Monthly Archives: July 2013

A Standard Audio-ty

A Standard Audio-ty

A lot of concessions are already made for stories. There’s an entire plot device, after all, that does little else but give a name to random events kicking off subsequent action. Characters often act in extravagant or over-the-top ways so as to manufacture drama that can later be resolved in (hopefully) some meaningful way. And that’s not to mention we all experience these things in a largely default state of assuming the good guys always win, which is far from the truth of real life. When was the last time you saw a big ol’ headliner film that ended with the world blowing up and the terrorists/aliens/d-bags won?

In video games, we give up even more in the way of reality. Detachments from our tangible world become our norm and yet we cling to what’s left so as to make sense of these digital realms. For all its militaristic verisimilitude, what, exactly, is the strawberry jam covering our faces in Call of Duty supposed to be? If it’s blood, then are we to believe that when it clears up, we simply stuffed it all back into us and we’re all better now? If it’s really fruit preserves, then how are we losing to enemies that only use jelly-based munitions?

That, however, is the soup du jour of video game concessions. Or at least it was for the longest time. Before, you had to give up whatever fondness you had for accurate medical science when bullet wounds could be healed in a matter of seconds by picking up a little box with a Red Cross symbol on it. But that was just the tip of the iceberg: an endless amount of ammo magazines await you, you got a PhD in Visualizing Grenade Trajectories, and dead bodies fade into the ether.

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

Those are all concessions we regularly agree to and happily endure when playing most video games. A recent article by Kirk Hamilton over at Kotaku, though, made me think of the more personable, non-mechanical ones that we similarly and joyfully play through. In that piece, Hamilton talks about a bevy of games that both succeed and fail at making compelling in-game graffiti. He tears down Tomb Raider‘s admittedly poor decision to recycle and then needlessly highlight its dire survivor graffiti and then points out that even larger, more critically well-received games like The Last of Us fall victim to nonsensical wall art.

That all is in service of an overarching trend, though, called environmental storytelling. Or I guess it’s not a trend and more just a fact of narrative-driven games now since it is a very potent technique and technology is capable of rendering such things. One of my first experiences with the narrative tactic was in System Shock 2, a game that Hamilton also points to being one of the first aboard the graffiti train. But I specifically remember walking down a curving hallway—lights flickering—with a blood stain smeared across the wall next to me. That alone told a frightening story. It was, however, old-hat then in films and old-hat now in games, but it still does the trick.

One of the points Hamilton makes, though, is rather poignant and salient to my original conceit: most in-game graffiti makes no sense. What’s the purpose of writing “what happens when the food runs out” just outside of a city? Do the members of a fire-loving cult really need a spray painted reminder to “embrace the flame”?

Tomb Raider

It seems, however, that beyond the graffiti-covered zeitgeist, the bigger trend is for environmental storytelling to depart further and further from a staunch veracity and go deeper into irrationally suspended disbelief. Consider all a hallmark of the BioShock series: audio logs. A great deal of them both in Rapture and in Columbia (much more, it seems, up in the sky) contain the last words of dying men and women. Whether holding the front to some firefight, bleeding out from a sneak attack, or simply fading away with the flowing sand, they leave their mark on the world in a touching way. They’ve got family and friends untended to, they’ve got stories with unhappy endings. They all paint an appropriately grim and dark picture in these flawed and fallen utopias.

That is, of course, until you remember that they had to have been carrying these large audio recorders to do that. These big ol’ boxes of arcane technology seem to be both single purpose and single use, only being able to record a single message from a dying man before they’re tossed aside onto a shelf or behind a box or next to a pool of blood and loot. They look to be roughly the size and shape of a Ghostbusters proton pack, so think about someone lying on their side, their own blood slowly but surely running out of them, and they unhitch this behemoth from their back, rewind the tape, and press record to leave a message so perhaps someone other than a Splicer or nutso religious fanatic finds it. It is, without a doubt, absurd.

But this is the recent conclusion to years of experimenting with environmental storytelling, and it amounts to little more than overt narration, the laziest method of relating information to the viewer/player. It’s a handy relabeling to dodge the tired bullet of narration, similar to how The Office and Parks and Recreation fake documentary-style talking head segments to do the same thing.

BioShock 2 audio diary

Dead Space, Dishonored, Borderlands, Spec Ops: The Line, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Singularity, and so many more all fall victim to audio logs, and none of them make much more sense than BioShock. Giant Bomb’s concept page for audio logs lists 76 games, a density distribution curve with respect to time looking an awful lot like an exponential growth function. It is a growing trend and a rather subtle subversion of reality, but it is still a disconnect from what we know to be true.

That’s not to say, however, that it needs to be fixed for that particular reason. Breaking from the known and jumping headfirst into the unknown is perhaps the greatest strength of video games. Intuitive understanding—seeing that blood smeared across the wall—sticks around a lot harder than discrete understanding because we make the connections subconsciously, which then bubbles up to the forefront of our minds. It covers all bases of understanding and learning while reading and listening must be digested and extruded in reverse.

These audio logs fall into that undesirable latter, and when they begin to fail to make sense, they detach from our curiosity of the world we’re in and crumple into a pile of questions about the framework of the game. From improbably handy information to impossibly well-timed death rattles, those are concessions we shouldn’t have to make when we’re learning about our environment. We should be asking ourselves “what happened” instead of “how did this get here” but that’s far too often what we end up with.

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A Fish in the Sea

A Fish in the Sea

I was so excited. A thing that I had written was going to be published on the front page of the newspaper. Granted, it was a college paper and it was more or less an op-ed piece, but it was still mine and it would be my name that people would be seeing. I’m an emotionally dampened person, to say the least, but this was a rare instance where I was feeling pride.

For what? 30,000 students and teachers would read about my opinion mixed in with some research on the merits of PC and Mac. I didn’t really feel all that strongly about the topic, but my editor did, so I wrote about it. It indeed made my self-assured gait that day all the more confusing. But then I began to check my e-mail. It was the first time I’d ever seen a real death threat, let alone one aimed at me. And then I continued to get more and more e-mails, many of them saying they still chose one side or the other but appreciated my words nonetheless. Those were great, but that single, solitary e-mail still sticks with me to this day.

So I can’t imagine what it must be like to put out a game like Fez or speak out in public to hundreds of thousands of people every day, where every word you say is put under a magnifying glass, shit upon, and then told it looks like shit anyways. But that’s the world Phil Fish and many other creatives and figureheads live in. Fish, founder of Polytron and designer of Fez, is, however, especially strange because it seems like he puts himself out there on purpose.

Phil Fish in Indie Game: The Movie

One of the few things people can agree upon when talking about Fish is that he’s outspoken. When Fish has a thought, it seems like he rarely decides to put it through any filter or really consider the consequences. It is, basically, the same reason people love Jennifer Lawrence except the things she says are all around charming while Fish’s words are generally the subject of controversy. Remember the Xbox 360 Fez patch?

It’s sometimes, though, a chicken and egg problem. Consider when he was at an open Q&A at last year’s GDC. A Japanese developer asked Fish what he thought of modern Japanese games, to which he responded, “Your games just suck.” And then the Internet promptly blew up. But the bigger story is that the initial reporting was Fish simply lambasting Japan in its entirety (which he wasn’t) and decrying Japanese game development unprompted (which he wasn’t). At some point, Braid creator Jonathan Blow backed up Fish by saying they are “joyless husks” of games, though people by and large failed to push back against that with similar zeal. (Or possibly think that there was, in fact, some merit to Fish and Blow’s statements.)

Following that debacle, many questions press posed to Fish were directly tied to that incident, some of which were leading and some of which weren’t. But it soon began a case of badgering a very opinionated fellow to give his opinion. It’s like lighting a stick of dynamite and then blaming it for blowing up in your face.

Phil Fish at Fantastic Arcade 2012

I’ve met Fish before, too, so I can say that he is everything you would expect. Guarded, talkative, paranoid, and incredibly smart. His insight on games is simply astounding. It was at a house party during last year’s Fantastic Arcade in Austin, Texas where he was, coincidentally, being the resident DJ (perhaps still wound up from the previous night’s Dancingularity event) and, at some point, juggling fire. A press friend of mine, however, had spent the whole day and most of the party trying to convince Fish to sit down for an interview they’d long agreed to. My friend wanted to talk about the Dancingularity thing. Fish was afraid he just wanted to talk about games, which he was adamantly opposed to that night.

That is understandable. If I was a creative, I’d be wary of press, too. I’ve shared drinks with developers that open with “this is off the record” when I thought we were just being friends. Better safe than sorry, I guess, but that won’t stop the naysayers of the Internet from spitting fire from their nostrils.

That’s what happened over the weekend. An episode of Invisible Walls on GameTrailers with Marcus “Annoyed Gamer” Beer had Beer saying some less than savory things about Fish and Blow. He was particularly critical of Fish refusing to comment on Microsoft’s revised self-publishing policies for the Xbox One, though such revisions were simply rumors at the time, a problem both developers had when press came digging for quotes. He did also go so far as to call the two indie developers (which he somewhat childishly referred to as “Blowfish”) a “pair of tosspots” and “self-styled kings of the indie genre.” He capped it off by calling Fish “a fucking asshole most of the time.”

Invisible Walls: Everything and the Kitchen Sink

Fish and Beer then got into it over Twitter and Fish subsequently canceled the recently announced Fez II and decided to quit game development altogether. Fish made an official statement on the Polytron Twitter account and blog: “Fez 2 is cancelled. I am done. I take the money and I run. This is as much as I can stomach. This isn’t the result of any one thing, but the end of a long, bloody campaign. You win.” (Patrick Klepek over at Giant Bomb has a solid recap of the events.)

It’s a real shame, if this turns out to truly be the finale to Fish’s development career. (It probably isn’t?) He, of course, had his fans. Not just of his games but of his words, too, but as anyone in the public spotlight can tell you, it’s not that easy to get over the hate that never seems to have trouble finding you. For all the compliments and help I get for and with my writing, I can tell you that the death threat I got over five years ago still sticks with me. And all the love and support Fish gets for Fez will never topple the hate he got from an industry professional on a widely viewed show on a heavily visited site. Even #PositivitySunday this weekend didn’t do much of anything to buoy the industry’s spirits.

It’s not an easy thing to get over, but it’s such an easy thing to be the target of. Someone once suggested to Blow that he could ignore all the bad stuff that gets sent his way. “We can’t choose to ignore it. As soon as the words are read, they have already hit emotionally.” Which is quite true. Tweets don’t have subject lines, and those trolls have become smart enough to put innocuous ones in their emails to get the body read. And even then, it sometimes doesn’t stop people from being nasty.

Fez

There’s a Tumblr out there that collects all of the horrible things people tweet at David Vonderhaar, design director behind Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, after they changed the DSR’s fire time from 0.2 seconds to 0.4 seconds and the rechamber time from 1.0 seconds to 1.1 seconds (among other things). Every time Anita Sarkeesian puts out another Feminist Frequency, you can be sure people extolling the subjugation and loss of “men’s rights” will do everything they can to abuse, threaten, and discredit her.

And yet people want more frank, transparent people leading the charge. Fans get itchy when designers and developers don’t answer questions in full and press are disappointed when they walk away with half-truths in their interviews. It becomes the question of why stick your neck out when everyone has a guillotine. Fish, for all this outspokenness and hyperbolic statements, was mostly that person, though, who said “fuck it” and then leaned out anyways. After five years of developing a game no one thought would ever come out and then being in a documentary highlighting that struggle, he’s already his fair share of Internet hate. And yet he keeps coming back for more.

Or at least he did until Beer called him a tosspot, and now the industry has lost a brilliant designer who wasn’t afraid to speak his mind. But this isn’t an isolated incident; it’s simply one with two high-profile people involved instead of just one. The moment you expose yourself in any creative endeavor, whether it’s writing or designing or filming or commentating, you jump into a sea of hate, and the more popular you become, the more weights you tie around your ankles. You’re flailing, dying in this black, endless ocean of insults and threats and you’re doing it to yourself. Either you cut yourself free in time to swim to the surface or you sink to the bottom with the rest of the wide-eyed hopefuls. We’re all fish out of water, but we’re also the ones drowning.

Enjoy the air up there, Phil. I don’t see this water getting any better.

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Concept Art Roundup: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, StarCraft II, Game of Thrones, and More

Concept Art Roundup: Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, StarCraft II, Game of Thrones, and More

Hey, we’re back! Or I’m back. But you’re back too, so whatever. We’re back and we’re together again, just like old times. Really old times, actually. Sorry it’s taken so long to get another Concept Art Roundup going, but these are actually quite time-consuming and I’ve had a lot of thoughts about video games I’ve wanted to get out there. But enough about me, let’s get to the art.

First up is Hugo Deschamps, a 2D-3D generalist artist for Ubisoft Montreal. He goes by Chillyo, which 1) I’m not sure if is pronounced like “chill, yo” or “chilly oh”, 2) is kind of a cool pseudonym either way, and 3) is really hard to search for on the Internet. I can tell you, however, that he does have great taste in movies (The Goonies, Batman, Robocop, and The Terminator, coincidentally some of my favorites as well) and he does fantastic art for Assassin’s Creed. He started on Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and has worked on all of the ones after that. The one non-video game piece of art he’s done that I could find, though, looks pretty cool. I’d love to see him stretch his wings on something new, too.

Next is Joe Peterson. Formerly of Red 5 Games for Firefall, he now works as a concept artist for the recently indie Activision Blizzard and has done work on StarCraft II, Diablo III, and World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. He has a tutorial up on The Gnomon Workshop about designing mechanical characters, but he also seems like a pretty chill dude if his totally effing metal website has anything to say about it. Also, he did one of the early concept pieces for Kerrigan way back in 2006, long before StarCraft II came out, and the original concept art for the marine. Pretty cool.

Karakter is actually a studio whose work you’ve probably seen before. They’ve had their hands in Killzone 3, designed the cover art for Anno 1404, did some covers for Popular Mechanics, and won an Emmy for their work on HBO’s Game of Thrones. That’s quite the impressive list of stuff. Tobias Mannewitz, in particular, is the guy who got the 2012 Emmy for Outstanding Special Visual Effects as the visual effects concept artist—which means he does a lot of matte painting over photographs and it looks crazy—so pretty much all the visual effects you love from Game of Thrones were originally just ideas in that dude’s head.

For a dude with an architecture degree, Andreas Rocha sure does a lot of matte painting, and he does it quite well. I mean, Wizards of the Coast doesn’t just hire anyone to do their card art, nor does Psdtuts+ interview just anyone off the streets with a drawing tablet in hand. He does have a lot going for him, like his excellent taste in classic movies (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back To The Future, Blade Runner, Willow, and Evil Dead, so maybe he and Deschamps should hang out some time) and his ability to make fantasy seem…endless. His Magic: the Gathering land cards are fantastic, but even his Grid 2 trailer concepts have a boundless quality to them.

And that’s it for now! Hopefully it won’t be another two months before the next Concept Art Roundup, but you never know. Actually, I should probably know, but just think of it as a little mystery in your day-to-day life, perhaps one that you don’t really care to think about until it starts unraveling and suddenly you have a face full of art. Or something.

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A Bit Of Separation (No Breathing)

A Bit of Separation (No Breathing)

Putting ourselves in the shoes of the hero has become the norm. Our default action is assuming that the person we’re playing as is the person we’re supposed to be. For better or worse, “immersion” is the industry watchword, whether we speak it aloud or not (most likely not since it has been Voldemort-level of taboo to utter it). But it is still the standard by which we judge many game narratives, seeing if we cross that line from casual observation to psychological integration. We aim to take that next step into making ourselves and each other believe that we are in a different life amidst an impossible world.

(Also, yes, the title of this is a play on Papa Roach’s “Last Resort,” so you can stop wondering and start humming that guitar riff for the rest of the day.)

We tend to forget, however, that it was never the point of stories to allow you to assume various identities of space marines and treasure hunters and master assassins. Mostly they exist to give a perspective of a particular series of events, often told in a way to maximize emotional impact or lessons learned. We don’t become a person but instead relate to a character, allowing us to watch over interactions and pick apart details rather than be the ones to create and fuel those developments.

Halo Xbox One

Of course, those vary in certain cases, such as adventure games and RPGs that build based on player choices, but by and large, this holds true. Simon Parkin of The New Yorker (and The Guardian and New Statesman and Eurogamer and plenty of other places) put it quite nicely, perhaps better than anyone else can put it:

We stand back and watch from afar in books, but it just so happens that video games let us get a little bit closer to those cages and occasionally rattle them. But the tigers and monsters are still behind those bars, something we often lose sight of while we shoot and drive and fly our way to the end of whatever story we’re being told.

That’s because those bars represent the fact that the narrative we’ve immersed and invested ourselves in is not ours but is instead one crafted by the storyteller. Often a single person or team with a huge creative vision, the beats of the game from the beginning to the end are predetermined and thus out of our hands. Because we spend so much time controlling the external actions of a character—moving our soldier to this corner and hunkering down, forcing our raider of tombs to punch this guy instead of shoot him—it becomes a lot easier to believe we also control the internal motivations as well, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Tomb Raider

Spoiler Warning: I’ll be talking about the ending of The Last of Us for the next few paragraphs with the ones following just vaguely touching the conclusion. Feel free to skip them or revisit this at a later time. Or feel free to do whatever you want, but be sure to tweet about it for posterity.

As you may be well aware, I recently revisited the ending of The Last of Us, and going through the last part where you kill the doctors trying to remove the mutated whatever from Ellie’s brainstem, it struck me that this assumed personal integration from our eyes into the mind of the character we control is so irrepressibly automatic that writer/creative director Neil Druckman saw fit to toy with it through our hands. In our final moments of rescuing Ellie, we stumble upon the operating room where probably the last surviving neurosurgeon capable of performing such an operation is about to put the knife to the savior of mankind. And Joel just stands there.

I don’t know about you, but I panicked. I froze. I thought it would end on a melancholy double sacrifice with Joel giving up his surrogate daughter and Ellie her life. But then Joel begins to charge through the hospital in a murderous rampage, more armed and capable of wanton killing than ever before. And then he bursts into the operating room and I wait for the resignation, the realization from Joel that Ellie’s death is necessary for the salvation of the human race. It’s necessary to become the hero of the game.

The Last of Us

And as I stand there, waiting for something to happen, I come to my own realization: I’m not looking for the ending that I want to happen but I’m looking for a way out, an escape from the ending that is inevitable. I freeze because I’m frightened of what I have to do. The outcome is set. The entire story has been building toward this moment where Joel’s psychosis comes to the forefront and we realize that he’s not the hero at all; he’s just the guy we’ve been watching for the past 15 hours. And now, in a brilliant move from Druckman et al., we are forced to do what Joel would do but now what we would do: kill the doctors. Kill Marlene. Abandon humanity for the sake of forlorn substitution.

This is the toying I was talking about. For so long, we’ve been conditioned through our own misplaced beliefs and irrational justifications that what we do in a game—all the killing and looting—can be waved away because we separate our gaming actions from the gaming narrative. And for so long, we didn’t bother to question it. It was a concession we made to inject longevity into these things we busy ourselves with at our computers and in front of our TVs.

But The Last of Us brings that errant thinking into stark light. All that killing and murdering Joel did was not just because this was a game but because that’s who he is. He’s been unhinged for so long, scaring and killing people for years, that if we’d been paying attention, it would have been obvious that this was the inescapable conclusion to the game. All that space we put up between ourselves and the characters we play allows us to believe that we can be that person and we can be the hero we want to be (or don’t want to be, but out of convention believe that it’s the hero we’re supposed to be).

The Last of Us

It’s folly to see it that way and to be so naive as to subscribe to such notions. Parkin laid it out for us and Druckman played it out for us. Through our actions—the necessary actions to progress the game into its final moments—we’re shown that what we control and what is the truth are vastly different in a video game. Narratives aren’t meant to put us behind the wheel of thieves and pirates and post-apocalyptic smugglers but rather to put us alongside them and watch. Those shoes already have feet in them. We just get to walk behind them.

Of course there are exceptions. Some stories are written for the express purpose of putting your eyes in someone else’s sockets and have their thoughts flood into yours and The Last of Us is not the first game to pull this trick, but addressing such points in full would easily triple the length of this write-up. I assume you don’t want to read over 3,000 words from me on the ending of The Last of Us and the merits of storyteller dissonance.

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Lengthy Merit

Lengthy Merit

Size matters, or something like that. In this particular case, we’re talking about things of the entertainment industry: video games, movies, books, etc. But we don’t necessarily tie merit directly to length because, as we’ve learned over the years, duration has nothing to do with quality. A Pixar short film like Paperman has the ability to impact a viewer just as hard as Gone with the Wind. That’s because they both attempt to play to their strengths. Paperman goes along to the tune of brevity so much better; it tells a short, concise tale of a man finding and losing and desperately looking for again a fleeting love. Gone with the Wind takes its time to span over a decade, something it can afford to do with such a long running time.

It’s to the point where constructing narratives for either kind of film completely detaches from conventional film making, mainly to the conclusion that there is no such thing as conventional film making. Only in medium are short films and long, three-hour epics similar, but spinning up a proper story takes time to account for the strengths and weaknesses of their particular delivery methods. Ambiguity, for instance, can be found in heavy quantities in a lot more short films than in long-winded historical dramas.

With such a disparity in ability in a single facet of multimedia entertainment, it becomes increasingly strange that folks would want to directly correlate video games to films (or books or television). Interactivity and ludic engagement separate our industry from the others by a wide, incomparable chasm, so the unending search for a Citizen Kane or Roger Ebert of video games seems already ridiculous. I get why those questions and comparisons exist; these are tent-pole figures in film that represent the successful traversal of a rocky path to legitimacy, so it would make sense to want to pave a similar road for and with video games.

Citizen Kane

But that is disregarding much of what makes our industry so special. You can read about much more from much more insightful folk than myself by checking out what Nathan Grayson over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun and John Teti of Gameological have to say on the matter (both of which I point to in the last Things to Read), but there’s one specific aspect they fail to mention: the length of games.

Outmatched perhaps only by novels and particularly lengthy jazz odyssey albums, video games have the greatest potential to hold your attention for the greatest amount of time. RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can top out at over 100 hours while more linear action-adventure games like Tomb Raider or BioShock Infinite can go on for 15 or so hours, orders of magnitude longer than the average film or episode of Gilmore Girls.

That’s because between the bits of storytelling, we often have discrete chunks of gameplay. These are moments where the narrative doesn’t even really have to develop other than getting you from one place to another. All those times where a movie would fade to black or a book would start a new chapter, we play through those parts. We are actually engage in the act of chasing a car or walking from room to room in a haunted mansion. Interactivity weaves in with non-interactivity and, in effect, pushes the duration of a game well beyond static narratives.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

This has the additional consequence of making slow-to-develop stories much more bearable. With proper pacing, you can really milk moments of little to no consequence simply because they need to be there. In movies, almost every line and action written into a screenplay has the express purpose of moving the story along. They operate on a much slimmer, tighter economy of time and words.

Video games have the privilege of being played at leisure and their quality merits continued play (unlike films, which you must go through all in one sitting if you’re in a movie theater). Because of this, they much more freely allow things to be missed for the sake of what feels like spontaneity despite the fact that almost everything is already predetermined. Take, for example, BioShock Infinite. Wandering around with Elizabeth in tow allows her to comment on things around you and for Booker to interact with her. In these moments, pieces of those characters begin to fill in, but they’re pieces that don’t necessarily contribute directly to the overall story. They simply flesh out these two people for the player, and because doing so was your choice, make their growth wholly more personal.

And they happen on such a small scale. With a story stretched and fortified from two hours in a theater to 15 hours on your couch, you can fit in a lot more of these tiny details. In the early moments of The Last of Us when Joel, Ellie, and Tess are making their way to the Capitol Building, the trio has to cross across some rooftops. As they move forward, Joel lingers slightly and checks his watch as the two climb across a spanning ladder.

The Last of Us

It’s a tiny, infinitesimal thing that would not have been communicated as subtly or effortlessly in any other medium. A book would have to mention specifically that Joel did that, hitting too hard on the nose that he views this as just another job. A movie wouldn’t have had time to linger for such a deep puddle of seconds to give that moment the time it needed. Joel needs to acknowledge Tess and Ellie, then push it out of his head, then check his watch, and finally move across the rooftop. There’s one too many actions for something with a time limit.

The entire ending to Red Dead Redemption is an excellent example of this. The average playtime is about 30+ hours while the minimum, critical path is something like 20 hours. The ending, after John is back on the farm, is over an hour of some of the most incredibly mundane, mind-numbing stuff you’ll ever play. You look for a drunk, you rope some horses, you herd some cattle, and you shoot some crows. I guess things get kind of fun with Jack since you get to kill some more deadly animals, but those are little drips of excitement in an IV full of tedium.

There is, however, a point. That was the life John had been seeking all along. He was back with his family, and instead of defending wagons from land pirates or planting bombs on a bridge or getting involved in a war in Mexico, all he has to worry about is his family and his farm. We visit MacFarlane Ranch and have a conversation with Bonnie that puts the nail in the coffin of his old life. It’s simple, just as John’s new life.

Red Dead Redemption

And then everything goes to shit when those government dicks come back to clean up loose ends. It’s made all the more poignant because we’d just spent the past couple of hours doing absolutely nothing but being the down-to-earth, not-exciting farmer John and his wife wanted him to be. The contrast is so shocking, that it’s almost hard to believe that it’s happening. But the inevitable, sacrificial conclusion is one that slowly dawns on us as we play it out, and its emotional impact is made all the more severe because of the monotony we’d just gone through.

That wouldn’t have been possible in pretty much any other medium. A film can’t break its denouement into three more acts with its own climax and resolution (Red Dead Redemption‘s epilogue was a mighty fine resolution) because it simply can’t afford the time. The time on the farm was its own opener and inciting action for the events that followed, showing off how much time it had to play with, almost rubbing it in our faces. The incredible amount of time we’ve afforded the game to take and shape and mold for our pleasure allowed Rockstar the ability to craft moments like that and payoffs like that.

Movies and books don’t really get multiple chances to reinvigorate a story in the middle of telling its ending. Can you imagine if Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘s final chapters just before he went down the trapdoor were nothing more than Harry sleeping and studying and eating? We got through that in the beginning because it was all new and meeting people and learning things were exciting. But reading words about a boy—even a wizard boy—sitting through hours of class doesn’t fly. We don’t come to appreciate the tedium; we come to hate the author. And movies simply don’t get the time to even try that unless the entire film was about said tedium. They have to pick and choose while video games can try it all.

Red Dead Redemption

That’s part of being a video game. The format allows for earning time with the player. Whereas long and short films play to strengths determined by their length, video games are in a constant state of give and take with the player in terms of controlling the story and giving control to the gamer. That allows for making time for watching Elizabeth look through a rack of posters or having Joel glance at his watch or catching horses as John. We have time for those little, boring, exciting, gigantic, strange things. We just have to earn it.

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Aware Of The End

Aware of the End

The ending is coming. Can you see it? To me, it looks an awful lot like a finish line, but to you it might appear to be a light at the end of a tunnel, a runway cleared for landing, or pool full of jelly beans. Whatever it is, you can see it, and it lets you know that you’re almost done. It’s a little bit reassuring and a bit reluctance-inducing all at once. We’ve been on this road for a while, but at this point, we’re so intimately familiar with it, stopping the journey seems cold. Unbearable.

Being able to see the end, though, and knowing it exists are two vastly different things in terms of psychology. Most things we can logically assume will, at some point, stop. They run their natural course and then slowly fade away. With the exception of the worldwide desire to purchase and consume Coca-Cola products, a sudden and poignant cliff face appears, a drop-off in existence, one that we slowly inch towards until we tip over the edge and go over forever.

We know this exists, this line in the sand between existing and not. It’s a fact of life. But seeing it rouses a drastically contrasting feeling within us. It’s something I was thinking about when I went back to play the final few hours of The Last of Us again. A friend of mine had recently finished it and wanted to discuss it, but I’d long forgotten many of the finer details of the story and the turn it takes in terms of gameplay. So I went back just before it was very clear the game was on its downward slope, readying itself to dump you out into your jelly beans.

The Last of Us

Spoiler Warning: I will be talking about the last section of gameplay of The Last of Us. I’ll leave the very last story bits untouched, but that’s simply because I don’t think they’re necessary in this discussion. So stop reading or stop caring about spoilers or save this for later or whatever it is you do when you encounter a spoiler. Maybe cook up some churros? Man, I really like churros.

I started right at the beginning of Spring when Joel and Ellie are walking down the highway around Salt Lake City. It’s a stark contrast with what occurred moments before during Winter when Joel grabbed Ellie after she killed that super creepy David dude at the lakeside resort, but it feels somewhat comforting as well. Joel is back in what appears to be fine health and Ellie is, well, distant.

At this point, you kind of suspect that the ending is approaching, and rather rapidly at that. You’re coming up on a full year in terms of story timeline, so it kind of makes sense that for a game that would divide itself up into seasons, you would wrap it up after you’ve seen all four. You’ve found every weapon according to your filled-in upgrade display. The number of upgrades you desire has finally fallen below the number of upgrades you can buy and you’ve stopped seeing new things.

The Last of Us

The types of enemy encounters have varied somewhat consistently since the beginning of the game. Infected will rush you or Clickers will stumble around and you have to maneuver around them or you’ll hide and take out armed humans, but they’ll almost always be put in new or interesting configurations. In one particular encounter in Salt Lake City, you are in an underground tunnel, and it appears as if they’ve done nothing but put you at the start of an area and filled the space you need to navigate with everything you’ve seen yet. Including Bloaters! Before, you’d just seen them in isolated situations. Now there are multiple Bloaters in a single environment. Less different and more of the same? It kind of tickles the “this is it” sense of your gamer brain.

In terms of story, Joel has had a revelatory moment of changing wholeheartedly in his perception of Ellie, calling her “baby girl” as he picks her up from the burning winter cabin and now openly engaging her in personal conversation. For a heavily themed and bleak narrative like this, it’s obviously all downhill from here. Ellie is aware of—or at least suspicious of—something that Joel either doesn’t know or is choosing to ignore, which can really only end poorly for both of them.

And I don’t know about you, but for this much of the game, I’ve never dipped below a certain threshold of supplies. I’ve always been fully stocked on health kits and other craftable items like bombs and shivs and consistently had to leave supplies lying about in the world untouched. Ammo has never been a problem as only once do I recall ever being absolutely empty on any particular weapon. I’ve been hording for the entire game out of fear for the next encounter being insurmountable lest I come stocked and ready to rock.

The Last of Us

So when Joel gets knocked out trying to save a drowning Ellie and wakes up with Marlene and the Fireflies, you truly know that this is the beginning of the end. We just went through an entire downtown area reinforcing the notion that we’ve seen all the game has to show us in terms of mechanics, systems, and inventory. Narratively, we’re finally back with the person who first gave us the impetus for this gargantuan journey and with the group of people that can solve our and the world’s problems. Either they are going to take Ellie and tell us they can use whatever made her immune to save humanity or that they can’t do anything with her. Either way, this is it.

Then, when things get hostile, you are Joel on your own. This happens so rarely in the game, but every time it does, something huge comes out of it. In this case, he is killing the very group that saved him and Ellie and means to save the world. There’s only so much forgiving people can do, and I don’t think shooting and choking dozens of dudes fits within that quota.

And you are given a new weapon, the assault rifle. As you pick it up, you realize that there was no slot for this at any workbench for upgrades. It appears this is a weapon to simply pick up and use, and use it you do. The encounters in the hospital seem especially geared towards firefights instead of sneaking around. You are presented with ample hallways with cover that can handily operate as chokepoints against the Fireflies. Pin them up in the hall and then shoot them as they come out.

The Last of Us

I was burning through ammo and just taking shots for the sake of getting a kill, two things I never did in the rest of the game. Missing shots wasn’t that big of a deal since these dudes were dropping ammo like crazy and this thing could hold almost 100 rounds. And if I had a good bead on a guy’s head, I would stand out of cover just to make sure I got the shot, even if I was getting peppered while I was doing it. Health kits were in abundance if you wandered the floors of the hospital. Everything was pushing you to play this game like you hadn’t played it for the past 12 hours.

And it’s wonderful in that sense. You finally get to let loose not because certain elements of the level design nudge you in that direction, but because you know this is the end. This is the last charge you have to make and everything you’ve been holding back can come out. For 12 hours, I never took a shot unless I knew it was going to be in the head and it would be a killing blow. I never used my melee weapon unless I had to defend myself against Clickers. All of my Molotov cocktails and shrapnel bombs and smoke bombs went unused because paranoia told me that the next room was full of things that I could only take down with a Molotov or a bomb.

But now it was all I could do to get to Ellie faster. The fact that the narrative and mechanical impetus for slowly revealing to the player that this is the final segment of the game (or at least believe that it is) is masterful in its dovetail. The meld together and you come to only one solid conclusion: that you must use everything at your disposal to rescue Ellie (or rather “rescue,” but that’s for another narrative-focused time) as quickly as possible. The Last of Us may not be a game that forces ticking clocks on you as a player, but the narrative push to see this through and the desire to make sure your young ward is still alive are what makes you want to go faster. And knowing that you have nothing to lose by blowing through your stockpile of post-apocalyptic wares facilitates that.

The Last of Us

The confluence of factors that indicated the approaching end in The Last of Us made me appreciate how finality affects us. It, for the most part, pushes us to do new things, drives us to be new people. That’s why we like to fantasize about what we would do with our last day on Earth. When a game manages to ask that same question and make our answer meaningful, it’s striking, just as it was striking in The Last of Us. It was my last day—my last moments—with that game. What would I do with it? Apparently nothing involving jelly beans.

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Platform Nostalgia: Super Metroid

Platform Nostalgia: Super Metroid

Super Metroid is beyond reproach. Or at least that’s what people have come to believe. Almost a full decade after its release (jeez we’re old), we’ve all but forgotten about GameSpot’s 8.5 and the game’s paltry sales overseas in Japan. We now hold it in the highest regard, often citing it as not only one of the most influential but also the most perfect games to ever be released.

With the sale back in May, it seemed like a whole slew of new players were coming into discovering Super Metroid for the first time or finally giving it a chance after years and years of neglect. Kotaku captured the zeitgeist moment (twice) of players bred into new school game design attempting to play a game where it was normal to draw your own maps and actually use the notes section in the back of the instruction manual. The wide-open navigation and world design seemed to baffle players that were used to clicking in a stick or pressing a button to get a highlighted critical path route.

This was in direct contrast with some choice pieces of writing extolling the virtues of Super Metroid‘s design. A seminal analysis from early last year by Hugo Bille on Gamasutra breaks down what makes the design so brilliant in its ability to guide players around without explicitly taking them by the hand and shoving them into the next room. Ario Bazran over at Action Button Dot Net managed to somewhat succinctly put down into words what made Super Metroid‘s secrets and mechanics so amazing that its influence is still being felt today. Maybe those Wii U players were trolling us?

Super Metroid

Such a confluence of events was enough for me to decide to go back and play it all over again. I hadn’t touched it since the weekend I blew through it after picking it up from Blockbuster back in second grade. I don’t really remember what I thought about it back then—I was basically excited to play any game—but as I grew older and began to find more people who were into games like I was, talking about it made me realize that I could look back on it fondly and think it was a fantastic piece of video game history. The question, of course, was if I was right at all.

We’ll get to the answer in a bit even though you probably already know the answer, but we’ll start with a few things that really stuck out to me over the course of my 12 refreshed hours with the game. First, Super Metroid is a very confident game. Do you know when someone describes a writer as confident because certain story elements not only break out into bold conclusions but the way they unfold are also unconventional yet unyielding? It’s kind of like that. Super Metroid is not afraid to just lay itself bare and let you get lost.

In the middle of playing, it got a little frustrating, but never in a way where I wanted to quit. It became frustrating in the way you would watch someone play Rock Band and know you could do better. You see all these little nooks and crannies that require something that you don’t have yet, but you just want to get in there right now. You can do it, but you need the chance to prove it. Whatever that weird block hanging above you is, you know you can use it to get across this chasm. Now let me show you I can!

Super Metroid

It’s a little bit less that you’re proving it to the game or anyone else in particular and more proving it to yourself. Super Metroid is fantastic at cultivating a sense of pride in your accomplishments. It’s very hard to get lost early on in the game since almost every single passage is gated off by something. You don’t have the Morph Ball, so you can’t fit into that little tunnel. You don’t have the Morph Ball Bomb, so you can’t blast open the tunnel. And so on and so on. It guides you in a very linear fashion for the first bit.

But then you begin to open up abilities that open up new areas. These Super Missiles can open up these green doors! These blocks can be broken up by a dash! And suddenly all those gated portions of the map you had to previously (and reluctantly) leave unearthed are flooding back into your mind. You recall as you browse your map that all those half-explored rooms were half-explored for a reason, but now you can go further. So you backtrack. Sometimes across a hallway, other times across an entire map section, but you do it because you were taught from the start that goodies await avid explorers. Those Chozo statues don’t just go out and find you, after all.

The sensation feels familiar to those of you who played this year’s Tomb Raider, when you would realize that all those white rock walls were climbable or all those planked up doors can be torn down. It makes the world feel that much more open and alive, responsive to your growth as a character. When you finally get back to that one place you remember for some indeterminable reason and find that it is indeed a Power Bomb door, it spikes that little pride center in your brain and you get a rush. You sit up a little straighter and your eyes gleam with excitement at the prospect of discovering something you weren’t supposed to discover quite yet.

Super Metroid

It sets you up to satisfy that urge to be a rebel. You may be playing wholly within the confines of the game and its mechanics and design, but it feels a lot like breaking the rules. Wall jumping up something you should only be coming back to once you have the grappling hook or space jump feels like cheating, but the consideration was most likely made back in the paper design that shortcuts like that would be allowed. But in the moment, when you’re scraping your way up the hill against a challenge that feels like it wasn’t made to be tested, it makes you feel a bit like a badass.

Super Metroid actually trades rather well in making you feel that way. It can make you feel empowered only after you earn it, which somewhat enhances that sensation. While it’s not afraid to let you romp around in unmapped areas and squander a few minutes being a futile piece of trash in the wind, it’s also not afraid to make you powerful. When you get more powerful lasers, it’s not afraid to let you backtrack through enemies that vaporize in a single shot. When you get the Screw Attack, it’s not afraid to let you demolish everything in your path with wanton malice. Those pink pirates really fucked you up the last time you were down here. Don’t you think it’s time for a little revenge?

It all culminates in what is nothing more than a victory lap. The final sequence when you fight the Mother Brain it such an incredible roller coaster of smart design. It forces you through a gauntlet of challenges you’ve never quite faced before and then, when you’re weakened and weary, plops you in front of the hardest boss in the game. And it beats you down and down and down until you’re on the ground, awaiting your demise and a fresh reload, when…you are saved! But not only are you saved, you are powered up. You have the power of the Mother Brain that was just moments before kicking your own ass, and you’re using it to blast that creepy thing to hell.

Super Metroid

And during the escape, you still have the Hyper Beam. Those shutter doors you had to navigate around before? Blast them down. Those pirates that make you go “uggghhhh” when you see them? Blast them down, too. You might be running away from a melting, exploding planet, but you are easily the most powerful thing around. You spent the past 12 hours meticulously hunting down upgrades and kiting overpowered enemies over to you one at a time and basically making the game survivable, but now it’s your turn to just let loose. Demolish the Mother Brain and run through explosions and acid and space pirates and just feel like Luke Skywalker flying away from an exploding Death Star. It’s quite the victory lap.

Your satisfaction bleeds over into the audio/visual components of the game, too. As you upgrade, you actually end up looking cooler. Your armor changes, your blaster effects get flashier, and the sounds they all make start to sound super crazy and powerful. Space jumping around looks and sounds like some sort of super power, so just the mere act of doing it reinforces the notion that you are not the same Samus that set down on this planet at the start.

The whole of the music, though, is just fantastic. I’ve had the entirety of the Super Metroid soundtrack on CD or on my phone since just about forever and could listen to it at any time. In fact, at both my wedding and funeral, I plan on having at least one song from it play. And my holographic tombstone will just have it on loop when my body is launched into space. Or something.

Super Metroid

Really, I could go on and on about the rest of Super Metroid. Thousands of words wait to be written about the graphics and thousands more for a more in-depth analysis of the sound design. Therapy will be needed for making you care about a little baby Metroid. The boss battles deserve a treatise unto themselves, but in this moment, it will have to suffice for me to say that Super Metroid deserves all the praise. The derision regarding letting a player loose on a world that is nothing more than gates and switches actually serves a purpose and isn’t putting a mouse in a maze just for the sake of putting a mouse in a maze. It is, in fact, quite a stunner of a game.

So I guess I was right. But you already knew that.

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That Monsters Game Review: Monstrous Fungibility

That Monsters Game

There’s a certain frivolity psychologically and perhaps unfairly attributed to mobile games. The App Store and the Play Store are riddled with games that survive purely on their inconsequential mirth, the same haphazard quality that would make them a hard sell on traditional handhelds and consoles. They’re the sort of thing you would expect to find at Kongregate or Newgrounds, but the ability to just pick up the game and go at it with whatever frenetic intensity you desire is what makes those games succeed.

That, for the most part, is where That Monsters Game excels. SoftwareProdigy‘s game fits squarely within the overflowing and overly successful segment of casual match-three games and does so rather well. In it, you have one minute to match at least three similarly colored monsters by dragging your finger either vertically, horizontally, or diagonally. Doing so will remove them from the board and more will come tumbling in from the top. For every 100 monsters you clear out, you go up a level, which really just means that more colors come in and thus become harder to match.

The twists to the simplified drag-your-finger mechanic are what make this work. First off, I found the minute time limit to be close to perfect. If you pull off certain qualifying moves like going up a level or hitting a massive chain, you earn a bit more time. Having the time limit come just up against where you are hitting your stride makes for a nice curve of anxiety, one that builds from “oh, I’ve got this” to “must go faster must go faster.”

There are also two systemic implements that coerce you into a more frantic pace. The faster you trace the monsters, the more points you get. And if you go really fast, you get Blast Mode, where each match you make also blasts away adjacent monsters, so getting your hand zipping around the screen really is the only way to play. It makes what is otherwise an incidental impetus to speed up against a ticking clock to an impossible-to-ignore need for speed. And when you start tracing, monsters of a different color kind of fade out, artificially enabling a feeling as if you were in “the zone.” It’s helpful while being totally manufactured and boy does it make you feel slick.

While you go zipping around, there are also four special moves you can do. If you loop around a single monster, you will make that little guy explosive, so if you tap him or include him in a chain, he’ll explode and take neighboring dudes with him. If you match together 20 or more monsters, then a swirling warp thing appears. Include that in a chain and it’ll also destroy every other monsters of that same color. Trying to keep in mind ways to easily and quickly facilitate drops to allow loops and horizontal or vertical chains adds a wrinkle to the single speed track you would otherwise mindlessly operate on. It’s cool.

There are, however, things called Boosts that enable you to more easily call on these powers. They work a bit like Call of Duty loadouts to where before each game, you can pick up to three Boosts. However, each one costs coins, currency that you’ll pick up in-game as you clear out monsters. And each one is an immediate-use action that aligns with the special moves (save for the one that simply gives you an extra 15 seconds right from the get-go). So instead of having to match an entire row or column or make a loop, you can simply trace straight up or across or double tap any monster and you get the same effect. It’s really good for getting out of a jam.

That Monsters Game

There are three different modes you can play. The first is called Blitz and is rather straightforward; you just go for a high score. The Challenger mode forces you to try to accomplish a goal while you play like get 10 chains of 10+ monsters. Then there’s the Strategy mode which does away with the time limit but forces a move limit in that certain monsters will show up with little throbbing crosshairs around them. After five moves, they will explode if you don’t get rid of them, and if three of them blow up on you, the game ends. It’s a neat mode and there were actually times I felt like the game was enabling moments of genius when I could see the consequences I desired unfold after three moves. But it also does away with the thing I love most about the game, which is its amazing drive to just go as fast as possible.

So far, That Monsters game sounds pretty good. The problem is that it’s under a microtransactions model. The app itself is free, but each play expends one heart (of which you can store up to three). And every 15 minutes, you earn back one of those hearts. Given that on a really good run, a game will come up against two or so minutes, that leaves a lot of downtime. It was enough to where after I played away my three hearts, I didn’t really ever feel like picking the game up again if I wasn’t reviewing it. It was downright maddening. Still riding the high of finding my monster-tracing groove and the game itself tells you “you know what? That’s enough for now.”

That is unless you want to pay money. You can either buy hearts individually or by the bundle (same goes for coins and gems for boosts and extended game time à la Temple Run 2) or get unlimited play for $8.99. That is nine dollars for a match-three game. Oh, and a Game Center achievement. There is simply no way I could recommend this game as a purchase for $8.99 because that is ludicrous. I understand this predicament of microtransactions and being free-to-play isn’t wholly unique to That Monsters Game (Bejeweled Blitz, a crowning achievement in mobile match-three gaming, has a package that costs $19.99 after all), this alone almost soured the entire game for me.

That Monsters Game

And it’s not the business model that bothers me (I mean, it does in principle, but that’s for another time). It’s that without spending money, you can only play this game once every 15 minutes. And I like this game. Or at least I want to like it, but stopping every minute and waiting 14 more is enough to totally kill my desire to play or even think about this game. Sure there are little bugs here and there like how the power description for the Monster Warp Boost has a “labkit.boost.monsterWarp” object identifier hanging around from Unity and the lock icons don’t go away from the Challenger and Strategy mode buttons until you completely restart the app and the Boost selection process is confusing simply because things will randomly gray out, but those are small potatoes.

(Actually, the Boost selection is also problematic for other reasons. For example, the costs of adding and removing Boosts causes your coin count to slowly tick up or down, never giving you an accurate total in a timely fashion.)

Those are minor quibbles never broke the core experience for me. The music is reasonably not annoying and the sounds the monsters and alarms make are rather charming, just as is Professor Marty and the non sequiturs some disembodied announcer will throw out there, like yelling FATALITY and other such classic kill-related gaming catchphrases. But it’s not compelling enough for me to pay money for or wait around 15 minutes at a time to play again. That Monsters Game holds within it an alluring frivolity, but its monetization crushes it and hides it. You see peeks of it and random glimmers of hope shining through the overbearing weight, but it’s never enough to matter.

That Monsters Game

UPDATE: a day-one patch fixed some of the bugs, including the Boost selection process.

+ Wrinkles to the simple match-three formula make for fast and loose gameplay
+ The Strategy mode actually requires strategy and is a nice change of pace
– Without paying money, you end up playing the game for one single minute every 15 minutes

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Game Review: That Monsters Game
Release: July 18, 2013
Genre: Puzzle
Developer: Software Prodigy
Available Platforms: iOS
Players: 1
MSRP: Free (with in-app purchases)
Website: http://thatmonstersgame.com/

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Taking The Victory Lap

Taking a Victory Lap

A victory lap is such an odd thing. In a way, it’s a bit dickish. You’re essentially rubbing your supremacy in the face of all your competitors, despite the implicit intention of also honoring them. There’s give and take involved for sure, but it’s still a gesture largely based on the premise that you’ve bested the competition and now you want to celebrate and let everyone know you’re celebrating, like, immediately. Fans will stand around and join you, congratulating you as you whizz by, while haters will jeer or turn their backs. It’s a shared moment where those in attendance can let everyone else know exactly where they stand, where on the spectrum of love and hate they lie.

But it’s also deserved. You have toppled the king, taken on all comers and emerged victorious. For today, in that moment, you are indeed the best there is at what you do and you deserve to be recognized. You’ve conquered all those who oppose you and it’s your right to stand above those fallen before you. It’s showy, but it’s also necessary. Sooner or later, the lesser will have to acknowledge that you are their superior, so it might as well be sooner.

The people you’ve come against, however, weren’t your only obstacles. There’s an intrinsic challenge within simply navigating the course. On a racetrack, all those turns were foes that couldn’t be beat but only accommodated. On the half-pipe, every inch of flatbed and coping were facts of life that you had to come to terms with well before returning from the air. Taking it slow necessarily makes these maneuvers easier, allowing time for appreciation of the design and your abilities and how they mesh together in the moment, a singular point in time where empowerment over those things that challenged you enables you to understand how two disparate pieces fit inside one another.

Victory lap at 1991 British Grand Prix

That moment is what I feel is missing from many games. Too often they follow the dramatic curvature of rising action to climax before shuttering out to an inconclusive conclusion. The denouement is similarly the narrative point at which you can mentally comprehend and resolve all of the twists and turns taken before, but the gameplay rarely follows suit. Instead, we often face off against bosses who physically dominate our play space and horde what feels like all of the health in the entire gaming universe. To most games, the climax is simply a rote struggle against an overpowered AI, not the most interesting encounter where all the systems and mechanics dovetail together into an odd but satisfying cocktail of stick movements and button pushes.

It is something missing almost completely from the entirety of modern Call of Duty games. The stories wrap up nicely (if a bit ridiculously), but the gameplay moments leading up to, including, and following the narrative peaks are fairly dull. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare got by on being new and what it did at the time was quite astonishing, but as it went on to World at War, Black Ops, and so on, the spectacle of non-involvement wore thin. Mental complacency of resolving a multi-threaded story and tying them all off with a bow only got you so far when the time surrounding it involves pressing a button to slow-mo throw a knife/shoot a gun, riding an escaping vehicle, and pursuing a fleeing foe. It’s stale and doesn’t feel very comforting knowing that you long ago mined all the mechanical nuance from the game.

The Last of Us, however, gets it partially right. The denouement goes on a bit long following what I consider the narrative climax at the end of Winter. The following Spring hits all the right story beats in brilliant syncopation with its complex themes, but it does drag on a bit longer than I would have liked for a conclusion you feel is right at your fingertips. But in terms of the actual things you’re doing from the start of Spring to the end of the game, it definitely qualifies as a bit of a victory lap.

The Last of Us concept art

That’s because for so much of the game, you’ve held back on letting loose. The name of the game was restraint, and you’ve been playing by its rules for the past 12 hours. Bullets you’ve refused to shoot for fear of encountering an insurmountable situation sat unused in your backpack and in your magazine. Arrows tucked away since Boston stick out like a sore, rotting thumb. But then things change.

(Slight spoiler warning: I’m about to talk about the last two weapons you get in The Last of Us. Not really a spoiler, but some people care about that sort of stuff, so I’m just covering my bases.)

First you’re given a flamethrower, and immediately following that you’re given an excuse to use it. You’re presented with a room full of runners. As soon as one starts running, they all start running. You know this. It’s cramped quarters and there’s no way you’ll be able to draw them out one at a time and stealth through this encounter. So you step up, let one of them see you, and let the fire flow. And it’s amazing. It’s empowering. It’s intoxicating in how much pleasure you get from seeing and hearing the infected flesh sizzle and crack at your feet. And then it’s sobering. It’s what you’ve been wanting to do this whole time and it’s still starkly violent, a reminder that this is a cold, cold world.

The Last of Us

And then you’re given an assault rifle and it fuels the rest of your combat encounters. You know you’re approaching the end and it seems enemies are dropping way more ammo than before, subtle hints that it’s time to let loose. Stand and take a hit, stand and shoot back. Stand and take the time to appreciate how far you’ve come from hiding in the darkness to walking through the light with a gun at your side. It’s the contrast in restraint that enables this victory lap of sorts. And it works because it feels so incredibly gratifying in terms of gameplay but so confusing narratively because it works in concert with both. It addresses your desires and places it up against the themes it’s been laying out for you from the beginning.

There have, of course, been other games with great victory laps. Consider Super Metroid. You fought the Mother Brain. You saw your grown baby Metroid come back to save you. And now you have the Hyper Beam. You’re standing at full health, taking every hit the Mother Brain throws your way. You see your health depleting but it doesn’t matter because you are just laying wasting with this supercharged weapon. You crush a foe you just barely bested moments before, mere seconds after seeing the one emotional attachment you have in the game disintegrate and the single objective given to you irrevocably broken on the floor before you. It is, once again, a wonderful confluence of narrative and mechanical appreciation for how the two intertwine and shed new light on the growth you and the game have achieved.

Then you have to escape the crumbling world around and above you and all those Space Pirates and shutter doors that caused momentary pause before are now cannon fodder. The whole last third of the game when you get the Screw Attack and Space Jump is masterful in leading you around and teasing you with power until you finally unleash it all. (Truth be told, that whole game is masterful, but let’s leave that for another time.)

Super Metroid Mother Brain battle

Journey is another great example. For the entire rest of the game, you’d been standing around, trying to gather enough, um, sparkles to float and jump and fly around. And it’s momentary bliss at best. It feels amazing while it lasts, but then you are earthbound again and awestruck and sobered in light of what you were doing followed by what you are doing, which is to say freeing yourself from the confines of the world to being wholly trapped in them.

This leads up to the narrative finale where you are at the top of the mountain, struggling to make it up the final pass. You trudge, slower and slower as the wind and the cold beats you back. The levity seemingly imbued into the game at the binary code level has been replaced with strident indifference. It’s painful to see a light and airy and joyful creature walk as if it has been laden with 200 pounds of sadness.

And then you are flying. You are soaring through the sky in a way you didn’t think you’d ever manage. All that time spent collecting wanton resources for skyward flights of fancy and watching life drain from the sole living, benign thing on the mountain is tossed out by the unrepentant ecstasy that fills you as you finally fucking fly. It’s unbelievable beauty that follows heartbreak, incredible empowerment that trails bleak oppression. It’s the ending to an ambiguous story you didn’t know you wanted or were capable of, but your pounding heart and your giant, dumb smile are impossible to ignore. It’s a victory lap for the ages. You’re no longer struggling. You’re flying.

Journey

Perhaps that’s the real point of the victory lap, to show that you’ve overcome so much, that what you used to think impossible is now firmly within your grasp. The track is clear of racers and the turns no longer seem like daunting challenges of managing throttle and brake but a chance to slow down and remind yourself to wave to the crowd. They want you to acknowledge that you’ve grown so much and come so far in this short amount of time, that despite standing up against it, the track has become a part of you in this moment. It’s something more video games could do with instead of ending with an uncompromising allegiance with the stricture of compounding enemy difficulty. Not every game needs to do it the same way, but give us a chance to appreciate our time with the game. Give us that victory lap.

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An Oversight, A Rebellion

An Oversight, A Rebellion

I guess I’m a rebel. Not in the conventional sense, no. I don’t wear leather jackets with pins in them (at least not anymore) nor do I post up on walls and smoke a hand-rolled cigarette. I guess my hair is the only external indicator for my disregard for social norms, a betrayal of my own invention. I’m not sure those traditional sort of rebels even exist in this modern age, though those flannel-loving cronies that I saw standing outside of a local speakeasy would make a solid argument otherwise.

Really, I just have a problem with authority. But who doesn’t? Even if you have a tendency to follow the natural born leaders of the world, you also tire from unnecessary or fruitless oversight. At the very least, being forced by some misunderstanding hand from on high to shift your output from efficient to abysmal is a nightmare. Working in such a regime can be tiring and frustrating and altogether maddening.

So it’s a strange thing that most people in the world find themselves under such stricture mostly out of circumstance. The daily grind, for instance, of working a nine-to-five is a barely held together, loosely formalized agreement to trade hours of your life for money, but the subtext of giving up on your dreams and relegating your passions to nights and weekends is enraging. Smoldering, quiet indignation is the soup du jour, except more like the soup du every day after you begin your formal education.

Imagine, then, how gratifying it must be to finally loose yourself from such shackles, to pry away your artificial bonds and fall free into happenstance and sweet, sweet liberty. To take a look at the offer in front of you and scoff and flip the table as you laugh your way out of the room. It’s the dream you have after an especially stupefying day sitting your cubicle, the one where you go into your boss’ office and yell “I QUIT!” while you flip off the entirety of your rubbernecking coworkers on your way out. Such delicious bliss.

It’s a feeling I got recently when I decided enough was enough with one particular game. The embargo is still a thing and a review is forthcoming, but it’s an iOS game with a bevy of microtransactions to supplant its subsidized costs upfront. It has the familiar structure of being allowed to play the game only so many times within a set period, otherwise you can use real money to buy more plays. In this case it’s a max of three hearts at one heart spent per play and one heart earned per 15 minutes.

And boy do I hate it. There’s already been some perhaps better writing on the topic done with a broader categorization of free-to-play energy (case in point: Simon Parkin’s condemnation and then interview with founder and managing director of Boss Alien, the studio behind the impetus game CSR Racing), and I agree with almost all of it. It’s a lack of consideration for the player’s skill determining his play experience that the old arcade pay-to-play model had in spades, but the focus on a much tighter and cohesive gameplay loop is something other larger modern games could learn from.

The problem sets in when each play lasts roughly a minute. The minimum is a minute, but through some mildly skill-based maneuvering, you can extend it upwards of two. But consider that even with two minutes per heart and you come back from a day of work to three time-refilled hearts, that’s still nine minutes afterwards you have to wait before you can play again.

To me, it felt an awful lot like a parent telling their child that they can only play for five more minutes on the jungle gym before they have to go home. And then you would have to wait a whole 24 hours until they would take the kid back to the playground for more fun. (It’s a much more frivolous interpretation of the oppression theme previously established, but this is a rather frivolous industry anyways.) It’s the mom who comes into your room and turns off your TV and says that’s enough Mario for tonight.

Perhaps that’s just an affectation of the game itself since its energy restrictions come off as unrepentant but also oddly mindful, much in the way progenitors act towards their progeny. But this is a purely voluntary act that is not for the player’s betterment. It’s not even a necessary evil but a willful maliciousness against their patrons. You’ve created a game, but more than that, you’ve created a game that I—and ostensibly others—want to play, and you’re move now is to stop me from doing that. This is the part where that table and multiple birds get flipped.

It’s as if every F2P game designer at some point watched a marathon of romantic comedies and got the wrong message. They believe that playing hard-to-get is a guaranteed success for wooing your beau or bonny lass, so what better way to woo the player of your game by doing likewise? But now you have a game playing against a player while the player is playing against the game. It’s a system that simply can’t sustain itself. It’s two walls pushing against each other except one wall can willfully leave the exchange of its own accord. And who wouldn’t? You didn’t sign up to be an artificial product’s plaything.

It’s the sort of thing that will bring out the same rebel in everyone. Not the one that worships on the altar of James Dean or the one that has an inexplicable and possibly illicit love for all things leather, even—and especially—during the summer. It’s just that rebel that refuses to bow down to a broken system and broken promises. I can’t imagine this model standing much longer for that reason. This oversight of telling gamers when and for how long they can play is not an equivalent exchange of merit and worth, and eventually everyone will catch on. Flannel’d or not, you’re gonna want to skip the soup.

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