Lovecraftian Ludonarratives: Mini-Reviews for SUNDERED, DARKEST DUNGEON, and CONTROL

I needed me some vidyagames, but not just any vidyagames – ones like Bloodborne!

They’re not other Soulsborne titles but love letters to the various works of H.P. Lovecraft (minus the virulent racism, thankfully!) along with those who followed in his stead, as far back as August Derleth and Robert E. Howard (yes, that one) and as recent as Brian Lumley and Stephen King. Though Lovecraft in videogames is neither uncommon nor recent, when considering Alone in the Dark or the point-and-click adventure Shadow of the Comet, it’s often difficult to gamify the author’s work without cherry-picking elements and creating an original story around them. The fact Dark Corners of the Earth tried to be a first-person shooter where you incinerate Starspawn with a flame-thrower, mow down Deep Ones with a machinegun, blast Dagon in the face with a ship’s cannon, and take on a Flying Polyp with a retro-futuristic blaster is more than enough to prove why faithfully adapting Shadow Over Innsmouth as a videogame is impossible without ruining the source material. Though, even as a videogame, it failed miserably…

These games, on the other hand? It depends – but let’s get the worst out of the way first. May as well start with the bad news before getting to the good stuff.


Sundered

Sundered®: Eldritch Edition

There’s nothing as disappointing as wasting so much talent on something that’s otherwise lacking in quality. One can never fault Sundered‘s developer, Thunder Lotus, for their art direction and design along with the graphical fluidity of its character animations – imagining the painstaking work required to achieve such and how that, by itself, is admirable. Regardless, it’s not enough to carry the rest of the experience.

It is, ostensibly, a Metroidvania title with procedurally-generated dungeons upon each death – which carries no penalty, save for wasted time – and attained abilities for both combat and mobility to proceed. I’ve played enough games that use procedural generation to know that it works best when you can differentiate between each individual run and, if you’re unable to, suggests the developers should’ve used a specific level design instead. It’s done incredibly well in games like Enter the Gungeon where there’re innumerable combinations of rooms and challenges making every iteration feel unique, helped by its fast-paced quarter-munching arcade cabinet vibe, as well as Rogue Legacy with its addition of a procedurally-generated lineage of monster hunters invading a haunted shape-shifting castle (huh, that sounds oddly familiar…). When it doesn’t work, as evidenced in both Let It Die‘s Tower of Barbs and Bloodborne‘s Chalice Dungeons, it feels like the same three or four areas that’re sequenced in a different order each time yet can’t tell the difference after a while. Sundered is in the latter category and worsened by how badly the game already is at directing the player to the next objective.

As if the terrible navigation wasn’t frustrating enough, the frequency and intensity of spawned enemies make it a war of attrition as wave after wave comes after you with no end in sight. This isn’t difficult or challenging combat – it’s just being bombarded at every angle and given little room to react properly. You don’t die numerous times due to a hostile non-player character being smart enough to attack when leaving yourself open, as most of them are little more than cannon-fodder but, from being so over-stimulated by the visual clutter that you give up and let them kill you. The treks through nearly identical-looking procgen’d levels might be boring but, Jesus fuckin’ Christ, at least they weren’t assaulting my eyes and almost giving me a headache.

I regret not heeding George Weidman’s warning about the game and, being unusually gullible (’cause Lovecraftian horror), assumed the problems he brought up would somehow be fixed in future patches – because, unfortunately, that didn’t happen and it only makes me happier over the recent Cyberpunk 2077 controversy. At this point, it’s hard to defend any game with the possibility patches might fix issues when you know that such issues could’ve already been dealt with beforehand. Thunder Lotus, as much effort as they put into their graphics, didn’t put nearly enough effort into polishing the gameplay – they gave us a videogame we can enjoy gazing upon but at the cost of interactivity, and it’s just not worth it.

The next game is proof that you don’t need to be photogenic when you provide a far more fulfilling ludic experience…

Darkest Dungeon

Darkest Dungeon: The Crimson Court - How to Get a Courtyard Invitation |  AllGamers

In the cosmicism of H.P. Lovecraft’s work, humanity is not important in the grand scheme of things. How could we be? It’s nearly impossible for us to truly comprehend the vastness of space and time like Yog-Sothoth, with what we do know is infinitesimal in comparison. At best, we’re pawns in their incomprehensible machinations and can’t do much about it besides play along. At worst, we’re completely useless. You can always try to prepare for the worst, to avoid the pain of a severe loss, but they’re inevitable – though, at the same time, it only makes those small victories against overwhelming odds far more meaningful as result.

Darkest Dungeon has this theme woven into its game mechanics and manages to instill a great sense of player disempowerment with its punishing difficulty, something Bloodborne (as good a game as it still is) could not entirely achieve as an action title. Though its endings are fatalistic in nature, as even the player character attaining godhood makes them little more than a monstrous infant, it’s still a game where – with enough might and perseverance, and death rendered a minor inconvenience – you can still attain godhood. None of the player characters featured in Darkest Dungeon will ever reach that level of cosmic power. They will defeat many a beast and have moments of heroism, of course, but they are all nonetheless vulnerable and suffer permadeaths.

You are expected to treat each recruit to your cause, fighting back the otherworldly abominations of an abandoned palatial estate, as expendable. Each class of player character even looks the same, save for a limited selection of palette-swaps, further entrenching their interchangeability and disincentivize attachment to any one individual. There’ll always be another caravan of treasure-hunters and mercenaries with a death wish to send to their doom, yet the longer any of them manage to live – the more attached you become anyway…

They may be the digital simulacrum of people but, as any good ludic experience should, seeing these player characters go on one expedition after another and building them up to become legendary adventurers makes it all the more tragic when they do finally fall. Though some of their personality quirks grant benefits, others can often be detrimental to themselves or their comrades, but – unless you have the means to suppress those bad habits entirely (you usually won’t until later on) – you learn to live with their flaws and work around them, just like you do when interacting with other people in reality. Even those fireside chats, as procedurally generated as the dungeons themselves, make you care for them despite being little more than a proxy of a person made of computer code.

As someone who despises real-time combat in role-playing games and shoehorning stats into otherwise action-heavy titles relying more on hand-eye coordination skills, games like Darkest Dungeon remind me of why I appreciate turn-based combat mechanics in RPGs and utterly thankful when indie developers implement it into their games. Complaints about how it “looks silly” come off as wildly superficial when, honestly, the empty spectacle is just as silly-looking yet far more aggravating (if not just boring) to play. I greatly prefer an element of strategy over having poorly-programmed friendly AIs who only impede my progress or chiseling away at bullet-sponge enemies with an interminable health bar until it finally falls over, instead of making every move matter and where each successful attack hits hard – putting you in situations that cannot simply be won by turning off your brain and mashing buttons.

The row-based combat is similar to that of many Japanese RPGs but each party member’s position is integral as certain actions can only occur in a specific space and it noticeably differs with each character class. An Arbalest or Musketeer, for example, tend to gravitate being last in line as their primary attack focuses on sniping but can also serve as support – like minor healing and debuffing hostiles – while Crusaders and Hellions are best left at the head of the line with their powerful short-range attacks and high defense. Even then, there’re more versatile classes like Jesters and Shieldmaidens, whose attacks involve moving backward or forwards in a line-up and can complicate certain party line-ups when handled poorly.

It really helps the game emphasizes party management over inventory, which cuts down on so much monotonous busywork. There is an inventory system but it’s mostly for optional items, “Trinkets,” that grant bonuses – with more powerful pieces having a downside attached, to balance difficulty – but its most prevalent in the expeditions taken where, due to having a limited inventory space, makes preparation and collection a series of Sophie’s Choice scenarios. You *can* buy more food and torches just in case, but it means there’s less space to pick up valuable objects whether it’s currency, resources, or aforementioned Trinkets.

Said resources go to developing the game’s hub area, the Hamlet, where player characters relax between each expedition – whether it’s relieving stress at the bar or church, curing a pathological disease at the local medical ward, or upgrading the adventurers under your employ. It’s necessary to develop each establishment past their baseline benefits and give player characters a better chance of survival with improved equipment and skills (in a, thankfully, linear five-tier leveling process), so choosing whether to acquire currency or resources during each expedition is an important consideration to take. What good is currency, when you cannot further upgrade the player characters? What good are those resources, when you don’t have the currency to pay for those upgrades? If the inventory system was unlimited in its capacity, so much of what makes this game fulfilling as a challenge would be lost.

There’s very little to complain about Darkest Dungeon without sounding like petty nitpicking. Even if the game’s setting doesn’t actually do much interesting or new with the material that influenced it, its strengths as a videogame overshadow such minor weaknesses. Being derivative isn’t necessarily a bad thing when given the right kind of presentation. The next game, on the other hand, is a game that brings us an interesting take on H.P. Lovecraft’s brand of horror but, Shoggoths be damned, it’s as tedious to play through as it was to read through the man’s worst prose…

Control

Haunted houses are a common trope in horror fiction. It is usually inhabited by a malevolent entity whether it’s a ghost, a demon, or something else entirely who torment the current tenants of the house until they die or run away for their lives. However, in more recent years, there’s this particular iteration of that trope where the house itself is the malevolent entity. I’m not aware of any term describing this sub-trope and decided to give it a name of my own: “The Living Architecture.” There’re obvious examples in videogames: Silent Hill 2 and its sequel, Silent Hill 4: The Room; the various indie projects of Kitty Horrorshow, but notably Anatomy; and, now, we have Remedy’s Control.

The Oldest House is obviously not a house, given its appearance as 33 Thomas Street in New York City, but it’s not a piece of Brutalist architecture either. It’s alive. Even then, it’s not just a living Brutalist building…maybe. It’s connected to an upside-down black pyramid that exists in a pocket dimension appearing as little more than blank space, as well as a group of entities who’re collectively called “The Board of Directors” that occupy it and a Finnish janitor who is not actually a Finnish janitor (played by Martti Suosalo). All of them may, in fact, be the same being taking different forms much like the titular creature from Stephen King’s It where Pennywise the Dancing Clown is but one of the monster’s many avatars. All that we really ever get to know about them, technically, is that they aren’t the two antagonistic forces within the narrative: The Former (exiled from “The Board”) and The Hiss, both of whom are just as inscrutable. Then, it gets more surreal.

This scenario’s wild card takes the form of Jesse Faden (played by Courtney Hope), who acts as the conduit for another entity – one she’s named “Polaris.” Like its namesake, it guides Jesse to the Federal Bureau of Control and, by proxy, her kidnapped twin brother which usually appears as a shimmering fractal spiral to highlight checkpoints and mission objectives. The thing is, though, I honestly can’t determine whether it’s Jesse or Polaris who is the actual player character. There’s something off about Jesse, though that does apply to the rest of the phenomenally characterized cast, with her reactions towards the extraordinary and inexplicable as either slight bemusement or stoicism bordering on apathy. As if she’s not really there, that something else is in the driving seat and she’s providing commentary while watching from a Cartesian theater. Nothing suggests Jesse has any firearms training and each superpower she gets is new to her, but nonetheless uses both rather proficiently upon receiving them. If Jesse Faden is simply a puppet of Polaris, does that make the players themselves Polaris?

I don’t know. They never explain it and, by Cthulhu’s tentacle-beard, I love that!

Too bad playing the game is nowhere near as interesting as the setting, its inhabitants, or any idea explored within the plot. It’s confusing how Remedy can use all these high concepts in their story, yet it’s attached to this third-person shooter format – which made sense with the first two Max Payne games, what with all the homages to John Woo and The Matrix, but feels lazily implemented in a game like Control. You’d think, given all the shape-shifting rooms and Weird Fiction elements, it’d involve more puzzle-solving with aspects of survival horror but, no, you’re just mowing down a bunch of dudes in SWAT gear with firearms like so many other titles but with magic bullets and typical variations of telekinesis. Well, okay, there are other kinds of enemies but they’re incredibly annoying (especially the ones that fly) and, when combined with some environmental effects that overwork the hardware (causing graphical slowdowns or skips) and misleading visual overlays that don’t indicate if you’ve lost health but feel like such, turn battles into as much of a clusterfuck as they were in Sundered. Don’t get me started on the weirdly granular skill tree, resource-gathering for upgrades, and combat mods that’re so specific in their function they’re useless…

What made this unengaging gameplay loop tolerable enough to wade through, if anything, was everything else around it. Each collectible – which comes in a variety of forms – does a fantastic job at world-building; giving you a better understanding of the FBC’s function, those within its weirdly inexhaustible workforce, and what (very) little they know of the Black Pyramid/Oldest House/Astral Plane/etc. If them kidnapping Jesse’s twin brother isn’t enough to indicate their dubious ethics, an FBC psychologist (who clearly does not understand children) conceives the world’s most unnerving kids’ show. Y’know, to both “entertain” and educate the six-year-old orphan they hold captive about all the supernatural nonsense. Seriously, “Threshold Kids” feels like part of [Adult Swim]’s live-action line-up but with the disconcerting oddity amped up to even rival The Eric Andre Show.

There’re also awkward, badly-edited instructional presentations by Casper Darling (played by Matthew Porretta), who seems like a charmingly goofy tinkerer that wouldn’t be out of place in Ghostbusters, but it slowly becomes apparent that he’s actually a…mad scientist. Not akin to a comicbook supervillain or from Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, but fugitive Nazis hiding in South America to make clones of Hitler like The Boys from Brazil. Much like ally Emily Pope (played by Antonia Bernath), he seems too nice and that’s more alienating than Jesse’s cold demeanor, and one can’t help but wonder that they must be hiding something unforgivable under this obvious façade of congeniality.

Though their function may be necessary, most of those employed by the FBC aren’t actually good people and more interested in getting the job done than anything else – they’re as if Hannah Arendt’s concept of the “Banality of Evil” physically manifested. Even the FBC’s previous Director, Zachariah Trench (played by James McCaffrey, the voice of Max Payne himself!), is more paranoid and ominously menacing than Joseph fucking McCarthy during the Red Scare, whose obsession with security and safety becomes more of a curse than a blessing as it consumes him. It’s rather depressing the most trustworthy person is the ghost of Alan Wake (yes, that one…also played by Matthew Porretta) and only a little of what he says makes any sense. It’s indicative of how the setting itself, along with the Brutalist architecture, is as atmospherically hostile to the player as Yharnam was in Bloodborne – the Oldest House may tolerate your presence, for its personal benefit, but only begrudgingly…for now.

There’s a lot more I can say about the game, for another nine or so blocks of text – including how the song “Take Control” by Poets of the Fall or Casper Darling’s creepy stalker music video for “Dynamite” is fucking amazing and why – but that’s the ultimate problem with Control: it’s more interesting to think about and discuss than as a ludic experience. That’s unfortunate, for its potential was about as vast as the Astral Plane itself…


The three-month delay is honestly quite shameful, on my end, but I do have a good reason: I’ve recently moved back to Southern California to take care of my dad, who’s recently had shoulder surgery, as well as doing some home improvements for his place – plus, like, I really needed the change in scenery and it was becoming too expensive to live up north. I’m still acclimating to my new environment, which is warmer and dryer than what I’ve gotten used to over the last seven years, but – now that I have a good deal less to worry about and depress me into another writer’s block – I intend to put out more content on regular basis and have a bunch of other pieces current in the works. Oh, and my birthday was eight days ago – so, yeah, happy (belated) birthday to me!

I’ll have a review of WandaVision by next week, or the one after that, as well as a (mostly) freeform rant/op-ed and another installment of Surfing the Netflix: Animation Edition on none other than Thus Spoke Rohan Kishibe, as a follow-up to my Non-Fan Review of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure.

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]

Varying Degrees of Disappointment: Mini-Reviews for GRAVITY RUSH, THE LAST OF US, AXIOM VERGE, and LONE SURVIVOR

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Gravity Rush

There’s a lot of potential in the gravity-shifting mechanic so central to gameplay but, following inFamous and [Prototype]’s stead than Portal or The Talos Principle, is simply an amusing method of mobility albeit with poorly implemented combat.

That gameplay loop would be tolerable, were hostile AIs not the most non-commital and least creative of all monsters — nebulous black goo with glowing weak-points. It clashes with the aesthetics of Heksville, densely-populated floating city districts with art nouveau architecture and steampunk technology in spades, when something (likely troublesome to design and program) like malevolent robots would be more fitting with that setting. Though the plotline is as incohesive as the combat, interesting creative decisions are made including a sidequest of carrying out a full conversation with a married couple “unstuck in time” akin to Kurt Vonnegut’s Sirens of Titan.

There’s this conceit that the protagonist, Kat, is in search of her past due to (of course) amnesia but that goal post keeps moving further back to the point it’s also part of the cliff-hanger. The game’s story is so episodic yet regularly reminds you of a mystery that is only hinted at further, often by characters who obviously know more but refuse to elaborate to play up the “Mystery Box” aspect, which only soured me despite a fondness for the visual presentation and admittedly charming cast. When taking the review by Ben Croshaw of the sequel into consideration — summarizing it as slightly different but still more of the same — it’s hard to feel enthusiastic enough to give a second chance.

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The Last of Us

If I can give Naughty Dog credit for anything, it’s that they understand cinematic language better than most other game developers (but especially David Cage). Whenever there was a cutscene, I could not help but find myself intrigued by the world and these characters — yet, unfortunately, the gameplay got in the way.

The combat and sneaking mechanics work perfectly fine (the game is never lacking in polish) but such sections are elongated to the point of exhaustion. Getting into gun-fights with post-apocalyptic highwaymen or quietly avoiding fungzies would be entertaining enough as brief interruptions but, when they go on for half an hour or more, it began to test my patience. This is not helped by the player character, Joel, being the most unlikable and least interesting person alive while Ellie, who is endlessly amusing and ridiculously adorable, tends to act as tag-along whom hostiles don’t acknowledge though her presence is what drives the plot. People may complain about escort quests in videogames but in cases like IcoDead Rising, or Resident Evil 4, they added a level of tension that would be lost with its omission. The dissonance is as distracting here as it was with Elizabeth in BioShock Infinite — we’re told of their importance, but their lack of ludic acknowledgment shows otherwise.

The saving grace, I suppose, is the ending with its disdain of closure as a narrative concept while reframing an act of heroism as selfish and even detrimental to the world itself. It’s a total downer with little sense of hope, but I can’t help but applaud sticking to such a creative decision. There’s too many a dénouement where poetic justice is dished out and everyone’s better off as though obliged, but that’s not the world we live in and need that reminder in post-apocalyptic fiction — otherwise it’s another insipid power fantasy that’d make Tyler Durden proud.

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Axiom Verge

Thomas Happ and I seem to share a good number of sensibilities: a fondness for the “Metroidvania” sub-genre, the aesthetics of H.R. Giger, and minimalist (almost obscurist) storytelling that’s less ludically dissonant than many other games. The fact he did all this by his lonesome is something that is both impressive and, to my shame, makes me feel quite envious I lack the skills to the same. I really, really wanted to like this game for all those reasons but can’t help but feel lukewarm about it.

It starts off well enough, introducing you to this truly alien setting — where the biological and mechanical are one, a place in which reality itself can glitch as if it was digitalized — with a clear sense of direction leading you to the first set of upgrades. The loss of interest came about when new modes of movement opened up and required backtracking, making me realize just how poorly-differentiated these levels are. They may have a distinctive background but the foregrounds are always these blocks, with a pallet swap from one area to the next, making navigation increasingly difficult as well as dull. Though the biomechanical alien nature of the setting was still appealing, the strange names for each section of the map — when coupled with the samey visuals — further dampened my enjoyment as I’d trek back and forth wondering where exactly I was or going to.

This wasn’t an issue I had in, say, Symphony of the Night as each area was entirely different and laid out in such a way that going between them didn’t feel like an arduous chore (except the clock tower with those goddamn flying Medusa heads). Even with the creative weapon selection, particularly how the Address Disruptor causes enemies to have their functions altered in numerous ways, it wasn’t really enough to keep me invested. But, all that said, I’m looking forward to whatever Thomas Happ has next on his plate…

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Lone Survivor

Much in the way Axiom Verge was an homage to Metroid, Lone Survivor is a love letter to Silent Hill — practically being a 2D remake of that game and its sequels (at least developed by Konami). As someone who liked that version of survival horror over Resident Evil’s cheesy take on the genre and always wanted more of it, I couldn’t help but feel intrigued enough to play it.

Unfortunately, like Axiom Verge, I become gradually soured on the experience the longer it went on. It wasn’t just the fact navigating endlessly similar corridors with rooms and branching paths, while constantly having to look at the map, is an exercise in annoyed boredom but that the game has less of an identity of its own than Thomas Happ’s title despite the comparable level of iteration. My eyes practically rolled out of their sockets when the titular protagonist finds a room with a woman he may or may not know imprisoned behind metal bars — it’s referential fan-service of the worst kind, next to most of the enemies being Cronenbergian meat puppets without faces.

Why be so slavish and just remind me of another game I already played? Why not use Silent Hill as an influence for something a little different? It doesn’t have to give me the moon or involve innovative gameplay mechanics — simply a work of Art that can stand on its own. Yet I can’t imagine why anyone would play Lone Survivor unless they were aware of Silent Hill, as its existence hinges on those games so much and there wouldn’t be much appeal to anyone not privy to its many tropes. Red Candle Games’ Detention, on the other hand, does not fall into this trap and — the atmosphere and folklore featured being symbolic of living under a military dictatorship, remembering the best monsters in horror are humans themselves — has a lot more to say than simply “I totally loved Silent Hill too!”

[Originally posted on 6/25/19 @ Medium.com]

Teen Girls and Supernatural Horror: Until Dawn, Life Is Strange, and Oxenfree Mini-Reviews (w/spoilers)

Until Dawn

It reminds me a lot of L.A. Noire — which is not a good thing. Just as Team Bondi once did, Supermassive Games is so pleased with their motion capture technology despite adding so little that it becomes irritating. They assume, as many videogame developers do, that “cinematic storytelling” not only involves being derivative of a passive medium — to the point it’s just a slightly interactive, elongated movie — but borrowing characterization and plot devices wholesale without an original approach to the material. It doesn’t deconstruct the stereotypes that make up slasher movie casts or the various tropes used in them, despite Peter Stormare breaking the fourth wall to mock the player for participating at all.

There is a trend in gaming that I wish would end sooner than later, which I shall call “False Choice Syndrome.” Until Dawn is a perfect example of this as evidenced by its grandiose, unskippable intro that proudly proclaims each decision made will cause a cascade of changes making each playthrough indistinguishable from the last. This has already been obvious for a while with other titles but it needs to be stated again: this is a lie. While characters can permanently die due to failing quick-time events and choosing one option over another, all superficial at best or meaningless at worst, the story progresses the same way regardless. To be continually given the promise of branching narratives and for each attempt to falter is exhausting at this point. It would be impressive to finally get such a game, some day, but I doubt — with how much time and resources are necessary to truly accomplish that — it will happen any time soon or as a big-budgeted mainstream title.

Life Is Strange

This game and Until Dawn aren’t that dissimilar: they’re both graphic adventure games that are heavily iterative of cinematic works and use branching narrative as a unique selling point that’s rather overstated. Hell, they even share the same visual motifs involving butterflies (’cause A Sound of Thunder) and Native American spirit animals.

Yet I found Life Is Strange, for all its noticeable flaws, an endearing experience than an exasperating one. The voice acting and dialogue may be more stilted while the graphics are far less photogenic and animations a bit clunky, but the characters and the setting exude a personality of its own that Until Dawn severely lacked. The teenagers look and sound like teenagers as opposed to 20-something actors portraying such, with many individuals having lives that exists outside of the events in the plot, and (most importantly) has something to say. Though issues such as cyber-bulling, abortion, and date-rape aren’t explored in-depth — it’s hard to not appreciate and applaud the acknowledgement of such topics, especially in a videogame, while treating it with earnestness than outright camp. Hannah Telle’s performance itself as Maxine Caulfield (love the Catcher in the Rye reference, BTW) may be awkward at times, but it works as Max is an awkward teenage girl who’s (like her namesake) often conflicted about the actions of herself and others. She feels like an actual person in a way that none of Until Dawn’s cast does.

Even the supposedly branching narrative, coupled with Max’s inexplicable ability to rewind time, is practically a subversion of such gameplay when not hampered by it. So many story beats and one of two endings — which I feel should have been the only conclusion, choice be damned — suggest that the need to have such mastery over the world and demand it change to your whim is actually quite selfish, if not incredibly dangerous, and ultimately futile. Many of the alterations Max makes to the space-time continuum, as ostensibly benevolent as they may be at first, are later proven to take its toll on reality itself as birds die mid-flight and fall to the ground or whales beaching themselves en masse. An attempt to (more or less) revive Chloe Price’s beloved late father comes with the backlash of Chloe ending up quadriplegic and her parents suffocating in financial debt due to medical bills. It’s evocative of Carnivàle, that wonderful yet short-lived and underrated HBO series, where the ability to heal the wounded or dying functioned by siphoning the life force from everything else around the person — at one point leaving an entire field of crops to dry up and die so a little girl could walk again. There is this sense of a natural order and even trying to bend it without breaking is impossible, that every infraction to the rules comes with an exponentially worse cost.

It comes down to the line dividing allusion and homage. Until Dawn makes allusions — to ScreamSaw, and I Know What You Did Last Summer — that simply reference the material without trying to have an identity of its own. Life is Strange wears its many influences on its sleeve — whether it’s Donnie DarkoThe Butterfly Effect, or Twin Peaks — but uses those references to create its own sense of self than to slavishly imitate, thus functioning as homage.

Oxenfree

Though I may not like Until Dawn, I will give it some credit: it understood how cinematography worked and the importance of switching between different angles for the sake of pacing. I can’t say the same about this game.

What. So. Ever.

To be stuck with a continuous wide shot of scenery, even if they’re beautifully painted landscapes, felt like staring into infinity. The fact characters move at a sluggish pace through fixed pathways only made it worse. When coupled with an incredibly brief gameplay length and the expectation of players to have subsequent playthroughs — it turned the one and only strength, well-acted and clever dialogue, into a flaw. Since it suffers from the aforementioned “False Choice Syndrome,” this flaw is made unbearable when it becomes apparent your contribution to these conversations yields so little affect. You would think, for a game as short as it is, Oxenfree could actually cause each decision to effectively change events within the plot accompanied by numerous endings. But, unless having a different line of narration actually counts (it doesn’t), events will always play out and end the same way.

The whole package feels woefully insubstantial. Even the plot is full of good ideas that are poorly executed with set-ups that have no pay-off, somehow leaving with more questions even as it tries to answer them, and only one of the characters (Clarissa) has much depth to them while the others are fairly one-dimensional. I could be more forgiving since this is from an indie developer, but that would be both patronizing and dishonest on my part. Night School Studio, especially with Adam Hines’ involvement, obviously has the talent to create a game with heart and wit in spades as well as doing something interesting or new — but Oxenfree is not that game. Not by a long-shot.

[Originally posted on 7/23/17 @ Medium.com]