Thursday, June 16, 2016

Crit Links 16/6


Solaris (And How it Influenced Silent Hill 2) | Monsters of the Week

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Controllers Control Everything | Game Maker's Toolkit

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past's dungeon design | Boss Keys

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E3 2016 Thoughts and Analysis - Writing on Games (Bonus Episode)

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Game Commercials are Still Stupid - The Final Bosman

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Still Skeptical of V.R. - Five Challenges for Virtual Reality - Extra Credits

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Strategic Butt Coverings - Tropes vs Women in Video Games

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OXENFREE | Part 1: The Story

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The Kojima-P.T. Conspiracy (Silent Hills|Konami) - Monsters of the Week Special (feat. Fungo)

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Designing Morally Difficult Characters, Responsibly
Designing a morally questionable character doesn't have to railroad your players into moustache-twirling villainy: done right, it can present a truly meaningful study in compromise and complicity. Dan Nagler, designer and writer for Gigantic Mechanic, details a unified design strategy for creating this type of game protagonist: a character whose very moral ambiguity is leveraged for positive dramatic, emotional and educational effect. This theory is grounded in Gigantic Mechanic's design for the Edward M. Kennedy Institute's Senate Immersion Module, a digital and live-action hybrid game that puts students in the shoes of antebellum, slaveholding American politicians.

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Some people insist that reliance on psychotherapy or medication is a sign of moral weakness, while others deny that clinical depression exists at all. Playing Quinn’s game and allowing yourself to feel sad therefore becomes a form of social action; to play is also to take a stand, placing yourself on one side of a debate. The sadness intertwines with a kind of proactive anger to challenge the status quo and advocate for the disenfranchised. The role of art in unpacking incontrovertible sadness is more ambiguous.
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Ten years later I’m a little wiser and a lot less snarky, but I still don’t think Rabbit Hole is a good play. Its emotional punches land squarely on the nose, yet its point-of-view is absent. One ends up feeling manipulated by such a work: we are made to feel sad because, well, it’s sad to watch parents grieve for two hours. No one could argue with that. But what’s the point? There is no stand to take, and any anger evoked cannot be put to productive use. What can be gained by such an exercise? Then again, perhaps the idea that something should be gained is simply an indication of our discomfort with facing the undeniably tragic.
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The emotional core of That Dragon, Cancer is real—so real, in fact, and so personal, that I ended up feeling like an outsider looking in. I pitied the Greens for having to endure this awful series of events, but I did not come away feeling connected to their experience, or enlightened by it. This was not because the game tried but failed to connect with me, but because it didn’t. There is an insular quality to the vignettes; they are by and for the family Green (and, perhaps more broadly, others who have lived through similar trials). The “point” of the game is that this is how Ryan and Amy are dealing with their loss. I can praise or criticize it, but really my opinion is irrelevant. This game was not made for me, and reviewing it feels like a borderline intrusion into a family’s private mourning.
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for the Greens, the titular dragon turns out not to be an RPG’s final boss but rather one of the Arthurian variety: an evil to be battled by brave Christian crusaders, pure of heart and clean of soul, who know that even losing the fight means an unfettered ascension to god’s heavenly kingdom. As a secular existentialist Jew, it may go without saying that by ultimately settling on this metaphor, the game started to lose me.
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This is sadness. Our task, I think, when faced with this kind of sadness, is not to force it into an ill-fitting symbol, or turn it into a cause, or define its point. Our task is to sit there for a while and feel its invisible weight, its randomness and cruelty. But I understand why the Greens could not stay in that space for long. Who could? I applaud that they tried, and I am sorry for their loss.

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On its own, the tedium of The Ice-Bound Concordance would not be enough to carry the text to any sort of end beyond exploring the well-trod intersection between play and work. Instead, the game focuses on narrative layering in a way that attempts to discover the compulsive allure of difficult texts. The echoes of Danielewski’s House of Leaves (2000), Nabokov’s Pale Fire (1962), or Borges’ Labyrinths (1962) are fairly apparent, but present also are the interests of electronic literary experiments like Shelley Jackson’s Patchwork Girl (1995) or Michael Joyce’s Afternoon: a story (1994). Like these artists and their respective works, Reed and Garbe use The Ice-Bound Concordance to prompt its player to embrace the pleasures that come with deciphering, or maybe just interacting with, texts that actively resist comprehension.
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While KRIS wanted to write about “human dignity” and “going it alone,” I fought to keep the focus on the aforementioned spiral imagery and ever-growing threat of existential horror that haunted dark places below the facility. KRIS cared more about character flaws as they related to the personal sins of the writer whose mind the AI was meant to emulate, but I found its quest for self-discovery a dull moral tale about the need for humanism in the process of artistic creation. KRIS and I fought constantly, each of us vying for authorial control until we landed on an ending that disappointed the both of us. Ultimately, it was my struggle against KRIS that interested me most in The Ice-Bound Concordance. Even as that damn program insisted that “endings are the crux of this matter” and warned me not to “get distracted by the medium” because “it’s the material that’s important,” I found my time spent trying to use the book to redirect the program’s focus to fit my needs far more satisfying than coming to any sort of end. All of this is by design, of course, though the heavy-handedness of KRIS’s direction over-explains the themes of the game that were already revealed organically. Indeed, if The Ice-Bound Concordance has any noticeable flaws, they appear in the occasional pontifications about the toil of creation that are a bit too obvious, or with a few supposed tricks that are far too telegraphed in their method. But such observations may reveal more about my own hubris than it does an actual flaw in a game about the tension between authorial intent and editorial obsession.
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There’s something troublesome at the heart of The Ice-Bound Concordance that rests in the space between the physical copy of the book and the way a machine can see patterns and forms beyond the player’s perception. The complicated networks of mediation reveal that there are systems at play beyond the human faculties of language. From the actual mechanics of printing and editing to the complex codes that run software required to read the physical Ice-Bound Compendium, these unseen forces aiding in the processes of artistic creation trouble our concept of the single author. After all, we can never read Ice-Bound in its native form because it only truly exists in the raw data of the computer program and the obscure iconography of the compendium, each only readable when filtered through the computer. For us, that text will always be just beyond our scope of understanding—formless, changing, and warped as if it is partially obscured behind a translucent sheet of ice.

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Was it worth waiting an extra five years to play The Witness? No. What I played in 2011 was satisfying and intriguing enough.

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Undertale and The Witness have a lot in common, too. Both heavily reference a mid-90s game (Earthbound and Myst, respectively) but avoid cloying reverence, instead managing to say something new. Both games are extremely avant-garde, constantly requiring the player to think about genre convention and challenge it head-on. And like The Witness, Undertale is essentially one long ritual labyrinth. At the outset of the game, an assortment of characters and posted signs walk you through a series of trials where you're meant to tread a path that has already been clearly marked for you.

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In the end, Oxenfree is absolutely a game about teenage bullshit (forgive me for being a little disingenuous earlier). But it manages to revitalize that narrative by focusing on feeling more than substance; it glances at each character’s inner struggle rather than serving it up for a full meal. The supernatural side of the story carries some of the weight here as well, mirroring Alex’s own story of grief and isolation even as it performs the work of all good ghost stories: reinterpreting your immediate surroundings and enchanting the mundane. If you’re looking for a story that valorizes adolescent struggle by iterating all of its existential complaints, you’d be better off looking elsewhere. But if you miss the na├»ve wonder, the warmth of lifelong friends, and the thrill of still having rules to break, Oxenfree can take you back.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Critical Compilation - Firewatch

Firewatch and Games for Grown-ups

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Firewatch and the Consequence of Player Choice (Review/Analysis) - Writing on Games

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Firewatch Is Mine (No Spoilers)

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Errant Signal - Firewatch (Spoilers!) 

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The Moving Pixels Podcast Looks at the Scenic Vistas and Human Drama of 'Firewatch'

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EXP Podcast #366: Firewatch Debrief

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FIREWATCH Theory - ROMANCE, MURDER, AND JANE EYRE?

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FIREWATCH Theory: DELILAH'S DARK SECRET. The True Firewatch Ending

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Firewatch is all about the dangerous assumptions the player makes as they play - the writable way we approach readable games. We work through the text-adventure backstory sequence at the start and think: sick wife, childless - Oh man, what a burden this must be for Henry.What a terrible thing to happen to him! The girls down by the lake go missing. Poor Henry - are they trying to frame him? Or is it something worse? We go home and ponder Delilah's tower, bright in the distance. What is her deal? What is she hiding from Henry? Is she watching him? The answer that suggests itself - it's the answer that suggests itself at almost every stage - is: of course she is.

Because Henry's special.

Henry's special because he's the main character in a narrative video game. Everything that happens must, in some way, be happening to him.

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In truth, if the trick that allows Firewatch to work is the player's suspicion that a single-player game must revolve around them, the irony is that, to expose this cognitive fallacy, the designers have to devise a game that does revolve entirely around the player. In order to make the player understand that they aren't the center of the universe, the designers must build a universe around them. Spoiler: games are weird because players are weird.

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I quite liked the ending of Firewatch, and I’d like to discuss my thoughts in some detail. I think it is ultimately very coherent on the level of theme (perhaps even over-obvious about it, by literary standards), and that if there are missteps, they’re in the midgame rather than the endgame.
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 thematically, the mystery is not pasted on, and the teenagers (the “third of the game” rendered “essentially irrelevant” according to Metro) play an important part as well. In fact Delilah explicitly spells out the themes for you in some endgame dialogue, to a degree that I would consider Too Much if I encountered the same dialogue in a novel. Ned Goodwin is a bad father (she says): he didn’t step up and deal with his responsibilities to his son. Delilah herself didn’t do what she should have done in terms of reporting that Brian was in the woods to start with. She says that when you care about someone, you are supposed to figure out how to take care of them, even if it’s tough to do so: a clear reference to your relationship to Julia, and perhaps to the way that she herself let down her ex-boyfriend.

Meanwhile, the forest that you were supposed to care for is burning down around you, thanks to the carelessness or self-serving impulses of various characters. That too might have been avoided if Brian hadn’t died, if Ned hadn’t gone into hiding, if you and Delilah had been more open with the authorities instead of trying to cover your own tracks in various ways. You and Delilah are in your way not all that different from the drunk teenagers you had to deal with at the beginning.

So. This is not primarily a story about your romance with Delilah. Delilah is a counterpoint for Henry, suffering from the same decision-making, responsibility-taking problems. The best you can do for each other at the end is direct one another to do the right thing, if it’s too hard for you to direct yourselves. To my mind, that’s a more interesting and poignant outcome than some implied hookup would have been, and one that suggests a genuine intimacy between the characters.
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Wapiti Station is a distraction, and it seems to have made some players think that the point of Firewatch was going to be a reveal of the terrible truth about what is really going on. Many games do work that way, after all.

The ending we actually get is more unusual, more mature, and more interesting, in my opinion, assuming we’re able to see what we’re looking at. It’s an ending that doesn’t really let Henry off the hook, or Delilah either. You screwed up. You’re responsible. And now you need to grow up and go do the scary and painful things that are your job.

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For the majority of Firewatch, my foremost emotion was jealousy. Many-splintered jealousy: primarily at the aforementioned freedom available to protagonist Henry, in his escape from the pressures of life and into somewhere truly beautiful. Partly at the easy repartee he and unseen deuteragonist Delilah were capable of – oh, to be capable of such effortless wit, such natural connection with another human being. Partly, and relatedly, at how much attention Henry was immediately given by an interesting person (later tempered by the realisation that, unfortunately, Delilah has just a touch of the manic pixie dream girl to her).

The contradiction is glaring: I want to be on my own, unbothered by anyone else’s needs, but I want to mean something to someone nonetheless. I don’t really want to be a farmer on his own in a field, day after day: I want people to be there but I don’t want them to need anything from me.

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Something happens in Henry’s life and he disconnects. He then sees what happened to another person who also tried to disconnect, and at least partly resolves to try and find a way back into his life. That, for me, is the emotional core of Firewatch, and no, it’s not tearjerker. Instead, it’s a story about a person, or rather persons. Too many writers try to make games about something – loss, existentialism, the apocalypse, abuse, childhood – instead of about someone. Firewatch is a videogame about its character and for that it stands out.

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Cibele takes on the online dimension of this phenomenon forthrightly, but Firewatch abstracts it away from even the mediating force of the Internet, instead exploring all the other ways we can have ineffable but meaningful contact with human life.
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Over the course of the game you realize that Delilah never expected to actually meet Henry and that shaped the context of their interactions greatly; all of their intimacy was akin to the way we anonymously flirt online or overshare with strangers we think we’ll never meet or see again. Contact without consequence, sating a need with none of the mess.
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Perhaps the quietest beauty of Firewatch is that Henry ran into the woods to get away from it all, but failed.

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The absolute worst instance so far has been picking up a photograph of Henry with his wife (who is a key element of the narrative setup and, I assume, the rest of the game) – which is to say it’s an emotionally charged object. So you pick it up to look at this woman who you love but are tortured about – good dramatic moment. Then you try to put it down and… you throw it carelessly on the floor. We did this over and over trying not to be so callous. Eventually by doing some pixel-perfect aligning we managed to get a contextual message saying “put back photograph” (instead of “drop photograph”)! Imagine our delight at this, so we push the button and… the hero tosses it on the ground again.

It’s hard to express how upsetting this experience is. It’s a kind of “uncanny valley” except for normal human behaviour. Most videogame protagonists are psychopaths one way or another, and so when they do thoughtless bullshit you don’t really notice. But Firewatch is attempting to represent an actual human being with feelings, a voice, preoccupations, a life outside the game mechanics, etc. So when that person, who you’re trying to believe in, is such a dick with the objects around him, it’s a real killer to any sense of identification or being-in-the-world.

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Henry ‘should have’ stayed with Julia. Delilah ‘should have’ called in that there was a minor at the fire watchtower. Henry ‘should have’ never taken the job. Delilah ‘should have’ never developed any feelings for a married man. Henry ‘should have’ never ran away.

Everything was an ‘I should have’. Or an ‘I could have’.
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Every character in Firewatch carries regrets. The narrative tells about those regrets, and the spaces they occupy, like smoke set into an old jacket. They never really leave you. Everyone ran away here for a reason.

By the end of the story, nothing feels wrapped up completely. Firewatch doesn’t pretend otherwise. Henry goes home. Delilah leaves before you ever see her in person. The boy’s body still lies at the bottom of the cave, rotting and posed grotesque by gravity. Life goes on.

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Campo Santo, the game's developer, doesn't want to offer me this path with Henry. He is selfish. Campo Santo has taken away the option to be flawless. They've removed an aspect of my agency and, in doing so, created a character who's arguably far more like us than any paragon of justice we'd like to create.
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Interactions with Delilah on the first night are informed by Henry's exhaustion and crankiness. There is no option to be perky, friendly or engaging, because Henry has just hiked a bunch of miles and he's exhausted. The opportunity to maybe open up and help Henry to grow as a person is provided at exactly the moment it should be: after rest, recuperation and a good night's sleep. His new life has begun. It's time for you to help figure out what that means.
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Delilah is never the antagonist. Delilah becomes your confidante and potential lover but also occasionally your accidental foil. This makes for a far more honest portrayal of confronting oneself than if her role had been that of a cackling villain. Your reactions to her may include frustration and disappointment, but ultimately they lead to a desire to understand and support her. It's a relationship based on growth, whether through Henry's obvious shift in personality or Delilah's steadfast stubbornness. It's a perfect metaphor for the average relationship with one's own self.

Delilah is a woman who has worked the job for nearly a decade and been seemingly unchanged by her experience. She's not growing, and the fact that Henry and the player are still not enough to change her mind in many situations is refreshing in a medium where you can often achieve impossible persuasion simply by having high enough stats.

You can encourage her to inform the police about the missing campers, but she won't. You can ask her to wait for you in the tower before evacuation, but she doesn't. By the final interaction, if you choose to ask her to come with you into the future, not even you or Henry believes that she will. In all these cases, she can be persuaded to agree with you, and to commit to doing these things. She just simply doesn't follow through on any of them. She's a rare thing in gaming: an NPC with agency.
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The game ends with Delilah remaining steadfast in her feelings, no matter what Henry says, and this is purely a narrative decision. It serves as a great footnote on how Henry has changed into a more empathetic person and starkly highlights how, despite Henry's influence, that empathy is still absent in Delilah. Or maybe it's an indicator of the difference in approach between men and women, or simply between Henry and Delilah. It's open to interpretation, and even the reading that Delilah is failing to empathize isn't condemning of her.

There are plenty of justifiable reasons why she might not choose to do so. While Henry has additional insight as a retrospective observer, Delilah bore witness to the majority of events as they unfolded, and as the game ends there's still the possibility that due to his empathy and growth, Henry's got this one wrong. None of the characters are infallible, and the player never has enough agency to make them so. And that's just perfect.

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If I want more than just those handful of photos, I can load up a new save file, find the camera again, and keep the shutter clicking until I’m satisfied.

But real life doesn’t provide that luxury. Sure, I could rent out the watchtower again, but Jon is two time zones away, and it wouldn’t be the same. I need to be more mindful of my surroundings. I’m not going to live the rest of my life through a viewfinder, but I won’t be a passive observer who looks but doesn’t see.

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what would happen if you went through Firewatch without talking to Delilah at all? How would that colour an experience that’s already about cutting yourself off? So that’s what I decided to do when starting over, and it was one of the bleakest experiences I’ve had in a game.
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Firewatch isn’t just about fleeing from life’s problems. To me, it’s more about finding solace in the sometimes fleeting connections we make with others. They may be temporary, but sometimes they come along when we need them the most. So when they do, speak up.

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In Firewatch your wedding ring is inescapable. Each time you climb up a rock wall or scramble into a crevass your wedding is there, visible: emblematic of a relationship that sits silently at the centre of Firewatch’s narrative. Your absent wife, who you’ve left in Melbourne, Australia, is represented by that ring. It’s a constant reminder that your escape, your avoidance, is a temporary solution. It’s Edgar Allen Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart, beating beneath the floorboards. It’s the visible representation of your regret and shame.