Monthly Archives: September 2013

On Fandom, Breaking Bad, and Grand Theft Auto

On Fandom, Breaking Bad, and Grand Theft Auto

So the Breaking Bad finale happened last night. Don’t worry; I’m not going to talk about it. In fact, I haven’t even seen it yet since I’m still three—now four—episodes behind. However, cursory glances at Twitter and Facebook have highlighted a growing, general problem with pop culture.

It’s actually been a lingering issue for quite some time. For the most part, it seems, people speak solely in superlatives. Or at least when it comes to things that they have opinions about that they want to speak to. Of course this is a massive generalization, but it is no less than a response in kind.

By and large, my social networks (at least those that aren’t also professional critics) have reaffirmed the overall opinion that Breaking Bad is the best show on television at any point in history. It actually might be the best piece of entertainment ever created! The drama crafted by high production values and a singularly amazing performance are all it takes to overtake other series like Pushing Daisies and Six Feet Under.

Breaking Bad

Let’s take a look at Grand Theft Auto V. It is, without a doubt, a stellar achievement in interactive entertainment. The amount of the details—the verisimilitude—laid out in this fictionalized representation of Los Angeles is simply stunning. Not only that, but the drama contained within the narrative and gameplay by way of the three-character switching mechanic is a revelation. Rockstar has finally managed to tell a 30-hour story where I was interested in all 30 hours of it.

To call it the best game ever made, however, seems a bit excessive. Or at least a bit premature. There are still a lot of problems I and many others can find with the game, problems that aren’t subjective, so perfection is out of the question, and yet many people hold it in such light. And once you consider that labeling something as “the best” can only be quantified in an objective way, there’s not much more to say about that.

To say it is your favorite game, however, is perfectly valid. I can’t argue whether your opinion is valid or not unless you base it on incorrect facts. Your opinion is, obviously, your opinion, a thought of your own that can’t and shouldn’t be controlled.

The Last of Us

It should, however, be tempered when you apply labels like “best” to it. Many people just a little while ago had called Saints Row IV the best game ever. And before that it was The Last of Us, which had usurped BioShock Infinite. I’m all for revising and changing the status quo, but saying something is the best as a knee-jerk reaction seems rather ill-advised. This superlative label was applied to each one within weeks of release, a handful of days to objectively critique and analyze impossibly huge games in terms of scope, ambition, themes, and content.

Breaking Bad is, of course, a good show. It might even be a great show, a claim I might be inclined to agree with once I see the series finale, but for now I genuinely believe that years down the road, it will be remembered as an affirmation of AMC’s track record that basic cable can produce premium-quality content and that Bryan Cranston is an incredible actor. Production value can make up for a lack of characterization in the wings of the show and for the fact that what should have been a character-driven show was propelled by plot points, things that happen for the sake of happening.

This rampant declaration of “best ever” is perhaps indicative of a larger problem in modern society, where the now is always the best because it is at our fingertips and no further than a click or channel flip away. Historical comparison is left to those that do it professionally, to those that are paid to compare the new with the old through an encyclopedic knowledge of the medium. It goes beyond recognizing callbacks and homages and has to include thematic resonance over years, maybe even decades of television and film.

Breaking Bad

So when the majority of the people you talk with only ever articulate opinions on shows and movies in terms of being the best or worst thing they’ve ever seen and never in middling words of considered and calculated criticism, it’s easy to fall into the same trap. When I don’t talk to other game journo friends, I find it less than ideal to ever go beyond saying something along the lines of “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.” They don’t ever respond with any other meaningful elaboration either, so when I start off on my mental review and see their eyes wander, I remember that I’m not talking to another critic.

It’s mimetic. Not just my actions but everyone else’s as well. If you surround yourself with people that, by habit and through career choice, have dedicated large portions of their brains to remember the specifics of the good and bad of their experiences, then you tend to do the same. The opposite is also true. So when no one else is interested in discussing the purpose of a glance to a watch in a single scene of a video game or a movie, it becomes hard to maintain the desire to do so.

Now I challenge you to do this: articulate why you love or hate Breaking Bad. Put it into words what you like about Jesse Pinkman or why you didn’t like Walt’s turn in the middle of season two or three or whatever. It’s easy to apply a broad stroke of a feeling about liking or disliking something. Skipping out on the process of filtering purely reactionary emotions into discrete words and sentences guts the entire middle of a huge spectrum of opinions. It’s what turns your “best ever” into a thoughtful study of why you like what you like and an unearthing of what makes you, well, you.

Breaking Bad

And while you’re at it, watch some shitty shows and play some bad games. You can’t appreciate how high you are on the ladder if you’ve never seen the bottom.

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Kind of Shooting for the Stars in GTA V

Kind of Shooting for the Stars in GTA V

I like Grand Theft Auto V. In fact, I like it a lot. That much is fairly obvious; you don’t pour 50+ hours into a game without really liking it. And I’m not the only one. Reviews—including my own—show that a lot of people like it for what it is, which is an impossibly large open world game with compelling action and fantastic writing.

Of course, it’s all in consideration of the game as a whole. Certain facets like the voice acting and sound design are flawless. Others are a little chipped, such as the hard-to-place satire within satire of certain scenes. And then there are some that have been left untouched from past games like the stale missions structure of talk, drive, shoot.

One of things I talked about as a positive was the shooting. It’s vastly improved over Grand Theft Auto IV (and infinitely better than the previous generation of games), but some people took it to mean that it falls under the inscrutable category. The truth is that it ends up somewhere between the other two.

Grand Theft Auto V

It’s definitely not a spectacular-feeling shooter, but in the context of being contained within fantastically structured missions and interesting scenarios, the mechanics work. But the choice between a nigh invisible reticle and one that looks like someone dropped Wite-Out on your television is highly problematic.

The same can be said of the speed of the action, a holdover from GTA IV. Going from not shooting to shooting takes what feels like for-fucking-ever. The NaturalMotion Euphoria engine which makes characters procedurally interact with the world in a realistic way (navigating stairs and ladders and slopes and whatnot no longer look awkward or require specific scripting) also has the unfortunate side effect of adding a lot of momentum to every motion.

This includes going from running into a room to stopping to pulling out your gun. In a game where you can go down in just a few shots, the wait is excruciatingly painful, both figuratively and literally when bullets find their way into your virtual body. And then when you add in the time required to hop in and out of cover (which is basically required for staying alive), the simple action of locking on to an enemy and firing turns into a multi-step process of frustration.

Max Payne 3

It’s not terrible, though. It’s just relative since we know Rockstar Games can do better; Max Payne 3‘s shooting was actually quite good. He was still a bit lethargic compared to someone like Nathan Drake, but the feel of smoothly going from not aiming to aiming and the zooming that accompanies the transition was instrumental to making the game’s mechanics just superb.

A big part of that would be the reticle. It defaults to a similarly small and singular dot as well but it is persistent. Even when you aren’t holding down the left trigger to aim, it’s still there, so when you need it, you’re already familiar with where you’re aiming. In GTA V, the fact that it only appears when you pull up your weapon is dangerously irresponsible. First you have to gauge where you might be aiming when you pop out of cover and then you have to get your gun out.

And in the motion, you have to hurriedly scramble to find where the reticle is, and as an infinitely tiny dot that could additionally be obscured by a light background, it could take a while. It’s like playing “Where’s Waldo?” except your (digital) life is on the line.

Grand Theft Auto V

The concession made by the game is that the shooting mode is defaulted to a traditional GTA scheme, which is to say it locks on hard to enemies. Hold the left trigger and the reticle snaps (after slide up into aiming mode at a snail’s pace) to a guy’s center mass where you can fine tune to a headshot with a flick of the right stick. However, the entire process kind of takes away from the narrative impetus toward chaos.

This is a story all about guys going on heists where everything goes wrong. So when they precisely eliminate trained soldiers with the cold efficiency of Marty McFly at a 7-Eleven, it doesn’t quite line up. And it almost makes the entire ordeal a trivial exercise in waiting for bad guys to die and for your health to regenerate.

There is a free aim option, but even with the aiming sensitivity at its maximum, trying to manually get your reticle over a dude’s body is a lot like watching pudding drip down a wall. And once it does get moving, the matched movement of the character’s body with the moving reticle feels too stilted to even get close to snappy or responsive.

Grand Theft Auto V

But like I said, it’s still a massive improvement over Grand Theft Auto IV and actually can be quite fun when presented in the framework of Grand Theft Auto V‘s amazing combat scenario design. Swapping between three characters in the heat of the moment with holding off three separate gunfight fronts is incredibly exciting, so much so that it makes up for the fact that the shooting mechanics on their own is still rather lackluster.

So that’s what I mean when I say the shooting is fun in Grand Theft Auto V. Its serviceable mechanics utilized within great missions and heists. It’s the perfect example of what the game is as a whole: taken as a gestalt, every pillar supports every other and you end up with a thoroughly fantastic game. But my god you’d think they would have fixed the shooting by now.

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Role-Playing in GTA V

Role-Playing in GTA V

I’m sure everyone has the same memory, the same halcyon, bullet-ridden recollection from 2001. Hell, even spanning the following years through 2004, I’m sure it still holds true. It was a time when console multiplayer wasn’t its own genre (unless you count the entirety of Halo as one) and PC gaming was still in a lull.

Personally, I recall sitting in my friend’s living room. His parents gone, house full of rowdy high school boys, and us passing the controller around. The game? Grand Theft Auto III. A product that looked to be populated with Final Fantasy VII character models, it was still immensely fun to go on rampages for as long as possible in that horribly low resolution Liberty City.

It was an experience defined by a total lack of connection with the Claude, the pedestrians, and the city. Every action was viewed as inconsequential and every person expendable for the sake of fun. I wouldn’t say it was a sign of video game-induced psychosis (one that Fox News would say is the impetus for all shooting sprees) but rather it was definitely a byproduct of a silent protagonist with a trite story and a cartoonish representation of violence.

Grand Theft Auto III

Jump to 12 years later, and we have Grand Theft Auto V. By and large, it’s still the same digital framework: a big open world, dangerous cars, deadly weapons, and a story about questionable people doing questionable things. And yet the entire experience has changed oh so dramatically. It is a wholly phenomenal game and it is treading new ground: role-playing.

Granted, the territorial exploration isn’t necessarily intentional. But with a more accurate representation of the protagonists, antagonists, and myriad of side characters, it’s a lot easier to empathize with them—yes, even the absolutely fucked and insane ones. The entire milieu of the game from realistic graphics (all right, not realistic. Let’s say polished and appropriate.) to more personable personnel opens up connections that Rockstar probably wasn’t even aiming for in GTA III.

It works, though, and it has a whole bunch of side effects. Namely, a drastic reduction in desire to recklessly demolish everything in sight. Even in the face of getting chased by cops and gangsters and other flavors of armed foes, in the previous generation of Liberty City, Vice City, and San Andreas, all I wanted to do was drive on the sidewalk and watch bodies bounce off my hood.

Grand Theft Auto V

In Grand Theft Auto V, the appeal of having bodies ricochet from my chassis to a streetlight to the ground evaporated. Even though being chased and evading the police in this latest Grand Theft Auto game is pretty fun in a real cat-and-mouse sort of way, breaking the law seemed, well, wrong.

An obvious statement, sure, but in a game named after a major crime, the most I egregious trespass I engaged in was the eponymous act of stealing cars, although walking through downtown Los Santos was oddly pleasurable. But driving on the sidewalk almost always led to pedestrian death, which never seemed to fit any of the three characters.

Michael De Santa is a career criminal, but he’s definitely not a bad guy. He’s definitely not a blanket killer. His ostensible goal is to just make his family work and try to enjoy his retirement. He sees potential in a young fellow and he wants to mentor him, take care of him. He cares about his friend, even though his friend is a psychotic meth tweaker. He’s mostly a good guy, save for the bank robbing.

Grand Theft Auto V

Franklin Clinton had all but left the life of hustling and gangbanging until he shacked up with Michael. He did work for a rather unscrupulous car dealer, but at least it was a legal operation. And it was just a series of unfortunate events that landed him in real trouble, but he doesn’t kill for just any reason. He hangs out and trains his dog Chop, he helps a childhood friend’s husband not lose his job, and he avoids street trouble when he can. He’s also a good guy, save for the bank robbing.

Trevor Philips, however, is crazy. He’s 100% fucked in the head, as I’ve previously stated. His emotions are based on some alchemy that determines whether you are a friend or a foe and takes dangerous offense to any mention of his Canadian heritage. His in-game introduction should suffice for illustrating how unhinged he can get. But he too can be a good guy, save for the bank robbing.

Each character is redeemable in some way, probably so people don’t hate playing any of them, but that makes you want to inhabit them in very particular ways. The most telling is the radio station when playing each character. Michael listens to a range of new age pop stuff while Franklin listens to hip hop. Trevor listens to punk rock and I try to accommodate all of them. Even if it’s a song I don’t like or if something I really, really like is playing on another station, I will stick with their preferred genre because that’s what they would do.

Grand Theft Auto V

Each of them also has a particular strength in terms of gameplay skills. Michael shoots, Franklin drives, and Trevor flies/goes hulk. And I tend to change up my play style to suit their strengths, even though the actual stats tend to level out about halfway through the game. Even then I would use Michael to try for more headshots and Franklin for more racing or chasing situations and Trevor for when I had to deal with large crowds.

Their special abilities—all variations on a Max Payne-ish bullet time effect—certainly play into it. Inhabiting the roles of each character, it would make sense that it’s not just their baseline stats for shooting or driving or being an insane motherfucker but also what they can bring in after years of that particular expertise.

This, in effect, makes them each a class equivalent in an RPG. Knights, mages, paladins. Shooters, drivers, pilots. Combined with the superb characterizations of the three protagonists (and the always excellent if not meaningful or original support cast), I found myself approaching Grand Theft Auto V more and more as a role-playing sort of situation. It definitely has all the elements of one that just happens to be stuck inside of an open world action game.

Grand Theft Auto V

Even the agency normally associated with the slower and character-driven games is handled, albeit not so much in a narratively influential state. But the decisions afforded to you through planning heists and just in missions in general (what route to take, how to kill this fellow, etc.) attempts to offer commensurate choices.

And of course there is the fact that there are stats for each character that you can level up. But that’s low hanging fruit for the role-playing influence. Grand Theft Auto V is a fantastic open world game that shows what production value can achieve on a grand scale. But it’s also a great role-playing game.

Crazy to think just 12 years ago all I wanted to do was blow up Liberty City.

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Grand Theft Auto V Review: Robbery in Progress

Grand Theft Auto V

Grand Theft Auto V is a huge, sprawling game. It is one of—if not the—largest game worlds ever created that’s not called Azeroth. It’s a full and complex environment stuffed to the brim with, well, things. The review, however, is short and simple: Grand Theft Auto V is the ultimate refinement of everything Rockstar Games has been doing with the series since it went into the third dimension.

That’s not to say, however, that it is perfect. In fact, it is far from it. You have to realize that Rockstar has not been striving for ultimate gaming design, for a flawless diamond we can point to when we want to discuss the pinnacle of all video games and the industry and theory behind it all. For the past 16 years, they’ve been aiming to make the best subversive do-anything-you-want open world games, even back when they were called DMA Designs and it was a top-down affair.

For those of you that crawled out from under your homey rock jus to read this review, Grand Theft Auto V is a third-person action game featuring three different protagonists in a virtually condensed and satirized version of the real modern Los Angeles and the surrounding area, collectively the in-game state of San Andreas. Although it’s less accurate than the historical imagining of the same city as in L.A. Noire, it is immensely more precise.

Every major landmark of the bustling town has an equivalent within Los Santos: Pershing Square, the Hollywood sign, Third Street Promenade, the Santa Monica Pier. And though these are parodic analogues, many of them are either exceedingly evocative or precisely representative of the real thing. Venice Beach, for instance, is a spitting image.

The detail of the gigantic map (seriously, it’s bigger than Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, Red Dead Redemption, and Grand Theft Auto IV combined) is staggering and contributes a great deal to the feel of being in the game. Wild animals roam the countryside, the desert is both barren and lively at the same time, and pedestrians seem to live their own lives, ones you can watch and stalk up-close and from afar. (The number of activities you can do across this wildly diverse landscape is also astounding, including hunting, entering triathlons, serviceable golf, and surprisingly engaging tennis.)

From a distance, the graphics degrade in a wonderfully redolent way. Headlights past a couple hundred yards bokeh into beautifully glowing orbs and mountains seem to get appropriately hazy. As beautiful as things are face-to-face, this distance filter is almost more attractive. No loading between the plethora of intricately designed and decorated interiors and broad, varied exteriors really makes the entire game feel wholly contiguous. It seems as though Rockstar has squeezed the most power out of the current generation of consoles for an open world game.

Grand Theft Auto V

The faces of characters are especially well done. Eyes flit and dart around, full of life and bringing a sense of vigor to the usually dead peepers of video game characters. Faces have characteristic craggy features and humanly imperfect in their slightly off asymmetry. When you see the three main characters emote, you tend to really feel the scene.

Speaking of which, the three main characters are actually quite strong in terms of the narrative and with what they bring to the gameplay. You have Michael De Santa, a retired bank robber with a failed realization of the American Dream among Beverly Hills (in-game as Rockford Hills); Franklin Clinton, a former gangbanger now working as a repo man for a swindling car dealer; and Trevor Philips, the closest we’ll get to the Platonic ideal of a Grand Theft Auto rampage-inclined psychopath in the form of a desert-dwelling drugs and arms dealer with an amazingly disregard for social norms and public safety.

Their three storylines eventually converge (emphasis on eventually; the game has a very slow burn to start where you don’t even see Trevor until 10 hours or so in, when the rest of the game’s systems and mechanics like property management and stock markets also unlock) and cover several twists and turns in a rather satisfying way. Some of the developments are kind of predictable, but seeing them unfold is nevertheless fun to see, especially because the entire game is mercifully more mirthful than Grand Theft Auto IV‘s dour tale.

Grand Theft Auto V

There’s also a distinct lack of interesting female characters, a fact even more disappointing given that we know Rockstar is fully capable of creating one (see: Bonnie MacFarlane in Red Dead Redemption). They’re all either massively inconsequential, shrill harpies, or objects used within the plot. (To be fair, though, many men also fit the same template of wet blankets and utilities.) It’s still a good story, but the lack of meaningful femininity also feels like a missed opportunity.

Having three main characters also allows for a more manageable variety of missions. The structure of Grand Theft Auto V is largely similar to the rest of the series—go to a guy, talk to him, drive somewhere else, shoot some people, and go back to talk to the guy again—but now the impetus for having the wildly differing types of missions like driving, shooting, chaos, and whatnot doesn’t have to fall on a single catch-all character. Michael tends to deal with slick narrative missions, Franklin drives cars (he does repossess them, after all), and Trevor blows things up and flies planes, specializations that also inform their individual special abilities.

At just about any time, you can hold down on the D-pad and switch to another character in a Google Maps-esque zooming sequence, each of whom leads their own lives and has their own stats to develop like shooting, driving, flying, and stamina. When you switch outside of missions, you’ll often find them in a little vignette that fleshes out their lives. Michael might be stuck in traffic, Franklin might be walking his dog Chop, and Trevor might be waking up in a dumpster.

Grand Theft Auto V

In missions, though, the switching serves to always offer up the player the most interesting thing to do at any given moment. You’ll occasionally be forced to play a certain character, but you’ll often be able to freely switch among the trio. It solves the problem with the previous generation of Grand Theft Auto games where you frequently find yourself running between spots just to find stuff to shoot.

In one particular mission, I had Michael rappel down a skyscraper before Franklin had to snipe out impending guards, all of which culminated in Trevor pulling them out via helicopter. It was somewhat orchestrated but still spoke to the core tenant of the mechanic. Another mission later on that really stood out to me was when the three characters had to hold down an alley. By positioning each one strategically, switching allowed for maximizing protection of the area and made the entire ordeal agreeably intense. It’s hard to imagine any Grand Theft Auto game (or any Rockstar game) without this switching mechanic going forward.

This, though, is perhaps the only true innovation of Grand Theft Auto V. The rest is pure refinement, taking a raw gem and slicing and sanding it into a few shining facets. When you hit top speed in a car, the camera shakes in a delightfully out-of-control way, and when you navigate stairs, turns are automatically managed; all you have to do is hold forward and you’ll go straight to the bottom or to the door. Backfire from cars can ignite gasoline trails. The details of the game culminate into a masterstroke of interactivity.

Grand Theft Auto V

The divisive driving of Grand Theft Auto IV has been tweaked in a much more pleasant way. The cars now handle tighter while the road physics have been loosened, basically inverting the way they were before and it is much more agreeable. Slamming both the brake and the handbrake is no longer the only way to take corners and boy does it make driving a lot more fun.

The humor has also been refined, but only in the sense that it’s been hewn into Rockstar’s grand intent of being topical and satirical. The gags in the story are usually fantastic and laugh-out-loud (one involving a petition to legalize marijuana is especially great, albeit casually racist) but the radio is what can only be described as child humor.

Poke fun at Call of Duty by describing a game about shooting everything and neglecting a story; make light of Facebook’s privacy policy problems by outright saying the in-game equivalent made its billions by selling private information; and call out America’s fascination with non-talent shows by advertising a program called “Fame or Shame.” It’s surface-level and simplistic parody, but it’s very well polished simplicity. At this point, however, I’d like to see Rockstar move beyond it, though I’m sure they and many fans find this to be an irreplaceable staple of the series. That doesn’t change the fact that it feels like pointless and mean-spirited cynicism.

Grand Theft Auto V

The radio soundtrack is pretty fantastic, though. And now when you switch stations (done by holding down left on the D-pad), you can see what every station is playing in a similar selection wheel to how the weapons are managed. There’s great electro, old school hip hop, talk radio, and ranchera. And the original soundtrack composed specifically for the game adds a great deal to it. Moments that otherwise were filled with silence are now adrenaline-pumping with an orchestral score of thumping bass and lighthearted, West Coast horns.

This holds especially true with the heists, which are the clear standout of the game. At various points in the story, certain outside influences force the threesome to reengage in the thievery they’d left behind, which plays into the nature of planning heists, something akin to the blueprint stages of The Italian Job and Ocean’s Eleven.

You’ll be offered options in your approach, often a dichotomy between a loud and brash approach with guns blazing or utilizing your smarts to avoid unwanted attention by police and security. Then you need to select your crew among characters of varying statistics and positions, some of which you find out in the world via Strangers and Freaks missions (special one-off tasks unrelated to the main story) or as you progress through the campaign. You’ll need a hacker, a driver, and a gunner, and the better they are, the bigger their cut of the take will be but also the better off you’ll be as the job unfolds.

Grand Theft Auto V

For instance, if you pick a bad driver, he’ll source bad bikes and it’ll make your getaway a lot more difficult. However, if you plan on going the stealth route, you won’t need a gunner, so you can skimp on that role since, if things don’t go belly-up, you won’t need a precision shooter. It adds a lot of customization to what would normally be a stock mission and it is spectacular. (It’s strange, though, that your personnel upgrades through use, but you don’t have enough heists to make their growth feel meaningful.)

If you need to source a getaway vehicle, you pick any four-door car and you choose where to park it. And once you architect your robbery, you then embark on missions to gather the necessary materials like an exterminator van or a submarine. And then once the heist begins, things can unfold in any number of ways due to the open world nature of the game, but also based on the decisions you make. The time you have available to pilfer valuables or how you’ve leveled up your flying abilities will affect the chaos that ensues. It’s absolutely sublime.

This is enhanced by a now enjoyable set of shooting mechanics. The lock-on system has been polished to include an aiming structure no longer defined by feeling lethargic, imprecise, and tedious. The reticle, however, is still just a tiny little white dot, which can be rather difficult to see in certain environments. (You can change it to a crosshair, but that obfuscates the discretely more accurate and singular dot, so neither one is a winning option.) Firefights, basically, are fun now.

Grand Theft Auto V

There are some sequences, however, that aren’t so fun from a tonal perspective. In one mission, you have to torture a seemingly innocent Middle Eastern fellow whose sole transgression is knowing where a guy lives through a variety of disturbing means. At the same time, you have to switch to scoping out the fellow the torturee is giving up who, as the mission goes on, is revealed to likely not be anyone of importance. This—and a few other scenes—was far more gross than satirically laughable.

Aside from that and the poor characterization of females and the culturally stale cynicism peppered throughout the game, Grand Theft Auto V is a wonder. It’s a feast of mechanical polish and a belly-busting buffet of audio and visual treats. After two generations of refinement and experimenting with other franchises, Rockstar has managed to crest the peak of open world shenanigans. This is definitely a game to play.

Grand Theft Auto V

+ An impossibly comprehensive and realistic virtualization of Southern California
+ The three main characters are interesting, compelling, and ripe for carrying a massive, 30-hour story
+ Shooting and driving have been greatly improved and now rather enjoyable
+ Heists and switching between characters are an unbelievable highlight in a game already full of fantastic stuff
– Some of the social commentary feels stale and the radio humor belongs to a different time while some scenes are especially disgusting for no particular reason

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Grand Theft Auto V
Release: September 17, 2013
Genre: third-person action open world
Developer: Rockstar North
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Players: singleplayer offline, 16 players online (launching October 1, 2013)
MSRP: $59.99

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Fantastic Arcade 2013: An Island in the Sea

Fantastic Arcade 2013: An Island in the Sea

Fantastic Fest has grown into quite the film festival. It started out sizable right from the get-go what with Tim League of Alamo Drafthouse and Harry Knowles of Ain’t It Cool News backing the entire proceedings, but it sure has grown regardless. Just look at the Wikipedia page and check out the immensely impressive list of premieres from last year.

Yet at the peak of this expansion, there is a setback. This is the first—and hopefully only—year that the event has not taken place at the Alamo Drafthouse in downtown Austin. This year, it all takes place 17 miles north at the Lakeline location. It’s barely Austin; the northern region of the Texas capital is nothing like the bustling, manic college town most people are familiar with. Deer roam at night and everything is a chain restaurant.

It’s a stark contrast to the usual setup because now, everything is centralized into a single theater due to some, uh, poorly timed demolition. This, unfortunately, includes the Fantastic Arcade portion, an incredibly tiny and intimate affair of indie developers from all over the world hanging out, drinking, talking, and playing games.

Fantastic Arcade 2013

Last year was an absurdly small show, which was rather commendable. The entire event was squeezed into the back room of The Highball where a stage, tables of demo stations, and a few full cabinets were housed. As I sat at a booth table (this was, after all, a restaurant as well), developers came by and showed off their laptops chock full of in-progress games.

Just one table over, Phil Fish of Fez fame sat and roused a lot of rabble. It was just fantastic, especially considering it ended with a house party of drunken indies playing games, projecting stuff onto the side of the house, and juggling fire. The entire weekend felt like hanging out with your cabin at summer camp, except everyone wants to talk about video games at high volumes.

This year, Fantastic Arcade got an entire theater at the Alamo Drafthouse where dev talks and tournaments took place. In the lobby of the building, between the concessions and the branching pathways to the other screens, there was a row of anchored PlayStation Vitas and a smattering of standup cabinets. Stuck along the back wall were two laptops from Devolver Digital showing Shadow Warrior and Luftrausers as well as a table where video game wares were being slung.


One of the cabinets was a somewhat of a non-game called Panoramical from Fernando Ramallo and David Kanaga. It’s an installation piece where you move sliders and turn knobs to control a continuous sound mix, which also changes the visualizations flowing in front of you. (It’s also the thing that was being projected on the side of the house last year.)

For the most part, it looks a bit like Proteus but with a sound deck. It looks like you’re flying over foggy mountains, but as you change the mix, flowers bloom into trees and sun-like orbs flit in and out of existence. The sky pulses with color and rhythm while stars streak in as it fades into night.

People would come by, stare for a spell, and keep walking. But those brave enough to put on the headphones and venture into the pastel-colored unknown began to figure it out. Few people futzed about for more than a few minutes, but they would always tweak things as they saw fit. Some loved the faster tempo and dizzying scroll of the peaks below while others loved seeing stars lazily bob past over a slowly undulating plane.

And then they would linger. They would hang around or walk away and come back, tempted to always see if other passersby would appreciate their creation. Place in the midst of hundreds of movie-watchers milling about, this was perfect. Watching people go through the entire cycle of intrigue, confusion, accomplishment, and pride was utterly entrancing.

Samurai Gunn

That is, of course, if you can look past the gaggles of people standing together playing Samurai Gunn. Developed by Teknopants, the pen name for the singular fellow Beau Blyth, it’s a super fast side-scrolling multiplayer brawler. Each character has a sword and a three-shot gun and dies in a single hit.

Jumping in, the surface level seems very simple. Don’t get hit by bullets or swords and hit other players with whatever you can. But then layers emerge.

Button mashing the sword almost always ends poorly; timing the swipes maximizes your chances for surviving an encounter. Keeping track of the shots fired by other players informs whether or not it’s safe to jump over them. The edges of the stages connect Pac-Man-style, so you can surprise unsuspecting players from looping vantage points. Two players slashing each other negates both attacks, arousing a Bushido showdown sensation.

Samurai Gunn

There’s actually a showdown situation that can occur, too. It’s the first player to 11 kills that wins, but ties are settled with a one-on-one battle against a low-hung sunset. And it is predictably tense. There were never sweatier hands.

The speed of the game informs the design and it all comes together to make a quick and aggressive game of yelling a regret. Many deaths come at the hand of poor decisions. “I shouldn’t have jumped, dammit, I knew he had another bullet.” “I can’t believe I got baited into the middle of the stage.” It’s a game as much about creating opportunities as it is about capitalizing on those presented to you.

Starwhal: Just the Tip at Fantastic Arcade 2013

Just on the other side of Samurai Gunn is a game called Starwhal: Just the Tip, a four-player, neon-drenched game by Jason Nuyens. It has a real Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon look to it with four space-bound narwhals that can only be described as, well, floppy. You point your horned sea mammal with the left stick, propel yourself with the A button, and direct sharpened end with the right stick.

Each narwhal has a heart, and each round starts with the bright and explicit directive of “pierce the heart.” You have a certain amount of hits you can take, and the last one standing wins the round.

It’s a very simple game, but when you have such ridiculous and imprecise controls with three other people next to you laughing and yelling, it’s a ton of fun. The game slows down when killing collisions are imminent, adding drama to the proceedings and absurdity to almost every lunge.

Four floppy neon whales stacked on each other, slipping in and out of time warp as the person on the bottom futilely waggles its horn up and down with the faint hope of scraping a hit out of the dog pile. (Whale pile?) There’s not much more you can ask for from the video game medium.

Wasteland Kings at Fantastic Arcade 2013

Among the other cabinets was Vlambeer’s Wasteland Kings, which continues to be amazing. It’s a post-apocalyptic top-down shooter roguelike wherein you play as a mutant—selected from many with different attributes and abilities—fighting for the throne (presumably bearing the title of Wasteland King).

Played with the WASD keys and the mouse, you fire off your weapon to eliminate all of the enemies in the stage. Your weapon can range from your base starting pistol to a laser gun to a sledgehammer, each one with its own strategy associated with it. You can carry two at a time and open chests to find new armaments or ammo, which is essential because running out often lands you in a pickle.

When you’ve cleared out all of the baddies, which can be desert bandits or giant mutated rats that spew out more rats or tiny little maggots, you’re sucked into a portal and thrown into the next arena. In between, you select a character upgrade like faster movement speed or upgraded special ability (like a dodge roll or crystallized shielding) or just a restock on health and ammo.

It’s a frantic game and forces you to judiciously use your resources and plan around being under-equipped. The crossbow especially forces you to consider your attack since it fires so slowly. The challenge is that you and the enemies move so quickly that taking that time is often a bad idea, so you have to toe a line between being methodical and being reactionary. It’s simply fantastic.

Fantastic Arcade 2013

There were also two Ouya games shoehorned into arcade cabinets: No Brakes Valet by Justin Smith and TowerFall by Matt Thorson. No Brakes Valet is still ludicrous (it’s about trying to park cars without using the brakes, natch) and TowerFall is still absolutely manic fun. In fact, those two adjectives can also be applied to the other cabinets as well: Stephen Ascher’s breakdancing Q.E.D. and TheCatamite’s strange anti-dungeon-crawler dungeon crawler Goblet Grotto.

Just as interesting as all of these weird experiments in busting a move and flopping sea creatures are the talks going on just down the hall in theater nine. It’s easy to miss, but just a glance will point you in the right direction as a Devolver Digital banner grabs your attention and laughter lures you in like a siren’s song.

Through the four days of Fantastic Fest, developers and players would get a chance to get up in front of everyone and do their thing, which is either talk or design or play (or maybe all three). Davey Wreden walked us through the indescribable and perfectly honed nonsense of The Stanley Parable while Steve Gaynor described what it was developing the narrative of Gone Home. Rami Ismail and Jan Willem Nijman did live development for Wasteland Kings while a cabal of indie developers and organizer Wiley Wiggins did dramatic readings of Choosatron Deluxe Adventure Matrix, a box that allows for choose-your-own-adventure stories to unfold and be printed out via four buttons and a receipt printer.

Fantastic Arcade 2013

And when the talks winded down, daily tournaments for Pistol Cat and VideoHeroeS would take place, as would daily challenges for Spelunky (with commentary!). There were always activities planned for attendees, keeping those from all over Austin, the United States, and the world entertained. And all within a couple thousand square feet.

If you turned any direction, you would see someone playing a game or talking about a game. If you were lucky, you’d see some sitting down with a laptop to pull up code and show what they were working on next. But it never felt as safe as it did last year. Unless you were looking for it, you would have never found it in that little bowling alley.

But within the lobby of the Alamo Drafthouse, even those dedicated to maximizing their movie-watching schedules found time to stand amongst the nonsense in our little digital alcove. Few wandered back into the theater, though. Fantastic Fest attendees walked out in the light, perusing menus of movies and games and libations.

Fantastic Arcade 2013

Theirs was a process of consumption, waiting to be fed another serving of cinema. In our little cave, we interacted, created. The kiddie table of raucous laughter and buzzing chatter, the island of misfit toys where ideas and people that don’t fit into holes made for square pegs go to be appreciated. Ignore the schemers in the corner. Talk over their wide-eyed optimism and stomp around their blooming possibilities. No, don’t mind them. They’re just changing an industry.

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The Switch of Grand Theft Auto V

The Switch of Grand Theft Auto V

There is a review of Grand Theft Auto V forthcoming, don’t you worry, but today there’s something else I’d like to talk about with the game. It’s about the three main playable characters, one of the biggest features repeated and advertised leading up to the game’s release. You have Michael, a retired bank robber living the cynical end run of the American Dream; Franklin, a former gangbanger trying to find a way out of his less-than-ideal lifestyle; and Trevor, a drug-dealing, gun-running, psychopathic son of a gun.

Trevor is the main point here. Franklin is somewhat relatable to CJ Johnson of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas if CJ wasn’t trying to reform—hell, they even have the same gang colors—and Michael is at this point just another Rockstar protagonist who wants to do good by his family but keeps getting sucked into doing bad things. Trevor, however, is new in so many ways. (As is the ability to switch at any time between these three playable characters.)

He’s crazy. Probably legitimately and totally fucked in the head. His mood will swing on a dime with little to no provocation and he’ll kill you just for asking him a question the wrong way. Even his two cronies Ron and Wade are rarely safe from his outbursts and they are the closest thing he has to friends. Trevor took out a desert-bound contingent of The Lost MC twice and then, on a whim, made himself the biggest drug and gun runner in Los Santos by killing the previous holders of that title.

Grand Theft Auto V

His character skill is perhaps most indicative of this complete detachment from reality. Whereas Franklin gets a bullet time driving thing and Michael gets a bullet time shooting thing, Trevor goes into rampage mode where he takes less damage while inflicting more of it. He is, of the three, most geared towards killing. Just a few missions into his introduction and you have a full arsenal, unlike Michael and Franklin who have to purchase anything past a pistol and a shotgun in the early parts of the game.

Trevor is, for all intents and purposes, the answer to the problem many people have had with Rockstar’s open world games and, really, many games in general. The popular term for it is “ludonarrative dissonance,” but that’s really just highfalutin talk for what amounts to characters doing things that go against their characterization simply because it’s a video game. For instance, why is Nathan Drake killing all those people when he’s otherwise just a simple explorer and treasure hunter? Or how can John Marston justify all those dead bodies in his wake when he’s trying to turn over a new leaf?

Trevor solves that by simply offering up a guy that kills just because. Michael is suited for setup missions and Franklin for driving things (which coincidentally also solves the problem of other Grand Theft Auto games where there was just a single character being the catchall for all kinds of missions), but Trevor just gets to go crazy and we get to watch.

Grand Theft Auto V

Except it still doesn’t fill out every corner of the puzzle. In Grand Theft Auto III, Vice City, and San Andreas, I never really had a problem with just rampaging in the world. I’d pick an intersection, let loose some rockets or grenades, and see how long I could hold it down. It was like an ad hoc king of the hill with the game’s AI. In GTA III, it was largely because Claude never spoke, so it was easy to not care about how irresponsible you made him, and in Vice City and San Andreas, the entire milieu was one of a cartoon slant. Shooting dudes by the droves was the least of anyone’s concern.

But continuing the more realistic approach started by GTA IV, GTA V makes our “heroes” rather fragile. This makes the more grounded presentation feel more like something to be worried about whenever you fuck with it. Even though most of the people in Los Santos are portrayed as empty, vapid, soulless folk only thinking about their looks and their money, you still feel bad about taking away their lives. It happens so easily to you (just a couple of bullets to the chest does the trick), so you begin to value other lives in the same way.

And it certainly doesn’t help that Trevor is kind of a nice guy. Michael is his best friend, and has been for such a long while that he can recall a time when Michael’s daughter was small enough to sit on his knee and play. He helps an elderly couple enjoy their vacation (albeit with some killing and for, uh, sordid reasons) and he has polite, engaging discourse with his partnered gun runner at a purchased airfield and the woman who doles out bounties to hunt. While he certainly is capable of rampaging through the entire city and laying waste to the town’s population, it just doesn’t seem to mesh with the person we’re presented.

Grand Theft Auto V

That, however, could be the big switch, a Rockstar juke. Here we are, given a character that we think is their direct response to the dissonance between the narrative and the gameplay of such an open world game, but then we are shown that the story impetus gives us reason to think that this guy isn’t so bad. That guy who stomped a guy to death just for talking is really just angry that he was deceived. In fact, we should be more concerned with the people that Michael and Franklin kill instead; they have no justification.

Maybe Rockstar is making some sort of commentary on our perception of games. Maybe they’re joining us in saying that the dissonance is there and it’s ridiculous, but it also can’t be meaningfully addressed. At least not easily. Not unless you’re entire game is about it (see: The Last of Us). But either way, I know I won’t be rampaging anytime soon.

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Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Review: Split Halves

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I’m of two minds about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons. For much of the time, I felt…well, I’m not sure what I felt. It wasn’t boredom; this game, even at its most inconsequential, is never boring. It wasn’t really anything, in fact. What I was seeing was just two brothers going on an adventure, one that is literally incomprehensible due to a Simlish-ish language barrier as well as figuratively easily digestible. Without understanding a single word uttered by any character, you fully grok all of the specifics of the problem, the goal, and the wrap they’re presented in. It’s borderline banal. But then there is a moment.

Let’s not talk about that now, though. Let’s start from the beginning. Brothers is about two brothers, a fact you could probably surmise from its excessively descriptive and, let’s face it, throwaway title. There is a younger one who was there the day their mother drowned and has since developed a crippling fear of water but doesn’t let it get in the way of him being a little rapscallion. The older one is bigger and stronger and mature, letting his brother cause all the ruckus. One day, their father falls ill. They take him to a doctor, but he can’t do anything for him except direct the boys to a mythical cure in a faraway place.

And so they set off on their journey, a trip that will take them through rivers and mountains and frozen tundras. Throughout it, you’ll directly control both brothers simultaneously in a single-player co-op situation. The left analog stick controls the older indigo-dressed brother and the right analog stick controls the younger, flame-colored brother. Along with the movement, the respective triggers set off contextual actions within the world like pulling levers and talking to people.

Even the most (seemingly) pointless action fills out the picture of these two characters. Early on, you’ll come across someone sweeping up the front of their yard. The older brother’s interaction sees him take the broom and help sweep up a bit. The younger brother takes the broom and goofs around. It paints a very specific relationship between the two, and you are the glue holding them together.

Early on, it’s a messy adhesive. A lot of other reviews mention that it’s a bit like rubbing your stomach and patting your head at the same time or spinning your arms in opposite directions, and it’s true. Trying to actively divide your attention between monitoring spacing in the world as well as associating which brother is controlled by which stick and trigger is quite taxing and altogether foreign. There were many times in the first half when I would try to move the camera (which is actually done by the right and left bumpers) before realizing the younger brother was walking into a wall, or I would try to get the two to walk around to sit on a bench together but have them simply walk away from each other as if they were in a fight.

But you eventually learn, and it feels amazing. Eventually, you start to move in unison, one not really leading the other but they had an unspoken bond between the two (although that bond is really you controlling them). If there is a rock in the way, I would send one brother down each path before reuniting them on the other side. If one got too far ahead, I would simply ease up on the stick to let the other one catch up. It wasn’t long before I felt like this was really how it would be going on an adventure with your brother.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Which is good because soon the puzzles get a bit more taxing. Or at least in terms of mental dexterity. Capacity for intelligence is never in high demand from the challenges, but later on in the game you do have to manipulate both brothers in ways that you wouldn’t expect. With their lives on the line in some cases (there’s a rope and heights involved), imagine a high stakes round of stomach-patting and head-rubbing.

Otherwise, though, the puzzles, as I said, are rather simplistic. There’s a gate that won’t budge with one brother, so have both of them push on it. There’s a lever on the other side of this gate, so have the little brother squeeze through and pull it. The first two-thirds of the game would be pointless if they didn’t further substantiate the point that the two need each other. An early puzzle sees you avoid a dog in a field. Simple cooperation of aggro and subterfuge is the solution here, but seeing the two work so seamlessly together really makes you feel the fraternal bond.

It’s a bit disappointing, though, that the little puzzles never play that deeply into the difference of the brothers, though. You slip through small openings with the little one and pull heavy things with the big one. Or you use the older brother to boost the younger brother up a broken ladder to kick down a rope. That’s the extent of it, save for the narratively imbued need for the younger brother to cling to the older brother when crossing deep bodies of water.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

There’s a moment where you are shown that a cat hates the big guy and loves the little guy. You wouldn’t see it if you didn’t choose to interact with this person sitting off to the side, but it sets up a dichotomy between the two. But you never see it come to fruition. You never get to see them use any of their differing strengths or personalities save for their physical stature. It’s a little bit disappointing, almost as much as you never interact with one with the other.

There’s a lovely puzzle where you, well, imagine you are moving a couch and you have to navigate a hallway. Now pretend it’s a giant pole and it’s a tomb full of debris. It’s fantastic and definitely made me smile, but it also is the closest you get to having the brothers do anything together until the last third of the game. You can sit on benches together and soak in the absolutely gorgeous visuals (though the famed texture pop-in of the Unreal Engine 3 is present and accounted for), but you don’t have any equivalent Army of Two fist bump or A Boy and His Blob hugging whimsy, and that feels like a shame.

But it is all in service of a moment. There are plenty of moments throughout the game that are really interesting and poignant (that guy and the tree—woo boy!) that you can stumble upon and have no reason to exist other than to fill in the world around you. Others actually occur within the story, like seeing a battlefield with a gargantuan twist or observing a familiar familial protection (even if it is a bit selfish), but there is only one capital-M Moment.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I’m hesitant to talk about it anymore, but I do want to say something about it in the vaguest sense. If you want to avoid reading anything about it, though, I suggest you just skip to the next paragraph. Anyways, everything leading up to it is a bit telegraphed. And even the payoff of the thing can probably be guessed. But actually doing it is, well, phenomenal. It is absurdly well realized and it expertly centers the entire experience. You realize in that moment that the way almost every single bit of the game is constructed and designed was meant to enhance this one little bit. And you realize you are a fool for thinking it wouldn’t get to you.

Brothers is a bit like a surprise, four-hour roller coaster, one that you should definitely play in one sitting. You have no idea you are going up that incline, no idea that you are setting yourself up for the drop. You reach the top and peer through the curtain just as you are pushed over the edge and sent careening down to the bottom.

It feels a bit like The Last of Us in that regard, where the whole game sets up a revelation at the end. But while that game had you clutching the car at the apex, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons has you reeling from the fall, staggering at the massive drop and sudden stop. And that moment.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

+ The control scheme makes it eventually rewarding to simply move about the world
+ Taking a moment to sit on a bench or throw a ball around
+ Finding absolutely inconsequential problems that need resolution just for the sake of solving them
+ It’s a game sharpened to a point that does what it needs to do and in only as much time as it needs
– Outside of physical standing and a fear of water, the brothers aren’t different at all

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Release: August 7, 2013
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Starbreeze Studios
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Steam
Players: single-player
MSRP: $14.99

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Puppeteer Review: Whimsy on a String


What makes children’s folklore have real sticking power is a fine blend of whimsy and an unexpected darkness. “Jack and the Beanstalk,” for example, features beans that grow a humongous beanstalk into the sky where a hidden floating castle awaits (whimsy) only to find that a giant lives there, one who wants to grind human bones into his bread (darkness). Or “Hansel and Gretel” where a brother and sister stumble across a house made of sweets (whimsy), but unfortunately for them a witch who wants to cook and eat them lives there (darkness). It’s the darkness that makes the story stick, far more than one about boys and girls made of sacks.

That is where Puppeteer, a 2D platformer from Sony Japan, excels. It is masterfully crammed full of whimsy: you play as a boy named Kutaro who must fight back against the Moon Bear King; the entire game is framed as a theatrical play where sets quickly and almost violently shift as you reach the end of the scene; and nearly every character is acted with such extreme melodrama that it’s hard not to just smile at the voices. It is also, however, tinged with darkness: the Moon Bear King is taking the souls of children and trapping them into puppets; Kutaro is one such child until he gets his head bitten off; and many of the 12 generals you fight are rather…unsavory.

As you can tell, there is a lot of stuff going on in the game. None of it is very deep, but there is enough variety to always keep you smiling like a kid listening to his favorite story. Kutaro’s head, for instance, isn’t much of a problem. It reveals that he is the only one who can stop the Moon Bear King (who isn’t a Moon Bear made into a King, but rather a Bear calling himself a King after stealing the Moon Goddess’ Moonstone and mystically inclined pair of scissors called Calibrus) and wield the snippers. So he just gathers up three replacement heads at a time and sets off to fix the order of the universe.

The three heads add a lot in the way of whimsy. Each one is different and pops off whenever you get hit or damaged, forcing you to either catch it as it rolls away (kind of dark, don’t you think?) or put on a new one, though if you run out of heads, you lose a life and start over at a checkpoint. Each head has a special action, but they really only matter in very particular locations where you can unlock bonus levels or items. On the rare occasion, they will come into play during boss battles where they will change how you approach your combat strategy, something I would have liked to have seen more of throughout the entire game.

The scissors, though, carry quite the load in terms of mechanics and milieu. Everything in the game’s stage production is presented as a prop-heavy play, so a giant pair of scissors is actually quite the powerful tool. With it, Kutaro can defeat enemies (which he can follow up on by walking over and freeing the trapped soul contained within) and chop through any paper-like material. As clouds and leaves and flags go by, you can jump up and start cutting by hitting the square button in rhythm. This will help you propel yourself along in the air where you can remain aloft as long as there are things to cut and you are cutting them.

This adds a very nice wrinkle to the otherwise overly simplistic proceedings. While the base level of jumping between things is sufficiently engaging, the scissors make it so you now have a considerable manipulation over the timing of faraway platforms and moving obstacles. And then you introduce the zip-line (snip-line?) sequences and the mesh-cutting and so on, well it’s easy to see where the do-it-all attitude comes in.


Pikarina is another facet that adds another layer to the 2D platformer foundation. You control her, a spritely fairy, with the right stick and activate her against the background with R2. She can reveal treasure and pop out extra heads and general do things for Kutaro when he can’t. She sometimes requires an annoying precision in her placement to get these things to happen, but I was usually mashing and moving the button and stick too much to notice or care. What is unequivocally bothersome, though, is the character herself.

The rest of the world is rife with overacting and sincerity. You won’t find a single person who doesn’t carry on with the vaudevillian bravado consistent with this otherworldly stage and the genuine belief in every word they say…except for Pikarina. As your sidekick and guide, you hear her talk a lot, but she delivers every line as more of a valley girl and with the acerbic cynicism that usually comes attached. She undermines a lot of the gleeful nonsense that spouts out of the game and it’s kind of a buzzkill. (She’s also the only character who pronounces it as koo-tar-oh instead of koot-uh-roh.)

But that doesn’t matter because there’s such so much of that joyous, carefree randomness in Puppeteer that you don’t really mind. The commitment to the theatrical presentation is absurd and lovely and altogether unbelievable, especially when it looks so good doing it. If you had shown me Puppeteer and told me it was a PlayStation 4 launch title, I would have believed you. There is an overwhelming amount of variety and charm to the artistic design that it’s hard to wrap your mind around it all.


The way the sets haphazardly swap as you finish scenes really makes you feel like the stagehands backstage are actually moving the pieces and props around, and when the audience oohs and ahhs with big, overacted monologues or battle sequences, you feel like you’re watching this fantastically fantastical performance as much as you are informing it. And as you linger about in the game or in the menus, the audience and the narrator will let you know. You can see the proscenium, you can see the light rigging, and you can see all of painterly details on the props and sets; it’s impossible to not fall in love with this overwrought and whimsical production.

The music, the art design, and the sheer variety in the things you’ll do (and see and hear) are all simply exemplary. As much as I enjoyed actually playing the game—moving the sticks and pushing buttons—seeing the delightfully silly story unfold in such a wholly genuine presentation is the true joy of Puppeteer. The whimsy and the underlying darkness are irrepressibly impressive and lovable when taken hand in hand, and Puppeteer is something truly to be taken whole cloth.

Just don’t let those scissors near it.


+ Absolute commitment to the theater conceit
+ Gorgeous world and unbelievable art direction and design
+ Voice (over)acting is phenomenal
+ The sheer variety makes the simplistic base platformer engaging again
– Pikarina doesn’t fit with the rest of the puppet world

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: Puppeteer
Release: September 10, 2013
Genre: 2D platformer
Developer: SCE Japan Studio
Available Platforms: PlayStation 3
Players: singleplayer offline, multiplayer online
MSRP: $39.99

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About That Fake Grand Theft Auto V Review

About That Fake Grand Theft Auto V Review

Maybe you have seen it by now and maybe you haven’t, but there was, over the weekend, a fake Polygon review of Grand Theft Auto V. It was a very shoddy fake—only a screenshot and with poorly kerned pull quotes and misaligned margins—but it still got a lot of people angry.

Yes, surprise! People were angry on the Internet. But this instance in particular seems worth examining for a couple of reasons. First off, Grand Theft Auto V isn’t even out yet and fans are already up in arms about a (fake) bad review. Second, the faker has singled out Polygon as the source of the review. Third, the kerning on the pull quote is so atrociously bad that I wonder if the faker has ever seen good design.

That last one is a bit off topic, but whatever. The other two are pretty big issues. The first one actually seems pretty indicative of a large portion of the problem with pop culture today. There was a recent article describing the issue with fandom and Breaking Bad. Of course, Breaking Bad has a lot of its own problems regarding things happening just because versus things just happening, sufficiently complex character developments, and so on and so forth, but the fandom is especially problematic.

Breaking Bad

It’s become a point of contention on the Internet of late regarding your opinion on the AMC original series. If you think it is the most perfect show ever created, then welcome to the brotherhood, my good man. If you have any sort of criticism regarding the slow, plodding, nigh nonsensical developments in the recent episodes or broken promises of setups and failed payouts or any other number of problems with the otherwise well-produced and well-acted show, then you can fuck right off.

Having anything close to critical in your mind about Breaking Bad is enough to get cast out from the online discourse from fans. The problem (aside from the fact that this is utter lunacy) is that most of these people aren’t fans of the show; they are fans of the world created by the show. This isn’t just the diegetic world of the characters and the locations and the events but the world of those that also watch the show with you. Just like Lost, half the joy of watching Breaking Bad is envisioning the expansive fringe mythos of cooking meth and calling people a bitch for any (or really no) reason at all.

They want to continue the world that they’ve created with themselves and with other commensurate fans. Theories about where the characters go and where they’ve come from go far beyond the scope of just New Mexico in Breaking Bad or the island in Lost.

Grand Theft Auto V

And for that same reason, it seems, preemptive fans have taken to arms over a (poorly) faked marginal review. (Marginal! A 7 is a god damn good score.) They live in this world where they look forward to the next Grand Theft Auto not only because they’ll have a new environment to drive and shoot and bandy about in but because the experience of wholly loving what comes with and from a singular product is paramount to them.

Grand Theft Auto games are somewhat of a constant in the world of ever shifting video games. They are not temporally consistent, but they are steady in quality. It’s rare to find a series so established as one that will be evergreen with each release. It’s a constant, and because of that, people find it easy to grab onto, much like a buoy in the midst of the violent waves of a raging storm of annualized franchises and hit-or-miss gambles.

A negative review (or, as I said, marginal) basically takes that rock that folks cling so dearly to and smashes it with a hammer. Plymouth is no more, so find somewhere else to land your boat. It’s telling you that your hopes are foolish before stepping on them and tell you again that they’re fruitless. It’s about as personal an insult as you can muster, more so than having a dissenting opinion after you’ve played the game as well; at that point, it’s a subjective debate. Before that, it’s an assault on your values as a person.

Grand Theft Auto V

That leads to the very negative conclusion, though, that we should just not have hope, that avoiding the issue altogether is the only way through. That, of course, is not true. It’s perfectly fine to be disappointed. It’s a very natural thing to feel like someone or something has let you down. The key is to just not take it personally. Someone else’s opinions are just that, and they shouldn’t have any bearing on your own. They can influence discourse, but never your own opinions.

As for why the faker chose Polygon, I can only assume it’s because they’re a large and controversial outlet. Within reviews and op-ed pieces, they inject personal values regarding sexism, homophobia, and many other volatile subjects. They do, of course, largely fall on the right side of history (respect all genders, races, religions, and sexual orientations), which leads to the probable conclusion that the same people that tell women on the street to smile are the same ones getting angry over dissenting, fake, or opinionated (which all reviews are) video game reviews.

It doesn’t do much to acknowledge the problem itself, but neither does remembering to grab the keys before leaving the house. Both, however, are necessary steps along a longer journey. Hopefully we’ll reach the end soon. Hopefully we’ll arrive at the destination together where people aren’t angry about bad series finales, websites promoting values, or video game reviewers having opinions. Hopefully.

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Wordstop Review: Count ‘Em If You Got ‘Em


Wordstop is a very simple game to review because it is, in fact, a very simple game. In it, you play against an opponent and take turns trying to not make a word by playing one letter at a time. If you make a complete a real word, you lose. For example, if the current field looks like AB, then I could play any letter on either side of the two already there except for T, C, and D on the left because that would make TAB, CAB, and DAB respectively.

The twist is that the letter you play for your non-word must be part of a real word, so I couldn’t play ABW but I could play RAB because RAB is both not a real word and still part of another word (CRAB). This means you have to have a sufficient diction to force your opponent’s hand into having no choice but to complete a real word and lose.

The problem is that given a sufficient diction, foreseeing the outcome of a game is rather easy. It boils down to a game of Nim, the game where players take turns removing stones from piles and the person to take the last stone wins (or loses, depending on how you play). The problem is that Nim is a mathematically solved game, so any game that is similar to it has a very inconsequential feel to it, including Wordstop.

If you envision it as a branching decision tree, you can see that the opening move determines quite a bit. It removes the other 25 children from the top layer and some on the second layer, but the second player’s turn has just as much impact. And as the turns progress, the number of possibilities very quickly dry up, so about three turns in, you can determine either the absolute outcome or the possibilities of who wins.

Of course, that is based on the assumption of perfect play with two players having incredible vocabularies, but I would say I managed to accurately predict the winner of my matches about 80% of the time after four turns. And then the game ends very suddenly. It, for some reason or another, made me feel really empty when I first lost and oddly blasé when I first won.

Everything else about the game is pretty good. The asynchronous multiplayer structure is very familiar (think Draw Something where it tracks turns in multiple games) and works well for Wordstop, and the tutorial is short and effective. I wonder, though, what made the developers Word Play Limited choose to layout the letters in a QWERTY arrangement instead of straight alphabetical. I think this works better; I’m just curious about their reasons.


It is 99 cents in the App Store, but there are also in-app purchases. You have stars that you can spend on bombs that eliminate letters from the keyboard that you can’t play and Word Wizard access which is a post-game analysis tool that shows you possible plays you could have made. I’m not sure what the upgrade over the free version is, but in-app purchases in an already paid app never make me feel comfortable.

Personally, I don’t think Wordstop is worth playing. I really had to force myself to keep going to see if my experience with it would change. It’s competently made and has a unique take on the already flooded genre of word games, but its base design reduces to something that is over simplistic in many situations. I feel, though, if you put yourself in the right mindset—that is, vowing to play solely by the seat of your pants—this could be fun. But I can’t stop thinking ahead, and when doing that in a strategy game ruins the whole shebang, well, there might be a problem.

+ An interesting idea
+ Simple and easy to pick up and play
– The core conceit is easily mentally modeled, removing much of the fun in the process
– In-app purchases in a paid app are still gross

Final Score: 5 out of 10

Game Review: Wordstop
Release: August 20, 2013
Genre: Word puzzle
Developer: Word Play Limited
Available Platforms: iOS
Players: 2
MSRP: $0.99

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