The Crushing Banality of Everyday Life

I should probably be reading a book or spending time with my kid.

Month: August, 2013

Tomb Raider – Initial Thoughts

I finally got around to playing this year’s reboot of the Tomb Raider franchise. A combination of Kumail Nanjiani’s enthusiasm for it on the Indoor Kids podcast as well as a sale at Amazon compelled me to buy it. I’m only two hours in, but I’m already loving it.

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I played the original Tomb Raider on my PC back in the late nineties, and even with the janky graphics and even jankier controls, I loved it. It was like playing an Indiana Jones game, allowing you to explore ancient ruins and shoot the odd wild beast (I also loved the Indiana Jones game on the N64, which had even jankier graphics and controls). I loved Tomb Raider Legend and Tomb Raider Anniversary for the PS2, and I enjoyed Underworld. I’ve gotten five minutes in on Angel of Darkness, only to discover that it was much-maligned for a reason. The PSOne series jumped the shark after a few installments, and 2008’s Underworld also provided diminishing returns. The need to keep producing games led to a dip in quality. So they took five years off and did a J.J. Abrams style reboot/origin story.

Tomb Raider has you playing as Lara before she became the Tomb Raiding badass. Instead, she’s a college (or just post-college) kid on her first real expedition that ends up shipwrecked. The game lets you know that this will be different from the Tomb Raider you are used to in the first cut scene. Lara makes an impossible jump to her colleague, barely managing to catch his outstretched hand…and then slips and plummets into the water below. She’s no longer an invincible super hero who can easily make incredible jumps. She can fall. She can get hurt.

And she definitely get hurt. The game caught some flack when its early trailers suggested that Lara was sexually assaulted in the game. Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg had some not-so-helpful explanations about the scene, explaining that they wanted to make Lara vulnerable so that players would want to protect her. No doubt about it, Lara is vulnerable.  She is constantly getting hurt in this game, and hurt badly. Your first act as a player is to help her set herself free, only to have her fall down and get stabbed in the side. She spends the first portion of the game limping and clutching her bleeding wound. That vulnerability is not something you normally feel in an action/adventure game. In fact, Tomb Raider plays almost like an action/survival horror game at times, as you traverse dark caves unsure what will leap out at you, or enter rooms only to have enemies ambush you.

 

The game does a good job of making the first time you kill someone feel visceral and scary. It is done via quicktime events, which are kind of a bummer, but then you get control of the pistol and blow your attackers head nearly off at point blank range. Even if you have killed millions of virtual enemies in other games, this death feels shocking and grisly. I’ve heard some people complain about the fact that you go from being shocked and sickened after taking a life to blowing away cultist after cultist, but I understood that Lara realized that it was them or her, and so numbed herself to the consequences of what she was doing.

You also feel incredibly claustrophobic. The camera zips in tight when you traverse submerged caverns and narrow openings, making you feel cramped and confined. Tombs are dark, and you’re never sure what is going to leap out at you from the shadows.

Lara is a little whiney, and she relies heavily on a male father figure to guide her. I didn’t love her complaining “I caaaaaahn’t” when asked to do something difficult. I did like how she kept saying “ok…ok.” to herself when she was trying to tackle a difficult jump or task. There is also the fact that the game looks and sounds incredible. I was playing it on a warm summer night, but I could feel the chill of the storm as she lept from building to building in the pissing rain. I like the leveling up system, which gives you an incentive to explore.

I do wish they had done better than Evil Russians as bad guys. I have a feeling the cultists will turn out to be wonderfully creepy, but why did so many of them have to be generic Russian thugs? I’m also not in love with the stealth elements of the game, mostly because I don’t like stealth as a mechanic in any game, with the possible exception of Rocksteady’s Batman games. Hiding from stuff and trying to guess where video game characters are looking is much less satisfying and fun than blowing people away.  I’ve also found the game to be a bit difficult, even on easy. Partially this is because different areas need to be tackled in specific ways, and it takes a couple deaths before you realize where the enemies are and in what order you need to dispatch of them. Luckily the checkpoint system is generous. I’ve also found myself dying the first run-through of any quicktime event, since I don’t always know they are coming and you need to be ready to press the right button as soon as it comes up on the screen.  Those complaints aside, I’m loving Tomb Raider, and I’m looking forward to getting back from my vacation so that I can continue playing it.

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Late the the Game: Infamous and Infamous 2

Infamous was the reason I chose a PS3 over an XBox 360. It’s an open world game that is one part superhero game and one part third-person shooter. You play Cole McGrath, a bike messenger who gets caught in an explosion in Empire City, which is loosely modeled on New York City. The explosion gives you electrical powers which increase during the course of the game. These powers allow you to glide, shoot balls of energy, throw grenades, and basically cause mass amounts of destruction.

A lot of the game is built on exploration, and your powers make you largely invulnerable. I love video games that allow you jump around a city with no fear of falling. It gives you an incredible sense of freedom that I often think about wistfully as I’m crammed onto a train in the morning during my commute. Would it be way better if I could just ride the rails like Cole, and then climb up on to rooftops and glide my way to work? There’s elements of Tony Hawk in the rail and powerline riding.

The shooting mechanics and cover system are well done, and I loved the fact that the game combine the acrobatic/exploration elements with the shooting elements – those things aren’t often combined. I also liked that it is a shooter that doesn’t use guns. I found it much more interesting to be shooting electricity at the bad guys rather than the usual pistol/rifle/sniper/rocket launcher. It also takes away that ooky feeling I get when I’m playing shooters that use real weapons, where it can get a little too real.

The game is open world with new areas opened up during the course of play. There are also side missions to play and energy shards to find which give a nice break to the action. Less well executed is the morality system, which dictates which powers you have. You can either be good or bad, but these choices are very obvious and binary: you need to be either all good or all bad in order to unlock the best powers. I played as good in both games, but I’m thinking I’ll go back and see what being an asshole feels like.

Infamous 2 improves on the original, setting the game in a sort of post-Katrina New Orleans, called New Marais. It adds more supernatural elements to the enemies, and develops the plot started in the first game. I enjoyed the setting of Infamous 2 more than the city in the first game, but they are both are a lot of fun. The voice acting is good if a little over the top, and I found the story interesting.  These games are among my favorite games that I’ve played. They are really all I want from a video game. They look great, they control well, they give you a lot of freedom while still proving a story that makes you want to complete story missions, and it is a ton of fun to jump around the cities blowing away bad guys. (Images stolen from thegamecritique.com)Image

Late to the Game: Uncharted 2

Uncharted 2 is frequently listed as one of the best games for the PS3. I love adventure games and I loved the PS2 Tomb Raider reboots, so I was excited to play it. After getting almost all the way through it, I have to say that while it is an incredible game, I found its linearity problematic.

Uncharted 2 follows the exploits of Nathan Drake as he tries to find Shambala. The game is basically a third-person shooter with some acrobatic/climbing elements. My favorite type of gameplay is being able to scale sheer walls and explore ancient ruins ala Tomb Raider or Assassins Creed, and I loved those elements in Uncharted 2.  It is totally thrilling to be climbing icy peaks, jumping from roof top to roof top, or scaling the wall of a crumbling Tibetan temple. It does make me wonder why the ancient Tibetans designed their temples to be so deadly.

The plotting and voice-acting in Uncharted 2 is incredible. It’s like playing an Hollywood action movie. The game is largely built around huge set pieces. You fight your way up a train going through a snowy mountain; you fight a helicopter on the roof of a Tibetan village; you fight a tank through another Tibetan village, etc. The level design is excellent and the game manages to capture the cinematic drama while not resorting to quicktime events. You always feel in control. The shooting and cover mechanics work well, and the shooting is as much fun as the exploration.

However, the price for this carefully scripted adventure is freedom. While there are sometimes multiple ways to tackle an area, you are generally on a set path, going from point a to point b. After playing open world games, this feels really restrictive. I wanted more room to explore and roam around the world. Instead, most checkpoints involve a door closing on Drake so that there is only one path forward.

I like Uncharted 2 and plan on playing the other installments when I get around to finishing this one. However, I don’t think it is the future of videogame storytelling, or at least I hope it isn’t. I appreciate that it has to make sacrifices for the story and the mis-en-scene,  but I think those sacrifices are too much. I’d rather have more freedom and less script.

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Tropes Vs. Women in Games Pt. 3

The third installment of Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games” series is up now at her site, Feminist Frequency. I wrote a post about it at my other blog. 

In this episode, she continues to address the damsel in distress trope in games, this time looking at cases where the damsel rescues the prince, as well as the trope in mobile games, and how it is used ironically.

As with the previous two installments, I think it’s great that she is tackling sexism in games. She has some valid points and pointed out how common these themes are. I agree with her overall argument: that sexism in games is so pervasive we hardly notice it. I continue to think that there are holes in her argument, and her combination of overly academic/snarky presentation style hurts her case. I also think she tends to paint with too broad a brush, categorizing everything as terribly sexist without examining the subtleties or the larger picture.  I don’t see her winning over that many gamers who aren’t already on board with feminism. Most irritatingly, she’s right on many issues – games are pretty sexist, and there is a serious lack of strong female characters in games.

Kristin Bezio over at The Learned Fan Girl has a better critique of Feminist Frequency here. It’s one of the few criticisms of her work that is thoughtful and worth reading. If you search “Feminist Frequency criticism” you get a lot of posts from people who think her unwillingness to allow comments on her posts or engage with trolls and assholes is an egregious form of cowardly censorship. Protip: when you write a lengthy blog post documenting your attempts to argue with someone on the internet, and are part of the men’s rights movement, you are in the wrong. Three thousand word documentation of internet arguments is a sure sign that you need to reexamine your life.

A lot of the criticism follows in the camp of NOkaPlpz , whose main points are:

She doesn’t talk about sexism against men at all, even though she claims feminism is for equal rights.

:bulletgreen:She has never made a video about misogyny in the middle east.

:bulletgreen:She hates art that includes sexy dead women and says it has no place in art and that it’s disempowering.

Two things: men’s rights is in the same camp as “reverse racism,” ie. a sure sign you’re being a jerk. Those two movements are simply the majority whining because they are getting a tiny taste of what the minority has been dealing with for years. I’m not suggesting that men and white people deserve to be discriminated against, but they aren’t. Those movements are just ways for people to not have to deal with their own sexism and racism by saying ‘what about me??????’ Has your gender/ethnicity been a second class citizen for millennia? Where your ancestors brought here as slaves? No? Then you should probably shut up. And when you are defending sexy dead chicks, you are seriously on the wrong track.

So in summation: I’m critical of the Tropes Vs. Women series, but even more critical of its critics. Which handily gets me off the hook. Sarkeesian deserves credit for tackling the issue, and I hope the constructive dialogue that her series generates outnumbers those who merely take a defensive stance.

In praise of easy mode

One of the best things about the current generations of consoles is the proliferation of easy mode. Most modern games now have a difficulty setting for us wimps out there. Some call it casual. Some call it novice. Some call it beginner. I call it my go-to setting for playing games in 2013.

See, I get all the challenge I need from life. I have a job. I have a six-month old. I went through grad school while working full time. I serve on the board of directors for a nonprofit. I had to re-learn how to drive at 37 after not driving since I was 19. I got plenty of challenges in my life. I don’t need video games to give me a sense of mastery and accomplishment.

I’m not knocking those who play games on hard. I understand the appeal. I forced myself to play Arkham City on Normal, and there is something to dying repeatedly until you figure out the write combination of moves to approach a situation. The Nintendo DS Shin Megami games are similarly hard but fair, and there is something very satisfying about figuring out how to get through an incredibly tough section or boss fight without dying. Likewise, easy mode can be super boring if it allows you to flail about and still kill everything in sight. I made the mistake of putting in god codes on Saint’s Row the 3rd so that my character can kill everything in sight and never die, and it has effectively ruined the game for me. I know I can’t die, and it’s sucked all the fun out of progressing through the game because I don’t even have to try.

Most of the time I sit down to play video games, however, I don’t want to have my reflexes challenged. I don’t want to have to memorize the patterns of a level so I can get through without dying. I don’t want to get my aim down so I can take out all the guards with headshots. I just want to explore a different world and progress through the story. And the older I get, the lower my tolerance for frustration is. I don’t want to die twenty times trying to clear an area or make a jump. I get maybe thirty minutes to play games three or four times a week. I don’t want to spend that time getting frustrated an dying. If I want frustration, I can get that from real life. I just want to run around a virtual world and feel like a superhero – is that so wrong? So God bless easy mode, which has made gaming fun for me even after I’ve gotten way to old to still be doing this shit.