Aug 142014
 

Video games act as a gestalt between many different kinds of art. The player’s experience depends on visuals, on writing, on music, on acting, and of course on the mechanics and dynamics of the gameplay. That these elements can be in tension with one another has been recognized for a while—”ludonarrative dissonance” is a term that encompasses a subset of possible conflicts. Special terms haven’t been invented for instances where the art and level design don’t work with the narrative, or the art style interferes with the player’s assessment of dynamics, and perhaps they need not be. Developers, however, should always be thinking about whether the various elements of their game actually make sense together. Ether One, a competently-made first-person walker/puzzler is a case in point. It has lots of little bits that could make a pretty good game, but it doesn’t assemble them into a coherent whole.

The conceit of Ether One, as it begins, is that the protagonist is a participant in a loosely-defined psychic program, delving into the memories of a person who is suffering from dementia. This program gives him access to a “case” that serves as a combination of home base and inventory, since he can only carry one item at a time. The case is also home to some doorways that open into specific memories where the player’s task changes. Rather than wandering around and solving puzzles, the doorway memories ask the player to wander through a small area and take photographs of important locations. From the case, the protagonist can access five areas (one only temporarily), all of which are seemingly literal recreations of specific locations from the dementia patient’s past, surrounding the town of Pinwheel where the character grew up and lived for a time.

The visuals seem to be in tension with this idea immediately. The harbor area and Pinwheel town seem so normal and mundane it’s hard to buy the game’s fiction that they’re the creations of a subjective mind, much less a damaged one. The shattered industrial area and especially the weird, minimalist mine area give a more powerful impression of being imagined, but they are still very plain. More troubling, these places are entirely devoid of people. While I can remember many places I have been, it’s almost impossible to think of them without recalling the people who were associated with them. I can remember my grandmother’s church with great clarity, but not without remembering my grandmother. The lifelessness of the game’s landscape makes the game ring false as a representation of memory.

Each of the various zones has a required goal and an optional one. The optional task is to solve various puzzles embedded into the environment. In one, for instance, the player is supposed to figure out what equipment a maypole dancer is missing, fill out an order form for it, attach postage, mail it, and put the item in its proper place. Some of the puzzles are a bit more complex and mysterious, but essentially all of them amount to mundane tasks that the dementia patient himself might have performed in the real world. That said, these often involve information that the character could not possibly have known—personal letters, locker combinations, and official memos he had no way of accessing. Although explainable (these documents could represent the character’s suspicions and perceptions rather than reality) these episodes also make the events of the game feel at odds with its conceit.

The essential task for progressing in each area is to collect red ribbons that are placed throughout each environment. Finding all of the ribbons opens a music box back in the case that activates a doorway back in the case. These doorways pose their own problem. Going through them, the protagonist is suddenly equipped with a camera that he can use to take snapshots of particular items that will spur some memories. However, the memories he explores in these dream-worlds have nothing to do with the the spot that unlocked them. Every doorway memory concerns the character’s unhappy childhood with a drunken father who chased off his mother. While that seems to work well with Pinwheel town, where the house associated with the memories is located, it’s less clear why these memories are unlocked by exploration of the harbor, industrial area, or the mine. In fact, when actually playing through these areas, the most critically important event appears to be an accident in the mines, making the childhood focus of the doorway memories seem even more odd.

The end of the game also leans heavily on these formative memories, to its detriment. The story emphasizes the idea that the goal of the experience is to use old memories as a foundation to bring the dementia sufferer forward in time. However, the focus on childhood actually moves the patient backwards in time, almost to the very beginning. This retrograde motion makes the whole experience feel like a failure.

Of course, reaching this point also involves a major twist. Near the end of the game, it is revealed that the sci-fi storyline involving a special machine that allows for a psychic connection is actually entirely fabricated and the protagonist is the dementia patient. This is the game’s worst narrative move. I don’t think a twist like this is bad per se, although the reveal was too abrupt and the explication far too literal. The larger problem is that the sci-fi story doesn’t feel at all organic to the character, who is a miner-turned-artist. The game never gave me a sense that he had the kind of imagination needed to generate a story like this, nor does it really build towards the moment of revelation. Rather than unfolding a coherent story in an unexpected new direction, the twist feels like a misaligned joint where two completely different stories were awkwardly welded together.

The individual pieces of Ether One work reasonably well, but none of it works well together. The environments and the puzzles are fine, but their depopulation and mundanity are at odds with the kind of subjective, remembered spaces they are supposed to be. The process of using some memories to unlock others makes sense. However, the memories the game links together don’t seem to be connected and the way the game works backwards through time feels counter to the apparent goal. The twist that makes the game more grounded and realistic in its final moments isn’t a bad idea intrinsically, but because it lacks any grounding in the characters or their history it comes across as a cheap trick. In isolation each aspect of Ether One is decent enough, but the whole is less than the sum of the parts.

Aug 062014
 

After the tremendous success of The Walking Dead,  I suppose another comic book adaptation was in the cards for Telltale Games. These are a good match for their graphical style, and mature graphic novels have a deep bench of quality storytelling that the vast majority of the population hasn’t been exposed to. I might not have chosen Fables out of a hat, but in a way it seems like Telltale did. The Wolf Among Us uses the same approach as The Walking Dead, but the gameplay never feels like a good fit for the story. As a result, the game just isn’t compelling, despite its tragedies.

Like The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us combines a little bit of inventory-oriented point-and-click adventuring with dialogue trees and QTE-driven combat. The inventory use is minimal, and many objects that Bigby grabs are never used, only becoming relevant many episodes later when their presence in the inventory is but a memory. The dialogue trees and the associated choices have two almost contradictory problems with their stakes. The immediate stakes of his choices are often obscure—peripheral characters can live or die depending on where Bigby goes and when. In the long term, the stakes of these choices are low, because they don’t prevent Bigby from solving the case or even interfere with the major plot points.

I praised The Walking Dead‘s choices because they didn’t have an impact on the ultimate outcome, not in spite of that, but that response grew out of the essential fatalism of The Walking Dead‘s setting, something Fables doesn’t share. The grim inevitability of failure, the keystone of Kirkman’s world, recontextualized the decisions as statements of preference and a means of establishing connection to character, rather than actual attempts to alter the flow of events. I never believed that Lee could save his friends, but I believed his efforts to try were valuable.

Bigby simply doesn’t face that dilemma. He should be able to save the people of Fabletown, because in almost every scene of the game he’s the most powerful character on the screen. Of course he has very little power to alter the social injustices of Fabletown, but The Wolf Among Us never really manages to sell this angle wholeheartedly. Instead that idea floats at the edge of the story, providing a note of threat to minor characters or inconvenience to Bigby when necessary but never actually taking center stage. Instead the game ends up focusing on a rather insipid crime lord.

The Wolf Among Us is ultimately built around a criminal case. This is an arena where Bigby absolutely should have the power to change things, and would, if he weren’t such a terrible cop. Unfortunately, since the game’s main character is one who is also major to the comics, the question of ultimate success seems a little moot. I don’t think it’s possible to reach the end of the game without catching and condemning the Crooked Man. Because of that, the choices Bigby makes have no real value in themselves, and no effect on the story. Sure, the townspeople like Bigby a little less if he makes certain choices, and some characters won’t be present if he’s sloppy. His choices flavor the story, but they don’t ultimately change the dish. That’s a poor fit for a powerful protagonist.

The choices could forge a connection with the game world, but that ultimately doesn’t work out either. The Walking Dead wanted to make friends with the player, so that it could pack a more powerful punch down the line. The Wolf Among Us, on the other hand, doesn’t really care about being friends. Bigby can’t befriend or even help most of the characters in the game, and nothing he does can convince the vast majority of the characters that he has a bona fide desire to help the people of Fabletown.

Some of the game’s choices could have been about this, but not the ones in the main flow. The reaction-QTE combat sequences, here rather frequent, could have been the critical point of expression, if the story’s stakes had been embodied in the gameplay. The key thing to understand is that what’s at stake in the fight scenes isn’t really whether Bigby will win. As the final battle of the game makes clear, there’s almost nothing in the world of Fables that can withstand his full strength. What Bigby wants out of the action sequences is not victory, so much—he must know there’s almost no way he can lose—but maintaining control. In this sense, reflex-based QTEs are precisely the wrong thing to be using: Bigby’s goal is to suppress his instincts. A precision-timing QTE or a mini-puzzle might have been a better fit. Moreover, success should minimize the resulting violence, while failure makes things bloody.

Unfortunately, The Wolf Among Us largely clings to the narrow horizons of linking QTEs to operational, rather than dramatic, success (something that was also a problem for Heavy Rain). As a result, it turns violence into a choice Bigby makes, rather than a struggle against his inner nature. The Wolf Among Us doesn’t do enough to give those choices the weight they need to make the game compelling.

The Wolf Among Us adopts almost the exact same strategy towards proceduralizing a story as The Walking Dead did, but it doesn’t work because that strategy isn’t universally applicable. The result is reminiscent of the outcome in the old days when every movie would get adapted into a 2D platformer whether that was a good fit for the story or not. The Wolf Among Us looks great and plays reasonably well, but it never really feels in tune with the characters, their desires, or their story.

Aug 052014
 

Status: Completed

Most Intriguing Idea: Let’s do for Christianity what God of War did for Greek Mythology!

Best Design Decision: Restrained use of QTEs

Worst Design Decision: Cluttered character progression

Summary:

Dante’s Inferno is dumb as a stone and theologically unsound, but it’s a solid character action game of the fixed-viewpoint variety. It’s also kind of charming in its earnest attempt to out-Kratos God of War. As you play it, you can easily imagine the all-hands meetings where the developers discussed whether each level had enough tits. Despite the juvenilia the visual design is nifty, though it doesn’t do justice to things like the pit of flatterers. It’s a touch too long, however, and the character progression is a bit cluttered, what with the  multitude of relics and the two upgrade trees. Those latter suffer from the game’s lack of a compelling theory to follow for either of the upgrade options. Worse, sticking to any one tree will make the game way too repetitive, which is more of a problem because it goes on a touch too long anyway. It’s unlikely to impress anyone who’s into Bayonetta or Devil May Cry, but it’s worth checking out for anyone who likes God of War and games full of boobs.

Verdict: Cautiously Recommended

Jul 232014
 

Status: Completed single-player campaign

Most Intriguing Idea: This is a game utterly devoid of interesting ideas.

Best Design Decision: the goliath, I guess

Worst Design Decision: sluggishness

Summary:

Homefront is not a good game. Movement is sluggish and the default aim sensitivity seems to be way too low. The aim-assist seems to fail at times for no apparent reason, which makes it no fun to try to shoot back while the enemies are spamming you with ungodly numbers of grenades aimed with impossible precision. Every gun is absurdly puny except the sniper rifles which are of course instant kills. The change-of-pace helicopter mission, although ostensibly the moment that motivates the protagonist’s whole journey, has sloppy controls and dispenses entirely with the notion of ammunition—I’m not sure a scout helicopter could lift that many rockets, much less manage to fire them. The goliath semi-autonomous vehicle is kind of fun when it shows up but is underutilized.

The not-great shooting is complemented by a setting that’s second-rate even by the standards of racist, red-hating propaganda. The creators don’t even have the guts to choose an enemy that’s a serious geopolitical threat like China, instead adopting the absurd premise that North Korea managed to invade and occupy the United States. Presumably the Chinese government has enough economic clout that it would bother THQ (now defunct anyway) if they took offense. Anyway, the narrative made me long for the subtle poetry of Red Dawn, which at least had characters in it.

WOLVERINES!

Verdict: Avoid