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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Grand Theft Auto IV was the Pinnacle of the Series

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six Features that Should be Standard for Multiplayer Shooters

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

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

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

Highlights

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

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

Free Maps

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

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

Emotes

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

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

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

Integrated Tournaments

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

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

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

Theater Mode

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

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

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

Co-op Challenges

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Dead Yet: Five Games that Have Represented Punk Culture

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

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

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

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

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

Guitar Hero

“That one is predetermined

That one, it finds another.

This one comes in one window

Sliding out the other.

We need an instrument

To take a measurement.”

-Fugazi

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

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

Orwell

“Big Brother, he is a watching

Watching me and you.

Big Brother is a-watching

And he’ll know your every move.

They’re really really gonna do it to you

Just wait and see.

They’ll be telling us what to do

And they’ll want us to die laughing.”

-The Vandals

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

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

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

Shadowrun: Dragonfall

“Early man walked away

As modern man took control.

Their minds weren’t all the same

To conquer was his goal.

So he built his great empire

And slaughtered his own kind.

Then he died a confused man

Killed himself with his own mind.”

-Bad Religion

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

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

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

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

Gone Home

“You’re a big girl now

You’ve got no reason not to fight.

You’ve got to know what they are

Before you can stand up for your rights.

Rights, rights?

You do have rights.”

-Bikini Kill

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

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

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

Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland

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

Ain’t got time to sit and talk.

Used to be just like you and me.

Now he’s an outcast of society.

Beware, he’s possessed to skate.”

-Suicidal Tendencies

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

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

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

Black Mirror: Fear of a Gamer Planet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Week in the Life of ARK: Survival Evolved – Part One: The Taste of Noobs

arkweek

Okay, so if any of you are old school Gamemoir readers (do we have those? Is that a thing?) you might have noticed my enthusiasm for the long-delayed PlayStation 4 release of Studio Wildcard’s prehistoric survival sim ARK: Survival Evolved. The early release game took Steam by storm, earning allegiance from millions and a truly outstanding collection of entertaining user reviews filled with insane and captivating stories. It currently resides in the top ten most-played games there, occasionally surpassing even the mighty Grand Theft Auto V. Not bad for a game that isn’t even finished and has been largely ignored by the gaming media.

The months of waiting for a game PC and Xbox One players had been playing ate at me, as did the cancellation of the free-to-play multiplayer mode Survival of the Fittest, but suddenly word came down that ARK was coming to my console of choice in three days. The wait was over. As a dinosaur fanatic with MMO aspirations, I was on cloud nine. But even with all of the word-of-mouth hype and anticipation, I was not prepared for the first week of this game. The following is the first half of a journal of the first seven days of my life after ARK: Survival Evolved happened to it.

Day One: You Died

Today I woke up with the knowledge that soon I would be playing my most anticipated game of the year. I love that feeling. 2016 has had a distinct lack of truly great games, and I had a feeling about this one. That feeling did not do it justice. ARK combines the best and most addictive elements of games like Minecraft and Elder Scrolls with the infinite promise of an MMO. Oh, and Dark Souls in single player. Because if you don’t die almost constantly in this harsh and horrible world at first, you’re doing it wrong. Plus, you can get all your stuff back off of your own corpse if you can make it back.

Unable to get online right at the start (something I haven’t had an issue with since the aforementioned GTAV), I settled for learning the ropes in single player. What I learned is that this game just doesn’t give a damn. It’ll spawn you in the pitch black dead of night right in front of the jaws of a gang of predators just to say “tough luck there, buddy”. While From Software is a vengeful god who crafts worlds distinctly to misdirect and harm the player, Wildcard is an uncaring Lovecraftian elder god. Our petty needs and concepts of fairness are nothing to them. The world of ARK simply is and whether we live or die in it is none of its concern.

Today, after having my “Welcome…to Jurassic (P)ARK” moment watching a gigantic sauropod rumble past I was chased into my beachfront hut (a lifelong dream) by a velociraptor who then began tearing my day’s work apart. I escaped out the front door while it raged at the walls and sprinted up to a ridge where I saw the enraged predator continue smashing down my house. As I despaired the loss of my hard-won assets and my pet dodo, I heard a roar behind me and turned around just in time to see a carnosaur end my life. This is ARK’s singleplayer in a nutshell.  

Day Two: Anarchy in the A-R-K

Early in the day, I managed to get onto a multiplayer server. I was really excited to be getting in on the ground floor of an online community as it is being born. The tales of tribal cooperation and warfare on Steam are legendary. What I found waiting for me was a bunch of idiots in their underwear brawling on the beach. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, but there’s enough to kill you in-game already I’d hoped that the multiplayer would be less PvP-ish. The baddest of the bad managed to craft axes and they felt that made them cock of the walk. Then this sheriff came to town with a spear. They literally fled from me. That’s right. Run. Run from the man with the shirt and pointy stick, you savages!

When night fell in-game, I was cooking some meat around a campfire and two imbeciles assaulted me with their bare hands. By this time I’d crafted a slingshot so I knocked one unconscious while backpedalling and then stabbed his friend to death with my spear. I finished off the unconscious one, chopped them both up and cooked them for supper. Yes. One hour in multiplayer and I’ve already acquired a taste for noob flesh. It occurred to me too late that I may have been able to defecate (there is a command for that) on the unconscious one, then pick up my own shit and feed it to him before I ended his life. I really regret not testing that out.    

After a few hours, the server disconnected and I couldn’t get back on so I decided to go back into singleplayer, where the carnosaur that killed me last night appears to have taken permanent residence in my neighborhood just to make my life miserable. I almost never see it coming until it’s too late. Once I swam out into the surf and climbed a rock where it couldn’t reach me (like The Shallows with a dinosaur instead of a shark) and began raining stones from my slingshot on it. The bastard turns around, marches straight to my newly-rebuilt hut, and begins smashing it while I scream “NOOOOO!!!!” in real life. I think it may be time to move.

Day Three: Man Plans, ARK Laughs

Down the beach there are no carnosaurs. But there are dilophosaurs, whose M.O. is to spit poison in your face and then rush you down while you’re blinded. They’re also fond of group tactics. But at least I can handle them. There’s nothing I can do about the towering monster who destroyed my home. Yet. Besides, my new goal is to train an army of dilophosaurs to do my bidding.

My first try is a success, I slingshot the smallish predator, sidestep the poison, and backpedal when it rushes me, pelting it with rocks until it’s unconscious. Then I drug it, let it gorge on dodo meat until it loves me, and then name it Phlegmy. Easy peasy. Soon, Phlegmy is joined by Loogie, and my dilo-posse is rollin’ thick. My hut is now surrounded by spike walls to deter larger predators (I’m looking at you, carnosaur!), and the scope of my ambition is taking shape. I shall be the god-emperor of the Dilophosaur Kingdom. Those who resist subjugation shall be spat upon and summarily devoured. So shall it be written. So shall it be done.   

But Phlegmy and Loogie have a bad habit of savagely murdering their own kind after I’ve knocked them out. And I want to win hearts and minds. So I tell my bodyguards to stay back as I approach my next conquest. After a few stones to the gourd, this dilo decides it’s had enough and sprints in the other direction. I give chase and am hit from the side and blinded. I run like crazy while being attacked from god knows where and find out that there’s one thing that can take out a posse of dilophosaurs: a bigger posse. As I run for my backup, I’m hit again and blinded, coming to just in time to see at least four of them savaging the species traitors as I die.

And those spike walls around my hut? Turns out dilos can squeeze in between them and get glitched between those and my hut’s walls and they can attack me from the outside. I literally ended up dying on my own spikes trying to do something about it. Screw you, irony.   

Day Four: The Lost World

Whatever the dinosaur equivalent of the internet in ARK is, I’m convinced somebody on it has been posting “predator party at Nick’s house!”, but the good news is that now the servers aren’t disconnecting anymore so I can play multiplayer. In singleplayer, I’ve hardly seen any of the island because I am constantly under assault. I tried wading through the swamp near my base and got stuck with about five giant leeches and murdered by three terrifying new species of predator at once. This was in one minute. In multiplayer, I don’t need to outrun a predator. I just need to outrun the guy next to me.

I spend hours just exploring. This game is massive. This game is beautiful. This game is amazing. The population has settled down and players are now calmly going about their business so I don’t have to constantly worry about some jerk with a hatchet killing me whenever I go into my inventory. There isn’t too much cooperation apparent, but I see evidence of some really amazing stuff. Irrigation pipelines spanning mountains watering farmland, multi-level fortresses, and the like. I really want to join a tribe, but nobody is home. Those individuals I do meet often reach for their weapons to defend their stake, but only seem willing to attack if you are aggressive. It’s progress, at least.

I end up on a beautiful river with perfect spear-fishing, ample resources, and some industrious neighbors. Also, a roving giant scorpion. I avoid that for now, although some day I would like to start a giant scorpion biker gang. But I need to build a bed to spawn at before I get too cocky. I build my nicest house yet, but the lack of wildlife is a double edged sword. I’m not constantly bein attacked by predators, but I can’t find anything non-fishy to kill to get the hides to build the bed either. I made a sleeping bag, but that’s a one-time use item. And it gets used that night when I turn around and find that scorpion standing right behind me waiting for the jump scare like Michael Myers.

An epic battle ensues where my neighbor jumps in to help and I stupidly attempt to knock the bug out to train it instead of going for the kill when it goes on the run. I pursue and corner it against my home and beat it with a club (thinking it’s almost done for) and then it suddenly turned and stung me. Funny thing. One sting from a scorp can render you unconscious and helpless. Duly noted.

When I respawn I make an amusing discovery. The massive T. rex that has been stalking the opposite side of the river and menacing our sister community has made its way over here and we’re all dead now. I respawned at a random point and then spent five hours wandering the wilderness and every river bank I could find trying to remember where the hell my home was. The in-game map is like a real map. That is to say that if you don’t already know exactly where you are it doesn’t help you. Fuck you for treating us like we’re grown-ups, ARK. Also, you’re awesome.  

My first four days playing my most anticipated game of the year did not disappoint. It was a brutal tutorial for me and plenty of other players. But through the literal dog-eat-dog gameplay, I’m beginning to make out a fantastic vision of how great this game could be, even as it kicks my ass again and again. Stay tuned for the second half of my Week One experiences playing this remarkable game next week. Same dino-time, same dino-site.

There Should Be a Happy Coexistence Between Copyrights and Fan Passion  

copyright

Last week saw the release of a four year one-man fan project to remake the classic sequel Metroid 2: The Return of Samus, titled AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake). Gamers rejoiced as the game was made available for free on the internet looking and playing better than ever. It was then almost immediately taken down as Nintendo served up a piping hot plate of takedown notices amidst charges of copyright infringement. Just prior to that, they had shut down the fan-made  Pokemon Uranium, and a month before that Lucasarts shut down a group of fans working to finish the canceled Star Wars: Battlefront 3.  

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Looking good, old friend.

Needless to say, fans were not super pleased at the corporate giant bringing the hammer down on the little guy just because they could yet again. After all, popular opinion has it that Nintendo has abused and neglected Metroid and its fans in recent years. But the love for the franchise remains, making the situation perfect for this kind of culture clash. Fans want something, the company ignores them, fans make what they want for themselves, the company litigates. Tale as old as time (or money, at least).

This brings us to the infamous fair use debate, in which a copyrighted work can be used for educational, non profit, or commentary purposes. While the developer who made AM2R wasn’t charging for it and was arguable preserving and restoring a classic work of art, he loses a lot of leverage to the fact that 3DS owners can purchase the original Metroid 2 digitally. One could see how creating a free and arguably superior alternative to Nintendo’s own product and potentially disrupting their business, even if just a little, could cause this reaction.

Legally, AM2R probably doesn’t have a leg to stand on since you can technically buy the original game. But fans reeeeaaaalllllyyyy want to play this remake on their PCs. Personally, I owned the game when it was originally released on Game Boy and as memory serves it was an absolute masterpiece that was hampered by the portable format. I would love to play an upgraded version of that game on a real console or PC. But the law isn’t written for fans, it’s written to make sure the wealthy get as wealthy as possible. Stop hating ‘Murica, you.

The developer himself is actually on Nintendo’s side in this, taking the opportunity to show what a true fan he is. He took the project on in order to learn how to make a game by reproducing a classic step-by-step en route to a legit programming career and has actually gone so far as to encourage gamers to buy the original game to show that there is a market for it instead of harassing Nintendo for protecting their business interests. He even plans to continually tweak and update AM2R for the players who managed to download it before the hammer came down. Do people this nice actually exist?  

But still, gamers want a Metroid 2 remake and not this Metroid Prime: Federation Force thing they’ve got going on. Classic Samus or gtfo. The struggle between companies’ business interest in their intellectual property and fans’ desire for artistic expression, preservation, and improvement of the things they love is not a new thing. It wasn’t so long ago that Hasbro put the kabosh on the fanmade My Little Pony: Fighting is Magic game, leading to series creator Lauren Faust collaborating with the devs to create original characters for them to use for the game instead. The Battlefront 3 remake is also continuing without the Star Wars theme.  

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Thank our corporate overlords for leaving this one alone.

Game development fan projects aside, countless displays of fan art, fiction, cosplay and other such things cover the web. Any of these could technically be seen as copyright infringement, but for the most part they are left alone. And games like Abobo’s Big Adventure have blatantly used Nintendo assets as well with no retribution.

Remaking an entire game is obviously a different level and, as I stated before, one that may in some small way affect the company’s bottom line, which is a surefire way to get them to release the hounds. And yet, fans keep on pouring their blood, sweat, and tears into these projects, likely knowing that it will possibly all come to naught.

But I feel there’s a better way to go about this where everybody can be happy. For instance, what if gaming companies bought the games and made them official? Clearly there is a market for upgraded versions of old school classics. If Nintendo were to purchase the Metroid 2 remake and release it, all problems would be solved. Fans would get their game, the dev’s hard work would have paid off, and the corporation would make money from their IP having had somebody else do all of the work for them. Win. Win. Win.

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”Samus is kill.” “No.”

 

And let’s be honest: the majority of business that Nintendo has done in the past two decades has been largely based around slapping their classic gameplay with fresh coats of paint and games such as Prince of Persia, Goldeneye, various Final Fantasys, Resident Evil, and Leisure Suit Larry have all been officially remade for new generations to enjoy as well. Plus, the internet doth provide a bounty of other less legitimate remakes, emulations, and ports as well, AM2R only being the most recent.

When a company stops delivering the goods, it’s normal for fans to want to pick up that slack and keep their favorite franchises alive, even if it means rolling up their sleeves and doing it themselves, consequences be damned. To us games are art and passion; not just a quarterly budget/profit chart or a property to be policed. Hopefully in the future, companies like Nintendo will give some thought to these situations and potentially find a way to allow fans their creative endeavors and see these contributions as an opportunity instead of something to be crushed at a moment’s notice.

 

Crush Crush May Resemble Real Life More Than I’d Like to Admit

crush

While Gamemoir was in a digital coma, this gamer was suffering through the late summer gaming doldrums. Between the Steam and PSN summer sales, I’d thought I had this thing licked, but eventually it always comes to this at that time of year: broke, tired, and out of new games to play. Early accounts of No Man’s Sky indicated that it wasn’t the savior we’d have hoped and Ark: Survival of the Fittest got canceled a few days after it was supposed to be out for the PlayStation 4. Tired of Overwatch and Battleborn, too broke for Deus Ex, and not finding any definite winners in my backlog of free PSN titles; what was I to do to pass the time? Write a silly article maybe?

I found myself idly scanning Steam’s free to play titles list and happened across an interesting find, Sad Panda Studios’ Crush Crush, still in early access at the time. It looked cute and unique and had very high rating. Plus: free. What did I have to lose? The same thing you always have to lose, you fool. EVERYTHING! Perhaps even your very soul. The following chronicles my experiences with the early build of the game.

Crush Crush is unlike anything I’ve ever played before and I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a terrible, terrible thing. It’s self-described as an “Idle Dating Sim”, which is to say that after a few hours your active participation will be minimal. It’s not so much a game that you play as it is an insane grindfest where you alternate between managing your time to build levels, adoring the girls and their humorous commentary, and wondering what the fuck is wrong with this game and why you are still playing it as you wait hours and then days and weeks on end for it to progress. So basically, it’s like life itself.

Essentially, what you do is you meet girls at work and then proceed to stop them from hating your guts en route to maybe them even liking you some day. And to do this, you’re going to need an amount of determination that would send the protagonist of Undertale running for a butcher knife. I think this makes the perfect soundtrack:

“It’s gonna take time

A whole lot of precious time

It’s gonna take patience and time

To do it right, child”   

-George Harrison

To gain relationship levels with each potential waifu you’ve got your mind set on, you must meet all of her needs and standards in addition to raising her affection. Early in the game, this is mostly accomplished by clicking the ever-loving shit out of her portrait in a process I could not help but mentally refer to as “fingerblasting” (I know, I know; I’m sorry). One affection point per click and only a few thousand points to go for each girl. Your doctor will thank you when the checks from your carpal tunnel treatments clear.  

To get new jobs to get money and meet new girls and please the ones you already have you need to build up your skills and attributes. As one girl states: “I like big stats, I cannot lie!” Is there a word for when you chuckle and groan at the same time? There should be. Gruckle. There, now there is. You have a certain number of “time blocks”, based on your in-game achievements with which to assign to jobs and hobbies to increase your skills, income, and appeal. Once your necessary affection levels with the ladies reach the hundreds of thousands to millions, fingerblasting is not going to work anymore and that’s when the game stops eating your time and starts eating your brain.

My first day playing Crush Crush, I obsessively micromanaged and deftly switched professions and hobbies like it weren’t no thang. Each of the girls had their own charm and each relationship level brought more amusing witticisms that kept me coming back to see what else they’d say. I was particularly taken with Mio, the resident gamer girl, who I was embarrassed to admit had me googling 53xy as if it were some mathematical reference I wasn’t getting, to no avail. Then I remembered l33tspeak was still a thing. [angrily mutters] Stupid, 53xy Nick…

But eventually, the new wears off and stuff just takes too long for you to devote all of that time, energy, and constant attention to it. I mean, you could sit and wait six hours for your next job promotion where you make a few dozen dollars every few seconds while you save up to buy a girl who is blatantly a humanized Rainbow Dash a puppy for only $149,011,612. And that time-traveling scientist lady who keeps referencing Terminator and warning me about the imminent weaponization of 4chan wants twenty five drinks. Those will only set you back $610,352 apiece. One Steam review in its entirety simply reads “WHO PAYS ONE MILLION DOLLARS TO GO TO THE MOVIE THEATER!! WHO DOES THAT?” Inflation is a bitch, ain’t it?

And that’s why most of your time in Crush Crush will be spent with your window minimized in your system tray (or closed as the game will bank up to a week’s worth of progress for you) while you watch Netflix, browse the web, or (blech) spend time with your 3DPD loved ones. After your hot and heavy first eight hours or so and a few prestige resets to increase the game’s pace, you settle into a nice routine. You just check in every few days or so to see if there’s anything you can do for your ladies and then you allocate all of your money and time for their capricious whims while they continue to take up an unacceptable amount of your headspace throughout the day and in return, they maybe act kind of nice towards you….

Wait a minute. Am I married to a video game now?

I’m a veteran of almost seventeen years of IRL marriage and this feeling is familiar to me. The hopeless devotion to somebody else’s satisfaction, that same person’s growing indifference and increasing demands towards you, the way they just keep saying the same things after a while, the time spent thinking about how awesome they are, wondering what they are thinking about, and sitting around just watching and waiting for them to do something sweet and surprising to make it all worth it. Damn it. How did I not see this coming?  

I’m not an ambitious man. Give me a roof, some food that’s bad for me, and a decent PC and I’m pretty much set. But throw human affection into the mix and it’s all sixty hour work weeks to pay for crap like housing decorations that will spend most of their lifetime in a box in my garage because that lovely creature who captured my heart wants it to be so. Now I’ve got a dozen more of them. And one of them is a fucking bear wearing a pink dress and bonnet with lipstick named Bearverly who thinks that I stink. And I don’t mean like a cute anthropomorphized bear girl. I mean a literal bear. And I’m STILL trying to get her to love me for some reason. What has my life come to?

I’ve now spent most of my life endeavoring to please the object of my affection with only fleeting results. There’s always something else, you know? The returns diminish and the cost keeps rising, but the truth about any relationship is that you have got to keep at it. Get in that groove. Improve yourself. Play the long game. Nothing is ever complete or perfect, but if you can find joy in simply progressing one bit at a time without obsessing about what you are immediately getting in return, then you’ve got half the problem beat. Sometimes you’ve just got to minimize your relationship to your mental system tray and let it do what it does while you go do your own thing for awhile. It’s true in real life and it’s true in Crush Crush.   

Am I desperately twisting my brain trying to find some philosophical moral to this story to justify the amount of time I’ve wasted on this stupid kawaii grindfest clicking simulator? Probably. I mean, my rewards for giving each girl every single thing they want until they want no more is a mildly sexy picture and a checked box on her screen proclaiming “You did it!”. But knowing that Mio-chan doesn’t want to mod my face into an Elder Scrolls game so she can smash it with a cudgel anymore fills me with a strange sort of pride. She even calls me her “Player 2” and looks at me with hearts for eyes now! My real wife doesn’t do those things. So in conclusion: totally worth it. After all, there’s no checkbox for keeping your self respect in real life and you can’t put a price on a good old-fashioned gruckle .