Middle Earth: Shadow of War

The Lord of the Rings, a series easy to forget is named after its villain, holds up mercy as an essential virtue. The hobbits, first as Bilbo and later as Frodo and Sam, choose mercy when opting not to kill Gollum. This leads to the destruction of the ring. It’s clear from the get-go that you cannot defeat Sauron with Sauron’s methods. Boromir is not our hero, but our tragic lesson.

This brings us to Shadow of War, the second part of a series all about trying to defeat Sauron using Sauron’s methods. Armies of orcs. Brutal means. Forging your own rings of power. It can be delightful to take a beloved property and stamp your muddy narrative boots all over its pristine sheets. This game does not care one whit for mercy. There’s an air of futility about it all — we’ve known from the start that Talion and Celebrimbor do not succeed in killing Sauron. Yet the game asks us to partake in the killing and gleefully we accept, as you’re supposed to in video games, the majority of which involve mass slaying. Shortly before killing an orc captain, the game paused so he could tell Talion/Me “I’ve killed one hundred and sixty seven orcs and men. How many have you killed? You can’t remember, can you?”

Can you? It put me in mind of getting a “kill 1000 bandits” achievement in Dragon Age.

I don’t want to oversell the narrative here. It’s not all that great, and most of what’s good about it is generously assisted by my own imagination. It has some majorly weak parts, not least of all portraying Shelob the Spider as beautiful woman, and all of the supporting cast that are not blessed with being an orc are dour and forgettable. Still, there’s something about tie-in fiction that’s not aping the original — a futile endeavor at the best of times — that is compelling regardless of quality.

But enough about all that, let’s talk about the real reason to be playing this game: The orcs. Shadow of War has even greater volume of randomly generated orcs than the original. Oscillating from hilarious to frightening to just plain bizarre, you will be monologued, insulted, betrayed, taunted, philisophized at and more by the orcs of Mordor. Then you recruit them to your case. It’s a killer’s game of pokemon. If by catching pokemon, you seared their very soul with your hand-brand rather than capturing them in a ball. And If you somehow had any illusions that what you’re doing is just, the game has a quest line that concludes with Talion acquiring an upgrade to his branding skill termed “Worse than Death”.

The characterization of each orc is the charm that sells the whole game. Little snippets of dialogue well voice-acted, some clever writing, and the dynamism that makes every player encounter a different crew of orcs and events, come together to create something truly unique in gaming. On one occasion, I was stealthily shooting orcs from atop a parapet, only to have Talion thrown on his ass by an orc, who had stealthily snuck up on me. Said orc then chased me across the rooftops, hissing only TASTY, SO TASTY, over an over. At a different point, early in the game when I could still die, a random mook killed me and achieved the title “Tark-Slayer” (Tark being a made up word orcs have started calling humans). Later on, when I hunted down and killed him, he fell to his knees and said “I guess that makes you the tark-slayer… slayer”. Talion promptly chopped off his arms and legs, which led to the appearance of a new orc titled “The Dismemberer”, who claimed I showed promise and he’d be willing to show me a thing or two about dismemberment. I ran for my miserable life.

It’s a strange brew of brutality and humor. Wisest among the creatures of Middle-Earth, orcs learned that life (in video games) is cheap.

The first game was much too easy. For the nemesis system to truly shine, you need a nemesis. It’s hard for this to happen when you’re cutting swathes through entire orc strongholds without breaking a sweat. Shadow of War attempts to correct this by adding harder difficulty modes. Nemesis difficulty is certainly better than the original, but if you’re going to use all the tools you have available like I do — converting orcs into spies set to betray enemy warchiefs, using the terrain to your advantage, recruiting a good ‘ole tough bodyguard  — it’s still pretty easy. This is largely a weakness of the “Batman-style” combat system, which limits combat to a few button presses. It’s stylish but shallow. For the second game in a row, I feel like I’m missing out on a lot of what the game has to offer simply by trying to play well.

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Persona 5

Post election day 2016, San Francisco assumed a state of mourning. People seemed lost, heads lowered. Collective defeat was palpable, almost physical. Like a noxious, marshmallowy fog you could part with your hands. Outrage would be a ways coming. For adults, anyway.

First signs of resistance came the following morning: hundreds of angry high school students marched down Market St, wielding the now familiar mantra: NOT MY PRESIDENT. As I listened to the loudest words from those who couldn’t even vote I thought of all the bullshit young people are peddled about respecting their elders, about adult responsibility. I thought of how it might feel to watch this proved wrong over and over. Then in the most drastic fashion and final verification of this: Trump.

Persona 5 wants to engage with our broken society, which has reached this sordid state, as your best-bud Ruyiji oft repeats, “because of those shitty adults”. School systems with corrupt administrations that care little for their students. A broken political system. A reactionary public eager to be abused. I don’t know much of Japan’s political and social situation, but it’s easy to guess they’re facing many of the same issues most of the rest of the world is in recent years.

You, a high school student on probation for “assault” after shoving a man trying to force a woman into his car, are transferred to Tokyo under the supervision of a family friend. Various supernatural events occur, as these things do, and soon you’re the leader of The Phantom Thieves, righteously toppling corrupt leaders in society while living your normal high school life and assisting others to embrace the “wings of rebellion” and break “the yoke of thy heart”. In other words, hanging out with outsiders and helping them overcome their personal demons. From a doctor ostracized for innovative practices to a young woman winning in a male-dominated sport, they’re people shunned for being different.

So far, so good. Persona 5 even avoids the fallacy of many sci-fi/fantasy stories of laying blame on one big, bad villain. It knows there’s bad people in positions of power, but it also knows they only reached that position due to the complicity of the public. Corrupt politicians don’t simply materialize from the ether. Sure, it fails to reach an answer and lays the blame of society’s ills on the malevolent influence of an evil god that had sabotaged the better nature of humanity from the start, but I appreciate it choosing complete nonsense over an easy answer.

The strong and relatable moral impetus behind the plot only makes the places where it fails so acute. Indeed, the premise of “rebellion” is poisoned from the start. For starters, the social aspect of the game allows the protagonist to date every single woman in the game, including several adults, but refuses to allow even the idea that the main character might be gay. Instead, it treats us to stereotypes. Upon entering Tokyo’s red light district for the first time, there is a gag where the protagonist and his buddy are immediately preyed upon by flamboyant men on the hunt for pretty young boys. It’s terrible. 

Worse is how the game consistently treats one of your party members, Ann. She’s introduced by the conflict with the game’s first major antagonist, Kamoshida, the school gym teacher. Kamoshida is physically abusing the boys on his sports teams as well as sexually abusing the girls. Ann’s friend is a victim of the latter, in part due to her (Ann’s) refusal to give in to Kamoshida’s advances. This leads to Ann’s persona awakening. It’s heavy stuff. I wouldn’t say it’s handled perfectly but it works and Kamoshida is the game’s most hateable villain by a long shot.

Immediately following the defeat of Kamoshida, the gang takes on a corrupt celebrity painter. Their cringeworthy plan involves using Ann as bait with the painter’s apprentice, who is obsessed with painting her nude. It’s played for laughs and said apprentice eventually joins your party. It’s creepy as hell and majorly dissonant following the sequence we just played through. From sexual abuse to an endless laugh-track of teenage girl as nude bait.  Will she do it??? Will the team infiltrate the palace before she’s fully undressed??

Ann will continue to be objectified throughout the game, especially in the anime cut-scenes which seem to exist at least in part so the male cast can ogle her. Occasionally the other female characters too, one of whom apparently exists simply to say “I’m sorry” every other sentence.

In the end, it’s not about rebellion, it’s about maintaining the status quo, treating recent political and social decay as a cancer to be excised so we can return to the norm.

Prey (2017)

What’s immediately striking about Prey has little to do with the actual game. It’s a complete marketing disaster. It has the same name as a forgettable game from the late oughts that never got a true sequel, except it’s actually a spiritual sequel to the shock style of games (System Shock/Bioshock). My first encounter with it was a commercial during the NBA playoffs, my reaction something along the lines of “huh, OK”. I forgot about it until I chanced upon mention of it in a forum thread months later.

Which is too bad. It’s a decent game. Though far from perfect and ultimately dissatisfying.

After a delightfully creepy intro, you, Morgan Yu, wake up aboard Talos I, a spacestation floating between the Earth and moon that was slowly assembled in an alternate history wherein JFK was never assassinated and the US/Soviets reached some kind of peace & cooperation w/r/t space exploration. It’s now 2035 and technology has gone down different paths than our own timestream. The hip new tech in Prey is the “neuromod”, which allows you to inject other people’s skills (whether being a great athlete or musician or whatever) into your own brain to gain that knowledge and affinity. This is what is used to augment your character as well, though the gameplay mechanics here don’t live up to the premise (largely limited to: take a few neuromods for your basic +10 to shooting or movespeed).

I’m not certain if this gametype has a name. I’ve pejoratively termed it the “sneak around and read people’s mail” genre. What’s interesting about games from Bioshock to Prey is they build this utterly compelling, immersive environment — Talos 1 is absolutely believable as a real place — and then construct a bafflingly implausible and gamey method of delivering the narrative. Whether this be Bioshock’s audio diaries scattered everywhichwhere, various actors proclaiming every private aspect of their lives, or Prey’s workstations with their conveniently left behind passwords, identical interfaces and 3-email inboxes. Indeed, 3 emails that happen to reveal tantalizing morsels of plot. These titles take far more pride in their narrative than most video games yet remain shackled to “shoot things and read/listen to static things.”

Anyway, the environments are so good, that it still kind of works. For a while. Sneaking around Talos I, using my paltry skills to dodge or eliminate the aliens skulking around, piecing together stories of just what went wrong, was engaging. When my enthusiasm started to flag, the game smartly introduced some survivors for me to worry about. But the fact of the matter is that you can only sustain a game so long on dubious combat and reading emails. Prey does itself no favors by having sparse plot, stretched entirely too thin. You could break the whole narrative down to a few story beats, with too many distractions in between.

You encounter intriguing plot device —
Oh no, you can’t reach the intriguing plot device because the power is out —
You turn the power back on —
You’re treated with a tiny morsel of plot, but oh no, the macguffin you need to see the next part is broken
You go fix it —
But now you’re locked out of the station
Etc etc etc.

I must have played through about 80% of the game in a week and spent the next two+ limping to the conclusion. Not limping — holding down sprint and running by all the new enemies just to reach the story’s end. It’s a very uneven experience.

 

Firewatch

firewatch

You’re Henry.

A burly, bearded man from Boulder, fond of skiing and beer and a blend of all the attributes of your affable Colorado bro. In your late 30s and happily married, until life takes a serious nose-dive for the worse when your wife, Julia, develops early onset dementia. A couple years of this misery and, unable to cope, you fuck off to the wilderness to become a scout.

In recent years, we’ve been inundated by ’interactive novels’, wherein we guide characters down a narrative path and most of our ‘playing’ is comprised of:

1) walking from point A to point B and

2) making key dialogue choices that will change the story going forward, or at least give the illusion the story is being changed.

It’s the Choose Your Own Adventure paperbooks of yore, spruced up for the digital age. Telltale Games have been particularly prolific here, turning TV shows and comics from The Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Fables to Batman into interactive novels. A sort of sub-genre labeled ‘walking simulators’ is also occasionally referenced here.  A beautiful environment is built, but all you can really do is walk around and ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ and not engage in your typical gaming actions — shooting, jumping, etc.

Firewatch is a walking simulator in its most pejorative sense, and interactive novel at its most limited and milquetoast, skewing very far towards the ‘novel’ or ‘short film’ path and very little on the side of game.

Shoshone National Forest is quite pretty, especially when burnished by the setting sun. You’d like to walk around there. Camp. But it’s difficult to acknowledge as an actual place. You’re largely walking down very defined paths with little room for deviation. There’s not much you can do unless the game has a very specific purpose in mind for you (find a backpack, see a raccoon). Your freedom is basically quashed. Exploration is pointless because there’s nothing to find. I’ve played plenty of games that are engaging while requiring you to do mundane tasks — farming virtual crops, climbing buildings to collect flags. But the tasks you’re set to in Firewatch feel pointless and rote, more like busywork to get you to the next dialogue segment instead of goals unto themselves.

Moreover, it’s hard to feel like you really are Henry, a person taking up physical space. The point of view is first person and all you ever see is his stubby legs when he’s climbing up and down things, in a perspective that holds little in common with how your legs actually look when you observe them. Instead, you’re more like a floating camera observing the story. 

In fact, that sort of spatial disconnect can link us to the real failing of Firewatch: for such a deeply personal story, I never felt like I could really own Henry. The game is spent communicating via radio with Henry’s  sarcastic boss, Delilah, a woman with a sordid past of her own. The whole draw of the game is Henry and Deliah’s relationship, and supposedly the impact the player can have on it. The dialogue is fairly snappy and engaging, but my agency within it was slight. Many times I was not given a choice in how to respond. I had to select a single line reporting something I had seen or a pre-decided sentence to respond to Deliliah. Even when I had choices, it never felt like they mattered. The choice was typically one of tone, not of content (angry / sarcastic / timid). What made things supremely annoying was that if you don’t respond quick enough, Delilah thinks you’re being purposely silent and responds as such. This response window is shockingly short. You have to read 3-4 different sentences and decide how you want to respond. Even as a real-life gap in conversation it was too short. Baffling.

What I’m getting at here is: Why did this need to be a game at all? It’s appeal is a human relationship and its composite back-and-forth dialogue. You barely have an effect on it. Were it a short film, we’d have some features enhanced: We could see the emotions on Henry’s face, and if he were a good actor, it would improve the narrative. Other negative features  would be removed: Actor Henry would not get stuck on a short hill he should be able to cross but can’t for whatever gameplay reasons. I mean, it’s not like some sort of cardinal sin to make a video game that would have been better as a movie, but it feels pretty wasteful to not actually use the elements of video games that film does not have to improve the experience.

My last complaint is going to be about the conclusion of the narrative itself, which wouldn’t really matter whether it was game or film or book or whatever. Some very general spoilers follow. When you have a plot based on ‘weird shit happening’, there’s a few different effective reveals we typically see.

  1. Character suspects something weird is happening. Turns out some really weird shit is happening. Aliens recently landed in his backyard and replaced his family with drones. It doesn’t have to be supernatural, but it often is. 
  2. Something bad happens to a character and it’s a completely plausible (albeit troubling) mystery. A child goes missing, but it’s never suggested to be anything more than the real-life, day-to-day misery of a child going missing.
  3. Basically a combination of 2 followed by 1. Audience is lead to believe it’s a “real-life” tragedy and then finds out it is something more. Character A spends 75% of the movie looking for a lost child and then stumbles upon the gateway to hell.

Those are all fine, workable plots. It’s #4 that I have a problem with.

4. The reverse of 3. Something really damn weird is happening, same start as #1. The plot wants us to believe in the supernatural. But, oops, turns out it was really just banal human ignorance and cruelty all along. Gotcha! You might call this the ‘Scooby Doo’ plot. It wasn’t a ghost, it was your dad wearing a sheet. You have to be a clever creator indeed to pull this off without leaving the viewer dissatisfied.

Needless to say, Firewatch hit me with #4. Worse, the ending is completely set in stone. Your choices, insofar as they exist, cannot affect the outcome. That’s anathema to the whole notion of choose your own adventure and yet another reason the game failed for me.

Dark Souls III

dark souls 3

Once more unto the breach. For the third time in five years, the first flame is dying; nearly dead. When it dies, an age of Dark will commence and light will become no more. Granted, the world is a twisted, corpse-littered mess and it’s a dubious notion that it’s worth saving in the first place, but here you are, another mute undead warrior stumbling on to the scene to make things right (or worse).

The Dark Souls series, including the main trilogy and its predecessor Demon’s Souls and spinoff Bloodborne are some of my favorite games, ever. The uncompromising vision, the gorgeous rendering of hellish medieval ruin, the drive to try something new. In an industry that was moving more and more towards accessibility as the ultimate goal, Dark Souls popularized a philosophy already apparent and contentious in literature: Demanding effort and attention from the reader/player can lead to a finer, more rewarding experience. Dismissing the axiom that entertainment need be ‘easy’ is Dark Souls gift to posterity.

The bedrock of Dark Souls is that by thrusting the player into a dangerous world that does not hold their hand or explain much at all, both the oppressive atmosphere of the gameworld is heightened and the high the player feels after finally overcoming a difficult challenge is far more satisfying than it would be otherwise. And this practice is proven true, again and again. I can say this from experience, when after narrowly taking down The Nameless King, one of the harder bosses, I was in a shaky but exultant state indeed.

What this does for the narrative is key too: I rescued a smooth talking but frankly creepy fellow and brought him back to my home pad. He then offered to ‘unlock my true power’ and give me a free level up. In other games, I would just blindly accept the reward. But this is Dark Souls, which has taught me to be suspicious of anything free, especially from the mouths of shady individuals. This is the series that, in past games, allowed me to bring back friendlies to my base who later murdered everyone else there. The narrative and its choices are enhanced by the gameplay. The risk.

(I took the offer anyway; naturally, nothing comes without a price)

We’re five games deep now. Elements of the series have filtered down into other games — from cosmetics like bonfires being used as checkpoints to feature adoption like being able to leave templated messages to other players to a general philosophy that fine tuned difficulty is an admirable design philosophy. Can Dark Souls maintain its innovation? It doesn’t try. Rather than re-invent the wheel, DS3 is satisfied with simply doing what it already does very well. Something none of its imitators have ever really approached. The tightness of the core systems, the haunting strangeness of its world. It basically gives a clinic on level design with the wonderful Undead Settlement, a crumbling shantytown that constantly intertwines and twists back on itself, while maintaining the fiction of being a real place where people once lived.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing the game, if not as quite so much as Bloodborne*, there were times like I felt like I was going through the motions. There’s only so many times you can roll-dodge the wide swing of an animate suit of armor’s greatsword, or throw the same fireball or get stabbed to death by another cackling skeleton. DS3 seems to acknowledge that its players could have played up to four separate but similar games by this point, so everything seems to move much faster and hit much harder. We’re still pros by this point, though. It would be laughable to say the game wasn’t difficult, but it’s a controlled, familiar difficult that doesn’t challenge me for long anymore. We’ve seen the decaying land of Lothric/Drangleic/Lordran many times by this point, and while it’s still haunting and enchanting, it’s no longer fresh. The game acknowledges this by doubling back to previous titles — locations and familiar faces abound. 

This is the finale. The victory lap. Visionary Director Hidetaka Miyazaki has called this his final Dark Souls game. Another impressive feat is to quit when the time is right and not when the money runs out. I cannot wait to see where he will take us next. 


*I’m not going to say much about Bloodbourne because I already wrote plenty on it here; but I will say it remains the pinnacle of the series for me. The highly focused trick weapons and speedy gameplay ultimately trumped the greater armament diversity of Dark Souls and I loved the focused Victorian/Lovecraftian story. That said, there’s still expansion packs lurking out there in the future for DS3

 

Nostalgia and Ducktales

Nostalgia is a funny thing. It used to connote a pleasant kind of yearning for the past. Maybe a little bittersweet but an ultimately positive feeling. But lately we’ve become skeptical of it. Some call it a barrier to innovation. Corporations cashing in on thirty-somethings who have families now and maybe some wealth. Just throw something in front of them that they remember fondly from their childhood and they’ll munch it right up. Blame endless sequels or our infinite obsession with superheroes on this. Watch your peers rapidly become how you remember your parents, crotchetly declaring that things used to be better.

I attributed these feelings to an nameless, amorphous critic here, but I share them in part. I don’t mind a good remake or rehash, but I want to see new things more. I’ve vowed I won’t end up one of those old guys afraid of new things and unable to adapt to new technology or music or yes, video games.

Which brings us to Ducktales Remastered, a remake of a 1989 NES game. Let’s be real here: Ducktales is not relevant anymore. It does not interest modern kids, all of whom are much too young to remember the heyday of early 90s Disney cartoons and video games. Ducktales is a kids game aimed at adults, even going so far as to use the cartoon’s original voice actors, which is kind of an outstanding feat. Scrooge and co. all sound much older and gravellier, but still nail their signature voices. It’s worthy to note that ‘kid’s game’ also meant something entirely different, gameplay-wise, in the NES days. While Remastered added an easy mode with infinite lives/checkpoints, it’s still dramatically more difficult than most currently produced, age-accessible games.

ducktales

Before we circle back to nostalgia, let’s ask: does a 1989 game hold up in 2016?

Sort of.

The innovation of Ducktales, a platformer like many others following the Super Mario or Megaman greats, was that Scrooge McDuck can use his cane as a pogo stick. Indeed, that’s how you navigate the world. Always be pogo’ing. It’s a cool mechanic. Remastered also obviously updated the graphics. The characters and enemies are sharply done, and look like they hopped right out of the cartoon, though the backgrounds and items are quite muddy and unremarkable. The thing is: other than Scrooge’s unique method of movement, the levels are very simple and forgettable. Enemies don’t do much. The bosses have simple patterns and take too many hits to kill. Add it all up and it’s a fun diversion but not timeless like say, Super Mario Bros 3 or Mega Man 2. Nor does it to compare well to modern re-envisioning like Shovel Knight. It’s appeal is steeped in nostalgia.

The etymology of nostalgia is the Greek nostos, meaning ‘homecoming’, and algos, meaning ‘pain, grief, distress’. When originally used in the 19th century, it was something very dire indeed. Associated with a fictional (& fatal) Swiss disease or the terrible homesickness felt by African slaves. The modern interpretation is far more tame than its origins.

Ducktales made me feel some of the most acute nostalgia of my adult life. I played it at 4-6 years old; naturally amidst some major developmental times. There was a point, here in 2016, where I selected the Moon level and the music played and it was so distantly familiar,I felt a piercing jolt to my upper spine and literally got the chills, so deeply did it connect me to myself, twenty five years removed. Not the nostalgia of watching the next dumb superhero movie or listening to the same old radio station you listened to in your teens, playing the same old music. But the intense, greek version. It wasn’t like I was a slave yearning for a home I was ripped from. Nor do I want to be five years old again by any means. It wasn’t painful. Yet. The combination of intense connection or loss to/of a time gone by combined with that homey feel cannot but remind you of your own mortality. To connect with the past and see yourself now is also to know some day you won’t be experiencing anything at all.

Salt and Sanctuary

salt3

While hired on as a guard to transport a princess across the sea and broker peace-via-marriage between two endlessly warring kingdoms, your ship is hijacked by bandits and tentacled sea monsters (alas) and you’re hurled into the sea. Naturally, you wash up on a mysterious island, unstuck in time, littered with all manner of beasts and creeping haunts and apocrypha.

Salt and Sanctuary is a game that is actively trying to be a 2D version of Dark Souls.

To say that it was merely inspired by Dark Souls or that it is a homage does not do justice to what is actually going on here. It’s a gloomy, abstract game-world that is difficult and requires patience and trial and error to traverse. You pick from an analogue of Dark Souls type classes, right down to the ill-equipped deprived. You collect salt/souls to level up and lose them at death and have one chance to return and reclaim them. At it’s most egregious, and the only point where I found it just too much, you journey to the bottom of the world and see many other world trees in the distance, a nearly 1:1 pasting of one of Dark Souls most iconic areas.

It’s effective. More love-letter than cash-in. And of course, morphing a 3d game into two dimensions changes the gameplay completely. Platforming plays a much bigger role; being knocked off platforms was easily my highest cause of death. A jump button is huge — I could play a slow-rolling, fat armored knight type character because being able to jump (and later dash) solved nearly any mobility woe. As a result, along with some easily exploitable systems and easy bosses, it’s much easier than Dark Souls. It does maintain the heavy feel of combat, and basic enemies can still kill you quickly if you’re not quick and alert.

The places where it deviates from the formula are hit-and-miss. For example, the sanctuary system replaces the bonfire checkpoints; A sanctuary is a sacred area dedicated to one of the various creeds of the island. You pick your character’s religion (or absence of one) at the start and find several others along the way. This allows you to locate defunct sanctuaries and spruce them up and populate them with various merchants — blacksmith, cleric, guide, etc — to make the place more homey and give you access to various tools. When you find opposing creeds’ sanctuaries, you can still perform basic functions like saving your progress and leveling up, but little else. By crushing a ‘bloodstained page’, you can declare (holy) war on the heretic sanctuary and fight its adherents; if you win, the sanctuary now belongs to your creed. It’s cool and a more atmospheric and robust system than a mere checkpoint, but it would have been nice to take it a little further. There’s not much point to converting other creeds and the faction system just requires tedious farming of enemies to level up.

Likewise, the art, sound and animation is usually pretty good, with caveats. I like good 2d art and S&S is mostly there. The environments are beautiful in a cloudy washed-out way, the art merges with the sparse storyline perfectly and it captures the visual excitement an RPG should have at equipping your character with a new piece of gear. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too murky and it can be hard to discern enemies and their attacks. And what is up with those faces?

The game’s biggest failing is they clearly ran out of time by the end of the game. Environments go from complex, many-leveled labyrinths with several exits and entrances and shortcuts to boss corridors without much else in them. Possibly worse is that the number-tuning of the game gets thrown out the window. The last bosses all collapse in a few hits, leading to a bizarre situation where the last boss is much easier than the first one (or second or third or etc). It would benefit greatly from a rebalancing patch, and it does leave a poor impression indeed when you feel like you’re playing a legitimately great game that turns into a merely average one for the final twenty percent.

That said, it was the kind of impressive, joyful discovery that instantly made me a fan of the indie studio, Ska Studios, who created it. 

 

Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal

realityisbrokenWherein a Berkeley Phd and game design thinker explains to us how applying gamification to every aspect of life will make us happier.

The first half of Reality is Broken is fascinating. McGonigal examines the question of why we play games — from Chess to Baseball to Halo — in the first place. A huge number of people born after some time in the late the eighties/early nineties will have spent at least 10,000 hours playing video games, which is the number Malcolm Gladwell popularized as a requirement for mastery. And of course, playing a game is simply a deliberate attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles.

Why does something completely unnecessary and seemingly pointless garner such dedication and time investment?

According to McGonigal, it’s because humans are wired to enjoy good, hard work with clear results and obvious feedback. Especially when voluntary. And society is increasingly removed from this in day-to-day work, which gets more and more abstract as so many of our roles involve being an unspecific gear in a much larger corporation. All those middle roles in tech and finance giants make it difficult to say what sort of direct impact you might be making. By contrast, all the elements of a good game — the rules, the stakes, the rewards, the social ties — are implicitly clear and obvious. Hitting those marks fires off chemical responses in the brain that make us feel good.

The author’s pitch is basically: if we can harness this motivation and power, think of all the amazing things we could do with it. Think of how happy we’d be doing them!

Which brings us to the second half of the book, where Jane McGonigal applies these gaming principles to real life causes, from getting people to visit cemeteries more to trying to solve climate change. Many of the games in this portion were created or worked on by the author herself, a fact ever present to the reader. 

The long and short of it is that I found it entirely unconvincing. For instance, the climate change ‘game’ involved bringing a whole bunch of people together to pretend it was 2019 and various resource shortages are occurring. The players pitched ideas about how to solve it by creating wiki articles, videos, recordings, etc. Scoring was based on participation and other players giving you +1 personality stats like intelligence or exuberance. The end result was a whole bunch of involved people creating some interesting ideas. Interesting ideas maybe someone could pitch to an investor like powering your phone from solar panels on your clothes. Innovation, investing, and start-up tech culture permeate this whole book. It has that Bay Area-feel through and through.

The participation level is great, especially when it makes people change wasteful activity in the present. But is this really even a game? In the sense that Halo and baseball are games? Is all it takes a bland framing device (welcome to 2019) and extremely basic feedback (+1 willpower) that doesn’t do anything other than give a social glow only some people will feel? I’m not convinced. At all. I tried one of the habit forming games she recommends (https://habitica.com/), which awards points to buy your avatar gear upon completing your to-dos. I forgot about it after a few days and feel no inclination to keep trying. By contrast, I’ve played ‘real’ games (and watched some real life sports) several hours in the past week.

Also, I’d be remiss in not pointing out one of the my favorite TV episode ever — Black Mirror’s second episode, “Fifteen Million Merits” — is an amazing dystopian future that emerges due to society becoming a giant game. Life is one long quest to amass experience points (merits) from various activities (metaphorized as riding a spin bike). There is some saturation point reached way before Jane McGonigal’s ideal reality-game world that makes gamification feel extremely cheap and somewhat oppressive.

I have one last major, but significant point of contention with the author. Surely games can be rewarding as good, hard work. Especially puzzle games. Or competitive multiplayer. But I know for me personally, games can trigger the same feelings as a good book or a good movie. What about narrative? Exploration? Simply beholding what human creativity is capable of? Joan Didion famously wrote that:

We tell ourselves stories in order to live.

Aren’t video games often stories too? Stories we can interact with.

Rise of the Tomb Raider

tombraider

So. Tomb Raider. Check out the baffling news that the Writer’s Guild Awards gave it an outstanding achievement in video game writing. Not only that, it beat out The Witcher!

Now I thoroughly enjoyed this game but narrative is nowhere near the reason why. Let’s recap the plot: Lara Croft, following the legacy of her father, stumbles across some clues that the secret to immortality is somehow hidden in a lost Byzantine city located in Siberia. Why is Lara seeking this? To, uh, better humanity or something. Naturally and predictably, like hundreds of action heroes before her, she comes to learn that maybe humans shouldn’t live forever. But, I’m getting ahead of myself here. Opposed to Lara is a group called ‘Trinity’, a bunch of militant malcontents who have been seeking this divine source for millennia. They’ve been foiled repeatedly by a prophet and his followers, the architects of the aforementioned hidden city. This is not the only similarity RotTR will have with Assassin’s Creed.

The story is fun like a Godzilla movie is fun. I don’t mean the early Godzilla movies that legitimately were trying to grapple with the unthinkable destruction of the atom bomb, but all the later ones that were primarily about a man in a dragon/t-rex suit kicking down buildings. Tomb Raider’s ultimate set piece is a three way fight between immortal Byzantine warriors, black ops soldiers, and a cadre of Russian elves with trebuchets in the middle of a city buried under a glacier.

Shit explodes. And you run and jump through it. Thrilling? Yes. Outstanding writing? No.

I’m trying to think of specific line-by-line examples and very little of it is memorable enough to stick. It’s just a lot of Lara urgently exclaiming she needs to do this or that right now now now. Or the villain delivering soliloquies of how he needs to find the divine source to ‘please God’, which is banal and creatively timid, because the the game doesn’t even try to engage with which God or where his conviction comes from. Lara’s character arc, the titular ‘Rise’, is delivered in terms of gameplay, not narrative. From shivering cold in the wilderness and killing enemies one at a time, to casually wiping out full-on military squads single-handedly, to becoming the predator, and finally ascending to goddess-hood and slinging blue flame like a wizard. This game has better writing than The Witcher?? 

The gameplay and especially atmosphere does not cohere to a believable plot either. Lara can swim under frozen icy water and hop out and shake the water out of her hair and she’s good to go. Despite taking place in Siberia, with supposedly multi-national villains, and including a group of natives who have been living in isolation in the wilderness for a thousand years, every single character speaks american english. Except for Lara, whose dialect is british.

Play this game for the gorgeous vistas, the tight gameplay, and the explosions. Not the outstanding writing.

Assassin’s Creed: Unity

unity

The thing about playing these games a year or more after they’ve come out is I know the critical and fan reception beforehand. Thus I knew this was the most maligned Creed game yet, and everyone seemed to hate it so much that, as a form of apology, Ubisoft gave away its only downloadable expansion for free.

Was it all that bad?

Well, the first thing I noticed was the ghastly decision to give the people of revolutionary France english accents. I found I could switch the language to french (with english subtitles) in the options menu and never looked back. Indeed, it was quite educational. I now understand the lyrics to that Talking Heads song:

Psycho killerrr
Qu’est-ce que c-est?
Qu’est-ce que c-est?

Anyway. Other than the language mishap, the game seemed pretty good. After two games on the high seas and the North American frontier, it was nice to be back in a real city again. Paris is beautiful and fun to run around and parkour in. There’s gameplay improvements that seemed to improve the run and climb gameplay of the series. At first.

Naturally, it didn’t last.

To start with, for some baffling reason, a game set during the iconic French Revolution barely engages with the revolution at all. You spend a few minutes hanging out with a young Napoleon and then at the end of the game, they throw you a bone and reveal Robespierre was a pawn of the villainous Templar. The Marquis De Sade is the historical figure you spend the most time with (OK, that’s kind of funny). Danton is shunted to some lame co-op side missions and everyone else may as well not exist, along with the major events they partook in. This is the same damn game that two installments ago had me holding the reins of Paul Revere’s horse, while he sat on its rump performing the Midnight Ride! Moreover, the game plays it even more safe and blandly, by refusing to even touch the political and moral murk of the revolution. The enemies are merely labeled ‘extremists’, and the templar’s goals are unbelievably vague (Do stuff! Kill the king! Now, kill Robespierre!).

The story is instead a linear revenge narrative, that aside from hitting one or two good beats, is predictable and largely boring. This game earned Ubisoft a lot of heat when they gave some lame explanation of why there’s no women assassins in multiplayer. I’ll raise you that complaint and take it to single player — the protagonist is Arno Dorian, this guy who bumbles around trying to avenge his lover’s Dad. Elise, the lover in question, drives most of the plot. Her arc — raised as a templar from birth and forced to ally with the assassins by necessity — is more interesting and relevant than Arno’s non-story/non-arc. It’s bizarre. To top it all off, by the end of the game, you’ve realized the plot is a sidestory to the greater AC storyline. It’s completely self contained and if you never played it, you wouldn’t miss a thing.

Worse, the combat and stealth is horrendous. I’m not sure I’ve seen its like in high budget games ever before. In the old games, you could just sit there holding the block button and counter every attack any enemy launched with ease as they attacked one by one. Granted, that’s not the best system. Unity kills it though. Now you attack enemies that constantly block until an attack gets through and you kill a guy and during the ‘you’re killing a guy, wow!’ animation, other enemies can attack you. It’s bullshit! If another guy is gonna stab me, I’m not gonna do this fancy spin-flip-kill moves like Arno is doing, I’m gonna stab him and turn around! The end result is that I just stocked up on smoke grenades and spent every fight in the game dropping a smoke grenade, kill 2-3 coughing enemies, drop a smoke grenade, kill 2-3 more.

And the stealth! Listen, there’s 2 ways to do stealth correctly.

  1. The enemies are stupid and go ‘wait, huh? Is someone there?’ when you’re executing their buddy 5 feet away (Old AC games worked like this, as did old Metal Gear Solid games)
  2. The enemies are much smarter and behave more like real people, but the player has the tools to handle this and the enemies are not too plentiful to make stealth impossible (Splinter Cell / New Metal Gear Solid games)

Unity fails on both fronts! Enemies appear en masse. Go to a dinner party and there’s as many guards as guests. And get anywhere near them and the whole building is alerted. Is it outside in a courtyard? Congrats, now you’re going to have a dozen snipers shooting you up for 75% of your health a pop.

By the way, the controls suck too.

To sum this all up: I had one assassination mission where I had to kill a dude sitting in a room with honestly like 20 guards surrounding him. I peppered the room with smoke grenades, ready to dash in and kill him and dash out before anyone noticed. Instead, the mere sound of the grenades triggered an alert and one guard knew where I was, so as Arno ran up to complete the assassination job, instead of killing the guy right in front of him, he leapt through the air backwards at the one alert guard. Totally ruining what would have been a fun, emergent gameplay opportunity.

But, whatever. What can I say? I still played through the whole game and got most of the collectibles. I still had fun. Is all I really need a virtual historic city to run around in to be satisfied, even when the gameplay is such shit? Maybe. At least for one game. I hear the next one is better and I hope so. I’d rather not see the series tank and fade away.