Career Path As a Mental Health Therapist

So, who here likes giant walls of text!?!? If so, have I got a blog for you.

I work as a mental health therapist in Washington State. One of the coolest benefits of working this job is learning all about different cultures, all from my office. But one of the weird side effects of that benefit is that I also learn about my own culture as well, but from a very different lens. Recently, a client who grew up in Russia pointed out that Americans seem to be both obsessed with money but also reluctant to talk about money with anyone else. Obviously, this may be in part due to the state I live in, Washington, as I can’t say for certain if other states are as tight lipped about their income. But, yeah, Washingtonians certainly do this.

But it’s not just money. I didn’t work a day as a therapist, or directly observe therapy work, until the last year of my Master’s. I didn’t know for certain if I would like to work as a therapist until I was all the way in debt and too far into my education to easily change paths. I also didn’t have a clear indication of what the pay would be like. And I don’t mean a money amount, but rather if the pay would be a livable wage or not.

So, I thought it would be interesting and possibly beneficial to go through my career process, from graduating with a Master’s to where I am now, working in private practice. I’m not going to talk about the therapy process, but more what it’s like to do the job.

What Happens After College

I ended up getting a Master’s in Clinical Psychology (6 years post high school) and stopping there. You can stop after getting a Bachelors in Psychology (4 years) but the job market for a BA in Psychology isn’t too great. With a Master’s, I can diagnose mental health diagnoses, perform therapy (individual, group, couples, family), supervise other therapists, and so on. A Doctorate in Psychology (7 years+) opens up the possibility to perform more complex assessments, like personality and IQ tests, work as a court psychologist, and if you get your medical degree as well you can become a Psychiatrist and prescribe psychotropic medications. Doctors also perform psychological research. All I wanted was to perform therapy, so a Master’s was fine with me. My therapy internship, which occurred at what would be my first therapy job, sealed the deal for me. I was good at therapy and I enjoyed doing it. It was fun learning about people, seeing them grow and improve, and it was challenging and fulfilling.

When you graduate college with your Master’s in Psych, you apply for a license with the department of health to work in your field. That license is considered an ‘associate’ license, meaning that it allows you to perform your job but with limitations. I left college with an LMHC-A. Meaning, I was a ‘licensed mental health counselor – associate.’ I could work, but I couldn’t get on the boards of most insurance companies (meaning they wouldn’t recognize me and pay me for services rendered). At that point, I could have started a private practice, meaning I work on my own or with a group of therapists, but my clientele would have been small. Thus, most people out of school join a Community Health Clinic (CHC).

CHC are usually non-profit organizations that offer all types of healthcare services. The clinic I worked for offered medical, dental, substance abuse, and mental health services. In my field, the general impression of a CHC is that you go there to ‘put in your time.’ For a while, that meant working there until you could drop the ‘a’ from your license, get on insurance boards, and make it on your own in private practice. For reference, to ‘drop the a’ you need to meet certain criteria stipulated by your state’s department of health. For me that meant essentially working two years under a supervisor who was fully licensed, receiving a set number of supervision hours, attaining a set number of therapy session hours, earning a set number of continuing education credits, and passing a test. The ‘putting in your time’ changed a bit over the last few decades in that government programs had been created that would pay out a set amount of money for those that worked with underrepresented people, which is essentially 80% of the CHC clientele, but as of the last few years it has been harder and harder to get access to those funds. I think I remember hearing that 2-5% of those that applied per year received the payout. And doing so required that you worked for the CHC for two years after earning your full license, which meant working at least 4 years at a CHC before moving on to private practice.

My Job at the Community Clinic

For the first two years at the CHC, I worked in their ‘Intensive Outpatient Program.’ This was probably the hardest job I’d ever worked. The work involved seeing clients who were considered high risk for one reason or another. It could be that they are a risk to themselves or others, are homeless, using drugs, regular users of the hospital, are in and out of jail/prison. The job then of the IOP therapist is to mitigate risk and bring the client back up to a level of stability that would allow them to see an outpatient therapist in the clinic. I would see these clients two-four times per week somewhere in the community. Meaning their homes, a library, anywhere. Working with the clients was usually pretty pleasant. The stress came mostly from the lack of resources. There was just more demand than there were resources. There was too much homelessness and not enough homes, too much unemployment and not enough jobs, and on and on it went. Too often I felt in a position where I had to spin a ‘I can’t help you with what you are asking for’ into something hopeful. It was a pretty draining job.

After the two years, I spent three years in their outpatient program as a therapist and, for a bit, as a clinical supervisor. Just to note, I never got that government payout. Anyway, the therapy work in and of itself was easier, but the new issue was the quantity of clients. We had around 6 therapists working at the clinic, but every Tuesday and Thursday, for four hours per day, we were all on call to do therapy assessments and, if they needed it, offer them therapy services. Which, in theory, is a great thing. That means more people can get help. The bad thing is that most of our client lists had 70-80 active clients on it, with most actively engaged in therapy services. Which meant most of us couldn’t keep up with paperwork, meaning our client charts were out of date and we couldn’t keep up to demands for case management work, like sending letters to court and whatnot, and had a hard time keeping track of who our clients even were. I remember one time seeing a client, who I had seen 4-5 times prior, and taking nearly the entire hour-long session before I remembered what their diagnosis was. So, then, work as an OP therapist at the CHC was a constant state of playing catchup.

In terms of the actual pay, whether it’s livable or not depends on your circumstance. I worked for a CHC that had a union. As soon, I started at a base salary that would go up 2% every year for ‘cost of living’ and 2% as I moved up each ‘step’ in the union pay grade ladder, which would cap out after about 7 years of working. Meaning, at my eighth year the pay increase would be 2% annually rather than 4%. At base, as a single man who had student loans, I made enough to live by myself, but just barely. If I had roommates, it would have been easier, but living by yourself is pretty great. But I was living paycheck to paycheck.

CHC Politics-The Clinic

That ‘constant state of catchup’ wasn’t just a mental health thing. Every part of the CHC, from medical, dental, substance use, and mental health all were behind because we were all overwhelmed by the number of clients we had. We were all behind on our paperwork. What’s more, the state government that oversaw the CHC called for audits nearly every month. An audit for the mental health division of a CHC means that a set number of client charts are pulled, at random, and poured over by an auditor to see if we are accurately documenting all of our services, outreach, and so on to the standards of the state, who was paying for the services for our clients (via Medicaid). In an extreme scenario, they may ask for their money back because we had committed fraud, mistreated a client, etc. Most often, though, the result was that the therapist would need to find time to fix the errors and resubmit the charts. Because we had so many clients and so little time, none of our charts were up to standard. And because the audits were every month, we barely had time to implement changes. The state was too big to adjust expectations and put the pressure on the CHCs to fix the errors as we had done before despite the changing environment. The CHC I worked for saw the errors as a problem caused and should be fixed by the therapists. Alternatives to fixing the problem, like hiring a case manager, hiring a separate person just to organize the charts and assist the therapists, negotiating with the state, implementing systemic changes with our paperwork system, etc. All were shot down. As the CHC saw it, problems with work were a problem due to employee. This ‘paperwork is the therapists’ problem’ generalized to other issues as well. No shows. Cancelations. Lack of coordination with other agencies. Which, if all else were equal and the therapists not overworked, those are the therapists’ problems. But things weren’t equal and the failing of the staff is at least in part due to the organization that oversees them.

CHC Politics-Colleagues

Due to all that pressure on the therapists to fix problems at the clinic, and because they were overworked with no sign of change on the horizon, cynicism was common in the clinic. Unfortunately, that cynicism was often directed fruitlessly and rudely. It was directed at the clinic’s management, at the support staff, at each other, and worst of all at clients. From my own experience, I did at times engage with the bitch-fests but eventually I stopped, instead deciding to disengage from the clinic and most of my colleagues altogether. I didn’t like that the cynicism bleed over to the clients, who didn’t deserve to be scapegoated when they were simply asking for help. I also didn’t want to attack my colleagues and I found no point in criticizing the clinic when systemic problems seemed well set in place. But my distancing made me appear a bit cold to my colleagues. But I’d rather appear cold to my colleagues than disrespectful to my clients. You can’t win them all, right?

Private Practice

Private practice is a different beast altogether. The short version is that I’m much happier in private practice. The long version is that the growing pains in private practice are immense. So, I left the CHC and joined a group practice with my friend and former manager. She hired me on as an hourly employee with a W-2. What this means to me is that I don’t have to pay self-employment taxes. I work for a business, rather than as an independent contractor. The biggest benefit to me, then, was that I got paid even if the insurance companies didn’t pay us. Which they didn’t, for a long time, because insurance companies are huge and take a long time to pay anyone, let alone someone who is new to their system. Even now, some insurance companies don’t pay us for 3-4 months after the time of service. But, because I was new, some of those payments took 6-9 months. It has only been over the last 9 months, of the two and a half years I’ve been in private practice, that I’ve been paid consistently by insurance companies. Which means my colleague had to float the company all that time. And, if I were on my own, I would have made very little money.

All that said, now that things are running smoothly, the work is much less stressful. The face to face with clients is the same, except now I have 40-50 clients rather than 70-80, meaning I know all about them now. The paperwork is streamlined and much more doable with fewer clients, I have one audit a year rather than one per month and I’m always in the clear. It’s just a better experience overall. Financially as well, now, anyway. I’m not paycheck to paycheck. It’s very nice.

Closing Thoughts

I love being a therapist, but I think newcomers to the field should be made aware of what it’s like coming up in the field. The burnout rate for new therapists is far too high, especially given the need for good therapists. I think the process from graduation to feeling settled in the career should and can be improved, but it’s a much bigger topic than this blog. What I can say is that I feel the work was worth it, even if the work itself was harder than it should have been. Because, now, I’m quite happy in the position I find myself today.

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Obligatory 2019 GOTY Blog

This has been a hectic year for me. It’s been the second year of me in my private mental health practice and though the workload and schedule are better overall, the hours I work can sometimes interfere with playing games. So too can adopting two pets. And trying to re-establish a social life. As well as dating. And doing more active self-care things like hikes. Games have become less and less of a focus for me and when I can engage with them, I’m either exhausted or don’t have a lot of time. All of which means the games that I do like will probably reflect where I am in my life. Which is a good thing, as I’m glad I’m developing and changing. But it’s weird seeing how much games have fallen as a priority for me and how differently I engage with them now that I’m getting older. But I did play some amazing games. And here’s a list of them. And some other games.

Game I May Have Liked if My PS4 Hadn’t Died

Jedi: Fallen Order

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So, I bought Jedi: Fallen Order at just the wrong time. Apparently, my PS4 Pro, which I’d bought about 6 months prior, had some type of a hard drive fault that ultimately led it to bricking on me. Before that, though, I was playing this game which, for good reason, played like garbage. But the problems I experienced were emblematic of some of the issues people have had with the game in working consoles; data streaming issues. Textures wouldn’t load. Geometry wouldn’t load. Characters wouldn’t load. Music and sound wouldn’t load. It was a mess and I assumed that it was the game’s fault. Then my PS4 stopped working. So never mind, not the game’s fault. Of what I did play of the game, it seemed ok. Maybe I’ll have a better impression when I try it again on an operating console.

A Game I Kinda Like But Can’t But on My Top 10 Because I Also Dislike It A Lot – Award

Death Stranding

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What I was able to play before my PS4 died was Death Stranding. I have a lot of complicated feelings about this game but really it can be summed up as this: had the game been just a pretty delivery game where delivery people would help each other out along the way the game probably would have made my top 10 list. But all the other stuff, the story, the writing, the characters, the combat, the exposition, the lore. It all exists, and all of it drags the game down for me. When I was just delivering goods, it was a very relaxing game. It was mindless, sure, but it was also peaceful. It was great as a cooldown game from a day of work. But I can’t really put the game in my top 10 because a huge amount of it I don’t like at all. But I’m still happy I played it.

Most Disappointing

Life is Strange 2

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The original Life is Strange was my game of the year when it came out. It had problems, for sure, but it was really affecting and memorable. They did a great job setting scenes, selling characters, and making your impact on the game feel like it mattered. Life is Strange 2 started out, in episode one, feeling like it had taken the lessons of the first game and improved upon them. The writing felt sharper, the characters felt more real, the scenario was more interesting.

Then episode two happened. Episode two is fine, overall, but it’s the start of a decline for the game overall. Episode two feels like the story was in limbo. By episode three I started to dislike the main characters and really dislike the side characters, particularly the two the audience was supposed to engage with. By episode four, a feeling I had of the game overall since episode two sort of came to its fruition; the story felt like a patchwork of ideas and the ‘moments’ that were memorable in the first game, if a bit emotionally manipulative of its audience, felt forced and contrived in the second game. I stopped playing episode four when the story took the playable character to a church where his younger super-powered brother, who he was separated from, was being touted as a miracle child. I just didn’t have the trust the writers had the chops to pull off the nuance of something like that situation, let alone any of the other situations they may put the characters in. So, I stopped playing altogether. Quite a jump from the first being my GOTY to not even beating this game.

10 Ring Fit Adventure

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So, I just bought this so adding it to my top 10 is a little weird. But, whatever, it’s my list. As I mentioned in the intro, my life has been going through some changes as of late and some of my old routines have been compromised. One of those routines was regularly attending a local gym. I just can’t seem to find the time and when I do have the time that time is either short or I’m exhausted. That’s where Ring Fit comes in. This game is easy to implement into my day, it works well, and the best part is that I’m feeling a benefit already. My old routine involved weightlifting and cardio, which I hadn’t done regularly for about a year up to getting Ring Fit. Ring Fit works the muscles I was working in a different way. I’m not well versed enough to explain the mechanics of all of this but essentially, I had emphasized raw strength training and distance cardio whereas Ring Fit emphasizes movement, flexibility, and body weight routines. It’s a way for me to get a solid workout in a different way, but in a way that fits my lifestyle as well. I highly recommend it.

9 Mario Maker 2

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I never owned a Wii U so I never played the original Mario Maker. Mario Maker 2, then, was my first experience with the Maker series and I really enjoyed it. I have less experience with, and less love for, 2D Mario as opposed to the 3D games but Mario Maker really served as a good jumping off point for learning the deeper mechanics of 2D Mario for us novices. And, of course, you can go all the way down the rabbit hole and get into the intense created works. Which I did, and suck at. But I also created my own levels and had a blast doing it. It was simply a fun, breezy, and nice experience.

8 Zelda: Link’s Awakening

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I owned this on my original, green tinted Gameboy when it first released but never got very far. With this remake I got the chance to try it again. I’ll admit, it was a bit slow to grab me, but eventually it did, and it was very fun. I like that it took the basic stylings of Link to the Past but boiled it down to a smaller, more digestible size, likely to match the original portable hardware. It’s another fun, breezy, and nice experience that looked good (minus the hitching) and sounded amazing.

7 Outer Worlds

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Outer Worlds is another in the ‘fun, breezy, and nice’ experiences I had this year. There’s no escaping the similarities of this game to Bethesda’s RPGs, which I have liked in the past. I enjoyed Morrowind, Oblivion, Flallout 3, New Vegas, and Skyrim. But with each successive game after Oblivion, I liked them less and less. It felt like the formula had started to wear out its welcome by the time Skyrim came around. Fallout 4 had done nothing for me and, paired with the technical problems of that game, I wasn’t sure how much more of this style of RPG I wanted anymore. Outer Worlds, then, came along and it was really refreshing. But it refreshed the formula in ways that I wasn’t expecting. I appreciated the art style and use of color. And that it ran at a good framerate and that there was a good amount of variety in the level design. I also really liked the writing and the shooting was a nice improvement over the Bethesda games. But what really made that game work was its relative brevity, smaller scope, brisker pace, and more focused design. Whether because budget constraints or not, the pint-sized Bethesda experience was apparently what I needed to get back into a Bethesda style RPG. Now let’s see if Bethesda can do it themselves with their next few games.

6 Fire Emblem

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This was the first Fire Emblem I put much time into and really liked it. It has problems, for sure. It’s not the best-looking game in any regard and yet it still runs poorly. The difficulty is lacking, until the final chapter where for me it suddenly got very hard. But despite those issues, the loop of the game had me. Pairing a JRPG style strategy game with the social components of a Persona game was a great idea and makes for a very satisfying gameplay loop. It was, as I’ve mentioned multiple times in this list, a nice, breezy, and fun experience.

5 Heaven’s Vault

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Heaven’s Vault is an interesting game. It’s not ‘fun’ in the classic sense of a video game. There aren’t big and satisfying gameplay moments. It is very slow paced. The only thing you truly ‘acquire’ as such is knowledge. In a lot of ways, it’s a more interactive visual novel with extremely light adventure game components. But what it has in spades is atmosphere and quality writing, which I personally feel is the most important part of an adventure game. And though the gameplay is sparse, translating the ancient language was quite fun and satisfying. I love that games like this can be made and widely released and I’m very happy I got to experience it.

4 Outer Wilds

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The Outer Wilds is awesome. If this was a list of most impressive games of the year, this game would win. The puzzle design is so clever and the variety in those designs, despite the limited ways you as a player can interact with the world, is mind boggling. And I love the way the game looks. It may not be the most technically impressive looking game (though moving between worlds is impressive to me) but the art design, and its use of light and shadows, is very striking. But yeah, the design itself is what makes this game stand out for me. It is just so damn cool. I only wished I liked playing it as much as I appreciated the design. I both love and hate the 22-minute time loop. I love the puzzles that design affords the creators, but I don’t like that it puts the player on a time crunch. There were multiple points in the game where I looked up solutions because I didn’t want to go through the time loop again. All that said, though, the game is mighty impressive, and I’m thrilled it was made and that I played through it.

3 Control

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Control is just fun. I mean, it’s more than ‘just fun’ but that’s my overriding feeling when I look back on my experience with the game. Minus a few frustrations here and there (like the bosses) the game itself is just, well, fun. It looks great, it runs well, it sounds good, its dripping with atmosphere, and though I could take or leave the main plot the writing is very well done. But more than anything else, moving, shooting, using the powers, exploring the environments, leveling up. All that shit is very fun.

2 Resident Evil 2

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Take everything, well most of the things, I said about Control and apply them to RE 2, and then some. This game is massively fun in so many ways. I love the controls, the shooting, the level design, exploring, the overall gameplay loop, the atmosphere, some of the writing (some), and it all looks and sounds amazing. I did everything in this game, four times. It’s bizarre. I played RE 2 originally on the PSX and, though I enjoyed it, I didn’t feel the need to experience the game again as another character. But I was all about doing everything in the remake. It is a phenomenal game and I was sure it would be my GOTY. Until I played the next game.

1 Judgment

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Judgment is like a warm blanket. A very well-made warm blanket. And the blanket punches dudes and solves crimes. For those that don’t know, Judgment is a spin-off of the Yakuza series wherein the lead character is a defendant lawyer turned private detective. I love just about everything about this game, but I’ll start with the writing. Though not perfect, the quality of the writing from the moment to moment dialogue to the pacing of the main plot, character development, world building and all of the other components was very high and that it kept that quality throughout the course of a 40-50 hour game is kind of mind blowing. I’m not one for hyperbole and I truly feel like the writing in this game can stand up alongside games like Red Dead 2 and The Last of Us. And best of all it sticks the landing. Top to bottom the writing in this game is phenomenal. Then there’s the gameplay. It is so varied. I love Yakuza, and as varied as those games were able to get at times, they don’t hold a candle to the variety in Judgment. Other than the ‘follow this person’ missions, I really liked each aspect of the gameplay. It is so well-paced and well-done. And even though we’ve been to Kamurocho before it takes on a different feeling in Judgment. It feels more alive now. In Yakuza, Kamurocho looked and sounded like a real city. In Judgment, it feels like a real city too. I was so enthralled with this game that I did just about everything you can do in the game and once or twice booted it up again just because I wanted to run around the city once more. I don’t have the time to have that sort of commitment to a game anymore, but I made time for Judgment. It’s far and away the best experience I had this year and easily my personal GOTY.

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Doom 64: Apparently It's Polarizing?

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Hey everyone, my name is Jason and I like Doom 64. Which is apparently a much more polarizing game than I thought it was. I recently replayed a total conversion of it, found here and thought I’d write about it. But first, context.

Personal History

So, I recently wrote about my experience recently replaying Doom 3 on the PS4. But, in short, my history with the Doom series was through osmosis until I played the 32X port of the first game. I never played the original versions of Doom 1 and 2 until 2001-2002, when I finally had a PC (I was a late comer to modernity). But I did play Doom 64 back when it launched on the Nintendo 64, back in 1997. At the time, I remember liking the darker atmosphere and soundtrack, the new art design, and the mechanics remained solid. I didn’t have a concept of ‘framerate’ per se, back then, but I do remember thinking it felt better than a lot of games on the N64. Looking at Youtube videos of the original game, on real N64 hardware, it does run much smoother than a lot of its contemporaries on the system. I was a bit bummed at the time that I couldn’t freelook and I remember having to crank the brightness up all the way because it was intensely dark. But, other than those small squabbles, I loved that game. When I played through Doom 3 originally, though I liked it, I remember feeling like the true ‘Doom 3’ experience was Doom 64.

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Now

So, I played the TC on the GZDoom engine. Just a quick rundown of the TC, it essentially adds all the levels from Doom 64, extra levels that were added to a previously released Doom 64 TC called ‘Absolution’, and an extra episode made by the TC’s creators. It’s a good version of the game that runs flawlessly on GZDoom and looks pretty good with all the extra bells and whistles of that engine.

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When I replay Doom 1 and 2 now, I still really like those games, but like them on their own terms. I guess what I mean by that is those two games are the epitome of old FPS design and 2016 Doom is the natural evolution of that design. 2016 Doom is just as fast, nearly just as open in design, with a comparable atmosphere and tone, but adds more varied enemy AI, furthers the strategy needed for encounters, is even more intense, and so on. It’s an amazing game. Doom 64 is not a natural evolution of old FPS design. Doom 64 is old FPS design with a different presentation.

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Yeah, the presentation. That’s what I imagine is one of the biggest sticking points for people. Originally, I really like the art design. I thought it was cool to see a different take on the Doom universe, I really like the stark contrast and moments of heavy color use, and I thought the ambient soundscape soundtrack was perfectly fitting of that art design. But, now, I don’t know if I like it per se. I respect what they were going for. The easy answer is to update the original art design, maybe add a little bit here and there, and call it good. In fact, that would probably had been the smart decision, in hindsight. But I respect doing something different. But what results is a game that looks generic in design. The game doesn’t stand out graphically other than that the performance on real hardware is solid and it is generally of high fidelity for the console. But the art design just screams of the ‘space marine’ motif. Which, I suppose is fitting of Doom guy, who is in fact a space marine. But it feels dull, ultimately.

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The gameplay and level design are interesting. First, to get this out of the way, the shooting and AI patterns are that of Doom 2. There’s an added gun, which I don’t really like, but other than that the shooting feels exactly how you’d expect. The level design feels different than the first two games. By and large, all three games involve exploring a large map for keys, shooting enemies, and solving small puzzles. But where Doom 64 differs is that it feels more linear in that open design. It feels like there are routes through the level, linear paths within the larger areas. Maybe that’s how it was in Doom 1 and 2 as well and they just did a better job of hiding it. And I don’t even know if that linearity is a good or bad thing, honestly. It’s just, different. I do like the levels. I think they offer a stiff challenge; I think they flow well, and I like some of the set pieces and secrets. In a way, Doom 64 kind of feels like an expansion for Doom 2 with a new art design and soundtrack. Which is kind of what this TC is, as you need Doom 2 to run the TC. But even on original hardware, Doom 64 feels like a Doom 2 expansion even though the levels feel distinct in some ways from what the original ID team made.

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Replaying Doom 64 I was impressed by how good it all felt and how fun it still was. I was reminded of what it was like to replay Doom 1 and 2. So, I’m also then equally baffled it has the reputation it seems to have. I can understand disliking the art style and soundtrack but, also, it is impressive that they tried something different. Similarly to Doom 3, Doom 64 takes risks in its presentation given the franchise’s standard art and sound design. But, unlike Doom 3, Doom 64 still feels like old Doom. In some ways, then, Doom 3 is a bit more impressive because they went for something different across the board. But Doom 64 should be lauded for giving the old Doom experience with a new coat of paint, even if you don’t like the way the paintjob turned out. It’s not my favorite Doom. But I think it stands up well to Doom 1 and 2. I think it’s a more consistent experience than the two Final Dooms. I also like it much more than Doom 3. Given that I don’t really like the art design anymore that I like the game for its gameplay and level design alone speaks to its ability to realize the old Doom experience.

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Doom 3: Then and Now

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Doom 3 is a weird game. It’s a weird game on its own merits, but when you tie in the history of the franchise, and all the expectations that come with that franchise, Doom 3 is exceptionally weird. I replayed Doom 3 on the PS4 and wanted to write about it, on its own merits, but it’s hard to ignore the history of the franchise, especially when this game has a ‘3’ after its title. So, I’d figured I’d start by talking about my personal experience with the franchise.

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My first experience with Doom was through osmosis. I didn’t own a PC when Doom came out, so I just read about it in game magazines. Even then, I didn’t really know a lot about the game. It wasn’t until I played the 32X version that I got a sense of what the game was about. That version isn’t great, but for the time it played well and for someone like me, with limited experience with FPS games, it was amazing. The game at first felt a bit like a horror game. But as I got more used to the gameplay mechanics, it became less of a horror game and more the action game most of us tend to associate with the franchise now. It was fast, intense, open-ended, and exhilarating (even on the 32X). For me, that was Doom. Even when I played Doom 64, my next ‘Doom’ game, it fit that bill of fast, intense, open-ended design despite the change in tone and art design.

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By the time Doom 3 came out I had a PC that could play the game. It couldn’t play it ‘well’, exactly. I don’t remember the framerate, though it was probably hovering around 30, but I remember the resolution; I played nearly every game on that PC at 640x480. I remember that resolution specifically because that was the resolution I had to play at, for a very long time, to get an acceptable level of performance. Yikes. Looking back, I enjoyed Doom 3 the first time through. If my memory of that experience is correct, I remember really liking the atmosphere and was enamored with the technology (even at 640x480). I also remember finding it scary. But I also remember finding the shooting dull. I remember enjoying the game well enough to finish it, but I think the novelty of playing a good-looking game on a PC pushed me through.

Now we have the BFG version on the PS4. I’m 15 years older (holy shit) and have a different perspective than I did when I played the original game. However, the first impression I had of the game, playing now, is very similar to the first impression I had playing originally; this game looks cool. But it looks cool for a different reason. I recently bought an LG OLED and the blacks in this game are amazing to see. With the game playing in 4k, with razor sharp details, and completely black blacks the game, to this day, has a singular look. A lot of mainstream games create dark scenes, but few really lean into absolute and complete darkness like Doom 3. It’s truly a sight to behold on an OLED. That said, the textures don’t hold up quite as well anymore. And the art design feels like it’s trying a bit too hard to be ‘edgy.’ But the use of shadow and contrast is the standout when it comes to the look of the game.

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What also stood out was the atmosphere. The soundtrack of the game is primarily soundscapes, a bit like the soundtrack for the Playstation/Saturn/N64 Doom games. That, along with ambient storytelling, the use of shadows, and the tight and intimate nature of most of the levels lead to an experience that feels ‘lived in’ for lack of a better term. The world of Doom 3 has a real sense of place, even more so than the 2016 Doom or any other Doom before it. The problem with this sense of place is that it feels very polarizing. Over these last 15 years I’ve apparently become much harder to scare and Doom 3 is a horror game. It’s a shooter, and you interact with the world primarily by shooting things, but it’s all within the context of horror. It’s atmosphere, appropriately then, lends itself to that horror. But because nothing in this game scared me, a large component of this atmosphere was lost on me. I appreciated that they went for a strong atmosphere, but I wasn’t affected by it. So, then you need to consider if you ‘like’ the atmosphere in and of itself. Doom 3 is a serious game. A deadly serious game. But a deadly serious game about hell monsters on Mars. I just couldn’t get into the story they were telling. The dialogue was campy, and at times given in a campy way, but within the context of what appeared to be a serious tone. It was a truly conflictual experience. As singular and well thought out as the atmosphere was in some ways, even if I didn’t really care for it, the story felt equally rushed and overdone. The writing, too, was bizarre. The voice acting was mostly solid and the writing, particularly of the audio logs, was good but I didn't care for the content of what was written. It was just written at a high quality. Then the writing of the cutscenes, where most of the ‘camp’ happened, was at odds with the atmosphere of the gameplay, the audio logs, all of it. It was a truly bizarre experience. I both sort of like it and dislike it all at once. Which may as well be my experience with Doom 3 overall.

The shooting, for example, isn’t inherently bad. It isn’t inherently good, either. It just ‘is.’ I have no passion at all about the shooting. It was innocuous and I was devoid of an emotional reaction to it. But it was functional. What I didn’t like was the enemy placement. I get what they were going for, in theory. Doom 3 is a slower game than the older Doom games and the newest Doom game. But, like all the other Doom games, a lot of Doom 3’s fighting takes place in close quarters. The level design seems to foster this by having narrow corridors, lots of obstacles in the way, and the like. Design that forces the player to move toward the enemy and engage. Which I’m fine with, again, in theory. The problem is what happens after initial engagement with enemies that already exist in the world. Much has been made about ‘monster closets’ in Doom 3. Essentially, there are several moments where, in Doom 3, the player is walking along when seemingly at random a panel along a wall somewhere will move to reveal an enemy lying in wait. It feels like a cheap jumpscare that is more obnoxious to deal with than additive to the experience. But what I had the biggest problem with were warping enemies. It felt like most encounters with enemies in the world set off a cascade of warping enemies that would spawn into the level all around the player. For example, the most common scenario the player faces in Doom 3 is to walk into a new room, engage with an enemy or two, then halfway into the engagement an enemy warps from behind you. So, you as a player learn to engage an enemy, turn around, fight the enemy that just warped in behind you, and then turn back around to fight the original enemy. It’s a very literal version of ‘one step forward, two steps back’ but repeated ad nauseam. At the end of the game, you get used to simply engaging an enemy, finding a corner, and then acting like a stationary turret shooting all the new, warping enemies. That isn’t fun. It felt like work. If the PS4, BFG version didn’t have the light mod that attaches the light to the player character I would have stopped playing the game in frustration.

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Which all of this makes me wonder why I kept playing it at all. Because rereading all this it seems like I didn’t really like this game. If I were a reviewer, it wouldn’t have reviewed well. But there is something about this game that stands out, even today. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the first Fear game, which came out a year after Doom 3. Both are horror FPS. But where Fear had better shooting and design Doom 3 had a more fleshed out world and atmosphere. But is that atmosphere, which I mentioned I don’t even really like all that much, and really black blacks on an OLED screen enough. Kinda?

…those blacks are very black.

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The Good, The Bad, and The Mass Effect: Andromeda

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I bought Mass Effect: Andromeda back in March for a grand total of $7.49 for my PS4. I figured that was enough money for me to know what this game was all about, on my own terms. As I played it, I was struck by two primary reactions; boy this game is broken, and I think I like it. Throughout my playthrough I tried to understand why I liked this game because it is just so janky in so many ways. So, I thought it would be an interesting experience to write down the good and bad of my playthrough of ME:A and see what comes up.

History with the Series

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I bought the Xbox 360 because of Mass Effect 1. At the time, I only owned a Wii and hadn’t seen the game that would have pushed me over the edge to buy a second console. But ME did it. I’m a sucker for RPGs, I adore Star Trek, had enjoyed KOTR quite a lot, and saw a 360 with ME packed in. It all added up, so I bought the bundle and played the hell out of ME, ME 2, and ME 3. I think I played through all three at least three times. I may have put more hours into those three games than any other game. I was obsessed. It might not feel quite as impactful looking back but having a game series where your choices carried over, game to game, was hugely novel to me at the time. Though I know next to nothing about game development (he says before making a statement about game development), it felt like that was a game design that couldn’t have happened in the previous generation of consoles. That along with solid gameplay, mostly good characters, solid art design, and a great soundtrack made for a standout gaming experience for me.

Expectations

From what I had gathered from osmosis, ME:A was a disaster of a game that didn’t hold a candle to the original trilogy. I had heard about, and saw through coverage, a lot of the glitches. I had heard that the story was bad, and the characters were poorly written. I hadn’t heard a single person recommend the game even after it was fully patched up. My expectations were in the gutter.

Story (and Politics?)

Yes, politics. We’ll get there. But, the setup for this game is that the Citadel, from the original ME games, had commissioned a mission wherein three (or four?) ‘arks’ (big ass ships) would attempt to colonize a planet in the Andromeda Galaxy because...adventure.

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600 years later (cryosleep happens), the human Ark runs into space debris, which you find out has been named ‘the scourge’ and, if memory serves, is solidified dark matter (huh?), and the planet you had come to colonize is being ransacked by an alien species. Here come the politics! So, the game pays lip service to ‘first contact’ protocol, which is described in short as ‘don’t act aggressively unless aggressed upon’. What that means in terms of gameplay is the player character, Ryder, walking up to a group of the aliens, who appear to be accosting a fellow squad mate, with her/his hands up saying in English a bunch of ‘we come in peace’ talk. The aliens, who don’t speak English (until they do, suddenly, later in the game), yell back in their own language, and a firefight ensues. I tried to get them to fire on me, but I couldn’t. I had to initiate the contact, destroying the notion setup by the lip service. But the humans conclude that the aliens were bad and were the aggressors. And from that point on, they are the bad guys. Conveniently, they are legitimately bad, and intend to turn every species in the Andromeda Galaxy into a version of their own species, sort of like the Borg from Star Trek. But the humans on this first planet don’t know any of this. In fact, they don’t know anything at all and yet draw conclusions about all they come across. Case and point, in one of the optional areas of this first planet Ryder can find a building with a bunch of alien equipment in it. It’s made clear to the player, and the characters, that they don’t know what that equipment is, how anything in the building functions, or anything else of consequence. But, when Ryder catches up with her/his Father later on (the original Pathfinder, until he dies and Ryder takes over), she/he tells him that the building was there for research and because the aliens we’d met are using that building (which was pure conjecture because we didn’t see any of them in the building) to research the planet (also conjecture) they must not be locals to the planet (because local species wouldn’t research their own planet?). This sort of assuming and conjecture to create a reality is emblematic of a larger assumption that is the basis for this entire mission; the Milky Way Galaxy will find and colonize a planet. They will integrate themselves, welcomed or not, and base actions from their perspectives, whether those perspectives are representative of the reality of the Andromeda Galaxy. There’s a sense of entitlement and assumed expertise on the part of the Milky Way Galaxy species I found really gross early on.

Over time, you run across one other species in the Andromeda Galaxy, the Angarans, who have been fighting the main antagonists, the Kett (the ‘bad’ aliens from the first planet), for hundreds of years. You also run across, eventually, a bunch of Milky Way Galaxy species who, apparently, were sent to the Andromeda Galaxy a few years ahead of the Arks to set up a Citadel equivalent space station, the Nexus, but there was a coup attempt, a bunch of violence that isn’t ever really fully fleshed out, and now a bunch of Milky Way species are occupying planets all over the place (well, 5 in particular). So really most of the story is based around cleaning up the mess from the first planet engagement, the Nexus violence nonsense, interacting with the two new species, and trying to establish the Milky Way in this new galaxy.

To that end, the story is neat. It’s fun building up a presence on various planets, staking a name and a reputation for an entire galaxy’s species as their representative. It feels like you are navigating new territory and setting the standard for your species’ presence. The Angaran/Kett relationship is, well, so-so. They try to link the two together and give a deeper meaning to the existence of the Angaran, and extension the Kett, but it didn’t land with much emotional weight. There is, as in the Milky Way Galaxy, a long-gone species with amazing ancient technology that the current species are trying to understand and use. But though that set up is like the original ME trilogy’s ancient aliens, their impact on the galaxy is quite different. Without spoiling it, their role is quite fascinating and results in some cool moments. The main bad guy is the most main bad guy-like a main bad guy could be. He’s completely unremarkable. As are the Kett, really. They exist. They look like bad guys, the snarl and whatnot. You shot them. Eh.

Characters

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The Ryders – So the main playable character is either Scott or Sara Ryder (or you pick a new first name). I made a Sara Ryder. Who sort of looked Japanese, but I didn’t bother to change the appearance of Scott (who looks like an average white dude), making it weird when the game’s narrative mentions that they are twins. Ryder as a character has more personality, inherently, than Shepard did, but how you express that personality is up to you as the player in dialogue options. Inherently, Ryder is sort of a Han Solo archetype. She’s a bit bumbling, flying by the seat of her pants, and overly lucky allowing her to pull out of whatever situation she and her crew find themselves in. In some ways I like this idea. It gives the game a different tone than the first trilogy, which looking back seemed more self-serious. Plus, her devil may care attitude fits for a young person thrust into a situation they weren’t trained or prepared for. On the other hand, most of her Han Solo quips don’t land. A lot of the time I found myself cringing at the attempts at humor. For every genuinely charming moment there were a dozen or more ‘I want to bury my head in the sand’ moments. The way the dialogue options impact Ryder’s personality is essentially; do you want to be serious, playful, pragmatic, or sincere. Those archetypes tend to be as broad as her inherent personality. Ultimately, Ryder didn’t feel like my character. She felt like an established character I was nudging left or right.

Liam – Liam sucks. He has his moments. His loyalty mission, for example, was not only one of the better missions but had some of the best dialogue moments in the game, some of which were provided by Liam. But the dude still sucks. His archetype is basically ‘I’m a fuck up but I’m charming?’ He has the devil may care attitude of Ryder, mixed with periods of anarchism and juvenile vengefulness, but without any of the luck of Ryder. Or the charm. He just sucks. Liam sucks.

Cora – Cora has three modes; overly serious, trying to be a bad ass by saying bad ass tough character things, and overly sincere. Can’t say I was much of a fan of any of the three modes. She’s not awful, she’s just too broad of a character.

Drack – Picture in your head the archetype of an old, male Krogan and you have Drack. He’s fine. He’s wholly unremarkable. He’s exactly what you would expect him to be as an old Krogan. No more and no less.

Peebee – Peebee might be my favorite character in the game. She’s certainly the most interesting. At first glance, she seems a bit flighty and disconnected. But they get into why that is and over time she opens and connects with more characters in some of the most sincere and charming moments in the game. Even just off the cuff conversations she has with other characters while exploring the world can be nice and earnest in a way that doesn’t feel forced or awkward, like so much of the writing in this game can be.

Vetra – Vetra might be my other most favorite character, though her introduction sort of sucks. She comes across out the gate as trying too hard to get across what her character is which oddly is not representative of her actual character at all. She’s a sincere, honest, and insecure character who has some of the most honest conversations with Ryder, as well as with Peebee, in the game and it works very well. In fact, the conversations between Peebee and Vetra while on missions can be very sweet and charming. She, along with Peebee, is fleshed out and well rounded in a way that a lot of the other characters in this game are not.

Jaal – Jaal is a pretty good character. He’s well fleshed out and develops quite a lot over the course of the game. At times, he can rely too heavily on two sides of his personality, sincere or playful, but there’s more to him that can come out from time to time. He also has some of the most thoughtful dialogue in the game.

The Running Around and The Shooting

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The running around can be good in this game. Like with the other Mass Effect games, the on-foot movement has two modes; exploration and aiming. When in exploration mode, the camera is oddly high above Ryder’s head and the FOV seems…weird. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it seems like the view is a mix of a fisheye effect in a world that is scrunched, and the characters seem too small. The actual movement feels fine, though the design of the environments, at times, caused me to get hung up on various objects. And, oddly, in one specific area Ryder would run into an invisible something that I would have to run around before proceeding. But more on how busted this game is later.

The running around whilst aiming is solid enough. It feels akin to Mass Effect 2 and 3, but with more mobility including dashing and jumping. The shooting in and of itself feels solid as do the powers at your disposal. It feels like a natural evolution of Mass Effect 3, but in environments that are more open. The shooting is solid and is one of the areas that can be discussed with few qualifications.

Presentation

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So, lets start with the good. A lot of this game looks pretty good. There are a few moments where the art design really shines and, even when the game is rendering a traditional setting, like a desert planet, it does a good job of representing those settings and giving them a sense of place. The characters can look good, well the main characters…and mostly when standing still. And the effects work can look nice. And the use of color is very nice. And the planets and flying around can look nice too.

Now for the bad. Originally, I played this game on the PS4 base model. Actually, a launch base model. So, I had the weakest of the Sony consoles trying to power through this game and my God was it a mess. Immediately there were glitches. Objects, characters, doors, walls, practically anything and everything popped in and out of existence regularly. For example, one of the most common glitches I saw happened whenever I moved my camera. If there was a wall near my character and a door in the distance, I could, what seems to me from the little I know about game design, remove the door from memory by simply maneuvering the wall in front of the door. Which I’m sure happens all the time in video games, but you rarely see it happen. In practice, what that meant was that I could pop doors, objects, whatever out of existence simply by moving a wall in front of it. Then the audio glitches. Sound would regularly cut out, voice over would lag before playing, and so on. The framerate was all over the place and the game would regularly pause of the action in place, particularly whilst exploring the planets in the Nomad (the Mako equivalent all-terrain vehicle), while loading the rest of an environment. Textures wouldn’t load. Character scripting for NPC’s was awful with characters in non-action settings perform action behaviors, getting stuck in the environment, running into walls. I could go on but suffice it to say it was easily the buggiest game I had ever played. This was after years of patches, mind you.

Then I got a PS4 Pro. The game was still one of the buggiest games I had played but maybe not the buggiest. The character scripting was still poor, textures still took time to load, I still had crash bugs, audio glitches were still present, and so on. But the game overall just felt more stable. The framerate was better, there was less pop-in and fewer instances of everything on screen disappearing from existence. It went from a complete disaster of a game that the developer and publisher should be embarrassed of into just a messy game that should be better. So, I guess buy a more expensive console or a PC if you want to play this game?

Do You Like This Game and Why?

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Yes, and I’m not totally sure. The easy answer is I like the Skinner box nature of the quest design. It’s thoughtless, fast, and offers easy reward. But there’s a bit more to it. I like what they were going for, and on occasion succeed at. I like the idea of a Mass Effect game that is lighter in tone. I like trying to navigate a new galaxy with new aliens and new political and social concerns. I like what the ancient alien technology was designed to do. In the middle section of the game, when you are establishing outposts on planets, the game is probably at its best. I’m happy I played this game and a part of me wishes Bioware would make a sequel to this game. But, also, nearly every single aspect of the game needs to be improved. In practice, I have no idea what that would look like. I’m clearly not a game developer. But there’s barely any part of this game that is good without qualification. It’s one of those rare games that I liked but wouldn’t recommend. That’s simply not good enough for a big series from an established developer and publisher. So, yes, I like it, but with as many asterisks as I can muster.

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2018 Game of the Year

2018 has been a weird year for me, personally. It’s been a year full of transitions and stress, both good and bad. Video games then slotted themselves into my life in a very specific way; stress relief. You know how certain games aim for a specific response from the player? Some aim for excitement, horror, thrills, challenge, and whatnot. I needed to zone out with my games this year. My top 10 best reflects the games that allowed for stress reduction in a year full of stress.

But first, some arbitrary awards because I also played these games.

Best Game I’d Probably Play A Bunch in a Less Stress-Filled Year

Hitman 2

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I really enjoyed the first Hitman. Well, the first of this new series. Which was the first Hitman I ever played. It was fun playing in a gigantic puzzle box and deciding how I wanted to solve each minor puzzle on the way to the biggest puzzle of all, the assassination. Hitman 2, of the first two levels I’ve played, is more of that. Which is fine. I suppose there’s something to be said for wanting a greater change to the structure of the first game rather than the refinement that Hitman 2 seems to be. But also, this is only the second of this structure, and the refinements are good, so I guess it’s easier to look past the similarities. The problem being it was 2018 when the game came out and I didn’t have the mental capacity to attack these puzzles the ways that I wanted to. I really enjoyed what I played. It’s just that I couldn’t give this game the energy or attention it would need to give it a fair shake. So, it’s been put on hold until my brain feels up to it.

Best Game That Allowed Me to Use a Silly Piece of New Hardware

Skies of Arcadia: Legends

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Skies of Arcadia: Legends might be one of my all-time favorite games. I’m a sucker for light-hearted and colorful JRPGs and SoA is one of the best versions of that concept. The game has more systems to it then you might imagine at first blush. Exploration is encouraged so that you can make discoveries for cash rewards, bounties liter the overworld, there are quite a few side quests, and the mainline quest has a lot of variety, considering the genre. The new, completely unnecessary hardware I bought was a component to HDMI upscaler. Essentially, it takes a component signal and converts it to your choice of a 720p, 1080i, 1080p, or 4K/30 signal via HDMI. So, I played this Gamecube game through my Wii, using the Wii’s component cables to a converter, and upscaled to a 1080p signal. It looked good and was mostly lag-free! It isn’t as good as using an emulator, I imagine, but the signal was crisp, mostly noise free, and honestly I didn’t discern any lag. It was also all the way unnecessary and probably a waste of money. But, oh well. It was a nice way to replay this great game.

Best Forever Game

Nioh

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I bought the Nioh Complete Edition when it was on sale some amount of time after it was released. I don’t even remember anymore. What the game has turned into is the game I play when I have a backlog of podcasts and I need to relax. It’s maybe a bit bizarre but these Souls-like games are great for relaxation for me. They are certainly hard, but I know the loop so well, and the flow of combat, that I’m not even all that bothered by the difficulty. I just do runs repeatedly. Plus, Nioh is a great game that really stands out in the Souls-ish genre. The combat feels so good. It has the speed of something like Bloodborne but the variety in combat of something like Dark Souls, but even more so. All the weapon types feel so distinct. Also, the game seems to go on forever. Which I’m all for. I think I’ll probably keep playing this game until the new consoles come out.

10: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

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So, I just recently bought this game when it was on sale for the PS4. I really liked the first reboot game in this series but found Rise to be a bit bland. I enjoyed it while I played it but all memory of it left my mind after I beat it. Shadow is quite different. The structure, on the surface, is very similar to the two other games. It’s a Metroid-style action adventure game, as were the first two. But the tone and pacing of Shadow lends it a different feel. It’s a slower and quieter game (until it isn’t but more on that later). I enjoyed feeling placed in the world they created, especially when Lara was in the middle of a jungle or cave. It all just felt more grounded and alive than the first two games. The improvements in stealth were also welcome but the game really de-emphasizes the role of combat, which I appreciated. I enjoyed exploring in this game and didn’t really want to fight. Which meant that when fighting happened, especially when it got over the top and almost roller-coaster like in pace (and linearity) I enjoyed the game less. There are more problems to be sure. I didn’t care for the story, though Lara’s voice actress did an amazing job. I appreciated what they were trying to accomplish by emphasizing culture within the towns and locations Lara visited but also it felt too surface-level and superficial to feel like much more than set-dressing, which I’m not so sure it’s good to emphasize culture if you ultimately give it short shrift. All that said, I enjoyed my time with the game despite its flaws.

9: Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze (Switch)

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I never owned a Wii U so this was my chance to play this game. Plus, it’s basically a new game, right? I really enjoyed this game. I had played the first Retro Donkey Kong on the Wii, which I also enjoyed, and this game is more of the same. It’s a hard platformer, so considering the stress mentioned above, I played it in small chunks. But the controls are tight, the level design is fun, and it’s really thrilling when you pull a huge and difficult platforming segment off.

8: Octopath Traveler

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So, as I mentioned with Skies of Arcadia, I’m a sucker for JRPGs. Especially a classic styled JRPG. Octopath Traveler then should be right up my alley and for the most part it is. The combat system is really, really good. The art design is standard for the genre, but the effects laid over the top of it is quite the trick and a sight to behold the first time you experience it. Some of the stories are also quite good, especially Primrose’s. But the disjointed nature of the stories and the lack of a through-line made it a bit difficult for me to stay with it to the end. That said, it’s a great JRPG that I’m happy I played.

7: Yakuza 6

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Like many of you, I’d imagine, my first experience with Yakuza was through GB’s playthrough of Yakuza 0. I went straight from that to Kiwami, which I really liked, and from that game to Yakuza 6. The improvements to the engine and systems in Yakuza 6 make for a much more realized and complete feeling world. The mostly seamless movement throughout the game’s locations adds a lot to the games sense of place. The combat is also a nice, simplified improvement that continues to feel brutal. I enjoyed the story well enough, though it didn’t quite grab me like 0 and Kiwami 1 did. But the game’s style, atmosphere, and mechanics are great to experience.

6: Valkyria Chronicles 4

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I played through VC 1 on the PS3 originally, really enjoyed it, and did nothing with that series until this game came out. I had no idea what to expect. It turns out the 4th game is much like the 1st game but refined. Which is fine for me because that first game is still a pretty singular experience in video games. Plus, the refinements, like new classes and improvements to the upgrade system, are welcomed and solid. The story is, well, not great. It tries for something grand and emotional which I can appreciate. But, yeah, it didn’t work for me. But, whatever. The gameplay is a ton of fun.

5: Spyro: Reignited Trilogy

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I never played this game when I was younger, so this was my first real experience with the game. I had bought the Crash remakes, which I had played those games when I was younger, but found the gameplay design now that I'm older (breaking all the boxes and getting to the end of the level) not the most satisfying anymore. So, I was a bit worried about picking up this game. However, hearing all the praise I thought I’d give it a shot. Spyro is an exploration-based platformer and that model lends itself much better to modern gaming sensibilities (or at least mine). It’s a light and breezy game for sure. There is challenge, but it’s relegated to 100% the game. But I didn’t really need challenge from the game. I needed a good-looking game that was fun to explore and Spyro has both in spades.

4: Red Dead Redemption 2

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I love Arthur. He’s my favorite video game protagonist currently. He is such a well realized and layered character that is both likeable and, in many ways, laudable but also monstrous. That sort of complexity is not what I was expecting from this game. I keep trying to like Rockstar games because I really liked GTA 4 at the time. But, RDR 1 and GTA 5 didn’t give me that same experience. In fact, I sort of hated GTA 5 despite beating it. I disliked the writing so much, found the mission design so dull, that no amount of world building could have saved it for me. But RDR 2, for the most part (because some old Rockstar-ness still had to creep in), is very well written, well realized, and fully featured story, world, and design that is amazing to behold. The systems are absurd in their complexity, both in good and bad ways. They are too complicated for the controller which can lead to a messy experience but also, it’s pretty nuts they went as deep down this systems rabbit hole as they did. That’s RDR 2 in a nutshell; the good that makes this game stand out is also part of its downfall. It’s too complex, impacting the gameplay, but also, it’s cool that it’s so complex. The writing is extremely good but also when it isn’t good it stands out that much more. The world is extremely well realized but when it breaks my God does it break. But I really appreciate what they went for and mostly succeeded in. The game’s biggest problem of all, for me, is its mission design. It’s too repetitive and too much like their other open world games. How many shoot outs can a game have? RDR 2 aims to find out. But, for its many faults, RDR 2 was also one of the most memorable games I’ve played all year.

3: Batman: Season 2

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Remember Telltale guys? It’s kind of weird to think that this game was their last, complete product. But they went out with a very good game. The first season of Batman was good because it did such a good job letting the player take on both roles of Wayne and Batman, allowing each to be viable options. The world was also well realized, and their story set-up allowed for unpredictability, despite Batman’s stories being so well known. What the second season adds, aside from better performance and improvements to the game’s engine, is an interesting take on the Joker and his relationship with Batman/Wayne. It was fascinating to see the pair interact, the development of the Joker, and the similarities between the two characters. I really hope the Telltale writers get a chance to add their talents to another studio and are put in the position to really contribute because the writing at that studio, for the most part, was stellar.

2: Destiny 2

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Yep. Destiny 2. Not just Forsaken. The whole damn thing. So, I didn’t play Destiny 2 when it originally came out because I was disappointed by Destiny 1. I don’t like multiplayer and, especially now, can’t dedicate the time to it. But when Destiny 2 came out on PS+ I figured I’d give it a shot and, well, go all in with all the expansions because if you’re going to do a thing may as well do it all the way, right? What Destiny 2 brought to the franchise for me personally, that Destiny 1’s base game lacked, was a viable single player. I really enjoyed going through the single player for the base game, and all the expansions. The shooting is still great, the loot was good enough to keep me invested, and the presentation was remarkable. It was a nice, pleasant surprise for me during a time when I needed something pleasant to soak myself in when I got home.

1: God of War

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God of War is probably the most complete and solid game I played all year. It looks amazing, sounds amazing, plays very well, has a well realized world and mostly realized characters, lots of content that is mostly of a very high quality, and was long enough without over staying its welcome but had solid post-game content if I ever came back to it. The only real complaint I have about it was that I found the plot dull but the implications of the plot for the series is fascinating and has a lot of potential. Plus, the interactions between Kratos and Atreus, though a bit forced at times, was mostly well done and made up for a lot of the plot’s shortcomings. It’s my GOTY because it’s the best overall game I’ve played. If I’m honest, I’m not passionate about it. But it really is a great game and was the best new game I’ve played all year.

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My Favorite Games! 8: King's Field II

I'm back! Someone got busy. It was me, I got busy. But, I'm back and ready to talk about a great game. The 8th on my favorite list. For my 9th and 10th favorite games, go here (9) and here (10). Go to the tenth favorite game to get a sense of what I mean by 'favorite'.

So my 8th favorite game of all time is King's Field II.

King's Field 2 came out in 1996 for the Playstation. I originally played it around 1998, when I was 12-13. At the time, I had had a Nintendo 64 and prior to that the Genesis / Sega-CD / 32X. My experience with the Sega-CD had changed my perspective on games...in a good way. That system gets a bad rap man. It wasn't all FMV games! Anyway, I played a ton of PC ports on that system and through that experience what I ended up wanting out of games changed a lot. I went from wanting immediate action and gratification to games with a lot of tone and atmosphere. Games like the last two games I highlighted in this series, one of them a Sega-CD game.

King's Field II, the precursor to the Souls games and created by the same developer, From Software, has atmosphere and tone for days. Granted, playing it now, that tone and atmosphere may not seem quite as heavy hitting but at the time it was a powerful experience for me. Everything just seemed so bleak and dark. Everyone is so bummed. Characters you meet will die throughout the game. Also there's like 15 NPCs in the whole game because everyone else is dead. The music, though not great, helps set that tone. So do the graphics. They are archaic and won't even all that great at the time but the art design is striking. It has the dark fantasy look that From would display in the Souls games.

Speaking of Souls games, most of the mechanics in those games are in full force here. There's a stamina gauge that is effected by attack and running. There's a magic system akin to Dark Souls 3. There's a concept of usable healing items akin to Demon's Souls. The game is fully nonlinear, like Dark Souls. King's Field 1, though a good game, felt more compact than King's Field 2. King's Field 1 took place on a grouping of islands. A grouping of incredibly complex islands, mind you, but the scope was still compressed down to those islands. King's Field 2 felt like a huge land mass. But it's smartly designed as well. You can go anywhere, theoretically, but there are places that are locked off until you have the requisite equipment to proceed. But, even with areas locked off, the player has 2-4 areas available to explore at any given time during the game. There's somewhat of a homogeneity to the look of the different areas in the game but the level design changes quite a lot adding new, unique, and often very difficult components to each dungeon, town, cave, castle, mine, etc.

When I first played this game, I kind of hated it. I loved the atmosphere and tone. I really wanted to like what I was doing. But I couldn't wrap my head around it. But I kept crashing against that rock, sort of like I did with Dark Souls (my first Souls-like game), and eventually it clicked and when it did all I wanted to do was play the game. It became an obsession like many a person's first Souls game that clicks becomes their obsession. Like those people as well this first Souls game that clicked for me, though it's actually a Field game, has become one of my favorite games after it had clicked. It became my 8th favorite game, in fact.

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My Favorite Games! 9: Metroid Prime

I'm back with another of my top 10 favorite games of all time. Again, just for clarity, these are my personal favorite games. Favorite does not necessarily mean best. Objectivity might play a role here, but a relatively minor one (such as is the nature of 'tastes' I guess, right?). These are the games I have found to have left the greatest impact on this hobby we all share. These left the greatest mark. And for a rundown of my history with games, I provided that with my last entry.

So, my number 9 most favorite of all the video games is Metroid Prime 1.

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In the Gamecube/Xbox/PS2 era I landed on the Gamecube and got a lot of fantastic games out of it. Paper Mario, Mario Sunshine, Wind Waker, Beyond Good and Evil, the Resident Evil games, Tales of Symphonia, Metroid Prime 2. But the one that really stood out for me was Metroid Prime 1.

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Ever since I was a kid, I was a sucker for tone and atmosphere in my entertainment. But tone and atmosphere is a hard thing to quantify. I love Batman because of the dark colors and the gothic setting. I love silent films because of the amazing set design and the tone set by pacing of the films, especially the horror films. I love The Road because the tone is so dreary and bleak that when humanity and hope do hit, even if it is minuscule, it carries that much more weight. In video games, I found that tone comes from the interplay between the graphical and aural presentation with pacing and world building. A game like Flashback sets a tone by having sparse music, allowing for exploration of the different levels, and implying a larger world without having to explain in explicit detail the nature of that world. It allows for a more memorable experience.

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Metroid Prime has tone and atmosphere for days. It's a beautiful game, technically and artistically, which is matched with really well crafted music. The music may not be imminently listenable outside the context of the game but within the game it plays perfectly with the art design and the settings. And those settings are amazing. There so much variety in this game, one level to the next and you can experience it all because the game itself, like the other Metroid games before it (Jason's note; this was my first Metroid game) the game encourages and at times demands exploration. By exploring you can see all of the details put into the world and all of the implied history. There's explicit history too, through the use of the scan visor, but I think the hints at a world beyond the confines of the game's world is more interesting.

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I haven't even touched on the gameplay, which works amazingly well when you consider what this game sets out to do. It is a first-person action adventure game with a focus on shooting, platforming, and exploration. In the game, you'll juggle multiple visors and weapon types while also platforming and fighting, at times, swarms of enemies. It's a big ask for a player's hands, in theory, and when you consider what the Gamecube controller looked like it's also seemingly inconceivable that it would work at all. But they make it work to such a large and successful degree that the movement and inventory management almost becomes second nature. The games that control the best are the ones that you control without thinking about what you're doing. It's as if your hands and the games controls are one. That's what it was like to play this game.

So the game had atmosphere, it had a memorable tone, it was paced well, it controlled really well, the presentation was top notch, it allowed for a ton of exploration, and was fantastic start to finish. All of these things lead it to being in my number 9 slot. Also the fact that I've beat it nearly 10 times because I like it so much.

So, as before, I want to end this entry with a video of the game. But, I thought it would be fun if we end with a video from Digital Foundry. An editor over at that site has been taking deep dives into the technical aspects of old games and did a feature on Metroid Prime. It's a cool video and goes into greater detail about the technical prowess of this game.

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My Favorite Games! 10: Dune

After making my 2016 GOTY List I re-acquired a taste for writing about games. That's one of my favorite things about games; discussing them. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of people around me to discuss games with. But, thank God Giant Bomb exists so I can share this stuff here. I thought it would be fun for me to write about my favorite games. By favorite, I mean the games I have the most fondness for. That doesn't necessarily mean the best games. It can, but not always. Case and point, my favorite game console is the Sega-CD. But, by no measure whatsoever is the Sega-CD the best console ever made. It's not even close, honestly. But most of my fondest video game memories are linked to that system, so I adore the thing as busted as it kind of was.

The other thing I think you all should know before I launch into my list is my history with games. I'm 30 as of this writing which would mean that presumably my first console should have been an 8-bit system. Well, we had an 8-bit system (a Sega Master System) but my first experience with games was with my Dad's old Colecovision.

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My Mom had bought my Dad an Odyssey before my older brother and I were born and he had been a fan of video games ever since. By the time I came around (or, well, became aware enough of my own existence and environment to experience video games) the Colecovision was the old console, having moved into my parents' bedroom and hooked up to their old, wood-grained, late-70's TV, and the Master System was, from time to time, hooked up to our main TV in the family room. So as a kid, the console that was readily accessible to me was the Colecovision and I played it all the time. I messed around a bit with the Master System but didn't really play any of those games in-depth until I got an attachment for my Sega Gamegear (no Gamegear games will be added to this list, by the way).

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The next console I had a ton of experience with was the Sega Genesis, then the Sega-CD, then the 32X (no 32X game will make the list either), then the N64, Gamecube, Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3, and now the PS4. I had messed around a bit with handhelds, but I was mostly a home console person. Same with arcades. I went to a few arcades from time to time, but the experience of being in the arcade was more meaningful to me than actually playing the games (though playing After Burner with the actual, moving arcade cabinet was an amazing experience). I was also late to PCs and all of my PCs, up to present day, have been under-powered. So my experience with PCs have been limited as well.

Alright, all the preamble out of the way. Lets get to the list!

10: Dune (Sega-CD)

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The perfect example of 'favorite' versus 'best'. Dune is a weird game. It was originally released on the PC in 1992 and was eventually ported to the Sega-CD and Amiga in 1993. It was loosely based on David Lynch's Dune movie, released in 1984. And by loosely I mean the only thing they have in common is that the game as the likeness of Kyle MacLachlan and they are both in the same universe with similar art designs.

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The game itself is a hybrid of sorts. It's a story based first-person adventure game mixed with a resource management strategy game. I'll try to be as brief with the breakdown of this game as I can be. The player character is Paul Atreides (Kyle MacLachlan) who is charged with convincing the Fremen, the natives of the planet Dune, to work with them to harvest spice, a resource only found on Dune that is the be all end all thingamajig that is the solution to every possible thing in the Dune universe. As I'm sure most of you know, he's actually 'the one' that has been prophesied to free the Fremen from oppression and essentially slavery to the Galactic Empire that desires spice so f'ing much. So Paul joins forces with the Fremen to fight the Empire and their lackeys, House Harkonnen (who just so happen to be the sworn enemies of House Atreides). The story isn't necessarily the strong point of the game or the movie, honestly. Though, the game is very well written considering the nature of the story and especially considering the era and console it was released on.

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The main gameplay comes from the resource management. Essentially, the player needs to manage the Fremen troops as they mine for spice, fight the Harkonnen, and foster plant life through horticulture. The game has an in-game day, night cycle and that concept plays a key role in the flow of the game. For example, House Atreides is on Dune through a contract with the Emperor who demands shipments of spice on a nearly weekly basis. So the player needs to make sure that the Fremen are mining enough spice to meet that quota. To allow for faster spice mining, you'll need to provide them with harvesters (machines that mine spice at a faster rate) which can be bought, but only with spice. Harvesters draw the attention of sandworms, which can destroy the harvesters, kill your troops, and halt spice mining production. So you'll need to buy ornithopters, which are essentially helicopters, with, you guessed it, spice. Spice is also a limited resource and so the player will need to move troops from location to location as the spice well, so to speak, dries up from area to area. New areas need to be prospected before they are mined, which takes time. Moving troops around takes time. The military will need new weapons, which can be bought with, say it together now, spice. The military is effected by their moral, which is impacted by how often you contact them to see how they are doing, how well they perform, and how much plant life is being grown. Plant life production causes all the spice in a location to be destroyed, however. And if you fail to meet the quota of the Emperor to many times in a row, you lose the game. If you take to long to take out House Harkonnen you'll end up running out of spice to send to the Emperor, and you'll lose. If you attack Harkonnen's too quickly they'll beat all your military troops and take them as slaves effectively taking away your ability to beat the game.

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Sounds kind of complicated, huh?

I played this game originally when I was around 8-9 years old. It was the first game I had played that had had so many systems in place, was so complicated, and did so little to guide the player along. You were left on your own after they tutorial-ized the various systems. It was a struggle for me, but also a ton of fun figuring it all out. Over the course of about a year I had wrapped my head around all the systems and finally beat the game and I felt awesome. Really awesome. Like how I feel now when I beat hard sections in Souls games. I had earned that ending. That was what made the experience so memorable for me. Now, I can go back and blast through the game but that first experience was something else. I think it was a mix of the nature of the game being such a different experience for a home console game (or at least the home console games I had experienced) and the age at which I had played it. I was used to pretty linear, straightforward experiences. Platformers and action games. Games where you , more or less, ran to the right and hit the right button at the right time. Great games, mind you, but this experience for me was so different. This was an intellectual experience. For a 8-9 year old kid, that type of experience can be really meaningful. Match that with a great presentation and this was one of the most memorable gaming experiences I have ever had.

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