Mafia III – Important and Flawed

Oh, Mafia III. I would have loved to love you. I haven’t played the first two Mafia games, but I heard that Mafia III was pretty decent and did some interesting things with social issues, so I decided to give it a shot. It wasn’t a bad game, but it could have been so much better.

I want to start by saying that the way the game deals with race is interesting and provocative. It shouldn’t be, because it doesn’t exactly depict anything that isn’t in an average history book or that hasn’t been shown in plenty of movies or TV shows. But mainstream video games have historically been hesitant to address sensitive social subjects, especially in as direct of a manner as Mafia III, with many of its missions, characters, and themes directly revolving around issues of racism in America. Issues that would come blaring back to the public consciousness not long after the game’s release, which makes me wish they would have kept the game in development longer. Not only would it have allowed the developers time to address some of the game’s other issues (which I’ll mention in a bit), it would have put the game right in the center of the maelstrom of media coverage about the newly revived public discussions of race in a post-election America. So many of the missions pair well with recent news events, particularly with regards to white nationalist groups, corrupt politicians, and the use of popular media (radio) to sway public opinion.

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I am almost as far from the margins as you can get, so I can’t speak with much authority on some of the issues of racial identity, but I do want to say that there was a special kind of frustration playing a character that is shunned and insulted at nearly every turn. I have to believe that was the point the developers were trying to make, and it worked (on me, at least). I avoided shops and places that I knew I’d get into trouble in, like the many shops and restaurants with “No Colored Allowed” signs. The fact that they included all of these spaces where your character will be harassed and eventually have the police called on him just for entering was striking. Eventually, as my character gained power and agency (and I gained skills), I began to make a game of it. If I entered a place and someone told me to get out or that I was not allowed, well, I made a clip of the first time it happened and what I did:

I also liked many of the cultural details, like the collectible Playboy magazines, album covers, and the amazing soundtrack. Many of the cutscenes were executed very well. This all worked together nicely to create a rich and exciting atmosphere that seemed authentically 1960s America (as much as I can claim that, having been born two decades after). So I spent the first few hours of the game wondering how people might have criticized the game, or how it might not have sold all that well. It wasn’t as large or impressively rich with detail as Grand Theft Auto V, but I think it’s a little unfair for any open-world game to be compared one-to-one with that series, given that creating a game like that is a huge financial gamble, especially when you have to compete with such an established brand.

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But the magic of those early hours of the game came chugging to a crawl as I began work on the second district. The missions in the first district were very fast and brutal, reminding me of those scenes in Scorcese mob movies where the shit starts hitting the fan. I love those moments in those movies, and I was happy to experience that same excitement in video game form. The problem is that the game essentially rewinds and replays those parts over and over and over again. When you unlock missions for a new area, you lure a boss out by killing or recruiting their underlings, then you revisit one of the same buildings that you’ve already visited and kill or recruit the boss, then you do it again. And again. And again. And there are so few ways to approach many of these missions. Bosses are always in large buildings where you have to use the game’s cover system to infiltrate and either stealth or blast your way through. Sniper rifles are one of the primary weapons in the game, but the environments are almost never designed with them in mind. I decided to be a sniper early on, but when I tried to find a way to the top of a building to snipe an early boss, there was no way to find a high point. I could go in a nearby building, and get to the third floor of the inside, but there was no way to the roof or to fire out of a window. And that was the case for the vast majority of missions. I could carry a sniper rifle, but the game forced me to either sneak or blast my way into the same kinds of buildings over and over again.

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Once the repetitiveness began to wear on me, little things started to annoy me because I noticed them more. The driving never felt good. I wanted to carry more weapons or customize my loadout more. I wanted more style options. I wanted some kind of reward for collecting all of the collectibles. Minor complaints, certainly. But when layered on top of having to repeat the same missions again and again, I began to wish the game would just end. That’s a feeling I hate. I try and finish every game I play. So I slogged through the game. The final mission had cool moments, even if it was just a busier version of the previous missions that I had done before. And, as I said, the game did such a great job with some of the social and cultural aspects. But with an extra year of development, I can’t help but think they could have addressed the issues with mission variety and been more topical as a contemporary work of art.

Summer South Park RPG Binge

When South Park first aired in 1997, it was kind of a sensation. It was one of those cultural bombshells that seem to come out of nowhere. After the first few episodes, I remember sharing jokes with kids at school, classmates I’d never even talked to, because the show’s humor was so new and shocking that you couldn’t help but laugh at the singing turd or the cursing kids. I watched the first few seasons pretty religiously, I saw Bigger, Longer, and Uncut in theaters, and I even rented the N64 game several times, but eventually the humor that comes with the shock faded. It was still funny, sure, but shock value is worth something, and once that was gone I found myself only passively interested in the show.

Fast forward to October of 2017. The second South Park RPG, The Fractured but Whole is releasing in a month filled with great games. The game is getting a lot of buzz, and when I see it on sale for half off and a free download code for the first game, I have to grab it. Even if I’m not so into the show anymore, the games seem like fun and $30 for two RPGs is too hard to pass up.

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Over these last few weeks of summer break I’ve been trying my damnedest to burn through as much of my backlog as possible before what promises to be one of my busiest semesters yet, so I recently played both The Stick of Truth and The Fractured but Whole back-to-back. I enjoyed them both, but it was sort of an odd experience in that they both look very similar but have very different mechanics and systems. They both very much make you feel like you’re playing in an episode of the show, which is something I can’t say any other game I’ve played has done. It took me a good hour to get used to my character bouncing when I walked because it’s so unlike character movement in other games (but exactly like character movement on the show).

[NSFW images and some spoilers ahead]

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Aside from being very much like the show, one of the things I like about both games is that they do a great job of putting you in the shoes of kids being kids. Yes, there are aliens and gnomes and singing logs of feces, but the games do what video games rarely do and let you play the role of a kid roleplaying the kinds of things that most other video games are actually about: fantasy adventure and superhero stuff. These kids have a lot more resources than I did as a kid, but I found a lot of joy in the inventive ways that they brought their make-believe worlds to life (cardboard dragons, basement lairs, home-made costumes, etc.). One of my favorite jokes was the constant interruptions of passing cars if you engaged in combat in the street. It didn’t matter how serious your foe, or if there were bodies covered in blood on the field, if someone yelled “car!” everyone got up, moved to the sidewalk, the driver would yell as they passed, and then everyone took their places and resumed play. This was so funny to me because it rang so true to the experience of being a kid and playing on such a massive scale.

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It was that charm that provided most of moments that made me smile or chuckle, but there was still a lot of traditional South Park shock humor, and something I noted was that the first game had a lot more of it. I mean, a lot more. It seems like every proverbial corner you turn in Stick of Truth there is some crude, gross, or sexual joke waiting for you. There is one scene in particular that I’m seriously surprised made it past the ESRB. After being shrunk down to the size of an underpants gnome, you eventually find yourself in your parent’s room. At night. And they decide to have sex. Because, South Park. And of course I stood there in shock and took a few seconds to take a screenshot, then got a trophy called “Perverted” for watching my parents having sex for a minute, so thanks for that, Ubisoft. The fun didn’t end there, though. Oh, no. Of course not. Of course you next find yourself in the middle of a fight, on the bed, under your parents, who are obliviously still having sex. So as you’re battling, your mom’s breast is swinging back and forth above you, and every now and then you have to dodge your dad’s balls as they swing toward you. I mentioned before that South Park had stopped shocking me, but this scene got me. It was a whole series of constantly elevated “WTFs!”

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There were plenty of other crude jokes, some hit, some missed. The Fractured but Whole was surprisingly a lot less gratuitous about sex, but not devoid of explicit humor. The two differences between the games that I noticed almost immediately were the new combat system and, less importantly, a lack of visual detail for random objects/junk. In the first game, every item you found had its own image and description. It was so fun to look through them as I collected them, and I even saved some in my chest in my room. In the second game, probably to save some development time, objects were not drawn, so that was a bit of a bummer. The combat was changed from straightforward turn-based to grid-based strategy, but both were perfectly fine. Most of my enjoyment came from exploring the town and seeing so many familiar (and a few unfamiliar) South Park characters, though.

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Given the reportedly tumultuous development of these games, and the extra layer of scrutiny that comes with the heavy involvement of the showrunners, it seems like it may be a while before we see another entry into the series, if we are lucky enough to get one at all. I liked these games enough to hope that that’s not the case, though. I found their satire of fantasy and (especially) superhero tropes highly entertaining, so I, for one, will be in line to pick a new game up. Maybe I’ll even pay full price next time.

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Paper Mario: Color Splash

I have a bit of a history of playing Paper Mario games late, going all the way back to the origin of the series, Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars. My excuse for that game was a youthful lack of funds, and for the first official game in the series, Paper Mario, it came so late in the N64’s life that I was just waiting for the GameCube to drop (and, well, more youthful lack of funds). I did pick up Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door around the time of its release, but it was at a time when I finally had a grown-up job and grown-up money, which meant that I also bought other games. A lot of other games. Games that I didn’t have time to play. Eventually Super Paper Mario released on the Wii and garnered the same kind of high praise that the previous entries had, so I bought that one, too. I still hadn’t played Thousand-Year Door yet, though, so I decided to go back and start my journey with the series there.

I bring all of this up only because my reaction to playing Thousand-Year Door was “why did I wait so long to play this?” It was such a bright, fun, surprisingly hilarious take on the Mario franchise and formula. It charmed my proverbial pants off and was way better than I thought it would be. So you know what I did? I put off playing its sequel, Super Paper Mario, because I was worried that it might feel too similar to its predecessor. When I did eventually play it, you know what I thought? “Why did I wait so long to play this?” And when I eventually bought the original Paper Mario on Wii’s Virtual Console and played that? “Why did I wait so long to play this?”

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Source: http://opencritic.com/game/2854/paper-mario-color-splash

I like to think of myself as a pretty smart guy. I’m no genius, but I can usually spot patterns and learn from them. But I can be an idiot, too, because of course I deftly avoided playing Paper Mario: Color Splash when it came out. I pre-ordered it. It arrived on release day. I was excited to play it. But I didn’t. I don’t even remember why. I think it was that I’d also gotten the PlayStation VR and a bunch of games and there’s only so much time in a day, right?

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Source: http://www.ign.com/articles/2016/09/03/pax-2016-paper-mario-color-splash-has-the-most-realistic-looking-lemons-youve-ever-seen

“Why did I wait so long to play this?” That was my thought a couple of weeks ago when I finally played Color Splash, almost two years after its release. Many people complain about Nintendo “releasing the same game over and over again,” and I think there’s some validity to that gripe, but iteration is also one of Nintendo’s greatest strengths. They are masters at refinement. Color Splash is a little cuter, funnier, and flashier than its predecessors. It has so much visual style in how it presents this beautiful paper world that I kept catching myself admiring the smallest of details. The smallest and cutest of those details is the Holo-Peach, a mini-cardboard Peach that carries messages to Mario. Pictures don’t do the cuteness justice. After it opens up and projects its message, it shuffles toward Mario, arms up, and Mario scoops it up like a little baby. I want one.

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Source: https://www.mariowiki.com/Holo-Peach

I’ve heard people complain about the game losing its RPG elements, but I don’t think it’s that dramatic of a shift. You do gain experience, of sorts, in the form of hammer points, which you use to upgrade the amount of paint you can hold, and the only difference that I could tell about the combat is that it doesn’t display damage in the form of numbers. It’s the same turn-based, action/timing-oriented combat that the others used, I think. Would I like another actual RPG set in the Mario universe? Sure. But I don’t hold that against this game, and either way, in the end, I loved it. Will I learn my lesson if/when Nintendo releases the next Paper Mario game in (hopefully) a year or two? Look for my “why did I wait so long to play this” post in three or four years.

(Source for featured image: https://nerdist.com/paint-to-your-hearts-content-in-paper-mario-color-splash/)

Video Game Crushes: Chun-Li

Chun-Li is probably my very first video game crush. True, my love for Princess Peach originated earlier, with Super Mario Bros. 2, but I didn’t exactly think of her as a crush. I just liked playing as her. With Chun-Li, though, I was smitten.

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Like many, many kids in the early 90s, I was obsessed with Street Fighter II. I only made it to arcades occasionally, but when the game was released for the SNES in 1992, I was all over it. Even though each character’s story is fairly shallow and consists of a small batch of dialogue and a few short scenes, I played and replayed each character just to have a reason to play the game. Chun-Li and Guile were my favorites, though, so I felt the need to beat their story campaigns on the hardest difficulty (having said that: fuck Bison and Sagat on the hardest difficulty. So cheap. I hate them and I want them dead.).

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Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TQaDLTeawX4

Chun-Li’s story is a basic revenge plot, where she is hunting down M. Bison, who killed her father, but I loved that she had her own journey and wasn’t tied to other fighters. Even as a kid I remember that making her unique, even if I had no clue about the significance of her being the first playable female character in a fighting game. I just knew that she was strong, she was fast, she was (in my opinion) the best fighter, she was absolutely beautiful, and she showed that she wasn’t afraid of expressing both extreme focus and youthful jubilation (“Yatta!”). And how can I leave out her trademark blue qipao? The combination of the elegant silk dress and hair ribbons with her seriously spiked bracelets and hardcore combat boots perfectly represent her personality and spirit.

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I haven’t played every single iteration of Street Fighter that’s come out, but I’ve played most of them. Chun-Li remains my favorite character. She’s always very fast and her long legs allow her a nice reach, and I love using her wall jump to get out of being cornered. The story of Street Fighter seems complicated and a little ridiculous to me at this point, so I’ve lost track of the twists and turns of Chun-Li’s backstory, but she remains a fierce and beautiful warrior, dedicated to justice. For that reason she will probably always be my main.

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Source: https://www.deviantart.com/musgravehall/art/Chun-Li-Street-Fighter-659674153

(Note: featured image source – https://www.deviantart.com/semsei/art/130912-Chun-li-sketch-399787109)

Making Memories with Persona 4 Golden

As I wrote previously, I absolutely loved Persona 5. I’d been interested in the series for a long time, so I was happy to be rewarded by such an excellent entry into the franchise. It was the kind of game that I just didn’t want to be done with, so I ended up beating it almost three full times in order to get the platinum trophy for it. Beyond that, I ended up buying both Persona 3 and Persona 4 for the PS2, since they were pretty cheap online, and later I bought a PlayStation Vita and Persona 4 Golden because I’d heard that it was also quite excellent. I finally got around to playing the latter recently, so I wanted to put some of my thoughts about it down in writing.

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I have to say, I was a bit nervous before actually sitting down to play it. Persona 5 has a lot of systems, which is probably part of the reason they take their time in teaching you those systems in the early hours of the game. Atlus does a great job with it, and before I knew it I felt like a master at the weakness/affinity-based combat system, but I worried that P4G might not be quite so refined in its tutorials, being eight years older than its sequel (the original P4, anyway). I needn’t have worried, as P4G was very much like P5 in almost every aspect, tutorials and combat included.

When I say they are similar, I really mean it. One of the games is about a young high school kid who stays with his stern (but later loving) male guardian who has a young daughter whose mother was hit and killed by a car, and you learn that you have the ability to travel to an alternate dimension and use shadows, and with the help of a colorful cast of classmates and townsfolk, you save people from that shadow dimension and kill a god. The other game is about [copy and paste that whole thing here].

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The two being so similar isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Though interesting, the premise of the game is not at the top of the list of things I loved about either game. There are some small changes in mechanics that make P5 an arguably better game, but the combat is virtually the same in each, and I loved fighting in both of them. I usually hate games that force you to change up your skills and attacks in order to exploit enemy weaknesses (sometimes I just wanna mindlessly bash away at things, okay?), but somehow these two games turned that concept into a well-coordinated dance. I very much enjoyed sizing up each group of enemies, thinking about what abilities each of my party members had, and then figuring out who to attack with, who to buff with, etc. In most RPGs, when I win a battle I feel strong. In these games, I felt smart.

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More important than the combat, I think, is the cast of characters and the relationships you form with them. So much of these games centers on finding people, learning about them, and establishing a deeper bond with them. The dating in P4 is a little less engaging than it is in P5, but I still liked having it as an option. In my first playthrough I dated Yukiko. She is smart, introspective, industrious, and has that kind of elegant traditional Japanese thing going on. I can’t say I wasn’t tempted to abandon my quest to win her heart when Rise came into my life, though. She is fun, flirty, ambitious, and very cute. I was in too deep with Yukiko, though, so I saved Rise for my second game. I was very close to picking Marie, too, though, and she would have definitely been my next lady if I were to play it a third time. None of them held a candle to Ann from P5, but I did like those three ladies a lot.

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Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wXK3a6vaSVI

You know who else I liked? Kanji. If there’s an area that P4 beats out P5 in, it might be humor. P4 is a very funny game, and I found myself laughing out loud several times, which is pretty uncommon for me. My typical reaction to humor in games is a chuckle or maybe a conservative “heh” or a “ha” or two strung together. Not so with P4. I found myself having to stop and just laugh at certain scenes, even on my second playthrough. Kanji was the source of much of that laughter. He and Naoto are also super interesting for how they’re used to look at issues of gender and sexuality in games. I wish Atlus had gone further with them, though, because it seems like they wanted to make Kanji gay and Naoto gender non-conforming but pulled back at the last second and had them be semi-closeted or confused rather than forsake their feelings. The point of the shadows in this game is that they represent a part of you that you repress, and in defeating them you admit that they are just as much a part of you as the “real” version. So, given that Kanji’s shadow is gay, that means that he is either gay or bi in the real world, but after defeating his shadow he continues to act like he’s totally, definitely “not like that,” which seems weird. And Naoto eventually reveals that she presents as male because of societal expectations, but even after being outed as a woman she asks that they continue to treat her as a male and still presents as male (until the epilogue, anyway). So I think they could have done a little more to make those two characters definitively different, but they were still interesting and unique characters that are not commonly found in games.

Persona 4

The art style and soundtrack are also very good, as they are in P5. I like the red/black/white theme of P5 more than the yellow/green theme in P4, but they share a lot of the same visual flare and attention to the most minute of details. This ended up being a lot more clinical than I’d intended, but sometimes it’s hard to convey why the magical cocktail of ingredients in any given game is so delicious and intoxicating. Persona 4 made me happy. At the end of P4 and P5 your new friends speak to you about leaving and there’s a kind of bittersweet thing going on, because you all revel in the good times you had but lament the fact that it’s all over and you have to leave them behind. It seems like a purposeful design choice, because as a player I was going through the same thing. I was sad to finish both of these games, even though I’d spent dozens and dozens of hours with them. I wished I could have stayed, just as my character did, but I had to move on. I console myself by reminding myself that there are three more mainline Persona games I have yet to play, so maybe I’ll do one each summer for the next few years, and by the time I’m done with them there will be a fresh, new Persona game to steal my heart.

 

Doki Doki Literature Club!

[Doki Doki Literature Club! is a game that deserves to not be spoiled. This blog will have lots of spoilers, so please don’t read it if you haven’t yet played the game. It’s free on Steam, so why not give it a try?]

The only things I knew about Doki Doki Literature Club! before playing it were that it looked like a hundred other dating sims on Steam and that it was “dark.” That was the word that kept coming up when people would talk about it, though they were (thankfully) careful not to say much else. “Dark” is a vague word that can mean many things, so I thought it might deal with more serious subjects than the normal, bubbly dating sims I’ve played. I was intrigued, and it is free on Steam, so I gave it a shot. Man, am I glad I did.

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“Dark” is an understatement, really. There are a couple of hints that your best friend, Sayori, is not as she seems, so when you, the player, show up at her house and she explains that she has been suffering from crippling depression for a long time, I was only partially surprised. Was this the darkness people spoke of? Maybe, but I doubted people would go so far as to caution people about a character who is depressed. From that, I correctly guessed that Sayori would probably attempt (and succeed at) suicide, which certainly fits the “dark” descriptor, especially given how dramatically it’s presented. The image of her body is shocking and in your face, and your character does not handle it very well.

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But that’s not the true darkness. When Monika breaks the fourth wall prior to the suicide, telling you to make sure that you save your game and things like that, I thought it was just a funny, quirky way of reminding you of certain game mechanics. But, no. She is alive and sentient and killing off the other girls to gain your attention. She starts with Sayori, convincing her to commit suicide, and of course it’s kind of my fault, because she confessed to being in love with me but I was trying to get with Yuri.

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So the game starts over with Sayori now gone completely, and what am I to do? I’m of course still shocked and confused by what happened, but I guess I should keep playing, right? So I do, and I keep trying to woo Yuri. Sweet, pretty Yuri. She is lovely, mysterious, shy and a little bit oh my god she is stabbing herself in the chest. Monika has gotten to her as well. And my character sits with her body for two days as cryptic, broken text scrolls continuously on the screen. Yes. This game truly is dark.

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I kept playing until it was just Monika and me, her staring into my eyes and explaining that when she gained consciousness and saw me through a small hole (my webcam, I would suppose), she fell in love and wanted to be a part of my world. It was oddly touching. Well, if you discount the fact that she murdered her friends to get the chance.

After I finished the game the first time, I ended up looking up a way to get the best ending and did just that, because I loved the game so much. It was dark, yes, but it did such a good job of leading the player through all of it, and repeated playthroughs yielded fun surprises. The girls’ poems make more sense when you know their backstories, and Monikas’ in particular are very revealing. The game is so successful at deceiving the player because it takes itself so seriously. That’s why it has to be free, too, because it really sells itself as a standard dating sim. The art, the music, the writing – it’s all legitimately solid and convincingly sincere. Better than many of the actual dating sims I’ve seen on Steam, in fact. So charging money for it would only guarantee that many people wouldn’t play it. A lot of people are too meek for dating sims as it is, so even if they hear that this game is “not what you’d expect,” they likely wouldn’t plunk down some money lest they end up playing a typical, bubbly, romance game. So even the pricing and marketing of this game is well thought out. If you watch the trailer, it doesn’t hint at anything sinister. There’s no creepy undertone or “but things aren’t as they seem” tagline. Nope. It’s just what you’d expect from a dating game filled with cute anime girls.

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And that’s why the twists are so effective, and why I loved this game so much. It is so unlike any game I’ve ever played. I want everyone I know to play it but recommending it is a tricky thing. The more I tell them to play it, even suggesting that it’s “not what they would expect,” the more I give away the potential for surprise. So I’ll just stay quiet and watch for openings. I’ll be patient and strategic and wait for a good time to strike. Just like Monika taught me.

Doki Doki (7)

Catching Up/Recently Played

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to track some of my thoughts about games I play, for my own benefit. Writing about games helps me retain memories of them, and I value having a record of my gaming experiences. I realized this back when I had a blog on the now defunct 1UP.com, because revisiting those blogs was always fun and sometimes insightful. I haven’t been doing that with this blog, because I’ve been using it to work out specific kinds of ideas that I encounter in games, in the hopes that they will allow me to use them in future projects/papers. But you know what? I want to get back into it. It’s fun, and me from ten years in the future wants it, so here is a giant thought-dump on some of the games I’ve played over the last few months. [I realize that people do read this blog on occasion, so I should say: Spoiler warning for plot-related beats]

Detroit: Become Human

It’s hard to dislike a game as beautiful as Detroit. And I wouldn’t say I dislike it, exactly. I liked it well enough. But when a developer puts so much money and time and effort into getting real actors and modelling/animating characters with such realism that some screenshots could easily fool people into thinking they were from a movie, the moments that seem to indicate poor or lazy development stand out a lot more. I appreciate David Cage and his team’s desire to create rich, realistic worlds and tell complex and challenging stories in them, but they always seem a little half-baked. Using androids as a parallel for issues of race and equality can be done. The obvious comparison is Blade Runner, since this game pulls a lot of its plot straight from that movie. But where Blade Runner makes Deckard’s personal journey the focus and all of the issues of equality, personhood, and discrimination subtle colorings that play out in tandem, Detroit puts all of those issues front and center, shoving them in your face scene after scene.

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If you had any doubt that this game was a retelling of the Civil Rights movement (with a dash of the Holocaust), Claire, the android on the main menu, shares a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and (separately) informs you that the city of Detroit was on the underground railroad, and in the game, androids have to ride in the back of the bus, they are rounded up into camps for elimination, they have to wear specific markings to identify themselves, they have no rights, they have their own underground railroad, they march in the face of police violence with their hands up, and more. This game tries very hard to be “high art,” and I want that so badly from new video games, but its lack of subtlety implies a belief that the audience is not smart enough to read into allegory or metaphor or allusion. So as a narrative adventure game, it’s beautiful and sometimes fun, if a bit clunky in places. As a piece of art, it’s shallow and disappointing.

Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash

Where do I even begin? This squad-based, water gun shooter would be a perfect example to illustrate how someone might actually enjoy something that is socially problematic. This game objectifies its characters unlike any game I’ve played. It’s not just that the plot requires them to all be in small bikinis, or the fact that you can dress them in lots of barely-there or see-thru outfits, or even that you can then pose them in those outfits in various states of undress and sexually suggestive poses. The most problematic thing is probably that one of the main gameplay moves is to humiliate a downed opponent by blasting her in the face, chest, or butt to blast her bikini off against her will. Actual naughty bits are blocked out, but it’s the fact that you’re forcibly undressing a defenseless girl that’s problematic.

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Having said all of that, I played the hell out of this game. I was honestly expecting to play for a few hours and get bored, but the shooting mechanics are solid, the various weapons require unique tactics that were fun to learn, and hopping/zipping around using the water jetpacks was a blast. I had planned on playing through the main story and then moving on, but I was having so much fun that I decided to get some of the trophies that went with upgrading your characters and weapons. Well, to upgrade those things you have to use duplicates of the collectable cards that you get after each match (or from the in-game shop). So as I began to grind for those, I started becoming obsessed with filling out my collection and getting new cards that would make me better/stronger/faster so that I could tackle the challenging tournament mode. In the end, I played way, way more of this game than I’d expected to. But I regret nothing, even if I do feel compelled to point out how problematic it is.

The Walking Dead: Seasons 1 & 2

I’d heard so much about “the Telltale formula” of storytelling that I had been wanting to play these games for a very long time. I played Telltale’s Back to the Future game some months back and wasn’t super impressed by its abundance of clunk and bugs, but I’d heard much, much better things about the TWD games. For the most part, I think they live up to the hype. They are still quite clunky in places, and some of the character/facial animations are distracting, but it does some interesting things with narrative, character, and choice. It’s not quite as revolutionary as I expected, because the core story is still the same for everyone, regardless of choices, but many of the choices were difficult to make and usually didn’t feel contrived.

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I will say that I was happy to be finished with them by the end, though. I have been prone to seasonal summer depression these last couple of years, and TWD games are very much like the show in that the characters move from one shitty, challenging event to another, with very little to celebrate. Having to make tough decisions that sometimes resulted in the deaths of characters I wanted to keep alive, or having the plot kill off characters for me, or never having a place that we could really dig in and set up like a home was getting to me. So I think these are important and useful games to look at for story, but man did they bum me out.

Life is Strange: Before the Storm

Life is Strange: Before the Storm also gave me a case of the feels, but in good way? Kind of? Within two minutes of starting the game and being reminded of the cringe-inducing lingo that the characters in this world use, I was unsure of how well this game would live up to the quality of its predecessor. That, and Chloe’s faux-punk attitude was so annoying. She was trying way too hard. But slowly, slowly the story began to flesh these characters out and make them multi-dimensional, just as the first game had, and by the last couple of chapters I found myself wiping my eyes more than I care to admit.

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I’m not pinning a first place ribbon on this game for subtlety, but it does character emotion and interaction far, far better than Detroit, so even though I knew Rachel Amber’s fate going in, I couldn’t help but mourn her fall in this story, especially when I found myself inadvertently flashing back to the scene where Chloe is bawling over Rachel’s make-shift grave in the first game. I went into this game with some serious skepticism, but it very much won me over by the end.

Undertale

Undertale is the kind of game I wish I’d discovered on my own. When I hear people repeatedly describe a game as “quirky” and “weird,” it loses much of that by the time I play it because I’m expecting it. One of the things that made EarthBound (a game Undertale is often compared to) so magical for me was that I went into it with almost no expectation. I went into Undertale knowing that it played with expectations and humor and combat, so I missed out on the fun surprise that would have come with discovering all of that for myself.

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Still, it was a fun game that did indeed do some interesting things that challenged gaming norms. Specifically, the fact that the game challenges you to actually not fight for the entirety of the game is great. I mean, technically you’re still engaging the enemies in combat and defeating them, but the language is not that of “attack” and “destroy,” which is a small but important distinction. There were some genuinely hilarious bits, too, and aside from the (purposely?) bloated end levels/scenes if you try for the “good” ending, it was a pretty brisk experience. Overall, I liked it.

God of War

Speaking of going into a game with expectations, I had very little interest in God of War until it was released and received universal and overwhelming praise. I had grown tired of the series by the third installment, and I was skeptical of the father-son thing. Over the years, Kratos became a parody of hyper-masculine bro-ness, and his son, to be honest, looked a bit like the son of a douche-y bro-dude with his baby scowl and faux-hawk. But with such all-encompassing love from every direction, I had to try the game out.

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I was glad I did, of course. There is a little of the “I’m a tough-guy dad!” “Well I’m a tough-guy son!” thing, but not exactly in a bad way. The game develops the characters at a slow and deliberate pace (until one section later in the game, where I learned the developers actually cut planned content that would have maintained the slower pace). Some of the backgrounds are bland, but most of the environments and characters are gorgeous. This was the first game I played with my TV’s HDR mode active, and it really made a difference. The color and particle effects are stunning. The character models are so detailed and make the characters lively and believable. I didn’t care for the combat at first, but once I got the hang of using Atreus I found it to be fun and challenging.

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My favorite part of the game, though, was the Valkyries. I liked the game enough to want to platinum it, so I ended up having to face all of them, and hoo boy. They were so much harder than the regular bosses in the core game, none of which I had to fight more than a few times on normal difficulty. And their design was amazing. I spent a lot of time taking a lot of screenshots of each of them, and even more time wondering how I would go about asking one of them on a date if I lived in their world. Just kidding. Mostly. But they are the best.

Far Cry 5

A lot of people seemed to be disappointed that Far Cry 5 didn’t go far enough with its political commentary, or that it didn’t take it seriously enough. But I think there was tons of social and political commentary, in both broad strokes and subtle environmental cues or side-quests. Could it have gone further? Sure. But given that the vast majority of mainstream games try to avoid this kind of thing, I applaud it.

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All of that aside, I found the game to be fun and I very much liked exploring the map and (usually) stealthing around with my bow, picking off cultists and sparing animals (when I could). The vehicles still mostly still handle poorly, but I can’t say I didn’t love being able to collect them, especially having an attack helicopter to zip around in (with my preferred partner, Jess Black, by my side). There was something seriously satisfying about unloading a volley of missiles and then spraying high caliber ammo on an installation of panicking cultists. I think I liked Far Cry 4 better in some ways, but I had a really good time with this entry as well.

The Stanley Parable

This is another game that I knew had something about it, so I wasn’t as pleasantly surprised as I could have been by its quirk and novelty. It’s not a pretty or deep game, but it was pretty funny and I like games that try to upend player expectations, and the whole point of this game is to do just that. So it was worth the 2-3 hours I spent with it.

I also played a lot of Doki Doki Literature Club! but I want to write a separate post about that. I’ll try and keep up with my thoughts from now on, but I do take my comprehensive exams for my PhD in August, soooooo my time will be more and more consumed by anxiety and guilt and less, sadly, by games and blogging.