Archive for the Game Reviews Category

Stand By For Titanfall…

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2014 by trivialpunk

Those of you who are on my Twitter know that, for the last day or two, I’ve been doing nothing but playing Titanfall. But, you don’t know the half of it. I’ll play for five hours, until my mind can’t keep up the pace any longer, then I’ll nap for a few hours. An event which is usually followed by more Titanfall. The reason I’m here, now, and not playing more Titanfall, is because I felt compelled to write a review for the game. Not because I think you need to hear how great it is for the thousandth time, but, rather, because I think a lot of people will dismiss it. I mean, it looks like just another militaristic shooter. But, it’s not. It’s so much more than that.

Some of the first multi-player games I started out playing were Quake and Counter-Strike. They were fast, adrenaline-fuelled Charnel houses. Five-minute rounds of reflex-testing fun. And since then, the model hasn’t deviated that much. They’ve added head-bob and guard-dog, slowed it down and sped it up, but the central pointy-clicky-deathy mechanic has maintained its central importance. It’s always felt great to win those games. The thrill of bringing a team to victory through your own wit and speed, accuracy and dexterity, is highly rewarding. And when there’s team-work, it’s always rewarding. But, that’s the way those games are designed, so it’s not really surprising. What does Titanfall do different? Well, let me stop posing panto-questions and just answer.

2309323-titanfall_xone

The simplest way I could describe the difference between Titanfall and something like CoD: Ghosts is that Ghosts is fun to win; Titanfall is fun to play. The perks, Kill-streaks and spawning systems in Ghosts pretty much ensures that the winning team is going to start winning harder. Yes, it can be fun to turn it all around with an epic Kill-streak cooldown, but considering that most contests are already weighted by the vast skill-gaps that exist in that community, it being populated by large concentrations of some of the most hardcore and some of the most casual gamers in the market, the winners are probably using that momentum like a club. But, that’s a skill-thing. That will change from game to game.

What doesn’t change, though, is your place on the battlefield. The CoD: Ghosts protagonist is a highly-trained specialist in the field of role-playing as one of the 99% of germs that Mr. Clean “deals with”. When I play, I get killed by passing explosions, guard-dogs, assassinations, snipers, nearby gunners, grenades, nukes… A lot of the time, I never bother to find out how I died, because it’s not tactically helpful for long. Sure, it’s a realistic depiction of how personnel might feel on a futuristic battlefield, like important, squishy assets within the framework of a dangerous death-machine, but it’s annoying. And while it can be fun to dominate, I don’t really feel like I’m in charge of my own destiny.

Let’s cut to Titanfall, because it’s a game-changer. Right off, I’m going to admit my bias. Half the time I’m playing the game, I’m mentally role-playing as one of the kids from Attack on Titan. Just getting that out there: I’m not impartial. I’m having way too much fun. And that’s the thing. Titanfall is a delight to just play. I was laughing during the training exercises, and that hasn’t happened in years. A lot of that has to do with the movement system.

When you’re on foot, you’ve got a few options. You can sprint, crouch and walk, like a normal FPS. Or, you can wall-jump off buildings like you’re playing Assassin’s Creed. Or, you can take it to the next level and become a fucking ninja. You see, while most people are only going to see the two levels of combat: mech and human, there are layers to this game that emerge as you get better at it for deceptively simple reasons. 1: You get a major speed-boost from running on walls. 2. You can double-jump and change direction in mid-air, once per jump. 3. You can cling to walls to double-jump up them. That’s it. Three simple rules that change everything.

Because, now, as a Pilot, you can get to every vantage point, ever, if you know how to use the movement system properly (I can’t wait to see how broken this becomes). More than that, though, there is a qualitative difference between how you’re moving and how pilots on the ground are moving. With the right combination of manoeuvres, you can cover the entire map with a speed matched only by a dashing mech with its infinite dash-core activated (No, really, this is a thing that happens).

But, let’s not be too hasty. It’s not all about the movement system. You know how some games suck because the level devs weren’t talking to the game-play designers when they were hammered out? Well, that’s not happening here, and thank god. If it had, this would be another game of wasted potential. As it stands, the levels are honey-combed with different routes and escape vectors. There are free-running paths that don’t break the flow of combat, get in the way of the mech-fights or cover the whole damn level. Which is good, because you want to have to think about how you’re moving. If you can move every place equally as well, then you’ll never pay for stranding yourself in the middle of a field that mechs are using to play rugby with plasma, rockets or you, instead of a ball.

If you become tired of getting stepped on, you can have a Titan dropped out of the sky to smash people with. And, let me tell you, there are few things more satisfying than crushing someone’s Titan with your incoming Titan, a killing-method that I improve with a perk, because options. And, again, the game could have really fallen apart here. But, Titanfall earns its spot as a next-gen game. Your Titan feels huge, but the levels never feel out of place. You can crush pilots by stepping on them, but they Can combat you. Not on even ground, mind you, but with skill and finesse. Pilots can climb on you, either as support or to attack you (This animation needs some work, because it’s hard to aim from Titan-back while the rectical is clipping into the Titan’s uber-sprite) or take you out from afar. Pilots aren’t your biggest threat, though… The Titans come.

Once you call in a Titan, you’re the center of attention. Other Titans swarm you. Pilots are all over that. Even the game’s foot-soldiers, which we’ll get to in a minute, seem vaguely aware that you exist, which means a big step for and on them. So, make sure you know why you’re calling in your Titan. Don’t just warp it in to get torn to pieces. It’s a mighty power. You can change the entire shape of the battlefield with it. When it drops, it obviously makes a wall with its body, but it also lays down a sheltering bubble-shield and crushes everything it lands on. Great advantage; huge liability, because…

The most popular matches I’ve played (based on match-maker-assembly time) have been Attrition, which is basically a death-match where every target is worth a different amount of points. Titans are worth a LOT here, Pilots are worth a little less, and the foot-soldiers are worth about a fourth of a pilot. But, foot-soldiers run in groups of four or more, so it can be worth taking them out. That’s kind of the point of them. You see, while games like CoD: Ghosts insist that you get really good at twitch-killing players, Titanfall gives you the opportunity to use strategy. I’m not saying there isn’t strategy in Ghosts. There clearly is, because I’m not winning that game as much as I should be, even just statistically. However, Titanfall suggests that there might be other ways to win, besides exterminating your fellow man. Just take out the computer-controlled versions. Or spend your time exterminating Titans. Or play a different game-mode. Hard-point capture, Capture the Flag, and a game-mode I’m refusing to call anything but The Titan Rumble-Pit, because they just put each of you in a single Titan and demand that you discover the victor. Sounds pretty Godzilla: King of Monsters to me. You know, mechanized and all.

Some people complain that the minion-grunt A.I. sucks, (which is weird because no one complains about the minion A.I. in LoL,) but they serve their purpose. I think the game is better for their presence, if only as background dressing. Additionally, they could still have their A.I. improved or be used as a piece in a game-play mode, like Attrition, so we’ll see what they do with them down the line.

Let’s wrap game-play, so we can get to combat and the story, shall we? Titanfall is not a game you want to miss. It’s Brink meets Mech-Warrior fused with CoD: Ghosts and its current-gen ilk. To reiterate, it’s good because it’s enjoyable to play and the levels are designed to let you Play. But, it’s also good because of how balanced the combat is. There are differences-in-kind -qualitative differences- between the Pilot combat and the mech combat; their interaction is a lot of fun, but I’m not going to cover Anti-Titan Pilot combat. I’m going to let you discover how to take those bastards down on your own, because I enjoyed that the most. Pro-tip: Don’t use Anti-Titan weapons while “Rodeo-ing”; you’ll just blow up. Empty your SMG into its circuits.

The Pilot combat is well thought-out. The weapons are your stream-lined mix of combat types (Snipers, Assault, Assassin…). They’re all basically effective and come with their own attachments that you unlock via levelling. You know, like CoD: Ghosts, Battlefield 4 and every other game that makes me feel like I can just use the phrase “Rank-Based Perk-Levelling Load-Out System.” (RP-LOS) Create your kit, play with the abilities, and let the laughter commence! Sorry, I meant slaughter. Slaughter was the word we were looking for. But, there’s a secret stumbling block here that Titanfall crushes ‘neath its mighty tread.

You see, getting people into a multi-player FPS is a difficult thing, for many reasons. There’s the vitriol that supposedly exists in the chat-boxes. And, there’s some of that, but I just ignore it. Why humanize the intelligences behind moving -digital- targets? And, there wasn’t as much as I expected, given how often it’s referenced. Most people are just there to have a good time. Then, there are connection issues and game-availability. But, that’s not As big a deal with digital downl…IT’S 50 GIGS?!? Oh, umm… then there’s the skill problem. New players are going to get the ground wiped with them by the veterans with LMGs unlocked, right? So, how do we even the playing field? Balance for skill, of course! Make something big and destructive to earn the new players some kills, like the AWP or the noobtoob. Something like… a pistol. Oh, for fu… oh, a computer-guided burst-pistol that can lock onto multiple enemies, or a single target real-good-like. A single three-round burst from the Smart Pistol will end a Pilot’s thrilling career forever.

And, luckily, it’s the gun they introduce you to at the beginning of the game, because they’re very aware of this. It’s not cumbersome; it’s powerful and elegant. And it really makes the fast-paced combat more approachable. It’s hard enough drawing a bead when your target isn’t making Ezio Auditore look under-geared. At the same time, the Smart Pistol isn’t your Best option. It has trouble at mid-long range, and it’s just not going to be enough to handle anything but 1-v-1 Pilot-on-Pilot combat. So, as you improve, you’ll replace it, which is what you’re supposed to do with anti-FOO weapons. However, it’ll still take down a wave of minions in a couple of trigger-pulls, make a grenade explode in someone’s face and easily execute a Pilot, so it’s Not Useless once you get past a certain rank. Now, that’s balance. It all hangs together rather well. The melee is an instant kill, but it can be difficult to jump-kick people when they’re flying around, so that’s usually a tight-hallway thing. Again, though, you can fly through the air, so, if you’re good, difficult becomes epic.

I think that’s the ultimate accomplishment of Titanfall. It rewards your improvement, but it doesn’t punish other players for your success. That’s your job. Because, no FOO strategy can make up for the ninja skills you’ll develop. Of course, very few ninja skills teach you how to deal with Titans.

You Guys Know These Things Are Free Wallpaper, Right?

You Guys Know These Things Are Free Wallpaper, Right?

After playing as a meth-squirrel, you might think that stepping into a Titan would feel a bit arduous. But, no. It feels like putting on the Iron Man Prosthetic. You can reap petty revenge against the metal monsters than squashed you AND do some squishing of your own. It’s a bit slower, I grant you, but it also feels like you’re moving through the environment at an enhanced pace, because it’s the same environment, but you’re huge now. You’re basically a tuna that’s taken over a shark. The weapons are varied enough that you can pick your own play-style, and the abilities and body-types are different enough that the lack of choice is compensated for by emergent variety.

For instance, I have a dash-type body for manoeuvrability, but it’s very lightly armored. So, I compensate for that by using explosive weapons. That way, I don’t have to hold a bead. I can fire, dash, forget. Or, the chain-lightning gun, because I think you’re obligated, contractually, to try it out. But, I also have a secondary weapon that unleashes a salvo of rockets and a pretty nasty case of electric smoke-gas. So, if I’m cornered, I dump the damaging smoke-screen and split. Or, I can decide to go all out, empty everything into the nearest target and…

Well, once your Titan is about to die, it goes into a Doomed state. Which means, it gets a striped health-bar and is seconds away from blowing up. At which point, it’s time to eject. Usually, when I go all out, it’s because my little mech has been cornered and is being helplessly dominated by some other giant mechs. That’s fine, because I get to choose HOW it blows up. You want to hurt my baby? Okay, well, I took the perk that causes a small nuclear explosion when I eject. Which automatically happens when my Titan is about to die, because I chose another perk that made it so. Enjoy blowing up. Running away? Okay, but I’m piloting the Dash Mech: the fastest mech in the game, and my mech may be doomed, but I’ve got enough time to get in your face.

There are some downsides to this strategy. If there’s a ceiling, I’m ejecting my face into that, directly. If they escape the explosion, then it didn’t do much good, but it makes a difference often enough that it’s in my standard loadout.

Because, customizing your mech actually feels like you’re customizing it. Not visually, obviously, but I don’t really care that much, because the devs put a lot of work into the visual design. Why should I paint it rainbow and pretend I’m piloting the Nyan-Bot? The custom mech options are different enough that they create interesting emergent combinations. (is this a pattern?) Check their specs out here, if you’re curious.

Let’s get to the muck, though. It’s pretty pricey for a single game. $60 for the basic package or $80 if you want the season pass. I picked up the season pass, against my better judgement, because Respawn (the people behind this game) have shown that they understand how fundamental level-design is to their game. Poorly designed levels will break Titanfall, moreso than any other game, because it relies on the movement system of the Pilots to balance the sheer strength of the Titans. But, they’ve got my trust, for now. If the new levels suck, believe me, I’ll Tweet it.

There’s no single-player campaign, and the story is very vaguely presented. I’ll recap the story here, as best as I can gather it so far, so you understand the gist of it while you’re playing. *deep breath*

“FTL technology has opened up space, but it’s a standard Stargate, jump-system scenario. The military fights using newly-designed droids and Titans, which they can produce and assemble very quickly. The Militia, the Rebels of the story, want to free the Outer Rim from the Interstellar Manufacturing Corporation (IMC, the local PMC, our Greedy-Capitalism-Endless-Consumerism-Imperialism-Is-Bad stand-in). In order to do that, they’re going to enact the grand strategy of a military commander that defected from the IMC. The leader of the IMC forces used to be buds with this guy and recognizes the strategy as the one they came up with in High School or something. Basically, they’re going to cripple the IMCs fleet through a few ground-ops, then they’re going to destroy the jump-gate, effectively closing the door on IMC reinforcements until they manage to make it there the slow way.

However, by the final mission, most of the people on the IMC side are dead, and the lion-share of their ground-forces are just robots. Robots that the IMC Command Computer will create endlessly with one goal in mind: defeat The Militia. That’s why, during the last mission, The Militia leader says, “Dude, let’s just ally and destroy the plant. There’s literally no reason for you to fight for the IMC, because they’re back on Earth. There’s no gate to get there. It’s just robots, now.” Robots that were programmed with a specific blind allegiance to a ideological system. Here’s the scary bit!

With central command light-years away, and very few people left, the IMC robots will keep endlessly reproducing with the same goal in mind, even if the IMC ceases to exist in the 200-year journey from Earth. The robots don’t have cognitive thought. They don’t have loyalty. They’re an endlessly self-perpetuating cancer that will devour the galaxy, constantly consuming everything to build more of themselves. That’s where the Capitalism-Consumerist satire comes from. And, I’m only really aware of this angle because I wrote a similar short-story where a Self-Replicating Roomba gets lost in Space-Time and ends up creating a race of mechanized Slicing Dysons that try to devour the galaxy. But, that’s a pretty common problem.”

We’re almost done, but before we wrap, let’s address the issue that a lot of people seem to have with Titanfall. The multiplayer-only issue. Yes, it’s pretty expensive to pay $80 for a multi-player game. But, let’s be serious, it’s a lot of money either way. And, it shouldn’t matter if the single-player isn’t there if the multi-player is solid. BUT, that’s only if the multi-player is what you’re buying it for. I wouldn’t ask you to stick Death-match into SH2, so I’m not going to demand a shitty campaign that would have just sucked money out of the development of the multi-player.

People complain about this like it’s a new thing, but it’s not. It’s just the first time I’ve paid for it; I’m fine with that. I used to play 5-minute Counter-Strike matches for hours at a stretch. I play CoD: Ghosts the same way. I literally don’t know what the CoD: Ghosts campaign is like. I only know the story because, well, that’s my job. For the most part, I play Extinction or Death-match. As long as that’s what you’re buying Titanfall for, you’re going to get way more than your money’s worth. The pieces all fit together. This is not just next-gen graphics; this is next-gen game-design. Because, it’s a sprawled design process with a focused goal in mind: to create an excellent Death-match experience. If we mark it down for knowing what it is and what it wants to be, then we’re just perpetuating the next-gen problem of trying to create things to appeal to everyone. Please, tell the reviewers that do this, but complain about game-play stagnation, to get their heads out of their butts and realize that the industry listens to that twaddle.

At the end of the day, the best recommendation I can give for Titanfall is this: I had to edit the word “fun” out of this review 9 times, because it was becoming really redundant. And that, more than anything, should tell you how I’m enjoying the game. If you’re looking for a unique, fast-paced, next-gen-FPS multi-player experience, this is the game for you. If you want a strong story with stirring characters, then perhaps not so much. But, it scratches the itch it does with something made of titanium and cherub down. Whether that’s worth $60-$85 or not is up to you.

Honestly, I could go on, but I want to play some more Titanfall. So, I’m giving the game The Intense Spark Of Strange Love Under Flashing Black-Lights out of The Playful Caress Of The Afternoon Sun Waking You From A Nap. Join the cause, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Addendum: The match-making system is simple and intuitive. So simple that I forgot to mention it.  >.> But, it’s also pretty terrible at matching skill-levels, so don’t be afraid to bail on unbalanced matches before they start. You’ll be back in another lobby in under a minute.

Subjective Objectivity

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , on February 5, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! I was going to sit down today to write you a brief treatise on Hearthstone, so that I could get back to playing more Hearthstone, but, as I thought about it, one of the little worms that lives in my hair crawled into my brain and took it hostage. “Crap!” I thought, “Now I’m going to have to accept its demands or risk never again feeling the warm touch of a greasy controller in a hot-seat hockey match.” So, it was a close thing. But, here we are; you know which decision I made. I’m going to keep this brief, because you don’t come here to be held hostage to the whims of my brain-worms. That’s my job. No, you’re here to root through the words I cobble together for spelling errors. Aren’t you? Someone has to worry about that…

Anyways, the topic of today’s “conversation” is subjective-objectivity. That may sound like a conflict of terms, but it’s more accurate than you’d think. If you were alive in the Double O’s (and if you weren’t, I’m surprised that you’re precocious enough to be here), then I’m sure you were aware of the explosion of the popularity of abusing the term “objective”. The internet and Facebook were beginning to flower, so we needed a way to interact that made sense. Enter: Objectivity. When you lack a lot of cultural common ground with people, it can be difficult to communicate. That’s why phonetic kittens became the most popular form of greeting. It was something almost everyone could agree on, he said glibly.

But, I’m here to tell you that our worship of objectivity hasn’t died down. On the contrary, we’ve canonized and deified it. It cackles gleefully as we praise charts and graphs. It draws life-energy from those who worship science without understanding it. And it lives in game review scores. You see, the problem with objectivity is that it requires a standard to be measured against. Mathematics has proofs. Psychology has models and experience. Physics has Maths. The internet has one person yelling at the other until one of them logs off. (Both of them considering themselves to have been validated) When you say something is objectively better than another thing, you’re saying that it is better on a theoretical scale. That scale is where subjectivity comes into play.

You see, the scales themselves are usually developed through rigorous testing and prediction. We don’t just throw together theoretical models willy-nilly, unless you’re me deciding how I feel about a game, but we’ll come back to that later. Personality scales and universal models both rely on a core of tested principles. However, and let’s get specific here, are those models objective? Noooo, they’re the product of their time and place. Let’s look at I.Q. scores, because, as a member of the psychological community, I hate seeing them abused.

Based on my I.Q. score, I’m way above average, but what does that even mean? I mean, you’ve read my writing. I’m groping in the dark here! Seriously, what problems could I have with a systemic, trusted model that reinforces the words that drip from my fingers? Well, for starters, it’s broken as a universal model. Many of the questions used in the old standard I.Q. tests were culturally biased. In fact, they were used early on to confirm the old Imperialistic notion that Westerners ruled and everyone else drooled. Unfortunately, it was a forgone thing, because non-Westerners were failing the sub-textual Western Culture portions of the exam. You know when a piece of pop-culture trivia randomly helps you pass a test? Yeah, it was like the opposite of that.

Even worse, I.Q. scores don’t stand the test of time. If you get tested when you’re a kid, then you’re going to need to go again. Not unlike STI tests, the results will vary as you live your life. It’s a pretty ephemeral measure of intelligence, honestly. Not that intelligence was ever a solid thing to begin with. Whip out your intelligence right now. Come on! Do it! Let’s compare sizes. Sorry, I was having a forum-flashback. It gets worse as you approach the upper ranges.  Roughly 66% of the population falls between 85-115, and the percentages you start dealing with past 125 are portions of 5%. Since, everyone’s I.Q. measurements fluctuate daily, you’re not really in a hard-fast ranking system as much as you are a ranking swamp, drifting in a milieu of people around your intelligence range, never sure where you belong. (Pro-Tip: It doesn’t matter that much. How you use your intelligence is far more important and reflective. Look at me, I write about games and culture. >.>)

It was originally developed to test for average intelligence, so it’s not properly calibrated to sense differences past a certain point. You know how you can tell the difference between a warm and a hot mug of tea, but you can’t discern the subtle temperature differences between a branding iron and a glowing stove-top? Part of that is because of (I hope) a lack of exposure to both, but another part of it is because your body hasn’t developed the tools necessary to know the difference. It has never needed to. Generally, exposure to extreme temperature requires one response: Get The Fuck Away. GTFA for short. By the same token, we’re measuring average intelligences and how they stack up. Where on the spectrum they are.  I’m sure we could calibrate a genius-level test, and some people have spent a good deal of time working on this for ostensibly non-narcissistic reasons, but would it really be helpful?

Knowing if someone is below 70 I.Q. points has legal ramifications in the states, but we don’t have any I.Q. requirements linked to high I.Q.s. Except Mensa. And, honestly, Engineering-focused Universities SHOULD have an I.Q. cap built into their student recruitment procedures to reduce the sheer number of super-villains they spawn from Mensa’s ranks. Biosci and Robotics programs, too. Thanks for reminding me, Spider-man. Prevention > Cure

Right, yes, the point of all this was to illustrate how a carefully designed, rigorously tested system can have short-comings in some areas. I.Q. examinations are purpose-built tests, and we should be aware of what that purpose is when we employ them. This applies to every model we have. They exist, and function best, in the systems in which they were developed.

But that doesn’t always last. Behaviourism was considered the be-all of Psychology at one point. The motto was: Pay attention to and mold the behaviour. Behaviour is everything. You can’t prove the other stuff. Eventually, we discovered that the principles of that system didn’t hold up. I mean, to anyone with cognitive thought, it can be ludicrous to consider that there might not be cognitive thought. That is until you try to prove it exists objectively. Think of it this way: a behaviourist can alter the behaviour of an organism without the organism knowing about it at all. So, what’s the point of knowing? Does knowing even come into it? It was all unprovable rubbish to the psycho-orthodoxy, either way.

Before that, we had Freud. If you disagreed with him, well, then he’d say you were in denial or make some other equally unprovable claim. The point is, if you stuck both of those people in a room, and made them watch a third party doing something completely innocuous, like smoking a cigarette, they’d come up with different reasons for why they were doing it. One would be based on an oral fixation hypothesis. The other would probably revolve around operant conditioning and social learning theory. By today’s standards, both of these would seem false to a degree. Now, we’re all about Neuroscience and addiction. Each of these three explanations is backed up by years of study. The models they appeal to were rigorously designed. They all make predictions, and, in this case, they’ve all been validated. But, which one is right?

There’s a pervading belief that there’s a right answer. Well, I’m here to ask, “A right answer according to what?” Having a model or a scale, a graph or a chart, doesn’t mean anything without interpretation. That’s why two people can look at the same climate-change chart and have two very different reactions. One will call it a climate shift in keeping with one of our current models. The other will begin digging a shelter in a backyard somewhere in Canada. Yes, we can objectively see that one part of the graph is higher than the other, but what does it mean?

Models for climate change and human behaviour are pretty abstract. With a proper understanding of Maths and a free stats package, you can bend numbers to your will in unbelievable ways. Even the concept of an outlier is mind-blowing when you think about it. “Why is that one point way over there?” “Oh, don’t worry, it’s obviously not part of our set. We just won’t include it.” The logic there is both hilarious and accurate. Something about that dot on the edge of the graph put it apart from the others, but what? We’ll never know unless we look, but we rarely look, because we can explain it away. So, interrogate graphs thoroughly, don’t skip the thumb-screws, but, also, don’t make life-decisions based on graphs. You have no idea what went into the making of one. Look to the source data or approach it skeptically. Even the source data isn’t above being tampered with.

And even if the primary source wasn’t damaged, is it accurate? There’s a practice in the scientific orthodoxy that has always pissed me off, because it’s ridiculously irresponsible. That practice is only publishing positive results. Again, makes sense, because why are you publishing something if you found nothing? Precisely because you found nothing. Why did someone else find something? What method did you use that screwed it up? Why are we throwing this away?! It’s as valuable, if not moreso, than a positive result, because we have no idea how many times we did something before it worked. How many unpublished papers lie discarded somewhere because they didn’t prove anything, except that another paper, somewhere else, failed to replicate its results. A negative result is a result, and I wish the scientific community would acknowledge them more actively.

If you’re interested in this issue, then I encourage you to look into it, because it’s going to be an important criticism of the ancient orthodoxy in the coming years as papers get cheaper to publish and distribute. It also means that scientists -and people in general- are going to have to be more careful about what they accept off-hand. Don’t worry. It’s not all meaningless. Often, famous papers will be discredited if no one else can replicate them, but I still think we can learn a lot from what doesn’t work out. Science is… a journey. Our Second Great Trial, after not killing ourselves off.

Let’s bring this back around to games and subjective-objectivity now. That barb about game review scores wasn’t thrown in haphazardly. Review scores are interesting, but they aren’t definitive. The reason I say this is because this last year saw a lot of crap being slung about games not getting perfect scores from reviewers. I think I even wrote a something about GTA5 not getting a perfect review on GameSpot and the complaints that followed. Some people take these things very seriously, especially people who run gaming companies, but we have a small advantage over them. We -can- not give a shit.

Seriously, if you like a game, and it gets a shitty score, remember that it’s essentially meaningless. Even MetaCritic, one of my favourite game-review sites, suffers from the fact that a relatively small number of reviews are collected. Of course, it’s an improvement over the old days when review scores were presided over, almost solely, by gaming magazines and V&A Top Ten. *shudder* That being said, your views might not be being represented. For years, we thought the world was round and boy-bands were cool, but we just weren’t looking at them from the right angle. The metric we were using to measure their value: their popularity, was a poor one. But it worked at the time, so who’s to say?

What do you do, then? Do you start a review blog to compete with Trivial Punk? You choose your opponents well, but what metrics are you going to use to judge a game’s quality? A vaguely positive or negative feeling related to a number somewhere between 1-3 or 8-10? Do you charge people money for good reviews? (That joke was topical a few years ago. Checking it off my list…) Even so, what standards do you hold the game to? Cinematic? Literary? Engagement? A hodge-podgy spectrum? Some sort of superior inter-internet dialectic about quality? You could take any one of these perspectives and be absolutely right, if that’s what you’re looking for. For example, Ebert is a film critic that you might know from his pairing with Siskel, and, for a while, there was a big fuss made when he said he didn’t believe that games would ever be art. To which I respond, in my heart-of-hearts, that he’s a fool. But, in my more diplomatic public persona, and in my brain; where I keep all the thoughts that aren’t related to Power Rangers, a vague childish need for approval  or how much I love chocolate; I recognize that they might not seem that way to someone with very different, highly refined (Read: specific) tastes.

Ebert and I don’t have to agree. In the money, influence and power driven world of The Entertainment Industry, things like review scores and “objective” measures can make a real difference. And, yes, that can trickle down and affect me. We may never see another Banjo-Kazooie game, because a lack of popularity leads to a lack of influence and sales, and a lack of money. Therefore, no company is around to make it. Whereas, popular I.P.s can see a loaded fuck-train of new releases. See Call of Duty for that particular example. That could be something to complain about if these titles really upset you. But, is giving a CoD game a low review score because it’s unoriginal any more objective than giving it a high one because it’s a technical masterpiece? Is the solution to just average the two the way MetaCritic does? Yes, that makes a lot of sense, but don’t consider it to be true anymore than anything else I’ve addressed.

Finally, let’s get back to how you should score your games. You can use a score, because people understand those very intuitively. A high one is good; a low one is bad. Sums up your feelings pretty quickly, and there’s nothing wrong with using it, providing you explain yourself. From there, people can harp on about them all they want, but, as long as you’ve explained yourself, they’re just being lazy. You could do review scores the way I do them. Take two metaphors and compare them. The content of the metaphors tells you about the experience I had playing it, while the comparison between the two tells you what I thought of its overall quality. Think of them as feely-fractions. Or, you could come up with your own system. Use bar-graphs or whatever. As long as people understand what you mean, then it won’t be a problem.

And that’s really the important thing. If you know that the people you’re talking to understand what you’re saying, then you’re in the clear. Electrical engineers have had the positive and negative symbols flipped on their schematics for untold years, but it’s a convention, so people understand it. We’re not as monolithic a culture as we once were, and, to some people, especially untrained engineers working with schematics, this can be pretty shocking. But, as long as we approach the world with an understanding of subjective-objectivity, we won’t be that upset when someone gives us an 8/10.

And if none of that convinces you of the pervasive nature of subjectivity, then consider this: For the concepts of Good and Evil to exist, you need some sort of Mannequian universe. For something to even just BE good, you can’t be talking to a relativist. And, if you want them to concede that something might be better, then they can’t be a nihilist. The things we are willing to accept as true or valid are weird, and they have a far larger emotional component than we’re often willing to admit.

Objectivity exists on a scale, and it’s usually purpose-built. We’re only able to be objective because we became aware of how subjective we were being. Yet, Awareness doesn’t cancel out Subjectivity any more than having someone call you on your argumentative strategy makes you wrong. Unless you were being fallacious on purpose to make a point. Then again, they could be doing the same thing… I’m going to work through this… and when I do, I’ll see you on the other side.

Critically Critical

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on January 6, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hello! We’re back on schedule this time! Who saw that coming? Apparently, you did, because here you are, all polished and shiny. Or maybe that’s just my new keyboard. Sorry, I spend so much time with this thing that it’s kind of a big deal to me. It also means that I won’t have to use my mechanical keyboard for everything (as much as I love it to bits and bytes), so I’ll be able to stream and letsplay previously unplayable games. Anyone that’s watched any of my old series will know what I’m talking about. Before I went full gamepad, it was pretty clacky on the “Trivial Punk Fun-time Roughly 30 Minutes.” Now, you’ll get to see what you’ve always wanted: me playing Half-Life. No, I don’t know, but I’m excited to get started.

In the meantime, here’s part 2 of the Silent Hill: Homecoming letsplay that’s up and running on my channel. I hope that it engenders a little love towards me, because we’re going to approach another topic that I want to get out of the way before I get back to game reviews. I know, I should just do both. Maybe I will! I’m not the boss of me! Oh… er… anyways, this came up because I had a pretty obnoxious conversation over dinner last night with an associate of a friend of mine. Vague association, I know, but let’s continue on to the actual topic: Criticism.

I know that a substantial portion of the people who come here to feast on the mind-worms that droop from my slackened, pit-marked skull once a week are game critics. Or movie critics. Or book critics. A lot of the reason for that is that criticism is one of the things I enjoy, so I spend time reading about other people’s perspectives quite a bit. It’s good for me to see something through someone else’s eyes. Sometimes, it can completely change my view of something. Thus, it only makes sense, based on the laws of collision that I just made up, that critics are who I would meet on-line. Love the work, keep it up! This isn’t directed at anyone in particular, but I felt that in the age of Internet Criticism, we should discuss why and how we critique things.

Now, this is going to be a pretty big discussion. Obviously, a lot of the meat of critique is personal and subjective, so I can’t make sweeping generalizations and expect to do any good. Even though I probably will end up doing so, human weakness and all, I want to try to be as fair as I can. In the spirit of that commitment, I’m going to be honest: this is going to be 100% subjective. There are the things I’m personally tired of reading, like “B sucked because it didn’t A,”  but that doesn’t mean they should be abandoned. It’s complicated, because the road to that example conclusion is a legitimate way to interrogate a work. From my point of view, the crucial element is when the technique is employed. Let’s dive in and I’ll show you what I mean.

Let’s get this out of the way first: no one will ever be truly objective. (Not “can”: “will.”) It’s simply impossible. Which is too bad, because it would make criticism that much easier. Every experience a person has is influenced by all their previous experiences, how they’re approaching the present, whether they’re hungry or not, how many times they’ve experienced something… Let me give you a for instance. I loved most of The Lord of the Rings the first time I saw it. It was truly awe-inspiring. However, I felt that same way when I watched Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace. Did you hear that? It was the sound of a hundred collectively gasped breaths, followed by a slow, deliberate move to the unsubscribe button, but hear me out.

When I first watched SWE1, I was eleven years old and, while I was a huge fan of the original trilogy, I wasn’t committed to the integrity of the Star Wars universe. I watched it with my Dad, which was kind of a special treat, because it was something we could both enjoy. I saw it in the theatres, and I wasn’t immersed in the internet culture that so derides the trilogy we whinge about today. And, let’s be honest, the first movie wasn’t as bad as we think it is today. It was fun, exciting and had Jedi, so I really enjoyed it. If I had put together my review then, it would have been a glowing recommendation written about as well as a Engrish translation.

What about The Lord of the Rings? Well, by the time I watched those movies, I was a little bit older and pretty committed to being a pop-culture junky. I had almost the same reaction to it, because the circumstances were pretty similar for what I was expecting from a movie at that point. Hell, JRR’s The Hobbit was one of the first books I ever read. Even so, I still spent a good deal of the movie comparing it to the book. It’s a pretty common practice now, and, having grown up doing it, it’s one of my least favourite past-times. Don’t get me wrong, I love the movie, but it didn’t have Tom Bombadil in it, and that’s what I wanted to see the most. Kind of soured the thing for me a bit. Eventually, I got over that and saw it for the good movie it was.

Until… years later, I’m sprawled on the couch, half-and-half vodka-coke in one hand, hangover threatening to pound its way through the booze wall I’m hastily erecting, memories of my recently lost girlfriend drifting through my head… Naturally, I put on a movie to distract me. That movie was… you guessed it… The Fellowship of the Ring. And I HATED it. It was too long, over-written, stuffy, pretentious, needless, unrealistic, unfaithful to the source material and a bunch of other mean things. Legolas was a pretentious jerk; Gimli was an annoying bag of hair that should have died too many times to count. You get it. I believe none of those things, but if I had written a review right then, I would have said it was terrible. Ironically enough, one of the reasons I didn’t enjoy it was that I’d loved it enough to have watched it too many times.

See what I mean? I chose an extreme case because I wanted to illustrate it as clearly as I could, but this occurs to a greater or lesser extent all the time. And it’s quite alright. I’m not saying we shouldn’t hate on movies, games or books. That would be silly and unrealistic. It can be a lot of fun to make light of the things we enjoy or hate. After all, we spent money to experience them, and they have a pretty big impact on our society. If that’s what someone wants to do, then I’m totally behind them (unarmed, even). But, I would suggest that we always ask “why.” I’ll illustrate with the conversation I had last night.

The basics of it were that Starship Troopers, a campy poke at Fascism and the military melded with over-the-top drama and action, was not like the book. Also, my associate thought it was a bad movie. Okay, that’s a legitimate opinion, but why is it important that the movie be like the book? Could a movie ever be exactly like a book and still be a good movie? You can capture the essence of something, but why does that mean we need to follow along blindly behind it? (SST Irony) Ideas can be used as vehicles for other ideas, after all. And they really should be, because some things just aren’t as relevant to popular culture as they once were. Or maybe we want to deconstruct them with a goofy movie. Basically, why is A movie THIS movie, and why do we want it to be a different movie? I could go on…

There are a lot of “whys” there, and I’m not going to go through all of them or we’d be here all night, but I will address the most important question I would ask: why are we proffering this criticism? I’m not saying that rhetorically; I’m asking what the end-goal of the criticism is. That’s a pretty essential question to answer, because it informs everything you do with your critique. It’s not something you can answer once, either. You have to know, going in, what you want to communicate for every critique. For instance, last night’s conversation would probably be akin to arguing personal movie preferences, because neither of us managed to have our opinions altered. We weren’t calmly discussing the merits of the movie; we were arguing over whether or not it was good based on our personal preferences. All well and good, but does that help anyone else? Only if you can explain yourself and provide a recommendation.

You see, to me, a personal preference review is one that’s helpful to people who are familiar with your preferences or, and this is optimal, someone who shares your preferences. That way you can provide helpful advice for anyone interested in that piece of cultural ephemera. But it probably wouldn’t be helpful to anyone actually making the film. On the creation side of things, you’re familiar with the fact that not everyone will like your film. You don’t make your films for everyone, and you’re aware of the diversity of opinion. I mean, you could try making movies for everyone, but then people just complain that they’re bland, which kind of defeats the purpose if there’s a large group that doesn’t like them. (Still, it might make a lot of money)

Thus, a lot of the time, the why you’re reviewing something comes down to who you’re reviewing it for. On this site, I try to peer into gameplay mechanics, poke at playability, flirt with experience and languor in story. All so you can decide if you want to buy it or not. Also, a part of me wants to influence how you look at games and movies. When I wrote my review for The Hobbit: TDoS, I did it because I loved the movie, yes, but also because I knew some people might get taken aback by some things if they went in expecting the book. Essentially, I wanted to help craft the mind-set you went into the movie with. Mind-set is a big part of getting everything you can out of a movie. You don’t want to watch an arty foreign-language film at a kegger (or maybe, hmm…) and you don’t want to watch LotR sprawled on the couch with a life hangover. (Still…) I vehemently believe that personal context matters.

At the same time, I occasionally focus on portions of a game that I felt affected the overall quality. Maybe there’s a setting I think would improve an experience or a level that I think could be better. At that point, I’m trying to get other designers, players and producers to think about if it could be improved, my recommendations be damned. Or, maybe I’ll do a review strictly to make a point, like I did with Super Hexagon and learning curves.

One thing I will never do is seriously denigrate the things I purport to love. I’ll always poke fun at EA, but I’m glad they’re around to draw capital and attention to gaming, and I genuinely enjoyed Dead Space. I didn’t like the second Star Wars prequel, so I didn’t watch the third one. I didn’t need to show up to hate it. And that’s what made last night’s conversation so needlessly obnoxious: “Okay, we’ve said our pieces about the film. Now what?” I’ve seen people work for hours to prove that something was bad, but what does that accomplish if that’s the end of it? Last-night-dude seemed hell-bent on convincing me that SST was a bad film, but all he did was convince me that he didn’t like it. It’s not just him, either. I’ve done it. I see it all the time on-line. We’re stating our opinions, and that’s great, but I think we should draw the line at trying to suck the fun out of it for other people. That’s not a critique, after all. Oh dear, did I not mention? I don’t believe that A critique = A review, but they’ve got a lot of things in common, so I figured I’d leave this segue here.

A critique is like a nuanced review. It takes into account past cultural incarnations (Read: prequels), current trends, multiple preferences, multiples perspectives, historical relevance, contemporary relevance… It basically situates the cultural artefact (Ex. movie) within its context and approaches it on its terms. Then, it discusses what all of that implies to us. It’s done to help the producers of the work to improve, the consumers of it to appreciate it and the critic of it to develop their abilities further. Again, that’s just my opinion, and we’re into semantics here, but that’s what I believe to be the purpose of a comprehensive critique. But, it’s not like every critic has all that background knowledge, especially starting out, or all that much room. I’ve seen some pretty poignant review Tweets, after all. And you don’t have to know or do all this to be a critic. The only reason I bring it up is because I believe it’s what we should shoot for when really diving into a piece of pop-culture.

To me, you should always approach something on its own terms; it really improves the experience. Because I have to approach many different types of popular culture, I’m not familiar with all of them, and I don’t always appreciate them off the bat. However, at some point along the way, I realized that I would never learn to enjoy new things if I always judged them by the standards I already had. I would always data-feed myself things I liked, narrowing my preferences further, until I couldn’t see anyone else’s opinions through my own miasma. I would believe something for so long that I’d begin to think it was true. If I didn’t try, if I didn’t work to cultivate different perspectives, I wouldn’t be much use to you today.

That’s kind of the heart of it. The standards by which we judge things are our own, and if we truly want to criticize something on its own merits, then we need to be aware of how those standards are formed and what they communicate. Just whinging about something doesn’t really forward the cause of improving its overall quality, unless we’re talking about affecting viewing figures and preferences. In which case, complaining about Michael Bay films hasn’t done much to affect their revenue. If someone hates those films, then maybe they’re not for them. I hated Transformers the first time, because it was a fandom movie made for someone other than the fandom. They knew the fandom would already come, so they made the film to appeal to everyone else, so they could get their business, as well. When I approach it with that in mind and a pint of beer, then it’s really not so bad. It’s the same way I watch Elementary on television and just pretend it’s a detective show about a guy who just happens to be named Sherlock Holmes. (If anyone’s a poster-child for the changes wrought by contemporary relevance, it’s Sherlock Holmes… or vampires)

More and more of us are flocking to the internet to give our opinions on movies, games and books, and I think that’s wonderful (That’s why I’m here, after all). A culture of criticism can really do some good, especially if we can add something to the reader’s experience. However, I think we should be extra aware of why we’re personally critiquing something and what we hope to communicate about it. After all, we’re going to be leaving these Tubes to the next wave of critical thinkers someday, and they’ll be looking to us to figure out how to approach criticism. For my piece, I want to leave them a tradition that’s positive and thoughtful. Cheers!

100 Posts and It’s Finally Just About SH2

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 15, 2013 by trivialpunk

Well, here we are again. It’s always such a pleasure. God, but I do love ripping off Portal 2, don’t I? Did you know there was a Portal movie in the works to be produced by J.J. Abrams? He’s working on the Half-Life movie, as well. I wonder if he realizes exactly how important those franchises are… well, he’s in charge of both Star Trek and Star Wars, so I’m guessing it doesn’t matter all that much. This guy’s got pop-culture by the balls and no one seems to notice. That’s a pretty big responsibility; I hope he takes it seriously.

Anyways, the reason I’ve gathered you all here is because it’s time for this blog’s 100th post! I know, I took forever to get it together, because I took time off for final exams and term papers without announcing it, but you read my work, so you’re nothing if not patient. I have interesting ideas for future posts, but I’ve been doing puff pieces about stuff close to me leading up to today, so I figured we’d just keep up the momentum and talk about a game I love with every quantum of my heart and soul: Silent Hill 2.

SH2

No, I’m not going to do a retro review, because there are a ton of those already. Besides, I reference and deconstruct this game so often in my other posts that it would be downright redundant to do it here. It’s the source material, the well-spring from which my understanding of horror springs. It’s The Grudge wrapped in SpecOps: The Line sprinkled with Friday the Thirteenth. And I absolutely adore it. Granted, the first time I played this game I was 13, so there’s bound to be a little nostalgia blindness mixed in there. If you think it got to me a bit early, then keep in mind that I was  11 the first time I played the original.

Playing these games was like accessing some deep, forgotten Magick. It was dogmatic taboo channelled through riddles of reference and ominous symbolic meaning. I lapped it up. Nothing about this game pulled any punches. It didn’t have to be gory, because it became a part of me. It showed me my hypocrisy with hideous clarity. BUT, at the same time, it taught me. It showed me ideas and worlds I had never considered before. Growing up in a Catholic school and bathed in the mythologies of Greece and Rome, I hadn’t even considered that something other than an outside force could grant forgiveness. Silent Hill 2 changed all that.

Best of all, it didn’t talk down to me. It didn’t stop to explain to me that the town was the cite of hundreds of sacrificial rituals. There were no support characters explaining that pyramid-head was the executioner, the final punisher of prisoners in the traditions of Silent Hill’s historical fun-land. No one had to explain that the world was a foggy psychological landscape. It was all symbols, quips and half-erased memos. You know what it took to cement my understand that the world I was seeing wasn’t the “real” world? (By the way, this was my introduction to absurdist relativism) On the staircase, when you confront Angela in the hotel and her entire world is on fire, in that brief moment when their understandings intersect, I realized that the world I was seeing wasn’t the “truth.” It was my own tortured mind turning in on itself so far that it became reality, like some weird Escher nightmare. It was my truth.

download (2)

To this day, this realization informs so much of my understanding of human folk psychology. And, it keeps me from looking down on kids. If I could intuitively grasp a concept of that magnitude in an instant of interactive learning, then not only are games incredible tools for learning, but we’re kidding ourselves when we talk to thirteen year olds like they’re stupid. They may not be aflush in wisdom, but that’s kind of our job to bring across.

Anyways, we’re just going to talk about some of my favourite moments in the game and what they meant to me. The little red save squares are kind of a tradition in Silent Hill. No, not the squares themselves, but the method of saving telling you something about the protagonist. SH3 had the religious symbols from the church. SH1 had notepads, because Harry Mason was a writer. But Silent Hill 2’s save point are straight up the letter you received from Mary that brought you here. Incidentally, as you slowly learn the truth of it all, that letter fades from your inventory until it disappears, because it was never real to begin with. It was all part of your own self-flagellation. Your own necessary delusion that you’ve been using to protect yourself from reality.

Then, there’s the memorial you find on one of the streets. It’s a stone tablet  that details some of the tragedies that have taken place in the town. It’s a nice bit of background, because it highlights both why you’re here specifically and gives the neighbourhood an eerie magic. Finding the radio by following the blood-trail has always been a favourite of mine, as well as finding the notes that act as a sort of monster tutorial. All of these things let you know that the place you’ve stepped into isn’t friendly. There are no warning lights, no jump-scares, and the only other people you find are either raucously unhelpful, frustratingly uncommunicative or dead. Even the monster introduction is a figure lurching into the fog, followed by it calmly shuffling up to you in a cut-scene. The horror isn’t about freaking you out. You’ll freak out because it’s horrible and inevitable.

Because, the story of Silent Hill 2 was already written before the game started. I mean, more than just literally. You spend the greater part of the game uncovering the truth and learning how to deal with it. And, depending on your actions in the game, how you deal with it in the end changes. If you stopped to listen to the conversation in the Long Hallway, your introspection is rewarded with a healthy dose of reality. If, however, you choose to barrel on through because you don’t care about it, then you get to cry and die, my friend, because you’ve already decided that wallowing in guilt and anger is more important than engaging your inner demons.

Yes, the whole thing is kind of Jerry Spring-esque. You do come here to deal with your problems, but, more to the point, you come here because you have problems that need dealing with, a subtle but important difference. Eddie, the chunky dog-killer, ends up murdering his tormentors. Angela is once again unable to stand up to her abusive father. But, they still get to run around this mental playground in the hope that they’ll figure their way out. Instead, Eddie goes kill-crazy and you have to put him down like a rabid animal. Angela… well, she walks back into the flames, although she’s clearly been busy sewing her tormentors to the walls. Here’s a little background music.

The bosses you face are, for the most part, the demons of the town’s other inhabitants or your own angry self-reflections. There are the cage-monkeys, which are really bodies in bed-sheets and you know why that’s important. The Abstract Daddies of Angela’s nightmares. Eddie himself, because he’s pretty much a demon by this point. Your own demonic wife, the grand-mummy of the cage monkeys. And Pyramid Head. Yes, I know he shows up in other games because he’s the executioner of Silent Hill, but, here, he’s the straight-up shadow of James Sunderland (Why else would you get his knife?). He is the part of himself that James won’t admit to. Masculine, destructive and cruelly torturous. He is guilt incarnate and violence made manifest. Which makes sense, because James is the executioner, after all.

The one line related to Pyramid Head that has stuck with me all these years related back to the absolution of self-guilt: “I was weak…  That’s why I needed you… Needed someone to punish me for my sins… But that’s all over now. I know the truth. Now it’s time to end this.” I get chills just thinking about it. After playing the entire game living in fear of this invincible Hell-monster, this unstoppable ghoul whose only loss comes from getting bored and wandering off, James Sunderland takes back control of his own life and serves, once more, as the arbiter of his own destiny. Though all may judge a man, only a man may truly judge himself. That works pan-sexually, too, but it loses some of its pithy zing when you take out the shortest words available to refer to people. Honestly, that’s why writers use “man.” It’s all about simplicity of word-length. But, if we’re going to topple years of Patriarchy in literature, then we really should use, “Thought all may judge an individual, only an individual may truly judge itself.” There, ideology over style, because some things are more important.

Moving right along, after pinging away at the Pyramid Heads (yes, there are two now, reflections and all) for a while with a hunting rifle, they just up and kill themselves, because that’s the ultimate result of self-loathing untempered by self-understanding, leaving James to ascend the stairs to confront his own sins: the smothering of his sickly, deformed wife. Now, depending on your level of involvement in James’ nightmare world, you can either take this as a kindness or a sickness. Either James did it because he was sick of taking care of her, then, racked with guilt, he self-terminates. Sanitary phrase, that. Or, if you look around and listen to the conversation in the hallway, you discover that his wife asked him to do it. Still morally questionable, but much more understandable.

That’s got to be my favourite part of Silent Hill 2. It doesn’t end by freeing you from your own actions: you still killed your wife. It takes your responsibilities and shoves them in your face to make you deal with them. However, it raises important questions about what those responsibilities are. It deals with difficult issues like euthanasia by presenting them and letting the player decide. Yes, you get to leave Silent Hill after you discover the truth and face it, but the redemption is personal, not moral. You still had to visit this nightmarish town. You still had to face punishment. You still had to accept the mantle of responsibility for taking those actions. After all, you held the pillow. Or, rather, James did.

You are still guilty, but, perhaps, you can still redeem yourself, if you acted well. No one can let you off the hook but yourself. But, you also have to be your own Judge. Self and social responsibility… you know the systems that play with these notions, but rarely are they presented so frankly. The whole thing is complex and tragic. There is no true moral lesson, only interesting questions. Best of all, no one shows up to explain it all to you, because it expects that you can use your own mind. And, look at that, you definitely are. This was one of the first times I remember being treated like this by any form of media, and I truly appreciated it… Like a mother-fucking adult.

download (1)

Oh, Pyramid Head… How I am thee. The game is also full of strange WTF moments. Like the inexplicable game show in the elevator where you answer trivia questions about the town. I’m not at all ashamed to admit I knew them all by heart. There are the interesting cross-over clues you find that refer to murders or murderers in the town that tie-in to Silent Hill 4. Then, there’s the whole resurrecting your wife ending where you uncover pieces of the town’s ancient mythos and become proficient enough in ancient ceremonies to banish the demon from her body and resurrect her from the dead. Of course, you can only do that on the second play-through, once you have the chainsaw and have experienced the full force of the actual story, because that really only makes sense. The second play-through is your own revisionist history, how meta. It would sort of take away from it if you could just pop her back to life afterwards.

download (3)

Oh, did you know that if you  hold the chainsaw long enough, James’ idling animation is a scream? No? Well, feel free to test it out. My favourite ending has to be the alien one, though. Alien endings were kind of a staple in Silent Hill, which shows you that the series takes itself exactly as seriously as it needs to. Like Castle, when you’re frank about yourself, you don’t have to worry about being a little silly. Or weird.

Speaking of weird… Sticking your hand in the wall with the weird Ba-dooung sounds still sort of freaks me out, especially when the controller vibrates. See? that’s how you do jump-scares. You build up to them and then pay them off. Give me something to dread… like sticking my hand into a wall-hole for no good reason. But James is no stranger to sticking his hand in weird places. Remember in Silent Hill 3 when Heather refuses to root around in a disgusting toilet?

That’s because James did it in this game. You pull a disgusting chunk of something out of a crap-filled toilet and, surprisingly, it’s not just a big piece of poo. It’s a wallet with a safe combination in it. Which you use to get a cache of ammo someone was clearly saving up just in case something like all of this bullshit actually happened. Too bad they died on the toilet without getting a chance to utilize it.

Then there’s sticking his hand through the metal grate in an attempt to reach a key on the other side… only to have his hand stomped on by a little girl he’s trying to help. She actually marks the first time I’ve hated a character, especially a small child, in anything, but then, subsequently, came to understand, even empathize with, them. I’m sure there were plenty of opportunities to really think about empathizing in other media, but Silent Hill 2 got me invested in the world and characters by giving me something to think about while not being too obvious.

That sums it all up, really. Silent Hill 2 was engaging because every part of it was morally ambiguous and mentally challenging. To this day, there’s one thing that still bothers me…

download

WTF!?

Thanks for reading through 100 posts! Some of the other bloggers in the sphere have a List-mas thing planned that I’ll be participating in, but, other than that, we’re back in black. Or, I guess, on the blog it’s grey on black sprinkled with orange, but now I’m just being pedantic. See you on the other side! … of 100!

Tablet Double Feature: MMoJ and Anomaly

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , on October 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

Wow! My throat feels less like a knife-slide and more like a throat! That’s a positive change! Unfortunately, being sequestered in a tiny room of the house meant that I didn’t get to do a lot of the things I planned to do this week, like research and gaming, but I was saved from a total lack of productivity by my new tablet! So, while I didn’t get to create a whole lot, I DID get to consume a whole bunch. It was a feast, dear reader, a feast for the mind-brain.

The first thing I discovered this week was the vlogbrothers. I’m not exactly sure where they and Nerdfighteria have been all my life, but wherever it was, it was too far away. Check them out, if you haven’t already. There’s a veritable learngasm of knowledge waiting for you. There are a bunch of off-shoot programs that they’re involved with or endorse, as well, but, you’ll probably find them the same way I did: by watching their show.

I did manage to finish this week’s Iron Writer Challenge story. It’s my first attempt at a love story, because, why not? Here’s the next Valid and Sound Letsplay, as well. Not toootally unproductive. >.>

BUT, one of the downsides of having a leaky fever-brain is that I don’t get to retain all that much from minute to minute. It makes it very difficult to write, because I usually use my memory to keep track of the synonyms for common words I’ve used and the syntactical forms I’ve employed. It lets me keep things fresh over time. Or, if that sounded too dry, I like to use different word combos to get higher DMC-style ratings. Yeah, that’s better.

Another thing I used my tablet for, as you might imagine, was apps. App games, by design, take very little concentration to play and, thankfully, can always be played on mute. That’s important, because it helps limit the number of times I perceive the feeling that my head is exploding. Which is good. So, other than munching on brain-food and Castle, I also finished two different app-games: Middle Manager of Justice and Anomaly HD. Both of which I will review for you nooow.

45353

Yeah, I know it’s the PC splash art, but it’s not much different. Anomaly is a reverse tower-defense game that was developed by 11 Bit Studios and published on almost every platform available. Believe me, if you have a screen, you can almost certainly play this game. I got it through the Mobile Humble Bundle a little while ago. The gist of the story is that Earth and then suddenly aliens. The aliens, as per standard procedure, set up a perimeter around their crash site and begin doing alien stuff. That, it would seem, includes building stationary robotic defenses all around the roads of the cities they landed beside. Not like, on the roads, just off to the side.

The Earth reacts by sending in slow-moving, but heavily armed, transport caravans to investigate the situation. A task you carry out by slowly moving around the roads between buildings, instead of, say, anywhere else. But, this is just the set-up for an offensive TD-game. No, it’s not offensive as in bad. Your job is to troll through the towers and take them down with your blasty-cannons. Thoughtfully, the aliens seem to have constructed their towers from Mechano, or you’d never get anywhere.

At the beginning of each level, you get a set of simple objectives and then a tac-map of the surrounding area. From there, you buy your convoy and pick your route through the enemy defensive installations using an intuitive arrow-pathing system.

anomaly-warzone-android-1

As the game progresses, you’ll unlock new types of units, but so will the enemy. Each individual unit can be upgraded with cash, and, thankfully, you can sell the melting slag from destroyed enemy installations for the pocket money you need to make your missile launchers that much more potent.

But, a game wouldn’t be that much fun if you just sat back and let the mission play out from there, despite the thoughtful fast-forward arrow the devs put in to expedite your play-time. So, while your caravan is moseying through town, you can assist them with special powers like the benevolent finger-god you are. It’s easy enough. You just click on a power and use it on an area, but the game wouldn’t be very challenging if these weren’t limited. In order to gain the use of a power, it must first be supply dropped from a passing jet-plane. Coincidentally, this is also how you get more troops, should you feel like buying them en-route. Why you can’t just have them drop you off right next to the objective, I’ll never understand, but I think if we DID know the answer to that, we’d understand the Lord of the Rings that much better. Maybe it’s a laser-targeting thing , but I doubt the eagles used that technology very often.

Anomaly-HD-screenshot

It looks pretty good, and it’s nice to see a civilization that’s gotten its act together enough to paint all of their mechano-kill droids the same colour. It’s a perturbing reminder of what Apple’s military will look like when The Day finally arrives. Won’t be hard to spot, at least. Well, the ones without the Stealth App anyways.

Later on, some of the enemy attacks require you to complete a quick-tap event or change your route on the fly, but it’s rarely intensive. It’s kind of relaxing, actually, to watch them roll through a town, occasionally healing or defending them with an ability. Mostly, tactics come down to ability use and caravan order.

It does have problems, though, and it wouldn’t be one of my reviews if I didn’t point them out. A major flaw in this game, besides the caravan’s obvious weakness to Silent Hill Void-pits, is that you can’t give direct firing orders to your vehicles. I tried for a while, and it seemed like it was making a difference, but that turned out to have been confirmation bias the more tests I did. This is a huge problem, but it saps some of the tactical strategy out of the game. Besides, games like this thrive on busy-work. It just feels weird that they cut it out.

After all, the only real relationship between vehicles and enemy installations is time. Each vehicle has a certain amount of damage it does per hit and a specific rate at which it fires. Each hit does a set amount of damage. Each building-type has a standard life total and returns fire in a unique pattern. Now, since your movement speed it held constant the entire time you’re attacking, each building encounter is a question of efficiency. How much damage can you do as you approach it versus the amount of damage it can do to you. You can stack the deck in your favour by messing with approach vectors and line-of-sight, so planning has to go into that. You can also directly insert variables with your powers. So, perhaps, limiting your control over your unit’s firing patterns was only fair, because it means you have to play around your own AI.

BUT, if you did provide user control to your units, then you could introduce more challenging, frantic scenarios. Ones that require priority fire. The only reason the current set-up is a problem is that there are occasions where you want to be able to set firing priorities. When they throw in game-play elements like escorts and special targets, it doesn’t make sense that your troops would be blasting away at an unimportant tower when another one is pounding your special unit into dust.

That’s just nit-picking, though. It’s not really a deal-breaker, and you’ll probably find that the game is well-balanced enough that this isn’t really a problem. After all, the real fun comes from cleverly picking your route and plowing through those death-lobsters to victory!

Speaking of, the next game we’re going to look at is Middle Manager of Justice!

mmoj06

This gem came to us from Double Fine and was produced in association with Dracogen. As you might expect from a Double Fine game, it’s swimming in personality. I mean, it would have to be, it’s a game about being a middle manager for a super-hero squad. In a future where civic defense relies heavily on the privatized field of super-heroing to do most of the heavy lifting, you apply for a middle manager position with Justice Co. Or something like that. Your job is to manage the schedules of, hire, train and house a team of super heroes.

Now, team building isn’t usually an easy job, but it’s pretty simple here. Your heroes have stats. You increase those stats through training. Levelling up gives you a certain number of training sessions. You get the picture. It’s a free-to-play game, so there’s an energy system of sorts. But, this is a Double Fine game, so it’s not annoying. The energy cost is time. It takes time to train a hero to do a thing. So, you set a hero to do a thing and they do it until it’s done. You can turn off the game and walk away and it’ll happen while you’re gone. However, if you’re impatient, you can use an in-game currency to buy your way through that time. That in-game currency can be earned rather easily or bought if you’re bored. This is pretty much the only thing you can spend real money on in the game, and it’s completely non-intrusive. Mostly.

It’s thematically unified and well-designed, but it still has the standard FTP model stuff. Catching bad-guys in a region improves that region’s mood. The better the mood, the more they pay you when the pay cycle pops up. Fight crime -> improve mood -> collect money every few minutes -> use money to buy upgrades -> fight more crime. It’s designed to keep you checking back. Although, the mood in a region can always be easily recovered, so don’t worry too much about it if your heroes need time to train.

You start out with a hallway and an office, but you can buy upgrades for your headquarters until it fills itself out, like so:

mmoj04

Each room serves a purpose. Research for new items (If you’ve got the int). A call-center to make extra cash. A break-room to improve morale. A training center for stats. A different training center for super-moves (Int reqs, yo). A hospital to rest. And, of course, your office. Each upgrades unlocks new capabilities, and they’re all pretty useful. Even your manager can learn abilities, with enough time, commitment and the proper promotions. Oh, he can also fuse super-meteorites together to grant new powers, which is a management class I missed out on in the past. 😥

There are challenges you can fulfil that will keep you on the right track with a little Skinner-box action, but the rewards are pretty trivial after a while.

To actually fight crime, you can delegate, which gives you a “Change of Success” rating or you can indulge the voyeuristic and watch.

mmoj02_lg

It’s a Final Fantasy-esque back and forth punch-up. Each hero and each villain gets a turn per round to make a move. From here, you can instruct your heroes to use their equipped super move instead of their basic attack and use items. Also, you can utilize your MIDDLE MANAGEMENT STRATEGIES OF POWER! Like, pep-talks and paradigm… shifts… Yeah, but in this world, they’re wildly effective. Eventually, you’ll want to not watch these exchanges, because it does get a bit dull, but heroes won’t use their powers without you around, so you’re stuck with the basic-change delegation problem. Do you take the 78% success chance? Or, do you just swoop in, use one power and win?

Once you have a balanced team, okay equipment, new costumes, items, meteorites and decent powers, there isn’t a whole lot going on on the tactical side. It’s mostly watching with a chance of tapping in the early hours. Neat game, although…

It has two major flaws in my eyes. The first is that your team-size is limited. You start with one hero, but as you work your way up, you can hire more with in-game currency. You’re limited to a team of four, though. Which, to me, is too few. If you want to feel like a true middle manager, then you’ve got to be delegating all the time. But here, you end up micro-managing a lot… maybe you’re more like a middle manager than I thought. But, regardless, if you want to take care of some crime through delegation, do some research, train your heroes and practice super powers, then you’re going to find that you swiftly run out of man-power. It’s a little underwhelming to have to stop fighting crime because you want two of your guys to get their cardio in and another to research a cool new kind of coffee, while the fourth is working on a super power. Even if you do have a free hero, they’re going to be in an endless cycle of punch-up-bed-punch-up-bed… And, if you want a single hero to succeed on most occasions, you’re going to have to watch the fight, which removes the aspect of delegation I enjoy the most: not having to supervise.

Again, though, the game doesn’t punish you at all, and there isn’t much problem with taking the time and waiting it out. I mean, you don’t have to pay much attention, and it wouldn’t be much of a free-to-play game if it didn’t encourage you to come check it every ten minutes for fresh reports of “Job Complete!” or new coins to secure.

The other problem is a bit more obvious and a bit less forgiveable: it doesn’t have a bloody ending. Sure, you can finish the story campaign, but then you’re back to the same mundane grind of keeping the average hoodlums off the streets. Maybe it’s a more complex metaphor than I’m giving it credit for. After all, that IS what you would do as a middle manager. There’s no parade-hip-hip-hooray-for-victory for you. No, there’s a soulless cake and a “seeya Monday.” Still, would have preferred an ending. Even the week has its Friday. (Disclaimer: Being a manager is not actually as bad as I’m making it seem, but Please realize how hard your manager works before she or he pops a blood-vessel.)

Those were the games I burned my time into this week. Not too shabby, all things considered. I’m giving Anomaly: Warzone Earth: Mobile Campain A Delicate Pedal on New-Fallen Snow out of An Exciting Movie Trailer Before A Decent Movie. Middle Manager of Justice is going to receive a whopping Three Red Starburst Candies Packaged In A Row out of The Scent Of A Newly Washed Kitchen. 

Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Oh, and, DFTBA!

Outlast At Last!

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 29, 2013 by trivialpunk

Can you believe we’re at 91 posts? Geeze, it feels like just yesterday I was writing surreal, pseudo-autobiographical posts about my birth. But, that was yonks ago, in another completely different incarnation of the Trivialverse. I know I said I was going to up-date on Saturdays, but then a gelatinous slime-monster crawled its way down my throat and set up camp for the weekend. Which is my classy way of telling you I was very sick.

Still am, actually, but if we’re getting a post at all this week, then I’m going to have to write it through the wavering haze of my retreating fever. Here’s this week’s video. This week’s story is another refurbished one. I’m sitting on three or four fully-fleshed-out narratives, but I’m waiting until I can think straight to write them. Otherwise, we might end up with a story about a haunted library where a mind-altering-flesh-eating beetle learns to love. Not that that doesn’t sound kind of kick-ass, but it would lose a lot of the character development and prose necessary to realize its full potential. Whatever that is. I’m not allowing any more refurbished stories in this challenge, though. It doesn’t reflect well on the spirit of the thing. I’m only allowing one this week because I couldn’t possibly write a new one properly. I’ll have to start working on a pool of new stories to act as buffer zones just in case this happens again.

Alright, so this week, I’m reviewing Outlast. It’s going to be difficult, though. I really, really liked this game when I booted it up, but then… well, I’ll see if I can explain it properly. But, let’s talk horror for a second. Lately, I’ve heard people say that there’s been a resurgence of the survival horror genre. That’s true, but I propose that we just call it the horror genre, because with variety comes the need to classify and survival horror is just a specific genre that existed when most others didn’t. Now, we’ve got quite a few different takes on horror, and I would hesitate to call most of them survival horror. Sure, the point of the games IS to survive, but, then, that’s true of most games. You wouldn’t call Mario “Survival Platforming,” or Mario Kart “Survival Racing…” but, I guess that depends who you talk to.

Outlast is a great example of what I’m talking about because, for all its pretensions to being a -survival- horror game, it’s kind of a shit one. You’re never really strapped for resources and there’s really no need to scour your surroundings for the items and clues you need to survive. You don’t have a health meter and there’s no combat to speak of. You’re never really in any danger of dying… that doesn’t mean you won’t die, but… okay, let’s just get to the review. However, to simplify things, I’m going to write this review in two sections: the good-with-bad and the bad-with-good. I’m going to start with the good and end with the bad, because that’s kind of what Outlast did to me. Without any further hesitation…

outlast-02

Outlast is a horror game with many good ideas that was developed and published (on Steam) by Red Barrels studio using Unreal Engine 3. Now, these guys aren’t newbies, many of them worked on games like Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, Uncharted… you get the picture, and the experience shows. The game is fucking gorgeous. But, if you’re familiar with those particular games, then you’ll probably guess the caveat to this little advantage: aggressive linearity. Set-pieces are fine in games like Uncharted (mostly because I’m not really a fan), but feel bizarrely out of place in a horror game. We’ll get to that later, though. Since the surface is where the beauty lies, that’s what we’re going to scratch at.

The game takes place in a mental hospital that has gone… well… absolutely mental. The prisone… patients have escaped and are wreaking havoc throughout the facility. Nearly everyone has been killed and the few that remain are grotesque monstrosities, barely cognizant, with an unsettling tendency to jump out of shadows and half-closed doorways. This is where the game excels. The linearity of the game ensures that they always know where you’re going to be coming from, so they can set up some beautiful jump-scares. A couple times, I even dropped my mouse, which caused me to spin 360 degrees and run right back into the arms of the terror of the minute.

More than that though, since corpse-strewn hide-aways are kind of the bread and butter of horror games, it’s a nice change of pace that the corpses are able to talk at us. And jump… at us.

The HUD is pretty simple. There isn’t a lot to keep track of in this game. Just your battery life and your total number of batteries. And a little zoom bar. Well, that’s when you have your camera out. Which, quite honestly, should be most of the game, since you only record notes to yourself when the camera’s up, because if it didn’t happen on camera, it doesn’t matter, right Letsplayers? Right, Instagammers? Right… modern society? Oooh, social commentary.

But seriously, revelation lives in record. There were institutions that abused and mistreated their patients to a disgusting degree. That might be what they were playing at.

The other things the camera does are give you a zoom and serve as your flashlight. The inexplicably amazing night-vision function bathes the area in a film of green that should be familiar to anyone that’s consumed one of the 8999 Paranormal Activity movies that have come out recently. It’s a nice touch and menacing at times, but it sort of washes everything out. I mean, the colours and textures are gorgeous, so why would we want to ruin it by bathing the whole thing in mint? The other problem with this is that it lets you see a little too well. Half-heard gibbers in the dark and the scraping of ethereal chains on cold, hard cement are kind of muted by the fact that I can turn around and see the poor, emaciated little dude that’s causing that ruckus curled up on the floor of his cell.

Peering into the shadows, guessing at the location of the lumbering behemoth that’s stalking you, feeling your way through the dark… these are classic elements of horror. Of course, we need to be able to see for the frantic sprints down darkened hallways that the game loves to throw at you. So, maybe it’s a fair trade-off. It would certainly be a different game without it.

OH! We can’t forget the control scheme. I mentioned this a couple posts ago, but I love the default control scheme in this game. It’s simply elegant and looks like it was actually designed with gamers in mind. By keeping things simple, they’re trying to remove as many obstacles between you and the experience as possible, and they aaaaaalmost succeed, but we’re almost to THAT part of the review.

Two things that bear mentioning before we start muck-raking are the animations/perspective and the creature personalities. The first-person perspective is considerably enlivened by some very well-done body animations. If you look down, you can actually see your feet moving. When you peek around a corner, your hand rests on the wall to steady you. When you’re sprawled under a bed, shaking with fear and hyper-ventilation, you can see your hands splayed out on the floor beside you. Reloading the batteries into your camera. Jumping. Crawling. All of these animations are done incredibly well. The animators worked very hard to ensure that the visuals made sense. They’re some of the best first-person animations I’ve ever seen.

Not only that, but when you perform an action, your perspective shifts to accommodate the movement. The game’s great at using these changes in angles AND restrictions of angles in conjunction with their sound-effects to conjure terrible creatures from the reaches of the natural phantasmagorial plane that exists in your imagination, even if it doesn’t pay it off very well. Oh look, another patient. Better hide under a bed! The wonder… the terror… just starts to wear off.

But, hold on, there’s still more good to behold! I mentioned earlier that the patients were a nice touch, but the enemies are even better. A lot of work has gone into ensuring that you get to know them pretty well. The murderous-patient cries are pretty entertaining and serve to flesh out their insanity pretty well. Repeated calls of, “This is the experiment!” and “Death and Taxes!” from the pursuing psychopaths lent an air of surreal jollity to the piss-dribbling proceedings. There’s even quite a bit of build-up for a few of them. There’s a pair of naked dudes that look like someone took a mech-suit and made it out of skin that very kindly inform you that they’re going to murder you so good. One of the former guards is particularly memorable, because he looks like… well, he looks like a giant, evil, white, naked Fat Albert. But, by far my favourite has to be Doctor Trager.

Outlast08

He’s not only eminently likeable, but he’s also bat-shit insane. He sort of represents the entire Asylum. You know they can’t help it. Despite their best efforts, they’re being driven to madness and death by something inexplicably horrible. But, it’s not like they have to be uncivilized about it. He makes you WANT to sympathize with him. And, ultimately, he might represent the greatest lesson that romps through metaphorical Asylums like these can teach us: atrocity is not necessarily a thing committed out of spite or hatred. Sometimes, all it takes to become a monster beyond your most fiendish imaginings is to accept protocol and slowly slip into complicity. You may think you’re doing right by someone. You may think you’re doing what’s best, but from another angle, from a retrospective, you could be one of history’s greatest monsters. There’s very real danger in rationalizing your position, in accepting the status-quo just because others are and you’re taught that it’s right, and this is it.

We’ve heard that all before, but it’s worth remembering, because it’s easy to forget. We compromise ourselves into misfortune time and again, but that’s part of what it means to be human. Then again, so does dragging ourselves out of it. Interesting side-note, one of the doctors mentioned in the game, Doctor Wernicke, was actually a famous physician/psychiatrist, but he wasn’t a mad necromantic doctor. Sorry. He’s best known for Wernicke’s aphasia, the inability to comprehend words due to damage to “Wernicke’s Area” in the brain, which is just over the medial temporal lobe. But he’s also famous for Wernicke’s Encephalopathy, a disorder whose symptoms include: ocular disturbances, intense apathy, unsteady gait and changes in mental state, resulting in a waning awareness of one’s surroundings. Like most mental conditions, it’s not absolute and in his day, as in ours, diagnosis was more of a science-art than a check-list, but the guys in the room near the beginning that are watching nothing on T.V. (you’ll know it when you get to it), are a grotesque, exaggerated representation of the disorder.

Okay, time to get down to it. Remember how I said that there’s a great build-up for some of the enemies, a pair of naked, angry dudes, in particular? Well, the game doesn’t pay off near enough of their taunting introduction for me to care. I mean, they say that they’re impatient, that they want to tear me limb from limb RIGHT NOW, so where the hell did they go? Did they stop for froyo on the way and get distracted by a trinket shop?

But, that’s nit-picking, the real problems with the game are inherent in its design. Like I said before, the Doctor Trager-strapped-to-a-wheel-chair bit (you’ll know it when you see it) kind of summed up the whole game for me. It was clearly twisted and horrific, but it wasn’t frightening because it was totally scripted and out of my hands. I mean, if the game had ended there, that would have been fantastically ominous, but I knew it would keep going. I was, after all, being shuffled along. So, the threat was completely extrinsic to my ability to combat it. A player without agency is just a person watching a movie. Still, it’s a really cool sequence, but it didn’t play to the strengths of the medium of engagement. However, if, by this point, you are still engaged with the horror, I think you’ll find that the feeling of helplessness could be incredibly effective. The threat of violence here is both overt and unpredictable, which elevates this portion above the bits with guys with sticks. It’s not frantic, which is a nice bit of juxtaposition. It helps that Trager brims with more personality than a man with twice his skin coverage!

But, was I engaged? Was I immersed? We often talk about immersion and engagement like they’re two different things. And, they are. BUT, they’re inextricably linked. If you are engaged by a game, then you’ll have an easier time settling into its atmosphere. I mean, look at Silent Hill. It looks like crumbly bum-biscuits by today’s standards, but when I sit down to play it, it springs back to life. And I don’t think I have to explain how a good atmosphere can help engage you. Suffice it to say that if you are settled into an environment, then you’ll invest in the things that happen within it. Earlier, I said that the game looked beautiful, and I mentioned their skilful use of camera angles and sound effects, so you know the atmosphere is fine… for the most part.

Part of the problem is that the environments get a little too repetitive. I mean, there’s even a bloody sewer level. It goes from repetitive Asylum, to repetitive prison, to repetitive sewer, to repetitive… you get the idea. The environments look nice, but the objects within them are repeated ad nauseam. Despite the extremely linear nature of the game, I even found myself getting lost a few times, backtracking into doors I’d already been in because one room full of beds looks the same as another. There is an effort to introduce some variety, but that kind of falls to pieces when you realize that all the lockers in all parts of the place look exactly the same. This sort of makes sense, since it’s all one big compound, but they’re in samey-video-gamey spawn points. Usually, they’re right beside an objective, because once you turn that knob, the monster in the halls will come find you. So, you’d better get inside that locker!

Maybe I should explain. The stealth mechanic in this game is kind of weak. It’s hard to tell when you are and are not visible. So, to supplement this, they introduced a hiding mechanic. When a monster is chasing you, you run out of its line of sight and dive into a locker or under a bed. Then, it comes looking for you. This is pretty effective in the beginning. There’s a lot of standing, frozen in terror, as the monster of the minute sniffs around outside of your hiding place, wondering why he can’t smell that strange piddling sensation in your pants or hear your character’s heavy breathing. Or the beeping of your camera. Or why it doesn’t just check BOTH lockers. But, seriously, this happens so often that it starts to lose its flavour and you start wishing it would hurry the hell up so you can get back to your fetch quest. And that’s the thing, in a horror game, you should never ever get to the point where you’re thinking, “Geeze, I wish it would hurry up and find me or leave so I can get back to this fetch-quest.” EVER. That’s the thing, even if the monster finds you and pulls you out of your hiding spot, it doesn’t kill you right away. So, you can just get up and run away again. Most of the time.

Occasionally, a monster will have a machete or something, and then it just one-shots you and you get warped back to the last check-point. But, the check-points are kind of sparse. Nothing kills horror like getting caught in a corner and knowing you’ll have to warp back and try an execution challenge again. Repetition kills engagement.

Repetition kills engagement.

Anyways, remember earlier when I mentioned the first-person animations and the simplified HUD? Well, here’s how they screwed that up. When you mouse-over a door that’s openable, hint-text pops up to remind you how to open it. However, if the door is locked, then there’s no text. It feels like they were going with a Silent Hill/RE feel here with all the locked doors, like most horror games at this point, but if I don’t have to test a door, it doesn’t matter. It’s just scenery. All the immersive animations in the world won’t change that if I never have to use them. That’s the problem right there. The hint text and constant reminders of my character’s body animations that I don’t control (counter-intuitively enough) just keep reminding me: you are playing a game. A player that knows they’re playing a game will play like a gamer. No sound effects will fix that. Perhaps, if I was really immersed, the animations would have an elevating effect, but between the weird inmate behaviour, the obvious jump-scare locations and the constant hint-text, it was just another reminder that I was playing something. It’s like the uncanny valley: it’s an all or nothing proposition. If I don’t feel that it’s my vision moving along, then I’m not going to become fully engaged with the actions. That’s why camera-bobbing doesn’t work very well, despite being a neat idea. Your experience of running is smooth. Your visual system corrects for the motions in your perception and your memory. We have an incredibly intricate predictive-corrective system that lines up our voluntary movements with our visual system. Your focal point doesn’t bob, cameras do. The perception is the important part, not the reality.

Being immersed… no, I suppose, engaging the portion of your imagination that produces terror and the emotion of fear, even momentarily, can plunge your world into a coating of venomous ichor from which there is no escape… until you turn the lights on. I close the light on the bottom floor of my house every night before walking up to my room. It’s not frightening or anything; I know this place like the front of my keyboard. But, every once in a while, just before I turn out the lights, I’ll wonder what could hide in the darkness. What Eldritch, twisted, tainted, tortured terror teeters tremulously to tear me trembling from its trap. In those moments, my world is a night-scape of perplexing, unknowable horrors. It’s all very vague, but the feeling is there for a minute. In my middle-class-ass hallway. In the bloody suburbs. If that mind-scape can work there, then imagine what it could do in a horror game. It’s a tricky thing to invoke, but it’s the essence of horror. That’s why immersion and originality are your primary concerns when crafting a horror game. Spark your player’s imagination, and they’ll consume themselves in the fires of their own fear.

It’s the nexus point where immersion meets engagement. Granted, it’s a difficult thing to maintain, but well worth the effort. It’s what legends are made of.

So, let’s hit up engagement and wrap up. Not being able to fight is usually seen as a point in the game’s favour, but it’s also a negative. Not being able to defend yourself, hiding in spots that will only hide you at chance value and won’t often kill you when you’re discovered, and not being able to plan a route when you’re running away seem like they should be frightening. And, for a while, they kind of are. But, being helpless, but constantly escaping by no skill of my own, got old after a while. Plunging headlong into the darkness of the sewers should be scary, but I know there’s nothing I can do if I’m caught, so I don’t feel the need to preserve myself. It works for Amnesia, because you die when you’re caught and you can stealth in the shadows to avoid detection. But, Outlast’s stealth mechanic is barely functional. Monsters can spot you across whole rooms in the dark. It’s replacement, the hiding mechanic, didn’t leave me with much of a sense of agency. So, naturally, I didn’t feel invested or defensive. Just… kind of impatient for the game to spew out its story guts and wrap up. Even a life-bar wouldn’t be completely ridiculous. Just anything to make me feel like my mistakes and my decisions mattered in the long run. Like I can prepare. Most importantly, like I can fail. I know I CAN, but when it comes to horror, the FEELING is more important than the reality. When my only option is “run,” I just feel like I’m being herded. Which should be scary, but only really reminds me of playing Gears of War.

What’s the end-result? Well, I know when I’m going to be in trouble and when I’m going to be okay (Hint: it’s most of the time). The game telegraphs itself really well. If I’m in a dark, restricted corridor with no hiding places, then I’m going to be fine, because I don’t have any other option BUT to be fine. Otherwise, the game couldn’t continue. It’s like when you run into chest-high walls in Mass Effect. There just MIGHT be an ambush in the works up ahead. I guess it comes down to a clash of design principles. The game’s mechanics suit a linear, story-based game, but the type of horror it tries to evoke needs a more organic set-up. Spooky sounds in the dark are just tiresome when there’s not a damn thing I can do about them. And, so, conversely, they can do to me.

 A few other points, the other cameras lying around are a nice touch, but I think it’s a huge wasted opportunity that we can’t pop one of our batteries into them and view a few ominous story-pictures. It would give us another use for the batteries we get, and set up a bit of tension around the decision to use one or not. The banging behind doors that lead to empty rooms is ominous… at first. But, again, where are the consequences? And, I wish the monsters would stop disappearing after I escape their areas. Let me see you rattle your chains!! SCARE ME WITH YOUR IRE!!! These two last points make the threats feel unreal, which would be great in a psychological horror, but are out of place next to the visceral threat of inmatey death.

Let’s get this wrapped. The bits with Trager are probably the best parts of the game. Organically searching the environment while a crazy doctor chases you with an enormous pair of scissors is not only shockingly reminiscent of Clocktower, but it’s also the kind of horror this game was crying out for. Our character is trapped and has to escape, so he’s got to move forward into the terrible darkness regardless of what he wants. We, on the other hand, are the sociopathic hand guiding his every move, unfettered by the consequences of our actions and completely aware that we have to be able to move forward, because it’s a game. And we’ll be fine, because the game is designed to allow us to move forward. The Trager Trap (as I’m now going to refer to it from now on), requires that we, as players, move into the area inhabited by the monster and find a way to escape. Now, you may say that’s nothing new to the game, in fact, it’s basically the same set-up as all the other fetch-quests, but the open-ended nature of the environment, the fact that the doctor constantly talks to us and a lack of knowledge of where the key is are the elements the other areas were missing. It gives us decisions to dread. The tension of having to explore, while being hunted by a seemingly intelligent being, in an organic (albeit small) environment, will always beat out following the signs to a release valve, hiding, waiting for the monster to go away, turning said valve and then repeating the sequence almost exactly. Trager is a monster I escaped that not only didn’t disappear, but faded into the background of the area he knew I’d have to be in. It’s a much different mind-set, even if the situation is exactly the same. Again, what you feel in a horror game will always be more important than what actually happened.

Oh, right, I suppose I should comment on the ending while we’re on Trager. No good horror game should be all gore, all the time. Juxtaposition (and our arousal curve) is a powerful ally in any horror medium. It’s why so many horror movies cut to sex or comedy. They’re arousing experiences that are qualitatively different. Then, they let us settle down before slashing again. It’s why Silent Hill’s two worlds are doubly effective. It’s why Resident Evil and Amnesia have safe zones.  These repeated moments punctuate our memory. Different forms of engagement are good, because it stops the entire experience from becoming a dull sludge. Outlast doesn’t have much besides its standard hidey-lookey-runny game-play. There are a few moments, but because they’re so few and far between, they really stand out. The bit in the thunderstorm. The bit with the fire. The bit with the preacher. The bit with Trager. These are the things I remember most clearly.

However, nothing is more important than the ending of your game. It’s the point by which all others will be defined. If it breaks from the general feel of the game, that can be even better. BUT… BUUUUUT…. Outlast’s ending takes a sharp turn at pseudo-science-and-sci-fi and swerves completely off the road, into a burning ditch of melting tires. The last section of the game feels like one big non-sequitur, like stepping out of Clocktower and into Half-Life. I was disappoint. Severely disappoint. You don’t have to explain everything that happens. Mystery is part of what can make horror engaging. You don’t work for Lucas Film; you don’t have to ruin everything by explaining it. So, subtlety moving forward, hmm? Know when to end a game.

It’s not all that bad. The water effects suck, but the particle effects and rain are awesome. The game’s animations are consistent and change with your character’s condition. The lens crack effect is fantastic. Like I said, it looks great. For some, that could be enough. In fact, I’d still recommend it to lots of people, despite all the things I’ve said here. It’s a bit like a movie, but if you like set-pieces and walking through creepy environments, then you will enjoy this game. If they’ve got the cash sitting around, then horror fans should experience it. For all its faults, it’s funny, occasionally tense, visually disturbing and, above all, thought-provoking. Even if those thoughts are just perturbing self-reflections on why you’re not as frightened as you think you should be of the man with the horrendous pair of scissors. I’m still amazed by how well one adjusts to living without a few fingers.

Otherwise, wait for The Evil Within.

I’m giving Outlast A Sale on Your Least Favourite Kind Of Your Favourite Brand Of Yogurt out of Getting Caught In The Rain, But It’s Only For Five Minutes

…It’s Always Such a Pleasure

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2013 by trivialpunk

Things don’t always work out the way we want them to. My computer’s in the shop again, and my projects sit on it, unfinished. Even today’s post is in its embryonic form somewhere on my D: drive.  Thankfully, this week’s story was sitting on my Google Drive, so it went up, along with today’s Let’s Play.

The post? Well, we’re just going to have to wing it, aren’t we? You all know how I love to harp on old topics, so let’s talk about the critical responses to The Last of Us.

Enough time has passed since the game dropped that we’ve gotten quite a few opinions on the much-vaunted game. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Others are completely indifferent. Still others wonder why it was made within this generation at all.

I’m not here to comment on the game specifically. I still haven’t played it yet. Whoops! Did I type that out loud?

Unfortunately, I’m in a PC household now, so we didn’t have the hardware to play it. I was, however, privy to its critical reception. Again, I’m sure you can figure out why people liked it. Also, probably, why “the people that didn’t like it” didn’t like it. I read and listened to quite a few of them, but there was one thing that I wanted to discuss at greater length. That thing is the notion that the game was boring because it used stale mechanics.

Now, some of you might not have thought the game was boring, and that’s totally cool. I’m not here to reiterate the opinion. Again, I can’t possibly have one, because it’s a game I haven’t played. So much of a game relies on your engagement with it that it’s almost meaningless to write a review of a game without having played it. Sure, you can criticize things about it, but, as a holistic experience, you’ll be missing something if you don’t spin it up. Granted, you can rely on past experience to figure out what it would be like to play it, but you may still miss out on something integral to the game if you play it like a movie.

That over with? Cool, let’s talk about reusing mechanics. If you watched this Extra Credits video, then you’ll know that one of the best ways to start a game is to begin with a set of mechanics. This means that narrative is usually going to take a back-seat to game-play.

But what if you’ve got a story you want to tell? Well, you can use a franchise to do that. A franchise is a sub-section of genre, really. It’s a collection of mechanics that are wrapped up in an identity.  Look at the Halo and Silent Hill (you knew that was coming) franchises. The first games set the stage for narrative, but, more importantly, they also tested out the mechanics. Knowing how those mechanics would affect their audience, and how it would all fit together, provided the designers with the space to tell a story.

What if you want to tell that story without a franchise? Well, you can use the same techniques that Halo and Silent Hill used: you can learn from other games. As much as I hate to admit it, Silent Hill came after Resident Evil. RE dropped three years before the first Silent Hill. Games aren’t made in a vacuum, so you can’t possibly imagine that one didn’t affect the other.

In fact, if you really think about it, survival horror games would utilize the mechanics tested in the original RE game for years after its initial release. Few of them would truly add anything revolutionary to the formula, besides a new story. Now, I know that’s a pretty controversial statement, because games like Silent Hill 2 improved on the formula in many ways, besides through story-line, but you can see the similarities.

Fast-forward a little bit and we can see that trend blossoming behind us. We had the bloom of the first-person RPG, in the ancient days, with games like Deus Ex and System Shock. They would later evolve into the sleeker FPS with RPG elements of today, but that’s a different post. There was the era of the platformer, where every movie tie-in that had a story to tell became a jumping-puzzle game. Let’s not forget the Eldritch days of the point-and-click adventure. Or the sweet petals of the third-person shooter with RPG elements, still fresh upon the bulb.

I know, we didn’t really want another third-person shooter with stealth elements. Most of us have played Tomb Raider or Uncharted, so The Last of Us isn’t exactly fresh. I’m sure it doesn’t help that The Last of Us and Uncharted are both from the same studio. Nor that it’s a zombie game. If it smelled anymore like compost, we could use it to fertilize our vegetable gardens.

BUT, is that inherently a bad thing? Okay, sure, we can over-do things sometimes, especially in the video game industry. Playing through two very similar game-play styles in two different titles can be a bit of a pisser, because a video game is a long time commitment. Two similar movies, okay, that’s four hours. Two similar games? That’s at least twenty hours for two AAA titles.

Still, by all accounts, The Last of Us had a great story and solid game-play. Hell, I’ve read through it, and it made me wish I’d been able to play it, just to experience it. Maybe I’d have gotten bored after the sixth hour, I don’t know, but I can see what it was trying to do.

Video games get a lot of flack for telling bad stories, and that’s not undeserved. Many of the epics of our past are, from a strictly literary perspective, quite silly. Or simple. Even lame. Part of that is a haphazard approach to story-telling, and some of that is the result of completely disregarding it in favor of game-play. That’s not to say we haven’t had some amazing game stories, but Mario? Come on.

We don’t always need a great story for a great game. We can stitch it together through game-play or experience it through the world; that’s the sweet alchemy of video games, but what if you want to tell a story? A specific one. What if you look at a game and think, “I know exactly what story I could tell using that as a vehicle.”

Do we want to, on those grounds alone, muzzle creativity? Like or dislike a game all you want on its own merits. Maybe, you’re bored of the mechanics; that’s legit. Hate away. I think that’s awesome, and we can always use another voice asking for originality. However, I would caution anyone against pronouncing something stale simply because it’s similar to another thing. The deployment of a set of mechanics can be horrible, but the mechanics themselves are tools.

Don’t say that a mechanical paradigm is inherently dull. The industry listens to that kind of thing. Say that it was used badly. Say that this particular game could have benefited from X instead of Y. Say that you’re tired of hearing about zombies! Say anything, but remember that what you say will be heard. We’re part of the creative process. When we criticize better, the industry becomes better.

I know I hold this stance because of how important stories are to me. I admit that without any shame to provide you with full disclosure of my bias. I’ve read through horribly written books for a good story and vice-versa. I’ve watched terrible movies for analogical reasons: to learn something about them and myself. I approach games in much the same way. I believe that some games should exist because they tell a story. Others, because they are fun games. Other because we want to learn how to type faster while we kill the undead.

We wouldn’t have Megaman X without Megaman. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2 without Resident Evil. We wouldn’t have SpecOps: The Line without CoD… or SpecOps. You know where I’m going with this.

Actually, SpecOps: The Line is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Think about it. It wouldn’t exist without the games that came before it: without a profound understanding of the mechanics they used. Maybe The Last of Us didn’t utilize the mechanics it had perfectly, but if we didn’t try that sort of thing, we wouldn’t have games like SpecOps: TL. We wouldn’t have Silent Hill 2.

In other words, gaming would be the lesser for it. So, don’t get down on rehashing mechanics. Get down on doing it poorly. Or, just get down.

images

Crying Over Cry of Fear

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2013 by trivialpunk

After spending a few days immersed in the Gloam universe, I decided to pop my head back up and play some games. If you follow my Twitter, then you may remember that I said I was cracking open a bunch of indie horror games a little while ago. You may have wondered, briefly, why I’ve been so silent on the subject in my blog. Well, the truth is that I didn’t find many worth talking about. If you were around in the early days of Newgrounds and saw those, “Scariest Thing Ever” posts, where some scrolling text tells you a vaguely creepy story and a picture flashes up to the sound of an entire orphanage of children rejecting their broccoli, then you’re familiar with what I went through for roughly three games and counting. I’m not going to point fingers, because I’d prefer to talk about good games than stomp all over developing ones.

With that in mind, today, we’re going to talk about Cry of Fear, because it was pretty damn decent. It began its life, “Dear Esther” style, as a Half-Life mod from Team Psykskallar. Now, it’s a stand-alone game that you can download from Steam for free. Pretty snazzy. Although, honestly, I’m not sure if I’d recommend the game. If you’re really hurting for survival horror, then it might give you a dose. It’s not fantastic, though. Well, it has its moments. Ah bugger, let’s just get into it.

542476_308446645887233_104860890

It starts by dropping you into an alleyway with a mysterious text message. From there, you just follow a bunch of corridors until you hit the end of the game. The plot isn’t exactly deep, and it jumps around a bit, but it is fairly compelling. Juxtaposing the wacky antics of the protagonist (Read: critically flat voice acting) with the situation makes you want to figure out exactly what’s going on. However, as you go through the game, I’m sure you’ll start to feel like you’re walking through a piece of another survival  horror I.P. It seems that large cities have many of the same problems that haunted lakeside towns do. Disappearing corridors. Spontaneous, intrusive surgery. Populations on the verge of utter insanity. Puzzles. Health bars. A dark, mysterious parallel universe streaked in blood and rust.

Basically, what I’m saying is that if Cry of Fear isn’t directly related to the Silent Hill series, then one of its parents must have had a wandering eye. There are some differences, though! Cry of Fear is a first-person game. Unfortunately, it was clinging on to its bastard siblings’s arm so hard that it took melee mechanics along for the ride. Because of the technology its working with, its hit detection is incredibly dodgy. Or, maybe not dodgy enough, depending on your perspective. There is a dodge button, but the game’s stifling corridors aren’t conducive to avoiding the flailing arms of vague monstrosities. You’ll end up taking a few more hits than you ought to and miss more than your share of attacks that should have connected. In fact, overall, the combat is the weakest part of the game.

The creatures you fight run right up to you, so there isn’t much time to consider the implications of engagement. There’s no dread. In fact, most of the creatures in this game pop up like whack-a-moles. It’s trying to freak you out like the aforementioned Newgrounds fodder, but that’s not really frightening. After the first couple of times, you’re more than ready for it. “Ooh, the lights flickered. I’m assuming that means we’re going to have to bash something back into the ground soon.” They just move too bloody fast. They’re in your face, instantly. Blam wham bam. Next.

cry-of-fear-15-700x438

Counter-intuitively, there’s a positive aspect to their movement, even while their movement speed is detrimental. The character models jerk and spasm like good anthropological horror creatures should. It wouldn’t be much of a stretch to say that the creature design was my favorite thing about this game.. There are these monsters that have their arms attached to their chest with big, iron staples. As you whittle down their life, you break open the staples, and they can attack you with their arms. There’s another creature I like to call “The Aborted” and the usual rambunctious pick-and-mix of disfigured knife-wielding toddlers and hammer-wielding psychos. The boss creatures are pretty interesting, too. They require you to think a little bit before you unload your pack of buckshot into them.

There’s one creature that made me turn the game off and write this review without finishing the game, though. Well, it’s more of a situation. You’re in a long stretch of alleys and a (well-designed) standard chain-saw wielder pops out of a door to chase you down the alley. This one part combines all of the worst aspects of the game into a big barrel of blah. The shady hit detection ensures that you can never be sure where he’s swinging, so dodging is pointless. Even if you could dodge, he moves so fast that he’s back on you in a second. The linear corridors don’t provide you much room to maneuver, and they dead-end a lot. Obviously, if you get caught in a dead-end, then you’re meant to panic and turn around. Unfortunately, as with most chainsaw wielders, he kills you instantly. So, you’ve just got to run through a few times to get it right; it’s just trial and error. He’s killable, but I unloaded my entire arsenal without managing it. You’ve got a sprint bar, so you’re going to have to half-run, half-back-peddle to make it through, because you run out of it pretty quickly. Optionally, you can load yourself up with morphine when you run out of sprint and get another bar to use. Still, if you run by something you want to go back to, he’ll just kill you.

The design of this area really needs work. The first time it’s scary. The third time it’s not. By then, it’s just dull and frustrating. Plenty of things could have improved this portion: adjusting his run speed, giving you an adrenaline boost, not making you watch the cut-scene, giving you room to work around him, not putting a tantalizing machine gun behind him, making him a two-hit killer, not using fake-out corridors with one-hit kills, not baiting us with doors… the list goes on. Many games, as far back as Clocktower, have tried to implement returning baddies for the sake of oppressive fear. You have to do it right, though, and this doesn’t qualify. If I could say something positive about it, then it would be that he’s visually creepy, and he bugs a lot. If I wasn’t so interested in actually playing through the game, then I’d just have let him bug out and be past it already. Maybe the buggy movement was left in to make him manageable. I’m not sure. His sound design is quite good, as well.

Actually, the sound design is probably the strongest part of this game. The track list is certainly immersive. Earlier, I mentioned that the monsters pop up a lot. In the earlier portions of the game, when it’s still trying to build tension, they use sounds to herald the coming of monsters frequently, and they do so quite well. Of course, even this is used to try to freak you out when the jump-scares come, but what can you do? Moving forward with praise, the lighting is well put-together. Your cellphone doubles as your flash-light (Just like in real life!), and it casts a downwards-facing light when you’re not holding it. This makes the upper portions of the game darker than the bottom ones, obscuring the movement in the distance and making you choose between safety and surety.

Aesthetically, it fits the bill, and I’ll admit to being freaked out a couple of times, but it’s not scary. It’s not even really engaging. I found myself slogging through the game, trying to finish it so I could develop a balanced opinion for you, but it just wasn’t enough to counter my frustration. It has lost too many points already for me to recommend it wholeheartedly. Maybe I’ll log back in and find my way past chainsaw face using a bug, now that I’m done with this, but it won’t feel like a victory. I just want to see the end. Still, if it has a good ending and a strong latter portion, then I might change my overall opinion. We’ll see.

Before we wrap up, I want to address the puzzle aspect of the game. As I’m sure you’re well aware, you can’t have a game that’s all combat, especially a survival horror one. Different types of engagement are key to keeping your audience interested. Of course, you don’t want to go the Modern Warfare 3 route, but mixing it up a bit will give you a better game. As is traditional, Cry of Fear uses odd puzzles. However, it doesn’t use them very well. The first “puzzle” is two sheets of paper that are lying on the ground on opposite ends of a small area. Once you pick them up, they give you the name and password for a computer that’s in a nearby shop. Don’t worry, you’ll find it; it’s the only shop with an open door. Once you log on to the computer, a messenger window pops up with a previous conversation on it. It’s just one post: a door code. Oddly enough, there was a locked door that needed a code at the beginning of the area… hmm…

Now, this is kind of neat, but it’s sort of an eye-roller, and it’s a huge missed opportunity. The game could have provided us with some context for why the code was being posted, maybe even hinted at what was going on. Hell, it could have tried for full over-the-top oddness, which, when juxtaposed with both frightening and mundane situation at the same time, leaves you with a vague feeling of surreality. Think: the fridge in the hospital in Silent Hill, the coin puzzle in Silent Hill 2 or the Shakespeare puzzle in Silent Hill 3. This puzzle makes mundane sense, but it’s a bit flat, even while it’s unreal. There’s no frightening magical logic. It vaguely alludes to the idea that someone left those there purposefully, but it fails to make that point meaningful. “Okay, someone might be following me, or I might be losing it. But, why a computer? Why keep them separate?”

To really flesh out what I mean, let’s look at another “puzzle” in Silent Hill 2: the lock-box in the hospital. It doesn’t make a lot of sense. Clearly, an insane someone wrapped this thing up tight. It has four separate locks, two of which require keys and two of which require combinations. Each key has a story behind it. Each code is delivered to you in an off-putting way (written in blood on a wall awash in the red stick-icky in a panic cell and on the carbon paper of an insane note in a typewriter). By the time you crack the box, you’re reeling with possibility, “What’s in the box?!?” Any of you that know the puzzle I’m talking about will probably chuckle at the Seven reference here, but it’s the right amount of surreal. It follows the video game’s logic and pulls you deeper into the world. If nothing else, it engages your imagination.

By comparison, Cry of Fear fails to feel like anything but a fetch-quest. Yes, if you dig right in, if you force yourself to, you can find interesting moments to puzzle over and different points of foreshadowing, but the game-play doesn’t highlight them effectively. Many of the problems with the game can be traced back to the engine. It’s not the sort of thing you’d want to make this game on, but they did and that deserves some praise. Still, the game should have changed to reflect the tools available. Instead of stuffing a concept into a set of mechanics, you need to make the concept fit to what you’ve got available.

It’s okay. It’s not really a bad game, and the voice acting makes sense, because it originated in Sweden. Honestly, I’d be a bit off-put if they had good voice-acting; terrible dialogue is kind of a survival horror tradition. I’m still going to finish it. I’m not entirely sure I’m happy about that fact, but there it is. At the end of it all, I give it 3 Slightly Stale Donuts out of A Cute Dog in a Dead Homeless Man’s Hat. Thanks for reading, and I’ll see you on the other side.

Life Goes On Trial

Posted in All the Things, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 14, 2013 by trivialpunk

Don’t get too excited, we’re not talking horror today. Although, we’re staying in the lovely field of morbid I like to call my home. You see, I decided that it had been too long since I’d stretched my legs and taken a walk in the outside world. So, I tagged along with my room-mate to a gathering of local game devs. Thankfully, there was a terrible storm suffused with funnel clouds and hail going on, so I didn’t melt in the sun. While I was there, I realized that I haven’t done any work with the local publishers in my city, unless you count ragging on BioWare occasionally. And by ragging, I mean completely forgetting to include Dragon Age: Inquisition on my E3 wish-list. Of course, that might have something to do with my relative disinterest and the fact that you’ll hear about it everywhere else anyways. Yeah, it’s a good series, but… Wait, we’re not here to do a break-down of Dragon Age.

We’re here to talk about Life Goes On from… Ian, Susan, Erik and David. That’s right, this isn’t a studio project. It’s a passion project from four people with a concept, some skills and a dream. That’s about as indie as you can get without just being that NotePad fan-fic you won’t let anyone else see. Or, maybe that’s just me. Anyways, it’s good, or I wouldn’t be raving about it. Without further ado, let’s delve into…

LGODemo_130613_1922247

There’s something a bit weird about reviewing a game based solely on the demo, because any criticism I might level at it can be countered with, “What do you expect? It’s not done yet!” That’s very true, and we should do all we can to support the independents, but… well, let me tell you a bit about the game first. It’s a puzzle-platformer that requires -requires, no less- you to kill your character in order to proceed. Basically, to solve the traps and get past the puzzles in the game, you need to be in two places at once. To deal with this ordeal, the best solution would probably be to go home, learn to use your sword and die happy knowing you didn’t waste your life so someone else could claim a prize. However, there is an alternate strategy: use the corpse of the last sucker to do the work for you. I mean, there’s no way what happened to him could happen to yo-ugh!

Anyways, sorry, what was he saying? Right, you direct your little minion into death-traps so that it leaves its corpse in a convenient location to weigh down a switch or act as a platform. There’s one particularly nasty puzzle where you have to jam yourself onto the bottom of a rotating bed of spikes so that you can act as a moving platform for the next yourself. Sound confusing? Here are a couple illustrAUGH!!!:

dead knight on switch with respawn landing on knight

>.> …. It’s a wonderful example of that mechanics-as-metaphor thing I keep banging on about. The basic message being: “Every life makes a difference. It’s a continuous stream of effort.” This sentiment should be familiar to anyone in the field of science. Or arts. Or making bloody good sandwiches. No work is ever THE final word in the process. No civilization has ever been the unquestionable peak. Even though you may fall, others can pick up your work and continue on towards the goal. All it takes is a little inspiration and a nearby spawn-point: perhaps, a hospital. Effort is made to give each of the little guys a bit of personality by giving them individual names that get scritched out and scroll by on parchment when they die. They’re even differentiated by gender. Sweet. Although, honestly, they die so fast that it’s difficult to notice any differeEuuugh!

Iiiiifff…. I had to offer any criticism, and I do, it would be that the game-play feels a bit flat. There are some really cool puzzles here, but the life-line of the game is going to be its level design. There are cannons to shoot you around. Switches and moveable spawn points to act as logical puzzle-gates. Spikes and conveyor belts to get you to and from. But you, as a player, don’t do much with the environment, besides move through it or die on it. I feel like you could replace the knight with a ball and experience the same game-play. There’s very little conflict outside of the obvious timing-execution requirements, and that’s going to damage the amount of the engagement that the final product can offer. This is why Mario had coins, moving power-ups and enemies; and why Donkey-Kong had bananas, collectibles and enemieEEEEKKK!

LGODemo_130613_1923342

There IS this little guy. You can find him in each of the levels. He’s kind of a collectible, but he actually collects you. I know, I know, he LOOKS cute, but step too close and he’ll make a quick meal of you. That’s not quite enough, though, and adding too many extra elements like the cannon to the environment risks making the play feel gimmicky. You’d need to add different ways to interact with the environment, like using your sword or writing out a last Will and Testament, to produce the emergent game-play properties that will keep things fresh. However, this is a puzzle game, so maybe it IS just about getting from one room to the next. The designers even made sure to zoom the camera out to give you a better view of the environmental hazards you’ll be dealing with. I guess I’m just not a fan of puzzle-platformers. I feel like it could be more engaging, especially with how cool the concept is. Oh yeah, and it controls a bit wonkily when it comes to turning around, but it’s still in beta, so what do I expect? Although, besides the turning around bit, it controls like butteh.

…<.<….. >.> …. umm… okay, thaAGUGH!

The graphics are good, the aesthetics brilliant, the environments charming and the humour legitimately funny. I’d recommend downloading the demo and giving it a try for yourself. Despite all the negative things I’ve said about the game, I’ll still be keeping an eye on it. After all, the credits are extremely clever. Who’s to say that they couldn’t carry the game on charm and level design alone?

<.<

*phew*

Penumbra: Black Plague – Mining for Survival Horror

Posted in All the Things, Game Guts, Game Reviews with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2013 by trivialpunk

First, a little house-cleaning. Unfortunately, Duel’s development is going to be put on hold. Not scrapped, mind you, just pushed back. I’ve added a Trivial Letsplays section for your amusement, instead. I’m working on a novella and a screenplay this week, so expect very few posts… or a lot, because I’ll be procrastinating. Oooonly kidding… >.>

Alright, now that that and the oligatory E3 post are out of the way, let’s step out of the future and into the past for a look at our survival-horror roots. If you pay attention to my videos, then you’ll know I spent a gaming session finishing Penumbra: Black Plague. It’s a sweet little first-person survival-horror adventure game that was developed by Frictional Games and published by Paradox Interactive. It’s the second in the series, so it follows in the footsteps of its ancestor. It features stealth elements, (click-drag) physics puzzles and puts a heavy emphasis on creature avoidance. If this sounds familiar to anyone else, then you’ve probably played Amnesia: The Dark Descent. Amnesia was the spiritual successor to the Penumbra series, but the developer probably already tipped you off to that. Without further ado…

header

The horror in this game is pretty adequate. It’s only slightly let down by the sheer density of the enemy AI. I know this is to make the stealthing more manageable, but it hits the mark and keeps going. Enemies are often a bit slower than you, so you can even just out-run them. This is a trick, though. Penumbra wants you to run, because it wants you to realize that you have nowhere to run to. This is the soul-crushing dread of being alone, trapped in an environment both hostile and alien.

Speaking of being alone with an alien, the game introduces a little brain-parasite named Clarence that talks to you as you play. He serves to add an interesting layer of existentialism to the story. Is he an entirely new entity? Was he formed by your memories? He certainly absorbs your memories; by doing so, does he become someone entirely new? How much of him is you? He also messes with your vision and becomes a pretty significant plot-point later on, especially when he’s begging for his life. Including him was a risk, because he could have become very annoying very quickly, ruining your immersion and the feeling of loneliness. However, because of the special circumstances surrounding your relationship, that loneliness morphs into something inscrutable. It’s unnerving thinking that you’d be alone but for yourself. If you dig deep enough, it might even cause you to reflect on your self.

Our brain is a parallel processor of insane complexity. Even the two lobes work together-apart, connected by, among other things, the corpus callosum. That doesn’t mean it’s a unified entity, though. In some ways, it’s like separate entities talking to each other. People with split-brain syndrome often think and communicate using one side of their brain. As thoughts become words and your words become your identity, you start to define your self. However, the other half of your brain, the one not being expressed vocally, now unconnected to the other half, is still around. Is still listening. Many people with split-brain syndrome sometimes report feeling like the other half of their body, the one controlled by the silent brain, is an entirely different entity. This applies to neurotypical people, as well. Ever feel like there’s another voice in your head? A conscience? Someone second-guessing you? Could be.

Now, of course, this is science softer than your average volleyball after a brisk day at the local volcano, but it serves to illustrate how tenuous our connection to Gestalt is. How fragile our “self”, our holistic entity, is. We’re never more than a couple steps from revelation, and that’s terrifying. Err… so… yes, I like the character and what his frame-work adds to the ideas presented by the story.

Oookay, well now, let’s mozy on over to the puzzle end of the spectrum. This game has some interesting puzzles, but some of them are glaring problems. Personally, I would never consider a block-stacking task a puzzle. I would never be rummaging around in my kitchen, see a box on the top shelf and think, “How the hell am I going to use a stool to get that thing? Swat at it with the legs?” Of course, it helps that I’m 6’2”, but you understand what I’m saying. That being said, there are some pretty nifty puzzles. There’s one that requires you to lift up disembodied arms so that they snap into place with a sickening crunch and burst into flame. There’s another that’s essentially the best kind of boss-fight, one where you have to apply what you’ve learned and put yourself in harms way, under time-pressure, while doing it. Then, there are the others… the ones I mentioned earlier this paragraph…

Did you ever hear anyone talking about the recent The Walking Dead game say, “Yeah, it’s kind of an adventure game, but the inventory puzzles are so obvious. I mean, you hardly have to spend twenty minutes fiddling around with the controls to make progress!” No, well that’s because the person I made up was an obvious straw-man, but he serves to illustrate the major problem with some of the puzzles in Penumbra and, inversely, why The Walking Dead streamlined the process. Classic adventures game puzzles absolutely destroy the flow of play. Thankfully, Penumbra doesn’t have too many of those, but it does have a couple others that do the same thing. There’s one that requires you to push some buttons in order to make all of them match. There’s a barrel puzzle that’s downright confusing until you figure out what you need to do. Seriously, I was pushing barrels around in the dark for close to ten minutes. In a game that barely clocks more than four hours, that’s a substantial chunk of time. Honestly, though, most of them are pretty intuitive. You’re in a room. There’s only one unique object in the room, you’ve only got one item that will work in it, so you mash them together. Ta-dah! Progress! It does, however, have its share of fetch quests. The unfortunate nature of them means that you’re going to be running around the same hallways a lot. That saves on programming time and money, but any hall you end up wandering around for twenty minutes is going to lose its haunting atmosphere as you whiz busily from place to place. With that in mind, they designed a very specific type of enemy…

Penumbra_Black_plague

Frictional knew that if they had you running back and forth between areas, then you would cease to be afraid of the environment. So, they dotted the landscape with axe-mining pick-claw-lantern-wielding threats. This is where the stealth elements come in. Stealth is all about making waiting interesting, and survival horror is all about avoiding death, cringing at the thought of the next encounter. You can see why they’d meld nicely. Penumbra lets you defend yourself, but not to any great degree. It’s mostly about sticking to the shadows and avoiding the lantern-gaze of your enemy. This is perfect, because the creature in a horror game is most effective when it’s not seen. When it’s only heard. When the consequences of it spotting you are all in your imagination. Your mind will always be able to terrify you more efficiently than any outside source, especially while you’re tense, anticipating. Ever had to wait on a dicey test result? Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Survival horror is all about providing you with the context with which to send your brain into over-drive. You are your own worst fear. Because, that part of your brain that’s listening? It knows you better than anyone else.

So, when it comes to creating an unnerving, thought-provoking, fear-stimulating environment, Penumbra succeeds brilliantly. This atmosphere is only slightly damaged by its AI. The most damaging aspect of the game is its puzzles. One particularly annoying experience involved the freezing cold and a box-stacking task. Even so, once you get past that, the game is an excellent example of how to do survival horror right. It may be a bit old, but compared to the Resident Evil franchise, it’s aged like a fine wine. I give it Two crispy, well-baked pizza pockets out of Finding out the weather is nice on a stroll to the corner-store.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the other side!