Monthly Archives: December 2012

To The Moon And Friends’ Diegesis

To The Moon And Friends' Diegesis

I guess somewhere along the line, I gifted a friend of mine To The Moon on Steam because he texted me about it late last night. I guess that because 1) he’s normally a strictly meat and potatoes kind of gamer where he feeds on an artery-clogging diet of Call of Duty, Madden, and SNES fighting games, so for him to play something out of his lopsided nutritional pyramid usually takes an outside force, and 2) he told me I gifted it to him like six months ago or so. Mystery solved!

Or so I thought. Though I only knew how he was playing it and figuring out why was just as easy (he was bored), the real question was why he bothered to text me about it in the first place. Knowing him, he would appreciate the story but not necessarily understand its import. Mere moments after it finished and he had closed the window—Steam library staring him in the face—he would likely consider which The Fast and The Furious movie to watch before bed. Not that there’s anything wrong with that; it just shows how cognitively he’s aware, but emotionally he’s inarticulate, so for him to talk to me about such a non-game video game is a Big Thing.

After some back and forth on the whole thing, I was able to discern what his monosyllabic replies were hinting at: the music. But not just any particular song or even the entire soundtrack as a whole. Though he lacks the diction simply because he never bothered to show up to his Intro to Cinema class in college, I managed to suss out where he found his personal significance in the whole shebang.

Diegesis labels a brand of storytelling within a wholly contained world through recounting rather than recreation. It originates from the contrast of showing versus telling from Plato and Aristotle where diegesis is the result of retelling and reality while mimesis is the result of imitation and flourish. Now you’re likely to find the discussion shifted to movies where people decide if a song or song is diegetic and comes from the world or is non-diegetic and comes from the external viewing parameters.

My friend, as it turns out, was talking about how the shift from diegetic to non-diegetic music in To The Moon managed to find his one soft spot. When you first hear the song “For River,” you hear it through the little kids Sarah and Tommy playing on the piano in the foyer of the house. You hear it from within the world of the game and is thus diegetic. It’s pointed out by the kids that they are playing that song on the piano as non-diegetic credits roll over the screen, which makes for a nice contrast.

But that’s almost beside the point. The next time “For River” is pointed out to you almost directly is when Johnny plays it for the first time for River as she lays sick in bed. You’ll hear it throughout the entire memory, moving from room to room and even to another moment in time altogether. By now, the song is almost certainly drilled into your head as a diegetic response to various emotions and memories.

So then when it finally breaks from being diegetic, something happens. I don’t want to get into specifics, but the shift is important. It bubbles up everything you have eventually come to associate with that hopeful yet melancholic song over the course of the game and it damn near breaks you. Slowly it has been replacing the pillars and struts only to be all yanked away in an instant, crumbling even the most shooterest of bros.

This is a trend you’ll see quite often in games once you start to look for it. It’s not always for a specific grab at overwhelming sadness or reflection. I mean, just look at Far Cry 3. There’s a mission where you have to burn down some fields of marijuana (à la Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas). You are given a flamethrower and begin to set fire to some fields when all of a sudden you start to hear an odd tropical beat. It’s jubilant and bouncy, quite appropriate given the island setting and the ridiculous circumstances you’ve found yourself in, but it’s a stark contrast with the rest of the music you hear in the game.

Every other bit of music you hear is lo-fi reggae bumping out of the trashy jeeps and coupes you commandeer throughout the game, but as you look around for a radio perhaps blasting this clear and crisp ditty, you realize there isn’t one. Is it coming from you? Are you, Jason Brody, high from burning all this sweet stinky weed? Before you arrive at an answer, the heaviest of drops hits and you realize it’s Skrillex. Nonsense? Sure, but also supremely fitting.

This is a highlight of the game precisely because it is ridiculous and yet makes absolute sense in the game. All you’ve heard for the entire time on the island in regards to music is just tinny car radio trash, and now, as you embark on a dumb but well-realized mission of eliminating drug fields, a Skrillex reggae remix fills your ears in a non-diegetic fashion? It’s no wonder it won Giant Bomb’s Best Use of Skrillex.

But just as it can bring dumb joy to the table with Far Cry 3 and overwhelming emotion via To The Moon, the diegetic flip is versatile enough to do so much more, as is the case with Red Dead Redemption. Red Dead Redemption is, for the most part, a stoic game. You play the part of a no-nonsense John Marston trying to turn over a new leaf and often find yourself in a deathly silent wild frontier. You’ll get musical stings and pings and dings as you play the game, of course, seeing as how this is a video game and player feedback is crucial, but you’ll hardly ever find any sort of music. The closest you’ll ever get is walking into a saloon and hearing some sweet diegetic ragtime coming from the piano man in the corner. Everything else is diegetic as well, if non-musical, as you’ll just hear wind whistling, guns firing, men shouting, and animals prowling/rumbling/roaring.

This makes the Mexico moment all the more striking. If not of all of 2010, the first horse ride from the river into Mexico in Red Dead Redemption might also be one of my all-time favorite moments in all of gaming. You finally hear something besides the wilderness and that Mission Complete sting and it is wildly non-diegetic and stirring acoustic song. You’re riding your horse into unknown territory after a harrowing escape down what you previously thought a barrier instead of a path and further away from your family yet closer to their salvation. All those conflicting emotions bubble up as you hear this moving piece from Swedish–Argentine folk singer José González. You are no longer stoic so much as you are resolved, your feelings fueling a fire rather than being suppressed as you go about your duty. The quiet milieu is broken with a non-diegetic moment and it takes a simple horse ride and turns it into something so much more.

I’m sure you’ll start to notice this more and more. Not necessarily because it’ll happen with more frequency but simply because you’ll be more aware. Just as my friend now knows that he didn’t just mean “oh you know, the music” but instead it was the non-diegetic shift that got him, you’ll be keener on when these moments happen. And they can be all the more powerful.

Now go play To The Moon if you haven’t done so already. And yes, someone is cutting onions, so be sure to bring tissues.

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Spaceteam’s Highlight On Intuition

Spaceteam's Highlight On Inuition

If you haven’t played Spaceteam yet, I highly recommend it. In fact, go download it right now, find three other people with iOS devices, and spend an hour yelling at each other—first cooperatively and then angrily. You’ve probably heard about Artemis, the game that’s all about simulating what it’s like to command and operate on a spaceship bridge. Well, Spaceteam pretty much just takes the “hey do this” part of Artemis, Star Trek, and Star Wars where you’re yelling at fellow crewmates to do their job and puts it in your hands.

There’s a thin premise to it all: you’re on a spaceship trying to escape an exploding star. Repeatedly. It seems as though each time you escape death, you only windup in its grasp again moments later but with progressively more dangerous supernovas. Each player is presented with a new set of controls with each level. At the top is a piece of text that gives that person an instruction to flip a switch, set a dial, press a button, or something. The only problem is that it may or may not be for that player, so yelling the instruction out into the ether for the correct player to grab onto will become necessary.

Wormholes and asteroids will come into play, as will falling control panels and vision-obscuring smoke, all of which serve to complicate matters and further occupy your mind so you will miss each vital, time-sensitive instruction. But the interesting part is the yelling.

When I played with my friends, it’s amazing how quickly we got into a groove. On our first time through, we made it to sector 12. We fell into a natural rhythm that helped us do things and help get things done. But then one of my friends got the bright idea to make the process systematic.

He proposed that we go in a clockwise circle where you would only say your instruction if it was your turn. Otherwise, let that MFer burn. That is unless it was an asteroid or wormhole warning; then yell as loud as your lungs and current environment would allow. We tried this twice and both times failed to get past sector seven. The question, of course, was why.

The obvious answer would be to say that we simply failed to understand the direction of clockwise, as was the case with one of my crewmates, but that is a negligible factor. If anything, that helped us get another instruction out there faster since the correct next person and the wrong next person would both throw something out there to be done. No, it had to do with the fact that the cycle introduced unnecessary cognitive overhead. When an asteroid or wormhole struck, we all would have to reconcile with whose turn was next. Did we get that last instruction? Is it the next person’s turn or do we need to go back? Oh no, the timer ran out, so whose turn is it now? The critical thinking power dedicated to completing an instruction while being aware that it’s your turn and the entire rotation hinges on your ability to flip a switch while reattaching a panel as you say your piece is, suffice it to say, severely missed.

This well-intentioned but ultimately broken idea highlighted one thing: you can’t beat intuition. When playing Spaceteam, it’s important to be aware, but only just so. You need to be receptive with your ears most of all, able to discard instructions that don’t pertain to you, but also with your peripheral vision, a second sight that can feed into your feel of a situation more than your direct vision can. There’s a reason why it’s often talked about with sports because peripheral vision guides your instincts and reactions much better than your central vision.

You can see and feel when your crewmates are busy and less likely to speak, thus opening the floor to you to say something. You can catch yourself about to speak as someone else is about to talk, holding back so your words don’t run together into gibberish. This means that rather than dedicating a discrete bit of thought processing to tracking turns, you can instead allow an always-on subsystem of peripheral intuition to guide your actions.

I think that is where Spaceteam succeeds the most. Sure it’s fun to yell and to see the insanity build on itself as you progress, but it excels at simply taking the primal factor of real world environmental intuition and peripheral tracking and applying it to a video game. Playing something like Call of Duty forces you to attend to multiple factors that lay both directly in front of you and offscreen so you have to track visible and intuited elements in a non-visible (and nonexistent) space. Playing Spaceteam with all the things you need directly at your fingertips and within arm’s reach reappropriates the carnal feel of real life into a spaceship bridge pseudo-simulator.

From moving about in your daily life to playing sports, things that exist outside of your central vision don’t need to be tracked mentally as they do with traditional video games like Call of Duty and Battlefield. Instead, they are tracked by a much more active, if less accurate, peripheral vision and feeds into your intuition, a thought process that incurs little to no cognitive overhead. I’m not saying there isn’t any intuition involved in playing video games, but it’s a very different kind of intuition from interacting with the real world. You can feel movement without making contact and you can sense impending action without seeing it. Spaceteam just happens to take this and shoves it into a game about yelling and supernovas.

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The Love Letter That Is Wreck-It Ralph

The Love Letter That Is Wreck-It Ralph

So I finally saw Wreck-It Ralph. Yes, over a month after its release in the United States, I finally saw the most video gamey movie of the year next to Indie Game: The Movie. But while one was about the world surrounding video games and the struggle to create them (and really, just the struggle of creating things in general), the other was about the world within games and directed itself towards one singular question: what if?

What if…what? Of course it asks the What If of what happens when you aren’t playing games à la Toy Story and questioning what happens when you don’t have an eye on your toys, but Wreck-It Ralph addresses something deeper than that, something that goes beyond the movie screen, just as Ralph went beyond his own game.

If you aren’t familiar with the movie, it’s a computer-animated film from Disney about a ridiculously large fellow named Wreck-It Ralph. He’s about nine feet tall and has hands the size of wrecking balls, which isn’t as strange as it sounds because Ralph is actually a video game character. He and a whole slew of other digital folk reside in an arcade and once it closes up each night, everyone stops pretending to be whatever they’re supposed to be and just become normal people.

Except for the bad guys. You see, all the bad guys have trouble being accepted in a world of sidekicks and heroes and the townsfolk that need saving because they’re the ones that the townsfolk need saving from. And I guess it’s hard for the inhabitants of Niceland to forgive Ralph every day for wrecking their homes as Fix-It Felix repairs everything, but it’s harder for Ralph, an all-around nice guy who just happens to play the role of a bad guy, to go on not being appreciated. After all, the good guys win medals.

And from there we go on a wacky whirlwind of an adventure, a nice family-friendly romp that I actually quite enjoyed (though it definitely does hit its slumps in the pacing department). But it’s also full of, well, my childhood. And my teenage years. And my everyday life. Wreck-It Ralph spans an incredible breadth of callbacks and references that anyone that has ever played a video game can appreciate on some level. Hell, even living in the world and soaking in pop culture will do it.

Just within the Bad-Anon group, a self-help group for characters coping with being the villains of games, we have Bowser, Zangief, Doctor Robotnik, M. Bison, Clyde, Kano, and an axe zombie from House of the Dead who apparently is named Cyril. And that’s just within the opening scene of the movie. You have a headlining Nintendo character sitting with a Sega staple next to one of the most recognizable orange ghosts ever known to man. It’s impossible not to get a little giddy over just the concept of Wreck-It Ralph.

But that’s all surface level stuff. That’s just for the people who probably at some point in their lives actually paid attention to video games, at some point resigned themselves to falling into some digital realm and reveling in their intangible victories and very real defeats. That doesn’t mean, though, that that’s where the creators of the movie stopped. Just from the kart racing, you can tell (like, for instance, that it’s a kart racer and not just some racing game); there are triple projectile power-ups, boost strips, and goofy drifting. The jump noise that Fix-It Felix makes is almost a dead ringer for Mario. The long-lost Q*bert makes an appearance, replete with Coily and company. The bartender from Tapper is taken to his logical conclusion and it is wonderful.

And you quarter-up. This, beyond anything else in the movie, really hits hard. When that little girl in the arcade puts her quarter down on the occupied racing machine, it felt like someone had reached into my core, grabbed onto whatever was in there, and just squeezed. A lifetime’s worth of gaming in dingy, poorly lit arcades to sitting on the floor of my friend’s room to standing among the unwashed masses at E3 all overwhelmed me in an instant. Years of dealing with cynics and trolls has deadened me on the inside, but that simple little action melted me.

It spoke to the genesis of my being and thus shook the entirety of my timeline. I was shattered and rebuilt as I once was, timid and scared of not only the sights and sounds overwhelming my senses but also the people engulfing me. I was back in that sea of people, drowning as I held onto my quarter. It was a raft that allowed me to survive there, but I knew I had to wield it as a weapon if I wanted to thrive there or that raft would turn into an anchor. All it took was a quarter to propel me, to instigate me to believe and act. That little insignificant moment that flew over so many other heads as either an unknowable mystery or just another of many other homages made me remember.

Walking out of the theatre, mind atwitter with knee-weakening nostalgia, I overheard a conversation. A grandparent—presumably—had taken his granddaughter to this particular midday showing, and walking out, she asked him, “what’s an arcade?”

Wreck-It Ralph isn’t a What If of what happens when you don’t keep an eye on your video games or a What If of what happens when you decide you can’t go on doing the same thing ever day or even a What If of what happens when Disney convinces a bunch of companies that it’ll do their brands proud in an animated movie. It’s a What If of what happens when you want to remind people of where we’ve been and where we’re headed. It’s a What If of enabling a grandfather and a granddaughter generations apart to connect over the simple idea of playing games around other people.

And what if we went back to that? What if we still lived in a world where we quarter-upped? What if all it took was a quarter to push a kid towards confronting the frothing sea and finding a passion amidst the waves?

What if we all loved something so deeply that it was impossible not to share?

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The Quality Of Quantity In Video Game AI

The Quality Of Quantity In Video Game AI

It’s a joke I heard first from the guys on The Totally Rad Show, and it kind of always stuck with me. Since that year, I’ve always thought about the winners and nominees of the Best Directing Academy Award: is it really the best directing or is it just the most directing? It is usually called and presented as the Best Director award, but that presents its own set of issues. What qualities of the director are you judging? The ability to connect with the actors? How much time is spent covering non-directorial aspects of the film? There’s no clear-cut answer and is open to a great many interpretations.

Of course, the other way doesn’t help much, either, but it’s still an improvement because it’s really just the one question of best versus most. “Best” directing is easier to quantify than director since you can see what scenes or shots were most effective in any given film and see what ended up as the most cohesive product, but that once against circles around to whether that is because there is more directing or better directing. Over the past couple of years, it’s most likely that the former has taken the reins.

These two attributes tend to conflict in video games as well. Sure, some publishers tend to put out more games over better games, but I’m talking instead about artificial intelligence (and, to a certain extent, simulation) systems and whether quantity or quality is valued more. They are two notions people often conflate, just as they do with the Best Directing Oscar, but the question remains: is it better AI or is there just more of it?

This is, obviously, an oversimplification of a very large facet of gaming, but it’s a lot easier to wrap your minds around than delving into the particulars of it all. AI is such a deep and wide foundational slab intrinsically connected with video games (you generally can only find AI-free games in pure multiplayer affairs, but even then, you will probably find some sort of basic level of interlocking systems) that to talk about them superficially is just about the only way for both of us to get out of here with our sanity.

But let’s start from the beginning and define what Best AI really is. To me, it is the absolute appropriate systemic response to the current state of the world. The more accurate the game can replicate your expectations, the better. For the most part, the state of the world will be subject to your input (otherwise, as Harvey Smith puts it, it’s just simulation) and thus as long as your input is changing, the world should be changing accordingly. Pac-Man had simple but effective AI; if you got a power pellet, the ghosts would run because they knew the shoe was on the other hand at that point. That is good AI while, very simply, bad AI is when those reactions don’t exist, propagate, or seem appropriate. Crysis 2, for example, had enemies that wouldn’t even shoot at you if you were punching them right in their dumb, blank faces.

So what is Most AI? That is when there are plenty of reactions to your actions, but they are not necessarily appropriate or effective the given context. By and large, when people say AI, they mean enemy behavior, but this can also extend to other game systems like wildlife and information dissemination and the like. All of that can and should interact, but sometimes AI will do things that simply don’t make sense regardless of the current world state, or would only make sense if you or another system had provoked it to do so.

Take a look at Borderlands 2. For the most part, people lauded the improved enemy behavior given the Serious Sam-esque battle encounters of run backwards, circle strafe, and never stop shooting that the first one nailed and exhausted within the first hour (though I still ended up playing days’ worth of it). However, while I do believe there were improvements made to the AI systems of the game, it doesn’t seem like the actual enemy behavior has gotten any better. There is simply more of it. For instance, instead of running at you in a straight, unwavering line, Psychos will now every once in a while step off to the side in an effort to dodge your incoming fire. If that sounds familiar, that’s because that’s basically how the zombies in Resident Evil 4 and Resident Evil 5 worked, and they were mindless undead.

Psychos and the rest of the bad guys you face in Borderlands 2, as far as anyone can tell, still have some sort of self-preservation, but instead of counting for intelligence when you’re fighting them, you are just trying to adjust for random fluctuations in the pattern. This does not make for mentally engaging encounters because you are not engaging with systems that offer commensurate response to your input; you are fighting against a list that gets checked off every 10 paces or so.

Compare that to just about every stealth game that came out this year. All of them are driven by their systems and don’t just ask them for advice every once in a while. You feel as though if you hadn’t become involved, there would still be a very functional world operating. You just happened this one time to muck about in it.

Dishonored probably achieved this best this year. Three-dimensional sound propagation made it so that you were very conscious about running too close to oblivious enemies and watching out for rogue bottles / other clink-inclined items. Vision cones showed how far and wide suspicion is liable to turn into full-on awareness. And the ensuing reactions always seemed proper. Guards would yell for help or search nearby hiding spaces after discovering a dead or unconscious body, and you can throw bodies to distract swarms of infected rats to avoid getting your health all chewed up. It seems like whatever you do, your actions will yield a fitting response.

Far Cry 3 also succeeded because you can watch as things you have no part in unfold, and then change directions as soon as you intervene. Or maybe it was about you to begin with, prior to sinking its hooks in and the AI systems take over. Both would happen frequently to me. While scoping out an outpost, a tiger may linger around me after giving up on a deer chase. I’ll take cover in some foliage and pray to god it doesn’t see me when it suddenly runs into the enemy camp to kill a barking dog/everything else in there. I then step in and kill the tiger and the last sniper myself.

Or maybe I’ll be running from the tiger to begin with. I’ll be sprinting down a dirt road when I happen across two patrolling enemies. They open fire as I run literally in front of their faces. A rogue bullet of theirs strikes the oversized cat, and it soon stops chasing me to maul those poor dolts while I commandeer a nearby jeep to rundown that foul feline. The AI responses are expansive and expected in a very real-life-reflective sort of way. It achieves a breadth that you normally only experience while interacting with the real world.

Then again, that’s exactly the same predicament of More AI instead of Best AI. I would argue that Call of Duty games have the trappings of better AI where things (enemies especially) react as you expect to your actions. They will take cover when you fire, flank when you don’t, knife you if you get too close, and grenade you when you’re far. It is the breadth of reactions that you would expect from those in the thralls of battle, but it still somehow comes across as insufficient engagement. It feels like pure if-then statements and function calls.

Halo games have the same wide array of possibilities based on similar premises but with Elites ducking behind Grunts and Jackals scattering at the sight of a Needler. And sometimes reactions are…imperfect but are infinitely more believable than Call of Duty AI. There are many occasions when your foes and allies will take cover against lesser threats while a bigger one looms over them. There are cases when grenades are haphazardly thrown and blows up some friendlies. Halo games react believably but imperfectly, which kind of mirrors the natural, emergent course that reality often finds itself on.

So then maybe it’s not a question of Most versus Best. Maybe it’s about effective versus ineffective. When people say “better AI,” they often mean “more AI,” but that’s not to say that more of it is bad or to say that cold, calculated reactions are more affecting than imperfection. It’s about what is best for the situation—what is convincing and relatable—over what is alienating, which I guess is the great takeaway from every lesson in life.

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Player Agency: Narrative Versus Personal

Player Agency: Narrative Versus Personal

Player choice has actually been a fairly large trend this year. In fact, I wanted to make this a Year In Review post, but there is one particular aspect of player-driven narratives that I want to talk about over the general, emerging trend of growing controller-side agency. There has been a whole host of games that can mold and shift as players make choices such as Dishonored, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, Silent Hill: Downpour, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, and so many more, but there are two specific titles I’d like to talk about: Mass Effect 3 and The Walking Dead.

NOTE: there’s a good chance I may delve into slight spoiler territory for both of these games. I won’t go into heavy specifics, but if you have yet to play either one of these and want to remain 100% totally clean as opposed to just mostly clean, then maybe return to this after you’ve played them. That, or hit yourself in the head with a big book until you forget what you’ve read here.

Mass Effect 3 has had a tumultuous year. I’m past my knee-jerk disdain for the game—just as I assume most people are—but there is still a lot about it that bothers me. I may think it’s a perfectly fine game at this point, but nothing will help me get past the dissonance between the urgency of a crumbling Earth/galaxy and Commander Shepard having time to eavesdrop on people on the Citadel and deliver unto them long-lost relics that are easily found among battle-worn rubble.

Also how some of the Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2 callbacks and character stories happen with one too many scoops of serendipity and one too many nicely tied bows on top. Also how incredibly useless it is to have to run from Reapers when you scan planets. Also how things included post-release as DLC should have been included as part of the original build because the stuff that happens with From Ashes and Leviathan are literal game-changers and are vital to elevating your enjoyment of Mass Effect 3.

But I digress. Though Mass Effect 3 is mostly a fine game and is undoubtedly the best-playing of the trilogy, the biggest problem was the ending. I don’t mean that the choices at the end were a little awkward or that it came across as lazy and rushed to simply tinge the cutscenes different colors (I really kind of didn’t mind it), but that there was so little of your input taken into account. It makes sense from a story standpoint about cycles and whatnot, but the final choice, regardless of which choice, pretty much negates everything you’ve done in the past two—now three—games.

Two of the largest running threads of the current Mass Effect universe are going to be basically undone for all the work you’ve done and relationships you’ve forged. Everything you’ve done for Legion and the Geth; Mordin and the Genophage; and the Quarians and the Migrant Fleet is pretty much moot once you finish the game. There are definitely some interesting thought experiments based on your choice, but that’s all forward-thinking (and somewhat inconsistent depending on if you played the extended ending). It kind of nullifies the hundreds upon hundreds of hours you spent shaping and saving the galaxy, and without the information imparted to you from the DLC, it’s also a bit of a deus ex machina resolution, which is historically the worst kind of resolution (next to 800×600 (badum, chssh! No? Okay, tough crowd)).

Once again, it kind of makes sense in context of the big reveal at the end, but you have to wonder: was this planned all along or did Casey Hudson & co. come up with it somewhere along the way? I have a feeling it was something of a mix of the two, but it does highlight the problem with player agency: at a certain point, everything must be accounted for. Eventually everything must be fully broken down into discrete endings or dovetailed into a manageable handful of possibilities.

The problem with the former is that it demands a lot of resources. You’ll have to branch out into an incredible amount of what-ifs and develop new gameplay scenarios, stage more motion capture for the new cutscenes, write and record new dialogue, and so on and so on. It will cost a lot of time, money, and manpower, not to mention cut off pretty much any possibility for a sequel unless you alienate the majority of your fans by choosing a canonical ending. The latter, however, is much more difficult to pull off. It requires elegance, trickery, and foresight from the very beginning. You have to plan for the dovetail and you have to plan on ways to make each and every catchall feel unique when it really isn’t.

And let’s face it: Mass Effect really went for it. It’s laudable what BioWare attempted, and had they pulled Mass Effect 3 off without angering half of the entire world, it would have gone down as possibly the greatest finale to one of the greatest trilogies ever made. Like, in any medium and any industry. That’s a lofty goal for anyone, but to pull it all off with just two years to work on it? I mean, I don’t think three years would have made it into The Perfect Game by any stretch, but maybe some of the more controversial and niggling bits would have been more cleanly resolved.

But player choice can be utilized in a different way: personal relationships. It’s just as hard to stick the landing on it, but it’s also much more manageable in terms of scope. Whereas Mass Effect had every action of Shepard influencing every corner of the galaxy, guiding the story into one of several bins at the end of the line, The Walking Dead focused on interpersonal choices. It’s narrative choice versus personal agency, and it’s a profound change in how branching storylines work.

Narratives operate within the realm of logic. Things have to make sense. As humans, we see dominoes fall every day; one falls, hits another, and that falls ad infinitum, and that makes sense. And that’s what stories are: a series of dominoes that fall in proper order based on the assumption that physics works. In the case of stories, physics is the rules of the world (via sci-fi or fantasy or whatever) and the dominoes are the actions and consequences. When something breaks this contract of how the movie world correlates to the natural world, we freak out. We get mad. When there’s a gap in the dominoes but they still fall regardless (deus ex machina, plot holes, etc.), it is egregious to us because logic—the same logic based on the same rules we’d established before—is broken.

The Walking Dead, however, focuses on personal relationships that you can forge and is much better off for it, and that’s because relationships don’t always operate on logic. I mean, sure, some of the choices we make will inform the flow of the overall story (like who lives and who dies), but that all feels incidental and totally perfunctory to how you shape your relationships with the survivors and (especially) with Clementine.

In the beginning of the season, most of my decisions were made with little to no thought. If anything, they were all utilitarian and made little consideration for my personal involvement in the affair. It worked, but then I developed a very strong, very odd false sense of loyalty to Kenny. I honestly have no idea where it came from. Maybe it’s because I saved Duck at that first farm and didn’t want to see the life I chose over another wasted or because it was always Kenny versus Larry and Larry was a dick or maybe it’s because Clementine and Duck were kids and kids need other kid friends. I don’t know. All I know is that loyalty made me make some very stupid decisions. And I came to hate him for it.

I then decided to go it alone, become that cold utilitarian once again. But that didn’t last long. I formed another strange, dumb bond that was torn in so many directions that I often felt like that I was going to get ripped into a million pieces and never manage to put everything back together. And it was all completely illogical. I can’t explain it to you even if I tried. I’m a human being like that and I sometimes make decisions with my heart instead of my head, and the heart is such a winding, twisted maze of enigmatic impulses and desires that I couldn’t possibly decipher it all.

And that’s how The Walking Dead succeeds. In the end, the entire season offers just about as much agency—maybe less—over the entire plot as Mass Effect 3 does, but because it offers you the ability to feel like you can intimately shape your personal relationships, the overall product is much more believable. You don’t have to fight against two other games (or four other episodes) of conflicting plot points or contrived mission outcomes. All you have to worry about is how your emotions feed into your decisions, and since that doesn’t operate on the same logic that makes you feel uncomfortable with how much time Shepard is taking between leaving Earth and attempting to save it (THERE’S NO TIME FOR DANCING OKAY MAYBE JUST ONE SONG), the lack of true influence on the story is forgiven.

The plot moves without you, but the relationships are yours to take and mold. Whether those decisions and changes are ever material to the world of the game doesn’t matter because they are real in your heart where thinking and logic don’t necessarily have purchase. But when your choices attempt to control the dominoes of a real world and its real consequences, we can see beyond the veil and see how it all breaks down. We are disillusioned instead of invigorated.

And then choice isn’t really choice at all.

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With Reckless Abandon And Jazz

With Reckless Abandon and Jazz

Despite being a full-on action game, I played Far Cry 3 very conservatively. It may be a first-person shooter with lots of guns and pirates and unfriendly animals, but just about all of my actions were well calculated in my mind before I acted upon them. Each outpost would require scouting both within the camp and from a sufficiently high or far vantage point. Only risks worth taking were even considered; otherwise, it was nothing but sure bets all the way. I would rarely drive vehicles in hostile territory for fear of being seen and getting caught in a firefight while a tiger or leopard or god damn Komodo dragon attacked me from behind. No, I would slink my way through the jungle, taking cover from road patrols and using my silenced weaponry to eliminate hostile wildlife.

Far Cry 3, somehow, was the slowest game I played this year. And it was fantastic.

But there’s something to be said about playing recklessly. It’s a way of going through a game without a single thought of consequence in your head of what might happen should you fail.

No, that’s not quite right. It’s not that you don’t care about the consequences; it’s more like the consequences won’t stop you because they can’t stop you. Of course they will matter and of course they are important, but they are not going to be the single factor that halts you in your tracks. You might fail and then feel deflated, but it’s nothing more than a personal vindication of success.

This almost necessarily means that the consequences are also seriously affecting. That was probably the single most glaring problem with Assassin’s Creed III. For most of the game, stealth had pretty much zero impact. If you were caught, you could fight your way out and just be all the same. In most instances, you wouldn’t even fail any of those annoying secondary objectives. Instead, you would just spend 15 minutes playing this mission instead of 10 as you axe dozens and dozens of red coats. And then when stealth did matter, if you were caught, you would just be shuttled back to the checkpoint and it would be as if nothing had happened. You were taught a lesson, you learned, and now both you and the game can move on. Sure, it’s a consequence, but is it one that matters? Not at all.

For that reason, blazing through Assassin’s Creed III is not playing recklessly. Instead, it is just playing fast. It’s not that I’m throwing caution to the wind but rather there are no cautions to be thrown. Nothing is insurmountable (save for that last chase sequence, but that’s a different story altogether) and the results are only either easy or frustrating.

Playing recklessly, instead, is more like how I played Dishonored, how I would at certain points just go for it, leaving the safety of my vent to choke out a guard, pick up his limp body, and blink back up to a hiding perch where I can stow away his and all his friends’ bodies. It’s more like how I played Mirror’s Edge, how the only way to play that game is to glaze your eyes so they can more easily see the clear running lines ahead of you. It’s more like how I would play through the Matter Splatter Galaxy in Super Mario Galaxy, jumping with precision and confidence onto materializing platforms that only existed in the world of optimism and assumptions.

More than anything, it is like how I played Hotline Miami. At first, you may approach the game from a very methodical camp. You’ll wait out multiple guard patterns just so that when you open the door in front of you, you’ll have time to run back after beating down a thug before his comrade sees you. It’s a classic stealth approach where patience is generally valued above all.

Everyone, though, seems to reach that point where they keep dying on the last two or so dudes, right before you get to walk up the stairs to the next level. And eventually your brash side comes out. You’ll soon just bash down doors without thinking twice of where the far guard might be. You’ll pick up and throw firearms and knives and bats as quickly as you knock them out of the henchmen’s hands. You know what failure means and you know that to die is to start the gauntlet all over again, but you don’t care. A feckless run may be the winning run.

It works on the heedless front because on one hand, every guy you come across is an equal, a peer in death-dealing. That lends the macabre proceedings a sense of weight so that you don’t feel like you’re a big kid playing in a kindergarten sandbox. It allows what you’re doing to be considered reckless, but also because every reload is a slightly off-kilter randomization of a predetermined level setup, you can begin to appreciate what the madcap technique brings to the table: improvisation.

It feels most like playing jazz, improvising your way through a solo. There’s a structure there and a framework you have to work in and there’s nothing you really can’t do, but there’s plenty that you shouldn’t do. You can play every note and chromatic the shit out of your limelight moment, but that would pretty much be a failure in everyone’s book. That’s just like how you can run up to the first guy and shoot him with a shotgun, but should you?

But as you go on, previous decisions begin to inform you later ones. Maybe you stumble across a lick that you particularly like to rip on your saxophone or your guitar or whatever, so you try to do variations on that, or you try to avoid it again so you can use it later. In Hotline Miami, your decision to throw a knife at a faraway guard leaves you with just your hands and precious seconds to use them as two inconveniently spaced bros come ambling down the hallway.

And that’s the heart of playing recklessly: you are improvising, testing your quick wit and understanding of how to operate within that foundation, within that C-minor scale. In Assassin’s Creed III, you are playing to yourself. There are no restrictions and no band, so the improvisation feels like noise at best and like a travesty at worst. In Hotline Miami, you can see the consequences of your actions—playing a wrong note, rushing the beat, repeating licks—and you still go for it. It’s exciting to watch and perform, and there’s a certain level of admiration on the part of the audience. They know you are succeeding without knowing how, that you are landing on the path as it appears before you.

As you blink and climb ladders in Dishonored, narrowly avoiding vigilant guards as you realize you can’t stop moving forward since you don’t know what’s behind you. As you intuit when to jump off your wall run in Mirror’s Edge, only feeling when it is right to shoot for the hanging ladder lest you lose momentum and lose grip. As you pull back on your long jump in Super Mario Galaxy, realizing the splattering matter is moving in a direction you didn’t quite expect and guiding you towards a death you don’t want.

As you run into the last room in Hotline Miami, blasting your solo and hitting every note.

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Top 10 Video Game Text Tones

Top 10 Video Game Text Tones

Here’s a bit of an oddity: I’m doing a top 10 list! It’s not that I don’t like them or hate the number 10. It’s more that I find the idea of delving deep into a single aspect of a game much more intriguing than spreading myself over the broad base necessary to make a list. I’d rather talk about how oppression and empowerment are the dominant themes of the Far Cry games or how the marketing for Assassin’s Creed III spoiled some surprise twists of the game’s story than talk about every weird peripheral made in the last 20 years or the most useless innovations of the 90s.

I’m also horribly indecisive and hate picking a number one anything.

But this was one I just couldn’t get out of my head. A few nights ago, a friend of mine’s phone went off with a text alert and it was the Metal Gear Solid alert sound. You know the one. That shrill, rising pluck that seems both brief and drawn out. I’ve heard it as many people’s text ringtones, but this is the first time I’ve seen someone confront its user: “Why? Can’t you be more original?” another friend asked.

So the next few hours kind of turned into some hot debate about what classic but slightly obscure video game dings would make for good text alerts (phone ringtones are a completely different story). They needed to be immediately recognizable to those in the know but not abhorrently overdone. They also can’t be too long (sorry Metroid‘s “Item Fanfare“). It’s a tricky balance because you have to dive deep into your brain to find things that you forgot you knew. I’m not saying we managed to nail that since there are some obvious choices that we just couldn’t pass up, but there are a few here that I think are more original. Anyways, here is what we arrived at.

10. Mass Effect‘s Wrex/Shepard Interaction – I’d take either one because both are so ridiculous. Maybe I’d put “Wrex” for SMS and “Shepard” for apps. I don’t know. I just know that anyone who hears that is immediately going to go, “ that…” and then go straight to laughing and quoting it for the next five minutes.

9. Mega Man 2‘s Boss Select – But really just the last part. The entire thing taken as a whole is far too long for a text (for me, anyways), but if you just take the last bit at around five seconds in, it should still be recognizable and then you can suss out who you want to befriend, defriend, and shoot with a Mega Buster.

8. The Final Fantasy Cursor Sound – Basically every Final Fantasy game has the same cursor sound, so I don’t think it would really matter which one. I mean, they all have their microsecond of quirk and personality and I’m partial to the Final Fantasy X one myself, but any of them—any—would make for a great choice. Plus, when someone correctly identifies which particular Final Fantasy your ringtone came from, you then get to/have to make out. Yes, it’s the law.

7. Nintendo Game Boy Boot Sound – What an icon sound. It plays to just about everybody’s childhood without necessarily pandering to it. Upon hearing it, everyone around will have their eyes roll back into their heads and slink back in their chairs as they remember everything about the early and mid-90s.

6. PlayStation 3 Trophy / Xbox 360 Achievement – I know, I know. I said we weren’t going to go into the obvious choices, but come on. These two dings are so forcibly ingrained in your mind as something positive, you’ll never not be happy about getting a text. You’ll visibly perk up and say aloud, “ooh!” It’s impossible not to, which I would say is good enough reason to put it on this list.

5. Pac-Man‘s Waka Waka – Specifically two wakas. No more, no less. Two is the ideal number since the first one will gently prod the brain of anyone around you with the nostalgia stick and then the second one will mercilessly beat them with it. It’s the perfect combo. Just that simple waka waka and bam! You’ve got your hooks in them.

4. Final Fantasy VII‘s Chocobo Warble – Full disclosure: this is a bit of a personal choice. I’m not entirely sure everyone in the will be able to identify with it, but we really like FFVII. Like, a lot. So this is going on there because it’s awesome and it makes me want to ride giant chickens so deal with it.

3. No More Heroes‘ Energize – This is one 90% of the world is going to have no idea is from anything real, but that doesn’t matter; it’s that other 10% that’s key because they played and treasured a god damn amazing game. But for the majority of the population, it still sounds like a pretty fucking sweet text alert, so win-win!

2. Half-Life‘s Health Noise – I think this is pretty much the perfect video game text tone. It’s short, distinct, and utterly recognizable without being too popular. Only after hearing someone else use this will people go, “crap! That should have been me!” I also think it’s just an incredible sound effect and would be number one if that conversation wasn’t a democracy.

1. The Mario Coin – I mean, come on. You kind of knew this was coming. It might be overdone, but it’s classic for a reason. Literally everyone from a graveyard full of dead cosmonauts to a newborn baby will hear this and give you a knowing nod before moving on with their lives. It’s universal recognition. It also invites serendipity.

Anecdote: I was walking out of my philosophy class at Texas Tech, dropped my pen, and reached down to pick it up. As soon as I made contact, someone passing by got a text and it was this alert. I stood up, he stopped, and we looked at each other. Then we dabbed knucks and parted ways, never to see each other ever again.

So there you have it. This was the list we arrived at after a few hours of heated debate and rash, slightly inebriated decisions. I know you’re going to complain that we missed some like the Metroid PrimeData Received” or the Metal Gear Solid codec sound, but this is just the top 10. On a list of all-time greats, those would of course be on there, along with Mario’s jump, Persona 4’s “pipipi” ringtone, the classic Capcom intro, Pokémon healing chime, and so many more. But go ahead and leave your comments below. I’d love to hear how dumb I am for leaving off your current ringtone!

No really, I would. Let me know what I missed!

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Internalizing The Different States Of Halo 4

Internalizing The Different States Of Halo 4

Open-world games generally have a very specific save system in that you can save anywhere and anytime. On PC, they usually facilitate this with quicksave and quickload keys so that you can you don’t even have to go through a menu to use and abuse these two functions. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, for instance, you just have to press F5 to save and then press F9 whenever you want to return to that point in time.

The purpose of this for developers is to offer players with so many extra keys the ability to utilize them and not be burdened by unnecessary menu navigation (ostensibly, anyways). For players, it works on a different level: experimentation. When I come across a situation that looks to be game-changing or know I’m headed for a conversation in which I’ll have to make a heady decision, I quicksave before I proceed. This way, I can tinker around with the game and see how I can immediately affect the world and my progress. And, sorry to say, I kind of use it as a cheat in Bethesda games like Skyrim and Fallout 3 so that I can get by locks and conversations that are way beyond my skills.

But that’s kind of the point: to cheat the system a little. I remember my first abuse of quicksave/quickload was Max Payne 2 on PC. After every encounter, I would quicksave just in case another one would surprise me and leave me wanting for ammo and health. On a certain level, it’s expected and opens games to a completely different type of gameplay, one where the player treats the world as a sandbox ripe for poking and prodding. Just look at Dishonored of this year. With its quicksave and quickload capabilities, it invites quick and rapid iterative testing. You can easily test the limits of guard patrols and sight distances and reload with no consequence. While the saves and loads may be quick, it slows down the game to a very deliberate pace and greatly expands the experimentation theme of the game without directly affecting how the game plays

It’s different, though, when those reload points land out of your control. When the game operates on checkpoints instead of offering the user the ability to choose when he or she wants to roll back to, it kind of homogenizes the experience. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; it just makes for a different kind of game. In Hitman: Absolution, for instance, every person playing the game will always start out from a predefined set of locations and circumstances. There is absolutely zero variability here (especially since everything and everyone respawns upon reloading a checkpoint, but that’s a gripe for another time).

That’s what makes Halo games so special. It kind of mixes the two into a dynamic auto-checkpointing system. People have hypothesized and pondered how it works, attempting to divine what qualifies as a good time to checkpoint in Halo games, but it all seems rather moot. The game chooses and you live and die—sometimes repeatedly—by that autonomous decision. Sometimes it very overtly is based on when you kill enough enemies while other times it’s obviously checkpointing at certain locations on the map, but almost as frequently, Halo saves a checkpoint just because. It might be in the middle of a firefight, you in the middle of retreating behind cover, or it might be as you flip a Warthog over a barrier. Much like life, Halo checkpoints just sort of happen.

More than previous games, Halo 4 made me conscious of this. Maybe it was sheer happenstance or maybe it was a tweaked checkpoint system from past games, but it seemed like Halo 4 would save at the most inopportune moments. A second away from death, out of ammo, or after walking in the completely wrong direction for what feels like far too many minutes, I would see that checkpoint hit and just kind of wonder why. Other times, I would scream aloud WWWHYYYYYYYY, but my point remains: it was all nigh inscrutable.

Until it kind of landed on me—heavy in the chest with a thick and solid thud—that it was opening up the game to a similar sensation to the Skyrims and Fallouts and Dishonoreds of the gaming world; it was opening me up to rapid experimentation. However, my mental model worked in a fundamentally different way. In the discrete save/loading methodology, it was easy to empty my mind of each past and future and just focus on my present (likely dire) situation. I would usually refamiliarize myself with the current state of the world just to make sure nothing had miraculously changed in a world I’d thought static all Pleasantville-like.

In Halo 4, though, I began to notice that I was doing a mental quicksave myself whenever I saw that checkpoint hit. I would quickly internalize the state of the world for future reference. It was more than remembering; it was like a pure data set, an infallible visual representation of the entire world of the game, was stored in my brain. I could see and recall in an instant the exact location of the three Grunts to my left by that pillar. I instinctively know there is a firing Needler coming in from my 5 o’clock. It might as well be a fact of everyday life that an Elite has position (x,y,z) and current vector of (u,v,w). The entire quicksave function had relocated to my brain.

This opens the game up to an entirely different method of experimentation that plays into the puzzle-like mechanics of Halo so well. Since the control of the checkpoints is completely out of my hands, progress soon becomes the only worthwhile milestone of the game, but the necessary elegance soon becomes all encompassing. As I’m sure is the same with most of you, when you begin any encounter, you have some idea of what an optimal flow would be. Head left, throw grenade right, clear out hallway, cut across the center, and choke up on the middle as the Covenant try to overwhelm you.

But that fails. Luckily, you hit a checkpoint right after you threw the grenade and the world at that moment is imprinted on your brain. That frag is flying out over two barriers and a mildly empty expanse. A Jackal is over there, unfortunately pushing you towards the hallway you just died in. More importantly, you know that every part of your plan before that grenade worked. Everything after that? Not so much.

So now, instead, you push forward. Bad idea. There’s a Hunter, and he’s going to need to be taken care of one-on-one. Your mental imprint is updated. You fire right and push the Jackal into your grenade (silly Jackal). You retreat backwards that way and dump into the hallway, clearing it out, so now you can take care of the Hunter, the same one that just smashed the ground not two inches in front of you.

All of this happens in an instant. This all happens without thought so much as instinct because that checkpoint is internalized and made to be a very specific part of you. Emotive associations begin to form with good and bad parts of the surround area, where there will be trouble and where there will be aid. Rather than sit and ruminate on your predicament, you act. The dynamism of Halo 4‘s checkpoint system forces you to not think as much as you do simply react. Saves happen in the moment, so your actions happen accordingly. You don’t have time to stop and think so you don’t. You adapt and the game changes with you.

I’m not entirely sure it started out purposeful or not with Halo: Combat Evolved, but this in-the-moment, mystical checkpoint system that Halo 4 still uses absolutely works. More than that, it’s elegant. Deliberate or not, it a relatively small, front-facing change from the usual checkpoint systems that manages to fundamentally changes how the game works. Later Call of Duty games worked similarly, though it was more a matter of where you were and what you were doing at the time an objective completed, so you could be anywhere doing just about anything when you kill the last guy. It makes for trudging through on Veteran a unique experience, but I digress. Neither Call of Duty nor any other game makes the same instant flash imprint on my brain like Halo 4 does. An entire digital world is stored and recreated and analyzed within a single moment and recalled just as quickly.

There’s still a little part of my brain that remembers where I left off two weeks ago. And I still know there’s an Elite hiding behind that rock.

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Far Cry 3’s Empowerment Over Oppression

Far Cry 3's Empowerment Over Oppression

Over the past few days, we’ve been going over the trends of the year from crowdfunding with Kickstarter to emerging stealth staples to callbacks to a sub-genre of games once long forgotten. But let’s take a break from all that. That broad overview is fun, but diving into the minutia of particular games is often a much more interesting proposition. In this case, we’ll break down one of this year’s best in Far Cry 3.

We’ll be doing so with the help of one of 2008’s most overlooked and most underrated titles in Far Cry 2.

An obvious choice, sure; sequels and franchise buddies often are used to compare one another. If lacking any other contemporaries, sibling entries into a series can often provide relative viewpoints from which you can quickly and accurately describe and compare new titles. Like how instead of taking a few hundred words to properly describe Batman: Arkham City, giving a quick summary of “it’s like Batman: Arkham Asylum but in a perpetually night-addled open-world city” works just as well (and probably better) if you go into the conversation having already playing the first game.

The problem—relatively speaking anyways, since this is only a problem in the fact that it becomes hard to use this summary shortcut—is that Far Cry 3 is about as similar to Far Cry 2 as chili dogs are to corn dogs; in the same vein and mostly using the same ingredients but also so vastly different that you can love one and hate the other without coming across as a lunatic.

Which isn’t really all that surprising given the massive departure Far Cry 2 was from the first Far Cry. The original game is so far the only Far Cry game to be developed by Crytek while the sequels have been developed and published by Ubisoft Montreal, so the absolute hard left made from FC1 to FC2 should inform the lack of shock going into FC3. In fact, Crysis is basically considered the flagship franchise of the CryEngine developers, not to mention the one that plays most heavily into the Cry-pun shenanigans (2013 will feature the first titles from the studio that don’t do that with Warface, Ryse, and, strangely enough, Homefront 2).

So why bring up FC2 at all? Because despite all of its differences, FC2 and FC3 are strikingly similar games. Chris Remo of the Idle Thumbs podcast/Double Fine Productions described it best: it’s like they’re both the same dish but made with completely different recipes. So say you and I both set out to make pancakes, but you throw in some blueberries and granola and top it off with a fruit compote and whipped cream while I make mine chocolate chip with strawberry chucks and drown it all in syrup and butter. Both are still pancake dishes but so vastly different and appeal to completely different people.

For all its faults, FC2 was severely ambitious. It aimed so remarkably high in so many ways that I’m surprised it even came out as cohesive and compelling as it does. Everything about it screamed one word at you for its 25-hour run: oppression.

Nothing ever felt easy because nothing ever was easy. You are dropped in media res with a mission in Central Africa to assassinate a gun runner known as The Jackal. Well, you never get around to doing that because you pass out from malaria, only to awaken to find The Jackal standing over you, quoting Nietzsche and waving around a menacing machete. He eventually lets you live, but this opening sequence sets the mood for the whole game: you are not in control.

The Jackal is quoting Nietzsche’s Beyond Good And Evil, a book by the famed philosopher that introduces his “will to power,” the concept that the single most prominent drive in human beings is ambition and the desire to impose superiority and dominion. It rejects knowledge, truth, and free will and instead accepts a place beyond good and evil.

And that’s where you live in FC2; you live beyond good and evil and simply exist in this world that doesn’t care about any of that. The land is dusty and empty yet full of life; you are afflicted with malaria, introducing a controlling construct in your life that is beyond your command; weapons degrade with use, forcing the notion that your grasp of the world weakens with time down your throat; and fire is an enemy unseen until it springs up in your face, uncontrollable and unquenchable so that it destroys without prejudice. You are in the most desolate, depressing, and manically oppressive world you’ve ever been in and you are choking, drowning in an arid wasteland of death and flame without a single drop of water in sight.

The mere act of loading up FC2 requires a moment or two of psyching yourself up, preparing yourself to be overpowered and overrun with problems, but it’s such a cohesive and amazingly realized milieu that it’s impossible not to admire and, on some masochistic level, enjoy it. Everything is out of your control and you rely on so much else in the world to survive (new weapons, medication, etc.), but at the same time so many people are relying on you to fight the oppression and fight The Jackal. It is Nietzsche’s will to power in video game form. There is no right and there is no wrong, two constructs of a fabled universal morality, and instead there is just you fighting for agency in this world.

And all of that heavy gravitas somehow came from the same studio that has turned out FC3. By most counts, FC3 is a better game. What that means in the definitive sense is obviously up for debate, but it works for now to say that it is a lot more fun to play. The guns shoot better, you move better, getting around and doing stuff is less frustrating, it looks better, the story is more coherent, etc. In essence, FC3 is much more what you would expect when you say “video game” to someone.

It is also the complete opposite of what you had experienced in FC2. Whereas that was depressing and nigh difficult to even consider playing, this sequel is a splendid breeze. Guns don’t degrade, you don’t have to deal with malaria, you seemingly run at Doom-like speeds, stealth actually works (and can be quite tense), enemies don’t respawn the moment you turn around, outposts unlock fast travel and weapons lockers, health items can be crafted and used in an instant from commonly found plants in the world, weapons loadouts are yours to customize, and so on and so on.

Not only is FC3 the complete antithesis of FC2 in terms of how it treats the player with its gameplay, but it also is the thematic counter as well. While FC2 was about making the player push himself in the face of adversity to gain power and gain influence over this crumbling spit of Central African land, FC3 is all about losing yourself (via a Lewis Carroll quote, the second from Ubisoft Montreal of the year!) as that power is placed in your untested hands. It is about earned—scratching and clawing as you are dragged down to grab on to anything that will save you—versus given as the Rakyat Tatau grows and grows on your previously unmarked arm. Your knowledge and abilities are gifted to you through the supernatural connection of the native people and native lands. Simply compare the environments, a hopelessly dry, cracked, landlocked mass instead of a lush tropical island, and you can intuitively understand the difference.

Along with the vehicles for the delivery of these themes (gameplay versus narrative), this presents the most striking comparison of dread against wonder. In FC2, there was never any wonder, never any hope. Around every corner was dread and a sense of despair. Driving to the next mission location was never an inspiring moment and instead every second was another spent considering turning around and hanging out under that nice shady tree. Regret and doubt fueled every move, but fuel like sugar in a gas tank would drive a car, it doesn’t really help anyone not looking for catastrophe, and that is all FC2‘s barren lands has to offer.

But everything in FC3 inspires wonder. Every road leads to a hidden cave or underwater treasure. Every hill reveals a greater mountain cresting into view. All you do is discover and mine for joy. Nothing poses a challenge to you (well, save for those god damn tigers, but I suppose that’s fair) and everything is available to you. If you want to take over that outpost, you do that and it’s yours. If you want to see more of the map, you climb that radio tower and you see it all. If you want more animal skins, if you want more weapons, if you want to carry more ammo, if you want this or if you want that, it’s all possible. Hang gliding? Sure. Jet skis? Why not!

Needless to say, I have a lot of love for both of those games (and a little for FC1, but that’s a different story altogether), but the reasons for loving one is so vastly different from the reasons for loving the other. They’re both the same dish of a first-person, open-world shooter, but their recipes are so insanely opposed that I wouldn’t even consider eating one after the other; it just wouldn’t make sense. But the contrast makes Far Cry 3 stand out all the more, from the sublime way it plays to the odd, interesting turns in the narrative. From oppression to empowerment, Far Cry makes the jump. But will you jump with it down that rabbit hole?

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The Year In Review: Stealth

The Year In Review: Stealth

Most games with even the slightest hint of action also include bits of stealth. Sometimes it’s 100% perfunctory and just a side effect of being a video game, such as when you try to get up real close and steal away at least one easy kill in Gears of War before things start going totally sideways. You’ll try to keep cover between you and the enemy, utilizing the third-person camera to your advantage so you can see who (or what) is just around the corner. This is just an ancillary notion to when games necessarily give you a shooting reprieve. Take a breather and then take advantage of having the drop on the baddies.

Other games more overtly include sneaking and hiding. We call them “stealth games.” Don’t worry, I’ll give you a second to collect your brain off the wall after I just blow’d it with that little bit of knowledge. Surprisingly, though, the biggest pure stealth game this year didn’t come from a huge publisher or developer (Both Tom Clancy releases this year were from the Ghost Recon series, a traditionally more action-oriented tale of international intrigue). No, instead it came from Klei Entertainment, developers of the bloody, frenetic, and overall terrific Shank and Shank 2.

Mark of the Ninja manages to accomplish what most other stealth games (or even games that simply incorporate stealth elements) wish they could do: not make it frustrating. Sure, there are times where you feel like things got out of hand a bit too quickly, but you always have a way out. With a little dash of Shank-style hack ‘n slash, you are more than capable of dispensing of alerted foes with your blade. Or you can simply escape up into the rafters à la Batman: Arkham City. Or you can pause time, knock out the lights, and hide in a darkened recess of a wall. Any given sticky situation has a multitude of ways to get unsticky.

All of which is elevated by the way Mark of the Ninja surfaces its stealth information, which is to say it visualizes it all for you. You can see the sound waves you create as you sprint versus the nigh imperceptible ripples you make when you walk. Enemy sight is shown via light cones and their alert states are discretely shown by Metal Gear Solid-esque icons overhead. And while there is a gradient to your active state, its categorical nature is also discrete and revealed to you, so you never have to worry “can he see me? I think he can see me. OH SHIT HE SEES ME.”

Better yet, certain maneuvers like taking out lights and the like will show you the consequences of that action before you do it, so you know prior to even throwing your shuriken that it will alert the guard below. It’s genius and totally makes the inherent trial-and-error nature of stealth games way less frustrating.

Surfacing stealth information seems to be becoming commonplace, though, even among non-stealth games. Far Cry 3, for instance, is primarily an open-world action game where you can go anywhere (so long you’re not in a mission) and shoot anything, and it’s fantastic. It shoots great, it drives crazy, and has one hell of an opening. In a startling move of competence for a first-person shooter, though, Far Cry 3 actually has some good stealth.

It works because it surfaces your current status very well. Crouch and you’re instantly quieter and less visible, but you’ll also know when enemies see you due to an onscreen indicator. It’s an arrow that points much like a grenade indicator would in Call of Duty games, except this one points to people that see you instead of things that explode you. It’ll grow in size as these people see you more clearly—or at least begin to suspect they see you. If you can dash away in time, you will avoid being spotted.

But Far Cry 3 is also a very systems-driven game, so if you manage to dispatch this sneak-ruining scourge in a silent manner with no one else seeing your dirty deed, you fall back into a non-alert stage. It works because it discretely informs you of your current state and, like Mark of the Ninja, gives you a brief chance to fix small errors without going full-on Rambo to fix it.

It also helps that there are simply chunks of the world that are specifically for pure stealth, namely areas with tall grass. If you crouch in any sort of foliage, you will break line-of-sight with tracking enemies (or potentially tracking). It’s something that’s explored more fully in Assassin’s Creed III. While you would think a game about an assassin would naturally be more about stealth, ACIII actually allows for a great deal of action, and it’s action that—for the most part—works. Connor moves capably and eliminates enemies quickly. It feels appropriately brutal and efficient.

But hiding is also cordoned off into discrete elements. Hay bales and wells and hanging off of ledges all keep you out of the sight of enemies, keeping you incognito. Not only that, but much like in Far Cry 3, you can keep low profile in tall grass to instigate instant stealth, hiding you in pretty much plain sight much as you would be blending in with a crowd or sitting on a bench. The massive opportunities and natural feel to those chances to hide are what make the stealth in ACIII work. Well, that and the fact that you can easily see what enemy in which location currently suspects you, ignores you, or is about to become a major problem for you. It makes sneaking around much more manageable.

It’s just that there are two problems with that: 1) purposefully, it’s all contextual, as stated by the developers, since they aim for “social stealth,” so you won’t find a crouch button, and 2) it punishes you for failing to sneak around undetected. I don’t mean that it punishes you with a quick fight or the need to run and hide, but that it raises your Notoriety, a mechanic that I’ve hated since 2009’s Assassin’s Creed II. With anything above incognito, enemies will spot you regardless of what you’re doing. So no longer can you case a building or stalk your prey in a new way according to your warped scientific method. No, instead you must first run around whilst avoiding any enemy patrols so you can bribe town criers or check every tree and wall for wanted posters. It’s not a lot of fun and totally kills the momentum of the game.

It’s a similar problem that Dishonored has. I mean, if you’re spotted and have a pretty quick reaction, you can take care of the issue before it becomes a full blown problem. However, the moment one guy in the area screams “GUARDS!” or something, you’ve got a whole bunch of killing ahead of you. Or running and taking a shit load of damage. Or reloading a checkpoint. The killing wouldn’t be such a problem since Corvo is quite handy with a blade (and grenades and pistols and spring traps and crossbows and supernatural powers) so fighting a roomful of dudes is actually kind of fun, but if you are going for stealth or a good ending, fighting immediately means you’ve failed your goal. Whether meta and a point of pride that you never got spotted or tangible in that you can’t kill people for fear of rising Chaos, you are punished for being spotted and forced to fly or fight.

The actual sneaking, however, is very well done. There is no “social stealth” as there is in ACIII, but instead you are given a set of statuses and you can do certain things in those statuses. Either you’re spotted or you’re not; either an enemy is oblivious or suspicious or alerted; either you’re in hostile or you’re in neutral territory. Your actions will move you and enemies along these rails, so it’s all a test of poking and prodding at moving parts as you sneak around in attics and sewers.

Poking and prodding, however, is probably more in the Hitman: Absolution wheelhouse since the Hitman series has become famous for being testbeds of Mousetrap-like gears and cogs turning. Hitman, perhaps more than ACIII, is all about social stealth. In fact, let’s go ahead and assume Ubisoft lead game designer Steven Masters meant “contextual stealth” rather than “social stealth.” Hitman is all about hiding in plain sight with costumes and figuring out what piece goes where so when you push over the right domino, everything tumbles just the way you want.

And just like Far Cry 3, you get the grenade indicator-style arrow that grows and grows until you elevate your status. It’s helpful because you don’t have totally binary states of seen/unseen like some past Hitman games. Now you can go into a room, realize you shouldn’t be there, and walk out before you get into serious shit. Better yet, you have this Instinct meter that you can burn to casually go “oops! My bad!” to smooth over an otherwise “oh fuck” situation.

It all falls apart, though, when you encounter areas that are chock-full of the same enemy type. You see, enemies of the same type can all see through your costume if you’re trying to front as one of them. In fact, they can see through you from like 50 yards away, so when you have no other choice but to try to be a cop amidst a sea of cops, the game kind of breaks the one way it works and it soon becomes a half-assed Splinter Cell game.

But the important thing, I guess, is that it’s there. This has been a big year for stealth. Last year there was Batman: Arkham City and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations for the big titles and Sniper: Ghost Warrior for the smaller guys. But more than anything (even quantity), this year was probably the most about surfacing stealth to the player, bringing all the pertinent information that would otherwise be going on in the background to the forefront and putting it right in front of your eyes. Developers may have realized this year (or rather, several years ago due to development time and such) that stealth should not be frustrating; it should be exciting and nerve-racking, not arbitrary and fruitless.

Sure, there were games like I Am Alive and Deadlight that incorporated stealth in a more opaque way, but those were aesthetic, tonal choices that fit those titles. And Stealth Bastard Deluxe is more like a puzzle game than a stealth game. So for this year of 2012, stealth was all about informing the player, and for that I’m grateful.

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