Bioware’s sequels don’t follow the usual path of video game sequels. Rather than going “bigger, better, and more badass” and upping the stakes, both Dragon Age II and Mass Effect 2 lower the stakes of the story, and all the attention that would normally have gone into crafting action scenes goes into crafting characters instead. Bioware’s sequels are inherently character driven, more so than their predecessors, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the climax of Mass Effect 2. The suicide mission is a love letter to the game’s characters, even as it kills them off.
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Last month, I wrote a short piece for a PopMatters feature about great games for summer. In it, I praised the newest Mortal Kombat game’s approachable, yet sophisticated fighting system as well as the game’s respect for the series’ roots. Mortal Kombat is a game that wields nostalgia with surprising subtlety. Familiar characters perform trademark moves and spout classic taunts, but nods to the past generally avoid crossing over into the territory of exclusionary in jokes. The game’s violence and camp sensibilities are presented in such a way that communicates the game’s mixture of both the shocking and the silly to new players, just as the original did nearly twenty years ago.
But twenty years is a long time, both in the video game world and in society at large. People change, politics change, and the medium changes. Despite its deference to the past, Mortal Kombat cannot fully recapture the essence of what made the original special for me and a generation of players. This is not necessarily a weakness; many of my fond feelings towards Mortal Kombat are linked to troubling times that I am happy to leave in the past. This is simply a personal story about the role Mortal Kombat played at a specific time in history, at a specific point in my life. As absurd as it might sound, Mortal Kombat was a formative experience for me, both in terms of my relationship to video games and my broader cultural and political identities.
Skinny may be a direct follow up to Thomas Brush’s haunting little flash game, Coma. At least, the game is sprinkled with some secret items that allude to the previous title in the form of an empty bird cage, a fishing hook, and a gravestone.
A direct relationship between the odd adventure of a seemingly comatose boy named Pete whose effort to free his sister from the basement (which comprises the majority of the plot of Coma) and the adventure of a skinny robot tasked with retrieving batteries to sustain human beings that have been jacked into some sort of hallucinatory subsystem by an AI called “Mama” is never made exactly clear in the new game.
And despite the probable near incoherence of the previous summary of the premise of the two games, nevertheless, there are some rather clear thematic parallels between both games, as well as a clear consistency in Brush’s aesthetic more generally.
Note: Mild spoilers ahead.
I seem to be seeing cowboys everywhere.
As I continue to go through Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series (now up to book four, Wizard and Glass), I’m beginning to draw parallels everywhere I look. On that front, it’s difficult to look at Bastion, the latest XBLA darling to join the ranks of Braid and Limbo, and not feel some resonance with the rustic, science-fantasy setting of Dark Tower. Both couch themselves in the mythic post-western of Sergio Leone. Both depict a world that has physically as well as metaphysically come apart at the seams. And both address the inexorable fate of their protagonists.
My full review is still forthcoming, but in the mean time, I’d like to spend today talking a bit about what many would consider the most distinctive part of Bastion—its “dynamic narrator,” Rucks.
The most ostensibly distinct feature of games over other forms of art is the heavy reliance on interactivity. Where the audience of any other artistic work is only symbolically connected to a piece through interpretation or discussion, a game can only progress when the player has their hands on the controller and literally moves the story along. To move the story along, the golden rule is that the protagonist must be somebody that the player would want to be. As a result, most heroes are flawless action stars against a legitimate and unambiguously evil threat (Marcus Fenix of Gears of War), morally neutral until the player makes their decisions for them (Commander Shepard of Mass Effect), or completely silent (Link of The Legend of Zelda). In any case, the purpose is to limit character development or hand developmental authority to the player. But L.A. Noire shows that a more sophisticated character arc can be drawn when authorship of a character is taken away from the player and gamers are forced to play as someone that they wouldn’t want to be.
There is a critical moment in L.A. Noire that seems to divide those that enjoyed the game and those that hated it. At the end of the second chapter, when Cole Phelps is promoted from traffic to homicide, Roy Earle—a sleazy vice detective—takes Phelps out for a congratulatory drink. At this point the player knows that Phelps is a stickler for the rules and that he is an effective and dedicated police officer. His morals are agreeable and his methods are efficient—he is who a player would want to be. But when Earle pushes around and berates a black maitre d’, walks into a drug nest, and assaults a woman, Phelps does nothing.