2013 Year in Review: Day 2

This next game snuck up on me, slowly creeping its way to the top of my backlog, partly due to Brad Shoemaker’s insistence on the Giant Bombcast (among others). Like last year’s Journey, it manages to weave simple mechanics with an elementary, yet poignant plot that conveys strong emotion and empathy, all without uttering a single word of comprehensible language.

brothers0805131600jpg-882240Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

I mentioned in my last post how The Last of Us felt very much like a work authored by a team around the vision of a singular person. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is true game authorship from its visionary, film director Josef Fares, who actually pitched the core ideas of the game to developer Starbreeze.

The fantastical world and dark narrative of Brothers becomes apparent when discovering the tumultuous history of the man behind the game. I highly recommend reading Polygon’s piece on Fares and the development of Brothers, as it contextualizes so much of the game’s setting and themes.

Brothers is a lean game, clocking in at around 3-4 hours to finish, yet it manages to use its limited length with great efficiency. There’s very little downtime here, with cutscenes that hardly ever last longer than 30 seconds, and a brisk pace that spans multiple visually contrasting locales. The game showcases a surprising amount of visual variety that keeps things moving and hardly ever stale. Whether it’s a snowcapped village with an invisible troll stalking through, or the various machines and traps of the dark mines, Brothers displays a simple beauty that never lingers past its expiration date.

It’s obvious that much of the game’s atmosphere draws heavily from the likes of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, with mysterious castles in the mist, and the feeling that you’re an insignificant speck on the complexion of a much larger and hostile world. That feeling of mystery and adventure into the unknown is incredibly important when there’s no dialogue at all, and Brothers does so by characterizing the game’s titular leads solely through physical emotes.

2013-12-09_00002

The crux of Brothers relies on its main gameplay conceit of single player co-op: in short, you control two characters with one controller, with each mapped onto their own corresponding set of triggers and analog sticks. Big brother takes the left side, while the younger and evidently less capable brother takes the right. It’s takes a bit of time to get used to the controls, but by the end it becomes second nature to associate each side with the correct brother.

The puzzle designs border on greatness, but fall short in capitalizing on the core mechanic’s potential, partly due to the game’s length and the absence of any sort of challenge. One particularly creative sequence required using the weight of each brother attached by rope to swing one another across chasms like a pendulum. These mechanics are a joy to discover, and it’s a shame that there weren’t more of these creative twists.

(Spoilers incoming)

However, where Brothers shines is the melding of the game’s core mechanic with its surprisingly dark narrative. The loss of the older Brother is a crushing event, and losing half of your control is a perfect reflection of the younger brother’s loss. A cardinal rule I’ve constantly heard about game design is to never take away control from the player, however in this case it perfectly symbolizes the grim reality of death.

After removing the older brother’s controls from the equation, the game’s final sequence hits. The younger brother, after establishing his fear of swimming, reaches a patch of deep water that he normally wouldn’t be able to cross. I stood there for a few minutes trying to figuring out what the game was trying to tell me, before finally using the deceased brother’s controls, which gives the younger brother inspiration to overcome his fears and move on. This particular moment is a fantastic payoff for the game’s themes and core relationship, and stands as one of the best examples of mechanics driven narrative in the medium.

In that sense, Brothers is a strong example of what game narratives can be when the medium is used as a pillar of design, rather than a set of shackles forced to conform to the standards of Hollywood blockbusters. And yet it also stands as a sign of the changing face of video games, wherein a single person with a distinct story to tell can do so as a form of expression, in the same way that one could pick up a camera or pen and create a film or short story.

While we’re not entirely there quite yet and may not be for a while, Brothers is an encouraging sign, and a strong example of authored storytelling that utilizes the medium for its strengths rather than treating it like a burden.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2013 Year in Review: Day 1

For my usual game of the year writeup on Darkstation.com, we’re limited to only five games and two paragraphs for each, and well as a list of five for honorable mention. For some years this wouldn’t be an issue, but this year I played and finished far more games than I ever have in the past. I’ve never really had to struggle with what titles to put in my honorable mentions section, but it proved a bit troublesome to whittle the list down to an overall set of ten.  So over the next few days or so, I plan to use this space to talk about the games of 2013 that I really enjoyed. I won’t be doing this in any order, although you can find an ordered list in my GOTY feature at Darkstation. These write-ups won’t be solely positive analyses, but will also contain some constructive criticism on top of the usual GOTY style highlights. There won’t be any restrictions here other than the game being released in some form in 2013, so I’ll be talking about expansions and early access games here as well.  

Also, there will be spoilers.

2012 was a tumultuous year for the traditional AAA blockbuster game, at least in my eyes. Diablo III, Halo 4, and Assassin’s Creed 3 were just a few of the games that severely disappointed me through a lack of original ideas, depth, and overall polish and stability. It was great to see a return to form for some big developers this year, and this next game showcased a surprisingly singular vision that’s been seemingly fading in this era of multi studio productions.

7288-ellie-joel-in-the-last-of-us-SmallThe Last of Us

It was easy for me to be dismissive upon the reveal of The Last of Us during 2011’s VGA’s, as I was growing increasingly weary of zombie based games, and Naughty Dog’s  previous title Uncharted 3 being somewhat of a letdown. On top of that, I’ve been slightly tired with cinematic blockbuster crafted around beautifully choreographed cutscenes that don’t really utilize the strongest aspects of games as a medium. In that regard, The Last of Us still very much follows that structure, but takes it as far as possible through strong writing, impactful moments, and believable character arcs.

However, the moments that really resonated with me were the smaller in-game touches that didn’t require state-of-the-art motion capture or facial animations. Things as simple as Ellie seamlessly crouching beneath the protection of Joel while hiding in cover, or pressing triangle to high five Ellie after solving a simple traversal puzzle coalesce in building the relationship between these characters as much as any scripted sequence can accomplish.

The game meanders a bit by having a long and drawn out set of opening chapters to follow its gut punch of an introduction. The overall character arc and encounter design don’t really start to shine until you leave Boston, but from there on out events snowball in a satisfying and well-paced fashion that masterfully balances intense action with quiet moments of minor exploration and world building. While I have gripes with the lack of true tension in combat on the game’s default difficulty, the slower paced encounters were refreshing, and Naughty Dog is just a few tweaks shy of a really fantastic combat system.

The game’s puzzle design is mostly mediocre but never aggressively bad. Slowly moving yet another palette or ladder to let Ellie up to a high point that Joel can’t reach was a bit too repetitive for my tastes, but fortunately they don’t occur all that often. Also, I have to mention Naughty Dog’s strange obsession with meticulously drawing out sequences of boosting someone up to a ledge, or slowly team lifting some sort of gate. I assume they exist partially for technical reasons, but it always seemed rather strange that those scenes occurred so often and filled up more time than necessary.

The success of The Last of Us relies on its pacing, and while I already detailed my issues with the early part of the game, the latter half is absolutely fantastic. The aforementioned snowball effect here is very similar to that of Uncharted 2. It becomes increasingly difficult to put the controller down, however unlike that game’s horrible evil blue man reveal, The Last of Us’ narrative is incredibly strong and never falters in the run-up to the finish.

(Ending spoilers incoming)

Joel is a complete monster by the end of the game, and while it’s kind of ridiculous to be mowing down so many well-armed enemies in the game’s final section, it’s a testament to Naughty Dog’s ability to engross the player enough to inhabit the actions and emotions of a character. When the silent choice came to kill the doctors in the operating room, I acted without hesitation and brutally executed them. This player and protagonist sync, despite the obvious moral quandaries, is perhaps one of the interesting moments of player psychology in the medium.  It’s fascinating to be so engrossed into the emotions of a character to the point where we as the player become as irrational as the ruthless and nearly psychotic main character himself.

The Last of Us ends with a bittersweet conclusion: perhaps the only one that this game could have gotten away with. It’s succinct and leaves you wanting more, yet simultaneously makes me want to see these characters retired for good, as the story feels so complete and some of the questions presented are best left to our interpretation.

So yes, while The Last of Us isn’t without its faults, it’s still absolutely one of the best games out this year, and certainly addressed many of the concerns I had with Naughty Dog’s design direction after Uncharted 3. I’ve often lamented how this style of AAA game is one I don’t want to see the industry move towards, because very few developers actually have the rare synchronization of talent and near endless budget to do so. Naughty Dog stands at the top with those select few, and The Last of Us is perhaps their best game to date.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Audiologs and the Evolution of Game Storytelling

When Bioshock Infinite released earlier this year, I knew that something was desperately missing from the whole experience. I’ve never been able to put my finger on what, and all I knew for certain was that it felt like a highly conflicted game. On one hand, it wants to be an epic action game full of fast paced combat and set pieces and on the other it’s trying to deliver a story through audio logs with a fair amount of nuance, which needs time and subtlety to develop.

Recently I played both Infinite’s second piece of DLC, Burial at Sea (part 1), and Gone Home, two very contrasting titles both in what they attempt to accomplish, and how they utilize their resources. Burial at Sea, for all the money and beauty thrown at it, still fails to do justice to its incredible world. On the other end of the spectrum, the Fullbright Company’s debut title, Gone Home, manages to tell a nuanced, well written, gameplay driven narrative, all in the confines of a solitary pacific northwestern house.

8870_2013-11-12_00006

Burial at Sea is a highly frustrating piece of DLC because it once again relies almost solely on combat, but I didn’t exactly have an answer for what I wanted in its place. Gone Home provided me with an answer. It’s an experience that so heavily relies on audio journals and environmental storytelling, and absolutely believes that action set pieces aren’t integral to creating a memorable and substantial experience.

But first, let’s talk about Bioshock Infinite itself. I had a fantastic time with Infinite, and I have no problem putting it on my short list for game of the year. My greater criticism with Infinite, like many others, came from my frustration with it as a shooter, and although it is a serviceable and fairly enjoyable one, I couldn’t help but want something different to do in Columbia.

I realize this is probably an unfair complaint; to criticize a first person shooter for being, well, about shooting dudes in the face, but it’s hard not to imagine the narrative and gameplay possibilities abound in a city like Columbia. Infinite is a highly limiting experience, forcing the player to simply hold forward and take in the astounding art direction, rather than do anything meaningful in the environment. Shooting hordes of enemies doesn’t exactly capture themes of American idealism or racism; instead we are mere tourists, walking around in this beautiful theme park of symbolism.

Even more troubling is the game’s use of audio logs, which comes off as a dated and forced form of storytelling. Audio logs were justified in both System Shock 2 and the original Bioshock because we were visiting areas that had been destroyed and by seeing the destroyed surroundings, we could piece the story together ourselves. In Infinite, we’re part of the conflict at hand, so picking up a randomly placed audio log recorded by Comstock justifying racism in Columbia when all hell is breaking loose around us, is an ineffective and ham-fisted way of delivering narrative.

Burial at Sea carries these issues as well, and it’s especially egregious due to the distinct split the DLC makes in its structure. For the first half hour of the DLC, you’re tasked with a fetch quest that at the very least has you exploring parts of a small hub area in Rapture. It’s not particularly engaging or fun, but it does at least allow you to do more than hold forward and take in the scenery. After a short cutscene, we’re right back to typical Bioshock, as if nothing has changed or been addressed. In this dilapidated part of Rapture, we’re laser focused on combat, which isn’t really all that fun or well-paced. It’s instead incredibly frustrating due to the constrained level design and poor weapon balancing due to the addition of ammo scarcity.

And again we’re back to picking up audio logs, listening to the tales of denizens of a mall turned prison in a long forsaken area of Rapture. When the apparent promises of Burial at Sea are to visit Rapture before the fall, and to experience the city before it all went to shit, it seems rather insulting to be taken right back to convention. Yet even with this, it’s done almost exactly as in Infinite. The amount of enemies is staggering here, and too often I found myself picking up audio logs and being unable to even listen to them due to the constant flow of combat thrown at me. It’s quite frankly upsetting to blatantly see storytelling and gameplay in total odds with each other, and Burial at Sea makes no attempts to even hide it.

This brings me to Gone Home, a fantastic exercise in allowing the player to discover things, and piece the narrative together for themselves. It’s strong example of narrative being delivered through pure gameplay, and neither facet ever feels slighted or hindered because of each other. The items in this house are rendered in excruciating detail. Everything from a simple binder or the high resolution text on a small nametag attached to a coat, serves to convey information about the Greenbriar family: the inhabitants of the house. Not all of it is useful or interesting, but it helps to build this narrative in our heads, and to establish context for Sam, the focal point of our story.

2013-11-17_00001

Gone Home succeeds due to its emphasis on player discovery. We take an oddly creepy voyeuristic enjoyment from rummaging through the belongings of these people, some of which are deeply personal. While Sam’s personal journey of identity and her relationship with Lonnie is the heart of the story here, the personal straining of her parents’ relationship and the discovery of our own player character as an overachiever, form the context through which Sam lives in. It’s slowly unveiled to us, possibly through reading of past letters not meant for our eyes, or even an array of old trophies showcasing our player character’s past achievements.

Sam’s audio journals are likewise well paced and smartly distributed. Apart from being fantastically voice acted and written, these journals kick in at just the right moment, like when we pick up a particular relevant object, or stumble into certain hidden room. The pacing of the logs becomes more frantic towards to the end, in perfect alignment with the player’s desire to uncover what lies in the game’s final room. Most of all, it’s done with an exacting focus. We only hear the voice of one character, and she tells a compelling and thoughtful story that accurately captures a specific personality of not just one, but two well realized characters.

This is where Gone Home triumphs where games like Bioshock Infinite and its DLC could not. Despite the generally simple and mundane setting we’re presented, it somehow manages to bring about discovery, wonder, and tension, all without ever presenting much of a threat to the player. Characters feel fleshed out and human, a facet made more impressive due to the fact that two of them never speak a word, and all three are never even modeled in game.

Where Infinite and Burial at Sea struggle to balance engaging the player in action, and telling a nuanced story, Gone Home defies that very logic and boldly claims that games can be both fun, and vehicles for brilliant stories, by taking full advantage of the potential of games as a medium.

However, it’s easy to make the claim that Gone Home is too brief of an experience, and the mechanics aren’t substantial enough to carry a game with the scope of a $60 retail title like Bioshock Infinite. In that case, that claim would probably be right. I definitely wouldn’t pay $60 for Gone Home, just as I wouldn’t pay $60 for say, the original Portal, an all-time classic which had a 2 hour length at best.  Perhaps the greater problem here is an issue of value; preconceived notions that a good $60 game will always be better than the best low budget title. It’s a topic for another post I suppose, but if titles like Gone Home constitute the cream of the crop of low budget games, it won’t take long for those notions to finally breakdown.

Posted in Gaming | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment