Five Reasons Why Tales From the Borderlands is Telltale’s Masterpiece


In hindsight, it’s funny that I wasn’t really looking forward to seeing Telltale Games’ take on Gearbox Software’s zany science fiction FPS/RPG hybrid. I love Borderlands, and I love Telltale, but I just didn’t see much common storytelling ground there. I was quite wrong, obviously, as Tales from the Borderlands has turned out to be easily one of the best games of the year and the culmination of everything that has made past Telltale adaptations brilliant.

Take the hilarious writing of Tales from Monkey Island, the epic action set pieces of Jurassic Park: The Game, the emotional highs and lows of The Walking Dead, the sheen of noirish cool that permeated The Wolf Among Us, and wrap it all up in the Mad Max-inspired insanity of Borderlands with a fresh twist and you’ve got the makings of a genuine magnum-opus.

Playing through Telltale’s latest was like an extended shot of pure storytelling joy. Around every corner there was something that either made me laugh, think, feel, or just plain kicked ass. It made me want to go play the games it was based on with a new appreciation for the world they created, which is probably the highest praise you can bestow on a game like this. The following are five ways that Tales from the Borderlands proved itself to be at the top of the heap of an already extremely impressive collection of stories Telltale has adapted from film, television, comics, and video games.

tales borderlands cast driving

Catch a riiiiiiiide!

Setting the pace

Gauging proper pacing is an elusive thing sometimes, especially when delivering chapters in an episodic format every few months. At times the individual stories in each episode can feel somewhat disconnected from one another and….well, episodic. Trying to find a balance between making each one stand alone somewhat like with The Walking Dead: Season 1 and crafting an ongoing escalating narrative is tricky, but for Borderlands, Telltale really seems to have found the best possible way to do it.

Discarding the notion of stand alone episodes with different variations of the same theme and a grand finale at the end, what Telltale did instead was use each episode to show us different aspects of the Borderlands mythos, each with its own build-up and climax, while telling an ongoing story and using every scene to craft characters’ relationships to one another without feeling the need to be all things in all episodes. The stakes just keep getting higher and higher as the story unfolds, but as ambitious as it is, the story somehow it never loses its sense of playfulness and surprise, deftly turning tragedy into comedy, comedy into triumph, and triumph back into tragedy. It’s not an easy thing to do effectively. In fact, it’s extremely rare, but they did it.

Beginning as a simple story of a corporate stooge and a street smart con-woman retelling their stories in flashback after being taken by mysterious captor, the number of elements and twists and turns that come into play is astonishing. After going into outer space and back again facing giant monsters, old Borderlands friends and foes, and life-or-death decisions, going into the final act almost seemed like overkill. Like, what else can this game possibly throw at me? But then it made me laugh, cry, cheer, laugh and cry and cheer again and I wondered how anything could be that perfectly measured and surprise me at the same time. From its humble beginnings and through all of its wild changes in scale, setting, and tone, the story always flows perfectly, and that’s a big piece of this awesome puzzle.

tales from borderlands meat bicycle

Psh. I’ve seen shinier.

Do-it-yourself comedy

One of the things that makes this particular work of interactive fiction stand out in the ever-widening field is its approach to humor. While the light tone often reminded me of the delightful Tales from Monkey Island, in that game the dialogue was more like an old RPG where you cycle through all dialogue options to hear the responses. In Tales from the Borderlands, you actually get to dictate a lot of the comedy yourself, or even tone it down if you’re looking for a more serious approach.

Whether you decide to repeatedly yell “enhance”  at a computer in a mockery of the trope where saying that magically makes an existing picture higher resolution, immortalize a fallen comrade with a Cowboy Bebop reference, downplay another character’s feat of awesome before failing mightily at the same task, quote an epic Jaws’ one-liner while pulling the trigger on the final boss, or go for a less nerdy approach to these situations is completely up to you. And having the option to mock a bad guy’s hair and later be given a choice of which elemental bullet to shoot him with -opening up the opportunity to set said hair on fire- is just too good.   

The fact that this game has so many jokes and clever callbacks and some of the best ones are completely optional and often reliant on certain sequences of choices speaks volumes about the depth and quality of the writing here. I remember when Borderlands 2 caused ire in some parts of the internet by appropriating dozens of memes and Telltale seems to have taken that lesson to heart. While there are dozens of pop culture references, they are more timeless geek homages than attempts to pander to the temperamental millennial demographic that date the humor. Any game that recreates the pretend gun battle scene from Spaced on a John Woo scale is fine by me, and if it isn’t with you, you probably suck anyways..

tales from borderlands bossanova

Bass-dropping intensifies.

Music makes the people come together

Telltale has run the gamut when it comes to incorporating music into their art. From the evocative score of The Wolf Among Us to the closing credit folk tunes of The Walking Dead and the straightforward use of the film score for Jurassic Park, a lot of approaches have been tried with varying degrees of success. But Tales from the Borderlands trumps them all with its awe-inspiring use of music in its credit sequences.

While the score is normally more understated like Wolf Among Us’s was (aside from some EDM-fueled action sequences), Telltale treats each chapter like a Bond film in that they all start out with an awesome scene to hook you and then segue into a musical number for the credits to kick it up a notch. For all of the praise that the dialogue deserves, the scene montages during these opening credit sequences is where Tales From the Borderlands does some of its finest work.  A lot of the devices used in these sequences have been done before, such as dramatic time slowing and credits appearing as part of the scenery,  but I have never seen them used more effectively.

I’m going to resist the temptation to expound each opening sequence, but I’ll just say they might be worth the cost of each episode by themselves. Artistry, humor, character development, and a variety of emotions from joy to sheer desolation are portrayed in these wordless sequences that set the stage for each section of our protagonists’ journey and the accompanying music is pleasantly diverse and fits each scene to a T. And if you ever thought you’d never be genuinely inspired by a cheesy 80’s-style power ballad, think again. Episode 4’s “Back to the Top” is my new go-to pump up anthem.

tales borderlands cast armageddonIt’s the characters, stupid

Arguably, the most important thing in modern storytelling is the people in the story. You need to care about them, or at least relate to them in some way. This isn’t the 1900’s anymore. To make a truly great story these days, even the villains have to be worth rooting for on some level. While I might argue that Telltale knocked nearly every aspect of this game out of the park, they really outdid themselves with the cast of Tales from the Borderlands.

Not to bring the quality of the writing up again, but anybody who can effectively make the word “hi” spoken by a monotone-voiced robot a catch phrase is doing something very right. Rhys and Fiona by themselves are memorable protagonists, but the ragtag crew they put together over the course of this story is one for the record books. Drawing from the familiar, but always offering someone new as well, this is one of the best gaming casts ever.

Fiona in particular is a heroine for that ages. We don’t often enough get characters where the primary means of conflict resolution is acheived through intelligence as opposed to brute force, and she is a prime example of how to do it right. Dressed to kill with a knack for withering sarcasm and an elegant derringer up her sleeve just in case things get nasty is my kind of lady. Rhys makes for a perfect foil with his polar-opposite background and bumbling, self-deprecating nature, but at the same time the two share distinct similarities that illustrate that there is no cultural divide too large to stop decent people from connecting, cooperating, and coexisting with one another in spite of friction.

How these two characters interact and shape their relationships is largely up to you, but that was my experience. Yours could be different depending on your own choices, which brings us to my final point.

tales borderlands episode-2 choices

Ummmm….spoilers, maybe? Also, what kind of asshole wouldn’t brofist Vaughn? That’s not bro, bro.

My story, your story

One thing that really sets Tales from the Borderlands apart from the rest of Telltale’s ever-growing catalog of massive successes is that it really feels like a game where you have genuine consequences based on your decisions. Not just a different ending based on a dialogue choice or two or whatever, but things that work out in unexpected ways.

Obviously, we’re not at a point that every single decision you make leads to an entirely new version of the game like so many people seem to expect. The stuff that’s happening in the story is going to happen, and until we find a much cheaper way to make video games, that’s how it’s going to be. But sometimes the little things can really change your personal experience with a game.

Who’s available to join your vault raiding team for the final act is directly affected by your actions over the course of the story. Even apparent throwaway dialogue to strangers can have an effect on your reputation and future options. If you save your money or decide to give somebody who betrayed you a second (or third) chance, you may be pleasantly surprised. One particular plot thread was only resolved because my choices were narrowed and it ended up making my story so much more satisfying in the end. Even your apparent mistakes can have surprising silver linings.

It’s really cool to see things work out in different ways based on your decisions and have some positive and negative consequences based on what seemed like flippant choices at the time. Player choice is the biggest thing that separates interactive entertainment from more traditional media and the more it can be worked into the narrative, the more satisfying a virtual story is going to feel in comparison. It makes for a more immersive experience, adds replayability to the game, and helps make Tales from the Borderlands stand above even the best tales that Telltale has told.

Five Awesome PlayStation Franchises I’m Just Not That Into

I’ve had this off-again/on-again love affair with Sony’s consoles since the mid ‘90s. I was satisfied holding onto my SNES for years and while I had fun playing Tekken and Tony Hawk on my friend’s PlayStation, I wasn’t really sold on the brand. Eventually, franchises like Resident Evil and my favorite, Final Fantasy lured me around. In fact, the minute I laid hands on Final Fantasy Tactics I knew it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

I’ve got nothing but great memories of the original PlayStation, but its successor impressed me less and I ended up on Team Xbox for the next gen and most of the one after that. But in spite of years of “PS3 has no games”, I ended up buying one as Sony came on strong at the end and Microsoft faded a bit. But I had a lot of catching up to do.

In the time between getting a PlayStation 3 and upgrading to a PlayStation 4 (what can I say, Sony won me back), I had a lot of ground to cover to play all of the game I’d missed. But not all of them turned out to be what they were cracked up to be for me. Not all games are for all gamers. I mean, I’m not making a list of games I knew weren’t going to set my world on fire like LittleBigPlanet (not a platformer guy) or Jak and Daxter (just…

The following are games that look right up my alley and I should be a fan of. Games that other people love and I want to love, but just don’t for whatever reason. Here are five traditional PlayStation franchises that should be blowing my mind, but have either left me moderately pleased at best or hesitant to even give a chance in spite of universal praise.    

Disgaeadisgaea 3

I mentioned earlier that Final Fantasy Tactics was the game that inspired me to buy a PlayStation in the first place. It remains one of the my all-time favorite games and the deepest SRPG I’ve ever played. I’ve been looking for another game like it ever since. That curse is probably best illustrated in its subsequent brethren series, Disgaea, which has so many great things about it but has somehow failed to make a fan out of me.

I’ll admit that if I’d never played the definitive SRPG, I’d probably have been an instant fanboy of this series. But having played FFT way back in the ‘90’s and then firing up Disgaea 3: Absence of Justice last year to find a game with mechanics that seem inferior in almost every way was disappointing to say the least.

I loved the music, the goofy tone, and the overall concept, but the deeper I got into the game the more shallow the actual game seemed. There was a ton of stuff to do (max level is 9999…and you don’t level very quickly), but very little reason to do most of it. The story itself was cute and clever, but eventually became a revolving door of repeating gags that were hilarious at first, but got old over dozens of hours. The last straw was diving into a dungeon to upgrade a weapon (every item contains a dungeon and you can level them up from within) and grinding with no save point for hours only to end up in a battle that was literally an impossibility to win. That’s just shitty game design.

It’s one thing to get wiped in Persona or whatever because of a bad choice or crummy luck and lose hours of progress, but at least you had the possibility of victory. Dated gameplay and repetitive humor I can deal with, but insanely overleveled enemies that you can’t escape from in virtually infinite dungeons with no save points are just not cool. Ever. I’m not saying I’ll never play another Disgaea game(I probably will), but I have to say that against all odds, I was pretty disappointed with my first experience with the series.


twisted metal sweet tooth

Twisted Metal

This was the game I was most iffy about going in. I love blowing shit up and the almost satirically edgy style looked like it might be up my alley, but as a general rule I’m not into driving games. Then again, Mario Kart and Burnout are awesome and they don’t even have flaming psycho clowns driving ice cream murdermobiles.

I was looking forward to getting into the PS3 reboot after having missed out for so many years and hearing people praise the franchise. And with full multiplayer support, what could go wrong? Not much, I reckon, but it just failed to grab me. Halfway through the first story mode I was inexplicably bored. Like I’d done it all before. Drive. Shoot. Drive. Yawn. Shoot. Drive. Repeat. A few different vehicle options was the only real variation.

Maybe I’m just getting old, but throwing chainsaws at people from a suped-out chopper just was not as fun as it felt like it should be. I love battle-royale combat. I’ve always loved it. So why did I not love this game? Only the gaming gods know for sure.

Uncharteduncharted 2

This is a big one. Everybody loves Uncharted. You love Uncharted. Your significant others and parents like to watch you play Uncharted. Hollywood wants Uncharted to be their next big franchise. Uncharted is really cool and fun. But no way would I ever pay $60 for an Uncharted game.

What the hell’s wrong with me? How could I not want to preorder Naughty Dog’s video game sensation? Sony’s pride and joy? It’s like the second coming of Indiana Jones, man! A bro Tomb Raider! All true facts and fair points. But as the article title says, I’m just not that into it.

I respect the franchise and have genuine affection for the characters, but when playing I find myself going through the motions of shooting/climbing/shooting/climbing/puzzle somewhat joylessly. The set pieces are beautiful -some of the best in gaming- and the puzzles are often imaginative and just plain cool. Nolan North is the man, and the rest of the cast is great too, but as smooth as it is, the gameplay itself just doesn’t thrill me.

All of the jumping and swinging and shimmying is just a time-consuming excuse to ogle the killer level designs from different angles, the combat has nothing at all to set itself apart as an action game, and the excitement of button-prompt cliffhanger sequences lose their luster after a while. I like Uncharted, but I just can’t bring myself to love it like everyone else does.

kratos god of war

God of War

Now this one I really should love. And in some ways, maybe I do. Clash of the Titans is one of the most important films of my life and I rented it countless times at my local VHS place as a kid. I’ve always had an affinity with Greek mythology and it’s actually really weird to me that so few games take advantage of its rich history, iconic characters, and general epicness. God of War takes that vacancy and stabs its eyeballs out before ripping its arm off and then using it to tear off its head in a shower of gore.

Yeah, badassness is what Kratos is all about. So much epic badassness. It’s all very epic. And badass. I love epic badassness. I’m even up for silly sex scenes where you move the thumbstick around to be the sexiest sexer ever to sex on top of the killlingest killer ever to kill, because you’re MOTHERFUCKING KRATOS, MOTHERFUCKER!!!!!!!

Yeah, you see what I’m getting at. Too much edginess can become a form of comedy unto itself. But I can appreciate this ironically if for no other reason. And let’s admit it: even if maybe it tries too hard to obtain maximum grittiness, the overall aesthetic is pretty damn cool. In fact, if any video game series would make a visually amazing film franchise, this is probably the one we should be looking at. It’s not like there’s a lot of character and story nuance for Hollywood to miss, you know?

But still, I find that after button-mashing through hours of combat and minutes of climbing and shimmying, it all ends up just becoming a vehicle just to see the next button-prompt cutscene where Kratos destroys another Godzilla-sized monster or deity in insanely brutal fashion. It ends up being less about the joy of playing the game. I think I owe this lack of joy in part to Bayonetta, which had similar combat but was just way more fun all around to play. What I remember about that game was how fun the combat was. What I remember about God of War 3 and Ascension was how epic and badass the cutscenes were and how the combat just got in the way after a while.  

Metal Gear Solidmetal gear solid 5

This franchise has since gone universal, but MGS had primarily been a PlayStation series at its core for most of its existence, so I’m qualifying it. What should disqualify it is that this is one series here that I have yet to actually try. But seeing as how I’m fated to try it out and I have had a long debate with myself about it, I figure it’ll make an interesting discussion to anchor this list.

Fun fact: the last time I played as Snake was in Metal Gear. No “Solid” to be found. That’s 1987’s NES title, so it’s been awhile. The weird thing about this is that I enjoy stealth/survival games and shooting stuff too so I really should have stumbled upon a Metal Gear game since, but I somehow have not. I meant to play MGS on the PlayStation, but never got around to it (blame my 10th playthrough of Final Fantasy Tactics if you must).

My lack of a PS2 locked me out of that gen and by the time I’d gotten a PS3, the franchise had developed a rather interesting reputation. Reading about 45 minute cutscenes with multi-hour endings to nonsensical stories managed to offset the borderline universal praise Kojima’s work had garnered because if there is one thing that enrages me, it’s a “game” that doesn’t let you play it. I remember demoing Devil May Cry 3 and shutting it the hell off after being interrupted over and over with entirely unnecessary cutscenes.

So I never ended up playing a Metal Gear Solid game, even though I knew I should. But with MGS V being praised almost across the board for giving players freedom to play without excessive endless self-indulgent cutscenes, it looks like I’ve found my entry point at last. So maybe, just maybe, this will be one franchise that can win me over as a fan. 

Sword Art Online and the Reality of Virtuality 2: A Certain Victory

Popular anime/manga series Sword Art Online wrapped up its second season run on American television last month and did it with style, just in time for the new game, Sword Art Online: Lost Song, coming out next month. For a show that destroyed its titular digital world halfway into the first season and seemed to have covered all bases in its exploration of near-future virtual reality technology and its potential effects and hazards pertaining to gaming culture along the way, it left a lot of questions as to what a second season would even look like. What, just another generic fantasy adventure anime that happens to take place in a video game world?

How about nope. While covering a ton of emotional and conceptual ground in its groundbreaking first season (which I discussed previously here), I think it’s possible to argue that the second season somehow even improves on it. Many of the criticisms were addressed and in getting a little further away from the constant danger of the actual “SAO Incident” (in which gamers’ minds were trapped in a MMORPG that would kill them irl if they died in-game), the widespread subsequent brain-hacking of gamers, and damseling of Asuna the series actually blossomed with a somewhat lighter, more casual tone. After all, gaming is supposed to be about fun, right?

But while SAO2 has somewhat lower stakes than the first season, it makes up for it with more of the show’s trademark strong conceptualization and exceptional character building. Maybe thousands of people’s live aren’t in danger and maybe nobody is being held prisoner on servers and virtually molested by villainous businessmen using their creations for ill, but there is still a lot at stake for the characters and not everybody is making it out alive. The second season resets the standard for integrating gaming culture and concepts into popular entertainment in a thoughtful and exciting manner. Spoilers follow.sword art online 2 cast ALO

SAO 2 opens with our heroes and heroines living virtual lives in their home away from home, ALfheim Online, a VRMMO (Virtual Reality Massive Multiplayer Online, naturally) game where most of the protagonist Kirito’s friends migrated after Sword Art Online disintegrated. I mean, one life-threatening forced two year imprisonment inside a video game isn’t going to put off a hardcore gamer from VR gaming, now is it? This setup is interesting in itself because ALO isn’t just a place to quest. It’s where they go to socialize, watch feeds of other games together, and sometimes even sleep. Gaming is not just about adventuring or achieving anymore in this series; it’s literally a lifestyle unto itself.

Kirito is recruited to investigate unexplained deaths in a post-apocalyptic game named Gun Gale Online in another case of the show bucking any preconceptions you have about it. Not only is Sword Art Online not a thing in the show of the same name anymore, but now it’s going to take place in a world dominated by guns instead of swords to boot. DEAL WITH IT! GGO is the only VRMMO that people can make an actual living playing, so it’s serious business and less than inviting for a noob.

Putting Kirito out of his element was a good thing as he now had to make new friends to show him the ropes. The humor here is that his assigned avatar is female, giving the protagonist a peak through the eyes of an online female gamer and implying some interesting things about gender identity and expectations.

Just from a pure gaming perspective, GGO is a blast to explore and a welcome change of pace. The open-world deathmatch tournament concept “Bullet of Bullets” is awesome and I really hope the next SAO game takes place there. When Kirito shows up there are debates about the viability of AGI and STR builds regarding recent game balancing that any geek is going to latch right onto. Details like this are what make the show feel so legit. It makes the viewer almost want to jump into the screen and create a character.

sword art online 2 GGOAlright, that’s enough setup. This show thrives on going above and beyond most shows to really get into the unspoken philosophies that move gamers in their everyday lives and the hidden psychological aspects that lead us to invest ourselves so heavily in these digital experiences. SAO takes things that are already here in gamer culture and simply pushes them forward a few decades to a place where we will have the ability to almost abandon reality entirely. The first season showed a lot of the pitfalls of that, but season two shows how gaming could change lives for the better or even give a fulfilling existence to people who are unable to have one in their real bodies.

While exploring GGO Kirito makes a new friend, Sinon (who was just helping out a fellow girl gamer…or so she thought). Her story is an incredibly interesting one. When she was a child, she got caught up in an armed robbery and ended up shooting and killing the assailant; an incident that scarred her for life and gave her a crippling fear of firearms. Her way of overcoming this fear was to join GGO and become comfortable with guns in a virtual environment where nobody could get hurt.

Kirito is investigating apparently impossible real world deaths from in-game wounds received from a mysterious player creatively named Death Gun. And no, this isn’t like it was in the first season as that tech has been done away with and replaced with something less invasive. It turns out that a pair of murderous gamers are coordinating the murders. One breaks into the victims’ homes and kills them while they are immersed in the VR at the same time that the other kills them in-game. That is to say that Sinon’s virtual coping mechanism is going to be put to the test irl.

A line in this season states that “wherever you are right now, that’s your reality”, further driving home the show’s theme of virtual experiences being potentially as valuable (or harmful) and “real” as the physical world. I mean, there are actual scientific theories that the universe is nothing but a computer simulation itself. If it’s real to you and makes you feel real emotions and share genuine experiences with people you care about, what does anything else matter? Why discriminate between physical and virtual at all?

And that brings us to the second arc of SAO2, in which we go back to Alfheim Online. This is the point where the first season went bad, with series co-star Asuna being damseled in humiliating fashion. This time, things fare much better with Kirito taking a back seat for the first time and Asuna getting a chance to do her own thing. She’s a strong enough character to carry the show, and getting to know her as well as we know Kirito is arguably what makesword art online 2 asunas this season better than the first.

Asuna’s story is that she uses VR to escape from her real life. Now we’re getting somewhere. She prefers the excitement of ALO’s procedurally-generated adventures (in spite of its AI’s occasionally apocalyptic tendencies) to the prim, proper, and privileged regimented life she lives in Japan, observing “in the real world, I don’t have any power”. Naturally, her parents neither understand, nor approve. The resolution of this arc comes when Asuna -unable to confront her mother in real life- invites her to log in with her. While showing her mother the life she’s built for herself in ALO and the sentimentality attached to the digital construct, mother and daughter are able to understand each other in this virtual space in a way they never did while occupying the same home.

The final story of SAO2 cranks up both the feels and the practical conceptual possibilities for utilization of VR technology to better lives. Asuna challenges the most powerful player in Alfheim, Yuuki, for kicks and ends up joining her guild for their final quest together. The reason it’s their final quest? Yuuki is terminally ill. In fact, the entire Sleeping Knights guild is made up of people on their last legs; hence the urgency. Yuuki hasn’t logged out of the virtual world in years because her body just doesn’t work, hence her overpowered in-game build. It’s one thing to play a lot of games, but it’s something else entirely to never stop.

In spite of her extended convalescence, Yuuki has lived a rich and full virtual life in that time. At one point, Asuna connects her to a shoulder-mounted camera designed to share real life with her and Kirito’s in-game AI daughter Yui and tours the town with her in another practical extension of the VR tech that the show explores. In the final episode, she passes away quietly in Asuna’s arms as thousands of players fly above to pay their respects to the most hardcore gamer of all. It’s a beautiful moment punctuated by her tearful assertion that even if it was only in a virtual world, she was truly alive there.

sword art online 2 yuuki

See you, cyberspace cowgirl…

While considering her time with the Sleeping Knights, Asuna observes: “A safe fight, a certain victory. There’s more to a game than that”. It’s true in gaming, it’s true in life, and it’s true in storytelling. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Without loss and strife, there can be no true satisfaction in accomplishing, and if you do it right you’ll always take away more than you lost. The satisfaction of having given your all to achieve your goals -whatever they may be- on your own terms is what makes any undertaking a success and the experiences along the way are what make your life yours.

Sword Art Online could have relied on good will from the first season and become just another shonen series about indomitable male heroes getting stronger and facing increasingly ridiculous foes or aped the games it represents and just had a bunch of quests and good times cruising on the strength of established characters and accepted tropes. But instead it chose to break its viewers hearts yet again and explore both the meaning of life (however brief it may be) and the reality of our online experiences in a single character. Not a safe fight, but one that turns out to be a certain victory after all.

SAO  2 took chances and arguably topped itself when so many had written it off halfway through the first season with little regard for anything but telling great stories that will emotionally resonate with anyone who’s ever devoted themselves to a work of fiction to escape from harsh realities and found a welcoming like-minded online community waiting for them.

Virtual reality technology is coming and this show may be the single best exploration of what that could mean for us as gamers of all stripes. And make no mistake, gamers will pioneer this frontier and adapt it into a new way of life long before non-gamers come around to the possibilities. Sword Art Online recognizes this reality and has crafted itself around it in a way that respects video games and the people that play them in ways that are unheard of in Western popular media. And that’s something you’ve just got to appreciate.

The Master List: 20 Definitive Halloween Creepfests


It’s the most horrorful night of the year, boys and ghouls, and you know what that means: cosplay, drunken revelry, candy, and about a million articles about what movies you should watch this Halloween. Make that a million and one. I’ve been writing on the internet for over a decade now and probably close to half of that has been about horror. That’s kind of dropped off the last several years since I’ve been writing at Gamemoir. It’s not just because I use up most of my energy writing about video games these days, though. I’ve been neglecting my favorite entertainment genre because there’s a point where you feel like you’ve written and read everything there is to read and write.


Well, when it comes down to that, it’s probably time to get back to your roots and go back to the basics; the beginnings of what made you love this thing in the first place. So instead of some fancy list of the most obscure vampire movies I can think of or something like that, I’m going to be a basic bitch this Halloween and give you the twenty films that should be in rotation every Halloween. Films with the right atmosphere to get you in the mood and do what only the best horror can do: make you feel like a kid again.


Whether they terrify you to the point where you can only cower under your covers and pray for a dreamless sleep or bring back the wonder of All Hallows’ Eve and it’s strange and ancient rituals, these are the films that define my favorite holiday in my mind and help take me back in time to a place where I was learning about the power of a good scare and that lingering thought that maybe, just maybe, these things could be happening away from prying eyes in some moonless corner of the world. As an adult, I take my own son trick ‘r treating and then put him to bed before spending the night alone in the dark trying to scare myself with stories I’ve seen over and over. And sometimes, it works. These are the films -new and old- that seldom fail to capture that magic for me.


The Howling

One of the first films I ever owned on DVD, and still scary after all these years. The Howling is the definitive werewolf film. One could argue that An American Werewolf in London is the better film and I would not argue, but there is just something in the atmosphere of this one that chills me to the bone. It’s sequels are among the worst films ever made (yes, ALL OF THEM), but they fail to tarnish the absolute perfect horror of the original.  


Vampire Hunter D

The Howling was among the first DVD’s I ever bought, but I left the electronics store with my first DVD player and this film. This 80’s anime classic I taped on a whim from late night cable was literally the first thing I wanted to watch on a disc and it remains one of my absolute favorite films of all time. The atmosphere in this tale of a half-vampire vamp slayer for hire is unlike anything I’ve ever seen to this day and I love pretty much every single thing about it. And here’s a fun fact for you gamers: Yoshitaka Amano (most famous as a primary character designer for the Final Fantasy series) illustrated the original novels.



Todd Browning’s 1931 masterpiece starring Bela Lugosi is another one of my favorite movies of all time and remains somehow criminally underrated in spite of its classic status. What so many subsequent filmmakers have forgotten about the vampire is that what’s scary about him is his ability to hide. To play cat and mouse and always be a step ahead of his pursuers. To use centuries of predator knowledge to outmaneuver his mortal foes and keep moving while spreading his undead plague to their loved ones all the while. This film oozes atmosphere and may be the only version of Dracula to really capture that so it’s the only one I’m putting on this list.



Japan has fallen off the horror radar in the last decade after a 90’s boom that’s still being felt in Western horror today. A lot of great horror was made in that time before it all became a parody of itself, but this is the one that sticks with me the most. Ju-on (aka The Grudge) is the most frightening ghost story ever. Period. Pretty much all of the J-horror you’ll ever really need is wrapped up in this one near-perfect film that still catches me off guard. This movie actually scares me when I watch it, not in a jump-scare way. It chills me right to my bones and that’s a really, really rare thing.


Trick ‘r Treat

In 2007, this movie became the first film to legitimately challenge John Carpenter’s classic (which we’ll get to in a minute) as the definitive film to watch on Halloween. It’s an anthology film of sorts with connected stories that deal with the mythologies of the season and as a whole manages to be both fun and scary at the same time with plenty of thrills and chills. If you’ve been putting off seeing this, tonight’s the night.



The definitive classic. The one we all grew up watching. It needs no introduction. It spent over two decades as the undisputed go-to movie for your Horrorween film festivities and it’s still a sure-fire winner whether you prefer the new breed of horror or not. Marathons of the entire series are standard October 31st cable programming. I need say no more.


Halloween 2

The first sequel to the definitive All Hallows’ slasher movie is the second half of the titular night in which Jamie Lee Curtis earned her title of cinema scream queen. It may not be quite the experience that the original is, but the story is incomplete without it and therefore, so is your Halloween horror marathon.


Satan’s Little Helper

This obscure 2004 gem is a nasty piece of work that strikes the perfect balance between terror and fun. The story is of a little boy who brings home a murderer in a mask that his family mistakes for his sister’s boyfriend on Halloween. The combination of legit tension and a brilliant wordless black comedy performance from the killer made this one of my new favorite Halloween films when I watched it on Netflix on a whim a few years ago. Sadly, it’s not streaming there anymore, but I recommend you seek it out anyway.


Black Sabbath

My favorite horror anthology of all time and another classic film that creates an incredible atmosphere. A movie so awesome it inspired one of the most influential bands of all time to create a new genre of music and name themselves after it. The American version is a bit different and neutered the brilliant irony of “The Telephone” present in the Italian version due to homophobia, but if you can’t get ahold of the original Italian version it will do just fine regardless. A scary film anyway you look at it.


Night of the Living Dead

Romero single-handedly created the zombie genre with his homage to Richard Matheson’s apocalyptic vampire tale I Am Legend and it’s still the scariest example of the genre. You can’t beat being trapped in a hose in the countryside with a horde of zombies outside trying to tear you to pieces and devour you. Well, I guess you can if your own daughter is infected and kills and eats you, but Romero had that covered too.    


The Vampire Lovers

One of the best vampire films ever made and the closest thing I’ve seen to a faithful adaptation of the definitive female vampire story Carmilla. Hammer Studios made a lot of horror in their day, but this was their best in my opinion. In addition to being creepy as hell and successfully telling one of the best vampire stories ever told, this is also a rare lesbian vampire film that actually succeeds in being sexy.


Cabin in the Woods

The new kid on the block. Former Buffy/Angel partners Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard reunited for this slice of awesome that pays tribute to and subverts all of your dumb horror cliches and makes them shine like new. Such an amazing film for horror fans, I really don’t want to spoil any  of it for you if you haven’t seen it in the three years it’s been out so let me just tell you that there’s never been a movie like this and leave it at that.


Evil Dead

Sam Raimi’s independent feature film debut has stood the test of time as a true classic in spite of being banned for much of its existence. In fact, a CONTINUATION of the franchise is airing as a show on premium cable right about now. Can any other 80’s franchise claim that? Evil Dead and its sequels are firmly entrenched in the geek lexicon, but while the series veered heavily into comedy, this first film is a magnum opus of supernatural terror.


A Nightmare on Elm Street

1, 2, Freddy’s coming for you….

As cheesy and just plain awful as almost every sequel is, there’s no getting around Wes Craven’s original. The music, the story, the character, the glove; this baby was just custom made to be a classic. Centered around the terror that a being could kill you when you are at your most helpless and there is nothing you can do about it, this was the film that made me afraid to even sleep. Any film that can do that deserves any and all praise it gets.


The Wicker Man

This creepy masterpiece is about the clash between ancient paganism and modern Christianity is  

a slow burn for sure (see what I did there?) but so worth it. Plus it features some great costume ideas if you ever want to have the most horror cred at your costume party.


Pet Sematary

While the film has some missteps for sure (dat ghost….) all in all, this is one of the most horrifying films ever made. It was adapted from a novel Stephen King wrote and he decided it was so grim that he sat on it for five years before giving it up to settle a contract dispute with his publisher. How dark does a story have to be to make the nastiest horror writer of his time? Elementally terrifying like nothing else. This movie is wrong in so many ways that other horror movies wouldn’t even dare trying and in spite of its flaws that earns it a place in my Halloween Hall of Fame.


House on Haunted Hill

It isn’t Halloween without Vincent Price. So many movies from the greatest horror icon of them all to choose from, and almost all of them are fantastic. But I would say that for an All Hallows’ horrorfest, you’ve probably got to go with this one. Creepy in all the right ways and entertaining as hell to boot.



Take one part George R. Romero, one part Stephen King, and one part vintage 1950’s horror comics, mix well, and partition into five servings and you’ve got one of the sweetest films of the 80’s. Some really creepy stuff here, but this meeting of two of the finest minds in horror keeps its tongue in its cheek and delivers a sure-fire crowd pleaser in each of its five diverse vignettes.



You know that ben Stiller movie where all of the museum displays come to life at night? It’s been done. Only in this case, it was a wax museum filled with homages to classic horror stories. Waaaaaay cooler, no? I don’t know why this movie isn’t more popular then it is, but Waxwork is a great homage to the genre as a whole and one of the best horror comedies of the 80’s.


  1.  The Exorcist

I was going to leave this one off since  aside from Halloween, it’s possibly the movie that makes it onto these lists the most and I obviously couldn’t leave that one off, but screw it. I’m not that cool.  I may slip in as many relative obscurities as I can on the off chance that somebody cares enough to check them out and gets inspired to plumb the depths of horror cinema and maybe one day return the favor to someone else, but leaving out the most iconic horror movie of all time just feels wrong. This film won Oscars in spite of the presence of a little girl onscreen screaming about “cunting” daughters, stabbing herself in the vagina with a crucifix shouting “fuck me, Jesus”  then shoving her mom’s face into the bloody mess while howling “LICK ME!”, and projectile vomiting. Think about that for a minute. That’s a special film. Then after you’re done thinking, make your plans to get ahold of  your ideal collection of old favorites, new favorites, and maybe a few forays into uncharted territory in search of new classics. Have a happy Halloween, everyone.   

Undertale Tested My Determination Like Never Before

A few weeks ago, a charming little retro-styled indie RPG named Undertale made its way to Steam. Its hook was that it wasn’t necessary to kill anyone in the game. In fact, it is probably a great idea if you don’t, at least if you want to get the amazing “true” ending. But that’s up to you. EVERYTHING in this game is up to you. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Every once in awhile we get games that advertise that the player doesn’t have to kill anyone, and that’s cool. I mean, gamers have a long, long history of shooting, kicking, punching, slashing, and generally murdering our way to good times, but at this point it’s become pretty obvious that it’s not really all that necessary. As games become more and more sophisticated in nature and increasingly complex in their mechanics, the constant barrages of violence are beginning to hold back the stories and immersion. I love me some senseless virtual violence, but it’s just true. Even the dumbest of action blockbusters doesn’t rely on violence nearly as much as the average video game.

undertale combat hug

I use the “Don’t Hug” command in most of my random irl encounters as well. Finally, some realism in gaming.

Titles like Deus Ex: Human Revolution and Dishonored have toyed with this concept before with pretty unimpressive results. “Press x to kill/Press y to render unconscious forever” is kind of a dumb distinction to bother with. It all ends the same way, with an enemy in a heap on the ground. It’s just a way to get an arbitrary achievement or feel like a bigger badass or better person or whatever. Whether you shoot a baddie with a tranquilizer dart or a bullet, knock him out, or snap his neck has no real present in-game consequences; you’re still using violence to resolve the situation. Plus when an enemy you knocked out hours earlier is still laying there when you come back later, it seems stupid.

Undertale challenges the need for violence directly by cutting to the philosophical heart of the matter, observing at one point that “the more you kill, the easier it is to distance yourself. The more you distance yourself, the less you will hurt; the more easily you can bring yourself to hurt others.”

Nick in real life feels bad when he disturbs a cat in his yard and questions his decision to kill venomous spiders in his home even though he’s acutely arachnophobic. So why is it when you put a controller in my hand, I’m a bloodthirsty slavering killer with a thirst that can only be quenched via wanton massacre?

As a real life pacifist with an ironically powerful appreciation for fictional violence, exploring this concept was a must and Undertale scratched that itch and then some. If this was the early 90’s, this game would have been a timeless RPG classic of the era right next to the likes of Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI. But it’s 2015 and instead of a widespread AAA console release to much acclaim, it will likely only be experienced by indie and retro enthusiasts, and that is a shame because more than a video game, Undertale is an experience that rewards the player in ways no other game has. Minor spoilers follow, but to properly convey the originality of this title, it’s necessary to discuss some specifics.

It seems a simple concept, making a pacifism-themed video game. And at first, it is simple. Almost tongue-in-cheek pandering simple. “Press x to pacifism” simple. There’s a character literally holding your hand and leading you around at one point early in the game, lest you stumble and hurt your precious self. After spending some time getting attached to your adorable matronly guardian, Toriel, this almost-excessively kind woman protectively bars your path to adventure with a stern look on her face. How much do you want this game to continue?

undertale Toriel fight

Man, has she perfected the “disapproving parent” look or what?

You fight Toriel and up to this point, you’ve been able to talk your way out of a smattering of non-threatening fights. But this one feels overwhelming and threatens to kill you if it keeps up, and Tori just isn’t listening to you. The last save was a ways back (and believe me, the game knows this) and I ended up lashing out at my beloved protector out of sheer gaming instinct, sure that if I got her health down low enough, she’d relent.

Even when her attacks suddenly seemed to be deliberately avoiding me, I kept on, my combat tunnel vision firmly in place. And then my next strike was suddenly and inexplicably super-powerful and reduced her health instantly to zero, striking her down. She used her last breath to encourage me, and my heart broke. Cue Freddy Mercury singing “Love of My Life” in my head.   

It didn’t take long for Undertale to make me feel like a total bastard. I went into this game specifically determined not to harm a soul and feeling like this was going to be an easy thing to accomplish. I was led on and tricked into believing it would be, and then the game got me to fall right back into my violent gaming habits, assuming everything would be the way it always has been in RPG’s and turn out fine if I just hurt whatever or whoever was put in my way. I didn’t have to assume that. I didn’t have to fight back. Of course Toriel wouldn’t have hurt me. Not really. But I didn’t realize this until it was too late. And that’s how I learned in Undertale what I already knew in real life: that any time you resort to violence in a disagreement, you’ve already lost. Even when you win the fight.

undertale flowie

Takes one to know one, dick.

And you know what? The game doesn’t forget. Reload a save, start a whole new game if you want. You can go back and make your different choice, but the murderous flower Flowey -instantly one of the best villains in gaming history- knows what you did and he will not let you pretend it never happened. He doesn’t need to break the fourth wall; it doesn’t even exist to him.

The game’s combat is unique and brilliant in a lot of ways. You have to evade creative bullet hell-style attacks while determining a non-violent solution to the conflict. The monsters all have some insecurity you can exploit and some don’t even want to be there. See that jock of a horse man flexing it up? Flex right back at him a few times and he will flex himself right out of the fight trying to show you up, bro. Those aggressive dogs? They just need an introduction to the art of petting. The greedy spider girl upset you didn’t buy her insanely-priced baked goods? If you lower her attack with some donations, you might just make it out. And those two knights sent to kill you can be distracted from you by their hidden love for one another. Don’t eat the vegetable monsters, though. It’s both rude and lethal (although delicious).

The various methods of overcoming the enemies in this game are often charming, hilarious, and even practical. But like I said, the game does not always settle for making it easy for you. While much of the game is quirky and silly in tone, it doesn’t fail to put the pressure on from time to time. You see, when you spare an enemy, your reward is 0 XP. That means, if you don’t kill anyone, you stay at a weak LV 1. The whole game.  Make it to the end of your quest and you’ll find that XP isn’t “experience” like usual, but “eXecution Points” given for your dealing of death. And your LV is “Level of Violence”. The bigger the number, the more evil you are. And near the end of the game you will judged based on your deeds.    

So you can’t get stronger without killing, and without getting stronger, some of these bosses are immensely challenging, especially for this console gamer used to thumbsticks now fumbling on a keyboard. You will die, and the game will mock you for it. Choosing the nonviolent approach is HARD. And you know what? That’s how it should be. Because doing the right thing and getting the richest rewards is seldom easy.

undertale bratty catty hyped

These two seriously need their own Twitch channel.

You know what the really cool thing is? You don’t have to deal with any of it if you don’t want to. There are numerous approaches and combinations of choices and events that impact this story and if you’d rather kill them all and let Flowey sort ‘em out, you can do exactly that. Having not gone full “genocide route” yet (and I’m not sure I could bring myself to do it) I can’t attest to the results firsthand, but supposedly if you choose to bring death to the adorable denizens of the underworld, the entire tone of the game changes to something much darker and more somber as you become the thing that goes bump in the night; the monster to the monsters. Even the music changes to match this change in theme. How many games have that kind of cred?

Throughout your journey the save points keep telling you about determination in amusing and random ways that quickly become a joke. But humor usually requires an element of truth to it. Apparently my determination wasn’t up to snuff at first since the first genuine challenge I encountered led me to abandon my commitment to non-violence and murder the sweetest character in the game in spite of my intentions.

Throughout Undertale, your commitment will be tested again and again. Some bosses will physically slash non-violent options from your menu and even wipe your saves. Yes, you read that right. This game holds nothing sacred. Even your save files are fair game. If you want that true pacifist ending, you’re going to have to work for it. And if you go full genocide..well, I hear they’ve got something nasty waiting for you there too.  

It’s a shame that a game this jam-packed with wonderful characters, charm, humor, and creative ambition was released so quietly. But word-of-mouth is a powerful tool, especially in the gaming community. Undertale is an absolute must-play for old school RPG fanatics and a game that should be experienced by anybody looking for something unique that isn’t afraid to go where other games don’t. To make doing the right thing the hard thing while calling the player out on their lack of dedication or their commitment to solving problems with violence. To make a game where you can literally kill everybody, but probably can’t bring yourself to do it (they think anime is real human history…kawaaiiiiiii!). To then trick you into killing the last person you ever wanted to hurt so it can mock your stupidity.

undertale papyrus internet

Aren’t we all…

It’s the kind of game that puts a shop cheat in that you can exploit to pay for the shopkeeper’s college fund. The kind that creates a punishing challenge to find solutions where everybody can be happy and pushes you as far as it can to test your determination as a gamer. But if you overcome everything it throws at you, the finish is so rewarding that having attained the “true” ending, the game will actually encourage you to let the characters live in peace and not to restart it. Did I just say the game asks you not to play it again? Yeah. And with the emotions that Undertale inspires with its cast of broken misfits, it does feel right. It wants you to remember that perfect playthrough with all of its trials, tribulations, and feels without bothering with the subsequent half-hearted noodling just to see what other outcomes you can find.

I’ve seen message board posts of players asking how to make copies of their save files so they can preserve their perfect playthrough and then go back and play the game again without overwriting it, talking as though the characters literally do live their lives within the file. Any game that inspires that kind of sentimental thinking has got to be something special. And it is. With any luck, it’ll be a massive success, be ported to consoles, and influence a whole new way of thinking in game design. Games like Undertale are why the indie scene will always be a necessity for true gamers; to show us that you don’t need massive budgets and amazing graphics to make us think, feel, and have a great time.

Five Reasons Why Persona is the JRPG Series to Beat.

There was a time when Square Enix (known as Squaresoft back in the day) and Final Fantasy were the toast of gamedom. Timeless 16-bit classics like Final Fantasy IV and Chrono Trigger reinvented video game storytelling as we knew it and the glut of JRPGs in the first two PlayStation eras following their mainstream breakthrough will not long be forgotten. And just in case we were going to forget, Final Fantasy X has been remastered twice and Final Fantasy VII is getting a full remake. But while most of us gladly welcome these timeless experiences back into our consoles, I have to think that it symbolizes a certain lack of ambition in Square and the genre as a whole. Turn-based JRPGs and Final Fantasy in general are just not what they used to be.

But while the most classic of role playing franchises was dominating, Atlus was quietly building up their Megami Tensei series with a wildly different approach to Square’s traditional fantasy tinged with sci-fi. It was a hit in Japan, but we in the West didn’t get a crack at the series until 2003’s Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne. A lot of the rest of the series has since been retroactviely localized on PSN, but needless to say, we’ve missed out big time.

American gamers hit the jackpot in 2007 when Atlus got Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 localized. While the main series has been relegated to portable status, the Persona spin-off franchise quickly became the apple of JRPG fans’ collective eye, and for good reason. While Final Fantasy continues to disappoint in the modern era, Persona‘s fresh approach has kept us wanting more, and the PS2 titles hold up extremely well in comparison to most current-gen RPGs.

After several re-releases for Persona 3 and 2008’s Persona 4 and a very long wait through the entire PS3/Xbox 360 generation with only older games and a fighting game detour, Persona 5 is finally making noise. It was supposed to come out this year, but has recently been pushed back into 2016. Tears were shed. For anybody who’s never experienced these games and is curious about why they should care, here is a brief list of genre elements that have been redefined by Persona since it migrated West and why the upcoming fifth game should on the top of every JRPG fan’s wishlist.

The Musicshin megami tensei persona

This is one area where Final Fantasy has long set the standard and held the title. When Nobuo Uematsu composed the scores for that series, the simplisitic themes that defined gaming up to that point became mostly a thing of the past. Beautiful, touching, epic, sweeping scores set the mood, and now most AAA video games rely on dramatic music as heavily as films do. And to this day, Final Fantasy never disappoints on the music front.

Persona has found its own equivalent to Uematsu-san in Shoji Meguro, but their approaches are wildly different. Rather than epic classical scores, Meguro specializes in eclectic contemporary pop sounds. These games contrast against Final Fantasy‘s combination of medeivel futurism by being set in the present day, so it’s natural the music would reflect that. However, I can’t help but notice recent FF tiitles have been using more pop vocals and heavy metal as background music. It could be they’re trying to get some of that ecclecticist mojo for themselves.

Pieces of hip-hop, rock, J-pop, funk, and electronica have helped give Atlus’ flagship series its own identity and a tone very different from anything else on the market. Recent Persona soundtracks define the “something for everyone” approach and embrace both the lighter aspects of the titles and the more dramatic and forboding. Live performance of the music in Japan are popular and the soundtrack for Persona 4 was big enough to gets its own rhythm game spin-off, Dancing All Night. The music that currently defines the series is a huge part of its identity, and this unique approach to gaming soundtracks has been a breath of fresh air.

persona 4 reading twilightThe Freedom

The first few hours of Persona 3 and 4 are a bit maddening. But after the insanely long intros where you are shuffled from one scene to another with no control, the games open up a world of possibilites and a level of player freedom usually associated with open-world games, but without all the wandering and generic questing. Where most RPG’s have you walking around massive open areas and towns searching for loot or being constantly harried by random strangers demanding you go there and kill that, walk them here, bring this there, or bring that here, Persona seldom bothers you with this crap. These games are about what YOU, the player, wants to do.

And boy, is there a lot to do. Once the options open up, it can be overwhelming. On one hand, you have work to do and you need to go grind in the dungeons and accomplish your current story objectives. The game will not hold your hand on this, but at the same time part of maximizing your character’s potential is in extracurricular activities. More on these points later.

You can spend time with friends, make new ones, go fishing, cook food for yourself, work any number of jobs, join school clubs, go to the movies, study, read, surf the internet, play games, shop, or grind levels to your heart’s content, all of which will reward you in some way. There’s really no wrong way to spend your time, but that time is limited so a huge part of the fun is in balancing your story duties with character building and managing your social life. No other franchise that I’m aware of does it this way.

The Challengepersona 3 game over death

Like I said before, these games do not hold your hand. They tell you what needs to be done and even offer some reminders, but if you should fail, it’s game over, man. Literally. The enemies are equipped to take you down before you even know what happened, there are few to no save points in the dungeons, and if you die, it’s back to the title screen. This will happen because the enemies don’t always fight fair and you’re often one random slip-up away from wiping. All they need to do is take out your main character, and this is pretty easily done. Sorry about you losing your last couple hours of progress, experience, and random loot drops. See you soon. Buh-bye.

A lot of modern RPG’s heal your party automaticallly after each battle. But this series embraces the grueling attrition of dungeon crawling like no other. Each dive becomes a gamble where you have to gauge how far in you want to go and when you want to go back. Your Spirit Points are your lifeline to keep you healed, so when you begin running out of them, it’s time to look for a way out. Persona 3‘s procedurally-generated grind tower, Tartarus, had exits that would appear randomly. If you passed one by you never knew when you’d get another and you couldn’t go back down once you ascended a floor, leading to some serious tension between maximizing your dungeon dive to get the most out of your night and risking dying and losing progress. Persona 4 relented on this point a bit by allowing you to buy items to teleport you out or backtrack like a wuss in lieu of randomized exits, but the tension is still there as some enemies are quite powerful and capable of sending you back to the main menu at any time.

Storywise, you have a window to get to where you need to be to beat the boss at the end of each chapter. If you’d rather procrastinate and chase girls or focus on schoolwork and try to make up for lost time at the end rather than grind in the dungeon, it’s on you. But if you find yourself unable to get it done when the clock runs out and the big day comes, you’d better hope you’ve got some saves far enough back to load and make better choices next time because the game won’t take it easy on you. This challenge ties into the freedom.

persona 3 combat gameplayThe Combat

Persona‘s current combat system also has a very different feel from its traditional JRPG brethren. Even the layout is different. Rather than lining up you characters on one side and the baddies on the other, your team surrounds the enemy, making it look more natural as a combat situation. In addition to traditional weapons, your characters fight using incarnated aspects of their personalities (the titular Personas). Your main character can obtain, use, and create a variety of them but the rest of the cast has one apiece. Each Persona has a set of skills and attributes as well as abilities that either drain your SP or HP, so they need to be used judiciously.

In order to survive, you need to find each enemy’s weakness. Failing to do this, you’re going to have a bad time. If you hit an enemy with the right attack or manage a critical hit, it knocks them on their ass and you get another turn. If you can get them all down at once, your entire party can jump in for a devastating melee and likely end the fight. This should always be your goal because anything else is going to eat up more precious resources. Also, if you don’t find their weakness and end them, they won’t hesitate to find yours and end you. Sometimes, it’s like walking a tightrope and one missed spell could mean the difference between victory and the dreaded game over poem.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Persona 3 was that your allies acted of their own accord. Normally in JRPGs you have to micromanage every action in battle, but this way you really felt like part of a team. And the AI would make the right call more often than not since they take note of enemy vulnerabilities and heal whenever necessary, which was pretty impressive. But not everyone was a fan so Persona 4 mainstreamed a bit and gave players the option for direct control over teammates. I’ll admit in some tough boss fights I’ll get all control freaky, but overall I really like the AI approach. It makes your characters seem more independent, which brings us to my final point:

The Characterspersona 3 4 cast

Any good story-based game lives and dies on the strength of its cast. This is naturally one more area where Persona shines. The mythologies and themes of each game in the Megami Tensei series are a wonder in and of themselves, filled with inscrutable weirdness, classic anime stylishness, dense metaphorical allegory, and provocative symbolic imagery (teenagers shooting themselves in the head to unleash their Personas in Persona 3, for instance). But what good is any of that if you don’t care about the cast?

Your lead is traditionally a silent blank slate with different dialogue choices for the player, but the rest of the cast is expansive, diverse, and extremely well-developed. Not only that, but the development of their backstories is often intrinsic to your own character’s progression, as getting to know each character allows you to create more powerful Personas associated with their affinity. There’s brotherhood and romance and comradery as well as tragedy and strife to be found depending on any given character’s arc. If you choose the wrong reaction to a given situation, you could face losing a friendship.

While BioWare games obviously do a pretty great job of fleshing out their cast, Persona avoids some of the pitfalls that make the interactions feel unnatural like checking on characters all the time to see if they have new dialogue and having the same conversation over and over again as a result. When a character is ready to talk to you, they let you know, and you can pretty much choose the pace your relationship grows at without much waiting. In fact, the game keeps you so busy it can be hard to find the time at all.

The strength of the characters is largely what’s led the last two Persona games to branch out into other genres and media. Persona 4 has been made into an anime series while the story of Persona 3 is being recounted as a series of films and the casts intermingle in the fighting game Persona 4 Arena, a dream collaberation with Blazblue creators Arc System Works.

Final Fantasy has lost its touch with creating fresh memorable casts in recent years with a lot of one-note characters straight out of bland shonen anime, so it’s really nice to have another go-to series that combines the best aspects of classic turn-based role-playing with a fresh modern approach that embraces both the fantastic and mundane joys of gaming and life. That is to say that Persona 5‘s delay may be a blessing in disguise that will give some Western gamers who haven’t yet experienced this series a chance to go drop a few bucks on PSN and see what all the fuss and anticipation is about. If you’ve ever loved a classic JRPG, it’ll possibly be the best money you’ve ever spent.

Five Classic Literary Works that Should’ve Been AAA Video Games by Now

You know, almost every time a big blockbuster movie comes out, there is some weak sauce video game adaptation releasing on top of it that makes nobody happy. It’s one thing to go to a movie and be entertained for a few hours by a cleverly written and well-paced adventure romp or whatever filled with the subtle charms of our favorite actors at their best. It’s another entirely to spend twenty hours or so hitting and shooting things in between cutscenes in a video game approximation of the story that has none of those things.

Why are video game companies messing with these things at all? The budgets are likely so crushed acquiring the rights and likenesses and celebrity voices that a good game is barely even an objective. If you want to adapt a really great story and give the developers something to stretch out on and create something that serves both gamers and the original work, why not adapt classic novels?

Most of them are public domain, they are filled with characters everybody knows, timeless themes, great writing (obviously), and usually consist of struggles and predicaments that would make for a worthy challenge. Gaming has taken massive strides in storytelling, so maybe it’s time we upped our standards a little and started adapting fictional works worthy of the art form it’s becoming. Interactivity is the wave of the present and future, and what better way to commemorate that then bringing the greatest stories of the past to life in a new way? Here are the first five works of classic literature I’d buy in a heartbeat if they were made into major video games.

John Carter of Marsjohn carter frazetta

Okay, maybe that isn’t the actual title of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ series of classic pulp sci-fi novels, but the unofficial title of “The Barsoom Series” doesn’t really have recognizable appeal. Disney made a half-hearted attempt at a film franchise in 2012 with the reasonably entertaining John Carter, but who the hell would go see a movie with such a bland name? It’s really a shame that the film didn’t do better because the strength of the series about a Civil War badass mysteriously transported to Mars where he is endowed with superhuman abilities due to lesser gravity isn’t really uncovered until the sequels.

The rich imaginative mythology of Barsoom (the name Martians have for their home planet) absolutely BEGS for a video game adaptation. The numerous races, locales, factions, characters, politics, and cultures along with the warlike nature of the planet’s people would make a perfect setting for an action MMO with objective-based large scale conflicts and faction heroes like Star Wars: Battlefront in addition to good old-fashioned exploration. Add in Burrough’s fascinating philosophical tinges and you’ve got the kind of franchise that would appeal to almost every kind of gamer.

While the novels’ plots rely heavily (if not entirely) on kidnapped damsels there are so many other possibilities that could be explored in Burrough’s exceptional creation it’s a shame that only comics have really carried the torch for Barsoom. The failure of the film does nothing to lessen the potential here. Gamers aren’t moviegoers. If you make a quality product and properly support it, we will come. And the prospect of a well-made game using the John Carter novels as a canvas for players to paint their own adventures on is something anybody should be excited about.

lord of the flies posterLord of the Flies

It seems like survival games are on the rise lately, as well as games being driven by player choice. As it is, William Golding’s classic 1954 allegory of the breakdown of social morals in the absence of authority is likely referenced at least daily (if not hourly) when describing peoples’ behavior on the internet and on gaming servers, so why not make it official?

I feel like a game that mixed the social interactivity of BioWare with the resource scavenging of a game like State of Decay in first person would be the best way to explore the deserted island where a group of children are marooned and must learn to fend for themselves. Early sections would be about establishing a steady supply of resources and building relationships with the other kids while exploring the island. The second half….yeah, you know how that goes.

Lord of the Flies would be the perfect crossover title between literature and video games. It’s a classic story full of moral ambiguity, tough choices, horrific consequences, and a lot of the kind of things that game stories are trending towards anyways. Would you cluster together with the majority to survive, or be the voice of reason and be shunned or attacked?

War of the Worldswar of the worlds

HG Wells’ wrote the definitive alien invasion story way back in 1897 and it was made infamous in 1938 when Orson Welles adapted it as a fake news broadcast on the radio, causing outrage when people believed it was real. There have been several films, television series, comics, musical concept albums, and everything else you’d expect from such a universal work. And yes, War of the Worlds has been adapted into multiple video games.

So why put it on this list? Because RTS and action gaming are just wrong, wrong, wrong for this story and an adaptation in name only isn’t a worthy adaptation at all. Do it right, damn it! Remaking Space Invaders or Warcraft with tripod enemies doesn’t cut it. A proper adaptation should capture at least the narrative of the original work if not the spirit, and the narrative and spirit of the novel are both abject helplessness. There was no blasting your way out of this one. How refreshing would that be for a video game?

No, the aim of this game would have to be survival and evasion. A stealth-bases survival horror game where tripods hunt you constantly and you have to stay under cover and find supplies to survive. And on top of genocidal aliens, the desperate masses of your fellow man are there in their wretched glory to contend with too. As great as War of the Worlds is, it has seldom been done justice, and given the compact nature of the original narrative and bottomless depth of the thematic elements present in it, there is so much to be expanded on. And a story-based video game would be the best possible way to expand it in my opinion.

moby dick whalingMoby Dick

Just about every avenue for exploring this story has been explored from heavy metal albums to anime to rap songs to stage musicals to cartoons to the mandatory film and television adaptations. But interestingly, the only Moby Dick video games have been free indie games like the recent Pequod that flip the script and put you in control of the rampaging whale. This is, of course, awesome, but it certainly doesn’t do the original work justice.

Then again, I’d argue that even the original novel falls short of itself. Herman Melville was an absolute beast of a writer and his seminal 1851 work about whaling and the senselessness of vengeance takes many occasions to prove the strength of his prose. But if Moby Dick were released today it would be savaged for its bizarre pacing and constant descents into whatever the hell Melville felt like talking about. Amazing story and wonderfully written, but it often sacrifices narrative depth for the sake of the author’s flights of fancy and unnecessary documentarian detail.

But this is one thing that would help make for a great video game adaptation too. Melville’s obsessive detailing of every aspect of whaling would be an interesting tool in creating the world for a perfect Moby Dick game. An open-sea adventure in the vein of Uncharted Waters (with real time elements, of course) where you travel the world meeting other ships and stopping in ports while hunting whales for profit to keep you going and keep the crew satisfied and non-mutinous.

The characters are all there, the challenge of bringing down massive whales is there in epic detail, and the classic tale is there waiting to be rewritten and expanded upon by the player. I can’t believe nobody has done this yet, but it’s got to happen sooner or later. The concept is just too perfect.

The OdysseyScylla odyssey

It’s kind of surprising that more Greek mythology isn’t present in video games. We’ve had franchises like Kid Icarus and God of War that draw heavy inspiration from the world-building of ancient Greek storytellers and feature variations on the characters, but very seldom do we see any sort of attempt at actually adapting these timeless stories for gamers. This is particularly odd considering that this mythology is pretty much what the entire fantasy genre is based upon, which was in turn, the main inspiration for the role-playing genre of gaming.

The Illiad would be another obvious one, and should maybe be first in line, being the oldest work of Western literature and all, but I’d actually rather see them skip straight to Homer’s follow up, The Odyssey, which resembles nothing so much as an epic action RPG. Taking place after the fall of Troy, it chronicles the journeys of the Ithacan king Odysseus, harried by the sea god Poseidon, as well as his family’s struggles as they await his decade-delayed return.

The opening of the game could be Odysseus’ carrying out of his infamous Trojan Horse stratagem and the events of the sacking of Troy. As he carries out his ill-fated journey home confronting horrific monsters, seductive sorceresses, cannibals, and the rest of the Greek rogues gallery the side stories could be filled in bit by bit concerning the politics of Olympus, and the situation back in Ithaca where 108 douchebag suitors besiege Odysseus’ estate to claim his wife and title. While the original poem deals with each of these stories one at a time, an adaptation that staggered them as a single narrative in segments would obviously have better flow, and playing as the hero’s son, Telemachus, and his patron goddess Athena could be a nice diversion to flesh out these other aspects.

When looking for worthy subjects to fulfill gaming’s present and future, where better to look that the classics of the past? Film and television have relied on new variations and reimaginings of old literature for their entire existence. Maybe it’s time video games flexed their storytelling muscle by showing us new interactive possibilities to let us experience some of the greatest stories ever told from a new point of view.

Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? Is a New Breed of Gamer-Baiting

You know, for a demographic as big as we are, American gamers seldom get served properly outside of the game industry. There are 155 million of us and four out of five households own a gaming device. And yet, when we turn on the television, very seldom do we see entertainment that reflects that. Maybe we’ll get a kiddie cartoon or a terribly half-assed film adaptation of a video game property every now and then, but very few if any of these reflect the tastes or experiences of actual gamers.

Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon cast

8/10 cast: would quest with.

Not so much in Japan. Unlike the Western world, mainstream culture has embraced gaming in the land of the rising sun, and more and more gamer characters and shows built around gaming are popping up over there. It must be nice to live in a society where gaming and reading comics in public as an adult is considered normal behavior, but hey, we’ve always got Crunchyroll. And that brings us to the topic at hand: the popular (and laboriously titled) anime/manga series Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon?

If one were to set out to create a video game adaptation of a fantasy RPG that doesn’t exist, the result would probably be something like Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (which I will refer to by its more managable secondary title, Familia Myth from now on to save my sanity). What sets this series apart from a show like Sword Art Online where most of the plot takes place in a virtual reality video game is that it is essentially a world built around video game logic. Rather than integrating gaming into the world, the world itself is pretty much designed like a classic RPG.

For example, the town where the story is located apparently has an economy based on a nearby dungeon, -which is reminiscent of Tartarus in Persona 3- where adventurers gather to make a living slaying monsters and collecting loot. The adventurers are gathered into guilds, called Familias, led by various mythological deities that have taken human form. The series’ protagonist, an upstart named Bell, is the only follower of Hestia at the beginning because why would anybody pass on serving Hephaestus, Loki, or Takemikazuchi to fight for the Greek goddess of hearth and home?

It’s a great set-up for either a video game or a TV show, and at first glimpe there’s no real reason not to stick with one or the other but the series really goes above and beyond serving up gaming delights in ways I’ve never seen before. As if the dungeon and loot aspects weren’t enough, the
adventurers have actual character sheets. Like, literally with stats, skills, level ranks, and everything. This seems like a gimmick -and maybe it is- but as the story unfolds, Familia Myth justifies its blatant gamerbaiting with charm and creativity that transcends gimmickry.

Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon character sheet stats

File under: shit video game characters say.

Along the way, several gaming tropes are honored, and a few are turned upside down on us just for the hell of it. For example, the reason Bell can’t bring himself to “pick up” the girl in the dungeon is because every time he sees her, she is saving his ass from a high level monster in a reversal of the dreaded damsel in distress situation. In another funny defiance of tradition, the typical “anime/video game protagonist gets tricked into peeping on bathing females” scene ends up the exact opposite of its usual violent termination. Hey, women can be pleasant and understanding! It’s nice to see a show set up a cliché and then refuse to knock it down every now and then.

But gags aside, Familia Myth takes its gaming nearly as seriously as SAO does (although without as much jerking of tears) and really seeks to drive the thrill of adventure that we vicariously experience when we play a truly great fantasy RPG home at times with some philosphical nuggets that only true gamers will fully appreciate. The kind of observations that make us nostalgic for our favorite epic fantasy games and really capture the appeal of role playing as an entertainment genre.

For instance, one of the show’s most memorable quotes comes when Bell and his friends venture for the first time onto a new level of floors and find themselves lost and overwhelmed. It brought back memories of playing games like Final Fantasy IV or Persona 3 where stocking up on supplies before an excursion was mandatory, every quest was a gamble, and every encounter was a gamble within a gamble requiring you to decide if the fight was worth what it would cost you or if you should risk a full retreat with no exit or save point in sight and supplies dwindling.

Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon minotaurs

You came to the wrong neighborhood, motherfucker.

This is the kind of hardcore RPG experience you don’t see so much anymore. As Bell’s party flees exhausted and wounded through an endless gauntlet of monsters, we hear the voice of a seasoned adventurer tell us “When its prey is gasping for breath, moaning in pain, and thoroughly weakened, that is when the dungeon bares its fangs.” Any veteran RPGer is likely to have a bout with nostalgia remembering being wiped out by sudden surges of extra tough enemies at the worst possible moment when they hear that.

In another moment of gaming wisdom we’re told “Within the defeated, a victor waits to emerge.” This may be a universal truth, but in the context of gaming it is more literally true than anywhere. It’s practically the driving force behind old school gaming, where the approach was to create an insurmountable challenge and then dare you to learn enough through countless deaths (and quarters) to triumph. And of course, modern gamers have our Dark Souls and the like to remind us that in gaming and in life if we don’t keep improving while trying again and again, we’ll never get to where we want to go.

In addition to adapting thematic elements of classic games and a world that was built to mirror fantasy role-playing, Familia Myth also utilizes some obscure aspects of the genre in a practical manner and offers some fresh ideas that game developers might consider adding into future titles. Interesting uses of RPG-specific items like monster lures and repellants are mixed with fresh ideas like a weapon capable of evolving and leveling up with its user (a concept Fable 3 flirted with and then ruined by filling its world with more powerful alternatives).

And I really loved the idea of support characters sworn to carry their burdens (to quote Skyrim )whose focus is on collecting loot and organizing items to increase the party’s take while allowing the adventurers to focus on combat. It solves some practical inventory size questions while adding an interesting wrinkle that sets the show apart in its thinking.

Another development I particularly enjoyed involved a “monster parade”, which happens when a player flees through a dungeon rather than fight the monsters. In a lot of games these days, enemies stop pursuing you pretty quickly. This wasn’t always (and shouldn’t be) so. In this case, the number of monsters chasing you keeps increasing as you encounter more and more, like a herd in The Walking Dead until you’ve got, well, a parade of monsters behind you. This Pac-Man approach to dungeon navigation was usually a crap strategy born out of desperation, but back in the day we didn’t have other players in the dungeon to distract our personal horde and let us make our escape. I’m betting this has happened in a MMO or two, though.


What, do I have something on my face?

In a few other instances, the show adds elements of practical realism to its normally game-ish presentation by showing that the unwritten rules of gaming can be bent or broken. Adventurers luring monsters from higher level floors to eliminate up and coming rivals and a massive boss breaking out of its designated room into a supposed safe areas do a great job of making the world of Familia Myth feel treacherous and more realistic and unpredictable than the unplayable video game it appears to be at first glimpse.

Is it Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? may suffer from one of the dumbest names ever given to an anime property, but it represents a new wave of franchises made specifically with gamers in mind. Despite all of the goofy fanservice and harem anime tropes it falls into, it captures the mentality and experience of being a gamer immersed in an epic RPG better than arguably any other show I’ve watched, and it does it by bypassing gaming as a medium entirely and directly creating its own mythology inspired by the mechanics we know and love, making it feel both new and yet extremely familiar at the same time.

And that, friends, is the new frontier of gamerbaiting. Taking the things we love and know about the virtual entertainment mediumand seamlessly integrating them into other forms of entertainment. A show like this that can give veteran RPGers the warm fuzzies while simultaneously inducting people who may be unfamiliar with or dismissive of role playing games and show them the appeal of the most adventurous of gaming genres. As far as Japanese culture goes, this is an expected progression, but will we in America ever get this sort of mainstream success in a video game-inspired property? Time will tell.

Gamemoir’s Patreon and Magazine are Live.


Not to rattle the cup too much, but seeing as I’ve been a primary contributor for Gamemoir almost since its inception a couple years ago, I feel like I should post about this. What the hell is a Gamemoir? Well, it’s the site that most of the posts on this blog were written for . At first we were kind of searching for a voice, with the only object being creating a gathering of thoughts, experiences, stories, cultures, observations, and the like related to gaming and gamers. Something beyond reviews and breaking news and clickbait. A place where an individual gamer’s experiences and nostalgia was held in the same esteem as journalistic hype and the big new thing; where AAA and indie titles are equally vital.

After two years and a lot of contributors come and gone, a theme to the site has emerged: diversity. Our contributors are sorts of people from all sorts of walks: Gamemoir has become a place where feminists, LGBT men and women, third world gamers, and just regular boring jackasses like myself hang out and share thoughts and feelings with plenty of disagreements but no abuse or judgments (aside from the occasional reader comment; this is the internet, after all). It’s been pretty fun to be part of it. About the only faction we haven’t had contributions from is Gamergaters/MRAs, but let’s face it: they’re often kind of mean. Can’t say I’ve missed them much.

So as part of Gamemoir finding its voice, it’s launching a Patreon to give citizens of the internet the option to help a small site out by contributing to our growth. Being part of the team, I should probably post that link now. Here it is:

Okay, enough with the commercial, already. As part of this crowdsourcing deal, the Gamemoir powers that be put together a monthly publication that’s going to take some of their favorite contributions new and old and revamp them in magazine form. This is very cool to me, and not just because I’ve got two articles in the first issue like a boss. It looks good, it reads good, it is good. It’s also the real reason I’m posting this in the House of Awesome. I’m just a little bit proud. There’s a link on the Patreon page, but if you’re like me and have an inborn aversion to e-begging, you can get it for free (because you deserve it) here:


Five Times Until Dawn Stabbed My Expectations in the Face

Hi, I’m Nick and I’m a horroholic. I can’t stop drinking horrorhol (or stealing jokes from The Simpsons, apparently). And no I’m not one of those guys that thinks he’s a real horror fan because he watched all of the Saw movies and thinks The Blair Witch project was boring because it didn’t even show anything, bro. I’ve been eating drinking, and breathing this stuff for years, from your typical Nightmare on Elm Street shlock right down to black-and-white Iranian vampire art flicks. I love this genre.

I’m the guy who grew up watching Universal monsters, Hammer, and Hitchcock on weekend afternoons, scoured the world for obscure cult horror as an adult, and still appreciates that rarest of films that can actually frighten or shock me and leave me thinking about how and why days after I watch it. What I’m saying is I know more about horror than any healthy person should and I heartily endorse Until Dawn.

A lot of reviewers and commenters are parroting that the interactive horror game is just a cheesy homage made out of slasher movie tropes. These folks are what we gamers might would call “filthy casuals” when it comes to horror. While Until Dawn does utilize a variety of familiar tropes in its journey into the heart of darkness, it often uses them as a set-up to flip your expectations and then blow them to hell in ways that are almost unheard of in the horror genre and definitely new to video games.

So what I’ve got here is a list of instances where the story completely flipped the script on me in new and interesting ways and set itself apart from any other horror film or game out there by surprising and shocking me in ways I haven’t been surprised or shocked often if ever. This is all spoilers from here on out so I recommend having played the game before venturing forth because the tension where this game thrives is best experienced by not knowing what can or will happen next. If you’re here and you chose Xbone over PS4, haven’t upgraded yet, or are a PC gamer too good for consoles, my sympathies. Please enjoy this offering of vicarious awesomeness.

There Goes My Herountil dawn mike

I went into Until Dawn expecting the cheesy playable slasher movie that previews had promised. The trip to the secluded cabin in the woods where two teen girls were killed a year prior, the Diablo Cody-esque witty dialogue, the fourth wall-breaking psychiatrist directly addressing the gamer with scenery-devouring relish. Yeah, I was in the mood.

So naturally, you’ve got this alpha male character with the cheerleaderish girlfriend and I think “this guy will be the douche”. Mike just seemed like he’d be the guy that gets stabbed through the throat while clumsily seducing a sexy naive camp counselor or the jerk who finally gets his comeuppance and I played him that way. At first.

But as the story unfolded, the real Mike came to the fore and he was both a total badass and a bit of a softy to boot. He was fearlessly wrecking house with a shotgun alone in abandoned asylum and tender-heartedly befriending fearsome wolves and risking everything to save his girlfriend Jess and everyone else. I felt really bad that I’d flubbed his chances at lovin’ earlier by playing him as an ass. The evolution of the character has him as the real tragic hero of the story with the way my first playthrough played out.

Mike gave it all in the final sequence of the game, in which the survivors are confronted in a nerve-wracking sequence where the player has to keep the controller perfectly still, which is one of the most innovative ways that Until Dawn creates tension. They actually managed to frighten me into a mistake (although I’d argue the game also misled me somewhat) and after all of his herculean efforts, Mike ended up dying while serving as a distraction for his remaining friends’ escape. That kind of thing doesn’t really happen to a character in a cheesy slasher movie who spends the first half just trying to get laid. I’m sorry I misjudged you, Mike. I’ll catch you on the next playthrough.

until dawn matt hook deathThe Fall Guy

While I had pegged Mike as my requisite asshole I decided that Matt was going to be the hero. He just seemed like a nice guy somehow, in spite of the Letterman jock uniform. After a while, it became apparent that Matt’s girlfriend Emily was kind of…..mmmm not to sound sexist, but “bitch” is definitely the word. I continued playing Matt as the nice guy (although jealous dick is also a possibility) thinking that Mike was going to die embarrassingly and Matt would get the happy ending for enduring his suffering.

This led to one of the definitive moments in the game for me. The way I’d built up Matt’s story based on the way I played him and the game’s deliberate manner of crushing those expectations was awesome. At one point, after many Matt/Emily adventures in henpeckery, Matt finds his unpleasant girlfriend dangling just out of reach about to fall. You can either persist in trying to rescue her like a hero would or save your damn self. Naturally, if you abandon your girlfriend in her moment of need and take the selfish choice, you will pay. Naturally.

Well, Until Dawn says “Fuck that. How pathetic are you?”. While wasting time trying to reach an unreachable damsel, the platform collapses and Matt ends up falling into an adjacent tunnel while Emily plummets. While it’s apparently possible to survive this based on choices made earlier I didn’t make those choices because I let Emily boss Matt around and the poor guy ended up being hung up on a meathook like a fish, blood filling his gurgling mouth for one of the nastiest deaths in the game. Should have let ‘er fall, hero. In this game, nice guys finish dead.

Because Your Twist is on My Listuntil dawn killer unmasking

The funny thing about all of the reviewers calling this a playable slasher film is that there is no actual slasher. The whole setup was an elaborate ruse to set the tone and a conspiracy to make the gamer feel threatened every second of the way when in reality, they were being sheltered from the real threat the entire time. The “slasher” turns out to be everyone’s friend Josh, whose sisters died partly because of a prank the other characters pulled a year prior at the same lodge. He set the whole scenario up just to scare everyone to get some non-lethal revenge. He even faked his own grisly death in a contrived Saw scenario.

And that terrifying flamethrower-wielding masked stranger who has been stalking you all this time? He’s been battling the real threat; a supernatural one, watching over and defending you this whole time. The mountain is infested with spirits of the Wendigo who have been released because of past incidents of cannibalism. These things are terrifying, but like frogs their vision is based on movement, making for some intense “don’t move” situations, one of which led to two characters dying consecutively because I twitched and then hesitated. At times, this game is really unforgiving.

That’s the best twist I’ve seen in a really long time. The slasher movie has no slasher and you’ve been scared silly over circumstantial nothings and pranks this whole time. The original House on Haunted Hill is the closest I can think of offhand and that’s been a long, long time. It makes you look back and examine everything that has happened and really laugh at how you psyched yourself out based primarily on musical cues, atmosphere, and expectations. Eat your heart out, Pavlov.

until dawn psychologist doctorCan You See the Real Me, Doctor?

One of the cheesier -and more interesting- aspects of the game is the psychologist who shows up between chapters to discuss fear with the player. He quizzes you on what you think is scary and why and the game makes minor adjustments based on how you respond. Since the game keeps track of statistics, it’s really interesting to see how other people answered too. Who knew that people overwhelmingly think crows are scarier than fierce dogs?

Anyways, we play most of the game under the assumption that the doctor is breaking the fourth wall and lecturing us, the gamer, about the dangers of “torture porn” and various other goings on relating to the events of the game. But once Josh is revealed as having been the one menacing his friends, we are shown that he was the one on the other side of the desk the whole time and this was all part of his “game” to figure out how best to terrify the others. And on top of that, this is all in his head.

So once again Until Dawn successfully manipulates audience expectations with the explicit purpose of yanking them out from under you while showing you that things are not what they seem and that when you assume, you…well, you know.

Can’t You Hear Me Knockinguntil dawn ashley wendigo death

Out of all the moments in the game that built the player’s expectations up just to knock them on their ass and laugh at them, this one is probably my favorite. Rather than relying entirely on established film tropes, it is targeted directly at gamers and our unwavering sense of curiosity to turn our own mockery of slasher movie cliches back on us. It also brings back the theme that doing the “right” thing is sometimes the stupid thing to do, which flies in the face of what we think we know about popular fiction.

Earlier in the game, Mike pursued his girlfriend Jess through the woods as she was dragged away by what we thought was a maniac at the time, but we now know was a Wendigo. She was dropped down a mine shaft before my eyes and presumed dead for hours, but at the beginning of the chapter, I was shown an image of her regaining consciousness, alone and afraid.

Back to the main group making their way through the tunnels, now aware of the real horror and just trying to survive until the rescue chopper arrives at dawn (natch) and get back to the lodge intact. You’re currently playing Ashley, the shy cutie pie whose crush, Chris, had his head bowled at her in the aforementioned twitching incident. Ash hears what sounds like Jessica’s voice coming from a cavern and you are given a choice to follow the voice or catch up to your friends.

Now, as horror movie fans we know that splitting up is for idiots. But as gamers we know Jessica is alive down there somewhere and it may be up to us to do something about it. Who wins? Of course you go to check. But here’s where it gets awesome. If you’ve found the right clues in-game, you have read the stranger’s notes on the Wendigo and are aware that they are capable of mimicking human voices. Yeah, you know where this is going. Ash comes up on a hatch that is thumping as though someone/thing is trying to open it from below.

Since nothing is chanting “dead by dawn!” your gamer curiosity is likely going to get the best of you. You can either walk past the hatch never knowing what was below or you can open it. No way does a game that has consistently rewarded exploration punish you for investigating something so obvious. So, of course Ashley pays the price for you doing exactly the kind of dumb shit you’ve been facepalming over in horror movies for years. A Wendigo pops up, snaps her neck, and then twists her pretty little head right the fuck off. Who’s facepalming now?

Moments like these are what make Until Dawn the must-play horror game of choice for this generation so far and we’ll be luck to see another horror game so expertly manipulate its players and defy what we think we know about fiction and gaming anytime soon.