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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Expectation.

On January 23rd, millions of gamers waited with bated breath as the sale of THQ’s assets became public that afternoon. Saints Row, Turtle Rock’s new game, South Park: The Stick Of Truth, Relic Entertainment, each of these properties struck a chord with the gamers that had supported them despite their publishers infinite vortex of financial instability. Shortly after 3pm, the news broke. The collective sigh of relief from gamers around the world seemed almost audible. With most properties finding new homes that could hopefully provide the marketing power necessary to sell these products, the possibility of an impassioned fanbase losing its favorite title dissipated. For everyone but Darksiders fans that is.

Another million, actually, thousands is probably more accurate, started the grieving process quickly with an outcry of anger, sadness and speculation immediately following the announcement no publisher had purchased Vigil Games, developer of last years Darksiders II. Darksiders never garnered the commercial success it may have warranted, given it melded the fluidity of God of War’s combat with the puzzle-laden dungeons of Legend of Zelda. Instead, like seemingly every underperformer, it crafted a powerful fan base incredibly protective of the franchise.

Vigil’s inability to sell wasn’t unsurprising. Darksiders II launched to middling sales just the year before after a fairly impressive promotional campaign by fledgling THQ. Studios with unsuccessful franchises are rarely attractive, but with a prototype already in production for their new game codenamed Crawler, Vigil would’ve had to blow a publisher away with a product to warrant the massive investment triple AAA games require nowadays. When it came down to the bottom line, Vigil couldn’t cut it.

A rumor that Crytek’s new studio composed of ex-Vigil employees may acquire the IP spread online after the sale. It proved a tease for over-exuberant fans, count me among them. Instead, when the final sale of THQ’s remaining assets surfaced, a little known publisher called Nordic Games purchased people’s beloved Darksiders. Cue the collective, “Huh?”

Nothing would have satisfied Darksiders fans unless Vigil sold as a complete package to keep making Darksiders, but a relatively unknown publisher picking up both Darksiders and another fan favorite in Red Faction? The backlash was inevitable.

Darksiders II's ill-fated marketing approach

Darksiders II’s ill-fated marketing approach

“Please do not destroy the Darksiders franchise,” read one comment before pleading their case as a fan of the series. A more succinct summation of many fan opinions came courtesy of Scott Gray who eloquently commented, “Yes, PLEASE do not fuck this up.” The sentiment seems apt for most fans and probably wasn’t unexpected for Nordic Games. Their catalog is most known for the Painkiller remakes, Spellforce series and an assortment of point and click adventure games.

Not exactly the lineup fans want to see from a publisher expected to find a studio capable of creating an open-world action based RPG that includes extensive dungeons. It seems unfair, but Nordic Games will be defined by how they handle these acquisitions. They will become the publisher that squandered two fantastic franchises in the eyes of fans, or the savior that resurrected two series that seemed destined for the gaming graveyard alongside Shenmue and Bullestorm.

Does Nordic deserve the benefit of the doubt for saving these series in the first place? Probably. Will they? No. To realistically expect new incarnations of these titles on the level of their previous entries is ludicrous. A small-time publisher can’t provide the capital necessary to create the visions fans will expect for new sequels. I’m all for empowering smaller games to reach new audiences, but if these franchises couldn’t sell under THQ, there’s no way they’ll sell under Nordic’s leadership.

Darksiders is one of my favorite franchises. I will root for it to return until Nordic tells me it’s axed. I’m not holding my breath though; the economic reality of the situation is that Darksiders will probably never return with the proper sequel fans expect.

Perhaps Vigil should have chosen Strife for their second entry, Death now appears an unfair foreshadow of the franchise’s fate. THQ marketed Darksiders II with the tagline, “Death lives”. Now it seems a cruel prescient oxymoron.

Death of the Partners

A week and a half ago several outlets reported that EA Partners was shutting down. This wasn’t entirely unsurprising. The label has made its name on critically acclaimed games that generally don’t sell. However, it represented a portion of EA that provided some credibility with gamers still. Absent of the microtransactions and yearly entries that helped win EA its second consecutive Worst Company in America award, these titles generally relied on quality over quantity.

EA partners began under a different name, Electronic Arts Distribution, back in 1997. Even the early days remained marred by critically important games lacking in sales. Signing System Shock 2 as one of its early games, the title would go on to become a hallmark in atmospheric storytelling among video games, eventually resulting in its spiritual successor, Bioshock, finally drawing the attention Ken Levine’s first game never received.

The division shifted to EA Partners in 2003, and gained attention in recent years for its promotion of games that may not have gotten funding from other publishers. It seemed like the perfect marriage, the all-out marketing prowess of EA combined with talented developers crafting worlds and games that they can keep the rights to. The latter part is what drew developers to the label.

Respawn Entertainment still hasn’t announced its new game, but after Activision forced Jason West and Vince Zampella out of Activision post Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the chance to own their own intellectual property seemed paramount. Hilariously, the two are referenced at every single EA press conference at E3, as if a shout out to West and Zampella was in their initial contracts. It very well could be, considering the gobs of money their franchise continues to rake in for Activision yearly.

EA Partners continued to produce quality titles under its umbrella: Valve’s The Orange Box, Portal 2, Left 4 Dead, People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm, Shadows of the Damned and Rock Band all launched bolstering its quality library. Yet, few games outside of Rock Band’s initial entries, Crysis and Valve’s games saw considerable commercial success. Even the marketing of EA couldn’t help these games move copies.

The many developers that have signed onto EA Partners Credit: gameinformer.com

The many developers that have signed onto EA Partners Credit: gameinformer.com

Admittedly, EA is somewhat at fault in this scenario. The glut of games they have to push means that oftentimes these games could be lost in the shuffle in favor of promoting that year’s Madden, a sure-fire five million copy seller. It’s disappointing though to hear that this label with so much potential is coming to a close.  It’s a sobering example of the realities of triple AAA development nowadays.

Creative titles like Bulletstorm that try something different with the first person genre can’t sell enough to warrant a sequel. Shadows of the Damned finally reigned in Suda 51’s crazy with Shinji Mikami’s solid gameplay conventions, Syndicate seemed to strike a chord with lots of gamers impressed with its co-op ideas, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, one of my favorite games of last year, married fast-paced action with open world exploration, but the entire studio blew up in Curt Schilling’s face. Even APB was…sorry, I can’t defend that actual disaster. Creativity is stifled, it’s certainly not a new concept, but one that this story only accentuates.

EA deserves some ire for how it has pushed out some titles, with rushed products that ended far below expectations. *Cough Dragon Age 2 *Cough*Cough. The microtransaction discussion is annoying but entirely overblown. It’s a business model they’ve publicly endorsed many times over and can easily be ignored, gamers just cry foul on principle. The death of EA Partners doesn’t mean EA is in any financial trouble, but it’s more distressing that if a triple AAA publisher couldn’t market these inventive games, who can?

The Strange Case of Kentucky Route Zero

Episodic gaming has been around since as early as 1979, but the alternative delivery system has started popping up much more in recent years. Telltale Games is perhaps its biggest proponent, crafting most of their adventure titles around five episodes. They had experienced middling success with the format before their inventive take on The Walking Dead launched this past year to critical and commercial success.

The concept seems appropriated most for adventure games which rely on creative characters and powerful dialogue to drive the mostly puzzle-driven gameplay. In January, a new indie adventure game, Kentucky Route Zero, launched the first of its five acts set to release this year. With a stunning aesthetic and minimalist approach to both puzzles and storytelling, the first act essentially guided players through Kentucky backcountry.

It’s premature to judge the merits of Kentucky Route Zero when it has only released one episode, but it’s interesting to examine whether its minimalist approach lends itself to the drawn out process of episodic gaming. The Walking Dead succeeded by giving players overt black-and-white choices with compelling characters that players could discuss during the wait for the next episode.

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The most apt comparisons for episodic games is television. The best shows build around characters, allowing both bombastic and intimate moments to come from human development. Kentucky Route Zero is approaching this method with its sparse elements scattered throughout a short journey. Yet the characters seem like little more than beautifully depicted pixels in the background.Kentucky Route Zero provides talking points through its minimal action and underlying mysticism in reality. This type of storytelling is one of my favorite approaches, particularly in video games where huge explosions and set pieces are presented in lieu of subtle progressions. Yet, I’m unsure if this approach is highly conducive to episodic gaming.

Although Conway may be developed more in later episodes, his character remains an enigma. This doesn’t always matter when players can quickly advance in a story and unveil his true persona, but Kentucky Route Zero hasn’t released a new act in over two months. Zero isn’t approaching the mass audience The Walking Dead was, but the lack of character development leaves players with little more than a basic cliffhanger to discuss.

Episodic gaming allows indie developers the chance to create smaller, manageable chunks at a time rather than fall into the sinkhole of time that plagues some games like Fez. It can also thrust games out of people’s consciousness however. Without the next act in a particular window and gamers can easily forget about a niche title in favor of the next entry in their favorite AAA franchise. The Dream Machine is another adventure game unique in its claymation approach, but no new content has released in over 16 months. Devoted gamers will welcome the next entry, but any mainstream press the initial release garnered has certainly dissipated by now.

The most sales for indie games come within the first week when their game is still publicized by whatever platform it’s released on. Kentucky Route Zero deserves attention for its unique approach to art and storytelling, but whether that initial praise can carry the game to its next few acts remains to be seen.

Kentucky Route Zero is one of the most intriguing games on the market right now. I’m just not sure its specific approach lends itself to the episodic avenue they’ve chosen.