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.

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!