Monthly Archives: March 2015

Ori and the Blind Forest Review: Spirited Ablaze

Ori and the Blind Forest

The only time I ever got truly angry with Ori and the Blind Forest was when it ended. Not because it was over but because it wouldn’t let me back in. I’d spent the past six hours exploring the breathless beauty of the world crafted by Moon Studios and I’d unexpectedly been locked out of what I’d worked so hard for. But even then, it was oh so worth it.

This is certainly an overwhelmingly gorgeous game, but first you should know what lies under the immaculate skin. Ori and the Blind Forest is a side-scrolling action platformer where you play as Ori, a little white catlike…thing that was shaken loose from the Spirit Tree. Adopted by the bubbly and friendly Naru, the pair live together until the Spirit Tree takes a turn for the worse and, well, you’ll see.

Either way, Ori now has to set out to save the forest with the help of another tiny bonus spirit called Sein. As you travel across the vibrant world to restore the purity of the life-sustaining trees of the realm, you’ll find other shrubbery of varying degrees of spirituality and learn new moves.

You’ll get, for instance, the ability to run up walls and explode in a ball of energy and much more. The best thing is that in true Metroidvania style, these moves don’t just encourage you to backtrack and open up new areas but instead are both viable and necessary in combat.

Between trekking across your old stomping grounds with a new perspective on enemies and obstacles and figuring out how to best defeat new foes by integrating your fresh repertoire, you need to be on your toes constantly. It’s not that you can’t get by through just hammering away at your Spirit Flame (your basic attack that shoots out homing balls of, uh, spirit fire, I guess) but that it doesn’t serve your best interests. You will get ripped to shreds, and even if you do survive, it’s not in a state you’d want to proceed with.

Ori, you see, can collect a lot of different things. There are ability orbs that enable you to enhance your abilities among a three-pronged skill tree and there are shards that restore your energy and health and pickups that earn you bonus health and energy slots. And you’re going to need all of them because this is a brutal game.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Such as is any game that warrants keeping track of your deaths. (I managed to slip by with 162.) But the brilliance of Ori and the Blind Forest—or rather, one of the brilliant decisions unearthed in its runtime—is that the energy you use for your most potent attack and clearing paths is also used for saving your game, and if you play your cards right, restoring health.

It’s such a tight economy that, even if you wanted to skate by with the aforementioned mashing of the Spirit Flame attack, you wouldn’t want to. That would just make your next run even more difficult. This forces you to integrate your new moves into your fighting strategies to remain viable. For instance, the Bash move can hurt enemies but it can also redirect projectiles and provide you with breathing room to reassess any situation.

The game even manages to put twists on things you would otherwise just start feeling comfortable with. Instead of using Bash to attack, for instance, you’ll have to use it to navigate over boiling, almost endless pits of lava. And then, just when you get the hang of that, you have to use it to both traverse more lava and kill the same enemies that enable you to avoid a fiery death. (It reminds me of the masterful safe-danger-twist design of Super Mario 3D World.)

Ori and the Blind Forest

And it does so in such a perfectly demanding way that you can’t help but throw yourself at it again and again after even your seventh or eighth death in a row. Do you remember that level of LittleBigPlanet where you had to outrun the Skulldozer? Or the end of New Super Mario Bros. Wii where you navigate around some tricky platforms all while lava is chasing you? There’s some of that (and more) and it’s all done masterfully. This is such a tight and responsive game that it feels good to even simply try one more time.

Aside from the gameplay, there is so much to love about Ori and the Blind Forest. The story itself, established through swift movement and wordless yet complete and effective characterization and then mostly told the rest of the way through embedded exposition, is not about good versus evil but instead more nuanced than that. The motivations are clear, which leaves the results understandable but saddening nonetheless.

Oh, and is it clear yet that this is a stunningly gorgeous game? This is truly concept art come to life. There’s so much color imbued in every screen you come across. Even in the dilapidated swamp before it is restored to its properly flourishing and bright self is somehow inviting. And being overcome by deadly rising tides and quickly encroaching walls of fire is a pleasure to the eyes.

Ori and the Blind Forest

If it isn’t clear by now, you should play Ori and the Blind Forest. A friend of mine is even putting up with playing it on a keyboard (even though the platforming basically requires analog controls) to see it to the end. It looks amazing, plays even better, and tells a wonderfully heartstring-tugging story to boot. Get on your grind and start playing Ori and the Blind Forest, like, right now.

+ Remixes already original and innovative skill sets into doubly new and interesting sequences
+ Undeniably beautiful art and animation
+ Characters tell a clear and heartfelt story through their actions and motivations
+ Demands just the right amount from you within its expansive and solid framework

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Ori and the Blind Forest

Game Review: Ori and the Blind Forest
Release: March 11, 2015
Genre: 2D action platformer
Developer: Moon Studios
Available Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Players: Single-player
MSRP: $19.99
Website: http://www.oriblindforest.com/

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SXSW Gaming 2015: Mixed Messages

SXSW Gaming 2015: Mixed Messages

This past weekend was the opening weekend of the annual Austin open bar Bacchanalia known as SXSW. Traditionally, it has been a platform for creators to expose their creations to a bountiful and receptive crowd of transient badge holders. But now the event is bursting at the seams, futilely attempting to contain a film festival, a technology trade show, a music festival, a brand new fashion track, and a video games event.

In its official third iteration since 2013, the Gaming Expo once again took over the area south of the Colorado River, occupying both the Long Center and the Palmer Events Center, two buildings so often conflated that SXSW volunteers working the area have a knee-jerk reaction of differentiating them without prompting.

Last year saw 48,000 people amble through the 90,000 square feet. PR for SXSW won’t be releasing attendance numbers for this year until after the event, but from the amount of shuffling and pleading it took to get through a single corridor of booths, the number only seems to have gone up. And according to Gaming manager Justin Burnham, they can’t take anymore.

They’re trying to expand. Both in terms of physical space and quality. The past had the huge draw of a real life Mario Kart track and the exceptionally large and interesting NASA exhibit parked on the lawn of the Palmer. This year seems to be solely under the power of video games.

For the time being, a Manifest Destiny across the river back to where the zoo-like menagerie of main SXSW hub sits is out of the cards. The events already located in the downtown area are pushing the city to capacity. Gaming seems to have started out and will continue to be at the kiddie table.

When the sole shuttle route takes 30 to 45 minutes at a time to take diehard film fans to satellite locations and curious gamers over Congress Avenue Bridge to the Palmer, it’s hard to not take it personally. But the actual growth of the barely attached expo is impossible to deny.

SXSW Gaming Expo 2015

Last year seemed to have struggled just to fill the Geek Stage, the main platform for which speakers to say their piece inside the exhibit hall. Bits and pieces fell around other spaces and theaters, but that was mostly it. This year had back-to-back sessions on the main stage and the Kodosky Lounge and the Education Room of the Long Center. For all three days.

It was impressive, to say the least. It definitely signaled a turning point, to where instead of just local developers and supremely indie studios would show up to see what would happen, there seemed to be a plan. Whether that plan worked or not isn’t as important as the fact that there was a plan.

That’s not to say, however, that the results aren’t noteworthy, and this is where it gets dicey. Talking to a fellow journalist walking the beat, he referred to the bulk of what the expo had to offer as “snicklefritz,” and he’s not wrong. Few of the games and tech demos on display were worth much beyond 300 words and even less of the panels were what they aspired to be.

SXSW Gaming Expo 2015

It seems to be a problem of both content and moderation. Save for a potent bit of discourse in the “Surviving Cancer with Games and Community” talk, both halves of the panel equation were found lacking. For instance, a panel called “Building Better Beat ‘Em Ups” was mostly a history on the genre that vacillated between mechanical analysis and activism awareness. Had it focused on one or the other, it would have definitely improved since solo speaker Shawn Allen seemed to have a deep knowledge of both.

And others where a Q&A on narrative writing in the industry failed to go beyond the platitudes we’ve all heard dozens of times before: don’t give up, do what you love, etc. But that’s the risk of a public forum. There’s no guarantee the public has any idea on how to ask meaningful questions.

Moderators should, and that’s another frequent issue from this year. If you watch, for example, the Telltale panel on interactive storytelling, it was mostly a rehash of their franchises and recent headlines in the news. Moderator Malik Forte either wasn’t allowed or didn’t decide to pursue more impactful threads, instead opting to fill minutes with praise for the company.

GTFO: Get the F% Out

The entire event actually contained and somewhat culminated in a microcosmic representation of the industry as a whole. GTFO: Get The F% Out, a documentary about women in gaming, premiered this weekend as part of Film. There was a Q&A about the making of the film for Gaming. It touched on some of the same issues as an earlier panel about women finding success in games.

Both had glancing hits on the topic of Gamergate, though they mostly focused on personal experience and a desire to not put words in other people’s mouths. While not the most insightful or deep talks on the subject (surely it can’t be easy talking about such personal and vulnerable issues in a public setting), it was a sign of support and progress.

Then the expo was capped off by the SXSW Gaming Awards, which—through no fault of any one person in particular—devolved into a debacle of pregaming unruliness and ruthless enthusiasm. It’s not that the crowd lacked refinement or an appreciation for the performance and orchestration before them, but it certainly was a willingness to put their desire to simple be known ahead of it.

SXSW Gaming Awards 2015

And what more has the industry shown us to be true in the last thirty years than people wanting to be known? From the entire medium gaining respect to women and minorities receiving recognition to the bullheaded jackasses reminding everyone that white and male privilege still exist, it’s been a multibillion-dollar conglomeration of developers, artists, and players proving that everyone just wants to be heard.

As panelists meander across topics and fans use microphones to espouse their affections and audiences roar up in the face of hosts and cameras and the wooden struts of the show groan under its immense growth, can you even hear the voices in the din? Perhaps it’s far too deafening.

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SXSW Gaming Awards 2015: Attempting Forward

SXSW Gaming Awards 2015: Attempting Forward

Mark has really floppy hands,” I think to myself as I watch Mark Fischbach—better known as Markiplier to his nearly seven million subscribers—conducts the crowd to rising and falling applause, a mass at the bottom of the Moody Theater in Downtown Austin, TX that appears to be comprised of at least four million of his following.

And that, somehow, was almost the most noteworthy thing I could take away from the SXSW Gaming Awards this year. It wasn’t like last year where there were obvious faults with the maiden voyage of the award show. Instead, this was just a perfectly adequate display of what direction this redheaded stepchild of SXSW would like to go.

Improvements were had all around. Not that Justine Ezarik and Smosh were terrible last year but either they lacked the material or the chemistry to successfully pilot the show to a smooth landing. This year swapped out the three-person-duo (Ian Hecox and Anthony Padilla were basically one person with their bits) with Janet Varney and the aforementioned Fischbach.

SXSW Gaming Awards 2015

Varney, best known for her role as Korra in The Legend of Korra, bantered and weathered the storm of the Markiplier horde as well as anyone possibly could. And Fischbach, who makes a career of flying by the seat of his pants with his mouth paving the way, has ample personality to spare. I don’t know if the teleprompter told them to futz around after each award, but it felt pretty natural. Painless, even.

There was an almost obligatory musical performance by a video game cover band (Critical Hit in this case). Their performances were perfectly able to elicit mixed moments of surprise and nostalgia as they added the bare minimum of theatrical flair and a heavy dose of orchestral flavor to Tetris and Halo‘s theme songs, but nothing in from the list of nominees like the Oscars spews out each year.

Of course there were hiccups: mismatched name placards to nominee B-roll, erratic trophy delivery, and hell, I’m pretty sure they didn’t even show Dragon Age: Inquisition during the Game of the Year segment even though it won the award. That, however, is mostly inconsequential.

Dragon Age: Inquisition

All of that is material to the growth of the show, sure, but only just. It combines to a hand-wavy sort of notion of “hey, we’re growing up!” But the problem is that it really hasn’t. The hosts mostly avoided the heavy-handed, pandering jokes of Spike’s Video Game Awards shows of the past, but hitting the bar for decency doesn’t necessarily count as growth.

When you look at the actual awards dished out, there’s promise. The choice for winners and nominees is part of it. Unlike Geoff Keighley’s The Game Awards in December, there is no specific category for indie games; instead, SXSW Gaming Awards puts indie, triple-A, and everything in between in the same bucket and everyone votes.

Nidhogg sits right alongside Titanfall in Excellence in Gameplay; The Vanishing of Ethan Carter goes next to Far Cry 4 in Excellence in Visual Achievement; and indie games absolutely ran train on Excellence in Art. This is a genuine sign of getting with the times, that the divide between what we traditionally consider indie and big budget is becoming harder and harder to define and forcing us to consider if maintaining the facade is even worth it.

SXSW Gaming Awards

But consider also the categories we’re given. As slight as it might seem in literal differences, the contrast is remarkable. There was an award for Tabletop Game of the Year as well as Excellence in Convergence, an award designed specifically for games that bridge the gap between other mediums and forms of entertainment.

This led into Most Valuable Online Channel, an award recognizing (admitting?) that half of the game industry is now watching other people play them. Or maybe not even that. Of the five nominees, only TotalBiscuit comes close to an analytical slant of video games. The majority of the other four are comprised of making funny faces, yelling at “bad” games, and just generally people being personalities rather than people talking about video games.

That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. We’ve seen that personality is becoming a bigger and bigger component of what people value in opinions. The thing is that so rarely are opinions expressed in an actionable way in these YouTubers like Rooster Teeth and Smosh Games. One of the featured videos for TheSyndicateProject, in fact, is Tom “Syndicate” Cassell eating a ghost pepper.

TheSyndicateProject

So this brings into question what direction is SXSW’s gaming awards actually facing. Is it towards some framework of integrating the current state of the gaming union like crowdfunding and DLC awards and leveling the indie/triple-A segregation? Or is it moving towards appealing to the hooting gaggles of fanboys and YouTuber stalkers?

This is the same impasse faced by film award shows like the Oscars. It should be craftsmen and women recognizing the accomplishments of each other during the preceding year, which is, at the most base and fundamental level, terrible television, but they still televise it every time. The show has to make a decision to move towards assuaging the audience at home or the people that spend their lives thinking about acting techniques and thematic coloring in cinematography.

The SXSW Gaming Awards is trying to move forward. The problem is it’s trying to move forward in two different directions. Or at least that’s what it’s going to be soon enough. The people that show up are the ones that yell at Fischbach in the middle of a show, not the ones that even win the awards. (From one of acceptance speeches: “I didn’t touch a single line of code but thank you.”) But are those the people that you want to keep? Neither one is wrong, but it’s a choice that will have to be made eventually.

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The Binge

The Binge

It’s the new paradigm. That’s what they say, anyways. The pundits and critics that talk about the success of Netflix’s original programming, that is. They praise Arrested Development‘s comeback season built around the idea of binge-watching, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.

Each episode was never made to be consumed on its own and left to stand apart. No individual slice of the online-only season was structured to be something you would watch on its own on a weekly basis, talked about around a water cooler, and then mulled over in the hours leading up to the next piece.

Instead, they were always made to be slammed down the throat all at once, or at least as rapidly and mercilessly as possible. It needed a pace where the complex layers would be retained all at once so the jokes were set up and capitalized across episodes. It’s a format that could only exist and succeed in this future of online streaming.

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

It’s something that is also worth considering as Netflix’s original programming only picks up. Just two weeks ago we saw the much hyped premiere of the third season of House of Cards and last week was the series premiere of the Tina Fey-led, Ellie Kemper-starring Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

This includes five other wholly original series, a handful of continuations, and a nigh deluge of comedy specials, though that’s necessarily material to this particular discussion. And that’s not including the 34 upcoming series (among which are Daredevil, The Legend of Zelda, and Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp).

And you can absolutely bet that all of those shows are going to buy into the flowing narrative and comedic and dramatic styles of the binge-watch. While not necessarily easier to write out such things in a protracted fashion, it is much more attractive to the writer. The idea of encapsulating self-contained stories in bottles while stacking them against other cohesive tales is, at times, restricting.

House of Cards

But the why is quite so important right now, if not just because the reasons can take many forms for many different creators and writers. (House of Cards creator Beau Willimon even advises against it for season three.) It’s far more interesting to look at what it does to both the show and the viewer, the most obvious of which is ditch a universal timetable for everyone that actively working on the program.

When you were “caught up” with a show on TV like The Office or Parks and Recreation, you could guarantee that no one except Amy Poehler and Miss Cleo knew more about it than you. And if you weren’t quite there, you could exist on a very obvious gradient. One week back? Two weeks back? Now, there is only done and not done.

The dichotomy is tricky because you don’t make temporal associations with plot lines. Instead, now it’s a singular flow, a dripping tap of story and characters that you can’t turn off until it’s over. You don’t make ongoing analyses of individual episodes or confer with others about theories and speculation but instead you wrap up at the end to talk big picture.

Arrested Development

Nuance is lost in criticism. It’s an odd turn because nuance is much more manageable in this binge structure, but only from one end of the road. The small details and big swings go into your brain but come out only as a compacted, abstracted representation of the overall arc.

This also means that one of the bigger contributions an entirely connected culture has made is thrown out the window. Instead of writers responding to rising and falling ratings and maybe some fans willing to send letters and emails, they would get immediate feedback on a weekly basis of each episode through Twitter and Facebook and whatnot.

They can integrate this massively distributed and normalized system of show notes quickly. This can be dangerous, but it’s also nice to know feedback is valued. But this very obviously isn’t how Netflix operates when it throws up an entire season’s order up on a single day. (It’s even interesting that we still call them seasons when it’s more like a switch being flipped.) Its showrunners don’t even get a midseason break to reassess the current state of the show.

Orange is the New Black

Filmmakers might find this structure more familiar than their television counterparts. They create their movies in a vacuum, betting against their own and their trusted circle’s opinions on their product before letting it fly free. And whether it keeps flying or crashes into the ground is mostly a singularly celebratory or catastrophic event: opening weekend.

If you remember, a whopping two percent binged all 649 minutes of season two of House of Cards last year in the first 72 hours of its release. That would have been 668,000 people back then at 33.4 millions subscribers. Then, five months later, they hit 50 million and topped off at 57.4 million by the end of the year.

Assuming that two percent figure merely held strong and didn’t increase (which it most likely did), that would mean 1,148,000 people binge-watched House of Cards this season. There is only a growing contingent of people who buy into the binge-watching strategy. It’s a discussion held many times before with even compelling and psychological arguments for it, but it’s something still worth thinking about. Are the things we lose worth the things we gain?

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House of Cards Season 3 Review: Bang and Whimper

House of Cards Season 3

Ignoring the 10-episode leak early last month, Netflix dumped the entirety of the third season of what is becoming their flagship creation House of Cards. Picking up directly after the confusingly happy/sad conclusion to the second season, we catch up with the Underwoods in the White House. Over the course of 13 episodes, though, the dramatic value of their success is proving problematic.

First off, there are spoilers for the first two seasons of the show contained in this review. Second, there are spoilers for the third season as well because you can’t very well talk critically about the end of it without talking about the beginning and everything else in between. Third, the first episode opens exactly how you’d want it to: Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood looking into the camera and being a supreme hardass.

Unfortunately, after that, it…slows. It doesn’t meander, necessarily, because it focuses very intently on one particular aspect of the show that has gone unmined thus far, which is to say we find out Michael Kelly’s Doug Stamper, Underwood’s fixer man, is still alive and has undergone physical rehab.

It’s an interesting subject to broach. For the past two seasons, all we’ve seen of Stamper is the fact he just makes problems go away. Despite his alcoholism and debilitating sense of professional loyalty at the expense of personal growth, he is (mostly) impervious to fault. Even his stumbles across the previous 26 episodes were quickly remedied through interesting and engaging complications.

Stamper, in fact, consumes roughly half of the entire third season, exploring what happens to a man who identifies himself by his job loses his drive. More than that, he loses the faculty to regain his place with an obvious physical handicap as well as a newly minted mental anguish. That, in itself, is a gripping concept to probe.

By the end, though, there fails to be any significance to this deviance from the Underwood narrative track. When the curtain falls on the third season, Stamper is back to where he was when we first met him. That complication is thrown out the window, which might very well be a commentary on innate individual nature but comes across as disappointing. We want that half of that season to mean something.

House of Cards

It’s kind of the problem with all of the third season. The dramatic impetus throughout is somewhat lacking, although for a variety of reasons. There’s no singular aspect or folly that drags the entire show down, but when you add it up, you have a stack of issues that certainly makes it a lesser season.

For instance, Frank and Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood have finally made it to the White House. They are the most powerful couple in the world. Their collective sociopathy has been vindicated. But now what? There are absolutely complications presented throughout, but none of it is as inherently interesting as their mad scramble to the top.

Moreover, the obstacles that crop up have a tendency to border on the insane. For the longest time, we clung on to this runaway train because it was a series of mad moves in a world of mad people. But now that we have perspective on the presidential proscenium, Frank’s decisions to basically rob FEMA or his encounters with a Bond-ian villain dressed up as the Russian president (played coolly and maniacally by Lars Mikkelsen) are much harder to swallow. The layers brought on by video game critic Thomas Yates (Paul Sparks), however, is rather compelling.

House of Cards

It’s a very strange framework presented in this season. It’s very much an effect of the Netflix binge format (I’ll have more to say on that in another piece), but given all the things that happen in this season, they feel justified as a batch of 13 episodes. On the other hand, the overall arc of intertwining plots and eventual cliffhanger feel like something that could have been easily been compacted into two or three episodes and greatly benefited from the truncation.

Such criticism, though, overshadows the greatest assets of the series, which are the actors. Spacey is still as deliciously dark as he’s ever been, effortlessly switching between the charming and affable President of the United States and the ruthless, bloodied, and insatiably hungry madman we’ve come to be terrifyingly enchanted with.

Then there’s Wright as Claire, an equally complex character, but presented in an infinitely more subtle light. Whereas Spacey’s is overwhelming and overbearing in his relentless pursuit, Wright’s subtlety and elegance betray her commensurate desires of not just getting it all but taking it all.

House of Cards

Part of their values as actors in presenting these delectable characters is their lines, and that can be most greatly attributed to show creator and head writer Beau Willimon. Consider this chilling line: “Do you know what I like about people? They stack so well.” Or this most perfectly assertive one: “The President is like a lone tree in an empty field. He leans whichever way the wind is blowing.”

Those are from Willimon, and you can almost tell without reading the credits when he is credited as the writer in any given episode. There is simply a more pervasive simple confidence and potency to his words that create and destroy characters in swift turns with an incredible economy of words.

And this is still a beautiful show (Wright even directed a few episodes), albeit with some overly on-the-nose visual metaphors. But the beauty and immediate engagement of saucy lines delivered by powerful actors can only do so much to patch up the cracks and holes of a troubled narrative. It’s still engaging but the physicality—the steely, crushing grip of past seasons—has faded. Worth watching, but do temper your expectations.

House of Cards

+ Topnotch acting all around
+ Compelling writing
+ Visually still a treat
– Mad dash feeling has evaporated
– Dramatic value has similarly diminished

Final Score: 7 out of 10

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