Persona 5 Strikers Steals… My… Heart (okay it doesn’t quite work this time around)

Oh, Persona 5. What is left to say about you? I’ve confessed my love for that game before, and I will probably continue to do so until my mind begins to slip and I forget the people and things that mean the most to me. Actually, I doubt I’ll stop even then. Someone like my sister will be visiting me in a care facility, and she’ll be like “It’s me, Joey. Christy. Do you remember me?” And I’ll be like “Eh? Who’s that? Is that you, Morgana? Turn into a freaky cat truck so we can get back to grinding XP.”

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch. But I do love the Persona games. A lot. Persona 5, in particular. So when I heard about Persona 5 Scramble, as it was called before the name changed to Strikers, I… wasn’t as excited as you might have guessed. I mean, I was somewhat excited, because give me Persona-anything at this point and I’ll be happy. I played and loved all three dancing games, for example. But if you’d asked me in 2017 what I wanted from the P-Studio team, it would not have been a “Dynasty Warriors Persona game.” What I’ve played of those types of games, musou games, is limited, I confess. I’ve played a couple of demos and I rented one of the earliest Dynasty Warriors games but bounced off of it. If you tell me a team is making a “musou-style game” with an existing IP, what I imagine is the assets (characters, environments, music) of the original IP slapped onto the 1-vs-100 battles of a Dynasty Warriors game and, well, that’s about it. There might be a story, told in brief cut scenes or in-battle dialogue segments, but the focus of a game like that is the fighting. That, to my understanding, is what draws fans of those games to that series.

I don’t have anything against that kind of combat in games, but it’s not really my thing. So when the playfully teased “Persona 5 S” turned out to be Persona 5 Scramble, a musou-style game, I was definitely excited to have more P5, but I couldn’t help but to be disappointed that we weren’t getting a “true” P5 sequel, or even Persona 6, or a remake of Persona 3. I knew I was going to buy Strikers at release and play it, but my expectations were pretty low.

Joey. You silly, silly boy. How wrong you were. Well, in my defense, I think the above explanation justifies my mild apprehension toward this game. It’s not that I was dreading it or anything. I just wasn’t expecting it to be much in the way of a real sequel to P5. I was expecting to plod through the combat, basking in the occasional injection of colorful dialogue from the characters I’d come to know and love. But, as I said, I was so very wrong.

Persona 5 Strikers should really be called something like Persona 5.5 or, less seriously still, Persona 5 2. Or, you know what? Persona 5 Summer Blast or something along those lines would have worked perfectly. Between the name and the pre-release marketing, the focus on the new combat system really distracted from what this game really is, which is a direct sequel to Persona 5. The story follows the exploits of our beloved Phantom Thieves during the summer after the previous game’s story ends. So much of the game is the same that it feels like a real sequel in many ways. The Metaverse still exists, and just as in P5, the team enters dungeons (now called Prisons instead of Palaces) to battle shadows and take down powerful bosses/”Monarchs.” After each Prison is successfully infiltrated, the Thieves regroup and move onto the next, all the while uncovering the mystery of who is behind it all.

So, in structure and narrative, the game is absolutely a direct sequel to P5. It doesn’t have the calendar system, where you have to manage your time and can only perform a certain number of actions in a day – which makes sense, because much of that system is centered around the idea that the protagonists are students who have to balance their school life with their extracurricular, paranormal activities, while in this game they are on summer vacation and there is no fall term to worry about (for the player, anyway). While that’s a welcome omission, this game is also missing the social link/friendship/dating mechanic of P5, which is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you don’t have to worry about who to spend your time with and making sure you level up everyone so that you can unlock certain Persona fusions. A curse because that is one of my favorite aspects of the core games.

What really make this game feel so familiar and like a direct, full sequel, however, are the art and the voice acting. New levels and characters fit right into the P5 universe, which I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised about, but I guess I was expecting Koei Tecmo to be handling more of the game than just the combat systems. Everything outside of combat feels like it was made by the same team(s) who made P5. The art is stylish, the menus are dynamic and fun, and the dialogue sounds exactly as it should. All of the excellent voice actors from P5 return as well, which is a critical part of making this game feel like a warm, welcoming cup of hot cocoa. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time with P5 but I was so smitten with the performances of all of the voice talent involved, more so than any other game I’ve ever played. Halfway through my playthrough of that game, I found myself searching for the actors on IMDb, finding and following them on Twitter, and getting so excited when I’d hear them in a different game or anime. They brought the same charm and talent to Strikers, and I’ve once again loved every moment of hearing Max Mittelman (Ryuji) exclaim “for real!?” or Cassandra Lee Morris (Morgana) swoon over Erika Harlacher’s Lady Ann. My favorite short quip comes from the amazing Erica Lindbeck, though. It’s a very simple, small line, and she chirps it when you pick up a piece of loot in the prison: “Meh. I give it a 5 out of 10.”

Okay, so the game wasn’t the vehicle for non-stop musou combat with a sprinkle of story that I expected it to be, which is great. But let’s talk about the combat, because I was also pleasantly surprised by how much I liked that, too. In the previously mentioned musou games I dabbled with, there are waves after waves of enemies that surround you, and I was usually very easily able to get by with learning one or two simple combos and button mashing. While that is true, in essence, here, there are seemingly far fewer enemies, probably because P5’s elemental weakness/”All Out attack” return, and with them comes the opportunity for slightly more complex, strategic combat. It might sound convoluted, but I quickly and easily found a rhythm of scanning for weaknesses, attacking with Personas, taking advantage of environmental attack points, throwing in a few physical strike combos, and tagging teammates to increase Showtime meters (which are carried over from Persona 5 Royal). I got into trouble a couple of times early on, but once I found this rhythm I never struggled with any of the Monarchs or even the very difficult Dire Shadows (once I was appropriately leveled, of course). While I do still prefer turn-based combat, I ended up really liking this system, too.

I feel like I’m doing that line-by-line, clinical thing, but my love for this game and the other Persona games goes deeper than stunning art and excellent voice acting. The confluence of elements that make up these games creates a feeling that this world, these characters are real and I feel welcomed among them. Early in the game, I was happy to bounce around familiar settings from P5, but as soon as an RV camper was introduced and I was told I’d be going on a summer road trip all around Japan with my friends, I felt that warm and fuzzy feeling that I’ve come to know so well. Yes, the combat is great, but I was with my friends, and my favorite moments ended up being things like our time on the beach, or our many adventures with food, or any number of smaller, personal moments. Riding the Ferris wheel in Sapporo with Ann. Watching the fireworks with the whole gang, including the new, absolutely adorable Sophia. This entry, whatever the gameplay is, was just another excuse for me to hang out with my old, virtual friends. And I was 100% here for it.

I’m currently finishing up the platinum trophy, but there is one trophy that requires an ungodly amount of grinding for Bond points. Why does Atlus insist on always having at least one pain-in-the-ass trophy? The good news is that the music is, of course, bangin’, so I’ll just enjoy the amazing soundtrack while I grind these last hours away. I really loved my time with Strikers, and the steady release of Persona content since P5 (Royal, Dancing in Starlight/Moonlight, Persona Q 2, and now Strikers) has really kept me happy while awaiting news of the next mainline game. I fully plan on watching the anime for all three Persona games this summer, too. I’m glad that Atlus is dedicated to producing content outside of the core games, because it gives fans more time with the characters they love. As much as I am looking forward to Persona 6, I will be sad to leave my P5 friends behind, so having anime, manga, etc. to help me extend our time together is wonderful. Atlus has built up enough trust with me that I feel confident I will love P6, though, so as Futaba would say: “Bring on the buffs!” Er, “bring on the sequel!”

Video Game Crushes: Ann Takamaki

I am fairly deep into Persona 5 Strikers right now, and although I’ll probably dedicate a separate post to my thoughts about the game overall, I will say now that I am loving my time with it. I doubt I’m the only Persona 5 fan that was expecting this game to be a simple, shallow distraction while we waited for a new mainline Persona game (or a remake of Persona 3, *fingers crossed emoji*), but it feels far more like a true sequel to Persona 5 than I could have hoped for. Part of the reason for that feeling, I think, is that so much of my love for Persona 5 was due to the excellent cast of characters, and all of our favorite Phantom Thieves are back at it in Strikers, with their original voice actors in tow. The subject of this particular post is one such character: Ann Takamaki, aka Panther.

Before I start, I have to acknowledge the issue of age. While these entries aren’t meant to critically analyze these characters, I want to be clear that I understand there are issues with how this series sexualizes some of its teenage female characters, and Ann happens to be a prime example of that. Aside from that, I am quickly becoming an Aging, Ancient Gamer, so for me to be writing about characters that are so much younger than I am is, maybe, a little icky for some. I understand that, but I want to make it clear (if it’s not obvious) that I don’t have actual crushes on these characters, especially the morally problematic ones such as Ann. My “crush” on Ann is as a character, for one, but more importantly it comes from the context of the game. If I allow myself to live the fantasy presented to me, that I am a teen boy in high school, then Ann would be my crush in that fictional world. I know this might seem like an excessive and unnecessary prelude for some, because the romance aspect of these games is often cited as something that people love, so I know I’m not the only one with a “crush” character, but I delayed writing this entry for so long because I worried that it might come across as lecherous or gross. My opinions about Ann as an element of a product created by people are very different than my feelings about her as a character in this fictional world that I love. Okay. I think I’ve probably said more than I need to, so let’s get back to Ann.

Although Persona 5 was my introduction to the series, I had some idea of what to expect in terms of gameplay and content before playing it. I knew there was a social aspect to its RPG elements, and you could increase your link with characters to the point where you romanced them. Being a fan of romance options in games, I had fun guessing who I might romance before I actually sat down to play the game. Makoto seemed like an obvious choice, followed closely by Kawakami (who I think resembles Alison Brie, particularly in the show GLOW, who is my celebrity crush). Ann? The seemingly stereotypical preppy, pretty girl? Nah. Booooring.

Ann is one of the first characters you can romance, though, because she joins your group very early and you’re able to spend a lot of time with her before you even meet other characters. So, as my social link with her crept up, I almost felt like the game was treating her like the default choice. Early on, I was sure I’d resist the temptation to up and romance the first character that came my way. As the story progressed and I spent more time with her, however, I began to have a… change of heart. Yes, yes, I said The Thing. Take a shot if you’ve played the game and were waiting for that.

It’s easy for me as an American to look at Ann and imagine that she is probably very popular and highly sought after. She has some of the very basic markers of “traditional beauty” for western women and girls: the fair skin, the blonde hair, the impossibly blue eyes. As it turns out, these features make her something of an oddity in a Japanese high school, and she talks about feeling alienated and ostracized. I was a little dismissive of that at first, I have to admit. “Oh, really? The blue-eyed, blonde-haired beauty feels like a freak? Okay. Sure.” But Ann’s background and history really broke me down over time, and I began to think that my western idea of what is “beautiful” is probably a bit restrictive. Not in the sense that I think her beauty is superior to anyone else’s, but more that I imagine that others value it the same way I might. That’s not to say that Ann wouldn’t be considered beautiful in Japan. She’s a model, so clearly her looks are valued by people. But as many people can attest, high schoolers can be cruel, and students who are different are often not exactly treated kindly.

After I let the fact sink in that she, like Ryuji and Joker, was a bit of an outcast, I began to see her differently. She’s not motivated by popularity and the adulation of others, as I suspected she might be from the game’s promotional art. She’s incredibly determined to be successful at her career, to the point where she is even unavailable for a time due to balancing her work and school life. I certainly don’t fetishize work culture, but I like that she has the drive to keep trying, even when she faces the setbacks that she does. One of those setbacks is that she isn’t as fit or trim as the other models she’s competing against, which is very weird to consider given the fact that virtually everyone in these games is pretty thin. She makes a couple of valiant attempts to lose weight and get fitter, but her love of sweet always wins out in the end. It me, as the kids say.

Part of what might be at the center of her tenacity is her seemingly eternal optimism. She’s not the kind of flighty blonde you might find in other media, where her optimism comes from a lack of awareness or detachment from reality. Ann is smart and knows when things are grim, but she also knows that it’s important for a friend group to have someone who reminds them that things aren’t as terrible as they seem. Hope is never lost. In Strikers, the first major enemy you face is an idol whose twisted desires for revenge have made her into a cruel, abusive, malevolent pop star who delights in using her fame to treat people the way she was treated when she was in high school. Recognizing a fellow outcast and victim of bullying, Ann acts as the group’s moral compass when tensions run high and some want to make her pay in much harsher ways. Ann’s ability to empathize with even some of the most unlikeable and aggressive enemies is something I admire. She doesn’t empathize with Kamoshida, though, which is good. Because fuck that guy.

Aside from all that, she’s just a great, funny teammate with some serious firepower. Get it? Fire power? Because her particular magical affinity is fire? What’s that? You didn’t know that because you’ve never played the game? You’re just being nice and reading this because you’re my friend? Fair enough. But, trust me; it was almost a funny joke. Seriously, though, in my first playthrough of the game, Ann was my heaviest hitter. While JRPGs have a long history of making the “pretty” girls healers, Ann was nothing of the sort for me. She was a whip-cracking, flame-slinging, Persona-wielding, badass bitch, and I was here for it. Or, er, there for it. In the past. In that fictional realm.

I love so many of the characters in the Persona games, but Ann has become something of a representative of my love for the series and characters as a whole. She’s great all on her own, but being my first bae in a series that I would come to adore and obsess over, she’s kind of a symbol of my love for the entire series. I have an Ann poster, t-shirt, statue, phone case, mask… I even have an Ann tattoo! So, yes, I have a crush on the fictional character of Ann, but she also represents my even bigger real-world crush on Persona and all of the magic that has come with every single game I’ve played since my first adventures in Persona 5. I am grateful that I’m getting a whole new set of adventures with these characters in Strikers, and I hope there are even more games with this cast to come. This summer, I am planning on watching every Persona anime available, so I’m excited to get even more time with my virtual, fictional friends soon. *nerd emoji*

Pretty Pixels Podcast

In 2006, podcasts weren’t exactly popular. I probably don’t know enough about the history of podcasts to claim that they were still “niche” at that point in time, but they certainly weren’t nearly as popular as they’ve become in the last five or so years (and even more so since the beginning of the pandemic). 2006 was, however, when I discovered the 1UP.com network of podcasts. I did not listen to them on my iPhone, as so many people do now, because the iPhone did not yet exist. I listened to them on my iPod Classic, if that gives you an idea of just how long ago this was. The proverbial Stone Age of smart devices and online media distribution. I might as well have been sitting around a fire or listening to them on coconuts or whatever.

Anyway, I’m not a podcast hipster. I wasn’t “into” podcasts back then. I was, however, newly discovering the gaming community that 1UP was cultivating, and through it I was further shaping my identity as a gamer. It was the only gaming community that I was ever really active in. I had a blog that I posted to, I posted to message boards – I even won a couple of contests and was featured on the site a few times. I won this Star Wars: The Force Unleashed USB drive with a bunch of official art assets loaded on it:

No talk me, I’m angy.

I also won this Activision desk clock, sent to me directly by former EGM editor-in-chief Dan Hsu and featuring a photo of former-former EGM editor-in-chief Ed Semrad. Sadly, I don’t seem to have the email exchange between myself and Shoe anymore, and I can’t even remember what the contest was, but it remains an oddly very prized possession of mine.

I miss that site. Are there communities as seemingly diverse and accepting as that anymore? It doesn’t seem like it, but I haven’t given many a chance since those halcyon days, cut short by the sale, consolidation, then shutdown of 1UP.com between 2009 and 2013. My favorites of their podcasts were The 1UP Show, EGM Live, 1UP FM, and Retronauts. I can still hear the theme song for The 1UP Show in my head, particularly on days when I “just wanna stay home and play all my video games.” Seriously, listen to this. Then, check out the summer theme as well.

There was some impressive production that went into the presentation of these shows, but that wasn’t what was so appealing about them. What I loved so much was hearing people who genuinely loved video games… just talk about video games. They were sometimes funny, sometimes reflective, sometimes focused, sometimes scattered. But their passion for video games came through in every episode, and I felt like I was a stranger who was lucky enough to have stumbled into a group of close friends that were having a great time and didn’t mind me eavesdropping. I wanted so badly to start a podcast of my own. 1UP.com and EGM were sold and dismantled starting in January 2009, the month I separated from the military and moved back to Illinois. I ended up staying with my best friend Ron, and given our history of gaming adventures together, I proposed we start our own podcast, given that our favorites were now being discontinued. I excitedly began writing down potential topics to discuss and games to play, I ordered fairly expensive studio mics, and… we never went through with it.

I submitted a few memories for this feature and I was so excited when this was the one they chose to include

After sitting in its original packaging for over a decade, I recently unboxed the mic and ordered an interface and stand so that I could actually use it. I teach online classes and my laptop and headset mics just weren’t cutting it. Digging it out brought back memories of a podcast left uncasted (I said what I said), as you might expect. I listen to a lot of video game podcasts now. IGN Game Scoop!, The Game Informer Show, The MinnMax Show, What’s Good Games, Adrift Gamer, Game on Girl, Singing Mountain, Triple Click and (if you can believe it) more. There are also gaming podcasts that I listened to for some months and then fell off of. There are video game podcasts I have never listened to, and probably many shows I’ve never even heard of. The market is, if not flooded, saturated. For this reason and more (hello, crippling insecurity, how are you today?), I never felt like there was a “right time” to try and get that podcast started again. There are enough podcasts out there, I’d tell myself. Who wants to hear from me? I’m not a games journalist or industry personality. I’d just be another thirty-something white dude with a podcast. Nobody’s asking for that, right?

I have no idea how they selected “popular” blogs, but I never felt like I had many readers

And then I had one of those refreshing realizations. The kind that are always late but somehow feel on time. Who the fuck cares about who has what podcast and what people might think about another show that covers video games? From the very beginning, I wanted to do it for myself. I wanted to have a show because I wanted to share my passion for games. I never thought about audience size or reception. Podcasts have become corporatized and monetized now, so that seems to be the primary drive for many people. I never imagined I would make money with a podcast. I’d never even considered having ads. So what was I worried about? If I finally did it, I would be checking a box that has been unchecked for 12 years, and if I had fun while doing it, mission accomplished. So I decided to do it.

Tab London, who I’ve mentioned in previous posts, has been encouraging me to do it for years. I shared my dream with them during a late night lab session when we were in our master’s program together. We were working together on a class based on video games, so I naturally asked if they’d be interested in hosting something with me. They readily agreed, but I made it clear (because of the aforementioned insecurity, I think) that I didn’t know if/when I’d ever get around to actually getting my shit together and starting something. That was, I think, six years ago. Every now and then, since that time, Tab would ask if I’d given it any more thought. “Ehhhh,” I’d start. “Not really.” Or “Yeah, I want to. Maybe soon.” Internally, I always had some excuse. I was busy. I wasn’t sure if I could keep up. I wanted to make sure it was good. I didn’t know if my mic would work. And on and on. One of the things I’ve learned about my anxiety, though, is that it’s very good at helping me avoid things I’m nervous about. My anxiety works with the logical part of my brain to come up with completely reasonable excuses that keep me from doing things I’m worried will end poorly. The podcast was one of those things.

Again, “popular”? Hmmm

Another thing I’ve learned, in response to my anxiety-induced avoidance, is to challenge myself when those thoughts prevent me from doing something that I know I actually want to do. Do I really not have time for a podcast, or am I just not willing to make time? Am I really worried about what people will think, or is that an evergreen excuse to keep me from taking chances? If I’m so worried that I won’t be able to use my mic, why haven’t I tried it yet?

So I stopped allowing myself these excuses and recently asked Tab if they were still ready and willing to do the podcast. Fucking duh, I’ve been saying you should do it for years, they said. I’m paraphrasing. A bit. So I bought what I needed to use my mic, downloaded audio recording software, and began researching hosting options. We came up with a name, a basic structure, some goals and specific segment ideas, and a logo. We reached out to Ron for a theme song, I registered our podcast, and we recorded an introduction episode (“Episode 0”) last week. We uploaded it yesterday and it went live on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon, and other sites today. We fucking did it. Finally.

I was beyond ecstatic when they chose my memory of my favorite game of all time for this feature

We went with the name Pretty Pixels Podcast for a few reasons. First, there’s that delicious alliteration. Second, we both share a love for unique graphics and art styles. Whether it’s the simplicity of a beautiful indie game or the incredible lighting effects in a AAA release, we revel in how pretty video games are, old and new. While we want our podcast to be fun for us first and foremost (because, as the 1UP shows did with me, we think that will transfer to fun for the audience), we also do want to bring something relatively unique to the crowded gaming podcast landscape. As we’re both gaming or gaming-adjacent scholars, we plan to bring some of our academic background to the table. Not always, of course. Even we tire of academic discourse. But where some podcasts shy away from discussing “serious” issues in gaming, we want to lean into it when it feels right. We’ve discussed having guests on, but we’re waiting until we feel comfortable enough doing the show on our own before jumping into that pool. There were a lot of laughs during our first recording session (even if they were edited out because they kept us from getting anything recorded), and I am looking forward to many more in future episodes.

There is still some lingering doubt, of course. We aren’t established, we don’t have a studio or industry connections. We won’t be selling mattresses or underwear. I doubt we’ll get codes for reviews and we have no privileged knowledge about gaming news or events. We have our love of games, our sense of humor, and our brains. Whether that is “enough” for modern podcast audiences is impossible to answer. But if we can make just a few people feel like I did back in the day, listening to the 1UP Show and feeling like I was a part of a meaningful conversation filled with love for games? That will always be enough for me.

Finally.

Revisiting Resident Evil 7, Thirsting After Lady Dimitrescu, and Getting Hyped for Village

One thing I’ve learned in my many years as an avid gamer is how to manage my hype levels. When I was a kid, I would tear through every page of Nintendo Power or EGM, eagerly consuming every bit of available information, speculation, and rumor about the games I was excited to play. My hyperbolic fervor did nothing to speed the games’ release schedules, though, so I would essentially torture myself for months, wanting constantly to play the newest entry in a favorite series or some new, rad looking IP. Worse, the incessant, obsessive yearning would warp my expectations of these games, so much so that I was often underwhelmed with the very games I was expecting to love. I’ve learned to temper my hype and expectations until a game’s release is close, so you might ask me if I’m excited about a game a year from its release and I could say “eh, I guess.” Then, just a few months from its release date, if you asked again, I might be like “holy shit, yeah, that game? Already pre-ordered the Deluxe Special Day One Collector’s Limited Platinum Gold Diamond Edition, boiiiiii.”

Thus is the tale of my hype for Resident Evil Village. As a big fan of the franchise, there is always a certain level of excitement with the approach of any new mainline game in the series, but Village is very close now and with the excellence of the last three games (Resident Evil 7, Resident Evil 2, and Resident Evil 3), my anticipation is accelerating greatly. After the announcement trailer in June of last year, my hype was shambling like a regular zombie. It was there, it was moving, but it wasn’t in danger of infecting me with uncontrollable, unchecked expectation. Now, after the recent Resident Evil Showcase, my hype is definitely a Crimson Head zombie. It popped right up and is sprinting after me, ready to chomp me with jaws of unbridled hype. That whole analogy got so far away from me. Kind of like a licker when it leaps through-okay I just need to stop.

Resident Evil Village is probably my most anticipated game of this year, and I am so delighted by how much attention Lady Dimitrescu has gotten on social media lately. I’m genuinely not pulling a hipster “I liked it before it was cool” move, but Lady D and her witchy-looking lady friends were the most intriguing and exciting thing about the original trailer released back in June 2020. They were only very briefly shown, but there was something so mysterious and, yes, sexy about their poise and style that just kept me thinking about them. Were they vampires? Ghouls? Witches? I didn’t know, but I was ready to meet them.

Why are they so hot, though? Please, forgive my thirst over these characters, but I have to document my feelings for posterity. I’d hate to reach a point in my life where I realize I’ve forgotten about *checks notes* every virtual character I ever lusted after. I think the witchy “daughters,” as Lady D calls them in the latest trailer, are pretty self-explanatory. They’re… witchy. That’s pretty hot in and of itself. But Lady D’s magnetic allure surprised me. If you told me that I would be lusting after a posh-looking woman in a wide brimmed hat and an outfit with a general “heading to the Kentucky Derby” kind of vibe, I would have said “I’ll lust after anything at this point, I’m desperate.” No, wait! I didn’t mean that. Note to self: edit that out before posting. What I really would have said was that you were crazy. That does not seem like the kind of aesthetic I go for.

So, what, then? Why does she seem so hot? Well, as my Gaming Crushes posts have probably revealed, I do have a thing for strong, capable women, and Lady D is brimming with power, poise, and authority. The refrain I keep seeing in reference to her is “step on me,” and she definitely captures that vibe perfectly. There is a playfulness to her menace. She might be chasing after me and trying to skewer me with her impressive nails, but she’s having a blast while doing it, and that’s more than I can say for grumpybutt Mr. X. She’s bold, confident, and seemingly very self-assured, and that’s definitely attractive to me. Does it hurt that she owns an expansive, beautiful estate and has a keen fashion sense? No. It does not. The high-society look rarely does much for me, but she rocks it. The pale skin, dark hair, fiery eye combo doesn’t hurt, either.

Okay, I’ll move on in a second, I swear, but I’ve seen a lot of pictures of Lady D popping up on social media in response to the latest trailer, but there is one very fast cut from the original trailer that I have yet to see anyone share, and I’m kind of surprised.

While it’s difficult to say what’s happening in this image with 100% certainty, it seems likely that our lusty lady is, well, feeding on what looks like a person’s arm (also, note the tooth-like bumps under her lips – those look like some serious chompers). Given the first-person perspective of the game and the fact that Ethan had his left arm cut off and stapled back on in Resident Evil 7, I’m kind of thinking these witchy women popped it off and are feeding on Ethan’s potentially unique life juice. Why would it be unique? Well, he did get his arm and leg chopped off in the previous game and inexplicably functionally reattached them with either staples or a bottle of freaking first aid potion. In the RE universe, that probably indicates he has some kind of healing power or something, right? Which would make the way that Lady D talks about Ethan in the recent trailer make sense. She not only knows him by name, but she’s also apparently been tasked with tracking him down by a superior. If we’re moving into fantasy territory where vampires, werewolves, and giants exist, though, my money is on his blood being special in some way. So the fact that she is, in all of her towering, seductive, dominant glory, at some point, sucking on your arm, makes me feel… well… I don’t know yet. I’ll get back to you in May.

Okay, okay, I’m done thirsting. For now. As I mentioned in my last post, I so rarely take the time to revisit old games that I’ve played before because there is constantly something new and exciting to play, but recently I’ve allowed myself to do just that. I beat Resident Evil 7 at least a few times when it came out, but I never got the platinum trophy because some of the more difficult achievements seemed, well, difficult. I wanted to revisit it just to sort of play it and experience the horror again, anyway, so I decided to go for the platinum trophy as well. I replayed it once on Easy difficulty, just to get back into it and grab the trophies for using less than three medicine items and never opening the storage chests, and then I tackled it on Madhouse mode. And, phew, it was no joke. I used a guide to make sure I didn’t miss any of the mode-exclusive collectibles, but I rarely find guides useful when it comes to boss fights, so some of those really did a number on me. It took me a long time and a lot of stress lines, but I finally managed to beat it and I got the platinum. Feels good, man.

I also went ahead and bought all of the DLC, which I’d never played before, so I dug through those as well. Some of them aren’t my cup of tea (particularly the combat/survival focused entries), but a few of them added some nuance to the base game’s narrative and I really appreciated them. The first of these is “Daughters,” which offers a glimpse at the Baker family just prior to their infection by Eveline. There are some indications of the family’s humanity in the base game, but not quite enough to fairly frame the tragedy that became their life. This DLC has you, as Zoe, help Jack and Marguerite prepare to take on another apparent victim (Eveline) of a recent storm that is devastating the region, including their farm (and it further explains the boarded-up and broken-down state of the grounds when you get there). There are little clues scattered around the house that show a close, caring family (aside from Lucas, who still seems like a dick), which heightened my appreciation for the Baker family and Zoe as a character in a big way.

Speaking of Zoe, I also really liked “End of Zoe.” This DLC was quite the opposite in terms of gameplay and tone, as instead of passively exploring the house, you play as Joe, Jack’s brother and Zoe’s uncle, bullrushing through the swamps surrounding the Baker’s house and bashing infected and alligators alike in the face with your bare fists. It is ridiculous and very un-RE-like, but also very fun. The main antagonist is what seems to be a resurrected Jack, looking very much like Swamp Thing, and squaring up to him with just your fists is silly and badass. Joe sees an enemy and he doesn’t think “dang, how much ammo do I have? Can I afford to take it down?” He thinks… well, I don’t even think he does think. He sees an obstacle, and he punches it. Literally everything. Wooden crate? Punch it. Boarded up door? Punch it. Toothy ooze monster? Punch. It. Can you imagine him in the previous RE games? “Hmm. A door with the shape of a diamond on it.” *punches through it* “Oh no, a giant snake.” *punch it in its giant snake head* Nemesis comes bursting through the wall. “SSSTA-“ *Punch* Like I said: ridiculous but fun. Plus, it gave us a satisfying (if cheesy) conclusion to Zoe’s story.

The last piece of DLC I’ll talk about is “Bedroom,” an escape-room style bit where you play as our favorite cameraman and Sewer Gators alum, Clancy. If you like the recurring, sometimes macabre puzzles littered throughout the RE series, you’ll probably like this DLC. It’s not just a collection of standalone puzzles – they’re all interconnected. You have to figure each out using environmental clues and solve them in the correct order to escape the room that Marguerite has locked you in. Think of the “Happy Birthday” puzzle that Lucas sets up. It took me a few times to get it, but it never felt unfair or illogical. With both this and the “Daughters” DLC, I kind of wish they’d been in the core game. I guess I can see how they might have affected pacing, but both of them feel like they would have felt natural and contributed something to the tone and setting of the game.

I will continue my revisiting… Revisiting Evil… does anyone have that as a blog or podcast name yet? If not, I should nab it. “This week on Revisiting Evil: how to make a Jill sandwich. Plus, coming up later: why Nemesis would make a great astronomer,” Anyway, I will continue playing old RE titles by starting Code Veronica X soon, since that’s probably the mainline entry I’ve played the least and, thus, don’t remember very well. To look forward, though, I wanted to talk a bit about the “Maiden” demo for Resident Evil Village.

The first time I played it was before my decision to replay RE 7, so playing it again after that really highlighted how far the RE Engine has come. I posted about how impressed I was with it after Resident Evil 2, but it seems like Capcom continues to squeeze every ounce of beautiful, reflective, textured blood out of it with Village. I’m so glad there is no combat in this demo, because it really allowed me to just wander the rooms of this big, ornately decorated castle and inspect every detail. I know there are some people who lament the direction Capcom has taken with RE 7 and Village (despite getting two of the best remakes of classic PlayStation games ever, but that’s a debate for a later time), but I very much appreciate the attention and care they’ve given to maintaining so much of the atmosphere and tone that made some of the earliest games so memorable. Paintings, statues, decorations – these are things that bring texture to a setting just by existing, but the level of texture and what it adds to a player’s experience is variable. If a team has the time and skill, they can create set decoration that tells a story of their own. Some of those in the demo are very classic RE, like:

But some of them seem so well conceived and executed that they bring the castle to life in much clearer and more nuanced terms than any of the previous RE settings. Look at this photograph:

Every time I do it makes me lau- oh god, what am I doing? Ahem. Moving on. It’s just a simple picture of… bats? Birds? Creatures? It’s eerie, sure, but does it have significance? Or is it just for ambiance? If it is just birds, why would this regal, matronly vampire have it framed and on display? Upon close inspection, it looks to be a bird of prey (right) with its talons stretched out, aiming to pierce another bird that it attempting to dodge. Lady D is the antagonist pursuing Ethan in this game, and she, too, has long, retractable talons. Consider also this vase:

At a glance, it looks like a pretty typical medieval style vase. Given the castle’s age and Lady D’s lineage, it might be an actual medieval artifact. It fits the castle’s décor and contributes to the overall spookiness of it, but what may have been behind the developer’s decision to include this specific design? Well, if there is one word that springs to mind when I look at this scene, it’s “ritual.” We don’t see much here, but what we do see is a seated man surrounded by others, seemingly against his will. His brow looks furrowed in concern, but more importantly, the man behind him seems to be clasping his shoulder as if he is preventing him from standing. Another man reaches out to stay the hand of the apparent captor, as another (very tall) man stands contemplating, with his hand on his chin. They are, it seems, deciding his fate. If you read the notes and pick up on context clues in the demo, there is a suggestion of some kind of ritual. There is a list of potential candidates for said ritual or purpose, and in the latest trailer, Lady Dimitrescu refers to “the importance of the ceremony.” I’m not trying to make some grand statement about this vase or any of these background details, but I love how much texture they bring to this setting. This vase lets me believe that some ancestor of Lady Dimitrescu (or the lady herself, if she turns out to be very old) had an artist make a vase to commemorate this ceremony, or perhaps she saw this and it reminded her of the momentous occasion. Either way, it seems to be far from randomly chosen as background flavoring. I can’t wait to play the final game and take my time looking at the impressive number of background decorations that will probably be spread all throughout the castle.

Aside from admiring the graphics and environmental nuance, I very much enjoyed seeing one of Lady Dimitrescu’s daughters in action. In my first playthrough, I rushed past her, as it seems I was expected to. But in later sessions, I followed her up the stairs and watched her glide and dissipate around a corner. The way that she moves is very cool, and I am ready to be both spooked and subtly stimulated by her and her sibling’s pursuit of me in the final game. It’s like “oh, noooo, don’t block my way and bite my neck, sexy vampire ladies! That would be sooooo baaaaaaad!”

So, yes, I am very much ready for May 7th. I’ve preordered the Deluxe Edition, am still playing through old RE titles, and am hopeful that my friends will eventually let me watch them play through the Maiden demo so I can bother them with my dumb love of the same kinds of details I discuss above. I’ll be back in May, of course, with a post about the main game, and don’t be surprised if you see a Gaming Crushes post about Lady D at some point, heh. Until next time, this has been Revisiting Evil. Smash that subscribe button. I’m just kidding. I’m full of dumb jokes today. Ugh. Okay, bye.

Comfort Food Games (and Coffee. And Killing)

In the final months of 2020, I found myself keeping up with new games unlike most other times in my life. While I would love to play all new games as they’re released, I usually can’t for various reasons. One is that I am definitely the type to finish games. I don’t like bouncing between narrative games especially, so if I’m playing some big, story-driven game, I have to finish that one before I move onto the next. Another reason is that I don’t rush through games, particularly when I’m really into them. I wouldn’t call myself a completionist, but when I love a game I will find any and every excuse to extend my time with it (including getting every achievement/trophy). But between quarantine, new consoles, and just a general desire to play more video games, I really burned through some of the big, new games of 2020 these last few months, including Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Astro’s Playroom, Cyberpunk 2077, Star Wars: Squadrons, The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope, and Phasmophobia. I liked or loved all of these games, so it’s not that the deluge of glorious gaming was oppressive or taxing, but when it was all said and done, there was a part of me that yearned for the familiar or forgotten. Without realizing it, I found myself playing older games that I had either bought and forgotten, or had already played and loved. This is just a scattershot post to cover my thoughts on these games, but one of them – Resident Evil 7 – will get its own post, because my playing of that is tied into my hype for Resident Evil Village, and I have plenty of thoughts about that game.

Let’s begin with an oldie. Please, take a trip down memory lane with me. The year is 1999. I am sixteen years old and newly into my Star Wars fandom. The Phantom Menace is set to release in May and the hype among myself and others is indescribable. Alongside the movie, Star Wars Episode I: Racer is coming to the N64, and it takes advantage of the new Expansion Pak, which expands the console’s memory and allows for more detailed textures and prettier graphics. I am stoked. I play the demo at a kiosk in some store and the game looks incredible. I am amazed at how fast the pods zip through the courses. I am ready to absolutely wreck Sebulba’s shit. And then I don’t buy it. I was sixteen, after all, and I’m pretty sure I had yet to land my first job. Oh well.

Fast forward to the present, and the retitled Star Wars Racer is on sale in the PlayStation Store for something like $4. I did end up buying a copy of it for the N64 at some point, but I don’t exactly bust that old beauty out very often. So I bought it and figured I would play for a bit, the nostalgia would wane quickly, and I would push it aside and move on. The startup screen and the very hitch-y CG intro movie did little to challenge these expectations. The game is ugly. Don’t get me wrong! It was very impressive… 22 years ago. But time is rarely kind to early 3D games, and the murky and muddy textures were both nostalgically quaint and, well, bleh.

Then, however, I started playing. Immediately I was impressed by how fast and smooth the racing was. Remember when Anakin was testing his podracer and his face was all

Well that’s how I felt playing this game. I was constantly stunned with how fast I felt like I was moving, and I kept wondering if the old game was this fast or if the remastering included a speed boost. I do remember it being pretty fast back in ’99, but this fast? On an N64? After I finished the first circuit and nabbed a comfortable first place, I quit for the night, content with my experience. It was fun! Time to move on. The next night I began looking for my next game but couldn’t put Racer out of my mind. One more circuit, I told myself. As soon as it starts feeling too challenging I’ll be done. Nope. I played the whole. Damn. Game. Did it get challenging? Yes. Did I have to try a few tracks several times? Also yes. Did I want to punch Sebulba in his seballsba? Again, yes. But I did it. The speed, the tracks, the music… it just felt like the right game at the right time. And now I think the prequel trilogy is ripe for a revisit. Meesa gonna watchen it. I’m sorry for that. Why am I like this?

Aside from revisiting such an old gem, I was also in the mood to tie up loose ends, so I finished my playthrough of The Last of Us Part II, finally. [Some light spoilers ahead, particularly in images] While I could certainly spend an entire post breaking the game down, as many have, I’ll just focus on a few things that stood out to me. Overall, I really liked the game. I didn’t love the ending and I think they were a little heavy-handed with some elements of the story, but there is so much that works well in this game. I think it’s easy to zoom out and critique the broad strokes of the narrative, but this game’s greatest strengths are revealed when you zoom in, literally and figuratively. I was in constant awe of some of the smallest of details. In most games, when you pick up an item there is a generic swiping or grabbing animation. In this game, there are specific animations for every item. The upgrade currency in this game comes in the form of pills, and sometimes you will find both a pill bottle and individual, loose pills. If you mash the action button to grab all of them quickly, the items don’t just disappear from the world and appear in your inventory with a cursory swipe. Your character will wrap one hand around the bottle, and as they reach back to slip it into their pack, their other hand will be pinching one individual pill with their fingers. They’ll then drop that into a pocket while the other hand, now free, pinches the last pill and does the same. And you can either stand still and do this, which is one animation, or begin to walk away, and your character will look natural as they tuck the items into their pack and trot away. This is just one very specific example, but the game is filled with little details like this. Every melee weapon slots onto your pack in a different way. Every firearm has unique, detailed reload and upgrade animations. The game was so thorough in its attention to detail that I found myself shocked when I’d catch some missed little thing that I would never have questioned with another game. The best example of this is when you upgrade a firearm. You clear the weapon before working on it, which means you eject the round that’s in the chamber, which pops out and flies off screen. Where does it go? Your character never grabs it and loads it back in the magazine or weapon, and with ammo so incredibly scarce in the game I found myself flinching every time a precious piece of ammo popped out of my gun.

The small interactions between characters and moment-to-moment story beats were some of the best I’ve seen in games. Naughty Dog is known for these kinds of interactions, but this game really outdid their previous work, in my opinion. The banter between characters sounds natural and not forced, yet it always reveals something new about the story or the characters. Writing casual dialog that somehow seems unnecessary but is secretly vital to character and plot development is rare and impressive. Among my favorite of these sequences is Ellie and Dina’s trip to the synagogue, Abby and Owen’s first trip to the aquarium, and Ellie and Joel’s trip to the museum. The last one is easily at the top of my list, and not just because of the overt references to Jurassic Park, one of my favorite movies of all time. Thematically, the idea of visiting a natural history museum in a post-apocalypse is always fun and thought-provoking. We take museums for granted today, because we have years of compulsory school and the internet that readily remind of us where we and other creatures have been in the long history of our world. When that goes away, however, what do we have? Word-of-mouth stories about dinosaurs and trips to the moon? Rumors about seals that have spots? Beyond themes, there were just so many small moments that were cute on their own, but also complicated the relationship between Joel and Ellie. This scene more than any other breaks my heart when I think about where it fits in the dynamic between these two characters. I would 100% take an entire game filled with scenes like this.

As I said, I spent a lot of time with this game and the narrative is very rich, but those are some of my impressions. I do think they missed an opportunity for a more satisfying resolution, and I agree with the sentiment that, despite the subtlety of the interpersonal interactions, they were decidedly less subtle with some of the major themes involving violence and revenge, but overall I found a lot to like and appreciate about this game.

Speaking of interpersonal interactions (Segue King 2021 babayyyy), I also played through the charming Coffee Talk recently. I remember hearing about this retro-looking indie game a year ago, when it was released, but I quickly forgot about it. The curse of the quaint indie game, sadly. I just happened to see it while scrolling through sale titles on the PlayStation Store, though, and it seemed like such a perfect game for this wintry time of year. Serving coffee and other hot drinks and listening to strangers share the details of their lives? Yes, please.

While I was somewhat disappointed in the lack of dialog choices and inability to form relationships with the characters that come into your shop, I did find the game relaxing and engaging. The drink making mechanics are simple, the stakes are rarely ever high, and I enjoyed the slight challenge of figuring out what kind of drink my patrons were asking for. The Seattle setting seems like a no-brainer for a game about a coffee shop, but I also think the choice to have the shop only be open at night and the constant rainy weather were perfect. They created a mood and ambiance that truly made me want to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate or coffee and just chat or read a book. Like a tasty, warm beverage, this game was a comfort and joy to play.

But, as I said, I did go into the game thinking the social mechanics would be a bit more… well, existent. As much as I like visual novels/narrative experiences, I always find myself wanting to be a part of the story that’s unfolding. I was hoping to form my own relationships with these characters, and when I saw how colorful and varied the cast was, I immediately thought there would be dating sim aspects to the story. Sadly, there are not, which is a real bummer because the game seems so perfect for it. When the latte art mechanic was introduced, I thought (not knowing there were no romance elements yet) it would be so fun if one of the ways you could flirt or reveal your feelings for a crush was by making a heart in the foam (if the game set it up as not unsolicited and creepy, of course). I am always curious about who people would romance in games, so if that also sounds like you, I think I probably would have gone for Aqua. Lua would probably also be a contender, but I feel comfortable saying Aqua is my… cup of tea. Thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all night. Anyway, while I did find the game a fun, soothing distraction for what continues to be a historically messed up timeline, I do have my fingers crossed for a sequel with more options for interactivity and immersive storytelling. And smooches.

Lastly, my friends and I have gotten back into Minecraft in the last week or so, and in a big way. We are obsessed. Just today I tweeted that I have been having creeper-related dreams almost every night this past week. On the one hand, it’s annoying and frustrating, but I can definitely see the humor in it. And it makes sense. Creepers are the perfect embodiment of anxiety. You work so hard to build something and spend time thinking carefully about how to execute your plans. You spend hours mining, collecting the necessary materials, laying block by block, tweaking the details as needed. Then, out of nowhere, boom. Your blocky dreams are shattered. After the first time, you can never rest easy. Every time you let your guard down, there he is. His little green face tilted toward you, wanting with every ounce of his hissy being to explode and take your beautiful creations with him to what I imagine is a very pixelated hell. Fucking assholes.

Those dipshits aside, we’ve been having a blast (why did I do that to myself? I could have used any other word to describe our shared experience, but no. I went with blast. *shivers in creeper-related stress disorder). Other than the semester I played the game with my students, I’ve never played with this many people before (there are six of us so far), so it’s very rewarding knowing that I can at one moment contribute something to the collective group, and at another go off and work on something on my own that someone else might run across and think is neat. Just yesterday I crossed over Russell’s impressive bridge that connects our mainland with the lands to the East, Amy recently showed me her massive hole (yes, I think she knew what she was doing when she referred to it as such), Tab and Tirzah have cultivated an expansive farm, and I have been sailing to distant lands to both leave markers for exploration and, as a bonus, import wolves (which our lands are sadly lacking). We’ve been very chill and loose about it, and there are no expectations or ultimatums. We help out, we do our own thing, we are basically just having fun. It’s such a welcome change of pace in light of the big, AAA gauntlet I put myself through (willingly and with much fun to be had, of course) in the fall and early winter.

It’s also been so long since I last played that I am frequently both delighted and horrified at some of the changes they’ve made in the many updates to the game. Llamas? Cute! There are water zombies now? Ugh. Cats!? Dolphins!? Yessss. Aggressive merpeople and deadly undercurrents? Get out of my face. But I will take all of the bats and pandas and polar bears, thanks. We may get tired of the game eventually, but I love what we’re doing in the world so far. Check out Amy and Russell’s giant in-home aquarium:

And Tab and Tirzah’s elaborate farmhouse:

For my house, I was somewhat inspired by the massive mansion/castle in the Resident Evil: Maiden demo, and also by the many iterations of Dracula’s castle in the Castlevania games. I’m not exactly the most creative and skilled designer, but I like how my house has turned out so far. The façade is a little bland:

But I’m very happy with the interior. I built my house into the side of the mountain in our town, so I keep digging further into the mountain to create secret rooms and a full-sized Satanic house of worship, including a pastor’s office with a hidden door that leads to a portal to Hell.

I also have a dungeon where I keep zombies, skeletons, spiders, and creepers, a forbidden cauldron room, a dedicated Nether portal chamber, and a couple of other secrets.

I don’t imagine these pictures are all that riveting to most, but there is something I really love about sharing Minecraft creations. Maybe it has something to do with the impermanent nature of games like this. When the servers are shut down, these worlds will go away forever. But in my small way, I can document the exploits of my friends and me. Maybe, if we continue to play for a long time, I’ll do so again in the future. For now, though, I have some diamonds to mine. If you’ll excuse me.

Gaming Memories: Fleeting Fantasies (My Life in Rentals)

I stood there, fidgeting but transfixed, staring at the black plastic case. It was not your typical Super Nintendo case, which traditionally are made of thin cardboard. It was a thick, hard, black plastic, molded to look like some sort of industrial, heavy duty crate. The title of the game, Robocop Versus The Terminator, was stamped into the face of the case, and in 1993, cross-overs of this nature were still virtually unheard of outside of comics. There had, in fact, been this exact cross-over published by Dark Horse Comics just a year prior, and I’d read and loved that series. Two icons of my youth in the same universe? Fighting to the death? And here they were, now, in digital form, ready for me to take part in the action.

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I had just turned 11 years old in the above scene, and I was standing in one of the gaming aisles of the local Blockbuster Video. It was 1993 and the Terminator was still hugely popular. Robocop’s star had faded since the 80s, but there were plenty of nerds like me who liked him more than the T800. New game releases typically flew off the shelf at Blockbuster. Unless a game was a surefire hit, each store would usually only get one or maybe two copies, and they would get snapped up fast. This Blockbuster had a copy of the newly released Robocop Versus The Terminator, so why the hesitation on my part? As soon as I saw the case, with its unique design and promise of an epic clash between two titanium titans, I was excited. So why did I pace the aisles, flipping over other game cases, returning to the alluring black case to stare at it some more, then repeat the cycle, occasionally reassuring my waiting mom that I was “almost ready,” when in reality I was agonizing over whether or not I should rent this damned game?

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Rental places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video were a huge part of my childhood and scenes like the one I describe above were not uncommon. Snippets of memories of looking for or at the box art of specific movies and games litter my brain. With the rapid rise and oversaturation of streaming services, these memories seem quaint and far away, and I imagine to some my agony over making the “right” choice might seem odd. Now, of course, there is so little at stake if you start watching a bad movie or playing a terrible video game on Xbox Game Pass or PlayStation Now. Just stop playing it. Move on to the next. With rentals, though, a trip to the local Blockbuster might be your only shot at a new, fun gaming experience for weeks.

The feeling of the stakes being so high was exacerbated by the fact that my family was not exactly flush with spending money. We weren’t poor but we were pretty firmly lower middle class. Sometimes my parents would be willing/able to take us to a rental place, sometimes they wouldn’t. Even if we went, sometimes they’d allow me to get a video game in addition to the movie we were getting for family movie time, sometimes they wouldn’t. So having the opportunity to pick out a game made me feel lucky, but also sometimes made my choice feel incredibly weighted. I might not have the chance to pick out a new game for weeks, and when you’re 11, that’s essentially equivalent to several lifetimes. If I knew what game I wanted and it was on the shelf, it was an easy choice. If I wasn’t sure what I wanted to play, I might be stuck wandering between the two dedicated video game aisles, flipping cases and scrunching my little 11 year old brow in frustrated indecision.

Another element that contributed to this reluctance to “just pick a damned game” was a history of disappointments. In the flotilla of random rental shop memories in my mind, I can distinctly remember a number of game covers that lured me in with promise of epic adventure or incredible graphics, only to deliver a blocky, sloppy mess of confusion. The Internet was not yet ubiquitous and I had only intermittent access to gaming magazines, so I rarely had a sense of what a game was about other than what was conveyed by the front and/or back cover (sometimes the back cover was blocked by an external cover so you had to rely purely on the front cover art). One clear memory of this was Final Fantasy (1990), for the NES. I had played Faxanadu (1989) and really liked it, so when I saw the cover of Final Fantasy I was titillated by the lure of a new, beautiful adventure game.

The sword and axe sold the medieval combat aspect, and the crystal ball set between them showed a huge kingdom floating in the sky. How could I go wrong? What fantastical adventures awaited me in that mystical city in the sky? When I got home and popped the cartridge in my system, I was welcomed by something like this:

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Of course it became something of a joke, the disparity between early video game covers and the games’ actual visuals and content, but when you’re just a kid with a vivid imagination and desire for cool graphics that transport you to another realm, it was a problem. You never knew if what you rented would be what you got. Another example of this was Sid Meier’s Pirates!, also for the NES. What I saw on the shelf was:

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Spooky, bearded pirate skull! Swashbuckling! Treasure! My fertile young imagination went wild imagining the incredible adventures I was going to get into on the high seas. I got home and excitedly shoved the cart in the NES and saw:

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Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time with the game. I remember looking for it again later and being disappointed to find that the store no longer carried it. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t supremely let down by how drastically different the game looked from its cover art. The same goes for the SNES game Rise of the Robots, a game that was released the same month as the original PlayStation. The marketing for the game heavily tapped into the recent excitement over new 3D graphics in games, like those in the Killer Instinct arcade game, released just two months prior. Advertisements for the game promised “ground breaking” 3D graphics that were “to die for.”

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And here is a shot of the game in action:

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With every one of these disappointments, I became increasingly wary about what I was renting. Was this really even an adventure game, or will it turn out to be a puzzle game that just has fantasy art on the cover? Did this licensed game look anything like the source material, or was it a pale imitation? Did the in-game graphics bear any resemblance to the marketing art? I walked away with a very specific kind of trust issue.

That aside, I had plenty of fun, positive experiences at rental places. There was a specific kind of youthful excitement generated by the seemingly vast variety of choice offered to a family on a budget. Sometimes we’d go weeks or maybe even a month or two without a trip to Blockbuster, and those return trips were especially exciting. What new games would they have in stock? Would my parents let me get two, if I couldn’t decide? New releases were typically more costly to rent than older games, so sometimes I’d be allowed to get one new and one old game, and this allowed me to experiment with less popular titles. Sometimes these experiments paid off and I’d end up liking or even loving the games. Maniac Mansion (NES), Jaws (NES), Friday the 13th (NES), Earthworm Jim (SNES), Aero the Acrobat (SNES), Rock ‘n’ Roll Racing (SNES), and Triple Play 2000 (N64) all fall under this category.

When I was a bit older and living in the suburbs, there was a tiny independent rental place around the corner from me, and I remember being very excited to get a membership of my own when I was just 16. It made me feel oddly mature and responsible (never mind the fact that after a couple of years of responsible renting, I would allow my late fees for a game to get to around $30 and then never return there after dropping the game off. I still feel weirdly guilty about that. If you’re reading this, dude with a gray ponytail always pulled back with a rubber band: I’m sorry! I have your $30 now and I’m sorry you went out of business. Was it my fault? Are you mad at me? :*( ). Their rentals were cheaper than the big chains and they stocked more obscure, niche titles, so it was there that I was introduced to both the Suikoden and Tales games. The cover art for Suikoden II was gorgeous, and the gameplay screenshots on the back reminded me enough of the Golden Age SNES RPGs that I took a chance on it, and I am so glad that I did. It ended up being one of my favorite games of all time and I don’t at all regret running out and buying a brand new copy for myself.

Source

I do, however, very much regret not doing the same for Tales of Destiny. I rented it on a whim and loved it so much that I rented it several more times so I could beat it. During one of my later session with it, I decided to… uh… “borrow” the game registration card from the case, since this shop actually gave you the original game case and everything when you rented it. I sent the card in and Namco sent me a big, cool poster for free. I was so weirdly thrilled by it, and it made me only that much more excited to play Tales of Destiny 2 when it came out. The reason I regret not buying the first game after I’d played it is because a complete copy of the game, case, and manual goes for around $200 now. Sigh.

My experience standing in front of the cool case for Robocop Versus The Terminator in Blockbuster encapsulates many of these experiences. I was drawn in by the unconventional packaging but cautious at the prospect of being burned with terrible gameplay that didn’t do the characters justice. I didn’t want to waste my one rental on a bad game, but what other choices did I have? Street Fighter II: The Movie? Shaq Fu? So, after many laps around the gaming section, I did end up picking the game up and handing it to my mom. On the drive home, I convinced myself it was a good choice. Even if it wasn’t amazing, it was still Robocop and the Terminator. You can’t get much cooler than that (in 11 year-old Joey’s mind, anyway). You could, however, make a better game. Just five minutes after starting the game I was angry. There I was, clomping along as Robocop in my heavy, titanium suit, when… I died? From a few bullets? Shot by regular-ass enemies? Where was the Terminator? Ugh. Disappointed again.

As I grew older and began to buy my own games, my appreciation of rental places dwindled. They began charging more for rentals, their selection shrank as they dedicated more and more shelf space to just one or two big releases, and they even began to lessen rental times to just one or two days for new games. How were you supposed to play much of a game in that time? You weren’t. You were supposed to go back and rent it again. The popularity of streaming services has all but eliminated rental shops, but they were the source of so many magical memories from my youth. The ability to rent a game for two or three bucks meant that I (and many other kids from families who couldn’t afford to buy very many new games) still had the ability to play the newest games and experiment with potentially hidden gems. I spent hours circling racks of video game box art, can trace some of my favorite games back to rental places, and even took part in the Blockbuster World Video Game Championship II (a topic for its own post, I think).

I’m not exactly calling for a return to the era of rentals, as in our current age of hyper-capitalism, I’m sure it would be a nightmare of a consumer market. But can you imagine a small shop in a small town, with shelves of video games old and new, charging just a few bucks a pop to take them home and try them out? Behind the counter is a young college kid with a Pokémon shirt on, tapping away at a laptop. Or maybe a middle-aged woman who you would come to know by name and would one day surprise you with the revelation that she’d programmed one of the arcade games you plugged countless quarters in as a kid. Classic gaming posters would line the walls, a few arcade cabinets would buzz away in a cozy corner, framed by some well-worn armchairs and stacks of old copies of Nintendo Power and Electronic Gaming Monthly. Maybe that’s a silly fantasy to conjure up. Maybe we’ve outgrown any need for such a shop. But I can’t deny that the fuzzy nostalgia and warm memories associated with rental shops tint a dream like that in bittersweet sadness for me.

Cover image from Charlie on Pinterest

2020

I have to be honest: I kept putting off writing my 2020 wrap-up post. As early as late November I thought about collecting my thoughts on last year’s games. It’s not that I didn’t want to write about all of the wonderful games I played in 2020. I love writing about video games more than almost anything. But 2020 was a weird year, as unsurprising as that may be for me to say. Though the year was filled with excellent and exciting games and gaming moments, the many global and national challenges facing most of us affected me, too, and impacted my gaming experiences and work more than I ever wanted to admit.

If I think about 2020 purely in gaming terms, what an amazing year. Although critical reception for it was tepid, I loved the Resident Evil 3 remake. It wasn’t quite as expansive as the remake for the second game, but I think both remakes were excellent renditions of their parent games. Capcom’s RE Engine produced beautiful graphics, I loved navigating the broken streets of Raccoon City once again, and I was ecstatic to get more time with Jill Valentine, my favorite Resident Evil character.

A new Animal Crossing game is always a welcome addition to any year, and New Horizons was released at perhaps the most welcoming time in history for any game. Everyone seemed to be playing it – Animal Crossing fans, celebrities, politicians, people who have never played a single AC game, and seemingly everyone on every social media platform. It made me happy to see the series get such love, especially since this was easily the entry with the most significant changes in both gameplay and presentation. With every single new AC game, I lamented the lack of new, exciting features. With older titles, Nintendo would add maybe one major new gimmick and a handful of minor tweaks, but I was always left wondering when a true, full sequel would come out. While New Horizons does retain some of the series’ core mechanics, it adds and expands on so many cool features, like crafting, travel, and multiplayer (even if it’s still imperfect). I had so much fun with New Horizons, and even when I sometimes feel sad for “abandoning” it, I still ended up putting over 300 hours into it. A point that I’ve heard repeatedly debated in conversations about the best games of the year is whether or not New Horizons would have been so popular or well-received if it weren’t for the global pandemic. I suppose the degree to which it would have been popular is debatable, but every mainline AC game has been popular without a mandatory quarantine to boost their prestige. Plus, I think people entertaining that idea are conveniently forgetting both the fact that a great many of us AC fans have been waiting years for this game and the persistent popularity of the Nintendo Switch means that the potential audience for this game was huge, regardless. The fact that many people were looking for a distraction from the pandemic may have notably nudged up hype for this game, but it’s a great game in its own right and surely would have found more success than its already-successful predecessors.

One of the things that made 2017 such a magical year in gaming for me was Persona 5, my long-anticipated introduction to the Persona series, which made 2020’s Persona 5 Royal an absolute day one purchase for me. I really wanted the Phantom Thieves special edition, and after finding it was sold out everywhere I was overjoyed to snag a pre-order from Best Buy. The problem? The release date was right when many non-essential stores went into lockdown from the pandemic. Not the most serious problem anyone’s had in these times, but I was worried the in-store pickup (the only option for pre-order) would be delayed or even canceled. Luckily it was not, and it was my first experience with a staple of pandemic consumer life: curbside pickup. Best Buy sent me an email instructing me to park in front of the store and call the customer service desk (later to become an automated process), and once they verified my order number, someone came outside and dropped the game in my backseat. It seemed like such a novel and bizarre process at that point in time, but I was excited to get home and unbox my new treasure. As with the base game, I absolutely loved my time with Royal, and got the platinum trophy for this entry, too.

Speaking of platinum trophies, I’ve been considering replaying Final Fantasy VII Remake to get the platinum trophy for that game, too, because I was so enamored with it but I feel like I could have spent more time with those characters. I was worried that it would slip from many critics’ minds when it came time for end-of-year award consideration, but it seems to have won a fair number of awards from various outlets. The game is beautiful, the music is so nostalgic and magical, and I really can’t wait to see what they do with the next installment, especially after that provocative ending.

I wasn’t quite as smitten with The Last of Us Part II, but part of that might have been the deafening discourse surrounding the game and its release. It seemed simultaneously the best game ever released and the most offensive artifact to soil consoles, and this was before it was even in most people’s hands. People seemed desperate to share their takes on social media, falling over themselves to take sides or point out some new observation. I specifically avoid hype for most games I play because I don’t want my experiences to be tainted by expectations shaded by the opinion of others, but in this case the hype was virtually unavoidable. I had a pre-order and had, once upon a time, been excited for the game, but I couldn’t get the ongoing conversations about the game out of my head as I played it. I got about fifteen hours in and just didn’t feel like finishing, so I quit. I’ve recently had the itch to go back to it, though, in part because I hate leaving games unfinished, so I installed it on my PS5 and will be starting it back up soon.

In almost an exact opposite situation, I had very little hype for Ghost of Tsushima and it ended up being one of my favorite games of the year, easily. The E3 2018 trailer looked beautiful, but the combat appeared to be in the vein of the Souls games, which didn’t seem up my alley. Tsushima was always on the fringes of my radar, and with little else to play mid-summer, I decided I’d give it a shot. If I didn’t like the combat, at least it had what looked like a beautiful open world I could explore. As it turns out, I really loved the combat. It allows for so many different approaches to battles, and I appreciated that switching stances wasn’t an absolute must to defeat most enemies. I also loved the beautiful open world. And the characters. And the acting and exploration and foxes and… well, you get the point.

I also had a great time with Star Wars Squadrons, which was a simple yet thrilling flight sim, and despite being a sloppy, buggy mess, I also had fun with Cyberpunk 2077.  I very recently wrote about my love of Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Phasmophobia, as well as my mostly-positive adventures in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and I also had a warm and tingly stroll down memory lane with Astro’s Playroom. Paper Mario: The Origami King was a humorous, adorable trip, and The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope was sufficiently spooky. I also used my quarantine months to catch up on some non-2020 games like Days Gone, Gris, I am Setsuna, Luigi’s Mansion 3 and Yakuza 0, and of course I wrote maybe too much about my giddiness over the new consoles. While I wrote specifically about the PlayStation 5, I did also manage to get an Xbox Series X for myself for Xmas. I set it up and… well… that’s about it for now, but I was excited to unbox it and I can’t wait for games like the next Perfect Dark and that Indiana Jones games that was announced today.

So, well, I guess I did end up revisiting games I’ve played this year. But before I started actually writing, the only thing I could think about was the general, difficult-to-describe affect the pandemic has had on me. The few years leading up to 2019 were incredibly hard for me, in terms of my mental health. I had gotten to some very dark places. In early 2019, I took steps to navigate myself out of those dark places, and by the end of the year I began to feel like I had regained control of my life. Then, well, you know. 2020. Many people have had a much worse 2020 than I have, no doubt. But it was something of a precarious year for me. I remained determined to maintain my mental health. I got into a solid workout routine, I walked my cat every day when it was warm, I kept a daily journal, and I did a fair job of transitioning to online teaching, if I do say so myself. The problem was that I felt like my mental and emotional energy had a limit. I could dedicate only so much to staying healthy, and teaching, and participating in hobbies, and parsing all of the negativity that came with the pandemic and the historically toxic presidential election, that anything above and beyond that felt… impossible? Maybe that seems dramatic, but I don’t feel like I had much time post-recovery to enjoy decent mental health before I was expected to write my dissertation, maintain a healthy routine, become an online teacher, and just deal with the overwhelming, flaming flood that was 2020.

So my dissertation went by the wayside. And it felt okay at first. The general consensus about the pandemic’s effect on workflow seemed to be that it was normal and that everyone should give themselves a break. And I did. For a while. I still am, I suppose. But now that it’s been a year and I’ve made almost no progress, the self-doubt and reality of having to secure more funding or work to hopefully try and finish this thing in 2021 is inescapable. Institutions and professionals urged us to be kind and give ourselves more time, but in reality the expectations and deadlines never really changed. And because my dissertation is on games, looking back and thinking of my experience with gaming in 2020 was… complicated. I’ve played so many great games, and I’m excited for the future of gaming, but my place as a gaming scholar always feels like it’s on tremulous ground. I have moments where the field of games studies feels exclusive and some of the most notable names seem out of touch or, frankly, full of shit. Dr. Emma Vossen, a gaming scholar I admire, recently tweeted that she was publishing her final games studies article in academia, and was leaving ten years of work in the field behind her. Why? Because the field is so filled with scholars who don’t seem to understand games and gaming culture. They are academics first, and many of them seem to have gotten into the field because they saw an emergent trend that held lots of publishing potential. Dr. Vossen and others have expressed the notion that some of the best work on games and gaming culture has been done outside of academia, and I agree. But where does that leave me? I have no idea, to be honest. Confused? Angry? Do I push on, hoping to carve a niche for myself and change the culture? Or do I get out and try and get into a seemingly equally exclusive game coverage industry?

Sorry for the rant. For how terrible 2020 was in almost every other regard, it was a great year for gaming. My future in my field of choice may be murky, but I am still in love with video games, and there are some exciting titles coming out this year and in the near-ish future. Persona 5 Strikers, Resident Evil Village, Gotham Knights, Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Breath of the Wild 2, Horizon Forbidden West, and who knows what else is to come. What will the Switch Pro be like? When is the PS5’s next-gen virtual reality headset coming? Wherever life takes me this year, at least I’ll have some amazing games to play along the way.

Mostly Miles (Morales) and a Little (Telling) Lies

As I wrote in my last post, before I reflect on my year in gaming, I want to get some thoughts down about two 2020 games I’ve played recently, and the second of those games is Spider-Man: Miles Morales. I am also going to sneak in some thoughts about another 2020 game (for console, anyway) that I just finished: Telling Lies – because I don’t know if I have enough thoughts to give it its own post and I kind of want to just put a bow on 2020 and move on.

Man, what a time to be a Spider-Man fan, right? As what I might call a passive fan since childhood, I’m kind of jealous of hardcore Spidey fans. I really love the latest Spider-Man movies, the 2018 Spider-Man game was amazing, and now Miles Morales just hops right up on the stack of recent awesomeness. I’ve only read a relative handful of Spider-Man comics, but I’ve dabbled in the video games going back to Maximum Carnage on the SNES (I still get clips from that soundtrack stuck in my head to this day, too). While it’s true that some of what makes this game so great is imported directly from the 2018 base game, there are things about this game that make it great in its own right. [Spoilers ahead]

I listen to a fair number of video game podcasts, and there is an element of the game that has been overlooked in the discussions about its eligibility as “game of the year material.” In almost every discussion about it, the focus seems to be on how the game is mechanically different than the original game. For some, Miles’ venom powers are enough to distinguish the game and lift it up as its own great game for award consideration. For others, it’s not quite enough, so they dismiss it as “not different enough” to be considered seriously for recognition. But the way the game presents not only Miles but the many people around him, is very different than not only the first game, but narrative games in general. Many of the mechanics used to tell his story are the same – the smooth transitions between gameplay and cinematics, phone calls with allies, podcasts, etc. – but what’s been amped up is the sense of community and the importance of representation, and those two things are, in my opinion, huge, and set it much further apart from the original game than Miles having a few new moves in combat.

From the very beginning of the game, one of the central conflicts is that Miles doesn’t quite feel welcome as a “real” Spider-Man. A local muralist leaves him out of a new mural featuring Pete’s Spidey, a shop owner named his cat Spider-Man after the “real Spider-Man,” he says with a tone of dismissiveness (after Miles just helped him recover his beloved pet, no less), there are quips from random NPCs around the world about “that other Spider-Man” or “where is the real Spider-Man,” and more. This was a powerful place to start, because that seems to be just the kind of discourse you hear about Miles as a fictional character in real life. He’s not the “real” Spider-Man. He’s just a tool for Marvel to “appeal to the SJWs.” So, if you’re aware of those kinds of conversations, it’s hard not to see this story as a metaphor for the kinds of discussions we have about marginalized people in prominent roles that were once reserved for traditional, non-marginalized (straight white dudes, if we’re being specific) characters all the time.

And the balance that this game strikes between focusing on Miles’ identity and heritage and the pretty standard super hero-y bits is so impressive. There are a ton of cultural references in this game, from the music Miles flips through to play for a holiday gathering, to the uncaptioned use of Spanish, to wall art, and much more. But it’s not the focus of the story, and I never felt like it was done strictly as a way of placating people with specific political leanings. It’s not only that it contributes to the characterization of Miles as someone who has likely felt like an outsider in one way or another for most of his life – the use of his community to highlight and reflect his culture and the culture of others made this city feel more alive. More than any other game I’ve played, particularly those set in real places, I felt like this was a real community of people. I have only been to New York City once, and just for a day, so maybe someone who’s lived there would disagree, but as an outsider I felt like this was (at the very least) someone’s real version of New York, and I actually felt a sense of longing to be included, to live there and know those people.

Granted, this sense mostly came after the ending of the game, when I played through a second time using the New Game+ feature. [Additional spoiler wanting for end-game story beats] One of the funniest things about the story, to me, was the fact that when Peter left for vacation at the beginning of the game, he explicitly tells Miles to “not tell anyone you’re Spider-Man.” Miles even refers back to this when his friend Ganke, who knows his identity, suggests Miles tell Phin, his old best friend and crush, that he is Spider-Man. By the end of the game, after just one superhero questline, everyone knows that Miles is Spider-Man. His mom, Phin, his uncle, the cute wall artist he met, the shop owner, some random city worker, and on and on. As funny as this payoff is, I was also incredibly moved by it the second time I experienced it. It reminded me of the great train scene in Spider-Man 2, where a maskless Peter almost dies stopping a train from derailing, saving everyone on board. The people in the train carry him, wounded, and gently place him on the ground before returning his mask and promising not to tell anyone. And they don’t! It’s this kind of relationship between hero and community that makes some of Spider-Man’s history and lore so great, and in Miles Morales we get to see a hero and community that is more real and representative than ever. Look, I completely understand that the world is in a rough place right now (to put it lightly), and it’s easy to be cynical and pessimistic, but the ending of this game left me feeling very warm. Miles’ story, his experience as an outsider, the love and diversity of his community… it made me feel like this was a special game, and deserving of more attention and praise than just nods towards how Miles fought differently than Peter did in the first game.

I still don’t feel like I’m doing the game’s sense of community justice, but let me move on to some more specific things I liked. First, and I mentioned it earlier, is the wall art. It’s a small thing, but some of the wall art in this game is beautiful, and I found myself pulling some web-slinging U-turns to get screenshots of some of it. I’ve noticed similarly solid street art in other recent games, like Cyberpunk, so I feel like someone who knows way more about street art than I do should write a paper on it. Who are the artists behind them? How did they approach making wall art for virtual walls? That kind of stuff. That aside, I’ll let the images speak for themselves. I love that the Black Cat piece from the first game is still in the same place, only faded and weathered (last pic).

Another thing I appreciated about the game was the stunning graphics. The graphics for the first game were good, so some of that attention to detail and excellent lighting carries over here, but I imagine some of the crispness of specific things was made even clearer by the PS5’s hardware. The reflections, shadows, and abundance of different textures kept catching my eye. There were several times where I’d be crawling under the shadow of a vent or a gate and I’d pause to marvel at how far shadows in video games have come. I remember seeing screenshots of an early Splinter Cell game on the Xbox and being so blown away by the fact that thin lines were finally casting “real” shadows in games. Years later, in this game, I am once again impressed, this time with how sharp the shadows are, and the variety of light and shadow sources they are in any given scene.

The reflections, too, really showed off how capable Insomniac’s engine is. Unless there is some new technique that I’m not aware of, the way that most developers render reflections in games is by literally scripting a second set of visual resources that mimic the original image. So when Miles looks in a mirror in the game, the engine is having to render a second Miles that is just programmed to do exactly what the player does. It’s a gimmick that goes back to as early as Metal Gear Solid 2 (I think?), but in most cases the player character is in a small, enclosed space, where there isn’t much in the environment that would have to be “reflected” (double rendered), like a bathroom. When you consider how much memory a machine would need to use to render a detailed player character and its surroundings twice, it’s understandable why mirroring wasn’t so widespread. There is even a bathroom mirror for Miles to look in at his apartment, but there were also much larger areas where there were reflective surfaces big and small, and every time I popped into one of these spaces I would ooh and ahh as I snapped some screenshots.

Also, look at some of the textures in this game. Again, I know they were present in the previous game, too, but they look so clear and varied here. Seeing Miles in a Spider suit that has several different and unique textures standing next to Prowler, whose suit has several different textures unto itself, for example, was really cool. You can make out tiny variations in types of thread, rubber, plastics, patches, and more.

There is also a lot of stuff carried over from the first game that I still love. The Arkham-style combat is still great, I love the sprawling recreation of New York and zipping around to find collectables, and give me all of the suits. It’s been widely covered by now, but having a tiny fur-ball of fury strapped to your back is adorable and so fun. When I would perch on a building and linger for too long, he would pop out and bat at the back of my head, he took some lethal swipes at the bad guys I was taking down, and he would occasionally just stretch his little arms out to the sky. My heart.

So, yeah, I loved this game. I loved it after my first playthrough, but taking my time to enjoy and explore the world, get invested in the community that Miles lives in, and really exist in that world made it above and beyond a mere half-sequel, as many podcasters seem to consider it. I can’t wait for the next game, even if it’s probably at least a few years away.

Because I played Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Cyberpunk 2077, and Miles Morales back to back, I kind of wanted a short, easy palate cleanser before getting back to The Last of Us Part II or some other big, deep game, so I hopped into Telling Lies, a desktop simulator visual narrative game. I don’t know if that’s the official genre, but it seems appropriate. I have come to realize that I have a weirdly strong affinity for desktop sims, and I don’t know if it has something to do with voyeurism or nostalgia, but as soon as I realized that the interface was going to be a computer desktop and I would be access videos of people via search terms and a database, I was in.

Beyond the interface and some interesting story beats, though, I was left a little wanting. This is an interesting and innovative way to tell a story, but the ‘game’ part of it seemed a bit unrealized. Let me explain. When you begin, the game gives you a very brief tutorial of how to search the database and then sets you free about your business. What is your business, though? The game doesn’t specify, but I quickly felt like I must be tasked with sleuthing out some story. I didn’t know what I was looking for, but by following the proverbial breadcrumbs I began to see tantalizing snippets of what might be some nefarious plot. Even then, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be looking for. Is it the story of this one character’s death? Or this apparent terrorist plot? Or this love triangle? Or something I haven’t uncovered yet? So I kept fumbling, not certain I was on the right track because I wasn’t even sure there was a track. There is a file on the virtual computer that says I will upload my “report” by morning, but as the fictional hours ticked by I became increasingly concerned with whether or I would unravel whatever mystery I was supposed to solve before the time ran out.

In the end, I don’t think there is any detective work to be done. I was bookmarking specific parts of videos, sure I would have to connect videos together in my report to show guilt or motive or something, but I didn’t. You just watch the videos, submit “the report” which is just a list of whatever videos you watched, and that’s it. The developer’s previous game, Her Story, was more successful as an interactive story because there wasn’t nearly as much framing to mislead players into thinking there was some ultimate objective other than watching the videos. And how cool would it have been if the game had delivered on that? I would have loved to have made different folders for different characters or plot points, then organized and woven them together at the end to reveal one character as a murderer or another as an accomplice or whatever. That promise is left by the wayside, though, so other than experiencing an interesting story in an unconventional way, sprinkled with an occasional bit of solid acting performance, I was mostly underwhelmed by this game. I want them to keep making games like this, though, not just because they expand what the medium is capable of, but because when the gameplay and framework works, it has potential to be very cool and powerful.

Working on My Night Moves: Cyberpunk 2077

Before I write my 2020 year-in-review, I wanted to put proverbial pen to equally proverbial paper about my time with the last two games I played in 2020, starting with one of the most avidly discussed games of the year: Cyberpunk 2077.

The discourse around the release of Cyberpunk is fascinating in its own right, but I’m not about to get into much of that. Like others, my experience with the game was impacted by expectations based on unfulfilled promises and years of hype, but I did my best to distance my immediate experience with the game from what I thought the game “should” be. It was hard, though, as it always is when a game is hyped to hell and back. And I’m not here to cast blame, as I think the fault in this particular situation is spread pretty equally between CD Projekt Red, gamers, and media coverage. The more I played the game, the more I felt empathy for anyone having to review it. Every time I found myself disappointed at something I felt was missing or underdeveloped in the game, I tried to take a step back and gain some perspective. What would I think of this game if I had never heard anything about it? If I had never played The Witcher 3? If I had no clue about what this game was supposed to be? So my thoughts here are mostly a result of a struggle to maintain that perspective while also being honest with myself about the many ways this game failed me. [Spoilers ahead]

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed my experience in Night City. As a fan of open-world RPGs, I really liked some of the core gameplay, and the narrative was also pretty solid. I love getting absolutely immersed in RPGs – feeling like I am in this world, living this life, making these choices. But I frequently felt like the game kept me from feeling thoroughly immersed and lost in the fantasy of this really cool world that the developers built for me. It started with the character creator. While I was able to make a character that did look a lot like me, I was kind of surprised by how limited my choices were, especially because you can’t change them later. I went into this game with the perception that everyone’s V would be super unique, but given how (relatively) limited the options are in the character creator, I imagine there are a lot of very similar looking Vs out there. That wouldn’t be a big deal if you could go out into the world and get custom tattoos, hair styles, eyes, etc., but you can’t.

That (admittedly very minor) disappointment set the tone for my early hours in the game. Every new mechanic or system came with some level of “…oh. Okay.” The driving is very unsatisfying, the shooting felt loose and imprecise until I got a very good gun, the city streets felt empty and not nearly as bustling and full of life as I’d expected, and then there were the numerous bugs and crashes that have been widely documented by others. I played the PS4 version on a PS5, so it wasn’t even the worst version of it. It crashed 36 times in my playthrough, and virtually every play session was filled with little odd bugs and glitches here and there. Cars falling from the sky, sound going in and out, objects floating where they shouldn’t be, I fell through the floor a couple of times, and more. The clunkiness wasn’t limited to the bugs, though. There seemed to be some questionable design and balance issues, too. The biggest of these confusing decisions is probably how shallow the life paths seemed. From the previews and interviews released over the last couple of years, I was expecting the opening hours of the game to be spent on a very specific set of missions that shaped your character through the lens of whatever life path you chose. As a Nomad, I was looking forward to hours in the desert, learning combat and exploration while hearing tell of the seedy and shady deals going on in the big, scary city. The game had different plans. I started in a garage in the desert, sure. Then a very stereotypical small-town sheriff came in and gave me a very stereotypical “your kind ain’t welcome ‘round here *spits*” lecture. I say “stereotypical” but I was into it. “I’m just passing through,” I said to him, certain he would rue the day he treated me so sore. I just knew our paths would cross again as I went about my business in their small rural town. He would probably be my first rival. A nemesis I’d have to take down just before embarking on my ultimate journey into the heart of the city.

The game said “lol cute story but no. Go to the city. Go to the city now,” and almost immediately put me on course to head to the city. Worse, I couldn’t even explore the opening desert area. I left that garage after reassuring the sheriff I meant no trouble, parked at a nearby diner to look around and start exploring the world, and almost as soon as I got out of my car I had a warrant issued and the police chased me down and killed me. For stepping out of my car. This was a game design choice. One that seems specifically meant to dissuade exploration and experimentation. They wanted me to stay on track and get to the mission that would bring me to the city, so I barely felt like my life path choice meant anything. I was talking with my friend Tab at the time, and we agreed that it feels like the developers must have gutted the life paths. After that brief rural opening, there is a fast moving montage of my exploits with my new friend, Jackie. This seemed like shorthand meant to make up for all of the character development and gameplay onboarding that was supposed to take place in the opening life path section of the game. Further, once I was in the city and doing missions, some things felt unbalanced, like stealth and hacking. Later in the game, I appreciated the different ways that you could approach some missions. It was clear that real thought had gone into making some levels satisfying regardless if you went in and hacked everything, snuck around and took people down stealthily, or charged in guns blazing. Early on, however, the hacking and stealthing paths seemed impossible or just out of reach, even if you allocated lots of perk points to those skills. Now, that could be poor, lazy design and balance, but if you imagine that a chunk of the early game was jettisoned, it actually makes sense. If players were meant to spend 10-15 hours doing missions and exploring their respective life paths before starting the shared mainline missions, then they would probably have enough experience/perk points to take on those early missions in a variety of ways, instead of being forced to defaulting to mainly guns.

I didn’t want to spend this much time griping, but here we are, I guess. Before I get into the things I liked, one last complaint. In pre-release material, CD Projekt Red made a big deal about the myriad styles in the game and your ability to mix and match to find a style that best fits “your” V (which, let me slip in an extra complaint and say that I felt like V was very much not “mine,” and I wish I had had more influence over his behavior and attitude). Maybe there are combinations of clothing that work, but I was almost always walking around town looking like a goofy, gaudy Kevin Federline impersonator (you are very welcome for that incredibly dated reference). It’s a byproduct of an RPG where everything is stat based, sure, but that conflicts with the immersive aspect of an open-world narrative where you’re really trying to inhabit your character. I can mix and match elements to create an okay looking outfit, or I can actually survive gunfights and pick the pieces that have the best stats. I chose the latter, and because the game is in first person I would often forget about what I was wearing. I would start getting into the story and feeling really in-character, like an up-and-coming badass, ready to climb my way to the top of Night City. Then I would see something cool and pop into screenshot mode. And I ope.

Okay, okay, I can hear you saying “didn’t you say you liked the game and enjoyed your time with it? That’s not what I’m reading here.” And now I can hear you saying “uh, how can you hear me? I’m not a real person and even if I were, we’d be miles apart.” And I have no answer for that other than to say stop sassing me, dear fictitious reader. I did mostly enjoy my time with the game. While the game certainly looks and feels clunky in places, there was also a lot of visual flair that I appreciated. I’m not at all an expert in the cyberpunk genre, but in my limited experience with it (mostly in film) I’ve seen a lot of noir and neo-noir influence, and I think it would be fun to study this game a bit more closely and look at how the style adds to or changes the meaning of some of the visuals. For example, the use of shadow (slatted or barred, particularly) is a key marker of the style, and certain scenes in the game used shadows in a very noir-esque way. In this shot, look at the use of lighting:

Barred shadows are often used to create a sense of mystery and distrust, sometimes conveying that the person they are cast on is dangerous or should be caged. The femme fatale, another staple of the genre, is usually the one framed in these shadows, and as her name implies, she is pretty often responsible for death later in the story. In the above shot, it’s Johnny Silverhand that is shadowed by straight but imperfectly spaced light coming through window shades. At this point in the story, Johnny’s motivations are still suspect. In our first encounter, he tried to kill me, but since then we’d established a tenuous but slightly more stable partnership. Still, the shadow here makes it clear that he may be the “femme” fatale, because in the fore of the shot there is a candle which ensures that no shadow falls on the only woman in the shot, Hanako Arasaka. She, in her royal-looking red and gold and regal gaze, is on one side of Johnny, while Goro Takemura, who is visually presented as a servant here (hands clasped, just having served her tea), is on his other side. We’ve come to trust Goro, who saved our life and was our partner on the mission that led to this exact moment. Our attention is on them, but Johnny’s placement between them, distance, and position in shadows, conveys a lot of meaning and contributes to his development as a character in relation to us. After a big gunfight where Hanako is “rescued” from us, we pass out, only to wake up in a seedy motel room, where this scene then takes place:

Two of the same characters (the woman is a stand-in or vessel for Hanako) in the same positions, but note how the shadows have changed. Johnny, who is closer now, is completely lost in shadow, and Hanako, who in the previous scene refused to help us, is now the one framed in lines of shadow. With her previous refusal to believe V and Goro, her intentions are now suspect (why does she want to talk now, and why send a “doll”?), and thus we have reason to doubt and suspect her. This suspicion plays an important role in her involvement in the main story and, eventually, your choices that affect the ending of the game. So, while the moment-to-moment visuals of the game weren’t always perfect, there is a lot of cool and important visual flair and framing going on, and this is just one example of that.

Another visual thing that I appreciated was the lighting and reflections. No, I’m not talking about the mirrors that are somehow less user friendly in the future. I mean the reflections on water or wet streets (another visual feature of the noir style, but I digress). I would often catch myself stopping my bike to take a screenshot of the way a sign or building was reflecting off of the slick street. The rain itself looked like butt, but the resulting streets after a rain were nice. Or the way the reflection of this neon sign reveals the texture of the wallpaper by reflecting differently off of the shiny and matte parts of it, and how it also reflects softly off of the gun I’m holding.

I mostly liked the main story, but it was some of the side quests and subplots that really stuck with me, for better or worse. There were a couple of storylines that I felt wrapped up too hastily, like Judy and Evelyn’s, but there were some really impactful moments within those stories. It was moments like those, whether dire or celebratory, that made the overall sloppiness of the game that much more disappointing. The cool or dark or fun stories that they weave shows that CD Projekt Red has retained some of the talent that contributed to some of the stellar storytelling in The Witcher 3, so it’s sad to see it buried under the game’s other issues. I gave a spoiler warning at the beginning of the post, but I’ll throw another one out because I’m about to go into a bit of detail about one of the game’s most memorable side quests. Said quest begins innocuously enough, with you agreeing to help someone avenge his murdered wife by killing her killer. It turns out the murderer is in police protection and on his way to be crucified on air to seemingly atone for his sins. Has he really repented? Is he being manipulated by the corporations? These are questions asked of you as you shift your aid from the widower to the convicted murderer. In the end, if you make the choices I did, you end of being the one physically nailing him to a wooden cross in front of cameras. It’s a pretty grotesque scene, but it’s not played for shock in the same way it might have played out in a Grand Theft Auto game. It’s dealing in visual shock, certainly, but it is also doing what interesting science fiction or futuristic stories do and asking what becomes of certain social elements in the future. In this city, which is well established by this point in the story to be a battleground for corporate greed and opportunist greed, where everything seems packaged and sold for the masses, what becomes of something like Christianity? This quest offers a pretty grim answer: it’s still thriving, so much so that the audience for this live execution is big enough to be worth some corp a whole lot of money.

Speaking of that quest, the producer who is tasked with keeping the doomed convict on schedule is Rachel, and while she might have been a major beeyatch, she was also a major hottie, and it made me wish the romance system was bigger and more flexible. I’m glad they kept romances in the game, because I’d read rumors that they might end up being cut as they neared deadline and were making significant content cuts to make their final release window. But in early preview discussions of the game, it seemed like maybe they’d planned on allowing players to romance a number of characters. As it stands, I think no matter what the build your V is, every player only has two possible characters that they can romance. For me, it was Panam and River. I really liked Judy and would have loved to romance her, but I do like that they give characters their own sexuality and everyone isn’t just magically bisexual, like they are in other games with romance systems. Do I want the option to date everyone? Sure. But I can’t deny that it helps to define characters better if their sexuality is a part of their character and not a result of giving players a chance to bang everyone. Having said that, it would be great and more in line with the original promise of Night City if there were a number of characters to romance throughout the city. Like Rachel, who is not a good person and is probably very mean but who would probably step on my neck if I asked nicely and offered something of value to her career. So, yes, please.

I spent a lot of time with this game (even got the platinum trophy!) so I could go on, but I’ll quickly tack on a few thoughts and then wrap this up. The racing was pretty bad, but I thought it was important to have a trans character in such a prominent role (even if she was imperfect). I really liked Goro, which made his final message to you in most of the endings very sad. They really did him dirty. I liked that Keanu had such a big role, and I enjoyed the relationship between V and Johnny a lot. Overall, as I said, I did like playing the game; it was just frustratingly unfinished and sloppy. As an English teacher, it reminded me of the kind of paper I might grade where I’m like “this is an excellent draft! Now let’s make it an excellent paper.” Because, as a draft, this game does introduce some really cool ideas and systems. It just has some formatting and grammar issues that make it hard to “read.” I think Cyberpunk 2078 (or whatever it ends up being called) will be a realization of all of the ambition that went unfulfilled with this entry.

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla

When I pre-ordered my PlayStation 4, I took advantage of an offer from Sony where you got three launch games for the price of two. Like most launch lineups, it was slim pickings, but I went with Killzone Shadow Fall (because it was one of the only made-for-next-gen choices), Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Black Flag was my first AC game and I absolutely fell in love with it. I spent many hours over that winter break clearing every icon on the map and wishing I could pirate around the Caribbean forever. I was so into the game that I’ve since bought and played Assassin’s Creed, AC 2, AC 3, Brotherhood, Revelations, Syndicate, Origins, and Odyssey. I’m not as into the Vikings theme as many others seem to be, but I liked Origins and Odyssey enough that Valhalla was still a definite day one purchase. What complicated matters, though, was the fact that the game was originally slated to launch just a week before Cyberpunk 2077, a game I knew I wanted to play at launch alongside my friends. Well, when Cyberpunk was delayed by three weeks, I felt like a month would be enough time to finish Valhalla before I found my way to the streets of Night City. I was a few days off. [Some spoilers ahead]

I’m framing my experience like this because those last few days of finishing the game felt torturous. I have a very hard time putting games aside without beating them, especially if I’ve already sunk many hours into them. I wasn’t about to stop playing Valhalla when Cyberpunk came out because I was, I thought, right near the end of the game. Except I wasn’t. The game’s narrative structure is a bit loose, because like the last couple of AC games there are multiple branches of the broad, overarching story, each with its own quest lines. You have Eivor’s storyline, the Brotherhood storyline, the present day (Order of the Ancients) storyline, and the Asgard storyline, all independent yet woven together to form the “whole” story. This isn’t necessarily different than Origins or Odyssey, which had similar structures, but the game isn’t exactly clear about how these elements fit together. When I reached the “end” of Eivor’s storyline, I was legitimately unsure if I’d “beat” the game. Further, even after I’d finished the other storylines, it didn’t feel like the storylines had converged in a satisfying way. I think this was, in part, due to the way the last several stretches in Eivor’s story drag on and on. Just when you think you’ve done the last thing, they open a new area that you’re required to conquer. And that word, “required,” is what I think is to blame for my annoyance with the last chunk of the narrative.

Before I get into that, let me say that I understand pacing is a very difficult thing to nail in an open world game. When you give your players the freedom to explore an open world, complete side quests unrelated to the main quest, and finish segments of the narrative whenever they choose, you are essentially leaving the pace of the game and the narrative in their hands. You can include things to remind the player of the main narrative or incentivize main quests over side quests, but the more you do so the more you risk making your players feel more restricted and less “free” in this open world you’ve set up for them. So, it’s a balance, but even when you get it mostly right, players can be their own worst enemies. I have to admit that when I hear people talk about an open world game having “too much side content” or “poor pacing” (due to the aforementioned side content), I want to snap a controller in half. Not really. They are so expensive now. Anyway, it makes me angry. Because side content is, if a game is pretty well designed, optional. You don’t need to participate in any of it. So, if you do, and if that makes you like the game less or feel that the narrative is paced poorly, that is explicitly on you, right? You had a choice to go through the narrative at your own pace or to ignore side content, and you chose not to. How is that the game’s fault? We should celebrate open world games that allow for varying experiences, where one person can mainline the story in a manageable amount of time and another can spend many more hours with optional side content.

My problem with Valhalla’s pacing is that much of the content is not optional. Even if we leave aside the grinding (of side content) that seems required to be high enough in level to complete main missions, in order to “truly” complete the game, you have to go through all of the above mentioned storyline quests. You have to go through all of Eivor’s missions, all of the Asgard missions, all of the present day missions, and all of the Brotherhood missions. In addition to this, the game leads you to believe you’re approaching the climax several times, only to then introduce a new area that you must go through all of the steps to conquer and move the story along.

If I was playing this game in isolation, during a slow summer, maybe I wouldn’t have been quite as irked as I was by it. But we are in one of the busiest release windows in recent memory, and I have a new console and several new games to play. And I stand by my complaint that the interweaving of the four narrative branches is loose and unclear, and I think that played directly into my issue with the pace as well. When added to a few very irksome bugs (which seem laughable now that I’ve also just completed Cyberpunk, but more on that in the next post) and confusing “world events,” which have replaced side quests (so they’re essentially side quests under a different name and with a worse tracking system), I was left somewhat disappointed in Valhalla. Does that mean I disliked it? No! I decided to start with my negative impressions because the crush of new consoles and games to play is clearly affecting how I consume media, so it all felt very relevant and timely. But there was a lot to like about Valhalla, too.

I know there are some people that are annoyed at the series’ move away from stealth and toward open combat, and I have mixed feelings about it. I thought that by the time they got to Black Flag, Ubisoft had gotten very good at designing forts and other areas that required you to find one of several stealthy ways to infiltrate and topple. But sometimes, in my impatience, I wanted to just rush in and murder a bunch of bad guys and move on. Where it was very difficult to do that in previous games, it is very easy (and, in fact, preferred) in Valhalla. Especially as I gained levels and became more powerful, it felt very cathartic to vent my frustrations by running straight into battle, an axe in each hand, flinging myself into hordes of enemies and severing limbs and heads with relative ease. Returning to a previously challenging area later in the game, when I was very powerful, was particularly satisfying, as I felt I was exacting bloody revenge on the foes that had once given me such a hard time.

The game is also gorgeous. As with Origins and Odyssey, I spent a whole lot of time in photo mode, mostly capturing shots of the game’s incredible lighting and atmospheric effects. As I was sifting through my screenshots after playing Origins I remember thinking “how many shots of the sun did I need?” Then, with Odyssey, I had the same problem and thought “hah, I did it again.” And, now, well… I just have to resign myself to the fact that I will always walk away from a new AC game with dozens of screenshots of the sun. Rising. Setting. Behind a cloud. Behind a building. By the water. By a mountain. By itself. I have a problem, okay?

In addition to the graphics being great, Ubisoft continues to be masters of the physicality of open worlds. They are so good at creating topographic and geological environments, and I don’t think they get enough credit for it. I get it. With so much content in a game, how often do you have time to slow down and appreciate the way a river flows from a glacial peak, down to a small lake that feeds into a waterfall that has shorn jagged cliffs into the mountainside and created a system of caves? I found myself taking time to appreciate these things pretty often, but if I had time (and incentive) I would love to spend hours just travelling around the intricately designed worlds of Origins, Odyssey, and Valhalla, just looking for interesting and beautiful geographic features. A small example that I stupidly did not get a screenshot of: I saw a small tree that was set into an outcropping of rock in a hilly field. The rock on that side of the hill had crumbled, leaving a cleft in the hill, and where the ground became soft and probably mineral-rich, a small tree had been lucky enough to take root. It wasn’t special. There was no particular purpose to it. But some designer had thought about the environment closely and with such care that they added this small detail that most people would probably never even notice or think about. This kind of environmental detail is why, for whatever flaws they might have, I will probably always love these kinds of AC games.

Though the setting of ninth century England wasn’t quite as iconic as Ancient Greece or Egypt, there were some fun places to explore and odd allusions here and there. One of my favorite things to do was find and explore abandoned Assassins bureaus around the country. In fact, I wish there was a bit more to them than a brief environmental/platforming segment and a few scrolls. But I did like them enough as-is, and reading the scrolls left behind was a nice way to tie the long-standing Assassins’ story in with the current history of the region.

Some of the allusions and Easter eggs I ran across seemed very appropriate, and some just seemed… odd. Robin Hood’s band of merry men? Makes sense! A side quest that is based on and directly named after one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? Duh! A character made to look like The Prodigy’s Keith Flint, who asks you to beat up a bishop while he and his band sings “Smack My Bishop”? Yea- wait, what? I mean, yeah, they’re an English band, but what an odd choice. There are tonnes (see what I did there? With the British spelling? Because it’s a game set in England? I should delete this) of very famous British bands that they could have used. The Beatles. The Rolling Stones. The Spice Girls. That one with the dumb, unoriginal, angry brothers. Why The Prodigy? One of my favorite side quests/allusions was obtaining Excalibur, though. I waited until I was pretty much done with everything else in the game before embarking on that particular journey, and I kind of wish I’d sought it earlier. I definitely liked the dual axe thing, but the journey to find Excalibur was very satisfying and using it as a weapon was fun.

And to cram in a few more scattershot thoughts, I will say I thought the depiction of three religions (Paganism, Old Norse, and Christianity) trying to coexist was interesting. At one point, Eivor says “their soft god,” referring to Jesus, which I thought was very amusing. I loved that you could not only pet and cuddle the cats in the game, but you could have a ship cat! A cat! On your ship! Speaking of ships, the naval stuff was meh. Nothing will beat pirating on the open seas, but I guess I wasn’t expecting it to. I did love my rainbow ship decorations, though, with matching happy, smiling shields. Very tonally appropriate. The three witch sisters (the Daughters of Lerion) might have been my favorite quest in the game. They were super hard and reminded me of the Valkyries in God of War, but beyond that I loved their backstory of fallen family, betrayal, and vengeance. The fishing kind of sucked. But you do get into a rap battle with a squirrel at one point, so you win some, you lose some. Overall, I did like the game, but the pacing issues, seemingly sloppy mission design in some areas, and bugs, kept it from being among my favorite AC games.