One of the main reasons I started this blog was to track some of my thoughts about games I play, for my own benefit. Writing about games helps me retain memories of them, and I value having a record of my gaming experiences. I realized this back when I had a blog on the now defunct 1UP.com, because revisiting those blogs was always fun and sometimes insightful. I haven’t been doing that with this blog, because I’ve been using it to work out specific kinds of ideas that I encounter in games, in the hopes that they will allow me to use them in future projects/papers. But you know what? I want to get back into it. It’s fun, and me from ten years in the future wants it, so here is a giant thought-dump on some of the games I’ve played over the last few months. [I realize that people do read this blog on occasion, so I should say: Spoiler warning for plot-related beats]
Detroit: Become Human
It’s hard to dislike a game as beautiful as Detroit. And I wouldn’t say I dislike it, exactly. I liked it well enough. But when a developer puts so much money and time and effort into getting real actors and modelling/animating characters with such realism that some screenshots could easily fool people into thinking they were from a movie, the moments that seem to indicate poor or lazy development stand out a lot more. I appreciate David Cage and his team’s desire to create rich, realistic worlds and tell complex and challenging stories in them, but they always seem a little half-baked. Using androids as a parallel for issues of race and equality can be done. The obvious comparison is Blade Runner, since this game pulls a lot of its plot straight from that movie. But where Blade Runner makes Deckard’s personal journey the focus and all of the issues of equality, personhood, and discrimination subtle colorings that play out in tandem, Detroit puts all of those issues front and center, shoving them in your face scene after scene.
If you had any doubt that this game was a retelling of the Civil Rights movement (with a dash of the Holocaust), Claire, the android on the main menu, shares a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and (separately) informs you that the city of Detroit was on the underground railroad, and in the game, androids have to ride in the back of the bus, they are rounded up into camps for elimination, they have to wear specific markings to identify themselves, they have no rights, they have their own underground railroad, they march in the face of police violence with their hands up, and more. This game tries very hard to be “high art,” and I want that so badly from new video games, but its lack of subtlety implies a belief that the audience is not smart enough to read into allegory or metaphor or allusion. So as a narrative adventure game, it’s beautiful and sometimes fun, if a bit clunky in places. As a piece of art, it’s shallow and disappointing.
Senran Kagura: Peach Beach Splash
Where do I even begin? This squad-based, water gun shooter would be a perfect example to illustrate how someone might actually enjoy something that is socially problematic. This game objectifies its characters unlike any game I’ve played. It’s not just that the plot requires them to all be in small bikinis, or the fact that you can dress them in lots of barely-there or see-thru outfits, or even that you can then pose them in those outfits in various states of undress and sexually suggestive poses. The most problematic thing is probably that one of the main gameplay moves is to humiliate a downed opponent by blasting her in the face, chest, or butt to blast her bikini off against her will. Actual naughty bits are blocked out, but it’s the fact that you’re forcibly undressing a defenseless girl that’s problematic.
Having said all of that, I played the hell out of this game. I was honestly expecting to play for a few hours and get bored, but the shooting mechanics are solid, the various weapons require unique tactics that were fun to learn, and hopping/zipping around using the water jetpacks was a blast. I had planned on playing through the main story and then moving on, but I was having so much fun that I decided to get some of the trophies that went with upgrading your characters and weapons. Well, to upgrade those things you have to use duplicates of the collectable cards that you get after each match (or from the in-game shop). So as I began to grind for those, I started becoming obsessed with filling out my collection and getting new cards that would make me better/stronger/faster so that I could tackle the challenging tournament mode. In the end, I played way, way more of this game than I’d expected to. But I regret nothing, even if I do feel compelled to point out how problematic it is.
The Walking Dead: Seasons 1 & 2
I’d heard so much about “the Telltale formula” of storytelling that I had been wanting to play these games for a very long time. I played Telltale’s Back to the Future game some months back and wasn’t super impressed by its abundance of clunk and bugs, but I’d heard much, much better things about the TWD games. For the most part, I think they live up to the hype. They are still quite clunky in places, and some of the character/facial animations are distracting, but it does some interesting things with narrative, character, and choice. It’s not quite as revolutionary as I expected, because the core story is still the same for everyone, regardless of choices, but many of the choices were difficult to make and usually didn’t feel contrived.
I will say that I was happy to be finished with them by the end, though. I have been prone to seasonal summer depression these last couple of years, and TWD games are very much like the show in that the characters move from one shitty, challenging event to another, with very little to celebrate. Having to make tough decisions that sometimes resulted in the deaths of characters I wanted to keep alive, or having the plot kill off characters for me, or never having a place that we could really dig in and set up like a home was getting to me. So I think these are important and useful games to look at for story, but man did they bum me out.
Life is Strange: Before the Storm
Life is Strange: Before the Storm also gave me a case of the feels, but in good way? Kind of? Within two minutes of starting the game and being reminded of the cringe-inducing lingo that the characters in this world use, I was unsure of how well this game would live up to the quality of its predecessor. That, and Chloe’s faux-punk attitude was so annoying. She was trying way too hard. But slowly, slowly the story began to flesh these characters out and make them multi-dimensional, just as the first game had, and by the last couple of chapters I found myself wiping my eyes more than I care to admit.
I’m not pinning a first place ribbon on this game for subtlety, but it does character emotion and interaction far, far better than Detroit, so even though I knew Rachel Amber’s fate going in, I couldn’t help but mourn her fall in this story, especially when I found myself inadvertently flashing back to the scene where Chloe is bawling over Rachel’s make-shift grave in the first game. I went into this game with some serious skepticism, but it very much won me over by the end.
Undertale is the kind of game I wish I’d discovered on my own. When I hear people repeatedly describe a game as “quirky” and “weird,” it loses much of that by the time I play it because I’m expecting it. One of the things that made EarthBound (a game Undertale is often compared to) so magical for me was that I went into it with almost no expectation. I went into Undertale knowing that it played with expectations and humor and combat, so I missed out on the fun surprise that would have come with discovering all of that for myself.
Still, it was a fun game that did indeed do some interesting things that challenged gaming norms. Specifically, the fact that the game challenges you to actually not fight for the entirety of the game is great. I mean, technically you’re still engaging the enemies in combat and defeating them, but the language is not that of “attack” and “destroy,” which is a small but important distinction. There were some genuinely hilarious bits, too, and aside from the (purposely?) bloated end levels/scenes if you try for the “good” ending, it was a pretty brisk experience. Overall, I liked it.
God of War
Speaking of going into a game with expectations, I had very little interest in God of War until it was released and received universal and overwhelming praise. I had grown tired of the series by the third installment, and I was skeptical of the father-son thing. Over the years, Kratos became a parody of hyper-masculine bro-ness, and his son, to be honest, looked a bit like the son of a douche-y bro-dude with his baby scowl and faux-hawk. But with such all-encompassing love from every direction, I had to try the game out.
I was glad I did, of course. There is a little of the “I’m a tough-guy dad!” “Well I’m a tough-guy son!” thing, but not exactly in a bad way. The game develops the characters at a slow and deliberate pace (until one section later in the game, where I learned the developers actually cut planned content that would have maintained the slower pace). Some of the backgrounds are bland, but most of the environments and characters are gorgeous. This was the first game I played with my TV’s HDR mode active, and it really made a difference. The color and particle effects are stunning. The character models are so detailed and make the characters lively and believable. I didn’t care for the combat at first, but once I got the hang of using Atreus I found it to be fun and challenging.
My favorite part of the game, though, was the Valkyries. I liked the game enough to want to platinum it, so I ended up having to face all of them, and hoo boy. They were so much harder than the regular bosses in the core game, none of which I had to fight more than a few times on normal difficulty. And their design was amazing. I spent a lot of time taking a lot of screenshots of each of them, and even more time wondering how I would go about asking one of them on a date if I lived in their world. Just kidding. Mostly. But they are the best.
Far Cry 5
A lot of people seemed to be disappointed that Far Cry 5 didn’t go far enough with its political commentary, or that it didn’t take it seriously enough. But I think there was tons of social and political commentary, in both broad strokes and subtle environmental cues or side-quests. Could it have gone further? Sure. But given that the vast majority of mainstream games try to avoid this kind of thing, I applaud it.
All of that aside, I found the game to be fun and I very much liked exploring the map and (usually) stealthing around with my bow, picking off cultists and sparing animals (when I could). The vehicles still mostly still handle poorly, but I can’t say I didn’t love being able to collect them, especially having an attack helicopter to zip around in (with my preferred partner, Jess Black, by my side). There was something seriously satisfying about unloading a volley of missiles and then spraying high caliber ammo on an installation of panicking cultists. I think I liked Far Cry 4 better in some ways, but I had a really good time with this entry as well.
The Stanley Parable
This is another game that I knew had something about it, so I wasn’t as pleasantly surprised as I could have been by its quirk and novelty. It’s not a pretty or deep game, but it was pretty funny and I like games that try to upend player expectations, and the whole point of this game is to do just that. So it was worth the 2-3 hours I spent with it.
I also played a lot of Doki Doki Literature Club! but I want to write a separate post about that. I’ll try and keep up with my thoughts from now on, but I do take my comprehensive exams for my PhD in August, soooooo my time will be more and more consumed by anxiety and guilt and less, sadly, by games and blogging.