Review: Prey (2017)

Having now finished the main story with one of several endings for Prey, I can say that this was a great game experience. However, despite the opportunity for many additional runs through its story, to explore different powers or to pursue completionist ambitions or to make different moral choices, I do not think I will be back to the game any time soon, if ever. Once was enough, and it was a great treat.

One of the main reasons that I would not be interested in a replay is that the game forces you to replay a lot already, in the sense that you are constantly backtracking and re-exploring areas you’ve been to before. At many points in the game, levels you’ve cleared are restocked with enemies, too, which I suppose helps to alleviate the grind of wandering across a barren area just to try a previously locked door with a new keycard or ability, but it does start to feel a little tedious at times.

This complaint is really my only major one with the game. I loved the setting, the story, and many of the characters. Above all else, I definitely loved the action-RPG-lite FPS gameplay. I loved experimenting with different abilities, upgrading special powers as the situation warranted and scarce Neuromods allowed. I found I preferred human, rather than alien/ESP powers, with a focus on stealth, hacking and engineering my way around problems, always prepared to shoot my way out of a situation at the end. Limited resources meant that I couldn’t ever depend on going in guns blazing, and many later-game enemies would have clobbered me if I’d relied on that approach. In fact, the final third of the game changed the type of enemy primarily faced, moving from the psychokinetic, shape-shifting Typhon alien types to largely robotic opponents with high-powered lasers, requiring a tweak to how I devoted my resources. Some might find the constant scavenging and need to formulate new tools out of scraps at special stations to be tedious, but it kept the tension high throughout the game and made me reflective about how to use my resources–there were many times where I had few mineral resources and had to make a close call between generating extra 9mm bullets, some shells for my shotgun, or a medkit.

Most of the game time is spent navigating large but enclosed, multi-story levels that represent sections of a colossal space station. Every level has a different environmental story to tell, as the station gradually expanded from a Soviet operation to a joint US-Soviet research facility to a chief technological base for an extravagantly wealthy private company. There are stark research labs and elaborate crew quarters with bold pop art. There’s a bridge with computer stations and displays you’d expect to see in a NASA mission control room. Whiteboards and posters and notes and letters and books and children’s art fill out the corners of the station, as is the nature of these sorts of games, I suppose. I rather enjoyed accessing more and more of the diverse environments and uncovering secrets, especially related to the events that led to the release of the Typhon and the demise of so many of the crew of Talos I. Coupled with fantastic level design and set dressing, the sound design and score kept me in the moment, maintaining a sense of tension and dread even when I became more powerful and wasn’t so concerned about a sudden Mimic jump scare.

The above details should sound familiar, for they are definitely in the vein of a particular type of game, the System Shock-alike. Given that I happen to love these sorts of games, like BioShock and Deus Ex, it should come as no surprise that this scratched an itch for me. But it also clearly pulled from classic sci-fi movies like Alien/Aliens (the parasitic nature and unstoppable drive of the alien force and the retro-futuristic design) and Total Recall (the questions regarding what is real versus simulated and the permanence/plasticity of identity when remembered life experiences are removed from the equation or otherwise altered), as well as from the niche interests of paranormal enthusiasts with subjects like ESP and covered-up astronaut contact with alien life. All the more reason for me to like it.

The plot operates on a familiar framework but offers a lot more than what the basic narrative might at first suggest. (It should be noted that it is not connected to the original Prey in any way except for name, although I never played the older title, so it made no difference to me.) A silent, amnesiac protagonist has to fight off killer aliens while exploring the confines of their environment. In this case, the game opens with protagonist Morgan Yu finding out that their current existence is nothing more than a repeated simulation, and Morgan enters into freedom just as the outside world goes to hell. They’re onboard a nearly derelict space station, in the immediate aftermath of an infestation of alien creatures with a complex ecology and life cycle, collectively known as the Typhon. The basic Typhon is a Mimic (pulled straight from D&D), an inky black, dog-sized starfish of a creature that can easily morph into any other shape its size or smaller. Mimics, like xenomorph face-huggers, want nothing more than to shove an appendage down the throat of the nearest human to replicate–but rather than releasing a rapidly gestating embryo like the classic sci-fi predator, they steal away life force (and, we later learn, consciousness) to metabolize enough matter and energy to split into fully-formed quadruplets. (This idea of recycling, reusing, metabolizing, and transforming is a major theme in the game.) There are many other types of Typhons, including the myriad forms of Phantoms, which are birthed from the corpses of humans killed by other means. Much of the game involves attempting to stop the spread of the infestation, which in turn involves learning quite a bit more about the history of the space station, its inhabitants, and the Typhon that had been contained within it.

The complexity of the space station and the Typhon, and the alternative history of the larger world, make for a very interesting background narrative that kept my attention throughout. However, the actual beats of the story are fairly conventional. You start off very under-powered, and even the little Mimics, who will eventually become at best a nuisance, are terrifying threats. The horror of the initial events of the story gives way to mystery regarding the alien threat, and that transition in tone comes with an increase in powers. You meet more and more powerful enemies over the game, but you gain in power at a roughly equivalent rate. You explore sections of the space station and unlock secrets. You (optionally) help other survivors and decide whether to blow the station up to completely wipe out the infestation, incapacitate all the Typhon so that the research can start again, or simply bail out whenever in an escape pod. The end stages of the game send in a “rescue” team actually meant to wipe everyone out, an overused plot point in action games and movies.

The game remained challenging, but never unfair. I played on Normal difficulty without any of the optional game modes like limited oxygen or the accumulation of trauma, so I imagine the higher levels of difficulty could be especially brutal. Either way, the game allows for saving at any point, and so I saved early and often. This encouraged experimentation in exploration and combat, since I knew I could quickly load back to a save moments before if something went south.

Your silent protagonist, Morgan Yu (who can be male or female, the first choice you make), is a brilliant engineer and scientist, but they start out with irreversible amnesia, and a variety of prerecorded videos and AIs and contemporary human compatriots all attempt to persuade Morgan about who he or she really is. The silence of this protagonist feels more a deliberate choice than a matter of convenience; you are Yu (yeah, the name emphasizes that, huh?), and you are defining who that is, from a blank slate. The silence means that intention is always through player expression; as the game goes on, there are moments where it is clear that the people around Morgan struggle to understand who he was and who he is now. The unknowable nature of intention behind action is an underlying theme as much as is the nature of identity or consciousness.

The side stories of perished and surviving crew were often more intriguing than the game’s primary objectives. I became quite fond of characters like Dr. Dayo Igwe, the brilliant neuroscientist with the tragic past who is ostracized by his colleagues because of his parapsychological interests; Chief Sarah Elazar, the tough-as-nails security director and war veteran with a strong ethical core and protective spirit; Mikhaila Ilyushin, the head engineer who hid her degenerative condition to get a top spot on Talos I to try to uncover the truth about her father; or Danielle Sho, the IT administrator who put aside her past rivalry with Morgan to aide them in ending the Typhon threat, even as she waited out her own death. That last character arc is rather problematic, honestly. I really liked Sho a lot, and learning about her tensions with Morgan and her romantic relationship with researcher and tabletop game master Abigail Foy was one of the most engaging backstories I explored. I was rooting for Sho and Foy, so [BIG SPOILERS] I was incredibly frustrated to discover that Foy had been killed, not by Typhon, but by a deranged serial killer, and Sho was doomed to die, stuck outside of the station and out of oxygen, helping Yu in her final moments and asking them to avenge Foy’s death. I mean, yeah, I hunted down that psychotic killer–even if you didn’t uncover or care about Sho and Foy’s relationship, he tries to kill you and taunts you through the remainder of the game–but I could have done without yet another example of burying your gays. (On that subject, I recognize that a lot of people die or are already dead in the game, and it has a wide range of people from various backgrounds, but to so conspicuously have a lesbian relationship documented in the backstory and to have it so that you can only witness their tragic deaths, when you can help most other survivors make it out, seems like a clear enough example of the trope).

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Smaller character moments mattered too. I liked learning about the crew members engaged in assassin games with their manufactured foam dart crossbows, and when I discovered one crew member from that gang was still alive, I went out of my way to ensure her survival. I was deeply saddened to find one after another of the tabletop gaming group (playing a board game that is a clear, goofy reference to Arkane Studios’ original release, Arx Fatalis) were dead. There was a lot of tragedy. There was some levity. There were a lot of uncovered intimate and banal moments that made everyone seem so real. It was never unexpected but often disheartening to discover a deceased crew member you’d come to know through their digital correspondence and leftover artifacts from life. It was so gratifying to be able to help someone make it to safety.

I mentioned the tabletop game, but there are a lot of cute little references tucked away in Prey. While not an allusion to a specific source (as far as I can tell), one of my favorite texts were the excerpts from the abysmally bad Starbender books, which are clear parodies of mid-twentieth-century pulp space opera stories. Little things like this made the game feel more grounded, even as they further cemented the developer team’s love for the genre in which they were working.

There’s one last thing I want to discuss: the ending. The game came out in 2017, and enough time has passed that anyone who’s retained some interest in it but hasn’t yet played it has probably had the ending spoiled. I had by the time I got around to the game. I don’t think it changed how I played it. On the one hand, it made me better appreciate some elements of the game, but on the other hand, I sort of regretted coming into the surprise twist with prior knowledge. That said, if you haven’t played and want to come to the game fresh, I’d encourage you to stop reading this now.

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Prey offers two separate endings to the game, each with multiple outcomes. The first ending concerns how you resolve the Typhon infestation on the station: fleeing from it (which apparently ends the game early, if you follow the escape pod route), destroying it, or disabling it to continue the research. I went the route of destroying the station and all the Typhon aboard it; I found the research to be unethical, especially regarding its human test subjects, many of whom were political prisoners, and I wanted to ensure that the Typhon couldn’t get to Earth. Even picking the destruction option has some branching paths. Do you just let everyone die? Do you find a way to get the survivors off the station? Do you make it off yourself, and how? I was glad to join my fellow survivors on the shuttle back to Earth, the explosion of Talos I erupting in our wake. Morgan finally speaks in the present, not just in a recording, ominously remarking, “I keep having this dream.” Then the credits rolled.

And after the credits, Morgan awakens in a containment chamber, monitored by his brother Alex and four Operators, the robotic assistants prevalent throughout the game. It turns out that “Morgan” is in fact a Typhon–apparently a Phantom, infused with elements of Morgan’s genetic code and consciousness. This Morgan-Phantom was in a simulation, a reconstruction of the final hours of Talos I. The Operators possess the personalities of Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho. They pass judgment on the choices you made in the game. In my ending, they noted the empathy Morgan had displayed, coupled with an apparently retributive drive. As I’d passed their test, Morgan’s brother offers the Phantom an option: now that this Morgan understands and empathizes with humans, they can work together to stop the Typhon, which have now spread over much of the Earth. The final choice: kill them all or join with them. I joined, and the Phantom extended its hand in cooperation, somehow adjusting its shadowy appearance to take on a human look.

I really liked the two endings, and I liked that both were affected by player choice throughout the game and at the end. I liked the reveal about the true nature of Morgan. It emphasized the inherent limits of a video game in its ability to simulate reality. It explained the occasional weird glitch. It clarified how suddenly certain plot-relevant items would appear on a desk after I’d taken a particular step. It put in context the bizarre and brief dream sequences that interjected key moments of the game. It twisted expectations; the whole time, you thought you were defining who Morgan really was, when in reality you were never Morgan at all. And so Morgan breaks free from one simulation only to find that they were in another all along.

This final, post-credits ending also offers many intriguing questions. What actually happened on Talos I? Presumably the Typhon invasion of Earth started with the breach depicted in the game. What went wrong? Did Morgan fail to activate the nullwave device or to blow up the station? Did Typhon get aboard the shuttle? Perhaps some of the Typhon made it out on another shuttle? (There was a side quest where a shuttle, out of contact with Talos I, was approaching Earth, having departed only 30 minutes before everyone became aware of the outbreak and before they knew how to scan for Mimics; I blew it up, but maybe the “real” Morgan didn’t.) Did Morgan stay aboard the station? Did they evacuate? Is Morgan alive now, or did they die? Did anyone other than Alex survive? I can know for certain that at least part of the simulation did not match reality (and also highlighted how it was a simulation). I saved Alex, locking him unconscious in his safe room. He appeared later on the bridge of the station, intent on stopping me from blowing it up, and was killed by January, the Operator who had been pushing me to destroy the station. I blew up January in retribution and commenced the reactor overload. But at the very least, Alex must never have been on the bridge. Morgan must have killed January earlier. Or perhaps Morgan helped Alex to use the nullwave device, and there was a later infestation outbreak. Or perhaps everything happened more or less as I played it, but Alex was never on the bridge. He must have gotten off somehow, perhaps in his executive escape pod. What happened to Igwe, Alazar, Ilyushin, and Sho? If things happened as depicted, then at the very least Sho is dead. There was no way to save her, regardless of player choice. Their Operators at the end seemed somewhat surprised that I found a way to save everyone, so maybe that’s not the most likely outcome for the real Morgan. Did Igwe, Alazar, and Ilyushin perish as well? An Operator can be programmed with the voice and personality of a real person, and at that point, that person certainly wouldn’t need to be alive. Perhaps, though, some or all of them are alive, using Operators so that Alex alone was risking himself in the presence of the Phantom. Of course, while these are questions that are very interesting to me, the use of the Operators also meant that the same assets could be used in this final scene, regardless of whether Morgan saved the others. Still, it’s a fun way to challenge the idea that there is or even can be a single, concrete version of events. All pathways are possible, and none may be real even within the game world.

I don’t know if you can have an effective sequel to a game that offers so many endings and such an open-ended interpretation of the final state of the world. I guess The Elder Scrolls continues to rise to that challenge, but normally by offering games in different parts of the world and sometimes with convoluted explanations for how every ending did and did not happen simultaneously, a level of mysticism appropriate for a fantasy setting but not for a more grounded sci-fi story. I think I’d be disappointed if a sequel boxed in a “canon” interpretation. But I could see other games set within the lore of this game, perhaps set during a past or contemporary outbreak, or perhaps set on an overrun Earth, following a member of a resistance group. I suppose that Arkane Studios did explore a contemporary adventure within this setting in its rogue-like Prey: Mooncrash DLC. Maybe I’ll give that a try, but I’m not typically a big fan of rogue-likes; then again, the inherent uncertainty of the reality of events, as reinforced by the basic story structure of the expansion and the nature of the game type, is intriguing and fits well with the themes of the base game. Regardless, I want more because I had such a blast with this game, its setting, story, characters, and themes. What a great experience–I’d highly recommend it, if you can tolerate a game that starts with an initial survival horror vibe.

Final thought: I really, really enjoy an endgame stats summary. Thanks for that, Arkane Studios. And, you know, for everything else about this game.

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New experiences on a new computer

I do sometimes have reason to work from home, and I’d reached a point where my desktop computer simply wasn’t all that reliable for that task. It was the final straw for me, and so I purchased a new (well, refurbished) computer and a new monitor. That ends a ten-year reign for my last desktop. I built that computer, and I upgraded it at least a couple times over the years, and it served me well. I have nothing but fondness for that machine, though I’ve now set it aside.

With a new computer came opportunities to test games and graphic settings that would have taxed–or entirely overwhelmed–its predecessor. Look, it’s not like I went out and bought a top-of-the-line computer. But it could at least comfortably handle current-gen titles!

The first thing I tried out was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Jurassic World: Evolution. I’d played the hell out of that game, but always on lower graphics settings, and I still experienced frequent frame-rate drops, lag, and crashes. It now looks incredible running on the higher-end graphics settings, and the game loads quicker and runs smoothly without any perceived technical issues. The lighting, the vegetation, the building and people textures, and even the already-lovely dinosaurs were all vastly improved!

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Notice the details within the Explorer itself, with sharper resolutions and more clearly defined textures. You don’t get the best part of the experience with a still image, though; the movement of individual blades of grass in the wind and the dynamic lighting and shadows make me feel like I’m really there.

I mostly play games that are older or from mid-sized or smaller studios, so consequently I can typically get away with fairly limited or outdated tech. I actually struggled to think of another game that I wanted to play that would actually test out the computer’s abilities a bit more. I ended up purchasing the second Star Wars: Battlefront II (which really seems like it should just be Battlefront IV). I didn’t push things that hard, opting for medium graphics, but the game played smoothly, and I had a lot of fun with it.

Interestingly, the gameplay itself was incredibly smooth and I don’t think I ever had any noticeable framerate drops or weird pop-ins or anything to disrupt the experience, but the cutscenes, which all looked incredible, often had little hiccups of drops in performance in between scene transitions, especially for those scenes following the end of a level. This isn’t going to mark the shift of my attention to a greater number of AAA titles (not that that was ever very likely, given my interests), but it at least means I have a computer I think can safely handle the occasional newer Star Wars game, like Fallen Order or the upcoming Squadrons.

Also, while I’m not interested in “reviewing” the newer Battlefront II, I do want to talk about its story. That story is surprisingly short; I’ve played less than 10 hours in the game so far, including in some of the Arcade and Instant Action modes, and yet I’ve already completed both “campaigns” with the middle difficulty setting. That said, I think it’s clear enough what one of my future blog post topics will be about…

A final thought for this post, though. My Arena save file is on the old machine. Maybe I’ll transfer it at some point. Maybe I’ll start a new one. But I’m betting that my attempt to play through Arena might have truly met its end (an end that admittedly came months ago). I actually feel okay with that.

My Favorite Stories of the Decade

Well, this is over a month late, but I wanted to reflect a little on the media I’ve consumed over the past decade. It’s hard to think about this clearly; my memory doesn’t work linearly enough to easily track the different stories I’ve come across over the past ten years. It’s wild to me that I’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s been almost 13 years now, but at the same time, it feels like it’s been even longer than that. A lot of my tastes and opinions have evolved considerably since my late teens and early twenties, which feel sort of like a single, solid lump of time, even though we’re talking about a period as long as almost two decades ago and as recent as 6 or 7 years ago. Many of the stories that defined my early adult sensibilities were first encountered during that period. I didn’t even start reading comics until late into high school or early into college! These shifting memories are even more complicated because on many occasions, I’m not encountering a film or book or game until years, or even decades, after its release.

I haven’t had this blog long enough yet to say that I really have traditions, but I do like to post a start-of-the-year recap of my favorite games I’ve played in the past year. Since we’re entering a new decade (even though this blog hasn’t been around for nearly as long), it seemed like a fun opportunity to look back over a longer period. But this site is, if nothing else, an ongoing catalog of What I’m Into Now, and that’s bigger than just video games. If I’m writing about any single thing on this site, if I could encapsulate what my mission is here, it’s to record how I react to stories across various media.

So, for a look back over a decade, I wanted to do more than just my favorite games. What were my favorite stories across video games, books, films, and television shows? But I have to then consider how I’m narrowing that list. For my video game retrospectives, I normally include all games I’ve played within the review period. I could simply include all stories I’ve experienced for the decade, but that’s just too broad, and too susceptible to inaccuracy. When did I really first watch this movie, or play that video game? What if I’d read something in my childhood but rediscovered it as an adult and fell in love? Is it fair or useful to compare an established classic with a new, unproven work?

What I settled on was a data set that only included works published within the past decade, from the start of 2010 through the end of 2019. Whereas my year-end reflections encompass five games, a list of ten favorite stories seemed appropriate for a decade–ten stories for ten years. That number becomes more interesting if I actually make it only one story per year. I’ve only been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’ve thus written more about (and paid more attention to) stories I’ve encountered in those last few years, and therefore my list would naturally lean heavily toward the last few years of the decade. To counteract this, I’ve decided to include only one favorite for each year, although I’ve allowed myself some latitude with television and have still included some runners-up for particular years.

With those rules in mind, here’s my current list of favorite stories from the 2010’s. Whether that list would be the same in another month or year or decade remains to be seen…Regardless, let’s get to it, starting with 2019 and working our way back to the beginning of the decade.

2019: Kitbull (Rosana Sullivan)

This is such a touching story. Beautiful animation, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some people might view it as a little too saccharine, but I am here for it. I like short fiction, and this is a cute and compelling short film that demonstrates how a minimalist story can communicate something much bigger than its individual moments.

2018: Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)

Look, I loved Winnie the Pooh as a kid. The characters have always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve never really let go of that. Christopher Robin is to Winnie the Pooh as Hook is to Peter Pan. The cynical view would be that this movie is a nostalgia grab. But I still found that the movie spoke to me, aided by excellent performances and lovable interpretations of the stuffed animals. This is the kind of movie I could contentedly watch again and again.

Runner-Up: BlacKkKlansman was funny, challenging, and different. It offers wacky performances and outlandish storytelling with sadly too many truths and connections to reality. Probably the better film of the two I’ve indicated for 2018, it’s also one that I’d be less likely to return to.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

2017 was absolutely the hardest year for me to isolate a single favorite. At the end, I’ve picked one, along with three runners-up. My favorite (for now) was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It might be my favorite video game of all time. It actually made me interested in Zelda. It had just enough characterization and backstory to keep me invested, but the story was so pared-down that you were often making up a narrative as you played through the game. More than any other Zelda game I’ve even attempted to play, this was the game that really showed the joys of exploration. That included exploring the world, but also exploring alternative options to combat and to puzzles. I just want more of this! I can’t wait for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). I’m personally pleased that this list isn’t overrun with Star Wars stories. I picked The Last Jedi because it made some of the boldest choices since The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back before it. Each of these films took the franchise in a new direction and did new things with how these movies are made and what they mean, for better or worse. At the same time, no Star Wars is perfect. And for many, I just named the best and the worst of the franchise in comparison to The Last Jedi. Even setting aside the bigoted trolls, this film has resulted in a deep divide among fans and general moviegoers. For me, I love this movie and think it’s one of the better-made, more interesting Star Wars films, but it is a slower-paced movie with a clunky middle section, and as a result, I’ve always preferred The Force Awakens as a film to watch over and over again. After The Rise of Skywalker, I now feel that The Last Jedi was the pinnacle of the sequel trilogy. This isn’t some wildly experimental film, but it really highlights how safe J.J. Abrams played it with the other two movies.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View. This was a collection of short stories that retold various moments of A New Hope from the perspective of supporting characters. It helped fill in moments in the new canon, even while remaining a sort of canon-lite bit of storytelling given its dependence upon, well, subjective viewpoints. This had a lot of strong writing, too. “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remains my single favorite bit of Star Wars writing ever.

Runner-Up: Kita Kita (written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo) is a weird, subversive, surprisingly sweet rom-com about two lonely Filipino expats living in Japan. The third act takes such a surprising twist that is initially absurd and ultimately sentimental, and it is that third act that makes the film. It’s a rom-com that stayed with me after watching, and I think it’s worth holding out as special for that reason alone.

2016: A Fox In Space (Matthew Gafford)

This fan production by Matthew Gafford attempts to retell the Star Fox story with a more “mature” perspective, plenty of humor, and an animation and sound design that echoes cartoons of decades past. So far, besides several in-production clips, only one episode has released. I don’t remember how I even found out about it. But I’m something of a Star Fox fan, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to see an ongoing cartoon or comic that really mined the setting and characters while providing a more compelling narrative and a deeper lore. This fan pilot does that, whether or not we ever get a full second episode or beyond.

Runner-Up: Zootopia (written and directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore) is another movie that I can just watch again and again. It’s sweet and funny. It’s a little overly broad in its allegories about race and class, but it still has something to say for a younger audience (especially in that even a good person can hold prejudices they have to work to identify and overcome, and experiencing discrimination in one area does not mean that you can’t also benefit from privilege in other ways).

2015: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

I love Tom Hanks. I love Steven Spielberg. I love a good movie about an attorney working within or against the system to attempt to do good. I love spy stories, especially Cold War spy stories. How could I not love this movie? I hadn’t thought about it much recently, but my wife brought it up recently as one of her favorite movies of the past decade, and I found that I agreed.

2014: The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Instead of a boring licensed-product kids’ movie, The Lego Movie was wild, raucous fun, loaded with a goofy, sardonic sense of humor and altogether too many references to the wide number of franchises that Lego has worked with. Lord and Miller are such a creative writing/directing team, and this movie has some tremendous voice acting performances. And The Lonely Island’s “Everything Is Awesome” is just such an ear worm, even while representing the bland consumerist society that we should work to shake ourselves free of. This is a movie layered in irony and contradiction; that a Warner Bros. production even attempts to interrogate some of the hypocrisies and fallacies of the very culture the studio and the Lego toyline are a part of is really something.

2013: A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

I think I somehow got this eBook free through some sort of promotion. Or maybe it was just heavily discounted. I didn’t seek it out, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It won me over quickly, though. I was often chuckling at the witty language from the first few pages, and the story moved along at an exciting pace. This book is fantasy filtered through a contemporary reaction to Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard. This book was so clever and original. I’ve never moved on to the later books in the series, but I’d always be happy to recommend this first book.

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro always makes interesting, unique genre films. Pacific Rim was such a fun movie, a joyous homage to the very Japanese staples of kaiju and mechas. Still, it’s a light, airy romp; it’s not much deeper than face value. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it stuck with me. That’s enough!

2012: Mass Effect 3 (BioWare)

On my first completion of Mass Effect 3, I thought the ending I chose was tragic but fitting. I chose Synthesis. It felt right, after all that I had come to learn about the relationship between synthetics and organics over the past three games. It felt like a satisfying conclusion to the evolving storylines and character relationships that had begun with humans shooting Evil Synthetics back in the original game. I liked that I still had a choice, but with the way I’d played Shepard, with how I’d interacted with so many synthetics and even bonded with a few, with how we’d brought peace between Geth and Quarians, this final decision felt like the right choice.

I liked the fusion of gameplay elements from the first two titles. I liked the exploration, the resource-gathering, the sense of a desperate fight against an overwhelming opponent. I liked fleeing from Reapers across the galaxy as I tried to reach out to new worlds.

I was shocked to realize that so many people hated Mass Effect 3, and that so many people hated it because of how it ended. Of course I’d love a happily ever after for Commander Shepard, but he became a part of everyone in the end; he became an epic hero to always be remembered. And that ending felt like an ending made for me; everyone played a slightly different character, with a different gender and appearance and background and set of personality traits. Their choices and experiences were all slightly different. We had to end it somehow, and the few choices available felt thoughtful. I saw the conclusion as beautiful and meaningful, more than Shep somehow managing to kick All The Reaper Ass would have been.

Regardless of how contentious the ending proved to be, this story was deeply affecting to me and felt like a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s kind of wild to realize that it’s been almost a whole decade since we last had a new main title game in The Elder Scrolls franchise. This might be my wife’s favorite RPG. For me, I appreciated the return to the weird that made me love Morrowind so much, that felt lacking in Oblivion.

The two factions in the great civil war that centers much of the game are both despicable, more flawed than honorable, and it’s easy to simply stand apart from them. Underneath the senseless violence that straddled a war of religion and a war of secession, there was a larger existential threat brewing that most people in the state of Skyrim were oblivious to or refused to care about. In a way, that works as a nice allegory for contemporary society and the impending existential threat of climate change.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never finished the main story. My wife has, but I couldn’t maintain interest. I spent dozens of hours in the game nonetheless, wandering the world, uncovering secrets, fighting monsters, taking on jobs, making friends. Once more like Morrowind over Oblivion, the game was at its most fun when you were making your own stories, not worrying about the main plot, and it didn’t try to keep shoving that main plot in your face like Oblivion did with its Oblivion Gates. Then again, I’ve played through the main stories of Morrowind and its expansions at least a couple times because they were so engaging and weird and ambiguous! Morrowind rewards textual interpretation, and I didn’t feel the same experimentation with ambiguity and competing narratives in Skyrim. And while Skyrim was weird, it wasn’t quite as original as Morrowind. The fourth title clung to The Lord of the Rings, and the fifth to Conan the Barbarian, but the third pulled from everything and in so doing made something that felt wholly original.

My feelings about Skyrim are complex, but I still lost myself in that world for hours and hours on end.

2010: Adventure Time (Frederator Studios, 2010-2018)

Adventure Time almost spanned the whole decade, but it started in 2010, so it’s standing in as my favorite for that year. It was quirky, irreverent, fantastic, bizarre, and funny, and it managed to tell so much story in so little time. Aimed at kids, but with interesting concepts (especially in the later seasons) and a strong focus on the complex emotional bonds and fluid relationships shared between the characters, and a tendency to reward attention to detail, it was just as fun for adults. Plus, it’s loaded with references to anime, old cartoons and video games, and Dungeons & Dragons. It refused to be just any one thing, and even by the end of the series, it juggled beauty and horror and an epic scope with sweet character moments and silly gags. It was great.

Now that I’ve reached all the way back to 2010, please let me know what your favorite stories of the past decade have been!

Team Star Fox

The hype around Starlink: Battle for Atlas has put me in a bit of a Star Fox mood. I’m somewhat surprised to find on checking now that I’ve apparently only mentioned the Star Fox franchise on here twice before–both times in passing. Not that there have been very many relevant opportunities as of late!

I’m pretty sure that Starlink will be my next game purchase. It looks fun, and what little I’ve read has consistently supported the idea that the Star Fox team is well-used in the Switch version.

I don’t actually remember how I first encountered Star Fox. I never owned any of the games as a child, though I suppose that Fox McCloud did feature heavily in even the original Super Smash Bros. But I do remember somehow playing it, then rediscovering it in my adolescence at the game room of my church’s youth group after services. I bonded with a socially awkward kid there who loved the game; we’d often engage in virtual dogfights together. Since college, I’ve slowly collected many of the Star Fox titles, though not all. I’ve never played the original SNES game. I’m not a hardcore fan. But there’s a lot of nostalgia and genuine affection invested in the franchise for me. When people my age think back fondly on the N64 era, they might focus especially on Ocarina of Time, but my special nostalgic title is Star Fox 64 (though it’s in constant competition in my thoughts alongside Super Smash Bros., Super Mario 64Star Wars Episode I RacerDiddy Kong Racing, and the multiplayer in Conker’s Bad Fur Day).

It’s not just nostalgia, though! It’s a fun game franchise! The arcade-style dog-fighting was the perfect Nintendo take on aerial combat. The characters popped with personality, and the presence of Fox, Slippy, Peppy, and Falco in each new release is almost as comforting as the familiar gameplay. Plus, the plot and setting and style pull hard from Star Wars and Top Gun and a whole slew of animated films featuring anthropomorphized animals. It’s weird and cool–and I can’t help but notice similarities in basic premise and style between Star Fox and Beyond Good & Evil, another game I love, even though the actual gameplay is markedly different. Okay, actually, it may not be all that different when Star Fox Adventures, the Zelda-like action-adventure title, is taken into account. No, that’s not a game that I want swept under the rug; I loved it, inserting the characters into a radically different situation, playing with the universe a little more, taking Fox away from his greatest strength (and adding dinosaurs).

I’d like to see future games do more things like Star Fox Adventures. Not Adventures exactly; a Star Fox game is space-combat-focused and should remain as such. But slight iterations on previous gameplay, rehashing the same plot over and over, are getting stale. In contrast, I liked the experimentation with additional gameplay features in Assault, and the fact that it wasn’t just another copy of the original game’s plot, though it was probably still a little too familiar and safe. It still focused on arcade-style starfighter combat, but it at least wasn’t just the same game with prettier graphics yet again.

At this point, I’d like a new story, but I wouldn’t mind a recap of the original game if it gave more depth to that tired narrative, especially if that relatively short game experience represented only the first act of a new effort. Star Fox 2 seemed especially innovative in form and progression of story, and with its release finally happening on the SNES Classic, I wonder if we could see that developed into a current-gen remake. Meanwhile, the franchise obviously affords the opportunity to deepen characters and lore, even if the games rarely take advantage of this; the opening cinematic to the critically panned and fan-derided (and personally ignored) Star Fox Zero suggested those possibilities, and in fan project circles, there’s the hilarious and endearing A Fox in Space.

In fact, Star Fox has an unfulfilled promise of depth that causes a rare itch in me, the urge to actually write fan fiction. I rarely write fiction at all anymore, and fan fic is really low down on the priority list for me, but if I were to write it, my attentions would be divided between Star FoxStar WarsThe Elder Scrolls, and Jurassic Park. All of those franchises offer areas of lore, or off-screen events, or underused characters, or just blank spaces for wild extrapolations that I’d like to see explored more.

But the bottom line is that I’d just really like to see more Star Fox.

Arena, Part XIV: Exiting the Labyrinth

It may be hard–even nearly impossible–to believe, but I’ve at last returned to Arena. I never really intended to be away for that long. Days turned to weeks and then months. In the back of my mind, I always felt compelled to return, but I always found something else to do when I had enough free time to get back to it.

I returned to find myself completely lost in the middle of Labyrinthian. Before long, I’d adjusted settings back to how I liked them, and I was plowing through all sorts of monsters and getting more and more lost and genuinely having fun.

Arena can be a tedious experience. There are a lot of narrow streets in towns, and there are a lot of narrow halls in dungeons. Responsiveness to your player actions isn’t great. The visuals and sound effects and music quickly become repetitious–as do the random fetch quests and the general experiences to be found in any particular dungeon. The open world outside of cities and dungeons stretches on endlessly and pointlessly. Arena is tedious because it tried to offer a world of possibilities but then didn’t have all that much to do. It was ahead of its time, with ideas about first-person open-world gaming that couldn’t be matched in implementation yet. So you could do a lot but it all boils down to the same sort of experiences repeated over and over. This can be freeing or frustrating, and I keep swinging back and forth between the two mental states.

I always have a lot of fun after a break from the game, though, because I’m coming back to it fresher. The game can’t feel so tedious if taken in little chunks with distance in between.

My play session on return felt productive, even though I didn’t really do anything to advance the story. I guess I advanced my story, and I was able to check off my own personal objectives.

My last check-in with the game was over six months ago (wow), so as a reminder, I’d planned to escape the dungeon of Labyrinthian and return to town to rest, restock potions, repair/replace equipment, and learn a new spell. I accomplished those simple objectives. It felt like a bigger deal because Labyrinthian is so winding, and I’d been away so long that I had no idea of the general direction to even start heading in to get out.

The enemies on my escape were varied but not too challenging. I ran into a wraith over a lava pit, but because I was at an elevation, I could snipe it with fire spells until it was defeated.

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I slew several spiders, goblins, wolves, and hell hounds with my trusty saber. I took out ghouls from range with magic and bow.

And I discovered another new enemy! As I was walking down a hall, this message appeared:

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Troll is regenerating? I didn’t even know that there was a troll around at all! Then, as I turned down another hallway, I heard a bloodthirsty saurian roar. I tried to get away, but the roar repeated, again and again. I hoped I could just run away, but I took a wrong turn and failed to make a jump to a higher passage. I was hit from behind and turned to defend myself. And there stood the troll!

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Much to my joy and relief, I was able to subdue the beast fairly easily. I do appreciate the increasing variety of monsters in the game, and I still love how you can tell what type of monsters you might be facing soon based on their unique calls.

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Eventually, I found a way to a green mark on my map–which I vaguely remembered indicated not just a door but an exit, either to another floor or to the outside world. The first exit I came across took me to the main floor. And once on the main floor, I was able to easily find my way back to the main entrance.

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I headed to the town of Dunpar Wall. In town, I went to an inn (the Haunted Wolf, a somewhat perplexing name) and tried to get a room for the night, but I was approached with a small fetch quest.

Since it wasn’t due until the following day, I still rented a room and slept until morning. Once done, I tracked down the Order of the Knights of Hope with the holy item.

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Since that took me near the Mages Guild and an equipment store, I went ahead and identified magic items and purchased potions at the Guild, then sold off all my gear and purchased fresh armor and a couple new weapons at the equipment store. While at the Guild, I also bought a couple new spells, including Lightning, so I feel a little more prepared to deal with any iron golems I might come across next time.

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Finally, I returned to the inn to complete the quest.

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While exploring Dunpar Wall, I found a homeless beggar who initially greeted me by saying he was too busy to talk. When I pushed him for more details, he answered:

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Is he delusional or sarcastic? Hard to say.

I also got some juicy (though vague) gossip from the bartender at the Haunted Wolf:

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And that same barkeep sold me a beverage with a pretty ridiculous name:

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It’s obviously just a fantasy-themed version of the gin and tonic! Gin by itself is already a juniper-flavored drink (we’ll learn in game five, of course, that juniper berries are found in Skyrim and used to flavor mead), it’s been enjoyed since the Middle Ages, and it’s associated with the Europeans! It would’ve been pretty appropriate to just have gin present, right? And djinn are genies, associated with Arabian folklore, so what’s this doing in a Nordic-influenced country? So many questions! And no answers (I suspect the answer truly is that whoever named the drinks was trying to be cute).

I’ve returned to the village gates. The next session will find me back in Labyrinthian. We’ll see when that happens…but this time around was fun, and I was glad to return to the game after all.

Keeping the peace in an open-world game

I’ve been reading about open-world games recently, and it’s got me thinking about the failings of a certain type of open-world game. Too often, it feels like a game becomes open-world because it’s a feature to try to sell people on the title, regardless of whether it actually adds any value to the experience. Just for one example, this appears to be what happened with Mafia III. (“At first, it was envisioned as a straightforward revenge tale, but 2K boss Christoph Hartmann wanted Mafia III to compete with Rockstar . . . . He wanted districts, empire-building, and a massive open world.”)

One game type that seems particularly unsuited for the open-world concept, despite being routinely drafted in this way, is the law-enforcement game.

There are many types of stories that can be told about the police: some can portray peace officers in a positive or heroic way, some can present crooked or abusive or outright corrupt and villainous cops, and many are mixed and complicated. And there have been some pretty good crime drama stories to come to video games. Two prominent examples are L.A. Noire and Sleeping Dogs. But both games suffer from an open world that seems to exist mainly to just give the players the option of doing something else, even if there’s not much to do with the feature.

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L.A. Noire in particular tells a complicated and gritty noir story, with each chapter diced between increasingly gruesome and unexplainable murders. The player’s investigation of crime scenes and attempts to tease out the truth in tense interviews with witnesses and suspects make up the bulk of the main form of gameplay. Over the course of the game, I suspect that just about any player questions whether they’re making the right call–and, without giving up too much for those who haven’t played, the end of the game reveals that the whole truth was more complicated than we could imagine for many of these cases.

But in between these tense and disturbing criminal investigation scenes, and the occasional obligatory shootout mission, we have long stretches of just driving around. There’s not all that much to do, apart from hunting down useless collectibles, seeking out 1940’s Los Angeles landmarks, and participating in a series of twitchy and repetitive street enforcement missions. The little side missions in particular feel like an effort to give a greater range of ways to interact with the game, but they all boil down to distracting radio calls to drive halfway across the city just to participate in the same repetitive mixture of shoot-outs, chases, and twitchy hostage-rescue shots.

The map is big, but there’s very little to organically draw the player in. This is probably at least in part a product of shifting design decisions, but when one is on the straight-and-narrow as an upstanding law enforcement officer, the crazy high jinks that typically make open-world games so entertaining have to be reined in. In place of rampaging through the city, the distractions that are inserted feel very gamey indeed and quickly grow tedious. And the player can even choose to skip from destination to destination, having their partner drive instead. The game very much so feels like a fairly linear, structured game arbitrarily mounted onto an open-world framework.

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Similarly, Sleeping Dogs is a cool story about an undercover cop trying to bust gangs in Hong Kong. Where L.A. Noire obviously draws on the film noir genre, Sleeping Dogs pulls from martial arts films and contemporary cop dramas. While one could commit criminal acts, there was a certain incentive to continue to operate largely within the scope of the law within the overworld map. Even if one were to go on a rampage, it would detract from the story being told.

And that story is pretty well-told! But it’s a story that relies heavily on cinematic scenes and fast-paced martial arts action sequences. By adding another fairly restrained open world, with fairly limited interactivity (another round of landmarks and collectibles), the world feels less organic and more a maze of lengthy car rides between missions.

Open-world games excel when story is more in the background. The focus should be on exploring the world, and it should be packed with fun things to do. The ability to cause chaos and see how effects radiate out from that chaos is often a big source of fun. Unpredictable playing experiences in true sandbox games allow for dynamic, organic stories that can do away with scripted storytelling altogether. The highlights of an Elder Scrolls game or a Grand Theft Auto game very rarely have to deal with the main plot, after all (or at least have more to do with cleverly designed missions in that main plot that take advantage of the open-world systems in the game).

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Either the open world is bland and gets in the way of the main story, or the main story feels like a railroaded obligation amid all the other fun to be had. I think that the Grand Theft Auto series demonstrates this rather well. Grand Theft Auto IV might have had the most original story in the franchise and seemed to have a lot to say in its dark and decaying world where the American dream is an illusion always just out of reach. But that story was somewhat defeated by the wanton chaos players could get up to between missions and by the easy ability to earn more and more money, and so much of that story was wasted on driving from point to point on the map. Other games have felt a lot more derivative, but they’ve focused more on the open world and benefited from it (especially Vice City with its introduction of investment properties, San Andreas with its huge world packed full of things to discover and weird people and beautiful environments and an exponential multiplication of activities and jobs, or Grand Theft Auto V with its three characters to rotate through to keep the fun going and a bank-heist-centered plot that focused on channeling the chaotic entertainment of the main game rather than burning out in an over-long drag).

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Being able to truly do anything, story (and morals) be damned, seems key to a really fun open-world game that will keep pulling the player back. While Red Dead Redemption has a story that is arguably about law enforcement (since you’re playing an against-his-will bounty hunter), the protagonist’s antagonism toward the federal government and the setting in the Wild West allow for a lot of less-than-virtuous gunplay and no-good deeds that don’t feel too far out of character or inappropriate. Plus, there are a lot of random encounters and side jobs and weird things to get up to while moseying across the plans or into towns. And despite the above, I think that the game suffers by having an overly long and dreary linear story, much like Grand Theft Auto IV.

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As a final example, the original Crackdown, despite ostensibly being about a law enforcement super-agent meant to take down out-of-control gangs, is really about causing as much devastation as possible across the map. The absurd power fantasy is front and center, and while your interactivity with the world is mainly limited to fighting bad guys and scaling the environment for collectibles, the game succeeds (to the extent that it does) by keeping the focus on chaos and player experience rather than a soggy story. (Not a law enforcement-focused game, but Mercenaries had a pretty similar model.)

In summary, games about law enforcement typically have dramatic stories that they want to tell. To the extent that an open world is involved, it often gets in the way of that story, either by being thematically dissonant or by simply disrupting the story with a lot of padding. And even where the open world might otherwise work, the hindrance of presenting an open world that requires a more constrained hand by the player (or more invisible walls on conduct) defeats the purpose of having that open world in the first place.

Arena, Part XIII: Lost in the Labyrinth

I’ve made progress through Labyrinthian, albeit in intermittent bursts.

I encountered zombies for the first time, and in several groups. After one hit, which was not lethal but was nonetheless quite damaging, I learned to keep my distance. There are plenty of little tunnels weaving just above the floor line, which I can jump up to but which monsters can’t get into; it’s easy to rain down spells and arrows on my enemies. I’ve also made better use of my invisibility spell to set up attacks and evade enemies; the extra magic reserves over several level increases since whenever it was I learned the spell have certainly helped.

With the combination of tactics, I was able to get through a good portion of the dungeon with very little risk, even when facing off against tougher enemies. The raised passages are often long enough stretches, and the labyrinth is well-lit enough, that I can even use the very dangerous Fireball spell; it takes down enemies quick, and it has a broad area of effect, but the problem is that its area of effect is so broad that I used to get caught in it often (and its magic drain used to hurt me more in the past).

In addition to zombies, there have been several hell hounds, of all things, some ghouls, and lots and lots of spiders, among other low-level enemies. I’m getting used to dealing with the powerful but often self-destructive hell hounds.

My major progress in the dungeon was finding and clearing the path for Kanen the Elder. A riddle was of course involved.

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Arena is obsessed with riddles. It feels very much so like a product of the renewed interest in LOTR with the surge in popularity of D&D. At least none of the riddles are as bad as “What have I got in my pocket?” I guessed “hourglass” for this riddle, which was apparently correct.

There was a wraith or ghost behind a locked door, and I suspect I’d have to have fought it if I guessed incorrectly. It’s likely that the ghost is intended to be Kanen’s spirit, as indicated by the game text.

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But while my dungeon map had been filled in enough for me to know where to go next, I hit a bit of a wall in exploring the second area. The enemies were a lot tougher down this other area, for one thing; whereas I escaped death for the entire first part, I wasn’t nearly as lucky in the other portion. I wasted a lot of resources trying to take down some new type of atronach, but I didn’t make a dent. I’m guessing I might need a lightning spell, something I don’t have, to penetrate its metal armor and hide. (I’ve since looked this up; it’s an iron golem, with a large amount of health, and while I didn’t see any mention of weakness to electricity, a new spell and more potions won’t hurt.)

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While I could escape with the aid of invisibility and side tunnels, I was soon after eliminated by a ghost.

And that’s where I’m at, stuck in the labyrinth, dreading ghosts and atronachs. My plan to move forward is another run to town to rest, restock, repair and replace, and (probably most importantly) learn a new spell.