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Archives for : Game thoughts

Street Fighter 5

Having waited for five months to see how things would turn out, I feel ready to give an opinion on Street Fighter 5 (SFV).

SFV is one of the most disappointing purchases I have ever made, and an insult to fighting game lovers everywhere. They’ve squandered the most-loved fighting game IP/series and almost everything about it has been done better by other games – many of them by smaller teams on smaller budgets, years ago.

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Now I’m a fan of fighting games. I know they’re not particularly sophisticated emotionally (which is kind of what my PhD research is about), but I love the systems in them and I like having something to learn and improve at. So I’ve started getting back into them I preordered SFV (even though I hadn’t registered interest in time for the open-beta which took place in the 6 months or so before release). I was excited about it, but was very soon disappointed.

What I didn’t realise is that there wasn’t an arcade mode to be had in SFV. I cannot think of another fighting game that has ever been released without a single-player arcade mode. What were Capcom thinking?

“Okay, maybe that’s going to be coming out soon in an update.” But several updates have been and gone, including a ‘major’ update for June, which delivered an abysmally atrocious story mode of about 3 hours long.

So why is the lack of arcade mode such a big deal?

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As a casual fighting game player (because I have a life and have lots of other things to do with that life), arcade mode is not a nice to have, it’s a necessity. The online matchmaking is poor and takes forever. As a time-poor adult I don’t want to be waiting round to get into a game, I want it to start RIGHT NOW (I’m already ruing the decision to buy it on disc rather than by download, seeing as it’s also slow in loading into matches). I’m not fusssed about how the computer AI doesn’t react like a human – I’m not good enough to care. Why can’t I also have a computer arcade mode to battle through and feel like I’m achieving something, rather than sporadic bouts vs. humans all the time?

There have been several people online complaining about people like me, essentially saying that I’m not dedicated enough to deserve to be listened to and get what I quite reasonably expected from a modern day AAA release. That SFV isn’t made for ‘dirty casuals’ like me. But Capcom made a great big thing about trying to get new blood into the scene and enlarge the fan base, so I’m amazed that there is next to nothing for people to play, unless you had a regularly committed group of friends who played together and/or were happy to wait/deal with slow connection and laggy servers.

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Add to this, SFV looks like toilet. Graphics are jaggy, colours are over-saturated, animation is janky and hair and necklaces etc. clip through bodies. It’s the standard that you’d expect of a beta, but certainly not a final release at any level. Most indies working on a shoe-string budget release games of better quality than this, graphics wise. Plus it’s made in the Unreal Engine – a top quality engine used by many other developers (large and small) without these glitches. This means that USFIV, made with a custom engine, looks better than SFV made in the UnReal engine – which is far more developed and better-supported.

And what, is going on, with all the boobs and sexualisation?! Isn’t that the only reason why Dead or Alive exists?! If you want your game to appeal to more people, don’t turn half of them off with appalling representation of women.

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Now, there is something good about SFV – the new V-system, which replaces the overly complicated system of Focus Attacks etc. from Ultra Street Fighter 4 (USFIV) is really good. It’s simpler, easier to get to grips with, and the differing V-system for each character makes each of them more nuanced and different to each other, which is good. I also think the reduced cast helps with this – it’s not overwhelming and there are fewer characters to learn how to play as or against.

But there’s nothing there to help me learn it. There’s no tutorials on each character, there’s nothing there to tell me how each character’s V-Skill work. There’s nothing on how fighting games work – nothing on anti-airs and when to use them, footsies (which is more important in this version), strategy, what to do when you’re in a corner. Nothing on fighting game grammar at all. Why? BlazBlue has had detailed guides to all aspects of its games for years, as has Skullgirls (a small team with a much smaller budget), and Guilty Gear Xrd (and possibly Guilty Gear XX before it, I wouldn’t know though).

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So whilst the systems are good, the lack of arcade mode is unforgivable and the rubbish internet play (which is meant to replace the lacking single-player component) is no fun to deal with. The production values are woeful, the story mode is tragic and a waste of time – it makes me think they cannot have possibly played a NetherRealm game like Mortal Kombat 9 (2011), Injustice (2013) or Mortal Kombat X (2015), nevermind the BlazBlue or Guilty Gear series – both having done an in-depth story mode for YEARS. There is no tutorial or way to help you get to grips with the game, meaning that the only people playing it are the die-hard fans with too much time on their hands, in a genre that is already very niche.

I tried out Guilty Gear Xrd Sign (yeah, the old one that’s over 2 years old) the other day. Picked it up for £15. Ten times the fun of SFV, with in-depth story modes, tutorials, character and strategy explanations, not to mention more interesting character designs that are more fun and varied to play. Now GG Xrd is more complicated systems wise, but you don’t have to use all those systems all the time. Anyway, the latest one – Revelator, has introduced a system where easy of pulling off combos is balanced against health – meaning that everyone, regardless of experience is on a more level playing field. This is by a smaller developer with a far more niche IP and less budget.

Capcom should try playing it.

The Novelist

Definitely one of the most thought provoking games I’ve played in a long time.

I picked up the Novelist of a recommendation from a friend, not knowing a great deal about it other than the fact that it looked quite different.

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The Novelist casts you as a ghost that haunts a house. Over the summer, there is a family of 3 (Mum, Dad (the titular novelist) and their son) that stays there in order to solve a number of problems. Dad (Dan, the titular novelist) is struggling with writers block and hopes the retreat will help him finsh writing his latest novel, Mum (Linda) is an aspiring artist and worries about the state of their marraige and contemplates leaving Dan, and their son (Tommy) is having trouble adjusting at school and is needy of his Dad’s attention.

Each chapter of the game (there are nine) introduces a dilemma, from which you can choose 1 of 3 outcomes which will favour one of the character’s wishes over the other two (although the decisions are always from Dan’s perspective and what he does). For example, will Dan work on his novel tonight, spend time with his wife or spend the evening building a car with his son? You can also choose to compromise, choosing to half-implement 2 solutions (e.g. work a bit on the book and then hang out with your wife etc.). All of your decisions will make a difference to the shaping of the narrative and the conclusion of the game.

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Gameplay consists of two phases. Your days are spent searching round the house for objects, reading the families thoughts and entering their recent memories to look for clues as to the possible outcomes to the dilemma in question. After you’ve chosen a particular outcome, you enter night time where you can look for clues from the past of the house and make a compromise if you so wish. This brings a nice variation and rhythm to the game, since there are no real puzzle elements to be had and the location never changes from the same small house. Two modes – stealth and story, add an interesting extra layer to things. In stealth mode you can be seen by the Kaplan family, and if you are spotted you will spook them and not be able to choose that family member’s preferred outcome. This makes you think a little differently about moving around the house – instead of just walking round with abandon, you are forced to use the lights (which can be possessed and act as a fast travel system) a lot more to sneak up behind family members to read thier memories and find objects.

But the games hook comes not from these gameplay elements, but from the choices that you make. It may well be light on mechanics, but it uses those few mechanics to great effect. Every choice to do something necessarily means that some things don’t get done, and the other two will be upset. Even if you do make a compromise, it will of course never be the same as if you’d chosen their outcome completely, making you wonder whether it’s worth compromising at all.

You can never actually win at this ‘game’. In the Novelist you can’t work it so that all 3 family members are 100% happy – you just have to think about whether the compromises you made were worth it. Do you put your work first and let your marraige suffer and spend less time helping your child grow and develop? Or do you bury your own ambitions to support those of your spouse and spend more time with your child, to the detriment of yourself and your dreams? Or lavish all your attention on your child to the detriment of both yourself and your partner?

As a working (well, studying, but studying full-time and then some!) father of a young child with a wife, this game really resonated with me and mirrored many of the basic life choices that I have to make, and just how difficult those can be. Subsequently, this is one of the most emotionally evocative games I’ve played in a while, and it achieves this with grace and subtlety that many other titles could learn from.

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As I was playing I noticed many other clever development decisions that I really respect. The developer (Kevin Hudson) has really kept the scope of this game down in sticking to one small location to use for the whole game, and it’s shows in his skill how that location never becomes boring. The art style is basic yet more than enough and carefully selected pieces of environmental narrative are just enough to fill in what’s going on and how everyone feels (Tommy’s crayon drawings being particularly poignant here). Sound is minimal but enough to create the bleak atmosphere the game needs (you are a ghost after all!). The only major problem is that the voice actor for Linda is pretty poor – bland, almost monotone delivery does do damage to an otherwise well-written game, and thankfully the voice actor for Dan is much better. Strange that there was never a voice actor for Tommy though.

It just goes to show just how powerful and engaging games can be on a wide range of topics, and that you don’t need a massive team in order to do it. This is one man’s creation that speaks to the timeless dilemma of choosing your priorities carefully, and the juggling act that goes with it.

Ether One

Ether One

A first-person experience game about memory loss and dementia.

Ether One has been a game that’s been on my ‘to play’ list for a while now. I somehow picked it up in a bundle somewhere for PC, and so later on got the Redux version, but I only got round to playing it recently on my PS4 because I’d got it with my PS Plus subscription (still one of best value offerings in gaming I think!).

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The premise is simple, on the surface at least. You are a ‘restorer’ – someone who works for a company called Ether One who projects themselves into people’s minds to help discover and restore old memories and remove amyloid plaques that cause dementia. All this is done in an abstraction of the patients mind, and so you end up walking through a kind of alternative-reality reconstruction of locations they’re familiar with, populated by objects which don’t belong there but are connected to the patient. In practice, in terms of gameplay, this means walking through an off-kilter reconstruction of the town of Pinwheel in Cornwall (apparently), interacting with objects, reading notes left around and collecting ribbons which represent the patients memories. All the while you are ‘accompanied’ by the voice of Phyllis – a researcher back in the real world who comments on your actions and provides guidance and context for what is happening. To an extent you can think of her as a sort of ‘unaware narrator’.

Ether One is interesting – there’s very little context and intro given and many basic questions are still unclear in my mind. For instance, your identity as a restorer is unclear. I normally like this kind of thing, but in some places I’m not entirely sure whether those gaps are intentional or because they haven’t been communicated properly. Regardless, this is a game that has be thinking a lot about it well after I’ve finished playing – if only because it looked like I had another 25% of game area to explore and then the end of the game happened! It has plenty of well-hidden surprises that are revealed in a gentle fashion and, unusually, are there for you to discover or not.

For a game where you can’t actually do a great deal, Ether One offers you more control over your gaming experience than many other titles would have you believe. At base level, you can just race through the game and collect the red ribbons which represent lost memories. But to do this would miss the point – the game allows you to do this, but beckons you to explore further. For instance, there is another world (1 of 4) to explore from the hub location in the game, and yet the game ended (and quite suddenly, to be fair – the pacing doesn’t pre-empt the conclusion very well). Several notes are scattered around to be read which really do provide a lot of context and so if you didn’t take the time to read these you’d be totally in the dark about what is going on. But of course, this all seems very well orchestrated to convey the feeling of being lost within one’s own mind, and you do feel that way. The more you dig, the more you find, but progress is slow and sparse and this aspect does a grand job of conveying it’s source material.

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Such agency in determining how you might feel coming away from the game is unusual, but what a shame that so much of that extra content is hidden behind some of the most infuriating puzzles that I’ve played in a long time. Several puzzles require you to have notebook in real life handy; this is despite the provision of what is purported to be a kind of ‘in-game notekeeper’ in the game. It remembers some objects for you, but not the codes and details that are often needed to unlock doors, safes and locations needed to access the other quarter of the game I refer to above. This in and of itself is not a major problem, but some objects are a little too well hidden and without an in-game map helping you to orientate the large and sprawling environments it becomes difficult to remember where you have and haven’t been. Of course, this might well be intended – I certainly did feel disorientated throughout much of the game and found myself going round in circles whilst trying to find an elusive solution to a puzzle to unlock optional memories (called projectors in this game – they’re kind of like the audio tapes you get in Bioshock but you have to work HARD to get them!), but again I’m not sure if this was intentional or a design oversight. The puzzles that I did manage to solve fit well into the world and into the narrative – they were great actually, but the vast majority of solutions are so obscure that most of the extra memories in my game were left untouched. I’m keen to go back and solve them to fill in the blanks in the games narrative, but I feel it would be impossible without either using a walkthrough or spending HOURS banging my head against a brick wall (as a father with a young child and a PhD student, time is not something I am blessed with an abundance of!).

The other major thing that I feel is worth mentioning with Ether One is that I cannot for the life of me see why they felt an HD remake with Unreal Engine 4 was necessary for the PS4 and the ‘Ether One: Redux’ version on the PC. This game looks artistically fine, but it’s hardly what you would use to show off the graphical capabilities of your PS4 or your new graphics card in your PC. There is very little in the way of snazzy particle effects and even the water looks like it was done several years ago. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the graphics – although there was no particular time when I thought, “Wow!”. I liked them on an artistic-level with their bold painterly colours, just not from a technical stand-point.

Of course, I don’t feel that graphics are that important (within reason) in this kind of game – Ether One certainly isn’t affected by it, but I struggle to understand how the UE4 version of the game looks any different from the UE3 version. This could have been effort used elsewhere.

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In summary, Ether One is most definitely worth a play – even if it has it’s most frustrating oversights. You’re unlikely to find everything on your first playthrough, and I’d encourage you to dig further than just collecting the memories required to progress. But for a game of such limited mechanics the cognitive possibility space is really quite large and it does a great job of conveying the feel for its subject matter and doesn’t just tell you about it. For all of its flaws, there is A LOT to be learned here.

Beyond Eyes

Beyond Eyes

This was a genuinely different and affecting game, and well worth a play by anyone who looks for more than the latest high-octane FPS. Whilst not without its faults, this is a really good look at how we can use mechanics in games to increase their emotional range.

You play the part of a young girl who loses her sight in a bonfire accident. Some time later, a cat starts to visit her regularly and they become friends. Then, one day, the cat doesn’t come back. Even though Rae (the player character) is scared to leave the safety of her garden, she’s so worried about her friend that she feels she must find out what’s happened to her.

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It’s a premise, but one that’s easy to relate to and that plays on the child-like innocence that forms the core of the mechanics and narrative of the game. Movement is simple – use the stick to move around and then press an action button to interact every now and again. In essence, a third-person ‘walking simulator’. But the world only reveals itself (in a beautiful, painterly fashion) when it makes sounds and smells, meaning that the player often has to walk into a pure blank white expanse of nothing with little knowledge of what’s there, hoping that they’ll find something significant or be going the wrong way. Once you’ve passed through, the world fades away again as you ‘forget’ exactly what was there.

An interesting twist on this, from time to time, is that not everything is as it seems – what Rae thinks she hears, and what is actually there can sometimes be radically different, and this is used to great effect throughout Rae’s short journey through her local neighborhood (the game takes about 2-3 hours on average, although I took much longer – see below!). Without wanting to spoil the surprise for the reader, I can vouch that there are some interesting and touching surprises in store using this device.

Not only are there surprises, but there are several things that Rae – as a young, delicate child who’s unsure of her surroundings, finds scary and difficult to deal with. These things often form barriers to progress (such as dogs barking, or a flock of seagulls that she can’t perceive quite 100%) and whilst simple, they mesh together with the narrative and back story so well that you don’t really mind.

And so the game is a journey of a young girl’s courage to overcome her limitations and fears in order to find her feline friend. That this takes place in such an average everyday setting only makes it all the more touching – you really have a chance to experience how Rae feels as she explores the surrounding town’s streets – both her fears and her joy found in simple things.

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The slow pace of the game suits the subject matter, but I would have liked an option to move slightly faster – traversal at points was often laborious and felt unnecessary. However, it’s difficult to see how this could have been achieved – there’s no way a blind, timid young girl would do anything else other than step cautiously through an environment that she doesn’t recognise very well. This was compounded in one particular section for me – on a pier, where I spent ages walking around in circles, unable to find an object that I needed to solve one of the sparse puzzles in the game. This quickly became frustrating – I was lost for about 45 minutes! A little more variety in the environment of that section would have made things a lot easier for me.

Ultimately though, I feel I learned a lot having played Beyond Eyes. It allowed me to empathise with the fears and thoughts of a young child caught in a world that they can no longer fully comprehend, and it used simple and elegant devices to show just how much more we can achieve with video games with what we’ve already got, without any need for hi-res textures, particles effects and virtual reality.

Hitman Go!

I was never a huge fan of the Hitman games on console. I tried to play Hitman 2, didn’t get very far. I just found it too tense and it didn’t suit my preferred way of playing – which is just to get on with it and start a fire-fight. I was never one for just creeping around the shadows and holding my breath for ages to see if I got discovered. Not to mention the myriad of systems and occasions when I was detected with absolutely no idea why (in disguise, walking normally, no weapons out – what’s the problem?!). I’ve had Hitman Absolution on my PS3 hard drive for a long time and still haven’t really made any effor to engage with it. It’s safe to say it’s not my kind of game.

I’d heard from a few different quarters how good Hitman Go! (an adaptation for mobile made by a small studio within Square Enix in Unity) was and it didn’t really matter what you though of the original – it was still worth playing. So I investigated.

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Hitman Go! is what happens when you ask someone to reimagine Hitman as a turn-based grid-movement puzzle game with visuals that kind of remind me of the old football board game of Subutteo. The only controls you use are swipe controls to go up, down, left and right. There are no action controls at all.

This works surprisingly well. There is a limited map of nodes and grid lines that connect them which restrict your movement, and this board is set amongst some nicely rendered scenery that feels like a cross between a boardgame and a dolls house. Moving, or looking around, the same board are a series of different guard types with different behaviours – some just move constantly and attack you when they move into the same space, some only attack you if they see you. There are also your other ‘Hitman staples’ such as keys to open specific doors (not that they’re peculiar to Hitman, but still!) disguises to put on to get past certain enemies and manhole covers to shortcut from one location to another. The game introduces a few more functions after that, but not many and not any that are very complex.

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Out of this ultra-stripped down simplicity though, Hitman Go! still manages to feel very much like a Hitman game. It’s an amazing piece of design that manages to completely change the game, and yet still retain the core parts of the identity of the original. The basic actions of the game are still there (kill guard, sneak past another, wear a disguise to get past certain people, attempt to complete a level without killing anyone etc.) but wrapped up in an ultra-simple interface and a small but carefully curated set of game systems which never bamboozle with options but allow real depth and variety. It honestly would be really good to see more mobile adaptations of console IP done this well – where there’s been careful thought put into what really identifies the series as unique, and then adapting that to what’s most appropriate for the platform (in this case simple swipes on a touch screen).

In addition to Hitman Go!, SquareEnix also followed up the critical acclaim with Lara Croft Go! which apparently builds on the same foundational strengths but without just being a reskin of Hitman Go!. I’ve got the Lara Croft one but have yet to play it, but look forward to doing so.

It’s interesting to see what other adaptations this inspires though – there are many IPs that could benefit from this ‘reimagining as a board game’ kind of exercise. If Hitman can do it, it’s not exactly a big step to imagine SquareEnix putting out an Assassin’s Creed Go! or Deus Ex Go! in the near future, not to mention any other triple-A IPs that other companies produce…Gears of War Go!? The Walking Dead…Gone! anyone?

Thirty Flights of Loving

Thirty Flights of Loving

So I’ve had this game on my hard drive for a long time. Most likely I bought it as part of a bundle where I was more interested in another game on offer, or I bought it during a steam sale where it was ridiculously cheap and, being a game that people have talked about a fair bit, I thought I’d nab it then and there. And then forget about it.

But in an effort to try and play some of the many unloved games in my Steam collection the other day, I decided to click on and load this. To be honest, if I’d known it was so short, I most definitely would have played it earlier!

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(side note: this highlights the use of a feature in Big Picture mode (which I access via my Steam Link) which pulls up games you haven’t played or haven’t played for a long time – it’s useful. Our collections are so big these days that I’m sure I’m not the only one to forget what I have and haven’t got in there.)

So Thirty Flights of Loving (TFOL) is a very short (about 15-20 minutes max) 1st person adventure game which, crucially, uses fragmented narrative and unusual story-telling devices to tell the story of a trio of criminals attempting to pull off a heist of some sort. If you’re looking for high-quality shaders and super-realistic animation, you have most definitely come to the wrong place!

Instead the developer (Brendan Cheung with Blendo Games) has opted for very lo-fi models and textures, as well as a very old engine (it’s made in the idTech2 engine – the engine use to create Quake II, and then opensourced in 2001…that’s a LONG time ago!).

These in and of themselves make for interesting choices. I often talk about how the video games industry’s tech arms race has kind of gimped it creatively in many other ways – we never stop to make proper use of what we have already. What I mean is, rather than exploring all the creative and expressive possibilities of the tools at hand (and which we have only just started to scrape the surface of with games), as an industry we have just been solely focused on more polygons, more textures, better lighting effects etc. More ‘wow!’, more spectacle and awe, but not necessarily more expression.

So TFOL is interesting for these reasons and more. It kind of jars with you because so many of the gaming conventions that we’re used to are dispensed with. This is a kind of ‘formal complicit’ (to use Brian Schrenk’s nomenclature) avant-garde video game, because it forces us to re-examine how we interact with video games and what we expect of them when we come to play them. Dialogue is dispensed with and all story is environmental, narrative is non-sequential and sewn together with smash cuts (quick changes between scenes of radically different natures), montages and unexplained time-skips.

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At first I found it kind of annoying, and I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. Playing it through again with the developer’s commentary turned on helps alot in attempting to understand what was going on and what the context of everything that went on was. Eventually, as I’ve thought about it, there is so much here to think about and experiment with for future games, it’s a shame that it’s obviously passed many game-makers by. I can’t think of any other games that may have taken inspiration from it – save for, perhaps, the sublime Stanley Parable. Yes, the mechanics are almost non-existent, but this is kind of the walking simulator that existed before walking simulators existed – and so it’s the narrative and experimentation with presentation of the story that is key here.

I really should have played it a lot earlier than I did!

The Stanley Parable

Messing with your head since, like, 5 minutes ago, I think…

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It’s taken me a long time, but I finally got round to playing The Stanley Parable. How I made it this far without someone inadvertently spoiling it for me was always a mystery – although I now know that this would have been impossible, in a sense.

(having said all that, I won’t be paying you the courtesy, reader, of no spoilers! You have been warned!)

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Stanley Parable doesn’t really have an end. It obviously has a start, but thereafter there are all sorts of different endings that could happen, and they all cascade and rework into each other. It’s quite brilliant and mind-bending in an altogether different kind of way.

There’s nothing difficult about the controls here – just standard FPS controls where you look and walk around and a button to jump and a button to use an object. It’s rare that the jump is of any importance (although it is required in a handful of sections), although you do push the occasional button or lever.

So yes, it’s a walking simulator (but that’s okay for me – I love walking simulators!).

The Stanley Parable continually asks the question, “Who is in control?” It interrogates, pokes fun at and rips apart the ‘gamers’ fallacy’ – that they are in control and have agency, and comes to no definite conclusion. There is a constant struggle between the wishes of the player and the Narrator.

Many might argue that The Stanley Parable is not a game. That would be stupid, but many will think that. And yet, The Stanley Parable itself would almost argue with you that it isn’t a game. The Narrator is constantly questioning the nature of his own existence (as well as the role and existence of the player in the game world) and there has rarely been a game that is so gloriously self-aware. The fourth wall was never really there to begin with in this game! In another title it may come across as hammy and clumsily done (Metal Gear Solid, anyone?) but the writing and the voice acting in this game is so well done – it’s hilarious, sophisticated and subtly delivered.

There is also no end. The game restarts so often (on purpose I might add, not through glitches and bugs) that the end never really presents itself. There are, however 19 different endings to be found throughout the game as well as several ‘easter eggs’ for those willing to experiment and explore (although I used a guide to find the 5 or so that I hadn’t found myself).

Altogether, The Stanley Parable makes you think about games in a new way entirely. It exposes the main conceit in many games that it is not us, the players, who are in control, but the game itself. However, the game cannot exist without the actions of the player, and so we are thrust into a kind of diegetic existential paradox. Without the player a game cannot exist – it is their choices which drive the story and the game experience (and this is what the Stanley Parable focuses on in various parts of the game). But without the designer there would be nothing to choose and no world to act in. The Stanley Parable highlights this intense and little-understood dance between the player and the designer, and the uneasy and unconscious collaboration that creates a game. Even it is just choosing which door to walk through.

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Many people associate the term ‘parable’ with the stories of Jesus Christ as detailed in the New Testament, but a parable is actually a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson, or universal truth – which is by no means confined just to the folklore of Christendom nor of religion. It’s a kind of elongated analogy, in a way, that is made to be read into and interpreted in different ways – depending on the audience and the context.

The Stanley Parable is true to it’s title in part. Indeed it is a short story that is, on the face of it, straightforward enough. But it’s the way that the short story is played with and negotiated with the player, in the way that only games can do, that makes it deep and important. Just when you think you have one over on the game, it’s one step ahead of you. But then, how could it be one step ahead of you unless you yourself had taken those first steps?

But it’s not a parable about Stanley. Not really anyway. It’s a parable about the player, and it’s a parable about games in general. It’s a parable about the way we play them, the way we experience them, and the lies we tell ourselves when we play them. To think about what The Stanley Parable is telling us, is to pull back the curtain and confront the things we always suspected were there, but were just a little too nervous to really look at.

Persona 4 Golden thoughts

Now this is a game that I wasn’t traditionally drawn to, but I’ve heard so many people bleating on about how good it is and how amazing that it’s come out for the PS Vita, that when it went on sale a while ago on PSN I decided to grab it.

For those of you unaware, P4G is a Japanese RPG that originally came out on the PS2 in 2008/2009 and was remade for the PS Vita and released as P4G in 2014.

It features many of the tropes of JRPGs – turn-based combat, lengthy conversations to sit through, endless small increments in statistics and levelling up. To this day I still can’t work out why everyone raves about it so much.

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Combat is a fairly boring affair – it’s simply a matter of experimenting with different moves to find your opponents weakness (to one or more of various elements) and then using the same move all the time – there’s not a lot of strategy and thinking to it. Once you’ve found the weak spot of an opponent, that’s it – predictable and easy (unless you don’t have the power required of course, in which case you just come back later).

Dungeons are endless corridors with creatures to fight in them. The individual design of some of them is pretty cool, but once you’ve seen the same one 50 times, and it’s cousin (who’s got the same look but with a different colour) 100 times the appeal wears off. They’re always a trudge, and I’m sorry but I simply can’t share the characters enthusiasm when they level up.

Which brings us to what Persona is meant to be good at – the characters. Whilst I enjoyed some of the writing and some of the characters are interesting, the other more boring parts of the game get in the way and totally disrupt any momentum that the dialogue and story might generate. It’s great to see the inclusion of a tough-guy biker who’s gay (well, it’s HEAVILY suggested, though never confirmed) because he’s interesting, but the other characters conform to stereotypes pretty rigidly and are pretty dull. There’s the bumbling boy trying to be cool and impress girls, there’s the meek shy girl with hidden depths, there’s the cocky and aggressive girl, there’s the studious and easily embarassed girl…and so on.

I could understand if more recent reviews said, “Hey Persona 4 Golden is worth playing for the nostalgia, but it hasn’t aged well”, but that’s not the case! To be fair, it looks like lots of people rate this highly just because of the sheer volume of content available – something which I don’t regard as a positive feature necessarily, but others talk about how endearing the characters are. If this is amongst the best that we have to offer from videogames in terms of character and narrative, then we are in a bad situation indeed.

The Last of Us review

The Last of Us is a great gameplay experience, but is it as revolutionary as some might have you believe?

I really enjoyed the Last of Us. From the very start the graphics and environmental design was breath-taking – more so because of the art direction rather than the sheer technical details of it (although those were also very good). Lighting in particular helps highlight a lot of the best locations.

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The animation as well is used to great effect – not just the facial digital acting (which, apparently, was all key-framed), but the body movements and actions. Joel (the player character) feels older and a bit more sluggish than your average nimble footed hero, albeit he is still a rugged and powerful figure. It complements his character well.

So it’s the characters that people have raved about in The Last of Us. It has to be said – they’re very well written. The cut-scenes are well done and the incidental dialogue that’s triggered as you move through the world (where the occasional important point is highlighted in the environmental) all help to build well-fleshed out characters with complex backgrounds and motives. I genuinely enjoyed the story between Joel and Ellie – especially as it went from being a straight-forward ‘quest’ of ‘deliver the girl’ and then went on to become the story of a developing father-child kind of relationship. The other major beats – meeting Joel’s brother where he must confront his past, Ellie being captured and escaping by a cannibal group of survivors, were good as well.

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There was SO much to like about it actually. The stealth mechanics worked well – the visualisation of Joel’s listening was nice and stealth kills were satisfying when they went well. Pacing was good in the main, although there were some very frustrating difficulty spikes that made me almost stop playing at a few points. The sound is wonderful and the soundtrack is outstanding. The scarcity of resources worked well – it engineered that natural desire to scavenge in order to survive in a way that Bioshock never quite did – especially Bioshock Infinite.

But, at the end of the day, I was playing a stealth game against zombies and feral humans. Although it is so much more than that, that’s what the initial premise of the game was, and in a strange way it’s disappointing that they got so much right, but in a fairly pedestrian and boring setting. In fact, although the desperation of mankind in a zombie apocalypse was a necessary pre-condition for many of the events, I sometimes (though not always) felt as though the combat and stealth got in the way of what was best about the game.

I’m not convinced that the Last of Us is particularly revolutionary, but it’s very polished and what’s apparent in this game over many others is the attention paid to the details in the relationship between Joel and Ellie and, in particular, the world in which that relationship develops. I had several moments of shock, horror, or revulsion from the environmental storytelling –  more so than the main story narrative. A message left very neatly in someone’s own blood asking forgiveness for what they’ve done, a tombstone of the ‘wrong size’.

So it’s not quite a revolution, but it does everything that others have tried to do a whole lot better than before. And yeah, it’s about zombies, but the beauty is in the details. The Last of Us reminded me of one of the things that games do really well which no other media/art form can do, which is to leave those details for you to find and leave it to you to piece together events and to come to your own realisation of what’s happened.

All that remains now is for the games industry to have its own realisation about what this medium really can do.

DMC: Devil May Cry review

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If you’re going to reboot a well-loved long-running franchise that’s never been developed outside of its home country, then make damn sure you get it right.

I think Cambridge-based Ninja Theory did actually.

The game has a strong opening with a boss battle that erupts across a pier and hell within the first 10 minutes with tons of destructible scenery and kick-ass, debonair attitude from Dante – the main player character.

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This excellent character design extends to the rest of the production. Ninja have done a good job on Dante – his character itself is one of the cornerstones of the franchise and whilst they’ve made some changes to him psychologically and physically (most pertinently, where’s his white hair?!) he still exude the cocky swagger and blasé attitude that we’ve come to know and love. The visual design and variety of the demons (another cornerstone of what makes Devil May Cry what it is) that Dante has to fight is of excellent quality, although this is something you can come to count on Ninja Theory for. You can always depend on solid animation, art and digital acting in cutscenes, and this does nothing to buck the trend.

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The action is the final pillar of the franchise, and I’m impressed with that they’ve done here. The combat and in particular the combo system is one of the main pleasures of the franchise and they’ve retained the core elements of sword and gunplay but then provided extra potential for variety and lengthening combos in the form of the demon/angel weapons systems. Here you use the L2/R2 or trigger buttons to hot-switch to a different weapon mid-combo, meaning that you can wield 4 weapons at once – one angel, one demon, one gun and your trusty mainstay sword Rebellion. The number of combos is mind-boggling and, crucially, fun to play with.

There’s never much exploration to be had as such in DMC, but your navigation around the environment feels tight and there’s the occasional environmental puzzle to solve as you work out how to use your new air dash (available from the outset rather than an un-lockable) and whip grapple manoeuvres. The level design however has some great moments where it deviates from the standard (and slightly samey at points) setting in limbo (a hellish tinged version of our world). For me, the sudden change to a neon-electro nightclub and a virtual reality inspired theme from within a TV station left a strong impression.

DMC: Devil May Cry keeps the core features of DMC and iterates on them well. The debonair Dante, complex combat and over the top action are present and correct and better. Considering that this is first time the series has been developed outside of Japan it’s a fantastic achievement that they captured so much about that Japanese original that made it special, and is a very entertaining experience.