The Long Dark: The Cold Lark

ss_72d85355f32423b66be4700fa287b0f499cf56d5

The Long Dark, more like The Cold Lark!? Ammirght?

There’s this long-standing argument about reviewing unfinished games. Digital media has changed  the way we release products and no longer are games isolated to one state after being shipped and printed on a disk. This has been thanks to the rise of the digital platform and the subsequent democratization of development. No longer are consumers willing to wait X amount of months to receive their shiny new game. People are forking over hefty sums of money to receive an unfinished product that doesn’t have any meaningful criticism to back it up.

Some institutions decide not to cover these games at all until their release, citing them as ”evolving experiences’‘, that can’t be quantified the same way as already  finished games. Others do rolling coverage, following the development, but this sort of stuff just feels really soulless and nurtured of criticism that could otherwise improve the game. People seem to get really angsty about this too as those who have invested themselves not just in the product, but the development seem to expect their reviews to be overly aware of the fact that it’s ”unfinished’‘. Writers don’t really know how to fix this problem, how do you placate the both sides and produce content that’s critically relevant but also aware of its ongoing development? Some have tried with Gonzo journalism and others are overly apologetic in their criticisms and falsely codify the idea that every problem present will somehow be fixed. Finality in games has become tenuous and written reviews of these ever developing products become obsolete.

Because that’s the real issue here, a growing assumption that development will continue indefinitely, and that’s reinforced by the bonkers journalism surrounding it. You can start to place the onus of this on Minecraft, a game that’s been around for six years but still receives regular content updates. These articles discussing early access further exacerbate this problem as it leads to the habit-forming idea that issues or bugs, or inherit issues with the game will be fixed in post. Which isn’t the case for most.

Sometime in August last year Sir You Are Being Hunted was released on Steam Greenlight. The game was unfinished but people still paid money for it. Criticism about the game wasn’t that harsh even though the project had some glaring flaws. People and reviewers excused it from its problems because of the lower expectations these games have. No one had really talked about it before its release, even though money was exchanged for some sort of generalizable product. People are going to exploit that lack of criticism because too often, early access just feels like an excuse for failure.

We saw it with The War Z, the shallow and broken DayZ clone and we’ll see it again until we start holding these products under the spotlight and enforce standards on them.

ss_1ce54d85694fd1475241895ba0e4ed5bdaa5fa78

So that’s where I am with The Long Dark. A friend sent me a copy insisting that I play it and I did. Where did it get me? Here, in this quagmire of moral ambiguity. Do I talk about the flaws in the game formally, treating it like the final project? I don’t know. I can’t provide you with a comprehensive list of things The Long Dark will have or improve on. I can only give you my impression, and that’s not to say my impression will become invalid at some point. It shouldn’t. Because I obviously think it’s something I should talk about, even given my narrow experience with it, and surely that means that there is an impactful experience to be had.

There’s a lot of things I like in The Long Dark but I still don’t see why it’s getting the media buzz it is. It’s an open sandbox, survivalist game that’s designed to test your skill in the wilderness. You’ll have to deal with getting cold, hungry and tired, and theses systems quickly pile up as the already scarce resources dwindle. The aesthetics are great, sound design and visuals are cool, but there’s just not very many things to do out there in the world. You can’t really enjoy the stunning vistas because you’re worried about getting cold. You can’t really slip into the atmosphere of long abandoned towns because you have to open up a garish menu to stuff food in your face. You can’t look up at the starry night sky because you’ll be spending that time asleep.

More importantly the world feels a little soulless, like it was never populated to begin with. Most post-apocalyptic games litter their world with little notes and stories from before and after the event, and this goes a long way to sell the setting. However The Long Dark completely neglects this. It doesn’t try to sell any kind of narrative and that really hurt my investment in the game.

They made a big deal out of hiring some Triple A voice talent and I can’t help but feel that’s misplaced. Neither Hale or Meer speak enough. When you come across a neat environment you find yourself longing for them to comment on it, but all you’ll get is, a murmur or pant. I don’t object to empty worlds only populated by the player but it just doesn’t make your survival meaningful. After all what’s the reason it trying to survive if it isn’t for other people you know and love. It just ends up feeling a bit vacuous and I can’t help but pine for other human beings. If that sense of isolation is what The Long Dark is trying to achieve then it succeeded. Yet I can’t help but think that it’s been done better. Bastion was a weird little game that felt pretty isolationist, but what prevented it from being vacuous was the narrator, who could arguably be considered as the main character. He talked, he reacted and it was a great sense of investment. I find myself wanting to see that In The Long Dark, it sure as hell could use it.

Maybe these things will be fixed, maybe they won’t. I don’t know, all  I do know is that what The Long Dark is going to be and isn’t going to be is not relevant to me. What it was and how I experienced, That’s what I’ll take away from this.

-PB

The Walking Dead: On choice and Agency

the-walking-dead-2-banner

‘Zombies’, I hear you scream, ‘Zombies!‘. Well shit, not again, I mean Zombies? They’re bloody everywhere. Can we just go a day without some rag-tag Zombie crawling out of a shrub ready and gurgling for a taste of sweet human brain nectar? They’re infesting ever flipping genre we have left. When I was in town last week I found myself in a musky HMV, skirting the decrepit shelves for anything to distract me from another night of tedious and lonely drinking. Yet all I could find was Zombies. Zombie cheerleaders, Zombie Nazis, Zombie tax accountants. Really, it was a very dry collection.

Despite all this though I still love Zombies, and I mean really love them. No not in a necrophiliac sort of way, more in a dude bro 80’s buddy cop homoerotic sort of way. So that’s why I’ve always been attracted to the idea of Zombies. They’re a manifestation of our very real fears of death and decay. You’re not just fighting and endless onslaught of constantly devouring beasts, but an endless onslaught of your own mortality. Unfortunately however most Zombie stories suck and the Walking Dead is no exception. The television show often receives less than stellar reviews and the long running Robert Kirkman comic is criticized for its inability to do almost anything apart from constantly masturbate over itself.

So surprise was had when the most unexpectedly good thing came out of the franchise. Yes I’m talking about the game. Game adaptations are usually nothing more than an exercise in money-making. Sure there have been a few odd games that managed to systemize another story well, but they’re few and far between. Let me refresh your brain, it was the summer of 2012 and the disappointing finales for Mass Effect and Batman had audiences soiling themselves with nerd rage. Telltale hid under their proverbial bed sheets like an embarrassed teenage girl after the Jurassic Park calamity. So quietly and gently they pushed out The Walking Dead, heads hung in shame and collars upturned to hide their hickies.

And holy shit it was great.

Unlike the show there was this conflict between what the player knows and what the character knows. You were always trying to guess what could be the truth, or even how someone really felt. It was a game about wriggling your way out a growing web of obligations to people whose noble and ignoble became so entwined it was hard to tell who they were anymore. It framed this with two elements core to the success of The Walking Dead, choices and episodes.

Choice as a mechanic in games is both overrated and underrated; it’s a cheap means of creating agency for the player even when a protagonist may not have any redeemable qualities. It’s also a means to excessively push a sense interactivity with a narrative even when it would be better served with a linear one. Yet it’s a bit of a fallacy to believe that The Walking Dead a game about choice, because it isn’t. It’s a game about reactions. You don’t so much make choices as you do react to things, and this is highlighted by the games timer. Conversations don’t last forever, they have an ebb and flow and if you take too long thinking or gauging the best way to react you lose out and miss your opportunity to say anything at all. It sort of begs a question but you don’t really recognize it immediately thanks to the assumption choice as a mechanic generally bring up. Specifically the game wants to reinforce the hostility of a world gone mad and bubbling with the undead. It’s a an element that frames freedom as under threat and how the players react to the threat is a core idea the game plays with throughout.

TheWalkingDeadSeason2ReviewImage1

The game has been really clever about how it does this too. It used traditional HUD and UI to reinforce a sense of permanence about your reactions. That people are constantly scrutinizing you or sizing you up. It was a great feedback loop that let characters express everything from threats to love. Seemingly positive choices like sharing the last of your water with a dying man is something the game doesn’t comment on but the characters do. Unlike games that have choice The Walking Dead avoided the temptation to have a morality system. It doesn’t try to gauge what would be good or bad in a situation like that. It leaves that up to you and yours. If you break an obligation to a friend you’ve made because of convenience or something better’s come along they’ll remember, and depending on who they are they might, or might not punish you. It’s refreshing to see that, to see characters in the game make that choice rather than the game itself. It lends them a sense of depth and flexibility that most of the genre is missing. Do you chose to go with the guy you like even though he’s been bitten by a Zombie and possible risk your life? Or do you go with that asshole in the group whose, ”okay” but still a dick? It turns into a sort of aesthetic values question that’s really hard to quantify meaningful for anyone but myself.

You can see this conflict build as the Player meets Jane, a woman who has shelved her obligations for the sake of herself She’s not a good or bad person, but she isn’t a milquetoast character that exists to please the player. She feels guilt over death and mistakes, but she’s also willing to leave those who endanger her behind. The Walking Dead frames this a perfectly viable means of surviving but it wants to ask you at what cost? Whereas surviving with group isn’t an easy thing, it isn’t always unpleasant either. It often leads to death and hurt so you have to choose what is for you. It’s very important I stress that the game doesn’t frame any choice as ultimately better than the other and that’s really important in making this moral quagmire of a conflict work.

The episodic nature of the game also helps Telltale fine tune the experience as they get feedback on how players react. I know I just praised the games lack of Developer insertion but this is a really clever means in creating enough content for the most popular outcomes. The story will inevitably converge to one point but the different branches that take you there and how well they’re fleshed out couldn’t be done if the game was developed all at once. It’s very obvious that new elements enter the story as the seasons are being written. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t but the lack of rigid planning seems to lend itself well to the illusion of diverging paths.

If there’s anything to be said for The Walking Dead is that it’s an iconic entry in the medium that’s likely to see more successful and better produced adaptations in the future. It’s shown that serialization for games can be done. That, complex stories that originally belonged to TV’s domain can be used and told just as effectively elsewhere.

There are things done here that can’t be done in other mediums, but what the value of those things are and how we appreciate them however, well that’s up to us.

-PB

Velvet Assassin: Mein Morphine Brings All the Boys to the Kampf.

capsule_467x181

Oh shit, look, it’s the Nazis. They’re at it again. Seriously do these guys not take a hint? Haven’t we had enough of showing them the hand of almighty western justice? Just how many more jingoistic calls of glory are needed before these fools get the message? Maybe Hitler’s Evil Doom Island of Death and its’ titillating annihilation is just too attractive to step away from. Or maybe it’s just brazen recognition that War and combat is really easy to gamify. So it’s attractive, not only because death makes a really easy lose state, but WW2 also has easily defined ‘bad guys’.

In many ways these aren’t inherently ‘good‘ features of the genre, but certainly important ones to help us understand its once unheeded and totally unprecedented boom in the noughties. However, today the number of games set during that atrocious and sensitive era has dropped considerably. Yet despite all odds we still won’t quit with the Nazis. I guess we’re just too into them. It’s like some twisted, BDSM Stockholm relationship. No matter how much they hurt us we just want more.

That’s where we find Velvet Assassin. It’s an odd game, mostly punctuated by some very weird messages about war. There’s this pseudo anti-war commentary that tends to crop its head when you’re least lusting for it. It just reeks as awkward and preachy because the game already cultivates this disturbing tone about addiction and the conditioning of a professional killer so well. It’s almost as if the developers didn’t trust themselves. They fall back on a couple of very unhealthy tropes, namely sexualisation. This caused a right ruckus because the protagonist is supposed to be a real person. Yeah the game is apparently loosely based on the career of real-life spy Violette Szabo. And by loosely based I mean more fake than the Gulf of Tonkin Incident.

The game is like the last stages of gonorrhea, you know when the infections still there but all that’s left is this slightly itchy feeling at the end of your knob that makes rubbing one out feeling incredibly satisfying. You’ve got to go through a lot of painful sub-par mechanics to get to anything decent. Even then it’s clouded in smiley perversion of both violence and the protagonist that you start questioning if it was worth any of the trouble.

Although despite all that, despite everything, to the awkward ever shifting tone and the dodgy stealth I kind of liked it. It was dark in a ‘Theif’-y sort of way that felt smarter than most games. It didn’t feel as if it was supposed to be edgy for the sake of enticing the also ‘edgy‘ kids. Somewhere somehow someone wanted to make this game because they had a story to tell, and while it may be lame and muted there’s an atmosphere still there. One that I think is only pronounced because the people who worked on it cared in some capacity. It’s just such a shame to see the end product get torn up into a jigsaw of cruddy video game tropes. All that’s good here is tainted by the attraction of brining in a larger audience by flaunting milkshakes to bring all the boys to the Kampf.

If you see it for a couple of pence take a look, otherwise, just avoid it like The Third Reich.

-PB

Let’s Rant ’bout: Watch Dogs

watch_dogs_wallpaper_by_neosayayin-d563o6l-1-copy

What is it with crime based open world sandbox games and their obsession with dogs? We just had Sleepy Dawgs from Square and now we’re getting Watch Dogs from Ubisoft? I guess the next entry will be Nintendo reviving Nintendogs in their new series Guantanamo Guard Dogs. You get to bark into the Wii U gamepad when you move the starving prisoners around their cells for the daily cavity search.

Anyway a recent trailer brought Watch Dogs back from the brink of obscurity and it’s caused a bunch of buzz and hearsay all around the unwashed forums of the internet. This was after a rather unfortunate setback where the game found itself delayed for several months. It was supposed to ride high as an early release game for the next-gen platforms but for whatever reason it found itself unready to perform.

Yet what has my jimmies rustled is not just the bombastic Call Of Duty esque trailer spinning around, no, It’s a fourteen minute tech demo released back in September.

Trailer:

=

Now there are so many broken premises brought up by the commentary that make the game’s morality feel like it’s built on a pretty huge, fuck off fallacy. There’s this weird justification for Aiden Pearce’s killing sprees. The people the game entices you to kill supposedly have ‘shadowy pasts’. Which is vague enough justification to allow Aiden to kill indiscriminately with absolutely no guilt or remorse. So the idea is that this mega corporation is hiring convicted felons to guard the facilities. And no this obviously isn’t part of a government scheme to rehabilitate people.  No, no, it’s far more malicious than that! Because something, something Human trafficking…

So you take a very awkward, complex issue like human trafficking and stick it into a pulpy self-indulgent video game? I don’t mean to be one that harps about ludonarrative dissonance but it feels like they are trying to damn hard to make Aiden Batman. Now I’m not Batman’s biggest fan. At the best of times he’s an altruistic fascist kicking names and taking ass. But you know what? That’s okay. Because Batman usually isn’t that deep. Sure the characters are slick and insightful but it never wraps itself around too many real world problems. It’s a fantasy, a cartoon. Watch Dogs isn’t though, and if it is it shouldn’t be. You can’t take an issue like that and not treat it with some form of care otherwise you’re going to end up reducing the people who have suffered at the hands of such an industry into a cheap action hero trope. And I think they deserve a little more respect than that.

Maybe my skepticism about games struggling with serious topics is because I  just don’t think games have the brevity or maturity they need yet to tackle such things. Yet it’s not like Watch Dogs helps itself. It only compacts this problem by reaching for the anti-hero trope, unintentionally idolising an unsound man with very unsound methods. He kills and maims people to get what he wants and it doesn’t feel like there will be any real consequence to this. Yet there’s even a bigger issue. You see games aren’t like movies. They have systems, and the way these systems work and are played out have a very real effect on that games tonal impression. So when you have a multiplayer mode that’s about trolling and getting revenge you’re sort of distracting attention from the focus of the game. In fact that’s one of the biggest problems with all these previews, a general lack of focus. In Watchy Dawgs case those systems look like they merely extend to violent acts.

The tagline of the game is that ‘everything is connected’. Which is rather ironic because the game itself is so conflicted with its own ideals. On one hand it wants to be some insightful modern commentary on the way we view people as consumerist objects, while also being a pulpy Jason Bourne romp. Its systems don’t connect with its tone, which is a real shame because that harmony between the story and the player’s agency and interests is way more powerful than any pre-rendered cut-scene can be.

Let’s just hope this apparent disconnect is exaggerated by the game’s PR and is not representative of the final product at large…

Although the cynical side of me (if I have a side that isn’t cynical) believed that the game is going to be a bit of a moral clusterfudge.

Thanks

-PB

Music Videos: The World of Covers

3182496072_9e473b6c9e_o

Now I know I haven’t written anything since new years so excuse my abruptness but I just encountered a video quite late in the day, AKA: 11:50pm, that I wanted to talk about.  I spent most of my day working and writing, and as I did so I listened to music. A lot of that music was cover songs of other various popular albums. Why? Well I like that spin on them, plus you don’t have to sit through an obnoxious advert on YouTube to listen to the music video in question. However when I was justifying why I listen to cover songs I began questioning why I was even on YouTube for my music… I mean there are thousands of dedicated platforms for new artists all over the internet, yet I find myself ultimately drawn to YouTube. Then I realised why… It’s the video. 

Experiencing a cover in a vacuum away from a human face makes you lose the worth of the person performing. You see a cover is different from the original because the person signing is not doing it for money but purely for passion, and that passion is muted without video. Without that visual element to the music you’d never see the dusty bedrooms, the sneering concentration on the faces of singers as the fumble for lyrics in their heads, or the worn instruments they pluck. I know it sounds hubristic and ultimately romantic but it’s true. You can even see the extremely fast progression of this new genre. We’ve moved from webcams to dedicated film cameras, with correctly composed shots.

I’ll offer two videos for an example:

The first is a cover made in 2010, (Jesus can you believe that was four years ago?) where in very little happens.

Sure it’s simple, and certainly not the focus of the content, but that doesn’t mean that no appreciation can be had from the video. Without it we’d never see that concentration, that drive. There’s a force that leaves the artist stuck, stoically staring at the ground, hunched over their guitar. We’d never know that this song wasn’t recorded in a studio, we’d never know that someone sang on the floor in the bedroom. That’s what video offers to music, that’s what, in my opinion, has helped the development and popularity of covers. It’s raw and unadulterated people, not highly refined and polished celebrities. In short, it’s just ruddy endearing.

This second video was made in 2012 by the same person: 

It clearly has style, heck it even has skill behind it. I’m not even sure that I could be so graceful and quick with a focus pull. It’s a huge change from the webcam video, it’s got movement, changing focus and even visual effects. Unless they really did shoot on black and white film, something I highly doubt….

Yet it’s still effectual. How you ask? Well two words, continuous shot, it never breaks or cuts, or at least I didn’t notice it doing so when I watched it at midnight high on diet coke and chocolate jelly beans. So why does the continuous shot mean anything? Well It lets us know it was one take, the room might have changed, the style and production values certainly have, but there’s still that gorilla edge to it. It’s not a visual gag, or a cheap ploy to up view counts. It’s film that’s shot in a complementary style to the music, understated, raw and unedited (minus the aforementioned black and white filter). It’s the right treatment for music in videos, not flashy sex stuff or stupid effects.

Anyway that’s my brief analysis into music videos, hope you enjoyed. Oh and Remember that it’s all thanks to the democratization of video distribution this, well genre was birthed. Otherwise we’d never experience anything of the like.

-PragmaticBrick