Tuesday, July 11, 2017

And the drop is due to...

The rate of reviewing has dropped off on this site for more than a few of months.  I’m still reading a lot, just not as much as I used to.  And of course there’s a reason.   Actually, there are two.  But first things, first.

A year and a half ago, just before the holidays, my wife’s family asked what we wanted for Christmas.  Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on perspective—I was not asked an opinion on the decision, and instead of requesting something relevant to our ongoing (lifetime?) house renovation, my wife asked for, of all things, a Playstation 4.  What?!?!?, I thought.  We’re in our late thirties.  The last time either of us played video games was university.  We could have a new front door for the price of one of those things! Secretly, of course, I was also aware of what a brain-suck video games can be; like chocolate they are oh so good, and yet oh so bad—bad in the sense that they put to strong test one’s time management and self-control to. not. play. just. one. more. level.  (Despite the decades since last playing, I remain in the court that video games are a positive thing, depending on the game and how the time is spent of course, and I think cognitive science backs this up.)  But Christmas time came, and there sitting under the tree, was a PS4.

In another package was the game Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag.  It took me a few weeks to get around to playing it, and when I did, I was amazed by the extreme advance in graphics since I’d last played video games roughly twenty years prior in the mid 90s.  But the gameplay didn’t grab me, didn’t suck me in until the wee hours of the morning, desperate to play more as sleep beckoned as I’d feared.  I played the game here and there, and after four or so months, finished it. My final impression was ho-hum: storyline coheres only in segments but does have some good stealth action and open world exploration.  I put the controller down and didn’t pick it up again for some time, still thinking I’d rather have had a new front door.

But one day while walking through one of the many Polish mini-incarnations of Walmart, I noticed in a sale rack the game Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt.  It was being sold at a really low price, and I thought what the hell?  If I don’t like it, at least my wife will as she had read Sapkowski’s original novels.  But soon enough, I was the one absorbed in the game.  The incredible level of detail, the gritty realism mixed with Medieval fantastical, the superbly designed open-world setting, the main storyline, the side storylines, the vast number of nooks and crannies and secrets to be uncovered, the incredible quantity of cinematic-level cut scenes, the knowledge my decisions now have real effect on gameplay later—I was playing until the wee hours of the morning, and if not, I was lamenting the fact I could not play until the wee hours of the morning as I handed the controller to my wife so she could play until the wee hours of the morning.   It took a couple of months given the immense amount of content to the game, but I finally finished the main storyline late one evening.  Extremely satisfied but somewhat exhausted, I put the controller down.  Then, I had a long, hard think about how gaming has evolved since my Nintendo days as a twelve year-old boy.  

Witcher 3 such a gratifying experience, I was reluctant to pick up another game for many months lest I mar its glory with a lesser game (not to mention I had to catch up on a few things perhaps I should have been doing instead of playing…).  But that black box sitting next to the television could not be ignored forever, and one evening in a pique, I downloaded three small indie games: Inside, Firewatch, and Limbo.  Though entirely different than Witcher 3, I had entered the rabbit hole.  I started, played, and finished the three, one by one, over the course of a couple of months, then wanted more.  So I bought Horizon: Zero Dawn, played it, enjoyed it, and still wanted more—the brain-suck in full effect.  But I wasn’t prepared for what came next.

In the course of regaining interest in video games, I had been reading a lot online: what other good games are out there—not necessarily identical to Witcher 3, but as regarded?  A few titles appeared several times—the Uncharted series, the Mass Effect series, Red Dead Redemption, and others.  But one was seemingly universally acclaimed from all corners of the web: The Last of Us.  And so I bought the game.  

All I can say is wow.  Wow.

It’s no secret that modern video games are exponentially more realistic and immersive than their pixel and dot forebears.  For the unaware, the degree of realism and immersion in today’s video games is essentially one degree removed from cinematics—a gap that will be covered in the next few years, for sure.  What this means is that game creators are able to put players, as much as is possible, into the shoes of the characters running around the imagined worlds on screen.  Being a detective, mighty warrior (or warrioress), or space marine is thisclose.  Game developers have done all the work to give you agency in what are essentially silver screen experiences.  Instead of watching a movie, you become part of the movie, directing the character, depending on the game, through the story.  I still fully appreciate novels for retaining the distance between sensual and imagined reality—for forcing the reader to use their imagination.  But I also appreciate what modern gaming is doing to virtually eliminate this distance; if the game’s world and gameplay are well-developed and unique, then so too can be the experience.  

With The Last of Us, this distance was so far removed that upon completing the game I felt emotionally drained—the story and my part in it that close to heart.  While it is technically a post-apocalyptic zombie story, every painstaking effort was made to align this premise with our current perception of American life.  The set pieces that the characters traverse are dilapidated versions of contemporary existence, from moldy coffee makers on kitchen counters to torn wallpaper in hotel lobbies.  The zombies are more like crazed crackheads appearing here and there rather than the classic, blood-slavering horde lumbering toward you, all arms extended.  And the interactive game elements, from ladders to guns, require the same degree of effort in-game—to reposition or reload—as they might in real life.  To top it all off, game creators gave the player the responsibility of caring for another person, a teenage girl, then gave players perhaps the most difficult ethical choice possible regarding her at the end of the game. In short, the feeling of survival and protection of a loved one in such a harrowing environment is truly conveyed to the player.  Where Nintendo games of my youth featured colorful 2D jumping and shooting blobs of pixels that invoked little emotion beside “Wheee!”, The Last of Us PS4 experience put me on an emotional rollercoaster of story and dialogue made all the more powerful by my interaction with it.  Like some of the best books I’ve read, I will never be able to forget my memories of The Last of Us.

Thus, if you consider yourself too old to play video games, or that they are immature entertainment, I would suggest to look again.  Indeed there are numerous games which have advanced only technically—not become matured or intellectual in theme.  But there are some, like The Last of Us, which offer an experience capable of being critiqued along some of the same lines as fiction, from plot to cultural and social relevancy.  I will readily say that games will never be able to approach the complexity of books in these terms, but given the medium, huge strides have been made to sometimes give adults something to think about.

This is all a long winded way of saying I think it’s time to introduce a new aspect to Speculiction: Console Corner.  Most of modern video gaming essentially interactive storytelling, the leap is really not so far.    Given the rate at which I play new games compared to read books, I don’t expect to flood this blog with reviews, but a review of a game, or game commentary will pop up every now and then, so don’t be surprised.  

But there’s still a second reason my reviewing has dropped off…  A different C_______ Corner.  More to come later.


  1. Hey man, video games are great! I'm myself a pc gamer. I have The witcher 3 installed and yet to finish the main story -that game is massive!. I would recommend you: Bioshock Infinite, Dishonored, Gta V. This are great history based games.
    Keep it up.

    1. I'm playing Bioshock the first installment at the moment, about 3 hours in. So far not as good as Witcher 3 (if I can reduce it to such a simple comparison), but still worth it.

  2. I played Bioshock infinite first. Then I tried the first Biochock but only played the first copule of levels. It didnt grab me as much. Infinite blew me away. It's very different from those first games, it's a folating city set in the 1912 alternative history. I think I will replay it one of this days.

  3. I enjoyed reading this, Jesse, and you have further convinced me that I need to stay far away from these games... :)

    1. It's a rabbit hole for sure (just not the same rabbit hole from twenty years ago :).

  4. Weirdly I also got a PS4 last year after many years of not playing video games, and weirdly the first game I played on it was also Black Flag (and I agree, sort of fun and visually great but ultimately meh.)

    That feeling you describe: "...suck me in until the wee hours of the morning, desperate to play more as sleep beckoned." That addictiveness. That's what I miss a lot about playing video games as a teenager, although back then I obviously had a lot more spare time on my hands. But I do love when a game is so compelling that I think about it all day and want to play it as soon as I get home; which is not always the same as being an objectively great game, but is often a good sign. Being totally sucked into a fictional world like that, just as I was totally sucked into books when I was a younger kid. I've had that feeling about games as completely different as The Sims and Final Fantasy IX and Skyrim.

    The Last of Us (besides being just a brilliant game in general) is probably pretty perfect for somebody who hasn't played games in years, since it's "cinematic" in that sense that it takes you on a firm narrative journey. (I was spoiled on the ending beforehand and assumed it would be one of those video game choices they like to give you - but of course it's not, because you're not the player, you're Joel, and Joel would never consider it a choice or a decision at all.) If you're interested in recommendations, two very different games I'd recommend looking into are The Walking Dead (yes, I know, but read the reviews) and the Dishonored franchise. Both really excellent games which give you more control over the narrative in the way that only games can.

    1. Indeed, I've been ignoring The Walking Dead. But now I'll take a second look. Dishonored caught my interest for a moment, but the reviews made it look a tiny bit like Bioshock - a game that I generally enjoyed playing, but have no desire to play again. To be specific, the gameplay looks quite solid, but the mix of fantastical elements looked a little too wild or chaotic for the setting. For example, walking around Bioshock I kept asking myself: Am I a wizard shooting fire from my fingertips? The developers never sold me on the 'plasmid' thing. Seemed more an excuse to electrocute or burn people like Gandalf than actions that were a natural offshoot of the game's premise. And I fear the same of Dishonored, that the main character's capabilities serve the interest of gaming more than the game... But I very easily could be wrong and will look a little deeper at the reviews now that you've recommended it.

    2. The Walking Dead is a great piece of interactive fiction which I think a lot of gamers misunderstood; I see plenty of complaints about how your choices "don't matter" because they don't affect the overall narrative, i.e. you still end up in the same place at the end of the game. Which misses the point that life & fiction are about the journey, not the narrative. You can get to the end with a group of people who hate each other's guts, or a solid group of friends, or (most likely) a difficult mix of both. It's far better than anything else in the TWD franchise, or any zombie fiction at all, and has some of the best character writing and voice acting in any game in years.

      Dishonored is a series which a) I think is objectively good on a lot of levels, but also b) is just totally up my personal alley. So I'm biased. Its story is nothing to write home about, except perhaps in gameplay terms - I was very impressed when I messed up at the climax of the final mission, expected to reload from the last checkpoint, and instead got one of the multiple endings and saw the credits roll; I can't think of any other game that treats failure as a valid narrative outcome. But its art design is unparalleled and it creates a magnificent sense of place in Dunwall, the crumbling Victorian-era city stricken by the plague. The box art and promo stuff for Dishonored is very much geared towards a teenage boy audience, with all the Kickass Death Mask Assassin junk, but the game itself is generally very subtle and thoughtful.

      Re: your concerns about fantastical elements, I guess it's sort of Game of Thrones-ish in the sense that magic is known to exist but is rarely seen, and widely hated and feared. You're granted your powers by a devil or trickster god figure whose worship is outlawed and power up by finding whalebone relics scattered around hidden shrines, often with scraps of story about how the previous owner was arrested or went mad from the magic. Personally I thought it fit well and completely dig the mix of 19th-century industrial revolution + secret forbidden devil worship, but I've known some who didn't. Interestingly, in the sequel, you can choose to reject the offer of eldritch powers entirely and play the game as just a regular old roof-jumping assassin.