Tag Archives: Video Games

Walking Game

I’ve finally started playing Death Stranding and it is delightful and weird and everything I want it to be. Basically, you play as a Porter, bringing things from A to B, by walking and sometimes balancing your load. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic America after the Death Stranding put a hold to civilization and isolated everyone. It’s up to Sam (you) to reconnect the United Cities of America by visiting various outposts and connecting each Strand and Knot together (get it?). There’s also the mysterious Timefall, a rain that speeds up time on all it touches, a consistent danger in the world that’s heralded by an inverted rainbow. Also, BTs, which are, um, ghosts(?) that follow you by your breathing. And a fetus strapped to his chest that helps you sense those BTs but also has memories of its own. And if a BT grabs hold of a living person they can create a massive explosion that obliterates everything around it. But not Sam, since he’s a repatriate and able to come back to life.

Like I said, the game’s fricking weird.

And oh how I love it.

I’m only a few hours in, but I know I’m in for a ride. In part because director/writer/producer/auteur Hideo Kojima proved in the Metal Gear Solid games that he is a man with a vision. That vision may be totally bonkers and nuts, but he knows what he’s doing and you’re just along for the ride. I’ve been looking forward to Death Standing for years, so my personal hype makes sense, but I’m just so darn delighted by how completely devoted to its weird idiosyncrasies it is.

Perhaps it helps, then, that gameplay is so basic. You’re walking. Amidst all these complex themes (seriously, I found myself looking up chirality and knot theory on Wikipedia during my commute because of this game), the core mechanic is just going from A to B, traversing ridges and fording rivers and using a ladder to get a little higher. You’ve gotta load your gear just right so you don’t topple over, and toppling over is bad because you don’t want to damage whatever it is you’re transporting.

It’s simple.

But I know it’s gonna get more complex. Not just because I’ve seen trailers for the game that involve doing more than I’m doing now, but because that’s how video games work. You start off simple, with the basic mechanics of the game (in Death Stranding, it’s walking and balancing; in Super Mario Bros., that’s jumping and squashing goombas; in Breath of the Wild, it’s walking around and hitting things with sticks) and as the game goes on things get more complex (Wild gives you a hang glider, Mario has you swimming sometimes, Death Stranding, well, I’m not there yet).

A neat part of a well-made game is how the game gets more complex as it goes. It takes time, sure, but by the endgame, you’re managing a variety of systems and mechanics that would have been overwhelming at the get-go. Metal Gear Solid V starts you off with only a couple guns and a horse. Over time you’re able to deploy decoys, call in helicopters, have a sniper buddy, drive a tank, and play music on a Walkman. It’d be a lot to drop on you at once, so instead, the game paces it out, introduces you to things as they happen. The MegaMan games are like this too; with the platforming starting off simple and later stages throwing more curveballs at you and mixing things up as you go on, so by the time you reach the final stages you’re acing all that came before.

As of now, Death Stranding is a simple game with a lot of crazy ideas, and I know that simplicity is foundation for more interesting stuff later on. In the meantime, it’s a really weird game about walking and I am so here for it.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Thinking Elsewise

Central to the Battle School in Ender’s Game are the Games; mock-battles fought between armies in a zero-gravity arena where combatants try to win by eliminating their opponents. When Ender is given his own army, he messes with conventional tactics by deciding that the enemy’s gate is down, and not across. Cardinal directions are completely arbitrary in zero gravity, so it makes little sense to be beholden to them. This reframes the battlefield; Ender’s army gets an advantage since they’re able to approach their opponents from unexpected angles. It’s Ender’s grasp of three-dimensional space, among other things, that makes him a formidable commander. Up and down are relative.

The central gimmick of Gravity Rush is your ability to mess with gravity. With the press of a button, Kat is able to float off the ground, and another tap sends her hurtling in that direction until she hits something, at which point that something is now the ground she’s standing on. It’s a dizzying affair, flying around this steampunk town and walking upside down on bridges and the like. It became slightly less dizzying, however, when I realized I wasn’t flying around; rather, I was falling.

I know this might seem obvious, but it is a decidedly different approach to the game. We’re used to flying in games; that’s a motion that’s easily translatable. Maybe not flying like Superman, but flying with a jetpack or flying a plane or spaceship. Thus when using Kat’s powers, the translation in my mind is that I’m flying, and I try to adjust as such (and I can’t). Once I think about it as if I’m falling wherever I’m going, though, the movement becomes more familiar and I’m better able to guide Kat through the air.

In essence, to play Gravity Rush well, I’ve gotta stop thinking ‘normally’ and get myself to see Kat as falling, not flying. Basically, I gotta reframe my point of view — the enemy’s gate is down. It’s a really fun part of Gravity Rush, because there are times when my brain goes back to ‘default’ and I’ve gotta remind myself that I’m falling. The game wants you to speak its gravity-based language, which often means having to ignore other telltale signs of which way is up.

Thinking differently is a really fun exercise, and it’s really neat when games force you to do so. Portal is a first-person game that gives you a portal gun. You go in one portal and out the other — simple. You go fast in one portal you go fast out the other; vertical velocity is transferred to horizontal, depending on where the portals are. To solve the puzzles in the game, you’ve gotta use these portals to your advantage, often in some really wild ways. It’s no small detail that GLaDOS, the AI who’s setting up these tests for you, compliments you by saying that “now you’re thinking with portals.” You gotta think with portals to get through.

I like games, and I like having to learn to think the way a game wants you to think. When playing Kerbal Space Program I had to think like a rocket scientist, Catherine had me dreaming in block puzzles. Naturally, I think there’s so much more room in games to really cut wild. I want a strategy game that takes place in proper three-dimensional zero-gravity space, complete with being able to reorientate ships and the like. I want puzzle games that really cut wild with ideas of physics and force you to think way outside the box. It’s a hurdle to overcome, sure, when getting the hang of a game, but it’s such a fun feeling. Games, particularly video games, are access to a virtual world and the sky’s the limit with what you could do there. And sometimes, that sky is where gravity happens to be pulling you.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Outer Choices

The Outer Worlds is not a sprawling game. Its planets and other areas are relatively compact, with the objectives of each place being quite clear. The game doesn’t have a laundry list of side quests to complete. Even the weaponry and armor available to you are limited when compared to games like Assassin’s Creed: Oddysey and Metal Gear Solid V. The world is cool but it’s hardly brimming with stuff to do like in Mass Effect: Andromeda and Shadow of Mordor. You’re not liable to come across a band of roving marauders; in fact, exploration in The Outer Worlds is often quite peaceful and without the need for violence.

I say all this as a preface to the following: what The Outer Worlds lacks in breadth it makes up for several times over in depth. Sure, there’s not that much to do, but the ways that you can go about doing it are legion.

Recently, my character, Jimbo the Himbo, a gentleman who is all charm and people skills with minimal intelligence, was hired to take over an abandoned space station. While onboard, we were hailed by a local agency and threatened with boarding. Taking advantage of our great charisma, we bluffed our way through the conversation, convincing the others that we were about to arm the self-destruct. So persuasive were we that we scared off the approaching gunship and were able to go about our way undisturbed.

It’s a small example of the sort of shenanigans you can get away with in The Outer Worlds. There are several times when I’ve used skills like Persuade and Lie to avoid combat or find a different solution to a problem. There’s no one way to do a thing, and I keep wondering how else I could do something and to what effect. But also, in many ways, The Outer Worlds is a game that comes close to realizing the potential of digital RPGs.

The RPG genre grew out of tabletop role-playing games, with early RPGs like Ultima and Wizardry borrowing huge swaths of cloth from the likes of Dungeons and Dragons. As the genre evolved, it grew less reliant on its tabletop forerunners and has long since grown into its own. There’s still that inkling of what makes tabletop so great, though, the ability to make your own character and run off on your own adventure, doing what you will.

In other words: player agency. Player choice in table top RPGs is almost unlimited, bound only by your imagination and the patience of your Game Master. Any problem thrown in your path can be solved by a plethora of ways, and the players can craft their own narrative as they do so. Perhaps the party are a shoot first ask questions later sort of group, or maybe they’re the sorts who like to turn enemies into friends. Either is possible, if the dice are in your favor.

With digital RPGs, there is the potential for what only exists in one’s imagination to be fully realized on screen. Furthermore, you don’t need a Game Master to run it for you: the computer does all the work. Of course, there is the limit of what is possible to code and write, and since we’re yet to be able to create a procedurally generated AI Game Master, digital RPGs are inherently limited.

Which is definitely why The Outer Worlds’ small scale works for it. By focusing in on a relatively smaller world and adventure, the game does more with less. Sure, there are only so many different quests you can do, but look at all the ways you can do it!

I’m not sure how much longer I have with Jimbo the Himbo on his current adventure, but I’m already looking forwars to playing the game again, with a different character who’s short on charm but proficient in other areas (I wonder what would happen if I couldn’t talk down that gunship earlier). This room for choice — and the unknown —is part of what makes The Outer Worlds so engrossing. I know that events are playing out because of the choices I’m making, and I can’t wait to see what happens when I make different ones.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Cake, And Eating It

After the gargantuan behemoth that was Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, it was a decided breath of fresh air to be able to finish Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order inside of two weeks. This is despite Fallen Order being a bit of an open-world game, insofar as there is an amount of exploring and backtracking you can do, though honestly, that splash of open world might just be more of a hamper than a help.

Fallen Order is an action-adventure game in the vein of Uncharted or Tomb Raider: You run about different places, fight bad guys, explore stuff, find stuff. It’s not the most polished game; the controls are a little loose, combat’s not quite as responsive as I keep expecting it to be, and it can bit of a buggy mess at times. It’s still a lot of fun and, let’s be honest, I’m a sucker for Star Wars, so that’s a plus right there for me.

So the open-ish world.

Gameplay in Fallen Order follows a straightforward rhythm. You arrive on a planet, look for a thing, find the thing, make your way back to your ship, and repeat. As you progress, you unlock new abilities and such that open up new paths and new places to explore, and thus, new places for the plot to send you. It sounds pretty great on paper, but in actuality it ends up feeling like a lot of backtracking and retreading. Part of the problem here is that compared to more open world games, there’s not really a whole lot of exploring to be done. There’s is part of a wrecked Venator-class Star Destroyer you can go spelunking in on one planet, but there’s not much else beyond that.

This isn’t a bad thing! Most of the time the Uncharted games (which I adore) are a fairly straightforward affair, with there being little diversion from the main path. And when Fallen Order really leans into its Uncharted inspirations the game is really good! You get these frantic sequences where you’re running about as chaos unfolds around you, or you’re running for your life from a squad of Stormtroopers. There are those epic set pieces that are exhilarating to play; you get to be in a Star Wars movie!

And then you go through those same areas again, but without the narrative urgency, because you missed a few collectibles and now the magic is kinda gone. This isn’t just a case of doing the same thing again, like replaying Uncharted, this is more a case where the level plays out the same, just without the chasing Stormtroopers or Inquisitors that made it so exciting the first go round. It’s a little awkward, truth be told, but it’s a necessary awkwardness if you’re double checking for secrets you missed the first time (like I did).

Perhaps this is a problem of Fallen Order wanting to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to have a narrative-driven adventure like Uncharted, while still encouraging backtracking and open exploration. But the world isn’t quite as expansive as that in Tomb Raider; exploration in Fallen Order is limited to small diversions off the main route. Again; this is fine, but the process feels lacking and is somehow both too long and too short for it to really be worthwhile.

I suppose when it comes down to it I wish the game had chosen one direction and stuck with it. There are hints at times of an epic, bespoke adventure, and at other times of a bigger world to explore, but the game comes down in the middle and it’s… fine.

This frustrates me because there are elements to the game that are so so good and I feel like sometimes Fallen Order tries to be a game it’s not — to its detriment. Perhaps the lesson here is to know what you’re about and be confident in that. But in the meantime, I still had a lot of fun; when Fallen Order got out of its own way I was a Jedi with a double sided lightsaber fighting the Empire. And really, that’s what I wanted.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

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.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized