Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 2 — Anti-Social Commentary

Within Marvel Studios’ catalogue, Captain America: Winter Soldier is one I consider to be their best. The reason being that it managed to be about something of import — in fact, it was about many things of import. It wasn’t just a bunch of gaudily-dressed crime-fighters who talked in Whedonesque quips while fighting a villain who does villainous things ‘cause reasons. The film dealt with the dubious morality of warfare in modern times, the increasing prevalence of a surveillance state (“This isn’t freedom, this is fear.”), that soldiers are treated as expendable commodities by bellicose politicians with nothing to lose and everything to gain, that democratic institutions have been slowly sabotaged by the interests of disaster capitalists, and (more relevant than ever before) how we’ve let fascist ideology continue and grow in the shadows by acting as if it ceased to exist long ago.

All of that is far more meaningful than anything in the other films, an overglorified series of bells and whistles with little else on their mind (even when claiming otherwise like Guardians of the Galaxy’s supposed theme of “family” — but I’ll go into that another time). That the narrative was centered on Captain America made it more profound because he represents the United States at its most ideal and optimistic. After having slept through so many decades he finds himself lost and confused by the cynicism, deceit, and opportunism that is prevalent in our socio-political landscape presently. The fact he was not around to keep it from happening, being quite literally frozen in time, gnaws at his conscious and what drives his actions throughout the plot. He may’ve not been able to stop it then but, by God, he was going to now

It was why I looked forward to Luke Cage as much as I did. If there’s any superhero that needed a live-action adaptation with this kind of social commentary, it would be Luke Cage. He’s a proud black man who is bulletproof and, gee, isn’t that topical? I was more than ready for a neo-blaxploitation series where someone of a marginalized group used their newfound powers to fight back against racist cops and the businessmen who profited from their suffering. To put it another way: I wanted to see the physical embodiment of the Black Lives Matter movement on-screen. If Captain America represented the U.S. as a nation at its best, Luke Cage could represent the need for social upheaval when the U.S. fails as a nation.

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What Luke Cage Should’ve Been

Except that wasn’t the case at all. It was something far worse — an ode to respectability politics. But what, exactly, are “respectability politics”? As described by the Wikipedia page on the topic:

“[A]ttempts by marginalized groups to police their own members and show their social values as being continuous, and compatible, with mainstream values rather than challenging the mainstream for what they see as its failure to accept difference[…]was practiced as a way of attempting to consciously set aside and undermine cultural and moral practices thought to be disrespected by wider society, especially in the context of the family and good manners.”

In essence, it is about those among the marginalized (black individuals in this case) trying to appease the more privileged and affluent of society (who are almost entirely white) rather than challenging and perhaps changing mainstream social values for the benefit of all. It is the assumption that the marginalized are still marginalized not due to economic or political roadblocks based on discrimination but because of their own behavior. That an unwillingness to not just assimilate and behave no differently to mainstream sensibilities (even when they’re outdated horseshit traditionalized by those who’ve never suffered a day in their lives) is the source of further oppression, not those who had been responsible for such going on centuries now. Obviously, it’s quite appealing to many right-wingers and centrists who just so happen to be white — alleviating responsibility and admittance of a system skewed in their favor…

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What Luke Cage Actually Is

It’s not because the show starts off with the titular character taking issue with another black individual using the N-word, a legitimate grievance given its historical usage, but that does set a precedence. So many scenes involve older individuals speaking condescendingly to youths about “responsibility” that goes beyond simple intergenerational tensions. There’s this notion that those youths take part in criminal activities not because it may be their only way out of poverty, next to joining the NBA or becoming a rap/hip-hop star, but as a lifestyle choice. That, somehow, they’d become doctors or politicians or CEOs if they just rejected any form of criminality and “worked hard.” Nevermind how many actually get stuck “working hard” at several dead-end jobs at once in order to barely pay for food and shelter until the end of their miserable life. Though Luke Cage does the same during the series — he’s not “uppity” about it and doesn’t complain. There’s something incredibly naïve about all its finger-wagging by ignoring such real-life scenarios. It dismisses the myriad of disadvantages that community has faced and still faces whenever it’s inconvenient, pushing this disingenuous idea of meritocracy that white people love so goddamn much these days. An idea that, as of yet, has never been explained to me properly or consistently as to what does or does not constitute as “merit” — probably because human beings are biased in favor of behaviors they personally prize (or, more accurately, are socially conditioned to prize).

This is reflected in how Luke Cage is portrayed as a character, with the show going out of its way to make him as inoffensive and good-natured as possible. It reminds me of how a friend brought up his problem with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in the form of Sidney Poitier’s John Prentice, as he was without flaw or vice and didn’t feel like a real person. That it made the whole conflict involving his soon-to-be in-laws less meaningful because they’re given no reason to dislike him other than he’s a black man. Like many in-laws they could use any reason to dismiss their daughter’s fiance, the fact he is black would enable them to hide their racial prejudices behind “reasonable concerns” whenever flaws became apparent. I disagreed with my friend then but I’m definitely in agreement now after this show. Luke Cage isn’t only well-spoken and well-read and always personable, but had a holy man for a father and was a cop prior to his false imprisonment (you can’t have really committed a crime and still be a good person, apparently, unless you’re Ant-Man). In flashbacks, he’s shown as completely unlike all the other stereotypical black criminals incarcerated with him and better for it. When ending up a fugitive on the run, given opportunities anyone else in the same situation would take, he refuses to do anything morally questionable in the slightest to make his life easier.

Such behavior, back in the 1950’s, would be given the underhanded compliment of “you’re a credit to your people, son.” Luke Cage feels less like a flesh-and-blood human being with both admirable and ignoble qualities than a ridiculously contrived paragon of virtue that no one in reality resembles and likely never will. Which is kind of weird, when considering how the other Defenders-related series do not have that same issue. Why is it that Matt Murdock can agonize over his bloodlust clashing with his Catholic morality and Jessica Jones can be a psychologically dysfunctional alcoholic due to mind-control trauma (equated with rape because of course it fucking is), but Luke Cage can’t have demons that tempt him or vulnerabilities that can compromise his principles on the same level? Maybe it’s because, on average, a white person having some personality or character flaw is tolerated and can make them seem more “complex” — but a black individual’s indiscretions are harshly scrutinized, despite being comparable to their white counterparts, to the point their behavior is heavily sanitized. That’s why the overrated and overused Tony Stark can be a vainglorious, self-involved, dishonest drunk who regularly makes an ass out of himself but still be “awesome” regardless. James Rhodes, on the other hand, is a bland tag-along who functions as a nagging hausfrau and damsel in distress at one point — due to doubting Stark whatsoever. Y’know, ’cause a man who gets shit-faced and urinates in his power-armor at a large party is someone who should be treated with nothing but credulity…

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I bet War Machine and Falcon never had to deal with this shit…

In fact, the whole show could be best described as “the credit to his people vs. the thug culture” in order to be almost sycophantic towards white police officers in the U.S. (“Blue Lives Matter!”) by rarely ever showing them in the wrong. There are but two openly racist white cops featured and only one of them is ever verbally acknowledged as such. The other? His comments are treated like verbal horseplay and, when revealed to be corrupt, ends up shown as a victim to a black criminal’s betrayal. There’s another scene where a black youth is brought in for questioning and beaten by an angry cop who is… also black. The most egregious instance is at the end of the season where Misty Knight is berated by a superior over a mistake she made and for not “trusting the system.” As wretched as it is that Misty’s superior is also a black woman, the fact such a statement is made while never acknowledging that same system disadvantages them as both black and female once was unforgivable.

We’re talking about a system where black individuals are incarcerated more often than their white counterparts for similar criminal activities, where (often white) cops use unwarranted lethal force on unarmed black individuals both young and old, and lets those same cops off the hook for such an abuse of power than sufficiently punished. Then there was that whole period where slavery was legal and encouraged (Thomas Jefferson sure loved it…also “freedom”!), then another hundred years of second-citizenhood via Jim Crow before the Civil Rights Movement. But, sure, just trust that system despite having failed that group time and time again. ’Cause it’ll work itself out eventually or something…right?

But then there’s this scene.

Where was this, for all that time? Why wasn’t this scene the entire attitude of the show? Method Man even references Trayvon Martin and connects it to the hoodies that Luke Cage wears throughout, becoming a symbol of solidarity among those in Harlem. It’s also the closest the show comes to being critical about the police and their tactics. Cops are mocked for harassing those in bullet-riddled hoodies (‘cause “they all look alike”) and ridiculed further by others displaying the attire proudly to them, a reminder they’re wasting time and effort chasing a framed man than the real culprit (it’s certainly happened before and even involved our current U.S. President — just look at the Central Park Five…).

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In case anyone forgot. Somehow.

The fact this was only one scene and not representative of the rest infuriated me, because it should be. This is a perfect example of how Marvel Studios employs diversity as a shield to cover up regressive attitudes, that they get their cake and eat it too without anyone noticing and making a fuss. They want to act like they’re “with it,” name-dropping prominent figures in African-American history and culture or having a character do a monologue about Biggie “Notorious B.I.G.” Smalls, but then turn around and demand we respect U.S. law enforcement the same way right-wing proponents of the Second Gulf War guilt-tripped others with “support the troops.”

Why does all of this bother me? Why do I care that much about any of this? Why not just ignore it all?

Ultimately, it’s the waste of talent and potential.

It is absurd how good the casting and technical aspects in some of the films and series are, to not only manage getting actors who are spot on in their roles but have an audio-visual flair that comes with the right editing, cinematography, lighting, etc. Yet it is usually done in service of narratives that are overblown, tensionless spectacles and are disingenuous enough to use in-house ads in the form of “references” or “Easter eggs.” They’ll entertain some good ideas that should be developed more but either toss them aside, forget about them entirely, or keep teasing at it like a carrot dangling at the end of a stick. They’ll pay lip service to more profound themes without actually exploring them in a substantial matter. They could be better, they certainly have the means, but they choose not to and that’s far worse than just being bad.

Speaking of which, for next time: I explain Marvel Studios formula, its overuse, and how it makes the films increasingly interchangeable and mediocre as a result.

[Originally posted on 11/25/17 @ Medium.com]

Pop Culture Heresy: Marvel Studios Is Awful, Part 1 — An Introduction

Several weekends back, I had the displeasure of watching The Defenders from Marvel Studios on Netflix. It had been a while since I watched a TV show or streaming series that left me furious due to its lack of quality. The writing, acting, lighting, cinematography, and fight choreography are so bad that it’s offensive to all the senses. But, to be honest, it wasn’t surprising it turned out terribly. Not just because of the travesties that were Daredevil’s second season (or at least the non-Punisher half) or Iron Fist — Marvel Studios has been awful for a while now.

Let me repeat that: Marvel Studios is awful. They have been for a long time already.

Online film reviewer Confused Matthew once had a video that, save for some particularly mean barbs directed at director James Gunn, was spot-on when it came to a lot of their dubious creative decisions and behind-the-scenes behavior. Unfortunately, he later took it down. Why? He hopped aboard the same bustling bandwagon that continues to beat the putrid, decaying dead horse that is Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Even as the flesh has fallen off the bone, almost threadbare at this point, after being angrily pummeled with a truncheon one too many times.

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Yep, looks about right…

I agree it’s not a good movie in the least — far, far from it — but part of me wants to be contrarian and defend it or the somewhat entertaining but still awful Suicide Squad. They’re not just failures that future filmmakers can learn from, but they’re memorable as failures. Marvel Studios’ overall output is both obsessively formulaic and so easily digestible that the films are becoming interchangeable with one another — they will not stand the test of time. To me, that’s worse than being bad. Mediocrity never warrants a second thought the way something truly amazing or haphazard does.

One might make the assumption that I must not like the comicbooks or had a hatred of Marvel Studios from the get-go, based on my current distaste with them. Well, you know what happens when you assume? It makes an ass out of you and me (but mostly you). I’m quite fond of the comics though I don’t follow them religiously like others do — I tend to prefer the non-superhero work you see from publishers like Image (seriously, read East of West or Black Science) or Oni Press (seriously, read The Sixth Gun or Letter 44)— and I love cinema even more. Having a father who worked in the film and television industry, reared on the stuff since I was born, has made me far more partial to that medium and the format that has been used for decades already. I’m always excited to see something new or interesting, something that hasn’t been done before, something that may make movies better as a medium both technically and creatively. If anything, I was ecstatic to see these comicbook characters come to life — the storytelling potential, making such material live-action, was unimaginable.

Thing is, though, Marvel Studios couldn’t give less of a shit about creative integrity or has any interest in evolving cinematic storytelling. Its interests are the same as every other creatively bankrupt, vapid studio executive in Hollywood: more money to line their already overflowing pockets and justify another unsustainably large budget for the next over-bloated, homogenized piece of fluff that no one will remember a decade or two from now. They’re continuing the worst kind of practices in the industry and, yet again, almost no one seems to notice this as they wear the rose-colored shades sold to them.

It isn’t just Confused Matthew, several others critics whose work I’ve enjoyed immensely over the years — that include Robert Chipman and the guys at RedLetterMedia — seem to soft-ball these Marvel movies than give the acerbic criticism that came with the aforementioned BvS or Suicide Squad or, well, any other movie. It’s as if their critical faculties had been overpowered by some form of powerful hypnotism, to become as gullible and rabidly consumeristic as gamers drunk on hype after another masturbatory E3 convention (but aren’t they all?). Like the AAA videogame industry and its underhanded methods, Marvel Studios knows how to condition an audience to become addicted in order to fork over money for each and every installment of theirs’ — no matter how middling or subpar it actually is — convinced that they want or even need it. This isn’t a revolutionary change in narrative structure, as wonderful as that’d be, but a modernized version of selling snake-oil. Do you know why con-men are called “con-men”? It’s because they make you feel confident enough to let your guard down and fall for their bullshit…

If you think that sounds far-fetched, I have some unfortunate news: you are already under the sway of advertising and may not even realize it.

We like to think advertisements don’t affect us, that having some product pushed onto us with a TV spot or internet pop-up or billboard is something we’re immune to, yet being inundated with enough ads still make people buy products they don’t want or need but nonetheless feel they should purchase anyway. What makes advertising so insidious is being ostensibly innocuous — all while planting seeds of interest into your subconscious. Maybe, after some time, you’ll have the sudden urge to eventually buy those products and not quite sure why you did. If you’re perceptive enough, you’ll recognize those ads had an effect and kick yourself a few times over it. Others lacking such observational skills, on the other hand, will convince themselves they “chose” to buy those products of their own “volition.” Much like a puppet who simply ignores the strings attached to them, avoiding the sad realization their individuality is just an illusion within this capitalistic society…

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“There are no strings on me!”

As Mad Men had pointed out several times, advertising firms have a keen eye for small details and their effectiveness along with an understanding of social psychology. They know what sells a product isn’t the product itself — it’s the sense of personal validation that comes from buying that product. Advertisements are meticulously crafted to invoke a sense of want or need, with use of certain imagery or subtle musical cues that make you feel all warm and fuzzy on the inside when thinking about that product. If not that? They’ll make you feel like a pathetic piece of shit for not having already bought it.

This That Mitchell and Webb Look sketch, from years back, summarizes it pretty well too:

That’s what makes me hate Marvel Studios: their films aren’t really films, not anymore anyway — they’re in-house ads that sell their next product under the ever-thinning veil of being entertainment. Much in the same way almost every U.S. military film, as once stated by David Sirota in Back to Our Future, effectively functions as pro-military propaganda in order for a production to be given any kind of consultation or support. It took me a while to notice because, like so many others, I wore those rose-colored shades. I fell head over heels for the hype. I chased that carrot dangling at the end of the stick and, at this point, it’s made me weary. I gave Marvel Studios the benefit of the doubt for years, I continued to give them leeway under the promise they’d take chances and yet they never have despite having every opportunity to do so. They have grown so successful that taking risks would still yield some kind of return, and would be somewhat refreshing, but they are far too craven to give up their method of endless iteration.

But that’s just the tip of this sordid iceberg!

I found it impossible to explain everything I find wrong with Marvel Studios within a single essay — the issues attached to them go beyond simply being avaricious or creatively lazy. Were those my only issues, I may as well talk about Michael Bay’s Transformers series but even those movies seem inconsequential compared to the damage Marvel Studios has done and still doing. It contributes to the lowering of standards for quality narrative and corroding the concept of self-contained storytelling.

Over the next few weeks (or months) — I will write one essay apiece detailing, convincingly I hope, a specific problem with Marvel Studios as an entity. While most will deal with their creative decisions, which can be downright stupefying, I will occasionally delve into the behind-the-scenes tomfoolery they’ve done that (for example) left us without an Edgar Wright-directed and -written Ant-Man. Much of which, to my dismay, I’ve barely heard from anyone else of note. Maybe they were too busy creaming their pants over Scarlett Johansson’s ass in skin-tight leather or something.

Next time? I’m talking about Luke Cage

[Originally posted on 10/28/17 @ 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]

Apple v. Orange Review: Dark Souls and Bloodborne (w/spoilers)

Apples and oranges aren’t that different, really. I mean, they’re both fruit[…]I could understand if you said ‘that’s like comparing apples and uranium’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with baby wolverines’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver’ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.’ Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity.

– Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs)


What’s on the docket today?

After the trifecta of disappointment that was L.A. NoireMass Effect 3, and BioShock Infinite (that’s a story for another day) — I lost a lot of my faith in the AAA videogame industry. When coupled with other titles like Watch_Dogs or The Order: 1886, I just couldn’t trust any gameplay demonstrations or the hype by way of the press and masturbatory events like E3. The cycle of being given empty promises, getting my hopes up, and then having them quickly dashed was wearying.

His favorite song is “Staring at the Sun” by TV On The Radio. Obviously.

Then, I discovered Dark Souls. It reminded me that the AAA industry can be capable of creating fantastic experiences with their resources if they bothered to have ambitions beyond cranking out mediocre spectacles. It provided actual challenge in an age where almost every title comes with training wheels, it treated its plot as integral as the gameplay rather than an obstacle to it, and could occupy well over a hundred hours of your life without forcing you to partake in pointless busywork.

Needless to say, I had become obsessed with getting my hands on a copy of Bloodborne (along with a PS4) after its release. When I finally did — thanks to the grand generosity of a younger cousin — I could not contain my excitement or overwhelming urge to dedicate as many days of my life to playing it as humanly possible. The only downside was the sense of confliction I felt on whether I liked it more than Dark Souls or not. It could drive one mad…

Dear God, enough with the gushing!

No.

Okay, you asshole…so why compare at all?

Both were developed by FromSoftware — known for the Armored Core and King’s Field series — but Dark Souls was published by Bandai Namco and Bloodborne by Sony. However, the more important connection is Hidetaka Miyazaki (no relation to Hayao Miyazaki the legendary animator) who acts as director for both titles, as well as some other individuals such as programmer Jun Ito and artist Makoto Sato.

Don’t sound that different.

Oh, but they are!

[Cue Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”]

Dark Souls (as well as its sequels) is an apocalyptic, surreal high fantasy while Bloodborne has a whole Gothic-Lovecraftian steampunk vibe. Though the overall style of the storytelling is incredibly recognizable, minimalistic and relying more on implication than exposition, their different settings and subject matter give them disparate narrative beats. Also, the gameplay of Dark Souls rewards patience and punishes recklessness while Bloodborne contrarily rewards boldness and punishes hesitation.

Point taken — so, what about those “disparate narrative beats”?

A primary trait in both titles is the sense of player disempowerment. The whole environment is hostile, where you can be easily overpowered by those stronger than you either by intimidating stature or in overwhelming force. The big picture, however, is obscured and the player character is continuously manipulated and misled by those who may know more and whose motivations are never quite clear. Other characters are perfunctory, serving one specific purpose or another, but many either become tragic victims of a cruel world or lose their mind and attempt to slaughter you mercilessly. It’s almost impossible to find a genuinely decent person, moreso for them to survive. The road to success is a war of attrition and willpower is the key to victory — to quit is to surrender and admit defeat.

The point of divergence may seem insignificant but, with everything I described, it is important to note that the Chosen Undead of Dark Souls is a prophesized hero — downright counterintuitive to instilling a sense of disempowerment. The Paleblood Hunter of Bloodborne is constantly reminded of their position as an expendable pawn within a cosmic chess game. No matter how many god-like tentacle monsters from outer space slain, you never forget that your place in these events are wholly circumstantial and the ultimate outcome of one’s actions is even beyond comprehension. Why wouldn’t they be? You’re enacting a task based on the vaguest instructions from a being that interacts with you as indirectly as possible, unless agitated enough to become direct. You are little more than a fly caught in the web constructed by a spider of planetary proportion. It is surviving these horrors with as much sanity intact, not prophetic fulfillment, which is the ultimate goal.

Don’t ask. Just…don’t.

The way other characters react to the protagonist is indicative of how the player is encouraged to continue and succeed. Dark Souls’ cast is an affable bunch, save for an underhandedly malevolent few, and willing to assist — even applaud your achievements as you progress. Not only are you prophesized, but others tell you how awesome you are regularly. Bloodborne does the opposite with inhabitants of Yharnam that constantly mock you, despite protecting them against the plague-ridden beasts and providing them safe haven. The environment despises your presence — but those living in it hate you more. You can’t help but try and prove them wrong…

Though argued that Dark Souls and its sequels’ emphasis on a never-ending cycle — of how many empires rise and fall, only to be forgotten — negates prophetic importance, this only came about from the game becoming surprisingly popular. It was a spiritual successor to the PS3-exclusive Demon’s Souls but intended to be a cross-platform release, thus wider exposure and ensuring sequels. But it’s an inherent flaw with the lore: the fact that it can be described (as I have earlier) as “apocalyptic” is oxymoronic when the subsequent installments are suggested to take place millennia afterwards. At that point, can it really be “apocalyptic”? If anything — that just makes it business as usual, like superheroes saving earth from an alien invasion on a monthly basis…

And how about the fun stuff? Y’know, the gameplay?

There’s a basic template: a third-person, exploration-heavy action RPG with level design similar to “Metroidvania” titles (albeit in 3D) with shortcuts that open as one progresses or gaining access to other areas after acquiring specific items. Combat emphasizes timing attacks and managing a cool-down phase — the agility bar itself acting as something of a secondary health meter that regenerates. It is integral to observe and memorize the behavior of antagonistic A.I. and strategize accordingly, as they are capable of delivering hard-hitting blows when one is left open or cornered. The means for combat as well as the amount of mobility given to the player is probably one of the starkest contrasts between both titles.

Weapons in Dark Souls are traditional melee types — swords, knives, spears, etc. — accompanied by varying shields along with spell-casting staffs as well as bows and arrows for ranged combat. Bloodborne adopts far more fantastical instruments, including an edged cane that transforms into a steel-plated whip and a hammer that can cause small explosions or set opponents aflame upon impact. Ranged weaponry comes in the form of firearms, from flintlocks and handheld flame-throwers to an arm-mounted cannon and portable Gatling gun — either riposting enemy attacks with good timing or simply to deal (often lesser) damage from afar.

Make Contact, Not War

If those descriptions did not make it clear enough, Bloodborne’s armaments are simply more memorable in terms of design and function. Each one is different from the last, all with secondary modes that are not only varied but add strategic versatility even with the intense and fast-paced fights. Dark Souls may have a greater quantity available but a sword is still a sword, a bow shoots arrows, and wands cast spells as they usually do. Though melee weaponry functions satisfactorily (at least in single-player mode — multiplayer is prone to odd glitches), spell-casting and ranged combat do not. Using magic missiles and arrows are simply nowhere near as viable a tactic as wielding a sword, dagger, spear, axe, or mace.

The average player in Dark Souls is usually weighted down by shining steel-plated armor, accompanied with a shield, as most enemies are prone to physical attack and blocking is one of the more effective ways to defend one’s self from damage (with parrying as a counter-attack function). Evasion is an option, especially for more skilled individuals, but the character — whether they dodge-roll, back-step, or side-strafe — is still kinesthetically cumbersome.

The attire available in Bloodborne is entirely light-weight and the stats for such equipment vary little between one another. One outfit may be more fire- or lightning-retardant than others, giving the edge in a certain boss battle or two, but much less emphasized as the game encourages evasion above all else. The Paleblood Hunter can gracefully skip about every direction and practically dance around a mob of diseased madmen, herding them into a narrow passage to be efficiently slaughtered. Even the misshapen behemoths can be dealt as such since they’re placed in large, open environments and their movement laborious enough to reasonably counter. In fact, being aggressive — even to one’s detriment — is encouraged by being able to recover any health lost to an enemy by retaliating quickly.

There’s a constant sense of forward momentum in Bloodborne, even during quieter moments, whereas Dark Souls is a stop-and-start affair due to being very methodical.

Is that it?

Well, no, those sensibilities are reflected in the layout of their level design as well.

These guys. These fuckin’ guys.

When it comes to enemy and checkpoint placement, Dark Souls is fairly conservative as most fights are one-on-one, with an occasional mob or two, and the distance traveled between bonfires make them seem scarce. The upside is that there’s a sense of dread even when you know what to expect — the downside being it makes backtracking unbearably tedious. Though perhaps heretical to fans of Dark Souls to say, I hated Blighttown and The Great Hollow. Navigation is purposefully confusing, as part of the challenge, but no decent shortcuts are given back to The Depths (a rather generic sewer area too) as an award. Before attaining the Lord Vessel at the game’s midway point — it was the most frustrating part of the experience. Even better areas, like The Catacombs and Tomb of Giants, suffer from this problem when encountered early on not simply because those areas are harder but because any enjoyment to be had would be ruined by backtracking.

The overly-generous approach to checkpoints as shown in the sequels or even Bloodborne shouldn’t be the alternative — yet allowing teleportation between them cuts down on so much of the monotony that comes from backtracking. Bloodborne, as a console-exclusive title, streamlines itself for both better and worse. The single-player campaign is less reliant on summoning other players and NPCs to take on bosses and environments offer much more visual storytelling even within a smaller space. Admittedly the main hub, The Hunter’s Dream, is nowhere near as interesting as Firelink Shrine was in Dark Souls and even the downloadable content — “The Old Hunters” — feels heavily recycled when “Artorias of the Abyss” was an improvement on the main game. Yet Bloodborne connects Gothic horror to Lovecraftian horror seamlessly in such an interesting fashion that it makes Dark Souls’ subversions of high fantasy seem quaint.

This makes the Chalice Dungeons of Bloodborne incredibly disappointing as a procedurally-generated dungeon-crawler by FromSoftware makes a lot of sense. The actual result, however, is generic and lifeless when the abandoned streets of Yharnam were lively in detail. One can’t help but think this is some secret beta version of another title to be released years down the line. Hopefully it’ll be improved a ton and knock it out of the park then.

I’m pretty sure you prefer Bloodborne.

As much as I hate to admit it, yeah, I guess I do. But that game would’ve gone ignored had I never played Dark Souls and became as enamored as I was by FromSoftware’s approach to gameplay and storytelling — it feels intrinsic to why I enjoyed Bloodborne as much as I did.

Blood Moon Rising

What bothers me about Bloodborne the most is that, as a console exclusive for the PS4, lacks the same exposure and support as the cross-platform Dark Souls as well as its sequels. Console exclusivity in this day and age has become antiquated and counterproductive yet (given industry avarice) the practice is continued despite the obvious obsolescence. That makes Bloodborne kind of an underdog, in a strange way, and I want to be more supportive of it due to such.

Though I warmed up to Dark Souls 3 despite being so riddled with fan-service and recycled assets — it’s difficult to not see the success of the initial game being a bane on the series now. Dark Souls 2 and Bloodborne, despite their (respectively) poor reception by fans and a limited audience, were at least trying to go in new directions and expand on the material. Dark Souls 3, on the other hand, feels like the moment a serpent has begun to devour its own tail. Though I suppose that’s fitting, all considering…

[Originally posted on 8/12/17 @ 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]

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]

Apple v. Orange Review: Bastion and Transistor (w/spoilers)

Apples and oranges aren’t that different, really. I mean, they’re both fruit[…]I could understand if you said ‘that’s like comparing apples and uranium ‘ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with baby wolverines ‘ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with the early work of Raymond Carver ‘ or ‘that’s like comparing apples with hermaphroditic ground sloths.’ Those would all be valid examples of profound disparity.”

– Chuck Klosterman (Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs)

So, what’s the big deal?

Supergiant Games’ new release, Pyre, is coming out later this month and I thought a compare-and-contrast retrospective on their previous titles would be relevant.

Unlike many other mainstream titles, both Bastion and Transistor rely more on implication than exposition; having its audience fill in the spaces left purposefully blank. It’s a style of storytelling I find preferable for videogames, rather than another wrong-headed attempt to be “cinematic.” Because, as we all know, the best way to improve interactive entertainment is to slavishly mimic a passive medium (not really though). There is more to intrigue and incentive for players to actually ponder and further explore the physical setting, which reinforces a seldom felt sense of immersion. A rarity at a time when extravagant facades, built upon shoddy foundations, are the norm. Especially as it can occur through gameplay rather than as an overlong movie cut to pieces and interjected, no matter how awkward or contrary, in between the parts that begrudgingly give the audience agency.

That isn’t to say either Bastion or Transistor is entirely successful. Even with the limitations that come from being a newer studio, Supergiant Games does an admirable effort with the resources at hand. However, the flaws are noticeable enough to distract.

Then what’re the…er, plots at hand?

Chris Franklin’s interpretation of Bastion being, metaphorically, about recovering from a disastrous break-up of a long-term relationship is hard to argue against and I can appreciate that. The problem, however, is that Bastion establishes a very lived-in ecosystem with basic laws attached that contradict its interpretive elements. Given that, how does the actual plot function? To answer that question in one fell swoop: it starts and remains strong up until the game’s midpoint, leading to a revelation of morally reprehensible actions by Caeldonia towards the Ura — that the titular device was, in fact, a weapon for ethnic cleansing — with an endgame twist made inane by lacking any precedence.

Along with being a doomsday weapon, it’s apparently a TARDIS that looked like a vividly lush floating island…or something.

…Wait, what…?

Yes, in fact, Ruckus — the character acting as the game’s narrative voice — explains that the device was meant to rebuild the world as much as destroy it; but there are no clues given that it could bend time and space. This reveal is brought up during the final level, occurring at so late a point that it is downright contrivance. Internal logic be damned as the narration is implied to have come from a person aware of future events…except Ruckus claimed that, in literally winding back the clock, events would be forgotten by those who experienced them. Why is he immune to such effects? Oh, right, there wouldn’t be an omnipresent narrator otherwise. For that matter, why create a device that can act as both a terraformer and a weapon of mass destruction? Why have an Ura refugee work on the device or give him the knowledge to use it against them? The more information given, the more plot holes become apparent.

And Transistor?

In deciding to be far more abstract and less concrete, it fares better as a minimalistic and interpretive story. What little explanation is given remains obscure, as do the rules applied to the setting, making it more difficult to determine whether or not one element of the plot is inconsistent with the rest.

Much to my chagrin, the patronizing adage of “your mileage may vary” would apply on the issue of whether or not that works in its favor. Personally, I loved the story. It gave me the same sense of wonder I had when watching ReBoot as a kid and then years later with The Matrix during my early adolescence — seeing it as an allegory of the democratization of culture in the internet age, of the dangers in relying so much on consensus that it becomes erroneously conflated with quality. Yet, at the same time, one can’t assert those less enthused with this game are somehow wrong or “don’t get it.”

It’s like an expressionist painting or Dadaist assemblage: while one person can find meaning in it whatever the reason, another can find none, and both perspectives are valid. Only a person who claims to understand it more than anyone else is full of shit.

What I will argue with is how it deals with voice acting. It bothered me that, in Bastion, Zia is only given a speaking voice at the penultimate scene. If she could have a voice before, why didn’t she have it then? Transistor is even more problematic in that it not only renders the female protagonist a mute before her introduction (even Ariel in The Little Mermaid got better treatment than that) and explained away with a lazy hand-wave, but there are male characters in the supporting cast who do get their own voices. Her talking sword drones on, sounding like Harrison Ford in Blade Runner reading passages from a Raymond Chandler novel, in a one-way conversation — even though some friendly or flirtatious banter would’ve added so much more. Red is a character as indicated by the comments she posts, in response to news articles found at computer terminals, where she’ll even delete what she just wrote to rephrase her statement to be more succinct or dramatic. The problem being that such terminals are wholly supplemental and leaves that characterization unseen by those who didn’t bother to look. It comes off as a sexist creative decision even if done unintentionally — moreso given it’s been done twice now.

That is unfortunate with the game’s otherwise progressive attitude towards sexuality and gender, as several gay characters and one transgender individual are present. None of that is treated as somehow abnormal nor their sole defining trait, instead adding a layer to their overall personality. It’s the kind of story beat needed in the medium.

What’s their commonality?

As said before, they were developed by Supergiant Games and are isometric action-adventure videogames with RPG elements. The art direction, from Jen Zee, is more evocative of painted illustrations than computer-generated imagery and is accompanied by a collaborative musical score by Darren Korb with vocals by Ashley Lynn Barrett. Logan Cunningham also provides most of the voice-over work on both titles.

And the differences?

Bastion is hack n’ slash while Transistor has mixed real-time/turn-based combat mechanics that emphasize strategic usage of special abilities and numerous variations when combined with others for either an active or passive effect. The earlier is also Steampunk filtered through Spaghetti Western aesthetics, whereas the latter is cyberpunk infused with noir sensibilities and a fondness for Art Nouveau.

Okay, whatever — how about the gameplay and graphics?

Aside from the chibi-proportioned characters of Bastion contrasting with the more realistically formed ones in Transistor, there isn’t much difference in terms of overall in-game graphical quality. It goes without saying that Jen Zee’s art direction is absolutely lovely. It’s in the level design — in how they progress — that they diverge.

Despite the isometric view, Bastion has the pretense of being a platformer as well as encouraging exploration (the operative word here being “pretense”). Blocks of flooring, both small and large, appear as the player character ventures forward, that indicate possible hidden paths. But in reality it’s actually quite linear and those paths are easily found. The items they lead to add texture to the game’s setting, but that’s about it. It also doesn’t help that these platforms are littered with both breakable items and décor, which are hard to determine from one another, adding to frustration in combat when it comes to dodge-rolling away. There’s even a level selection screen though one can’t replay completed areas nor have much choice as which to play next.

Transistor, to both its benefit and detriment, streamlines the environment and lacks the aforementioned pretenses. There’s no worry about continually falling into a void. While it does implement platform jumping as last minute as Bastion’s, it is done purely by button-prompt (rather than poorly implemented precision jumping) that functions better overall. There’s no doubt it is linear and that point A leads to point B, with very few detours for world-building texture. However, it also lacks the vibrant colors and details needed to make an environment more fit for the combat with the most gorgeous vistas — outshining even those in Bastion — being few and far inbetween.

It’s the closest I’ve come to playing an interactive Gustav Klimt painting, if only for one brief and fleeting instance. I wished the whole experience was like that…

I’d put that print on my wall!
I’d put that print on my wall!

Combat is central to both games’ mechanics and those are more dissimilar. As stated in the previous section, Bastion is a hack n’ slash and it’s a competent one — though overburdened by features disproportionate with the game’s length. Going back to the review by Chris Franklin, he praises the game for lacking anything frivolous or unnecessary in its design and I just don’t get it.

You only have two weapon slots and the game gives you a new weapon almost every level, save for the challenge areas, up to the final one. As much as variety is the spice of life and all that, it creates this problem where I’m forced to use this new weapon I’m not familiar with even though I’ve been using those I prefer or have gotten used to already. Were this to allow for various playing styles, it would be understandable, but they’re often needed in the level you find them in anyway. The game isn’t extensive enough to justify needing that many to begin with. The challenge areas themselves, save for four, only provide more money for upgrades or special skills for a specific weapon you probably won’t use otherwise. It gave me flashbacks to Assassin’s Creed 2 when they piled a bunch of melee weaponry on you, even given a steady income to buy more of them, that went unused because the wrist-blades worked well enough anyway (and, hey, they’re pretty damn cool).

Meanwhile, in Transistor, there is only the titular weapon — though it functions less as a melee instrument than it does a medium for casting spells dubbed as “Functions.” You can use a Function by itself but combining it with others can extend its range or add a status effect that stuns or weakens opponents. Alternatively, one can put it in a slot for a passive effect for the player character by, for example, spawning a decoy to distract enemies or shield them from damage. There’s a very tangible effect with each Function that can drastically change the nature of a battle. You can employ a number of viable strategies and applying them can become an engrossing experience.

When I finished Bastion, only to restart it in New Game+ mode, I felt like I saw everything the first time around and wasn’t really challenged anymore. Transistor, well after completing it, had me replaying battles that totally kicked my ass with a new set of Functions to see if they were more effective than the last.

Anything you forgot to mention? You do that sometimes. Well, a lot, actually.

Not sure why Darren Korb and Ashley Lynn Barrett haven’t made a studio album or two yet, because the soundtracks of Bastion and Transistor work wonderfully by themselves. They act as proof that original musical soundtracks for videogames can actually be better overall than all the compiled licensed music you’d find in Grand Theft Auto. Like Akira Yamaoka’s compositions for the Silent Hill series, each song perfectly represents its environment and remains tonally consistent throughout — whether it is Bastion’s idiosyncratic country/bluegrass-style strumming and percussion or Transistor’s electro-jazz beats with occasional lounge singing.

I’m guessing, based on all that, you prefer Transistor?

Well, yeah, obviously.

Yet I can only say that I liked it quite a bit but not that I loved it. There’s a lot of charming elements like its unique take on combat, the Art Nouveau aesthetics you see nowhere else, and a form of storytelling that’s (as George Wiedman once put it) borderline avant-garde. At the same time, being different doesn’t necessarily equate to quality. They’re all things I’d be pleased to see more of, to some extent or another, in the future — but their awkward implementation does not keep the rest from falling short of true greatness.

[Originally posted on 7/12/17 @ Medium.com]