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Spotlight: Games at E3

Spotlight: Games at E3

E3 tends to throw a lot of information––and games––at the public. D. Bethel has thoughts on a few of them.

Having been a console-first gamer my entire gaming life, I tend to pay close attention to the news and videos coming out of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). At this point, I don’t get particularly hyped about the games that get announced (I hear people that hit social media after a press conference exclaiming, seemingly in earnest, “I NEED THIS GAME NOW!” Chill, dude) especially since few games shown at E3 anymore are surprises, having been announced months or years earlier. If anything, being a guy who is way into process, I’m excited to see what state these previously announced games are in and what kind of games they actually end up being. It’s like a big public presentation of the middle portion of the transition from idea to final product.

With that in mind, there a few games really stood out to me, with a few that may have slipped under the larger coverage of the show.

Ghost of Tsushima – Sucker Punch Studios (PS4) – Release TBA

The games I discuss in Shortcast 59 are only from the Sony press conference. Though I’ll be broadening my scope for this Spotlight, there was one game from Sony’s exhibition really got its hooks in me.

Sucker Punch is a studio with whom I’m nominally familiar. I never played the Infamous series of games, having been an Xbox 360 owner at the time of their release, but the idea intrigued me enough and the general response to the series was always positive, nor had I touched a Sly Cooper game as 3D platformers never really appealed to me despite the series’ general good regard among the community. With that said, I hold neither Sucker Punch nor their upcoming game, Ghost of Tsushima, to any metric aside from what they show of the game itself.

And what they showed of Ghost is fire.

In fact, it seems like a game made specifically for D. Bethel. According to Sucker Punch creative director, Nate Fox, Ghost is a wholly linear, narrative-focused game that takes the player through 13th century Japan in the midst of a war with the Mongols. With that, teenaged Dan, the Japanese history nerd, perked up. Additionally, it’s a historical samurai action game with no supernatural elements whatsoever as Sucker Punch aimed for “a grounded game.” Comicker D. Bethel, who’s making a western webcomic with no supernatural elements, perked up as well. Combined with the deliberate combat that looked similar (though let’s hope it’s not too similar) to Bushido Blade and Way of the Samurai, super gamer nerd Dan became invested.

Like with Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption before it, the idea of a AAA grounded historical game that isn’t simply a tactical war game nor an RPG seems like an avenue less explored by big studios; so to see Sucker Punch tackle it (and with Red Dead Redemption 2 out this October!), I’m definitely keeping my eye on this one where, before, it wasn’t in my field of vision at all.

Sable – Shedworks (PC only at the time of this announcement) – Late 2019

Here’s where I walk back my console cred and mention a PC game. E3 held what it called its “PC Gaming Show” that showcased upcoming PC games in the same manner that other press conferences showcased console-focused games. Tucked among those games was Sable, and I can’t believe it’s real.

Games––like any art––start with an idea; often, that idea can be rather abstract.

I’ve watched the trailer a few times and I know it’s a game, but I couldn’t tell you what kind of game it is yet. The visuals stunned me. Surely a lot of people are going to be calling this a “hand-drawn” game, which it obviously isn’t. Instead, it’s doing some high-level and artistic cell shading that eerily––EERILY––evokes the work of French cartoonist, Jean Giraud (aka Mœbius). Most accurately, it seems to be an homage to his long-running Métal hurlant (a magazine Giraud co-created and was published in the US as Heavy Metal) strip, Arzach.

Pages from the first appearance of Arzach in the pages of Métal hurlant (1975). Source: Humanoids Publishing.
An image from Mœbius’ Voyage d’Hermés series (2011), created for boutique clothing company, Hermés. source: Hermés

Created by the two-person UK developer, Shedworks, their main source of inspiration seems to be from the strides in open-world development that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild made than directly trying to interpret the work of Giraud into a video game space. Instead, the game apparently focuses more on the exploration and interaction with this breathtaking landscape rather than on RPG-like character growth and battle. Apparently, there’s no combat at all in the game, which is an intriguing proposition (No combat?! How is that even possible?!?!) that brought with it, to an extent, an internal sigh of relief. Finally, something different aside from just the visuals.

My joy doesn’t come from gleefully pointing out that this game seems to ape Mœbius’ style or comic at all––there’s no joy in that––but that this game vivifies his aesthetic perfectly. This must look like what the artist had in his head from which he could only capture still frames and arrange them on a page. Of all the games being written about, Sable genuinely gave me pause.

Sea of Solitude – Jo-Mei (PS4, XBox One, PC) – Early 2019

As an academic English person––albeit one who specialized in Composition and Rhetoric––whenever popular culture reveals a literary depth to it, it draws my attention with laser precision.

I heard on a podcast––sadly, I don’t remember which one, but probably Waypoint Radio––about a game shown during EA’s press conference that caught people off guard because Cornelia Geppert, the creative director of German indie studio, Jo-Mei, got surprisingly emotional and thoughtful when presenting the game, Sea of Solitude.

While “getting emotional” seems to be a highly subjective term––Geppert comes across as more nervous and genuinely excited to show off her game at the largest gaming trade show in the United States––her candor with the game’s themes and what they are trying to say with the game surprised me more.

A major argument in the discourse around games is that they are superficial entertainment, escapist power-fantasy exercises and that’s the baseline level of appreciation for them. Some even argue that such an angle should be our only appreciation of them (“Keep politics out of games!” “Keep your X agenda out of games!” “Games should be more like they were before!” etc.).

The problem with that is games are made by people who think very hard about their games. Like with any creative product (or any product), the consumer doesn’t usually see the majority of effort that went into making it. That’s part of why we are so quick to offer hot takes on games, movies, comics, toys, videos, etc. We are reacting to the product put in front of us, not seeing the complex web of thought, ability, and troubleshooting behind the shiny veneer. To an extent, good games look effortlessly made.

Games––like any art––start with an idea; often, that idea can be rather abstract. This has become more visible as creators have been more vocal with their process. From Hideo Kojima’s thematic and increasingly abstract approach to his Metal Gear Solid series to the small and decisively personal games like Brothers and Papo y Yo, consumers are seeing the level of critical and artistic effort creators put into their games.

Usually we hear these things after a game’s release. That Jo-Mei presented their literary ambition first, before the trailer, partly illustrates why I liked their segment of the press conference so much. This seems like a huge step forward for the developer whose previous games don’t seem like anything that really broke through to the larger critical discussion.

Luckily, the game looks stylish and fun––like LIMBO or INSIDE crossed with a post-apocalyptic anime––I’m excited because it piqued my academic interests while also being a game that––superficially––looks like it’ll be a fun time.

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E3 has been particularly exciting this year. After a year or two of the industry being hit hard by extreme successes (2017 was an outstanding year for games) and existential dilemmas (voice actor strike, labor issues, continuing GamerGate behavior), seeing good games at the show as well as developers tackling some of these issues (both positively and negatively) head on puts this E3 ahead in a lot of ways. At the very least, we get good games out of the static as developers, journalists, and players try to move the medium forward and upward.

Spotlight: ‘Masterpieces’ Are Better With Flaws

Spotlight: ‘Masterpieces’ Are Better With Flaws

Far Cry 5‘s muddled political message is better for gaming than a perfect one.

The announcement events and imagery set up Far Cry 5 to be a game with a lot to say about modern American politics. Image source: Ubisoft.

Upon its announcement last year, Far Cry 5‘s political promise attracted the liberal gamer base (and disconcerted conservative gamers) as it seemed to be aiming strictly at the American Christian fundamentalism and rural conservatism that have been at the front and center of the country’s political discourse since the last presidential election. With the game’s release and the reviews rolling out, it’s clear that while it is, mechanically, a fun game to play, it doesn’t stick the landing in terms of cultural political commentary.

Instead of taking a hard stance on the current political climate, it tries to straddle the fence, to not take sides and, instead, treat the threat of fundamentalist conservatism as an exaggerated skin draped over the ludic need for opposing forces to attack the player. In this game, the cannon fodder is simply “crazy cult member”,  similar to the shift Resident Evil made away from zombies to Othered, uneducated, Spanish, feral, rural villagers in the fourth game (which they doubled-down on in the fifth game by moving out of Spain and into Africa). They may have a different story and context, but they were basically just zombies to shoot down––targets to hit for a “higher score.” Despite oblique references to modern political situations (including a mission built around obtaining a “pee tape”), Far Cry 5 seems to play the politics off as a joke when it pops up at all.

The last few years have really seen an effort to fold political commentary into game narratives and, as it stands now, the results seem to be less than effective albeit provocative. From the nuanced existential dread of the indie darling, Papers, Please, to the hyperbolic but consistent Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, the efforts have been teaching us that developers, at the very least, are ready to tackle such subjects even if their hold on the language, narrative agility, or tools to effectively enact such commentary remains debatable.

This static speaks to the point that how to tell a good story in a game is nebulous at best as gaming is not––unlike books, movies, comics, and tv––a one-sided narrative act. Games are by their very nature interactive and, therefore, the success of the narrative quite literally falls into the hands of the players, be it their attention to the story as they play or the choices they make in-game and how they line up with the intent of the developers. Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.

Papers, Please largely succeeds with its politics, though its retro aesthetics, somewhat limited availability, and esoteric gameplay could keep it from a larger audience. Image source: 3909 LLC.

This results in a lot of “flawed masterpieces”––good games like Far Cry 5 that don’t quite stick the landing. The aforementioned Wolfenstein II offers distinct answers to the political problems it confronts, but can be undermined by its wildly shifting tone from the touchingly serious to cartoonish absurdity. Watchdogs 2 (also from Far Cry‘s developer, Ubisoft) was largely a success but dropped the ball in crucial instances that harmed the efficacy of its thesis. Most publicly, Bioshock Infinite had a huge backlash to its initial critical success as people ruminated on its message after playing the game and found a lot to be troubling. Mafia III, in contrast, seemed to have a strong, clear, and evocative stance on race in the sixties, but the game part kind of faltered. Similarly, Papers, Please had a strong emergent political statement that was powerful for those who played it, but its indie status and, perhaps, esoteric retro aesthetics (as well as limited availability) probably kept it out of the hands of many potential gamers.

Arguably, no game has hit the landing when it comes to political commentary. Something always comes along and taints the potential and lays the game down as a “flawed masterpiece.” If it were to happen, no doubt it would most likely be out of accident than design. Video game narrative is arguably still in a fledgling state, with detractors even stating that story is not wholly useful to the medium (which Andrew and I talked about in Episode 133). So, it’s important to keep in mind that the  growth of the medium (of any medium) includes heavy-footed attempts and stumbles.

Narrative is still a messy, complex, and delicate aspect of video games.

As a whole, we are still learning how to tell stories in games. It’s problematic because the technology for game development continues to surge forward as well and the bouncing between the two often feels like a scrimmage rather than a handshake. However, the key word there is “learning.” The way we generally learn is through metacognitive reflection of what we have already done, examining our past missteps in order to make the next attempt better.

And that is where these flawed masterpieces are actually helping the community rather than harming the medium. When Far Cry 5, in this case, so overtly stated that it would be a game with something to say at its announcement, only to walk that back as quickly as possible, the final product’s failure to live up to that promise got the community talking about politics in games, much as games––flawed as they are––like Wolfenstein II, Papers, Please, and Bioshock Infinite did before. This conversation exposes the nuance in the medium and actually helps to establish a baseline of what the community wants, expects, and hopes for in the future. These missteps encourage the audience (gamers, critics, and journalists) to become part of the process instead of simply waiting for the developers to simply say what they want to say (or say what they think we want to hear) and wait with gritted teeth to hear if they got it wrong. While that very scenario was the impetus here, the resulting conversation seems productive rather than agonistic.

That the community is talking about how to tell a political story in a game narrative is generative and progressive for the medium and the culture. Even among gamers themselves, having a game act as the discursive crux around politics, gaming, and narrative shines a light of hope on a community that has done more than its share to darken the skies on those topics. Our culture has evolved us to a point where political discussion mimics sports fandom––picking a team and shouting at the competition. Productive conversation is less about right and wrong and more about looking at the successes and failures of an idea, pointing them out, and making decisions based on them.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus may have been over the top at times, but it inspired genuine conversation about politics in gaming. Image source: Bethesda Softworks

More importantly, the community needs to have these conversations with itself more than it needs an effective political statement in a game. If a flawed game gets us to not only intelligently critique and what-if a game but also examine ourselves as a community––to reflect on our goals and diversity––then I would rather have that than The West Wing of video games.

The fallout from Far Cry 5‘s narrative failure will fuel more nuanced and interesting attempts (that will no doubt fail in their own ways) in the future, but the point is that those attempts will be better. What effect does a “perfect” statement have? What benefit comes from the community just sitting back in admiration? What happens to the knowledge we gained from the experience if we treat it as something that has been checked off of a list?

Perfection is boring. Gaming, like politics, always changes as time moves forward. The conversation about the successes, failures, and potential of a game serves as inspiration to be and do better next time be it from Ubisoft, a competitor, or an independent developer––as long as it keeps us talking.

News Blast: Alita – Battle Angel

News Blast: Alita – Battle Angel

source: 20th Century Fox

Gunnm (or Battle Angel Alita, stateside) is a manga and anime with a cult following, deep history, and a rocky path to big-screen adaptation. The manga was written and drawn by Yukito Kishiro over the course of five years and nine volumes. Early in its run, it was adapted into an Original Video Animation (OVA) comprised of two half-hour, stand-alone episodes (based on the first two manga volumes) that were sold together on VHS, initially. In the states, the OVA (retitled to simply Battle Angel) had a large audience due to its emotional story and cyberpunk stylings, and gathered enough of a reputation to attract the interest of James Cameron, who eventually bought the film rights.

James Cameron, who had professed his enjoyment of the manga, was originally set to direct the film adaptation, but he has since left the dusty, rusted future of Battle Angel for the literally greener pastures of Avatar‘s Pandora. In his absence, the directing duties shifted to action auteur, Robert Rodriguez. After years of speculation and anticipation, a trailer has been released:

From the looks of the trailer, a lot of work has been done to keep the visuals true to the look of the manga and OVA, and the plot summary from the film’s website also seems to be holding to the basic story found in the first two volumes:

Set several centuries in the future, the abandoned Alita (Rosa Salazar) is found in the scrapyard of Iron City by Ido (Christoph Waltz), a compassionate cyber-doctor who takes the unconscious cyborg Alita to his clinic. When Alita awakens she has no memory of who she is, nor does she have any recognition of the world she finds herself in. Everything is new to Alita, every experience a first. As she learns to navigate her new life and the treacherous streets of Iron City, Ido tries to shield Alita from her mysterious past while her street-smart new friend, Hugo (Keean Johnson), offers instead to help trigger her memories. A growing affection develops between the two until deadly forces come after Alita and threaten her newfound relationships. It is then that Alita discovers she has extraordinary fighting abilities that could be used to save the friends and family she’s grown to love. Determined to uncover the truth behind her origin, Alita sets out on a journey that will lead her to take on the injustices of this dark, corrupt world, and discover that one young woman can change the world in which she lives.

Disregarding the nearly twenty year wait since the film rights were purchased where the fan anticipation has done nothing but build, the now-titled Alita: Battle Angel has another hill to climb given the context into which it will be released. Western adaptations of manga/anime doesn’t have a deep history, but, when it does happen, it tends to not do well. However, the most recent attempt, 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, was a cultural disaster as much as it was a box office stumble. Surely, with that still weighing heavy on the minds of fans and producers alike, it seems likely that Alita will be met with severe skepticism.

Ido has his rocket hammer, so Dan is happy. Source: 20th Century Fox.

Optimistically, it has some elements that work for it that actively worked against Ghost in the Shell. For one, all iterations of Battle Angel take place in a far future United States; so, aside from the general appropriation of a story originally written and drawn by a Japanese artist, the wide-scope white-washing that occurred in Ghost in the Shell seems avoidable in this case. In the small scale, the father-figure character from the manga and OVA, Daisuke Ido, has had Austrian-German actor, Chrisoph Waltz, cast in the live-action adaptation; the character has been renamed Dyson Ido, so the criticism can’t be wholly avoided. Second, translated editions of the manga and the OVA have been widely out of print for awhile, so Battle Angel doesn’t have as much presence in the cultural zeitgeist as Ghost in the Shell had with its classic manga, multiple movies and television shows. If anything, because of this, Alita: Battle Angel seems to be in a good position to be released without much fear of controversy.

The manga was brought back into print in English by Kodansha Comics in May of 2017, but it still remains to be seen if the long out of print OVA will see a new release, either on Blu-Ray or on digital services. A re-release seems likely as a marketing move to raise anticipation for the film’s release.

While fan reaction to the trailer has yet to be aggregated here, it’s clear that Rodriguez and his team are making interesting choices that could go either way with fans of Battle Angel and sci-fi movie fans in general. There is the digital deformation of actress Rosa Salazar to make her appear closer to how Alita (or Gally, in Japan) looks in her original representation. Whether this technique is applied to other characters––both main and incidental––throughout the remainder of the movie may be the line between acceptance or rejection of this choice by fans. As mentioned previously, the westernization of Ido by casting Waltz in the role could lead to controversy, but that remains to be seen. Canonically, his character is less tied to the cultural origins of his name in the story and more to the mysterious Zalem (in Japan, or Tiphares in the States; Battle Angel is a veritable totem for how wacky things can get when translating texts for the sake of localization), a city occupied by the wealthy and entitled that ominously floats above Scrapyard, where Battle Angel‘s story takes place. Therefore, Ido’s race-change may be a non-issue, at least within the context of the story.

All that being said, after almost twenty years of being in development hell, it is refreshing and curious to see a property surface from the mire, at the very least. We’ll have to wait until July to see how much of the mud has stuck.

News Blast: Marvel Announces Scripted Podcast with “Wolverine: The Long Night”

News Blast: Marvel Announces Scripted Podcast with “Wolverine: The Long Night”

source: Marvel.com

Marvel announced yesterday that it would be tapping into the dramatic podcast medium––citing popular true crime NPR podcasts, Serial and S-Town, as specific inspirations––using one of its most iconic superhero characters, Logan (as Wolverine), set to debut in the spring.

According to the press release, the 10-episode series, titled Wolverine: The Long Night, will be a crime narrative with Logan (voiced by British actor, Richard Armitage, most recently known for his role as Thorin in The Hobbit films) not as the protagonist but as the focus of a criminal investigation by a pair of detectives:

It follows agents Sally Pierce (Celia Keenan-Bolger) and Tad Marshall (Ato Essandoh) as they arrive in the fictional town of Burns, Alaska, to investigate a series of murders and quickly discover the town lives in fear of a serial killer. The agents team up with deputy Bobby Reid (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) to investigate their main suspect, Logan (Richard Armitage). Their search leads them on a fox hunt through the mysterious and corrupt town.

The podcast series will be a timed exclusive to users of the podcast aggregator and broadcaster, Stitcher, but only to those who subscribe to its premium services, and then only until fall 2018, after which it will be widely distributed. It’s an interesting and rather safe experiment with the debut being locked behind a paywall, but it will undoubtedly bring new listeners (and new premium subscribers) to the already prominent podcast-streaming website. In theory, if The Long Night does not perform well, then at least it died in front of a relatively small and curated audience.

British actor, Richard Armitage, is set to voice Logan in the podcast. Source: BBC

The teaming with Stitcher pulls some interest as it will undoubtedly guide a lot of fan attention toward the service, a service which has been under scrutiny about its business practices before. But since the deal is about timed exclusivity and doesn’t seem to be a production partnership, skeptical podcast fans need only to wait six months to listen using their preferred services. It is interesting that rabid fans won’t be able to simply download the episodes directly from Marvel at the outset, which possibly speaks to the fact that Marvel may be hedging their confidence until they see its success.

The prospect of an audio dramatized version of comic book characters isn’t wholly new––characters such Superman and the noir hero The Shadow were staple radio plays back during the medium’s heyday––but the podcast angle is new and seemingly novel. However, podcast-based audio drama is in a veritable renaissance currently, and this move is a logical, albeit a relatively safe, step. Disregarding the commercial availability of audio dramas through companies like Big Finish, fictional podcast dramas have had many iterations and successes through the years, with productions like The Thrilling Adventure Hour, Homecoming, and Welcome to Night Vale having been around for awhile to varying degrees of popularity (with Welcome to Night Vale being the standout from this list).

However, like NPR diving head-first into the podcast medium with Serial (it had been podcasting its broadcast shows, but Serial was its first main effort to produce a podcast from scratch), Marvel’s entry into dramatized podcasting could produce a similar effect, especially using one of its most popular, vexing, and mysterious characters. Logan’s past is a game of retcon darts where anything can be added if it’s thrown hard enough at the board. This canonical malleability makes Logan a logical candidate for a short experiment such as this and likely explains (in the only rational way) why Marvel would not use the current Wolverine in the form of Laura Kinney as the star of this series. With Logan as the focus of their first foray into this new medium (which will directly follow his return to the Marvel universe), if The Long Night succeeds it could really raise the visibility of podcast dramas in the eyes of a wider audience just as Serial did for its user base.

Logan hasn’t been seen in comics since the 2014 “Death of Wolverine” storyline, but returned in November 2017 in Marvel Legacy #1. Art by Steve McNiven.

Overall, this seems like a promising project. Written by Ben Percy, a veteran comics writer though one whose résumé is filled with mostly DC credits, it’s emboldening to see this project hire a person already comfortable writing in a serialized format with superhero characters, even if this story will be (and I apologize for using the heavily flogged descriptor) grounded and a bit more subdued. Some may wonder if Fox is involved, but––if I’m correct––this venture doesn’t need any approval nor collaboration with the owners of the film and TV rights to the property. At the time those contracts were signed, new media was probably not part of the deal and, in theory, Fox could do something similar with its filmic version of the characters. As it is, Wolverine: The Long Night is tied to the comic book version of the character rather than extending from the cinematic interpretation. This distinction will surely please the fans yearning for a non-comic book adaptation of the mutants that are separate from version seen from Fox.

The unfolding of this project will be intriguing as it could possibly open up an entire new medium to not only its fans but new fans who may have been unable to fully enjoy other iterations of superheroes, such as those with visual impairments. While audio drama may be viewed as an old or outdated medium, audio books have never been more popular. Even audio book services like Audible are producing original audio book and dramatized content for their subscribers. When looked at critically, audio drama holds a lot of potential in our digital and mobile context. With Marvel dominating the cinematic space and having broke new ground (even if the momentum has waned a bit) in new media with its Netflix shows, that the company is looking at new ways to present its characters to the world outside of traditional media is heartening and, more importantly, smart.

Worth a Look: Video Game Criticism Edition

Worth a Look: Video Game Criticism Edition

Mass Effect: Andromeda stands as one of the most derided games of this generation. It’s to the point that Bioware said publicly that it’s no longer supporting it a mere five months after the game’s release. While I think the game is, indeed, very different from the previous Mass Effect games and, without a doubt, needed a few more drafts with the script, it was by no means a terrible game. If separated from the Mass Effect context––and when considered with all of its animation/texture/gameplay patches––it suffers from the deadliest of video game diseases: it ended up being a game that was just “fine.” Nothing stellar, nothing terrible, things that make it forgettable in the sea of games to get either quite excited about or quite angry about.

Pathfinder Sara Ryder from Mass Effect: Andromeda, a perfectly fine game. Screenshot courtesy of Bioware.

Though I may be biased because I enjoyed the game (aware of all of its flaws), I think Park’s ostensible defense of the game makes a very strong point not only about Mass Effect: Andromeda, but also about criticism in general. For those participating in the conversation around video games, both professional and amateur (though this line is blurring more than ever), a general agreement seems to be that to be “critical” means to look for what’s bad and point it out. I’ll grant some leeway because a lot of professional critics are playing these games during abbreviated periods for review purposes, so the bad stuff stands out even more. With a game like Mass Effect: Andromeda, it has the added burden of being a new entry in a highly venerated video game series, so expectations for the game were set a bit higher than other games. That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have qualities worth discussing, remembering, and celebrating, and part of that, at least as Park argues, is because of gaming criticism’s relative youth:

We don’t yet have a critical structure that supports or fosters an appreciation of the misapplication of game language that causes “messiness.” And this is a major problem.

With that in mind, there is a trend away from more traditional reviews into a more personal or culturally critical look at a game. These are more critic-friendly because they don’t really need to be ready by the game’s release (although such timeliness is beneficial for SEO purposes), and such investigations allow the critic to step back from the game and take a more holistic approach to judging a game. Whether Mass Effect: Andromeda deserves or will even get that chance is up to history. At the very least, I hope future games––be they new installments in venerated franchises or new IPs––get the chance to be examined with a genuinely critical eye rather than just a score disguised as a conversation.

Instead of an article, this is an episode from the generally fantastic critical podcast, Bullet Points, where (at least) three games journalists record their thoughts of a video game they all played to write about and talk about for their website. Each episode is accompanied by articles written by the contributors and they’re always very thoughtful and insightful.

However.

This episode, where they look back on Epic Games’ Gears of War (the first installment), is an absolute disaster in the best possible way. In the hour-and-a-quarter episode, they spend about fifteen minutes total discussing the game and, instead, slam critical views together like rams over a ewe. The conversation devolves into an argument about how to read the game, critically. One wants to look at the mechanics and render judgment based on those while another wants to look at the game’s place in a historical context. And, in this conversation, the twain never meet.

C.O.G.s in the Gears of War (from Gears of War). Screenshot courtesy of Epic Games.

Throughout the entire fight, I found myself talking out loud as I listened while walking my dog one morning, hoping my mediation would travel through my headphones, up the RSS feed, and back through time so they could actually realize what it was they were fighting about. While it seemed like they were disagreeing about the quality of the game, the discourse on display was actually a fundamental lack of understanding when it comes to critical analysis. There is no one thing called “analysis” and that’s what everybody does. We have developed different ways to look at the same thing––be it Deconstructionism, Structuralism, Formalism, Feminism, Marxism, and so on. Look at something like Catcher in the Rye through a Structuralist lens will give you a very different argument than if you looked at it through a Feminist lens. And that’s okay. They all coexist. However, the static that can be caused by the lack of agreement on which one to use while looking at a text can lead to an actual halt to discourse and then nothing gets done, as is the case on this podcast episode.

The clashing ideologies between the two journalists was basically a fight between New Criticism vs. New Historicism, but the entire episode propels along a single question that, in itself, is quite interesting: can dumb texts be worth talking about critically? Also, can texts still be important when authorial intent is ignorant, dubious, or manufactured? I’d like to hear the podcast where they discuss that. Maybe more would get done.

Week in Geek: Mass Effect: Andromeda

Week in Geek: Mass Effect: Andromeda

D. Bethel dives into his history with the Mass Effect series and why he found a lot to enjoy in Mass Effect: Andromeda.

Imposter Syndrome is a natural psychological consequence caused by breaking free from personal norms. Trying something new can be scary. For those already beset with anxiety issues, the Imposter Syndrome converts us to flagellants, knowing simultaneously that these thoughts are bogus while also knowing they motivate us to push through the arbitrary and unconscious barriers we set for ourselves.

In graduate school, I had a bad case of Imposter Syndrome––one of many manifestations of my anxiety. The anxiety caused me to eat and drink a lot; it tickled my health in various ways; I lost a lot of sleep. I often woke up at one or two or three in the morning, spinning my impending failure through all possible scenarios or, if it was a good day, trying to harvest and codify all the ideas bouncing off each other like balls in a bingo spinner.

Eventually, I trained myself to just get out of bed. Go do something. Distract yourself. In the case of distraction, I learned that video games did that best.

Most of these nights happened after Nicole and I moved into our second Sacramento townhouse, away from the social thrum of midtown, which left us with mostly quiet nights; so, what sleep I could get would be uninterrupted and pleasant. On the anxiety nights, however, I crept downstairs, headphones already on and listening to podcasts––some video game commentary, some comedy interviews, some political debate, some history––and I’d fire up my Xbox 360 for hours of distraction, getting a good chunk of game in before the world even woke up. When I look back at these nights, the games that I see most in my memories are the Mass Effect series, specifically the two sequels.

Scanning planets captured perfectly the strange, silent calm of what we understand of outer space. Unlike humans…there’s nothing fragile about the cosmos. It simply is, existing slowly toward some end that is neither frightening nor threatening.

Since I was playing with the sound off (so as to consume quality audio entertainment), I rarely worked through story missions during these insomnious sessions. Instead, I searched for the mundane in the games’ side missions: fetch quests, collection runs, delivery missions. The most calming task I could do, and what I did most often, was planet scanning.

I can feel myself calming down already. (Mass Effect: Andromeda screenshot courtesy of USgamer.)

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Worth a Look

Worth a Look

Whatever your thoughts may be about BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda, there is no doubt that something happened during its development that lead to such a rocky debut, a series of choices so clouded in the public’s questions and shrouded in the mystery a company like EA’s BioWare can afford, the game was otherwise assumed to be relegated to the “well, that happened” category of games and we (as the gaming public) would be forced to move on.

This frankly bizarre secrecy around AAA game development shines a light on a major deficiency in the community––companies can bury “failed” games in mystery because they can get away with it. Though not focused on a failed game, a few years ago the BBC made a docudrama about the legal troubles of rockstar game studio, Rockstar Games, against which the developer filed suit, in a bit of irony. The development of Sony’s long-delayed The Last Guardian was mostly kept behind curtains, allowing the game to speak for itself when its time finally arrived, which had the aggregated conclusion of “it’s fine.” Though these are two of many examples, most of the community has accepted the idea that we will most likely never know how the choices were made, for better or for worse, and these companies will keep their business secreted away behind blast doors.

Peebee from Mass Effect: Andromeda. Image courtesy of BioWare and Electronic Arts.

Luckily, some people are starting to catch on to the fact that “video game history” isn’t relegated to the eighties and nineties alone; it’s happening now. Right now. Mass Effect: Andromeda got a lot of dirt piled onto it. I enjoyed it for what it was and what it’s worth, but the tidal chart of nerd judgement is rather unforgiving. If something doesn’t meet a certain standard (a standard I believe is often rather arbitrary), that game, movie, comic, or tv show is dumped upon. There is no critical middle anymore in popular culture. And such a strong negative reception can taint a studio or franchise for a long while, a stain nobody can afford to live with. So, with things like Jason Schreier’s article coming so soon after Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s release, it can shed some much needed counterpoint onto the conversation.

To be clear, Schreier’s article isn’t an apology for the game. Instead, it’s investigative; he isn’t casting judgement, but instead acknowledging that something happened and the public reacted to it and he simply wanted to find out why:

[To] those who worked on it, Mass Effect: Andromeda felt unusually difficult. This was a game with ambitious goals but limited resources, and in some ways, it’s miraculous that BioWare shipped it at all.

This is an effort to chronicle recent history rather than simply cast it in one light or another, but to try and find out the whole story so historians have all the pieces with which to assemble hindsight instead of waiting for a day when only two or three members of the team are alive to tell the tale. This has actually been a trend I’ve seen recently and it warms my heart to see members of the games press turning a historical eye to the industry instead of being the first to give readers a hot take (not that hot takes and investigative pieces are mutually exclusive). Waypoint published a fantastic oral history of Halo, a genre of historical recording of which I’m growing fonder (more on that in a future episode). Waypoint also published a fascinating look at development documents for what would have been the sequel to the 2012 Square Enix-published Sleeping Dogs. I think the industry needs to be more self-aware, or else corporate red tape could actually contribute in the hindering of keeping this medium from becoming the art form it deserves to be.

Way back in Episode 58, Andrew and I discussed our (and listeners’) “gateways to geekdom,” accepting that the road to fandom is not necessarily––perhaps rarely––a straight path. A lot of us come to our passions through strange on-ramps or off-ramps from one fandom or medium to another. Popular culture has definitely done this with superheros and their stories with the rise of superhero cinema. It certainly wasn’t the comics industry who were making amazing books that the populace grabbed onto, but filmmakers who loved the comics and finally, finally, started making good movies based on those properties. Does that make cinematic universe enthusiasts any less of a fan than comic book readers? Ultimately, no. A fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man is a fan of Iron Man.

The few times we spoke with friend-of-the-site, Elijah Kaine, he mentioned his initial gateway into comicsdom––of which he has become thoroughly ensconced and well-read––was not comic books but the X-Men animated series, and this was probably the “in” for many X-Men or comic book fans. How many people started reading The Walking Dead because they watched the AMC tv show first? During my teenage years, my severe interest in Japanese feudal history and martial culture could be traced back to things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or The Highlander. But they were gateways for me to walk through and soak up the world on the other side of the jamb.

Doctor Fate v Atrocitus: Dawn of Injustice 2. Screenshot courtesy of NetherRealm/Warner Bros.

Mike Diver’s article hints at something a bit more nuanced. He discusses the fact that he’s learning about DC’s characters by playing the fighting game that uses them. Sure, he’s also jumping online to mine wikis, but the fact is he’s actually getting a strong sense and knowledge of these comic book characters by playing a video game set in that world (but in its own continuity). In fact, it may be fair to say he’s becoming a fan:

Here I am, playing, and learning—and with superhero fiction such a staple of modern entertainment, it’s good to get deeper into its (to me, at least) weirder corners, via the accessible “in” of an easy-to-pick-up fighting game.

This intersectional literacy is probably the most common method of knowledge creation and meaning-making, more than traditional, antiquated, or teacher-centric educational models would lead us to believe. While my previous examples were my gateway to an interest in the topic, sometimes there are non-traditional texts––like video games, comic books, movies, tv shows, etc.––that actually gives the user information that would otherwise only be learned in that actual field. I wonder how many people learned legitimate history from playing games like Age of Empires, or gained a knowledge about different aspects of our world’s cultures from playing Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? How many learned about the intertwined influence of economics and politics by playing Crusader Kings or Civilization? How many people developed an interest in the hard sciences because they watched Star Trek? The answer to all of these questions is likely the same: many more than you would think.

Spotlight: Free Comic Book Day 2017

Spotlight: Free Comic Book Day 2017

This was written for and originally published on D. Bethel’s webcomic site, LongJohnComic.com.

Despite having missed last year’s Free Comic Book Day celebration at Empire’s Comics Vault, this year’s event passed like no time was lost. I’ll be honest, the main reason why I like to go back is to hang out for a day in a room with a bunch of people I know––some of whom I’ve known for years, a situation in which I rarely find myself. Personally, I looked at the event as a welcome reprieve as I had just collected about a hundred final portfolios from my writing classes (my day job) and had no problem delaying my head-first dive into them.

FCBD helped to delay the inevitable. D. Bethel at his desk with 97 writing porftolios. Photo by Shelley Blanton-Stroud

I was tabled between old friend and fellow webcomicker, Melissa Pagluica (who makes Above the Clouds), and artist Julie Okahara. All of us in our row were pretty much chit-chatting the entire time which made the time pass somewhat quickly (most of us had arrived by 7:30 am; it was a long day).

Because of the early hour, Ben (the owner of the shop) had allowed us to set up the day before the event. I fretted quite a bit with my table setup, but I ended up pretty happy with the final layout. Tabling at a show is an art in its own right, relying on visual rhetoric and some fundamental grasp on 3D design; I know a little about the former and go by feel for the latter. Ultimately, I was pretty happy with how it ended up.

D. Bethel’s table at FCBD 2017.

This event marked the debut of the Logan-inspired print, “Legacy,” as well as my sketch collection, BackMatter (which is now on sale in the store!) and though “Legacy” may not have been the most appropriate piece for this all-ages show, most people got a chuckle out of the Long John, volume 1 cover with kids pointing in shock, joy, or horror as they waited in line to grab their free comics.

Ben also allowed us who setup early the chance to grab what we wanted from the FCBD offerings, so I picked through having only glanced at what the titles would be.

Dan’s haul of the Free Comic Book Day books. Clockwise from the top left: 2000 AD, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I Hate Image, Guy Delisle’s Hostage (from Drawn & Quarterly), Bad Machinery, Boom! Studios 2017 Summer Blast, and Doctor Who.

So far, I’ve only sat down and read through Skottie Young’s I Hate Image, a short story featuring the protagonist from his hit Image book, I Hate Fairyland, and it is hilarious especially if you are familiar with some of the faces of key players at Image Comics. I’ve read through the Doctor Who book as well and found it a rather clever use of art to delineate different Doctors within the story. Bad Machinery was a surprise for me because I have been a fan of creator John Allison’s work for years back when he did a webcomic called Scary-Go-Round which he shuttered and replaced with a spinoff, Bad Machinery. While still doing webcomics, he has found success with the print comic, Giant Days, which he writes for Boom! comics. So, it was nice to see webcomics represented in the mix of Big 2 (Marvel and DC) and other major publishers.

I also picked up the most recent two issues of Melissa’s comic, which you can also get from her Etsy store (where issue 6 is on pre-order).

Issues 4 & 5 of Above the Clouds by Melissa Pagluica.

Lastly, I indulged in the very generous sale the store was having and picked up some books I had my eye on for awhile but never had the guts to take the plunge. I have not been shy about my love for the work of Becky Cloonan. I first really saw her work when she did a fill-in issue on Batman during the New 52 run and was blown away by her style. Soon after, I found her store online and bought her stuff, focusing on her single-issue short stories that are rather opaque but beautiful. These comics were called Wolves, The Mire, and Demeter. Opaque may be the wrong word for it; they’re just very sparse and open for interpretation. Reading her work is challenging and begs for re-reading. However, she has done work in more mainstream comics (as with Batman) in between her creator-owned passion projects. One of her early forays into sequential art was a series called Demo for Dark Horse Comics. Written by Brian Wood, it is a series of 18 stories each about a different teenager with a power of some kind. Since finishing, it has been made available in a big omnibus collection which I picked up at reasonable discount.

Books bought on discount at Free Comic Book Day (left to right): DC’s Wonder Woman, volume 1 (New 52) and Dark Horse Comics’ Demo.

Also, with the Wonder Woman movie arriving in June, I figured I should not be a poser and actually read some Wonder Woman. Of DC’s initial “New 52” launch (many books were cancelled and new ones introduced later in the New 52 lifespan), I remember hearing very positive things about what Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang were doing with Wonder Woman. At the time, I liked keeping my net shallow and the only New 52 book I read was Batman. But now that the New 52 is done and that story is completed, I figured that (with a sale, to boot) it would be the perfect chance to go back and check out this run on a classic character. I haven’t dug into it yet but Nicole––my spouse––has thoroughly enjoyed it so far.

I came away from the day exhausted with some good sales and even better conversations. With luck, I look forward to doing it again next year.

News Blast: Three X-Films Announced for 2018

News Blast: Three X-Films Announced for 2018

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

An article filed by The Hollywood Reporter revealed that 20th Century Fox has slated three movies set in its own X-centric (no pun intended) universe for 2018. While not the biggest of surprises, it at the very least hints at a big push by the Marvel Studios competitor for a larger share of superhero cinema profits. Hot on the heels of an announcement regarding Fox’s other major franchise investment––James Cameron’s Avatar series––revealing their release dates for the next three sequels, Fox confirmed that their blockbuster season will start with the newest entry into Fox’s X-world, and one that is a bit of a gamble at that.

Cover for The New Mutants, issue 1. Art by Bob McLeod. Courtesy of Marvel.

The New Mutants

Announced to open on April 13, 2018, The New Mutants is in pre-production at the moment with Josh Boone (The Fault in Our Stars) directing. The spring release date is a safe one as it allows it to miss much of the summer and winter blockbuster melodrama. This movie has had a lot of speculative casting in the news over the last few months, no doubt gearing up some excitement for a series of characters relatively unknown to the greater populace. The New Mutants were introduced in 1983 as the first major spinoff to the X-Men, bringing back the original conceit: a team of teenaged mutant heroes lead by Professor X. The movie is based on the early issues, specifically on a storyline called “The Demon Bear Saga,” that are well-regarded by fans and critics. The New Mutants eventually became a fertile playground for the notorious Rob Liefeld, who introduced characters like Cable, Deadpool, Domino, and Shatterstar, among others, in its pages. The series ended with issue #100 at which point the series was renamed X-Force. With an X-Force movie desired by the Fox bigwigs, they may be viewing The New Mutants as a stepping stone for that eventual film.

From the Deadpool 2 teaser shown in front of Logan. Courtesy 20th Century Fox.

Deadpool 2

The hotly anticipated Deadpool 2 will follow with an early summer release on June 1, 2018. Summer is big business for blockbuster movies and Fox is clearly betting on the hope that Deadpool will be a contender (which it will very likely be). More importantly, it will be released just under a month after Avengers: Infinity War opens and a little over a month before Ant-Man and the Wasp debuts, placing it firmly in the middle of what Marvel is guaranteeing to be their summer (DC/Warner Bros.’s Jason Momoa-led Aquaman will be opening in July as well, making it a very busy season indeed). In contrast, the first movie was such an underdog contender, it was released at one of the slowest box office points of the year––February––so the new release date definitely shows the confidence the studio has in the character and its creative team. Deadpool 2 recently made the news rounds with the rather surprising casting news that the MCU’s own Josh “Thanos” Brolin will be playing Deadpool’s time hopping straight-man, Cable, which paved the way nicely for this scheduling announcement. As mentioned on the site previously, even though Deadpool 2 has had its share of hiccups during pre-production with the exit of original director, Tim Miller, and taking with him original composer, Tom Holkenborg aka Junkie XL, the studio filled the open seat with John Wick director, David Leitch, and things are moving full steam ahead.

Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) &  the Phoenix Force in X-Men: Apocalypse. Image courtesy of 20th Century Fox.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Finally, the next ensemble X-Men film, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, has been given an opening date of November 2nd, 2018. This is perhaps the most surprising film in the announcement. With the critical and financial wobble that X-Men: Apocalypse had last summer, the future of the franchise was in question among critics and fans while the studio was also being rather quiet. Secondly, while both long-time X-Men director, Bryan Singer, and long time X-Men writer/producer, Simon Kinberg, have hinted at different directions to go with the next film, the reveal of the title in this announcement solidified their direction and ended much speculation since “The Dark Phoenix Saga” is likely the most famous X-Men storyline in its history. One can assume that Game of Thrones star, Sophie Turner, will reprise her role as Jean Grey, but it leaves fans to wonder how much of the other cast will return considering the slapback X-Men: Apocalypse received. While winter is not nearly as fiscally important a season as summer, it is the second largest period for income-generation with, in the past, large franchises like Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter opening in November or December. Given the current slate of Marvel Studios and DC/Warner Bros. movies, it looks like, for now at least, X-Men: Dark Phoenix may have fairly light competition. Currently, Simon Kinberg is the favorite to direct, which would mark his feature directing debut, taking the helm from Bryan Singer. This film stands to be the most interesting of the three, as we wait to see how the success of experimental films like Deadpool and Logan influence the overall tone and approach to the now 17 year-old franchise.

While such an X-heavy year may point at a renewed interest in creating a shared universe between the films––that is a natural response to this type of schedule since it is basically what Marvel has done to establish its own––that is probably more speculation than likelihood. If we can pull anything from this schedule it is that despite the public lashing X-Men: Apocalypse took, and with the success of Deadpool and Logan, Fox is willing to put more faith and muscle behind their Marvel franchise in the face of Marvel Studios’ general dominance in the last decade. This is important because, in the wake of that cinematic giant, Fox seems to be finding its own path and voice and is making a different animal rather than just playing in the shadow of what’s been done before, and the new ideas that Fox has recently brought to the table are things that people seem to enjoy. With hope they keep experimenting and help keep the superhero movie genre on its toes in general.

Week in Geek: Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo 2017

Week in Geek: Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo 2017

In what may be a first for the website, a Week in Geek post will go up before its associated episode. When writing up responses to an exposition or convention, however, timeliness is key. For the second year in a row, I attended the Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo which is held in West Sacramento (a different city than Sacramento, believe it or not; in fact, it’s in a separate county). It’s still a small show but they are able to cram a lot of developers––40 in all, both video game and tabletop––into the two large rooms (and then some) dedicated to the event. A variety of game styles and platforms were on display; the most numerous were mobile/tablet games with a fair VR representation as well.

Though there were a lot of games, the few that really drew my attention are discussed below (games are listed in alphabetical order, not in order of judgement nor preference):

Beat The Game

by Worm Animation

Described as an adventure game meets a music sequencer, what caught my attention was the visuals, which reminded me of a comfortable amalgam of Double Fine’s Psychonauts and a Tim Burton creation. The build I saw seemed very rough still, but its ambition was clear and impressive.

Concept art from Beat The Game. Image courtesy of Worm Animation.

Ostensibly, the player character travels through this apparent open world collecting music samples that are inventoried. Once a set amount is collected, the player must arrange the samples in a way that pleases the gatekeeper/boss (I have forgotten who it was that judged you) in order to move forward.

Mixing samples together is a puzzle mechanic in the main game as well as a creative endeavor in a free-play mode. Courtesy of Worm Animation.

I was told that there was also a kind of “free play” mode where you could arrange the samples in any way you wanted for an in-game, virtual audience. Though I don’t remember the details, the awareness and availability of the primary game mechanic for use as not only a narrative-progression tool but also for personal expression intrigues. I wonder if you’ll be allowed to mix down and export the sequences you arrange, which would definitively be a bringing together of the two disparate genres.

Black Future ’88

by Don Bellenger

Black Future ’88 is a spritestravaganza. Courtesy of Don Bellenger.

This was the first game I saw at the show and despite it being, I would guess, about 50-60% unfinished, it looked impressive. Like a lot of the games I stopped at, this game takes a retro, sprite-based platformer and tries to plug some interesting mechanics into what is possibly a tired format. Aesthetically, it looks like a cyberpunk Castlevania: Symphony of the Night with some very expressive animation for the player character.

The premise is that the character needs to ascend the Monolith, a tower whose authored rooms are procedurally arranged as the player progresses upwards.

Fast game is fast. Courtesy of Don Bellenger.

What’s unique is how combat works, though once you become aware of Bellenger’s inspirations it makes a lot of sense even if initially not, perhaps, for a 2D platformer. The character is armed with a gun and a secondary weapon (more guns) and varieties of firearms drop from defeated enemies along the way. However, there is no “fire” button. Instead, the game works more like a twin-stick shooter like Enter the Gungeon or, if we’re relying on my frame of reference, Smash TV. But putting that mechanic into a 2D platformer is novel and seems to work quite well. The mechanics for shooting in this game feel tight, visceral, and fast and I want to say it may be due to its lack of a button-press to shoot. The shooting in Black Future ’88 is less about holding the right stick in the direction of the enemy and more about flicking the stick in the direction of the enemy. The player doesn’t really have time to plant and send out a barrage of ordnance; you have to keep moving much like you would in a bullethell game like Enter the Gungeon or, what it also brought to mind for me, something like Gradius or R-Type, which is another aspect of that genre the game integrates pretty well.

Like the space ship shooters I mentioned (“shmups” if you will), the enemies in Black Future ’88 send out less waves of bullets meant to kill you quickly and more slow-moving mazes whose walls can hurt you and through which you must find the opening (or, if left with no other choice, dash through). These come at you from all directions, so you must keep the character moving, sending out attacks when you can. With these different pieces coming together in a very functional manner, it created––even in its unfinished state––a frenetic and stylish experience.

 

Frauki’s Adventure

by Preece

Where you start the game as well as where you spawn after every death. Courtesy of Preece.

Of the games I saw at the show, Frauki’s Adventure took me most by surprise. The Sacramento Indie Arcade Expo is still a fairly small event with the majority of developers spread through two large rooms––basically two large multipurpose rooms––where tables are crammed together leaving a fairly small avenue for passersby. When I first arrived, I snaked my way through both rooms before heading up to the blackbox theater to see who the next speaker was and as I walked through the first room, I passed by Frauki with nary but a glance. There was no signage nor patient person waiting beside it, eager to explain the game to a potential player. It was kind of just…there. It was set up spread between two small monitors, from beneath each wormed a knockoff USB Super Famicom controller. I have to say, the initial glance didn’t do much for me.

Frauki’s Adventure is, like Black Future ’88, a 2D pixel sprite-based action-exploration platform game, again in the vein of something like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night or Metroid. Unlike Black Future ’88Frauki was bright and colorful and didn’t have the grimdark edge that a lot of other games had. Nor did it have any of the irony that other games who go for the more twee-cute aesthetic often have, either. Frauki’s Adventure is actually quite earnest.

So, I walked by.

Later, I walked through the rooms again to see what the crowds were like and if any games were open to poke at. The VR stations clogged up much of the traffic and I was left standing in front of Frauki and, on a whim and out of boredom, I pushed a button on the controller. In all honesty, I did so out of curiousity for what the quality of the gamepad was like; if it had been solid, I would consider buying one for my own uses (it was not very good quality). But when I pushed a button, Frauki jumped. It was a good jump. It had the right response off the button-press and, when she landed, her stylish bob danced at her jawline for a few frames. In animation, we call this “secondary animation” or animating a reaction (in the clothes, hair, anything loose on a person) to the primary movement of a character. Secondary animation is viewed mostly as the key to unlocking believability in your characters. It’s a subtle form of exaggeration that makes a figure feel more real because it’s interacting with gravity in way that a body mostly does. In video games––especially a lot of 8/16-bit sprite animated games––it’s rarely done. Symphony of the Night has some. When you make Alucard crouch, it takes a second for his cloak to hit the ground, for example. And in Frauki her hair simply bounced as she landed on the ground and it had my undivided attention.

Some well animated and programmed action awaits in Frauki’s Adventure. Gif courtesy of Preece.

It speaks overall to the careful attention the developer puts into the game. Admittedly, a lot of it still kind of looks unimpressive at first glance, but if you move around, the world breathes, metaphorically, and you kind of don’t care if anything doesn’t immediately match your aesthetic.

Mechanically, the developer said it was inspired by his two favorite games, Mega Man X and Dark Souls, so I assume punishment and/or extreme challenge is in order.

What stuck with me as I played it, aside from being surprised at how much it charmed me, was that it felt good to play. There were some performance issues––it’s an alpha after all––but I found it eminently and immediately playable and it became the game I was thinking most about after leaving the show, even though I know if I showed people screenshots or perhaps even video of the game, it may not be enough to persuade anybody. The game sells itself when it’s played. The earnestness, craft, and gameplay of Frauki’s Adventure hit an open chord in me, and I look forward to playing it again.

The Rabbit and the Owl

by formal sheep

The Rabbit and The Owl title card, giving a glimpse of its painterly style. Courtesy of formal sheep. Click to enlarge.

This game was at last year’s Indie Arcade Expo and although I somehow missed it, it is a high-gloss puzzle-platformer that is very much in line with a lot of the interesting puzzle-platformers released in the last five or six years. I’m not saying it’s not original, in fact I mean the opposite. It is exactly as creative and interesting as the rest, which puts it in good company. It’s incredibly stylistic, relying on storybook art direction than on the jagged edges of pixel art sprites. Its mechanics are simple––jumping, lever-pulling, some cursor work. It’s goal is simple: get The Rabbit and The Owl to their respective goals.

It’s a two-player cooperative game where one player controls The Rabbit––the white figure––and the other player controls The Owl––the black figure. The screen is broken up into light and dark avenues which criss-cross each other; the white Rabbit lives in the dark realm, the black Owl lives in the light realm and they can only travel within those realms, never crossing over (as far as I saw). The specific goals each one has to get to is often blocked by the intersection of the other character’s world, but those are moveable by way of pulling a lever. So, if the Rabbit is blocked by the bright wall of the Owl’s world, the Owl is most likely able to reach a lever that, when pulled will move it out of the way (usually for the Rabbit to reach her own lever to pull it and open a path for the Owl).

Things can get complicated. Courtesy of formal sheep.

It’s this clever puzzle solving that reminds me of everything from Braid to Monument Valley to even LIMBO and this game fits right into that milieu.

Unearned Bounty

by Extrokold Games

Title card for Unearned Bounty. Courtesy of Extrokold Games.

Unearned Bounty was another game I judged or, more accurately, codified on first glance before trying to walk past it (again, blocked by traffic). It is a game with a very slick aesthetic: cartoony, bright, silly sounds and a slick user interface (UI). It seemed like a mobile game; it had the low-poly/high-style look to that seemed like it could easily be a mobile game aimed at micro-transactions and fun but unchallenging gameplay. As with other games this year, I ended up being quite wrong.

Instead of being a on-the-toilet game, it’s actually best described as an arena shooter, a related but distant cousin to something like Nintendo’s Splatoon, but instead of being team-based––though that can very well happen––it’s a free-for-all timed shootfest where the player is trying to accumulate as much booty as possible. Instead of being first-person with a gun sticking out the bottom of the screen or a third-person run/cover/gun shooter, you’re a pirate ship on the high seas trying to blow up other pirate ships. What the developer wants––and I could see it happening––is with so many ships on the board (I forget the player count), and for the fact that the game tags the ship currently in first place (which, if you take it out, you get a bigger bounty), players will form temporary alliances and break them and backstab and do all the things pirates do in order to end as the richest scallywag.

Unearned Bounty’s colorful and cartoony aesthetics are polished and charming. Its UI is particularly slick. Courtesy of Extrokold Games.

What intrigues about this choice is that it automatically modifies traditional third-person shooting tactics because your main weapons shoot sideways, so your direction and physical alignment is key and so incredibly different from most (all?) shooters out there. Secondly, because you’re a sailboat on the water, movement is much slower (though not boring) than most people are used to. Controlling the movement––slowing players down––I found increased the tension and excitement of the gameplay rather than stifling it. With accumulated money, the player can upgrade the ship to do more damage and, I assume, protect from it, but it’s mostly a game about hunting down other ships and laying your cannons into them.

The developer mentioned games like League of Legends not necessarily as inspiration but for the type of crowd he was going for––online competitive multiplayer fanatics. I immediately thought of Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, remembering how enjoyable (and similar to this) their ship combat was. They were likely the best parts of both of those games, so it’s nice to see people recognizing that and doing something with it. I do wonder if the game will find its intended audience, though; I’m guessing it’ll skew a bit younger because, with the cartoony aesthetics and sense of humor, I think the young and pre-teen crowd are going to find consistent solace in ships helmed by the likes of “Captain Toots” and “Captain Hornswaggle,” but I hope it finds who it’s aimed at because it’s a game with a lot of strategic possibility if only because of its complete uniqueness in a sea (apologies) of shooters.

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This year’s Arcade Expo yielded a more satisfying experience for me than last year. I went this year having seen the speakers list beforehand and intended to basically sit in the blackbox theater the entire day watching people talk intelligently about games (the speakers’ talks have been archived in audio form by the International Game Developers Association of Sacramento). Instead, I found myself on the floor talking intelligently about games with people whose hands were in the mud, making clay. The point being that it wasn’t that I was particularly surprised by the games I wrote about above; it’s more that I allowed myself to realize that––to an obvious extent––the true discourse of independent games cannot be summarized by sitting in a rather comfortable folding chair in a black box theater, watching people sweat under a bright spotlight; it’s down in the multipurpose rooms where asses accidentally get pushed into the faces of people sitting in front of monitors, where people swinging wildly wearing VR headsets cold cock the PC tower that’s running the game, where you have to lean in to hear the soft-spoken developer who has been slowly crafting his small game on the weekends for the last year and a half tell you, “No, it’s not a whole lot like Zelda, actually.” It’s into this mud that I, as a player and intellectually curious critic, hope to wade a bit deeper next year.