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.

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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.

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.

The Choreography of Dead Space

Remember the first time you walked around The Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time? It taught you the ropes: sights, sounds and all the monster slaying in between. “Cobweb in the way? I can burn it. Strange flora? Must be dangerous. A change of music? I’m ready for a fight. Jovial chime? The room is clear.” You’re comfortable. You know what to expect because you’ve been taught that certain sounds and certain visuals, indicate the presence of, certain obstacles – and that’s fine, this is a fantastical action-adventure game.

However in a survival horror, like Dead Space 3, these audial and visual cues can be a detriment to the very fear the game is trying to instil. Dead Space 3 actually employs these qualities so well, you know what to expect from each area. A good horror game needs that haunted house feel; invoking a fear in the player that immediately causes dread, and in the process, removes any comfortability. This should come naturally from the congruence of audio, visuals and the interaction the player assumes.

The visuals are gruesome enough, but where Dead Space 3 really loses its focus is the music, or more specifically, the very presence of music at all. The series has some of the best sound editing in the industry, but for whatever reason Visceral Games felt that a score was also needed. Music can add or subtract from fear, through a chilling soundtrack like that of Silent Hill 2, or unsettling irony, like in Bioshock. But Dead Space 3 instead adds a triumphant score to complement vistas or chapter endings, removing all sense of danger. Sounds familiar? Sounds comforting? Because that’s the same effect used to plot accomplishments in Ocarina of Time‘s dungeons. In Dead Space 3, music that accompanies combat tides in before the threat is even present, and only recedes when said threat is eliminated, removing all tension and essentially composing the fight’s cadence for the player. I am well aware that the music can be turned off from the settings menu, but I feel like the music wasn’t even necessary. A lot of money would have been saved while contributing to the game’s atmosphere.

Link expectedly defeats a Deku Scrub.

Ducts in the Dead Space series are used the same way anomalous plants are in 3D Zelda games.

This predictability is further accentuated by the blatant enemy spawn points. While walking around a seemingly empty room, you’ll notice conspicuous ducts on the walls and ceiling. Guess what? Yeah, you’re right: these holes are the only places enemies emerge from. Not only does this ready you for combat, it strips the room of any jump scares. In later parts of the game, you run about structures that aren’t even manmade — but hey, the enemies have to spawn somewhere right? That’s why there are duct-like apertures everywhere.

Visceral does take advantage of the game’s more frigid vistas, and delivers genuine surprises by lessening the player’s vision; an effect reminiscent of Silent Hill‘s fog. Enemies may spring up from snow, or sprint through a blizzard. Though I’m bemused by how little this was used. Instead of having enemies spawn from the obvious locations, why not have them tear through a door, a wall, or the floor? This would have removed the anticipation of an attack, and therefore, mitigate any visual cues that were previously applicable. Apparently necromorphs have the strength to tear people apart limb from limb, but when it comes to walls they’re impotent.

I understand that these issues were prevalent in previous games in the series, but they are definitely most pronounced in this third instalment. These may not have been issues for some, but I believe that removing audial and visual cues from the game could have strengthened the caliber of horror found in the Dead Space series as a whole, but most primarily, in Dead Space 3.