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.

Black Mirror: Fear of a Gamer Planet

black-mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

borderlands

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

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

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

tales borderlands cast driving

Catch a riiiiiiiide!

Setting the pace

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

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

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

tales from borderlands meat bicycle

Psh. I’ve seen shinier.

Do-it-yourself comedy

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

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

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

tales from borderlands bossanova

Bass-dropping intensifies.

Music makes the people come together

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

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

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

tales borderlands cast armageddonIt’s the characters, stupid

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

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

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

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

tales borderlands episode-2 choices

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

My story, your story

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

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

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

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

Four Shows for Gamers That are Currently Streaming on Netflix

tv

It’s pretty rough out there if you’re a gamer looking for old-world entertainment made for your culture. Network and cable television are pretty much no-gos aside from the occasional episode of shows like Community or a brief reference here or there. But what about shows just for us?

I know that a lot of of us gamers get our entertainment for free by pirating like the bad Lord intended, but some of us old-timers still like to pay for stuff. And let’s be honest, Netflix deserves our money in ways that companies like Apple, Disney, Comcast, and EA will never comprehend. Plus, they cater to absolutely everybody. Even gamers.

Most of the shows on this list started out as independent webseries because no way does any channel pick them up, but they became popular enough for Netflix to make available to the masses, which is pretty great because for a lot of them they edit the typically sketch-length episodes into feature length presentations, making Netflix the ideal venue to view them. Game on.

Red vs Bluered vs blue

This one started way back in 2003 as a machinima using the multiplayer component of Halo: Combat Evolved to create comedy gold. It populariized the art form on the net, put Rooster Teeth on the map, and has even spawned an official Halo multiplayer mode, Griffball. And it’s still going.

The original premise was as simple as the title with two differently-colored groups of soldiers seeking to eliminate each other in often hilarious ways iterating the woes of mulltiplayer gaming. Early episodes include a plasma grenade stick to someone’s helmet mistaken for a spider, the coining of the phrase “team-killing fucktard”, and the funniest game of capture the flag ever played.

As new Halo games were released, RvB upgraded and evolved, satirizing its parent series all the way- at one point teaming up with Microsoft to release a pre-launch video for Halo 3 demonstrating the improved tea-bagging physics. While the show typically avoids anything approaching Halo canon it’s built up its own world and timeline to rival the game’s, becoming increasingly complicated as it’s progressed beyond the sitcom format. Not bad for a bunch of guys doing funny voices over video game footage.

sword art onlineSword Art Online

It’s no surprise that the only non-webseries on the list is from Japan, given the way gaming is integrated into their culture, but SAO is an unusual show even by anime standards. Taking place almost entirely within a near-future virtual reality MMORPG, the premise seems silly enough: if you die in the game, you die irl (dum- dum-duuuummmmm!), but the series takes itself and gaming very seriously and opens the viewers up to the very real possibilities of future entertainment technology allowing bad people direct access to our brains throough VR interface.

In spite of the concerns of fusing our minds with technology, SAO treats gaming as a lifestyle rather than a mere hobby or pastime. When an insane video game developer traps all first day players’ minds in his virtual world, some of them don’t even mind, preferring virtual reality to their own lives. The world is populated by the different kinds of people one encounters online, from villainous player killers only out for their own gain to people grouping together and regimenting strategies to beat the next dungeon and everything in between.

Sword Art Online has the distinction of airing on Cartoon Network during the late night Toonami block, making it the closest thing we’ve got to mainstream success with a television show based around playing video games. And it’s not even a comedy.

The Guildthe guild

I probably don’t have to tell you who Felicia Day is, but I will anyways: actress, writer, producer, avid gamer, veritable internet goddess, and patron saint of geek culture. The occasional Whedonverse occupant went on to create and star in her very own webseries where she pretty much did everything but play all of the characters herself, and it’s beyond entertaining.

The story follows a group of gamers who share nothing aside from a deep abiding love of the World of Warcraft-esque MMO and the guild they formed. Older episodes typically started with video diaries from Day’s character Codex putting the kind of anti-social anxiety and bizarre neuroses that often plague hardcore gamers on full display (although it’s somehow a lot more charming when she does it), which right off the bat puts the show in a league of its own.

“The Game” (as it’s referred to by the characters) is never actually shown on-screen as the show focuses exclusively on the characters themselves and the comedy of having so many different bizarre personalities colliding with one another. However, Day has written a comic series detailing some of the cast’s in-game exploits. Simply put, The Guild is one of the funniest things you can watch and another testament to the virtues of low budget do-it-yourself entertainment.

video game high schoolVideo Game High School

VGHS was a long-form webseries with surprisingly high production values (thanks to a very successful Kickstarter campaign) whose creators include pro gamer/actor/internet personality Freddie Wong. It managed three seasons leading up to a surprisingly epic finale and even beyond the other internet sensations on this list shows what can be done outside of the mainstream entertainment industry.

VGHS takes place in a satirical dystopian (utopian?) future where gaming is an extremely important cultural force and presidential elections are decided in a reality show competition. And the finale of said show is subject to interruption if a particularly epic FPS match breaks out. The titular institution is a world famous school where the finest gamers of the world congregate to learn to be the best of the best. Cliques are naturally formed according to gaming preferences, and the results are pretty hilarious.

The actual gaming is portrayed in live action with special effects which is a pretty cool approach. The cast were really charming with some really funny over-the-top performances and cameos from gaming industry figures. Good times are pretty much guaranteed if you give this one a try, and it’s probably the best example of what happens when gamers get together to make their own fun outside of their typical medium.

Video Games Meet Folklore in the Feyland Series

feyland

Little by little, gaming is creeping into and threatening to take over other entertainment mediums. Whether it’s Telltale arguably outshining film, comic books, and television with their own digital interpretations of popular franchises or Hollywood’s increasingly less-desperate attempts to transfer the success of beloved game properties to the big screen, gaming is constantly increasing its pop culture presence.

But what about books? Surely with younger generations still miraculously retaining the ability to read and write creatively in the age of Twitter and gamers making up the majority of young consumers, it was only a matter of time before we started getting stories that incorporate digital entertainment as a central element. Independent author Anthea Sharp is ahead of the curve and her self-published Feyland series may represent the first wave of Western fantasy fiction aimed squarely at gamers.

Feyland‘s premise is somewhat similar to Japan’s own gamercentric Sword Art Online in that it deals with near-future virtual reality technology and video games that immerse you so completely that they can trap players inside and even potentially harm them. But while SAO keeps things entirely science-fiction based with the only fantasy elements being in-game, Feyland takes a more magical approach, blending the futuristic technology with ye olde world folklore in new and unpredictable ways.

Standard fantasy and sci-fi are awesome, but blending them with video games is a bit obvious, don’t you think? What Sharp’s books do is go back in time to classical pre-Tolkien mythologies and bring those classical-yet-almost-forgotten elements into a new age using interactive virtual entertainment as a likely medium. In some folklore, the magical beings retain their power only so long as we mortals interact with them. And with the actual game of Feyland being a realistic virtual environment populated by representations of the magical beings of yore, it’s a pretty inspired idea to suggest that this digitized invocation of these forgotten races could empower them to infiltrate the virtual space and displace their own avatars to create mischief.

The books themselves are competently written and represent light fantasy fare, with stories centered around male/female protagonist duos from different worlds -usually figuratively, sometimes literally- coming together both in-game and out while navigating the perils of a virtual world overrun with strange magic. The overarching plot concerns the VR game of Feyland in its development stages and the testers and developers discovering that it has become a gateway between the human world and the same magical realm that inspired its creation. The game’s creator died in the early stages and is found living as his own avatar in-game, having made a deal with the faerie folk. Talk about an immersive interface. The corporation responsible for funding the game, VirtuMax, naturally disbelieves the stories of genuine magic and continues pushing for the release of the game, which would put millions within reach of the often-malicious fae and give them countless opportunities to infiltrate thee real world.

The original Feyland trilogy concerned the protagonists Jennet, privileged daughter of a game developer, and Tam, an exceptional gamer mired in poverty, and their efforts to thwart the monarchs of the Dark and Bright Courts in their attempts to break into the human world using gamers who wander into their realms. The ongoing sequel series, Feyguard, has filled out the cast nicely by putting supporting characters in the driver’s seat, making a whole interesting team of characters dedicated to policing the boundary between the two worlds as VirtuMax preps the game for worldwide release.

Sharp is clearly a veteran RPG gamer who injects her experiences with virtual entertainment into the otherwise typical fantasy narrative to create some fresh new elements in arguably the most done-to-death genre in popular literature. Adding in elements like cooldown times for abilities and avatar creation as well as the question of whether any given opponent they encounter is part of the actual game or a genuine faerie creature out to entrap them makes for some interesting and original elements for sure.

And like any good geek, the author is not exclusively obsessed with video games but, in this case, also with faerie folklore and mythology. It’s a winning combination. Feyland is built top-to-bottom on the fascinating (and sometimes bizarre) European faerie stories and all of the creatures in them, some of which have made their way into the popular fantasy lexicon and some of which have not. The rules, practices, and traditions of the fae folk and the poems and tales surrounding them are integrated into the stories in some interesting ways, occasionally mirroring the situations our heroes and heroines find themselves in.

The obvious question that springs to mind when discussing a fantasy novel based on video gaming is “would it make a good game?” And the answer in this casr will certainly be “yes”. Heck, the author has already done most of the conceptual work herself. And with the stories taking place across multiple worlds, there’s a lot of potential there to do what Assassin’s Creed has done in terms of integrating VR and “real-world” environments together, only much better. Hell yeah, I’d love to play a Feyland game. Will it happen? Probably not given most of the gaming industry’s pathological aversion to quality adaptations and the relative obscurity of the budding franchise in question, but at least there are more books on the way.

While reading the series, it struck me that there could be a kind of symmetry here. These novels about a resurgence of centuries-old folklore using a new medium struck a chord with me. People wrote down all of these stories and poems about magical creatures and heroes way back when and they’ve endured in some way, shape or form for countless years through several forms of media. With video games hurtling towards becoming the dominant entertainment medium thanks to their ability to allow the player to not only experience a story and world through other characters’ eyes but to actively interact with it on a personal level, I wonder if centuries down the line, people won’t be creating variations on the legends of Link, Commander Shepard, and Master Chief the same way we’ve passed down ancient stories in writing through the ages.

Video games have given us so many memorable experiences and creating so many amazing stories over the years, it’s not too hard to see some of these sticking around in some form. The explosion of new mythologies and world-building we’re experiencing in modern interactive entertainment could be our generation’s legacy to future generations to be re-imagined, re-created, and re-integrated into new forms of entertainment and mythologies in the future. That series like Feyland are coming along blending ancient folklore with modern video gaming is evidence enough that the two mediums share a human connection; both metaphorically in the story and literally in real life.

The first Feyland book, The Dark Court, is available to download for free for anyone who’s interesting in seeing what happens when classical faerie folklore, video games, and sci-fi/fantasy prose have a party together and I’ve found that the Feyguard series is shaping up to be even better. Anthea Sharp may be on to something here. I recommend checking it out.

Image Credit: http://mediciuniversity.co.uk/creativity/antheasharp/

00’s Flashback: Phantom Crash

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Another week, another bout with past gen nostalgia. I played my SNES well into the late 90’s while everybody else had a PlayStation and I didn’t get a PlayStation until the PS2 was about to come out. It wasn’t until the original Xbox was released in 2001 that I finally got to be on the cutting edge of gaming, and there were some pretty great games there to greet me.

With the likes of Halo, Morrowind, and DOA 3 to keep me company, it was a solid first year of gaming for Microsoft’s venture into the console market, but with every new console eventually there comes a drought where you want to play something else and you don’t know what. In the past, when in doubt I’ve often picked up a mecha game. You can always rely on those. Building and tweaking your own death machine and then blowing stuff up is what insane testosterone-fueled dreams are made of.

I have wonderful memories of Mechwarrior, but there haven’t been a lot of mecha sim titles released in the past couple gens in America aside from the Armored Core series. And no, the Dynasty Warriors: Gundam games don’t count. Chromehounds for the 360 was alright, but the experience was ruined by the game I’m going to be reminiscing about today that stands as my favorite example of the genre: Phantom Crash. In it you play a pilot in dystopian Old Tokyo, where mech rumbles are used both as a professional sport and as a creative urban renewal strategy.

phantom crash combat

So why is this obscure and extremely Japanese Xbox-exclusive my enduring gold standard for mecha games? The personality and the strategic chaos. Most mecha games are extremely straightforward: build and upgrade robot, pilot robot, blow shit up with robot, repeat. Phantom Crash did away with the standard military missions in favor of a persistent free-for-all “rumble” tournament format full of colorful characters. Also missing were the plodding pace and emphasis on armour for defense. In this game, you moved at breakneck speed and relied on strategy, finesse, and stealth to maximize the effectiveness of your firepower.

The diversity of the SV’s (Scoot Vehicles) that serve as the combat machines in the game was already a win. Just deciding between the stability of tank treads, the mobility of legs, or the awesomeness factor of hover jets made each machine you built the best kind of dilemma. Finding the perfect balance of firepower, defense, and maneuverability from the parts offered by the various brands in the store to suit your desired gameplay style was a joy in itself even before the satisfaction of combat and earning more currency for upgrades presented itself. Plus there were the AI “animal chips” which were pretty much Cortana in animal avatar form, granting various benefits and providing status updates and advice based on their individual personalities. Fully built SV’s were also available for the less ambitious gamer, but that way lies lameness.

When it was time to deploy, you chose a ranked rumble to test your mettle in and what followed was the most delightful brand of anarchy. You and the other characters were dropped into a massive arena where the aim of the game was to blow everyone else to hell. You got paid for every kill and the object was to make as much money as you could and then get out of there before you got wrecked to minimize repair cost and maximize profit. Every venture into the arena was a new experience and a calculated gamble and like the old song says, you had to “know when to hold them, know when to fold them, know when to walk away, and know when to run”. Once you’d destroyed every other player at least once (they respawned regularly so the arena roster was always full), the champion of the arena would suit up and emerge and if you were the one who took them out, you earned your way to the next rank.

phantom crash pepperIn between rumbles, the player was treated to dialogue from various characters from in and out of the arena scene, including male groupies forming fan clubs around female combatants and other quirky little scenes. In addition to this refreshing addition, the soundtrack to Phantom Crash remains one of my favorites ever. It was a delightful and eclectic mix of moody electronica, industrial, melodic electro-pop, J-rock, punk, futuristic EDM, and even some jazz. And yeah, you could customize your SV’s personal sound system to create your own combat mix from the dozens of choices and buy more in the store. It all added up to a really unique feel that made the game feel like a breath of fresh air.

The combat was fantastic, of course. Not the usual wars of attrition you could expect from most mech sims, this game required situational awareness and skill. The game’s developer, Genki, was actually better known for its racing titles, and they brought that experience to bear to make this a really different kind of experience. With a swarm of SV’s in the arena and plenty of room to operate, it was all about identifying and pursuing your target while evading everybody else’s sites at the same time. Each vehicle had an active camouflage stealth system that could be used to lie in ambush or evade pursuers. So what resulted was a refreshing game of cat and mouse where everyone is both the cat and the mouse, alternately launching themselves into the air and weaving through cover waiting for the stealth system to charge with opponents in hot pursuit and seeking targets of their own to blast.

phantom crash shop

At this point, you’re probably thinking to yourself “sounds like a great online multiplayer game”. Unfortunately, coming out early in the original Xbox’s life cycle, Xbox Live wasn’t quite up and running yet so no multiplayer was available. I consider this to be extremely tragic. Still, even as a single player only game with limited story, Phantom Crash was a blast and extraordinarily well-balanced in its combination of challenge and accessibility in spite of its hardcore approach.

Rumbles were seldom too easy unless you were playing lower ranks and you usually ranked up just as you started becoming comfortable. It stands to reason that fighting the same opponents while you constantly upgraded your SV would see you become overpowered, and I have to admit that when I could finally afford that laser cannon I felt like the god of war one-shotting the other combatants at will. But then when I beat the champ and got to the next rank I found waiting for me a higher grade of machine with comparable armaments and very quickly found myself in a smoking heap rethinking my strategy.

The alternating of frenetic strategic combat and upgrading, reconnoitering, and occasionally entirely rebuilding vehicles while always striving for that next rank made for a really great and addicting game. But being an extremely Japanese game on an extremely American upstart console doomed Phantom Crash to poor sales and cult status. However, a sequel was released for the PS2 after Konami bought the property, the oddly-named S.L.A.I.: Steel Lancer Arena, which I didn’t know existed due partly to said name not resembling the original game in any way. This one featured online multiplayer, but apparently failed to set the world on fire as a Sony exclusive as well, thus sending the promising series to the scrap heap.

Like I said, mecha titles aren’t exactly all the rage these days so the odds of a revival are slim at best, but what goes around comes around and I’m still hoping that somebody out there will remember how fun this game was and endeavor to give us something comparably memorable in the genre at some point in the future.

90’s Flashback: Wing Commander

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Remember the 90’s? Good times. It still stands as the best decade of gaming in a lot of opinions (mine) and there are a lot of reasons for that. Reasons like the Super Nintendo, PlayStation, and our long-lost friend the Dreamcast and all of the timeless classics that went with them. To me, it stands as the definitive decade for gaming, where the medium made the biggest strides towards becoming the powerhouse entertainment industry it is today.

We’ve lost a lot in transitioning from the late 20th century to the 21st. We’ve gained some amazing new technology and more AAA games than we’d ever have imagined back in the day, but a lot of what made 90’s gaming so incredible has fallen by the wayside. Franchises like Grand Theft Auto, Resident Evil, and Nintendo’s stable of classics have been reborn again and again and strong as ever (okay, maybe RE is limping), and Final Fantasy remains a head turner even as Square seems to have no idea what to do with it, but we’ve lost a lot virtual friends in past decades. I’d like to revisit some of those friends.wingcommander1

This week, I’m bringing back one of my favorite SNES titles, 1990’s Wing Commander, which was ported from the PC where the series made its home. The franchise was the brainchild of Chris Roberts and developed by Origin Systems, Inc. It was billed simply as “The 3-D Space Combat Simulator”, but it was so much more.

In all honesty, I’ve never had a gaming experience that directly compares to my first playthrough of Wing Commander. There aren’t a lot of games I can say that about. This thing blew me away. It’s a typical military sci-fi premise: you are a rookie pilot in the middle of an intergalactic war with the alien Kilrathi and you have to kill stuff until it’s dead. But more than anything I’d ever played at that point, this game really put you out there and made you feel like you were part of an infinite universe and a larger story and conflict where you never knew what was going to happen next.

Most games hit you with a “game over” when you failed an objective and your partners are immortal. But in this game, your fellow soldiers could die permanently and if you screwed the pooch on a mission, the war went on. If you were about to die, you could eject and finish the mission that way, keeping your progress, but you had to live with the consequences too. The flow of the war would change based on your successes and failures and so would the available missions, leading to different endings. If you got it done, you would remain on the offensive, but if you consistently failed, you would end up on the defensive and eventually be driven from the system.

Adding to the immersion of the game’s impressive (for the time) flight mechanics, you could converse with your fellow soldiers aboard the Tiger’s Claw Strike Carrier and during missions. You could give orders to your wingmen, although different pilots had different personalities and their listening abilities were not the same. For instance, your first partner was a veteran named Spirit with a respectful personality who always obeyed orders. On the other end of the spectrum was a young hothead who went by the callsign Maniac who made it his goal to top the kill scoreboard and wouldn’t listen to a thing you said. You could even send out taunts to enemy pilots to get their attention, which was all sorts of awesome.

wingcommander2While most games tend to go with the “every mission is the most important mission EVER” approach for dramatic effect, Wing Commander treated things as routine in the name of realism with a lot of patrols and escorts and floating through space. If you wanted, you could set auto-pilot and go straight to the mission waypoint (unless you encountered enemies) but I remember being so enamored with the game’s immersion that drifting through space on patrols admiring the endless ocean of stars and planets while listening to the ambient music took on an almost meditative property. It was soothing to feel like it was just another day at the office and so much more exciting when my wingman would announce enemy contacts and I’d have to decide whether to engage or not.

Did I just say decide whether to shoot the bad guy or not? You heard me. Some missions you were ordered not to engage unless necessary and that was the correct thing to do. The Kilrathi would use patrols of their own to distract you from your mission, for instance drawing you away from your escort while another team swoops in after you leave to destroy it. That asshole Maniac may take off and ignore your orders to keep formation and end up biting off more than he can chew, dividing your numbers and forcing you choose who to save, or he may wreck the bait patrol all on his own, or you may just be badass enough to kill everything. The game wasn’t tightly scripted so like I said, you didn’t always know what would happen.wingcommander3

The series was a true trail blazer for its time and a precursor to many of the science fiction games we revere today. It also had a memorable soundtrack. Wing Commander implemented everything from branching storylines, dialogue choices, and live-action cutscenes over some eleven proper titles and spin-offs in the 90’s (many of which were ported to the PlayStation) inspiring a series of decent novels and concluding with a poor film adaptation before vanishing to never see the light of day again in a mainstream release.

Technically, there was 2007’s Xbox Live Arcade exclusive Wing Commander: Arena, but we won’t count it because it barely resembles even the shadow of the franchise. The independent fan-made Wing Commander Saga is available to play for free on the PC (and from what this filthy console peasant hears, it’s actually quite good), but what we really need is a proper rebirth for the series as there is nothing like it to be found in modern gaming. EA owns the rights, but the fact that they allowed Saga to be made and that Chris Roberts (who is working on a spiritual successor with MMO components, Star Citizen) claims they “don’t care” about the franchise doesn’t bode well for immediate plans, but we can always hope.

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This early image from possible Wing Commander successor, Star Citizen, is looking damn good.

A modern Wing Commander implementing all of the elements of the series in one AAA game would be a sight to behold. Modern Mass Effect-like character development coupled with the real threat of losing your comrades out there in combat by itself would make for instant investment, with every engagement a calculated risk. Best-case scenario, the game would auto-save upon each death like State of Decay and make resetting impossible or even wipe your save if you don’t eject before you die to be really hardcore. There is no reloading saves in war, after all.

And then there’s the obvious multiplayer possibilities, which I don’t need to get into beyond saying that customizable ships would make for a really interesting dynamic there. 1993’s Wing Commander Academy had an innovative mission editor that allowed players to create their own scenarios. Think about how great that could be with modern tools. The Privateer spinoffs functioned in an open-world rather than as a series of missions, allowing the player to play the role they wanted and react as they saw fit to the events unfolding around them while the later main games featured impressive interactive live action full motion videos featuring known actors and branching dialogue choices.

Adding all of these aspects together (with digital cutscenes instead of FMV…just my personal preference) would make for an epic sci-fi monster that any gamer should want to play. I don’t know what happened to the space combat simulators like Wing Commander and Star Wars: X-Wing that were so revered in the 90’s and vanished like magic at the turn of the century, but it’s maybe time for devs to think about rehashing and updating some concepts from previous decades that worked instead of rehashing games from last gen and ideas that a lot of gamers are getting burnt out on. Just a thought. Maybe if Star Citizen becomes a success, we’ll see a new generation of awesome sci-fi flight sims, or at least some PSN re-releases of the old ones.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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First of many to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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It’s game over, man. Game over.

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

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

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

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I know, Rip. I know.

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

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

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

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

Did Spike Jonze’s “Her” Show us the Future of Gaming?

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I finally got around to watching Spike Jonze’s science fiction film Her when it became available to rent on Netflix last week. I can’t for the life of me imagine why such a film didn’t make it into wide theatrical release considering the alternatives we’re being given, but that’s another discussion for another place and time. Aside from the emotional moodiness, beautiful music, and general brilliance of the film, one thing that really struck me was the ideas it presented for near-future gaming.

The protagonist, Theodore, is presented as a lonely gamer in the midst of a divorce. In his world, artificially intelligent Operating Systems have become a reality and his sounds like a very charming Scarlett Johansson. It’s also heavily implied that video game characters are imbued with independent personalities of their own as well. While the story focuses on Theodore’s love affair with his OS, Samantha, I was really interested in expanding the concept to Her’s vision of video games.

Rather than being limited to a screen or even some virtual reality helmet like we often see in sci-fi, Theodore’s game fills his living room. And it makes sense. Why encase the player’s head in some helmet with a screen when you can just project the game around the player? In lieu of a controller, the game is played using the player’s words and gestures, which is something I still believe Microsoft will some day manage to get right.

This is all good stuff, but as with most games these days, what really floats my boat is the characters. In Her, Theodore’s in-game character is challenged by a small alien with a penchant for profanity-laden abuse. He converses with the alien in real time as the point of view seamlessly switches from third person to first. It even responds to Samantha when she chimes in to update him on his email and mocks Theodore’s sensitivity. It’s pretty awesome. Assuming profanity = comedy in your mind, that is.

Lionhead Studios kind of toyed with this idea in their original Kinect demo named Project Milo, which made us think that Kinect was going to be this amazing thing. But at this point I think we can kind of assume that they were blowing smoke up our rear ends considering it’s been five years and we’ve seen absolutely nothing else playable along those lines. But still, it could happen in the future.

Sure it’s only recently that video games have developed AI sophisticated enough not to continuously try to run through walls or compulsively hide behind explosive barrels in the middle of a firefight, but progress is progress, yeah? Sooner or later it could be possible for developers to program video game characters with real personalities beyond a mere script that are able to respond in various ways to our interactions with them. Eventually, they could theoretically operate without canned programming prompts at all like they do in Her.video game character wedding

Now considering the film’s premise of romancing an AI Operating System, the next logical step would be romancing video game characters. Heck, people have already done that in real life so it’s arguably a previous logical step. Japan is almost always ahead of the pop culture technological curve and they have long been focusing on crafting virtual substitutes for genuine human romance. 2009 saw the world’s first human-video game character marriage in Tokyo. This is happening.

Romancing an OS without even an avatar to look at is one thing, but what about a character who could literally be projected into your home? Could an artificially intelligent being capable of learning, evolving, and conversing like a real person with a semi-physical form be an ideal partner for some people? In Her it’s made apparent that dating OS’s has become fairly commonplace and possibly even socially acceptable, although Theodore’s ex-wife makes the very valid suggestion that it implies an unwillingness to deal with genuine human emotion.

But negative sociological judgments aside, virtual personalities could be a great tool for people who suffer from social anxiety and allow them to practice interacting with other people in a safe environment. And if somebody decides they’d rather have their romantic needs met by an AI I’m not sure I have a problem with that. You know, may as well have some fun with them before they take over the world, go all Hal 9000, and exterminate us all Skynet-style, right?

So not only is Her one of the best and most emotional sci-fi films I’ve seen in forever, but it successfully raises a lot of legitimate questions that we may be dealing with irl as both gamers and human beings before we know it. And it’s not even pessimistic, for a change. Definitely a breath of fresh air in every sense.

morrigan dragon age

Darling, you’ve got red on you…

So now I’m left dreaming about how freaking great the new Dragon Age would be if I could converse in real time with my companions at camp and have them respond not with a canned, pre-recorded script, but according to their own personalities. Even with all the options in current gaming that help make a story your own, being able to really interact with the resident of a game’s world using your own ideas instead of a set of laid out options and having them respond in kind would be some serious next-level immersion.

 

I don’t know how far away we are from this kind of thing, but I guess I should give up on flying cars and hoverboards and shoot for this instead. Not only is it way cooler, but it’s probably a lot more logistically feasible as well, even if it could decimate the need for human interaction as we know it. I just really, really want to look an alien in his eyes some day and tell him “fuck you” just to see what he’ll do before I die. I can’t be the only one.

 

Knights of Sidonia is Another Win for Netflix

sidonia

Netflix original programming is quickly becoming a premiere go-to source for quality television. HBO may have a hefty head start as the reigning champion, but it may not be very long before the diversity of programming the DVD rental/streaming service starts to eclipse even their titanic credentials.

In a couple years, we’ve already received the charged political drama of House of Cards, the irresistible Orange is the New Black, the horror-themed Hemlock Grove, the return of fan-favorite comedy Arrested Development and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and a lot more including an ambitious upcoming collaboration with Marvel Comics to bring several of their characters to the small screen.

Surely this bounty of awesome entertainment is missing something, though. Perhaps high-concept science fiction or (dare I suggest) anime? Don’t worry, friends. Netflix has geeks covered on both counts. Knights of Sidonia became available for our viewing pleasure last weekend as their latest serving of original programming and it did not disappoint.

Science fiction means a lot of things to a lot of people. To some, anything that takes place in space or has aliens or robots in it is sci-fi. To some, the genre is defined by high-concept social commentary, and to others it’s all about the science and future possibilities of technological advances. My favorites are the ones that can combine all of these different aspects into a single cohesive story with great characters and amazing visuals.  This is one of those.

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