Monthly Archives: August 2013

Trading in Mystery

Trading in Mystery

If you’re at all familiar with the 90s, then you probably know enough about The X-Files to get what I mean when I say I want to believe. It was the copy on a poster hung in FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder’s office that simply showed a funny little flying saucer hovering over some trees with those words below it. It eventually came to be a catchphrase spouted out by fans and derisive critics alike.

To this day, though, it’s a saying that sticks around. It represents a deep, innate desire within people to cling to some fantasy notion despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. (Insert catalyst for raging Internet debate about religion.) Among the litany of biases psychologists have confirmed that humans are prone to, many of them tend to involve us lying to ourselves either A) about ourselves or B) about something we own. Of course, philosophically speaking, those two things aren’t that far apart since there’s nothing more true to ownership than your own thoughts.

Video games tend to actually provoke this phenomenon more than you’d think. How many times in your childhood (or even adulthood) did a friend of yours tell you that there was this secret in your favorite video game that he heard someone tried at a cousin’s house and it totally worked? Probably too often to count.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Light Temple

I wanted to believe so much that you could bring Aeris back in Final Fantasy VII that I skipped school a few times just to test out some new theory. I was so convinced that a cow level existed in Diablo that I spent fourteen hours straight one weekend trying to make it happen. I knew—not think—that I could get into the Temple of Light in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time to get the Triforce.

Now, of course, we know all of that is complete and utter bullshit. If not straight from the mouth of the programmers and developers and designers, then we eventually dug through the code and figured out all of it was just one lie after another. The progenitor of each of them often went unidentified, but the damage had already been done. Hearts had been broken and the sane people had been sifted out from the crazies as those who figured out the facade moved on and the others, well, didn’t.

Moving on, though, can mean many things. For some people, that simply meant swapping one conspiracy theory for another, and that means that games journalists will cover it. Not because we’re so hard up for stories but because they’re so vastly interesting. We, as outside observers of a fascination we don’t know or understand, see people fooling themselves into seeing something that’s not there. But our empathetic humanity also wants them to be right.

San Andreas Bigfoot map

We know it’s too far gone to dilute faith into knowledge as these folks have, but believing in their belief is easy and almost just as powerful. It’s our shared experience in the world. Craig Owens at Eurogamer covered the search for the last big secret in Shadow of the Colossus. Simon Parking just recently wrote about the hunt for Bigfoot in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. These and other pieces approach the subject with appropriate objectivity, but the stories told inherently elicit emotion from us and we end up far from objective as readers.

We strive for a communal sense of validation. We want the earnest and the genuine to keep shining because it’s so rare we see a light in the cynical darkness. And fooling ourselves with modern games is easy: Bigfoot can exist because we can’t account for what every programmer did, so maybe; giant eagles can lift us up to untold lands because we don’t know what every piece of code does, so maybe. These games are so massive that the lack of accountability makes these theories easy to mold into something believable and shuttle them away as the real McCoy.

Yet it’s so incredibly foolhardy to do so. Unlike other debates where morality and faith are not only the primary argument but the only argument, these claims are easily verified. Given the due diligence, code can be properly reverse engineered and scoured for signs of these harebrained theories. Assets can be checked and scripting stepped through. Whole studios and project leads can deny the existence of such shenanigans.

Shadow of the Colossus bestiary

But still we believe. We still embark on unfounded fetch quests at four in the morning. We still debate over the proper launch angle of a glitch collision. We still do all these things because believe. Because without the actual source code with a full source map, we can’t know for certain. Because it’s so much easier to think something exists than to prove it doesn’t. We still believe because we want to.

And for the record, I do think that Bigfoot exists somewhere in San Andreas.

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Saints Row IV Review: Saint Nothing Wrong With That

Saints Row IV

Somewhere between using my mind to throw a guy dressed up in an energy drink can costume into a black hole I just shot at an alien on a hoverbike and playing a bananas text adventure involving a black not-a-raven parrot, I realized Saints Row IV might be onto something. It reminded me of when a friend of mine recently noted that people that take a “fuck it” attitude towards looking like a god damn maniac to try new things are often the best sorts of people. If that’s the case—and it is—then Volition, Inc. is the tops.

Saints Row IV is ostensibly the capper to the Saints Row saga wherein a ground of gangsters originally known as the 3rd Street Saints rise from banging around less-than-fortunate neighborhoods to running the entirety of the United States through the country’s executive branch. If you think they skipped a couple of steps, that’s because they most definitely did, but the series also skipped a lot of steps to become a worthwhile franchise, and the latest in Saints Row IV really just kind of seals the deal.

You play as the Boss of the Saints in this continued third-person open world game. You’ve recently become President of the United States and even more recently become victim of an alien invasion-abduction combo, courtesy of the Zin Empire. Their leader, Zinyak, has placed pretty much everyone you know into a Matrix-like simulation of Saints Row: The Third‘s Steelport and now you must figure out how to get free, release everyone else, and put an end to that pompous alien’s shenanigans.

Now, if I could just describe everything insane that happens from the start of the game to the end, that would probably be a pretty good review. It would also be entirely pointless because a lot of crazy things happen in the game. But the opening is a pretty good indication of what’s to follow. I don’t want to ruin it for you, but if you thought Saints Row: The Third‘s opening missions where you skydive through a plane and then in a tank were crazy, just know that Saints Row IV gets weirder (for the better).

Once you enter the alien simulation, you’re back in Steelport of old. It’s pretty much the same except now there are giant Zin towers all over the city, which kind of reminds you that this game did in fact start out as an expansion of Saints Row: The Third. There is, however, one crucial and immense difference: you have superpowers. You can run super fast, jump super high, punch super hard, and glide super…glidey.

This has, of course, been done before. Crackdown and Infamous were both open world games where you had superpowers, but neither of them felt as good as Saints Row IV does. If you hold down the left trigger, you just start going. You run faster than any car can drive. And if you hold down jump, you’ll rocket straight up into the air something like 30 stories. And then if you press and hold left trigger again, you’ll air dash and then start gliding. Landing on walls allows you to run up along them, too, if you don’t feel like jumping.

Saints Row IV

It’s all so easy and intuitive that sometimes I couldn’t believe that I was doing all of that without even really thinking. All I had to focus on was picking where I wanted to go and plotting out in my mind all the big buildings along the way so I could get back up into the sky as quickly as possible once I floated back down to Earth. If you can recall what it was like knowing you could get anywhere you wanted in Spider-Man 2, it feels an awful lot like that. It’s so empowering both in as the character and in being the player.

All of that adds an incredible amount of verticality to the game. While you may be in the same basic city of Steelport, you are now experiencing it in an entirely different way. Outside of the first couple of missions before you get your powers, I never drove a car unless I had to steal one for a mission. And many of my fights now took place on rooftops instead of in the streets. Steelport is way more interesting when you can climb a skyscraper in a matter of seconds.

This does, however, make some of the game’s lingering designs a bit strange. The entire upgrade system is almost exactly the same as it was before where you unlock things by leveling up and then activate them by spending money (or cache, in this case). Cars still have a nitrous boost upgrade and can still get repaired at body shops, but now that’s almost entirely pointless when you can sprint everywhere. And your ability to speed up to an enemy and one-hit kill them makes most short range weapons useless.

Saints Row IV

Being inside a simulation, though, does also have its benefits. You know, besides the superpowers. You can listen to the radio anywhere you’d like, which makes shooting a water gun assault rifle at guys dressed in neon bear costumes all the more fun. And if you do decide to hop in a vehicle, instead of driving it to a garage and saving it, you just press down on the D-pad and it automatically saves.

And that might be Saints Row IV’s greatest strength. This is a game that facilitates your desire to do anything you want. Both cache and upgrade data clusters are so easy to come by that they’re mostly courtesy requirements for you to upgrade your character and your powers. If you unlock a new ability—say, crashing down from the sky with the force of a two-ton bomb—then either immediately or in a few short moments, you will be doing just that. And it will be fun.

This is a game that means to make sure you are doing something new every second you are playing it. As often as you are discovering new things you want to try in the open world, you are also engaging in missions that you didn’t know you wanted to do (but totally do) under the stricture of story progression. At a certain point, I was playing a top-down tank battle game. And then at another part I was escaping an alien base in a spaceship, barrel rolling my way out of danger. And then I was fighting zombies. And then and then and then. (Remember when I said I wanted to just rundown everything I did in the game?)

Saints Row IV

And all the while, you’ll be smiling. One, from how fun it is to play through all of that nonsense. Two, from how well-written it is. It’s not always “holy shit I’m rolling on the ground laughing and taking notes so I can bring it up with my friends later so we can laugh and roll on the floor together like friends do” funny, but I can hardly remember a moment when something was happening and I wasn’t grinning. The story itself is fairly interesting and feels way more thought out than a game with a dubstep gun should be (though it does feel like it pulls some punches with a few key characters), but all of the tiny little in-jokes and big uproarious goofs add up to be essentially nonstop.

You do, however, need to know some stuff about some stuff. You’ll probably be best off if you played Saints Row: The Third and watched and played a heavy number of movies and games in the past 10 years. Actually, make that the past 15 years. Well, a cool 20 to be safe. Like, if you didn’t play Mass Effect, romance will elude you. And if you didn’t watch The Matrix or Supernatural, you’ll also be a bit lost. And if you don’t know who Nolan North and Johnny Gat are, then, um, yeah. You’re going to be scratching your head a bit.

Lastly, if you have a choice between playing on a PC or a console, for the love of god, choose PC. I played on all three platforms and both the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 versions had severe issues. Frame rate was atrocious which affected shooting dudes in the head and capably landing on things from hundreds of feet in the air and the PS3 one kept freezing (on both a fat and a slim model). The PC one, however, ran without a hitch and looked pretty good, to boot.

Saints Row IV

Saints Row IV is a game that revels in being whatever it wants to be so it can be whatever you want to be, but it does it so well that you don’t realize it. Much of the writing and jokes are very much on the nose (if you know it, anyways), but that contrast with the subtly of the design makes both sides work. And make no mistake; there is a significant amount of nuanced design in this game. When you throw everything into a bucket and rattle it around, a game doesn’t come out by accident. Things happened inside that bucket.

Think back to college and that guy who looked like he had perennial bedhead. He never wore matching socks as he stumbled from class to class, still covered in glitter from last night’s party. Little did you know, that guy just aced his fifth test that week and was preparing to defend his thesis on Monday. That’s Saints Row IV. So prepare to party, guys. It’s gonna be a fun one.

+ Superpowers make everything better
+ Exceptionally funny writing and fantastic voice acting to go along with it
+ You are doing something new every few minutes and it’s all gravy
+ The music and radio DJs are pretty much just what you need as you run and dive through Steelport
– Performance issues on the consoles almost ruin the entire thing for those versions

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Saints Row IV
Release: August 20, 2013
Genre: Open world action-adventure
Developer: Volition, Inc.
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Players: singleplayer offline, multiplayer online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://www.saintsrow.com/

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Bringing Something to the Table

Bringing Something to the Table

“Evergreen” is how editors describe it. If you manage to write something that is timeless, something that will be just as effective and potent 20 years from now as it is today, then you’ve written something that is evergreen. It’s an attribute gleaned from the eponymous plant classification that has green leaves on it all year round, which is an appropriate metaphor for how we might otherwise view the depreciating value of zeitgeist-y pieces or pop culture in-jokes. Do you think saying “said no one ever” or using “because [noun]” will still be funny in 2014? What about 2034? It’s doubtful.

With video games, we refer to games that “hold up” against the test of time, but we really mean that the mechanics or graphics are still worth noting. GoldenEye 007 for the N64, for instance, is a visual travesty at this point (though it wasn’t all that great back in 1997 either), but its multiplayer design is still worth looking at from time to time. Considerations are often made, though, in regards to solid limitations; we don’t hold the lack of 3D graphics against Space Invaders.

It’s not very often, though, that a video game largely depends on some meta-game or industry knowledge to succeed. We all too often automatically lump self-aware games in with parody games, which we almost always throw under the Bad Games banner. It’s hard to fault anyone for it. I mean, after the Matt Hazard and Postal series, can you really blame anyone? (I guess Vicious Cycle Software and Running With Scissors, Inc., but let’s let bygones be bygones.)

Space Invaders

Two of the most recent games to come out and make a splash do exactly that. One is Saints Row IV, but that still operates fine as a mechanical device without its humor. You won’t understand things like the Borderlands-esque warp tunnel when you enter and exit the digital Steelport simulation or why, exactly, it’s funny in its Mass Effect-y ways to so pointlessly and needlessly romance members of your crew. And I really doubt that once he’s retired and largely gone from fresher generations’ minds that Nolan North’s voice acting as the surprise option in your character customization will be all that interesting. You need to know his history in the industry and the impact he’s had, otherwise you’re just confused.

That said, the utterly sublime superpower mechanics and sufficiently carrot-on-a-stick-ish progression systems will undoubtedly make it a game to come back to years from now. The other game, though, is Gone Home, and it’s time is running out.

I really do think that Gone Home is a fantastic game. The last time any sort of video game made me get all teary-eyed was To The Moon. Journey made my heart do god damn flips. BioShock Infinite and The Last of Us made me reel back and take my entire life into consideration. Gone Home, in its exceptionally short three-hour runtime, made me feel and do all that and more. You should play that game now if you haven’t. There aren’t any whole cloth spoilers in this piece, but you really shouldn’t read anything about it if you plan on playing it.

Gone Home

The most obvious thing that Gone Home requires from you as a player is that of any narrative, which is the ability to accept through some proxy a story that isn’t your own. Optionally, if you are in fact a person who grew up as a girl with a taboo love in the 1990s, then fantastic! This game was practically made for you. Hell, toss out everything but the “love” part and this game still manages to connect with a lot of people. (Especially in its new realism.)

For some, though, it doesn’t. The setting of 1995 does a lot for the majority of folks that will play this game, mainly because the primary gaming demographic largely grew up in this decade as well. I was a skosh younger than Sam at that time, but not by much, and the story still hit extra hard. It took a familiar setting and introduced a foreign concept to me. Or at least foreign at the time. I was, like many children and teenagers, emotionally shallow, and this added depth to my nascent years through a different lens. It is masterful in that way.

If you weren’t born in the 80s, though, then not much can be done for you. If you’re like Susan Arendt of Joystiq, then the milieu of the 90s for you was searching for a job and moving out on your own, not coming to terms with you as a person in your awkward school days. And if you were born in the 90s or beyond, then most of what Gone Home offers you is completely alien. BuzzFeed has a list up now about the class of 2017, or the kids born in 1999. Consider the following (they won’t get that, either): none of them ever existed in a world with monthly text limits, they don’t know what the save icon is in Microsoft Office programs, and cell phones have always been in a museum.

Gone Home

They lack the foreknowledge to buy into this world. Instead of exploring a house of things you once knew and long since forgotten, they’ll be wondering why there are so many things labeled in Sharpie with movie titles (what did we call recording movies off of television broadcasts back then? Certainly not pirating, right?) and why there’s a machine in the foyer that plays voice messages. They’ll have a million tiny mysteries to address before delving into the main one about the Greenbriar family.

That, however, is peanuts to the greater conundrum. It is a concept that is currently foreseen as evergreen, but perhaps not for long. Games have for quite some time been open to a very diverse demographic, what with the plethora of sports games, driving games, casual match-three and farming games, and shooters and RPGs and the like. The chances, though, of any of them happening to stumble across Gone Home and wanting to play it are quite slim.

It is a game that appeals mostly to a very select group of gamers, which is to say the ones that might even bother reading little websites like this. Not many people would be willing to spend twenty dollars on a game that lasts about as long as a single viewing of Titanic (I guess kids also don’t know that was a real ship that actually sank), but if you are, then you likely also fit a certain mold of person.

Gone Home

This mold, or rather a framework for personality compatibility in games, might show that you grew up unpopular. Or maybe not unpopular but certainly with little opportunity to socialize through home schooling, lots of moving around, etc. You were a person who knew what it was to be the observational loner, an aspect of your childhood that perhaps left you especially open to the Forer effect and a talent for over empathizing.

And now you are back in that role. You are the silent observer as Sam’s sister Kaitlin, simply watching and reading and wandering with no real human interaction or interruptions. And you see yourself in Sam. Maybe not as someone who had to battle with a puzzled and confused identity and published a riot grrrl zine in high school, but certainly someone with a romantic vision of the world, someone who saw love and knew it was for them. Most of us playing this game likely have some sort of romanticism in us, and the story told within its narrow timeframe plays on that perhaps more than anything.

With the broadening acceptance of video games as a conduit for more than throwing digital footballs and shooting assault rifles at Nazis and Russians, it seems like an inevitability that we will soon see a majority instead of a minority deciding that twenty dollars on an indie game featuring three hours of walking and reading is a good investment. But will they still see the romantic version of the world? Will this evergreen facet of Gone Home and the people that play it no longer be green?

Gone Home

I don’t know, but we will have a lot more people to talk to about it.

I know this last bit was a broad and imprecise categorization of people that play video games, but it is also based on conversations I’ve had with roughly 20 other games writers about Gone Home. So it may not be wholly accurate, but it sure is wholly interesting based on that.

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An Unanswered and Unasked Question

An Unanswered and Unasked Question

One of my favorite movies from last year was Looper. It had Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt playing the same character separated by 30 years in age but coexist in a drama about changing yourself and your past, all of which occurs in the year 2044. If that brief synopsis didn’t tip you off, it’s a sci-fi flick about time travel. Well, correction: it’s a sci-fi flick with time travel. Director Rian Johnson said as much, saying that he wanted to avoid the traditional “chalkboard scene,” a trope where the characters explain everything that’s happening and why it matters and blah blah blah.

Johnson fixed it all with a single line. Seated in a café, the two get down to brass tacks. “I don’t want to talk about time travel.” That’s all Old Joe has to say as Young Joe questions whether his future-borne counterpart knows what’s going to happen. “We’ll be here all day…making diagrams with straws.” It’s fitting because Looper really isn’t about time travel at all; it’s just a color Johnson paints into his portrait of a man learning to live.

To that point, it allows you to bridge over a lot of what you might want to call “plot holes,” a subject expertly dissected by Film Crit Hulk. Time travel movies generally invite that sort of investigative slant from the audience, but the immediate reciprocation of cause to effect in the film skews it towards a bit of the “magical” interpretation, as Primer director Shane Carruth put it. In fact, one of the few plot holes Johnson is willing to acknowledge is that the safe in Joe’s apartment would be inexplicably protruding into the unit below, which would undoubtedly raise questions from the tenants.

Looper

I began to think about this last night as I was playing Saints Row IV. (Speaking of which, it’s a great game and I’ve got a review forthcoming. Hold tight!) After a troubled publishing and muddied development story, we’re finally back with the 3rd Street Saints and the Boss. The absolutely bonkers campaign left from Saints Row: The Third is taken to its logical conclusion and we see the Saints as the leaders of the United States. The Boss is the President and everyone else is your cabinet.

It does, however, get more…unconventional than that. In the opening moments of the game, aliens attack and abduct everyone. You fend off the attack and watch the rest of the Saints get pulled up into the alien mothership. It culminates with you getting into a futile fistfight with their leader Zinyak, eventually dropping into some sort of digital simulation of Steelport run by said extraterrestrial. There’s some silver lining, though, since the simulation can be hacked by Kinzie to allow for you to earn superpowers like super speed and super jumps.

In a stroke of genius, developers Volition, Inc. decided to co-opt Crackdown‘s single greatest contribution to the superpower video game lexicon: agility orbs. Or rather, data clusters in this case. You collect these precariously placed pickups from all over the world. Some will be on rooftops and others will be stuck along a billboard. As you get more and more, you can spend them on upgrades to your powers so you can glide in the air (think Infamous) and run into things without taking damage.

Saints Row IV

There’s a narrative layer to them, though. Kinzie describes them as lingering bits of code that will allow her to modify the simulation. The Boss questions, then, as to why Zinyak’s forces don’t use them, too, so as to boost their powers. She responds with the fact that since Zinyak runs the show, he doesn’t need them. But then why would they leave them lying around? They’re strays. Accidents. So shouldn’t they collect them anyways so I can’t get them?

The Boss has a lot of questions, and most of them fair. Kinzie also has a lot of answers, and all of them check out. But, just as time travel logistics don’t really matter to Johnson and Looper, these questions don’t hold any sway in Saints Row IV. That’s just not what this game is about. Those are fair questions posed by the Boss, and it seems Kinzie has all of the answers, but why get bogged down in the details? Young Joe had fair questions, too, with Old Joe fully capable of answers or at least taking a stab at them, but that would take a quick, character-based drama to a sudden halt.

Saints Row IV is the kind of game where you choose to either cure cancer or solve world hunger with a press of a button, each one via bills appropriately named Fuck Cancer and Let Them Eat Cake, respectively. Saints Row IV is the kind of game where you every car has nitrous because why the fuck not? You can already run at like a hundred miles an hour, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense to have you buy it every time you find yourself in a car. It’s the kind of game that gets mired in espousing to you the reasoning behind the insanity and would much rather spend that time letting you get lost in its nutso reality.

Saints Row IV

To point out that Saints Row IV is a game with a lot of unanswered questions is entirely accurate because there are a lot of unanswered questions. But it, like many other artistic or entertainment endeavors (or at least the ones worth considering), it aims for a singular purpose. If its purpose was to fill your mind with a rich tapestry of complex narrative folds and weaves, then it would be a valid complaint. But this is not Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. This is a game with a dubstep gun and the ability to choose Nolan North as your character. So those answers you’re looking for? They’re not here. No one even bothered to ask.

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Sony Gamescom Recap

Sony Gamescom Recap

Yesterday was pretty interesting. It was basically press conference day, or Day Zero, of Gamescom over in Cologne, Germany, similar to the day before the madness starts in Los Angeles for E3. The difference, however, is that there are far fewer than E3. Yesterday saw EA and Sony take the stage (Microsoft just went for a smaller showcase event) and both highlighted what they have currently going on and what they have to look forward to.

EA was, well, EA. There were no big announcements, though there sure were big trailers, the biggest of which were for Titanfall and Battlefield 4. They also showed off The Sims 4 (with an extremely…odd example of human psychology and emotion), FIFA 14, Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, Need for Speed: Rivals, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and Command & Conquer. Titanfall, if you weren’t aware, looks great and, based on what I’ve gotten my hands on, plays great, and Battlefield 4 looks pretty and, well, that’s about it. Not much to say there besides Levolution. (God damn nonsense marketing.)

But then Sony went up and opened with what can only be called an interactive theater art piece. Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony’s Worldwide Studios, sat motionless in a giant armchair facing away from the audience. Then he just began to mess around with the PlayStation 4, signing in and streaming Killzone: Shadow Fall before seamlessly jumping into the action himself (and then tweeting a screenshot). It was nearly five whole minutes before a single word was uttered.

Things went less stranger from there, though the camera man was regrettably chaotic. So here are the highlights!

Sony’s Indie Acquisitions

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

After announcing that Borderlands 2 would be making its way to the Vita, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe Jim Ryan revealed that Fez, Starbound, and Velocity 2X would all be headed to the Sony portable as well.

We’ve known for a while that Phil Fish was in talks with Sony to get Fez onto the PlayStation Network, but combined, the three acquisitions (with Rogue Legacy from Cellar Door Games and Wasteland Kings from Vlambeer and and and, talked about later in the event) represent that Sony isn’t just interested in bringing developers into the fold but also getting interesting games along with them. Starbound and Velocity 2X have existed for quite some time before yesterday, and Sony saying that they managed to convince the developers to partner up and port those games over show a commitment to their new philosophy.

Vita Price Drops

PlayStation Vita at Gamescom 2013

As of yesterday during the press conference, all Vita models are $199, down from $249 for the Wi-Fi and $299 for the 3G models. This coincides with a price drop in memory cards, the 4 GB going from $19.99 to $14.99 and the 32 GB going from $99 to $79. Both of these are pretty big news seeing as how price is probably the biggest hurdle for consumers to clear now that Sony has put on display their commitment to making the handheld work. They’ve got new games, they’re porting over popular games, and they’ve got new, lower prices. This could be a big move from the company.

Gran Turismo Date and Movie

While the Gran Turismo has long since stopped getting me all revved up, I do realize that each release into the franchise is a fairly big deal. As such, we can all look forward to Gran Turismo 6 on December 6, 2013, though a new trailer should hold us over until then.

We also got confirmation on those weird movie rumors floating around a few weeks ago: The Social Network and Fifty Shades of Grey film producers Michael de Luca and Dana Brunetti are indeed working on the big screen adaptation of Gran Turismo. Because that makes sense.

More Potshots at Microsoft

Andrew House at Gamescom 2013

Overall, you could say Sony is confident. They’ve got some great exclusives lined up, they’re getting great feedback, and they’re console ostensibly works. I would say they’ve earned some of that swagger. But they also continue to take potshots at Microsoft. Remember when they made that video demonstrating how sharing games works on the PlayStation 4? Well, now they’re eschewing the production values and just going for body blows. Andrew House, president of Sony Computer Entertainment, had this to say as he announced the launch date of their upcoming console:

“While others have shifted their message and changed their story, we were consistent in maintaining policies and a model that is fair and in tune with consumer desires.” (They also tweeted something to the same effect.)

It’s an obvious and pointed jab at the fact that Microsoft did a 180 on pretty much everything people were complaining about. It started out fun and cute, but now it’s becoming, I don’t know, aggressive? Instead of pointing out what they’re doing right, it feels an awful lot like Sony is pointing out now what Microsoft is doing or has done wrong. At what point does it become too much?

Indie Announcements

So we already know Sony is bringing over a few existing, high-profile indie games over to their platforms, but they’ve also got new ones coming, too. The big one that really grabbed people was this horrifically strange and dark game called Murasaki Baby, a side-scrolling touch-control platformer for the Vita from Ovosonico. You play as this girl with an upside-down(?) head and must traverse a terrifying landscape by seemingly breaking through the fourth wall to aid her.

Tequila Works is also developing Rime, a beautiful action adventure game that looks like a cross between Ico and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. You may recognize the studio as the one behind Deadlight, the 2D survival horror game from late last year. It was a promising game full of neat ideas but ultimately failed to execute many of them. Hopefully they can get both halves working together this time because boy is my interest piqued.

The Chinese Room, the developers behind the fantastic and hard-to-explain Dear Esther, is working on Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture for the PlayStation 4. They’ve already got Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs in the works, so it’s obvious they’ve got a thing for atmospheric titles, and this looks extremely that. It’s a first-person adventure game made in CryEngine 3 and, well, that’s all we know.

There’s also a band festival simulator thing called BigFest where you’ll promote events and bands and I don’t know but it looks interesting, thought admittedly we’ve known something named BigFest has existed since January. Helldivers and Resogun, a top-down and a side-scrolling shooter respectively, also look pretty neat.

Launch Date (and Other Things)

PlayStation 4 with controller

Perhaps the biggest piece of news from yesterday is that the PlayStation 4 will officially be launching in North America on November 15th and in Europe and Latin America on November 29th. Pre-orders are already over one million, so jump in now if you so desire. Or don’t, whatever. I’m not your accountant.

In regards to services, Sony has officially partnered with Twitch for streaming and you can now listen to music while you play games via Sony’s Music Unlimited service. Plus there’s this new broadband access plan that sounds pretty gross since it includes tiered access priority, but who knows. It might prove fruitful for those struggling to get consistent Internet access.

Oh, and we also got a new trailer for both Infamous: Second Son and Watch Dogs (with a movie incoming) and a new gameplay demo of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

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Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest? Review

Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?

I’m normally not one for turn-based worldwide military strategy games. There’s something about the idea of smashing together numbers with a thin veneer of national might that kind of puts me off. Granted, that same complaint can be levied against some of my other preferred video game genres like RPGs and RTSs, most of which quite literally surface the numbers to the player as the computer figures out if 200 is indeed bigger than 100. Poorly designed ones actually feel a lot like the crappy casino in Vegas Vacation where you play Guess the Hand and Pick a Number.

All of this, of course, went out the window somewhere around hour two of playing Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest.

Aside from the horribly long and tiring title that I can’t imagine anyone would ever willingly say in its entirety outside of the strictures of martial law, Empires II is quite the enjoyable iOS title. It’s a sequel to the 2011 Empires: World Conquest. Both games by Fabrice Noui and both games featuring historical-but-not-quite-accurate empires and armies vying for world dominance. Played either solo, cooperatively, or competitively via pass-and-play, Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, or online, you pick a country of origin and begin to take over other sovereign lands.

Each turn takes place over the course of a single season in a year. In spring (and only spring), you can spend your money to buy more troops and ships and spend a tiny amount to spy on other countries to figure out what they’re currently stacked with. The other three seasons are dedicated to moving your armies and fleets around. You can freely move any number of any resource to any land you already own, but doing so to territories not under your control results in a skirmish.

At first, these fights seemed overly simplistic. In fact, a tooltip spells out for you the requirements to win: in general, have double the number of soldiers invading than those holding (quadruple if it is a fortified capital). Then a little recap comes up and spells out how many units you lost and how many they lost and if you won or lost. It’s instantaneous and is nothing more than seeing whose stack of chips is higher.

But this reduction actually facilitates the strength of Empires II, which is the locomotion of your global might. Since determining the (probable) outcome of each encounter is so easy, the focus is instead put on constantly relocating and building your forces around the world. All troops originate from one of your capital cities (or your starting capital, if that’s a rule you choose to enforce), and they can only march into adjacent land that isn’t blocked off by mountains or lakes. If they’re on a coast, though, then you can use ships to transport them to any other coast.

Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?

In any given movement season (i.e. summer, fall, and winter, if you’ve forgotten everything about how the world works), you can touch one of your countries and choose to move as much or as little as you want. So if you want to move 10 empty ships from Libya back to Columbia but also 50 armies in either direction, you can. You can issue as many movement commands as you want, so your response time to any invasion or failed attack feels almost immediate, even though you’ll probably still have to walk through several countries to get there.

Unless, of course, you use ships. Going from any coastline to another only takes one turn, regardless of absolute distance; moving from Cuba to Mexico takes the same amount of time as moving from Quebec to Angola. This helps play into the reactive feel of Empires II (since invading coastal countries means you must overpower both their naval and land forces, and you can’t even fight the armies without first destroying their ships), but it also contributes a hefty chaotic feel to the mid-game.

Early on, you’ll be focused on taking over your initial region (usually whatever continent you start out on) so you can get the annual monetary region bonus and really start to rack up your armies and ships. Once that begins to wind down, though, you’ll begin to scope out the other world powers. I tended to either go for the one with the most land (shown by the color bar at the bottom left) or the weakest nearby region. And then you’ll move and disperse your resources to your non-landlocked territories so other countries can’t invade and you can easily invade others.

Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?

But the status quo can shift crazy fast, and all because of the ships. They make combat and movement so incredibly interesting, but they also drag out the mid-game so much and make it almost frustrating. If you’re evenly matched with a given empire, it’s likely that after they attack one of your countries, you’ll just take it right back. But the following turn in your rebuttal, they’ll take over neighboring countries or another coastline. And so on and so on until it becomes a war of attrition, except it’s a war of slowly chasing a mouse out of your house.

That can, however, be fun, given a certain brevity. Human opponents often realize whether a particular invasion attempt is futile or fruitful rather quickly, but only on the easiest and hardest difficulties did I find the back and forth pace to be anything resembling fun. It’s fun having those little shakeups where you have to scramble nearby armies and shuttle in new ones with your fleet to keep up defenses and drive invading hordes out. Having those little rattles protract out into annoying tinnitus, however, was almost enough to make me quit playing entirely.

I never did, though. While there are quirks here and there that highlight the singular creator aspect of the game like lack of music, inconsistent and troubling UI, and a few bugs, the very act of playing the game was quite compelling, keeping track of dozens and dozens of localized forces and naval impositions and remembering a handful of parallel tactics. And playing with a buddy actually upped the required strategy, even more so when you play against other people. (Disclosure: I only played via the pass-and-play option, which froze on me rather consistently.)

Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?

Given my history with the genre, I was skeptical I would find even $1.99’s worth in Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest, but I did. It controls responsively (if a bit unintuitively), it looks good, and the mechanics are actually quite interesting. They play into a design that both streamlines and adds complexity to an otherwise rote formula of global dominance. If you can get over the snail-like slump you often encounter on your way to victory, this is a mighty worthwhile game.

+ Looks quite good and handles rather well with nary a slowdown in sight
+ Puts the focus on moving and handling armies rather than the battles they fight
+ Ships add a necessary and fun wrinkle to defending and attacking coasts
– Ships also add unnecessary bloat to the mid-game process of attacking and defending coasts
– Sound design is…strange, as are some UI choices

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Game Review: Empires II: What Would You Risk for World Conquest?
Release: August 8, 2013
Genre: Turn-based strategy
Developer: Fabrice Noui
Available Platforms: iOS
Players: 1–6
MSRP: $1.99
Website: http://www.empires-game.com/

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Put It All Back in Gone Home

Put It All Back in Gone Home

Sometimes it’s the smallest thing that means the most. It’s a truth most often represented through clichés and parables, about the thought being what counts and David defeating Goliath. They’re all facets of the same gem, different faces to the singular Janus. The nuances change within this collection of rote notions (the devil, after all, is in the—well, you know), but that doesn’t change the fact that they all build up the same general truth: that even the most trivial parts of a running motor keep it purring instead of clunking.

Video games are a great ambassador to this idea. Among the most bombastic stories and settings you’ll find in the fictional realm where space marines fighting a war are more common than butterflies in a park and things like [insert anything that happens at all from Asura’s Wrath] operate on a placid roar, the smallest details can be the parts that stick with us the longest. For all the space drama surrounding Master Chief and the Covenant, my grasp of the interstellar insanity pales in comparison to how vividly I can recall the way our Spartan hero flips around a pistol to whack a Grunt in the head. After climbing what felt like a hundred stories into the air on a living, breathing, angry Colossus, I still remember most of all how Wanderer would float and precisely drift through the air like a feather only to land across the back of Agro with a solid thud.

The most recent addition to the Memorable Details scrapbook is something in Gone Home. Gone Home is the debut game from The Fullbright Company, a four-person studio based in Portland, Oregon. Three of its founders were key members on the team that made the absolutely fantastic Minerva’s Den DLC for BioShock 2, including lead designer Steve Gaynor. It was an incredible little piece of expansive fiction that carries with it a lot of the same sensibilities they would later imbue into Gone Home, itself a first-person exploration video game.

BioShock 2 Minerva's Den

If you haven’t played it yet, I highly recommend that you do before reading this. There are no overt spoilers in this article, but Gone Home works best when you know absolutely nothing about it. Even going in with slightly elevated expectations via word of mouth and cursory glances at review scores could adversely affect your eventual perception of it, so truly and honestly, just go play it and then you can either read this and consider my words or get angry that you spent money on my recommendation.

In Gone Home, you interact with objects by clicking on them. This allows you to pick them up and subsequently holding Shift to rotate and examine items closer. Sometimes, you’ll find something important like a date or a name. Other times, you’ll find nothing. (I’m pretty sure I picked up every single box of tissues and looked all of them over and found nary and thing of interest.) It was pretty neat, actually, having to carry things around into better lighting to read the covers of board games and magazines. It added a significant needed and appreciated realism to an action that shows that you do not, in fact, have hands.

After you’re done spinning your fifteenth soda can or flipping over another cassette case, you can then do one of two things: 1) click again to nonchalantly toss the object back wherever you’re pointing, or 2) click where you picked up the object and Put Back the thing as you found it. Well, “as you found it” isn’t entirely correct (and has a lot to do with why this is important), but we’ll get to that in a second.

Gone Home

The game opens with you on the enclosed porch area of your family’s new house. It’s dark, and all you can see before you is a flickering light, a locked door, and a hurriedly scribbled note from your younger sister Sam. In this area, the few things you can interact with besides the aforementioned items are a cup, a lamp, and a cabinet contain a plastic duck. The first thing I did, as I’m sure most people did, was pick up the cup. I didn’t even read the note or check the door or turn on the lamp. I just picked up the first thing I could and wanted to see what I could do. “Huh, this is cool,” I thought, right before throwing it to the ground with a clatter and a second thought towards picking it up again just so I could throw it one more time.

When I picked up the duck and found the key to the door, I encountered for the first time the option to Put Back the thing I was holding. Hover your mouse over where you picked something up, and you can click to snap the thing back into place. So I carefully put the modestly priced novelty and then stood there for a second. I had the key, so all I really had left to do in this front porch area was open the door and enter the house. But I stood there for a second, and then closed both cabinet doors and turned off the lamp.

I hastily moved towards the door and opened it with the key and entered. I turned left and turned right, surveying my options for exploration. I was uneasy for a number of reasons, including the excessive number of dark recesses and abundance of flickering, creepy lights, but it was a hazy malaise that stood out the most to me. I rummaged through a closet and perused a set of drawers, but something kept nagging at me. This is a real house, one that my family moved into and that I will soon live in. It was so small and so inconsequential, something that could easily be blamed on the wind or family pet (do we have one?), but to right it would be an equally quick and painless exercise.

Gone Home

I went back out the front door, turned right, and scoured the floor until I found it. I picked up the cup I had previously thrown so callously under the bench, spun it around to check for cracks or dings, and Put it Back where it belonged. And just like that, I felt so much more at ease in a house I had never been in. I felt like I had welcomed myself into feeling comfortable with being intimately familiar with this family and this home. Who else but the daughter of the family who had just moved in would go back to clean up such a minute little mess? Who else but me would feel so free to dig out the mystery of a loved mother and father and sister in a place unknown?

What really made it click, though, was a bit later on in the game when you come across a little standing table in the dining room. It looked to be nothing more than a convenient little space where people would come in from a day at school or work and toss their belongings on the nearest flat surface. On it was a purse lying on its side, which I promptly picked up and noticed a pamphlet under it. As gently as I could in a game where I am either holding or throwing an object, I put the purse on the ground and then picked up the pamphlet. But underneath that was an odd scrap of paper, so I put the pamphlet down next to the purse and picked up the scrap.

When I was done, I did what I had done for the past two hours: I Put everything Back. The paper snapped back to where I’d found it. The pamphlet, however, seemed to have shifted; it no longer covered up the paper. “Odd,” I thought, but continued to pick up and replace the purse. But the purse snapped back upright to the left, leaving the other items unmasked. Mechanically, it made sense; it facilitated the player not having to go through two layers to get to the important bit if they wanted to revisit it, but narratively, it was profound.

Gone Home

It represented my character’s neat and orderly mind, a habit put on display for the first three-quarters of the game, one possibly picked up abroad when staying with strangers and friends in homes you didn’t quite belong. Your sister’s room is a mess, your dad’s office is in disarray, and your mother leaves papers everywhere in the house. Someone in this house has to be the clean one, and having just arrived home from Europe, why not you? Why not start now? So it made sense and really put me in the shoes of a lone family member going around a disorderly house. It’s such a small thing (the rest of the table is cluttered with stacks of paper and trash), but the cleaning process has to start somewhere.

So when you replace that purse, of course you put it upright. It’s a value your parents probably instilled in you at a young age: Put things Back where you found them. More importantly, it’s probably something Kaitlin Greenbriar’s parents instilled in her at a young age, and something you have just taken part in as a player in a wholly organic way. It’s such a small thing standing amongst an unsettling story of an uncle and a nephew, a modern tale of a relationship worn weary by the world, and an impossibly beautiful love story that pulls into sharp focus the contrast between dreams and reality and the immense triumph when they align. It’s such a small thing, but it’s also the most important.

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Gone Home Review: Deep Inside

Gone Home

Gaming nomenclature has changed a lot since the industry’s inception. Entire genres that didn’t exist have cropped up and the idea that 3D didn’t just mean rasterized polygons has only recently been challenged with 3D-capable televisions and devices like the Oculus Rift. The one that’s most fascinating, however, is how we talk about completing a game.

Back when the task of playing a game was the unequivocal challenge of overcoming a series of obstacles that tested your skills (or quarter reserves or closing time of the local arcade or whatever), “beating” a game made sense. You beat that level, which in turn led to you beating the game. The word itself represented your ability to dominate the walls laid before you, to virtually climb them. You won, you defeated, you etc’d your way to the end of a litany of difficulties purposefully put in your way.

There are games now, though, that have a challenge beyond the twitch shot and the instinctive dodge. They exist less as a test against your mettle and more as a list of things to be done, a stack of checkboxes that, when ticked, sets off a series of experiences that culminates in you thinking of or feeling something. To The Moon. Dear Esther. Proteus. It wouldn’t be right or appropriate to say you “beat” any of these games. You wouldn’t say you beat that recipe for cheesecake, would you? The difference is that you don’t know that you’re making a cheesecake.

The question, then, is how to review a game of that sort? The already subjective nature of reviews (if you subscribe to the camp that reviews are, in fact, personal critiques and not objective buy-this-don’t-buy-that placards to be hung on a wall, which you should because the latter is absolute nonsense) is put even further under the lens of introspection. These games make you consider things outside of the game and move your contemplative state to yourself, examining why and how they managed to shake you up and let your emotions bubble over.

Gone Home, the first release from the Portland-based indie quartet The Fullbright Company, fits into this mold, but like any game that falls under that banner, it pushes and breaks through its bounds and forces you to reconsider a multitude of preconceptions about both the game and the medium as a whole. If contorted properly, Gone Home could fit within the confines of a first-person adventure game where pick things up and uncover secrets, but it quickly shatters such a constricting framework.

The entire game takes place within a single house in Portland, Oregon, one that you come home to after a year abroad in Europe. It’s 1995, you are Kaitlin Greenbriar, and you’ve arrived at a mysteriously empty house. The front door is locked, but there’s a note on it. Light flickering and rain pouring down outside, you see that it is addressed to you. It’s from a person named Sam, and whoever he or she is, they’re sorry for not being there to see you. But they’ve gone missing, and they don’t want you to find them.

Gone Home

This opening bit establishes much of what you’ll come to expect from Gone Home. All you have control-wise is WASD to move and the mouse to look, but you can press C to crouch and Shift to zoom. Much of what lies around you is interactive, so you can turn on and off the light, pick up and examine a cup, and open drawers and cupboards. And almost everything is of such a high fidelity in regards to texture that zooming in to read the letter is both natural and effective.

But the purpose of this scene is to set up what the game gives you, which is to say ample opportunity to connect and uncover all the dots you want. Only through looking at your baggage tags, for instance, do you know when, where, and who you are. Only through inference and context clues can you determine that Sam is either your brother or sister. It’s so incredibly important to the game that you pay attention to everything around you.

Its presentation, though, is what kills every single part of me. This house and this time and these people are so completely and disgustingly real that I felt almost voyeuristic in exploring this empty mansion. But a couple swift and neat narrative tricks (this is, after all, Kaitlin’s first time in this house, too) in the beginning implores and imbues you with the sense that this is your home because you family lives—or maybe lived—here. And eventually it felt like rediscovering a past that I’d long since forgotten, even though it was something I never knew to begin with.

Gone Home

Perhaps it’s because I grew up a child of the 90s. Born in 1987, a lot of the things strewn about the house are familiar to me: television listings with certain shows marked (Boy Meets World!), an abundance of VHS tapes labeled to denote pirated broadcast versions of my favorite movies, and so much more. There’s an old school answering machine, but still notes are left around the house with missed call messages. Glow in the dark stars are stuck to part of the ceiling. It triggers every single nostalgic mouse trap in my brain, snapping and popping not memories but emotions, not moments but experiences.

Still, the age of Kaitlin is far beyond what I was in 1995, but I did—err, still do—have a sibling. An older sister, in fact. So some of the bits and pieces of the relationship between Kaitlin and Sam (and definitely between them and their parents) ring many bells, some sharp and crisp while others are kind of fuzzy as if someone dampened their sound with a mitten. But the words delivered by each of the characters delivered by paper and voice in this odd and moving narrative are so realistic and pointed and purposeful and heartbreaking and like little nuggets of gold that I want to horde and never share with anyone.

It’s really hard to talk about this game without ruining it because the very act of playing it is what unravels the thread. You start pulling and keep pulling until the wrap is bare, and each little sliver of previously hidden secret becomes aired fact. Those are the checkboxes. Those are the steps to your cheesecake. Every single one runs in sequence and is intensely necessary. I can’t imagine skipping anything the game offers you because each missed element diminishes the final product. It’s not like choosing not to go after a piece of intel or picking up an audio log. These are the bricks and beams of the house’s foundation, and you don’t want to let it crumble.

Gone Home

But it’s also incredibly hard to ruin an emotion. I can tell you what it feels like to feel overjoyed and gutted all at once but you just won’t know what I mean until you feel it, too. And you may not even feel what I felt. Scott Nichols over at GameFront didn’t just draw parallels with the game’s story; he practically lived parts of it (it’s a bit of a spoilerish review, so maybe don’t read it until after you’ve played). Some folks I talked to that don’t have sibling experienced entirely different emotions than me by the end. It’s not like “I felt great after I finally shot the terrorist to save the world.” It’s a lot more someone reached into your heart, grabbed whatever they could find, and just started squeezing, ripping their way in.

That’s perhaps because there are so many stories to keep track of. This is a complex family with complex issues and full lives, each their own. This is not a video game family where everything they do focuses on your existence. You begin to unearth stirring secrets kept from each other, lingering love left unspoken, and so much more. Every person in the house and out of it, some not even in the same state, all have their own story that you begin to follow through crumpled up pieces of trash, bottles stashed away from view, and notes best hidden from prying eyes.

The agency afforded you as a player, though, is perhaps the greatest achievement in Gone Home. By allowing you to explore and discover at your own will, it gives the feeling that you own this particular story, that no one else will have this exact same experience. It made me feel like consequence outside of the game had permeated my play, where at any moment Sam could come through the door and ask why the hell I left all those lights on or why I didn’t close the front door. Whenever I picked something up, I would put it back exactly where I found it, an action facilitated by being able to click over where an object originated so it’ll snap back to its home. And if I found a lid off of a box, I would put it back. Every cabinet door closed.

Gone Home

Maneuvering things in this simplistic control scheme felt immensely powerful. If I picked up a purse, under it would be a pamphlet. If I picked up the pamphlet, under it would be a half torn note. And when I put it all back, Kaitlin would arrange it with the purse standing, pamphlet folded, and note half stashed away. It told me so much about both Kaitlin and the owner of all three objects. And good god, when you first pick up a cassette and put it in a cassette player.

Some problems certainly crop up, though. In the moment, it definitely felt odd that some notes would be lying about unattended to for over eight months. Why are there locked doors gating off major parts of the house like the dining room and laundry room? And by the end, it felt as if the overall story had pulled a few punches instead of going as far off the normative trail as the rest had gone, but what an incredibly paltry and inconsequential list of complaints for an otherwise breathtaking game.

Gone Home

How do you review a feeling? How do you put down into words with our finite alphabet something as grand and infinite as the human heart? A review that tells you what parts of a game work and don’t work can inform you if you want to take cover and shoot dudes or build cities in this particular way, but a review that tells you exactly which emotions it put in a cup, stirred, and poured out onto your porch holds value to exactly one person: the one who wrote it. All I can say that you should play Gone Home see if it can do the same for you. All I can say is that I didn’t beat Gone Home, but I certainly did finish it, but it’s far from finished with me.

+ Incredible detail for what made the 90s such an incredibly weird and amazing time (fuck yeah X-Files)
+ Ambient storytelling that scares, angers, and inspires you one at a time and all at once
+ An explicit narrative that is going to burrow deep inside of you and stay there for a long, long time
+ Sweet, sweet 90s punk music
– Some incongruous, anachronistic bits pertaining to the Sam story

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Gone Home
Release: August 15, 2013
Genre: First-person story exploration
Developer: The Fullbright Company
Available Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Players: 1
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.gonehomegame.com/

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What’s to a Remake

What's to a Remake

I’m of the mind that new things can’t ruin old things; they can only taint the future. Taken as a whole, yes, the second Star Wars trilogy kind of sours the entire universe that those stories are set in, but they definitely don’t diminish the experiences I had watching and rewatching Episodes IV through VI. It’s not like watching little Anakin pretend to be a real boy and Jar Jar Binks blubber his way through political intrigue forced me to go back in time and punch me in the face the first time I hear Darth Vader reveal that he was indeed Luke’s father.

As a result, I’m of a much milder temperament when it comes to remakes. If hearing that there is a remake of something beloved—a movie or game that you hold near and dear to your cold, dead heart—makes you immediately and irrefutably angry, then maybe you should reconsider why you’re mad. Having a new origin story won’t sully the good name of the old ones (it’s not like people started hating Tim Burton’s stab at Batman after Joel Schumacher’s take). It could be possible that you’re worried that your prized possession will soon be in the unwashed hands of the masses. And I totally get that. Sometimes I get protective of the things I love reaching critical mass.

Consider, though, that bringing back what once was dead could remind people of what made those things great to begin with. Old school ideologies could come back with soaring merit and zeal. This was something I considered looking at the recently released Rise of the Triad and DuckTales: Remastered. Both of them are revitalizations of games from an age long past.

DuckTales

Disclaimer: I know Rise of the Triad is a reboot and DuckTales: Remastered is a remake and I do know the difference. This is about the contrasting philosophies between the two resulting products and not necessarily about which label each one falls under. The liberty granted by being a reboot is obviously greater, but the changes made to the DuckTales remake should be held against those made in the Rise of the Triad reboot because the resulting effects are worth talking about.

Rise of the Triad originally came out in 1994 as shareware. It was notable for its multiple characters, multiplayer, and complete disregard for logic when it came to weapons. There was a magical bat that shot out baseballs, a missile launcher that shot off wild, unpredictable payloads, and both a god and dog mode, both of which do exactly what you think they do. It also introduced into the video game lexicon the phrase “ludicrous gibs.”

DuckTales is a classic platformer hailing all the way from 1989. Originally on the NES, DuckTales saw you as Scrooge McDuck trying to collect treasure from around the world to further increase his fortune and beat out Flintheart Glomgold as the scroogiest duck in the world. It is widely remembered for its insanely catchy music (my god, The Moon) and exceptionally classic and clean game design. You really only had two buttons to use that facilitated three actions, but the way the environment and the enemies forced you to carefully manipulate those mechanics was tough and challenging but in a fun and fair way.

Rise of the Triad

Both were also recently brought back from the dead. Rise of the Triad came courtesy of Interceptor Entertainment and Apogee Software. DuckTales: Remastered from WayForward Technologies and Capcom. One succeeded. The other, well, didn’t quite fare so well. Rise of the Triad was largely praised for succeeding in bringing back what people loved of the original (blisteringly fast insanity) and wrapped it up in a nice-looking package with an insanely metal, throw-up-the-horns bow. DuckTales: Remastered hamstrung the core of the game—which mostly holds up—with things that people didn’t necessarily come back for.

So where, in particular, did they go right and wrong? Rise of the Triad went right with taking the original, boiling it down, and pouring the reduction into a modern mold. The original was, in many ways, totally bonkers. By today’s standards, the levels of nuttiness are somewhat tempered, but that was what many people remember from the original. It was meta (Dopefish, dog mode, etc.) and it was deft. This led, of course, to the logical conclusion that what better way to bring it back but to take it all up a notch or two.

The new one moves crazy fast. The old one moved pretty quick, too, but it’s like Interceptor saw the old thread going around calculating Doomguy’s speed (clocked at 60ish miles per hour) and wanted to translate that to a proper 3D environment. And jesus fuck. And that meta humor? Consider that weapons with clips like the pistols and MP 40 can be reloaded but never actually need to be. And the mission briefings are self-aware. And like everything blows up. And those weapons look even crazier now with a modern engine. It takes the core of what made the original so memorable and runs with it.

DuckTales: Remastered

DuckTales: Remastered, however, mires quickly in problems of its own creation. It adds long, painfully slow cutscenes to flesh out what was once nothing more than a paragraph in an instruction booklet. Its writing is heartily unfunny. And the music isn’t even reminiscent of the old classics. But perhaps most problematic is that the controls are drastically unresponsive, essentially for even letting the player open the door towards appreciating the now overly simplistic design of waiting and pogo-ing.

To be fair, Rise of the Triad also adds incredibly long motion graphic bits for the story and DuckTales: Remastered looks absolutely incredible, but the core philosophies behind the two seem to inform the respective resulting games. Rise of the Triad feels like it took a good hard look at its past and decided what would make it compelling in a new age while DuckTales: Remastered couldn’t even fulfill its promise as a remake. The precision is gone, as is the childhood-defining music. Even just in the recreated first level of Rise of the Triad, though, and it’s clear Interceptor understood what its goal should be.

And I still don’t think either one changes how I feel about the originals. I still think the Rise of the Triad of the 90s and DuckTales of the 80s were important for me at the time and hold up under the guise of being old games that people should at least look at, but their revivals go their separate ways. What’s to a remake besides remaking a game? Turns out a lot.

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The Solitary Rockstar Games

The Solitary Rockstar Games

Do you know what it is to be alone? Of course you know what it’s like to be by yourself, but what about absolute, abject loneliness? You are, in all likelihood, reading this with no one by your side, so it seems safe to say you’ve experienced a solitary existence at least once in your life. This enables you to empathize with passive, established narratives. In books and movies and television shows, you are able to share some feeling of desolation with a person because you’ve at some point in your life looked around you and realized there was no one there.

That can incur emotional association when you read a certain passage like when Harry Potter enters any number of his multitude of wizard battles by his heroic self or when you watch I Am Legend and know what it’s like to lose your sole partner in the world pseudo vampires, all of which is despite the fact that you’ve never actually cast a spell with a wand or fought sun-averse abominations of nature before.

That communion is natural to those mediums precisely because they are passive experiences. Video games, however, are active, requiring your involvement to proceed at any rate. Even when the majority of the stories told by video games are predetermined in the same way those of books and movies are, the fact that you have to push a button or move a stick or press a key to propel the entire operation forward is enough to change how your mind perceives the story.

I Am Legend

Instead of internalizing bits of your relatable past with something a character is going through, you start down an existential path. Instead of feeling surrogate loneliness, you question the very concept of being alone. Of course, you are still experiencing the actual sensation of rolling stag, but the fact that you are physically interacting with a constructed scenario of isolation, you begin to ponder why such a thing even happens.

This is what I started to think about as I went back and played some of Rockstar Games old titles. In preparation of the impending Grand Theft Auto V release in September (and to provide an analogue for comparison for the recently released Saints Row IV), I’ve decided to replay at least a few hours of each Grand Theft Auto IV-related product—and Red Dead Redemption for good measure. So far I’ve marked GTA IV proper, RDR, and The Lost and Damned off the list, which mostly leaves just The Ballad of Gay Tony, but I’d like to put in some time with Chinatown Wars anyways.

The part that stands out the most from all of these games (besides the great writing, incredible ambiance, and fantastically detailed and interesting worlds) is that at some point, I always came across a moment of crushing loneliness. More than that, they inspire me to question the nature of being alone in these games.

Grand Theft Auto IV

In GTA IV, at certain points in the night, you’ll wander the streets of Liberty City and see no one. Like, at all. Even in faux Times Square, there will nary be a soul walking around and taking in the sights. No drunks falling down in the gutters and no cops patrolling the shadier neighborhoods. And it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying not in the way that Saw makes you watch a guy cut off his own foot or The Ring makes you worry about seeing something that dooms you to a swift and inevitable death, but more that it’s scares you because it makes you wonder why.

Why, for instance, would the streets be deserted? You, knowing that this is a video game, consider several possible conclusions, varying from the game messed up and forgot to populate the area you are in to that’s just how Rockstar decided to play out the nighttime of Liberty City to there might be an impending event happening to where the game can’t afford to allocate resources to nonessential NPCs. It makes you think about the purpose of being lonely in this game, but somewhere in the back of your head, that lingering paranoia leaks out into the real world and you wonder: what is the purpose of being lonely?

Red Dead Redemption may offer an answer. Set in 1911 in the Wild West, there are obviously less people to come across in New Austin than in Liberty City. The wilderness surrounds you—engulfs the entirety of civilization—and provides massive, barren patches of unpopulated nothingness between spurts of people and towns. But in those stretches of dirt and cacti, there is treasure to be found.

Red Dead Redemption

As you ride your horse across rocky paths and look out across the star and moonlit night, you see that nothing lies ahead of you but open space for thought and contemplation. But you also know that there is a lot out there to stumble upon. You know, from this being a game and knowing what kind of game it is, that there are animals out there to hunt or avoid. There are people to help or kill. There are cities to find and terrorize. Those moments of solitary play in Red Dead Redemption are meant to punctuate those that are filled with finding the unexpected. The game turns your consideration of loneliness into one of anticipation and eagerness.

That is the answer Red Dead Redemption throws back at the tortuous confinement of Grand Theft Auto IV‘s empty streets. Whereas the modern day setting lingers about and nudges you into wondering how you ended up by yourself in what should be a bustling city, the days of yore tells you that riding through the plains and the desert with just a horse for company gives poignant purpose to the isolation. I doubt this was a purposeful theme in the games, a carefully plotted point spanning two sizable development cycles, but it is impressive nonetheless that Rockstar managed to craft two vastly different sensations of solitary experiences.

More than that, they both force you to wonder the metaphysical implications of what it means to be by yourself in a video game, strangely melding real life with the empathy movies and books manage to elicit through shared experiences. Being alone in real life can inspire real fear or genuine boredom while being alone in a story reminds you of all the associated feelings from your own past, but video games push forth a question of meaning. Is there a purpose to the streets being empty? Is there a reason for me to ride for minutes at a time before reaching another town? Who knows. But maybe the question is more important than the answer.

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