Tony Van was the producer in charge of localizing a Japanese RPG called The Story of Thor: Hikari wo Tsugu Mono (Ancient, 1994) for Western audiences, but received a badly translated copy of the story to work from.
In an interview for the The Game Localization Handbook, he explained: “I tried my hardest to figure it out, but was completely baffled. I was under extreme time pressure to get it out for Christmas, so I didn’t have time to contact the Japanese office to track down the original source and get it re-translated. I simply rewrote the story and dialogue using all the plot points I could understand as references and writing that sounded good to me when I didn’t understand the plot points!”
Instead of the action taking place in “the world of Thor”, the English translation located everything in “the land of Oasis” and the game was sold in North America as Beyond Oasis. Someone decided it would sell better in Europe under its original title of The Story of Thor: A Successor of the Light except it left thousands of European Sega Megadrive owners with a mystery: who the bloody Hell is Thor?
I will forever remember it as The Story of Thor because Thor is one of my personal favourites. I’ve played through it three times: the first time was in 1994 as the academic chapter of my life was coming to a close; the second time in 2006 as pure comfort gaming on an emulator; the third time, this year, was a performance for my children, who enjoyed the watching but had little interest in the doing. It can now be bought on Steam for a couple of dollars.
This recent and perhaps final playthrough was illuminating because I was simultaneously playing… dun-dun-duuuunnnn Dark Souls (From Software, 2011).
Thor is a simple RPG in which you use weapons to slash your way through legions of enemies but also employ the “Gold Armlet” to summon spirits to aid you. Most of the game is a long quest to recover the four spirits of the Armlet after which you have to take down the Big Bad who is using the “Silver Armlet” for Nefarious Purposes.
Once you have acquired a spirit, it can only be summoned if that spirit’s element is nearby: Dytto comes from water, Efreet from fire, Shade from reflections and Bow from plants. Thus the Thor player is more attentive to environment than similar games of the era because without access to the right spirit at the right time, progress is difficult or impossible.
Inventory management is basic. There are two inventories: one for weapons and one for food, although occasionally special magical items take up a space in your food page. All weapons, aside from your basic knife, have a limited number of uses, so you’re often hunting for more weapons to stave off the fear that you’ll have to fall back on your knife. Although I am supposed to interpret this as blades do not last forever, it somewhat feels like your swords have finite ammunition because of what we might call the “stabs remaining” count next to each weapon. (Pro tip: don’t waste those stabs on opening chests.)
While its translator considered the story baffling, Thor is minimalist when it comes to delivering narrative through the game. There are only a few folks to talk to and, as no one planted any dialogue trees in Thor, you’re there just to listen. Story beats are expressed through the fragile, haunting and occasionally bloody loud soundtrack from Yuzo Koshiro which masterfully evokes the black and white serials of the early twentieth-century. This also means the player is never in any doubt this is about good versus evil. Not like that Soleil/Crusader of Centy (Atlus, 1994), an early example of subverting traditional game symbolism… but that’s a story for another day.
There are no shops. There is definitely no gold. Although the strength of each spirit depends on how many elemental gems you’ve collected and your maximum health and magic scores will increase over the game, Thor isn’t a title where you grind for stats and experience points, because the game is a largely linear journey. Your character doesn’t really have stats to monitor and GamePro’s 1995 review described it as “definitely not for hardcore RPGers” (according to Wikipedia).
There are some obnoxious design decisions later such as jumping puzzles, aggravating boss fights over a precipice and one maddening dark hole that the game has trained you to recognise as certain death when actually it’s an exit. Also, you cannot save your game when you are inside a cave or dungeon, but that is easily resolved with an emulator.
Overall, it’s not a difficult game and having been through it twice before, I find it all quite Zen and chasing down some of the optional secrets can be fun (pro tip: not Efreet’s time trial, goddddd nooooo).
I’m playing Dark Souls for the first time and find it very much anti-Zen. It requires your full attention and shoves you into a constant sense of anxiety, an adventurer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. You cannot make your way through Dark Souls without making mistakes, yet mistakes always feel costly due to the potential loss of experience and being forced to fight your way again to the point YOU DIED. It’s Stockholm Syndrome: The Game, where players openly declare their love for a consumer product that imprisons them for hours and tortures them throughout.
I had a great urge to run away when I embarked on my Dark Souls adventure. Not because of what people had said, but because of something they hadn’t.
Good luck in getting Roger Ebert, if he were still with us, to appreciate this modern videogame “art”. Pages and pages of numbers. The stats of your character, the stats of each weapon and item, how much you can carry and so on. I remember being shocked at how many attributes a single character in Mount & Blade (TaleWorlds Entertainment, 2011) had, like I was ever going to play the game long enough to get an idea of where I should put my paltry few upgrade points among four attributes and 24 skills. I hadn’t played a proper RPG for years and I’d forgotten, upon beholding Dark Souls, how bewildering they could be.
The only reliable strategy for getting over this fear of numbers is to dive in. Like strangers at a party, they only become familiar and friendly if you spend some time getting to know them. Eventually, these numbers become the knobs and switches on your personal mixing deck. It’s like levelling up, the meta edition: you need to gain experience with the numbers before you understand how your character gains experience with the numbers.
Eventually, these systems reduce into something manageable or, sometimes, early choices narrow your potential “career path” so it makes less sense putting numbers into certain stats. Even the great Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999) had lots of numbers; I was big into Wisdom because Wisdom made for better conversations, the heart of Torment’s greatness. Gradually I began to acquire numerical interests in Dark Souls. I want to live a little longer? That’ll be Vitality. I want to wield Astora’s Straight Sword? That’ll be Strength. And so on, et cetera, ad infinitum.
Thor has none of this, coming from a era where console games were making great strides in design often by draining complexity. Games were now expensive to make and appetite for risk was ebbing with every year. In the 80s, computer RPGs typically came something resembling an academic paper on how their arcane adventuring system worked, trying their best to emulate their favourite boxed RPG. And that meant you couldn’t play seriously without RTFM.
Designers aim to ensure that stat improvements are countered with beefier enemies. Failure results in encounters like the Ylsides in Arx Fatalis (Arkane Studios, 2002), enemies that kill with such deadly, speedy precision that fear gives way to frustration. There’s an absurdist story to be found here, of developers burning the midnight oil and high-fiving one another for constructing the most intricate, complex system that resembles, as close as possible, a flat line of difficulty.
Also, lest we forget, we’re discussing games played on computers. You know what computers are good at? Hiding complexity, covering up all that dirty numerical filth. That famous hybrid Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) was more about choosing the abilities at your disposal as opposed to divining the meaning of numbers – although a system of “skill points” managed to leak through.
But no, despite all this, a desire for the naked number endures and there are players for whom communion with an arbitrary system of numbers is essential. Why?
One answer is that these systems are puzzles to be solved. How do these stats translate into something I want to achieve? On my next stat increase, what would be better, to broaden my abilities or specialize? A system like this is said to offer depth and is usually more about longevity and replay than mastery across a single playthrough. Sometimes getting to grips with arcane systems is, in itself, a reward. I remember feeling triumphant when I could make sense of the numbers in deckbuilding game Armageddon Empires (Cryptic Comet, 2007).
But that’s not the whole story; infinity seduces players. As the numbers march inexorably upwards, there is the illusion of progress, that something of importance is happening with every kill. The danger is that it’s not really a “role-playing game” but bland grind flavoured with numerical salt, a trick exploited by many F2P games. Even with the best of intentions, many RPGs fall back on grind as padding.
I’ve played some of Dark Souls and it’s clear that if you’re grinding, you’re doing it wrong, you’re looking at the finger and missing all that goddamn heavenly glory. The numbers are a way to lock in progress: once you’ve completed a section, it will never be this difficult again. And maybe that is the true magic of the numbers in Dark Souls, a cosmic prank at the expense of the numerologist player. Salvation is not to be found in numbers but in yourself. The XP of the player and the XP of the character are one and the same.
But not every game is Dark Souls and I worry that the undying fetish for numbers is the main reason we still have them, rather than any contribution to a meaningful game experience. I was brought up on the streamlined Skill/Stamina system in the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and that seemed good enough. I graduated onto D&D and Call of Cthulhu where the numbers were a necessary backdrop to the actual “role-playing”. But with computer RPGs, naked numbers feel like a vestigial organ that take on undeserved prominence. At best, I tolerate them.
I imagine I just sound like the kind of person who wants to do away with combat in the Mass Effect series. Please write in the comments why you think the numbers deserve to stay.
Update Sunday 18 Sep: The sequel post, Arithmophobia II, with ruminations on the responses is up!