Face Off: Mass Effect vs. Persona

There are exactly three major games coming out in 2017 that I considered must-plays from announcement (the first being Horizon: Zero Dawn), and somehow they are all coming out within a little more than a month of one another. It’s going to be a busy springtime for us all, fellow gamers. My two most anticipated games of the year come from two franchises that have represented the best that Eastern and Western RPGs have to offer, Mass Effect: Andromeda and Persona 5, and they are coming out a mere two weeks apart. With only twenty four hours in each day and hundreds of potential gaming hours staring me in the face, this has caused me no small amount of distress. After preordering both I’m now fretting the pressure to rush through the first to get to the second and how I’m going to fit multiplayer into all of this. First world gamer problems, right?

But let’s say you aren’t an RPG aficionado, you’ve never gotten into Mass Effect, and you’ve never even played a Persona game (and fair enough, the last one came out as a relative obscurity in America nine years ago), but you are interested in giving one a shot and only have a mere sixty dollars to your name. Which to get? You’ve come to the right place, my friend. While these two franchises perhaps represent the very pinnacles of their genre, they also could not be more different. Mass Effect: Andromeda is coming out this week with Persona 5 hot on its heels in early April so if you haven’t yet experienced the brilliance that these two franchises have to offer, and are looking to buy in but not willing or able to commit to both. I’m here to help.

Persona and the rest of Atlus’s Shin Megami Tensei franchise that spawned it have historically always, somewhat unfairly, taken a backseat to the blockbuster Final Fantasy series when it comes to Japanese RPGs, but while the latter has floundered somewhat in the last two generations, the former has bided its time with fighting game spin-offs, and absence has made gamers’ hearts grow fonder. PSN ports of the series have given a lot of players a chance to go back and rediscover these gems, and as a result Persona has greatly increased in popularity over the years, even spawning animated film and television adaptations of the last two games. The contemporary setting, compelling themes, unique style, and undeniable charm of the series has put it at the top of many gamers’ most beloved JRPGs list.

By contrast, the Mass Effect trilogy was a worldwide smash right out of the gate last gen. After giving us arguably the best Star Wars game of all time in Knights of the Old Republic, BioWare decided to create their very own space opera franchise out of scratch and did a better job than anybody could have imagined. Taking their penchant for memorable characters and nuanced interactive conversations and switching the core combat to third person shooting rather than the semi-turn-based system they’d leaned on since the Baldur’s Gate days, they took a niche genre and made it palatable to non-RPGers while retaining everything that made their titles great role playing experiences. And as an added bonus, they pushed gaming as a storytelling medium forward by making it a trilogy where your character, their stats, and their decisions from each game carried forward to the others, making each Mass Effect story unique to every gamer.

As different as they are, the two franchises do have one core theme in common: player choice. But even the way this is handled is different. Mass Effect lets you create your own character and steer each conversation while making the big decisions and crafting your character’s moral code based on the way you resolve the situations you find yourself in. Diplomacy or aggression, idealism or pragmatism, and compassion or duty are just some of the choices you have to make, and your character and the way the world around them reacts will change according to those choices. And these choices could be ported to the next game along with your character.

By contrast, Persona puts you in the shoes of an established character with more limited dialogue choices and a visual novel style of storytelling, but gives you endless ways to spend your time while navigating the challenges of high school and supernatural horrors with a limited amount of time to spend so that every choice really matters. While the story has multiple outcomes, the core game becomes about managing your limited time to build the relationships and abilities you want rather than building a character’s legacy through your decisions. Also, each title in the series is a stand alone, so there’s no baggage for players new to the series.

Combatwise, Mass Effect has refined its initially rough shooter mechanics to nearly rival the likes of Gears of War, adding a hefty dose of the sci-fi abilities they pioneered in KOTOR to make for action that is both strategic and visceral. The third game added a highly successful co-op multiplayer component with a community that still remains active over five years later. Truth be told, even if Andromeda was an online only shooter, I’d still buy it just for that aspect. And I’m not one who often does that.

Persona has stuck to the traditional JRPG turn-based approach and remains a shining star in that arena long after Final Fantasy left the premises. The strategic and often unforgiving combat relies heavily on uncovering and exploiting enemy weaknesses with a variety of skills to incapacitate them and get continuous combos that lead to a devastating full-party rushdown. It’s not as action oriented as Mass Effect’s real time gunplay, but it can be just as intense and every lick as satisfying.

But where it deviates most from Mass Effect -and most other RPGs- is in its cerebral themes and psychological symbolism. Most games will simply have a character tell you what they are feeling, but the unique scenarios of Persona are designed not to tell you, but to show you. Each character has their external selves; the face they show the world. But the series’ theme is that within each individual, there lies a shadow self, where their basest dark impulses hide, as well as a Persona, their inner self. For example, in Persona 4 each character had a dungeon essentially set inside of their minds where they did battle with their inner conflicts, things like personal jealousy, sexuality, and gender roles were laid bare and manifested as literal demons to be defeated before each character could come to terms with them. The brilliance of Atlus’s storytelling should not be underestimated.

By comparison, BioWare’s series ramps up the drama like a Star Wars film on steroids. If Persona is a zany but symbolically deep Japanese art film, Mass Effect is an incredible American sci-fi epic with moments that inspire shock, fear, exhilaration, tears, and laughter. What it lacks in abstract symbolism, it more than makes up for by balancing casual relatability with insane epicness. This series is nothing if not a crowdpleaser. Even the harshest naysayers are first in line for their copy whenever a new one comes out, and that says more than any number of complaints about facial animations can.

Both series revolve around character interactions. Mass Effect will have you hunting down each crew member between missions for fully cinematic chats where you can get to know each character as if they were your own family. If you play your cards right, you can even find a little romance. And there’s plenty of time to give everybody attention, so no big rush.

Persona uses the more comic bookish static visual novel style for conversations, but with tons of NPCs around town and school on top of your party members to hang out with and a limited amount of time in each day to get to know them, prioritizing your friendships and potential romances makes them that much more vital. Each major character has their own story that plays out over the course of the game, but how much of it you end up experiencing is up to you. Persona is as much a social and time-management simulator as it is a role playing game, and that’s something else that makes it a unique challenge.

In terms of overall presentation, Persona’s anime stylishness clashes with Mass Effect’s attempts at photorealism. This affords the former a more timeless low budget look whereas the latter will be mocked for every graphical glitch. It’s not easy pushing the boundaries of technology, so Atlus tends to stick to what they know will work for them and focuses instead on a compelling experience for the player. BioWare was at the forefront of innovation last gen, not only with pushing cinematic NPC animations to a new level, but pioneering the ability to transfer a character and their story across multiple games with Mass Effect.

At the end of the day, your inner otaku and art student will likely love you for going with Persona 5. It’s got a relatable modern setting, unique visuals and music, classical RPG combat with some twists, and one of the best storytelling pedigrees in the industry. Mass Effect: Andromeda is designed to light up every inch of your sci-fi fixation and represents the ground floor of a new era for a series that has dominated best series discussions for years. So if you’ve never felt the need to board on this gravy train before, now’s the time.

Obviously, any true RPGer is going to be buying both, but which one you prefer will rely very heavily on you as a person and a gamer. I’ve illustrated some of the many contrasts between the two series, so it really boils down to whether you prefer action or turn-based strategy, stylized visuals or attempted photorealism, stand-alone stories or continuous narratives, innovation or classicism, epicness or artfulness, and so on. Personally, I love all of these things and can’t wait to play either. But which RPG will you be prioritizing this spring?

Five Music Videos that Capture the Gaming Experience

The three most important artistic elements of my life have been music, video games, and film in that order. They gave me places to go and things to do when I had nowhere worth going and nothing worth doing. They gave me friends when I was alone and joy when nothing else could. That is to say, these things were absolutely vital to me growing up. But very seldom have these three things I love come together equally to create something that satisfies me on all levels.

Enter the modern age. Anime is a thing you can now see without spending upwards of a hundred dollars on a boxed set, gaming is the single biggest entertainment medium, and to see a great music video you don’t have to rely on MTV to play it for you. Thanks, internet. Like in the Police song, the nerdy message in the bottle I sent so long ago has come back with millions of replies and all of my geek pastimes are everywhere now.

But still, it’s not often I come across something that works as a film, as a musical piece, and captures the essence of gaming at the same time. But in recent years, I’ve found some here and there and it’s my duty to share them with you. So clear a little time (who are we kidding, you’re browsing the internet.You have the time) and let’s take an audio-visual journey into the worlds of gaming through five music videos.

Me and You

“Are you ready?

Do you know?

I feel it too.”

Nero’s inaugural 2010 album, Welcome Reality, helped change the way I look at electronic music. Yeah, I was kind of one of those “real music means real instruments” guys. And for the most part, I still am, but hearing music like this makes me realize it’s not the instruments that matter, it’s the artists, and a well programmed dance song can be just as artistic and brilliant as an epic rock tune.

The video opens in that most classic of video game locations, the arcade. A magical place from many of our youths filled with light guns and steering wheels. Our protagonist leaves the crowd and wanders the abandoned halls to find that fabled gaming cabinet that was a standard of ‘80s cinema and urban legends.The game is a combination of classic beat ‘em up and racing and the protagonist SUCKS at both. The music has a great epic feel that seems to perfectly sum up the excitement of firing up a new game for the first time and the video is pure nostalgia fuel that does a solid job of capturing the arcade experience.

Speed of Light

“Let’s shoot the moon you and me

I’m not particular you’ll see

Just a lonesome galaxy”

Ah, the mighty Iron Maiden. Secretly one of the biggest bands in the world for three decades running and still perhaps the best live act you can see on a stage. Also: total bunch of geeks. Aside from routinely writing songs about science fiction novels and horror films, they also released a best of set in 1999, Ed Hunter, that included a PC game based on the fan-voted songs on the album. The game was an awful rail shooter, but still. How many bands create video games for their CDs?

2015’s Book of Souls proved that not only does the band still have it musically, but they are willing to push the nerd envelope even further with the video for the lead single, “Speed of Light” taking us on a tour of gaming history with the band’s demonic mascot, Eddie. It begins with a Maidenized Donkey Kong, cruises to a Contra-esque 2D shooter, through the fighting game era (Satan totally does a spinning piledriver, but Eddie’s critical art and fatality game can’t be fucked with), and into Elder Scrolls/FPS territory, ending up back in the place that every gamer who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s left their hearts: the arcade.



“Video games, I got many to play

Before my life expires, fulfill my desires”

Del the Funky Homosapien had his brush with fame guesting on the Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” in 2001 to drop two of the best rap verses ever heard on popular radio, but he has always been an underground MC at heart, and a true geek. If he’s not finding ways to slip terms like “combo-spamming” into his rhymes, he’s probably referencing Marvel Comics or crafting another amazing cyberpunk hip-hop concept album with his supergroup, Deltron. Dude is legit.

This is the one video on the list that isn’t an official release, but as fan-made vids go, this is an hard project to screw up since the lyrics do most of the heavy lifting. Del and guest Khaos Unique probably set the world record for most gaming references compressed into four minutes, rhyming over a Darkstalkers sample. Nostalgia for ColecoVision and obscure references to games like Nightmare Creatures is the kind of cred you can’t really fake; these badass rappers are nerdier than you are. I questioned Del’s claim that he beat Legend of Zelda in an hour using the map in the inaugural issue of Nintendo Power, but apparently it can be done in half that time, so Del: 1, Nick: 0. And there’s a Master Chief moonwalk in the video. Gotta love that.


“I won’t be paralyzed

Don’t you know my aim is true

When you’re in my sights”

This one’s more style than substance and the song isn’t really my cup of tea, but you’ve got to love that video. It really makes me wish I had a daughter. Grades is a British DJ who’s gotten around in the three years since his debut, collaborating with K-pop artists and remixing classic R&B, but if the only thing he ever did was this video, his career would’ve been worthwhile.

In this charming combination of live action and animation, a little girl gains video game superpowers and dances her way to awesomeness. What this video reminds me of is classic platformers and beat ‘em ups where you played them so much that you had every level memorized and the early game became less about survival and more about stylishly performing for any spectators that were on hand. In modern days, I guess I’d compare it to Dark Souls where you become so familiar with the enemies because you’ve fought them so many times that you have the movements down pat and it’s all just effortless. That megablaster is OP, though.


“And it’s a long way forward, so trust in me

I’ll give them shelter, like you’ve done for me”

“Shelter” transcends the music video format to become a masterpiece of short form filmmaking that just happens to be built around a great song. If you only watch one of these videos, this is the one to see. The song is an international collaboration from producers Peter Robinson and Madeon and was released last year in partnership with Crunchyroll. The video was created by A-1 Pictures, an anime studio known for shows like Sword Art Online and the Persona 4 and Valkyria Chronicles animated series’, so they are no strangers to gaming culture.

The narrative is a bittersweet science fiction story of loneliness and escapism told from the perspective of a young woman whose only companions are virtual reality and her own happy childhood memories. She creates massive, endless, amazing worlds with her mind but her tablet still reads no messages. Isolation and escapism can be a big part of a gamer’s life experiences and that feeling of being completely alone in the world and only being powerful and meaningful when exploring fantasies in game form is a very real thing, which is a big part of the passion that drives gamers to defend the medium as fervently as they do. “Shelter” captures both that amazing imaginative experience of completely immersing yourself in a virtual world and the hopeless melancholy that can lead us to seek shelter from harsh reality there. It’s easily one of the best music videos of all time.

Pewdiepie Might Not Be a Racist, But He’s Something Worse

Let’s say that you have over fifty million pairs of eyes upon you. Let’s say that you’re such a pop culture sensation and voice of your generation that you inspired an entire episode of South Park about you and played yourself in it. Let’s say that you’ve made hundreds of millions of dollars doing nothing of value and Disney is knocking at your door with even more. Picture this is you, dear reader, and ask yourself: “if this was my life, and the world was watching, what would I have to say for myself?” Now pretend you decide the best foot to put forward is using the N-word and calling for death to all Jews.

The internet has ushered in an age of obnoxious unaccountability that has been coupled with an obnoxious backlash and calls for censorship. It’s why things are how they are right now. Growing up in a world you no longer have to look in the eye and being able to say whatever you want from behind a monitor has bred the nastiest generation since cross burning was a thing, and it’s burning itself at both ends with endless feedback loops of rampant online abuse and political correctness taken to laughable extremes becoming the new cultural norm. What used to be considered internet troll culture is now occupying the White House. And people like this: they are the reason.

Pewdiepie (aka Felix Kjellberg) has emerged as the face not only of the millennial generation, but of gaming as well. And oh my, is it a punchable face. I may not understand the appeal of watching a human Spongebob character with the faculties of an edgy ten year old screech while playing video games or do a whole lot of nothing on camera when the world is filled with incredible art, beautiful film, talented people, books crammed with knowledge, and video games that I could damn well play myself, along with literally endless possibilities, but it’s plainly a fact that at least fifty million people see value in this, so let’s go ahead and call that battle lost.

Let’s move on to the real topic at hand: with so many people out there who love what Pewdiepie and his lot do, does he owe it to anybody to not say whatever he feels like saying? Can he or should he be accountable for anything he does online? In case you have been living under a rock without an internet connection, Pewdiepie has caused some controversy using racial slurs and calls for genocide as humor and then aggressively playing the victim when the media has drawn attention to it, citing “clickbait journalism”. And nobody has shut up about it for what seems like months.

I hate to tell you guys this, but clickbait has always been the only kind of journalism. Even before “clicking” was something you could do. Racism, sexism, child molestation, rape, murder, and general deviance have always been the front, middle, and back pages of the newspaper because that’s what the people pay to see. And if somebody is willing to pay for it, somebody else will always be willing to sell it. And on the internet, if people are willing to watch it, and advertisers are willing to pay because people are watching it, some idiot will post it on the internet. So accusing the media of doing something just to get attention/money while you film ignorance on Youtube for a living? Yeah, not a great defense. 

Shall we burn this Swedish millennial at the stake as a racist before he brings on the fourth reich? Prolly not. You see, I don’t really know that Pewdiepie even has a racist bone in his body. And unless you know him personally, neither do you. But I do know he’s the face of the largest video sharing website in the world and he’s using the platform to disseminate utter stupidity and ignorance to millions of kids, and whatever his intention, that makes him worse than if he really did want to kill all Jews (assuming he never actually puts it into practice). I don’t watch his videos, and I don’t care about what he thinks about anything whatsoever. But I do know his “humor” has an internet history that I’m going to relate here and put into its proper context to hopefully illustrate why the social issues that people like Felix cause go far beyond simple-minded racism.

Racism is a basic evolutionary and social feature. It’s lizard brain stuff that we as humans are fully capable of intellectualizing away once we’re aware of it, but it’s a fact that people are naturally inclined towards things that look and behave like themselves. Remove intellectual functionality and YOUR country automatically is the best country. YOUR political candidate is the best political candidate. YOUR mom is the best mom. YOUR local sports team is the best sports team. YOUR favorite show is the best show. YOUR way is the best way. YOUR race/gender/sexual orientation is the best race/gender/sexual orientation. And we are not exactly an intellectual people these days. But still, we had at least learned to put a polite face on it for the most part; out of sight out of mind. Civility is the best we can hope for and we had largely attained that, at least in some places.

But the resulting taboo that has sprung up around racism has served to make it fodder for modern edgy humor. In recent years, “death to all jews” and “Hitler did nothing wrong” were mottos bandied about on the internet by trolls for the sake of irony. On 4chan, they used to play a game (and probably still do) where people post links to videos and whichever post number has double digits at the end of it, that video will be targeted with ironic Nazi spam. The randomness of it was the funny. My guess would be that Pewdiepie was once targeted by this and became an admirer.

Now in small doses, this anarchic brand of ironic racism is worth a chuckle. I mean, a Taylor Swift music video getting raided by mass Nazi propaganda posts out of nowhere is Kaufmanesque humor to a T. But in keeping with the theme, I’ll offer up this historical quote: “If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.” The origin of the quote is in question, but it’s usually associated with Hitler and Goebbels. The layers of irony are getting hard to peel away, though, because what began as a series of definite and distinctly ironic jokes has officially blossomed into an actual political creed over the years of mindless repetition. A generation raised on irreverent shitposting has ceased to understand the difference between ironic humor and actual politics due to years of hearing the same garbage in an online echo chamber over and over.

I’m the father of a ten year old son. Every once in a while he does something really insane and gets a room full of people to laugh. Then he does it again and we chuckle politely. Then again and we maybe are still smiling. But eventually I have to tell him to stop because nothing stays funny forever and by repeating it over and over again, obnoxious humor ceases being humorous and becomes just plain obnoxious. It’s like I broke his heart, but it needs to be done if he hopes to learn how to function in social situations.

Likewise, racist humor in small doses can be very funny. But through repetition of the same jokes, eventually the humor will leave and you’ll just be left with the racism, and that’s what has happened to Pewdiepie. He’s taken something that was amusing years ago and has since been spammed into meaninglessness out of the context where it was ever funny at all and repurposed it to impress his audience with his ability to do whatever he knows he shouldn’t just to prove he can. That’s not comedy. That’s childishness. And for an adult man with a massive viewership consisting mainly of children, it’s fucking dangerous.

Children don’t understand the inhuman history of phrases like “death to all Jews” and can’t possibly comprehend the pain it can cause to somebody who was imprisoned for their ethnicity by madmen and then starved and tortured as a scapegoat for a culture that lost its way, or somebody who lost their parents and/or grandparents in an ethnic cleansing so some fascist politician could consolidate his power. These are real people who are walking among us right now. If you can’t see why hearing the hate speech that created that situation in the first place presented to children over and over because some douchebag thinks it’s funny would be a problem, then there is something extremely wrong in your brain.

There is no part of me that supports censorship. If somebody wants to say something racist, sexist, homophobic, or whatever then I thank them for advertising their stupidity to us. It’s like a billboard that tells you whose points of view you can’t take seriously right off the bat. If real life were always that simple and people were more honest about their bullshit, it would eliminate a lot of problems outright. I’m as big a free speech advocate as there is and you will never catch me endorsing laws that limit it.

But here’s the thing: free speech is for everybody. Yeah, you can say “Hitler did nothing wrong” and whether you are joking or dead serious, you’re entitled to that. But we are not obligated to listen. We are entitled to come at you with whatever non-violent response we feel like because freedom of speech isn’t just for you. So if I want to say “Pewdiepie can choke on Hitler’s only testicle and die”, I can do that too. If I happen to be a business owner and Pewdiepie is my employee, I can send him on his merry way because I don’t want him representing my company. And if he’s posting his nonsense on my website, I can delete it and tell him he’s not welcome anymore.

Freedom of expression does not mean freedom from reaction or social consequence. It means the government can’t prosecute you, but it leaves you wide open to whatever “free expression” the rest of us deem fit. And that is why respect and basic decency is important. It’s not only the proper way to interact with your fellow humans, it’s important to your social well being.

So maybe when Disney -a company with a long, shameful, and persistent history of pop racism- decides it’s embarrassed to associate itself with you or a blatant neo-nazi website becomes your most ardent defender, it’s time to reassess who you want to be and how you want to present yourself to the world. It’s not about political correctness. It’s about not being a completely reprehensible piece of shit and modeling for a generation of children to do the same.

There’s a world of difference between the adult-oriented cartoonish social satire of shows like South Park (whose creators have gone on hiatus after determining that real life has become more of a satire now than anything they could make) and Boondocks or Mel Brooks films engaging with racism to portray its ignorance and a real life celebrity spamming hate speech just because he can. The cost of the internet and the freedom of communication it affords is idiots having a platform to say and do whatever they like.

Artists and comedians can construct entertainment that can make us laugh and think at the same time,and in the past only those who could pull it off would rise to the public consciousness. The world is a better place with films like Blazing Saddles in it.  But now anybody and everybody with a computer can appropriate and twist things they don’t understand into something moronic and hateful. And anybody and everybody with a computer can watch them do it.

We can’t adequately police the world wide web or stop children from coming across ignorance there, but we can teach them what is and isn’t right and the difference between the way people act online when they want to earn money for acting stupid and the way they behave in real life when they want people to enjoy being around them. Personal accountability and integrity starts at home and we can’t afford to let kids be raised by Youtubers.

I’ve got a distinctly sick sense of humor and I want to be free to enjoy that, but it’s important that I understand the time and place to express that aspect of myself. With friends in private or on message boards where such people gather to share is fine. Outside of their proper context, these jokes are as likely to be understood as an old school 4channer running around shouting “desudesudesu” in public. You won’t see me making jokes about dead babies in front of my boss who may have lost a child, using the term “rape” carelessly in public, or declaring somebody “my nigga” on social media because I understand that there are people whose life experiences are not the same as mine and what might be amusing to me could be an emotionally devastating misunderstanding for them. Not being an asshole means respecting that.

Doing these kind of things just because you can is creating an environment that none of us is going to want to live in. The cycle of insensitivity and hypersensitivity is getting old and every one of us has the capability to break it, at least for ourselves. It sickens me that the gaming community has become such a focal point of this phenomenon and it has set us back long enough already. We’ve suffered in the underground being labeled as virgins and losers long enough, and with most people playing games now we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be represented en masse as bigots or man-children.

If nothing else, Pewdiepie’s antics have given us a starting point for this conversation. Yes, he and his have lowered the level of what constitutes entertainment to record lows with their spectacular lack of having anything of value to say, coupled with the willingness of millions to spend hours on end listening to them say it is helping to make this world a shittier place one inane video at a time.

And maybe the mainstream media and those modern day Don Quixotes cartoonishly referred to as “social justice warriors” are panicking at this loss of control and reacting poorly by witchhunting for the symptoms of racism and the like when we should all be addressing the disease of a society that has willfully allowed its standards to be lowered to this point. And the only way to do it is the turn our attentions elsewhere. Find better ways to spend our time, and encourage our children to do the same. Hopefully someday we can collectively see somebody acting doofy on Youtube for attention and think “nothing to see here, folks. Just some dope with a webcam with nothing interesting to say.” Now that’s something I’d subscribe to.

It’s Time for ARK: Survival Evolved to Get it Together

In June of 2015 Studio Wildcard quietly unleashed an unfinished build of its prehistoric survival simulator ARK: Survival Evolved through Steam’s Early Access program. Since then, it has sold millions and consistently been among the most played games in the world on that platform, topping both Team Fortress 2 and Grand Theft Auto for third place as I type this. Its release on Xbox a year later, and finally a few months ago on the PlayStation 4 was met with similar aplomb and servers that were routinely packed to capacity.

Now bear in mind that this was done by an independent studio with almost zero help from the mainstream media. If you search for “ARK” on IGN, the game is the tenth result down, it has no wiki on that site, and the total number of all-time articles referencing the game is around the same number you get covering Overwatch every month. For a game with a lot more people playing it than Overwatch, that’s pretty nuts. And it’s not even finished yet. It’s still an early release game, so you can’t find it in stores, you have to go looking for it online, and the entire advertising campaign consists of posting the occasional bare bones Youtube video of new features. I wonder how many AAA games would fare as well with these handicaps?

But I also wonder if all of this underground success hasn’t made Studio Wildcard complacent. Their game could only have been a bigger success if the gaming media wasn’t built on a pay to play model (how else do you explain how the third biggest game in the world gets almost no coverage?) and, you know, maybe if it was finished. But it’s been around a year and a half since the Steam Early Access launch and still no official release date in sight.

Now the game is already the single most addictive thing I’ve ever played, and my praise for it has been unending. In fact, I could pretty much have just turned my column here into a weekly ARK journal (which I did do for two weeks) if I was feeling lazy and been fine with it seeing that it’s damn near the only thing I’ve played since December and I’ve still only scratched the surface. And this from a gamer that seldom sticks to one game for more than a few weeks. ARK’s deliriously possessive nature and Minecraft meets Elder Scrolls MMO gameplay has had me locked down tight and unable to tear myself from its grasp.Until now.

The devs have always played it fast and loose, releasing paid DLC expansions, making questionable tweaks without notice, and allowing griefers to run rampant while their game continues to be buggy and laggy as hell. But hey, it’s early release. The whole point is to observe, experiment, and figure out what’s going to happen in the game so you can fix it up before it’s ready for prime time. But I’d say two years of that across three platforms should be enough.

It’s not really buggier than Skyrim was nor laggier than Overwatch was when they released and I’d argue that including the expansions, ARK possibly has more content than those two games put together with comparable graphics. Throw in some tutorials and better menus and you wouldn’t think this game was unfinished at all. Just flawed, which is pretty universal. Although, to be fair, their attempts to fix the crashes and lag on the PS4 have somehow only made those problems worse than when it first came out.

A lot of gamers have decried the constant influx of new content while these problems remain as though a) new content is a bad thing, and b) the people making the new content are the same ones working on fixing technical issues. The lack of engagement from Studio Wildcard has been an issue too, but frankly with millions of players on three platforms all yelling in your ear, I don’t think answering every message board post or personally retrieving every stuck or lost tame dinosaur (as they used to do) is really an option anymore.

But recently the developers did something so insane that they’ve almost lost me. For a while they’ve been toying with the animal spawn rates. Personally, I feel like it was pretty perfect at the start, but having set up shop on a PvE server (where people can’t destroy bases for shits and giggles) means there is a high population with a lot of buildings blocking dino spawns. After a while, there just weren’t many animals around anymore. People complained about a dinosaur game with no dinosaurs, and fair enough. So they fixed that problem. They fixed the FUCK out of that problem.

So last week I’m pretty much playing Dynasty Warriors: Survival Evolved. There were dinos and prehistoric mammals everywhere. All over. By the dozen. My base was under constant assault, traveling overland meant wading through an insane melee of creatures battling to the death and running a gauntlet of predators and aggroed herbivores rushing me from all sides. Three rexes taking on five mammoths, packs of wild sabertooth tigers and wolves by the buttload, all vying for death at my hands. Mountain passes were so choked with traffic that the only way through was chomping a path with my T. rex, Teresa, stopping every so often to dump off some of the hundreds of pounds of meat I was accumulating. A week prior, I was having problems finding enough meat to feed my pet carnivores. Now I had so much it was a nuisance.   

ARK was always meant to be a challenge, but this was just stupid. Were the devs trolling due to the complaints about low spawns, or are they really that inept? Anyways, combine the sudden overpopulation with the existing issues and you now had a game that ceased being fun for me. It’s one thing to get randomly disconnected from the server when there’s a small chance of being attacked before you can log back on, but it’s another situation entirely to get dropped from the game when your avatar is constantly surrounded by mobs. I can’t imagine having hundreds more AI animals on the server at all times is helping the lag and crashing either.

While making a simple supply run to fortify my new base on the northern coast of the island with a sea pen to store my soon-to-be-tamed ichthyosaurs and megalodons and protect from the constantly rampaging wildlife, I lost my tribemate along with my oldest, most faithful mount, Lil Suzy Carno, when they got stuck on a rock and then assailed by a pack of high level direwolves. I then tried to avoid the choked mountain pass by going an alternate route over the mountain, and while evading multiple rexes of unknown level I ended up stuck in a crevice packed with trapped sabertooths and allosaurs, which I killed.

While raging and trying to deduce a way out (turns out blind anger and fast critical thinking don’t always mix), a massive rex came in and killed me. The fate of Teresa Rex and the massive amount of supplies she was carrying is currently unknown as I made multiple passes on my pteranodon (in the freezing cold in my underwear, no less) to locate her when I respawned and was unsuccessful. There’s no message in my tribal log that she was killed, but that enemy rex was really high level and came in from behind her so she was defenseless. Anyways, having to remake all of my gear, gather the resources to do it, and then having to gather even more and resources to recraft all of the supplies for my seabase to do it all over again and maybe tame another rex for another try at this simple run and perhaps meet a similar fate again….just no.

And my mobile base that I built on my paraceratherium? Ha! The idea was a platform base on the back of a giant herbivore with some guards so I could log off on the road and feel safe, but now no place is safe as multiple rexes will likely kill any number of guards and then my basebearer. It’s worthless now. Even stepping outside of my base to cut some wood is a major risk with roving bands of poisonous troodons sneaking about to ambush and render me unconscious in seconds. Everything is a pain in the ass, and not in the cool way it was before.

I would have thought that after this long since the Steam release, Wildcard would have a handle on this sort of thing. I was hoping that the benefit of playing on the last system to get ARK would be a more polished experience, but after dying so often because the server disconnects or the game crashes and now with the game not even being that fun because exploration and gathering resources and food is now a joke since it either throws itself at you en masse at every single turn or is not worth the risk, it’s clear that’s not the case.

Naturally, there are a lot of players cheering this change because now there’s no need to hunt and everything they need for the early game once they’re established just flies into their lap. Casuals get to sit in their bases and not have the challenge of hunting for rare animals to tame (as they’re everywhere now) and can just kill, kill, kill all day long. But that’s not the game I want to play. I want a survival game where encounters are unpredictable, every animal you meet is a surprise, either pleasant or unpleasant, and starving is an actual possibility. Teresa Rex doesn’t want to be fed. Teresa Rex wants to hunt. And so does this gamer.

Whether the devs are trolling and this will all go away, I don’t know. They’ve just added more content, including some much-needed avatar customization (one thing that was and is SORELY lacking) in the form of hairstyles that persistently grow (mind the ‘fro) and science fiction technology so you can have a frickin’ rex with frickin’ lasers on its head, but until they get it together, I may have call it quits for now. It’s great that they keep releasing new free content, but for the final product to be what it needs to be, they need to handle their balancing issues.

Too few dino spawns is lame and unpopular (if more realistic), but turning a survival sim into an action game when there are way better action games out there is a signal that the developers themselves are either not sure what the hell they want this game to be or they are just not taking it seriously.

After a year and a half in early access, it’s time to start prepping for a real release, and this isn’t how you do that. The experimental phase should be over. They need to be concentrating on tweaking minor issues, fixing major glitches and stability, and more customization for avatars, not overloading the game with dinosaurs for lulz or because a bunch of noobs are whining or alpha tribes say they can’t find enough meat to feed their twenty spinosaurs or whatever, even though pretty much whatever you want do with twenty of them in one base, you can do with two.

Like I said, ARK has been all but ignored by most large gaming sites, and while it has flourished without the spotlight and manufactured hype AAA games take for granted, it’s easy for people to write it off as some “early access forever” game that’ll never be up to snuff, and seeing the devs release paid DLC for an unfinished game gives the wrong impression, even if the DLC is far more impressive than what people pay more for in other games on the market and the unfinished game is deeper as is than anything else on the market by miles.

As successful as it has been, Wildcard needs to get it together and get this thing released to the wide world. As an online social experiment (think Lord of the Flies meets Jurassic Park) Survival Evolved is fascinating to say the least, but until the game is on shelves, a large segment of the population isn’t going to see it as a ”real” game. And its faithful players who have struggled with the lag and crashes are beginning to feel the fatigue, especially when other aspects of the game start going wonky too.

ARK could be the single best hardcore gaming property of this generation, and its massive, persistent, and still growing playerbase is a testament to that. But if they want the rest of the world to hear them roar, Studio Wildcard has got to focus on polishing this game’s existing features instead of scrambling to react to complaints (which will never, ever stop) and dicking around with things that should have been set many months ago. They’re breaking things by trying to fix what wasn’t broken when they should be getting the final version of the game out the door. Yeah, the game has already made a ton of money, but if they want ARK to reach that next level and prove itself to be the fittest to survive in the current gaming landscape, it’s time to step up.    

Twenty years Later, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night is Still Young

Remember Konami back before it was always spelled with a “Fuc” in front of it? Those were the days. As storied gaming franchises go, it’s hard to top Castelvania for sheer nostalgic value. I have endless memories of being a young horror geek wasting away my weekend afternoons hunting for Universal monster movies on the television and then assaulting Dracula’s castle on my NES with Simon Belmont as my avatar. I feel bad for people who never discovered the joy of demolishing a giant bat with throwing axes.

Castlevania and Metroid have two major things in common: both franchises have been practically abandoned in the modern era, and both remain extremely popular amongst older gamers. They also can be combined to form an entire genre: Metroidvania, which survives and thrives in the indie scene even today with titles like the lovable Shantae series leading the charge. Other than being 2D and awesome, Metroid and Castlevania didn’t have much in common gameplaywise, but they still get lumped in together for some reason. And that reason is 1997’s Symphony of the Night in which the series, and perhaps 2D gaming itself, reached its zenith. It’s been nearly twenty years since then, and with Netflix nearly ready to unleash a Castlevania animated series,  I’d say it’s time for a look back at a truly enduring classic.

Building off of elements introduced in the spectacularly underrated Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Symphony expanded the series in new and exciting ways and lived up to its musical title by introducing several new and adventurous elements to create something truly harmonious. Classic Castlevania gameplay typically involved linear level progression, and deviation from that was often met with resistance (like with Simon’s Quest). But when PlayStation released this, there was no denying it. The story begins at the usual ending, the by-then predictable Dracula boss fight, and then goes where no Belmont had gone before by continuing on as the vampire lord’s son, Alucard, on a mission to indulge his Oedipus complex.

While taking the gameplay elements exactly as they were, right down to hitting candles for hearts -which is a dated element if anything is- it did away with linear levels in favor of an explorable castle with a floorplan that required you to gather and utilize a large number of powers, abilities, and items to progress, like in Metroid. Hence, Metroidvania. Adding in RPG-style experience gains and progression, a large number of weapons and items, charming familiars to accompany your quest, and a vampiric protagonist able to shapeshift into various forms and you were looking at an immensely deep game with huge replayability.

But what really sets this Castlevania game apart for hardcore gamers was the insane amount of secrets. In fact, you can’t even properly beat the game without discovering some seriously esoteric and hard to find places. The ending you will likely get without using an internet walkthrough is really just a preamble; an accumulation of skills. A story misdirection, even. And even if this is all you experienced of it, you will still have played a fantastic game. But the real test came after you uncovered the true plot through a series of hidden areas, secret items, and events leading to the castle you just explored in its entirety being flipped upside down and filled with new, much more challenging horrors where you need to use all of your accumulated skills to survive.     

The massive and varied arsenal (chakrams and holy water ftw), the classical feel, the incredible music, the constant nag of which of the five familiars to use (fairy is adorable and gives hints, but bat means double chiropteran fireballs!), and multiple endings all add up to a game with a genuinely timeless appeal. The endless options and combinations of equipment and abilities make even returning to the same rooms over and over again a joy. And Alucard being able to pull off his father’s classic move of teleporting and then opening his cape to unleash a trio of fireballs? Mwah!  

“What is a man? A miserable little pile of secrets.” states Dracula in the game’s opening scene. Symphony of the Night seems to willfully spend the entire rest of the game showing the immortal lord of the undead that a pile of secrets can be anything but miserable. A challenge for sure, but extremely rewarding as well. To think that a game like this came out when the internet was still in its toddler stage and not every game had walkthroughs and Let’s Plays on tap is mind-boggling. It’s no wonder it was less appreciated in its time than it is now.

In retrospect, Symphony is possibly one of the most important and well put together games ever to grace our consoles. Even today it feels familiar and nostalgic (as it did then), but still completely fresh and with a depth that even modern games struggle to match. It was Dark Souls before Dark Souls was Dark Souls, and even that series doesn’t let you play it as a wolf with a floating sword for a companion or force you to find its most eldritch secrets just to get to the second half of the game. Yet.  

A lot of games are either very focused on leading you around by the nose explaining exactly what’s expected of you, or on throwing so much crap to do at you that you can’t even keep it straight without a bunch of waypoints and journals. Not progressing almost feels like a waste of time because there’s just so much to go and so many places to go that the fun can get drained right out of it at times. Symphony was and is just a joy to play, even when you have no idea what to do next. Even when aimlessly wandering through the same rooms killing the same enemies again and again hoping some inspiration strikes you and you’ll find whatever it is you’re looking for, there is always a new way to approach everything to keep it interesting. Maybe try dashing through multiple rooms as a wolf, try out that cool looking floating skull familiar, trade in your sword and shield combo for a double-handed weapon, or practice your Street Fighter-esque spell inputs (which can be a bit challenging on a gamepad). There’s always something else to try and master.  

While it didn’t exactly set the world on fire in its day, over the years the legend of Symphony of the Night has grown and endured far beyond most of its PlayStation contemporaries. Going back to play the likes of Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII can often be an underwhelming experience for modern players with gaming having come so far since then and old control schemes, basic writing, and certain graphical styles not feeling or looking as good as they used to. But this is a game as timeless as its immortal protagonist.

While the above are being remastered, remade, and ported forward with fresh coats of paint, the only remake Symphony is likely to get is in Plinko machine form. Thanks, (fuc)Konami! But the game’s designer, Koji Igarashi is hard at work on a spiritual successor called Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night that set records with its Kickstarter and made ten times its goal, so clearly the legacy of Castlevania’s finest moment is not lost. And long may gamers continue going out for pleasure because even after two decades, this Night is still young .

Why Grand Theft Auto IV was the Pinnacle of the Series

In 1997, a developer called DMA Design created a monster. It sold a million copies, largely due to the controversies and bans that went along with the then-revolutionary concept of selling what was basically a virtual crime simulator, but the original Grand Theft Auto was a true gaming landmark whose long-term repercussions have been felt persistently in the twenty years since.

Now flash forward to 2017, a world where Grand Theft Auto V sold seventy million copies, garnered countless game of the year awards, and is still among the most played games in the world nearly two years after its release. Rockstar Games runs the show now, and under their guidance the monster has become an unstoppable juggernaut.  The series on the whole has sold over two hundred and thirty five million copies, so I think it’s safe to say that GTA is as much a gaming institution as any franchise, which brings up the natural question of which game should be considered the standard setter.

Allow me, gentle reader who is perhaps still raging in indignation at my presumptuous title whilst mentally listing off the various technical achievements of Rockstar’s latest or waxing nostalgic for one of the series’ previous entries to make a case for one of the most divisive entries. I say that more than any other GTA game, Grand Theft Auto IV acquitted itself as an outstanding gaming experience while both pushing the medium forward and conveying an artistic respectability to its story that the series never had before and has not had since. The critics roundly applauded it, but gamers are more divided and tend to prefer its successor by a large margin. But screw those people.

Yes, GTA V crafted an amazing world to play in with lots of stuff to do, but its characters are silly archetypes. Entertaining, yes. The satire is strong with this one, but in maximizing the doofy madcap fun, they left a lot by the wayside. A lot of the elements that made GTA IV special weren’t designed to appeal to the dudebros that make up a substantial portion of the franchise’s player base. You know, the ones who will spend way too much time in the stripper-groping minigame and still reflexively stop for every prostitute and then cackle while running them over  with their car afterwords to get their money back.

The world of this game felt more alive than any other game at the time, or maybe even since. Liberty City was filled with sights to see and things to do that made it feel like much more than a video game where you run around performing arbitrary tasks for wooden NPCs. It was a true virtual experience. I spent hours surfing the in-game internet and sitting in my virtual home watching the television programming. I placed personal ads on a dating website and actually got responses. I’d never seen anything like this and GTA V’s greatest strength was in reproducing some of this. Only they didn’t do it nearly as completely.  

The most widely hated feature of GTA IV was part of what made it so different, the dreaded “hang out” missions. A lot of gamers balked at having to play darts or whatever with NPC’s while they advanced the plot and built characters, but I personally found these oases of normalcy in such a historically senseless series to be a fantastic addition. You could literally pull out your cellphone, call up just about anybody you’d met in-game, and go out on the town with them and do whatever you felt like with their accompaniment, complete with unique commentary.

Going to see virtual reproductions of stand-up routines from actual comedians and vaudeville-style shows at the theater, stumbling out of a bar together drunk off your asses, and the twisted humor of taking a date to a strip club were all fun (and mostly optional) diversions and for my money, more fun than the usual “two dudes talking in the car while you drive from objective to objective plus the occasional cutscene” standard that had been what passed as story in the past. The surprising and often hilarious conversations made for excellent character development and fleshed out the NPCs as more than just one-note jokes that appeared at the beginning of the appointed mission, and then vanished.

But this is all coming from an RPG gamer who adores character interaction and immersion. I spent like half an hour after every Mass Effect mission seeking out every single crew member on the off chance that they had something new to say. So of course I’d like that GTA IV let you get to know characters in a new and interesting way in different settings. “But broooooo”, you ask, “what about the rampages, bro? I just wanna blow stuff uuuuup.” Well, that’s a whole other thing, and I will return to it shortly..

On some level, GTA has always been striving towards art’; usually in the form of satire. They make fun of the over-the-top violence with over-the-top social commentary, setting the stage for a unique and silly tone that celebrates the inevitable goofiness that ensues when you let a gamer do whatever they want. GTA IV dared to be different. It told a serious story and invited gamers to join them for the ride. I mean, how many video game enemies have you blown up just because they were there and the game you were playing wasn’t interested in doing anything more interesting? Ninjas have kidnapped the president! The bad guy stole your girl! Rescue the princess! KILL ALL OF THE THINGS.

GTA IV was not short on things for you to kill or reasons to kill them. But it did put you in the shoes of a character who questioned the point of it all, and that seems to have made people uncomfortable. Maybe they should be. The story put you in the shoes of an immigrant arriving in America with big dreams of leaving his life of violence and corruption behind. Naturally, it turns out America is full of more of the same because wherever you go, people are bastards. That’s why days after a US president bans Muslim immigration for fear of the theoretical violence they might maybe bring some day since brown people are all alike, a French-Canadian goes on an anti-Muslim murder spree and is declared a ”lone wolf” due to his whiteness. Because art imitates life and life is one big satire. Over-the-top comedy is not really necessary anymore. We have become the comedy.

Having you stop in the middle of your oh-so-urgent story mission to run around with a katana killing random gang bangers on some pointless “rampage” for some arbitrary achievement or whatever detracts from the story any way you slice it (pun intended). In fact, one of the criticisms leveled at GTA IV was that the serious tone of the story was a bad fit for player behavior. That sounds to me like more of a criticism of the player than the game. Any game can craft a story with a given tone and then have it ruined by gamers being gamers. A bunch of co-op Halo: Reach players teabagging each other every step of the way might detract from the whole “dramatic last stand” theme, yeah? The adage is wrong. Don’t hate the game. Hate the players.

GTA V managed to find a humorous context for one of the characters to have rampage missions, and it worked. But they counterbalanced this by adding in all of the features of GTA IV and leaving them empty. I called almost every NPC in the game on my cell phone to try and set up some dates or hang outs and over the dozens of hours I spent in single player, maybe two characters ever picked up. And it was a long list. The dating site was back, but not one response was ever received. It was like Rockstar had every intention of bringing these features back and then just said “meh, fuck it” and left parts of them in there without never actually adding the content. This made GTA V feel incomplete. They should have excised all traces of these features if they weren’t even going to flesh them out properly.

The early GTA games were great fun, GTA III was a true landmark with its 3D gameplay, Vice City was a joy, San Andreas represented a whole other level of depth with its character customization and RPG aspects, and GTA V is a technical marvel and its multiplayer aspect has given it legs even beyond its legendary predecessors. But in terms of giving narrative respectability to the franchise and depth and immersion to the sandbox world, developing characters you genuinely care about, and generally pushing forward gaming as an entertainment medium, GTA IV stands out, even in a franchise that has never not been associated with peerless quality. It may not be the most popular with fans, but in terms of gaming as an art form, no other entry can compete with that pedigree.  

Six Features that Should be Standard for Multiplayer Shooters


Everybody’s got that competitive itch down in there somewhere. We can only mow down endless hordes of mindless AI mobs for so long before we crave the blood of our fellow gamers. And that’s where multiplayer shooters come into play. There’s a special twisted satisfaction in knowing that the guy you just no-scoped was being controlled by another gamer who is likely raging at your awesomeness.   

As the genre has evolved, many features have been added collectively and many different franchises have contributed to its growth with new ideas. But even as the esports scene gathers momentum, the discrepancy of features that set our favorite shooters apart may also be what is holding back some of them from being all they can be.

Imagine if the NBA didn’t use replays or the UFC didn’t bother with match highlights anymore. Some features should be standardized to ensure that players are getting the best experience for their buck and that all AAA shooters are worthy of our cash and the attention that they will inevitably get as a representative of one of gamings’ premiere genres. Here are the six I’d like to see.


It’s actually really surprising that it took until Overwatch to implement the concept of a post-match “Play of the Game”. Shooters have long celebrated multi-kill achievements and now that so many have had the satisfaction of seeing their most glorious moments projected on the screen for everybody else to bask in (or rage at), it’s going to be hard to go back.

It may seem cosmetic and unnecessary, but Blizzard really tapped into something with this feature. It inspires players to really reach for that brass ring during matches in hopes of achieving the honor and invests players in their own performance using nothing but their own pride and the promise of a brief moment of public glory. Expanding this feature into a brief showcase of a few impressive feats rather than just a single play would be even better, and inspire gamers even more.

Free Maps

Remember back when you paid through the nose every few months just to get a few more maps to shoot people on? Remember how they were usually just maps from older games with a new coat of polish? And you couldn’t play with your friends anymore unless you bought them all? Remember how much that sucked? Oh, sorry Call of Duty fans. You still go through all of that. No wonder everybody looks down on you.

Most shooter franchises have seen the light here and stopped gouging and dividing their customer bases by charging them for something so insubstantial, instead honoring their purchase and dedication to the game by offering new maps for free. But there is still at least one big holdout. In a perfect world, all non-story DLC would be free except for maybe premium cosmetics customizations to show your wealth off to more frugal gamers, but at the very least, new multiplayer maps should always be delivered free of charge.


There was a time when teabagging was an art. The careful and concise skill of lining up your crotch to your downed opponent’s face during the heat of a match and delicately lowering your undercarriage onto it knowing that their in-game camera was still on their body and they were helpless to stop the desecration of their corpse held a special kind of satisfaction. Then it spread.

Soon, every scrub in every game would celebrate every kill with a “victory crouch”, even if they weren’t on or even near your body. Every match now looked dumb because even in fighting games the other player would knock you across the screen in a KO and start crouching and uncrouching without even understanding why this was a thing. It disgusts me.

Enter Destiny, Bungie’s fully multiplayer integrated Halo successor and Battleborn, the unfairly maligned Borderlands-ish Overwatch competitor. Destiny offered up emotes usually associated with MMOs that included the ability to literally dance over your fallen opponents’ corpse, while Battleborn’s greatest multiplayer innovation was a taunting mechanic where if you performed it immediately after getting a kill, the downed player’s camera would zoom in on your character with full audio so they could not possibly miss your celebratory middle finger or sneer and one liner. No more half-assed teabagging or victory crouching. This should be the future of virtual douchebaggery. Embrace it.

Integrated Tournaments

When is a competitive shooter not competitive enough? When scrubs and noobs are playing the same playlists as hardcore players. A lot of online shooters already have ranked and unranked matches, although certain kinds of hardcore players who aren’t feeling up to a real challenge prefer to prey upon casuals in the unranked matches and clueless losers still inflict themselves on decent players in ranked.

There should be more rewards for playing ranked and succeeding. In fact, there should be regular online tournaments. With esports becoming more and more a thing, wouldn’t it be nice if you could get a piece of that action from home? Giving out virtual currency and in-game prizes for players performing well in ranked online tournaments would give a lot of players incentive to git gud, form teams, communicate, and play competitively rather than the current climate where a bunch of randos run around like headless chickens getting picked off by players who were lucky enough to be matched with competent players or smart enough to bring friends.

This would also help with differentiating skill levels and maybe help cut down on the needless slaughter and driving off of noobs by pro-tier players. Persistent integrated tournaments could help separate the wheat from the chaff and keep hardcore and casual gamers from screwing up each others’ games. There’s nothing that drives off new players like getting hopelessly massacred in every match and with this level of separation, perhaps the quality of life for both kinds of gamers could improve.    

Theater Mode

Halo is the only franchise I’ve played that is fully on this boat, and that is really surprising, because its Theater mode is a true gift to gaming. The ability to go back and review your recent matches in their entirety is fantastic and should be considered indispensable to competitive gaming. The current DVR system integrated into modern consoles to record your last hour of gameplay isn’t good enough.

Finding yourself woefully overmatched when the entire enemy team decides to pursue you across the map while the objectives are still somehow not getting fulfilled by your enemy-free teammates inevitably begs the question “what the hell is my team even doing?” In Halo, you can go back after you’re done and find the match to watch the entire thing with fully controllable camera and even movie-making tools if you want to capture a particular moment. If your teammates were off camp-cowering or waiting to respawn, at least you can ease your mind that the game itself wasn’t out to get you.

And obviously, as a tool for strategic study, Theater mode is fantastic. It baffles me every time I buy a shooter and this feature isn’t included. For pro-tier gamers it’s invaluable for formulating and refining strategy, for aspiring Youtube stars it’s a fantastic video creation tool, and for everyone else it’s still really cool to have.

Co-op Challenges

Just like gamers need to test themselves against each other in the online arena after battling endless mobs, sometimes after that competitive drive has been driven and the wheels are falling off, you need to unwind a little, but still keep killing stuff. Probably more than anything else, co-op modes is what kept me coming back to my favorite shooters and its absence is what kept me from coming back to Overwatch. Gears of War has Horde, Call of Duty has Zombies, Halo has Firefight, Destiny has Strikes and Raids, and at this point I feel like every AAA shooter needs an equivalent to these to really win me over and keep me there.

PvP scratches a major gaming itch, but any way you look at it, it’s pretty intense. The highs of victory and the lows of defeat tend to create strong emotions and prolonged exposure to those….well, you’ve seen what gamers tend to be like online. We don’t have the best reputation. Frankly, we need to lighten the hell up.

I find that unwinding with a cooperative game and working together with my fellow gamers relieves a lot of the stress that battling them tooth and nail accumulates. The chaos of PvP matches can be nicely balanced by pre-planned raids where you have specific goals to work towards and/or waves of enemies to blow away with friends and strangers instead of team after team of spawn-camping, lag-switching, trash-talking teens and fratboys to contend with. Designated co-op modes done right give shooters legs like no other feature does.     

Minority of One: Orwell’s Unique Approach to Dystopian Politics


We’ve had a few months to digest one of last year’s premiere story experiences now. It was a pretty weak year for AAA gaming in terms of pushing the envelope, but with indie hits like the affable Oxenfree, mind-meltingly creative Pony Island, and artistic Inside it was far from a total loss. Among the indie class of 2016 was Osmotic Studios’ “Big Brother simulator” Orwell, which thrust the player into the role of a government agent whose job it is to spy on people online.  

While lacking in other games’ style, presentation, and gameplay, Orwell’s bare bones approach of turning your own PC into the protagonist’s PC and pushing the immersion factor that way as if you literally were the character as well as the game’s extremely nuanced and realistic approach to the morality involved with invading peoples’ privacy for the always-nebulous “greater good” offered up more food for thought than anything else I played last year to the point of questioning its own legendary source material. And that is a very special thing.

Orwell’s greatest strength is its inspiration, George Orwell’s novel 1984. To understand how bold the game it inspired is, you really need to have read this work. And quite frankly, if you want to pretend to understand governmental or social politics on any level, 1984 and Animal Farm are possibly the most important works of fiction ever committed to print. When you title a game after their author, you are already burdening yourself with a lot of expectation, and combined with tackling such a hot and current topic, this game put a lot of pressure on itself.  

But the game was not content with reproducing the well known dystopian masterpiece and its rather black and white morality. Instead, it chose to flip the script and make you the “villain” of the piece -or at least a cog in its machinery- and put you in a situation that governments likely find itself in all too often these days. Terrorists are bombing public places and killing people and it’s your job to find them and stop them using a new program that allows you to create profiles on individuals based on the information you find about them online. Should you succeed, the program will become part of the government’s standard operating procedure and we will all be subject to being monitored. Should you fail, the terrorists win. Choose wisely.

Conventional morality suggests that of course you have to save lives and catch the bad guys. And the question of the game’s success becomes whether Orwell does a strong enough job of explaining the central philosophical conflict to the player. On one hand, a lot of gamers are going to come away from the experience feeling like enacting mass surveillance was a victory while others will be upset that this wasn’t portrayed as a demonic evil. But on the other hand, the game by its very nature is inviting the player to think for him or herself, which is always the more effective artistic approach, even if it leads to the majority of the population misunderstanding it (see also: Bioshock: Infinite).

Corporate-advertisement-vehicle-masquerading-as-gaming-magazine Game Informer gave Orwell a vapid two sentence review and a meager rating after months of ignoring it altogether in yet another entire issue spent endlessly pimping the likes of Overwatch, Final Fantasy, Mass Effect, and Uncharted. But that’s why you have us, dear reader. Surely some of you understand the irony of criticizing a work for retreading a different story’s ground in a publication that writes the same articles every month, yes? The brief criticism was that the story has already been told better. But has it really?

The fact that Orwell chooses to ask the gamer the questions rather than handing them the answers it wants you to have is part of what makes it so fascinating. As you surf the web putting together pieces of peoples’ lives in an attempt to determine who is responsible for the terrorist acts and try to determine which characters represent an actual threat and which are just ranting online, the wheels start turning. Could somebody do this to me? Are they doing it right now? If a stranger read all of my Twitter and Facebook rants and message board arguments, how would I look to them? The answer to that last one for at least some of us is likely “like a complete goddamn psychopath”.

George Orwell foresaw a lot of the conflicts currently arising in our society, from the degradation of language leading to rigid and impotent thought processes (for example, when you hear words like “conservative” or “feminist”, do you think about their objective meaning within the context or is your initial reaction automatically a positive or negative emotion? If it’s the latter, congrats: you’re part of the problem), endless warfare as a tool to distract the population, and of course governmental surveillance.

While 1984 clearly missed the mark in terms of time frame, the fact remains that on some level, most of it has come to fruition, albeit in a much more subtle manner. And these subtle mannerisms of morality and manipulation, rather than the broad sinister strokes of the original work, are where Orwell the game challenges both Orwell the author and the player. The surface of hunting terrorists and uncovering the pasts of the potential suspects by tracing their online history is an interactive way of stimulating the thought process rather than a typical one-sided morality tale.

That is to say that rather than using the story to state that all surveillance is bad just because it’s bad, and here are bad things to prove it’s bad, the story relies on the unspoken threats to make its point. In reality, things are seldom as starkly contrasted as they are in fiction. Lines are blurred and shades blend together, making morality a confusing, subjective, and fluid thing more often than not. But what could be bad about something that can catch terrorists before they kill people? Orwell isn’t telling. At least, not outright. The best you’ll get is multiple characters expressing differing opinions that all seem to make sense although they say opposite things.

One conclusion you may arrive at is that while surveillance certainly has its practical uses for stopping bad people from doing bad things, nobody can be trusted with that kind of power over others’ lives. The capacity for everyday abuse is nearly infinite; far beyond the rare catastrophes it could theoretically avert. And those in charge of surveilling and judging us based on our past as it’s presented online? Who judges them? And who judges those who judge them? And who holds those judgements accountable? And if anybody is held accountable for any online wrongdoing, shouldn’t everybody? Even the ones doing the judging? Is anybody entirely innocent? Shall we turn the entire country into one big airport where every joke or aggressively exaggerated opinion is taken as fact and literal threat? Perhaps all mass surveillance really amounts to is a tool for those in charge to pick and choose who they want to prosecute and subjugate.

And all of that is still not taking into account the general unreliability of online information. How hard is it to make an account as another person? Not hard. You could be looking at somebody’s face and name and the words could be somebody else’s entirely and you’d never know. This is one aspect I really wish Orwell had brought into play more as false flagging is pretty much standard procedure in online trolling and when you take that into account, the concept of online surveillance becomes even more untenable, leaving only the open and honest as potential victims.

Orwell may stop short of the mind-blowing prophecy of the literary masterpiece that inspired it, but as a more practical and nuanced alternative, it’s pretty exceptional in itself. The titular author wrote “being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad. There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad”. And the game clings tenaciously to its own principles of truth, which are not necessarily those of its inspiration. Like i said before, Orwell the author wanted to teach you his truth. Orwell the game wants you to teach yourself and find your own truth. And like in real life, there’s no real way to win. Just various ways of accounting for yourself as you inevitably lose, whether you realise it or not.

In many ways, it feels like Orwell could have pushed its story to further extremes and done much more to illustrate the potential evils of government surveillance, but instead of beating us over the head with the axe-grinding fiction we’re used to, it chose to take a more nuanced approach that mirrors the potential real life situations that could arise and, in fact, may very well have already arisen. After all, this is no longer a dystopian science fiction dilemma. It is here and now.

Unlike 1984, Orwell isn’t a dark look at the future, it’s a look at the present. And if anything, it’s in-game internet is a brighter place then the cyberspace we’re living in right now. And that, friends, is a thought as scary as a rat eating through your face. It’s also why a lot of people may overlook the thoughtful indie game as a missed opportunity rather than one of the most unique and interesting experiences of 2016 in any medium. But being misunderstood is all part of being in a minority of one, and that is exactly what Orwell is. There simply isn’t anything else like it and that is always reason to celebrate.

Not Dead Yet: Five Games that Have Represented Punk Culture


Almost since the likes of the Ramones put on leather jackets, figured out they couldn’t keep up with the musicality of classic rock, made up for it by playing the simplest music at fast and hard as possible, and were dubbed “punks” for it, the refrain from the press has been “punk is dead”. The claim persisted through the ‘80s while hardcore dominated and developed the underground scene into what would become alternative rock, and even after punk joined the mainstream spotlight along with the ‘90s alternative explosion, it was just seen as proof that the ideologies that founded the scene were gone.

And now, nearly half a century after its founding, maybe they’re finally right. There are no prominent up and coming “real” punk bands to speak of, no parental groups raging against the “decline of Western society” due to loud, fast rock music, no police breaking up the shows. Just aging rockers doing what they’ve already been doing for decades and aging fans still showing up to hear the songs they love. Hardly a threat to the establishment.

In pop culture, it’s become almost a complete non-entity, former Pussy Riot members rubbing elbows with the Hollywood elite and guesting on House of Cards aside. And video games? Hell, if you type “punk video games” into Google, all you get is some dude who remade classic 8-bit games in his favorite punk rockers’ images and called it Punktendo. Where’s the representation, gaming industry?

Ironically, punk and video game culture have seldom crossed paths in any meaningful way. I say ironically because the two scenes have had a lot in common and have practically grown up together. Deemed socially unacceptable by liberals and conservatives alike, it was nerds and outcasts that made both cultures and the fan crossover between the two is not insubstantial. But it wasn’t until the last two console generations that I’ve finally begun to see punk make its way into mainstream gaming in drips and drabs.

The ‘80s were filled with visual stereotypes as countless beat-em ups featured mohawked punks to wantonly murder, but where can one find a game that at least attempts to give some genuine representation to one of the most influential movements of the twentieth century whose ideologies and practices still persist in various forms of art, activism, and entertainment to this day? Well, I found five. It ain’t much, but it’s something. Dye up your liberty spikes and crank this shit up, because I’ve found evidence that punk is still alive in modern gaming, if just barely.   

Guitar Hero

“That one is predetermined

That one, it finds another.

This one comes in one window

Sliding out the other.

We need an instrument

To take a measurement.”


Guitar Hero is the rhythm game smash hit franchise whose thoughtfully diverse setlists have made playable to countless gamers rock classics both iconic and obscure. It had been done before, but never like this. The style and sheer quality of music involved eclipsed all other rhythm games at the time and kicked off a craze that would eventually lead to the oversaturation and decline of the genre. But when it was hot, it was hot, and it has made a modest comeback recently along with its equally great sister franchise, Rock Band .

There is no sojourn through rock history that is complete without a tour through punk, and Guitar Hero has always obliged. Characters like Judy Nails and Johnny Napalm delivered playable punk aesthetic and attitude while the setlists often went above and beyond. The legendary Sex Pistols, who haven’t released a proper album in literally forty years, got together to re-record not one but two tracks for the series and other classic bands like the Stooges, Dead Kennedys, Ramones, Buzzcocks, Donnas, Bad Religion, MC5, Generation X, Misfits, and Dropkick Murphys have been included along with the likes of, the Offspring, Blink 182, Jimmy Eat World, and Rise Against to make for a pretty solid cross section of punk culture from a musical standpoint.


“Big Brother, he is a watching

Watching me and you.

Big Brother is a-watching

And he’ll know your every move.

They’re really really gonna do it to you

Just wait and see.

They’ll be telling us what to do

And they’ll want us to die laughing.”

-The Vandals

One of 2016’s breakout gaming experiences was also one of the only ones to portray punk culture in a meaningful way. Orwell is a unique story experience that casts the player in the role of the titular author’s Big Brother, altering the concept to be more in line with modern politics and further blurring the lines of morality as you snoop in the lives of private citizens in an attempt to stop a series of terrorist bombings.

Rather than a celebration or even positive representation of punk, the game portrays the culture in a refreshingly objective manner. As a government agent tasked with investigating terrorist acts, you have to look at the vocal anti-government scene forming before your eyes and try to decide how much of it is bluster and how much represents a real threat. It’s a fascinating conundrum that I imagine the people in charge are dealing with all the time.

In the ‘80s, police violently dispersed punk shows as part of their routine and bands like the Dead Kennedys and Suicidal Tendencies were harassed and investigated by the FBI for their anti-authoritarian lyrics. Tasking the player with investigating the members of a punk band, whose leader is often quite forceful in his political condemnations, made for a very interesting experience playing from the other side of the fence. Orwell itself represents the ethics of punk as a minimalist independent game that made up for what it lacked in resources for flashy graphics and scintillating gameplay with creativity and a strong message that allowed it to make the very most out of what it did have.   

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

“Early man walked away

As modern man took control.

Their minds weren’t all the same

To conquer was his goal.

So he built his great empire

And slaughtered his own kind.

Then he died a confused man

Killed himself with his own mind.”

-Bad Religion

The Shadowrun franchise is very much a product of the same horrific policies that helped give rise to the hardcore punk scene. While the media declared it “morning in America”, unprecedented numbers of homeless people filled its streets as poverty ran rampant due to our newly minted economic policies of taking money from the poor and middle class to give to massive corporations. The dark, cyberpunk dystopia where dragons rule the world behind corporate governments pitting the poor against one another by paying them to sabotage the competition as the only possible means of income is as inspired by 1980s America as it was by the fantasy and science fiction genres.  

In 2013, a wonderful thing happened. The unique RPG franchise came back to video games after years in hibernation to erase the mediocrity that was the baffling 2007 online-only shooter from our minds. Shadowrun Returns’ Kickstarter was such a success that it has spawned two sequels, and the first, Dragonfall, further proved that the developers understood the roots of the series by bringing punk ideologies into play in a way that I’ve never seen in video games before. It was also one of the best tactical RPG’s I’ve ever played in both story and gameplay.

Shadowrun: Dragonfall puts players in the seldom explored vicinity of post-Awakening (basically, a magical apocalypse) Berlin, where the government has collapsed following an anarchist revolution, leaving it known as the Flux State. The people within are left to their own devices and they like it that way. As a shadowrunner living in an anarchist community, you get to see firsthand how this is working out as people pull together to withstand the encroaching influence of the corporations in a place where punk is now the law (or lack thereof) of the land.

Dragonfall puts a former punk rock singer in your crew, which makes for an even more direct connection to the culture, and along with the franchise’s classic punk-influenced aesthetics it makes for a pretty cohesive representation of the scene and its values. It’s also one of the only games where I’ve actually felt compelled to argue with a fictional character about philosophy as one of my go-to runners criticized another character as a community leader when anarchy is supposed to be about not having leaders. No, stupid, anarchy is about not having institutional governmental authority. A true leader earns willing followers through deeds, not by enforced mandate. Anarchy is freedom, authority is oppression. Fuck you.

Gone Home

“You’re a big girl now

You’ve got no reason not to fight.

You’ve got to know what they are

Before you can stand up for your rights.

Rights, rights?

You do have rights.”

-Bikini Kill

At first glance, this indie walking sim wouldn’t appear to have much in common with punk. The deafening silence and foreboding atmosphere as you piece together the events of the game’s story by exploring an abandoned house and its contents is a stark contrast to the loud, fast, angry nature of punk music. While the game got a lot of attention for its portrayal of LGBT issues, let’s be honest: that’s hardly a novel thing anymore. Only really noteworthy if you’re desperate for attention on the internet and seek to get it by making the same old meaningless noises at each other over whether gay people should exist, as if whether people should be allowed to be people is something to argue over. Punk fought and won that battle long before the internet began using peoples’ continued obsession with other peoples’ genitalia for clickbait. What is unusual -and perhaps a first- is Gone Home’s portrayal of the ‘90s riot girl (or “grrrl” if you want to make it seem like you growl when you talk) movement.

For those not in the know, this feminist thing; it’s not new either. The roots of modern feminism are possibly best explored starting with the riot girl scene, which stemmed from women banding together to make punk shows better places for the ladies. Punk was already more accepting of women than other scenes by its very nature, but there was still room for improvement. Bands like Bikini Kill had all of the sound and fury of their male counterparts and would request that the rowdy men up front make room for the ladies, who had often been relegated to the sidelines at male-dominated rock shows. And it worked. Turns out a little assertiveness and the ability to rock goes a long way.

Back to the game, as you explore the house and rifle through the belongings of your character’s absent sister, you find a lot of classic riot girl fliers and zines ripped straight out of the ‘90s. And if that isn’t cool enough, you can actually activate tape players (the nostalgia!) and get blasted with legit punk rock from the likes of Bratmobile and Heavens to Betsy. So as a work of interactive fiction, LGBT-themed art, and a small window into a seldom explored aspect of the feminist and punk rock scenes, Gone Home is a memorable experience.

Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland

“Doesn’t understand why you’d wanna walk.

Ain’t got time to sit and talk.

Used to be just like you and me.

Now he’s an outcast of society.

Beware, he’s possessed to skate.”

-Suicidal Tendencies

As big as Guitar Hero in its time, the Tony Hawk: Pro Skater series suffered a similar fate after similar mismanagement from Activision. It wasn’t the first skateboarding game by a longshot as classics like Skate or Die and 720° nicely offered up some punk aesthetics beyond giving you something to punch in the ‘80s, but Tony Hawk certainly brought it to another level and a massive audience on the PlayStation. And it was the first game I’m aware of to really emphasize the connection between punk rock and skateboarding (the two scenes are practically synonymous irl) with a selection of underground punk songs on the soundtrack.

Taking it a step further beyond mere sight and sound, American Wasteland added a story and an open world to what was pretty much a pure gameplay franchise before that point and it included aspects of skatepunk like graffiti tagging, fanzines, and the communal anarchist nature of the community. Skating or walking (as if) around a virtual LA blasting tunes from the Misfits and Black Flag and trying to earn enough to get to the next skate competition is about as skatepunk as you can get. The game’s back cover art was a blatant reproduction of the Clash’s iconic London Calling album cover replacing the guitar with a skateboard.

So yeah, there is punk rock in video games. And as long as there is punk rock anywhere, it ain’t dead. All it takes is a group of people who want to play fast, loud, uncompromising music about what they think, the freedom to think it and play what they want regardless of popular trends, and some other people who feel the same and want to listen to them play it. You may not see it on TV. You may not hear it on the radio. But it’s always going to be there. One of punk’s defining moments for me was the late, great Wendy O. Williams’ final prophetic declaration as she dropped the mic on the career of one the most underrated bands of all time, screaming “I’m inside your DNA. You can’t make me go away.” Indeed, it’s always been there. Even when you couldn’t see, hear, or feel it. And it always will be.

Black Mirror: Fear of a Gamer Planet


So how was your 2016? Yeah, I know. Worst year ever. America is living out its Idiocracy fantasies by electing loudmouthed reality television stars on the premise that racism and sexism can make a country great again and beloved timeless artists were dropping dead left and right while the worst crop in memory ruled the charts and box offices. And to top it all off, the video games have been merely good instead of the avalanche of great we’ve become accustomed to. Basically, we’ve been ready for 2016 to shove off for months now and now that it’s gone, I don’t miss it a bit.    

But one thing that was great last year was the quality of television. That’s the bright, shiny beacon of hope. As if to illustrate that point, Netflix brought back the amazing Charlie Brooker’s UK science fiction anthology series Black Mirror just to make the year more bearable for us, even while Gamemoir was in its months-long coma. And not only did it meet my extremely high expectations, it surpassed them by doubling up on the typically truncate seasonal episode number from three to six, making it my favorite thing on television in a year that was pretty jam packed with awesome shows both new and returning.

HBO’s Westworld seems to have stolen all of the headlines, even dominating video game discussions for a time as gaming journalists scrambled to find some way to hitch their wagons to the next big thing. But open world gaming comparisons aside, the third season of Black Mirror produced much more relevant food for thought and intriguing possibilities regarding possible applications of technologies that gaming is already neck deep in. The show’s socially savvy near-future cyberpunk horror shows us things that are potentially right around the corner and perhaps already in our living room. If the season had a theme, it was definitely video game technology becoming a part of our lives for better and worse. Especially worse.

There will be thematic spoilers throughout this article. Nothing super specific, but you will miss out on some pretty amazing twist moments if you haven’t seen the last six episodes, so I really recommend you do that before you proceed. Yeah? Ready, steady go, then.

In the season three premiere, “Nosedive” we entered a world where social media determines a person’s social class and the resulting privileges they are allowed. Their accounts are linked directly to contact lenses so we can see their status as quickly as we see their face in order to judge them and rate them and their behavior almost instantly. This may not seem related to video games, but gaming companies have been progressing with ways to punish socially unacceptable in-game behavior in recent years that could lead to this sort of thing becoming reality.

Grand Theft Auto Online segregated its most destructive players into griefer servers, where they are welcome to destroy each other to their heart’s content, leaving more cooperative players in relative peace. In most online games and communities, you have the option to rate players, report bad behavior, and block and mute repeat offenders. Ratings are publicly viewable and accounts who are reported repeatedly can be suspended and banned. But while the idea is a good one in theory, it also opens up plenty of possibilities for abuse. Black Mirror took this concept and transplanted it into the real world with some interesting results.  

The second episode, “Playtest”, was directly video game themed as it dealt with an experimental augmented reality device implanted into the player’s head, at first allowing him to play a cutesy 3D Whack-a-Mole game. But the device’s true job is to read the host’s mind and bring their worst fears to life for a true hardcore horror experience. This ain’t Pokemon Go. You’d think the obvious would be monsters and zombies and whatnot jump-scaring the guy, but the truth of the human brain’s inner workings is much more insidious than that.

Watching a story like that unfold, you realize that this line of technological development is going to have to be capped off at a certain point. I mean, ARK: Survival Evolved was designed to be compatible with virtual reality and I’m scared enough with a tyrannosaurus rex being projected onto my wall. God knows how people would react to a life-sized monster rushing at them in a VR headset, much less seeing it projected through their brain into meatspace. And as far as turning our minds and perception of reality over to an unfeeling machine or computer program? Yeah, that simply cannot happen. If nothing else, “Playtest” makes me wonder might be going on behind the scenes of gaming right this minute as developers attempt to bring horror gaming into virtual reality. Would you sign up to be a part of the experiment to see if humans can die from a heart attack in VR?

“San Junipero” is one of the greatest single episodes of television I’ve ever seen and represents a departure of sorts for the series. Black Mirror’s MO is using technology in its stories for social satire, horror, and sometimes both. But in this episode, we see some of the truly amazing possibilities that could be afforded us by advancing virtual reality tech through the eyes of two women who fall in love in cyberspace. The ending was so out of character, that a lot of fans refused to believe it was true, leading Brooker to publicly state that all of the dark ending theories were false and the ending was indeed a happy and hopeful one. No hidden meanings.

The premise is that the elderly and infirm are afforded a second chance to live their lives by uploading their consciousnesses to a VR program known as San Junipero, which is basically a paradise where they get to relive their youth. And when they pass on, they are uploaded to the cloud. Heaven is a place on Earth? Exactly. Anime like Ghost in the Shell and Sword Art Online introduced these concepts to me, and I thank them for that because otherwise, this episode may have blown my brain out the back of my head.

The concept of a man-made paradise where people don’t have to fade away as their bodies do is a rare hopeful glimpse into a possible future in this increasingly broken world. And if it ever happens, it will have been video games who pioneered that tech. You know, if augmented reality doesn’t destroy our brains first. Speaking of which…

Black Mirror’s exploration of the potential horrors of AR comes back even nastier in “Men Against Fire”, a possible look at the future of racism. The media has done its part to enable a distrust of foreigners ever since 19 of them proved they were bad people on September 11, 2001. Yeah, it’s seriously been more than fifteen years. Never forget and all that. But instead of a fifteen year hate campaign blaming all of the nation’s woes on them, what if we could just make them appear as horrifying creatures deserving of extermination instead? Goebbels would be proud.

The protagonists of the episode are a group of military specialists tasked with hunting down “roaches”, vampire-looking creatures said to be infesting and breeding in their country and threatening its future. Long story short: the soldiers have been implanted with an AR device and it turns out the creatures are really just your tired, poor huddled masses yearning to breathe free made to appear as fierce, snarling beasts by their implants, even as they beg for their lives. This one will make it hard to look at Snapchat the same way again.   

Your perception is your reality and with the ability to control what you see and hear, influencing what you believe is a given. What can we trust if not our own eyes and ears? Turning reality into fiction and vice versa isn’t all that hard. If the news only shows you Muslims when they blow something up, having no other experience to weigh against it, your brain will associate them only with that. Or if the president tells you that immigrants are all thieves and rapists and you’re so insulated that you don’t have any personal experience to counteract that claim with, maybe? But getting somebody to pull the trigger on cowering women and children may take some next level stuff, and that’s where conceptual sci-fi comes in to prove the old Picasso adage that art is the lie that allows us to see the truth.  

So out of the six episodes of Black Mirror’s third season, four of them directly tie into gaming technology and culture. If that isn’t evidence of the rising influence video games are wielding on the technological and cultural fronts, I don’t know what is. VR and AR are certainly not going anywhere and neither are the baser instincts that will eventually see these incredible technological advances corrupted and turned towards viler purposes. But just like in the show, in gamer culture, and in 2016 itself there’s always a glimmer of hope that -along with the inevitable rampant nastiness- there will be something awesome enough to make it all worthwhile. And this year, Black Mirror tops that list for me.