So much of what made Enslaved: Odyssey to the West a great game was its characters. Its story would be a close second, but the relationship between Trip and Monkey was easily the most engaging aspect of the game. It’s odd then, that the first major piece of DLC for Enslaved focuses on the only supporting character in the game, the junkyard mechanic Pigsy.
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Among the finalists for this year’s Independent Game Festival Seumas McNally Grand Prize is Amnesia: The Dark Descent, a horror game by Frictional Games, the creators of the much loved and feared, Penumbra. Players control Daniel, an amnesia stricken Londoner who awakens in the mysterious and foreboding Brennenburg Castle. The environment has all the trappings required of an unsettling gothic castle—creaky wooden doors, archaic torches, ornate and grotesque statues, and generally dubious safety standards. While the castle’s atmosphere evokes deeply uncomfortable feelings, Amnesia effectively engenders terror by demanding that players create their own topographies of fear.
Throughout Amnesia, hideous creatures lurk the halls of castle Brennenburg, threatening players who explore the haunting corridors too liberally. Players cannot fight these monsters. Instead, players must behave like frightened children and simply run and hide. But there is a catch. In addition to a health status, players struggle with their own sanity. Primarily, sanity depletes while standing in darkness. As the players’ sanity drains, their environment becomes distorted, blurring and hazing the already ominous passages. Sanity can only be regained by standing near a light source.
In the first few hours of playing the DC Universe Online Beta, I’d KOed Dr. Fate. Yeah, Dr. Friggin’ Fate. To those less familiar with reading DC Comics, I promise this is more impressive than it sounds.
Yes, 2010 was full of sequels and other extensions of franchises, but it also saw some unique properties, some oddball worlds, and a few indie offerings that rounded out mainstream publishers efforts to refine, rather than innovate this year. Refinement is probably the major theme of some of the games that my Moving Pixels cohorts and myself chose as some of our top picks for the year. Games like Mass Effect 2,Super Mario Galaxy 2, Dead Rising 2, and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood (or even Red Dead Redemption if one assumes that Rockstar’s foray into the Old West is a broadly defined refinement of their typical open worlds) were all follow ups that tweaked, added onto, and otherwise built upon the foundations of previous franchise installments.
However, experiment, some smatterings of the avant garde, strong narrative and characterization, and other general weirdness were also present in new intellectual properties like Heavy Rain, Deadly Premonition, Enslaved, and Loved.
I’ve always tended towards the idea that Avatar is about the plight of a gamer. The protagonist Sully, caught between a live action world and an animated one, directly experiences a generational and cultural divide that bears far more on the nature of what deserves to be called real (or meaningful) than just simply what happens to be moral at the time. The fact that James Cameron himself refers to the digital system of creating Pandora as “like a video game” only seems to enhance this view—as does my favorite scene in the film, in which Sully reaches out to his surrogate father, the Colonel, explaining the rite of manhood ritual he is undergoing for the Na’Vi tribe. Sully is greeted with a look akin to a father hearing that his son is going on about that damn World of Warcraft again; instead of validation or approval, Sully’s told that the whole thing is just absurd—and worthless.
It’s quite clear that we adore our fictional loves (be they in movies or in games). Avatar, if it is about anything above and beyond Cameron’s environmentalism and noble savage cliches, is most definitely about this romance with the virtual. It’s really no accident that in Cinema 2: The Time-Image Gilles Deleuze defines the “virtual image” as being the nature of the cliche: something represented instead of directly perceived, something that bears on our preconceptions about others before our sense of objectivity about them.
The power of the virtual image is the reason for women like The Matrix‘s Trinity, Tron: Legacy‘s Quorra, Avatar‘s Neytiri, Scott Pilgrim‘s Ramona, and all the other latter 20th and early 21st century “video girls,” reaching through the screen to gratify an abstract (usually male) fantasy in an extension of the titular Video Girl Ai of the early 1990s. It is the reason that in updating the Tron franchise, Disney eliminated the only “real” woman of the canon—Lora—and emphasized Olivia Wilde’s walking, talking, fighting, persistently adorable, virtual girl Quorra instead. She is better than real, you see. The Japanese posters in particular seem to make her grin like a live-action anime girl. Offered just a peripheral glance and you might mistake her for a hidden Final Fantasy XIII character, and why not? Virtual, like sex, sells.