The First (and Last?) Few Hours: Alien Isolation

[Before I begin, I'd like to bestow hearty congratulations to Davey Wreden, whose magnificent Stanley Parable has sold one million copies.]

I do not know if I will finish Alien: Isolation, but I’m not sure that I need to.  I’m probably 7-8 hours into it by this point, and a rather large percentage of that time has been spent hiding in lockers and under desks, and, I mean, I get it.

For all its flaws (and it has a bunch, of which I’ll get to in a second), A:I has triumphantly succeeded in a very specific and important way; instead of aping the frenetic shoot-em-up action of the sequel (which would really just make it your standard sci-fi shooter), it understands what makes the first movie so great, which is to say that it’s captured the feeling of helplessness and pure dread better than anything else I’ve played in recent memory.

You have to hide in this game, because you cannot fight.  This is not to say that you’re powerless – you do have weapons, and you can certainly use them to kill, if you must.  But firing a gun will almost always draw the attention of the Alien, and once the Alien spots you, it’s more or less “game over, man.”

And if you’re playing this game with a good set of stereo headphones, every single goddamned noise you hear will set you on edge, ducking for cover, holding your breath and quickly opening your motion tracker to figure out where the sound is coming from.  I’m not sure I’ve experienced ambient noise design this effectively creepy since the first Bioshock.

Unlike other “horror” games, it does not revel in grotesque imagery – indeed, while the game’s environments are graphically impressive, its humans are surprisingly weird-looking, and while there are plenty of dead bodies strewn about, they’re never disgusting or gross – if anything, they’re kinda just sad.  Nor is A:I’s horror mostly based in jump scares; I’m almost never startled.  I mean, I’m in a constant state of worry anyway, because of the sounds in the vents, or because my motion tracker will occasionally beep with alarm, or I’ll see the glowing, super-creepy eyes of the Working Joes off in the distance.  And if I am surprised, I am also then immediately flooded with more worry and anxiety, because the monster is right there, and if I can’t hide in time then not only will I die, violently, but I’ll also lose the last 20-30 minutes since my last save, and ugh.

Now, about those flaws I mentioned.

The save system has been frequently mentioned in reviews as a negative design flaw; there’s no checkpoint system, and because the Alien (almost) never appears in the same place twice, you can either lose 20 seconds or 20 minutes if you’re not careful.  I’ve been a victim of this problem, but I can’t really call it a design flaw; it seems like a deliberate choice, and it’s one of the few ways that a horror game can actually make you feel that there are stakes involved.   That said, it’s a system that can also be abused; if you find a save point, you can also just forge ahead loudly and un-stealthily and see what there is to see, knowing that if you die, you won’t have lost very much, and that you’ll know how to better achieve your objective when you try for real.

The objectives, though?  Those things that you have to do in order to progress?  Ugh.  So dumb.  So inelegant.  So basic, artless, arbitrary, forgettable, cliches that were tired a dozen years ago.   The reason why I don’t care if I see the end of this game is because I barely care about what I’m already doing.  I need to find medical supplies to aid my colleague; but they’re on another level of the ship, because of course they are.  I get to that level; I find a doctor.  The doctor agrees to help, but only if I help him first, and I’ve already forgotten what it is I need to do for him, and in any event I have to do everything myself because of reasons.  Meanwhile, the Alien is near, and while there are lots of people on the ship, the Alien seems mostly interested in chasing me.

Whatever – I find the medical supplies and return to my fallen comrade.  And the head of the ship’s security system is there, too!  How fortuitous!  Except he’s also sending me out on security missions, which is not my job.

It’s great that the player character, Ripley fille, is a tough, no-nonsense woman who holds her own as well as anyone else in the game.  She is nobody’s princess; nobody needs to rescue her.  It’s just a shame that the stuff she’s being asked to do is so mundane.



of Aliens, White Vans and Bone Clocks

Probably not a lot of posting this week, for reasons I can’t quite get into.  I mean, it’s Wednesday already, you’ve probably figured that out.

I’m not quite ready to do a First Few Hours of Alien Isolation, though maybe later this week I’ll have played enough to give a solid impression.  It’s super-creepy, incredibly immersive, and it hits all the right notes for fans of the first Alien movie (of which I am one).  A short, gut impression is that it feels like Dead Space set in the Alien universe, with the best ambient sound design since the first Bioshock.  Headphones (or a good soundsystem) are mandatory.

I finished reading John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van the other night, and it is remarkable; certainly one of the best books I’ve read this year.  I went into it more or less blind; I knew of the author’s reputation as one of the best lyricists of this era (though I must confess I haven’t listened to his band, The Mountain Goats); I have a few friends who think very highly of him.  And as for the book itself, I was dimly aware that the narrator had been in a terrible disfiguring accident in his youth and that he runs an interactive role-playing game through the mail; that’s pretty much it.  To say much more is probably too much.  It’s startlingly well written and uniquely insightful, and that ending.

Currently reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks, which I had been intimidated by for months but finally started yesterday, and it’s already knocking my socks off.  Man, it’s really nice to be in one of those grooves where every book you read is really enjoyable and satisfying, isn’t it?  I’m looking over my “2014 Books Read” list and of the 13 books I’ve finished, I can’t give anything lower than a B-.  That’s a nice run.

Your mandatory reading for today – if you didn’t read it yesterday – is Kyle Wagner’s piece about Gamergate.

And your hashtag of the day is #StopGamerGate2014.

SFTC Mach II: Jazz Odyssey

1.  Since I decided to shut up the other day, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.  And one of the things I’ve been considering is to widen the scope of this blog to cover books, films and music.  (Well, film not as much, as I don’t get that much of an opportunity to see new films in theaters, what with the kid and all – but perhaps looking at older movies that have been on my to-do list for some time.)   I’m interesting in doing this if only because sometimes (like right now, actually) I get down on games, and when I’m down I tend not to write, and I’d much rather be writing than not.  Like:  I’d much rather talk about how much I enjoyed reading Whiskey Tango Foxtrot instead of how much I’m not enjoying playing Shadow of Mordor.

I’ll also be posting recommended reading links more often, rather than hoarding them in a GoogleDoc for the end of the year.  I ran across 2 necessary links yesterday, for example, that I highly recommend:

2.  Regarding the aforementioned Whiskey Tango Foxtrot:  I can’t recall how it was recommended to me, but in any event I’m really glad I picked it up.  It’s ostensibly a paranoid sci-fi thriller about espionage, secret knowledge and post-government corporate cabals gathering all of our private data, but it’s also quite charmingly written and features 3 broken protagonists that I related to a lot more strongly than I’d anticipated.  It’s not necessarily poetically written, but I did get a lot of mileage out of my Kindle’s “highlight” feature – there’s a bunch of really wonderful, insightful, deeply resonating passages that struck me deeply.  From descriptions of ceiling fans:

“There was a ceiling fan in her two-room flat; it was on now. But it whorled and kerchonked around at such an unstable and idiotic rate that what it gave in breeze it took back in worry.”

to descriptions of regret:

There is a club for these people, the people who have waited outside the burning houses knowing that they will not go back in and knowing that the not-going-back-in will ruin them.

to achingly heartbreaking professions of love:

How long do you think a weak-minded addict will stay on the shelf? Because that day you walked in? That day I saw you? I swear, my heart slowed and my breath came easier. All that rabbiting I do—it just stopped. Not stopped by like magic, but stopped with reason. You are as strange and amazing as anything my stupid little brain has ever come up with, and you are from outside of it. You have no idea what great news that is. And I’m going to lift some copy here, but there is a time for everything, that day and night here you were the still point of the turning world, and I knew for sure that I had a place in it. That place is next to you…

I really am quite sure that there is something we’re supposed to do together, that there is more that is supposed to go on between us. Aren’t you? Isn’t there a held breath in your life right now? I’ve missed a few boats already, and I really don’t want to miss this one too. I realize that in that metaphor or analogy or whatever, you are a boat. That doesn’t really quite get what I mean, because I am also a boat. We are both boats and we are both passengers. We should not miss each other.

3.  As for music:  I highly, highly recommend the new Flying Lotus album “You’re Dead”.  I don’t yet know how to fully articulate my feelings about it; it has a density and depth that defies my attempts to describe it, which really just means I need another few dozen listens before I can wrap my head around it.  But if you’re already predisposed to what Flying Lotus does, then you’ve probably already picked it up.

4.  As we approach the end of 2014, I’m no longer as intimidated by the game release schedule as I thought I’d be.  By my count, there’s really only 4 AAA must-plays left on my list, a few indie/downloadable things I’m most likely buying close to day one, and a bunch of curiosities that I may or may not get to in an expedient fashion.

The Must-Plays:

  • Civilization: Beyond Earth
  • Assassin’s Creed Unity (heretofore named AssUnit)
  • Far Cry 4
  • Dragon Age Inquisition

The Indies/Downloadables:

  • Geometry Wars 3
  • Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris

The Curiosities:

  • Evil Within
  • Vib Ribbon (almost bought this the other day for the Vita, actually)
  • Costume Quest 2
  • The Vanishing of Ethan Carter (which I’m almost certainly buying if it’s in a Steam Sale)
  • Driveclub (whenever the PS+ version is finally out, at any rate)
  • Little Big Planet 3 (if my kid likes watching it, I might keep it)
  • The Crew

It also should be noted that if Sunset Overdrive reviews well, and if the Halo boxset isn’t terrible, then I’m probably getting an Xbox One.  I’m still kinda tempted to maybe wait a little longer and see if Microsoft comes out with a redesign – considering that they’ve already cut out the Kinect, it’s not totally unreasonable to think that they might come out with a newer box featuring better optimized specs – but I probably won’t be able to wait that long.  I’m still itching to play Forza Horizon 2 and I’d like to be able to try it while there’s still a strong player base.

Here’s to Shutting Up

I’m back in the world, more or less, after 4-5 days away from everything.  And I have to admit that it was kinda wonderful to be away from the internet; to just focus on being with my family, and enjoying the outdoors, and watching my son explore the world around him.

And now I’m back, and I’m getting caught up on what I missed in the eternity that is 4-5 days of internet time, and I’m feeling kinda gross, to be honest.  I wanted to write a bit more about Shadow of Mordor, but all I can think about is “Trouble At the Koolaid Point“, which makes writing impressions of videogames feel awfully trite.

Seriously:  read that link.  It’s the latest of many similar stories that I’ve been collecting this year, and it’s still just as devastating as the rest.

So rather than blathering about a game that I haven’t even finished (but which has significant problems that make me question whether I should even bother), I’m just going to shut up for a while, and figure out how to write about the thing I love in a way that actually matters.

The First Few Hours: Shadow of Mordor

This is all true:  tomorrow morning we’re getting the heck outta Dodge for a few days, but my brain is already there.  I’m unplugging from the internet, Twitter, social media, gaming, Clicker Heroes, and just thinking about it is making me impatient.  I’m even debating keeping my phone in airplane mode (even though we’re driving).  The only technology I’m considering packing is my Kindle and maybe my iPad (and the latter is mostly for the kid’s sake).

I’m gonna try to write about Shadow of Mordor anyway.

The title of this post is misleading, I should say right off the bat – I’m probably only an hour into it at most.  Per the advice of reviews/Twitfriends, I’m sticking to the main story and maintaining a stealthy approach, so I’ve only done the first 3 missions and nothing on the side.  I’m glad I took that advice, because the game doesn’t really present itself as necessitating a stealth-first approach (regardless of the tutorial where you press [] to kiss your wife ).



If anything, the game’s first impression immediately brings both Assassin’s Creed and the Batman: Arkham games to mind, where you want to dive into a group of orcs and lay waste (all while carefully pressing the counter button when prompted).  Doing so in the early going promptly gets you killed, though, and getting killed makes the orc who killed you more powerful, and at this point we’ve all heard about the Nemesis system.  I very quickly stopped jumping into the fray and started switching up my tactics, and the game is pleasant enough at handling that sort of recon/stealth action, and so once I realized how I was supposed to play it, I started relaxing a bit.

There’s a lot to focus on in the early going.  There’s the nemesis system; there’s the main story but also side quests; there’s hidden artifacts (which you have to be in elf-form to discover, which took me a while to figure out); there’s orcs you can brand to gain intel (I accidentally stealth killed one of them by mistake… oops); there’s a weapon upgrade system (which involves runes you only get from killing enemies) and an ability upgrade system; there’s also flower picking (?!) and various environmental quests that go along with the flower picking (!?); and by a certain point I was feeling overwhelmed with all the stuff I had to learn, all on top of each other.  It’s the sort of situation where I know I’ll understand all this stuff in a few more hours of playtime, when the tutorials slow down, but it feels rather hasty and almost clumsy in the early going.

That being said, I’m grateful for a number of things that I’d forgotten I’d missed after spending so many hours with Destiny:

  • the ability to pause at any given moment
  • the ability to keep playing if my internet (or if PSN) goes down

I’m looking forward to getting back to it; I just hope I haven’t forgotten everything by the time I get back online.



Random Ramblings: October edition

1.  What I’m about to write may very well turn you off from reading this site for the rest of your internet-using life, but it’s the honest-to-goodness truth:  I have never been a fan of Halloween.  I love fall foliage, I love the baseball playoffs, I love wearing warm sweaters, I love that it’s finally decorative gourd season, I really love candy, and I am hopeful that I will finally find a halfway decent gluten-free pumpkin pie this year.  But Halloween has never been my bag.

There are two reasons for this.  The first is that the older kids in my suburban neighborhood really got into the pre-Halloween vandalism routine, and even as a little kid it kinda pissed me off to find eggs and toilet paper all over the trees, driveways and mailboxes of my street.  Halloween is “scary”, sure, but this felt legitimately dangerous and personal.  This eventually put me off trick-or-treating altogether, and the honest truth is that I was happier handing candy out than I was going out and begging for it.

The second is that I was terrible at costumes.  Had no brain for it, no passion for it, and while my mom tried her darnedest, I never quite got the hang of it.

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All this being said, I am determined to prevent my curmudgeonly attitude from rubbing off on my kid.  If he wants to enjoy Halloween, I will put my big-boy pants on and make sure he has as much fun as he can.

2.  I got impatient and decided to buy the digital download version of Shadow of Mordor yesterday afternoon, but it had only downloaded about 68% of itself when I finally got a chance to turn on my PS4.  This ultimately meant that I could only play the first 10 minutes – the early tutorial, right up to the delayed title screen – before the game kicked me back to the main menu.  Obviously I can’t offer much in the way of impressions, though I will echo Carolyn Petit’s annoyed and astute observation that, yet again, a woman has to die so that the (male) hero has something to do.  Someone else on twitter also pointed out (and I’m sorry I can’t remember who) that it’s only the wife whose death is shown on screen – the camera moves away from the necks of the son and the father.

3.  So I ended up going back to Destiny, where I puttered around for an hour or two; ran some patrols, cashed in quite a few bounties, and finally started 2 exotic weapon quests.  (One quest requires me to visit the weekend merchant; as I’m away this weekend, that’ll have to be postponed for another week.)  As it’d been a while since my last visit, I wasn’t consumed with any particular feeling towards it (beyond impatience at SoM’s slow download progress – and I’m sure that being online in Destiny held up the works considerably, too), and so I was able to turn off my brain for a bit and just shoot things to death.  Destiny is a much better experience when you have no expectations and don’t care that nothing makes any narrative, logical sense.  Indeed, this is why it can be pleasurable to zone out to Diablo 3, too; you relax and elect to simply concentrate on your mechanics and technique and before you know it a few hours have gone by.  The bummer of it all is that even after the few hours I sunk in, I still didn’t pick up any gear with keeping, which is why it can be hard to not feel like I’m literally killing time.

4.  Speaking of mindless grinding and killing time, it’s been 3 days and I am fully addicted to Clicker Heroes, this year’s edition of Cookie Clicker.  I urge you to be careful of clicking that link.   If you have already clicked that link and are in the throes of paralysis as I am, well:  I’ve gotten to level 100 and ascended, and now I’m already up to level 50 on my second run, and the whole goddamned thing is absurd and I don’t understand why it’s so compelling and I need to switch my tab over to make sure I’m properly leveled up please god help

On The Outside, Looking In

far side dog

I’m in a weird head space today, where I’m wanting to write about games and such but I haven’t turned on any of my consoles since the middle of last week.  It’s not just that I’ve been busy, or out of town (both of which are true); it’s also simply that I’ve been exhausted.  I’d thought about popping in Destiny for a little while last night, but the day had already run pretty long by the time I had access to the TV, and I ended up passing out before 9:00 pm.  (Here’s an oft-repeated but still you-don’t-understand-until-it-happens-to-you truth about parenting:  there is no such thing as sleeping in.  At this point, I’d honestly consider waking up at 7:00 am a goddamned tropical vacation.)

And truth be told, I’m still in a weird head space about Destiny, too.  I’m stuck at level 21 and by this point I’d imagine that most of the people on my PSN friends list are way beyond me; I was already 2-3 levels behind when I was playing on a regular basis, and by now I’m sure they’re at 27-29, which means that I can’t run strikes with them with any hope of being effective, and I’m afraid that they won’t bother running strikes with me unless they’re feeling extra generous with their time; I mean, why bother doing level 20 strikes when you can get better gear playing at your own level?  This is why Destiny’s post-20 leveling system bums me out, at least when compared to Diablo 3 – I can take my level 70 Monk into a friend’s low-level game and still pick up decent gear at a steady clip (even if it’s all ultimately salvage), whereas in Destiny, even shooting at a Loot Cave for an hour doesn’t necessarily give you a strong return on your time investment.

And yet, given the absence of something else to play right now*, I still kinda want to jump in and play.  Before I left this past weekend I’d manage to finish 2 of those limited-time Queen bounties, and I’d like to be able to do a few more (and maybe even cash in a Queen Mission) before the event closes.  Even if I can’t get that far, though, there’s still a part of me that would like to be able to do a few strikes, hopefully get lucky with some drops, and gain a level or two before finally giving up in favor of the rest of the fall release schedule.  There’s just enough in Destiny’s post-cap endgame that makes me want to stay engaged.

That said, a larger part of this pull I’m feeling is that Destiny is still what most of my gaming friends and the community at large are talking about.  For better and/or worse, it’s dominated the Twitterverse ever since its release, and with each passing hour that I’m offline, I’m feeling further and further removed from the conversation.

As Patrick Klepek wrote in this weekend’s GB column, “Social Gaming and the Fear of Missing Out“:

With an hour to spare last week, I hopped online and started completing some bounties, one of the easiest ways to stack experience while playing. Two friends joined up, and helped me grind through what amounted to little more than fetch quests and shooting galleries for an hour. Even though our actions were hardly engaging, the act of doing them together was tremendous fun, if only a glorified chat room.

Once the bounties were cashed in, though, my friends were debating the next move. All of them were well past level 20, though, which meant the content I was playing through couldn’t help them meaningfully advance their equipment. Even though I was the party leader, I was the one who had to leave, forced to venture out on my own again. I hopped into a nearby strike, got myself assigned to a few random players, and went to it. We won. Some stuff dropped. But it wasn’t the same. There was only silence.

Granted, none of this is Destiny’s fault. To the contrary, it’s what Bungie wants, what these games thrive on. You could argue the existence of a loot vault, a void in which players shot mindlessly for hours, says more about what Destiny gets wrong than what it gets right. But that would be missing the point. These collective experiences, even when driven by exploitations of code, are entirely the point. These marks in time wouldn’t be possible in single-player. Individualized watercooler moments from the night discussed at the office the next day become shared experiences given more power from the group ownership.

I’ve been struggling with managing this Fear of Missing Out for a long time, I think.  It’s probably the primary force behind this blog; if I can’t get paid to write about the games I play, well, I still want to play as much as I can and write about it and talk about it with other people who are in on the conversation.  I love games, I love thinking about games, and when a game this huge is out and occupying so much of our collective brains, I want to be able to dive in to the conversation and contribute in a meaningful way.  It’s no fun being on the outside looking in.

Ironically, it’s this same Fear of Missing Out that will make it a bit easier for me to pull myself away from Destiny once I get my hands on Shadow of Mordor, even if, due to Gamefly’s mailing schedule, I won’t get my hands on it until Thursday (and, because of family stuff, won’t get any meaningful playtime with it until next Monday night, post-Gotham).  Hell, I’m even tempted to just say fuck it and order the digital version of SoM so I can at least get some quality time with it before I leave town this weekend.

It is what it is, I suppose.  In the meantime I’ve got Clicker Heroes running in the background and I suppose the less said about that the better.

*  Even given my aforementioned lack of free time and a relative shortage of expendable income, I nearly pulled the trigger on The Vanishing of Ethan Carter yesterday.  But then I learned that there’s a PS4 version due next year.  Now, my PC is a few years old and can make certain games look quite nice – and it passes the minimum specs according to Can You Run It? – but everything I’ve heard about VoEC is that it’s one of the most gorgeous games ever made.  So as much as it hurts to wait, I’m tempted to hold out for the PS4 version, which I know will look better than what my PC can currently do.  There’s no current date on the PS4 version beyond a vague “some point in 2015“, though, so you can probably guess that this will come down to a rigged coin flip.

Brendan Keogh

Writer. Critic. Academic.


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