Praise for Twisted Tales Events

‘Twisted Tales consistently produce well-organised events for writers and readers of horror. What really distinguishes Twisted Tales for me is the intelligent themes and investigations they pursue, and the high quality of the discussions they always stimulate. As an author I've been invited to three of their events and have been pleasantly startled, to near shocked, by the attendance levels - two out of three were even sold out. I salute anyone who contributes so much to the literary and cultural life of horror fiction.’- Adam Nevill

'Twisted Tales events are wonderful... a great way of promoting 21st Century horror fiction. Supported by Waterstone's Liverpool One and really well organised, Twisted Tales brings together established names in the genre as well as new voices and of course readers. Looking forward to much more to come...' - Alison J. Littlewood

'Hurrah once again for Waterstones! This time it's the Liverpool One branch that's supporting horror fiction, both with a fine section of the shop devoted to the field and by hosting a series of readings by its authors. Readings can bring tales to a new kind of life, and their authors too. More power to the bookshop and its knowledgeable specialists.' - Ramsey Campbell

Monday, 5 December 2011

Dark Souls reviewed by Tim Franklin



Developed by From Software
Published by  Namco Bandai Games
Released in 2011
Available for Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Certificate 16 - advisory

When you accidentally step back to your death over the battlements of a ruined tower. When you are suddenly crushed beneath a hurtling boulder. When a ghoul leaps from a darkened alcove and chews your face to shreds. When a golem splinters you in a single sweep of its axe. When a lizard breathes cursing vapours over you and permanently snips your health-bar in two. When you walk through a one-way door to find a tiny room packed with hell-hounds and a towering demon. When you're concentrating on a pendulum scythe and a snake priest electrocutes you. When you make it to the bottom of a maze of wooden walkways and blind ends, only to discover that the floor is made of poison. When you hear a door open behind you and never find out exactly what killed you. When invisible adversaries fire tiny darts of incurable toxin into your flesh. When you play for two hours and don't move your character ten feet. When you finally defeat a seemingly insurmountable boss after hours and hours of crushing defeats and grinding repetition, only to discover that to reach the next checkpoint you need to run directly towards the fiery breath of an unkillable dragon.

When these things, and worse, happen to you in Dark Souls, you will wonder why you are even playing this damnable game. But before you can even begin to wonder "Just when did I turn into such a masochist?", you'll find yourself out there again, lost in the wilderness of pain, ready to face your inevitable death.

Dark Souls specialises in terror, the fear and dread of unknown things. You tremble onwards into each new maze, shield raised, trying to be cautious but painfully aware that the game will murder you for indecision, too. Something is always hidden. Characters you meet will lie to you. Treasures are hinted at, just out of reach, locked beyond seemingly impassable barriers. Dungeons are gloomy, and become gloomier throughout the game. Where there is light, there are also hiding places, and fog, and traps, or else it is blindingly bright.

As your character wakes at the start of the game you find you are locked into an asylum for the undead, doomed to languish in madness until the end of time. You escape; a giant bird spirits you away to Lordran, the realm of the Gods. Here you are told to ring the two bells of awakening. Perhaps you will save the world - or perhaps you will damn it. No one will tell you. And while you wend your weary, destined path, monstrous challenges will rise again and again to crush you like a bug.

This is an alarming, challenging take on the fantasy genre. It is hardly the hero's journey – or, at least, not the hero's journey as we have become used to it. Where modern games coddle the player with an easy arc of moderate challenges and entertaining lightshows, Dark Souls is startlingly free. It is a freedom that will get you killed. Wandering carelessly on high cliffs will see you fall to your death. Accidentally murdering a non-player character strips them out of your game world forever. And as Dark Souls saves your progress after every choice or failure, you can never, never repeal your mistakes. This hardcore sensibility recalls classic roleplaying games from the world before computers; Dungeons and Dragons is of course the grandfather of the whole genre, and the trial-and-error slaughterhouse The Tomb of Horrors could almost be a mould for some of Dark Souls' (easier) levels; while the inability to backtrack really brings to mind the Fighting Fantasy adventure books by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone.

Sartre would love Dark Souls's multiplayer system. "Hell is other people;" absolutely. You will soon notice messages scrawled in red sigils across the landscape. They have been left by other players of the game, and while some of them are handy hints, a good number will distract you just long enough for a dragon to stomp on your head. "Try jumping" is a popular, frequently fatal, suggestion, found beside most of the many bottomless pits. Players can also enter one another's game worlds, to help or to hinder. It is not uncommon for someone to appear and stab you through the spine just moments before you reach the safety of a bonfire checkpoint. 

So why should you play Dark souls?

For all its acknowledged viciousness (the tagline for the game, "Prepare to Die", would be pretentious if it was not so fair), Dark Souls never postures. It presents a remarkably convincing world to you, and what you can see, you can probably touch (unless of course it is a sneaky illusion). Distant vistas are a temptation to bid you explore, and you will be rewarded with strange new realms. The satisfying and physical combat engine means that your sword will clang off the stone walls of a narrow corridor, rebound from the shields of nimble foes, or force you to drastically overextend yourself when you miss a blow. Where there are mysteries you will only solve them through trial and error and luck - or perhaps you will not solve them at all. There is that option as well. This is a world you can lose yourself in, because it resists your attempts to bend it to your will. It feels bigger than you on a massive scale, and that puts a huge weight of reality behind it.

Lordran is a beautiful world, too. It is a single seamless construction, free from loading screens (though framerates will occasionally drop unforgivably low), with believable transitions from one realm to the next. Mundane environments are enlivened by excellent and believable architecture and geology and a sense of vast scale, which transition gradually into no less spectacular supernatural locales. Each level folds back on itself with the intricacy of a puzzle-box. On your first pass through a location you may assume that you scraped it bare of secrets while you were being wiped across the floor by its denizens, but there is always more to discover. This marriage of deathtrap and diorama will take your breath away.

Hard work makes victory all the sweeter. When you win in most singleplayer adventure games, you are rewarded with a glossy cutscene, a new power-up, and a nod in the direction of the next moderate challenge. When you win in Dark Souls, you are rewarded with a spectacular endorphine rush pumped directly into the reward centre of your brain. You feel like an unassailable God King, like the greatest genius since Einstein - and Einstein never killed a Taurus Demon. By making you work bloody hard for victory, you can trace a direct line from your fingers into the smoldering corpse of your greatest adversaries. When it is not making you hate yourself, Dark Souls is more exhilarating than any video game has a right to be.

It is also a treasure trove of terror. Each new environment will feed you into a novel, vigorous death trap. You know this is going to happen even as you pass the threshold. Every new creature, every piece of architecture has to be viewed through a lens of paranoia, as it could be the very thing that kills you. Every step you take without being ground into pesto ratchets up the tension, higher and higher. The microscopic chance that you might make it through a level unmolested on your first try is an irresistible lure, even as your pulse rockets towards heart-attack territory.

Really, you will play Dark Souls because once you start, there is no way out. It has the psychological profile of an abusive lover: it will batter you unconscionably, deny your most basic requests, turn a cold shoulder just when you need sympathy the most. It will train you to blame yourself for your own incompetence, not the game for its insurmountable difficulty. And there is something intoxicating about it that keeps you crawling back for more, something that makes alternatives seem wafer thin. It does not preen or pretend. It offers you an incredible fantasy world, but demands that you be good enough to earn it. After 45 hours of play (and having seen less than half of what the game has to offer) I've sold my soul to try and meet that impossible demand. I suggest you join me in the darkness.

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