Tag Archives: Video Games

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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Catching ’em All

I recently picked up Pokémon: Shield because I have a Switch and several friends of mine have it and I was starting to feel left out. Also because I haven’t played a proper Pokémon game in ages, and here was one that I had the system for so here I am.

And it’s adorable and fun, and a neat step forwards in where Pokémon has gotten in the past fifteen-odd years since I’ve played a mainline game. I’m having a ball exploring the Galar region and catching new creatures and fielding a team (while fighting the temptation to have it composed solely of Stuffuls and Bewears).

Naturally, this has me thinking about older Pokémon games. And I really mean older. Let’s talk about Red, Blue, and Yellow, and what the original games did so freaking well. Especially in the first few hours.

The world seems so big, right out of the gate. There’s a sea to the south, which you can’t cross, and after getting your started and going on your way, you venture through the tall grass of Route 1. On either side, though, there’s more grass that you can’t reach, there’s something beyond there that could hold more adventure. Though it is, in fact, inaccessible, just its being there hints at there being more, and early on in the game, that more-ness is exciting.

You then reach the first town of Viridian City. There’s more set up done here, and I don’t just mean the first PokéCenter and PokéMart (and learning to catch Pokémon from a grumpy old man!).

Let’s say you head west from Viridian. There lies Victory League and the Indigo Plateau… which you can’t go to. Because you need gym badges. Which you don’t have. You want to get them, though, because your rival is talking about it and, hey, those people said you couldn’t go unless you had gym badges, so you need gym badges!

Hang on, there’s a gym in Viridian City! But there’s no one home. Which is curious, but hey, you don’t know any better yet, ya noob. It’s when you come back after having the other seven badges that you realize, holy crap, Team Rocket’s leader Giovanni is also the gym leader of Viridian! But the seed of a mystery of the gym is planted there, right at the beginning of the game.

By the time you go on to the Viridian Forest you’ve already been introduced to the need for gym badges and had a little inkling of a Bigger Plot planted.

It’s in the forest that we meet another of Pokémon’s big mechanics: evolution. There’s been mention of Pokémon being able to evolve in dialogue, but it’s in the forest that can witness it first hand. Chances are, you’re gonna catch a Caterpie or a Weedle, given that they’re everywhere in the forest. Both of these Pokémon evolve at level 7, which your Pokémon will be hitting very soon. They evolve into Metapod and Kakuna, which are cocoons, before evolving again at level 10. Right away, we’re given the imagery of a butterfly’s life cycle: crawley thing into a poddy thing into a flying thing. Using that familiarity from the real world, Pokémon introduces the concept of evolution early on in a way you understand it. The game shows you Caterpie -> Metapod -> Butterfree so that, later on, something like Magikarp -> Garydos or Machop -> Machoke make sense.

It’s after the forest that we have our next lesson: Type Effectiveness. Pokémon follows a rock, paper, scissors mentality when it comes to battling; water beats fire, fire beats grass, grass beats water. The first gym leader you fight is Brock of Pewter City. He fields rock-types, which no matter your starter, there will be some relation. Bulbasaur and Squirtle’s grass and water attacks are super effective, while Charmander’s fire attack isn’t very effective. Since you have to beat Brock to proceed, you’re essentially being forced to learn how that mechanic works. Thus by the time you leave Pewter City and head to Mt. Moon (and your first encounter with Team Rocket!) you’re not just curious about the rest of the world, you’re pretty well versed in the basics of the game.

This is excellent game design, pure and simple. It sticks in my head so much in part because I played it when I was a kid, and in part that owing to having a pirated cartridge that wouldn’t let me save, I played these opening moments many, many, many times. There’s such wonder when you’re eight years old and exploring this fantastical world, and those games, with all their graphical limitations, made it all the more magical.

I think that’s part of the reason why I’m enjoying Pokémon Shield so, it’s like a time capsule to twenty years ago, where even though everything in the game looks so much prettier, fundamentally it’s a very comfortable return to magic.

Also, somewhere along the way, Stufful was introduced and I am so happy. 

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What Is It Good For?

I’ve logged a really unholy number of hours in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. It’s a fun game, and there’s just so much to do. Plus, I’m easily distracted and so merrily go off assassinating nation leaders and taking part in conquest battles. It was during one of those conquest battles where I was fighting alongside the Spartans/Athenians to wrest control of some nation-state or another from Athens/Sparta that I finally got ahold of what Odyssey’s stance is on war.

Before I go any further, yes, the game has a stance on war. Any story that deals with the topic absolutely does. The Call of Duty games fall pretty firmly into the camp of wars must be fought to stop the bad guys. Star Wars sees all-out war as a tragedy (note that the start of the Clone Wars was a downbeat) and sees scrappy insurgencies as the recourse of good guys when others idle around to let evil men run rampant. The ultimate goal of the heroes is peace, not to fight more wars. Tolkien presents war as a place for honor and glory in The Lord of The Rings, but he is not blind to the horrors of warfare. The veteran of World War I spares thought for the horrors of warfare. The first time he sees a battle between Men – not Men and Elves against Orcs, but Men fighting Men – Sam is decidedly unsettled, wondering of a fallen foe “what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace.” Tolkien appears to believe that peace would be preferred.

But can a war story be anti-war? There’s a quip by François Truffaut saying that no war film can be anti-war. There’s a nugget of truth there, no matter how terrible what is presented onscreen, ultimately there will be some pleasure on behalf of the audience for it to work narratively; warfare will be glorified to some extent. I’m not sure if I’m entirely onboard with that.  Dr. Strangelove is a bitter satire of nuclear politics that makes no glory of soldiering, but it’s also not a movie about a war so much as it is about the idea of war. Comparatively, The Hurt Locker does have soldiers doing badass stuff, but we’re also privy to the personal toll it takes on them; epic guitar riffs are meant to be discordant with the reality. It’s hard for a movie to be anti-war.

And video games? Spec-Ops: The Line is fiercely anti-war, and all your badass glory is The Hurt Locker’s discordance ramped up several notches. You’re mowing down fellow American soldiers and burning civilians with white phosphorus. You are not a good person. The Metal Gear Solid games praise the honor of soldiers, but director Hideo Kojima has little good to say of the countries who send them to die. Naked Snake grows disillusioned with the United States in Snake Eater after the Americans order his mentor to betray the country to embed herself with the Soviets to weaken them then ordering Snake to assassinate her — to his commendation and her degradation. Perhaps the absolute that there can be no anti-war films (or games) is too stark a statement, perhaps it’s often a lot more nuanced than that.

So back to Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. You are awesome. Kassandra (who you play as lest you’d rather pick Dude McBlandman) kicks all the ass. Spears are stabbed into enemies, opposing soldiers sent running in awe of your might. Conquest Battles — big fights between the warring factions — are another chance for you to prove your martial prowess (and get some sweet loot). Now, Kassandra is a misthios, a mercenary, and so she can fight for whichever side she wants. But here’s some ludonarrative dissonance. As part of the story I’ll be helping Sparta take over a country, then hop across the border and fight for Athens, slaughtering Spartans. Which, okay, I’m a mercenary. Makes sense. But, due to the way the game works, I can roll up into a war camp, kill everyone except for the unkillable NPC who gives me the Conquest quest, and when I talk to said NPC he’ll be happy to see me despite the ground being littered with his dead compatriots. Ah, video games.

And war.

As far as Odyssey is concerned, war is pointless and random. Today’s allies are tomorrow’s enemies; the allegiance of any nation-state is up for grabs at a moment’s notice. Ultimately, it’s all meaningless, small pieces being moved around on a bigger chessboard whose players have no concern for the pawns. If Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey is to be ascribed a position on war, and it ought to be since it is a game that takes place during one, it is one of nihilism. No matter how much the narrative may account for a just war or honor, ultimately, it’s just the same dance over and over again with different partners.

But it’s really fun, though.

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Fight For Your Life!

Borderlands 2 has a nifty mechanic called Fight For Your Life. Basically, when you run out of health, you’re not dead yet; instead, you have a little bit of time where you can crawl around and shoot while waiting for a revive. So far, not particularly different from some other games: Apex Legends lets a downed player move, open doors, and mark enemies until their timer runs out, and I know there’s at least one Call of Duty that lets you fight while bleeding out and waiting for a teammate’s revive. It’s a cool feature of competitive shooters: if you down an enemy do you wait it out and risk them being revived, or do you rush in and get the execution for more points (and bragging rights)? It forces the player to make a quick decision about what’s more tactically sound, and hey, more interesting choices are always welcome in a game.

The spin Borderlands 2 puts on it is that it takes the idea of fighting for your life literally. If you’re able to kill an enemy before your timer runs out, you’re instantly revived and back in the fight. It adds an interesting dimension to single player, where running out of health doesn’t mean a game over or having to return to your last checkpoint. Thus the player is now encouraged to be a little more reckless because of the chance for a self-revive. Combat priorities are also slightly shifted, when faced with a large group of enemies it’s not quite tactically sound to take out all the weaker enemies first before dealing with the more powerful one since you want an easy kill in case you have to fight for your life. But you don’t want to be overwhelmed by sheer numbers. It creates more choices and tactical options for the player in a firefight; options beyond shoot all that moves. Of course, end up in Fight For Your Life to often in an encounter and you’ll see that timer get shorter and shorter: don’t be too reckless else you’ll have to respawn anyway.

Multiplayer in Borderlands 2 offers yet another space for the strategic interestingness of Fight For Your Life shine. If a teammate goes down during a raid in Destiny it’s in your best interest to revive them quickly since you need their support and if that timer runs out you run the risk of wiping as a team and having to restart. In Borderlands 2, there’s a strategic boon to not reviving your teammate, since they may be able to revive themselves via Fight For Your Life. Risky strategies that involve splitting up become viable. Snap judgements become required, as a downed player can make the call whether or not they’ll be able to kill an enemy to get back in the fight, or if they need a revive. A player a distance away can soften up a foe to give a downed player an assist, but stealing a kill from a downed player can also rob them of their revive and lead to you reviving them as penance.

As my brother and I make our way through our third playthrough of Borderlands 2 (Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode for the win!), I’m noticing a lot of the little details and features of the game that set it apart from contemporary first-person shooters. Much of it is certainly its tone and integration of RPG features that add a nice dose of zaniness into it all. Fight For Your Life, though, is something I haven’t really seen replicated elsewhere, and it’s certainly a nifty addition that I really do enjoy.

Also, yelling “yoink!” into the mic as I steal my brother’s revive kill and before remorsefully reviving him myself will never not be funny.

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Waiting For The Hurt

Sony did a big showcase of upcoming games this past week and honestly, all I care about is the new trailer for The Last of Us Part II. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Naughty Dog and, naturally, can’t wait for their next game. I’ve also written many times on this blog about The Last of Us and how much I love it, so, obviously, there’s hype here for its release.

I’m also loath to play it, as my unfinished second playthrough can attest. It’s not a bad game, it’s that the experience of playing it is so visceral and painful that it’s hard for me to sit down and jump in. Even though I haven’t booted it up in years, I know where I left off: Pittsburgh. It’s still early in the game, but I know I’m about to meet Sam and Henry, two brothers who come to accompany Joel and Ellie in the desolation. The brothers’ story ends in tragedy; Sam is infected and Henry shoots him to save Ellie, before, overcome by grief, shoots himself. It’s a painful scene: in part because we’d just gotten to know these two and had been offered a semblance of tranquility, and because the game doesn’t skitter around the emotional toll it takes on Henry before his suicide, and on Ellie and Joel in the aftermath. It’s not a particularly fun sequence of events. 

Maybe part of me is dreading that scene, for the simple reason that, well, it’s a lot. The Last of Us is not one to pull its emotional punches. Gameplay makes you feel vulnerable. Swathes of silent exploration are punctuated by bouts of violence, and in that violence, you never have the upper hand. Ammunition is desperately scarce, improvised weapons break with use. There’s no power fantasy here, as you run from a Clicker just trying to stay alive. Some of the Infected haven’t yet been totally overrun by the Cordyceps parasites and retain some semblance of humanity, and while you’re sneaking around them you’ll hear them weeping. Down a human enemy and you’ll hear them begging for their life as you go in for the kill, not in a way that makes you feel like a badass, but with a patheticness that’s gut-wrenching. 

Video games are immersive, that’s part of the appeal. You get to be the hero who takes up a sword and saves Hyrule, you get to be a jerkwad goose and wreak havoc on a tiny town. The Last of Us leverages this visceral immersion to drive its brutality home. It’s not just Joel carrying out these terrible actions, it’s you. Unlike in a movie or a book, video games require you to take an active part in what goes down on screen. I’ve done it, and I’m not too keen to do it again.

But I’m getting The Last of Us Part II on day one, because, well, how can I not? I want to go through the experience — one that Naughty Dog has promised to be even more brutal — and I want to find out what’s next for Ellie. Oh, I know it’ll be painful, but I know there’s a catharsis at the end.

Aristotle had a lot to say about stories (his Poetics are renowned for a reason). Catharsis, he figured, was one of the most important parts of a story. You must bring your audience through heightened emotions, make them feel joy, wrath, wonder, and sadness, and then at the end of it all, deliver an ending that allows the audience to purge it all out. For all the horror and pain The Last of Us put me through, its resolution allowed me that purge, that release. It was worth it.

I bought the remastered The Last of Us for the PS4, fully intending to knuckle down and play it. I still haven’t, but with the second one coming out soon it’s probably time to revisit the first. It’s gonna hurt, but the beauty and the catharsis will be worth it. Hopefully, the sequel will deliver just as well.

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Horse Music

Breath of The Wild, like most 3D games in the Legend of Zelda series, gives you a horse. It’s absolutely vital in this open-world game, as walking through much of the massive map would just take too long. It’d be really easy for the horse to just be a tool, a vehicle, a perfunctory mechanic that lets you move faster and mixes up gameplay a little.

And mechanically, the horses of Breath of The Wild works just fine. On horseback, you move faster, and it facilitates hit and run attacks. Different games do horses differently. Wild lets you talk to people on horseback, but you’ve gotta dismount if you wanna pick up that random acorn rolling on the ground. Assassin’s Creed Odyssey does the inverse; you can loot on horseback but not y’all to folks. The horse in Metal Gear Solid V operates essential like a vehicle, albeit a quiet one that’s less likely to draw the attention of patrolling soldiers. Gameplay-wise, as in when it comes to you, the player, interacting with the game, your horse does all the horsey things it needs to horse-do. 

Cool.

Breath of The Wild is also a quiet game. There’s not much in the way of music when you’re out exploring the wilds. Combat, villages, and stables have their themes, but you won’t hear much while roaming the hills of Necluda.

Unless you’re on a horse.

As you ride your horse, scattered piano starts to play. Over time, that piano coalescences into a slow, mournful rendered of a familiar tune.

For someone like me who’s played his share of The Legend of Zelda games, the theme music is something loaded with meaning and memory. It heralds a title screen and announces the start of a new adventure. It’s a musical cue that’s oddly absent in Breath of The Wild, not showing up in the title screen and there only being echoes of it when a traveling bard gives you a history lesson. 

So hearing the theme is made special by its scarcity. It’s a particular moment getting to hear it, especially in the mournful orchestral rendition it takes in the game. When the song plays, it plays. Chalk it up as another way that Wild makes established conventions feel fresh and new again. 

But why does the theme play here, in this exact moment? Why now? Why not have it play when you’re doing Something Awesome or, as with most other Zelda games, over the main menu?

Saving the iconic theme music for this is a deliberate choice by the developers, one that I think speaks to the central ethos of Breath of The Wild. The music only kicks in if you’ve been riding for a bit of time, it doesn’t strum up instantly, so you’re unlikely to hear it if you ride only in short bursts. It also won’t play if you’re in battle, as that’s when the battle theme kicks in instead. You’ll only hear it if you’re on a long ride at a steady gallop through the wilds. 

In this way, Breath of The Wild shows how it values long ride on horseback and the peaceful exploration and it entails. By making the circumstances for the music playing so singular, the game encourages you to fulfill those requirements. If you’re roaming Faron on horseback, the allure of the music subtlety discourages you from engaging in wanton combat or stopping to pick apples. The focus right here is on your ride, your exploration. That the horse automatically veers along a path allows you to focus your attention on looking around and really taking in Hyrule. Exploration and bothering camps of Bokoblins have their place, but right here is a moment to stop and enjoy the scenery. For all its wonderful innovations, Breath of The Wild knows that a key part of The Legend of Zelda is the expanse of its world, and it’s that conceit at its purest when the theme finally plays.

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Ahistoricity

As I’ve said before, there are two reasons I picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey; the first being that I got to control a ship again (seriously, after Black Flag gave me a pirate ship there was no going back). The other was that you could finally play as a woman for the whole game. It only took, what, eleven games to finally feature a female protagonist, albeit an optional one.

Anyway, naturally, I’m playing the game as Kassandra (instead of Blandy McWhiteGuy #38 that is Alexios), because I am here for badass women in my video games. It’s a lotta fun, but it’s also patently untrue. See, Kassandra’s a woman, and when it came to women, Ancient Greece wasn’t so great about it. Well, neither were most eras, really. Or right now. But that’s beside the point.

The Assassin’s Creed games are historical fiction, as played out through genetic memories in a fancy device called the Animus. Given that most all of the assassinating takes place in the past, whichever character the player inhabits must thus belong to the era and be fitting enough to be able to pass inconspicuously as needed. Naturally, the games want to focus on Big Cool Bits of History; unfortunately, due to a westernized view of history, Big Cool Bits tend to focus on that as seen by the West: the Crusades, the Renaissance, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Victorian Era, Ancient Egypt. They’re the eras and events we learnt about in our (westernized) history books and what we’ve learnt to associate as those Big Cool Bits. The Ming Dynasty, various Caliphates, and pre-colonial India are relegated to footnotes.

Because of this, the problem inherent to Assassin’s Creed is that most of (western) history isn’t great for women or people of color, thus necessitating that most of the game’s protagonists must be caucasian or white-passing. It was game number ten, Assassin’s Creed Origins, that introduced Bayek as the main character. He’s Egyptian, and, unlike a lot of depictions of Egyptians in popular culture, not white. Which is cool! And honestly, I’m keen to check out Origins sometime, to see how it is in comparison with Odyssey

Having Bayek be a person of color makes sense, because, well Egypt. It’d be far more strange to have him be some white dude. Were Ubisoft to ever make an Assassin’s Creed set in the Ming Dynasty or some other non-western historical period, the protagonist would probably have to be a person of color, because, hey, we’re finally telling stories that aren’t about white dudes. But history being history, if we wanted to give an accurate portrayal of the era and its culture, the protagonist would have to be male to be able to go about society doing things (like assassinating people).

Now, back to Odyssey, where I’m playing the entire game as Kassandra, a female character. Due to the game allowing you to pick between characters, gameplay and plot are essentially the same if you’re Alexios or Kassandra (since making things different would require more coding and work). There’s no difference in your ability to captain a ship, fight in a war, or sneak your way into a symposium based on whom you pick — or based on your gender. This means that Kassandra can do everything Alexios can; she can rub elbows with the Herodotus and Aristophanes all the same, she can be a respected and feared general, she can romance the exact same cast. In essence, Kassandra is equal.

Which is bullshit. Gender roles were established in classical Greek culture; you weren’t gonna have some woman running around as a mercenary fighting other mercenaries (some of which are women!). It’s plain unrealistic.

And so what? The game takes place two-and-a-half millennia ago, in an era that’s almost as much myth and legend as it is recorded history. Where’s the harm in taking some big liberties? Yeah, yeah; I get it, it’s ‘unrealistic’ to have a female mercenary roaming the Greek World and jumping around Big History Bits, but this is also a game where I merrily and repeatedly destabilize nation-states without plunging each society into ruin, so really, there’s a lot of ahistoricity going on there. 

But Josh, you say, that’s just gameplay mechanics built around the whole idea of reducing a nation’s power by killing its leader. And to that I say: So what? We’re okay with small breaks from realism for the sake of fun, why not for the sake of narrative? Video games, like so much of other fiction, has an overabundance of white dudes and needs a hefty splash of diversity. I am happy for Odyssey to take a break from reality and let me play as a female mercenary for the whole game. It’s cool, and, c’mon, we already know how history went; let’s have a little fun with it.

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