Archive for July, 2014

The End of Something: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love The Secret World

Posted on: July 23rd, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

“They finally immanentized the Eschaton”
The Eye and the Pyramid (from the Illuminatus Trilogy),
by Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson

“…Mountains sit in a line, Leonard Bernstein…”

Unlike most roleplaying games, Funcom’s The Secret World doesn’t hide the apocalypse behind vague prophesy or in a pocket dimension at the terminus of time. The End isn’t couched in the endgame, something to anticipate and prevent. It isn’t a matter of a final showdown, or a final revelation. In The Secret World, the eschatalogical event is the main floor show and the opening act. Even the lowliest lowbies, fresh from their faction hubs, quickly learn that what they’ve been made privy to is, quite literally, the end of the world as we know it.

Zombies and sea beasts have all but overrun the once sleepy (now feverishly tossing) town of Kingsmouth. The small Egyptian settlement of Al’Merayah is besieged by a legion of Filth infected cultists and the Biblical plagues (those are some big goddamn bugs) seem to have returned in full force. The Transylvanian village of Har’baburesti stands on the front line of a vicious vampire crusade as the monstrous legacies of Soviet experimentation emerge from their former obscurity and stomp across the frozen ground of the Carpathians. In Tokyo, the dark, viscous substance known mainly as “The Filth” (that same mysterious abomination that lies at the root of the global conflagration) pours out of the subway tunnels and snakes up the sides of skyscrapers. A massive Quarantine wall has been erected around the affected area, but while it does appear imposing, even oppressive, to the fleshy human observer, some of the Filth monsters can fly. The Filth is infectious, virulent. It overtakes and corrupts any ordinary life form it comes in contact with. It’s only a matter of time.

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Strangely enough, the power remains on in Kaidan (the epicenter of the Tokyo disaster). The streets are well lit. The billboards and neon signs wink at their surroundings. But the sidewalks and the roads are eerily empty, eerily quiet. What remains of the citizenry has long been transformed by the squirming blackness.

These recently infected once-people are the most disturbing of all, worse than the giant locusts, or the vampiric soldiers, or the ravening undead. You encounter them in every corner of the world, humanoid husks (many wearing the clothes they were “caught” in) with blackened skin and glowing eyes. They don’t merely growl, or snarl, or chitter. They speak, they rant. The ones in Kingsmouth rant in English, one moment pleading for some unmentioned entity to leave them alone, to get out of their head, the next obsessing over their misplaced keys. The ones in Kaidan speak mostly in Japanese (which I don’t understand), but a few of them, on spotting an investigator, have been known to utter a hearty “fuck you” as they pull their target toward them (at least I think that’s what they’re saying).

While the Bees, Gaia’s Chosen, (the players) have the enviable benefit of functional immortality, and the heads of the Illuminati, the Dragon, and the Knights Templar do their best to put on a confident facade, there is no permanent safety in this new world. Even as you relax over a pint in Ealdwick (the Diagon Alley of The Secret World), or watch the rain from a Karaoke bar in Seoul, or rub shoulders with the occulted hipsters of Brooklyn, you understand that all too often a haven is, in fact, merely the eye of the hurricane. Somewhere out there, the darkness isn’t waiting. It’s tearing the world apart, slowly but surely, molecule by molecule.

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The Ghost of Gaming Past

Posted on: July 9th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Insofar as I can recall, my first console was a surprise gift from a visiting relative, an unexpected and (at the time) incomprehensible boon. Gaming was still very new to the Russian mainstream, and while I understood enough to be excited, I had absolutely no idea what to expect. There were no commercials on the television. There were no video game magazines that I was aware of. Nobody I knew owned anything more advanced than a Game and Watch trinket, more mechanical marvel than digital art. The console came in a colorful (in that early 90’s way), tape encrusted box bearing a photograph of a black, plastic thingamabob. Both the lettering on the package and the instructions were printed in pictograms, mysterious and inscrutable foreign symbols. I’ll never know for sure what language the text was in. I’ll never find the box, even if, by some miracle, it still exists.

I don’t remember much of what transpired between our receiving the enigmatic treasure and those first moments of play. The system, which was, in fact, black and plastic, came with a single cartridge, which was yellow and plastic. When we turned it on, the television began to play a melancholy chip tune. There was a pixellated sky, a pixellated ocean, and a line of pixellated beach, complete with pixellated palm trees. On opposing sides of the screen stood two pixellated figures, presumably a man and a woman.

In the space between them stood a wall of more incomprehensible pictograms, each line marked by the much more familiar Arabic numerals. I quickly discovered that I could cycle from line to line using the directional buttons on the controller (which, at the time, appeared to be delightfully alien and thrillingly advanced, like some artifact out of a science fiction movie), and that moving past the bottom of the list would bring up a whole new page, make the man and the woman take a step toward one another, and move the big, pixellated sun down closer to the horizon. In the end, it was nighttime on the beach. The man and the woman sat together around a bonfire…I think. Or maybe they kissed? Google hasn’t been especially helpful (maybe I’m not searching for the right terms), so all I have to go on is my memory. How many copies of that bootleg cartridge were ever assembled, I wonder – a few thousand, a few hundred, just the one? How many are still intact?

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Summer Madness; The Lingering Effect

Posted on: July 3rd, 2014 by Arie Salih

It’s late out. I’m dressed in an old rustic brown striped coat, and I’m quietly staring at the Chicago skyline glittering from the abandoned rooftop of an old warehouse. I went up here to hack a ctOS server in order to get the power grid back on, and numerous activities have now surfaced on my map of the city. Most of these activities involve “Fixer” contracts to take down a criminal on a designated set path before they arrive to their destination, or “Gang” missions to clear out a large number of faceless goons, to help stabilize the city.

But none of the modes of engagement in Watch_Dogs feel more fascinating than taking a stroll around the city and enjoying the ambiance. I’ve been following BLANK, a fellow insomniac that’s drifting about in the late hours. Observing the pedestrian behavior of the random inhabitants in the city is a marvel in itself. On our walk around the block, I stop and am transfixed by the sight of a freestyle battle, complete with a boombox. Two rappers are flowing back and forth about guns and cars, while a group of onlookers move robotically in rhythm to the verses dropped in succession. Across the yard, I catch sight of a man juggling a soccer ball with great skill – awestruck by his endless energy in popping the ball up without letting it hit the ground.

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I must’ve watched BLANK kick the ball for nearly five minutes, before realizing that the freestyle battle has been looping. The character behavior that can appear so wonderful, and completely immersive, is broken if you stick around too long. It’s the lingering effect – a rule in open world titles; it breaks credibility if you stare hard enough, or wait around to see if something dynamic will occur. Often times, following a unique individual halfway across Chicago results in nothing more than a beautiful walk as the day/night cycle marches on outside of scripted missions. I carefully nudge the soccer aficionado enough to stop the juggling, only to be met with an angry remark (“HEY WATCH OUT!”). I watch the man enter a walking animation as the ball drifts into the street, as if he and I both were pretending that he wasn’t Franck Ribéry’s spiritual successor in the World Cup.

The dynamic behavior of NPCs, and a player’s interaction with the world, can vary dramatically. And that’s a piece of the open world genre that is evolving, but very slowly. As I ambled about in Chicago, trailing the insomniac, I paused and witnessed two drivers get into a fender bender. The tires screeched as a car went slamming into the back of another. I stopped trailing to watch the drivers get out of their vehicles – each muttering some expression of their own disappointment. Neither seemed to acknowledge the other’s presence, and each were trapped in their own thoughts about being upset with the situation. After nearly a minute of yelling out loudly (not at each other, but to themselves), they both calmly walked away from the scene, carefree as their smashed cars lay deserted and smoking in the street.

And it’s precisely this – that even in the best roleplaying scenario, I’m invisible. Utterly, and completely. Outside of prescribed crimes to intervene in, or mini-map objective markers placed to engage in a chase or assassination, I’m Aiden Pearce – a blank slate of a man, willing to destroy and kill thousands to protect his sister and nephew. I can be a vigilante when the notification pops up, signaling that a crime is about to occur. I can hack into other’s phones, read text conversations or listen in on phone calls, but I can’t speak to anyone. I get yelled at occasionally for disrupting another person from incessantly continuing their animated activity – usually by mistakenly bumping into them. I start to forget that my character has a voice, until I fall from great heights to hear his howling, or him grunting from pain. I don’t utter words, or have meaningful interactions with anyone in the city. I’ve got a phone – a phone to be endlessly entertained by: live vicariously through the funny little messages of other people, or hear terse phone calls that occasionally end in a bit of surprise. I can use this phone to spy on the people walking around, or playing soccer for hours, or to go on scary digital trips. In one, aptly titled “Alone,” I’m being hunted by city dwellers (transformed into monstrous robots) in the darkness, and I’ve got to creep about in order to liberate sections of the city without getting attacked. It’s a silent nightmare.

It reminds me of Leigh Alexander’s critical piece concerning power fantasies and the lack of interaction in Grand Theft Auto V (Link !). She writes: “I drive my shiny car around Los Santos and I kind of wish I had a turn signal. Stranded in traffic, I honk the horn over and over again, and nobody moves. I am triangulated by some missions, none of which I really want to do, stuck in the city’s web of repetition.” It’s a similar situation – we’ve got guns, batons to beat down the bad guys, and this time around, a phone to manipulate the environment to kill more bad guys. At least in this iteration, there’s a new emphasis on stealth-killing all the “red ones,” in closed areas, if you so choose, even as the plot remains mired in family melodrama and superficial hacking psychosis. But there’s the rub – the story mission markers directly force you into closed areas to take out enemies. The more open, expansive backdrop of Chicago is there for you to peacefully enjoy how you see fit, silently. Just don’t linger too long.