a weapon to surpass blaming yourself or god while knee-deep in the dead

writing on video games, by chuck sebian-lander

the usefulness of a silent protagonist is, I think, fairly clear. it’s a direct line to player-avatar connection. Link never says anything you wouldn’t say; Crono never insults a character you like; Mario in Super Mario RPG never says something that ends up problematic a few decades down the line so you’re uncomfortable cheering as he jumps on a turtle until it dies. these protagonists are simplified to the point of literal avatar; any characterization derives from player expression. it’s the simpler alternative having enormous dialogue trees, but it’s also limited by the means by which the game allows for individual expression through play.

put another way: silent protagonists are ciphers and struggle to shape the plot of otherwise dialogue-heavy games. non-player characters in such games often have to be self-motivated enough to move the plot on their own, which runs counter to how narratives work in “traditional” non-interactive media. it can and does work; it’s just a little odd.

in fromsoft games, a silent protagonist often matches well with the abstract, dissociative narrative design. these worlds are long-dead and moldering. your allies are often only so out of desperation, ulterior motive, or necessity. human connection doesn’t really exist, which is part of the existential trauma and tragedy. your character in demon’s souls does not have a “relationship” with the Maiden in Black; she is a character, with strange and half-spoken motivations and feelings of her own, but she’s in no way informed by her relationship to you except how she provides you, a vessel for power, the means to be filled.

lies of p, the latest soulslike I’ve encountered and thus far easily my favorite not developed by from, has you play as public-domain Badass Twink Pinocchio, who as you may have guessed is silent.

now, lies of p does something that’s not uncommon among games with silent protagonists, which is to have moments where pinocchio clearly communicates to fellow characters even though it’s not spoken or animated. how else to explain how Hot Dad Geppetto always knows what’s happened in your latest boss encounter? someone’s told him his favorite church has gone a little rotten, and the only other candidates seem to want to keep a wide berth from the old sadsack.

the implication seems to be that pinocchio is not actually a mute—the game is suggesting that his silence is a mechanical choice for player-avatar synchronicity and not a choice of characterization. Link’s charades-style communication in tears of the kingdom, similarly, is so complex and clear to everyone he meets that you really have to be taking it as a given that he’s talking, and you just don’t get to hear it — all the better for you to insert your own voice in the margins.

but lies of p does have protgaonist dialogue, too, sort of! lying is a mechanic in the game (of course it is). the moments where you’re asked to lie are almost always given an emotional valence; the lies are rarely “claim to be someone you’re not to access to a locked door.” instead you lie to protect others from shame or guilt, to offer them grace instead of forcing them up against an awful truth. sometimes it’s clear they know you’ve lied to them, but they appreciate it all the same, because the lie means you care about their feelings.

it works well enough in those moments, I think (so far, at least; I’m only about halfway through the game), but these half-steps create some weird dissonance. principally, the reason I thought to write this: there’s at least one moment where you’re made to fight a character I did not want to fight, whose reason for wanting pinocchio dead is misguided in more than one way. the character in question traps you in an arena where, given your silence and the lack of dialogue choices, killing is your only option.

it’s not that I wanted to be able to talk my way out of the fight—this isn’t a fallout game and I don’t want it to be—but the scene lacks characterization of both pinocchio and his opponent. the character talks plenty during your fight; pinocchio says nothing. am I meant to intuit that he’s trying to respond? is that character so far gone that attempts to console or bargain are futile?

there’s also the fact that pinocchio’s whole deal, in terms of character arc, is traditionally his quest to be a “real boy.” the lying (and listening to music, a clever way to show off the game’s great musical direction) feel like steps on the path towards a “good ending” where this, or something like it, happens. but in practice, pinocchio’s such a cipher that the journey means nothing beyond any gameplay benefits it may offer.

soulsborne games with silent player-characters use them to emphasize how their worlds refuse connection and trap individuals into cycles of despair and violence. lies of p, though it cribs heavily from those games in play and aesthetic, is ostensibly telling a story about trying to connect to the world, broken but not lost, and to discover what it means to be human. the narrative’s isn’t a failure, but it’s hamstrung by this opposition.


addendum: I said at the top that lies of p is probably my favorite game in this milieu that wasn’t developed by from, and it probably outpaces a few of their games, too. that comes down, ultimately, to polish. mortal shell had some interesting ideas but was a clunky mess to actually play, with wildly unbalanced difficulty and janky animation. lies of p by contrast is tweaked to near-perfection. it can be maddeningly difficult, and I think some enemies have too much health, but my mistakes always feel like my own failures to read animation cycles (my own or my enemy’s), which is the kind of tough-but-fair balance you need to make it feel satisfying to get your ass kicked a dozen-plus times by one boss only to finally triumph.

it’s a cool game, it’s on game pass, it’s worth a look

the horse is fine.

pictured: boudicca (me) atop her beautiful steed (not me)

no, it is not as versatile as the horse in elden ring with its double jump. it’s not as fast as link’s horse of choice in the latest zelda joints, and its burst of speed is more limited in use-cases and cooldown. this is all fine, though, because it is intentional, and because diablo 4 is not elden ring or zelda and doesn’t want you to play it like those games, or even to play it like diablo 2 or 3.

the horse in diablo 4 is an opt-in movement speed buff that, while used, locks you out of combat. it is given to you close to campaign end-game, after you’ve already unlocked most of the major waypoints on the enormous map. it does not prevent you from getting sandbagged by a nasty pack of enemies along your route, nor does it prevent you from getting blockaded or forced to jump a cliff on your own.

this is because diablo 4 is built around you walking little trails for questlines and exploration, and the horse is meant not to skip but instead to encourage those activities. you’re supposed to hop on it for little clearings and then hop off for a bit of sustained combat before traveling on. hence the lengthy cooldowns.

a different thing about diablo 4 that I do find annoying: you can’t have multiple quest objectives visible on your HUD at once. I’m often playing the game such that I have 3 to 4 quests active within a certain region, and it would be convenient and efficient for me to be able to track and knock out quest objectives in parallel. the map menu gives you this, but it’s not efficient and it’s not a pause menu so it’s not without danger while in the middle of hostile territory.

again, though, I think this is intentional: the quest design encourages getting invested in the little side stories, which often have multiple acts and pivots within them before you get your chunk of reward XP. a rescue mission to bring a sick woman back home ends up going awry and getting the whole town infested, so now you’re on another trek to collect stuff for a soup, but then the soup doesn’t quite work, so now you’re going over here. a woman with magical powers is ostracized by family and community, repeatedly, and you keep having to pluck her from distress or help her find a new path forward.

if you’re playing this game like a checklist — like your standard baal runs in diablo 2 or the “friction-less” postgame quest design of diablo 3: reaper of souls — you’ll skip the atmosphere, the consistent and strong voice acting and writing, the ways so many of the questlines attempts to weave its own beginning, middle, and end within your larger journey. they’re not all successful, of course, but they can’t work unless the game forces you to give them a chance.

we’ve all had this conversation before, haven’t we? friction in games is not negative. game design choices are almost always deliberate, and even if they’re cash grabs they’re also thematic. I find it pretty easy to ignore diablo 4’s monetization, built as it is around a small helping of cosmetics. yes, the menu item is always marked with an obnoxious exclamation point that claws at my desire to have all checkboxes ticket, but it’s a quick thing to pass by, which once again feels intentional on the part of the many game designers involved who didn’t care how blizzard-activision wanted to live-service this game to oblivion.

diablo 4 wants you to ruminate within the decay of a world now running through its fourth apocalyptic scenario. (some plot spoilers follow; skip the paragraph if you’re not interested.) those who know more about the never-ending theological sparring have grown either tired or manic, clinging to cynicism and alcohol or else to extraordinarily tenuous faith in absent or explicitly dismissive deities. even the deities themselves are done with this crap — lilith wants to kill her dad and end the eternal conflict for good, damn the rest; meanwhile inarius just wants to go home, that poor stupid guy.

the way the game uses its legacy to this effect is interesting. you see locations from the first pair of games in passing visions or nightmares. one (non-demon) character returns in a way that let’s just say keeps with the themes. there’s a notable use of a location from diablo 3 but the place is a crumbled waste; you end up walking through entire chunks of the same map as that previous game, but all your former destinations, merchants, and traveling partners are dust.

you walk (or trot) through a half-dead world, and there are all these people still trying to make it into a place worth living, whether through delirious faith or little familial comforts or whatever vices are available. it’s a compelling space while also going for a different vibe than the previous games’ claustrophobic corridors and souped-up character tropes (the wizened guide, the eastern mystic, the booming archangel).

it still feels like diablo but I find it harder to play for sustained periods, which I think is to the game design’s credit. do a quest or two, fight a helltide, then get out for the day (or for the next few hours, at least). I haven’t even started a second character yet. the game seems to discourage the “end game is when you’ve unlocked everything and are grinding forever” mindset locked into veteran series gamers, which is good, because that mindset and approach came out of the absence of proper endgame in previous games. I might one day see everything in diablo 4, but it’s the first of its franchise’s worlds where that feels like a distant end goal rather than a first step to the “true” game.

the horse is both a concession to this game’s “open world” billing and yet a statement of semi-defiant intent. yes, there are many checklists in this game, but there’s also a lot of aesthetic and thematic work happening within each detail, so the game’s been built to slow you down—and aggravate you, if necessary—to keep paying attention to those details.

once the game’s seasonal content comes most of this thoughtful approach goes in the bin, but that’s the way of a game being corporate-engineered into everlasting life, yes? I’ll avoid that, and I think many of the game’s designers would hope you’d do the same, in some secret part of themselves. diablo 4’s heart, to me, will always arise from its depiction of the sluggishness and insanity that come from being too aware of your doom. you can’t gallop your way past the grim scenes or skip the fact that every inch of good you bring back to this place is just an inch, one at a time, against an ever-rising tide.

[7/10, though, because it retains those flying bugs from 3 that spit out smaller poison bugs? or something? they’re less monstrous here than they were during diablo 3’s original release when they could one-shot you but they still evoke sour memories]

Watch this essay on YouTube:

Memories are rotten, and memories rot. Entropy and age take their toll on our brains. We forget that we had ever remembered some fond glance, some summer's favorite song. Memories that remain form a stain upon the present: nostalgia, regret, and frustration boil out of the same misremembering. We clutch our past so tight that we squeeze its life away, and then the corpse shambles along behind us. It's bi-directional: the present moment, corrupted by decayed memory, itself falls into memory and decays as well.

This is a grim way to introduce a Doom WAD, isn't it.


surely, this topic — or at least the more general “hey john wick is like a video game” — has been covered ad nauseum by now. if nothing else, the fourth movie (which I just saw in the theater — god I missed movie theaters) has triggered some takes regarding certain scenes’ clear video-game influences.

still, because it’s fun and before we get into the meaty bits, let’s delight in some the mechanical and aesthetic respects in which john wick is a particular kind of video game franchise:


there’s a scene in the campaign of diablo 4’s open beta period, which ran this past weekend, where you revisit Tristram, the setting of the first diablo. (this marks four out of four mainline Diablo games to feature this extremely damned town.) upon this visit, though, you find Tristram now literally in hell, having been so deeply ruined and damned by residents both terranean and sub-terranean that its best real estate now lies along shores of lava.

yet here I am again, visiting those shorelines, gawking at the weird rattling cage the skeletons stuck deckard cain in, fondly reminiscing beside the now-dry well at the town center. still gets me, even now, with the nightmare fully on display.

there’s a metaphor in there somewhere.


the thing about dark souls is that apparently only From Software understands how to make it work.

I was thoroughly souls-pilled by ELDEN RING and spent my gaming time after that experience cruising through the entirety of From’s entries. I’ve now beaten every souls-y game they’ve put out with one exception (fuck you sekiro and your inexplicable timing windows). I loved every single one, even dark souls 2 with its idiosyncrasies and one-off design choices. DS1, ELDEN RING, and bloodborne. are now easy answers for me if anyone asks me for an arbitrary assortment of my favorite games (not a question I get a lot but it’s nice to have newer answers than mega man x and final fantasy tactics).

straying outside From’s comforting polish has not borne much fruit, unfortunately. I’ve played a number of souls takes from other studios, large and small. note here that I’m being a little narrower than what “soulslike” is usually taken to mean in larger discourse; what I want at the core is that sweet, sweet third-person character action with animation-rhythm-based combat.


I complained in my last essay about CONTROL's unwillingness to lean into being a video game. I'd been hoping it would violate its own spaces and mechanical boundaries in order to both amplify the potential of its premise and to highlight why video games have unique and untapped power to convey strangeness and unreality through mechanical, narrative, and level design. Alas.

So of course the next game on my to-do list was Tunic, a video game about its own video game-ness if ever there was one.


I finished CONTROL last week. Taken mechanically, it’s a good game. I found the combat loops satisfying, especially after collecting the full range of non-gun powers; there’s few things more satisfying in video games than hurling a filing cabinet at a bad guy’s head. The upgrade and accessorizing systems were too finicky and incremental for me, but the fundamental weapon choices were sound, even if I found myself relying almost exclusively on the powerful “pierce” sniper-rifle variation. Traversal is fun, which is key for a game that expects no small amount of backtracking. The visual and physics engines feel delightfully next-gen, even playing at 40 frames per second on the Steam Deck.

(As YouTubers and Redditors will tell you. 40 FPS is a real magic number on the Deck: at the size of the portable, it feels nearly as smooth as 60 and worlds better than 30, but the Deck’s much more capable of keeping the lower framerate steady.)


secrets on the scale are worth their weight in truth

I press on brick and tile in search of hidden passage, until

after terracotta rots and the house crashes down

I stand, triumphant, dead center in my labyrinth of ash

(this is an adaptation of a video essay of mine, which you can watch here.)

If you want to understand the function of mythology in God of War, both the original early-2000s series of games and their rebirth with 2018's God of War and last year's God of War: Ragnarok, consider that the titular “god of war” is you.