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Aegean Aexploration

Somehow, I’ve managed to clock in upwards of ninety hours in Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey since I started playing it a couple months ago. I’m nowhere near done with the story; heck, I’m not even too sure I’m that far into it. This isn’t so much a case of my having lost the thread as it is a merry exploration of Ancient Greece and all the fun it entails. 

The lengthy playtime is especially impressive when one takes into account the fact that I’d just about given up on the series after Black Flag back in 2014. It wasn’t that the games were bad; I really liked the whole running around history, rubbing shoulders with important people, and stabbing bad guys (sometimes sneakily). Plus, there was this whole super-advanced ancient civilization and modern-day conspiracy narrative weaved into it. There’s a lot to like.

My complaints stemmed more from the games’ lack of polish. Revelations, the third game in the Ezio Trilogy that started in II and was the precursor to III (their numbering system is almost as bad as Kingdom Hearts), saw the action move from Renaissance Italy to Constantinople, but gameplay remained frustratingly samish and the narrative a stopgap. As awesome as it was running around the Grand Bazaar (and the fun context it would provide to my own trip to Istanbul a few years later), I didn’t really care too much about Ezio’s adventures and honestly couldn’t tell you the story now if I tried. Black Flag focused on pirates, which was really cool, but suffered from a similarly disjointed narrative hampered by how much fun sailing the open seas in a pirate ship was. I know Kenway had some adventure or other to be on, but there were ships to sink out here!

I missed the next few Assassin’s Creed games, feeling that my goodwill to the games was tied to being able to captain a ship. Odyssey appeared on my radar due to its RPG elements, ability to romance other characters, and finally finally featuring a female protagonist, albeit an optional one (but why would you want to play as Bland Dude #38 when you can choose Kassandra?). 

And I get a ship again, so there’s that too.

Oh, and it was on sale on Amazon.

Somehow, I’ve since clocked two entire workweeks exploring Greece, and I’m still not tired.

Why? I’m not terribly attached to this franchise, so why am I so invested?

I’m not so sure it’s the story. I get it in broad strokes, and I am onboard with Kassandra’s hunt for the cultists who ruined her life, though I could do with the fun of a little more detective work. Kassandra has a winning personality, owing much to Mellisanthi Mahut’s performance; she’s wry and, based on the choices I’ve made, not someone who cares about your sob-story so much as the drachmae. It’s pretty fun playing a character who’s above all the squabbling in the local city-state and just wants to get paid.

More than anything else, though, I think I’m just enchanted by the world the makers created. Sailing the Aegean and finding new islands somehow doesn’t get old (and I’m putting off exploring some places because I want some places left to uncover). There’s a cave with cultists, here’s the home of a Spartan leader I’m going to assassinate, I’m going to fight against the Athenians alongside the Spartans to conquer Malis (and get a share of the spoils). How sneakily can I infiltrate this fort?

In many ways, it reminds me of Breath of The Wild; it might not be quite as gorgeously lush as Hyrule, but, dude, I get a pirate ship. I loved Assassin’s Creed II for the catharsis it offered after a long day at work, and Odyssey is much the same. Here’s a world I can quite happily get lost in and find my own sort of fun for hours on end. Seems like there’s always something more to do.

I recently made port in the island of Keos and, upon finding a viewpoint to take in the island, couldn’t help but be delightfully enchanted by the place. I know it’s probably not all that different from the other islands in the archipelago, but there’s a part of me that can’t help but surrender to the wonder, to that little spark of glee at uncovering a new island and joy of adventure. Perhaps that’s why I’m really falling in love with Odyssey: the game lets me chart my own path, figure out my own path, and really explore this new world. There’s a new fort or cave behind every turn, and I feel like I did twenty years ago popping Pokémon Yellow into my GameBoy Color and uncovering its secrets. 

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Menu-Assisted Narrative

Mega Man Zero ends with Zero facing down a hoard of Pantheons, his saber ready and his will resolved to fight every last enemy that crosses his path. The music swells and he charges off into battle.

The sequel picks up a year later and the opening stage is you, as Zero, still fighting the fight. The implication is clear: Zero’s been at it for the entire year since the first installment. It offers a neat sense of continuity between the two games, and Zero constantly using his tired/low-health animation instead of his usual idle one definitely lends itself to the sense of weariness found in the scene.

But that’s not the best part.

Hit start and you’ll bring up the pause menu. Menus are perfunctory things in most games; maybe a game will dress it up like an in-universe tablet, but for the most part, they’re utilitarian places to change loadouts or access options. Mega Man Z2 uses the menu to communicate atmosphere: it features the exact same design as the one from Z1, this time with cracks and broken parts. Zero has been fighting for so long, the pause screen is falling apart.

After the level, when Zero gets repaired and is ready to go back out on missions, not only is his idle animation back to normal, but the menu is now redone and shiny — just as Zero is back and better than ever. 

In this game, the start menu helps tell the story. In the opening it displays the passage of time, then it shows that Zero is in perfect shape. It’s perfectly possible to go through the opening without once opening the menu and miss this bit of setting entirely. 

There are things we’ve come to just expect from video games. Call it ludonarrative dissonance, call it the necessities of mechanics, but we’re used to certain gamey things. Extra lives, pause menus, health meters, the list goes on. Sometimes, games can try and explain it, like the HUD in Assassin’s Creed being representative of the interface of the Animus as Desmond accesses Altair’s memories, but typically it doesn’t really matter. It’s when these mechanicy things are integrated into the narrative that things get really interesting. 

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII has its Digital Mind Wave system. At first, the DMW seems like a kitschy mechanic; slots roll throughout battles and if the right numbers or characters line up, player character Zack Fair gets a stat boost or, sometimes, executes a cool attack. As you progress through the game, people who Zack meets get added to the DMW, and attacks and boosts based on them with it. Alright, cool; the DMW is representative of Zack’s psyche, an interpretation backed up by the flashbacks you’ll see when the reels align on one character. 

But then comes the ending.

So, uh, spoilers for a game that came out twelve years ago as a sequel to a game that’s now 22 years old, but Zack dies. On the run from evil corporation Shinra’s army, Zack tries to fight them off but eventually succumbs, passing on his legacy to Cloud (and leading into the original Final Fantasy VII). You get to play Zack’s last stand, an unwinnable fight with a foregone conclusion. It’s tragic and sad, and probably the last place you’d want a slot machine rolling in the top left corner.

Or so you’d think.

As the fight goes on, and as Zack weakens, parts of the DMW break and one by one the characters he’s met along the way are removed from the DMW. This mechanic you’ve come to rely on slowly becomes less useful, and the characters you — and Zack — care about are being taken from you as you die. It’s a visceral experience: something you’ve come to take for granted is slipping away. You feel the loss happening.

Video games are such a wonderful, fascinating medium. There aren’t many ways to smoothly integrate this sort of storytelling into other forms. An aspect ratio change could communicate Zero’s shift in film or television, but it wouldn’t be quite as obviously subtle. Perhaps a book’s font slowly growing more indistinct and faded would be able to communicate the sort of fading that Crisis Core’s DMW does, but would that be too obvious, too gimmicky? Maybe the only way to know is to try, but in the meantime, man, I love that video games can do this. Menus and in-game mechanics aren’t the sort of things we usually think of as ways to tell a story, and yet, these two games did. It’s honestly a shame that they don’t get more credit, and that more games don’t play around with their medium as much as they could.

 

Postscript:
I didn’t mention any entry in Metal Gear Solid because, dude, Hideo Kojima’s on an entirely different level when it comes to the interplay between games’ ludic and narrative elements.

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Obsolescence

I have a floppy disk lying around somewhere with stuff on it I must have written when I was around eight or ten years old. I don’t know exactly what’s on it and I’m not sure where it is at any given moment; it’s one of those things that I’ll happen on occasion and think to myself “hey, I should get the files off of this some time.”

Of course, there is the whole issue of finding a floppy disk reader. My laptop doesn’t even have a CD drive anymore and what once seemed so standard a feature on computers has become quite rare. I’m sure that with a measure of effort I could find somewhere that would transfer the files for me, but that would require forethought (and actually knowing where that disk is).

I’m kinda sure modern software still supports opening Word docs saved in a format twenty years old, but if it doesn’t there’s yet another hurdle. Tech has moved on enough as to make some stuff inaccessible.

Take Flash games and videos, for instance, the hallmark of my adolescence. As the internet develops, it’s shied away from the format to the point that some browsers no longer support it. In light of that, some websites have shut down (pour one out for YTMND) and with it has gone years of content, unlikely to be seen again. Granted, some of these do live on as recorded videos and what not, but it’s not quite the same. You can still watch Harry Potter Puppet Pals on YouTube, but you can’t click on a certain frame during Trouble at Hogwarts to watch a hidden short about Ron bothering some butterflies. Sure, there’s a recording of it on YouTube too, but that little hint of interactivity, that secret easter egg that you could find and tell your friends about, isn’t there. Should Flash fall further into disuse (with a planned end slated for 2020), it’ll only be a matter of time until you need an older machine to watch an older video.

But what about when that old content is no longer there? Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is a wonderful game: an old school side-scrolling beat-’em-up based on the eponymous movie, its pixel art graphics and local four-player support made it a staple of my PS3 library. Then the game’s license with publisher Ubisoft expired and the game was removed from the PSN Store and Xbox Live Arcade and it could no longer be bought or downloaded. Just like that, it’s gone. I might have it on my PS3, but it’s not something I could recommend to a friend to get, nor can I grab any DLC I might have missed. Barring a rerelease of some sort, anyone in the future looking to have the game, well, can’t. So if someone’s trying to create an archive of side-scrolling beat-’em-ups or games based on movies based on a comic inspired by games, they’re out of luck.

This sort of digital obsolescence is an actual concern of digital archivists. Consider any game designed for the Vectrex, a console I adore if only for how idiosyncratic it is. The game Minestorm, a knock-off of Asteroids designed explicitly for it, mayn’t have much that sets it apart from its ‘inspiration.’ The Vectrex, however, allows for vector graphics that create a particularly brilliant display of the game (which is actually just like the arcade cabinet of Asteroids). You can emulate the game and console all you want, but that particular experience is gone lest you can get your hands on a vector display.  How do you preserve something when you lack the hardware to do so?

I mentioned last week that I’d always have the old stuff to go back to, but sometimes that’s sadly not true. Ms. Pac-Man just isn’t the same without that arcade stick, and Asteroids without the vector graphics is a lesser game. Maybe the lesson here is to be present and enjoy stuff when you can.

Or maybe it’s to get your files off the damn floppy disk.

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They Changed it And That’s Okay

The band Barcelona enthralled me with their first album, Absolutes, with its soaring melancholic piano-driven sound paired with some soulful songwriting. It was a shock to the system when their sophomore album, Not Quite Yours, instead featured a more rhythm-focused sound and the piano relegated to support in many songs. Their third, Basic Man, sounds even less alt-rock; it’s an album full of mellow synthy grooves. Each of their albums sounds wildly different, which is a bit of a bummer if you’re looking for, say, a follow-up to Absolutes.

I once heard it said that if you wished a band sounded more like their older albums, then you should go listen to their older albums. I was resistant to that idea at first; part of why I get into any musical artist is because I like what I’ve heard; why can’t they keep to what works? Over time, though, I’ve come to appreciate this sort of sonic shifting. Five Score and Seven Years Ago is a radically different album from Relient K’s prior Mmhmm, but it was instrumental in the band’s growth that brought them to Forget and Not Slow Down, their best album. Change, as it happens, is a necessity for an act to evolve. Run River North has dispensed with the violins that helped make their debut album so singular, but their DNA is still all over their latest Monsters Calling Home, Vol. 1 and there’s little doubt their music is still outstanding. Plus, moving away from the violins has led to new renditions of old songs performed live on tour that are at once wholly unlike from and utterly recognizable as the studio recorded songs.

Consider this ethos in the context of video games. Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune is a fantastic game that Uncharted 2: Among Thieves improves on which is ultimately perfected in Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. Fundamentally, all three games are very similar to each other, though there are naturally the differences that come with any sequel. Consider this not unlike U2’s Boy, October, and War; three albums that feature very similar sounds. If you liked War you will probably also really like Boy; if you liked Among Thieves, then A Thief’s End will be right up your alley.

But then some game series like to really shake things up. Though Metal Gear Solid 2 features much of the same features of Metal Gear Solid, the sequel exchanges Solid Snake for Raiden, already a marked difference. Where the first game is something of a power trip, the second is not at all shy about critiquing that power fantasy. Mechanically, it is the next step from the original, but the game makes you question it all and so the game feels quite different. MGS 3 takes away the industrial settings of the prior games and throws you in the Soviet jungle. Gone too is your Soliton Radar: it’s the Cold War and you have to rely on a rudimentary sonar and your wiles to stay hidden. The fourth game upends the weapon system; no longer do you rummage guns from the battlefield; now you can order them through a mobile store. Also, you’re playing as an old man who gets episodes of PTSD if he kills too many people.

All of these variations make some pretty major changes to how you play the game. The focus on camouflage in the third game forces the player to adopt a slower pace throughout the game: without your soliton you really need to keep an eye on where enemy soldiers are rather than hiding in a box and checking your minimap. The new weapon system in 4 gives you more options for engagements: I used a silenced sniper rifle to carve a stealthy, deadly path behind enemy lines.

The next game, Peace Walker, has bite-size missions befitting its publishing on Sony’s portable PSP. Choosing limited loadouts for each mission is a different flavor of strategizing from what’s come before; maybe this mission you’ll shoot your way through, maybe on this one you’ll be sneaky. I was very hesitant about Metal Gear Solid V and its open-world. Up to now, the MGS games have been very linear experiences — all the better to weave its crazy stories. An open world would change all that, right? Turned out that yes, it was wildly different, but it was also a ridiculous amount of fun applying the game’s stealth mechanics to a different setting. It felt like a totally different game, and yet unquestioningly Metal Gear, like how U2’s War, Joshua Tree, and Achtung Baby are all very different albums, yet still the same band. Sure, I was disappointed that I didn’t get to play as Solid Snake anymore after the first Metal Gear Solid (Old Snake in 4 is very different); but I can go back to MGS1 for that if I want that, just as I can always put on “Like A Song” if I need a change of pace after listening to Joshua Tree.

What defines an artistic work, be it a game series or musical artist, is an intriguing question. There are some cases where wildly different projects aren’t really seen as an issue (think directors, actors, writers), but others where it is a big deal (Revenge of the Sith, A New Hope, and The Last Jedi are very different Star Wars movies and some folk ain’t happy about that). While more of the same isn’t often a bad thing — I love how Uncharted 4 perfected the series, there’s always something exciting about seeing a work redefine itself, as in Metal Gear Solid V, The Last Jedi, or Run River’s North latest EP.

And besides, if I have a hankering for the older stuff, it’s all still there if I want it.

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Where’s My History Lesson?

The Assassin’s Creed series might be my ultimate guilty pleasure of a video game. Some of them are really good (II and Brotherhood), some… less so (the original and, honestly, III). Then there’s one like Black Flag which has a really cool central mechanic (ships!) but really accentuates the worst parts of the series (missions where you have to follow someone and then not be seen… and failing makes you have to slowly walk with the followee again). Then there’s the overall lack of polish: Edward clips through the ship’s rigging when he runs along the bulwark, something you will do several times when you sail up to an island and run to jump off into the water. I’m hesitant to call them really great games, but they are fun, especially when III and Black Flag gives you a pirate ship.

Given that the succeeding games did not give you any pirate ships, I didn’t play any past Black Flag in 2014. Eventually, I finally came around and picked up Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey because not only does the game give you a pirate ship (sorry, a trireme), but at long last, the game finally gives you an option for the player character to be a woman. And something about RPG elements being a big part of it too.

Anyway, I’m days into the game, though I’m not sure how far into the actual story I am — I keep getting distracted fighting soldiers and sinking ships as my badass warrior pirate lady. Odyssey reminds me of why I enjoy these games so much, they’re fun, a little ridiculous, and there are few things as great as staking out a camp and then one by one killing the soldiers within before they know you’re there.

But, I’m kinda bummed that Odyssey has kinda lost its history lessons. Part of the whole schtick of these games is that you’re someone from present day reliving the past via the Animus and genetic memories. The framing device means other characters from the present can provide you with information about places and people you encounter. This means there’s a whole bunch of reading you can do about historical people and places you see. Running around Renaissance Italy and see a funky tower? Here’s some history! Wanna know what the big deal about the Hagia Sophia is? Here you go! What’s up with Colonial Boston? History! Yes, it’s kinda like homework to read through these database entries, but it really adds to the overall sense of place.

But this info is nowhere to be found in Odyssey. Islands in the Greek archipelago are just islands, places and temples are just places and temples, with little indication of their importance of factuality. Early on the game, you visit Ithaca and the ruins of Odysseus’ home. Which is awesome because, hello, The Odyssey! But without a measure of familiarity with Homer’s epic, you wouldn’t realize what a big deal it is. I’ve recently met a historian by the name of Herodotos who’s helping me with my quest, but the game itself has given no indication about the lasting reputation he’s had on the modern world. When I vied against the Borgias in Brotherhood it was an added bonus to know that these were, to an extent, actual historical people. Losing that framing robs Assassin’s Creed of one of its fun — and surprisingly educational — aspects.

This isn’t really a big knock against Odyssey. Like I said, it’s a really fun game, even with the small bugs (that may or may not be features). It’s an open world game, a genre which I have mixed feelings about, but there’s a lot to do so it stays pretty fresh. Plus, I bought a skin from a blacksmith that turns my horse into a unicorn, so at the end of the day, I’m okay with a little lack of history.

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Apex Teamwork

Ever since my brother got himself a PS4 I’ve been paying a bit more attention to online games. Sure, I play my share of online, games like Battlefront and Destiny are a great way to relax while watching The Daily Show, but an online multiplayer component has never been a big draw. Now that my brother and I can play online together, I’m ever on the lookout for a game where we can throw down together.

Over the past couple of years, Battle Royale games have very much become in vogue within the online gaming community. I’ve been aware of them, but never really knew what they were (in fact, a few months ago I looked the genre up on Wikipedia to see what the whole buzz was about). Anyway, Apex Legends was released recently, and my brother started playing it. I watched a game or two and figured, ah, what the hell, should be fun, yeah?

It is.

Each game has twenty three-player squads who air drop into a massive map. Players then scramble for weapons and gear and fight it out as the area of playable space slowly shrinks. You’ve only one shot at this; once your whole squad goes down it’s game over (and you return to the title screen to find another game to repeat the whole thing over again).

That gameplay loop necessitates a lot of quick decision making. Where do you land? Do you go to an area with good loot but is sure to be crowded and result in quick violence? Or do you go further off and try and gear up before joining the fray? Most important, however, is the teamwork of the game.

My brother and I are in constant communication while playing, each of us keeping an eye out for foes while making plans about how best to navigate the map (always go for the high ground). The fact that death in Apex is permanent makes teamwork so vital; since you can’t just respawn, staying alive together is paramount. Knowing where your opponents are — and keeping your teammates aware of that — gives you that edge up to outlive a squad.

Here’s the thing that makes Apex such a delight: its ping system. A tap of a button and you can tag whatever you’re looking at for your squad. Could be an untouched treasure chest, could be your idea of where the team should go next, could be an opponent. In and of itself, this system isn’t anything really new, Uncharted 4’s multiplayer had a perk where you could mark enemies. But it’s absolutely vital in a game like Apex where being able to communicate exactly where something is makes the difference between life and death. See, it’s hard to point in games, and exclamations like “contact right” make little sense when you don’t have that physical sense of presence you do in real life. Pinging helps give the squad a shared sense of space, where “over there” actually means something real.

Take sniping and spotting. The ping system means I can be perched high on a building while my brother goes in for a closer look. If he sees someone, he can ping them and I can take potshots at them while he beats a hasty retreat (or uses my covering fire as a way for him to flank ’em). It’s a lot more immediate than me having to search for them myself, or having to figure out what “up the hill behind that rock” means. Teamwork’s encouraged, and I get annoyed if our random third squamate doesn’t ping enemies.

I haven’t won a game yet. We’ve been top-three a couple times and come painfully close to being the last squad standing. I don’t really mind, though; I play the game for those wonderful moments when a plan we’ve hatched comes together (or falls apart stupendously). But I’ve never played the game on my own, and I don’t really see why I would. So much of why I enjoy Apex is the teamworkiness of it, and playing with someone I know is a guarantee that that’s in the cards.

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Showing, Not Telling

There’s this saying in writing that you should show, not tell; that is instead of telling the audience about how John is smart, write a scene where we get to see that John is smart. That way the audience can see how smart John is and think to themselves “Wow, John is smart.” Idea is because the audience drew their own conclusion (rather than being told such) it’ll resonate more.

A similar rule of thumb applies to video games, except instead of just seeing something it’s better to be able to play it. Watching a character fight a boss is one thing, getting to actually fight that boss is fantastic. Over the years, there have been different attempts by different game designers to figure out how to let players play scenes. Half Life never took control away from the player, allowing them to look around outside the tram car as they made their way into Black Mesa (or muck around in a room as a scientist provided story information). A clunkier solution was the use of quick time events, interactive cutscenes where you’d essentially press a button for your character not to die and the scene to continue. At its worst, these QTEs interrupted the flow of the game/cutscene: throwing in reflex-based minigames when you least expect it, forcing you to do over these scenes again and again.

The rationale behind QTEs – letting the player remain involved in scenes that don’t quite work with the controls – is a good one. Kingdom Hearts II had a really neat solution: Reaction Commands. During some fights with some enemies, a prompt would appear where if you hit triangle you would trigger a special move. If you were fighting a Samurai Nobody, you could trigger a stand-off where Sora and his opponent face off in a samurai movie style duel. Other Reaction Commands have him using an enemy’s abilities against the other bad guys or allowing for some really cool moves in boss fights. It adds depth to combat and, importantly and let’s the player be the one who pulls off that really badass anime-esque move.

It’s been a while since that game came out, though, and in the meantime others have been figuring out how to let the player take a more active role. Uncharted 2 let the player still be in control during big set pieces, like maneuvering through a collapsing building, fighting bad guys, and then jumping through the breaking window into the building next door. It’s a fairly typical trope for an action movie, but what makes it so cool in Uncharted 2 is that you are the one who does it. It’s not a cutscene or even a qte, you’re in complete control of Drake as he scrambles around. The bar was raised and many games followed suit, finding ways to keep the player in control during big moments, further immersing the player into the game.

All this brings me (once more) to Kingdom Hearts III where a lot of the action is not just unplayable but actually takes place off screen.

I’m gonna be talking about the ending here too, so there are spoilers beyond this point!

From the get go you’re told that Kairi and Axel are training to become Keyblade Wielders. Cool, but aside from one cutscene of them talking, we don’t actually see any of this happening until several hours later where we see them talking again before the climax. This is a small thing, but it’s emblematic of the game’s tendency to tell you about things more than showing you, much less, I dunno, getting to play as Kairi or Axel as they train. But maybe that’s me asking more of the game than it offered.

The ending, however, sees Xehanort defeated but a slain Kairi not rescued. So Sora sets off to rescue her, ignoring Mickey’s warning that misusing his Power of Waking could have dire consequences. And that’s it until, during the epilogue, we see Sora and Kairi sitting on a tree in the Destiny Islands…and he fades away.

The intended tragedy of Sora sacrificing himself to save Kairi doesn’t quite land, however; in no small part because we don’t actually get to see it happen. While there is certainly a measure of poetic understatement in how it’s portrayed on screen, we’re not given nearly enough lead up for it to really work. If we’re gonna make Kairi need to be rescued again, why don’t we get to actually rescue her? For it to just happen offscreen feels so anticlimactic and robs it of its emotional weight.

I have my issues with Kingdom Hearts III, particularly how its pacing feels so darn weird. That so much of the plot happens off screen, including a vital part of the epilogue, leaves the player (me) feeling really unfulfilled. Point is, show, don’t tell; and if you’re making a video game, let us play the important bits.

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