Thoughts on the First Few Minutes of Bioshock (spoilers)

Spoilers + conjecture = Fun!

Here's the video if you haven't seen it. If seeing exactly what you're going to see when you first see the game is a spoiler, then this spoils it completely in that, here, you can see it just as it will be seen. Do you see?

The quote from the apparently fictional (at least in this universe) book Barriers to Trans-Dimensional Travel (R. Lutece, 1889) reads, "The mind of the subject will desperately struggle to create memories where none exist..." Ken Levine is telling us that this self-rationalization induced by changing dimensions will play a large role in Bioshock Infinite's protagonist Booker DeWitt's life. The game starts with Booker in the back of a row boat in a storm. A man and a woman sit in front of him discussing rowing and why they're performing this particular, "thought experiment." Their interaction with Booker is minimal, ignoring most of his questions, as they calmly, politely argue among themselves.

Booker must have just been warped to where he is. He acts like he knows why he's in the boat, but I don't think he really does. It feels like a dream where the situation you're in is absurd, but your mind rationalizes it so that it must make some sort of sense because you're there. In the dream, you don't question it. It's only when you wake up you can see the holes in the story.

The dialog between the other two in the boat is amazing. They have a bit of a Laurel and Hardy routine going as the woman wittily and deliberately misinterprets what the man says. She won't row, because this thought experiment was his stupid idea. You don't embark on an experiment that has already failed, she says. As implied by the Infinite title of the game, these series of events have already happened, at least in some universes. Why do it again if it's already failed? Perhaps the man knows something that will change it. Perhaps he already has.

Like the first Bioshock, the protagonist has a package that starts the unfolding of events to come. The lady, without looking back, hands Booker a small box with a brass plaque reading "Property of: Booker DeWitt, 7th Cavalry, Wounded Knee." Wounded Knee was the last battle of the American Indian war in 1890. In it, the 7th Cavalry Regiment surrounded a band of Lakota Sioux Native Americans and then things went horribly wrong. Many on the U.S. Calvary won Medals of Honor, which would be presented to the recipient in a box just like the one Booker is handed.

Wounded Knee was a debacle. While disarming the surrounded Lakota, there was a weapon discharged, and suddenly the U.S. side is firing on everyone, including their own troops. In the chaos, Lakota started returning fire. Hundreds died needlessly. If Booker was there and won a Medal of Honor 21 years before the start of the game, he must have been a young soldier. Chances are good this awful experience helps inform Booker's hard boiled outlook on life in the present day (whatever present day means for a dimensional traveller). It also sheds light on Booker's muttered comment of, "Good luck with that," after reading the sign saying all sins will be washed away.

In the box is a pistol, one of a type that Booker seems familiar and experienced with, a postcard for Columbia, a pictogram that we discover is the combination for a lock later, directions on the latitude and longitude of where to bring his target Elizabeth in New York City, a picture of her, a large coin, and an ornate key. If you're driving somewhere you get an address. If you're going to fly somewhere, a latitude and longitude can be more useful. Booker's expected to fly Elizabeth to her destination.

As we look at the contents of the box, the couple up front continue to argue. We hear this exchange:

MAN

Because he doesn't row.

WOMAN (incredulous)

He doesn't row?

MAN

No. He *doesn't* row.

WOMAN

Ah. I see what you mean.

The man is saying that in the story that Booker's about to star in, Booker doesn't row on the way to the island lighthouse. That's not how it happened, so he won't do it this time. I expect the snake-eating-it's-own-tail nature of the story will come back around later. Are Booker and Elizabeth the other two in the row boat putting on accents and making sure they successfully meet, Marty McFly style? Booker doesn't seem like the accent type. Their children, perhaps?

Booker climbs up through the lighthouse and sees signs of things to come. Religious texts on the wall are from Comstock. The bodies may very well be from Comstock as well. I'm sure the maps and other knick-knacks will make sense after more of the story is revealed. The map, with push-pins over the United States and yarn between them is probably tracking the position of Columbia as it floats through the sky.

The opening parallels the first Bioshock in so many ways. From the main character holding a package that starts the unfolding of events, to the lighthouse, to getting into a contraption that will take you where you need to go to fulfill your part in the story. It's that thing I love, but different enough to be new. I'm as excited as a murder of crows. Can't wait.

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Syndicate and our Lens Flared Future

Syndicate is the second game I've played recently taking place in The Lens Flared Future, and I'm worried about it.

Lens flares boil down to being an optical mistake in cameras. When photons travel through a lens, depending on the lens itself, you might get extra light from an unexpected angle. Photons inside the lens itself could also bounce around in unexpected ways because we, as humans, cannot yet manufacture optically perfect physical lenses. Another source of problems is if multiple lenses are in any way misaligned.

My eye shoots out light because robots.

Instead of just showing what the camera is pointed at, these imperfections could result in a bright multicolored ring, or even other shapes with the crazier lenses. You see it in movies filmed with real cameras, say when a camera pans past the sun, and with virtual cameras we've been aping it ever since. It looks cinematic! It looks like a real camera! Never mind that it's a (perhaps artful) optical mistake, we've been trained that this is what high quality images look like.

Both Syndicate and Mass Effect 3 are set in The Future, with a very specific look. Shiny surfaces, bright lights, and oh my christ are there lens flares. One could argue that with Syndicate being a first person game, in this lens flared future you're nominally looking through the eyes of the protagonist Kilo, so you shouldn't get lens flares consistent with an older 70mm lens, but he's had work done, man. Lay off. Robotic parts and shit. You don't know! Same goes for Commander Shepard in Mass Effect. Although, as a third person game, we view the action from a camera behind him. Who knew that during the reaper threat this cameraman would use the same camera setup as they did in Easy Rider.

J.J. Abrams went a little bit nuts with it in a similar fashion in his version of Star Trek. I'm not saying it doesn't look slick, because it does, but I think someday in our own shiny futures, this affectation is going to look more than a little ridiculous. John Carmack compared it, along with film grain, to adding horse shit to your car to get the authentic horse and buggy experience. As lenses and technology improve we'll be able to shoot the same scenes with less lens flare, not more. The problem is, if we're all wired to equate lens flare with The Future, we may not collectively want to.

Personally I want to see more of the things the camera is pointed at. I want more frames per second. Less lens flare. Even more dimensions if they ever figure out a way to do it right. I want more real in my pretend.

Art directors of the video game world, take note. Working together we can form a new high tech aesthetic. Join me, won't you?

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The ending must be astoudingly bad

Judging by the achievements, I'm probably a little over halfway done with the single player campaign of Mass Effect 3 and all I can say is, man, the ending must really suck. I'm not there yet, I've more or less not had the ending spoiled, but for the amount of hate syrup being poured on the Mass Effect 3 pancake (with vitriol butter) the ending has got to just be the worst thing ever in the history of story telling to offset how much fun it's been thus far.

There are some odd animation glitches, sure, but I just played a bit where you are dropped off on a planet directly into a Normandy (the beach, not the ship) style battle that was straight up awesome. I like the improved shooting, Shepard seems to handle better, and I really, honestly, truly love the multiplayer. It's not the most original thing in the world, sure, but fighting off the horde in the science fictional lens-flared future is great. I'm having a blast with it. It even cribs some good things from Borderlands and Diablo that trigger my ever present loot lust. I've got numbers, sure, but I could always have *better* numbers. That's why they're numbers.

I liked the crew you ran with better in ME2, I think Edie's hair looks stupid in 3, some aspects of the development feel rushed, and sometimes Shepard's head is twisted 90 degrees away from the person I think he's supposed to be looking at, but I reckon he gets shy. There are problems, but so far I love it to death.

I can't WAIT to get so foot stompingly angry at the ending. I bet I'll hate it so much it'll be a contender for game of the year. Hell, I bet I'll love it because I'm perverse like that. I bet I even can guess what it is.

So excited.

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Alan Wake's American Nightmare *almost* gets away with it

Dodge and burn

I like the combat in Alan Wake, so calibrate accordingly. The two-stage attack of first burning off the darkness with the flashlight, then finishing the job with some sort of gun (plus the slow movement speed of The Taken) results in the combat being more about crowd management than twitch action. As the horde comes in, your tasks as the player become making sure you're not hit, managing the darkness on the Taken, managing your flashlight's battery life, managing your ammo, and removing the baddies from the field one by one. It's fun for me, an interesting juggling act. All that plus a well timed dodge move and an amazing, trippy story line equals good times.

That said, the new stand-alone game Alan Wake's American Nightmare *almost* gets away with the dirty trick it plays. Broad story spoilers to follow.

It's after the events of the DLC from the first Alan Wake game, and he's starting to turn the corner on his situation. He knows, more or less, how to manage things in the Darkness. He's faced his demons. He's still a writer with a flashlight and a pistol, but he understands the ground rules and is making the right moves. He's still a great protagonist. Alan Wake isn't the problem, he's the strength. The problem is you go through the same levels not once, not twice, but three times through the course of the story.

Alan Wake is trapped by his nemesis Mr. Scratch in a time loop which requires him, and the increasingly-aware-of-the-situation hotties he interacts with, to go through the same motions again and again until Alan can arrange things at the end to his advantage. They do change things up between the runs, making each one easier and slightly different, but by the third time through I was well over it, even if it is a neat plot device.

It is more Alan Wake, and that is a good thing. The world still looks fantastic: astoundingly detailed set-dressing, beautiful lighting, excellent moodiness that doesn't overdo the tension for my chicken heart, and some female NPCs that, well, let's just say it's a video game. I didn't mind. There's also some perfect Full Motion Video messages from Mr. Scratch that appear on TVs throughout the world that completely get everything that's wonderful about Alan Wake just right.

Outside of the story it's a wave based survival mode on several different maps that are fun (if you like the combat) and not too challenging on the easy levels. The Twilight Zone style narration alone makes it worth the time.

The smartest man in room

It's short, but considering the dirty time loop trick, not short enough story-wise. It's fun. It's more Alan Wake. There's not enough Barry, but personally I'm hoping they're saving all the good Barry for Alan Wake 2. If Alan Wake 2 has an unlockable christmas tree light avatar costume, and you have my $60. If it has a co-op campaign with Alan and Barry, I'm getting the collectors edition. Barry is the heart of Alan Wake.

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Zeke: The Ultimate Predator

I played inFamous: Festival of Blood back to back with Assassin's Creed: Revelations, and it made me flip on a very important issue of our times. I now know, as objective truth, that inFamous has better city climbing/traversal mechanics than Assassin's Creed for one important reason: Because bats. 
 
Bats! As part of Festival of Blood you can turn into a swarm of bats and, for a limited time, fly (almost) anywhere you want in the world. Combined with the rail grinding, quick climbing, and Cole's awesome hover ability, no game is more fun to quickly cruise around the world. The only thing I was missing here is the ice jump from inFamous 2, but by and large the bats has you covered. Ezio is more or less a superhero, but Cole is more or more a superhero. The game does an amazing job of making you feel powerful. 
 
In this two or three hour stand-alone inFamous story, we have Cole's "you might be a redneck" buddy Zeke trying to pick up a hot chick in a hick bar telling her about the time Cole was almost turned totally into a vampire. Zeke's intro and narration through the game is hilarious. It's more inFamous (which is in itself awesome) where you use Cole's electric abilities along with some new vampire based abilities to solve a few puzzles, but mostly just murder fools. 
 
As a vampire, Cole can turn into a swarm of bats as breathlessly alluded to earlier, but he can also use his vampire sense to see things that mortal men cannot. This includes hidden teachings from your coven's leader, as well as which of the pedestrians around town are secretly vampire Firstborn. 
 
It also has Move support. No joke. I tried it out, and I could see it being fun, but I would have to totally retrain my meager inFamous brain. Using a full sized controller for the non-Move hand was also a bit awkward. Maybe with a sub-controller it would be better.
 
The story is good, it's more inFamous, and it's the best-in-class city traversal that the kids love. And it's $14.99. For this much fun, a bargain.

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Most Things are Permitted

Assassin's Creed: Revelations feels smaller, somehow. You spend most of your time in Istanbul (maiden name: Constantinople) looking for some keys that Altair had hid around town generations earlier. All of the refinements from Brotherhood are here, with you once again recruiting assassins and having them available for quick murder as you climb around town, or you can play the Assassin Tychoon subgame where you send them around Europe and the Middle East to gain experience points for more effective murder.

My other blade is a hooker

There are some good new additions, and also some new additions. First, the just new: You can now put your recruited assassins in Assassin Dens around town. If your notoriety gets too high, and the Assassin installed isn't yet rated as a Master, you have the option of playing a tower defense mini-game using assassins to take out the attacking Templars. It works okay, is a bit confusing, but wears thin after two or three trials. Second, the new and good: The hook blade is awesome. Having played a great deal of InFamous, anything that makes the climbing faster and more fluid is welcome. The hook blade hop isn't as much fun as the ice jump in InFamous 2, but definitely helps. The finishing moves with the hook blade are also satisfactorily brutal. What's that in your nose? Oh, it's my hook blade. Let me take that back... OH GOD.

I also was digging the Desmond based story puzzles on Animus Island. As you collect more Animus Data Fragments (the flags of this version, only 100 of them) you unlock these puzzle rooms. It feels a bit like Portal, with clean, high tech walls and environmental puzzles to solve. It's by no means as perfect as Portal, but it's fun enough, laying out geometric shapes to traverse the world. As you traverse you get what should be some Northie Award Nominated narration as Desmond about his life. If you care about the story behind Assassin's Creed, which I do way more than I probably should, it's fascinating.

Wonkee chee sa crispa con Greedo?

Being a superfan of the story, I also loved the Altair sections of the game. They were straightforward, but making the design choice to have you play as a seriously old-ass Altair a few times was great. Grandpa can still kick your ass, even if he can't run up a wall anymore. Old Altair was slow, but had some flat out beautiful moments. Same with Ezio and his story. They continued their tradition of having some unexpected story moments at the end that gave me goosebumps. I love that stuff.

I also just love playing more Assassin's Creed. Traversing the world, walking through crowds (crowds!) in a game, listening to the ambient sound and conversations. It's not the holodeck, but man, it's good.

It does feel smaller this time around, though. Fewer places to go, fewer things to do, many great story missions but not many new twists. There are definitely revelations, but still more questions than real answers. I know now what I have to do: Play Assassin's Creed 3. I really fear that this engine and framework can't successfully pull off another yearly iteration. Let's see what next year really brings.

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L.A. Noire is not for me

I decided to give up on playing the rest of L.A. Noire, and I feel bad about it. It happened when I'd just finished the homicide story arc and was starting my first case at the Ad Vice desk. I was driving to a warehouse full of furniture and some iced morphine, when I T-Boned another car crossing the intersection who was only looking at the green light in front of him and didn't think to check if a decorated war hero detective was about to fly through his red light. A real officer would have stopped at the red light, most likely, or had the siren going and at least slowed down, but nope, I barreled through full speed because I get enough red lights in real life.

I also get enough traffic in real life. Traffic in the Los Angeles of today is famously bad, but even the three cars in front of me blocking my way out of some tunnel were bumming me out. If you drive recklessly in this game world you're punished for it. It's fairly mild, but still present. You're being asked to role play a tough as nails do-gooder cop in a corrupt city, and that includes stopping at red lights. Sure, you can have your partner drive to skip right to the next crime scene, but I found I wasn't enjoying that aspect either.

The crime scenes are by-and-large a photo hunt game, where you wander around waiting for the controller to buzz before you hit the x button (on PS3) to pick up a discarded bottle before turning it over in your hand, telling yourself it's not relevant to the case, then putting it back down again. Finding the clues opens up lines of questioning later in the case, so finding them all improves your chances of getting a good or right outcome. I was quite good -- if I do say so myself -- at finding all of the clues, but didn't much like the process. Once you have all the clues, the music cues change, and then you're off driving to the next photo hunt location.

Or, maybe you're off to interview a suspect. You can believe, doubt, or say someone is lying, and the answers felt pretty arbitrary. Maybe you went to the locations in a different order and can't say someone is lying. Maybe you just can't know the right answer and it becomes a question of who you would rather put away. Which suspect will make your chief and District Attorney happiest? These are all situations that real detectives probably face, but the moral ambiguity made me unhappy. Shoot alien bad thing is clear. Which unhappy person with children to accuse of murder is less so.

The story is great. I really liked the main character and the imperfect people that surrounded him. It's just all the game in between I didn't like, so, ultimately, I just read a synopsis and watched L.A. Confidential instead. That also has a good story, without making me feel responsible for all of the evil involved.

The facial tech is also quite good. You can see some evidence of the corners of the mouths sticking together when the shouldn't, or the corners of eyes not looking quite right, or a general sense that the whole animation was compressed a bit more than it should have been, but For A Video Game it is flat out amazing. These are actors acting, and doing it well. For facial animation nothing else comes close, although it required a fairly brute force approach. As the techniques are refined, and when companies have a method of retargeting the captured animation data onto other characters and creatures, it'll impress me even more I'm sure.

But for a game being an open world game, I don't want gritty realism in all things. I want Crackdown. Or InFamous. Most of all, I suspect, I want a game where I can put my character in a hot dog suit and drive around town spraying raw sewage on houses. I want to have fun like that, doing the things that I don't (that you can prove) do in real life. Where the ridiculousness of the situation makes me not feel bad about accidentally running over a pedestrian. Now if only someone would make that game.

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Mass Effect 2 - The Arrival

I haven't played Mass Effect in months, but The Arrival DLC brought me back to the Normandy and Miranda. THE REAPERS. Sorry, I meant the Reaper threat. 
 
The story beats are as strong as Miranda's thighs, with Shepard (and just Shepard) visiting a hidden human outpost in Batarian space to extract a deep cover scientist from prison. From her we learn more about the Reapers and their imminent arrival in the system. Can Shepard save the day? I'm guessing you know the answer, but at what cost? I love everything about the Reapers and the story hints here, along with the Twilight Zone style twists, hooked me.
 
The art direction is also quite good, particularly when you reach the hidden human outpost. They go out of their way to provide windows to see the world outside, much as Miranda's outfit provides easy methods for guessing at the body inside, and it's slick. The Shadow Broker DLC impressed me with how great the outside of the ship looked, and this one did it again. The last few minutes of game time are exciting. 
 
The time leading up to those last few minutes? Maybe not so much. It might be I'm too far removed from the story of Mass Effect 2, but the fighting and a few simple puzzles didn't grab me the way Miranda did down in engineering. 
 
Great story, great art, great that there's more Mass Effect, but the fighting was kind of meh. You know what else it needed? Maybe a different character from the crew along for the ride. I dunno, could be anyone really. How about... Jack? 
 
EDIT: Reapers not Collectors. Changed punchline to have 37.2% more tattoos.

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Best of The Ricker

I'm going to marry this man. Don't tell my wife. 
 
"I had a medical emergency, I had to watch a movie." 
"Here's what you don't know about Nigel Mansell. Just an unholy jerk. That accent is fake." 
"You don't come into the King's house and steal his furniture." 
"Open wheeled racing is a lot like football in that... they're both done in cars." 
"Race suit no. Business suit yes." 
"I can speak intelligently about two things: open wheeled racing and Wario." 
"I did have sex with Ashley Judd, yes. Is that what you were going to ask?"  
"Like I said, I know two things: open wheeled racing and Winnebagos." 
"Bam! Thank you for milk, thank you Jesus, thank you Canada Dry for this ginger ale, then I flip off a picture of John Cleese."
"I just walk into a Brookestone, throw my credit card down on the counter and say, 'Pick something out.'" 
"When you are LIT you will battle your boss. I wasn't always an open wheeled racer. I used to work for that man. Service stations. Winnebago dealerships." 
"I am not a physicist, I'm just an open wheeled racer, in fact the best one of all time ever, and I would say the North Pole is not on Earth. The North pole is in space." 
"China I think was established in the late 1800s in response to America." 
"China was found, probably, by Christopher Columbus in the 1600s. That's a guess." 
"Yeah! Sounds like the scat I'm into." 
"I thought once you got past the original shock of it all, it was just something you were either into or you weren't." 
"Two things I believe in: open wheeled racing and Canada Dry. And also Jesus." 
"I don't gamble, nor would I ever bet my Zune on a race or a horse race. Ever." 
"It's big in Indonesia. I take my open wheeled car over there. They set up three horses, each one of varying sizes and speeds." 
"Ask me the names of all the Facts of Life girls. Go ahead." 
"Phone! They yell, but they don't yell it mean. They yell it nicely." 
"So I am to assume a Squarey is the guy that runs the Courtyard Mariott, because they are not happy with the Furries normally."  
"I've come to terms with Yiffing." 
"Smells like burnt rubber and looks like Underdog: I'll see you at the Courtyard Mariott." 
"They ask you do not to leave the cocaine directly behind the Goodwill, come back during the hours of operation and give the cocaine to the lady."  
"If you leave a couch full of cocaine in the back of the Goodwill and next thing you know you're the bad guy and not allowed to race in the state of Illinois." 
"The Ricker cares(TM)." 
"Imagine Sean Johnson jumps out, ready to rip, right in front of Bob Costas on the Olympic set." 
"I'm going to be on an episode of Designing Women." 
"Support the 8 car!"

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