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Saint's Row

A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

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A Meandering Manifesto- On Getting Lost

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

To be fair, it isn't exactly the world's most readable map.

The last time I got fundamentally lost in a video game, like, I-have-no-idea-where-I’m-going-I’m-pretty-sure-we’ve-circled-this-one-tree-five-times-already lost, was in Shadow of the Colossus. I was following the light beam from my magical sword to the next Colossus when I hit a wall. More literally, it was the side of a mountain. Then, I turned to try and find a path around the mountain, got distracted by a lizard scampering across a plain, and by the time I caught the lizard, I had no goddamn clue where I was.

The mountain wasn’t rendering anymore, so there went my landmark. SOTC has a map, but I wouldn’t call it detailed, so using that was out the window. My mad dash for sweet lizard meat found me standing on the edge of the world, looking over at some seagulls flying over the ocean. I didn’t catch the lizard, and for a few minutes, I was pretty sure I wasn’t even going to find a Colossus out there. The edge of the world is a lonely place, after all. Of course, I quickly remembered I could pull out my magical sword again and follow its light back to the mountain, but for a brief, shining moment, I was totally lost. And no matter how big open worlds get, it’s never happened since.

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

This isn't where I was, but considering typing "shadow of the colossus seagull" into google will probably bring back porn, it's as good as I'm willing to get. 

I don’t actually play a ton of open world games. I often find the lack of direction frustrating, and I’m more likely to finish something that gives me motivation on a regular basis, not just whenever I happen to be in the right mood to push myself along the critical path. That’s mostly just a symptom of the kinds of games that use open world design though. Traditionally, open world design meets sandbox-style gameplay and they go hand-in-hand forever into the night, but that’s not necessarily a given. You can have a sandbox without an open world, just take a look at Animal Crossing or SimCity’s sandbox mode, and you can have an open world without a sandbox, like in Shadow of the Colossus or Dark Souls.  The latter is uncommon, the former barely exists, and the combination of the two is pretty much every game in existence right now. Grand Theft Auto is the progenitor of the open world sandbox genre, sure, but Assassin’s Creed, Watch Dogs, Sleeping Dogs, and all manner of dog-and-non-dog-related games occupy that same ever growing category.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

Sandbox, meteor-box, whatever.

But clever open-world design can actually add a lot to more traditional, directed genres. Recently, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds applied the open world concept to the entrenched and unchanging Zelda formula to pretty interesting results. By giving players access to every tool in Link’s arsenal from the beginning of the game, the traditional dungeon design had to be rethought and refocused on the player’s potentially wider tool belt. Additionally, being able to leave a tricky dungeon to go try another was a welcome change from having to bash my head against the impenetrable wall known as “Zelda logic”. Dark Souls takes a step further, giving players a huge open world and absolutely no tools with which to work off of, but works in that same action-RPG context.

Dark Souls as the glowing exception to the rule though, these worlds tend to be sterile. Link Between Worlds uses the same overworld map from Link to the Past, a 23 year old game. Wind Waker, another Zelda game with a relatively open world, is content to situate its Great Sea on a grid, only letting each square contain one island. The recent Tomb Raider reboot lets you travel around an open world, but then railroads you down action set-pieces that block off exploration. Maybe you’ll go back to an earlier area later to pick up a few trinkets and collectibles. You probably won’t though.

You definitely won’t get lost.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Those guys are pretty lost looking too. Can we be lost....together? This summer on ABC.

Shadow of the Colossus and Dark Souls are, in some small sense, bastions of an older kind of game design. Of building a huge world and refusing give players direction in exploring it. SOTC leads you to the next colossus fight with its magic glowing sword, but you’re sure to miss the helpful stat-boosting lizards and birds along the way. Of course, they aren’t necessary, and most people’s major complaint about SOTC is the lack of things to do in its huge world. It’s a fair one too, considering that the enormous map is entirely empty outside of the next colossus you have to fight. But that’s what makes the world so appealing to me. It’s not a terribly well designed world in the gameplay sense, there’s nothing really funnelling you towards the colossi or any interesting challenges outside of them, and the arenas where you fight the colossi are pretty barren for the most part. But aesthetically and atmospherically, it’s second pretty much only to Dark Souls in setting a mood for a living, breathing world. Though, in SOTC’s case, it’s much more of a dead, barren world.

Play undead. Good boy,

Play undead. Good boy,

Huge expanses of nothing, ruins that serve no purpose, every little bit of SOTC’s map tells a little story about the world, or is at the very least fascinating to look at. That doesn’t make it a super fun game for everyone by any means, but the world enamours me. It makes me want to get lost. Dark Souls’ Lordran hits me in a similar way. It’s much tighter and livelier than SOTC’s barren wasteland, but it has the same sort of lore-revealing efficiency in its world design, with the added bonus of constantly teaching you how to play while forcing you into battle. Fighting the dogs in the tight corridors of the thieves’ down beneath the Undead Burg teaches you about how easy it is to stab them as they leap at you, which is a skill you’ll find comes in very handy during the Capra Demon boss fight, where two attack dogs stunlock you before the demon slams his axe down on your head.

To go back to Zelda for a second, the worlds remind me a lot of Zelda 1. Of course, Zelda 1 suffers from a lot of the same problems that SOTC and Dark Souls do. The open world often lacks direction, you’ll sometimes find yourself with a lack of things to do, and you cane stumble into areas far beyond what you can handle. But they’re also scary, lonely worlds at times, without much in the way of a home base or safe zone. Mind you, SOTC doesn’t have any enemies anywhere, but the world is enormous and labyrinthine for non-gameplay reasons. It feels threatening in a way that a world designed around constant combat just can’t. It feels dead, and that’s not “right”. You never feel at home. Firelink Shrine in Dark Souls may be the centre of the world, but it’s definitely not safe, and Zelda 1 starts on a non-descript square at the bottom of the map with no location-significance whatsoever.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

Square H-8, in case you were wondering.

There’s a sort of focus to building a world like that. An open world that isn’t meant to lead you down one path or let you do anything you want. Go anywhere, but do only a few things. It doesn’t sound like a very good selling point, and that’s probably why we don’t see too many games like that, but in my experience, it lets the world speak for itself, with atmosphere and character all its own.It makes for something very different from having the world be defined by dozens of minigames and pointless encounters created to pad the experience.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

To be fair, the Colossi themselves are pretty sweet too.

Big worlds are so often full of junk that isn’t, well, interesting. I enjoy Saint’s Row IV, but its rows of cloned skyscrapers are punctuated with, for the most part, variations on minigames I got bored of halfway through my first time playing them. And the bigger a world is, the less likely it is to have constant unique elements. Everything has to serve some player purpose, and the purpose is usually to keep them engaged and entertained from a gameplay perspective. At least SOTC’s emptiness serves the purpose of being negative space for the colossus fights, that’s something unique.

I don’t want to get lost in Liberty City, I don’t want to get lost in Skyrim. In fact, there’s no way I can get lost in them. There’s something around every corner, every nook and cranny has purpose. That outcropping with the seagulls doesn’t really serve a purpose, and there’s something realer about that. Or at the very least, something a little more magical.

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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

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OP-ED: Loathe to Love

I think I hate games.

Not because I don’t like them, I’ve been playing games my whole life, and video games for longer than I remember at this point. I have a few moral objections to things in the gaming industry, but nothing that really makes me want to stop playing them forever. No, I think I hate games because I’m almost always destroying them.

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

HULK SMASH PUNY EMOTIONAL OPINIONS

Recently, I played last year’s Tomb Raider reboot. In it, Lara massacres the population of an entire island, almost single handedly. She kills an animal or two as the plot demands it, but most of her time is spent slaughtering the hundreds of beardy goons who get in her way. This is a far cry from the original Tomb Raider, where Lara was more interested in climbing and jumping around ancient ruins than fighting the four human enemies she comes across. Of course, the shift can be explained by realizing that modern Tomb Raider is inspired by Uncharted, which is in turn inspired by classic Tomb Raider, but I digress.

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Take THAT, you beardy goon. 

Tomb Raider has always featured that sort of destructive relationship with the world. The title even admits that Lara is a thief, a Tomb Raider, and, like Indiana Jones, she’s a scrupulous hero at best. You might ask why a name matters, but when you look at the titles of our most popular games today, you start to get a picture of the problem. Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Assassin’s Creed, all of them pretty squarely place your relationship with the world as an antagonistic one. You are a soldier, at war, a career criminal, an assassin. These are the fantasies we want to play out. We want to destroy.

There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. People need release, power fantasies sell, and with good reason. It caters to our instinct to lash out, to get even with the world and work through our frustrations in a safe environment. It’s fun to crash a car into a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto because you’ve been annoyed at pedestrians before. It’s fun to kill a cop because you get to thumb your nose at the authorities. You’re the underdog, using the game as a way to fight back .

But there is a severe imbalance.

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Three beardy goons, one arrow, and a pocket full of napalm. What's a girl to do?

Throughout my tenure as a person who plays video games, I’ve depopulated kingdoms, rendered entire races of mystical creatures extinct, and beaten the ever-loving crap about of Ken Masters like a thousand times.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

TAKE THAT, MASTERS. EAT MY DUMB PLASMA FIST.

But I can count on one hand the games where I feel like my love for existing in the world was proportional to my having a positive relationship with it. Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon come to mind, sure, but even generally family-friendly Nintendo games like Mario and Zelda are about nothing but destroying the world and its inhabitants. The plot of the first two Metroids is literally Samus committing genocide.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

Seriously, Metroid II keeps track of how many Metroids you have left to kill until you've eradicated the species.

It’s not hard to see where this destructive impetus comes from. Games tend to have a winner and a loser, and the distinction usually involves the winner triumphing in some way over the loser. Winning makes us feel good, especially when it means we beat someone else. In this case, that someone else is the computer, or in a more immediate sense, the game world.

I’m not calling for an end to video game violence or something like that. Games have violence like movies have violence. The recent crusades against violent games are the same crusade waged against rap, cartoons, movies and rock and roll. And personally, I sort of like violent games. Not always, and not senselessly violent games, but I’m not above playing Saint’s Row and kicking someone so hard in the balls they fly across the street. I’m not above feeling satisfied that I got a really clean headshot in Uncharted. I’m not above feeling that adrenaline rush that comes when you’ve accomplished something challenging, even if it involves killing a few dozen fictional dudes. Because they’re just that: fictional.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Catharsis, in .gif form.

Games come from a tradition of winning and losing, but their key strength over board, card or playground games is showing you your moment to moment progress. A video game can always make you feel like you’re getting better. The easiest way to do that is have you complete multiple tasks, or in the now-common gaming parlance, “beat them”.

You beat a game, you rarely finish it, and you never end it. You beat it.

You assert dominance over it by completing every task it asks you to accomplish. The simplest task for someone to understand is defeating someone else with similar tools. Think about football. The core actions you do in a game of football are easy to understand because they’re just basic actions. Throwing, catching, kicking. You’ve known how to do those things since you were a baby. Video games on the other hand require you to press certain buttons and move sticks around to manipulate a 2D or 3D plane. It’s hard enough wrapping your brain around the actions necessary to make your on-screen avatar do anything at all, let alone trying to explain some asinine set of rules you’ve layered over those actions. Imagine if football never existed as a sport, and only as a video game. A newcomer would have to not only figure out how to control the game and manipulate it as a player, but also figure out its many, many rules on top of that. It’s hard, and would make people stop playing pretty quickly- the last thing any developer wants.

So, our games give us tools, explain how to use them, and then ask us to beat someone up. That person is hurting you, use your tools to hurt them more. Use your tools in conjunction, develop strategies, but make sure you kill them before they kill you. It’s easy to understand, caters to our natural instincts, and best of all, it’s fun.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I am the cowlord, bow before your moo-ster.

I love Harvest Moon, but it is an incredibly complicated game for being “just” about farming. Chulip, a game about love, suffers because its goals are poorly communicated and abstract. Visual novels and dating sims are derided because all you do is read. You can’t win. In order to make a complex goal, you need to simplify the game, which doesn’t sell. In order to have a complex enough game, you need to simplify the goal, which makes it easier to lean on destruction, because that does sell.

Love is complicated, love is hard, we’ve always known that. Which is why hate sells so well. We want to feel powerful, and it’s easy to feel powerful when you’re constantly proving yourself superior to everything else in the world. Eventually you become the most powerful thing in the world. Destructive power fantasy is easy. And though it’s hard for me to say it, I like it sometimes too. It’s fun to feel powerful.

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

To be fair, I can see how this might actually be a little destructive. But it's for the good of mankind!

But, It’s also fun to feel like I’m making a positive contribution to the world. It’s fun to feel like I’ve made people’s lives better in the Ace Attorney games, or changed the world a little bit in Harvest Moon, all without hurting anyone or destroying anything. Even destructive games that aren’t about violence, like Katamari Damacy or Portal are rare creatures these days.

After finishing Tomb Raider last month, I decided that I wasn’t going to play another game this year where I was doing nothing but shooting people. It’s a small gesture. I’m still going to end up playing things where I have a negative impact on the world, or primarily interact with things though violence, but I want to put down the guns at least Just as a symbolic move. I want more Harvest Moons, more Ace Attorneys, more Catherines. I don’t want to want to have to hurt a single digital soul to get them.

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The Primer- Some Lovely Games

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The Primer- Some Lovely Games

This month’s primer is about love. Falling in love, romantic love, platonic love, sexy love, and everything in between. So, games about love, basically, in some way or another. Some fail at presenting their view on love, some succeed, but all of them make love a central focus of at least a part of the game. But hey, let’s stop talking and fall in love with some games, shall we?

Chulip:

Yeah, that tree has a mustache, what of it?

Yeah, that tree has a mustache, what of it?

Chulip is a video game about consent. It’s also a video game about kissing enough people in order to gain the strength to survive a lightning bolt to the face.

Chulip is weird.

You play as a boy, who, after being rejected by the girl of his dreams, decides he has to kiss everyone in town to “strengthen his heart.” You do this by watching the daily lives of the people in town, who operate on a real-time schedule, and helping them out with their day to day lives. Once you make them happy, you can give them a kiss. If they aren’t happy, your kiss will be creepy-weird, and cause them to hit you.

Unfortunately, Chulip suffers from frustrating trial-and-error gameplay and a lack of direction. Infamously, one mission ends with your character getting struck by lightning, instantly killing you if you don’t have enough health. But the quality of the game itself aside, Chulip is fascinating as one of the few games that’s about having a positive relationship with the game world, rather than a destructive one. Hurting anyone emotionally deters or even ends your progress. Being a creep by playing on the swings at night will get you shot by cops. Kissing people who don’t want it will quickly lead to a game over. In order to progress, you need to build a positive, even loving relationship between you and the world.

But you should probably kiss someone in real life instead of playing Chulip.

 

Mass Effect 2:

You just can't find loyalty like this anymore.

You just can't find loyalty like this anymore.

Mass Effect broaches the subject of love in a few ways. There’s the obvious relationship options the game presents you with, characters your Commander Shepard can romance and bed during the adventure, each with a more embarrassing sex scene than the last. But the romantic love options will be explored in a later game on this very list, because Mass Effect 2 explores platonic love about a thousand times more effectively.

Unfortunately, not a real romance option. We can dream though.

Unfortunately, not a real romance option. We can dream though.

Essentially, Mass Effect 2 is a 20-hour long trust exercise, where success is measured by the strength of your relationships with your party. The final mission opens up fairly early on in the game. It’s easy to skip recruiting about half of your party, and go straight to the final boss after five or six hours of playtime. But your party will be slaughtered. Not because you aren’t a high enough level, but because your teammates don’t trust you.

Shepard, seen here in her Galaxy-famous Rom: SpaceKnight cosplay.

Shepard, seen here in her Galaxy-famous Rom: SpaceKnight cosplay.

Every party member you recruit can offer you a “loyalty mission”, in which you help them through some personal problem that might be distracting them while on the job to save the universe. You’re encouraged to build stronger bonds with your favourite party members so they don’t die in the final mission. And those deaths are permanent. Anyone who didn’t trust you enough is dead forever, including in Mass Effect 3. Additionally, you have to assign jobs to certain characters, and through getting to know them better, you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about who should be doing what. One wrong decision leads to a dead teammate, and no one wants that. Mass Effect 2 rewards forming relationships with these fictional characters. You’re supposed to get to know them, talk to them between missions, and help them with their personal issues, and for making friends and finding love, the game rewards you with a better ending.

Platonic love keeps you alive in space. As for romantic love...


Saint’s Row IV:

This has nothing to do with romance, it's just the greatest video game screenshot of all time

This has nothing to do with romance, it's just the greatest video game screenshot of all time

Saint’s Row is famous for being Grand Theft Auto’s wacky cousin. You know the one. They’re successful at what they do, but the older, more serious members of the family don’t really want to pay attention to them, lest it encourage them to act even wilder.But, unlike Grand Theft Auto, Saint’s Row doesn’t particularly want to be the grim, gritty reflection of society at its worst, it wants to have fun, and that means taking things a little less seriously.

The boss takes many faces, like an Ogre..

The boss takes many faces, like an Ogre..

Saint’s Row IV features a pretty extensive Mass Effect parody, down to the silver and blue spaceship that you can run around between missions. Of course, the ship is filled with your party members, and every single one can be romanced, regardless of sex, gender, orientation or humanity. It’s a goofy take on Mass Effect’s often derided romance options, which Saint’s Row reduces to a single button you press to ask the other character for some good space loving.

Where Mass Effect nails platonic relationships with a cast of characters most players end up wanting to hang out with, Saint’s Row points out that many players were just going through the romantic relationships for the ending sex scenes. But it also shines a light on a few things in its irreverence. For example, Mass Effect does essentially boil down any relationship more complicated than friendship down to a binary button prompt, rather than something more elaborate. Dating sims can afford to have a long drawn out courtship phase, Mass Effect really can’t.

...or a cold, emotionless woman with a bad nosebleed.

...or a cold, emotionless woman with a bad nosebleed.

Also, that Mass Effect severely limits the characters you Shepard can romance, and separates them by gender. In Mass Effect 3, A male Shepard can only romance certain female characters and one male, while a female Shepard can romance a handful of males and two female characters. In Mass Effect 2, there aren’t even any serious same-sex relationships at all. Shepard is meant to, at least partially, be an extension of yourself, and limiting your sexuality that way is pretty frustrating. Why can a female Shepard sleep with Liara but not Tali? Why can’t a male Shepard take his relationship with Garrus to the next level? Sure, certain characters may have predefined orientations, but does that mean aliens share our notions of sexuality? Can’t you at least make a move on them?

In a strange way, Saint’s Row IV is the single most progressive mainstream game when it comes to relationships. Your character can be male or female, sure, but also anything else you choose. They can be gay, straight, queer, into open relationships, pansexual, robosexual, whatever you choose. It’s a little bit sad that it took making fun of another game’s lack of progressiveness to get to the point where these this kind of inclusiveness is in a mainstream game, but at least we’re here at all.


Bioshock Infinite:

BioShock-Infinite-Elizabeth.jpg

Sort of like how Mass Effect tries to make an entire game about building multiple relationships, parts of Bioshock Infinite definitely want to make you fall in love with Elizabeth, your near-constant companion and combat partner.

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Not only is Elizabeth constantly around you, she’s the focus of the story, and moonlights as an on-again, off-again damsel in distress. She can interact with the world in ways you can’t, like looking through windows and sitting on benches, making her feel more real, and her animations are significantly more detailed than anything else in the game. She revives you when you die, throws out ammo when you’re running low, by all accounts, she should be a characters players grow to like by the end of the game.

The problem is that she, like most things about Bioshock Infinite, is window dressing. She’s a spawn point for ammo and health packs, and her “deeper levels of interaction” amount to sitting on benches every once in a while. It’s a cute touch, but never once does the layer actually do anything to change their relationship without the story demanding it. Where the original Bioshock is a game about player agency, Infinite tries to show what happens when you take it away. Unfortunately for it, a game centered around any relationship that removes agency sort of nullifies the whole point of a relationship.

It's up to you! Not that it really matters

It's up to you! Not that it really matters

Infinite eventually comes around to revealing the nature of your character’s relationship with Elizabeth, but at that point it doesn’t matter. Your personal history with her as a player is entirely passive, the only choice you ever make with her is what kind of brooch should go on her necklace, which amounts to a big load of nothing. Whether or not removing player agency was part of the point of Infinite is up for debate, but your relationship with Elizabeth is meant to be the core of the game, and it’s pretty hard to fall in love when you don’t have a choice.


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