Videogame Quarantine: Mini-Reviews of DEATH STRANDING, NIER AUTOMATA, GOD OF WAR (2018), NIGHT IN THE WOODS, and RESIDENT EVIL 2 (2019)(w/minor spoilers)

The last several months have been rather…eventful, for me. I got a new job that took up most of my time and energy, lost one of my cats, my father had a health scare, there was a change of ownership at my workplace leading to being laid off, my grandfather died, and then COVID-19 came along — where we all keep to ourselves as best we can, to avoid infection and the potential death that comes with it. I tried writing over those past several months but was often too tired or distracted to concentrate on it; however, with the free time available, it’s allowed an outlet to stave off both boredom and avoid further depression over the world’s current predicament (feeling like it comes straight from a Steven Soderberg movie, nonetheless). Which, almost presciently, our first entry deals with as a subject — in an idiosyncratic kind of way.

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Death Stranding

Ambivalence, in this day and age, is a sorely underrated sentiment. We live in a time of extremes, for both good and ill, but it’s ended up taking a toll on the discourse surrounding Artistic media. The “love it or hate it” paradigm makes it really difficult to have any nuanced discussion without presumptions that complicated reactions towards a work equate to “hatred” when not lavishing it in sycophantic praise. The reason I bring this up is that, when it comes to game developers, I’ve never felt more ambivalent towards a creator as much as Hideo Kojima. He makes plenty of creative decisions I can’t stand (“She breathes through her skin”?! Like a frog?!?!) yet when he does something I like, I really like it. Whether it’s the “Selection for Societal Sanity” scene from Metal Gear Solid 2 or the entirety of Metal Gear Solid 3 (with the best 007 theme song ever), they end making up for a lot and I can’t help but be forgiving.

I’ve played Death Stranding for well over 80 hours and still don’t know what to think of it; but, again, this isn’t from apathy — but ambivalence. There were certainly times I found it dull (with the largely expository and repetitive dialogue) yet it’s strangely refreshing to have a game where the challenge is almost entirely about traversal. It’s about scaling the various terrain of gorgeous landscapes, accompanied by movement mechanics and physics far more elaborate than any of the heavily downplayed combat. There are forced boss fights (one of which I, amusingly, defeated by throwing an attache at their head) I would’ve preferred to be omitted entirely — at least MULEs, Homo Demen terrorists, and BTs can be avoided entirely or evaded when confronted — as they aren’t nearly as enjoyable as maneuvering around a rock slide or trying to wade through waist-high snow as proficiently as possible while delivering a package. The experience, as aptly described by George Weidman, can become meditative as you slowly fugue into a Zen-like state to complete these tasks.

The narrative is less character-driven than it is by world-building in order to express high concept notions of a supernatural post-apocalypse where there’s the living, the dead, and those inbetween like Sam Porter Bridges (Norman Reedus) with a fictional ailment called “DOOMS.” It deals with internet isolationism in such a way that eerily echos the social distancing practiced now with COVID-19 and the protagonist being a lone courier with aphenphosmphobia makes it all the more relevant as speculative fiction. The society within the setting is one where people are forced to lock themselves away in fallout bunkers for safety from a now-inhospitable world, but to their own psychological detriment. In lacking much-needed human contact, there is an increased likelihood of suicide — which itself endangers the world further as corpses become Lovecraftian beasts made of crude oil or form vast, empty craters from exploding if not quickly cremated upon death— that’s lead to a Black Mirror-esque practice of combatting it with social media “likes.” It’s existentially frightening how closely it resembles our current reality and I doubt that’d happen without Kojima’s unique creative vision, warts and all.

Speaking of existentialism…

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NieR: Automata

Yoko Taro is another Japanese videogame auteur like Kojima but, unlike Kojima, my experience with his games has been indirect until now. Given his interviews and Q&As — part of me wants to love NieR: Automata unconditionally for Taro’s personality alone yet, unfortunately, I can’t.

I can appreciate what this game is doing. It acts as a Philosophy 101 course in the form of entertainment like The Good Place, where it’s less about dryly memorizing information than presenting ideas through an Artistic medium (though famous philosophers are name-dropped and some concepts elaborated upon). The way it plays with the limits of perception, changing from one point of view to another and gradually revealing more context to events we’ve initially taken at face value, is something I can’t help but love — made all the better with the involvement of automata (hey, just like the game’s subtitle!). There is a reason Blade Runner is my favorite film ever; well, that as well ashaving Karel Čapek’s R.U.R. (where the term “robot” originated) and Harlan Ellison’s unfilmed I, Robot script on my bookshelf. I’m also pretty sure Robot Carnival being my first anime had something to do with it…

My point being: this is the kind ofshit I live for!

What left me feeling lukewarm, despite all that, is its main gameplay loop. The combat is derivative of Bayonetta (a title I absolutely adore) but lacks the variety of enemy types and movesets for the player character that Bayonetta had in spades. This is worsened by an incredibly unbalanced upgrade system, where there’s very little tension as one can enable a character to both auto-heal if briefly left unharmed and gain health back felling hostiles. The visual uniformity of said enemy A.I., with exceptions like the weaponized bipedal oil rigs named after Friedrich Engels, left them feeling no more different than the armies of ineffectual cannon-fodder from the Dynasty Warrior series. They all blur together and no one encounter stands out after awhile (save for the beautifully orchestrated musical soundtrack evocative of the Ghost in the Shell films). Perhaps that’s on purpose, to represent the ultimate futility of warfare, but it’s hard to tolerate after tens of hours. The further I got, the less enthused I felt to continue — and that’s unfortunate because, in another form, I may’ve never gotten sick of it.

As far as the next entry goes? I don’t think I could say the same.

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God of War (2018)

There didn’t need to be another God of War game. This game could have, in fact, had nothing to do with the series and (a few tweaks aside) it’d be much the same, except it’d be a unique intellectual property rather than part of a brand. It also didn’t need an open world, with arbitrary RPG-style stats and an upgrade system based on resource-gathering that convolutes otherwise simplistic combat, or a story that — despite its interminable length—feels largely uneventful. It’s the same kind of plot from Rise of Skywalker that everyone (myself included) hated: there’s a single goal stretched out with a series of fetch quests in order to attain it. Videogames have been doing this for a while, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but this game is an egregious case of spreading oneself too thin…and there wasn’t much to spread as is.

If the game does anything right, it’s the characterization of Atreus. There are far too many works of fiction where youths, rather than behaving like actual kids, are basically miniaturized adults with the lame excuse they’re “wise beyond their years.” Atreus himself is, in fact, wise beyond his years but still acts like a kid. It’s what makes the interactions between him and Kratos feel authentic as a father-son relationship, because — though he is well-read and knowledgeable —Atreus’ naivete about the world around him clashes with Kratos’ experienced understanding of it and his learned cynicism. It’s also nice to have a game where a supporting character isn’t invisible to hostiles and actively takes part in combat, though this is hampered from a lack of danger (he can’t die) and his education is not expressed mechanically. Those moments of Kratos teaching Atreus are largely bound to scripted events and what moves he learns for combat are based on something as abstract as experience points in an upgrade system instead of Kratos directly fathering him. He’s definitely a step above Ellie in The Last of Us or Elizabeth from BioShock Infinite as an element of gameplay, but nonetheless still far from ideal.

Since it’s on-topic — here’s more about the youth!

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Night in the Woods

If Bryan Lee O’Malley and Richard Scarry (somehow) collaborated on a graphic novel, then had it adapted into a videogame, the final product would likely resemble Night in the Woods. There’s that wonderfully interesting contrast I loved in BoJack Horseman starring fanciful anthropomorphic animals, yet it’s nonetheless grounded — sometimes hitting too close to home — as they deal with crippling personal issues and the toll it takes on others around them. That is not to say it is humorless (far, far from such) but it’s definitely more of a dramedy than pure comedy and I’m happy that’s the case. Not everything needs to be a laugh-per-minute romp.

Relatable characters like protagonist Mae Borowski and her handful of friends aren’t poorly conceived caricatures created by out-of-touch middle-aged men pandering to youths, but by those who truly understand the mindset and behaviors common among dissociated 20-somethings living in economic uncertainty. Keep in mind that I’m not using “relatable” synonymously with “likable,” something I find utterly meaningless when it comes to discussing characterization in fiction, since Mae Borowski herself is usually not a likable person. In fact, she wouldn’t be nearly as interesting was she “likable.” Her massive fuck-ups realistically reflect the complicated nature of human beings and the frustrations that come with it. We’ve each had our moments whether it is getting too drunk and making asses of ourselves at a party, awkwardly conversing with people you hated back in high school and haven’t seen since, or heated spats with those you may otherwise get along with due to a petty misunderstanding: that’s all in the game. It also adds replay value as you don’t get to see every character vignette initially and need subsequent playthroughs to view them, but it never feels like a chore as you get to know more about these people you’ve already connected with — all due to fantastic writing and dialogue. Up to a certain point anyway…

After the game had spent so much time on these amusing slice-of-life interactions with townspeople, it was odd how partway through the game turns into a supernatural mystery that only soured my experience. Remember how I said the characters felt like genuine people dealing with personal issues you could understand? It’s still there, kind of, but then you have dreadfully on-the-nose lines to hammer home the theme of economic woes that were once subtle before — I didn’t need ignorant rednecks overtly blaming the immigrants for a lack of jobs to make the point more obvious. I also can’t stand how Mae’s internal conflict about her hometown becomes personified as a literal Elder God, though it could’ve remained wholly symbolic and more fitting with the rest of the narrative. It all comes off as half-baked compared to previous sections, as if the developers wanted to end on a “big note” though it is contrary to what’s already been presented. It could’ve ended as unceremoniously as Clerks did (there’s an undercurrent of taking things one day at a time instead of needing every decision you make to be a momentous event), as opposed to this last-minute horror story as incongruent as a square peg forced into a round hole.

The next game, on the other hand, works quite well as a horror story (half of it anyway).

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Resident Evil 2 (2019)

It’s unfortunate that, due to Konami (for some incomprehensible and godawful reason) switching from videogame development to pachinko machines, there will never be another proper Silent Hill installment (that’s why we have Death Stranding now— it originated as a canceled sequel helmed by Hideo Kojima). The Resident Evil series, on the other hand, has remained relevant because of Resident Evil 4 and its influence on AAA game design for the last fifteen years. Perhaps to a fault, given its format became a ubiquitous template for most action-adventure titles to the point such games are becoming less distinguishable from one another. The AAA videogame industry is absolutely terrible about overexposure and diminishing returns which, by God, I just want them to stop doing. Even Dark Souls has been subjected to that treatment and now Soulsborne titles are everywhere

When Resident Evil 7, which returned to its survival horror roots with a storytelling presentation akin to prestige television, got a positive reception from both audience and critics — news of a Resident Evil 2 remake caught my interest. The original game barely held my attention as it came off like an interactive B-movie with terrible acting and cinematography (nor were there any real scares as much startles), but my experience with the remake has been the polar opposite. The title is able to make a gameplay mechanic I usually despise (e.g. inventory management) into an immersive part of the experience that had me hook, line, and sinker.

There was always that sense of dread mixed with excitement, figuring out how much I needed to defend or heal myself while leaving enough room open for key items, as there’s always the danger that comes with mismanagement. Flash grenades might take up a much-needed slot, but it means you’ll save on bullets and leave zombies stunned long enough to escape from them instead of powering through and taking possible damage. You may have to eschew the usage of green herbs because, though it may provide much-needed healing no matter how minor, it’s wasteful if not combined with red and blue herbs — as it fully heals and temporarily reduces damage, making it particularly helpful in tougher situations with stronger enemies. The fact I’d let out a sigh of relief when coming across another policeman’s hammerspace fanny pack to gain more inventory space must mean something, a feeling equal to the adrenaline rush from outrunning Mr. X’s pursuit or when surrounded by zombies who can’t be killed simply by headshots anymore and require Dead Space-esque dismemberment to sabotage their mobility.

In fact, I don’t dislike anything in the game that much with exception to Leon Kennedy’s flaccidly-told campaign (his weapons fucking suck too). In Claire’s campaign, you get a story with neat narrative beats — like Claire and Sherry’s relationship evoking Ripley and Newt’s dynamic from Aliens — that, while far from groundbreaking or deep, is surprisingly restrained for a game by Capcom. They’re a company where good storytelling and characterization went to die and a target of mockery in the gaming community yet, now, all the poor line deliveries and badly localized dialogue are nowhere to be seen. It’s not as obvious when you play Leon, failed boy band member and adamant Blue Lives Matter proponent, because — despite sharing many of the same environments — there’re no thematic connections to make memorable character moments as he goes from one place to another to open one door after another. He lacks a strongly defined motivation to push him forward as opposed to Claire with her brother Chris and later Sherry. Speaking of Sherry; even her stealth-based interlude keeps up the pace as well as establishing how terrible a person Chief Irons is and why, while Ada Wong’s segment is little more than an unnecessary interruption that does not provide further context to the plot or texture to the setting.

The Remake for Resident Evil 3 was just released yet reticent about playing it, coming out barely a year after the last installment has troubling implications and — based on what Ben Croshaw and Marcus Turner have said — it’s more of an action title than survival horror and I didn’t want that. I needed to fill the absence left by a lack of Silent Hill games and never in a million years would I have expected a remake of Resident Evil 2 to partially fulfill that role…

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POSTSCRIPT

Originally, I didn’t plan for these mini-reviews to have any sort of connective tissue between them — yet they did. They’re disparate as games but share something in common; the theme of needing personal connection with others while nonetheless forced into separation whether it is based on internalized, societal, or even cataclysmic factors (all three in Death Stranding’s case!). The fact I played them on the days leading up to the COVID-19 lockdown was a happy accident, though “happy” is a bit of a misnomer (if only at this time).

Getting back to writing after a far-too-long hiatus feels great, which makes me think it should be a goal to write more often and consistently put out a new piece at least once a month (if not more). I already have some others in the works — one of which is about Netflix’s adaptation of The Witcher — and, hopefully, I’ll put them out sooner than later.

[Originally posted on 5/10/20 @ Medium.com]

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