Tag Archives: Video Games

But For Adults

Dennis Villeneuve is currently attached to the latest adaption of Dune. It’s an exciting prospect: Dune is a rich novel and Villeneuve has shown himself to be both a skilled director and excellent at adaptations.  Arrival was an excellent adaption of a terrific short story, one that managed to make the feeling of the ephemeral come as much to life on the screen as the page. Blade Runner 2049 somehow captured the moodiness of the original while injecting it with something new.

So if there’s someone who can do Dune, a big sci-fi epic novel, justice, it’s probably him. And recently, when asked about it, he said “in a way, it’s Star Wars for adults.” Which, at first blush, sounds cool (lasers and spaceships with wanton sex and violence!), but it belies a frustrating intellectual divide when it comes to fiction, particularly genre works.

Take Game of Thrones, which I’ve heard described as The Lord of The Rings but for grown-ups. Which, sure, makes sense. Both are epic fantasies, but Thrones has a more dubious depiction of morality, a stronger emphasis on politicking, and, of course, the sex and violence it’s infamous for. It’s a fair description. But, implicit in the comparison, is the idea that The Lord of The Rings is not for grown-ups and is thus a kid’s story, and a kid’s story not particularly suited for adults at that. In other words, if Game of Thrones is adult, then The Lord of The Rings is childish.

Which is blatantly untrue. Sure, I first read and loved Rings as a kid, but the books and films resonate as much, if not more, today as they did fourteen years ago. Rings might have a clean-cut approach to the idea of good and bad, but is that any less appealing to an adult than what we get in Thrones? Isn’t there something to be said for a story that works well on different levels?

As a side note, it’s kinda ironic too, given than when Rings first came out it was unique for taking fantasy tropes like wizards, elves, and dwarves and putting them into a more mature context.

So Star Wars. George Lucas himself described the movies as basically being for kids. Which is kinda true, even if the prequels spent an odd amount of time discussing trade tariffs. But that doesn’t mean it’s just for kids. The story of a nobody leaving her home planet and finding herself to be more powerful than she ever imagined is as fun as an adult as a kid. Because the Star Wars films don’t talk down to they audience, they doesn’t feel geared too heavily to one audience. In other words, just because a movie works for kids, doesn’t mean it’s a kids movie.

I think there’s an overcompensation here when it comes to science fiction and fantasy works. Because these genres are seen as being less serious than, say, a period piece or a capital-d Drama, there’s a need to make them seem grown-up so as to not be laughed off. Game of Thrones, with its incest and child marriages, gets lauded as showing the gritty realism of a fantasy world that Rings glosses over. And maybe Villenueve’s Dune’s Arrakis will have all the harsh brutality of desert world that we never saw on Tatooine. But isn’t there room for both? Can’t we have more adult-orientated works without dismissing others as childish?

I describe The Last of Us as a grown-up video game. Not because video games are just for kids, but because it goes places most games don’t; its rich exploration of grief and loss aren’t the sort of things you’d find in Halo or even more adult-intended games like Spec Ops: The Line. The pleasure of the game (although The Last of Us can be a decidedly unpleasant game to play in places) comes from having the emotional maturity for the themes to really resonate. That’s not to say games intended for a younger audience like Uncharted or, why not, Mega Man Zero 3 are inherently lesser because they don’t go where The Last of Us goes; rather they’re different games and great for different reasons. I love Mega Man Zero 3 and its epic story as much in my mid-twenties as I did at thirteen.

I’m looking forward to this new adaption of Dune. I’ve been meaning to reread the book and it is one of the grandfathers of space opera as we know it. And of course I’m rooting for Villeneuve and I want the movie to be good. But I think this impression that the more romantic takes on genre fiction are childish is, well, childish. A story can be uncomplicated and romantic but still resonate strongly with an adult. And as an adult, sometimes I want a story uncomplicated and romantic.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Personal History

Exposition is, by nature, a weird thing. In fiction, it is effectively the author, whether through prose, dialogue, or (in video games) incidental environmental encounters telling you stuff about The World you’re visiting. It could be something as mundane as Ted and Jack used to be dating but now Jack’s into Sheila and that’s when Ted decided to quit his job or something as subtly major as “Years ago you served my father in the Clone Wars. [need better example]” You need exposition so the audience know what’s going on, but when done poorly it can feel like infodump, that is a whole lotta information dumped at once, usually just to keep the audience in the loop. It can be clunky and heavy handed, transparent in its purpose to the point where the immersion in the narrative is disturbed. It’s especially an issue in fanatical stories where a world’s gotta be established whole cloth (though stories set in the real world do sometimes stumble on the issue).

But sometimes it works.

Let’s talk Star Wars, because I want to. After the opening crawl (which, holy crap, is a magnificent narrative device in its own right that deserves its own essay), we’re told really freaking little about this world until Luke sits down with Ben — a solid quarter of the way into the movie. And so comes the exposition. Leia reminds Ben that he served her father in the Clone Wars. Ben tells Luke about his father. For a thousand years, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace in the galaxy.  But it works. Why? We wanna know what’s going on! After this big space battle we’ve been following a couple droids around and met this kid named Luke. Luke wants to get off this nowhere planet and be a part of something bigger, and we wanna tag along on that journey.

So there’s Horizon Zero Dawn, a video game I’ve only been able to put down because my girlfriend really wants to know what happens next and I’m waiting until we hang out to progress. One reason I love it so is that it uses one of my favorite settings: it’s post-apocalypse, but it’s been so long since that a new society has developed and there’s a mystery about what came before (see also: Mega Man Legends and The Chrysalids). The setting and its history, though, is wonderfully tied into the game’s narrative. In the game I’m Aloy, an Outcast from a matriarchal tribe who doesn’t know who’s her mother. My quest to discover where I come from reveals a connection between me and the Metal World of the Ancients (that is, the ruins of 2066) and starts to raise more questions than answers.

Over the course of the game I uncover more of what caused the apocalypse, and Aloy’s link to it all. There is a lot of expository information thrown around, both through the narrative itself and old records Aloy finds and can read or listen to. But it doesn’t feel like an overwhelming barrage of useless information. For starters, we’re more than halfway into the game when we start getting this and we’ve spent hours surrounded by these mysterious ruins and machines. At this point, we’re ready for some answers. And, it’s all related to Aloy. I’m connected to this history, and that connection might just help me figure out who I am. Assuming you’re invested in her (and why wouldn’t you be, Aloy’s great), you wanna know who you are. The exposition is important because it serves as a narrative catharsis to the character’s arc. In other words, the answers are the answer.

The worst effect of the story is for the recipient to not care. When people monologue on about the geopolitical state of whatever, it’s easy to zone out. But when it’s personal, when the history of an apocalypse is relevant to your character, then it’s easier to care. And it helps when the world’s pretty dope.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Return of The Boyband

One hundred and forty-four essays (not rants) ago I wrote about the then-upcoming Final Fantasy XV and how it was frustrating to see an entirely male party, albeit one justified by a space to allow the exploration of bromances.

Anyway, the game came out and all that, and I stopped paying attention to much (any) of the press. Then it went on sale on Amazon for $20 and, after being convinced by my girlfriend (“You’ve been waiting eleven years, just buy the game”) who informed me it was $16.45 in 2006, adjusted for inflation, I bought the darn game. And have subsequently played it.

And boy howdy it is odd.

A ten year development cycle is never a good sign for a game, and Final Fantasy XV (née Final Fantasy Versus XIII) shows a lot of growing pains. Its mechanics are a little wonky, with its open world showing nowhere near the contemporary finesse of games like Horizon Zero Dawn or Metal Gear Solid V. Even Mass Effect Andromeda for all its flaws made exploration fun; in FFXV, it’s a bit of a commute. Combat is cool, although it feels like it’s hampering itself by not letting you make more changes to your gear on the fly. It’s fun enough, if a bit of a mechanical mess.

But the story is where the game is at its most, both for better and worse. You play as protagonist Prince Noctis (Emo Bro) who is on a road trip to meet his betrothed, the Oracle Luna, with his retinue/bros consisting of Gladiolus (Muscle Bro), Ignis (Nerd Bro), and Prompto (Selfie Bro). We’re from the capital city of Lucis, Insomnia (this game is not subtle). Anyway, a cold war goes hot, Insomnia falls, the king dies (so Noctis is king now?) and we gotta find ancient magicky Royal Arms weapons to take back the throne.

Or something.

Truth be told, the narrative is a bit of a convoluted mess. I mean, I know what’s going on, insofar as I just explained, but the political lines aren’t really drawn all to well and I’m not quite sure how the Royal Arms are gonna help me get my kingdom back and avenge my father and all that. Also I think we’re still going to pick up Luna? But right now Luna’s going around waking up these gods and I’m also going to the gods to get their powers? I think?

In some ways it feels like there are ten years’ worth of ideas stuck to a cork board in this game, and they don’t always mesh too wonderfully. I’m not saying this game needed another year of development, more its connective tissue needed to be worked out a bit more, keep the player placed in the story.

Because there’s a lot of good! The combat system is wonky but when it works it is awesome to be warping around, swapping from a sword to a spear by materializing the new weapon out of mid air, and plunging into a giant frog (then warping across the field to stab a goblin). Exploring the world isn’t always smooth, but it’s a really cool world, with a delightful merging of contemporary tech/culture (smart phones, dope cities, route 66 style rest stops and garages, machine guns, etc) with some serious high fantasy (magic swords, normal swords, deamons that only come out at night, gods, magic meteors, etc). It’s weird, it’s fun, but we don’t really have enough moments to really get the feel and explore this world. Like, I’m told that in Lestallum it is the women who do the work, but outside of seeing female NPCs in overalls, nothing really happens with it.

But. The bromance. I can go fishing while exploring, and afterwards Muscle Bro sets up camp, Nerd Bro cooks, and we look at the pictures Selfie Bro took during the day (and I choose which ones to save). Along the way they talk crap about all sorts of things, be it Nerd Bro’s glasses or Selfie Bro asking what I want him to take pictures of. Nerd Bro and I (Emo Bro) had a bonding moment over cooking once, and Muscle Bro told me that he’s sworn to protect my life and that means that he’s gonna call me on my bullshit. Sure, I’m disappointed that the main female characters thus far are all NPCs and are basically just pure angel lady, Muscle Bro’s sister, and eye candy mechanic; but I am actually enjoying my retinue/bros (though Emo Bro is pretty boring thus far).

I’m told the game is about to get even weirder soon, with the open world being abandoned for something more traditionally linear involving a train, and in all honesty, I can’t wait to see where it goes. It’s nowhere near as compelling as, say Final Fantasy XIII or VIII, but it’s a lotta (weird) fun.

This is a game where an actual battle command is to have Selfie Bro snap a picture. And for some reason, having this dude take a picture while I’m fighting for my life against a massive monster feels just right for this game.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Ephemeral and The Sublime

Over the years, Hideo Kojima has, because of his Metal Gear Solid games, become one of my favorite video game designers. He’s also certifiably bonkers, mixing in discussions of American militarism-as-neo-colonialism in a game where you fight giant mechs alongside a mostly naked sniper who can’t speak because of a parasite that uses language to spread (and thus serves as a vehicle for Kojima to discuss how English becoming the global lingua franca is in turn another form of colonialism).

Point is, I’m always stoked to see what he’s making.

A new trailer for Death Stranding, his first post-MGS game, dropped last night. Like the handful of other trailers for the game that have come out, it’s weird and near indecipherable, with little information on what it’s like as a game. And at eight minutes long, it’s a pretty long trailer.

To the point where it’s less a trailer and more of a short film unto itself. It’s very self-contained, missing a lot of the “what comes next”-ness of trailers. While it does evoke a desire to figure out what’s going on, but that’s hardly the point.

There is little narrative in the traditional sense. Sure, we have a protagonist in Sam and a beginning, middle, and end; but it’s not about him doing something. Rather, the trailer presents a tableau of a scene, a moment for you to experience and are the better for having done so. The trailer presents the sublime, something quite beyond our comprehension but beautiful in its terror. It’s less about the catharsis and more about the process of watching Sam and his compatriots attempt to fend off these unseen creatures in a mysterious, physics bending world.

So in that sense it’s a lot like the movie Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is about a girl in her senior year of high school, her relationship with her mother, her relationship with herself, and that messy transition from seventeen to eighteen. It’s a tender story, told with a full heart and helpings of honesty. It’s reliant less on vying for that big, cinematic climax than it is on capturing a very particular moment in time for a very specific person.

And like the trailer for Death Stranding, it captures the ephemeral. Things happen, and then something else does. Lady Bird isn’t trying to say something bigger about the world, it’s just trying to tell its story (as Death Stranding’s trailer weaves its vision of terror). There’s no One Big Moment that defines protagonist Lady Bird’s life. Rather we see snapshots of a very specific person. Because of its honesty and specificity (Lady Bird’s idiosyncrasies are at once wholly unique and beautifully universal), we, as an audience, are allowed to experience a part of a life. One that, having seen, we are more for having done so.

It’s a fairly common anti-structure in indie-darling movies; you can see it done well in Drinking Buddies and Lost in Translation. Boyhood doesn’t know what it’s trying to capture besides “uh, time passes, I guess” and so fails to capture anything. Meanwhile Monsters sets its journey against an alien presence to heighten its exploration of loneliness and presentation of the sublime. Ken Liu’s short story “The Paper Menagerie” captures a difficult relationship. And it’s what Death Stranding’s trailer does so well.

I will campaign for narrative until the sky falls. But stories can be about moments too. The key is to make the audience feel something. As a reader/viewer/player I engage in fiction not because I want to sit idly by as something happens, but because I want to be taken on a journey. I want to feel something, sorrow or joy, something funny or something epic. Lady Bird didn’t need a Big Epic Conclusion to make me feel like a teenage girl. And Death Stranding doesn’t need flashy gameplay to present the sublime in a fracking video game trailer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Crossing Animals

Fetch quests occupy a strange space in video games. They aren’t strictly great quests; you talk to an NPC, and then they have you get something for them, or bring something somewhere else. They’re usually uninspired and are a transparent effort to pad out the game’s length. Mass Effect: Andromeda mines hours upon hours of gameplay by having the player go to a different planet, talk to someone, and return (for a reward!). Point is, they ain’t great.

And yet, there’s Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp.

I downloaded the game to my phone cuz a lotta people were downloading it, knowing nothing about the Animal Crossing games except there are animals that crossed and something about decorating houses. I fired up the game and found myself put in charge of a campsite (which I can decorate!) and told to befriend visiting animals and invite them over to said campsite.

Simple enough.

Befriending these animals, however, is a matter of talking to them and… fetch quests. Jay wants two squids, Filbert wants an assortment of fruits, and Apollo has developed an affection for butterflies. If you bring their desired items to these animal crossers they in turn give you bells (money) and resources like wood and cotton you can then use to craft new furniture for tour campsite. This furniture, besides looking nice, is also used to lure invite animals to hang out at your campsite.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp is all about fetch quests. Just going somewhere, getting something, and giving it to someone.

And yet, it is such calming fun.

Part of this is due to how gentle the game is. Pocket Camp doesn’t have you fighting monsters, you just shake fruit off trees or tap butterflies to catch them with your net. It’s easy enough to amass such a stock of items that more often than not, you’ll already have what your animal friend is looking for.

But there still a sense of accomplishment upon completing a task. The animal smiles and claps, thanking you profusely. It’s a bit of an overreaction, but you still did something. There’s the idea that you’re getting stuff done, and that getting said stuff done is appreciated by people, er- animals, who call you friend.

What really makes Pocket Camp work, though, is summed up in those darned cute animals. Pocket Camp’s simple mechanics are delivered with a very friendly theme. There’s no fighting monsters, but nor is there much in the way of any conflict whatsoever. You’re all just kinda get along. It’s utterly non-threatening, presenting a harmonious world where idyllic days are spent fishing and foraging and thinking about food.

And so it’s wonderfully calming. There’s no frenetic need to get stuff done, you can do stuff at your own pace and still have that sense of accomplishment. Like The Sims, you’re able to set your own goals within the parameters (do you want to upgrade your camper? Make a dope hangout? Stockpile a horde of Bells?) and go after them (though without the threat of starvation and/or setting yourself on fire). Again, Pocket Camp is a game to relax. Not blow off steam: just chill out.

I think it’s, in that way, a kinda important game. Sure, it’s not saying Something Bigger About The World, and it’s hardly a brain-bending puzzle game. It’s a game where you do stuff, simple fetch quests though they may be, and be rewarded and affirmed for it. Without deadlines or consequences, Pocket Camp feels very much like a safe space to escape to in the middle of the day. Proof that you can get something done and that Ketchup the duck is really happy you did.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

The Economy (Again!)

Star Wars Battlefront II is a really fun game. It course-corrects a lot of the problems of the first one and throws in some fun turns. Dogfighting in an A-Wing and charging through Hoth feel plain fun. But Battlefront II also has a seriously screwed up economy, one that’s intrinsically tied to how the game plays.

A lot of contemporary multiplayer games have progression systems, the more you play, the more experience points you get which in turn can unlock new weapons or buffs for your character. There’s usually a great deal of balancing gone into this, where that shiny new gun plays differently, but not usually better. Key thing is, this is all tied to you playing the game.

Not so with Battlefront II. Improving your character or class isn’t done through experience, but rather through accumulating Star Cards by buying loot boxes (or crates, in the game).

Loot boxes are a thing that have been in games for a while, though are only recently crawling into AAA games. They’re a ‘box’ you buy with in-game currency that include a random assortment of gameplay items. They can be cosmetic items, like hats and skins, or gameplay things like buffs and weapons. In a good game, like Uncharted 4, they’ll be new ways to play without upsetting the competition. For something like Mass Effect: Andromeda, they’re cool new toys that reward you for playing.

But in Battlefront II, they are the only way to improve. You can clock over a dozen hours as the Assault class, but unless you buy a crate, you won’t get any of the buffs or different weapons. This isn’t a case where you can level up a certain buff by playing with it a lot (as in other games); the only way you can get a buff – and these can be some serious buffs – is from loot boxes. Randomized loot boxes, mind you. Buying a box doesn’t mean you’ll get a Star Card for the class of your choice, you could get one for the Infiltrator you never play as and a power up for Darth Vader, who you haven’t unlocked yet.

Which, even alone, would hardly be so bad – if these crates were remotely affordable. The Trooper Crate, which contains Star Cards for the infantry you usually play as, costs 4,000 credits a pop (Starfighter and Hero Crates will run you 2,400). For reference, a single match, which can last 15-20 minutes, only gets you 200-300 credits. Optimistically, that’s a little over three hours of gameplay for one randomized pack of cards. A randomized pack which, again, mayn’t even have anything of use.

Now, you can bypass this by buying the boxes with real money (at around $2.50 a pop), but after a lot of outcry publisher EA has suspended that. But improving your characters is still a massive time investment. And no one’s really happy about that – this is a $60 AAA game, not a free iPhone app. The outcry on the internet has been cosmic, prompting EA to suspend those real money microtransactions and slash the price of heroes like Darth Vader (from a whopping 60,000 credits to a more manageable 15,000). There’s also the promise of more adjustments to come, but what those are is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, the economy of Battlefront II is completely in the lurch. We’ve already seen the price of some heroes drop by 75%, and though credits can’t be bought outright, they can be obtained through crates. In light of that, there’s (my) hope that EA will cut down the prices of the crates, so it’s less of an outright grind to improve characters (either that or tie progression to actually playing the game, but what are the chances are that?). The problem is, in the meantime, what becomes of your credits?

I’ve bought a couple Crates since the game came out, but I’ve also been stashing a lot of credits (I never dip below 10k, if I can help it [which I can]). Because if EA adjusts their economy (and at this point it’s inevitable), I don’t want to have ‘wasted’ credits. If they slash their loot box price from 4,000 to 1,000, my purchasing power quadruples. If they adjust credits from a match, well, I’ve a backlog (and they’d have to readjust milestone earnings – another thing I haven’t cashed out on yet because, again what if it changes?). And if they leave it as is, well, still credits in the bank.

But no matter what happens, adjusting EA’s economy’s gonna screw someone over. Maybe it’s someone who’s played for hours and suddenly realizes had they waited their money would be worth more. Maybe someone bought the crates before EA suspended microtransactions and just saw their dollars get undervalued. And no matter what, there’s the chance that it’ll happen because, again, they did cut the price of some heroes by 75%, so there’s a chance for another deflation. I don’t trust EA’s credits.

It’s frustrating. Because there are these features of a game I paid $60 for that I don’t get to experience just yet, or I won’t without some serious time investment. And the shame is that Battlefront II is such a fun game marred by a horrendous, random progression system.

So hopefully it’ll get fixed. In the meantime, I’m sitting on my credits like a crazy old man theorist on gold waiting for the markets to crash.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Violence in Video Games

The first trailer for The Last of Us Part II is haunting in its tranquility. We’re treated to shots of the desolated post-apocalyptic world where nature’s reclaimed a neighborhood. Inside a house, Ellie strums a guitar, singing “Through The Valley,” a take Psalm 23. Recently killed bodies lie around the house and Ellie herself is splattered with blood. Joel confronts her at the end, asking if she still wants to go through with it. Ellie’s answer? She’s going to kill every last one of them.

There’s little movement in the trailer beyond Ellie playing the guitar and Joel walking through the house, but it evokes the mood of the first game with its contrast between brutality and serenity.

A second trailer just came out, and this one might just be the opposite of the first. It’s a single scene between six characters and it is vicious in its depiction of violence. Two guys get shot with arrows. A woman is strung up in a noose, another has her arm bones shattered with a hammer, and a third gets impaled in the side of her head (unrelated: cheers to Naughty Dog for their diversity). It’s brutal and, at times, hard to watch. The trailer, like the first The Last of Us, doesn’t shy away from the garish nature of its violence. In short, it’s a lot to take in.

Naturally, it raises the question of whether or not video games should even have this sort of violence, and, in addition, whether or not it glorifies brutal hyperviolence. The first question is based on the idea that video games are fundamentally a medium for kids; there wouldn’t be any question about this sort of content in a film or a book. If we’re going to have a discussion about violence in video games, it’s important to agree that video games, like any other medium, can be targeted to children or to adults. The Last of Us, and its sequel, are rated M, the equivalent of an R-Rating in film. These games are not meant for kids in the first place.

It’s also key to realize that games are, by nature, more visceral. You’re not watching someone get killed, you’re doing the killing (via a digital avatar). The player is, oftentimes, not passive in the action unfolding on screen. A lot of the time it’s a result of what the player does.

But video games are a form of art, and as with any, there are different ways to depict something. A game like Army of Two: The Devil’s Cartel revels in its over-the-top violence. Bullets fly everywhere as you mow down villainous cartel members, get a bigger gun and limbs go flying off; it’s violent to the point of being cartoonish. There’s no second thought paid to the bloodbath, as there isn’t in films like The Expendables and Commando, they’re different beasts from, say, Drive.

Compare that to The Last of Us, a game which refuses to let you enjoy killing. If you’ve downed an enemy, be it through bullets or a metal pipe, and you go in for the kill with your bare hands (to save on supplies), the fallen enemy will sometimes beg for mercy. Not in a way that makes you, the player, feel mighty, but in a way that makes you feel like a monster.

The immersive interactivity of video games gives the genre a great deal of space to explore themes like violence. Take Metal Gear Solid V, a war game that’s vehemently antiwar. You play as Venom Snake, the leader of a private military company who is hellbent on revenge. Throughout the game you can pour funds into R&D, getting cool new rifles, shotguns, and rocket launchers (and more!). These weapons can, in turn, be used to kill enemy soldiers. But playing aggressively — killing everyone, executing wounded enemies, running over wild animals — and over time the piece of shrapnel lodged in Snake’s skull will grow into a horn. Keep it up and he will be permanently drenched in blood, not just in gameplay but in cinematic cutscenes too. If you have a tendency towards violence, MGSV doesn’t let you forget that you’re a killer.

The new trailer for The Last of Us Part II isn’t a fun watch. It’s not exactly the sort of trailer that would really entice any newcomers to the series either, given that it’s quite obtuse with any sort of details. Rather, it serves as an addendum to the thesis of the first game and trailer: survival is a brutish thing and there is no joy in violence. If Ellie is indeed set on a path of revenge, then Part II will not let her (and by extension, the player) forget what that means. There is a space for this sort of violence in video games, and, with their special ability for immersion, games can comment on it, just as any other form of storytelling does.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized