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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Cake, And Eating It

After the gargantuan behemoth that was Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, it was a decided breath of fresh air to be able to finish Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order inside of two weeks. This is despite Fallen Order being a bit of an open-world game, insofar as there is an amount of exploring and backtracking you can do, though honestly, that splash of open world might just be more of a hamper than a help.

Fallen Order is an action-adventure game in the vein of Uncharted or Tomb Raider: You run about different places, fight bad guys, explore stuff, find stuff. It’s not the most polished game; the controls are a little loose, combat’s not quite as responsive as I keep expecting it to be, and it can bit of a buggy mess at times. It’s still a lot of fun and, let’s be honest, I’m a sucker for Star Wars, so that’s a plus right there for me.

So the open-ish world.

Gameplay in Fallen Order follows a straightforward rhythm. You arrive on a planet, look for a thing, find the thing, make your way back to your ship, and repeat. As you progress, you unlock new abilities and such that open up new paths and new places to explore, and thus, new places for the plot to send you. It sounds pretty great on paper, but in actuality it ends up feeling like a lot of backtracking and retreading. Part of the problem here is that compared to more open world games, there’s not really a whole lot of exploring to be done. There’s is part of a wrecked Venator-class Star Destroyer you can go spelunking in on one planet, but there’s not much else beyond that.

This isn’t a bad thing! Most of the time the Uncharted games (which I adore) are a fairly straightforward affair, with there being little diversion from the main path. And when Fallen Order really leans into its Uncharted inspirations the game is really good! You get these frantic sequences where you’re running about as chaos unfolds around you, or you’re running for your life from a squad of Stormtroopers. There are those epic set pieces that are exhilarating to play; you get to be in a Star Wars movie!

And then you go through those same areas again, but without the narrative urgency, because you missed a few collectibles and now the magic is kinda gone. This isn’t just a case of doing the same thing again, like replaying Uncharted, this is more a case where the level plays out the same, just without the chasing Stormtroopers or Inquisitors that made it so exciting the first go round. It’s a little awkward, truth be told, but it’s a necessary awkwardness if you’re double checking for secrets you missed the first time (like I did).

Perhaps this is a problem of Fallen Order wanting to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to have a narrative-driven adventure like Uncharted, while still encouraging backtracking and open exploration. But the world isn’t quite as expansive as that in Tomb Raider; exploration in Fallen Order is limited to small diversions off the main route. Again; this is fine, but the process feels lacking and is somehow both too long and too short for it to really be worthwhile.

I suppose when it comes down to it I wish the game had chosen one direction and stuck with it. There are hints at times of an epic, bespoke adventure, and at other times of a bigger world to explore, but the game comes down in the middle and it’s… fine.

This frustrates me because there are elements to the game that are so so good and I feel like sometimes Fallen Order tries to be a game it’s not — to its detriment. Perhaps the lesson here is to know what you’re about and be confident in that. But in the meantime, I still had a lot of fun; when Fallen Order got out of its own way I was a Jedi with a double sided lightsaber fighting the Empire. And really, that’s what I wanted.

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Another Space Cowboy

If you haven’t had the chance to see it yet, The Mandalorian is a fantastic miniseries set in the Star Wars world. It’s about a lone gunslinger/bounty hunter, the titular Mandalorian, and his adventures around the galaxy, which, right there, is a great conceit for a story. The Mandalorian, more so than any Star Wars story since the first act of A New Hope, really leans into its Western roots and mixes all those familiar tropes together into a delightful mélange and serves it back up as something we’ve seen before, and, despite not exactly rewriting the book, remains so fresh. 

Consider first the Western. Cowboy movies — which most Westerns almost invariably are — take place in a very specific time and place. They’re set after the American Civil War, but usually before the turn of the century. There’s a specificity to it existing in the shadow of the War that plays into its setting: the American West. Out past much of civilization, Westerns take place on the edges of society where people who find themselves listless in postbellum America go to try and carve out a new life. How much a Western makes use of this varies (compare For A Fistful of Dollars with The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly to see two movies by the same director which use different amounts of setting [and both excellently), but the threat or memory of war and the isolation are quintessential to it.

From there, more tropes emerge. The duel at high noon, the train robbery, the lone wanderer arriving fresh to town. These tropes and images draw from the time and setting of the Western, and even when freed of some of that specificity, it’s still possible to see its roots. 

The original Star Wars threw a lot of those Western tropes into a science fiction world. Luke Skywalker lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere; he and his aunt and uncle are homesteaders who’ve swapped Colorado for Tatooine. The Mos Eisley Cantina is an alien saloon, replete with the newcomer who’s out of his depth (that’d be Luke). Han Solo himself, with his vest, boots, and low-slung pistol, is a wide-brimmed hat away from being the quintessential cowboy. A New Hope uses these familiar images and ideas to keep us grounded while it’s throwing space wizards, giant ships, and grumpy robots at us. Couching the outlandish in the recognizable eases us into this world. And it works! By the time our heroes are escaping from Stormtroopers aboard the Death Star, those Western tropes are far in the rearview, but they got us to where we are.

The Mandalorian really leans into those cowboy movie roots of Star Wars. It takes place five years after Return of The Jedi; the Empire is defeated and the New Republic runs the show. But the scars of the war are still fresh, and we see them in lingering grudges against the Empire and memories of pro-Imperial sentiment. Appropriately, it takes place in the Outer Rim, far from the reaches of more orderly, more populated space. The people in the story exist on the fringes of society, and accordingly, have their own rules to get by. But make no mistake, the Mandalorian is as much a cowboy as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name. He’s an outsider whom the townsfolk are wary of, showing up to collect bounties on outlaws. Both are also shown to have a moral code; they may not be the knights in shining armor of a fairy tale, but they ultimately will defend the weak and helpless (and maybe make a buck in the process). 

It’s possible to dismiss the Mandalorian’s conscience as a by-product of the show being produced by Disney, but those roots too are found in the Western. In The American West, David Hamilton Murdoch posits the Western genre as American mythmaking, an effort in the late 1800s and early 1900s to tell stories of what the United States and its people were about. The cowboy is at once both the embodiment of rugged American individualism and the inheritor of the mantle of the medieval knight errant. He is a man who’s strong enough to weather the wilds on his own, but he is also not one to turn down a noble quest. Sergei Leone may have muddied the image with his Spaghetti Westerns, but the myth of the cowboy shines on through.

The Mandalorian is not terribly original. One of its central conceits is borrowed from a classic samurai film; the fourth episode is an homage to The Magnificent Seven. The imagery of the show — the lone rider astride his steed in the sunset, the low angles during the showdowns — are ripped straight outta the library of the Western. And that’s okay! We enjoy the comfort of the familiar, and many of these tropes have survived for a reason (that is: they are very good storytelling devices). 

Ultimately, The Mandalorian essentially just a Western in space. Which is wonderful, because there will always be stories to tell and, by setting it in a galaxy far far away as opposed to a hundred and fifty years ago, the show takes the universality of the myth of the West and transmutes it into something bigger and for more people. The Mandalorian uses these established tropes and mythic elements to tell a story that feels at once new and ever so familiar. That it’s all executed brilliantly is really just the icing on the cake.

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Completion

I finally finished Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey a couple weeks ago. Like, finished, finished. Completed.

Well, not entirely. I ended up leaving one or two locations incomplete, and I didn’t bother getting all the Ostraka in the DLCs. But all the story-related quests (and really basically all the quests too) are completed. The game is done, the platinum trophy attained.

Naturally, the culmination of this seven-odd month endeavor has left me with a few odd questions. Not necessarily about the game, but more about me and my definition of ‘finishing’ the game and how Odyssey both feeds into and sucks that out.

First off, I’m easily distracted, and Odyssey is a game of side quests, more than a few of which are of the “go here, then there” variety. This is fairly typical of an open-world game, but unlike some other games (say, Mass Effect: Andromeda), these fetch-quests are legion. They’ve also got a bit of a Skinner Box effect on me, where I see a thing that needs to be done and decide that it has to be done. This is how I spent a lot of time running around Ancient Greece without advancing any of the game’s main plots. This was fun enough at the time, but the repetitiveness wore on me over time and it did kinda detract from the main plot, since by the time I got there I was pretty damn tired of running around and getting stuff for people. Again.

But for some reason that running around is tied into my way of ‘finishing’ a game. Like, have I really finished the game if there are side quests still left undone?

I feel like one of Assassin Creed: Odyssey’s flaws is that it’s an absolutely sprawling, enormous game filled with things to do, but ultimately it’s hard to tell if the quest you’re doing is ultimately going to be of any import. And even if you know it’s a pointless side quest, it’s it worthwhile to do it for the EXP and loot rewarded? I wanted my ship to be fully upgraded, and those quests were easy ways to get those resources, so I figure there was a point at the time.

Like I said: Skinner Box.

I did really enjoy the game for the most part — I mean, I finished it, didn’t I? Exploring was such a delight and getting to hobnob with the luminaries of history is always a highlight of these games (even if they excised my history lesson). Plus they gave me a ship and I could ravage the Aegean as I wanted. Honestly, there’s a lot to love.

It’s after putting in way over a hundred hours into the game that the cracks begin to show. There’s a lot of canned dialogue and many main quests feel inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. It’s understandable because even looking at main/special/important quests, there are a lot of those too, and they do tend to fill like filler, if only because they feel structurally so similar to the other ones. It seems as if a lot of Kassandra’s actions have little impact going forwards, beyond some canned dialogue and maybe a fancy weapon. Mass Effect and Borderlands have their side quests, and if they didn’t advance the story or characters, there’s usually an attempt for them to be entertaining in their own right (there are some in Borderlands 2 that I insist on doing in every playthrough because of how zany they are). Odyssey has those moments, but they’re too few and far between.

I’ll give this to the game though: Holy crap I got my money’s worth. And I had fun doing it; even if some of the best fun was playing in its sandbox. Like running into an Athenian camp, killing a soldier, getting the others to chase me, then leading them into a Spartan camp and watching the ensuing carnage (or jumping in the middle of it for that sweet sweet EXP). Honestly, those hijinks and the joy of exploration are probably gonna be what stick with me more so than the multitude of quests I went on and the story that played out. If only there was a trophy for that.

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