March 18, 2014

In defense of Nash from Lunar



You don't know Nash, because you didn't play Lunar, but you can assume that he is a complete douchebag.

[Trigger Warning: Nash.]

You meet Nash in a forest, stuck under one of those stick-and-box traps from cartoons. He is obviously a huge idiot, but he pretends that he's not only not an idiot, but incredibly benevolent, smarter than you, and he assumes you are stupid enough to fall for a similar trap.

He believes he is also trustworthy and professional, and name-drops his boss, the leader of the prestigious Magic Guild of the Floating City of Vane, who trusted him with a mission to the dirty surface world. So Nash is also a classist, elitist, opportunistic asshole.

Nash is also a coward. He has a crushing infatuation for the guild leader's daughter, but denies it at every turn. Instead of telling her, he is over-protective and condescending toward her. Even after spending a lot of time in harrowing situations with her, he never admits his true feelings.

Nash is so cowardly that, even after a long journey together, he leaves the party and willingly betrays her, you, and your entire traveling party to help the worst person in the world carry out his evil plans and seek mercy from him.

I hate Nash. I love Nash. We need more Nashes.

The other day, USGamer had a bit on the nature of localization in Square Enix games, and how it can improve. I recognized this for the trick question that it is: a translation can never be truly good if the thing being translated is actually bad.

(I say this, of course, trying not to forget that my understanding of Lunar is based on its famously contentious English localization)

It all comes down the story, and in an RPG that means it all comes down to the characters, and writing characters means writing an ensemble.

Many the relationships in popular Western RPGs are based on mistrust, desperation, and manipulation. Fallout and Elder Scrolls has you constantly second-guessing people's motives, and fooling people into giving you what you want. In Mass Effect, the crew assembled on the Normandy is made up of people with grudges and trust issues, and some don't even want to be there. True camaraderie is something that can only be established after these issues can be overcome.

In poorly written JPRGs, this is a one-and-done deal. "Oh, we beat that first boss together? Great: friends forever, now. We'll never disagree again." Every scene after that is just people standing in a row, being polite to each other and basically all having different visual designs but basically the exact same outlook. Nobody does ever does anything you don't expect them to.

It's fucking boring, pointless, and possibly a cultural thing, which makes it all the more depressing. Maybe Japanese gamers just want to see beautiful people be nice to each other all of the time, I don't know.

I mean, shit, there's a ton of problems with RPGs and their stories, writing original characters and giving them all a believable excuse to stick together. But if I can give one piece of advice to someone making a JRPG, to elevate even the most cliched plot: write a Nash.

The brilliant part of Nash's character is that his betrayal is surprising at first glance, and then perfectly natural upon reflection. You might wonder how Nash even gathers the conviction to turn his back on the only thing he seems to care about, until you realize that his action is a clue to the deeper meaning behind his shallow behavior up until this point: Nash's dread of death is deeper than his capacity for love. Typically that's the kind of sentence you'd use to describe a RPG villain, not a RPG hero. And yet here we have a terrible person standing right next to your other faithful allies.

And even a single Nash allows for so much to play with in a story. What do other characters say about someone like him? Do they show pity or contempt? How far will they go to correct his behavior?

In the end, Mia - the meek, back row, magic-using girl that Nash has been fawning on and patronizing for hours of game time - walks up to him and smacks him in the fucking face. It is the single violent action she commits outside of battle, and it's the moment she realizes that being docile and accommodating won't make every problem go away.

Characters doing awful things lets other characters do amazing things. And those ups and downs break up the fucking monotony inherent to all RPGs.

I'm trying to think of any other video game character who pulls a Nash (leaving player control of his own will to act against you), and I'm having a hard time. It's such a fucking good schtick, why does no one else do it


January 30, 2014

The Torres Bros. Podcast Review: Bioshock Infinite

Tim, Brendan, and I haven't round-tabled about a game since The Third Birthday, but as soon as Tim finished Bioshock Infinite, we had to have it out.

Trigger warning for people who like Bioshock Infinite.

Bioschlock Infinitum


Part 1: Two Ways of Spelling the Same Game
We tackle the introduction, "racism", Columbia, combat, Elizabeth as a character, and their problems.

Part 2: Grodd Only Knows
We leap between dimensions and talk about the acting, writing, plot, twists, ending, and their implications for society.

YouTube Reference Materials:
The Lighthouse Puzzle
Elizabeth, the waifu
It's like poetry, it rhymes
Secret lullaby password
You are the demons

EDIT 1/31
additional reference materials:
Preston E. Downs
Helpful Yorda
It's Time to Time

The Torres Bros. Podcast Review The 3rd Birthday

My brothers, Tim and Brendan, and I got together a while ago to review The 3rd Birthday, Square Enix's worst ever treaty violation.

It was our first night together since Christmastime, so we were excited AS HELL to talk about this, and well, we started recording around 10 at night and we stopped around 2 in the morning. We cover the game with a fine-tooth comb from beginning to end, with plenty of (non-boring) tangents related to many other games (Resident Evil, Mass Effect, Illusion of Gaia, etc.) and ideas (sci-fi and art, etc.).

It's in .mp3 format, split apart into four segments for palatable listening.


3rd Birthday Stinks and We Don't Like It


Part One: 3rd Birthday Stinks and We Don't Like It
Some Parasite Eve 1 talk and a lot about 3rd Birthday's premise and setting.
Spoiler Level: Low

Part Two: The Greatest Foe Lies Within (Bad Games)
All the gameplay and the entire plot up to the ending gets dissected.
Spoiler Level: HUUUGE

Part Three: It Was the Best of Time Zero, It Was the Blurst of Time Zero
The entire ending under the microscope.
Spoiler Level: Monumental, and not just for The 3rd Birthday. PE1, PE2 and even Chrono Cross get spoiled.

Part Four: One More Final: I Need You (To Make Good Games Again)
Final thoughts, a lot of talk about recent and past Square games.
Spoiler Level: Minimal

January 15, 2014

So I started playing Grand Theft Auto 5

At first I was excited. Now I'm ready to stop.

I wanted to start a mission with the awful paparazzi guy, so I stole a car to get to that side of town. About 15 seconds later, the police are on me, and my wanted level is at 3 - y'know, three white stars up in the corner. I thought maybe I could start the mission and the police would go away. No, I can't do missions while the police are chasing me. So I drive around for a few minutes, into a dead end, jump out of my car, over a divider, and just sprint away.

When I finally lose them, I steal another car, evade police detection, and make it to the side of town with the paparazzo. But as I turn into the driveway to start the mission, thinking that the mission would start automatically when I did so (which usually happens), I end up bumping into the paparazzo, who just kind of... runs away.

So I drive waaay up the street and wait for his little map indicator to come back, drive back, park away from him, get out, and start the mission.

Then as we walk down the street he gets hit by a bus making a U-turn. Mission Failed.

I always thought the growing realism of sandbox games only made them less fun. Things like having to elude the police in a stolen car should be fun, unless it's getting in the way of something else I want to do.

Another big problem I'm having is that I'm sick of GTA protagonists somehow being "better" than the people they're working for. Every word out of Franklin's mouth is always about how dumb or petty other characters are, or how stupid the thing he's being asked to do is.

What sucks about that is I also happen to think that all the characters are stupid and petty, and everything we do is stupid. I did three really dull missions in a row, and for each one Franklin mostly just complained through the whole thing.

For the most part, the player and the protagonist should want the same thing, and for the most part, that thing should be accomplishing the next mission objective. Contrast the self-aware reluctance of Franklin with the doggedly sadistic passions of the Third Street Saints in any given Saints Row. When the missions objective reads, "Save Shaundi," and I Need a Hero is playing, you better believe the Boss is saying to his pals, "I'm gonna fucking save Shaundi!" When Bayonetta slinks into a room and says, "I'm here to beat up Angels," and then Angels start coming after her, you're gonna say, "I am also here to beat up angels." The least you should do for the player is reinforce that what they're being asked to do is worth doing, that they and the game are on the same page.

So the 15th time Franklin asked something to the effect of, "Why am I even doing this?" I was like, "Good question!" and quit the game.

I actually really like Franklin as a character. His reluctance to do dirty work despite his obvious skill at it says a lot about the unrelenting siren call of criminal life. That same struggle was easily the best part of Niko's story in Grand Theft Auto 4, as well. But that motif is somewhat self-sabotaging in a game that doesn't feel the need to invite deep thought about any of its other messages. The talk-news and the commercial segments that parodize vapid American pop culture seem less biting now than they did in 2008. Four whole seasons of South Park have come out since then.

There's also a seeming confusion between what counts as satire and what is just biased observation. Yeah, west coast tennis instructors do have affairs with clients. Sure, aging black women do uses cliched mantras to inspire self-confidence. Uh-huh, pop sensations are actually older than they let on. And? The observations themselves fall flat since the characters themselves aren't deep enough to invite scrutiny over their ways of life, nor are they broad enough as caricatures to invite laughter and derision. Cut scenes start up and I just twiddle my thumbs until Rockstar is done thinking they've made a point about some facet of modern life, waiting until I can pick the controller up again and play the goddamn game.

The parts of the story I've liked best so far are scenes with Franklin and his allies in crime, mostly because they're actually focused on character growth. At this point there's still a question of how far Franklin is willing to go to gain independence, and his respect for others shifts as he tries to answer that question for himself. What's nice about this pre-Michael segment of the game is that there's far less "parody" - more plot development and less lame "satire".

The reasons there isn't as much "biting satire" in this early segment of the game is that there is nothing to satirize. People like Franklin - stuck in a cycle of violence with friends and opportunities constantly drifting in and out of his life at with the whims of society at large - actually exist in the real world. If there are any jokes to be made here, they're only to be touched by writers who know what the hell they're doing. Even Rockstar's writers know well enough.

So they stick with the same old targets: rich white people, Fox News, and most kinds of women. "Okay, writing staff, here are your Safe Topics. These things are funny. Everything else is off limits. We don't want to confuse or alienate anyone who matters!"

January 2, 2014

So I watched Beyond: Two Souls

I say "watched," you may assume, to suggest that Beyond: Two Souls is more of a movie than a game. In reality, that isn't quite true, either. Beyond: Two Souls isn't really a game or a movie. And I don't say this to suggest that Beyond: Two Souls is somehow bolder or more expansive than either a video game or a movie, or that it defies categorization. I refuse to put a label on Beyond: Two Souls because, if I were to do so, whatever category I were to put it into would be irrevocably worsened.

It is not a video game, nor is it a movie. If pressed to define it, I'd say it's a twelve-hour piece of performance art where some innocent fuck is tricked into spending sixty dollars on a boring, useless item, then is compelled to use it despite a mounting sense of rage of disgust.

* * *

My relationship with David Cage, Beyond: Two Souls intrepid W R I T O R and D E R E K T O R, is a complicated one, except that it's actually very simple, because I hate him and I think he's a piece of crap (and a racist). I loathed Indigo Prophecy with the force of a thousand suns--enough to temporarily blind me to the surprising successes of the later Heavy Rain, which I now begrudgingly admit is an innovative and highly enjoyable piece of game-making, for all its wacky Europeanisms.

So I approached Beyond: Two Souls with a skeptical but overall neutral point-of-view. I didn't want to deprive myself of a fun experience, but it's hard not to feel twice-shy being once so bitten.  And there was a very specific moment in our playthrough, towards the end of the first act, that made me go cold with incredulity, and erased any charitable feelings I'd allocated for Cage.

There was a point in which Jodie, our implausibly old-name-having protagonist, has to walk through a ruined medical facility. There is an encounter with an enemy that asks you to follow the on-screen prompts to evade danger and progress. We missed several prompts somewhat clumsily, and I was actually rather surprised that we cleared the challenge, remembering how easy it was for Madison Page to meet any number of context-sensitive grisly deaths in her encounter with the good doctor in Heavy Rain.

Anyway, immediately following this sequence, Jodie got stuck in the wall trying to exit the room, frozen and inanimate (but still crying and panting--thanks). Ah. Well. Glitches happen, it's no Fallout: New Vegas--at least not yet. So we restarted the chapter, participating in the QTE fight again, this time never missing a prompt. It was at this point that we realized is that, despite how much better we were at pressing the appropriate buttons this time, the scene played out in exactly the same manner as it had previously. Our suceesses and failures merited no rewards or consequences within the scene.

What we realized is that were never really truly participating at all. We were just along for the ride, humoring Beyond: Two Souls.

What greatly angered us was another realization. Does David Cage know that we're humoring him, or does he really think he's humoring us?

* * *

There is another point in B:TS where Jodie has to run away from something terrible that's chasing her. Just to see what would happen, I put the controller down on the floor. Would Jodie be captured by this monster and torn limb from limb?

No. Some moments later, Jodie, on her own, ran away.

(Spoilers will get slightly more persistent from here forward, but only slightly. After all, you've seen everything that happens in this "game"--the reversals and surprises and betrayals and losses you encounter as Jodie are all rote recitations of the same Hollywood junk you've seen crammed into games for the last fifteen years. Even the least savvy of eight year-olds can tell you the most shocking twists to expect in such a formulaic offering. DUDES! Your idealized mentor father-figure is actually MORALLY AMBIGUOUS OMMMMMGGGGAAAAAAADD!?!?!?!?!?!)

* * *

Later, we wanted to find out if it was actually possible to get intimate with one of the other characters in the game during a romantically-charged scene. (And I don't mean "emotionally close," I mean "can we get THIS penis in THAT vagina?") So I Googled "beyond two souls walkthrough". What a redundant phrase. For the most part, Beyond: Two Souls is a walkthrough of itself.

We discovered that there was, indeed, a way that the chapter could end with sex AND a Playstation Network Trophy. We figured we'd go for it. As long as we're going through this, we might as well get some gamer cred, or whatever.

However, there was a disclaimer in the walkthrough for this particular portion of the game:

NOTE! If in [the chapter] "Like Other Girls", the protagonist was groped by the bar’s clientele, no closer relationship with Ryan will happen.
I know you're probably reading this sentence because you had already finished the previous sentence, but I want you to go back and read it again.

In this story about the supposed complexity of a human being's life and identity over the course of many years, it is suggested that because Jodie was sexually abused several years prior, she is incapable of intimacy in the present.

There aren't many choices you can make in a chapter that actually affects the events of another chapter - just one reason the boneheaded achronological narrative is just a bloody smoking hole in the foot of the story - but Cage made sure to fit in the little moral that if you didn't have the foresight not to avoid your attempted rape, you are damaged goods.

Not only is this thing void of good ideas, whatever ideas it manages to portray are toxic for society and antagonistic to humanity.

* * *

While experiencing B:TS I was often on Twitter, writing thoughts about it as they occurred to me. Although this form of expression is troubling in several ways, it is appropriate for the works of David Cage. Deep analysis isn't terribly necessary. All that needs to be done is present without irony exactly what occurs in Beyond: Two Souls, and any intelligent person can construe that it is lesser than garbage.

What follows are more detailed extrapolations of my Tweets as I experienced B:TS. These are essentially a list of observations in the order they were made.

  • B:TS opens with Ellen Page's talking head, sounding confused. This is running motif in Cage's work - big heads seeming unhappy. Supposedly, this is the end of the events of the story, and the following chapters take place BEFORE this point. This scene is mostly meaningless considering we have no idea who this is or when this takes place. It's not like Sunset Boulevard - there are no expectations set up here.

  • After every chapter, the wavy-looking "timeline" for Jodie's life is displayed, along with the name of the next Chapter and at what point on the timeline it occurs. It would be neat if this were a screen in which you could select what chapter you wanted to experience next. It would even feel somewhat immersive if the next chapter did not proceed until you pressed X to indicate you were ready to relive this memory. Instead, the timeline is just a loading screen, loading whatever part of Jodie's life Cage thinks you should walk through next. Though it is marginally useful in finding out at what point the next chapter occurs based on chapter you've already seen.

  • Child Jodie is a pretty good actor. Way better than the French kids Cage got to play children from Philadelphia in Heavy Rain.

  • Willem Dafoe plays Jodie's mentor and father figure, Nathan, trying to find out how she connects to her invisible psychic/ghost friend, Aiden. He does it through all the usual bullshit ways movie paranormalologists detects psychics - by asking her to pick cards with pictures on them.

  • You can control Aiden by interacting with objects marked by blue dots and knocking them over. This is Aiden's primary purpose: knocking shit over. The game asks you to knock things over. But then at some point you knock something over and everyone in the lab starts freaking out. We start to think, "Okay, I guess we'll stop knocking shit over." But the story doesn't proceed if you don't knock more shit over. In order to convey that Aiden is sometimes "out of control" and "dangerous" the story forces us to force Aiden to knock shit over. Aiden doesn't feel "out of control" to me. He just seems to be stuck in a story in which he is "out of control," despite the fact he is completely in my control.

  • Nathan, calming Jodie down, says, "It's alright, Jodie, it's over." Jodie responds, "It will never be over." ಠ_ಠ Yep, because real people talk this way.

  • The next chapter, bafflingly, takes place at Sheikh Ahmed's black tie gala. At this point, Jodie is in the CIA, and she's going to use Aiden to find out what important secrets she can find in Sheikh Ahmed's house. It's one of the few times you have reign to float around and do stuff. Unlike other games in which you can decide how to use your powers to solve the problem in front of you, Aiden can only use certain powers on certain objects that the story needs to be interacted with to progress. Imagine a Legend of Zelda game in which the room you are in has a locked door, and there are switches all over the walls, and there is only one switch that opens it, but that switch is glowing blue, and the other switches actually don't do anything. That is every sequence with Aiden.

  • Jodie is wearing a dress with her entire back exposed. The texture of her back is somewhat terrifying - as though her skin is paper thin and you an see every muscle fiber under it. This is one of the most unsettling dips into the Uncanny Valley, but sure not the last.

  • The bathroom signs for Ahmed's place feature a veiled face over the door for the women's bathroom, and a bearded face over the door for the men's bathroom. This seems racist to me, but then I've never been to the Middle East.

  • The next chapter involves a birthday party at some brat's house. Nathan thinks it'll be good to meet kids my age. He already picked out the present for the birthday girl: an old collection of the works of Edgar Allen Poe. Our guess is that the girl will think it's a terrible gift and that it will act as an additional reason we should feel absolved for torturing her later. We are right.

  • The party has beer and weed. We indulge in both. We also get to pick the music. We picked disco. Another brat said it was a stupid, and changed the song. We weren't sure if that moment was to get us to hate that girl, or just B:TS trying to simply negate another one of my choices.

  • You can score with some limey kid, but in the end, he and the others turn on you for being a "witch." Their bright idea for dealing with witches? Lock them in a closet. 'Cause that won't backfire.

  • It totally backfires. This is the only point in the story where we feel as though Jodie, Aiden, and us are on the same side. We toss knives and set fires. We're finally having fun, despite how blurry and floaty Aiden is.

  • There is a chapter that has us training to be in a special division of the CIA. It plays out like an actual montage. Pressing X to run over tires. Pressing X to solve... math equations? Flicking the analog stick to punch dudes. Do we really need this shit? I have an invisible ghost friend.

  • Suddenly Aiden can "heal" wounds by just kind of floating over them. This is used again I think four more times afterward.

  • Jodie's step parents are really funny. The mother might actually be a good actor, but it's hard to tell in this game, since nobody says things that regular people say. The father is hilarious. He just is always angry and often shouting. At some point I think you get a Trophy based on whether or not you display hatred toward him.

  • For the most part, the only way for things to progress is for Aiden to knock hist over. This could easily be called Knock Shit Over Simulator Pro.

  • The first wham-bam "blockbuster" sequence involves going through a ruined medical facility where people are trying to harness the awesome power of ghosts for ??????? reasons. It is at this point that all the seams show, if they haven't already.

    • All QTEs are rigged in your favor.

    • Solving puzzles means switching to Aiden to knock over the "correct" thing - Aiden, really, is just a more complicated QTE.

    • You can read memories from dead people's corpses or possessions, but they only tell you what you already know.

    • People respond to crises and tragedy in ways that don't make sense. "Go!... Nothing but... DEATH... in there!"

    • The logic of Aiden's powers and the ghost world are completely inconsistent. Sometimes Aiden can help Jodie, and sometimes she's all on her own. Aiden can beat up ghosts, but they can't do anything to him.

    • Jodie does things she should know better than doing. Like taking the elevator instead of the stairs in an emergency. What the FUCK is actually wrong with you. I don't care if you have a magic zombie-goast pal to bail you out--take the stairs, you lazy bum.

    • Jodie seems to know how to find and shut down the power for a unique piece of machinery. She doesn't think to just cut all of the wires around her, but instead has to cross through a ghost tornado for reasons.

    • Fighting the ghosts - which should be a big deal, they're fucking flying screaming horrors that have the power to make people kill themselves and each other - is exactly as fun as knocking shit over in the rest of B:TS, in that it's not. They could have invented a different action specifically for fighting the ghosts, but it's the some input as knocking over paper and water bottles and crap.

    • Nothing is scary or surprising, because most humans have seen a movie before, and sound cues indicate what's going to happen all of the time.

    • The engine Cage uses to make these games only heightens the excitement and drama of small things - most famously The Lizard trial in Heavy Rain. It is incapable of capturing the complexity of a fantastic action sequences the same way most video games already can pretty well.

    • Jodie's thighs are too fucking thin.

  • Jodie tells Nathan, "Don't let them do that again. If they open a passage, there'll be nothing left." The bad news? I think we're supposed to be surprised that they do it again. The worse news? Because of the way the story works, it won't be relevant for another 10 hours.

  • The chapter in which Jodie is homeless and makes friends with homeless people invites a question for anyone interested in seeing more scenarios that aren't typically presented in video games: Why isn't the whole game about using your ghost powers to overcome and navigate the challenges of being homeless? Because 1) Cage does not have anything poignant to say about being homeless, 2) he hasn't met enough black people in his life to write about more than one in the same story for too long, and 3) despite all the smoke he blows about taking video games to a new level, he's afraid NOT to put in more scenes that involve the same guns and violence that every video game has.

  • There's a point where you can accept someone's sexual proposition, but even if you do Jodie just changes her mind about it. Again, your choices are negated if David Cage doesn't like them, yet he's still willing to put women in dangerous and titillating situations without seriously confronting their consequences.

  • There are maybe one or two times where Jodie has prophetic visions in her dreams. These were likely put in so the plot would make slightly more sense. Since the story is presented out of order, it totally doesn't work.

  • By the way. Aiden is pronounced throughout the game as "Eye-den," except for one point when Willem Dafoe pronounces it "Ay-den." He probably pronounced it that way because that is how you are supposed pronounce the name Aiden. Cage did not deign to correct Willem, even if it meant an inconsistency.

  • Women in David Cage games exist to 1) be fucked or threatened with unwanted fucking, 2) be beaten up, 3) be impregnated, 4) cry, or 5) all of the above.

  • Flashbacks to Child Jodie are mostly complete wastes of time. The only good part is when you have a snowball fight.

  • Girls' Night Out is the chapter is which Jodie is whiny, entitled, and uses her powers for stupid reasons. Rather than making you appreciate Jodie's growth, it only highlights how often Jodie is whiny and entitled throughout the story.

  • The Navajo chapter has already been equated to a bad episode of the X-Files. Doesn't that sound great, though? What if every chapter was Jodie drifting into some town and solving their ghost problems?

  • Believe it or not, the sequence in which a white girl teaches a Navajo family how to deal with the vengeful spirit that their ancestors foolishly summoned to repel the White Man 200 years ago is still not the most racist thing David Cage has written.

  • The horses on the Navajo ranch are wearing English bridles, while they should be wearing Western bridles. They're the only horses in the game, I mean, come on

  • Also, nearly every time there is an elevator in this game, a sign nearby refers to it as a "Lift". It's like in Heavy Rain when abandoned lots were referred to as "wastelands". Cage would never let a copy editor near his precious script.

  • Nathan's back story is illuminated very quickly and very late. Cage probably had exactly 6 hours with Willem Dafoe to just cram everything in.

  • Also, I know I said Nathan was Jodie's father figure, but is he really? Seriously. I can't think of a single nice thing he does for Jodie, or even a single lasting lesson he imparts on her. Nathan's assistant Cole is nicer to Jodie than basically anyone else in the story, and he's still just a "supporting" member of the cast.

  • The one environment that gets reused over and over is the dorm that Jodie stays in while working with Nathan. It's suggested at one point we should feel sentimental about it, even though it is the least impressive looking residence in the whole game and nothing pleasant ever happens there.

  • It's during The Dinner scene where we had the brilliant revelation that the game might have been better if the chapters were divided between those in which you controlled Jodie and those in which you controlled Aiden. As is, the opportunites where you can control Aiden seem arbitrary, and when you actively control one to sabotage the other, as in this scene, it seems as though your presence at best deteriorates the story and its logic, and at worse puts you in control of the character who is in the least interesting situation at the time.

  • David Cage loooooves making women take showers with their hands against the wall being all live, "Uhhh, I just looove being NAKED and wet." It's not sexy, though, because Jodie washes her hair while it's still pulled back in a ponytail. Grrrrrross. No shampoo, no conditioner, just a pile of wet, dirty, smelly hair trapped in a festering pile. Help me, Aiden!

  • It seems to be completely arbitrary, as well, what actions get QTE prompts. Opening a bottle of wine gets two. Putting on a diving suit doesn't get any.

  • Ellen Page is a fine actress. But she just doesn't have the range to hold my interest or sympathy for 20 hours.

  • Ellen Page is also one of the least expressive actors in Hollywood. She's known for having a somewhat monotone voice and deadpan delivery, no matter her role. This may make her an excellent choice for some movie roles, but this makes her particularly poor one for an animated medium. Compare Ellen Page's extremely faithful motion capture to that of Kristen Bell, from the Assassin's Creed series, and you'll see a markedly less wooden character model, despite the less sophisticated technology. Bell is a naturally more animated, physically/facially/vocally expressive actress, which makes her tremendously more interesting and engaging to look at when rendered as a 3D nonhuman.

  • There's a scene in which someone gets news that someone they cared about died. It's hard to tell, though, because literally no one acts like they would have had it occurred in reality. Think about it: if someone asks you, "What's happened?" after getting this news (first off, fuck them for not figuring it out while they're in the room with you) would you say, "A truck... wrong side of the road... drunk driver... sentence fragments... just phrases!"

  • The saddest part of the game is that there is a dedication to someone who had died. Which means, even having known the death of a friend and colleague, David Cage STILL wrote this scene. This man doesn't know what empathy means. He can't even empathize that Americans use elevators and not lifts!!

  • And again, it's even more jarring when, like, name actors have to work with horseshit.

  • There is a chapter that is, basically, just the first act of Metal Gear Solid 4, except with a lot more floating around and wondering, "What the hell do I do now?" Yep - that's David Cage! Pushing the envelope by making you kill brown people in a blown-out desert town! In a video game, no less!

  • Jodie gets betrayed at some point. The suggestion is that we, too, should feel betrayed, but by this point she has made so many poor decisions - decision the game railroaded you and her into making - that it just feels like it's her fault. In another game this would feel like a revelation. Here, it just doesn't fit in with the birthday party and the homeless pregnancy and the estranged father figure and all the other stuff that happens in the story that has nothing to do with CIA missions.

  • There are no fat people in this game. Cage probably hates them, too.

  • In case you were wondering, yes, even while on a government mission, Jodie is still whiny and panicky and complaining.

  • Your purported love interest is a terrible person who lies to you. You have the option to forgive him, when you should have the option to push him into a fast-moving river.

  • As B:TS approaches its "climax," several new characters are suddenly introduced who are conveniently "the bad guys".

  • If you put down the controller during a bout with one of these villains, you will still live and they will still die. They are so inconsequential that you don't even need to fight them to succeed.

  • Jodie is knocked out by antagonizing forces more than once after walking through a door. Considering she can see through walls, this likely means that she is an idiot.

  • The only reason that the climax occurs is because several people do really stupid things that make no sense.
Every once in a while B:TS made us say, "If only this was the whole game." If only the whole game was spent spying on enemies governments. If only the whole game was exorcising ghosts. If only the whole game was trying to get a boyfriend. If only the whole game was stealing and turning tricks on the street.

One of the hallmarks of the truly great auteur is the ability to self-edit, and show self-restraint. Tarentino edited Gogo Yubari's vengeance-seeking twin sister Sakura out of the already incredibly genre-bending and seemingly unrestrained Kill Bill. He prioritized a cohesive, coherent narrative over simply cramming in all the stories he'd originally hoped to. And Cage seems to think of himself as an auteur, but ultimately he shows no fidelity to his own narrative--he is too eager to spill his every thought to just buckle-down, focus, and tell us a goddamned good story. Like a five year-old recounting his day at school, Beyond: Two Souls is filled with "and thens." And then she's a witch with magic powers. And then she's a secret agent. And then she's an angsty teenager. And then she's a jilted lover. And then she's a homeless person. And then she's a great white savior to a bunch of hunky Injuns. And, like listening to a five year-old, I can only nod my head woodenly, praying his mother will save me from his incoherent babble before I eat my own hands out of boredom and frustration.

Instead, it's all of these things and more. Nothing lasts long enough for it to become important. It's none of these things and less.

tl;dr: "SHIMISANIIIIII!!!!!"

December 30, 2013

2013 in Games

It turned out that women do exist.

We all tried to figure out the difference between "sexy" and "sexist".

National Public Radio was successfully duped into jerking off to something it doesn't even really understand.

Hideo Kojima made baffling decisions more in line with the corporate shills his fans have lambasted for years, including but not limited to 1) creating a single new female character that wears a bikini and can't talk, 2) splitting the next Metal Gear into two games with console-specific bonuses, and 3) allying with Spike TV to make any major announcements. Meanwhile, Kiefer Sutherland looks on.

Nintendo, like a waking Sauron, amassed power through its once-thought flop, the 3DS, reviving several franchises with entries considered to be the best in their series, mostly by getting rid of all the shitty ideas and mechanics they come up with over the last decade. Yes, Virginia, you can finally level up Magikarp without using it!

Final Fantasy X|X-2 HD took slightly longer to develop than the original game. Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is ported to HD in 6 months.

Call of Duty: Ghosts was critically panned. It still makes 40 zillion dollars.

Meanwhile, AAA developers were still s-s-scared of how expensive it is to make their games:
"It is kind of a bummer that games are getting so hard and difficult to make," [Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin] added. "People want better and better graphics, they want more realistic looking art assets, and that comes at a cost and that's a hard thing to have to deal with."
Poor, needy AAA developers were taken hostage by fat, greedy, thuggish consumers, held at knifepoint, forced to take realistic-looking art assets out of their own children's mouths.

Several new video game consoles came out but no one is really sure why or what they're called or what they do

September 18, 2013

So I finally finished Soul Sacrifice (or, The Nature of Memories)



(I mean, it's not really a game you complete, but I think I'd like to declare my being finished with it)

So a while ago, I talked about the method that games use to explore certain ideas. The conclusion I was trying to reach is that a story's message doesn't have to be clumsily delivered through its plot or parroted by characters when you can use things like game mechanics and world-building and repetition of ideas (in other mediums these are called motifs) to influence the tone of the story and the lasting impression the player takes from it.

Vagrant Story is not the Holy Grail of gaming I once thought, but its script is still a benchmark for video games. The plot focuses on an infiltration mission and political machinations, but through its protagonist it explored the nature of human memory and its importance in forming one's identity several months before the Christopher Nolan's Memento would do the same thing.

Certainly, Vagrant Story was not the first game where the nebulous nature of a character's memories (or lack thereof, as many will remember how common amnesia was as a trope compared to now) were integral to the understanding of the story, but after Vagrant Story, I can think of plenty of games that put the nature of their characters memories, personalities, and identities front and center - especially where Square Enix was concerned.

In games like Final Fantasy IX, there was still some subtlety to the proceedings. At the game's outset, the mystery of Vivi's identity is planted, and finally bears fruit much later on when the difficult nature of Zidane's memories echoes the turmoil we've known to be growing within Vivi. It's a fitting payoff for such a long-term narrative, and answers are delivered in full at a decent pace.

In contrast, as the Kingdom Hearts games rolled on, all subtlety went out the window, and the nature of memory became the focus of the story. Though it's probably untruthful to say the games discuss the "nature of memory" so much as memories are just weird, malleable plot points. While games like Vagrant Story and Final Fantasy IX ask the player to consider how important our perception of events in the past are to understanding our present selves and the way we are understood by others, games like Kingdom Hearts asks... similar questions in much less helpful ways, mostly by using terms that don't reflect the complexity of the self. According to Wikipedia: "Roxas is a 'Nobody', a being created when the series' main character Sora briefly lost his heart during the first game of the series."

Games such as Valkyrie Profile: Silmeria, the Xeno- series, and... guh... The 3rd Birthday all consider memories and identities to be malleable things that can be lobbed around like softballs as major plot points. The thing about having confusing plots heavily focus on character's identities shifting and changing is that, after going through all the effort to keep it all straight in my head, the last thing I want to do is think about the nature of memories as they apply to me.

A digestible plot and satisfying mechanics keep my reptilian brain happy and occupied while my mammal brain considers the implications of the game's message. A complicated plot where I have to spend time drawing parallels between characters' predicaments and my own is order to make sense of the importance of the proceedings is a waste of brain activity better spent on anything more fulfilling.

Which brings me to Soul Sacrifice, possibly the only game to use malleable memories as a valid plot point.

Soul Sacrifice is a grotesque fairy tale. The premise is simple. You are imprisoned by an evil wizard with plans to sacrifice you when a magical talking journal bound in flesh slides into your cell and tells you that if you read and relive the events of the entries within, you will be able gain the powers of the long-dead sorcerers detailed, learn the nature of your captor, and defeat him.

I say that Soul Sacrifice is a fairy tale because the nebulousness of the world allows for a certain suspension of disbelief. You are told very little, so that when very strange and unlikely things happen, you say to yourself, "I guess that's how things are in this world."

This is a world were magic is not clean energy, but more like a nuclear weapon, leaving fallout about to mutate lands and beasts. Magic is an extension of the greed within every living thing, from trees to rats to children. Magic is constantly threatening to make things worse for everyone.

Only state-sanctioned sorcerers are capable of wielding magic safely, paradoxically for the purpose of eradicating the monstrous abominations created by magical radiation. Sorcerers are widely feared and hated as a symbol of violence and degradation, but are the only things keeping people safe.

The way sorcerers in particular are able to deal with monsters is through the art of sacrifice. They absorb the essence of fallen foes (who, in their weakened states, take on the form they once had, whether it be a mangy cat or a wrathful man) and seal it within their right arms. As a rule, sacrificing more foes makes the sorcerer stronger.

In doing this, though, sorcerers also takes some of their target's essence into them, their soul, the thing that is the sum of their experiences and feelings.

Absorbing a very powerful, very willful soul can affect the behavior and, YES, the memories of the sorcerer.

But you can save monsters, too. Instead of increasing your attack power through sacrifice, being a savior can boost your life and defensive power, as well as allow you to recruit allies to your cause. However, although saving some monsters can provide certain passive boons when saved, the rewards are often dubious (powers aren't as good, allies are dumb), and on the whole (at least according to the game's lore) authorities do not tolerate sorcerers acting as saviors, since they are contracted executioners, not judges.

Still, as the one in the field, you have the choice. Every time you fell a monster, you can choose to either save it or sacrifice it.

What's great about the story is that rules of a sorcerers duties are set forward very early on. Sorcerers kill monsters, and they sacrifice them, becoming living silos of malice. You take these rules for granted. The game keeps you so focused on killing monsters and getting stronger that, after a while, you don't think twice about the nature of what you're doing, and the progression of the story becomes secondary to the progression of the challenge. As with any diligent sorcerer, it becomes a numbers game. How many of what kind of monsters do I need to kill to get enough powers to kill that next monster?

By keeping the player focused on the mechanics of play, the game frees itself to influence the player's thoughts from behind the scenes, rather than awkwardly confronting them about the game's "point" via cutscene. In Soul Sacrifice, the mechanics drive the player forward, but they also connect directly to the nature of the story and the plights of the characters. The way that a single decision annihilates all other realities, the way we value or cast aside things based on their usefulness, the ways in which growth may transform us or make us more like who we truly are.

When the game finally reveals its hand - when the nature of the relationships between the very small cast of characters starts to slide into focus - that's when you finally start to think about the implications of what you've been doing. Not because the game begins navel-gazing and actively discusses the nature of itself, but because you are put in a situation where you can't help but wonder what it means.

Soul Sacrifice does this in the same way every good game has done it. At the game's climax, you are asked to do something you've done a thousand times before, but for an entirely different reason that puts your entire experience up until that point in a different perspective.

And while the ending does indeed come down to a binary decision, I am pleased to inform that neither ending is truly good or bad - or, well, I didn't think so. Though I felt that one ending was, dare I say, more poetic and more in keeping with the tone of the game than the other. Believe or not, this dopey, macabre little game, like a fairy tale, has a very beautiful moral. From the creator, Keiji Inafune:
My own life story has been the inspiration of this game. I was put in a lot of situations where I had to make tough decisions. I learned that things don’t go well just because you want to be famous or rich or a better person. You have to constantly think what you’re willing to give up or sacrifice to make things happen.
Sometimes I feel like the importance of a story can be broken down into an equation. (Decisions made x frequency) / time = importance, or something. The more time you spend thinking you understand something only to find how wrong you were always seems to pack an emotional punch, no matter the situation.

Time, however, is also Soul Sacrifice's draw back. As glad as I am that I played it, it's hard for me to say that it's truly a great game because it is exceedingly repetitive. I literally stopped playing for a few months for that reason. Often times you'll find yourself asked to do missions very similar to those you've done before with very meager rewards. These rewards do build up over time, but they don't feel as essentially fulfilling as other similar kill-thing-and-receive-loot games like Monster Hunter or Dragon's Crown.

But, hey, there's a new version coming out. Maybe then I could suggest this game unequivocally. Until then, Soul Sacrifice is probably the best boring game I've played all year.

August 26, 2013

Earthbound and Deadly Premonition

So there's this game.

It looks like it was supposed to come out, like, 7 years before it did.



Publishers were so unconfident in its appeal, they tried to sell it based on how unappealing it seemed.



The core gameplay is basically copied directly from another game that redefined its genre,



though it also includes its own semi-realistic unique elements, like eating food and using a phone to save.



It comes from the mind of this one Japanese guy,



and takes place in his perception of the United States,



and the whole thing is filled with homages to all of the things he likes.



The story is a goofier retelling of a story that's been told once before,

[Any game in which you have to collect 8 of something before beating the last boss]

and there are a lot of weird people doing stuff that doesn't make sense all of the time.



But because you spend so much time with them, you start to really care about them,



and as things get more and more earnest, as the end draws closer, the emotional weight of everything has been built up so subtly that you did not expect the sudden urge to cry at the mind-bending climax.




There are more significant parallels, still, but that would mean spoilers for both, and you're not ready for that yet.



So ever since Earthbound came out on the Wii U's Virtual Console - which is an incredible concession on Nintendo's part, but since none of the music in the game has been removed, clearly Nintendo of America's insistence that the game could not be re-released due to copyrighted song samples was a huuuuge lie - everybody's jumpin' back onto the bandwagon that I've been carting all on my lonesome.

Amongst all this, though, some good reading has appeared. Not only did Nintendo give Earthbound its own site and sweet promotional video, there's also a brief essay (no, more like poem) from Itoi himself, reflecting on Earthbound and its purpose.

There's also more than one interview online with Marcus Lindblom, the man who almost single-handedly localized Earthbound for the West.

These things made me realize that all of my favorite games, to some degree, are like Earthbound; in that they not only make great use of the interactive and long-form nature of the medium, but also are unafraid to include the strange, personal things that other single-minded, artist-driven mediums have been using for many years.

With Earthbound's re-release, there is a new layer of purpose to my writing. Now that people are actually playing it, we can actually discuss its importance - what it got right, what others have ignored, and who has been paying attention.

It is my belief that SWERY paid attention.

Earthbound fans - please, play Deadly Premonition.

Deadly Premonition fans - please, play Earthbound.

You all clearly have a masochistic streak, so it should be easy for you.

August 3, 2013

Holy cow, I just realized something about Metal Gear Solid 2

Metal Gear Solid 2 is about legacies. About passing the torch.

I mean, I always knew this, but I never knew just how deep it went.



The most obvious torch is the one passed from Snake to Raiden. The whole purpose of the S3 project to recreate Raiden in the image of Solid Snake. Although the Patriots are the ones in charge of the project, Snake himself ultimately sees Raiden through his transformation into a hero, both for the day and for Metal Gear as a series.



Though Solidus tries to pass his own torch to Raiden on more than one occasion. Raiden and other child soldiers fought under Solidus in the Liberian Civil War. At the end of the game, Raiden is then victim to expository monologues by both Solidus and the Patriots' malevolent AI with the goal of getting him to appreciate their perspective.



Of course, Solidus has been a father and light-bearer in more than one way. Not only is he former United States President George Sears, he is also the leader of Dead Cell, a former SEAL group that become the terrorists holding the Big Shell hostage in wanting with the demands of Solidus, their founder.



Though members of Dead Cell have their own torches to bear, as well - some more successfully than others. Fortune's father, Marine Corps Commandant Scott Dolph, is killed in the Tanker incident, and she harbors a hatred for Solid Snake as a result. Her husband, former Dead Cell leader Colonel [no first name given] Jackson, is convicted of mishandling government funds and dies in prison. Also, her mother commits suicide. Fortune picks up Colonel Jackson's mantle and leads Dead Cell toward its terrorist destiny. And her superpower of extreme luck - succeeding in every mission with suffering any injury - she believes was inherited from the ghost of her father.



Then there's Peter Stillman, the bomb disposal expert who faked an injury to gain sympathy from others in spite of the fact that he trained Dead Cell member Fat Man in bomb disposal - in the end, equipping him perfectly to become the mad bomber of the story. Fat Man agrees to the mission specifically hoping to show up his former mentor. Stillman dies wishing that he had held onto that torch.



Then there's Otacon and Emma. Part of me remembered Otacon teaching Emma what he knew, and then realized that it's Emma who creates the virus that disables Arsenal Gear. In a way, they each inherit something from the other. Moreover, they both have to the carry the fucked-up history of their parents. Not to mention Otacon's whole family history when it comes to war crimes.



And then there's the babies, the literal genetic heirs of the previous generation. All of Olga's work as a double (triple??) agent with Snake were a means to expose the Patriots and discover the whereabouts of her daughter, Sunny, whom they had taken hostage. Before she dies, she gives Snake and Raiden the task of saving Sunny.



Sunny, ultimately, becomes Snake and Otacon's adoptive daughter and becomes a technical genius under Otacon's tutelage, avenging others whose lives were ruined due to PMCs created in the Patriots' wake.



Raiden and Rose, too, end up with a baby of their own. Raiden, who only recently took charge of his life, has to take charge of another, as well. Though he's slow to rise to the occasion.



MGS2 was bearing the torch carried by MGS1, a game that defined, technically, the Playstion One, through it's extensive real-time visuals, dual-analog controls, and hours of recorded voice. MGS2, in turn, would define the Playstation 2 by including first-person view to expand the scope of the detail of the new generation, and even making use of the Dual Shock 2's pressure sensitive buttons. So it's kind of like Sony is passing a torch to itself.



More than anything, though, MGS2 is a torch lit by Kojima to pass to us as both a warning and a promise. The digital age we live in now has brought with the the ability to deceive and manipulate people on a massive scale - but it also brought the tools to cut through lies and share our experiences with others, and keep us all connected, sharing the stories of our pasts with one another.

We are who we are because of those who came before us. That's why it's called Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty.





June 29, 2013

Highwind just finished Panzer Dragoon Saga

[By this guy here.]



Holy cow. I GET IT.

I don't know where to begin.

The style and atmosphere of the game are incredible. It's like HR Giger, Ancient Egyptians and the Japanese got together to create a desolate - alien - dying world.

That said - good god the graphics are terrible. I mean - wow. No wonder the Saturn flopped. Everything is so chunky and choppy and blurry it's insane. The draw distance is really bad. The fact that the concept art, style and visual design are so incredible makes the horrendous graphics that much more depressing. I can't imagine how great this game would look even on a PS2.

The music is astoundingly fitting with the universe. Its very brooding - often minimalistic - but sometimes bombastic when the time is right. Definitely up there in my opinion with best music ever in an RPG. Top 5 for sure.

I love how few random encounters there are. I'm not even sure if there ARE random encounters or if all of the battles are somehow triggered precisely on your progress. But this makes flying around and just exploring the areas really enjoyable. You level up naturally - no need for useless grinding. You get more powerful simply as you progress through the game - and there's no nonsense otherwise.

The battle system is great and it is absolutely INSANE that no one has tweaked or simply ripped it off. The battles are much more like puzzles than simply mashing on the attack button. You actually have to THINK and engage in how to take down the enemies and it's all the more rewarding when you do.

The story is cliche but I like it. I'm a sucker for it. Ancient mysterious powerful girl - fight to regain human freewill - blah blah. It works - I'm down with it every time, apparently.

EVERYTHING is in Japanese - the whole game is in subtitles and even the end game credits are all in kanji. Wat. Did SEGA even try to localize this game whatsoever? I have no idea why they even printed the 30k copies that they did in the US. Really weird.

Oh guess what guys? FLYING ON A DRAGON IS AWESOME. Why are there not more RPGs where you get to fly around on a dragon? Can someone fix this immediately? Thanks.

It's also a great length. 12-14 hours long. Can we get more RPGs this length - instead of uselessly padding them to 40-100 hours?

In summation - I loved it. The art style, battle system, atmosphere and music are so unique it's incredibly memorable and enjoyable. I would love to commission an artist for some paintings based on the art. It's that good.

It's craaaaaaazy that these innovations are just seemingly lost and ignored. Why are JRPGS still cranking out the same tired Dragon Quest mechanics when innovations like Panzer Dragoon Saga existed FIFTEEN years ago. Sad.

Is it worth the $300-$450 its going for now? I don't know. That's up to the buyer - I guess. I recently paid $120 for a Fleetwood Mac concert I didn't want to go to for my brother's birthday. So whatever. olol.