Five Times Until Dawn Stabbed My Expectations in the Face

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

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

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

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

There Goes My Herountil dawn mike

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

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

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

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

until dawn matt hook deathThe Fall Guy

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

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

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

Because Your Twist is on My Listuntil dawn killer unmasking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can’t You Hear Me Knockinguntil dawn ashley wendigo death

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

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

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

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

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

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


Five Ways to Make Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 a Respectable Game

It’s been nearly a decade since gaming icon Tomonobu Itagaki of Team Ninja sprung his mad vision of an all-female Dead or Alive spin-off where the main is earning increasingly skimpy swimsuits to leer at on the world. Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball raised a few eyebrows back in the day, and caused full eyerolls with its sequel -in which the ladies engaged in butt battles- but the awkwardness soon passed. Recently the now Itagaki-less Team Ninja announced a third entry and we’re left pondering the eternal question: WHYYYYYYY?! For anyone who needs a refresher on the las game, enjoy this trailer:

Yeah, move over Fallout 4, this is what REAL gamers want.

DOA has always been the red-headed stepchild of fighting game franchises due to the attractiveness of its female characters and their infamous breast physics. But the truth of the matter is that it sports one of the slickest, most thoughtful, and balanced fighting engines in the genre on top of being just plain fun as hell. The media’s focus on bouncing bosoms is unfortunate, considering the quality of the game itself, but hey, if nothing else, Dead or Alive is Japan at its Japaniest.

My personal feeling on the new Team Ninja’s output can be summed up with petulant rage and indignation over my headache-inducing experience with DOA 5, so rest assured that I’m not looking forward to seeing what they come up with here. But let’s just say for a second that they are striving to make a game that was really worth our while this time, even if the first two were shallow ogle-fests with gameplay that got old in a few hours. What would that look like? Here are five ways that DOAX 3 could (but probably won’t) surprise us.

dead or alive xtreme hitomi lei fang

Hey Hitomi-chan, wanna go straddle some logs with me?

Better Character Interaction

In spite of its cringey premise, the truth is that there is a decent game hiding in the Dead or Alive Xtreme concept. It just hasn’t been made yet. There was a relaxation factor and enjoyability to the original game as well as a competent volleyball engine beyond the T&A. Being a DOA fanboy, I actually really loved the idea of taking the characters we love and taking them out of their element. What is Ayane like when she’s not kicking all of the ass? Inquiring minds want to know.

The first two games actually had some pretty sophisticated hidden features regarding interpersonal relationships and the way certain combinations of characters interact together. For instance, Hitomi and Lei Fang are BFFs and work exceedingly well together as a team. Ayane and Kasumi, not so much as I found out. That is to say if you choose a volleyball partner your character doesn’t get along with, they won’t perform well. This is good stuff.

The problem is that the game doesn’t really inform you of this upfront, you just kind of have to “read the room” and work on building your relationships. And as far as working on relationships go, all you can really do is buy gifts for the characters you want to like you (90% of the time they just return them). The second game had some character specific dialogue during card games, but no ways to really involve the player beyond the game itself.

To make a real game out of the most interesting aspect of DOAX, they need to go full social sim and flesh out the girls’ personalities as well as make the player instrumental in building and maintaining relationships with more social and dialogue options as well as benefits and consequences beyond the quality of your volleyball partner.

dead or alive xtreme butt battle

So that’s what she’s gonna do with all that junk, all that junk inside her trunk.

Genuinely Worthwhile Challenges

The first game was pretty much limited to a decent volleyball game in terms of things to do that weren’t having your virtual waifu model swimsuits for you. It was fun for a while, but to tell the truth, I had way more fun with Kings of the Beach on the original NES in terms of gameplay. That is to say that volleyball games hadn’t progressed much since the 8-bit era.

The second game added in a pretty sweet jetski race that brought back fond memories of Wave Race 64, but again with the comparisons to much older games. The only thing Dead or Alive Xtreme was really adding to the mix was boobs. I love boobs, but they aren’t the reason I play video games. And no, the ridiculous butt-battle minigame was not a worthwhile addition. At all. Ditto pool-hopping. Both were just plain not fun or rewarding and took up a massive amount of precious in-game time.

I’d recommend adding better incentives for the various mini-games like special discount coupons for stores or rare winnable items and some more interesting challenges like swimming or a virtual arcade where you could challenge other characters head-to-head for high scores on some old-school inspired classics. And there really needs to be more to buy. As it is, the swimsuits are tremendously costly and once you put them on it’s like “big deal”. More variety in items, gifts, and customization options (an in-game beauty salon?) would make it more worthwhile to slog through the various mini-games.

The base games like v-ball and jet-ski races could benefit from occasional tournaments with entry fees and great prizes to keep players incentivized to keep getting better and improve their relationships with their partners to stay at the top of their game. Little things like these would be simple to add and would greatly enhance the experience and keep it fresh beyond those first few of hours of “this is kinda fun, I guess”.

dead or alive xtreme volleyball male

Cue Top Gun music.

Bring on the Men

Obviously, the biggest factor in the general disdain for this series is the fact that the entire premise is pretty much “OMG BOOOOOBS!!!!!”. And that’s a fair point. Take the ladies’ loveliness out and nobody buys this game. Ever. But then the idea of a male leering simulator is kind of creepy and ticks just about every sexism box.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the female body or anything unnatural about enjoying the site of it so much as that creating an entire game about it is kind of excessive and exclusionary towards those who may be fans of DOA but may not be as impressed by cutting edge jiggle physics. Some women may have somehow found a way to enjoy the game (Gamemoir co-founder Yesika Reyes among them) but the fact that this notion is a little baffling to almost anyone who hears it highlights the problem here.

The most obvious answer is to add male characters. Why exclude them in the first place? The main series has a great mix of male and female characters to appeal to all tastes and there’s no good reason it can’t be the same in the spin-off. A general leering simulator is significantly less creepy than one made only for males and where there’s equality, there isn’t sexism. Everything that applies to the female characters could be applied to the males and I’m sure there are some women out there who wouldn’t mind a gander at Hayate’s rippling muscles as he busts a spike in a speedo. You’re welcome for that mental image.

dead or alive xtreme volleyball

Everything is less embarrassing with friends.

Two Words: Multiplayer Options

There is some multiplayer in the first two games, but this aspect is really limited. Pretty much just one-on-one volleyball matches between you and your AI partner and an opponent and their partner. And the sequel removed local play even as it added jet skiing. But they were kind of going about it all wrong. First off: four player volleyball with co-op. Come on, man. The option to team up with other players should be a mandatory feature. Playing with a friend is why Kings of the Beach was so memorable for me. Ditto local co-op.

Secondly, the focus should be less on finding individual matches and more of a kind of open-world experience like GTA Online. Players should be able to navigate the island freely and join up in any activity with other players as game lobbies get created. We can probably skip the “relaxation” options since a bunch of male gamers with female avatars rubbing lotion on each other adds a whole new layer of mockability, but then again if you could play as male characters (see above) that’s another issue solved.

dead or alive xtreme kasumi kokoro

Once upon a time, there were two girls in see-through tops…

Tell us a Story

Now let’s just say for a second that nobody has any problems with a game where the premise is checking out mostly-nude chicks. And maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Even at its most male-centric, gaming should still be about gameplay and fun. Attractive character models are a plus for sure, but it’s icing on the cake. Nobody over a certain age wants to eat a whole can of frosting. The biggest problem with Dead or Alive Xtreme is that it’s all icing and no cake.

<With the gameplay being as shallow as it is, being limited to beach-themed games, the obvious answer after beefing up the social sim aspect is to add a story. After all, gaming is quickly rising to the top of the entertainment industry largely on the back of interactive fiction elements that have helped legitimize it as a true storytelling art form with infinite potential. The main games have often had interesting stories surrounding the Dead or Alive Tournament and its surrounding intrigues, so why not incorporate this intoDOAX

I know it’s supposed to be just the girls relaxing, and that should still be an option, I guess, but as I stated before the whole thing gets old FAST and there should be more to hold players’ interest once they’ve already seen all of the canned jiggle animations a hundred times. Mysteries to explore and problems to solve could keep the tone light while still giving the player something interesting to do beyond grinding for swimsuit and gift money all the time. Individual stories for each character involving friends, rivals, and mini-games would go a long way in making the game interesting for everybody instead of just a shallow excuse to droll over digital bikini babes. Do that, and maybe, just maybe, the world can stop laughing at Dead or Alive Xtreme and actually enjoy it as a worthwhile video game.

Five Must-Play Witcher 3 Contracts


The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt made itself the only choice for game of the year (at least until Fallout 4 drops) by combining the best aspects of the best RPG’s of its generation. It’s got the characters of a BioWare title, the combat of a Dark Souls game, and maybe best of all, the open-world exploration of an Elder Scrolls title. That last bit means there is a nearly endless supply of places to go and things to do there that often stack on top of one another. But what sets the Witcher games apart from the oothers is that you play a professional monster hunter, and as such are free to take on extermination jobs where you use your detective skills and monster knowledge to track and kill all manner of beasties.

Deciding what to do next can be a real dilemma, and sometimes you just let those monster contracts hang there while you attend to more urgent matters. But make sure that you at least take care of these, because they are more than simple “go there and kill that” missions. These show world and character-building and occasionally challenge the player’s moral sensibilities with no-win situations that leave you pondering your actions long after the “quest completed” fanfare has faded fom your ears.

The Oxenfurt Drunkwitcher 3 oxenfurt drunk vampire

Let’s start off with an easy one. No complicated moral gray areas, just good times and a dead monster. For this multi-stage contract, you have to find out what’s been killing lone villagers in the night around an Oxenfurt tavern. After examining the bodies, noticing that they were all heavily inebriated when they died, and then interviewing a woman who narrowly escaped the monster’s clutches, you know what you’re dealing with and what you’ve got to do.

The killer is a vampire with a taste for alcohol. Vampires in the Witcher universe are ravenous bat-like creatures, but this one is a katakan, a higher vampire who can blend in with humans using illusions. To get him to reveal himself, you need to make yourself a target, and that means you need to get Geralt’s blood-alcohol level up there. Bottoms up, witcher.

This is where it gets good. You see, drunk Geralt is an interesting character, and quite different from the scarred grimdark anti-hero at his soberest. We still don’t talk about that time we got into Yen’s wardrobe and then drunk-dialed her megascope in an attempt to “summon the bitches” to our party. That sorceror totally freaked! Anyways, this time, drunk Geralt goes on a stroll trolling for vampires slurring obscene songs and offending old ladies in the street. It’s a rare moment of pure levity that only drunk Geralt could make happen.

When you finally hear a menacing telepathic voice lusting for your blood, you know it’s time to party. Sober Geralt would perhaps growl something menacing, but drunk Geralt is all “come out and fight, bitch”. And come out and fight he does. Higher vampires can turn invisible, so it’s a pretty cool encounter, but soon the katakan decides he’s had enough and flees so you have to track him back to his lair, which is a pretty much a human slaughterhouse, to finish the job. The Oxenfurt Drunk combines creepy ambiance, humor, and supernatural detective work in a way that only the Witcher universe provides, and that’s why it’s leading this list.

witcher 3 cat wolfWhere the Cat and Wolf Play

If you’re a new player, remember to get your free DLC when you start up your game. Just to be awesome, CD Projekt Red prepared a slew of free downloadable content available for all Witcher 3 players including character outfits, equipment, and extra missions. Three of my five picks here are among them, so naturally you shouldn’t pass the DLC by if you want the best Wild Hunt experience.

In this contract, you arrive at the village that posted the notice to find the monster’s head already delivered, but the entire village slaughtered as well. All except for a terrified little girl who thinks you are the killer. Obviously, there’s another witcher afoot. You track down your fellow monster hunter -who hails from the Cat school- and find that some villagers had attempted to kill him after he completed their contract and couldn’t pay the agreed sum. Uh oh. This is going to be one of those hard decisions, isn’t it? As a really cool and unexpected touch, the other witcher actually commented on the fact that I was wearing Cat school gear at the time.

The thing about witchers is that while everybody needs a professional monster slayer now and then, they don’t have to like them. At this point, I’d already been stiffed by a complete shithead after he mistook a forktail for a dragon and then insisted the reward had been for a dragon. So I feel your pain, fellow mutant.

But still, the entire village? I was pretty conflicted about what to do, but Geralt managed to get him to all but confess that this wasn’t the first village he’d wiped out in a rage. I told him to draw and he -still injured from his ambush- requested I allow him to drink a Swallow potion to heal for a fair fight. I conceded and the bastard blasted me in the face with a Samum instead, blinding me and nearly killing me in his initial flurry. That was the best part.

After overcoming this rare challenging adversary, I was really glad I decided to kill him. Not just because he was a murderous dick, but because his sword was severely awesome, and now it was mine. My kind of reward for a really engaging and cool mission.

Warehouse of Woewitcher 3 warehouse of woe

This sidequest is easy to miss as it isn’t posted on any notice board. You can find it on Novigrad by overhearing an argument on the docks. It’s a brief aside, but probably the single most morally gray situation I encountered. I’m pretty sure I’d feel I did the wrong thing whatever I chose.

So in this one, you come across a warehouse whose bickering owners, a dwarf and a human, need a nekker evicted. One nekker. Pretty much the easiest thing you can fight. Whatever. The weird thing is that once it’s dead, it’s obvious somebody put the monster in there on purpose, and the signs suggest it was the dwarf. Open and shut, right?

Wrong. Even though the dwarf is apparently the culprit who put a monster in the warehouse in hope it would kill his partner, the man is kind of a racist piece of shit with no redeeming qualities that we can see. So then you have to ask yourself which is worse: the premeditated attempted murder of a complete bastard, or being a complete bastard?

If I’d had the choice to stay out of it, I’d have done so, but it made me choose so knowing very little, I sided with law and order and fingered the put-upon dwarf. Being an asshole isn’t a capital offense any way you look at it, and being an oppressed minority doesn’t make a crime not a crime. But I still kind of wanted to chop the other dude’s head off after they took the dwarf away on general principle.

witcher 3 missing miners trollMissing Miners

This DLC quest is yet another moral quandary. It’s pretty straightforward by itself, but what makes it one of the best contracts in the game is the way it fits into the secondary narrative theme that reveals itself over the course of Geralt’s adventures. The Wild Hunt puts players on the spot in difficult situations time and again and how the player resolves these gray areas can vary greatly, and the picture they paint of themselves may be one of black-and-white idealism, cynical pragmatism, or any shade in between.

At one point in another quest, Geralt encounters a succubus responsible for at least one death, although an incidental one. You’re given the choice to kill her or let her be. I tend to let any non-malicious sentient monster be, and the beautiful demon mocked me for my trouble suggesting I had a soft spot for a monster with “ample breasts and a pretty face” while cutting down her “brethren” without hesitation. It wasn’t the first time I’d made that choice either. I shrugged it off, knowing I tend to avoid killing when it doesn’t seem necessary and went on my merry way.

In the Missing Miners quest I tracked the namesakes to a cave where I found their broken corpses scattered about. The creature responsible was a particularly amusing and badass-looking troll who explained himself as having told the miners to leave. Instead they began mining a silver vein. As he put it, “they wham-a-wham troll’s rocks. So troll wham too.” Yeah, trolls take their rocks very seriously.

So the question is: do you put the monstrous simpleton down for defending his home, or do you let him get away with massacring those men? Given the choice, I very seldom kill but here’s where things got video gamey for me. I happened to be looking for rare troll livers for some alchemy formulae, and I’m not proud to admit my inner pragmatist used this to justify killing poor Wham-a-Wham. But the fact that I’m still kind of bothered that I made that choice, and that the succubus’ words are still ringing in my ears made me think that I probably wouldn’t have killed the troll if it was more feminine. Is benevolent sexism the real monster here?

Skellige’s Most Wantedwitcher 3 skelliges most wanted

Yet another DLC contract, this one anchors the list because it kind of feels like a culmination of the previous dilemmas regarding whether Geralt’s solution of killing creatures that threaten humans makes him as much of a monster as those he hunts. It starts out simple enough and gets curiouser and curiouser right up to the finale.

When Geralt is contracted to investigate a merchant cart attack, he does his thing and is nearly crushed by a boulder from above while examining the evidence, which doesn’t add up. After investigating the spot on the above hill where the boulder was pushed, you find some tracks leading into a cave. Once you step into it, something collapses the entrance, trapping you in what turns out to be a particularly nasty bug’s nest. At this point, it’s obvious you’ve been lured to your apparent death.

After defeating the insectoids, you find a little alcove filled with drawings that are clearly plans for your demise along with details for a meeting spot. Naturally, you go to the meeting spot and there you find an unusual group of ragtag monsters. A rock troll, a doppler, a godling, and a werewolf have all joined forces for…what exactly?

Turns out the entire set-up was a plan by the werewolf to lure a witcher in so he could avenge his mate, who died by one’s hand. His confused accomplices -who thought they wre just scaring witchers from the area- argue that punishing one witcher for another’s crimes is wrong and that’s where things get really interesting. Depending on how you’ve played things, you can either end up fighting the monsters or you can state your case by listing some of the monsters you’ve helped or spared along the way. No matter what, the werewolf is a lost cause and will attack, but convincing three out of four ain’t bad.

The point of the quest is that some monsters are good and some are not, and the same is true of people. It’s wrong to hold entire races accountable for the deeds of unique individuals and each individual situation must be handled accordingly rather than blindly assuming. A witcher has a foot in both worlds, and at his best his job is to protect monsters and humans from each other by exterminating the murderous beasts that give the good ones a bad name. So in a way Skellige’s Most Wanted can be seen as the series’ definitive quest, and arguably the best contract you take on in Wild Hunt.

[Note: this quest was broken by update 1.07 and has not as yet been fixed]

Four Rules for Sex-Positive Gaming


Once again, it’s time for us to discuss the representation of sex in video games. As the average gamer age keeps gets older with more and more games being designed with adults in mind, and as gaming strives to find its place next to film, television, and music in the mainstream with more mature subject matter, we are probably going to start seeing more and more sexual situations in our video games.

In the past, this has been a bit of a sore subject, largely due to the public’s bizarre notion that any amount of horrific violence is good times for all ages, but a little bit of virtual lovin’ is going to warp the fragile minds of our children. Here in the present, it’s still a sore subject, but the focus has turned towards the inequity present in gaming’s roots as a pastime for young males. That is to say that positive non-hetero, non-male representation in these situations is often lacking.

With consensual sex being the pleasurable polar opposite to the unpleasantness of violence on the scale of real life social interactions, it’s baffling that in the virtual realm the roles have somehow been reversed with sex being seen as unpleasant and senseless violence a preferable pastime. But that’s a discussion for another time.

When I say “sex-positive gaming” I mean normalizing sex in a manner that portrays sexuality in a light that is desirable and/or relatable for mature adults within video games. So constant mindless barrages of bouncing anime girl boobs in your face and naked slave girls chained to walls desperate to show their gratitude to your big strong hero: not the object.

Contrary to popular online opinion, the answer is not to cover up all female characters in burkas and refuse to ever show them in a manner that could be construed as attractive or desirable lest an admiring male gaze shall be upon them. If people didn’t sexualize one another, none of us would even be here. Sexuality is the most natural possible thing, so let’s get out of the habit of demonizing it in the name of impressing internet strangers with all of the intellectual delicacy of Donald Trump and Hulk Hogan discussing race relations.

Instead, let’s embrace this biological/emotional necessity and genuinely delightful part of the human experience by learning to make games that celebrate sex as a (nearly) universal human experience while respecting those involved at the same time. These are the rules gaming needs to get on board with if it’s going to wash off the sleazy sheen of sexism and push the medium forward into the present.

sims gay marriage proposal

Damn. There goes the sancity of marriage…Bye sanctity!

Be All-Inclusive

Once upon a time, girls played with dolls and toy ponies, boys played with military action figures and video games, and straight people assumed homosexuals were just doing it to piss God off. But these days grown men are openly worshiping My Little Pony, gay marriage is the law of the land, and women are carving out their section of the gaming market.

In order to make gaming’s transition from cartoonish violence for young boys to respected interactive storytelling art form, we can’t get by servicing only vanilla preferences. We’re definitely seeing a lot more diverse LGBT representation in modern games than back in the day when Final Fight was pointing out that the women you were beating to death were transgender, so the inevitable march of social progress is not passing us by, but we’ve yet to see it catch on the way it has in film, music, and television so there’s still miles to go. BioWare has arguably made more strides than anyone else in the modern era and The Sims series normalized same-sex relationships years ago but most devs haven’t jumped onto that bandwagon just yet.

That’s not to say that every game needs homosexual romances and a transgender protagonist, but with interactive entertainment becoming increasingly immersive and offering players more and more options and more realistic and complete worlds to explore, it’s important that companies keep in mind that gaming can and should be for everyone and as such, there should be representations that reflect the diverse world we live in. That’s not “SJW shit”, that’s just properly servicing your customers. And in the spirit of eliminating long-standing gamer stereotypes…

dead or alive extreme ice cream hitomi lei fang

Who even does that?

Know Where the Line Between Tongue-In-Cheek and Creepy Is

Video games can be a great way to enjoy the ridiculous and sublime in ways that wouldn’t really be advisable in real life, but are fun in digital form. The occasional ironic, self-aware suggestive pose or sex-tinged satire is good times, but sometimes when it’s slammed into your face often enough, the ironic can quickly become earnest and gamers can seem like slavering creeps to anybody unfamiliar with these tropes.

Bayonetta’s sex kitten act is an ironic caricature right down to her oral fixation and is juxtaposed with her insanely ass-kicking personality to strike the right balance of having and eating cake. On the other hand, taking a character like Samus Aran, a Master Chief-like character most recognizable in her awesome power armour, and portraying her more and more in her skin-tight Zero Suit (as in “zero left to the imagination”) is definitely altering her image for the worst. As a game-ending slice of eye candy: good times. As her new default appearance begging to be leered at: unnecessary and distracting. Or taking the female characters of Dead or Alive and crafting an entire subseries based around collecting increasingly skimpy swimsuits, participating in extra-bouncy minigames, and gawking at them while they sunbathe. Really, gaming?

It’s cool to have a giggle at the occasional moe character or sex bomb presentation complete with gratuitous booty shot, but that should never be a constant thing. When a joke is repeated too often, it ceases being funny and just becomes an annoying trope at best and downright creepy at worst. And if we want more people to respect gaming as a medium and be willing to give it a try, we need to tone it down a little and grow up a bit. Which brings us to our next point…

girl fight

So let me get this straight: is the entire game hot girls fighting or making out with each other?

Portion Control is a Must

We humans do enjoy a bit of eye candy, but just like regular candy, it’s not healthy to gorge yourself. I’m a big fan of exploitation films, but I’m not really going to enjoy a film that is just wall-to-wall T&A and genre cliches. Compare late night Cinemax to old Roger Corman movies, for example. One is a fun romp of sex, violence, and foul language and the other is just fap material for desperate people with no internet.

Don’t populate an entire game with nothing but scantily-clad female stereotypes moaning and flashing their panties all the time if you don’t want to look like a goon. Just like a movie can’t get away with 20 minute fake sex scenes and be taken seriously even as light entertainment, gaming needs to learn that a constant bombardment of sexual imagery limits its appeal and murders any attempt at genuine character development and atmosphere.

And just like in real life, half the fun of sex is in the anticipation and the spontaneity of the moment. Only an adolescent should feel the need to constantly stuff their eyes with cleavage and yoga pants. A little mystery and a few surprises beat constant in-your-face sexuality any day. Even if your only opposite sex interactions are with your 2D waifus, it’s got to feel a little condescending to have them constantly set on ten. Dial it back a little and make the characters a little more believable, yeah? And while we’re at it, let’s pollinate our minds with the following mantra…

akibas trip strip

Got something for everyone.

Equality, Equality, Equality

You may have noticed that I’m focusing on female representations here. Well, name me a mainstream game where men are portrayed as hyper-sexualized….. that’s right, keep thinking. Again, I’m not against sexualizing some characters. We’ve got no shortage of real live people who enjoy playing up their own sexuality and there’s nothing wrong with representing those people in-game. And as much as some female internet dwellers may pretend to be above such base vulgarities as sex appeal, we’ve all seen Fifty Shades of Grey and Magic Mike‘s sales numbers. Money doesn’t lie.

Speaking of which, Hollywood films and network television know the value of a nice six pack, as evidenced by any number of handsome male leads whipping their shirts off because why the hell not. And yeah, the ladies like. So where you at, gaming? Japan has its otome, but that niche is a tiny one stateside with all of Hakuoki: Stories of the Shinsengumi and Hatoful Boyfriend to choose from on consoles. Plus, women (and men who swing that way) shouldn’t have to settle for visual novels about dating pigeons to get themselves some interactive romance. Game devs should want to tap into this market, and as male gamers we should want the women in our lives to love gaming as much as we do, if nothing else. There isn’t really a downside here.

One approach to a sex-positive game could be found in Akiba’s Trip: Undead and Undressed. While it definitely toes the line between funny and creepy (what with the combat being based around publicly stripping clothing off of your foes and all), it does do a pretty good job of being equally pervy towards its male and female characters with its tongue lodged firmly in its cheek. It both celebrates and pokes fun at the ridiculous images that otaku/gamer culture puts out in the name of adolescent fantasy and give both male and female players ample opportunity to let their freaky geek flags fly in a judgement-free environment. If you want to put a wallpaper of a blushing elderly man in his underpants as your in-game cell phone wallpaper, get on with yourself. You may not get another opportunity.

And really, that’s the whole issue with sex in gaming. It’s been too one-sided for too long and it’s understandable that women would want in and desire more and better content for themselves in the games. Just like a lot of men fear an imaginary dystopian future where every game is aimed at women -which will never happen since the male base is extremely established and going nowhere- a lot of women are hesitant at best to support an industry where nearly every single game is aimed squarely at men. It will cost us almost nothing to make gaming better for everyone, and the upside is massive. Once we clear that hurdle, maybe, just maybe, we can all stop being so uptight about sexuality in video games and create an environment where more of the mature, sex-positive games we as adults deserve to play can get made.

Four Reasons I Can’t Get Excited About the Marvel/Telltale Collaboration


It’s funny. I love comics, I love video games, I often side with the House of Ideas when it comes to the Marvel/DC rivalry, and there’s the whole “awesome movies” roll that they’ve sustained for longer than I’d have ever dreamed. Plus, I have a particular affinity for Telltale Games’ unique brand of storytelling and their revolutionary low-budget, episodic approach to game development. So why the hell was I not amped when Marvel Entertainment and Telltale Games announced a partnership developing games for release in 2017? I’ve been mulling this over since the announcement was made last spring and this is what I’ve come up with.

Overexposure Killsmarvel montage

Even before the Marvel Cinematic Universe took over our cinemas and cemented nerd stuff as the most mainstream stuff possible (for the moment), we had no shortage of Marvel cartoons, comics, blockbusters, and video games. But with three major movie studios feverishly putting out all the Marvel they can to milk this comics boom for all it’s worth and television show tie-ins and spin-offs and even more cartoons and movie tie-in video games and merchandising and political debates about fucking toys based on these things, there is nobody on the planet thinking “man, I sure wish there was more Marvel stuff coming out”.

So you’ll understand if I’m not as amped as I would have been ten years ago to see an Ant-Man movie or an unspecified deal for Telltale to make a series of games based on Marvel properties. Honestly, the only thing that would make me genuinely excited would be if they chose Runaways, which is possibly the best thing Marvel has done ever, and yet somehow has been totally shafted in all this. Yeah, there’s been a film in development hell, but the property likely wouldn’t make a great film anyway. It’s much better suited as a television series. Or an episodic, dialogue-heavy video game. Just sayin’.

star wars disneyWe Are Disney. You Will Be Assimilated

When Disney bought Marvel, it was a shocker. When they purchased Star Wars: more shock. All in the name of raking in more money for one of America’s most ruthlessly profit-driven entertainment corporations. Well, you know what makes more money than movies or comics or movies about comics right now? Video games. You see where I’m going with this.

For years before making the plunge, Disney cultivated a relationship with Marvel by producing cartoons with them, but the comic company was flirting with bankruptcy for years. And then just as it became apparent that Marvel’s risky cinematic experiment was going to pay off massively, the House of Mouse swooped in and gobbled them up just in time for The Avengers take its place as one of the biggest movies of all time. It was not a coincidence. Nor was it when fans were clamoring for more Star Wars to throw their money at while George Lucas thought to himself “Meh. I’ve got too much of it already” and suddenly we’ve got a million Star Wars projects in development by Disney.

After taking over the animation industry, the film industry, television, and comics, it’s pretty obvious what the next step is going to be to create a complete multimedia domination circuit for Disney. Disney Interactive is a thing, of course, but it hasn’t exactly set the gaming world on fire (I believe “shovelware” is the term most would use) and I doubt Disney Infinity is going to have legs beyond the the upcoming third iteration.

If only there was a small studio capable of generating massive revenue with minimal investment; perhaps one that excels at adapting existing properties. Properties like the kind Disney owns a bunch of. They’ve teamed up with Square-Enix for Kingdom Hearts, but Square is in the same boat Marvel was back in the 90’s. They’re a risk. Telltale is on a massive upswing and I think if this Marvel deal takes off we may see the small studio lose its indie spirit and be put to work cranking out endless Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar adaptations.

Too Much of a Good Thingtelltale montage

Not that I don’t like Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar, but I love what Telltale’s doing now in terms of making a diverse array of quality adaptations aimed at adults. They aren’t doing the obvious and they are constantly surprising us and taking risks. If they end up being sucked into Disney’s orbit, we can likely say goodbye to anything resembling risk, and definitely to adaptations of comics from competitors like The Walking Dead and Fables. I’ll get into this more specifically in a minute but I really would rather see them continue to give love to darker, more mature, less obvious, and less-known franchises then what Marvel brings to the table.

And consider what Disney is putting into motion with Star Wars. I kind of feel like it’s already overkill and the first film isn’t even close to releasing. As it is, I’ve been concerned about Telltale spreading themselves too thin by concurrently working on so many different ongoing series, but so far they’re pulling it off without a drop in quality. But when you consider the resources Marvel has behind them, even if the Mouse passes on buying them out they could still throw enough money at them to clutter up their release schedule and/or incentivize them to pass on better, more interesting franchises in favor of dipping into the Marvel well more and more. And while I love both Marvel Comics and Telltale Games (as previously stated) and I want them to make tons of money, I don’t want Telltale making the mistakes Marvel has with their comics and spreading themselves thin enough that the quality suffers.

image comics montageIt’s All About Image

And it has suffered. In terms of just comics, Marvel’s old grey mare, it ain’t what it used to be. Ditto their eternal industry rival, Detective Comics. As crazy as it may seem, in 2015 if somebody asks you “Marvel or DC” and you fail to see the invisible third option and choose it, you lose nerd cred. The badass elephant in the room of hardcore comic fans is the simple fact that Image Comics’ current comic line-up crushes either of the big two in terms of creativity and quality. And they’re a much, much better fit for Telltale’s brand of storytelling. Just ask The Walking Dead.

Sure, we could get excited about all the possibilities offered by superhero comics. You know: good guys with special abilities punches bad guys with special abilities, repeat as necessary. Or we could look at what Image has going on. The twisted, limitless multiverse of Black Science, the cannibalistic detective work of Chew, the raunchy, girl-power fantasy of Rat Queens, the hysterical exploration of human psycho-sexuality that is Sex Criminals, the chilling family-based horror of Wytches, the female-centric supernatural Western tale of Pretty Deadly, the grimy, punk-infused 80’s flashback brought to us by Deadly Class, every goddamn single thing about Saga; all screaming to be adapted to interactive form. And those are just some of Image’s titles from recent years. They have a long history of quality creator-owned comics that go light years beyond the superhero genre and its pile of worn tropes.

And maybe that’s why I’m just not that excited about Marvel taking up Telltale’s time and resources. Although I have a lifetime of loving Spider-Man, Daredevil, the X-Men, and all of the rest I just feel like it’s all been done to death and I’d so much rather see a spotlight on something new and unexpected. Telltale’s shown that they’re capable of just about anything with successful adaptations of everything from Back to the Future to Monkey Island to Game of Thrones to freakin’ Minecraft (okay jury’s still out on that one since it’s not been released yet), and I guess I’d rather they worked their magic to introduce some truly amazing independent comics to new audiences rather than go back over the same ol’ same ol’ retreads of massive franchises that have been mainstream for decades and never more so than now. But you know damn well I’m going to buy it anyways, so here’s to a successful (and hopefully brief) collaboration between Telltale and Marvel. And it’d better be Runaways.

Five Unforgettable Moments From My Journey Experience


One of the games I was going to make it a priority to play when got my PlayStation 3 a couple years ago was Journey. What kind of game was it? I didn’t really know, but I did know that this game was inspiring some of the best writing about video games I’ve ever seen. I didn’t know what the game was really about, but I knew I had to play it. Somehow, between catching up on blockbusters like The Last of Us and Heavy Rain, indulging in various massive RPG’s, and gorging myself on dirt-cheap PSN sales I managed to not play it before the big upgrade to the PS4. Having heard that the little indie title that could was only a few short hours long, I kept waiting for a sale on it that never happened.

Then the week before last, Journey came out on the PlayStation 4 and I rejoiced at the second opportunity. More reviews popped up on this new edition, and again it produced the kind of beautiful and evocative writing that I wish we saw more of in video games. Once again, I had to play this game. And this time, I did.

I wasn’t disappointed. Actually, I was utterly blown away in spite of expectations. Over the scant few hours I spent, I was utterly engrossed and by the time I reached the end, aided by the companionship of an anonymous fellow gamer, I was never more happy that I didn’t wait for a sale. I did myself a major disservice by putting off this piece of indescribable interactive art for as long as I had. For the price of a DVD, I got that rare experience that was truly one of a kind in a way only timeless works of art are.

So what kind of game is it after all? It’s joy in digital form. That’s what Journey is. If you haven’t yet played it, I recommend leaving your computer now, clearing a few hours, buying it, playing it, and then coming back to read this because the less you know, the more amazing it will seem. Here are five scenes that blew me away as I played them and how the spontaneous multiplayer interactions made the experience niquely mine. Spoilers.

Coming Down the Mountainjourney slide

It’s really more of a hill/dune than a mountain, really, but the first thing you do is climb a large mass of sand in the desert and survey a desolate landscape with a massive Himalayan mountain sporting a shining summit in the distance and you just know that’s the place you’ve got to go to. Why? Because it’s there. After taking a moment to take it in, you slide down the slope, leaving a trail of displaced sand behind you and no small amount of mystery in your thoughts. Who is this genderless, cloaked, Jawa-esque creature we’re playing? What is he or she doing? Where do I even begin?

The beginning of Journey is like playing video games for the first time. You have no idea what you’re doing. Aimless wandering and figuring out the strange new mechanics is your world. I amused myself at first by playing random piping staccato melodies with the one button that did anything. There’s a few ruined structures in the distance, guess that’s where we’re going. That sense of overwhelming mystery in this strange new world and of doing something unlike anything you’ve ever done before while learning from scratch makes that first level memorable in itself in spite of the fact that very little actually happens.

journey kiteLet’s Go Fly a Kite

Very early in my game I met my companion. While traversing some ruins and perfecting my floating ability using the clusters of scattered cloth fragments swirling in the wind to boost my scarf-based power, I saw another player in the distance. I kind of ignored them at first, not really sure what to do, and as they approached the challenge I was still solving I ceased my freestlye melody making, maybe a little embarrassed to display to a strange gamer the same whimsy I flaunted in solitude.

Anyways, together we traversed the building scapes and gained the next level with him following my lead. We gained some more companions soon after. Some sort of apparently sentient kite-like creatures rose from the sands to frolic amongst us like airborne dolphins, emitting a piping sound not unlike our own communications. It was…..amazing. I don’t know why, but something about these things just made joy appear in my heart as they flew and dove into the sand and back out and swirled about us, leading us through the desert. In a moment of triumph, I managed to mount one and flew through a portion of the level aided by this strange friend. I could practically taste my companion’s jealousy as he tried and tried again to lure the creatures beneath him with his magical piping. The entire experience was just beautiful and fun in a way I’ve never before witnessed in a video game. All we were really doing was going from one point to another, but for once I didn’t care if I never got there.

It’s Where My Demons Hidejourney guardian

Funny thing about Journey: there are almost no enemies in this game. Almost. While exploring some catacombs, we encountered some monstrous flying stone beasts somewhat resembling those giant snake things from The Avengers. And they did not like us, as they’ve apparently got a case of the aggros where magical cloth is concerned. They sweep their baleful gaze over the landscape and if they see you, gods help you. Not that they kill you. Instead they take a chunk out of your beloved scarf, which you build over the course of your adventure. The longer the scarf, the longer you can fly, and the cooler you look and feel. Losing any of it is a hobblesome badge of shame.

After getting attacked once, we were cautiously keeping to the shadows. There is no way to fight back. We were completely at the mercy of these guardian beasts patrolling our path. I led my companion safely through the passsage without further incident and ended up standing atop a slope with three of the things at the foot of it. We both stood at the top not knowing what to do. I looked all over for a way around it, but there was our goal, right behind these scarf-devouring abominations. We looked at each other for a while like “you go first”, and eventually I remembered how awesome the sliding in this game is and just went for it. The demonic bastards saw us, but we evaded them with a little finesse and attained our goal.

journey hammerhead sharkThe Head, the Tail, the Whole Damn Thing

At this point, I’d experienced the comfort of companionship, the joy of flight, the rush of sand-surfing, the perils of huge flying monsters, and the beauty of pure, unfettered imagination and adventure. What else could this game possily throw at me? How about a hammerhead shark made out of flying carpet? And some jellyfish too because why the hell not?

Gaining the top of the gigantic cloth behemoth effortlessly cruising was another crowning moment for me in this game. The hammerhead was always my favorite as a kid and there was just this great feeling as I rode this thing higher and higher towards my goal. So cool. I’m not sure I’ve figured out the symbolism of the marine life and cloth motifs that permeate the game. Maybe it’s because cloth is amazing to animate (and abuse of its magic properties likely destroyed this world) and sea creatures are the best creatures. Or maybe I’m just too dumb to figure it out…

Valhalla, I Am Comingjourney ending

The ending. Wow. Where to begin. Having reached the frigid foot of our glowing Everest after a draining trek through the snow relying on one another’s body heat to preserve what little of our scarf power we could as the cold ate it away, braving more attacks from the serpentine stone guardians, being blown about by the freezing winds, we were there. But we were slowing down. The fierce winds continued blowing our once-proud scarves away until we had none left and we trudged like two Frodos without Sams up the face of Mount Doom until we both collapsed in death.

But when we woke up…yeah. I hope Heaven is half as awesome. Resurrected, scarf returned to maximum length, and glowing like a god of pure light, I rocketed through an exhilarating flight sequence filled with awe and beauty and even more flying carpet hammerheads. It was like I’d just taken a shot of pure, distilled happiness. I knew I’d left my companion in the dust, but I was having so much fun I offered only the occasional glance about me as I flew ever onward towards the summit. When I finally landed, I couldn’t help gazing down the way I had come, hoping to see my friend flying after me. But I was alone.

I waited what was probably a minute or so (but seems like half an hour in gaming time) not wanting to abandon the person who had shared this wonderful experience with me before turning away to continue. I took a few steps towards my goal and then, I heard a piping chirp and turned to see my companion barreling in to land just ahead of me. It was so good, you’d think it was scripted. As we slowly walked down the last path together, I began chirping staccato melodies in time with the swelling musical score, no longer afraid of being judged for my whimsy by an internet stranger like I had been at the start of our adventure together. And the other player actually joined me, offering a counter rhythm to my own, and I swear it sounded so good with the in-game music. So together we walked singing into the white beyond, our journey complete. Serious question: will anything ever be this perfect again?

Even if these were the only five things I did in the game, the feelings Journey evoked in these sequences would have been worth the $15. While watching the end credits, still awestruck at what I had experienced in a single gameplay session, it came to me that the game is a representation of life itself. We start out knowing nothing in this ruin of a world, learn as we go to use it our advantage, meet strangers with similar goals who become trusted companions and friends, and while we may or may not ever reach the summit of the mountain we wish to climb, it’s all about the journey, not the destination. And God willing, once we’ve given all we have to give, the ultimate culmination isn’t the acheivement of any arbitrary goal, but the satisfaction of all of the things we’ve experienced along the way. Things like riding on giant flying carpet hammerhead sharks. Thanks, Journey.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter: Is Handholding Holding Gaming Back?


The very first thing you see when you begin a playthrough of The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a black screen with the words “This game is a narrative experience that does not hold your hand”. It’s both a challenge and a warning. “Bring it on”, I thought to myself. After no small amount of both frustration and wonder, I completed the gorgeous independent Lovecraftian adventure mystery questioning whether maybe some handholding is necessary to maximize player enjoyment. How very casual of me.

The thing is that the game tells you literally nothing and then punishes you later on for its own learning curve. The very first segment of Ethan Carter places you into a beautiful forest with random traps which it invites you to examine, the “examining” consisting of some weird effect the player has no comprehension of at the time. Moving on, you make your way to the first murder scene with precious little idea of just what to do. Nowhere does the game suggest what’s expected of you or when it’s time to move on. If you want to walk straight to the end of the game world without doing anything, you possibly could.

ethan carter landscape

How could you not want to explore this world?

Turns out that my intrepid nature of always looking for what’s next worked against me here because I found out at the end of the game that I needed to seek out and examine every trap in that very first area, whereas I just thought they were there for effect and had moved on. This meant I had to take a somewhat lengthy trek back to the very beginning of the game, which I found annoying. I was halfway through the game’s world before I even figured out what I was supposed to do with the murder scenes. Sure I felt stupid, but like I said, my nature as a gamer is to push forward and explore the limits first before working within them.

While the relatively small open-world of Ethan Carter is just about the right size to get away with the player having no goddamn idea what to do, I can’t help but think that this approach simply would not work for most games. I mean, the narrative experience here is only a few hours long -with very little replayability since the game forces you to do everything before revealing the ending- and most of the time we like a good, long, drawn-out story.

At the end of the day, the game is a momentous experience and a refreshingly hardcore and artistic take on the mystery/puzzle genre with the prettiest scenery I’ve ever seen in a video game to boot. But it also shows why we have handholding in most video games. Because left to our own devices, gamers are just too different and free-spirited to be confined to a proper narrative without any rails. We’re liable to just spin our wheels and spend all day looking for glitches and exploits or marveling at a particularly pretty effect where the sun shines through the leaves of a tree over a lovely lake. Some RPGs go so far as to provide mini-maps with little breadcrumb trails to make sure we don’t get lost and end up on the wrong side of the map having forgotten completely what we were even doing. Given my spectacular talent for getting lost, I actually appreciate this at times.

legend of zelda final dungeon location

Only true old-schoolers remember finding this after days on end spent bombing every inch of the world.

A lot of gamers don’t have the free time they once had, and they want to wring every last drop of awesome out of a game in the minumum amount of time. This can lead to a lot of frustration when you don’t know where to go or what to do. Hours spent backtracking in the days of the old school led to memorable triumphs in games like The Legend of Zelda when you finally found that dungeon you were looking for, but modern gaming has become less aimed at kids on summer vacation with countless hours to spend on nothing and more accomodating to the adults who grew up gaming and now don’t have the spare time to fully appreciate the joys of hardcore gaming because the investment is more than they can afford and the sustained stress now outweighs the joy of discovery.

Like I said, Ethan Carter‘s small size accomodates this style of gaming, but I wonder if there isn’t a fair balance where maybe we don’t need an in-game breadcrumb trail to follow, but at the same time the game can make its expectations a little more clear. I can’t deny that the indie game’s “fuck you, figure it out” approach wasn’t a bold and interesting stroke in a game with plenty to recommend it, but at the same time it could have and should have been done a bit better.

Gamers have long lamented the non-interactivity of the cutscenes that most AAA games use to advance their narratives. Reducing the player’s control and essentally forcing them to watch short films in between gaming segments to understand the narrative is something that the industry should probably start moving away from. Aping film and television is only going to hold interactive entertainment back as the medium strives for further player immersion.

Ethan Carter has that much right, with most of the story presented as flashbacks obtained by examining evidence and reconstructing the scenes, which then play out in the environment as you look on. There’s no HUD in real life, no dissembodied voice telling you what to do, no waypoints telling you where to go, and nothing to tell you when you’ve finished a task and it’s time to move on. So if we want a more realistic and organic-feeling experience, eliminating some of these tropes is a good place to start.

half life episode 2 dog strider

Sic ’em boy! Hey wait, I think there’s some ammo on the ground over there….

But at the same time, you don’t want to miss out on the best moments in the story. How can you know a player won’t look away or be digging through the in-game trash looking for loot when something awesome happens if we don’t have cutscenes? And with a massive open world, how will players know what to do or where to go without waypoints and whatnot? There’s got to be a fair balance between realistic immersion with minimal handholding and practical playability that allows everybody to get the most out of the experience.

This brings to mind the Half-Life and Bioshock series’, which seem to me to be a good starting point. Aside from maybe aiming your POV for you to catch some great cinematic story moments, these games trend heavily towards letting the player experience the game and story in-game on their own terms through their own eyes. They tell you what to do, and then they more or less let you go about it. Other characters have expositionary conversations and character building moments as you look on, and you are there to witness them from your character’s perspective rather than watching a series of short films about them after being pulled out of the gameplay.

Combining this with Ethan Carter‘s approach towards open world puzzle solving where all of the elements are simply out there in the in-game world waiting for you to discover them (or not) and figure out how they all piece together would make for a pretty immersive experience, providing the game finds a way to let you know that you’ve still got things to do before you have to backtrack through the entire game looking for something you missed. Then again, providing consequences for the things that were missed, like a less-satisfying ending, could increase replayability and encourage the player to try again and get it right.

The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is definintely an interesting experiment in open world gaming that brings up a lot of questions about which way gaming should trend. Maybe getting rid of all that extraneous information and letting the player explore the landscape the same way we would in real life is the wave of the future.

Should Romance in Gaming be a Serious Commitment or a Casual Affair?


The history of virtual romance is a pretty brief one, but there’s been a lot of evolution in the last couple decades. What began as the hero wordlessly rescuing the damsel in distress and maybe getting a kiss for his trouble after spending countless hours fighting and dying has since become an often long-and-involved wooing process between comrades in arms with fully-realized characters of both genders and various sexual orientations combined with interesting and charming personalities.

As video games strive more and more for artistic integrity and the caliber of talent involved in the industry continues to grow, the line between casual fun and realistic immersion starts to show itself. Back in the day, gaming was all about kicking back and living out your boyhood fantasies of being the studliest stud ever to stud, but lately, the former casual distraction had been striving for art. No longer limited to children and basement-dwelling man-children, gaming is for everyone. Video games can be used as a medium to explore mental illness, heartbreak, and advanced space-time physics just as readily as it can have you jump over a bunch of barrels or kill a thousand bad guys. They can even make you fall in love.

tifa lockheart final fantasy 7

My one wish for the FF7 remake: guess it.

But that brings back the old divide. Traditionally speaking, when love and sex make their way into video games it’s like the ’60s all over again; free love and good times for all. You meet a series of lovely ladies over the course of your adventure, and you bang them all. Maybe you choose one you like more than the others at the end and everybody’s happy. But should it always be that easy? Do we want our in-game waifus to be just friends with benefits or are we willing to seriously commit?

Video games have often been kind of a safe place for we nerd boys. A place where we weren’t judged and could be as awesome (or stupid) as we want to be in a world we command with no fear of social rejection. With the right combination of inputs any challenge could be overcome. Real people are so much more complicated, unpredictable, and… unsettling. Yet art always strives to speak to (if not reproduce) real world experiences, and to do that properly, we’re going to need some more realistic romance with genuine consequences for our actions.

However, there should always be room for casual fun too.

Final Fantasy has long made romance a typical aspect of its plots, but it’s always on rails. The player is a spectator to the love between the leads, but never really a participant. How many of us were forced to date Aeris just so Sephiroth could kill her and make us hate him when we always kind of liked Tifa more and had to watch Cloud’s ass mope while his lovable childhood friend pined away for him? Not saying that’s not legit storytelling, but we can get that in movie, books, and television. To really invest the player beyond what you can get from traditional media, games need to involve the player in the characters’ romantic choices.

BioWare has made a lot of headway in the video game romance department, evolving heavily over the years to include gay, lesbian, and bisexual characters as well as consequences for unfaithfulness. Over three Mass Effect games I cultivated a relationship with Liara T’Soni as an ideal romance for my FemShep (since Tali never came around) only to throw it all away on a spontaneous shower tryst with that cute comm jockey, Samantha Traynor. Never could resist a lady with an accent.

mass effect 3 samantha traynor gif

Brutal honesty also makes me hot.

Probably should have saved beforehand, but I kind of assumed they’d go the traditonal “hit on everyone you can and then choose between them” route. It’s not like I expected to put one over on the Shadow Broker, but the conversation where Liara told me she wasn’t interested in games anymore and broke it off has bothered me ever since. And that’s great. Genuine feels attained! I felt better about it after the Citadel DLC showed that Sam is a WAY better dancer than Liara (and crazy nerdy to boot), but still. Well played, BioWare.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed games as a way to be a vicarious man-slut. It’s a direct contrast to my ‘real life’ personality, where I’ve been happily married to the only girl I ever kissed for fifteen years, but you know what? I’ve earned a little fictional sexual irresponsibility. Nobody gets hurt for real in video games. There are games like Alpha Protocol where you can pretty much have sex with every woman who shows up in the story without them ever finding out or caring and the Fable games where you can get away with marrying a different person in every town (but if two of them ever meet, you could be looking at a public scene). Fable 3 even kept track of how many STD’s you contracted in your journeys.

I have to admit, I enjoy the option to live carefree and skanky. Slutshaming is for sad, repressed prudes, and doubly so in fictional settings. But at the same time, I feel that these games are often missing genuine investment. True love is throwing yourself into another person until you can’t even see yourself without them. Video games should represent that aspect as well for the true romantics out there. Like I said, gaming is for everyone. There’s always a fair balance.

And that brings us to the game that inspired this article, The Witcher 3. Past games in the franchise gloried in making the title character, Geralt, a megapimp who was irresistable to just about all of the women he met in his travels. And that still remains more or less true in the third game since there are multiple sex and romance options, but at the end of the day it does boil down to choice and consequence. Not groundbreaking at all, but interesting in a different way.

witcher 3 geralt triss yennifer

Decisons, decisions….

Spoilers in the next two paragraphs.

Geralt’s two “true” loves in the series are the sorceress’ Yennifer and Triss Merrigold. Yen was in the first game, Triss in the second. In the third game, the ladies occupy two different continents and you get to spend sexy time with each in turn if you play your cards right. But eventually, the magically-inclined heroines will tire of Geralt’s cavalier ways and if you’ve led them both on too long, they lure you into a bait-and-switch threesome and leave you tied to the bed with the nastiest case of blue balls in video game history, later assuring you that the new galpals are no longer interested in Geralt of Rivia. It’s cold, but kind of awesome.

That is one time I was glad to have something accidentally spoiled ahead of time since it will hopefully help me get a better ending (TRIIIIISSSSS!!!), but at the same time I’m kind of impressed with CD Projekt Red for respecting the characters enough to pull out the classic trope of the women joining forces to give the philanderer his just desserts rather than fighting over him like schoolgirls or sharing him because he is just so goddamn manly.

End spoilers.

So The Witcher 3 seems to have struck a pretty good balance between playing as a traveling monster hunter/sex machine who is free to play fast and loose with the ladies as he pleases, but not without consequences. The most satisfying romantic endings appear to be reserved for gamers who play it conservatively, while those who just want to bang hot chicks have plenty of chances for that. Both the choices and consequences are yours, just as they should be.

witcher 3 triss geralt

Stop it. You’re going to make me cry.

As game stories become more and more emotionally engaging and the characters more fully-formed, it’s natural that they’d start treating their love interests more like real people instead of simple devices to fuel the players’ adolescent harem fantasies. On one hand, it’s fun to engage in the escapism of consequence-free fun, but on the other, we crave more feels and immersion in the gaming world and you can’t really attain that when the entire thing revolves around fulfilling your every base wanton desire. It starts to feel like you’re being patronized after a while.

As always, a good balance is necessary to give everybody what they want and it looks like gaming is well on its way to giving us digital romance options that will satisfy everyone. Variety is the spice of life, but to unlock the full potential of a relationship, you’ve got to commit yourself to it first. The Witcher 3 appears to be pointing the way forward in those respects and other devs would do well to study its lessons.