The Invisible Strings of Puppeteer

Curtains roll out and I’m greeted with the title screen. I can hear the orchestra start up; the audience chitchatting amongst themselves; an MC throws some buzz words and describes the game as the audience’s murmur tapers off. Chapters are labeled “acts,” which are further divided by “curtains.” This is the real deal. This game thinks it’s a puppet show.You find yourself peering through a window of crimson drapes the entire game, the proscenium waits with gears and cogs exposed.

Our Pinocchio stand-in, Kutaro, is boy transformed into puppet by the egotistic and tyrannical Moon Bear King, who’s usurped the throne from the Moon Goddess. With the help (and comic relief) of a witch, a cat, and a cosmic princess, Kutaro collects a few weapons to defeat the Moon Bear King and his twelve generals, to return power to the Moon Goddess.

All these characters appear whittled and carefully crafted to match the ancient art of puppetry the game pays homage to. They’re animated as lively as you can imagine a puppet could be; all the exaggerated and rote movements contribute to the air of verisimilitude — their conspicuous strings being another deliberate decision in presentation. Facsimiles of backdrops are sometimes bulbous and weighted and other times give the illusion of cloth or paper. Elaborate sets flush in and out, up and down, changing with each screen you pass, and locales and aesthetics shifting dramatically between acts. Puppeteer wants you to think it’s a puppet show, not a game.

Kutaro cutting bats.

“In its goal of using a variety of art for a variety levels there’s very little room for any consistent indicators for the player”

With this creative achievement in artifice comes a fumbling point: you can’t always anticipate what’s about to happen next because the whole game trundles as a meandering adventure by puppet show. More often than not this would be a great problem for a game. Each level would seem fresh, right? Right. But the issue here is how Puppeteer is continually reinventing the props it presents. One level has you snipping away at leaves to propel your way up a structure. The next level may employ the same mechanic through paper bats, smoke, or wires — sometimes using a couple of these assets at once. These cuttable props all share the trait of being two-dimensional but the sets are also composed of similarly defined pieces, creating a bout of confusion during more demanding puzzles and obstacles. Cutting to reach a distant platform is an action that’s prevalent throughout the adventure so you’ll always know what to do you but you may not always know how to do it when you’re surrounded by an array of threats.

This lack of intuitiveness is further aggravated by a lack of consistency in level design. Again, in its goal of using a variety of art for a variety of levels there’s very little room for any consistent indicators for the player, specifically for platforming, a task that demands proper footing and understanding of the environment. In its pursuit of seamless gameplay, Puppeteer forgets to notify the player of the properties of the floor they stand on. There’s no indication of what flooring will rise or fall until it happens; no cracks in the floor or crumbling foundation — it’s all arbitrary, the floor falls apart whenever the designer decided it would. You learn by falling to your death, and re-learn this with every screen you pass through. There were times when I’d be looking at a painting that is just begging to be interacted with, and the floor would just slide apart at my feet. I’d be snipping away at clouds to reach a stunned enemy but when I returned the ground floor it was covered in holes — which I just happened to fall through. These issues of inconsistent props and vanishing platforms all hinge on some rather awkward level design. You can see the seams of how the show is strung together, but you’re removed from the visuals cues that hold the gameplay in position.

The narrator and various characters engage in banter and break the fourth wall continually, all to give greater credence to this notion of composing artifice. It’s a puppet show, and we’re privy to that from the beginning of the fairy tale. While Puppeteer persistently exposes the artifice of puppetry and theatre — revealing the framework of the stage, sets, and puppets themselves — it unfortunately conceals the clockwork of what it really is: a game.

Framing Lone Survivor

I always thought of Silent Hill 2 as a game that was choking me, rather than scaring me. Whether I was being strangled by fog or smothered by a sheet of darkness my perception was constantly being obfuscated in some sadistic ploy by the designers. The spouts of violence I engaged in were always overshadowed by this battle I waged with the designers — how they didn’t want to see me survive their labyrinth. But framing the gameplay in order to pressure the player isn’t always done by maiming the their vision. Lone Survivor proves that gaining sight of your endeavour can prove to be just as a arduous.

Scrolling from side to side I could simultaneously see everything that I’ve encountered and everything I will encounter. If anything was offscreen I could hear its growls in the distance. Knowing, or being aware, has its own consequences on your mind. I my trust body’s reflexes and I trust my implicit judgement to make proper decisions in the heat of the moment. But here I stand, contemplating, ruminating, rotting, thinking of how I’ll escape this predicament. I can see the door on the other side, but I see two monsters patrolling the route. I know I can plant this slab of decaying flesh and squeeze my way past this one monster — becoming as 2D and as the second dimension allows — but then I’m sandwiched between both of them; as dead as the meat I used as bait.

Hiding in Lone Survivor.

“I can’t dodge, evade, or run without burning a resource.”

So I hide, and I walk, and I hide again. Sometimes I get caught. The monsters claw, spit, and bite, and I’m reminded how compressed my perspective is. I can’t run past these guys without paying a bullet to their legs. I can’t dodge, evade, or run without burning a resource. There is no left, no right, no up, no down — only forward and back. What you don’t realize when you play most sidescrolling games, is the power you command. Say I’m hopping about the Mushroom Kingdom and I run into a Goomba. I can jump over it, or I can jump on it. In Silent Hill you can fight, or run. But in Lone Survivor (the combination of both realms) you don’t have the wiggle room Silent Hill‘s 3D perspective permitted and you don’t have the tools to conquer the unexpected like a Super Mario title allots. You’re at the mercy of designer Jasper Byrne through the resources he’s allocated to this point.

I see my own death in every game, but a fraction of a second before it takes place. Lone Survivor pins me against my sanity in a 16:9 ring. Sure, I can plan accordingly, however, should my plan fall apart, I’m stuck. And I know I’m stuck before it happens. This isn’t a particularly fast paced adventure. It’s viscous. You wallow in your own filth with each mistake, and you see your death coming long before it happens.

Byrne hands you the game’s syntax, but laughs at you while he holds back the semantics. The foresight you hold when playing the game permeates the psyches of the game’s characters, although what they know doesn’t necessarily equate to what the player knows. There’s a man you meet in fever dreams, an hoary man in blue who you’re supposed to find familiar, but can’t place. You ask him who he is, and he mocks you. The protagonist recognizes him, but can’t remember who he is. It’s Jasper Byrne, amusing guffawing at your stipulated outlook. You play the game with clear eyes, seeing every obstacle in path, while the game plays you, suffocating any lucid grasp you think you have on both the gameplay and narrative.

Log: The Last of Us – Left Behind

This article contains spoilers for The Last of Us and its expansion, Left Behind.

The Last of Us leaves us with a full circle in terms of plot, character development, and universe. Of course, this all pertains to Joel, our rough and gruff lumberjack of a protagonist. He has his weaknesses and those weaknesses are what shape the entire game, subverting expectations while Naughty Dog plies every trope of the zombie aesthetic into the story. It’s only when he’s impaled and stuck in limbo that the focus shifts to Ellie, and her needs in their father-daughter relationship.

Luckily for us, the game advances the plot and drops us of at a stage where Ellie is somewhat experienced with surviving on her own. Left Behind shows us a space in between when she’s hunting for supplies in a dilapidated shopping mall. Joel is still cut open from his tumble and sutures are what he needs to stop the bleeding. But one open wound gives way to another, and Ellie’s need for intimacy is fully exposed. The story cuts back and forth between two points in her life: a present and past where she came face to face with the fear of losing a loved one.

It’s strange, to think there’s a calm before the storm, even in post-apocalyptia. When we played as Joel he brought our world into his, the main story showing his life both before and after the pandemic. This was an easy way to channel our expectations and understandings of contemporary life while funnelling it into the dystopian future of The Last of Us. Ellie was born in a world infected and dissolute. What works so well about this gaiden is that we get to see life as she understands it. There was a time when she was living a comfortable life, albeit comfortable by her standards. She was a regular kid making the best of her efforts in the only world she knows. She went to school, joked around, and shared this carefree style with her best friend, Riley.

Riley and Ellie in Left Behind.

“Childlike wonder lies around every corner of Ellie’s flashbacks, using her despair to rediscover the breathing space she used to have.”

Riley was an outlet, a way for her to express whatever jovial antics she was forced to repress. Childlike wonder lies around every corner of Ellie’s flashbacks, using her despair to rediscover the breathing space she used to have. She was quite the dreamer: planning trips, thinking about space travel, and at the same time staying grounded in the fact that her life was confined to whatever the military instructed. While the majority of the story involves walking from one joke or mini-game to another, this structure’s never felt so engaging. These small bursts of unique interactions elicit meaning in how they’re used. Most games string a chain of mini-games as filler, but this account let’s you see the fun Ellie abandoned before she went on her road trip with Joel.

The story intercuts between past and present to contrast these two worlds Ellie’s lived in. Her past is rose-coloured, showing a carefree life of jumping from one escapade to the next. The majority of these sections take place in the golden hum of a resurrected mall where Riley and Ellie fool around in the world of yesterday, when electricity was prevalent. They ride a carousel, use a photo booth, and try to figure our what “Facebook” means. There are no infected, no hunters — just walking and playing, in the most literal sense of the word. Though in the end, her adventure is cut short with an abrupt collision with the realities of her world. Clickers give chase, both of them get bitten. But where one girl meets her demise, the other is revealed her gift.

In the present Ellie scours a snowed in mall, pallid and littered with threats. She faces danger, alone, and struggles to survive and reach Joel in order to avoid another loss in her life. The plot hinges on this attachment she has to her adopted father, and the refusal to let death take him. While she was full developed by the end of The Last of Us we never got to see what her life entailed — what “normal” means in this post-pandemic future. Left Behind gives us a window into the past, through the open wound Ellie still harbours.

Log: Year Walk

I’ve been watching a lot True Detective lately and I gotta say that show is outstanding. Not for its premise; it’s just a simple cop show with all the typical tropes sewn in for instant appeal and recognition. But what separates True Detective from the run of the mill police drama is the uncanny conflicts neatly layered into the plot. I’m cutting the show’s merits short, but there’re layers to its universe which are grounded in absolute nonsense, from pagan rituals to cosmic fears. It’s realistic in every facet, but the investigations the characters conduct always leave them with cryptic and clandestine results. How this show straddles the line between fact and fiction, realism and surrealism, and television diegesis and audience is what keeps this show grounded, while still managing to get under your skin.

Simogo’s Year Walk does what other spooky adventure games do. It has puzzles, monster closets, and an eerie setting that stays one step ahead of you. Like True Detective, what separates this game from the rest of its ilk is its tenuous grasp on reality, and its ability to transcend the realms around it. The Year Walk Companion is intrinsic to the game’s foundation and acts as a portal through which we, the players, can crawl through the worm holes linking the game’s fiction, the folklore that inspired it, and our own reality.

Like any adventure game, Year Walk entails a lot of wandering around to search for items or a plot point. Rather than any kind of hint system, the game offers the aforementioned companion app; a kind of travel guide for the player to navigate 19th century yuletide Sweden. It’s a short encyclopedia detailing some of the traditions and folkloric creatures involved in a divinatory Scandinavian ritual called Year Walk, or Årsgång. Reading these entries gives you shallow hints as to how to progress in the game –though it does so passively, informing you of the premodern mythos of Scandinavia first and foremost. The game is based on these ancient fears and customs, building an adventure out of an established lore. In doing so we not only experience the game’s story but learn about the culture that gave birth to it. I’d go as far as to call this approach educational.

Using real-world folklore or mythology to tell a story in a game isn’t uncommon, but it’s often done as a means to ground the story in an intuitive setting, like the sequels to God of War. Year Walk shows us the fears and practices of old Sweden, traditions that (I imagine) aren’t known to most people. Walking away from this game I learned about of the commonality of infanticide centuries ago, or how Scandinavian legend holds a monster called the Brook Horse, a creature serving a purpose not unlike the Ogopogo does in Canada.

Year Walk's church gate.

“…we, the players, can crawl through the worm holes linking the game’s fiction, the folklore that inspired it, and our own reality.”

Spoilers Follow.

The game’s ending is pretty bewildering and bleak. You don’t get much of a sense of what’s going on, just of what happened. Then, by some deus ex machina, the game flickers a message claiming that the story’s not over, and that what you saw doesn’t have to happen. You’re granted the passcode for a locked section of the Year Walk Companion. It opens the diary of Theodor Almsten, who was responsible for writing the entries in the encyclopedia. This is where the game reached its most chilling point, opening a tunnel between our world, old Sweden’s, and the game’s.

The journal chronicles Almsten months of researching the forgotten custom of the Year Walk, and while doing so experiencing some strange phenomena. Almsten was investigating a particular individual who may have been the last to perform the ritual, and ventured to his place of residence. Every event he learnt of is connected to a supernatural occurrence in the game, and every photograph he took during his exploration pertains to a setting in the game. As the journal goes on the folklore he studies bleeds into his dreams, and eventually begins to manifest in various aspects of his life.

Within the diary lies symbols, hints — a path carved out for the player if they just pay attention. Using these suggestions to perform certain actions in the actual game unlocks a less nebulous ending and a proper conclusion. Turning the game into a short investigation for the player is Year Walk‘s most enthralling aspect, melding fact and fiction into the real world, and forcing the player to endure Sweden’s most unearthly folklore and the game’s story in their own subjective reality.

There was the game, Scandinavian legend, and a brief mystery novel buried in a single cohesive experience. Reminds me of games I used to play as a kid, namely the Carmen Sandiego series. The structure of these overtly educational games wrote a story using real world devices, and then a solution that demanded your exploration of the given topic. In Year Walk, Simogo blends this overlooked adventure formula to create a verisimilar horror novella, straddling the line between our world and the realm of the paranormal.

Log: Donkey Kong Country Returns

Back in 1994 Rare fiddled about with pre-rendered assets, creating pseudo-3D art style for Donkey Kong Country. As a kid, this was like the work of a warlock; I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And then they made the show, and man oh man, that was something else. Say what you want about that nonsense now, but as a child in the 90’s that show was funny and carried some sophisticated 3D animation, serving as a goofier version of the spectacle Reboot offered. There’s something really inane and endearing about monkey who’s best friend is his nephew, and the cast around this duo adds more than a superfluous beat. The point is, fancy cartoon graphics were what Rare was known for.

Which is a point that really bugged me as I got older. I loved the Banjo-Kazooie games so naturally, I loved the result of Rare translating Donkey Kong with the same formula in Donkey Kong 64. But then in the Gamecube era I got thinking: if DK64 is Banjo-Kazooie with a new skin, what’s the real difference between DKC and the Super Mario games? It was just another platformer with shiny veneer.

I know I’m late to the conga, but I’ve come to the conclusion that having art style as the core differentiator of a title isn’t so bad. I used to think that maybe games that changed surface level values don’t deserve much praise. Which I still think is true, but to a much lesser extent. Sometimes games change a single value and sell it as entirely novel product. Take Apple’s App Store for example. There are thousands of games that are mere clones with a tweak in polygons. However, there are also games which carry their own experiences with a few changes in flavour. If this new flavour permeates the entire game, it changes its composition and consumption on the level of an entirely different meal.

Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D.

“…the audial feedback from the most rudimentary bounce is integral to the design of the game.”

Now I’m not saying Donkey Kong games are just clones. There’s bunch of cards they brought to the table that you didn’t see on the same level before, namely roll-jumping and timing your jumps to increase height. Although, the main draw of the 1994 title was the visuals. Not just the pre-rendered wizardry, but the characters, the setting, the music, and most importantly, the sound effects.

SFX make up the thick layer of tangibility that Nintendo and its subsidiaries ply onto their worlds. Even in movement, the sound matching the avatar can make or break the sense of control. It’s that feedback that let’s us know if we’re walking, running, jumping, or stopping dead in our tracks. I don’t mean to make a mockery of Rayman Origins, but that’s a great example of a title where people claim the degree of control isn’t as acute as a Super Mario game. The real difference is, you can hear the sound of Mario’s feet strike the ground with each step, where as a series like Rayman provides little to no audial feedback for movement. If you need to make a quick stop in a Super Mario game, you can hear his feet respond to the terrain, allowing you make whatever adjustment necessary, like a side flip or long jump.

Donkey Kong games also use sound to their advantage, which is absolutely necessary for the rigour it demands. Donkey Kong Country Returns is difficult. Perhaps the most difficult game I’ve played in years. I’m not the best at 2D platformers, so the SFX that matched every movement was a boon to my shoddy reflexes and thus crucial to my experience. Every time you jump on an enemy you hear this clicking noise on the rebound, similar to but higher than the sound elicited from collecting a banana. You need this noise, or you can’t play the game. Tapping the jump button just as you land on the enemy increases the height of the rebound, so knowing the speed of your character falling and the point at which you’d hear that click is necessary to master some portions of the game. SFX may seem like an afterthought in most titles, but in the case of Nintendo games the audial feedback from the most rudimentary bounce is integral to the design of the game.

I guess I don’t have much to say about Donkey Kong Country Returns, but that it’s a fine successor to the ancient formula. Nothing’s really too different. It’s just updated for today’s needs; carrying fail state modifiers in the form of new items at Cranky’s shop. The sharp platforming works, although it comes off rather irritating sometimes. Memorization of a path is necessary for a handful of levels involving a mine cart or a rocket, and in these cases getting the level down pat prioritizes over the mechanics Retro Studios imbedded into the gameplay. Still, because of the taxing level design each stage left me with a sense of accomplishment, albeit an accomplishment drenched in my sweat and tears. But I deserved every failure. Everything I needed to complete each level was sitting right in front of me. I just had to hone my hand eye coordination to meet the game’s supercilious expectations. The “clicks,” “thumps,” and “boings” are the bread and butter of the game. I couldn’t come close to finishing the game without the accurate sound editing, proving that Donkey Kong games are outstanding for their achievements in audial feedback, as they are famous for their impressive art style.

Log: Hotline Miami

We, as a species, have an appetite for violence, evident from the popularity of action films or the mere existence of the Colosseum in Italy. This fact in itself, contradicts with our so-called “civilized” state today. But for the most part arts feeds violence through a passive consumption, the audience simply watching and unengaged in terms of instrumentality. However, in video games the consumer is granted a degree of agency, a role Hotline Miami surfaces in the ebb and flow of its uncanny narrative.

Ostensibly the game is dual-stick brawler, leading the player from locale to locale clearing rooms to some unknown end. Beneath the bloodsport that the vibrant art style depicts, the game depends more on puzzle/strategy elements with an emphasis on reflexes. Charging head-on to defeat enemies is one way to go about it, but watching their patrol patterns, organization, and arsenal, paves the way for mastery of the game’s mechanics. It encourages you to accept death and experiment with different tactics, ushering entirely different strategies depending on the layout of each chapter. There were times when I had to calculate which enemy I had to defeat last, which resulted in the most exhilarating scenarios; having a plan that was conjured a split second ago plume with the blood of some gaudy gangster is an experience that gives off a cold sweat.

The brutality of Hotline Miami.

“Hotline Miami teeters on this surrealism, cutting abruptly to focus on the absurdity and ubiquity of violence in its diegesis.”

Spoilers follow.

The very violence that composes the game’s attraction is also subject to debate and censure within the game’s diegesis. Grotesque characters will comment on your actions with puzzling interrogations, condemning the player at every turn. “Do you like hurting other people?” asked someone in a Rooster mask, sitting comfortably in a dimly lit apartment. Hotline Miami teeters on this surrealism, cutting abruptly to focus on the absurdity and ubiquity of violence in its diegesis, leaving the player confused and disoriented. You never get full details on what the story involves, but the confusion that revolves around the violent acts of the game is part of its savage appeal.

There’s a dichotomy that they set in place between Jacket and Biker (the game’s protagonists) forcing you to think about the nature of violent video games and the agency inherent to the medium. As Jacket, you go about unquestionably murdering whoever you’re instructed to kill. Even people who beg mercy must be dealt with in order for the chapter to end. But after his story is complete, you play as the Biker, and gain a lot more agency when it comes to your decision making. For instance, there’s a building filled with friendly people who distance themselves from the Biker because he’s holding a cleaver — yet you can still kill them, if you choose. After berating you for senseless mass murder, the masterminds behind the game’s plot finish the script with “you’re move,” to let the player call the shots and decide their outcome. Do you kill the two organizers, or do you just walk out? It’s your call. But the point is, mercy wasn’t an option before, surfacing the cognitive dissonance between the role of the player and their previous and functionally-limited avatar, Jacket. Why do we commit murder in video games? Because the game told us to, just like Jacket, who got phone calls to take out thugs — requests which he never disobeyed. Though as the Biker, as a player with knowledge of the developer’s plot to lure and perpetuate video game tropes, you have the conceit to make your own decision.

This binary between who you play as (Jacket with no agency) and who you are (Biker with considerable agency) permeates the entire game, most overtly demonstrated by the masks Jacket wears to adopt his various abilities. The masks represent us, the players, all unique in capacity and ability yet conforming to the standards and stipulations of what games make us partake in, and still, we manage to go about playing the game in entirely different ways. And it’s with this analogue for player uniqueness that Hotline Miami couples personalization with absolute empowerment. The way you play dictates how quickly and how efficiently you progress, keeping the game’s difficulty while demanding precision from the player. Once you understand the internal logic of the game, you realize that each and every failure is entirely dependent on your actions, and thus, each success leads to a satisfying and idiosyncratic end, just as they do with Jacket and Biker.

Log: Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP

I’ve got a soft spot for minimalism, surrealism, cubism, dada — any avant-garde movement that blossomed in the 20’s, really. And while I’ve applauded games for mirroring finer art styles I’ve never really considered how particular movements may incorporate and integrate with the interactive model of video games, especially on platforms as tactile as iOS and Android. Super Brothers: Sword & Sworcery EP really pushes what defines minimalism in game design, as well as what promotes surreality in terms of interaction — while perhaps replicating the former a little too well.

This game owns the concept of pixel art in an era dominated by 3D games. Where most games simply use pixel art to stimulate some vein of nostalgia Sword and Sworcery instead uses it to paint a detailed world filled with bustling woodland creatures and dancing flora. In its heyday, pixel art was an outline for imagination, the player having to colour the picture with their interpretation and creativity. This collaborative effort between Capybara Games and Superbrothers flawlessly communicates the depiction they intended to the player. There’s not much room in this adventure to conjure up visual interpretations of the settings and characters because they look exactly as they were designed to, using pixel art as a style, and not a stipulation.

But even though it uses pixel art entirely to its advantage, it forces a discrepancy between its visuals and its sound design… which is absolutely stunning in its execution. While I tapped on the screen to guide the Scynthian girl, I knocked on the environment, eliciting the sounds of water splashing, trees rustling and animals hopping about. Here’s the catch: they weren’t the beeps and boops that complement the games of yore, they sounded exactly as they would in real life. It’s this collision between what you see and what you hear that really drives the definition of surreality in this game. I looked at a duck composed of pixels, but I heard a duck with a healthy larynx. I looked at a character composed of pixels, spouting text about a dream he had, but simultaneously he spoke, telling me that he didn’t have much to say. It’s strange to seasoned players, but a fascinating juxtaposition between what you expect to hear and what you actually hear.

A pond in Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP.

While these peripheral components of the game are exceptional, my issue with the title actually stems from this hoity-toity concept of minimalism I’ve been spitting. I’m not a fan of hand-holding in games. This is a medium in which you have myriad ways to guide the player; the culmination of text, visuals, audio, and of course, interaction. This game uses these avenues superbly, albeit a bit too sparingly for my liking. There were a few points at which I was entirely unsure of what to do, because of the minimal design of the game. Points where I didn’t know where to go, what to do, or even my progression within a particular objective. Furthermore, the game eventually escapes its linearity for a bit, in that it creates different planes of existence for areas you’ve visited. The problem here is that these different dimensions hold different puzzles while appearing in nearly identical areas, making it easy to lose track of progression. During this tumultuous period in the game there’s a lot of tedious backtracking to activate the aforementioned dimensions, while being littered with the exact same enemy encounters during the treks. To top it all off, there’s a short time allotted for how long these realms exist with each activation, increasing the severity and possibility of said rote gameplay.

The most innovative aspect of tablet games are how control and interaction is reinvented with each title. Sword and Sworcery does this at every turn, and while the puzzles that adorn the mystical forest are brilliant, there are times when they’re mere guessing games of what to tap and in what order. One puzzle had me spotting differences reflected in a pond, while another had me enduring trial and error to make it to the next screen. It’s a mixed bag of manipulating your eyes and ears and just plain guessing.

The combat consists of raising a shield and swinging a sword — simple, and yet highly satisfying. There’s a lot of waiting for your enemy to strike, and slashing back when an opportunity presents itself. Rhythm plays into this concept; you can often time your actions to the beat of the music. However, later in the game combat proves trifling and monotonous. Lengthy battles grow prominent, that apply the same mechanics though with more emphasis on how the enemy’s attacks are measured to the music. This includes the enemy presenting itself, as well as powering up attacks or simply floating while music complements their slightest movements. It’s nice to see animation and music come into confluence at first, but if you die it means watching the bombastic performance all over again, which becomes rather frustrating with boss battles.

Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP definitely paves its own path when it comes to art direction; encompassing magical realism to paint an electronic storybook, with some pretty funny and very self-aware writing. The music and sound editing by Jim Guthrie really adds to the scene taking notes from classic tracks of the Legend of Zelda, while tossing in the thought of what they would sound like with a funky baseline. It executed well on the concept of a minimalist video game but perhaps took too many cues from the style. The gameplay held a few too many nebulous expectations from me and not enough ways to orient myself. I guess they really nailed the feeling of being lost in the woods, but unfortunately, that wasn’t the experience I was looking for.

Log: Mass Effect 3 – Citadel

Mass Effect 3 has that third act issue that plagues just about any serial work, in which the high stakes of the conclusion dominates, or entirely suppresses any of the quieter moments. I don’t mind this in single pieces, after all, a story has to come to a close. But a series seems to suffer from this when the individual segments are interlinked by a single story. Mass Effect 2 has this laid back, space faring adventure arc, where side stories more or less carry the bulk of the game. It follows the same structure as Star Trek, focusing more on characters and less on an encompassing, high stakes fight for the people of the galaxy.

Throughout my adventures on the Normandy SR2 I could spend time with the crew, go about quelling arguments and attending to personal matters. With Mass Effect 3, it’s all about how quickly we can save the galaxy. There’s this enormous pressure put on you — by the environments, characters, and plot — to fight off the apocalypse. My issue here is that the entire third chapter of this brilliant series focuses on the needs of everyone else, and not so much on your crew and their personalities. It’s all about urgency, about this universal genocide. I particularly enjoyed Citadel over the other DLCs because of how it reunites you with simpler times, where saving the galaxy came second, and loyalty to crew members came first.

The story that carries this short romp through the Citadel is inane, but it’s executed with confidence, and over-dramatized characters to complement it. In short, a clone of Shepard’s is out to steal his identity and replace him, with hopes to establish humanity’s dominance over the galaxy in cooperation with pro-human terrorist group, Cerberus. A new character, Brooks, is a Cerberus officer who plays a role parallel to that of Miranda Lawson’s in Mass Effect 2. She starts off as a nervous and clumsy Alliance officer — an ally, who sets up a lot of jokes with her behaviour but eventually reveals herself as the obnoxious, soap opera mistress she really is. It is as crazy as it sounds, but the game makes up for it with an emphasis on camaraderie and humour. Just about every chunk of dialogue involves some joking around and poking fun at some of the designers’ decisions, such as Shepard’s robotic speech in saying “I should go” to exit conversations.

Mass Effect 3's Silversun Strip in its DLC: Citadel.

Gameplay in this bit is largely the same as other DLCs, simply adding variations to enemies and gun modifications to suit your fancy. The story takes you through corridors as the series always does, but the environments are fleshed out with lurid architecture and interesting NPCs. The spaces range from the austere to the affluent, containing areas to free roam at your leisure once you complete the story. Silversun Strip is the nucleus of this side of the Citadel, taking notes from the hazy, beaming art style of Bladerunner. Neon lights flood your vision with every turn, people chatting about their enthusiasm for the next Elcor adaptation of Shakespeare. There’s this gaudy casino where you’ll find sleazy lawyers and patronizing rich folk, rapt with silly mini-games to boot. It doesn’t end there, there’s an arcade with even more mini-games, and a combat simulator which plays like a single-player mode for what’s offered in the game’s multiplayer; the basic mode in which you’re to defeat all enemies in the arena.

The best part of this adventure lies at the tail end of things, where you get some closure with your crew before you head back to saving the galaxy (again). Like the core story, you get emails from the crew members asking you to join them in various activities, which really play into short cutscenes that discuss their deeper personalities or explore what they do for recreation. You adopt this fancy apartment, throw a party — a last, intimate, hurrah with your team. It’s not just with the characters from this game, you get to spend time with old friends from the dog days of prior escapades. People like Samara and even Wrex. While I’ve been spoiled by games like The Last of Us, the stiff animation doesn’t do much to degrade the quality of the dialogue; the characters are still a joy to watch play off one another, from aggression and embarrassment to remorse and sentimentality. Everyone jokes around, get’s drunk, butt heads and show their true colours, one last time. Of course, they pay the price the next morning.

I was pretty nonplussed with the ending for this trilogy. There were a lot of lofty themes on technological progression, ontology, and divine intervention — which is fine and all but I also wanted to see what became of the story told between my avatar and my crew. I wanted to know how everyone was dealing with the threat of genocide by synthetics, and even more, I wanted to know how everyone was just plain doing. I got that. That’s what this DLC was: pure fan service. It was written knowing that the people playing must’ve finished the actual campaign, completing this sendoff with an evening among friends. In the final cutscene Tali’Zorah, who I romanced in my playthrough, draws the penultimate line of the trilogy by claiming that “We’ve had a good ride.” And after that last get together with the crew, I couldn’t agree more.

Log: Super Mario Galaxy 2

I fell down. I fell up. I spun around and found myself on the other side of the system. I wasn’t sure what was going on in my first run through of Super Mario Galaxy. I could tell it was substantially different from its predecessors, but couldn’t keep my feet down and decide how. As a teenager, I don’t think I really cared. Mario went on vacation once, and this time he’s in outer space — a vacation of sorts, sure. In playing its sequel, I’ve come to the conclusion that what causes this discrepancy — this world’s difference between Mario’s earthly endeavours and this trek into the final frontier — is the manipulation of gravity, by means of physics, level design, and powers-ups.

In prior games, platforming consisted of moving and jumping to avoid chasms and squash enemies. However, with the Galaxy games Mario’s jumping is contingent on the gravitational properties of his grounding, and that of neighbouring planets. There was a time when jumping off a sphere meant falling off it. Instead, the Galaxy games allow for full use of the planetoid’s surface area, marking drops with 90° angles. No edge means no fall; ample space for creative use of cameras, hidden objects and platforms. Lateral jumping in Galaxy equates to riding the land mass’s orbit; working the same way as hopping a chasm, but forcing you to account for much more terrain, or the lack thereof. If Earth was a few meters in size, we could walk around the globe, just like Mario does — a motif inherent and thematically relevant to this galactic mini-series.

And while planet-trotting is stylistically a very striking feature, it seems like it’s a trait best fit for these Galaxy games, evidenced by Nintendo in their lack of planetoids in later entries. Both of those games did, however, feature levels where gravity is mapped to different surfaces in different ways. This only happens in specific levels where the camera’s fixed to expose a cross section and stipulate precise 2D platforming. Arrows on the wall indicate which direction gravity will pull in, meaning that if you’re to jump toward a section of a wall pointing a certain way, that’s the direction you’ll fall in; whatever stretch of land there is now your footing. Puzzles present themselves in the composition of these levels. A single jump can change the direction in which you fall, forcing you hop about as you determine what’s now a wall and what, if anything, constitutes as solid ground.

Volatile gravity in Super Mario Galaxy.

Power-ups have some interesting uses but new additions are much more ancillary. The Spin Drill, for instance, is sometimes involved in environmental puzzles containing areas that are only accessible by said tool. For the most part, the drill acts a quick way to travel the diameter of a planet — a shortcut to save you from running the entire mass. The Rock Mushroom looks neat, turning Mario into a reckless boulder, though I doubt there are many differences between this new fungus and the glassy, star encasing ball Mario runs on in certain levels. I feel like the only real difference between the two is one of speed, Rock Mario being able to roll faster, much quicker. The Cloud Flower is much more compelling, forcing you to make quick and precise calls on where to place temporary clouds, while limiting the number of floating platforms to three per flower. The hat Mario wears is a nice plus.

Be that as it may, the most exciting use of power-ups in the game comes with our dinosaur friend, Yoshi. Yoshi does what he always does: flutter jumps and eats. The real exciting bit comes with certain fruits that are power-ups specific to the dinosaur. Blimp Fruits take a note from the Bee Mushroom, inflating Yoshi and causing him to float. Dash Peppers are spicy, of course, burning Yoshi’s tongue and making him jet across platforms while leaving limited control to the player. Finally, I found Bulb Berries to be the most interesting power-up, as it creates an area of effect that surrounds Yoshi, illuminating hidden platforms while quickly shrinking its radius. Yoshi needs to consistently eat these berries to reset the radius, making you look around for hidden objects while frantically looking for the next fruit, because if Yoshi goes hungry, any hidden grounding you happen to be standing on will be no more.

On a side note, I found it kind of neat how these Galaxy games happened to incorporate some of the power-ups from Super Mario Sunshine. The Hover Nozzle was borrowed from Peach in Super Mario Bros. 2 (or Lina from Doki Doki Panic depending on how you look at it). The Spring Mushroom is the Rocket Nozzle’s successor, letting Mario puncture the atmosphere with a mere second’s delay. Dash Peppers take the place of the Turbo Nozzle, serving the exact same role of jetting across a strip of land like you would in a 3D Sonic game.

With all this said and done what really peaks my curiosity is what Nintendo plans to use in future instalments, and what is just a niche of the Super Mario Galaxy games. Maybe that’s the wrong way to look at it — maybe each Super Mario game is an amalgam of everything that surrounds it and came before it. I feel like the gravity bending, mind numbing level design is something that fits in within the surreal level design of the series, particularly the 3D ones. Running around planets may be a bit difficult to implement in lateral platformers but flipping the switch on gravity is something that could and should be implemented into future releases, just as it was in Thomas Was Alone. To top it all off, there’s no thematic limitation to gravity switching wallpaper so it can easily stick its feet to where ever its being pulled to.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons Review

The video game industry has seen its fair share of crossovers by the illustrious members of the film industry; titles as successful as Steven Spielberg’s Boom Blox to more ambitious projects perpetually caught in development hell, like Guillermo del Toro’s shot at survival horror, InsaneBrothers: A Tale of Two Sons, is a smaller, quieter, more poignant title by Starbreeze Studios, in collaboration with Swedish film director Josef Fares. Here’s someone who’s done a remarkable job at coalescing the stipulations of film with the interactive essence of video games, all during his maiden foray into game design.

Set in a village straight out of a Brothers Grimm story, Brothers chronicles the adventures of two boys, trekking across forests, mines and mountains to find a cure for their father’s ailment. The characters in the game speak in gibberish, conveying feelings and instructions through gestures akin to the stars of the golden age of animation, but with a subdued elasticity. Like every mute narrative that came after them, similarities will be drawn between Brothers, and Team Ico’s games: Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, but while there are some commonalities between two — with a minimal set of controls and a narrative conveyed through implication rather than vocalization — Brothers succeeds in holding its own dais.

A puzzle in which the two brothers distract a dog for each other and escape its bite.

The aforementioned games are designed to express solidarity*, even in their most intimate scenes. Life for these two brothers never quite feels that way; the world is riddled with colourful denizens, elaborate creatures and even when they’re in the most forlorn of venues they still have each other — which is structured as the crux of the gameplay. The analogue sticks control a brother each, with the triggers on their respective sides executing an interaction with an object of interest. Think of this as a tongue twister for your thumbs, forcing you to grasp this binary disposition and for the most part, control the brothers simultaneously. As perplexing as this may sound, you’ll find yourself accomplishing this with ease, your thumbs only seizing when you think about the feat they’re performing.

Simple environmental puzzles ply the majority of the voyage, never quite challenging in terms of arriving to a solution but immensely satisfying when you learn to work your thumbs in congruity. The solutions themselves aren’t vexing or require any time sensitive inputs but instead rely on your patience and dexterity. There’s a pittance of coordination in relation to the brothers themselves, because along with their unique personalities, they also have unique abilities. For instance, the younger brother is able to maneuver his way around bars, while the older sibling can pull large levers. It’s in these situations that the brothers’ teamwork really comes into play, tasking you with dichotomous thinking and absolute harmony between controlling each brother.

The mechanics of the game clearly work as metaphor, with the very mode of thought and control acting as an analogue for the brothers’ cooperation. However, there’s a dissonance between what this game dictates as cooperation between two entities, and what the player assumes as control. While this method of input is refreshing, and demands full mental and physical attention, it doesn’t come into confluence with anything above the agency of the player; the game serves more of test of mind and body than the connection between two beings. Gameplay persists as entertaining despite this detachment but undermines the themes of teamwork and brotherly love, leaving one to imagine how this game would’ve fared as a cooperative title, with a multiplayer akin to that of That Game Company’s Journey**, or an offline multiplayer with the controls split between two inputs.

The brothers navigating a dexterous climbing puzzle.

Players can interact with the inhabitants of this fairy-tale, each brother expressing their personality in their interactions. Where the older one asks for directions from a gardener, the younger one will hit him from behind. Where the older brother looks down a well, the younger one spits down it. It’s these short moments that exhume their personalities, reflected even in the most dire of situations and haunting of environments. You can see these brothers enjoying their time together, laughing and yelling during their escapades, making the most of all they have left: each other. By virtue of their dependence on each other comes their progression as characters also; as they suffer loss and gain they learn from each other, strengthening, and in some facets completely changing their composure. The only splinter to this approach is that a certain brother evolves substantially more than the other, abandoning one to begin and end his journey as the same character.

Fares and Starbreeze use isometric camera angles to show you the beautifully arranged world of Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons through their revolving pans and wordless narrative. The fairy-tale is flatly lit to give a psuedo-cel-shaded appearance, a veneer that pulls shadows from even the smallest of objects, giving dimension and detail to every polygon that adorns the game. Dual stick navigation has been done before, but not quite like this. The controls of this game serve a purpose, and that purpose is camaraderie and osmosis, a concept that gradually develops into full effect by the game’s conclusion. The best of moments are the brothers’ time in repose. There are benches scattered across the game where they just sit. The camera pans and tilts to into a fixed outlook, letting you bask in the game’s resplendent scenery and be carried away by the Scandinavian flutes and vocals. The visuals, music, and the very silence between the brothers converge with the zephyr to create an ambient cliff top gaze. They’re relaxed, and at peace, to simply have each other’s company.

* I mentioned Ico as a solitary adventure in terms of interaction. Yorda may be Ico’s companion, and she does eliminate solidarity in the diegesis, but as far as interaction goes her progression is contingent on Ico’s interaction with the environment, with her acting more as a companion cube for puzzles.
** Journey used a continuous anonymous multiplayer, in which two players’ games converge (in accordance to their location, and without disrupting their point in the game). They inhabit the same world, unable to hinder each other’s progress or communicate beyond simple chirping noises; the multiplayer exists purely for the sake of providing company during the adventure.