Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Quick Update

Sorry I haven't been updating here as much as I used to. I was backpacking around Europe for a month and now teaching has started again so everything is pretty hectic. It might be a while before you see another 'Notes' post on here (though I'd like to write one about Final Fantasy XII and one about Netrunner after I've played each game for a bit longer).

I'll be in San Francisco next week for GDC, Lost Levels, Critical Proximity, and Wild Rumpus. I'll be charing this panel at GDC, and giving talks at both Lost Levels and Critical Proximity. At Wild Rumpus I'll probably just be drinking a lot. If you are around, do feel free to say hi to me if you see me at any time during the week.

I haven't had too much writing published yet this year. My column at The Conversation has been going alright. My recent piece on Ken Levine firing everyone and getting patted on the back about it got quite a bit of traction. I wrote on Unwinnable about the shameful response to Flappy Bird, and I wrote for the American men's magazine M about videogames and masculinity (available online here). I also have a piece forthcoming in the next print issue of Overland about videogame criticism and Susan Sontag. I've also been rambling a bit on my new-ish tumblr, ungaming, which I mostly started to have somewhere to dump incomplete thoughts and junk that was longer than a tweet but messier than a blog post. I've written a few games-related rambles there and some non-games rambles. Also posted lots of gifs.

And that is what I am up to of late.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Games of 2013: Part Four

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Spelunky (Mossmouth)
Spelunky just made it onto my list last year. More out of respect than anything, I guess, looking back now. Kind of like my first dabbling with Dark Souls, I don’t think I really truly appreciated Spelunky back when it came out on Xbox Live. I’d learned to appreciate it as a slapstick comedy because that is all I was capable of appreciating it as.
This year, however, when the game made its way to PSN and Windows, I picked it up to play on Vita. It seemed like a perfect portable title to play a little bit here and there. I found myself playing it a bit every night before sleeping, getting better and better at it. Soon, I had surpassed my ability (and score) from the time spent sitting in front of my Xbox.
Significantly, I also started watching livestreams of PC players completing the daily challenge (most notably Jason Killingsworth), and learned all kinds of tricks and secrets I had no knowledge of (Black Markets, Temples, Cities of Gold, Bosses). I learned tricks like how to kill shopkeepers without committing suicide and how to aim bomb throws. Much as with Dark Souls, I felt like I finally got it
600 deaths later and I’m still going. Thanks to Sony’s Crossplay, I am playing both on my Vita here-and-there, and again on the big screen through my PS3. I’ve ‘finished’ the game the ‘easy’ way several times, and gotten to Hell several more. I’ve even reached Yama, the final boss at the end of Hell once, but died before I could defeat him. My relationship with Spelunky in 2013 has been nothing like it was in 2012. I feel like I am actually getting somewhere. I feel like, miraculously, like I have learned a whole lot, like I am still learning. 
Douglas Wilson’s breakdown of Bananasaurus Rex’s Eggplant Run is a great piece of games writing from this year I heartily recommend. Joel McPherson made a fascinating bot that records animated gifs of people's deaths and uploads them to tumblr. 

Final Fantasy XII (Square)
Final Fantasy XII is another game I played on release that I’d been feeling the desire to return to for quite some time now. When it was new, it was the first Final Fantasy since I entered the series at VII that I did not play to completion. I gave up because the story made no sense to me. The story made no sense to me not because it was poorly told, but because the game gives you so much other stuff to do that it is so easy to lose track of the intricacies of which made-up pseudo-European-sounding King is from which kingdom. I enjoyed both the story and the stuff, but the two together were incompatible, so I gave up. 
I returned to FFXII not to find out what happens in the story but because I had this striking memory of all that stuff, all the ‘gamey bits’ being incredibly weird. When FFXII came out in 2006, MMORPGs were all the rage and looked, for a time, like the dominant way forward for RPGs generally. This lead to FFXII functioning as a kind of single-player MMORPG. You have guilds and a gazillion sidequests and this kind of battle system that isn’t separate from the world you walk around in. You have all this stuff to do, as though Square were trying to get a monthly subscription fee out of you. Also Final Fantasy XI was an MMO, so I imagine a whole heap of design ideas were carried over from one to the other.
Returning to it now, I find the transparency of FFXII’s design history fascinating. On one layer there is that MMORPG-inspired design, but there is also the clear fingerprints of Yasumi Matsuno threaded throughout the game’s design. Most explicit are the game’s connections to Final Fantasy: Tactics (another of Matsuno’s games) through the use of the same world and species. But there are also connections to Matsuno’s previous work Vagrant Story in both the kind-of-real-time-but-not battle system and the game’s broader visual aesthetics. Most explicitly, the downplayed aura of light when casting magic spells as opposed to the spectacle of other Final Fantasys strikes me as a very personal flourish of Mitsuno’s. 
But also fascinating in the transparent design is everything that went wrong. Matsuno stepped down from his leading role before FFXII was finished, and Square apparently made all sorts of changes that he wasn’t happy with. The license board was something he apparently loathed to see implemented, and it feels bluntly jammed on. More visibly, Balthier is clearly intended as the protagonist before Square decided the game needed a preppy young anime boy for the marketing. The way Vaan seems so hastily jammed into the plot is fascinating. There are several cut-scenes where, in the background, Balthier refers to himself as the leading man. 
Beyond all that, I found the game sincerely enjoyable. The fluidity of the real-time-but-turn-based combat is excellent, effortlessly combining the strategy and mediation of turn-based combat with the stronger rhythms and engagement of real-time. It feels like the developers marched into the cobweb-filled attic of the series’ Active Time Battle and threw out everything that didn’t need to be there. What could be automated is now automated; what needs to be manually controlled can still be. Fighting in FFXII feels like walking in Dear Esther and makes fighting in previous games feel like walking in QWOP. It’s an act of design minimalism pulled off with great elegance. 
Most ingenious of all are the gambits, something I’ve come to appreciate over time, having played too many games with terrible AI-controlled companions. Gambits are a basic programming language used to script your companions. This allows companions to be, at once, automated but also doing what you want them to do. Why click ‘cure’ every time your health gets below 50% when you can just program a companion to heal you if your health goes below 50%? Further, not all gambit conditions are available from the start, but must be bought from Gambit Stores, adding a new level of upgrading. Essentially, gambits allow NPC behaviour to be incorporated into the personalised sense of character building. It feels natural, both streamlined and meaningful. 
I still haven’t finished FFXII—I haven’t even gotten as far as I did when I last played. But by trying to care less about the story that I will inevitably lose track of anyway and more about the design and the systems, I’ve learned to appreciate it on a far deeper level than previously.

Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater (Konami)
First, an explanation for why I have not yet played Metal Gear Solid 3. I missed a whole heap of the glorious Playstation 2 games that came out in 2004 and 2005. Ironically, perhaps, this is because I lived in Japan for all of 2004, and had no access to my game consoles. When I returned to Australia in 2005, I moved out of home and started university, becoming incredibly poor in both time and money. Several years later, my brother gave me a copy of Metal Gear Solid for my birthday, but it was too late. Console generations and game design had moved on and I really struggled to play this strange relic that seemed to age so quickly. So, despite someone who considers himself quite learned in the Metal Gear Solid series, Metal Gear Solid 3 remained a conspicuous hole in my knowledge.
Which, now that I have played it through, I’m amazed I ever allowed that to happen. Metal Gear Solid 3 is, with no mistake, the best realised game in the series. It is the most Metal Gear Solidest of the Metal Gear Solids. It is, on the one hand, the most solid stealth game in the series, with long uninterrupted segments that allow an objective to be approached from a variety of directions and approaches. On the other hand, it is Hideo Kojima at his most self-indulgent and absurd, and simultaneously his most confident and experimental. Entire boss battles can be avoided by shooting a dude in the distance or, simply, not playing the game for a few days. Magic realism emerges far more explicitly than other games in the series as a scar transforms into a snake and slithers off a woman’s body. At one point, Snake dies and travels to the afterworld where he is haunted by every human and animal the player has killed over the course of the game.
It was wonderful, utterly wonderful. I think my favourite thing about Metal Gear Solid 3, and the Metal Gear Solids generally, is that they exist. I want more self-indulgent games by auteurs that don’t know how to edit themselves. It would be a welcomed respite from the waves of utterly depersonalised paint-by-numbers blockbuster games devoid of any personality. When I play Metal Gear Solid 3, I can tell a human being made this game.
I had not played a Metal Gear Solid for quite some time when I played Metal Gear Solid. 3, so I readied myself to approach it a certain way. I readied my body for an experience that was going to be as much about watching cut-scenes and listening to dialogue as it would be moving through environments and menus. I approached Metal Gear Solid 3 on its own terms, and I loved every minute of it.

UN EP (Ian Snyder)
Music and videogames have a long, intimate relationship, as musician/games critic Kirk Hamilton and musician/game designer David Kanaga have both pointed out. The short version: it’s no coincidence that we talk about both music and games as things that are ‘played’. The past few years have seen no shortage of music-based games—not least of all Proteus, created by Kanaga and Ed Key, where the soundscape and the landscape are symbiotically connected. It’s a space ripe with experimentation as developers pick apartand stitch together the feel of games and the rhythm of music. 
One music game from this year that has passed with tragically little fanfare is Ian Snyder’s UN EP. Created as part of Unwinnable’s “Playable” series that teams up developers with writers to create games and writing about said games side-by-side, UN EP is somewhere between a child’s toy and a musician’s scrapbook. Various ‘worlds’ offer unique combinations of visuals and audio, tied to the click or movement of the mouse. There are no goals; there is no ‘point’ beyond the simple pleasure of playing with the game to make wonderful sounds and sights splash before your ears and eyes. But the experience is magical and memorable, and I find myself returning to each of UN EP’s worlds again and again just to touch them, just to hear them.

Katamari Damacy & We Love Katamari (Namco)
Keita Takahashi’s Katamari games suffered the same fate as Metal Gear Solid 3: lost to that same Playstation 2 Golden Age in which I was not buying new games. I discovered a digital copy of Katamari Damacy hiding on the US PSN store and, finally, picked it up. And, man, what an utterly wonderful and delightful game. There’s this sincerity to the game, a full-heartedness, a happiness, and a vibrancy. It’s the kind of game you get when the person making them is more interested in being an artists or a designer than in Making Games™. It is not just a “whacky Japanese game” (indeed, no game really is), but is an incredibly clever and self-aware game that David Surman has aligned with the superflat aesthetic of Takahashi Murakami
At the core of each game is that pleasure of getting larger without ever really noticing when exactly you got larger. You go from rolling around a tabletop, bumping into dominoes, to being just large enough to realise that shape looming over you is a sleeping man’s head. Eventually, you are picking up the man and the entire house. You roll around a city, then you pick up the skyscrapers, then you pick up the continent. It is a simple pleasure of shifting dimensions that never gets old.
It’s an ever fluctuating relationship with objects (something Darius Kazemi explores with a great essay). Everyday objects are replicated and distributed across areas they never should be, like Andy Warhol putting soup cans in an art gallery. There’s something calming about all these objects—mundane and mythical, everyday and ecentric—just waiting to be collected, and something even more calming about the bubblewrap-popping sound as you roll each one up.
The vibrant pop aesthetic is crucial to the game’s success, from the bright colours to the campy and teeny attitude of the King to the lively renditions and remixes of the music. Then there is the self-aware sequel, We Love Katamari, that mirrors Takahashi’s own surprise at the success of the original. He made a sequel because people loved the original; the game’s plot is that the King sends the Prince to roll up more Katamari’s because people loved the first game. But this isn’t some overly serious meta-commentary. It’s just flat is-what-it-is sincerity, and it’s lovely. Everything about these games is lovely.

Max Payne 3 (Rockstar)
I’ve come to realise this year, above all else, that I value a game with a clear and consistent aesthetic direction. I care less about what a game is trying to do, and much more about how well it is doing what it is trying to do. It could be trying to make some insightful social commentary, or just be a good action game, or just be a bit of a time waster, but if it does that well, then I really appreciate it. So games where the music, characters, gameplay, user interface, menu colours, sounds, HUD design, every all seem to contribute and reinforce a central aesthetic tone. It’s why Killzone: Mercenary is on this list. It’s why I really love Spec Ops: The Line and The Last of Us. Bulletstorm but not Bioshock: Infinite. Splinter Cell: Conviction with its black/white/red HUD and seeping aesthetic of a broken man, but not Splinter Cell: Blacklist with its HUD of full-colour Playstation buttons and loadouts and Conviction hangovers that seem to have nothing to do with what Blacklist is going for. I am far more interested in the overall tone of a game, how all the bits fit together, than in simply how the ‘core’ game functions.
I realised this when I fell in love with Max Payne 3. It’s not that the story is particularly deep or intelligent, but that the game knows exactly what it wants to be, and it does everything it can to be that. From the drone of Health’s magnificent soundtrack, to the way Max holds his weapons, to the gritty and pointless mundanity of his plight. It’s almost restrained in its commitment to be what it wants to be. 
Most of all, I love the pacing. That slow, snowball build across the levels to the final, almost-but-not-quite redemptive stage in the airport where Max just walks in the front door, knowing full well what he is doing for once. This magnificent pacing is in the little things. It’s in the way Max will walk a few steps automatically after a cut-scene instead of fading to black, stitching cut-scene and action together instead of jarring them apart. It’s in Max’s slowly changing appearance and the constant drone of the music. It’s that slow build across all the levels up to the final moment of the penultimate level where Max kicks a locked door and literally howls “Fuck” before marching into the airport. It’s not until the game’s closing scenes, where Max picks up a grenade launcher and chases a airplane with a car that the game finally lets itself run free from its own constraints. But even then, it doesn’t feel like a lack of self-control but more like a final flourish, like an encore. Like a celebration of itself. Like the developers knew they’d done something magnificent and wanted to let their hair down to celebrate.

I loved it. It’s just such an incredibly well put-together game that tries to do something and just does it. This isn’t a ranked list, but I think Max Payne 3 is my favourite game that I played in 2013. 

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Games of 2013: Part Three

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]
Dark Souls (From Software)
I first played Dark Souls in 2012, but I never got far. After much grinding, I reached the gargoyles on the church roof, decided I ‘got it’, and put it aside. But I continued to hear stories. Whispered rumours of forests and tombs and painted worlds and an ancient city and demonic ruins. I read “The Hollowed Killer of Lordran” and was captivated by the mention of these names and places that were uttered, like foreign countries on continents I had never heard of. My Twitter feed was still a crossfire of characters and spells and tactics and other words that I didn’t even know what they signified. Eventually, it felt like I had read the opening chapter of The Lord of the Rings but never left The Shire. I needed to know what everyone else was talking about. I needed to see what else was out there.
So I returned. This time, I was willing to use guides and walkthroughs all the way through. I was less concerned with ‘beating’ the game than ‘getting through it’ just to see what was there. I started a new character, a pyromancer on Twitter’s recommendation, and went on my way. What took me about twelve hours on my previous game took me about two. A few hours later and with a bit of help I beat the gargoyles and rang the first bell. I ventured into Blighttown and Queelag’s Lair by myself to ring the second bell. With a guide’s help, I defeated the Iron Golem of Sen’s Fortress and took photos of my television screen as I set foot in Anor Londo. With the help of human strangers I defeated both the painted world, and Dragon Slayer Ornstein and Executioner Smough. I didn’t finish the game—at least, not yet—but I got that bit further. There’s still more to see, but I feel like I understand and appreciate Dark Souls and its world that bit more.
Most satisfying of all was that feeling of camaraderie with other players past and present. Anyone who has played Dark Souls is more than happy to help a newcomer. I felt this bug myself when I saw people start the game after me; so eager I was to jump in and give them tips. It’s because people who have played the game understand the joy of Dark Souls is not in overcoming the game by yourself, as ostensibly single-player as the game might be, but in the sense of solidarity with other players. The joy of the game is in overcoming this cruel game together: in being helped by those that come before you, and helping those that come after you. It’s players versus game both inside the game and outside of it. The world feels so hostile to make friendship feel so warm
So when I decided I would use guides and walkthroughs to see the world at any cost, I was accidentally approaching the game how the game should be approached: defeated at any cost. When I put aside my stubborn sense of ‘fair play’ and ‘doing it myself’, I realised that there is no ‘fair play’ where Dark Souls is concerned. It refused to treat the player fairly, so why should the player treat the game fairly? Swallowing my pride and using guides just to get through the game didn’t weaken my experience in the game, but made my antagonistic relationship with it all the more vivid.

Vagrant Story (Square)
I didn’t return to Dark Souls the moment I thought about doing so. I spent several months hesitating beforehand. I felt the desire to play it again, but not the confidence. So, instead, I returned to Square’s very odd and fascinating Playstation title Vagrant Story. It had been years since I last played Vagrant Story, but my memory of it gave it a kind of Dark Souls vibe. Not necessarily in mechanics, but in atmosphere: the solitary character in a quiet and dead city full of monsters. Just without the finger acrobatics demanded of Dark Souls.
So, on my Vita, I started a new game of Vagrant Story. I found Yasumi Matsuno’s game fascinating for the ways it mutated and mashed together both traditional JRPG and action RPG elements, combining command menus with semi-real-time combat. 
I enjoyed its systems, as dense as they are deep. There is the peculiar mechanic that the more you use a weapon on a type of enemy, the stronger that weapon becomes against that type of enemy (and the weaker it becomes against an opposite enemy type). This requires both grinding and planning. Attacking every enemy with the same sword will get you nowhere. Instead, you must use this sword for beasts, that hammer for zombies, that crossbow for humans, etc. Where it breaks down, however, is when you come across a boss that is a type that you have rarely confronted before. So, to be sure, it is not a balanced game.
Having to constantly change weapons has the potential to be terrible, especially in a game that predates the normalisation of hotkeys on console games. Every time you want to change weapons, you must open your menu system, open the equipment menu, scroll to your weapon, open the menu of all your weapons, find the right weapon, equip it, and press cancel about five times to climb up out of the menu pit. This can get pretty infuriating, especially as you want to be changing weapons every third or fourth enemy. Indeed, I remember it infuriating me last time I played the game.  What got me through this time, though, was a desire to play the game ‘slow’. I wasn’t rushing; I didn’t need to get anywhere quickly. I would play the game at its own pace, and Vagrant Story’s pace is slow. The minimal background music and the environmental stillness makes Vagrant Story’s world feels timeless much as Dark Souls’s world feels timeless. It wants you to take your time, so I took my time. When I did this, constant burrowing through menus felt a bit more tolerable.
Most of all, though, I enjoyed the game overarching aesthetic, both in the world and in the menus. In menus, the audio and visual design is satisfying. Every menu dongs like a grandfather clock as you enter it, and swipes away with a ‘swoosh’ as you go back up a level. There are vast swathes of information about every piece of equipment, but it is all relatively easy to parse. In the world itself, however, the game’s visual style really shines. Vagrant Story is one of the few games I have played that takes the graphical look imposed on so many Playstation-era games (chunky with low-res textures) and turns it into a style. Rooms, enemies, and characters are all modelled in very intentful and particular ways. These are not just low-polygon, chunky humans, but stylisied humans that fit the game’s technological constraints majestically. Often I would enter first-person (which would have the surreal effect of pausing game time, but not character animations, so enemy skeletons would just sway and breathe contently in front of you) to look around the wonderful buildings and at the phenomenally detailed character models. Indeed, so much detail is only visible from that first-person perspective. Make no mistake: Vagrant Story is a beautiful game.
Ultimately, it was the outdated save system that defeated me. I encountered a difficult boss a significant distance from the closest save point and felt my enthusiasm be sapped from my body. So I never finished Vagrant Story, but I’m incredibly glad I returned to it.

Earth Defense Force 2017 (Sandlot)
Earth Defense Force 2017 (EDF) is one of those Japanese games people like to point at and laugh about being “So bad it’s good” when, really, what they mean is “that game is incredibly good despite being made on a tight budget”. “So bad it’s good” claims, especially when applied to Japanese games, usually just refers to an imagined level of graphical fidelity not reached, of a certain sincerity to its ‘wackiness’, of a jangliness and a clunkiness. Binary Domain and Deadly Premonition are examples of sincerely good games that are sidelined under the “so bad it’s good” label when, really, they are only bad if you use the wrong measuring stick.
EDF places you in the role of a single soldier alongside many others, defending Tokyo from giant bugs and aliens. Though, I get less of a sense of the bugs as ‘giant’ and more of a sense that I, in fact, am really small. I feel like a toy soldier in a Tokyo diorama put too close to an anthill. Regardless, the sense of drama and scale are the same. The visuals are lo-fi and the animations are jangly, but none of this detracts from the breathtaking spectacle that is watching a wave of giant ants pour over skyscrapers towards you. The b-grade horror music looping in the background only adds to the atmosphere.
This is a game with no pretension, a game that does so well exactly what it is trying to do. Yes, it is ‘rough’ and low budget, but time and labour have clearly been dedicated to the places it needs to be dedicated for the game to achieve what it wants to achieve. The sense of scale, in both quantity and sheer size, in EDF is unmatched by any other game I can recall playing, with the possible exception of Shadow of the Colossus.

Doom 3 (Id Software)
Doom turned twenty years old this year. That feels like a big deal, and I’ve been enjoying the various retrospectives  coming out that are trying to appreciate just why it was so special (none more than Liz Ryerson’s excellent video series). Doom 3, however, seems to be often dismissed for not reaching some ideal, nostalgia of the original games. For not ‘being Doom’. At the same time, though, it also seemed to fail at being what, on the surface, it looked like it wanted to be: namely, a survival horror game. It seemed torn between wanting to be a run’n’gun game and a survival horror game. Playing it directly after a replay of the first Doom, though, I found it incredibly enjoyable. I approached it like Doom, running and gunning through its corridors. This gave me, through the jump scares, a constant sense of paranoia. Playing it ‘like Doom’ drastically changed my experience of the game, for the better.
I’ve already written quite extensively about Doom 3 in a Notes posts so I won’t repeat myself here.

Spider (Vector Park)
Amazing animation and a simple idea incredibly executed.

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Games of 2013: Part Two

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Ridiculous Fishing (Vlambeer)
Ridiculous Fishing is an arcade game with a three-act structure. Act 1: A fisher in his boat, you drop your line into the sea. Tilt the phone left and right to avoid fish and get as deep as you possibly can. Act 2 begins once you eventually and inevitably fail Act 1: bump into a fish, and you begin to reel the line in. Now you must hit as many fish as possible, accumulating dozens of them on the end of the line. Act 3 begins once the line returns to the surface: the fish are flung high into the air and must be blasted with the fisherman’s firearm for cash that can be spent on longer fishing lines, better weapons, and other upgrades.
It’s a hypnotic rhythm in itself, but the upgrades also add a sense of exploration. The deeper you go the more exotic fish you will find. The more fish you capture, the higher you will fling them, and the more celestial bodies you will see. The game constantly swings from seeing how low you can go, to how high. Decorating it all is a distinct and eye-catching visual style of thick borders and slanted lines and diamond fish. 
The cloning saga that saw another company duplicate their earlier Radical Fishing before Ridiculous Fishing was finished almost destroyed Vlambeer, sapping their motivation. But for anyone on the outside who has followed Vlambeer and their various incredible games, it was clear this wouldn’t destroy them. Vlambeer’s ideas might be easily cloned, but the feel of their games is something only Vlambeer can achieve. There is a crunchiness to the interactions in their games, a satisfying meatiness to every button press. And, sure enough, when Ridiculous Fishing finally did come out earlier this year, it far surpassed its cloner on its own merit. It was the kind of game only Vlambeer could make, and it gave them the success they well deserved.

FJORDS (Kyle Reimergartin)
I haven’t played enough Fjords to really understand or appreciate it yet, but I’ve played enough to know I need to put it on this list. I am intimidated by Fjords and my ability to hack (a term I use literally) its world. It feels like walking into a pitch black room I have never entered before and not knowing if it is a ballroom or a broom closet. It’s remarkable but I still don’t quite know why or how. Indiestatik perhaps can give you more information.

Time Surfer (Kumobius)
2013 was not a particularly exciting year for iOS. There were some really standout games, to be sure, but I certainly spent less time checking Game Center leaderboards than previous years. Or, perhaps 3DS and Vita games just started dominating the time I would have usually spent on iOS titles. Time Surfer was an exception, though, and I spent many a train ride or night on the couch chasing those highscores, boasting and lamenting on Twitter.
Some have dismissed it as a Tiny Wings clone, but I prefer to see it as Tiny Wings with a solution proposed for the one thing I hated about Tiny Wings. That is, in Tiny Wings, all that hard-earned momentum could be lost in an instant with a mistimed swoop. Once you picked up speed, it became a matter of luck whether you landed properly or not. Time Surfer’s time-reversal mechanic offers a solution to this—you still make the inevitable mistake, but now you can rewind to undo the mistake. Rewinding is a valuable energy, however, and you want to react the instant you land wrong, rewinding just far enough to adjust. There’s a twitchiness to it as you stay attentive, hoping not to miss your own mistake. You need to know that that one is the one you should rewind to keep your momentum up. 
It’s unfortunate and unfair, the clone label, applied simply for building a game with the same fundamental mechanic. As though every FPS is a Wolfenstein 3D clone. As though a song can’t use the same core instruments as another to do something original. I am no less interested in the games that fine tune and iterate than I am in the games hat attempt something that has never been done before. To only be interested in those games that are ‘completely’ new is to like precious few games.

Stickets (Wanderlands)
Melbourne-based game designer Harry Lee has been making a bit of a splash on the local scene over the past couple of years. His minimal but ingenious games such as Impasse and Midas have turned heads, their deceptively simple presentation hiding oceans of clever design. He’s been central for a range of local groups and events, such as the Glitchmark meetings and, perhaps most importantly, as co-director of the Freeplay Independent Games Festival. Oh, and he is twenty-years-old.
Stickets is Lee’s two-man studio Wanderland’s first commercial release. Like all his games, it at first seems deceptively simple: a match-3 game mixed with a tile game. Place L-shaped tiles, each constructed from three different coloured squares, on a grid. When three squares of the same colour are touching, tap that group to make those squares disappear. The goal is to place as many L-shaped tiles as you possibly can before you can place no more. It’s slow, deliberate, and meditative. You have all the time in the world to choose where to place the next tile, and where you might need to place the one after that. It’s a game about thinking and planning, not about rash decisions or reflexes. This is no less true for the Timed mode, that required you to completely reprogram how your mind approaches the game, but still rewarded careful deliberation over rash actions. The turning point in this mode, for me, was the realisation that time only counted down if I made an action; I still had all the time in the world to just think.
Underlying it all is subtle but ingenious sound design. Each position on the grid makes a different sound when tapped. Move a three-square tile over the grid, and chords are strummed. I’ve spent many minutes just playing with the Stickets board like some kind of abstract instrument.
Despite Lee’s youth, Stickets has the feel of a confident designer that knows exactly what they are doing. It’s a wonderful achievement from someone who is going to be a defining character in Australian videogames in the coming years.

American Dream (Terry Cavanagh, Stephen Lavelle, Jasper Byrne, Tom Morgan-Jones)
Apparently this game is over two years old, but I had never heard of it before going through Terry Cavanagh’s collection on the Ouya store (side note: I wish more developers would use the Ouya as a dumping ground for their otherwise browser-based and free small games). Much like with Knightmare Tower, I lost an entire night sucked into American Dream’s absurd world of trendy furniture, cartoon orgies, and celebrities traded on the stock market. 
That’s… pretty much it, really. You move between a screen of your house, where you are able to spend money on seasonably trendy furniture to replace that furniture you bought last season, and the stock market, where you buy and sell shares on Sylvester Stallone and Madonna and Michael Jackson. Make enough furniture, and then you can buy more furniture. The ultimate goal is, simply, to make a million dollars, but if you want crazy sex parties, then keeping your furniture up to date is essential. 
It’s a simple, cynical, and nonsensical game, but its slick and lo-fi presentation is like having your eyeballs sucked into a whirlpool. Of utmost importance are the quick transitions between the game’s various screens. These tie everything together. Be it the quick screen that representations your character travelling from home to the stockmarket, or the montage orgies of the sex parties. They all give the game this hyperalert feeling that everything has to be done now. You must buy and sell and fuck and buy furniture and it all has to be done yesterday, like some 80s cocaine-fuelled capitalist dream. No time to talk, I gotta go buy 200 shares in Barbara Streisand. 
If I had attempted to play this game on my computer, sitting at my desk lurched over a keyboard, I would have played it for a few minutes, thought, “heh, that’s cool” and moved on. On a console in my loungeroom, however, lounging on my couch with a controller in my hand, I got sucked into the game fully, staying up late to see it through. It’s a prime example of why I think the Ouya (and micro-consoles generally) are important: to take that experience that was previously constricted to the desktop and put it in the loungeroom, an environment where many such as myself feel far more able to devote time and attention to a game. 

[Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Games of 2013: Part One

Contents: [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four]
Normally around this time of year I write a series of posts discussing my favourite games of the past year. I usually write about 20 to 25 games, spread over five posts. Most would be games that were released that year, with a few outliers from the year before that I did not play when they were new. This year, conditions are slightly different for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was asked to write Game Of The Year posts for both Overland and The Conversation, and I contributed two games to Game Critics's excellent “The Year of the Games 2013” mega-post. Secondly, I found precious few of 2013’s AAA releases worthy of my time, and instead committed much of my game-playing time to older games and platforms that I had either never played before or wanted to return to. What this means is that this series of posts will serve less as “The Best Games That Came Out in 2013” and more as “The Games I Played In 2013 That Were Really Good”. Really, that is what I think all GOTY lists should be, a reflection of what was played, not of what was released. But anyway.
So, first things first then, if you are interested in what I thought were the seven best games that came out in 2013, the Overland piece has you covered. I think they are Tearaway, The Last of Us, Crystal Warrior Ke$ha, 868-Hack, Candy Box, Towerfall, and Gone Home. Animal Crossing: New Leaf was also memorable, and is written about on the Game Critics post. The games I wrote about on The Conversation, I am going to re-include here as I had to edit down that piece quite substantially, and I didn’t get to say everything I wanted to say about those games. I also had to cut two games from that list for length reasons (webpages don’t grow on trees you know) and they will be on this list too.
What I’m saying is don’t read too much into the ordering of this list.  
There are 20 21 games on this list, and I'll post it in four parts over the coming days. So without further delay, here are My Most Memorable Games Of 2013 Except For Those Other Memorable Games

Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics)
Any longrunning franchises risks stagnation. After nearly two decades, Tomb Raider had long since fallen into insignificance, with forgettable release after forgettable release. Before its release, the game was riddled with poor press and marketing faux-pas, as developers made it sound like there would be an 'edgy' rape scene from which (male) players would want to 'protect' Lara. A traditionally strong woman seemed reduced to a crying, quivering girl in a torture-porn adventure for men.
Either the marketing department failed miserably (not unlikely), or the developers listened to the critical feedback, as the actual game when released was a satisfying romp of gritty survivalism and platforming. Some understandably criticised the shooting as excessive and detrimental to that sense of ‘fighting to survive’ (Lara’s journey from traumatic first murder to gunning down a room of men is pretty swift). Personally, I found it just right (once I made the personal rule to not use the machine gun, limiting myself to the messy shotgun, desperate pistol, and elegant bow). After the Uncharted serious successfully reimagined the Tomb Raider series through the adventures of Nathan Drake, Tomb Raider came along and reimagined Uncharted, combining cinematic set-pieces and impossible acrobatics with tense but fluid gun battles. It was bombastic and ridiculous, to be sure, but it was a joyous frolic. This wasn't a game about 'survival' like, say, DayZ, but it successfully depicted an aesthetic of survivalism.
Lara, meanwhile, sat in a paradoxical space. Rhianna Pratchett succeeded at writing a young and naive yet strong and intentful Lara that the marketing campaign failed to demonstrate. She makes her own choices, holding her own again viscous and aggressive men. She never gets raped, and shoots in the face the one man who tries. Yet, the camera gazing at her is very much a man, lingering just that bit too long on her buttocks or breast, or listening to her gasps as a tree branch skewers her after a failed quick-time event over and over and over. Ultimately, then, the new Tomb Raider succeeds at depicting Lara Croft as what she has always been: simultaneously strong woman subject and passive woman object, a character far more interesting than the games she has often found herself in. 
I wrote a Notes post on Tomb Raider with more thoughts. I really related to Justin Keverne's discussion of how he prioritised Lara's performance over simply playing the game 'well'

Devil May Cry (Ninja Theory)
Another long running franchise revamped. Unlike Tomb Raider, Devil May Cry (or ‘DmC’), is not an origin story but a stylistic overhaul. Like Tomb Raider, DmC struggled before its release against a fan base unhappy with the direction the series was being taken. The series' protagonist Dante has received a makeover, replacing his white mop of hair and red trenchcoat with a more generic crop and singlet. "He looks like a male model," someone described it to me recently and, actually, I think that is the best way to put it. But at a brief glance and he looks like any other videogame dudebro. The series looked diluted to appeal to a mass audience. People were unimpressed.
Having zero attachments to the serious in its previous iterations (perhaps the best way to approach any relaunched franchise), I found DmC to be a delightful, campy, and utterly absurd romp. It was, perhaps, 'bad' in places. The characters were flat and the metaphors of the plot were utterly transparent in their fifteen-year-old-goth-boy ludicrousness (a braindead conformist public can't tell they are being controlled by the mainstream media and junk food). Banter with one boss is, literally 'No, fuck you!" yelled at increasingly loud volumes back and forward for an awkward length of time.
But this isn't the typical terrible videogame writing accepted as inevitable in most videogames. The badness of DmC transcends that, not dissimilar to Bulletstorm (except perhaps not quite as clever). The lewd dialog and ugly characters (covered in cellulite and sneers) is not simply 'so bad its good', but instead reaches a level of masterful campiness in its innuendo and flourishes and artifice. Meanwhile, the level design is sincerely spectacular, with upside-down cities and demonic nightclubs pulsing to the dubstep and torn apart by invisible forces. 
Combat is streamlined, with moves simply requiring you to hold down the right or left trigger as you press a single button—no rhythmic patterns or obscure combination to memorise. It's something else diehard fans of the series lament, but for newcomers it allows a fluidity to the combat: what you want to do you can do. The game also boasts what are perhaps the only enjoyable boss battles from the last few years. I won't soon forget fighting a giant, hardly disguised cyborg Bill O’Reilly Tron-demon, or the ham-fisted Freudian boss of a woman demon and her unborn demon foetus.
There's a self-awareness to DmC’s camp. An eye-winking that suggests that the game knows exactly what it is doing. That the tenth "No, fuck you" is not just generic videogame dialogue, but a serious and deliberate attempt at a certain aesthetic, a certain tone. 
It's not for everyone, that's for sure. It doesn't want to be for everyone. At times it actively goads the fans that miss Dante’s white mop, essentially giving the finger to its fanbase while blowing a rasberry. But I love that irreverence. In an industry/medium that usually just pampers its fanbase with whatever they want, it's refreshing to see a developer just not give a shit. It is, easily, one of the more enjoyable Triple-A games I played this year.

Knightmare Tower (Juicy Beast)
I feel slightly dirty enjoying Knightmare Tower as much as I did. A random and casual download from the Ouya store/gulag, I played it for several hours straight one afternoon, unlocking all the features and playing it to completion. A fairly traditionally moulded mobile-esque games for the Ouya (and browser and Android, too), the goal is to fly high into a tower while bouncing off monsters beneath you for extra speed. It’s a Dragonball Z aerial battle, with your knight at the top of the screen using his downward attacks to stay afloat. 
There’s a satisfying rhythm to the controls, pulling the trigger as the character thrusts down in a meaty swing of his blade before bouncing back up. Progression is carefully crafted if not entirely conventional as you encounter enemies that are too tough and incrementally get further as you upgrade your power and health and speed and all that. 
I played Knightmare Tower at exactly the right time. I was interested in my Ouya and bored of all the games on my other consoles. I spent 4 or so hours grinding through the game, and have not touched it again since. I felt more than a little dirty putting so many hours into such a straightforward game, but I don’t regret it.

Killzone Mercenary (Guerrilla Cambridge)
I’ve always had a strange fascination with the Killzone games. This is, largely, due to simply being a kid with a Playstation 2, desperate for a shooter to match Halo (Killzone does not match Halo). There’s always been, I thought, a subtlety lurking beneath the surface of blue good guys (ISA, one vowel away from USA) versus red-eyed pseudo-Nazi bad guys. At face value, it is a mindless bro-shooter narrative. But you listen to the rhetoric of the dialog in the cut-scenes and it becomes slightly more complex. You realise the ‘bad’ guys have quite a few justified grievances and the ‘good’ guys are self-righteous aggressors. It’s not high literature, but the face-value bluntness makes the implicit multi-facedness of each side much more interesting.
In Mercenary, on the Playstation Vita, you play both alongside and against each side. Unlike previous entries in the series, neither side is good or bad but, simply, a means of making money. It’s still hamfisted, but it’s a blunt and cynical comment on war-as-profiteering that fits the series' broader themes perfectly.
Of course, then, the game is at its weakest during the opening levels, where your beanie-and-sunglass-and-beard wearing bro companion (seriously he looks like he stepped right out of Every Shooter Ever) seems more interested in fighting The Good Fight than in making money. “That’s one Hig bastard I’d kill for free,” he says of one of the game’s antagonists at one stage, in the most blatant of thematic dissonances. This is a game about making money, not doing what is ‘right’. Thankfully, bro dies before too long.
But where Mercenary really shines is how this whole narrative and thematic conceit of mercantility and war-profiteering is used to strengthen the design of a mobile first-person shooter. Mercenary is not just a console FPS dumped on a handheld device as a graphical demo (though, it is also that); it has been designed with a consideration of how players engage with portable devices. It draws from mobile and casual design to use a ‘loadout’ system that I can actually tolerate. In single-player games, I generally hate loadout systems, where I have to choose my equipment before each level, pre-determining how I will approach each level; it utterly killed Splinter Cell: Blacklist for me. It feels like it cheapens individual missions for me. With loadouts, I don’t feel like I am playing through one long narrative whole but interrupted segments that I am expected to play over and over again. It makes games feel, well, too gamey.
But that’s on home consoles, where I am much more committed to some kind of overarching narrative. On a portable device, individual missions should be self-contained for brief encounters on the train or before bed or whatever. In this environment, loadout systems and a focus on replaying missions makes perfect sense, and Mercenary knows this.
Most cleverly, and with surprising nuance, are the different approaches available in each mission. It might be possible to stealth through half a mission, with NPCs only commenting after the fact that you did so. On the first mission, you are told to blow up a door to access a control centre which, of course, triggers an alarm. What you are not told is you can throw a smoke grenade through an air vent to quietly lure the guards out (if you brought smoke grenades with you). Do this, and you skip an entire defend-the-hill kind of segment. This is dramatically and fascinatingly at odds with the hand-holding FPS design popular in both the Killzone series and many others.
It’s formalised through the availability of three alternative missions for each stage, asking you to replay each mission with different loadouts and objectives: stealth the whole mission; destroy three crates; get X number of headshots; etc. These alternative missions don’t re-introduce the hand-holding so much as nudge the player towards discovering the alternative approaches themselves. Over recent holidays and airplane trips I’ve found myself replaying missions over and over with these different objectives. It’s become the perfect travelling game.
The other pleasure of Mercenary is a very simple one: good graphics (and yes, I mean ‘graphics’, not ‘visuals’). There is a simple pleasure in playing a game with this many polygons on such a small handheld device. It’s a technological spectacle, and I won’t deny the simple entertainment that offers.
So, what I’m ultimately saying is that Killzone: Mercenary is the Angry Birds of Call of Duty games. That might not sound too appealing, but its overall design does such a remarkable job of tailoring a certain experience to a certain platform, and then connecting that experience/platform combination to an existing franchise’s themes.

Saints Row IV (Volition)
I was unimpressed with Saints Row IV when it first came out. Using an identical city to Saints Row: The Third, it was hard to shake the suspicion that new publishers Deep Silver had coerced the developers into relabelling a final DLC project into a numbered sequel. It felt flippant and insincere, not just in the typical clever nonchalance of the previous game, but in the same kind of ‘B-side’ way as Red Dead Redemption’s “Undead Nightmare” DLC. I played it for maybe an hour at Cameron Kunzelman’s house, jetlagged as all hell, and felt equal parts bored and deceived. When I returned home to find my own press copy in the mail, I didn’t even bother unsealing it.
Then, in early December, I had done all my writing for the year, and I wanted a mindless grind to chill out to, so I returned to Saints Row IV with fresh eyes and the right mindset. It still feels cheap and flippant and kind of just ‘thrown together’, but there is a keen edge to the satire that I’d not sensed earlier, one that takes a while to emerge as the game begins at a glacially slow pace. There’s the typical satire of making nods to things that exist, that base level of satire that Grand Theft Auto V never surpassed (“Hey, remember this moment in that game?”), but there are also moments of incredible subtlety. Parody in a camera angle, such as the Sorkin-esque walk through the White House, which the game never explicitly draws attention to. Another mission digs deep into theoretical musings on fan fiction and alternative universes. What on the surface feels like a typical videogame adolescence is a subtle, almost modest intelligence. 
But what is most fascinating about the game is its ludonarrative harmony and glitch aesthetic. People have long mused about whether you could deliberately produce glitches, and if you did, would they still be glitches? There’s an artistry to Skate 3 glitches or the body horror of Fifa or Oblivion. It’s like going right up to a painting and looking at the individual brush strokes. It’s the materiality of digital media, often repressed and rarely embraced by anyone except individual digital artists. Saints Row IV is the first commercial game I’ve played committed to this aesthetic. Tears in the system (the whole games takes place with a program, a game in a game) glitch out nearby NPCs and cars. Pedestrians' limbs warp and stretch; an upside down person walks by; an invisible car driven by two giant eyeballs bumps along. It’s a deliberate glitch aesthetic, but one majestically achieved.
But on another level than just visual glitches, the game is unabashedly broken. Pick up a few superpower upgrades and the world that contained Saints Row The Third is unable to hold you now. You are able to engage with the world in ways that this world was never designed to be engaged with. Challenges become ridiculously easy; vehicles of any kind become redundant. Whereas most games of a similar plot would give you challenges within that world you require superpowers for; Saints Row IV gives you challenges utterly unmatched by your super powers.  It matches perfectly with a plot about breaking the simulated world—because you actually break a simulated world. But A broken and unbalanced game simulates a breaking and unbalanced game. It’s clever, very clever, and far far more than the cheap DLC-cum-sequel I initially thought I was playing. This is a game I am glad I gave a second chance.
Oh yeah, and the dubstep gun.

Contents: [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four

Thursday, December 5, 2013

2013: Some Writing

2013 is almost over. It's been a pretty intense year! My December is going to be full of travel and events and I'm going to have precious little time to spend on my usual, self-gratifying retrospective end-of-year posts. So this is going to be a bit rushed, but here is a list of some of the writing I did this year that I am still pretty happy with.

1. My interview with Spec Ops: The Line writer Walt Williams. I mostly wanted to talk to Walt about what it is like to read criticism about your own game, but our conversation went much further than that. I didn't want to dissect it into pull quotes, so instead I published the entire transcript on Unwinnable. Related, that there is a site like Unwinnable where I know I can always publish an article makes me very happy.

2. My feature on the Queer Games Scene for Polygon. I struggle to feel proud about this piece because I know it isn't perfect. I know that, despite my best efforts, it still homogenises a diverse range of creators under that 'queer' label. I know that, as a straight white dude, I wrote the article from a position of extreme privilege over my interviewees. But I also wrote the article with the sincerest intentions. The creators I speak to in this feature remain, I am convinced, the most important and exciting people making and writing about videogames today. I wrote this piece because I want other people to be excited about these people. Not in a weird, exotic animal kind of way, but in a "these are the people that are going to convince others your beloved medium is art" kind of way. I don't know. Writing it was exhausting. Seeing a select few people criticise it on Twitter even as so many others applauded it was exhausting. Knowing I could only ever do an imperfect job of this article was exhausting. Still, I know various people who have said to me they had no idea this side of games existed before reading this article, which is exactly what I wanted it to do. So I should be proud of that I guess.

3. My feature on game jams for Edge. This was a piece I was asked to write, but I'm really happy with how it turned out. I like how I try to complicate game jams and look at how they've seeped into the Triple-A space, and that blurry line between jamming and crunching.

4. My profile of Douglas Wilson for Edge. Essentially, I just wanted an excuse to meet Douglas Wilson and talk about his amazing games and research. Still pretty happy with how this turned out.

5. My article on Grand Theft Auto V for Overland. One of my goals for this year was to write for one of Australia's literary journals, to write 'criticism about games' rather than 'games criticism', if that makes sense. I guess the website of a literary journal is close enough (the actual literary journal is happening next year!). This was technically meant to be a review of Grand Theft Auto V but it turned into a longer discussion of how despite talking loudly, Grand Theft Auto V fails to say anything of substance at all.

6. My essay on Tearaway and Sontag and Immersion. Okay, this piece only got published today but I'm still pretty happy with it.

7. My Notes series of blog posts. I really enjoyed writing my Notes posts. It started as an experiment. Okay, it started after reading Susan Sontag's "Notes On Camp" and not being able to repress my desire to imitate every great author I read's style. But it turned out pretty well. The Notes format gave me the breathing room to just touch on ideas and move on to the next with no concerns for how the paragraphs flow, without having to make a singular 'point' about a game. Others have also done this this year, most notable Cameron Kunzelman's excellent post on The Last of Us. I would have liked to publish more Notes posts than I did (I still have drafts for Metal Gear Solid 3, Problem Attic, and Towerfall, but I'm also really happy with the ones I did post.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Notes on Metro: Last Light

1. I went into Last Light braced for disappointment. Metro 2033 had been one of those games that I loved for its roughness, from its personality that came precisely from not being polished to within an inch of its life. It had this jagged silhouette that if it walked into the room, you knew exactly what game it was. That kind of roughness can only come from a team with a big heart and a small budget. When that kind of game does good, and a larger budget is given to a sequel, that roughness rarely survives. It almost is impossible for it to survive. So I went into Last Light excited for more Metro but ready to accept that more of what made Metro good might be impossible.

I was ultimately surprised, then, to find that Last Light, largely held onto much of what made Metro 2033 feel so good. The oppressiveness, the bleakness, the kind of stand-off-ish design that will just dump you in a place with no clear waypointing or objectives and just let you figure it out. Some parts of the game have been polished up, but only selectively and to the game's benefit. Guns in 2033 felt jangly like you would expect a gun built from scrap to feel, but they lacked a punch. Last Light's guns are punchy enough that skirmishes are enjoyable, while still feeling super messy. It feels like they tried to polish the jags into being more pronounced, not just polish them away to a curved nothing. So that is nice. It still lacks some of what made Metro 2033 special, but it is about as good as a sequel to a rough game could hope to be.

2. Which is not to call the game perfect. Last Light still seemed to lose focus on what made 2033 so special. In particular, the sense of life in the metro the first game evoked. There was this real sense of being a commuter, fittingly enough, of just passing through this towns that were other people's entire lives. The people in the bunks on old carriages, or the way a station is sectioned off into small houses. It was always amazing to stop and look at these places, but always fleetingly as you were always on your way to meet someone. Last Light still has a bit of that, and when it does, it is terrific. A moment near the start of the game where you are dashing through a nazi station under fire and you get this faint glimpse of everyday life as you dash past. The theatre station and the flooded station of Venice are particularly strong highlights of just 'life on the metro'. As is the refugee train.

But, for the most part, with the story focusing on WAR and militaries and all that, we don't get the same diversity of lives and lifestyles 2033 gave us. We have army bases and prisons and dead towns and army dudes and more army dudes. It feels less like a place and more like a serious of videogame levels at times. It felt more like a videogame story than an adaption of a novel this time, essentially.

3. Related to that is the sheer number of men in the game (or the lack of women, more accurately). It's just a bunch of gruff dudes and the occasional woman (they all look the same) sobbing in the background. 2033 was largely men doing things, to be sure, but the places felt alive with children and grannies and dogs and all kinds of people. Now we just get soldiers. The two women who speak in the game are a prostitute (whose nipples you can see while she offers you sex) and a sniper lady (whose nipples you can see while she offers you sex. Also she has your son, of course). How to sap any atmosphere from your world: homogenise the people you populate it with.

4. I really enjoy the stealth of Last Light. It's that kind of stealth that goes really good until you screw up, and then you pull out your shotgun and improvise. That kind of stealth works in very few games, because usually there is some fictional context that makes that kind of stealth feel very wrong, even when it is mechanically possible. Some games get it right. Splinter Cell: Conviction always presented contexts where the enemy knew Fisher was around somewhere, so if things devolved into a gunfight, it felt natural. The same goes for Last Light. I never felt like I needed to reload the game when I was seen, just change my tactics.

5. That grittiness of 2033 remains. The constantly pressure of needing to recharge your batteries, needing to replace your oxygen mask filters, needing to pump your airgun. All these little things always taking up your attention just to stay alive. It's incredible effective here as it was in 2033. It is weakened, though, by a timer giving you the exact number of seconds of filter life you have left. It is strengthened, though, by the need to press a button to wipe water or blood off your oxygen mask to see clearly.

6. I really like the subtly of both 2033's and now Last Light's approach to the supernatural. Not so much with the 'dark ones' who are just some generic alien monster things, but with the shadow-ghosts that disappear if you shine a light directly at them, or hallucinations of a thousand arms stretching out to get you. They never really try to explain it; they just do it and it's kind of cool.

7. Last Light's ending is terrible. There are two endings, to be sure (like 2033, Last Light has this very subtle series of choices through the game that never tell the player they are about to make a choice, and I really love that), but the ending I got was terrible, and I don't doubt the other one was just as bad. The game has this slow steady build up of 'war is coming' and needing to find answers and needing to make peace and all of that. Then, while there are still all these loose narrative threads unresolved, the 'war' happens, and it is just a terrible stand-your-ground turret section, and then some dude tells you, by the way, I rigged the place to blow, and you blow the place up, making the Ultimate Sacrifice. Then you find out Sniper Women Who You Had Sex With was telling this whole story to your son because of course if you have sex once you are going to have a child.

It is actually the most terrible ending I've experienced since Far Cry 3 (Far Cry 3's endings (both of them) made me laugh at my television they were both so terrible). It is the most generic, bullshit, 'oh I guess we should wrap things up now' kind of ending. It's the kind of ending of the fantasy stories I wrote in my teenage years with absolutely zero planning about how they would end. One day I'd just get bored of all these action sequences I was ripping right out of Dragon Ball Z and stick an ending on them. That is how Last Light ends and it is appallingly bad, to the extent that it damaged my overall feelings about the game.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Notes on Doom 3

1. I have played Doom 3 before. It was new; I was 17; our family's computer could hardly run it. It was the most terrifying thing I had played in my life (unless I had already played Project Zero, but I think that might have been a few months later). I would play it in the study, in the dark, with headphones on. Every jump-scare would be followed by several moments of lag even as the Imp's scream continued to loop. It was oppressive. I tolerated it as far as your first steps into hell, at which stage it became both too intimidating and too intolerable. So when I started playing the BFG edition on the Playstation 3 recently, I was entering it with a half-memory of the game: a memory of being terrified but not really remembering any of the specifics (except Delta Labs 1, but we'll get to that).

2. Doom 3 is intense. Not in the way we just throw that word at games as a synonym of 'fun', but in the way that it has this remarkable level of intensity, an absurd level. On the surface, it is a horror game: demons and foreboding and dark corridors and all that. But horror is all about what you don't see, about the suspense and the atmosphere and the 'what if?'. Doom 3 has very little downtime, and instead attacks you with one scripted scare after another. An invisible sensor opens a trapdoor behind you with an Imp in it. The floor collapses in front of you and drops you in a pit of zombies. A previously empty hallway is now filled with waves of spider creatures. It is a constant barrage of frights that is, ultimately, exhausting. Like sitting on a rollercoaster for an hour. You just feel this strange sense of dread if you play for too long. You just want it to stop. It's unorthodox or heavy-handed, perhaps, but a game that has me thinking "please, stop" must be doing horror somewhat successfully.

3. Doom 3 feels like Doom. Or, rather, it is possible to play Doom 3 in a way that feels like Doom, and I believe that is the way it was intended to be played. I played through the original Doom just before starting Doom 3, and it felt the same. The things I was doing with my hands in Doom 3 (always moving, always strafing, squiggling out from behind a wall to fire a shotgun blast then back behind the wall between shots, spinning in circles looking for traps) were the things I do with my hands playing Doom. On the surface, though, they could not be more different. Doom is more 'arcadey', with maybe a dozen monsters attacking you in a hallway. Doom 3 rarely throws more than two or three enemies at you at once, and every encounter feels like a Big Deal. There is the fanfare of a single Imp teleporting in, or the screech of a Cacodemon.

It is strange to me that a game where you fight a single enemy can feel the same as a game where you fight a dozen. I think it is that each games make me play in a very 'twitchy' style but through different means. Doom does it by giving me a dozen targets at once I have to pay attention to. Doom 3 does it through that oppressive intensity that makes me utterly paranoid as I move through it. I am twitchy because I do not know what this game is going to do to me next. So I am spinning in circles and putting my back against the wall and then refusing to trust that wall because it feels like at anytime there could be a dozen enemies coming for me. So Doom 3 feels like Doom, but for very different reasons.

4. More on that. I said Doom 3 'can' feel like Doom if you play it a certain way. When I played Doom 3 as a teenager on the PC, I played it incredibly slowly, creeping forward slowly, trying to pre-empt every jump-scare. This time, I ran headfirst into every room then dealt with what the game threw at me. Because I had just played the first Doom, I approached it like Doom, and this required me to be more twitchy. It is possible to play different games in different ways, and those different ways are going to drastically change how you approach it. I hate it when people say the player is always right and there is no wrong way to play a game. There is. There is a way a game is intended to be played and ways it is not intended to be played (I watched a student this semester play 30 Flights of Loving like he was playing Counter-Strike and it was the most surreal thing). No one is going to stop you from playing a game the 'wrong way', but personally I prefer getting out of the game what the game wants me to get out of it. Anyway, what I'm saying is I think Doom 3 wants to be played like the original Doom, and I think playing it in that way makes it a vastly more enjoyable (and exhausting) experience.

5. An aside to this: I think the significant change that the BFG Edition allows you to hold a gun and have your torch on at the same time greatly encourages the 'just run forward' approach, while the original was much more standoffish, since you knew the moment you pulled your gun out you would be thrown into darkness. Which, I guess, means that I am saying that I think being able to hold your gun and your torch at the same time is actually better. Though, many of the game's greater moments of lighting design are still ruined by this change.

6. One more note about Doom 3's relationship with the original Doom. I really enjoy watching longrunning franchises evolve. I like playing a revamped entry to an old franchise and seeing how they re-imagined certain things. Or, related, I like playing new entries in a longrunning franchise and noting the design decisions of previous games that are lingering and influencing the current game. Like the way the more recent Call of Duty games cannot escape that series' origins in World War II cinematic battlefield simulation. Or the things that continue from one Final Fantasy to the next. I love how Doom 3 reimagines all of Doom's bizarre demon/alien/monsters. How it has 'updated' them all while still clearly grounded in this mid 90s masculine adolescence of Robocop and Marilyn Manson. Of course there are zombies and robotic demons and squirming torsos used as torches and some random reason for there being chainsaws on Mars. This is Doom. Those things have to be there.

But it is more subtle than that, too. Doom 3's most obvious inspiration beyond its own predecessors is, quite clearly, Half-Life. Like Half-Life, it tries to build a convincing world out of very directed levels, rather than the very distinct levels of early Doom games. It wants to tell a story environmentally. For the most part, it achieves this. The Mars Labs feel like actual places on Mars. But then, suddenly, the Doom is back as panels suddenly open up behind a piece of body armour and a demon runs out at you. There's often no attempt to justify why these monster closets exist: they are there because this is Doom.

So there's this clash of design styles in the environment. Just moving through this game is like peeling off layers of old wallpaper of a centuries-old house. They all just mash together and create this weird thing that is Doom 3—glorious on its own terms, absurd on any others.

On this note, there is a moment late in the game where the player encounters some ancient stone tablets from the long gone Mars civilisation. One of the tablets, quite clearly, is the cover art of the original Doom, making a clear nod to the game's own pre-history that can't help but to pervade every aspect of the game.

7. I guess I've already covered the monster closets, but they seem to also deserve their own note. They are Doom 3's most often criticised moments. I guess people like to feel like they can master a game, or pre-empt it. They don't like games that cheat (see also: Limbo). I love games that cheat. I love games that are jerks to the player. Doom 3 has so many sudden jump-scares and monster closets, but each one is so deliberate, so considered in its layout and timing that it is hard not to appreciate them. Each time, the developers have clearly thought about what direction the player is going to be looking, and use that to their advantage. Sometimes lighting or a sound will direct you to look in one direction, then something will jump at you from the opposite direction. The game is always one step ahead of you, always (often literally) laughing at you. So it gets to a point where you are double-guessing the game, where you no longer trust it. You become paranoid. You begin expecting every wall to peel back and throw zombies at you. It gets to a point where the game has trained you so well that it doesn't need any monster-closets. You begin filling the closets yourself.

8. Doom 3's monitors are still some of my favourite monitors in any game. It was a big deal when the game was new, that these computer monitors within the world were of high enough resolution to display real information without having to open another screen. I love the seamlessness of moving close enough to a monitor for your camera to start controlling the on-screen cursor, pressing buttons and controlling devices. It's such a small, subtle thing, but just so well done.

9. One section of Doom 3 I remembered clearly from playing it as a teen was the Delta Labs. I was actually a little nervous as characters started mentioning that I was getting closer to them this time though. I couldn't remember why I dreaded the Delta Labs, but I did. When I got there (and I recorded it when I did), I discovered one of the few times Doom 3 exploits downtime to terrorise the player. You are walking through empty corridors for what must be the longest uninterrupted segment of the game. You are constantly waiting for the next thing to jump out at you. There are demons crawling on the outside of the facility, throwing long shadows over the walls. There is an automated robotic woman's voice on loop for the entire section telling you about the power outage. Once the fighting does start again, there are some masterful jump-scares and misdirections. It's just a very well designed part of the game.

10. I really enjoyed Doom 3.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Notes on Call of Duty: Ghosts

(With thanks to my girlfriend Helen Berents, who is all over South American politics and conflicts, for helping me think through some of these ideas, and giving me the words for them.)

(I don't play Call of Duty multiplayer and am only discussion the campaign here.)

1. People remain perplexed whenever I mention my interest in Call of Duty games. They don't understand what of value one could possibly get out of a franchise that pumps out a nearly identical game every year or so. To be sure, there are all kinds of valid reasons to dismiss the Call of Duty series out of hand: the hypermasculinity, the military-entertainment complex (as the credits rolled on Ghosts, Remington Arms Company Inc. were on the list of people Activision "would like to thank"), the fact that the only way to engage with the world and others in it is by shooting them. These are all, without a doubt, valid reasons to never touch a Call of Duty game.

But there are a whole lot of other reasons often cited that, to me, highlight these uncritically accepted values at the core of games culture: the idea that Call of Duty is bad because the player has no freedom and can only do what they're told (as though the only games that are valuable are those that offer unparalleled freedom), the idea that Call of Duty is not 'innovative' enough (as though games always have to do 'something new' to be worthy). This is going to sound super weird and I fully acknowledge the irony of this statement, but I feel the measuring stick people use to dismiss Call of Duty out of hand is the same measuring stick they regularly use to sideline games by marginalised creators as 'non-games' or some kind of 'low culture'. This is not to say that Call of Duty requires the game critic's energy to defend it as much as Dys4ia, but simply that there is totally some kind of high/low culture divide being implemented by those critics who turn their noses at such a popular franchise.

Even if I didn't enjoy the core feedback loop of Call of Duty (and I would be lying to myself and to you if I tried to pretend I didn't enjoy it), as a critic I don't want to ignore those games that a huge proportion of our culture engages with. I want to understand them. I want to understand how they work. I want to understand the cultural values that emerge from them. I want to understand what is happening here and why it is happening. Dismissing a game out of hand makes it much harder to be meaningfully critical of that game.

And, yeah, I enjoy the core feedback loop.

Anyway. That is why I played Call of Duty: Ghosts.

2. Ghosts narrative is fascinatingly nonsensical. It is nothing but the condensation of North American paranoia of South Americans crossing the border. 'The Federation' (which is just all of South America as one, homogenised nation) hates America and wants to destroy it. One of the first levels, you are literally patrolling a 10-story wall to make sure no South Americans have made it into the country. Of course, the most popular media of a culture is going to highlight just who the imagined, antagonist Other is in the contemporary cultural imagining. It was Russians and then Middle Easterns as America's power spread across the word. Now, as it recedes on itself, the most terrifying enemy is the one at the front door, sneaking in to take our jobs and destroy our way of life. That is Ghosts entire story: the South Americans want to destroy us.

3. Okay, that's not the entire story. There is also one American who wants to destroy us. One American who had his own Kurtz experience in "the heart of the Amazon" where "natives" have mastered the art of torture to break a man. The South Americans have the magic voodoo power to turn Us into Them. South America is the new Africa, where its own history of colonialisation is demolished as all South Americans are branded as 'natives'. These are the two narratives of Ghosts: South Americans want to destroy us, and this American dude with Marcus Fenix's manrag wants to destroy us so we should probably kill both of them.

4. Ghosts is the first Call of Duty I've played not contextualised in a fictional version of a real-world conflict (I never played Black Ops 2). the Modern Warfare games and Black Ops didn't need a whole heap of time spent contextualising the world or politics because you already knew them. In Ghosts, nothing makes sense. America is simultaneously a post-apocalyptic ruin and a burgeoning army. One mission simultaneously deploys "our last remaining carrier" and a space shuttle launch. 'The Federation' is a homogenous evil blob with no clear commander or dictator (the Evil American's connection to this army is never fleshed out). There is no discussion of life beyond either army. No one ever mentions what the rest of the world is doing while these two continents battle it out. This is a world reduced to a battlefield between two purified armies detached from any socio-political body or nation. There is only war. The world makes no sense, and you are never given a reason to care about it or its characters.

5. "It's Call of Duty, did you really expect a good story?" Yes, actually. The Modern Warfare trilogy and Black Ops did not tell good stories per se but they told stories well. For a series derided for churning out the same thing over and over, it experiments with storytelling in a whole heap of fascinating ways. Most significantly, through the constant swapping of perspective. Loading screens aside, you are never looking at the world of a Call of Duty game from a disembodied nowhere; you are always embodied in a particular subject's point of view. Call of Duty doesn't have cut scenes; it has a small level from another character's point of view. I think this is fascinating, the confidence to just take the player out of one character and insert them into another. You can trace this historically to the early games desire to show that World War II was won by "countless men, not a few heroes" I think it was the box said. The multiple POVs are meant to give the player a sense of this networked, intersubjective military. That is gross for a whole heap of reasons, but the purely formal mechanic of only using bodies to let the player see the world is a fascinating one I would like to see more of.

Tellingly, Ghosts rarely swaps your point of view (with the exception of the end of the game). For the vast majority of the game, you are one blank slate character following his brother (his literal bro) around the battle field. Where the Modern Warfares could show a large, complex, (absurd) network of war spreading across the world, Ghosts is restrained to a boring, head-to-head conflict of the Americas and is forced to ignore the rest of the world.

Also, for all that military shooters embody this jingoistic love of American militarism, it was always refreshing to spend so much of the Modern Warfares not as an American.

So, yes, I do expect to enjoy the story of a Call of Duty, but I didn't this time.

6. The story was claustrophobic. I felt restricted being trapped inside Logan's boring body for so much of the game, on the same goddamn continent the entire time. But even interpersonally, you spend the entire game alongside your brother and your father. The army-as-family is literalised. One mission gives you the objective "Get to dad". It's weird. It's really, really weird. I don't care about this blank slate white bro family. What the hell even is this?

7. The dog. The dog is the most boring, embarrassingly forced story component ever. Special effects always have a dual spectacle, as much in games as in film: there is the spectacle of the cool thing happening in the fictional world, and the spectacle of the technology that allows that cool thing to be produced as a real thing. Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix was cool because he was following bullets, and it was cool because a camera spun in a circle. Infinity Ward are so excited about this damn dog they spent a whole lot of money on. You spend the first few levels forced to look at this dog do its dog things. You are riding a tank and its head is popped out of the manhole in front of you to force you to pay attention to its 3D many-polygon model. If someone from Infinity Ward had telephoned me once per level to remind me how they animated this dog to put in this game, it couldn't have been much more pathetic.

8. There are a few levels in the middle of the game that stand out, that made me think, okay, this is why I bother playing Call of Duty games. These are the levels that aren't just this one, constant, boring gunfight, but a well and deliberately paced script of down-time followed by up-time followed by down-time. The levels that don't feel like filler.

The first one is in Caracas (of course the capital of Evil South America is the capital of Venezuela). The level progresses from abseiling down skyscrapers to parachuting while that skyscraper is falling on you. Every moment of the level feels considered and there for a reason, like Infinity Ward actually, deliberately built this level with a certain goal in mind—like they did with most of the Modern Warfare levels.

Another one is when you are attacking... I don't know... some lab in the snow. You steal uniforms and sneak into the lab quietly. You have a massive stand-your-ground gun fight. You escape on a lift and head out the same way you came in: blending in. You are forced to walk slow through the wreckage you caused as the injured you left behind are helped. It's this seamless escalation from just walking down corridors to explosive action and back to just walking down corridors and then, to end it, you drive a jeap across a frozen ocean, sinking other jeeps with a grenade launcher, and drive your jeep onto a submarine. It's a wonderfully paced stage that hits a high level that the game never again achieves.

9. You've probably seen the video of how the intro of Ghosts uses an identical animation sequence to the end of Modern Warfare 2. It's the most explicit example of it, but the same animations and moments are used throughout Ghosts. It's either intended as laziness, apathy, or deliberate intertextuality—it functions as all three. The entire game feels like a collage of moments from the previous games. Not just the same mechanics or the same features but literally the same moments. The moment your bro looked into the distance then helped you up. The moment your bro was fighting the bad dude while you were crawling towards a gun. The moment an explosion knocked you off your feet in slow motion.

Where these because interesting is where Ghosts is clearly, deliberately using these to subvert expectations. At one point, a tank bursts out of a carpark wall to save you, exactly as it does in Modern Warfare 3. Except, instead of saving you, it gets blown up as well and you have to run for your life. At another moment you are about to breach a door like you have done a million times when your bro tackles you to the ground a moment before a hail of bullets splinters the door. There are these little snippets where the copy-pasted moments feel cleverly used.

But even if it is just laziness, I still find that fascinating. Like peeling back layers of wallpaper from an old house. I kind of like that you can see the history of this series and these studios in the game.

10. Towards the end of the game is this absurd tank level. You are driving a tank at super high speed in a battalion of tanks in a bizarre sandbox-y level. It felt like I was playing Tokyo Wars. It was weird.

11. A reason most people can't tolerate Call of Duty is a reason I can't tolerate most AAA games: because it takes itself too seriously. When you spend millions of dollars on a game and you need to make millions in return, you have to be bombastic and absurd and ridiculous. When that bombastic, absurd ridiculousness gets painted up as GRIM and SERIOUS, there is this weird jarring that doesn't always work. I am increasingly convinced that AAA games can not, and perhaps even should not, be 'serious'. At least, they can't be serious for as long as their primary goal is to just be 'fun', and they're primary goal isn't going to stop being 'fun' for as long as they need to make millions of dollars.

But I think this is exactly the reason I am able to enjoy a Call of Duty, despite everything: because they are so absurd that I don't think anyone, not even Activision, really takes them serious. Medal of Honor takes itself serious, with all its bullshit 'Lest we forget' quotes around its 'real' battles told by 'real' soldiers in a self-gratifying fellatio. Call of Duty, though, with its commercials that quite explicitly note that it only sees itself as a 'fun game', and its partnership with Eminem has me convinced that it doesn't take itself seriously. Or, perhaps more justifiably, makes it impossible for me to take serious. I don't take Call of Duty serious. I take it as I would take a Michael Bay film. I think that is how I can tolerate all the shit of each Call of Duty to explore the things I find fascinating: by only ever taking it at face value, as nothing more than a ridiculous, military-themed story for a little while.

Of course, that is not a reason to excuse or justify the many issues I've stated with the game.

12. The loading screen animations are really great.

13. Although the world has finally reached a level of technological advancement that Infinity Ward is able to animate a 3D model of a woman, there are still next to no women in the campaign, with the exception of one significant companion for a single mission towards the start of the game. Unsurprising, but still disappointing. Notably, the game's marketing was no better.

14. People like to say that Call of Duty studios just tack on the campaign as an afterthought to the multiplayer that is their main consideration. Ghosts is the first time that I am anywhere near convinced of that argument. Infinity Ward doesn't care about this story or these characters.