Monthly Archives: October 2013

That Good Old Caribbean Flavor

That Good Old Caribbean Flavor

What I love about digital entertainment mediums is that they are malleable. Through post-processing, creators can make movies, television shows, and video games look like anything they want them to look like. It’s how so many film makers can get away with shooting nighttime scenes during the day and vice versa. With careful manipulation, you can get the exact feel you want without physically achieving it.

It’s hard, though, to get it exactly right. When you don’t get it right, you end up with a sheep in wolves clothing, someone throwing a sheet over their head and calling themselves a ghost. It makes you stop, point at that thing, and say, “Whoa, hold on, that’s not right,” before you run off to get drunk and wait for the Ghost Hunters to show up and clear things up.

Of course, missing requires ambition, which many times these endeavors lack. Consider the Assassin’s Creed series. From head to toe, they’ve all had a monotone veneer. They all look a little washed out in a digital haze. Nothing stands out in an exceptional way except for the scale of the cities you’d run amok in, though they also do have fantastical graphical fidelity.

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

From the Third Crusade to the Renaissance to the American Revolution, the sheen on this historical multitude of freerunning sci-fi is all just about the same. That is until Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the latest in the franchise. Set in the Golden Age of Piracy, the temporal differentiation between it and Assassin’s Creed III is just a couple of generations (playing as the grandfather of the protagonist of ACIII), but the setting could not be more different.

Black Flag takes place all over the Caribbean and leans full-on into the pirate theme. You are surrounded by the open sea and endless swashbuckling, but it all takes a backseat to the deliciously vibrant setting of tropical foliage and rich, glowing blue-green waters. This is, without a doubt, the brightest Assassin’s Creed game so far, and it makes such an incredible difference.

Even against the gorgeous vistas of the American Colonial Frontier, the green underbrush of the Caribbean is ridiculously eye-grabbing. It looks like the source of all green Crayola crayons, trying its best to topple the jungle facade of Donkey Kong Country. And then you throw in the shimmering, deep waters, blending just right into a thick green against the shore. They threw buckets of indigo, teal, and turquoise all into a blender and tossed it onto the screen, and it looks spectacular. (It only gets better once you go underwater, too.)

Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag

But what truly stands out is the night. I don’t know what art director Raphael Lacoste studied up on to get it right, but this is such an unforgiving, upfront fantastical interpretation of the West Indies. The piercing blue of the day gives way to a slightly azure dusk before it falls away into a purple-black night.

As Kirk Hamilton points out in his review, it best captures that indescribable visual magic of The Secret of Monkey Island, which had a fairly loose grip on reality to begin with. The Assassin’s Creed series, however, has stuck pretty hard to its guns in terms of historical accuracy, but Black Flag seems to have the widest interpretation of truth so far. (Yes, that includes the absurdity of Connor essentially carrying every major American Revolution event on his back.)

This kind of inspires you to think of what would happen with an Assassin’s Creed game that gave up on history and perhaps jumped into the future. What cyber world could they conjure up? The visual veracity of the past games eventually became a droll hum you came to ignore as the years went on, but the colorful Caribbean came to match the excitement of the privateering life. It is undoubtedly a highlight of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

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Batman: Arkham Origins Review: Old Bat in the Belfry

Batman: Arkham Origins

I wish I was more careful of what I wished for. Ridiculous, yes, but that’s where playing Batman: Arkham Origins has left me. My time with the latest in the remarkable built-like-a-fridge-vigilante franchise has opened my eyes, made me lucid to my desires. After finishing its predecessor, Batman: Arkham City, all I wanted was more. That’s what I got. Unfortunately.

No longer developed by Rocksteady Studios, Arkham Origins has been passed on across the pond from London to Warner Bros. Games Montréal. It tells the story of a younger and more reckless Batman, a mere two years into his career as the Caped Crusader. He, as a crime fighter, is still seen as more of a myth than reality in the eyes of the public.

The Gotham underground, however, knows better, so Black Mask organizes a manhunt. On Christmas Eve, he breaks out of Blackgate Prison and invites eight of the world’s best killers to compete for a $50 million bounty on the Bat’s head. And as he is wont to do, Batman decides it’s best to put an end to it on his terms so that no one gets hurt that doesn’t have to get hurt.

Luckily, the streets of Gotham are mostly empty. In fact, they’re strangely empty. Much in the same way as Arkham City contained nothing but bad guys in the streets and on the rooftops, everyone is fair game to get beaten to a bat-scented pulp, including members of the Gotham City Police Department. It is a major disappointment as 1) it is haphazardly explained away by the winter storm and warnings of danger in the streets, and 2) with the promise and fulfillment of a bigger open world, there was fair hope for seeing a living, breathing Gotham.

It represents the thematic problems with the game at its core, which is to say it’s sloppy. Sure, Batman is a little rougher around the edges this early into his return to Gotham, and sure, most of the cops in the city are corrupt, but he stills beats them around like they’re street thugs. And when you get the concussion grenade from the Batcave, Alfred says it’s so you don’t have to beat up policemen. But then you do anyways because the concussion grenade isn’t actually all that helpful in combat.

It’s meandering and imprecise. Arkham Asylum was about overcoming fear and becoming a better self. Arkham City was about the balance and necessity of good along with evil. Arkham Origins is about…Batman being kind of an ass? That’s not to say it’s a bad story, but it’s not as consistent as it should be and strangely relegates many of the eight assassins to side quests and cameos. The writing, however, is probably the best of the series, though Kevin Conroy is missed as Batman. (Troy Baker, however, is absolutely fantastic as The Joker.)

Batman: Arkham Origins

Mechanically, though, the game is still as taut as you remember. That’s because nothing has changed. The combat is almost entirely identical with some new enemy types, but you still attack, counter, quick-fire gadgets, and flip over dudes with shields. Sneaking around still leaves you in detective mode while hiding on vantage points and inside of vents while you lure guards into secluded areas one by one. It is all almost exactly as you remember.

And that’s great! It is still as manically fun and obsession-inducing to get a perfect combo in a massive group encounter; to do double and triple counters before summoning up a whirlwind of bats to sun everyone around you; and to cape stun a dude and then beat him into submission with a stunning and rapid succession of punches to the face. But it is still more of the same, and sadly, it shows the limits of the game’s framework. What else can you add now that you’ve maxed out controller usage (and, worse/better yet, cognitive usage)?

The navigation in the open world has also gone unchanged in Arkham Origins. Grapnel up to rooftops, launch yourself in the air, and glide away into the night. Grapnel takedowns were added, but that’s about it. It’s the same skeleton with a new skin, a new set of rooftops and buildings to infiltrate and stalk.

Batman: Arkham Origins

The problem is that it’s a worse skin. Traversing the world is a chore because half of it seems inexplicably impossible to grapnel onto. Fast travel is an ugly concession for a poor design; if the world and the game are worth it, players would be willing do the dirty work themselves.

Combat scenarios don’t get more intricate with challenging setups involving varying heights and enemies and instead just throw more and more dudes at you. All of your old tricks in the predator bits still work and they’re still just as tiring once you get into the late game. At best, some of the predator sequences happen outside and you don’t realize they’re stealth sections until you’re all up in them, which is a pleasant change of pace.

More interesting, though, is the fact that there’s somewhat of a switch in the plot about halfway through. (Trust me, this is not a spoiler, but if you want to go in completely unaware in terms of story, just skip this paragraph.) The game suddenly concerns itself with the genesis of Batman and the Joker’s strange, twisted, beautiful relationship. If you got all the case files in the past games, you might recall some of the mythos previously established, but seeing at least some of it play it is utterly delicious and warped.

Batman: Arkham Origins

But that’s about as change-of-pace-y as it gets. The collectibles are different, but they still amount to mild puzzles and trophies. Thinking about playing this back-to-back with Arkham City is heartbreaking because Arkham Origins is a good game, but it’s not a great game. If this was the first Arkham game, it would be an excellent first step. But it’s not, which lands it squarely in the Same Old bucket. Batman: Arkham Origins is more of the same, but more of the same thrown down a hill and told to stand up straight so no one sees all the bruises. But hey, I got what I wished for.

+ Still looks and sounds great
+ Fantastic voice acting and all-around quality writing
+ The parts involving The Joker are incredibly compelling
– A strangely high number of framerate issues and clipping bugs
– See more of the same gameplay highlights the limitations of the mechanics

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Game Review: Batman: Arkham Origins
Release: October 25, 2013
Genre: Third-person action
Developer: Warner Bros. Games Montéal
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, Wii U
Players: 1 offline, 8 online
MSRP: $59.99
Website: http://batmanarkhamorigins.com/

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Not Really Exploring Gotham

Not Really Exploring Gotham

The latest Batman: Arkham game came out last Friday to rather tepid reviews, although I say that only given the fact that Asylum and City both racked up a ridiculous amount of year-end awards and Batman: Arkham Origins appears to be poised only to get Most “Eh, It Was All Right” of the Year. I’m still working my way through it (few outlets outside of the big ones got advanced copies) and a review will be coming soon, but I have some thoughts on it as it stands now.

Asylum was a taut little adventure that felt like a simultaneously expansive and claustrophobic adventure, something like shuttling through a pitch black roller coaster and you can only sense how close the walls and rafters are as they zoom by your head. (It’s also one of my favorite games of all time.) City introduced, well, a city: Arkham City, in fact. It was a the result of former Arkham Asylum director Quincy Sharp becoming mayor of Gotham and turning the projects of the city into one big ol’ outdoor, poorly maintained prison.

It allowed the player to explore Gotham in a way we’d always wanted: freely, albeit a small subsection of it that is largely disgusting slums and dirty streets. Batman’s cape gliding mechanic from Asylum translated to the open world rather well, especially with the addition of the grapnel boost which allowed you to hook onto ledges and launch yourself higher and faster for sustained travel. It actually reminded me of how amazing it felt in Spider-Man 2, slinging webs and zipping around the city like a spandex-clad god. It is a comparison all open world superhero games aspire to make.

Batman: Arkham City

The single problem I had with the system was that right in the middle of the city was a huge facility, locked down the private military firm TYGER. It presented you with an immense impasse if you wanted to travel from one side of the city to the other, forcing you to go around because getting into it early would break the story’s flow. It was, needless to say, a gigantic bummer.

Now imagine that instead of one instance where that’s the case, they just made an entire city of grapnel roadblocks and gliding obstacles. That is Batman: Arkham Origins. A lot of people will casually call it polish or refinement, and though it is a horribly generic term when it comes to games criticism, it is still a true statement.

Origins comes from a new developer, Rocksteady Studios opting for Warner Bros. Games Montreal to take a crack at their masterful take on the storied property. And each time they failed to design or implement some structure to meaningfully allow you to traverse the city, they also failed to give you a satisfying experience. Not just because we have a game that does it better but because it is altogether frustrating.

Batman: Arkham Origins

It seems like half the buildings don’t let you grapnel up to the tops for no other reason than just because. And all those communications towers you have to solve to unlock fast travel destinations? Not a chance. Those are no fly zones even though their entire heights are so far below the grapnel’s range and half of them are shorter than the buildings surrounding them. I don’t even recall seeing the little red circle-cross in City, but it might as well be permanently affixed to the screen in Origins.

This may not seem like a big deal, but comprehensiveness is what makes an open world game. Spider-Man 2‘s decision to attach webs to the open air if it served the flow of locomotion was a critical one because it made the world feel complete. Getting from one place to another was slick, fast, and fun. Getting to the top of any building was just a matter of you understanding how to flip your way up there, not figuring out how to cheat the game.

Then look at Grand Theft Auto V. The previous iterations were great as well, but this Los Santos is undoubted the best city Rockstar has ever crafted because of the attention to detail. There are no roads that exist in that game that, as you approach them, turn out to be unattainable mirages. And all the small stuff from the rumble strips to the crumple barriers make the city feel like something you’re intimately familiar with.

Batman: Arkham Origins

Now we have Origins. Fast travel was ostensibly added because this game world is even larger than City, but I use it even when I have to travel just a few hundred meters because I know the frustration involved in bumping into the limitations of the game’s travel mechanics. If fast travel had been in City, I wouldn’t have used it because seeing that loading sequence would have broken the visage of a complete, real city. Now I just don’t care because I don’t want to be frustrated at a game that has a lot of other good things going for it.

Yes, there is a lot of good to Origins and I’ll put all of those thoughts (and more bad ones) into a review later this week, but this little nugget I had to get off my chest immediately. It’s a new developer, sure, and you can’t expect different and better at the same time (though it’s nice when we get it), but this is still an unfortunate turn. I like Batman: Arkham Origins, but it also took one of the best parts of Batman: Arkham City and turned it into a mess.

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You Should Probably Play Candy Box 2

You Should Play Candy Box 2

To all those people still clicking cookies, I have good news: you can stop. Close that tab, forget about the angry grandmas, don’t even think about the time machines, and put that all behind you. That chapter in your life is closed, just like the one about how you liked to wake up in the middle of the night and eat cold hot dogs without your parents noticing and yelling at you to go back to sleep because you have school in four hours.

Or whatever. The point is that Candy Box 2, the sequel to the progenitor of all other simplified resource-hording games Candy Box, is out now. The first thing to notice is that it is much more self-aware than its predecessor. While you start out the same with slowly collecting candy one piece at a time, the opening options are slightly different. You still can eat all the candies or throw some on the ground, but then you “request a new feature to the developer” for 30 candies.

You keep requesting new features until you have a health bar, can change languages, and finally unlock the map, in which you’ll stumble across your first location in the game: the village. Here you’ll find some houses to explore, a shop to buy stuff, and a forge to buy weapons (and another touch of self-awareness in an in-game RPG arcade game for earning candy). In one of the houses, you’ll find your first quest; the structure of the game appears to be largely unchanged.

Candy Box 2

However, it also seems to be largely improved in other places. It uses your browser’s local storage API for saving (with multiple slots!). You can leave quests before you die so if you know you can’t beat it, you can get out and save yourself the recovery time. The English no longer appears to be as charmingly broken. And there is a better, more visual sense of progression through the quests as you have to cross a bridge and explore a cave and whatnot.

It’s strange, though, that with the increased focus on having you complete quests, the mystery kind of dissolved into the expanded map. Of course, you’re not going to have the same mystery anyways since you probably played the first Candy Box if you’re playing the sequel, but there you had a stranger and then for some reason a lollipop farm (which makes a return), and then slowly you realized there was more to it. In Candy Box 2, it all seems much more upfront. But I guess you can’t fault it the same way you can’t fault Portal 2 for being the sequel to Portal.

But just the same, I’m still playing Candy Box 2. I can’t help it. It owes nothing to logic or reality and I want to see where it goes. I played Tic-tac-toe with a talking squirrel and fought a monkey wizard. You can’t possibly not be curious after that.

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Concept Art Roundup: Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Beyond: Two Souls, Remember Me, and More

Concept Art Roundup: Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Beyond: Two Souls, Remember Me, and More

Aaaaaaand we’re back! After a two-month hiatus, your day is saved with a brand new collection of concept art. Pretty sweet, right? Right?

Hello?

Anyways, let’s get started. First up is Nacho Yagüe (one of the coolest names ever, by the way). He works as a senior concept artist up in Ubisoft Toronto where he did concepts for Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, and Wanted: Weapons of Fate, a game that was way better than it had any right to be.

His personal website (which is pretty slick) houses a portfolio that mixes his professional and personal work, and I’m kind of in love with his style. There’s one called “Punch” that’s fantastic, full of hyper kinetic and ultra colorful streaks. And then his landscapes are so great at imparting a sense of depth, like the world doesn’t end at the end of the frame.

Next we have Geoffroy Thoorens, a concept artist and matte painter. He has worked on a lot of movies like From Paris With Love and Blood: The Last Vampire, but he currently works at Applibot for their game Galaxy Saga. Some of his more recognizable work, though, might be with the recently released Beyond: Two Souls and R.U.S.E.

His portfolio also contains some concept art from Quantic Dream’s E3 PlayStation 4 demo The Dark Sorcerer, not to mention some personal work that is just killer. I’m kind of a sucker for art that shows its raw side, where it looks like you can see exactly how it was painted and constructed.

Fred Augis is a concept artist over at Dontnod Entertainment, the studio behind Remember Me. The strongest part of that game was probably the world design and the memory remix mechanic, so that success can at least be partially attributed to Augis.

He’s also previously worked on R.U.S.E. (I wonder if Augis and Thoorens know each other) and does some kick-ass book covers. His Tumblr, which is not necessarily safe for work, is full of character sketches, some weird and psychedelic ish, and some cool environmental pieces.

Last is James Paick. He works as a freelance concept artist and has worked on a whole mess of high profile games like The Last of Us, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, Infamous 2, Tomb Raider, and League of Legends. His professional work falls under his brand Scribble Pad Studios and has also worked on Magic: The Gathering and the perennially in-development Prey 2.

Paick’s work is, well, ridiculous. Magic tends to only get the best for their cards, and Paick deserves it. His Prey 2 art feels more impressive than the demo shown at QuakeCon two years ago and Medal of Honor: Warfighter stuff actually makes me want to play Medal of Honor: Warfighter. His scale and detail and atmosphere are pretty spectacular.

And that’s it! Hopefully it won’t be another two months before the next roundup. Also, let me know if you’re interested in seeing any particular game or artist and I’ll do my best to make it happen.

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You Hear a Voice

You Hear a Voice

The Stanley Parable has been, for the most part, well-received. There’s not much I’ve heard in the way of complaints except for its cost versus length and, most notably, its use of a narrator. Having that (sometimes) omniscient voice describing things that aren’t happening, can’t happen, or just happened is vital to its commentary. Without it, The Stanley Parable would be a much stranger game indeed, but for all the wrong reasons.

Narration, however, is largely a tool that eschews subtlety. It’s one of the benefits of books; the author can guide readers to notice and not notice certain things like reactions and clues that would otherwise wreck the pace of a moving visual medium like film.

Most importantly, though, narration can let you into the thoughts of a character. If it’s a first-person tale, then you can skip all the adjectives and adverbs in describing characters as they walk and talk and instead just say what’s important: how those actions are perceived by everyone else. And if it’s third-person, you have more liberty in jumping between scenes and characters without having to force intersecting paths in the story.

Arrested Development

But when it comes to video games and television, it becomes a bit of a crutch. You know how everyone thought it was super cool when Arrested Development did the mockumentary-style of show but the slew of imitators that followed kind of soured the public on it? It’s because we realized as an audience that it’s a bit lazy in terms of storytelling.

The Office, Modern Family, and Parks and Recreation don’t necessarily have narration, but they do all have the talking head segments that are a staple of the mockumentary format, which, as all of those shows went on, eventually became an artifact of convenience rather than formative development. For the remaining moments of those shows, the camera crew doesn’t exist, gets shots that are basically impossible for documentaries, and might as well belong to a more cinematic single camera setup.

The interview segments where characters tell you straight up the morals learned, their thoughts, and what you need to take away from a joke or story or event are lazy, though the quality of those things tend to make up for the narrative crutch (hence their popularity). But they’re still kind of lazy.

BioShock

Narrators have also become something of a trend in video games, as a few critics have lamented on Twitter with the release of The Stanley Parable. Bastion most recently made it a big deal again, thought before that Atlas in BioShock and Max Payne in, uh, Max Payne both had a good run at the framework. And while I found the delightfully British voice to be essential to The Stanley Parable (oh, and LittleBigPlanet, speaking of British narrators), I totally understand where those people are coming from with narrators.

I’ve put some thought into it, though, and it occurs to me that in-game presentation of story in a video game is most like a stage play with a Greek chorus. In television and movies, directors and editors can point the audience to love or hate, trust or question a character just based on the lingering moments of a shot. What you see is all within control of the person with Final Cut.

Video games, though, don’t have that same control, or at least they don’t when you’re playing and in control. When the narration comes in while you’re wandering around of your own accord like in The Stanley Parable, it functions as a Greek chorus, a non-diegetic collective that’s part of a play that voices the thoughts and themes of the ongoing show to the audience. They do this because you can’t zoom in on someone’s face on a stage to get a point across.

The Stanley Parable

I think that’s why narration in video games largely goes without comment. We realize that they serve a purpose, so that we can maintain agency while accruing narrative information (not to mention it’s ripe for the unreliable sort, my favorite kind of narrator). In The Stanley Parable‘s case, we also get a superb performance from Kevan Brighting, but we understand that it’s a cog from another machine that fits rather well into video games. It can be lazy in most narrative frameworks, but it fits our visual and player-driven medium just fine.

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A Question of Free Will

A Question of Free Will

(This primarily concerns itself with The Stanley Parable, so if you plan on playing it and haven’t yet, maybe come back to this later because this will contain mild spoilers. Maybe. You can do whatever. You are your own man. Follow your desires, friend. Fly with your dreams.)

There are many layers to The Stanley Parable. It’s a fantastic game that operates firstly as a commentary on the tropes of the industry. Merely turning on achievements will net you your first one, as will attempting to jump in a game that relegates the space bar to a keyboard abomination.

It is extremely self-aware. There is the broom closet, one of the few doors you can actually open in Stanley’s office. The narrator will then ask you why are you in there, why are you clicking on everything, why can’t you just get out of there and get on with the story. It’s particularly incisive on the linear design staple of obvious one-off paths full of collectibles and side quests.

The Stanley Parable

Then, it is obviously a parable of the tragedies of office life, to resign yourself to spending more time in a bleak, desolate pen of gray walls than at home with your family and friends. What justifies giving up your dreams for something as philosophically meaningless as job and financial security? Giving up what makes you human in exchange for being referred to as nothing but a number is ludicrous, and yet that is the life of Stanley and so many more in the world.

In fact, that “so many more” may include you. You plop down in your seat in your cubicle, slink down, and browse the Internet until 9:30, maybe 10:00 AM. You sit and watch the clock in the break room at lunch, dreading when it counts down the dwindling minutes of your lunch hour.

Four o’clock rolls around and you watch the second hand tick away the least productive time of the day. Good thing you have a half hour commute ahead of you before you get home, eat dinner, and go to sleep before you wake up to do it all over again.

The Stanley Parable

And while that is a striking comparison to the problems of settling into the nine-to-five life, The Stanley Parable is also fairly allegorical. The parable, in fact, may be more accurately described as pertaining to the question of free will.

The narrator actually points it out in the ending where you go through the museum of the game’s development. If all the paths are predetermined in life, then the choices and the life are meaningless and without purpose. In video games, this raises especially interesting questions. Games, even the ones that contain “randomly” generated dungeons, weapons, and enemies, are all crafted with specially designed possibilities.

The Stanley Parable highlights this especially well. It is such a consolidated gaming experience; from the simplified controls to the nearly always binary choices, it is a fundamental form of modern games. Because the major beats of a game are pins that players must navigate to, the space between them are where they make the game their own.

The Stanley Parable

But when The Stanley Parable doesn’t let you jump or shoot or customize your Stanley and doesn’t let you instigate crew romances, that intermediate space where you make the game your own in Call of Duty or Battlefield doesn’t exist. The game’s design forces you to realize very quickly and harshly that you are walking a path already considered.

The narrator knows everything you’re doing as you’re doing it. When you jump out of the window and land outside, it’s a known outcome. When you fall to your death on the lift, the developer already had that planned. Clicking everything in the office, closing your office door, etc. All of it—all of it—was put there deliberately. No matter how clever you think you’re being, you’re walking a line that’s already been drawn.

It’s the illusion of free will. By offering you two doors, you think that going right is defying expectations. By choosing to turn on the mind control device, you think that you are retaining power. The Stanley Parable makes you question the merits of office life, it makes you think about whether operating inside of video game design tropes is good or bad, but it most importantly makes you think about whether your choices matter. Because they just might not mean a god damn thing.

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The Stanley Parable Review: A Masterful Choice

The Stanley Parable

The Stanley Parable is very difficult to talk about. You can beat it in less than five minutes, but by the time you’re done with it, three hours will have passed. Then in discussing any part of it, you destroy the effect of the game’s actions, though not any part of its intent. And any meaningful diminishing of The Stanley Parable is doing it a disservice, because this is an essential game on so many levels.

If you don’t recall it from years past, The Stanley Parable is a first-person narrative, uh, puzzle game that serves to be more commentary than game, though being a game is part of the commentary. It started out as a Half-Life 2 mod back in July of 2011 by Davey Wreden, though many more people have contributed to the project in its most recent and likely final incarnation. Most of the framework remains unchanged from its days as a mod, but its polish adds a lot to the game.

It adds a lot to an already substantial game. Not necessarily substantial in how much time it takes, but it lampoons, addresses, questions, pokes, and gently ribs so much you hold dear with how stories and video games work. It takes a little chunk of your time to tell you the story of a man named Stanley who works in an office doing nothing more than receiving commands and then input those commands into a keyboard. Every. Single. Day.

(From here on out, there will be minor spoilers for the game because it’s pretty much impossible to discuss the point of The Stanley Parable without bringing up its content, nearly all of which is specific and particular. If you have any inkling of playing this game—and you should—then stop reading and go play it. Otherwise, I guess you can keep going. Or do whatever you want. The Stanley Parable taught me better than to try to control someone.)

But one day, his coworkers disappear. And a delightfully British narrator voiced by the absolutely stellar and game-making Kevan Brighting steps in to give personality to the otherwise voiceless proceedings. Or more accurately, a narrator steps in to direct you where to go to find out what happened on this strange, empty day. You don’t pick up collectibles or even jump; you just go about Stanley’s life.

If you follow all of his implicit instructions (think of the narrator from Bastion, where sometimes he describes your actions and other times he describes the action around you), you can finish the game rather quickly. The speedrun achievement, in fact, is for a completion time of 4:22, and you will find an interesting story that comments on the pointless nature of office life and working at a job you don’t love.

The Stanley Parable

As a guy who used to work in a giant corporate office housing one of the biggest fast food companies in the world, this landed so close to home, I had to wonder if my name was actually Stanley. I’ve had countless attempts trying to subtly influence my friends to pursue their passions in lieu of job security and daily indignation (which has so far produced a man quitting his 9-to-5 to drive around New Mexico and sleep in a camper). This is the first point at which the game becomes essential.

But when you start to deviate from the script, then the game begins to show its true colors. You will end up playing through the game multiple times, each time ending up in a different predicament, but each one as poignant as the last. One ending, which you can bring about with startling efficiency, addresses the cowardice of ignoring the world beyond your grasp. Another makes you question what it means to exist in a life of predetermined paths. Though it will often have you chuckling at its words, the game will also make you think.

It will make you think about the philosophical implications of choice and existence, yes, but it also will make you question what that means inside a video game…while playing a video game. The design of the game is very linear, but its serves a purpose: its own blueprint of player interaction has been so finely tuned that when it comments on the nature of player agency and curiosity, you accept that the developer knows what he’s talking about. (It makes me wonder, though, if people less versed in video game tropes will find it equally fascinating.)

The Stanley Parable

Nearly all of your actions have been considered. You will face a choice—left or right—over and over again, and this choice will come to affect the way you view all other choices both literally through the game and through your mental considerations. And your choices will lead you down so many varying paths of defiance and acceptance. This, more than anything, is a game about free will.

Thematically speaking, The Stanley Parable is about you accepting that your choices are ultimately meaningless. It directly addresses it in one particular (and small, confined) instance, but it spreads what could have otherwise been a rote dissection of game design out into a side quest, a pulse-pounding action sequence, a parodic wink/nudge of the industry’s so-called standards, and so much more. As soon as you step away from the straight line leading you from A to B, you reject all the virtual impetus inherent in the medium, but to get anywhere, you have to accept them once more. Do you have control, or does the designer? Is that the true parable here?

It would be heartbreaking of the game wasn’t so entertaining. Of course, the moment following playing The Stanley Parable will probably be some of the most somber of your gaming career, but it’s an important experience. It’s why it’s important to read dissenting opinions of both game reviews and Supreme Court decisions. It’s why satire is just as vital to discourse as is genuine opinion. It’s why you should play The Stanley Parable.

The Stanley Parable

+ The narrator is damn near close to perfect
+ Metaphysical commentary on choice presented in a medium based on choice is brilliant
+ There are moments where the game is truly beautiful, psychologically and graphically
+ Inspirational mainline about getting out of a drone job
+ Sobering realization that choices and life in games are meaningless

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Game Review: The Stanley Parable
Release: October 17, 2013
Genre: First-person narrative
Developer: Galactic Cafe
Available Platforms: PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://www.stanleyparable.com/

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On Repeat

On Repeat

Favorites are a strange thing. It’s a bit of childhood naivety shining through a veil of cynicism and adulthood where you take your favorite thing and watch/play/verb it over and over again. When I was a kid, my vice was the Power Rangers movie. Every. Day. My mom got pretty fucking sick of it by day three, and by day 20, well, let’s just say tensions were high.

Though tempered now, the desire to throttle as much of your favorite [whatever] down your throat as often and as quickly as possible is still there. One of my recent failings in being a non-obsessive human being has been Joss Whedon’s The Avengers. It’s been out for a while, but since it’s been on Netflix, its abundant availability has been an issue for my productivity.

Eventually, the faults begin to poke through the veneer of superficial love. The quirks of the movie stand out above the fog: Whendon colloquialisms are in heavy supply (someone is always “meaning to” do something) and the very obvious shift of narrative import from several heroes to just two heroes becomes too apparent.

The Avengers

The same occurs with video games. Let’s take Uncharted 2: Among Thieves for example. It is, without a doubt, one of my top five favorite games. I have played it all the way through eight times and some partial mission excursions thrown in there for good measure. For a while, I could play through certain parts of it without even looking at the screen.

But then, sure as the rising sun and partial government shutdown, the cracks begin to become apparent. Certain combat scenarios begin to throw themselves into the Problematic bucket, e.g. the busted down foyer and really anything involving the blue dudes. And narrative faults sprinkle themselves across the campaign like jimmies on a sundae.

Part of a game making it through the gauntlet of repetitive filtering is that once they pop out on the other side, it becomes much clearer if you still want them to be favorites. If, after all the flaws and inconsistencies poke you in the eyes and ask if you can see them, you still want to play or watch or read or listen to whatever it is you have been hooked on, then it’s obvious you’ve found something that connects with you on a fundamental level.

Shadow of the Colossus

For me, that’s Uncharted 2‘s heavy and obvious reliance on scripted moments. It’s not giving a flip about the inherently but occasionally overly frustrating nature of Shadow of the Colossus‘ climbing system. It’s telling the haters that I just don’t care about the repetitive nature of Red Dead Redemption‘s mission structure and its mostly waffling combat mechanics (which also goes for every other Rockstar game as well).

Of course, this natural progression and filtering process instills a great fear in most people. For the longest time, I didn’t want to go back to Ratchet & Clank: Going Commando because I knew it wasn’t going to hold up against modern sensibilities. I don’t want to go through The Walking Dead again because I’m afraid understanding how the choices work will destroy my love for its story.

It’s paralyzing in that way. But in the same way you have to carefully analyze a feral affection to sift love from infatuation with the men and women you meet, it’s a necessary step to revisit your tentative favorites. You have to take the discerning eye that only a fanatic can apply to a game or a movie or a book. It’s then that you can find out what makes you the person that you are and what makes a severely rote and kind of boring RPG a tent-pole of your formative, spiky-haired upbringing.

You know which game I’m talking about.

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An Early Access to Problems

An Early Access to Problems

We’ve recently started a series called Early Edition where we cover Early Access games on Steam. First was Betrayer, a promising and deliciously stylized game about a missing colony in 1604. Second was a MOBA called SmashMuck Champions with a fresh, accessible twist on what it usually means to play a MOBA. Next will be, well, I don’t really know.

Normally these are just called previews, which are strangely hairy creatures to begin with. Previews are basically objective journalism getting roped into the marketing cycle. And for the most part, they all end with the same blurb of optimistic ambiguity: this game has problems but it shows potential. You’re probably as tired reading it as we are writing it.

That’s because we’re looking at an unfinished game. We can’t make a finalistic comment of any sort since the product we’re being shown is far from final as well, but putting a gavel down on an alpha or beta or what-have-you build of a game is dangerous because that’s not how consumers read or watch our coverage. That disclaimer that we’re covering an incomplete product often goes unnoticed, or they’ve become numb to its meaning. Hence the hedging conclusions.

Betrayer

Previews, however, do get a pass from our journalistic morality because it’s a build that only industry folk can access. We, at the time of playing and writing things, are talking about games that don’t yet exist for consumers. We are giving our opinions on products that no one can spend money on, so talking positively or negatively about them don’t have immediate sway.

Early Access games, however, are a different beast altogether for precisely that reason. If the developer so chooses, they can charge money for the game via Steam as if it were a finished product. In fairness, they have to disclaim the varying levels of completeness right on the page itself, albeit only for usability purposes: checkmarks for languages in the interface, the audio, and the subtitles. As for the content, though, that’s all up in the air.

Of course, the giant blue banner above the purchase button does spell out the risks rather plainly, which is to say “get involved with this game as it develops.” Attached is a blurb from the developer about the state of the game. In Betrayer‘s case, they “hope to rely on community feedback” to balance exploration and exposition, to “reinforce the game’s strengths and shore up its flaws.” For Audiosurf 2, “community feedback will shape it into the best game it can be.”

Audiosurf 2

And that’s all fine and dandy save for the fact that they’re still charging money for it, and that muddies the waters in terms of coverage. Writing up impressions on an unfinished game is, by and large, what qualifies whether or not it’s a preview. But covering a paid product is a review, and reviews must give the preview’s missing finality in surplus. Reviews exist to suggest whether a consumer should consider paying for or totally ignore a product.

So where does an Early Access game fit in? They cost money (or can cost money, anyways) but they are also unfinished. In this case, I don’t believe there is any hedging. If money is on the line, we have to approach coverage with the same diligence as if they were reviews. From here on out, you can consider Early Edition pieces to be that oft missing finalistic say of an Early Access product.

That is to say, however, in the moment. If we cover v0.4 and then v0.5 comes out, our opinions only apply to v0.4 and not v0.5, v0.8, the first release build, or any patched versions after that. Of course, that can change, but this seems to be the right call for now. This is one giant disclaimer that while not reviews, Early Edition pieces will be fiscal recommendation that we stand by on a version-by-version basis.

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