Archive for the ‘Narrative’ 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.

unrest3

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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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.

stalking

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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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.

reapers1

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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