Tag Archives: Video Games

I’m Swinging Here

It wasn’t long after I first moved to New York that I found myself really wanting to be Spider-Man.  Not for having spider-like strength or the responsibility entailed; nah, what I really wanted were those web-shooters. Confronted by the architectural chasms that make up the city’s downtown, I figured that being able to swing from building to building would really help me get to class quicker. I’m sure there’s something to be said there for how ingrained the mythos of Spider-Man has become in my consciousness that that was my first response to figuring out a quicker commute (and not, I dunno, a bike), but this isn’t what this rant essay is about.

This one’s about New York.

I played The Division because it was set in Manhattan and I wanted to explore a virtual recreation of it. Much of my disappointment of the game is due to its failure to really capture the essence of New York. Granted, The Division is set in an apocalyptic envisioning of the city, where society has very much gone to the dogs, but there’s still something missing. A lot of this has to do with the visuals; the draw distance of the game is frustratingly short, with anything more than a few blocks away obscured by the fog. This means you can’t look up and see the Empire State Building poking up above the buildings over the horizon, and a lot of the sense of place that New York can afford is hampered due to the sameishness of buildings and neighborhoods with drab colors (again, fitting for the genre, but disappointing that it’s a staple). New York didn’t feel like New York. It felt like it could be any old city, albeit one with certain landmarks. I know the city, and I didn’t really recognize it.

 

Enter Spider-Man, a new game by Insomniac that just came out. It’s, obviously, set in New York because, well, Spider-Man. To my immense joy, the New York of Spider-Man feels like New York. The big question though, is why.

 

Part of it’s the vibe. When you’re on the ground there are people everywhere, yelling at you or ignoring you (as New Yorkers are wont to do with any oddity). You’ll find people doing yoga in the park, hanging out on rooftops, and stuck in traffic. Food carts are all over the place; there’s that verisimilitude that makes the city feel real.

But let’s strip the city of its people; as Spider-Man you’re swinging through the city and seldom walking the sidewalks. What is it about the virtual city that makes it feel like the real one? Why does it feel right?

The New York of Spider-Man is far from a 1:1 recreation. Washington Square Park is way too close to Houston Street and Union Square is tiny, with the blocks between it and the church south of it excised entirely. It’s totally fine, though, because Spider-Man knows it can’t possibly recreate New York exactly and instead aims to capture the feeling of the feeling of the city. There’s just enough of it there and in the right place to evoke New York; a vision of the city authentic enough to please, well, me.

As Spider-Man, I’ve swung myself up to a rooftop and used the relative location of the Empire State Building or the game’s ersatz One World Trade Center to quickly orientate myself. While exploring downtown I tried to get my bearing and noticed a building I’ve walked past countless times in real life and instantly knew I was on Houston and Lafayette.

The game keeps you moving, the swinging mechanic is so much fun that exploring is a delight in and of itself; Propel yourself up in the air and you’ll see buildings all the way to the rivers and tall landmarks (including fictional ones like Avengers Tower!) tower over their surroundings. As Manhattan whizzes by, though, you see the neighborhoods change. FiDi looms over downtown, Chinatown’s signage is appropriately in Chinese, the High Line is there running near the Hudson. Because traversal in the game is so much fun — and fast — you will see so much of Manhattan and, much like in the real city, you’ll stop paying too much attention and suddenly find yourself in a new neighborhood with a new vibe.

I actually haven’t played too much of Spider-Man’s story. Every time I start up the game I get captivated by the city and swinging it around. Part of it is because, like I said before, the mechanic of swinging is so much fun. But a lot of it has to do with that wish fulfillment of the game; finally I’m able to swing from building to building and maybe get where I’m going on time. It’s in a game, yes, but it’s in a game that captures the New York I know and love.

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Tasty Words

If you’ve ever played the Pokémon Trading Card Game or Magic: The Gathering or really any trading card game, you’ll have read the little bit of text on the bottom. Not the copyright information, but rather the flavor text that tells you a little about what the card is and how it fits into the bigger world. Stuff about where that character might come from or what the geopolitical situation in the world’s like. These are usually really small blurbs, probably not more than a sentence or two at most, but they’re usually enough to conjure up images of entire worlds.

Flavor text adds depth to a world. It turns Charmander from some fire lizard thing to a creature who would die if the fire on its tail is extinguished. It’s a small thing, but it’s enough to create some kindling for your imagination. What do Charmander do when it rains? Since their life can be a little fragile, it stands to reason that these Pokémon would be defensive and non-trusting, right? It doesn’t really matter what’s actually canon or not, what is important that it’s enough for you, the reader — or player, in this case — to have an insight into this world and, by crafting a narrative around it, to make a connection.

What’s really interesting about flavor text is that it really only shows up in games. Sure, books will offer little tidbits about characters and places, but those are usually fleshed out by the rest of the book. Scripts typically have a short blurb about characters and places when introduced, but, like books, there’s a lot more going on than just that. The flavor text offered through the images on the cards in Settlers of Catan (and really, flavor text can be pictures too) offer us the only glimpse into what Catan is ‘really’ like beyond the little wood abstractions with which the game is played.

XCOM 2 has you as the Commander leading a resistance against an occupying extraterrestrial force. Your team is comprised of my Mostest Favoritest Trope (a ragtag multinational team) that you recruit from around the world and who can, if you turn on the option, speak their native language. Now, XCOM is infamous for its brutal difficulty, and if a soldier gets killed in a battle, they’re dead for real. They don’t respawn, they’re not just injured (that’s a whole ‘nother thing where it can take weeks of in-game time for them to recover); they’re dead. Gone. You can’t use them anymore. Even if they’ve survived a dozen combat missions and been promoted equivalent times. Dead. Gone.

On the one hand, you’re already invested in these characters/soldiers by virtue of them being of strategic importance. But XCOM 2 has ways of making you more attached to them. You can give your soldiers nicknames and customize their appearances (why yes, I think the Archangel the Ranger needs a pair of aviators) and, when recruited, soldiers have a little bit of flavor text in their bio saying where they’re from, why they joined the resistance, stuff like that. It’s small stuff, generated from a preset bunch and nowhere near as wonderful as what you see in some other games, but it does add an additional measure of personality to the game.

Look, games are just rule systems dressed up in some theming or some other. It’s how you have Star Trek Catan and Game of Thrones Catan and a friggin’ Mega Man themed Catan that all have the same ruleset and all arguably work equally well. Theming is what makes Mario whimsical and makes Pokémon child-friendly and not a game about dogfights. Flavor text is part and parcel to theming. Think of it like a flash fiction on steroids: it’s a sentence or two that can somehow suggest a bigger, complete world. And you get to play in it.

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Some Stuff From 2017 I Wanna Talk About

I did this last year, mostly as an excuse to enthuse about things I really like. I’m gonna do it again, listing some things from last year that I really liked. They mayn’t be the best thing in their category, but they’re really cool and I wanna pay attention to it! The three things here are all terrific.

Book: From A Certain Point of View, a collection

Star Wars will forever be my first love. A short story collection by a host of different authors running the gamut from Kelly Sue Deconnick (Captain Marvel!) and Matt Fraction (Hawkeye, Sex Criminals!) to Ken Lieu (“The Paper Menagerie,” The Grace of Kings!) to Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death!). It’s a delight to see so many people take a crack at writing Star Wars, fleshing out scenes from the original movie and adding nuance and shades that weren’t there before. Plus, there’s a large number of women and people of color writing, and it’s awesome to see Lucasfilm encouraging those voices.

Album: Skin and Earth, by Lights

I really like Lights, have since I got her first album back in 2009. Skin and Earth is a wild ride, kinda a concept album (see the accompanying tie-in comic she wrote and drew), but mostly just a great collection of music. Like every album she’s put out, Skin and Earth feels at once wholly different from what’s come before and yet still recognizably her. It’s great.

Video Game: Horizon Zero Dawn, by Guerrilla Games

Right off the bat this game has one of my favorite settings; a post-apocalyptic world where the apocalypse was so long ago it’s just legends and a new civilization has already risen up. Throw in some robot dinosaurs and I’m sold. Plus, you play as Aloy, an upbeat, relentless outcast who’s handy with a bow is the icing on the cake. Actually, more than that, she’s a winning and charming character (who’s also badass) and is a wonderful protagonist for exploring this beautiful, decayed-but-renewed world.

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Social Experience

This week, Pokémon Go finally added a friends system. You can now add people as friends and there are fun little bonuses for working together. You can also trade Pokémon back and forth, assuming you both are in close proximity. It’s a wonderful addition and I look forward to checking it out in depth.

But it also raises a big question: Where was this when the game debuted two years ago?

(Also: It’s been two years since Pokémon Go came out?)

Think back a second to the summer of 2016 when Pokémon Go took the world by storm. You could hardly walk around New York without crossing paths with another trainer trying hard to capture that darn Rattata. Groups were out together in parks on the hunt for rare creatures. It was fun, and I wrote about it a bunch here. Pokémon Go is a game that inherently has a social aspect – you’re out there in the real world, why not go for a walk with friends? That its social system emerged around the game rather than being hard coded into it is a massive missed opportunity. It’s been two years since the game came out and far less people play it these days than then, and, much as I love the idea of these social features, these days I’m gonna be far more hard pressed to find a group to try them with than two years ago.

Consider how much more involved group players of Pokémon Go would be with the current built-in social system (and revamped raids and gym system) back at launch. If you’re out Pokémon hunting with friends the game would now also let you work together to catch mythical Pokémon or trade those you did catch amongst yourselves. As it was, Pokémon Go was often a case of people playing the same game simultaneously, rather than playing the game together. Very little you did in the game affected the people around you, let alone friends. I love that any interaction has to be in meatspace (as opposed to a cyberspace), but not having teamwork built into the game was a real bummer.

It’s such a shame too, because I still earnestly believe that Pokémon Go is such a great example of a game, and what games can be. The definition of a game is nebulous as play itself takes many forms (consider that despite being wildly different, tag, Pac-Man, and Monopoly are all games). In Pokémon Go we have a game that revolves around shared experiences, where players do stuff together in the real world. It’s a little like LARPing, in that the game allows players to role-play as Pokémon trainers while interacting with reality. It’s a game that makes the world a good chunk more magical. There are Pokémon in those parks, go hunt them together!

Technology is weird. And a lot of people talk about technology driving people apart. But it’s also something that can foster community and togetherness in a new way. Pokémon Go is a game that encourages it implicitly in its design. Now it’s finally an explicit feature.

So.

Who else is still playing Pokémon Go?

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Adaptation By Someone Else

One game that got some press at last week’s E3, the game industry’s annual event where games are announced and/or demo’d, was the upcoming Total War: Three Kingdoms. Apparently it was announced back in January, but I hadn’t heard of it until now.

And I am intrigued.

The Total War series are strategy games that unlike, say, StarCraft or Red Alert, tend to focus on real wars, be they Roman, Napoleonic, or set in Feudal Japan. They’ve been on the periphery of my awareness, as games that are cool — and I do like my strategy games — but I’ll probably never check out. But they’re making one set in the Three Kingdoms!

Three Kingdoms, for the uninitiated, refers to a classic period in Chinese history during the fall of the Han dynasty where the realm was split between, well, three warring kingdoms. The stories were more-or-less codified in Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of Three Kingdoms, an epic that romanticizes the period in a big way. The book, and the surrounding history, has been the source for countless works in China (and neighboring East Asian countries), be they in film, television, or video games.

So Total War: Three Kingdoms has my attention for turning its attention towards a source you usually don’t see in western media. Despite being incredibly prolific in Asia, you’re not really likely to encounter Romance of Three Kingdoms or anything based on it unless you’re actively looking for it. To see a Western strategy game focus on stories that I heard growing up is really, really neat.

But it also raises some questions.

There’s already been a ridiculous amount of games (and media) based on and around Romance of Three Kingdoms. Dynasty Warriors has been around for over twenty years and we’ve had movies like Red Cliff. What difference does it make that some other group is telling the story? And why is my gut response “oh, cool!”?

Maybe it’s because it’s exciting to see something considered kinda niche be put a little bit closer to the mainstream. These are stories I know about because I grew up in a culture around them (Zhuge Liang was a fixture in bedtime stories) and took a class to study the book in college, but most of my other peers (here, in New York) aren’t terribly aware of them. A western developer making a game about it is sorta uplifting the stories from their corner and into a spotlight.

Which then raises the question of why it seems like it’s being uplifted. Is Romance of Three Kingdoms just being big in Asia not good enough? Why does it getting attention from the West make it seem like more of a big deal? We tend to categorize stories and genres; drama is taken more serious than an action movie, live action taken more serious than animation, and so on. The Three Kingdoms period taking front-and-center in a western video game makes it seem like it’s finally being ‘taken serious,’ but it’s already been taken serious for years (heck, generations), in other parts of the world.

I think this might be something that’s more self-reflective than anything. My excitement at seeing this has to force me to ask myself why do I feel this way about this. ‘cuz all the reactions I write about here are my own, and I have to wonder why I’m so quick to discount Dynasty Warriors or other works based around the Three Kingdoms. It’s a sort of latent colonial thinking, where something from a non-Western group is not as good, or as cool, as something done by a Western group.

None of this, of course, should be seen as a negative take on Total War: Three Kingdoms or the fact that I may actually get this game (I get to field Liu Bei as a hero? Awesome). I still think it’s really cool to see it in the spotlight like this, but I still have to ask myself: why am I excited about it now?

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Letting Lara Down

I was pretty excited for the Tomb Raider movie that came out a couple weeks ago. I’m a huge fan of the game it was based on, the Tomb Raider reboot that came out in 2013. The game was an origin story for Lara Croft, one that gameplay-wise took cues from the Uncharted series it had partially inspired but then been eclipsed by. One thing I really liked about the game was how it made Lara less of a sex object. Gone were the catsuits, short shorts, and crop tops; in were the khakis and tank top (it mayn’t sound like much on paper, but the difference is marked). In addition, the game turned Lara into a survivor; shipwrecked on a mysterious island, she hunts for food, searches for her friends, fights bad guys, and uncovers a mystery. If the movie could capture that then we were in for a ride.

And, well, it kinda does, but more than anything the adaptation really plays down its women. Which is as frustrating as it is odd.

Heads up, we’re getting into the nitty-gritty of plot here, so spoilers abound as we dig around.

Let’s talk Lara, since she is, after all, our protagonist. In the film, she’s a down-on-her-luck heiress who can’t receive her fortune because she refuses to sign the papers confirming her father is dead. She’s a courier struggling to make ends meet who only ends up going on her adventure when circumstances force her to her inheritance and the discovery of her dad’s research into the mythical island of Yamatai. There’s nothing quite bad here (except that pacing-wise this takes up a solid third of the movie); it’s honestly fairly typical as far as hero stories go and all that. But it really does the Lara of the 2013 video game a disservice.

Lara, in the game, is an archeological grad student; so right of the bat Lara is presented as being both intelligent and educated. She’s clued in on the myth of Yamatai by her college friend  Sam Nishimura, who herself is a descendant of the Yamatai people. Lara’s subsequent research convinces the Nishimura family to fund an expedition looking for Yamatai and to find the fate of its mysterious Sun-Queen, Himiko. In the game’s version of events Lara is given a lot more agency in the story. The expedition to Yamatai is of her own design, not something she takes on from her father. So not only is Lara an archeologist by trade, but she’s one competent enough to make an expedition happen. You could argue that the movie makes her more relatable, but Indiana Jones is a university professor and no one says he’s unrelatable.

Within the different backstories is a key difference: Sam. In the movie, Yamatai is something Lara investigates because of her father. The game positions it as something she’s into and found out about because of a (female) friend. Look, there’s nothing wrong with a young woman going on a quest to find her father (heck, it’s a trope I’m fond of), but the game’s plot both shows us a Lara with more agency and offers a version of events where Lara’s quest doesn’t revolve around a male character, rather displaying the friendship between two women.

And without Sam, we’re also without a lot of what makes Himiko interesting. In the movie, she’s a long-dead queen with a disease that, when infected, makes people disintegrate, and so was sequestered away on Yamatai. The Himiko of the game, however, was a supernatural queen who ruled Yamatai with an iron fist, transferring her soul into younger bodies to gain a sort of immortality. When a rogue successor took her own life rather than be a host, Himiko was trapped in her body and her kingdom declined. Along comes Sam centuries later, and Mathias (who’s the main antagonist in both versions) wants to offer her up as a new host. So it’s up to Lara to save the day. Once again, the game, by being a little more over the top, has a narrative with a lot more women doing stuff. Himiko isn’t Plague Victim Zero, she’s an immortal queen who was thwarted by a brave young woman. The present day sees Lara saving her best friend and putting to rest a vengeful, weather-controlling spirit. In the movie it’s Lara’s father who, once infected, blows up himself and Himiko’s remains. Lara still stops Mathias in the movie, but she’s given one less thing to do.

Look, the movie’s flaws are plenty and they mostly fall into the realm of plotting and structure. But the 2013 reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise offered a new vision of Lara Croft and her mythos, one that featured a kickass Lara that was surrounded by other women of note. The film offers a perfectly fine Lara, but she’s a far cry from the one in the game. Like I said, it’s frustrating to see a movie take a narrative that’s so female driven and, well, take away its women’s agency. The source material was so rich; had so much going for it. And yet. Here we are. A decent enough strong female protagonist who could have been so much more.

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Of Men Mighty and Mega

Mega Man was the video game I cut my teeth on. Well, more accurately, Mega Man X4. It was a tough game that I worked my way through as a kid. Didn’t beat it until at least three years after I got it, but still picked up Mega Man X5 and Mega Man X6 (and Mega Man 8) in the meantime to fight the new bosses, master the new levels, and get my ass kicked time and time again. I got better, beat them, got into the harder Mega Man Z games (look, the naming conventions are weird but make sense). Every couple years I revisit them, particularly Z3 and X5, my undisputed favorites.

All this to say, I know my Mega Man.

So what makes a Mega Man game? Theme-wise, it’s good robots fighting a bunch of bad robots, usually eight, then fitting a bigger boss. Mechanic-wise, it’s a lotta jumping and shooting mixed in with being able to get a defeated boss’ weapon which is another boss’ weakness. There’ve been some variations here and there (the X games added dashing and wall kicking), but for the most part, things are quite similar.

For the sake of convenience, I’m excluding the Battle Network and Legends games from this, since those are an RPG and Action-Adventure respectively, and are different genres from the others which are very much pure Action Games.

Point is, there’s a particular sort of gameplay when it comes to Mega Man.

But, I’d argue, that a big part of Mega Man’s game design goes beyond that. What makes (well, made) the Mega Man games so distinctive was how well they did what they did. The mechanic at it’s core: running, jumping, and shooting, was perfect. The controls were as tight as they got, and the levels just right for them. Mega Man’s jump was also precise, you always knew right where you were jumping. Dashing as X or Zero was equally so, and the moment you took your finger off the button, they stopped moving.

This meant that no matter how crazy the stage design got (and good grief some stages are maddening), you were always in control of your character. Bottomless pits and spike traps were (usually) more challenges of dexterity than outright attempts to kill you. The stages were fair, with most new obstacles being obviously such. This meant that when you died (and you will), it was more often than not because of a mistake on your part, one that you can see. The games were about slowly learning stages and bosses, and then executing everything flawlessly.

And, most importantly, they were fun as hell. And Capcom no longer makes them.

But a few years ago Keiji Inafune, someone who worked on the original Mega Man games, was Kickstarting a new game that looked an awful lot like Mega Man: Mighty No. 9. The game’s a platformer, you run, you jump, you shoot, you beat bosses and take their abilities. Heck, the game was number nine, a clear reference that both the original and X series ended at number 8 (besides the retro revival for the originals).

Mighty No. 9 was released a couple years ago, but I didn’t get around to playing it until this week upon it being free for PlayStation+ Subscribers.

And it is not a good game.

Lackluster visuals and presentation aside, it’s just… not really fun. It’s not the difficulty, rather it feels like the game cheats. Jumping onto a moving vehicle feels like a crapshoot, and avoiding attacks is luck more than anything. Sure, it’s fun to figure out a boss’s weakness and lay into it, but it’s missing that special something.

Namely, the precision that made Mega Man such a great series. Platforming feels wonky, the ‘AcXelearte’ dash is as likely to get you killed as out of trouble, and there’s no wall kick that made the X and Z games so interesting but instead a ledge grab that feels finicky at best. The gameplay loop just doesn’t work.

Part of what made the Mega Man games such fun was reaching that point of flow, where you kinda mesh with the controller into a sorta zen as you try and finish a stage and beat a boss. Instead here I am, a lifelong gamer, fumbling with the controller in Mighty No.9 ‘cuz Beck won’t grab on to a frickin’ ledge. Look, its boss fights are fun, I’ll give it that, but it just doesn’t feel like Mega Man — which it’s quite clearly intended to. Maybe were it not so clearly meant to be such it wouldn’t feel this bad a game.

Actually, it probably would. It’s clunky, and really makes me miss Mega Man.

So I’ll probably end up replaying X5 or Z3 next. Just gotta beat this game next because I will not be daunted by poor game design!

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