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This discussion of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West contains major plot spoilers.

Quite a number of games in recent years have dealt with the curious exchange that occurs in gaming between player freedom and the submission to authority required by following a game’s rules.  The most obvious example, of course, is Bioshock with its evident concern with considering how a player blindly submits to the will of the game in order to advance in it.  The infamous “Would you kindly?” twist suggests that player freedom is frequently an illusion in a game, as submission to and trust in the direction given by the game is taken for granted by the player who all too quickly assumes that the game’s “direction” exists to merely help the player learn the ropes, but it doesn’t decide for us along the way what is the right and wrong path.

A similarly unsettling revelation of just how authoritarian “the computer” is in directing the player can be found in Portal, in which that voice that we essentially take for granted, the voice of the tutorial, eventually morphs into the antagonist of the game.  While initially GlaDOS is that familiar teacher who explains how to play the game to the player, the series of test chambers that seem to serve as a tutorial for learning how to solve puzzles through the use of a portal gun soon become deadly traps set by a sadistic AI.  The irony of Portal is that this intimate antagonism between the player and the programming of the game is really not unfamiliar at all.  Portal, both figuratively and literally, exposes what is behind the scenes in most video game experiences, a voice that first wants to support us by teaching us the ropes but then just as quickly wants to stymie our efforts to succeed in completing the game by attempting to “kill” us.

I have written before about the strange intimacy that the player has with GlaDOS, an intimacy that is promoted through the authoritarian and submissive relationship that they share (”An Intimate Moment With the Computer”, PopMatters, 31 March 2010).  However, Alexander Ocias’s Loved takes the metaphor a few steps further by creating a game solely predicated on submitting to or defying the authority of a bodiless “tutor” and allowing this exchange to become a metaphor for being “loved.”  In the universe of Loved, love becomes a concept that is based on power relationships.  The more that the player submits, the more that the game grows easier to deal with.  However, the exchange for this form of “care” is to give up one’s own will to that of the AI.

There is a wonderful xkcd strip where one of Randall Munroe’s famous stick figures (in an effort to console his friend) compares a bad break-up to a video game: “Remember when Aeris died in FFVII? It was sad. But you had to keep playing.”

“Actually,” the friend counters, “I downloaded a mod to add her back to my party.”

Any player of a certain age can recount at least one friend who’s done this, as well as untold other acquaintances that were convinced there was some secret quest or hidden boss that would undo Aeris’s death. Even today, more than 13 years after the game’s release, there are players who keep the faith that there is some way to reverse fate and authorial intent to bring Aeris back. As Munroe’s comic jokes, there are some unsettling implications once we factor the “bargaining” stage of grief into digital media.

This week, the Moving Pixels podcast crew trains their eyes on the direct sequel to Assassin’s Creed II. This time the series returns to the story of the Italian Renaissance era assassin, Ezio. 

However, this time Ezio has made a few new friends.  So, among other aspects of the game, we discuss the “brotherhood” that this new Assassin’s Creed has embraced in both its story and multiplayer options.

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.

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.

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