Weekend Recap: Wishes Upon Wishes

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

video and words!

It occurs to me that I never reposted my review of Gone Home which appeared at the New York Videogame Critics Circle; it can be found here:  http://nygamecritics.com/2013/08/23/the-insight-gone-home-retro-then-not/

And here’s my first-ever video appearance on behalf of the NYVCC, recapping my Gone Home review and then talking with Victor Kalogiannis about Saints Row IV.  (I was terribly sick at the time, but managed not to fall over and die, so that’s something.)

Saints Row IV – the verdict

I was in daddy-day-care mode earlier this week, and so I ended up finishing Saints Row 4 on Tuesday afternoon, during the kid’s nap.  It took me a little over 20 hours to get to the end; after the credits rolled I jumped back in so as to finish finding all the collectibles which ended up only taking around 5 minutes, give or take; one of the perks you can unlock is that all the collectibles show up on your map, so it’s just a question of finding what you’re looking for, setting a waypoint, and then blasting over there.  I’ve also found probably 80% of the orbs – er, Data Clusters – around Steelport, and if I go back at all that’s probably what I’ll focus on doing, if for no other reason than because they’re there.  As for the activities – well, I’d done all the side missions during the playthrough, but didn’t feel particularly inclined to get gold medals in everything.

The point that I’m late in arriving to is that I wanted to write about the game right after I’d finished it, but life (as it does) got in the way, and so here we are on Friday morning – just 3 days later – and I find that I have no idea what to talk about.  I have not thought about the game at all since the last time I played it.  While I still have the residue of Gone Home and Brother lingering in my brain – games that are much shorter and that I’d finished long before I’d started SR4, I’m having trouble remembering anything that’s worth talking about.

This is probably important; this is probably a bad thing.  

Here are some comments I’d made last weekend, when I’d originally intended writing an impressions post:

  • 10 hours in (as of 8/24, 11:00 am).  feels like i’ve eaten 20 pounds of candy, and i still have 80 more pounds to go
  • i appreciate how completely committed to being batshit insane the game is; but on the other hand, being insane the entire time becomes exhausting.  each mission you do is really just a series of activities that can get very repetitive; the game is aware of this and even comments on it; but just because it’s self-aware doesn’t make it any less repetitive.
  • the city of steelport is just as faceless and devoid of personality as it was in the last game, except you’re zooming by at ridiculous speeds, so it actually feels a lot smaller.

This month’s question for Critical Distance’s “Blogs of the Round Table” is about story in games.  Do games need stories?  Do games have the capacity to tell stories more effectively than other media?  Is ludonarrative dissonance a real problem, or is it just pretentious navel-gazing?*

* I’m kind of kidding with that last bit, though it certainly plays a role in all this.

This post doesn’t necessarily aim to answer that question, but it’s certainly a lens with which to view SR4.  The game more or less makes that leap for you, in fact, doing everything it can to remind you that all these activities you’re doing are pointless and repetitive and without any sort of narrative purpose.  Case in point:  there’s one mission late in the game called “Talkie Talkie” where you have to talk to a character on the ship.  The mission description on the pause screen literally says:  “We’re stretching out gameplay.  Come see me!”

sr4-talkieDoes self-awareness of a flaw excuse that flaw?  Because the game does this all the fucking time.  Every loyalty mission you do is the same general idea of 5 actions you need to perform; clear out an area of bad guys; do an activity; hack a store; steal a car and drive it to some random location; clear out another area of bad guys.  If you’ve already done one of those activities in the simple course of screwing around, then those actions are greyed out and struck through.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Over and over and over again.

The actual story missions do change things up a bit, and by that I mean that they will, on occasion, arbitrarily strip you of the superpowers you’ve laboriously worked to build up.  The justification for doing so is, to put it kindly, weak; and the game admits as much.  These missions are also, on occasion, straight-up parody of other games; there’s a stealth mission that’s straight out of Metal Gear Solid (with a great line asking “why should I use two bullets to shoot out two lights when I can just use one bullet to kill that guy?”); there’s a text adventure; my favorite of all is a 2D side-scrolling beat-em-up.

sr4-sor

The game is fun; there’s no denying that.  The game only wants to entertain; there’s nothing wrong with that.  But the game also feels empty and hollow, and the characters are mere caricatures, and there’s nothing particularly memorable about the experience as a whole.  I saved the planet and had a few laughs and killed thousands of monsters; I’ve done this before, though, and the only thing different in this game was that there’s a lot of casual profanity and nudity and occasionally the game turns itself inside out and goes even more fucking insane.

The difference between satire and parody is quite large, actually, at least in terms of videogames.  In my last post, I talked about how it’s sort of impossible to talk about Saints Row without talking about Grand Theft Auto, and how SR4 literally makes this comparison for you in the second line of dialogue in the game’s opening cutscene.   The two franchises have clearly moved in wildly different directions, and I sincerely applaud Saints Row for emerging under GTA’s shadow and becoming its own thing.   It has become a franchise worth looking forward to; not only has it made significant innovations to the open-world genre, but it’s done it in style.

But it’s also now a victim of its own success, I think.  SR3 really upped the ante and surprised everyone by being a genuinely great game that gleefully went off the rails; SR4 somehow managed to outdo SR3, which seems impossible.  But now this franchise seems to be purely about outdoing itself, and I fear that eventually – quite soon, actually – they’ll hit a wall, and have nowhere to go.

And if they decide to simply go down the path where the next game is pure parody, filled only with ironic self-awareness about, say, stupid mission design while doing nothing to change the stupid mission design, then I’m not really sure that’s something to look forward to.

the first two hours: Saints Row IV

Before I get into Saints Row IV, I should explain why I’ve been quiet here this week.  It’s certainly not for lack of things to talk about.

I finished Gone Home last Thursday.  And I’ve been wanting to talk about it, all the time, here; but instead I ended up writing a 1000-word review of it for the NY Videogames Critics Circle, which will hopefully be going up Thursday or Friday.  (If for some reason it doesn’t run there, it will most assuredly run here.)  The short version is that it is a wonderful, heartbreaking, astonishing experience, and anyone who’s reading this who somehow hasn’t played it yet should get on that shit immediately.  And then, after you’ve finished it, you should dive in to the many wonderful pieces that have been written about it.

And along those lines, fuck it:  this is the postscript to my review, which may or may not end up staying in, being that it’s just links to those wonderful pieces referenced above:

I’ve been playing games since 1982, and I’ve been writing about games since 2008 or so; in all that time, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so many heartfelt responses to a game before.  These are very spoiler-heavy, but well worth your time if you’ve finished the game and want to keep falling down the rabbit hole:

*     *     *

It is profoundly strange to be writing about Saints Row IV after the week or two I’ve spent ruminating intensely on the profound, emotional experiences I’ve had playing both Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons and then Gone Home, games which feel like they’re using a completely different vocabulary from everything else.   Because after playing those soft, quiet masterpieces, Saints Row IV is a bit like having a pie filled with fireworks thrown into your face at a thousand miles per hour.

I know I’ve complained about how lazy it is for critics to compare one thing to another.  But it’s nearly impossible (for me) to talk about Saints Row without comparing it to GTA.  In my defense, though, Saints Row more or less explicitly demands this comparison.  Here are the very first lines of dialogue in SR4‘s opening cutscene:

“…When the Saints made their presence known to the world in 2006, they were decried for being pretenders to the throne.  The people were confused: were the Saints sociopathic killing machines hellbent on destruction, or puckish rogues living a life of mirth and whimsy?  The Saints needed clarity of purpose, and so the course was set:  More fun, less mercy killing.  This simple  choice revitalized the Saints; transforming them from a degenerate street gang into beloved pop culture icons…”

This paragraph more or less details the design history and development process of the Saints Row franchise, from the first game through the present.  While the first game was a competent but uninspired GTA clone that simply beat GTA4 to the punch to be the first big open-world action game on the current generation of consoles, the second game was where the developers started to work on achieving that “clarity of purpose” – to be over-the-top ridiculous, in stark contrast to GTA4‘s gritty, nihilistic realism.  And the third game was, to put it bluntly, fucking insane.  Ironically, this fully-committed, all-in approach to full-bore insanity is what made the third game such a resounding success; it had finally come into its own, allowed to run free as full, pure id.

To be honest, I had low expectations for SR4.  My understanding is that this game was originally intended to be an expansion pack for SR3, which didn’t necessarily bode all that well since the original expansions for SR3 were a bit lacking.  And then, of course, THQ (the publisher) famously collapsed and died, and so Volition (the developer) was in a bit of limbo for a while.

That SR4 somehow manages to out-do SR3 at every conceivable turn is nothing short of remarkable.

I’m only 2 hours in.  (I stopped playing last night shortly after the narrator told me that I’d finished Act 1.)  And yet I’m already leaping tall buildings in a single bound, zooming and jumping and soaring through the city, destroying cars just by bumping into them.  There is no reason to jack cars anymore; when my stamina is out and I’m forced to walk, like a normal person, I feel like a goddamned snail.

SR4 is no longer a gang-land simulator; it is a superhero simulator.  And where GTA remains firmly on the side of satire, Saints Row has now become a grand parody of this generation’s biggest AAA titles – the videogame equivalent of Weird Al Yankovic on a 48-hour bender of Mountain Dew and LSD.  The opening sequences felt like they were ripped straight out of a warped vision of Call of Duty;  30 minutes later it’s become, among other things, a grand homage to Crackdown‘s orb hunting (which still remains one of my favorite gameplay activities of the last 10 years).  If you needed any further hints as to how self-aware SR4 is, well, not only is there a “Nolan North” option in the voice customization menu, but Keith David plays himself.  As the Vice President of the United States.

The game is utterly ridiculous and incredibly fun.  Not to diminish the amazing achievements of Brothers and Gone Home, of course; those games are fun, too, albeit in a very different way.  SR4, though, is not about subtlety, or emotion, or self-discovery; it is about cramming as much fun per second as humanly possible.  It does not want to enlighten; it wants to entertain.  This, too, is noble.