E3 2016: much ado about nothing

I’d hoped to have posted my impressions of Sony’s press conference much sooner, but events have conspired against me.  I suppose it’s for the best, since I have the benefit of hindsight now and I feel that I can be a bit more objective about what Sony had to offer.

Did Sony “win” E3?  Was this “the greatest press conference ever”?  I’ve seen several tweeted headlines that answer in the affirmative to both of these questions, but I’m not convinced.  Again – I’m writing this a few days after the presser, so I’m not nearly as breathless with anticipation as I might’ve been during the actual event.

Sony’s actual press conference was certainly not the epic, no-doubt-about-it mic drop of a few years ago.  (And when I look at that recap, I am simply stunned by what I managed to be stunned by.)  I did find it much more substantive and tasteful than Microsoft’s, though that could’ve been the live orchestra.

More to the point, the games – or, rather, the portions of new games that were presented to us – seemed more mature, more sophisticated.  This new, Norse-themed God of War reboot feels like a Naughty Dog game, with a nuanced relationship between a father and son.   Horizon similarly looks quite astonishing, although it’s hard to know how to extrapolate a full game experience from that 7-8 minute demo.  We have a 2016 release date for The Last Guardian, which is nice, even if I haven’t read any preview coverage that managed to get a clear handle on what it is.

Honestly, I’m mostly excited about the Crash Bandicoot remasters.  And also the PSVR, which comes in at a price point that I can most probably survive.

This is all well and good, but now that’s it’s been a few days I’m more concerned about what we didn’t see – like No Man’s Sky (which I suspect was withheld simply because they’re in crunch time and didn’t have time to show anything without severely cramping their style).  And of course Sony did not talk about the “Neo”, which begs the question – will my PSVR work better with the new hardware?  Can I afford a Neo and a Scorpio while still paying my mortgage?  Will my wife leave me if I buy them both anyway?

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With regards to the rest of the show: I am the wrong dude to ask.  Work has been crazy, and whatever free time I’ve had this week has been devoted to posting about gun control and how horrible Donald Trump is. But I can run off a few bullet points:

  • I bought Trials of the Blood Dragon after hearing about it at the Ubisoft presser because I love the Trials games, and after 15 minutes with it I can tell you that whoever decided to make a Trials game where you get off the motorcycle and engage in shitty platforming/shooting segments needs to get fired immediately.
  • The South Park game looks awesome.
  • Ubisoft’s winter-sports thing looks promising, though I’ve heard some absolutely dreadful impressions.
  • I must cop to admitting that Call of Duty in space actually looks pretty neat.
  • I very nearly pre-ordered the ultimate edition of Forza Horizon 3 earlier today.  I don’t know why, nor do I know why I stopped.
  • I’m willing to give that standalone Gwent game a look, though I never played more than the tutorial in Witcher 3 proper.
  • Speaking of which, I need to get back to that Blood & Wine DLC.
  • Also need to get back to Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, though to be honest I’m not enjoying it all that much.  It feels like EA’s first draft of a Ubisoft open-world game, and you can take that however you want.

On Political Agendas and Bad Stomachs

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

From my friend Caro’s Tumblr:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the first few hours: The Last of Us

Before I start talking about The Last of Us in earnest, I want to mention two interesting things that won’t necessarily fit in the context of the discussion, but are still related to my personal experience with the game:

1.  Slight spoilers – a few hours into the game, you’ll meet two characters named Henry and Sam.  As it happens, Henry is the name of my son, and Sam was the name of my grandfather.   My grandfather died when I was in high school, so Henry never got to meet him.  But there they were, dodging zombies and armed maniacs along with our heroes, Joel and Ellie.

2.  One of the game’s many strengths is how well it conveys atmosphere, especially when you’re in dark basements.  In addition to the sheer visuals, there’s lots of ambient noises and sonic textures that make you feel really claustrophobic and creeped out.  This is doubly effective when there’s an actual mouse in your actual apartment, scratching and squeaking behind the walls, and you’re alone in your living room with a sleeping baby behind a thin wooden door just a few feet away and the lights turned down low.

*     *     *

While I’ve more or less conceded that my desire to be a full-time game journalist is hopelessly impractical at this point in my life, I still occasionally think about getting into the freelance game-review business.  Especially now, given my earlier post about being short on cash.  I mean, I know that reviews don’t necessarily bring in a ton of money, and I wouldn’t always be playing stuff that’s good, but surely there are less pleasant ways to supplement one’s income.

And yet I can’t help but feel that I’d be terrible at it.

For example:  sometimes I feel like it can be a cop-out or a crutch (or, more likely, a habit of laziness) to compare someone’s new work to their old work.   Like:  if you can’t assess a thing for what it actually is without comparing to something that it never tried to be, then you’re probably a shitty critic.

Which is to say, I know that comparing The Last of Us to the Uncharted franchise isn’t fair, because they’re completely different experiences and want to evoke radically different reactions from the player, even if they appear to share a lot of common factors:  the same jaw-droppingly amazing graphics engine, some of the best digital acting in the business (to go along with a very well-written script), a meticulous attention to detail (both in art design and character work), and a relatively even gameplay balance of exploration and combat.

As to that last point, I feel obliged to point out that The Last of Us and Uncharted also share another, more disconcerting feature, and one which is relevant to my attempt at criticism:  when it comes to Naughty Dog’s games, I hate the combat.  I am willing to concede that I might hate it because I suck at it; but it should also be noted that – at least in my opinion – there is always too much of it, and it gets in the way of all of the non-combat stuff which is infinitely more enjoyable.  Maybe it’s just that I’ve never liked the PS3’s controller, especially when it comes to action games, but I always feel ham-fisted and clumsy in combat situations, and even on Easy I die a lot.

I ended up finishing Uncharted 3 on Easy because I wanted to see the end of the game, and shooting bulletproof soldiers had stopped being fun after the 300th kill.  While The Last of Us has a much different combat feel – indeed, the game implies that you can (and should) sneak your way around combat rather than rushing headlong into it – I also am playing it on Easy (after an earlier combat scenario took me 30 deaths and around an hour of frustration to complete), because while I try to sneak around, I always get found, and because I don’t find the combat all that fun (possibly because, as I said, I’m terrible at it), I just want to get it over with as quickly as possible so as to keep the story moving forward.

*     *     *

Tangent #1:  My complaints about the combat in Naughty Dog’s games (and The Last of Us specifically) remind me of my complaints of another of 2013’s major releases – Bioshock Infinite – in that both games feature incredible worlds that you can’t help but want to explore, except for all the crazy people who want to murder you.  I am far more interested in exploring and scavenging and crafting than I am in the combat.  But if there were ever two companies that could actually make the game that I truly want to play in this coming generation – games with fantastic visuals, well-crafted stories and interesting characters  and worlds that beg for exploration and interesting puzzles instead of  combat as the “filler” to get you from point A to point B – I just know that Naughty Dog and/or Irrational could pull it off.

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Tangent #2:  I would love it if this new generation of consoles made it possible to invent a new kind of gameplay “filler”.  I suggested “puzzles” in the paragraph above because it was the first thing that came to mind (and because Portal 2 proved that you can make an amazing, full retail product without having to fire a single bullet) but surely there must be something else that can be done.  As I am not a gameplay designer, I have no idea what that might be.  But I would be VERY EXCITED to find out.

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Wow.  This was supposed to be a post about my overall impressions of The Last of Us, and I’ve already spent 900 words horsing around, so let’s get to it.

I am around 10.5 hours into TLOU, Naughty Dog’s swansong on the PS3, and judging from the chapter listings in various walkthroughs (not that I’m using walkthroughs – I honestly just wanted to see how much was left), I’m just over the halfway mark.   (I keep feeling like I should defend my using a walkthrough with the express purpose of determining length, even though nobody cares; it’s just that unlike books, music and film, it’s impossible to judge a game’s length while you’re playing it – and this doesn’t even take into account personal play style.  If I weren’t so interested in exploring every single nook and cranny in TLOU, I suspect I’d have arrived at this halfway point after only 5-6 hours, as opposed to 10.)

Leaving aside my personal displeasure at Naughty Dog’s combat system, and my weariness with zombies and the end of the world as a storytelling trope, it is immediately apparent that TLOU is a staggering technical achievement, and deserves all the respect you can give it.  But it is also – at least for me – a difficult game to enjoy.  TLOU is relentlessly dark and grim, with horrific, gruesome violence at almost every turn, and where terrible things happen to good people pretty much non-stop.  (My wife watched me play a little bit yesterday, and she said it felt like a combination of The Walking Dead and I Am Legend – which is pretty much spot-on.)  It is a game that probably shouldn’t be played in long marathon sessions, which is what I usually do with games like this; instead, I’ve been getting little hour-sized chunks here and there for the past week or so and that’s pretty much all I can take before I need to switch over to something a little less gloomy.

I’m not quite sure where the story is going, but I have a pretty good feeling about certain upcoming plot points.  I’m normally not all that quick in terms of picking up that sort of stuff, but I knew what was going to happen to a number of characters long before their fates were inevitably decided.  Of course, this is what happens when you set your story in a gloomy post-apocalypse and you establish early on that anybody, no matter how “innocent”, can die at any moment; you stop being surprised when the plot twists, and instead you find yourself simply wondering how the plot will twist, which (to me) isn’t nearly as interesting a question.

That being said, now that I think about it, I’m starting to think that this is deliberate; the game is trying to evoke a sense of dread, and since the inevitability of death hangs over every scene and character and action, you can’t help but feel a little terrible.  You know that bad things are going to happen; the best you can do is to make sure you have as much ammo and supplies as you can find and hope that you can press on long enough to get to the next cutscene.  This is very much like real life.

Like I said above, I’m playing the game on Easy after struggling for a bit on Normal because the story and the characters are far more interesting to me than the combat, and as such I’m having about as good a time as I can stomach.  I’m still dying, a lot, but I’m still able to press ahead.  I’m finding the core relationship between Joel and Ellie to be authentic, even if it’s maddeningly obvious why Joel acts the way he does and it’s incredibly frustrating that he won’t admit it to himself.   (This Guardian article, which has been linked to a lot on Twitter and which I haven’t yet read all the way through, has a different take on their relationship.)  Still, the digital performances are quite powerful and moving and real, and even if the Guardian is right and the game’s central relationship of an older man taking care of a helpless girl in the face of the apocalypse is yet one more entry on the ever-growing pile of stories featuring male dominance over subservient, weak females – or even if the core problem is simply that the game is being told from the man’s point of view, LIKE IT ALWAYS IS, I still find that, at the very least, TLOU has its heart in the place.

I find myself compelled to press on, even if I don’t really want to.

*     *     *

Amazon is having a gigantic Digital Games Summer Sale, and at the prodding of a friend I ended up buying Need For Speed Most Wanted for $15.  I’d previously been rather sour on the game (1, 2), but the PC version seems to be a completely different beast.  It looks far better than the 360 version, and it also seems to be playing a bit more fairly, too – the AI still rubberbands from time to time but it’s not freakish and unfair, and what constitutes a crash seems to be a lot more consistent.  If you have it and need some Autolog friends, my username (as it is everywhere else) is JervoNYC.

of zombies, peaches, and time

I’ve had very little game-playing time in the last week or so.

This is actually a good thing, as far as The Last of Us is concerned; its relentlessly grim atmosphere can start to feel suffocating after a while.  I’m not sure how far I am into it, actually, because my time with it has been so stuttered; if you’ve already played the game, then you’ll know where I am when I tell you that I just recently picked up the bow and arrow for the first time, and am in that booby-trapped town, trying to help this guy find auto parts so that he can build us a car.

It’s weird how I can binge-watch a show like Hannibal and have a really great time (even if I end up having trouble sleeping), but that I can’t play TLoU for more than 30 minutes at a time without feeling restless and agitated.  Of course, I’m also having trouble enjoying TLoU.  It’s an incredibly well-crafted experience; it’s probably the best-looking game on the PS3 (which is no mean feat; how Naughty Dog managed to top its own Uncharted 2/3 is beyond me).  But aside from the oppressive atmosphere and the overwhelming sadness that pervades every inch of this apocalyptic wasteland, it also suffers from the same kinda-shitty combat that plagued the Uncharted games.  To be fair, the body count thus far is much, much lower than in Uncharted, and the stakes feel much higher – the violence actually means something this time around.  But it still feels awkward, and I die an awful lot (even on Normal), and one-hit kills stop being devastating after you’ve been one-hit killed 20 times in a row.   I feel compelled to push on, as it’s one of the last truly significant games of this generation, but I can’t honestly say I ever look forward to playing it.

I suppose I’ve also reached my saturation point with zombies.  In the mid-’00s, I was getting tired of killing Nazis; now it’s zombies.  They’re a very convenient enemy – you don’t feel bad killing them, you won’t offend anybody by making them the bad guys, and it’s easy enough (if you want) to drape your own morality tale over whatever metaphor you want the zombies to represent.  I get it.  And zombies are still a hot commodity right now, and if there’s anything you can do to get a new IP off the ground, zombies have a proven, successful track record.  But how many more goddamned zombies are we going to have to kill before the industry feels comfortable inventing something new?

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The having-no-time thing is a bit of a drag, though, with respect to Animal Crossing: New Leaf.  Ordinarily I’d appreciate the slow pace and the do-what-you-want gameplay, but because my time is so limited, I feel this weird sort of pressure to try and finish all the town maintenance stuff I need to do as quickly as possible.  Now, to be fair, it’s not the game’s fault; it doesn’t necessarily punish you for not staying on top of things all the time (though it does mean there’s more weeds that need to be picked up, and sometimes you’ll end up missing on certain special events).  I fully acknowledge that my previous addictions to stupid timer-based town-maintenance shit like Farmville have informed my approach to AC:NL.  Still, though, it is what it is, and my weirdness about not having any time is making the game less fun to experience.  Which is a drag, because it’s clearly something that everyone else on my twitter feed is madly in love with.