weekend recap: notes and errata

This weekend we celebrated my son’s 1st birthday, and as such there was not a tremendous amount of time for gaming – so I’m still in a holding pattern as far as Infamous Second Son and MGS Ground Zeroes are concerned. Still, there’s a couple things that I wanted to talk about, so here we go:

1.  In my haste to get that Tokyo Police Club post out the door, I completely forgot to include what is arguably the most important point I was trying to make:

In this current social and economic climate, where trying to make a living as a professional musician is arguably as difficult as it’s ever been because nobody buys records anymore and revenue from streaming services like Spotify is laughable at best, and for a band that’s trying as hard as it possibly can to prove to both its old fans and its potential new ones that it didn’t hit its creative peak 8 years ago, it takes an astounding set of brass balls to have the first (and best) song on your new album be nearly 9 minutes long.  And because the song is so good precisely because of how well-constructed it is, and because editing it for the purposes of making it a single kinda defeats the song’s whole purpose, it seems improbable that it’ll see any significant radio/airplay.  (It is fortunate – and probably much appreciated by the record label – that the 2nd song (“Hot Tonight“) is also quite catchy and hummable and ear-wormy.)  But still:  I remain impressed that they did what they did.  Bands don’t often get a chance to make more than 3 albums these days before either getting dropped from the label or just imploding naturally.  If this album tanks, it may very well be the end of TPC – I suspect there’ll be a solo album or two from the singer, but you can only hang on to your dream for so long before the bills start to pile up.

2.  I did manage to squeeze in a little bit of Bioshock Infinite: Burial At Sea Pt. 2.  I’m not quite sure how far I am into it, and so I’m reluctant to discuss it in great detail.  But there are certainly things about it that merit discussion.

My relationship with the Bioshock franchise is in a difficult place, to be honest.  I’m still in love with the technical side of the game – the graphics and audio remain superlative, and it’s very difficult to play the game without wanting to take screenshots at every single moment.  It is more that my appreciation for the games’ narrative ambitions – even if they’re not entirely coherent – are directly at odds with their gameplay, which I’ve always found problematic.  As it happens, I fell in love with BAS2 pretty much immediately, and remained enthralled with it… right up until I picked up my first weapon, and then my heart sank a bit.

That this episode switches the emphasis from shooting to stealth is a very smart move, and in retrospect it feels incredibly obvious, and I’m certainly not the first to make the observation that it’s entirely possible that the entire franchise might’ve benefited greatly from being a stealth-focused shooter right from the get-go.  It’s just that…. well… considering how much intelligence went into crafting every other element of these games, making the game combat-focused above all else feels like an easy reach towards the lowest common denominator of audience.  I’ve felt this way ever since the first game, and even though the stealth approach feels a lot more natural, I still kinda hate it.

Still – I won’t fully speak my peace until I’m finished with the episode.

3.  Last week was a bit of an emotional downer, as far as things go, and so in my melancholic state I went and did a silly thing and ordered a PS Vita.  I also ordered a protective case and a 32gb memory card.  The problem is that while the Vita and case arrived on Thursday (as promised), the card is still nowhere to be found – it should’ve arrived on Friday, and I’m hoping that it didn’t get lost entirely.  And because the memory card is not here, the Vita itself is completely useless – I can’t even turn it on and get it set up without it.  (And because the Vita only works with these specifically branded memory cards, I can’t just run out to Staples and buy a non-Sony one.)  I know this is old news, but it’s infuriating that the Vita is set in such a stupid manner.

UPDATE:  the card literally just arrived as I typed that last sentence.  Woo-hoo!

UPDATE 2:  the Vita won’t work on my office wi-fi, so I can’t actually do anything just yet.  Boo-hoo!

on Tokyo Police Club, regret, nostalgia, etc.

I need to switch gears here for a moment, if you’ll indulge me.

Notwithstanding my day job, which has nothing to do with anything:  in my other life I’m a musician, though I haven’t been doing a whole hell of a lot of that these days.  I’m way closer to 40 than I care to admit, I’m tired, I have a baby, I live in an apartment with very thin walls, etc.  I still write and record every once in a while, but I’m certainly not doing it with the gusto that I once did.

Indeed, my relationship with music – not just how I write it, but how I listen to it and consume it – has evolved considerably over the years.  I didn’t know that then, necessarily, but I can certainly see it now.  My parents were classical musicians, so I grew up mostly listening to classical music and whatever current pop music I felt they’d permit.  (It’s no wonder that Paul was my favorite Beatle; out of all of them, he was the most classically melodic.)  When I was 11 and started going a sleepaway performing arts camp, I was introduced to classic rock and – specifically – prog rock; a few years later, my stepbrother introduced me to what was then known as “college music”, or what would soon be seen on 120 Minutes

I could continue retracing my history of musical influences, but the ultimate point I’m arriving at is that I no longer care where the music I like comes from, and that I no longer care if the music I like is considered “cool.”  I haven’t been cool for quite some time now, and I’m no longer interested in impressing anyone with my eclectic musical taste, because nobody cares.  And frankly, I’m not nearly as fluent in what’s currently happening as I would be if I did still care.  Pitchfork used to be the be-all, end-all in terms of what to listen to, but I find that I really don’t care for most of the stuff they give great scores to, and I also find that they tend to give middling scores to the stuff I genuinely love (like this 6.6 for one of my all-time favorite albums).

I’m bringing this up because yesterday was a pretty rough day for me, emotionally at any rate, and on my way home from work I found myself listening to the absolutely epic first song “Argentina (Parts I, II and III)” on the new Tokyo Police Club album over and over and over again, and it was glorious and beautiful and heartbreaking and uplifting all at once.

Tokyo Police Club is a band that I’ve had a particular fondness for, for quite some time now.  I can’t quite recall where I’d first heard them, but in any event I eventually heard “Nature of the Experiment” off of their first album and it absolutely slayed me.  It was young and dance-y, to be sure, but there was also something very subtly melancholic about it; those open guitar lines in the verses feel wistful to me, and yet by the time the coda arrives the energy of the song is positively euphoric.  Notice, also, that there’s absolutely no wasted space – it’s a 2-minute song that leaves just as quickly as it arrives, with every second meaning something.

The new album “Forcefield” is a long time coming; their previous album “Champ” came out 4 years ago, which was somewhat underwhelming when compared to the great “Elephant Shell” in ’08 – which itself was somewhat underwhelming when compared to 06’s “A Lesson in Crime” and 07’s “Smith” EP.  Upon first listen, this new album feels very slick and produced, and very precisely calibrated and engineered to deliver the goods.  The second song, “Hot Tonight”, sounds like it’s designed to be a classic Summer Jam – it’s a shame, then, that the album was released on a very cold day in March.

The charm in a song like “Nature of the Experiment” – to me, at any rate – is that it feels raw and sincere, and also sounds like it was recorded live, in one or two takes.  This new album – while still very listenable and enjoyable – sounds a bit more manufactured.

AND YET.

“Argentina” is an absolute knock-out, and might be my favorite thing they’ve ever recorded.  It’s nearly 9 minutes long and there’s still not one second wasted, every note feeling vital and necessary.  And while I’m not necessarily enthused about how slick the rest of the album sounds, I adore the production aesthetic here.

And even though I’m not necessarily a lyrics-first listener, there’s something about certain lines in this song that hit me square in the face.  I am suddenly reminded of myself at a much younger age, feeling unsure of myself (“How many kinds of people do you think there really are for me?“); people I haven’t thought of in years, of people I might have wronged and that I wish I’d treated better (“‘Cause if I’d had known that you were only in for the weekend / ’cause if I had only known what you were thinking I would’ve been so so so so much nicer“), of people whose smiles I haven’t seen in far too long (“and when you smile with all your teeth / yeah, I’m done“), of doomed crushes and unrequited love (“I don’t want to want you like I want you“)…

These guys are far too young to make me feel this goddamned old and wistful and regretful and everything else.  And yet I’m eternally grateful that I’m not yet cynical enough to stop getting affected by a truly great pop song.

Below is a Spotify playlist entitled “Many Feels Per Minute”, which is specifically made up of songs in major keys and fast tempos that also make me feel pleasantly wistful.  That’s a tricky thing to pull off, and maybe this list is too long for its own good.  But in any event, I got punched in the face by a song yesterday, and now I’m sharing it with you.

The first few hours: Infamous Second Son

CURRENT STATUS:  I’m around 3-4 hours into Infamous: Second Son; I’ve acquired smoke and neon powers; I think my karma is whatever Level 3 Good is called (“Champion”, perhaps).

ON THE ONE HAND, Infamous Second Son is a graphics whore’s delight.  It is, without question, one of the most beautiful-looking games I’ve ever seen.  It is so pretty, in fact, that I now feel fully justified in upgrading to a PS4.  I don’t know how to articulate the game’s beauty in a technical sense, so I’m linking to Eurogamer’s Digital Foundry analysis of the game’s first hour in case you need to know how and why.  What I can tell you is that even in spite of some minor frame rate jitters, the game is jaw-dropping to behold.  Seeing neon light reflected in puddles – or even just the way the ambient light fades as you absorb the neon from a nearby sign – is stunning.  The animation is also quite spectacular – there’s so many subtle details in the way the main character Delsin moves, or how his hands articulate as he runs (or even as he stands still).

And while I still wonder why Sony feels it necessary to make sure that every game uses the Dualshock 4’s touchpad whenever possible, at least it’s used wisely here – and by “wisely”, I mean “very quickly and very infrequently.”  The game also uses the controller in a novel way whenever Delsin starts tagging, Banksy-style; it’s a little gimmicky, sure, but it’s not offensively gimmicky.

And I’d also be remiss in mentioning the supercharged move you get when you max out your karma combo meter specifically with the neon power – it feels like a summons right out of Final Fantasy, except it’s you doing it, and it’s spectacular.

ON THE OTHER HAND, though: the game is really, really difficult and frustrating.  I expected this sort of thing in Dark Souls 2, and even though it’s part of the experience it annoyed me so much I nearly broke the game disc in half.  But I didn’t expect it here, and that’s what’s so dumbfounding – especially since, unlike in Dark Souls 2, a lot of my deaths feel horrifically unfair.  Regardless of how many superpowers Delsin might absorb, he can only take a miniscule amount of damage – and the enemy is really good at juggling you in place so that you can’t escape.  When I die, I die a lot, and it makes me feel less inclined to explore and do certain side activities, at least until I’ve powered up my abilities a bit further – and I haven’t seen anything in the way of upgrading my defensive abilities, like taking more damage or the like.  I find myself stopping a play session not because of time, or because I ended in a chapter break, but because I’m frustrated and can’t figure out how the hell I’m supposed to defeat this wave of enemies without getting chopped into bits.

And while the virtual Seattle on display is absolutely gorgeous, I don’t really have a good feel of the city since a lot of my travelling is along rooftops and such.  It’s the same sort of disconnect that I had with Saints Row 4 – the city feels abstract because I’m not really in it the way that I am in, say, GTA V‘s Los Santos.  I suppose at some point I should write up a thing about cities in open-world games and why some of them work better than others, but in the case of I:SS it’s really just that I’m constantly moving around and so I don’t really have a sense of where I am at any given point.  A waypoint appears on my map, and so I head in that direction.  There’s no home base, no point to return to, and so the experience of being in the city is somewhat ethereal and transient.  I’ve already been to the Space Needle, the harbor and a bunch of other places but I couldn’t tell you how I got there, or how I’d get back.

I’m not quite sure what to make of Delsin as a character.  After about 10 minutes it becomes clear that the developers couldn’t hire Nolan North, so they hired a sound-alike; the problem is that Delsin is all over the place as a character.  He’s charming, he’s a wise-ass, he’s well-meaning but very high-strung and confrontational, he’s bad-but-also-good.  He changes from scene to scene but not in any noticeable direction, so there’s no sense of journey or arc; almost as if his interactions with other characters were written by completely different people and then shuffled out of chronological order.  I’m still early in the story, so there’s certainly plenty of room for him to eventually land, but right now it’s hard to relate to him.  (I’m not even sure I know how old he is; his older brother, a cop, looks 20 years older than him and in the pre-release trailers I thought he was Delsin’s father.)

The graphics go a long way towards keeping me engaged, and I’m certainly going to stick with it for the foreseeable future.  I just wish I was having a bit more fun.

Poor Impulse Control: a continuing series

Longtime readers of this blog should know that there’s a “consumer whore” category here for a reason; newcomers can probably figure it out.  I bring this up because, in a moment of weakness (borne out of confusion, which I’ll get to in a second), I accidentally-on-purpose bought and downloaded Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes last night.

(The confusion:  remember, earlier this week, I’d mentioned that PSN was having this thing where if you spent $60, you got $10 in credit?  Well, I’d spent my $60, but didn’t know where the credit was, and so I put MGS:GZ in my cart to see if it would show up… and, well, it didn’t.)

I played MGS for around 10 minutes (or, roughly half the game – HAHA, LOL) and then called it a night.  Honestly, before I deliver any sort of impression, I need to mess around with the control scheme a bit – the default scheme feels incredibly strange and weird and bizarrely unintuitive, and I seem to recall hearing that there’s a different setting that’s more in tune with what the vast majority of 3rd person action games use; if that’s the case, then I’ll get around to checking it out.  And the thing is, even though I’ve sworn up and down that Metal Gear is the most overrated franchise in the history of any and all media, there’s a part of me that’s genuinely curious to check this one out.  Everyone’s complained about the alleged length of the campaign, but there’s supposedly a ton of replay value – alternate side missions and objectives and self-imposed playstyles and such, and most reviewers say that they’ve clocked in at least an extra dozen hours or so after beating the main campaign.  So that’s OK, as far as I’m concerned.

I also was able to download and install Infamous Second Son this morning before leaving for work, although I didn’t get a chance to play anything beyond the very first cutscene.  As this is the first true “next-gen” game that I’ve actually been excited about, I’m hoping to give it a thorough examination over the weekend.

The wife and I will be running errands this weekend and while we’re out I’m also possibly going to pick up this PS4 Gold Wireless Stereo Headset, since I like my surround sound but don’t actually have a surround sound system.  I am also very tempted to check out a Vita.  Yes, I’ve seen that a few brick-and-mortar stores are selling the Xbox One – including the Titanfall bundle – for $450, but I’m still not needing an XBO just yet, and Titanfall isn’t going to be the game to change my mind.  But the Vita is looking more and more like a thing I’m going to need.  Being able to play those new Oddworld remasters on the go feels very necessary; and I’ve got a bunch of PS1 games on my PS3 that I would like to actually play, too.  (Plus – my PS3 is not in an ideal gaming environment at the moment, and I’m really hoping to check out those FFX HD remasters.)  So, please, whatever you do – don’t tell my wife.

Saying goodbye to Dark Souls II (and the 360, for real)

This will be a quick-tangent post, because I’ve had nothing but weird nights of sleep all week and there’s apparently not enough coffee in the world.  [UPDATE:  There is plenty of coffee in the world, and I might’ve had too much, as it turns out.]

SO:

Yesterday’s post was about asking whether Dark Souls II would still be considered a fun game if everything about the game stayed the same but the difficulty was turned down a notch.  It wasn’t necessarily meant to be rhetorical, but as this blog has little reach and nobody comments here, it might’ve come off that way.  Still, I’d said that I intended to give it a second chance, and that I’d made a wee bit of progress, and that I intended to keep pushing on for a little bit – at least until Infamous Second Son became available to download.

Last night I popped the game in… and rage-quit about 15 minutes later, immediately sealing it up in the Gamefly envelope to prevent me from snapping the disc in half, and then, as I quietly seethed on the couch and engaged in some light retail therapy on the PS4 store*, I started to feel a little sad that it might very well have been the last new game I play on my Xbox360**.

There is clearly an audience for the sort of masochistic experience that Dark Souls II promises, and to them I say:  go have at it.  And to myself I say:  you are not one of them, stop falling for it.

—–

*  There’s been a promotion on the PS store where if you spend $60, you get $10 in credit.  Being that I’m probably going to do a bit more digital downloading on the PS4 in the coming months, I figured it was worth investing in.  I wasn’t sure if my digital pre-order of Infamous counted or not, but in any event I was pissed off about Dark Souls and I had some extra cash, so I bought StriderRayman Legends, and Steamworld Dig.  I’d played the demo of Strider and liked it; I’d already played Rayman Legends on 360 and PC, but figured why not play it again; and I’d heard lots of great things about Steamworld Dig, and that brought me up past the $60 threshold.

—–

**  I’ve already written my long goodbye to the Xbox 360, but at the time I was still somewhat invested in GTA V Online and making vague promises to see the Citadel DLC for Mass Effect 3.  Point being, I hadn’t yet disconnected either of the last-gen consoles, nor had I acquired a new one.  Now, though, I’m thoroughly invested in the PS4, and a quick glance of my Gamefly rental queue reveals zero 360 games on the list.  This makes me sad; I wish I’d given it a fonder farewell.  Again, I wasn’t necessarily expecting to fall madly in love with Dark Souls II, but I’d heard enough about it being more approachable for newcomers and so I didn’t expect to hate it so violently, so quickly.  So I guess South Park will go down as the last 360 game I finish.

I may have to start doing a feature where I revisit all the 360 games I still own, if only to say goodbye to them one last time before tucking them back in to their bookshelves.  (And it now occurs to me that, since we anticipate moving within the next year, it very well might be the last time those games are still within easy reach; our move to the suburbs might require my outdated games to hang out in boxes for a little while.)

—–

This (poorly-written) tweet was inspired from a conversation I’d had earlier in the day with my buddy Gred.  We’d been talking about Dark Souls and Final Fantasy XIII and other such games where the overall impressions we’d been hearing were “It starts out slow, but after 12 or 13 hours it starts getting really good.”  And I just found it hilarious that gamers, as a whole, can freak out about Metal Gear Solid Ground Zeroes being beatable in 10 minutes, and also that Gone Home is only 2 hours long but costs $20; and yet we are also generally OK to waste a dozen hours of our life just to get to the good part of a game.

I’m really only posting this because I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention Gred’s fantastic Dark Souls comment (in response to my impressions):

“…i’ve always had the impression that the difficulty was barring my access to ingenious game design, when, apparently, it was apparently just a fancier flappy bird.”

 

the first few hours: Dark Souls II

So I think I’ve established here that I am not the target audience for Dark Souls II.  I’ve never particularly enjoyed “difficult” games, irrespective of the perceived “fairness” of those games; and in the brief time I spent with the earlier games in this franchise, I was able to glean what the game was going to be like, and then know that it wasn’t for me.

That’s all well and good; not every game is meant for everybody.

Anyway, here’s a hypothetical question:  if Dark Souls II was a game of average difficulty, as opposed to notoriously unforgiving difficulty, but in every other respect was the exact same game – would anybody care?  Is the game’s difficulty and obscurity the actual appeal?

Because last night I did in fact give Dark Souls II a second chance.  I made it to the first town, and then to the first bonfire outside of town, and I killed things and got killed, and so while I acknowledge that I’ve seen but a tiny sliver of what the game has to offer, it also showed me plenty:

  • Utterly strange sound design, where (for example) walking through tall grass sounds like a very stiff whisk broom sweeping across ragged sandpaper
  • Ponderously dull voice acting.  This has been true in the limited time I’ve spent with the previous two games, so I guess it’s a franchise trademark, but still.  There are other ways of instilling gravitas in your dialogue besides asking your voice actors to slowly drone the words.
  • Striking visual design, to be sure, but marred by surprisingly bad visual fidelity.  I installed the game to the 360’s hard drive – usually that helps – but MAN, this game has moments of supreme ugliness and jank.  Definitely does not look like a late-era 360 game – there are plenty of games that look a lot better than this.  And considering how terrible the PC version of Dark Souls I looked, I’m not necessarily holding out hope that the PC version of this game looks remarkably better.
  • Unintuitive control schemes.  My very first death in Dark Souls II was from trying to jump and instead plummeting into a lake.  Jumping requires being in a “dashing” state (i.e., pressing B), and then clicking the left thumbstick.  In most games, jumping only requires one button press.  I get that this isn’t a platforming game, but considering how cheap some of my deaths have been (like accidentally falling off cliff-sides and such), having to perform such an awkward maneuver to achieve a simple action is a bit off-putting.

Essentially, without the unforgiving difficulty and the willful obscurity of your objectives, the game is kind of a mess, and probably wouldn’t be all that interesting.  So, then:  am I going to bother playing it for much longer?  Especially with Infamous and MGS arriving later this week?

weekend recap: slings and arrows and farts

It’s not an iron-clad rule, but I generally prefer to avoid prefacing my entries here with personal asides.  It’s just that as far as Monday mornings go, this one has been particularly stressful and exhausting and miserable, and as I write this it’s not even lunchtime.  Can’t really say much more than that, unfortunately; I’m writing this mostly as a way of finding some zen within the chaos.

——

Today’s must-read:  Russ Pitts on engaging with trolls.   This is, coincidentally enough, related to the link I posted a week or two ago which mocked that same troll.

——

I finished South Park: The Stick of Truth late Friday night.  It’s a hell of a game, regardless of the level of your South Park fandom.  As I said the other day, I’d hardly call myself a huge fan – it’s been years since I watched the show on a regular basis – but I’m a fan in my heart, and I consider the movie one of the funniest movies ever made.  I say this so that you understand that even if I didn’t catch every single reference, I didn’t have to in order to enjoy the experience.  This is about as perfect a South Park game as one could reasonably hope for; the game is wickedly funny, and yet also a tremendous amount of fun to play and engage with.  

I finished the game in a little over 12 hours; I did nearly every side quest I could find, I hit the level cap quite easily, and I never stopped enjoying myself.  

That being said, it’s the sort of game that I can’t really see myself playing ever again.  Unlike, say, Skyrim – which SPSoT takes certain inspirations from – this game is fairly linear, and while there’s a lot to explore there aren’t necessarily any rabbit holes to fall into that you can’t quickly back out of.  I suppose playing as a different class might yield some slightly different jokes, but the overall experience would still be more or less identical.  It’s rare that I’d call a great game a “rental”, but there it is.

——

Every once in a while I cross-post something here over at Kotaku’s TAY forum.  On a whim, I decided to cross-post the thing I wrote about political agendas and bad stomachs over there, and it got a pretty nice response and generated some healthy dialogue in the comments.

One of the comment threads – from someone who disagreed with my premise and said, in no uncertain terms, that they did NOT want to play any game with a political agenda, even if it was something they agreed with – caused me to eventually copy/paste from this excellent Believer interview with Harold Ramis, which I’d previously linked to on my tumblr.  I’m pasting the whole thing below, because it’s worth repeating.  (bolded text added for emphasis)

From The Believer:  http://www.believermag.com/issues/200603/?read=interview_ramis

BLVR: Rumor has it that you turned down the chance to direct Disney’s remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because you felt they weren’t interested in really exploring racism.

HR: The way they wanted to do it didn’t have a lot to do with the colossal amount of pain and violence that swirls around racial injustice. It would’ve been like an episode of The Jeffersons.What’s the point? But who knows, maybe that’s as much as most people want. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”

BLVR: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?

HR: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head? Or people’ll say that they don’t want to see any negative emotions. They don’t want to see unpleasantness. I did a comedy with Al Franken about his character Stuart Smalley, which was really about alcoholism and addiction and codependency. It had some painful stuff in it. When we showed it to focus groups, some of them actually said, “If I want to see a dysfunctional family, I’ll stay home.”

BLVR: Wow. I guess audiences just want more movies about stoned teenagers trying to find their cars.

——

I came this close to sending Dark Souls II back in the mail this morning.  I played for about 30 minutes on Saturday night; I died 3 times, and each of those deaths felt cheap.  I’m not necessarily a big fan of ultra-difficult games, but I’m willing to engage with them if there’s enough people who convince me to at least try them out, and the thing that nearly everybody says is that while these games are hard, they’re almost never unfair.  Well, my three deaths were absolutely unfair, and they pissed me off, and instead of feeling challenged I felt taken advantage of.  

BUT.  

Because my rental copy of Metal Gear Solid Ground Zeroes won’t arrive until Thursday at the earliest (and which I’m pretty “meh” about anyway), and because my digitally pre-ordered copy of Infamous Second Sons won’t be unlocked until Friday, I’m feeling like maybe I should try giving Dark Souls II one more shot, from scratch, and see if maybe I can dig a little deeper and try to get past what was pissing me off so much.  My hopes aren’t high, mind you; it’s just that I’ve got nothing else going on, game-wise, and so I might as well see if I can approach it from a slightly different angle.

 

On Political Agendas and Bad Stomachs

[Note:  This post may get a bit rambly.  I’m on some new medications and they make me a little drowsy/loopy.]

From my friend Caro’s Tumblr:

An example of obliviousness: on a recent piece I wrote for work in which I praised a game for the monumental act of simply portraying a relationship between women who aren’t presented as sex objects and who matter as individuals, in and of themselves and because of what they mean to each other and not just in relation to a male figure, one commenter said that games should be something we do to escape from such political agendas.

The subtle irony here is that the act of being willfully ignorant and keeping one’s mind closed is also an agenda, whether that person wants to admit it or not.  I haven’t actually played the Last of Us DLC that Caro is referencing, but my understanding of it is simply what Caro says it is – the player isn’t beaten over the head with this relationship, it simply is, and it’s entirely possible that the commenter might not even have noticed it until it was pointed out to them.  Or, alternately, now that it has been pointed out, the   commenter will refuse to play it on some bizarre “principle”, and thus a new cycle of willful ignorance will begin.

Moreover, the idea that games shouldn’t be about anything beyond shooting things is profoundly sad to me.  Frankly, one of the reasons why I’ve been sour on games lately is precisely because of the amount of virtual murder I have to commit in order to have the story play out.  I like to rag on Uncharted, another of Naughty Dog’s franchises, specifically because of all the murder I have to commit; and yet in Bravely Default, I’ve probably killed at least twice as many monsters as I did in Uncharted 3 and I’m only a third of the way through it.

TANGENT:  Speaking of which, I’ve more or less given up on Bravely Default.  I can’t remember if I mentioned that or not, but whatever.  My worst fear did in fact come to light; after clearing the map and awakening all 4 crystals, an unexplained event “reset” the game world and now I have to do the whole goddamned thing again, and I really don’t care to anymore.  I had fun enough the first time around, but I’ve got better things to do than retrace my footsteps.

TANGENT:  And speaking of giving up on things, I sent back Thief this morning, after finishing the insane asylum mission last night.  Insane asylums are as obvious a trope as anything in videogames, but it’s doubly bizarre here because for the first 90% of the mission, you’re the only person in the building.  The game actually does create a palpable atmosphere of dread, except there’s nothing chasing you, and nobody’s looking for you, and so the tension eventually fades.  But then, at the end, the game pulls a series of left turns that render the narrative – which was already pretty obscure at this point – completely incoherent and dumb.  And then, also, I picked up a series of thirteen (13!) side jobs, literally all at the same time, which says about as much as one can say about the game’s sense of pacing.

Getting back to the topic of agendas:  as a straight white male, most games are written with me as their targeted audience (or someone like me, but much younger).  Except:  I have certain anxieties and physical setbacks that are hardly ever shown in games, or movies, or books.  Remember at the top of this post, where I said I was on some new medications?  Right, well:  I don’t talk about this much, for reasons that will soon become obvious, but I’ve been suffering from IBS for the last 14 years or so.  In recent years I’ve taken great strides at getting better – I’ve made radical changes to my diet, I’m on a custom-designed (and very expensive) vitamin supplement regimen, I’ve started going to therapy, I’ve started taking anti-anxiety medication (and that took a lot of convincing, too).  And now I’m taking new medication specifically for my GI tract, and I’m hoping that’ll help further straighten things out.

The point of all this is that while I’ve certainly gotten better over the last few years, I’m still not yet out of the woods, and this specific ailment has been a source of personal embarrassment for years.  (As well you might imagine; I have not actually had any accidents, but I’ve felt like one is imminent nearly every morning commute for the last dozen years.)  I’ve missed any number of social obligations because of this, and I’ve been reluctant to travel long distances because of this, and I’m mostly just grateful that my wife hasn’t left me because of this.

What does this have to do with videogames and agendas?  Well, how many videogame characters can you think of that have anxiety disorders?  Or bad stomachs?  I can think of only one, and even then I can’t remember in which game – possibly MGS4, possibly Bayonetta – some small side character whose intense gastric distress is used as a point of bizarre comic relief.  It might’ve been funny for most 13-year-old boys (or people who think public diarrhea is hilarious), but for me it felt like a kick in the balls.

Now, I understand perfectly well why videogames and films don’t often feature characters like this – people with this sort of condition have a hard time leaving the house (and, in my case, can further complicate social anxiety issues and eventually lead to mild agoraphobia), and so it is hard to make a game starring someone who can’t go out and save the world.  And on the rare occasion when characters like this do show up in films and games, they are, more often than not, punchlines (or, worse, punching bags).  And this sort of thing does not really help to improve my outlook.  It might inspire me to get healthier, but it’s inspiration borne from shame.

This is a long way of saying that when, in South Park: The Stick of Truth, an enemy casts a spell on you in battle that causes you to shit your pants, well, my heart breaks a little bit.

TANGENT:  I am around 6 and a half hours into South Park (probably about mid-way through Day Two), and I like it quite a lot.  Even though I’m not the world’s most rabid South Park fan, I still appreciate the game’s sense of humor, but I’m just as appreciative of the actual game design.  I love how approachable the systems are; I love how deep the modification systems can go (and that you can re-modify new weapons without losing the old ones).  Hell, I kinda just love wandering around the town and seeing what there is to see, picking up random side quests for no reason other than they’re there, and that there’s usually a decent comedic payoff at the end.  I love that you can use the environment to end a random battle before it even starts.  I love the game’s commentary on the ridiculousness and overuse of audio logs and Nazi zombies.  I especially love that tacos are the game’s version of revive potions.

In other news, it’s true that the big game this week is Titanfall, but as you’ve probably guessed this is not the place for discussion about that game; I don’t own an Xbox One and I don’t care about multiplayer shooters, no matter how good they might be.

TANGENT:  I am kinda surprised at how many of my 360 friends own an Xbox One; I am also a little surprised that they stayed Xbox-centric and didn’t migrate to the PS4.  I’m still not sure what it’s going to take to get me to buy one, to be honest; and I might as well admit that at this point, if I had to buy more game hardware, I’m most likely to get a Vita.

But the other big game this week is Dark Souls II, which is arriving later this week, and which I feel compelled to at least try, if only so that even if I can’t necessarily participate in the larger conversation, I can at least understand the gist of it.  I’ve had brief, 30-minute tastes of the previous 2 games – enough to get the general idea, and enough to know that I’d probably not get very far given my current time constraints – and while I still am intimidated by it (and while I’m still under similar time constraints), I’m also still intensely curious about it, and at least want to give it the ol’ college try.  My understanding is that the game has been made a bit more approachable for people like me, while still being brutally difficult and opaque, and so I’m willing to try to meet it halfway.

The Week That Was: South Park, Next-Gen Games, Sony, Health Insurance

I’ve been trying to work on some more thoughtful and reflective pieces for the site, but this week’s been bananas, and who in their right mind wants to read my navel-gazing when there’s some serious game business to discuss?

This week saw:

  1. the release of a South Park videogame that doesn’t suck;
  2. the announcement of Rocksteady’s long-awaited, next-gen only Batman game (with a Batmobile you can drive!);
  3. the release date (and some explanations for the delay) for Watch_Dogs (and do we really have to write it with that underscore thing?);
  4. the sudden departure of Sony’s Jack “Mic Drop” Tretton; and
  5. the heartbreaking news (and fundraising page) of Brendan Boyer, a champion of the indie scene.

1.  My rental copy of South Park showed up last night, and I played for around 45 minutes or so.  The biggest news is that this was the first time I’d turned on my 360 in maybe 3-4 months, and I suppose more than anything else I was pleased to see it’s still working.  As for the game itself – I don’t feel like I’ve seen enough of it to write a “First Few Hours” post just yet; I’m also not sure I’m the game’s intended audience.  I mean, I like South Park but I haven’t watched an episode in years, so there’s a strong possibility that a lot of the more referential material is going to sail right over my head.  That being said, it’s still really funny, and the RPG systems are surprisingly enjoyable, and I’m going to try to push through as much as I can.

1a.  Speaking of which, I may have reached the point in Thief where I stop giving a shit.  It’s not that it’s bad, but it is starting to get dull and tedious.  I’m doing some side missions where the objectives are on the complete opposite side of the City, and the map continues to be horrendous and irrelevant, and these side missions only seem to be doable if you go ahead and knock everybody out first.  I was trying to play as non-lethally as possible, but now I kinda just want to get it over with.  I’m not quite ready to give up on it, but I’m having a harder time staying engaged with it than I’d like.

2.  So, yeah – that Batman game looks terrific.  And I’m pleased to see it’s next-gen only, frankly.  If the rumored release date is correct (which I think is mid-October?), both consoles will have a rather healthy install base by then, and I’d be hard-pressed to find a new console owner who isn’t going to pick this up – this is already near the top of my own “most anticipated” list.  Keeping the game on the new platforms prevents the game’s vision from being diluted, and should ensure that it makes the most of the more powerful hardware.

3.  I’m trying to not read too much about Watch_Dogs, though sometimes I can’t help myself.  I’m mostly just glad to see they’ve entered the home stretch, and that they seem to be happy with it.  Of course, most AAA games at this stage of development are spoken in exceedingly positive PR-approved tones, so it’s unwise to take that stuff too seriously; and yet, well, look – this was the game that made everybody’s jaws drop when it was first announced, and it’s just exciting to know that we’ll all get our hands on it soon enough.

4.  I can’t possibly fathom a guess as to what Jack Tretton’s sudden resignation means; under his leadership (or, at least, his E3 keynote speeches) the PlayStation brand has come roaring all the way back from oblivion and they now appear to be sitting very comfortably in the driver’s seat, and I suppose one could argue that if you’re going to go, go out on top.  It’s just that the rest of Sony’s businesses seem to be flailing wildly to stay afloat, and one can only hope that the games division has a backup plan to keep riding this wave of momentum.

5.  The US healthcare situation is a goddamned travesty, and that’s all there is to it.  What’s happened to Brandon is a fucking disaster.  If you can support him, please do.

The Real ABC’s of Game Journalism

How many goddamned standing o’s can I give this? Brilliant. Hallelujah. Amen.

Common Memory

            A certain foul human being named “George” wrote an article at http://www.ruthlessreviews.com/20998/abcs-game-journalism/ that’s been making the rounds lately. In “The ABCs of Game Journalism,” George goes into a lengthy diatribe on all of the many ways in which that mean bully that is the gaming industry mistreated him and how gosh darn it, it’s hard out there for a dude these days. 

            George is full of shit. George’s list is a catalogue of all of the bitterness built up in George’s heart, and isn’t a remotely realistic picture of anything going on in the gaming industry on any consistent level. So what I’m going to do is fix George’s list for him, and show how a lot of people out there are doing great work on a daily basis in the gaming industry. Along the way, I’m going to point out how outrageously…

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