Should Loot be a Driving Force in Video Games

loot

Start a conversation about Borderlands. Start a conversation about Destiny. Start a conversation about Diablo. What are you going to end up discussing more often than not? Dat loot. Who doesn’t love that feeling of gunning down an enemy and seeing something super-shiny and potentially valuable pop out of its lifeless corpse? Nobody. That’s who. But is this increasingly prevalent Skinnerian gameplay mechanic hurting the gaming experience more than it’s helping?

In-game reward systems have been something I’ve been struggling with for nearly as long as I’ve been gaming. Going all the way back to early RPG’s which combined the ability to use currency to purchase weapons for your characters with random drops and chests in dungeons. You could blow all of your hard-earned money from hours of grinding on a fancy new sword for your warrior and then immediately find a chest containing something better, making your purchase a gigantic waste.

As gaming has gone on to improve and mature in so many ways, this is one area that has failed to evolve with it. In fact, it has gotten progressively worse and now we may be reaching a breaking point. Games like Borderlands and Too Human throw so much loot at you that it becomes a massive distraction. With limited menu space and limitless items being chucked in your direction as you play the game you quickly have to begin sorting out what you want to use, what you want to sell, and what you need to discard to make room for more stuff to use or sell.

borderlands loot

Choose your weapon.

Deciding which weapon or armour you want to equip can be a titanic struggle in and of itself. There are typically several attributes, buffs, and sometimes bonuses for equipping certain items together where the player needs to decide which attributes they value over others to decide which way to go. This could take seconds or several minutes. And even if you take an hour calculating the best possible configuration of equipment to maximize your effectiveness, there are odds that the next enemy you kill will drop something so good that it will all but require you to equip it, meaning you no longer get the matching set bonus and potentially making the rest of your equipment no longer worth having. Back to square one.

Dragon Age II fixed this by scattering personalized upgrades for each secondary character across the game and players rebelled and demanded moar loot. Inquisition has sought to balance it out somewhat with an impressive focus on crafting and upgrading your own weapons, but it suffers from constant loot drops that clog up your inventory and make money all but worthless. Then there’s the fact that most of the good drops are unequippable for hour and hours thanks to maddening arbitrary level limitations (which no game should do, ever)coupled with very slow character leveling.

Then there’s the co-op factor. Some games subscribe to a first-come-first-serve rule on loot drops where it’s a race to claim each item, leading to a non-cooperative atmosphere in what is supposed to be a cooperative game. Others randomly assign loot, often giving members who may not even be able to use the item and may have only minimally contributed to the fight the spoils and leaving others in the cold. Destiny solved this problem somewhat by having different drops for each player, but it isn’t a game to bring up when idealizing loot mechanics.

loot cave destiny

Pictured: becoming legend by shooting fish in a barrel.

Surely you’ve heard of Bungie’s now legendary Cave of Wonders, which was a low-level enemy spawn point where players could sit back and endlessly shoot the fodder, which would in turn drop stuff as good as any other enemies in the game since Destiny’s system doesn’t differentiate between the weakest and strongest foes in terms of loot. Well, until they patched it, a whole lot of players decided that instead of, you know, PLAYING THE GAME they’d just shoot into that hole in the ground to get the best equipment as fast as they could rather than obtain it via doing things that are fun.

This is probably the biggest single indicator that gamers’ ideas of what they want out of a gaming experience are changing in disturbing ways. Rather than exploring and achieving, we are becoming obsessed with immediate and constant positive reinforcement in the form of flashy (but usually useless) in-game rewards. I’m beginning to think that we may never get to a point where games are willing to make you really earn your rewards, lest gamers lose interest and move on almost immediately.

I actually found no small amount of satisfaction in working towards goals in Destiny; saving up and buying the legendary gear of my choosing instead of just going through motions and hoping for a random drop that suited both my playstyle and aesthetic desires. I’m glad Bungie left this option in, but I wonder if anyone else felt the same way when all I hear from other players is “lootlootlootloot”.

Diablo 3 ran into problems when gamers found out that the best way to get good gear was not playing the game, but in paying for it in its notorious Auction House, where real money could be traded for fictional goods. Naturally, this was exploited to the point where there was no practical reason to grind when you could buy for a fdiablo 3 auction houseew bucks what could take you dozens of hours to attain in-game.

In multiplayer gaming, nobody wants to be caught with underpowered gear. In PvP or co-op, you want to bring your A game without being held back by weak stats, and when a game’s culture starts to revolve around exploiting gameplay mechanics or auction/trade systems to attain the strongest equipment, then something is wrong.

Why should we be happy hoping for random drops? And is anybody pleased with a game that all but requires you to pay real money for the gear to compete? Is any of this potentially more rewarding than saving up for something that is perfect for you in-game and then buying it and knowing that you’re not going to get its like from the next chest you run across or enemy you kill?

I, for one, would love to see more gameplay rewards based on achievement and dedication rather than random loot mechanics. A focus on branching upgrades for equipment (something Destiny flirts with) instead of having the player constantly changing gear and perpetually seeking something better would put a lot more focus on the gameplay and exploration instead of hunting for exploits and really invest players into putting more thought into what they want out of their gear instead of just letting whatever random drop is the strongest rule their world. If nothing else, it’d be something different.

Are Some Games Too Nice to Play Twice?

twice

This is something I’ve been struggling with for most of this generation: whether or not I want to replay some of my favorite titles before moving on. Games like BioShock, Grand Theft Auto IV, and The Last of Us; but especially epic trilogies like Dragon Age and Mass Effect.

Traditional thinking would be that of course you should experience your favorite games again and again! Bang for your buck! Know every nook and cranny! And being that familiar with Final Fantasy IV (a game I played through maybe a dozen times) didn’t at all reduce my love of the DS remake so there’s personal precedent that that may be true. But there’s a big part of me that feels like in this day and age familiarity breeds contempt.

As the old winking axiom says, you never forget your first time and my first time playing BioWare’s games in particular were so overwhelmingly great it almost feels like a disservice to revisit them in their entirety. I played through most of them right after my “real” playthrough just to do the opposite of what I did before, but when you’re doing that, it’s just not the same. I ended up quitting before the end almost every time, which is a sign that something wasn’t quite clicking.

catherine gif

Pictured: best ending ever.

When you’ve spent 40+ hours doing everything you can do and squeezing every last drop of awesome out of a truly great in-game universe and its story, there’s arguably nothing more satisfying in my experience as a gamer. Sometimes I feel genuinely sad as the end credits roll on a game knowing I’ve already experienced pretty much everything there is to experience and I want to hold onto that feeling that I’ve just completed a true interactive work of art. Going back to dick around and use cheats and act like a jerk and skip the cutscenes risks making the game feel less special in the long run, you know?

One of my favorite games of the last gen was Catherine. I loved it so much I became determined to achieve every ending. And I did. But after that first memorable, hard-fought playthrough my dislike of puzzle games kicked in and I turned the difficulty down and super-jumped my way through the nightmares, made choices only based on what ending I wanted with the walkthrough in my lap, and skipped through the cutscenes whenever possible, only caring about seeing the end result.

I loved seeing all the different endings, but my behavior in getting them seems like I was selling one of my favorite games short. Games are meant to be fun, challenging, and engrossing rather than just something you do to get a certain result, yeah? The repeat playthroughs felt so impersonal, like I was just on auto mode until the ending cutscene.

Anyways, back to BioWare. I keep telling myself that I’m going to download the DLC I have yet to experience and play the entire trilogies in their entirety front to back. And why wouldn’t I? They were hands down my favorite thing from the last decade of gaming. But some other part of my brain is screaming that this would somehow diminish my rose-tinted memories.

star wars walker smash gifmash

That is the worst-armored combat vehicle in sci-fi history.

How many times have I watched the Star Wars trilogy? Plenty. Recently I was watching it yet again with my son and I noticed something disturbing: I wasn’t experiencing that joy I remembered. I was picking apart the dialogue and the costumes and little technical storytelling flaws and not experiencing it like I used to. I’d seen it all before and loved all of the love. All that was left was looking for something to hate. That’s a crummy feeling.

Video games in particular suffer from this because the involved technology improves so constantly and dramatically. Remember when Final Fantasy VII seemed like awesome graphics? The smoothness of controls and other subtle luxuries we’ve become slowly accustomed to in past years often makes successfully revisiting classics really dependent on nostalgia. It usually takes decades for films to age and seem quaint, but in gaming it only takes a few years.

And here we are just getting into Dragon Age: Inquisition. Another trilogy I adore is coming to a close and another one I’ve vowed to replay in its entirety. But after I finish what early reviewers are saying is the best iteration of the franchise, if I go back to play the first is it going to seem lame in comparison? Am I going to get bored or clinical and have that be the way I remember a game I enjoyed so much in its day?

I’m never going to get that feeling of meeting my favorite characters or being surprised and delighted by a particularly funny sidequest for the first time. I’ve already formulated my delta attack of grease bomb/flames/earthquake and laughed my evil laugh as my foes fall down, burn, then fall down and burn some more countless times. I’ve already raged that those abilities weren’t available in the sequel and loved it anyway. With so many great Dragon Age memories, shouldn’t that be enough? Do I really need to play those games again when there’s nothing left to prove?

dragon age varric gif

No, Varric, but you could button up anyways.

And with so many possibilities in Mass Effect should I do what I did the first time and play “my” trilogy again, just making minor adjustments to fix mistakes I regret (I’m sorry, Legion and Yeoman Chambers. SO SORRRYYYYY!) and get my perfect result knowing what’s going to happen with no consequences in store or should I really commit to a new path and try to experience the story in a different way without being clinical and ruining the magic? Oh shit, I think I’ve already done just that by thinking about it too much. It’s the dreaded lose-lose!

But what if they overhaul the old games and upgrade them to bring them into the next generation with all of the DLC already on disc? Should I wait for that? It seems a likely possibility seeing that nobody seems to want to make any new games for the next gen consoles.

In my day, you bought a simplistic game about jumping and/or shooting abd punching, played it again and again until you couldn’t stand the site of it and moved on. But now we’re all sophisticated and junk. Games are art and can actively engage us on an emotional and intellectual level, but only so far as we can stay engrossed in the interactive world.

There are some films I love that I’ve never watched twice because the original was so memorable and surprising when I first saw them that that’s the way I like to remember them. Have games finally reached the point where they can invoke that kind of intellectualized protectiveness? Looks like.

I have a feeling whether or not I ultimately decide to dig out some discs and begin my favorite adventures from the past generation anew will be decided by time more than anything else. Part of the problem is the constant wealth of new games tempting me, but once I’ve squeezed the last of the untasted juice out of my PS3 and 360 and if their successors are still not impressing me, maybe, just maybe I’ll find out I’ve been wrong about this and it’ll turn out I can recapture the magic that makes a modern classic a classic. We’ll see.

Splendid Isolation: Why the Latest Alien is the Perfect Virtual Organism

“I’m putting tinfoil up on the windows
Lying down in the dark to dream
I don’t want to see their faces
I don’t want to hear them scream.” –Warren Zevon

There’s been a disappointing lack of hype for this new Alien game. Maybe it’s the bad taste of Colonial Marines still in the mouths of franchise fans, or maybe people just don’t believe that it’s possible to make a video game that truly captures the spirit of a tense cinema classic. Believe the hype (or lack thereof, I suppose), horror fans. Alien: Isolation is the real deal and possibly the shape of things to come in horror gaming.

But I’ve not come here to offer up a glowing review like so many critics have. Reviews are so passé. This is Gamemoir and rather than chalk up all of the game’s pluses (great gameplay/graphics/nostalgic detail!) and minuses (bugs/loading screens/lame ending) or list gameplay modes I’d rather discuss the thing that makes this game so much more than the Bioshock clone it may appear to be. The thing that goes bump in the air ducts and keeps you silently praying to whatever in-game deity you depend on to keep you safe and turn its attention somewhere else: that wild and wacky titular bastard of a xenomorph.

One thing that this game does and does extremely well is atmosphere. It learned its lessons from the first two films that the longer the build-up, the more satisfying (and terrifying) the reveal, especially when you already know what’s coming. Amanda Ripley’s initial few hours stranded on the massive ruined space station Sevastopol exploring the dark corridors littered in graffiti where violent, paranoid looters roam and open fire on anything that moves are intense. The loneliness and desperation are palpable as she searches for a trace of her mother’s fate and for some way to contact her ship and get off of this anarchic, decaying heap. It’s already a psychologically effective horror title from the get-go. And just knowing that one of the most classic monsters in the history of fiction is out there waiting for you somewhere makes every unexplained sound sinister.

The first time you encounter the Alien is scripted and you’ll see it coming from a mile away. But beyond that, anything can happen. As a pulse-pounding soundtrack kicks in for the first time since arrival, you have to make your way to a commute system and wait for the tram to arrive. And it takes its long, noisy time. Meanwhile, unknown to the player, the xenomorph is now off of its leash. Up to this point in the game, you’ve been free to sprint around like any other game. But now when you run, you make noise. And something is listening.

The transport arrived as I crouched behind cover some distance away, peaking out and certain from the intensity of the music and racket of the tram’s arrival that the Alien must be closing in. When the doors opened, I dashed from my cover into the car and began frantically looking for the button to get me out of there. I heard a horrifying screech followed by rapid footsteps and turned around just in time to see this:

alien isolation death gif

First of many to come.

In space, no one can hear you scream. But I was in my room. Thank God my wife had her earbuds in because she startles easily and is not used to the sound of her horror-addict husband being audibly terrified by a video game. On my second try the tram arrived, the doors opened, and I slowly/carefully made my way in and found the switch to get going without further incident. Lesson learned. From here on, it was crouchwalk city.

The game does not script most of your Alien encounters. It simply gives you tasks to complete, populates your world with a spattering of (mostly) hostile humans, creepy low-rent androids with a polite murderous streak, and a relentless invincible predator that does what it wants, when it wants. The Alien is run by an AI that not only reacts to what you are doing, but has a mind of its own. It’s unclouded by conscience, remorse, or delusions of morality. And yes, I admire its purity.

Sometimes the xenomorph doesn’t even rear its ugly head for hours at a time. If you’re quiet, that is. Sometimes, you may deliberately bring it out with an improvised flashbang or other noisy device when a group of looters stands in your way and you’d rather pick their corpses clean after watching the monster shred them one by one than try to sneak past them and risk a noisy firefight. Just remember what a double-edged sword is. Once you unleash the beast, you don’t know what it’s going to do and there’s no guaranteed way to avoid it.

Even during those stretches when the Alien doesn’t appear, it colors your every action and thought. You can hear it in the ducts. You might see it following you on your motion tracker. You may think that as long as you walk around with the tracker in front of your face, you’ll know what to expect. But then it’ll be awfully easy not to see the slime dripping down from that vent opening above you and find yourself pulled up into a well-placed ambush.

Or maybe it’s cornered you in a room and you’re hiding inside of a locker peering out of the tiny slits trying to see if it’s still there, straining your ears for the sound of footsteps. You take out your motion tracker and hear a rapid beeping. So does the monster that’s been standing right next to you, out of sight, waiting for you to do something stupid.

alien isolation hiding gif

It’s game over, man. Game over.

Sometimes, you even have to hold Amanda’s breath to avoid being heard and watch her health dwindle away while you wait for the creature to move on. If this all sounds like it’s unforgiving and hard as hell, you’ve been listening. Alien: Isolation is not a game that cares about making anything easy on you. This title will put you through the hell Amanda Ripley is experiencing. But it’s a fair kind of hell. Every single death was either the kind of bad luck one could expect a woman stranded on a decommissioned post-apocalypse microcosm of a space station slowly falling into a gas giant to encounter, or my own damn fault. You need stealth skills, savvy, and a little bit of luck at times to get to the end of this game, but it feels like a true accomplishment when you do.

There’s one particularly trying sequence that I would estimate took me about 4 hours to beat. If one were to play this mission flawlessly, I suspect it would take about five minutes or so. I can’t lie to you about your chances….but you have my sympathy. I died more times than I could even begin to count, but it was also the best sequence in the game; one nightmare after another. Finding your way through the Medbay with the Alien in full prowl mode, a crew of trigger-happy looters randomly wandering about, and some killer androids thrown in for good measure is a lot to take. Especially when you find out the hard way that the rogue strangle-happy robots and the horrific rape-monster from outer space get along just fine with each other.

In case this hasn’t been made clear, if the Alien lays eyes on you for most of the game, you are just dead. All you can do when it decides to investigate a noise or if it just feels like stretching its legs is hide and hope. Hope it goes away, hope it doesn’t look in your direction, hope it decides to stop wandering around the exact freaking corridor you need to pass through and finds a route to an exit that won’t take it right to you. There are a number of devices like flares and noisemakers you can use to lure it in a direction of your choosing for a moment provided you can clear enough distance to use them without exposing yourself, but once it loses interest in your distraction, there’s nothing to stop it from hauling ass right to where you’re slowly and quietly creeping away to on a whim.

alien isolation ripley gif

I know, Rip. I know.

All of this adds up to an immense amount of sustained tension. I’ve never played anything like this game. For all of its legitimate annoyances, Alien: Isolation is as much a landmark masterpiece of video game horror as the original film was for horror movies. They’ve both got aspects that could have been handled better, but for their respective times, they are both classics.

Ridley Scott’s vision of a dirty, run-down, dystopian post-space age and a woman’s struggle against an organism of potentially apocalyptic proportions changed the feel of sci-fi horror forever and I get the feeling that Creative Assembly’s homage to that movie and their use of a near-constant artificially intelligent threat could potentially change the way developers approach survival horror in the future. This is an experiment that really panned out in my opinion.

Moments like the triumph of the first time you light your extraterrestrial antagonist up with a flamethrower and see it retreat from you for a change, and the second time where you bring it to bear and the Alien recognizes it and backs away with a cringe are amazing. Watching the xenomorph stalk you and test you as you confront it with the one thing it fears, all too aware of how limited your fuel is  is something unlike anything else I’ve experienced in a video game.

It’s not too often games these days show you something you’ve never seen before, and Alien: Isolation does it more than once with its exceptional creature AI. Blended with one of the best virtual environments I’ve ever experienced, the end result is that this game makes you scared and paranoid; it makes you think on your feet and improvise, it makes you learn from your mistakes, it forces you make the most out of everything you can lay hands on, and it challenges you relentlessly without ever making you feel that you can’t win. Basically, it’s a template for the perfect survival horror game. If that sounds like something that may interest you, I’ve got to recommend you stock up on valium and give this game a shot.

Great Moments in Comic History: Deadpool Saves the World (Sort Of)

gmicdp

Although comic series last for decades and often span hundreds of issues and dozens of stories over the years, there are some arcs that stand out from the crowd and remain especially significant among fans of sequential art narratives. It could be a story that changes everything in its own universe, a tale of such quality that everything before and after seems to pale in comparison, or just a defining moment for a beloved character. Over the next couple months, I’m going to be breaking some of these down for you.

This week, I’m going with that last one and exploring the ultimate motivations of one of Marvel’s up-and-coming superstars, the one and only Merc with a Mouth, Deadpool. As I’ve written before, I’m not super pleased with what Marvel has done with Wade Wilson ever since he broke out as a mainstream favorite after his loathsome big screen debut in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, major roles in video games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and an obnoxious number of appearances across the entire comic universe. Wade has long been Marvel’s funniest character, but only in recent years has he become an actual joke.

So right now, I’m taking us back to the late 90’s to revisit Deadpool’s classic heyday and Joe Kelly’s Dead Reckoning storyline that served as a culmination of Wade’s attempt to put his ways of greed and murder behind him and become a true hero. It’s an arc that had a long buildup, a huge payoff, and in so many ways defines Deadpool not just as a zany comic relief character, but as a twisted but well-meaning antihero who uses humor as a defense mechanism to salve the wound of his own hopelessness. There will be spoilers.

Continue reading

Is Constantine the Best Comic Show on Television?

constantine

Comic book culture is on a major roll these days with an almost constant stream of films and television series making household names out of their characters. But let’s forget about movies and just look at TV. We’ve got The Flash, Arrow, The Walking Dead, Agents of SHIELD, Gotham, and no less than five new Marvel shows upcoming as Netflix originals. And that’s just live action series.

All of the shows I mentioned get discussed in an almost water cooler fashion amongst both nerds and mainstream viewers, but you know what? I’d take Constantine over all of them. It’s got the mythos, it’s got the source material, it’s got the perfect lead, it’s got a great mix of humor and grittiness, and it’s arguably got more potential at this point than every other comic-based show on the air. It was put together by David Goyer, the co-architect of the Dark Knight and Blade trilogies. That’s got to count for something (or at least 2/3 of something). Plus Neil Marshall directed the pilot. The talent is there. Continue reading

Four Movies with Marvelously Creative Acts of Ownage

ownage1

Usually when you think of ownage in a film, you picture Arnold blowing someone’s face off or Clint Eastwood telling some punk to make his day; something crass and violent, yet totally cool and very ‘Murican. But sometimes, the most badass possible thing you can do to show your enemies that you just don’t give a damn is done without even personally harming a hair on their head.

Here are some movie moments where a character drops the big “eff you” on their antagonists; irreversibly devastating them psychologically or just flat out mocking everything they think they know by showing them that they cannot ever control them. You won’t find any one-liners followed by violence here; just pure, unadulterated pwnage that transcends traditional concepts of vengeance and defiance as they’re usually presented to us onscreen.

To put the awesomeness of these moments into context, spoilers are required, so tread carefully if you have any desire to see any these films, but haven’t yet. Continue reading

Outdated Gameplay: The Threat is Real

outdated

I’m here to tell you a story. A story about a haunted game about haunted people with gameplay so bad it now haunts me. This week I have conjured up the vengeful spirit of rightfully deceased control schemes from the grave to warn you to beware of not-quite-classic titles and the gameplay of the damned.

I was in a horror kind of mood last week -as everyone should be on Halloween- and I decided to take advantage of the sales on PSN to put some time in on a creepy-looking franchise that I had never gotten a chance to play. So I downloaded Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented and got ready for a spooky good time.

fatal frame 3 ghost

Sunshine on my shoulder makes me happy. This: not so much.

I’ve long admired the Fatal Frame series from afar for its classical Japanese aesthetics, female-centric stories, and its unique approach to ghostly horror, with the primary combat function being banishing ghosts by photographing them. Finally diving in, I was really impressed with how well the graphics have held up and the wonderfully oppressive atmosphere of the haunted Dream Manor where the main protagonist Rei spends her nights.

What immediately bugged the shit out of me was the actual gameplay, which were similar to old school Resident Evil in that you don’t control the in-game camera, the camera controls you, rendering you no line of sight for your character while exploring in third person. But where Resident Evil games let you get used to this travesty, Fatal Frame’s mechanics force you to switch back and forth between third person and first person, making it extremely disorienting at times. Still, worth the slog when there’s so much to explore. Moving on.

The story was really cool, and you even got to move around Rei’s house during the day, researching the images you capture in your dreams and building the narrative of her life that has led her to this point where she inhabits a mansion filled with nasty spirits in her dreams. It’s all so cool. There’s a steep learning curve that the game does little to assuage, pretty much telling you “sink or swim, noob” but I was enjoying the intensity of the dark mood and overall structure of the game.

Then Fatal Frame 3: The Tormented really started living up to its name; and not because it was the third game in the Fatal Frame series. The enemies became nigh-invincible, more plentiful, and downright enraging. As I said before, you navigate in third person in a fixed perspective that changes whenever it feels like it, often rendering you unable to see in front of your own face. To do that, you bring up your camera. Early on, this isn’t a huge problem. The ghosts teleport, but they approach you fairly slowly so once you get your bearings, you can capture them on film almost at will.

But once the really nasty spirits come out, they teleport, the weave through walls, they ATTACK through walls, and many of the environments are pretty much just narrow corridors and extremely small rooms. And they’re aggressive. Being a player of video games, I’m used to aggressive enemies, but I’m also used to the game giving me the tools to properly avoid or dispatch those enemies.

fatal frame 3 ghost

I’ll never have a positive view of cleaver-wielding maniacs again….

You don’t have significant mobility in first person view so to fight the tough spirits, you need to stick and move. But the fact that you could be running away from that crazy flying dead bastard with the bloody cleaver and have the controls flip when the camera changes and then be running toward him to get chopped an instant later is a deal breaker. And that you need to search 360 degrees to get a bead on him and by the time you find him and begin to charge up your shot, he’s already on top of you wrecking your shit doesn’t help. Add in the disorientation and too-long time it takes to transition between the two views and the tank-like movement of your dainty avatar you’ve got a headache. Or at least, I did.

I’ve written extensively on how I believe that challenge makes a story feel more worthwhile, but when it gets to the point where you are playing a genuinely creepy horror game and it doesn’t scare you anymore because you are too preoccupied with raging at the terrible controls, something is wrong. Difficult challenges are one thing, but hobbling players with shitty, unresponsive, and treacherous gaemplay is something else entirely. At about seven hours in, I decided I wasn’t having fun anymore and tapped out having barely gotten into the second playable character’s story.

Here’s the kicker: Fatal Frame 3 isn’t even ten years old. Resident Evil 4 came out the same year. I played that one a short while ago and while the initial control scheme was a beast, I tamed it within a few hours. It remained awkward, but it was never infuriating. Psychonauts came out the same year as well, and while I wrote a previous article detailing my issues with its platforming mechanics, it was nowhere near as bad. I‘ve also played Shadow of the Colossus during the past year without incident, so while it’s safe to say gaming has really smoothed out since the PS2 era, I think it’s safe to say that The Tormented wasn’t even on par for its time.

half life 2 gordon alyx

You came to the wrong neighborhood to talk shit about Half Life 2, motherfucker.

Sometimes it takes an experience like this to really appreciate how far gaming has come as an entertainment medium in such a short time. We’ve gotten so used to silky-smooth controls that even going back to legendary beloved titles like Half Life 2 you notice annoying things like lagging load times and dated collision detection that sees you hung up on objects in ways that would be unacceptable in a modern game.

Yesterday’s awkward controls are today’s unplayable disaster, so remember to tread lightly when venturing into the past, fellow gamers. For sometimes the real horror lies not in the godless abomination thirsting for your mortal blood you can see before it’s too late, but in poor gameplay design and dated mechanics that you can’t.

Where Does Video Game Horror Go From Here?

horror

It’s that time of year again. The time when all good little Gamemoirers get rewarded with articles about horror games just in time for trick ‘r treating. But in spite of the recent releases of AAA titles like Alien: Isolation (which I am very much enjoying) and The Evil Within, there seems to be a generally negative tone settling in on modern horror games. Like we’ve seen it all before with anything new and interesting being relegated to low-budget fare giving us a mere fraction of the scares we are entitled to.

We’ve all killed endless zombies, mashed buttons and waggled control sticks after being jumped on by all manner of beasty, been chased down corridors, stared into the hideous face of true evil, been slaughtered in the nastiest of ways, ran out of ammunition, been terrified by not being able to see what the hell is making that creepy sound, and borne witness to every gruesome act one can witness. Have we reached the end of our rope or what? Is there nothing else scary under the sun?horror games

Normally I’d say to fix the present you have to look at what worked in the past, but seeing that much of the problem in modern gaming is the redundancy of it all rather than new approaches that don’t work, I thought I’d take a look at how gaming could change its perspective and draw inspiration from other sources to put the terror back in horror games.

The problem with gaming is that it’s a medium that requires a great many hours of investment from the player. Even your typical horror movie is only actually scary for some twenty minutes of its ninety minute runtime but gamers being the spoiled brats we are want to be entertained EVERY SINGLE SECOND of an at least ten hour campaign. It’s a steep challenge to sustain that level of tension for that long, to put it mildly.

But still, you’ve got your old-school Resident Evil and Silent Hill, your Dead Space, your Fatal Frame, and newer indie games like Slender and 5 Nights at Freddy’s that have brought out our inner scaredy cat and provided some chills, if only for a little while before the novelty wears off and the mechanics start to become familiar. So obviously, what we need to do is deviate from those familiar mechanics and look at what modern games are doing wrong.

First off, less is more. Real deal horror connoisseurs know that. Jaws would not have been a fraction as scary with a big CG shark in every frame. Ditto Alien. The anticipation of something being there and not knowing if it is or of not being able to see it is terrifying and a long wait with maybe the briefest of glimpses leading up to big reveal and pulse-pounding climax makes all the difference.

uncharted 3 spiders

No, no, no, NONONO!

Although it isn’t a horror game, I’m going to use Uncharted 3 as an example since it’s what I’ve been playing and featured one of my personal fears. Early in the game, Drake finds amongst a collection of artifacts a huge, scary dead spider in a jar. Most gamers would shrug this off, but this one is immensely arachnophobic. I took this as a foreshadowing of what was to come and I was not wrong. Naturally I noticed when I entered a cave wallpapered in spider webs and was forced to squeeze through a claustrophobic crevice. I knew exactly what was going to happen, but it still made my skin crawl when a few big ass arachnids climbed down onto me/Drake. I always laugh when Nate goes “No, no, no, NONONO!” but I actually did it myself that time.

Then no less than 3 more times in the seven hours or so left in the story you encounter tsunamis of THOUSANDS of spiders you must flee. This makes for an impressive visual, but it’s not scary. The dead one in the jar by itself creeped me out more because it was the idea of it that was scary. The premise that there are millions of them chasing after you is frightening in theory, but in reality it’s a very video gamey thing to do. It’s like the Resident Evil movie. Not knowing where a zombie is and when it’s going to come at you, but knowing it’s out there is scary. A thousand zombies is just an impressive but unfrightening visual. You need atmosphere and anticipation.

This is why Alien: Isolation is so great. One invincible, ever-present, and only occasionally-seen threat hunting your ass throughout a journey through unknown hostile territory and coloring your every action with fear and anticipation; that’s how you do horror. Franchisess like Resident Evil, Doom, F.E.A.R., Alan Wake, Condemned, and Dead Space do a lot of things right, but at the end of the day, they’re typical video games and the repetition breeds familiarity, which isn’t scary. You kill the baddies and we can be comfortable always knowing that we can make the scary go away by shooting the crap out of it, which is again, extremely video gamey.

fear 3 spectre

Hey, I was really scared there for a second until I realized I can just pump your ghoulish ass full of lead…

Telltale’s The Walking Dead and Quantic Dreams’ Heavy Rain immersed players in intense interactive fiction experiences and exposed us to the horrors of human psychosis and of attachment and the fear of inevitable loss that comes with it, but that style of storytelling is still the exception and not the rule. Being given so many choices may be nerve-wracking at times, but at least you can feel like you tried to do the right thing.

My idea for something new: make the player the thing that goes bump in the night. It’s one thing to defend yourself from gruesome horrors, but what about the psychological factor of actually being the horror? I actually got this idea during a Paranormal Activity marathon while pondering the effectiveness of the series. What would it be like to be a demonic entity with a sacrificial goal to reach and the only way to reach it was to feed on human fear, gaining more abilities the more frightened your victims become? Awesome. That’s what it would be like.

And unlike the Paranormal Activity movies, a big part of the experience could be the fact that your human targets’ lives are as disturbing as you are or more so. Given that you’d begin with limited powers and need to conserve your energy and plan scares, I figure that a lot of time would be spent invisibly observing your host family and plotting, sort of like a mission in Hitman. This means you need to make the characters interesting, and in a horror game the best way to do that is make them a creep show unto themselves. This not only makes things creepy from both ends, but it could alleviate some of the player’s discomfort with perpetrating evil if the victims are horrible people.

paranormal activity 4

Not achieved by thinking happy thoughts.

For example, one family could have abusive parents and as the entity, you would first feed off of the childrens’ fear of their parents and then begin to frighten the adults with telekinesis, noises, and the like before gaining enough power to communicate with the children, with the possibly of eventually convincing them to kill their tormentors, thus filling your sacrifice quota.

Or another level could be the home of a serial killer who chains his victims in the basement and is all but oblivious to your cheaper tactics, being a terror monger himself. You could work off of the prisoners’ fear of the killer and then invade his mind to find out what he fears before using that against him and driving him to suicide. The things you’d witness in stories like this would be awful and encourage the player to do evil to avenge the evil, making for an all-around evil good time.

Naturally, there should be many paths to your goal and multiple endings as well as dozens of possibilities for scares in each level to really bring out the player’s creativity. The option to help the evil people do their deeds could be another potential path and open up even more disturbing aspects.

It’s one thing to show players something scary, but it’s another thing entirely to make them take part. The Deception series lets players indulge in sadistic practices, but it maintains a dark comical atmosphere. The most memorable horror films aren’t just collections of gore and cheap scares and they don’t abide a light tone. It’s the ones that show you the nastiest part of the human experience and get under your skin that leave you lying in bed awake at night with uncomfortable images burned into your brained.

exorcist

They don’t make big movies like this anymore. But maybe we could make games…

The interactivity of video games means the sky is the limit for immersing players into some deeply disturbing territory, but very few developers have chosen to latch onto this with most choosing to play it safe and keep it strictly fun. But as the medium continues to mature, don’t be surprised if the content becomes progressively darker and more psychologically discomforting. Once the industry crashes and indie devs rise to take the place of the AAA dinosaurs, we could have a genuine horror renaissance on our hands as creativity replaces the massive budgeting that defines current mainstream gaming.

With the groundswell of praise Alien: Isolation has received it may open up a lot of possibilities for horror games to abandon some of their tropes and ruts in favor of providing players with immersive experiences that fray the nerves and let us put into practice our “what would you do?” survival fantasies without the usual heavy artillery developers give us like pacifiers to keep our precious widdle power fantasies intact so we don’t get too scared. But this is horror. I want to be scared and disturbed and feel my heart beat faster in respsonse to something that’s only happening in a collection of pixels on a TV screen. That’s what horror -and what gaming- is all about.

Gamer Gatekeepers: Video Game Journalism and You

journalism

So, I see this whole Gamergate thing is still happening, against all odds. In a way it’s kind of amazing to see people this dedicated to a cause. Hope for the future, you know? A future, that is, where a group of people with that much time on their hands can overcome their own myopia and actually turn all of this energy and attention towards a cause worthy of it and change society for the better just once instead of settling for threatening women with rape and murder online in the name of journalistic ethics. Hey, a guy can dream.

But instead here we are some two months after some dude constructed a blog to out his girlfriend for cheating on him with video game journalists, who then allegedly went on to publicize her free indie game, thus setting the entire internet on fire with a shitstorm of hacking, doxing, death threats, and endless sarcastic meme wars. All of this over video games? Not even actual video games, but the people who are paid to report on them and any female indie game devs they happen to bang? What is this crap? Is there no way to police corrupt gaming journalism that isn’t a much more deplorable crime in and of itself?

Yeah, I know it’s a few out of many perpetuating the cyberterrorism, but the fact that this level of intensity has been reached at all by anyone speaks volumes about how screwed up peoples’ priorities are. And then there’s the observation that the targets of the nastiest of these attacks are not the male gaming journalists whose ethics are in question, but the female devs who are making actual video games.

brianna death threat

“Nothing worthwhile with your life”…the irony. Also, does Jezebel publish corpse photos?

Usually when you hear about death threats in journalism, it’s people exposing corrupt governments and oppressive regimes who actually harm people and stuff who receive them. You know, people doing worthwhile endeavors and being oppressed by deplorable monsters. Video games? Sorry, doesn’t rate on the same scale. And I say that as someone who has almost certainly been gaming longer than you. I bought Double Dragon on the NES. Don’t tell me shit about hype and disappointment.

Call me a hipster, but I’ve never put much stock in journalism and professional opinions to begin with and I’ve never understood why other gamers think of them as gatekeepers of the industry. They do not represent some boundary you must pass before you’re allowed to play video games. They’re just people doing their jobs who sometimes use that job to declare that gamers are dead in childish retaliation to their values being called into question. As if we need their permission to exist. Move along, nothing to see here.

Let’s compare gaming to some other forms of media. We’ve laughed at the stereotype of middle-aged housewives who base their entire existence on the words of talk show hosts and fawn all over them like they’re the second coming every time they are paid millions to give “free” stuff away to their guests and audience, but is spending all day on IGN, Kotaku, and Metacritic or streaming E3 presentation while taking every single thing you see, read, and hear there at face value any different? And why do you need those losers anyway when you have Gamemoir?

There’s probably more money flowing towards the game industry right now than any other branch of entertainment and journalism represents the old adage of “those who can’t do, teach”. People from within the scene who lack the technical and creative skills and especially people from without who want to latch on to the biggest thing in popular culture find it simple to report on the goings on within the industry and get a piece of that pie in lieu of actually making games. It’s the same in every industry and it means that every article on every site should be approached with due caution, particularly as gamer culture becomes increasingly prone to trend-chasing.

gaming journalism comic

I miss you, 1990’s.

But let’s put signs of the times aside for now. Game companies are making it their business to release canned “gameplay” videos to make their games look better than they are, journalists are endlessly reporting that every new thing from every major developer is the most amazing thing ever (although sexist and racist), and gamers have become more and more disillusioned as a result. It’s almost like these professionals who rely on webpage hits, advertisements, relationships in the industry, and hype to put money in their pockets have some sort of vested interest. Weird.

By the time I’d played a few really cool games that got massacred in reviews or were ignored completely in favor of another typical by-the-numbers shooter or whatever and started noticing that negative reviews were inevitably crammed with meaningless complaints about being “repetitive” and other terms that can easily be applied across the entire medium I was pretty sure that gaming journalism was not going to be the focus of my relationship with my hobby.

Due to its relative youth, it took a few decades longer than windbag political pundits, desperately self-indulgent music reporters, and film critics who are forced to watch and form opinions on movies they shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near before video game journalism became as predictably putrid and meaningless as that which came before. But here we are, and the difference is that music and film fans have been around long enough to laugh about Rolling Stone’s preposterously inept reviews of classic Rush and Led Zeppelin albums and the legendary Roger Ebert’s bass-ackwards take on A Clockwork Orange and use them as cautionary tales about the unnecessariness of professional opinions in relation to grassroots fandoms. But gamers are still taking their branch of journalism seriously for some reason.

And like all that which came before, it’s not going anywhere. No amount of violent threats against women, children, and families is going to make video game reporting the way you want it to be, which is to say telling every single individual exactly what they want to hear and having it always be 100% objectively and subjectively true to every single person who reads it. At the end of the day, it’s people doing their jobs and trying to crank something out for you to read, usually in exchange for some form of monetary compensation. And if you don’t want to read it, that’s not a difficult objective to accomplish.

gamers gaming

These three are doing it right now, displaying just one of many alternate activities for spending free time.

Is the idea here is that gaming can’t exist without somebody telling you what to play? That’s bullshit and you know it. People didn’t start making and playing video games because some stranger on the internet told them to any more than people started making and enjoying music and films because Rolling Stone magazine and Roger Ebert said it was cool. They did it because they love it and that does not have to change. Has anyone considered maybe seeking out the games that look awesome to them instead of relying on other peoples’ opinions to make their purchasing decisions and then being angry when it’s not for them?

I haven’t deliberately listened to the radio in decades because almost all new music that gets played is garbage and corporate entities decide what gets airtime based on what’s already being played with zero regard for artistic merit or quality. There’s not much room for creativity or risk-taking when that much money is being thrown around. And look at the list of movies at your local cinema. You know how they almost all look like crap and you can find a million better independent films that never saw the inside of a theater on Netflix, yet shitty big-budget comedies and bland “thrillers” are being shoved in your face all the time? It was only a matter of time before we got to this point, fellow gamers.

bsg all has happened beforeHow to fight back? Besides making gamers look like complete shitbags by acting like an idiot on Twitter and any given message board, I mean. Well, you know how we guys like to tell women that if they want games to be more like they want them to be they should start making their own games and supporting the things they love instead of just trying to tear down everyone else’s shit? Yeah. That. It is not gender-specific advice. If you think gaming journalism is crap, how’s about you stop telling other people what to do and SHOW them?

People’ve been raging at “social justice warriors” for using online intimidation tactics to bully people into complying with their ideal view of the world without once getting off their asses to help make the changes themselves in the places it matters. Yet here are gamergaters putting that shoe on the other foot as clumsily as possible. Irony is apparently not a thing anymore.

But if all of these people blowing up the internet with allegations of journalistic corruption (boo!) and wanton sex orgies (yay!) got together and created an alternative for like-minded individuals, that would be a start. If nothing else, it would prove they aren’t just a bunch of twelve year old trolls chasing girls on the digital playground to pull their pigtails and occasionally threaten to rape and kill them.

I’ve said it before and again: there’s room for everybody. I’m always going to be more likely to pick a cheapy game based on a strong premise and list of features one can usually get right off of the box or digital download menu rather than pre-ordering some supposed blockbuster based entirely on the generalized observations of some person I don’t know from a hole in the wall that were posted online just to fill space and generate bandwagon hype. But that’s me. If you’re happy chasing the flock, I wouldn’t tell you to stop; and if you are making actual games, you win the internet.

If your hobby is no longer enjoyable for you, it’s probably you who needs to change; either find a new approach to it that pleases you or find something else entirely. Nobody else is going to shoulder the responsibility of your personal happiness, whether you’re a pissed-off feminist or a gamergater. We’ve all got our own problems to deal with. It’s a big world and if you hate everything about it, the odds of it changing itself to better suit your mood like Rob Thomas is pretty goddamn slim. You ain’t that smooth.gamergate

Journalists don’t necessarily know what you want to read or what you are thinking. It’s their job to put something up there based on their own ideas and observations that can hopefully give readers some insight or something to discuss, but they aren’t the gatekeepers to the industry in any way shape or form unless you make them so in your own mind. If you want into the gaming community, you don’t need their permission or their input. We make the scene. How and what we game is up to us, the gamers.

And no amount of articles that are declaring the death of gamers will make it happen. Our money is the lifeblood of the industry, we provide the pageviews journalists rely on; we have the power. If you think journalism is corrupt and needs to change or die, then the fastest way to do that is ignore the corrupt and create and foster whatever your version of good journalism is.

If some of us could maybe take a step back every now and then and take a longer view of the situation instead of personally investing ourselves in issues that require no personal investment instead of hurling hate in whatever direction your favorite online message board tells you to at the drop of a hat, I feel like our community would improve dramatically overnight. Video games are meant to be played and enjoyed, not used as an excuse for endless gender warfare and conspiracy theories. We are gamers. Can’t we better define and represent ourselves by gaming instead of throwing extended public online hissy fits? How about it?

You’re Doing it Right: Five Anime Series With Epic Openings

opening

With most Western television taking either the college art project approach of pairing theme-appropriate but relatively static images with an evocative piece of music or the uber-boring voiceover summary narration over quick clips as openings for popular shows, it’s easy to forget about the classic approach of memorable theme songs and videos designed to capture the viewer’s imagination and summarize the show and its characters in irresistible visual ecstasy.

Anime has a long history and thousands of anime series, pretty much all of which continue to take the traditional route of pairing exciting and kinetic visuals with killer music in a way that is designed to pump you up for the show if you’re already a fan, or hook you into watching it if you’re a newbie. It’s becoming almost standard for animes to change their opening theme every dozen episodes (give or take), which to me really speaks of how excited the creators are to showcase their skills and how much the fans look forward to seeing these montages of sights and sounds.

In this age of DVD, streaming, and DVR consumption some people (like myself) have made it a habit of skipping past the minute and a half or so of opening credits sequences in favor of getting the show on the road. But here are five anime with opening sequences I never skip because they are just that awesome. Continue reading