Following that incredibly imaginative title, I will now follow with an equally inspired anecdote about the new year. Basically, I have resolved to write more.
I spend far too much time procrastinating or playing games than I do actually writing about them, and there are many last year I played without so much commentary as the occasional obtuse tweet. It’s a little late to bother with a carefully outlined essay on each, so here’s a list of aspects I found interesting about certain games, presented in whatever order I think them up in. (Does not include all games I may have played, and listed games may not necessarily have been released in 2011.)
I was helping to cull a long list of links yesterday for Critical Distance‘s This Year in Video Game Blogging post (coming very, very soon). One thing I learned from this exercise was that a lot of people liked to talk about L.A. Noire (and, okay, Dragon Age 2 and the Mass Effect series as well). According to many bloggers, Cole Phelps is an unhinged psychopath.
I’m not sure how I felt about this. It’s something, I think, that really comes through depending on your playstyle – and the game was certainly strangely-designed enough to allow for such deviation from what is probably Team Bondi’s intended depiction of Phelps. Or as academics like to say, ludonarrative dissonance. Meticulous and thorough crime scene investigations were sprinkled amongst open-world sequences in which you, as Phelps, could drive around like a sloppy bastard, running over various harmless pedestrians without a mark on your spotless police record. One Twitter friend suggested I skip the driving sequences for a more “true” experience, which certainly made sense – but of course I didn’t want to miss driving through the sun-soaked streets of L.A. The game clearly divorced my desire for a linear story from my desire for fun. I tried for both anyway, leading to some very strange emergent encounters that ultimately diminished the story’s impact.
And as for those moments Phelps yelled at suspects so savagely you could almost see the spit flying? Amusing, yes, but nothing I’d term “psychopathic”. Not if you’d played the game properly, carefully. Of course his accusing an innocent person of rape or murder would’ve seemed deranged, but that was the point – the player was supposed to monitor the suspects’ facial expressions, and to gather sufficient evidence to keep from wrongly accusing anybody. It’s one thing I really enjoyed, actually, playing one of the rare games that actually rewarded the player based on his thoroughness and attention to detail. In many games it’s not really considered.
Phelps’ story, however, was a case of unlocked potential. His family leaving him might have been poignant if, prior to the event, we’d actually seen anything of them (at most, there was one or two seemingly throwaway lines about Phelps being a “family man”). When the game’s story became most tense, we were suddenly put in control of a completely different character, one we hadn’t had the time to build a fondness for in the lead-up to the ending.
Edge! Edge! Edge! Edge! Edge! God, there is a lot I wish I could forget about Catherine, from its insipid block-pushing “minigame” (that took up at least a third of the game’s playtime, ostensibly more if you got stuck) to that smutty “art book”. It’s quite a feat to have a game full of completely unlikeable characters; the women are manipulative and controlling (and in the case of the busty title character, a shallow vision of the “perfect woman” who quite literally exists only to titillate men), while the men are alcoholic layabouts with no self-control, unable of even thinking of resisting their attractions to the barely-legal blonde girl. Shameless use of the stereotypes without any effort to break them simply reinforces them, sorry.
I don’t particularly care for the game’s vaguely supernatural twist, which to me screams “It’s not sexism, guys, it’s SYMBOLISM!” The game’s idea of symbolism can be adequately summed up by Vincent’s fear of marriage, which leads to nightmares in which he is chased by… a bride. Stellar storytelling!
My only regret is that some pretty cool artistic direction is wasted on this bullshit.
Other things I have said about Catherine: Tonight, I’m playing Catherine
Fallout: New Vegas
Was there any better setting for a post-apocalypse world than Las Vegas? Its denizens stripped of gold and glitter, they’d been forced to rebuild their lives from scrap metal and rusted bottle caps, and of course they resurrected first the vices they knew so well: prostitutes streamed into the streets, dancing awkwardly, while many lives were the groaning cogs in casino culture. Underneath it all, though, was a bed of brutal earnestness, often tragedy.
It wasn’t the easiest game in the world for me to get into, but that had a huge bearing on the way the game unfurled for me. In the beginning, I nearly cried with frustration. By the time I’d mastered the mechanics, I wept for Boone, my gruff, tortured companion, and all the morose citizens we met in the wasteland.
And after some 80-odd hours of playtime and one completed playthrough, I still feel I’ve only scratched the surface of this game. I’ve played (and not finished) just one DLC campaign. I still have a slew of other companions to get through, including Cass and Veronica. I haven’t even begun to think of what the modding community has come up with.
After playing the original Deus Ex for the first time, I thought games would simply go downhill for me. That no other game would rival it for sheer impact. I did not foresee what New Vegas would do for me.
A pleasant enough MMORPG and, okay, one of the few games to challenge my PC. Boy, do I need a new CPU! Badly! I gathered up my best gaming pals (we call ourselves The Doctors) to party up in a game that wasn’t WoW but was admittedly pretty similar.
I played a rogue class, switching back and forth between two damage-dealing specs until I figured out that I was amazing at being a bard. All those chords and hymns were sheer joy to play, absolute synchronicity in a synthetic world.
What stopped me playing was not that Rift was a bad game, but that many – including myself – had invested our time elsewhere. It’s fun to dabble, but difficult to make the switch permanently when you’ve got level 85s in epic gear waiting on Azeroth.
This was the very first social browser game I’d ever tried, and only then because I’ve enjoyed The Sims franchise in the past. I mean, we all know what people say about social games. Unethical, time-wasting, blah blah…
But Sims Social actually taught me some pretty interesting things about human interaction, both in person and over the internet.
I felt a strange, revived kinship with a high school friend who I hadn’t spoken to in years but was now scrubbing my virtual toilet. I repaid the favour by sending him donuts or something, and wondered if, had we wound up living in the same country, we might be just as friendly in real life. I was needlessly cruel to the Sims of some others, mainly for the sake of fulfilling quest objectives (I need proper incentive to get nasty, okay?). When I slept, an acquaintance worked to undo whatever damage I’d done to my Sim’s relationship with hers over the day. She effectively blocked me from being mean. Eventually, with the Sims’ ties seesawing back and forth in limbo, I gave in. I let her be nice to me. I was even nice in return. Secretly, I resented her for not letting me check off mean quest objectives. We still don’t talk in person much.
Until then I had been able to mostly ignore the more irritating social aspects of the game, such as begging publicly on Facebook for friends to send goodwill to help me construct new furniture (and you thought Ikea’s furniture-assembling instructions were obtuse). Instead of snarling when it finally reached the point where the game was asking me to beg from things for more friends than I actually had, I complied. I went to the Sims Social page on Facebook and added a bunch of randoms in the “Looking for a Friend?” thread.
This totally went against my usual Facebook practices of carefully vetting people before agreeing to add them to my friends list. I don’t add a lot of real-life people unless I can really trust them, and I regularly prune my friends list – yet here I was, adding unknown teenagers and bored housewives without abandon.
These people had more experience in social gaming than I did. I soon picked up some unspoken etiquette, notably that “liking” an embarrassing pleading wall post meant that the liker had done what I had begged for, and delivered party hats to my expectant Sim. I sent back mushrooms and liked their own status updates.
And then one woman started liking my real-life statuses, the things that had nothing to do with the Sims. She liked my articles about games I wouldn’t have expected her to be interested in. She liked some of my silly photographs.
We still don’t know each other or even talk outside of the Sims lexicon, but she recently got married, and I liked some of her wedding photos. I even felt oddly proud of her.
I held my breath when, early in the game, I was put in the place of a young Nathan Drake, a clumsy teenager with sad, piercing eyes. He was incredibly beautiful to watch, even more so to play.
Later, reverting back to current-day Drake, I would see his teen self reflected in his movements and his stumbles. I hadn’t expected to ache for Drake, of all characters. When I chewed on the inside of my mouth (an uncouth but oh-so-addictive habit I’ve never really tried to break), it wasn’t in fear or tension. I did not fear the game’s villains. I was afraid that Drake, a dazzling construct I’d built upon in my head, would crumble. Despite knowing that these kinds of games always end happily, I was irrationally afraid that my Drake would not make it out okay.
I am so goddamn glad he made it out okay.
The original was a very good game. The sequel is also very good, but in a way that’s difficult to interpret. It’s got polish, the puzzles are flawless and challenging, the new characters are an endless source of chuckles.
So why did something feel off? When I laughed, it felt hollow. Clever lines of dialogue might as well have been replaced with a laughter track to remind me that the game was funny, dammit, and it was time for me to laugh again.
The original was released out of nowhere to blow away gamers with its wit, puzzle-solving, and sinister backstory. No one anticipated the effect it’d have on gamers, but by golly, we needed a sequel. “Gamers liked the maniacal GLaDOS,” I imagine the game designers musing, “so we’ll add two more absolutely hilarious and somewhat incompetent villains. And how about the underbelly of Aperture Science? People dug that, right? So we’ll inflate the game to three times its necessary length to allow for an overextended amount of time in the underbelly of Aperture’s underbelly! And how about another witty theme song, huh? Huh?”
If only they were able to rehash what made the original so memorable: its innovativeness.
(This is probably where the typical gamer leaves an angry, condescending comment about how “gaems dont need to innovate, they just need to be FUN”. This is where I sigh, hit delete, and thank god that I can moderate stupidity on at least one place on the internet.)
Final Fantasy 13
Let us never speak of this flavourless wreck of an RPG again.
Alice: Madness Returns
I totally “related to” Alice in my teen years. We were both tortured, and we also had similar hair. I wanted her apple-green eyes.
The original game (I can say confidently, having not played it in years and firsthand experienced its aging) was perfect, everything I could have asked for in a game (right down to its primitive AI, which facilitated my then relative inexperience in the shooter genre). This new incarnation of Alice, ten years on, still resonates with me, this time as an adult. I’m a little more learned, a little more trusting, a fan of whimsy and, in some ways, darker than I ever was as a teen. Madness Returns offers me an adorable range of outfits, and fanciful twirls on tufts of air. Madness Returns offers me frightening psychological imagery that postures beyond the border of what many are comfortable with. I couldn’t stomach this immense, beautiful wreck; I couldn’t look away.
Alice should be all but dead, but she is instead blossoming, wildflowers bursting from her bloodied trail. She escaped, but she’ll continue to bleed.
Other things I have said about Alice: Madness Returns review
Deus Ex: Human Revolution
It’s so easy to forget that the first half of this game was actually pretty good. Hengsha, especially, reminded me of growing up in South-East Asia, where even now luxurious clubs throb across the road from tired noodle vendors. I killed a pimp and felt as though I was helping to stem corruption in a city seething with it. At the Alice Garden Pods, I read a heartbreaking letter from a pod-dweller promising his family he was earning a good living for them in some place that wasn’t actually a pod. The city’s steel weight bore down on me , as if in a dream.
I didn’t have to fear leaving Hengsha, though. The game sent me back there again, as well as to Detroit twice. Montreal was apparently an office building, Singapore a scientific complex even more soulless. Adam Jensen started doing dumb things, like getting seduced by an obviously nasty person with no redeeming qualities. The game insulted stealthy players and then, by the time it was too late and there were no more significant boss battles to come, it loaded me with more praxis points than I knew what to do with. Nothing felt careful or life-altering any more. Things got sloppy and embarrassing. And then I was faced with Panchaea, and THAT skybox.
I’m trying to figure out why I want to put this out of my mind, and I think I’ve got it – it stings because its beginning promised so much. Unfortunately, this was a spark in the dark that fizzled out before it could become a bonfire.
Other things I have said about Deus Ex: Bossed Around
I lost my scarf in the desert. Also, my potential best friend. If someone finds either of them…
Other things I have said about Journey: Life in the Ruins