here / not here

1. [cross-posting from my secret blog, but bear with me]

So every once in a while I get overwhelmed by whatever it is that overwhelms me about people, and so I publicly announce that I’m taking a Facebook hiatus, and each time I do the hiatus never lasts, and I feel like a hypocrite.  I’ll hit the “post” button announcing my farewell, and then I’ll be lurking on FB within 20 minutes of my initial post.  I acknowledge that this is ridiculous.

However: as I may or may not have mentioned, my day job has instituted these new draconian internet firewalls, and so not only can I not use my work PC to access my personal email, but I’m also completely shut out of Facebook.

And this means that, if I do want to use Facebook during normal business hours, I have to use my iPhone.  And the iPhone FB experience is a fucking dumpster fire.  It doesn’t matter how many times I ask it to stay in chronological order; it straight-up refuses to work in the way that I want it to.  Which means I invariably always miss something.  And since a lot of the reason why I used to spend so much time on FB is that weird “fear of missing out”, I kinda have no choice but to confront that particular fear head-on.

And so the oft-threatened hiatus is actually starting to stick.  I don’t really check it all that frequently any more, because I know the experience will suck when I do, and there’s nothing I can do to fix something that refuses to stay fixed.

Instead, I’m now on Twitter like a motherfucker.  (@couchshouts, if you didn’t already know.  If you knew me as @jervonyc, that account is long dormant.)  My twitter account is mostly political retweets and announcements of blog posts, so, you know, keep your expectations in check.

At least WordPress still works – for the time being, at least.  I don’t expect this to last forever, either, but there’s nothing I can do about that now.

2. We are all agreed that Portal 2 is one of the best games ever made, yes?  Yes, of course.  It was recently made backward-compatible on the ol’ Xbox One, which is great news, because I very much like that game and would like to continue to play it.  Especially the online co-op mode, because that mode is SUPER AWESOME and it’s been a long time since the last time I played it and I’ve forgotten all the solutions.  HOWEVAH, the online co-op doesn’t seem to work anymore?  Possibly?  I’d like some external confirmation about this, actually, because me and my buddy tried to do a bit of the co-op campaign over the weekend and we couldn’t keep a session together for more than 10 minutes.  ALSO, Portal 2’s online interface, as designed and intended for the 360, does not work at all with respect to the XB1, which is a bit of a problem.

tl,dr version: remaster Portal 1 and 2 for next-gen consoles and, hey, why not include Portal 3 while you’re at it.

3. I was feeling pretty good about No Man’s sky again, especially in light of yesterday’s post.  So last night I fired up the game, struggled to find the one element I was looking for in order to complete my super-mega warp drive for about 90 minutes, and then the game crashed. Again.  So, yeah.  Maybe I’ll keep that one on the shelf until the next patch.

 

weekend recap: principles, portals, and other p-words

Some scattered thoughts while I have a few seconds:

1. I picked up The Talos Principle for PS4 a few days ago, as it’s currently on sale for $20.  (Yes, I own it on PC, but my PC is falling apart, and as it happens the PS4 version runs incredibly well.)  That game is pretty good!  Tricky puzzles that give that pleasant euphoric rush once you finally piece it together, all tied together with a very subtle sci-fi / metaphysical narrative.  I think my only real issue with it is one of jarring textural elements – I know there’s a better way to phrase to it, but the words aren’t coming to me at the moment.  Essentially, each puzzle involves you trying to unlock a gate to pick up a puzzle piece; unlocking the gates requires manipulating certain things in the environment.  The disconnect is that the worlds each take place in very specific environments – the first hub world could be Ancient Greece (but with red brick), the second could be Ancient Egypt – but the puzzle elements are strikingly modern (laser-sighted machine gun turrets, light-beams guided by prisms mounted on industrial-grade tripods, etc.  Maybe there’s a narrative reason for this?  I’m about as far into the PS4 version as I was on the PC – maybe a little further along, actually, since I’m using a walkthrough when I get truly stuck (which is happening a bit more than I’d like).

2. So among the Xbox 360 games recently announced by Microsoft as now being backwards-compatible is Portal: Still Alive, a stand-alone digital-download version that came out maybe a year or so after The Orange Box was released.  Of course I bought it, even though I’d already beaten Portal a dozen times on both 360 and PC, and of course I immediately downloaded it for my Xbox One, because come on.  Portal is one of the best games ever made.  I mention this only because this past Saturday night my living room TV happened to be free, and my PS3 is hooked up to it as our blu-ray player, and I decided to give Portal 2 a whirl, as I hadn’t played it in a long time.  You know what?  Portal 2 is a perfect game.  I appreciate the argument that the first Portal might be a better game if only because it was so completely unexpected and that the narrative twist was (as my friend Greg put it) that it had a narrative in the first place.  Portal 2, though, is bigger and funnier, and the puzzles are just as inventive, and Cave motherfucking Johnson, and Glados is a potato, and Stephen Merchant as Wheatley is, bar none, my favorite voice performance in any game I’ve ever played.  My save game put me in place to finish the final third, and now that I’ve experienced the ending again I can certainly see why a Portal 3 might be difficult to pull off (from a narrative standpoint, at any rate), but that doesn’t stop me from wanting more Portal in my life.

3. Harmonix has announced a U2 DLC bundle for Rock Band 4, which means I have to now buy Rock Band 4.  It’s only 8 songs, and not the 40-song bundle that I’d hoped for many years ago, but it’ll do.

4. Still haven’t started my Games of the Year post; still not sure when I’m going to get to it, or if I’ll even be able to fill out a top 10.

5.  I’m actually more interested in working on a Music of the Year post, even though I haven’t written one in years, and even though I don’t really listen on an album-by-album basis.  My music consumption process has changed so radically in the last few years that it’s barely recognizable to me; the me that posted ridiculous lists on LiveJournal would be hard-pressed to wonder what the hell has happened to me.  It’s something I’m very much wanting to explore, at any rate, so… look forward to that, eventually.

Weekend Recap: Order out of Chaos

The Game:  The Order: 1886
Current Status:  3-4 hours in, halfway through Chapter 9 (out of 16)

The conventional wisdom on The Order: 1886, as far as I can tell, is the following:

  • for a $60 game, it’s far too short and has no lasting value beyond the initial campaign
  • for a third-person cover shooter, it hardly reinvents the wheel, and the combat is bland and uninspired
  • it’s absolutely gorgeous, though the decision to force black bars on the top and bottom of the screen (to enhance the cinematic widescreen effect) means you see less of the world than you’d like
  • but still, holy shit, the game is gorgeous
  • there’s not much to do beyond shooting, and while there are lots of nooks and crannies off the very narrow path, there’s not as much hidden secret stuff as you’d expect, and the stuff that’s there isn’t particularly interesting or provides any tangible benefit to the player
  • given that Nikola Tesla is basically the game’s version of James Bond’s Q, you’d expect the weaponry to be a bit more diverse than it actually is
  • in any event, the weaponry you encounter in the world is not adequately explained (which is to say it’s not immediately apparent why you’d pick up one weapon as opposed to another when given the choice)
  • also:  lots and lots of QTEs, which are dumb

I can’t really argue with any of that; and yet I’m still finding myself enjoying the game quite a lot.

I think what we’ve got here is essentially an incredibly polished first draft.  The game’s world feels rich and deep, and the characters are acted quite remarkably well, even if the script is somewhat lacking in urgency and certain elements of the plot feel somewhat under-developed.  Perhaps it’s because I’m a sucker for finely delivered British accents that I’m allowing myself to gloss over the story’s shortcomings.

As to whether the game is worth $60 – well, I’m renting it, so I’m not feeling shortchanged.  But I think there’s something to be said about a game’s length in proportion to its intrinsic value.  Not all games need to be 100 hours long in order for me to feel like I got my money’s worth.  I loved Dragon Age Inquisition but there’s a fair amount of padding in that game, and once I finished the main story I lost any and all desire to finish my considerable amount of sidequests.  Meanwhile, I’ve played the considerably shorter Portal and Portal 2 more times than I can count, and I enjoy them every time I do.  Length isn’t the issue; it’s making sure that every moment feels as though it matters.

To that point, I don’t feel like my time is being wasted in The Order: 1886.  It’s not without some considerable problems, but I’m having more fun than I thought I would.  Maybe it’s the graphics whore in me, too – but goddamn, this game is spectacular to behold, even despite the fact that a lot of it is dark and dreary.  I would love to see Dishonored 2 run this well.  (It also reminds me a fair amount of last year’s ill-fated Thief reboot, for whatever that’s worth; games inspired by London in the late 1800s are apparently a thing now, but when they’re done well it’s quite breathtaking.)

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.

on nostalgia, prog rock, and games

Nostalgia is the enemy of all great art, rock and roll most of all, since at its best it is a celebration of the now.
– Jim DeRogatis, “Ode to the Giant Hogweeds”

I’m sure I don’t need to explain why today is a tough day to write about games, even if today is a day where I’d prefer to be distracted by writing about things that keep me distracted.

But it’s also tough to write about games because, well, this is the week before GTAV, the game I’ve probably been looking forward to more than any other game of this generation.*  And as such, I’m having trouble staying focused on the games that are already in front of me.  I played around 30 minutes of Rayman Legends on Monday, and around 20 minutes of Amnesia: A Machine For Pigs last night, and while they’re both really impressive (even if for wildly different reasons), I found my mind wandering.  (And yet I continue to play the shit out of Giant Boulder of Death on my iPhone, even as it eats up my battery like crazy.)

Anyway, I feel like I need to write something, so indulge me as I ramble for a bit.  (It will turn back around to games, I promise.)

*      *      *

Yesterday I started reading “Yes Is The Answer: (And Other Prog-Rock Tales)“,** a collection of essays about the big prog bands of the 70s.  It actually ends up reading mostly like long sort-of-but-not-really-apologies about liking the big prog bands of the 70s, because admitting that you like prog rock is, I guess, a mark of shame.  I had the good fortune of discovering prog rock during the late 80s/early 90s at summer camp, long after punk had kicked prog to the curb (but just before grunge came back to finish the job), and so I don’t necessarily feel guilty about my unabashed love for Genesis, Yes, Rush and the like.

Anyway, I was reading this book and I happened to have Spotify open on my computer while I was reading – this way, I could listen to the bands that were being talked about that I didn’t know all that well.  (i.e., Caravan, the Strawbs, Van der Graaf Generator, Soft Machine, The Nice, Incredible String Band, etc.)  It was an illuminating afternoon, even if, as it turns out, there are certain bands that I will never, ever, ever be able to get into.

For example, Emerson Lake & Palmer – I just can’t do it.  And I should be able to appreciate them, as I’ve been a keyboard player since I was 3 years old and Keith Emerson ought to have been my keyboard hero, because my keyboard heroes when I was younger were Bruce Hornsby and Billy Joel – but I’m 37 now, and I like what I like, and when I go back and listen to that stuff it’s impenetrable.  It’s the same thing with King Crimson (even though I adore Red).  And while I do love Yes, it’s really only certain albums that I can still enjoy listening to – the ones I know the best.  Of all those prog bands, Genesis was the only one where I forced myself in recent years to become familiar with the albums that I hadn’t been familiar with when I was younger – and I suppose that’s only because they were my favorite prog band and I was predisposed to get past the stuff that turned off other people.  (And also because the remastered box sets from a few years ago sound fucking incredible.)

Likewise, not prog, but still:  David Bowie – can’t do it.  And I respect the shit out of him, and I appreciate that he’s well-loved by pretty much everyone.  I forced myself to get into Ziggy Stardust, and by and large I do like that album a great deal, but I just can’t get into anything else.  I’ve tried repeatedly to get into The Berlin Trilogy, but there’s something about the production aesthetic that bugs the hell out of me – it totally obscures the songwriting and the vocals, and I’ve never been able to get past it.

Anyway, I thought about this a lot yesterday, and I started to wonder if this knee-jerk reaction to certain genres of music applies to other media.   It’s hard to say, I suppose, because rock music – much more so than film or books – is very much defined by its era and its immediate context, and so an older band can be a bit more difficult to get into if you already don’t have an innate sense of where it was coming from.***

For example, I don’t find capital-F Film to be that difficult to get into, of any era; maybe there are certain filmmakers that i can’t see eye-to-eye with, but by and large I’m willing to give most any film a chance (even if I don’t often find myself longing for old-timey, black-and-white films).  TV is a bit trickier, as old shows can feel incredibly dated now,**** but to be fair I’ve never been a big TV guy to begin with.

Games are a different story altogether.  (See?  I told you it would come back around to games!)  Because it’s more than just cultural context at play – it’s just straight-up technology that gets in the way.  Even games that are only 5 years old can be technically horrific to look at, compared to what we’re used to today.  Gameplay systems and conventions have evolved radically, exponentially; GTA3 is damn-near impossible for me to enjoy these days, especially now that Rockstar Games has so clearly reinvented the combat wheel with Max Payne 3 and Red Dead Redemption – indeed, even GTA4 feels downright archaic.  How can I go back to Oblivion (where I’ve spent over 100 hours) now that I’ve clomped around Skyrim? Could I even enjoy KOTOR now?  I think I have it on my iPad and I kinda don’t care, and we’re talking about one of my favorite games of all time.  I tried playing System Shock 2 when it came out on Steam a few months ago – one of the “greatest games of all time” – and couldn’t get much farther than the tutorial; it felt alien and strange and unintuitive and not fun.  If I’d played it when it originally came out, I suppose I might have been more forgiving towards it – but as a new player, it was impossible to get into.

And, of course, there are plenty of older games that are literally impossible to play now, because there are no logistical ways to play them.  Skies of Arcadia is one of my favorite JRPGs*****, but unless they make an HD remake I’ll never play it again – I’m not even sure my Dreamcast can hook up to my HDTV without needing some arcane adapters.  And my love for all things Tim Schafer can only begin with Grim Fandango, as I never played Full Throttle or Day of the Tentacle and I don’t have the technological savvy to make that happen without accidentally setting my PC on fire.

*      *      *

If you made it this far, thank you.  I’m sorry I don’t have a central point to all this rambling; ultimately this was about me trying not to have panic attacks about what happened 12 years ago.  It feels like a lifetime ago, even if a lot of it is still simmering in my brain and my blood, as fresh as if it happened this morning.  It changed me; it scarred me.  It bothers me a little when people say “Never Forget”, because if you were there, you can’t forget it.  I was only a few months removed from temping down there, actually; indeed, if I hadn’t had the world’s worst boss at the time, I might’ve still been there.

Hug your loved ones; keep them close.

__________________________________
* I wrote this without really thinking about it; but now that I’m thinking about it, I’m pretty sure it’s true.  The only other game that might come close in terms of me going bananas with anticipation is Portal 2.  (What’s notable about Portal 2, though, is that it turned out to be even better than I’d hoped, which is something that almost never happens.)  I’m trying to think of other games that I was absurdly excited about; I know I waited in a midnight line at Gamestop for GTA4, and I might’ve waited on a midnight line for Skyrim, but those were unique situations in that I knew I wouldn’t have to be at work the following day and that there was a Gamestop within walking distance from my apartment.  I did get pretty nerded-out for Beatles: Rock Band, of all things.

** The book is good though uneven – and of course you will only bother to pick it up if you’re already a fan of the music – but the absolute knockout of the bunch is Tom Junod’s piece about Genesis and Peter Gabriel, which can and should be read by anyone.  I’m cutting and pasting from the L.A. Times’ review, since it says all that needs to be said:

“The indisputable star in this band of essayists is Tom Junod, whose “Out, Angels Out” might be worth the book’s $24 price by itself. Junod revisits a perilous passage in his late teens when he was falling into alienation and despondency. Genesis singer Peter Gabriel became the lifeline that pulled him through — although Junod’s closest sidekick in prog didn’t make it. It’s one of the best things I’ve read about rock music or, for that matter, about how adolescence can suddenly turn into a rope bridge over a chasm in a howling wind.”

*** My parents were both classical musicians and didn’t listen to rock music in the house at all, and even listening to the Top 40 countdown on the weekends was a minor act of rebellion on my part (even if I did it on my tiny boom box at very low volumes).   So it makes sense to me why certain, classically-influenced prog music would resonate so deeply with me as a teenager away at summer camp, surrounded by all the older brothers I never actually had.  (It was a performing arts camp, too, so my fellow campers were already predisposed to liking geeky things; it was a save haven for all of us to rejoice in our nerdiness without getting punched by jocks.)

**** Case in point – the wife and I ended up watching a lot of TJ Hooker during Labor Day weekend, and it’s just ridiculous that anyone could’ve been a genuine fan of such unintentional silliness.

***** Skies of Arcadia is also the first JRPG I ever played, so that might have something to do with it.  I have absolutely no idea if it holds up today; I’m not even sure I want an HD remake, because I don’t want my memories to be squashed.  (If someone out there who is in charge of such things is reading this, I want you to know I’d still buy it – just turn down the number of random encounters a smidge and we’d be all set.)

weekend recap: many dead things

I probably added around 12-15 hours to my Borderlands 2 campaign after Saturday’s post.  I have a lot more to say about it.  But before I do, there’s a couple other things to talk about:

– Firstly, one can’t talk about cel-shaded graphics without talking about Jet Set Radio, and when I needed a break from Borderlands 2 this weekend I remembered that I’d downloaded the XBL demo of Jet Set Radio HD.  I’m thrilled that a lot of beloved old games are getting HD remasters, but I’m also noticing a recurring problem – the games always played better in my memories than in my hands.   (The Tony Hawk HD thing from earlier this summer also comes to mind.)  JSR looks absolutely fantastic – after all these years, that art style is still brilliant – but it also feels incredibly stiff in my hands, and I found myself making the exact same mistakes in maneuvering that I did 10 years ago (or however long ago it was).  That being said, I still love the HD remastering treatment, and I can’t say it enough – I would LOVE to see a Skies of Arcadia remaster.  FACT:  JRPGs don’t have the same control problems that 3D action games do.  Let’s make this happen!

– Speaking of demos, I also played a tiny taste of the demo for Resident Evil 6.  There are three different chapters in the demo, and I played around 10 minutes of the first one on the list.  (I’m not a big enough fan of the franchise to really care about it one way or the other; I’m well aware that I’m one of the only people on the planet that thinks that RE5 is a much better game than RE4.)  So, the biggest thing, obviously, is that you can move while aiming!  Welcome to 2012!  And yet, it’s still incredibly awkward-looking!  I sometimes feel that the developers of these Japanese mega-franchises – RE, MGS, FF, etc. – live in a hermetically-sealed bubble, unaware of the advancements in animation, storytelling, and general gameplay conventions that have transpired over the last 20 years.  I appreciate their slavish devotion to keeping each game true to its roots, but, I mean, Jesus Christ.  Have they never seen people walking around and carrying guns in other games or films or TV shows?   Besides that, it should also be noted that the graphics look a little rough – RE6 is nowhere near as nice and clean and crisp as RE5, though this may be because the demo is an early build.  In any event, I didn’t really have RE6 very high on my priority list, and this demo didn’t really do anything to change that.  It’s still on the GameFly queue, for whatever that’s worth.

– At some point this weekend I received an email that included a code for the first DLC for Darksiders 2 – Argul’s Tomb.  As much as I love that game, I’ve gotta say that this little self-contained mini-adventure was a little… meh, actually.  I hate using that word unless I have to, but that’s pretty much the best way of putting it.  It’s around 2 hours long, there’s no achievements, it’s very combat heavy, and none of the loot I picked up was particularly good.  It’s free, though, so it has that going for it, which is nice.

– I am an idiot.  I wanted to try out Steam’s Big Picture Mode on my HDTV this weekend, but it wasn’t until I’d moved everything around that I realized that my PC didn’t have an HDMI out, and that I didn’t have an adapter.  Oh well.

– It’s just as well, anyway, because had I gotten it to work, I would’ve ended up playing Torchlight 2, but with a keyboard and mouse on my couch, which would be weird.  I did spend 5 minutes with T2, actually, but the honest truth is that I think I’m still recovering from my Diablo 3 overdose, and left- and right-clicking for hours and hours just doesn’t seem all that enticing.  I will get to it eventually, though.

_________________________

OK.  Let’s get back to Borderlands 2.  I’m now around 24 hours in, and my commando is probably level 23 or 24.  (I really ought to write that stuff down before I begin a post.)

For the first dozen hours or so, I only had around 3-4 quests in my to-do list at a time – a main story quest, and then some optional side stuff.  Then a major story event happened (you’ll know it when you see it), and when I shook the dust off and got back to the main city, I’d found that the game suddenly opened wide up, and 20 new side-quests appeared in my quest log.  And so, now, I’m tackling all the side stuff, because the side stuff is, quite frequently, absolutely brilliant.

I have come to appreciate that the game does not take itself seriously.  At first, a lot of the dialogue came off as silly and adolescent (there literally is a “Bonerfart” joke – or is it “Fartboner”?) but as I’ve delved deeper into the side quests and gotten to know the characters a bit more thoroughly, I’ve seen that the game’s got some serious depth in its writing – even if, as I said on Saturday, the overall narrative lacks any real weight.  There are 2 moments that stand out in particular, and I’ll try to keep them spoiler-free (while at least alerting you as to where they are):

1.  Mission:  The Overlooked: “This Is Only A Test.”   The end of this mission was the first time that I’ve literally laughed out loud during a game since Portal 2, probably.  It’s a totally unexpected, expertly delivered, and deeply satisfying punchline, all of which comes after a very tough firefight and (at least for me) a reluctance to even do the thing I was asked to do, being that I didn’t think it was going to work.  (Fuckin’ Dave.)

2.  I can’t remember the mission name, but it was a side mission I was doing in the Wildlife Exploitation Preserve, which ultimately resulted in discovering the true nature of the relationship between Tiny Tina and Flesh-Stick (two characters that I’d met under completely different circumstances, 10 hours previously).  I normally hate how games use tape recordings to tell stories – it feels lazy and contrived and has become almost as ubiquitous as crates – but in this particular case the final reveal was shocking and very, very dark, and when I think about it now I’m not sure there’s a better way to tell that particular story.  Especially since there was no real reason to even include it, and especially since I very nearly walked right over it without even knowing it was there.  This made its discovery hit surprisingly hard, and caused me to think about my last interaction with those two characters in a much different light.   (It called to mind a similar hidden, optional thing I discovered in Psychonauts – during Milla’s psychedelic training level, there’s a hidden room where you discover a rather horrible truth about Milla’s past.  It’s a moment that rings true, though – it’s not manipulative or hollow – and so it carries a great weight.)

*    *    *

I find that even as I’ve improved a great many of my skills (including dramatic (and very necessary) reductions in my reloading time), I still get fatigued with the game’s core action.  This is not the game’s fault, of course – I’ve had a long-standing fatigue problem with the entire shooter genre, and it’s a tribute to everything else that Borderlands 2 does so well that I’m still as heavily invested in the game as I am.  I have no problem fighting my way to an objective, but once I’m done, I run like hell all the way back – I’ll throw down a turret if I have to, to thin out the crowd, but my overriding attitude is “fuck it, I’m done shooting.”  I’ve killed so many goddamned things already, and I’m not even sure that I’m halfway through the game, which makes me shudder at the thought of how many more goddamned things I have to kill.   (Especially if there are Threshers.  Oh, how I hate threshers.  Relentless bullet-sponging bastards, all of them.)

It would be nice if there were other things to do besides shooting, I guess.  (Well, there is a quasi-murder mystery in Sanctuary, but it plays out quite a bit differently than the one in Skyrim.)  I’m not saying this game needs box-pushing puzzles or crafting or anything, and I know I’ve not even come close to seeing everything there is to see and so it’s entirely possible that I’ll run into something that doesn’t involve heavy pressings of the trigger buttons over extended periods of time.   But.  The game’s relentless action can be a bit exhausting, is all I’m saying.

more Portal 2 ramblings

My official Examiner review of Portal 2 can be found here.  I literally just received an email from them saying that “it does not meet [their] criteria for local coverage.”  I’m not entirely sure what that means, or if it’s been removed from the site.  I’m not entirely sure that I care, either, but whatever.

I spent the weekend wrapped up in Portal 2.   I hunted down pretty much every single-player Achievement I could get (besides one), and I played co-op with a bunch of different people.  I ultimately finished the co-op campaign with my wife last night, which was a wonderful experience on a variety of levels but mostly because it’s fun playing games with my wife, and she legitimately appeared to have a good time.  I didn’t get the 360 achievement for it, though, and I guess that’s because I’d been playing it on both PC and 360 and lost track of which system I’d finished a given level on.*

The co-op campaign is brilliant.  The puzzles in the single-player are pretty complex already, but the co-op campaign takes that complexity and quadruples it.  But the euphoria of figuring out one of these puzzles is all the more intoxicating, because it really does require teamwork and cooperation and execution, and it’s absolutely thrilling to get it right.

I’ve been obsessing with post-release interviews with Erik Wolpaw and Chet and the rest of the team.  You can tell that Erik really likes talking about the Stephen Merchant recording sessions; Erik is one of the funniest guys on the planet and it sounds to me like it must have been tremendously gratifying for him to have someone with Stephen Merchant’s comedic skill translating those words into a one-of-a-kind performance.

I’ll say this:  I’m no longer obsessing with Portal 3 speculation.  I am well sated at the moment, to be honest; I’ve put in over 20 hours in both campaigns on all 3 systems I own it for, and I will eat up the DLC (which sounds like it’s coming very soon, actually) and will enjoy it and savor it, and I would eventually like to get all the Achievements on at least one system.  But thinking about P3 feels like wasted energy.  Valve is already saying some strange things about the future of single-player campaigns, so who knows if they’ll even go there.  The one thing I’ve come away with from my time with Portal 2 is that Valve is made up of a bunch of people that are 1000 times smarter than I’ll ever be, and it is highly unlikely that I’ll come up with something on my own that will be more impressive than what they’ll come up with.

* I know that sentence is grammatically fucked, and I’m too tired to figure out the right way to say it.

some ramblings about Portal 2

(I’m kinda working on a Portal 2 review, but in the meantime I’m just rambling.  There will be spoilers at the bottom, mostly consisting of guesses about Portal 3.  You’ll be warned.)

Portal 2 is a big deal.  That it has become a big deal is kind of awesome, when you think about it; Portal began as a student project (Narbacular Drop), and now it is the first full-length, single-player first-person game Valve has released since Half Life 2.  It also features no blood, (almost) no violence, and no other living characters.  You don’t have an inventory – indeed, you don’t even have a voice.  You have a gun, but you don’t kill anything with it – at least not directly, and the things you indirectly kill are robotic turrets.  Indeed, for the most part you aren’t killing anything – you’re solving puzzles.

Even more fascinating – at least to me – is that while it’s true that you can only really “solve” the puzzles once (and thus only generate that genuine, exhilarating “a-ha!” moment once as well), the game never stops being entertaining upon multiple playthroughs.  I’ve played the original Portal maybe a dozen times, and I’ve already beaten Portal 2 twice after only owning the game for 3 days.  Some of the puzzle solutions are just awesome.  They are fulfilling to solve, absolutely, but they’re also incredibly fulfilling just in the pure act of execution, and as you get better at the game you find more efficient ways of solving each puzzle, which is also fulfilling.

For example, there’s a puzzle in Portal 2 (I believe it’s the first puzzle in Chapter 3, the one that begins with repeated aerial faith plate malfunctions) that I solved without much difficultly on my first run, although I’d found it somewhat tedious to keep walking back and forth between portal openings.  On my second playthrough, I suddenly realized that I could simply jump into one of the portals I’d just created, thus making everything move a lot quicker.  So it’s not just the thrill of the initial solution to a problem; it’s the subsequent discovery of more efficient solutions that’s just as thrilling.

I think for me, though, the main reasons why I keep coming back to Portal and Portal 2 are:

      • The world.  Every game that’s out these days is either set in some post-apocalyptic wasteland or some variation on the standard platformer themes – forest, desert, lava, ice.  The original Portal had a very simple and very distinctive look to it, and it was all the more thrilling when the curtain was pulled back in the final act.  Portal 2’s environments are even more varied and diverse, as well as still being incredibly unique, and the fact that so much of it takes place “behind the scenes” makes it all the more special.  Portal already has somewhat of a “meta” vibe in the first place but this notion of being off the beaten path is thrilling, especially when the settings are so epic in scope.
    • The attention to detail.  It’s easy to fly past a lot of the little things in Portal 2, and for the most part it’s not at all necessary to stop and inspect every single piece of litter you come across.  And yet there’s actual writing on each coffee can and fuse box; it goes an incredibly long way towards making the world believable, even while you’re doing unbelievable things.  Everything is in its right place, even when it’s out of place.  The best games generally get this – Bioshock, GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption certainly get it.
    • The quality of the storytelling.   They’re paced incredibly well, and Portal 2’s pace is among the best of all time.  Puzzle concepts are introduced gradually, and eventually you’ll be doing some completely insane things in order to solve them, and as a reward there’ll be an exhilarating chase sequence or an extended, slow exploration sequence when you get to a new area.  And it’s not just the Portal games are hilarious – it’s also that they’re smart enough to both tell you what’s happening, and also let you infer what’s happening indirectly.  (And there’s quite a lot happening, and we’ll get to that in a bit. )
  • The love.  I know that’s a ridiculous thing to say.  But you can tell when a development team genuinely cares about the game they make, and it’s very, very clear that Valve cares.  The original Portal is a game that people adore, and as such the expectations for a sequel were astronomically high – even though it would be impossible to guess just what, if anything, the sequel would look like.  There’s not a single bum note in either of the two games, and that’s not because of luck – that’s because an enormous amount of time went into polishing everything, from the graphics to the dialogue to the puzzles themselves.  In a recent interview with Gamespot, writer Erik Wolpaw (one of my personal heroes) said that it doesn’t matter to him whether games can exist as art – games need to be entertaining, first and foremost, or else what’s the point?

OK: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

Portal 3 speculation:

    • We now know about Aperture’s origins, and somewhat about how GlaDOS came to be.  But what of Chell?  Where did she come from?  Was she someone’s daughter in “Bring Your Daughter To Work” day?  [EDIT:  Yes, she is.] Was she Cave Johnson’s illegitimate daughter with Caroline?  (Would that even make sense, time-line wise?  Is it ever specified when the first game take place?  Considering that Aperture was already messing around with pretty high-tech stuff in the 50s, the original Portal could conceivably take place in the 60s, right?  They do have some old computers and rotary phones in the original Portal.)  (Also – I never looked at the “Lab Rat” comic, and it’s possible this was explained there.  I should probably look at it first before speculating any more.)
    • OK, I’ve read the Lab Rat comic.  Notes:  Page 8 – Chell’s last name is redacted.  Page 9 – Chell refuses to answer if “anyone would file a police report if [she] went missing.”  Beyond that… the comic is somewhat vague.
    • At the end of the game, when Chell is standing in the field – does she have the Portal gun with her?  I don’t think so – you see both of her hands grabbing on to Wheatley after your final portal hits home.  By the same token, Chell didn’t have the Portal gun at the end  of the first one, either.  In any event – the Lab Rat comic’s final panel says that Chell has remarkable tenacity and stubbornness.  We don’t know why, though.  The point is:  at the end of P2, she is free.  The question remains:  would she go back?  And if so, why?
    • Wheatley has to return, doesn’t he?  You can’t make a character that wonderful and have it be lost forever, right?