MICRO-REVIEW: DRAWFUL

Just about every time I've drawn a drunken room's attention to play a so-called party game (maybe the card-based Ultimate Werewolf or the mobile-based Spyfall), interest has run dry before the game even begins. I guess they can't be blamed; party games are meant to be ice breakers, and I think our drunker selves all find login URLs and convoluted deception strategies rather icy. But personally, I'm sentimental for the partygoers' toast, that moment where many scattered discussions unite under one central focus. I have found that party games lure even the unassuming wallflowers up to the social surface to make their contribution, and that's why they interest me. Among party games, Drawful draws the room together more quickly than any other I've played. It's hosted by console, displayed on TV, and played from smartphone. Open your browser and enter the code displayed on the screen. Bam. You're there. Then, each player privately illustrates a random prompt. Some prompts are cute, like "tables vs. chairs"; some are downright horrid, like "peahen eggs," or, gods forbid, "Dignity." In the next stage, each drawing is displayed for all to see, one round at a time, and players submit their anonymous guesses as to what the drawing is of. Then, players vote among the submitted answers, which are indistinguishable from the truth. The artist-player earns huge points if their drawing distinctively matches the real McCoy, while the guesser-players earn half points if they can bait out votes for their lies.

It's Pictionary-Balderdash, for witty players will quickly realize that if they can't deduce the true clue (your guess is blocked if it's exactly correct), their best chance is to submit a phrase sounding true-...ish. Other times you can win votes by charm alone, though the real test of skill lies in conceptual camouflage. I've witnessed one mild-mannered beginner absolutely wreck in this game. When I asked him what his secret was, he told me, "I guess I just know how to think like a robot." Above all, Drawful succinctly motivates a room full of idlers to entertain the hell out of other. For the simple efficiency with which it coaxes laughter, eureka's, and outrage from a diverse group of players, Drawful sets my standard for game of the year so far. 

Drawful: Always-hilarious smartphone Pictionary, on PS3, PS4, XBox One, Android TV, Apple TV, and Steam! Half-hour rounds, with a bottomless well of questions.

MICRO-REVIEW: MIITOMO

 Pic made in-game. If this doesn't sell you Miitomo, I don't know what will.

Pic made in-game. If this doesn't sell you Miitomo, I don't know what will.

I am a gaming omnivore. With the desperation of a thirsty alcoholic, I clamor for more and more diversions from life’s metronome, while facetiously demanding that these be awesome for free, and readily available. Anything can be a game, really, and any game can be fun. Even among cheap and dirty paper-bagged malt beers, one finds shining stars, and Miitomo resonates as one such guilty pleasure. Nintendo’s new cartoon avatar-oriented social networking game provides laughter without wit, fun without skill, and breadth without depth - and I play it every day. On account creation, Miitomo requests access to your phone's camera (to snap pictures for cute-ification into Mii-form) and preexisting Facebook & Twitter accounts (to import friendlists of friend-Mii's). From there on out, it's pretty much show & tell. 

 Allow me to explain Miitomo's elaborate info-economy by way of flowchart.

Allow me to explain Miitomo's elaborate info-economy by way of flowchart.

Imagine all your real-life friends as immortal tamagotchi’s: they dawdle; they chirp; they change, insignificantly, over time; and they don’t die if you forget to feed them. Now swirl in a Balderdash of personal questions and a bottlenecked daily clothes-shopping economy, and you have Miitomo. There is a Gabe Newell quote somewhere about industrializing the playerbase, drafting them into the game design production chain. Miitomo champions this attitude, as it does little else than translate your and your friends’ wardrobe choices and quiz responses into something bobble-headedly pleasant. But, you know what? For such a nefarious sham, it does this so well. Miitomo proves to me that a video-game needn’t challenge skills, command attention, nor broaden the imagination to delight. Sometimes it is enough for a game just to keep you company on a long busride home. And hey, who would've thought you'd be able to hear completely unfiltered profanity coming out of Nintendo toons?

Miitomo: Nintendo's Zen of daily-dose cuteness. On iOS & Android. Twenty minutes a day, for a week and a half so far.

 

REVIEW: RISE OF THE TOMB RAIDER

  Some serious sight seeing in this game – it's a beauty.  If you have a PC, I recommend picking up that version.

Some serious sight seeing in this game – it's a beauty.  If you have a PC, I recommend picking up that version.

The Tomb Raider series has had a bit of a turbulent past – some high peaks, and very low valleys over its 20+ year history.  The original game was a stand out when it was released on the O.G. Playstation system in 1996. Bringing to life a buxom, globe trotting female equivalent of Indiana Jones traversing through fully realized 3d dungeons full of traps, puzzles, lurking beasts, and of course plenty of booty (Another word for treasure, you adolescent rubes.)

In the following years, the series fell into a bit of a lull with mundane repeated yearly releases (*cough* Ubisoft, EA ) crafted to satiate the demand of a public who were ravenous for more adventures starring the impossibly proportioned Ms. Croft.  Even though these sequels were not up to the standard of the original, success breeds repetition, especially in the entertainment business. Sales of the series and the popularity of Lara herself,  in the mid to late 1990's indicated that a powerful new mainstay franchise had been born – films, action figures, comics and spinoff video games for everyone, and for better or worse ‘Tomb Raider’ would become a household name.

The films came and went, and a deluge of game releases for a myriad of gaming systems produced sequels of varying quality, quickly over saturating the market. By the early 2000's the public began to lose interest, as the team at Core design were never able to re-capture the magic and innovation of the original game.  Sales and mainstream popularity declined until gamers began to associate Lara with other antiquated video game mascots, so desperately trying to rekindle public interest and resurrect their glory days (Bubsy 3-d anyone?). Like so many before her, Lara's time in the spotlight began to fade.  It was time to re-think the Tomb Raider franchise, and in 2008 development for an untitled reboot for next generation consoles was underway.  Down but not out, the Tomb Raider brand was a sleeping giant, laying dormant and biding its time until it was given the opportunity to ‘rise’ to prominence once more.
 

 This lady can climb like the dickens.

This lady can climb like the dickens.

And Rise it did.  2013's reboot; simply titled 'Tomb Raider' was a critical and commercial success, plucking Lara out of the hall of the forgotten and once-loved video game characters,  and placing her firmly back in the limelight in front of a new generation of gamers. Crystal Dynamics (who had been developing the series since 2006's “Tomb Raider: Legend”) had found the blueprint they were looking for to re-introduce Lara Croft to the next generation of gamers, a game in the style of the popular 'Uncharted' series. Uncharted, developed by Naughty Dog, was famous for its exciting action sequences, jet setting exotic locales and for modernizing much of the original model and theme used for Tomb Raider in the early 90s.  The team succeeded; the reboot was unanimously praised for its stunning visuals, intuitive traversal, lavish set pieces, film quality writing, as well as a grittier, more believable narrative. And then there was Lara herself, swapping her 1960's Barbie-esque figure and millionaire-playmate persona for a properly proportioned human females body and the ability to learn, grow and mature as a real character throughout the course events in the game. It was a proven recipe for success executed to a T, and the team remained committed to delivering a strong experience for the sequel, which was announced shortly after the originals release.

That brings us to the main course: how was the follow up?  Were they able to continue the character growth we saw taking place in the last game without loading up on melodrama? Did they listen to the fans pleading for more actual tombs to raid and less bullet sponge enemies to soak up digital ammunition?  Does Lara still take a gruesome spear through the throat every time she takes a wrong turn?

The answer to all three of those questions is a resounding yes.  Now that doesn't mean the game is perfect or that I didn't have issues during my 20 hours with Rise of the Tomb Raider, but overall it is a wonderful follow up to the original, both in spirit and execution.  Nathan Drake should be proud.

I don't mean to give the impression that Rise of the Tomb Raider is a second tier Uncharted, quite the opposite in fact.  The visuals and sound are outstanding, even with the Xbox one struggling to maintain the 30fps frame rate at 1080p (it dipped below 20fps multiple times during key scenes.) Every game mechanic in ROTTR is improved; Laras pick axe crunches satisfyingly as it digs into the ice that she frequently scales on her journey, erupting clouds of snow and ice particles into the frosty air as she goes. Jumping, swinging and climbing all feel tight, fluid, intuitive and fair, if not exactly original.  The newly expanded inventory system makes use of gathering items found in the environment to craft needed tools, weapons and skills. It is reminiscent of the crafting system used in The Last of Us and feels fleshed out in a way that encourages world exploration without making it feel like a chore. Lara is able to create arrows, special ammunition for firearms, bandages and explosives out of items she finds hidden in the environment. Adding an element of time management and strategy, Lara cannot carry infinite ammunition – and as such often has to craft needed ammunition on the go or in the middle a fight. The system the game uses to employ this feels second nature and never interfered with my enjoyment, in fact, I often felt like an action hero ducked down out of enemy sights, fumbling to reload the ammunition I so desperately need. You can also explore areas to find items that mark hidden destinations on your map, upgrade your weapons, learn new languages to reveal secrets as well as retrograding your equipment to reach new areas as the game progresses.

If there's one area of the game to improve upon, it's the combat.  Lara starts with a bow and arrow, and over the course of the game finds a pistol, an automatic rifle and, surprise, a shotgun.  While the selection of weapons is not terribly original, they all feel suited to different situations and perform well enough.  Cover shooting is the name of the game here, and the automatic 'stick to cover' system works, but just barely as it’s far too easy to accidentally leave the safety of cover in the middle of a firefight without meaning to.  Red Dead this is not.  The hand to hand combat, though serviceable, feels loose and janky, and often gives the impression that Lara is aimlessly swinging at random enemies with her pick axe rather than targeting one enemy and focusing on them. Once you master the dodge and dodge kill skills in your ability tree things become a bit more refined, but there are no tutorials or visual prompts to explain how this system works, at least not that I found.  I assume Lara uses her pick axe as her main hand to hand combat weapon because the developers felt that having her fist fight a bunch of armed guards may come off as a bit silly, and in theory I agree.  But why not start the game off with a cut scene of her training?  Or competing in any kind of martial arts tournament? It would serve to push that story forward and give players a sense of power and prowess when engaged in unarmed combat.  So then just steal the batman combat and chuck it in there, right?!   Ok, so that might be an overly simplistic solution, but you get the drift, it seems like something could be done to improve the fluidity of the hand to hand combat system, and I hope that's a focus for the next title in the series.

 The action sequences in general are very chaotic, and during scenes where multiple waves of enemies attack it has a tendency to become a game of “roll away from the enemy until you get to a clearing, then turn, shoot, and resume rolling”.  This was especially frustrating in some of the closed off areas where there were cliffs and drop offs that could easily be rolled into, sending Lara to an untimely death. Luckily the game saves every time you pick up an item, so very little progress is lost.  Overall the combat needs some work, but it’s still fun, just not up to the polish of the other areas of the game.

 Not being able to pick up enemies weapons is a bit of a bummer, but she still holds her own

Not being able to pick up enemies weapons is a bit of a bummer, but she still holds her own

The story is pretty much what you would expect for a big budget movie style title, there is a strong foundation, a couple of memorable characters and one or two prerequisite plot twists. The script does rely heavily upon coincidence and the ability of the player to ignore some inconsistencies, but overall does what it needs to.  The voice acting is well delivered and never took me out of the experience, even if some of the dialogue is a bit corny.  One interesting way the story progresses is through the various camps that Lara finds in her adventure. At any one of the 30+ camps in the game you can craft large amounts of ammunition quickly, upgrade weapons, items and abilities, as well as fast travel to any other previously discovered camp.  What struck a chord with me is that each time you find a new camp and utilize it, Lara sits down and starts to narrate, essentially reflecting on the events that have transpired in the time since her last rest at a camp. Executed flawlessly, this is a strong way to emphasize both the personal growth that Lara is experiencing, as well as the scope of events taking place over the course of the game, without forcing it all down your throat via cut scenes. Other games could learn a lot from this style of supplemental narrative, i found it added a lot of depth to Lara's development and additional motivation to progress through my adventure, without seeming overly contrived.

 Lara’s attire is fairly reasonable for the climate, don't go expecting crop top shirts or string bikinis in Siberia. Perverts may want to opt for the modifiable PC version... or hold their breath for a nude code.

Lara’s attire is fairly reasonable for the climate, don't go expecting crop top shirts or string bikinis in Siberia. Perverts may want to opt for the modifiable PC version... or hold their breath for a nude code.

The things that truly make ROTTR stand out are in the details.  Once Lara finds the combat knife (mostly used for stealth kills) she pulls it out automatically when you get within stealth kill range, indicated by the sharp, satisfying sound of a blade slipping free of its sheath. I loved it every single time. Another mechanic that I feel this game executes better than any before it, are the escape sequences wherein the surrounding environment is caving in and crashing down as you frantically attempt to escape your doom.  It does tend to feel coincidental that EVERY ancient city Lara steps foot in is one loose stone away from crumbling down around her, but if you don't stop to think about them too hard they make for some incredibly intense sequences that will astound those watching and leave the player in awe, feeling like they just got the fuck out of dodge in the nick of time. 

The exploration is my favorite part of the game, and is handled very competently.  Similar to the last game, the map is all connected through a series of passages, caves and open areas.  The difference in the sequel is that these open areas have been fleshed out and expanded, feeling more like sectioned portions of an open world map one might expect to find in a Farcry title. There are secret caves and passages to find, animals to hunt, hidden items and secondary quests to take, and a total of 9 hidden tombs that each play out as a complex puzzle to solve, with the player receiving a stat-altering artifact at the end of each one. I never personally found these puzzles too challenging, but they are satisfying and rewarding to find and complete. The promise of these hidden ancient areas kept me searching the world throughout my adventure, and will no doubt keep me coming back to find the last 2 I have not uncovered.  On the note of re playability, Square Enix clearly spent time polishing this game nicely and although there is no multiplayer mode included, there is a replay mode where extra challenges and items can be added to levels to be uncovered for points, a time trial mode where best times can be improved upon, and a few other small surprises.  This game, like most, has a seasons pass available for $39.99 CAD.  Personally, I think its a poor value as it includes a few outfits, a survival play mode and one chunk of story DLC – Baba Yaga (John Wick anyone)- the temple of the Witch.  That’s not a lot of value. Luckily, you can purchase the Baba Yaga and survival gameplay modes separately for $10 each, which is the route I recommend taking.

 Stay frosty, Lara

Stay frosty, Lara

 Overall, this game is suited to those who love the action/adventure genre, and especially to those who were fans of 2013's Tomb Raider or any of the Uncharted games.  As coined by Jordan Mowat, this is definitely a “do the thing” game – as the course of action is heavily predetermined, and you as the player must guide Lara through it.  If that turns you off then look elsewhere for your thrills, but if your still with me, then this is one adventure you will not want to miss.  I spent 20 wonderful hours with Rise of the Tomb Raider, and I expect to spend another 4-5 exploring as of yet uncovered optional tombs and the Baba Yaga DLC.   The game is out now for Xbox one, Xbox 360, PC and is coming to PS4 Q4 2016.

RISE OF THE TOMB RAIDER - "AN ADVENTURE YOU WON'T WANT TO MISS"

XBOX ONE, XBOX 360, PC

20 WONDERFUL HOURS

 

REVIEW: FIREWATCH

TITLE Firewatch

PLATFORM PC/Mac/PS4

EVADE GISMO RATING *INTERACTIVE MOVIE* 2-4.5 hour playthrough / Story progression / Light decision trees

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Everyone who's played it knows that the funnest part of Dungeons & Dragons (or should I say Wizards and Wyverns?) is character creation. Filling in the crucial details, like the number of serrations in your flaming bastard sword, and ignoring the unimportant ones, like your childhood pets and criminal record, is the foundation of a reflexive gameplay experience. It answers the question, Who do I wanna be for this next little while? Who am I willing to be stuck with? Firewatch doesn't reach for pie-in-the-sky thematics or hard moral lessons. Instead, it commits its brief duration to deeply developing the relationship between Henry and Delilah, two fire lookouts on the run from their own lives in the scenic Yellowstone Park wilderness of 1988.

The game even starts with a character creation screen, of a sort. But instead of tallying up Pickpocket and Garroting skills from some monolithic pool of abstract values, it's more like digesting regrets. We're given unnarrated text summarizing Henry's life and marriage leading up to the events of the game, and you fill in gaps in the story with your own choices, effecting dialogue and relationship options later on in the game. The text is broken up with brief segments of footage and gameplay of Henry as he treks into the park for the first time, as if he himself is reflecting on how he came to be here, just we are are making decisions about it. It sounds dry but plays out like the most heart-wrenching Mad Lib of all time. Then he (We? I?) get to the lookout tower... and meet the delightful, devious, and disembodied Deliliah. Ohh, Delilah.

 These photos aren't really screenshots; I took them all on a Fun-saver found by Henry in-game.

These photos aren't really screenshots; I took them all on a Fun-saver found by Henry in-game.

Many games take character relationships for granted, allowing conversation to merely act as a vessel for exposition, comedy, or other bullet-point character moments. The president's daughter follows the hardened cop around like a stray animal, or the local survivor gives orders to the wayward explorer through a one-way radio only. In such games, character relationships behave more like incidental by-products of that bolted-on mess we refer to as "the story". It is hard for me to wrap my head around the idea of a game's "story" being separable from all its other elements, because as players we experience only the whole. Yet nowadays it's often obvious that narrative, exposition, and other "fluff" has been developed by a completely separate department than the rest of the game. How many booklets have we all flipped through, how many wildlife info-tags, how many abruptly-ending handwritten letters skimmed for a quest marker and ignored? More often than not, the relationship between your loosely-defined, semi-player-determined character, and everyone else, feels more like an obstacle (oh so much skipped dialogue) to the real game - the riding, sniping, plundering, profiting - than something that makes you more part of it.

A relationship is what results from two characters deliberately interacting. It is a meaningfully interactive experience, but one perhaps too delicate to compete with the antic violence that typifies video-games. Firewatch thrives on the little nuances of getting to know a stranger, and getting to be known by them. The awkward pauses, white lies, and collaborations. The unexpected commonalities. The stupid jokes. Most of the game is keeping banter up with Delilah, talking and listening as you photograph the landscape, huck empty beer cans around, follow mysterious clues. But Delilah will frequently chime in with a quip or question on the radio, and every time she does, a HUD timer starts ticking down the time left to respond. I thought of this as the "window of relevance" and I can kinda see it in the corner of my eye when talking to people in real-life, too. At times I'd get distracted gazing at the landscape or reading pulp mystery synopses, and miss my chance to respond to Delilah on the walkie-talkie, or just ignore what she said completely. Other times, she'd ask me something difficult and I'd either scramble for one of three all-too-revealing replies, or stammer the L-Shift key until it was too late.  Firewatch was sage enough to let those dropped threads of conversation just... trail off, and the way these silences form a space between the principal characters is engaging.

In fact, there's really very little to do. The gameworld is a cluster of objective locations, obstacle-littered corridors, and photo-ops. You can walk, climb, rappel, inspect, and talk to Delilah. You can check your map & compass - and I mean literally check your map - your character's hands reach down for it, and you must hold it up in front of yourself and figure out where you're going and how to get there. Like a normal person and not some weird, abstract, information-compressing navigational robot. The clever twist of Firewatch is that it legitimately manages to make these sparse interactive processes tense through simple obscurity. As much as you come to like (or loathe) Delilah, your interactions are restricted to two-way radio and there is no one else to talk to. Meeting new people can be nerve-wracking at best, but roll that up with professional responsibility, mysterious assaults, and natural disaster, and the tension is palpable. Henry and Delilah's relationship could be implanted into, say, downtown Vancouver and the characters would be just as likeable -- and yet the remoteness and interdependence of the relationship would lose its significance, as they'd be living in a sea of people, of relationships. The story's entrenched solitude works as a subtle nod to who the player is in relation to the game: ultimately, a lone escapist. Like Henry, I think we all come "out here" to forget the very real problems we struggle with, preferring to sit back and watch the fires rather than really fight them. Firewatch knows it is a brief respite from the bigger problems in its players' lives, and respects that boundary between what ultimately matters: Real Life, and what doesn't: Video-games.  It doesn't exhaust you with a shopping-list of facetious so-called "Achievements"; the branching dialogue, ultimately, tends to loop back to the conversation trailhead; and it doesn't suffocate you with opportunities and growing numbers and the flux of other mechanics that turn engrossing games into toxic addictions. Firewatch keeps its trajectory linear in order to convey something to each player about how people yearn to connect and to confess. While it's refreshing that the game is so bare, the environments really lack in some areas. Glancing from my map to landscape and back again often had me mired in a tangle of invisible walls, clipping shrubbery, and awkward reticule targeting. While this may have, to a degree, been part of the Henry-is-a-noob experience prescribed by the game, it also telegraphs a design weakness in Firewatch. You can get stuck, but you can't truly get lost, because there are so few places to go.

I am sure people will balk at the price/duration ratio, but you can't fault Firewatch for being nothing it didn't aspire to be. It's not an open-world adventure; it's not a wilderness survival simulator; it's not a smarmy non-game, either. It breaks new ground in what games can be about. It tickles and teases and convinces you, briefly, that you are somebody else, and cleverly throws everyone's identity into doubt. If nothing else, Firewatch is the best, most dynamic voice-acted character development you'll ever hear for $20. Check below for spoilers regarding my response to the game's climax, twist, and ending.

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P.S. - If you enjoyed Firewatch, I strongly recommend Gods Will Be Watching: a blockier, gamier take on persona, decision, and intelligent, light-handed meta-narrative.

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SPOILERS !!

As the story progresses, mysterious events suggest you and Delilah are being targeted by somebody in the wilderness. Your tower gets raided, the phone line is cut, and once you find a written transcript of your recent, private radio conversations with Delilah, you get  knocked out by an unseen assailant, steal an axe, and Rambo into a suspicious, fenced-off research station. You discover notes among elaborate monitoring equipment suggesting that you, Delilah, and others are the unwilling subjects in a sophisticated social experiment, and everyone is a suspect. This second act of the game is where it really shines; late afternoon dips down to dusk just as you break through the fence, and every step is fraught with uncertainty. Henry goes from stir-crazy to paranoid out of fear for his life, plastering the windows of his lookout with notes, questions, and clues, and questioning his very sanity.

However, Firewatch takes a bit of a Scooby-Doo twist, deflating all of the tension with a "The Old Groundskeeper Did It!" that feels clammy and abrupt. Delilah never called it inwhen a 'Nam vet and his son working your same lookout tower went missing years ago. It turns out they retreated into the wilderness to live, the boy died in a cave, and old Ned Goodwin went bonkers and fabricated all of the tension in order to signal-jam the observations of Henry & Delilah, and scare them off from his life of lonesome guilt.

My first reaction was confusion and disappointment; if you've played the game, you'll know what I mean. Firewatch pulls no punches in casually terrifying Henry. With every turn, the problem seems more and more elaborate. I think we all expected to find a UFO or a sprawling underground base, or a Truman Show-esque ceiling-tile-sky reveal. What's delivered may seem a little pedestrian; but I think that's the point. I think the buildup was all about what was going on in Henry and Delilah's minds; they wanted to believe there was an elaborate conspiracy against them, a problem so great that it would not only bring the two of them together, but eclipse the woes of the outside world entirely. We, too, were just as eager as the characters to believe that there was more to this story than meets the eye; and we were just as disappointed to be met with plain, smooth, old reality.

One thing did relieve me about the ending, though: I think if I'd actually seen an awkwardly rendered, physical Delilah in front of me, I would have killed myself. Good move, Campo Santo. Good move.


THROWBACK THURSDAY: BIOSHOCK SERIES

There be spoilers ahead, lads. Many spoilers.

When I embarked on this full-series review, I didn’t want to get too caught up in the “best design” / “wackiest twist” / “worst characters” debates. I just wanted to play the series as a continuous whole, in quick succession, and see how everything fit together. However, my muse is a fickle bitch, with a very short attention span, and I failed to avoid picking favourites. Case in point: Bioshock 1 took me 11 hours to beat. I really like digging through nooks for loot and I sought out every little sister in each level. Bioshock 2 took me 13 hours to beat - I had the same habits for exploring corners and herding sisters - but funny enough, the 2-hour difference there is only due to replay time following spontaneous crashes + infrequent saving. Bioshock Infinite took me two hours to completely abandon. I might pick it up again someday, just to see if... nah, fuck it. I really didn't enjoy myself at all. And if you think I need to beat it to enjoy it, then, well, I suppose that's part of my problem with it.

The Bioshock series has a slough of really consistent themes: Waves of enemies, punctuated by climactic, juggernaut-centered brawls; fabulous southpaw superpowers; constant resource attrition; audio logs which pedantically, yet deliciously, build the world you’re exploring; radical governments of isolated super-societies, rotted to their core by dogma; bizarre distortions of the father-child relationship, simplified to the tracking down of lost ladies; meta-narrative revelations on the illusion of free will; the need to become one’s enemy in order to overcome him; and, of course, always, lighthouses. Never mind that there actually isn’t, always, a lighthouse -- just shut up, it sounds cool. I would say these themes are the main pillars of the series, as each game seems to manifest all of them, but in different ways.

In Bioshock 1, you are the child come to kill the father. You kill 2 of them, really, after wading through the honorary uncles and lackeys who knew them. It wouldn’t be hard for the player to imagine Jack to look like themselves - the thought experiment seems to be “This could be anyone” - so the significance of patricide feels more personal. Though father-killing cannot be avoided due to your character’s brainwashed history, child-killing can be avoided, should you choose, and this choice, though transparently binary, affects the future of the world. Rewriting your genetic code with the ADAM syringe is a traumatic and overwhelming experience, given due significance. But it’s not long before shooting up on gene-twisting plasma becomes routine, and you join the ranks of shock-and-flame-happy Splicers that stand in the way of your mission. Big Daddy fights are tense, furious affairs during the early game, but as you gain strength and understanding of their nature, their deaths become more tragic and pitiful.

NOTES

  • elegance in the interplay of gameplay and narrative; you are an accidental survivor in a dangerous world, yet mistaken as intruder/invader by the powers here. scrounging for food, killing on sight makes sense.

  • everything presented over the course of the game is a Chekov’s gun; everything has a reason for being as freaky-deaky as it is. Bioshock 1 is like… a terrarium narrative, completely self-contained. like a good argument, all of Bioshock’s science fiction narrative is VALID, SOUND, and exhaustive

  • you become a Big Daddy protecting the little girls -- you splice the same plasmids as the maniacal splicers -- you become the monsters you fight throughout the game.

  • however on this second playthrough, I COULD NOT BELIEVE THAT KILLING Andrew Ryan at his own behest is not in the player’s control. I thought the whole point was the epiphany that everything you’ve willfully been doing in the game is mere puppetry through your psychological conditioning. At no point previously in the game has obeying commands been like watching a cutscene, so why here, now, at this crucial and significant reveal? it could be as simple as you cannot move -- try to move the camera away from Ryan and he shouts “WOULD YOU KINDLY LOOK ME IN THE EYE AND KILL ME, SLAVE!?” and even then… it should be the player who pulls the trigger. The game will still not advance until Ryan is dead, but putting that in the player’s hands is such a juicy narrative opportunity that I’m astonished it wasn’t included among all the other impressive risks taken in Bioshock’s story. Perhaps its determinism hard at work here?

  • for such a talkative game -- it’s possible to hear X lines of dialogue simultaneously: PA announcement; splicer banter; Little Sister banter; Tape Recording; Vending Machine; Record player -- the quality of dialogue is consistently extremely high. wonderful acting and writing. Everything is interesting to listen to, and well-performed; as quotable as anything from a Tarantino flick. The sound design is the real adhesive of this dystopia, giving the backdrop a tactile atmosphere.

In Bioshock 2, you are the father (and kind-of husband) of a shattered family. The game is careful to emphasize your masked appearance, allowing you to place yourself inside the Big Daddy suit. Bioshock 2 seems to recognize that rescuing little girls is really rewarding, and their gushing love and adulation really struck nerves in me. It also recognizes that choice was an exciting part of the first game. You can choose to spare multiple lives! Revolutionary! Leaping at deformed psychopaths, impaling them on a drill, then electrocuting and pistolwhipping them is really, REALLY fun. They’re monsters, you’re a monster, and most importantly, they’re after your little girl. Any extreme of violence would be justified to the distorted mind of a Big Daddy wouldn't it? Nimble Big Sisters are a terrifying leg up on BS1’s juggernauts, and even in this game, Big Daddies are non-threatening in comparison to the slender killing machines.

NOTES

  • Intro and title card have no impact. in Bioshock 1, we see the logo drenched in dripping seawater and the spiraling light source because that’s what’s happened to our character: the character and the player have been helplessly flung into the ocean, to find their only salvation in Rapture. Bioshock 2 lazily rehashes this introductory “splash” page without any of the narrative consistency, as you start the game already in Rapture. with this introduction, the game’s interest completely leans on your knowledge of the first game -- expansion pack sequel??

  • Graphics are way better! UI has been tightened up.

  • game crashed on PC within 16 minutes of first boot, during battle with big sister -- no autosave. Utter bullshit.

  • the political theme is brainier this time around, confronting the destructive extremes at which altruistic collectivism begins to resemble Andrew Ryan’s meritocratic utopia; the message seems to be “any philosophy of governance, taken to its extreme,will lead to anarchy.”

  • weapons and ammo types are inventive and amusing.

  • Most everything in narrative and gameplay is a refinement of the previous game with a few big exceptions. One being the non-optional bouts with the Big Sisters.

  • your relationship with the girls and their rescue becomes deeper, with more choices to make in dealing with them. I was impressed with how the game replicated in the player what happens to brainwashed, conditioned Big Daddies when they’re near Little Sisters. When a sick little girl tells you you’re the best daddy ever, after you’ve finished splattering her in the blood of the enemies who would take her from you -- you believe it. In Rapture, fatherhood is reduced to a chemically-dependent facsimile of love, what better emotional backdrop for the time-tested video-game reward cycle of slaying bad guys and rescuing princesses?

  • People say Bioshock 2 failed because it didn’t have the “shock” that the first had; but I was moved closer to tears by BS2’s surprise reveal than by anything else in the series. I won’t spoil it, but there is a change in perspective that adds a lot of weight to the events of BS1 and 2.

In Bioshock Infinite ( although most everything about the gameplay is linear and self-contained), you are trying to a rescue your sexy daughter from a time-shifted alternate dimension after selling her as a baby for gambling money, to another time-shifted alternate dimension version of yourself. I found it really difficult to put myself in Booker DeWitt’s shoes, even though he was probably market-tested to appeal to me, demographically. His name and backstory are too specific, too far apart from the setting of the game. And his constant muttering acts as stand-in for player cues: a chair unveils itself and Booker says, “Guess it’s time to go sit in the fucking chair now.” There is one person for you to save, and once you do, she completely takes care of herself - the game even tells you so. There is nothing to protect her from that is not resolved by a cutscene. You’re introduced to the beautiful and pristine world of Columbia in celebration, and yet as soon as the city’s dark secret is revealed, the killing begins and never seems to stop. Every cop knows your face; every cop has to die. The first bit of violence is in self defense, though any defense attorney who saw the corpse would emphatically disagree. This instantaneous descent into radical violence fell flat because I didn’t feel myself turn into a killing machine over the course of the game’s trials - which had been kind of a mainstay in the previous games. And your freedom of choice to prevent this violence is mocked. You choose a pendant for Elizabeth to wear. You’re told by a transdimensional telegram not to pick up a ball , and then pick up the ball anyway. None of this comes off as a serious meditation on the agency of the player, but rather some thematic window-dressing on an underwhelming story.

NOTES

  • though I hadn’t ever played it I came into this game with a bit of a chip on my shoulder. everything about it just suggests it doesn’t have that laborious attention to detail that makes Bioshock 1 so enthralling: the dude and princess on the cover; the fact that your character constantly chatters, throughout all the other wry chatter in the game; the beautiful, “living” city full of identical mimes and closed storefronts. People argue that it’s just as detailed, and yes, there are nooks & crannies full of coinpurses and lockpicks on each level. But with gene tonics and plasmids readily available, why hasn’t the city rapidly devolved into chaos? Isn’t that an interesting detail? Don’t you think a city ascended to the clouds to entertain constitutional literalness would have every single civilian armed with a gun? Shouldn’t the whole game have addressed the inherent flaws in each amendment of the US Constitution -- since the US Constitutition is presented as the theme?… anyway, disclaimer there.

  • Well through my first hour, I have no clue what the fuck is going on. Going to an island in sky city to get a girl to pay off a debt. What debt? What girl?? What the fuck is sky city??? Who brought me here???? I’m sure this all ties into the utterly brilliant reveal that nothing’s as it seems, that everything is a conspiracy you were in on all along, etc etc etc., typical of the series. But as an intro to a game it came off as jarring to me. In Bioshock 1, you’re gradually introduced to everything. You’re in an airplane; it crashes over the sea; you swim to a lighthouse, see a bit of freaky shit, and descend to Rapture, accompanied by a slow crawl of the city exterior, and a full explanation of what the fuck is up with this place. Then you pop up into the city, get attacked and rescued, and from there on, a friendly person contacts you by radio and guides you through the broken world. The game is extremely quiet through this early stage leading up to the Medical Pavilion, nudging one thing at you at a time. Acquiring Plasmids is a big deal that demands exposition. Encountering Splicers is a big deal that requires explanation. The game’s overall tone is melancholic, apologetic; weeping violins sing an apology that it has to be this way, that this had to happen to you, but that you’re gonna get out, somehow. The violence and pillaging is depicted as tragic and necessary, and somehow, this provides a strong narrative throughline to me, the human player behind the controller, which gives the game some kind of ethical relatability. You’re left wondering, “Am I gonna make it?”

  • In Bioshock Infinite, your character is going to the city to fuck shit up. And that you do. The game presents the city to the player as radical, unprecedented, astonishing. Yet the character, who intentionally came here on ridiculous, cryptic instructions, seems overall nonplussed. You’re on the sea; delivered to a lighthouse which shoots you into the sky because you rang bells; you wander through the town fair, robbing cash registers and collection plates for some reason, and generally enjoying the mirthful atmosphere of the fair; then, very suddenly, you are attacked by police for not being (or being) a racist, and quickly disembowel several of them with a buzzsaw-pistol called a SkyHook™. You walk into a nice scene, and promptly ruin it. Nothing is depicted as tragic or traumatic, because this whole city is populated by evil racists and deserves to be destroyed. Where Bioshock 1 is depicted as a desperate struggle for survival in a ruthlessly egocentric society, Bioshock Infinite positions you as the empowered rapist of a morally degraded community. I have played so many incredibly violent games, seen such indulgent gore in movies. But that first taste of violence in Bioshock Infinite’s happy-families fair scene -- you lose control of the game and watch yourself disintegrate a policeman’s face and brains for, really, no good reason -- had me screaming with horror and lurching in my chair. The game funnels you through more waves of murderous, sadistic policemen and you effortlessly slash them all to pieces in turn. I have not felt fucked up for killing videogame enemies in a long time, but I did in Bioshock Infinite. I was left wondering, “Is this supposed to feel good?”

  • Following the abrupt introduction to killing sprees, I swallowed it. I am a pacifist at heart, but I am a fucking psychopath when it comes to bullet-oriented virtual realities. Kill everything that moves. No problem. Not 10 minutes go by before I enter a room, and the game reminds me with a pop-up message: “There are some people it might be bad to kill.” Blood dripping from my hands, rabid froth at the corners of my mouth, my mind muddled by Infinite’s gore-frenzied tone, I growled “Fuck off!!” and headshotted the two civilians in front of me. The police aim to kill me on-sight already, so what does it matter?

  • So I’ve bought into it. About half-an-hour later, I’m on Comstock’s zeppelin, and I happen upon a side-room where a nun or something is praying at an altar. I fire most a clip at her head. All of them pass straight through her. She doesn’t even flinch at the noise. I enter a further room, and Comstock confronts me through the window on a small skiff. Then I turn around and the woman I just tried to kill sets the airship on fire. Seriously, fuck you, game. You gave me one way of interacting with the world, then made it impossible for me to benefit from it in order to walk me through some derivative fucking scripted event.

 I should review this game next.

I should review this game next.

Bioshock Infinite is the Phantom Menace of Bioshock games, at once beholden to honour what came before, yet diffuse and desperate to tell its own snowflakey story. It looks shinier, but feels duller; it’s a prequel, jamming itself chronologically ahead of its predecessors and forcing connections to the originals where they were never intended to be; it blows too much hot air, which is a doozy in a series that lectures you with exposition; it indulges in nostalgic callbacks whenever there’s nothing else interesting to do (Lighthouses! Plasmids! Tatooine! Lightsabers - Lots and Lots of Lightsabers!); and diverse new characters are thrown in to broaden appeal without really considering the relevant social issues (Phantom Menace’s and BSI’s depictions of slavery are among the strangest and most insensitive I’ve ever seen). The similarities should come as no surprise. Both prequels were made on inflated budgets and expectations for mass appeal. And both seem to have fallen under the shadow of unquestioned auteurship. Ken Levine and George Lucas are “Ideas Men” -- and it seems well-established that the Star Wars prequel trilogies spiraled out of control without the editorial guiding hands of people like Marcia Lucas to counteract throngs of yes-men. BSI has that feel as well - the feel that some mitigating creative force has been muted, eclipsed, and the mad captain at the helm has steered the ship neither port nor starboard but -- *Ken Levine looks back over his shoulder and says, “Ready for this, guys!?”* -- STRAIGHT UP! INTO THE SKIES!