a hole in my life

[Please pardon any typos in this entry; I have a bit too much adrenaline in my system for reasons I can’t yet disclose, but will hopefully reveal in the not-too-distant future.]

So where was I?  In last week’s post, I had rolled credits on Mass Effect Andromeda after sinking in 60+ hours and nearly all of my remaining available attention after worrying about my mom in the hospital and being alone in my house while my family vacationed in Florida.

I am now in that familiar post-game void, where the urge to sit down and play something is at odds with the lack of anything fresh in my library.  I mean, yes, I have dozens of games in my backlog, but a lot of them are either things that I’ve already played or are things that I can’t find my way back into.  (Exhibit A:  Final Fantasy XV, which I’m just not sure I’m ever going to get into.)

That said, I do need to play something, because there’s a giant Mass Effect-sized hole in my life, and so over the weekend I started and finished What Remains of Edith Finch for the PS4.

I don’t know how to describe this game without spoiling it or, arguably worse, comparing it to Gone Home.  Not that there’s anything wrong with Gone Home!  I adore that game.  And in all fairness, I’m not sure that Edith Finch would even exist were it not for Gone Home; after all, Edith Finch is, among other things, a story about a family that is told via the exploration of a strange house.

That said, Edith Finch is a remarkable achievement, and one that will linger in my mind for a very long time.  I’m not sure I’ve been as emotionally affected by a game since, well, probably Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  To be sure, this is a story about death, of a family that feels cursed, and of the eerie and odd spaces of the mind.

I should also state, very loudly, that Edith Finch is not a “walking simulator.”  That is perhaps the most ingenious thing about it; as you explore the house and experience the final moments of your family members through journal entries, those journal entries become playable set pieces, and part of the puzzle is seeing just what you can and can’t do.  Ironically, my least favorite character narrative (that of the older brother, recovering from drug addiction and working a very repetitive job in a cannery), contained the most compelling gameplay – your right hand goes through this very mechanical and repetitive (but necessarily very precise) movement pattern, while your left hand ends up doing something utterly different and fantastical, and then suddenly the end of that sequence comes out of nowhere.  (Well, not nowhere – and again, it’s impossible to talk about this without spoiling it – but in the most general terms you’re led to expect that the actions of the right hand are where this person’s end will result because you’re too busy paying attention to what’s happening with the left hand, but what ends up happening is something else entirely.)

And, of course, the game’s ending is – look, I can’t talk about it.  It is better to not know.  Perhaps I’ll write up a spoiler-filled post and talk about it, because I HAVE to talk about it.  But GODDAMN the ending hit me like a ton of bricks.

Folks, the game is $20 on Steam and PS4 and you should play it.  It’s about 4-5 hours and it’s unlike anything else you’ll play this year, and it will move you in ways that you might not expect.  As I’ve noted before, I spent $90 and 60 hours on the deluxe edition of ME:A and didn’t care about a goddamned thing I was doing; I finished Edith Finch in two sittings and I’m not sure I’ll ever get it out of my head.  It is executed about as well as it can be, and this will be near the top of my GOTY list without question.

The End Of Andromeda

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Mass Effect Andromeda

Current Status:  credits have rolled.  Approximately 60 hours, approximately 80% game completion.  Level 53.  Still a few side quests to tool around with, as well as a narrative epilogue to wrap up.

It’s interesting to me how, even though I’ve been playing games for most of my life, I don’t necessarily have the same associative recall with games that I do with, say, music or books or film.  For instance:  I saw Pulp Fiction in the $1.50 theater about 8 or 10 times one summer with my best friend Steve, and so I will always associate that movie with him.  My girlfriend in high school introduced me to The Smiths and The Cure and, though she didn’t mean to, made me hate Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough”.  I will always remember listening to Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” with my friend Aleks, as we gorged on junk food.  The first time I ever got stoned, my soundtrack was Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland” – an album I’d appreciated but clearly didn’t get, on a visceral level, until that one fateful evening.

There are a few game-centered memories, of course; my younger brother had a Sega Genesis when he was growing up, and we’d play NBA Jam and Streets of Rage 1-3 long after my mom had given up trying to get us to show up for dinner.  Jongre, my first real friend at my first real job out of college, had a PS1 and we played Oddworld and Crash Bandicoot all the goddamned time (while listening to Aceyalone’s “Book of Human Language”).  My other friend (and very occasional SFTC contributor) Greg and I would nerd out endlessly over Grim Fandango and Giants: Citizen Kabuto.  (We still nerd out about games pretty much every day, as it turns out.)  I had some friends from the Gamespot forums in the early 00s that I will always associate with Burnout 3, Ghost Recon, and Phantom Dust.

But the truth is, over the last 17 years or so my life has been somewhat static; I don’t have the same associative memories if only because not all that much has changed.  I’m married and have a kid and I moved to the suburbs, but my day job is still the same and I don’t necessarily hang out with people the way I used to.  In other words, there is less of an opportunity for me to associate media with people, because I’m a lot less social now than I used to be.

In any event, I did not play 60 hours of Mass Effect Andromeda because it was a good game (though it became… well… less bad after a while).  I played 60 hours of MEA because I was in a dark place last week, missing out on a Florida vacation with my wife and kid so that I could stay behind and help my mom recover from a nearly-fatal illness.  MEA was the thing that helped pull me through each difficult day.  I’d come home from the hospital exhausted and depleted, and MEA had just enough shit to do to help distract me from missing my family.  Ironically, MEA’s below-average storytelling is probably the reason why I kept with it; which is to say, I didn’t have to pay attention to what I was doing; I just had a ton of stuff to do, and I did it, and because I didn’t particularly care what it was that I was doing, it was easy to turn off when I had to go to bed.

MEA is not a bad game.  It does feel undercooked and scatterbrained, and it’s clearly going for the “let’s fill up the map with waaaaay too much shit to do” ideal of level design pioneered by Ubisoft.  And it’s buggy, even after the most recent patch – while I didn’t encounter any hard crashes after that patch, I did fall through the world a few times, and I had to reload the final boss battle because of a weird bug.  And its UI is a goddamned mess – I know nothing about game design but I could probably crank out at least 1000 words on MEA’s UI issues alone.  I think it’s easy to piss all over it because the original trilogy is held in such high regard (especially by me), and MEA is disappointing in almost every respect when compared to its predecessors.

In and of itself, though, it probably has the best combat in the entire series – and while combat is not why I play Mass Effect games, it’s the primary reason why I didn’t turn this one off immediately.  Sure, some of the random encounters on hostile planets get tedious and annoying, but the actual mission setpieces are quite fun and enjoyable and satisfying to complete.

If MEA is the launching pad for a new trilogy, I think there’s a tremendous amount of potential for this series to regain its footing.  But I also think that it’s perhaps a little too restricted by its forebears; this is a new galaxy, and because it’s not really tied into the events of the first trilogy it shouldn’t necessarily be required to think the same way.  I suppose my real disappointment with MEA’s narrative is simply that, for all intents and purposes, the new species of alien aren’t that much different from the Milky Way’s aliens; I was sort of hoping that we’d get into not just a different physical look, but a whole new way of thought and communication and living.  Instead, it’s just a British accent and some different weaponry, but the same mundane neuroses and petty political squabbles apply.   MEA feels almost too familiar, as if Bioware were afraid to mess with their pre-established formula.

I am aware that I’ve spent nearly this entire post being negative; and if I were giving the game a score, I’d probably aim for the 6-7 out of 10 range.  And yet I played it to completion, and I don’t regret doing so.  It was mindless and big and helped me escape my own loneliness and depression, at least for a little while.  I only hope that I don’t have to play MEA2 under similar circumstances.

 

how to disappear completely, for a little while at least

FYI: I am about to go on a family vacation, which means this blog will be even quieter than usual.

I’ve also been dealing with some rather upsetting family-related issues that I’m not going to discuss here.  It is hard, when one has a blog, to not be able to talk about this stuff.  But on the other hand, that’s what therapy is for.  In any event, I’ve been having a hard time mustering any enthusiasm for writing about what I usually write about here, because under the circumstances it’s difficult for me to imagine that anyone gives a shit.  Leaving my own personal business aside, the world is a pretty fucked-up place right now; we could all die in a nuclear holocaust simply because our President* saw something on Fox News while eating a burned, ketchup-slathered steak at his private country club and decided to fire a bunch of missiles in the direction of an accumulation of brown people.

I don’t know how else to explain why I’m continuing to play Mass Effect Andromeda.  It is true that the game is not as awful at it was in its first few hours – I’m currently at level 20, I think – but it’s still pretty mediocre at best.  It’s a hard game for me to binge; I can only handle an hour or so at a time before needing to switch off.  And yet I am compelled to push on, for reasons that still remain unknown.

I do know, though, that despite the rave reviews, I have no patience for Persona 5.  I can’t spend 100 hours playing a game with a translation this shitty.  (This AV Club review-in-progress talks about the game’s dialogue issues in greater detail; I only played the first 30 minutes or so before accepting that I was never going to have the patience to get much further.)

In terms of things that are good and beautiful and make the world a better place, I would HIGHLY recommend Amor Towles’ A Gentleman In Moscow, which is one of the best books I’ve read in quite some time.  It is beautiful and lyrical and its many observations about life’s little details are insightful and illuminating.  As a quick example:

Surely, the span of time between the placing of an order and the arrival of appetizers is one of the most perilous in all human interaction. What young lovers have not found themselves at this juncture in a silence so sudden, so seemingly insurmountable that it threatens to cast doubt upon their chemistry as a couple? What husband and wife have not found themselves suddenly unnerved by the fear that they might not ever have something urgent, impassioned, or surprising to say to each other again? So it is with good reason that most of us meet this dangerous interstice with a sense of foreboding.

Anyway, that’s the news.  Tell your loved ones that you love them.  Reach out to long lost friends and tell them you love them, too.  Apologize to those you’ve wronged, and if your apology isn’t accepted, well, that’s OK too.  Make your heart happy.

The Ethereal Sigh

A Twitter friend recently held a poll asking which format of games was preferable – digital or physical.  I used to be a physical devotee; I took great pride in my collections of stuff, be they books, CDs, games, etc.  I felt that the object was just as worthy of obsession as the actual art within.  I painstakingly arranged my DVD shelves by director and genre; my bookshelves were a bit more haphazard but there was a logic in their arrangement that I could see; certain books just belonged together, and so they were.

This started to change in 2004, when I got married.  Instead of hiring a DJ, I bought an iPod and made a gigantic mix, and suddenly I realized the genius in having my entire CD library in my pocket instead of lugging around a discman and 2 20-disc CD wallets in my backpack all day.

And then at some point I got a Kindle, and ever since then I’ve almost exclusively bought e-books.

And so you can see where this is going:  I am a slave to the cloud.  I bought (much) bigger hard drives for both my Xbox One and my PS4, and while I might own 200 games among both systems, I think I only own 3 physical discs (both accompanied my PS4 purchase, before I knew any better).

I bring this up because last night, had I owned a physical copy of Mass Effect: Andromeda, I would have forcibly ejected it from my Xbox and snapped it in half.  I’d been stuck in this one particular battle on a very dreary, snowy planet for the last few days, and last night I was determined to figure out how to upgrade my equipment and actually beat the damned thing, and so I did all that stuff (and it’s so poorly executed in the menus, you guys, the whole thing could’ve been radically simplified if the developers looked at the most recent version of The Witcher 3 and just stole their UI wholesale) and then went back and… and… the loading screen never finished loading, and no matter how many times I went back and reloaded I’d keep getting stuck.

I did eventually have to backtrack to an earlier save which wasn’t fucked up, and I decided to abandon that particular mission entirely for the time being, and now I’m stuck with some bullshit Sudoku puzzle where I know I’m solving it correctly but the game keeps saying I’m wrong.  But at least the game is working, again, sort of.

I don’t know why I’m continuing to give ME:A the benefit of the doubt.  If this was any other game, or any other developer, I would’ve given up a dozen hours ago.  I keep wanting it to get better, to get closer to the Mass Effect experience that I’ve loved for so long, and it keeps… not doing that, at all.  As it happens, there’s nothing else on my gaming plate besides my backlog, and I’m still not sure if I want to bother with Final Fantasy XV until the infamous Chapter 13 gets patched.  (In fairness, I’m barely into Chapter 1 or 2, so I presumably have a long way to go before that point.)

 

Weekend Recap: Gloom and Doom

I had a great weekend, and that’s despite the fact that I was terribly sick for the majority of it.  Imagine how great a weekend has to be for that to be the case, that you can go to bed on Sunday night feeling at peace with the world even though you’ve been coughing your brains out and feeling like a huge lump of crap for 72 hours.

A lot of this has to do with my brother and his fiancee who stayed with us for the weekend.  They are lovely, lovely people, and my son adores them, and they even babysat for us while the wife and I took a desperately-needed nap on Saturday afternoon.  On Sunday evening, my wife and I asked our son what he wanted to be when he grew up.  He replied, without hesitation, “A cool person like Uncle Jono.”

 

I also learned that my almost-4-year-old son loves OK Go videos and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”, as featured in the animated movie “Sing”.  And for some reason this made me happy.  I don’t particularly care about Taylor Swift one way or the other but Henry was into that song, dancing uncontrollably all over the living room floor.  My wife and I couldn’t believe what we were seeing.

So, yeah:  good family visits, my son being adorable, and Trump’s healthcare debacle going up in flames were more than enough to make up for a super-shitty chest cold.  For a moment, all felt right with the world.

*   *   *

I am struggling with my feelings about Mass Effect Andromeda.  The one thing that makes it easier, I guess, is that I’m not alone in my disappointment.  I am a die-hard Mass Effect fan; this was one of my only must-have games coming out this year; I am very much wanting to give Bioware the benefit of the doubt.  If it was any other developer, I would’ve given up on this game a dozen hours ago; I keep hearing rumblings that it gets better the farther in you go, but I’m not quite sure what that actually means.  The gunplay is fine, for whatever that’s worth – for all intents and purposes it’s probably the best it’s ever been.  But I don’t play these games for the combat; I play them for the stories, the characters, the exploration.  And almost all of that stuff is either broken or badly written, and often it’s both.

I have no investment in my character; I don’t care about what I’m doing; I don’t like any of my crewmates – which feels odder than it should since Bioware seems to have gone out of their way to make sure you know that you can bang any or all of them eventually; most importantly, I have absolutely no idea how the upgrade and stat-leveling stuff works (I’m mostly content to simply auto-level for the time being until I get sufficiently powerful enough that I feel comfortable with a complete re-spec).  I do appreciate that my dialogue options are less obviously good/bad than they were in the earlier trilogy, which makes me feel more comfortable answering questions naturally, but I also find myself skipping through dialogue scenes because the voice acting is dull and lifeless and I read much faster than they speak.

Sometimes I feel like ME:A is what No Man’s Sky would’ve been like with a narrative.  Make of that what you will.  I’m not sure that patches are gonna fix what’s broken here.

*   *   *

I will say this – my ambivalence towards ME:A means that I’ll probably return to my backlog sooner rather than later, especially since as far as I can tell there’s nothing I absolutely HAVE to play until Red Dead 2, which is supposedly releasing in September.  I might actually get back to Final Fantasy XV; I’d like to finish Yakuza 0; I might even consider getting back into Gears of War 4, because why not.

*   *   *

Are you watching Legion?  You should be.  That show is fucking insane in all the best ways and I adore it.  I know it’s not for everybody – a lot of my Facebook feed is filled with people who are fed up with it – but it’s 100% meant for me, and I can’t get enough of it.  I may very well binge watch the whole season again once it’s over.

 

Side Quests: Avoiding The Big Story

The big story is that I am not yet ready to talk about Mass Effect Andromeda.  I can offer a ton of first impressions, almost none of which are positive.  I can also bury these impressions under the mountain of goodwill that I’m trying to hold on to, with respect to Bioware and the Mass Effect franchise.  I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, because they’ve earned it.  But YE GODS this game feels like a broken, buggy, unpolished mess.  I don’t really understand this need to radically re-invent the wheel as far as certain mechanical things are concerned – the first 3 games had an intelligent and intuitive user interface, and while I appreciate the desire to spice things up for a next-gen debut, the finished result feels decidedly unfinished.  The simple act of tracking a quest requires at least 3 button presses too many; I still have no idea how to add mods to my weapons, or how to switch my weaponry at all.  Now, granted, I’ve only just landed on Eos; I’m still barely into the actual proper game.  And Bioware RPGs are notorious for always starting off slowly.  But this feels like a mess.  I’ve already said too much.

Instead, let me talk up some other things that aren’t terrible.

First:  read this Kotaku review of Everything, which I downloaded immediately after reading.  If tonight’s run of ME:A remains as impenetrable as last night’s, I’m headed towards Everything ASAP.

Second:  holy shit, iOS has had some INCREDIBLE games land in the last few weeks.  I’d already been charmed by Little Folks and lost hours to Slayaway Camp and Tavern Guardian, but then this murderer’s row of kick-ass happened, one right after the other:

  • Ticket to Earth, a puzzle RPG unlike anything I’ve ever seen before;
  • Bit City, a city simulator from the people that made Tiny Tower (another game I lost many, many hours to);
  • Cosmic Express, another charming (and quite difficult) puzzler;
  • Pavilion, a “4-dimensional adventure game” with a gorgeous art style;
  • TypeShift, a new and very addicting word game from Zach Gage;
  • Kingdom: New Lands, which is some sort of resource-gathering thing with an absolutely gorgeous pixel art style reminiscent of Sword & Sworcery;
  • Euclidean Lands, which mixes Monument Valley‘s Escher-like aesthetic with Rubik’s Cube gameplay;
  • Beglitched, one of the weirder and more charming variants of match-3 I’ve come across;
  • Death Road to Canada, the newest game from Rocketcat (one of my favorite mobile developers); and finally
  • Card Thief, which is some sort of stealth/solitaire/board game mashup that’s as ingenious as it is clever.

Any one of those games will tide you over for quite some time, let me tell you.

Third:  I finished Horizon: Zero Dawn at the end of last week.  I submit that it’s entirely possible that one of the reasons why I’m so frustrated with Mass Effect’s missteps is that HZD does everything correctly.  HZD is polished, intuitive, and graceful in all the ways that ME is broken, frustrating and clumsy.  It’s a remarkable game, and I only hope that it’s not forgotten at the end of the year, overshadowed as it is by the new Zelda.  Incredible world-building, fantastic production values, highly engaging combat, very involving gameplay.  If the story is somewhat predictable, the experience of playing it is anything but.

The First 20 Minutes: Mass Effect Andromeda

I didn’t intend to start the new Mass Effect just yet.  The plan was to finish Horizon Zero Dawn, since I thought I was heading towards the finish, and then get to ME:A without feeling distracted.

But then I’d finally gotten HZD’s Shield Weaver armor, a set of armor so powerful it’s almost game-breaking, and decided that was as good a point as any to set HZD to the side and give ME:A a quick spin.

In the creative world, you can usually tell how someone is going to audition simply by how they walk into the room.  When it comes to new books by new (to me) authors, I tend to give the author a chapter or two – not just to see if the story is interesting, but to see how the author uses language to tell that story.  When I fire up my weekly Spotify Discovery playlist, I’ll give everything a very quick spin but if I’m not wowed immediately, I’ll skip ahead to the next track.  (I feel comfortable doing that if only because there have been tons of songs that do, in fact, wow me immediately.)

When it comes to games, it’s a little bit trickier.  I can forgive some technical jankiness here and there if the moment-to-moment gameplay experience is compelling, especially in big-budget AAA titles, if only because one expects those kinds of things to get patched.  Even the day-one disaster of Assassin’s Creed Unity got better, eventually, though that game had larger issues than simple glitches.

So, then:  I’d been doing my best to avoid any and all media concerning this new Mass Effect game, as I am a rabid ME junkie and wanted to go into this new game as unspoiled as possible.  But I am also a human being who uses the internet from time to time, and so it was inevitable that certain, er, wonkiness would come to light.

But, uh… holy shit, the first twenty minutes of ME:A are a bit of a mess.  Maybe it’s just the Xbox One version, but GODDAMN this game is janky as hell.  I’ve played the original trilogy all the way through, twice, and I know how the game is supposed to feel in my hands, and ME:A feels completely alien to me.  (To be fair, I have spent the last 30 hours playing HZD, which might affect this impression.)  But more to the point, it is super-janky, even in places where you wouldn’t expect the hardware to be taxed all that much.  Even the character customizer is kinda shitty.

I made it about 10-15 minutes into the first real planet-side mission before turning it off, somewhat in disgust.  Tutorial pop-ups would flicker on and off so quickly that it was impossible to read – I still don’t know how to engage with ammunition pickups; combat feels very stiff, even by Mass Effect standards; the scanning mechanic is not explained particularly well and it’s very unclear how it’s supposed to work, and while I might be picking up certain resources by scanning I don’t know what I’ve picked up or why (which isn’t helped AT ALL by the fact that the in-game computer system that would explain this stuff is necessarily disconnected for narrative purposes).

I’ve decided to stick to the original plan, which is to finish HZD and wait for ME:A’s day-0ne patch.  HZD is really good, you guys, I can’t emphasize that enough.  I know everyone’s playing Zelda or whatever, but still:  HZD is great.  If nothing else, it’s raised the third-person action/adventure/RPG bar rather high, and ME:A’s first 20 minutes fell way short.

The Friday Funk

When even Twitter being adorable can’t snap you out of a melancholy mood, you know you’re in trouble.

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1. Here’s something positive – I’ve read a TON of really good books recently.  The last time I wrote about books, I was in the middle of reading George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which was great and I only wish I hadn’t rushed through the ending as quickly as I did.  After that was John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester (very good, even if the initial premise ends up fading away towards the end), Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes (which started off a bit blah, but ended up being great, and has one of the most jaw-dropping endings I can recall), Ursula le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven (my first le Guin, and what a place to start!), Liz Moore’s The Unseen World (which was beautiful – although it, too, starts off in a direction that it very slowly veers away from), and then last night I finished Dan Chaon’s Ill Will, which was astonishing the whole way through.  I realized that I’d bought his earlier novel Await Your Reply a while ago but never read it, and so I’m reading it right now.  Instant fan.

2. All this reading has not yet turned itself into lyrics, but I’m getting there.  Slowly but surely.

3.  Game-wise, I’m still very much enjoying Horizon Zero Dawn although it’s a bit more difficult than I expected, and I’m currently trapped in a dungeon that I may not be able to get out of.  At the very least, it’s keeping me thoroughly distracted from wanting Zelda.  My rental copy of Nier: Automata arrived last night and I played the first hour, and it’s… pleasantly strange, though I don’t know if it’s where my head is at.  I may just need to power through HZD until Mass Effect Andromeda lands.

4. Speaking of which, I already pre-ordered ME:A on Xbox One, and since I’m an EA Access member I think I get to play it a few days early, and if that’s the case, I’ll probably have to put HZD on the back-burner, which means I might not ever get back to it.  HZD is the sort of game where you need the controls to feel fresh in your hands, and if I’m gonna spend 60 hours with ME:A, then HZD is going to be very difficult to get back to.

Keep your chin up, kids.  Trump can’t be president forever.