Monthly Archives: October 2012

Spoiled Marketing: Assassin’s Creed III

This week has been another big one for video games. Not only did the Halloween sale start over on Steam but we are also unquestionably overflowing with new releases. It started off with another adventure for Professor Layton and carried on with a few high profile indie releases with dinosaur-laden Primal Carnage and alien-themed Natural Selection 2 while Might and Delight’s inaugural title Pid waits for its Halloween launch.

Today, however, is especially noteworthy. Today will see the beginning of the end of Desmond’s saga in Assassin’s Creed III (with a little Templar-ridden sojourn to New Orleans in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation) as well as what is essentially a sequel to Burnout Paradise in Need for Speed: Most Wanted, which you’ll recall is somehow the second title of this console generation with that exact same title and similar premise. Both titles also sport a single player and multiplayer component. The difference is that the consensus seems to be that for Most Wanted, the game really finds its bearings with other players while AC3 shines as a solo experience.

And that shouldn’t really be any sort of a surprise given each game’s heritage. Need for Speed games (and racing games in general) excel at head-to-head competition, not in highlighting the drama of taking down Razor Callahan. Assassin’s Creed games have always been propelled by the underlying need and urgency to solve the modern day dilemmas of Desmond and the remaining assassins and Templars. While both have solid components of the other’s camp, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say Most Wanted thrives on multiplayer and AC3 makes its money with its continued narrative.

Which is a problem when it comes to the marketing for AC3. Arthur Gies, reviews editor at the recently launched Polygon, has been adamant about how his review of the game will be completely, 100% spoiler-free and that it is absolutely vital that anyone interested in enjoying the game should avoid anything even remotely revealing about it. In fact, he went so far as to offer that if anyone wanted to read a review or watch a video or anything while ensuring purity for the retail release, he would check for them first that it was free of ruination.

His tweets have been quite damning, going so far as to say even the Amazon product description is a spoiler. And then when the launch trailer dropped, shit kind of hit the fan.

And he wasn’t alone. GamesRadar reviews editor Sterling McGarvey called the trailer “Spoilerville.”

But the problem wasn’t that it ruined portions of AC3‘s story but that it didn’t do it explicitly. It wasn’t that it wasn’t labeled as a spoiler trailer (though that was also a problem) but that it ruined things “you can’t know is a spoiler until you play it,” making it seem innocuous when really it’s a plague laid dormant.

Only once the moment is upon you will you realize that you’ve spoiled parts or even the entirety of the game for yourself. Just before each momentous act break will it dawn on you that you know what happens next, but not because it’s been spelled out for you that this happens and then this happens. It is more like you can see where the dominoes are lined up so you can see how they will fall from a mile away. It is worse than having everything spelled out for you. You have instead tied your own noose, a far worse fate than being strung up by the hangman.

There is a link floating around out there—some piece or pieces of the Internet—that says spoilers actually enhance your enjoyment of a story. The reason behind this twist is unknown, but common speculation lies somewhere in the “because it makes it easier” territory. Once you know how a story is supposed to unfold and where the twists and turns are, you can more easily appreciate the story on a deeper level, applying analysis that is usually reserved for a second or third read. The story opens up to become something new, something meta to the narrative itself.

But that’s just it: it’s about the story. In books and movies, that holds up. You can nitpick the meaning of each individual word in every sentence of a novel or poke and prod at new theories you’ve formed on the fly watching each scene, but that breaks down in a medium where each plot advancement is interrupted by minutes or hours of largely inconsequential gameplay.

When you have to spend upwards of two or three hours resolving a single intermediate plot point, jumping between rooftops and stabbing dudes in the neck, a tedium sets in. This has been proven true of the past four Assassin’s Creed titles and doesn’t appear to have changed for AC3. It’s a problem where a gameplay mechanic that can solidly support 15 hours of story goes on to cover more than 20, but it’s less a problem about rote refinement and more of one of ambition. Whether you believe the games reach far beyond their grasp, it’s hard to deny that the series—much like most other games—have a third-act problem. They usually drag and bog and much like the hero in his moment of doubt and pain, you will have to decide if it’s still worth continuing the journey.

And given that your sole impetus now relies on you discovering for yourself the ending that has been spoiled by a seemingly harmless launch trailer, that leaves you with whether your sheer willpower can overcome the tedium. You will have to decide if your human spirit can slog through just to see if it was worth it in retrospect on the other side. Will actually seeing the ending be better than speculating and reading the Wikipedia plot summation? Guaranteed, even though today is the official release date, someone will have uploaded the ending to YouTube by the end of the day. Is it within your resolve to finish the game even though you know where it’s headed?

Maybe. Maybe not. An inadvertent spoiler screenshot on a friend’s Steam page ruined a crucial turn in Episode 3 of Telltale’s The Walking Dead to the point where I put off playing it until Episode 4 came out. Just watching the trailer for Duncan Jones’ debut feature film Moon almost completely ruined the movie for me (luckily, repeated viewings have cemented it as a personal favorite). I’ve now sworn off most movie trailers and previews, though that’s not something I can entirely do as a member of the games press. I’m sure you’re the same way where you can’t miss a trailer or press release and still feel totally within the news cycle.

In the case of Assassin’s Creed III, though, I can tell you that the game—no matter what you’ve read or seen—is much, much bigger than you think, maybe than you could even imagine. Short of someone sitting you down and forcing you to watch someone play the ending, it may be impossible to completely ruin. Every major system or story beat you think you know goes so much further than your surface evaluation.

But that trailer might be just enough to make you think twice. So don’t do it.

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Season’s Gaming

Every holiday season, TV is inundated with classic programming. There are the unsettling stop motion shorts of Frosty the Snowman and Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. There’s Charlie Brown’s endless quest to pull every heartstring in America and Macy’s annual clogging of Manhattan and the frustrating of every resident therein. If you say there’s nothing to watch on TV during the Fall, then you probably don’t know what a TV is. I’m not saying it’s all good, but it does exist.

Even movies have classics. TBS now shows 24 hours of non-stop Ralphie pining for a Red Ryder BB Gun when it isn’t airing back-to-back showings of Will Ferrell saving Zooey Deschanel from being a blonde. Horror and sci-fi channels make their livings off of Halloween by broadcasting every A Nightmare on Elm Street, Ghostbusters, and Scream film out there. Even non-softies can watch Die Hard on Christmas.

Museums and art galleries find the most grotesque imagery possible for the night of ghoulish shenanigans. Radios churn through Trans-Siberian Orchestra like butter during Christmas. Basically what I’m saying is that every entertainment medium out there has ways of celebrating and showcasing themselves during the holidays.

Every medium except video games.

For Thanksgiving and Christmas, the reason is simple: there are none. Assassin’s Creed III may be the only colonial-era game worth noting and Christmas games are merely reskinned shells like Christmas Nights and Christmas Lemmings. I guess Max Payne is a bit like Die Hard in that way—only tangentially related—but even then, it’s not something even a handful of people out in the world would count as part of the holiday parlance.

Given that there is a horror genre in games, Halloween is more promising when in search of a Friday the 13th-equivalent—promising, but not fruitful. People may have personal rituals, but there’s nothing definitive to look towards each season of incessant festivities. You can decide to play through Resident Evil or Silent Hill while kids try to kick in your door for candy, but is that the gaming ambassador to the holiday? When people think about Halloween for gamers, do they think about the T-virus and Pyramid Head?

Maybe. But it’s nothing like how images of Freddy and Jason have become synonymous with the late-October Celtic/Christian/pagan menagerie. Even among the gaming literate there is disproportionate reverence between George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead and Capcom’s Dead Rising. What we get instead are seasonal releases that come and go through the zeitgeist like water over the falls. Last year we had Costume Quest and Undead Nightmare for Red Dead Redemption, both of which are excellent and went onto my list of favorite games of the year. Both were must-plays. Both are now mostly forgotten. So how do you expect the upcoming and sole Halloween gaming release Nightmare in North Point for Sleeping Dogs to fare?

So if it’s not a question of quality, then perhaps it is timeliness that is the issue. Maybe not enough time has passed for Classic status to be strewn about to the appropriate recipients. Maybe that’s why John Marston’s turn into the shambling occult isn’t the official Halloween video game.

But then how far back is far enough? How much time is required to make it so? Surely enough time has passed to make a judgement call the likes of Fatal Frame and Condemned, on Luigi’s Mansion and Doom 3.

But then again, maybe time is the problem. Maybe time is the crucial factor that atrophies appreciation faster in games than in other mediums. There was, after all, Hellnight for the original PlayStation, but that was over 10 years ago. Sweet Home for the NES was released over 20 years ago. And since then, game design has changed, as have console capabilities. The scares that developers were able to implement in 1998 and 1989 are vastly different (and, in most cases, inferior) to what they can do now. Just look at Amnesia: The Dark Descent! Even Slender: The Eight Pages, an indie title developed by just one man, is vastly superior to those decades-old full-scale productions.

A perfectly valid counter would be System Shock 2, a seminal title that is still scary and still great. At 13 years old, that is more than enough time for the vanguards of pop culture to recognize a classic. So why isn’t this at least—a game that is almost universally praised and referred to in most cases as a landmark title—not recognized within its own genre-specific holiday as a classic?

Because games move too fast. Because September through December is a deluge of new titles. Because the thoughtful, mindful discussions are too far removed from the brutish sort centered around Madden roster updates and deciding who or what is and isn’t a journalist. When daily news surrounds major events like studios closing or huge controversies like Doritos and Mountain Dew, when is there time to appreciate the new games? And then when you get to play the new games, when is there time to revisit the old? And when less than half of the entire gaming population of the world gives a damn, what does it matter that there aren’t any seasonal games to play? It’s a vicious cycle of cascading indifference and misdirected anger that holds our enjoyment of Great Pumpkins and Christmas Stories. Compare a 20-minute Charlie Brown special or a 2-hour horror movie to a 12-hour Quantic Dream adventure game and it’s easy to see why the gaming industry’s lack of mobility and flexibility has yielded such small seasonal harvests.

I know it’s strange to take something as inconsequential as themed video games and bring it around to talk about the faults of the industry, but it’s important (plus I figured you all were tired about reading Halo 4 leaks and Eurogamer libel suits). Everything moves at such a breakneck pace that Ferris Bueller would be anything but happy with us. Maybe we all just need to take it easy and remember that sure, games can move us and change us and affect us in the most profound ways, but they are also there to entertain us and remind us that sometimes it’s okay just to have fun.

So someone get out there and make me a Thanksgiving game.

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You Should Probably Play Frog Fractions

Some games don’t make a lot of sense in a bad way. Some games break internal logic and have unintuitive controls and gameplay that doesn’t match up with what you’re seeing and hearing onscreen. That is how bad games don’t make sense; they defy your expectations to work.

Frog Fractions, a free Flash game from Twinbeard Studios, doesn’t make a lick (*badum, chssh*) of sense, but boy does it work. I started playing this game twice because the first time, I thought I was being trolled. I started gobbling up bugs as seemingly random fractions popped off of them and ended up somehow collecting fruit to add to my inventory of unexplained “zorkmids.” I saw that I could upgrade my frog (and I did with the cybernetic brain thing) and felt like it wasn’t going anywhere, so I quit. I thought fellow writing friend Nathan Grayson over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun had pulled a fast one on me, that perhaps his Canadian-borne illness had finally and properly addled his curly-haired mind. Hell, I couldn’t even see how this game would teach you fractions!

Oh how wrong I was. After I saw that more and more people kept talking about it, I figured I had missed something, so I went in again, this time determined to figure out what made it tick. Collecting fruit, I got another upgrade. And another. Then I unlocked a turtle so I could move and collect more falling fruit. It eventually became kind of hypnotically fun, lining up tongue shots and trying to wipe out as many bugs in one go. Then I unlocked a god damn dragon.

Yeah, a dragon. And a warp drive. And then I went to space. And then I had to fight a boss. And then I had to testify in court. And then and then and then. Frog Fractions doesn’t make a lot of sense.

You start out playing a tower defense game without any towers. Then it kind of turns into a space shooter like Gradius or Galaga. And at a certain point you will play through a rather sophisticated text adventure followed up by blasting through a dancing rhythm minigame à la Dance Dance Revolution. Hell, there’s even an economy simulator in there. And get a load of this groovy-as-shit tune! Frog Fractions is all over the place and yet it all makes sense. Of course you can install lock-on targeting on your frog. Of course you have to get a work visa on Bug Mars. Of course the pink goop tastes like bacon.

Of course Frog Fractions works. It makes all the sense in the entire world that it would. Now go play.

HINT ALERT: if you end up in an awful and seemingly endless loop in the beginning, maybe you should start thinking vertically.

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The Unfinished Swan’s Unfinished Thought

Along with Journey from thatgamecompany, The Unfinished Swan is probably the most affecting game I’ve played this year. Hell, maybe ever. It joins a very small group of games that I could just write about forever and ever (the others include—among others you can probably guess—Dark Souls, Red Dead Redemption, Deus Ex, and the aforementioned Journey). I’ve read and been told accounts of Giant Sparrow’s debut bringing players to tears, stopping them cold as they realize the world they’ve entered and how they are at the mercy of the game and yet everything is within their control. I never reached the point of waterlogged eyes, but trust me when I say that if I was not such an emotionally empty shell of a human, I might have wept.

Just a little.

The potency of the game likely has something to do with its brevity. Not even rushing through on my first playthrough, I completed The Unfinished Swan somewhere in the neighborhood of two or three hours. Perhaps that affects the cost proposition for some, but to me, it felt refreshing. It was a game that did what it wanted to do and didn’t water it down to fill some arbitrary temporal mandate, stretched thin with unsatisfying filler that doesn’t fit and throws a kink in the otherwise lovingly crafted rail. After all, no one likes their drugs cut with sugar.

Or water. Or I don’t know what I’m talking about. Come guys, cut me some slack. I’ve never been a drug dealer!

The Unfinished Swan‘s problem might be that it concentrates its doses a bit too strongly. As mentioned by designer Ian Dallas in a post at the PlayStation Blog, the mechanic most widely associated with the game—splattering an entirely white, blank world with black blobs of paint—”is actually just the first 15 minutes.” That, to me, is probably an overstatement of how quickly that section passes, but it is representative of the philosophy of the game’s final design.

Dallas says “things get really weird” after that, and it’s true. You’ll continue on to work with variations on that same splatter mechanic. Well, “variations” probably isn’t the right word. You can see from the PAX trailer that you’ll also shoot blobs of water to guide plant life, but there’s more. You’ll also be bumbling your way through a harrowing nighttime land of scares and then an abstract plane of crafting after falling through a drafting table, each one with its own, very distinct methods of gameplay. I don’t want to get into much more since half the fun of the game is discovering how to use those particular tool sets, but know that Dallas was right about the weird thing.

So you take the two-ish hours required to beat the game and divide it among the four chapters and you’ll get just a little over half an hour per shift in the gameplay, which is a god damn shame. At the end of each bit, I felt like each one could have gone on twice as long. Just as you feel like you understand the depth to which each mechanic could go, the game changes nearly whole cloth and you’re left just the tiniest bit confused. Why did it change? Are we coming back to this? God I hope so.

You never do. “Always leave them wanting more,” I believe is how the saying goes, but The Unfinished Swan leaves you wanting a bit too much. An early example in the monochromatic section is that the paint doesn’t really affect water (or what we’re led to believe is water). It just sort of plops down and sinks in an oddly fascinating way before being gobbled up by a fish or dissipating beneath the surface. It causes a mild revelation that though it is your best (and only) tool in the world, the black paint still can’t reveal everything to you. And then a frog you recently blasted—err, revealed with said paint is gobbled up by some swimming beast, so are there things that are already blackened in this white and eerie tableau? There are so many implications and unexplored nooks and crannies of the black and white world that as soon as you leave it, you’re still left pondering those mysteries.

The most egregious bit is definitely the last section where you fall into that blueprint in the, um, attic(?) of the previous chapter’s world. I don’t want to ruin it for you (though you can see a bit of each section in the Giant Bomb Quick Look, something Patrick should have restrained himself from doing), but an entire game could be built from this mechanic alone. In fact, some have and yet I feel like The Unfinished Swan may have done it the best and still explored the concept the least. About midway through that chapter, the game will brush against what feel like revelatory moments but then just walks away from them to show off even more half-explored experiments.

But it’s saying something when I believe that even in these underutilized moments, The Unfinished Swan exudes so much brilliance and creativity that it brings out a sensation and optimism in the medium within me that is normally reserved for games like Super Mario Galaxy and, well, Super Mario Galaxy 2. The difference is that in SMG and SMG2, those ideas are fleshed out and fully realized. They take those ideas as far as you would like to see them go and even further into territory you didn’t even know existed. The Unfinished Swan instead points you in a direction, shows you a thing, says “wouldn’t that be neat,” and walks off before you get to say “HELL FUCKING YEAH IT WOULD.”

Everything The Unfinished Swan gives you is engrossing. It’s enchanting and all-consuming to a fault. It’s as if the wrapping on a present were the gift itself—and what a gift it is. It is brilliant and shining and something you wish you had created so others could understand the beauty in your mind as you do that of Ian Dallas. Giant floppy bow and all, it inspires you to dream up what is on the inside, how beautiful and life-affecting its contents must be. Too bad you never get to open it. Too bad.

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Riding The Line Down To Hotline Miami

You hear the phrase “power fantasy” being thrown around a lot nowadays, and it’s very apt when it comes to video games. After all, everyone daydreams about being a superhero: that guy with the ability to do something no one else can do. You want to be able to fly by defying physics or fight like a god damn whirlwind of fists and/or fury or turn back into a robot from a car, and doing so in a video game is the next viable step up from simply thinking about it. You get to visualize it and interact with it, poke and prod at an abstraction of your fantasies.

But most of those games devolve into turning those dreams into a utility for getting from point A to point B. Your ability to teleport is no longer something to revel in but just something to get you past a bunch of guards. Bullet time goes from a circus display of lead death to a tool that gets you past a particular battle and into the next room. That power fantasy of being all-powerful and able to overcome any odds has been reduced to being a repairman; open your toolbox and fix a problem.

That’s where Dennaton’s Hotline Miami differs. Much like XCOM and DayZ, Hotline Miami is more about being outmatched and overpowered only to use your wits to come out ahead. These games force you to dig deep and discover whatever it is that makes you special and use that to beat odds that not only lean heavily against you but slap you in the face first so you learn some respect. It isn’t about opening up a chest of known and discrete tools but rather using whatever indescribable nuance and intuition you can offer as a human being capable of critical thought and analysis. It taps into what makes you human more than what you wish made you superhuman.

Maybe that’s because you will die in Hotline Miami. And I mean a lot. Over the course of a single minute, you’re likely to die roughly five or six times, maybe less if you’ve almost figured out a level since it’s a cumulative process. You see, there are only checkpoints at each floor of a building, and a building may be multiple floors, so each slab of rooms must be cleared out perfectly before moving on to the next one. Yes, perfectly. Did I forget to mention you die in one hit? Did I mention you die a lot?

But everyone dies in one hit. Well, minus a few select boss-type characters, but they will eventually go down in one hit given the right incentive (read: the right weapon). It’s a very fair game in that respect; even just one pellet can take you down, but the same goes for all those henchmen milling about in the foyer. One shotgun blast and you can clear them all out, but a single stray pellet from a bad guy across the room can end your record-setting run. And there are usually about seven or eight guys on any given floor that can ruin it for you.

Your advantage is that they don’t know you’re there. In ways, this is more of a stealth game than the recently released (and worth playing) Dishonored. In most cases, Dishonored became more of an experiment in pulling and pushing a bunch of interacting systems and AI routines and less about sneaking around. Hotline Miami takes the stealth of roaming around unfamiliar territory while remaining undetected, distills it down to its puzzle roots, and speeds it up to one notch past nausea-inducing. In that way, it deviates the most from the power fantasy. It’s no longer about using your powers to get to the end of the line; it’s now all about using your lack of powers to make the ride all it can be.

It’s a bit like pachinko in that way. While it’s a relief to reach the bottom of a pachinko game (and a celebration or a frustration depending on the outcome), it’s the tumbling around on the way down that is the fun. Each pin you hit, each left-or-right split, each pause makes that run unique and a little nerve-wracking. You are here for the ride to the bottom. The destination is simply a consequence of your success.

That ancillary tone to the end as you gather up and utilize the means comes across in the pulpy story. It’s almost whimsical—an odd juxtaposition given how macabre the rest of the game is—but also reinforces the journey-over-the-finish-line theme. It’s fun and entertaining and can occasionally make you go “huh, how about that,” but by and large it serves to fill in the blanks between your murder-fest shenanigans. Just ask any recreational hunter or psychotic serial killer: it’s not about the kill but about the chase.

Power fantasies concern themselves with the end of the story. They put the conclusion at the end of a sidewalk and you just have to get there. Anyone with even the smallest bit of desire can do it. Fantasies of being weak and overpowered only to overcome and win are fundamentally different. There is no path before you, only a dark forest, insurmountable walls, and broken bridges. It’s a wide open expanse of hazards that will force you to think and react in ways you didn’t know you could, in ways that only you could think and react. So maybe every once in a while, stop fantasizing about flying and start fantasizing about failing. It’s more fun that way.

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The Walking Dead’s Problem With Episodic Content

It blew my mind the first time I saw the words “To Be Continued” on a TV. I just couldn’t believe it. For years, I had been trained to believe that within the span of thirty minutes, problems could crop up, break down, and be resolved. Just thirty minutes and people could change. It was a fascinating notion to me as a child since the greatest change I could muster in half an hour would be a feeling of eating too much candy. And then tummy aches. And then I would be fine again, but I digress.

That moment when I discovered stories didn’t always wrap up neatly within the confines of a previously established structure was with Full House. Yeah, it was cheesy and super 90s, but when Comet ran away, my heart sank. And when they couldn’t find him, it wept. It was an oddly moving moment for a kid that never had a dog.

Television has changed since then, though. I don’t just mean the lack of camp and adorable twins but that multi-episode plots usually happen during finales. Television now hinges on major events and marketable moments rather than a likable cast or relatable premise (still important stuff, though). Season and series finales usually happen in two or more parts and they usually happen back-to-back so a half-hour show becomes an hour long and a one-hour show takes up the entire prime time slot. It’s easy to make an inevitable cliffhanger sound extra exciting when you can say it takes twice as long to show.

The problem lies within that break. When (or if, I guess) that show makes it to syndication, the chances of those broken-up bits being aired properly are slim. This week may be part one. Next week might be the pilot. It’s a mess. But the separation of the gestalt also breaks up the story as originally envisioned, and it happens in the worst way.

Commercials work as act breaks because they offer very brief respites that build tension and anticipation over a manageable period of time. It is perfect for the medium, so naturally breaks between episodes offer an even better delineation since we apply a meta anxiety to knowing this is how this particular chunk ends.

Think about this in the context of The Walking Dead, the adventure game series from Telltale Games. It is currently on its fourth and penultimate episode and has thus far garnered almost exclusively giant handfuls of praise. Not only will I include this on my shortlist of Game of the Year contenders but also proselytize it to everyone with ears and a bank account containing at least $24.99.

But the problem is that these five episodes operate on a television seasonal or miniseries framework. The first three episodes are standalone and yet fold so well within each other. They might as well be three big ol’ beanbags that are absolutely wonderful on their own, but when placed adjacent to one another, it becomes a god damn party. A dark, twisted, and mildly depressing party full of evil people, good intentions, and mindless zombies, but still a party.

And two weeks ago (one week ago for Europeans), episode four—entitled Around Every Corner—was released and guess what: it’s still dark, twisted, and mildly depressing. Lead by Book of Eli scribe Gary Whitta, Around Every Corner contains probably the darkest moment of the series thus far, and given what I’ve seen and done in the first three episodes, that’s saying quite a lot. But it’s also the weakest episode, and that’s because it’s the first of a two-part finale.

The general shape of a story is something like a roller coaster. You’re building and building for what seems like forever to the peak of the story (the climax) only to ride it out to the end after a very large, Skrillex-shaped drop (the dénouement). But little humps happen along the way. Up to the top, you jolt and rattle around. On the way down, you’ll encounter turns and loops and things. The dramatic implications of these incidental movements correspond pretty well to how jarring they are when reflected in a narrative plot.

And as we’ve previously discussed, those little bumps make for perfect breaks. Between episodes, you can take a snapshot of the track and it could work as another, much more boring roller coaster in microcosm, each one complete with its own set of humps and drops. But naturally, the biggest, overarching climax invites for the best break since it usually represents the transition into the third and final act. That is why it’s called a cliffhanger; you make it all the way to the edge of the climax and then you’re left hanging. It’s effective.

But it also breaks the entire preceding sequence of events. Roller coasters don’t end with you on top of the hill for a good reason; there’s no catharsis. Well that and how the hell are you supposed to get a dozen people down from the top of a roller coaster, but whatever. You don’t get that sweet release. You’ve chopped down the tree, decorated it with tinsel and lights, wrapped all the presents, and then Christmas is canceled. It’s unsatisfying, frustrating, and a bit cheap-feeling. You can’t take that dramatic structure and just break it in half. Then you don’t have a drama; you have an angry audience.

It’s a subtle difference between that and a teaser ending. With a teaser ending, you still get resolution at the end along with the falling action of the story. It’s satisfying but still manages to toy with that part of you that wishes it had kept on going. The modern Marvel superhero movies were great at this. Each movie was its own self-contained story, but the stinger after the credits showed what it’s like to keep the audience on the hook without putting them at the edge of a cliff, staring off into nothing. Teasers are what we got with the first three episodes. A sheer cliff face is what we got with episode four.

But that isn’t the fault of Telltale or the series or even Gary Whitta. At some point, you have to play into the traditional narrative structure and that means breaking it off somewhere that works. You can’t do it too early or people lose interest as then they don’t get the cliff or the drop. If you do it too late, the resolution diminishes in importance as their minds begin to fill in the blanks as they see fit. The weakness of Around Every Corner is just natural to the structure. Done anywhere else, and episodes three and five would have been weaker for it.

The penultimate step to the finish is always a necessary step down. You have to rear back and rev up for the finish. Around Every Corner does what it can and does it well (this is by no means a bad episode, just the weakest when compared to the other three absolutely spectacular entries into the series), but instead of ending on a sense of foreboding mixed with reserved, extremely cautious optimism (how long does that last in a zombie apocalypse?), you are left with frustration not knowing or understanding what is going on.

But that hopefully means that the last episode, No Time Left, is all the better for it. Hopefully that means it’s one incredible ride down a blood-soaked mountainside. Hopefully we finally get that sweet, sweet drop.


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The Traditional Story Arc of the Nontraditional Dishonored

Dishonored, by all counts, is not a very traditional game. First off, it is a new critically and commercially successful IP that comes at the end of a console cycle from a studio known for little else outside of 2002’s Arx Fatalis (although its creative heads went into it already well renowned). Second, it’s an ostensibly steampunk game that utilizes stealth mechanics that focus around the supernatural. Third, Susan Sarandon. I could go on, but trust me on this: it’s a very unique game.

It’s odd then that one of the largest components is incredibly traditional and almost entirely by the book. I know that makes it sound like a bad thing, but it’s not. Lead writer Austin Grossman did a fantastic job and I actually found Corvo’s story to be quite fun (though something tells me had I gone for high chaos, it would be less fun and more fuc—well, you’ll see), but beat for beat, you could overlay a map of traditional story elements and simply connect the dots.

The monomythic structure is popular for many reasons, but the primary one would be that it just works. This is because it is relatable in so many ways despite involving things that we’ll never experience (the supernatural, space wars, dragons, etc.) because the emotional journey of the monomyth is something everyone can relate to. It’s how we are shaken loose from our comfortable world of our known quantities—that small, miniscule portion of the universe that we can say we can control—and thrust into a situation we are not entirely familiar with. We know what it’s like to cross that threshold of the unknown and that relief when we find someone capable of taking us by the hand and showing us the way. And we know what it’s like to think we’ve reached the end, that we’ve gone as low as we can go only to go lower, and then rise up again to defeat this unfamiliar challenge.

Or at least we’d like to think we know what that’s like. It’s easy to imagine how that feels whether or not you’ve actually done it which is why it’s such a relatable cycle of winning and losing. It’s something we all strive for because we’ve seen how it happens in sports and movies and comics and we want to have that in our lives, too.

Even when it involves a silent protagonist that has to prove he didn’t kill the woman he was sworn to protect in a grotesque plot of winding backstabs and diseased melancholy.

SPOILER ALERT: past this point, this article will discuss the plot points of Dishonored. If you wish to remain untainted for your first time through the game or if you want to cut your afternoon reading short by a few hundred words, then you should probably stop here. YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.

But that’s because it still follows the traditional path: known to unknown to fall to rebirth to ultimate victory (at least in one particular ending). Corvo starts out coming back from an adventure abroad. He’s been trying to single-handedly rally up support for Dunwall across the Isles to defeat the ever-worsening plague. This is rare as he is the personally selected bodyguard for the Empress and he isn’t ever really supposed to leave her side, but urging from the Spymaster makes everyone think it’s somehow a good idea. This opening sequence is the return from another adventure. It is actually both the final phase of Corvo’s previous monomythic journey and the start of this new one. When he was on his own in the other principalities, he was in the unfamiliar. He is back to his old world and thus the circle is complete.

But the Call to Adventure soon beckons as almost immediately, he is attacked by supernatural assassins (of which he currently is not). His Empress is killed, her daughter and heir kidnapped, and he is blamed for all of it. The Call flows into his arrest and subsequent escape orchestrated by the Loyalists all the way up until he quite literally gets Supernatural Aid: the Outsider. The appearance of the Outsider should not be confused with the helper (who will come back later as the third act breaks) but he does get lumped in with the other Loyalists as the Threshold Guardians, the people that signify the crossing of the boundaries for our hero between refusing the adventure and taking the first step towards it. Corvo is a bodyguard; make no mistake in thinking that being an assassin is not part of his transformation.

The Helper and the Mentor in this case, though, are the same person as Samuel will give advice as how to approach the first couple of missions but also later serve as the utility that aids us in the last act break. The Initiation is pretty straightforward when Corvo sets about his first task of eliminating the High Overseer Campbell, but this also gives rise to the moment of Meeting the Goddess, which in our case is little Emily. She is the one that Corvo still loves and will do anything to protect, and he finally has her.

Briefly. There is time enough for what Blake Snyder calls in his seminal screenwriting guide Save the Cat! “Fun and Games” as Corvo and the soon-to-be ironically named Loyalists go about removing the other Pendletons and a Lady Boyle from power, all of which leads up to Snyder’s Midpoint where the monomythic Ultimate Boon is found. Once Corvo takes care of the Lord Regent, we feel we have won, but it is an ephemeral and foreboding feeling as Corvo begins to reel and then pass out from a poisoned drink. It is the All is Lost moment when we think we are finished. From what we see, the story is over and we have lost. It was a false victory.

But our helper! Saved by Samuel, it turns out we are not dead and instead set adrift in the Flooded District, but Corvo’s prospects are not much better here. Instead, we have our darkest moment as we are hauled in by Daud and stripped of our weapons and imprisoned. It is our Death, Snyder’s Dark Night of the Soul. We have hit our lowest point from which we may not return. It is oddly also the weakest part of the story since we have no Refusal of the Return. Corvo never doubts himself in this moment as he should. We don’t get that proper debate about was it worth it, is it worth even trying to fix it all this time, etc. Instead, as soon as we are thrown into the pit, we immediately try to escape. The moment of self-doubt sort of comes later when we visit with the Outsider and he instead tells us that we should have questioned ourselves somewhere along the way. An unfortunate misstep.

But the break into act 3 where we’ve escaped and return to cross the threshold once again is almost poetic. We were imprisoned before and escaped to the Hound Pits, and now we’ve done it all again only to return once more with the same goal: to overthrow a liar and betrayer and set things right with Emily as the empress. Not only that, but we’ve once again come to fall into the hands of our original guide Samuel. He has come to save and deliver us into the final rise, the Atonement of our actions.

Or not. The only guaranteed part of the ending of Dishonored is revenge, and vengeance can never be a part of the act of atoning. Havelock’s death is immaterial to Corvo’s return to the known world and is instead simply a light that points the way. But being a game of choices and actions, we can just as easily choose to not fix the empire, let it crumble and wash away like the eroded buildings of an endless flood. Here is where Dishonored takes to its strengths and breaks from the traditional, from the monomyth, from Snyder’s holy scriptures of Hollywood pens. We have the choice to be uncaring and leave Dunwall without a leader, just as we have the choice to give it to them. We have been making the choice for the past 30 hours to make them whole again or leave it broken and wasted.

Much like the rest of the game, Dishonored takes a traditional shell, works within it, and then breaks it from the inside. We play from a traditional point of view, we have familiar controls, and we have a rote set of story beats (to the point where some complain of its predictability), but that is necessary to buck all the trends and show you the outer fringes of the medium. Without acknowledging the rules, how are we to know that they can and have been broken? How else are we to know it’s okay to look at a map, walk its path, and at the end, after days of sneaking and looting and killing, just walk away?

To turn our backs and know that we did it our own way.

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Drift Mania Championship 2 Review: Drifting Apart

I don’t know what it is about racing games, but a lot of them seem to love live action intro sequences featuring dudes, girls, engines, and, at the very least, crashing. The first Need For Speed: Most Wanted was live action on top of digital backdrops when it came to cut scenes and Gran Turismo 5 pretty much opened with footage of a car being built as if directed by Zack Snyder. All you really need to do is add some either classically ethereal tunes or block rockin’ beats behind it and you’ve got some racing game marketing ready to go.

Ratrod Studio’s Drift Mania Championship 2 definitely has that. It’s opening sequences has dudes, girls, crashing, and cars all moving over a thickly woven tapestry of relatively obscure modern rock (all Shazam could tell me was that at some point I was listening to UK rock band Templeton Pek’s Barriers). If not all entirely recognizable as something more substantial, it certainly gives the impression of a higher profile racing title despite being just a mobile release.

You play as a drift racer and you go through the usual racing shtick. You’ll pick a car from an increasing stable of progressively better rides, race it on unlockable tracks for money and medals, and tune and upgrade your car. You can also customize some of the visuals like different colors and rims and body kits (which have nothing to do with performance). There’s also multiplayer—both local and online—with online leaderboards so you can see how you stack up against the rest of the world at any given point (hint: poorly). Though everything is spartan and necessarily stripped down as a mobile title, DMC2 definitely has some high aspirations.

And in places, it hits it. The game looks admirable, though the graphics still have that mobile quality to them (i.e. they’re flat and rarely more than a pancake stack of various bright colors), but they are at least quite sharp. There were little to no frame rate issues, which is a welcoming thought given I played on an iPad 2 and not a new iPad. The menus are have a strange, early 90s web feel to them, but they work quite well and have a nice logical flow to them once you manage to decipher some of the labelless and occasionally amorphous icons.

Along with the catchy if unrecognizable tunes, the sound effects are rather well done. The revving and pops coming from the engine as you try to crank out an especially demanding drift is totally on point, and the screeching is akin to a hungry banshee hanging out with a screaming baby (read: spot-on). It all really manages to mirror how well defined the tuning for the cars is. It’s just some basic options such as steering, weight distribution, and suspension, but changing each one really and truly affects how you drive. It’s quite refreshing.

The problems come when you actually start playing the game. Namely, it’s not a lot of fun and actually kind of dumbfounding. The controls are fine and simple enough to not offend or gratify (tilt to steer, throttle meter on right, handbrake on left), but the actual act of drifting doesn’t feel right at all. When you drift in real life—and in most other racing games at least attempt to reflect reality—it involves more than just hitting the handbrake. You are supposed to swing wide and pull it back in and countersteer, i.e. move the wheel in the opposite direction of the drift. It conceptually doesn’t sound right, but if you ever try it for yourself, it definitely feels right.

DMC2 requires you to just turn into a bend and adjust by turning more or less into it. I found myself instinctively countersteering so much that eventually I had to force my hands against a wall to remind myself to stop doing it. And talk about a squirrelly handling model. If you think you can make it through an entire course without drifting, think again. You somehow spin out easier when just driving normally. I eventually settled on just always having my thumb on the handbrake and just tapping on the throttle meter in the red like a god damn woodpecker. Just so you know, that’s not how you’re supposed to drive a car. And guess what: upgrades don’t really help. They just help you hit walls faster.

And looking into the microtransactions, they felt a bit…dirty. No prices are shown until the final iOS alert modal comes up and asks if you want to buy some credits (which you spend on upgrades and visual customizations). At least they don’t break the game, I guess.

I didn’t get a chance to play multiplayer since I couldn’t find any online matches, but I played enough of the career to know that while showing some promise, DMC2 has some serious problems. There were times when I hit a drift and it felt just about magical. I had turned my steering up and shifted the weight to the back and gained some nuance to my tilting and I was finally able to hit those big open turns. But any non-sweeping, drift-friendly parts of tracks were just terrifying. There was no way to get through any of it without going insanely slow or cranking my car (and my iPad) around like Soulja Boy. Drift Mania Championship 2 has definitely got both good and bad in there. It’s just unfortunate that the bad bits are the ones at the top.

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Playing With The Box: The Unfinished Swan

As my days fill more and more with people either with child or having raised a child (an inevitable effect of growing older), a few things stand out. First, I’ve become less tolerant of discussions revolving around the weather and what’s for lunch. Second, babies aren’t really qualified to be alive until another three or so months after birth, or so I’m told. Third, children still love to play with the strangest things.

For me as a kid, that was especially true. As much fun as I would have playing on my Sega Master System and later my SNES, playing with what was ostensibly trash was the best. From building dioramas to turning pipe cleaners into super posable action figures, I rarely became as entranced with the real thing as I would with corrugated cardboard. This big box that the new TV came in can be my fort and the box that my new Power Ranger came in can be his fort. Sometimes the TV’s remote control would get involved and be a wrestler or something, but whatever. It was fun!

And apparently that’s still a thing among children today. “They’ll always have more fun with a handful of rubber bands and some paperclips,” one friend would say. “Just give them an empty box and you’re set for the day,” would say another. And it’s not hard to see why. As children, we basically know nothing about the world we live in. Like, at all. We know hot things are hot and cold things are cold, but aside from that (and, despite what your mother told you, that most things are lickable), we just know that things can simply exist. If we can dream it up, we can believe with all our hearts that it is real because knowing nothing, we have nothing to contradict our proposal of a fountain that spews out churros or every forest has a treasure chest hiding somewhere deep inside it or a mammal that lays eggs—oh wait, never mind on that last one.

Either way, it’s our imagination that makes these throwaway, everyday things that seem extraordinary. It’s our literally limitless creative minds that fill in these gaps of practical knowledge with the fantastical and it makes adults envious. They know the truth. They know that some things just are not meant to be and never will be and they envy the fact that children still have no clue that physics will always dictate that Clifford the Big Red Dog simply cannot exist.

But if you play The Unfinished Swan, the longtime project of former comedy writer Ian Dallas and his development studio Giant Sparrow, you can reach that point again. The fairy tale narrative sets the somber stage (a young boy chases after an unfinished swan that escaped a painting his late mother left behind), but the gameplay is what really brings it home. Starting out on a stark white background, you see nothing—literally nothing—before you except a pale limbo, a wan purgatory in which you know and see nothing.

And then you paint. You press a button and a glob of paint shoots forth from you and it hits…something. It splatters, but not against anything flat. It converges. You fire again and it splatters again, this time filling in more of the picture. It’s a corner. But a corner to what? A room? A box? Perhaps where that incomplete avian ran off to?

Then it dawns on you, slow in its approach but fast and hard once it lands like a slap in the face minus the conviction. You are awakened to the notion that there is an entire universe in this blank white canvas and you just can’t see it. In an excited frenzy, you begin to blanket the world around you, revealing the walls surrounding you. It’s a nigh macabre scene of black revelations erasing the white unknown. But then the pattern breaks. The wall isn’t there.

It’s a door, or so it seems. You walk through it and paint a hallway. Curious. You take a turn and another turn and finally another before you are greeted by a recently darkened bench. A bench? Painting further, a pole is revealed. A lot of them. A forest! And to the right, a (black) picket fence. An entire countryside is hidden in the blanked out scene and you are just discovering it.

These opening moments of The Unfinished Swan are more than just about discovery but about a moment of clarity, albeit a disingenuous one. Much like a child, you have the same realization that, crudely put, things exist. In fact, so many things exist, that nothing is really stopping every conceivable thing from existing. Just moments before, that wall and that bench and those trees didn’t exist, so what’s stopping the next splash of black from revealing a rocket ship or a platypus-bear or anything else you can think of?

Which, given some thought, is a sobering notion. Much like Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, we are merely ascribing meaning to these shapes. What we know in this monochrome environment is what we see. If it’s all white, we see and know nothing. If throw our paint around, we see forms in the dichotomous haze, but nothing is certain. It is merely a silhouette of something unknowable to us. Keep painting, and we’ll soon know nothing once again.

Our tool for knowledge can just as easily be our tool for ignorance. As soon as we realize that we are limited to applying something uncertain to something unknown, the illusion of infinity shatters, but paint it all black, and we can try to believe again, but it is fruitless. It is the return of Plato’s prisoners to the cave. We’ve seen and understood the intangible truth and we can’t go back to our ignorance feigning knowledge.

And so we grow up. Tying Spider-Man to a helium balloon you got from a super market fruit stand no longer seems all that much like saving the world and more like ruining a perfectly good albeit lazy marketing display. That realm of possibilities begins to feel more like a pen than a wide open sky, no more boundless than the letters of the alphabet or the cherries in a sundae. There’s a finite number of things under the sun. Would it be selfish to want to see it all? Would it be to hope that there’s more to the world? That everything you wished for exists somewhere?

That this box is more than a box.

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Cheats And Cheat Codes: A Matter Of Creation

I still remember the code for armor in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. R1 R2 L1 X Left Down Right Up Left Down Right Up. Health was the exact same thing except with O instead of X. I used those two so many times that it’s a motion I doubt I’ll ever forget even when I’m six feet under. My tombstone might as well be a PS2 controller that reads “too bad those video game cheats didn’t help when he ran out in front of that real life bus.” Or something.

I remember those codes because I used them so much, pretty much to the point of excess. However, I remember the slow motion cheat (Triangle Up Right Down Square R2 R1) for a different reason. You see, I discovered it.

Okay, that’s a bit of a stretch. I didn’t discover it like Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin. It was more like Christopher Columbus discovering the New World; it already existed and people knew about it, but he was the first person in his world to find it. Oh, this nice little taqueria has been just down the block from me for the past year and a half? Who cares. As far as I’m concerned, I discovered it.

But it has that sensation that I’m sure Fleming felt all the way back in 1928. I’m sure it was the same way Alexander Graham Bell felt after he heard his assistant Thomas Watson spit up a garbled “yes” from his comically sized phonautograph. Or the way Alexander the Great felt as he looked down upon his massive empire and realized he could piss anywhere he wanted from the Ionian Sea to the Himalayas.

Man, there sure are a lot of famous Alexanders.

The point is that code to me was a matter of creation. I had created something from nothing. Granted, Rockstar North was the actual creator, but from this tiny little virtual recreation of a fictional, hyper-stylized Miami, I created something new for it that never existed before me. In my particular rendering of Vice City, no one had ever even though the words “slow” and “motion” together until I came along.

And it was thrilling. It was like I had a secret that I had to keep safe no matter what. It was a selfish notion, that so long as I kept it controlled, I could keep that high to myself. Only later would I find that sharing it would be just as great an ecstasy. It continually fed me a great sense of achievement, one that you’ve probably felt as a child finally being able to climb that tree in the forest behind your house or, growing up, proving to yourself that you can make some decent scrambled eggs. Yelling down from the mountaintop that you did these things and discovered this cheat is a breathless euphoria rarely attained.

And it’s a shame that it’s all gone to the wayside. The last time a game had some honest-to-goodness cheat codes was, well, I don’t really know, but you sure won’t find them in a modern triple-A title. They’ve been gutted out and replaced with bonus unlocks and purchasable shenanigans. Though the reward may still remain, the method of earning it has changed. Instead of stringing together a complex string of button presses and stick wiggles, you now actually play the game. A novel concept if I ever heard one.

But for what reason? Why have codes gone the way of everything having an attributable score or the concept of player lives? Have games evolved beyond those things?

Perhaps not. There are still plenty of score-based games (most of them indie downloadable titles) and if you look at any Mario game since ever, you’ll still find 1-ups gainfully employed but you’d still be hard-pressed to find a game that actually uses cheats.

One possible explanation is that they represent a more youthful iteration of the video game industry, one that most would rather remember only on overly long podcasts and nostalgic magazine spreads. Developers want to show that games have grown up, and “cheating” is an abuse best left to children, not makers of art. On the litany of gaming tropes, it is the cancer most easily removed to show signs of progress.

Or maybe it’s the manifestation of progressive gamification. That may sound ridiculous given what we’re talking about after all, but gamification is about more than turning things into, well, games. It taps into the complex interlocking mechanisms of human psychology and finds what makes people tick on the most primal level, which in its current form turns out to be “I did something so give me a reward.”

It’s represented in so many ways today: Foursquare badges, frequent buyer reward cards, exercise apps that apply arbitrary points to various activities. We’ve become an achievement/trophy-infused society, but we’ve gone beyond the point where mere recognition satisfies us. Now those badges earn us discounts and higher Klout scores land us free Starbucks. So why not put what used to be cheats behind unlockable bonuses? If you want to earn extra experience points or cause more damage, you’d better earn it, dammit.

Which is a shame because no matter how many monkeys you put at your typewriters—err, controllers, you’ll never crank out a cheat code that pretty much didn’t exist until you came along with your legion of primates. Now you look at a menu and think, “hmm, just kill another 200 dudes and I get to play in wireframe mode.” Or shoot rockets from a pistol. Or have infinite health. It’s all a clinical system of looking at a to-do list and then doing it, which will of course satisfy your lust for achieving something, but discovering something? Creating something with your hands? Not even close.

Or maybe I’m just crazy. Maybe I’m misremembering things. As opposed to hammering away at a controller for hours on end, why not just pick up one of those code books from the super market or ask the kid with the Nintendo Power subscriptions? That was way easier, but it also lacked both the sense of discovery and achievement either way you go about it.

So maybe they are a relic of a bygone era. Those code books don’t exist anymore. Magazines are on the way out. That local community doesn’t exist anymore, the one where you would hear whispers of being able to bring back Aeris or how you can glitch your way to a hidden city in the sky. When everything is so readily available and verified on the Internet, what is there left to do but gate away your treasures behind frivolous goals and accomplishments? What is there left to do but think fondly of when we had in our hands the power to discover?

What is there left after this matter of creation is taken from us?

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