Walkabouts and Space-Time

As someone who is perpetually working through their gaming backlog, the steam Christmas sales are pretty handy. Among other things, I finally got around to playing Dear Esther, one of the earlier titles in the recent profusion of what I’ve taken to calling the Walkabout genre – Stanley, Gone Home, maybe Proteus, etc. Although those games are mechanically similar, in that you move around in an environment while disembodied voices speak to you, I think it’s interesting that the most direct comparisons each game brings up are outside gaming entirely. The Stanley Parable is a Monty Python sketch, Gone Home is a YA novel/afterschool special, and Dear Esther is one of those short stories or poems you read in AP English.

The word of the day is Moody.

In Dear Esther’s case, I think this comparison is important, because it underlines both the strength and weakness of the game Playing it requires, not a suspension of disbelief, exactly, but a suspension of expectation, at least for someone who plays games regularly. The island itself is stunningly realized, and I think it’s important to note just how quickly the game would fall apart if the environmental design had not been so well implemented – a case of talent making hard work look easy. You could remove the narration entirely, and Dear Esther would still be commendable simply as a thing to look at. But the extremely deliberate pacing, and the metaphorical/abstracted nature of what it’s doing, mean that worrying about ‘doing it right’ or missing something can get in the way of playing it. As much as the game takes advantage of the sense of place, of physical presence, that the medium allows, it’s also hampered by that same aspect. With a poem or a story, oblique or abstract methods in relaying information are easier to swallow because you can always go back and re-read sections, poring over the material and digging up meaning. Here, there is only one way to go: forward, and at a deliberate pace set by the game. Walking off the beaten path is allowed, but usually just means you’re going to spend more time trying to get back on it than anything else. Replaying is a possibility, but because the whole thing acts as one, holistic experience, going back and fiddling around takes away from that experience dramatically. And unlike in Gone Home, there’s no way of re-listening to earlier bits in the tale the Narrator is telling, so you’re left with more of a general impression of what’s going than anything else. The game is what it is, beautiful and weird, and then you turn into a seagull and it’s done.

SHENANIGANS

The same criticisms could be applied to a much older game, albeit for different reasons. An adventure game from the long forgotten age of 1997, The Last Express is set on the Orient Express literally days before the beginning of World War One. Perhaps the most notable aspect of the game is the progression of time: events on the train proceed according to a set schedule, which means that A) things are happening even when you’re not there, and B) you’ll probably end up using the rewind feature because you were dicking around in the dining cabin instead of doing whatever you need to be doing. While an interesting concept, it is not without its problems. Between not always knowing what to do next, and waiting for something to actually happen, you spend a fair amount of the game running back and forth along the train like a maniac. Compounding that, the age of the game means you’re clicking on the screen to move, original Myst style, rather than actually moving a character, and constant clicking gets very old very quickly. Once you actually know what to do, the puzzles are usually pretty straightforward, and while the story starts out interestingly enough, it sort of fizzles out at the end in a David Cage-ean fantasy mess.

Juxtaposing Express with Esther like this wasn’t a deliberate idea when I bought them, but having the two side by side made it surprisingly clear how they’d taken different approaches to achieving the same thing. The characters in Express have set behaviors and patterns to their lives on the train, and despite the interface being extremely dated, having that constant flow does add quite a bit to the game’s atmosphere. The passage of time would be essentially meaningless without those characters, which is perhaps why the concept hasn’t been explored as much since, aside from day/night cycles in RPGs. While Express would benefit greatly from an HD Superfancygraphix Remix Edition, I’d be more interested in someone applying the activity, the flow of a game like that to something like Esther or Gone Home, which create a very specific, carefully thought out area with which the player interacts. NPC’s fleshing out a space in a game is not a new concept, but for something that focuses on a very specific place in a very specific moment in time, throwing in a cast of characters doing their own thing could allow for some very interesting possibilities. To be clear, I’m not saying they should have had people; the barren emptiness of Esther, and the mysterious loneliness of Gone Home, are crucial to what those games are doing.

The recently announced No Man's Sky blew everyone's socks off, claiming to offer a whole galaxy to explore, but what I'm arguing for is a push in the other direction. A few years ago someone (edit: Googling shows it was Warren Spector) was kicking around the idea of a ‘One City Block’ game, something that was just a real deep cut on a very small area, fully fleshed out. The appeal of this concept is obvious, as are the difficulties with AI and all that. But I think, especially now that we’re entering a new generation of games, this could be an area where mid-tier games could potentially stage a tiny comeback, fitting in between the all-consuming madness of MOBAs and the constant push for bigger worlds in RPGs.

Also, I just want more games that are set on trains.

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Stanley, Space and Videotapes

I wrote my first ‘review’-assed review on this site a couple weeks ago. Been coming here for a few years now, and I’d never done a proper review in all that time. Part of that is just my life situation in that time – rarely playing games when they’re released – and part of it is that I just prefer rambling incoherently anyway. With GTA, I felt like I had something to say that I wasn’t seeing anywhere else, but even doing it in another format like that, I’ve never really kidded myself that I do these write-ups for my own benefit more than anything else. Still, it was nice seeing that some people read it. Anyway, back to blogging.

Tired Portal references aside, this might have been an improvement over his actual character in the movie.

I finally saw Gravity, aka ‘the movie where Sandra Bullock plays that poor astronaut from Modern Warfare 2.’ I’m a big Alfonso Cuaron fan – the man made the only watchable Harry Potter movie – and while the visual stuff was extremely impressive, the dialogue kind of deflated the rest of it. I understand the reasoning behind ‘we need an emotional hook/human interest stuff!’ but when you’re dealing with SPACE, nobody gives a flip about dead babies that aren’t even in the movie. Or maybe they would, but not when it's that hammy and sentimental. The one thing the movie did well –and the only reason I’m really bringing it up – was that it had a very strong sense of place, of physicality. Especially compared to something like the newest Star Trek, where I didn’t even realize they were above Earth until San Francisco blew up (again), it was very refreshing to see how a taking a different visual perspective/attitude could have such an impact on the story – that constant feeling of being exposed underlining every scene.

I mention this because that tactile sense appears –albeit in different ways – in two games I’ve played recently, Gone Home and The Stanley Parable. They’re roughly comparable, in that you walk about (dicking about might be more accurate, in Stanley’s case) in an enclosed area while someone talks to you – a rebellious teenage girl and a snarky British man, respectively. The ever-present sense of humor in Stanley makes it a much easier pill to swallow. The fact that you never do very much is fine, because so much of the game is about repetition and variation that any actual ‘gameplay’ in the traditional sense would be an impediment. If nothing else, it’s a refreshing experiment. Gone Home is ok for what it is, but Anne Frank aside, teenager’s diaries rarely make for very compelling material, and it’s pretty clear they're going into standard territory with the different narrative threads early on. It feels like the game equivalent of a YA novel. At the same time, I really like what the Fullbright Company was trying to do here. There’s a narrative subtlety in this kind of exploration I find appealing, and even if they didn’t really pull it off, I hope we see more of this kind of thing in the future. Video games sometimes struggle with finding how best to let you interact with the environments they present, but the Stanley Parable and Gone Home both show how there can be a simple joy in poking around in a place, which isn’t something we can really do in other media (and are likely to get arrested for in real life). I’m not trying to get into any ‘Great American Video Game’ nonsense, but if this sort of thing becomes the new 2D-sidescroller-with-a-twist for indie games, I’d be totally ok with that.

I was trying to come up with a Beyond: Two Souls/ Dark Souls joke earlier, but I couldn't, and then this happened. Happy Friday?

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Witchervania: He Who Fights Monsters

Is it weird that I like making these videos? Because holy balls did this take forreeever.

Games and Stuff

The one nice thing about being 2 years behind on games is that by the time you do get around to playing anything, it’s a lot cheaper. This summer’s Reasonably Priced Games? The prodigiously subtitled Castlevania: Lords of Shadow and The Witcher 2: Assassin of Kings.

To begin with, these are possibly the most gorgeous looking games on the 360. Castlevania in particular has some of the most stunning environments I’ve seen in quite some time, and while the Witcher is a little blander in that department it more than makes up for it with the character designs – I found myself geeking out over just the clothing more than once. But these games have much more going on than just great style.

I don’t have a history with either series, which I think actually benefited me to some extent, in that I had no real expectations. In the case of the Witcher Part Deux, I did have more trouble than usual in following the story, but that has more to do with the game simply not explaining what’s going on until well after something actually happens. This might be more realistic – and in retrospect I admire the attempt – but it can be a bit frustrating (going into the journal entries doesn’t help because they often address things that haven’t even occurred yet).

The choices in The Witcher 2 are often aesthetic rather than moral.

A big fuss is made over the Witcher being the more ‘mature’, morally grey fantasy series in gaming, but the reality is that its idea of maturity hews more closely to Game of Thrones than anything else: the occasional nudity (admittedly tasteful, as far as sex in games go) frequent vulgar asides and everyone being kind of a dick, rather than any emotional complexity. It makes a show of political machinations, and succeeds in some respects, but much of the Moral Greyness of the setting seems to be taken for granted. The end of Act 1 has you deciding between partnering up with Roche or Iorveth. There’s this whole thing about ‘is Iorveth a terrorist or a freedom fighter? Who’s to say?’ but the problem is that they offer nothing for you to base that decision on yourself, only the opinions of others. It ultimately becomes an aesthetic choice rather than an ethical one.

I chose Iorveth because it seemed to throw a bit of a twist in the narrative, although I will go back and do Roche’s path at some point. Vergen is a fun town – if only the fucking harpies would stop screeching every 3 seconds – but there was a weird moment that threw the rest of the story into a weird light. There’s an elf lady you can talk to who says something along the lines of ‘all this nonhuman rights talk has made me realize women get fucked over a lot too’, to which Geralt’s response is basically “UGH Feminists”. Now, I’m not saying you can’t put real-life politics in games, but… really? And it makes the whole Saskia thing kind of weird in retrospect, because the supposed poster girl for woman empowerment is – well, she is at least a female, anyway. Add in Dandelion’s editorializing about how Saskia only has followers because she’s hot (which would otherwise just be fleshing out his character) and it becomes this weird sexual politics argument that really doesn’t vibe with the rest of game at all.

Hater's Gonna Hate

As far as the actual gameplay goes, I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would. Much of the game revolves around using the appropriate buffs and items during combat, and those just happen to be the two things I avoid like the plague whenever I play an RPG. So the fact that the game actually made that aspect fun says a lot. I actually was a little disappointed that there wasn’t more monster hunting to do – a bit similar to how people felt about the scarcity of tombs in the newest Tomb Raider, I think. The pre-hunt investigation/preparation is possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve seen in a while, but it’s also really cool. It also helped that Geralt’s relationship with the monsters was one of the more interesting parts of his character, and one that I wish had been explored more. If you spare the dragon at the end but don’t have Philippa’s dagger, Geralt can explain that he refuses to slay dragons on a purely moral basis – which is the most revealing thing we’ve heard about him in the entire game. If nothing else, I’m interested in seeing how they choose to fill out the open world in the Witcher 3.

Boob Jam game idea: You play as one of Gabriel's Crystal Demons and have to fight monsters with your breasts.

As I said earlier, I have no history with the Castlevania franchise. What’s more, I’ve never played a God of War game, and since the two biggest complaints about Lords of Shadow were that it was A) not like the other Castlevanias, and B) too much like God of War, those supposed drawbacks were irrelevant to me. What I didn’t realize is how much Lords of Shadow would directly address why I hate God of War so much.

From watching footage and talking to people, I think I have a pretty good understanding of GoW, in which you play a constantly-yelling dude seeking revenge for the death of his wife (who he murdered) and who systematically kills every single character in Greek Mythology. Ryan once made the argument that Kratos is actually the villain in the story, an argument I was willing to accept but one that did not justify the fact that those games are just a bunch of misguided immature bullshit.

Lords of Shadow is a rebuttal of God of War's very premise.

So what surprised me about LoS is that you play as an angry dude seeking revenge for the death of his wife (who he murdered) and who kills every character he meets. Gabriel doesn’t even want to kill these people, but they just keep thowing themselves on his sword, and the game charts his descent into this constantly angry, kind of evil person. Or at least, that’s how Zobek describes him. Gabriel himself says very little (which makes Zobek’s journey from weirdly unreliable narrator to Unreliable Narrator a bit odd to see unfold). Instead of just being a GoW clone, the whole thing becomes a very strange rebuttal of the entire premise of the God of War franchise. It seems to hit all the same notes, but does so without ever becoming grating or juvenile.

Fuck this guy in particular.

So, how does it feel to finally play a GoW-style game in 2013? Fucking awesome. This game is so much goddam fun. Especially coming off the Witcher, having a game where leveling up means being able to do more, instead of more of the same, feel very refreshing. It’s easy to see why people would give up on it, as the combat really doesn’t take off until you’ve been able to unlock more moves, but holy shit does it take off. Especially after the second Titan this game becomes a pure blast to play, even when it’s frustratingly difficult, because you know it’s a matter of ‘I need to play this better’, and not ‘I need to grind my character/buy more bullshit items’. That being said, The boss fights could be a bit frustrating in all the combo's you've unlocked aren't useful because they make you too exposed, and you end up just rolling around a lot and sneaking in a hit or two, then rolling a lot, etc. Even that still ended up being kind of fun, though, so good on them.

It’s not surprising that the strongest section of the game is the Vampire Castle. I can understand why they chose not to set the whole game there, but that area certainly played to the core strengths of the game in every aspect. It’s actually similar to the better parts of the Witcher, which pulled from Polish fairy tales and such, in that it takes a more classical approach to the fantasy material over the Magic-Crystals-Dark-Lords-Save-the-World bullshit. Granted, it becomes more or less Van Helsing: The Game, but still. It works really well here, and I hope they learn the right lessons for the sequel.

Misc.

In other media news: I still need to see Pacific Rim, Drinking Buddies is a really good movie and everyone should go watch it (although maybe wait so you don’t have to rent it for 10 bucks on iTunes, because what?) and whoever canceled Bunheads should be slowly roasted over an open fire.

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Moving to Noo Yawk, and Miscellaneous

The (Funky) Chicken Heart That Ate New York

I don't normally post about my personal life on here, for assorted reasons. However, I am going to be moving to New York very soon, and I thought maybe some Duders might know about what are some good places to check out while I'm there. I'll be staying with people who know the city, and I've visited a couple times before, so I won't be completely lost or anything, but I'm open to anything you guys think might not be that well known, or whatever general suggestions you might have. The weirder the better! Just no sex dungeons, please. Unless.... no. Definitely not.

Hard To Even Find The Words

As far as actual game stuff goes, I've played through the Citadel DLC for Mass Effect 3. I don't have much to say about it that hasn't already been said, I think, but it certainly is the weirdest kind of pandering I've ever seen. Injecting this much stupid humor into places it doesn't usually occur makes for some strange vibes. For a game that's spent half its time being bizarrely gung-ho pro-military melodrama, to do a complete about face and act like fan fic of a Joss Whedon show doesn't make any sense, but it ends up working in spite of itself. A lot of the jokes aren't even that funny, but they're so goddam silly about it that you kind of have to just accept what's going on and enjoy it anyway.

Knowing that this might have been the last thing Zaeed's voice actor Robin Sachs ever worked on does make his scenes that much weirder, though.

The Chillest of Music, for Your Enjoyment

At first glance, Dustforce doesn't look like my kind of game, but the soundtrack is so fucking amazing I might have to check it out anyway. I don't know what the name is for this type of music - is this what chiptunes is? - but I want more of it.

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Dead Babies and Dinosaur Butts

I beat Dark Souls.

I can’t help but be conflicted in my feelings towards the game, and I think what it comes down to is that the game’s greatest strength – a sense of mystery, something few games can accomplish – is also what kept me from fully enjoying it. I know everyone made a big deal when it came out about how the game doesn’t fucking explain anything, and is too deliberately hard, etc etc. And while that was part of the fun, for me, I think the lack of communication to the player undercuts the result, especially in the endgame.

If you want to figure something out in Dark Souls, chances are you’ll end up online looking for tips and player guides. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, and isn't required for playing, what it eventually means is that the games’ creators risk losing control of the dialogue they have with the player. This becomes detrimental in regards to both the narrative and the gameplay. For example: After beating Quelaag, you can enter a covenant with her sister. Of course, the game doesn’t tell you what this will do, so I looked it up online. Descriptions of the Chaos Servant covenant discuss what is necessary to save Solaire later in the game- because that appears to be the only reason to join – and because I don’t want Jolly Sunbro to die I continued to read. After doing all that I realized that in all likelihood, Solaire is ‘supposed’ to die your first playthough. I’d relied on the Internet telling me what the right way to play was, instead of letting the game play the story out the way it meant to.

This happened in a few other instances, but you get the idea. Arguably I did not have to look any of this up, and I accept that, but if the game had been willing to provide me with the bare minimum of what I needed to know in just a few key instances, it wouldn’t have created the impression that outside sources were a necessary part of playing the game. This might just be a particular hang-up of mine, but for a game based so much on exploration and discovery, pushing players to get their information from other sources means they won’t necessarily be getting it on the developers terms. Not knowing when I'm just being a dumbass and when the game is being deliberately obtuse can become very frustrating.

Like I said above, this doesn’t just apply to the story beats. Dark Souls suffers from some serious balancing issues, and again I think that at least partially comes down to communication problems. In the first half of the game or so, most of the bosses seem to require you to get other players in to help. Which is fine, usually. But after I got the Lordvessel, the only bosses that were in any way difficult were Seath, and the Bed of Chaos – the latter of which doesn’t count because it basically requires several tries to finish. Everyone else I could beat singlehandedly, usually my first try. It’s possible that I over-leveled at some point, but the fact that that’s even possible seems like bad design. Lord Fucking Gwyn was possibly the easiest fight for me in the entire game, and for that to be the note the game ends on was hugely disappointing. I don’t expect the game to say ‘you need to be this level to beat this boss’, but it seemed like I was swinging back and forth between ‘I am not ready for this fight’ and ‘I destroy all in my path ’. That wouldn’t be as big a problem in any other game, but in Dark Souls that undercuts a lot of the games’ tension. Strange as it is to say, I’d much rather prefer this had been just as difficult at the end as it had been at the beginning, learning curve be damned.

Despite all that, Dark Souls is still one of the best games I’ve ever played. I still have lots of questions*, and for me to finish a game and know that I’m going to play it again is one of the rarest and truest signs that it was a success. It's just so impressive to see what happens when a game is fully confident in its own design, and when it all works the way it's supposed to it's better than any other game out there.

* Questions such as: Why is Lost Izalith just a room full of lava and giant mummified dinosaur hindquarters? Why call it the Four Kings if they all look the same and fight you one at a time? Why did they make an XP farm using a swarm of unending baby skeletons? Where the fuck is the big toothy monster that was in all the trailers? And where the fuck is the pigmy guy from the opening cinematic? (wait, no , don't answer that. I want to find that myself).

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My Turn: Bloggin 'bout Mass Effect Tres

TIME FOR A MASS EFFECT 3 BLOG YAAAAAAAAAAAY

I probably shouldn't be writing this because A) it's been discussed ad nauseam and B) I'm having trouble articulating my thoughts, but when did that ever stop me before? So, here goes:

The Better Suicide

First, I suppose I should clarify ‘how’ I played it, since that seems to be one of the major points of discussion. So: I got From Ashes and Leviathan, which I felt ok doing because the game was like 15 bucks because it’s a year old so nobody cares. HOWEVER I played the original ending, just for fun. Also, I figured that’d give me an excuse to play through the ending again with the extended version.

HEY GUYS, HOW BOUT THAT SUICIDE MISSION. YOU READY FOR THIS SUICIDE MISSION? HUH? HUH?

As for the game itself: I think I might have actually enjoyed this more than ME2. I guess that’s not exactly a popular opinion, but I think the overall narrative just worked better. 2 was ok, but I never really liked the suicide mission thing they kept harping on. The whole game was just putting the team together, and then HEY YOU SHOULD DO THIS SIDE MISSION SO MAYBE YOUR SQUAD LIVES WINK WINK. You spend the whole game gearing up for this one thing, and they telegraphed everything so much, and helping out each and every one of your buddies with their life problems just made the whole thing feel disjointed. And like, not to get nitpicky over this, but I really don’t see why Martin Sheen didn’t just send Miranda with like 100 Cerberus dudes in a couple ships to deal with the Collectors. Seriously. Would have been so much easier.

The suicide mission concept in ME3 worked much better – which is to say, everything is completely fucked and no one has any idea what the hell they’re doing but they have to do it now. It’s the same story as Dragon Age: Origins, technically (right down to the enemy types being corrupted versions of the different races), but they put enough of a different spin on it that it still seems unique. It’s not an amazing story, but as someone who brings low expectations to the franchise I thought they handled it ok. I think I heard this somewhere else, so I won’t take credit for it, but if you took ME 3’s story and put it in modern times, Shepard would be singlehandedly re-uniting Pakistan and India and solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so that all those countries could help him fight global warming. It’s an absurd premise, but (especially considering how fucking awful the opening sequence is) that absurdity wore off as the game lurched into the final stretch. I’ll get to that in a bit, though.

Party Time

Fine, be emotionally distant the entire game. See if I care.

I had hoped that having a noticeably smaller cast in terms of party members meant you would be spending more time dealing with them, but unfortunately that didn’t seem to be the case. You have your moments with them, sure, but so much else is going on that they all seem to fall by the wayside. Meeting up with all the characters from the other games balances that out, I suppose, although that did get a little cheesy at times (oh hey Jacob, fancy meeting you here!). But then there’s Mordin’s ending where he’s singing and you’re just... fuuck.

And then you have Kaidan, who just spends the entire game being incredibly confused about everything all the time. Half the time you want to punch him in the face because bro seriously needs to get his shit together, but then he awkwardly offers to have gay sex with you and you just end up feeling kinda bad for him because he clearly just doesn’t understand anything that’s going on, which oddly makes him the best character in the game because he’s just the most transparent version of how everyone else is reacting to this situation.

Or you could just have buttsex with him, I guess. Whatever floats your boat.

Javik was interesting, but not the huge necessity he was made out to be. I was nervous before every mission, wondering if I needed to bring him, but even on Thessia, all he ever really contributed was ‘I’m a Prothean and that looks fucked up’. Don’t get me wrong, having a battle-hardened asshole who’s OCD about washing his hands and has a magical floating pack of 5 Gum was fun, and as someone who romanced Liara in all 3 games I liked having him around to flesh her character out a bit. Maybe not $10 worth of fun, but still.

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Leviathan I liked, if only because they took the basic premise for the series – giant evil aliens gonna eat y’all! – and made the absolutely fucking brilliant decision to turn them into the mice from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Seriously, I hated everything about the Reapers before Leviathan, but after playing that I was totally willing to go along with whatever ME3 wanted to do. Which brings us to the ending.

I’d managed to avoid spoilers, for the most part, but I knew about the hullaballoo enough to know that the ending alone was considered crap, and the DLC mitigated that. Otherwise I was mostly in the dark – knowing Shepard could die was kind of a given, considering the series’ history with multiple endings, so hearing about that was kind of irrelevant. I had seen the words ‘Star Child’ and ‘ Indoctrination Theory’ being tossed around, but didn’t know what they referred to – in fact, I only beat the game a few hours ago, and I haven’t had a chance to read up on everyone’s year-old discussions of the ending, so I still don’t know what Indoctrination Theory is... yet.

The Quiet Earth

Like I said, I played the original ending, and honestly? I liked it. As I’ve mentioned before, I haven’t exactly held the series’ writing in high esteem, but I thought they did a remarkable job in making it seem equal parts dire and just plain fucking weird. They spend the whole game hyping up how the final battle will save the galaxy, but then you wake up on the Citadel and everyone is dead and the Illusive Man won’t shut up and the whole thing was just so crazy that I thought it totally worked when I really wasn't expecting it to. Like, it seemed like the typical endgame to a video game, but it was so atonal to how Mass Effect usually was that it just... worked. I'm not sure how to explain it. Then you start talking to that fucking kid – did I mention the dream sequences were laughably stupid? Because they are – and you save the world by creating a planet of robot-trees for EDI to populate with her robo-babies. The whole thing is so fucking nuts that it’s a way better ending than the series deserves (haven't checked out the other options yet, I should add). Having the insight from Leviathan probably helped swallow Glow-Kid’s explanation, despite the glaring inconsistencies and plot holes between the two, so I can understand why people got upset initially. But a more traditional ending wouldn’t have worked so well. Maybe part of me is just glad that Shepard was never described as the Chosen One, despite filling that role in the story, but having this kind of ending feels like they actually followed through on the universe they created when they introduced the Reapers, where humanity is insignificant and doom is inevitable. I honestly can’t think of a better way to end it, because anything more reasonable would have been a letdown. It’s not an Assassin’s Creed III situation where they tacked on some bullshit about the sun exploding and religion being bad, because the ending is the first time Shepard really engages with the Reapers – i.e. the focus of the series, and this game in particular – on their level, rather than with lots of military hoo-ha. The fact that it's a Quiet Earth -esque twist that barely makes any sense is totally appropriate. I fully intend on playing the extended version later, just to see what they changed, but I can say right now that I ended Mass Effect 3 liking it much more than I did when I started.

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The 'Treadstone' Covenant Conspiracy

Breaking News: Dark Souls is a weird game.

I'd been hearing things about this game ever since it came out, but I never got a chance to play it until this past week (if you're wondering, I've rung the first bell, and am now dicking around in the Darkroot). I went in expecting it to be a cruel mistress best faced with patience etc, etc, but what I hadn't really expected was how deeply invested in its own atmosphere it would be. There isn't technically a whole lot to the game, just in terms of what you're really doing. The game is difficult, sure, but once get your jolly co-operation on, or figure out how to game the bosses, the basic simplicity of what's involved becomes quite apparent. Being an under-leveled dude facing normal enemies is actually when the game is at its most complicated, but that gets resolved just by grinding. Which isn't to say it's not fun, but the difficulty acts as a bit of a mask over the gameplay's weaknesses.

But the way they set everything up, the game takes on this weird sort of literary/abstract/philosophical vibe that's like a cross between The Magic Flute, Excalibur and a Gustave Dore illustration. For an 'open-world' game, it's actually quite small, with all of the places relatively close together, but each area is so self-defined that it becomes a sort of isolated image-concept - I'm really not even sure what the proper vocabulary is here. Maybe it's the way they name everything, I dunno. I'm really digging it, though.

I've also been trying to avoid getting too much information from the interwebs, just because not having any idea of what's going on is kind of fun. However, there was an... incident.

This might be something you guys know all about and won't be surprised by at all, but anyway. I was making my way through the second area of Darkroot Garden, and I bump into this Cheshire Cat type thing, who's all 'yo wassup join my crew, we wreck shit up' and i was like 'sounds tight daddy-o'. I chat with this one friendly dude with a ginormous sword around the corner, then I put on the ring and they warp me into another world and say 'so-and-so is your target'. Except there's two different dudes, one normal looking and one glowing like I am, neither of whom have a name tag so I have no idea who to attack. We stand there in a Mexican Stand-off for like 10 seconds, then the one dude who looks normal kills me in one hit with his magic whatever. So, fuck. I go back to my place and go mess around with the Asshole Ents for a while, but when I go back to hang out with the Cat, she's all 'YOU BETRAYED US, MISERABLE PIECE OF SHIT BURN IN HELL AEEARAHGAHSDHSAGH' and disappears. Then the one dude with the huge sword who had been all friendly before was like 'THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU, YOU SICK FUCK' and starts swinging. He kills me, I come back, he's still angry so I end up killing him and he's all 'why, you asshole, why'. And I'm just standing there like, 'the fuck is wrong with these people?.'

After I calmed down, I realized that I had become the Dark Souls version of Jason Bourne. Some secret assassination group hires me, I botch my first mission, they somehow decide that my failure is too costly and that it would be more expedient to get rid of me. I don't even know what their Covenant is even called, but from now on I'm referring to them as the Treadstone guys, and Cheshire Cat is now Brian Cox. As much as that sucked, it's also the most interesting thing that's happened so far. I'm sure there's some explanation for what happened, either a mistake on my part or just a glitch, but I'm just going to pretend I was the unwitting victim of some conspiracy. More fun that way. Especially if I ever see Brian Cox again...

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2012 Year in Review Shenanigans

Well, we’re coming up on the end of the year (and for all you folks not on the Gregorian calendar: deal with it). And you know what that means: it’s time for self-indulgent retrospectives that attempt to glean some meaning from the largely unrelated events of the past 12 months! YAAAAYY

Before I begin here, I just want to come clean on something I feel you should know: I have played zero games that were released in 2012. What follows is not based on my personal experience, but rather on what I have learned from browsing the interwebs. And as with everything on the internet, YES OPINIONS ARE OPINIONS. So with that out of the way, here goes.

As far as I can tell, the major releases of 2012 seem to fall into to categories: the narrative-based ones, and the emergent-gameplay based ones. Now, story vs. gameplay is probably the most over-discussed topic ever in regards to video games, but what I found interesting about this year is how heavily the attention games received seemed to fall into one of those two categories. Sure, some games like Sleeping Dogs, Dragon’s Dogma, or Max Payne fall into the more standard ‘game is fun, story ok for what it is’ categories. Forza Horizon and the new Need for Speed are pure play. And I’m honestly not sure where Journey would fall in this debate. But that said, there was a peculiar dichotomy in many of this years releases.

What do you mean, we already talked about Heart of Darkness?

Narrative

What I call the narrative games are not necessarily those that deliberately put their story at the forefront, but rather the ones where it became a major talking point in their reception. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was more common for these narratives to be criticized rather than praised. More surprising is that this category consists of most of the AAA releases. Mass Effect 3, Assassin’s Creed III, Far Cry 3, Hitman: Absolution are all games where the peculiar nature of their narrative thread garnered a perhaps surprising level of attention. The outrage over ME3’s ending has been well documented, and ACIII got a fair amount of lambasting as well.

Spec Ops: The Line went out of its way to push the story in its PR, something that almost never happens. That emphasis was apparent in every discussion of the game; however, the consensus on Spec Ops was that it was an interesting attempt that failed in the execution (nopunintended), both in terms of narrative and gameplay. Hitman: Absolution was also often criticized because not only was the narrative weak, but the demands of that story seemed to be behind the more lacking aspects of the gameplay itself. The overall reception for the games in this category is best summed up by Alec Meer. In his review of AC III, he faulted the story for

“... indulging someone’s movie writing aspirations at the expense of player engagement and freedom.”

There are exceptions, of course. The Walking Dead is almost universally beloved, and just got VGA’s GOTY award (I'm waiting for someone to describe it as the video game equivalent of Oscar bait) and that particular game puts such an emphasis on story that any gameplay is arguably negligible. Far Cry has been criticized for being nothing more than tepid White Man’s Burden silliness, but has also received praise for its strong characterization. Black Ops II got flak for what some saw as hyperviolent neo-fascism, but our own Mr. Gerstmann thought the narrative branching was a clever addition.

"Ribbit." that's the noise these guys make, right? They look like aliens that would ribbit.

Gameplay

"Emergent gameplay" is a word that gets thrown around now and again, but for our purposes all I mean by it is that the events that occur as a result of playing the game itself form their own little anecdotes, become stories of themselves. The games that fall under this category are quite diverse. Everything from Dark Souls, with its infamously brutal combat, to XCOM, with it’s semi-randomized turn-based encounters. Smaller titles fared quite well in this category as well. Crusader Kings II had players forge their own dynasty and set their own goals, and FTL’s random encounters allowed for each player to face their own unique journey through space. Arma II became enormously popular with the release of DayZ, a zombie mod that tasks you simply with survival. Even Dishonoured might be considered to fall in this category, with its emphasis on going through the game the way you want to. While the basic structure in each of these games is set, and some do have a strict, overarching narrative, the stories that people remember from each game are what happened as they played it, not what the game writers had created. After all, Far Cry 3 managed a 5 star review from Brad purely on the strength of its open-world, anything-can happen gameplay.

I don’t really want to draw any big conclusions from all this. I just found it interesting that a year where some of the most well-received titles were those that had unique, emergent playstyles, was also the year that many other releases got what seemed like more attention than usual for how they handled their 'written' narratives. Like I said, plenty of games don't fit fully into either category, and again, I’ve played none of these, so I’m curious if you all noticed this as well or if I’m just reading too much something that happens every year.

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Yo Check Out My Sweet Fan Vid Thingy

I spent an embarrassing amount of time this weekend making a little Mass Effect video (dear god I need sleeeep), and posting it here seemed like the appropriate thing to do. Nothing too fancy, but I had fun putting it together. Video editing is one of those things that seems like it would be boring and monotonous, but I actually kind of enjoy it. I guess I just like fiddling with stuff, even if I did have to use fucking iMovie garbage piece of shit glaskdhljashgd.... Sorry. Anyway, here it is if you'd like to see it.

I got the idea to use that song from the intro credits to Strike Back (which is probably one of my favorite openings ever, even if the show isn't that great). If you look it up you'll notice the cut I used is essentially the same, but I actually had to make my own version instead of just ripping the audio from that, just to get it all lined up properly. The only other big difficulty in making this is that I actually haven't played Mass Effect 3 yet, so while I wanted to get at least some footage from that I had to be careful to avoid spoiling anything, which I think I was able to do fairly well.

So yeah. Video games, everybody!

6 Comments

Haut Kotor, Bully For You

I missed out on a lot of the major games in the early 00’s. I didn’t have a console, or a computer that was up to spec, so most of my exposure to big name releases came from playing them at friend’s houses. I’ve spent some time recently going back through some of that old catalogue , and the past couple weeks have been devoted to two Oldies (old in the Internet sense of the term, which is to say, from 6+ years ago), one considered a classic, the other cult. I’ve only finished one of them, but what I sensed immediately upon starting both, and what has stayed with me since is a sense of being, quite frankly, insulted.

Let me explain.

Jailbait Twi'lek is totally asking for it.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic was made in 2003 by Bioware. Bioware would go on to make Mass Effect, and later Dragon Age: Origins. Having played both of these games, that fact is immediately obvious. The inherited qualities of those two franchises is so apparent, in fact, that it makes them seem not so much standard for the genre as signs of a lack of imagination. I never had any illusions about Mass Effect being a well made game, but I did enjoy Dragon Age, and yet KOTOR managed to retroactively make both of these seem much worse. Admittedly, this is probably unfair. Games should be judged solely by their own merits, but the obvious parallels between the later games and this are so apparent that it is almost impossible to do so. The combat is real-time turn-based, as Dragon Age is, but is not in any sense fun. You just sit there watching these guys thwack at each other a lot until one falls down. The level design and visual style is boring, despite being based on a film series with strong stylistic sensibilities. The writing in KOTOR, both in regards to dialogue and story, is so unbelievably shitty that I felt like it was willingly designed for a semi-literate, socially stunted 10-year old – granted, I’m playing a Star Wars game, so that is not an implausible assumption, but I did spend a fair amount of my childhood on Star Wars games, and fuck this. I’m the kind of guy who will usually exhaust every dialogue option presented in games, even those concerning pointless backstory, but here I found myself impatiently skipping through almost every conversation. Maybe it’s because I know about Tatooine already, and I don’t need some dumbass lizard man telling me about how it’s a fucking desert planet and there’s these things called Hutts and go fuck yourself, nobody cares. But even the inter-party dialogue was enough to make me want to shoot almost everyone, except maybe Jolee, but only because he didn’t really give a fuck either.

My name's Jolee, and I'm all out of fucks to give.

Now, I understand that few people strike gold on the first try. It takes experience to know how to make something as complex as this kind of RPG. But now that I’ve played this, the mistakes that I noticed in both ME and DA – mistakes I felt willing to overlook – now seem much more apparent, and much less forgiveable. Knowing that they’ve been down this path before, and seemingly have learned little from it, lessens my respect for Bioware considerably. They’ve been down this track before. They fucking know better. I thought Mass Effect was just a failed first outing, I didn’t realize it was the result of being too goddam lazy to learn from their mistakes. I know that KOTOR is highly praised and fondly remembered by many people who played it, but honestly I found nothing about it that I feel would justify recommending it to anyone.

And I still enjoyed it more than Bully.

That was my reaction, too.

As I mentioned earlier, I missed out on some of the bigger titles over the years. The GTA games I had periodic but consistent exposure to at friends' houses, but the first Rockstar game that I owned was Red Dead Redemption. I thought it was an interesting if somewhat flawed game, and one that played fairly well, especially in comparison to GTA IV’s awkward shooting and driving mechanics (i.e., the game). Bully was never as big a title as either of those games, but does have a devoted following (good sirs Davis and Klepek among them, I believe). I should point out that I have yet to finish Bully, but in all likelihood I never will. This game has somehow managed to take everything I don’t like about Rockstar games, and leave out everything I do. Missions involve your character deciding to do things because it’s a game, and you need things to do. There is never any real ‘why’ to anything that happens, to the point that I'm not even sure there was a story there at all. That happened in RDR too, but not all the time and not this badly. Rockstar’s character development has ( in GTAIV and RDR, at least, I can’t remember earlier) relied on taking tired stereotypes from old movies and turning them into kind of shitty people, but here it’s like they decided to take a John Hughes movie (of whom I am not a fan) and make literally every character into the worst kind of person in the most boring way imaginable. I understand Rockstar’s idea of parody starts and ends with ‘make faults more explicit, remove any redeeming qualities’, but here it’s done to in such a lazy manner, and with no discernible goal, that there’s no reason to give a fuck about anything that anyone says. And the gameplay is so uninspired that there’s really no reason to play it at all. The controls aren’t terrible, but the combat and the ‘driving’ aren’t fun in the least, and it's so much worse seeing the similarities between them and RDR's. The idea of a High School GTA sounds great, but in practice it’s frankly boring.

The fact that anyone considered either of these games worth my time is, as I said above, insulting. And having both of these games to compare with their successors sort of underlines a problem I’m having more and more with games lately. Maybe I’m just getting old, but I’m not having as much fun with them as I used to. And as much as I can see how Rockstar and Bioware have both managed to improve their products over time, the ways they haven’t changed is much more noticeable. Flaws I once accepted in DA or RDR now just seem like lazy, pointless idiosyncrasies that have no business being in the games at all. I dunno. Video games.

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