I used to rent video games through the post from this company called LoveFilm (they stylise it LOVEFiLM which really dicks around with the spellchecker, though so does LoveFilm as a single word to be fair). They decided to stop lending me video games so I decided to stop giving them money each month; a pretty fair compromise was reached. Today I received a series of questions attempting to ascertain exactly why I took this decision. As a conscientious member of society, I of course chose to oblige and answered all of their questions to the best of my ability.
By question two their curiosity had ramped up considerably and they approached the topic of my absconsion head on. I do feel in retrospect that they peaked a bit early with this one. The flow of the survey would have benefited if this had come closer to the end.
This is a ridiculous question.
This one, however, really got my creative juices flowing.
I had to choke back tears of guilt by the last question.
It struck me how insignificant LoveFilm had been in the bigger picture of my life; that I might have meant the world to them, but for me they were simply one of a pool of video streaming services that I used and discarded at will. Looking at all the ticked boxes made me feel dirty and monstrous, like I’d kept them all in my cellar for twenty years, abusing them daily for my singular pleasure and to maintain the facade that I am, in fact, still in control of myself.
So goodbye LoveFilm; you were once my prized possession, now you mean less than nothing to me. That unlocked door you dragged yourself through to reach ‘freedom’? That wasn’t left open by accident, I kept you for years why would I suddenly become careless? Enjoy your hard won ‘freedom’ LoveFilm, I’m sure you’ll be fine without me.
I’m the first to admit that I can become a little acerbic when I’m writing whilst drinking. I’m not like that in company, in fact quite the opposite. In recent years I’ve become somewhat Russell Brandian in my public inebriation; full of gesticulation, pithy anecdotes and enthusiasm. This goes doubly if I’m meeting people for the first time. It isn’t something I do willingly, that would be a little bit pathetic really, no, it’s my way of getting by in situations that would otherwise make me feel a little self-conscious. The drinking certainly helps as well. It, as I’m sure it does for many people, loosens me up, imbues me with greatly inflated self-confidence and - people might beg to differ - makes me funnier. That’s only when I’m in company though; when I have to be courteous and charming and very happy. When I’m by myself and half drunk, writing, as I like to do, I become more realistic, cynical and just a little bit bitter.
It’s stupid and short-sighted of me to insist upon writing in this state, primarily because it doesn’t accurately represent my true feelings and opinions, but also because I’m a torturously slow and clumsy typist when I’ve had a few. A week or so ago it took me a good hour to concoct this monstrosity calling out new consoles as being bad things. I do stand by what was written, at least to a certain extent, but take massive umbrage at how it was written because, well, it’s a bit silly.
My overriding point was always that launch games for a newly released console rarely play to the machine’s full potential. That has been the case throughout the (recent) history of the medium and can be witnessed today. The reasons for this are primarily based in issues of technology and time, two things I’m not particularly qualified to talk about. Suffice it to say that these games aren’t bad, simply that they will be almost certainly surpassed as the people who make them become more adept at working with the technology that drives them.
That was it really; not a particularly stunning or intelligent observation to make. I was drinking though, so I thought I was breaking down taboos and saying something few people are willing to admit to. See, that surge of self-confidence was truly working a treat for me.
The other thing I was channelling, though not very clearly, is that I don’t think I’m ready to move on yet. While I seemingly don’t like anything these days, I still have a fair few games to play before I throw my current consoles out of the window. When I rushed out and bought my PS3 I was mesmerised by graphical fidelity and not much else; I mustn’t have cared about other things improving as long as they looked prettier in their creative stasis. I don’t think like that today, so I’ll be using the time between now and truly new experiences emerging to polish off the games I’ve missed along the way. There’s a couple, so I should be well stocked for six months or so.
I am a little more bitter and cynical than I was in 2007; I think that just comes naturally as we all get a tad older. I may be that way about video games specifically, because I’ve had the same boxes sat on my desk for so long, pumping titles at me with - generally speaking - gently decreasing returns of amazement, excitement and enjoyment. Maybe I’m not the curmudgeonly figure my drunken mind would have me believe. Maybe, just maybe, instead of moaning about how little things have changed since I was seventeen (they have, quite a bit), I’d be better served by looking forward to how things will change, now we finally have the boxes that can power these new experiences.
Or maybe I should just stop getting pissed up and kidding myself that I can write drunk. Probably not, but drinking or no drinking, I’ll try and remember the lights when I’m finally done playing with these old boxes.
As people who obviously like technology, the games-playing public are at a disadvantage. They will instinctively gravitate to a new device regardless of its merits or otherwise. This is, generally, all right. These are the people who blaze trails; create ‘memes’; own the newest, shit, iteration of a phone; or are guinea pigs when a game needs to raise funds and QA at the same time. In essence, these people are both pioneers and, quite often, mindless idiots.
I’m not having unfounded beef here, though; don’t you worry. In the year of our Lord two thousand and seven I was witness to Motorstorm. It instantly changed my opinion to the - then - new consoles. I rushed out and purchased a Playstation 3 (Three) almost - but not quite - the same day. After that I was FUCKING disappointed. And significantly poorer.
I didn’t even buy Motorstorm because I heard from the very same friend that it was lacking in content. I played Call of Duty III, Resistance and Fight Night instead. Looking back they were all enjoyable experiences, but what really stands out is that they were all things I’d played before, but with better visuals and presentation. I'd been robbed through a doctrine.
Video games don’t get better the more beautiful they look, nor do they improve with their mechanical trivialities. New consoles obfuscate the discussion we need to have about video game development. As we currently exist, more care needs to be taken about rabid industry fandom; lest it degenerates into a self-flagellating mess.
Most video games - populous, contemporary ones, at least - perpetuate the notion that bigger is better. Our new console brothers are contributing to the notion of bigger/faster/better. Where does that leave art or storytelling? Technology alone cannot inspire greatness: it can only assist in its rise.
Video games are shit: prove me wrong; (give me another Flower).
The fourth entry in the Saints Row series sees The Video Game shed its mortal trappings and ascend to a higher place. I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that in Saints Row IV we finally have the greatest example thus far of the video game in its purest form. While it is by no means perfect - it does regrettably give over a little too much time to characters and exposition - I see it as the closest humanity has yet come to unfettered goal-orientated mechanical perfection. To call it merely a video game is almost an insult, for SR IV operates on a plane far out of the grasp of its contemporaries. It is in fact closer to the likes of chess, cricket or professional wrestling: instances where rules and mechanics dance around one another, momentarily coalescing to create beauty, amazement and pure, magical, inconceivable beauty.
One of the most fondly remembered parts of Saints Row: The Third is a mission called Deckers.Die, which takes place entirely inside a computer. While the core gameplay mechanics and goals don’t change much in this new setting - you’re still essentially just shooting bad guys while running around a bit - the aesthetics and rules of these interactions do alter profoundly. Within this neon world of geometric shapes, wireframe models and translucent textures we’re subject to a bevy of glitchy annoyances. Enemies enter the fray as if from nowhere; our character slides around the world, appearing and disappearing like we are playing over a slow internet connection circa the year two-thousand; we are turned into a toilet and laughed at.
SR: TT represents what is possible when the people making a knock-off video game own up to their filthy ways and address their cheap-arse audience directly. This admission of the truth - not that their past GTA-aping had been in any way subtle - allowed developer Volition a greatly increased scope for freedom of expression. They were no longer beholden to strict genre conventions, though crucially, many of the leaps that were made still broadly fit into the recognisable template. Yes, there were aliens, zombies, Burt Reynolds, aeroplane hijinks, sing-alongs and tigers, but these things were always interacted with in genre appropriate ways and in genre appropriate locations. Deckers.Die is the almost-exception to this rule.
Most of the time, as I’ve already said, you are simply shooting at things while you experience little trinkets and baubles all around you. They don’t fundamentally alter the core gameplay loops you’ve been running around within already, but they do begin to break these actions away from their more recognisable settings and aesthetics. Mechanics begin to lose their justification and likeness to real world analogues, instead simply existing to further the already established and agreed upon gameplay paradigms. The game knows that the player understands how to interact with its challenges by this point, so we no longer need an object’s function to tally with its appearance. The game and the player are, essentially, one in the same during Deckers.Die.
SR IV takes this expectation of understanding significantly further, presenting most mechanics as simply tools used to attain results, without bothering with much contextualisation or narrative justification. Again, Volition falls back on virtual reality to lazily - though quite transparently - facilitate its more outlandish design choices. By setting the majority of the game in a constructed world free from the constraints of our own, they are effectively freeing the player from the mundane trappings and formalities of other, more tiresome video games. At the same time this also acts as the catch-all narrative device that removes any further need to explain, well, anything else.
Within a very short space of time you can jump really high, run really fast and kill things really quickly. You are able to combine these abilities, if you so wish, creating dazzlingly choreographed explosions of movement, death and personal gratification. It’s like playing rock, paper, scissors without that one solitary rule: you have these awesome - as in to inspire awe, not something cool wot you saw on the internet - resources at your disposal and you’re not forced to use them independently; thus you win every time. Shortly after, you’re given the ability to freeze enemies in place and then kill them even quicker. At this point the game has lost almost all of its conventional challenge. Then it proper kicks off.
The world of SR IV is littered with many hundreds of things to do, as are most video games of this kind. The crucial difference between this particular video game and literally all the others though, is the frequency at which you can tackle these trivial distractions. This is a two-pronger in essence: firstly, the combination of your jumping and running powers means travelling around is ridiculously fast, to the point where a couple of bounds often takes you to some new errand. Secondly, these activities are so spectacularly half-arsed for the most part, that they are usually over within a couple of minutes, if that. Flashpoints, for example, are merely groups of ten or fifteen enemies that need making not-alive, which can be done in less than thirty seconds in most cases. A chaos-making scenario tasks you with launching giant balls at things until they explode. Another has you throwing people and objects through floating hoops. It’s all back of the napkin territory really, where their lack of depth actually improves one’s experience by expediting the more regimented and traditionally ‘video gamey’ bits.
Where challenge is usually the video game’s primary source of enjoyment, SR IV generates fulfilment through mechanics alone. There is no reason - except for the obvious benefit to the player - to combine all of these dispirit abilities, they are only here to give us a good time. At first it might appear that all games are built like that, but it often isn’t the case. Most games want, nay, need to create a congruous world - however fantastical that may be - where everything has a place and all things make sense. SR IV has no such agenda; mechanics are there to be enjoyed for exactly what they are without being masked by - apart from the virtual reality set-up itself - copout exposition or narrative obfuscation. Everything is unapologetically created for the player’s enjoyment. We’re given the faster traversal, hyper-kinetic combat and the ability to cherry-pick activities because SR IV is aware that we’ve done all these things so many times before that their inherent ability to keep us engaged has eroded considerably.
This is the essence of my admiration for SR IV. It is the first video game I’ve ever played that seems to understand that video games - at least populist modern ones - are shit. They have become so enraptured in creating a lasting sense of place, character and/or personality that they no longer care about being - first and foremost - enjoyable. What is even more endearing is that the SR series began as this very type of game: chasing the GTA template at every turn without stopping to question the validity of the entire endeavour. Saints Row IV is not your average video game. It looks and plays like one at first glance, but spend even a little time with it and Volition’s true intentions become clear: they want to entertain you at all costs. It is a scattershot collection of disparate ideas, gimmicks and mechanics brought together solely to stimulate the player. It is also vastly entertaining, which must go some way to vindicate this seemingly reckless design philosophy. On paper - maybe one of those napkins - the whole game should be an abject failure; it is so unlike the majority of big budget titles we are given to play today. It almost feels dangerous - subversive, maybe - in its singular vision to entertain above all other things - at all costs, even. To this end, though, it is probably the most lovingly made piece of digital entertainment to have ever graced our lives with its company.
Video game news coverage works very much like other types of news, in that lots of things are reported on and most of it is pretty banal. I’ve taken the initiative and consolidated an entire week of news into one easily digestible roundup of the things that actually matter. I’ve also filtered out all of the advertising and promotion masquerading as news, which is why this isn’t a particularly long list.
07/10 - GTA V overtakes GTA IV in the UK
Just like you, the player, did for large parts of the game itself, Grand Theft Auto V (Five) has spent the last few minutes arbitrarily tailing its quarry with mind to inevitably overtake it and beat it to death with an unceremonious curb stomp.
Yes that’s right, in the Great Britain GTA V (Five) has outsold GTA IV in only THREE WEEKS. While it isn’t really news it is certainly impressive, and likely foreshadows a glut of similar stories covering the game’s laudable ability to infiltrate homes situated in slightly larger countries. Only time will tell.
07/10 - Kinect Sports Rivals has a long tail - reportedly visible from space
A man by the name of Eddie recounted a tale of another type of tail on the video game website Gamespot. Largely repeating the content of an interview conducted by someone else, Eddie shared the second-hand news that the company masquerading as Rare considers Kienct Sports Rivals to be a long term ‘player’.
“It will be sort of like Mario Kart” said a company representative, later admitting that the game itself won’t actually feature kart racing or indeed Mario in any way. However, considering proper Rare were in cahoots with Nintendo all those years ago, there is still ample time for backs to be mutually scratched and a Mario appearance-deal thrashed out.
08/10 - New video game doesn’t want you to forget it exists for even a second
Upcoming video game The Division will come packaged with a ‘second-screen’ that will allow players who aren’t playing the game to still play it. As preposterous as that statement may sound it is entirely based upon well-documented (computer) science.
The crux of the offering is the admission that The Division is a ‘proper’ game and so must be played within the confines of one’s dwelling. However, thanks to the Multiplayer Engagement: Second-Screen Enabled Tactics mode - dubbed MEAT SCENT - owners of the game can remain on the battlefield even when they are forced to leave the safety and comfort of the indoors.
Well, the player will actually be enjoying the game from a “simultaneous and asymmetric” perch above the battlefield, as they inhabit the cold, dead stare of an unmanned drone and its pre-pubescent operator back in ‘Merica. Unsurprisingly, no other details have thus far been released about the mode, though it’s pretty safe to assume what will eventually be available to players will be groundbreaking and in no way superfluous to the rest of the game.
10/10 - Saints Row IV DLC scheduled - doesn’t really make sense
A long time ago Saints Row: The Third was released. A slightly less long time ago a piece of downloadable content (DLC) called Enter the Dominatrix was announced for that game and then cancelled. In that piece of DLC players would have been trapped in a virtual world and forced to fight for their lives and sanity against foes hell-bent on their destruction. The content would have upped the ante considerably when compared to the game proper, and allowed players a superhero-like suite of abilities. Sighs were let out worldwide when the expansion was shelved.
That dream now lives on with the announcement and release of Saints Row IV. The game came out in August and fulfilled all of these once-broken promises.
But what about the EtD content that was already in development for the third entry in the series, wasn’t that simply rolled into the decidedly recycle-happy sequel? Clearly not, as publisher Deep Silver announced this week the release of EtD 2.0 for the game that supposedly became "a full-priced, full-length, high quality, connected" version of the originally proposed expansion.
I spoke to a bloke on the street that had this to say: “I don’t get it one bit. They already made EtD into a slightly bigger game and charged me three times the price to play it. Now they want to cut SR IV in half, put in some fifteen year old puns and sell it to me again? I’ll still buy it of course, but I effing hate Keanu, so I hope he’s not in it.” There you have it; popular consensus.
12/10 - Drunkard spills embarrassing and childish beans into the puddle of milk he was already crying over
Tragedy struck Saturday just gone when an ill-advised stroll along the internet ended in tears and almost universal derision. A local man was seen in the early hours airing his ‘personal issues’ in a very misguided public display of ‘despair’ and ‘inner turmoil’. This outpouring took the form of a confusing - almost nonsensical - list of rhetorical questions that often contradicted one another.
A passerby had this to say: “it was truly the most pitiful and unpleasant thing I’ve ever witnessed. I’m not quite sure if the fool was expecting the angry reception wot he got, but he right deserved it. Tit”
In a candid statement earlier today, the tit in question offered his sincerest apologies: “I would like to thank everyone for their inspiring responses to my narcissistic drivel; without the catcalls of stony apathy and ridicule I’d likely still be consumed by my selfish preoccupations. Cheers guys.”
13/10 - Comedic zombie-action-rpg-lite game will NOT be available in Germany
Tears were shed over the weekend when news surfaced that Dead Rising 3 won’t be available in Germany. Early reports that pegged the game’s high level of man-on-zombie violence as the cause have since been discredited. “It isn’t the game’s high level of man-on-zombie violence that we’re worried about”, said a representative of BPjM (Bundeprüfstelle für jugendgefährende Medien), the country’s entertainment software self-regulation body.
“The economy of Germany is based heavily upon the licensing of ‘Nazi Zombie’ intellectual property. We’re not saying that National Socialism has any place within a modern Germany, but we have to protect our assets whatever form they may take. We did enter into talks with Capcom to define a mutually beneficial royalty scheme - considering Germany theoretically owns the entire rights to the zombie half of ‘Nazi Zombies’ - but they regrettably devolved into petty squabbling.”
“We have therefore been forced, as a nation, to boycott DR 3 until an agreement can be reached between the German people and Capcom. Until the company formally recognises our ownership of zombies and every artistic endeavour associated with them, we will continue to take this moral stand.”
That’s it. Nothing else worth talking about happened last week. Let’s hope we’ll be given something better to work with in SEVEN DAYS.
The biggest problem with it all is choice, isn't it?
Where does one go when one faces the actual brick wall of drunken realisation? Where do you head when you dually realise that the people that are perpetuating your actions and the people who are holding you back are both fundamentally trying to kill you? Especially when you are trying to kill - albeit slowly - yourself ? What if the escapism of alcoholism is clearly the best resort? What if none of the shit that you find yourself tied to is actually representative of your true character? What if you feel that the roast Sunday you are about to host is simply a shallow way of making yourself feel worthwhile? What if you are so tired and drunk that you don't want to go to sleep for fear of losing yourself again? What if you are so scared of change that you undermine it with incessant triviality? What if you are smarter than you ever let on to others? What if you are too young to feel old, yet too old to feel young? What if you keep insisting on implementing magenta text on tenuously related images to head your posts? What if - however much you hate your own pitiful and unskilled grasp of the English language - you love the way you talk about things? What if you undermined this entire list by holding it in higher esteem than it was initially written under?
I haven’t got to that torture bit yet, nor have I encountered a massive amount of misogyny in Grand Theft Auto V at this point. I won’t talk about that sort of thing anyway, because disgust/outrage often goes hand in hand with serious criticism of games at the minute, and I’ve proven time and time again that I’m not interested in - nor capable of - serious criticism at this stage in my life. That isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate examining a cultural product within its cultural context. As games become more aligned with mainstream entertainment they will clearly have to answer for their more childish, offensive, violent and sexist preoccupations. These topics need to be discussed, and the people who make games, especially the games aspiring to be - or simply finding themselves - as broadly enjoyed as more established forms of entertainment, need to accept their responsibility and act accordingly. At the same time, however, I think it is far too easy to single out these transgressions, write fifteen hundred words lambasting them, leave it at that and wait for the cheque and/or peer group congratulation ceremony. It’s completely valid, certainly, but it’s also numbingly obvious, and I think that there are already too many people repeating the same core concerns and ideas. They are important concerns, to be sure, but I’m a cynic and so find it terribly hard to believe that every one of these voices comes from an entirely altruistic place. Thus, I will leave this type of discourse to the individuals more suited to or happy to enter into it. They are already doing a good job of it as it is, me joining them isn’t going to speed up the changes that need to occur within the medium.
That out of the way, let us again explore my go-to topics of choice; the missus, video game mechanics and brewed under licence European lager.
To people who aren’t very familiar with video games the GTA series is still a miraculous and, dare I say, exciting entity to witness. To this end, the trappings of a GTA manage to transcend the “I don’t understand/ I don’t care” boundary that normally divides my living room. This is largely because the games are set in post-industrial cities; places that are far more recognisable - certainly relatable - than the landscapes of most of their contemporaries. My girlfriend and I live in North London and spend the vast majority of our lives within the confines of the Greater London sprawl. We live and breathe in a very much living and breathing city. It has often been said that playing a GTA is as close to this experience as video games have thus far managed to achieve. It is the interplay of relatable setting and attention to detail that still perpetuates this image of the series, and what duped my lady friend into sitting on the sofa with me while I played GTA V last weekend.
Neither of us has been to Los Angeles, the city upon which the game’s Los Santos is based, but having lived in another sizeable metropolis - albeit a slightly more attractive one in parts - we can both appreciate that it looks, acts and exists as a pretty accurate representation of the modern city. “So you really can do anything you want, then?” she asked, referencing the bevy of coverage the game received around its launch in the free tube papers. Well, I thought, not strictly speaking. At that particular moment I was hooking my tow truck onto the bumper of an abandoned car, preparing for a lengthy and uninteresting drive back to the impound lot. I suppose I was, at that moment, quite literally doing anything I wanted, albeit within the confines of a tow truck driver’s working day. “Do you have to do this at all, Leigh, could you just drop the car and do something else?” This time she sounded genuinely excited at the prospect of childishly dumping the automobile in the middle of the road, you know, just because we could. “Yes, we could do that, we most certainly could do that my love, but what would be the point? I’ve got Franklin’s crack addicted quasi-relative in the cab with me and I’d quite like to find out what she has to say.
Do I really though, do I really care what she has to say? This character, Tonya, is a broad, damaged, horrible stereotype - as are all the characters in the game, protagonists included - offering up blowjobs and bemoaning her useless crackhead boyfriend. I’m not offended by her, nor incensed by the lack of subtlety in her writing, well a bit, but not massively; I’m just not really that interested full stop. So why do I tow the car across town and then agree do it again straight away? The answer to that is pretty much the same as the answer to the more overarching question; why am I choosing to participate in most of what GTA V has to offer? All these boring activities - whether lawful or otherwise - are still compelling to me because they are grounded within this fantastic sense of place. Driving across the city or the wider map isn’t that dissimilar to ‘the wife’ and I walking around Kensal Green Cemetery looking for the Weeping Angels from Dr Who, or critiquing people’s curtains from the side of the canal. Call me a fantasist but it really isn’t that different.
After a while my better half began to see what ‘being able to do anything’ actually boils down to. Just as Los Santos is a more concise Los Angeles, so too are the game’s interactions a more concise collection of the ones we have available to us in real life. We can walk, drive, cycle, swim (she can’t), run, climb and otherwise cavort all over the State of San Andreas. We could antagonise an officer of the law or rob a shop, get a silly haircut or jump off a bridge. We can’t talk to strangers in the street; a design limitation? No, of course not, no one does that in real life anyway so why ruin the facsimile? We can call up our friends, most of who are usually otherwise engaged at the time; right on point. We can’t get a wide variety of law abiding jobs in LS, but why would we need to when the tow truck one is a pretty accurate representation of most jobs, generally speaking? GTA V, more so than any of the previous games in the series, has a little slice of almost all of the mundanities available to the modern urban dweller. While these slices - unlike the stereotypes that run through them all - aren’t very broad, they are - unlike the stereotypes that run through them all - very representative. GTA V is a little life simulator where you can happily try out a super-specific and limited instance of almost anything you do in your actual, boring life. That, I feel, is its greatest success. Yes, it is vacuous and filled with horrible, horrible people, but so is the real world; I live in London, I already know that.
This sense of GTA V being a tiny world on the Xbox that my girlfriend not only understood, but actually quite liked, came to a lovely head when we pulled off the highway in the mountains. I’d been driving around for no real reason other than to enjoy the views and the selection of radio stations. “There are different radio stations? Oh wow, that’s pretty interesting. And the music is real music, from the real radio? Do other games do that? No, no, they probably don’t.” After a while it was time for a smoke, but instead of pausing the game as I normally do, I left everything running while we had a beer and a cigarette out of my living room window. “This music is fantastic!” she enthused about the dance station, “this game is pretty good, I like it.” I was shocked.
I had yet to show her any of the ‘proper’ game though, and when I did her interest quickly disappeared. You might not have noticed yet, but in the couple of hours we were sitting together up to this point I didn’t elect to use violence once. I get nothing out of rampant violence in video games any more, whether that be because of fatigue or my accelerating maturity. Driving through the mountains or getting fake tattoos done is more my thing today; it’s still escapism after all, it just says a lot about how my personality and interests have changed over the last handful of years. I’m small ‘c’ conservatism all the way these days, apparently.
After going to a big blue letter on the map I found myself playing as the retired thief Michael, a man in his mid-forties who enjoys drinking and smoking and is subsequently my favourite protagonist in the game thus far. Having infiltrated (woken up in) a morgue so I could identify a corpse I had no weapons at my disposal; I was armed only with my cunning. I knocked a worker out in a ‘necessary’ though non-lethal fashion as to remain undetected, and then called my contact to relay my findings. The dead man I had come to find was actually a dead woman on the slab; something had clearly transpired. This building intrigue mattered for nought though, as instead of continuing along my sneaky-sneaky nobody dies today path, I was accosted by two armed guards - while I was still on the phone I might add - and was forced to open fire on them with a swiftly scooped up pistol. It seems I’d misinterpreted the situation completely; I was expecting a bit of the player agency that I’d been enjoying during my time out of missions. The game clearly didn’t want that to be so. Cover blown, I ended up shooting EVERY LAST INDIVIDUAL in the hospital I had woken up in, which turned out to be at least fifteen, probably closer to twenty five, guys.
Most of GTA V thus far has turned out this way. A car chase ends in a gunfight, a meth lab tour ends in a gunfight, a drug deal - gunfight, a motorbike repossession - gunfight, a gun shipment robbery - gunfight (that one makes more sense); the game seems intent on making almost every situation devolve into a gunfight. And not a small scale one, mind, these skirmishes are always sizeable and result in a body count that would whet the appetite of many a human interest story-obsessed journalist. I find this problematic. The default control scheme employs very liberal auto-aim which makes these encounters a trifle to succeed at. Furthermore, all but one of the instances mentioned has taken place indoors, with my enemies being funnelled towards me by corridors and small rooms. There is almost no skill associated with any of these scenarios; they simply exist as something else to do. These mass-killings are as meaningful as a game of darts of a jog on the beach.
This misgiving could entirely be a comment on my current place in life and nothing more, though I really don’t think that to be the case. The early GTA games - especially the 2D ones I’d argue - entirely revolved around the giddy freedom to ‘do anything’. This anything quickly defined itself as wanton violence, but even that - given the unprecedented scale of it at the time - was enough anything for most people. The series itself has proven that video games now offer a much broader range of experiences, however perfunctory they often prove to be, than they did a decade ago. I’d expect that this variety would have permeated the ‘proper game’ aspects of a GTA just as it has the ‘fluffy nonsense’ bits that surround it. That hasn’t happened yet during my time with V. Instead, I now find myself enjoying the mundane over the visceral, the civilised over the controversial and the downright normal-boring over the exciting-boring. It all goes a long way to making me feel a bit lost.
Rockstar has always excelled at building worlds first and foremost, with everything else outside of that core strength being satisfying to different degrees. I hate to draw the comparison between the GTA series and Red Dead Redemption, but it’s the laziest way of making my point. RDR was the first time Rockstar not only successfully created a satisfying world, but also a satisfying game that was deserving enough to take place within it. RDR, for the most part, was pensive, tense, measured and atmospheric. It implemented its violence - which was still everywhere - to much more dramatic effect than GTA V does; it had weight and consequence while V’s just feels obligatory and pervasive.
I used to enjoy the channelled anarchy of the GTA series; its power to cast you as the antihero - just without all the consequences. Now, I’d rather it just replicate my workday commute, take me on a little holiday or allow me to get tattoos - just without all the consequences. Maybe I’ve matured to the point where the violence isn’t interesting any more. Maybe my capacity for imagination has contracted to such an extent that travel, fucking travel, now represents the outer limit of my relationship with escapism and excitement. Or maybe I’m just sad because for all its pointless-yet-compelling mimicking of the horrible, boring lives we all lead, Grand Theft Auto V ultimately devolves into something much less interesting. My girlfriend sees this almost instantly, though she doesn’t say anything. She just stands up and leaves the room.
Polish developer People Can Fly has made numerous video games that are slavishly devoted to shooting things in quick succession. Much like Doom, Quake and PCF’s own Painkiller, Bulletstorm rewards its player for skilfully dispatching adversaries in a timely fashion. Bulletstorm makes this tried and true formula a little more interesting with Skill Shots, a series of violent challenges the player is tasked to complete in exchange for points. Simply shooting an enemy to death gains the player 10 points, for instance, while kicking him in the face and then shooting him in the crotch until he dies, for instance, spews forth a reward five times fatter. Once enough of these points have been accrued the player can reinvest them into ammunition replenishment, new weapons and upgrades. As each of the game’s seven weapons has a special fire mode - that usually deals more damage by orders of magnitude - Bulletstorm equips its players handsomely, making tackling the Skill Shots system very enjoyable.
As with most shooters of the modern day, the campaign takes between six and ten hours to complete, leaving you with an average play time of around eight hours. HowLongToBeat.com has an ‘average’ play through pegged at seven and a half, though to argue with that figure would be splitting hairs. As always, we’ll be looking at how difficulty settings affect enjoyment, completion time, self respect levels, repetition tolerance and visual fidelity.
Bulletstorm: hardware and time sink
The game, quite remarkably, gives the player the option of five difficulty settings from the off, ranging from very easy to very hard, with the obligatory easy/medium/hard triumvirate sitting in the middle. This bounty of options allows players of all abilities to enjoy the game, which is a welcome inclusion in a title that outwardly appears to be every bit the ‘video gamers’ video game’. We’ll tackle the implications of the very easy mode later, so for now I’ll simply say that the variety is lovely to see and leave it there.
Obviously if your hardware isn’t relatively snappy - reaction times, hand-eye-coordination and eye-strain tolerance etc - you’ll have more difficulty running the game on the higher settings. I’ve had to make a point of mentioning this in previous editions of Difficulty Mill where the choice is locked in for the remainder of the game - a practice I fervently disagree with - and am happy to say Bulletstorm doesn’t subscribe to this school of thought. I only mention it here because the game is very kinetic from the off, so players with less able rigs should be wary of trying to push their hardware too far. That said, it is only slightly more demanding than other shooters released in the last couple of years, so use your head and choose your settings wisely. As I always say; it’s better to keep playing within your limits than do yourself a mischief and put yourself out of the running with an injury.
Other than your setup, how much time you can realistically invest in the game will likely dictate which of the difficulties you choose. Individuals with lots of spare time to while away on video games are advised to play on only the very hard setting, as anything lower is a bit of a breeze, and will likely leave them with a sense of being ‘cheated’ or ‘short changed’. Criticisms like these are often levelled at video games that don’t - despite high production values and overall quality - live up to the expectations of the most ardent fans of digital entertainment products. As such, anyone who occupies their time with more than just video games should be all right playing on any of the other difficulties. Which one to choose will depend largely upon your individual ability to distinguish between entertainment and the more pressing matters of life. As a rule of thumb, refer to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs; the higher up you place video games on the scale, the lower you can comfortably set the difficulty.
Bulletstorm: Game experience may change during (online) play
Unlike most games, Bulletstorm’s bugs and stability issues may directly impact upon your choice of difficulty setting. As is customary for professional video game coverage, I initially played the game on the default medium setting. As someone who has played games for a while, this didn’t present a crushing challenge and I was able to cut a rather speedy swathe through the first half of the game. I did, however, encounter a few instances of scripting failing to initialise which left me stranded with no means of progressing, necessitating the loading of previous checkpoints. While I’m pleased to report this occurred across all of the tested difficulties, it did mean I had to repeat large sections of the game - sometimes multiple times - before the scripting kicked in correctly.
While it is great to see parity across the multiple difficulties I tested - the consistency is laudable in light of today’s oft-botched release structure - it did eventually get a bit tiresome. To alleviate this I dropped the settings down to very easy, which seemed to do the trick nicely. Words to the wise then; if you don’t enjoy repetition brought about by technical instability, consider lowering the difficulty from the beginning by at least a level below your normal choice. While I can’t guarantee this will rid you of the technical hiccups completely, it will certainly help you run through the parts of the game you’ll need to replay because of them.
Bulletstorm: Graphical fidelity and the self-respectometer
While lower difficulties won’t give you the same level of improved performance you’d expect to achieve if you, say, tinkered with the graphical settings or upgraded to the PC edition, they did afford me a few - albeit minor - improvements. As you can see below, actual visual quality doesn’t change very much between the difficulty settings.
However, your ability to see clearly within the game is greatly improved when the difficulty is turned down, thanks mainly to the less frequent occurrence of the ‘blurry red screen effect’. This visual filter is commonly utilised within shooters to signify the player character is taking sustained volleys of gunfire and is about to die. By making the game easier you can directly control how often this effect is seen. It might take a little bit of tweaking, but generally speaking, the easier the game becomes the less you’ll see this nasty stylisation.
Not much to say on the self respectometer this edition, I think I’ve already spelled it out pretty clearly over the preceding paragraphs. If you’re even a casual reader of this column you’ll know my stance on the topic by now. If you are secure in yourself and your ‘abilities’ when it comes to playing video games, feel comfortable in turning down the difficulty when you begin to feel enjoyment slipping through your gamepad-clutching fingers. This goes doubly for a title like Bulletstorm, which is already repetitive as it is and riddled with pretty significant bugs that force you to repeat the repetition.
Bulletstorm: the Difficulty Mill verdict
Turning down the difficulty when you start to get bored with a video game is actually a pretty smart thing to do. Instead of getting irate or just plain stopping, making a game easier allows you to enjoy an experience you would otherwise begin to resent or miss out on entirely. Lambasting people for playing on easy is missing the point in my book. Not everyone wants the grinding challenge of a veteran or insane mode all the time, if ever. You might, my friend, but not everyone does, and I certainly don’t. So next time you think about turning off that video game because it’s getting boring or too hard, stop, file down that difficulty and get the fuck back on your horse. There’s a good chap(ess).
or How Remember Me undermines its story to be a video game
This writing contains 'bare spoilerz' of the story of the video game Remember Me.
I barely feel the need to write about Remember Me because Darius Kazemi has already done it here, albeit without ever mentioning the game once. At its heart, Dontnod Entertainment’s depressing Neo-Parisian future-revolution simulation poses a very interesting question. How would humanity fare if memories could be digitised, edited and shared? Would a utopian society free from pain and suffering, or at least all evidence of them, be created, leading to unending peace and prosperity for all? Of course not, we’re postulating on the dangers of invasive technology here. What I did expect from RM’s admittedly solid premise was a moderately thoughtful exercise in examining the human condition, something akin to Binary Domain with a lighter touch, perhaps. What I ended up with was a video game that wants to make it crystal clear that it is a video game, often at the expense of its narrative and the world created to house it all.
In brief: RM takes place in the latter years of the twenty-first century, where a company - imaginatively named Memorize - has developed technology enabling the storage and transfer of MEMORIES THEMSELVES. Predictably, the organisation soon becomes insular and militarised, acting in increasingly violent ways towards the minority of citizens not inclined to upload their memories to the internet. From here everything goes to shit and we end up at the oh-so passé conclusion most dystopia-obsessed sci-fi games find themselves ‘hitting up’. Namely, the poor people roll about in slums sniffing memories out of paper bags, while the rich laugh at them from balconies. The condominium dwellers are, of course, blissfully unaware that the poor are all furiously wanking over their remembered sexual exploits, memories that they themselves allowed to be shared with the quivering masses. Waste not, want not, ey?
Into this horrible mess crawls our protagonist, Nilin, a freshly mind-wiped amnesiac who has no choice but to listen to the voice in her head. That voice belongs to a snarky ‘Errorist’ called Edge, who is helpfully both real and, it turns out, the commander-man of said silly-named group. Errorists are the revolutionary wing of the few remaining citizens vehemently against memory sharing and all the ickiness that brings with it.
The group wants - wait a minute - Errorists? I’ve thought about this long and hard and it just doesn’t make sense. The suffix ist is used to denote a practitioner of something or a personal subscription to a doctrine or way of life. A terrorist - simply put - creates and implements terror, et cetera, et cetera, therefore an Errorist, and think now, makes errors? They create and utilise their own mistakes? I understand that it sounds like a cool, futuristic name but it really undermines their credibility and, if anything, just makes them all sound like students ‘doing it for a larf’.
The group wants Memorize to relinquish its stockpile of memories and return them to their owners because, well, they don’t really like the moral implications of the service and the Sensen technology that powers it. The introduction is pretty effective in drawing the lines of battle and provides a good amount of ambiguity with which to surround both sides. The problem that arises throughout the game though, is that this ambiguity isn’t replaced with gently drips of shocking - even mildly exciting - clarity. Despite Edge pulling a massive dick-move and killing a load of innocents in the name of revolution, he is always considered noble. Nilin gets a bit shirty and impatient with him for a time, but never properly calls his actions to account. The game seems happy to go along with him as if it were one of Edge’s own devotees.
Conversely, it is hammered home to the player that Memorize are a right bunch of bastards, despite us never really seeing them do anything wrong past the opening sequence. Admittedly, that did include them painfully extracting Nilin’s memories against her will though. That aside, their only real crime appears to have been releasing a nifty product without having the foresight to assume something could go wrong, and then trying to correct these problems and make the best of a bad situation, more on that a little later.
RM has a stunningly good premise that is hamstrung by the writing’s strict adherence to video game convention. Evil corporations are great for games because they provide an inexhaustible supply of enemy combatants for the player to wade through. The corporation has to be actually evil in the first place, though, for its existence to be anything more than a lazy convenience.
That bad situation I spoke of comes in the form of Leapers. They are memory junkies who have overdosed on self-gratification and gone homicidally INSANE. They are the literal embodiment of the broken human psyche; mankind at its lowest. This is all hyperbolic guff, of course, because what they really represent is mechanical variety. They embody the ‘faster enemy’, the ‘bigger enemy’ and the ‘can’t be seen in the shadows enemy’. They exist because the game needed archetypes to fill roles that wouldn’t suit human or robot adversaries. They exist because RM is a video game and video games need to contain variety, even if that is simply something different to look at for a time. That I’m convinced of this makes Leapers almost worthless to the plot for me.
Remove the Leapers and the story is given more imaginative room to breathe, their absence also unravels most of the game’s plotting. Working backwards from the end, no Leapers means you don’t have the throwaway mad scientist attempting to inject them with his ‘essence’ to try and control them. As Sensen works safely and everyone trusts it, there is no need for physical segregation and the social unrest that creates. In turn there are no protests, acts of civil defiance or retribution from the authorities. As I see it, most of the game’s narrative thrust is entirely dependent on the existence of a wholly unnecessary entity. What is more, by removing the mawkish sideshow spectacle the story hinges upon, it could then begin to question the morality and suitability of the Sensen technology itself, making it a much more interesting - even rewarding - exercise.
This glaring concession to video game conventions looks even shallower as the more personal aspects of Nilin's story unfold. It eventually transpires that she is the daughter of the founders of Mermorize, Charles a troubled genius and Scylla, an intelligent business leader. These revelations slowly unfold through Nilin's ability to view and alter, or 'remix', people’s memories, a gift she inherited from her father. A car crash when our protagonist was a child ripped the family apart, with Scylla becoming cold and removed, divorcing Charles, who subsequently retreated into self imposed exile, escaping his terrible fate by poring over the happy memories of his lost family.
The two instances where you are given the power to look into Nilin's past are fascinating and melancholic. They bring into stark clarity the notion that a single event - or simply the memory of it, however accurate - can alter the trajectory of a life beyond all recognition. These moments are so affecting because they take the game's premise and actually use it to explore our relationship with memories and how they are so integral to our understanding - and entire conceptualisation - of human consciousness. That most of the game is satisfied with simply creating monsters and an 'evil' corporation for the player to fight makes these fleeting moments of pathos that much more important.
The game's final and most egregious affront to its narrative integrity comes when we discover the true identity of Edge. After making peace with her parents, it is agreed upon that the Sensen technology should be shut down and the world forced to live with - and learn from - its mistakes. This involves a short walk to the H3O server that stores all of the memories and a simple flip of a switch. On the way Edge reveals that he
H3O and that decades of being surrounded by humanities' bleakest memories has left him wanting to ‘die’. That is why he has helpfully guided Nilin through the game and reunited her with her parents. Fair enough, really.
'Lovely,’ I thought, ‘that makes a lot of sense Edge. I'll just hold down the power button and turn you off.' I assumed this would be a reasonable course of action, especially considering we had been allies throughout the game. Suddenly Edge's voice goes all computery and he screams at me, telling me we must battle for my euthanizing to work.
FUCK OFF. I just spent the last ten minutes poignantly rescuing a family from the clutches of denial and depression - a bit of a whirlwind, I must admit - and now you are forcing a boss battle onto me? It doesn't even make sense; he WANTS TO DIE, I don't need to fight him, it is only there because, er, video games have final bosses, don't they?
This is terrible; I can't state my disgust for Dontnod enough on this one. The boss has no place within the finale of the game, in fact I don't think - looking at what bookends the battle - that it was initially intended to be in there at all. For the duration of the battle Edge becomes a typical “you’ll have to try harder than that to KILL ME!” type boss, making the whole affair even more unforgiveable. The whole sequence comes out of left field, yes, but to alter a character so completely for a ten minute final boss encounter, then change him right back again once it’s over, is fucking - words escape me.
Remember Me is full of this shit and it
engulfs the genuinely thoughtful parts of the game. I’m not even saying the good parts are particularly delving or intelligent, simply that compared to most of the concession-laden tat on display, they are at least poking in the right places. The entire story is overwrought and melodramatic, especially the Nilin monologues (YouTube them, please), but it is a tragedy that so much of it is marred by the game’s need to bend it to the will of mechanics.
If Remember Me weren’t an action game it would be a better game.
If Remember Me weren’t a game at all it would be better still.
I think I’m about half way through Dontnod Entertainment’s depressing Neo-Parisian future-revolution simulation Remember Me, and though it wise to jot down my impressions before I forget them all entirely. Har har har. The following words, then, will obviously touch upon aspects of the game that you won’t be familiar with if you haven’t played it yet. That includes the story. There are also a couple of swearers in there for good measure.
I - The overarching concept - wherein memories have been digitised, commoditised and are widely abused - is a beautifully pessimistic take on the glaringly obvious problems of future tech. Much like the Jesse Armstrong penned The Entire History of You entry into the Black Mirror anthology, the game presents a pretty plausible future in which a seemingly helpful and benign technology could cause harm and misery. Initially developed as a way of sharing information held in memories, this technology has snowballed into a society-crippling/controlling monster. Junkies addicted to happy memories beg and steal for one more taste of the - literal and figurative - high life. We see them huddled in shacks living out their fantasies through the remembered actions of others. I’ve been surprised at the lack of allusion to sexual gratification though; surely a decimated society confined to undercity slums would be, at least in part, made up of quivering, perpetually-wanking wrecks?
II - That sci-fi division of classes is beginning to really grate on me. I understand that capitalism will likely bring about society’s ultimate downfall and that it already heavily segregates people based on their material wealth. Really though, is the only conceivable conclusion of this the forced division of classes we see in most modern sci-fi games? The imagery of the gleaming future-city towering above - and indeed built upon - the decaying rubble of the past certainly is compelling and imagination-poking, but it is also criminally overused.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution pulled it off pretty well because there was logic displayed throughout its environments. That disused petrol station across the road from the fifty storey skyscraper makes sense because cities are thrown together and land is reappropriated like that today, and likely will be in the future. Similarly, when it presented an undercity it did so convincingly with concrete supports, metal things and - most shockingly - actual buildings supporting the superstructure of the city above. Syndicate did it poorly, pitching its slums as being exclusively created out of corrugated sheet metal and milk bottle crates. Apparently the sheer volume of these two vitally important building blocks, not to mention their intricate arrangement, allowed them to support the weight of an entire city without needing to worry about proper physics or the ‘dreaded building regulations’. It was an example of egregious style over sense. Most other games, including the once I’m mainly talking about, fall somewhere in between these two examples. Therefore, while Remember Me does have a lot of corrugation on display most of it subscribes to the shit-on-shit school of urban planning; wherein dilapidated neighbourhoods are walled off and patched up, while the posh bits are built and extended out responsibly, and never the twain shall meet.
III - These locations, though, really don’t feel like proper places for the most part. Early in the going the player character, Nilin, climbs out of a tunnel and is presented with the fractured skyline of Neo-Paris. This rather stunning vista contrasts the old (read: Eiffel Tower) with the new, futuristic skyscrapers creating a lovely juxtaposition and sense of wibbly-wobbly, buildy-wildly-ness. Sadly this continues throughout the playable levels as well, making much of the game world feel unbelievable. This is especially prevalent throughout the sections in ‘the slums’ which, much like my earlier description of Syndicate, are completely disjointed and senseless, except when viewed as videogame environments. They feature all the requisite hallmarks of contemporary action games; namely ledges, pipes, balconies and windowsills, but often conspicuously lack things normal people would use to get around, like escalators, paths or elevated walkways. This isn’t a massive criticism; I would just have liked to see the same level of care given to the design of environments as was bestowed upon the wider world and its lovely realisation.
IV - Those environments, I must add, will likely become pretty familiar as you journey deeper into the game. At the minute the story is jumping between slums, affluent districts and a prison facility and I’ve been lucky enough to see all of them at least twice so far. I wouldn’t like to speculate the ‘for whys’ of this repetition, suffice to say I’m pretty sure reusing textures and assets is a lot cheaper than handcrafting things from scratch. If you get my drift.
V - As I said earlier, the reality and world of Remember Me both sit really well, I’m just not sure about the story the game is trying to tell and more so, the way it is presented. Nilin is cast as an errorist, fighting against the oppression foisted on Neo-Paris by the Sensen memory devices everyone uses and their parent company, Memorize (Incorporated). Memories are used like smack, the Sensen - it is alluded to - drives people insane, class segregation is rife and no one is happy. However much the game wants me to think of Memorize as a terrible entity wholly responsible for these ills, I simply don’t buy it. Many of the problems facing Neo-Paris are socioeconomic and have almost no connection to the ‘evil’ corporation. People are poor and turn to happy memories to escape, thus becoming addicted and falling between the cracks of society. There exists heavy class division and upward mobility is difficult. These are issues we have to wrestle with today and our numerous solutions or appeasements have little to do with invoking violent uprising against a single misguided or morally-questionable business establishment. To cast a lone corporate entity as the tenuously believable ‘perpetrator of society’s ills’ is short-sighted and lazy in this particular instance and sells the world and its possibilities short. Again, just because DE: HR pulled it off doesn’t mean it will work in every context.
VI - Before I forget; errorist, it just doesn’t make sense. The suffix ist is used to denote a practitioner of something or a personal subscription to a doctrine or way of life. A terrorist creates terror, a capitalist values the ideals of capitalism, a botanist studies plants, therefore an errorist, and think now, makes errors? I understand that it sounds like a cool, futuristic name for a freedom movement but really, you’ve undermined any credibility they may have held by making their name contradict their entire fucking purpose. They are attempting to do the right thing but they are, wrong? BAFFLED. Yes, it could be argued that the moniker was given to them by the government or ruling elite, but that doesn’t explain away every errorist in the game seeming pretty happy referring to themselves as one at every possible opportunity. “Yep, the name essentially undermines our very credo, but try and ignore that and enjoy how cool it makes you feel.” If anything it just makes them all seem like students ‘doing it for a larf’.
VII - The rest of my impressions of the story are a bit hit and miss, so I’m going to just bullet them out for posterity. - Errorist leader Edge seems to be a shady bugger who likes being in control. I fully expect Nilin to break away from him, allowing him to adopt the role of antagonist which I’m sure he’ll be okay at. - I really, really like the overwrought inter-chapter monologues from Nilin. They make the rest of the narrative beats seem thrown together and anaemic in comparison. They are so wordy and dramatic and - beautifully absurd I love them. - Last night I found out one of the bad guys was my - sorry Nilin’s - mother, which I actually didn’t see coming. I really should have though, because they are the only two characters thus far in the game to have British accents.
I think that’s about it for now. On the whole I’m having a fairly entertaining time actually playing the game, though it isn’t really engaging me on a particularly deep level. I’ll hopefully check back into this when I’ve finished and complete my findings, though I’m really building towards talking about the game with relation to the August/September Blogs of the Round Table at Critical Distance dot com. It’s all helpful though.