Shadow of Mordor makes killing feel complicated and that's a good thing

I really like Shadow of Mordor. It gives personality and purpose to evolutions of great game mechanics and systems. It progresses games.

And it's really fucked up. Outside of the usual white male power fantasy family fridged to motivate revenge narrative thing, the essential contradiction of humanizing Uruks, giving them emotions and back stories and motivations and personalities, so that killing them is more interesting--that contradication is disturbing at its core. I haven't started enslaving them yet, but that's probably worse.

But this is a good thing for the industry. Violence in games is usually out of context and anti-humanistic. It's the military philosophy of the dehumanized combatant--in order to kill something, killing must be justified. Positive justifications include seeing killing as defense, seeing it as serving the common good, seeing it as necessary. Negative justifications include making enemies inhuman monsters, even when they are human. Putting them in the same uniform, associating them with utter evil, covering their faces in helmets and rags--all of this is used, and has been used for millennia, to make killing an enemy easier.

Shadow of Mordor refuses this easy tack. What its designers have done, perhaps accidentally, is made each enemy a recognizable agent. When I kill them, sometimes I feel accomplishment, having overcome some jerk who has openly mocked me as he murdered me before. Sometimes I feel more empty, especially when I'd never seen this dude before and now he's dead. And sometimes I feel confused, because didn't I just kill you?

It's an important system. And of course we're seeing it first (or at least in its first pop-cultural incarnation; I know Dwarf Fortress exists) as a way to make killing and enslaving more interesting.

That's fucked up, but I'm glad it's happening. Here's the moment, as many developers and users on here have said, here's the moment to steal something and make it matter. Give players a greater playspace for social skill development by turning the Nemesis system into the Friendship system (or something way cooler sounding).

I like this game. I'm glad it exists. Now I want the next gen to be about making AI like this into something that builds rather than just destroys. I'm excited.

(Other cool totally stolen but better shit in this game: batman combat with a slow-mo range attack that makes the flow feel far more manageable (and great perks), assassin's creed dive from high places with no stupid hay required cuz wraiths, skyrim rotating objects with hidden spoken stories and character dialogue associated with each making collectibles feel meaningful, weapon-specific skill tests to improve those weapons, finally an awareness mechanic where escape feels hard enough to be challenging but not so frustrating that death feels like a better alternative to running, a combo-based running mechanic so you don't need a car to traverse in cool ways, a huge awareness radius in wraith mode so seeing enemies through walls is eminently tactical, and probably more. It's a good game)


Diablo 3: Choosing a game to fit into my life

It's the first weeks of school and I am a stressed 2nd year teacher. I'm doing way better than last year, but there is still much to do and too little time. And I love video games. I want to keep playing games when at home and not doing work I could be doing (there is no end to teaching work--there are only chosen breaks). Right now, I should be grading.

Usually, I play games to experience them. Honestly, while I choose games I think will interest me, I want to go on a journey I cannot predict. I want a game to take me somewhere and tell me something and give me an experience I may not have anticipated. I generally make it about the games.

Intellectually, that's exhausting. It means that I play games thoughtfully and dig into them as I play--sometimes I think like a designer, sometimes like a critic, sometimes like my ethical self, but rarely do I lay back and let it just be. I like delving and exploring. It gives me joy.

It also is a lot of hard work. It's stimulating, but not relaxing. Having played through nearly the entire Bioshock story (possible blog to come?) with just the final episode of Burial at Sea left, I feel like I've learned and thought a lot, but I did not chill out while playing it.

Right now, I don't need a game to make me think. Free Metro 2033 is hanging out on my PS3, but that's not a good idea right now. Right now, I need a game to help me relax and escape.

Hi Diablo 3!

Thinky me is very critical of this game--the characters are wooden, the story is silly and has some bad tropes, why the fuck is my demon hunter wearing fuck me pumps regardless of armor set, this is about shiny objects in order to become more powerful to have more shiny objects--all of that.

But man is it perfect right now. On expert for my first run through, it's not boring because named dudes and minions can still fuck me up, but it's not stressful because there's no penalty for death (which seems crazy?) and things explode good. The sounds, the visuals, the legendary pretty crown I found--it's a great way to spend three hours.

And I guess the point of all this is that I'm proud of myself. While I could have chosen a less addictive game, I actively chose entertainment that would fit into my current life and reduce my stress rather than something to add to it. Now I'll grade. Kill Skeleton King tonight.


Comparing Skyrim and Demon's Souls Character Progression and Approach

Just wrote a review of a game from 2011 that I still have not finished, and I found myself comparing its systems and approach to that of Demon's Souls, a game I have played some since it was given to me by Playstation Plus.

I've excerpted that section here, not because I think it is necessarily a new thought, but because it interested me and I'm wondering what others think. Bashing on popular games and praising cult ones is common. Sorry for following a trend.

Skyrim exists as an open-world, systemic adventure because we want immersion. We want to travel across the land to reach a hut rather than cutscening over there. We want to own a house and adorn its walls. We want to come upon random little stories and feel special for doing so. We want to choose.

But I wonder if choice is worth the discomfort. Because of choice, every item can be moved and must be saved in its current state upon every entrance and exit of a location. Because of choice, NPCs must have complex and often comical stage directions, which they hop to if one waits from night into morning. Because of choice, there is waiting, wandering, confusion.

I enjoyed coming upon a former imperial prison now haunted by ghosts after a great flood had forced the imperials to leave, choosing to leave the stormcloak prisoners to die as well. I like starting a random drinking game only to have to follow my steps in a Hangover homage. I like having a dragon randomly appear and help me kill an assassination target. Randomness and chance and choice can sometimes lead to serendipity.

In Demon's Souls, the world is mostly kept stagnant, with any player influence being major and game changing. Enemies spawn in the same space. Every table is reset. Bridges remain down across games, though, and dragons remain driven away. Progression is so remarkable because it is uncommon. Opening that gate and killing that boss mattered because of course it did. Destroying that pot is undone because of course it is.

In Skyrim, I have spent hours spinning dragon statues so that I can enter an Inn. Hours selling and buying materials. Hours without need.

The Bethesda model has drawn me along for many hours. I have fallen into it. But I am not convinced I like it. There is little precision here, only elimination of failure. Skills improve in power, making me invisible when I crouch, my arrows hit harder, my armor take less damage, my spells require less magicka, but do I improve in skill? Improvement is essentially a stat adjustment to make things easier. It comes with time, not improvement in skill.

Consider Demon's Souls again. While vitality can increase, while weapons can become stronger, the game becomes easier due to skill and knowledge acquisition. I can avoid death in the first stage with a horrible sword now, because I have learned to effectively roll and block and swipe. That I use a great curved sword and a strong shield simply allows me to kill things faster, not better.

To level up in Skyrim, one must strike an enemy, block his attacks, sneak around near him, use a spell on him. The reward is instant, a minor boost for every action, a major boost for the combination. In From Software's series, leveling up requires that one defeats multiple enemies and lives to tell about it, actively bringing their souls back to the hub area. Skyrim rewards for doing, assuming improvement comes with time; Demon's Souls rewards for achievement, knowing that improvement comes with success.

I am a teacher. I know how hard it is for students to learn. But I also know that if I accept a poor paper and have them move on to the next idea, I have not helped them learn. Real success comes with hard work and step-by-step instruction, making the task achievable and relevant to the student. In some ways, both of these games are terrible teachers, with Skyrim assuming students grow with repetition and Demon's Souls forcing them to grow through neglect and pain. Yet the logos of students needing to succeed at a task to progress fits my understanding of teaching best.

I have found Skyrim enjoyable and ultimately worth while. It tells the story of people I like getting to know and interacting with. It's approach to world building and player progression ultimately feel a waste to me, though, a time sink for rewards either not worth the time or better achieved through other means. To build such a comprehensive, adorned world is a horrible task. To make that world something I want to live in rather than rush through is still a challenge Bethesda has not achieved.

Demon's Souls is harsh and cruel and unexplained without outside help. Yet I come back to it because it is fair. If I die, it is not because I have not spent enough time having my armor hit by large monsters. It is because I have not figured out how best to beat that enemy yet. The same tactics 10 hours into Skyrim will create a less fruitful result than 100 hours into Skyrim. In Demon's Souls, a tactic that leads to my death should never be repeated. It is harsh, but it teaches me. Skyrim wants me to become a god, able to fell a giant in three swipes. Demon's Souls maligns hubris in its story and discourages it in its gameplay.

Start the Conversation

A game of percentages and morals: Games need female protagonists

Nothing I say will be said better than it is here:

Let me pull out some choice quotes

The bottom line is, it takes work–actual conscious effort–not to fall back on stereotypes when interacting with, thinking about, or writing about people from different groups. But that effort is important to make. The lazy route, merely writing what is expected, leads to predictable stories and characters that are nigh indistinguishable from the characters in other tales.


Different societies from different periods of history have had different mores and different rules governing who could fight–and yet, if you look at the links above, there are women fighters represented in virtually every society, including the ones where women explicitly were not supposed to fight at all! Heck, there are numerous documented instances of women risking their lives to disguise themselves as men and fight just in the U.S. Civil War alone. Female rulers areeverywherein history, too, includingsocietiesrigidlystratified by gender roles. Society’s rules mattered, sure, but they didn’t keep determined women from participating.


Fundamentally, it isn’t the guts of this trope (the kidnapping and rescuing dynamics) that are upsetting to people; it’s the inflexibility with which the roles are applied to characters of different genders. Why is the rescuer always a guy? Why can’t it ever be a woman rescuing her boyfriend (or girlfriend, for that matter)? That’s where the gender stereotype comes in: the fact that when this trope is used, boys are always in an active role and girls in a passive role.


And yet, as we saw above, women are dramatically underrepresented when it comes to leading roles in games. Let’s recap those numbers for the sake of illustration: 47% of gamers are females; 48% of the most frequent game purchasers are females; and 3.6% of seventh generation console title protagonists are females. Does something about that seem a little off to you? Because it certainly does to me.

The developer argues that it makes moral sense and business sense for games to begin having female protagonists far more often in order to respond to the realities of history, the modern world, and the modern player. So he has made sure to do so.

What I like from above is the history lesson on women constantly existing in roles supposedly dominated by men (roles most games fall into) and the fact that the problems in storytelling become far fewer if you have more equal representation in protagonists.


It's an issue I've had with games as I've grown up. I'm really pumped for The Last of Us to arrive from Amazon. Naughty Dog have made some excellent moves in game storytelling. And it sounds like they do well again, here. But you're still playing as a white male presumably heterosexual protagonist. No matter how well done Ellie is, her role is secondary.

It's a problem with all media. Straight white males dominate the form. Funnily enough, reality TV may be the most diverse offering of humanity, even if it is often the worse humans who are represented.

Developers are smart people. Writers are smart. They are savvy. Marketers can sell a game with a female protagonist on its story and mechanics and cool bits rather than her as a sexualized object. I know this can happen. I have faith in it.

I hope at this E3 we see more new games that show that same faith. Because playing as a straight white dude, no matter how complex his story, is getting old. And it's one of the stupidest business moves gaming can make to keep itself in the media dog house rather than being the hip, modern amazing industry it can be.


Fixing Assassin's Creed

No one responded to this post for 20 minutes so I'm putting it here and will eventually expand on it.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time did it right. It realized that the purpose of failure in a videogame, at least much of the time, is to learn from that failure and do better next time. Part of the teaching the game is doing comes in feeling consequences for your mistakes. But it also realized that if the mistake was a single timing error after a series of perfect moves, the player should not have to achieve the same thing they already achieved, but only what they did not do well the first time. Thus, the Prince has the sands which allow you to rewind your actions to a point you were comfortable or happy with your achievement.

It is a brilliant, effective, gameplay and story appropriate mechanic.

And holy shit does Assassin's Creed need it.

Every frustrating moment in AC for me is in either repeating easy to fail missions or falling into the GTA style run from the cops, get your wanted level down loop. I find traversal in AC eternally enjoyable. I find the bad ass feeling of set pieces and the time I do stealth my way through the level perfectly intoxicating. But the game forgot what PoP fixed. And it is stupid that did.

It is stupid mechanically and fictionally. Mechanically, a probably limited rewind function, like Eagle Vision and diving assassin recruits, acts as a spell that evens the odds for the player against observant and constant guards and fast-running quarries. Fictionally, the Animus has established time-alteration abilities. It can fast forward through years. It can pause the world for a villain's soliloquy. Rewinding what is essentially false time makes sense for the Animus. It also makes sense for the purpose of the team. Desmond is supposed to relive his ancestors' lives so he can learn what the fuck they did with magical artifacts. Of course his ancestors didn't run up the wrong stupid wall and lose track of Charles Lee.

Computer rewind makes arguably far more sense than magic sand rewind.

So, my question is, why is Ubisoft so dumb and bad at making games when I am so brilliant in hindsight?


The Contradictions in Batman: Arkham City

I just finally finished playing this lauded and expansive game and it's leaving me vexed. While inelegant, I think some binary distinctions are a useful analytical technique here. Spoilers because, c'mon, June 2012.

Batman is both dickish and unwaveringly heroic


There are certain times in this game where Batman just comes off as dismissive and uncaring rather than merely stoic.

He was about to choose Talia over thousands of people.

For saving his life (as the game describes the act) Catwoman gets a "I broke a nail" joke

The "death" of Ras al Ghul felt like Batman just kinda said "fuck it, fall on this thing" to me

While never "killing" a thug, moves like breaking their arms and legs seem more cruel than typical batman non-murder

The whole thing with ungagging and gagging Harley Quinn is weird.

In the DLC, he's a dick to Robin


There is no player choice here. Batman will not take eternal life, will not kill a villain, will not let joker die. In major decisions, he does not waver in doing the selfless thing. Alfred and Barbara even comment on it, giving him tons of shit for wanting to save Gotham before he saves himself (if not Talia, which is weird)

All the villains are aware of and mock Batman for his unwavering selflessness. It's a theme

The game is both self-aware goofy and dark/gritty/somber/hurtful

Self-aware goofy

Random thugs that you hear as you sneak up or as you move about the complex will talk about how weird this universe is. They say things like "it's hard work being a henchman" or " 'man I can't wait to fight Batman again.' 'Why? He broke three bones last time you fought him.' " The writing and voice acting are actively deconstructing the universe and the gameyness of random thugs wandering around. These hardened criminals sometimes sound more like social critics or philosophers

Joker and Riddler, despite being sadistic maniacs, still make a lot of puns (just as they did in the Animated Series). Penguin has a giant shark in the silliest "challenge" in the game. Solomon Grundy is like a Mario boss.

That (Spoilers) Clayface finale is a wacky way to end a game.


Those same thugs use the infamous bitch word a lot, talk about torturing and killing innocents, and generally come off as the largest collection of sociopaths ever

Some villains are cruel and completely unsympathetic. Penguin's menagerie is something out of Bioshock, more horror than comic book. Two Face just comes off as a prick. Zsazs is icky as always. Joker and Hugo are the best parts of the game, if only for the humanism Hugo reveals in his interviews.

The detective mode clue finding is more CSI than Sherlock Holmes.

Dude (Spoilers!) Joker dies. Of disease and doubt in Batman's kindness. He fucking dies. Hugo Strange dies. Talia dies. They do not fuck around.

The Gameplay is both rhythmic and deep and dull and repetitive

Rhythmic and Deep

I can't knock the basic flowing combat. It's responsive, it's fun, it fits the character. I got through it without being nearly as skilled as many, and I like that I can bushleague my way through something that can be done with far more grace and poise.

The movement cycle through the city glide-hook-glide-dive-glide stuff is great.

Dull and Repetitive

Like Arkham Asylum, the crux of the game is in combat zones that try to have Deus Ex style variability (vents, hanging bits, enemies of different types), but for some reason feel really same-y and cookie cutter pretty quickly.

On normal at least, the only time I felt challenged was in the battle with Mr. Freeze and the battle with Joker, the latter because of those cheap, annoying trains, but the former because you have to find four different ways to damage him, and that was great fun. That rising tide didn't really lift all boats, though.


It's not that I don't think these elements can work together to create a coherent, moving piece. The pencil scene in The Dark Knight is both horrible and funny; it leaves the audience chuckling at a man getting a pencil shoved through his face, and soon after leaves us worried that we laughed. It makes us participate in Joker's sadism.

But Arkham city feels more like a hodgepodge of tone and theme than a beautiful combination. It has a cool wrapping story of two outcasts, one chaos, one control, who need each other, in a way, to be whole. But it also has Batman going inside Clayface like a God of War battle and convicts who are alternately philosophers and misogynists. A serial killer tasks you with point-to-point races across the city. The great "test of the demon" is a glide-dive tutorial.

In trying to be serious and gritty while commenting on its own peccadilloes, the game limits the effectiveness of both aspects of its tone. I was left feeling miffed at how such a potentially powerful ending could be so colored by a schizophrenic build up.


Why playing Tomb Raider made me appreciate Uncharted

I never played Tomb Raider before this week. I've still only now played Legend and (half) of Underworld (more on that later...). I've got the trilogy from gamefly, so I'll check out Anniversary next.

Crystal Dynamics' take on the series is the only part I'm interested in playing. I'm sure the old grid-based gameplay and puzzle design was interesting and cool, but I like me some fluid animation and choice in movement.

So, without further ado, what I like about Tomb Raider, what I don't like about it, and the fascinating way this interacts with Uncharted in my mind

Tomb Raider is cool

1. Lara Croft as a character, at least as Crystal-D has written her, is a multifaceted, funny, clever, sympathetic woman. She's deeply knowledgable like an uber Indiana Jones (can you sight-read ancient Celtic? I thought not) and feels genuinely excited about learning and exploration. As a formerly spoiled English heiress whose parents died doing this stuff, her motivations are pleasantly muddled. Now, her rack is oversized and the dress-up meta game of how skimpy can we make her is sexist and unsubtle, but beneath that bikini is a well-written human being.

2. The puzzles are fun and hard (usually in a good way). The grapple mechanic and ability to move stuff basically make up all the puzzles in these games, but the elaborate, multi-part nature of them feels epic and engaging. Slowly killing a blind Kraken or smashing your way into King Arthur's tomb with a forklift, they are often creative and usually fun.

3. Cool meta-mythology. The history and mythology in the trilogy can get silly, but for the sake of exploring, especially in Underworld, Mayan, Norse, and Hindu tombs, it's all quite exciting. Inspired turns like the King Arthur theme park in Legend and the entrance to Xibalba in Underworld cannot be missed.

Tomb Raider is Silly and Broken

1. The gunplay. God is it awful. In Legend, it's just lock-on and shoot. In Underworld, for who knows why, it's far, far worse. The slow-down mechanic is interesting but repetitive. I liked that Legend had its enemies talk to each other to give some variety, but Underworld killed that, too. With no cover mechanic and dirt-simple melee, Underworld especially feels like a chore.

2. The story contradicts its poignancy with monsters and unreality. Really emotional stuff happens in here. Lara becomes scary angry. I felt something at times. But then it's back to shooting endangered species and fighting an evil Atlantean bat lady. Oh, you liked wielding Excalibur? How about Thor's Hammer? Here's fifty thousand frost giants to kill. Man, that character death sure was chilling... GOTH DOPPELGANGER.

3. Camera and glitches. Damn it. Legend is actually pretty good. It's still PS2 era so it's more gamey and solid. I can't play Underworld anymore without replaying 6 hours. When I load my save, Lara dies. She spawns in death-liquid. At other times in that game, I got stuck in a walking animation or (multiple times) spawned further along than where I died. Blind leaps of faith and random rearrangement of the camera angle so now you're dead! are common. It makes the pretty feel really ugly.


Blasphemous as it may be, Uncharted: Drake's Fortune was my entry into the tomb raiding game. Action adventure roots fall more into Prince of Persia. Uncharted owed a huge debt of gratitude to Tomb Raider. Just in these two TR games I played, I saw:

1. Same or similar locations (Nepal, Scuttled ship, burning house, mediterranean jungle, train)

2. Shoot dudes, set piece, puzzle structure

3. Mythical macguffin=story.

4. Wise-cracking protagonist

But I also found myself missing Uncharted. Deeply.

Uncharted is in the same genre as Tomb Raider, but it comes from a different philosophy. Uncharted wants you to succeed, wants you to believe in what you are doing, and wants to wow you at every turn.

Some puzzle rooms in Tomb Raider require guides because they are illogical and obtuse. Uncharted can be too brainless (the "puzzle" in Drake's Fortune was "read journal, do what it says), but it always makes sense. Similarly, the combat in Uncharted feels fair. You can find cover and pick away at enemies or run up and punch them out. Bats and spiders do not randomly accost you just to add playtime (Spiders in Uncharted 3 are actually a very cool gameplay mechanic). Tomb Raider consistently showed me jumps I knew I could make and rejected that notion as Lara's body slid fruitlessly against the ledge and into death. Drake can feel too guided at times, but, damn it, it's not fun to jump toward a ledge and fail because I was just slightly off. All I learn is to hate that ledge, not become better at the game.

I believe in what I'm doing in Uncharted. Say what you will about painting ledges red, but Uncharted never has a bunch of conspicuous poles poking out of the ice. The environment feels real, even if it is ultimately a construction to lead you onward. All the shit that breaks under Drake makes it feel tenuous and exciting rather than monotonous and predictable. And the monsters that do crop up are explained and matter. Best of all, in each city, in each area, the meticulous attention to cultural detail is astounding. The bazaars of Yemen, the bunk beds in Tibet, the incredible stone work in London--the verisimillitude is to die for. Oh, and the women are treated as people, relationships really matter, and any sexing up is character driven rather than odd (really, Lara, you're wetsuit shows butt cheek? Why exactly?).

Finally, those wow moments. The reason the train, the cruise ship, the jungle vistas, the chateau, the hotel, the reason all those matter is that they make you drop your jaw that you are playing this. Every wow moment in Tomb Raider is in a cutscene. The giant puzzles very quickly become tedious in tomb raider as each one revolves around putting shit in other shit with jumping in between. I can't express how great the puzzles in Uncharted 3 are. From spatial reasoning to fun with shadows, I felt invigorated while solving them. At some point, Tomb Raider just becomes a thankful to be done with it.

The Future

Uncharted 3's puzzles bring that game into a comparable place with the ingenious contraptions of Tomb Raider. The new Tomb Raider looks interesting, if a bit too perilous for its own good. I'm glad these series are forging their own paths. And, now that I know Lara better, it'll be nice to see a new origin for her. I'm happy to have played these games, despite the frustrations and the comparisons. I don't want Tomb Raider to become Uncharted. I want all games to learn from Uncharted's player-appreciation, believable locations and characters, and grandeur.


Musing on Portal 2, with thoughts on Portal (Spoilers, of course)

A little late, I realize, but I had to finish college before playing this amazing game. So, read as you will. 

I think that Portal 2's greatest adversary is Portal, or at least the perception of the first game.  Let me talk about that perception and what I think (hereafter considered "The Truth"). Portal and Portal 2 are great because they set expectations, reverse them, and are still true to themselves. 

Okay, heady analysis incoming. 

What Portal Did

In Portal, assuming you as a player have no knowledge of the game's nature before playing it, you are expecting a puzzle game with a nifty looking portal gun. GLaDOS slowly reveals herself, through her inability to hide her maliciousness in her warnings and mind games, as an antagonist. Valve's trademark pathing leads you to hidden recesses where the rat man and his foreboding artwork appears. 
 Rat Man's work is not so much hidden as it has the appearance of being hidden

And all this happens while you do what you expected (as you said): use portals, buttons, moving platforms, opening doors, disintegration fields, cubes, and energy orbs, slowly introduced and combined, to move through spaces. You, and Chell, move from willing test subject, to wary test subject, to revolutionary without a means to fight, to revolutionary ironically empowered as GLaDOS thinks she has won, to vanquisher of evil. No one tells you how to feel, but you do feel. 

However, the puzzles are only minorly dynamic with the story. Think about it. If we consider the escape sequence to be Chell acting of her own accord with her own goal (destroy GLaDOS and/or escape), then only the most rudimentary of the skills in the test chambers themselves are useful in this sequence. Most prominent in the escape is the new "rocket" tool. Otherwise, you are simply placing portals where the walls allow you to (see escape sequences in Portal 2), timing mechanical crushers, and occasionally using the "momentum fling" move.  
"We'll help you here" - Valve

The tests, then, are complicated in a way the escape never is, and that is exactly the point. GLaDOS, as shown more clearly in Portal 2, is frustrated by your continued success at her tests, so she tries to throw you off. But, in all honesty, playing Portal again recently, the final puzzles are not all that difficult, no matter the crazy solutions people have devised. I think this is somewhere people look back on Portal with rose-tinted glasses. It was not and is not a difficult game. Its most challenging puzzles were outside the narrative as DLC. The game itself is remarkable for its teaching rather than its difficulty.   Portal can be conquered by basically anyone because the game so acutely teaches the player how to think with portals. You conquer GLaDOS because Valve helps you to do so. Your only adversary is your own intuition about what to do next, an obstacle which Valve helps you overcome. Great players can do what Valve does not expect. But non-geniuses like me can play the game as Valve expected, and the enjoy the hell out of it. 

The genius of Portal is twofold. It has mechanical genius. The portal concept is cool. It's new, it's fun, it feels free but is actually astutely restrained. The traditional placing things on button and platforming across moving platforms mechanic become invigorated with the addition of portals. It also has storytelling genius, adding a malevolent air to the tests and the AI, an absurdism to kind turrets, and a fascination to behind the scenes details. Portal 2 is better.

What makes Portal 2 better (here there be spoilers)

As Valve says in one of the commentary nodes, Portal 2 could not rest on the laurels of Portal. It could not be a game steeped in purely inferential storytelling or be lost in meme rehashing. Portal gave us established characters and character relationships with GLaDOS and Chell, as well as an established setting and organization in Aperture. 

In part, Portal 2 adds to these established bits by giving GLaDOS a character journey with Chell, revealing Aperture's history, and showing more of just what the testing facility is. 
GLaDOS gains humanity as a potato, uses it, then rejects it. Brilliant. 

GLaDOS learns of her origin as Caroline, softens, then erases her softened spot. Her vitriol at the beginning, fall to Potato form, vague assistance, and calculated expulsion of you from the facility, work in tandem to reveal her capacity to care, but choice to revert to testing without complication (robots instead of a human). I love that character arc. She learns to appreciate you, at the very least, as a complication, which is cold praise, but still praise. 

The slow rebuilding of the center, with the mechanical arms making new what was overgrown and decrepit, is both invigorating and frustrating. I saw the machinations behind the test rooms, which gave me understanding of my environment. And I was happily frustrated as the test rooms returned to their immaculate state, erasing time and difference and any evidence of change. That imagery worked brilliantly with the story's regressive themes as Chell is forced to test over and over again. 

Which brings me to what makes Portal 2 special: its self-aware disregard for the player and his or her expectations. This is embodied in:
 Evil Wheatley

Wheatley: Stupid, rambling, hilarious British AI is actually designed to be a moron. The major antagonist in a puzzle game is an idiot. A bumbling side kick is actually your soon to be tormentor. The tests that Wheately designs are gorgeously inept and easy. I could tell Wheatley was going to go maniacal when I gave him power, that he was an unreliable narrator, pretty soon. But I did not anticipate his brand of evil--monotony. And his attempts to berate you like GLaDOS did or to prove his intelligence through reading Machiavelli are especially inspired.

The progression: Portal 2's structure is that of an elaborate test. You begin testing to get the portal gun. Then you awake GLaDos and she forces you to test for her. Then Wheatley helps you escape and you complete puzzles to get to GLaDOS. Then you are alone in the old testing facility, testing to escape the facility, to ascend the shaft. Then you meet up with GLaDOS and are trapped by Wheatley, and you are testing to please HIM. And finally you are testing to beat Wheatley and escape. 

I lay it all out like that because, I think, the reversal of expectations becomes clearer this way. You could, conceivably, think the game is over three times: When you plug in Wheatley, when you get to the elevator in the old testing facility, and at the actual end. Meanwhile, the shifting reason for your testing is fascinating. Chell goes from serving others to serving herself over and over again. She serves Wheatley, GLaDOS, and even the long dead Cave Johnson, in hopes of finding her way out of this damn place. 

Testing as Tedium: This is a dangerous bit. I do want to enjoy games. But I also like it when games make me think about something in a new way. In Portal, the testing quickly became a means to an end. For GLaDOS, that means became killing you. For Chell, that means became revenge and escape. Solving the tests was not the point at around the 2/3rds mark. In Portal 2, testing is never the point. It is always a tool for some other purpose. When it is explicitly stated that Wheatley is just going to force you to test forever so he can get his fix, each test feels like a chore. 

Feeling a chore is not what most games want to do. But, in Portal 2, it's perfect. The excitement of Portal 2 quickly becomes the meta discovery and story progression rather than the new testing apparati. As it should. Portal's story is the progression of the player from a robotic tester to a freed human, and if the tests did not begin to feel monotonous and like wastes of time, Chell, and the player, would be no better than a robot. Chell is free because she endured tests, completing them to find a time to escape to freedom. 


Chell subverts the system. She uses broken walls and peaking-portalable surfaces to do the unexpected. At the end, she shoots the moon, an act so outlandish and yet perfectly fitting that it MUST be the finale to the boss battle and the game. Chell is a rebel. It's fun to beat the system. 


Modern Combat: Domination: Why Am I Still Playing This?

This game is kinda shite. As demonstrated in the GB Quick Look, seeing other players is a fun game of assumptions and firing at everything that moves until a blue triangle appears. Shooting does not feel awful, but does alternate between terrible accuracy and seemingly ineffective bullets. There are five maps. They either feel too empty or like one cannot move without being shot from some unseen corner.  Around once per two games, the server decides that I simply do not deserve to live and kills me as I spawn, often removing my hard-earned weaponry from the last few lives. 
And yet, I've spent untold hours playing this. I've got my dot sight on my MP5 and a silencer on my pistol. I can pretty consistently finish near the top of the leader board.  I'm not only playing this quite a bit, but also getting good at it.  
The game is a crib sheet mash up of Counterstrike and Call of Duty. Its accumulate cash with each kill that you can use to purchase better weapons and equipment gambit system is straight out of the former. Its get points per each kill that unlock new upgrades and weapons for your arsenal mechanic is a sad mockery of Call of Duty's multiplayer genius.  
But, yo, it costs 8 bucks.  
I'm not a shooter man by trade. I can play and do well enough at them. I've beaten the first two Killzones and Resistances. I love me some Half-Life 2. I've dabbled in Halo. I beat COD 4: Modern Warfare. But that's all single player. And I don't own any of them.  
I own Modern Combat: Domination. Or, at least, I own in as we own digital things nowadays.  
It may be a sad mockery of far better concepts in far better games. But, damnit, its low price somehow makes it okay. It's like seeing a dumb action flick only after the ticket price is low enough.  
As much as I'd like to say that all that I consume is high quality art, in reality something can be kinda shite and I'll buy it if it's cheap. I fear what will happen when I get a phone with an App store. 


Morality in The Saboteur's Storytelling: Killing for a Priest

The Saboteur creates a somewhat contradictory tone. As the foul-mouthed, balls to the wall Irishman Sean Devlin, you kill Nazis with a smile, terrorize Parisians with the sloppy car physics, and generally create mayhem. Sure, you're doing it for some ill-conceived revenge because Sean didn't care a like about the Nazis until they tortured and killed his friend, but, mostly, the actual gameplay is an adrenaline-fueled romp.  
And that gameplay is remarkably enjoyable. Explosions are easy to pull off yet satisfying in their execution. On normal, killing hundreds of Nazis is easy, yet its arcadey feel makes that just fine. Even the stealth, something that could have been messy and awkward, is built upon elegant representational systems of suspicion that never feel realistic, but are fun.  
So, when you walk up to a priest sitting in one of the booths of the Moulin Rouge-esque club full of scantily clad (or nude if you bought the game unlike me who rented it) women, you expect to continue in this tonal vein. Then he spins his tale: 
Sean, he says, I have a man who confesses to me each week. He confesses that he is a Nazi informant, that his words have killed many people. "He asks for my forgiveness, but I  am afraid do not have any more to give." 
Sean pledges to kill the cocksucker, or something to that extent. At the priest's behest, he climbs up a church, grabs a sniper rifle, and waits for the priests signal as sinners come to repent. As a man approaches with an umbrella, a man who looks much like any other, the priest screams out something about the sword of God striking down the wicked, Sean shoots the penitent, and then has the easy task of escaping a small red circle of Nazi alarm.  
I wonder at the meaning of all of this. Questions it raises for me include: 
1. If the priest is a man of peace, a man who is ordained not only not to judge, but to relieve men of God's judgment if they openly confess their sins, is this act a rejection of his religion, his station, and his responsibility? 
2. The man clearly feels guilty for his betrayals. He confesses them. He knows they are wrong. Is this worse than a man who kills out ignorance or hatred? Or is it proof that, rather than a swift bullet to the head, he is truly deserving of a second chance in the resistance itself where he will be protected against the Nazi influence that seems to have driven him to such evils.  
3. This mission seems like a story someone would tell in a Spielberg film, a moral dilemma indeed. What the hell is it doing in The Saboteur? I love that a game is making me ponder so deeply, but this all feels somehow worse since it's located in this jocular game and since Sean doesn't ponder it for a second.  
The Saboteur is not about choices. But I do wish I could have chosen to do something different in this mission. 

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