Character Study – Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

Featured image courtesy of usgamer.net

In Uncharted 4, the most telling character moments are unspoken. Bonds forged over years create preternatural connections more chiseled than Nathan Drake’s heroic chin. These are the stories of people who feed off each other’s lives, people who’ve grown together, lost together, laughed together. The gamut of emotions is represented in their psyches, and by extension, in their expressions. For some time, the Uncharted series has been compared to the most bombastic Hollywood franchises of today. It’s the closest things video games have to a Marvel blockbuster, complete with the banter and third-act problem impeding storytelling through frequent combat sequences. Uncharted 4 continues that sort of bluster, spitting out bombast like a late night fast food joint. However, this final arc illuminates the error in that theater comparison, instead showcasing that these characters, and their intertwined digital lives, play out far more like a television show. So much so, that by the end, they create an emotion what only the finest shows can elicit: We never want to leave.

There is a finite amount of famous, antiquated buried treasure in the world. By this fourth entry, one would think Nathan Drake has discovered most of it. However, even as he lays with his most treasured find, his wife Elena, he falls into another source of adventure. This time, it comes from his long-lost brother, Samuel, who Nathan presumed dead after a failed getaway from a mission in a Panamanian prison many years ago. Startled, Nathan discovers that Samuel must collect the buried treasure they were seeking back then, that of the famed Pirate Henry Avery, and return it to a crime kingpin to whom Sam owes his life.

From there, the adventure ensues, as Nathan leaves his domesticated life with Elena, lying to her in the process. It’s quite apparent that Nathan is dealing with strife while adapting to his spacious New York pad and The Wire Season 2 dock working occupation. He’s a maritime trash collector, so the Hero’s call to adventure rings in his ears like an angelic hymn. The lie to Elena is where Uncharted begins its affecting emotional heft, the kind garnered by years of growing closer with an audience. The fib isn’t that of a disgruntled treasure hunter we just met, it’s an admission of his mistrust with a woman we’ve seen Nathan struggle to commit to over three entries. Drake is an impulsive man, and the years we’ve spent with him during this journey makes this lie even more painful. The happy ending remains elusive for Nathan. Perhaps he just needs this one final chase, and then he’ll be happy.

This is the Don Draper syndrome. A man constantly searching for the next thing, hoping it will finally provide the happiness he so desires. For Don, that is generally women, and sometimes advertisements. For Nathan, it’s treasure, and previously women. It’s an addiction, and one we see gradually transform to actualization over the period of the show. Don perpetually pines for the kind of meaningful relationship that validates his life in the wake of an orphaned, distant upbringing. Nathan’s taken a similarly nomadic approach to life, finally settling down after handling the pursuits he believed necessary to bring him happiness. Don believed he had it with Megan, only to discover her youth and vigor didn’t jive with his melancholy middle-aged manhood. He abandoned it, finding peace within himself after stripping away those vanities and returning to his innate sense of self. Nathan has happiness in Elena, but it’s come at the cost of suppressing his adventurous affinity. Drake’s tribulations played out in our lives, his history bared on our screens over the course of four games. Here, it comes home to roost. We can sympathize with him because we know the horrors he’s faced, we’ve lived through it with them both. So to see their genuine affection outshine turbulence feels like a victory in the same way we root for on-screen couples to make it work.

Image courtesy of Expert Reviews

Image courtesy of Expert Reviews

Nathan and Elena are characters tailor-made for ‘shipping. Their flirtatious chemistry was obvious from the start, and this entry only heightens the fact fanboys were right this time around. These two belong together. Drake doesn’t often linger on the women of his past, in fact the love triangle spawned by the second title was quickly whisked under the bed to re-focus on Nathan and Elena’s relationship. Just as the now blip of Karen and Jim in The Office season three was a necessary evil to make Jim realize he truly loved Pam, Nathan’s dalliance helped cement that he belonged with Elena.

These sort of emotional ties are what take Uncharted to storytelling strata other games rarely sniff. It understands the minimal stakes involved with the actual gameplay. The whole game is a series of repeating danger room scenarios. There’s no real investment needed, because there’s no chance these characters are really going to die. Even when a misstep caroms Nathan to his death at the steep, frothy waves below, Naughty Dog’s pristine tech has practically already respawned the player, snuffing out even the brief holler of anguish from companions at Drake’s alternative fate mere seconds ago.

They understand the real stakes lie in the emotional fates of these characters. How they grow together, who they end up with, whether Sully will ever realize those cigars are the greatest danger he’s faced? These are the mundane but more memorable fates resonating with players. Audiences have a deep investment in where a show’s characters end up. How they leave the screen in those final moments, who they end up with, what their last line is. Character beats that seem trivial take on grandiose meaning when recognizing they’ve compounded over literal years of people’s lives. One need only look at the outrage over How I Met Your Mother’s finale to see how affecting a finale can be.

This sort of minutiae speaks to us on a humanistic level because it is us. This reflective quality is precisely why NBC just made a show with almost that exact name, “This is us”. Seeing ourselves in characters takes someone from a flattened plot device to a rounded glimpse at realism. Hinting at the everyday deficiencies one can face in their own life, amidst the turmoil of continual conflict, is why they feel so resonant.When Elena and Nathan so briefly start to spat before pausing it to focus on the mission at hand, the dizzying distress of anyone’s fraught relationship moments likely come back to them. Crafting artifice that lifelike is supremely difficult, that’s why television shows prepare their groundwork for years of a show’s characters and their stories to slowly unspool. Naughty Dog stumbled into that precise scenario, which is why its characters were never truly in danger.

So few games deal with the aging of a character, allowing players to spend enough time with someone that they see those minute shifts in their lives and motivations. More often than not, alterations come as the result of a bombastic event: a death, a murder, a kidnapping, blackmailing. Such are the tropes of many a game, and while Uncharted uses grandiose motivations as justification for its similarly over-the-top set pieces, it deftly understands that its character moments don’t need those sort of titanic shifts. Indeed, the game’s most powerful interactions are generally not the result of a bombastic explosion or motorcycle chase, but caused by simple lies or a hurtful remark. Turns out, those cause far more pain to Drake than the barrage of bullets peppering his ripped frame.

Image courtesy of TechKee

Image courtesy of TechKee

Lies often ripple across seasons of a show, perversely sitting as a Chekhov’s gun prepared to go off. Walter White’s numerous falsities provided a clear illustration of the disastrous aftereffects of that choice. Inside Uncharted 4, there’s an alternate game where the player follows Sam’s fib. His story begins with his false motivations, and you play through the entire ordeal gingerly stepping over the literal and figurative bombshells littering your path. Similarly, the mistrust Nathan shows for Elena belies the relationship we’re privy to in the beginning of this game. These are also the necessities of long-running series. Imbuing drama, recalling tensions buried deep under seasons of a show or new game entries. This collective history allows one to uproot these problems, creating the type of emotional distress only caused by time. Naughty Dog calls upon this approach as the impetus for Nathan’s initial lie. After all, most show’s happy endings are ephemeral. We rarely show what happens after the “just married” convertible drives away.

In Uncharted and television’s case though, these series stroll on. They don’t fade to black, leaving people with a quaint smile. They poke and prod at character’s motivations, leaving players with an opportunity to see how their own perceptions of these characters change as they themselves age. Seeing oneself in the jet-setting, thrill-seeker early game’s Nathan Drake is unlikely, but grappling with the sedentary lifestyle of his adulthood certainly is. That’s the pleasure provided by time, the opportunity to shift how people connect with characters long past their design doc.

Uncharted 4 provides a satisfying coda, giving people one final chance to chew on potential parental issues. The series transformed, not just in terms of gameplay and environmental innovation, but in how its characters traversed the shifting motivations of young adulthood to settling into a career. These universal themes resonated over nine years of people’s existence, consistently reminding people of the fluctuations in their own lives. That is the most powerful part of television, the way it ingratiates itself into one’s life over years. It imbues characters with enough life that to part with them is as painful as saying goodbye to a good friend. No longer just creations, their lifeline matches up with a specific sections of your own.

These aren’t wireframes anymore. Their departure spawns tears. Reminiscing about their own journeys inevitably reminds you of your own. Genuine emotional entanglement is a rare feat, reserved for only the most personally affecting media. Just as shutting off the television after a finale does not sever your tie to a show, ejecting this disc did little to dissuade Uncharted from dancing around my mind.

Advertisements

Nintendo and their Half-Measures with DLC

Nintendo whipped up a fanboy fervor with the announcement that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild would be receiving downloadable content. In a vacuum, no one would bat an eye at such a remark. DLC is an industry standard. Yet because it was Nintendo, it seemed to incite more fervor than a Gobbo who hasn’t gotten a steam bath in some time.

Before the licorice red color left people’s faces, they examined the fine print from Nintendo’s release that stated the two downloadable content packs they would be releasing were only available as a single, standalone purchase of $19.99. Ignoring for a second the lunacy of that type of blatant disregard for modern consumerism, the content itself feels more suspect than drinking milk left in your bag for a hefty stretch of a journey.

The first content pack will include a “hard mode” and a Nintendo Switch shirt that Link could wear. The second provides additional content to the world. The dichotomy between the two feels indicative of Nintendo’s strides as a company struggling to adjust to the modern gaming landscape. For a company so willing to leap forward with expensive full-measures on the hardware side, they’re just as prone to piddly half-measures with everything else.

Motion controls. Game while someone’s watching television. Game after a sweaty pick-up match in the park. Each Nintendo hardware iteration the last three generations has taken a firm zag while Microsoft and Sony comfortably zigged. They’re an oddity, their non-conformity and beloved franchises making them comfortably beloved by an ardent group of supporters.

Even with these peculiar forays into hardware whose fundamental logline isn’t just “it plays games,” it’s “here’s a gimmick, it plays games,” Nintendo’s risk-taking on the hardware sign feels entirely at odds with the core software experience they’re delivering. From their inability to conform to modern online infrastructure to slowly rolling out downloadable content with an aesthetic prize merely asking for horse armor comparisons, Nintendo is throwing the pot of spaghetti at the wall and pouring the sauce on as it drips down the linoleum walls.

Circling back to the outrage, what’s so peculiar about the way Nintendo approaches projects like Zelda is that there are clear templates to follow. Best practices have been established. DLC is a decade old concept, so why not harvest from lessons already learned.

What’s most interesting about Nintendo’s half-measured approach to supplementing their core entries is that they were probably reticent for the exact reason this Zelda game elicited: outrage. The simple fact change was coming sprouted an outpour of anger, a reaction that may only feed into Nintendo’s hesitance to bring their games into the 21st Century.

Even further, they happen to have the franchise that’s perhaps the most ideal fit for DLC imaginable: Mario. The Super Mario Maker was a smashing success for them despite some of the peculiarly stringent nature with which they controlled player content. The fact remains, if Nintendo simply launched a 2D Mario or 3D Mario game at launch, and used that as a platform to continually release new level packs over the game’s existence, that would be the most logical use of DLC for the entire organization. Even if players cried wolf at the outset, the fan fervor for their franchises has proven time and again they’ll shell out money for consoles to ensure they can play their exclusives. The same principle is at play with Mario, and if they charged a five dollar subscription fee per month for new level packs, you would have people playing that game continually throughout the console’s lifecycle.

Nintendo seems to constantly find new ways to divert itself from the pack and roll out content in counter intuitive ways. Their left brain is cracking moonshots while the right just upgraded from dial-up. If they hope to find their way back into the scrum, they’d be wise to get the scope of their hardware and software goals working in consort.

Dead Weight – Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor

They await your embrace. Staring idly into the distance, their hands dawdle at the menial task before them. Crouching low like a cat about to pounce, you eye your target, pupils dilating in anticipation. Trepidation conflates with excitement, and your emotions jitter as if you’re undergoing a state change. Oh so carefully, you pitter patter forward on the lightest of steps, your target merely breaths away. And just like that, you lurch forward, snagging them tightly in your arms before planting a loving kiss on their neck. This is Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor’s stealth tutorial, teaching players the techniques as they approach their soon-to-be deceased wife with a heartwarming bouquet. Imprinting this memory on the player at such an early stage feels trivial, it’s a novel inversion of the typical tutorial. The moment lingers though. Like a gas station burger at the start of a road trip, it sits in your stomach, a constant sense of dissatisfaction at odds with the sense of joy you feel on the road. It permeated the experience, feeling like an albatross around the neck of a game that worked best when it embraced the manic over the mainline.

After stealth is used to kiss your slaughtered spouse, it is forever after used for covert orc obliteration.

Shadow of Mordor fancies itself a revenge tale, one where a cardboard cut-out of Aragorn, named Talion, traipses through Middle Earth. His journey is predicated on avenging the death of his wife and son, and he’s returned from Purgatory by a ghastly ghost-elf spirit named Celebrimbor, who’s equally trapped in this hellish reality and inhabits Talion’s body. Orcs have overrun the land, and it’s his job to stop them.

One of the first impressions of Mordor is how limited the world feels the instant you step on the ground. It’s a blase blanket of dullness the size of a Wal-Mart Parking lot, just expansive enough that getting to your car feels like a drag, but close enough that you can still spot your destination in the distance. This has been one of my major issues with any expanded Lord of the Rings stories in general, the world doesn’t feel like it has any extra room to breathe. Everything still seems to revolve around the central Tolkien novels, and while it’s prudent to keep a universe from spiraling into incomprehensible canonical forays, this world feels like its glass walls have turned to diamond in the interim.

Courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Meanwhile, Talion spends much of his time trying to find out the history of the ghost-Elf named Celebrimbor that co-habitates his body. Unsurprisingly, that story also winds up tying back to the central LOTR tale surrounding Sauron and the One ring. All the while, Talion rarely mentions his family, but his lone connection to his past life comes in a happenstance stumbling upon an ex-compatriot of his who went rogue. They have little rapport, and their embattled history feels like an issue that would fall by the wayside when the entire human race is crumbling around them. Ancillary story issues stack like Jenga blocks covered in petroleum jelly, and they come to a head with the introduction of Gollum as another key cog in the story’s central mystery. The presence of such overt canonical tethers feel like stuffy safeguards, their insertion only muddling the simple tale Monolith is trying to tell. The overwhelming collection of these mainstream ties can smother a title that actually found a way for players to create their own revenge tales on a scale far grander than Talion or Celebrimbor’s pursuit of Sauron.

Monolith’s Nemesis sytem allows players to manipulate the orcs in this world by targeting specific ones, slaying them, conquering them and eventually commanding them. As the player defeats those orcs, new ones step up to take their place. The opposite works as well, as any orc who defeats the player increases in power, improving their place in the orc hierarchy. What makes it more unique is its sincere lack of self-seriousness. Orcs will readily comment on the fact that they recall slaying your puny human meatbag body before, and how they’re prepared to strip your dignity even further. Some orcs also return from the dead, sporting gnarly scars and sometimes bags over their head to cover their grotesque appearance. Who knew they were so vain?

But Mordor has an Orc problem, and they’re prone to suffocating the player at points. Small skirmishes balloon to widespread battles within minutes, as any new Orc passerbys join the scrum like Urukhai to a freshly slaughtered goblin. Those types of amassing battles may bludgeon home the bleakness of one’s situation, but it can make missions that require the pinpoint assassination of one particular orc nearly impossible. Even if you manage to take down the legion surrounding him, don’t worry, there’s another patrol of 20 orcs just waiting to take their place. These belt-loosening battles have a shelf life, and after the twelfth time of trying to take down Goober the Monstrous, I pined for the simplistic counter-immediate kill of Assassin’s Creed days.

Courtesy of Amazon

Courtesy of Amazon

Creed is a useful comparison in this sense, since the exploration and side missions feel like the most enjoyable components of this Mordorian Madness. Shadow of Mordor borrows heavily from other games, as is the case with most open-world grab-bag games nowadays, but they make no bones with the comparisons, even using tower scaling as the impetus for opening more of the map. They stop just short of having Talion dive off these structures making an eagle sound, although his graceful falls look eerily similar. What they do instead is take out any of the artificial craft that’s grafted into Creed. Talion doesn’t linger seeking out the next small crevice to place his hand, he flies up flat walls like it’s nothing, and Monolith’s decision to ensure scaling and movement would be a superhuman strength rather than a realistic portrayal works well when fleeing or maneuvering around Orc strongholds. These additions bleed right into some of the side challenges that task players with performing a particular number of kills with a weapon to earn upgrade points. The carnival game nature of them provide a refreshing break from the gray seriousness of the story, and steer players directly into the skid of this game’s most pleasurable mechanics, stealth, exploration and the bow. Oh and that bow, with its willingness in slow-motion mode to allow for instant kills. It truly is the best part of Shadow of Mordor.

Monolith’s novel nemesis system provides a deep, system-based revenge tale for those seeking a player-based emergent storytelling more satisfying than the one they penned, but it’s impossible to escape the trappings of a world whose only fleshed out new character is an orc named Ratbag who’s hell-bent on revenge. Shadow of Mordor weaponizes other open-world game systems with an ease of maneuverability welcomed in this hostile territory, but fails to engage the player beyond that surface level excitement. That stealth kiss of your wife in the beginning feels like a misnomer the more you play, as any level of intimacy with anyone in this world is shredded to pieces. If I could’ve just once, snuck up on old Ratbag and planted one slobbery kiss on those seaweed, emaciated cheeks, Shadow of Mordor would’ve at least made me feel something.

Courtesy of TechZwn

Purposeful Escapism and the Untapped Power of Experiential Video Games

Video games are often described as escapism. Artificial explorations designed to transport people from the occasional wreckage of reality. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States, pegging games as a welcome respite from staring into a political explosion whose scale made nukes blush is warranted. A cranium in the dirt mentality is a rational response. Still, it seems like there’s a disconnect between the concept of escapism and tapping into the power of interactivity. Interaction shapes experiences faster than a terraformer in a sci-fi novel. So why doesn’t that translate nearly enough to video games? Why do so many games shy away from confronting the present, from staring into our reality and translating that to audiences who would benefit from learning about the experiences of underrepresented groups. There is a prime opportunity in the medium to connect people, to help people shed their preconceived notions and better understand the reality of situations far outside their comfort zone. Where can we look?

Cart Life. Depression Quest. 1979 Revolution: Black Friday. That Dragon, Cancer. Dys4ia. Gone Home. Where simulation meets reality, we find an intersection of interactivity and foreign situations for much of the populous. Ascertaining artistic intent is like riding a bike on an ice rink, but it seems reasonable to propose some level of experiential expectations within each of these titles. Beyond educating others, when people see themselves in them it’s a powerful experience, something that feels wholly new to a medium whose comfort zone is more outer-spacial conflict than social unrest.

For an industry whose audience was reflected heroically onscreen for decades with chiseled bros saving the galaxy, this is a welcome change. That’s not worth re-hashing though. What’s worth delving into is whether these transporting experiences can have a chance to change people’s perspective who have no connection to the story onscreen. The opportunity to make a game about a Mexican immigrant fearing for their deportation or an African-American living in a predominantly white town are chances that I’m hopeful developers will tackle in ensuing years. In a post-GamerGate, President Trump world, creating interactive experiences rooted in social justice ideals feels more important than ever.

There’s a huge swath of this country that lives inside a bubble, wholly oblivious to the monstrous and minuscule injustices that happen everyday. I’ll fully admit I’ve lived inside that bubble too long. I grew up in a town where getting down to a 96% white community felt like progress. I went to a college that’s predominantly white, with a now-growing vocal component of minorities speaking out about changing the campus climate. Popping that bubble in one’s own reality is a necessity. Some people, like myself, probably don’t even really realize how sheltered they are. That’s on me to recognize that reality. But for countless others, they won’t recognize it. What could provide a transition, a way for people to recognize a modicum of the foreign experiences that should be common knowledge in this country?

Image courtesy of gamechurch.com

Image courtesy of gamechurch.com

Video games may not be the answer, but they could be part of the solution. Escapism for escapism’s sake is a perfectly rational activity. There needs to be more opportunities for purposeful, experiential escapism though. If that seems paradoxical upon first glance, it’s probably because it isn’t very prevalent. The hope is that developers will start to implement those opportunities more in games. Imagining them being mainstream releases feels more improbable than a friendly blast-ended skrewt, but percolating the industry with even more of them in the coming years would be a welcome sign.

Just as Minecraft permeated STEM education in schools, why can’t immersive, unexplored social experiences occupy a similar space? Teachers show historical films all the time in an attempt to give students a rough approximation of a particular period. In today’s climate, it seems like modern experiences could be shared with students via an interactive medium. Education skews historical rather than current, potentially presuming kids are present enough to dive into the culture around them if they so choose. If most kids are like me though, they probably won’t. They’ll remain blind to it, too preoccupied with whether the local Subway is open past 9 (it wasn’t).

Making a video game title set in “the present” is a tricky wicket. Long development cycles can make pegging a modern vibe early on feel outdated by the time it releases. The cultures and experiences can still be rooted in modern tensions and tenor though, and they should still illustrate the poignant point developers are trying to get across. Additionally, historical fiction like 1979 Revolution: Black Friday are just as important in filling in experiential gaps for the majority of gamers, let alone society. Sometimes though, historical works can feel like a McDonald’s burger. Instantly gut-stuffing despite its creation stemming from a distant past, but its effect wears off within a couple hours. It starts to fade from memory (and my stomach), as history is wont to do.

What we need is an innovative gastropub, sporting recipes and meals that take those distant classics, learn from them, and adapt them into something new with modern cooking techniques. Even if they’re bite size, the amount of flavor, and culture packed into the tiniest of bites can be overwhelming and satisfying in ways people never considered before. Even the most fleeting indie game can pack a walloping emotional and educational heft.

Image courtesy of gonehome.game

Image courtesy of gonehome.game

It doesn’t need to be hyper-realized. David Cage takes normalized situations and imbues them with stilted writing that does nothing to illuminate messages we haven’t seen a million times over. Not to mention the lack of diversity in his games. What’s more relatable than that time a bunch of white folks randomly bump into each other’s lives by way of a portly, white serial killer. Same with GTA, whose extreme satire feels overwrought. Envisioning their next entry, after an election that already seemed like satire, is giving me ulcers.

There’s an opportunity for games to connect people in a way no other medium can. Virtual Reality is used for oddities at the moment, but imagine it used to transmit the experiences of less-privileged people. Imagine something akin to Cart Life in virtual reality. These games may best be created as short experiences, tight narratives that make their point and get out. Cart Life was already emotionally exhausting enough. That ignores some of the point though, that these experiences people may only be glimpsing aren’t just a flash in the pan. These are things that some people experience over their entire lives. Maybe a game will attempt that level of messaging, but it may be best to have players extrapolate that out themselves from the glimpse a game provides. I’ll never pretend to know what it’s like to be anything other than a white male, but I think games are primed to help plug an acute educational gap.


In a post-GamerGate, President Trump world, creating interactive experiences rooted in social justice ideals feels more important than ever.


Games rooted in that level of experiential education represent an idea of where games could take people in the ensuing years. It’s a place where a medium known for unplugging people from reality can start to plug people into the reality of our situation. What’s already been made can provide guideposts for the future. If someone’s more comfortable couching their experience in a fairy tale, blocky characters, or a cheesy James Patterson mystery, that’s great. Expressing yourself to an audience unfamiliar with your own experiences is the primary objective here. Leave the sidequests for another time. But if willing, utilize modernity to its greatest extent. Capture your mood, the prevailing culture around the country, your own perceptions of it, your friend’s perspective, and channel it directly into something that reflects the realities of the time.

Unknown experiences are everywhere, the product of people’s personal bubbles turning opaque rather than translucent. Bridging that gap is a necessity, and something a collective medium like video games can assist. Even if it feels like no one will play your game, particularly the people that may need to, don’t fret. Express. Send it to me, you’ll at least have one person who feels enlightened and satisfied by experiencing a new perspective.

Purposeful, experiential escapism still feels sparse, but it has the opportunity to become stitching for a country whose stuffing is sticking out. Games can be trivial, but they can also be meaningful. The latter feels more integral than ever.

Skeletal Applications: Osteotic Bypass and the Job Hunt

Hunting for a job is a monotonous, tiresome, rejecting experience. For some it comes easy, for others, there are months of toil with nothing to show for their countless cover letters and reliable resume. Currently embroiled in a job hunt, the listlessness of the entire scenario has been eye-opening. I stumbled upon a quirky skeletal manipulation puzzle game called Osteotic Bypass and it felt like a proper allegory for the job hunt.

Before you lies a bare skeleton, stripped of any personality or discernible trait. You can manipulate it however you please, imbuing at least some sense of identity into the skeletal creature. In the distance lies a simple shape carved into a wall. The goal is to make the skeleton into the proper perverse configuration and send it out to be judged by the obstacle before it.

osteotic-3

As each shape in the wall changes, you’ll have to manipulate the skeleton just enough to fit what they’re looking for. Finding the proper mix of contorted hands and feet is necessary, otherwise expect to get stonewalled from the outset. Search and Screen is there for a reason, this wall doesn’t have time to just ignore its everyday job.

Should you emerge from the other side with some semblance of your skeleton, there’s a swell of pride. A short sense of gratification before the game judges you upon your ability. 59% of you made it through? No job for you! Hey, we really appreciated your 75% completion, but we’re going in another direction with someone who had 82% completion. We wish you the best of luck on the next level.

osteotic-2

Even the peculiar bugs in the game are fitting. Contort yourself too destructively, and the skeleton shatters into pieces. They can tell when you’re trying too hard. Float the skeleton too high above the ground for a hole near the floor, and you’ll fall into the white ethereal ground disappearing into nothingness. There’s a reason it says Master’s degree preferred on there. Don’t expect a response when you’re reaching that far.

It’s a crushing experience, seeing the skeleton shatter into pieces with continued rejection on a particular level. Not to mention trying it over and over, typing the same skill sets you’ve honed repeatedly is akin to tipping the elbow at a 90 degree angle. The controls are wonky, difficult to get a hang of and encompassing too many limbs. It affords a level of extensive control, but sometimes it would just be easier if you just knew someone who could help you solve it. Oh well, the toil is part of the experience. Eventually there’s satisfaction.

I didn’t reach the end of the game.

Image courtesy of comicbooknews.com

Bombast without beauty: Video game advertisements are overdue for maturation

Video game commercials have a long history of being trash. That trashness was buoyed by the prevalence of a “macho/just for boys” perception that was wholly incorrect, yet still egregiously lingers over their adverts like a Sunday morning hangover stench. This outdated machismo is the root of many large scale game releases creating atrocious television commercials. The other lies in the difficulty of marketing a product that relies on interaction rather than passivity, forcing them to get across how players will actually play this thing they just made. Moreover, few video game trailers encapsulate a game’s tone, and some even eschew the game’s actual interactions to portray a reality rooted in marketing demographics rather than developer intent. These claims are not true of all game trailers. But it is true of many. The latest Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare commercial is firmly the latter after watching it blasted onto my television with the grace of a nuclear explosion.

In it, a man (because men play COD, DUH), is glued to his phone as he traverses a city. Inundated with a glut of communication channels on his phone, city streets and even 90’s era televisions on electronic store windows, every newscast and headline highlights the despair of “the worst year”. Mock headlines like “Europe leaves E.U.”, “Canada builds a wall” and “a moderator punched a presidential candidate in the face” pummel this man’s psyche in a nod to some of 2016’s primary political discussion points. His response is blunt, “Screw it, let’s go to space.” Space is the setting for Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. He zooms into space within a fighter jet that picks him up in the middle of the street. It is a silly commercial. Danny McBride is in it. Michael Phelps pretends to flap his arms like before a swim race, except this time his hands clasp firearms. Activision has produced this same tonal commercial for several years now in advance of their Call of Duty release. A live-action short featuring several movie stars. It’s a credit to its permanence within our culture that it warrants such a treatment. COD is the Marvel Movie franchise.

Its faux outrage at lampooned articles rooted in reality feels unsurprisingly, out of touch. Not to mention the fact these real issues are actually affecting people. Escapism has been video game’s calling card for ages, this is no exception. There’s a common dissonance with this scenario though. The last straw for this man before he rockets into the stratosphere is a female newscaster describing, “a moderator punching a presidential candidate in the face.” He leaves one world of political strife and violence to enter an entirely other world consumed by more grandiose, actual violence. Any chance Infinite Warfare had of wanting to present some sort of compelling yarn, never the series strong suit, exploded in that instant.

worst-year-ever

Image courtesy of Youtube.com

This is nothing new for video game commercials. Pandering to the lowest common denominator is a frequent occurrence. Watch Dogs 2 recently unveiled its launch commercial too. It represents a”mixed presentation” approach, one that complements CGI sequences with portions of the game in action. Hacking is a toy in this world, and they treat it as such. No longer some way to change the world, this trailer illustrates the “fun” you can have, throwing steel into buildings and electrocuting a group of baddies before showering them with a grenade launcher. The opening lines literally read like back of the box quotes. “I can fly, see through walls.” At least the marketing copy can be recycled elsewhere!

Any chance of permeating some prevailing tone is shattered immediately, replaced instead by the perceived necessity to describe a game entirely by the player’s interactions with the world. In many ways, that’s a pretty incredible level of transparency this medium has. It’s asinine that it’s necessary in many ways, but rather unprecedented in other mediums. Film trailers almost always embody the movie’s tone, but people have little to no idea if the plot bears out as described in the trailer. Still, even the worst film trailer usually captures some level of intrigue whether through a sense of mystery, evocative shots or striking an emotional tenor.

The conclusions for both film and game trailers are the same: a dichotomous decision. Yes or no. I’ll see that or I won’t. I’ll play that or nah. Game trailers on a large scale though rarely, if ever, imbibe tonal expression as movie trailers do. Indeed, it’s rather funny that the gaming industry’s loudest, most bombastic releases come in the winter, precisely when the film industry starts to release its “serious films” deemed Oscar contenders. I’m sure this contrast isn’t lost on arbiters of either medium.


Indeed, it’s rather funny that the gaming industry’s loudest, most bombastic releases come in the winter, precisely when the film industry starts to release its “serious films”…


Weighing the value of showcasing a player’s explosive arsenal versus imbuing a trailer with how interplanetary combat may have shaped this game world is a delicate balancing act. These disparate goals are part of why games release separate TV commercials from the glut of lengthy trailers and developer diaries for fans online. It’s savvy, but it shouldn’t let games off the hook for their sloppy mainstream portrayals. Part of the issue is that plenty of titles haven’t even decided the message they intend to send beyond their core loop, which is basically all they rely on in the marketing. Infinite Warfare is the umpteenth entry in the Call of Duty Series. The only message they have at this point beyond its usual gunplay is “it’s in space!” I guess that trailer did the trick in that respect. The core audience is mobilized; if it says Call of Duty, they’ll buy it. They could’ve called it “Call of Duty: In Space!” and it would’ve sold just as many copies. Hey, it worked for Power Rangers.

Look back at this Call of Duty: Modern Warfare trailer. It’s an incomprehensible mess, but in many ways that was a perfect reflection of that title. The story felt poorly cobbled together. The experience was a series of military vignettes punctuated by unsettling moments. Concluding with a foreign insurrectionist shooting you in the head is dumb. That’s a dumb way to say, “we’re serious.” But at least the thing revels in its chaotic tone. Not enough games encapsulate that in their commercials. Even when they do, they can get bogged down in trying to show the sheer breadth of the game that they fall apart into a muddled mess of nothingness. That COD trailer did that. Watch Dogs 2 fell prey to that. Continuing to produce such drivel will always hold the industry back, particularly from a mainstream sense. The smartest trailers nowadays are those produced on the small scale, unseen by most consumers.

That visibility issue isn’t as prevalent in theaters, where even the smallest film trailers may be shown before a film starts. People would assuredly object, but video games should consider having trailers shown before the start menu. A series of small clips, that could easily be skipped just like a DVD menu, would only help increase awareness of titles. Bigger publishers would get another platform to market their own stuff. Imagine booting up the latest Call of Duty, Final Fantasy or Dishonored and seeing a Firewatch trailer or Quadrilateral Cowboy trailer. That would almost assuredly require extensive funds though, unless they were under a larger indie publisher. Devolver Digital seems like a prime candidate, even to showcase the imprint’s own wealth of titles. Sure, it may be slightly redundant with Steam’s online storefront, but it’s hard enough to get featured there. Giving smaller titles the chance to rope someone in with a tonally resonant trailer seems like it would only help. The prevalence of trailers in movie theaters is a part of the industry’s self-feeding worm loop. Entering that world enters you in a contract where you’ll invariably be exposed to other titles that may warrant your dollars. It feels like games, particularly narrative-driven indie titles, would benefit from such a practice.

halo-believe

Image courtesy of Youtube.com

The fact that the most engaging trailers are made by indie developers is unsurprising. They’re taking far greater risks, and also recognize their audience will inevitably be more niche than large-scale releases. That affords them a level of artistic creativity mainstream publishers squash instantly for their touchstone titles. I mean, look at this pitch-perfect period Quadrilateral Cowboy trailer that meshes gameplay with footage in unique ways without feeling corny or insincere. The best example of AAA games using their well known commodity status was probably Halo 3’s Believe campaign ad. Experimentation at that point was a luxury, the audience knew the gist of Halo 3. This was a rare blockbuster release solely trying to encapsulate a game’s vibe. No need for graphics, CGI, or even lines of dialogue. The environment illuminated the distressful campaign to come, and using that imagery is something blockbuster games should aspire to more often in their trailers. Less bombast, more beauty.

Or keep shoveling this crap into our senses. Who am I to argue with the masses.

Maximalism and Mediocrity – Batman: Arkham Knight

Note: For the purposes of this review I’m choosing to ignore Batman: Arkham Origins. I didn’t play it, nor does it fit neatly into the Rocksteady Batman trilogy.

Batman: Arkham Knight begins with a  declaration of death. “This is how it happened. This, is how the Batman died,” Commissioner Gordon growls in the opening cutscene. It’s an omen, one so prophetic it permeates reality, serving as a reminder this is Rocksteady’s final bite at the Bat-apple. They’ve set the battle lines from the outset, immediately distancing themselves from the franchise they created. That opening line feels like a bombastic declaration to the publisher Warner Bros, “THIS IS THE DAY BATMAN DIES OKAY, WE’RE DONE AFTER THIS.” That sort of exasperated exuberance bleeds through the entirety of this game. It’s an exercise in maximalism, as if they took the core elements of its predecessor, Batman: Arkham City, shoved a balloon pump into them and turned on the air just long enough so the whole thing wouldn’t burst. Oh and they added a Batmobile. Lots of Batmobile.

The premise is the same as it’s been in the previous titles. Set aside a particular set of Gotham, (Asylum grows to a compounded City which grows to three full-blown islands this time around) have one baddie represent a threat to the citizens of Gotham and have Batman swoop in to stop them. This tale focuses on the exploits of Scarecrow, who’s devised his most deadly toxin ever and threatens to unleash it on the streets. His partner, the Arkham Knight, is a mysterious figure who claims to know Batman better than anyone, and seems hell-bent on killing him no matter the cost. They’re comic book villains in the best sense of the connotation. Grandiose, designs on domination and a dab of intrigue.

Batman’s his grim gung-ho self, intent on stopping this dreadful duo. However, he has an internal companion this time. The Joker infected several people with a toxin that’s slowly turning them into Jokers, and Bats happened to get a good whiff. Everywhere you turn, there’s Joker just waiting to comment on the situation, a constant reminder of your gradual transformation to darkness incarnate. That descent is a common theme, one that stinks of purposeless personality exploration. The chances of Batman actually performing something dreadful is null, and the game’s Chekov gun goes off like one of Joker’s toy blasters.

batmobile-kotaku

Image courtesy of Kotaku

Anytime Batman grapples with his transformation, the Joker gleefully externalizes the internal struggle. It’s a clever conceit to avoid an obtuse internal monologue, but it also doesn’t leave the player any room for interpretation. The closest you get are flashbacks where Batman’s voice quivers, dripping with regret for past actions. Those still feel like hollow reminders though. They’re handily out of the player’s control, something players technically had no hand in, and never even experienced in one of the previous Batman games. Cherry-picking lore and shoving it into a game like this is necessary to build the world, but don’t expect players to feel any sort of emotional investment unless they were privy to and part of its occurrence. Indeed, emotional investment through inherent gameplay rather than immersion-breaking cutscenes is an area plenty of games could improve. Arkham Knight is no exception.

These sorts of emotional touchstones are an ever-present nature of this game’s narrative. When Batman’s forced to reckon with his actions that harmed a former friend, he’s haunted, a shell of his oft-imposing figure. There are real opportunities within the game though to force him to truly reckon with the nature of his actions: the broken kneecaps, the shattered skulls, the collateral and structural damage to the city from driving around in a freaking tank. Those are the sorts of narrative dissonant actions that Rocksteady never forced itself to reckon with. They had the Joker inside his head the entire game and a prime chance to completely subvert typical game narratives. There’s no need for a twist, just perhaps a steady reminder that Batman’s madness may actually be manifesting itself in the very actions you have to perform in order to beat the game. Unfortunately, that’s probably a pipe dream. Start unraveling his “moral” actions and the Bat’s moral mystique fades within his entire collective history.

Batman’s fluid movement and combat remains the same, the only major addition being the Batmobile, which Rocksteady is intent on pounding into your skull. Props to them on its controls; driving the monstrosity around, particularly in tank mode, I can feel the hundred of hours that went into fine-tuning it. It was necessary though, they treat this thing like an extension of your body, and its maneuverability is necessary for various platform puzzles early on in the game. Get used to it, the Batmobile is necessary for plenty of the Riddler puzzles and side missions. It starts to take away from the core mechanics that made the series in the first place. It’s another example of the balloon pump theory. Where in past games a puzzle may’ve taken place within a small area like a room where you had to combine several gadgets, now it’s within an entire complex, requiring frustrating Batmobile functionality and navigation. This isn’t the only example of Arkham Knight blowing something out without adding substance.

polygon-credit

Image courtesy of Polygon

The world itself is easy to explore. The Batmobile flies around quickly and gliding is still a breeze, and possibly the most enjoyable part of the game. That exploration belies what becomes a prevailing issues throughout the whole game: a location devoid of any character. All of these games rely on bland color palettes, but the suffocating, Stephen King like nature of Arkham Asylum bred a particular vibe throughout the game. Ditto for Arkham City, who created a Lord of the Flies type supervillain stronghold. This is just, like, a city yet to be gentrified? Wandering around the world I could barely tell you any area that constituted a particular event. There’s nothing reminiscent of the ascent up the tower where Hugo Strange lied at the end of Arkham City or Penguin’s ice lake. Nothing even calls to mind the exterior of Arkham Asylum where you could look upon the lake towards Gotham; even that mundane environment felt more emotionally engaging than anything in Arkham Knight. This is a world that feels like it was created solely to shove more stuff into it. Part of that is the Batmobile’s problem, as increased mobility necessitates environmental expansion. It’s to the detriment of this world though, a mindless bevy of skyscrapers and roads.

Rocksteady provided one of the finest combat templates for pseudo-action RPG games of the last ten years. Their single button hits, easy counters and dodges made for approachable combat that didn’t force players to constantly remember 14-button combinations for their newest moves. Its elaborate and weighty animations cemented its effectiveness, letting even the most novice player feel as if they were capable of decimating an army of foes around them. A third game necessitates innovation though, a product of both external and internal pressure. It feels like they went too far, adding too many enemy types that require a particular move to kill properly. That in and of itself is fine. The layered, divergent enemy types of Halo is what makes its combat so amazing. However, that still requires a single verb to defeat something: shoot. Batman starts to settle into the convoluted territory of this guy needing a punch, tasering this trashy thug, but there’s also a medic that could revive someone, oh and don’t forget about the brutes that you’ll have to throw pop-rocks at first before punching them 20 times in the gut like a little brother fruitlessly hitting his big bro.

In a vacuum, these sorts of enemy diversions seem great, but the generally close quartered combat scenarios oftentimes lead to awkward encounters that completely contradict Rocksteady’s earlier message of not punishing players for memorizing a move set and produce awkward encounters rather than balletic beat-downs. In this game, memorizing myriad button scenarios is a necessity rather than a luxury. Part of that’s because I suck, but attaining any combat scenario where your actions generate the fluidity of previous games feels few and far between.


A third game necessitates innovation though, a product of both external and internal pressure.


Arkham City was the series first real foray into an open-world template, altered from the enclosed, Metroidvania-esque world of Arkham Asylum. Despite that, they peppered enough sidequests throughout the world to keep one’s interest. In particular the Riddler trophies. In Arkham Knight, they fully immersed themselves into the repetitive sidequest concept embroiled within open world game design. Players have to conquer enemy battalions throughout the city, take out mines across the islands or save firefighters. These missions feel like empty padding. The balloon pump went full bore on these puppies and after the first two or so excursions, the fun goes POP. Even the quests involving main Batman villains like tracking down Penguin’s weapon caches or stopping Two-Face’s men from robbing banks are a series of repetitive missions entirely absent of the villain’s personality sans a drab voiceover after the task is completed. Not only did those missions feel unnecessary, they felt completely divergent from the main story.

Arkham City painted a twisted, winding tale that made every villain feel as if it was part and parcel of the same demented mission to take down Batman, even if Hugo Strange was the primary villain. This feels like there’s the Arkham Knight and Scarecrow, and then everyone else just minding their own criminal acts. I guess I could stop Penguin, but I don’t particularly care to track his vans through the same boring process four times in a row. As I found out though, completing those missions was very much necessary to feel any sense of closure for this story. A discovery which led to one of the most egregious decisions I’ve ever seen in a game.

As I finally neared the end of the main story, Rocksteady tried manipulating my mind with several times with one-offs scenarios. A good effort sadly undermined by them peaking with the Scarecrow scenarios in Arkham Asylum. The final scene features Batman’s identity revealed to the public. Scarecrow expects this to be a grandiose end to the Batman, but Wayne reveals his aversion to Scarecrow’s fear toxin, besting him in the process. Despite beating the “big bad”, the game felt like it went out with a whimper, as Batman asks Alfred to initiate the mysterious “Knightfall protocol”, something I presumed to be a tease for the next game. I was wrong. Soon after, it sent me back to Gotham and informed me I would have to finish up at least 3 of the side missions in the world if I wanted to see the Knightfall protocol. Gating additional tidbits or easter eggs behind game completion is one thing, but to flaunt it as a necessity to see the finale of your story? I can’t remember a game ever being that insistent on a player absolutely seeing the full extent of the work they put into this world. “We made this for you, and if you want that ending we made, you’re gonna have to experience every single part of this game.”

Whatever Rocksteady, I’ll play ball. I blew up every mine and destroyed every tower or stronghold they had just to see this Knightfall protocol. It’s a cut scene, and I sit back ready to wash my hands of the game with this finale. Lo and behold, the scene ends after about one minute on a cliffhanger, cuts to credits, and then informs me I have to 100% the game if I want to see the real end of the Knightfall Protocol. Incredulity is my only reaction.

technobuffalo-credit

Image courtesy of TechnoBuffalo

Yes, games are inherently different in that they require player action to see their conclusion. They require some level of aptitude, but the barrier to story conclusions, particularly in open-world games, is generally pretty low. Still, can you ever imagine a film reaching its climax, heading into its descending action, cutting to black and saying you’ll have to watch every deleted scene and commentary on the DVD before you can see this ending. No. For that reason, and many others enumerated above, Arkham Knight is a monotonous, unsatisfying conclusion to this trilogy. That’s a trait it shared with Christopher Nolan’s conclusion, The Dark Knight Rises. In fact, the similarities between the two trilogies are eerily numerous.

Christopher Nolan created three Batman films: Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises. All three were generally praised, and created a new, darker, more “serious” paradigm for comic book movies, one that DC jumped right into and find itself stuck in now. This trajectory and influence feels reminiscent of Rocksteady’s creation. Both came out of relatively nowhere, and immediately sparked discussion over someone finally “getting” the Batman character. In Nolan’s case, that seemed to mean steering into the darkness. Setting up the typical origin story and exploring the depths to which Wayne sunk in the aftermath of his personal and physical transformation. Rocksteady followed a similar path with their art direction, capitalizing on an Unreal Engine that’s tailor made for spitting out gritty, dark environments like Epic’s touchstone for the engine, Gears of War. Yet they also fine-tuned the sort of abilities Batman actually displays with a strict set of gear, movement/combat, and his ninja-like stealth abilities. All three facets are utilized in Arkham Asylum and throughout the entire series. Nolan found similar success with the early portrayal of Batman as a stealthy assassin with near supernatural fighting skills.

Even analyzing the cultural feedback on the trilogies, the second title in both seems to engender the most goodwill. The Dark Knight is considered by many to be the finest comic book film ever, and many would argue the same about Arkham City as the finest comic book game produced. The connection comes to a dispiriting conclusion when talking about the end of each creator’s trilogy though. Both The Dark Knight Rises and Arkham Knight dig deeper than ever before into Batman’s psyche. They send him to the depths of his mental hell, trapping him physically in a pit within the film, an overt metaphor that dovetails nicely with the mental entrapment Batman finds himself in with the Joker infesting his every thought throughout Arkham Knight. Yet, they both falter with the same inevitable expansion that feels necessary as a series continues.

Fans grow restless. They expect an increasing cast, deeper references, new villains, the whole gamut. Giving in to those inclinations is only natural. Who wants to recreate the same world. That canonical sprawl starts to seep into the quality. The Dark Knight Rises introduces Catwoman and hints at Robin, ancillary characters who start to feel rather superfluous compared to the central struggle between Bane and Batman. The same is true in Arkham Knight, as the colorful cast of Catwoman, Nightwing, Robin and rather unexplained villainous collaboration between the Arkham Knight and Scarecrow makes the story look like a once promising crop field overcome by weeds.

They both feature Batman being “bested”. One through physical means as Bane breaks his back, the other mental, with Scarecrow revealing his identity publicly. Grappling with both of those facts takes Wayne to the deepest dredges of his mind, a tact that’s ultimately a fallacy in concept as players know the inevitable positive outcome. Most superheroes descending into darkness aren’t interesting solely because their upstanding morality means people know they’ll ascend probably without repercussions. This is especially true of Batman, who’s often mentioned as being “born in the darkness”. Going further is unnecessary, players understood his motivations and psyche the moment his parents got shot. This is where these last two entries failed, and without the dynamism of a top-flight villain to counteract Batman’s stoic nature, the stories felt like nothing more than an indulgence in senseless darkness.

batman-youtube

Image courtesy of Youtube

Arkham Knight is a competent bookend in many respects. The singular loop of taking down foes from the darkness and gliding around Gotham is still unbelievably satisfying. It’s also bloated and bland, the product of an expansion that sacrificed bespoke content in favor of repetitive grinds. That may have started first and foremost with the Batmobile, whose presence undermines a lot of the unique discoveries on-foot traversal afforded players in the previous game.

At one point in the game, Batman sees a particularly grisly, emotional scene. “Scarecrow is punishing me,” he growls to Alfred. If Batman wasn’t describing his internal punishment, then Joker was extrapolating it to the player. Players have no chance to reckon in their actions or even the thoughts of Batman. Reveling in moments of silence to comprehend the dire situation before Batman would’ve at the least allowed players to make some of their own assumptions about his psyche.

Perhaps players have to take that upon themselves. Maybe, just maybe, that sacred refuge lies atop the tallest peak of Wayne Manor. And as you stare upon the wreckage below, contemplating just how to resolve this mess, you start to understand the crushing nature of Batman’s infinite loop towards his inevitable dea…”WELL BATMAN, there’s still 200 riddles to solve on Founder’s Island, why don’t you get on that!,” the Riddler interjects over a citywide loudspeaker. Nearby the Batmobile whirs to life, smashing through foes with all the subtlety of an impassioned elephant.

Sigh.

Blissful Ignorance: Super Mario 3D World

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, he discusses how a primary reason Bill Gates succeeded so fantastically was his unprecedented access to a computer at age 13, a factor afforded few others in the country at that time. He had the chance to practice code profusely, helping shape his skills and eventually, the formation of Microsoft. Of course, he could’ve squandered that opportunity, instead choosing to become a successful barista, he was in the Pacific Northwest after all. The connective tissue to remember here is the external factors surrounding development, and how those stakes shaped the creation of a person, or in this case, a video game. Nintendo created Super Mario 3D World in a hostile environment, that of a console torpedoing into irrelevance. 3D World didn’t serve as a launch game, and was technically considered the sequel to a 3DS game. Any original designs had to fit in a neat box plucked from handhelds and thrown onto a console in disarray, desperate for a hit title to define it. This was no opportune time, but it still had the supercomputer of Nintendo’s historically great platforming braintrust at its side. Gates seized on his opportunity. In contrast, Super Mario 3D World feels like a beautiful last gasp at console relevance by a team that shirked the wholesale originality right at their fingertips.

Every console generation, the 3D Mario game is a tent pole, a usually once-in-a-console-generation monolith that stands above all else. They holds a gravitational pull over its console. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the only outlier, but even that is basically an amazing level pack for its predecessor, Super Mario Galaxy. Still, the point stands, and those Mario games are like hair plugs, an accessory so monumental it immediately defines people’s perception of the person, or console in this case. Super Mario 3D World is a bastard, borne of a holy marriage between 2D and 3D Mario. The game emerged in the midst of a console death knell. It will stand as a relic lost to time, like a genius flushed through the dredges of society due to his circumstances beyond their control.

Its development history stems from Super Mario 3D Land on the 3DS, a title recognizable for trudging the tightrope between 2D and 3D through its self-contained isometric levels that involved limited camera maneuverability within the taut 3D playground. 3D World, as evidenced by its titular larger land mass, is of course an expanded version of this model on the Wii U with multiplayer. It provides a greater level of control for Nintendo. The restrictive plane provides less variables to account for, a contrast to the slightly grander sandboxes present in typical 3D Mario games. This tightened grip is unsurprising. Since its heyday, Nintendo has been a company intensely interested in control. Still, this approach strikes me as a unique solution to a typically not publicized problem: despite their presence among gaming’s collective pantheon (courtesy of Metacritic), of late, 3D Mario games have been vastly outsold by their 2D contemporaries.

supermario3dworld-spot1

The rationale for that remains unclear. Perhaps it’s the nostalgia factor, the almost universal recognition of 2D Mario to parents and kids alike. It could be the lower level of control acumen necessary. 3D movement made modern video gaming possible, but it’s a barrier for people not used to navigating that space. Watching my father try to decipher Halo’s movement system felt as if Medusa cast her vengeful gaze upon his Spartan. A more recent reason could be the multiplayer component, a feature included in the wildly popular New Super Mario Bros Wii. That last point is feels most salient in relation to Super Mario 3D World, given its multiplayer focus.

It’s at the crossroads of these multiple factors: where lackluster sales relative to development budget, a plumber more financially fashionable when flattened, a desire to iterate functionality and a swan-diving console desperate for an object to define it, that Super Mario 3D World emerges. The intersection looks like a fork in the road with mangled tines. In the immortal words of the Stooge Curly Howard, Super Mario 3D World is a victim of circumstance.

Each of the 3D Mario games also served as exemplars of their console’s functionality. Super Mario 64 taught players how to operate in a 3D space with the analog stick controller. Super Mario Sunshine iterated on that, introducing the dual-stick design to Nintendo stans while flaunting the flashy new graphics and color palettes only Nintendo can conjure. Hilariously, Super Mario Galaxy actually taught developers that restraint is the better part of valor when it came to motion controls.

sm3dw1

A year into its release, the Wii U was in need of something to define it. Up to this point it remained floating in the ether, a curiosity compared to the impending and intimidating console competitors, Xbox One and PS4. Someone needed to set the parameters for other developers to design within. 3D World shirked this responsibility, but by no fault of its own. It accidentally presented the perfect use of the GamePad for developers to mimic: limited function and a passive accompaniment to the onscreen action. In this case, that meant a map for teleporting to other worlds quickly.

Super Mario 3D World’s first visual impression is its shiny veneer, the pinnacle of what Nintendo has tried to make Mario look like for 30 years. Imagine the clay figurine on Nintendo Power perfectly animated and brought to life with its slightly unnatural proportions. This is what Nintendo discovered with Super Mario Galaxy, a children’s cartoon look that feels like straight-laced 3D animation in every sense of the world. Their characters and backdrops look like glass figures, exuding a sparkling quality only accentuated by high definition. Its personality lies mainly in its dedication to color and fantasy, the same aspect that’s set Nintendo apart from its competitors (Microsoft and Sony) since AAA games development turned into a depository for bombast and drab color palettes. It also has felines.

Mario’s new cat suit presided as the biggest marketing ploy for this game. Nintendo was so fascinated by their inclusion they even trotted out cat costumes to adorn their E3 booth. Not since Blinx has a cat been such an integral part of a game’s build-up. That decision in itself though is indicative of some of the game’s shortcomings. Super Mario Sunshine promoted F.L.U.D.D. because it was integral to the game’s core mechanics. You can often tell the game was designed to encourage and require cats, many of the game’s additional green stars players can collect require the cat suit to reach. That emphasis obfuscates the lack of inventiveness present throughout the rest of the game’s design. Beyond the cat suit, the list of transformations Mario makes reads like a bland greatest hits compilation. Tanooki, Fireball, Boomerang, Hotel California. The Rolling Stones would be jealous how well they’re sticking to old standbys.

Part of this is inherently a design decision. Crafting a game for four concurrent players required Nintendo to tighten its sandbox. The problem with that, especially when you have cats, is it’s tougher to cover up the smell of old shit. One-off or rarely used suits are absent, the product of forcing any and all suits to be applicable for four characters at all times. This restriction can cause that old shit to pile up quickly. Large-scale boss battles are few and far between, and most of them lack the balls-out creativity displayed in the Galaxy, Sunshine or tripped-out Super Mario 64 experience.


The problem with that, especially when you have cats, is it’s tougher to cover up the smell of old shit


Bowser battles play out like walking up the same set of increasingly narrow steps. 3D’s strangest core venture is Mario & co. riding atop Plessy, a Loch Ness monster lookalike continuing the trend of Mario forcefully riding atop aquatic creatures at breakneck speeds. Not to mention the Toad Treasure Tracker sequences, where Toad traverses labyrinthine levels without the ability to jump requiring players to carefully rotate the screen to see the entire level. These stand as diametric opposites to the twitchy-fast portions of Super Mario Sunshine where they ripped away F.L.U.D.D.. They’re a peculiar inclusion, one that makes more sense in a different game. So much so that Nintendo did just shove them into their own game, Captain Toad’s Treasure Tracker one year later.

The game is sanded perfectly. No edges stick out. Nothing’s out of place. That makes for a sterile vibe though, particularly when it chooses the rote, Dreamworks animation art direction. Most of its character comes from the emergent interactions between players, something introduced in 2D Mario on Wii and maximized within a 3D space. Those stories are few and far between though, generally the product of miscommunication and occasional miscues that come from sharing a tight space among adventuring friends. Tantalizingly, these moments hint at a sense of camaraderie, a buddy-cop film where a gang of do-gooders conquer obstacles, slay Bowser and do it all with the physical comedy of a 3 Stooges episode.

This is youthful exuberance incarnate. It’s Super Mario 2 come to life, only everyone can play and it’s stripped of the bizarre sans a plodding, squealing toad in search of treasure. Super Mario 3D World is also just the status quo. When played with friends it approaches peak Nintendo advertised family status, epitomizing the sterile fun depicted in those ads. Played alone, 3D World starts to feel like a souffle. Pristine, picturesque and gaudy in all the right ways. Pop the pastry though you discover it lacks substance, it’s completely hollow and immediately familiar. This revelation is made more depressing when you realize this will be the only solo 3D Mario experience you’ll get on this console.

super-mario-3d-world-16-800x450

The Wii U is defined by its lack of definition. NintendoLand failed to capture the collective imagination like Wii Sports. It even sported all the usual Nintendo endeavors: Mario Kart, Super Smash Brothers, 2D Mario. But in the end, it failed to find a defining game. There was no tentpole title that sat proudly atop the Mario pole, flag in hand throwing consoles to the burgeoning crowd below. Every other generation had a 3D Mario that even if it didn’t do gangbusters, still set a precedent for its console in terms of design. Super Mario 3D World stands between worlds, just like the Wii U, and the victim of a lost generational console still spinning its wheels. Not fully immersed in 3D, but a step up from 2D, Super Mario 3D world is a marvelous delight marred by the circumstances surrounding its release and epitomizing its difficult situation at the same time. This will be a game lost to the masses, never discovered by the audience it deserves. This is a title between visual planes, between console cycles, between single-player and multiplayer, between truly new Mario series. It’s defined by its in-between nature, its foot stuck hastily in the Wii U door that Nintendo’s been scrambling to shut.

Actually, Super Mario 3D World may have been the most fitting definition for the Wii U after all.

What’s in a Name?

I recently rediscovered my Wii U, having not played the console in more than a year and a half. As rumors about the NX spread and Nintendo begins to pivot away from its ill-fated console, I wanted to look back at its development, release and the games that will be lumped along with the company’s greatest failures.

Every sniff smelled of profits. Nintendo was basking in wealth, the product of a gamble on a wonky remote and an interactive bathroom scale. Wii, a name once lampooned for its hilarity and similarity to urine, was now a name universally synonymous with video games. It cut across barriers, fulfilling the prescient rationale Nintendo effused for the name in the first place. As their crown jewel neared the end of its life cycle, the company plotted what to name its next console. The decision: It was time to double down on their 100-million dollar-selling console named after a synonym for pee.

Nintendo never fell into the pit of the numerical console naming cycle, opting instead to focus first and foremost on their brand: Nintendo. Nobody says they own a “Microsoft Xbox” or “Sony Playstation”, and their respective companies market them as such. Nintendo always welcomes its gestating consoles into the world with that comforting Nintendo as a preface. Eventually their one-word moniker, GameCube or Wii becomes the standard shorthand, but they still eschewed their competitors penchant for counting up (or down in the Xbox One’s case) in favor of using unique names to identify their consoles. The Wii was a special case though, Nintendo had its first bona fide console runaway hit since the SNES.

maxresdefault

The last time Nintendo takked on a moniker to an existing console name, it went from the wildly successful Nintendo Entertainment System to the Super Nintendo System. The adjective adjustment made sense, the SNES represented an incremental leap forward in graphics and presentation, without changing how games were presented drastically. Next, the jump to 3D represented a drastic change, necessitating the brand new Nintendo 64 name. Finally, the ill-fated Nintendo GameCube represented the (former) nadir of Nintendo’s console cycle. The Wii’s smashing success that generation was Nintendo’s first of that ilk in the home console space in 25 years.

For a company steeped in nostalgia, why wouldn’t they use a previous touchstone to inform their current business decision? They had just used the same tactic in the handheld space with the launch of the 3DS.

At E3 2012, Nintendo officially unveiled their new console, the Wii U. The rationale seems obvious, retaining the familiar “Wii” name but in a new console “tailor-made for you” as Reggie Fils-Aime, Nintendo of America’s President, said at the announcement.


“Wii U is kind of the natural progression in looking at what we did, how we changed gaming”


Their reasoning went beyond that unique marketing copy though, as Katsuya Eguchi, one of Nintendo’s lead designers, extrapolated to Edge, “There are actually several reasons for us wanting to make Wii U part of the Wii family, to make that connection. in hindsight, looking at Wii U and its features we realized that there were also things [with Wii] that we weren’t able to accomplish with that system, that we would have liked to see in it. Wii U is kind of the natural progression in looking at what we did, how we changed gaming.” He also mentioned the glut of Wii peripherals people already had at home, implying the Wii U would provide them another console to use them on. Its implication is their reticence to simply move on from the in-roads they’d made in reaching a diverse gaming audience.

The name sparked controversy and confusion, with many people unsure whether this was an entirely new console or simply an add-on for their Wii. For its part, Nintendo did little to help demystify these blurred lines, even keeping the Wii U console nearly out of sight during its initial announcement.

While users weren’t as vicious with the initial Wii announcement, there was similar confusion even among those who purchased the console as to why they chose the name Many cited options like “Wii HD” or “Wii 2”, or removing the Wii name entirely, as more apt choices to differentiate it from Nintendo’s previous offering.

Their trepidation wasn’t unfounded, as consumer questions and middling sales continued to haunt the console, with many continuing to cite the name as a factor, despite Nintendo’s insistence that it wasn’t.

wii_u_console_and_gamepad

A brief glance at Nintendo’s site includes a section on the Wii U titled, “What is Wii U?”. Expecting an answer or expanded discussion of the name, instead I was greeted first by simple text stating, “This is Wii U” with a picture of the console, gamepad, and Mario Kart on an HD television. It begins to load accompanying text and offers a tour of the console’s features, but the first impression was a perfect encapsulation of Nintendo’s approach to naming the console.

“This is Wii U”, presented plainly and with a slight whiff of arrogance and presumptuousness that consumers should just “get it”. Instead, the name stands as a microcosm of the Wii U’s failed lineage: stuck between generations amidst consumer confusion.

It’s no accident Wikipedia lists the name’s phonetic spelling as “WEE EW”.

Gloss and Circumstance – The Order: 1886

The Order: 1886 is a serious game. Its characters take their jobs seriously, they take their combat chatter seriously, and the game’s color palette tells players to take it seriously. Ready at Dawn, the game’s developer previously known for its God of War entries on PSP, was handed an opportunity to dabble in the AAA game space with a new IP, a high honor for a studio hoping to break into big budget blockbuster console games. It’s akin to Colin Trevorrow getting the call-up from indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed to Jurassic World. They took this transition seriously. The end result is one of the biggest high-profile flops in recent memory and a game that exemplifies the very worst perceptions of AAA games.

The Order: 1886 focuses on an alternate history late 19th century London. The Order is a group of knights sworn to protect the land, and each are named after the original knights of King Arthur’s round table. These knights live centuries through the use of “Blackwater”, an elixir that grants long life and heals all wounds. Sir Galahad is the game’s protagonist, a rugged hero who personifies masculinity and sports a moral compass permanently affixed true north. Remember this is a AAA game and Ready at Dawn knows there needs to be a male hero people are familiar with (eye roll).

The game opens with Galahad escaping the Order’s imprisonment, a seed planted to encourage players to see how the yarn unfolds. Almost immediately, the game lays out its minimal threshold for death, as a torture scene ended with me pressing triangle to kill someone. Repeatedly pressing X brutally killed another guard nearby. The Order: 1886 doesn’t have time to mess around with non-lethal take downs, that’s not serious. Death is serious.

order-1886-galahad

Soon after this escape scene, they flash back in time and show Galahad as a prime Knight of The Order, the arbiters of morality who’ve battled rebels and half-breed werewolves in London for centuries. From there, you play through the investigation of these purported rebels as the story hints at questions over whether the Order is really as wholesome as Galahad believes it is.

The story is rote, the kind of B-movie blockbuster plot you expect in the doldrums of late July from a DC castoff superhero flick. Despite this, the gameplay is the nadir of the entire experience.

Combat is more droll than the story. Its archaic gameplay conventions defy comprehension. It functions as a cover shooter, and by that I mean you have to be in cover during combat or you’ll die almost immediately. The game plays like a laundry list of outdated AAA shooter features: A cover system that isn’t intuitive, whack-a-mole AI popping out of cover (at one point I entered an area and eight different enemies popped out of cover at once like a Three Stooges sketch), and map triggers that you have to trip for new enemies to flood in. When you’re not busy shooting enemies, you’ll be doing any number of minute tasks including unlocking doors, shoving carts forward, overloading circuits or climbing on ledges. Their idea of gameplay diversity is an eight weapon armament, quick-time events, and unlocking mini-games. This is gameplay functionality AAA games were lampooned for even a decade ago.

order-1886-crouching

The Order: 1886 is a dinosaur. It seems like Ready at Dawn looked at common practices from five years ago, threw them all into a bag and started randomly sprinkling them throughout the pristine world they crafted. And that’s really the only highlight of The Order: 1886, it is a technical masterpiece.

The Order: 1886 is like a beautiful bauble your grandmother has but never lets you touch. Perfectly rendered corridors contain only a single element of interaction. The character models are creepily lifelike, dynamic lighting shifts minutely as you saunter through a hall, lamps elegantly reflect off windows. Literally everything looks like something polished beyond exhaustion. Ready at Dawn knows it too.


This is gameplay functionality AAA games were lampooned for even a decade ago.


I can’t recall a game that’s been more obnoxiously transparent in its fascination with itself. Oftentimes Galahad will only be able to move slowly in new areas just so you can admire every little detail in the environment. If an area is too dark to properly appreciate, don’t worry, they’ll hand you a lantern. The world even contains tiny objects to pick up and examine so players can truly appreciate the precise level of intricacy Ready at Dawn etched into everything. Despite their obvious attempt at environmental storytelling, these trinkets and documents added literally nothing to the story. They even instituted a full-blown camera mode, replete with features down to the lens length of the shot you want. The entire game feels like an aesthetic circle-jerk.

Despite this overzealous gloss, the world itself leaves a lot to be desired. Its gray tones bring to mind the type of “dark” blockbuster that has commandeered the summer box office since Nolan’s Batman films landed. DC steered into this skid with their cinematic universe, and The Order: 1886 takes its cues directly from that. There is no time for banter in this world, there are freaking werewolves to kill. The game is so devoid of levity, the only respite I found was in this entirely out of place SackBoy prop I could pick up and examine.

img_4549

The characters seriousness is unrelenting as well. Galahad scowls constantly. I don’t recall even a smirk from any characters within the game. Most of the dialogue involves shouting, which must’ve made for an interesting recording session. Even when Galahad just needs a drink, he doesn’t hold back as he shouts at the bartender, “A drink goddam you!”. And don’t worry, in case you fall into a haze and forget the seriousness of the situation, Galahad will remind you. “I’m in no mood to jest,” he bellows at one point to a fellow knight following a firefight. Woah dude, I get it!

If the setting and characters weren’t serious enough for players, Ready at Dawn even manipulated historical figures to lend credence to the time period they chose. Nikola Tesla pops up as your version of James Bond’s Q, although he provides little to no technical assistance. He mainly serves as a prop to justify some of the more technically majestic weapons in the game. Even Jack the Ripper is shoehorned in through an egregious plot twist.

the-order-1886-cropped-airship-rappel-zeppelin

The Order: 1886 will stand as an exemplar of the worst of AAA games: all gloss and no substance. Ready at Dawn seemed far more preoccupied with making a film than trying to create compelling gameplay, and the resulting story was uninspired at best. Cutscenes make up probably 1/3 of the game, and what little gameplay there is remains woefully devoid of imagination. The game’s technical mastery is overcome by a self-indulgent title intent on showcasing the developer’s hard work rather than letting people appreciate the world’s intricacy on their own.

There’s a point in The Order where Galahad insists that you don’t kill guards you believe to be innocent men. Within 30 seconds, he’s opened fire on a crowd and stabbed a guard in the face. And why wouldn’t he? What kind of hero just chokes someone out? Remember, this game is serious.