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

Spookin’ Halloween Rhyme: Ode to Dark Souls

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On a night just like this not to long ago, sat a gamer at home all alone. He was no ordinary fellow, he was a completionist at heart, an obsessive little kid with a lot of gaming smarts. He only cared for a win that would make him grin, but when a game came along that he could not beat he would storm off in quite a disdainful heat. It was a trait that consumed every facet of his life, and eventually controlled him like unchecked mites. He could not be happy with normal or average, he had to have more and get an advantage. If he could not finish a game and beat every feat, he’d toss it away in a destructive defeat.

So here the boy found himself, alone and bored, facing a game he could not ignore.

PREPARE TO DIE it cried from the front, and in a big fat font you had to confront. It sat in his hands his breath alight, ”I’ve got to have it” he muttered with a dizzy delight. This was a game that would challenge his skills and if he could beat it he could ease his ills. So with the swipe of a card and the flash of a bag he took it back to his home all for him to have.

But what did he find? It was no normal game, the disk was marked without a name. ”Was I given the wrong box?” he hissed with a frown, ”or did that cheap little shop try to sell me a flop?!” His cries left unanswered he looked at the box, DARK SOULS in big fat letters embossed on the box. Staring at the two, disc in one hand he thought to himself what sounded quite mad. Maybe the game is still there, just a simple mistake, the logo on the front just lacking in place. 

So he rammed in the disk and installed the game, nothing seemed odd and all his troubles started slipping away. There it was right on the screen chalenging him to fight, PREPARE TO DIE, it screamed, ”yes this is right”.

He cocked open a beverage and with a hiss of the beer he began a new level, with a chalenging smile and good cheer. This time he would do it, he would win the game. No failures again, those are far too lame.

He gazed at his computer screen as the message was clear, choose your character at a price quite dear. ‘Forfeit your soul and fight for it back, this is a challenge that won’t leave you intact’. The message was strange and somewhat benail, but he chose to push on and play to the final. As he chose his character a face could be seen that looked dangerously obscene. There was a knight all clad in black his armour twisted into rags. The knight had a stare that peered through smoke, and the gamer did laugh as much he did choke. ‘Okay that’s quite cool’ he baffled with amuse. The game had scared him when playing with character tools. Edging close to screen he clicked confirm. This was his warrior, his soul for the chore, ready to wage all kinds of gorey war.

With a flash of a screen and a whirring of fans our gamer did see a world gone mad. The dead did not die, nor rest at night, they just soldered on like mad dogs with no minds. The land was plagued with a blight of deadly dismay and nothing was safe not even doorways. The world was consuming and totally toxic, our little gamer friend found it just his kind of neurotic. ‘Look at this game!‘ he said with a cry, ‘what wonderful bounties await deep inside!?’ . 

So he played and he played, it was easy at first, people didn’t move and never did he hurt. The fights were so small, average at best, he always felt like he was at least two steps ahead. ‘No monster has slain me or even come close, how bad of this game to unrightfully boast.’ As he harrumphed with a grunt he notice the black Knight, it was glaring at him and gave him a terrible fright. The creature was tall so lean and contrite, it looked like something out a cheesy horror night. ‘What is his deal’, the Gamer called out, ‘is he a boss that’s waiting to pounce?‘ But no strike did occur nor hint that he cared, the Knight just watch with a distant stare.

The gamer confused looked right back at this man, and thought the Knight’s sword would be better than his own lance. So a plan started to form, a bowl of ideas, ‘‘lead him out here, tease his ears’‘. So the gamer made mocks and gestures for a fight, but the Knight never flinched, not even a slight. A furrlowed brow crossed his face, and in a shiny fit of rage he felt disgraced. ‘Preeeepare to die?! What mock is this, it’s just a PR fad, no threat exists. Why won’t this man fight me is he scared of my might? Only one way to find out, I’m surely coaxing a fight. ‘ 

The gamer enraged, charged at the knight and then suddenly there was movement much to his delight. The creature was running, leaning around, but the gamer was fast and started a bout. This was it, sweaty palms and hands, the gamer hit with a clang and a crash, but his blow was deflected just like that. ‘HOW!?’ he screamed with a glimmer of rage, upset by this challenge that now seemed too great. The Creature now circled him like weak little pray, the rusty old lance his only escape. Stike again he did with some force, but the monster simply adjusted his course. It was no use, he was far too slow, no stike of his would ever end in a blow. Then the Knight weighed down with cleaver in hand, and began what would be the end of our Gamer’s journey in this land.

The cut hit him deep, his character wounded, red covered the screen as he watches blood oozes. No not the end, not just yet, the gamer was still alive if only by the skin of his neck. He dived and ducked avoiding another attack, but ended up rolling too far back. The gamer was trapped between the Knight and a ledge, having to choose which fate he would test. The ledge would be his, a choice of his own, and escape from the monster that had wreaked him so.Yet the urge to fight was still strong and the gamer couldn’t give up when he was so far along. The irk to fight was now instilled, the wannabe hero held his ground on this burning battlefield. Though no glorious victory was had, just a shredding of flesh in a quick, quick flash. One strike took him down, the gamer now dead, his character missing a large part of his head.

-PragmaticBrick

Beyond Two Souls: Connection in a Cage

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It’s hard to quantify what Beyond: Two Souls is, mostly because it is just a few too many things at once. It can be a tragic story about childhood institutionalisation, or a story about the invisible struggle of the Homeless or even an action movie full of blockbuster like slow-motion fights. It’s as if Beyond is; excuse the pun, beyond the concept of genre. It breaks and reforms itself so many times it can be an emotionally jarring experience, but that isn’t to say there isn’t anything of emotional worth here. The game is wrapped in this aggressively alluring metaphor for our connection with those who’ve left us and it can be deeply powerful when implemented correctly. The Two Souls motif persistent throughout the game may appear as a surface level gimmick but it goes deeper than that. It can act as a reciprocal for our emotional reaction in the game, our interaction with smashing or pushing or even healing can be easily informed by our cultivated state. The game has a message, one that’s deeply personal even to some disturbing degrees. David Cage’s vision for this game is ripe for an impressionist breakdown, however I think the subjectivism of such an analysis would deem such a discussion as deeply fickle. So instead I’ll try and talk about its delivery and motives.

The game’s rather fatalistic and dire tone can be magnetic and enthusing. There are plenty of moments where you can’t help but emphasise with the characters and relate in some manner. Whether it’s to do with the game’s handling of sentiment or atmosphere it’s easy to get sucked in and feel the love and warmth poured into the game by the developers. However above all this the game’s focus seems to be death. I don’t know the details of Mister Cage’s life, (the lead writer for Quantic Dream), but it’s easy to see that he has a very personal story to tell. If you’ve ever revelled in bad movies you might have heard, or even seen the notorious title ‘The Room’.  The Director, writer, lead actor, producer of the film went by the name of Tommy Wiseau. Tommy was a gentleman who tried to tell his hyper personal story about a broken relationship and his own suicide attempt through this film. Yet unfortunately for him it turned into a nightmarish film popularized by sneering cynics everywhere. To some extent it’s a hard movie to watch because it can be so awful but mostly it’s hard to watch because of its closeness with the writer. The man who’s all over the movie has projected and injected so much of himself it’s hard to tell where the movie as media ends and where Tommy the Man begins. This is sort of how Beyond can feel. In one scene Defoe’s character, Richard Dawkins, suffers a devastating loss which is forcefully delivered. Defoe appears to look at the camera, (the only time in the game) and mumbles about a drunk driver. Like I said, I know nothing about Cage’s losses, but this delivery felt very self-aware and motivated. However I find myself wondering where I can justly enforce criticism and where I can’t. It’s ‘The Room‘ dilemma, the melding of the personal self-insertion polarised against the story at large.

Although this isn’t the only dichotomy the game suffers as it swings from issue to issue with little warning. The game is told in this continuous manner, it’s the most extreme implementation of in media res. Yes here come the fancy literary terms. The game has oddly defined barriers between the quiet sombre young adult fiction like moments and action trailer fluff moments. It is wonderful and gratifying to experience when it is low and simple but too often and too frequently it is undercut by its rampant overproduction. Yet once again I am conflicted in my criticism, videogames are so often over produced for unnecessary means. Everything has to be bigger, better and filled with more artificial melodrama then whatever came before. So in many ways it’s a miracle that Beyond Two Souls can be so quiet and pedestrian. It’s an untapped resource in games, turning the banal into systems and lives into interactive vignettes. These were the moments in the game I felt genuine human empathy. I felt the loss of people I didn’t know. Relieved heartfelt losses from my own life and recalled the lowest moments of my own experiences with grief. If that’s what Cage above all else wanted to do then I’d say he did it. Like all people who have become haunted Beyond can really resonate with you. Although this isn’t all Cage did for Beyond

You see, Cage doesn’t have an editor to focus his visions, there’s nobody to focus his ideas and scale him back from that overproduced, more than necessary irking he has. Yet it can be an endearing style, if not a little lacking in holism. The game can suffer that inert dissonance between the story and play that all games seem to have. The introverted, trodden down girl that is Jodie suddenly turns into an action hero and the jumpy timeline doesn’t help that transition. The game seems to force in a military assassination mission and while the outcome is required for the plots sake its resolution is shaky and leaves you feeling disenfranchised. Thematically and tonally the game changes here and not for the better, which is a deep, deep shame.

Despite all Beyond’s niggles, its passion and style makes me sort of love it. I pushed for more in the game because more often than not it rewards you in such a uniquely satisfying way rare in this industry. It handles death, sex and growing up with a maturity that even most TV shows can’t achieve, and it that regard it should be praised. Yet a larger more cynically just part of me can’t absolve the game’s faults. The last act can be overbearingly offensive in its manner of blatant artifice and dramatization. It gets that overproduction bug that all games have to be bigger and better. Maybe it is something innate to the industry, maybe the process of development with that swath of resources and those pressures of the standard makes the concept of big attractive.

That being said convent isn’t something Quantic Dream is known for, after all this is one of a scarily small number of games that features a female protagonist. It’s a shame that one of my major hobbies is marred in such tripe discourse when it comes to diversity, yet the reality feeds expectation, and expectation feeds reality. Jodie is a great character to see, not just because she is a woman, but because she is a character. The game part of Beyond is a little different too. It’s this burgeoning Movie melded with gamey parts. I’m a player that likes emergent gameplay so it’s an achievement on Quantic’s part that I can feel so engaged even though I have so little interaction.

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Well this brings me to choice, something that I’ve talked about a lot. Games trivialize them so often and so aggressively that most consider them an ill or even false feat. In truth you don’t have a lot of control over the outcome of Jodie’s life in its entirety, yet you still can quite dramatically force scenes to play out differently. Perhaps it’s some metaphor for Jodie’s lack of control of her life and destiny. The only huge, huge choice you get is towards the end of the game and I think that would be quite a good descriptor for her journey to freedom and discovery.

Now I’ve talked about the game I need to talk about its effect on me. Not long ago I lost someone dear to me. It was an experience that I don’t think I could ever cultivate with words. It made me feel empty and distant from not only the world and routines around me but myself. Perhaps it was the time, perhaps it was the game itself, but moments in the game made me re-recognise myself and how I dealt with my grief. For the first time in a long time I thought about the fragility of life again, and this game helped me cultivate that idea. After I had finished the game, soaked it all in, I felt a little empty. That kind of emptiness that can only be filled by the ones you loved. I picked up the phone, rang those I care for and simply told them of my fondness. So if you must have a conclusion that is all I can offer.

If you do or don’t care to experience this game you at least have to respect its efforts and the stories behind them. Nevertheless do yourself a favour and pick up a phone, that’s a message the game seems to push. The concept of reaching out, finding someone to understand, or at least help yourself understand. For me that was Beyond: Two Souls, it wasn’t a spy story, an action film, or a melodrama it was about a bond.

P.S: Play the game in Co-op, it’s both a riot and a great representation of the game’s metaphor for connection.

-PragmaticBrick

Gone Home: Escaping From Escapism

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Now I don’t usually prefix posts with giant spoiler warnings but Gone Home is a special case. So if you have at least a passing interest in playing it without any preconceptions don’t read this. That being said if you’re reading this header you’re more than likely to have finished the game or at least have no existing interest in playing it. I’ll try not to rely on names so you might be able to read this and remain relatively unspoiled.

We’ve become accustomed to immersive escapism in our games, so much so that it’s often rare to find a game that even tries to mimic our own reality. We’re so used to artifice that anything resembling our real world is a completely alien in a game space. Not to say we don’t explore issues and topics that surround our real life through escapism but those issues we do explore are greatly muted thanks to their fantastical nature. Rarely have games tried to break this mold, we tend to be more comfortable with wizards and super soldiers dealing with emotional and social issues rather than anyone that resembles a real person doing the same. We’ve shied away from ourselves and while I’ll admit my morning routine isn’t very exciting and certainly wouldn’t make up a grandiose adventure there’s still lots of interesting aspects to my life and millions of others that are left completely unexplored in the medium of games. The way we operate socially and culturally are hardly touched upon by games, you’re more likely to find a game displaying the life of a fictional, ennobled murdering machine learning to love his beefy companions in a professional way than a game about a single mother struggling with unpaid debts. Perhaps we’re just too squeamish though, blood and gore is fine to deal with because once we turn off that game it’s gone from our lives. However stories about financial and social problems are very real part of our world so it’s easy to see why that brief moment of escape from it all is so attractive. So preamble had let’s talk about Gone Home, a game that’s willing to bring up the hard stuff, and yes, it’s not wrapped in metaphor or fancy, it’s just a story about a home and a family, that’s it. Shocking I know. 

Continue reading “Gone Home: Escaping From Escapism”

Saints Row: failing to capitalise on metaphor

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Capitalism ho! 

It’s quite amazing just how many games have an economy that mimics our own. I’d say the games industry is almost obsessed with the idea of feeding gold coins to the player after every fight, but why is it so attractive? Well it’s a way to establish a curve of character progression. The more guys you kill the stronger you get so you can kill even more guys to get even more stuff, and so on and so forth. Eventually getting to the point where you’ll be able to wipe out the population of Reno in one fell swoop. That’s how games have been dealing with difficulty for the last thirty or so years. It’s an IV drip that allows the development of the player’s apparent power and prowess. Not only that but it can act as a form of narrative tension producing a sense of rising action as the player faces mounting adversity. It’s a basic plot device that’s been in popular practice since, well the start of record literature. Yet I digress, what does this have to do with Saints Row? It’s a rather brazen and hard to ignore game, it’s flashy, gordy and even suffers from sneering demagoguery. It’s a game that is so enamored with it’s own parodying of gang-culture and lauded craziness that it often fails to represent its more meaningful features. It used the concept of consumer capitalism and then incorporated it into the gold feeding trope video-games love so much to influence the player and the world yet it failed to say anything meaningful with it. This failed metaphor was all done through the concept of identity being related to brands. Character customisation was not just encouraged but required, yet you couldn’t fully define your avatar’s identity without spending, lots of scrupulous spending. It’s a hard metaphor to explain, especially since Saints Row The Third suffered tremendously in presenting the idea when compared to the last game. However I’ll try my best by dissecting my feelings for the third game and it’s soon to be released sequel.

Now I’m not someone who really enjoyed Saints Row, I certainly wouldn’t say it’s a bad game, nor is it unworthy of it’s appreciation in its medium. It’s just not what thought it was. I find it frustrating, the biggest game in the franchise is the most diluted and demeaned thanks to its failings in understanding itself. This is compacted by the fact that the highly anticipated sequel is even more skewed and obscured under its own weight of misinterpretation by fans and devlopers alike. Saints Row is almost always referred to as  simple ‘fun‘. Daemon Hatfield of IGN, (a highly respected journalistic establishment) claimed that Saints Row ‘shows the player a good time‘ and ‘is not art‘, but is it really? These claims have been produced and reproduced countless times by ill-informed masses with little to no thought given to any of the game’s other elements. It’s far easier to repeat an easily digestible idea than to invent and defend one of your own volition… (Get it Volition? They make the game….)

Continue reading “Saints Row: failing to capitalise on metaphor”

Loaded: The problem with the Protagonist.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been neglecting my duties by playing good’ol fashioned MUDS incessantly. I even pulled out an old TADS interpreter in an attempt to recapture a nostalgic magic. All this was brought about by two things, the fact that I’m defragging my hard drive, and my long lasting yearning for decent introspective character. Now be warned this is sort of a follow up to my ‘what the hell is choice’ article where I incoherently rambled for a half a page about a playwright. So with that preamble in mind let’s get down to action and rant.

I’ve never been a fan of the mid-twenties something white male protagonist because of what they represent, not necessarily what they are. After all race and gender shouldn’t be detrimental to a character’s personality. Yet just why is this mundane boring character motif so prominent in the gaming industry if it’s not for those characteristics?

Now before we start deconstructing why video game protagonists are mostly vacuous vessels we have to define what a protagonist is. We also have to discuss the status quo for the industry and why it exists. Doing such a thing is never easy as it involves generalisation, and we all know that relies on basis, stereotypes and a typically quite narrow world view.  So I’ll try to wean myself away from this tool as much as possible.

How am I going to perform this deconstruction? Well by tangentially linking it to a bunch of riff raff of course! I’ll be talking about the disparity in tenor and meaning in gameplay sections compared to non-interactive sections then discuss the effects that has on our ‘avatar’ and their characterisation.

So what is a video game? To me it should be an interactive story, an environment that you traverse and experience through active participation. In my eyes emergent stories are a good thing, I don’t think I’ve ever screamed out in joy when my control over the game is snatched away. Games have had this obsession with non-interactive scenes, I.e cut scenes. I wouldn’t necessarily call them a bad thing, but in truth many games have tipped the balance too far. No longer are cut scenes required in the mass due to ‘technical limitations’ yet they are still considered the only way to tell a cogent story in a game. Cinematography has been bleeding into the gaming scene for this past generation and it’s turned a lot of games into things they shouldn’t be, movies. The way we experience a movie is different to the way we experience a game for two innate reasons.

  1. We are a moving force in the story.
  2. As player’s we have agency and a goal.

What do I mean by a moving force and agency? Well in part we progressively invest ourselves into the game’s world through the act of play. The simple challenges the game poses at the player changes our involvement in that world. Dark Souls is visualised as a brutal and dark world not just through its atmosphere and aesthetic but through its punishing gameplay. Play in Dark Souls reinforces the world of the game, the player has next to no respite and the only thing that can record their journey ultimately revives the monsters they’re hiding from. It’s physiologically challenging as we become responsible for a world we have value in. Brutal stories in the game are not told by an epitaph of a grand nature but from the player’s own conflict and adversity. You exist unequivocally as one with your avatar. The distinction between the journey the protagonist takes as a narrative character and you take as a player is linked to the energy you expel in the task at hand, either through physical reactionary challenges or cerebral intellectual interaction.

Continue reading “Loaded: The problem with the Protagonist.”