Tag Archives: BioShock Infinite

Something Make-Believe

Something Make-Believe

It’s pandering. To believe that no one would mind the ineffectual choices laid before them is almost insulting. To think that such cursory options are satisfactory is laughable. Living this way is enough to make one indignant, boiling over like a pot of unsalted pasta.

That, of course, is an overreaction. It’s an obscene knee-jerk to a rather inconsequential thing: choices in a linear video game. I say inconsequential because in pretty much any narrative game (or “digital media experience,” to broaden the scope and rope in some buzzword bullsh—err, fun times), the outcome is always predetermined. There may be multiple endings, but they are set in stone, like dropping a ball into a pachinko machine.

Those concrete possibilities are exactly what got the Mass Effect in such deep trouble. Three large, expansive, and mostly high quality games and we got a three-by-three, color-coordinated chart of nine possible outcomes. I still hold that the creative authorship is the key in that debacle, but I also agree the expectations—realistic or not—were absolutely set forth by the developers to believe or hope for something more…custom.

Mass Effect 3

Sometimes games lean into that, though. The ending of The Last of Us (and the game as a whole) works as commentary on choice. BioShock Infinite is a bit more deliberate in that, utilizing it as a theme throughout its runtime, but the result is largely the same. And Spec Ops: The Line actually hangs wholly on the idea of agency. You end up contemplating what it means to make a choice in a video game, drawing metaphysical parallels and philosophical quandaries to real life choices.

But not every game can do that. For one, that is a pretty tough thing to pull off. Irrational Games and Naughty Dog are some of the best in the biz (or were the best in Irrational’s case). For two, that would get boring. Think about knowing precisely how and why a game is doing what it’s doing every single time. Consider how you feel knowing that every Hollywood comedy has to go through the fun -> crisis -> redemption loop. You slog through that middle part to get back to the laughs because you just know how that’s how it works.

The choices that I find more problematic are the ones that seem most superficial. Infamous: Second Son made me think about this when it gave me four options just before protagonist Delsin Rowe was about to deface a sizable DUP-controlled (the enemy organization) outpost. And I just had to wonder: why?

Infamous: Second Son

Besides the fact that the interface for it was not obvious at all despite taking up the entire screen (same goes for vest selection in the menus), it grinds the entire thing to a halt. And to do what? Choose between three mediocre graffiti textures and one good one? Paradox of Choice is a fine concept to implement, but when the act of choosing is more or less meaningless, the paradox becomes an annoyance of choice.

Not once when I saw that spray painted embellishment out in the wild again did I think, “Hey, that was something I chose!” It just got logged into my brain as a thing that exists in Delsin’s world, not a conduit (ha!) through which my agency as a player is portrayed in the game. I can’t tell if Sucker Punch intended it to be a point of pride in toppling part of the regime or a highlight that a user can point to and excitedly say that they did that, but nothing close to either of those happened.

I likened it during a conversation with another games journalist to the shaping mechanic in Shaun White Skateboarding. In that game, you can utilize your manifested creativity and freedom from oppression (the story got really weird) to extended real rails and ramps into Green Lantern-esque constructs of pure imagination. This allows you to really jack up your score and liberating influence in the drab, totalitarian world.

Shaun White Skateboarding

The problem is that every rail and ramp shaping sequence has a predefined ending just as they have a beginning. The ability to express your athletic creativity is actually more like a platforming puzzle that has one very obvious, not very fun solution. But the expectation to create as freely as you desire, free from the evil Ministry, is impressed upon you by the game. And that faux choice becomes a bit insulting.

Granted, Second Son‘s graffiti is a real smattering of options with discrete outcomes, but the sensation is the comparable bit: it’s grating. It’s wearisome. Aside from the world customization in Second Son, it purportedly has the legacy feature of a karmic dichotomy, though, as with the case the game picking a canonical ending anyways, your choices are sullied, made worthless.

That is where it becomes just enough to pick at your nerves and make you want to say something. It asks you go forth and give something of yourself, to deviate from a line drawn from point A to B, and then takes it, crumples it up, and throws it in the trash. At least you can choose to just stop playing, I guess.

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A Tad Bit Stale

A Tad Bit Stale

Open world games are tough. No, wait, hold on: open world games are tough to make. There we go. The thing about giving the player a huge sandbox to play in is that you have to be able to both give enough tools for them to find their own fun but also give them reason to use them to even start searching. That’s a hard thing to do.

Obviously that’s not the only solution, but the games that work are more or less a variant of that. Even games that seem to be wholly constructed by mystery have a facet of poking and retreating, showing and luring. Miasmata, for example, is designed around the idea that all of the experiences the developers conceived from the get-go will be discovered as the player starts to succeed more and more while its overarching narrative mystery compels you to even try.

Part of that is because the exploration of the who, what, when, where, and why are all tied into the mechanics of the game. By simply interacting with the world, you get more answers, and thus your desire to continue interacting is sustained. It’s a brilliant web they’ve spun.

Miasmata

The other end of the spectrum is something like Grand Theft Auto V (or any of the GTAs, really), though it still fits into the mold. Especially since its transition into a 3D world, Rockstar has been filling its games with more and more real life activity analogs such as bowling, drinking, and eating, but the crux has always been driving.

And in a world where, true to its realistic inspiration, everything is severely interactable via driving into it at high speeds, that can be enough to keep interests high. The “tools,” so to speak, that Rockstar gives you are actually scenarios that you begin to recognize and are able to influence on an instinctual level. Each story mission generally involves a sizable set piece that introduces you to a new “thing” to add to your shenanigan repertoire.

The simple act of ramming a cop car in the middle of a high speed pursuit is the start of a branching tree of possibilities that could end up nearly anywhere. It’s that element of emergent gameplay that allows the relatively simple actions of driving and shooting (simple in a game, anyways) to be all you need to make a fake Los Angeles a factory for Michael Baysian fun.

Grand Theft Auto V

But that and Miasmata and many other open world games succeed because they are built around the idea that an open world serves the player best as a platform for discovery and asking “what if” and then finding out. There’s an inordinate amount of simply going from one place to another in a sandbox environment, and unless you like the idea of what could happen as you traverse the landscape, you probably like all that walking/driving/flying/whatever.

That is largely the failing of Infamous: Second Son. It’s a decent game that seems to be set in a largely disingenuous real world setting, but its open world—and, truth be told, those of its two predecessors—is troubled precisely because it fails to make you wonder what could happen as you leave one rooftop and dash over to another.

Almost as soon as you start the game and get through the introductory sequence where Delsin discovers his powers and gets into Seattle, Second Son shows you its entire hand. And if not then, within the next hour or two, it will. You see all of the ambient karmic events, all of the side quest types, and much of what Delsin himself can do.

Infamous: Second Son

Which wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if there was more to do with Delsin’s abilities. You can shoot dudes in ways you’ve shot them before but with different elemental effects and you can traverse the world. The latter has substantial differences between the powers, but the shooting always has the same effect: someone goes down and you might earn some karma along the way.

You can also hit guys with your chain, but that often has the same result. You see, there’s never a question of what might happen when you set out to reach another waypoint. You know you will see some drug dealers and a few quadcopters and you know how they always end up, so long as you don’t die.

Truthfully, the only thing holding the staleness of the rote actions embedded into Second Son is the fact that the act of doing those things is fundamentally entertaining. Zipping around the world is especially fun as you flash over walls and through fences and up vents, challenging yourself to never touching the ground and never stop moving.

Infamous: Second Son

And the engagement of battles is worthwhile, even if a bit tiring in their length (those boss battles needed to be at least half as long). Moving throughout the world at a breakneck pace but with the tight, confident handling that Sucker Punch is pretty well known for is incredibly satisfying.

Satisfying enough, in fact, to overcome the problem of being in an open world. Second Son falls into the trap of being right in the middle of that sandbox spectrum, never giving narrative impetus to interact with the world (though enough to continue the story missions) and never giving enough emergent value to make you just experiment.

It makes you wonder what would have happened if it had been designed much like BioShock Infinite, building open arenas into a mostly linear world. Granted, that would excise the much lauded traversal aspect of Second Son, but it would certainly give the taut controls a chance to shine. But then again, what ifs don’t do much for retrospect but to generate regret. What ifs in open worlds, on the other hand…

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The Year in Review: #5 BioShock Infinite

The Year in Review: #5 BioShock Infinite

There are just some absolutely classic spoilers in the world of entertainment. Even those born fresh, bearing mind availed of watching Star Wars, know that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father. They know what Rosebud really is and they know you probably shouldn’t eat Soylent Green. Hell, there’s even a shirt for it.

BioShock Infinite, however, is a rarity; it can’t be spoiled. I mean, sure, you can sum up what happens at the end, put into words the rational absurdity that happens, but it doesn’t take anything away from it. Having stumbled across bits and pieces of the immense conclusion to the game, my jaw was still on the floor by the time the credits rolled.

Knowing that Bruce Willis was dead the whole time and that Tyler Durden isn’t real robs you of half of the entire experience of watching both of those movies. Instead of witnessing the events unfold with virgin eyes, you skip right to the second stage of watching for the little touches that show you the truth: the flickering appearances, the people that talk to him, etc. You miss the “OH WHOA” moment because you already know.

BioShock Infinite

But the ending of BioShock Infinite has to be seen, has to be played. The culmination of your physical efforts land you square in a heated battle on the side of a giant mechanical monstrosity you thought you were going to have to fight. And then you almost do. And then something breaks.

And I don’t mean the little harmonica. I mean the world. I mean your brain. Even if someone told you that you ended up back in Rapture, the snap to the pane of a watery window is incredible. It’s a shock to the system, and as you step away, you realize you’ve been here. This room, in particular, was ingrained in your mind the moment you set foot in it in BioShock.

The lighthouses, though. Here’s the spoiler for that: “you see an infinite sea of infinite lighthouses under a sky of infinite stars.” Not quite the same, right? You need to see and walk through the piers of your own volition. You need to be able to gawk dumbfounded at your own pace. You need to make those choices because you need to slowly realize that they represent the fact that you aren’t making any choices at all.

BioShock Infinite

When you see more Bookers and Elizabeths walking around, doing the exact same thing, you understand that your actions, even under the epiphany of endless possibilities and universes, are always accounted for. The concepts of fate and free will are casually words in your head, but BioShock Infinite visualizes it for you in such a way that it makes the crushing sense of helplessness wholly inescapable.

That’s what makes BioShock Infinite so incredible. It envelops the past six years of ruminations on Rapture and stolen paradise. It folds in the stunning art direction and sound design. It stands upon the shoulders of unmatched voice acting and characterization. It is BioShock Infinite, my number five game of the year.

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In and Out of the Infinite

In and Out of the Infinite

Spoiler alert: this concerns the first episode of the Burial at Sea DLC for BioShock Infinite. Not only is it necessary to have gone through the main story of BioShock Infinite to play Burial at Sea, it’s also necessary for this discussion and most criticism to take place. So go play it if you haven’t, or resign yourself to ruining one of the better twists video games has to offer.

BioShock Infinite was a strange game in so many ways. Its designs were as grand as its story and eventual ending, but its execution often felt little. Every arena in which you did battle was expansive and often spread out over several floating buildings in eerily majestic but obviously broken Columbia, but they were also just that: battle arenas. Those had gone the way of Unreal Tournament and the like but Irrational Games saw fit to bring them back and flood them with high resolution enemies.

The plot similarly felt self-opposed. At every turn, it seemed determined to make it a selfishly small tale concerning multiple universes and multiple selves when the questions inspired by the woven mesh of timelines and possibilities lends itself to a broad and encompassing tale. Of course, the ending (and the heart) makes it all worth it, filling your subconscious with thoughts on nihilism until days later you just go “…WHOA” while you’re eating your cereal, but it is thematically inconsistent even in the context of the twist.

BioShock Infinite

The experience of actually playing the game to get through the story, though, is rather important. The duress pressed upon you as you try to sort out the mystery of untimely nosebleeds and strangely affable twins appearing out of thing air is part of the revelation at the end: all that effort doesn’t matter. You are a single thread, a strand already pulled and unraveled to its end, as an infinite number of similar threads also come loose.

It makes the lesson stick, the notion that you are the both the beginning and ending to an entire story, but you are still nothing more than a lone, indecipherable component to the whole of the universe. Your actions mean so much to you, but on the grand scale, you are inconsequential. (Also, deal with it.)

This is part of the greatest strength and weakness of the Burial at Sea DLC. In it, you play once again as Booker DeWitt, except now you are a private investigator in the underwater utopia of Rapture. With a decidedly noir flair, a femme fatale’d version of Elizabeth comes into your office one day and asks for your help to find a girl named Sally.

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 1

The kicker, however, is that this is the Rapture before it falls. This inciting incident takes place on December 31, 1958, mere hours before the waterlogged city becomes the dark, hellish nightmare filled with Splicers and Big Daddies that you’re familiar with. And this is the first instance of Booker and Elizabeth meeting in this particular universe, so you get to see two familiar faces meet two different versions of each other.

It is haunting. It is chilling. Even more than walking through the unnerving, twisted, spotless introduction to Columbia at the beginning of BioShock Infinite, exploring Rapture before its self-determined destruction is disturbing. You recognize bits and pieces of a machine you only knew as a rusted and infested rotting at the bottom of the ocean. You know what awaits, and how terrible it is. Knowledge of the city’s history lends itself to overwhelming malaise and it’s just fantastic.

And just like the beginning of BioShock Infinite, it is beautiful and perhaps the best part of the entire game. Exploring this new world and unearthing the answers and accompanying questions are what made that prologue so great. (Gone Home, an absolutely stellar piece of digital entertainment, was all about this process and managed to tell a simultaneously heartbreaking and fulfilling tale of growing up and learning.)

BioShock Infinite: Burial at Sea Episode 1

The difference here, though, is that we’ve already gone through the ending of the main game as we play through this DLC. We know the surprise at the end, the ultimate truth to our existence in this reality of parallel lives and intersecting existences: it’s all moot.

Nothing we do matters. Or rather, everything we do is predetermined, every choice a variable in an infinitely expanding table of calculated inputs and outputs. At every junction of existence, a permutation exists where you go down a different path. Instead of scrambling your eggs, you fry them. Instead of Booker agreeing to help Elizabeth, he declines. Our experience with BioShock Infinite makes the nature of stories (that is predetermined) all too apparent.

It all lends a fruitless air to the short but taut three-hour downloadable piece of gaming. Curiosity pushes us to see exactly how each pillar of Rapture crumbles into the manic abyss, but experience repels us from playing just another bit role in a script written long ago. It’s a terrible balance to play with, trying to make anything smaller than a universal truth unveiled just as compelling. But sometimes strength and weakness are the same thing.

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Going in Fresh

Going in Fresh

It’s August, so you know what that means: it’s time for the XBLA Summer of Arcade. Or Winter of Arcade for you hemispherically challenged. Every summer since 2008, Microsoft has thrown out onto XBLA a select handful of games as part of a summer promotion for downloadable titles and indie developers. It’s obvious they’re making some solid money out of the feature (otherwise they would have stopped it a long time ago), but the sentiment is appreciated either way.

Since the first Summer of Arcade lineup, we’ve seen at least one Game of the Year contender emerge out of each batch alongside several other topnotch titles. First there was Jonathan Blow’s seminal Braid, perhaps the first widely played and recognized indie game of the modern gaming era, which cropped up with Bionic Command Rearmed, Castle Crashers, and Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2. 2009 saw the absolutely incredible Shadow Complex get backed up by ‘Splosion Man (and the inception of the Donuts Song) and Trials HD.

Then the overall level kind of dipped a bit. Limbo was obviously a great game but the rest were acceptably playable but forgettable fare. The same goes for Bastion in 2011. Last year, while laden with games with interesting ideas like Hybrid and Wreckateer, bore only Dust: An Elysian Tail as anything of long term worth. So you can hopefully understand when my expectations for this year’s Summer of Arcade were tempered.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Flashback looks like a rather straightforward remake. Charlie Murder appears to be a charming brawler with some great wrinkles to the formula but not much more (it actually turned out to be rather good). And Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was coming out of Starbreeze Studios. This was a fairly reputable developer known for sleeper hits like The Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness, and Syndicate, so how were they going to bridge the gap to an indie puzzle game?

I had no idea, and I’m not sure I was all that interested in finding out. And for the most part, aside from reading about the Summer of Arcade lineup a while ago, I’d forgotten it ever existed. In fact, “forgotten” may be too kind for something I barely acknowledged in the first place. Harsh words, I know, but the marketing behind the game wasn’t doing it any favors either.

And then the reviews came out. And the tweets. And word of mouth began to spread: “you need to play this game.” Huh? Where was this coming from? I had no idea, but some select things that Polygon’s Justin McElroy said really stuck out to me. He’d been teasing this as one of the best games he’s played all year, but withheld the name due to embargoes. My mind raced around, thinking about what he could be talking about. Sure not Saints Row IV; we already know a full month before its release that that’s a good game. Beatbuddy: Tale of the Guardian might be it, but the likelihood of that, as much as I liked it back at PAX East, being one of McElroy’s favorite games seemed pretty slim.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

So when his tweet for his review of Brothers said to not read it, I assumed it was really bad. But he followed it with “Brothers is one of the best games of the year, and you should go in fresh as you can.” And then “This is my reminder that you have to buy Brothers now, but save the reviews till after you play it, I implore you.” And finally “On the one hand, it’s the kind of game where discovery is half the fun, so going in as fresh as possible is ideal.”

Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker jumped on the train. So did Penny Arcade’s Gabe. A ton of people also started comparing it to thatgamecompany’s Journey. At this point, not reading the reviews was like trying to stop myself from jumping into a pool after wandering a desert for a week. But I also knew the value of going into a game as fresh as possible, knowing as little as possible.

Journey, actually, is a fine example of this. I played this game wholeheartedly under the guise of it simply being another wonderfully artsy little title from thatgamecompany and its creative director Jenova Chen. I figured it might be just like Flower: an abstract, colorful expression of a nebulous tale that serves as a backdrop for a soothing product of creativity and momentous bliss. All of that is true for Journey, but I didn’t expect it to build in such a way that told a tale of happy curiosity crushed by unbelievable heartbreak only to be uplifted once again by unimaginable ecstasy. It acted as a conduit to building my own emergent relationship with a world and a friend within a purely artificial and constructed framework.

Journey

I think this worked because I didn’t know much at all going into it. I expected great things due to the studio’s pedigree, but I wasn’t at all aware of where the game itself would be going. I allowed myself to be taken unaware, to be hoodwinked by a game with a pretty face and a flashy smile. A friend of mine who pretty much has the exact same taste in games as I do read everything there was to read about Journey that didn’t contain a spoiler before playing the game. He knew how it worked to find another player and the tricks people would use to get around places and use chirping shorthand to communicate. He knew the tone of the mysterious game and its obtuse but pointed story of struggle and victory. He knew too much.

He found it to be an okay game.

Sometimes it’s not just about expectations, though. Sometimes it’s about filling in blanks that shouldn’t be filled in by you but by the game. That sounds obvious, but consider BioShock Infinite. In any amount of marketing consumption, even if you just happen to walk past a bus stop with a banner ad across the back of it, you’ll see the important bits: a man, a woman, and the sky. He’s going to rescue her. Watch any teasers or trailers—old or new—and you know why he has to find her and how much the world is willing to stop you. Read anything about the game and you know what she’s capable of.

Basically, simply by existing within or near this industry, you take all of the air out of the who, what, when, where, and why sails when the first hour or so of the game is nothing but raising them to catch the right breeze. If you didn’t know what kind of game you were getting yourself into, the switch from a thoughtful first-person exploration of a lighthouse that suddenly shoots up into a heavenly world of clouds and Stepford Wives-ish inhabitants would be insane. And then the immediate contrast with the very violent face-shredding at the raffle would be all the more poignant, much like the first moment of violence in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive.

BioShock Infinite

Then, as you explore the tower at Monument Island, so many questions come up. What in the world have they been experimenting on all these years? What have they been observing? A child? No, surely by now this person would be grown up by now. But what takes away the humanity of a person and turns them into a “specimen” to be studied? Is this quarantine because of something intrinsic to the subject or because of what they did to it? So many questions to be asked and connections to be made simply because you didn’t know. But you do know, so instead you go in wondering where the hell Elizabeth is and why did it take so long to get here from the rocket chair to Weirdsville Station.

I made a promise to myself back in 2009. I saw Duncan Jones’ Moon after the trailers intrigued me, but the entire ordeal was almost wholly unwound simply because I knew its premise. This followed where Terminator Salvation was actually ruined in its entirety because every bit of marketing let you know that Sam Worthington’s character was, in fact, a machine instead of taking the smart move and letting us figure it out along the way. (That movie, though, had plenty of other problems besides that, so whatever.)

I promised myself to stop watching or reading things for games and movies that I’m excited for. It’s hard given the job I have where keeping up with the news and marketing of games and studios is all I have to go on, and where half of what I do involves playing games before they’re released, but it’s a promise I made to make sure I keep my experience just as the creator intended: fresh. So I won’t read anything about Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons until after I play it. I won’t watch Supergiant Games’ trailer for Transistor more than I already have. I won’t ruin these games for myself.

Ignorance, after all, is bliss. But actually I will watch the Transistor trailer one more time because hot damn that song.

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Lengthy Merit

Lengthy Merit

Size matters, or something like that. In this particular case, we’re talking about things of the entertainment industry: video games, movies, books, etc. But we don’t necessarily tie merit directly to length because, as we’ve learned over the years, duration has nothing to do with quality. A Pixar short film like Paperman has the ability to impact a viewer just as hard as Gone with the Wind. That’s because they both attempt to play to their strengths. Paperman goes along to the tune of brevity so much better; it tells a short, concise tale of a man finding and losing and desperately looking for again a fleeting love. Gone with the Wind takes its time to span over a decade, something it can afford to do with such a long running time.

It’s to the point where constructing narratives for either kind of film completely detaches from conventional film making, mainly to the conclusion that there is no such thing as conventional film making. Only in medium are short films and long, three-hour epics similar, but spinning up a proper story takes time to account for the strengths and weaknesses of their particular delivery methods. Ambiguity, for instance, can be found in heavy quantities in a lot more short films than in long-winded historical dramas.

With such a disparity in ability in a single facet of multimedia entertainment, it becomes increasingly strange that folks would want to directly correlate video games to films (or books or television). Interactivity and ludic engagement separate our industry from the others by a wide, incomparable chasm, so the unending search for a Citizen Kane or Roger Ebert of video games seems already ridiculous. I get why those questions and comparisons exist; these are tent-pole figures in film that represent the successful traversal of a rocky path to legitimacy, so it would make sense to want to pave a similar road for and with video games.

Citizen Kane

But that is disregarding much of what makes our industry so special. You can read about much more from much more insightful folk than myself by checking out what Nathan Grayson over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun and John Teti of Gameological have to say on the matter (both of which I point to in the last Things to Read), but there’s one specific aspect they fail to mention: the length of games.

Outmatched perhaps only by novels and particularly lengthy jazz odyssey albums, video games have the greatest potential to hold your attention for the greatest amount of time. RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim can top out at over 100 hours while more linear action-adventure games like Tomb Raider or BioShock Infinite can go on for 15 or so hours, orders of magnitude longer than the average film or episode of Gilmore Girls.

That’s because between the bits of storytelling, we often have discrete chunks of gameplay. These are moments where the narrative doesn’t even really have to develop other than getting you from one place to another. All those times where a movie would fade to black or a book would start a new chapter, we play through those parts. We are actually engage in the act of chasing a car or walking from room to room in a haunted mansion. Interactivity weaves in with non-interactivity and, in effect, pushes the duration of a game well beyond static narratives.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

This has the additional consequence of making slow-to-develop stories much more bearable. With proper pacing, you can really milk moments of little to no consequence simply because they need to be there. In movies, almost every line and action written into a screenplay has the express purpose of moving the story along. They operate on a much slimmer, tighter economy of time and words.

Video games have the privilege of being played at leisure and their quality merits continued play (unlike films, which you must go through all in one sitting if you’re in a movie theater). Because of this, they much more freely allow things to be missed for the sake of what feels like spontaneity despite the fact that almost everything is already predetermined. Take, for example, BioShock Infinite. Wandering around with Elizabeth in tow allows her to comment on things around you and for Booker to interact with her. In these moments, pieces of those characters begin to fill in, but they’re pieces that don’t necessarily contribute directly to the overall story. They simply flesh out these two people for the player, and because doing so was your choice, make their growth wholly more personal.

And they happen on such a small scale. With a story stretched and fortified from two hours in a theater to 15 hours on your couch, you can fit in a lot more of these tiny details. In the early moments of The Last of Us when Joel, Ellie, and Tess are making their way to the Capitol Building, the trio has to cross across some rooftops. As they move forward, Joel lingers slightly and checks his watch as the two climb across a spanning ladder.

The Last of Us

It’s a tiny, infinitesimal thing that would not have been communicated as subtly or effortlessly in any other medium. A book would have to mention specifically that Joel did that, hitting too hard on the nose that he views this as just another job. A movie wouldn’t have had time to linger for such a deep puddle of seconds to give that moment the time it needed. Joel needs to acknowledge Tess and Ellie, then push it out of his head, then check his watch, and finally move across the rooftop. There’s one too many actions for something with a time limit.

The entire ending to Red Dead Redemption is an excellent example of this. The average playtime is about 30+ hours while the minimum, critical path is something like 20 hours. The ending, after John is back on the farm, is over an hour of some of the most incredibly mundane, mind-numbing stuff you’ll ever play. You look for a drunk, you rope some horses, you herd some cattle, and you shoot some crows. I guess things get kind of fun with Jack since you get to kill some more deadly animals, but those are little drips of excitement in an IV full of tedium.

There is, however, a point. That was the life John had been seeking all along. He was back with his family, and instead of defending wagons from land pirates or planting bombs on a bridge or getting involved in a war in Mexico, all he has to worry about is his family and his farm. We visit MacFarlane Ranch and have a conversation with Bonnie that puts the nail in the coffin of his old life. It’s simple, just as John’s new life.

Red Dead Redemption

And then everything goes to shit when those government dicks come back to clean up loose ends. It’s made all the more poignant because we’d just spent the past couple of hours doing absolutely nothing but being the down-to-earth, not-exciting farmer John and his wife wanted him to be. The contrast is so shocking, that it’s almost hard to believe that it’s happening. But the inevitable, sacrificial conclusion is one that slowly dawns on us as we play it out, and its emotional impact is made all the more severe because of the monotony we’d just gone through.

That wouldn’t have been possible in pretty much any other medium. A film can’t break its denouement into three more acts with its own climax and resolution (Red Dead Redemption‘s epilogue was a mighty fine resolution) because it simply can’t afford the time. The time on the farm was its own opener and inciting action for the events that followed, showing off how much time it had to play with, almost rubbing it in our faces. The incredible amount of time we’ve afforded the game to take and shape and mold for our pleasure allowed Rockstar the ability to craft moments like that and payoffs like that.

Movies and books don’t really get multiple chances to reinvigorate a story in the middle of telling its ending. Can you imagine if Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone‘s final chapters just before he went down the trapdoor were nothing more than Harry sleeping and studying and eating? We got through that in the beginning because it was all new and meeting people and learning things were exciting. But reading words about a boy—even a wizard boy—sitting through hours of class doesn’t fly. We don’t come to appreciate the tedium; we come to hate the author. And movies simply don’t get the time to even try that unless the entire film was about said tedium. They have to pick and choose while video games can try it all.

Red Dead Redemption

That’s part of being a video game. The format allows for earning time with the player. Whereas long and short films play to strengths determined by their length, video games are in a constant state of give and take with the player in terms of controlling the story and giving control to the gamer. That allows for making time for watching Elizabeth look through a rack of posters or having Joel glance at his watch or catching horses as John. We have time for those little, boring, exciting, gigantic, strange things. We just have to earn it.

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The New Antihero

The New Antihero

Pop culture goes through cycles. It’s called the zeitgeist for a reason; nothing remains the same forever. Tastes and conventions and cultural influences change on an almost regular basis. Fads come and go in fashion, children’s toys, and, somewhat surprisingly, narratives. The stories that people tell are very much informed by the world they live in because those, in some way or another, are the ones that people want to hear. They may not know it, but the things people desire feed back into the things that are given to them through art and agriculture and so much more.

The clearest example is the almost immediate success of Captain America as a brand new comic book property back in 1941. It was a year before the attack on Pearl Harbor but a year after the war started, so when the first issue landed on store shelves and showed Cap socking ol’ Adolf in the jaw, selling one million copies almost seemed inevitable. It was what the people wanted, so that’s what they got.

It’s not always so obvious, though, what sort of influences current national and world events have on the movies and books we watch and read, but they’re still there. It’s not always going to be as blatant as Rolland Emmerich making a movie called 2012 that’s about the impending 2012 phenomenon; sometimes it’ll be as subtle as the types of heroes being portrayed to us. Some of the most popular movies in the past decade have featured antiheroes because we as a country feel very antihero-ish. “Morally dubious” could sum up the entirety of the United States’ foreign policy since the start of the Iraq War, and the whole world seemed to follow suit in nuclear threats and deterrent flexing, energy and population bargaining, and so on and so forth.

2012

Watching stories similar to our own find resolution was comforting. It inspired to believe that a happy end was possible, even if it wasn’t in the same sense as the new king and queen living happily ever after or the hero riding off into the sunset with his recently rescued damsel in distress by his side. So we embraced our glut of antiheroes in our movies and television shows.

Video games followed suit. True enough, the industry has always had its fair share of Byronic heroes, but it may have all culminated in this past year. Two of the largest and most respected developers put out two of the biggest and most well-received titles this year, and they both feature antiheroes. (They’re also both just big ol’ escort missions, but that’s a topic for another time.) Irrational Games put out BioShock Infinite with protagonist Booker DeWitt as a former Pinkerton whose hands are caked in an ivory crimson blood and lingering in puddles of gambling debt and addiction. Naughty Dog just recently released The Last of Us, a game that features a man named Joel who tells a little 14-year-old girl to let of her morals or die and seems to come from a life bent on putting that axiom to good use.

SPOILER WARNING: I won’t go into plot specifics, but there will be light spoilers for The Last of Us (I figure BioShock Infinite has been out long enough to where spoilers don’t matter) regarding Joel’s characterization and personal traits. So if you consider those to be precious enough to the story—and they kind of are—maybe return to this at a later date.

BioShock Infinite

With Booker, you get everything you need to know about him from the first story impetus: “Bring us the girl, wipe away the debt.” Well, heroes don’t 1) “bring” people to ominous pronouns but rather rescue them from said clutches, and 2) they don’t have debt. Traditional heroes are upstanding, morally right, and shining examples of what it means to be a good person. Just based on a note we find on a door to a lighthouse, we already know Booker is none of those things. I mean, he does do some hero-ish things—including one of the trope-iest things you can do as a protagonist at the end—but that doesn’t make the person an actual hero, just someone who happens to do something heroic.

Joel is a bit more complicated. He starts, as far as anyone can tell, a good man. He has a house and a daughter and doesn’t appear to be making money by killing people in his basement or slinging rock on the street corner. He just does honest work in a town in South Texas. Or at least he did until the Cordyceps fungus breaks out and infects humans and ruins the world as we know it.

But 20 years later (like 20 seconds later for the player), we find that Joel has changed. He is feared by many, his name spoken only in hushed tones in safe areas. At first we question what has changed in him and if he’s even the same man we knew before, but it slowly becomes clear that he almost definitely isn’t. He’s a killer now, if it isn’t evident by the trail of blood in his wake as he moves Ellie from location to location. But he’s proficient at it and experienced. He knows Hunters—groups of murderous folk that trick and trap “tourists” for the sole purpose of killing them and taking their clothes, food, and whatever else they have—and how they think because he used to be one of them. He shows no mercy towards them and little compassion to even those he knows like Bill. Once again, not heroic.

The Last of Us

Perhaps most of all, though, is that neither Booker nor DeWitt exhibit the single greatest quality of a traditional hero, and that is confidence. In a traditional story, the hero only suffers a crisis of conscience once just before the climax, but at no point through BioShock Infinite or The Last of Us do Booker or Joel show anything resembling an abundance of confidence. And I don’t just mean that they know they are capable of doing what they mean to do, but rather that they sure about what they’re doing. Every action and word is tinged with desperation and doubt.

Both men seemingly irrevocably missing their daughters and both men wary of taking another young female ward. Both kill by the drove and, while protecting the lives of their charges, do nothing to protect the youth of them. You can tell they want to, but they don’t. They’re unsure of their actions and their aim. Leaving aside the moral ambiguities of killing hundreds and hundreds of men and pursuing two of the most tragic stories told in recent memory, their lack of clarity of intent is what makes them most like antiheroes.

That is still reflective of our personal experiences on the world stage. No country seems particularly assured in its steps, but unlike these video games, those problems are still ongoing. The resolution is missing in real life, but the finite ends to these digital narratives are as close to a warm embrace and a pat on the head as we’ll get.

The Avengers

But it seems as if a shift is occurring. From the anti to the anti-anti, the zeitgeist may very well be moving beyond the Bookers and the Joels of our stories and back into the untainted good. Instead of a drunken and salacious Iron Man, we go back to the perpetually morally right Captain America. Instead of a dark and brooding Batman, we aim for the otherworldly iron constitution of Superman. The new antihero, the new symbol of counterculture narratives, is the plain vanilla hero.

Look at last year’s game of the year contenders where a story about a wandering fellow that can quite literally do no wrong in a beautiful landscape of sandy dunes and snow-capped mountaintops went head-to-head with a man, on his way to prison after being convicted of murder, must take care of a nine-year-old recently orphaned girl in a zombie apocalypse. Consider that one of the bright spots at this year’s E3 was Hohokum, a Sony indie game from Frobisher Says! that’s all about exploring its non-linear, visual beauty. Have we moved beyond the antihero and started to make the transition back into the undying adoration of the hero? Are we done with the dark and the indifferent of the Byronic? The answer, it seems, is as ambiguous as their morals.

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A Little Touch in The Last of Us

A Little Touch in The Last of Us

Orson Welles can be a pretty depressing dude, and The Last of Us can be a pretty depressing game. There’s a quote, actually, from Welles that puts both in a succinct little package of words: “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone.” But there is hope in these words; it’s about the moment. A successful life is simply about stringing together as many of these little moments as possible, though the actual act of wrangling in these wild horses may not be simple at all.

We’re lucky that in video games, these little refuges of the harsh storm of a daily life are specifically crafted just for us. Designers and writers and developers and actors and so many other people pour their lives into making these tiny bits of hope and happiness. They spend countless hours, sleepless nights on making sure you don’t feel alone in their virtual worlds.

In effect, they’re making digital funhouse mirrors. These reflections of life show to us a warped version of reality, an idyllic one that fits neatly into categories and slots into a whirring machine of spinning cogs and steaming pipes that does nothing more than makes us feel less alone. And The Last of Us is all about fighting that overbearing sensation, that paranoia that once the book closes on your life, it will be nothing more than a story bookended by loneliness.

The title itself is a reference to its dramatic themes, chief among them being the last of a society. Whether last to leave or last to die, you are the loneliest of them all despite, in terms of a post-apocalyptic world overrun by fungal maniacs, finding the greatest amount of success. You have, after all, outlived everyone else in the world, and yet you will die alone.

But there is a little touch in the game, a small effect that combats that overwhelmingly depressing notion. It is that moment of love and friendship that Welles talks about, the same one that creates the illusion of not being alone before having it shattered by heartbreaking tragedy. When you take cover, this minute affectation of character animation occurs that is endearing, encouraging, and altogether frustrating because you know it can’t last.

When you crouch down behind a broken wall or flipped desk or rusted car, Joel puts his hand up against it. It’s something he does when he walks closely to walls, too, much like Naughty Dog’s Nathan Drake would do in Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. In this case, it not only builds worldly interaction that supports narrative immersion but also is a realistic thing that someone would do when they are crouched down. Hand up, head down, and quiet all on the Cordyceps front as another Clicker meanders by.

Your ward, though, comes roadie running up to you and takes cover, too. Ellie will sidle up next to you and then slip in between you and the wall as you push out to accommodate her. The first time I saw this happen, my heart erupted with warmth. It was one of the most affecting things I’d yet seen in an already affecting game. And it’s such a trivial thing to happen otherwise, just a trifling animation throw in there for good measure. But it ends up being so much more.

And it’s not about protecting Ellie, though the father-daughter relationship that fosters would suggest Joel feels that way anyways. No, our 14-year-old bundle of attitude and aptitude is fully capable of taking care of herself (a wonderful break from the traditional damsel trope). This is a comforting motion. This is as close as you can get to a warming embrace or holding hands when you’re hiding and running for your life. It’s an interaction that tells you both that you’re okay because you’re both facing this together.

These small moments run rampant through the most powerful pairings in video games. These seemingly throwaway bits actually lay a foundation for things beyond the discrete narrative and the game’s base systems and mechanics. In Ico, the way you hold down the button to hold her hand crafts a physical relationship with a physical manifestation of wonderment. In Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, having Monkey pick up Trip reinforces the idea that his physicality and her technical prowess makes them each one half of a whole.

When Elizabeth throws a coin to Booker in BioShock Infinite, it puts in your head that she worries about you as much as you worry about her, that a platonic love is never far out of sight. Hell, even pressing a button to fist bump in Army of Two creates a similar facade of emotional dependency in a fictional world of bros being bros. Having you necessarily utilize a completely inanimate but impossibly charming Companion Cube in Portal to get you through doors and over gaps lays the foundation for feeling compassion for a box with a heart painted on it.

But they are all moments, moments that fade away and get lost like tears in the rain. They’re tiny bastions that stand up against the onslaught of shooting faces and smashing heads, moments that don’t tell you are not alone and instead remind you that you are creating your own isolation. Every step to the end of this tiring journey is just burning up these instances of solidarity (time, after all, is a nonrenewable resource). In Welles’ own words, “if you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” But when Ellie nudges you aside and shelters herself in your keep, all her faults and perfections that fit neatly alongside your own that make you hate and love her reminds you that, if only for a moment, you are not alone.

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A Question of Identity in The Last of Us

A Question of Identity in The Last of Us

“Shut up, man. Don’t you know who that is?”

He doesn’t. His friend, apparently, does and apologizes for speaking out of turn. The pair was simply lingering out on the street, leaning against a wall and talking about the rather mundane activities within the quarantine zone. Walking by, I stop and listen for a while. What they’re saying is filling in a lot of blanks that I have about where I am and what’s going on, but I drop one too many eaves and the confrontational fellow instigates with a hearty “what the hell are you lookin’ at?”

I don’t know what I’m looking at. In fact, I don’t know who I am. I’m not capable of answering either question, despite both being mostly rhetorical in nature. Gruff as I am, though, an apology is thrown at my feet, one that I dismiss. “No harm, no foul.” But what if there was harm? What if these two fools had crossed me in some way? The hasty verbal retreat, the confidence with which I respond, the assertiveness I bear as I stand my ground. What exactly am I capable of?

Having played so many franchise titles as of late (in this year alone we saw DmC Devil May Cry, Dead Space 3, Aliens: Colonial Marines, Crysis 3, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, Tomb Raider, Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum), it’s somewhat rare now that we get to experience a triple-A title in hazy wonderment like in Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us. Reboots and spin-offs skew only slightly from the source in Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Sequels like Crysis 3 continuing pulling out the thread their predecessors had already teased loose.

It’s a specific type of mystery, though, that I’m talking about. BioShock Infinite had plenty of questions to answer, mysteries to solve as you played the game. But those were tied to telling a compelling narrative. Even by forcing myself to limit the amount of marketing I took in, I already knew the setup to the story. I knew Booker was looking for Elizabeth, I knew Elizabeth had unknown powers, and I knew we would be in a city in the sky that was ruled by a fellow named Comstock. I knew all of the ingredients to the soup. I just didn’t know how it would taste.

But I also knew Booker. I knew all about him before we started the adventure. He was a Pinkerton, he obviously regrets the things he did, and he is in a bad way with some unsavory people. Finding out about who Booker is and used be was not the point of BioShock Infinite‘s story. Instead, it was all about finding out how he fit into the skyward city of Columbia and the blossoming life of Elizabeth. The mystery shrouded the story, not the character.

These men on the street, though, seem terrified of me and I don’t know why. The opening chapter of The Last of Us is powerful and intense in ways I haven’t experienced in video games in quite some time (maybe ever), but it shows a different man. Joel pre-plague and Joel post-plague only share a name and a past, but now they are different people. Would that same family man with a brother and a daughter be the one that scares people just be staring at them?

Slowly, things begin to come into focus. We take our lens and point it at Joel and Ellie and the image gradually sharpens. And it’s not because we can but because we want to. Situations like this where two men are visibly scared of a single man beg questions and questions always deliciously demand answers. They had vocalized what I’d been wondering for the past 10 minutes. Who is this man?

It’s a subtle psychological affirmation of your gaps in knowledge. Something diegetic to the game doesn’t know the answer to your question, so it feels reassuring that you don’t know either. But that makes your thirst that much stronger. To find the solution to the riddle, to crack open this peanut of answers and be able to push back against this substantive intellectual pressure is an intrinsic human desire. We may not have the answer right now but we’ll get it, god dammit.

This type of desire is reinforced with the introduction of Ellie. Joel doesn’t care to find out who she is and doesn’t even much want to go through with the deal that brought them two together in the first place, but pertinent questions arise that tie back to things we want to know about Joel. The implications of who Ellie is and what she’s capable of invite a deeper analysis of what Joel hopes to gain from this newly ravaged world. And it opens up a wound long sewn shut that left little more than emotional scars and a strident personality.

Same as before, we know what we’re making. We know this is going to be a stew, but what are the ingredients? We know Joel takes Ellie across the infected country, but we know nothing about either of them. Joel is a man, Ellie is a girl, and that’s it. With BioShock Infinite, I could have at least pumped out two paragraphs on both Booker and Elizabeth before the game even started. The Last of Us crafts a more complex narrative around the question of what we’re doing with who we are. It adds texture and layers to a rather straightforward tale and set of tropes and is refreshing amongst a familiar world of well-met cyborg soldiers and space miners.

“Don’t you know who that is?” No, but neither do I.

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When Familiarity Backfires

When Familiarity Backfires

The games industry (along with every other industry and the entire Internet) operates on buzzwords. Every few months or so, the zeitgeist morphs and skews a little to accommodate a new bit of something. The pop culture scoots over and makes room for people to say “power fantasy” or overuse “literally” to the point that both the Oxford Dictionary and Merriam-Webster slapped in the absolutely wrong definition into the global lexicon and called it a day. Before that, it was about “player choice” and “entitled” players.

Over time, these catchphrases become jokes: visceral, cinematic, emotionally engaging. You can basically plot it against the rise and fall of the abuse of the word “epic” (and if you still use it to just mean neat or cool, we’re no longer Internet friends). At this point, I’m guessing the next one will be “ludonarrative dissonance.”

What, pray tell, is ludonarrative dissonance? Well, probably not what you think it means (assuming you think it has something to do with Ludacris). Let’s start with the ludonarrative part. This is a portmanteau of “ludology” and “narrative.” Ludology is the study of games. This isn’t just limited to video games but rather all games so it often includes concepts like audience theory and content analysis. And a narrative is a story, and if you need more explaining beyond that, then you’d better call Jay-Z because you went from zero to 99 in a flash.

Put together, the ludonarrative in a video game refers to the storytelling controlled by the player. It’s the plot equivalent of emergent gameplay, the non-discrete (or at least non-explicit) complex interactions of simple systems and mechanics that unveil new events within a planned framework. This means that every time Mario jumps, you are building some implicit backstory on how this funny little Italian plumber has just the most amazing, Olympian-quality quads and calves.

So ludonarrative dissonance is when your actions contradict the non-interactive story told through a video game’s cutscenes and whatnot. You may recall that this exact problem was something people brought up as a point of contention with Red Dead Redemption: how is John Marston, a man attempting to redeem himself from a life of unsavory practices, able to so easily and recklessly rampage across an entire countryside and still feel like a changed man?

That was in 2010. The term itself was coined in 2007 by Clint Hocking, former creative director at LucasArts and Ubisoft and current designer at Valve, in a review of BioShock, so the concept has been around for quite some time, if simply unnamed. And given that this is the first game since to bear Ken Levine’s massive signature, it seems appropriate that the discussion would come around again. If you look at the Google search trends for “ludonarrative dissonance,” you’ll see that it has reached an all-time high since BioShock Infinite‘s release (the initial spike from May to June of last year was when Tom Bissel mentioned it in his Grantland review of Max Payne 3).

And the discussion with the term has stuck around since then, in no small part, I’m sure, to Conan O’Brien’s Clueless Gamer series in which he, a self-professed non-gamer, reviews a video game. It surely is a frustrating exercise for his well versed Clueless Gamer partner, but when edited for mass consumption, it is hilarious, poignant, and unforgiving. All of the nonsense that we as avid players so easily gloss over and excuse as a necessity of the medium is immediately and harshly brought to light by Conan’s ever watchful eye (and blundering thumbs).

His review of Hitman: Absolution is a great example of this. Conventions of the stealth genre are basically digitized insanity, but we ignore it because that’s how we’ve been brought up to interpret and interact with games. Conan plays it for a minute and quickly and succinctly eviscerates our hallowed tropes.

The practice itself is something brought up in Tim Rogers’ amazing and lengthy review of BioShock Infinite over at Action Button Dot Net. He discusses how he almost uses the shortcut catchphrase of “ludonarrative dissonance” without fully understanding what it means, and when he finds out it isn’t exactly what he thought, he comes up with a new one: ludonarrative interference.

Ludonarrative interference is a convenient phrase for pointing out instances of game-mechanicky elements flopping dead-fish-like at the feet or into the face of the story a game is trying to tell. Ludonarrative interference is when a little taken-for-granted videogame design trope unceremoniously bubbles corpse-like to the surface of a game’s story’s otherwise pristine ocean.

Sound familiar? That is exactly what Conan O’Brien does with Clueless Gamer (as pointed out by Rogers; don’t think I made the connection first). The things we overlook are so easily and frequently noticed by those unfamiliar with the industry and its conventions. How do you carry an entire armory with you in Grand Theft Auto IV without tipping over and collapsing? Who leaves exploding barrels next to stockpiles of munitions inside army bases? How does Link reappear at the top of a bottomless ravine after falling in?

Because no one wants search for ammo in the middle of a six-star shootout, you’ll say. Because it opens up new combat possibilities, you’ll proclaim. Because they can’t go building and designing the bottom of every chasm or not allow you to try to jump it, you’ll explain. And guess what: none of those are reasons. Those are all excuses, and bad ones at that.

The question, then, is whether or not they are necessary. True, all games being designed like DayZ probably wouldn’t be a lot of fun and would definitely be counterproductive to artistic growth as an emerging medium. Having to collect arrows in Shadow of the Colossus would have drastically changed the final product. These are the concessions made by designers and developers to ensure that the player is having fun.

Of course, there isn’t just one way to have fun, and just as that entire nebulous concept is still being figured out, most of us are still trying to get a finger on the pulse of ludonarrative stuff. Perhaps the answer is more consistency; why can I shoot out this wall to destroy and build cover when I can throw grenade after grenade at this potted plant and get nothing but dirt textures in my eye? Does it not bother even the most entrenched of gamers when guards don’t mind fresh pools of blood but freak the fuck out at a clink 50 yards away?

Maybe that’s our fault. Maybe our blind eyes to these most obvious of ludonarrative interferences have cultivated this current predicament—a Gozer of our own making, if you will. Maybe it couldn’t hurt to slip into the shoes of one of those fresh-faced, uninitiated non-gamers and look around at the daily absurdity we witness and are party to.

Or maybe give it like three more months and all of this will blow over.

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