Nintendo Switch and the Buffet You Will Never Eat

Craig Lupienski

I like Nintendo’s new system, Switch. I’m not necessarily going to regurgitate its features and games and accessories here. I don’t feel like typing it and you can find that somewhere else. Sorry.

As primarily a handheld gamer, the idea of a hybrid system is very appealing to me. I do occasionally play games on the TV, and sometimes even games that aren’t Overwatch, so it’s a nice feature to have! This is a system designed with me in mind.

Nintendo Neon Switch

The current and known 2017 Switch library seems a bit thin when measured by sheer volume or recognizable brands. I think there’s a tendency among gamers to hoard games, both in practice (as one may do during Steam sales) and in spirit (as in endless lists of titles forum warriors may use to justify the value of their chosen console). I think a lot of gamers appreciate the confidence that comes from the support of major franchises and publishers, even if they will likely never play most of those games. I know because as a teenager, I felt the same way! So on the one hand I can understand this mindset, but I think we should stop pretending we want a buffet when our own behavior suggests we really only want a few comfort food entrees.

And when it comes to comfort food, Nintendo is head chef. I prefer a new Zelda and a new Mario, both of which look the best their series have to offer, a new Bomberman, a new Splatoon, half of a new Mario Kart, Puyo Puyo Tetris, Has Been Heroes, and Rime (in less than a year!) over a slew of EA Sports titles I will never, ever play and will end up in the Walmart clearance bin for $9.99 a month after release. Even Nintendo’s stranger offerings, such as Snipperclips and ARMS, a multiplayer puzzle game and a one-on-one brawler respectively, look increasingly creative and engaging the more I see of them. ARMS in particular looks like the beautiful love son of Teleroboxer and Dissidia Final Fantasy.

 

Nintendo Switch Arms

 

The real takeaway from Nintendo, both in hardware and in software, is to purposefully not expect the same thing that Sony and Microsoft are doing. It’s foolish, and yet, without fail, folks walk away enraged that Nintendo has not revealed a samey black box with a samey black controller to play samey big budget AAA Activision games. It’s a blessing few recognize that the gaming space can accommodate three competing manufacturers (plus PC!). Sony and Microsoft operating mostly in lock-step with each other producing predictable machines and games gives Nintendo the breathing room to conduct the experiments I would argue the industry needs. If you want to play Ubisoft games scattered with a million tedious icons, there are three platforms to already do that. What is with the whining for a fourth? Why would we not want to leverage the fourth for something different and take comfort in knowing that the different has its own home?

(For the record, I sometimes like the drudgery of Ubisoft open world games. Far Cry is terrific, delicious busywork.)

This is all to say I accept and even enjoy the reality of a Nintendo console and its library, and not to say I don’t have any grievances with any of those things. I don’t have any complaints about the price of the system itself though. I’ve read comparisons stating that one can purchase a PlayStation 4 for the same price and that’s somehow a biting critique or something. That’s a great value if you want a PS4, but it doesn’t do you any good if you want a Switch. I don’t care if the specs are better in the PS4 if I can play the new console Zelda on the shitter with the Switch. Three hundred dollars is competitive. It’s fine.

I am disappointed that Nintendo’s new minigame extravaganza designed to highlight the unique uses of the controllers and console, 1 2 Switch, is not packed in at $300 though. I’m not disappointed for me, I get it, but I’m disappointed for the normies. Nintendo waffled on packing in its last minigame compilation, Nintendoland, and only included it with the the more expensive version of the Wii U. I still think that was a mistake. The Wii was a good system and deserved to succeed on its own merits, but let’s be realistic: Its success was due in no small part to packing in Wii Sports. Why would you not want to duplicate that business model?

 

Nintendo 1 2 Switch

 

It seems absolutely insane that Nintendo dreams up these weird systems and controllers and expects consumers to figure out the benefits on their own.  The Wii was a smash hit because they didn’t have to figure it out. It was right there in the box. Don’t tell me how great your bizarre Joycon controllers are and then ask that I spend another $60 to actually see it in action. I’m sure some bean counter thought it more profitable to sell it separately, and it could be argued that 1 2 Switch is a great game that stands on its own two legs, but none of that matters if no one buys the system in the first place. To wit, every non-gamer at the office that I told about the Switch thought it was a great idea. They didn’t even balk at the price tag! But they’re unlikely to understand the true value without something like 1 2 Switch in the box.

Swallow your pride and pack in the fucking game.

It’s also frustrating that the Switch’s internal storage is hilariously scant. Nintendo is very economical with game file sizes; whereas Doom, a 10 hour linear shooter consumes 75 fucking GBs on my PS4, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, an expansive open world RPG, is only 14 GBs. This is good! But the Switch comes with 32 GB built in and support for MicroSD cards officially up to 256 GB. This is bad! If it’s a matter of cost, drop all the crazy bullshit in the Joycon controllers and build in more flash storage. As neat as the controllers are, I guarantee in three years none of that nonsense inside them will matter, but storage will.

I think the last thing that bothers me is that less than two months from launch, Nintendo has almost no details on its online plans other than they will now be charging a fee for online play. I can’t begrudge Nintendo for wanting to be dealt in on a game Microsoft and Sony have been playing for a while, but Nintendo has no credit in this casino. If you liked to casually play Mario Kart and Splatoon with your friends or strangers, both the Wii U and 3DS were functionally adequate in this regard, but in basically no other regard. The biggest issue is that Nintendo does not tie your digital purchases to your account, but rather to your hardware, which is a disaster if your Wii U explodes or your 3DS is stolen. You can’t simply buy a new machine, log in and redownload your purchases like you can with literally every other similar appliance on the planet. Even if you just upgrade to a new 3DS model, you have to lay the old 3DS and new 3DS side by side to transfer the purchases from one to the other in a lengthy process that leaves your previous 3DS empty. Heaven forbid if two people played your third Virtual Console copy of Super Mario Bros 3 at the same time!

Needless to say, Nintendo has a lot of work to do before their online services are worth paying for. They’re barely worth tolerating for free. The lack of online details and Nintendo’s aversion to showing the Switch’s OS leaves me to believe all that stuff is coming in hot for launch. Like, on fire hot. Not really surprising given both the 3DS and the Wii U had similar launches, but I wish Nintendo would have learned by now.

But that’s Nintendo! They’re the mad scientist who can’t tie their own fucking shoes. The things they screw up are obvious and irritating, but Jesus, have you played Splatoon? It’s incredible. Nintendo at their best are absolutely, unequivocally unparalleled. Their top tier games are well worth minor annoyances and forgoing the buffet I’ll never eat anyway.

 

Nintendo Switch Splatoon 2 Dab

Fallout 4 and the Art of Fort Building

Craig Lupienski

Building a childhood clubhouse is, if not an ubiquitous experience, it’s certainly an ubiquitous theme. Bart Simpson had a treehouse, and it was kind of a nice treehouse. Treehouses are a pain in the ass to build (as I so learned in middle school). When I was a kid, we built forts. A fort was raw, it was primal. It wasn’t treated wood purchased from Home Depot and nailed neatly together. It was cobbled together junk I found, and after a Saturday of building, I could stand back with my hands on my hips and take pride in my work.

Just past the woods line in my backyard, nestled against a sheer rock drop, I built my first fort in a thicket a friend and I cleared out. It was the summer of 1991 and I was eight years old. The air was thick and moist, and smelled of the hot wild grapes growing in the woods. Frankie and I stacked heavy rocks on one side for a wall and used the remaining tangled brush as a barrier on the opposite side. Deep in the woods, we had discovered an old Volkswagen Beetle wreck, far from any road. Scattered around the car were various tools and a cache of sheet metal. Frankie and I scavenged and lugged what we could back to the fort, including the bucket seats from the Beetle, and outfitted our hideout.

A tree in the corner of the fort served as a lookout nest, and its hefty vines a means of escape –a lookout for whom and an escape from what, we never really figured that out. Home Alone was a recent favorite movie of mine, so we devised booby traps of falling rocks and buckets of water; the only real safe way into the fort was to lower oneself from the rock drop on a ladder we had made from an old cargo net. Even still, the traps were only ever sprung when we intentionally triggered them on one and other.

The key to building a good fort is uselessness, and building forts in Fallout 4 is the crowning champ of uselessness. It’s a whole fiddly system of extraneous bullshit busywork. And I loved it.

Sanctuary

In Fallout 4, the player can build settlements by throwing a bunch of garbage together scavenged from the ruins of Boston. The denizens only have a few basic requirements to consider the settlement home, but the piles of pilfered paraphernalia can be used to build toilets for people who don’t use the bathroom, dumpsters for trash that never comes, and pool tables that are never played. Even the required defenses, much like my own traps and lookout towers, are for foes that never come.

Settlement residents pantomime lives, creating routines that seemingly give the appearance of a functioning establishment, but it’s not much more convincing than a couple of eight year olds trying to build stuff from looted sheet metal. I think Frankie and I assumed we needed to do something in the fort we built, but I don’t think we ever really bothered to ask why we built a fort in the first place. Building settlements has no bearing on the progression or the resolution in Fallout 4, they don’t matter either.

There is a sense of pride, though, in scraping together disparate junk and carving out a space of your own with what feels like no help at all. I didn’t receive any guidance from my dad or anything like that as a kid, and I certainly didn’t receive any guidance from Fallout 4; its building system barely fucking works. But when it all finally comes together, there’s nothing like standing back with all the satisfaction of an accomplished eight year old on a Saturday summer afternoon.

Metal Gear Solid’s Terrible Child


Craig Lupienski

Lightly crumpled at the top of the bathroom trash can was a child support check stub. It was for me. I was the supported child. I plucked it from the trash and just inadvertently discovered that my father was not my real father.

I had long suspected something wasn’t quite right, that my parents weren’t exactly honest about my genetics. I initially thought I was adopted, thinking situations like these were binary: either both my parents were my parents, or they were not. When I was 10, I asked about it and my mother was furious at the insinuation that she wasn’t my real mother. But the anger was a deflection. She knew I was on to something, but refused to admit it. Finding out from the garbage was maybe a better way in her mind.

At the end of the first Metal Gear Solid game, it is revealed to the hero, Solid Snake, by his genetic brother, Liquid Snake, that they are clones of Solid’s nemesis, Big Boss. Products of the Les Enfants Terrible program, they are the terrible children, engineered to be super soldiers. Liquid laments his role in the program, his belief that he was born of Big Boss’s recessive genes so that Solid may inherit all of his dominant genes. Then, the two battle and Solid is forced to kill his brother.

twin snakes

Before the Metal Gear Solid series delved into Byzantine stories of shadow governments and private miltaries, it was a story about genetic legacy and identity. Or, that’s how I took it anyway, having just discovered my own genetics were in question.

Metal Gear Solid is known for its dramatic and overwrought stories, ripe for a depressed teenager to latch onto and cherry pick. But I believe, as someone who is no longer a teenager, that there’s still humanity under the melodrama. Liquid’s anguish over being the lesser sibling shook me; my biological father had a number of other sons, those he kept and took care of, and I, the lesser son he did not.

It’s later revealed that Solid, the triumphant sibling, is actually the recessive twin. I did not know how to parse this. Liquid only believed that he was the lesser sibling, like I did, but I, like anyone, wanted to be the hero of my own story. If I were the hero, would I actually be the lesser sibling? Would I ever actually be the hero?

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain released this week and I probably won’t be playing it anytime soon. Funny, considering I’ve played every other Metal Gear Solid, including Ghost Babel, Portable Ops, and Peacewalker. I enjoyed most of them to some extent, but none have resonated with me like the first. Worse, many entries in the series star the player as Big Boss in a sympathetic hero cum villain role, and I didn’t want to play as the absent father. That’s probably a subject best left untouched.

snake2

The original game hit me like a freight train, arriving at the right time (or wrong time, maybe) to speak to me with its verbose  cutscenes in a way no other game could. I find most games in the series clunky and uninteresting. But Metal Gear Solid played my pain out between two brothers, fighting each other for the right to exist. I was both of them all at once. I was the abandoned. I was the dominant and the recessive. I was the terrible child.

I first played Metal Gear Solid burned to a CD-R on a borrowed PlayStation. The console wasn’t mine and the game was just an illegitimate copy. I was a grieving, illegitimate kid. Without that sense of crisis and confusion, Metal Gear Solid would have been just a hollow, clumsy game with a silly script.

The Quiet Restrained Progress of the Game Boy Color

Craig Lupienski

I lived with my grandparents in 1998. I was 15, the carpets were rusty copper shag and my bedroom was lined with wood paneling. Puffy Disney VHS cases filled shelves in a spare bedroom, but in the office we had a pretty modern PC. It was like being stuck in a time warp with little bits of disparate eras slamming into each other.

Nintendo was in a similar position by then with their aging Game Boy hardware and its incremental follow up, the Game Boy Color. Nintendo had coasted on the Game Boy for nearly a decade with only two revisions that altered the mass or screen, but never the guts. The Game Boy Color’s Z80 processor is twice as fast as the original Game Boy’s Z80, and the GBC has three times as much memory as the GB, making it the first real update to the innards, but even then it was still only a stepping stone to the real successor, the Game Boy Advance.

Reeling from the then extravagant cost of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time released the same month, I had to wait until Christmas for a Game Boy Color. I remember sitting on that shag carpeting surrounded by scraps of wrapping paper, utterly floored that I could now play The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening in color.

zeldadx

And Link’s Awakening perfectly exemplifies the time warp the Game Boy Color was trapped in. Like many other early GBC games, Link’s Awakening was really a Game Boy game masquerading in a black cartridge and a severely limited color palette. These “dual compatible” games maybe made good business sense because of the potential to reach both legacy Game Boy owners as well as new Game Boy Color owners, but because they also work in the original system, they take no advantage of the GBC’s updated specs.

Games strictly compatible with only the Game Boy Color were housed in translucent cartridges and had been around since launch, becoming increasingly more common the longer the machine was on store shelves. Nintendo has never provided a breakdown of system sales in the Game Boy line, so it’s impossible to say for sure how well the Game Boy Color actually sold, but given there are more dedicated GBC games than dual compatible games, it either sold well or developers were extraordinarily confident that their game would succeed in a fractured market.

The Game Boy Color was only around for about two and a half years before the Game Boy Advance made its debut, but in that time, there are a number of games that really pushed the system to the limit. Not necessarily just in terms of raw processing power, but also conceptually. There are games that straight up might have just been a better fit on another platform.

Lufia: The Legend Returns, for instance, did begin life on another platform, the PlayStation. It was reworked significantly for the Game Boy Color, of course, but its battle system is exceptionally deft for a handheld title, probably owing a great deal to originally being designed for a console.

Warlocked is an excellent little known Nintendo published title for the system, probably passed over in favor of Pokemon Gold and Silver Versons which released just a few months later. Real-time strategy games are not very common on home consoles, they’re usually best left to PCs, but the fact that developer Bits Studio crafted a good one on the Game Boy Color is a remarkable feat.

I’m personally a big fan of Magi-Nation, an impressive western developed turn based Pokemon-style RPG. Metal Gear Solid is a fantastic game that borrows heavily from previous titles in the series designed for more capable hardware. Shantae’s animations are second to none. There are games with rumble feedback, motion controls, fully voiced dialog, and even games that connected to a mobile network in Japan. The Game Boy Color ushered in an explosion of often overlooked technical and creative advancement.

getintoit

It’s as if developers were desperate for something more powerful in the handheld space and almost immediately created games far richer than anyone would ever dream. But just as quickly as these games surpassed their predecessors, they just as quickly hit the Game Boy Color’s wall of limitations: Lufia struggles to communicate everything it needs to in its cluttered menu screens, Magi-Nation’s battles are sluggish, Metal Gear Solid is begging for a couple extra buttons, and Warlocked could probably use a bigger screen.

There is tremendous innovation and ambition in these games. The drive to create something new, something beyond what the original Game Boy was capable of, is clearly evident. But it was a progression of restraint, bound by the confines of the Game Boy Color’s humble specifications. A brand new computer in a home of shag carpets and wood paneling.

My Last Great Online Thrill

Craig Lupienski

I picked up Gears of War: Ultimate Edition for Xbox One this week, and while playing, a friend signed on. I met him playing Gears when it originally released in 2006, huddled under blankets and drinking bottles of Sam Adams. We played a series of well-coordinated rounds in matchmaking together and had a blast, so we became “Xbox friends,” playing Gears together through the winter. We haven’t spoke, let alone played together, in years, but I paused my game and checked to see if he was also playing Ultimate Edition. He was.

Gears of War was probably the last time online gaming still felt surprising for me. In sharp contrast, my first experience in the late 80s or early 90s was lackluster and I was too young to appreciate what I was actually doing. My paternal grandfather, who was the sort of guy who bought the weird shit you never heard of in the back of a Radio Shack, showed me how to dial out and play Carmen Sandiego. It was slow and frustrating and I quickly lost interest.

Over the next decade, I lacked both the hardware and the desire to play games online. In the mid 90s, playing GoldenEye with my friends or siblings in the same room seemed more appealing than fighting with America Online and fiddling with PC games.

Everquest

That didn’t change much late in 1999 when my best friend convinced me to invest in EverQuest. I forced myself to believe I was having a good time for months before finally giving up. The unfriendly world seemed better suited for only the most dedicated and ardent players; I wished the landscape was free of other players and mobs so I could just explore. The kinds of experiences most online PC games provided at the time just were not for me.

And PCs were always prohibitively expensive for my family growing up. I had had little experience with them for much of online gaming’s infancy, so it’s little surprise my first memorable experiences were actually on consoles. As a fan of RPGs, Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast was like a wonderful dream (as opposed to the nightmares of EverQuest). I couldn’t play often because it tied up our phone line, but I played as often as I could. I remember logging in on Valentine’s Day and seeing the ship decorated with hologram hearts. I didn’t even know that was possible! I thought a dynamic environment was just the coolest thing.

A couple years later, I bought a modem for the PlayStation 2 specifically for Tony Hawk’s Underground. Although I could clear the single player goals in a Tony Hawk game with little problem, I wasn’t a very competitive player until Underground. Underground introduced a battle mode called Fire Fight, wherein creating bigger and bigger combos would launch bigger and bigger fireballs from the tip of your board with the goal of destroying the other players. I was devastating at Fire Fight. Matches would culminate with the text chat scrolling across the screen cheering on my handle, Big Mac, as I annihilated the last of the competition.

That thrill of being cheered on by strangers was new and intoxicating. I played Underground until the community dwindled and no one was left to cheer for Big Mac. I only half-heartedly dabbled in other online games until I bought an Xbox 360 with Gears of War.

Even by then, the Xbox 360 online community had earned a reputation of being filled with foul-mouthed children but I found the early Gears community was composed mostly of friendly young guys like myself. I liked the single player, but the multiplayer wouldn’t have been nearly as attractive if the other people playing weren’t so welcoming.

gears_of_war

I remember one match on the Fuel Depot map, standard four on four Warzone deathmatch. The opposing team, still numbering four, had killed the other three players on my team. I skulked around the map, staying in cover and out of sight. My only hope was the Hammer of Dawn, a weapon that takes a few seconds to acquire its target before triggering a column of fire from the orbiting satellites. The only problem was that on Fuel Depot, the Hammer of Dawn was located in the wide open and I was severely outgunned. I made a mad dash for it, picked it up and spun around. The opposing team, huddled stupidly close together, were running toward me. I pointed the Hammer of Dawn at the group, praying the acquisition would complete before they reached me. The Hammer’s beeping slowly ramped up and just before I was sure I would be killed, all four enemy players exploded into thick, meaty chunks. My mic cut over to the post-game lobby and all I could hear was my team loudly cheering in my earpiece. I’m not very good at games, especially competitively, so the feeling of winning a match like that was incredible.

I probably won’t recapture those memories playing Gears of War. I don’t play online very often and when I do, it’s not with a headset. My friends have different schedules and different consoles. Different lives. So I don’t even intend on trying. But it’s sort of nice to play the game again, virtually side by side with someone I played it with years ago. Online gaming can be pretty great, even at its most passive.

Heroki, Or The Traditional Phone Game From 1998

Craig Lupienski

My first review on YouTube to ever include footage of the game in question (instead of just my talking head) was Gamevil’s action-RPG Zenonia on the iPhone. Without a decent handheld camera, I accomplished this by wrapping my arms around my MacBook, pointing my first gen iPhone at the iSight and praying it was in frame. It was uncomfortable and I could barely see what I was doing as I played. I did it though because I was entranced by Zenonia.

Zenonia was the first game I played on my iPhone that delivered on the promise of a “traditional” game for a few bucks on the slab of glass in my pocket, and I was amazed. Over time though, the novelty wore off and I soon grew tired of these “traditional” style games with fake d-pads and fake buttons overlayed on the touch screen. My thumbs obscured the display and I stopped believing saving a little money was worth playing a platformer or an action game without tactile buttons. After a few years, I was no longer interested in a “traditional” experience on my phone. I wanted a phone experience on my phone. For the record, my favorite iPhone game is Super Hexagon.

In the years following Zenonia, a lot of studios and publishers big and small have chased the traditional style phone game. Some have worked to refine fake buttons and adapt interaction with some handicap in mind, while others have opted to simplify their games, relegating control to a few taps or swipes that approximate standard controls. In my experience, both methods have met varying levels of success, though I’ve thought for some time that it’s silly to try to mimic most console games at all.

And then I played Heroki from Sega. It’s not quite right, but I think it’s on to something.

Heroki

Heroki is the first game developed by Dutch studio Picomy, running on the proprietary Picon engine. The company’s website states the engine took five years to create, and visually, it looks quite nice. Heroki is lively and colorful with playful animations and a pleasing attention to detail. By this point in the iPhone’s life, though, Heroki looks great but not necessarily exemplary. What really makes Heroki and the Picon engine stand out is how Heroki plays.

The title character is of a race of propeller-headed sprites, which is not just a cute character design decision, but a smart gameplay design decision as well. Heroki zips around levels with the drag of a finger, faithfully following with a slight, predictable drift. There are few obstacles that require a twitchy finger, and no bottomless pits to plummet down. Heroki can pick up objects with a tap, and dangles them obviously from his arms. Pulling back on the object will allow Heroki to toss it Angry Birds style. Finally, Heroki can drop like a rock and bounce on objects if the player touches the empty air below him.

In practice, it’s a series of smart controls that account for playing on a phone, but never feel like the player has to concede any agency. The level design, while sometimes a little too sprawling or confusing, accounts for the slower pace these controls require and the result is a game that plays a lot like a console platformer. But on a phone. And remarkably well. Unfortunately, the rest of Heroki’s design borrows a little too heavily from platformers in 1998. The serpentine levels are littered with crates, powerups, hundreds of tiny orbs, the letters of Heroki’s name and a handful of triangular doodads. Maybe more, I don’t know. I didn’t play the whole game, largely due to disappointment.

Heroki_Watercolor

At first, the set up seems natural and I don’t entirely blame Picomy or Sega or whoever the responsible party is. At the heart of most platformers over the last 30 years has been collecting junk. Jumping and running, sure sure, but picking up sparkly things strewn about too. Even on a 21st century platform with an inventive control scheme, it doesn’t feel out of place for Heroki, but it does feel a lot less clever than the rest of the game.

Picomy has done something praise-worthy. The controls and mechanics the studio have crafted are terrific, but using them to do the same old bauble scavenger hunt feels antiquated, more so than if Heroki were a game on a console. Maybe this is my problem, maybe I have unfair expectations. But it’s still an awful waste to use such imaginative mechanics to drive an adherence to tradition.

Gears of War and Unearned Emotional Impact

Craig Lupienski

In 2006, Microsoft marketed Gears of War with a CG commercial backed by Gary Jules’ melancholy Mad World cover. The ad, and its use of Mad World, was so successful that the song shot up on iTunes charts and was eventually on the Gears of War 3 soundtrack. Initially praised for conveying a more somber side of war, the spot soon was criticized because the same level of sobriety wasn’t in the game itself.

Microsoft didn’t invent appeal to emotion, and Gears certainly wasn’t the first game to market itself that way, but the Mad World ad seemed to kick off the modern use of unearned emotional impact. Marketing that exploits feelings the games themselves never, or clumsily, follow through with in order to foster a bond with the consumer before they even get the game in their hands. E3 2014 seemed to be wall-to-wall down tempo trailers filled with dudes killing other dudes.

GearsXB1

Hey, it’s advertising. I get it. Fib a little and make your audience feel something. I’m not against any of that necessarily, but as games have become more complicated and more profitable, one would think the stories driving them would be more sophisticated to match and they haven’t.

I’m often very critical of video game stories. I think parts of game stories sometimes work, but usually, I think video games are just awkward strings of bad dialog. After nearly 30 years of playing games, I’ve come to accept this just as I have come to accept advertising is often deceptive, but video game advertising, at least as it applies here, doesn’t have to be deceptive. Video games have the capability to at least try to earn that poignancy they so readily believe they have already attained because their 30 second TV commercial told you they have. Instead, you spend 12 hours murdering swaths of people and upgrading your boots.

To market the re-release of Gears of War for Xbox One, Microsoft produced a new trailer featuring Mad World. This one doesn’t even seem to bother to aim for the heartstrings, but rather, squarely at cheap nostalgia. “Remember this ad from nine years ago?” it seems to ask, lazily conjuring up feelings it already provoked. What seemed novel (if dishonest) then only feels cloying and obvious now. It doesn’t kindle fond memories. It only reminds me that, even though I actually enjoyed Gears quite a lot, it never made me feel anything close to that ad.

Video game ads used to be taken to task for featuring CG footage, or no footage at all. Stuff that wasn’t in the game. Now they’re being marketed with emotion that isn’t in the game. Fewer people seem upset by this than the dishonest game footage, but it’s no less disingenuous. Game ads with dishonest footage have partially fallen by the wayside as video game graphics have grown more sophisticated. In fact, a trailer using all in-game footage has become a common badge of honor. Maybe the writing will soon follow, a small bit of text at the bottom of screen proudly proclaiming “In-Game Feelings.” Slow motion violence set to Lorde can’t make up for the lack of genuine human emotion in games themselves forever.

Destiny’s Solar System of Hamster Wheels

Craig Lupienski

The most overwhelming aspect of Destiny for me, as someone who jumped in just before House of Wolves released, was the multitude of currencies, resources, and progress bars. Experience and Glimmer, that’s easy to understand. And then there’s Light, ok, I get that. But Strange Coins, Ascendant Shards, Motes of Light, Relic Iron –what is all this shit? And how the hell did they get so tangled?

Bungie once described Destiny as an ominvore’s game. This is true not only in terms of the sort of person one would need to be to want to sample all the game has to offer, but it’s also true because the different currencies and resources that you may want for one mode have to be farmed from another mode. In short, to progress in pretty much any one thing in Destiny, one will have to at least dabble in other modes. You HAVE to be an omnivore.

taken-king

This is was probably born of necessity at first. The expansions, thankfully, have ironed out some kinks and filled in the gaps, but vanilla Destiny was a sparse game. It was a wasteland that offered little incentive to keep running on the hamster wheel –until you realize you can’t get much further until you run on another wheel. And then another. And then another.

It’s easy to disparage Bungie for interconnecting its thin modes to stretch player interest, but really, it was kind of smart. I played the beta and passed on the retail game for quite a while because I couldn’t see myself investing the kind of time necessary to run on all these different wheels for all these different pieces of cheese. But after finally buying the game, I am doing just that. I’m running on all the wheels. I’m buying all the expansions. And I’m liking it.

A friend recently bought the game so we could play together and I’ve only just got a grasp on these concepts myself, but teaching him all this stuff makes it seem ridiculous. “Run a few repetitive Strikes or Prison of Elders to get Strange Coins (not Glimmer) so you can buy an Exotic weapon from Xur on the weekend so you have a better chance in the Iron Banner, a monthly Crucible event. Be sure to take some Bounties before you play. Oh, and don’t get too attached to any of this because Bungie might just change how every meaningful thing works next expansion!”

I wonder what the psychology behind this is; why juggling a few different things for interconnected rewards somehow feels more enjoyable than just pursuing one reward? It’s not as if the modes are all THAT different from one and other. Maybe because it’s cathartic to construct a sequential list of playable chores for the chance to get some new boots. I don’t know. I’m well aware Destiny has its hooks in me, but I’m not really sure how or why.

I do know that I am genuinely looking forward to The Taken King next month. I can’t wait to run on all those wheels.

Life is Strange: Soap Opera Normalcy

Craig Lupienski

Fair warning: I find it hard to discuss games without also discussing spoilers and, as such, this post contains what some people might feel are plot spoilers.

When I first started playing Pokemon Red Version when I was 16, I would abuse reloading my save file if I did not get favorable outcomes so much that I would immediately consider reloading a previous save file in real life if I had just said or done something stupid. Reloading save files, as a concept, was lodged in my head much in the same way a catchy song would be. I actually felt it was kind of a problem for a little while.

Max Caulfield, so named in what is likely a heavy handed homage, is inexplicably given the ability to rewind time –just a bit– in the first episode of Life is Strange. Much like the power I coveted at about her age, Max can discover different outcomes for immediate actions as if she were reloading a previous save file. A photography student at a prestigious school, Max is framed as shy, but “normal” in a school full of stereotypes and strong personalities. It’s a lot like a modern day John Hughes flick, which I’m actually ok with and was looking forward to, but the melodrama in Life is Strange would make any 80s teen movie blush.

Life is Strange seemingly wants to portray an average girl but a few of the events in first episode alone, which takes place over the course of a day, are so outlandish as to be unbelievable. Because the episode takes place over the course of just a day, even the more mundane encounters feel too densely packed, as if developer Dontnod is running down a checklist of cliches to nail in the span of maybe two hours of gameplay. It’s all capped off with a premonition of a Rhode Island sized tornado destroying the town and teaser for the next episode that includes Max’s best friend, Chloe, trapped on railroad tracks in the path of an oncoming train. The timeline of the tornado premonition suggests each episode takes place over a day. Just how many shitty situations can a “normal” teenage girl with the power to rewind time find herself in in just five days? Is she Jack Bauer?

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So, yes, life is strange when everyone and everything is openly hostile and antagonistic, but whose life does this actually reflect? Life is Strange is at its best when Max uses her power to rewind time and answer a question correctly in class, or when she has to hunt down a flash drive to return to a friend, or when she is riding shotgun in a pickup truck with Chloe as the sun streaks through the trees. And even during these mundane scenes, the game reinforces that even virtuous decisions may not have the best outcome in later episodes. There is no morality meter and no clear cut path. But these aspects are not woven very well with the surreal and supernatural elements. They almost feel like two different games.

And there are plenty of games about disasters and time travel and guns and friends in peril, but not very many about a teenage girl navigating the pitfalls of everyday life, even with a superpower. It may not be the most exciting subject, but a game about Max rewinding time in everyday situations, and the impact on her as a person, would be more interesting than the unrealistic amount of tension and conflict the game already presents in the first episode. Life is Strange lacks a lot of the subtlety of real life, and that’s not strange. That’s a video game.

Talking to Video Games

Craig Lupienski

“EAT MY SHORTS” the Game Boy hissed at me, as if through a tin can telephone. It was the first time I heard a video game talk to me. Bart Simpson was not happy that he was stung by bees, and he verbally made me aware of his displeasure. In the years following Bart’s cries, I heard a severely compressed “GHOSTBUSTERS!” shout on my NES and a melodic “SAAAAYYY-GAAAAHHH” sing out from my Genesis. I liked hearing my video games talk. Partly because of the sheer novelty in the 80s and early 90s, but also because speech felt like it fostered a deeper connection.

sinistarThe words and phrases were often exclamations. Communicative in both function and feeling, but rarely conversational. Gauntlet alerting frantic players that the warrior is near death is wonderfully useful and Sinistar’s proclamation “BEWARE, I LIVE!”  can still invoke a sense of anxiety. Early video game speech was novel, though not necessarily without purpose. The “Sega chant” may have consumed an eighth of Sonic the Hedgehog’s cartridge for no real apparent reason other than to impress, but I find it hard to argue that Gauntlet and Sinistar would be the same games without their little bits of speech. It’s not conversational or relevant to plot development, but it’s absolutely vital to their designs in different ways.

In the mid to late 90s, I didn’t have the luxury of dividing my time and discretionary income across too many systems, so I threw my hat in with Nintendo, the Nintendo 64 providing me with the multiplayer games that were more important to me at that time. As such, I didn’t experience many of the cinematic games touting fully voiced dialog during that time period. I remember, though, playing Metal Gear Solid in 1998 for the first time and finding myself nothing less than engrossed. I loved every minute of the soap opera. I loved every line of dialog delivered by bobbling heads. I loved Metal Gear Solid, and I still do, if for nothing else than that feeling it first gave me.

Now, I suppose I feel fully voiced soap operas are the novelty. I usually find myself bored and reaching for my phone to check Twitter. Of course, this is contrary to popular thought and the current market. Soap operas are not a novelty. Cinematic games are less a subset than they are a driving force. Every AAA game talks now, and at great length, but I usually struggle to remember what anyone says. It’s not as interesting as Sinistar taunting me from afar or as useful as Gauntlet warning me of impending death. It’s just babbling. We let video games talk, and they haven’t shut up since.

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My time spent with underdog systems in the 90s did, however, expose me to experiences built on the inverse: games that invited me to them. Hey You, Pikachu! on the Nintendo 64 and Seaman on the Dreamcast both came bundled with microphones and recognized specific words and phrases. Sometimes, anyway. The technology was nascent and I’m not convinced it worked a good chunk of the time, but the idea that you could wish Pikachu a good morning was there. It’s a good idea. A valuable idea.

Sega’s Binary Domain included an optional voice recognition component in 2012. I’ve read widespread reports that the feature didn’t work very well for many people, and I had some difficulty myself, but it seemed to work for the most part in my experience. I could verbally tell my teammates to wait, to provide cover fire and I could even engage in very basic and very short yes-or-no conversations. In one instance, I accidentally fired at a teammate who quickly chastised me. Reflexively, I said “sorry” into my microphone. The teammate forgave me. I was stunned. This wasn’t exactly an emergent situation; after all, the AI was designed to recognize the word “sorry,” but I didn’t actually intend on apologizing. It just happened. And the game reacted.

fable3Video games don’t often give us much room for interaction. Death is usually how we communicate with the world. Games like Ico and Fable III incorporated a handholding mechanic (one to great acclaim, the other to some derision), and it’s still an aspect I point to when I talk about letting players interact with their world in ways other than killing. Fable III was still built on a foundation of murdering bad guys, but holding hands with my wife or child served as a welcome foil.

As much as I would like to see more of that sort of thing, it’s still an abstract representation of a real physical act. Pressing a button or pinning a shoulder trigger to hold hands isn’t quite the same as talking to a game to hold a conversation. The latter is not abstract at all. Talking is something most people do naturally, and given games can talk back, it only makes sense that verbal communication with a game could serve to further draw the player in. If only used as an ancillary component like handholding in Fable III, communicating with games can be extraordinarily valuable.

There are hurdles, of course. Voice recognition technology is still far off from feeling natural, and games can only recognize so many words or phrases and offer only so many reactions. This is not different than how a game interprets button presses, but button presses are not analogous to real life. We understand the limitations. We expect more from speech because of how it relates to the real world, and video games just aren’t up to snuff yet. Technology in general is not up to snuff. Siri on the iPhone not only doesn’t understand me from time to time, she will correctly display the words I said on the screen but “autocorrect” my speech and decide I actually meant something else. Still, when Siri accurately sets a timer I requested, I have to stop myself from thanking her. That’s the power of verbal communication done well.

I am a big fan of games toying with how we interact and how we experience attachment. Games, in general, are still not very good at experimenting with these things. You will be tasked with indiscriminately mowing down waves of bad guys for 20 minutes only to be rewarded with five minutes of incongruent dialog designed to engineer unearned emotion. You will be killing again in no time. I don’t believe we have universally bad writers in the industry, nor do I feel we have reached the limits of what video games can say to us. But we’re doing something wrong. Video games have veered too far off course from the interesting, valuable speech of Gauntlet and Sinistar into mealy-mouthed, lengthy exposition for no real apparent reason other than to impress. It’s minutes, hours, of the “Sega chant” over and over again.

Let’s scale it back and let’s open the lines of communication.

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