Strange Vistas


Aloy standing on a dead machine

There's a character you meet early in Horizon: Zero Dawn called Teb. He is a boy, just a teenager, who slipped off a cliff and fell into a valley full of animalistic machines. The machines are calm, because they haven't noticed him, but will turn savage and attack the moment they sense a human.

Your character, Aloy, wants to help. Rost, her mentor and surrogate father, stops her. She's just a child, he says, not even as old as the boy she's trying to save. The boy has only a hurt leg, but there are too many machines around. Soon one of them will notice him and they'll trample him to death. There's nothing she can do.

Aloy runs off and you get to rescue him, of course. It's the sort of thing one expects the heroine would do.

The story skips ahead a few years shortly thereafter. The next time we see Alloy she is a young woman, in her teens herself, eager to prove her worth at a tribal contest.

You've played enough of these things. You know where that's going. Teb is going to show up again. He'll be the Designated Older Male, inspired by Aloy to become a better warrior, who will trail her through her quest to repay the favor of saving his life, who will become the Requisite Love Interest.

It's a trivial spoiler to say that he is not. His experience with the machines and Aloy taught him that he was no warrior material. He is a tailor, making clothes and keeping close to home while supporting others with the leatherwear he makes.

Over and over, Horizon: Zero Dawn's story upends narrative expectations. Turning around tropes is easy enough – you just figure out whatever the majority would expect and go the opposite way. Horizon does it the hard way: making its secondary characters feel like actual people instead of being anthropomorphic plot dispensers. You deal with sexism and racism and xenophobia. You meet an Empire that is trying to get above its bloody past, climb the ruins of the old world, hear about it from the (recorded) mouth of some people who lived in it. It's a gorgeous world which feels like a living place, an ecosystem populated by fiberglass and metal instead of fur and feather.

It's a lovely story, but you need to spend most of your time in the repetitive game.

Horizon: Zero Dawn's core gameplay hamster wheel is so polished that it takes a while to notice that you spend most of your time running in place. You fight machines, get parts, craft munitions out of them, fight machines in corrupted zones so that an area is safer, trade parts for better weapons, climb a stunning walking tower to scan the area so you can find more machines to fight. The core game quests tell you Aloy's story, the side quests flesh out the world, and the fact there's a section named “Errands” tells you everything you need to know about its third category. Its dialogue is delicious, its writing on par (and often above) that of The Witcher 3. The core game loop can give off whiffs of Dragon Age: Inquisition tedium.

The game is still a delight. It holds up a mirror to our own society's tribal thinking and sectarian squabbles. It features a strong, smart woman who keeps teaching those who judge her by her genitals how far they are from the point. It's a perfect showcase of gaming best and worst traits, and how we can both entertain and set an example, without preaching or forcing the player to agree with your politics. Its bushels of errands are worth putting up with, so you can get to the places they lead.

#games #ps4 #guerrillagames

Kyriu standing at the entrance of Kamurocho

Yakuza Kiwami understands what makes games work. There's too much in it that would fall on its face if it didn't.

The narration is byzantine. At the start of the game you go from a cold open in media res, with your character towering over a dead body while holding the murder weapon, to a flashback, to another flashback some years prior, to yet another flashback of all those involved as kids, to a fast-forward through the narrative stack.

The characters oscillate between grim, murderous determination and childish glee. Their entire world is a single neighborhood, a bipolar microcosm of violence and absurdity. It's populated with a mixture of blood feuds and game arcades, dangerous conmen and earnest ingenues, hired would-be murderers and collectible cards, smart children and not-too-sharp hostesses, drug-addicted homelessness and barkeeps fawning over whiskey types, social corrosion and toy car racing, young women threatened by thugs while ignored by everyone around them and white-knighting judo champions. There's even a giggling psychopath who idolizes and helps you yet tries to murder you over and over to prove a point.

As a movie, it would be incoherent. As a TV series, you'd have expected the writer's room to be a coked-up cartload of chimpanzees creating cut-ups of crime cinema and cartoons. As a game, with you in the driver's seat, it's fun and silly and unexpected and engaging and sometimes surprising.

You play Kiryu Kazuma, the dreaded Dragon of Dojima. He's a respected lieutenant in a yakuza family who, on the eve of getting his own branch of the family, decides to take the fall for a murder. Leaving prison after spending 10 years in jail, he comes straight back to his old territory of out Kamurocho (a not-even disguised Kabukicho) to look for an old friend who disappeared.

Kamurocho is a dangerous town, full of small streets and back alleys, where – this being a brawling game – everyone wants to fight you. Some people want to rob you. Some people want revenge. Some think you're still a yakuza, some that you're an easy mark. Some are trying to con you and unhappy you see through their transparent ploys. Some get angry that you're asking questions, digging around in areas which don't concern you. Some just want to try themselves against the former Dragon of Dojima.

Kyriu scowling in an alley

Former being the key word. Even if you start the game being a one-man thug-wrecking crew, the time in prison softened Kiryu. You'll need to regain the skills that you had in your prime, or you'll never survive the tsunami of henchmen and mooks the story will throw your way.

Or stories. There's the main plot, about what happened in the decade you were away and where your friends are, and then there's the myriad of small side stories, some connected to you and your friends and some just fleshing out the fauna of Kamurocho. You could try and just go for the main plot, raging ahead like the bull Kiryu can resemble, but the wise path would be taking the side streets.

First, the side quests help you gain enough experience to get your skills back, which will be fundamental with the tough battles you'll have to deal with. This doesn't just mean experience points – different enemies have their own combat styles and, just when you're getting too comfortable, the game throws a different combination of thugs at you and forces you to reconsider your approach. Practice is fundamental for surviving Kamurocho.

But second, Yakuza isn't just about the main plot. It's about the rollercoaster of small stories you find on every corner. Silly situations and contrived circumstances like the wannabe-yakuza who sticks to Kiryu to “help” and only gets in trouble, or the group of thugs who keep trying to run the same “accident reparations” scam on you, or a fetch quest involving toilet paper for a man in need. Stories where you help a girl sell the matches her family makes on their small atelier, or find a replacement for an aging kid's game host so he can move on, or rush around Kamurocho trying to find a doctor for a child who might be dying.

It's also about figuring out where the chips are going to fall. Some of these quests look like you can help a person in need and devolve into a scam, some look like obvious cons yet end up either being about honest people in dire straits or straight-up restoring your faith in humanity. Some are just funny.

Not that the writing is wearing any sort of high hat. If this was D&D, the writer's alignment would be Lawful Absurd. It's honest and earnest, sticks to its guns, but even when it's playing it serious it goes over the top.

Why have a simple small-potatoes murder when you could have a far-reaching conspiracy?

Why have a side quest where you need to recover an item when you could start a chain of swaps and retrievals which spans the whole of Kamurocho?

Why just fight a boss when you can also fight his henchmen, some of whom are shooting at you, with mooks who stream from the second story carrying blades, in a Chinese restaurant, while you're using the furniture as improvised weapons?

Why just train to regain your skills when you could be hounded in random alleys by Majima, a deranged yakuza who alternates between nemesis and savior, and who may try to attack you from behind a corner, or coming out of a manhole, or charging with an entire gang wielding baseball bats, or interrupting a completely different fight?

Yes, there are fetch quests, but they help you learn the lay of the land. Yes, some of this can get repetitive, but it's so entertaining that when I got suckered into a minigame where you spend time chatting up a club hostess, I found myself wondering “why am I doing this? I could be fighting Majima on the street”.

And yes, you know how the story is going to play out the moment some elements pop up. But that doesn't matter. Kamurocho is a big amusement park, filled with fights and collectible games and deadly frenemies and toy car races and murder. The main plot, with all the dopey insanity it brings, is just the vehicle carrying you through its attractions.

Kyriu and Majima

#games #yakuza #stupidweek

Screenshot of Ellen Page in Beyond Two Souls

Here's a tip, everyone: it's not a game just because you use a controller to get through it. I use a PS/4 controller to get around Netflix, that doesn't make it an “interactive movie”.

Why am I bringing that up? David Cage's “games” give the player so little agency that I always wondered why he didn't just up and make a miniseries in the first place.

Beyond Two Souls answers that conclusively: it's because his writing is ludicrous, even by late 90s TV standards. If I wasn't a strong believer in personal freedom, I'd say he shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a keyboard.

So this girl Jodie grows up in a military base somewhere in the U.S. It's a covert research facility where you don't want anyone to know what's going on. The secretive type, where you emblazon the name United States Department of Paranormal Activity in a gigantic seal covering the entire lobby. She has a connection with “an entity” which, effectively, means that as a player you get to play through out of body experiences and push things around.

But it's a government project, so of course they intend to use her as a spy/weapon. She goes straight from her child/teenage years at the base, to CIA training montage as an adult, to covert ops where of course the CIA lies to her, to wandering the Earth before she needs to come back and clean up the military's mess.

By “goes” I mean “you have to push her slow-moving stiff automaton of a character around”. Her body is a crawling cursor that you need to use in 3D space to get to the next action prompt. It's as if David Cage had looked at visual novels and thought “that's OK, but wouldn't it be more fun if it took a few minutes of geometry-bumping and camera-wrestling before you could continue the scene?”

And that dialogue. By Tarantino, that dialogue. It takes a special kind of writer/director to make Willem Dafoe come across as a bumbling daytime TV soap-opera star. Imagine a kid who grew up thinking his crayon scribblings were high art because mom kept sticking them on the fridge, so he never tried to improve. That's David Cage's writing.

It has a couple of moments. The story is all vignettes from Jodie's life and there are exactly two in them that actually work as a game, with decision points which have you ask what kind of person you are. The game also still tells you a story if you fail at a task, instead of having you restart a scene.

These are wallpaper trying to hold together a termite-chewed, badly-hammered-together structure. The vignettes don't disguise how disconnected the tale is from your actions or how little effect you have on her actual story. Continuing the scene even if you fumble an event doesn't ameliorate how obtuse the game can be at what it expects you to do at critical moments.

Most story choices, though? They're of the “should I do a wailing teenage guitar riff or just throw a different type of hissy-fit?” variety.

Most game sections? You're on rails, with your actions having zero impact on the story at large, the scene itself, or Jodie specifically.

David Cage doesn't get how either of those things work.

#games #beyondtwosouls #stupidweek #willemdafoe #ellenpage

Soma title card

He woke up, and remembered dying. Ken MacLeod, The Stone Canal

That line stuck with me ever since I first read it. Not only it's a killer way to start a book, but it has always seemed an apt description for games.

SOMA, Frictional Games' first since their nerve-wracking Amnesia: The Dark Descent, is a worthy successor to both Amnesia and the long line of existential science fiction that begat The Stone Canal. And it starts in almost the same way.

I've been excited about it ever since I saw the Mockingbird teaser they first put out, which contains some very minor spoilers. My main fear was that SOMA would succumb to the cheap horror of Amnesia's successors like Outlast, which are nothing but a string of jump scares and gore. SOMA scales back the horror from Amnesia, instead, and replaces it with a growing, pervading sense of dread.

Much like in System Shock, another brilliant game about a lone individual wandering an abandoned, abomination-infested station, SOMA's story is not told to you directly but found among the detritus of the inhabitant's former lives. A notebook here, a drawing there, a cargo manifest, a garbled info dump, all gradually fill in the many gaps in your character's consciousness. Its universe is fully built, and the extra color provided by the universe's bric-a-brac helped keep me guessing. What's actually behind everything? How deep in are we? Am I Legend? For once, I guessed wrong. It's a nice change.

Eventually, SOMA gets to asking some questions of you, and you will be forced to provide an answer either by action or inaction. These quandaries will be more unsettling for those who haven't read much science fiction, but anyone who has will have answered them before.

Even beyond them, though, SOMA is still effective at getting an emotional response. It's less of a game and more of a well-written movie you get to play through, but if more movies were as well crafted as this, I'd be in the theater more often.

Plus, how often do you get to think of a game as Baby's first transhuman existential horror?

#soma #games #horror #transhumanism