Blighttown, 300 Million, & Alice Knott 04/04/21

I stayed up too late last night playing Dark Souls. I got to Blighttown, an infamous spot in the game. When I’d read about or watched YouTube videos on DS, everybody said, “When you get to Blighttown, you are officially in the shit.”

It’s deep underneath the maps you’ve been exploring, everything is lit by torches, everything is rotting. Everything poisons you, and if you get poisoned, your health starts to drain until you fix it with a purple moss clump. Those are starting to run out, though…and now you’ve gotten toxic, not poisoned…and slimy growling things are chasing you up and around narrow paths, swinging corpses at you, and when you kill them, you collect shit pies.

It reminds me in many ways of the Silent Hill games, aesthetically at least. It’s claustrophobic and vertigo-inducing. But…I’m having a blast. I get really scared when I play scary games, and I don’t usually enjoy them. Once I beat Silent Hill 3, I told myself I was done putting myself through stuff like that, even though I had fun. At this point, though, that was about… 14 years ago. Dear god.

And yet, I am having so much fun playing this game. I poked around the internet, reading essays about the game, and came across this very academic but nonetheless accurate summation of the difficulty curve of the game:

The process of continually cycling through attempts in the game is the most visible facet of difficulty at play in these games.  The experience is built with the expectation of continued loss and trial-and-error. Regardless of how well the player memorizes the game, or how well they might execute optimal strategies, character death and game difficulty are still an ever-present reality due to the progressive and scaling nature of the effectance curve.  In effect, this model of difficulty is about negotiating and mitigating the continuous presence of losing conditions. Failure is constant, ever-present, and to a certain extent, beyond the scope of player control. Despite this, Souls games remain an incredibly popular and successful franchise with a significant following. Players continue to engage and play, despite the punishing efforts of the game to thwart them.

Of course, because I am a writer, I started thinking about this difficulty and learning curve in terms of the novel. This may seem like an impossible comparison to make. Video games and novels are obviously very different, and a participant (I don’t like “consumer” anymore and want to stop saying it) in a work of art approaches the two forms differently. Nevertheless!

The concept of difficult learning curves that actually encourage participation reminded me of one of my favorite books of last year: Alice Knott by Blake Butler. Aesthetically, Butler’s books remind me of black metal songs, or Dark Souls. Everything is rotting and ugly. As I wrote in my World Literature Today review of the book: “There is a hypnotic nastiness to some of this book, but it’s a ritual, a trial, and when you get through it, you’ve gone somewhere. It’s a book that is about its doing as much as it is about what it is about. It is shattering the space of the page into a new form of chaos and, as such, is a constant becoming.”

Dark Souls is a trial! It’s also about the experience of doing as much as it is about a story (there really isn’t one), and when you get through it, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. I was going to put a quote from my Kindle copy of AK here, but I take the worst notes, highlight passages and can’t remember why I highlighted them, they often don’t make sense, so I’m going to cheat here and go to a different book of Butler’s, 300,000,000, and nab some Goodreads quotes:

“Blood helicopters chopped across my slim cerebrum like fresh diamonds, rings in screaming on small hands coming awake inside my linings, each after its own way to reach beyond me.”

“After the confession, still inside his sleeping, a massive boil shaped like a bird’s egg appears on his left hand between his point finger and his thumb. When medics drain the boil, from the pustule’s face floods a creamy darkish oil. The runoff will be stored in a glass vial in a black locker several miles from Gravey’s fleshy self, no one seeing what the wet does in the darkness when no longer watched.”

“The shrinking house was packed in angles of mushy arm meat and abdomens in such ways I couldn’t walk to see who was there or what food I would not eat. The sexdrives of the molding prior bodies of the dead refracted through me in the silence of the act of spreading of our silence outside the house. We clearly knew one day we’d have to all kill one another to become All, and why not begin now?”

Gross! I received both AK and 300 for review, and I recall, especially with the latter, that when I got through the book I felt like I had been through something. Many similar reviews bare that out as well. There are intermittent moments of pleasure throughout, and the books aren’t too long, because they’re already endurance tests. And yet, you learn how to read the book, how to navigate it, when to let your eyes glaze over and when to pay attention. When you leave the book you feel like it’s following you around. It’s powerful stuff! And not for people who want coherent, easy reading.

How can we apply this concept to books in general? I think that, with my current WIP, I was trying too much to make it a palatable read, something that a larger general audience can work with. But that’s never how I’ve written books. Critics get mad at my weird endings, they get mad that there are too many characters, that it’s too minimalistic, that sometimes it reads like a script. And playing through DS, and thinking back to 300 and AK made me have an epiphany as I tried to fall asleep at 1:00am last night: I have to lean into those tendencies. I have to make the book fun for me to write. The reason why I have tons of characters and strange occurrences, and why I don’t tell the reader what’s going on, is because that’s what makes it fun for me!

We should embrace a slight difficulty curve, if that’s a thing that we enjoy doing. Because writing is about expressing who you are. Some people like Final Fantasy. Some people like Dark Souls. Some like both!

Find out what you enjoy, and try to take it even further. That’s all you can really do.

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