8/11/16: should there be “no escape from reality”?

When That Dragon, Cancer came out, I remember people greatly admiring the concept but also staying far away from actually buying it. Either the personal narrative wasn’t enough of a game to get them to play it, or it worked fine as a game, but was too real. Therein lies the last great hurdle of video games: the medium is finally able to tackle big issues, but audiences may not yet be ready. They’re perfectly fine with horror movies and jump scares, but something that deals with crippling illness? Nope–at least, not unless it’s told through some sort of filter, like SOMA.

But I’m pulling for the upcoming We Are Chicago to succeed. Jeff Cork writes an interesting preview over for Game Informer’s September 2016 issue, one that basically boils down to answering one question: “Can you tell a true story in a game?” Of course, there are already games paving that road–Her Story, for instance, or Sunset. (Not to be mistaken for Cave Story and Sunset Overdrive.) But We Are Chicago doesn’t have appear to have any gamification, as in Life Is Strange or a David Cage production; instead, it seems more like an extension of The Sims.

The fine line to walk here, of course, is whether the game ends up appropriating and trivializing real-world struggles with this virtual representation, much as Grand Theft Auto V, no matter how well-written, is still ultimately an escape mechanism. Culture Shock Games, the developers, hope that this “gives players a chance to experience a reality they might not otherwise see,” and that’s the optimistic view I’d like to take–games as an entry point to a wider discussion and appreciation for the world. Especially now, when privilege is a trigger word and people seem so unaware of casual discrimination, we perhaps need to find ways simply to expose people. I’d be OK with someone gamifying empathy, so long as they’re not exploiting tragedy to boost sales. That would just sound cool: it would be revolutionary.

8/5/16: “headlander” needs to get its head on straight

Winters, more familiarly referred to as the Headlander, is an intelligent, jetpack-mounted head that escapes from cryogenic sleep aboard the Starcophagus to seek out its original body. That’s not far off from a description of the game Headlander itself, which is a coldly cerebral title desperately seeking a heart. Its aloof narrative is sometimes justified by the plot, which revolves around an out-of-control AI caretaker, Methuselah, that protects its wards by installing thought-suppressing Omega Gems in the robots that carry the last remnants of human consciousness. Instead, however, the game keeps insisting on a pun-filled, Hitchhiker’s Guide-like irreverence that undermines the narrative, whether it’s the psychedelic special effects that wash over the screen after each death to the disco dance moves that each hijacked (sorry, head-jacked) chrome civilian can perform for purely comic effect. The game’s stylish retro flair never enhances the setting or the stakes–it just distracts from it, as if the game’s missing “soul” might be replaced with the gaudy, flashing neon soul of laser light shows, shag carpeting, and new-age-y statues.

When Headlander is more than a series of confrontations with the homicidal Electrosux cleaning bots or the chromatic-laser toting Shepherd security forces that are but one step away from being generic G.I. Joe fodder, it’s at least a decent Metroidvania. The ability to detach and fly one’s head about on command offers some unique exploratory options, and the controls are deftly balanced between the clunkiness of the durable robotic bodies and the Headlander’s nimble yet vulnerable space-helmeted cerebrum. (The far better half of the game, however, is the one in which players must cautiously navigate the protagonist’s skull through hazard-filled ventilation shafts; not the one in which players must outlast emergency lockdowns by killing every guard in the room.) The various upgrades that allow players to turn their dispossessed bodies into auto-firing sentry guns or overcharged time bombs are fun to play with, but then again, the game rarely requires any of these abilities, and the bodies that players swap between have an uninspired sameness.

Instead of building upon clever mechanics, the game repetitiously and literally gates progress by way of the exasperatedly smug Routine Operation of Doors (i.e., ROOD, get it?), a computer program that refuses to open doors that are of a higher chromatic hierarchy than the machine players are currently possessing. A green body can access green, yellow, orange, and red doors, but not a blue one: “It’s CYAN-tifically proven this door won’t open for you.” Puzzles, then, are just shades of the same task: find a helpfully hued host and safely guide it back to a locked door. In a few rare instances, these bodies have unique functions–a wheeled sentry that can travel over electrified floors–but for the most part, each body is just a palette-swapped version of another. Each might be capable of shooting an extra laser or two, but despite all the flashy colors reflecting about a room, the game itself sometimes feels a bit monochromatic, like a missed opportunity to find a new Kid Chameleon or Kirby.

All that head-swapping seems to have gotten to the developers, too, because Headlander has an unhealthy personality disorder. The latter half of the game suffers from a sharp difficulty spike in which rooms are overcrowded with enemies (to the point of occasional skips in the frame-rate) as opposed to featuring new mechanics. Laser-splitting puzzles are increasingly complicated, not just because trigger points are occasionally hidden out of frame, but because enemies keep spawning in the middle of a player’s attempt to line up a perfectly refracted shot. Why does a gravity-warping corridor, in which controls are reversed, appear in just one room? Why are tricky mechanics, like a battle in which players must swap between white and black bodies/polarities (as in Outland), confined exclusively to one of two boss fights? Headlander has a great premise, an appealing style, and great controls–but it simply doesn’t have its head on straight.

That Dragon, Let’s Play Videos

You should read this well-reasoned comment from the developers of That Dragon, Cancer about the fact that they’ve not earned any money for their title yet. (They’ve paid off debt, so they have made sales–we’re talking net income.)

The defense I see people throwing around for the Let’s Play videos that have most certainly damaged (not in whole, but in part) the sales for That Dragon, Cancer is that the reason the game has not done well is because it’s the opposite of escapism–“it’s woefully depressing,” writes one commenter on Polygon. “Only a very small percentage of people want to be enveloped in the very real emotional agony and despair associated with what cancer does to somebody’s life.”

But if that’s true, then why would anybody want to watch a Let’s Play of the same thing? Why would someone involved in so-called “mixed media” want to show this game (in full) to other people? Wouldn’t that make them sadomasochists, to subject others to something they suffered through?

Continue reading

Revisit: Diablo III

For the people who believe truly and deeply in getting their money’s worth, then Diablo III is the game for them. It never ends, and apparently, unlike hell (which purportedly has only nine levels), there’s always one more (difficulty) level to complete: in this case, Torment X. And yet, returning to Diablo III nearly eighteen months after reviewing it for Slant, the non-addict looking in at all the devout fanatics, I can only wonder (as Peggy Lee once did): is that all there is?

I mean, let’s face it: the game is basically a glorified button-clicker, with lulls between frenzied clicking for better optimization. But the basic hook, especially after you’ve cleared the story and entered the full-on Adventure Mode, is nothing more than gaining incrementally better gear so that you can gain incrementally better gear. It’s more repetitious than Destiny: The Taken King, which at least has the benefit of requiring precise aim and cooperative teamwork to make it through its end-game content, to say nothing of all those cryptic secrets to uncover. Diablo III has cool tilesets, but they’re randomly generated, which means that the special events and dungeons lack a real sense of presence. There’s no strategy here, even to the biggest bosses–you just whack away at hordes of monsters, trusting in your skills and items to do all the work for you. (Sure, there are some few achievements to be gained for dispatching enemies in specific ways, but that’s still largely a matter of customization.)

Two days of playing Diablo III and I’m already tired of it. Continue reading

Style and Substance: “Klaus” Wants It All

My full review of Klaus can be found over at Slant Magazine. Worth emphasizing here, however, is that despite the subtle repetition of puzzles (acid and lasers operate in the same fashion; the touchpad-assisted operation of objects never gets any more complex than in the first level), Klaus is still a worthwhile game. All that industrial filler actually works in the context of the Kafkaesque story, for Klaus is rebelling not only against his corporation, but against the Player’s control, and I’m not sure that a more immediate subversion of the game’s mechanics (which doesn’t occur in earnest until midway through the fourth of six worlds) would have been as effective.

The question, then, is a matter of pacing.  Continue reading

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