Canabalt (2009)

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Canabalt’s backdrop is apocalyptic, appropriate for a game intent on annihilating its genre’s core design tenets.

The platformer is largely the designer’s playground; little is left to chance in most of these worlds of bottomless pits and perfectly situated enemies. Reflexes and memorization are just as important as exploration, and the secrets that exist feel as deliberately placed as Moses’ burning bush. An impressive Mario speedrunner has more in common with a virtuoso concert pianist — hitting every note with an obsessive, passionate dedication to the act — than with an adventurer launching off into the unknown. The road maps of Mario and Sonic are so immaculate and unchanging that the dedicated, record-seeking champs spend months of their lives plotting and re-plotting the perfect route. (This fascinating Gameological profile of a Mario 64 speedrunner by Peter Malamud Smith showcases how these fanatics know the game’s rhythms down to the millisecond.) Continue reading

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What Review Scores Really Mean to Gamers

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In the year and change I’ve been writing about games, I’ve never had to deal with an angry commenter.

Plenty of factors smoke-screen me from the internet’s most brutish trolls. I’m a white, straight, twenty-something male writing for a relatively unknown personal blog, for one. But still, I’ve never written a game review that didn’t include its share of critiques, even when discussing my most personal of sacred cows. I’ve called out misogyny and violence when I felt they hampered or muddled a mechanically enjoyable experience. The fear that this will be the time some unlucky Googler stumbles upon me talking smack about his favorite game plagues me every time I click the “Publish” button. I don’t even really know why; I stand by my opinions, and usually feel I do an adequete-to-darn-good job expressing them. But the outraged internet commenter is an unpredictable beast. He doesn’t care about logic, or crossing the aisle, or really much of anything you have to say once the first shot’s been fired. From that moment on, he exists purely to make you feel awful and upset about disagreeing with him. This reaction frightens me because I value my blog as a space to work out well-reasoned, multifaceted opinions. I can go embarrassingly nuclear in internet arguments with the right sort of cretins, and I’d hate for a wrong-headed, over-the-top insult on my part to betray the thoughtful and level-headed discourse I’ve had thus far with my commenters. (Fair warning to libertarians: just go ahead and skip my BioShock review, whenever I end up getting to it.) Continue reading

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Baldur’s Gate (1998)

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Can we agree that fifty hours is a serious commitment for a piece of entertainment? Sure, it’s a fraction of the time it takes to master any real skill, and it’s probably a drop in the ocean of hours I’ve wasted neurotically flitting between social media apps on my phone. But time spent consuming media is defined by different parameters than how we choose to spend our days out in the real world. It’s time spent engaged with the work of another person; it’s how we learn to shift our perspectives and gain an abstracted understanding of empathy. Art, in its broadest interpretation, strips down life to highlight certain emotions, philosophies, perhaps even “truths.” As such, we subconsciously expect (or at least hope) that every moment of this craft will build toward one of these epiphanies, that the creator is assured enough to be leading toward, if not pure thematic consistency, something that constitutes “the point.”

I’m not discounting a longform work’s ability to convey message and theme, and perhaps that’s part of the reason Baldur’s Gate made me question the time I was spending on it in the first place. Again, fifty hours is not an insubstantial length of time, and plenty of bona fide masterpieces I’ve yet to touch would take up at least that. I’ve seen nary a second of The Sopranos or The Wire — the two television series that finally earned the medium true cultural respectability — in any true context. I have a beautiful box set of In Search for Lost Time — a novel that could not have my interests more piqued — on my bookshelf, untouched since I received it last Christmas. I’ve even heard of a game called Planescape: Torment — a Baldur’s Gate successor, rendered on the same engine — that supposedly has a literary ambition and authorial voice rarely seen in video games.

I think “[This] is totally worth your time, but [that] totally isn’t!” is a pretty hacky way to approach any subject in life. Not only does it totally and haughtily (and usually ignorantly!) invalidate that hobby/trade/object/etc.’s supporters, but it leads to cultural evaluation where the number of stars on a box is more important than actual, nuanced conversation about the object in question. So please don’t take it lightly when I ask, in future year 2013 and with a wealth of globe-spanning culture at my fingertips, what, exactly, am I supposed to gain from Baldur’s Gate‘s days-spanning runtime? Continue reading

The Last of Us (2013)

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It’s hard to shake this one off. Seems to have that effect on people. I walked into this game with pretty high expectations, given the pedigree of its creators. I grew up on Crash Bandicoot (it’s kind of hilarious to think that the same people made those games). I never screwed around too much with Jak and Daxter, but I have an extreme fondness for all three Uncharted games, particularly 2 and 3, and often cite them as probably my favorite modern adventure games. All that being said though, The Last of Us is without a doubt Naughty Dog’s crowning achievement. There’s something hard to place about it; it slowly takes you in, bit by bit, and by the time it has you, before you know what’s happening, this game will beat the shit out of you. And I’m not just referring to difficulty, though there are plenty a tense encounter to be sure. I mean emotionally. This game will take your heart and piss on it.

The guys over at Extra Credits (which you should be watching if you aren’t already) have done a couple episodes on survival horror, talking about what exactly a game does to be classed in that category, and largely their thesis is that survival horror games take us into disempowerment fantasies, which is a profoundly different goal than that of most other games. Now, I wouldn’t call The Last of Us a survival horror game. And in fact, I’ve heard multiple people refer to it as a “zombie game,” and I think that is doing it a profound disservice, because the least accurate thing imaginable would be to lump this in with games like Dead Rising and Dead Island. Or even Resident Evil for that matter. That being said, the game still uses some of those survival horror tropes, limited ammo, degrading weapons, etc., but instead of using those mechanics to create an atmosphere of fear, they are used to create an atmosphere of extreme, absolute hopelessness.

There are only a select few games that have openings as memorable and effective as this. Fallout 3 and the first Bioshock both come to mind. But The Last of Us forces you to play through what is literally the beginning of the end of the world, the opening minutes of the apocalypse, as an 11-year-old girl. True disempowerment. It is terrifying, and incredibly disturbing; walking around your house, trying to find your dad, feeling utterly helpless. And it pretty much just keeps going downhill from there on out. Continue reading

Dragon Quest (1986)

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It’s Saturday night. I’m with friends at a party, but I should be playing Dragon Quest.

Not that I’d rather be playing Dragon Quest, mind you. I’d much rather be out with my friends, at a silly house party with free booze and dozens of people in zany monster costumes; hence, why I’m doing that instead. But Dragon Quest looms over my head. What should have been a tidy, few-session runthrough of a straightforward, old-school RPG somehow morphed into a piecemeal, month-long slog. It’s the first “historically significant” game I’ve played that feels like a cave painting, a work enjoyable only as a first step toward things to come. Playing it bores me. Thinking about playing it bores me. I’ve progressed far enough that I can’t turn back or begin another game instead, but booting up my emulator always gives me pause. This cheery little adventure single-handedly wrecked whatever tentative schedule I had for this blog, and I’m still not in sight of the endgame. How long would it take me to muster up the patience, put on some appropriate epic background music, and just beat the damn thing? Two weeks? Three weeks? Would I be stuck for eternity in this mildly pleasurable feedback loop (appropriately called the “grind”), a lab rat constantly pressing the same single button for his ten experience points’ worth of dopamine?

Waiting in line for the bathroom, it hits me. Dragon Quest is homework, and I’m the unruly teen out with his friends avoiding it.

Continue reading

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