The superpower of the protagonist of most challenge-oriented videogames is time travel. Through the loops of failure and dressage that conventional videogame design depends on, the player fails at a task again and again until they have memorised how to proceed through the events that, on the current playthough, have not actually happened yet. This might be a muscle memory, ingraining in your hands the exact rhythm of movements required for a Rock Band track or a Super Meat Boy level. Or it might be a more traditional memory of remembering placements and patterns: the trap door full of monsters you could not have predicted in Doom kills you once and then, on the next attempt, you’re ready for it. Instead of dying you get a glimpse at what is about to happen. You remember what hasn’t happened yet.
The analogy has been made by various critics in the past (I think Janet Murray might have been the earliest) that the videogame player is not unlike Bill Murray’s character in Groundhogs Day, repeating the same system over and over again: at times taking it seriously, at times playing with the system, at times bored and frustrated by it. The more recent Edge of Tomorrow provides a similar conceit, but is I think more accurate of how videogames train players, killing Tom Cruise over and over again on the battlefield until he makes the exact right movements to get through it alive—exact movements he can only make with the memories possessed from the previous attempts. Edge of Tomorrow is how videogames work to train their players; Groundhog Day is more the wide range of emotions that players go through while existing in such a temporal spiral. Continue reading
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
I’ve played some really fascinating games lately and have wanted to write about them, but have not had the time to do so.Instead of a post on each game (which each truly deserves), here are some quick and messy thoughts I’ve been having about three games. Continue reading
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
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
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
(I have avoided explicit spoilers through this essay, but I do mention moments from within the game and suggest themes and topics that emerge during play. If you are yet to play the game and would prefer to go in blind so that every little thing is a surprise, you probably shouldn’t read this.)
There is no denying it: the second of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain’s two chapters is an unfinished mess. The intent was clearly that after chapter one concludes what has until that point been the main plot (while leaving various other threads open), chapter two was intended to feel like a return to normality for Big Boss and his Diamond Dogs private military company. The intent was clearly to feel not like a story was progressing but like everyday life was just going on while this or that plot thread resolves itself. In reality, though, the progression of this second chapter is inconsistent and unsatisfactory. Majority of the missions are not new but repeats of earlier missions with harsher conditions; they feel like the kind of tasks you would unlock post-completion, which was perhaps the point. Plot progresses with occasional cutscenes rarely connected to any particular mission: you’ve played for long enough to see the next story bit. These story bits do not conclude, however, as the final mission that would conclude them never made it into the game. The ending we do get is one I found satisfying, but it has no connection to anything the player is doing at the time. It has no connection to anything the player has done at all, really, since the game’s prologue. Everything the player does in the game is ultimately pointless, a distraction. But, then again, perhaps that was the point.
From the video that shows what would have happened in that final, abandoned mission, it seems Hideo Kojima’s ambitions got ahead of him. It would have required a massive new area to be created on top the game’s existing two huge environments and the immaculately detailed hospital of the prologue. It’s through chapter two—both what is present and what is absent—that the tensions between Kojima and Konami that ultimately led to Kojima leaving the company can be seen most clearly. Kojima wanted to make his epic bigger and bigger to an absurd and (from a capitalist perspective) irrational scale. Kojima wanted more time and money for a whole third chapter, if rumours are to be believed; Konami wanted this game to just hurry up and ship already. I can’t really be angry at either party for this.
Ultimately, I find The Phantom Pain’s unfinished state charming. This does not feel like a lazy sort of unfinished but an overly-ambitious sort of unfinished. It feels like a modern day equivalent of one of those huge cathedrals the architect was never really going to finish in their lifetime. I want to make comparisons to Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Hugo’s Les Misérables or Wyler’s Ben Hur. It’s a work that impresses through its sheer, intimidating size. By this I don’t just mean how big the map is (but this as well) or how many dozens of hours it takes to see the story through (but this as well). There is an audacious attention to detail in every single moment of The Phantom Pain that marks a confidently inefficient use of a production budget. I think this tweet of Matthew Yaeger about Quiet’s armpit and these tweets by Robert Yang about animations only appearing once in the game are great examples of this. Phantom Pain is wasteful in its enthusiasm, its inefficiency. It’s a heightened level of enthusiasm for itself that I can’t help but find infectious. The game is an incomplete mess, there is no denying it; but it is the very clear ambition that I find truly exciting. Continue reading