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vrap

GamesBeat writer Dean Takahashi, @deantak, recently had some trouble playing Cuphead:

This new video has, in many ways, brought back the game journalist competency debate that last reared its ugly head when Polygon’s Arthur Gies played Doom and didn’t do it very well.

The emergent arguments and accusations levied at the person in question have been as various as they are dubious: That Mr. Takahashi’s specific position, as a video game journalist, requires him to be good at all games, or flatly refuse to touch anything and everything that he is not “good enough” at; and that his incompetence at one game now renders him entirely incompetent on the whole, furthermore throwing his entire review history under question. In addition, his performance has not only at once “embarrassed” him, but also the entity he works for.

Finally, it was to be noted, Takahashi’s flub had once again illustrated – nay, revealed – the review charade, calling into question the entire premise of not only games journalism, games journalists, but also journalism and the media on the whole!

This is to say nothing of the dismaying meanness directed at Takahashi, which quite obviously relates, in large part, to a collective psychosis, an osmosis into social media -based outrage culture, wherein any and all faces protruding from the otherwise ubiquitous and oblique mass media diet are instantly bandwagoned upon, to be smitten with holy anger for daring to err, in public, or in private. There were also those that simply tried throwing further fuel on the fire, like @stillgray, who chose to abandon professional courtesy in favour of blatant populism.

In this post – which is, by the way, not a defense of Takahashi, or in favour of any other specific person – I discuss the idea of whether we can have, at all, a shared criterion of competence that can be applied uniformly, and fairly, to video game criticism. I also discuss the unique – and very, very difficult position – that games journalism, and especially reviewing as one of its sub-sections, occupies amidst different types, or forms, of the objects of aesthetic analysis.

If you, in your heart of hearts, think that Mr. Dean Takahashi is a bad, or a flawed, person because he’s bad at Cuphead, and that as a journalist, this would then imply that he essentially fakes his his way through reviews (also discussing game endings), then I guess that’s fine, too. Takahashi makes for an easy target for criticism, after all: One can easily bring up some of the more indefensible things that he’s written, even discounting all the PR release talk, like his claim that a Warhammer 40 000 game ripped off Gears of War.

That being said, I think it might be pertinent, for this article, to read and attempt to understand his personal response to the debacle, which unfortunately ran with the same clichéd headline I had prepared for my own article.

The essential point of this article is simply this: If you at all believe that occasions such as these are clear-cut, open-and-shut cases in favour of the idea that “games journalists are all bad and should feel bad,” then I want to present an argument to the opposite. I also detest the idea of intentionally avoiding the complexities, difficulties, and ambiguities of the topic and believe that does a great, great disservice to all of us: To those writing reviews, and to those reading them.

There is nothing simple at all about the constant negotiation and balancing act that a games journalist does, between the three terrible pillars of competence, objectivity, and public servitude.

The Illegitimate Criticism of Criticism

First and foremost, the primary thing to keep in mind is, appraising someone’s competence without first establishing a set of rules decreeing such competence is almost always a fraudulent, illegitimate enterprise.

By this I simply mean that I do not believe we yet have a shared, common standard installed for the performative competence of video game reviewers. Yes, some of us are actually trained, and schooled, in journalism, in tech, or in writing, etc.; some are ex-developers, some simply good at writing, and/or at games. Many, of course, are none of these things. In other words, to make an analogy to other spheres of society, the professionalization of this particular type of job has yet to develop true academic and/or practical requirements that would render the profession inaccessible to those without the decreed qualifications.

To some parties engaged in this topic, this very fact may even form the very basis of their critique – i.e., “who watches the watchmen!” Shockingly, however, there are plenty of enterprises and areas of human life in which no such firm qualification or basis is necessary, as we do many things without ever defining the qualifications or necessities in the philosophical sense.

The downside of this fact, of the lack of this strong scientific basis, is the fact that it also leads to the prevalence of three trendy expressions: gatekeeping, moving the goalposts, and the no true scotsman fallacy. Thanks to this lack of a firm standard, we all unfortunately have to make do with an uncertainty of ideas, a multiplicity of competing standards, and a general lack of clarity. This puts both the topic at hand as well as its critiques into question.

The Importance of a Hobby

I fully understand that hobbies are extremely important, perhaps even increasingly so, to people; the way people enter and graduate into hobbies, either by accident, grooming, or via self-research, always forms a deeply personal connection not only to hobby itself, but also to your personal history of it, to the way you were first introduced into it. This personal interrelationship between the hobby as an idea, and your experience of the hobby as an idea makes your whole person extremely embedded into it, making it seem like a personal issue.

I do not agree outright with the sentiment that all gatekeeping is bad, like some folks do. But the moment our intuition, embedded in our personal history, takes hold – that we become alarmed, jealous, or annoyed, of those that aren’t as well-bred, well-educated, or well-schooled, we need to wonder whether it’s our embeddedness, our selfishness speaking, or whether we should give the others some slack.

What’s so truly offensive about Takahashi’s play that it throws everything related to his position in your hobby into question?

There also exists, by the way, a true philosophical reason for “giving slack”; first, recall the fact that we don’t yet have a shared standard of competence for games journalists. Second, imagine @deantak’s case, and try to think a standard of judgement for his performance yourself – a rule that is as reliable, as simple, and as fair as possible.

Even if you could hit on a solid divider, a solid cut-off, something like “The tutorial should take him only X seconds” or “He should be able to clear the first level in X minutes” – even if these lines existed, would you be willing to draw them for every game? Do we consider a historical perspective, or simply a performative one? Where in the hell do we set the cut-off point? Do we only accept the “highest”, the “best” standard in everything? Whose standard is it going to be – yours, or defined by developers, gamers, or some other third party?

To some, this may sound like “semantics” (in the derogatory sense), but without semantics, there are no definitions.

The Common Standard of Excellence

I believe at this point of the conversation someone will want to introduce a concept like “the common standard of excellence,” which is a way of seemingly rooting the demand for skill level. It is a concept that always develops historically, and lineally, on the basis of requirements set by the actions of your predecessors – i.e. by the skill level exhibited by players in a league, for instance. This standard can be utilized to say, for instance, that someone deserves to fight for the UFC because he fights better than fighter X; to play in NHL, or in the NBA; person Y does not, according to this standard, for he or she compares unfavourably to others already playing.

In our particular example case, the “common standard” would then be applied as follows: By failing to perform at Cuphead, Takahashi is putting himself in danger of being pushed out by another person who is better at Cuphead. You can already see how silly this begins to sound, but let’s remain facetious for a moment still: Let’s say that Takahashi sucks. Let’s say he sucks not only at Cuphead, but a host of other games – given the data available.

Let’s even admit that there might be an actual explanation for his poor performance – playing the game on a show floor, under the watchful eyes of the devs, or those of onlookers’, in an unfamiliar place, on an unfamiliar system. Should we always aim for the perfect setting, or the perfect situation? Is our mind and body always clear when we play a video game? Are you always at your best at work? Aren’t there always details in our lives that can exacerbate circumstance?

I’m willing to wager that despite being weak at Cuphead (and Warhammer, sigh) Takahashi is probably a pretty good games business journalist, even if his job description has him parroting effectively inane press releases more often than not. But that’s not the point; the point is that one does not simply walk into Mordor when it comes to forming rules for keeping people in and out – just observe, for a moment, the particular instance of society about you. You know full well that some people are unfortunately going to fall into the gaps of this system, because our systems aren’t rudimentary enough, and certainly aren’t designed to take everyone into account.

Indeed, my point is this: Mr. Takahashi has fallen into such a gap. Just because this gap is very public, and very humiliating, doesn’t mean that our response to it isn’t similarly built on the basis of our own position in the portion of society you are in. There may certainly be a degree of deviation, and differentiation, both between a) your own personal standard of play, and b) your ideal standard of play, and c) Takahashi’s.

But again, how do you define this deviation, an acceptable level of deviation, or, is it going to just be “you know when you see it”? Because I firmly believe most of Takahashi’s critics were simply saying as much. “I know what good gameplay is when I see it.” Which is saying almost nothing. It’s simply saying that you saw Mr. Takahashi fall into a gap. I am not saying all this to intuit some loose relativist position that claims there is no way to define an acceptable standard; I am stating this from a phenomenological perspective.

Gatekeeping Is Kinda Bullshit and Deep Down We Know It

“A 5-year old would play better,” “He looks like a slow child,” “He’s just stupid,” “I’m good at any game in 5 minutes I try, how come he isn’t,” “He lacks the extremely basic competence for playing video games.”

Discounting the ageism, ableism, and general viciousness of the commentary towards Takahashi – I’m not really interested in that portion of the debacle in the first place – almost all of it nevertheless assumed that common shared conception of competence, which the criticisms were then levied from. That undefined, uncertain, undefinable, unfoundable, position.

This is the crux of my argument: The biggest problem we have on our hands is not simply the pure hostility of the response, but the scientific, philosophical, and societal untenability of these critiques. If the name-calling was rooted in some sensible premise, I might almost tolerate it. But the arguments are devolving at such an alarming rate that soon those defending Takahashi are taken to be defending shoddy journalism!

Journalistic Competence

That’s the thing. On the one hand, we hold our press up to a very rigid journalistic standard, and on the other, expect them to fill many important informational roles in our lives. In addition to being subject to outside scrutiny, media houses ordinarily also employ in-house fact-checking, self-policing, and self-censorship (so that state apparatuses do not, which is seen to be the worse alternative), and have strict standards for their hiring process. There may be additional internal house rules about politics, social issues etc. etc.

The ordinary journalist – working for your standard news-station or newspaper – inhabits a fascinating position between actual competence and total pretension. S/he will behave like an expert up until s/he can’t, at which point they have the luxury of choosing to utilize access to other professionals, or academics, or officials, for further clarification.

In the case of video games journalism, however, this is simply not possible. I will make the case that not only does the deeply experiential and personal nature of playing video games make the use of outside help almost impossible, but in addition, all the potential so-called professionals available are uniquely unsuited to giving such help. Developers are biased, and our academic @raphkoster & @ibogost types – as well as non-gaming academics interested in video games as a medium among others – are often unequipped to handle the super-specific complexities (and simplicities!) of modern video games.

We can’t turn to professional gamers for help, either: Firstly, out of necessity, their play style takes any and all advantages. This is not normal. Secondly, to them, mechanics are everything, and the rest means absolutely nothing. This is also not normal. Thirdly, their eyes are trained to always and forever rest upon the most miniature of things, like matters of balance.

Even if a potential interviewee did exist, interviews in the games media can almost never be about tangible data, for if data is being spoken of, it is about release dates, or feature sets; more often than not, they are specifically about opinions and viewpoints, not about getting us all better reviews.

You might as well do the review all by yourself!

The Profound Uniqueness of Games Journalism

The immersive nature of the medium simply forces us to accept data that is experiential, personal, and yes – subjective.

That games journalism inhibits a curious space between public service announcement, and aesthetic analysis, is a position only barely shared by the criticism of other semi-artistic mediums, like that of the movies, or of music. Even technological reviews, while experiential and personal to a large degree, can incorporate some “objective data.” Is the reviewer supposed to be speaking on behalf of the players, or the developers, or the publishers – or is s/he trying to create more sales? For the game, for the magazine, for advertisements?

The position of the games reviewer also cannot be compared successfully to other types of reviewers; a film critic, for instance, is seldom required to have quick reflexes. A hockey analyst has to know the rules, but does not need to shoot the puck well. It is common for mixed martial arts fighters to demand that their referees and judges also fight, to gain the necessary insight into the profession.

In the case of the video game reviewer, the whole question is obviously rendered preposterous.

Journalistic Objectivity

Video game reviewers face a challenge almost no other type of journalist does: How to make their personal, subjective experience relevant to all? This is coupled by the fact that all reviewing, including the reviewing of the standard of games journalists, is by default a fraudulent enterprise – whether you believe in the existence of an objective standard or not.

In the world of video games, the unique position of the reviewer, who has to rely on his or her own inputs, his own sensory aesthetics, and his or her unique experience, by default renders any chance at shared “objectivity” by default impossible. The same applies, of course, in varying degrees, to all members of the media, and in the press, but so far in my experience, the aforementioned happens in the most pronounced way in video games.

It is one thing to strive towards maximal neutrality, disinteredness, apoliticism, and impartiality, and perhaps even a lack of prejudice. This, however, is not in any sense the same thing as an “objectivity.” Even then, I hope we should ask whether we want to promote any or all of these standards in video game reviews in the first place.

Personal history, familial connections, peers, cultural norms, mores, education, and a multitude of other societal dimensions of existence all form bonds, biases, prejudices, and preconceptions that can sometimes be noted, but never entirely bypassed. Even the simplest of opinions, or thoughts, is always embedded deep in a sludge of historical opinion.

We use the words that formed the thoughts of our forefathers. No word is ever free of a connection to another word.

The closest we can come to a shared understanding is by way of those sciences that poll data by asking people what they think or feel. This is how aggregates like Metacritic work in effect. These all work on the basis of the idea that by collating data, the margin of “error” in judgment shrinks. The adherence to this ideal, however, also renders it vulnerable to a host of other criticisms known to us all.

Video Gaming Competence

Whether we believe in the search for an objective review or not, or in a shared standard of excellence, I think we can all agree:

We are only, barely at the stage of “I know it when I see it.” If nothing else, it’s worthwhile to stop and think whether this kind of intuitive, responsive ideal can be used as a standard for lambasting someone, when this standard is entirely built on the basis of someone feeling of right and wrong.

Whether we want to talk about core “competence,” “fundamentals,” or “skills,” none of them are criteria formed on the basis of an established system. These concepts exist simply to give a name to phenomena that are yet to be carefully defined. Certainly, no definition of these would ever stop or start at a particular button combination in Cuphead.

The topic of “competence” as it relates to video games is so complicated, so multidimensional, that I almost don’t even want to start with it: It has everything to do with age, sex, culture, personal history etc. Do we assume, for such a standard, for instance the control of hands and feet? What about seeing, hearing, or speaking? Do we even start with other types of technological access and competence – all with their own clauses and modifiers – to barely get started.

Installing Steam and buying a game off their store is probably like drinking water to you – you only stop to think about it when you’re dehydrated, or need to take a piss, and even those come to you mostly automatically. For others, installing and using the required OS to access Steam is difficult. You need to make accounts, add payment methods, have a hard drive with space prepared for installation. What if the game doesn’t run?

It’s one thing to internalize the connections between the use of a simple interface, and the signals it produces on the screen. What this whole debacle proves to me is that many believe they have internalized a system by only scratching the surface. Gaining access to and knowledge of the system is not so intuitive.

Knee-jerking oneself into anger at a games journalist is much easier than gaining access to the systems that lie beneath Takahashi’s mistakes. What Takahashi’s failure to bridge two paradigms of movement together does, however, is to make the liquidity of video game competence suddenly concrete, smashing spectators in the face with an icy, slippery slab. To me, this simply means that some things are harder to internalize, and some things easier.

For Takahashi, it was a dash jump. For his critics, it was the foundations of aesthetic criticism.

The Cuphead Tutorial Is Just Not Very Good

Although my point has now been made, I want to add, finally, that those lambasting @deantak very conveniently “forgot” about a crucial aspect, which makes me wonder if we are suddenly to pretend that we all love tutorials? Hey man, can you sell me some more of that sweet tutorial you got there?

The Cuphead tutorial simply is not very good. At all. A tutorial is not the place to put up walls or borders. The moment a player has started your tutorial, s/he has already invested something into your game as product: thought, time, bandwidth and/or money. If we expect video game journalists to perform a public service evaluation of goods, then we also must uphold developers to the same public service standard.

At this point in time, in Cuphead, a mistake has no doubt been made; either marketing has failed, the target audience has been misunderstood, or the tutorial is poorly designed. I saw absolutely no-one mention this fact. I repeat: A tutorial is not supposed to be a gate.

As I have tried to illustrate above, there are gates everywhere in video games; some of them are guarded by others, some of them are naturally formed. Some of these gates exist for a good reason, some do not. Tutorials are not the place for emergent epiphanies, or revelations of great nature; they are the place for rudimentary necessity, and for firm hand-holding to ensure that no player is left behind either by omission or by mistake.

More often than not, tutorials fail the player in some way: Either they are too quick, or too slow, to explain. Too rigid, or too loose. Too verbose, or too tight-lipped; too expository, or too minimalistic. Too disconnected from the main game, or too embedded in it. What does this tell us?

That there in fact are different standards; different players; different preferences. The video game company can only take into account so many of these – and yet they need to be able to consider all of them in order to be successful. To pose a question of generalities in a specific way, let me just ask; in the case of Cuphead, why did not the jump-dash tell to use both buttons instead of just one? Why did it not Cuphead-Tutorial-160x120.pngtell Dean to jump off the platform? Why was the dash not introduced separately earlier?

Why is there just one icon illustrating a dash jump, for A, instead of the required A + Y. How did this not come up in testing? Or is the answer “aesthetics”?

This whole debacle reminds me of how frustrating and annoying video game tutorials can be. I am almost never left feeling welcomed after their completion. It’s hard to think of one single tutorial I would not have amended or changed somehow.

Closing Words

All this leads to the following question: Do we want people to enjoy video games, or to be good at them? Do you?

Some might argue that no controversy exists in Takahashi’s Cuphead play at all. I remain of the opinion that this competency discussion is worth having. I also, however, remain of the opinion that this discussion can be engaged earnestly, or it can be engaged with malice. The earnest part of this discussion can only begin once all of us agree exactly what competence is and how it should be measured.

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vrap

Note: For the purpose of this post, I have created a new category of post called “Contemporary Cynicism”. In this series, we are going to offer opinions that discuss the question of right and wrong in video games without adherence to common constraints set upon such public discourse. Since the video game companies of today often seem to be so beyond what we consider ethical behaviour, then maybe we should be, too.

Several outlets are now reporting that Monolith is releasing a charity DLC, for Middle-earth: Shadow of War, in memory of their late executive producer Michael David Forgey (1973-2016). Here is a promotional video for the “Forthog Orcslayer” DLC:

 

This stirring, even touching advertisement, which stands in direct opposition to an earlier trailer released for the game, contains music written and performed by the late Michael Forgey himself, advertises the DLC as available for pre-order now, for $4.99. The product is described as follows:

A legend among the Orcs of Mordor, Forthog Orcslayer is an unstoppable warrior who saves Mordor’s mightiest heroes at their moment of greatest need.

Mike “”Forthog”” Forgey was our Executive Producer and great friend here at Monolith. He was always ready to leap into the fray and save the game whenever and wherever he was most needed. We lost Mike to cancer during the development of Shadow of War, and we want to remember and honor him with a little bit of immortality in Mordor. The legendary Forthog Orcslayer is our way to continue having Mike leap into battle and save us when we’re down.

We hope that you will share in the experience of being saved by the legendary Forthog Orcslayer as you enter the land of shadow.

According to the announcement, “WB Games will donate $3.50 of every Forthog Orc-Slayer purchase to the Forgey family through 31st December 2019.”

Aestheticized Death

There is something to this act, of giving “eternal life,” or “immortality,” to someone through an artistic, communicative medium, that touches an elementary part in all of us.

After all, we all struggle, in some ways, with the limits and boundaries of our lives. These borders are part of what makes us human, forming a constant tension, whether in the permanent inability to move beyond the physical outer boundaries of our bodies, and our minds, or in being doomed to understand other people only indirectly, through the mediation of thought and language – not to mention the very firm constraints set upon our lives by the moments of our birth and our death.

It goes without saying that even sans this act of remembrance, Michael Forgey’s legacy goes on – he has enriched countless lives, working as producer on games as renown and popular as Gears of War. But this is exactly the kind of legacy that is harder to pin-point, harder to think of as “legacy,” if you’re not a man or woman of especially great stature, because it is all his own private making. It’s not his life’s work being remembered here; it’s an image of the man himself.

An act of remembrance seems logically active, performative, something done in the memory of another, something specifically given, dedicated, afforded.

This is perhaps why we have so many works of art dedicated to others. Being aestheticized, finalized in some way, whether in your life, or in death, is always a beautiful thing: In that act, or the end product of that act, a moment in time is at once not only frozen (perhaps captured in a photograph, which never changes, only fades), but also finalized and delineated, giving a clear beginning and end to something that cannot otherwise achieve them in life.

Simultaneously, it also actually gives us hope that such boundaries can be crossed – through art, through memory, or through a lasting deed. This act can also be a selfish act, made on behalf of those still living, coping with the enormity, the difficulty of a loved one’s passing. These two things are absolutely intertwined, as should be – life is for the living, after all. We can’t fault Monolith staff for wanting to remember their colleague, and friend.

Video Games as Memorial

The interesting point of intersection here, of course, is that life is only ever “forever” after death; if Forgey were still alive, we wouldn’t be considering WB Games’ DLC as a “tribute,” or a “memorial” at all. It would have a completely different meaning, and we may even ask whether it would exist in the first place.

Examples of living people aestheticized in video games for some purpose – players from hockey leagues, contestants from reality TV series, and so forth – of course exist, but they exist for reasons and purposes that are very different. Many of these motives share a common concern for money. It is only in his death that Michael Forgey can be transformed into an aestheticized object in a video game without us thinking of licenses, trademarks, and copyrights – and making money.

Wait, but this DLC is being sold, isn’t it?

The essential point of contention with this release is its function as a transmitter, as a reward, of charity between the target of charity and those that are paying for it. In being transformed into not only a vessel of charity, but also into memorial, the object at hand becomes nigh-impervious to criticism – even, as we all have to unfortunately admit, the DLC is in fact pay to win!

As Eurogamer notes,

Forthog will on occasion appear to one-hit kill whichever enemy the player character is up against. Think the Mysterious Stranger from the Fallout series.

There is, of course, a logical explanation for the DLC being this way. Such a memorial, for all intents and purposes, is supposed to elevate rather than desecrate the object of memorialization: What could be possibly more elevating than being immortalized as a saving angel, the deciding factor between a player’s life and death? The intention here is obvious, as are the connotations – that Forgey was a reliable, charitable person that could be trusted in times of need. I do not think this sentiment is at all lost even upon the most cynical observer!

The problem, if there is one, exists in the execution, the form of the reward object: An AAA video game makes for an uncertain, suspect memorial. Shadow of War was not built as a tribute to Forgey from the ground up. The idea of permanent multimedia, the idea of immortalizing something in this increasingly, rapidly uncontrollable digital age is a question worth posing. I can’t be the only one to think that while the is earnest, claiming that “Forthog Orcslayer Forever / Nothing Will Be Forgotten” rings a little bit hollow given that on the other side of the fence, Ubisoft is taking away paid-for maps from Rainbow 6: Siege.

This realization brings out the cynics, even as we have to absolutely concede that normally, we aren’t in the least bit picky about the archival quality of, say, a painting done in the memory of a deceased person. Permanence or archival quality are not the problem here. In the case of the painting, after all, we never have to worry about WB Games – or Steam, for that matter – shutting the servers or patching (or god forbid, nerfing) Forthog out.

The Parameters of the Charitable Act

The fact that the vessel of this charitable act comes in the form of a P2W microtransaction does make painfully visible to us the parameters of the charitable act. I am fairly certain this DLC is responsible for several world-firsts.

Of course, the vessel does not automatically make the act of charity suspect, but its features bring with it so many implications – ethical, social, corporate – that it does by my estimation cast the act itself under scrutiny. In the vessel becoming so visible, and by attracting questions of context, the vessel by extension starts to erode the act itself. It is not simply the questionable features of the charitable act, laid out later, that allow in criticism.

I think it is worthwhile to remember – and this DLC is a great reminder – that the act of remembrance is always a slippery slope (as we noted above, it is for the living, not for the dead), as is charity – in equal measures. We might perhaps remind ourselves of the historical effigies being torn down in the United States right now.

One stance to take, of course, is that no act of charity can be by default under suspicion. It is a commonly shared conception not to doubt the motives of charity, for this can dissuade those acting charitably for reasons that can be uncovered as dubious. In other words, charity is seen as a value in itself, no matter the intention or the motive. For the sake of this article, we cannot possibly hold this point of view. We also cannot hold the view that asking questions of legitimacy casts those asking questions illegitimate in itself. These views would simply render this discussion impossible.

Neither is the point of this article to ask, say: what kind of matching contribution, or percentage, should Monolith move to make? What is the suitable range of percentage, or a dollar projection, that we should demand from WB Games? What makes for a suitable charity, or a good cause?

If we were to reach this point of discussion – trying to define a “right” against a perceived “wrong,” or vice versa, or to “better” a cause that is already good (in this case, the specification of a “proper” type of charity, or memorial, or remembrance) there are always going to be ways in that will mark certain checkboxes, and fail to satisfy each and every party involved. Deliberate misunderstandings and strawmen begin to enter the fray.

In pursuing that discussion, there exists a much more, dangerous slippery slope of questions still: Who, or what position, is worthy of such a public remembrance? An animator? An intern? Or only leaders and rulers? What if Forgey were still but a tester, like he originally was during the years 2003-2007?

Are you allowed to profit off of a good gesture, or is true good only allowed to be non-profit? These questions are almost impossible to answer. But it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking them; legitimate inquiry that produces legitimate results sometimes relies on an uncertain, i.e. illegitimate basis.

The Dimensions of Charity

In addition to the vessel of charity itself, the second most obvious suspicion to talk about are the spatiotemporal extensions of the act of charity. Shadow of War unlocks on the 10th of October 2017, leaving a period of just 82 days for players to make their mark – should they not pre-order the game, that is.

Furthermore, given the obvious legal ramifications of charity in today’s bureaucratic world, one can laud Monolith merely for making this charity happen, end results notwithstanding. But to say that these ramifications do not diminish from the effectiveness of the campaign would be foolish; after all, according to the smallest print on the video,

“Donations will be made on purchases from any 1 of the 50 U.S. or D.C. (but excluding purchases made from AL, HI, IL, MA, MS and SC). Void where prohibited by law. Your purchase is not tax deductible.”

This means – as confirmed on Twitter by Monolith – that only United States citizens of 50 specified states can take part.

We must also look at the target of charity: In this case, the proceeds go to the “Forgey family” – the family of just one developer, giving the whole ordeal a classic GoFundMe vibe. It would be one thing to trust WB Games to kick forward a certain percentage to a cancer charity, or a non-profit, which assures and has safekeeping mechanisms and is beholden to certain failsafes. If you can’t trust a video game company to pay their taxes, how can we possibly trust them to be charitable?

In this iteration of charity, we are once again reminded, above all, of the imperfect state of the US healthcare system, which can put enormous weight on families should their primary breadwinner happen to pass away.

The Orcish Parade

This DLC is jumping on so many bandwagons at the same time, that it creates a full parade of its own. Here are a few of them:

  • P2W
  • microtransactions
  • pre-ordering
  • rewards for charity
  • regional restrictions

The first three trends are familiar to us all; the fourth is similarly so, but perhaps registers less often. The mention of tax deductibles above allows us to permeate that point of note. We have become increasingly accustomed to being rewarded somehow for our charity.

In this case, the DLC is not only the vessel of charity, but also its reward. You’re essentially paying for a product, and the charity aspect is a plus. The most obvious, and perhaps the biggest reason for this trend, is the great prominence of Humble Bundle. Their way of doing business has in very certain terms twisted our conception of charity and patronage. Some of us have become accustomed to receiving something in exchange for their charity.

I do not believe this to be charity in the ordinary sense, for as soon as charity is traded for a reward, we begin to ask for our rights in regards to the reward being received. I do not believe this to be a mistaken demand.

Worth and Worthlessness

In fact, let’s ask a question that is even more to the point: Did Forgey’s illness put so much pressure on his family, that even as an executive producer, he was put in a financially compromised position?

Are the profits from this charity in addition to the percentage paid as license fees for allowing the use of his likeness, or is such a percentage – such a right – forfeited on the premise of the word “charity”? Or did Forgey simply sign off his looks to WB Games for perpetuity, allowing Monolith to use his face for profit as long as they wish?

If I were to guess, Mikey and Monolith don’t see things this way. If we were to ask them, I wager the response would probably be incredulous; we would probably get answers ranging from, “Mikey wanted this,” “We didn’t talk about money.” You didn’t, but we do.

Perhaps the most damaging point of all is the implication of this DLC that Mikey is not already immortalized by his above contributions to video games, that it it is the act of others that legitimises his legacy? What do we make of the moment, then, when players are no longer “saved by the legendary Forthog Orcslayer”? When Shadow of War is finally longer available for purchase, when we no longer have a computer to play it on? Or when no-one simply plays the game? Is this when the legend of Forthog also ends?

To add insult to injury, WB Games has chosen not to proactively ensure the success of this charity, i.e., by redirecting a percentage of their profits. Instead, the company leaves the act of charity completely up to the potential customer.

Business Ethics and PR

All of the above functions, for me, to underline the broad, Mordor-wide gulf between business ethics and actual good. The release of this DLC is palatable to WB Games only because it has no active effect on the company’s bottom line. If it did, it would be at once at odds with stakeholders, stockholders, owners, etc. Against this backdrop, a charitable DLC (that would not have existed in the first place, if not for the death of a real person) begins more and more to look like cynical opportunism aimed at generating a diversion and a modicum of goodwill.

When this fact is positioned against the marketing reality of this game, things begin to unravel. Shadow of War has been on the receiving end of a prolonged whipping in the media. Would this DLC have existed, if not for the negative press? Would Forgoth exist without autocratic pedophile moderators; microtransactions for a single-player game that transform into p2w online; ridiculously cynical corporate marketing tie-ins?

It seems to me the first task of today’s PR (as we have increasingly witnessed in the political discourse of today) is not to repent, or repair, but to redirect. This encapsulates the way business, as ethics-free zone as there exists in our society, operates only and purely on the basis of the limits and the extents of bureaucracy and common law, and only when compelled to adhere to them from the outside. In such an environment, PR works to make the sociopathological behaviour of the company simply seem as palatable as possible to the customer.

As palatable as possible. Which is not very tasty, in this case. Believing that this DLC is not an attempt at redefining and reframing the discussion surrounding Shadow of War’s public perception seems altogether futile. It is not “just” a memorial, or “just” a charitable act. It is so, so much more. And even if it was “just” that, we’d still need to look at what good it does, for whom, for what reason, and in what way. We cannot be embedded only in one part of the discussion, leaving other crucial ethical elements out of the equation.

The Legacy DLC

I do have, fortunately, a positive note to leave on: One person wins no matter what. That person is Michael Forgey. We now all share in the knowledge of a person who was helpful, artistic, and creative, a man that played in a band that opened for Testament and Death Angel. In that respect, despite all its flaws, Monolith’s move has served its purpose, and introduced the man to potentially millions of people. Those responsible for this had an incredibly powerful platform to dedicate to Mr. Forgey; not nearly all remembrances are this powerful, and with such potent outreach.

The intention of this article has not been to vilify that aspect of this particular act, which was almost certainly done out of good will, but terrifically hampered by the constraints set by the lack of corporate ethics, and the game’s woeful position in the marketplaces of ideas and games.

Instead, this article sought to underline how all acts, both of remembrance, and of charity, are by default suspicious, because they are acts done by someone in the name of someone. In this case, there are more than enough variables to make sure that the “Middle-earth: Shadow of War – Forthog Orcslayer” DLC is going to have a long-lasting legacy as the world’s first pre-order charity microtransaction memorial released as a calculated – though failed – attempt at trying to redirect bad PR.

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The recent Gearbox-G2A-TotalBiscuit debacle (reported on excellently at Vice’s Waypoint by Patrick Klepek over a series of news articles here, here and here) that was the result of a deal struck to officially distribute Bulletstorm via G2A, was in the offing for the longest time.

It had to happen, because the legitimate online price-race (one that has now cooled, to be frank, after several online retailers have, or are in the process of, shutting down shop) drives a portion of consumers to find the best available price every time, and every time they are caught unawares by the illegitimate practices of various services such as Cdkeys, Kinguin and the titular G2A, it is principally because of the way we are being sold games, and because of a lack of consumer education.

Therefore, such a burst of activity around this topic has been a good refresher and reminder to gamers that not all is above the board with these cd-key shops. Of course, by now it should be so very clear to all of us that anything that has the word “keys” plastered to it is morally bankrupt in the general view of the retail establishment. But it isn’t, and won’t be, not until the system changes – and that change will probably be to the worse.Gearbox-Logo.png

The thing is, the framing of Gearbox’s brush with the Bad Guys was largely from the point of view of the scorned developer, as with the help of TotalBiscuit, Gearbox navigated the situation deftly and swiftly, which had the unfortunate side effect of distorting the crux of the issue, and perhaps side-stepping other relevant questions of digital distribution that absolutely led into the intended (or unintended) result of blending questions of legitimacy with illegitimacy, and proper practice with improper practice.

Again, this is not to discount all the egregious instances of the morally bankrupt enterprise of G2A sabotaging developers – Natural Selection 2 developers Unknown Worlds suffered from such offenses as early as 2013 – especially by allowing credit card fraud to blossom. But it seems that in their willingness to jump in to avow their support of Gearbox (discounting Jim Sterling, of course), a company that has a long-running consumer-unfriendly corporate policy (remember when CEO Randy Pitchford called refunds mafia style extortion tactics”), the video games media has done us consumers something of a disservice.

Gearbox is the perfect example for this topic, because of their historical position in the video games industry. To us here at The Slowdown, the company has taken the significance, and the chief position as the very symbol of the industry-wide practices of anti-consumerism, false advertising, and corporate lies – perhaps to a larger degree than any other major video game developer in the world. Because of this fact, every move that Gearbox makes seems deeply embedded in a lineage of mistakes, a constant comedy of errors; their moves and plays beg to be called out, with past mistakes always invoked together with future ones not yet made.

Who, if not the caricaturish Randy Pitchford, would have greenlit the coincidental release of a Bulletstorm remaster, at three times the price, with that of Bayonetta‘s? Ars Technica’s Sam Machkovech brings up several salient points regarding the pros and cons of the way the remaster was ultimately sold, but the chief one remains that at the time of writing, the latter has successfully sold over 3x more copies than the former. That Bayonetta should be published by SEGA, again, seems to fit into a framework of karmic justice, slotting right in as a historical response to Gearbox’s abuse of their contracted funds for Aliens: Colonial Marines being allegedly spent on Borderlands.

Only a company so fumbling and bumbling as Gearbox can gain goodwill from this G2A debacle, finally scoring some much-needed PR Points ™ (not yet available as a micro-transfer or as an in-game currency.) In fact, only Gearbox seems to have adept enough publicity relations staff to afford a CEO so intent on sabotaging their business, year in and year out.

While Gearbox’s history of flubs may seem tangential at first, it is the company’s complete public disdain for their consumer base that serves to underline the fact that this kind of unified perception in favour of publisher conduct is ultimately untenable; instead, we must always give ourselves the chance of heaping legitimate criticism together with defense or praise. A discussion on the basis of the cult of a brand never does anyone good. Remember when Google was to not be evil? Well, they “should” be doing “the right thing” now, by dabbling here and there with military robots.

Therefore, no matter how corrupt G2A’s practice in practice is, we must not allow ourselves to lump those practices together in theory with other grey-area industry practice. We must be wary of the philosophical framing of the entirety of the discussion, which seems to currently slant in the media in a way that blurs the lines of our rights as buyers and owners of video games. No matter what harm G2A have ultimately caused to the industry, these aspects of the retail of video games remain philosophically and societally problematic in today’s inter-connected world:

  • Video game keys and retail games as “licenses,” “services,” or “subscriptions”
  • Purchasers as “licensees” or “subscribers”
  • Viewing the resale of legitimate purchases as “illegal” or “against the TOS”
  • Regional restrictions on purchases
  • Regional pricing of goods

The chief problems with G2A are undeniable; indeed, they have visibly and tangibly strong-armed publishers by first birthing a problem and then offering a solution to that problem in a way that only further benefits them, and them alone. The closest analogy is the external destabilization of a region to gain access to oil. But we, as a collective, should not be lulled into accepting the aforementioned untenable consumer positions only because the current winds of PR and news paints them in a certain light, lumping them together with other issues as a pre-digested and pre-mediated package.

Instead, we must be alarmed by how extremely easy it seems to muddle the lines between a) fraudulent resale and b) legitimate resale of keys. I understand that it is a terrifically grey area in practice, but in theory none of us should have any problems with it. I paid for it, it’s mine to sell or resell, right? It is a similarly slippery a slope to accidentally defend the industry practice of video game licensing simply because it is our primary platform of delivery and we are accustomed to the ease of use of Steam, Origin and uPlay.

But in no way are any of these platforms ultimately philosophically acceptable practices of delivery of goods in this capitalist trade society of ours. These services are the reason this problem exists in the first place; they are the reason we have been deprived of proper ownership of our goods, of material and immaterial rights, behind the veil of words such as “service” and “subscription”.

To reiterate:

We must not allow ourselves to be blinded into accepting or taking a position as a “whole” or a “sum” of positions of good and evil; that way, we will lose our rights and access to the valid resale of legitimately purchased keys, and we will lose our (intellectual) legitimate position of ownership of goods. I understand fully that some of these are already lost. But there’s more still to lose: It’s perfectly clear to me that in today’s partisan world, societal, political and technological ideas are clumped together in bunches of ideas, they come in political colours, and become defensible or indefensible on the mere basis of the lines that are drawn.

Whether this has been the aim of the media that contributed to this recent spur of publicity on the topic, whether it has simply been the side-effect of having to paint the stories in a certain light for clicks and views, or whether it makes the most sense to frame the discussion intellectually between only good and evil, we need remind ourselves constantly, consistently, and vigilantly, of our positions, to retain the proper accuracy of our views, and to de-bundle and de-package our viewpoints, and ultimately take ownership of what we feel is right and wrong.

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Stranded Review

Note: This review was written entirely sans PR materials and research; ordinarily, we pride ourselves on diligence and copious amounts of background research, but due to the game’s clear intentions and sensibilities, chose to approach this review differently.

The single worst thing about adventure games – the one aspect that is also almost wholly unique to them – is being stuck. (Worse still, in fact, is knowing when you’re badly stuck.) For players, after all, adventure games are all about progression; for developers, they are all about managing it.

The genre on the whole is a curious balancing act of controlling tempo, pacing, difficulty, balance, and the flow of information.

Peter Moorhead’s Stranded, then, is supposed to be

“[…] a minimalist adventure game that foregoes dialogue and puzzles to focus on atmosphere, mystery, and exploration; it is both a love letter to classic point & click adventures, and an experiment with the fundamentals of the genre.“

To read the store page like the Devil does the Bible, then, according to the quote the fundamentals of adventure games are 1) dialogue, and 2) puzzles. From what I could gather, Stranded has neither of these things. Hence, it would be perfectly fair to state that Stranded is either a piss-poor adventure, or it isn’t one at all. Love letter? More like breaking up with emoji.

Perhaps more intriguingly, however, one could rather say that Stranded’s chief problem – despite its admirable wishes to subvert and experiment with genre – is that it actually encapsulates the very worst features of adventure games: Poor controls; awful interface; slow speed; and a huge focus on the player fulfilling the designer’s wishes instead of their own. Stranded is “fundamental” in the sense of ‘basic’ and “experimental” if that means ‘tentative.’

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Though Stranded’s Steam description cites dialogue and puzzles as integral to adventures, in fact, they are much more are about the dissemination and delivery of these two things, of controlling information flow in the form of storytelling (narration), as well as different types of building: 1) character-, 2) world-, and 3) event-building.

Every adventure game, after all, is about being ‘stranded,’ if you will – just think of classic games like Monkey Island, King’s Quest, et cetera. Almost all games and game concepts, both good and bad, are introduced to us in medias res; the difference between good and bad here is often how well the introduction is done, really. So much of the very point in video games is for players to learn the ropes, their surroundings, characters, events, and so forth.

In the adventure game genre, this becomes a series of gated events and actions. That’s how adventure games work: Exposition as reward for player actions (as in, solving puzzles, talking, etc.). Where does this leave Stranded, then?

It is a shipwreck, an aircrash, a disaster. It is the antithesis of everything I want from an adventure game. The slow, unrelenting crawl of its protagonist; the clunky movement confined entirely to the x/y-axes; its no-interface approach, its poorly designed hotspots, its forced extra clicks of the mouse. The sins of this experiment are far too vast and numerous to even list.

Stranded is opaque, oblique, meandering, and extremely limited.

Undoubtedly, it is also beautiful, very beautiful, and sounds fantastic (the OST, by Joe “Stux” Edwards, is available on Bandcamp, and is highly recommended listening). Every time you play Stranded, its landscape changes – that much I could gather. But even when something moderately interesting – that is, new – happened, whatever little agency I had in this little game amounted to absolutely nothing. The game has no sense of urgency, danger, or interest, nothing like The Dig, an obvious parallel, which feels like you were constantly fighting for your lives, and your survival.

But perhaps this is the point. Perhaps Stranded is all about being stuck.

That something so clearly ambitious, and artistic, should also be so infuriating, bland, and all-around awful, is a real head-scratcher to me. How do you even approach it? Some reviews end up investigative, focusing on finding out the ‘truth’ of a game. Some are interpretative; some are more descriptive, and some are prescriptive.

Reviewing Stranded? There was nothing to be done here. No mode of review – other than simply not reviewing it – that I can think of works on this game. Discussing the game amounts to nothing, as I can not in any sense claim to have understood it. There’s nothing to interpret, and as such, nothing to say. I have only experienced Stranded, and my time with it was of irritation, annoyance, and boredom. From this experience, I have gained nothing.

I’m stuck – a few Steam trading cards richer, that’s all – and I know it.

Stranded is available on Steam, and from the developer’s website.

Access to the game was provided for the purpose of this review.

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United Front Games, best known for their atmospheric Hong Kong city brawler Sleeping Dogs (2012), is rumoured to be closing down.

The weight of this rumour is not slight, and deserves all the extra attention we can bring to it – true or not, at this point in time we don’t yet know for sure – because, once again, the string of events that led us here reads like yet another example of Konami-like profound executive failure.

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But, to start from a beginning. According to United Front producer Dan Sochan, Sleeping Dogs – which never quite lived down its reputation as a True Crime game – actually started out as the original game Black Lotus, which was then subsequently bought and slated by Activision to be the next part of their True Crime game series as True Crime: Hong Kong. After the publisher lost faith in the game’s market prospects, with Activision’s Eric Hirshberg noting in 2011 that “The finished product was not going to be at the top of that genre,” it was ultimately poached (sans the True Crime moniker) from Activision by Square Enix, who would then release the game as Sleeping Dogs in 2012.

After purchasing the studio, the western branch of Square Enix, US and UK both, seemed equally enamoured with the project. Mike Fischer, US president of Square Enix, exclaimed in 2012,

Obviously the game was originally True Crime: Hong Kong from Activision. I can’t speak to why they let that go. I’m not going to speculate on their behalf. All I know is, they’ve gotta be crazy. Because this game is just fantastic.

Square Enix UK London general manager, Lee Singleton had also told Gamasutra that “When we first saw and got our hands on the game we fell in love with it,” describing the game as a “great big bucket of fun.”

At some point – possibly when Tomb Raider, Hitman and Sleeping Dogs all three “failed” to “effectively” (Square Enix lingo, not mine) perform up to internal sales projections (classically the moment when @JimSterling noted “Mainstream videogames have officially gone wrong“) – things turned sour. It doesn’t take much of a conspiracy theorist to imagine a power struggle between Square Enix Japan and the ROW offices, so I don’t doubt corporate cultures had a clash of it.

But let’s be real, projections aside: What was a once-canned game had already sold a total of 1.75 million copies in 2013, and has only added further millions to it since via Steam sales and re-releases on the newer consoles. Even disregarding these millions of sales, let’s take the game once and for all for what it was and still is:

A thrilling success.

After prolonged development hell, several publishers, studio migrations, and brand changes, getting a game out is a nice surprise; getting a good game out is nothing short of a miracle. Where were the Square Enix bonuses to United Front staff? The raises? The doubled budget to go all-in on a sequel that would have undoubtedly performed better than the first game in the series?

Well, what United Front Games came to receive from Square Enix was a fuck you. That’s why the news of their closure stings so very much. First, they were punished with Triad Wars, an asset flip Facebook version of Sleeping Dogs (trust me on this one – I was part of the beta), and later the Early Access game SMASH+GRAB, no longer purchasable on Steam at the time of writing. Today, on the 19th of October, United Front actually announced refunds were going to be retroactively available to all purchasers.

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And then they were gone.

Truthfully, Activision’s decision was nothing sensational at the time. They were not wrong in their prognosis – just the manner it was conducted in. They were absolutely right to assess that a new True Crime game would have meant little to the gaming world pre-launch, as the series had only just spiralled out of control with the high-stakes sequel, True Crime: New York City, flopping enormously despite its Hollywood cast and grand plans for subsequent parts. It must have been a bitter pill to swallow. The brand was tarnished, and could have easily doomed True Crime: Hong Kong to mediocre reviews from the get-go.

They couldn’t have known the game was actually good, right?

When the game did come out, players and critics were quickly taken in by an engagingly violent torrent of story, one that borrowed artistic direction and a touch of the absolute fearlessness of Kane & Lynch (another series that both Eidos and later Square Enix could not have misunderstood much worse) and exciting, fast-paced gameplay that displayed great understanding of how to work around the lulls and pacing problems of the Grand Theft Auto series.

Despite being a mature game for a mature audience, it performed admirably in a sales space that doesn’t much care for that. After many rounds of successful, well-crafted DLC, and a console remastered “Definitive Edition” of the game, what other sensible avenue was there other than a big-budget multi-platform sequel?

What could have been, if not for Square Enix’s awful decision to go with Triad Wars instead? They knew the game was good – and ultimately failed to act upon it. In the words of my partner, @nabeelburney, one just has to wonder whether the game “[…] was a mistake, or a stipulation, or an inevitability.” With Team Bondi’s Whore of the Orient cancelled, Mafia III having been in development for the longest time, and with Watch_Dogs 2 carrying only modest expectations, Sleeping Dogs II could have easily occupied, even dominated the marketplace for a good while right now. At this very juncture.

I think we all expected it – especially after Triad Wars. The fact itself, that United Front Games is being closed down, is no surprise. United Front being treated with both executive malice and incompetence at two different major publishers? No surprise. The neverending depths of terrible misjudgement in the video game industry? No surprise there.

The surprise is the game. For Sleeping Dogs to have beaten so many odds along the way to become a beloved game – one that deserved to become a franchise of its own, and finally shed that ugly association to True Crime – is a testament to the development team. In the eyes of history, unfortunately, Sleeping Dogs may at some point in time begin to look like a happy accident. Big players. The little engine that could. Etc etc. The elements are there.

But for United Front Games, it was nothing of the sort: It was pure perseverance, dogged vision, and constant – consistent – battle. If this is truly goodbye to United Front… then I need to share this final thought: It’s entirely possible for a competent, all-new team at Square Enix to push an excellent if thoroughly corporate Sleeping Dogs II out on the basis of the first game. We, then, should never forget the very real cost at which it came to be.

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We’re all huge fans of the BioShock franchise here on The Slowdown, but we’ve also had our fair share of the game series. We awaited each game, lathering ourselves with collector’s editions (remember the original Big Daddy statue that would crack in half?), with nightly chats about lore and story, and even with articles written on the game here in the archives. They are some really good games. Some guy named John Lanchester once said somewhere that Bioshock “was the first game he played that had the ambitions of a novel” and I find that very damn agreeable.

It’s just that no-one in particular was looking forward to The Bioshock Collection in the traditional sense. We’re not console gamers, so they just weren’t in the view, or on the horizon. The games are bygones for Ken Levine, too, who had claimed the games took such a toll on him that he thought sequels would make him “[…] lose my mind, and my marriage.”

We too were arguably done with these anomalously nihilistic, brutal, and taxing video games, perhaps even with additional future games in the series, the idea of which has soured somewhat with Levine’s surprise dissolution of Irrational Games as it were in 2014. With the joint release of the remastered versions of BioShock 1 and 2 on the PC, however, I have been made a fool.

I’ve been roped to care for something that was supposed to be both free and carefree.

You see, when the remasters were announced, it was revealed that existing owners of BioShock 1 and 2 would receive the PC remasters for free. I was pleased to find myself among this lucky crowd. Being the sucker that I am (for free, as in free beer) I downloaded the games on Steam and then proceeded to spend two days figuring and configuring out how to make them work, tirelessly jabbing at the game’s .ini files and Nvidia’s driver panel with various concoctions and conflagrations to come to some sort of workable conclusion.

Monitor out of range, resolution issues, wrong aspect ratios, popping textures and models, lighting problems, abject stuttering, poor performance and terrible configuration options – I had all that and more. Tiny FOV. Mouse acceleration. It’s amore. Suddenly, however, there was light at the end of the tunnel: An announcement of incoming fixes, promising to address almost all the major issues with the two games:

  • General Mouse Fixes, including better Mouse Smoothing, Sensitivity and Acceleration Options in BioShock;
  • Additional Speaker Mode Options in Audio Settings in BioShock;
  • Improved FoV Slider Options in BioShock, BioShock 2 and Minerva’s Den;
  • Support for 21:9 display ratios in BioShock, BioShock 2 and Minerva’s Den;
  • General stability improvement to reduce instances of game crashes.

This announcement, of course, was posted on the 20th of September. It’s now the 6th of October, with 2½ weeks of radio silence since the announcement. The BioShock Steam forums – solely dedicated to the airing of feelings of despair, anguish, and anger – are a mountain of misery caked with complaint. Had I not, uh, experienced these remasters myself, reading the forums would make me have a modicum of sympathy for the developers, Blind Squirrel.

But alas, I keep saying to myself, angrily, and as if I knew it all, and so much better to boot, “These problems were already present in the original games.” I’ve muttered to myself, as well as more than one acquaintance, “Mouse acceleration is the worst feature ever implemented.” And for that I blame Blind Squirrel, 2K Games, and like whoever. Like every developer in the world. And the consoles. With a capital C.

To be made to care for what you don’t care for is a terrible thing.

I don’t know that I can properly enunciate just how demeaning it is to be taken hostage so, with these mounds of offense, furore, and complaint being imposed upon yourself. Why have I been subjected to all this outrage culture? Just how bad (as in evil) are these remasters?!? “No wonder they gave them out for free!,” someone cries out, imbued subsequently with that supremely particular sensation only sharp wit can bring that will almost certainly last for the rest of the person’s evening.

It is such a fool’s errand and such a losing battle. Should I play now, in this half-live half-dead state the two games are in, or wait longer still for fixes that might never materialize?

It makes me more than a tiny bit ill to find myself complaining about mouse acceleration out loud – it’s something that you truly want to keep to yourself in civil society, but can’t, because it just is that bad. Placing the true weight of the matters at hand on a scale – the cost (negligible, years ago), the effort (quite a bit), the potential reward (a functional game) is a joke. The only thing that is serious here is that nothing is going to give me back that little but very important portion of dignity that was stolen by these shitty remasters.

It’s easy to invoke here the sunk-cost fallacy, or the escalation of commitment, but I feel this only gives a name to the problem, not the explanation: Why should I care now, given that I didn’t before? This feeling is impossible to explain away intellectually, because it is a primal response.

Airing all this feels just right but a little bit sad. Perhaps I don’t even want to play the game any more – out of spite, maybe, or not. I don’t know. As the wise man once said, “Why don’t you play the original game?”

I don’t know.

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Pledge $25 or more

“I pirated Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island when I was a kid and I feel bad!” This reward tier instantly absolves you of all guilt and includes the Thimbleweed Park game. All subsequent tiers also include guilt absolution.

Thimbleweed Park Kickstarter campaign reward tier

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<a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/2014/11/18/quote-of-the-day-thimbleweed-park/"class='bbc_url' rel='nofollow external'>Source</a>

vrap

While most people realize that pledging [on Kickstarter] is just a pre-order in the dark, some backers feel like they are investors or game designers, working alongside the development team. If this is true and the final product doesn’t live up to the standards they’ve set up in their minds theyâll feel quite unsatisfied or worse. To avoid this type of complications, we have decided to take a different route with this campaign. We don’t want to deal with the trivial and somewhat elitist stuff like backers only forums, backers having their name in the credits, re-designing stuff in our project or going to dinner with some of the staff. [...] We respect the community and are thankful for every pledge we get but we want to create the game the way we envisioned and designed it. We would also like to concentrate all our available time to development, so if you want to support us in hope to get a great game please do so.

Ebb Software, developers of Scorn

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<a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/2014/11/14/quote-of-the-day-ebb-software/"class='bbc_url' rel='nofollow external'>Source</a>

vrap

While most people realize that pledging [on Kickstarter] is just a pre-order in the dark, some backers feel like they are investors or game designers, working alongside the development team. If this is true and the final product doesn’t live up to the standards they’ve set up in their minds they’ll feel quite unsatisfied or worse. To avoid this type of complications, we have decided to take a different route with this campaign. We don’t want to deal with the trivial and somewhat elitist stuff like backers only forums, backers having their name in the credits, re-designing stuff in our project or going to dinner with some of the staff. […] We respect the community and are thankful for every pledge we get but we want to create the game the way we envisioned and designed it. We would also like to concentrate all our available time to development, so if you want to support us in hope to get a great game please do so.

Ebb Software, developers of Scorn

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vrap

Dear #gamergate

<p>Dear #gamergate,</p>

<p>I don’t know if you’ll read this letter. I have not written to you before. We have not really spoken.</p>

<p>While your message to us has, more often than not, taken either the form (and I do not mean to belittle you for it; the matter at hand is far more complex than any single person can handle alone) of the shouting of a rhetorical exercise, copy-pasted from a database of talking points, full of debate gymnastics, smoke and mirrors, reflections, presumptions, conflations, agitations, and pot-kettle-black, I respect the things that you have said in earnest.</p>

<p>I wish I knew what they were.</p>

<p>I respect the fact that you considered video games important enough to act upon. I value your contribution to the video gaming community. I fully understand that you may feel strongly about any one particular point of contention that has arisen during #gamergate. You probably, truly, want to make things better for all of us. From this vantage point, I can even somewhat understand the sentiment of pushing forward with #gamergate in order to âcleanseâ the gaming press of its embedded flaws – personal, shared, or cultural.</p>

<p><span id="more-54200"></span></p>

<p>I see that you feel strongly about the matter. Perhaps you felt – at some point – that the ends justified the means.</p>

<p>But we <i>must </i>focus on the strife and the suffering that this witch-hunt on women is causing. Now. There is no time to waste. Please do not do or say anything you’ll come to regret later.</p>

<p>I am not saying that you are guilty of hideous criminal activity by association, or that your participation in the movement makes you a bad person outright. What you may not have realized, however, are the ways in which your presence is being both abused and misused by others, and how you may be inadvertently, unknowingly making a contribution to this abhorrent behaviour.</p>

<p>Letâs ignore, for the time being, the fact that the foundational premises perpetuated by the movement are demonstrably, fundamentally false. Letâs instead look at the purported offences; letâs say that a developer really did sleep with a journalist in exchange for coverage (even though this never happened).</p>

<p>Would this particular act, or situation, truly justify the means or the ends of this movement as they are now? Would this be a foundational, pivotal moment for a consumer-oriented movement in video games? How much punishment or reprimand should this really award to the parties in question? And even if there did exist âcollusionâ – letâs say, a mailing list for discussion, or a degree of combined, co-ordinated effort involved with the âGamers Are Deadâ series of articles – are these words really such an affront to your being and your principles so as to allow and legitimize bomb threats and the suffering of others?</p>

<p>Even if #gamergateâs premises were all true, and if #gamergate had a foundational, solid, bulletproof agenda, I do not believe any of the people under fire would come to be removed from their positions. We may, of course, see many of them quit their jobs voluntarily, or exit the business altogether, but this is a fact that you should carefully consider, as I do believe it only affirms and reaffirms the tenor regarding #gamergate that has already been established elsewhere:</p>

<p>Your participation in the movement is making private real human beings afraid, terribly afraid. Not just Twitter handles. Real people. It is making them angry, terribly angry. They are both afraid and angry that you are, actively or passively, contributing to their constant misery.</p>

<p>Dear #gamergate,</p>

<p>Whether or not a #gamergate member condones the harassment (clearly you do not), whether or not s/he participates in the movement <i>earnestly</i> and <i>innocently</i>, s/he remains firmly entrenched and embedded in a screaming, swelling, yelling lynchmob that is asking for the heads of innocent people, 24/7, no rest, no sleep, only fear, and then using these heads as props for the aims and goals of the movement.</p>

<p>You may not be the one asking for blood outright, but youâre still watching this very real lynching from the crowd – maybe even yelling words of encouragement, maybe silently nodding from the stands.</p>

<p>Maybe you even thought, for a moment, that she or he deserved it? Maybe you did. Maybe you didnât. No matter – you were still a participant. It doesn’t matter who the main executioner is; the target was already dead, having suffered a death by a thousand cuts. Maybe you never came to realize how every single new person standing in the crowd adds more fuel for the fire, more false justification to the actions of those that are perpetuating these evil, hideous acts.</p>

<p>Believe you me – they see you. They want you. Without you, they have nothing. âSee, these people are siding with our actions! They too think they deserved it! We have the numbers on our side!â</p>

<p>Your presence – your number! – in the movement is being used as justification for these acts. While being used as justification is not direct encouragement, it still caused people to act more; harder; faster; tougher; bolder! Even the most good-intentioned tweet – a minor criticism, or an aside – can contribute to the lynchmob mentality; by now, weâve seen how this hashtag can turn any moment into a stressful skirmish, an attack, an assault, with people upon people piling up on folks. Whatâs worse, this groundswell can take aim – in addition to the more prominent, more public targets – both actively and passively at <strong>private individuals earnestly trying to do whatâs best for video games</strong>.</p>

<p>I hope that you will consider whether your participation in the #gamergate movement, whether it was a tweet, a forum post, or a comment on a blog, has at any point contributed, in some way, to the encouragement, justification, cover-up or participation in the harassment of others. In innocent suffering.</p>

<p>As long as you say #gamergate does not condone harassment, #gamergate will never do a thing to stop it.</p>

<p>Could you do something to stop it? Probably not. Nothing you do or say will stop these monsters.</p>

<p>But you can step out yourself. You can excuse yourself, and nothing bad will come out of it. There will be no backwards steps. The points of contention, the issues that are real – ethics in journalism – they will not go away.</p>

<p>What are privacy, safety, and well-being worth? Whether it was the âGamers Are Deadâ articles, or someone else that said or did something that offended you, #gamergate, offended you as a person, offended your ethics, your identity, #gamergate, I want you to consider whether all this toxic air, this in-fighting, this harassment and above all this vast, god-awful collateral damage – active and passive – on so many private persons simply doing their job is fair and okay, and whether your presence in the lynchmob is having an adverse effect on the well-being of others.</p>

<p>It’s not too late to pull back and pull out.</p>

<p>Please don’t do or say anything you’ll come to regret later.</p>

<p>Best,<br /><a href="http://twitter.com/martynzachary" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">@martynzachary</a></p>

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<a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/2014/10/16/dear-gamergate/" class='bbc_url' rel='nofollow external'>Source</a>

vrap

Harassment Is Not Okay

<p>Over the past two months, many video game developers and journalists have had to wake up and go to sleep bothered, pestered, insulted, and threatened – or worse: Phil Fish, and especially women like Brianna Wu, Zoe Quinn, and Anita Sarkeesian have had great reason to be fearful of their privacy, safety, and well-being, after being targeted with threats of death.</p>

<p>This is <strong>wrong</strong> and needs to stop. Period.</p>

<p>No matter what you think of their allegiances, your allegiances, or my allegiances, we all know video games are far and beyond toxic enough that game developers have to <a href="http://www.polygon.com/2012/10/17/3515178/the-league-of-legends-team-of-scientists-trying-to-cure-toxic">institute specific behavioural programs</a> to combat the issue. The fact is, our favourite brand of entertainment can bring out the worst in us – especially behind nicknames, pseudonyms, and avatars.</p>

<p>There exists a miserable undercurrent of hateful, racist, misanthropic, even flat-out psychopathic behaviour that goes on in the chats, the forums, and the waiting rooms of video games all the time – day in, day out. We all know this is ultimately not okay, but we let it slide. After all, it doesn’t quite invade our personal space. Ultimately, you can always tune out at the end of the day.</p>

<p>For some, however, the rise of #gamergate has taken that freedom away. It has broken the walls between, and let all this toxicity in, organized, distilled, focused. I don’t think we quite realized how bad it was – not until it crept up, both with false pretences and seemingly good intentions, and allowed a full-on troll brigade into the offices, living rooms, and bedrooms of your least and most favourite journalists and developers.</p>

<p>Suddenly, it has greenlighted harassment, hate speech, and pure misanthropy – with the addition of all the borderline-illegal, borderline-criminal tools that are to be found in the seedy underbelly of the internet.</p>

<p>No matter what you think is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about video game journalism and development right now, it is not okay for a private person (again: no matter who) to have their private space so profoundly molested, and so thoroughly eradicated. We need to agree on that. It is not right for a private person to suffer so much undue abuse, so much victim-blaming, victim-shaming, and so much flat-out inhuman treatment.</p>

<p>No matter what you think about ‘the issue’, it is not okay for a human being to go to sleep fearful of their safety and security. Does it happen? Yes, everywhere in the world, for a multitude of reasons: war, illness, poverty, famine. Is it okay? No. It is not okay. Helping contribute to this list of suffering should make you reconsider your priorities. If you have found yourself part of a movement (like #gamergate) that aligns itself with such behaviour, then you need to reconsider your allegiances.</p>

<p>You are not that person.</p>

<p>As you are probably aware, the international community of video game reviewers is by all means not very large. Yet video game journalism, in its entirety, is much, much better than ever. And still, good, skilled reviewers – and reviews – are damn hard to find. What does this mean? It means that those few currently writing for you are passionate, motivated, fantastic people. People that are utterly bummed out by this troll brigade. People that were doing their best. Joyless in this already-thankless business.</p>

<p>Many of us, including myself, are afraid, tired, worn out, and worst of all – emotionally burned out, tuning out, and thinking about getting out. Fear, anger, emotional bribery, constraint, enforcement, and manipulation – these are not things that <em>good</em> reviews are made of.</p>

<p>Video game journalists are people too, and deserve to be treated as such. Let’s give them that. Not more, not less. Not asking for silky gloves or special treatment. Those were never on the table in the first place.</p>

<p>Just people.</p>

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<a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/2014/10/15/harassment-is-not-okay/" class='bbc_url' rel='nofollow external'>Source</a>

vrap

On the Rise of Youtube

<p>Giggle!</p>

<ol>

<li>You watch Long Plays to experience a game without playing it</li>

<li>You watch Let’s Plays to be entertained</li>

<li>You watch video reviews to be spoiled</li>

</ol>

<p>Thesis: None of these three things are particularly conducive to actually selling a product.</p>

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<a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/2014/10/14/on-the-rise-of-youtube/" class='bbc_url' rel='nofollow external'>Source</a>

vrap

On the Rise of Youtube

Giggle!

  1. You watch Long Plays to experience a game without playing it
  2. You watch Let’s Plays to be entertained
  3. You watch video reviews to be spoiled

Thesis: None of these three things are particularly conducive to actually selling a product.

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vrap

<p><b>The Samaritan Paradox</b>, a relatively new commercial AGS adventure game by <a href="http://faravidinteractive.wordpress.com/">Faravid Interactive</a>âs Peter Ljunkvist, published by <a href="http://www.screen7.co.uk/">Screen 7</a>, is a story about a story. A refreshingly Swedish one, too. The gameâs protagonist, Ord Salomon – âordâ is Swedish for âwordâ – is a shut-in PhD student of literature, rotting away at a failing thesis, with worried friends, until he chances upon the daughter of a prominent dead Swedish author.</p>

<p><span class='embed-youtube' style='text-align:center; display: block;'><iframe class='youtube-player' type='text/html' width='640' height='390' src='http://www.youtube.com/embed/OI93zkGJ89A?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent' frameborder='0'></iframe></span></p>

<p>Salomon, a hobbyist cryptographer obsessive-compulsive about signs, instantly begins to solve the apparent secrets contained within the dead author’s final work, “The Last Secret,” which also functions as the key to the writer’s complicated relationship with his daughter and family. And to a large inheritance that could also help Ord repair his finances.</p>

<p>As is obvious from the get-go, The Samaritan Paradox has all the makings of a splendid detective game; it has a beautiful look and feel, with expertly crafted (especially animated) pixel graphics, and a highly under-used locale in the cold reaches of the Nordic to boot. A philological adventure – who would have wagered?<span id="more-54116"></span></p>

<h3><b>The Good Samaritan</b></h3>

<p>Iâll be the first to let you all in on a little secret that will help make the right kind of decision for yourselves: The Samaritan Paradox is very much two games in one, in many, many ways. Some of them are really good, and some of them bad.</p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-01.jpg" rel="lightbox[54116]"><img class="alignleft wp-image-54122 size-thumbnail" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-01-160x120.jpg" alt="The Samaritan Paradox 01" width="160" height="120" /></a>For some, then, The Samaritan Paradox could present a welcome return, a real tangible throwback to the âclassicâ Sierra era, a game that meticulously replicates those ideals – of failure states, hidden hotspots, pixel hunts, and esoteric, arcane puzzles that will leave you stumped for days.</p>

<p>For those of you that play adventure games specifically for their puzzles, The Samaritan Paradox should no doubt be moved higher on your Steam wishlist. Make no mistake – we are talking about a beautiful full-length adventure, with a great many diligently rendered locations, fabulous pixel animations (<a href="http://faravidinteractive.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/on-animation/">check out some at the Faravid blog</a>!), great portraiture, and above-average voice acting and background music from Lannie Neely.</p>

<p>Perhaps the protagonistâs unhealthy interest in cryptography should work as something or a warning, or a deterrent, to anyone hoping to play the game; perhaps it bears mention, too, that the game’s very first puzzle is solved by using none other than <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periodic_table">the periodic table</a>!</p>

<p>Heard enough? The Samaritan Paradox is available now, on <a href="http://store.steampowered.com/app/283180/">Steam,</a> on <a href="http://fireflowergames.com/shop/the-samaritan-paradox/">FireFlower Games</a>, on <a href="http://www.gog.com/game/the_samaritan_paradox?pp=a93c168323147d1135503939396cac628dc194c5">GOG.com</a>, on <a href="http://www.desura.com/games/the-samaritan-paradox">Desura</a>, and on <a href="http://www.screen7.co.uk/#!/page_PremierGames">Screen 7âs website</a>. <a href="http://www.screen7.co.uk/games/download/TheSamaritanParadox_Demo.exe">A playable demo is also available</a>. If you’re still curious for more, or perhaps worried about the mention of the Sierra style, then by all means, read on, <em>choose-your-own-adventure</em> style.</p>

<h3><b>The Grand Design</b></h3>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-06.jpg" rel="lightbox[54116]"><img class="alignright wp-image-54128 size-thumbnail" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-06-160x120.jpg" alt="The Samaritan Paradox 06" width="160" height="120" /></a>The Samaritan Paradox is quite the grand design, that’s for sure. One of its major appeals is that it utilizes a curiously little-advertised <em>mise-en-abyme</em> structure, the game-within-a-game, story-within-a-story, that bridges the gap between the gameâs two layers.</p>

<p>Of course, usage of the <em>mise-en-abyme</em> is hardly new to video games per se; weâve often seen, for instance, fully functional arcade cabinets available to players to play on, like famously in both <strong>Maniac Mansion</strong> games, first in the form of Meteor Mess, and later the full Maniac Mansion in its sequel, <b>Day of the Tentacle</b>.</p>

<p>Similarly, games with several playable protagonists (like in The Samaritan Paradox), that offer deeper entry, insight, or a new perspective into the game’s narrative – are not <em>too</em> rare; after all, such changing perspectives are a fine way of accounting for the roles and functions of consciousness, and personality, to a narrative, and also operate as a fantastic way of shedding new light on the goings-ons in a genre fiction like this game.</p>

<p>Here is the but: <strong>Playable fictions are curiously, almost shamefully absent from video games</strong>. It’s actually something of a revelation that the book chapters found in The Samaritan Paradox are just that – <em>playable</em>. The usage of the ‘abyme’ here is a real display of heart and honesty to its chosen medium, and allows players to discover the dead author’s missing work in revelatory ways – via the act of play.</p>

<p>This is a meritorious point indeed, and makes The Samaritan Paradox a great new take on what is an ages-old device. Unfortunately, however, this is not the only way in which the game is two-in-one. At once, it is both highly innovative, and extremely reactionary.</p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-05.jpg" rel="lightbox[54116]"><img class="alignleft wp-image-54126 size-thumbnail" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-05-160x120.jpg" alt="The Samaritan Paradox 05" width="160" height="120" /></a>Furthermore, it also pains me to say, that however illustrious the actual structural merits of the game, the ‘abyme’ scenes are simply not as good as the rest of the game, certainly not up until their very apex. A fantastic late-game twist arrives late, far too late to save the game’s middling pacing. Even then, the twist becomes more of a convenient write-off rather than a working solution, recalling all those twists of yore that only made sense up until you started to really think about them.</p>

<p>Much like the rest of the game, then, the embedded book chapters rely too much on substandard designer logic. If possible, the fantastic sections are almost less immersive than Ord’s adventures in hard-boiled philology, as they come off as more machine-like, and perfunctory, with none of the passion for the genre, but rather with all of its great many clichés. It’s very telling that the game’s most important NPC character, Torgav, simply functions as a fact dispenser for most of the game.</p>

<p>I must ask – and this is probably bordering on unfair territory – would a renowned Swedish author (say, a Stieg Larsson) of fiction really have typed up something so clearly devoid of allegory, of allusions, and reflections, of the social ills of the day, especially when the genres of hardboiled and fantasy are so potent and popular in today’s Sweden – even when accounting for the late-game twist?</p>

<p>This is not to say that the game is <em>poorly</em> written. Nothing of the sort. Rather, the game has a fine script for a video game, with its its dialogue and characters feeling enough like fine video game folk, and only has its real ups and downs, its oopsies and whoopsies, with prepositions. That’s them Swedes for you.</p>

<p>My gripe is a what-if. Although a game for grown-ups in every sense of the word, The Samaritan Paradox never quite takes a stab at that lived authenticity, never attempting to capture either the inner workings of the obsessive-compulsive Ord, or the inner workings of the dead author, or Sweden in the 1980s for that matter, beyond the Ikea furniture in Ordâs apartment, the kronor (Swedenâs pre-Euro currency), the old-fashioned button phones, and the castâs names.</p>

<p>It could have. It really could have, and comes very close at times. Ultimately, to the detriment of the experience overall, it only becomes apparent to the player very late in the game as to why Faravid Interactive sought to make this particular game, with this particular cast. And then, then, it’s simply too little, too late.</p>

<h3><b>The Bad Sheep</b></h3>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-02.jpg" rel="lightbox[54116]"><img class="alignright size-thumbnail wp-image-54123" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-02-160x120.jpg" alt="The Samaritan Paradox 02" width="160" height="120" /></a>The rest of the game’s flaws stem from its bone-headedly, purposely archaic design. Its designer, Viklund, seems happy to grind the playerâs progress to a screeching halt at any turn; to prevent any and all lateral movement, confining progress to a single, narrow path, and to force chains of actions that have little meaning for the overarching story.</p>

<p>Just a mere glance at <a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/tag/wadjet-eye-games/">Wadjet Eyeâs recent output</a> will reveal a massive difference in which players are treated; here, itâs entirely possible for players to miss the right hotspot in a timed sequence with just a pixel or two – five, ten, fifteen times in the row.</p>

<p>This fact alone makes the game feel dated – no need to refer to the game’s 1984 setting. As much as these <a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/tag/ags/">AGS </a>adventures hope to replicate the early 1990s feeling of the classic era, much of the magic of being stuck is now gone. We all have so many games now. I can no longer spend 6 months stuck on a voyage in <strong>The Secret of Monkey Island</strong>, or two years with the goat in <strong><span class="st">Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars</span></strong>.</p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-03.jpg" rel="lightbox[54116]"><img class="alignleft size-thumbnail wp-image-54124" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-03-160x120.jpg" alt="The Samaritan Paradox 03" width="160" height="120" /></a>For me, the best portion of adventure games is <a href="http://www.gamasutra.com/view/news/189266/The_technique_LucasArts_used_to_design_its_classic_adventure_games.php">the free flow of movement, action, and progress </a>from one location to another, never spending too much shut-in, locked-up, or walled-up. In The Samaritan Paradox, the player will often be confined to just one location – or even just one <i>room</i> – entirely stopping progress until a series of actions have been committed down to a tee.</p>

<p>Unfortunately, with the gameâs poor hotspots, awful signposting, and nonexistent hand-holding, itâs often hard to gauge just exactly what the game wishes from the player. All one can really do here is chastise the gameâs testers for failing to put more pressure on some of these egregious points – like, why should all pathways and hotspots be so minuscule – doors, ladders, openings, roads?</p>

<p>Itâs not just that the game’s puzzles are old-fashioned. They’re puzzles for the sake of puzzles. I actually wished the game would have excused them with Ord’s obsessive-compulsive relationship with cryptography, just that one time. Unfortunately, I can probably count the number of real-world puzzles on one hand. Even those that made a modicum of sense seemed far too beyond the realm of possibility, far too opportune, too coincidental.</p>

<p>Just to illustrate that Iâm not alone with my feelings, nearly half of the gameâs players on Steam found the second real puzzle (2nd!!) too taxing a chain of events for, as only 55 % were able to soldier on after that particular point. To add insult to injury, even the game’s interface interfered with the puzzling, with its small, text-less icons, and a pop-up inventory from hell. I can’t count the number of times that it obscured my doorways and exits. The GIF below should perfectly encapsulate all my feelings and words on the topic:</p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-Interface.gif" rel="lightbox[54116]"><img class="aligncenter size-thumbnail wp-image-54127" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/The-Samaritan-Paradox-Interface-160x120.gif" alt="The Samaritan Paradox Interface" width="160" height="120" /></a></p>

<p>Ultimately, The Samaritan Paradox is a game that makes all the right moves, and yet fails at their execution on some very basic levels. A real perfect flawed gem of a game.</p>

<p><strong>The Samaritan Paradox</strong> is available now, on <a href="http://store.steampowered.com/app/283180/">Steam,</a> on <a href="http://fireflowergames.com/shop/the-samaritan-paradox/">FireFlower Games</a>, on <a href="http://www.gog.com/game/the_samaritan_paradox?pp=a93c168323147d1135503939396cac628dc194c5">GOG.com</a>, on <a href="http://www.desura.com/games/the-samaritan-paradox">Desura</a>, and on <a href="http://www.screen7.co.uk/#!/page_PremierGames">Screen 7âs website</a>.</p>

<h3><b>Postscript</b></h3>

<p>Some additional words; a soliloquy of sorts. Curiously, at the same time I was reviewing The Samaritan Paradox, Nick Dinicola struggled with many of the same questions with <strong>Quest for Infamy</strong>, in the article “<a href="http://www.popmatters.com/post/183809-im-glad-quest-for-infamy-exists-even-if-i-dont-like-it/">I’m Glad ‘Quest for Infamy’ Exists Even if I Don’t Like It.</a>”</p>

<p>Dinicola makes a compelling case for his own approach to reviewing games with retro-style mechanics. At the heart of this issue, however, lies the classic – if I may say, eternal – Sierra-LucasArts opposition. Sierra’s games never spoke to me quite the way LucasArts’ did. I’ve always desired that continuous, fluid feeling of progress, and movement through events in time; a <em>flow</em>, in the psychological sense, from one puzzle to another, from one event to another, with increasing scope, scale, and revelation. I ached for that when I first played an adventure game, and I still want that. I desire for motivation; for interconnectedness, and for natural progress.</p>

<p>This is not to say that none of Sierra’s games had that; <strong>Gabriel Knight 1: Sins of the Fathers</strong>, for instance, remains somewhat unparalleled in that respect. Ultimately, adventure games are a harsh mistress, as the player never quite notices when things are good and right – that is the definition of <span class="st">Csikszentmihalyi</span>‘s <em>flow</em>, after all – yet anyone and everyone can, and will, spot the unnecessary placeholder, or the pacing roadblock, or the convoluted apparatus that was designed for the sole purpose of stumping the player.</p>

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<a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?a=Tf4INnK1bPY:rOMD89j397s:D7DqB2pKExk"><img src="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?i=Tf4INnK1bPY:rOMD89j397s:D7DqB2pKExk" border="0"></img></a> <a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?a=Tf4INnK1bPY:rOMD89j397s:gIN9vFwOqvQ"><img src="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?i=Tf4INnK1bPY:rOMD89j397s:gIN9vFwOqvQ" border="0"></img></a> <a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?a=Tf4INnK1bPY:rOMD89j397s:V_sGLiPBpWU"><img src="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?i=Tf4INnK1bPY:rOMD89j397s:V_sGLiPBpWU" border="0"></img></a> <a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?a=Tf4INnK1bPY:rOMD89j397s:qj6IDK7rITs"><img src="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?d=qj6IDK7rITs" border="0"></img></a> <a href="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?a=Tf4INnK1bPY:rOMD89j397s:6et-BrRH4jw"><img src="http://feeds.feedburner.com/~ff/slowdays/slowdown?d=6et-BrRH4jw" border="0"></img></a>

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<a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/2014/07/25/the-samaritan-paradox-review/" class='bbc_url' rel='nofollow external'>Source</a>

vrap

The Samaritan Paradox, a relatively new commercial AGS adventure game by Faravid Interactive’s Peter Ljunkvist, published by Screen 7, is a story about a story. A refreshingly Swedish one, too. The game’s protagonist, Ord Salomon – ‘ord’ is Swedish for ‘word’ – is a shut-in PhD student of literature, rotting away at a failing thesis, with worried friends, until he chances upon the daughter of a prominent dead Swedish author.

Salomon, a hobbyist cryptographer obsessive-compulsive about signs, instantly begins to solve the apparent secrets contained within the dead author’s final work, “The Last Secret,” which also functions as the key to the writer’s complicated relationship with his daughter and family. And to a large inheritance that could also help Ord repair his finances.

As is obvious from the get-go, The Samaritan Paradox has all the makings of a splendid detective game; it has a beautiful look and feel, with expertly crafted (especially animated) pixel graphics, and a highly under-used locale in the cold reaches of the Nordic to boot. A philological adventure – who would have wagered?

The Good Samaritan

I’ll be the first to let you all in on a little secret that will help make the right kind of decision for yourselves: The Samaritan Paradox is very much two games in one, in many, many ways. Some of them are really good, and some of them bad.

The Samaritan Paradox 01For some, then, The Samaritan Paradox could present a welcome return, a real tangible throwback to the ‘classic’ Sierra era, a game that meticulously replicates those ideals – of failure states, hidden hotspots, pixel hunts, and esoteric, arcane puzzles that will leave you stumped for days.

For those of you that play adventure games specifically for their puzzles, The Samaritan Paradox should no doubt be moved higher on your Steam wishlist. Make no mistake – we are talking about a beautiful full-length adventure, with a great many diligently rendered locations, fabulous pixel animations (check out some at the Faravid blog!), great portraiture, and above-average voice acting and background music from Lannie Neely.

Perhaps the protagonist’s unhealthy interest in cryptography should work as something or a warning, or a deterrent, to anyone hoping to play the game; perhaps it bears mention, too, that the game’s very first puzzle is solved by using none other than the periodic table!

Heard enough? The Samaritan Paradox is available now, on Steam, on FireFlower Games, on GOG.com, on Desura, and on Screen 7’s website. A playable demo is also available. If you’re still curious for more, or perhaps worried about the mention of the Sierra style, then by all means, read on, choose-your-own-adventure style.

The Grand Design

The Samaritan Paradox 06The Samaritan Paradox is quite the grand design, that’s for sure. One of its major appeals is that it utilizes a curiously little-advertised mise-en-abyme structure, the game-within-a-game, story-within-a-story, that bridges the gap between the game’s two layers.

Of course, usage of the mise-en-abyme is hardly new to video games per se; we’ve often seen, for instance, fully functional arcade cabinets available to players to play on, like famously in both Maniac Mansion games, first in the form of Meteor Mess, and later the full Maniac Mansion in its sequel, Day of the Tentacle.

Similarly, games with several playable protagonists (like in The Samaritan Paradox), that offer deeper entry, insight, or a new perspective into the game’s narrative – are not too rare; after all, such changing perspectives are a fine way of accounting for the roles and functions of consciousness, and personality, to a narrative, and also operate as a fantastic way of shedding new light on the goings-ons in a genre fiction like this game.

Here is the but: Playable fictions are curiously, almost shamefully absent from video games. It’s actually something of a revelation that the book chapters found in The Samaritan Paradox are just that – playable. The usage of the ‘abyme’ here is a real display of heart and honesty to its chosen medium, and allows players to discover the dead author’s missing work in revelatory ways – via the act of play.

This is a meritorious point indeed, and makes The Samaritan Paradox a great new take on what is an ages-old device. Unfortunately, however, this is not the only way in which the game is two-in-one. At once, it is both highly innovative, and extremely reactionary.

The Samaritan Paradox 05Furthermore, it also pains me to say, that however illustrious the actual structural merits of the game, the ‘abyme’ scenes are simply not as good as the rest of the game, certainly not up until their very apex. A fantastic late-game twist arrives late, far too late to save the game’s middling pacing. Even then, the twist becomes more of a convenient write-off rather than a working solution, recalling all those twists of yore that only made sense up until you started to really think about them.

Much like the rest of the game, then, the embedded book chapters rely too much on substandard designer logic. If possible, the fantastic sections are almost less immersive than Ord’s adventures in hard-boiled philology, as they come off as more machine-like, and perfunctory, with none of the passion for the genre, but rather with all of its great many clichés. It’s very telling that the game’s most important NPC character, Torgav, simply functions as a fact dispenser for most of the game.

I must ask – and this is probably bordering on unfair territory – would a renowned Swedish author (say, a Stieg Larsson) of fiction really have typed up something so clearly devoid of allegory, of allusions, and reflections, of the social ills of the day, especially when the genres of hardboiled and fantasy are so potent and popular in today’s Sweden – even when accounting for the late-game twist?

This is not to say that the game is poorly written. Nothing of the sort. Rather, the game has a fine script for a video game, with its its dialogue and characters feeling enough like fine video game folk, and only has its real ups and downs, its oopsies and whoopsies, with prepositions. That’s them Swedes for you.

My gripe is a what-if. Although a game for grown-ups in every sense of the word, The Samaritan Paradox never quite takes a stab at that lived authenticity, never attempting to capture either the inner workings of the obsessive-compulsive Ord, or the inner workings of the dead author, or Sweden in the 1980s for that matter, beyond the Ikea furniture in Ord’s apartment, the kronor (Sweden’s currency), the old-fashioned button phones, and the cast’s names.

It could have. It really could have, and comes very close at times. Ultimately, to the detriment of the experience overall, it only becomes apparent to the player very late in the game as to why Faravid Interactive sought to make this particular game, with this particular cast. And then, then, it’s simply too little, too late.

The Bad Sheep

The Samaritan Paradox 02The rest of the game’s flaws stem from its bone-headedly, purposely archaic design. Its designer, Viklund, seems happy to grind the player’s progress to a screeching halt at any turn; to prevent any and all lateral movement, confining progress to a single, narrow path, and to force chains of actions that have little meaning for the overarching story.

Just a mere glance at Wadjet Eye’s recent output will reveal a massive difference in which players are treated; here, it’s entirely possible for players to miss the right hotspot in a timed sequence with just a pixel or two – five, ten, fifteen times in the row.

This fact alone makes the game feel dated – no need to refer to the game’s 1984 setting. As much as these AGS adventures hope to replicate the early 1990s feeling of the classic era, much of the magic of being stuck is now gone. We all have so many games now. I can no longer spend 6 months stuck on a voyage in The Secret of Monkey Island, or two years with the goat in Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars.

The Samaritan Paradox 03For me, the best portion of adventure games is the free flow of movement, action, and progress from one location to another, never spending too much shut-in, locked-up, or walled-up. In The Samaritan Paradox, the player will often be confined to just one location – or even just one room – entirely stopping progress until a series of actions have been committed down to a tee.

Unfortunately, with the game’s poor hotspots, awful signposting, and nonexistent hand-holding, it’s often hard to gauge just exactly what the game wishes from the player. All one can really do here is chastise the game’s testers for failing to put more pressure on some of these egregious points – like, why should all pathways and hotspots be so minuscule – doors, ladders, openings, roads?

It’s not just that the game’s puzzles are old-fashioned. They’re puzzles for the sake of puzzles. I actually wished the game would have excused them with Ord’s obsessive-compulsive relationship with cryptography, just that one time. Unfortunately, I can probably count the number of real-world puzzles on one hand. Even those that made a modicum of sense seemed far too beyond the realm of possibility, far too opportune, too coincidental.

Just to illustrate that I’m not alone with my feelings, nearly half of the game’s players on Steam found the second real puzzle (2nd!!) too taxing a chain of events for, as only 55 % were able to soldier on after that particular point. To add insult to injury, even the game’s interface interfered with the puzzling, with its small, text-less icons, and a pop-up inventory from hell. I can’t count the number of times that it obscured my doorways and exits. The GIF below should perfectly encapsulate all my feelings and words on the topic:

The Samaritan Paradox Interface

Ultimately, The Samaritan Paradox is a game that makes all the right moves, and yet fails at their execution on some very basic levels. A real perfect flawed gem of a game.

The Samaritan Paradox is available now, on Steam, on FireFlower Games, on GOG.com, on Desura, and on Screen 7’s website.

Postscript

Some additional words; a soliloquy of sorts. Curiously, at the same time I was reviewing The Samaritan Paradox, Nick Dinicola struggled with many of the same questions with Quest for Infamy, in the article “I’m Glad ‘Quest for Infamy’ Exists Even if I Don’t Like It.

Dinicola makes a compelling case for his own approach to reviewing games with retro-style mechanics. At the heart of this issue, however, lies the classic – if I may say, eternal – Sierra-LucasArts opposition. Sierra’s games never spoke to me quite the way LucasArts’ did. I’ve always desired that continuous, fluid feeling of progress, and movement through events in time; a flow, in the psychological sense, from one puzzle to another, from one event to another, with increasing scope, scale, and revelation. I ached for that when I first played an adventure game, and I still want that. I desire for motivation; for interconnectedness, and for natural progress.

This is not to say that none of Sierra’s games had that; Gabriel Knight 1: Sins of the Fathers, for instance, remains somewhat unparalleled in that respect. Ultimately, adventure games are a harsh mistress, as the player never quite notices when things are good and right – that is the definition of Csikszentmihalyi‘s flow, after all – yet anyone and everyone can, and will, spot the unnecessary placeholder, or the pacing roadblock, or the convoluted apparatus that was designed for the sole purpose of stumping the player.

slowdown?i=heotWrXkhdw:FzCLykQJd_Q:D7DqB2pKExk slowdown?i=heotWrXkhdw:FzCLykQJd_Q:gIN9vFwOqvQ slowdown?i=heotWrXkhdw:FzCLykQJd_Q:V_sGLiPBpWU slowdown?d=qj6IDK7rITs slowdown?d=6et-BrRH4jw

vrap

<p><a href="http://www.overthetopgames.com/">Over the Top Games</a>â new roguelike-lite, <a href="http://www.fullmojorampage.com/">Full Mojo Rampage</a>, is quite <a href="http://videogamefood.tumblr.com/post/51894982974/voodoo-soup-the-secret-of-monkey-island">the voodoo soup</a>, one that has been slowly bubbling away in Steam’s dangerous “Early Access” section since late 2013. The game, having finally reached its boiling point in May 2014, is now out, and we are about to find out just how tasty this crazy concoction is.</p>

<p>In the game, players are cute, big-headed voodoo apprentices, performing tasks for their chosen voodoo gods, Loas, by fighting against hordes of things that go bump in the night. The game is what youâd call a âtwin-stickâ shooter on the consoles. Here on The Slowdown, of course, <a title="Whereâs the Joy in Pad Demos?" href="http://www.slowdown.vg/2009/09/11/wheres-the-joy-in-pad-demos/">we don’t have to use dirty words like that</a>, as the game plays perfectly well on a mouse and a keyboard, too.</p>

<p><span class='embed-youtube' style='text-align:center; display: block;'><iframe class='youtube-player' type='text/html' width='640' height='390' src='http://www.youtube.com/embed/4DzEueInItY?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent' frameborder='0'></iframe></span></p>

<p>From the get-go, itâs clear that the gameâs gotta lotta mojo to it. As soon as the outrageous, monochrome cartoon intro starts playing, and the background music strikes the ear as both catchy and personable, players are no doubt being served with a helping that is both charming and funny. In-game, then, Full Mojo Rampage is simple and approachable on the one hand, and challenging and varied on the other.<span id="more-54062"></span></p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Full-Mojo-Rampage-05.jpg" rel="lightbox[54062]"><img class="alignleft size-thumbnail wp-image-54083" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Full-Mojo-Rampage-05-160x120.jpg" alt="Full Mojo Rampage 05" width="160" height="120" /></a>As is customary for the chosen genre, Full Mojo Rampage has instant permadeath, with each playthrough slightly different, as campaigns and levels are randomly generated based on a formula – quite expertly, too, if I may add. The layouts and structures of the campaigns vary in order, type, and length, with harder difficulty levels further ramping up the length and size of the campaigns.</p>

<p>The gameâs surprisingly mature campaign generator strings together different types of level (swamp, dungeon, cemetery, etc.) in a relatively pre-arranged order. The levels themselves have vastly different looks and feels, with some level types appearing exclusively in later campaigns.</p>

<p>The basic set-up is based on completing objectives, starting from destroying totems, and going all the way to slaying rampant ghost chickens, or protecting friendly zombies from hostile skeletons(!!). There are bottles of rum to be picked up, and skeleton skulls to steal. The objectives themselves – as wildly variable as they sound – are mostly fetch quests: First, you find your target, and then either pick it up, activate it, or destroy it.</p>

<p><img class="aligncenter size-full wp-image-54074" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Full-Mojo-Rampage-Dolls.png" alt="Full Mojo Rampage Dolls" width="640" height="128" /></p>

<p>Each level has a randomized set of potential helpful locations, too, like Loa shrines, shops, treasure rooms, and what I consider by far the most original feature to Full Mojo Rampage – Mojo Mixers. More on these later.</p>

<h2>Mix’n’Mojo</h2>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Full-Mojo-Rampage-01.jpg" rel="lightbox[54062]"><img class="alignleft wp-image-54079 size-thumbnail" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Full-Mojo-Rampage-01-160x120.jpg" alt="Full Mojo Rampage 01" width="160" height="120" /></a>These days, many PC games have great difficulty in finding a natural balance for their controls; either there is too much finesse, with far too many actions, keys and buttons for any one person to learn; or there is too little of it, making gameplay a maddeningly simple exercise of mashing the same button over and over.</p>

<p>Full Mojo Rampage, here, strikes a fine balance. Overall, its action is comprised of just three aspects: shooting enemies, avoiding damage, and utilizing two class-based voodoo spells (activated with space and right mouse button). The spells, having a delayed activation, require players to carefully choose the right spot for each usage. The harder the game gets, the more important it becomes to utilize the skills of your class carefully and effectively. This makes Full Mojo Rampageâs gameplay at once very simple to learn, yet complex to master.</p>

<p>The soup is further spiced up with collectible and upgradeable voodoo pins, consumables (health potions, multi-usable attacks or defenses, etc.) and equippable âmojosâ that improve your characterâs base stats for the duration of the campaign. Further buffs can also be acquired.</p>

<p>Here again Full Mojo Rampageâs simple, yet surprising versatility delights: The maddening scarcity of inventory space, coupled with an abundance of pick-ups, makes inventory management a very important aspect of the game. While more slots can be permanently opened up by unlocking voodoo pins, and also acquired on a campaign-basis by finding secrets in the levels, what really adds an all-new dimension to the game are its Mojo Mixers.</p>

<p>In a Mojo Mixer, players can freely combine the effects of two different mojos, turning two of them into one – and as such, saving dearly needed inventory space! Mojos can only be mixed together once, and not all mojos can be combined, either. This forces players to carefully think about which mojos they want to hold on to, which they want to mix, and which should be discarded or sold off. This whole mix, then, makes for a great inventory-based minigame unto itself!</p>

<div id="attachment_54082" style="width: 170px" class="wp-caption alignright"><img class="wp-image-54082 size-thumbnail" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Full-Mojo-Rampage-04-160x120.jpg" alt="Full Mojo Rampage 04" width="160" height="120" /><p class="wp-caption-text">A Mojo Mixer</p></div>

<p>Unlike most other titles in the genre, the game has permanent leveling, too, so players gain experience and can choose to level up stats as they play. The game also has two collectable currencies; money, and medals. Both are used to unlock more features for your character, like amusing new masks, and new playable classes. Like in <strong>The Binding of Isaac</strong> – the genre’s hallmark title – players also have a huge library of items to collect.</p>

<p>In addition to everything else, Full Mojo Rampage also has a neat, cute fiction all its own, with its bickering voodoo gods, strange mojos, and curious events and locations. The various random events illustrate this side of the game especially well.</p>

<h2>Co-op Voodoo Mayhem</h2>

<p>A big portion of the game is simply learning the ropes. The game can seem dauntingly difficult at first, with very few players having completed the game’s four campaigns so far. Like in any roguelike, however, perseverance pays off, and you’ll start breezing through in no time if you pay enough attention to your stats and surroundings.</p>

<p>A rather surprising point of comparison, both in terms of the game’s playful look and feel, and its gameplay mechanics, can actually be found in the co-op MMO <strong>Spiral Knights</strong>. If you enjoyed that game, you’ll be instantly at home with Full Mojo Rampage. Here too, like in Spiral Knights, Over the Top Games are keen to emphasise the role of co-op.</p>

<div id="attachment_54080" style="width: 170px" class="wp-caption alignleft"><img class="wp-image-54080 size-thumbnail" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Full-Mojo-Rampage-02-160x120.jpg" alt="Full Mojo Rampage 02" width="160" height="120" /><p class="wp-caption-text">Character Screen</p></div>

<p>Rightly so; after all, co-op is never <em>not</em> relevant. The Slowdown tested the game with teams of two, three, and four players, and found the balance (rewards, enemy scaling, and difficulty overall) to be pretty much on the money. Slight differences nevertheless arise, as the game is definitely at its easiest with just two players, with difficulty increasing slightly with each additional player – a simple fact of the multiplayer team always getting a total of 3 extra lives (compared to zero in single-player mode). As long as there are extra lives, and one player remains on their feet, the game continues, but should all apprentices be downed simultaneously, it’s game over man.</p>

<p>The more players, then, the more precious these three lives become; the more players, the more chaos, and all the more crazy accidents: Even though the game has no friendly fire, I could swear I’ve been killed by my teammates, too! Overall, we found that campaign difficulty only begins to truly ramp up during the third campaign (out of four), where players do need to start to learn the ropes and co-ordinate well together. Class synergies aren’t a huge thing at this point in the game’s development, but it does help to be playing different roles. The campaigns are surprisingly varied, each with its specific layout and story.</p>

<p>Certainly, there could be more campaign content to the game, but the only real issue with the game in its current form is balancing. Simply put, some classes in the game are better than others – Maman Brigitte and Lenglensou currently dominate a whopping 70% of the statistics – and the harder difficulties in the game are in fact pretty much impossibly hard at this juncture – as acknowledged by the devs. One could also complain about the balance of the mojos; some are superlative, and some utterly useless. The duration and potency of most wands also leaves something to be desired.</p>

<p>Just four levels of main campaign can sound a little short. That’s not to say there’s not enough to play, however: In addition to the very challenging main story, the game also sports random daily quests and a survival mode, both with leaderboards. There are also multiple PvP modes to boot – deathmatch, team deathmatch, King Mojo, and Capture the Flag. Refreshingly, for a game that just seeped out of Early Access, Full Mojo Rampage is surprisingly mature, with many game modes and enough content to engage with.</p>

<p>At this juncture, players should be looking at a minimum of 15-20 hours of solid entertainment, and the Over the Top Team have plans for “new quests and modes”. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some DLC along the way, either – masks, baby, masks!</p>

<h2>Sweet Voodoo Tricks</h2>

<p>Itâs perfectly clear that a lot of love went into the gameâs design, both artistically and mechanically. Full Mojo Rampage remains surprisingly polished, with configurable graphics (that make the game very playable even on lower-end systems like laptops), windowed mode, camera tilting, and gamepad support.</p>

<div id="attachment_54075" style="width: 170px" class="wp-caption alignright"><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Full-Mojo-Rampage-Loas.jpg" rel="lightbox[54062]"><img class="wp-image-54075 size-thumbnail" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Full-Mojo-Rampage-Loas-160x120.jpg" alt="Full Mojo Rampage Loas" width="160" height="120" /></a><p class="wp-caption-text">Loitering Loas</p></div>

<p>Above all, however, the game is simply delectable, with lots of off-kilter humour in the dialogues, hilarious masks and enemies, and easter eggs and homages (of which there are plenty). The developers’ passion for the project is simply omnipresent, and bleeds right into every nook and cranny found in the game, including its very play. Having friends to play with will only make this game a better time still.</p>

<p>The game may not be <em>quite</em> as bizarre as <strong>The Binding of Isaac</strong>, and not <em>quite</em> as accessible as <strong>Rogue Legacy</strong>, or <em>quite</em> as tough as <strong>Sword of the Stars: The Pit</strong>, but itâs every bit as much fun as any roguelike-lite. Oh, and remember kids – <em>stay away from Baron Samedi</em>!</p>

<p><strong>Full Mojo Rampage</strong> is available now, <a href="http://store.steampowered.com/app/225280/">Steam</a>, <a href="https://www.humblebundle.com/store/p/fullmojorampage_storefront">Humble Store</a> and<a href="http://www.fullmojorampage.com/support-us/"> the developerâs website</a>. Mac and Linux versions of the game are apparently underway.</p>

<p><em>Access to the game was provided for the purpose of this review.</em></p>

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<a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/2014/07/14/full-mojo-rampage-review/" class='bbc_url' rel='nofollow external'>Source</a>

vrap

Over the Top Games’ new roguelike-lite, Full Mojo Rampage, is quite the voodoo soup, one that has been slowly bubbling away in Steam’s dangerous “Early Access” section since late 2013. The game, having finally reached its boiling point in May 2014, is now out, and we are about to find out just how tasty this crazy concoction is.

In the game, players are cute, big-headed voodoo apprentices, performing tasks for their chosen voodoo gods, Loas, by fighting against hordes of things that go bump in the night. The game is what you’d call a ‘twin-stick’ shooter on the consoles. Here on The Slowdown, of course, we don’t have to use dirty words like that, as the game plays perfectly well on a mouse and a keyboard, too.

From the get-go, it’s clear that the game’s gotta lotta mojo to it. As soon as the outrageous, monochrome cartoon intro starts playing, and the background music strikes the ear as both catchy and personable, players are no doubt being served with a helping that is both charming and funny. In-game, then, Full Mojo Rampage is simple and approachable on the one hand, and challenging and varied on the other.

Full Mojo Rampage 05As is customary for the chosen genre, Full Mojo Rampage has instant permadeath, with each playthrough slightly different, as campaigns and levels are randomly generated based on a formula – quite expertly, too, if I may add. The layouts and structures of the campaigns vary in order, type, and length, with harder difficulty levels further ramping up the length and size of the campaigns.

The game’s surprisingly mature campaign generator strings together different types of level (swamp, dungeon, cemetery, etc.) in a relatively pre-arranged order. The levels themselves have vastly different looks and feels, with some level types appearing exclusively in later campaigns.

The basic set-up is based on completing objectives, starting from destroying totems, and going all the way to slaying rampant ghost chickens, or protecting friendly zombies from hostile skeletons(!!). There are bottles of rum to be picked up, and skeleton skulls to steal. The objectives themselves – as wildly variable as they sound – are mostly fetch quests: First, you find your target, and then either pick it up, activate it, or destroy it.

Full Mojo Rampage Dolls

Each level has a randomized set of potential helpful locations, too, like Loa shrines, shops, treasure rooms, and what I consider by far the most original feature to Full Mojo Rampage – Mojo Mixers. More on these later.

Mix’n’Mojo

Full Mojo Rampage 01These days, many PC games have great difficulty in finding a natural balance for their controls; either there is too much finesse, with far too many actions, keys and buttons for any one person to learn; or there is too little of it, making gameplay a maddeningly simple exercise of mashing the same button over and over.

Full Mojo Rampage, here, strikes a fine balance. Overall, its action is comprised of just three aspects: shooting enemies, avoiding damage, and utilizing two class-based voodoo spells (activated with space and right mouse button). The spells, having a delayed activation, require players to carefully choose the right spot for each usage. The harder the game gets, the more important it becomes to utilize the skills of your class carefully and effectively. This makes Full Mojo Rampage’s gameplay at once very simple to learn, yet complex to master.

The soup is further spiced up with collectible and upgradeable voodoo pins, consumables (health potions, multi-usable attacks or defenses, etc.) and equippable “mojos” that improve your character’s base stats for the duration of the campaign. Further buffs can also be acquired.

Here again Full Mojo Rampage’s simple, yet surprising versatility delights: The maddening scarcity of inventory space, coupled with an abundance of pick-ups, makes inventory management a very important aspect of the game. While more slots can be permanently opened up by unlocking voodoo pins, and also acquired on a campaign-basis by finding secrets in the levels, what really adds an all-new dimension to the game are its Mojo Mixers.

In a Mojo Mixer, players can freely combine the effects of two different mojos, turning two of them into one – and as such, saving dearly needed inventory space! Mojos can only be mixed together once, and not all mojos can be combined, either. This forces players to carefully think about which mojos they want to hold on to, which they want to mix, and which should be discarded or sold off. This whole mix, then, makes for a great inventory-based minigame unto itself!

Full Mojo Rampage 04A Mojo Mixer

Unlike most other titles in the genre, the game has permanent leveling, too, so players gain experience and can choose to level up stats as they play. The game also has two collectable currencies; money, and medals. Both are used to unlock more features for your character, like amusing new masks, and new playable classes. Like in The Binding of Isaac – the genre’s hallmark title – players also have a huge library of items to collect.

In addition to everything else, Full Mojo Rampage also has a neat, cute fiction all its own, with its bickering voodoo gods, strange mojos, and curious events and locations. The various random events illustrate this side of the game especially well.

Co-op Voodoo Mayhem

A big portion of the game is simply learning the ropes. The game can seem dauntingly difficult at first, with very few players having completed the game’s four campaigns so far. Like in any roguelike, however, perseverance pays off, and you’ll start breezing through in no time if you pay enough attention to your stats and surroundings.

A rather surprising point of comparison, both in terms of the game’s playful look and feel, and its gameplay mechanics, can actually be found in the co-op MMO Spiral Knights. If you enjoyed that game, you’ll be instantly at home with Full Mojo Rampage. Here too, like in Spiral Knights, Over the Top Games are keen to emphasise the role of co-op.

Full Mojo Rampage 02Character Screen

Rightly so; after all, co-op is never not relevant. The Slowdown tested the game with teams of two, three, and four players, and found the balance (rewards, enemy scaling, and difficulty overall) to be pretty much on the money. Slight differences nevertheless arise, as the game is definitely at its easiest with just two players, with difficulty increasing slightly with each additional player – a simple fact of the multiplayer team always getting a total of 3 extra lives (compared to zero in single-player mode). As long as there are extra lives, and one player remains on their feet, the game continues, but should all apprentices be downed simultaneously, it’s game over man.

The more players, then, the more precious these three lives become; the more players, the more chaos, and all the more crazy accidents: Even though the game has no friendly fire, I could swear I’ve been killed by my teammates, too! Overall, we found that campaign difficulty only begins to truly ramp up during the third campaign (out of four), where players do need to start to learn the ropes and co-ordinate well together. Class synergies aren’t a huge thing at this point in the game’s development, but it does help to be playing different roles. The campaigns are surprisingly varied, each with its specific layout and story.

Certainly, there could be more campaign content to the game, but the only real issue with the game in its current form is balancing. Simply put, some classes in the game are better than others – Maman Brigitte and Lenglensou currently dominate a whopping 70% of the statistics – and the harder difficulties in the game are in fact pretty much impossibly hard at this juncture – as acknowledged by the devs. One could also complain about the balance of the mojos; some are superlative, and some utterly useless. The duration and potency of most wands also leaves something to be desired.

Just four levels of main campaign can sound a little short. That’s not to say there’s not enough to play, however: In addition to the very challenging main story, the game also sports random daily quests and a survival mode, both with leaderboards. There are also multiple PvP modes to boot – deathmatch, team deathmatch, King Mojo, and Capture the Flag. Refreshingly, for a game that just seeped out of Early Access, Full Mojo Rampage is surprisingly mature, with many game modes and enough content to engage with.

At this juncture, players should be looking at a minimum of 15-20 hours of solid entertainment, and the Over the Top Team have plans for “new quests and modes”. I wouldn’t be surprised to see some DLC along the way, either – masks, baby, masks!

Sweet Voodoo Tricks

It’s perfectly clear that a lot of love went into the game’s design, both artistically and mechanically. Full Mojo Rampage remains surprisingly polished, with configurable graphics (that make the game very playable even on lower-end systems like laptops), windowed mode, camera tilting, and gamepad support.

Full Mojo Rampage LoasLoitering Loas

Above all, however, the game is simply delectable, with lots of off-kilter humour in the dialogues, hilarious masks and enemies, and easter eggs and homages (of which there are plenty). The developers’ passion for the project is simply omnipresent, and bleeds right into every nook and cranny found in the game, including its very play. Having friends to play with will only make this game a better time still.

The game may not be quite as bizarre as The Binding of Isaac, and not quite as accessible as Rogue Legacy, or quite as tough as Sword of the Stars: The Pit, but it’s every bit as much fun as any roguelike-lite. Oh, and remember kids – stay away from Baron Samedi!

Full Mojo Rampage is available now, Steam, Humble Store and the developer’s website. Mac and Linux versions of the game are apparently underway.

Access to the game was provided for the purpose of this review.

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vrap

Gone Home.

Gone Home. This was The Fullbright Company’s famed “Story Exploration Video Game,” a game that I had been aching to witness, to dissect, and to analyse.

This, I already knew, were a Critic’s Kinda Game – one that would absolutely speak both to my ludological and narratological interests… only, the increasingly massive amount of criticism (reviews, articles, critiques, and commentaries) had begun to pile and fill up my Pocket feed, my RSS subs, and my Twitter timeline; first, to the point of my hesitation, then, to mild discomfort, and finally to a kind of destitution.

I really did feel, for a moment, ashamed of not having tackled the popular game on this website. We seemed like such a good match.

I guess you could say that I think we both owe it to each other.

Minor spoilers below.

Having now finally played the game, and in charting the field of critique, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that (in my mind, anyway) even the most easily-bypassed, best-hidden narrative thread of the game – its male characters – had been given adequate space, treated superlatively by writers like Alec Meer, in his article “A Tale of Two Dads,” and in ClockworkWorlds’s take on Oscar and Terry.

Both these articles succeed, above all, in underlining the wealth of content in this otherwise diminutive video game. There really is so much to say, from its ingenious “put back” feature, to the grungy 1990s, to the subversion of horror tropes, to questions of identity, sexuality, love, trauma, and family. The passion, the emotion, the feeling, generated by Gone Home, is almost startling: So many beautiful responses, reactions, illustrations, descriptions, and stories – above all, stories. Human-sized stories.

Gone Home 01As you’ve probably noticed, my own personal (hi)story of Gone Home is somewhat different, and is as much about a frozen video game critic as it is about the game’s critical reception (and my, well, pathetic hiding from it) in the video game market.

Perhaps now, some six months after the game’s release, I could also tell this one, and in doing so, take a somewhat different approach towards the game’s effects, and mechanics. As with my previous article on Actual Sunlight, this post attempts to look at narrative in video games in the context of game mechanics, without forgetting questions of player reception. I don’t think we’ve paid quite enough attention to the space between the context and the plot as they are presented in Gone Home.

I’d like to begin with the one major question that I exited the game with:

Could there be a Gone Home 2?

Play It Again, Sam

After uncovering the stories of Samantha and Lonnie, and Oscar, I ached to ask: Could this be redone, replicated? A different family, a different story, a different house? If so, how many times over? In some sense, The Fullbright Company’s Steve Gaynor actually answered that question for me:

[…] we’re not going to be doing Gone Home, but in a different house. I don’t think people would be interested in something that amounts to, ‘Oh, it’s just Gone Home, but different content.’

In a later interview, Gaynor adds that

We’re going to continue exploring from Gone Home as a foundation and see how the next game can be not just more Gone Home in a different building or whatever, but to take that as a starting point and ask what’s the big interesting thing we can add or change to make the next game its own unique experience that also builds on what we’ve already made.

Gone Home 07As you can see, Gaynor is already thinking about the next “interesting thing” that would carry their next game. But let’s not get too far ahead. Instead, we should first find out, what is it, exactly, that makes Gone Home Gone Home! After all, in a mechanical sense, all that players do in the game is walk around, in first-person, manipulating items, picking them up, rotating them, all in order to gain more insight into the game’s written narrative backdrop. Ian Bogost, in his essay, quite magnificently distils the game’s mechanisms into one single sentence:

[…] the exploration of space as a means for narrative progression, the use of recorded voiceovers activated by the discovery of specific items, a bleak moodiness that sets an overall tone, and a focus on environmental detail for world-building.

The game establishes, with the player, a basic narrative contract (phrased on the developer’s website as follows):

Investigate the Greenbriar family’s house. Discover the story of what’s happened to them. Go home again.

Or:

Read & listen enough, and you shall learn, and understand.

This is an ubiquitous contract, one that a great many games engage their players with. Only, in my mind, Gone Home does its part so much better simply by virtue of doing only this one contract. As @danbruno has noted,

Here the game is the setting, and the player’s only goal is to explore it. […] Most importantly, Gone Home has an uncanny sense of real-world authenticity.

That “Walking Simulator”

Gone Home 08Looking at Gone Home from certain angles can render its minimalism somewhat damning, even: With just one singular gameplay mechanism, its floor plan and progression constructed with such great artifice, with total, gated linearity, just how is it possible for the game to be so very infectious, and so very potent in its ability to produce feelings in its players, engendering so many different responses?

There is also that awful discussion to be had: What does Gone Home’s singular mechanism even make it, exactly? Is there a genre? FPS, without “shooter”? First-person exploration, or a “first-person walker”? How derogatory should we consider calling (or tagging, as it remains on Steam) the game a “walking simulator”, like Chmielarz laments?

“And then there was the backlash. (Currently the most popular user-provided tags for the game on Steam are “Not a game,” “Walking simulator,” and “Bad.”) Gaynor said he knew some people simply wouldn’t be into Gone Home, but didn’t expect its detractors to be quite so vocal.”

Gone Home does have its similarities to other games such as The Stanley Parable, Dream, and Dear Esther. In my mind, a comparison to Dear Esther is not a bad one (even if Dear Esther is more fragmentary, random, and esoteric), but let’s be honest: at this juncture, Gone Home is enigmatic, a skilfully rendered, singular piece of video game art that manages to redefine the often dissonant mechanics of “environmental information,” often present in the form of diaries, journal entries, audio logs, or radio transmissions – all those “hidden” secrets strewn about so overtly – in shooters like BioShock, Singularity, Dead Space, or well, any modern first-person game with a narrative impetus.

In fact, it is this very problem, the mechanics of the delivery of narrative content in games, that laid down the primary foundation for Gone Home, and drew Gaynor to exit 2K Games and form his own company:

A lot of the problems in big mainstream games [come from the sentiment], ‘Okay, on the one hand we’ve decided we’re going to make this shooter genre game, and I also want to tell a story about ‘this,’ so let’s cram those two together. And the mechanics are not about the story, because they were conceived in parallel.

To return to the question of repeatability and replicability, once and for all, it need be said that Gone Home is largely a singular example, or exercise, of its kind. From the gated rooms, the ever-so convenient desk lamps, the meticulous ordering of the audio logs, to the physical absence of the narrator(s), to the the narrated, and that of the reader-listener-narratee-player, are all features that set incredible constraints on the design of the game. It is a tightly wound, complex package of interrelated features.

Gone Home simply has to be set in the 1990s. Katie has to have never visited her new home before; and the mere layout of the house has to be labyrinthine. Cellphones must not exist. However, the great artifice with which this singular work of art has been constructed also gives us a very real avenue towards an analysis of Gone Home as the sum of its parts.

Implausible Plausibility

What is it, exactly, that renders Gone Home’s implausible gameness ultimately so plausible, and palatable?

I would like to start from the outside in, offering two different answers to the question: 1) Player competency, and 2) verisimilitude. The game speaks very strongly to our competency as video game players, not only with its use of the first-person perspective, or its controls, but also with its playful hints towards horror tropes. Chris Tursten recently noted in his review of the new Thief, for instance, that

It stands for the idea that ‘first person’ doesn’t imply ‘shooter’: the original BioShock might be its great-grandchild, but Amnesia and Gone Home are Thief’s descendents too.

I think Gone Home belongs to a ‘genre’ much more strongly than is usually noted. This is partially due to the fact, that, as Gaynor states,

[E]verything that happens is intentional on the part of the player, and with most of the story, you have to connect the dots yourself

Yet highlighting intentionality on behalf of the player – as if at the expense of the game – seems quite bold on first fright; as if the player was left to his or her own devices! That sounds very much like the perfect “Thief,” or perfect “BioShock” to me! And indeed, the narrative does seem to unravel like a patchwork, or a quilt, wherein players personally construe the narrative of the game.

Yet, player agency in Gone Home is but a carefully constructed illusion. We only need to realize that the developers chose to give priority to Samantha and Lonnie’s narrative thread, given that only a specific set of notes need be read and inspected for the “completion” of the game, and these so happen to be all related to theirs. This decision alone reveals the presence of artifice; a player with lesser competency (I use this term in as much a non-derogatory sense as possible, i.e., a player with less patience, time, eyesight) could and would very well miss some of the secondary threads of narrative in the game.

This is okay. The question of competency, however, leads me to the Fullbright team’s background in Minerva’s Den, and at 2K Games, and to the review buzzword, “environmental” storytelling.

Environmental Storytelling – Or Textual?

Gone Home 04The concept of environmental storytelling does have some descriptive power.

For instance, the few used shot glasses and bottles (on the left) could very well be taken to signify Terrence’s ongoing battles with writer’s block, alcoholism, and/or depression. Similarly, Samantha’s possessions, strewn about the secret corridors of the mansion, could be seen as her rebelliously “taking over” the house, the “making” of her very own space, and as a kind of personal liberation; Katie’s unpacked boxes of stuff, similarly, could be taken to signify the lack of her presence, both physically and mentally, in the house.

Yet, when we’re looking at these things, we’re not so much witnessing a “narrative,” or “story,” as per their common (narratological) definitions; what we’re witnessing, really, is details, or colour, or ambience – and forming our own interpretations based on these deliberate signs.

The usage of the buzzword, “environmental storytelling,” easily dismisses the fact that Gone Home’s story is in fact a very textual one. I am not so sure that the concept of “environment” can be applied to Gone Home’s primary narrative so freely, and so very generously as it has been.

I am equally displeased with the concept of exploratory storytelling, as it entirely confuses the concepts of narration with the narrated. It takes the focus off the constructed artifice, the role of the designer, as much as it does the player: In Gone Home, it’s really exploratory reading and interpreting that the player does; after all, without the narratee (the player), nothing ever happens in a video game.

Ian Bogost, too, noticed that something curious about Gone Home’s structure:

Everything fits together so well in Gone Home that the experience creaks and bends like the old house itself. Environmental storytelling is difficult because anything less than ontological fullness breaks the immersive promise of a lived-in world.

Admittedly, I feel Bogost puts too much emphasis on what he calls “ontological fullness”; after all, immersion should never, ever be taken to be simply questions of the degree or quality of simulation, or realism. Yet undeniably, in Gone Home, the devil IS in the details; every piece of ‘narrative’ in Gone Home is a work of art unto itself: Every snippet, every clipping, every note, every page, every book in the game was made by someone, a person, with the sole intent of saying something:

[…] all the 2D art in the game was from Karla, and all the 3D models in the game will be from Kate with a rare exception

Immersion

Again, superficially, Gone Home has been taken to be special due to its new types of protagonist, new themes, its subversions of video game types and genres. Despite all the touted realism, and emotion, the game still demands, for its entire duration, massive suspension of disbelief on behalf of the player.

How could it be otherwise? To have a house so littered with conveniently abandoned notes, scribbles, and personal letters? Implausible. To have a desk lamp illuminate these letters every time you need a light? Impossible. To have one tape deck per every tape in the house? Ludicrous. Pffft. The idea of rummaging around in a new house, and learning so much about your parents and sister over the course of an hour has absolutely nothing to do with reality.

This could never happen. And yet here we are, lauding the game for its realism. It goes without saying – the parameters are off here. This has to be wrong, wrong, wrong. As I said before, immersion should not be taken to mean simulative fidelity or realism. The point is this: How does the game make us feel normal, and make us agree to its contract?

Again, we come back to player competency: In one sense, we too are “Going Home,” after all. As players, we are as familiar with its gameplay mechanism, and we are familiar with its narrative contract. Both have been firmly established in games utilizing similar mechanics of narrative delivery.

Gone Home 05But where Gone Home goes further than ever before is in the degree of its faux-reality, or, verisimilitude. Take Oscar’s papers (example on the right), for instance, wherein old cursive handwriting on yellowed, damaged paper is as tough to read as it is to understand:

In this manner, when Ian Bogost expresses displeasure with the quality of writing in the game, noting that “[c]ompared to classic and contemporary works of literature on the challenges and implications of queer love […] Gone Home would seem amateurish, forced, heavy-handed”, I would much rather ask, “How can Gone Home work so well despite these facts?”

Bogost is not wrong to compare Gone Home’s primary narrative to those of “classic and contemporary works”; the textual sides are fairly compatible, and as such, comparable. However, there’s a different side to the game that works entirely differently from these. In taking a look at the other side, Bogost’s qualitative question transforms at once from “Is it good?” to “How does it work?”, which in my mind – at this early juncture, of video game history – is the superior question.

Leftovers

Broadly speaking, Gone Home has two kinds of environmental art objects.

  1. Items that function as vessels for the narration of the story, and
  2. items that do not.

If we were to put together the game’s four primary stories systematically, as if flattened on a linear surface, with every piece of paper, every note put together in order, some objects present in the game are bound to be left out.

Chmielarz notes that

[…] the VHS tapes or the cassette tape player or any other 90s nostalgia-inducing items […] are nice and cute and fun, but [Gone Home] not about them.

Gone Home 06Yet, it is truly with the leftover objects – the ones that have little narrative significance – where the game shines compared to almost any other video game in history. Take the call-bells in the basement, the stacks of newspapers; the bags of chips; the pens and notebooks; the socks in the drawers. They mean literally nothing as vessels for the narration of the story, but they still signify something:

Reality.

I’ll be blunt, again: Much of the game’s narrative – the writings, the clippings, the manuscripts – these are not environmental storytelling. They are largely, chiefly, mostly textual objects positioned in the environs. Together, they are the objects that would be changed and switched up for the potential Gone Home 2. Some parts, though seemingly interchangeable, however, are the ones that aren’t: The parts that denote nothing except reality.

In a way, Steve Gaynor actually makes this distinction, between environmental and textual storytelling, in calling the reading process of his earlier games

[…] discovering the story in the environment […] where you discover the story yourself and piece it together from clues in the environment.

Let’s keep that in mind as we proceed.

My point is this: In order to truly appreciate Gone Home, we must understand the methods that it uses to create an illusion of what Bogost called “ontological fullness” before.

The Reality Effect

There is a better word for this.

Vraisemblance.

In narratology, vraisemblance, or “versimilitude,” – the semblance of something to truth, or reality, or to agreed-upon rules – was first used in this meaning by Gérard Genette, and Tzvetan Todorov, in the same special no. of Communications in 1968 (and later adapted for her own purposes as doxa by Tel Aviv School member Ruth Amossy).

For Genette, vraisemblance meant the aspects of a story that answered to “[…] a body of maxims accepted as true by the public to which the narrative is addressed; but these maxims, due to the very fact that they are accepted, most often remain implicit” – in other words, the parts of the story that need no explanation, in good and bad.

The self-explanatory nature of details is crucial to Gone Home’s inner workings. Roland Barthes’ famous interpretation of Flaubert’s short story, “Un cœur simple”, or, “A Simple Heart,” bears mention here. In his essay, “L’Effet du Reel”, or, “The Reality Effect”, Barthes claims that a structural analysis of a narrative believes details “[…] constitute some index of character or atmosphere”.

We can instantly see what Barthes’ claim means for many of Gone Home’s objects – again, like Terry’s shot glasses above. Barthes goes on to state, however, that for an analysis to be exhaustive, it must also account for details that “no function […] can justify”. In Barthes’ mind, every Western-world narrative contains a number of useless detail, or, “insignificant notation”. These details, then, have importance in the narrative as enhancing our illusion of reality. Barthes asks,

Is everything in narrative significant, and if not, […] what is ultimately, so to speak, the significance of this insignificance?.

What is the significance of this insignificance? All it denotes is that

[…] we are the real; it is the category of ‘the real’ […] which is then signified; in other words, the very absence of the signified, to the advantage of the referent alone, becomes the very signifier of realism: the reality effect is produced, the basis of that unavowed verisimilitude which forms the aesthetic of all the standard works of modernity.

Make sense? Probably not. Bear with me for one more moment still.

Barthes’ core thought, applied to Gone Home, is as follows: The insignificant signifiers, such as the bags of chips in the game, seem to refer directly to their referent. A bag of chips is, well, a bag of chips. In other words, these inconsequential details seem, at first, simply denote reality directly. But since the significance of the signifier is insignificant, it actually doesn’t!Instead, according to Barthes, the signified escapes, with a generic sense of “reality” replacing it. The bag of chips doesn’t actually mean what it means, it simply speaks to us of a kind of “reality”.

Effects and Environs

Gone Home 03Let us look again at Gone Home’s so-called “environmental storytelling.” Carefully observing those bags of chips (yes, those on the left, with the very same plastic clipper holding them closed), reveals to us a curiously detailed, photorealistic list of ingredients on the back: “Select Potatoes, Vegetable Oil (Contains one or more of the following: Canola, Peanut, and/or Sunflower Oil), Salt”. It’s even as though the title case of the words seems to draw attention to itself!

What meaning does this particular text have as a detail of the narrative, or as a function in the process of narration? Surely this is too much detail. This list of ingredients doesn’t have to be there – and yet it is. I simply can not recall other games with this level of fidelity. Ergo: A reality effect.

What of the objects in the game, then, that appear potentially both inconsequential and consequential for the narrative? Say, the Super Nintendo cassettes? Surely, they denote the time period. “This is the ‘90s”. It could also denote “geek”. But for the game’s actual narrative – in its textual sense – they really have little other function.

As Gaynor points out:

You don’t have direct access to the internal state. You’re projecting how these people feel. There’s no way of knowing it directly.

This is very much what Chmielarz refers to when he feels that Gone Home isn’t about video tapes, but

[…] about you.

It’s about you going back to the time when everything felt like it’s a question of life and death, when your friends always had time for you and when you got your heart broken for the first time.

This seems like a fitting point to mention a common – and ultimately, a damning – critique of Barthes’ “reality effect”, that one reader’s overt is another’s covert; not every reader will put the same weight on a detail as the other, and as such, their interpretations can vary, and its “reality effects” do, too.

Gone Home’s Specialty

In a narrative, details lose and gain weight due to the manner, style, and emphasis, of their being narrated. I believe we could go much, much deeper in our analysis of the reality effects in Gone Home. For instance, we could absolutely take a look at the various types of paper present in the game, or the different kinds of handwriting, and their contributions to the player’s experience and understanding of the game.

Ultimately, what makes Gone Home so potent is that its insignificant items can be so strongly imbued with meaning in addition to its primary, textual, narrative. So many writers and critics have touched on the 1990s in their Gone Home posts. They’ve found parallels to their own experiences, their youth, their childhood, their pasts, and presents, too.

Gone Home may be artificial, linear, gated, and scripted, but it also has massive, massive amounts of space in the form of all these unnecessary details.

More Is Not Less

To wrap up, I feel as though Gone Home’s strengths (and weaknesses) have been ever-so slightly misunderstood. The game’s obvious manipulations of the player, for instance, have been largely bypassed by criticism simply because of the game’s new thematic frontiers. It has led, among others, the esteemed Leigh Alexander to claim that “less is more”; She’s not wrong, obviously, but she’s not right either.

In this article, it has been my wish to illustrate that in fact, when we play Gone Home, what we witness is MORE, not LESS, of what we’re used to in video games. More reality effects, more verisimilitude, more space for interpretation, more space period. It is not an accident that the game’s original prototype was made in the engine that (re)introduced the physical inspection and rotation of game world objects. Its feature set – including the “put back” command, were made specifically for the sake of these effects.

I understand the absolute necessity of highlighting the fact that The Fullbright Company comprises only of four persons; that Gone Home was made on a shoestring budget; that it has a very finely tuned, short length and scope; that it focuses on the mundane, the everyday, the banal. This all couldn’t be more true; in a major way, the “limited” scope, and focus, are what makes Gone Home so splendid. Making indie games often looks, from the outside in, to me like an art of limitation and imitation.

Yet, it bears mention, it took the team 1½ years to fill up the house with realistic detail. We can say that Gone Home is great because of the things it “doesn’t do.” But we can also look at all the effects and say that it’s great because of the things it does: The bags of chips, the condom in the drawer, the bottles strewn about.

Ultimately, we must also stop pretending that Gone Home is “realistic”. It’s not. It could never happen, not with this convenience, speed, or ease. It probably cannot be replicated. Despite these facts, Gone Home speaks to a human interest, and to us, as readers, and players, and daughters, and fathers.

This has been my story of Gone Home – a story of player-reader competence, and narrative mechanics, in the year 2013, rather than a story about a dysfunctional family in the 1990s.

Gone Home is available now, on PC,  Mac and Linux, from Steam or GoneHomeGame.com.

A review copy of the game was provided for this article.

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vrap

Shipwreck Review

<p>I recently stumbled upon a really good video game trailer:</p>

<p><span class='embed-youtube' style='text-align:center; display: block;'><iframe class='youtube-player' type='text/html' width='640' height='390' src='http://www.youtube.com/embed/d3wESL5GKnI?version=3&rel=1&fs=1&showsearch=0&showinfo=1&iv_load_policy=1&wmode=transparent' frameborder='0'></iframe></span></p>

<p>The above video, then, is a launch trailer for <a href="http://brushfiregames.com/">Brushfire Games’</a> new indie game <a href="http://brushfiregames.com/shipwreck/">Shipwreck</a>. It is as WYSIWYG as you get! In buying this new game, you get the following:</p>

<ul>

<li>Neat and tidy pixel graphics</li>

<li>Atmospheric console-style âretroâ music</li>

<li>Well-balanced, honed gameplay</li>

<li>Fun mechanics and a good difficulty curve</li>

<li>Zelda! Zelda! Link! Link!</li>

<li>I.e., A solid little game.</li>

</ul>

<p>Interested? Read on, for more commentary on the game’s mechanics, qualities, and genre:</p>

<p><span id="more-53933"></span><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-01.jpg" rel="lightbox[53933]"><img class="alignleft size-thumbnail wp-image-53938" alt="Shipwreck 01" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-01-160x120.jpg" width="160" height="120" /></a>In Shipwreck, players wash up on the stormy shores of a tiny island, and soon end up trying to save the islanders from a ghostly curse that prevents anyone from leaving – including the player! The villageâs mayor sends players off on an adventure to recover four magical seals, to break a curse – and to be allowed escape off the island they are now stranded on.</p>

<p>In other words: Shipwreck is as Zelda-like as it gets. For a pixel-perfect comparison, I would point at the classic Gameboy Color Zeldas – <strong>Link’s Awakening DX</strong>, <b>Oracle of Ages</b>, and <b>Seasons</b>. In Shipwreck, players will traverse the island, find and use different items and weapons to progress through the gameâs overworld and dungeons. Should you be interested in a more detailed analysis of the Zelda genre, you can always look up <a href="http://www.anatomyofgames.com/2012/09/04/anatomy-of-a-game-the-legend-of-zelda-i/">Jeremy Parish for more information</a>; in the meantime, weâll just agree that the Zelda-like hallmarks are all there: 32×32 tiles, the top-down perspective, the overworld-dungeon structure, a sword and a shield, heart containers, and bushes.</p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-02.jpg" rel="lightbox[53933]"><img class="alignright size-thumbnail wp-image-53939" alt="Shipwreck 02" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-02-160x120.jpg" width="160" height="120" /></a>Yes, <em>bushes</em>! One of the immediately noticeable features of the trailer above is the protagonistâs <i>humongous sword</i>. Slashing up a bush for the very first time made me very much chuckle out loud. Giving those bushes that a-thwackinâ, in search of hearts and gold, is always such a familiar moment, a feel-good experience, a reunion.</p>

<p>The sword, then? It is a Big âUn indeed, and very much defines Shipwreckâs smooth-sailing, well-defined gameplay. While both its arc and reach are very, large, and as such, rather forgiving. At the same time, the gameâs play is actually much more about blocking, positioning, and movement, rather than actually hitting monsters right on the kisser. Donât get me wrong, that <i>is</i> what you do, but I was left with the feeling that playing the game was relatively multifaceted.</p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-03.jpg" rel="lightbox[53933]"><img class="size-thumbnail wp-image-53940 alignleft" alt="Shipwreck 03" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-03-160x120.jpg" width="160" height="120" /></a>Shipwreck has a fine difficulty curve, too; things get difficult <i>enough</i> quite fast, but never too difficult. If you do run out of hearts, and apples, or loaves of bread (Shipwreckâs healing consumables), the worst thing that can happen is being teleported to the entrance of a particular dungeon.</p>

<p>The inventory system is just as tried and true, then, as the rest of the game. Players select any combination of just two items from their inventory for active use, âxâ and âcâ for left and right, respectively. Soon enough the game becomes all about juggling this selection of two items for the best possible combination. The baseline combination, of course, is a sword and a shield, but you’ll soon get access to more items and weapons, too.</p>

<p>Though Shipwreck seldom forces you to do things – using a lamp in pitch-black darkness is one -, it makes perfect sense to approach the gameâs rooms as simplistic puzzles, trying to think up the best-suited set of two items (or more!) for the current dungeon, room, or fight. Just to name one example, it may be sometimes smarter to use the shield almost exclusively, compared to using a primary weapon.</p>

<p>The Zelda-style two-slot usable system is actually a surprisingly advanced mechanic, given that the two-slot limit results in many different combinations. It is also a concept that utilizes its limits maximally, something that Shipwreck does this very well overall.</p>

<p>(Indie games as art of imitation and limitation? Yes.)</p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-06.jpg" rel="lightbox[53933]"><img class="alignright size-thumbnail wp-image-53943" alt="Shipwreck 06" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-06-160x120.jpg" width="160" height="120" /></a>The graphics are joyful, and solid, and while the game’s options are otherwise limited, I was able to play in windowed mode, 4x the gameâs resolution. I prefer to do this for a multitude of reasons, but chiefly to really see the pixel detail. Low-resolution games form a perfect counterpoint to the rat race that exists between consoles and the PC, to the current trends of higher-and-higher resolutions, more detailed textures, and exponentially growing amounts of polygons.</p>

<p>When I was young, we wanted our pixels to be as small as possible. Now, with games like Shipwreck? The bigger the better! It’s great to be able to really see the artistic definition in magnified size and shape.</p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-08.jpg" rel="lightbox[53933]"><img class="alignleft size-thumbnail wp-image-53951" alt="Shipwreck 08" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-08-160x120.jpg" width="160" height="120" /></a>Zelda-likes definitely live and die by their dungeon design, and Iâm happy to report that much of Shipwreckâs is tight, clever, and even welcoming. Only end-game dungeons do begin to exhibit a smidgeon of prolongment, as I did catch myself moaning about the floor plans a little bit. That being said, the gameâs automap system is good, only not having stairs marked on them made the game a little bit more confusing than it perhaps should have, or could have, been.</p>

<p>Controls are fine, both on the keyboard, and on an X360 controller. My one real complaint relates to the gameâs installer package, which forcibly pushes the game into âProgram Filesâ on Windows. In this day and age, I think, most people prefer a zip file with an executable. I firmly believe that indie games should pride themselves on being as agile, portable, and platform-agnostic as possible!</p>

<p>Another aspect that absolutely bears mention is the landscape in which Shipwreck is being released in. After all, in this current era of long-lost innocence, many critics and players display a broader aversion to games that ‘play’ themselves ‘straight,’ as if this was no longer quite permitted. Every action, and every move, must now be committed with full knowledge – or at the very least a kind of showmanship of this fact.</p>

<p>We’ve all taken a bite of that pesky apple. (Apples aren’t pesky in Shipwreck).</p>

<p><a href="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-05.jpg" rel="lightbox[53933]"><img class="size-thumbnail wp-image-53942 alignright" alt="Shipwreck 05" src="http://www.slowdown.vg/images/Shipwreck-05-160x120.jpg" width="160" height="120" /></a>More specifically, the top-down Zelda-like <a title="Anodyne Review" href="http://www.slowdown.vg/2013/07/16/anodyne-review/">changed somewhat after the release of Anodyne</a>. Sure, especially fangames, and even newer AAA RPGS have long now had a meta-level that I feel many RPG players are very, very partial to. Saying this, I too went into Shipwreck fully expecting this meta-commentary dimension, a modicum of subversiveness, that postmodern slant, that knowing glint of the eye, that shared nod, a treatment of the genreâs constraints and possibilitiesâ¦</p>

<p>…no such thing! Nowhere! Not once. Everythingâs taken for granted – even the gameâs classic âuse-talkâ responses are as banal as they get! – and played completely straight. In doing this, Shipwreck managed to break my expectations big time. Expecting something at every turn, and then never once receiving it, must be considered something of a weird success.</p>

<p>This isn’t to say the game isn’t genre-conscious enough, in other ways, taking full advantage of all the proven good things of the Zelda-like. Shipwrecked is short, sweet, and studious, a well-designed replication of the Zelda topos. Itâs little else; it’s not big, itâs not bold, but itâs pretty good indeed.</p>

<p>Priced, exactly-right, at $3.00, <b>Shipwreck</b> is available now, for Windows, from a <a href="http://brushfiregames.com/shipwreck/#buy">Humble Store widget</a>, and for the XBOX360 on the <a href="http://marketplace.xbox.com/Product/Shipwreck/66acd000-77fe-1000-9115-d80258550e20" target="_blank">Xbox Live Indie Games</a>. Developers Brushfire Games are also running <a href="http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=232092040">an ongoing Greenlight campaign</a> to get the game on Steam.</p>

<p><em>A copy was provided for the purpose of this review.</em></p>

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vrap

Shipwreck Review

I recently stumbled upon a really good video game trailer:

The above video, then, is a launch trailer for Brushfire Games’ new indie game Shipwreck. It is as WYSIWYG as you get! In buying this new game, you get the following:

  • Neat and tidy pixel graphics
  • Atmospheric console-style ‘retro’ music
  • Well-balanced, honed gameplay
  • Fun mechanics and a good difficulty curve
  • Zelda! Zelda! Link! Link!
  • I.e., A solid little game.

Interested? Read on, for more commentary on the game’s mechanics, qualities, and genre:

Shipwreck 01In Shipwreck, players wash up on the stormy shores of a tiny island, and soon end up trying to save the islanders from a ghostly curse that prevents anyone from leaving – including the player! The village’s mayor sends players off on an adventure to recover four magical seals, to break a curse – and to be allowed escape off the island they are now stranded on.

In other words: Shipwreck is as Zelda-like as it gets. For a pixel-perfect comparison, I would point at the classic Gameboy Color Zeldas – Link’s Awakening DX, Oracle of Ages, and Seasons. In Shipwreck, players will traverse the island, find and use different items and weapons to progress through the game’s overworld and dungeons. Should you be interested in a more detailed analysis of the Zelda genre, you can always look up Jeremy Parish for more information; in the meantime, we’ll just agree that the Zelda-like hallmarks are all there: 32×32 tiles, the top-down perspective, the overworld-dungeon structure, a sword and a shield, heart containers, and bushes.

Shipwreck 02Yes, bushes! One of the immediately noticeable features of the trailer above is the protagonist’s humongous sword. Slashing up a bush for the very first time made me very much chuckle out loud. Giving those bushes that a-thwackin’, in search of hearts and gold, is always such a familiar moment, a feel-good experience, a reunion.

The sword, then? It is a Big ‘Un indeed, and very much defines Shipwreck’s smooth-sailing, well-defined gameplay. While both its arc and reach are very, large, and as such, rather forgiving. At the same time, the game’s play is actually much more about blocking, positioning, and movement, rather than actually hitting monsters right on the kisser. Don’t get me wrong, that is what you do, but I was left with the feeling that playing the game was relatively multifaceted.

Shipwreck 03Shipwreck has a fine difficulty curve, too; things get difficult enough quite fast, but never too difficult. If you do run out of hearts, and apples, or loaves of bread (Shipwreck’s healing consumables), the worst thing that can happen is being teleported to the entrance of a particular dungeon.

The inventory system is just as tried and true, then, as the rest of the game. Players select any combination of just two items from their inventory for active use, “x” and “c” for left and right, respectively. Soon enough the game becomes all about juggling this selection of two items for the best possible combination. The baseline combination, of course, is a sword and a shield, but you’ll soon get access to more items and weapons, too.

Though Shipwreck seldom forces you to do things – using a lamp in pitch-black darkness is one -, it makes perfect sense to approach the game’s rooms as simplistic puzzles, trying to think up the best-suited set of two items (or more!) for the current dungeon, room, or fight. Just to name one example, it may be sometimes smarter to use the shield almost exclusively, compared to using a primary weapon.

The Zelda-style two-slot usable system is actually a surprisingly advanced mechanic, given that the two-slot limit results in many different combinations. It is also a concept that utilizes its limits maximally, something that Shipwreck does this very well overall.

(Indie games as art of imitation and limitation? Yes.)

Shipwreck 06The graphics are joyful, and solid, and while the game’s options are otherwise limited, I was able to play in windowed mode, 4x the game’s resolution. I prefer to do this for a multitude of reasons, but chiefly to really see the pixel detail. Low-resolution games form a perfect counterpoint to the rat race that exists between consoles and the PC, to the current trends of higher-and-higher resolutions, more detailed textures, and exponentially growing amounts of polygons.

When I was young, we wanted our pixels to be as small as possible. Now, with games like Shipwreck? The bigger the better! It’s great to be able to really see the artistic definition in magnified size and shape.

Shipwreck 08Zelda-likes definitely live and die by their dungeon design, and I’m happy to report that much of Shipwreck’s is tight, clever, and even welcoming. Only end-game dungeons do begin to exhibit a smidgeon of prolongment, as I did catch myself moaning about the floor plans a little bit. That being said, the game’s automap system is good, only not having stairs marked on them made the game a little bit more confusing than it perhaps should have, or could have, been.

Controls are fine, both on the keyboard, and on an X360 controller. My one real complaint relates to the game’s installer package, which forcibly pushes the game into “Program Files” on Windows. In this day and age, I think, most people prefer a zip file with an executable. I firmly believe that indie games should pride themselves on being as agile, portable, and platform-agnostic as possible!

Another aspect that absolutely bears mention is the landscape in which Shipwreck is being released in. After all, in this current era of long-lost innocence, many critics and players display a broader aversion to games that ‘play’ themselves ‘straight,’ as if this was no longer quite permitted. Every action, and every move, must now be committed with full knowledge – or at the very least a kind of showmanship of this fact.

We’ve all taken a bite of that pesky apple. (Apples aren’t pesky in Shipwreck).

Shipwreck 05More specifically, the top-down Zelda-like changed somewhat after the release of Anodyne. Sure, especially fangames, and even newer AAA RPGS have long now had a meta-level that I feel many RPG players are very, very partial to. Saying this, I too went into Shipwreck fully expecting this meta-commentary dimension, a modicum of subversiveness, that postmodern slant, that knowing glint of the eye, that shared nod, a treatment of the genre’s constraints and possibilities…

…no such thing! Nowhere! Not once. Everything’s taken for granted – even the game’s classic “use-talk” responses are as banal as they get! – and played completely straight. In doing this, Shipwreck managed to break my expectations big time. Expecting something at every turn, and then never once receiving it, must be considered something of a weird success.

This isn’t to say the game isn’t genre-conscious enough, in other ways, taking full advantage of all the proven good things of the Zelda-like. Shipwrecked is short, sweet, and studious, a well-designed replication of the Zelda topos. It’s little else; it’s not big, it’s not bold, but it’s pretty good indeed.

Priced, exactly-right, at $3.00, Shipwreck is available now, for Windows, from a Humble Store widget, and for the XBOX360 on the Xbox Live Indie Games. Developers Brushfire Games are also running an ongoing Greenlight campaign to get the game on Steam.

A copy was provided for the purpose of this review.

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