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.

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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: 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, 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.

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.

Thomas Was Alone Review

More often than not, videogames use violence as a justified substitute for problem solving. It’s a trope sewn into the fabric of the medium, securing the label of tradition as it becomes the norm for gameplay in contemporary titles. Because of this, the term ‘ludo-narrative dissonance’ is a hot topic these days; defining a thematic disconnect between the story told and the interaction the player assumes. Mike Bithell created Thomas Was Alone as a comparable puzzle-platformer, but the distinguishing feature of the geometric caper is how the gameplay serves a significant purpose beyond the enjoyment of the player: it exists as metaphor.

Thomas, an orange rectangle, awakens one day to find himself well, alive really. He’s just been conjured into existence by means of a computer error and immediately finds himself at odds with solitude and suffering from an existential crisis. The thought of dying unaccompanied sends a shiver down the AI’s (metaphorical) spine, so he decides to carry forward through life’s obstacles in search of camaraderie and purpose.

He comes across other AIs, each with their own personality and physical traits. Some friends can crawl through small apertures, some can jump to great heights and some just carry a buoyant sense of goodwill and vigilantism. Throughout the game Thomas learns the ins and outs of every cliché on the topic of friendship and life, but it’s presented in such a manner you can’t help but be enamoured by.

Thomas was alone.

Simple puzzles compose the majority of the game’s stages, requiring skillful collaboration between the given characters to progress, but how this works as an allegory for friendship and teamwork allows the simplicity of the endeavours to be overlooked, as there’s a sense of accomplishment and absolute delight with each step of the way. Occasionally, you’ll find yourself in a stage where your only objective is a simple romp from point A to point B, though there’s a feeling of frigid isolation when a level is completed without the help of friends. These solitary courses present an opportunity for silent reflection; a character contemplating their loneliness while falling down endlessly, speaks as a surprising analogue for someone being at their wit’s ends. The characters all radiate emotion, their own quirks and ineptitudes coming to light with each passing trifle — you begin to feel like you know these people.

Though to merely look at these “people” would undercut the infusion of charm that concocts the narrative. Various quadrangles shape the visual design of every character, but their nuances in animation inject plenty of vigour into their polygonal visages. Their stature, height of jumps and speed of movement mirror their personalities, from a short square striving to prove himself, to a pretentious rectangle with a prodigious double-jump. Even their jump animations add to their composure; each character contorting during leaps in their own unique way.

At crux of this polygonal coming of age story lies the trenchant narration by Danny Wallace. The coterie of misfit shapes that spearhead the game speak volumes with their body language, though they depend on Wallace to vocalize their sentiments through the comedian’s cheerful and sarcastic demeanour. His tone couples harmoniously with the reflexive script to remind you how absurd the game’s premise is, and how lonely it can be to experience an adventure in recluse — much like this single player game.

Teamwork comes naturally; the only way to succeed.

Minimalism is at the heart of the game’s art direction, creating a beautiful array of menu and level design that blooms in absenteeism. The lack of substance on-screen in confluence with the monochromatic palette, contributes to the crushing sense of isolation — and where there is substance a shadow is cast, jerking solidarity to the forefront of every asset and painting an inescapable dissonance. David Housdens’s ambient soundtrack flows throughout the arteries of the game, streaming the cold pings of chiptunes and the subdued chords of a violin to complement this yarn of the little rectangle that could.

Each level holds variances from the last that never make you feel like you’re hopping about the same abyss of cyberspace. However the story does dither towards the end, taking a step back from the developed characters’ journey of self discovery, to deliver a more conventional plot. Suffices to say, the game does end with a poignant conclusion that coalesces with Thomas’s plight, blending together an adhesively indelible game. As you become more acquainted with the characters in Thomas Was Alone, you’ll begin to catch similarities to people you know — your friends, family, and maybe even yourself. You’ll notice that after the time you spend with these colourful shapes, it’ll be difficult to see them as mere quadrangles ever again.

Kentucky Route Zero – Act II Review

There’s a spadeful of damp vulnerability sown in the first act of Kentucky Route Zero. Our delivery man protagonist, Conrad, doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into. You and I, don’t know what we’ve gotten ourselves into — and that’s really the beauty of this game: we don’t belong in it. There’s a certain vampirism that feeds off the player’s role as a voyeur, a consumption of trust and perception. We know what’s real, what’s not, what physics and logic permits in reality, and which intangible arrangements can only manifest themselves in dreams.

The first act, for the most part, used dialogue to disorient you. You drive up to an old farm-house and ask a strange woman about a broken TV, only to have her respond with a non-sequitur, oblivious to your tone or that something was even asked. While this Lynchian dialogue is still present in the second act, what rises to prominence are the contrastive visuals composed by glacial vector graphics. Once again, a heavy sediment challenges your perception of the natural and unnatural, but in this visit to the eponymous highway you’re stifled by the uncanny settings and their interactable objects.

An office, in a cave.

Hermit crabs are walking around in caves, carrying about their business. But to interact with them would reveal an unsettling comment on how our inorganic consumption in everyday life, affects the way nature intended things to be. The cave is the initial scene of Act 2, and in it you’ll find an office building. Yes, you read that correctly, but while you’re running hoops through bureaucratic paperwork, you can take a break from white-collar life and head to the third floor, where you’ll find some burly employees simply watching you. The inorganic setting of an office is out-of-place for them, but you don’t belong around them either, or whatever sphere of existence Kentucky Route Zero adorns. You can only walk across the eerie, antiseptic office, and they’ll watch your every movement, like the ugly duckling you are.

The perverse espionage that comes with every art is heightened and brought to the forefront of this demented escapade. Film, television, literature — you’re always peeking through a keyhole, getting a narrow cross-section of the events in someone’s life. Though with the participatory narrative of this second act, these roles seem to be reversed. Stranded in the middle of nowhere, the first act handed you the power of judgement. You could reflect on your opinion of the town by speaking to your dog and choosing how to respond to the patrons of the haunted highway. It always felt like you were the kid watching ants endlessly toil about a farm. But being the ant in the farm feels disturbing — all the attention’s on you, as naturally, you’re the stranger in these parts.

Any semblance of solitude and privacy that existed in the first act has been robbed of its vitality. Not only do characters watch your movement, they inspect your every action with detached judgement, enforcing a further state of dissonance between your visiting of the Zero, and the people who call it home. An entire section of this episode dictates this dissonance, and efficaciously writes history as it’s being made. Rather than following the structure of the first act and scribbling a tableau of what used to be, this second act forces you to experience history in the making and through another being’s perspective. The aforementioned section has you pointing and clicking as you would, but interacting with objects summons a conversation between citizens of the town that describe the events as if they’ve already happened, but with their own unique and vindictive judgement. Your participation is still part of their commentary, but it’s something etheric and supernatural; the act of taking possession of new character with each engagement.

Relaxing in a forest.

Characters change in this new episode, and express their personality with more credence in their utterances. Most responses hold a dichotomy that subtly allocates a gentle and tapered tone with Conrad, and abrasive demands by Shannon. It’s a kind of contrastive dyad that let’s the player decide how to deal with a situation while also adding strata to the composure of the protagonists. We’re introduced to new characters as well, their own histories and quirks adding more questions to this tumble in the rabbit hole. Though my only gripe arises with a certain character who is a little too farfetched for the uncanny valley the game presents. This game thrives on taking the realistic, and twisting and construing it to a point that makes you feel like something’s crawling beneath your skin. But when you’re acquainted with a character that seems larger than life, in a game that’s just weird enough to make things creepy, you feel like you’re waking up from the hallucination that Cardboard Computer designed.

There’s ample choice in this game but it’s all intrinsic to who’s playing it. The choices you get to make aren’t the moral decisions you typically see shoehorned into games but instead reflect the characters you create. You participate in the creation of Conrad, Shannon, and how they navigate this chasm between our world and that of the Zero. There’s no gravity to your decisions, only character development and the feeling of co-writing a book. I can’t say what this game is pointing to; it’s a hodgepodge of bizarre events and behaviour. But the most conspicuous facet of the game is how unsettling it is, because of how personal it becomes. Not in the way you make decisions in Mass Effect. Kentucky Route Zero proffers no question of whom to bring along, or which choice will benefit gameplay or story — just how you wish to perceive the narrative. You start to see yourself in these characters, your memories bleeding into theirs, and you’ll get a chill down your spine when you realize how idiosyncratic this game gets, and yet remain at sea with how this feeling came to surface.

Antiestablishment in Dead Space

George A. Romero, of Dawn of the Dead fame, read the zombie genre as being about “revolution, one generation consuming the next.” The idea of the living dead stems from social change, people fearing the downfall of one culture as another consumes it. The conservatives — or the survivors — are the ones refusing said change, as they attempt to quell the revolt. The dissent from the impeding social mores are then nullified by a shot to the head, or some miraculous concoction that cures the walking dead of their ailment — a subversion of one opinion for traditional norms.

The spice Dead Space peppers on its decaying entrée is similar to the former, but varied by a focus on dismembering multiple limbs to subdue a hostile, rather than the trite mechanic of aiming for the head. This may be considered a simple gimmick to add nuance to a tried scenario, however given the importance of organizations within the series’ narrative, this new convention actually manifests itself as a metaphor.

In the average zombie story the undead serve as obstacles for the survivors, merely trifles to be disposed of for the advancement of the narrative, and enforce the protagonists’ persistence in preserving their ideals. Though the unimportance given to each zombie is utilized to express how the threat is social change as whole, across a body of shambling corpses rather than something unique to an individual. But in this syndicate’s tangible manifestation, the rising trend exists in an array of individuals, each brought to naught with a coupe de grace to the cerebrum.

Isaac severing the limbs of a necromorph.

Severance through severing.

But what if these individuals — these zombies, represented something less than themselves, or the sum of their combined efforts? That’s exactly the case with the Dead Space series as the necromorphs don’t represent a change in the tides of society, but rather the consumption of society by organizations. In this case, the objective of the individual’s malevolence is replaced by subservience to a cause greater than it — a future it doesn’t necessarily see itself a part of, but rather a reason it can’t question or understand, leaving it in a state of blind obedience.

Necromorphs are therefore used as pawns, tools, or cannon fodder. Their sovereigns are earthly organizations that are familiar to players, yet hyperbolic nonetheless. Government, military, science, religion — all the major institutions of civilized society attempt to harness the power of these brutes as means to their insidious ends. Naturally, their modus operandi is pure hostility, slashing and corroding everything in their path to impel a state of vulnerability in their prey. Consider this a breaking point, a place for the organization to employ the target when it’s at its weakest. What follows is recruitment, or, indoctrination if you choose to be cynical about the matter. In the most literal sense, this is the conversion process following the subjugation of the quarry, transforming the human into a necromorph. It parallels with how social inequities impel people to join particular groups. For example, the recruitment of the poor for military purposes, or the absolving sins and instilling hope by means of religion — the diegetic counterparts being EarthGov and Unitology, respectively.

Though the blind submission to organizations is coupled with a blind persistence, in which Dead Space uses mechanics to shimmer in its dingy halls by using dismemberment as metaphor. Isaac may be an engineer by trade, though ironically, he spends the majority of his escapades destroying everything in his path. Thusly, he is quite anarchic in nature by not only neglecting the conventions of his profession, but by disestablishing the puppets and constituents of organizations.

The Church of Unitology.

Unitology represents the dangers of religious fundamentalism.

Disestablishing, is putting it lightly — Isaac brutally tears apart necromorphs using the myriad weapons at his disposal. Decapitation does little to hinder a necromorph’s intent as it relentlessly uses the resources it has left to inflict harm. Only by mutilating its limbs can the threat be put to rest. From the point of the game’s narrative, the monster is made immobile by the lack of appendages. However, to look at the underlying imagery would show that Isaac destroying necromorphs in said manner, is actually an allegory for disassembling an organization.

The destruction of an organization is a feat difficult to accomplish, but that’s exactly what’s exhibited in a necromorph’s struggle: the attempt to survive without all of its limbs. Like a necromorph, companies will do everything in their power to survive despite the loss of their constituents. Though only though the disablement of significant partitions can an organization be rendered non-functional. The panned out view of the entire story reflects this core principle, as Isaac’s strife in fending off the various organizations of the Dead Space universe are never enough to keep him out of harm’s way, because as he cuts of one arm of organization, the other still swings.

It’s by this metaphor for dissolving companies that Dead Space truly sets itself apart from the rest of the zombie stories littered across the medium. Instead of relying on the lumbering, pedestrian trope of acute gameplay through shooting someone or something in head, Visceral Games focused on delivering unique and varied gameplay that gave deeper meaning to the story, and efficaciously added depth to the antagonists through the absence of character in its pawns.

Spec Ops Crossed the Line, But the Player Could Not

Wait until you’re growing ashen hair and wearing wrinkled skin. By that time, you’ll be looking back at Spec Ops: The Line as one of the most important games in the medium’s history. Something we lack in our world — in our preferred story telling medium, is a concept that’s been experimented with in every art but videogames: subtle reflexivity. Our ability to look inwards, to criticize, evaluate and properly understand this art through its own constituents, is minimal at best. However with the past generation, developers have dipped their toes into the reflexive waters of the interactive arts. Reflexivity’s been excellently touted by the Bioshock series, and most recently, by Spec Ops: The Line.

The game serves as a comment on military interventions, post-traumatic stress disorder and an incredibly dark satire of the modern military shooter. Although, while Yager Development wrote an exceptional story, they bit off more than they could chew. Amongst the themes of violence, heroism and the absurdity of military shooters, Yager interlaces the subject of player responsibility. I can’t say it was shoehorned in — it’s a theme that’s enforced as the game progresses — only it doesn’t coalesce with the entire story.

Responsibility entails agency. It’s an idea that’s affixed to a person who has the ability to make a decision in a given context. Though for this concept to take any actual effect, the decision can’t be the inherent playing of the game. In other words, the player can’t be held responsible for decisions they didn’t make, but were instead scripted by the direction of the narrative.

John Walker, treading through the remains of the civilians of Dubai.

A ghastly vista, though the horrors seen across the ashes are not a result of the player’s actions.

Spoilers follow.

Yager wrote some truly gut-wrenching scenarios and for that I applaud them. There’s a barrier where the player is forced to choose between the lives of two men to progress. I did feel responsible when I learnt that I could circumvent murder. There’s a scene where the player has to shoot a civilian, enticing a crowd to disperse — wrong again, I could’ve simply shot into the air. These were decisions I made, through stipulations I assumed, because that’s the kind of rote thinking I had learnt from other shooters, and before playing this devilishly brilliant game.

But these moments, as astute as they may be, are in fact few and far in between. Therefore, decisions, and by that virtue responsibilities, are seldom burdened. I’d leave this minor dissonance between choices and overarching plot unscathed, however I began to reach points where the game would accuse me of actions the player has no control over.

There’s a heavy emphasis placed on the gruesome mass execution of civilians by means of white phosphorus. It’s a powerful scene enforcing once again, the absurdity of military shooters and the atrocities of war. It’s an action played out by the protagonist, Martin Walker, however it’s the only option the player has. When the player first reaches the white phosphorous, one squad-mate, John Lugo, proposes that another method must be available — he claims “there is always a choice.” To which Walker responds, “there’s really not.” So I spent about twenty minutes continually repeating the checkpoint as I scrounged about for a less deranged means to complete the objective. Unfortunately, this time spent looking for another avenue was in vain, as Walker was right, there was no other option. As horrifying as this scene was, I took my failure with a grain of salt as the narrative is clearly trying to convey a criticism of war and the videogames it influences.

But Spec Ops loses its balance as it begins to criticize the player through rhetorical censure sprawled across its loading screens. They try to divulge a reaction from the player, by taunting them for decisions that they can’t be held accountable for. Upon loading a particular level, the player is asked: “How many Americans have you killed today?” This somewhat disrupts the overall goal of the narrative, by interweaving responsibility for ironclad plot points. The player had no choice in the matter; Americans were killed because they shot at the protagonist and retaliation was the only means to progress. In this situation, the label of “American” is stripped because the label of “hostile” takes precedence. It’s a quick, simple, and cheap manner to evoke emotion, though it falls flat on its face. The player has no way to bypass killing “Americans” and thusly can’t be held responsible for eliminating hostiles. These loading screens prove to be inimical to the rhythm of the game’s narrative, and merely condemn the player for playing the game, lessening Yager’s core intentions.

Hostile loading screen.

A cluttered attempt to look inwards in a game already filled to the brim with reflexivity.

Another loading screen alludes to the alleged actions of the player in the aforementioned white phosphorus mission. The bottom of the screen holds text stating that the US military does not condone the killing of unarmed combatants, but the player shouldn’t care because they’re not real. The entire statement is an excellent shot at war casualties — more specifically, in military shooters. But the problem with this statement is once again, the lack of control the player had in said situation.

Rebuking the player like this doesn’t fit with the overall flow of the narrative and its aims. For the player to accept responsibility, the game needs to have consistent occurrences for the player to be held accountable. This is best exemplified by games like Dishonored, where non-violence is an option, or in Telltale’s The Walking Dead, where the narrative has certain plot twists set in stone, but the player is wholly responsible for the protagonist’s decisions. It may sound like I’m getting defensive about what the game accused me of, but my issues are actually along the lines of how the game — for the most part — failed to engage responsibility and therefore diluted its key objectives by suggesting the very idea.

In a reflexive title like Spec Ops: The Line, any occasion that plainly communicates with the player must be handled with absolute prudence. By continually trying to interweave responsibility within a game already saturated with reflexivity, Yager slightly harms the cadence of the narrative. Though despite any miscalculations that cloud its core intentions, Spec Ops: The Line is still an excellent example of how games can be used to study themselves, and at the same time, make a comment about the world we live in.