On the Shortcomings of Deus Ex: Human Revolution (spoilers)

One of the best things I can say about Deus Ex: Human Revolution is that it really does make me think. It makes me take a step back and ponder the state of videogames today. I finally came to this conclusion: If this is really what the public at large considers one of the best stories that videogames have produced to date, then, to quote Jon Stewart: we're in bad shape, fellas. It's not so much that the narrative is entirely poor, it is just a standard cyberpunk plotline that is ridden with cliche and is surprisingly shallow. I wouldn't take issue with this if the game was so beloved only because of its satisfying stealth gameplay and surprisingly excellent conversation system, but many a critic have cited the game's story as one of its primary assets. It is not. And while it may not be completely terrible, Deus Ex does so much wrong with regard to its storytelling that I find it genuinely worrying that it is held in such high regard.

For all of you who aren't racing to the comments to call me lots of terrible names, I'll start by describing the one thing Deus Ex does completely right: the visual aesthetic. The future-noir cyberpunk vision of 2027 is cohesive and well detailed, and really benefits from the game's technical umph. The typical neo-noir visual stylings are found, with a lot of dark areas with a few contrasting lights. With possibly one exception, the game never breaks from this aesthetic, with a color scheme that largely consists of, well, you know what it is/ black and yellow/ black and yellow/ black and yellow/ black and yellow (My apologies to Wiz Khalifa). As typical as it all is, the game is still appealing to look at as it evokes the gritty futuristic noir of titles like Blade Runner, Dark City, and Cowboy Bebop.

But that's a major problem with Deus Ex: It feels a lot like Blade Runner, Dark City, and Cowboy Bebop. The game treads no new ground, and really has nothing to offer stylistically that is any sort of original. The light Renaissance stylings do nothing to distract from the obvious inspirations. But, this is likely the fault of this being a prequel to a game released ten years ago, back when game stories simply weren't taken seriously. The orginal Deus Ex was a simple copy-paste of ideas that had been explored in many other works of art prior to its release. And honestly, the incredibly basic, boxy level design did the visual stylings of the original no favors. This most recent incarnation of the franchise naturally has to be consistent with its beloved predecessor, but this limits the ability of the storywriters and artists to get creative in their depiction of 2027 Detroit. Really, ties to the first game hurt Human Revolution in many ways, that I will touch on throughout this article.

But first, another major (really, MAJOR) problem with HR's narrative is the low-quality voice acting. I'm going to deviate from the form here and say that Adam Jensen is probably the best voiced character in the entire game. He's comically gruff, certainly, in a way that is quite reminiscent of JC from the original, but there are genuine emotional inflections in Touflexis' line readings. He sells his character far better than anyone else here. Everyone else is either bland, over the top, or downright racist. Was David Sarif ever convincing? Was Malik ever interesting? Why did Eliza talk like a fucking computer if she was desinged to fool people into thinking she was human? Why are gang members talking about the latest UN meeting? Did any of the Chinese characters not sound like ridiculous caricatures? Was there ANY excuse for this? Seriously, that was fuckin' Bola Santosi bad. In a world where we have perfomances like Aaron Stanton's in LA Noire or Andy Serkis' in Enslaved, the idea that performances this awful are celebrated is saddening. While Jensen and maybe one other character deliver their lines well enough (Isias Sandoval comes to mind), the fact that the other 90% is garbage is inexcusable.

But issues with characters don't stop there. Everyone but Jensen is completely two dimensional, serving one very limited purpose with very little development. I have gone to the trouble of listing their respective purposes here:

David Sarif: The set ideology

Taggart: The new ideology

Hugh Darrow: the guy who shows up at the very end whose only purpose is to turn on the protagonist

Malik: the friend

Pritchard: The snarky, cynical one

Megan Reed: The lost love

Zhao Yun Ru: The Antagonist

Eliza: Deus Ex Machina

Nothing about the characters feels genuine, and their place in the story is almost always immediately obvious from the moment the player meets them.

What may be the laziest example of this is Malik's characterization as Jensen's "friend." The majority of Adam's interactions with his lady pilot are Malik asking him "Ready to go?" and her telling Jensen where they are heading. There is one side mission where Adam investigates the death of one of Malik's friends as a favor to her, which may have served as a good starting point for a real relationship to develop between the two characters, but this relationship is never truly developed further. But the triviality of the relationship between Jensen and Malik is most apparent at the end of the game, where Malik refers to Adam as "Spy Boy." She does this completely out of the blue, with no real sign of closeness between her and Adam prior to this point. And then literally a minute after she gives her little bionic hitman a cute nickname, she dies. The inclusion of the whole "Spy Boy" exchange is forced, like the studio realized that Malik wasn't a developed character, and needed to shove in a little bit of dialogue to prove that Jensen and Malik were "close," in hopes that it would give her death some impact. Malik then goes on to refer to Jensen as "Spy Boy" again in her dying sentence, which I suppose was to make the audience feel sad, as they remember the first time she referred to him as such about a minute prior. It is a cheap shot at trying to make the audience care about an incredibly bland character minutes before they kill them off.

Perhaps the stupidest subplot in the entire game is that of Eliza Cassan, the Katie Couric of the future. Eliza is the most prominent newsanchor in Deus Ex's world, for those of you who don't know who Katie Couric is. When Adam first starts pursuing her, he is only privy to the fact that she is involved with the antagonists in some way. What he does not know (which he learns later) is that she is an AI program designed to spin the news for the illumanati. First, any trip to Fox News should be enough for anyone to realize that an organization that wants to control the world doesn't need an AI program to lie to civilians and manipulate public opinion. Second, when Adam encounters Eliza for the first time, she is a hologram with an emotionally distant, synthesized-sounding voice. Almost seems like a computer program, huh? Naturally, Adam comes to the conclusion that Eliza is just hiding somewhere else. Another little tidbit of information that overtly clues towards Eliza's identity is her name. She is cleverly named after ELIZA, a simulated intelligence program. People in the know could probably see Eliza's twist coming from 2 miles away, as opposed to normal people, who could only see that twist from a mile away. But the idiocy isn't over. Eliza is one of the most blatant Deus Ex Machinas I have ever seen in any story. More on that later.

In fact, another sin the game commits that is right up there with its voice acting is just being incredibly predictable. I'd like to contrast the Eliza twist to the ending twist of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West. In Enslaved, Monkey and Trip learn that the slaver they'vre been hunting throughout the latter half of the story is actually putting people in a matrix-like state, where they live in a virtual world that is modeled after what Earth liked before the apocalypse. The twist is genuinely surprising because the hints (the mask holograms that show pictures of present-day Earth) are subtle, and the twist itself defies what the audience thought were the rules of the universe. We knew while playing Enslaved that technology had reached a high point, given the capabilities of the slave headbands and robots. But all that remains are scraps of what there was prior to the end of civilization. The fact that something like Pyramid survived through the years, or even that it exists, is a revelation, but not in a way that feels outrageous or dumb.

But the idea that Eliza would be an AI is expected, not just because of the overt clues dropped before we see her actual core, but simply because Deus Ex is cyberpunk. AI technology is something we expect from that genre, and the inclusion of it in Deus Ex should not come as a surprise. But to revert back to discussion of overt hints towards twists, let's talk about Hugh Darrow. Darrow is the man responsible for human augmentation, and is referenced to by a few characters and articles for the first 3/4 of the game. He started the whole augmentation movement, people look up to him, we would think he would side with the protagonists. That is, until, he finally shows up. We meet him in a dark scene as ominous music plays, while he is surrounded by sketchy looking body guards. Suddenly, I got a sneaking suspicion that he would turn on Adam before the end. Add that he was introduced very late in the game and would likely serve some significant purpose (given his status and all), I was all but convinced he would turn out to be one of the primary antagonists. Lo and behold, I was right. Literally a minute after meeting this guy, I was able to predict the game's final twist.

And for what it's worth, the Illuminati are used incredibly poorly in Human Revolution. Quite simply, they are used as a mostly unseen entity that the audience is simply meant to accept as the all powerful shadow organization they have a reputation for being. Sure, we lern the names and statuses of a few key figures, but the player is given no clues as to the scope of their power. Using the Illuminati as the primary antagonist of any story is a risky move, since it can either come off as genuinely frightening or just lazy. For two good examples of the former and latter, let's think back to Assassin's Creed and Assassin's Creed II. In the original Assassin's Creed, the players were made privy to two things: the Templars exist and they run the world, and that they after peices of Eden. That's it. We learn absolutely nothing about them, nothing about their methods, their past actions, or how deep the conspiracy really goes. In the sequel, the audience is given much more information about the Templars. We learn about key figures from history who had pieces of Eden, or who conspired to cause serious world events and set the course of history (the messages between Hitler, Churchill, and FDR come to mind). Deus Ex: Human Revolution is in the same category as the original Assassin's Creed. We're not told anything interesting about the illuminati, which makes them very uninteresting villains. The original Deus Ex's hook of "bro all this could be real!" just doesn't work in 2011.

But it's not just writing, parts of the gameplay hurt HR's story experience, too. I'm going to keep beating a dead horse and talk about the boss fights, but I'm gonna beat this corpse from a different angle than everyone else. Not only are these boss fights a dramatic disconnect from the rest of the gameplay, they also bring a massive halt to any kind of momentum HR's story may have had before Adam engages in these tedious 1 on 1 shootouts. At three seperate occassions in the game, Adam is forced into a boss fight with another augmented human. All of these occur right as Adam is about to make an important discovery or find an important lead. The story slows to a halt as any focus on narrative is abandoned in favor of arena style boss fights. If the levels themselves were designed around preparing the player for an end boss fight, then this would be acceptable. But they are not, they build to (unimpressive) revelations. And as if that wasn't bad enough, it is likely that players will be wondering who the hell these people are that they're fighting, and why exactly they all have a vendetta against Adam (2 of them spend a lot of time taunting Adam during their respective battle). Forcing the player to divert their attention from the story and to focus on how to beat a tough enemy with mediocre shooting controls does more damage to the quality of the storytelling than you would think.

On the topic of gameplay elements that take away from the story, the AI. The AI is solid for the most part, but they do some incredibly stupid things that take away from the serious tone the game tries to create. A significant example in my mind is one side mission, where the player is tasked with killing two men. The two men are in the Detroit hub area, on their own. Completely alone. After walking up next to them, within their view, I walked about 5 feet to one of their sides and shot one of them in the head with a supressed pistol. Instead of his friend knowing that I was the one who shot him, since I was roughly within spitting distance and was the only human around. He proceeded to reach the "alert" level and start to search the area, instead of coming to the reasonable conclusion that I had shot his pal. Actually, I want to rephrase my accusation of the AI's stupidity: they're not dumb, they just act like computer programs. They go through the same calculated process when searching for Adam, and they are completely unable to adapt in any way. Before you think I am asking too much from a videogame, I am simply asking that the AI actually be willing to pursue Adam through doors, actually shoot him through windows, or be aware of the shooting spree he went on inside the metro area 5 feet away. And when the enemies act this dumb, it takes away from any feeling of believability.

I must touch the one gamplay element that has the most story considerations: player choice. The player choice in Deus Ex: Human Revolution is an utter joke. First and foremost, there is exactly one way to play Deus Ex: as a stealth game. Even looking beyond Adam's minusicule amount of health and the bullet-sponge enemies, the game can't be played as a shooter-RPG. There is not enough ammunition goven to the player to play it as such. Enemies only ever seem to have anywhere from 2-5 bullets left in any given gun, and the sluggish, sometimes innacurate shooting mechanics guarantee that you'll use every last bullet you find for a rather pathetic number of kills. There's nothing inherently wrong with focusing on stealth, and the stealth in HR is largely great, but in a series that touts player choice, it seems hypocritical to only give players one viable option. And this is refelctive of player choice when it comes to story development, that is, everything is very linear. The player can be a bit snarky with their dialogue choices, but the player has no real control over Adam's character traits, except for his reaction to being augmented in the beginning of the game(which consists of maybe two discussions that have absolutely no impact on the rest of the story).To put this in the most basic of terms, there is no way to play a "good" or "evil" Adam Jensen, not even in the way he handles his assignments. Or even "nice" or "douchebag" Jensen. There is no choice, there is only "Jensen."

But nothing reveals how superficial the "choice" in Deus Ex as much as the ending. After fighting through a mountain of insane augmented people, Adam is presented with a choice of how to explain the attack of the crazies to the rest of the world: tell the truth about the illuminati, tell people that the Humanity Front attacked the augmented people (gaining trust for augmentation corporations), tell people to support limitation on human augmentation, or fuck everyone and blow the Arctic anti-pollution station up. These different endings can occur thanks to Eliza, who apparently has the power to adjust Darrow's speech the way Adam sees fit. Never before has an achievement name (Deus Ex Machina) been so appropriate. There is no real build up to this ending. If you choose to find David Sarif and Taggart in the final lavel they will tell you what to tell the common people, and that is the only real build up to this climactic choice. But what really is terrible about the ending is what comes after. A (well-read) speech from Adam about the future of humanity playing over a series of stock footage. Depending on which ending you choose, the speech is different, but each one is as dissatisfying as the next. None of the choices have an obvious result either, they all just end with Adam saying some variation on "I wonder what will happen?" with a different tone. The game does a great job of making these endings seem epic, with Touflexis' genuinely good narration and the game's great soundtrack playing over the stock videos, but if the player stops and thinks, they'll realize two things: That they honestly have been told nothing about Adam's actions' effect on the world or on the characters, and that the game is a prequel. We all know what happens in the future, because the original Deus Ex takes place 25 years later. So in the end, whatever choice Adam makes brings the same result. If that isn't shallow, I don't know what is.

There are things in this game I haven't even touched on: the dancing punk in the subway, or the bondaged ladies Adam has to kill to disrupt a communications array. This game should have been a masterpiece, but it did so much to undercut its tone and so little to develop its characters that it just can't come close to reaching the artistic heights that have been reached by its medium. For those of who who think I'm trolling, I really wanted to enjoy the game. I never asked for this.

Black and Yellow
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So, I made a website...

Last December, myself and a friend made a tumblr page where we review and write about movies and videogames. Any of you who go to Screened may recognize my friend as user freeteafilm. Anyway, we came up with the idea of making our own website about 3 months ago, and today we completed it. It may not be the best coded thing in the world, but considering I went into this project with NO knowledge of html, I'm proud of it. Anywho, if you could check it out and let me know what you think, I'd appreciate it.

Link: freeteawithpurchase.com

Oh, and if anyone finds an error, please let me know

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Persona 4 and Catherine: A look at storytelling and themes

 SPOILERS AHEAD!  SPOILERS AHEAD!  SPOILERS AHEAD! 

 If you were to ask most people to name ways that Catherine andPersona 4 are alike, I can guarantee they’d name aspects like the anime style, the animated cutscenes, the voice cast, the supernatural, the developer, etc. But beyond the more superficial elements, I would submit that Persona 4 and Catherine are very similar games. They tell their story in similar ways, the trials a few of the characters undergo parallel each other, and they share some themes and ideas. I don’t mean to belittle either game by stating that they both share themes and explore similar topics, but I do think that looking at these games from this point of view may reveal a little about Atlus, and how that studio crafts its tales.

I’ll start with the most obvious and overt similarity in the two game’s storytelling style (that I didn’t mention above), the use of rumors and eavesdropping as a way to convey information to the player, and as a way for the main characters to learn more about their situation. Let’s start with Persona 4’s Midnight Channel and Catherine’s Dreams. The Midnight channel is introduced by Chie Satonaka, who tells everyone of the rumor that when it rains, a person can see their soulmate appear on a TV screen at midnight. As we all know, being told this prompts the main character to watch TV at midnight and “confirm” the rumor, with the addenedum that he can enter the television. The role of Chie is essentially played by Erica in Catherine, who makes it her business to inform the 4 main characters of every rumor she hears about, from the “dream where you’re falling,” to the witch, to the “Woman’s Wrath.” Also, the characters from Persona 4 and from Catherine listen to other peoples’ conversations regularly, such as when the main character from P4 hears two girls talking about seein Inaba get absorbed by fog on the midnight channel, or when Vincent hears two people discuss the death of Steve the dentist. 

What effect does this have on the story? Well, it’s a fairly reasonable way for the characters to gain information that drives the plot forward. It also presents the idea the plot affects more people than just the main characters: the fatal and/or catastrophic world ending events have caught the attention of more than a few people. Interacting with all the sheep that have been marked for death in Catherine makes the rumors unnecessary an maybe a tad redundant in this regard, but it still does show that people are taking notice of the strange goings on. I really don’t have anything witty or sharp to say regarding this, it is merely a noticeable similarity, that both games rely on this method of storytelling to further their respective plot. Some might argue that it is a narrative crutch, but I wouldn’t say so. The rumors in both games are never 100 % accurate as to what is actually happening, and it is reasonable that rumors would spread when weird events such as those in both games occur. In fact, it is worth noting that the rumors and stories in Catherineare almost all red herrings. While this makes the inclusion of rumors like the “witch” rather irritating, it is believable that they would develop in the game’s reality. 

Another obvious presence in Catherine and Persona 4 are the overtly symbolic bosses. In Persona 4 we are treated to Shadow Yukiko, who transforms into a bird escaping its cage, symbolizing her desire to break free of the town she has spent her entire life in. We see Shadow Kanji, who transforms into a chisled guy holding two symbols for men, which represents Kanji’s repressed homosexuality. Shadow Rise transforms into a monster/stripper thing, which represents her desire to ‘reveal’  her true personality, and abandon the persona (teehee) of Risette. And finally we have Shadow Namatame, who changes into an odd looking interpretation of Christ, which represents how he sees himself: he believes that he was rescuing the people he nearly killed. In Catherine, the majority of the bosses were symbols as well, including the giant baby, who represented Vincent’s fear of parenthood, a monster version of Katherine in a wedding dress, which symbolizes Vincent’s fear of marriage, and a monster that has a gaping mouth where its vagina should be, representing the sexual desires of Catherine, and how they tempt Vincent. Now, these symbols are certainly stronger in one game (coughpersona4cough) than they are in the other, but they all hold the same occupation in the story: to introduce or influence understanding of an issue a character has, be it Vincent’s fear of parenthood or Kanji’s sexuality. Seeing these physical manifestations of purely emotional sentiments does reveal things about that character, even if it is as minor as revealing the severity of their worries. And even though the symbolic bosses in Catherine are not as clever as they are in Persona 4, they all make sense when taken in context, since they all exist within Vincent’s mind, and the mind does not create some kind of subtle image in dreams when a person is afraid of something. I’m afraid of spiders, and I have nightmares about big motherfucking spiders. And for what its worth, neither game is perfect when it comes to clever/symbolic boss design, and as proof I tell you this: Banana head Chie and Child with Chainsaw. What the fuck. 

It is also worth mentioning that the people that Vincent interacts with at the Stray Sheep bar in Catherine are essentially the Social Links fromPersona 4, just on a smaller scale, if you will. First and foremost, they are structured in the same way. A person has a problem, they talk to the main character about that problem, and then they overcome that problem thanks to moral support from that main character, and because they just needed to explain their issue to anyone who would listen. In both games, these interactions aren’t very deep, with either main character only stopping to interject on occassion, and only having two or three options of what to say. Often, these dialog options have no real impact on the conversation as a whole, or the way the supporting character’s story plays out. The gameplay is more of a matter of time management, since the player has to decide who he interacts with and when as time passes in both games. Regardless, these interactions are all fairly believable and satisfying. In Persona 4, all of the characters are kids, and they issues that kids deal with. As such, the simple act of opening up to someone they trust is enough for them to come to terms with their respective issue. In Catherine, the issues people deal with are much darker, and they actually do deal with their delimmas in a different fashion. They all do open up to Vincent, and Vincent offers condolences or whatever. But the interactions in the real world are not where the triumphs of the bar patrons occur. Using Vincent’s climbing as their example, they overcome the threat of an actual, physical death. These victories are what make the attendees of the Stray Sheep realize that their lives are not as meaningless as they thought. When faced with the possibility of death, they realize, through fear or courage, that they do want to live and that they need to put the past behind them in order to move on. What is excellent about both the Social Links and the bar patrons is that the characters do not use the protagonist as a crutch, but they find their own strength within themselves. hey just needed a little help.  

Talking to People. I did this in English, by the way 

Perhaps the most important, most significant area where the two games parallel one another is in their central theme: The unmatched strength of the human spirit. In both Persona 4 and Catherine, we are shown average human beings overcoming Gods: Izanami in Persona, and Dumazid in Catherine. Izanami is the force behind the midnight channel, whose actions are explained in this monologue:

“Everything was for your sake… to create the world mankind so wanted. Man struggles to understand one another. You can only truly know a finite number of people within your lifetime. But humans disregard this fact and try to know more people than is possible. Only by comparing yourself to others can you define yourselves. Thus your ever-present anxiety. Your anxiety causes you to see only what you want to see, and believe only what you wish to believe. As I said, your desire is for a world enshrouded in fog!” 

Essentially, what Izanami is saying is that she created the midnight channel so humanity could learn about those they were interested in but would never get the opportunity to meet (people who appeared on television in the real world). In fact, the TV world is a creation of the people of Inaba, who have collectively created an ideal world. But, according to Izanami,  in turn eith that desire, people only want to see what they believe, and nothing that would confuse or challenge them. Therefore , Izanami made the TV world be shrouded in fog, and attempts to consume the real world in fog as well. 

Anywho, after fighting Izanami, we are treated to this incredibly intelligent discussion between Izanami and two of the more outspoken protagonists:

IZANAMI: “Instead of the endless struggle, wouldn’t it be easier to wrap oneself in lies and live in blissful ignorance? Isn’t that true peace for humans?” 

KANJI: “The hell with that shit!” 

CHIE: “Stop assuming you know us!” 

While Chie and Kanji prove that they are not masters of the English (Japanese?) language here, they get their point across well enough. This deity has misconstrued the desires and motivations of humans. They do not desire to live in a world where they are blind and ignorant. They will face life without a veil, regardless of how difficult it is. But perhaps Izanami herself sums it up best:

 ”Power enough to erase my existence. You have already exceeded what I thought humanity to be capable of…” 

Boom. A few teenage kids have overcome the will of a god.

A scenario that is fairly analogous to this occurs in Catherine as well. After enduring 9 nights of climbing for his life, the all-too-average Vincent manages to overcome the tests set forth by a being of Godly power, Dumazid (aka Boss aka Thomas Mutton). Dumazid’s stated agenda is similar to that of Izanami, in that he believes what he is doing, murdering men who are too weak to commit to their loved ones and ensure the continued existence of the human race, is for the best. After overcoming the trials Dumazid/ set forth, impressing even Astaroth (a being that has more power/has been around longer than Thomas Mutton has), Vincent also gives a less than impressive speech, in which he states that “men and women are more complicated than you think,” and that they don’t need to be “herded.” Again, the protagonist does at least succeed in making their point. The Godly have shown a lack of understanding of how the human race operates, and they force humanity to suffer through it. Vincent is able to overcome the challenges presented by the opposing deity, showing the strength of humanity, then is able to articulate in what way the God he faces does not, to quote Francis Zach Morgan, “understand humans.”

Now, there are some serious differences between these games (in ways other than the core narrative). For example, Catherine explores religious themes and shows religious imagery that is not found in Persona 4. Vincent actually takes on a certain Christ role, but not in the traditional ‘died for our sins’ sense. He becomes a leader, an almost literal shepherd, as he leads a flock of sheep (the other men having the nightmares) to safety. He is a normal man who inspires faith and encourages those who follow him and his teachings (read: techniques). Actually, another interpretation of the sheep is a statement regarding the way we perceive ourselves versus the way we see the rest of humanity. In the nightmares, every person can only see themselves as human, and every other person present appears as a sheep. This could represent the way humans see ourselves: we believe that we are truly unique and original, while everyone else is a mere sheep, part of a crowd, and utterly indistinguishable. We have to realize that these automatons we think we’re surrounded with are people just like us, and doing so will make us stronger as a whole, just as the sheep in Catherine realized that being selfish wasn’t the way to survive. 

There is also a massive difference in the tone of the two games, that is largely due to the age difference of the characters. The Persona group are flawed and tough, to be sure, but they are still just kids. They hang out and have fun, they say and do stupid things, and they approach a good few of the situations they face with a certain lightheartedness. There’s a certain childlike bravado to all of their rescue missions, a naive ‘fuck yeah’ attitude to their trips into the midnight channel, which is only shattered when Nanako is kidnapped. For the most part, Catherine lacks that same sort of brightness. The characters are older and decidedly more serious, and the game just lacks the silliness that permeated Persona 4. There is no school camping trip, nor are there hijinks in the Amagi Inn. That isn’t to say that Catherine is devoid of humor, the game is actually quite funny when it wants to be. But the humor is more based on clever quips during conversations, rather than ridiculous situations. But that’s beside the point. The characters inCatherine are darker and more mature than those in Persona 4, simply because they are (for the most part) adults dealing with adult issues. And actually, maturity is the source of all of the main characters’ issues. Vincent is afraid of fully maturing. Orlando faced maturity by marrying his wife, and suffered for it when she left him. Jonny seems like the kind of guy who tried to become an adult when he was 13. All in all, the characters have understandable, justified angst (I fucking hate that word) that contributes to the darker tone. As I stated above, the other people Vincent interacts are also working through much more serious issues than the P4 characters. A lot of these are normal scenarios for this sort of story (an abusive father, a murdered loved one), but Archie’s relationship with his mother is something that most games wouldn’t dare touch with a ten foot pole. 

But in the end, Persona 4 and Catherine are very similar games when it comes to their themes and storytelling style. But is that a bad thing? I say no. Really, Catherine feels like a progression of Persona 4Personadeals with the teeange years and the struggles that people go through then. Catherine takes the ideas of self discovery ans strength and applies them to adults. Ina strange way, Toby feels like the connective tissue between Persona and Catherine. He has found his identity, but has not truly had to deal with growing up and maturing. Honestly, I could imagine Yosuke being a lot like Toby 5 years after P4’s conclusion (both are voiced by Yuri Lowenthal). But even if you don’t buy that justification for the similarities, consider this: We celebrate Hemingway, even though his books seem to only tell stories about war-time love. But his stories are different enouh each time to catch the reader’s interest. Can we not celebrate Atlus in the same way?

EDIT: Sorry about any spelling/grammar errors I missed. I have no time for spellcheck
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Artistic vs Technical: Grand Theft Auto IV

I sat here for a while, wondering how to begin this little post. Appeal to the controversy that surrounds the Grand Theft Autoseries? Nah, that’s been done to many times. Start with some memorable quote from the game? No, too obvious and lazy. And really, how many people really care about the superfluous flairs in the introduction? So fuck it, I’m going to get to the point. Grand Theft Auto IVis not a good game. It is a pretty damn great experience, but it fails as a game. Why’s that? Because the focus during development was clearly on the atmosphere and character, not on the gameplay. Now, I love me some character-driven, atmospheric games. Hell, I have a hard time playing games that don’t fit that description. But those qualities need to be backed up by gameplay that is at least competent. There’s no excuse here, this game doesn’t feel like it sacrifices fun for atmosphere or for its open world, it feels like making the gameplay satisfying was ignored outright. Do the strengths of the storytelling and characters outweigh the weaknesses of the gameplay? Read on

The Issue: Throughout my 25 hour experience playing Grand Theft Auto IV, I had to constantly remind myself what the game was doing right. The game creates a shockingly real recreation of New York City, capturing the atmosphere of the area impeccably well. It tells a decent story with some fantastic characterizations. You will care about a select few of the people you encounter as Niko. On the complete other end of the quality spectrum is the gameplay. The weapons don’t feel especially powerful, and the lock-on targeting system in place is broken. The combat itself is, at its best, moderately interesting, and at it’s worst, infuriating. Combine this with some loading and framerate issues, and what’s left is a painfully poor playing experience. 

The Debate: GTA IV focuses on the adventures of Niko Bellic, a former Special Operations soldier from Eastern Europe. He comes to America to live with his cousin, Roman, who has written to him of his exorbitant wealth and luxurious lifestyle he leads in Liberty City, which totally isn’t anything like New York. We soon learn that Roman is a sort of a dirty liar, since he lives in a small, dirty apartment and runs a moderately successful taxi service, and owes money to the local bully. Niko has to take on jobs for this local bully in order to keep Roman safe, all of which involve driving and shooting. This bully eventually crosses the line by going after Roman’s girlfriend, which is enough to make Niko want to kill him. After this little series of events, Niko and Roman are catapulted into the world of crime, and they associate with all manner of drug dealers, theives, murderers, and mobsters. 

The main story is structured like a series of smaller vinettes, in which Niko does 3 or 4 jobs for a certain person, all the while learning about their lives and their aspirations. These vinettes are tied together by Niko’s mission for revenge on a man named Florian Cravic, who betrayed him in his old country, and got many of his friends killed. Also tying these stories together is Niko’s growing understanding of America, and how the supposed “land of opportunity” is just as violent as his homeland. 

Niko is easily the best thing about Grand Theft Auto IV. He is very well characterized, and completes a well-realized character arc over the duration of the game. He is a stone-cold killer, who will end a man’s life at the drop of a hat. He feels regret for his past actions, but will still kill because all his years as a soldier numbed him to it. He is a broken man, and he is fully aware of it. It makes him angry because he feels he is powerless to change his fate, but he seems to accept it sadly. And near the end, when he feels ready to leave the violent life behind him, his chance to move on is taken from him. 

     

The character development is as great as it is largely thanks to some extremely impressive voice work. Every character is played straight, and it is shocking just how beliveable every character is, even the incredibly over-the-top Brucie (Roman’s friend who is addicted to testosterone). Michael Hollick is particularly great as Niko (like I said, he’s the best thing in the game) because he makes this sociopathic killer likeable. There is never a moment where the player does not root for their avatar. He is funny, down to earth, and when he’s abarasive, you feel as though he is right to be. Jason Zumwalt is another high point as Roman, who plays his part as Niko’s biggest source of both stress and happiness. My other personal favorite performance in the game is that of Ryan Johnston, who plays Patrick McCreary, an Irish mobster whose friendly attitude and devotion to his family makes him hard not to like. It’s disappointing that the voice actors in this game aren’t more prolific, since they are the only reason I could bear to play this game for as long as I did. And they should have been paid more.

I love this guy 
Another thing that is truly masterful about GTA IV is the way it approaches drug use. It’s depicted casually, but is never actually condoned. The relationship between drugs and the McCrearys is particularly interesting. There is a scene in which the McCreary brothers are all doing lines of coke in their kitchen, and Packie often makes references to cocaine. These two things are not designed to shock or horrify the audience, nor do they seem to support the use of cocaine; it is just part of the depiction of Packie’s lifestyle. The destructive effects of drugs are depicted in the game. During the bank heist mission (arguably the best mission in the game) Packie and his brother Derrick are at each others throats, blaming each other for everything that goes wrong during the heist, and they use each other’s drug problems to insult each other in this exchange:

Packie: “Fuck you! Take the needle out of your arm then tell me what to do!”

Derrick: “I’ll let you tell me what to do when you stop shoving half of Bolivia up your nose every Saturday night!”

After this mission, Derrick’s problems with heroin are further developed, when he is depicted as a washed up, pitiful addict. He is not the only character to suffer from drug issues, though. Ray Boccino’s wife references her use of Crystal Meth and says that it’s killing her. The final result of this representation of drug use is a message that is essentially anti-drug, but subtlely so. 

Actually, commentary on other social issues is another of the game’s strengths. Once again, Niko delivers, and he makes some of the most sensible, I hesistate to say profound, statements in the game. In particular, he remarks on the status of immigrants in America, calling them the new slave class. These words rang true in my eyes, and actually made me pause and consider the hierarchy that still exists in my country. Niko also comments on the whole notion of “family values” in politics; how it is pointless for politicians to deny who they are to appeal to the average white Republican family, and should just embrace their true feelings. As I mentioned previously, Niko discovers that America is not so different from his former country; it is still a land of violence and crime, where the small prey on the weak. This is perhaps the most profound statement that the game has to offer: The American Dream is a lie. America is no different that any given war-torn third world country, but the evils come in a prettier package. 

Speaking of pretty packages, GTA looks phenomenal from a purely artistic perspective. Simply put, it captures the vibe of New York stunningly well. During the day, the city is dirty, brown, and oppressive. During the night, it is a wonder to behold. Whether the player is in the middle of “Star Junction” (Times Square) or looking at the city off in the distance, the lights can inspire awe if a player is willing to stop murdering things for a few seconds and just gaze. I can’t really go into more detail about this, so I’ll just sum it up with these screenshots: 


Beauty, sheer beauty 
I realize that up until now that my description of GTA IV has been incredibly positive. The number of positive aspects certainly outnumbers the negative ones, but there’s a certain caveat with that statement: the negative issues are gameplay and graphics. Simply put, not one gameplay mechanic is implemented well. Simply making Niko move is a pain, since he controls like an automobile and it is extremely difficult to make him do sharp turns or have him run through small doorways. The player has to repeatedly tap a button to make him sprint, which is also annoying. Adding to this is a Call of Duty style limit to the distance the player can sprint, which is incredibly ill-defined, since there is not a meter or any sort of indication at all as to when Niko is ready to stop briskly jogging and book it again. The driving controls are also frustrating. There is a realistic, weighty feel to the driving, but this sort of driving does not work in a game where the player has to make sharp, unexpected turns. The chase sequences in the game often require the player to either drive slowly or to just be clairvoyant. But what really ruins the basic movement controls is the terrible camera. The camera is always a step behind the player, meaning it is impossible to see where the fuck you’re going for a good second or two every time the player turns in a car or walks a different direction on foot. This problem is remedied by allowing the player to control the camera on their own, but constantly moving a thumb down from the buttons to adjust the camera slightly is an unacceptable annoyance. 

The player will spend copious amounts of time shooting from cover, and these parts of the game control even worse. The lock on system is dreadful, since it doesn’t prioritize targets, and half the time will not actually allow the player to switch targets, but will stay stuck on a single dead enemy gangster/policeman/whatever. The shooting levels themselves aren’t very interesting either, since they all seem to take place in abandoned areas, utterly devoid of civilians. But perhaps this is for the best, since in the roughly two levels that take place in the bustling areas of the city, the targeting system chose to focus on the innocent bystanders rather than my assassination target, or the motherfucker who is directly next to me putting his fist in my face. There is analog aiming, but the guns are so underpowered and it’s so hard to see the enemies that it’s impossible to pull off any sort of efficient killing without the lock on aiming. 

The missions are more than a tad repetitive as well, with most of them boiling down to this: 

1. Go to mission start and get yelled at

2. Drive to an area that is just far enough away to make the drive tedious

3. Arrive at a bland, abandoned area and either a) shoot at guys from cover or b) chase after guys on foot/in a car/ in something else until they stop, then get out of car and shoot at them from cover.

4. Escape from cops

There is very little deviation from this formula, save for a few standout missions, such as a bank heist (probably the best locale in the game), an assassination mission that takes place in a hospital with some great stealth, and the final level. 

There are some issues with the visuals and sound design as well. Given that the game came out in 2008 and that it was a large scale open world experience, it feels unfair to critisize the technical aspect of the graphics. But throughout the entire game, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the models all looked like they were from the original Max Payne (except the faces, they looked better). There were a few problems with texture pop in, especially in a specific tunnel that was often completely white for a good few seconds whenever I drove through it. The sound design isn’t broken, but leaves something to be desired. The only issue is that none of the guns, except one of the Assault rifles, sound powerful. Because these weapons dole out relatively little damage, having them sound punishing should have been a priority, in order to make the shooting at least somewhat satisfying. 

All of these issues might have been acceptable if the storytelling aspects of the game were flawless, but they are not. The latter portion of the game’s story simply drags, as Niko does favors for seemingly endless numbers of similar gangsters. Also, many of the moral choices that take place early in the game simply have no emotional weight to them. Prior to playing this game, I heard endlessly about Dwayne and Playboy X, and how the former was a great character and how the latter was a piece of trash. None of the great characteristics of Dwanye were conveyed in the game to me. Dwayne is an old whiner, and Playboy X is a greedy, naive drug dealer. Neither one is likeable, and the choice of which one to kill didn’t affect me at all. I didn’t care. Also, while some of the social commentary is smart, the Fox News and NPR parodies are too juvenile and blunt to be considered clever. They were funny, to be certain, but they weren’t clever. 

Verdict: For all of the strengths of GTA IV, I can’t recommend it to anyone. Great characters and atmosphere aren’t enough to carry a game with mechanics this broken. It’s not as though GTA IV is even a unique experiment that failed to deliver on the gameplay front (a la Shadow of the Colossus). It’s an open world cover based shooter. It’s a poor open world cover based shooter. And that’s the bottom line: there are games that have better stories, and there are games that play better. GTA IV has a lot to offer the gaming audience, but none of it is worth the frustration of actually playing it. 

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On Gaming and Having Fun

The following is a repost of an article I wrote around 6 months ago on my website:  

  I have some new for all my fellow game-playing human beings out there: Gaming is supposed to be fun. Wait, wait, before you all stop reading this post and dismiss me as idiotic, I need to explain why I felt the need to tell people this. Recently, I was watching Gamespot’s review of Final Fantasy XIV. Why? I was bored. Anyway, everyone knows now that this was not a very good game, and the people who were involved in this abominations’ creation are currently out of work. But that’s not why I bring this up. Then I glanced down at the comments, I saw that one user, who will be referred to as “the commenter,” decided to write a damn essay defending this game, and the last Final Fantasy MMORPG, Final Fantasy XI. His comment is as follows:

     “FFXI was the best game I have ever played. I have faith that 14 will improve over time. 1 thing that pisses me off is the First and Last name thing. Why not stick to one name ??? I don’t get it. Seeing someone named Bill Clinton is extremely stupid. Take away from the mystical genuine unique sanctuary that Final Fantasy players love and respect. Many people know…. for a good 8 years…. FFXI wasn’t just a game…. for a lot of people, it was like being in Heaven. It was a way of life.

     Final Fantasy XIV for me “MUST” be good. It has to perservere. If it doesn’t…. they need to fire people and hire a staff that can make the game work. There’s too many fans of FFXI that quit FFXI in hopes for a great FFXIV game…. too many fans that bought a PS3 “JUST” for this game. Too many people that love the name  FInal Fantasy to see a potentially beautiful experience go to waste. There’s too much on the line to accept “THIS” as a sequel to the best MMO I’ve ever played.

     People say “FFXI sucks. I hated that game…” Why? B/c it was an MMO that was a test. It was a test of Patience. Few MMOs test Patience. So this review’s quote “It’s not fun, it’s work.” No shit. The loyal FFXI playrs want Work. We like to woro for respect. We like to work for gear…. so when we go to a major city… “So and so is inspecting you..” That’s what we love. We love the work. We take pride in the work. It’s not the work that’s the problem. And no Auction House? No shit. It will come

     And no recipe books? Not knowing where to go? You’re not supposed to know where to go. I didn’t know where to go half the time in FFXI. When I got my Tamas ring and Balrahn’s ring…. you think it was easy? No. I had to do research. For hours. I had to study fight. I had to have my laptop next to me to look up recipes. Because it’s what I had to do to place myself above other careless impatient players.

     And “you have to make macros…” Like hey bro…. did you play FFXI? You had to macro everything. Or click spells, white magic, heal… to heal. Or you could make a macro. Wow that’s hard. If you can’t make a macro…. figure out how. Since when are MMOs for lazy people?This dude never played FFXI. He addresses issues that aren’t issues. Why not just say, “They released this game too early.” It’s not ready for online play yet. That’s what it comes down to. “

     …Jesus. Now, if you were to overcome by this guy’s idiocy to make it through that, know I’ll be directly addressing his arguments here. The first half of this is really just fanboyism at its absolute worst. He insists that because the game is a Final Fantasy title, that there is no conceivable way that it can be bad. He even says that Final Fantasy XI wasn’t just a game; it was like being in heaven. “A way of life” is what he calls it. This is the kind of insane, blind devotion that leads to situations like the  Wacoshootout. It’s terrifying. This guy comes back using a different profile (he refers to the rant above as “his argument” in his proceeding comments, just in case you were wondering how I know it’s the same person) and proceeds to bash World of Warcraft, probably one of the most important games in recent memory (even if it is an evil, life-stealing organism*). He criticizes it because it lets everyone obtain the best armor and weapons and numbers and such. Think about that for a second. He says a game is bad for being accessible and rewarding. Yeah, we’ve got a nut on our hands.

        

Pictured: Heaven and/or a way of life

     But, it is not his loyalty to Hironobu Sakaguchi’s JRPG kingdom that is so troubling about this comment. For the second half of his diatribe he essentially focuses on Kevin VanOrd’s claim that Final Fantasy XIV is “not fun, it’s work.” He sites that the true fans of the Final Fantasy MMOs love the work because of the respect it brings them. Now, I must admit, there is a slice of validity to this. There is a certain amount of satisfaction with gaining an amount of power or notoriety in any aspect of life, even in gaming. However, what our esteemed lunatic is forgetting is that, and I’m going to be blunt about this, video games don’t really matter in the real world. Now, am I saying that video games are without value? No, of course not! Gaming allows us to experience events and situations that we could never experience in life or in another entertainment medium. When we play games, we can gain powers we could never have. We can experience excitement or terror in ways that we could never feel them before. Because that’s what gaming is all about. The experience. And most of all, that experience should be fun. The ultimate goal of any game is to have fun playing it. Whether or not it offers some kind of arbitrary award, a game is not worth your time if it isn’t fun to play or experience in some fashion or another. It really bothers me that the man describes Final Fantasy XI as “a test of patience” as if that’s supposed to be a good thing. I honestly don’t know how to respond to that. If a game wants to make you turn it off, then you should turn it the fuck off. A truly great game should never test your patience. I game may frustrate you, but you should feel compelled enough to continue playing. Now, that may sound hypocritical, but I justify it this way: there is a difference between “challenging” and “patience-testing.” Patience testing can mean that a game is monotonous/boring or unfairly difficult. A challenging game keeps things interesting.

     But, I digress. So, it is okay to try to get some big reward, or reach some kind of goal while playing a game, and its ok to put forth a certain amount of effort when trying to obtain accomplish this ultimate goal. However, just like anything in life, the amount of effort and, well, work that is involved in achieving this end needs to be relative to the real-life value of the reward. Performing tedious, mind-numbing work to make a wage or get a degree at a university is acceptable, because those rewards have real significance in life. Now, to address the comment again, a goddamn ring in a video game isn’t worth doing “research. For hours.” Having to study a combat system to improve, instead of just learning and improving from experience, makes a game cease to be a game (I’m looking at you, Starcraft. But you’re like a sport now, so I’ll let it slide.) To offer some personal experience to contrast the commenter, I’m currently trying to finally reach the rank of Lt. Colonel in Halo: Reach. Now, I’ve sunk a lot of my time into accomplishing this objective, but I have enjoyed myself throughout the journey. I’ve gotten better through experience only. It has only felt like a grind when I actually glanced at my progress bar between matches. But from game to game, the actual act of playing is enough fun where I forget my overall goal, and just let myself become immersed in the match. Now, this is essentially the opposite of the experience the commenter describes. Where I enjoy the game and try to not focus on the goal at hand, the commenter suffers through work in order to reach that goal. Like a carrot on a stick, except you have to constantly walk over hot coals and thumbtacks as you try to get the carrot.  

     But this commenter’s real issue is that he thinks these rewards he’s torturing himself for have tangible value. Reaching an impressive level in a game may make yourself feel good, but I guarantee that anyone who cares needs as much psychiatric help as you do. When I see someone highly ranked online or whatever the hell, I never think to myself “Wow, I respect their abilities and I am inferior to them as a person.” I think “Wow, these guys have too much time on their hands.” To be fair, I have grinded for inconsequential rewards, but I accept that nobody really cares. Sure I felt good right after I got all the achievement points in Assassin’s Creed 2. But when I look at that full bar now, do I feel any pride? No. No one respects me for it. No one cares. I didn’t enjoy finding all of the feathers in the game. My perfectionist attitude just came over me. Nothing more.       

 

I could have just played this     

     Before this little post ends, I need to say this: I have never played FFXI. I looked it up, it got fairly good reviews. Maybe it’s actually good. But, if the experience is anything like the commenter describes, then it sounds wholly unpleasant. The game isn’t the point here, it’s that some people have managed to effectively misunderstand the entire point of gaming.

     And now, Mr. Commenter, I say to you this:  If, ten years from now, you’re proud of your Tamas ring and Balrahn’s ring, you need to rethink your life. You disrespect games as a medium by contributing to the stereotype that all gamers are is a bunch of nerds obsessed with their little pixilated avatar’s statistics. 

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Does anybody else think...

...that the four star rating for halo reach was incredibly predictable? Honestly, ratings on this site can be predicted by the respective reviewer’s level of excitement prior to the game's release. Jeff's general apathy towards the release of the game (and I'm not just talking about that twitter post, you can listen to the bombcast and hear what I’m talking about) was clear evidence that none of the fundamental changes shown off in the beta or referenced in other reviews would make that much of an impact on him, as opposed to other games.
       That brings me to a question I've been considering for a while. By the logic of my thinking above, Drew should have reviewed this game. Clearly Drew has the most experience with the Halo franchise, and would have appreciated the changes the most, and he most likely would have given the game a higher score.

       HOWEVER, is that the best way to review a game? Should a spoken fan of the franchise review the game, because they will understand the gravity of the changes, or should someone who doesn’t care review the game, because they will be more willing to expose the game’s flaws?
 
EDIT: Please focus on the last paragraph of this post, I'm just using the Reach review as a framing device for my question

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