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.

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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: 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.

The Corporeal Supernatural of Uncharted 3

The Uncharted series is touted as the Indiana Jones of videogames; a globetrotting treasure hunt, complete with a wise cracking adventurer, an evil organization and a cheesy romantic conclusion. Working with the archetypes endowed by the Action-Adventure genre, the Uncharted series follows the same roadmap of any adventure flick, right down to presenting a supernatural element in the third act. But Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, to players’ bewilderment, didn’t overtly use any ancient magic to hammer in the gravity of the treasure hunt. It was just teased, a carrot on stick that’s never quite in full view.

Instead Naughty Dog took it upon themselves to practice subtlety, something they later mastered with The Last of Us. Supernatural elements are still present in the game; we see the jar holding the djinns during the final act, though they’re never actually shown to the player, merely used as a plot device. Instead, more complex supernatural elements are embedded in the composition of the characters.

Protagonist Nathan Drake and his father figure Victor Sullivan, find themselves in a variety of harrowing situations throughout the entire series, though by some stroke of luck they escape predicaments unscathed. Where their escapes are usually credited to the simplistic “good guys always win” rule, Drake’s Deception actually uses history aficionado Charlie Cutter as a manifestation of this divine intervention. Cutter takes the role of a guardian angel, watching over the duo and paving the way for their safety even in the most dire of situations. At the beginning of the game, he stages Nate and Sully’s murder so they could escape the scene while Katherine Marlowe, the game’s antagonist, leaves with a fake of the ring that she sought after. Later in the game he pulls a gun on Nate, only to wait for Marlowe’s right hand man, Talbot, to lower his weapon and become vulnerable to Cutter’s. Shortly after this trickery Cutter takes a hit so Nate and company can get away, ensuring once again, that the hero may continue his journey.

Katherine Marlowe and Talbot.

Talbot on the other hand, is more or less a devil figure, testing the bond between Nate and Sully in his every appearance. In a section of the Syria chapters, Cutter is drugged by Talbot and is instructed not to trust Nate. Subsequently a fight between Nate and Cutter ensues and as Nate is being strangled, Sully pulls a gun on Cutter, ready to fire if he didn’t let go. The immediacy of this action expresses Sully’s care for Nate; willing to murder a friend at blank range to ensure his “son’s” safety. In a tapered scene in Yemen, Nate is drugged by Talbot, and suffers a hallucination in which he sprints through a market filled with contorting merchants. When he awakens from his drug induced state he finds himself sitting down with Marlowe and Talbot, and much to his dismay, he realizes he told them that Sully knows where Ubar is — the lost city housing the mystical djinns. When Marlowe and company reach Ubar, Nate foils their plans and causes the city to ruin. Marlowe is buried in sand with the crumbling city, and everyone begins to escape the premises. However as the city falls, Talbot avenges her death, fighting Nate on a platform sinking into the sand. Sully then jumps down to the dilapidated flooring, shoots Talbot, and helps Nate avoid his demise, risking his life for Nate’s. One thing to note is how the relationship between Talbot and Marlowe acts as a counterweight to Nate and Sully. They have their own mother-son relationship, evident by Talbot’s hollering and need for revenge when Marlowe died.

Most interesting of all the characters in Drake’s Deception is Marlowe. She doesn’t carry many qualities beyond that of an evil witch. She doesn’t even add much to narrative by her personality — she’s just a standard antagonist, like the ones in previous instalments. But what separates this game from the others is how much attention is given to developing Nate, his history and the bond between him and Sully. Marlowe acts a conduit for this information, sort of like a ghost of the past threading Nate’s backstory to the player through her presence. When we’re first introduced to Marlowe, Nate and Sully are shot and the player is to assume that they’re gravely wounded. What follows is a flashback, showing how Nate came to meet Sullivan when he was a boy — an event she was a part of. In Yemen, after Nate’s hallucination, she berates Nate for living a fraudulent life, exposing his family history to the player, and how Drake isn’t even his real surname.

As a link to Nate’s past, Marlowe is also the instigator of both chases in the game — one when he’s young, and one when he’s an adult. During the flashback at the beginning of the game, Sully sides with Nate as Marlowe beats him for not handing over the key to a museum. A chase ensues, in which Nate escapes from Marlowe’s private army with the help of Sully, marking the beginning of their friendship. But as an adult, Nate breaks Sully’s trust in his drug induced state. In the chase that follows Nate is the chaser, going after Talbot to find out where Sully is being held — though he fails to save Sully, unable to return the favour done for him when he was a child. Through complementary distribution these two chases reflect each other as one brought Nate and Sully together, and another separated them.

I think it’s very possible that the reason why Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception wasn’t met with the warm applause dealt to the first and second game is because of the lack of any overt supernatural threat. It didn’t hit the same story beats, the rubric of the conventional action-adventure, and I imagine that’s what everyone wanted out of the “Indiana Jones of videogames.” Instead of relying on a simplistic plot composed of romance, betrayal, untold riches and the supernatural, Naughty Dog decided to give its audience a stronger, smarter, and more subtle narrative, allowing for the supernatural to exist in the form of conduits for character development, rather than a plot device.

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.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch Review

Outside the clout of the Pokémon series, Japanese RPGs sustain a quiet release in the West to a humble audience and modest sales. You’ll find your Tales game here, your Disgaea there, but no JRPG has released with as much fanfare as Level 5’s latest title, Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch. Coupled with Studio Ghibli’s reputable animation, the game serves as a gorgeous love letter to JRPGs of yore, filled with every mechanic you’ve come to expect from the genre, and with that its most significant issue: it’s locked down in ye olde claustrophobic conventions and functions of the 90s. But the game’s premise is what changes the pace of the typical JRPG trifles you’ve come to expect, coated in a heartbreaking primer and a heartwarming finish.

So let’s not beat around the bush; this game is famous for its good looks, and its arduous localization project (at least for us in the West), though the two-year difference between Japan’s release of the game and ours was well worth the wait. You’ve never seen a game as brilliantly localized as this one, lending side mission titles as pop culture references, excellently characterized dialogue and all the — daft, yet endearing — puns for the names of familiars, the Pokémon-like monsters you catch to use in combat scenarios. However some of the trite and kitschy “save the world through virtue” speeches do manage to squeeze themselves through. Along with the overly sentimental monologues you’ll also have to endure the traditional gasps and chokes followed by an exclamation of a character’s name. The localization may not be perfect, but it’s the best you’ll get, and furthermore the fully realized characters, who carry a gamut of emotion and depth conveyed through exceptional voice acting, are more than enough reason to overlook faults in the writing and immerse yourself in the fairytale the game offers. Though the most disappointing facet of the writing lies with the protagonist, Oliver, who is the lynchpin of this enchanting tale, but suffers from one-dimensional voice acting and platitudinous dialogue.

Oliver and Mr. Drippy gazing across the stunning landscape.

Oliver’s a simple kid living a perfect depiction of your nowhere whistle-stop: he plays outside, dreams of driving a car and involves himself in general childlike mischief. After suffering a tragic loss, Oliver’s stuffed fairy, Mr. Drippy, comes to life and takes him to another world where his journey of growth and camaraderie flourishes in somewhat of a wizard’s coming of age narrative, set in a whimsical realm. Despite being a young boy with a mouthful of pedestrian text, Oliver’s maturation is perceptible, as he’s shaped by the obstacles of the bizarre sphere he finds himself in, the friendships he builds, and how he learns to persevere through the emotional and physical tribulations that are forced upon him.

This harlequin dimension of Ni No Kuni is magical in every meaning of the word. There are the essential elemental sceneries like “the forest level” or “the fire level,” but what really stands out are the unique kingdoms with their rich politics and histories, each domain harbouring their own enthralling secrets. Every inch of this game is peppered with that Studio Ghibli flavour, from a nursery rhyme kingdom ruled by a tabby cat, to an industrial and communist city hellbent on efficiency and rigid laws. But what brings colour to these vibrant domains are the citizens that inhabit them, and the ordeals that they suffer.

Of course, this is a JRPG, so expect plenty of bounty boards that ask you to complete side quests, but don’t expect any variety. Besides bounty hunts, Ni No Kuni offers little in terms of ancillary gameplay beyond fetch quests. The game does, however, offer an interesting premise for a certain grouping of side quests, in which the villainous wizard Shadar went about breaking people’s hearts, and you’re tasked with mending them. A broken heart in Ni No Kuni entails the dearth of some sort of positive emotion, such as confidence or kindness. So naturally you have to find to an NPC with too much of the given emotion, and use magic to take some it and heal the dispirited. The most compelling aspect of these quests are their initial and concluding interactions with broken-hearted characters, which compose some of the game’s warmest insights and cheeky banter. Having said that, these interactions do get quite repetitive as they are mere fetch quests with a veneer of charm, and recurring characters battle similar issues ad nauseam which takes away from otherwise nuanced dialogue — saving the same marriage five times does get old.

Combat in Ni No Kuni.

Now when you’re done helping overindulgent soldiers and finding lost possessions for unfortunate souls you could turn to the main quest, traversing the lushest of vistas and exploring the dampest of dungeons. The level design of these areas tout a degree of exploration and treasure to pillage, but you’ll spend more time engaging in combat by means of random encounters and boss battles. These encounters are a hybrid of turn-based and real-time combat, which let you take control of Oliver, his friends and his familiars, with a cool down meter that dictates the frequency at which you may use the myriad of options bestowed upon you. With these combat and provision limitations comes a great deal of strategy to be honed; impeccable timing and multitasking becomes a necessity for later engagements. However when assuming control of a character (human or familiar) in combat there are restraints that leave much to be desired. You have absolute control of your avatar’s movement, though to attack and defend you’re forced to shuffle through a list of moves in real-time whilst avoiding and preparing for incoming attacks. This adds an awkward level of agitation, teasing real-time combat but forcing the player to adhere to the interface of turn-based combat.

A further hinderance to the combat design are the familiars themselves. Grinding is a constant in Ni No Kuni, some areas being near inaccessible for a long while because of the strength of enemies in random encounters. Catching familiars is a mere game of chance; wild familiars randomly choose an interest in you upon defeating them. A newly caught familiar starts off at a low-level and has to ascend its way back to relevance. Unfortunately the same applies to familiars you’ve evolved to a stronger state, impelling you to grind even further since their level resets to one, and drops most of the stats you’ve accumulated.

A fan of JRPGs will absolutely love Ni No Kuni with its dozens of hours of gameplay and hundreds of pieces of equipment to find and craft. After all, it’s a standard JRPG with a fresh coat of paint. You may even enjoy the cacophony that is its gameplay. But anyone looking for any new goods in the department will be out of luck. The layer of charm and whimsy may create enough momentum to carry you through the game but if you don’t already enjoy JRPGs, chances are this game won’t sway your opinion. For some, the game may suffice on aesthetics alone; the writing being quite enchanting for the most part. Coupled with beautiful level design and a wonderfully harmonious soundtrack, Ni No Kuni conjures an unrivalled trek through a fairytale odyssey.

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.

The Empty Heart of Max Payne

Upon loading Max Payne 3, the violins of the ominous menu music sent a chill down my spine. My mood was dragged down with each note as I began to speculate where this story could go. I was lost in the music, enamoured by imagination, by all the possible manners in which this foreboding score may complement the narrative. Max lost his wife, his child and years later when he opened his heart again, his newfound romance was quickly added to his list of tribulations. Broken and vulnerable; Max had nothing to live for.

Which is exactly what coated my thoughts: where could this story go? Max Payne is dead. He’s lost everything he cared about, and is left as the shell of a man, in every sense the cliché entails. The ex-detective’s an alcoholic and a drug addict, living life as a slug about his apartment. Which is sad, of course, but this state of depression culls the game’s most glaring issue: it goes absolutely nowhere.

You’d think a man who’s had so much taken away from him — a man who harbours his own lethal take on justice, may hold some character beyond the stereotype. Well, that’s not the case. Max is the same hackneyed character you’d expect. Where the narrative abandoned Max in the second game was flawless. It was bleak, depressing, and perfectly conveyed Max’s ironclad fate: he was destined to live an unhappy life.

The self destructive state of Max Payne.

As sad as his situation may be, nothing interesting comes of it.

Spoilers follow.

Max Payne 3 beats a dead horse. Our protagonist has nothing to live for, no one to protect and no one to avenge. The game’s largest plot twist merely relies on his existence, as it establishes how Max’s addiction landed him in his current predicament: fighting another man’s war. The initial instalment in the series had him seeking revenge for the death of his family. In the second, he fought for his life, and the protection of his new love interest. The latest title strings Max as a fly who was too drunk to notice the web he landed in. Skin the narrative even further, and it’s simply the story of a middle aged man attaining sobriety in the most arduous way imaginable.

Without drive, without direction, Max Payne literally and merely serves as a means for the player to witness the story. The entire narrative has little to do with Max, besides the antagonist’s plot to use him as patsy for his crimes. Fabiana’s kidnapping is what carried half the plot, but only because it’s Max’s job to take care of her, and the rest of her affluent family. After her execution Max continues his rampage, seeking revenge for machinations he’s completely dislodged from.

Sad to say, but Max Payne becomes very similar to the infamously one-dimensional Kratos, from God of War. Both series began as tragedies, giving concrete reason and goals to their protagonists. However, by the third instalment they’re both angry bald men with nothing to live for, apart from their lust for violence and self-caused/justified desire for revenge.

Max's drinking problem proves to be the most important part of his character.

It’s unfortunate to see a character with so much depth have his history almost entirely neglected.

Stylistically the story is well told, but needless to say, it’s hindered by its impersonality. I assumed that this third piece would interlock with the original, that it may show an older Max Payne, trying to redeem himself by helping a family in need — a kind of karmic compensation for not being able to save his own. Instead, he’s left protecting a rich family with little to no compelling qualities beyond the inherent shock value of how self obsessed one can be. Furthermore, the plot quickly accents his own ineptitudes and inadequacies, straying away from any subplot that may symbolize or allude to his prior futility in saving his loved ones. We could have seen Max Payne in his own personal hell; reliving all the misery he endured, and trying to escape the cyclicality of his misfortunes. But while the score paints a menacing backdrop, the story fails to complement the atmosphere.

The whole Tony Scott vibe coupled with Rockstar’s finest shooting mechanics serve for an entertaining experience, only it puts little emphasis on Max Payne’s character. It doesn’t feel like it was a game written with him in mind, but rather the gameplay mechanics of previous titles in the series. Hopefully the next game will make appropriate use of this once-compelling character, instead of casting his husk into a dissolute and depraved setting.

How Limbo Made the Devil Cry

There’s this statement thrown around nowadays praising the setting of a game, over its inhabitants. I’ve often heard people refer to Grand Theft Auto IV as a game about Liberty City, not about Niko Bellic and his plights throughout the metropolis. The same claim is affixed to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. But my issue with this argument is the fact that these environments are static. The locale may operate as a toy, or, the setting may act as a canvas, the avatar as a paintbrush and the player as a painter. With this expressionist mentality in mind, there is one glaring problem with open world games: perception.

Dante looking towards Bob Barbas's tower.

Adjusting perspective becomes part of the gameplay.

Perception dominates the open world experience, shaping exactly what each player takes away from each game. This perception comes as a natural yield of the player’s decisions. To some people, Grand Theft Auto IV is about committing endless acts of theft and violence. To me, it’s about free will, the mindless futility of the American Dream and a general comment about Western culture. By allowing so much choice, the impact of particular aspects of open world titles are reduced. The setting becomes a toy (Grand Theft Auto), or a canvas (Elder Scrolls) to interact with.

DMC: Devil May Cry, takes these assumed roles, and flips them upside down. Limbo, the outré demonic dimension of DMC, takes the stage in this reboot of the revered action series. Although the game is as linear as they come, the narrow confines allowed Ninja Theory to appoint their creative talents towards the creation of this vivacious world. Thusly, the player has infinite freedom through the game’s manifold combo system, while lacking any interface with the environment. Instead the surroundings interact with the player, allowing for creative level design that hinges on its animosity for the protagonist. These conditions promote Limbo as the star of the show, while overshadowing the characters to a point of periphery.

Vibrant colours in Limbo.

DMC’s art direction places it amongst the most visually impressive games in history.

I know this is a trite complaint, but most games don’t take advantage of the colouration that contemporary hardware can provide. Once in a blue moon, big budget titles like Uncharted 3 and Halo 4 offer vibrant level design but are still restricted by the realism demanded via brusque consumers. Then there are titles like Viva Piñata, which modestly solicits candy coloured animals gallivanting about a brilliant garden. Though nothing can compare to the harlequin level design featured by Limbo, in DMC.

Ninja Theory fears no persecution; the game is drenched in colour. While other games continue to delineate warm and cold colours in favor of a harmonized aesthetic, DMC abolishes said pattern for a splatter of beauty in absolute dissonance. The forced collaboration of warm and cold is deeply ingrained in the philosophy of DMC‘s gameplay, by means of juxtaposition. Speed versus power, angel versus demon, good versus evil — it all comes down to using the collision of disagreeing elements to enrich the experience.

Dante in a demonic soda production factory.

Distorted platforms cause for nuanced navigation.

The architecture of Limbo uses the lack of harmony quite literally, as it skewers perception through disorienting the player. Many games use oblique camera angles as a means to shoehorn the player into a difficult position, while adding a cinematic exponent to the equation. Naturally, this would force the player to maneuver in irregular patterns, as an attempt to take control of the scenario. At the same this removes some of the agency the player once had in the given situation. However DMC is able to shake the player without pressuring them into any stipulated outlook, through the incongruent arrangement of its sets.

Upside-down, slanted, broken — Limbo’s architecture is off kilter in every conceivable manner. It’s for that reason that the player is at sea upon a level’s introduction. While navigating a chasm via floating rubble the player may land on a horizontal structure, then the apex of a vertical edifice, all while adjusting to the fact that the ground sits in one corner of the screen and the sun shines perpendicularly. To add to the utter confusion already at hand, the environment distracts and threatens the player through messages sprawled across its faces. Strange to say, but this literally gives the setting an ounce of character as it entices the player to “come closer,” or overtly expresses ire, stretching lines like “fuck you Dante” across its walls.

A fight in a dance club.

The dance floor pulses with fervor, as a distant radiance highlights Dante and his foe.

However, these frequent bursts of rage pave the road for Limbo’s most distinguishing feature: it’s alive. Palette and level design bind together to create beautiful environments but at the core, Limbo thrives on its abrasive heartbeat. It moves, transforms, and kills. Its only motivation for drawing breath is to see Dante die, and is relentless as a result. Earth crumbles beneath Dante’s feet, platforms in proximity tear themselves apart, hallways encroach personal space — the list goes on eternally. What’s to be noted is the fact that Limbo is dynamic and hostile, not only affecting the art direction, but the gameplay as well. These adversities construct Limbo as a domain to be overcome, rather than simply navigated.

Though the vigor of the level design’s doesn’t end with the reorganization of its constituents. Limbo’s colours dance to beat of combat, oscillating in harmony with the music. This is best exemplified by a location called Devil’s Dalliance, a nightclub where motionless textures do not exist. The veneer of the floors glow with movement akin to a lava lamp, while massive visualizers fluctuate in the background. Floors, walls, ceilings — every texture breathes in and out, booming to the beat of the music.

Colour, level design and animation, all twist together to shape Limbo as a beautiful monstrosity. I don’t mean to undercut the fidelity of open world games — I think they’re incredible feats of design. Though expansive worlds hinge upon the discretion of player, who might prioritize certain sections, but leave other territories uncharted. Therefore, focus is shifted to the interaction between the player and the world, instead of the world itself. In DMC: Devil May Cry, the world ambushes the player regardless of their compliance. This allows for Limbo to channel the flow of interaction, leaving the player to succumb to its mandates. It’s undeniable: the devil does cry. Though they aren’t tears of suffering. Given the magnificent design of Limbo, I can only assume they’re tears of joy.