Monthly Archives: February 2020

Just Quadrilaterals

Thomas Was Alone is a game about rectangles. Okay, there are some squares, but all the characters in the game are basic colored quadrilateral polygons. The story of theses characters is one that will make you feel things you wouldn’t expect a story about colored quadrilateral polygons to make you feel.

Gameplay-wise, Thomas is a fairly straightforward platformer. You, as Thomas or another one of the shapes, jump and maneuver your way upwards and to the right. Like any platformer, really. Mario, MegaMan, Sonic; you’re almost always moving to the right. Nothing special there. Where Thomas Was Alone shines is in its narrative cladding. Chapters are given a small preamble that reads like developer’s notes on a project or excerpts from a later book on the events of the game. They’re snippets of flavor text that set the game in a bigger scale, they tell of the kindling of true Artificial Intelligence and of selflessness. But that’s not where the meat of the story comes in.


It’s the narration, presented clear and wry by Danny Wallace, that really communicates the story. In each level, the narrator tells us what the characters are thinking (“Thomas was alone. What a weird first thought to have.”) as they move through the level. Now, the old adage does say to show, not tell, and Thomas Was Alone does a fair amount of telling, in that it’s through the narration that we find out that Thomas is an inquisitive rectangle who makes notes of his observations, or that Claire wants to be a superhero, or that Chris and Laura are falling for each other. The narrator tells this, and so we ascribe these emotions and intentions to the plain rectangles doing the most basic of platforming.

As humans, we intrinsically interpret events as stories and narratives. Not just in our own lives, but in what we see happening. In 1944 Marianne Simmel and Fritz Heider published An Experimental Study of Apparent Behavior wherein the showed a simple animation of a bunch of shapes moving about the screen and had observers describe what happened. Despite the animation being crude and, uh, just shapes, stories were described of violence and heartbreak; shapes were described as being mean or scared.

Again, this is all just shapes.

But we as people have a tendency to not just tell stories, but to anthropomorphize the world around us. When we see a big triangle closing in on a small circle, we ascribe motivations to those actions and shapes, just attribution theory says we do it to people. We find a narrative, we find a story.

While the narration of Thomas Was Alone does much of the narrative legwork, the gameplay serves to reinforce it. In the beginning, Thomas is alone, but when he meets the other characters, the platforming gets a little more tricky. The shapes need to work together to keep going upwards and to the right; maybe John needs to jump on Thomas to reach a switch so that Chris can get to the end; maybe everyone needs to balance on Sarah to make it across the toxic water. The gameplay reinforces the narrative idea that the shapes need each other because you need each one to be able to beat each level. Also, the personalities that the narrator prescribes to each shape stick, not just because of our human need to anthropomorphize, but because each shape has a different color and shape, behaves differently, and makes a different noise when they jump. Thomas and Sarah feel different when you’re controlling them, and so they feel like individuals. It all works together.

That Thomas Was Alone is able to tell a genuinely moving story through shapes and basic platforming a testament to both Mike Bithell’s game design and the human capacity for empathy and storytelling. We like stories, we like being moved. And that’s even if it’s just colored quadrilaterals.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Walking Game

I’ve finally started playing Death Stranding and it is delightful and weird and everything I want it to be. Basically, you play as a Porter, bringing things from A to B, by walking and sometimes balancing your load. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic America after the Death Stranding put a hold to civilization and isolated everyone. It’s up to Sam (you) to reconnect the United Cities of America by visiting various outposts and connecting each Strand and Knot together (get it?). There’s also the mysterious Timefall, a rain that speeds up time on all it touches, a consistent danger in the world that’s heralded by an inverted rainbow. Also, BTs, which are, um, ghosts(?) that follow you by your breathing. And a fetus strapped to his chest that helps you sense those BTs but also has memories of its own. And if a BT grabs hold of a living person they can create a massive explosion that obliterates everything around it. But not Sam, since he’s a repatriate and able to come back to life.

Like I said, the game’s fricking weird.

And oh how I love it.

I’m only a few hours in, but I know I’m in for a ride. In part because director/writer/producer/auteur Hideo Kojima proved in the Metal Gear Solid games that he is a man with a vision. That vision may be totally bonkers and nuts, but he knows what he’s doing and you’re just along for the ride. I’ve been looking forward to Death Standing for years, so my personal hype makes sense, but I’m just so darn delighted by how completely devoted to its weird idiosyncrasies it is.

Perhaps it helps, then, that gameplay is so basic. You’re walking. Amidst all these complex themes (seriously, I found myself looking up chirality and knot theory on Wikipedia during my commute because of this game), the core mechanic is just going from A to B, traversing ridges and fording rivers and using a ladder to get a little higher. You’ve gotta load your gear just right so you don’t topple over, and toppling over is bad because you don’t want to damage whatever it is you’re transporting.

It’s simple.

But I know it’s gonna get more complex. Not just because I’ve seen trailers for the game that involve doing more than I’m doing now, but because that’s how video games work. You start off simple, with the basic mechanics of the game (in Death Stranding, it’s walking and balancing; in Super Mario Bros., that’s jumping and squashing goombas; in Breath of the Wild, it’s walking around and hitting things with sticks) and as the game goes on things get more complex (Wild gives you a hang glider, Mario has you swimming sometimes, Death Stranding, well, I’m not there yet).

A neat part of a well-made game is how the game gets more complex as it goes. It takes time, sure, but by the endgame, you’re managing a variety of systems and mechanics that would have been overwhelming at the get-go. Metal Gear Solid V starts you off with only a couple guns and a horse. Over time you’re able to deploy decoys, call in helicopters, have a sniper buddy, drive a tank, and play music on a Walkman. It’d be a lot to drop on you at once, so instead, the game paces it out, introduces you to things as they happen. The MegaMan games are like this too; with the platforming starting off simple and later stages throwing more curveballs at you and mixing things up as you go on, so by the time you reach the final stages you’re acing all that came before.

As of now, Death Stranding is a simple game with a lot of crazy ideas, and I know that simplicity is foundation for more interesting stuff later on. In the meantime, it’s a really weird game about walking and I am so here for it.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Parasite Won

Like many people who claim to not care about award shows, I do begrudgingly give a crap about the Oscars. There’s a reason; it’s effectively a barometer for what is considered a Good Movie for a given year, and even if it’s a horribly skewed system that prefers a certain type of film, it remains a cultural touchstone. ‘Oscar-Winning’ means something, whether we like it or not. No other award comes near as close for the glitz, glamor, and prestige. I like to say I don’t care about it because the things I like and value are seldom acknowledged by it (I maintain that Jackie Chan’s Police Story is a masterwork and that is a hill I will die on).

All that said, my heart skipped a beat when I got the notification that Parasite won Best Picture on Sunday. There’s a lot to why that is.

For starters, Parasite is a plain bonkers movie — in the best possible way. It’s hard to describe it too much without giving away what a roller-coaster ride it is. Suffice to say, it dances between genres with unmatched grace while never losing sight of the sort of story it’s telling.

It’s also in Korean, with a Korean cast, and subtitled in English.

Subtitles, are apparently, a big deal. I grew up watching movies with subtitles (since sometimes the movies I watched weren’t in English, and sometimes I just wanted to be able to read everything that was said). Plus, I remember being told that when watching stuff like Anime, the fan-subs are usually better than the official dubs. Point is, the idea of watching something with subtitles wasn’t unusual, especially if it wasn’t in English.

Thus I was more than a little surprised when I heard the disdain people had for subtitles in the States. The idea of not liking subtitles, or refusing to watch something because of subtitles, made no sense whatsoever. I eventually conceded that I guess it could be distracting, but still, lousy excuse. In the lead-up to last Sunday, there was buzz around Parasite, but a lot of it was about how there’s no way the Academy would vote for a movie that wasn’t in English and, gasp, had a lot of subtitles.


It’s discouraging. Implicit in the commentary is the message that the Establishment doesn’t want a movie done by Outsiders in its space. That if your movie isn’t in English there’s no space for it here. Good luck if it’s Korean-made, or really anywhere non-Western. It’s just not ‘good’ art.

There’s a stratification to art. Pulpy stuff, like science-fiction, superheroes, and other ‘fun’ genres, is at the bottom. Drama’s a big deal, and there’s room aplenty for dramatic French movies because, hey, they’re French, they damn near invented cinema. Stuff from other places just doesn’t pass muster. I firmly believe that the reason Jackie Chan is not held as an auteur like Wes Anderson or Quentin Tarantino for his work in the 80s is because it’s all in Chinese. And it’s pulpy.

All this to say, finding out that Parasite won blew my mind. Seeing clips of Bong Joon-ho on stage with the awards, speaking in Korean at the Oscars, was delightful. No, I’m not that kind of Asian, but to see someone familiar means a lot.

I still think there’s a diversity problem when it comes to awards (that none of the cast got any acting nominations is ludicrous, and that the Directing candidates were, Bong aside, very white and very male is disappointing). We gotta give the time of day to stories told by people who aren’t white guys because there’s a lot to be told, and, whaddya know, it’s actually good.

So yes. Here’s to more of that, please and thank you.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Thinking Elsewise

Central to the Battle School in Ender’s Game are the Games; mock-battles fought between armies in a zero-gravity arena where combatants try to win by eliminating their opponents. When Ender is given his own army, he messes with conventional tactics by deciding that the enemy’s gate is down, and not across. Cardinal directions are completely arbitrary in zero gravity, so it makes little sense to be beholden to them. This reframes the battlefield; Ender’s army gets an advantage since they’re able to approach their opponents from unexpected angles. It’s Ender’s grasp of three-dimensional space, among other things, that makes him a formidable commander. Up and down are relative.

The central gimmick of Gravity Rush is your ability to mess with gravity. With the press of a button, Kat is able to float off the ground, and another tap sends her hurtling in that direction until she hits something, at which point that something is now the ground she’s standing on. It’s a dizzying affair, flying around this steampunk town and walking upside down on bridges and the like. It became slightly less dizzying, however, when I realized I wasn’t flying around; rather, I was falling.

I know this might seem obvious, but it is a decidedly different approach to the game. We’re used to flying in games; that’s a motion that’s easily translatable. Maybe not flying like Superman, but flying with a jetpack or flying a plane or spaceship. Thus when using Kat’s powers, the translation in my mind is that I’m flying, and I try to adjust as such (and I can’t). Once I think about it as if I’m falling wherever I’m going, though, the movement becomes more familiar and I’m better able to guide Kat through the air.

In essence, to play Gravity Rush well, I’ve gotta stop thinking ‘normally’ and get myself to see Kat as falling, not flying. Basically, I gotta reframe my point of view — the enemy’s gate is down. It’s a really fun part of Gravity Rush, because there are times when my brain goes back to ‘default’ and I’ve gotta remind myself that I’m falling. The game wants you to speak its gravity-based language, which often means having to ignore other telltale signs of which way is up.

Thinking differently is a really fun exercise, and it’s really neat when games force you to do so. Portal is a first-person game that gives you a portal gun. You go in one portal and out the other — simple. You go fast in one portal you go fast out the other; vertical velocity is transferred to horizontal, depending on where the portals are. To solve the puzzles in the game, you’ve gotta use these portals to your advantage, often in some really wild ways. It’s no small detail that GLaDOS, the AI who’s setting up these tests for you, compliments you by saying that “now you’re thinking with portals.” You gotta think with portals to get through.

I like games, and I like having to learn to think the way a game wants you to think. When playing Kerbal Space Program I had to think like a rocket scientist, Catherine had me dreaming in block puzzles. Naturally, I think there’s so much more room in games to really cut wild. I want a strategy game that takes place in proper three-dimensional zero-gravity space, complete with being able to reorientate ships and the like. I want puzzle games that really cut wild with ideas of physics and force you to think way outside the box. It’s a hurdle to overcome, sure, when getting the hang of a game, but it’s such a fun feeling. Games, particularly video games, are access to a virtual world and the sky’s the limit with what you could do there. And sometimes, that sky is where gravity happens to be pulling you.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Outer Choices

The Outer Worlds is not a sprawling game. Its planets and other areas are relatively compact, with the objectives of each place being quite clear. The game doesn’t have a laundry list of side quests to complete. Even the weaponry and armor available to you are limited when compared to games like Assassin’s Creed: Oddysey and Metal Gear Solid V. The world is cool but it’s hardly brimming with stuff to do like in Mass Effect: Andromeda and Shadow of Mordor. You’re not liable to come across a band of roving marauders; in fact, exploration in The Outer Worlds is often quite peaceful and without the need for violence.

I say all this as a preface to the following: what The Outer Worlds lacks in breadth it makes up for several times over in depth. Sure, there’s not that much to do, but the ways that you can go about doing it are legion.

Recently, my character, Jimbo the Himbo, a gentleman who is all charm and people skills with minimal intelligence, was hired to take over an abandoned space station. While onboard, we were hailed by a local agency and threatened with boarding. Taking advantage of our great charisma, we bluffed our way through the conversation, convincing the others that we were about to arm the self-destruct. So persuasive were we that we scared off the approaching gunship and were able to go about our way undisturbed.

It’s a small example of the sort of shenanigans you can get away with in The Outer Worlds. There are several times when I’ve used skills like Persuade and Lie to avoid combat or find a different solution to a problem. There’s no one way to do a thing, and I keep wondering how else I could do something and to what effect. But also, in many ways, The Outer Worlds is a game that comes close to realizing the potential of digital RPGs.

The RPG genre grew out of tabletop role-playing games, with early RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry borrowing huge swaths of cloth from the likes of Dungeons and Dragons. As the genre evolved, it grew less reliant on its tabletop forerunners and has long since grown into its own. There’s still that inkling of what makes tabletop so great, though, the ability to make your own character and run off on your own adventure, doing what you will.

In other words: player agency. Player choice in table top RPGs is almost unlimited, bound only by your imagination and the patience of your Game Master. Any problem thrown in your path can be solved by a plethora of ways, and the players can craft their own narrative as they do so. Perhaps the party are a shoot first ask questions later sort of group, or maybe they’re the sorts who like to turn enemies into friends. Either is possible, if the dice are in your favor.

With digital RPGs, there is the potential for what only exists in one’s imagination to be fully realized on screen. Furthermore, you don’t need a Game Master to run it for you: the computer does all the work. Of course, there is the limit of what is possible to code and write, and since we’re yet to be able to create a procedurally generated AI Game Master, digital RPGs are inherently limited.

Which is definitely why The Outer Worlds’ small scale works for it. By focusing in on a relatively smaller world and adventure, the game does more with less. Sure, there are only so many different quests you can do, but look at all the ways you can do it!

I’m not sure how much longer I have with Jimbo the Himbo on his current adventure, but I’m already looking forwars to playing the game again, with a different character who’s short on charm but proficient in other areas (I wonder what would happen if I couldn’t talk down that gunship earlier). This room for choice — and the unknown —is part of what makes The Outer Worlds so engrossing. I know that events are playing out because of the choices I’m making, and I can’t wait to see what happens when I make different ones.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized