What Remains of Outlast 2

Should you stay or should you go?

Should you stay or should you go?

5/4/2017

Been a few rounds since my last post, so I figured it’s time to cobble something together on two recently released and very broadly related games from last week-- in the same way grey wolves are broadly related to labradoodles-- Outlast 2 and What Remains of Edith Finch. This will be a sort of mashup review/commentary on both, with slight spoilers although nothing too in depth, since for reasons that will shortly become clear, one of these games deserves to be played and the other just sort of exists, filling the space between our inevitable exit into eternal darkness. The theme of death then, is something both titles on the surface have in common, although each approaches it from a quite different angle. So here’s what I thought of them-- what worked, what didn’t, and why.

First, What Remains of Edith Finch, the second release by developer Giant Sparrow, previously acclaimed for The Unfinished Swan (which I played a bit of but was underwhelmed by. Fellow Lost Signal J. Ian Manczur quite enjoyed it though, so take that as you will.) Falling under the "walking sim” label, or as the pretentious might describe: “interactive narrative game experience,” Edith Finch combines components of games like Gone Home and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, with maybe a bit of Dear Esther throw in for good measure, but without necessarily outright copying any of these. Rather, it marks a leap forward and step up in the genre, keeping the core conventions intact but adding a healthy dose of imagination and clever design to weave together the bittersweet chronicle of a family whose members over the years have seemingly been plagued by a series of rather unfortunate events ultimately leading to their untimely deaths.

Edith Finch manages to do a lot with a little. Every story of the tragic end of a Finch has its own feel and personality that reflects that of the member it represents as it unfolds, and this is further mirrored in the mechanics of each. The art styles both overall and as applied to the individual stories are perfectly suited to match the narrative tone throughout. Some are stronger/more memorable than others to be sure, but all have something to mark them as distinct, so that taken together they create a collage of melancholic tales rather than retreading one single defining feature for the 6 or so hours it takes to see them all. It’s difficult to comment much further without major spoilers, so just take my vague word for it, if you’re into these types of games, Edith Finch cements itself as one of the best thus far.

Now that it’s probably clear which game is which in the recommend category, let’s move onto Outlast 2, Red Barrels’ followup to the largely successful Outlast. Longtime followers may know I’m a big fan of horror in all media generally and more so in the gaming sector. I liked Outlast a lot and gave it a few playthroughs at the time. Thus I was very much looking forward to 2. First impressions were mainly positive-- the plot hits the ground running pretty hard and fast, establishing an early rock solid atmosphere and for lack of better term, gore/grotesquery accoutrements design. The rural Arizona farm setting is well realized aesthetically and largely immersive if not completely original. I can also respect its ballsy attempts to comment on and depict the darker side of religion, specifically Christianity/Catholicism. These elements though are eventually shoved so relentlessly in your face that it almost becomes satire territory.

On the gameplay side, there are a handful of quirky design choices that more often than not fall flat. The biggest thorn that comes to mind being the checkpoint system. A number of times, O2 reset me at spots where it was extremely difficult to escape a one-hit kill, throwing me into annoying loops of almost near-instant loss scenarios. God may forgive, but when this happened multiple times, all sense of tension and fun evaporated, and in an ostensible horror game, I cannot.

However, since respawning also resets health and camera battery level, it's an easy/cheap abusable exploit to run trial and error paths at other times and then purposely die so as to regain those resources. Often it forces one to do this anyway, at various points of frustrating attempts to navigate where the game wants you to go without much direction and little indication of the difference between which pieces of scenery/rendered objects are interactable vs. simply window dressing.

Because of the above, in my entire playthrough, I never had to use more than 3 bandages max and had a large stockpile of batteries midway through. There’s also an underused mechanic of listening for nearby creeping footsteps via the camera sound pickup, but I found I hardly needed this. It drains battery on top of the more frequently used and helpful night-vision, so that one might as well forgo it completely. Additionally, I found myself inadvertently creating amusing instances of ludonarrative dissonance, wherein I was going through a sequence which the game clearly wanted to impart urgency to, but which I interrupted at points looking for collectibles along the way in side rooms. “Excuse me, demented cultist, while I record footage of some of your previous victims...there, now you may resume chasing me.”  

O2's length is about twice that of Outlast. Due to this some of its ideas begin to noticeably stretch thin vs. the compact running time of the first. Apparently there also is a plot point/note (collectible?) that explains a large missing piece of information pertinent to what's happening and why, but I learned this through an outside recap and not in my initial playthrough, so that if it was truly meant to be impactful/important to add to the story, it was seemingly missable/optional. Given that, and even after learning of this detail, the question I ended up asking was: what is it actually saying about all of this? Your guess is probably as good as mine. Overall, O2 was decent but didn’t reach any new heights of horror. Red Barrels delivers some satisfaction, but along with that come odd and unintuitive decisions that detract from the total experience. RE7 was still much better.

So there you go minions, if trying to decide on what game to play between these two, go for the surreal experience of dark whimsy in What Remains of Edith Finch. And if you feel like playing through some grittily atmospheric but ultimately baffling torture-porn, try Outlast 2. In the meantime, I wait dreaming in the depths for the Call of Cthulhu game to hopefully release this winter.

-Scott Thurlow

GAME DEVELOPERS CHOICE AWARDS: 2017 WINNERS

The winners actually are... (image via http://gamechoiceawards.com/

The winners actually are... (image via http://gamechoiceawards.com/

3/2/2017

Back in January the GDC announced their 2017 game award nominees and I went through a few of the categories, going over the games I thought would win in each as well as the ones I thought should in fact win. Yesterday the actual winners were announced, so now it is time of course to recap, see how I fared in retrospect, and give my final thoughts in the aftermath.

Best Audio

My pick: DOOM

GDC:  Inside

I haven't gotten around to playing Inside, though I am planning to (eventually) and know mostly what it's about. Having said that and being unable to comment directly on its audio design, I still think DOOM has the perfect bombastic soundtrack/audio design for what it is, and it would've been nice for it to have a nod, but I suppose you can't kill every demon all the time.  

Best Debut

My pick: Hyper Light Drifter

GDC:  Firewatch

As I mentioned in the original breakdown, Hyper Light Drifter would've been great to see recognized here, but Firewatch is an excellent choice too and a well-deserved win. I'm very much looking forward to developer Campo Santo's next game to follow in similar footsteps, and if so they look to have a bright future ahead of them.

Best Design

My pick: Dishonored 2

GDC:  Overwatch 

Spoiler: Overwatch won Game of the Year, and usually the game which does that wins design, so there it is. Again I must refrain from commenting much further since online competitive shooters aren't really my bag these days, so I'll only reiterate that I think Dishonored 2's design is top-notch and should certainly be played/appreciated. 

Innovation Award

My pick: Firewatch

GDC:  No Man’s Sky

I'm somewhat torn on this one, only because while I understand why No Man's Sky took this category, perhaps the controversy surrounding it should be kept in mind, wherein complaints regarding exactly how much "innovation" was promised vs. what the final release contained somewhat marred the game in general. Firewatch ended up snagging another just below, so in the end I don't think it's necessarily a snub.  

Narrative

My pick: Uncharted 4

GDC: Firewatch

Firewatch strikes again and I'm more than fine with that. I had words to say about Uncharted 4 and specifically its narrative, but at the time of the nominee announcement I thought it was the standard party-line to receive this one, so again it's nice to see some underdog recognition, and maybe in light of this, underdog no more. 

Audience Award

My pick: Stardew Valley 

GDC:  Battlefield 1

This one I was less sure of in general, but perhaps in retrospect Battlefield is more obvious. I know Stardew has a dedicated fanbase, but ala Overwatch etc. the online competitive shooter scene is much larger in comparison. Based on all accounts, Battlefield is indeed well crafted, so good on ya DICE and your numerous fans. 

Game of the Year

My pick: Overwatch

GDC:  Overwatch

One last time...I haven't played Overwatch nor am likely ever to, I just pay attention to the trends and there was almost no way it wasn't going to get GOTY here. So-called it! My personal pick of games I did play and thought were GOTY contenders from among the nominees was Dishonored 2.

That's pretty much it from me on the GDCAs. Overall I'm satisfied with a majority of the awards and if 2017's games are any indication thus far, it is shaping up to be even an even stronger year. Once more I will elaborate on my own top picks and more when Syntax Error season 3 premiers later this month. See you then,

 -Scott Thurlow

 

Resident Evil 7: Biohazard: Evil Comes Home

Knock knock. (image via The Escapist)

Knock knock. (image via The Escapist)

2/2/2017

It’s been slightly over a week since Resident Evil 7: Biohazard released, shipping 2.5 million copies in that time, and all I have to say is- goddamned right. Headshots off to Capcom for finally giving us a Resident Evil that returns to its survival horror origins. RE7 is a triumph, taking a spot in the higher tier of the series’ long and sometimes shaky history. But make no mistake, RE7 simultaneously recaptures its former glory and capitalizes on more modern conventions in the best way.

After the all-out, but ultimately asinine, action and storylines of RE5 and 6, Capcom and co. finally deliver a title that feels truer to the nature of the franchise than anything else put out under the name in years. While Revelations 2 did edge a bit closer, there was nothing standout about it in the end and many fans, including myself, were left with a sense that the series was still lacking a concrete direction.

Then Capcom announced a new numbered entry back at 2016’s E3, along with a few details, chief among them being the switch to first-person view and a self-proclaimed intention to invoke the style of the early originals. Many fans then, including myself, began to cautiously, but hopefully, conjecture that this would indeed be the revitalization RE sorely needed. Let me emphasize- it is exactly that, and whatever reservations lingered until now, be assured this is both the Resident Evil we remember and wanted.

In true fashion however, the road to this point was rocky. After an oddly handled teaser/trailer, one which Capcom inexplicably updated three times while only changing minor items, there was still more confusion than excitement. With so little to go on, the question of if and how Capcom could pull it off remained. Having spent the better part of a week with RE7, my answer is- perfectly, as planned.

I don’t wish to spoil or give too much away, because it should definitely be played fresh. Most of what I will mention below was part of the pre-release gameplay/marketing information available, however I cannot avoid going into a few further gameplay/mechanic/slight plot details in order to explain why I think this game works so well, so consider yourself warned.

-----------------------------------------------

 

For starters RE7 requires barely any knowledge of previous titles. There is a broad overarching connection to the existing cannon, but it is not necessary information to understand or enjoy the core story. This is the first sign of intelligent and informed design, making it both immediately accessible to any newcomers as well as giving long-time fans a reason to be invested without feeling like this is a cheap knock-off or cash-in that the RE name was randomly slapped onto (as has been the case before, re: Umbrella Corps.)

From its outset RE7, has a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe, though never devolving into outright parody or cliché. Set not in any exotic locale or bloated/sprawling underground Umbrella installation, but rather in the backwater swamp of a sleepy Louisiana homestead, the all-important sensation of isolation is instantly conveyed. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the spot, the Baker family, serve as the primary antagonists who present excellently frightening and deranged foes each time you encounter one of them during the course of the game. Likewise the ‘Molded’ creatures that nest sporadically throughout, ready to ooze through the floors and walls right when your guard is down; sparking flashes of panic upon hearing one form, realizing at the last second that it’s actually behind you as you whirl around hoping to have enough time to get a shot off before booking it the fuck out of the room frantically closing any open doors between you and it along the way, searching desperately for a hiding spot so as not to expend any more precious shotgun shells because you know more Molded are now spawning somewhere nearby and all the while just trying not to die!

Scenarios like the above serve to exemplify how and why RE7 achieves its goals as related to its gaming pedigree and history as a whole. It is able to successfully revive and impart that trademark claustrophobic tension, that vague sense of encroaching dread punctuated periodically by razor sharp sections of action that at its best the series was a master of attaining, all without resorting to predictable or tired jump scares. It feels as fresh here as it did originally, and sets a high benchmark for the series.

Everyman protagonist Ethan Winters is not the trained soldier Leon Kennedy or Chris Redfield are. He moves and reloads more slowly and sometimes awkwardly, making the player feel truly vulnerable. Weapons have a realistic heft and weight to wielding them that adds to this. Due to the viewpoint, it’s more difficult than ever to see what might be lurking around a corner or section of a location without exposing Ethan to danger in the process, and that makes for top-notch survival horror in the truest definition. This switch to first-person may initially seem at odds with what RE is traditionally known for, but it’s a smart move that transitions smoothly, retaining a constant unease while adding a layer of immersion that was previously absent. Taken together, they create an unsettling but viscerally satisfying experience, seamlessly oscillating between intense and cathartic at any given moment.

Sound design must be mentioned as the unsung hero and standout star of RE7 (as we decreed all good horror games should be to some degree) with so many other elements fitted to exploit the expert application of appropriate auditory arrangement; the places in RE7 themselves become alive. The effect is startling once noticed and a slowly dripping bathtub full of blood’s worth of credit should be given to how well it’s integrated everywhere in the game, producing a fantastic blend of subtle but unnerving atmosphere.

RE7 handles the more classic components deftly as well. Resource collecting and management is as streamlined and tight as ever. Safe rooms are scattered variously to save and store excess items in. Keeping a close eye on ammo/health is vital. The addition of a finely implemented crafting system gives every combinable item scavenged the potential to be made into something both useful and novel for a RE game; nothing is wasted.

Among the (few) complaints I’ve seen leveraged against it accused the puzzles of being dumbed down. Though I agree they are simple, I would argue it’s again good design to keep the player going forward vs. forcibly halting them in an attempt to solve too obtuse an obstacle, and thus risk losing any momentum built to that point. The ubiquitous search for bizarrely themed keys is here, but these sections also act as a breathing space between disturbing main boss battles, plot development, and fight-or-flight, combat-or-not encounters.  

Finally, multiple playthroughs to find different items and secrets, and even interesting, alternate ways to fight or evade enemies add to replay value without the old annoyance of being spread over mostly retreaded cross-plotlines of other characters. The game is admittedly shorter, but at the same time that means no filler. It leaves plenty of room for any who wish to delve into RE7 again in search of something that might’ve been missed earlier, or try their hand in the campaign after unlocking the highest difficulty setting for an old-school hardcore challenge.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve been this...animated about anything, let alone a new game entry in a series with 20 years of baggage both positive and negative attached to it, but RE7 has brought me to such a point. Although I might stop short (for now) of going so far as to call it an instant classic like RE4, in my eyes it definitely deserves the high praise it’s been receiving and has earned its place as a worthy addition. Resident Evil-- welcome home indeed.   

-Scott Thurlow

 

Game Developers Choice Awards: 2017 Nominees

And the other winner is...

And the other winner is...

1/10/2017

The GDC recently announced its nominees for the 2017 awards, which will be held March 1. Separate from simply The Game Awards back in December, one can perhaps argue the GDCAs are more 'prestigious' although I think that's somewhat of a false dichotomy. They share many of the same games, and I'm fairly certain I can predict what will win vs. what games I think should've actually won in a number of categories, and as is my wont, I shall do so now.

Just a quick caveat to keep in mind before diving in: I'm only going through a few of the categories of interest to me, and basing my assessment both on what I think the industry will swing toward as well as the titles I actually played so far this year. And as per tradition, Syntax Error season 3 will debut with our picks of the top games of the year, at the end of March after the GDCAs. 

So load up and here we go: Starting with Best Audio, I don't see how DOOM can't win, but I suppose it's possible it'll go to Overwatch simply because it's seemingly become the darling game of this year, but one which I must refrain commenting on since I didn't play any of it. DOOM's score though is the perfect compliment to the nonstop action of the game and certainly deserves it in my eyes.

Best Debut is a tougher one, and I'll take a moment here to salute the GDCAs for having both a better represented field than The Game Awards and for listing a number of honorable mentions in each category that I could easily see making the actual nominees in many cases. Overall, my pick for this would be Heart Machine's Hyper Light Drifter, especially given the circumstances of its development. However I wouldn't be disappointed and/or surprised if Firewatch won, as it's also garnered a lot of attention since release and is an excellent opening title from developer Campo Santo as well. Stardew Valley might be a strong third and definite fan favorite, giving it a chance at taking the Audience Award, but I don't think it's enough to grab the win here. 

Best Design is another tight race, but as I mentioned Overwatch has so much momentum going into this, that if it wins GOTY then it almost certainly will win here too. I would choose Dishonored 2 since that has quickly become a frontrunner in my personal list for best games and specifically due in large part to its design. If DOOM doesn't win for audio, then it should definitely be recognized here, as its level design is similarly top-notch.

The Innovation award is kind of an odd one, being a more vague category, but from among the list, it's likely Inside will snag it, which I have no problem with, but again I think Firewatch is very strong in this aspect and also would be a fine choice.

Best Narrative is one I'm always closely interested in. Uncharted 4 looks to be the best bet, not hurt by the fact it already won in the GAs, but I could see it also going to either Firewatch or Inside here, as they look to be battling each other in every category they're both up for.

Finally we come to the MVP of 2016: Game of the Year. Overwatch is all but a lock for this, with Uncharted 4 the obvious second. Firewatch and Inside continue their wrestling match, but I think it's more likely they will win elsewhere at least once but not quite make GOTY. For myself, Dishonored 2 is everything I think a GOTY title should be, and although I don't think it will win at the GDCAs based on this list, I will certainly have more to say about it on our episode. 

Among the honorable mentions, Titanfall 2 was listed for three categories (audio, design, and GOTY) and having just recently gotten around to playing it, I think it either should have outright been nominated for at least one of those, and in a less strong year might've had a better chance at being included and possibly winning (most likely for design if I had to choose.)

So, there have you have the GCD 2017 nominees and my predictions/evaluation of them. 2016 was in my opinion a much better year for games than last, and the lists reflect the high quality of titles that were released. Stay tuned as always for the right opinion, i.e. mine, and I'll see you all in the next match.   

-Scott Thurlow

 

Westworld: "This Place is the Future"

He found...something else.

He found...something else.

 

[Spoilers for Westworld Season 1]

12/14/2016

Westworld drew the curtain on its opening season the other week (in a rather dramatic and devastating manner) and we covered some of the interesting philosophical implications contained in it on our review. Throughout the season and leading up the finale, there were also a great many things written, said, theorized and discussed about the show and its intricacies. While all of these subjects are certainly pertinent and intellectually pleasing to ponder, I wanted to explore a specific one that we touched on but didn’t delve into all that much, and tie it into videogaming as encapsulated by the above quote spoken by a young William in his first visit to Westworld. A while back on Syntax Error, we raised a number of open ended questions attached to how Virtual Reality technology will actually affect us in various ways once we assume it is possible to achieve.

Although never outright stated, to me it was somewhat implied that in the world of the show, outside of the park itself, the rest of the population’s entertainment is something like the highest possible level of currently available real world at-home VR. The masses have their console equivalents to satisfy their gaming hobby, meanwhile, only the upper echelon of wealthy elite can afford a trip to Westworld itself. If we are to believe what the show tells us, then early on it’s stated that a vacation at Westworld costs 40k a day, and that was ostensibly 30-some years prior to the present events of the plot. So extrapolating on that as a basis, one can conclude that a trip there is very costly indeed. Which is amusing in the sense that, in this setting, what is essentially live action role playing (or LARPing as often used in negative context in our modern times, thought to be only enacted by the hardiest of hardcore nerds) has become the purview of the privileged, professional few.  

The idea of Westworld seems to be the next logical step up from what I’ll call “day-to-day” VR; a real life simulation populated by fully functioning lifelike synthetic beings in a carefully  programmed world within which there are no lasting consequences for actions taken by any given human guest of the park. William, and we viewers, see this in the nature of the lives that the android “hosts” of Westworld live out. The NPCs are as real as can be in this place. As William initially becomes infatuated and even starts a relationship with one of the attractive hosts, Dolores, he finds himself drawn into the world more and more until eventually it becomes “more real” than his outside life.

Thus, over time, the naive, sympathetic, well-meaning character of William turns into the ominous and callous Man in Black after coming to a revelation “among the dead” about what kind of person he discovered himself to be. As his former friend Logan observes after witnessing his transformation, “I told you this place would show you who you really are.” At that moment he, and we, truly experience the potential this type of scenario has and what paths it may lead one down.

William goes on to create his own identity and character, remarking 30 years down the line to the designer of the entire endeavour, Dr. Ford, that he always felt the park to be lacking a “real villain,” hence his own “humble contribution.” It’s additionally revealed that his real-world wife later committed suicide after discovering what he was really up to on all those “business” trips to the park that he convinced his company to buy. If that wasn’t the breaking point before, it surely was after, as he relays the tale of his decision to commit a “truly” evil act; that of murdering a host child in front of her mother, Maeve (whose own arc is interesting in and of itself but is not the focus here) in an attempt to feel again in the wake of that loss. The audience has now shared the ride with William and saw where he was led by the rules, or lack thereof, allowed by Westworld throughout his life.

By this point, he has seen and done almost all there is to do; encountered every narrative adventure (read: side quest) and terrorized the hosts in whatever manner his whims decided. He owns the park and knows every trick in it, save one-“The Maze.” William has since become obsessed with searching for another, deeper (and perhaps humorously as I took it-- attempting to unlock a final difficulty setting) level to the game that he thinks is hidden under the surface, one in which there are consequences and real danger for the guests of the park. He never finds it of course, as the Maze is simply a metaphor for the hosts gaining self-awareness and actualizing their own consciousness. It might even be argued he has perhaps helped Dolores to unlock her own maze, and consequently unwittingly found himself in the center of it. Her self-actualization has, in fact, made it so ‘there are consequences and real danger for the guests’. Nevertheless, William has already found the center to his personal maze, and in fact cannot escape it.

The greater issue is that William could be any of us. He mentions to Dolores that business is booming in the park, implying a high demand for the experience. It is therefore the slipperiest of slopes, for if/when (more likely “when”) we are presented with such a world/scenario en masse, it inevitably will raise the questions of who or what we would turn into if we could get away with murder, etc. without repercussions. Would we view the victims of our dark deeds as less than human, seduced by the illusion only to find out they are actually more human...than human, while all the while we were conditioned to be something... less than a man? The answer remains to be seen of course, but as it approaches faster than ever, I for one eagerly await to see what the “Westworld” of our era will be, because whatever it may resemble, that place will be the future.

- Scott Thurlow

 

 

The Game Awards: 2016

And for the win...

And for the win...

12/2/2016

The Game Awards for 2016 were announced earlier today, so it's time to take a look at the winners in a few of the categories I'm particularly interested in. I'm going to just focus on those specific ones, but you can check out the full list here.

The big one, Game of the Year, went to Overwatch. Cool, I suppose. Haven't played a single second of it nor am I planning to do so, thus I can't really comment on the game itself (and also can't use the throwaway joke of it being Over-rated. Er, wait...) Instead, looking at the list of other nominees, I think it was sort of a weak field Over-all (that's better.)  From among those that did get a nod, I would've chosen DOOM. However, this will be covered more fully when Syntax Error returns in the coming season and we list off our own picks for top games of 2016.

Overwatch also took Best Game Direction, which is like winning best picture and best director, so no real surprise there either. My personal pick from the games in that field would be Uncharted 4, although again I think a few other games are woefully absent from the list. Speaking of though, Uncharted 4 did take Best Narrative, but the trend continues, as excepting Firewatch, there wasn't much competition in the category. 

DOOM did manage to secure a nice double kill by taking both Best Action Game and Best Sound/Music, and deservedly so. Shooting demons from hell is indeed made all the better for having a hardcore metal-ish soundscape to accompany the slaughter, and that my friends is action which goes to 11. Good choice, VGAs. 

Next up is Best Performance, where Uncharted 4 returns as perennial fan favorite Nolan North gets the win for his swansong role voicing Nathan Drake. Fine again, sure, he's always solidly reliable, but there were also two other actors from U4 up for this one, as well as two from Firewatch. Although to be fair, there were only two actual characters in that game. Still, my choice would've been Cissy Jones for her subtle but charming portrayal of Delilah in it. 

Best Independent Game is always a good one, and probably has the strongest field of picks within. While I do think Hyper Light Drifter should've gotten it easily, I can also see why Inside actually did, and judge it to be mostly acceptable.

The final two categories of interest to me are Best Action/Adventure and Best RPG. I've always found it a bit odd that 'action' and 'action/adventure' are separate, but I'll roll with it, since a game which I greatly enjoyed takes top spot: Dishonored 2. Definitely worthy. Hyper Light Drifter gets, I won't say snubbed, because I don't think it was better than D2, just that I would've liked to see it win one of the things it was up for. 

Finally, Best RPG went to Blood & Wine, the final DLC from The Witcher 3. A bit strange for a DLC from this year that was for a game from last year to a) be nominated as its own game apparently, and b) win while being attached to the original game which itself already won a host of 2015 awards, including Game of the Year. Some Geralt-style Axii magic going on it seems. To be clear, I did also vote W3 best game last year, and Blood & Wine was fantastic, but here is where I'll call snubbery, as Deus Ex: Mankind Divided was in the running for this one and should've absolutely gotten it instead. Maybe without the above mentioned weird loophole, it would've. 

Anyway, there you have my pretentious take on (some of) the official awards for 2016. As I mentioned at the start, stay tuned for season 3 of Syntax Error where we'll kickoff by doing our own list. In the meantime, you can check our 2015 choices, and may all your bullets/arrows/knives/magic missiles find a rival head to rest in.

-Scott Thurlow 

 

 

 

 

DRAKE'S LEGACY

Image courtesy of Amazon.

Image courtesy of Amazon.

 

-A look back at the highs and lows of the Uncharted series-

(Contains spoilers)

10/15/2016

Scott Thurlow

The Uncharted series came to a close earlier this year with the release of the fourth title in the series, A Thief’s End. Developer Naughty Dog stated that this is the definitive conclusion to the story of smarmy pretty boy treasure hunter/Indiana Jones Academy of Archaeology graduate, Nathan Drake, and his band of recurring allies. After 9 years of globetrotting and fortune-seeking, bullets and bullion, the adventure is over as we drift off with Drake into the sunset. Or something like it.

I thought I’d take this as an opportunity to go over the overarching story, character and plot points contained in each game and evaluate how effectively (or not in some cases) they work as a narrative whole. While the series overall has been lauded for being if not the first, then probably the most high-profile to incorporate “cinematic” and like elements into gaming, it is also noted for the general high quality of its writing and character portrayal. Certainly it deserves credit on this front. The caliber of the cast for the main protagonists and supporting roles are some of the most noteworthy and talented in the business. Veteran and perennial fan-favorite Nolan North supplies Drake’s trademark mix of bravado, charm, and wit, playing off other fantastic actors like Emily Rose (Drake’s on/off again journalist girlfriend and eventual wife, Elena) and Richard McGonagle (his “I’m too old for this shit” mentor, Victor “Sully” Sullivan.) It’s a fairly classic action trio setup, but because of the above talent and combined with the deft writing of original lead and creative director, Amy Hennig and her team, it comes off as more than just a rehash of cliches and tropes.

Where the first game, Drake’s Fortune, offered an introduction to the characters and world, it was still an early iteration of what the franchise would become. The scope was ambitious at the time, but in hindsight compared to the next couple titles, it seems a bit more narrow. Not to say this is a mark against it, but due to the march of time and technology, it plays like a simpler, or at least smaller scale version of the entries to follow it. Nevertheless, it served as the template and framework to lay the ground for the adventures to come. The characters were well-drawn and realized, while the gameplay was perfectly serviceable within the genre. Both combined to establish a base which left many players waiting for the promise of future tales to be fulfilled as soon as possible.

Which brings us to Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, widely regarded as the best of the batch (an opinion I also share) for taking the formula of the original and improving upon almost every angle. Among Thieves introduced stealth, streamlined combat, and made the exploration/puzzle-solving more accessible without dumbing any of it down. Realizing these are more gameplay mechanic related than narrative, I do want to explore one of them a bit and attempt to tie them together:  

Although the ‘puzzles’ in general have been criticized as being overly simplified, I think that is actually a smartly integrated purposeful design choice as applied to Drake’s character. As mentioned, the series very much wants to impart the feeling of being an Indiana Jones type hero to the player, and if solving puzzles became too tedious or obtuse, then neither they nor Drake would come off feeling as the accomplished intrepid explorer he is set up to be. It makes sense that he, and thus we, should be able to fairly easily solve the elaborate contraptions while en route to the X at the end of the trail.

Beyond all this, the character interactions and dynamics were strengthened and solidified, the motion capture was as lifelike as possible, all producing a tightly woven core story while expanding the scope of the locales and pushing the rendering capabilities of the PS3 at the time; never before had such a story been so fully realized in games with so much believability, style, and satisfaction. Uncharted had come into its own, managing to elevate the ‘third person action’ genre and medium in general.  

The third entry, Drake’s Deception, I believe is where the series begins to show the cracks in its facade. It introduces some backstory between a young Drake and burgeoning Sully, showcasing their meeting and partnership formation. Which is my issue, as it is never really explored past the point of superficiality and in service to set up the first set-piece of the game. Meanwhile the main villain, Katherine Marlowe, very shortly comes off as one-dimensional, a standard Bond-villain with less facets and interesting motivations than previous antagonists like Lazarević and Harry Flynn.

Compounding this, side characters like Chloe Frazer and Charlie Cutter are (re)introduced and subsequently dropped midway through the plot, without their presence or absence really affecting much in the end. It’s as if they were obliged to be included, but then overstayed their welcome and had no more room to fill in the plot. In Charlie’s case he is literally shipped on a bus never to be seen again. It comes off as patchwork and haphazard. The gameplay is still solid, but as I am focusing on narrative, I am compelled to point out the above shortcomings.

Which is why by the time we come to the the fourth and final game, A Thief’s End, the plot starts to feel more uneven than ever (arguably due in part to Hennig’s departure from the studio). It attempts to introduce an entirely new character never before mentioned in the previous games, who is ostensibly important to Drake and his history, while simultaneously retconning the reason he was completely absent until this point. Troy Baker, another ubiquitous voice actor, does as good a job as ever as Samuel Drake, Nate’s only slightly less cocky older brother. The problem is that he was never part of the cannon prior, so the feeling as if he’s shoehorned in in order to drive this plot setup is more glaring than ever. Sam supposedly spent the last 15 years in a third-world prison after Drake thought he was killed on an earlier adventure. Now he’s come back because...they needed to make a fourth game, I guess? Drake, now married to Elena, subsequently lies to her about his plans to set off one more time with Sam to find the legendary pirate treasure they dreamt about in their youth. Everything about this is glossed over at best and essentially hand-waved at worst.

Then, about the halfway point, it’s revealed that Sam lied to Drake about his earlier escape from prison because...I’m not really sure, other than again to have forced dramatic split to set up the third act. The plot then aggressively accelerates in a sprint to the end, culminating in the obligatory QTE boss battle and all the characters reconciling in the aftermath, happily ever after. Finally, the epilogue to A Thief’s End has us play a brief chapter as Cassandra, Drake and Elena’s tween daughter who stumbles upon their history as treasure hunting swashbucklers. Realizing they might as well let her in on the family secret, Drake and Elena agree to finally reveal to her their storied past uncovering ancient hidden cities and duking it out with various militias, as Drake starts outlining the details of the first game before the credits start to roll. A fine ending, a little touching and heartwarming perhaps (for those who still have hearts) and wraps things up quickly. It’s just by this point, it also feels forced and abrupt, a microcosm of the entire plot itself. It ends the series on a flat note, a bit wanting in my narrative opinion.   

Still, the series must be given its due for attempting and many times succeeding greatly at elevating the quality of storytelling in AAA titles. And perhaps if it’s ever decided to revive the franchise, it could be titled Drake’s Descendents, starring his great-great grandchildren and take place in a post-apocalyptic future where the goal is to uncover the lost and destroyed city of New York, or some such. Naughty Dog-- I’m available!

 

THERE'S SOMETHING ABOUT SOMA

Machine and Man. (Image courtesy NextPowerUp)

Machine and Man. (Image courtesy NextPowerUp)

 

Scott Thurlow

It was recently announced that after just over a year of release, SOMA has sold 450,000 copies. Originally released in September 2015 by Frictional Games, SOMA attempts to grapple with an ancient yet timeless slice of unsettling metaphysics, via the viewpoint of a layman encountering it for perhaps the first time. The central conceit confronts the player with the dual questions of: “What is it to exist?” and “What is the sense of self-identity that we seem to experience and how does it relate to our greater reality?” Pared down to its base form, the issue might be stated as the struggle to define who or what we really are.  

While Frictional (and others to be sure—see also Ether One by White Paper Games) have touched upon variations of these themes previously, they usually did so in a much narrower, personalized focus. The most affecting elements of ‘horror’ broadly in SOMA (and to an extent Amnesia, etc.) are more on the side of a vague but pervasive existential dread that one leaves off with upon completion. It is not actually the plots themselves that are unnerving (though parts of them can be, depending on the personality of the player) but rather, I argue, it is the overall implications of the issues addressed in them that are where the true horror aspects originate and that resonate most. Oftentimes this is more forcefully experienced in retrospect, after the final credits have faded and the player has time to digest everything they’ve just witnessed and experienced.

To its credit, SOMA works to actively recognize this fact, (as the developers themselves stated was their intent) and in a large way depends upon it for its effectiveness.  The trappings of a traditional survival-horror/sci-fi atmosphere in SOMA serve as a sort of arena in which the questions raised in the introduction are allowed to insidiously creep into both the main character Simon Jarrett, and player’s thoughts as the plot progresses. At times perhaps mirroring those thoughts in some of its plot elements, without over-emphasizing and thus smothering the player with them. It allows the various implications and facets of the original concerns to slowly become the main antagonist, rather than that of the bio-mechanical/Lovecraftian menace of its more traditional monsters and creatures, which in the long run are simply environmental obstacles to overcome in the same way solving the puzzles necessary to progress are.

The game aims to nudge the player into a deeper, more realized exploration of the grander concepts, while offering no hard answers, since, to the best of human knowledge, they are open (and often intensely debated) concerns. And that in itself is notable. That it is able to more subtly do this within the constraints of contemporary games, in my opinion, elevates SOMA to a higher tier within the medium as a whole.

Other games have certainly reached for similar heights, and have come close to capturing this sense. It must be mentioned that SOMA elicited a variety of comparisons to Bioshock upon release. [Polygon has an opinion piece that’s a pretty good read] And though valid, I posit that there is really only one major element they share of note and import to the medium. I don’t wish to idly compare and contrast as that would seem a disservice to both games, so allow me to simply gloss over the main resemblances: Yes, SOMA takes place largely in an abandoned/ruined underwater complex and yes, there is a sort of ‘twist’ that is perpetrated upon the player character, and ostensibly, the player themselves. And sure, some (but not all) of the creature designs in SOMA resemble Bioshock’s iconic Big Daddies. All of these amount to mostly superficial similarities. What I think is more significant about both games is their intent to confront players with an interesting if not disturbing train of thought and allow for them to absorb it within the context of their own views as well as those considerations present in the plots of each. So, whilst Bioshock asks players first and foremost what it means to possibly have free will, SOMA asks what it means to have a conscious identity (free or otherwise) in general.    

It seems natural to me that one must come before the other and certainly SOMA owes a debt to Bioshock as well as a handful of other precursors before it; Rome was neither built nor destroyed in a day. But I do firmly believe SOMA thus marks an important evolution for games that are committed to integrating truly troubling issues that humanity has not, and possibly cannot ever fully reconcile. In fact in some some way featuring those issues as the true ‘star’ of its story, with all of the other elements contained within it being incidental vehicles to achieve the goal of imparting an ‘existential horror’ experience. The real monsters in SOMA are not the shambling, rusting hulks reanimated by the WAU in PATHOS-II any more than Fontaine or Ryan are the real villains in Rapture. Rather, the impact comes from the haunting questions that one is forced to face when reflecting on the nature of oneself as a whole. Beyond struggling with whether one is indeed a man or a slave, one must then ask what it means to be able to ask that question at all. This is the strength of SOMA, and given the sales numbers it’s now achieved, hopefully is a sign  that further notice and attention will be paid to it as a guideline for incorporating such thorny topics within games in the future.