A Statement of Abstraction: An Analysis of Titan Souls
Pre-reading note: For readers who have never played the game, there is an amazing speed run by Scrublord at https://www.speedrun.com/titan_souls/run/zpqldvny
Key art of Titan Souls
The story of David and Goliath informs every aspect of the U.K. developed indie game Titan Souls, published in 2015. From character design to core mechanics to its very development and publishing, the game is shaped by this influential story. Our understanding of the game’s experience goals is enriched by understanding the parallels between the biblical story and Titan Souls’ gameplay. In exploring Titan Souls’ cultural background, one discovers that the Protagonist’s journey to defeat almost two dozen supremely challenging bosses is not only a reflection of the human journey of challenge and triumph but also a manifestation of small businesses’ struggle to “make it” in a mega-corporatized economy.
The story of David and Goliath strongly informs Titan Souls’ design choices. This is not to say that the game is religiously themed or has any overtly Islamic, Christian, or Jewish intent to influence the player. Indeed, the lore of the game is pagan in depicting various god-like powers, aligned with general trends of the fantasy RPG genre. Rather, the game evokes the same emotions and message that the story of David and Goliath inspires. The odds are stacked against the player’s success, as a weak character must overcome a seemingly unstoppable power.
There are deep parallels between the biblical story and Titan Souls’ formal qualities. Titan Souls’ combat sequences mirror this fight: “[a]s the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David … slung [a stone] and struck the Philistine on the forehead” (New International Version, Samuel 1:17, 48-49). As a key mechanic in the game, players must briefly charge their arrow’s shot, much as David had to wind up his sling. Oftentimes, the bosses are only vulnerable in the brief moments before or during an attack upon the player—“as the Philistine moved closer to attack [David]”—forcing the player to risk destruction by standing their ground and taking a disciplined shot. In addition, every boss can be killed with a single well-timed shot. The player’s goal is essentially to strike each Goliath-like foe “on the forehead”. This creates important player choices—such as deciding whether to take a risky shot or roll out of the way of a smashing hand—and lends great weight to the player’s split-second decisions during fights. By developing crisp game mechanics derived from the Books of Samuel, the player’s experience arc comes to match the emotional arc evoked by the biblical story: fear followed by desperation, determinedness, and finally great triumph.
The player’s experience arc is achieved through communicative rules. Renowned game scholar Anna Anthropy posits in A Game Design Vocabulary “... [designers] can’t design the player or her behavior. Rules are how we communicate,” (Anthropy, 15). Her philosophy is strongly evident in Titan Souls’ system design. By posing the Protagonist’s safety as a trade-off in order to win, the rules naturally create cognitive dissonance; the player must not die if they wish to win, but paradoxically must come close to death for a chance to win. In effect, the rules “communicate” the need to risk life in order to succeed. The player feels the emotions prescribed to the weaker side of a David-and-Goliath fight: fear and desperation. With repetition and a gradual understanding of the bosses’ movement patterns, the player may triumph, thus emulating the determination of David (though he did not have the Protagonist’s ability to respawn) and creating a rush of euphoria at successfully defeating a boss. Acid Nerve’s carefully designed systems create a tense, fight-for-your life emotional arc for the player.
Boss death animations create another parallel to the biblical story and are crucial to dramatizing the player’s successes. In the story, “After [David] killed [Goliath], he cut off his head with the sword” (Samuel 1:17, 51). Cutting Goliath’s head off is a widely recognized symbolic act of triumph. David takes Goliath’s head as a trophy, and the moment is dramatically reinforced by the fleeing Philistines. Similarly, the Protagonist rips his/her arrow from the defeated boss after a battle, causing streams of light—presumably the titan’s soul—to streak from the frozen remains, before swirling around and being absorbed by the spinning Protagonist. The animation strongly reinforces the player’s feeling of victory, and the Protagonist’s absorption of the soul is akin to David’s capture of a war trophy. The Protagonist’s journey in defeating the titans ultimately replicates humans’ experience of challenge and triumph.
Acid Nerve takes the biblical parallel one step further, as the game was developed and released into a market dominated by a few industry giants: Destiny by Activision, World of Warcraft by Blizzard Entertainment, to some extent even The Legend of Zelda and Pokemon by Nintendo were all comparable dungeon-crawl style games. The boldness of indie publisher Devolver Digital and studio Acid Nerve to pit Titan Souls against these AAA titles parallels the bravery of players to take on the difficult bosses and make it out alive. Often, the plight of indie developers seems like an “against-all-odds” struggle to make it economically. In 2018, “[m]arket researcher Newzoo reported that the top 25 public game companies account for nearly 80 percent of the global market, and they generated $107.3 billion in revenue out of a total $134.9 billion” (Takahashi). With thousands of video game development companies in the U.S. alone, large corporate firms capture a vastly disproportionate amount of gaming revenue. Of course, monopolization of the market is not exclusive to the gaming industry. At the time of the game’s release in 2015, a single company, Amazon.com, Inc., held a 34% market share of all online retail. That figure has now increased to a staggering 49% (Fortune). Titan Souls emulates the feeling of triumphing against a more powerful foe; Acid Nerve’s success reflects the rare triumph of a small studio against dominating production companies; struggles of indie game developers in general are a reflection of small businesses’ struggles to compete with growing powers as technology and the world economy evolves.
Though Titan Souls challenges dungeon crawler norms, its rich player experience and powerful theme is only possible because of its predecessors in the genre of 2D fantasy roleplaying games. Acid Nerve boils the genre to its core, challenging larger game publishers in much the same way as David challenges Goliath. Consideration of the cultural backdrop behind Titan Souls’ development enriches the game’s central theme of challenging powers magnitudes stronger than oneself. Georgia Institute of Technology games professor Ian Bogost also favors culturally-minded analysis of games, arguing “to understand what … games are saying about … historical events we need to ask how the player interacts with procedural rules to create patterns of historical and social meaning” (Bogost, 128). Interestingly, the player progresses through Titan Souls’ procedural rules much differently from most dungeon crawls or 2D fantasy RPGs. In Acid Nerve’s case, the game is a statement about the time-consuming “grind” portion of most 2D RPGs. Those games tend to keep players engaged with the game for long periods of time, executing relatively easy loops of gameplay. The component of sequentially progressing through small opponents in order to arrive at plot points is a practice adopted across many RPGs, not limited to 2D games (e.g. Assassin’s Creed, Fallout, Left 4 Dead). By abstracting away the build up to a boss fight, Acid Nerve critiques the practice of extending gameplay with meaningless “grind”. The indie developers draw attention to the fact that larger publishers are earning money by wasting the players’ time on less meaningful actions in game. Acid Nerve subversively breaks RPG norms, as the hero’s journey becomes a series of sharp peaks rather than the gradual leveling and skill progression typical of the genre. Titan Souls’ procedural rules are richly meaningful due to their subversion of its predecessors’ trends.
It can be argued that Titan Souls’ theme has no relation to David and Goliath. In A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Sony Online Entertainment’s CCO Raph Koster posits the theory that “[g]ames are not stories,” that they “are external - they are about people’s actions” (Koster 112). Formalist critics could analyze Titan Souls from the simple standpoint of providing feedback to a player’s actions. However, these perspectives neglect meaningful similarities between the story related by the Book of Samuel and the experience embedded in Titan Souls. David and Goliath is an important product of human experience. Drawing parallels to Titan Souls’ gameplay and development story reveals a crucial message about growing world powers. Ultimately, Acid Nerve has taken on the role of the Protagonist in an industry full of titans.
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The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Print.