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Journey: The Lone and Level Sands

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I’ve been meaning to play Journey for a long while.  I didn’t own a PS3 when the game came out, and by the time I did own one, I feared that that no one else would still be playing it.  It seems to me that most people seem to agree its greatest value is as a co-operative experience.  Fortunately, the recent PS4 release gave me a good opportunity to finally check-out what all the buzz was about and not risk having to trudge through the whole thing with just my lonesome self.

As was detailed by creator Jenova Chen before release, Journey’s deeper creative aim was inspired by the stories of the spiritual journeys astronauts had went through during their voyages through space.  It’s easy for most of us to abstractly understand that our world is just a relatively small spheroid rock that circles a star that is one of countless many in an unimaginably vast and mostly empty void.  But to actually face the reality of such a fact first-hand, well, unsurprisingly most astronauts ascribe it to be a very unique and profound existential experience.  And to try to capture those feelings in a game is certainly very high-concept and quite ambitious for a creative medium that is overwhelmingly concerned with lone heroes single-handedly defeating vast armies of enemies.  Perhaps more interesting is how Journey developer thatgamecompany went about trying to artistically replicate how these astronauts may have felt.  Journey has nothing at all to do with space and is rather about a small hooded being’s personal quest to reach the peak of a sacred mountain at the far end of a silent and sometimes dangerous desert.  Well, at least I assume the mountain is sacred.  There is no dialogue in Journey and the story is relayed rather cryptically through a series of silent supernatural visions.

But after reflecting on the whole experience, I think I can begin to understand how the developers expected all of this to resemble the grandeur of space flight.  The hooded being feels small.  Not small like an insect, but small like a human being.  The desert stretches out vastly around him (her?).  There is no civilization encountered during the journey, which compliments the solitude of the hooded being’s quest and reinforces just how insignificant he is relative to the immensity of the desert (and the world and universe beyond).  I imagine this feeling of insignificance is precisely how the game seeks to allegorize the astronaut’s experience far above the world in the greatness of space itself.  Actually, the whole desert reminds me of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, a poem set in the desert that themes itself around the impermanence and fragility that exists in even mankind’s greatest accomplishments.

A red-robed figure runs through the sand in front of some stone ruins, accompanies by another figure. The trailing figure's robe and scarf are glowing.

While the hooded being’s journey feels burdened with solitude, ideally he is not alone on his quest.  The game is meant to be an anonymous co-operative multiplayer experience.  Along the way, you will encounter other hooded beings who are other random players currently in the same area.  These beings are strangers to you.  Players are randomly and anonymously paired with each other, and there is no way to match up with people on your friends list.  There is no voice-chat, and the only form of communication between players is through a chirping sound the hooded beings can make at a button press.  You can choose to stick with those encountered and work together to complete puzzles, or you can run off and not deal with them.  The game can be completed alone, without any help from a second player, but as I’ll explain below, this is not how you’ll want to play the game.  I’ve heard and read many complaints about not being able to play with friends, but really, I think the unfamiliarity of the partners you meet along with the way is meant to reinforce how small both the hooded being and the player in the real world actually are.  The game wants the player to be out of their comfort zone, and friends list connectivity and even voice chat between companions would undermine that goal.  And after all, the world is not just vast in both space and geography, it is vast in the quantity of people that inhabit it.  

This is important, because I think another thesis of Journey is that human desire for companionship is precisely rooted in their own relative insignificance within the enormity of the world.  Multiplayer video game design has historically most often compelled players toward competition with one another.  Even in cooperative games, players’ performances are often ranked against each other.  In addition, many games give co-op players small ways to screw with one another (see Rescue Rangers, New Super Mario Bros., etc.)  Journey, on the other hand, tries to eschew conflict between players to capture the importance of human companionship.  There are no competitive hooks in this game, and it causes Journey to be a far more poignant experience.  When I first encountered another player in Journey, I have to say that my immediate impulse was to try to establish that I was the better player.  I’m programmed as a gamer to be competitive, after all.  I wanted to be the one leading the way.  I wanted to be the first to solve all of the quest’s (relatively easy) puzzles.  I wanted to be the one finding all the collectibles and growing the longest scarf.  But as the game wore on, I found myself less trying to be the dominant partner, and more just happy to be accompanied by another human being.  I let go of trying to race to the next point of interest to make sure I could figure it out first.  I found myself slowing down when the other player was having trouble keeping up, so that we could face the obstacles of the journey side-by-side.  And I can honestly say that I think I would have felt far less satisfied if I had crossed the game’s final threshold alone.

Ultimately, I feel like I’ve heard it professed far too often that video games are nothing more than empowerment fantasies, and, honestly, while I’ve enjoyed hundreds of games that let me be an indomitable hero, I find it to be closed-minded to expect (or demand) that all games be of such nature.  Journey is a prime example of something that deviates from this norm.  It is not a game about empowering the player, rather it is about humbling them.  

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The Final Fantasy VII Remake and What It Means to Me

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I have to say, I didn’t think it would ever happen.  While they’ve remade all the FF’s between 1-6 as well as X and Tactics, they mostly seem to be content skipping over what is the series’ arguably most popular era.  I wonder what finally clicked to make them decide to go ahead with this undertaking?  All I can think is that Sony might have made a big push for it, considering how competitive the console race has been lately.  But then again, it’s not a Playstation exclusive, so that can’t be the only reason.

This game means a lot to me, and I always forget that it means a lot to me until I happen to see it in action.  This was an insanely popular game back in the day, and I think that was because it hit at the right time, and it introduced a generation of young gamers at the edge of adolescence to a type of “mature” game that would ignite their developing interests and propel them to continue playing games beyond their childhood years.  I know that’s how it was for me at least.  The game’s story centers on themes of fighting against a world that has tacitly come to accept oppression and corruption, and I think that resonates with youths of a certain age who are achieving new levels of moral awareness for the messy way our world actually works.  Furthermore, most games cast you in the role of a lone hero, like Mario or Sonic.  But RPGs like these focus on being a part of a team, and what those team members mean to each other is a major part of the story.  At an age of social awakening when a person is trying to find their place in the world and amongst their peers, these themes can be very powerful.

I think these reasons made FF7 very popular in its time, but the insane popularity came with a very strong backlash.  The thing about FF7 is that while it’s a good Final Fantasy game, if you take it out of the context of its time, it’s not really an exceptional one.  There are a lot of good Final Fantasy games after all, and the disproportionate popularity of FF7 is where I think the backlash against it has originated.  Even in the wake of FF7’s release, it quickly became the “cool kid” thing to say that you preferred FF6 as the series’ high point.  I think the backlash was, of course, somewhat deserved when FF7 was hogging so much of the spotlight, but I think now when nearly every title in the series has seen multiple rereleases, fretting over the inordinate popularity of this one entry is obsessing a bit too much over the past.

The running feeling I got through E3 this year was excitement tempered with heavy skepticism, and FF7 was no exception.  I will probably write more on that topic later.  The rational part of my brain is quick to dismiss this remake since Square has had (for a while now) a huge amount of trouble getting Final Fantasy games out the door.  Between FFXV taking soooo very long, FFXIV’s catastrophic false start, and the protracted Lightning trilogy that not even hardcore fans asked for, it’s really hard to have faith in Square as a developer to achieve greatness in their games as they once did.  But while I consider myself a pretty rational person and want to dismiss the game for these reasons, I can’t help but get excited when I see Barrett and Cloud walking through the slums.  Like I said, the game means a lot to me.  So while I have a heavy amount of skepticism, I still really want this game.  I’m really keeping my fingers crossed that it doesn’t turn into another console-generation spanning debacle like Versus XIII.

Rayman!

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I remember when I first got my Playstation, a long time ago.  A Christmas gift, I was at first a little surprised that it wasn’t an N64.  My family had been occasionally renting the local video shop’s N64 for the weekend to play the very early N64 games like Mario Kart 64, Cruis’n USA, Star Fox 64 (!), and Mario 64.  As for Playstation, the first time I had seen one set up in real life was as a demo kiosk in a Sears (or some such store), and I was completely puzzled by the existence of it.  I was so young at the time that I think it was odd to me that anyone would want to buy a video game machine from Sony.  Sony was a boring company that made grown-up stuff like cassette players and radios and TVs, whereas the companies that were great at video games, Nintendo, Sega, Atari, etc., were fun companies that had histories making games for both the home and the arcade.  What did Sony have that could compete with Mario and Sonic?  Looking back over four consoles and two handhelds, it amuses me how severely wrong my initial impression of Playstation was.  The PSX would eventually end up becoming probably my favorite console.

It also strikes me as to how I don’t remember being disappointed at all by the appearance of the Playstation in my house.  I mean I loved Star Fox and Mario Kart, so maybe it should have been a little disappointing that I wouldn’t be able to play those at home going forward.  But I guess new games were new games.  I also distinctly remember being incredibly impressed by the Final Fantasy VII commercial running at the time (you know, the one that was entirely pre-rendered CG with no actual gameplay shown), so I think I was ready to dig into that game.

The other early games I had for that system were Crash Bandicoot, 2Xtreme, and Rayman.  Of those four, Rayman was clearly the odd man out.  The arrival of the Saturn and Playstation heralded the polygonal era, after all, and the lush hand-drawn visuals of this 2D sidescrolling platformer made it feel like that one guy who always goes in the wrong direction on the way to a party.  I know there’s a lot of admiration for the 16-bit generation, and that many people think graphics should have stayed 2D for a while, but personally, I was ready for 3D gaming at the time.  I was really getting tired of all the mascot platformers, shallow beat’em ups, and shoddy Mortal Kombat clones that were overwhelming the market, and 3D environments were introducing entirely new gameplay possibilities.

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Thus, Rayman was an amazing curiosity.  A sidescrolling platformer in an age where platformers were competing to see who could best establish themselves in 3D.  But even though it made no use of polygons, Rayman was thoroughly a game that belonged to the Playstation-era.  The game sported lush handdrawn sprites and backgrounds that took up roughly 85 MB of the CD (or so I gather from the PSN version).  85 MB doesn’t even come close to filling a CD, but it’s a gargantuan size compared to the available cartridges at the time.  Some years ago,  screens of an early SNES version of Rayman was dug up, and if you’re interested, you can Google image search it.  I don’t want to show it here!

The music is also worthy of likewise praise.  I don’t often get into orchestral scores in games.  Usually they’re kind of boring and just sort of fade into the background of my attention.  They typically aren’t as catchy as the chiptunes of the early era of gaming.  In a way, chiptunes had to be lively and attention-grabbing, as they were an important supplement to the crude visuals of that era in setting the atmosphere and tone of a game.  But just like the gorgeous artwork, Rayman aims to impress with its CD-quality content, so I imagine an orchestral score was an obvious choice for them.  And like I said, it’s an exciting orchestral score, with tons of great compositions that have stuck with me to this day.

At a fundamental level, Rayman is just a good platformer with a very traditional “lone hero sets off to stop badguy” story.  This was the age when gaming really started to get story heavy (to a gregarious extent), and as in so many other aspects, Rayman mostly shunned the emerging trend of the time.  The story in the game is really mostly just the opening cutscene in which we are told that The Evil Mr. Dark has defeated Betilla the Fairy and stolen the great Protoon and scattered the electoons which orbit around it.  As a consequence, the natural order of the world is beginning to go awry.  Rayman sets off then to defeat the villain, and travels across a world map divided into worlds such as the Dream Forest, Band Land (themed around musical instruments), and Picture City (themed around art supplies).  The final world is set in the (The Evil) Mr. Dark’s lair, the Candy Chateau, a terrifying fortress whose name is only spoken of in hushed whispers.

Rayman Band Land

As for the gameplay, Rayman is in some ways a really great platformer, but also a really tedious one.  The truth is Rayman is a tough game that requires very tight and exacting platforming skills.  But while it can be a challenge, beating each level isn’t too frustrating.  The platforming requires precision is all.  It’s not unfair like some of the earlier super-tough platformers.  You’ll never have to fight against the collision detection or need to deal with unpredictably respawning enemies, for instance.

But here’s the catch and what can make the game tedious if you’re not prepared.  To unlock the Candy Chateau and beat the game, it’s not enough to beat all the levels.  You will need to free all six cages of electoons hidden in each level before a path to the Candy Chateau will even open on the world map.  Essentially, it’s like needing to find all the KONG coins in DKC to be able to fight the final boss.  Some of these electoon cages are easy to find, hidden within plain sight of the main path through a level, but sometimes they are in spots that can be fiendishly difficult to reach (i.e., they are life wasting death traps).  Many can be quite difficult to find at all, sometimes requiring you to take leaps of faith to offscreen platforms to reach.  Exacerbating this issue to its maximum frustration level is that Rayman has a finite number of lives and continues, and you will need each and every one of them (and probably more) to get all of these electoons.  I honestly am baffled by how anyone could finish doing it the proper way (i.e., not using cheats or abusing the save system to bank lives).  I certainly can’t, and even using cheats for infinite lives, it’s still a struggle.  I think I started this game a boy, but by the time I had gruellingly forged my way through the halls of the Candy Chateau, I was a man.

Ultimately, despite the fact that actually beating the game is a tremendous effort, I still think incredibly highly of this game.  It’s one of those things that’s more about the journey than the destination.  Most importantly, I treasure this game because it showed me the value of 2D gaming.  I realized that 2D games weren’t just an evolutionary stopgap until 3D could become technologically feasible, that they were a valid form of game design in their own right.  I’ve heard many express this sentiment about Symphony of the Night, but for me, it was Rayman that hammered that point home.  Rayman would see a sequel a short while later, but I’ve never played Rayman 2.  It makes the jump to a Mario 64-style platformer with full 3D environments, and honestly, at the time, I was disappointed at this.  2D was what made Rayman unique and special!  But I’ve heard in recent years that Rayman 2 is actually a really good game, so I may pick it up at some point.  Rayman would eventually make a glorious return to lovely 2D worlds with Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, the former of which I found myself liking a whole lot (the latter of which I haven’t gotten around to yet).  But Rayman is still the highlight of the series for me, mostly because it sparked a lifelong love of 2D gaming.

Axiom Verge and Titan Souls: Nostalgia-Driven Game Design

For a while now, its been the growing rage in indie games for designers to hang their hat on appealing to nostalgia of vintage ideas and sensibilities.  It’s been a part of the scene ever since it began gaining momentum with the first Summer of Arcade and the early independent successes on Steam.  Early on, there were games like Castle Crashers, which was a throwback to 16-bit era beat’em ups, and VVVVVV, which was a throwback to Commodore 64 adventure games.  But it’s feeling to me like more and more indie designers are leaning far harder into duplicating their childhood favorites.  While games like Castle Crashers and VVVVVV felt like they were building upon their retro influences, a lot of games now feel like they just want to be carbon copies of those classics.

The first game that struck me as being overbearingly old-school was Shovel Knight.  Every time I read an interview from those developers, the designers were quick to stress the influences they had based their work upon.  To me that was a huge turn-off.  I would hope that passionate creators would be more interested in bringing new ideas to life rather than trying to desperately recapture experiences we’ve all already had.

The thing that terrifies me most about getting older is that I fear not being able to appreciate new experiences in life.  It’s the attitude of an old man:  “Everything was better in my day.”  I’ve reached an age where I’ve started becoming acutely aware of this attitude pervading my peer group.  In gaming, I see so many people my age outright dismiss games like Minecraft and Hearthstone that are popular with today’s youth purely out of the belief that their life experiences have been exceptional, and there’s no way that these new games could ever stack up to the old masterworks.  While they produce insipid reasons to justify this claim, I find it transparent that the root of their attitude is often that old games are better simply because they’re older.  That’s not to dismiss arguments that there are some virtues in game design that have unfortunately been lost over the years, but I don’t ascribe to that statement purely out of a self-centered belief that only my experiences growing up are valid.  And, to clarify, I don’t think an appreciation for retro gaming is wrong, I still try to play a lot of the classics that I missed.  But appreciation of the old shouldn’t interfere with appreciation of the new, or vice-versa.

And that’s why the lead up to Shovel Knight irritated me.  The entire proposition that was being laid out for that game was that it was good because it was trying to be exactly like those old games for which we have fond memories.  That it harkened back to a “better” time.  I’m not a huge expert on cinema or really music, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a movie promoted on the basis that its exactly like a classic movie such as The Godfather or The Shining (unless if its an obvious cash-grab remake).  In music, you have cover bands, but I think those are generally relegated to a lower status than those musicians putting out original music.  Since the advent of Kickstarter and crowdfunding, though, I feel like game designers that are playing off nostalgia are finding themselves placed on pedestals by both traditional game coverage sites and many gaming communities.

But here’s the thing, after playing Shovel Knight, I wasn’t actually all that bothered by it.  I wrote a fairly positive post about it some time ago: link.  While Shovel Knight is heavily inspired by Mega Man with its themed boss-centric stage design, it manages to advance a lot of its own ideas to create something that has a clear inspiration, but also feels very distinctive.  I’m left wondering why people with such clear design talent would be so reductionist in describing their own game.  Perhaps thats just the influence that crowdfunding is having on games today.  The gamers with the most disposable income to divert into crowdfunding are also the gamers that have reached an age where nostalgia is starting to kick in hard.  For Shovel Knight to pass it’s Kickstarter goals, maybe its promotion had to heavily push the NES influences.  Or maybe its simply just the developers’ own worship of the classics clouding their own appreciation of what they’ve accomplished.

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Enter Axiom Verge, currently only available for PS4, a new game in the long line of recent indie releases that flies the “Metroidvania” banner.  Except in this case, it doesn’t just use the Metroid-style configuration of an open 2D world, it also sets off to replicate the same aesthetic design and 2D sidescrolling shooter gameplay found in its NES template.  Axiom Verge with its sprawling alien caverns composed of recurrent 8-bit tiles, its blaster wielding scifi hero, and its creepy-crawly enemies leans much farther into Metroid than Shovel Knight ever did into Mega Man.  I’ll be upfront and say that I actually like this game.  I’ve heard so many people say “It’s not like Metroid, it is Metroid,” and I reluctantly find myself agreeing with them.  It grates on me to feel that way, because I’m left questioning whether it’s good to celebrate a game for being so derivative.

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I mean, I like Axiom Verge quite a bit.  It copies the Metroid formula extraordinarily well.  The designer really understands what made the widely-celebrated series work.  And it’s not like Nintendo is doing anything with Metroid these days.  In the early ‘00s, there was an amazing resurgence of Metroid with Metroid Prime on the Gamecube and Metroid Fusion/Zero Mission on the GBA.  But it seems like after Other M, Nintendo is content to let us forget about the series.  We can’t even get Zero Mission on Wii U VC here in North America.

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And although Axiom Verge doesn’t break the Metroid mold like Shovel Knight did with Mega Man, it does bring a few unique ideas to the table.  The items/powerups and weapons you collect in Axiom Verge are almost entirely unique.  Your not going to be launching into screw attacks or doing hyper jumps in this game, rather Axiom Verge employs several clever means of mobility and environment manipulation that have never been seen in a Metroid game.  And while it features a scifi storyline set on a desolate planet devoid of civilization, I find the story and setting to be far more bizarre, alien, and abstract than the “destroy the alien menace” plots found in most Metroid games.  I was a bit surprised by how the plot develops, it turned out to be a bit more interesting than I originally expected.  Otherwise, I also think the level design is suitably well thought out.  So I’m conflicted about Axiom Verge.  I can’t deny its a good game, but at the same time I’m bothered by how derivative it actually is.

Unfortunately, I can’t be as positive toward Titan Souls.  If Axiom Verge is resurrecting memories of Metroid, then Titan Souls is giving it a try at Shadow of the Colossus.  Superficially, I initially thought it was meant to be like Zelda, but actually it is more like SotC viewed through a Zelda filter.  The entire game is based around fighting bosses, but the bosses are more similar to Zelda bosses.  They are more these somewhat big monsters that chase you around a room, instead of massive beasts that you climb upon to reach a weak point.  You travel a mostly quiet and empty fantasy overworld to find the boss rooms where the actual challenges are held.  Like SotC there are no enemies or really puzzles to solve in the overworld, its just a place that you must travel through.  I enjoyed journeying through the world of SotC, because it had an atmosphere of mystery and wonder….a sense of profound history to the land that helped make Wander’s quest feel epic in nature.  I’m afraid I can’t say the same for Titan Souls.  From what I’ve seen it’s just sort of a pixellated wilderness meant to break up the boss rooms.  So far I haven’t encountered anything that feels wondrous or special.

The lack of atmosphere is far from Titan Souls greatest problem.  The developer’s big idea for making this game more than just a top-down SotC is that both the player and the bosses go down in one hit.  There are no health bars.  If a player takes damage, they immediately die and are returned to a checkpoint on the overworld.  The bosses also go down in one hit, but only if damage is done to their weak point.  Usually, there are only brief moments when the weak point becomes exposed, or sometimes damage has to be done to other parts of the boss before their weak point is revealed.  To accomplish this, the character only has a bow and a single arrow.  If they miss, they have to retrieve the arrow or they can hold down a button that telekinetically draws the arrow toward them.  While drawing in the arrow, the player is held stationary, making them vulnerable to the boss’ attacks, so sometimes it’s not the best way to get the arrow back.

Herein lies the problem with Titan Souls.  It’s very abrupt.  In a game like Super Meat Boy, when Meat Boy dies, he is immediately reconstituted at the start of the level.  This makes the high difficulty easier to adapt to, as the player has less of a wait time with which to become frustrated.  In Titan Souls, death precipitates a brief but still noticeable black loading screen, and the player is revived at a checkpoint in the overworld.  They must then run back to the boss room to try again.  It’s generally not a long way to get back, maybe 10-15 seconds, but it gives the game an unpleasant stop-go rhythm.  Consequently, the overall pacing is just very poor.  And since these are Zelda-style bosses, they operate in a pattern that takes some time to understand, and dying on one hit makes trying to figure out this pattern more tedious.

I’m probably not going to finish Titan Souls, I’m afraid.  Its been a few days since I’ve even really wanted to pick it up again.  It fails both because it doesn’t capture what made its inspiration successful and because the ideas that it uses to set itself apart are more gimmicky than innovative design.  Axiom Verge, on the other hand, really nails the Metroid ideal and introduces a few new tricks that are actually cool.  Axiom Verge is more of an exception to a rule, though.  Most games that try this closely to mimic a clear inspiration end up not quite getting the formula right, and consequently feel like cheap knock-offs.  It’s kind of surprising to see one be so successful.

While I’m still not completely comfortable with the trend, I’m less pessimistic about these nostalgia trips now than way back when Shovel Knight came out.  Over the last year, while “AAA” games have been on fire with various deleterious issues, indie games have sustained as a real creative force.  And there’s so many of them coming out right now across the entire spectrum of gaming genres and production values, that these blasts from the pasts really aren’t something to worry about stunting the further creative growth of indie gaming as a whole, and now after playing Axiom Verge, I feel that sometimes they may just hit the nail on the head.

Some Short Reviews of What I’ve Been Playing in January

January 2015 Games

Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition (PSVita)

Duke3D was not only released this month for PS3 and PSVita, it was also of no charge to PSPlus subscribers.  I bought a Vita back in December to occupy my time during my holiday travels, so I decided to give the handheld version a go.  It actually works pretty well on the Vita.  The Vita’s sticks are quite a bit shorter and don’t have as much range as the traditional Dual Shock-style controller, so it takes a little bit of getting accustomed to them for a first person shooter, but once I did, I found aiming to work pretty well in the game.  In addition, the game’s simplicity, especially when regarded against modern shooters, makes it a good fit for the small screen, handheld experience.  I’m one of those people who have the bad habit of playing games in attention-deficit mode, where I play a game on a handheld or laptop while Netflix or something is streaming on my TV, and Duke3D on the Vita is pretty ideal for that.

Duke 3D

I’m actually not the biggest Duke3D fan, and what I mean by that is that I don’t have a particularly long history with it.  My first time playing the game was the XBLA version that was released a long while ago.  I liked it well enough then, but I just sort of dropped it halfway through the second episode after I lost interest with it.  I’m hoping to beat the Vita version though.  To be honest, I find Duke Nukem to be kind of an annoying character, and the themes of strippers and hot babes being abducted by alien invaders is something only the lowest common denominator of the newly pubescent could appreaciate.  There was a time in gaming during the late nineties where this sort of game was considered “mature” and edgy, and I understand why that was the case.  Gaming (or mainstream gaming at least) was growing up at the time, and part of growing up is going through an awkward phase that is clouded by gratuitous attitudes towards sex and violence.  Regardless of these themes though, I think that the action game that underlies all this immaturity is still quite good, and thus I continue to play it.  It has that quality of unfettered run and gun adrenaline that you just don’t get in today’s heavily “cinematized” FPSes.

The Last of Us Remastered (PS4)

This is probably the game I’ve spent the most amount of time with this month.  I rented the original PS3 version out of Redbox when it came out, but I only got a little ways into the Summer chapter before returning it.  I was just too busy at the time to commit to playing it.  When talking about a Naughty Dog game (at least post-Uncharted 2), it seems most people immediately fixate on the storytelling.  To be honest, I don’t find the storytelling in the Uncharted series to be particularly interesting, and I’ve always been amazed at the amount of praise that they receive.  I don’t find it bad, just unexceptional.  The plots of the Uncharted games all feel very common to me.  They are all relatively standard action movie plots that don’t do anything particularly unique for that genre.  I do feel, however, that Naughty Dog is good at creating characters that are a great deal more likeable than the standard action game hero who is designed more to embody a masculine power fantasy than feel like a human being.  And beyond the story, I feel the Uncharted games aren’t exactly the pinnacle of TPS design, although they are adequate.  Uncharted 3, in particular, I think has serious problems with much of it’s design.

Last of Us 1

With regards to story, I feel that The Last of Us is more or well the same.  Plot-wise it is tracking through very well trodden ground, and it hits many of the same beats and tropes that recur across modern dramatic zombie fiction a la The Walking Dead.  It’s very predictable.   This is particularly a problem in the beginning of the game.  I found it picked up quite a bit though toward the middle, however, with a well designed arc that, despite following another template of the genre, did manage to create some genuine suspense.

In addition, I’ve found The Last of Us to be a significantly more compelling game to play than the Uncharted series.  It is generally more focused on aggressive stealth action, similar to Splinter Cell Conviction, with the player character using stealth more to set up ambushes rather than sneak by unseen.  There are a number of ways to attack a given situation, as the game allows the player to take down enemies from a behind the back sneak attack, use them as human shields, snipe them silently with arrows, use a wide variety of throwable explosives, or just simply take them out in a blaze of gunfire.  It’s quite a bit more stimulating and thought-provoking than the Uncharted-style encounter design where they just pour a bunch of dudes into an area of chest high walls and tell you to “don’t stop shooting until nothing’s left moving.”  I do have a big gripe about the crafting system, however.  It’s not so much about having to craft items, rather, I feel that the way the game makes you root around in so many little side rooms for crafting ingredients puts a drag on the pacing.  In addition, the AI characters would often walk off without me while I was collecting crafting items, but I could vaguely hear them in the distance still talking to me or each other.  It made me continually feel like I was missing important dialogue and story information.  Still, I’m looking forward to finishing the game soon.

Brandish: The Dark Revenant (PSP, PSVita Compatible)

This was a quiet release during the month of January.  I’m a huge fan of the Ys games that XSEED released on PSP, and seemingly out of the blue they have released another PSP port of one of Falcom’s classic series.  Brandish: The Dark Revenant is a PSP remake of the original Brandish, somewhat similar I think to how Oath in Felghana is a remake of Ys III.  Falcom is really good at designing great action RPGs, but although Brandish and Ys both belong to this genre, they play very differently.

Brandish 2

Brandish is technically a dungeon crawler, tasking the player with reaching the top of an underground tower, but this is not the type of dungeon crawler that focuses on grinding for loot and levels.  The levels have been crafted by the developer instead of being randomly generated, and there is more a focus on puzzle solving, careful exploration, and arranged combat encounters.  The closest modern analogue to this game I can think of is the Legend of Grimrock series, although Brandish is played from a top-down perspective and lacks a party of characters.  Another commonality that these games have is that while actions occur in real time, movement is confined to a square grid.

The story in this game is nothing particularly special.  In fact, it doesn’t just take a backseat to the action, it’s locked in the trunk.  The game starts with your character being ambushed by a bikini-clad sorceress seeking revenge on behalf of her master (or at least I think that’s what’s going on).  An earthquake occurs during the confrontation, and the two characters fall into a crevasse and become trapped in a long lost underground kingdom.  The player is then tasked with ascending a monster-ridden tower to return to the surface.  Every so often, you cross paths with the sorceress and a small confrontation occurs, but otherwise there’s no story to speak of.  If my description of this story sounds so exasperated, that’s because it’s just a very thin aspect of the game.  This is definitely not a title for gamers looking for a story-dense experience.

Brandish 1

The gameplay is actually fairly fun, fortunately, but it starts off a bit too easy.  I think the description in the PSN store says that there are 40 dungeon floors to the game, but for about the first fifteen or so, I found both the puzzles and the monster to be an incredibly light challenge.  I stopped playing the game for a little while, because the lack of difficulty was making it feel more like a chore than a stimulating experience.  Fortunately, it does start to become quite a bit more challenging, and I’ve begun pouring a lot more time into it as a consequence.  In addition, one cool thing about the dungeon design is that on most floors there are optional areas that require some extra-tough puzzle-solving and secret hunting to gain access to.

I have a feeling I won’t finish this game anytime soon.  This is probably more of a positive than a negative.  The lack of story kind of makes it a game that is easy to come back to after having put it down for long periods of time.  Ultimately,  I think this is an easy recommendation to any fans of Falcom’s other action RPGs.  It’s a PSP game, but it is compatible with and looks great on the Vita’s screen.

Games I’m Looking Forward to in February

It seems that I haven’t beaten a single game in the month of January.  I have a feeling though that I’m not to far from the end of The Last of Us, and, as I said, Duke Nukem and Brandish are games that I’m going to be coming back to for a while.  There are a few games I’m looking forward to picking up in February.  First up is Resident Evil Remake HD.  I’m a big fan of the Resident Evil series, particularly the first two games, but I’ve never been able to play this version due to lack of a Gamecube.  It’s always been a bit of a fascination for me though, as it makes the mansion look and feel like a much more sinister entity than what it was in the original games.  I’m super excited to play the just released uprezzed version.

I will also definitely be getting into Majora’s Mask 3D.  As I didn’t own an N64, Ocarina of Time 3D was my first experience with that game, and it left a big impression on me.  I had always sort of doubted the fanfare around that game when it was released, since game-starved Nintendo 64 fans tended to play up every game that came out for that system as THE GREATEST GAME OF ALL TIME!!!!!!!!  But after having seriously played it on the 3DS, I completely understand OoT’s popularity.  I realize Majora’s Mask is a very different game from OoT, but I’m still excited to get a hold of it.

I’m also considering getting into the re-release of Grim Fandango, although the talk I’ve heard about the absurdity of the puzzle logic it possesses kind of makes me cautious.  And, looking over what I’ve written, I’m recognizing a running theme of re-releases dominating my playlist.  I’m thinking maybe I should spice things up with something more contemporary.  After all, I believe it’s okay to have a healthy appreciation of the past, but obsession with those past experiences at the expense of rejecting the arrival of new experiences is what will turn you into an old man.

Utmost Spookiest Games: P.T.

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The late months of 2014 have actually been pretty good for new horror releases,  with the release schedule managing to count Alien Isolation, The Evil Within, Five Nights at Freddy’s (both 1 and 2), etc.  But one release stands out in particular as something that took everyone by complete surprise, and that is PS4 downloadable game P.T.  Although it’s release was marked with little indication as to it’s true nature, by now most gamers have come to know that it is actually a sort of “proof of concept” vehicle for a new Silent Hill game being developed by Kojima Productions with creative collaboration from Guillermo del Toro.  The letters P.T. stand for “playable teaser.”  This comes across as odd to me since we’ve had “playable teasers” in the form of demos for longer than we’ve actually had internet video trailers for games.  I guess it’s title is the result of Hideo Kojima having a flair for theatrical new conceptual terminology (see transfarring).  In addition, the end of P.T. reveals that this new Silent Hill will be called Silent Hills, so I imagine he now also has another new personality quirk in the form of an addiction to superfluous pluralization after MGSV: Ground Zeroes.

P.T. is a haunted house experience.  I’m going to try to refrain from mentioning late-game specifics and speak in only generalities, as I abhor spoiling games that I’m recommending.  From a first person view, you find yourself waking up in a dark, empty, concrete room.  A lone door stands before you, and as you pass through it, you find yourself in a well light hallway of a common American house.  You pass a radio alarm clock in the hallway which appears perpetually stuck at one minute before midnight.  A grim news report about a recent murder plays on the radio.  The house appears abandoned, but empty bottles and trash lay upon the floor indicating that at some point the residence was occupied by vagrants who eventually decided to vacate.  The hall makes a 90° turn at the corner of the house and you travel through the foyer.  You check the front door, but its locked.  You continue onward and reach a door at the end of the hall which is open.  You pass through only to find yourself coming out of the door at the other end of the hall at which you started.

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This forms the first “loop” in P.T., as pretty much the entire game takes place along this stretch of hallway.  You continually loop from the final door to the first door, but the catch being that with each iteration the house becomes increasingly surreal and demented.  Disturbing supernatural events play out before you, and you have no choice but to continue on through the recursion.  Eventually you reach a point where you must solve a cryptic puzzle in each loop to progress to the next stage of events.

I stated in the first post of this series that the reason for this undertaking was to compel me to finish games in my backlog, but it has actually become more about me trying to explore ideas I’ve had for a while about horror games.  Namely that the Resident Evil archetype people use to judge the “scare factor” of a horror game is actually a very poor way of analyzing such games.  I’ve found that a lot of hardcore horror gamers get stuck up on requiring a game to have tension via limited ammo, limited save ability, restrictive combat, restrictive camera viewpoints, etc. before they consider it to be a good horror game.  As I discussed with Fatal Frame and The Last Door, I don’t consider these things very important, rather I place a particular emphasis on atmosphere and bewilderment.  I find that expecting limited ammo to provide for a scary experience is equivalent to horror movie directors who lean heavily on the use of profuse gore and desecration of the human body to produce scares, because they have no understanding of how to create true atmosphere and suspense.

P.T. is an excellent example of my philosophy.  There is no combat in P.T., and there is no real danger either.  It is possible to be, in a fashion, “attacked” in this game, but it results in merely a minor setback.  Regardless of the lack of threat to player progress, P.T. is still an excellently gripping experience which manages to feel very threatening.  The progressively unsettlingly nature of the hallway was joyfully terrorizing to me.  A key element of creating good atmosphere is striking deep into a player’s imagination, which is achieved, and expertly so, by P.T. through a display of the creator’s own imagination to pique the player’s curiosity with images, ideas, and experiences that are fascinatingly unexpected and off-balancing in their uniqueness.

I think part of the reason some people cling so strongly to the old-fashioned survival horror tropes of limited ammo and clunky controls is because they provide a relatively easy to fall back on, objective, and semi-quantitative criteria for evaluating the “horror” that a game possesses.  The reality is that horror (like humor) is something that is naturally qualitative and to a fair degree subjective which leaves arguments about the relative scariness of a game to become more muddled, arbitrary, and less decisive.  It is not possible to merely say, “A game has X and Y aspects and therefore it is scary!”  Even, of course, my arguments about atmosphere being key are somewhat tied to this fallacy, as the feel of atmosphere is incredibly subjective.  The best we can ever really do when trying to explain why a game is scary is to point to specific aspects of a game and try to explain why they had such an impact on us personally.  I do believe, though, that the old-fashioned ideas about horror games are quickly dying, as the burgeoning indie gaming sphere has become the prime curators of this genre.  As indie developers are often less compelled to color within the lines, we are seeing a number of horror games such as Outlast, Amnesia, Five Nights at Freddy’s, and Home which are eschewing the mold that was established all the way back on the PSX with Resident Evil and Silent Hill.

Back on the topic of P.T., I was actually somewhat surprised to find out that it is merely a sort of “proof-of-concept” for a new Silent Hill game, as it will not appear as a level in the final Silent Hill game.  As a proof, it works mostly to show the competency of the developers at creating an exciting piece of horror.  This is a bit important taken in the light of the post-Team Silent games which have mostly not been of especially high quality.  P.T. also portends radical changes for the structure of Silent Hill with it’s first person viewpoint and focus on combat-free exploration and puzzle solving.  I don’t know if these aspects will be preserved in the final game or not, but it leaves me conflicted.  On the one hand, I think its good to shake things up for a series when they become stale and weary (and Silent Hill definitely falls into this category).  On the other hand, I think its fairly important for a series to maintain a unique identity.  I realize this may appear to be a bit of cognitive dissonance considering I’ve railed against the standard survival horror structure in this post.  But its not that I hate old-fashioned survival horror games like Silent Hill 2, its just that I don’t think they should be the exclusive path horror games should follow.  Nonetheless, I think exciting things are very much lingering in the future of Silent Hills and the genre as a whole.

Ico Retrospective: Mystery, Imagination, and Immersion

Recently, I picked up The Ico and Shadow of the Colossus Collection for PS3. For those who may not know, these two games form a sort of incomplete spiritual trilogy with each other and are products of Team Ico, a subset of Sony’s Japan Studio. Though gameplay varies a fair bit between titles, they both place a heavy focus on immersion through quiet aesthetic detail and minimalist gameplay. Having played through Shadow before, I’ve focused so far entirely on Ico, which was a completely pristine experience for me. I followed previews of this game pretty closely before its release, back when the PS2 was the hot new platform, but in the end, however, the PS2 original released during a time in which gaming fell away as a priority for me, so until now, I’ve had no experience with it.

Collection

Ico is much more of a puzzle game than its follow-up. For those who have somehow never heard talk of this game from its many enthusiastic fans, the setup for the game is that the protagonist (who I believe is named Ico) must help a princess-like character, named Yorda, escape a deserted castle, where she has been imprisoned by a dark queen. The game is mostly a puzzle game where Ico must figure out how to guide Yorda through a long series of environmental obstacles and ultimately find a way to open the castle’s gates. Occasionally, the pair will be ambushed by shadow creatures, and Ico must fight them off. Interestingly, there is no health bar for this side of the game; rather Ico must keep the monsters from successfully kidnapping Yorda to prevent game over. Regardless, Ico primarily feels puzzle-focused, with the combat only serving as a diversion. This is in contrast to Shadow which is definitely more combat-focused, although some would argue that the means of vanquishing each colossus has a puzzle-like nature to it. So essentially, Shadow is a combat-puzzle hybrid, while combat and puzzles form distinct segments of gameplay in Ico.

In a lot of ways, Ico feels ahead of its time. There was a long period when the term “puzzle game” meant something like Tetris, where pieces of stuff fall from the sky and need to be strategically arranged and eliminated to avoid the screen from filling up. Puzzle adventure games like Ico were very rare and not super popular. I can only think of one other example of such a game from this era which is Luigi’s Mansion, and that game was not especially well received. Eventually, the later releases of Portal and Braid would lead to a huge wave of puzzle adventure games designed by smaller developers, and the Tetris-based definition of the puzzle genre has mostly been supplanted. Ico even has the emotional, sentimental feel carried by a lot of indie puzzle games of this new ilk. By contrast, Shadow of the Colossus is a relatively unique game, focused entirely on seeking out and defeating a long series of bosses. It doesn’t really seem to fall in with any other movements or trends in gaming.

Ico Castle

Ico and Shadow are some of the very few games I’ve played that actually manage to capture an adventurous feel to them, which is a feat considering that they are almost entirely linear. This is, of course, a result of Team Ico’s focus on gameplay in service of immersion. That is, the various challenges placed upon the player are only meant as a mechanism to bring the player closer to the characters and their desperate situation, a means of creating an emotional bond. This is not an adolescent empowerment fantasy as so many games are. Those sorts of games always feel more like a theme park ride, a sequence of vicarious thrills meticulously arranged to wow the player. Ico, on the other hand and despite its linearity, feels more like an expedition into an unknown world, akin to games like Fallout, Dark Souls, and the original Legend of Zelda. There is a grip of danger, uncertainty, and mystery in Ico and Yorda’s quest.

The mystery is a key component of this sort of immersion, I believe. Perhaps the PS2 manual provided more backstory, but the PS3 collection has a thoroughly modern manual, which is to say it is basically a short leaflet with not much more than a diagram of the controls. The cutscenes at the beginning of the game only provide a basic context of why Ico finds himself stranded in the dark queen’s castle. Consequently, we are left wondering about the circumstances of his struggle and the reality of the world beyond the castle. Importantly, our imaginations are engaged in trying to develop these details. When I find myself high up in the dark castle and gaze at the sea and forest beyond its walls, I ponder what could be out there. This rarely happens with other games for me, where, like a theme park, I never consider what is beyond the game’s walls, because I know that the world is only constructed as far as it needs to be. Of course, I rationally realize this is true of Ico as well, but the game provides a creative stimulation that still causes me to wonder.

Thus, Ico is true escapism in a way, absorbing, refreshing, beautiful, and wholly unique.

Jet Moto: Do Futuristic Racers Have a Future

Jet Moto TitleJet Moto was one of my favorite games for the PSX. I recently manage to find my old CD of the game, and gave it a go. First thing I notice, man is it an ugly game. It is one of those PSX games that hasn’t aged so well in the looks department, with blurry, wobbly low-res textures spread everywhere. But I digress.  Somewhat similar to a futuristic version of Wave Race, Jet Moto is a racing league for off-road hoverbikes, with courses that traverse dirt, sand, swamp, water, and ice. It’s always felt a little unique to me in the genre of futuristic racers in the sense that, while most of these games (e.g. Wipeout, F-Zero, Extreme G, etc.) charge through sleek and synthetic landscapes at absurd speeds, Jet Moto is a little more grounded in rugged outdoor settings, mostly themed around swamps, beaches, and icy mountains. It may sound strange, but Jet Moto feels like it could be something you could actually see on a channel like ESPN, assuming of course hoverbikes were a real thing.

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The game also has a ton of personality to it. There are 20 racers in the game, each with a colorfully detailed backstory and hand drawn, comic book style avatar. These Jet Moto professionals range from cowboys and surfers to a jazz singer and a mad scientist. At the end of a circuit, the results screen shows the winning racer being bestowed with their trophy from a somewhat risqué member of the opposite sex. Male racers get rewarded by a scantily clad woman, usually showing lots of leg, and female racers get treated by an equally lascivious male. One exception though is a male racer called Rhino, who receives his trophy from the male variants, possibly indicating he is one of the first openly homosexual video game characters, so that’s something I guess.

Jet Moto 3

Jet Moto was the product of SingleTrac, the studio behind the original Warhawk and the excellent Twisted Metal 2. Originally working as a second party studio for Sony, the studio was eventually bought by GT Interactive and its Sony-owned franchises were given to 989 (who would later become Sony Bend). Jet Moto 2 would be created by the latter studio. While I think it is a perfectly fine game, it has always felt a little less interesting to me. Eschewing the realism of the original, Jet Moto 2 becomes a little more whimsical, with fantastical tracks such as a circus, an earthquake-demolished city, and a finale that crosses through both Olympus and Hades. There would eventually be a Jet Moto 3, which sold especially poorly, and the series has not been heard of since.

Jet Moto 4

Playing Jet Moto reminds me of how much I once enjoyed futuristic racing games. I’ve always enjoyed arcade racers as a whole, and futuristic racing games strike an especial chord of the imagination, with their extraordinary speeds and incredible settings. Almost all arcade racers are lenient with the laws of physics, but futuristic racers take an especially hostile stance to the Newtonian world. And it’s unfortunate that this sub-genre appears to be going extinct. Sony’s Wipeout is the only series that’s seen regular release, and with the close of the Liverpool studio, it appears that this last torch has blown out.

The disappearance of the futuristic racer is really more or less in line with the fall from grace the entire arcade racing genre has suffered. Need For Speed continues to see near yearly release, and Codemasters still produces, but their creations tend to lean toward the hardcore. It seems like the genre reached its climax with Spilt/Second and Blur. Both of these were excellent releases, Split/Second being my favorite racer from last-gen, but both launched in the same month against Red Dead Redemption and were abysmal failures from a commercial prospective. The failure of these excellent games seems to have deterred others, as there have been no real notable entrants in the genre afterwards.

Jet Moto 1

Maybe it’s a symptom of the times. In the age of the PSX and N64, racers were of extraordinary popularity as they lent themselves well to the split-screen multiplayer of these offline machines. Meanwhile, PCs of the time were dominated by FPS and RTS games, which were far more compatible with online multiplayer. Controllers in the pre-dual analog age were not especially suited to movement in FPS, and split-screen FPS has always suffered from the screen watching problem. The limitation to four players doesn’t help as well. With such few players, it’s easy for skill differentials to make the game frustrating for less skilled players and devoid of challenge for more skilled players. Bots can be used to expand the number of competitors, but the consoles of the time were not really capable of competent AI. Racing games on the other hand do not require high-level AI to fill out acceptable computer opponents. As consoles have tilted toward online-focused multiplayer, it’s easy to see why team-based FPS games have ascended in popularity, while racers have languished.

So is there any reason for arcade racing fans to hold hope? I don’t really know. I imagine if they make a resurgence, it will be amongst small-scale developers (i.e. indie), but there’s really been no movement on the front. Maybe in FTP games? I could see a FTP Jet Moto monetized with cosmetics as possibly being successful. I’m sorry, I know it’s really kind of downer I’m ending on here. At least we can take solace in the fact that our old favorites will always be there for us, if they don’t make our eyes melt first.

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