Wolfenstein 2 and Mending Broken Things

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Expect spoilers.

Wolfenstein 2: The New Colossus is about the ultimate fragility of two types of bodies that underpin Western values: the male adult and the liberal state. Each is a conceptual object that we expect to function perfectly—right up to the moment that they break down completely when confronted with something they were never built to deal with. The New Colossus is interested in what it would take for either of these to fall apart.

William “BJ” Blazkowicz is the quintessential videogame protagonist: a large, rectangular slab of white man-meat whose very shape belies how he has been a part of videogames since his flesh was square pixels. In the previous game, The New Order, he was an unstoppable hero—right until he was stopped, at the end of the game, by a lone grenade. That game saw this relic of the past of both his own world and videogames, revived after 20 years in a coma, left behind for dead. But sequels do what sequels do, and BJ was rescued, if not salvaged. When The New Colossus starts, his body is still destroyed. The opening stage has you pushing BJ’s heavy body through the level in a wheelchair, shooting Nazi’s with one hand while the other is on the wheel. Stairs are inaccessible and when the wheelchair inevitably gets tipped over, BJ is helpless. For a significant portion of the game, you are stuck with 50 health, instead of the typical 100, in levels that feel like they were balanced for a character with 100. It’s frustrating. It feels like it shouldn’t be this hard. It’s the frustration of a perfect, white male body encountering something unfair that is just a typical day for anyone forced to live in this society with any other form of body.  Continue reading

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Notes on Titanfall 2

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1. Titanfall was very good. Considering it was made primarily by former Infinity Ward members, it very easily could’ve just been Call of Duty multiplayer but with giant robots. But it managed to be more than that. Respawn thought carefully about the game’s balance. They had to. The giant robots couldn’t just be an instant win. Counterintuitively, if the game was to be about how amazing these big robots were, there needed to be advantages to not being in a robot. The obvious way to deal with this was level design: doorways and building interiors that a titan can’t fit into. Each Titanfall map had a mixture of wide roads and open areas for the Titans and twisting corridors and rooftops for the nimble Pilots. Make it so the player has to leave the titan sometimes. Easy.

The less obvious approach: make not being in a titan feel really good. If the titans are giant, clunky, invincible machines, then the pilots have to be the opposite of that. This isn’t just the default Call of Duty first-person controller. You can auto-dash, wall-run, slide, double-jump. The repertoire of your character opens up Titanfall’s maps in exciting ways. When you are clomping around in your titan, pilots could be anywhere around you while you are stuck in your little area. Titanfall didn’t just make the robots feel good. It ensured the robots and the humans felt polemically different, each contrasting and accentuating the strengths of the other.  Continue reading

Notes on No Man’s Sky

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1. No Man’s Sky is a small videogame made by a tiny, indie studio that, like most small indie videogames, is clearly trying to achieve a very specific experience for a very specific audience. No Man’s Sky is a massive, triple-a videogame being released by Sony on a disc for a full sixty bucks that, like all triple-a games, has to please everyone who plays triple-a videogames. Both these statements are true, which, if nothing else, mostly highlights how categories like ‘indie’ are constructed more from a perceived sense of performed ‘indie-ness’ rather than any quantifiable factors. How you perceive No Man’s Sky is intricately tied up in whether you think it succeeds at being that particular thing for a particular audience, or whether you think it fails to be the next big triple-a open-world game for all gamers that it was set up to be (in part by marketing and in part by those gamers).  Continue reading

On Brutal Doom

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As a rule, I am generally skeptical of fan remakes. Often, the rhetoric around them can perpetuate the already problematic discourse around videogames that conflates ‘more’ with ‘better’. The kind of discourse that assumes if a game has more polygons or more gameplay or more features or more levels or more stuff then it must be better than a game with less stuff. This is the games-as-content-buckets approach mixed with a technological progressivism that sees game design on this linear trajectory of continual improvement where new games will always be better than old games. Fan remakes often fall into this discourse uncritically: what if Link to the Past came out on the WiiU? What if Super Mario Bros was made in the Unreal engine? It’s this general idea that games are continually held back by the technology we don’t have yet, and with better technology we can finally fix these games. Of course, this is also the source of the excitement behind Final Fantasy VII’s official remake: now, at last, we can see Midgar for what it really is.

But somehow Brutal Doom avoids this. A mod for the original Doom that adds kicking, mouse movement, iron sights, new lighting effects, and a whole range of other features, somehow Brutal Doom doesn’t feel like an attempt to make a ‘newer’ Doom. Instead, despite the addition of all this extra stuff, it feels like an amplification of a core Doom-ness. This is Doom made Doomier. Continue reading

On Firewatch, Gone Home, and the Oppressive Terror of Loneliness

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Spoilers for both.

On the first day of Firewatch, you are walking back to your tower after chasing down some irresponsible teens when a shadowy figure shines a torch in your eyes. You are in the middle of the Wyoming wilderness and no one is meant to be around, but now this man is looking right at you. Henry, your character, is startled by it, but Delilah, his workmate-cum-friend in another tower is nonplussed: it’s the wilderness, of course there are going to be some other people around. Sure, okay. But at the same time, the reason there might always be someone around is because, for the overwhelming majority of the time, there is definitely nobody around. That is why my reaction to the man was the same as Henry’s: I was startled. I was expecting, moment-to-moment, to be alone, to be that one human who happened to be in this particular bit of wilderness. Then suddenly there was movement. That was terrifying.

For most of Firewatch, you don’t see anyone. But the fact you did see someone that one time kept me constantly on edge as the game progressed. What if someone else just jumped out from behind a tree or walked down a distant path? “We can animate humans in this game,” that first reveal seemed to say to me. “We can do it again whenever we want.” That would be terrifying to see that movement. The absence of animals in this national park only amplifies that terror not of being alone but of potentially suddenly not being alone without any warning.

This is where I think Firewatch is most enticingly like Gone Home. There are easy comparisons to make between the two games: each is a walking game set in a semi-open world where you walk around and inspect objects and a story progresses. Each is a game about difficult personal relationships set in the late 20th Century. But these are easy comparisons to make. More interesting for me is how each game is about making you feel very, very alone, and then playing on your imagination to make that loneliness feel oppressive and terrifying, and then, finally, making you feel like an idiot for letting your imagination get so carried away. Continue reading

On The Beginner’s Guide

I didn’t spend too much time with Davey Wreden’s previous game, The Stanley Parable. I felt like I got it pretty quickly. I did, however, spend quite a lot of time watching students play it and listening to game scholars talk about it. While thematically I found it pretty to-the-point (all choices and agency in videogame play is an illusion), it was quite spectacularly put together. Just really beautiful and clever environment design.

What I couldn’t stand about The Stanley Parable was most of what was said about that game. I have an issue with analyses (especially academic analyses) of games whose themes are incredibly obvious. Suffice to say, I could live the rest of my life without seeing another conference presentation on what The Stanley Parable says about choice or what Papers, Please says about ethics or what This War of Mine says about war. It’s not that I think any of these games are bad, but more that they are games that I guess I don’t think require any thematic analysis. It’s pretty obvious what they are doing! Analysing how they do these things is still worthy (the difficulty of desk space in Papers, Please, for instance) but simply pointing out that The Stanley Parable is about choice just seems… boring and easy. To stress: this isn’t a fault of the games themselves.

I would rather analyse games that aren’t so obviously about a specific thing. Perhaps this is why I end up writing more about blockbuster titles than indie or amateur titles despite the latter two almost always doing something far more interesting. Writing a critical analysis of a blockbuster title is more difficult and thus (for me, anyway) more rewarding.

So on the one hand, writing about Wreden’s second game, The Beginner’s Guide, seems like a pointless thing to do as the game pretty explicitly tells you what it is about. The Beginner’s Guide is games criticism so to analyse it would almost be an excruciatingly meta exercise. My three favourite essays on the game so far (Cameron Kunzelman, Laura Hudson, Cara Ellison) all kind of circle around this challenge in different ways (and each has far more interesting things to say about the game than I do). It is an incredibly meaty game for a game critic to latch onto, but I’m also wary that perhaps that is because it is just too obvious what it is doing and, thus, any further analysis might not even be necessary. Continue reading

On Super Mario Maker

I didn’t grow up with Super Mario. My experience of Mario games is for the most part fragmented and third-hand. A friend owned a copy of Super Mario All Stars so I would see the first few stages of each Mario over and over again every time I visited. In high school, when I was getting into emulators, I would load up the same games, play for five minutes sitting stiff-backed at a keyboard, then never play again. In the last couple of years, I played both Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World to completion on my WiiU and felt like I finally understood why these games were significant beyond the fact that many of my peers played them as a child.

And despite my frustration with the narrowness of videogames’ accepted canon (“Oh wow you’ve never played Super Mario World before??”), these are important games. They’re elegant, clever, well designed, imaginative. They’re the kind of games that if I played them in the late 80s or early 90s I would have been absolutely captured by their charm and the way they suggest through hidden paths and invisible blocks the existence of countless mysteries to discover.

Most crucially is the movement. The “sticky friction” of Mario’s inertia that makes momentum so crucial and movement constantly fluctuating between frustrating and fluid. While other platformers see movement as just the baseline on which ‘real’ interactions are developed, the Mario games understand that movement itself (of fingers, of avatars) forms the base pleasure of videogame play.

It’s for this reason alone that Super Mario Maker works as well as it does. Outsourcing level design to players was always going to result in an overwhelmingly number of mediocre levels. But that’s okay, because each and every level give you a new environment to move Mario through and a constantly new environment to explore. Movement and exploration have kept Mario fresh for thirty years now, and Super Mario Maker taps into this. Continue reading