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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

orwell

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.

Positive Contact: OPUS is a Universe of Emotion in a Tiny Game

opus

“Drift by a star, absorb it, and leave tourists porous.

My galaxy’s gorgeous.

Quantum jump, I’m right at your doorstep…”

 -Deltron Zero

There’s a lot of discussion in the game community about value and content. As gamers we have only a finite amount of time in this meager life to absorb all of the sights, sounds, and sensations that this universe holds for us while trapped in hopeless relative immobility on this cosmically insignificant ball of rock, water, and atmosphere.

opus cast

Happier times.

Video games are one way we have of vicariously experiencing things digitally that we will just never get to do in real life. But with so much to choose from, how do we decide what to play? That brings us back to the question of value. With only so much time and money, do we measure a game’s worth by it’s depth, width, and length or by its quality? And when we say “quality”, what are we even talking about? Fun factor? Artistry? Emotional impact? The answer varies from person to person.

While playing through the extremely brief and largely bereft of gameplay indie game OPUS: The Day We Found Earth, I found myself seriously considering this once again. You can clear this game in the time it takes you to watch an episode of Game of Thrones, and it’s not one of those games you play through again and again to get different endings. But it’s not quite a precedent setter in that regard either.

In the past, amazing works of fiction like The Killing Joke and Voices of a Distant Star (do yourself a massive favor and watch that on Crunchyroll) have proven themselves to be brief experiences well worth their cost in spite of their premium price tags, and OPUS carries that obscure tradition into gaming like Journey and many indie titles before it. As with all works of art, the experience of the journey far outweighs the destination and I’ve seldom seen so much packed into so little.

opus galaxy

Prettyyyyy…..

In OPUS, you play as Emeth, a lone chibi robot awakened after an indeterminate amount of time offline on the titular space station with one mission: find planet Earth. After traveling across the galaxy, mankind has lost track of their homeworld as their gene pool has degraded, putting their future in doubt. A single scientist, Lisa, and her gruff partner, Makoto, were the only people who volunteered for this insane dream of locating the planetary needle in a cosmic haystack and perhaps recovering a sample of our original DNA.

As Emeth, you can explore the station and the cosmos (using a telescope) along with the onboard AI (a digital duplicate of Lisa). Each newly discovered star system is one infinitesimal step closer to Earth, but OPUS is on the verge of shutdown and the scientists are nowhere to be found. Still, the universe awaits…

Gameplaywise, most of your time is spent following directions to locate potential Earth candidates. It’s quite simple and not particularly challenging, but the main purpose it serves is to advance the story, as each valuable discovery is accompanied by a furthering of the plot back on OPUS. Emeth’s child-like single-minded determination to locate “Doctor” and the AI Lisa’s existential crisis make up the bulk of the characterization, but by unlocking rooms and exploring the station in classic point-and-click fashion, a truly tragic narrative builds towards a climax that can make even a machine cry.   

opus distort emeth alone

So say we all, little guy.

The mood is intensified by a truly stellar (pun intended) soundtrack and, of course, the awe-inspiring beauty that is our universe. I also found some fun in naming each heavenly body I discovered, doing my best to further expand mankind’s mythological roots from all religious pantheons across the galaxy. Maybe a little too late in the game as my knowledge of ancient deities waned I figured I should have named them after video game characters to spread geekology throughout the stars, but them’s the breaks.

The well-paced story picks up a surprisingly urgent velocity as you approach the end with the system on shutdown and the monitor (YOUR monitor) distorting as the station loses power. It’s a very nice touch. The implications of what you learn from exploring the various leaving of the scientists leave as many questions as answers and forces you to look stark reality in the eye and question whether your mission has any worth whatsoever. But like Emeth himself, you’ve been given a task as a gamer and you must see it through at all costs, even if only to honor the memory of a loved one or to remind yourself that even out in the infinite, indifferent void of space with nobody else there to see it, there is still beauty to be experienced.   

Under an hour’s worth of gameplay -most of it spent stargazing- and yet I feel as though OPUS: The Day We Found Earth is an experience I will carry with me for a long time, even with the minimalist graphics and lack of voice acting or meaningful gameplay. This game is exactly what I mean when I talk about the power and potential of interactive fiction. No other medium could have provided this experience.

opus emeth lisa

Hark! What light from yonder galaxy breaks? ‘Tis the solar system and Lisa is the Earth.

A story well told molds itself to any format and this one was made with care to successfully convey a breadth of emotions from melancholy loneliness to humor to despair and hope. It’s in the music, it’s in the character designs and cutscenes, it’s in the text notes and files left around the station and in the original Lisa’s comments that accompany her past discoveries.

It may be tiny by video game standards, but OPUS: The Day We Found Earth manages to encompass not only the vast wonder of exploring the infinite universe, but the trials, tribulations, and fortitude of the human spirit (even with no humans around) in an hour’s time. That’s an amazing accomplishment no matter how you look at it and it’s one I’m happy to have experienced.    

  

Three Fourths Home and the Rise of Post-Millennial Interactive Storytelling

millennial

“Sometimes, I feel I gotta get away

Bells chime, I know I gotta get away

And I know if I don’t, I’ll go out of my mind

Better leave her behind with the kids, they’re alright

The kids are alright”

-The Who

I’m a generation one gamer, which is to say that I‘m closing in on an impending mid-life crisis and often finding myself dissatisfied with this mythic “younger generation” that has perpetually plagued the aged, jaded, and socially obsolete throughout modern human history. All of the little things that mark the Millennial generation: the lives ruled by social media and celebrity gossip, the narcissism, and most of all the resultant attitude that suggests an earnest belief that every single thought that enters their heads is the most important thought anybody has ever thought (even if they didn’t so much think it themselves as read it on the internet); these eat the brains of their Gen X progenitors.

millennial perception infographic

There may be some sort of generational discrepancy here…

But lest we become like our own reckless Baby Boomer parents and forget where we came from ourselves while lashing out at our offspring over superficial differences, we old-school gamers owe it both to ourselves and the incoming generation to put aside petty differences and objectively analyze the most relevant, enduring, and telling aspect of any generation’s cultural legacy: their art. And as the children of the ‘90s grow to become productive members of society in a new millennium, I think we as elder gamers have to admit it: the kids are alright. And the very same youth trends that are driving us crazy? They may turn out to be their greatest strength.

Appearances aside, Millennials do have something relevant to say and they are changing media as we know it and proving themselves as bold and innovative artists by twisting their perceived narcissism into universal expressions of human emotion and honesty like we’ve never seen before. And it’s good. Really good. I don’t even feel like shaking my stick at them and yelling to get off my lawn anymore.

The other day I was watching director Kevin Smith interview geek goddess Felicia Day and he told her that her generation were the “true independents”; accountable only to themselves as they have made cyberspace their own and filled it with creativity with no governing body to exploit or impede them. And he’s right. It’s a new world. This is possibly most evident in the rise of the indie game scene, and the way it has taken low-budget minimalist storytelling to heights absolutely unheard of in previous decades.

Games like The Cat Lady, Cibelle, and even Depression Quest have garnered attention and acclaim in telling stories that feel intensely and unflinchingly personal and evoke powerful feelings with very little to work with. The real life issues that cause us chronic anxiety like mental illness, sex and relationships, and the general unfairness of life is something that Boomers have long pretended to ignore and Gen X have skirted with cynical apathy, but Millennials are breaking down those walls head on and integrating them into the very medium we’ve used to escape from those things. And you know what? We’re all the better for it.

Repression is an indisputably damaging psychological force, and while the youngsters’ willingness to (over)share may cause an initial kneejerk of discomfort in the more conservative among us, you’ve got to hand it to them: they know how to tell a good story. As an interactive and growing entertainment medium, gaming has infinite potential and looking at the rise of indie storytelling, it’s truly impressive are using the same tech used to create games in the 8-bit and 16-bit eras to craft creative and artistic stories that would have been absolutely unheard of in that time.     

three fourths home car

Nebraska simulator: engage.

Case and point: 2015’s Three Fourths Home; a game I feel like I should have played sooner but somehow never got around to before now. It’s billed as an “interactive short story”, and including its bonus content is closer to the length of a feature film. As a video game, it doesn’t have much to recommend it since it’s not exactly what we’d call “fun”. Plus, it’s composed almost entirely of silhouettes and text and would not have looked out of place on an early ‘80’s computer. But the economics of storytelling and immersion that make it such a worthwhile gaming experience are as post-millennial as it gets.   

The main game takes place on one two-dimensional stretch of road and you, the player, are expected to do two things: press the gas and talk to the main character’s family on the phone as the car moves through the Midwestern countryside. As an apparent casual phone conversation continues to take turns towards unveiling the various traumas this family unit has undergone in the recent past, the weather gets progressively worse…

Lots of little touches and personal details as well as visual and audio cues pepper Three Fourths Home’s rural journey into the heart of American anxiety in the 21st century, but at the end of the day it is a story comprised of text and lo-fi silhouettes and sounds that convey a wealth of human emotion and a personal experience with nearly universal scope. That is amazing.

In the game’s extended edition, the story is expanded into even deeper artistic territory including an epilogue that takes place inside the protagonist’s memory that offers a way of creating an alternate past for the character and her family, even if only in her own mind. This stays with the theme that was detailed in the base game via her socially impaired younger brother reciting a story he wrote to her about a terrifying monster who looms over a village without destroying it, just slowly poisoning it with its mere presence. Like what the bad feelings, unexpressed anxiety, depression, regret, and general stress of living life these days will do to your general well-being if you don’t find an outlet for them. And still, one day, after slowly rotting your existence indirectly over years as you ignore it, that beast may still wake up and lay waste when you least expect it, leaving nothing behind. Ain’t life granmillennial3d?

This is bleak even by Generation X standards, but it’s a valuable lesson that the young Millennials have to impart. And maybe that’s the core of what we perceive to be a generation of chronic oversharers: a desire to exchange these honest and personal stories of dysfunction as a form of catharsis. We had punk and grunge and heavy metal and gangsta rap and horror movies that didn’t suck and violent video games speaking to us, but in the face of saccharine corporate cookie-cutter garbage taking over modern cinemas and radio, teens and twenty-somethings have taken to the internet and independent gaming to share the horrors of coming of age in a world that may already be broken beyond repair.

They’ve been left to suffer the consequences of previous generations’ irresponsibility and these personal horror stories of a harsh and unforgiving world and the way it amplifies their personal failings are becoming a form of art unto themselves. And for once gaming is right in there from the start, not playing catch up to film, literature, and television, but blazing the trail right alongside them with the new wave of independent artists. It’s a beautiful thing, really.

The power of this new form of interactive entertainment is that a brief stint spent driving a virtual car in a straight line by depressing a single button on a controller and making dialogue choices in a text conversation with a video game character’s unseen relatives can take a jaded aging gamer’s negative opinions about a generation obsessed with vapid reality shows, arguing about nonsense online with inappropriate zeal, and posting endless pictures of everything they eat and drink (or just their own damn faces) and help give him a whole new perspective just by telling him a story in a way he’s never seen before.

That’s a pretty solid testimonial of the advent of post-millennial storytelling and it feels good to know gaming is only going to get better and more personal from here on out. I’ve murdered tons of Nazis and aliens and monsters and whatnot and traveled to every possible kind of realistic and imaginary landscape in video games. Maybe the future of gaming isn’t about literally battling external threats and traveling places you’ll never get to go in real life anymore. Maybe it’s about going inside of our own heads and figuratively battling the universal human anxieties that are holding us back in life instead. Sounds good to me. Lead on, whippersnappers. Just give the selfies a rest, ‘kay?    

Undertale Tested My Determination Like Never Before

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

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

undertale combat hug

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

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

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

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

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

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

undertale Toriel fight

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

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

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

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

undertale flowie

Takes one to know one, dick.

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

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

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

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

undertale bratty catty hyped

These two seriously need their own Twitch channel.

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

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

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

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

undertale papyrus internet

Aren’t we all…

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

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

Five Unforgettable Moments From My Journey Experience

journey

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.

Exploring Effective Storytelling in Two Dimensions With The Cat Lady

catlady

This is the opening paragraph where I explain for the hundredth time the virtues of low budget indie games and how the lack of corporate resources and oversight spurs creativity while offering a low-cost alternative to gamers fed up with endless AAA hype. Yay indie! Alright, now that that’s out of the way, allow me to point out 2012’s delightful British horror game, The Cat Lady, and how it manages to be awesome with a mere two dimensions to its name (what is this, 1987?) when so many larger titles struggle to create an effective horror atmosphere or interesting story.

cat lady gate

Ummmm…is this the line for the Slipknot show?

For one thing, you can’t get around the fact that the game is art. No matter how you look at it, it is at least as much art as it is video game, seamlessly blending themes of personal psychological struggle in with the disturbing violence we horror fans crave, a story of true friendship, sparse but extremely effective mood music, and some unreal hellscape and dream imagery. It’s an unforgettable story that’s amazingly well-told and engrossing in spite of the fact that in terms of gameplay it consists almost entirely of walking back and forth.

Sure you can pick stuff up and look at stuff and use stuff on other stuff, but most of your time as The Cat Lady is spent either standing there listening to dialogue or walking right-to-left or left-to-right with limited animation. And this in the age of Resolutiongate and full 3D open-world environments with crazy physics and explosions and motion capture and hundred hit combos and towering multi-stage monster bosses. How do you stand out as a horror title amongst all that eye-popping awesomeness?

You give them the unexpected. You make something that speaks to people. The Cat Lady had already perfectly fulfilled what Depression Quest aspired to be without all of the unfortunate baggage that ended up coming with that noble attempt at bringing the experience of suffering individuals to gamers in a language they could understand by taking the soul-crushing experience of living with depression and translating it to a video game. But this one has crazed serial killers in it too, making it equal parts personal psychological journey and visceral horror story.

cat lady cutsceneAt one point our middle-aged heroine, Susan Ashworth, wanders across the screen while a song croons “in my head it’s all hell”. The story begins with her attempt at suicide, but she is somehow saved and brought back by a mysterious supernatural woman who tasks her with eliminating a number of “parasites” from the world; people whose very existences are an abomination. But as we get Susan through her first tribulations and back to her flat, we find out bit by bit about her life and experience firsthand the mental state that led her to end her life and continues to make her existence miserable.

The game’s chapters are divided up into a diverse array of tasks; including everything from escaping a mental ward to choosing which one liner to say before ending a deserving bastard’s life to hunting down an out-of-control internet troll, crafting a ghost story to frighten a jerky neighbor, or even simply enjoying coffee and a cigarette. The last one is particularly intriguing because it’s accompanied by two meters. And you know how we gamers love meters. These two represent neither HP nor MP, or even a hyper bar. One is Susan’s level of anxiety, and the other is her satisfaction.

cat lady corpse

Cheerful.

As you walk back and forth accomplishing menial tasks within her apartment, aggravations increase the bad bar and fulfilling goals like eating and showering give you good bar. If you fill the latter first, Susan can finally relax and fall asleep. I had no such luck (thanks to an asshole crow and that dickhead from upstairs) and she collapsed in a heap weeping as her beloved cat looked on and I was sent to the next segment with some disturbing words to think on. “Behind closed doors, I have fallen in love with the razor…”

Eventually, we meet a cheerful (and terminally-ill) girl named Mitzi. The game poetically spells out the contrast between the two women and their individual struggles with depression. Susan -who is immortal until she completes her mission- declares “It feels like all I want is to die, but I have to live” while Mitzi ironically responds that “I feel like I want to live, but I have to die”. Both are tragic victims of inevitability.

In addition to the refreshingly honest portrayal of the tortured and sympathetic heroines, The Cat Lady throws in plenty of classical puzzle-solving in your journey to find and eliminate the cast of nasties that end up in her orbit with some pretty interesting solutions. One dreamscape segment requires you to acquire a lock combination where the 2D presentation becomes an important element when certain background and foreground objects line up as you traverse the screen to put the solution literally in front of your face (although you likely won’t notice it at first). In another drug-induced dream, you are tasked with carving open a giant spider’s heart in a hospital lobby to acquire a narcotic to bribe another patient with. This transfer of physical objects from dream state to “real life” and vice versa is another interesting element giving the player something to think about in terms of where this story is really taking place.

And then, of course, there is the dialogue. While the speech sometimes comes off a bit stilted due to delays between responses, the game does a good job with its characters and in giving players the option to express themselves through dialogue choices, which is always a plus. For example, when confronted by the mysterious woman at the beginning and end who gives you your missions, you can assent to do as your told and agree to the choices she presents, or you can do what I always do: pick the “fuck you” option.

cat lady shotgun

BOOM! You just got Cat Lady’d, grandma.

The “fuck you” option (which doesn’t necessarily contain that combination of words) is always sign of good storytelling to me. After all, when someone gives you a choice between two things you don’t want to do, the right thing to do is probably your own thing. Even if it doesn’t affect the outcome, there’s satisfaction in seeing the aghast reaction of a character you’re supposed to listen to when you tell them to piss off. Sometimes in life you’ve got to appreciate those small opportunities to assert yourself, you know?

The story is full of moments of horror, weirdness, poignancy, and even beauty. Try and think of a game that evokes this combination of feelings for a minute. It’s kind of amazing to run across such a unique title that gets so much done with so little. It’s one thing to make a visual novel with player choices and call it a game, but to combine the storytelling strengths of that medium effectively in a true game where you directly control the character is an elusive experience in modern gaming.

In addition to Susan and Mitzi’s metaphorical journeys through the horrors of their own lives, the antagonists symbolize the inhumanity hiding in plain sight all around us in forms such as authority figures abusing their positions, impotent internet trolls seeking to do harm the only way they can with words, or sometimes just random monsters in human form, unseen until they choose to reveal themselves. These disturbing encounters keep the game from feeling pretentious with plentiful doses of violence, badass vengeance, and grisly imagery to counterbalance the more meditative and surreal qualities of the story.

All in all, I was really impressed that such a low-budget title was able to draw me in the way it did. The Cat Lady represented a several firsts in gaming for me by not only putting me in the shoes of a middle-aged woman and making me feel her hopelessness on a personal level, but by telling a story that works on so many levels and keeping me invested and excited when pretty much all I was really doing was walking back and forth. No jumping, (almost) no shooting; just solving a few puzzles and meeting other people. It was a pretty remarkable experience that I would recommend to any fan of indie games with love for psychological horror.

Unleashing the Beast with Tokyo Jungle

You know where you are? You’re in the jungle, baby. You’re gonna diiiiiieeeeee!” -Axl Rose

You know that feeling when you impulse buy an unheralded low-budget indie game and think to yourself “where has this been all my life?” I had one of those moments after playing the PSN-exclusive release Tokyo Jungle. I mean, come on. A post-apocalyptic nature simulator where you play as one of dozens of species of animals struggling to survive and procreate in the toxic ruins of the biggest city on Earth? Concepts don’t get much more interesting, at least not to a nature geek who spends too much time thinking about dystopian futures and apocalyptic events.

But there’s always the execution to worry about. A great concept does not always a great game make. And there’s only so many things an animal can do, really. To borrow an old Slipknot album title: “Mate. Feed. Kill. Repeat.” pretty much sums it up. But one should never underestimate the power and appeal of Japanese weirdness. I came to fulfill my dreams of becoming one with nature, but I stayed to experience the joys of complete fucking batshit insanity afforded by the randomness of a game in which animals ranging from chicks to cows to goddamn coelurosaurians share the same ruined city.

tokyo jungle lion

Better run and tell Simba his uncle is back, Snoopy.

Did I ever picture myself as the leader of a tribe of Pomeranians engaged in an epic turf battle with the feline forces of evil before? I did not. Weighing the worries of getting fleas from a bunk female with the fear of dying alone and getting a game over before finding a better mate? Not so much. And I never gave much thought to the risks involved with attempting to mark territory under the nose of a pack of hyenas either. Nor could I imagine the terror of being a small sika deer pursued relentlessly by an organized pack of terriers. No, but in this case it was probably karmic payback for all of those baby chicks I kicked so hard they flew off of the screen earlier just ’cause I could. At least now I have another excuse to hate lapdogs.

If nothing else, this game is utterly unique. All of the old-school difficulty of the dreaded and beloved Souls series, but without all off the macho egocentric human bravado. You’re not slaying any massive demons to save the world, you’re just a humble creature trying to get by and pass on your genes until you can unlock the next step up the food chain in a world that desperately wants you to die and will go to extreme lengths to starve, poison, and murder you to bring that inevitable end about. And when you die, you start back at square one like this was an 80’s side-scroller without the extra lives. Tough yet unfair. Classic gaming.

tokyo jungle animalsIt always starts simple enough. It may seem easy to be able to play as a lion in a world of rabbits and gazelle for that first couple dozen years or so, but you’ve presumably earned that right by grinding and conquering as all of those lower beasts to get that power. But how long can you hold onto that king of the jungle crown when your food sources suddenly vanish, your world becomes polluted, and suddenly you’re surrounded by mobs of unfriendly crocodiles, bears, and dilophosaurs that want nothing more than to devour your flesh and absorb your liony strength for their own?

That’s a lot of pressure, man. Maybe you’d rather play as a nice, peaceful herbivore. Plenty of grasses to hide in, you don’t have to chase down your meals, and the meek are supposed to inherit the earth anyways. Plus, the inability to mount a believable offense against the apex predators of the world opens up some interesting tactics. Like when a panther is in your way and you lead it into a pack of wolves and then hide in some foliage and watch the silly carnivores tear each other apart while you slink away, chuckling evily to yourself. Is there something wrong with me that I still find ways to be destructive while playing as harmless species?

The trials that manifest themselves while traversing the post-apocalyptic Tokyo wasteland are legion, and the stories that result can be made epic by your choice of attire. I forgot to mention that you can totally dress up your animal of choice and make him a bonafide character. The ill-fated tale of my epic quest hunting the dreaded Beagle Boss for the first time with my cat and his merry gang of fraternal feral felines just wouldn’t have been as memorable if the protagonist didn’t have a mohawk and wasn’t wearing a schoolgirl outfit and cat paw gloves over his actual cat paws. It made the decimation of my clan by a single ruthless canine after an awesome run a truly tragic thing to witness and the epic ballad about the confrontation in my head sounds like a verse from “A Boy Named Sue”. This doesn’t happen when I play Assassin’s Creed or Halo.

tokyo jungle outfit

Swag level: dangerously high.

So I get my dream of an open-world nature sim with dozens of animals, it’s got the bonus of being apocalypse-themed, AND I get to play wacky Japanese dress-up and make the whole thing completely absurd? And it’s got an inappropriate-yet-oddly-pleasing EDM soundtrack too? How did this game exist for nearly three years without me playing it? And why haven’t YOU played it? Okay, maybe you’re not a nature-obsessed weirdo who gets a kick out of the idea of dressing up hippos in tuxedos with a beanie, but if you were you’d be either kicking yourself right now or shaking your head at me for being so behind the times, having already unlocked all of the creatures and purchased all of the DLC for yourself long ago.

It’s nice to be reminded that there are still developers out there who want to bring us something fun, simple, new, and slightly insane. Tokyo Jungle is one of those titles that I wish would come along more often and give us some real bang for our buck in a world where season passes for underwhelming AAA games are starting to cost as much or more than the games themselves and continual hype is dulling our sense of wonder at exploring these virtual worlds. Sometimes it’s the little independent titles that slip in under the radar and catch us by surprise that help us recapture those feelings that made us want to be gamers in the first place. It’s a good feeling.

Dyscourse Shows Me Why I Should Never Be in Charge

dyscourse

Fair warning: if any of you are ever stranded on an island with me, you’re probably going to want to take a more active role in decision-making. Don’t look to me to be your Rick Grimes. You’ll almost definitely die. Maybe it’s my curiosity compelling me to keep things interesting rather than safe, some subconscious desire to watch the world burn, my classically supernatural bad luck, or just plain old boring incompetence, but playing this Owlchemy Labs’ indie survival game has shown me that I am not the guy you making the tough call. Best case scenario, you may end up in a Lord of the Flies dystopia being ruled by an inanimate object while I chuckle to myself, but more than likely, you just aren’t going to make it.

BioWare and Telltale are much beloved (and rightly so), but it’s pretty much accepted fact that the vast majority of decisions they give you are heavy on moral drama and personal expression, but low on concrete repercussions. This game demands several playthroughs because each choice you make leads to different outcomes, different situations, and more choices with more different outcomes. Who dies where and when is going to be all your fault. And what Spider-Man’s Uncle Ben never taught him is that great responsibility breeds grave incompetence.

The experience is kind of like a cross between Lost (way back when it was good), Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and Seth McFarlane’s A Million Ways to Die in the West rant. You play as Rita, a barista who wakes up after a plane crash (note to self: do not fly on an airline called Dysast-Air and make sure to check for duct tape on plane’s exterior before boarding if you do) and finds herself stranded with a diverse band of survivors.

After a run-in with some hyper-aggressive beach crustaceans and convincing the resident conspiracy nut Teddy that I was not a bunch of crabs in a human suit I was in. But it was all downhill from there. As a gamer, I consider my first playthrough of a story-based game to be my canon. Subsequent playthroughs for experimentation or perfectionism don’t have that same into-the-unknown quality that makes that initial experience so memorable. So this first game was for all the marbles in my mind. This would show me what I’m made of.dyscourse survivors

Turns out, I’m the kind of person who wouldn’t give a second thought to chasing down and devour a diseased wild boar out of spite for stealing a small bag of pretzels. You never know how you’ll react to a given situation, I guess. But I do love pork. This was probably the first sign that my party wasn’t going to do so well. But hey, I did manage to save on other person.

The crew consists of Rita, Teddy, a cynicism factory named Steve, a country-bred married couple, Jolene and George, and consumate neckbeard gamer, Garrett. Teddy embodies the mainstream media’s attitude towards gamers by pointing out that, “nobody spends that much time alone in the basement without doing something villainous”, but I kind of like Garrett. Anyone who refers to sleeping as replenishing his HP is okay in my book. Further party members can be recruited in the form of a cat and a cracked plastic disc, who you collectively name Disky and immediately begin treating as a person, no questions asked. But who are we to question the sentience of a fellow castaway?

Having established the cast, the object is of course to keep these kooky bastards alive. Good luck with that. Even when you aren’t deliberately eating tainted meat or climbing into leech and snake-infested ponds you’ll probably end up battling a jaguar with a frying pan or getting set on fire and/or struck by lightning. And one thing I noticed is that anyone I fed seemed to die almost immediately in order to maximize the waste. The survivors get to starve because the people who got the food they needed all promptly died from firecracker explosions or jaguar attacks (seriously, FUCK that thing), leaving the remainders too feeble to defend themselves.

By the time you get to the end-game scenario, the game is really after you. Some survivors may be trying to murder the other ones, you may have to sacrifice yourself blowing up a generator to get the attention of potential rescuers, sharks may be circling your raft, and people may be starving to death at this point. My personal favorite outcome so far was settling on the island with his roundliness Lord Disky as the tyrannical leader of our tribe.

dyscourse disky

Sorry about the head on a spike thing, George, but examples need to be made.

It seems like no matter what I do, somebody is dying. And not just because (as Rita points out) the island is actively trying to kill everyone. After several playthroughs, I’m pretty sure there’s a way to get everybody home safe, but I don’t care. Playing god with virtual lives is so much more fun than “winning”.

At one point, I decided to see if I could effectively get everybody killed. Rita turned out to be a pretty tough cookie, but I managed to get her to lose an arm to that bastard of jaguar so I’ll give myself partial credit even though she survived. But his brings up the question, what kind of monster would try to kill off the castaways of a downed flight just to see if he could? The same kind that enjoys building high-dive in The Sims and forcing people to jump off of it without bothering to put a pool underneath it or spawned God in Scribblenauts just so I could spawn an atheist and prove that his life was a lie. When he ran off screaming, I gave him a gun and when he tried to kill God, he got smited as I laughed. One of my finer impulses of free-form gaming insanity.

That is to say, the kind you don’t want in charge of your fate. I mean, at one point I was given the choice to toss a dead companion’s body who had died of starvation overboard as sharkbait so I could rescue someone who had fallen off of the raft and I decided a corpse would be better company than Teddy’s paranoid ass. Also, I totally wanted a screenshot of him getting eaten.

dyscourse shark

Lord Disky demands a show.

Games like Dyscourse are doing what indie games do best in showing gamers that you don’t need amazing graphics or ridiculous length to have a great time. The stylized graphics, touches of humor, genuine consequences, and variety of possible situations in a relatively tiny in-game world shown here are enough to make one wonder why we don’t see more developers scale the scope of their games down in favor of something really memorable more often. And frankly, my inner jerk is always itching for more opportunities to torture virtual life forms for my own amusement.

Maurice Devereaux: The Horror Legend that Never Was

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This week I’ve elected to shine a spotlight the troubled career of a talented independent filmmaker who could been the next John Carpenter or Guillermo del Toro if he’d been given the chance. Instead, he’s had to fight to scrape by financing his own films only to find them practically buried once the rights were sold, rendering someone who could have been filling our screens with horror classics for years a practical nonentity.

Maurice Devereaux started out as a French-Canadian film geek inspired by the best of the best who set out to make his own visions come to life and hopefully inspire others to do the same. He wrote, directed, edited, and produced four of his own films over a dozen year period through sheer determination and is possibly the most talented director you’ve never heard of.

Devereaux’s style combines horror creeps and gore with creative visuals, satire, and social commentary, all worthy of the Romero comparisons his work invites. But as much strife as Romero has overcome in his legendary career, he never had to wait seven years to get a film finished after he started shooting. In fact, mainstream fandom was always completely out of the question for Devereaux, given the impossible budgets these films were made on. Only indie fans need venture forth.

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