Archive for video gaming

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.

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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.

Things Are Gonna Be A Little Different Around Here… Again

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , on April 26, 2014 by trivialpunk

As you might know, I released a flood of new videos today. Dark Souls, Stealth Bastard, Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened, Adventure Time: Finn and Jake’s Epic Quest, Alan Wake, Doom 3: BFG, Dead Space Theatre, aaaand Silent Hill: Homecoming. You can get convenient access to those and many other Letsplays through this page or you can subscribe to my YouTube channel. Why yes, I have been busy! Why the sudden burst? Well, we just got a bunch of shiny new toys to play with. We’re looking at better sound quality, better video quality and, well, same old us. On top of that, some of these new toys will let me record real life! So, obviously, I’m going to use it to create fabrications! Stuff might start to get weird.

I introduced the Gift Box, which is basically my way of giving away any excess games I might acquire. These things need to be played and appreciated! There’s no use in me having two copies of one game, so, please, visit this page and see if you find anything you like.

The donations page was re-purposed. If you like what we’re doing here, you can donate to help us buy props and equipment for the weird stuff and food and coffee for the writers. If this initiative proves successful, we might even clothe them.

I’d also like to start doing shorter, more frequent posts about less considered topics. I’ll still do the occasional longer piece, but I’d like to keep in closer touch with you guys, because things are going to start moving quickly once they get rolling and I’d like to share part of the process with you. As always, you can bypass posts like these, and find the serious game-related posts, by using the Game Guts category along the side of the front page.

…any other news? The Facebook page is doing stuff again. … Basically, I’m out of classes and at the helm again. I want to make a serious run at creating for a living, so there’ll be plenty more to see.

Cheers!

Remember Me: Human Revolution, Part 2

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else with tags , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2014 by trivialpunk

Hey! It’s been a long time again! Long enough that the “Remember Me” portion of the title holds a lovely double-meaning. This is where we normally do a little house-keeping and then move on to the article, but there’s way more house-keeping than article this week, so we’re going to do things in the opposite order, and that will make sense in a minute.

One of the biggest downsides to writing two-part articles separately is that you never know what will strike between setting down one collection of type and the next. It’s the risk we take in indulging serialized media. I’m sure we all know what it’s like to have something simply cease (#Firefly Feels). But, that’s the dread truth of life, isn’t it? The systems, patterns and truths we use to live our daily lives can betray us at any moment. Not that they will, but they can. And we have to live on in spite of that sonorous unknown. We have to, and we do.

Yet, even benign undulations affect us, which brings us nicely back to where we should have been all along: Google. Search engines are a pretty fascinating element of the internet, because they seem to exist as a clear window of exploration. But, even that’s a clever trick. “What trick?” you might ask. The trick of appearing unbiased and helpful while still encouraging a homogeneity of thought. Whether that’s good or bad, I’ll leave to the scholars.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not about to go off on some paranoid tangent about big-brother and the NSA. The internet does that enough on its own without me gracelessly adding to it. Believe me, if I had something interesting to say, I’d be all over it, but think of what we’re discussing here as a technology that is related to the algorithm that lets someone build a psychological profile from your browsing history. I’ve beat around the bush enough, so let’s make sure the question that leads to the actual discussion is a mirrored crystal: How does Google decide the order and availability of search results, and how does that affect knowledge distribution, as well as understanding?

This question, and those related to it, are part of a growing sector of academia called the digital humanities. The Humanities, if you’re not familiar with them, are all areas of study that are related to humans, culture and history. This includes Psychology, English, Sociology, History, Anthropology, etc. The Digital Humanities is a sub-set of the Humanities that focuses on how the advent of the computer is changing the ways we understand things. The information sources we rely on. The mediators through which we experience culture. The gate-keepers that control the flow of information that informs our daily life.

Because, if we could be said to have experienced an Apocalypse in the last few decades, then it’s definitely the Rise of the Machines. Computers, obviously. You, as you are right now, sitting in your chair in front of a high-def computer-screen with a touch-phone in arm’s reach, have probably grown up with the idea of computers and the internet, but it’s a serious historical game-changer. Or rather, it could be, but that depends on how we use it. Completing the circle of blather and bringing us back to…

Google is the most popular search engine on the internet. It’s capable of delivering millions of search results in a matter of seconds. It organizes those results based on your prior viewing history, anticipating what you’re probably looking for. Typing in “Titan?” If you’re an anime fan, then you’ll probably see “Attack On Titan” as an option. More of a Final Fantasy 14 aficionado? You’ll probably find an entry or two about his boss fight, if not get an outright suggestion in your search box as you’re typing. Then again, there’s always the Titan missile. A Wiki page on The Titan Rocket family (Yes, I’m Googling as I type…). The Teen Titans. The Titans of ancient legend. Personally, the first thing that popped up for me was Titan, the moon.

But, remember, it’s not just the things you’re most likely to enjoy. Google uses a process that orders your search results based on the viewing habits of other people. That’s why Wikipedia is usually one of the first results you get: everyone goes there. This is a pretty neat system, but it’s got a few obvious problems. The first is that it encourages group-think by increasing the chances that we’ll all be seeing the same information. Which sounds bad, but it also makes it easier for us to communicate, because we’re more likely to have seen the same entries, so we might have some common ground. Just think about the sheer amount of legitimacy and authority that being the first search result alone would lend you as a result.

Of course, it takes a lot of views and a lot of traffic to become the very best. So, if you’re peddling grass-grazer gas, you’re probably not going to get there. It’s a sort of quality-control thing, but it’s not perfect. Then again, what is? It can certainly be manipulated. When I’m working as a freelancer, one of the primary things people worry about is SEO (Search-Engine Optimization). This basically means writing the article such that it’s more likely to be picked out by a search algorithm based on its content. Basically, they want mimetic density in the first paragraph. (If you knew how much I was over-simplifying, you might want an apology. If you do know, then sorry!) If you’re writing about sausages, you’ve gotta make sure you squeeze in every sausage-related tid-bit that might be important to the sausage community into the article. Even your jokes should be sausage-based. Pro: Top results are more likely to be related to your topic. Con: It could just be pandering propaganda.

Again, though, it’s hard for pandering bullocks to hold a slot. Eventually, the popular, the informative and the useful rise to the top. And, it’s not like there’s going to be a standard search-result screen; it’s an active, adaptive process. Come on, admit it, Google is elegant as balls.

So, now that we’re on the same page, you can see how easy it would be for Google to alter the course of human understanding. Hell, even Wikipedia could become a hive of scum and questionable sources. We rely on their integrity and the work of a bunch of anonymous fact-checkers to ensure that the information that guides large portions of the digital world is reliable. We’ve all learned to be sceptical, though, right? You always follow the blue links at the bottom of the Wiki article to make sure it’s not just bollocks? Because, I sure don’t.

So, to be 100% clear, Google is controlling your mind by showing you: the information you already know you want, and therefore already agree with, and exactly what everyone else is looking at. It’s a truism that no one looks past the first page of search results, but it could also be reality. The real question is: do we use Google because we trust them or do we trust Google because we use them? It’s the main problem with having one source of information or a Total Institution. Churches, Schools, Prison systems, Legal Systems, they all face this reality with greater or lesser denial and greater or lesser concern.

Come on, though, it’s not like you only get information through Google. And it’s not like you can’t trust them. I do, wholeheartedly, but I know how easy it is for me to simply accept the information and understanding that I’m given, so I’m wary. It’s even easier if you think you ‘re the one that found the information in the first place. Remember, though, you didn’t: Google did.

Where is all this unhealthy scepticism leading us? Right back to the two games we were discussing in the first post. The reason that a search engine needs to be subjected to that level of scrutiny is that it is the tool you use to explore. To perceive. On the internet, Google is like one part of your sensory system. It feeds you information that you can use to direct your behaviour. It also functions as an extension of your body, as a literal tool, because the functions you can perform are restricted and enabled by the engine. Weird, right? Let’s go further.

Now, say, instead of Google, we were talking about a set of prosthetic legs from Deus Ex: Human Revolution. And, let’s say it’s a bit after the game, so we’ve gotten a little creative with our designs. Now, instead of your flesh-sticks, you’re rocking a set of quadruped robot-legs! Pretty cool, right? It’s not all walking up buildings and winning three-legged races, though. The change is going to fundamentally alter how you understand your ability to shimmy. The design of the legs themselves, the way they bend, their length, size and weight, are going to affect how you can move with them. As a result, your understanding of your body and your relationship to the environment will change.

Bringing it all together… What about your mental environment? If you’ll remember, last time, we talked a bit about mental augmentation, storing memories digitally and increasing processing power by fusing metal and flesh. Now, the issue at hand. Take what we said about Google and apply it to your memories. Your brain. Your understanding of everything you are and will be. Make one memory salient and bring someone to their knees. Make the memories of a sickness seem to last too long and you can shatter someone’s resolve. Associate stomach flu and a food, then BAM! Instant life-long distaste. It goes without saying, then, that the search protocols we use in supplemental prosthetic memory must be under even greater scrutiny.

I can’t stress this super obvious, but easy to underestimate, idea enough: your brain and body enable and constrain everything you are. The tools we use, both mental and physical, refine those abilities even further. From those copious refinements comes a multiplicity of interactions that create you. Change any one of those elements and you’ll change the end result. When we start augmenting people, we’ll start changing what we consider to be human.

Deus-Ex-Human-Revolution-Wallpaper-Wallpaper-2

Okay, stop, I’m going to break the 4th wall even harder, right now. This is all I can really remember from the original post I had prepared. However, looking back, I can see I put a couple points in the wrap-up that I promised to cover, so I’m going to do that, now. But, I’m going to talk to you in my own voice, instead of Triv’s. I know it’s a small difference, but there is one. Trivial Punk can’t discuss Trivial Punk with you, and that’s what I want to do. But first…

Procedural memories are those you use to perform actions and tasks. Think of your procedural memory as an instruction booklet for your motor systems. There are two things that immediately shake out from this concept, based on our discussion here; 1: Changing your procedural memory will change how you perform actions. If you could hack into that digitally, we’d have… issues. 2: More applicable to robotic augmentation: if you change the tools used to perform the actions, then your procedural memory will develop very differently. Obvious, again, let’s go deeper. What do we use procedural memory to do besides just perform actions? Inform understanding.

We have a complex empathy system that lets us try to guess at the intentions and motivations of the people and things around us. We know when people are happy, because they smile, but we all know that smiles can mean different things under different circumstances, and we know that, because we’ve smiled. We’ve smiled under hundreds of different circumstances in many different ways. But, what if you didn’t have a mouth? How would you interpret a nervous foot-tap if you didn’t have a foot. Or legs. Or a body? Don’t worry, you definitely can, but you might experience the interpretation of the gesture differently. The memories you use to do the interpretation might be more symbolic than kinaesthetic. Obviously, I’m in full speculation mode, at this point.

In the coming generation, we’ll have to begin talking about the strictures of the human form as we begin to download minds, or human-like minds, into currently inhuman forms. That’s enough to consider on its own. Usually, this whole piece would come down to questions of whether or not they’re human. I don’t have that question; I don’t really care if they’re human or not. If they have minds, then we should unite around that commonality. But, you know, xenophobes will be xenophobes. And maybe they won’t care about us silly flesh-babies, but that’s another future to be decided on at a later date. Any ways, the question I’m eager to ask is: should we place any restrictions on form?

Your first answer would usually be, “Of course not!” That was mine, too, until I really thought about it. If we extend those potential-minds people-privileges, and we DAMN-WELL BETTER! (No, seriously, let’s try to never be slavery-genocide stupid ever AGAIN! That’s going to be the social problem of that age, you heard it here 4, 940, 342nd!) Okay, so let’s say we do extend them those privileges, and we can control their physical form, then how far are we away from slavery? No, seriously, if you give something a mind, but only give it the ability to Roomba around a house, then you’re purposely constraining its physical form in order to ensure that it does your chores. It’s a topic to approach carefully; those are some serious future-crimes.

But, okay, maybe you don’t care about robots, so I’ll leave you with this culmination of these ideas. The human brain is a remarkable processor. I actually don’t know the words to make you realize how amazing it is. It contains a universe that actively understands itself based on electrical signals. Seriously take that all in, now look at yourself… your existence is amazing. Moving on, have you considered the computational abilities of your brain, apart from when it’s actually doing mathematics? Each of us is a phenomenal information processor. You know where I’m going with this. You could take the brain of a developing human, a child, and insert it into a system a ‘la The Matrix, but instead of harnessing bio-energy like an inefficient newb, you control the brain’s environment such that the brain develops into a pure information processor.

Between the man-machine interface we discussed last post and this post’s ramblings about how your physical form affects your mental understandings, can you see the rows and rows of bodies? You don’t need the skin if they’re in a tube. You just need to keep the brain nourished and the nerves alive. Or, maybe you don’t. Maybe you just need it functioning and you’re controlling the nerve-inputs, because they’re inefficient. Plato be damned, brains in vats could represent more computing power than currently exists, if you could access it properly.

Or worse, you could end up a helpless, motionless tube that feels and digests food for another set of organisms, depending on how inefficiently we’re running this thing. So, be glad of your body! Never let anyone tell you that your body is your humanity. And always accept augments from strangers.

Okay, let’s get to that house-cleaning now that there’s a way longer post than I intended to write in front of it!

As you might know, I went on a little hiatus to knock my head-brain around a bit. I’m trying to figure out what to do with my life. I want to write stories. I want to make short movies and silly letsplays. There are so many ideas that I haven’t dared try, yet. You know, standard creativity-dreams. However, I’m also kind of a science-nerd, in some respects. Academia could provide me a life doing the thing I find most interesting: thinking. This year, I’ve got to make a decision about where I begin my future. And, as of right now, Trivial Punk isn’t shaping into a career.

Don’t get me wrong, I do this because I love it. And I’m taking the chance to keep doing it, because I want to make interesting ideas and the primal grips of fantasy the central conceits of my life. I want to encourage people to dream, because the future is forward. It’s up in space. It’s beautiful, terrifying ideas about the nature of our developing consciousness. It’s equality as a given, not something we have to continually fight for. It’s finding humanity in the post-human and hope in our most crushing defeats. And if I write nothing more for the rest of my life, or if you read not one screed, not one iota, more of my writing, then, please, accept this final plea, “Don’t give up on what we can be.”

In the spirit of that idea, I’m going to spend the summer working on videos, articles, letsplay and the like with my friends. We’re still learning, but we’ll put all we have into it. All I ask is that you share the things you like. I’m one person; I can’t do much on my own. But, if each single person does just a tiny bit, then we can accomplish great things. Or plug our work, either one. I don’t like talking, or even thinking, in a mercenary fashion. I don’t enjoy self-promotion, unless it’s too true to be manipulative. So, that’s what I’m doing here. Please, share the stuff you like so that I can do this with my life.

Regardless, I’ll still finish the novel I’m writing. We’ll still make videos and put in the time. It’s up to us to make this work. But, let’s be honest, all my work means nothing if nobody sees it. That’s it, cards on the table, honest. Any number of things could change in a given life, so who knows if any of this will hold true in the long run. Literally no one can say. But, it will always be helpful to share the things you like on the internet.

I’m sure you’ll notice some new stuff in the next couple of weeks; here are a couple of new things I’m trying, let me know what you think!

Dead Space Letsplay – Trying something a bit different with this one. Let me know what you think! Did you have enough time to see them all? Were they in the way? Entertaining? Funny? Existentially disturbing?

Doom 3: BFG Edition Letsplay – Simple and sweeeeet.

Dark Souls Letsplay Turbo Preview – The best and fastest way to see us die over and over again.

That’s it for today! Thanks for reading and I’ll see you on the other side.

You’ve Been Doing WHAT With Your Time?

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , on January 26, 2014 by trivialpunk

Where is my head at, indeed? It can be difficult to explain precisely why there are days I can write and days I can’t. It’s especially difficult when that day stretches on longer than a week. I mean, it’s not the food at that point, is it?

In any event, today isn’t one of those days I can write, either. I sat down, stared at my post notes for today and said, “I can’t… I can’t make that sound like words right now. I’m just gonna write whatever.” So, that’s what this is.

But, I’m not here to waste your time entirely. I may have been slacking on the posts, but I’ve got three new videos up for those of you who are into that sort of thing! (Silent Hill: Homecoming – Part 3 – The Spider Episode) (Doom 3: BFG Edition – Part 1 – Getting Controls Under Things) (Hotline Miami – One Shot – My Eyes! The Goggles Do Nothing!)

What else have I been up to? Well, I’m assuming you don’t want to hear about class, so let’s get to the game stuff. I replayed a few games with a friend of mine. We hit up LIMBO, Trine, and Intrusion 2. I know. I can’t get enough indie platforming, either.

That transitioned nicely into the next weekend, during which we played The Last of Us. I have to say, even after all this time, and a replay, that game still sticks with me. “I believed him.” HA!

Last weekend, we pulled out a shiny new Xbone and hooked it up to a 60 inch plasma. That was a nice time. I got to check out Ryse: Son of Rome, which looks just as good as you think it does. Then, we played some hockey (NHL 14), despite the fact that I’m not really a fan. (Odd for a Canadian, eh?) Finally, we spun up CoD: Ghosts and played Extinction mode for a while. Extinction is the replacement for zombies. It’s aliens instead of zombies and hive-destroying instead of crawler-camping.

I’m a big fan of the CoD: BlOps Zombies mode; it’s a lot of fun to team up with a buddy and mow down the shambling remains of the Nazi threat. Or to just take on zombie Romero. Whatever works. Extinction mode is equally fun, and it tacks on a few extras to keep things interesting. You can customize your character’s ability load-out before combat begins and then activate those abilities in-game by enabling them through a levelling system. Once enabled, you use the money you gain killing aliens to activate them. But, you also use that money to buy guns and perks, so it fits in nicely.

COD-Ghosts_Extinction_Made-it-Out-Alive-Next-Gen

The alien design isn’t particularly original, sort of Lilo by way of Sunset Overdrive, but it’s fluid and solid. No, not a colloidal suspension, I mean that they are easy to keep track of but fast enough to miss.  At the moment, there’s only one Extinction map available, but it’s a doozy and more are coming. Also, more aliens show up as you progress, so you won’t be disappointed. Even so, repetition is the lesser-known Dagger of Damocles hanging over the head of Engagement. The leveling system and tactics will buy it some time, but we can only hope that they don’t charge too much for the map-packs.

Those of you following my Twitter won’t be surprised to hear that I’ve been playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Blackflag. I finished it today. The ending was a bit anti-climactic, and there were a few features that clashed… There were even whole sections, like the underwater diving areas with the sharks, that I hated. However, all that being said, for a game of its size, its quality is amazing. This is the best Assassin’s Creed game to date. If you’ve ever been a fan of the series, or you just feel like blending some free-running into your high-seas adventures, then you owe it to yourself to give this game a try.

Just… don’t be a ridiculous completionist like me. Those last couple of sync percentages would take hours to earn… but, I still think of them. In the night. During the alone times.

That’s what I’ve found time to play this last month. If there are any LP series that you would like to see more of, or if there’s a game you’d like to see us play, then let us know! I’m going to go see if I can hammer these notes into actual text for next time.

Cheers!

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!

One of my Silly Ideas

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by trivialpunk

This is number 99, yo! I was sitting here thinking of what I was going to do for these last couple arbitrarily designated posts. Number 100 is going to be something kind of personal, so I figured that I’d do something I’ve wanted to do for a while on this post. You see, I started this blog for a few reasons. Most obviously, I wanted to improve my writing skills and to have a place to put my thoughts on horror. I also wanted to spread my love of the genre and games in general. But, there’s a place somewhere very near my heart that wants to gain enough notoriety to do some good with my life.

You see, I try to be as nice as possible in my daily life and, though not always successfully, to be there for my friends and family. This last bit has been kind of difficult lately, because I’m so wrapped up in my studies and the ongoing battle for survival that is making a career out of writing. More troubling than that, though, is that there are many things a single person cannot do on their own. The ability to band together and work as a team is one of the things that makes humanity great. We can be very destructive, but we can also perform acts of immense creation and preservation. I assure you, for every individual that’s motivated solely by money, power or anger, there is at least one person for whom benevolence is part and parcel of their daily lives.

It goes deeper than that. Inside each of us is the seed of both of those acts. Inside destruction is the key to creation. Inside creation lie the tools of destruction. It’s one of the interpretations of the yin-yang, and together, they make up the Whole. As humans, we are Gestalt meldings of these two things, and we can tip the balance in either favour within ourselves or within our society. We can’t always do it alone. That’s why we have words and the internet. Words aren’t always enough in the physical realm, but, on here, they are the basis of our communication. Well, that, jpegs, gifs and videos. So, let me use some words to share an idea I had.

Obviously, I can’t do this, because I’m neither a programmer nor an investor. I don’t own a company, and I’m not connected to, well, anyone with scads of influence. Nor do I own a webpage or have any capital. But, hear me out, and even if you hate this idea, maybe it’ll get you thinking.

Do you remember that printable Starbucks Card that was going around? Well, here’s a little reminder, if you forgot about it. Honestly, it warms the heart. That gave me an idea. A game-related idea. I’ve been a part of the history of gaming for as long as I’ve been alive, and I’ve spent a considerable amount of time digging back to enjoy some of the classics we built the industry on. There are games out there that are essential to understanding how we got to where we are. They are, in part, the lifeblood of our gaming culture. A culture that I don’t want to see disappear. This isn’t just The Ozymandias Problem. This applies to the gamers of today, too.

As I’m sure you know, not everyone can afford to be a gamer. It’s a really expensive hobby. Maybe this sounds silly, because there are people starving in the world. In the streets and houses of first and third world nations alike. And, it’s not the Desert Bus for Hope, either. Those guys are a stand-up bunch, just like the charities they support. I’m also a big fan of The Humble Bundle people. Pretty great way to spread the availability of games and raise some money for charity, if you ask me.

The longer I write, the sillier I feel, but I also think that we need to preserve the culture we’re a part of. The only real way to do that is to spread the experiences that helped define it. Right now, we’re in a unique position to do just that. We have digital downloads. A presence on the web. And more gamers than ever before. So, here’s my idea. We set up a webpage where we can vote on the most important games in video game history that are available right now. Obviously, we can’t send people a digital copy of Duck Hunt, but we can get copies of Portal, Deus Ex, Half-Life, Warcraft… there are a ton of games that have helped to define modern gaming. I’m not equipped to define it for you.

Then, we make it so you can buy a key. Hopefully, we can get companies on board to provide it at a reduced price. After all, they’re probably not selling a TON of new copies. That key is then made available on another part of the site for anyone who couldn’t afford it otherwise. Or, we group-finance it. Say, you want to make more copies of Star Craft available, but you don’t want to buy the whole thing. So, instead, you donate two bucks to the pot. That pot is then subdivided into the number of copies that total would otherwise buy. $10 bucks a pop. $98 + $2 = 10 copies available for gamers to pick up. And let’s, why not, put a percentage towards a charity or two.

Humble Bundles are great, but they’re only around for a limited time, and we don’t really have a say in what goes in them. This plan would allow us to increase the availability of the games we consider to be formative to people who might be otherwise unable to afford or procure them. And, I don’t think I need to outline the number of ways this would be good for any company involved. PR, sales on dead products, download service traffic. You know, things companies like.

The main point is that everyone should know why the cake is a lie. I’d like it if this could encourage the creation of ports for masterpieces like ICO and Mario 3. I’d also love it if this idea helped bring the good of gaming culture to as many people as possible. Gaming has seen a lot of bad press in the past, but it’s a grand, new artistic medium. It’s the thing that taught me to empathize. To pick up your god-damn sword (or pen, in my case) and do what good you can with the tools you have. I only have words and an idea. That’s nothing, really. Not without the support of others.

Most of all, I’d like it if you’d consider my silly idea. You don’t have to agree, but if it gets you to think for even five minutes about what good you can do in your life, in your community or with your words, then it’s accomplished as much as I could truly ask for. DFTBA.

Halloween Steam Sale Buyer’s Guide 2013

Posted in All the Things with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2013 by trivialpunk

It’s that frightening time of year: the time when another Steam sale is out for your blood-money. But what to buy to tickle your scaredy-pants, you might wonder. Well, wonder no longer! As someone who feels it’s his sacred duty to support horror-themed games, I can help you save your money and escape the Steam Money Massacre ali… still affluent.

First, some general advice. You might think it’s a good idea to pick up some of those 5 dollars games now that they’re a buck-fifty, but really think about that for a second. You aren’t playing all the games you buy on Steam as it is. If you really wanted to play that game, you’d have bought it at its 5 dollar price-point. The fact that it is now a dollar-fifty doesn’t make the game any better. It may make you feel better about buying it, but it won’t increase the quality of the time you spend playing it.

Don’t forget to check out the reviews for a game. Even games that sound like really neat ideas can fail in their execution. Also, Halloween-themed games seem like a great idea, but if you want something to scare you in honour of the holiday, then don’t sink your money into a re-skinned version of Diner Dash. Animated pumpkins don’t alter game-play. Unless they do, then umm…

Slender is a massively popular game on-line, so Slender: The Arrival seems like a natural buy, right? Well, hold on. Play the original game, because it’s free. Then, decide if you want to play a better-looking, but not significantly different, version of the game that’s going to cost you money.

Costume Quest is a cute, not at all frightening, game from Double Fine studios. If you like quirky mechanics and a fun aesthetic that weeps personable charm, then pick it up.

Condemned: Criminal Origins is a surprisingly good, fairly graphic, first-person crime-solving brawl-em-up. Enter at your own risk.

The Walking Dead is well-known for its zombification of the Adventure game genre, and we all know that making something a zombie makes it like 30% cooler.

Anna is bad. It literally gave me a headache while I played it. It’s messed up in almost every way possible, though, so if that’s what you’re looking for, then it’s your five bucks.

Dead Pixels: Cool concept let down by unbalanced mechanics.

Penumbra is the series that pre-dated the Amnesia series. It’s by the same developer. It’s scary. It includes physics puzzles.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent: If you haven’t gotten this game, and you’re a fan of the horror genre, then I’d really consider getting it. It takes advantage of the years of experience that the studio had making the Penumbra games.

Lone Survivor: Side-scrollent Hill

Eldritch: Eldritch actually means strange. And this blocky Cthuloid adventure is certainly that.

Sherlock Holmes: The Awakened: A Sherlock mystery-adventure game about Cthulhuian cults. They literally made this game for me.

Limbo: for those who like platformers and are terrified of giant shadow-spiders.

DMC Devil May Cry: Not at all terrifying. A LOT of fun to smash away at.

Dead Space: It’s still a lot of fun. However, if you don’t feel like buying it, you could always play Resident Evil 4 while watching Event Horizon.

The Wolf Among Us is a cautionary tale about why you should wait for more episodes to come out before buying into an episodic adventure game. It will draw you in. Prepare to howl with frustration at the fact that you have to wait for the next installment.

Damned: Organic, multi-player survival-horror. Why are you still reading this and not playing that?

Resident Evil 6: Playable but ridiculous.

Resident Evil: Operation Raccoon City: Just buy a CoD game.

Painkiller Series: If you loved Quake and Doom, then you’ll enjoy this.

Outlast: a technical masterpiece let down by an incredibly linear story that relies on repetitive game-play. Worth getting if you just want your horror spoon-fed to you by a nanny that only occasionally pries off your finger-nails with a coat-hook.

Alan Wake: A third-person shooter about the super-powers of writers. I love it, for some reason. The narration and story-line alone are worth getting it for, as well as the interesting little philosophical side-notes. Besides being quite beautiful, it’s also very engaging. A tad repetitive on the shooty-front, and you’ll see all the dark, spooky forests, but if you find yourself watching each and every television in the game, you’ll know it was worth it.

Paranormal: An interesting little haunting simulator. Not exactly terrifying or graphic, but if you can sink into it, there’s a break-neck descent into a personal hell just waiting for you to click Purchase.

The Typing of the Dead: Overkill: A game for those who need to improve their secretarial skills, but also laugh at exploding zombie-guts. Honestly, surprisingly, worth playing.

Sniper Elite Nazi Zombie Army: All the head-shots ever.

Deadly Premonition: A port of a cult-classic. Not exactly cutting-edge, but worth your time to consider.

Dark: Vampires the X-men and contextual button-pressing about sums it up.

F.E.A.R. Series: a bullet-time FPS that only occasionally flips out and injects acid directly into your character’s brain.

The Swapper: Surprisingly atmospheric puzzler.

S.P.A.Z.: Fun time-killer, but kills your time for no adequate reason.

Silent Hill: Homecoming: an American developer’s first attempt at a boxed-console Silent Hill game. Not bad, actually.

Deadrising 2: Kill all the zombies in all the ways.

BioShock: Get if it if you don’t have it. Played it? Good.

Home: a short, fun little adventure story about doing horrible things.

Resident Evil 5: Just… okay, you get to punch boulders into a volcano. But, the AI partner sucks. Don’t play solo.

Prototype Series: If you don’t have Saints Row 4 and you want to play as a super-hero, then this is the one for you.

Aliens: Colonial Marines: Don’t.

Okay, that’s an awful lot to take in, and we’ve only gouged the surface. Still, it should give you something to think about while you stare at your dwindling bank-balance.

Addendum: I was watching today’s Extra Credits video and they recommended I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream. It’s a dark, grim, mature look at humanity and questions of our right to exist. I haven’t played it personally, but I bought it immediately on their recommendation, because I trust their judgement. Warning: It’s supposed to be very weird. Thankfully, it’s also super cheap.

Horrors in Their Mediums

Posted in All the Things, Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2013 by trivialpunk

Horror is not a plot-line, an aesthetic or a monster. Horror is an experience. In much the same way that a game is not an event displayed on a screen, but rather an experience had by a player, horror is a perceptual trajectory. You start out feeling, seeing and thinking one way and you end up in an entirely different mental location. Once, I had a discussion with a writing professor about a story I was working on. He said he didn’t appreciate being tricked into thinking or feeling a certain way by the format of the story. Really?

We don’t read fiction because we want the truth. We read it because we want to experience A truth. The best way to read a book or watch a magic show is with the understanding that you want to be fooled. If the production is good enough, you’ll forgive the minor annoyances and obvious realities in favour of the grand design. We know magicians aren’t psychics. We know writers can’t control what we feel. At least, we know that as long as we don’t allow them to. Much like hypnotism, the trick is in convincing someone that, yes, they want to –and can– go along with things. It places a lot of trust in the hands of the entertainer (magicians, writers, hypnotists), but that’s part of our covenant as audience and performer.

Last post, I rambled on about the creation of an environment for eliciting fear responses from players in role-playing games. One of the pre-requisites of that was knowing what kind of horror you were producing. I didn’t elaborate too much on that particular topic, because it’s almost as complex as a person is. The fears that plague our nightmares are grotesque manifestations of our hopes and dreams. They are us, taken to an unbearable extreme. Pain plays a harsh solo on our most delicate, life-preserving senses. Claustrophobia is the comfort of enclosure taken to an extreme we are extremely uncomfortable with; it crushes our personal space with its invasion. Psychopaths are the delightfully unpredictable nature of humanity twisted towards an unpleasant end… for someone.

Well, that’s one way to look at fear, anyways. It’s by no means the only way, and it’s not even technically correct, but it will give you a window into someone’s experience of fear. For us, for today, that’s good enough, because, today, we’re going to look into horror within its medium. No curtain held, let’s start with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

caligari

This is an old one, and we’re going back this far for good reason. Over the course of your lifetime, television and movies have changed drastically. However, as you are part of that stream of televised evolution, you might not be wholly aware of how the small differences in production, society and design have changed the opportunities available to directors. Most of them are subtle changes, but two obvious ones that have occurred recently are high-definition and passable CG. You don’t have to look very far back to see some pretty terrible CG monsters, and I’m sure we can guess how that would ruin a good horror movie. However, high-def is an even fouler culprit. Now, we can see way too much of the shiny, bloody bastards, so they’re not as frightening. I’m sure you’re familiar with the notion that exposing the monster too much ruins its mystique and takes away from the element of fear (You know, unless the monster is cleverly designed to be seen, but we’ll get to that…). Not only do we see each and every imperfection on a monster’s body, but with high-def came 60 frames-per-second movies. 1080p, 60 fps movies –initially– look unusual to us, because for most of our lives, we watch the 30 fps movie standard. Ironically, things just move too realistically, too fluidly, in 1080p; they look fake, because we’re used to seeing things a different way. You can see how tweaks to the presenting medium can change an experience drastically. So then, why Caligari? Because, it was made before the introduction of colour.

Look at the walls in the scene, the way the lines on them flow towards a single corner. Notice how they twist your perception of the frame slightly. The entire movie is like this, giving everything a subtly-overtly off feeling. Without the need for canted-cameras, we get a sense of the obtuse. Even the make-up is stark, deliberately so. Shadows are deeper, eyes more sunken, wrinkles far sharper. These are techniques used to get around the limitations of the day, yes, but they are also marked advantages.  The set, colours and tone allow the movie to be what it is. If you tried to paint a set in a similar fashion today, in high-def with colour, it would look like the bathroom at a rave.

Even the silent movie aspect allows for a sense of pacing and emotional reaction that would be impossible now. You don’t have to fill your voice with the quaver of convincing fear; you just have to look terrified. The fewer aspects you have to worry about aligning, the less likely you are to run into a detail that pulls the audience out of the experience. Also, not having to compete with dialogue allows the sound-track to do its thing at whatever levels are required by the emotional content of the current scene. I’m not saying that these things don’t also present their own difficulties, I’m just saying that this particular movie would not be experienced or created the same in today’s popular mediums. Thus, we’ll never again experience the sheer contortion that suffuses The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari in exactly the same way. (Incidentally, you can still find this film. I’d recommend giving it a watch!) But, let’s step even further back…

lovecraft

To the era of Lovecraft. No, not the 60’s, I mean the author, H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft and Stephen King are big names in horror literature, but, as you’ll notice, they each have very different styles. That’s influenced by many different things: personal style, type of horror, experience, society… yeah, almost everything plays into an author’s work, but some things that are easy to parse out are the places and things they describe and how they describe them. Stephen King, often, discusses very banal things. He works to reveal the insane with the mundane through the use of frightening events within familiar locales. Not only that, he’s often quite explicit. This is because the world King is writing for, our world, is bathed in the garish light of revelation. Now, the best way to frighten someone is to show them how terrifying that world can be. Lovecraft, on the other hand, was writing for a very different world.

Lovecraft’s horror is slow-building and ominous. His descriptions of strange, alien places, in themselves, make his work off-putting, in a fashion similar to the way The cabinet of Dr. Caligari used its backgrounds. I was actually discussing this with a colleague the other day. Aside from mentioning that the directorial style of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari was perfect for a Lovecraft movie, she also mentioned something I found singularly enlightening. One of the passages in Lovecraft’s work describes an extremely exotic locale, full of fantastic sights and peculiar peoples. When she read it, she said she stopped for a second and said, “Wait, Lovecraft, that’s just Hawaii. I can hop on a plane and go there right now.” And while I envy the notion of freely travelling, I agree that the world of Lovecraft was still full of incredibly foreign notions.

At the time, English society was still enthralled with the mystic Orientals, the exotic Amazonians and the mysterious Egyptians. Of course, today, we can zoom around these locales on Google Maps, and I attend classes with people from each of these locations. The mysticism has faded from the world’s far reaches in our post-modern age. The strangest, most alien place that impinges on our everyday existence is space. The threats to our well-being are quite well-known, though, so the best way to scare someone now is to simply show them their home in a way they’ve never seen it. And, that could be why Lovecraft is still horrendously, awesomely readable.

Aside from being very well written, Lovecraft shows us our world through the eyes of a profoundly different society. It makes the world itself alien. I once wrote a work that ended up being similar in tone and style to one of Lovecraft’s works. It was criticised for the style of its language because it didn’t feel right next to contemporary references. Yet, it’s that very alien nature that makes the story readable. This comes back, in part, to what I was saying earlier about allowing yourself to experience something. As a contemporary author, people are pulled out of an experience I create with any linguistic style other than my own, but we are ready to accept Lovecraft’s tone because of his time, so we do. This alien acceptance and separation from our own society only magnifies the content of his work: the Eldritch and the Otherworldly. Things that are so absolutely beyond the scope of human experience that experiencing them rends our minds, or, failing that, are so far outside of our grasp that we can’t even perceive them properly. They’re indescribable. Strange, otherworldly geometries. Experience-induced madness. These are roads well-travelled by Lovecraft. This content resonates with the style of his work, amplifying its effect, regardless of the era you’re reading in. Hmm… but, let’s jump from one literary generation to…

Dawww

The wide-world of creepypastas! (If you like the picture, check out the watermark, it’s only fair). Creepypastas are horror stories for the age of the attention derelict. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I love creepypastas; they’re a great way to fit a horror experience into a short span of time. This might sound like a challenge (and it can be), but, again, it’s also an advantage waiting to be exploited. Remember how I said that seeing the monster often reduces its fear-effect? Well, that can apply to many fear-experiences. It’s like porn, most of the time, once you’ve seen the money-shot, the rest is just clean-up. Creepypastas are great for this in that they are almost all pay-off. They’ve got a short establishing section, then it’s right into the horror. Doing this properly can be a real challenge. I know, I’ve tried writing my share, and it’s difficult work.

Each and every section of a creepypasta is incredibly dense. Characterization, motives and monsters are squeezed down into an essential presentation. Yet, since it’s being read by someone ready to accept the world the story quickly presents, these essential elements don’t seem hastily executed on. They’re not being rushed; that’s the format. Even more advantageous, the quick-and-dirty characterization leaves lots of holes for people to fill with their own gooey ego-brains, making it much easier for readers to project themselves into the story. Convincing people to buy into a story, to think about it, and to search for meaning within it, is half the battle when crafting an experience. People reading short-form stories already know that they’re going to have to do just that, which is a huge bonus for any author. Enough foreplay, let’s skip over to games.

fatal-frame-1-screenshot-ghost-battle-capture-circle-ps2-xbox

Aha! You thought I was going to talk about the graphical limitations of the Playstation 2 as it applied to Silent Hill 2! Well, no, I’m not going to mention that the feeling of the oppressive nightmare world was enhanced by the fog that was implemented, in part, in order to deal with the limited draw distance of that generation. Not this time! (DAMMIT! >.<) Silent Hill 2 basically has its own section in this blog. Actually, I might eventually give it its own section, but, until then, we’re going to talk briefly about Fatal Frame, the FPS game about a small, ghost-busting Japanese girl. And, by first-person-shooting, I mean with cameras. Capturing the soul and all that. Sort of. The gist of its inclusion here is that Fatal Frame’s graphical limitations, and the graphical state of the industry in general during the PS2 era, allowed for vague, half-seen shapes and half-loaded polygons to flit, uncriticised, across the screen.

What do I mean by allow? Well, we could certainly create games that looked like PS2-era games, but they wouldn’t be received in nearly the same way. If horror is an experience, then it’s readily affected by expectation. You’ve seen that theme running through this entire post. Like the greater frames-per-second of high-definition, we’re influenced by what we’re used to seeing. What we’re used to seeing becomes what we expect to see. We’re pattern-reading beasts, after all. So, while we can still play excellent games like SPC-Containment Breach, Slender and Penumbra, they feel much less immersive than they would have in the year 2000. Still, if you’ve played Outlast, I’m sure you’ll agree that fantastic visuals aren’t all there is to a game, either. Speaking of, I thought we’d round this out with a brief discussion of the high-definition future of digitaining horror.

We may not have the advantage of iffy hardware excusing shadowy figures, but we do have the advantage of visuals that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Look at Outlast. That game looked amazing, and it was only a little bit of writing and some more organic game-play away from being unforgettably awesome (Still good, though). Even so, the graphical fidelity allowed for some pretty chilling visuals (Horror set-pieces, if you will) and a fantastic initial level of immersion. We can now create horror experiences that are eminently visual in nature. Yes, many horror experiences are ruined by the monster-money-shot, but, sticking with the metaphor, what about bukkake? By which of course I mean, what about horror based around the form of the terror? High-definition visuals don’t have to ruin an experience; they can enable it, too. Look at Uzumaki, the horror story about the spiral. Look at… well, just look at spiders. Clowns. (Getting your finger cut off in Outlast). There are plenty of things that scare us because they’re frightening to look at. We just have to find a way to make players see them as horrific in all of their high-definition glory. Also, we have to remember that it’s not ALL about visuals. Hell, you could copy-paste the game-play of Slender or SPC-CB into a game with better visuals and get positive results.

There’s more to it than that, of course, but it takes that simple idea to shift your focus from hiding the monster to displaying it proudly. It’s the same sort of shift that happens when you go from Lovecraft to Stephen King. They’re both clearly writing horror stories, but it would be difficult to derive one from the other. We need to learn from the wisdom of the past, not try to emulate it. I’ve got faith in our devs; they’re up to the task. That’s not idle speculation, either. This era of video games has several other advantages besides high-definition that developers are taking advantage of.

For instance, our physics engines are on another level compared to where they were only a decade ago, and they’re being utilized by games other than Dark Souls to scare our pants off. Paranormal owes its organic haunting experiences, in part, to its physics engine. Thus, paranormal experiences, bloody telekinetic murders and horrific deaths are entirely possible in today’s industry. While it’s still difficult to translate a physics engine into a decent horror story, our current technology can be used to improve the elements of horror that surround the central narrative. Even so, no one ever said that every horror experience had to have a plot. Sometimes, it just has to have a monster.

That’s enough for a multi-player experience and,  relative to history, our multi-player infrastructure is second-to-none. Look at Damned. A game like Damned (on Steam) would never have been able to exist in the pre-broad-band era. Yeah, we had large StarCraft, Quake and Counter-Strike communities, but that’s because… well, that’s most of what we had, besides a few MMOs. We didn’t have gaming platforms designed specifically to bring people to game lobbies. Okay, it’s a little annoying that the next-gen consoles are pushing the open-world, on-line, multi-player aspects of their games so hard, especially for those of us that want a tight, coherent narrative, but that set-up is also enabling some pretty awesome experiences. We just have to design them and find them.

The gaming landscape is changing, so horror experiences have to change with it. That doesn’t mean we abandon the past, though. No, it’s the best source of information on how we can adapt our current understandings of horror to the Eldritch world of next-gen gaming. Some people may say that horror is dead, but they’re just pessimists (When has that stopped a shambling grotesquery before?). Maybe the type of horror we once knew is fading into the shadows, waiting for another day to rend our flesh with its dripping jaws, but horror itself will persist as long as we do. From my perspective, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the terror we can render in 1080p.

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.

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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

GTAV, Art and Dat GameSpot Review

Posted in Everything Else, Game Guts with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 18, 2013 by trivialpunk

I’ll post the review I wrote later. This needs to be discussed.

Yesterday, I pulled up a video game review on GameSpot and read some of the comments related to it, both on Twitter and on the site. Some people seem to be lining up on two fictitious, dichotomous sides on this one, and I think that’s terrible. I also think that’s pretty normal, honestly. However, I do believe that we need to develop a dialogue if we’re actually going to do some good here, so I’d like to invite you to read the article first. Don’t worry, it’s for GTAV, so it’s topical. You’re not really going to get what I’m talking about unless you do, so I’ll wait. Read some of the comments, too. Select “Top Comments” if you want to get some more perspectives on this. At time of writing, they haven’t descended into drivel. … Got it? Good.

I’ve never had an answer to a question concerning art or society that didn’t come with a caveat. Life is a complicated thing; you and I both know this. Society is infinitely more so. Keep that in mind and always dig. Always ask questions; never be satisfied with an answer if it seems too simple. That’s what I’m here to do today: ask questions and ruminate a little. I invite you to do the same. This is still through my eyes, though, so feel free to add your own perspective.

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If you read the article, then you’ll know by now that we’re talking about a review of GTAV by one of the ladies over at GameSpot. Apparently, she didn’t think it was perfect, so she gave it a 9/10.

That’s when everyone went crazy.

Of course, a gentleman over at the Escapist gave it a much, much lower score because the protagonists were depressing, and I have my own problems with the idea that we shouldn’t have evil protagonists, especially in a game where you pile up chopper kills like the vicious individual your character is, but that garnered a whole different type of hate.

The GameSpot review marked the game down for two points: 1. Being profoundly misogynistic. 2. Occasionally inconsistent character behaviour.

Now, if we’re talking about deeply flawed characters in a sub-culture that practically breathes coercion, I’m not sure you CAN have an inconsistent character. I have never met a consistent person in my life. Individuals piece together ideas of consistency and, in large part, we may appear consistent, but there will always be times in your life where you act outside of the norm for who you believe yourself to be. So, how can characters as fleshed out as they are in the game act inconsistently? I’m not sure, I haven’t played it through yet. Even so, it’s up to you to judge.

That’s only a side-note, though. We’re really here to talk about the idea that the game is misogynistic, how people reacted to the proposition and what kind of issues we’re really facing as an industry approaching an art-form.

Some people took this event as an opportunity to reconfirm their ideas about “femi-nazis.” Others took it as an opportunity to communicate the lack of attention women’s rights are getting because of how our society is organized. I don’t see a comprehensive answer in ignoring either of those perspectives. You see, when we approach society, we must always remember that it is a great, amorphous, fractured thing. As much as it’s unified, it’s also made up of billions of individual people that started their life, and therefore their development and experience within culture, when they were born. We’ve each got a limited perspective, and we’ve each had valid life experiences. Temporarily entertaining that notion is the price of entry into the next bit of this post, so I hope you’re on-board.

Is GTAV misogynistic? Does it hate women? That’s a complicated question. Do the characters in the game treat women well? When you see a woman, what is she doing? How are others treating her? How do you have the option to treat her? How are women, in general, portrayed? Why?

These are important questions, because misogyny is never about saying you “just don’t like them women-folk very much.” At least, it isn’t usually. But, that definitely happens. Misogyny is about organizing events and representations of women such that they are treated and perceived in a negative way. Everyone knows that literally not treating women as citizens was a dick move and obviously misogynistic, but misogyny has less-obvious forms. Depictions of women in films as either bitchy man-haters or flimsy stock-characters is a form of it. It might not seem like much, but those depictions help inform your understanding of society, and it WILL feedback into how you understand the people around you, especially if you see more television than people. You’re not stupid, though. You question those things when you see them, but you’ve glossed over some of them. I’m pretty sure most people have; I know I have. No one I know is perfect, and that’s okay.

So, I ask again, how are you invited to understand the women in this world?

We’re not done here, though, this is a deep, deep rabbit hole I’m inviting you down. The Escapist review of the game marked it down because the main characters were –using his word here– evil. So, based on that, how are you invited to understand the world’s men? Consider it carefully. Finally, let’s combine the two: how are you asked to understand people and their interpersonal dynamics? What relationships exist in this world to act as representations of humanity?

Okay, that’s the surface layer. As people, we must realize that there are many, many different lives going on all around us. The world teems with secret sub-cultures and worlds beyond our experience. As a writer, I’ve spent a lot of time delving as far into as many of them as I can, and I’ve only barely scratched the surface of my –local– culture. That being said, somewhere, there are people similar in personality to the individuals in the game. As a series, GTA has always invited us to step into their strange worlds. These are lifestyles most of us won’t brush up against, let alone experience. This comes down to my next point: a sandbox is not necessarily an RPG.

Yes, we’re role-playing, but we’re not really character building. The scripted events and available choices you have will always narrow down who your character is for you, whether you realize it or not. Is there an option in the game to sit the fuck down and go to night-school while you work early mornings as a garbage man? Can you progress the storyline that way? No, I didn’t think so. For all the talk of freedom, we’re still limited, but that’s not a bad thing. That’s how you tell a story. A story about everything is a bad, impossible story.

While we are quite free, we’re still living in someone else’s life, in a sub-culture whose exploitation of women for money is, traditionally, stereotypically, beyond despicably common. That’s who these people are; that’s the story we’re telling. Could the game tell its story and not involve heavy layers of misogyny? Not if we’re going to be true-to-life. Could you do a protagonist sex-swap and tell the same story in exactly the same way? Not in the circles you have to run in in the game. I’m not saying that all career criminals are women-hating gadabouts, I know a fair few progressive ones, but the culture that surrounds the main characters is steeped in feminine exploitation. You’d have to tell a hell of a different story of clawing your way to the top.

Exploitation is an inescapable part of the game’s story, but how does the game itself handle it? Again, I can’t answer that for you.

I’ve heard that the game’s extreme celebration of masculinity is supposed to be satirical, and that’s definitely one way to look at it, and I’ll leave that to your interpretation, too. You’ll have to remember when you play it that an important part of satire is commentary. What is it saying? Is it saying anything? Are we to understand that the massive explosions and impossibly over-the-top story-missions are a portion of the commentary? Juxtaposition is a powerful tool, after all.

Another point I’ve heard brought up is that it’s just a game. It made me cringe a bit, but lots of people see games that way, even some gamers. There are a fair few people who see it as an emerging art-form, and I’m one of them. Again, sorry, the price of entry here is entertaining that premise. If games are art, then they need to be able to explore tough topics. They need to be able to show us and comment on uncomfortable aspects of society. However, that doesn’t preclude them from criticism; it invites it, in fact.  This game is a cultural artifact that has been created to represent our society, all of it, not just the salient, criminal aspects. More importantly, it’s an interactive artifact that invites us to live a portion of our life through it. This makes how it does so that much more important.

Again, though, we understand that it’s a game. It is something we experience and, so, something we judge. By experiencing the game, we can be brought to question, or we can be taught a way to think. This isn’t going to affect everyone universally. We are going to have individual reactions to the game. One of the reasons it’s a Mature-rated game is that it requires a critical eye to fully appreciate. After all, it wasn’t until much later in life that I asked why all the White Mages in Final Fantasy were women. It could be a world thing or a monastic Order thing. That’s not the present issue. The issue is that I didn’t notice or question it at the time. This isn’t exclusively a youngin’ thing, either. Humans can’t think about everything that crosses their path. They just can’t. Like, literally.

However, the difference between this game and Final Fantasy is that GTAV has direct manifestations within society. I’m not saying you’ll definitely be affected by it, but you must consider the idea.

Again, I’m not telling you exactly what I think. I want to stir discussion, not dispense a fully-formed opinion. So, how does knowing it’s a game affect your experience of the events within it?

You might be asking yourself, why is this an issue now? GTA has been a long-running series, and it hasn’t deviated from itself much. It’s still a ton of fun; no one is disputing that, but we can’t pretend it hasn’t been questioned in the past. The difference is, I’m not saying it’s a murder simulator. BUT, I am saying that if games are to be taken more seriously, then they Are going to come under harsher critical scrutiny. That’s one of the reasons gender politics have been popping up more and more in relation to gaming. Portions of the gaming community have a long history of treating women, both on-screen and on-line, poorly. Getting better, but still pretty bad. I’ve heard people say that it’s not enough and complain when people bring up examples of our progress, BECAUSE it’s not enough. I’m going to blow your minds: I think they’re right. HOWEVER, I do think that we need to acknowledge our strides.

It’s not the 1950’s any more. It’s certainly not the utopian future either, though. Either way, you can’t change the world, or people, overnight.

“Why do we have to bother with politics?” I’ve heard time and again, “It didn’t used to matter.” Well, actually, it did. Many of us just didn’t pay it much mind. We can’t really do that now. I mean, if you just want to play games, then more power to you, but the industry needs to pay attention. Art cannot divorce itself from politics. Of any kind. It’s the duty of art to comment, represent, pose questions and stir inquiry.

If nothing else, GTAV is doing that. But, what is it doing as a piece of art that represents society and allows you to explore it? In other words, what part of you is represented in GTAV? Take a minute.

Alright, let’s take a step back from that and return to the review. If you’ve been following along with my little questions, then you’ve got all these things bubbling away in your head. Bring up the part about how the game represents, and invites you to treat, the average woman within it. Now, how does experiencing that treatment make you feel? If you’re a guy, then how would that make you feel if they swapped all the sexes around? Really consider it.

Well, it didn’t make that GameSpot reviewer, Carolyn Petit, feel very good. Put yourself in her shoes. You’ve got a great game in front of you, but you can’t shake the feeling it gives you. What do you do?

It’s worth remembering that reviews are subjective things. You can’t actually do an objective review of the experience of a game. That –actually– doesn’t make sense. When I review a game (Yeah, it’s been a bit. Don’t worry, got some coming), I find it helps to start with how the experience left me feeling. I also record mid-game feels and pre-game expectations. Then, I dive into the mechanics of the game, what I know about the state/history of the industry and the story of the game itself. After that, I go through and try to piece together how that experience was achieved, where it fell short, where it excelled and why I felt the way I did.

Carolyn gave the game a 9/10, because she felt there was an issue with this incarnation of the series. I know we’re used to score-inflation, but 9/10 is amazing. I don’t think her integrity could have let her say it was perfect. I know if I had an issue I cared about, I wouldn’t say a game that I felt handled it poorly was perfect.

For example, one of my grandparents is from a group of people that experienced near-complete genocide. Do you think I could 100%-awesome a game that I felt treated it like it wasn’t a big deal, even if it was a tongue-in-cheek, satirical fantasy about something unrelated? No.

If the duty of a reviewer is to critique games. And being an art-form invites critique. And art cannot be divorced from politics. Then, Carolyn acted bravely and correctly. This is my conclusion. So, kudos from me to her, because she’s getting a lot of hate she doesn’t deserve. These may be the growing pains of a developing artistic medium, but that doesn’t lessen the force for those who experience it. Phil Fish would certainly agree.

Maybe she didn’t feel like anyone else would comment on the issue. Maybe she felt that she needed to stick by her guns. Maybe she felt like injecting the idea into the community. Maybe she believes we need to move forward in the same way I do. Whatever her reasons, integrity is what we want in a reviewer. Without integrity, we’re just for sale. The minute the content of our words is for sale, you can’t trust a damn thing we say.

You’ve been here for a while, so I’m going to wrap up with one last consideration. Should this game have been made to be accessible to everyone? Yes, art needs to be bold to make a point, but games are a special brand of art-form in that they’re also, directly, an industry. An industry in which GTA is a massive player. Rockstar Games KNEW that it was going to be released to, and played by, almost every gaming demographic. Did they have a responsibility to make it so that it could be comfortably played by everyone? Is being comfortable really what we want right now? To be complacent in an artistic medium can be dangerous.

Again, it’s more than an art-form; it’s also an industry. Making a separate campaign to appeal to another demographic would have been expensive. Would it be fair to ask them to spend even more money to realize another universe within the game? Should we question the artistic integrity of an industry that literally runs on money? Are we willing to judge it by its artistic merit and hold many interpretations in our mind? Because, like people, like society, the gaming industry isn’t universally consistent. It’s a fractured, amorphous thing.

We should expect that a piece of art as inflammatory as this will make some people uncomfortable. We should also listen to those people, because they may see something we don’t. After all, we can’t see everything at once. Maybe part of what we can take away from the reaction to this game is that we need to respect each other a bit more.

We can be a badass, cop-killing, helicopter-crashing, car-stealing mothafucka all we want in-game. It’s part of what the universe invites us to do. However, out here, respect means more than a double-tap. It means listening to and thinking about other people’s perspectives.

There’s no right answer here, no matter what anyone tells you. There are definitely better and worse answers, but we’re not here to judge. We’re here to inquire.

See you on the other side.

P.S. I invite you to openly critique my conclusions. Also, this week’s house-cleaning: The new story is up. Here’s another video. It’s part 2 of Psychonauts this time! Cheers!