Into the Breach

This game is cool.

I started off and thought ho-hum, this is fine, but it’s just a grid-based tactics game. A simple one at that.

Then I found myself, playing, playing, playing; the possibilities and strategies of such a simple setup blossomed and captivated.

In the future, ocean levels have risen and humans live on small, corporate-owned islands. To make matters worse, giant alien monsters called vek have appeared and are stomping over any buildings or people in their way. Luckily, a trio of time traveling humans piloting mechs appears to save the day (or not).

You, the player, are managing these mechs. You can choose a pre-set squad of three or mix and match. It starts simple with a mech that can punch aliens, a mech that can shoot aliens, and a mech that can push aliens in the cardinal directions. Other unlockable mechs will freeze enemies, spin them around, teleport them, light them on fire, and so on. This is a very repetitive game so the main source of diversity is how different mech loadouts alter the strategies you employ.

Combat plays out on a grid. You must protect civilian buildings — if they take too many hits, the game is over. You have to start over, almost entirely from scratch, save a single surviving pilot you can choose to blast to the “next timeline” (your next run of the game). In addition to shooting vek, you have sub-tasks like protecting a power plant or destroying a dam. These either allow you to take more hits before game-over or award currency you can spend at the end of an island to upgrade your mechs.

The big innovation here is that every single detail of the vek’s attacks are telegraphed. You see where they are going to attack, exactly how much damage that attack would do, in which order each enemy will attack, where new enemies will spawn, and so on. The UI is very good at communicating this. So if you see a vek is taking aim at an important building, and you can’t quite kill it (numbers are tweaked so that killing all enemies every turn can’t be done), then you could use a pushing attack to move it over a square so it harmlessly shoots a mountain instead. Or teleport it into the ocean. Or move another vek that is attacking first behind it so that it is killed by its buddy before it can attack. Thus each turn is basically a puzzle where you maximize your moves to prevent the vek from doing serious damage.

It’s ultimately very simple. You complete 2-4 islands and play the same final mission every time. Yet the loop is engaging. Even when mastering the game to the point where my runs were successful nearly every time, new mech types or achievement challenges would change it up just enough to be worth another shot. On the cusp of unlocking the final squad of mechs, I can’t see myself playing all that much longer, but for $15, the experience was absolutely worth it.

Minit — A review in 60 words

Minit is fantastic. It conjures this elusive feeling of joyful exploration that so many games seek, typically with far larger budgets, but very few achieve.

You, a little duck-like(?) creature, find a cursed sword that will kill you and send you back home every sixty seconds. Only the knowledge you gained or the items you’ve found will allow you to 

[dies]  

OK. Minit.

Turns out that by combining a retro game (NES Legend of Zelda), adding a 60 second limitation, and utilizing a minimalist yet charming aesthetic creates something surprising and wonderful. The time limit is not a thoughtless restraint — it’s used to set up puzzles that leave you scratching your head how you’ll finish in time. It’s also used to

[dies]

Where was I?

Minit’s world is peopled with cute talking animals, throwing down clever one-liners. Or playing off the time limit — one of the first buddies you encounter is an old turtle slowly recounting how to find treasure, yet initially you’ll die before he completes his tale.

The sparse black&white style can also evoke a more sinister mood like

[dies]

The game knows when to quit. Rather than bloat the length, the first run will take maybe a couple hours. Afterwards, you unlock a far more difficult 40 second mode that really pushes your sword-man efficiency. Without much planning, I reached the point where I could beat the game in about 15 minutes especially with the final unlockable mode which

[dies]

Minit is fantastic. More importantly: it is surprising.

The original Legend of Zelda is the perfect entry point. We played it as kids and there’s something child-like in the joy Minit evokes. Something from a world where you didn’t already know what was going to happen next, in gaming, or film, or novels. Something wide-eyed and fresh, full of adventure.

Metal Gear Survive

This is the most intense game I’ve ever played.

If you were a fly on the wall, or a Russian spy eluding detection, intent on studying just how animated I am playing video games, typically you’d be disappointed. I don’t move or emote much. But for Metal Gear Survive? You’d find me hunched forward, alert and engaged, occasionally muttering or cursing. Then moments later, with a sharp cry,  throwing a fist up in victory or lurching backward in defeat. 

I was in it.

During the prologue of Metal Gear Solid V, Mother Base is attacked and Big Boss is knocked into a coma for ten years, leading to the plot of that game. In this game, it turns out that during that very same prologue, after Boss left, a wormhole opened. Yes, that’s right. A wormhole opened. A bunch of Boss’ former soldier-followers were sucked into the wormhole, where they arrived in another world, a barren wasteland called Dite (dee-TAY). Dite is home to hordes of zombies (wanderers) and much of it is covered with a miasmic cloud called Dust.

I knew of this premise before starting the game and it sounded spectacularly dumb. My first surprise: the story is presented well. The intro is intriguing, creepy. The ‘spooky other world reached through a veil’ premise reminded me of the novel and movie Annihilation and the living dust itself evoked Stephen King’s The Mist, especially at a point partway through when you realize there is something very, very big in there. The overall plot is surprising throughout, though the individual characters are weak.

Metal Gear Survive is built on the Fox Engine from Metal Gear Solid V, which I wrote about here. Similarly, it’s a game of narrative moments generated by the engine itself. During my first foray into the Dust, my character put an oxygen mask over her face and the game informed me that I would die if I ran out of oxygen. It also warned me not to lose my bearings and get lost because the map does not function in the Dust — you need to use landmarks visible in the murk to find your way.

So I set off on my mission to retrieve a lost data cache. Carefully, I took out wanderers with my primitive arsenal, in small groups of ones and twos. I found the building, retrieved the data. On my way out, I noticed another shack. Inside was a container full of loot. Locked. I tried to pick the lock, but since it was my first encounter with the mechanism, I failed, leading to the loud screech of metal on metal. Naturally, every creature nearby was alerted and now I had zombies shambling through the door, tumbling through the windows, moaning, reaching for me, crouched still next to to the container.

I sprinted out of the there, creeped around the building, wandered off into the dust, underestimated a few wanderers, almost died, panicked for a moment before I could reorient to my surroundings, returned to the shack.

The wanderers were still there, milling around the last place they saw me. The game preserved its continuity. Low on oxygen, as well as supplies of food and water, I gave up. I turned around and left the Dust.

OK, this may not seem remarkable. I went and fought some zombies and left.

Yet the organic nature of this situation exceeds what generally occurs in games. I am a completionist. I get all the treasure chests, kill all the dudes. This game forced me to accept my defeat, scavenge what I could, and survive. It makes the entire world / setting / gameplay more immersive, more believable. I’ve killed untold numbers of zombies in games, but it has never felt this authentic. Later on, I’d be frantically shooting wanderers with my makeshift bow while at my back, several more clamored at my makeshift fence, started to climb it, their combined weight bowing the fence until it buckled, tumbling the zombies face-first to the ground, where they proceeded to drag themselves across the ground by their fingernails.

This game was panned by the critics. Gaming journalism has a serious problem with a follow-the-leader type mentality where first impressions (or pre-impressions) are of utmost importance. Opinions tend to skew one way or another and not represent a spectrum. They complained the early game was too harsh, since food and water are quite scarce and you’re forced to listen to your character gag after drinking dirty water, while crossing your fingers she doesn’t get sick. The fact that this greatly heightens the danger and urgency of your first steps in a dangerous world goes unsaid and unappreciated. They complained about microtransactions that have no bearing on the game at all. They complained this game is “not Metal Gear”, whatever the hell that means.

Don’t get me wrong here — the game isn’t flawless. It’s using purely recycled environments and assets from its parent game and despite it’s stellar start, it never lives up to its full promise. But it is far more inventive and immersive than the over-hyped, big-budget crap that so often reviews well.

Celeste

You are climbing a mountain. You will fall many times. Hundreds of times. But the only way to reach the summit is to keep trying, to keep falling. The mountain is depression. Sometimes a simple & easy metaphor is the best kind. 

Celeste places you in control of Madelaine, a traveler, like many others, come to climb Mount Celeste without knowing exactly why. There’s narrative sprinkled throughout 8 chapters, but it’s minimal and best left unspoiled. The real key to the story is how well-entwined its themes are with the gameplay itself. It is both a story and a game about a mountain.

This is a difficult platformer in the vein of Super Meat Boy. As I mentioned, you will die a lot. A whole lot. While punishing, the game is encouraging. You can save at any time and progress is kept after you clear each “screen”, so the difficulty is broken down into bite-sized morsels where once you make the goal, you’re set. Though it is also the type of muscle-memory learning exercise where you can spend twenty minutes dying over and over to an obstacle and then suddenly can run it flawlessly in your sleep.

Consider a clip I took after bashing my head against this level for many deaths. Looking at it now it seems so passe, so quaint. A simpler time when manipulating moving platforms posed such a challenge.

While Madelaine only has a few abilities — jump, airdash, wall-cling and wall-jump — and doesn’t learn any new ones during the course of the climb, the levels themselves change and offer new opportunities to use those abilities. From jumping into bubbles to redirect Madelaine’s momentum and refresh her airdash to dashing into blocks to control their direction like the clip above.  Even after the main game ends and you begin the brutally difficult ‘B-side’ remixes of each level, you’re being taught new techniques you could have used all along.  It’s further synthesis of narrative and gameplay: spend more time on the mountain and you’ll continue to learn new things about yourself.

My thumbs hurt. I hurled myself into spikes and pits and toxic red goo until I got it.  My hands slowly calcified into misshapen claws as I wrestled with the Switch’s miserable D-pad. I grinded my teeth. There’s a few mechanics I didn’t like, but whatever, that’s part of the climb. I don’t scores games, but this is a 10. I didn’t just enjoy it, I became it. Between the death explosions of another fall, I felt the flow of perfect alignment between fingers and pixels, of satisfaction in surmounting yet another previously insurmountable obstacle.

I eventually reached a stopping point — chapter 7’s B-side — which introduces a mechanic I absolutely hate. I fear I won’t reach the true summit, somewhere beyond the rumored ultra-hard ‘C-sides’. Screw that! I let a couple days pass and my thumbs healed and I crushed the end of chapter 7’s B side. Here’s me dying and succeeding on the next chapter! Onward!

Stardew Valley

Ironic isn’t it? Farming, a notoriously backbreaking, labor-intensive, and uncertain activity translates so perfectly into relaxation, serenity, escapism.

The game begins with our protagonist slaving away in some kind of corporate IT dungeon before learning he has inherited a broken-down farm from a dying relative. The Head and the Heart might as well be singing as our cubicle-worker-turned-farmer instantly departs to take up their new life in the tiny agricultural region of Stardew Valley. Surely the soul-crushing consumerist monotony of city-life can so easily purified by a return to small-town living and trade. 

It’s idyllic and cliched and wildly oversimplified, but in many ways, that’s the point.

Stardew Valley consists of a repetitive gameplay loop: Clear terrain (chop trees, slash weeds, break up rocks), dig some holes, plant seeds, water them. Repeat every day as you watch your crops grow. Finally, harvest them and sell them for money, so that you can buy more seeds to hoe and plant and water and grow once more. There’s farm animals you can foster, a mine to explore, and of course a local village to visit and mingle at. Seasons will change, altering both the crops you can grow and the events and routines occurring in town. With only slight alterations, the core gameplay loop remains the same for however many hours you choose to put in to it. This all nakedly apes Harvest Moon, the Super Nintendo genre-starter.

In many other games, a simple repetitive activity would be a turn-off, or get boring long before Stardew Valley does. I posit there is an inherent human industrialness, a desire to work and see the fruits of that labor that taps into the psyche in a way narrative, puzzle, or action games may not. It is why the game chooses farming, one of man’s oldest and most widespread professions, specifically. There’s a sense of ownership endemic to growing your own food that cannot be accessed by most office work.

Sure, I have some issues with Stardew Valley. Some people find the townsfolk charming, but I find them bland, the game going so far out of its way to present rural tranquility that it feels a tad featureless. The happy-peaceful nature of the game also means my cows are for milk only, and while I can raise pigs, this is simply so they can dig up truffles. Winter is pretty boring — you cannot plant any crops and spend most of your time wandering around or fishing. Adding some winter-only tasks like say, shoveling snow or preserving food or something would be welcome. You can see I’m not listing structural flaws here; I’m looking for more chores to perform in my little farmworld.

Generally for game reviews, I spend a few seconds cruising Google images for a screenshot, but for this post, I took a screenshot of my farm in particular. It’s not even a good shot since I’m stuck in the winter doldrums and have no crops. But those are my dead apple trees and my bearded and ponytailed farmer. That’s my house and my deluxe chicken coup and my farm! I named it Citywoke Farm and it was only 80% in jest.

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.

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