Critical Examination: Realism vs Style

Quite recently I have been playing Persona 5, and man am I in love with this game.  This game has taken the title of best game for me quite handily.  Sony seems to be eager to come out of the gate swinging with some very polished games.  First it was Horizon: Zero Dawn, now it’s Persona 5.  And given some of the exclusives we have to look forward to in the future, I am excited to see what happens next.  The thing to know about this game is that it is DRIPPING with a style all its own.  The punk aesthetic, vibrant colors, and jazzy soundtrack all mesh so well in immersing me in this world.  I feel like each of the Palace worlds was a place that I would at least like to see once.  Style was oozing out of every pore in that game, and bless it for that.

We live in an age where it sees like every game company is looking to go more and more into the realms of realism.  Seems like there is an arms race to get past the uncanny valley of a game that looks so real that I can’t tell the difference between it and reality.  However, there are pros and cons to both sides of that.  This is something that is being lost on people.  Let’s dive into this and show these elements in respect to one-another.

Pros: Realism

When I think of games that have embraced realism so heavily, two that come to mind immediately are The Last of Us and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End.  Both games had incredible detail put into every element.  Naughty Dog has gotten something of a pedigree for games that are insanely detailed and have characters who feel believable.  This could only be possible with effects that fight that Uncanny Valley I mentioned earlier.  I could get lost in every environment in those games.  They were visual masterpieces, which I can and do replay over and over just for how beautiful it is to go through.

There is also the element when you are looking to capture how grim something is.  A war, for example, can be brought to life much more horrifically when you bring it into the realistic space.  Fear is also more palpable.  I played the PT demo like some of you, and holy shit!  The realistic nature of that is what made it so unnerving to play.  I had the shit getting scared out of me because it felt like I was really in that hallway, with that ghost who was after me.  And fuck that telephone!  Gave me a fucking heart-attack.  It’s hard to imagine such a game being done any other way.  Although, Silent Hill 4 did the concept pretty decently, for the part of the game where you are trapped in the main character’s apartment.

Pros: Style

Style allows a game world to feel unique.  When you want to create an atmosphere in a game, it helps when you have a universe where the rules of it feel unique.  As a frame of reference, let’s take a look at Persona 5.  This game is about youthful rebellion against authoritarian rule-making.  Every element goes along with this.  The vibrant use of colors in every regard, even the menus, makes you see this aesthetic.  Like watching a punk rock music video from the 90’s, and with the jazzy soundtrack to boot.  Everything goes towards making you feel like this world is all its own.  Plus, the style helps tell the stories of the protagonists.

Another game which had a unique style to see it was Life is Strange.  While the ending to that game was bullshit, it was still pretty awesome to play.  Part of this was because the style felt like a teen comic.  While the facial animations could most definitely used a lot of work, you still get invested because these characters have personality that goes along with the soft colors and pastel look.  It’s a game which uses that aesthetic to compel you to slow down, take your time, and investigate things.

Then it can be something that assists gameplay.  Look at Mirror’s Edge for that.  The world of that game was drenched in white.  It made the colors in it stand out so you knew to pay attention to them.  Not to mention that it made the authoritarian nature of the government more apparently.  The world is white, they are always in black and blue.  Their color tells you how you should see them.  It’s not the most complicated method of story-telling, but it gets the job done.

Something that you also have to keep in mind is that style is easier to do.  Games that go for realism take longer to get right.  And in a gaming market where people are demanding games quicker (I have no idea why.  I have no problem with delays to get it right), this ends up with a TON of bugs.  Style has no such limitations.  It can be done much quicker and use a smaller budget.  Which brings me to the cons.

Cons: Realism

There is something to keep in mind when you have games shooting for that Uncanny Valley – they have a bad habit of having bugs.  A TON of bugs.  And with the rush I said before, more and more games are being shipped with bugs that the industry calls “known shippable.”  Hell, when Naughty Dog was working on Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, they found a bug in the game just three days before shipping that would have crashed the PS3 console.  Thankfully they were able to patch it in time, but you see what I mean?  Going more and more real means that if you don’t want a game to have a shit-ton of bugs, you have to devote more and more time to it.  For me, that’s fine.  I wish more developers would take the time to hold back and get it right.  If anything, that is rewarded with player loyalty as we feel the developers want to take the time to make us happy.  Granted, that can go both ways.  Just look at the backlash with all the delays of Mighty No. 9.

Another thing is that games that shoot for that point are often pretty ugly.  People complain that games have way too much gray and brown in them, well, that’s part of the fact that they are shooting for realism.  Most apartments have white walls and tan carpets.  Most cities are gray and dismal.  Not everywhere can be Seattle or Tokyo.  So your palate of colors gets very limited the more realistic you shoot for.

Cons: Style

The biggest problem with a game that has a unique style is that you are almost certainly condemning it to be niche.  Remember all the games I listed above?  From Persona 5 to Mirror’s Edge, one thing they have in common is that they don’t appeal to a mass market.  There are so many games I can think of with a fascinating unique style.  Flower, ABZU, The Wolf Among Us, Journey, Borderlands, and one thing they all have in common is that they are niche.  Borderlands is the most mainstream, but even it doesn’t have the mass draw that other games do.  For whatever reason, people are just drawn more to the realism side of the spectrum.  Something I will never understand.

Then there’s the fact that the Uncanny Valley of facial animation is lost on you.  Without exception, it’s gone.  With realism they can use motion capture tech, and it is getting better and better at making facial animations that look like real people.  Stylization has that concept forever beyond its reach.  After all, if the feature of a character are off from normal people, you can’t believe that they are real when they talk.  It’s like how a cartoon can have good lip-synching, but you still know it’s a cartoon.  That’s just how it goes.  But that’s no excuse to skimp on the facial animations.  I’m talking to you, Life is Strange.  So many of the more emotional scenes in that game would have been better if we could see the character’s emotions better.

So, which side are you?  Let me know in the comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“Style – all who have it share one thing: originality.” – Diana Vreeland

Peace out,

Maverick

The Infinite Space

There’s something that you should know about me – I don’t believe in free will.  I think that all the decisions that people claim that they have the power to make are illusions.  Everything that could happen already has happened, and we are powerless to change the nature of our fate.  It’s not because of some divine being.  In fact, when one truly thinks about this idea that I have, the existence of a divine being becomes even more ridiculous.  Because it makes the idea of lording over this one universe that much less impressive.  I know what you’re thinking – how can you possibly believe that?  How can all choices just be an illusion?  Simple – the Infinite Space.

Let me explain.  I believe that the universe that we exist in is but one of the infinite number of possibilities that exist in an endless ocean of possibilities..  These possibilities are connected through forces unknown.  It sounds like a bold declaration.  But let me give you something to chew on.  Here’s a video from Minute Physics about the Schrodinger’s Cat paradox.

This video got me to thinking about so much stuff.  Why?  Because the concept is interesting..  We don’t know what the truth is until we look to see if the cat is dead or alive.  It truly is both.  How can that be?  The answer seemed pretty obvious to me – both possibilities have to exist.  It can’t be one or the other.  But where is that other possibility?  Easy – the Infinite Space.  In that place, there is a reality where the cat is dead, if we look and kitty is alive (we love kitty!).  There is no other way.  Quantum physics is trying to figure out the answer, but I think that this makes a lot of sense.

Many of my favorite works of fiction have toyed with the concept.  In Bioshock Infinite, there is a kind of particle that can break the bounds between the spaces.  The Lutece’s figure out how to harness it and use it to break the bonds between worlds in the Infinite Space.  Elizabeth has the ability to open doors between the spaces between worlds, but there was a time when she was able to create them on her own.  She called it a form of wish fulfillment.  Whatever she wanted, she just had to concentrate and she could open a door to that thing.  It’s crazy stuff.  While that was interesting, it all ended on a note of disbelief, where Booker is killed and that someone closes the door to all possibilities.  Yet you hear in the end that there is still a universe where he is alive and everything happens as it is supposed to.  So I guess she still failed.

Next up is Rick and Morty.  In this series, they have repeated instances where they go into alternate universes in order to do things.  But the one that really got me was the episode where Morty wants Rick to create a love potion for him to get his girl, and it spirals out of control until they reach a point where Rick had destroyed all of reality and there seems to be no way to put it right.  So he doesn’t.  Instead, he finds a universe that exists where he manages to solve the entire problem, and then both him and Morty die.  The two then bury themselves and carry on.  It is implicated that this strategy is one that Rick has used before, as he says that they won’t get too many opportunities to do this again.  I love the grim undertones of that show.  It really takes all the hijinks in the series and makes them out to have horrific, ongoing consequences.

Finally, there is my favorite game of last year – Life is Strange.  This series did something similar to Bioshock Infinite, but it took the concept a little further.  See, it has Max be given the ability to control time.  But is she truly controlling time?  I did a post about this (link here), but I’ll give my main points here.  When Max uses her talent, you see something interesting.  She remains in a given place, but time moves around her.  It’s how you are able to use it to sneak past guards or get into places without other people knowing it.  But what happens to those timelines that she leaves?  The implication is that they keep going.  So the timeline that Max and Chloe blow up the door to the Principal’s office still happened.  As is the one where (if you are really dumb and couldn’t resist trying everything) Chloe accidentally shoots herself when you’re messing with David’s gun.  Worse still, there is the one where Max saved William and ended up paralyzing and potentially killing Chloe.  That reality continues with Chloe’s parents being destroyed and Max being solely to blame.  But the end of the game fucks that up and makes it just like the Bioshock Infinite ending where you can just go back in time and stop it from happening by stopping the catalyst.  But that wouldn’t have stopped the tornado.  I talked in another post about how dumb the ending to this game was (please don’t make another season.  It can only get worse).  I still love it, but like Mass Effect 3, the ending crashes and burns.

What a digression all of this was.  My point in all of this is that I believe that all possibilities exist in the Infinite Space.  An endless space where every outcome exists in its own reality.  I don’t think there is a way that one could possibly see this, but I like the one in Cosmos, where it’s like this huge area of interconnecting lights that stretch out for forever, with each light being a possibility.  Within the Infinite Space, there are endless possibilities.  There is a universe where the first girl I ever loved and I are together.  There’s a nice thought.  There’s a universe where I chose to turn down the PR company that ended up being a disaster for me.  There’s a universe where I didn’t lost my first apartment.  It is an endless sea of possibility.

But there’s an interesting idea that a girly-mate of mine posed to me – what if there were realities that touched one-another?  I got to thinking about that.  If we are to believe the Infinite Space is a real thing, and all of these universes are connected through a larger tapestry of existence, then I don’t see why universes couldn’t touch one-another.  There are likely points, countless in number, that our universes have touched one-another and even interacted.  I can hear the counter-point –

Then why wouldn’t we know about it?  Wouldn’t there have been like people or something coming through?

It’s hubris on our part to think that only our world or our species could be affected.  There are endless possibilities for how our universes would interact when making contact.  It could also affect anything.  There are countless instances of unexplained things happening.  Any number of those could be our universe interacting with another in an unforeseen way.

The goal of sciences like quantum physics is to understand stuff like this, and I acknowledge that my perception is simply conjecture that is based on what I have taken in and conclusions I have reached.  Could totally be wrong.  Part of the fun with science is finding out.  What do you think about my hypothesis (yes, hypothesis.  It cannot be a theory because there is currently no evidence for it.  For all those who say that evolution is “just a theory”)?  Let me know in the Comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, but the illusion of knowledge.” – Daniel J. Boorstin

Peace out,

Maverick

Critical Examination: When Choice-Based Games Fail

I made no secret of the fact that I didn’t like the end of Life is Strange.  I made a post talking about why I didn’t like it.  I made a post where I did my own self-indulgent corrected version of the ending.  But as I look through that post, I realize something that I didn’t before – I am guilty of the same thing that the people who made the game are.  The reason that the ending is something I despise as much as I do isn’t because it’s a giant plot-hole or ridiculously sad for NO reason.  The problem with the ending is deeper than that.  It’s a problem that in this game is actually worse than the last game with the EXACT same problem.  Most of you might see where I’m going with this.  But to really address this problem, we have to look at games that get it right.  Then we can talk about the games that get it wrong.  I am, of course, talking about when the endings of choice-based games fail.  Let’s talk first about a game that gets it right.

Until Dawn

This was one of the most unexpected survival horror games I have ever played.  It was a send-up to so much of the nostalgia that I loved growing up.  From the campy story-line to the tank-controls, this was a game made with all kinds of love for the craft that it worked with.  But this game also did something else right.  Something done so well that I was legitimately shocked when I got to the end.  It got the choice aspect down the best that I have ever seen.  How?  That will take some explaining.

It helped that the narrative of this game played over the course of one night.  In one night, you had to develop characters and make choices that had real consequences.  The consequences were visceral and right in front of you.  I’m talking, of course, about who lives and dies.  That was the biggest consequence of your choices.  Depending on the actions you take, some characters will live, and some will die.  There is no reset button.  Once you make that choice, it’s done.  What’s more, your choices actively shape the relationships of the characters that you are controlling.  You get to see this play out in their interactions.  If you chose to sacrifice Josh instead of Ashley, then you foster a relationship between her and Chris.  If you chose to shoot yourself instead of her, that relationship is cemented.  You see her kissing him when he goes out to save Josh later on.

This game had real consequences with your choices.  Ones that were clear-cut and shown to you.  But this game has a trick – it was all done in one night.  A game with a larger narrative can’t be so simple.  When this game ended, you got to see the ultimate fate of the choices you make.  Instead of some stupid ending choice, the ending to this game was just the culmination of all the choices.  Everything came together, and the ending cutscene was seeing the characters who survived the night being interviewed.  That’s smart!  None of the stupid final choices.  Just the ending to the game.  This game did it flawlessly.

Now, let’s look at a game that did it wrong.

Mass Effect 3

I know, everyone saw this coming.  This game is famous for an ending that is so terrible that it ruined this game for most people.  Were it not for how unfathomably good EVERYTHING else about this game was (up to when the Victory Fleet went to Earth), it would have done the same for me.  But it was all so good.  However, it’s no joke that the game’s ending is bad.  Video after video after video was made explaining why.  It’s pretty simple – the three final choices you make are bullshit.  What’s more, they are ALL plotholes.  Each and every one.

Why does shooting a tube trigger an explosion that destroys the Reapers?  Why does it also destroy the Geth?  How does this technology work?  Why are you walking toward the tube as you shoot it, with it being abundantly clear that it will kill you?  How does grabbing two do-dads make it so you can control the Reapers?  Why not have them all go pile into the nearest star after having control?  How does Shepard maintain his/her conscious mind after doing so?  Without a body, how does Shepard exist?  How on Earth does jumping into a beam of light merge organic and synthetic life?  That is literally impossible.  How does no one realize what absolute hell it would be to force sentience on the husks that were created by the Reapers?  Am I the only one who sees this ending as the most nightmare scenario of all?

These are just a scant few of the endless series of plot holes that were wrong with this ending.  And the truth is that so much of why this ending sucks comes down to having to make this final choice.  There was a fan-cut to the ending of this game where they cut out all the god-kid stuff, and instead had it be where Shepard and Anderson are both bleeding out.  When the Crucible docks with the Citadel, it goes off and triggers the Destroy ending.  That was so much better.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s still stupid, but at least that makes some sense.  This game actually had the balls to introduce a character in the last scene and create a stupid ending that ignores every single thing you did throughout the series.

Here’s another game that got it right.

The Wolf Among Us

Unlike the previous Telltale title, this game had it where the choices you made didn’t just affect who lived and died.  It also affected the relationships that developed over the course of the series.  As Bigby Wolf, you are having to keep the peace in a part of the world where there are a lot of unpleasant people.  Every choice you make affects those relationships.  But the real thing that makes the end of this game works isn’t how there is some final choice.  Instead, there is a final confrontation that culminates in all your choices mattering.

Did you kill the villain of the game earlier?  That was something you could do.  Did you save the life of the club owner who knows the truth about how the girls who work there are kept enslaved?  Did you allow the woman who gave him the enslaving tool the right to kill herself?  Did you foster positive relationships with the various characters, which other characters can then exploit?  Did you solve the various mysteries that were in front of you?  Everything you did affects the final confrontation where the crowd is judging the villain of the story.  That is genius!  One final test, to show how well or poorly you played the game.  Very smart.  It is also cathartic because, if you are like me and want to immerse yourself in a game’s world, getting to play the politics of a world can make you feel like you are a part of it.  The growth of relationships is a good way to have choice mean something.  After all is said and done, and Bigby is continuing his life, you get to see even more results of your choices.  That’s brilliant!

Which brings is back to Life is Strange

Conclusion

The thing that Mass Effect 3 did wrong is the exact same one that Life is Strange did.  Instead of having some big moment of culmination of your choices, all of them get immediately obliterated and turned to ash.  We have seen two examples to games doing it right.  Another example would be The Witcher 3.  In that game, your choices and how they shape things isn’t always clear.  The politics of that world are pretty interesting.  But it makes how things play out that much more appealing.  The thing is, when we play a game that involves choices, we want to feel like they matter.  It’s the whole reason that we were so eager to get further in.  When a game chooses not to follow through on this, it’s more than a little upsetting.  Then you get the assholes like the ones at the now-defunct Kotaku who say that gamers are entitled because we want a game to stick to its conventions.  They have the right to their opinions, I guess.  But they’re still stupid.

Hopefully I get to see more games like the ones that got it right.  I loves me some choice in a game.  It makes things interesting.  Let me know what you think down in the comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“Freedom of choice is more to be treasured than any other possession Earth can give.”  – David McKay

Peace out,

Maverick

SIONR: Narratives Games are Shit?

I was just watching a video by a YouTube page that was talking about how awful narrative games are.  And you know…it is kind of annoying that a person who is as anti-SJW as myself has to defend something that has been widely deemed to be only catering to the SJW crowd, when it isn’t.  I’m a staunch believer in the idea that there is a market for most things.  I will play Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture quite a bit, when I’m looking for some zen and to chill out.  It’s a “walking simulator” game, but one that I like to play because it’s peaceful and you get to uncover a very depressing story.  It’s also gorgeous.  Reminded me of Myst, from WAY back in the day.  Gorgeous, quiet, and something you got to explore at your own pace.

But naturally, a TON of people came out of the woodwork to condemn this game, as people did with the one that came before it – Dear Esther.  Why?  What is it about these games that just infuriates people so much?  Is it because of the simple mechanics?  Is it because of the accolades that these games have often got?  Dear Esther didn’t.  In fact, most sites I remember talked about how it was simplistic, and that hurt its score.  I never claimed that Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is a perfect game.  But it gave me what I was looking for.  So what is it about these games that bugs people?

Back to narrative games, I just did a review to the game The Wolf Among Us, which was loads of fun to play.  I want to experience more of that universe.  It was so much fun.  The level of enjoyment I had was well-worth the lack of complex gameplay elements.  What are people looking for?  My favorite game of last year was Life is Strange, a game that had character that I could care about, and a mystery that was engrossing.  Sure, it crashed on the ending, but what got me there was still well worth the trip.  But so many people hate these kinds of games.  Why?  What is it about games that don’t feature all the complexity of ones like Bloodborne (my second-favorite game of last year) or The Witcher III that makes people so immediately disdainful.

Part of me thinks that this ties back into the whole identity politics thing.  If the SJW crowd wasn’t what it is, then maybe people wouldn’t be so hating of narrative games.  If the SJW crowd hadn’t heaped on praise to a game like Gone Home, maybe this kind of game wouldn’t be so absolutely despised.  Looking at the evidence, I can’t help but think that these kinds of games suffer from the fact that they are associated with a community who has issues.  Now, do I think that all games in the narrative or “walking simulator” genre are good?  Hell no.  I think that Sunset was just as awful as anyone else.  Just because a game is in a genre doesn’t mean I like it.  Believe it or not, but part of me not being an SJW is that my mental faculties actually work, and I am overly critical of both the things I love and the things I hate.

It’s ironic – SJWs actually heaped on abuse to Life is Strange because it was written by men.  They don’t even like that game, but so many people associate it with that community.  This is the problem that I have with this identity politics in gaming.  Either you’re one way, or another.  These communities are becoming so ideologically gridlocked that it’s all-or-nothing anymore.  I’m starting to get why personalities like Angry Joe and Total Biscuit try to ride the middle the way they do.  A voice of moderation is what we need right about now.  We need people who are willing to listen to what all sides have to say and come to their own opinions.  I may not be able to stand what SJWs have to say, but I still read their posts and critique them on my own.

Wow, I totally digressed from narrative games, didn’t I?  Hopefully you all can see why.  Back to them, I think that this is a medium that has a place in gaming.  But there are SO many who want to just dismiss them as schlock or “non-games” or whatever.  That really bugs me, because the truth is, I kind of like how gaming has expanded. Not “grown up,” but expanded.  Gaming is taking chances.  Sometimes those chances don’t work, like a game about a black chick with an afro who cleans an apartment all day.  Yeah, that was stupid.  But then you get games like The Wolf Among Us, and it is so much fun and there are neat characters and the universe is captivating.

Here’s a thought – if we can leave the identity politics at the door, and maybe recognize that we all game for different reasons, perhaps we can actually have some productive conversation about this medium and where it’s going.  Yes?  No?  Let me know in the comments section.  In the meantime, I will be enjoying a “walking simulator,” because I feel like zen right now, having just filled out a lot of job applications and submitted some resumes.

Until next time, a quote,

“Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.” – Pablo Picasso

Peace out,

Maverick

Lucien’s Best Game of 2015

Let me preface this by saying that I am not talking about what I believe was the best-made game.  If that was the criteria, then it would be Bloodborne.  That game is amazing in every way, and with the new expansion is has gotten even better.  On a technical level, that game goes above and beyond everything I’ve played this year.  But when I talk about my best game of this year, I am talking about the game that I got the most invested in, enjoyed playing the most, and felt that I got the most for my money.  It’s pretty damn close, this year.  There were some very fun games that I played.  Some were games that had flaws but were still fun, like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.  That was a game that was boatloads of fun to play, but the story was a ridiculous mess.  Then there are games like Until Dawn, where it is a game that I will put on whenever I am looking for a scary story.  Or something to scare my friends with.

So, all of this in mind, what is the best game that I played this year?  What is the game that stands above the rest in terms of enjoyment and me feeling that I got the most bang for my buck?  Some of you will see this coming from a mile away.  Groj knows, I’ve talked about it enough.  But with this year coming to a close, we’ll have new stuff to talk about next year.  New things for me to bore you all to death with.  So my pick for the best game of 2015 is…

Life is StrangeLife is Strange

I have never played a game like this.  I have never played a game that got me so wrapped up in its characters.  Some of you know that I prefer character-driven narratives to plot-driven ones.  It’s the reason that I am such a HUGE fan of Game of Thrones.  The plot in that show is definitely a back-seat to the characters and their journey throughout the series.  The characters in this game was all so good!  Even the ones who we weren’t supposed to like.  Like Chloe’s step-dad, David.  Sure, he was a dick, but his heart was in the right place.  I like how in Episode 5, you actually got to have a heart-to-heart with him, after he stops Jefferson from killing you.  There was a great moment when I got to truly see what demons were inside him.  Especially if you tell him the truth about what happened to Chloe.  You find out that he truly did care about the students, because he was tortured by what happened to him in the war, and he didn’t want to see anyone else get hurt.  That is pretty profound.  Just one of the many things that could have been improved if the ending to the series wasn’t so stupid.

This game was one that I wanted to see more.  That’s the best thing that you can say with any game.  And I don’t mean that I want a sequel.  I don’t.  After how badly this series ended, I want it to be over and done.  But I wanted more from each episode.  I wanted to explore more of the town and get to know more people.  Get a bigger perspective on the mystery.  I also would have liked to get to know Rachel Amber, learn more of her story.  Another thing that the ending to this series messed up, since I was damn certain that the power was connected to Rachel Amber.  Still, there was so much more to look into.

Was this a perfect game?  No.  I wrote a Critical Examination post where I talked about one of the game’s biggest flaws – facial expression.  This game often had very lackluster facial animation, which would have made certain scenes SO much better.  Like the scene where Max confronts Chloe about the alternate timelines.  When Max’s voice is choking, telling Chloe about what happened, I could see her crying.  So much pain that she’s been bottling up, exploding out, with Chloe looking awkward but wanting to hold her friend.  It would have been better.

Which brings me to another thing I like – the voice acting.  If the facial animation was an issue, it was made up for by the voice acting.  The dialogue wasn’t always natural.  Episode 1 had the worst of it.  I am glad that the dialogue improved dramatically as the series went on.  But the performances in here were all at the top of their class.  It tells how small a production this was, due to how they had to reuse some voices for minor characters.  But the major ones were great.  One of the character who got overlooked was William.  I loved the guy who did that voice.  The scene where you’re talking to him in the alternate timeline was just great.  He rode the line of trying to pretend that he was holding together, while showing signs of just how stressed he was.

But the two I loved most were Chloe and Max.  Those two’s relationship, however you chose to go about it, was the force that held the whole plot together.  I chose to pursue a romance between the two of them, and while I am disappointed by how it turned out (seriously, you only get them to express it if you let Chloe die?  That’s bullshit), it still captivated me.

Not all games have endings that satisfy you.  This one bugs me.  But I was, in my own way, able to correct things, and now I still love this game for all the time I spent with it, and when I revisit it in the future, I am going to love it even more.  Even if it face-planted at the finish line.  What are some of your favorite games this year?  Let me know down in the Comments.  I love a good discussion.

Until next time, a quote,

“Chloe, I can’t keep fixing everything if all I’m going to do is just break it over and over again.”  -Max Caulfield, Life is Strange

Peace out,

Maverick

I Think Episodic Games Are Alright (A response to Mundane Matt)

There’s a YouTube personality that I have talked about on here and watch regularly.  His name is Mundane Matt.  He makes a lot of videos about gaming news, among other things.  He’s someone who I enjoy watching, but in a recent video of his, he had some thoughts about episodic games that actually struck me as a little bit…disagreeable.  I don’t agree with his perspective.  He was talking about the new remake to Final Fantasy VII, and the fact that it is being split into an episodic format.  He sees this as a bad thing, and while this is most definitely not my first pick, I think that it isn’t the worst thing, so long as they keep to a schedule.  I’ll let you all see his video, just for context, and then I’ll talk about it.

I very much think that I’m in some minority when it comes to gaming.  I really do.  Maybe it’s because I’m poor, and have been poor for all of my adult life, but honestly, when Matt talks about how so many gamers are going to be involved in so many games, I always feel like I am weird for being very selective of the games I play.  For example, I know for a fact that I will NEVER play The Division.  An MMO shooter is not what I am interested in.  I game for the story, not the competition.  I got no beef with people who do game for stuff like that.  To each his/her own.  But story is the thing that calls to me.  When it comes to that, I am a pretty patient guy.

Let me put it this way – the episodic game, Life is Strange, was my favorite game of this year.  Even with the STUPID ending that pissed me off, it still is a game that I got wrapped up in in a way that I haven’t gotten with many other games.  Most of that was due to the phenomenal voice-acting of the main characters, Max and Chloe.  But this game got my attention.  Did the fact that it was an episodic game deter me at all from enjoying it?  No.  Granted, I would have liked it if it was all at once, but I was still patient enough to be able to wait for the next episode, while replaying or playing some new stuff.  The story was that engaging, to me.

I think it’s Internet culture that gets us this need for instant gratification.  Not sure if it’s the fact that people get so excited about stuff.  My patience is a flexible animal, so long as what I have is worth something.  With Life is Strange, there were narrative options and things to play around with.  Sure, it would have been nice if the episodes were longer.  Or maybe have more areas to go.  But I was only paying $5 an episode.  For that price, getting something that wasn’t super long didn’t bother me.

With all that said, I will say that the fact that the remake to Final Fantasy VII is going to be episodic is a little concerning, if only because I am really nervous that this is going to be short and dumb.  I was hoping that this game would be bigger.  They talk about adding more to the story, so why make it episodic?  This seems counter-productive.  All the talk about the world of the game being bigger and us having more to explore makes me think that this game might be a little more ambitious than it means to be.  Or that Square Enix is unsure about this product.  Not to mention – how big is this game going to be?  Digital download games tend to take up a lot of space on one’s console.  So annoying that these consoles only have 500 gigs of space.  It should have been a terabyte, at least.  Especially with all the fantastic games that are coming out next year.

Anyway, got off-track.  As I was saying, if the game is good, and the episodic format doesn’t mean that I only will have an hour or two of gameplay before its done, then I am okay.  So long as the episodes aren’t released several months apart.  Within reason, I am able to accept a game that breaks itself up into parts, so long as the parts are good.  Good games is all it comes down to, with me.  Good games that keep my attention.  What is it about modern gaming that makes people think that that isn’t something that the general public could get in on?  Matt talks about all the inundation with AAA gaming ads. I don’t deal with much of that.  I don’t watch regular television.  I mostly watching YouTube.  I keep up with gaming events, and by following sites like Tech Raptor, I have heard about games that otherwise would have slipped off the radar.

In the meantime, the visuals of the Final Fantasy VII Remake look amazing.  The gameplay looks solid as fuck.  Everything about this tells me that it is going to be worth every penny.  But I will give the first episode a go, and if it doesn’t hold up, then I’ll walk.  Let that be on Square Enix.  But I do think that this is a bad choice, if only because I honestly don’t know how they could fit a story as big as this game in an episodic format.  However, I disagree with Matt’s thoughts about episodic games.  This episodic game gives me pause, but only because I am worried that the episodes won’t be worth the time.  This is a game that should be on disc, with all of what I am hoping is a MASSIVE wealth of content for us to explore.  If that means that we have to wait longer, so be it.  Just like with episodic games, I will wait for full games, if the content is worth the money.

Next move is yours, Square Enix.

Until next time, a quote,

“After you find out all the things that can go wrong, your life becomes less about living and more about waiting.” – Chuck Palahnuik

Peace out,

Maverick

Critical Examination: Facial Expression in Video Games

Perhaps I haven’t talked enough about how much I like Life is Strange.  Now that I’ve gotten past my rage point about the ending to the series, I can’t honestly hate it.  It’s like my favorite book – The Amber Spyglass.  That book has one of the most miserably-depressing endings that I’ve ever read.  Sad endings don’t bother me.  At least, not on their own.  Where the Red Fern Grows is the saddest book I’ve ever read.  But I don’t hate the ending.  Okay, that bit right at the end is cheesy as fuck.  I mean, the tie in to the title is the ferns growing on the dogs’ graves?  Weak!  But everything leading up to that felt right.  It was sad.  So sad, that when my teacher was reading this to the class during lunch in 5th Grade, she couldn’t finish.  No joke, that was the first time I ever got to do public speaking.  It was when I went up and finished that story.  It was so hard not to cry in front of the class.  Felt very cool, too.  I was the one she picked.  That was special.

Sad endings, however, have to still make sense within the context of their universe.  Which was my problem with The Amber Spyglass.  That ending comes out of nowhere, is unfathomably depressing, and there’s no reason for it!  In fact, it is so bad that I actually listed it in a post of the top 10 plotholes in things I like.  That bad.  The ending to Life is Strange is much the same.  It is pointlessly depressing, for no reason.  Not to mention all the unanswered questions.  For a game that went so far out of its way to build up the quest for the truth, there were too many things that felt unanswered.  Which leaves me suspecting that there is a sequel coming out.  That bothers me, because I honestly can’t see it improving.

But enough of all that.  The reason that I am bringing up this game, for hopefully the last time, is because I want to talk about a really big flaw in this game, that unfortunately there is no way to fix.  If they wanted to,  they could redo the ending.  But they won’t.  However, the flaw that I am going to talk about now can’t be fixed, due to the limitations of the game’s engine.  That flaw is the facial expressions.

When I was a little kid, facial expression in gaming didn’t mean much, to me.  After all, gaming was too young for stuff like that.  Character thoughts and feelings had to be expressed with exposition.  I didn’t blame the games for that.  It was the tools they had to work with.  Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is a great game, but the fact is that it is simply the story of the hero’s journey.  It makes some point about how hard it is to grow up and how leaving childhood behind is never easy (something that observing Tumblr has taught me oh so well, as it is filled with people kicking and screaming to stay in their childhoods), but the fact is that this wasn’t an especially complicated narrative.  Wonder if I’ll get any Nintendo fanboys (or girls) who will come and try and make a dissertation to me that I’m wrong.  Anyway, the fact is that due to the limitations of what they had, old games couldn’t tell stories about characters that involved too much emotion, because everything had to be conveyed through text or dialogue.  And early games were known for how atrocious their dialogue was.  I mean, have you heard some of the stuff from games like the first Silent Hill?

Yeah, that’s pretty bad.  But that’s just how things were, early on.  Gaming was a young medium, so it could only get so deep.  Let’s have another brief digression to talk about something else – facial expression in other visual mediums.  For those who know, one of the hallmarks of the series Cowboy Bebop was the fact that characters could say one thing, but through both dialogue and facial expression, say two or more things and once.  Anime has had some truly amazing pieces of facial expression.  Since it is a medium that is overly-expressive, emotions tend to be shown big.  Really, really big.  It’s like a neat amount of melodrama, that can be combined with subtlety as well.  Like in the original Fullmetal Alchemist series.  Unlike its successor, the original series was a very subtle story about two brothers and their journey to reclaim their bodies.  Over the course of the series, the two learn the true meaning of sacrifice, and were it not for the STUPID ending that is a complete deus ex machina (for real, memories as equivalent exchange for someone’s life?  Give me a break…), it would have been one of the greatest tragic tales ever told.  With Alphonse having given everything, and Edward realizing that while he could never get back when he lost, all he could do is move forward.  Cathartic?  In a way.  The series was about sacrifice and loss.  Alphonse would make that final sacrifice, to give everything about to the brother he loved so much.

Film, however, uses facial expression in a much bigger way.  Watch the film The Bad Sleep Well, and you will see what I mean.  Akira Kurosawa was a master of using subtle acting to tell great stories.  It helps that he was working with Toshiro Mifune, one of the greatest actors to ever live.  There is a great scene in the film where it is just three people in a room.  You have Mifune’s character, who is undercover.  A man that he is framing, to keep himself out of the line of fire.  And the person in charge, who could destroy him if he is caught.  Just through the use of expression, you can see the story get told.  It is a scene where you have a man go from being nearly in trouble, to being alone again, planning his next move.  There is almost no dialogue.  It’s all done through expression.  That’s amazing!  Film is the medium to capture this the best.

The first time that I genuinely saw what facial expression could be like in video games was in a little game called Final Fantasy X.  In that game, we have the story of a man who is thrown out of his world and forced to fight to defend another.  It’s a very emotional story, focusing on the young man’s inner hatred of his father, his feeling of helplessness at being trapped where he is, and the fact that he wants to go home, but can’t.  It’s a very hardcore game.  It also has some incredible use of just voice acting and facial expression to sell moments.  Like the following scene…

This scene runs the emotional gamut!  You have Yuna facing down the fact that she has lost her faith and feels lost and alone.  You have Tidus offering her a way out, appealing to the fact that he wants to go home, and giving her a way to leave all of her pain behind.  You have Yuna hating the fact that she can’t take him up on it.  Then, you have both of them sharing a romantic moment together, letting their love shine through.  Out of context, that is not the easiest thing to really see, but it’s there all the same.  Not only is that scene emotionally intense, but you can feel their emotions through the use of facial expression.  It was the first time that I saw that video games can tell emotional stories without a ton of exposition.  Or at least exposition alone.

In recent years more than any other, video games are capitalizing on it.  Without the incredible facial animation, would the scene at the end of The Last of Us be anywhere near as good?  Would you be able to sell the emotional gamut that that scene has?  Where Ellie is confronting Joel about his obvious lie, then choosing to accept the lie?  Without that amazing facial animation, how else could it be done?  Modern gaming has done incredible things with facial animation, partly through the use of motion capture cameras.  This technology was first pioneered in games like Heavy Rain, but didn’t really become the amazing force that it was until a game called L.A. Noire.  That game used facial expression to help you solve crimes.  If the game hadn’t felt the need to embrace the Grand Theft Auto side of Rockstar’s repertoire, then maybe it could have gone further with it.  But you take the good with the bad.

Video games have come a LONG way from where they started.  Games that would otherwise be rather unremarkable are made remarkable because of the fact that they focus on narrative-driven stories.  Games like Bioshock Infinite.  I think that’s a great game, but the reality is that without the truly wonderful characters and really insane plot, that game’s mechanics aren’t especially remarkable.  This is the thing that makes modern gaming truly special.  Which leads me back, finally, to Life is Strange.

The biggest thing hold this game back, in my opinion, was the facial animation.  The world of that game has some amazing depth and detail.  And the voice acting was at the top of its class.  While the dialogue could be utterly-ridiculous at times, it is the sheer emotional dedication from every character that sells it.  You feel for these people.  But I think you would feel for them more if the facial animation was better.  Let me give you an example.

This is my absolute favorite scene in the entire series.  Hands-down, this is where the peak of the emotion in this game comes in.  I had been wanting there to be a scene where Max tells Chloe the truth about what happened in the alternate timeline, along with how she feels about what she has done to Chloe in so many timelines, and nowhere was it more on display than right here.

But there is one major problem – you can HEAR the pain in Max’s voice.  You can hear her getting torn up and on the verge of breaking down.  But you can’t see it.  This scene could have been SO much better with better facial animation.  For one, why isn’t Max crying?  It sounds like she is.  Everything in that delivery says that Max is crying when she tells Chloe the truth about William and what she did to her in the alternate timeline.  Hearing the hurt is great, but this isn’t an audio medium.  It’s a visual one.  I wanted to see Max’s pain.  I wanted to see Chloe’s uncertainty and sudden diffusion of her anger as she is watching a girl that she may or may not be falling for sobbing in front of her.  Not only would it have made that scene a real tear-jerker, but it would have made so many other scenes that much better.  At times, the facial animation works.  But there are too many places where it works against the game, like these people are marionettes on strings.

Great facial animation means something, in gaming.  Now more than ever, games can have great narratives that make you feel for the characters in them.  It’s why I went from hate to love when getting to know the characters in Until Dawn.  It’s why Joel and Ellie are two of my favorite characters in anything!  Great voice acting is a great thing, but it can only go so far.  We need gaming to deliver something more.  Without characters to deliver on that, it is impossible to really take in how much great narratives can do in this medium.

But let me know what you all think.  Am I totally off-base on this issue?  Are you able to get all the emotional depth you need out of just voice acting?  Or does all of this seem pretentiously stupid?  I wouldn’t blame you if you thought that way.  I do overanalyze everything, from what I hate to what I love.  Let me know in the Comments.

Until next time, a quote,

“No!  Not this way!  Chloe, I can’t keep fixing everything if all I’m going to do is just break it, over and over again!”  -Max Caulfield, Life is Strange

Peace out,

Maverick