight is a marvel to watch. Those who compare Kojima’s Ground Zeroes to their favorite tracking shots might instead write books about Shovel Knight’s superior use of motion, framing, lighting, and setting. As you extinguish ghosts in one level, scores of unique portraits come into light (a shift that comments on the life-restoring effect of art). In one short sequence across a bridge, Shovel Knight upstages Limbo’s morbid, trendy use of silhouettes through unexpected color and grander purpose. Shovel Knight’s campfire sequences don’t merely recall Golden Axe’s bonus stage — they graphically evoke healing and, with occasional dreaming, anxiety. The game even manages to inspire joy through the gestures of individual townspeople. The heroism and struggles in Shovel Knight are simply exquisite, with an attention to detail that rivals Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Unfortunately, the profound emotional core of the visual storytelling cannot save the game’s lack of suspense and adventure. Shovel Knight has received a lot of good press for borrowing a little, as opposed to a lot, from Dark Souls. Instead of having a lives system, Shovel Knight has checkpoints in main stages that sort of work like the campfires in Dark Souls. If you die, you lose some of your treasure and return to the last checkpoint you reached, and you recover the treasure by getting back to where you died on the first try. However, this idea fails to make the game interesting or challenging for a few reasons:

1. You don’t even lose half your treasure when you die, so the stakes aren’t remotely as high as they are in Dark Souls, which takes all of your currency away when you die.

2. Stages in Shovel Knight tend to have four or five checkpoints, so death rarely puts you in a tough spot. Furthermore, you can exit any stage, regardless of whether you’ve beaten it, through a menu.

3. Despite dying several times on a couple of stages, I was never in need of treasure. I always had enough treasure for the upgrades I wanted/needed, which renders another feature of the game rather pointless: you can destroy a checkpoint for treasure with the trade-off of the checkpoint no longer working, but what difference does it make if you never need treasure?

In fact, Shovel Knight is at times insultingly obvious when it comes to finding treasure, items, and “secrets.” As in Castlevania, you can break certain walls with your primary weapon to find things, but in many cases Shovel Knight marks the exact part of a wall that you can break, robbing the player of discovery.

Similar to A Link Between Worlds, Shovel Knight plays like a dream and thus suffers from coasting. The Mega Man boss fights in Shovel Knight are great concepts that typically can’t withstand how souped up you are: near the beginning of the game, you get an item that renders you temporarily invincible. Of course, you need points to use special items (as in Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden), but I rarely ran out of those points, which can be increased with upgrades via the easily located treasure. Shovel Knight is full of easygoing systems that undermine its potential as a satisfying experience — just another game that you play, not a quest that you conquer.

People should reconsider the absurd comparisons of Shovel Knight to Zelda II, a difficult (for most people) action game that never let you forget that you’re in a rough, vague world. A title can have elements from other games without resembling the essence of those games in practice. As such, all the beautiful visuals and music in Shovel Knight shouldn’t make us ignore its dubious distinction of being the most forgiving game influenced by both NES classics and Dark Souls. It’s almost as if Yacht Club Games made Shovel Knight with the hope that we would forget some of the reasons why we cherish and remember certain games in the first place.