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: 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.

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.

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.