Games

The Best Travel Is Hard Travel

The brutality of a world forces me to pay attention to it as I travel, and because of that close attention, I come to see the character of the world.


Dying Light: The Following

Publisher: Techland
Price: $20.00
Developer: Techland
Players: 1-2 players
Release Date: 2016-02-08

The world of Dying Light is harsh, and the world of its expansion, The Following, is even harsher. There’s no fast travel in the expansion, safe zones are few and far between, and there are significantly more Runner zombies than before. When I set out to do a mission, whether it be something major and story-related or it is just a minor collection quest, I gird myself with the knowledge that getting there is going to be tough. It's easy to get overwhelmed. I have to be prepared to run away, to ditch my car for higher ground, and most importantly I have to keep track of the time, lest I be stuck out in the open when night falls and the real monsters come out. I have to be ready for all of this even though I’m fitted out with grenades, powerful weapons, and a wealth of med kits. Yea, the world of Dying Light is harsh, and it makes getting anywhere a pain in the ass. And I love it.

The brutality of the world forces me to pay attention to it as I travel, and because of that close attention, I come to see the character of the world. It stops being a space, an openness that only exists to be passed through, and becomes a place, a location with history and meaning.

Harran is a city in transition, a third-world slum on the verge of modernization. Its architecture portrays a clash of classes: multi-tiered shantytowns built along the hills versus the half-complete steel skyline and a single unfinished tower that sticks out like a broken nail. A highway passes directly over one of the ghettos, casting some huts in a permanent shadow. The densest urban center is Old Town, a place that looks like it was plucked right out of 15th century Renaissance Europe with lots of bell towers, domes, ramparts, and brick and mortar buildings. Even this most modern of towns is old. Hell, it’s even in the name. Harran is a city trying to lift itself out of its poverty. It’s a genuine place meant to aid your immersion and play.

Recently, the east coast team of GiantBomb streamed a bit of Far Cry 2, another game defined by difficult travel: Enemies respawned at checkpoints within seconds of you turning your back, your gun could jam in the middle of a firefight, you could catch malaria, fast travel points were again few and far between, vehicles were rare, walking was slow, and everyone wanted to kill you. The African wilderness wasn’t just harsh, it was brutal.

But that was the point. The game was a variation of Heart of Darkness, cast with mercenaries in Africa hunting each other down. It was a meditation on violence that argued that Africa wasn’t violent because of some inherent quality of the space, but because man brought his violence to that place. The beauty of the land contrasted with the intensity of your survival. You wanted to stop and admire the forest, but your fear of ambush kept you focused elsewhere -- all that beauty, purposefully ignored.

It’s interesting to note that both of these games, Dying Light and Far Cry 2, have relatively few objectives and missions in them -- at least compared to their open world peers. Their maps are not littered with collectibles or minor side-quests. So, at first glance, there seems to be less for us to do things in these spaces than in something like Skyrim. But that’s because these games are designed with difficult travel in mind. They know that it’ll take you a while to get to a mission, and they assume that’s one of the reasons that you’re playing. These games assume that there’s an intrinsic thrill to travel, that moving from point A to point B is a fun quest in and of itself, and that their desire to make travel meaningful helps make their world meaningful.

When I say travel should be difficult, I don’t just mean that we should always be under the threat of death, just that travel should require more thought than simply holding a control stick in a certain direction for a certain amount of time. Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate is a good example of an alternative. I touched on this a while back: Essentially, the grappling hook turns travel into a kind of puzzle as you have to plan your route across the rooftops, and that kind of travel -- with its emphasis on crossing wide streets and climbing chimneys -- helps highlight the industrialization and modernization of London. The challenge of travel lends character to the world.

Far Cry 2 was, and still is, highly criticized for the difficulty of its travel, so it pleases me to see that time has been kind to it, that it has become a critical darling, and that its sentiment toward travel is still alive and well in big budget gaming. Sure, you still get games like Shadow of Mordor, whose open world is the epitome of generic, but there are many more like The Witcher 3 and Metal Gear Solid V -- games that lack easy fast travel and instead emphasize cruising around on a horse.

So, when you play Dying Light and crash your buggy and bail out to retreat on top of a van surrounded by zombies, smashing in their heads and kicking them off as they swarm upwards towards you, frantically attacking and healing and healing and attacking, when this happens, remind yourself that this fight is for a good cause. And when you kick in that last undead face and take a moment to scan the horizon, soaking in the farmland and refinery and blown out bridge and incomplete railway -- all that history and character represented by the environment itself -- then you’ll see for yourself that this world was worth the fight.

Music

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

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(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


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(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

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