Monthly Archives: February 2015

Cinematic

Cinematic

Until the 2000s, there was a hard divide between what you saw at home and what you saw in movie theatres. The aspect ratio for film allowed for a widened field of view, drastically increasing what you saw and what you could glean from the surrounding scene. Home viewing on boxy 4:3 televisions unapologetically chopped all that real estate off.

It used to be a huge thing when something on TV was broadcasted in widescreen format. Or at least to those that cared; there was still a massive education going on that you weren’t losing anything visually but rather gaining so much more.

That won’t stop, however, wide ratios being intrinsically associated with film. Super widescreen, letterboxing, or what have you is all tied to the cinema. This is why games that employ some of these strategies are generally called “cinematic” or why cutscenes with letterboxing are called cinematics.

The Order: 1886

Games are very different from movies and television, though. There is, strictly speaking, no film, so there is no physical reason why a game would have to abide by any single aspect ratio other than to utilize whatever amount of screen it so desires. For games, it comes down to three things.

The first is some potentially technical limitation, where not having to render those extra pixels allows for higher fidelity or greater computational processes. It’s partially the same as when games lock in at 30 FPS instead of 60 FPS (or let it fly at whatever rate it can manage).

Second is something akin to the filmmaker decision of choosing one of a myriad of widescreen formats. They necessarily want to show more on the horizontal plane because that’s where the information is. Going wider and wider allows the director and cinematographer to stuff more details into the sides of any given shot, bumping up the efficiency and atmosphere of the visuals.

The Order: 1886

Lastly, you could make any widescreen you want be a purely stylistic choice. It’s more responsibility to manage the visual transference of data, but you can also just up the ratio until it looks like something you want. Graphic design and art direction can be built around the ratio to look like whatever is in the studio’s collective mind.

Consider, then, The Order: 1886. This semi-Arthurian/Victorian cover-based shooter is presented at a locked 30 FPS and a 2.40:1 aspect ratio and is, if anything else, an egregiously beautiful game. For all its positives (and its many negatives), the visuals are something you cannot take away from it.

From the beginning, Ready at Dawn has stated that they wanted The Order: 1886 to be “filmic.” They went from 60 FPS to 24 FPS, the traditional frame rate for films, but bumped up to 30 FPS to make it play better. However, they also chose a deliberate resolution of 1920×800 to enable 4x MSAA over 1920×1080 with no antialiasing.

The net result is a lot of give and take between technical requirements and stylistic choices, ending up at a gorgeous game with a lot of hazy London atmosphere. A positive performance analysis from Eurogamer justifies the technical decision, but how about a stylistic analysis?

The seemingly scrunched perspective of the game imbues it with nice sense of impending everything. It’s not necessarily claustrophobic but it certainly feels like the world is much more immediate, like monsters and death are always moments away from finding you.

This is also a very linear game, but areas can have a tendency to open up into arenas. The widened topography fills the stumpy aspect ratio much better, giving you a greater sense of awareness. Or rather, it makes you feel like you have a greater sense of awareness since just rendering in those missing top and bottom bars would literally give you more to work with, but the sensation of a battlefield opening up to fill your horizontal view is a powerful one, something worth working towards.

The Order: 1886

It can break down during moments of verticality, such as fighting between the balcony and the floor of a giant foyer, but it seems to further engender the feeling of situational awareness. The gameplay, as limited as it is, does great at forcing you to focus at the problem at hand. From bum-rushing shotgun-wielding foes to wall-clinging things, the cinematic scope seems to also have gameplay implications.

Taking cover and seeing shots come in from above or below gives you urgency, but the threats in your immediate field of view gives you pause. It’s a nice blend of pushing and pulling you in and out of safety. It more readily mimics what it would be like in real life—or at least something skewing closer to it.

The visual limitations force you to hole up against vertical inferiority (or somehow gain superiority) and address the problems in front of you. It gives most encounters a very particular kind of rhythm, if not physically then definitely mentally. Your eyes bounce around and your brain processes cover and actions in turn.

The Order: 1886

As odd as this ostensibly stylistic choice can be, it is one of the better ones made for The Order: 1886. It enables a good-looking game to be even more pleasing to your eyeballs, but it also informs the way the game is played. The game has a lot of other, more obvious faults, but its decision to be super cinematic isn’t one of them.

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Brevity

Brevity

How many of you out there work for a boss of sorts? In a cubicle, at a cash register, or wherever you are, you probably answer to someone. And it’s a tiring existence, I’m sure. The majority of those in some superior position have failed to keep up with modern sensibilities: it’s not about butts in seats but rather about the quality of those butts.

Allow me to rephrase. It’s about the quality of the work those butts produce. It’s never made sense to me to force people into an office to work when they could do it just as well in any other place in the world like coffee shops or park benches or grounded hot air balloons. Maybe it’s just an engineer or developer’s perspective, but the work of one hour of a quality employee is worth a dozen of a mediocre one.

It’s crazy to think we still judge games, then, on some temporal metric. Saying, for instance, that a game that averages 15 hours on a single campaign playthrough is intrinsically better than one with a five-hour runtime seems patently absurd. Those additional 10 hours could be anything—brain-bleeding cutscenes or irredeemable glitches—and that should be the differentiator.

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare

When criticism flowed in at four-hour Call of Duty narratives, it was a flag to rally around for revolution. There was change looming large, and it would force us to rethink this previously ingrained notion of duration equating to some facet of quality. This is how we ended up years later with a two-hour game called Journey that could win Game of the Year awards.

This debate, however, got brought up again recently with the release of Ready at Dawn’s The Order: 1886. An extremely cinematic and stupidly good-looking game about an alternative history London where a loosely Arthurian order of knights fights against supernatural half-breed beasts, The Order: 1886 has received a rather lukewarm greeting after buckets of hype and promise.

There is a virtue to short games, but there is also a virtue to long games. In fact, calling them either short or long is a disservice to the end result. The true value lies in a game—or book or movie or song—being precisely as long as it needs to be. (And absolutely a relativistic monetary value comes into play, but we can address that at another time.)

Dragon Age: Origins

Think about Gone Home, for example. Had it been even an hour longer—it runs somewhere around two hours—the potency and urgency of rushing to its frenetic conclusion would have been lost. And if Dragon Age: Origins had been anything less than its usual 50-ish hours, you wouldn’t fully develop a sense of choices and consequences and the immense line you’d started drawing weeks prior.

That’s certainly where there is legitimacy to the criticism against The Order: 1886. Clocking in around seven or so hours, it’s mostly at the top of the bell curve for solo campaigns nowadays. The problem is that it doesn’t even finish its story.

For most narratives, there’s a predictable arc across three acts. This, however, is a very broad framework. Within it you can garner an impossibly wide range of plots across every genre you can think of. The gist, though, is that you get an introduction, a complication, and a resolution. That is the flow to an eventual catharsis present in every story.

The Order: 1886

The Order: 1886, however, stops dead at the end of the second act—maybe even a little before it. Even the complication that it leaves hanging feels rather incomplete in its complicating. This is an example where a game’s brevity is a problem. It’s not that you don’t get some commensurate value out of your monetary exchange but that it doesn’t even finish what it sets out to do.

Or, if it did, then that’s even more problematic because now you have either an unsatisfying tale or some hanging paranoia that you can buy the conclusion as DLC. Either way, it’s a poor outcome for the player. You are left feeling cheated, maybe even a little confused, and rightly so.

It’s a game that just isn’t as long as it needs to be. Perhaps it’s a sign of an immature storyteller, conflating the ideas of cliffhangers and a denial of resolution. Or perhaps it’s a sign of a rushed development, leaving a potentially huge chunk on the cutting room floor.

The Order: 1886

It even forced Ready at Dawn founder Ru Weerasuriya to respond after a full playthrough leaked online. “I’ve played games that lasted two hours that were better than games that I played for 16 hours. That’s the reality of it. Gameplay length for me is so relative to quality. It’s just like a movie. Just because a movie is three hours long, it doesn’t make it better.”

Unfortunately, The Order: 1886 has other, far more noteworthy problems than its duration. It also has many praiseworthy elements, but all of that will be saved for further analysis at a later date. (The story needs more room to breathe but its gameplay doesn’t support more time even though most of it is cutscenes anyways.) This problem with the game, though, has sparked the most discussion and debate.

It’s not that every game needs to be 12 hours and have online multiplayer and offline co-op and seasons of DLC that follow to justify a $60 price tag, but stories do need to finish. We naturally seek out the terminus to narratives and in this aspect we are left wanting. Game should only be as long as they need to be, and The Order: 1886 is not that.

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The Score

The Score

Last week, Eurogamer made a change. It was, in fact, a monumental one. It was a simply stated conundrum: “How should we score an excellent game with severe networking issues? A flawlessly polished game with a hackneyed design? A brilliantly tuned multiplayer experience with dreadful storytelling?”

The result? They dropped review scores. It has been a long time coming. Joystiq, just before their unfortunate and unceremonious shuttering, came to the same conclusion after asking themselves the same question. Ars Technica, in fact, has never had review scores.

Let’s back up, however, and start with why review scores have stuck around so long. The lineage is fairly obvious. Movies, music, and books are often graded on scales of numbers and letters and thumbs, and those mediums and their critics have been around far longer than video games. It seemed like a good model to follow.

GamePro ratings

And it worked, mostly. Very early on it was a challenge to fit our products into the static models that preceded them. GamePro in the 80s had the gem of an idea to introduce a faceted approach, bringing about the much derided Fun Factor attribute. It was, however, an entirely valid attempt at remedying what turned out to be just a symptom of the problem.

It’s just unfortunate that it didn’t work. Like all movies aren’t made to make you laugh, not all games would (eventually) be made to be fun—or at least the kind of fun that made you make the GamePro guy face. So then some all-encompassing score was engendered out of that, or at least reinforced at the outlets that already had that.

But that sentiment—not all games are made with the same intent—would only truly come to a head many years later. The goal, for example, of Adventure is very different from the goal of Gone Home. It did, however, once again miss the mark.

Adventure and Gone Home

The sentiment should have really been boiled down to “not all games are made the same nor for the same reason,” though that also wouldn’t be revealed until (relatively) far later. While almost all games used to fall in the same range of ambition, we now have mobile, indie, triple-A, and so many layer in between. Even the indie crowd is bifurcating into high profile and the lean solo or duo team shops.

There lies the first big problem with the review score. Just because the scope of a game is largely reduced either out of necessity or by choice, that doesn’t mean it should be knocked points or letter tiers from its final evaluation. Is Angry Birds any less of a game than World of Warcraft? Not even a little bit.

But then that surfaces the issue of merited value. Let’s say a site gave both Angry Birds and World of Warcraft a 6 out of 10, but the former only costs a dollar and the latter is a full $60 upfront along with $15 a month after that. So then where does that get factored in? Is that the duty of the reviewer or the reader to judge that monetary value? But they both got a 6 out of 10, so shouldn’t they both be of commensurate purchasing impetus?

Angry Birds

The next folly of the system is that games were perceived to be as static as the entertainment mediums that preceded them and the scores that rose up alongside them. But even arcade cabinets weren’t immune to updates what with different boards being installed and different hardware sets for sticks and buttons and knobs. That still, however, meant the review had to live and die with the game itself.

Nowadays games come out with the transparent intent of updating on day one. They are made to change, to grow alongside player needs and demands. If not just bug fixes, there are substantial content additions, or even games that pivot almost their whole aim post-release. It’s a strange but inevitable development in a purely digital medium.

Polygon’s response was to implement an updating scheme where depending on updates or necessary analysis of massively multiplayer products. SimCity, for instance, went from a 9.5 to a 6.5 after three updates because what point is there to a well-designed game that you can’t play. It’s a strange system, though, where the main body of the review remains static and addendums appear at the bottom, leaving it as an exercise to the reader to superposition each layer of criticism.

SimCity

It’s a historical record for a line of products that know no such thing. There is no great vault of games kept public at each versioned iteration. Without the playable context, the older critiques are merely a compendium of opinion without an anchor. It’s certainly not the fault of Polygon or anyone else who implements this design, but it only solves half the problem.

Then there’s the problem of the meta consequences of the scores themselves, namely Metacritic, a site that aggregates numerically compatible (and weighted) scores into averages. The idea itself is not a problem, but Metacritic, for one, refuses to break out of the realm of static scores in an age of dynamic products, an implement to supposedly “protect” writers.

This wouldn’t be worth contending if it wasn’t a known, no matter how rare, practice to give bonuses and raises to the scores. It is a wholly confounding exercise, basing compensation on the ability to appeal to the lowest common denominator in the best possible way. Not every game is going to be for everyone, so why try to force developers to make every square peg in in every round hole?

Fallout: New Vegas

If not for that outside influence, review scores would be fine. It’s something akin to a personal gauge of value for time, money, and effort. So many things, though, have to be brought to transparency, such as the personal meters of the writers. That’s why the reviews of a site like Giant Bomb work so well. The personalities and tastes of that staff is well known, so its readership knows precisely how to process their words.

It’s not a singular problem with a singular solution. If it was, it would have hopefully been solved by now, or at least addressed and well on its way to Doneville. But there’s an entire business built around the scores that is making the practice toxic, and it’s a business built on an archaic foundation that is trying to rule a neo-populace. With any luck, there’s a revolution coming to knock down the doors.

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Soulsian

Soulsian

Games copy other games. That’s just the natural order of things. Artists, writers, or whatever creative profession you can think of copies from those before them. “Good artists copy; great artists steal.” It’s why archetypes, genres, and the like exist: to build off of and create new things.

It’s then extra interesting when those fundamentals and baseline ingredients combine to create entirely new entities that eventually also become basic vocabulary. It feels a lot like when a brand name becomes a generic trademark, like Kleenex for tissues or Band-Aid for bandages. This, funnily enough, occurs quite often with video games.

Consider any game with a bouncing ball going between paddles. It can now easily draw comparisons to Pong. Remove an opposing side, though, and now you have Breakout. They’re both elemental games in the realm of titles revolving around a bouncing ball but only a seemingly slight change separates how they are brought up. They all, however, still boil down to Pong.

Arkanoid

This is something worth considering when discussing modern games. There is such a huge catalog of games bubbling up from the past that finding any valuable genesis is a challenge. More than that, recent games seem to have more stock simply by virtue of timeliness.

Or perhaps it’s just relevance. Consider Apotheon. There has been a great deal of people—both critics and casual players like—that have been sizing up its combat mechanics against the likes of Dark Souls. Actually, make that Demon’s Souls. Whatever. A Souls game either way.

While lacking an entire spatial dimension, the comparison has some validity. Spacing and timing in attacking and defending is hugely important. Hacking and slashing away with a quick sword will land you more blows, but an efficient economy of damage forms up when you use a slower, more deliberate swing of an axe. You have to keep in mind the distance between you and your enemies and be able to read their intentions more quickly and reliably, but it’s much more satisfying.

Apotheon

That more or less has some base overlap with a Souls game. Spacing and timing are the order of the day—every day—with that series. You bide your time but you have to be able and willing to attack when the time is right. Position yourself and get those hits in when you can.

The defensive portions skew pretty close together, too, but it boils down to those two things. Positioning and timeliness. It’s not about snappy trigger pulling or planning around future resource allocation but about methodically finding your single opportunity for victory.

But let’s quickly assume the entire Souls genre didn’t exist, including the direct progenitors and their progeny like Lords of the Fallen. What, then, does Apotheon‘s combat remind you of? Surely a great deal of 2004’s Ninja Gaiden, albeit far less hyperactive. It is a brutal game that focuses solely on those two fighting principles but at a disorienting pace.

Ninja Gaiden Black

By some retrograde analysis, think about Shadow of the Colossus. Comprised entirely of singular, massive, deliberate battles, it perhaps has more in common with a Souls game than Apotheon. And then there’s Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, basically a 2D version of Dark Souls, which kind of makes it the most apt comparison to Apotheon if the original alignment holds true.

From that, there several questions that rise, but only two of them are worth addressing at this point. First off, what value is there of the timeliness of game comparisons? And then how far down the rabbit hole is it worth going? Under that Symphony of the Night guise, it would only make sense to travel all the way back to Castlevania.

However, that isn’t a very reasonable reduction. There are many more games that are more directly influenced by the original Castlevania or Metroid that their whole mashup genre is called Metroidvania. So then it’s not just about some temporal relevance but also about the most relatable components of two games that draw the Venn diagram.

Dark Souls

If the lineage is clear, then maybe only the first step down the path is worthwhile. For tracing all the actionable heritage from a Souls game, it might be the only logical step to stop at as well. There has been a myriad of foundational construction leading up to what you could even call a Soulsian game, so to backtrace any further might even be depriving that progress of its tacit meaning.

All this written meandering boils down to a pretty simple notion: there’s a lot of history and implicit meaning packed into even the most fundamental appraisals. It’s a valuable practice, chasing down the origins to such statements, but it’s also wholly worthwhile letting the structural and intrinsic context of compound criticism exist on their own.

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Apotheon Review: Greek to Me

Apotheon

Apotheon, a staple of PAX indie booths for the past few years, is here now, and for better or worse, it is what you feared and hoped it would be: a taut but predictable adventure. There’s nothing in Apotheon that is entirely original or revolutionary, but it doesn’t need to when it simply aims and hits its mark as a tight, sleek game.

One of the more notable portions is the story, which skews far closer to a traditional Greek epic than any modern, conventional tale. You follow a fellow named Nikandreos, a citizen of a village called Dion, which also has the unfortunate fate of being forsaken by Zeus. In fact, as he ascends Mt. Olympus to fix the follies of this home, Nikandreos discovers that Zeus would rather see all of humanity destroyed.

It has some similarities to the God of War series, sure, like gathering up the aid of other gods like Hera and besting the rest. But whereas God of War focused on and built up the character of Kratos, Apotheon pretty much just presents him as a person that has to do a thing. It’s a shame because the God vs. Man conflict is such a potent base narrative.

Talking about the plot, though, is overlooking the most remarkable part of Apotheon. This is a fantastic looking game. It’s like the scenes from Disney’s Hercules where the Muses sing, except less…musical and far more authentic. It very much looks like a Greek pottery painting come to life, complete with some delightful lighting effects against the two dimensional plane on which it is all presented.

The visage is potent throughout. When you climb a ladder, for instance, instead of being presented as a person ascending the face of the ladder, you are shown as trekking up the side of it. And effects like water spray is shown as dribbling blocks of blue and firelight has a spectacularly harsh delineation against the flat environment. Motifs visually manifest and carry throughout the whole of a deity’s domain, too, making for diverse eye candy.

Once you get to the gameplay, though, it’s far less interesting. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it certainly isn’t anything as original. It breaks down into a traditional 2D platformer with some added fully directional attack and defend mechanics. You present your shield in the most effective direction since it can’t cover all of you at once, recalling the jutting of Link’s shield in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Apotheon

The same goes for your attacks. You must thrust out your swords and spears and aim your javelins carefully as your enemies dance up and around you. It’s important because timing and placement is vital. Axes, for instance, swing slowly, and only the head of the axe—you know, the part with the blade—will cause real damage. Once you start swinging, you can’t really stop, so you’ve got to move in concert with your opponent.

It’s simple but can also be engaging. For a while, that is. Even over the course of the appropriately sized 15-hour runtime, the battles can go from starting as fun and engrossing to something closer to tedium, especially with some problematic movement. Luckily, though, Apotheon has a knack for mixing it up.

Level designs are seemingly built around this limitation. Some bits, for instance, are in total darkness and require you to forgo either your shield or your favorite two-handed weapon so you can hold a torch just to see where you’re going. And then bosses and the like have a penchant for really switching things up. Artemis will turn you into a deer and attempt to ensnare you, for example.

Apotheon

Other parts of the game, while in existence, barely warrant mention. There’s a crafting system, but it doesn’t really build up to much beyond stocking up on health potions and mending breakable weapons (a system I personally abhor). Voice acting ranges from topnotch to questionable while sound effects are serviceable. The music, though, is pretty nice.

While nothing sounds exemplary in the slightest save for the game’s artistic endeavors, it all adds up to something that can sufficiently enrapture you for hours at a time. Apotheon hardly strives for anything new, but it combines a visual delight into a delectable variety of gameplay that it doesn’t need to break new ground.

+ Looks absolutely fantastic
+ Combat can be engaging when mixed with level variety
– Humdrum narrative with a vacuous protagonist
– Befuddling locomotion

Final Score: 7 out of 10

Apotheon

Game Review: Apotheon
Release: February 3, 2015
Genre: 2D action platformer
Developer: Alientrap
Available Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $14.99
Website: http://apotheongame.com/

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Jupiter Ascending Review: A Descent

Jupiter Ascending

What an indecipherable mess. There’s a lot of say about Jupiter Ascending, the Wachowskis’ latest cinematic endeavor, but most of those things are questions, and none of them helpful. There are no critical inquiries to be made except for one: why?

Let’s back this intergalactic bus up first. The bulk of the movie centers around Mila Kunis’ Jupiter Jones, a down-on-her-luck woman working maid jobs in Chicago and living in a nigh totalitarian household with her mother. One day, Channing Tatum’s Caine Wise, a half-wolf ex-military warrior, shows up and whisks her away to reveal her extraterrestrial destiny.

That, unfortunately, is where the train begins to derail. The signs were there: delayed from summer to February, inscrutable trailers, and fuzzy marketing. But watching this menagerie of befuddled ideas unfold before you is almost unbelievable. It’s certainly not abysmal in its ambition or scope, but it absolutely fails to congeal into anything remotely shapely.

A common lesson in sophisticated and effective storytelling is that is has to flow. This happened because that happened but then this happened, so therefore that happened. The hallmark of a child telling a story is something that skews closer to this happened and then this happened and then and then and then.

Once Jupiter Ascending hits about 20 minutes into its two-hour runtime, you realize its narrative edges dangerously close to the latter, and then five minutes later, it goes all the way over the cliff. Caine reveals to Jupiter that she’s of royal descent and that her children want to aggressively acquire and takeover her planetary assets, including Earth.

Except she’s not really their mother but also kind of is. And one of them wants to trick her while the other two trick each other. And there’s some convoluted and inconsistent caste system in place laid across the entirety of the spacey realm. And all of that feeds into some serious Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace-like socio-politics.

Jupiter Ascending

It is exceptionally baffling in every possible regard. Even the parts that make relative sense like the utility of genetic splicing with Earth organisms and sweet anti-gravity boots eventually come under counterattack from the rest of the film. As more of these wrinkles inexplicably spring up and push back against the established order, you see a film cannibalize itself.

Do you remember the part of The Matrix when Neo meets the Oracle and she poses a brain-tickling question: would he still have broken the vase if she hadn’t said anything? You ask yourself the same question regarding the acting in Jupiter Ascending. Normally charismatic and engaging actors like Kunis and Tatum become as interesting as celery sitting on a bed of tofu. But is it their acting or the material? It’s hard to tell.

Then there’s Eddie Redmayne who plays the eldest of Jupiter’s greedy children (and undoubtedly the most pillow-lipped). To say he’s acting would be a stretch. It’s more like he happened to say some stuff while a camera was nearby. And whether that’s directed at Redmayne himself or the script is once more debatable.

Jupiter Ascending

Potentially conflated with the potency of the acting, the discrete problems with the characters are actually easily picked out among the wreckage. Jupiter, for example, should be the hero. She fulfills the archetypal bits of being pulled out of her daily life, thrust into a foreign world, and pointed down the path of ultimate victory. But somehow she becomes little more than a waif of little agency, being led and pushed around to someone else’s success.

At the very least, it’s possible to say that Jupiter Ascending is a good-looking film. It certainly bears enough color and spectacle to distract the eye from the intellectual failings of the story, but that road quickly runs out to a dead end cliff. The visuals of confounding architecture and alien design mix up into a wholly incomprehensible blend of overly familiar and impossibly unrelatable.

Allow me to address you directly now. In my first viewing of Jupiter Ascending, a literal half of the audience walked out. In the second viewing (I’m wary about being overly critical of films without proper examination), four of the five people around me fell asleep. The narrative is impenetrable, the visuals progressively numbing, and acting on par with lukewarm water. You probably shouldn’t Jupiter Ascending.

Jupiter Ascending

+ It’s super colorful and can be fun to look at every once in a while
– Impotent acting
– Unfathomable world and opaque plot
– Passive character arcs

Final Score: 2 out of 10

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Open Formula

Open Formula

Tokenism. You’re familiar, right? It’s generally used to talk about the superficial inclusion of a minority or marginalized group of people, often regarding the integration as perfunctory. It is the opposite of an ancillary melding.

It’s a concept that is beginning to run rampant in open world video game design, and for some reason, it can be blamed largely on Ubisoft. They have the Assassin’s Creed franchise, the Far Cry games, Watch Dogs, The Crew, and more. And that’s just from last year. (Assassin’s Creed actually squeezed in two of ’em in 2014.)

And what’s more is that they all seemingly abide by some template for interactive structure. To some extent that can’t be avoided—”open world” is a genre after all, and genres have staples for a reason—but some of it is reaching peak levels of absurdity.

Assassins Creed Unity

Obligatory map discovery? Yep. Point-to-point interest activation? Absolutely. It’s starting to feel like a rubber stamp of game with just different characters: assassins, rebels, cars. Of course it’s not all bad. Certainly there is virtue to each of these implements of gameplay and design. Like curiosity propels discovery and vice versa. It’s nicely symbiotic like that.

It’s why those bits and pieces have remained and been refined over the course of many years and many games. But at some point you have to wonder where has the innovation gone. Or rather, where has the impetus for such inclusion gone? Why did we go from ancillary to perfunctory? From necessity to tokenism?

Dying Light came out this week. It’s also an open world game, but this one features a bunch of zombies and parkour. It’s a pretty fun game that improves on a lot of things from Techland’s previous first person undead outing Dead Island, though it also sadly removes the analog combat from its spiritual predecessor.

The thing is that there are many portions of Dying Light that still strongly abide the steps laid out by Ubisoft, and this is a Warner Bros. publication. (This isn’t entirely unprecedented for them, though, as Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor aped large portions of Assassin’s Creed design.) You can, in fact, still climb towers.

This brings about an interesting notion that Ubisoft has unearthed and fully realized the whole body of open world clichés, and now when we see them trickle down to other open world games, we are reminded of their popular genesis. And then, of course, we are forced to analyze the merit of their inclusion.

It was a praiseworthy situation in Shadow of Mordor, where it had largely improved and successfully integrated those platitudes into some bigger and more interesting. It’s even arguable that their familiarity enhanced the overall experience by contrasting the impressive Nemesis system.

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

But then it was a source of derision for the Fury, a film that seemed to only want to complete a checklist of war movie clichés just for the sake of seeing a bunch of boxes get ticked off at the end of production. It was a series of token scenes, moving a tank from one place to its final place.

These staple components of genres can’t be tossed into a bucket and be assumed a success. They need to be laid into the foundation and built up into something grander. The reason needs to be there. A game like Miasmata is shaped around the idea of exploration and discovery, earning its foggy map and hidden locations. What benefit is there to doing so in Assassin’s Creed?

There really isn’t one, other than finding a reason for you to climb towers, which was the biggest draw of the original game and arguably still the biggest draw of the series. The designers needed a way to force you to utilize this sizable mechanical system, and the missions rarely forced you to sneak around like that. The solution was to hide the map and show it to you as you used the system.

Dying Light

Dying Light would have a more interesting validation for hiding or restricting terrain knowledge. With unknown and mindless threats, it’s much more engaging to hide layout and structure from you. The surprise of navigating over and under and around things like fences, buildings, and the like forces you to dive into things confidently and boldly, persuading you to play a certain style and engage in specific experiences.

It’s a subtle difference between the two outcomes. Either way, you are being pushed into doing something. One, however, has a careless result, like a detour shoving your route onto a congested highway. The other puts a brick on the gas and hands you the wheel. You can still get somewhere how you want and even hit the brakes, but it wants to propel you forward. The other way kind of yanks you around just because.

There’s nothing wrong with clichés so long as they have a reason, some validation for being there. Otherwise it’s just perfunctory, and nobody likes that.

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Some Thoughts on Joystiq

Some Thoughts on Joystiq

It started as a rumor. A twisted, Kafkaesque rumor where a site had to report on itself, but it was a rumor nonetheless. Really: was. It soon became a reality that few of us saw coming (and many of us hoped against). As of tomorrow, Joystiq will be no more.

There are far more insightful words written about the closing, specifically by those that have been directly involved in Joystiq and other surrounding sites. (Worse than that, it is hardly the most tragic news from last week.) But that doesn’t mean that little orange blip on your bookmarks bar couldn’t and doesn’t have a profound impact on your and my life.

I, like many of you, have a routine. I’m not deeply entrenched in my calendar or clock-based activities like waking up at a certain hour or remembering what particular day of the week it is, but I do still live as a creature of some habit. For instance, I still swirl and jab the analog sticks on my controller before I play as suggested by some system manual years ago. (But now I just like the sound it makes.)

Death of Google Reader

And when I fired up my browser, quickly mourned the passing of Google Reader, and started typing in URLs to keep up with the Joneses of industry talk, the first three letters were always the same: J-O-Y. Really, nothing was necessary after J, but typing out that little bit of jovial naming made me feel exactly what it said.

My relationship with the site, however, deteriorated as the years went on. While I never stopped respecting the opinions of the writers staffed there, I did slowly drain out the reviews and the like from my docket. There’s no reason to it. It just happened.

Perhaps it was too dependable. Or, more likely, it was too static. Like reading IGN or Gamespot, it felt like Joystiq had nestled into its groove. It was a groove it did extremely well, but a groove all the same. And you only ever find that once you find success, anyways.

But other sites kept doing things. Polygon crept up and, like, existed. Kotaku went through several iterations of aiming and sailing in all kinds of directions. And then personalities eventually came to rule the domain, finding readers by allowing them to align with views they knew would be mirrored by particular writers.

Joystiq Controller

In a word, other sites were just more exciting. They didn’t necessarily do better than Joystiq, but they were certainly more interesting to bounce around. And it’s something that fills me with immense regret, because only now am I realizing just how much I still depended on that one site.

They did what they wanted to do, and that was a deluge of news. Asking questions, interpreting press releases, sharing the dots that they’ve connected. It was something that few others wanted for themselves, so few even tried, but it was something we all needed. They can’t be asked to do what everyone else was doing because then they wouldn’t be Joystiq.

Once you let the floodgates go, it’s easy to be a personality. And after meeting many of the staffers at the site across several years at E3s, PAXs, and whatnot, even as they moved and shuffled around to other outlets, I can say they all have winning personalities. And it’s hard to charge forward and keep a straight face in the crushing, interminable cycle of overtly objective news.

The Joystiq Podcast

Joystiq did something even harder, though. They gave glimpses of themselves as they wrote up raw facts. Puns galore from editor-in-chief Ludwig Kietzmann; unfettered glee with managing editor Susan Arendt’s fluffy animals; and so on and so on. They let you know who they were without sacrificing what they wanted to say.

Maybe I’m meandering. Maybe I’m misremembering. Maybe a lot of things. But it’s been over ten years. A lot has happened since then, and they’ve been around for all of it. The trade shows, the drama, the everything. But I guess it can be summed up in this: I’ll miss you, Joystiq. I’ll miss you lots.

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