Now That It’s Over — Let Me Be Honest About GAME OF THRONES (w/spoilers, obviously)…

I watched the show, from beginning to end, and still find it to be one of the most overrated TV series in years next to LOST.

This isn’t a revelation that came with the poorly-written, lackluster finale where Arya Stark turns into Frodo Baggins at the end of Return of the King but within the first season itself. Yes, the one that so many have retroactively portrayed as being close to perfection while ignoring the telltale signs of issues that’d become apparent in future episodes. Even Saturday Night Live had a sketch back then, which has since been scrubbed from the internet (for some reason — but I’ll assume that a segment of Game of Thrones fans are giant crybullies), mocking the gratuitous nudity and sex in the brothel scenes (apparently we’re too dumb of an audience to understand what happens in a place referred to as a “brothel”) by speculating they were taking advice from an over-sexed thirteen-year-old boy on set. It perfectly represented everything wrong with the series, just as it began, and now it’s gone…

As time went by, subsequent seasons came out and I noticed others commenting on the overuse of rape as if it were some great surprise. Really? Do you think a show that’d be so pandering with (largely) female nudity would leave rape as shock value dramatics off the table? Even though it manages to have varied and layered female characters unlike many shows and movies, which erroneously think a “strong female character” is simply a male action hero with different reproductive organs, you still have them getting sexually violated or physically beaten as if they were in a snuff film and it all functions as a juvenile approach to character-building. The kind of grotesque non-creativity that Satoshi Kon deftly criticized twenty-two years ago in Perfect Blue that goes unheard while Darren Aronofsky heavily borrowed from it.

There’s a lot of problems I have with the series but, to avoid making it a series of impenetrable blocks of text, I’ll make a somewhat breezy Cracked.com-style list of my three major issues. Starting with…

1. HISTORICAL FICTION WITH MAGIC (KINDA)

If there’s one thing I can’t stand in horror stories involving zombies, it’s the refusal of characters to refer to zombies as “zombies.” They always have to come up with some awkward alternative, as if it’s embarrassing to utter the word. But…why? They’re animated cadavers that mindlessly devour human flesh — they are zombies, based on the common pop culture portrayal of them. Some may run than limp along, others more invulnerable to damage, and can even have fungal growths spouting from their craniums like The Last of Us but they’re still zombies. Is it because the creators think to have characters refer to them as such be “too silly”? Why be so hesitant to embrace zombies fully as horror story monsters in a horror story? Why act as if they’re anything else?

Similarly, watching Game of Thrones is more like watching historical fiction about the War of the Roses with the pretense of also being a fantasy adventure. The majority of the series is a bunch of people standing or sitting around discussing statecraft and all the fantasy elements, like the dragons or magic, are few and far inbetween until later on. They’ll appear to remind us that this is, in fact, a fantasy story but will remain downplayed as we watch a bunch of similar-looking honky motherfuckers as they speak of the fake politics of a fake kingdom with a fake history at interminable length. Maybe you’re supposed to be impressed by how Shakespearean it all is but The Bard himself was more willing to embrace the fantastical in A Midsummer Night’s Dream or The Tempest while this show only does it begrudgingly despite the intentional inclusion of those elements.

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PULSE POUNDING ACTION! ACTION!! ACTION!!!

It would certainly be easier to accept, if it were a stage production, technical limitations and that much of the plot would have to be driven by dialogue via character interaction. However, Game of Thrones isn’t a stage production — it is an expensive televised series, yet it feels like a stage production nonetheless. It has no excuse to be that way, other than pompously self-satisfied enough to assume soap opera-style melodrama makes up for the lack of concrete action.

If Game of Thrones was titled “The War of the Roses” and actually about the War of the Roses, I’d have far less issue with that storytelling format. I’d be more willing to tolerate all the statecraft because there’s a real-world historical basis for it and, hell, you might learn something from it. Though a dramatization of those events, they are based on an important occurrence that shaped the United Kingdom as a confederation of nations inhabiting the same island(s) — something that has affected how we live right now, in some way or another. For all the real-world parallels Game of Thrones tries to use as part of its setting, it doesn’t really matter if you lack an attachment to Westeros as a place and having such would only be possible if you’ve already spent time immersed within it. The only perspective you see of Westeros is from those with immense power, compared to others, as they go about their political machinations. You never really get a sense of how the other half lives and I can’t help but find it aggravating as peasants and slaves exist only to aggrandize or demonize those in power, never to explore their perspective of the events. They may as well be non-player characters in a videogame than real people.

The reason I despise talking about the novels with people who’ve read them, as someone who hasn’t, is how some insist I should read them to “get” and “truly appreciate” the setting. But, as I’ve said elsewhere, declaring who does or doesn’t “get it” is fanboyish gate-keeping based on obsessive adoration of the content than an understanding of the narrative structure or overall cultural context. Maybe, when discussing what makes the characters unlikable in a modern context, I don’t want to be chastised because I’m just supposed to take everything as a given — immune to all scrutiny — while purposefully ignoring the world outside of it. Except it is a product of our modern culture and did not form in a vacuum separate from that culture. The books and TV series using real-world parallels from the past at all means any attempt at keeping it separate from reality is utterly inane. At least when it came to Lord of the Rings, stuff like The Silmarillion was supplemental than integral to understanding the story of a halfling journeying to throw a piece of mystical bling into a volcano. In fact, LotR never shied away from the fact it was a fantastical story in a fantastical setting the way Game of Thrones did until latter-day seasons. Though, even then, they botched it.

2. MAGIC: THE ULTIMATE DEUS EX MACHINA

I’ve never been as fond of fantasy as I have sci-fi when it comes to storytelling. Though concepts within both genres are wholly imaginary — sci-fi usually attempts to explain the mechanics of its technologies, in as internally logical a way as possible. Faster-Than-Light space travel might not be realistic but having characters, who’re informing the unaware, explain how it works which adds both a sense of texture to that world as well as setting up rules that those characters are governed by within it. But magic? At best, it’s vaguely defined — at worst, it’s arbitrary.

It’s a lot more interesting to watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation where they’re dealing with starship engine troubles, discussing these well-established aspects of that device and the inner-workings in order to fix it, as opposed to seeing Gandalf use spells in the most convenient of times without a proper explanation as to why he didn’t do it before (those giant eagles would’ve cut down on a lot of travel time). He’s brought back from death in a more powerful form and the reason for it comes down to “just ’cause.” How the fuck can there be any tension, by that point? All dire situations can be fixed by Gandalf and the only reason he doesn’t is that Tolkien willed it so.

I know I just argued about the show’s unwillingness to fully embrace its fantastical elements, but part of that is because usage of magic becomes common in later seasons and ruined by the haphazard writing. The initial nature of it being seldom used is dropped for a more typical portrayal where it can pretty much do whatever the showrunners want at the moment to either increase or relieve tension, though it may not make any sense, than this unpredictable and unwieldy force as suggested in the story. The show couldn’t commit to its own hesitancy in using magic. It ends up going all Gandalf as the conclusion drew near since it’s easier to tell a fantasy story in that way, than sticking with what has been given precedence and keeping things consistent.

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Worst. Wizard. Ever.

I assumed, at first, magic was downplayed because so much indicated that — within this setting — it was ultimately unreliable and tended to make situations worse as a result. It was admittedly refreshing that one of the reasons magic was almost non-existent is that its practitioners, like Melisandre, were never consistent with the efficacy of their spellcraft. She sacrificed an innocent girl under the assumption that would lead to an important battle being won, but that doesn’t happen — the would-be king’s army fails miserably and Melisandre’s contribution didn’t help at all. She just burned a child alive based on a premonition that supposedly came from some fire god. Everyone else, on her word alone, simply took it on faith that human sacrifice would work in their favor and that adds a level of realism to the show far more than people dryly talking fantasy politics for tens of minutes. People in the past did exactly that, presuming certain atrocious rituals would please supernatural forces, and the results weren’t that much different.

When Melisandre manages to resurrect Jon Snow after being murdered, it’s portrayed as being more of a happy accident than anything else. There’s a delayed reaction that makes her think the spell didn’t work at all. Problem is that, past this point, magic is increasingly useful to being downright uncharacteristic and contradicting what came before. It even allows one character (Beric Dondarrion) to keep coming back to life, after numerous on-screen deaths, and to set his sword aflame as if he were in Dark Souls. So, this “Lord of Light” will turn that guy into an undead killing machine for no adequate reason other than “fate” while sacrificing a child based on their whims to win a battle doesn’t do anything? What an asshole! The fact Melisandre keeps doing things in favor of such a wretched deity, who screws them over in times of need when not refusing to assist them whatsoever, only makes her look like a dumbass than some wise mage…

Unfortunately, she’s not the only unbearably unintelligent character featured. It also seems, with many others, the showrunners caved into fan service — completely forgetting how those characters were written in previous seasons along with the ever-present possibility of their expendability. Y’know, the one thing the show is most known for.

3. NO LOVE FOR KINGS, QUEENS, LORDS, OR LADIES

I’ll never, ever understand the fondness others had for this guy:

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The Cinematic Prometheus

Ned Stark, if you were really paying attention, isn’t only a complete fool who brought death unto himself (he was very credulous of someone who is obviously untrustworthy yet never expects betrayal) but also a total piece of shit who made the conflict featured throughout worse due to short-sighted apathy anda slavish devotion to the divine right of kings.

Did everyone forget that, within the very first episode, he completely dismissed the warning of two men who saw the White Walkers before decapitating them? That his reason for doing so was basically “it is the law and you can’t contradict it”? I’d argue it wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that one act alone almost doomed everyone else in the story, making them ill-prepared for the Night King and his zombified hordes. Calling this guy “heroic” is almost kind of offensive, especially when you find out he’s well-aware of Robert Baratheon’s incompetence as a leader and supported his rule for the pettiest of reasons.

He didn’t go to war against Aerys Targaryen II because he was a sadistic ruler that made the people under his reign suffer horribly (Jaime Lannister, however, rightfully killed him for that exact reason), but because his best buddy wanted to have sex with his hot sister and denied it. Making it unforgivable when he lies about the truth of the matter, that the relationship between Rhaegar and Lyanna was entirely consensual and not an act of rape (of course that has to be brought up!), that rationalized Robert’s war to become a gluttonous and wasteful king who doesn’t really improve anything. Ned knows this system is broken and the people in charge are corrupt as well as incapable of proper governance, but he nonetheless continues to support it because…it’s the law. The guy may as well be the Sheriff of Nottingham yet people keep acting like he’s goddamn Robin Hood.

It’s bad enough the show has a baffling number of characters to keep track of, many of whom only serve a perfunctory role and not developed past it, but that a majority of prominent ones are members of a feudal monarchy. They tend to be bougie pricks who never truly suffered under the opulence they lived in while everyone else was reduced to squalor. Like Ned Stark, most don’t reconsider the system to be a cruel joke that needs to be broken down and rebuilt from scratch with all the evidence of its disadvantages. Just about everything within the story implies that rule based on royal lineage only engenders endless conflict as numerous families manipulate and wage war with one another to gain a position of superiority regardless of the collateral damage caused. To hold such an amount of overwhelming power indefinitely until another challenger comes along, as more collateral damage is caused in the process. Not to mention, noted by some characters, those born into noble houses aren’t inherently more skilled at statecraft than anyone else and assuming that’s the case is part of the problem. Plus, well, the inbreeding that makes them mentally and emotionally unstable.

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Too bad he didn’t finish the job properly…

I can imagine some (disingenuous) pedants would argue characters espousing anachronistic viewpoints in a setting evocative of Pre-Renaissance Europe would, somehow, break all immersion. Yet this doesn’t explain why characters such as Tyrion Lannister or Oberyn Martell exist as well as the fact they’ve been two of the most popular characters on the show. Both frequently voice attitudes and behave in ways, closer to our own values and comportment in reality, that clearly make them outliers within the setting. It was nice, after so many scenes of people murdering infants and children like it’s a mundane activity, to have someone like Oberyn come along to point out how awful they are for doing such.

Both of them are well aware of their position in the world but, rather than be deferential to nobility, are often critical of it — Tyrion himself knowing that, if not born a Lannister, he’d of been culled as a newborn and frequently shows disdain for how others exploit “honor” to justify the unjustifiable. They know that almost all nobility, far from being majestic, is comprised of vainglorious human garbage. Then there’s Davos, the closest person to being “nouveau riche” in the cast. A guy so laid back that he doesn’t treat his new status as anything of note — never holding it above others or with a rigid sense of obligation, his loyalties based on his internal moral compass — and that informality makes him just as relatable to any contemporary person as either Tyrion or Oberyn.

If there’s any indication the showrunners aren’t responsible for the nuanced characterization of women in the cast, as much as G.R.R. Martin, it’s Arya Stark. Even the actress portraying her, Maisie Williams, had issues with how her character had become invulnerable instead of dying and whose arc was anti-climactic as there was no pay-off for the set-up. I’d add that it’s also when the showrunners fall into the trap of turning her into another vapid iteration of a “strong female character.”

Arya becoming a single-minded, emotionless assassin at the cost of her childhood should’ve been a tragic story to the very end than treated triumphantly at any point — another sign that pursuit of the Iron Throne only ruins the lives of others, with youths faring worse than anyone else. It’s acknowledged, once or twice, but she becomes defined wholly by how supposedly “badass” she is and ends up killing the Night King in a contrived manner ’cause fan service probably. The straw that broke the camel’s back, for me, was how dozens upon dozens of people in King’s Landing are being burned alive by Daenerys’ dragon while remaining unaffected herself. It’s almost like she was surrounded by an invisible everything-proof shield! Then a horse, also unharmed, comes out of nowhere to give her a ride and…that’s when I truly stopped giving a singular shit whatsoever.

A POSTSCRIPT

There is another fantasy story, also based on a series of novels, which I wanted Game of Thrones to resemble a bit more: The Witcher.

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It fully embraces the fantastical while managing to weave it into incredibly personal stories dealing with the human condition. Where monsters and people meet one another and, rather than any killing, come to profound existential truths with a tragic or heart-warming end attached. Politics, parallel to both past and present, are dealt with in a succinct manner than lost under a mountain of minutiae that is meaningless in the long run. All while fully acknowledging conflicts between the affluent are always masturbatory and help no one but themselves — the kingdoms and their rulers feeling interchangeable despite their ostensible and self-proclaimed differences (hint: they all fucking suck). Magic is not just a superpower that operates purely by the will of the storytellers but an arcane form of science with cohesive rules. Its practitioners are more like chemists, physicists, and engineers who follow specific methods and formulae for results than wizards flinging their hands around and making particle effects appear. Even the titular character, Geralt, treats the monsters he hunts less like the mythical beasts they are and no different to any other animal (or even person) as if he was just a gamekeeper — between the moments he’s either acting as a soldier of fortune, an investigator, or a political advisor.

It should be clarified what introduced me to the series wasn’t any of the novels, like many of those who watched Game of Thrones, but the third and final installment of the videogame series. I literally started at the end of Geralt’s story and, due to being was so intrigued by the world and those inhabiting it, decided to go back to the beginning of it all. Yet, having watched Game of Thrones from beginning to end, I feel the exact opposite about A Song of Ice & Fire — I’ve glimpsed into this place and its people, but far too alienated to indulge further. It was an exercise in drudgery, chasing a carrot at the end of a stick in the vain hope of finally catching it, that only ended in further disappointment. There’re things I liked about it such as the cast and production design, much in the same way with most Marvel movies, but the whole package is still less than the sum of its parts.

I could concede that the show “ended as good as it could have” but…that’s defeatist bullshit. It’s just setting the bar low and excusing creative laziness even as the show put itself on such a pedestal. Anything less than giving us the moon would be a broken promise because that’s what they advertised to everyone, for years. It had all that time leading to the finale to end all finales and, instead of delivering any of that, we just get another typical fantasy adventure that thinks too highly of itself.

[Originally posted on 5/28/19 @ Medium.com]

A Non-Fan Follow-Up: Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel

A game’s visuals cannot be separated into some separate category for evaluation. That’s the old logic of graphics/sound/fun factor. They are instead an integrated part of the entire game experience. Striking images and loving details can actually make a game worse if they draw you in and suggest a world that the rest of the game cannot support. A basic dissonance is created between hand and eye, and you feel more like a viewer than a player. The world calls to you, but you cannot respond.

– Tevis Thompson, On Videogame Reviews

It’s an all-too-common experience among those who play videogames to enjoy them on a mechanistic level (e.g. the gameplay or quality of the graphics) in spite of a vestigial plotline and one-dimensional cast. The opposite, where the game’s storytelling and characterization overshadow lackluster technical traits, is a far rarer experience.

Rockstar North’s Grand Theft Auto IV is not great as a game whatsoever — its sandbox, beautifully rendered as it is, lacks much in the way of side activities and travelling between areas feel like drudgery — but I nonetheless defend it based on some fantastically written dialogue (“Maybe we’re all hypocrites. All imbeciles.”) and for having a protagonist like Niko Bellic. Neither belonged in an open-world sandbox, especially one with chaotic criminal activity as a prominent feature, and it had some of the same problems as the other installments (the lazy gay jokes, casual misogyny, and half-baked satire specifically) but you could imagine it being better suited to a televised or streaming series featured on HBO or Netflix than other videogames. Including those previous entries that had been highly derivative of film and television than having a voice of their own — that’s why Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was basically Scarface meets Miami Vice.

The point I’m trying to make, with Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel (via “The Handsome Collection”), is that they both would’ve been better off as part of an animated series. The setting is full of colorful characters and enough wacky ideas that would make for entertaining material to watch. Instead we are given an incredibly unbalanced and heavily repetitive first-person shooter, with perplexing massive multiplayer online RPG elements attached, that only causes frustration and exasperation when played as a game.

Copy/Paste, Rinse, Repeat

Perhaps it was naïve of me to be incredulous towards Ben Croshaw’s criticism that the entirety of gameplay involved “go[ing] into a scrapyard and shoot[ing] Jason Voorhees” (or “shooting Jason Voorhees in a scrapyard…and also it’s been snowing a bit”). He’s prone to being hyperbolic for comedic purposes and the goodwill earned by Tales from the Borderlands was enough to make me take all that with a grain of salt, but I regret such leniency on my part now. Those statements, word for word, are so accurate that it’s fucking depressing.

If one were to be antagonistically (and irritatingly) pedantic, it could be argued there are more types of enemies than the signature Psychos — there are Nomads, Bandits, Bruisers, Tunnel Rats, various kinds of hostile fauna, the “Badass” versions of all those, etc. — but that’s ignoring the frequency in which you have deal with such opponents and how superficial their differences are in term of overall function.

Psychos and Skags, for example, may as well be the same enemy. They both rush at the player character to get up close for melee strikes but will occasionally use a fairly avoidable projectile attack at a certain range. The only significant departure being the latter’s projectile attack involves a temporary visual hindrance, but even that trait is shared with Spiderants — whose projectile attack also obscures the player’s view but with the added effect of briefly slowing them down. You’d think given they’re a mutated human, an alien canine, and a giant insect respectively that their behavior would be more distinct from each other but they will bombard you the same regardless. To paraphrase a common aphorism about the repetition of everyday life: same enemy, different skin.

My Picks: Daft Punk Ninja and Goth Indian Cowgirl

The level of recycled A.I. behavior on display is hard to ignore based on presentation alone when it makes all those encounters feel incredibly similar to each other after a while. Perhaps it’d be less of an issue were it not so central to the gameplay, if one could interact with the world of Pandora or Elpis in more ways than just shooting things, and sometimes done under the paper-thin pretense of doing something else. Even if a given mission will claim you need to collect items as part of some scientific research or to build a rocket— it will always involve having to plow through dozens of identical goons in post-apocalyptic chic or monster hordes to get them.

After attaining a body count comparable to the Black Plague, it makes you want to be challenged with anything else. Whether it is solving an environmental puzzle straight out of Prey (not to be confused with New Prey) or a rhythm-based mini-game reminiscent of PaRappa the Rapper. Just anything other than making a Mad Max reject’s head explode with a sniper shot for the billionth time.

The reason the cloned psychic stormtroopers in the first F.E.A.R. didn’t bother me, other than having an internally logical explanation for their uniform appearance, is because the programmed A.I. was complex and made those enemies act like a heavily organized group out to get you. They were a devilishly clever bunch and being able to defeat all of them effectively, without much harm done or dying numerous times, was satisfying. Even the demonic legions of New Doom were diverse enough in their roles to the point that one type of enemy could act as support for another type, where Imps distract with their projectiles and continuous movement while Pinkies pummel you up close or with a hard-hitting charge attack, that added some variety to the combat. The majority of enemies in Borderlands either run at you with utter abandon into gunfire or they’ll stand out in the open (they can’t even get behind cover properly) ineptly firing and waiting for you to pick them off. They may as well all be targets at a shooting range…

What’s worse is that, in an attempt to artificially ramp up the difficulty, the games challenge the player not by testing their skills but through enduring a disproportionate amount of attrition. The hardest sections involved an over-powered special enemy with an interminable health bar and nearly unavoidable attacks with a wide area-of-effect that could kill you in few hits. If these games encourage multiplayer as much as they do, it’s not because teamwork is integral (otherwise playing alone wouldn’t be an option at all)—but that those encounters are otherwise Sisyphean without assistance from others. It’s like the games are actively punishing you for trying to play by your lonesome. Thus the “Second Wind” ability, coming back from the brink of death upon killing a nearby enemy in an allotted time, comes off like a sick joke in such cases after making the standard and densely-grouped enemies feel as threatening as fish crammed in a barrel.

Too Spoiled For Choice

Also: adorable Australian accent.

I had previously brought up the “embarrassment of riches” issue but, unlike both Skyrim and Witcher III, neither of the Borderlands games bother to give you a large enough inventory space to carry the plethora of randomly generated guns, upgrade items, and character skin unlocks (…in a first-person shooter…?) disgorged at just about every turn. They even demand that you spend a rare form of currency to incrementally expand it as part of a time-wasting level-upgrading process. The fact all the firearms differ based on which weapons manufacturer created them — apparently every intergalactic corporation in the setting is some version of Zorg Industries from The Fifth Element — would’ve been amusing if they weren’t saddled with the added bonuses for what the hell ever and elemental effects that work better on some enemies than others ‘cause reasons. It’s such a pointlessly-layered, mind-numbing clusterfuck…

It ends up creating these instances where you get shotguns that fire three rounds at a time but have a four round clip or a submachine gun that needs to be reloaded constantly after firing a dozen single rounds. At one point, I found a pistol that added two extra rounds per clip…and which fired two shots at a time. Weapons not only have a level requirement attached but a color coded “rarity” status to indicate quality (white is the lowest and purple is the highest). Problem is that a purple rarity status doesn’t really matter when you come across higher level white rarity guns that do better damage and have a decent clip size. It sends you mixed signals that make you end up ignoring or selling off better weapons in order to hold onto a weaker and increasingly useless one because of suggested importance that isn’t always obvious.

When thinking about all this, I kept asking myself “isn’t this a first-person shooter?” The things I describe belong in a MMORPG with traditional turn-based combat. They compliment a system that determines each move made by one set of stats against another set of stats, with certain variables attached and outcomes based on a random number generator akin to 20-sided dice, but a first-person shooter almost entirely requires one’s mastery of the controls themselves to effectively aim and shoot hostiles as well as avoid (or hide from) damage. When you add an RPG element like hitpoints to a first-person shooter — you get bullet-sponge enemies and headshots that don’t always result in an instant kill, since they only count as critical hits.

I suppose if it weren’t for that system, the dim-witted A.I. would be less of a challenge than they already are and extend playtime far past the breaking point. Maybe that’s why your ammo reserves and clip sizes are so restrictive and force you to open identical chests for ammo, or scraps of money, or the health pick-ups that I rarely needed when they appeared yet never around when needed the most. It reminds me of playing that godawful Shadow Warrior reboot all over again and consider such a serious infraction in my rulebook. That, and using good ideas in the service of something shallow…

Rife With Wasted Potential

Back in May 31, 2013 Gearbox Software released this short film as promotional material for an add-on featuring a character named Krieg:

Though Tales from the Borderlands is the installment of the series that got me to open the door, this video is what got my foot in the door. It’s less than five minutes long and almost every second is amazing.

The fact Krieg is a demented, unsavory person haunted by an inner voice telling him to do normal, decent things — rather than vice-versa — is a fantastic premise in of itself and becomes oddly heartwarming by the end. His inner voice begs for him to tell Maya the Vault-Hunting Siren about working together in order to make him a better man once again, but ends up translating to “I POWDERED MY COCKATIEL FOR THE RIBCAGE SLAUGHTER!” when spoken. Maya, despite her initially repulsed impression of the man, smiles in response. His inner voice, after an amused chuckle, goes “Close enough…”

I wanted to see that journey. I wanted to see Krieg, with the love of his life (platonically anyway — she’s apparently asexual), go through many endeavors that gradually lead to fully recovering from his violent form of aphasia. I wanted to see the moment he could say all those romantic things he only once thought to Maya out loud.

Yet, you’ll get nothing resembling such. There are glimpses here and there— but never the kind of personal moments as seen in Tales from the Borderlands or “A Meat Bicycle Built For Two.” All these characters and the storytelling possibilities with them are window dressing in Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel.

Also: delightful Southern drawl. Just don’t ever mention it out loud…

Reducing the likes of Mad Moxxi, Handsome Jack, Patricia Tannis, or Tiny Tina as mission-giving NPCs and leaving player characters like Zer0 or Nisha Kadam either being largely silent (save for the occasional battle cry) or to only make brief, off-handed observations than partake in conversation limits the whole experience. There’s a part in Borderlands 2 where a prominent character dies and, rather than having a funeral in which close associates gather to lament that loss as one would expect, they’re stuck in place and waiting for the player character to tell them about it before instantly moving on. I’m not asking to press a button to pay respects but it’d be nice to have some kind of interaction between characters instead of being so disconnected from each other. The emotional weight of such an event is practically nonexistent, when everyone is going about their normal business instead of taking time out of their schedule to grieve.

The reason I had been willing to bother with any of this was Tales from the Borderlands, the same way Witcher III encouraged me to check out the short stories and novels by Andrzej Sapkowski. Both portray a very lived-in environment, enticing one to become privy of the occurrences that shaped them and gain further context. As amusing an individual as Tellico Lunngrevink Letorte (a.k.a. Dudu Biberveldt) is within the game he’s featured, it’s even better reading “Eternal Flame” to know how he and Geralt first met. Borderlands 2 and The Pre-Sequel, on the other hand, don’t give that kind of insight. You may as well just read a fan wiki instead. It has the same effect either way and that’s disappointing on an astronomical level.

Oh, there are moments — but they are too far and few inbetween. Moreso in The Pre-Sequel than Borderlands 2 because (much like Big Boss’ storyline compared to Solid Snake’s in the Metal Gear Solid series) it’s way more intriguing to see the origin of villains, whose (supposedly) good intentions metamorphose into outright tyranny and sadism. That game also provides a couple of obvious connections to Tales from the Borderlands, like assisting Professor Nakayama in creating the embryonic version of a digitalized Handsome Jack. Then there is this visual reference, cementing both the young Handsome Jack and Rhys as two sides of the same Disaster Capitalist Tech-Bro coin, as their introductions involve getting embarrassingly hit in the face:

I wouldn’t accuse Gearbox Software of not caring about their work. If they did not, there would not be Handome Jack’s in-character Ask Me Anything reddit nor would they give CL4P-TP their own Twitter page were that the case. They obviously love these characters and the world in which they live, thus it’s baffling so little is done with them in the gameplay itself.

Despite series creator Matt Armstrong’s departure from Gearbox Studios, CEO Randy Pitchford has shown off a tech demo earlier this year that indicates another may be in the works. Unless it ends up significantly different from the previous titles and streamlines several elements — I can’t say I’m eagerly awaiting it. I’d rather see further collaboration with Telltale Games for a sequel of Tales from the Borderlands (even if that means less Batman and I always want more of that!) or just something completely different.

Given it’s been featured as side content in the main games already, a full-on car combat title would make perfect sense. Maybe they can even add in elements from lost (flawed) gems like Rogue Trip, what with the presence of mercenaries, and Critical Depth, ‘cause sci-fi McGuffin, with the visual flair and light-hearted approach as seen in the Vigilante 8 games as well as the challenging difficulty of Twisted Metal: Black. The very idea alone makes me feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside, which neither Borderlands 2 or The Pre-Sequel were able to do — certainly not in the way that Tales from the Borderlands managed so well and unexpectedly…

[Originally posted on 10/9/17 @ Medium.com]

A Non-Fan Review: Tales from the Borderlands

Were I to explain my hesitancy about checking out the Borderlands series, it would be the games’ developer — Gearbox Software — and especially its founder as well as CEO and president Randy Pitchford. The always lovable Jim Sterling has brought up, on a few occasions, a rather infamous game by the name of Aliens: Colonial Marines. It wasn’t helped by the interview where Wesley Yin-Poole asks completely reasonable questions and Pitchford avoids answering any of them in a hyper-defensive manner. The nauseating self-aggrandizement and using disingenuous excuses like “it’s all subjective” or “we worked hard on it,” not taking responsibility for poorly handling the project in any way, was beyond infuriating. Last but not least, Ben Croshaw’s scathing reviews of the first two Borderlands games only further convinced me to not bother.

Yet, quite recently, I bought a copy of Borderlands: The Handsome Collection. Why? It’s all because of Gearbox’s collaboration with Telltale Games — Tales from the Borderlands!

Aim-and-Shoot, or Point-and-Click?

Anyone who knows me well enough can tell you that, though I still play them, I am not particularly fond of first-person shooters. I do, however, have a soft spot for a once-ubiquitous genre that has since become a niche market, especially among indie developers: the point-and-click adventure game.

Though Erik Wolpaw’s argument some seventeen years ago remains valid— a blunt, succinct takedown of frustratingly obtuse moon-logic puzzle mechanics and its prevalence within the genre at the time — it is apparent with games published and developed more recently by Wadjet Eye, for example, have learned a lesson from it. The pixelated graphics may be evocative of earlier titles that seem patronizingly nostalgic, but the puzzle mechanics are more accessible than those of yesteryear. There’s a greater emphasize on rewarding observational skills as opposed to idiosyncratic reasoning, with a coherent sequence of cause and effect. There is no point in any of these games (as Wolpaw mentions) involving a man fashioning a fake mustache from masking tape, cat hair, and a packet of syrup in order to impersonate a person who has no mustache whatsoever.

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“Hey, wanna see my Iron Man impression? PEW PEW PEW!”

elltale Games, on the other hand, has managed to popularize a more simplified iteration of the genre that may’ve started with Sam & Max (which I never tried despite my fondness for the cartoon) but gained wider attention with The Walking Dead: Season 1. Though it remains a high point in videogame narratives — it’s unfortunate I find so much of Telltale’s catalogue underwhelming otherwise. They’re never as well-written as TWD: S1 was, their Game of Thrones adaptation doing little but recycle material from the show with some nauseating fan-service than giving a differing view of Westeros or Essos or even beyond The Wall, and having puzzle-solving omitted as gameplay leaves so much to be desired. Quick-time events and the false promise of a branching narrative hardly make up for the absence of such a prominent element in point-and-click/graphic adventure games as a genre.

Part of the problem, at least for me, is how much of their output is based on intellectual properties not their own — moreso that they tend to be based in a passive form of entertainment. Along with Minecraft: Story Mode (that looks and sounds terrible) and Tales from Monkey IslandTales from the Borderlands is the only other game based on a franchise from an interactive medium. Perhaps it is why it turned out so much better than the rest…

The Unreliable Narrator(s)

A trope in fiction I am particularly fond of is the “unreliable narrator.” Moreso than these omnipresent entities that dispassionately detail events, there’s something very true to life of a story as told by someone whose perception of those events are highly questionable. I’d even argue that any story told from a first-person perspective should be inherently unreliable as people have a tendency to distort reality, often subconsciously but dishonesty is far from uncommon, when it comes to memory. Whether to demonize or aggrandize, exaggerate or downplay, obfuscate or contrive — every human being does this to some degree or another.

Tales from the Borderlands not only has two of them — in the form of the fast-talking, improvisational con artist Fiona (voiced by Laura Bailey) and the egotistical yet incompetent corporate middle-manager Rhys (voiced by Troy Baker) — but uses the Telltale “branching narrative” format, as with Life is Strange, to subvert and deconstruct such gameplay.

A Non-Fan Review: Tales from the Borderlands - NickNameNick - Medium
“Something about anime…”

The majority of the narrative is framed as Fiona and Rhys, in the penultimate section of the actual plotline, recounting all the events that lead to that point. A masked stranger has not only taken them hostage at gun-point and makes them trek across the desert— he’s the one who demands the recounting of those events with suspicious enthusiasm. He interjects incredulously when it isn’t Fiona or Rhys calling out one another’s bullshit, including when the earlier (if taking the option) honesty admits to trying to throw the latter out of her steampunk caravan.

Two other scenes involve what is typically portrayed as an oh-so-important binary choice at first are both proven to be false representations. They have the same outcome regardless of the choice made because it never happened. Fiona and Rhys, either under delusion or vanity, use hyperbolically heroic feats to cover up a moment of vulnerability. The idea of not being in control — despite being player-controlled characters—terrifies them at their very core. But it makes perfect sense for a con artist, a person who manipulates others for gain as an occupation, and a corporate ladder-climber, who desires respect and adoration from others, to be so averse to even admitting they ever had egg on their face.

The whole “branching narrative” format really does work better when telling this kind of story, rather than propping up some illusion of drastic change with each decision. The game’s even playful enough to just outright admit a lot of the choices made are entirely superficial in nature, such as a paint job for the aforementioned steampunk caravan or which outfit to wear as part of a later heist. The ending of the story is already set in stone, for the most part, at the very beginning and means the decisions are more about how Fiona and Rhys — and thus you, the player — choose to portray past events after the fact. But, given the untrustworthiness of those characters, how sure are you most of the options given aren’t also lies? Even the previews at the end of an episode are full of scenes that never actually happen in the next one…

Audio-Visual Delight

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Dubstep Lord Humungus

Previous Borderlands titles were all accompanied by openings that introduced the player characters to an incredibly apropos rock song. Obviously, Tales from the Borderlands follows suit with every episode but manage to blow all those completely out of the water.

The pretension many videogame developers have as being amateur filmmakers can be an annoyance like David Cage’s ventures Indigo Prophecy, Heavy Rain, and Beyond: Two Souls. There’s an obvious admiration for cinematic craft but a lack of understanding in how it really functions as a form of storytelling. They can slavishly copy certain techniques and tropes but cannot quite comprehend how they’re supposed to be used to convey meaning or create an atmosphere. The opening for each episode of Tales from the Borderlands, more than most, adeptly uses cinematography and editing to set a tone and is further punctuated by their musical selection. It’s difficult for me to not squeal gleefully when quick cuts, slow motion, or the action taking place visually is timed to the beat or melody of a song so well and how a diegetic song becomes non-diegetic as displayed in the first episode’s opening. They’re as stylish as many other “cinematic” videogames try to be, but it’s the right kind of style — not by overshadowing or dismissing the more substantive elements of visual storytelling, but working in tandem with them.

The aforementioned Fiona and Rhys are (respectively) voiced by Laura Bailey and Troy Baker but it would be remiss to not bring up how fantastic they are in their roles. This extends to the rest of the cast that includes both personal favorites of mine, like Patrick Warburton and Phil LaMarr, as well as those less familiar like Ashley Johnson as the kawaii GORTYS or Susan Silo as the intimidatingly statuesque Vallory. The reason I had been so harsh of Oxenfree isn’t just because I had been thoroughly impressed with Adam Hines’ writing contributions here but also Erin Yvette’s performance as Fiona’s inexplicably biracial sister, Sasha, who has the same effect on men as Helen of Troy and an intense fondness for submachine guns.

While the plotline keeps trying to ‘ship (that’s how it’s described in-game too) both Sasha and Rhys throughout—even asking for your blessing by the end—it’s hard to not think that he and Fiona, due to Baker and Bailey’s interplay, are a far better match for one another. All the antagonistic banter has an underlying playfulness to it, as if they’re the most stereotypical Jewish couple in science fiction and felt odd that no one ended up yelling “Jesus, why don’t you two screw already?!” There’s also this oddly suggestive bit. It was all the more amusing that, when Batman: The Telltale Series came around, Baker would be voicing Batman while Bailey would be Catwoman — their initial session of fisticuffs even coming off like Klingon love-making the way it did ages ago in Batman Returns.

Tales From The Borderlandsの新しいTales From The Borderlands ...
The Wrong Stuff

Then there’s Dameon Clarke as the one and only Handsome Jack. Or, more accurately, the holographic A.I. ghost of Handsome Jack. In the larger context of the series; he’s a Disaster Capitalist Tech-Bro who wouldn’t be that out of place as the antagonist in a James Bond film, though he has a better sense of humor and far more casual in approach, that once manipulated treasure-seeking mercenaries — referred to as “Vault Hunters” — to open alien tombs and abscond with the artifacts (read: giant monsters) inside to attain tyrannical power over the planet of Pandora and it’s neighboring moon of Elpis. Eventually, after pissing off one too many of the wrong people, he was killed by the same Vault Hunters whose achievements he claimed for himself.

He is a cartoonish supervillain in just about every way save for the fact, despite the obviously heinous nature of his actions, he still perceives himself as the hero in the situation. There isn’t the same kind of depth as there was with Wilson Fisk in Daredevil — but I always prefer a villain who’s under the erroneous notion they’re in the right. It’s far more reflective of reality where flesh-and-blood human beings regularly rationalize indefensible behavior by giving it a noble or pragmatic spin, due more to personal investment rather than any sort of principle. No one in reality is ever willing to admit they’re the bad guy and the fact a lot of fiction relies on such outright, unapologetic evil is creatively lazy on part of those storytellers.

Whether it’s his overblown ego or suffering from a Lovecraftian form of insanity — the guy’s definitely unhinged. He rules with an iron fist based on the half-assed excuse he’s getting rid of “bandits” (read: anyone he doesn’t like or just slightly annoys him) and, typical of all vainglorious dictators, constantly exposes those living under his regime to propagandic iconography of himself. This leads to a corporatized cult of personality that would cause Ayn Rand to rise from the grave and give her sycophantic approval — one that remains and thrives well after his death, of which the protagonist Rhys is an adamant follower.

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Daft Punk Ninja

Based on the player’s choices, the story in part becomes about whether Rhys embraces the Disaster Capitalist Tech-Bro mentality programmed into him as an employee of the Hyperion Corporation, outright rejects it, or so conflicted he goes back and forth between the two. Having the digitalized version of the man he worshiped haunt him allows for that conflict to be both internal as well as external, as Jack is capable of some interaction with the physical world and whose knowledge effects the outcome of the plot in a concrete way. Unlike The Walking Dead: Season 2, involving an unintentionally comedic scene where a man in his 50’s tells a preteen girl they “aren’t so different,” the comment as made in Tales from the Borderlands actually has some precedence. The dialogue between Handsome Jack and Rhys, as performed by Clarke and Baker, establish a solid connection well beforehand and is far more profound for that. Jack may be a sociopathic bastard but he’s incredibly charming and makes it hard for Rhys (and the player by proxy) to deny the gifts he promises — sometimes exploiting his own personal vulnerabilities as a way to elicit empathy, all in the effort of manipulating Rhys for personal gain to his unbeknownst detriment. Not only is Rhys an unreliable narrator himself, one under the control of a player, but directed by another far more unreliable narrator that further informs his decisions and the rationale for them.

Introduction by Epilogue

Despite being the latest entry of a series that had existed since 2008 and built its setting over three games, Tales from the Borderlands makes for a fantastic entry-point. Much in the same way Witcher III did for Andrzej Sapkowski’s short stories and novels that started in 1986 as well as the previous videogame installments by CD Projekt RED. The self-contained nature of those stories, even with all this canon attached, is incredibly refreshing. We’re in an age where shared universes are becoming more commonplace in cinema, much like invasive weeds gradually killing off the local flora, while serialization on television and streaming services treat episodes more like chapters in an on-going story than functioning on their individual merit.

It’s becoming harder to jump headfirst into any movie or the random episode of a show you’re unfamiliar with and not feel confused by what is going on, given this expectation to have watched every related film beforehand or episode prior to that. I sincerely doubt anyone who hadn’t watched The AvengersCaptain America: Winter SoldierIron Man 3, and Ant-Man would be able to understand why one should care about any of the events or people in Civil War — those who claim otherwise are likely either comicbook fanboys (who are far more obsessed about continuity than anyone should be) or liars. Maybe both. They’re not mutually exclusive.

It really is unfortunate that, instead of getting a second installment soon afterwards, Telltale Games would rather make goddamn Guardians of the Galaxy (as if the movies didn’t aggravate me enough already), the cynical cash-grab that is Minecraft: Story Mode, or vainly attempt at making lightning strike twice with another middling-to-below-average Walking Dead title (the one based around Michonne being the worst attempt). Because Tales from the Borderlands is, in my opinion, easily the best game they’ve made since The Walking Dead: Season 1 and deserved a sequel more than any other franchise they’ve worked on.

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At least they aren’t wearing those fucking V for Vendetta masks

I honestly do think part of that is because the Borderlands series is from an interactive medium and, more specifically, first-person shooters. Having a graphic adventure set in an interactive world that operated on otherwise disparate mechanics elsewhere is the modus operandi that Telltale should employ in general than adapting any passive entertainment like films, television, or comicbooks. There are so many games out there with an abundant mythology ripe for the taking but focus more on gameplay than storytelling. Giving them a graphic adventure treatment in order to explore those digitally constructed universes from a different perspective, especially for those who’re not fond of the gameplay model originally used, leads to a newfound appreciation with the material itself.

More importantly, we’d get more games that — as meta-commentary — deal with the nature of player agency as well as ludonarrative dissonance in new and interesting ways. That’s something which can’t be done with works from a passive medium, that only require observation on the audience’s part than any interaction. It’ll further cement videogames not just as a time-wasting hobby but as being true Art in its own right. There is no better example of this, and what can be done further if used as a template for future titles, than Tales from the Borderlands

[Originally posted on 10/1/17 @ Medium.com]

A Non-Fan Review: The Witcher III

For whatever reason, high fantasy (specifically of the Western variety) is something I never became partial to as a genre. Why is science fiction so much more appealing? High fantasy is as capable of creating believable, lived-in worlds while also dealing in morality tales and speculate on the state of human nature — so why the lack of enthusiasm?

Maybe it’s because so much of that genre feeds off the corpse of J.R.R. Tolkien like a rabid zombie, where every setting is a feudal medieval environment with elves and dwarves and orcs. Maybe, despite the fine details, such overused and iterative tropes make those works almost indistinguishable from one another. It also does not help that, with the wealth of mythological material from so many cultures at their disposal, many storytellers are determined to use the Nordic kind until the end of time (perhaps “Ragnarok” would be more apt?).

Yet, at the same time, one of my favorite videogames in the last decade or so — Dark Souls — is a Western-style high fantasy. Not to mention my fondness of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. None of these titles, however, came from anywhere in Europe or the U.S. but in Japan. They were the genre’s tropes filtered through disparate cultural sensibilities that, while not necessarily making it original (for nothing truly is), gave it a distinctly ethereal and ominous approach that differs from others of its kind.

That game also spends time world-building, but more through its environment and what can be inferred through the scant dialogue spoken and cryptic item descriptions. While the lack of info-dumps is well enough (players are rewarded not only with more weapons or armor or spells but further information about this world with exploration), it is a prime example as to why videogames can function uniquely as a storytelling medium as opposed to borrowing heavily from passive forms of Art like film or television.

The Witcher III is not Dark Souls, by a long shot, but one aspect makes it stand out among the rest: an anachronistically modern attitude.

Fantastical Frolic

Remember Dennis the Peasant from Monty Python & The Holy Grail?

Well, it’s kinda like that. Even the sense of humor. Yet The Witcher III and its source material is not a cultural product of Britain — but Poland.

Given the country’s unfortunate history of being occupied by Nazi Germany and then annexed by the Soviet Union as well as one of the last pagan areas in Europe to be Christianized, it is hard to not see Geralt of Rivia — the pallid-skinned, white-haired, dry-witted yet sarcastic protagonist — as being representative of the nation. He tries to maintain a tangible sense of identity, with his own internalized but consistent sense of ethics, despite attempts by other parties to change or erase it. He is mocked and dismissed by those who nonetheless require his skills and knowledge for problems they cannot solve themselves but he takes it all in stride. He endures and continues on, in some way, whether it is through the company of good friends or the peaceful quiet of loneliness.

He very much feels like someone who’d adapt well to a real, contemporary world like our own (though this goes for much of the cast). Besides the nonchalant approach to casual sex that’s fairly well-known about the franchise by now, several individuals are (similarly to Morrigan in Dragon Age: Origins) openly atheistic and scientifically-minded when it comes to magic. Even the Witchers themselves study and treat mythological beasts as if they were actual animals and curses were they akin to medical ailments. There’s also a very anti-authoritarian streak that would be more fitting for a 1970’s Punk or even a Millennial — both from the setting’s inhabitants and by the narrative — that treats all war and struggles of power as a masturbatory exercise among the elite. Those below them are more like expendable commodities than people, who will always suffer the worst effects of the conflict while the affluent hoard what gains are made. That war does not have a winner, for victory is really based on who loses the least.

You see, this is the kind of realism I want when it comes to high fantasy. Best of all, doing so while still embracing it exists in a world of rock trolls and vengeful specters. It retains a sense of humor even with all the grim (and Grimm) subject matter on display. Its best moments do not come with gratuitous violence or pandering sexuality but the very personal interactions between characters. All those animations of Geralt chopping off heads and limbs or putting another notch in his belt pale in comparison to him acting as an adoptive father to a rambunctious daughter or accompanying a friend to a wedding in which she’s a bridesmaid…while occasionally possessed by a highwayman’s ghost (it’s even better in context!). The most minor of characters are rife with personality; where cretins can have fleeting moments of empathy and self-awareness while ostensibly admirable people will rationalize indefensible actions with tortured, self-satisfied logic.

This is also a world where prophesies and destiny are tangible forces but there are still those, for one reason or another, who are skeptical of their viability and argue against it (or of certain “signs”). Those that believe in them are prone to making inaccurate predictions or reach for conclusions based on very circumstantial evidence. No one believes it without a second thought or without some personal bias attached. Even curses can be accidentally invoked by those who were simply too vindictive or reckless to think of its effects, with the means to reverse such a hex never being quite clear due to numerous factors both known and unknown. At least until a Witcher investigates and deduces a situation based on observation as well as previous experience.

Y’know, like most flesh and blood people would…

Fantastical Follies

Okay, okay, okay — enough adulation. There is one big problem I have with the storytelling and it’s one I have with a lot of Western high fantasy: it’s racially monochromatic.

Elves, dwarves, and hobbits may be intended to be oppressed social minorities…except they’re all portrayed as white. While the Hearts of Stone DLC adds the Ofieri — a conflation of people from India, Pakistan, and various Middle Eastern nations — to remedy this, it’s still bewildering to have groups referred to as “nonhumans” resemble all the other white humans (save for having pointed ears or smaller in stature or both). Why couldn’t elves, say, appear as East Asians? And, no, “‘cause it’s like feudal Europe” isn’t an excuse. If we are going to use history, why not use the mistreatment of non-white groups to emphasize that point in the narrative? It’d give more weight to the way elves are often seen as naturally devious or how females are exoticized due to their race, for example. If science fiction can use extraterrestrials to substitute real ethnic groups, why couldn’t elves and dwarves and hobbits? There is none — unless you simply contrive it.

The Witcher 3 no empeorará su calidad gráfica - The Witcher 3 ...

As far as the actual gameplay, it’s like a weird conflation between SkyrimRed Dead Redemption, and the aforementioned Dragon Age: Origins but manages to be better than all three combined — with a combat system akin to the Batman: Arkham games or Shadow of Mordor, as well as some eerily similar elements of dodging and riposting opponents from Bloodborne. Unfortunately, it carries over some warts from some of those titles. Big warts.

“Embarrassment of riches” is the first thing to come to mind because, as common in any game with role-playing elements (or made by Ubisoft), there are innumerable items that lie around for the taking and micro-managed to oblivion. Many ostensibly useless knick-knacks become necessary for fashioning new equipment as well as brewing concoctions — which would be welcomed, were the choices not so overwhelming and often go unused anyway.

The concoctions themselves are so specific in function yet last too long at the same time. Then there are oils applied to swords to cause extra damage to certain kinds of monsters, made convoluted due to some odd categorization (why are Nekkers considered “ogroids” instead of “necrophages”?). While this may be consistent with the source material’s lore of a Witcher’s methods — it only translates to busywork, padding out the least interesting aspect of play, in a videogame. Having only half of all types of monster oil and one concoction combining the effects of few others might be considered too streamlined — but it cuts down on so much wasted time and effort for such little added effect.

The Witcher 3 might be the next big title for Xbox Game Pass ...

It’s a problem endemic in action games with RPG elements attached. So much of the basic gameplay in such titles is based on mechanical skill, mainly mastery of the control scheme, which makes an abstract stat system more complimentary with turn-based combat feel out of place. In fact, given this is an open-world title as well, it feels more like an arbitrary barrier to where you can travel instead of allowing player agency — which is wholly counterproductive to such an experience. These aren’t a matter of challenge either as enemies at higher levels than yourself (each quest has a “suggested level” to accomplish them) are so disproportionately powered, a few blows are enough to kill Geralt, that it doesn’t matter how skillful you are as a player.

It also does not help that newer, better equipment is dropped so much or for sale in shops that anything crafted becomes quickly obsolete. Even one “free DLC” (read: content update) includes access to the best armor and weapons available, so why even put up any pretense of managing inherently inferior equipment? In fact, why have players endlessly replacing various swords than just keeping two throughout that only need to be upgraded or repaired? It could be argued that, because of their status bonuses, things like armor piercing or increased Sign intensity make the player weigh their options — but such effects are either meaningless or negligible. I can’t say which, exactly, because it was barely noticeable. Perplexingly, being able to dismember enemy combatants is noticeable but seems unaffected by any status bonuses from equipment. It occurs often enough as is, with lower level enemies becoming easily separated from their extremities.

Fantastical Philosophy

However, after so many role-playing games with a morality system, where one’s actions are measured on some variation of “good” and “evil,” Witcher III takes the best possible approach: it doesn’t have one. At all. The first area of the game (acting as something of a tutorial section), White Orchard, has two great examples of such.

The first scenario is when approaching a dwarven blacksmith whose workshop has been subjected to arson. Geralt, being a Witcher and thus an adept tracker, is tasked to follow the arsonist’s trail and apprehend him. You find him but are offered financial compensation to let him go free. Now, you can be an upstanding citizen and refuse the bribe to keep your promise. Why not? It is, ostensibly, the right thing to do. The problem is that, due a singular yet irrelevant technicality, the man is hanged and the dwarven blacksmith is further ostracized within the village he works. Was it really the “right” decision, then? Perhaps letting the arsonist go, to have the blacksmith just bite the bullet and live with his loses, might be preferable. The arsonist is a drunken lout, wounded by carnivorous river imps, who spent all his money on booze and is willing to part with whatever he has left to go unpunished for his crime. But, really, didn’t he already punish himself? He wasted the inheritance of his dead mother to get himself shit-faced and then inadvertently commit a crime in the process, towards someone with whom his dead mother was a good friend.

The second scenario involves coming across an herbalist with a young woman in her care, who had been severely wounded in a griffin attack. Geralt is given the option to use a basic healing item for Witchers to help her recover — though he warns that, for anyone who hadn’t gone through the mutagenic process he had, such a potion may have adversely detrimental side effects. You could simply let her die due to that fact, much to the herbalist’s disappointment. If you decide to use the potion, the herbalist is ecstatic and rewards you a bunch of items — thanking you for “actually caring.” Again, this sounds preferable, but the writers throw another curveball by having Geralt meet the injured woman’s significant other and he berates you for it. He explains your potion, though it let her live, broke her as a person. She is stricken by so many psychological dysfunctions that she cannot interact with anyone as she did prior to her recovery.

Which decision is right, which is wrong? That’s entirely up to you, the player, to decide and accept (or excuse). There is no “correct” approach to these situations and, thankfully, the game never lazily reduces them to cases of false equivalence. It is often so easy to make things either a wholly black-and-white affair or cynically claim “both sides” (even if there’s several) are somehow equally awful or valid ’cause reasons. There’s an acceptance and understanding of how complex (or complicated) the world is, where causation and effect are not always clear until well after the fact. Life is predictable, due to recorded history and everyday monotony, yet often punctuated by unexpected events that lead to upheavals and a clash of values. Those values are not always cultural or political differences between people of competing nations and ethnic groups — but your values as well.

Despite being the third and final installment in a videogame franchise, not to mention part of a literary one which first began in 1986, it more than succeeds on its own merits. It succeeds so well that I could not help but order and purchase the first official English-translated anthology of short stories — The Last Wish — that only endeared me further with the material as well as the subsequent Sword of Destiny. I’ve already gotten The Blood of Elves, the first book of the five-part saga, and plan on getting the rest soon enough.

[Originally posted on 8/25/17 @ Medium.com]

A Non-Fan Review: Doom (2016)

The original Doom, released at the end of 1993, is the first-person shooter. At this point it is a classic staple of the medium and there’s not much I can say about it that others have said better. What I can tell you about is my ambivalence towards it, why that is, and my opinion of its reboot/remake/whatever.

My Highway to Hell

I wasn’t even in my preteens at the time but ultraviolent material wasn’t unfamiliar for me (I loved watching Aliens as a young’un — even got the action figures!) and I did play videogames. Problem is that, overall, I’m not that fond of first-person shooters. Most are amusing but in a fleeting way and few of them — for example, the first installment of the F.E.A.R. series — ever become truly memorable enough to warrant a revisit. It could be argued the devil is in the details, but how many times can you really make shooting a gun from that limited perspective work without getting tiring in some way? At least Portal has puzzle-platforming elements and, though I have yet to play any of it (perhaps in the future!), the Thief series’ emphasis on stealth over combat is far more enticing to me as gameplay.

That is not to say I hated Doom ‘93 — only that I did not share the same enthusiasm as others. I absolutely get why so many like it and would not fault them for it, being a child of the 90’s myself. It was a singular vision by a tight-knit group of friends with highly focused shooting mechanics as well as level design that allowed a wide berth of modification. A cultural product that almost perfectly represented the 90’s attitude of the United States; still reveling in 80’s-style excess and gaudy aesthetics while scoffing at the moralistic hysteria of that decade, often in the form of metal bands ironically embracing Satanism and determined to offend fragile religious sensibilities with lots of demonic imagery and cartoonish viscera, but others tried pushing the envelope whether stand-up comedians or filmmakers in their own way. Along with influence from Dungeons & Dragons as well as Aliens (there it is again!), John Carmack and company at id Software managed to do that with gaming and its legacy remains. Other popular titles at the time either failed to remain relevant, especially Duke Nukem (evidenced by Forever’s abysmal reception from just about everyone), or simply faded from memory save for a niche…

Death By Swirly

Perhaps I was too young, but there wasn’t any forbidden fruit appeal for me either. Quake, on the other hand, was more enjoyable as a personal experience. That, however, was due to Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor composing darkly atmospheric music for the game more than anything else. I even preferred the original Duke Nukem and I’m honestly embarrassed for having liked that for all the wrong reasons (i.e. sexual titillation). Ultimately, my reasons for liking them had less to do with them as games than having a prominent element that resonated enough with me whether it was musical bliss or perverse indulgence.

All that said: how was the Doom of 2016 (which I shall dub New Doom from here on) as far as the single-player campaign went? It was certainly never as boring as many supposedly realistic, military-themed titles of the same genre have been recently. At least, initially…

Better to Reign Than to Serve

Having fast-paced arena combat over the cover-based kind with old school-style health pick-ups and ammo drops is refreshing, greatly helped by the variety of enemy A.I. and their phenomenal art direction. They aren’t just 3D renditions of their original 2D sprites but revamped with modern tech while still maintaining the feel of being in an interactive death metal concept album of yesteryear. While it would be odd to describe them as “beautiful” — given the malformed and grotesque visages — but are so deeply detailed and textured that it’s hard to think of a better word. The developers could’ve easily fallen into the trap of over-designing them, much in the same way so many latter-day Final Fantasy characters are perplexingly garbed with innumerable belts or Michael Jacksonesque zippers that only makes them harder to tell apart. Every mutated human and unholy abomination is distinct enough that assure these frantic battles never becoming visually confusing. A quick glance is enough to tell you who is who and how to blow them to smithereens.

NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM

Even the flimsy plotline has this strange charm, as if it were a somewhat revised schlocky 1950’s B-movie script that managed to attain the high production values of a Hollywood blockbuster. New Doom’s ridiculous story is done in an ostensibly straight-faced manner, but there is a darkly humorous undercurrent when juxtaposed with such over-the-top imagery to the point of being cartoony. It’s hilarious that data files you pick up on Mancubi and the Cyberdemon are dryly-written, stern scientific reports or that the audio logs describing the Doom Slayer’s legendary status among demonkind may as well be from a Todd McFarlane or Rob Liefeld comicbook. It doesn’t break the forth wall constantly, winking and nudging the audience to oblivion, to remind you of how funny it supposedly is even though it only grates. The closest thing to outright self-awareness is how the Doom Slayer’s behavior resembles the mindset of the game’s targeted audience; his only desire to obliterate every monster he crosses, to put an end to this Hellish plague in whatever way possible, and he hates being interrupted from it.

Unfortunately there is the needlessly layered upgrade system so many action games seem to have (perhaps due to some bizarre contractual obligations) but they manage to ease the frustration with some simple solutions. The level design does not waste anyone’s time with each area’s layout magnificently structured — horizontally and vertically — using physical space efficiently for both combat and exploration. You don’t have to search a seemingly endless series of copy-pasted corridors and identical footlockers for items like the haphazardly constructed Shadow Warrior reboot of 2013, thanks to the chainsaw turning enemies into bullet fountains and “glory kills” allowing for regeneration. It helps that one of the special abilities gained indicates all collectibles on the map that — outside of increasing health, armor, and ammo capacity — makes it one of the more useful upgrades available. Not to say those upgrades don’t add variety but, akin to Doom ‘93, each gun (save for the incredibly vestigial pistol) functions normally well enough without any alternate firing modes attached. Such additions come as trying to fix what isn’t broke. Worse, it ends up making the game too easy.

But my favorite feature is the musical soundtrack eerily reflecting the action taking place on-screen. It is clever sound engineering that adds a lot more to the experience than you’d expect but makes perfect sense, as I’ve previously described the game as an interactive death metal concept album of yesteryear. The gunfire and explosions fugue seamlessly with guitar riffs and percussion that make the music more than just being atmospheric — it is the atmosphere. Of all the elements of this reboot, though as modernized as everything else, the soundtrack is the most spiritually faithful to Doom ‘93. They’re a far cry from the midi proxies of Metallica and Slayer songs but it’s not hard to imagine (given Quake) id Software doing similar if they had the resources back then.

Damned to Disappoint…

This is your brain on guns. Big fucking guns.

Now, with all these compliments, one would assume my overall experience was a positive one and changed my sentiment on the series as a whole — but you’d be wrong. As time went on and I reached the end of the single-player campaign, I found myself becoming slowly soured on the whole thing and wondering when it’d finally be over. Reaching the campaign’s conclusion, with its meaningless sequel-hook, did not carry the same sense of elation and fulfillment that came with (say) Metal Gear Solid 3 and its dénouement. Even attempting to replay a level to attain missed collectables was downright painful.

Maybe it’s because, like the majority of first-person shooters, the endless cacophony of bullets being fired and explosions going off become a repetitive chore as the body-count rises with playtime. No matter how refined the mechanics and graphics, or managing to keep the action fast-paced with little dead air inbetween, it needs an element like the aforementioned Portal’s platform-based wormhole puzzles or F.E.A.R.’s intimidating A.I. hostiles. However the Doom Slayer, unlike Chell, is more cumbersome than agile and demonkind far less terrifying than a legion of psychic clones in SWAT gear.

GET THAT LIGHTSABER AWAY FROM ME, OPTIMUS PRIME!!!

Its God of War-style QTEs are repeated so often that, especially for larger enemies, it feels a bit too effortless and that there’s no serious threat. It lacks tension once one is well-acquainted with the control scheme, supplemented by all the upgrades given, and the whole thing ends up becoming even easier than it already was before. Maybe this is “fun” by those who are who don’t mind endlessly blasting through hell-beasts non-stop but I just find it unengaging without something more. Action without further context or contrast is dull, because spectacle can only go so far before the excitement dissipates and loses all meaning. Without that something — whatever it is — it’s just bells and whistles. It’s a distracting noise that, with enough time, you’ll completely forget after a while.

I suppose it doesn’t help, partly from fatigue and desperation, there’s been a lot of hyperbolic praise attached to the title due to the overexposure and the diminishing returns of series like Call of Duty and Battlefield. It’s understandable to feel such exhaustion given I had it as well — I was already sick to death of all things World War 2, videogames included, before that. The problem, however, comes from people treating the game less like a throwback with a new coat of paint — which is perfectly fine by itself — than it is some kind of innovative entry that redefines the genre when it isn’t that whatsoever. It’s bad enough when the game is at the top of various “best of 2016” lists, which only proves how disappointing 2016 was for videogames, but worse when certain internet personalities make an absurd claim as it being “revolutionary” because of things such as…the variety of QTE animations. Like, really? Have we come to the point where that is considered “revolutionary”? Are our standards so low now that a regression in form is erroneously viewed as progression for such a superficial element? Perhaps I’d be less annoyed if that person, despite rightfully admonishing the company’s odious policy of denying early review copies, didn’t sound as if Bethesda Softworks paid him to give such accolades and promised to be quoted on the the “Game of the Year” edition box art.

To clarify, lest I be misunderstood: New Doom is not a badly-made game whatsoever. On a purely technical level, it is indeed marvelous and one should give credit where it is due. The polish that went into this game’s graphics, controls, and level design are sublime and that’s not surprising with id Software’s history — that is why I started off as complimentary. But, at the same time, functionality and optimal craft alone should not be the criteria as to what makes a gaming experience worth of one’s time and attention overall. If videogames are going to be considered a legitimate form of Art, as I would like them to, then the quality of a game needs to be more than the sum of its most mechanistic parts.

Gotta collect ’em all! $99.99 each!!!

When people defend an otherwise terrible film like, for example, James Cameron’s Avatar by claiming the special effects are impressive — it’s utterly meaningless and beside the point. The elaborate computer-generated imagery does not make up for the complete lack of originality, poor characterization and dialogue, or Cameron’s disingenuously heavy-handed environmentalism (the “noble savage” bullshit wasn’t much better). Perhaps none of that will register upon a first viewing — but it sure will when watching it again or at least thinking about it enough afterwards. That’s not to say New Doom has the same problems as that film (thankfully), just that it’s incredibly overrated and (like my fondness of the original Duke Nukem) for all the wrong reasons.

[Originally posted on 8/7/17 @ Medium.com]