The Long Dark: The Cold Lark

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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.

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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

#Realtalk: Depression and games.

Hello once again and welcome to this little section I’m calling ‘#Realtalk’, where I’ll hopefully be covering more topics that have greater correlation with real life. Who’d have guessed it. 

So the subject on the table today is depression and why and how games fit into it! Yay, get ready for a non-stop thrill ride of pure positivity. Well if you’re still here you might know I’m a snarky shallow contrarian that often wants to appear as some sort of intellectual. This sounds sordid I know but let me explain something in a long and confusing tangent. You see in my experience in the field of life I’ve seen so many individuals seek validation, either through the friends they make and know, the things they like, or the responses they might get on their blog or youtube channel. It’s a fact of biological existence that life seeks for life and so many of us stumble through the clout and confusion of self-awareness just to find another and hear some validation. Sometimes we all need someone to tell us to keep going, someone to say that we are actually doing something good, that we are doing something right.

English: Sigmund Freud
Why didn’t daddy love me!?!?

Why we do this would be too hard for me to explain, perhaps it’s some Freudian feeling of wanting to get the praise that daddy never gave you, but I digress. Freud is not what we came here to talk about, I wanted to discuss depression and why those afflicted with it feel like they can never get that affirmation or sense of belonging that we all seek. I’ve been an individual whose suffered with the illness that is depression for the majority of my life. It’s a family ailment that has existed all the way up my bloodline, a nice little parting gift from my great-great grandfather if you will. Now I hide a lot of my emotions through humour, mostly because I’m afraid to deal with them. That’s the thing about depression it makes you feel bad and then makes you feel even worse for feeling bad. It’s a hard thing to talk about without feeling pathetic and harder still to not appear as a drama queen when ‘whining‘ about it. When your self-confidence and emotions are so highly strung due to depression it’s more than likely that you’ll be seen as melodramatic. This is not because Depression is necessarily something only suffered by those who are more emotional, it’s a lot of the time exactly the opposite. However for these reasons it leads to isolation and forces those stuck with it to think and often feel like they are either complaining over nothing or that they will get accused of being self-defeating. That was the case for me at least, and upon talking to many other’s I can confirm I was not alone in those thoughts. I’m obviously overgeneralising quite a lot here to prevent myself from writing a dissertation but depression is seen as a weakness most of the time by those actually bearing it. So this is why, myself included find it so hard to talk about, its why so many don’t deal with their issue and don’t get help.

Depression is like a worm and like a worm it will eat through your best bits, poking tiny tears and holes that eventually will pustulate into doubts and self hate. It causes anxiety, fear, every negative word in your vocabulary. I personally got lost in my bedroom, I wouldn’t leave, I wouldn’t want to get up in the morning and I most certainly didn’t want to talk about it. Why? Because I didn’t want to deal with it, I didn’t want to risk having those ideas and doubts my depression had created inside my head being confirmed. Seems rather cowardly I know but it’s almost impossible to gain perspective while you’re having a depressive swing.

Now this is where games come in, they were a tool I used to escape my immediate reality and the immersive hugeness of games helped me to encompass someone elses issues instead of my own. Games became more than a escape for me and more like a crutch to help me get through daily life. It helped me construct goals for myself and achieve things while I would otherwise be wallowing. Games have an inherit constructive nature that’s governed by rules and for the most part these rules make sense. Skill is rewarded with success and praise, i.e affirmation. Games bridged a certain gap for me and allow me to hear that praise without having to face those fears, it was a roundabout way of me actually feeling accomplished and good about myself. I saved the world from the Darkspawn, I killed Hitler several dozen times, I’ve built gorgeous beach houses and I’ve even become a master thief.  These achievements and the standard win-state structuring of games became a lifesaver for me and helped me reconstruct my routine and operate in daily life again, if not just for a little while.

Of course games aren’t the be all end all of the world and a lot of the time they can actually deepen depression. Synaesthesia is one hell of a drug and that sense of accomplishment and acceptance can become addicting. Worse yet I found it all to easy to see games as the only area in life I could succeed in. Games can more often than not transform from a crutch that helps into a syringe that you can’t stop using. Balance is key but as I’ve said perspective is hard to find when emotions your are intensely consuming. On occasion games have provided me with something I thought never possible, a small virtual gateway into another life governed by my own ability. My strength, wits and cunning would lead me through my perils and it gave me a sense that there was more worth fighting for. Yet on the flip side games have become addicting to me, I’ve abandoned friends and family members to keep playing because the virtual world became more important than my real life. Games appear to hold the emotions and meanings we attribute to them, they can be transitive forms of work that alter the way we structure our life, for good and bad.

Now I’ve spent a lot of time yapping and not really saying a great deal, but finally I’ll lead on to what really wanted me to make this post.

This Video:

I implore you to watch it, it’s relatively short and it provided me with another bridge, one that prevented me from not feeling so alone in my escapism. So if you or anyone else you know suffers from depression try sharing this video with them, and maybe just maybe they might feel the same way I do. 

P.S: If you are struck with the gracious gift that is depression I highly recommend you contact your local GP or call one of the many helplines out there such as Good Samaritans. You can also check out a relativy anonymous reddit board if you’re feeling a little shyer at /r/depression.

Loaded: Bioshock Infinite

BioShock (series)
System Sho… Oh, I mean BioShock

Here we are again, how long has it been since we last visited the grand museum that is the Bioshock series? Whatever you do don’t ask irrational games as they’ve completely forgotten. Bioshock Infinite is the third game in the highly appreciated Bioshock series. It shocked (pun intended) many young minds back in 2007 when millions of gamers who had never touched a book before encountered something called a story arch. Yes I know, it’s a rare and alien feature to most games, shooters especially. Yet at its core Bioshock was a glossy mechanical and thematic remake of the fabled System Shock games. It featured isolation, entrapment and claustrophobia as the player was forced into a bizarre world of beauty and fear. It mixed emergent gameplay with old school resource management. Mechanically it wasn’t a perfect game but it streamlined the previously slow and more methodical planning of the system shock games. This meant just about any old pleb could pick it up and play it. The story on the other hand was… We’ll let’s say, entertaining, if I’m being generous. It wasn’t bad, actually it had a lot of memorable moments, but it isn’t the pinnacle of storytelling most gamers make it out to be. It was a game that relied on a twist, you know the type. A game where you have to avoid all trailers and internet forums for months on end in order to remain unspoiled. This twist became legendary amongst gamers and worryingly became an expected feature of the franchise. As I’m sure you can guess this obviously became a rather prickly elephant for Irrational to handle when it came to Bioshock Infinite.

So enough with the preamble and let me tell you what infinite is in one concise and short sentence.

It’s a lot of unfinished things all pulling in the wrong direction.

Yeah, descriptive huh? What I’m trying to say while delicately avoiding spoilers is that Infinite is trying to be too much and at the same time to little. It’s a game that has abandoned all the best mechanics of emergent gameplay the previous Bioshock games had while trying to imitate it’s big Call of Shooty brother. It has removed all the resource management and has instead thrown up a bunch of gory and explosive set pieces.

Now maybe, just maybe, you’re reading this and asking, ‘well what’s wrong with that? Every other game does it now a days.’. Hell, you would be right in most instances, but Bioshock is not just every other game. It’s a game that really tries to comment on the human condition. It wants to be political or emotional yet it can’t, no, won’t settle on a tone for its own good.

BioShock Infinite takes place on the steampunk...
BioShock Infinite takes place on the steampunk air-city of Columbia.

The original Bioshock as I said wasn’t a perfect story however that didn’t stop it from questioning player adjacency in games. The first and I still believe best game in the series confronted the player with their actions by making them confront the reasons they took place in them in the first place. It was topical at a time where games were devolving into simple objective, follow, shoot target, hallways, where the actions of the player were never even recognised. Despite Bioshock’s museum esque story where it tended to show more than it discussed, the game still had some emotional resonation. It used the player’s own goals as a way of twisting a knife  into the player’s back right when you thought the game was over. This is what made it more than a run of the mill spiritual remake. It gave the Bioshock series its own pair of legs to stand on. After aping so much from System Shock it was gratifying to see Bioshock earn its own. This is why so many expect twists and question like this from Bioshock, it was all it really had that made it unique, that made it Bioshock instead of System Shock.

Yet, I digress Infinite is what we should be talking about.

The game wants to be about the darkest part of our nature. It displays the very worst of a culture rich in racism, fascism, theocratic law and utopian ideals that slowly collapse to reveal a terrifying dystopia. It is a game that touches so close to discussing the inhumanity man can inflict on man, the violence prevalent between our own in an environment seemingly full of plenty. However nothing ever happens. The game suddenly skips story beats every five minutes as it unwaveringly opens its floodgates to spongy, bloody and downright unnervingly sanitized shooting sections. The doors ahead of you will swing shut as a previously locked side passage will upon as a torrent of enemies will bum rush you like rats. You’ll mow down hundreds, and hundreds of people just because it’s expected from the game’s genre. Infinite has doomed any legacy or coherence the ludic  part of the game might of had with the narrative by producing such unnatural and unnecessary conflict. The player will see and experience dark tragedies and touching moments of compassion followed with a huge skirmish with explosions and face cutting the in the space of just a few minutes. Any regard for human life is chucked off the side of Columbia with any integrity the story had.

I could yatter about this ludicrous narrative dichotomy between the game and the cut scenes all day but as the game is still new I will prevent myself. I don’t think I can continue to discuss this game in such a nonspecific way without losing my coherency.

Elizabeth(BioShock)
The classic cleavage trope, by the Queen’s law every game must have it.

Without saying more it’s such a shame that infinite, most likely the last game in the series takes such a huge step back mechanically. I not only found this game mightily repetitive with its level and enemy design ripped straight from a closet shooter from the mid noughties, but I also found it depressing that such a great story concept was so poorly conceived. Bioshock infinite is a grade A example of why game stories can’t be serious until developers take action to tackle their currently existing game systems.

Bioshock is a game that would have benefited from either removing or slowing down the violence. It’s not a game that suits constant shooting and killing. It seems that there’s one rule for Narratives and another for gameplay. It damaged my experience with the game as I’m sure it did many others.

What Bioshock does well is something worthy of praise, but when it falters under it’s own triple A weight it’s more easily recognised as a game that reeks of cheap design  mechanics and an even cheaper narrative that’s constantly compromised. Next time you want to make a game about all these complex emotions that pepper our own world, make sure you’ve got something deeper going for you then the many different ways you can kill a guy with bullets.