Thursday, 25 July 2013

Getting Married! Going on Honeymoon!

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Welcome to the Sam and Dan Games Developer Blog! Moving forward one step at a time.



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Getting Married! Going on Honeymoon!


As the title suggest this Saturday 7/27 I will be getting married around 5PM Eastern Time. It has been a long year of planning, blood, sweat and tears but it is finally here! I'm incredibly happy about this step in my life and I wouldn't do it with anybody else but Zaira, my fiance.



For our honeymoon we will be traveling for 2 weeks so I won't be around to make update for you guys :(. Like I mentioned on Twitter I will be doing the 3 Mystery Gifts in advance and the sponsor will release them on 8/2 and 8/9 on his blog. Once you find the code put it in and the gifts will be available to play on v1.48 of PTD2.



I didn't have enough time to do both the Mystery Gifts and the Giveaways so I will have to do the giveaway when I return.



Thanks!

Honestly without you guys this wedding would have not happened, so I wanted to say Thank you for playing our games and for always supporting us.



Soon I will be back and with the wedding behind me I will be able to refocus on the game and work harder than I ever had.



I will miss you guys!

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Movie Appraisal: Pacific Rim (2013)





Hey everybody! So, last weekend I went to see Pacific Rim with my normal theatre viewing crew. We had planned this out for a good long while and were all looking forward to it quite a bit. We went to a midnight showing since any other time wouldn't have worked out for us, and we excitedly waited for the movie to get rolling. Also read this review at your own risk!



We had no previews in our showing, and the movie didn't quite fit the screen which was fairly disappointing. Other than those things, the movie viewing experience was amazing. It is the best of its genre, hands down. I mean, there is no other way to even compare it to other movies. The actions scenes are wonderful, the human elements are actually meaningful and fun, and the CGI is both necessary and incredibly well done.






Come on, look at how awesome this thing looks!

I loved the designs of both the Kaiju (the big goddamn monsters) and the Jaeger (the big goddamn mechs). They worked incredibly well and felt amazingly large. The sense of scale was monumental, something I haven't felt in a theatre since the first time I saw The Fellowship of the Ring and watched the huge statues in that movie go by the fellowship while they were floating by in tiny boats. This movie makes the Kaiju and the Jaegers feel realistically huge. It was so cool.



And yeah, this movie has a lot to do with being cool. It is an experience. The music, the sound, the visuals, and the human stories- they are all experiences within the movie. No, the plot is not new. It's actually pretty cliched and can be easily predicted, but that doesn't mean it hasn't perfected its story. The Kaiju are the perfect antagonists, both alien and immensely terrifying. They have both a strength and a power that a normal person cannot even hope to overcome.






I'm a big damn mech, and I'm going to punch monsters from the depths of Hell.
Pleased to meet you.

It's a story about struggle and survival in an apocalyptic situation. It's also about teamwork (since the Jaegers require two people to make them run) and about just a great time in general. It's a movie that made me smile ear-to-ear more than once. It's also a movie that made me feel a cold sting of mortality at times as well. There are some very dark moments to go with the fun of them movie. And the moments that feel immense also can feel soul-crushingly sad as well.



When the Russian and Chinese Jaeger pilots die, it is a terrible thing. I felt their deaths in a way I rarely feel the deaths of characters within a movie. And these a re characters with no speaking lines either! With a very limited amount of screen time. Guillermo del Toro is that much of a master of his craft. He can make you feel something for characters who are background at best.



The fights are superb, hitting all the right strides and all the right moments. There are enough things that both the Jaeger and the Kaiju do to shake the fights up as well. I mean, suddenly the Jaegers have swords. Suddenly the Kaiju has an EMP. Suddenly there is a rocket elbow. Suddenly the freaking Kaiju has WINGS. All these elements work to make it just a wonderfully entertaining film, full of amazing moments, cool characters, and neat set-pieces.



The background stuff is really interesting as well. I mean both the background of this universe and the scenery itself. Both tell more of the story than the dialogue and characters ever could. It just feels so awe-inspiring. Ever person who is or was a little kid at one point playing with toys and ramming them against one another to fight will understand why this movie is one of the best movies out there period.



Yes, there are negatives. The lack of female characters (although I know I'll be called out on that by someone, just give it time) and some of the sillier things of the movie were a little annoying, but for the most part it is an incredibly fun ride. Easily one of the best movies I've seen in theatres in a long time. I suggest everybody watch this big damn movie. The script, music, and everything else are so awesome that the movie deserves your money and time, it really does.






How can you not love a man who looks like this?

Also, Ron Perlman and his character of Hannibal Chau are crazy awesome. I love that character so much. Also, the two science guys are great as well, and don't even take away from the big story of mechs and monsters punching one another. Is it a dumb movie at times? Sure, I guess. But just because it's a movie about things punching other things doesn't mean it can't be brilliant as well.



Serious recommendation. If you haven't seen it, go and see it!






Also, Hannibal Chau's shoes, because the detail is awesome!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Bridging the gap




Prototype created at Salford Uni to encourage library usage, particularly students from a different location which used to have it's own library but won't from next term. They need to be encouraged to come over the bridge to the main library!

'Know How' prize trail







Prototype created at Salford Uni to encourage library usage, particularly new students, using orienteering as an inspiration.

More blanks and materials...

While I'm sat here waiting for videos to upload(!) I've just had a small delivery and bits and pieces for making prototype games.

For the first time I've ordered some materials from a German company called Spielmaterial .

They have a decent range of game components, plus some games, the prices are fair and they came quickly! Think I'll be going back to them when I need to top up my box of

What am I?




A game for illustrating a range of resources and their attributes prototyped at Salford Uni.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Thoughts on The Last of Us


I have now finished playing The Last of Us and feel it has quite a few things worth discussing. Overall it is a great game and there is a lot that can be learnt from it. Especially noteworthy are the nerve wrecking encounters. When at its best they top even the ones in Resident Evil 4 (2005), which I think features some of the best action gameplay ever. It also manages to use just about every trick in the book to tell its story. It is a very solid package and masterfully crafted. At the same time, while wrapped in an emotional plot, it is really just a game about combat and part of, what I think is, a worrying trend in video game storytelling.

Before The Last of Us can be properly analyzed, we need to go back to the early days of the game industry. At the beginning of videogame history, games were just about doing a few simple actions over and over. These games did not have a recognizable story as such, but simply provided a rough context for the action.


In Asteroids (1979) the visuals consisted of simplistic line drawings, but in the mind of the players they controlled a spaceship blasting incoming chunks of rock. While this thin veneer of story was not really important for the game as such, it greatly enhanced the experience. This was clearly shown in early advertisements where the screenshots are small and concept art showing off this fantasy takes up most of the space.


For the remainder of this article I will refer to this extra high-level concept as the story layer. This essentially refers to any part that does not directly support the core gameplay but is there only there to add an extra sense of purpose and narrative. Important to note is that the gameplay can still incorporate parts of the game's story; all of the narrative experience does not reside in the story layer.

While these high level concepts were (and often still are) very simplistic, it is pretty clear that they are essential. There are very few games that do not share this quality and just go 100% abstract. Even a weird game like pacman has some form of story layer to it.


This slowly gave rise to storytelling in action games. Rudimentary plots were added, for instance a summary of the background story at the start, and this eventually expanded to cutscenes in between the levels. The extra story content was not connected to the gameplay as such but simply provided context and rewards. But while it did not directly influence the gameplay in any meaningful way, cutscenes and an explicit plot could still improve the feel of the game.


The biggest evolution in storytelling came from Another World (1991) where the story layer and gameplay fit almost flawlessly into one another. No longer were the narrative elements superficial, but instead carefully ingrained with the gameplay. Actions that were made in gameplay smoothly transitioned into a cutscene and vice versa. The interactive scenarios were also carefully designed in order to make sense in the games story. Despite this tight coupling, it is important to point out that the focus of all gameplay segments was still about challenge and "fun". The game contained a number of mechanics and each section tested the player's skill in one or more of these. While the non-interactive plot elements improved the experience, they were still not crucial. Were the story layer to be taken way, the gameplay sections would still work fine in their own right .


Another World was a ahead of its time and it took a lot of years before the rest of the industry got up to speed. But when it did, the idea to close the gap between the gameplay and the story layer really caught on. Earlier, the story layer had mostly been seen as an extra, but ultimately superfluous, feature. But it rose in prominence, and was seen as increasingly crucial. Along the way, a host of new ways to add a story layer emerged. The audio logs from System Shock (1994), in-game cutscene from Half Life (1998) and the omnipresent narrator from Portal (2007) are probably the most important ones. All of these provided tools to merge the two conflicting elements. Along the way, the complexity and maturity of the story layers increased as well.

Even though modern action games now come with a wide variety of stories, the basic format is still the same as in the early days. The player is given a narrow set of mechanics that needs to be skillfully used in order overcome the challenges provided. On top of this is an extra narrative wrapping, the story layer, that helps shape the experience into something more meaningful. This is a recipe that most recent high profile games use, including Dead Space (2008), Uncharted (2007), Tomb Raider (2013), Halo 4 (2012), Portal 2 (2011), Bioshock (2007), and many more.

Here is where The Last of Us comes in; it is the latest step in this evolution. It is probably also the game that, so far, managed marry the gameplay and the story layer most elegantly. This makes it into an emotional journey, but it is crucial to remember its pedigree. It is still an action game with an additional story layer.


Just like a number of recent games with narrative ambitions, e.g. Spec Ops (2012) and Hotline Miami (2012), it takes the gameplay as a starting point for the story. This is different from a game like Uncharted where the high concept came first. In Uncharted's case it was to replicate an Indiana Jones-like adventure movie. Because of this, the gameplay's need for constant bloodshed has a hard time fitting the happenings in the story layer. This caused a very noticeable discrepancy in the game's narrative, the so called "ludonarrative dissonance". The game's protagonist would slaughter hundreds of people and afterwards crack a joke and worry about his relationships. But in a game like Last Of Us, the violent gameplay is taken as a given and the whole world shaped accordingly. The game is set in a story where butchering hundreds of people makes sense, giving the holistic experience a strong feeling of consistency.

There are still a few problems between of the story layer and the gameplay, but on the whole the played narrative is quite coherent. It has been rightly celebrated for doing this, but few voices have been raised by the troubling development it is part of. If we agree that The Last of Us represent a high note of videogame storytelling, an example to follow, then our boundaries for telling stories are very narrow indeed.


The game has a lot in common with the recent Spec Ops: The Line. Both feature a dog-eat-dog world, takes place in the destroyed remains of a city, and have you play as violent and deranged characters with no qualms about butchering countless people. Both of these games have also been praised for their mature and intelligent storytelling. And sure, they both feature deep and nicely portrayed characters, but what it all really boils down to are neat ways to justify a lot of violence. If this represent the future of videogame storytelling, then we are doomed to play as broken, murderous protagonists living in worlds populated by antagonists.

When faced with the problem of reconciling a character like Uncharted's Nathan Drake with the massive violence, the proposed solution is simply to make the character better fit with the killing. I find this close to giving up on the problem altogether. In a way games like Uncharted are, despite their gameplay and story layer discrepancy, much more interesting as they try to be about something other than raw survival. Embracing that videogames is all about violence feels very cynical and uninspiring to me.


It is also crucial to keep in mind that the core gameplay has not changed much over the years. These games are still about doing a few actions over and over. When these actions do connect to the story, like they do in both Spec Ops and The Last of Us, it is not so much because they are proper narrative devices, but that the story has been shaped to fit with them. The repetitive action is still king, the need to have a massive body count is still a must. This is not bad as such, I thought Last of Us was a great action game. But, I have problems with it being seen as good interactive storytelling, it is really just good usage of the story layer. This might seem like play of words, but there is an important aspect to have in mind: Like games of the past, The Last of Us would have worked very well with its story layer removed.

When taking a closer look at The Last of Us, its action heritage is quite evident. It is very clear that at the core lies a straightforward game about looting, sneaking and killing enemies. Here are a couple of examples:
  • The goal of the player is always to go forward to a place highlighted early on. Once there, a cutscene takes over and reminds you of your next goal. It is basically a modern incarnation of the the ancient "walk left to right"-mechanic.
  • Every non-combat challenge of the game is a combination of a few simple elements: ladders, planks, pushable dumpsters, floating pallets and generators, all used in predictable and streamlined ways. This is typical of what you see in old actions games; there are a few well tested puzzle devices that gets reused throughout the game.
  • During gameplay, NPCs turn into combat objects and are streamlined to support the action above everything else. This is evident in how they do not affect your ability to sneak, can stand a lot more damage than the protagonist, have infinite ammo supplies, etc.
  • The game features plenty of looting and crafting which is just a revamp of what we have seen in Dead Space, Resident Evil 4, and many more. It is there to give the player something to do when going through the world and is used as a way to provide more variety to the combat. 
  • Environments where combat encounters occur are almost always crafted in such a way that it is possibly to know that a fight will ensue long before it actually happens. Strategically scattered bottles, carefully placed cover spots and early depots of ammo are among the things that hint that the game is now all about making sure the core mechanics of an encounter work.
There is more that can be pointed out here, but I think this is enough. The takeaway is that this is the core of the game; all of these elements are what sum up the game's underpinnings and what provides the central experience. I think it is an incredibly important point. Before we speak of the game as some highpoint in storytelling we must realize where it comes from - it is an old fashioned action game. And if we do not realize this, we will be stuck in a dead end, because there is not much in terms of storytelling that can be done with this. The Last of Us probably represent as far as you can go with stories that are based on this foundation.


This is when things get interesting. We can now see that the emotional narrative is not part of core gameplay, but comes from a totally different direction. Here The Last of Us has a lot that can be learned from and be inspired by.

First of all, the game uses just about every trick in the book to get the story across outside of the cutscenes. And not only that, pretty much every one of these elements has an excellent implementation:
  • Notes. The game feature scattered diaries, audio logs, manifests, letters and more, almost all of which have believable content and placement. They also have great length so they feel very fluent to pick up and read through. 
  • Overheard conversation. This can either come from hostiles in combat situations or from the characters in one of the few non-violent section with other people. They are effectively used both to convey the state of the world and to give more information about the characters.
  • In-game cutscenes. In a few areas, events takes place as you walk past them. For instance, at one location the military can be seen rounding up infected people. And if you go in for a closer look, the armed personnel act accordingly and push you away. This makes the scene feel alive instead of becoming some kind of carnival ride (as was the case Bioshock: Infinite (2013),  for instance). What I also think makes them work is that the game use these events sparingly and make sure they happen in appropriate places. For instance, in the above military scene it makes perfect sense why the player cannot get close to the civilians.
  • Artifacts. Various artifacts can be picked up that tell something about the world. These are things like maps, dog tags, photos, etc. All help to build up setting and are lot easier to fit in than notes (which easily feel contrived).
  • Protagonist and partner banter. As you walk through the environment there are conversations back and forth between the protagonist and his partner (for most of the game a teenage girl). This is also one of the few places where some of the responsibility is placed on the player. Once a conversation starts, the protagonist can be made to go off in whichever way; it is up to the player to act in a way that makes sense. Because of this a lot more and varied content can be put in these dialogs.
  • Graffiti and billboards. Here and there, texts are placed on the walls that help explain what has happened to a place or to just give some more texture to the environment. Survivors scratch words of warning, a settlement have lists rules and so forth.
  • Environments. The environments themselves is a great source of the storytelling. Abandoned homes, fortified warehouses, etc, all help to build up the world the game takes place in and tell the story of what has occurred.
None of these are new or revolutionary tricks, but they are put together really well and are never overused. It is so easy to just use one trick for everything, but Last of Us show restraint and use its devices where appropriate. Much of the time these devices work in tandem and that is when they really shine. A common example is walking around in a derelict building while the characters comment on the surroundings and notes found; this really increase the sense of presence and feeling of being inside a narrative. 

One has to have in mind that the world of Last of Us fits perfectly for the above devices, but there is no inherent problem with using them in just about any sort of story. Also noteworthy is that, apart from the overheard conversations, the narrative devices have very little connection to the core gameplay; they are all part of the story layer. It is incredible how many elements that make up this layer now. What began as a simple intro text or just a painted image is now a large collection of systems. While the story layer was once a fragile structure, merely having a supportive role, it is now so complex that is can pretty much stand on its own. In fact, that is just what it does a few times in The Last of Us. And it is now that we enter the really intriguing territory. We have now come to a point in the evolution of videogames where a once upon nonessential element has gotten enough substance to branch off and become something in its own right.


The best example of this is The Last of Us' opening. Here the player takes on the role as a young girl who finds herself home alone while it becomes increasingly apparent that something terrible is happening in the outside world. Just about all interactions here has something to do with the story and minor details like the girl's animations help set the scene. It features just about all the narrative devices mentioned above and uses them to tell the player a story through play. 

The opening is also a good showcase for how and when to use cutscenes. I normally see the goal with interactive storytelling is to let the player play from start to finish. However, in order to play certain parts properly you need to be in the right mood and have certain background information. The opening cutscene helps establish just that, and makes the gameplay so much more effective. While I still feel that cutscenes should be used sparingly, I am thinking more and more that it is wrong to dismiss them entirely. Many interactive scenes are not just possible to jump right in to, but require some kind of setup. Many times this setup is just not possible to play through, and needs to be carefully directed. In these cases a cutscene is required and lets the player play through a scenario that would not be possible otherwise. I think the main rule is just to make sure that the interactive part is where the engaging actions occur. The cutscene should not be the main attraction, it's role is merely to be there as support. It is also worth mentioning that the opening cutscene works so well because it happens at the start of the game; the player has not become used to being in charge yet and is much more willing to be passive.


The next great story layer sequence is the deer hunting scene. Here you are hunting a deer in order to get food. The first arrows are not enough to bring it down, so you need to find it again and take additional shots. As you are doing this, you will eventually figure out that the best way to find it again is to follow its tracks. Having hit it once the deer will also leave a trail of blood, making tracking easier. While following the wounded animal you will eventually find yourself right outside a previously unseen building, the deer lying dead nearby. By letting you track the deer, the game has managed to lead you into finding a new location all on your own. This transition is really awesome and great way to progress the story simply by playing.

One could argue that this scene use the combat system and therefore part of the core gameplay, but I argue that is not really correct. It does use some combat mechanics, but the scene itself contain none of the dynamics of an enemy encounter. Therefore I think it is okay to say that this is scene is almost purely part of the story layer.


The final sequence I want to discuss is the giraffe scene. Like the previous scene, it is quite simplistic but extremely effective. It starts with the protagonist's companion, the teenage girl Ellie, getting excited over something she has seen and then running off. This starts sets up a mystery, and gets the player curious over what it is she has spotted. She continues to run ahead of you, seeing the mystery object more times and getting increasingly excited. You run after her, but are never able to get a peek of what it is she is seeing. Finally you come to an opening and see that what she spotted is a herd of giraffes. It all ends with a serene scene as the couple watch the herd walk among a city block overtaken by trees. The build-up and final comes together very nicely.

Worth mentioning is that part of the power comes from all the hazards you have had to face earlier, but I do not see that as evidence that the core gameplay played an important part. These hazards could just as well have been made using other techniques.

The scenes I have described takes up a tiny part of the The Last of Us. Most of the game is about combat, looting and solving repetitive puzzles, elements that you are expected to find in a classical action game. But these sequences and a few others shows that there is much more to this medium than repeating a core gameplay mechanic. The truly poignant and yet fully playable moments of this game is a testament to this.

So when talking about how well The Last of Us does storytelling, it is not productive to discuss how consistently it manages to merge its gameplay and story layer. I hope to have shown that this is a dead end. What is important are the other things, the elements that used to be fluff but has now become a force to be reckoned with on its own. There is a lot to learn from The Last of Us, but it is important that we look in the right places. It might be an classical action game at heart, but also contain elements that show the way forward.

Links:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_of_Us
In case you are in need of more info on the game, wikipedia is a good place to start.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wlBrenhzMZI
To get some more insight into the workings of Spec Ops: The Line, I recommend this Errant Signal Episode. It is an excellent overview of how the game uses its violence to send a message.

http://frictionalgames.blogspot.se/2013/04/thoughts-on-bioshock-infinite.html
In case you enjoyed this critique of The Last of Us, you will probably also like my thoughts on Bioshock Infinite. There are a lot of similar topics discussed.

Notes:
  • My history of videogames is a very quick and dirty overview. For instance some early games like Project Firestarter have some of the story integration seen in Another World, but I skipped those in order to make it a bit more clear. Also, many of these early games never really caught on and did not have nearly as much influence as the games I mention. I would have liked to do a more in depth article on the history of violence and storytelling in games, but not sure I will have the time in the near future, so this will have to do for now.
  • Once the story layer got more prominent the discussion about "story" versus gameplay started to grow. Many people thought that the extra story segment was really distracting and that games should only focus on the core gameplay instead. I cannot recall this discussion ever being about the incoherence between the two, but simply that the extra story elements were not very engaging. It took a lot longer for the idea to pop up that there was a sort of friction between the story layer and the gameplay.
    It was not until the story layer had grown quite a bit until the idea of "ludonarrative dissonance" was brought up. First coined by the Far Cry 2 (2008)  lead designer Cliff Hocking, the core issue that it address is that the storytelling layer and gameplay disagree with one another. This of course has always been the case, but in a game design equivalent of the uncanny valley, it did not become apparent until the gap was small enough. So while the problem is true, the whole idea is kind of a truism. The gameplay and story layer has always been separate elements, and are conflicting in their very nature. I am not really a big fan of the term, as I think it is a bit backwards way of thinking. If the goal is to do interactive storytelling, all is already lost once you start dividing gameplay and narrative into different categories.
  • As I played The Last of Us, it also hit me that sometimes cutscenes work best when you there is no need for interaction. First of all, it makes the project so much easier to manage. Scenes with extensive dialog often require quite a lot of preparation and if they are to be highly interactive, then there is a constant need for tweaking. If the interaction is very simple (like button mashing), or not present at all, then you can evaluate these bits of the game at a much earlier stage and save a lot of headache.
    It may also be good for the narrative if the player does not have anything to do during certain sections. In most cases a real life dialog is not a very active experience as many utterances come almost automatically. So not having much for the player to do might actually feel more natural. Also, if the player is forced to perform actions then it might detract their attention from what is being said. So instead of trying to make the dialogs highly interactive, it might be better to just make sure they are short and keep them free from gameplay.
    This is actually an approach that we are taking with our new Super Secret Project. We scrapped many of the more wild initial approaches because they were too hard to do and often made dialogs less engaging.

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Video Game Assessment: BioShock Infinite (2013)



Hello all!



Now this is going to be a spoiler-filled review, analysis, and interpretation of BioShock Infinite. Don't say I didn't warn you, and don't read on without heeding that warning. I have some ideas that will probably prove to be unpopular, but since I've never personally seen them raised, and I've played the game four times, I think I have very valid reasons to raise them myself.



Anyway...



It starts with a lighthouse.







And what is a lighthouse? A way to keep pesky travelers away. A warning. And what happens when one fails to heed a warning? I think that the answer must be: nothing good at all.



There's always a man.







But he barely matters. He's simply a man. Nothing more. Kind of generic really.



And there's always a city.













Columbia in this case. A city in the clouds. Kind of like Cloud City on Bespin except... uh... not centralized.



But I'm getting ahead of myself. We have to start at the beginning or we're never going to get anywhere. So, let's begin.



What is this video game?



BioShock Infinite is a multi-faceted, complex, and brilliant game brought to us by the developer Irrational Games and Publisher 2K Games. It is a follow-up (or spiritual sequel) to BioShock and BioShock 2, which in turn are spiritual sequels and homages to the old System Shock games. Everybody knows that. It's a tired thing to say, but I have to start somewhere.



I personally can't stand BioShock. Not this game, we'll get to my feelings on this game later, but the first BioShock was a game I really did not enjoy in any sense of that word. It called itself  horror game, but had no horror. It attempted to parse Objectivism, but only ever touched the surface. It tried to create a new kind of narrative, but only fell on its face. My opinion on that game is fairly negative. It was one of my least favorite games that I actually bought in this gaming generation (alongside Alan Wake and possibly Mass Effect 3). I can't think of anything besides the stunning visuals and designs that I actually liked about the game. And the end of that game is one of the worst fetch-quest things I've ever seen in a non-JRPG. So, I don't have fond memories of BioShock, so much so that I had no further interest in the series.



BioShock 2 came out. I never played it, never even cared to play it. I heard it was more BioShock, a tired sequel in a generation of tired sequels. I didn't care. I was done with the series. A horror series that isn't horror that thinks it's more intelligent than it actually is? Yeah, not my cup of tea. And when the teasers and trailers started coming out for Infinite, I simply let them pass right over my head. How could I care about a series I never liked? And what did it matter that it would have nothing *really* to do with the other games? All I saw was fluffy pretty nonsense.



And I wasn't interested.



I didn't care.



Then a beacon, a light from across the sky. A review and a damn good one at that. Adam Sessler posted a video review that drew me in, and made me need to play this game. I hadn't had any inkling of interest before this, but in that moment, on the Tuesday this game came out, I knew I needed it. The game was my lighthouse, and I was like a moth to its brilliant light. I bought it, and I played.



I saw the true face of what brilliance could be.



And I was glad.



But I'm not talking about the game yet, about the rowboat, about the barely understood conversations with what seem like two crazy people, about the lighthouse, the mystery, and on, and on, and on ad infinitum...



It wasn't just that the game was brilliant. The game also touched on things never brought up in video games, played with ideas that were always left rotting in the attic of a creator's brain. It wasn't just that the game was intelligent. It was that the story was saying something other than: go shoot this, go save the damsel, and go get the reward. It was a deconstruction to be sure (and I love those), but one without pretext. And certainly one that didn't seem that way from the outset. It is a game that ages well with time and playthroughs, being confusing the first time through, and gaining traction with every subsequent journey through Columbia and its avenues.



I'm not going to waste your time and mine saying what people have already said. Go read other reviews if you want to hear dull praises and claps on the back for this game. It's a great game. Hell, in some ways and to some people it is goddamn near-perfect. It is for me. But saying that does not make it so. Yes, the visuals are stunning. Yes, the gameplay is like some crazy high-octane roller coaster ride. Yes, the narrative is good. Yes, Elizabeth is a wonderful character. But those are empty statements without something to back them up.



While the visuals are stunning, there is nothing in them that makes or breaks this game. Yes, pretty graphics can be fun, but this game could have easily been another BioShock if it didn't have more than just pretty things to fall back onto. Columbia is a gorgeous world, but the visual porn will always be there. it doesn't go away, but is also frankly one of the worst and weakest parts of the game. And that should be read as elevating the other parts of the game, not denigrating the visuals. Columbia is gorgeous, and it only looks better the longer the game goes on. The character designs get better with time, the enemies become more compelling, with larger enemies having more unique designs, and even the smaller ones looking more interesting.  The absolute high point for visuals in the game would be after the final battle when Columbia is nothing more than a memory, but that could just be me.



The gameplay is unique, interesting, and fun. Yes, it is also kind of generic with guns in one hand and magic powers in another, but so many other games do the same that there is really no way I can complain about this doing what others also do. It would be a ridiculous argument. Some of the fights are pretty well scripted, but I think that works in the game's favor, having amazing areas in which to fight rather than tiny corridors. People have complained about the combat... and I have no idea why. What is annoying about this combat that isn't annoying about other FPS games? I get tired hearing about complaints without any merit. Let's call it personal preference. Or maybe those people were caught up in the hype and it didn't deliver the experience they expected and wanted. Or maybe PC gamers are a fickle crowd and like to be annoyed at everything. I don't know. All I can say is that I liked the combat quite a bit. The gameplay was fresh and exciting, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. This is not a horror game (all that much) so why not have some adventurous fun while playing? The sky-hooks are brilliantly fun. Yes, they put you on rails, but rails can be a ton of fun. I loved ninja-ing down on unsuspecting enemies. I could do that all day long. And my favorite part was smacking people with my sky-hook. Man, that was viscerally incredible.



I really think that way too many people talk about gameplay like it's the entire game. I've heard some even say that bad gameplay can kill a game. No. No, it can't. Games have evolved. They are not simply Mario jumping around for a princess or Tetris blocks needing to match up. Games are not just about fighting. How can they be with narratives, characters, and everything else besides filling up the game with so much else? This game has a perfect balance between combat and rest. I wish every game could be like that. It reminds me of Half-Life 2 without physics puzzles. And I don't think that's a bad thing at all. I'm also very forgiving when it comes to gameplay. I loved the original Deadly Premonition and was okay with its frankly godawful combat. So, full disclosure, I guess. Bad gameplay has never turned me off of a game. And it never will. Then again, I'm also good at video games. So, take that as you will.



Something seldom spoken of in videos games is the music and sounds. This game does music and sounds better than any game I've ever played before. The music is near-brilliant, with many anachronistic 1912 covers of radically different songs through time, from Tears for Fears "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" to "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" by Cyndi Lauper. And they're all so good and so worth listening to and being surprised by. The sounds are great as well- everything from vocal work (the Luteces are amazing, Elizabeth is the female voice to be compared against now, etc.) to what characters say, not only in their environment but also on the voxophones. There is an essence to the words and voices in this game that gives the whole thing credence. The rebellion plot in the story is greatly increased by such amazing vocal work. Seeing a Handyman lying killed in the streets, only to find that he still kept a voxophone of his wife telling him that she loved him? That's heartwrenching and beautiful, especially when the existential question of what they are comes up in the game as well.



The voxophones are an interesting way of giving us the backstory of the game. Yes, BioShock did it as well, but much less satisfyingly in my opinion. Perhaps it's the vocal talent here, or all the alternate universes, but I found what was going on in the background much more compelling throughout this game. I even found it more compelling than pieces of our own narrative. Saying that, I also loved listening to people on the street talking, saying weird and oddly racist things at times. It made it all that much better. It made it all that much more an actual world. It drew me into itself that much more.



And does the narrative of the game matter? You better believe it. It's amazing, with twists, turns, and things that don't quite make sense. The ending, I'm looking at you here. But even the things that don't make sense still work. There are questions that still hang over the narrative, and that's a good thing. It makes the story more interesting, more ambiguous, and more likely to be interpreted many different ways. It leads to debate, and that's never a bad thing.



The ambiguity of the story and the ending is what I liked most about the game besides Elizabeth. Yes, the twists were fun. But not knowing what truly happens in the end is what made the game worth playing, and I guess my interpretation of the ending (which seems different from everybody else's) made me love this game. I'll get to it later, but yes, prepare to be upset with me. I'm sure I'll get yelled at for not getting it.



*sigh*







Anyway, Elizabeth is one of the best female characters in video games. Look, if you want to take anything away from this game that's good, it has to be that. She is a non-sexualized, non-damsel, non-escorted NPC, who can take care of herself, interact with you in so many different ways, and has an effect on the way you play the game. I'd compare her to Alyx from Half-Life 2 and its episodes, but Elizabeth is more a natural progression of that kind of character. It's amazing to see that in this day and age when everybody seems to hate women, especially in their video games, and the only women they seem to allow are huge-breasted and vapid wank material. I'm glad for Elizabeth's existence, for her equal status to Booker throughout the game, and for her even transcendence into something near-God-like. To me her progression as a character made the game for me. Seeing her change as she changed costumes, grow as the game grew, become more serious as our situation did, it was amazing. It was compelling. It gave me something to care about within the game, something to get attached to.



So, as the game goes on, and Booker gets involved in a rebellion, steals a girl from her "prison," sees what Comstock (the antagonist of the game) really is, and goes from rugged antihero to broken man, I was entranced. The story was paced so well. It made me care. It made me want to see what would happen next. I didn't want it to end. But it had to. And the ending was... controversial in my brain. I fought long and hard to come to a consensus about what I thought about it. Was it all happening at the end, with Booker and Elizabeth going through the lighthouses, seeing all the untold amounts of universes? Or was it simply another deconstruction?



The way I see it was that each other Booker and Elizabeth, every other lighthouse as well, they are all other games being played. Some perhaps by yourself, but some but other people entirely. The game can never truly change. The big moments always have to happen. But the small things can very easily change. Each and every game is different. But they all come to the same realization and the same ending. That's brilliant and sad. And it works so well. We go through the game seeing Elizabeth grow as a character, seeing her go from eating cotton candy and talking about childish things to openly wanting to murder her "father." But the biggest and most interesting part of the game is when we realize that we can never find another ending. There is no happy ending. Elizabeth cannot change her fate just as Booker cannot change his. What I find most compelling about the ending is that it is about failure.



Neither Booker nor Elizabeth win in the end because the game was rigged from the start. Things cannot change therefore our game never changes. Elizabeth can try a million times to save Booker and herself or kill Booker and herself, but the game keeps being played, and the failures, each and every game, will always happen. I don't know if Elizabeth is wrong about being able to fix it or if she just wants to end it right there. I don't know. Is she God at the end of the game or some equivalent? Or is she a terrifyingly sad young woman who thinks she knows what to do and cannot? Maybe she succeeds like most seem to think, but that is so far-fetched to me. Killing Booker does not kill Comstock even if they are the same person. Killing Booker does nothing but kill Booker. So, either she kills him for kicks, puts him in the role of a younger Booker, or kills him to make the failure complete. I will mention that if she can put Booker in the role of his younger self, than why not create an entirely new Booker? Or kill the Booker who always becomes Comstock after the choice is made? She chooses to kill the player character, the one who has protected her and cared for her throughout the game. There's a reason for that. And to me the reason is that there can never be a winning scenario. There can never be happily ever after. Some see the stinger at the end being the happy ending of Booker and Anna living happily ever after. I see it as a drunken Booker before the game begins forgetting that he already gave her away. Nothing changes. The game is always the same. And that is why it is very close to perfect.



I can compare it to NieR, another game about failure that I also loved. It is so good so often, and people hating it simply makes no sense to me unless they either don't care about narratives or they simply don't get it. I will never be okay with a person ragging on a game because the gameplay isn't their cup of tea. That is such a stupid reason to hate a narrative heavy video game. It gets to me, this slagging the game off, because I did find it so brilliant and so fun. I can't even see how others cannot also enjoy it unless they are suffering from anti-hype which is literally so stupid it actually makes me angry.



As for real concerns, why doesn't Booker break his legs when jumping off of the sky-rails? Why? Seriously. Portal had the explanation of long falls being okay because Chell has long fall boots. But Booker can die if he falls to far regularly. So, why doesn't he die when he jumps from a hundred feet up onto concrete? Don't even dare say magnetism. I will lose all my mind. Seriously, there is no explanation. It's kind of dumb, but that really stuck out to me.



I wish we could have more than two guns at a time as well. This is something others have brought up as well. I kind of get it from a realistic point of view, but from where I'm standing it just makes me use fewer types of guns and conserve the ammo for the guns I really like. I don't mind it amazingly, but it isn't the best decision ever.



As for other things I liked. Well, the sidequests were fine. The other characters in the narrative were great. The insane asylum interlude was one of the best pieces of a video game I've seen in years. That whole sequence was terrifying and compelling. It was simply so good. I love the murder of crows vigor too. Man, that was a ton of fun to use. And I really liked the multi-dimensional plot, where eventually you have no idea what reality even is anymore. I liked that a lot too. The Luteces were fantastic, characters that give the G-Man a run for original and interesting characters that have an otherworldly presence.





And that's that for the review. There are probably a ton more things I could say, but... nah... not really. I made my big points. I might do a podcast on it eventually if I get the need to talk about it more. I have a few other things to just mention about this blog in general.



I'm mostly just glad to finally be posting stuff again. Over a month hiatus is quite long enough for me. It's been a while, hasn't it? Well, with fifty+ hour work weeks (my job is exhausting and I work six days a week), a long-distance relationship (and I'll be getting engaged soon), and trying to actually sleep some days, I basically haven't had a ton of time or energy to update this blog. I apologize for that, I really do. I'm going to try to update more often, but... I doubt my schedule will change, but I'm intensely trying to push myself to bring some content out. It may be a bit more scattered, but I'm going to try.



I do have many different reviews I'm planning, and October (although months away) is very much on my mind for my next 31 reviews. Anyway, the next Goosebumps/Fear Street review might be coming soon hopefully. And my next game review will hopefully be coming out in a few weeks at latest. I hope everybody is okay with me not putting out as much content as before. This blog will always update, it simply might be slower than usual from now until my schedule frees up a bit.