Cutting Commentary in Velvet Buzzsaw

Posted in All the Things, Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 4, 2019 by trivialpunk

I never said I was consistent. The horror aesthetic is in right now, and creeping doom is on every horizon, but that’s more the state of the gaming industry than its content. Perpetual experiences and micro-transactions don’t lend themselves well to producing horror games, even if they do inspire dread. So, it was either ride the Dark Souls wave or write about the only thing more horrifying than creeping existential horror: politics.

Not here, though. No, the personal is political, so I can excuse the evening off from charting our winding path into a coiling snare. There are so many things in this world that would bind us and use us that one can hardly keep track. Sorry, got kinky there for a second, but it speaks to the question that faces most artists in today’s market.

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There are many ways to read Velvet Buzzsaw, and I’ve spent a lot of time avoiding outside interpretations of the movie, except the initial review that led me to it. I wanted to remain surprised, because I was promised a character-focused horror movie with great cinematography and a twist. I got a lot more than that, though, and I want to give you the same opportunity I had to enjoy it. So, here’s your spoiler-warning. From here on out, I’m going to be spoiling major plot-points and the central gimmick of the twist, as well as dissecting what I see as the ethos of the film. There will be no coming back from these spoilers, soo…

SPOILER WARNING!!!!

That being said, let’s start with the exploiters of artists and the gate-keepers that enable the scarcity they profit off of. I mean, the cast. Morf Vandewalt is a renowned art critic that is insulated by pride, pretence and pomp. He acts as a gate-keeper of value in the artistic world that “assesses out of adoration,” but the film goes out of its way to demonstrate his profound naivety towards the powerful people and institutions that profit off his work. This is a great example of the lighting direction and framing coalescing with the narrative at the perfect moment for a story beat.

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Up until this moment, Morf has been framed as a suave, sophisticated socialite whose words can move mountains. But here, for one moment, his hair is under-lit to make it look like a bowlcut, as Morf is saying something that we know isn’t accurate with absolute confidence. He is, in truth, incredibly childish. You can see it in his demands and complaints. As a critic, Morf is being used to promote dangerous items for dishonest people, as well as destroying the careers and lives of countless artists to further his cachet. He excuses his actions by claiming that his opinions are honest, and they do seem very genuine, but he does tear down Ricky for Josephina. He knows it is wrong, though, and he even gets moments of moral indignation by refusing to sell out his personal beliefs. Morf is not morally corrupt, but he’s not overtly critical of the systems off of which he profits.

You know who is morally corrupt, though? Rhodora Haze, former punk artist turned wealthy socialite. As the owner of the Haze Gallery, she deals in modern art and Machiavellian politics. She’s manipulating Morf behind the scenes, holding contracts like switch-blades under the throats of other characters and stage managing the launch of the Vetril Dease Collection: a series of paintings that were discovered after the artist’s death. Since the artist is dead and the owner of the art is under her thumb, she is free to lie about the paintings at will. She squirrels half of them away to increase their scarcity value.

Rhodora’s mirror-mirror doppelganger is Gretchen. As a newly-minted art advisor/gate-keeper, she’s trying to survive in the same world of money and perception as Rhodora, but she’s nooot as good at it. In her stumbles, we see the ugly seams of their art scene come blatantly to the surface. She tries to bribe Morf to point her to “under-valued, pre-review art,” because she sees Rhodora profiting by buying pieces before Morf’s favourable reivews go live and increase their value. Of course, Rhodora isn’t bribing him; she’s spying on him. Despite Morf’s integrity, he exists in a system where his favourable reviews can be fore-casted by the people who profit off of them. An uncomfortable reflection of the game review space I left all those years ago? Maybe that’s why we’re here…

Let’s not get TOO meta, TOO fast. Where were we? Josephina is another inductee into the world of power and politics. As an employee of Rhodora, she stumbles across the paintings of Vetril Dease on the evening of his death. Recognising his brilliance and claiming them for herself, Josephina empties the man’s apartment of his life’s work. It’s clear that Rhodora took her under her wing as a employee, but is in the process of demoting her when she’s tipped off to the existence of the Dease collection. Josephina is strong-armed by Rhodora, under threat of contractual litigation, into handing over management rights for the Dease Collection in exchange for wealth and prestige. She agrees, because she has no choice.

Jon Dondon is a competing art dealer that learned well from Rhodora. He spends his days trying to poach artists from the Haze Gallery and sabotaging their stars. Jon Dondon puts considerable effort into undermining the reputation of the Dease Collection before meeting his bitter end. His body is discovered by Coco.

Coco is the mirror-mirror opposite of Josephina. She’s working an entry-level position at the Haze Gallery and learning how to navigate the choppy waters of a cut-throat industry. I have a fan-theory about her. I think she sabotaged Josephina in the opening act of the movie by calling her Right before work to tell her about her cheating ex. When Josephina was moved off the front line, Coco got her job. A job she immediately lost, because Rhodora uses and discards people at will, but it’s clear that she’s learned how to undermine people in order to advance her interests. Yet, the film doesn’t totally condemn her for her actions. Coco’s trying to survive in a harsh market, and it’s causing her to compromise her integrity. At the mid-point of the film, she reveals that she’s been spying on Rhodora, and the information she gleaned gets her a new job. So, she’s dishonest, buut…

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Which is really more of a condemnation of the system she wants to profit off of than her as a character. At least, in relation to the other characters in this little psychodrama. She keeps losing her job, because her employers keep dying for their sins, but she survives, even if her dream is broken.

That’s most of the main cast. There’s the blue-collar Bryson, who exists as a stereotype both so broadly drawn and utterly eclectic that I can only call him a douche-hipster. Piers is an established artist that is struggling to find creative truth in a system that values constant exploitable productivity. Damrish is an emerging artist from the streets that wants to find a place where his work can mean something, caught between financial success and cultural relevance.

The last two members of the important players are almost uncredited. They are the representatives of the Museum of Modern Art, and only one of them gets a name. It’s Jim, and his unnamed partner says one of the most important lines in the film to Gretchen: “…If you wanted to ram more of your collector’s hoard down our throat to increase their value, you should have done so before the Dease deal was locked…” You see, there’s only so much room in a gallery to show off cultural artefacts, so curators have to be careful with their space. As an artistic institution, the museum has a responsibility to the integrity of the art world, but the leverage provided to Gretchen by the inflated value of the Dease Collection gives her power over their investors. The wealthy gate-keepers of the art world have lent her the pictures and capital necessary to dictate what cultural artefacts will be displayed as valuable in the museum. She does to them what Rhodora did to her by packaging Dease with Damrish. In this scene, the film is saying that the power structures that profit off of exploiting artists do not elevate art based on its cultural value but on its ability to be exploited for profit. Therefore, the exemplars of this cultural space did not gain ascendancy through cultural relevance, but  through systems of power. Even if the art is only valuable for the moment:

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From EA to Disney, this is the relationship that most artists find themselves in today. The gate-keepers of artistic value are propped up by towers of money, and it seems like the only way forward is to sell-out for profit. As Gretchen says, “Look, I came to the museum, because I wanted to change the world through art. But, the wealthy vacuum up everything, except crumbs. The best work is only enjoyed by a tiny few. And they buy what they’re told. So why not join the party?” These are not evil people, but they’re still profiting off of a system that locks culture and the ascendancy of artistic vision behind pay-walls and monetary access. So, what should an artist do in this environment? What is the point of art if nobody sees it?

It turns out that the film has really optimistic answers to both those questions, but I want to address two very important aspects before we get to those answers. The first is that the paintings are haunted by the ghost of Vetril Dease, because he literally put his blood, sweat and tears into his work. His pain and madness are seared into his tormented works, and their raw manifestation is what ensorcells both critics and artists alike. This life of misery, “A howl for answers and a resolution that never comes,” is the fascination point off which the galleries will profit. They’re capitalising on the dead man’s pain.

The second aspect is the way in which Dease’s media is altered for consumption. Not a single stroke on his paintings is changed, but when they are removed from the context of his tiny, ramshackle house, they lose their connection to their meaning. Dease faced serious abuse, and his work was a means of processing that trauma. His howl for answers reveals the depth of that pain, but that depth is completely removed by transplanting it to a gallery space for safe consumption. In a gallery, people see the brilliance and clarity of the emotion, but they are insulated from its impact. Capitalism sanitizes media and removes it from the consequences of its context, a point which the film makes extremely explicit:

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Everyone thinks that Gretchen’s death is part of the exhibit, so they’re removed from the reality of the situation. The children in this scene think it’s fake blood; they assume that everything in the gallery is safe for consumption, so they are protected from its implications. The paintings and sculptures in this movie could stand in for any form of media. By removing media from its context and making it safe for capitalistic consumption, we are insulated from its true meaning, thereby allowing the framers of that information the power to control our perception of it. Which gets even more interesting when you consider that Damrish is a culturally-relevant black artist being tugged away from his artist’s collective to pursue success in a mainstream gallery

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It should not be ignored that the history of African Americans in most artistic mediums includes a long history of exploitation. That the gate-keepers of power in this movie are primarily white, and that systemic socioeconomic differences are of key importance in relation to their access to power. No one in this movie is anything close to racist, but they are unquestioningly profiting off systems of exploitation built on inequality. You could not have an honest psychodrama about the flaws inherent in media exploitation without bringing up the rotten foundation on which it is built. This applies to all vulnerable populations across the media landscape, from Freddy Mercury to the Jackson 5. While naming those two makes it seem like these were relationships of mutual profit, we’d do well to remember the barriers they faced and the artists of all stripes and orientations who see nothing for their life-times of work. The more vulnerable you are, the easier you are to exploit, which is why some populations are targeted more explicitly than others.

Everyone in this movie is duplicitous to some degree. They’re all stage-managing personas and stabbing each other in the back behind warm smiles and “Kisses!” They are the perpetual manifestations of this psychodrama, profiting with cold brutality as they devour warm bodies with neat, sanitized pretence. It’s the same cheerful nihilism on display when the News feeds us justifications for murdering people and presents the deaths of thousands as an engaging tragedy. There is no human way to easily digest the deaths of that many people, but when it scrolls by on your news feed, it feels like one more point in a burning world. Something you can accept and “deal with.”

The personal is political, and the most important point of conflict in the daily lives of most people watching this movie will be fighting the apathy bred by comfort. The most important weapon against action is the idea that everything will be okay. By making things safe and digestible, we never feel the true weight of the tragedies happening around us. There is an art to insulating us into inaction, while at the same time justifying murder. It is the howling storm into which we all must scream.

That brings me back to the haunted paintings and my two final questions. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? I think the film answers that rather handily on multiple occasions. An artist’s primary concern should be the act of creation. “All art is dangerous,” which is to say that all art is powerful. Dease created otherworldly paintings as a byproduct of using art as a tool for exploring his trauma and grief. He survived a life of torment through art, even while definitely committing some murders along the way.

At the end of the film, we have an extremely human moment with Rhodora as she hands the keys of her beach house to Piers. Piers has been struggling with alcoholism and the media-driven idea that artists flourish by sacrificing their sanity to addiction and mental illness. Grappling with the raw honesty on display in Dease’s work, he wants to keep the “easy answer” at arm’s length, while he “tries to get back to creation.” The art world only values him as long as he’s creating work that they can sell, and it seems like the only answer to creating that work is sacrificing his mental well-being. Which is when the ghost of another dead artist steps in. Rhodora’s old girlfriend Poly -who was killed by a similar life- whispers a quote into the chill winds of history that saves Piers, “Dependency murders creativity. Creativity plays with the unknown, No strategies exist that can enclose the endless realm of the new. Only trust in yourself can carry you past your fears and the already known.”

Dependency on liquor and the financial approval of others is murdering Piers’ creativity, while the addiction slowly kills him. Rhodora tells him to take a break from the art scene, because she’s aware of its potential for toxicity. He needs to heal. She tells him to go somewhere and do something for nobody but himself. Because, at the end of the day, You always see your art. What is the point of art if nobody sees it? None, but the artist always sees their work. Art is a tool for expression and self-discovery. The finished product has inherent value to the artist and naturally reflects the time-period of its creation. At the beginning of the film, Rhodora posits that her art world has been thriving since a caveman charged a “bone to see the first cave painting,” tacitly suggesting that art and capitalism are inherently intertwined. Which perfectly reflects her world-view, but it has nothing to do with reality.

While it’s true that pretty shells and intricate carvings have always been traded as valuable, the drive to create is inherent to the human experience. Whether it’s ancient, crumbling paintings or lines in the sand swept away by the tide, the act of creation is inherently valuable. When we place importance on the exploitability of the finished product, rather than the act of creation, we murder creativity. So, what should an artist do in this environment?

Damrish’s story-line follows this logic to its fruition. The personal is political, so we should create for each other in an accessible space. Instead of allowing ourselves to be exploited for personal economic gain, we should look to the good we can do in our community as artists. If you have a voice, then we should use it with thoughtful purpose. At the same time, the collective in the film suggests that if this is the case, then the community needs to be there to support these artists. As someone who wrote free articles for years, I can tell you that you can’t dine on artistic integrity. We need to respect each other and our art, because our creations hold value. Both for ourselves and the future generations that will try to understand us through the exemplars of our culture.

Then, there is the other artist: Vetril Dease. The vengeful spirit left to toil in obscurity, exploited after death without the consent of his personal demons or consideration for the private pain it would unearth. His flesh was sold at auction with each painting, his literal body of work was violated for profit. Artists often sign away the right to control their work in exchange for the ability to create it, especially in the gaming space. Their legacy as creators is controlled as if they were a meaningless incident of its creation. The sole reason I’m writing this review, now, is that I kept asking myself one question: “What is the motivation of the paintings in this movie?” What injustice do the demons locked away behind Dease’s rage seek to correct? In looking for this answer, I came to my thesis for the film: “By making media fit for consumption by cultural institutions propped up by capitalist markets, we sanitize pain and profit off of death. Art that is both personal and culturally relevant/transgressive will/should undermine the power structures that enable the exploitation of art and humans, so that no more people must die in painful obscurity while the rich profit off their work.”

Each death in the movie reflects this motivation. Bryson was supposed to take the Dease paintings to be locked away in a warehouse, but he clearly died on a country road in the middle of stealing them. Rhodora kept Dease behind lock and key, both preserving the paintings he wanted destroyed and setting his work up to be exploited. Josephina stole his work and sold it, despite his wish that it be destroyed. John Dondon dug up Dease’s tragic past, but he was killed before he could use it to undermine the value of the work and profit off the destruction of his competitors through it. Gretchen was killed moments after threatening to use Dease’s work to destroy the hopes of emerging artists, keeping undiscovered artists like Dease in the dark forever to profit off the increased the value of Dease’s posthumous work. Morf kept emerging artists from the public’s eyes by judging their work to be valueless, profiting off their destruction to the point that one of his targets killed himself. Further, Morf stood to make millions from an exclusive Dease book-deal. Before dying, he publishes a tell-all article on Dease’s tragedies and the deaths connected to his work. It is telling that Morf was assumed to be corrupt by people like Gretchen, and that his credibility was only ever destroyed when he told them a bizarre, uncomfortable truth.

Damrish and Piers don’t die, because despite their exposure to the work, they never exploited it. Coco kept losing her job, so she never made a dime off it, either. She lost her dream but not her life. She’ll return home and find something new. And Dease’s art? It’s still out there, circulating out of stolen crates. Which makes me wonder… out of the context of these exploitative systems, will his art still be dangerous, Or was his art most impactful/destructive within this system, because it sought to tear down the power structures that exploited it? Am I reading too much into this? Possibly.

These paintings reflect a dark theme that stretches all the way back to “The King in Yellow.” A terrifying work that inspires heights of artistic excess or the lows of human suffering. Artists often see in works of this amorphous, eldritch nature a kind of creeping wonder. Am I divining something that exists or creating an idea from whole cloth? Kind of meta in a sense, because it comes back to why I’m here and often not here.

I created this blog to “forward the realm I analyze,” as Morf would say, but I found myself in the same position a lot of the time. Discussing gaming at this moment is putting support behind companies that are busily exploiting and destroying the works and artists that I admire. I couldn’t allow myself to be part of that anymore, even if the encroachment of larger investors opened the doors for greater profit. I have zero desire to be chewed up and spit out by an ungrateful industry, but I will always love gaming.

Yet, in my absence, I’ve seen the work of people like Jim Sterling and others pushing back against the glorification of exploitative excess, and I see in that movement a future for gaming. We’ve been here before, so maybe it’s better to stand and fight. These exact same historical beats have been playing out over time, from 3-D to the syphilitic collapse of the AAA Industry from its moulding throne. As we know, from the ashes of failure rise the Embers of a new age, and I’ve been heartened by the growth of the indie scene on Steam. Its gluttonous collapse after Steam Greenlight seemed to me the absolute excesses of Dark Souls’ Humanity. Even I’m back here, writing about the revolutionary potential of an above-average horror movie churned out by a corporate mechanism designed to respond to Disney’s global I.P. Power Grab.

Still, we must shout into the howling gale. We must not place the value of creation on the exploitability of the finished product. In this life, we must live and create, finding joy and integrity where we can make it. I have no mouth and I MUST scream.

Also, I wanted the opportunity to clear up a misinterpretation of my earlier assertion that reaction-time was an important consideration in relation to tank-controls on early survival horror games. Yeah, the tension-and-release cycles are still effective, even when the controls are fluid, because they speed up the monsters, too. The point isn’t the movement of the characters on the screen. The point is the experience of the individual reacting to them. So, if both characters are slow, then tension rises as the character prepares to react, then executes and experiences the results of those actions. The timing of that cycle is the important thing, not the speed of the pixels on the screen. When you’re running away from Pyramid Head’s attack in Silent Hill 2, you have a fraction of a second to react, then pick a direction and run. The tension exists in the execution of the maneuver, even if success or failure are decided at the beginning of the reaction when the startle reflex kicks in. It doesn’t matter if you get hit; it matters that you panicked for a second while you tried to react. That’s part of the build-up of physical tension that accompanies the game’s psychological anxiety.

The Hunters in Resident Evil are the same way. They cross vast distances in one jump, but your reaction to them is hurriedly finding a horizontal axis to safely cross their straight leap. This allows you the time to turn around and launch grenades at them. The controls were slow, so the tension came from thinking quickly. Now, you can react more quickly, but the startle reaction is still there, so more of the mechanical tension has to come from the staging of the game-play sequence.

So, yeah, Velvet Buzzsaw is a psychological revenge-drama where art goes on a killing spree to avenge an exploited artist. Give it a look if you’re still interested. Even with everything spoiled, it’s worth watching. Hell, maybe I’ve been over-analyzing things this whole time, and you’ll find something different in viewing it. That’s the nice thing about art: we each get to decide its value to us. I’ll be back if I feel like I have something else worth saying. Until then, I’ll just be enjoying things for their own value, because…

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These Wars of Mine

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , on August 6, 2017 by trivialpunk

     It has been a long, strange journey. I’ve considered picking up the metaphorical pen again many times, but there’s never been anything I’ve considered worth saying dripping off the end of it. Tonight is a little different. Tonight, I’m thinking back to my time with This War of Mine. It’s not so much a review as a look at what games can do for us. It’s a bit personal, so fair warning.

"Are you gonna kill us?"

“Are you gonna kill us…?” the old man asked.

 

     Let’s begin with the game, because none of this is going to make any sense unless you understand what I’m talking about. If you aren’t familiar with the Metacritic darling, This War of Mine is a side-scrolling survival-strategy game inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo. You control a variable number of survivors that are using a bomb-torn house as a shelter. The day-time segments are spent inside to avoid the eyes of snipers; your characters spend this time improving their shelter and taking care of their daily needs. You’ve gotta cook food, filter water, build beds, clean up rubble, break down or reinforce walls, construct a grow-op in the basement and make liquor to sell for more sugar to make liquor. If you’re successful enough, you’ll be able to supply an entire neighbourhood with cigarettes and home-made vodka. But, you’ll hoard it and trade it for medical supplies.

     Becaaause, the night-time segments are spent gathering the very limited resources from the surrounding buildings. There’s very little food left in This War of Mine. There’s very little of everything, and what’s left is hoarded, guarded or rotting in ruined shelters. So, in the spirit of adventure, you can send a character out at night to do some jolly looting. It’s dangerous, though, and these fragile characters often have very limited inventory space. If they die, you lose everything they’ve gathered, an entire night of looting, a useful set of hands, and a very dear friend. It’s an insane, but necessary, risk. Your character can be shot dead or break a leg. They can be attacked by other looters or become insanely depressed by the proposition of stealing from helpless senior citizens. War-time is a dark, dangerous time, and your characters are twisted by their war into horrible, selfish shapes. It remains to the player to decide what you take and if you take it, but your choices will end up killing people either way.

     This War of Mine is a stark world, and it is unforgiving when it comes to compounding failure. If you lose a good scavenger, then you’ve gotta send out someone else with fewer slots and a slower run speed. You have to make crucial decisions about finding chances to sleep, preparing water to drink, and reading books to steel your sanity. Everything takes times, and time is the most important resource in the game. Scavenging resources buys you time. Finding food buys you time. Recruiting survivors increases or decreases the survival time-value of your remaining resources and the number of things you can do with that limited time. Your entire goal is to outlast the war, to survive it. That is the war in This War of Mine: a tooth-and-nail fight for both your flesh and your humanity. You will lose chunks of both, but you can survive. You will not always do well, but you may do better. It all comes down to how you use your time. That brings us to my metaphorical war.

     This war of mine was more about surviving a financial crisis. In the last few years, I’ve gone through many ups and downs. I went from my friend’s couch into a single room, through a bachelor suite, and now I’m snuggled into a one-bedroom apartment. It was shortly after I moved into this apartment that this story takes place. I quit my Tim Hortons job to start my dream career as a writer that supports people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. It was gonna be great! Exceeept, they called and said they didn’t need me after all. I was fairly heartbroken and extreeeeemely unemployed. I had just paid my rent, so I had some time. I went over my finances. There was no way to pay next month’s rent, and I couldn’t sink any of it into my bills. I’d need food and bus tickets, resume paper and clean clothes. I didn’t know how I was going to manage it all.

     I looked at the numbers I’d written down. The duration of my survival quantified before my eyes. It was like staring death in the face again. I would have to make my bed on the street or hope to use someone’s couch, again. I’ve done it before, and it’s never pleasant, but it’s always enlightening. My anxiety welled, and I felt the dread wash over me, a great surge that left me shaking like a leaf. I held on and let it pass through me. Fear overwhelmed me, frothed like a raging hurricane, then subsided. There was much to do. It was time to survive.

     That night, after handing out dozens of resumes, I double-streamed Saint’s Row 4 and This War of Mine to ease my mind. For someone in my position, it was a real relief to solve my financial problems in Saint’s Row with the elegance of violent theft. This War of Mine, on the other hand, seemed to resonate with the same atmosphere my life had taken on. It became a mascot for my financial struggle and a vague reassurance that survival is possible. The rhythm of This War of Mine is a lot of setting instructions, planning while you wait, then reaping the benefits of those plans. That low-key pattern is intercut with sections of tense stealth and violent death, which proved both engaging and oddly relaxing. It was a perfect heat-sink for my anxieties. It helped me think about my own survival in more proactive and productive ways. I rationed out my remaining food with greater care and made smarter purchases with my remaining funds. I contacted my local foodbank and made my first ever withdrawal. Most crucially, I asked for help from my friends in a way I never had before. And they fucking came through.

     My city was in the midst of a terrible job drought. None of my unemployed friends could find work. There was a local group of us that would check in with each other to see how the hunt was going. Like the traders in the game, we had developed a support network, exchanging information and providing solidarity. It was rough. I never actually did find new work at the time. Later in the month, the agency I’d dreamed about working for called me back. They had room for me on the team, now! Which was great, except that I would never get paid in time to make rent. I would get my first cheque three weeks later, exactly two weeks too late to save my apartment. I was devastated, but I would survive. I would start looking for a new one-room place in the morning. I left a post on my facebook about it and went to sleep. When I woke up, an old, dear friend had sent me a message. She’d read about my troubles and wanted to help. She straight-up gave me the remaining seven hundred dollars I needed to make rent and stave off my bill collectors that month. No strings attached. “Pay it forward,” she said. Never tell anyone who did this. I’m not gonna, but you still saved me.

     Now, all I had to do was ration my food and bus tickets through five weeks of work: three weeks to pay my rent and two weeks to get money for food. My cousin, who also happens to be one of my two god-mothers, was in town and took me shopping for groceries. Thinking back, I did better than I had that first time I’d been given a timer and some resources. I remembered everything I had learned from those days with This War of Mine. There are no guarantees in life, and you will not always do well, but you can always do better. The goal of survival becomes more nebulous outside of the framework of war, especially when the harbinger of your doom is Capitalism. However, the game’s mechanical assertions that patience, planning, humanity and community are crucial to survival rings true in every setting.

     “Games are imaginary spaces where our decisions are evaporative,” and that makes them a perfect mirror for the kind of logical considerations that make your blood run cold in the real world. I had trouble facing the spectre of my own imminent doom, but I could assist a world full of animated puppets with their struggle to survive. Using that space, I was able to be more honest with my circumstances and overcome them more efficiently. It all fell to shit again later, but that’s another game for another time.

Zombaway Cleaning Spray Commercial

Posted in All the Things on March 25, 2015 by trivialpunk

*Small girl runs in from the garden*

“Daddy! Daddy! There’s something wrong with Mr. Jefferies!”

 

“Gosh, well what do you mean, Dolly?”

“Come see! Come see!”

 

*they both move to the sliding glass doors, Mr. Jefferies is in the back yard, slowly shuffling towards them; he is a zombie*

“Gee whiz, Sarah, I think you’re right.”

*closes sliding glass door*

“Here, let’s get our Science-Bible and find out just what the heck is wrong with him!”

 

*walks over to shelf, grabs text-book clearly labelled “Biology”, picks book off shelf, walks over to front of sliding glass door, opens book thoughtfully and begins to read.*

“What do you think is wrong with him?”

“Well, Billy, let’s see what old Mr. Jefferies has. Unsteady gait. Check. An endless, gnawing hunger projected from the eyes, through the soul. Cheeeeck. An unstoppable determination to peel the flesh from our bodies and lap the blood from our aching wounds. Cheeeckerooni!”

*Mr. Jefferies finally collides with the glass, his body is covered in so much gore that the glass is instantly covered in a layer of blood*

 

“What should we do, Daddy?”

“I don’t know, Gretchen. I just don’t know.”

 

*a voice from outside the shot pipes up*
“Try Shingen Cleaning Initiative’s latest home-innovation! Zombaway Cleaning Spray!”

 

*family turns to camera*

“Tired of gory streaks left on otherwise sparkling glass? Has the zombie apocalypse stripped you of the loved ones that used to spend hours laboriously cleaning the caked on remains of your relatives from the front window? Try Zombaway Cleaning Spray!”

 

*The family lights up*

“Thanks, Zombaway!”

*turns back to book*

“Now, it says here, Thomas, that the only way to take a zombie out is by removing the head or destroying the brain. Okay!”

*cut to view of him leaving the house with a weapon to deal with the zombie, there are a few tense moments of yelling outside*

 

*an impact is seen against the glass as our small child hero waits inside; a hand wipes away a clean streak again the glass, the dad’s face is seen through the glass*

“Daddy!”

“Don’t worry, Carol, everything’s going to be fine. See? Squeaky clean!”

“Daddy! You remembered my name, Daddy!”

“Of course I did, Dolly. Now that this minor household annoyance has been dealt with, I feel like we can be a family, again.”

*zoom in on softened looks of happiness on both faces; cut to closing plug as father is dragged away, screaming, from the clean spot in the glass, cut to the wide, disturbed eyes of the now lone child in the house, pan to see that the front door is wide open*


“Zombaway! Because, some things are more important.”

Alien: Isolation v. The Order: 1886

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on March 13, 2015 by trivialpunk

Yes, I’m writing again. Don’t question it; just roll with it. I’m frankly amazed that this website still gets traffic. Wait, maybe not amazed… perhaps touched is the right word. Some of these posts are more than two years in my past, and I’m not really the same writer I was then. So, moving forward, please remember that this is as much a record of my bullshit as it is a repository for it. It’ll make the whole experience that much more surreal when I take myself suuuper seriously.

To be honest, it was our loss of Mr. Pratchett that drove me back here. As an aspiring author and long-time fan, I can’t help but feel the absence. And when I lose things, I need to write. When I need to write, I come here. So, I’m back. I’m not promising weekly updates, but you can find me on Twitch, and I’m going to try to find reasons to come back here as often as possible. Even when I’m gone, I still think about this place. These solitary moments of recording my thoughts and making up terrible puns about video games.

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With that out of the way, I want to discuss two very different games with a powerful common element: narrative linearity. Of course, that doesn’t narrow things down at all. Okay, jump the gun, the games I’m thinking of are The Order: 1886 and Alien: Isolation. Neither one of of these games is shit, despite the liberal use of colons, but they are quite limited in the experiences they can provide. By design, of course. They’re trying to tell carefully guided gameplay stories. You can’t bake a hundred cakes and make an entire fortress lit by squandered birthday pastries. This isn’t Minecraft. Mostly, you’re moving down corridors to do the thing.

Okay, so by now, you’re probably rolling your eyes. The games are way too different to compare. One’s third-person, the other’s first-person. One’s a stealth-based horror game, the other’s a steam-punk modern-warfare re-skin. One has a flamethrower and an angry alien, the other has Tesla weaponry and like eight werewolves. That’s fair, but I spend my days comparing Candy Crush’s excitation curve to WoW’s loot systems, so this isn’t outside the realm of possibility. Basically, my whole comparison is going to hinge on this thought experiment:

Let’s assume that the whole point of playing these narrative games is the story. Let’s pretend that movies are becoming games and not the other way around. Given Alien’s pedigree and 1886’s campaign-mode, I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble with that. Now, as people living within this imaginary world, let’s strip off the aesthetic coating of the story. The narrative and the themes are unimportant now. All that matters are the polygons and how they interact. We’re talking Quake on an oscilloscope level. With me so far? Good, now tell me about the games. I promise I’m not eavesdropping in your house right now. I’ll wait until you’re reading this sentence.

Can you still figure out what they’re about? I’ve gone on and on about integrating gameplay into the narrative of a game’s experience. I’ve held up Alien: Isolation as a great example of it, despite the fact that you’re basically being led by the nose the whole time you’re playing. The gameplay is still interesting gameplay. It presents some unique challenges to think around, and the A.I. is fantastic.

Even without really knowing what’s going on through the haze of the oscilloscope, it’s still clear that you’re hiding from something awful. There’s still a basic crafting system, and the combat’s still pretty clunky. The game of cat and mouse you’re playing with the monster goes on unabated. In my head, it’s even more frightening being stalked through the halls by the hazy green monster.

Alright, let’s give The Order the same treatment. It’s a linear, cover-based third-person shooter with a suite of standard weapons and waves of human enemies. Occasionally, you shoot at some dogs, and there are quick-time events. Now, this is well-polished gameplay, and everything functions very well, but it’s hard to tell it apart from any other third-person, etc shooter. Good thing or bad thing? Compare.

Now that you’ve got that comparison in your head, let’s inject the rest of the games back into our thought experiment. Does the narrative improve the gameplay at all? Well, I’d say it’s certainly more interesting being stalked by and standing up to the Geiger-beasts as a dis-empowered spaceship mechanic. And, for someone like me with nascent fears of alien dick-heads in my darker places, the fear-factor of the experience is increased considerably. That being said, The Order: 1886 is far more kick-ass when you know you’re playing Victorian Batman alongside a host of immortal knights that fights werewolves using steam-punk Teslacutionary weaponry. So, points on both sides there.

Let’s get a little more switchy-the-words-aroundy on this shit: does the gameplay improve the narrative at all? This one’s a little more difficult for me to answer with Alien: Isolation, because I’ve always wanted to play this style of game: hiding from an unknowable Alien intelligence. Being hunted by the world’s most perfect predator. So, the experience of play really highlights the game’s narrative for me. I’m in it. It’s happening. Best game ever, 8/10.

Let’s get somewhere I haven’t already thoroughly documented, though. Alien’s gameplay delivers on the themes and story-elements of its narrative. The gameplay of The Order seriously detracts from the narrative and our character’s, well, character. If we’re an immortal knight that’s been tasked by England to protect its people, why are we perfectly okay with slaughtering them in their hundreds? It would be interesting if we were exploring the kind of dehumanization that arises when someone’s an immortal bad-ass living within an isolated, elitist society that hands out licenses to kill to every member like issues of The Daily Buzzfeed, but it’s not. At one point, the main character makes a specific points of trying to avoid slaughtering people, but there are no gameplay elements that reinforce this option. You take out one guy with a shovel, then you go right back to the slaughter.

Yes, it makes sense that he responds by defending himself in hostile situations, and I’ll forgive him his B.A. in Stoicism, but why bring these elements of mercy and stealth up if we’re not going to use them? Or, if they’re going to be subverted, why not steer into the skid? Hell, give me a line of throw-away dialogue about his mental health or even one from the Queen (you know which one I mean) about his past actions against her rag-tag forces. I don’t need to make a big deal about it, but if we’re stealthing anyways, why do we need to kill? Why can’t we Tesla a knock-out chemical together or even just a tesla-taser? I just had a knife-fight with a werewolf; you’re not going to pull me out of the experience with chloroform, unless that’s you moving around in my closet… Let’s wrap this up before that door creaks open…

Both of these game present tight, focused gameplay scenarios. In one situation, you’re sneaking down a limited set of hallways. In the other, you’re shooting your way down an elaborately designed, limited set of hallways. I enjoyed both experiences for different reasons. I finished them both. Although, given their respective lengths, that’s not too surprising. Still, they were experiences worth having. My question is simply this: did the underlying mechanics create a unique experience? Alien: Isolation has shown us that tightly designed games can create engaging gameplay experiences within a limiting narrative. Whereas, The Order feels like one of those old tie-in franchise games they used to slap on top of third-person shooters, but… uh… they put more money into it?

Take what you can from those bleary thoughts. I’m going to find out what chloroform smells like! I’m sure I’ll wake up at some point… See you on the other side!

Addendum: I know it sounds like I’m really down on The Order, and that, perhaps, I’m a little hyperbolic, as well. He understated.  I really did enjoy playing it. I was talking it over with some friends, and we agreed that we enjoyed watching it being played. And I know that sounds like sarcasm, but it does possess a quality someone might have argued was akin to being cinematic. If you’re in for that, check it out through your usual electronic intermediaries. Also, chloroform smells absolutely rotten.

Torn Over The Evil Within

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on October 20, 2014 by trivialpunk

Oh, hai! I know, I said we’d be talking about Alien: Isolation again, but I just finished The Evil Within. And since there’s very little structure to my release dates, I figured you wouldn’t mind me sneaking in a review in the mean-time.

I’ve got to say, I’m really torn. On the one hand, I enjoyed playing The Evil Within. It was frantic, gory and fun! At times, I’d go so far as to call it brutal. On the other hand, that brutality is almost meaningless outside of the context of gameplay… That being said, there are plenty of moments of high-tension and surprised yelping to be had. They just feel visceral, and emotionally distant. Let me see if I can explain by splitting my brain in half. Trivial will be a critical ass-hole, and Punk will be my survival horror fan-boy. ReadaaaaaAAUUUGGH!!!

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Trivial – Really? We’re going with that? The “original Japanese name”? It’s not 1996 anymore; everyone has Wikipedia. We’re not going to get cred points for that.

Punk – Dude, just… okay? Fine, THE EVIL WITHIN is a survival-horror game developed by Tango Gameworks, published by Bethesda and directed by the legendary Shinji Mikami!

Trivial – How legendary? He’s played a pivotal role in creating some of our favourite works of all time. He’s one of the progenitors of the Resident Evil series. At some point, he had a hand in creating Phoenix Wright, Devil May Cry, Aladdin (SNES), Vanquish, Dinocrisis, and Killer7. That’s a serious list.

Punk – Yeah, and survival-horror owes him a debt. You can really feel the influence of those past games in TEW. TEW… heh, I wonder if that’s why it was developed under the name “Project Zwei”?

Trivial – Heh… Although, I’m not sure that’s a good thing. The influence, not the name… thing… Mikami’s stated goal in creating The Evil Within was to create a truly terrifying video game experience. To get away from the action. But, Mikami’s legacy is a stand-out stable of action-oriented gorror-games.

Punk – Cute typos aside, I kind of see your point. The bombastic opening with the high-speed get-away and the mid-air zombie-head-shot dive into the water were a little over the top.

Trivial – It’s not just that! The entire narrative is structured to high-light the gameplay. And the tone of the gameplay is intense, predatory action.

Punk – Yes! The gameplay was designed to create a sense of tension in the player. There’s a heavy focus on stealth. A focus that is encouraged by resource limitations and invincible enemies. Oh, and traps.

Trivial – The traps Are excellent. Not only do they help reinforce the omni-presence of our malicious antagonist, Ruvik, but they also encourage a cautious, thoughtful approach to gameplay, sometimes. When you’re not busy sprinting or blowing things up using their components.

Punk – I got a lot of good moments out of frantically disarming barbed-wire foot-traps, praying the hammer-man wouldn’t find me in time.

Trivial – You mean the safe-head guy? You kill like nine of him. And you don’t really need to disarm those traps; you can just shoot them. That’s how I feel this game is balanced: thrilling gorror over chilling horror. There’s a level-up system, a heavy arsenal, a precision-focused combat system and an incredibly competent protagonist. Not only that, you eventually over-power all of your antagonists. This is an empowerment fantasy.

Punk – Okay, I see what you’re saying, but it’s relative, isn’t it? Yes, he’s powerful, but the forces he’s arrayed against can control the fabric of reality. He gets tossed around more than an angry zipper in a tumble-dryer.

Trivial – True. The situations he’s in are horrifying, but the way those situations are brought across to the player keeps them at a solid distance from dread. Sure, there are a few stealth sections that leave you to wend your way through the jaws of death like a baby lamb, but those moments are usually followed up by having the player put those death-jaws in a reverse bear-trap, and then throwing the switch.

Punk – Yes, our hero usually overcomes the evil-thing, but they’re pretty terrifying creatures. The giant bizarro-world face-hugger Cerberus and the amalgamated end-boss are the sorts of creatures we could have only dreamed of facing when we got into survival-horror in the Playstation era.

Trivial – Which doesn’t change the fact that I’m playing a survival-horror game to experience horror. Not shocks. Not thrills. Horror. And there’s just nothing for me to latch onto emotionally. The main character barely exists. He has no flaws or emotions outside of being a hardened detective with a tragic past that drinks too much. He’s a walking stereotype.

Punk – A walking Bad-ass stereotype! Who else do you think could have faced this kind of challenge? He’s the perfect protagonist for a third-person shooter. His demeanor is reserved, but his aim is deadly. And he’s got all that great grit and detective determination. His character continuity is constant from cut-scene to credits.

Trivial – That doesn’t make him an interesting character. It also doesn’t mean he’s horrified. He goes from perturbed to actively being murdered. Those are his two primary emotional fear settings. It’s hard to empathize with someone who can take that much gore and death in stride. Now, Joseph, he shows some actual weakness.

Punk – Yup, losing his glasses, his struggle with the over-arching evil and his little I.A. mishap are all interesting elements of his character, but they also serve to flesh out our protag, Sebastian, a bit better. Remember, Sebastian’s struggle is literally the struggle of the game.

Trivial – But, again, the game is disjointed by design. You get knocked out and revived in more disconnected locations than a CoD player. There’s nothing to feel attached to, because the game makes it clear that anything and everything Could just be a hallucination. Floating between locations and into characters really reinforces the idea of being trapped within a hostile reality, but that context doesn’t inspire much fear when put next to the game-play, where you essentially warp in, kill everything, collect the treasure and exit at the next cut-scene.

Punk – You’re trivializing. The places you warp in to matter. Asylum, mansion, slaughter-house, doll-factory, creepy village… it’s basically horror’s greatest hits. Which was a little disappointing to me, because I was looking forward to something other than Resident Evil blended with Silent Hill, but I have to wonder how we’d feel about these locations and events if we weren’t already thoroughly inoculated against survival-horror tropes.

Trivial – We’d probably die a lot more. Thank the devs for the auto-save feature. But, regardless of our long history with survival horror, I have to ask, where does the horror lie? The monsters are horrible. The cut-scenes involve horrible events. The situation is horrible. The environments are nail-biting terror-halls. Despite all that, you win the game by hunting down and destroying all of your foes, and you do it without actually facing any of the evil within your main character.

Punk – That’s arguable. Ruvik does get pretty far inside your head. And, you do sort of discover the tragedy that brought your character to the edge. But, yeah, his jaded detachment –his only arguable weakness within the story-line– and drive to protect his comrades do end up helping him survive. It’s frustrating, because his tragic background is rife for comparison with Ruvik’s background. Yet, very little is made of it.

Trivial – Perhaps not openly, but there’s plenty to speculate on in the background details. You have to wonder, for instance, why your main character maintains his mental integrity so well. The more you learn about the game, the more disturbing that question becomes.

Punk – Yeah, when you put all the pieces together, they create an interesting picture. It’s a stark contrast to Alien: Isolation, where gameplay was designed specifically to create a narrative experience. The plot, characters and setting of TEW seem to exist solely for creating a framework in which the gameplay can continue. The gameplay being modern third-person shooting with corpse-burning and stealth mechanics.

Trivial – Yet, undeniably, the mechanics of the game are used to create some effectively tense moments. Even if the tone of the overall experience is over-the-top action, it’s juxtaposed with moments of quietly sneaking in the dark, avoiding the Minotaur until you get the chance to kill it. And you will have to kill it, because the set-pieces don’t give you the option to sneak past. Maybe it’s the order of presentation? Everything’s designed around a big end-of-game reveal and a well-spoiled mystery, so most of the early game is defined by that warp-kill-loot paradigm I mentioned. The inventory…

Punk – I miss my attaché case inventory!! It made for difficult decisions about loot! er… Sorry to interject, but… Yeah, having individual, upgradable slots for the items did feel a little too kind. Then again, later on, you’ll need to levy the power of your entire arsenal to take out the creatures you’re mashed against.

Trivial – My problem entirely! At the end of the day, the focus is on over-coming the challenge, not experiencing the fear. The goal of each section is to defeat the boss. Everything you find is either for killing, healing or upgrading your ability to kill/heal. Even the sprint function, which is also useful as an OH-SHIT-RUN button, is usually used to cover enough distance to blow your pursuer’s head off. The big-bads, the enemies set up to invincibly stalk you through the halls, are all eventually defeated, usually within their “Chapter”. Can you think of any way to undermine an invincible death-dealer more than by defeating it?! Zerksis, make a God bleed, etc. So, explain to me how this is any more frightening than Dead Space.

Punk – From our perspective, it’s not. It is undeniably over-the-top, frantically presented, constantly undermining its attempts at horror and far too visually campy to be considered frightening. The overall story resists immersion by holding back all of the details you might use to define and understand the world well enough to sink into it. And when you do, you’re bound to be pulled out of it by some bizarre set-piece, winking nod to the audience or instant-death. There are a lot of instant deaths. Still, the overall story and its elements are disturbing.

Trivial – True, but I’m cautious about including that as a good thing when I only sort of noticed them in retrospect while I was writing the review. As for the immediate experience of the game, it was…

Punk – …fun.
Trivial – …fun.

Not horrifying, but fun. It’s insane and twisted, but it doesn’t really do anything wholly new. If you can get into this game for the gameplay and art design, then I think you’ll enjoy it. If you’re an old hat at survival horror and you’re looking for something novel, then I don’t think you’re going to get it from here. However, The Evil Within is an interesting recombination of a lot of old elements. And I honestly ploughed through a lot of the game just to see what kind of weird creatures and scenarios the devsigners settled on. If you’re new to the genre entirely, then I’d suggest giving the gameplay a look on the tubes.

I’m interested to see what kinds of reactions this game elicits from survival horror newbies. For a lot of people, I think this game could get by on the novelty of the carnage alone. The situations are horrific, but I question if that will mean anything to the player once they’ve become accustomed to the world and the gameplay. That is, of course, unless they feel for Sebastian’s plight, because Ruvik’s right: Seb does suffer. Yet, as a player, I barely noticed that, because I barely noticed him. I was just a little id sitting on his shoulder, urging him forward, demanding that he pull the trigger. Ordering him to kill in the name of survival… so, what does that make me?

The Evil Within doesn’t get to walk away with a blanket recommendation, but if you, like me, are a Mikami fan, then I’m sure you’ll find plenty to like in this game. Just don’t go in expecting any carefully-paced introspection or mind-blowing mechanics. It’s all stuff we’ve seen before, but it’s good stuff all the same: it’s very well executed on a technical level. It’s a fantastic splatter-thriller and a very present example of our current approach to survival horror. For providing me with twenty-one hours of visceral satisfaction (so far), I’m giving The Evil Within Two Frothing Looters With Chainsaws out of A Lone Skull Frantically Playing The Saxophone. Enjoy your trip into the omni-mind! I’ll see you on the other side.

Alien: Isolation – A Love Letter

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 15, 2014 by trivialpunk

Let’s start with the obvious statement: I love Alien: Isolation. It’s the best Aliens game I can remember playing, and it’s the best survival horror game I’ve played this year. I don’t say that lightly, either. There are a lot of reasons I adore this game, not the least of which is that I loved the franchise growing up. I’ve been wanting to play something like this for most of my adult life, so there’s that bias to consider. However, anyone that remembers Colonial Marines, or that has ever played a shitty franchise game, will realize that a brand can’t carry a game on its own. Well, it will sell the tickets, but it won’t make the ride any more fun.

Aliens: Isolation, on the other hand, feels like a game that’s true to both its source material and its identity as a video game. The story, the characters, the aesthetic and the gameplay all reflect the Aliens franchise, and they all work in tandem to bring across the nail-biting, flame-throwing, adrenaline-fuelled bull-clap that is working for Weyland-Yutani. In fact, this game feels so well put together that I’m probably going to be talking about it for a while. So, today, I’ll give you the short and dirty, hot and flirty, and, next time, we’ll go a bit deeper. Where to even begin?

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I guess… Alien: Isolation is a first-person, stealth-heavy survival horror game developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. (That’s right; they’re back, And they have a vengeance.) The game has a strong narrative focus that’s built around the engagement of the core gameplay. That is to say that the game is about hiding from threats in an atmosphere of intense danger and so is the story. If you want to mow down aliens with an over-powered machine gun, then this game isn’t going to provide you the fix you need. If you’re looking for something to make you feel the visceral effects of fear, then step right this way and let’s see how it’s done.

In truth, every piece of this beautiful puzzle is important, but let’s start with its most visceral element: immersion. For me, immersion is an endlessly fascinating topic, because it relies almost entirely on the designer’s understanding of how people engage with video games. Every piece of a game is crafted to be used and understood by humans. Everything from the sound to the gamepad is designed to allow you to project an “agent” into the digitally expressed world. The more intuitively you can control your character and receive information from the environment, the more likely you are to simply sink into the game. Still, you could study intuitive game design your entire life –it’s directly related to several massive fields– so that doesn’t get us very far.

Okay then, let’s get specific. The first and most obvious example is that, after gameplay starts, you *very rarely leave your first-person perspective until the end of the game. This seems small, but it ensures that you are always “you” when you’re in the game. More than that, every action you perform on the controller has some sort of analogue in the game and vice-versa. This is true for most games, but it’s done particularly well in this one. Any action that requires a single button-press only requires a single button-press. Looking around and pivoting all use the right analog stick (Also, the RAS occasionally stands in for your right hand when pulling levers). Whenever you’re moving something’s position around, be it your character, your head or your blow-torch, you’re using the left analog stick. It feels very natural. But wait, there’s another layer to this.

Every action you perform in the game takes time. Duh. Every save point, hack point and locked door requires a different investment of time and the performance of a mini-game. Usually, I’d barely mention this, or I’d only mention it if it became annoying, but, here, spending time is an essential element of gameplay. Each action takes place in real time and many of them rely on some form of accuracy on your part. So the, “Come on.. come on… oh shit, I fucked uaaAAUGH!” happens directly to you, unless you keep a cool head in the midst of your panic-inducing struggle for survival. And let me tell you, it’s hard to work carefully and methodically when you’re being hunted by slavering creatures from the vents.

Speaking of things hiding in vents, you can crawl through the Jefferies tubes, as well! Sometimes, it’s a relatively safe method of travel. Other times, it’s an alien brunch delivery system. Don’t worry, you can tell the difference if you just listen for movement in the vents or use your motion tracker. Of course, there’s more than just the alien out there, so that dot could be anything. That’s not always difficult to verify.

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Still, it makes it worth doing a run-down of the potential threats you’ll face on Sevastopol Station. The humans are your least threatening opponents, but they’re still deadly. They’re the survivors of the Incident that went down before the game started and turned Sevastopol Station into the fun-house of horror you’re currently tromping through. You’ll have to forgive them if they shoot first and ask the completely unrelated questions from their limited dialogue pool, later. You don’t have a lot of health, and you’re completely unarmored, so they can take you down with a pistol pretty fast. They do have a limited ability to react to your actions with something other than bullets, but so few of them are friendly that I just ended up bludgeoning them to death from behind, most of the time. Which is probably why they’re so unfriendly to begin with.

The Seegson synthetic robots are the real unexpected treat. Their creepy, uncanny valley-esque design looks like exactly the sort of thing you’d mass-produce if you were more concerned with cost than comfort. With glowing red eyes and a stilted speech pattern that’s used to great effect, you won’t soon forget why you’ll never buy a Seegson again. Seriously, Seegson is –right behind you– every step of the way and isn’t that just terrifying. Unfortunately, they’re androids, which means they’re made of tougher stuff than the average human. They’ll break your neck before you can properly bludgeon them to death with a wrench. You’ll need to go hi-tech to take these guys out. Or, you know, just apply fire-power liberally. If you’ve got the resources to waste. Maybe it’s a better idea to just sneak by.

Then there’s the alien. If you’re worried about authenticity, then this Wiki-post‘s “Development” section should get you started. Personally, I’m a fan of the design they settled on, which is nice, because you spend a lot of time with the alien. It is your constant companion for large sections of this game. It’s the threat in the vents you think about as you slide your keycard into a save point. When you’re hacking a door, you’ll be listening for the “slunk” that means it left a vent somewhere in your area. And when you can finally fight it, that’s the last thing you’ll want to do. I didn’t realize how insanely effective the flamethrower could be for a long time, because I was far more comfortable avoiding the alien than fighting it. That’s not always the best idea.

If you’re going to survive, you’re going to have to fight. Equipment check!

Motion Detector – Way-finder and monster-tracker. It sweeps a conical area in front of you, ensuring the necessity of frantically spinning in a circle, looking for threats.

Access Tuner – Acts as an upgradeable door-key and sonic screwdriver. Used to structure your access to the environment and for playing mini-games on while you’re being hunted.

Plasma Torch – Like the access tuner, but with fire and a different sort of mini-game. Much louder than the tuner, and generally takes more time.

Revolver – Almost useless against everything, except the humans. Takes a few seconds to aim properly

Shotgun – I used this exclusively to kill synthetics with a Stun Baton – Shotgun combo. (Stunned Synths take more damage TMYK)

Flamethrower – Useful against everything, but especially significant for its ability to drive off the alien or to make it think twice about attacking. It goes through fuel very quickly — use sparingly

Bolt Gun – Incredibly powerful, but it has a long charge-time. Takes synthetics down with a single head-shot, but almost useless against more mobile targets

Stun Baton – EMP Mine on a stick. I never used it on a human for this very reason.

Crafted items List: Found or made using schematics.

Flare – Provides light. Distracts things… It’s a flare.

Noisemaker – Can be thrown to draw enemies to the source of its sounds. Can be planted on the ground for the same purpose! Now with inconvenient four-second timer.

Smoke Bomb – You won’t be able to use the haze to vanish if you’ve already been spotted, but you can use it to block visibility in a single area. Can be planted as a mine. (The Mine feature of many devices can be used to warn you when something enters an area)

Flashbang – Disorient your foes! Except the alien. It’ll just eat you. Good for taking out large groups of humans.

EMP Mine – Disables synthetics for long periods of time. Facilitates beatings.

Molotov – Fire is one of the few things that will scare off the alien. You can use this as a mine to provide you with some limited protection if you’re doing something that needs doing. Lights synthetics on fire, making them more terrifying.

Pipe Bomb – The Equalizer. It’s a pipe bomb. Works on aliens, synthetics and humans alike.

Medkit – Heals roughly half your health gauge. Keep your health bar topped off and you’ll be much harder to execute.

As you move through the game, your arsenal grows, improving your ability to take on the hostile environment you find yourself in. Yet, you’re never in a position to discount those threats. Yes, the flamethrower will cook all comers, but there’s only so much ammunition for it, and the alien is relentless. Even if you had unlimited ammo for the thing, you’d still have to keep your eyes and ears open, unless you wanted the next vent to be the last one you sauntered under. You could have all the coolest toys and a fully stocked ammo belt, and you’d still have to be careful. But don’t worry, it’s okay, you’ll never be THAT well stocked.

Even with my obsessive need to loot all the things, I started having to be precious with my resources as the game wore on. And that’s always nice to see, but, now that we have most of our pieces, let’s take a second and talk about how some of these items are used to reinforce the narrative of the game.

You start off with nothing. Eventually, you get what amounts to a giant wrench that you use to open doors and bludgeon things. (Pro-tip: Use it to hit the side of the ship to call an alien over for din-dins) That wrench serves very well against the humans, but as you start sneaking through maintenance tunnels, you start to be harassed by Seegson synthetics. These don’t respond very well to a decent bludgeoning. In fact, unless you do it correctly, they’ll just kill you. The Revolver you get is a little better, but it’s clearly no match for the Seegsons. Then, you meet the alien. If you get near it, it’ll eat your face. I’m being literal. That’s what it does. At this point, you’re the helpless mouse play-mate of a cranky, chitinous cat.

As you continue playing, you find the schematics for the different kinds of mines and equipment. Each one will give you the edges you need to survive, if used correctly.  Also, as you play, you’re getting better at playing. — Discovering the quirks of the A.I. — Figuring out what kind of things you can do with the different equipment. — Learning how to pin-point an enemy’s location using sound — By the time Amanda Ripley was ready to fight the alien, so was I! Of course, neither of us knew how to go about it, but that’s okay. That’s how it should be. Part of horror is going in blind. Acting in the face of the unknown. Occasionally, hiding in a cupboard and just not talking about the acid-dribbling thing outside.

The player’s gameplay arc follows, in large part, Ripley’s narrative arc; Alien: Isolation is a great example of “do, don’t show.” Yes, some of the things you do are slow and ponderous (a spiffy jaunt in space comes to mind), but they all serve the overall game. As a survival-horror-sci-fi experience, A.I. is fantastic. Of course, given its effectively rigid structure, I question its replay value. The alien A.I. may be organic, but the overall experience is not. I could see myself going back in for the DLC and a little play-time with my giant, black alien-kitty, but I don’t think it’s something I’ll play again and again. I got a great eighteen hour experience out of it, and it is an experience worth having if you love Aliens and/or horror, but your mileage may vary, especially with its AAA price tag.

Still, for having an incredibly thoughtful, engaging experience that was both fresh and authentic, I’m giving Alien: Isolation A Sack Of Leering Clown-Skulls That Was Hurled At Your Face out of A Quiet Dripping Sound In The Night. Good luck surviving the horrors of Sevastopol. And remember, be careful who you trust.

Addendum: I didn’t mention the stealth or go into any detail with the alien A.I. because I’ll be going into them in greater depth in a later post. For now, I feel that it’s enough to say that both of those elements are essentially functional and serve to create the atmosphere of ongoing oppression that defines large chunks of the game. Also, the sound design is gorgeous, and the art direction is painstaking, but this love letter is long enough. And there’s only so much time before the airlock closes… I’ll see you on the other side.

New schedule! Also, Where The Hedge I’ve Been!

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , on September 29, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! Yes, I am still alive! Okay, there are some changes going on, because there are always changes going on. I’ll announce those for you up here. That way, if you just want the new schedule, you don’t have to wade through my miasma of stammered excuses and questionable grammatical decisions. However, I will still be providing that afterwards. To the schedule!

I’ll be gaming on Twitch. It’s easier and faster. You can follow that link to my channel. Most weekdays, I’ll be casting by 18:00 MST. This semester, I have class Tuesday evening, so I’ll be stuck in the flesh-world. I’m going to try and schedule a long cast on Friday nights, but if that falls through, then you can expect me on Saturday. Should that fail, then I’m either being kidnapped, Helping Elderly-Looking People, or I’m on vacation. I’ll let you know ahead of time.

I’m re-purposing my YouTube channel. Since Twitch is handling my game-streaming, I want to start putting together video reviews and shorts for YouTube. It’s something I’ve experimented with in the past. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but it’s time to dip another toe in the water. What? No experimentation metaphor about tentacled monsters? Exactly. I’m pulling a serious-face on this one.

This blog, which I will spare you the link to, is going to switch to a bi-weekly release schedule. Once a fortnight is the current plan, but I’m hoping to get back up to a weekly Wednesday release as I get back into the groove of writing, attending University and doing all of the above.

That’s going to be the norm around here for a while. I look forward to seeing what the forthcoming deluge of game releases has to offer. Please be good, Alien: Isolation, please… Everything that follows is solipsistic bullshi… an in-depth look at this last month of silence.

As you may have noticed, I haven’t been posting recently. The reason why is worth a whole post on its own, but I realized that I didn’t want to spend a post on that, then write another post about the new schedule. I want to get back to the reason we’re here: games and horror, and the love thereof. You still deserve an explanation if you want one, though, so I’m going to try to condense the last month of my life into as small a space as possible.

I haven’t been doing very well, my friends. This last little while has been a time of great doubt. And when in doubt, I’ve always preferred to stay silent, observe and think. So, you can probably infer that things are going much better, because I’m yammering on again. Still, it’s not like I stopped writing.

I was ghost-writing for a business over the summer, and part of my job was to research ghost stories. One of those stories was the story of Lady Anne. She was a real person, but the ghost-story isn’t accurate. I know because I spent a long time researching her, spooling through websites and records to find the traces of her existence. While I was working, two things struck me pretty hard: the tenuous grasp we have on our legacies and the responsibility I have as a writer to record the truth and communicate clearly. It’s hard not to feel that way when you’re hunting furiously through foot-notes for the true traces of someone you’ve heard many vivid stories about. I had a lot of “I know you existed, where are you” sort of moments.

And you know how much I love existential horror, so I spent a while seriously considering what I’m doing here and what I should do here. I was silent for a while, because I felt that the lost life I had brushed up against deserved some serious reflection, not only for itself, but also for the billions of others that have gone, unrecorded, into the night. Then, in the Twitter-verse, the GamerGate broke. I wasn’t very active outside of the projects I was working on while I was thinking about all of this, so I didn’t hear about it until it was at least a week in. By then, it was a morphing mass of rhetoric and passion.

I dug through the evidence I could find and came to my conclusions about the whole thing. I shared the information I felt was relevant, but I didn’t want to propagate the hashtag. I couldn’t do it in good conscience while people were being so seriously harassed. However, I could only take that privileged position because of the individuals fighting for civility, clear communication and compassion. Those individuals have my attention for life. I’d put a list here, but I feel it would be tacky and you’ll see enough of them on my feed. As you’ll remember, a portion of that movement was legitimately concerned with journalistic integrity in games journalism. On top of the ghost-story business, it made me stop to consider what my responsibility was to my fellow gamers.

Okay, I know that word means a lot of things to a lot of people; to me, it means people that love playing games. There are plenty of adjectives you can stick on there if there’s a specific portion of the population that needs to be addressed. You can have a different definition — that’s cool — but when I say it, that’s what I mean. That being said, what do I owe people that love games?

Well, nothing more than my love of games, really, but that means something. That means that I need to push myself when I explore this medium. That means learning how to do things that both intimidate and frighten me. (Seriously, video-editing looks like sorcery, sometimes) And that means taking care of myself so that I’m not a miserable dip-shit while I do it. (I’m working on that.)

So, I think I’m ready now. I’ll start posting again. I have some hunches about kinaesthetic projection that I’d really like an excuse to research, but I don’t want to get too self-indulgent on my blog. It’s not all about me. In the spirit of that sentiment, to quickly summarize, I wasn’t sure what I should do, so I tried to work through the doubt. It seems pretty endless, though. Now, I’m just gonna use it as a compass for my curiosity.

Onwards, into the Sea of Doubt! I’ll see you on the other side.