Where You Been

Has it really been over a week since my last post?  I’ve said repeatedly that I’m tired of apologizing for a lack of updates, but usually that’s just for a brief 2-3 day hiatus, not a week-long vanishing act.

There are several reasons for this break, I suppose, if that counts for anything:

  1. I’ve been unusually busy at work, which severely curtails my potential posting availability;
  2. I hit something of a wall last week working on music, and haven’t quite re-found my footing; and
  3. I’ve been a bit under the weather, including a bit of a headcold over the weekend and a vicious stomach bug that laid me out all day yesterday.  (My stomach is much better today, but the cold has returned; I’ll gladly take this over the reverse, though.)

GAMES:  I’ve been playing (some might say “rushing”) through GTA V‘s story mode on the PS4; I’m in the middle of setting up for the final heist.

MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD (Greg, please skip past this part)

Part of the reason why I’ve been rushing through it is because of this AV Club / Gameological feature about difficult choices; as far as GTA V is concerned, I have literally no memory of being faced with any particular decision (especially because in my post-complete state on the 360, everybody was still alive).  If I had to do it over, though – and I guess I do, given that I’m heading that way – I’m thinking I might pull the trigger on Michael.  As I’ve been going through this second run, I find him absolutely impossible to like.  I loathe every word that comes out of his mouth.  The “family therapy” scene is especially disgusting – I recall it being gross the first time around, and it’s arguably even more infantile and awful the second time.  I do not empathize with him at all, and I try to play as him as little as possible.

END SPOILERS

Beyond that, I’ve mostly been playing Alto’s Adventure on my iPhone – it’s an absolutely gorgeous 2D side-scrolling, snowboarding endless runner.  Obvious comparisons can be made to Ski Safari, another excellent iOS game, but its artistic flourishes recall both the sand-surfing level in Journey and the pristine environments of Monument Valley.  It’s also one of the few games that doesn’t absolutely destroy my iPhone’s battery, which is necessary these days as even just the simple act of leaving my phone turned on during my subway commute can drain the battery nearly 60% by the time I get to work.  I really need to upgrade, but I’m not eligible for Verizon’s discount until June; I’m hoping I can last until then.

MUSIC:  So, yeah – as stated above, I hit a bit of a wall, and it’s entirely possible that the thing below is what broke me.

If you can’t see it, here’s the note I wrote to accompany it:

yeah, so: this probably isn’t going to be on the upcoming album/ep – at least not sounding like this. it’s too long, it doesn’t build, it’s very noodle-y. BUT. my inner prog-rock-obsessed 15-year-old would love the hell out of this. and i might just have to figure out how to arrange it so that it can stay. (It’s not actually in 19/8 – it’s one measure of 7/8, then one of 12/8, but the only way Logic would record and not freak out was to combine it all as one.)

have done some minor tinkering to it since this demo was uploaded, and it now has a better build and a more focused structure, but I might just have to re-record the whole thing in order to get it right, and I’m not sure it’s worth the trouble.

I’ve also recorded some more sketches here and there, but none of them are particularly good, and on second listen a few of them appear to be subconscious re-workings of earlier sketches I’d worked on a long time ago.

I’ve said for a while that I’m treating the RPM Challenge’s commandments as more of a guideline than a rule, and to that end I’m not feeling particularly bummed that I most likely won’t meet the 10 songs / 35 minutes threshold.  Participating in the challenge was really just a way for me to kick my ass into gear, and in that respect I consider this a pretty wild success; I’ve not been this prolific or productive since I was writing songs during classes in high school.  Most importantly, I wanted to establish a routine for myself, which I’ve never really had before; I also wanted to work under circumstances where I could allow myself to record first drafts and just let them be before listening to them to death.  And I have succeeded on both counts, which is why the Challenge was worth it.

And even if I’ve hit a wall now, that doesn’t mean I’m done; I’m letting my batteries recharge and I’m getting back into the studio as soon as possible, which hopefully means tonight (I do have to finish my taxes, of course).

BOOKS:  I finished Richard Powers’ Orfeo, which is a beautiful, beautiful book that has a lot to say about music and art and science and memory and permanence and loneliness, but which also doesn’t necessarily have the strongest characters or a plot that carries any momentum.  And the ending felt… I don’t want to say forced, but it didn’t feel nearly as effortless as everything else.  I would recommend this book to lovers of 20th Century classical and avant-garde music, though, and I’d strongly recommend listening to a Spotify playlist of the music he writes about, and reading along while you do it.

I’m currently about 2/3rds through Terry Hayes’ I Am Pilgrim, which at first glance appears to be the sort of mystery/thriller you’d pick up in an airport, and which reads very much like the screenplay that will most likely be coming very soon.  It’s great fun, even if it’s not great art, and to that end I’m enjoying it quite a bit.

Weekend Recap: Awards!

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GAMES:  Last night was the 4th Annual New York Videogame Critics Circle Awards, and it was a pretty great evening all around.  I was honored and humbled to present the Best Mobile Game award with my buddy Sara Clemens of Videodame, and was personally delighted to see Threes win that category.

The other winners included:

  • Best Children’s Game:  Mario Kart 8
  • Best Handheld Game:  Hearthstone
  • Best World:  Far Cry 4
  • Best Indie Game:  Shovel Knight
  • Best Remake:  GTA V
  • Best Writing:  South Park The Stick of Truth
  • Best eSports Experience:  Super Smash Bros. Melee
  • Best Music:  Transistor
  • Best Acting: Trey Parker, South Park
  • Best Game of the Year:  Wolfenstein The New Order

In other news, I’ve been super-busy with music stuff (which I’ll get to in a second), and as such I haven’t really had time to sink my teeth into Sunless Sea the way I’d hoped – I had about 15 minutes to spend with it the other day, and the only thing I can tell you is that I need a lot more than 15 minutes with it in order to get absorbed into its rhythms.  It’s a slow, methodical drone of a game, and in the right context that’s exactly the sort of thing I want to get into; I just lack that particular context at this particular moment.

So, instead, I’ve been getting back into GTA V HD, for some reason.  Maybe I’m still in Far Cry 4 first-person open world mode?  Dunno.  I’m trying to not pay attention to the characters and the dialogue, and instead I’m really just taking in the first-person perspective as much as I can.  It makes me wonder if Rockstar is going to implement this view with its other IP – specifically, I can’t help but hope that the Red Dead Redemption sequel will get this feature (and that Rockstar will also incorporate a better screenshot utility than GTA V’s smartphone).

MUSIC:  If we’re at the halfway point of the RPM Challenge, then my current tally is at 9 recordings, totaling 16 minutes.  There’s a few additional sketches that I’ve recorded but haven’t bounced or sent out to my beta listeners; and I suppose I’m cheating a little bit by including something I recorded around 2 weeks before the Challenge technically started.  This album is not going to be finished on March 1, of course, and if I’m honest with myself there’s really only 3 or 4 of these 9 recordings that I’d feel comfortable extending into fully-fledged songs.  Still – that’s a very healthy batting average, as far as my personal process is concerned, and so I’m feeling pretty good about things.

All that said, this last week was a weird one, and yet also productive.  I decided to switch gears and start recording with guitar instead of just keyboard, and while that generated some new material very quickly, it also revealed some computer problems.  To wit:  my Macbook is having difficulty recording both audio and MIDI at the same time – so, if I record guitar and then want to put down a synth track, I have to unplug everything and then restart my Mac two or three times and then hope that it decides to record the synth track.  This is certainly not an ideal way to work, but I’m still making progress nonetheless; there’s one new song in particular that I’d originally recorded several different sketches with guitars, but because of the aforementioned technical problems I decided to combine all the sketches into one take and use keyboards instead, and it sounds fucking great, and now I’m wondering if I should even bother with the guitars at all.

I’ve also started to put together some artwork, and I’m also starting to think about lyrics.  The less said about my lyric-writing process, the better; it’s never been an easy process, and considering how long it’s been since I last tried, I’m honestly a bit apprehensive.  I even started flipping through my old songwriting notebooks (and by old, I’m talking late 90s) and started adapting some of those scribblings into something workable – my lyrics were shitty back then, too, but the difference was that I wrote every single day, and now that it’s 20 years later I can maintain some level of objective distance from them, and despite their relative vapidity there are still certain phrases and concepts that stick out and might work.

BOOKS:  I’m now in the last third of Richard Powers’ Orfeo, which I think I’m enjoying.  He’s an absolutely marvelous craftsman of language; every single sentence is beautiful to read.  And the way he writes about the experience of listening to music is rather extraordinary.  The characters, however, have a tendency to feel like props instead of real people, and I’m not entirely sure I’m all that engaged with the story.  This NY Times review describes a lot of what I’m thinking, actually.  All that said, I’ve been listening to a lot of the music that’s described in the book (there’s even a few Spotify playlists that include each piece mentioned), and the experience of listening to the music as I read along with his descriptions is nothing short of exhilarating – Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, Steve Reich’s Proverb, Messaien’s Quartet For the End of the World.

Weekend Recap: Wishes Upon Wishes

BOOKS:  Finished Arthur Phillips’ The Egyptologist very late last night, which made for some strange dreams.  It’s very nearly impossible to discuss without spoiling what makes it so intriguing and puzzling, and it’s got the sort of ending that you’ll need to re-read at least twice, and then also flip back to the very first chapter, and then step back and realize what the fuck just happened.  That being said, it’s an excellent book, a “literary murder mystery/adventure” story set in a rather unique period in history (and one that certainly piqued my interest, being that I – as I’m sure many other people my age – had a rather rabid interest in ancient Egypt as a kid); and so even if I can’t remember why I bought it, I’m very glad I did.

Next up: at long last, Your Face Tomorrow, Volume 1.  I sincerely hope I haven’t set myself to be majorly disappointed, given how badly I’ve wanted to read this for so long.


GAMES:  There was more free gaming time this weekend than I expected to get – chalk it up to the wife’s recent promotion, which means she also has to bring work home with her on occasion.  Still, I’m in that awkward situation where, while I do have a backlog to deal with, I’m remembering why that stuff got put on the backlog in the first place, and so I’m kinda just flipping back and forth between a few different things, not really getting into the rhythm of anything in particular.

Specifically, my attention was split between four games this weekend:

GTA V, which made me wish I was playing Saints Row.  Honestly, I never thought I’d ever say that, but it’s true; playing GTA V for the second time makes the experience a hell of a lot more tedious and annoying – not just the horrific dialogue and misogyny and everything else, but the actual missions you do.  Like Trevor loading cargo containers onto a truck, or Franklin towing cars all over town.  Dockwork went out of style with Shenmue, for fuck’s sake.  While it’s true that the Saints Row franchise has never had a city that is as engrossing to be in as GTA, it’s also true that Saints Row stopped caring about “realism” right from the get-go, and has taken the concept of the “open world sandbox” to ludicrous extremes.  Actually, now that I’ve remembered that it’s coming out, I think I’m going to at least rent the Saints Row IV HD remaster thing that comes out later this month; I think that’ll be a lot of fun.

Destiny, which makes me wish I was playing Mass Effect.  I really only fired it up to pick up whatever legendary presents I’d been given, and then I did a Daily Story Mission or whatever it’s called, just to see if I still cared about it.  Yeah, the shooting’s still good, but there’s so little else there worth caring about.  I’m also a little pissed off; I thought I’d bought the Digital Guardian edition, and I’d bought that thinking that it was a season-pass thing for DLC.  But when I fired it up, I saw that The Dark Below expansion still cost $20.  If $20 is actually a reduced price for an expansion, then I might as well just delete the damned thing from my hard drive and be done with it.

Far Cry 4, which makes me wish I was re-playing Far Cry 3, or really anything else.  It’s also very disorienting after playing Destiny and also GTA V in first person, too, which shouldn’t be the case, since FC4 is actually supposed to be played in the first person.  I’m really just kinda nibbling at FC4; I’m unlocking towers and hideouts, and doing a mission here and there, but I’m mostly hunting if only so that I can craft everything I need to craft and then never worry about it again.  I will say that it’s a little comical to watch an eagle lift a goat straight up off the ground, but I’m not sure if that’s supposed to be intentionally comical or not.

Infamous First Light DLC, which I only really dabbled in for a brief period – it’s a free download this month for PS+ member, which is honestly the only reason why I picked it up.  Surprisingly, it was kinda neat to be back in that game again – I did like the original game even if it was somewhat empty and forgettable, and I forgot how good it looked.  I’ll probably keep this in the rotation for a little while, though it’s been so long since I beat the original game that it might take me a bit to get my bearings.

The (Dragon) Age of Anxiety

1.  I’m 20 hours deep in Dragon Age Inquisition now, and I think it’s fair to say that any doubts I might have had about BioWare following the 1-2 punch of Mass Effect 3‘s controversial ending and The Old Republic‘s failure to topple World of Warcraft can be put to rest; BioWare’s got their mojo back, big-time.

But let me qualify that “20 hours” first:  20 hours is a rather considerable length of time as far as games are concerned, and yet I’m still dickering around in the early areas of the game… because I haven’t yet decided to align with the Mages or the Templars.

I mean, the Templars were huge dicks when I met them, and the Mages weren’t, and it seems pretty straightforward to me that the Mages would be better for an alliance… but this is BioWare, and they’ve been known to throw curveballs before, and I don’t want to piss off Cassandra (even though she hasn’t been rolling in my party for the last few hours).

I guess the thing I’m most concerned about is making the wrong choice, even if it’s the one I believe is right, which is why I’ve been grinding sidequests for the last dozen hours and trying to gain more powerful equipment.

I could, of course, consult a walkthrough and see what happens; I could also manually save before making my decision and see for myself how things play out.  And I could also just arbitrarily decide to do one thing and then play through the campaign again as a different character (in all senses of that word) and then really play up every opposite choice I made the first time around.  But all of those actions feel like I’m simply hedging my bets; while I’d like to think that my Herald of Andraste is a woman who carefully considers her options before taking decisive action, I can’t very well believe that if I’m taking advantage of a design flaw of the medium itself.

Real life does not contain these sorts of loopholes.

It should go without saying that being afraid of making the wrong choice, even if it’s the one I believe is right, is a fear of mine that extends to nearly every avenue of my life.  Jobs, friendships, romantic entanglements; I get paralyzed by fear and doubt and anxiety and more often than not I end up simply treading water until something else happens, and then the decision is made for me.  In those instances where I do take charge and make a difficult decision, I actually do feel a bit empowered and accomplished; but it can be terrifying to make that leap.

In the game, however, I can essentially continue treading water forever; there’s no alarm bell ready to go off if I haven’t committed to a specific story-driven course of action by a certain time, and so I’m free to dick around in the Hinterlands until I’ve seen every single blade of grass.  And so I’m grinding because I’m procrastinating, so at least I’m being productive.

It is to the game’s immense credit that there is so much to do, and that so much of it is actually worthwhile, and – most importantly and refreshingly – that it treats its open world with a careful, considered grace, unlike the spatter paintings that become the Ubisoft maps in Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry.  I don’t feel the need to explore in those games, because more often than not, anything I come across is likely some variant of something I’ve already done.

I haven’t enjoyed questing like this probably since Oblivion or Fallout 3.  And even then, the writing is so much stronger than in Bethesda’s games; I love this world, I love seeing what there is to see, and I love that the game’s letting me see it instead of constantly reminding me of other stuff.  At some point I’m going to have to actually make a choice, though, even if only because there’s a lot more world out there that I’m going to want to see.

2.  I don’t mean to keep harping on Ubisoft.  The truth is, I did end up giving Assassin’s Creed Unity another go, now that it’s been patched rather thoroughly.  The patches have helped, I think; the game certainly seems to be running smoother, and now I’m in this weird state where I’m reluctantly finding myself wanting to finish it, even if it hurts.  At the very least, I fully levelled up the Theater Cafe and did all its missions, and so now I have a very healthy stream of income coming in.  I bought some bad-ass weaponry, too, and all my gear is 4 stars or better, and so now my enemies are cleaved in half like a soft pat of butter.  If I must proceed, at least the proceeding is relatively easy-peasy.

The thing is:  while I appreciate that the Paris of Unity is gigantic and really quite spectacular to behold, it’s also quite tedious after a few hours.   I rarely actually walk from point A to point B any more; if there’s a fast travel location anywhere near where I want to go, I use it.  Why bother walking?  So I can get chased by bad guys simply because I’m running?  So I can collect hidden collectibles that don’t actually offer anything worthwhile?  So I can open hidden chests that don’t contain anything useful?  So I can engage in those murder mystery side quests that are just mind-bogglingly dumb?  The only reason to walk from one side of the map to the other is so that the in-game clock continues to run and that I can collect more money in the Theater.  (Speaking of which – the fact that this money isn’t directly deposited and must instead be manually claimed is absolutely insane.)  The world may be historically accurate, but that doesn’t mean I want to walk every inch of it when so much of it doesn’t really matter.  GTA 4‘s Liberty City felt like New York, but it certainly wan’t an inch-by-inch recreation, and it was a lot more fun to explore in that regard.

3.  Speaking of GTA:  the more I replay GTA V, the more difficult it is to take seriously.  Let me rephrase that:  the GTA franchise is “satirical”, a playful poke in the eye of American pop culture, and so it’s not necessarily meant to be taken seriously.  But in light of what’s happening in Ferguson, it’s incredibly difficult to play Franklin’s storyline and not feel like it’s just a way for white kids to feel OK with casual use of the “n-word”.  Indeed, it’s almost as if GTA V was specifically built for people like Michael’s spoiled, privileged son Jimmy, even as it makes fun of Jimmy at every single turn.  It’s hard not to feel that Rockstar has moved from satire to outright contempt.  And while American pop culture is certainly deserving of contempt, it’s hard not to feel disappointed that the game’s writing is so lazy about it.

Here, Carolyn Petit said 1000x better than I ever could:

I don’t think the so-called satire in GTA is daring at all. I don’t think it “goes far” at all. I don’t think it takes guts at all to reinforce traditional notions of masculinity, to mock women and trans folks, to reinforce the status quo. I don’t think there is a single moment in GTA V when the average straight male player will find his worldview challenged, his notions about masculinity seriously called into question, when he will feel in any way threatened or caught off-guard by anything the game is saying about our culture.

It doesn’t take nerve to side with the powerful and to punch down.

4. Aside from my initial splurge, I’ve been trying to ignore the Steam sale, even if there’s a few things on my wishlist that I keep thinking about.  On the one hand, do I really intend to play Resident Evil 5 again – a game I might be alone in saying that I enjoyed far more than 4, and played to death on the 360 – even if it’s only $6.79?  On the other hand, knowing that my PC can run it but not necessarily run it well, do I even want to bother trying Divinity Original Sin at 33% off, especially while I have my hands more than full at the moment?

As it is, I tried playing Vanishing of Ethan Carter before I left on Wednesday night, and the damned thing crashed on me about 20 minutes in.  So that’s a drag.  Supposedly there’s a PS4 version coming in 2015; I suspect it’ll run much better there, but I wasn’t necessarily planning on buying it twice.

I’m also kinda debating whether or not I should get Geometry Wars 3 – and if so, what system to get it for.  It’s a little ridiculous that it’s not on the Vita, I think, which is why I haven’t already bought the PS4 version.  The reviews are on the lukewarm side of positive, which makes me more inclined to wait it out for the time being.  Again – there’s way too much on my plate as it is.

The Rest Of The Year

I seem to have picked up a number of new followers over the last few weeks, ever since I decided to expand the scope of this blog’s subject matter.  For those of you new to the blog, hello!  I’m glad to have you here.  That being said, today’s post is probably going to be of very little interest to you; for today is, more or less, the beginning of the fall videogame release deluge, and you might as well know what you’re going to be in for, if you’re coming here on a regular basis.

I’ve said this before, and I’m saying it again because, well, why not:  I am not a professional game journalist, and the readership of this blog is relatively small, and yet despite all this I still feel compelled to play as many of the big game releases as I can, if only so that I can talk about everything in short bursts that are not nearly as insightful and helpful as if I actually sat down and focused on one thing at a time; this comes out of a desire to be part of the larger conversation about games, even if I am but a tiny voice in the throng of much more well-informed speakers.

As it happens, I’d originally started writing this post yesterday afternoon, listing (in order of priority) the games I planned on playing for the rest of 2014. This list, of course, contains no critical insight; I’m putting it here so that (a) I can remember what’s coming up, and (b) you might have an idea of what I’m going to be writing about over the coming weeks.

But after this morning’s astonishingly good reviews for Dragon Age Inquisition and this afternoon’s equally astonishingly disappointing reviews for Assassin’s Creed Unity, the list has gone all sideways on me.

So, then:  here’s what’s coming up.

  1. Assassin’s Creed Unity (PS4) – Thank God I was able to successfully cancel my pre-order – of the super-deluxe edition, no less.  That being said, the rental copy is still on its way, and so I’m probably going to at least try it out for a few hours, time permitting.  I am wary of this franchise; it was a slow and steady climb that peaked for me with Brotherhood, fell apart completely between Revelations and AC3, and somehow was built back up with last year’s Black Flag.  I’m glad to hear that the last-gen Rogue is getting better reviews, though my 360 is dead and my PS3 is in a similarly unplayable state.
  2. Dragon Age: Inquisition (PS4) – Meanwhile, holy shit, have you seen the reviews this has been getting?  I was a bit on the fence about this one – the first game didn’t really appeal to me, and the second one played a bit better but had some very significant and unfortunate flaws – but WOW.  When I need a long, deep RPG to sink my teeth into this winter, I’ll be very grateful to have this one around.
  3. Grand Theft Auto V (PS4) – I felt conflicted buying the HD conversion, because I find the story abhorrent and – well, look, I’ve already written about it.  But at the end of the day, I still have a greater affection for the world than I do for the narrative, and so being able to explore it again on my own terms is a far more appealing prospect.  Maybe I’ll even muck around with the online side of things a bit more, who knows.  And some of the forthcoming single-player content sounds intriguing – like that murder mystery bit, which is a nice knowing nod to L.A. Noire.
  4. Far Cry 4 (PS4) – Given Ubisoft’s worrying track record when it comes to next-gen AAA titles this year, I’m not necessarily holding my breath.  But I already pre-ordered it, so, I guess I’m stuck with it.  I’m not necessarily feeling as conflicted about it as I was with Far Cry 3 (which coupled my already-heavy shooter fatigue with the heavy, sorrowful feelings I had regarding the Newtown massacre), but I haven’t been paying a great deal of attention to the preview coverage, either.   
  5. Little Big Planet 3 (PS4) – I’m renting this one, and this might very well mark the first time I let my 19-month-old son put his hands on a game controller.  I have a fondness for the franchise because how can you not, it’s the cutest goddamned thing you’ve ever seen, but let’s be honest – the platforming can be a bit fussy and floaty, and I’ve never really given the creation tools much of a go.
  6. continue playing Forza Horizon 2 (XBO) – I don’t know that I’ll ever 100% it, but I plan on keeping this in the rotation for as long as it continues to be entertaining, and given that I’ve been putting 2-3 hours into it every day without getting tired of it, it’s going to stay in the rotation.
  7. continue Sunset Overdrive (XBO) – This has taken a back seat to Forza, obviously.  I haven’t forgotten about it, but I don’t know that it’ll be high on my to-do list, either.  (Ironic, too, given that the Sunset Overdrive bundle is the Xbox One bundle I’d had my eye on in the first place.)
  8. try to finish Shadow of Mordor (PS4) – I expect this game to rank pretty high on the various GOTY lists that will start going up at the end of the year, but it never quite did anything for me.  I don’t want to give up on it, necessarily, but I had a hard time staying with it and it’s been so long since I picked it up that I may just have to start over from scratch.
  9. try to finish Mind: Path of Thalamus (PC)
  10. try to finish The Talos Principle (PC) – These two are very enjoyable (though somewhat obtuse) puzzle games, but I’ve gotten to the point in both of them where I’m just not quite smart enough to advance.
  11. maybe try the Halo collection (XBO) – You can’t beat the price, but:  I was never the biggest fan of the campaigns, and I’d wager that the main reason this is coming out at all is so that hard-core Halo fans can continue to play their favorite maps on their new console.  I suck at competitive Halo, so the pull isn’t quite there.

The Perils of Critical Thinking

This is an excerpt from a comment left on the G+ reposting of last week’s first impressions of Destiny.  (Speaking of which, updated impressions are forthcoming, but I wanted to get this out of the way first.)

Maybe I’m a shitty gamer but it seems like a lot of gamers these days have unrealistic expectations. I game under the following premise does the game make me want to game more if yes then win if no then fail. I realize people think that critical reviews have a place in pop culture. For me they take away from the simple joy that music, movies, and gaming give me.

I’ve read any number of variations on this theme over the last dozen years or so, almost always written as comments to an overhyped AAA game that got a lower-than-expected review.  The commenter wants to justify their enjoyment of a poorly-received game, and so anyone attempting to explain why that game is bad is taking away from the fun.

In the wake of GamerGate, it takes on a slightly different meaning, however – if you dare to explain why you don’t like something, you are not only wrong but you’re corrupt, you are biased, you have an agenda and you’re shoving it down people’s throats, you are part of the problem.  A game is either good or bad, and understanding why is not relevant.  You see this a lot on Twitter these days, that game journalists aren’t objective enough and therefore can’t ever be trusted.

There is a twisted anti-logic to people who get up-in-arms over negative remarks in game reviews.  Let’s remember that the general consumer public – i.e., the people who aren’t pirating ahead of a game’s release date but are instead buying new, unsealed copies – are forming opinions based on preview coverage.  This preview coverage – and any hands-on experience at events like PAX or E3 – is why any of us ever hear about the games we play.

Point being – this general consumer public hasn’t even played the game yet when the reviews finally come out, but they’re freaking out because it’s not getting the scores they expected it to receive.  (I refer, yet again, to the 20,000 comments that followed Gamespot’s 9/10 review of GTA V, because it dared to say that the game – which, again, received a 9/10 (which, in hindsight, is probably pretty generous) –  is “politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic”.  Please note that the review was posted on September 16, 2013, and the game wasn’t released until September 17, 2013.)

One can only presume that the reasoning behind this hysteria is as follows:  critics for big sites examine and point out the ways in which a game is problematic -> less people buy the game as a result -> the franchise dies and there are no more games made ever again.  Alternately, if a game like Gone Home also gets a 9/10, and critics sing its praises about having, for example, strongly written female protagonists, then those are the only games that are ever going to get made.

(Let’s conveniently ignore that GTA V famously made one capital-b Billion dollars in 3 days, and that Gone Home… didn’t.)

Destiny was the most pre-ordered game of all time and that was solely because of manufactured hype.  And I freely admit that I succumbed to the hype, too!  I bought the Digital Guardian edition of Destiny months ago, long before the reviews came out!  And I’m not even that big a Bungie/Halo fan, either!  But what I’d seen and heard of Destiny made it sound like a sure-fire, can’t-miss, awesome game – the best parts of Mass Effect, Borderlands and Halo all rolled into one.

And so when the game finally came out, I went into it with the best of intentions.  I’d spent $70, after all, and all I was expecting was that the reality would live up to the hype.  I was told of the game’s incredible ambition, and I was ready to surrender to its glory.

But the game has problems that are impossible for me to ignore.  Nor am I the only person saying so.  Now, I haven’t finished it, of course; I’m still only at level 14, only two missions into Venus, and so when my other post goes up I’ll explain that I’m starting to understand and appreciate its rhythm a bit more, and that there is a fun game buried beneath the game’s horrendously inept narrative.  But even if the shooting mechanics are solid, I still maintain that what I wanted – or, rather, what I was told I would be getting – is not at all what I have received.

My pointing this out should not affect your opinion, whether you agree with me or not.  I’m not trying to convert you; I’m trying to explain where the game is falling short for me.  Doing so helps me better understand what it is I do like; it helps me better appreciate the thing I’m experiencing.  As I grow older, and as my perspective of the world changes, I find that my tastes change and evolve.  I don’t necessarily like the same music that I did when I was 12, and some of the films I adored when I was younger don’t necessarily hold up now.  That doesn’t negate my earlier feelings; it just means I’m not that same person any more.

But you’d better believe that when I was 12 and obsessed over the stuff I was obsessed with, I’d listen and analyze and tear that stuff apart to understand why I liked it so much.  Yes, there is a simple joy to be had in not constantly thinking about a game or an album or a film; but there is also a different, complex (and arguably more rewarding) joy in deconstructing the stuff you like and discovering what it is that pleases you.  You not only better understand the thing itself, but you learn things about yourself as well.

Look – you can start your own blog if you want and explain why Destiny is the greatest game ever made.  Indeed, I’d much prefer you explain why you think so, rather than just saying I’m wrong.

on social anxiety, solitude, and multiplayer shooters

I’ve said that I’m not really into multiplayer a number of times, but it wasn’t until this weekend that I started to figure out why.

This was a rough weekend, personally speaking.

Saturday in particular was a busy day – a morning playdate at the first of many 1-year birthday parties we’ll be attending this year, and then, in the evening, a housewarming party at the astoundingly beautiful home of some college friends.  Both of these events were fun, in and of themselves – and it was nice to be out and about as a family, the three of us moving about the city with ease – but at the end of the day I was emotionally spent.  Sunday was decidedly less busy – an afternoon trek out to the local department store for baby supplies and foodstuffs – but it also required driving, which is almost always a source of anxiety (especially in Brooklyn).  When I went to bed, I did end up sleeping soundly, but not necessarily restfully.

A year ago, I’m not sure I’d have made it to even one of these things, let alone all three.  So the fact that I was able to do all these things, and spend quality time out and about with my family – this should be a good thing, right?  And it is; it’s absolutely a good thing.

Except: I’m drained.  I feel hollowed out, exhausted, melancholic.  I feel adrift, really; I feel like I just want to curl away somewhere, where the world can’t hurt me (and where I can’t hurt it back, however unintentionally).

As for why I’m writing about this here?  Well, as I think about all this, it occurs to me that my social anxiety issues are probably the main reason why I’m generally reluctant to participate in multiplayer games.

Case in point.  On Friday, my rental copy of Battlefield 4 for the PS4 showed up.  My good buddy Gred, who’d been hounding me for weeks to get it, wasn’t going to be able to jump on until later Friday night, so I figured I’d take the early part of the evening to play through the campaign while the rest of the disc installed itself.  I lost interest in the campaign quickly enough (specifically in the 2nd mission, the one where you have to rescue two people from the top of a hotel; I ultimately bailed when, after I finally succeeded in destroying a tank with a land mine, I had to destroy another tank with a land mine), but fortunately Gred was available by that point.

Gred was a wonderful tour guide, showing me how the game worked, which of the classes was best suited to my playstyle, how this particular map was laid out (I can’t remember the name, but there’s islands and sunken aircraft carriers and a giant hurricane eventually sweeps through the map towards the end of the session), etc. etc.  And it all looked incredible; 64 people in a session yields some pretty spectacular sights, even from far away – I’m dodging sniper fire while watching two airplanes dogfighting on the other side of the map, blowing the hell out of buildings and radio towers, 10-foot waves slamming jetskis into the rocky island shore, helicopters blitzing strafing fire on either side of the building I’m taking cover in, all hell breaking loose for 60 full minutes.

In a weird way, it was kinda refreshing that the session was so big – it meant that my failings as a player didn’t stand out quite so obviously.  I was a bit of a wallflower, to be honest – I’d tag along behind Gred, occasionally firing wildly at enemies, but mostly getting headshotted from unseen snipers.  I was there really just as a visitor, a tourist, seeing what all the fuss was about, trying not to hurt my team too badly.  And I’m happy to say that in spite of my dreadful K/D ratio, our team ending up winning.

This is, more or less, my approach in real-life situations, too; I’ll attach myself to one person for most of the night, taking in the sights, listening to the music, gradually getting drunk and hoping that the buzz takes some of the anxiety’s edge off a little, and generally just hoping against hope that I don’t embarrass myself in front of a room full of strangers.

I was grateful to have Gred there, is the thing.  Because without him, I would’ve been completely at sea; overwhelmed by the madness of 63 other strangers with guns, or else simply retreating to a corner of the map, watching but not participating, afraid of screwing everything up.

I tend to handle life much better when I’m alone.  I can experience a thing on my own terms, at my own pace, and be alone with my own thoughts.  Solitude can get lonely at times, to be sure, but there can be profound meaning in a solitary experience.  I am (again) reminded of something Tom Bissell wrote in his review of GTA V:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person.  Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos. Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience…

For me, the single-player experience is, by and large, comforting.  And with a good game the experience can often times feel more engrossing than books or films, because it’s an experience that I get to directly participate in; I get to literally inject myself into the narrative and have a direct influence on the story.  I can’t be judged by other people (until after the fact, I guess, if they’re looking at my gamerscore), I can’t offend anyone, I can’t embarrass myself.  If I need to go to the bathroom, I can pause the game and not annoy anyone; if I need a break, I can walk away and not get teabagged by some douchebag on a camp-out kill spree.

I don’t play games to win; I play just to play.

I suppose that, when it comes to the real world, my social anxiety kicks in because I don’t want to “lose”, whatever that might mean.  It’s been a difficult struggle to acknowledge that the vast majority of social situations don’t actually have this win/loss structure, and that I can have a good time simply by being present in the moment, surrounded by friends (or strangers, as the case may be), and allowing the experience to simply happen, and to just be.

It’s not so cut-and-dry in the game world, though.

THE GAMES OF 2013

I.

2013 was a year of great change and transition, and as you might expect it was both very good and incredibly surreal.  On a personal level, I became a father; I released a solo album; I moved into a new apartment; I got over my fear of brain pills and started taking anti-anxiety medications (and they appear to be working); and I became a contributing member to the New York Videogame Critics Circle, which is a pretty nice break for a nobody like me.  These are all significant and happy milestones.

As a gamer, well:

Let me say this right up front:  this right here is a videogame blog, so when I say things like “Being a new father means that I don’t have as much time to play games”, I am very much NOT wanting to sound like a callous, privileged asshole whose newborn child is an inconvenience.  Please understand that the non-gamer part of me literally cringes when I say stuff like that, and also understand that I hate that I’m not a good enough writer to find a better way of putting it.  I love my kid, and I love the time I spend with him more than anything else in the world.  He’s changed my life for the better in more ways that I’m probably even aware of.

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THAT BEING SAID, yes, of course, having a kid has completely changed my gaming habits.  How could it not?  I used to have all-day marathon gaming sessions, but I obviously can no longer binge the way I used to; more to the point, I don’t game at all when the kid is awake, and I’m very self-conscious about loud TV noises when he’s asleep in the next room.  (Which is why I still remain absolutely shocked that I was somehow able to find 50 hours in which to finish GTA V earlier this year.)   Because of all this, I ended up moving my gaming setup from the living room to the office, and so nearly everything I played of any significance was played on the PC, in my comfy office chair and my kick-ass headphones.

I know I’m prone to excessive hyperbole here, but it cannot be overstated enough: moving to the PC changed everything for me.   It’s why I’m not necessarily foaming at the mouth for a PS4 or an XBO, and why I’m instead contemplating a new graphics card or (more likely) a Steam Machine.  It’s why I’m no longer shackled to the crippling addiction of Achievement hunting.  It’s why I’m now a lot more excited about the indie game scene than the next AAA blockbuster.

[It’s also why I feel a little bit lonelier, I suppose.  I have a few good friends on Steam, but nothing compared to the dozens of people I’d see on Xbox Live every day.  Of course, I’ve never been all that big on multiplayer (and neither are most of those XBL friends, come to think of it), so it’s not like I was missing out on epic online battles (at least, not that I’m aware of).  Still, there’s just a large segment of friends that I’m now kinda cut off from, and it’s weird.]

The other big thing about having a kid and the resulting loss of free time is that, as you’ll soon see, my ratio of games finished to games played is so completely out of whack that I clearly have no business buying a next-gen console any time soon.

II.

Here’s the question that ended last year’s introduction:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”

It wasn’t necessarily a rhetorical question; at the time that I was working on that piece, I was still half-heartedly dicking around in Far Cry 3 (a game that tried (and failed) to be subversive about violence in videogames) while still reeling from the Newtown school shooting (which was actual violence, and which was actually horrifying).  I was in a sort of weird crisis, to be honest; I was starting to feel sickened from all the virtual killing I’d been doing, and it was making me feel disconnected from something I’d loved since my childhood.  I was genuinely interested in knowing if there was more to this medium than guns; if it was possible to achieve a win state without having to wallow in bloodlust; if one could go from point A to point B without having to kill anything.  I wanted to know if games could make me feel something beyond the simple satisfaction of killing enough things to get to the next checkpoint; hell, I just wanted to feel something.  I was seriously contemplating going through 2013 without playing any game that involved the pulling of a trigger, even if it meant missing out on games that I’d genuinely been looking forward to.

In the end, I bailed on that challenge.  But because I had to switch up my living room couch for my computer chair, I ended up playing a far wider variety of games this year than I ever expected, and I also ended up feeling some pretty powerful feels, when all is said and done.

III.

Speaking of feels, normally I avoid talking about game industry news in these year-end posts, but 2013 featured two game-related stories that I feel should be brought up, being that they affected me and people I know personally.

(1)  I couldn’t continue with this post without mentioning the passing of the late, great Ryan Davis.  It’s weird to talk about being a fan of a gaming journalist, but I was a Ryan Davis fan, ever since his early Gamespot days.  Even though we’d never met or corresponded in any way, I still felt like we would’ve hit it off if we’d somehow been introduced; his gregariousness would certainly have made me feel welcome.  It is still weird to not hear his voice introducing the Bombcast; indeed, the Bombcast has not been the same without him.

(2)  I also couldn’t talk about 2013 without mentioning the internet; specifically, how awful it is, and how, despite my desire to become a professional gaming journalist, I kinda sorta want nothing to do with it.  This craziness has been around for a long while, of course, but this was the first time that I started to take it personally, even if none of it was ever directed my way.  This was the year in which noted game developer and notorious troll-feeder Phil Fish not only ragequit Twitter entirely, but took Fez 2 with him.  This was the year in which a Call of Duty engineer made a small mathematical adjustment to the damage of a gun and received death threats in return.  This was the year in which a Gamespot review that gave GTA V a 9 out of 10 resulted in over 20,000 vile, hateful, evil comments.  (That the review was written by a good friend of mine only made it feel worse.)  This was the year in which there were so many instances of rape and death threats directed at female journalists and game developers for no reason other than their gender that it eventually somehow became a non-story, which is unbelievably distressing.  I don’t have an answer for this, and I don’t know how the victims of this incessant abuse are able to deal with it.  It makes me unbearably sad.  It reflects poorly on us all.

*sigh*

And that’s why I don’t talk about news in these posts!  Let’s get on with the show.

THE YEAR IN ACHIEVEMENTS:  As of 1/1/2013, my score was 86295, when I finished the Leviathan DLC for ME3.  As of 12/23/13, it’s 87915, and it’s highly unlikely that number will change any time soon, considering that I’m barely playing my 360 these days and that I’m all but certain I’m getting a PS4 first.  In any event, this is by far the lowest yearly increase since I bought the 360 in the first place, and this is probably the last year that I pay attention to it or include it in these posts.

BEST MECHANIC:  There’s no runaway winner in this category like there was last year with Dishonored and “Blink”.  But I suppose it should be noted that the control scheme in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is perhaps the only control scheme I’ve ever played that, because of narrative events, caused me to cry (in a good way).

GAMES FINISHED:  I said in the introduction that this year’s ratio of games finished to games played was absurd.  According to my Google spreadsheet, I played 71 games this year, but only finished 15.  This is embarrassing, but there are several reasons for this.  Firstly, the baby’s arrival meant that my game time was limited, and so I wasn’t going to waste my time with stuff that wasn’t grabbing me right off the bat – there were lots of Gamefly titles that came and went often on the same day.  Secondly, quite a few of the games on my spreadsheet are 3DS games, but I’m starting to realize that I never have a good time to play them; I don’t like bringing the 3DS out on the subway, and playing it at work is a terrible idea for obvious reasons, and if I play it at bedtime my hands cramp up and my eyes start freaking out, and so I’m not sure I ended up making any significant progress on any of the 3DS games in my library this year.  But if I’m being totally honest, I’m going to assign most of the blame on Steam Sales, which make games on my wishlist appear far more appetizing than they should, and which is an affliction that obviously affects us all.  I’m already prone to poor impulse control anyway; Steam Sales mean that I’m continually biting off far more than I can be expected to chew.

  • The Cave (one playthrough, at least – you need to play 3 times to see everything, and even though the game is pretty short, I didn’t like it enough to play it that much)

  • Devil May Cry

  • Tomb Raider (twice)

  • Bioshock Infinite

  • Call of Juarez: Gunslinger

  • The Last of Us

  • Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

  • Gone Home

  • Saints Row 4

  • GTA V

  • Rain

  • Beyond: Two Souls

  • Assassin’s Creed 4

  • The Stanley Parable (I think I finished it, at least)

Did Not Finish, Would Like to Finish Someday:

  • Antichamber (came pretty close, I think, but my hard drive crashed and I lost that save forever)

  • BIT TRIP Runner 2 (which I’d like to go back to, definitely – it’s certainly my favorite soundtrack of 2013)

  • Etrian Odyssey 4 (currently stuck in a weird spot and I don’t know how to advance; it’s been months since I picked it up, though, and I’m not sure I’d know where to go if I started again)

  • Ni No Kuni (which I recall enjoying, but then the baby came and I got a bit distracted)

  • The Swapper (to be finished in 2014)

  • Shadowrun Returns (to be finished in 2014)

  • Fire Emblem: Awakening

  • Dishonored DLC

  • Shadow Warrior (to be finished in 2014)

  • Rayman Legends (to be finished in 2014)

  • LEGO Marvel (to be finished in 2014)

  • Zelda: Link Between Worlds (to be finished in 2014?)

  • Papers Please (to be finished in 2014)

  • Mario & Luigi Dream Team

Barely Started:

  • Amnesia: Home for Pigs

  • Civ V: Brave New World DLC

  • Kentucky Route Zero

  • XCOM: Enemy Within

  • Fire Emblem Awakening

  • Gunpoint

  • Eldritch

  • The Wolf Among Us

Did Not Finish, Couldn’t Get Into (But Still Respect):

  • Remember Me

  • Animal Crossing: A New Leaf

Did Not Finish, Do Not Want to Finish:

  • Splinter Cell Blacklist (pretty sure this franchise is dead to me now, too)

  • Castlevania 3DS (I’d spend more time typing out the full title than I did playing the game)

  • Metro Last Light (meh, personified)

  • Batman Arkham Origins Blackgate (the 3DS game is tedious, confusing, and kinda ugly)

Notable Games I Did Not Play:

  • Dead Space 3

  • Metal Gear Revengeance

  • SimCity

  • God of War: Ascension

  • Starcraft 2: HoS

  • Gears of War: Judgment

  • Crysis 3

  • Grid 2

  • Spelunky (PC)

  • Pokemon X/Y

  • The Bureau: XCOM Declassified

  • Battlefield 4

  • Call of Duty: Ghosts 2

  • Tearaway (though it makes me think about getting a Vita)

  • any of the PS4/XONE exclusives

Best voice performance

  • Gone Home – Sarah Grayson as “Sam”.  There is no game here without Sam’s story, and Ms. Grayson’s performance is true and genuine and heartbreaking.  She’s given a great script, to be sure, but without an effective actor the game would never hit the same emotional peaks.  (As I said in my review for the NYVCC, “Indeed, the success of Sam as a character is making me rethink my position on the tired trope of audio diaries as exposition.”)

Best soundtrack:

  • BitTrip Runner 2, and I say this even though I haven’t finished the game – the soundtrack is on Spotify and it’s excellent.  It’d clearly make for a great exercise soundtrack, I think, and if I ever get around to exercising on a regular basis I might have to try that out.  And as far as runner-ups are concerned, there was a Disasterpeace remix album of Fez songs that was quite nice, although it’s not exactly a 2013 game.

Most Disappointing:

  • I didn’t play it, but it sounds like Dead Space 3 was pretty terrible; it also seems to have killed the franchise, which is a real shame.

  • As for games I did play, The Cave was charming and quirky, but not nearly as awesome as I’d hoped, and the idea that I’d have to play it three times to see everything was very quickly tossed out before I’d finished it once.  On the flip side, Bioshock Infinite and GTA V were both incredible experiences and staggering technological achievements, and I finished them both and don’t regret the time I spent with them, but they also had some very significant and glaring flaws, and I haven’t felt compelled to revisit them the way I thought I would.  (Side note:  I quite liked the Burial at Sea DLC for Bioshock Infinite, even if it was similarly flawed.)

A Once-Favorite Franchise I’m More or Less Ready to Give Up On:

  • It’s hard for me to come to terms with the fact that the last Splinter Cell game that I genuinely enjoyed was Chaos Theory, on the original Xbox.  I did my best to give this year’s edition a fair shake, but I was completely disengaged with it halfway through the 2nd mission.

Best Gaming Podcast:

  • Bombin’ the AM with Scoops and The Wolf.  Two smart, funny dudes (and the occasional terrific guest) who actually talk about shit I care about, twice a week, in a reasonable amount of time.  (If I can get real here for a second, I’m finding the regular Giant Bombcast to be damn-near impossible to listen to these days.  It’s rare that I have 3 hours in a given week to listen to it, and I don’t find myself ever needing to hear Jeff and Vinny riff for 45 minutes about sandwiches or plumbing supplies or go-bags or wrestling or early 90s hip-hop.  Indeed, the cult of personality that has lately enveloped Giant Bomb has made it a site that I’m just not spending that much time with anymore, with the notable exception of PK’s “Worth Reading” columns.)

Favorite Articles:

What I’m Hoping to See Announced in 2014 (even if it doesn’t come out in 2014) (and even though this list can only be based on existing IP because I can’t get excited for brand-new IP that I don’t yet know about):

  • Fallout 4, built with the Rage engine (the game’s been confirmed, even if the engine hasn’t)

  • Uncharted 4  (confirmed by a teaser trailer)

  • new Batman game built by Rocksteady (rumored)

  • or something else built by Rocksteady, I’ll buy it anyway

  • a new, next-gen Criterion-built Burnout game

  • Portal 3

  • Red Dead Redemption 2

  • a new Crash Bandicoot game (and maybe there’s hope for this yet:  http://www.polygon.com/2013/11/25/5142830/activision-wants-to-resurrect-crash-bandicoot-series)

  • Mark of the Ninja 2

  • Shadow Complex 2

  • Tomb Raider 2 (in this new rebooted series)

  • new Deus Ex

iOS GAMES OF THE YEAR:  I really ought to just make a separate category for PikPok and Adult Swim, as pretty much everything they put out is terrific; there were a ton of great games for iOS this year, and here are the best of the best:

  • XCOM

  • The Room Two

  • Flick Kick Football Legends

  • Giant Boulder of Death

  • Sid Meier’s Ace Patrol

  • Infinity Blade III

  • Angry Birds Star Wars 2

  • Puzzle and Dragon

  • Spirit Stones

  • Device 6

  • Year Walk

  • Ridiculous Fishing

  • Rayman Fiesta Run

  • Colassatron

TOP 10 (with profound apologies everything in my “Did Not Finish But Would Like To Someday” list, and especially to The Last of Us, which is certainly a good game but not an experience I can claim that I enjoyed, and also The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, which everyone else acknowledges is amazing and which I’ve already acknowledged I can’t quite get into):

10.  Call of Juarez: Gunslinger.  The Call of Juarez name does not inspire much confidence, and I certainly didn’t expect very much (even if I’d heard some good things).  An absurdly low Steam Sale price got me to pick this up, though, and I’m really glad I did; it’s a fun little Western with great shooting mechanics and which has a lot of fun with narrative structure and the idea of the “tall tale.”  And the boss duels were pretty terrific, too.  My pick for most underrated / overlooked game of the year.

9.  Saints Row IV.  Considering what happened to THQ, and considering that this was originally supposed to be a DLC mission pack for Saints Row 3, it’s amazing that this turned out as well as it did.  If nothing else, it somehow managed to out-crazy the already crazy SR3, and frankly I have literally no idea how they’ll top it in the next one.

8.  The Stanley Parable.  Speaking of games having fun with narrative structure, this is also the funniest game since Portal 2, and also one that has moments of startling beauty and emotional resonance.  Perhaps this is more “art game” than “game”, but it’s still an experience that shouldn’t be missed.

7.  Bioshock Infinite.  Perhaps it’s my own fault; perhaps my expectations were too high, and so this game was never going to be good enough.  Or perhaps its just that the great and insightful critical responses to the first game made me hyper-aware of this game’s logical flaws and fallacies.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m tired of shooters, and there was so much shooting in this game.  Whatever the case, I didn’t enjoy this as much as I wanted to.  But I can’t deny that there’s a tremendous amount to love and appreciate in this game, too – the graphics, the sound design, the art direction, the world, the music, the characters, the ending…

6.  GTA V.  I’ve written far too many words about this game already.  The short version is that even though the game’s story is silly (to put it kindly), and the three main characters are morally and ethically reprehensible, and the game’s treatment of women is profoundly sad – despite all of that, the world that Rockstar has created here is truly remarkable, and it’s about goddamned time that the gameplay has finally caught up with the rest of the industry.   While I wonder if I’m getting too old for this series – which is a thought that feels thoroughly depressing – I still hold out hope that Rockstar will get the narrative stuff straightened out for GTA VI.

5.  Devil May Cry.  I’m not a fan of the earlier games in the franchise, but I am a fan of Ninja Theory, and what they’ve done with this reboot is pretty incredible.  This was a visually stunning game, and it felt great to play – this might be my 2nd favorite melee combat system behind Batman, frankly.  Can’t wait to see what they do next.

4.  Tomb Raider.  Apparently I wasn’t so keen on this the first time I played it, but for some reason I felt compelled to replay it later on and then I fell in love with it.  Sure, the grotesque death sequences are a little much (as are the constant grunts and howls of pain), and maybe the ending was a little hokey, but I thought this was a fantastic reboot of an important franchise; it made Lara a real person instead of a hyper-sexualized automaton, and it made the violence matter.  Killing a person (or even an animal) shouldn’t be easy, and you can feel how it chews her up as the game progresses, even as she learns to harden herself from it.  Speaking of which, the gameplay was quite good – this might’ve been the first Lara Croft game with genuinely fun combat, frankly.  I hope that for the next one, they put back some of the tombs and the puzzles – that’s what I really play these games for, and I’m hoping that now that they’ve better established who Lara is, they can now put her in some interesting situations.

3.  Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag.  I’ve written too much about this (and too recently) to recap it effectively here, so I’ll keep it short – I was all but ready to give up on Assassin’s Creed, but then this came out and now I’m fully engaged again.  Hell, I still want to go back and finish all the stuff I hadn’t yet gotten to.  A very welcome return to a much beleaguered franchise.

2.  Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  This sorta came out of nowhere; I don’t recall hearing that much about it before I picked it up, although I must’ve heard something that compelled me to check it out.  In any event, I’m forever grateful that I did; I had an absolutely delightful time with it.  And then, of course, there’s that ending… Like I said earlier, I’m not sure that a control scheme has ever moved me to tears, but there you have it.

1.  Gone Home.  Here’s that question again, the one I asked at the beginning of last year’s GOTY post, and the one that I brought up again earlier in this one:  “When was the last time you played a game and experienced joy?”  There are so many things to say about this game, and there are a lot of people who’ve said it a lot better than me – go back and read those links I posted earlier.  It’s rare to see a game affect people so deeply and profoundly; indeed, it’s rare that gamers let themselves be moved.  We generally play games knowing that, for the most part, we’re not playing it for the story – and games are, for better or worse, generally built with that philosophy in mind.  All I knew about this game going into it was that it was kind of spooky, and that it was a game of pure exploration – no combat, no enemies, no ticking clock.  And for the first third of it, I thought I was playing in a haunted house – there’s one particular jump scare that still spooks me when I think about it.  Of course, the game turned into a deep and moving love story, and my tears at the ending were genuine tears of joy.  A truly special experience and a game that I’ll always remember.

weekend recap: fun in San Andreas, not so much in Blackgate

There was good and bad over the weekend as far as games are concerned, so let’s start with the good.

THE GOOD:

1.  This is something I never thought I’d say, but here goes: GTA V Online is starting to grow on me.

Right off the bat – it is 1000% more stable than it was at launch, which means it is now, more or less, working the way it’s supposed to. Load times are still a bit long, but the important part is that game sessions do finish loading instead of being endlessly hung up, and once you’re in a race or a mission people don’t seem to teleport or glitch out the way they were a few weeks ago.

More to the point, though, the online game is starting to make a bit more sense.  I should back up and say that I didn’t even really start playing online until I’d finished the main story, and so it seemed sort of insane how little there was to do at the outset of my online career, considering how much I’d done in the single-player campaign.  But I’m now up to Level 10, and the activities and customization options that have opened up with each level-up are enough of an incentive to keep me coming back.

For example:  I took a nice chunk of the money I got from being in the beta and bought a deluxe apartment with a 10-car garage.  The apartment itself isn’t necessarily useful except that it’s nice to be able to spawn into it, as opposed to spawning on a street corner and then immediately getting gunned down before I’ve even had a chance to set “passive mode” on.

Another thing (though this feels like an exploit or something) is that you don’t have to play Missions with other people if you don’t want to, and so this is a rather easy way to make money and XP without dealing with jerks and/or long stretches of boredom while you wait for your lobby to fill up.  Nobody seems to want to play the Missions, is the thing – whenever I get into a group with people, the pre-match voting results are almost always a 50/50 split between races and deathmatches – and so it seems silly to sit there doing nothing when the Missions are just as easily doable by yourself.

But, that aside, the more I time I spend with it, the more it feels like it’s the primitive first draft of what a true next-gen GTA should be – one where you design your own character and create your own narrative, and make your own way in the big city.  (Which Saints Row is already sort-of doing, and which the Elder Scrolls games have been doing for ever.)  And it also proves, conceptually at least, that GTA III‘s model of a silent protagonist isn’t necessarily bad.  (Which also works for The Elder Scrolls games, too.)  Like: I’ve decided that I don’t need a fully-voiced character reaction to every minor traffic infraction; if I’m playing as Michael, and I crash into someone while missing a corner at high speed, and then Michael screams “YOU ENTITLED PIECE OF SHIT” at the person I just hit (because he’s certainly not saying that to me, the player)…. well, if it wasn’t funny the first 100 times he said it, it certainly doesn’t get any better.  Truth is, whenever I drop back into the story mode for whatever reason, I find that I’m immediately irked by whoever I choose to play – Michael is just a terrible person, Trevor is, well, Trevor, and Franklin seems like he’d rather be doing something else.

I don’t think Rockstar will go that route, though; they’re too committed to this endlessly repetitive vision of American Satire, and they take their “storytelling” very, very seriously, and in any event they already did the silent-protagonist-climbing-up-the-ranks story in GTA III.  And considering how much money GTA V has just made, it’s easy to presume that the Houser Brothers would feel justified in staying the course.  It’s just that there’s no story quite as compelling as the one you make yourself, and when you’re given a world like the one in San Andreas, every action you take in exploring it becomes more meaningful because it’s you doing it, and because you want to do it.  I’m not saying they can’t have scripted missions – those are still fun, when they’re done right – but I think I’d be a lot more engaged with the next game if I had more control over who I ended up playing, and especially if I could like or at least empathize with the person I was playing.  (And as it turns out, this ability to create your own character and shape your own narrative is something that a lot of my favorite games of this generation  have in common.)

2.  I finished Enslaved.  I was surprised at how much of that game I still remembered – the game feels pretty epic in size, but I forgot how short it is.  It’s not without some problems; a lot of the story beats feel like they come too quickly, and there’s quite a few camera glitches that make the game downright unplayable.  But the action feels good, the platforming is quite fun (albeit completely devoid of challenge), and I still think that the relationship between Monkey and Trip is genuine and convincing.  (Especially the facial animation, which I’d put right up there with the best of this generation.)

3.  I managed to not spend any money in Steam’s Halloween sale, and I also managed to not buy Batman Arkham OriginsLego Marvel, or pre-buy Assassin’s Creed 4.  I will probably end up buying AC4 when it shows up on the PC in a few weeks, but at least I didn’t splurge on it now.

THE BAD:

1.  Part of why I was able to hold off buying Batman was that I’d heard that the game had some crippling, save-corrupting bugs that Warner Brothers actually came out and apologized for; the other part was that I was playing the 3DS version of Batman Arkham Origins Blackgate, which I was hoping would sate my Batman fix.  Alas, it did not, and if anything it further soured my hopes for the PC game.  I can’t speak for the Vita version, which is apparently the better of the two handheld games, but the 3DS version was tremendously annoying to play; and this is very disappointing, because when I heard that the game was trying to mashup the console Batman games with a side-scrolling Metroidvania experience, I expected something amazing.  Instead, it feels very obligatory and uninspired; the map is all but useless; the sidestuff (i.e., evidence for random detective cases) feel utterly meaningless and devoid of any real purpose; and the combat is not nearly as much fun as it should be, because the 3DS buttons are often unresponsive and I ended up taking far too many hits that I shouldn’t have.  I spent about 2 hours or so with it and eventually gave up; I just don’t have the time anymore to push through with games that aren’t doing anything for me, and I especially don’t have time for games that feel like they’re deliberately antagonizing me.

THE UNRELATED:

Saw this link this morning, in which The Verge plays with the Steam Machine, and now I’m really glad I’ve waited on buying a new console (or, alternately, a new video card for my PC):

http://www.theverge.com/2013/11/4/5063760/we-try-the-steam-machine-valves-video-game-console-of-the-future

weekend recap: bits and bobs and odds and sods

So I had big, grand plans for blogging here last week, and, clearly, those plans all went to shit.

I’d written a rather gigantic review of Beyond: Two Souls for the NYVCC (which probably won’t be going up until early November), and in the process of putting it together I started getting a little philosophical about the concept of “fun”.  Not even necessarily about what constitutes fun (as an example, the fun I had in exploring the house in Gone Home is much, much different than, say, the fun of online Call of Duty matches, should you enjoy that sort of thing), but more along the lines of:  is “being fun” the thing that separates/elevates a game from an interactive experience?  Can a game with stellar graphics, a gripping story and fully-realized characters still be considered “great” if it isn’t “fun” to play?  And likewise, can a game with stellar gameplay mechanics (i.e., the “core gameplay loop”, or the “30 seconds of fun” design principle that went into creating Halo) still be considered “great” if the story and the characters and everything else is shitty?

I’d wanted to sink some serious time and thought into this piece, but, again, the week fell apart and I couldn’t put it together – not even after I tweeted that I was working on something ambitious, and that I sincerely hoped that I wouldn’t quit on it.   The tweet was more concerned with the post becoming too ridiculous for me to wrangle into shape; it didn’t take into account the many external factors that conspired against me even having the time to put it together (i.e., day job, sick baby, musical side projects).

Such is the blogger’s dilemma; as I am not in an environment where I can concentrate on writing 24/7 (or even 9 to 5), I seem to only churn out these sorts of lightweight posts – weekend recaps, uninformed gut reactions to industry news, whining about jerks on social media.  The heavy-duty stuff is problematic – I get intimidated because I want the piece to be great, and when I get intimidated I either allow myself to get distracted, or I get too critical and censorious and the whole thing falls apart.

I don’t necessarily want to abandon this idea, though, even if I just gave it away.  Because one thing that I am going to start doing over the next few months is a thorough examination of this console generation, and I’m very curious to see how my personal definition of “fun” has evolved over that time.

Case in point:  I ended up spending quite a lot of time in GTA V this weekend, trying to finish a few Strangers and Freaks missions, and also trying to trigger new ones – there’s quite a few missing in my Social Club profile, and I have no idea where to find them or how to start them.  Two of them started quite by accident; I decided to buy up some businesses, and one of them (the pier in the WNW area of the map) triggered two different quests that essentially sent me underwater, circumnavigating the entire island (one quest in a submarine, the other involving deep-sea diving).  These were strange, laborious and frequently tedious missions, and yet they were also, at times, deeply engrossing – if for no other reason than to simply appreciate the staggering amount of work that went into creating the underwater environment.   And since these missions were also untimed and free of enemies, I could explore at my leisure, and I personally really enjoy that sort of exploration – even if the speed of the sub and/or swimming was painfully, agonizingly slow.

Indeed, most of my time now in GTA V is spent driving around the northern expanse of the map, wishing there were Skyrim-esque dungeons to explore.  (Or, barring that, Red Dead Redemption-style gang hideouts to raid.)   (Also, mostly wishing that someone would mod GTA IV to incorporate GTA V‘s gameplay improvements – combat, penalties for mission failure, quick-saving, etc.)

Also this weekend:  I was generously gifted a copy of Deux Ex: Human Revolution (Director’s Cut) on Steam, and so that was a lot of fun to go back to.  I didn’t notice much in the way of the advertised graphical or AI improvements, and I haven’t gone far enough to see the re-tooled boss fights, but the commentary is a really nice touch, and it was neat to re-approach the first few levels without the clunkiness of my first playthrough.

Also spent a little time with Eldritch, a Lovecraftian roguelike that looks like a Minecraft mod.  I’m not really all that into roguelikes, nor am I particularly into Minecraft, but I do love me some Lovecraft spookiness, and so I finished the first dungeon and am contemplating a return visit.

Finally, I spent a few hours with the new PC port of Enslaved, which is a game that I remember being really impressed with on the 360 – I recalled it being a colorful adventure in the vein of Uncharted, which is a game that I could stand to see more clones of, and in my “Best of 2010 feature” I specifically called out Heavy Rain and said:

See, Heavy Rain, this is how facial animation should be done.  Hell, this is how storytelling should be done.  There’s more said in a character’s face here than in 20 overwritten lines of dialog.  The relationship between the two lead characters was thoroughly believable and authentic.

The PC version for the most part looks incredible, although the camera has considerable moments of severe jank.  And for whatever reason, this second time around, the story seems to be moving a lot faster than I remember – especially in regards to the relationship between Monkey and Trip.  The game is still fun, though – and it’s also pretty neat to see how the combat in Ninja Theory’s reboot of DmC evolved from what they did here in Enslaved.  If you didn’t play it on the console, this PC version is definitely worth picking up for $20.

I seem to doom myself every time I promise a blogging schedule for the upcoming week, so I’m not going to do that now.  But as I said above, my larger project over the next few months is to reexamine this console generation.  As I’m probably going to hold off on getting a next-gen console (most likely the PS4, first) until next year, I anticipate having plenty of time to get caught up on some backlog titles, and to revisit the console games I felt compelled to hold onto (which is to say, the games I liked too much to want to trade back for credit).   When I consider my Top 10 of this generation, it’s mostly just off the top of my head – with the exception of Red Dead, which I recently played to get warmed up for GTA V, I haven’t played any of the other games in my Top 10 in at least a year or two.   And it turns out that I really want to play Portal 1 and 2 again.