Tag Archives: Video Games

Mary Jane Watson

One thing I love so much about Spider-Man is how so much of the narrative can be stripped down to its archetypes. Peter Parker is an unlucky kid who’s suddenly had this great power thrust upon him. Otto Octavius is a genius scientist doomed for tragedy. And Mary Jane Watson is the girl next door.

A lot of the fun of the various incarnations of Spidey, be it different adaptations or reimaginings across the multiverse (see: Spider-Punk or Spider-Ham), is seeing how the play with the familiar narrative. Spider-Man is so deeply embedded in the popular consciousness that it’s a barrel of fun seeing what each new story will do.

All this to say I absolutely love Insomniac’s take on Spider-Man in the eponymous video game. Peter is a wisecracking twenty-something who always seems at the very end of his rope. Octavius is a down-on-his-luck scientist who genuinely wants to make the world a better place. And Mary Jane, well she’s a particularly great part.

The classic Spider-Man mythos is has a bit of a problem with its women. Gwen Stacy was, up until recently, best known for getting fridged by a death that haunts Pete. Mary Jane’s primary feature is that she’s the hot girl Peter has longed for for ages. This has been rectified a bit recently: an alternate universe Gwen Stacy was the one who got bitten by a radioactive spider and, upon finding out about the main universe’s Gwen’s fate, outright expresses disgust at being, and I quote, “fridged off a bridge.” The Spider-Gwen comics also had her confronting the fact that so many versions of Gwen Stacy die falling from a bridge and reclaiming that aspect of her character’s history. It’s all really cool and Spider-Gwen has long been one of the comics I most look forwards to.

Insomniac’s Spider-Man does work to make MJ more of an interesting character (though not to the extent that Spider-Gwen remains instructs Gwen Stacy). In this story, she’s not a model or actress, but rather an investigative journalist for the Daily Bugle. She’s someone who’s decidedly good at what she does, and her job gives her opportunity to get up close with the action.

In fact, it’s some such investigation into the rise of a new gang in the city that leads to her and Peter running into each other again. You, as player, are also given the opportunity to play as Mary Jane as she sneaks around. So not only is she given a more active role in the narrative, but the mechanics of the game are used to put MJ front and center. In games like Spider-Man playing as ay character is an important thing. Strong characterization is mixed with the immersive nature of games; the goals and fragility of the character become your own (consider how powerful it is in The Last of Us to play as Sarah during the opening).

Gameplay-wise, the MJ segments aren’t perfect. Compared to webzipping Spidey, MJ’s sneaking and waiting varies a lot in how good it is. Much of the action is very scripted, with there usually being one way to get through the stage which leaves little room for player creativity or choice. But they are heavy in atmosphere and shine the spotlight on MJ who, as it happens, is quite wonderful.

Her journalistic chops and contacts make her a valuable ally of Peter’s (she knows he’s Spider-Man in this one, which also means for a complex and interesting dynamic). She’s a bold character, someone who willingly sticks her nose in trouble, even when it’s inarguably a bad idea. Her relationship with Peter is a complex one; they were together for a while and have been broken up for a while when the game begins. What’s real neat though, is that even still there’s a mutual attraction; MJ isn’t some unattainable goal for Peter, they’re both really into each other and things just didn’t work out last time. This distinction is important: MJ’s not the prize for Peter being good at Spider-Man and/or life, she doesn’t date him because he does x-y-z to impress her; she’s into him, she likes him for, well, him. Their whole chemistry is very mutual. All in all, she’s an interesting character and is a delightful reimagining of her.

It’s always interesting to see how stories reinvent themselves. You’ve the retcon of how Captain Marvel got her powers from a few weeks ago that was really cool, for example. And Insomniac’s Spider-Man puts a spin on Mary Jane that made her into one of my favorite characters in the game. Her and Spider-Man’s friend in the NYPD, Yuri Watanabe. Also Aunt May’s really cool in the game too.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Poking Around

Games have rules and expectations. If you’re playing a first-person shooter, violence is the expected solution to most problems. A puzzle encountered in an RPG is going to have a solution, though it may be one you need to progress a little further in another direction to be able to solve. The rule of thumb in point-and-click adventures is that everything you can click on and inspect is gonna hold something of interest.

Say you’re playing Monkey Island and you’re stuck in a room. Somewhere in there is the key to your freedom. So you’re gonna click on everything you can to try and find the right stuff so you can say the right things in a conversation and get on with it. It’s the way it works, check all the things for things to use to advance.

Now, One Night Stand is usually classified as a dating sim, what with it dealing with the aftermath of a one night stand and having lots of conversations with choices for you to make that will net you one of several endings. Though there are strong elements of point-and-click adventures in it, as you are frequently given opportunities to poke around in the room you wake up in, and what you inspect can then unlock new dialogue options.

It’s a short game, and so befitting many playthroughs. The basic premise is you wake up in bed with someone after a drunken one night stand with no memories of the night before and have to figure out what to do. Do you just leave? Do you try to piece together what happened and play it off? Or are you forthright with her and admit you don’t remember anything? What’s gonna get you the ‘best’ ending?

Here’s the thing, although taking on the guise of an adventure game or dating sim, One Night Stand isn’t quite either. Sure, it’s got the mechanics of them, but the contract between the game and the player isn’t nearly the same.

One Nigh Stand has a decided rhythm. The girl leaves the room for some reason, you look around the room, she returns, you two talk. Repeat. You can only inspect so many objects while she’s out of the room, and they range from grabbing your clothes to leafing through her wallet to try and figure out her name. You have to choose what to prioritize in order to create the most meaningful interactions.

As I played the game it became apparent that there seemed to be a lot under the surface. One time I sneaked out of the house and saw her crouched over a toilet, throwing up. I figured that there had to be a way for me to help her out next time since that’s a rotten position to be in. On her bedside table are some earrings in a box, which she’s cagey about when asked. Same with the pills there. She has an interest in writing (as you can tell if you look at her notebook underneath the book she’s reading) but she doesn’t really engage if you ask her about it. Which, okay, got it, clearly I’ve gotta say the right things to get us close so she’ll feel comfortable talking about these things. Presumably then I’ll be able to get the Best Ending which, also presumably, would be a romantic one.

Yeah, no.

I played through the game being completely honest and was awarded with an ending where we parted ways as friends. But no matter how I played my cards I couldn’t get her to open up about her writing or earrings — in fact she would get straight up mad if I kept asking about it to the point where she’d throw me out. This threw me for a loop: those things are there, they’re meant to be investigated, why am I being punished for poking around? Why won’t she tell me what’s going on? I did the thing you do in these sort of games, so where’s my reward? They’re right there on her nightstand, why’s she made at me for looking through her personal stuff—

Ah. Right. It’s rude to go poking around like that in a relative stranger’s room. One Night Stand isn’t interested in creating some wild romantic fantasy, rather it lets you experience an awkward situation and the best result is for you to not be a jerk. You’re not gonna get brownie points for snooping, nor will gaming the system and faking a memory of the night before yield any outstanding results. Rather, being honest about not remembering the night before, getting dressed, and leaving as friends (without any romantic subtext) nets you the ‘best’ ending.

I think this is why I’m so charmed by One Night Stand. It subverts much of what you’d expect from a dating sim or a point-and-click adventure in lieu of letting you inhabit that awkward space — the game discards fantasy for quiet discomfort. The girl is not a prize for playing well; pretending to know more than you do won’t get you points. The point of the game isn’t to ‘win,’ but rather to be there and try and make do. It’s a unique experience, the sort you can really only get from a video game.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Spidey’s New York

Narratives are a two way street. What you bring to them is what you get out of them.

So let’s talk Spider-Man, the video game (again).

Spider-Man, of course, takes place in New York. Because, well, duh. Now, I happen to live in New York and have lived here for most of the past six years. I went to college at NYU Gallatin down in the Village and lived in a semi-crappy apartment (okay, pretty crappy, it was a six floor walkup and there was no sink in the bathroom, but, hey, roof access!) on 14th for a couple years and have called Astoria, Queens home for over a year now (this apartment has a sink in the bathroom, but no roof access — the tradeoffs you make). Needless to say, I have a bit of a soft spot for New York.

That Spider-Man offers up an open world with a terrific approximation of Manhattan is an absolute delight. It mayn’t be a 1:1 recreation, but it captures the idea of the island well enough that that I instinctively know my way around and get momentarily lost when things aren’t quite where they should be (the distance in between Union Square and Stuy Town is a touch too long). As such, right off the bat, I feel a personal connection with the virtual city, thereby creating a bit of an emotional narrative to my swinging around the city.

When I go through Washington Square Park I’m also going through a park where I’ve worked on homework and had snowball fights. I instinctively recoil when I realize I’m going through Times Square; Lincoln Center is where I graduated from college. In many ways, this open world is loaded, I’m not just exploring and beating up bad guys in 80s Afghanistan or a post-apocalyptic Colorado, I’m in the place I’ve lived and worked. Alongside that, I’m in a place that Peter Parker himself loves.

Though I will wax poetic about how wonderful Spider-Man’s open world is, it’s no real slouch in the narrative department either. Throughout the game it’s reinforced how much Pete loves the city; yes, he bears a burden to protect it — a burden that often interferes with his personal life — but it’s also a city he protects out of love. This can be small things like the quips he makes when taking photos of certain landmarks (Empire State University — the game’s ersatz NYU — is home to some of the best years of his life… and loans), or his dialogue while crimefighting. As players, we come to love the city because Pete loves it. There’s also the experiential nature of video games. Because you spend so much of the game swinging through Manhattan, you come to get to know the city and take a modicum of ownership over it (you chased out the Kingpin’s goons!). So when villains start trouble, they’re threatening your city. You get invested in the place, simply by being there.

That said, this is a place I know, and because I bring my own New York-related baggage to the game, it all takes on another level of import to me. Characters walking along the Highline isn’t just window dressing, it’s something I’ve done and so has personal meaning. Consider a tv show like Stranger Things; though it’s science fiction and something of a period piece, someone who’s lived in small town America will relate to a bunch of kids navigating the world; anyone who’s spent too-many-hours on an RPG campaign will immediately latch onto the kids with their all-day D&D campaigns. These little bits of projection/empathy aren’t necessary to enjoy the story, but they add another layer of depth to the story that, often times, makes it a little more personal.

I adore Spider-Man’s open world in a way I don’t usually. Part of that is probably due to how well crafted it is; but most of it is definitely because, hey, I’m exploring my city. I’ve talked with some friends who also have the game, and we’ve spent as much time nerding out about getting to explore the city we know as we have the more game-y side of it. My often lament about open world games is how they don’t really end, how there’s always something more to do and completion is less narrative closure and more 100% and a Platinum Trophy; but as I watch my completion percentage in Spider-Man steadily rise (I just passed 90%) I’m starting to dread the game ending. I want to spend more time in this virtual New York.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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?

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized