Sibling Revelry: Gaming With My Sisters

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After a stressful winter semester, I traveled home for the holidays and managed to get almost a full month’s of Christmas vacation with my family. I hadn’t been home for nearly four months, which is probably the longest amount of time I’ve ever spent away from them; needless to say, I had a lot of adjusting to do. During those four months, I barely played any video games other than Pokemon Y (which I impatiently beat in about three weeks and then never touched again) and a few rounds of Age Of Empires II: HD Edition with a friend, so I was very much looking forward to logging some serious gaming hours over the break. My sisters were also home from school during this time, and much to my surprise, they were looking forward to gaming-filled nights just as much as I was.

As a matter of fact, the reason why I’m breaking my self-imposed (but reluctant) blogging silence now is simply because my sisters asked me to write a post about the games we played over the Christmas break. I know I’ve written about them multiple times, but that was before I found out that they read this blog. I’m always paranoid that when I write about real events that happened to real people, said people won’t like my interpretation of said events, and having family members read my work is like a bonus multiplier for my paranoia. The last thing I want is to feel guilty about embarrassing my family on the Internet. And speaking of paranoia, part of the reason why I’ve stayed away from blogging recently is because I’m a little wary of what I put on the Internet these days. I worry about what my future clients would think if they ever discovered this blog; to many closed-minded people, a working professional who plays and enjoys video games might as well be an untrustworthy layabout. As unfair as that is, that’s the goddamned world we live in.

My sisters, however, always give me wonderfully creative and unique gifts for Christmas because they are talented people. So far, I have given them nothing comparable in return (I once duct-taped a can of iced tea to a book because they had specifically asked for that for Christmas, which was funny, but not particularly creative). So when they asked for “another post about us gaming together,” I knew I at least owed them that much. The crazy thing is that they actually enjoy reading this stuff about themselves, despite the fact that we’re a quirky group of siblings and I sometimes like to write about our idiosyncrasies. Perhaps they find solace in the anonymity of the Internet, whereas I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop and for someone to “out” me as ________ __________, that person going to ____________ school in ___________.

What I really didn’t expect from this latest gaming session was the how much the breadth of their tastes had grown. We played some very different games over the break, including The Walking Dead: Season Two, The Stanley Parable, Xenoblade Chronicles, Back to the Future: The Game, and Tales of Graces f. I can usually get them to at least try out a game by telling them it’s mostly story-based (note Telltale’s games above) or that it features a bunch of collectable party members (note the JRPGs), but The Stanley Parable doesn’t really fall into either of these categories. It’s a weird little tongue-in-cheek indie game, and I had doubts about whether they would find it all that funny given how strange and dark it is. I got them to try it out by comparing the narration to that of Portal, which is both true and false (how very Stanley of me, I know), and much to my surprise, they eventually ended up asking me to forgo our usual JRPG sessions until we uncovered as many Stanley Parable endings as we could.

We finished up Back to the Future and moved on to the second season of The Walking Dead, which one of my sisters had been anticipating since we finished up the first season early last summer. Despite both of these games being produced by Telltale, it’s not difficult to appreciate the vast differences between the two; one is a lighthearted, simple, and quite frankly ugly race to the end of a linear storyline, and the other is a dark, complex, stylistic, and variable game produced at Telltale’s zenith. They enjoyed both of them immensely, and sometimes when we try to lie to each other, the other person will respond with “[their name] will remember that.” It’s funny every time.

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR TALES OF GRACES FOLLOW.

I received a PS3 for Christmas and proceeded to load up Tales of Graces f, the first Tales game my sisters and I had started fresh together since we took a gamble on Tales of Symphonia back in 2003 (we did finish a playthrough of Vesperia in late 2012, but I had completed it myself three years earlier). They remarked that they liked it better when I knew just as little about the plot as they did, and for that reason, I am currently banned from playing the game until we reconvene this summer. The game is kinda tough for a Tales game and the battle system makes zero sense, so we died a whole ton, but it was still our most-played game of the break by far, and they remarked that the writing was far superior to that of the other Tales games we’ve played (and they’re correct in their assessment; probably a symptom of vastly improved localization practices over at Namco).

One of our favourite parts of every new Tales game is figuring out which characters we’re going to play as. For the uninitiated, a Tales game is essentially a single-player JRPG following all the usual conventions, but the game’s big selling point for us is that up to four players can participate in battles, which play out in a hybrid 2D-3D arena using real-time mechanics that lie somewhere between Super Smash Bros. and Street Fighter. With the three of us traditionally playing alongside a fourth computer-controlled party member, the battles quickly dissolve into neon-tinged chaos, and the system in Graces is even faster than in other Tales games (the two games that sandwich it chronologically, Vesperia and Xillia, are achingly slow by comparison). I usually take the balanced sword-using character (Lloyd in Symphonia, Yuri in Vesperia) so I decided to stick with Asbel in Graces (boring, I know).

One of my sisters always has to play as the elemental mage (Genis in Symphonia, Rita in Vesperia) and will likely enjoy the game only half as much until she gets a glimpse of a short person with weird hair casting a fireball. The problem with Graces is that it tricks you into thinking cutesy Pascal is the mage at first; turns out, she’s actually a combination of long-range physical attacker and close-range magic user. My sister assumed Namco had destroyed everything she loved about playing the mage, but grudgingly played as Pascal nonetheless. When we added the ruggedly handsome guard captain Malik to our ranks, I casually checked his artes and was slightly shocked to discover that he had some long-range magic. My sister’s face lit up like it was Christmas morning (which it literally was, by the way). Malik’s stats indicate that he is more suited to being a long-range physical attacker using his bladerang, but she has made astonishingly good use of him as a long-range magic user.

The only thing is, once she started playing as Malik, she suddenly wouldn’t stop talking about him. He became her favourite character, not just in battle but in terms of design, personality, voice acting, etc. She made direct reference to his “manliness” on several occasions. I once let her continue to work through the story while I did some homework (at which point Malik had temporarily left the party, leaving her visibly distressed) and returned to find her grinning wildly. “Guess what?” she said, although I had an inkling. “Malik’s back.” I haven’t seen her since I left for school, but I would not be shocked if she built a shrine to her bearded god in the depths of her apartment.

My other sister likes to try out multiple characters until she finds one that suits her best. In Symphonia, she played Colette, who was sort of a slow-to-medium-speed physical attacker and minor ranged magic user. In Vesperia, she bounced around between a few characters before pretty much singlehandedly destroying a random battle using Repede (a quick physical attacker), after which she looked up at me with a smile on her face and announced “I think I’ve found my calling!” Similarly, it took her a while to find a character to her liking in Graces; she started off with Richard but had to give him up when he left the party, then switched to Sophie but had to give her up when we discovered she was a much more competent healer than the braindead Cheria, then eventually settled on Hubert, who is a speedy physical attacker much in the vein of Repede. Together, the two of us dive into the fray and distract opponents while the mages pepper them with spells. We enjoy having little plans and battle strategies; the Tales games are by far the most complex and demanding games that we play together.

As a lifetime as a working stiff draws ever nearer, I can feel my time for gaming (and writing, and reading, and playing hockey, and practicing guitar, and so on) slipping away. The writing’s on the wall; I’ve had time to play Tales of Xillia for two days of the past twenty-five. My life is a constant cycle of eat-school-eat-study-sleep, and I feel guilty about even thinking about video games because I know I’ll fall incredibly far behind in my work if I get tempted to play. I’ve made a daily schedule for myself, but it doesn’t include any time for games, and I hate that I have exclude something that I enjoy so much just so I don’t fail class. That’s why the month of gaming I got to do in December was so important to me, and why I treasure any time I can get to play games with my sisters; they were my earliest co-op companions and they’re still the ones I get to play games with most often. This summer will be the shortest one I’ve ever had (god bless post-undergrad), but I think we’re all very much looking forward to any time we can spend playing video games with one another, even if it’s relatively brief.

Bottom line: if you play video games with your siblings, make the most out of your time together. It will inevitably be more and more difficult for you to play games side-by-side, and some day, it will have to cease entirely as you break away to form your own families. That will be a difficult day for us when it comes, but for now, my sisters and I can still look forward to short pockets of cooperative gaming whenever we earn a brief respite from our work. I cherish these moments immensely, and I hope they feel the same.

Phil Fish: A Postmortem

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I don’t know what to make of Phil Fish.

I’ve been aware of the man for maybe two years now. I barely knew anything of FEZ until it was practically released, so I missed out on a lot of the typical Phil Fish stories that pockmarked its tumultuous development. Like a lot of people, I was mostly introduced to him through the mountain of press surrounding Indie Game: The Movie, a film ostensibly about delays that was in limbo itself for a while. When placed alongside the softspoken, thoughtful Jonathan Blow and the easygoing Edmund McMillen, many people found Fish’s behaviour neurotic, paranoid, and alienating, especially in the segments at PAX. It’s not a perfect snapshot of Fish’s personality, but it will probably remain the most personal glimpse we’ll ever see. His recently protected Twitter account was always coated in a thick layer of Internet sarcasm, and his ascerbic tweets did little to change the minds of those who had decided long ago that he was just a pretentious hipster asshole.

A few days ago, Fish and Blow ranted on Twitter about how they hate it when journalists ask them to comment on industry rumours. Marcus Beer ripped the two to shreds during a particularly harsh segment of Annoyed Gamer, then Fish got into a very public Twitter shouting match with Beer that culminated in Fish locking his Twitter account, cancelling the recently-announced FEZ II, and seceding from the game industry.

While I don’t believe for a second that Fish is actually leaving the industry for good, his farewell note was right about one thing: this explosive incident was a long time coming. Fish seems to think that a lot of the hate directed toward him the past few years is unfounded, and that people are attacking him for no reason other than that it’s cool to hate him. His detractors claim he’s a rude and provocative asshole, much more so than most of his game-design peers. I think that both sides are correct to a certain degree, but the extremely emotional lilt to this war means reconciliation is likely impossible. Phil Fish will continue to bait the haters, and they will respond in kind ad infinitum.

The original argument that led to Fish’s retreat from the industry was an escalating series of overreactions. Fish overreacted after being asked to comment on an industry rumour about indie games on Xbox One, which, since he’s a successful indie developer who has worked with Microsoft in the past, it would’ve made sense to ask for his opinion on things. I understand his argument that it puts him in a difficult position to comment on rumours, especially if they don’t turn out to be true, but if that’s the case, just quietly decline comment. No need to moan about it on Twitter. It’s possible that he was worried about it turning from an Xbox One article into a “Phil Fish Said” article, which there admittedly have been a lot of lately, but he’s just so damn quotable. He got pissed at Polygon for reaching out to “industry analyst” and documented misogynist Kevin Dent for comment last week, so this time, they humoured Fish and reached out to him for comment instead, and surprise, he explodes. Polygon et al. reached out to him and Blow for comment because they’re two of the most recognized names in indie development right now, and regardless of whether they believe it themselves, their input is valuable to people. I’ve watched the Annoyed Gamer segment, and I certainly don’t condone Beer’s tasteless name-calling either, which was an overreaction in itself. I doubt Beer originally had any sort of agenda against Fish and Blow, other than knowing that lambasting them on air would probably guarantee a large viewership and incur little blowback because lots of people hate them, but he probably felt something on a personal level when Fish told him to “kill himself.” Fish overreacted to Beer’s overreaction to Fish’s original overreaction, and the Internet just eviscerated the loudest complainer, which was Fish.

I have to disagree with the general opinion that Indie Game: The Movie made Fish look like an asshole. I saw a guy who was very absorbed in his work, who knew that he had a hit game on his hands years before indie games would become “cool” (in retrospect, FEZ‘s long development cycle probably helped it in the long run by allowing the game to be released during a time that was more indie-friendly). I sympathized with his very real fears of seeing years of hard work undone by a soured relationship with a spiteful ex-teammate. However, I could also see that he had a flair for the dramatic, as he too-easily informed the camera crew that he’d kill himself if FEZ was never released, along with his bold claim that he would make his ex-partner “a millionaire” if he would just sign the damn papers. These are probably not things most working professionals (indie or not) would say if they knew these comments would be featured in a movie that hundreds of thousands of people would watch, but Fish seems to lack that sort of filter. Still, while these comments were overly dramatic, they were hardly representative of the kind of Internet demon troll persona that people have created around Fish has become since the film was released.

I gave Fish a bit of leeway regarding Indie Game: The Movie and his infamous “Japanese Games Generally Suck” interview because of who his audience was at the time. His immediate audience in Indie Game was the camera crew, who would not have cautioned him against making these statements (if anything, they were probably double-checking to make sure they got the shot). His extended audience would be anyone who bought the movie, a large number of which were probably people who had an unfavourable opinion of him, but because of the medium, they were unable to immediately deliver any rage-filled feedback. The “Japan” panel was another case where the Internet hive mind wasn’t Fish’s immediate audience; it was all the developers and journalists gathered at the panel. He wasn’t saying these particular things to incite any rage among the gaming populace. In Indie Game, he was trying to provide dramatic soundbites, and in the “Japan” interview, he was probably trying to be funny off the cuff, which is almost impossible and he shouldn’t have tried it in the first place, but hey. It’s possible, however unlikely, that he has a hard time judging how far his words will reach when it’s just a few journalists or filmmakers in the room.

Fish’s behaviour on Twitter, however, is less excusable. It’s a direct line to his haters, and he milks it for all it’s worth. I have to admit I found it entertaining at first, and sometimes, his proclamations on what’s wrong with the industry today very nearly echo my own. But recently, not a day goes by where I don’t see him post some sort of inflammatory remark designed to drive the Internet into a frenzy, whether it’s about his game, someone else’s game, the latest industry controversy, or whatever. I saw him tearing apart Minecraft the other day, to which Notch sadly replied, “Just found out that the guy who made one of my favourite games hates my game.” For a guy who hates navigating the shitstorm of irrational abuse surrounding his own game, Fish has no problem slinging it toward other people’s creative work. When Polygon incurred his wrath for reaching out to Dent for comment last week, Fish made his case like a child, ragetweeting at Polygon’s account for hours (which, being a news feed, doesn’t reply to people) until Phil Kollar politely (and smartly) asked him to share his concerns via email. Fish (rudely, of course) insisted on keeping things as public as possible, because if Kollar is shown publicly taking the bait, then Fish wins. “I wonder what Phil Fish’s thoughts on Kevin Dent and Polygon are,” Dan Ryckert quipped.

The worst tweets, by far, are the ones where he directly attacks the gaming public. If you’re a game developer and you rely on gamers to make your living, then calling them “the fucking worst” and “fucking ingrates” and telling them to “suck my dick, choke on it” is probably cause for hiring either a therapist or a PR team. Fish knows exactly what kind of reaction he’s going to get when he hits send on these tweets, but he’ll inevitably complain about the reaction anyway. This breeds yet another cascade of furious tweets in his direction, which he’ll also reply to, and so on. I’ve seen people I know send him angry messages on Twitter, and surprisingly, he responds to every one, which makes he think that he actually reads every single negative tweet addressed to him, and he’s already admitted to reading comments on gaming sites. If this is true, then I can only imagine how unhealthy it must be for his psyche. What he needs to do is stop reading comments and @replies, because when he’s the topic at hand, the comments are likely emotional, irrationally furious, and utterly unconstructive. Replying to the hate is getting him nowhere, and it’s making him look worse in the process.

Right now, the original argument has sort of evolved into a question of whether it’s necessary for developers (or really, any kind of celebrity with an online presence) to absorb all the hate the Internet constantly throws at them. It doesn’t matter if you’re an indie developer with no ties to a publisher; if you’re going to interact with the public, for the sake of your business (and Polytron is a business, despite having few employees), you should generally strive to appear professional. These include matters where it’s necessary to deflect criticism. As you become more famous, you’ll have to face more and more of this criticism, as unfounded as it may seem at times. Try Googling “Reggie Fils-Aime is a”; the first two autofill results end with “douche” and “idiot,” and this is big, lovable Reggie we’re talking about. Ideally, anonymous people on the Internet would think twice before spouting hateful rhetoric, but I don’t think the Internet is going to budge on that point. It is what it is these days, and unfortunately, it’s probably never going to change for the better. Sadly, the onus must remain on Internet celebrities to weather the online hatestorm, which in my opinion requires skin a layer or two thicker than what celebrities are traditionally used to developing. Before Twitter, only the press had a direct line to celebrities, and the rest of the world had to witness the exchange passively and from a distance. Unthinkably, Twitter has provided a direct line between celebrities and literally everyone else on the planet, which has sort of broken down the barriers that would’ve once insulated Fish from his very vocal detractors. Still, I creepily observe Twitter exchanges between hundreds of other developers and journalists every day, and the vast majority of them manage to remain civil and professional enough that Fish definitely seems like the odd man out. Blow gets just as much hate as Fish does (most of which is unfounded, in my opinion; I think a lot of people are intimidated by Blow’s intelligence and try to pass it off as pretentiousness), but his responses are always calm, measured, and careful.

For the record, I liked FEZ a bunch. It’s one of those games where the prime mechanic is so deceptively simple that you sort of slap your forehead and wonder why no one else has thought of it yet (I had the same feeling during Braid). I didn’t expect the announcement of FEZ II, mostly because I expected Fish to move on to his next idea, like Blow and McMillen have, instead of continuing to fine-tune his first idea, but I wasn’t about to complain about more FEZ either. So when Fish cancelled the project, I admit I was disappointed. My personal opinion of the man seems to waver between “dedicated, if emotionally sensitive developer” and “caustic Internet troll,” but somewhere in between those two personalities is a guy who was making a cool video game that I would’ve purchased, and now he’s apparently no longer doing that. In this scenario, everybody loses.

Telltale’s Walking Dead: Consequences and Relationships

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Spoilers ahoy!

I’m about a year late to the Walking Dead party. My expectations were somewhat mixed going into it, since the majority of the press and blogging world considered it a Game of the Year contender, and I had to balance that against my own intimate knowledge of Telltale’s back catalogue. They make good adventure games, and I’ve played and enjoyed many of them over the years, but I had always found them to be slightly limited by their poor graphics, their focus on hit-or-miss PG-rated humour over any real story, and their reluctance to further the traditional adventure game delivery. I was also skeptical that this wasn’t just an overcompensation for the critical shellacking Telltale’s most recent game before The Walking Dead, Jurassic Park: The Game, received after a highly publicized delay in 2011.

Once I finally got around to buying it in a Steam Sale, I could actually see for myself that it was indeed Telltale’s most advanced game to date. A lot of the innovation comes from the “panic events” that require you to perform a certain action before you run out of time and meet a gruesome end, as well as the timed dialogue choices. The graphics were fine, being a surprisingly comfortable cross between Telltale’s signature cartoony style and the source comic’s own barebones character designs. The awkward shift to console-style controls that began with 2010′s Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse remains intact here, rendering the game nigh unplayable without a gamepad (seriously, how do you fuck up point-and-click controls in an adventure game?) but fortunately, there are few gameplay segments that require precision control.

You can almost ignore a lot of The Walking Dead‘s mechanics and solely focus on the interactive story, which is pretty much all people talk about anyway. This is probably Telltale’s greatest achievement to date; previous titles like Sam & Max and Tales of Monkey Island also had dialogue choices, but conversations usually followed the formula of picking all the weird answers to hear all the jokes, then picking the correct option to progress the story. There was no stress, since your choices weren’t timed, and there was no unpredictability, since no matter what you did, the story would be the exact same all the way through every single time. All the characters were completely braindead and wouldn’t remember something you had just asked them moments before. With their Walking Dead system, Telltale achieved what Bioware often struggled with: a continuous story where your choices in one episode have a drastic effect on the next installment. The original Mass Effect featured a very difficult choice where you could only save one of two people, with the other becoming absent for the remainder of the trilogy. It would be the toughest decision you would ever have to face across all three games, as the two sequels featured similar situations where characters’ lives were at stake, but lost a lot of their emotional impact when you could easily save everyone and thereby still achieve a perfect ending. There are no perfect endings in The Walking Dead; it takes that difficult decision from Mass Effect 1 and runs with it. There’s no having your cake and eating it too here.

What I  really like about the game is how unpredictable the results of your dialogue choices can often be. I’ve always felt that storytelling (in every medium, not just games) is far too honest sometimes; writers often drop clumsy hints that are rarely red herrings, and it takes a lot of the surprise out of the story. In Bioware games especially, you can easily tell which options are the “good” options and which options will result in your psychotic Jedi/Spectre/Grey Warden gleefully killing everyone in the room. In The Walking Dead, you’re often given the option to lie or offer a partial truth, and if you decide to go down that path, you’d better keep up appearances. In the first episode, you’re given the option to lie to Herschel’s son and tell him you’re Clementine’s “babysitter,” and if you accidentally tell Herschel himself that you’re someone else, you can make him incredibly suspicious of you. What I like even better than that mechanic is the fact that telling the truth isn’t necessarily always the best choice. Lee is a guy with a lot to hide, both before and during the game’s events, and depending on who you spill the beans to, you could have incredibly mixed results. At the beginning of the third episode, Carley pressures Lee to reveal his past as a convicted murder to select members of the group. If you tell innocent little Clementine, she’s visibly disturbed, although she bravely claims to understand your reasons for telling her. She’s mature for her age, but she’s still a little girl; you have to wonder whether she truly understands your motivations or if she’s simply speaking out of fear. If you don’t tell her, she finds out later, and claims she wouldn’t have cared if you had told her yourself, but, again, she’s eight. Telling your BFF Kenny leads to the predictable reaction of him reaffirming his faith in Lee (after first making sure that he’s not a child molester with Duck in his sights), while telling his wife completely horrifies her. You would think telling Lilly would enrage her, since she is already generally pissed at the beginning of the episode and is holding a grudge against Lee for his complicity in her father’s death, but she simply says that Larry already told her Lee’s tale. Telling Ben makes him incredibly nervous, and you later discover it’s because he’s fearful of what might happen if someone in the camp discovers he’s been pilfering supplies. Later, during a heated argument, Lilly drops the bomb on the group to gain leverage, and Kenny completely erodes said leverage by telling her Lee already confessed to him, and he doesn’t care. However, if you hadn’t already told Kenny about your past, he feels quite shocked and betrayed.

Of course, the big twist comes at the end of episode four, where Lee gets bitten. It’s just a tiny nick on his wrist, and you immediately wonder whether he might be all right in the end, despite knowing that a bite of any kind is a death sentence. It was a good direction for the plot to go in, and it certainly jived with the anything-goes tone of the comics and TV series, but people who aren’t familiar with Telltale’s repertoire should understand that this happens in every single one of their games. At the end of the fourth episode, something dark happens that leaves the audience with a huge cliffhanger (spoilers for Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Tales of Monkey Island, and Back to the Future: The Game):

  • In Sam & Max: The Devil’s Playhouse, Max becomes a mindless eldritch monster, and his best friend realizes he has no choice but to put him down.
  • In Tales of Monkey Island, Guybrush Threepwood actually dies. He begins the next episode in hell.
  • In Back to the Future: The Game, Doc Brown coldly turns his back on Marty and becomes the active antagonist.

(Spoilers for other Telltale games end)

So Lee getting bitten is pretty much par for the course for Telltale. But that being said, I didn’t feel like Lee’s eventual death was just shock value. No one in the Walking Dead universe has much of a future; they’re just surviving until their luck runs out. All the adults, who have already lived through the peak of their lives and know everything’s gone, don’t have much of a story left to tell, and Lee’s story was never really about redemption for what was a questionable conviction in the first place; his story was always about giving Clementine a chance. Without Lee, she would have starved to death in her treehouse, but Lee taught her how to fend for herself both physically and emotionally. One of the game’s greatest strengths is the sense of pride one gets from shaping Clementine’s mindset and helping her evolve from a helpless little girl to a girl that isn’t necessarily hardened or steely, but still tangibly stronger. The Clementine in the treehouse at the beginning of episode 1 isn’t the same Clementine that shoots Lee in the head at the end of episode 5, and yet she’s still sweet, cute, and ultimately likable. Telltale could’ve easily turned her into a foulmouthed parody of herself by the end of the game, but they fortunately took the much more difficult path of changing her behaviour subtly while retaining her endearing humanity.

In the game’s final decision, Telltale allows you to choose whether Clementine puts Lee out of his misery or not, but I would’ve even taken it a step further and completely taken it out of the player’s hands. Have Lee’s fate (and really, your fate, since it’s hard not to think of yourself as Lee while playing through the game) ultimately decided by the sorts of things he decides to teach Clementine over the course of the series. Offer to shoot Duck for Kenny and Katjaa? The computer tallies a point toward Clementine’s “shoot” total, since she now thinks that mercy-killing someone, as bad as that is, is preferable to allowing them to become a zombie. Refuse to help Kenny kill Larry in the meat locker? That’s a point for “run,” since she witnessed you arguing that there’s a chance Larry might wake up (and at the end of the game, she desperately wants to believe that Lee will shake off his illness). In the actual game, this calculation of totals is exactly what happens when you let the timer run out and refuse to decide your own fate, so it’s nice to see that there’s at least an option where you can allow Clementine to decide for you. The whole game is all about your relationship with this little girl, so I feel it would be entirely fitting for the game’s final event to be something of a culmination of your efforts. Reap what you’ve sown, Lee!

What I’d Like to See From Nintendo at E3 2013

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By now, it’s well-known that Nintendo has decided to forgo a traditional E3 presser this year in favour of a Nintendo Direct livestream. I had initially wanted to write a few words on that particular decision (basically, I think it’s a dumb one; the Nintendo Direct should’ve been used to support the E3 presser, just like last year), but time flew by and now that we’re on the eve of E3, it’s kind of a moot point.

I probably won’t write articles like this for Sony and Microsoft. I’ve always been a Nintendo fanboy, although as I’ve grown older, I’ve gotten better at recognizing how alienating and puzzling the company’s business practices can be at times. I desperately want the company to turn around its recent slump because I know that at some point I must buy a Wii U, but the pragmatic person in me knows that buying one now, when the price is high, the memory is low, and the game library is meager, wouldn’t be in my best interests. Nintendo’s games have always been my favourite of any developer, so I really don’t care if the Wii U remains devoid of third-party support; I fully intend to buy it as nothing more than a box that will allow me to play Mario and Zelda games.

Here are a few things that I’d like to see Nintendo do at E3 2013:

1. Adjust Wii U price/SKU – The white 8GB Basic model is Basically useless (ha). A tiny little bit of memory (much of which is taken up by the OS) and no pack-in game. Apparently it’s not selling so hot (and despite Nintendo’s claims that the Basic stock is only being “rebalanced,” rumours continue to fly that it’ll stop being sold at retailers after E3), so what Nintendo should do is pull the plug on the Basic model and cut the Premium model’s price by $50 (so it’s the same price as the $300 Basic set). This seems like a likely scenario, but in my fantasy land, the Premium slips to $250 and the new Premium (with 100GB+ memory) retails for $300.  I doubt this will ever happen, but then again, I didn’t see the 3DS receiving a $70 price cut after 6 months either. In the increasingly digital world we live in, 32GB is still next to nothing in terms of memory, and really, screw USB sticks and SD cards. HDD Memory is cheap; add some more!

2. Phase out DS and Wii games – I know this one is probably a given, but we got new Pokemon DS games a year and a half into the 3DS’ lifespan, so who knows. Still, everything’s gotta be 3DS and Wii focused at this point. Let the old, inferior systems wither away and die. The 3DS is a bonafide success now, and with enough attention, the Wii U can be, too.

3. All the games – In light of Microsoft’s and Sony’s current DRM/online debacle, this is Nintendo’s big chance to regain some lost ground. Right now, there is little reason to be excited for any of the three next gen consoles. However, Nintendo’s console has a head start, supports used games, and isn’t always online, so if they give gamers a reason to want to buy their console for its software selection (rather than just to circumvent ridiculous DRM), they’ll really have a chance to begin driving the nail deep here. Everyone thought Wii U was dead in the water after a tumultuous first 3 months at retail, but it’s received a second chance with the increasingly messy reveals of the PS4 and Xbox One. So crank out Wind Waker HD as fast as you can, but get either the new 3D Mario or Super Smash Bros. out by Christmas, too. If it’s 2014 before the Wii U has a killer app (sorry, but Pikmin 3, Wind Waker HD, and Mario Kart don’t count), then the battle will be all but lost at that point. A year and a half of no killer apps will be too long of a drought for most fans to endure.

4. Pipe dream games – I’m just gonna lay out my personal wishlist here, as unlikely as some of these games may seem. Firstly, I hope they don’t fuck up the new Smash Bros. somehow by either a) turning it into a traditional 2D fighter or b) introducing a new gimmick, like tag-team a la Mario Kart: Double Dash. Just give me new characters and I’ll be fine. Secondly, I’d like to see more of the Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem crossover from Atlus, as well as Monolithsoft’s new X game. Finally, I’d like to see the Golden Sun series concluded with a fourth installment. The third game had a weird (and quite frankly, bad) story which started off being about a certain plot point only to completely abandon it two hours in, then picked up said plot point again in the dying seconds of the game. That ain’t no way to end a series. Still, Camelot’s working on Mario Golf right now, and I think Golden Sun: Dark Dawn ended up receiving middling reviews and sales, so it’s entirely likely the series is dead. Sad face.

With Nintendo’s E3 Direct scheduled to be only an hour long, I have a feeling the focus is going to be on the games rather than the hardware. And really, this is the way it should be. Pack the Nintendo Direct full of crazy game announcements, then relegate the price changes to a press release. Hopefully this is what will happen, but of course, their track record indicates that Tuesday’s stream will potentially be a mishmash of Wii U features we already know about, a series of “classic” games coming to the eShop that most people pirated years ago, and a showcase of recently-released 3DS games, all sandwiched between shots of Satoru Iwata staring at fruit.

Mother’s Day Special

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My mother reads my blog. I’m sure your mother does too, even if you think she doesn’t. You probably mentioned it to her once offhand, she laughed and told you what a clever name you picked, she secretly Googled the name after you left, she proceeded to read every article in your archive, she blushed at the language, and now she’s eagerly awaiting your next post. Despite your paranoia, she’s probably not doing it to keep tabs on your cyber-life; more likely, she has always thought you were a great writer, and she just wants to read some more of her beloved child’s creative output.

My mom would probably read my blog regardless of what I wrote about. It could be a blog dedicated to my favourite serial killers and she’d still come back for each new top ten list. However, because I write about video games, there’s a personal connection there for her. In addition to dabbling with Pac-Man and Pong during her university years, she’s been playing video games with and without me fairly regularly over the past few years. It’s given us a neat hobby that we can enjoy together, one that a lot of mothers and sons probably don’t share simply because there’s a generation gap there: we grew up in a time when games were incredibly popular and complex and they didn’t.

I think the very first time I watched her play a game was when I let her play the fishing minigame in Twilight Princess. It was calm, inoffensive, satisfying, and fairly easy to control, making it a good introduction to gaming for a non-gamer like herself. When she expressed desire for a deeper fishing experience, I went out and bought Hudson’s Fishing Master, which had the advantage of being a dedicated fishing game with more advanced controls and a wider variety of fish to catch (over 100 fish compared to Twilight Princess‘s 6 or so). If I remember correctly, it had a multiplayer fishing derby mode too. We played the crap out of it for a good while.

I think the first game that we played actual co-op together was Super Smash Bros. Brawl, of all things. We played through the entire story mode a few summers ago, which was pretty fun. I would take the lead while she provided support, running along behind me and beating the crap out of anything that crept up on me. Even without enemies, just making it through the treacherous platforming sections of the labyrinthine Subspace Emissary levels was a challenge in itself, and the game provided a helpful “cheater button” that would instantly warp her back to my side if she found herself stuck in a wall or falling into a bottomless pit. Although she liked Meta Knight and Pit because their multiple jumps reduced the chances that she’d land in one of said bottomless pits, Captain Falcon was her all-time favourite mainly because of his raw power.

Since she likes to exercise, I bought her Wii Fit as a Mother’s Day gift a few years back. Although we do the yoga and the strength exercises and enjoy them enough, she likes the balance board minigames a lot too. While I was at university one winter, she spent a good amount of time practicing the snowball fight minigame to the point where she owned the entire board of high scores, and even though I tried my hardest, I could not crack any of her scores. She is actually the best Wii Fit snowball fighter I have ever seen. To see her play this game is to suddenly feel great shame re: your own sluggish reflexes.

When I first started using Steam regularly, one of the first games I bought was Plants vs. Zombies. I showed it to my mom because I thought she’d find the character designs cute, and I forget exactly what happened next, but it ultimately ended up with her playing the heck out of the thing while I twiddled my thumbs and waited patiently for her to return my computer. I bought her a copy for herself, then another copy for the DS she would eventually inherit from me, then a third copy for the iPhone she would buy the next year. She still plays the game regularly, but I mean, the thing isn’t even a challenge for her anymore. She never loses. Her in-game wallet has long since stopped counting her money (it maxes out at $999,900, in case you were wondering). When I told her Plants vs. Zombies 2: It’s About Time was finally coming out in July, she was overjoyed, and she jokingly inquired about midnight launches in our area. At least, I’m assuming it was a joke.

It was in early 2011 that she began to show interest in Animal Crossing, so I gave her my DS Lite and treated myself to a 3DS preorder. I bought two copies of Wild World and told her that she could live in one town, I’d live in the other, and we could visit each other whenever we liked. Well, she got pretty good at making money pretty fast, and by the time she finally became debt-free, I was still paying off my second expansion. The thing is, she actually knows stuff about interior design, so her mansion actually looks like a coherent, smartly furnished work of art, whereas my shit shack is a glutted mess of indoor barbecues, lava lamps, and electric guitars. I’m finally on my last mortgage payment right now thanks in no small part to the fact that she likes dropping bags of money around my town, but boy, has she made me work for those Bells (she likes hiding them behind buildings, which, thanks to the game’s lone camera angle, means they’re virtually impossible to see). She once dug a ring of holes around a bag of Bells and then planted pitfall seeds in each one, creating an effective booby trap. I once visited her town only to find nearly every square inch of the place covered in Bells, almost as if she had paved the streets with her wealth in an egregious display of opulence.

Right now, we’ve got a few games on the go. She still plays Plants vs. Zombies often enough, but we also started Telltale’s The Walking Dead a few weeks back. She’s a big fan of the show and she already understands the lore, so this one was a no-brainer. Being an adventure game, the emphasis on story and dialogue means that we have fewer pointless action sequences to trudge through. We’ve also been playing Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, which I told her had the same basic gameplay as Brawl‘s Subspace Emissary. She’s become something of a boss-killer as Meta Knight; whenever a difficult fight comes up, I unchain her and she becomes a whirling dervish of barely contained fury while I just kind of whistle in the corner.

I’m glad that my mom has taken an interest in something that I’m deeply invested in. She sometimes worries that she’s a bad co-op partner or that she’s holding me back by dying too much, but of course that’s not what I care about. The important thing to me is that we’re spending time together, and although we have many other hobbies that we frequently enjoy together (gardening, for example), gaming always felt like one of the few things I could teach her about, rather than the other way around. I’m very grateful that she’s had the patience to play with me for these last few years, because games these days often have a high barrier of entry if you’re not already familiar with the medium. Even if, some day, we stop playing some of these games together, I can always go back and look at the perceptible marks she’s left on many of them: her high scores in Wii Fit Plus, her nametag in Smash Bros., her profile in Fishing Master (complete with dog custom-named “Hercules”). And if I want to look at something she personally did for me in a video game, I can read any of the dozens of loving, thoughtful letters she’s mailed to me in Animal Crossing, the kind that only a mother can write. I’ve saved every single one.

David Cage and Mature Games

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Last weekend, David Cage debuted 35 minutes of Beyond: Two Souls gameplay at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was the second time a game had been shown at De Niro’s big ooh-la-la event after L.A. Noire was shown in 2011. Both games have been roundly criticized for being little more than interactive movies (and Beyond isn’t even out yet), which I’m assuming is why Tribeca thought it would be appropriate to “screen” video games at an event dedicated to passive media.

Cage has been in the media spotlight an awful lot this year for his outspoken thoughts on what video game designers can do to elevate their medium. His interviews make it clear what his stance is: truly artful games should be able to induce some kind of strong emotion in the player. Okay, you think, that makes sense. Quantic Dream’s portfolio, however, shows that Cage thinks he can only get this kind of reaction by shocking the player until they feel something, anything (usually horror or revulsion). Cage’s latest talks seem to reinforce this misguided sense of emotional engagement, as he has criticized the industry for shying away from the supposedly “mature” content that he loves to sprinkle around his own games.

To Cage, games can’t be emotionally engaging pieces of art unless they’re willing to explore “mature themes.” He has repeatedly challenged the game industry to move beyond the barriers of what’s politically correct and start representing stuff that has, for whatever reason, traditionally been considered too “taboo” for a mainstream audience. This means stuff that would earn a film a solid “R” rating, and stuff that admittedly very few video games have even bothered to look at in an artistic capacity because the medium is still perceived by the mainstream media to be some kind of Satanic murder-addiction simulator. So there’s one hurdle right there, but even if that was no longer an issue, I still don’t find the material in Quantic Dream’s games to be overly representative of this much-vaunted “mature content” that is supposedly going to fuel the emotional drive of games.

I look at Beyond and I don’t see a “mature” game. I see a developer ticking off every gritty, edgy shock factor on his checklist: homelessness, suicide, sexual harassment, prostitution, random acts of violence, domestic abuse, and, er, the graphic chaos of childbirth. Look at Heavy Rain‘s rap sheet: drug addiction, sexual assault, violent serial homicides, nudity, plain ol’ sex, being forced to cut off your own finger, frequent profanity. It’s the same style of design that made me roll my eyes when Hideo Kojima wondered aloud to a reporter whether Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes would be too “taboo” to release. There is nothing inherently wrong with depicting this sort of content in a video game or any other piece of creative media; there is certainly a place in the world for gritty realism and the uncensored ugliness of humanity. But Cage is using it as a shortcut to emotion because he knows it’s provocative and he knows that the player can’t help but feel a surge of something when he or she plays through these scenes. Whatever it is, it’s not the rich flavour of emotion that’s going to supposedly elevate our medium to Ebert’s notice, God rest his soul; no, it’s the cheap stuff, the drama equivalent of a Michael Bay movie.

We all know that Cage wishes he was making movies. Beyond is a game that plays like an interactive movie, uses cinematography common in today’s blockbusters, uses famous actors and actresses for voiceovers, and gives said actors top billing on the game’s cover art, just like a movie poster. He’s now attempting to play catch-up with the film industry, but rather than emulating the best, most meaningful material, he’s sticking with the stuff that’s firmly B-grade. I suspect that’s more a limitation caused by the quality of his writing than anything, but with Beyond, it feels like he’s aiming for something highbrow and thought-provoking and merely ending up with a collection of tropes centred around sex, violence, and poverty.

I’m not sure that true maturity is so easily achieved by slapping a pile of send-the-kids-to-bed content on your game. The concept is as hard to define in games as it is in real life (How can you tell when someone is a mature adult? At what age do they become mature, or, if it’s not a question of age, then what changes in their personality/behaviour/lifestyle identify them as “mature?”) For me, I think the best kind of maturity just kind of comes naturally to some games, as if they’re not even concerned with being taken seriously by that horribly self-conscious 18-25 year-old demographic. I’m in my twenties, and I just finished Super Mario 64 for the first time; to me, it’s an incredibly mature game. It’s unconcerned with pandering to an adult audience, yet it’s not entirely designed with children in mind (googly-eyed enemy designs aside). Several Power Stars are deviously hidden, with little to no clues as to where they might be sealed away; I’m not sure my six-year-old self could’ve found some of these Stars without outside help. Then there’s the controls and the camera, which provide a mechanical entry barrier as well. Mario 64 also exploited physics in ways that few games before it did; I wonder how many younger brothers and sisters were first introduced to ballistic trajectories via suicide-by-Bob-Omb-Cannon? The fact that many adult reviewers still consider Mario 64 to be one of the best games of all time is telling; it’s truly a game that can be appreciated by anyone, regardless of demographic. That, to me, is the true “mature game”: no pretensions, no cheap shots, just great gameplay that pretty much anyone can enjoy. If anything, I think a game that outrageously fetishizes sex and violence is just as juvenile as a cutesy, simplistic platformer designed only for five-year-olds; neither aspires to the naturally-acquired maturity of Super Mario 64.

If you want something a little more adult-oriented, something with a little more substance, then take a look at Half-Life 2. Yes, there’s a bit of horror arguably thrown in there for shock value, but I feel Ravenholm was intended to change up the gameplay style more than anything else (ie. a tense, survival-horror zombie level before zombie levels were cool). Other than that, we get a pretty good sci-fi story that deals with Cage’s “mature” tropes in far less heavy-handed ways. I would say Portal‘s probably an even better example, but that game is more of a living subversion of standard game tropes than anything else, whereas Half-Life 2 is the traditional, unironic, straightforward video game. Portal‘s slightly-edgy-but-never-truly-offensive humour combined with its self-awareness make it a game whose narrative could probably only be truly appreciated by adults. That being said, a pubescent could probably still complete all the puzzles in a few hours and, despite not fully absorbing the dialogue and its underlying implications, still feel like they accomplished a feat. These games, too, have a sort of all-ages appeal to them (albeit Portal moreso than Half-Life).

Perhaps I’m just sick of people like Cage assuming that gritty, hard-hitting tropes are cruise control for art. It’s not that easy, and even those Cage thinks he’s the only one doing it, other types of media are flooded with this sort of material. Every once in a while I do find it makes for a compelling narrative or provides a relevant backdrop, but more often than not, I just feel like I’m adrift in a sea of edgy content designed to make me uncomfortable on some level. It gets tiresome after a while, and in the worst cases, I actually resent the fact that these films/music/games/books think they can get a cheap rise out of me so easily.

Honestly, if we accept that David Cage’s writing and storytelling (which is really all we can judge his games on, since they contain little actual gameplay of note) are going to suddenly catapult games into the realm of serious business, then we’re giving him way too much credit. He named his homeless main character Jodie Holmes. Aiden is the mysterious entity who’s aidin’ her. Yes, Cage is a master of depth and subtlety. Seriously though, watch the Tribeca gameplay. Have you ever seen a more on-the-nose collection of homeless people?

Do We Need a “Roger Ebert” of Video Games?

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When Roger Ebert died a few weeks back, one particular tweet stood out among all the condolences in my Twitter feed. I think it was Bitmob’s Dan “Shoe” Hsu who said it, but I can’t remember for sure; at any rate, the tweet lamented the fact that the world of gaming criticism lacks its own Roger Ebert, and it suggested that perhaps this is truly why video games are still not considered “art.” I’ve been wrestling with this argument for a while, and I still can’t definitively say whether I agree with it or not. But hey, I can still talk a bit about what points I’ve been considering.

I’ve always liked to imagine that great art is great art; it can stand on its own, regardless of criticism, and remain “art.” The ideal piece of art would be immune to subjective deconstruction; everyone in their right mind would be able to look at the thing and recognize it as a work of art. Citizen Kane and the Mona Lisa, for example. Of course, the reality is that remaining purely objective is impossible for any human being, and in the end, we’re still the ones bestowing the titles of “art” upon thing we’ve deemed worthy, according to our own rules and biases. It was around this time I was forced to acknowledge that, unfortunately, “art” is far more subjective than I would have ideally admitted, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

I began to lend a bit more credence to Shoe’s (?) argument. Say that, as gamers, we’re suddenly vastly interested in whether our industry is taken seriously as an art form. Will we have to ultimately depend on another human being to tell us that this is so? Do we need our own Roger Ebert mega-critic to act as the arbiter of all that is Artful in games? It’s entirely possible this will be the case. Like it or not, something can only achieve “art” status if enough people deem it so, and equal weight is not given to everyone’s opinion. People respected Ebert more than most critics because he was smart, prolific, fastidious in his research, and all above all, he was incredibly persuasive and convincing. I’m not a movie guy by any stretch, but I do have a strong opinion of every movie I’ve seen; I sometimes read reviews (including Ebert’s) to see whether the opinions of the connoisseurs jive with my own. Even if Ebert disagreed with me, I rarely became angry while reading his reviews; if anything, they sometimes forced me to rethink my position entirely. No one likes to admit that their opinions are so malleable, but I respect anyone who can convince me that I could, in fact, be very wrong. For me, it has more to do with the words on the page than the name behind them, but I recognize that for many people, the two are inextricably linked and together can exert a profound influence on people’s supposedly “independent” opinions.

The thing that kills me about the video game world is that there are legions of reviewers but no true critics. I’ve seen very few writers demonstrate the ability to critique a game in the measured, intelligent, and thoughtful way Ebert so often did. Tom Bissell has probably come the closest out of anyone I’ve read, which is a shame, because he’s not even a full-time games writer. I think about the handful of games journalists whose writing I consistently enjoy– Brian Crecente (Polygon), Ben Kuchera (Penny Arcade Report), Owen Good (Kotaku), and John Walker (Rock Paper Shotgun)– and I’m still forced to recognize that not one of them could ever do for the game world what Ebert did for film. That role will have to fall to a better writer and thinker than these four blokes, as decent as they may be.

Aside from possessing a sharp wit and an immense amount of comparative games knowledge, the “Roger Ebert of Games” will also have to be as visible as his namesake. I’m sure there’s some brilliant writer slaving away in the bowels of WordPress and writing incredibly nuanced critiques of Bioshock for ten pageviews a day, but if no one reads his work, does it have the same impact? In this context, of course not. Everyone knew who Ebert was, and most people generally respected his opinion. When he decided to declare that such-and-such-thing is/isn’t art, the world took note. The “Roger Ebert of Video Games” will have to achieve a certain level of fame (hopefully through viral recommendation fed by immense respect) so that his or her pronouncements on “art” can achieve a degree of penetration in mainstream culture. In this day and age, I find it unlikely that any critic of any medium will ever reach the levels of fame Ebert attained, but even a moderate amount of celebrity would probably do. As it stands, do you think any content curators at the New York Times have heard of Leigh Alexander or Jeff Gerstmann? And yet these people are famous in our industry.

I suppose I still haven’t answered the main question here: “Do video games need their own Ebert?” “Can’t we just enjoy great games without having to worry about whether haughty critics consider them art?” Sure we can, but I’d like to see them receive more mainstream recognition as well as some serious critical attention. Perhaps I’m blinded by my love of the medium and the industry that supports it, but I think games are certainly worthy of serious criticism, and I want to make sure the rest of the world knows it, too. Personally, I do wish there was an “Ebert of Video Games,” if only because it would mean that the average person would finally pay some goddamn attention to us (by us, I mean the games bloggers/aspiring games journalists I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with for the past few months). And I’d get to read great, thoughtful articles from said Games-Ebert, too, which I guess is really my ultimate goal: to get smart people to write about video games for my own benefit.