Archive for the ‘Games as Art’ Category

Don’t Look Back: Choice, Consequence, Unrest

Posted on: August 2nd, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

The Next Leap…

The mission prompt informs me that I am now Tanya, an introverted, intelligent peasant girl of fifteen, but it doesn’t really insist on it. Following the introductory sentence, the narration shifts to the third person. And that’s just as well, I figure. From my experience with the two preceding vignettes, short but potent, I know that I ought not become too attached, lest heartbreak follow. Pyrodactyl’s Unrest, with its heady mix of fictional politics and human drama and its cast worthy of a Tolstoy novel, is not, after all, Tanya’s story. Not exclusively, in any case. I have a god’s eye view (paradoxically both detached and focused) of her drought stricken village, but I have already learned that my power is limited. I am not God. I am not even Doctor Sam Beckett. According to the description on the tin: “…there are no heroes of legend, there is no mystical quest, and fate has not chosen you.” Foreboding words, but the proof is in the pudding.

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From the very beginning, it was clear to me that Pyrodactyl’s promises of deep interactivity and role playing freedom have, in fact, been fulfilled, but what the player can and can’t actually accomplish is really a matter of scope and scale. As Chitra, a seasoned ambassador from the Naga Empire (a prosperous nation of sentient and comparatively enlightened serpent beings that serves, in large part, as a convenient means to address xenophobia), I had full reign over my words and actions, if little else. I decided that Chitra was to be a paragon of diplomatic virtues, cordial, sensitive to cultural differences, quick with a joke when it suited him, and, above all, dedicated to his mission, one of peace, security, and mutual profit. I could, however, have easily turned him into an arrogant, demanding hard liner, or a cold and calculating manipulator. I couldn’t predict or avert the inevitable disasters to follow (there wouldn’t have been much of a plot otherwise), nor could I leave the confines of the royal gardens, where the controversial treaty between the Naga Empire and the humans of Bhitra was to be negotiated and signed, but I was free to do my best, free to choose how my character, my charge, responded to the limiting circumstances at hand.

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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.

Impressions – Transistor

Posted on: May 29th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

The River Always Finds the Sea

If Dear Esther is the video game equivalent of an Ingmar Bergman feature, then Transistor, Supergiant Games’ sophomore effort (and the very indirect spiritual successor to Bastion), is more akin to a Tarantino flick. To be only a little bit more precise, Transistor’s overall aesthetic feels like a heady blend of Kill Bill, Blade Runner, and just about any Wes Anderson movie you can name.

It’s inherently unfair to compare games to movies, of course. The two media, while having the audiovisual component in common, are fundamentally different in just about every important aspect (structure, plotting, mode/level of engagement, etc.). In this case, however, the comparison serves as a convenient shorthand for what I’m trying to express.

Though stylish as hell, Transistor is not, despite what some may claim, an artsy-fartsy title. And that’s not a bad thing in the least. While I’m normally a big fan of the artsy-fartsy (art house cinema, literary fiction, art games), clearly to the point of seeming, and being, annoyingly pretentious, I will be the first to admit that an expressive medium hasn’t fully matured until it has produced its fair share of in-betweens, those hybrid pieces that truly straddle the line between art and entertainment, that do approach the sublime, whether in aesthetic or narrative or both, while remaining both accessible and conventionally enjoyable.

Bridge

Transistor isn’t merely a stylish and emotionally eloquent experience, and it isn’t merely an excellent action/tactical roleplaying game. Transistor is both, and it manages to be both without compromise. That makes the release of this gem a very, very good thing both for gamers and for Video Games. Neither Kill Bill nor Blade Runner is Citizen Kane (and seriously, we need to stop constantly name dropping Citizen Kane – it’s getting unseemly), but both films, at least in my opinion, are fantastic works of art (note that in the case of Blade Runner, I do not acknowledge the validity or existence of any version prior to the Director’s Cut). They are unabashed, unashamed, unafraid to be exactly what they are.

Supergiant’s latest, much like its aforementioned cinematic brethren, never apologizes for what it is. It speaks, and sings, for itself, in the vernacular of its choice. And, in my view, there is something honest about it, something, believe it or not, refreshingly unpretentious.

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In Death’s Dream Kingdom: Dark Souls as Allegory and Initiatory Experiences in Games

Posted on: May 11th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

“Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death’s other Kingdom
Remember us-if at all-not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men”

– An excerpt from The Hollow Men, by TS Elliot

This is Dark Souls

Dark Souls 2, the latest (not quite second) installment in From Software’s tough-as-nails action roleplaying series, has only been out on PC for a few short weeks and already it seems to have captured us in its powerful grip (which is part of the reason why this article has taken me so long to post). It is still too early to evaluate and critique this specific game judiciously (as our about page implies, we at Cloud Monster like to take our sweet, sweet time with that sort of thing), but my own recent return to its melancholy universe has led to some interesting musings on the series as a whole.

The Souls games, while hardly short on lore and content, are famously sparse and opaque in their presentation. After a brief tutorial, you are dropped into the world and left to your own devices. In the case of Dark Souls 2, you’re given some idea of what it is you’re actually supposed to accomplish (break a curse, restore your humanity, seek a king or some such). In the first Dark Souls, you’re treated to a dense, poetic exposition dump in the opening cinematic, but the whys and wherefores of your strange destiny are left relatively vague until about the halfway point. You’re sort of supposed to figure it out as you go along.

The Souls experience can be said to be the gaming equivalent of a walkabout, except you’re not expected to avoid dying. You’re expected, instead, to persevere in the face of the sometimes ridiculous level of difficulty and constant discouragement. As a paunchy, well fed individual who is, predictably, terrible at sports of any kind, I can’t exactly claim that Dark Souls is anywhere near as intense as physical labor. Nor can I claim that surviving any number of its various virtual perils should be classed as a true “accomplishment.” But it can undeniably feel that way.

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Series devotees return in part for that rush of adrenaline in the midst of a contentious fight, that rush of endorphins after finally slaying an especially troublesome foe, that rush of dopamine on discovering a new area or exploring a new tactic. The games are known to punish the player, sometimes mercilessly, almost sadistically, but they’re also known to be commensurately rewarding for the adventurer with the patience, the resolve, and the acumen to take them on, the adventurer who is willing to take the time to learn their quirks and secrets. Mechanically, they are about as deep as action RPGs can possibly get. It is this balance between madness and reason, between pain and tenacity, between punishment and reward that makes these games as successful as they are.

Much has been said and written about that inimitable “I did it” feeling that the Souls series, among precious few other titles, provides. While progressing through Dark Souls won’t make you richer, more handsome, or otherwise better off, it nonetheless *feels* important. You aren’t merely playing. You’re engaging in an undertaking, an expedition, a virtual journey in the true sense of the word. It stays with you.

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Push It.

Posted on: May 5th, 2014 by Arie Salih

Hi, It’s ‘Pat’ from the club. We want you to DJ tonight. You’re free to play any kind of music you want. Beer is on the house! We’re on 212 ne 24th street. Dress to kill! See ya…”

We’re dressed to kill, alright. Entering the doors of North East 165th, the synth is blaring across the alternating neons of the dance floor and the rotating lights. It’s a bloody mess, and we’re playing quiet. “Dennis” they call it, and we’ve got a knife. The door swings open, and three goons chase us out. Swipes left and right, and we’re moving in synchrony with the beat.

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A knife gets thrown across the room, and red splatters on a couch as a dog races forward. Boom- the shotgun blast puts it down. The music is pushing me to go more quickly, more carelessly! Dance, Dennis, dance! In a frantic dash of melodies and hyperdub, a gun thrown embraces a quick bit of silence. A space bar taptaptap, and there are pieces of the guy’s head everywhere. We’re faceless, we’re moving – in rhythm to every strung out transition, every step.

Keep shuffling! There are speakers by the guy slumped at the end of the hallway. A disorganized collection of vinyls and turntables- are they static? It’s hard to tell, we’re going downstairs- the Wolf and I. A bullet ricochets off the glass, and it shatters to alert others to our uninvited presence. It’s a seemingly endless procession of baddies waving around rifles and such, and quick machete jabs picked up in the west corridor. Pop, pop – the allure of the confluence of the beat and trigger keeps us in harmony.

The black tiles and black sofas blur by, the music commands us to keep moving swiftly. We’re gliding now- the Wolf fades behind the blue. A quick turn to the right, shrrrrrrrk. Each shot piercing against a body, the blues of the carpet are slowly changing color. Ah- here we are. Spotlights! It’s our time to shine, we’ve got to sway my friend! A quick shift, so we can peer down the west end and the couch surfer is bleeding out in surprise. It’s the madness inspired by the amalgam of the masked rampaged fury and Miami Disco.

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THIS IS DEPERSONALIZATION GROOVE.

“Chapter Clear” displays in jagged letters. We freeze entirely. The silent hum fills the void, and the lights keep spinning wildly in the quiet. The music is woven so seamlessly into the death-laden romp, it’s hard not to notice the stark contrast between the end of the level and dynamic shift in tone. We’re slowly ambling now past the whispering hallways stained in blood, almost defeated.

And that’s the beauty of Hotline Miami, the willingness to approach each combat scenario with finesse in syncopation to the notes. Perturbator provides the perfect soundtrack to Devolver’s grisly adventure. Every click of the attack button matches the disco, in a murderous frenzy.

Mind the MacGuffin

Posted on: April 15th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

Mac·Guf·fin noun \mə-ˈgə-fən\ (coined by Alfred Hitchcock, circa 1939) – an object, event, or character in a film or story that serves to set and keep the plot in motion despite usually lacking intrinsic importance.

Attack of the Giant MacGuffin

By now, the disappointing conclusion to Mass Effect 3, the final (we assume) installment in Bioware’s popular space adventure/role playing series, has been discussed and dissected to death, then resurrected, then discussed and dissected some more (again, to death). We’ve heard and read everything from ingenuous fan theories, designed to attribute higher meaning to what was most likely the sad result of an eleventh hour all-nighter, to in depth analyses of its various failings, to impassioned pleas of “say it isn’t so” and “my Shepard wouldn’t do that.” With this much distance between us and the unfortunate event in question (oh, that moment when millions of fan-boys and fan-girls suddenly cried out), there isn’t much left to say about the ending itself. If I’m to avoid major spoilers (mostly for the sake of Arie, who has yet to play the damn thing), I oughtn’t really say anything at all.

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I’m not concerned with the final outcome, in fact, but rather with what I believe to have been its primary cause. The sloppy finale was merely the effect, I would argue, of this larger and more pervasive narrative fault. The Mass Effect series has been lumbering along with this burden on its shoulders since its second iteration, and utterly collapsed under its weight in the very first scene of the third game. I am talking, of course, about the Reapers, those damnable space lobsters bent on galactic annihilation. The problem, simply enough, is that the Reapers are too damn big, too damn threatening, and too damn powerful to serve their purpose properly. They are well-enough designed, mildly interesting from far away, and appropriately menacing (also from far away), but a full on Reaper invasion is really just too much for Mass Effect’s plot to handle without serious, generally negative, consequences. Ultimately, a simple rewrite of the game’s concluding moments couldn’t have done the trick. The whole plot had become compromised at its very core as soon as the decision was made to have the third game revolve around what is essentially an apocalypse-in-progress. In short, Bioware’s writers failed to properly mind their biggest MacGuffin. They allowed it to grow too big. They got it wet and fed it after midnight. And it wasn’t long before this MacGuffin, instead of driving the narrative forward, consumed it, bones and all.
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The Hype Train: Obduction

Posted on: April 4th, 2014 by Aleks Samoylov

All Aboard

Before I start off on what will likely be an extremely emotional trip down memory lane, I must sing out, with an open heart and a brazen voice, in praise of the Gods of Crowdfunding, and of Kickstarter in particular. Kickstarter has served as a wild, wet, beautiful storm in the desert of the gaming industry; it had bid that desert bloom, bloom like never before. Without it, the world of games would be a much darker, sadder, uglier place. So much of what I’ve loved, or at the very least enjoyed, these past few years (Shadowrun Returns, Blackguards, Expeditions:Conquistador – yes, I’ve been on a serious tactical role playing kick lately) and what I look forward to enjoying in the near future (Dreamfall Chapters, Wasteland 2, Sunless Sea) can be directly attributed to crowdfunding. It is no secret that I am a big believer in the model, and in non-traditional methods of publishing and creating in general.

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And now I can gladly add Obduction, currently in development by Washington based Cyan Worlds, to my “most anticipated” list. In fact, it pretty much takes the very top spot on said list. For me, there is simply no contest. This is, of course, a very subjective assessment, entirely based on subjective, and extremely personal experiences with Cyan’s former products. But that’s what the Hype Train is for: personal passions, unreasonable expectations, excitement, anticipation, hope.

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