Month: December 2014

Family Matters — The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo

by Jed Pressgrove

To keep you playing, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo dangles multiple endings rather than inspired storytelling. Replaying this game reveals a rigid set of pathways, some of which can only be activated by clicking a single, seemingly arbitrary hyperlink. Unlike Depression Quest, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo doesn’t make a clear statement until you get the last ending, exposing the other endings (and any failed attempts to unlock a different ending) as a horror tease.

If you unlock the major (actual?) ending of The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo, the game directs you to its ultimate secret: a series of essays from developer Michael Lutz. Lutz calls these essays “an intended effect of the design,” but they render the game meaningless and vice versa. After the game finally makes its obvious point about the importance of humanity/friendship over product and macho gloating, Lutz muddies the observation with sections such as the following:

What these stories reveal, I think, is an underlying anxiety we have about games in general: that beneath their smiling faces and heroic poses Mario and Link are somehow hostile to us. That if these emblems of childhood and adolescent pleasure had their way, we would keep playing with them until it killed us.

Perhaps here we can find the “pretense of truth” that seemed to otherwise go missing: there is something about games culture, its particular awareness of itself in its own moment of history, that facilitates the experience of horror at the industry’s own promises of endless and repetitive play.

Games, in this perspective, both loathe us, and need us.

Moving past Lutz’s projection about collective anxiety, one might say the repetition within The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo loathes the player. The game, despite its “good” ending, wastes a lot of our time trying to say something. At the very least, the game’s Groundhog Day repetition lacks the sociological purpose of Mattie Brice’s Mainichi. Instead, Lutz’s horror hour appeals to the lowest common denominator with “creepy” whispering from Uncle Boogie Man.

Lutz’s use of family ties hasn’t always been this trivial. Lutz’s previous game, My Father’s Long, Long Legs, appears more cognizant of what its horror in the home might convey. The protagonist’s fear of and disconnection from the patriarch in My Father’s Long, Long Legs are compelling because they illustrate, rather than project, a widespread anxiety within many modern families. In contrast, The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo doesn’t seem to consider that its terrible “uncle who comes at midnight” premise can bring to mind the ugly reality of sexual molestation within a family. The familial weirdness in The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo serves zero purpose other than setting up a brand of educated dread that Lutz shares in his concluding essays.

Lutz massively inflates the relevance of his dread. In one essay, he connects the enemy of The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo to the forces that created Gamergate:

When I began drafting this game at the beginning of August 2014 it was not topical beyond a general sense.

But as I write this note, it is the final week of August, and in the month I’ve been at work, the seemingly nebulous concerns I set out to treat — the way the modern games industry encouraged and continues to encourage entire generations of children to internalize hierarchies predicated on structures of access maintained by abusive practices of exclusion, deception, and emotional manipulation — have erupted to the forefront of the “culture” in a way more horrific and absurd than anything I could ever have made up.

We may not believe in the uncle who works for Nintendo anymore, but he is certainly still at work.

Women and minority voices are under attack. The finer details of the situation are, by this point, both fatiguing and immensely abhorrent. I will not bother to recount them here. Suffice it to say: the contingent of players taking up the flag of “gamers” are, in many ways, the realization of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that constitute the “enemy” of this game.

The fantasy underpinning the “happy” ending is that the people trapped in the unhealthy structures cultivated by a combination of late capitalism and videogames can become aware of the way in which they, their friends, in fact the very world around them, are all being devoured alive — and that we can escape it if we work together.

To those women who have been terrorized these past weeks, to those still here and those who had to step away, to those who are doing and who did their best to make sure we get out of this beast before its jaws close on us, if any of you read this, I am sorry, and I thank you.

In reality, Lutz was just lucky that Gamergate happened while he was finishing The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo. With this essay as an “intended effect of the design,” Lutz attempts to make his ideas and game appear more prophetic and sensitive than they actually are. This illusion of relevance conceals a more sobering thought: The Uncle Who Works for Nintendo is, at best, a sorry follow-up to My Father’s Long, Long Legs.

Never Quite Right: A Review of Never Alone

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review was made possible by a review copy of Never Alone from E-Line Media.

Never Alone shoots itself in the foot with its best part: the inclusion of brilliant documentary footage of Iñupiat people and land. In this traditional game of jumping and character switching, you gradually unlock mini-documentaries about the Alaska Native group/culture that inspired Never Alone. In fact, the game encourages you to suspend play to watch the segments rather than relegating the videos to main-menu content. This admirable structure has the unintentional effect of exposing Never Alone’s lack of sophistication, pleasure, and beauty as a game.

While the documentaries, along with fantastic in-game narration by James Nageak, connect the audience to an overlooked culture, the game reconnects us to the frustration of platforming banality. The boring action in the first half of Never Alone does not serve the goal of cultural authenticity. Instead, the effort resembles a Yoshi’s Island-meets-Lost Vikings novelty without the classic charm or challenge.

The girl protagonist is Yoshi, opening new passages through the art of throwing. Her arctic fox companion is more interesting to play as, but most of his tricks are by the books: scrambling up walls and untying ropes for the girl. The fox’s most unusual ability is spirit summoning, a double-edged sword. While this ability grants more of a unique platforming identity to match the cultural lesson, the more precarious second half of Never Alone underlines the shoddy game design that is present from the beginning.

Never Alone suffers from Secret of Mana syndrome. Like Secret of Mana, Never Alone has single-player and multiplayer options but would’ve been better as a multiplayer-only game if judged by the (un)intelligence of computer-controlled companions. A single player can only control one character at a time in Never Alone, so the companion character shouldn’t hinder progress, especially since the game restarts from a checkpoint if one character dies. Unfortunately, the computer-controlled companion in Never Alone will inexplicably commit suicide in various situations. For example, you might jump over a pit with no problem before your companion, instead of following suit, incorrectly judges the distance of the pit and falls to its death.

This poor design is complemented by the game’s ugly visuals. While the game claims to be based on a classic Iñupiat story, the documentaries show that the game mostly fails to capture the beauty of Alaska and this native culture. Granted, the story is intended to be dark and tumultuous, but the warm personalities and natural grandeur in the real-life footage are far more satisfying. The documentary induces awe with the green Northern Lights; Never Alone reduces awe with the lights as green obstacles. The documentary emphasizes the sense of community and selflessness in Iñupiat culture; meanwhile, Never Alone protagonist finds her village burned yet doesn’t display any emotion about this loss or being separated from the family/community, despite the narrator telling us that she does! Without the documentary bits, Never Alone would be never appealing.

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Video Games of 2014

by Jed Pressgrove

Game critics often subscribe to a narrow-minded view of “worst” that results in self-congratulatory dogpiling of games like Sonic Boom. The following list shows that games in “working order” can be far more problematic, where an illusion of technical and artistic superiority hides insidious marketing; ignorance of video game and art history; disdain for thoughtful communication and potential audience; soulless repackaging of banal features and practices; fragile and unenlightened creator egos; and misrepresentation of human experience and culture.

Note: You can check out my 10 best video games of 2014 here.

1. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Inspired by dark and trashy television, Ground Zeroes is a sly press release for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Hideo Kojima dresses his “stand-alone prologue” in 24 clothes, that is, Kiefer Sutherland and torture porn. Ground Zeroes’ rape-bomb combo is its answer to Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding and other “shocking,” “must-see” TV moments. Some call Ground Zeroes misogynistic, but the game shows contempt for everyone, not just women. For an appearance of real-world relevance, the game evokes Guantanamo Bay only to utter banalities about hopelessness. The stealth is also a joke, with trendy bullet time for those who thought the superior Metal Gear Solid 3 was unfair.  The incongruous side missions depict a stealth sitcom without the laugh track.

(See full review of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes here.)

2. Mountain

Mountain wins the Most Insignificant Game with a Significant Amount of Press award. The game’s “novel” approach to simulation is presented as a cute and mundane mystery, complete with smart-assed messages and backhanded features that prod players as if they’re cattle. Confusing condescension with creativity, developer David OReilly has nothing to say.

(See a comparison of Mountain to the superior Temporality here.)

3. Fantasy Life

Don’t be misled by the “addictiveness” of Fantasy Life. It’s just an old drug that prefers advertising over truth. The game’s commitment to childish banter and meaningless checklists exposes its cited freedom as a lie. Fantasy Life is only acceptable if one forgets every simulator and role-playing game that has ever been created. If you buy into Fantasy Life’s drivel, walking through a doorway is a quest or work. Publisher/developer Level-5 should be temporarily imprisoned for wasting composer Nobuo Uematsu’s brilliance.

(See full review of Fantasy Life here.)

4. Always Sometimes Monsters

Developer Vagabond Dog’s world of “no right or wrong” is preposterous, yet we’re supposed to be moved by Always Sometimes Monsters’ immature understanding of human experience. This (no shit) feces-obsessed game suckered some publications into thinking its depictions of sexism and racism are profound, but no matter what gender, sexual orientation, or racial group you choose, the story doesn’t recognize the privilege of its whiny protagonist writer. Like the diverse cast of characters, spirituality and labor are tokens on Vagabond Dog’s “progressive” checklist, casually addressed but never detailed in sociological or believable terms.

(See full review of Always Sometimes Monsters here.)

5. South Park: The Stick of Truth

Obsidian Entertainment tries to fool you into thinking The Stick of Truth is a good role-playing game by demonstrating what the fanboy consumer calls “faithfulness to the source material.” Standards in game criticism are so pitiful that if a game can manage to look like an episode of a popular cartoon series, the release will be hailed as a breath of fresh air. In reality, The Stick of Truth offers recycled jokes from the television show and parodic role-playing games, as well as an amateurish combination of Super Mario RPG battles and Elder Scrolls inventories/quests.

(See full review of South Park: The Stick of Truth here.)

6. Child of Light

This Ubisoft swing at the “indie” market pretends to be sophisticated and hopeful, but only the sound design and music suggest talent was involved. With poetry and hip visuals (that is, an awkward combo of bland polygons and water color backgrounds), Child of Light announces itself as an epic. Too bad the creators’ (mis)understanding of rhyming poetry is disrespectful: the game treats the rhymes as a feature rather than as part of a classic artform that requires skill, timing, and inspiration. The role-playing aspirations are similarly out of touch. The battles rely heavily on a real-time helper gimmick, ignoring the variety of turn-based possibilities in Penny Arcade 3. All of this inept execution exposes Child Light as a cynical display of fairy tale marketing.

(See full review of Child of Light here.)

7. The Plan

This five-minute game thinks dreariness amounts to a worthwhile existential statement. The use of Grieg’s classical masterpiece “Peer Gynt Suite No. 1” merely makes The Plan’s pretentiousness laughable. The game’s biggest mistake is prompting players to type words at the conclusion and then sharing previous player-written text (“kkk” was among the stupid things I read last time I played). This ending of uninspired player quotes suggests developer Krillbite Studio is unaware of Chris Johnson’s Moirai (one of the best games of 2013), which used player-to-player text to illustrate moral consequences and misfortune.

(See full review of The Plan here.)

8. Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone

This game, recently praised in The New York Times, ensures its creator’s mystique at the expense of insight. Developer Porpentine deleted this Twine 24 hours after releasing it, with the idea that others would have to curate it to keep it alive (the deletion served as a forced metaphor for the loss of human life). The complexity of the subject matter, suicide and trauma, is equivocated by C-grade horror descriptions (“fridge dimension with endless icy corridors full of condiments and womens dead and mutilated bodies”) and a mathematical structure that requires hundreds (for some, perhaps even thousands) of tedious mouse clicks. The trapped feeling is no more than a wretched aesthetic, a tool designed to toy with your emotions rather than enlighten.

(See full review of Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone here.)

9. Luftrausers

Not even the old-school shooter can escape modern game development’s condescending vision to tutorialize and reward every player (in)action. In Luftrausers, Vlambeer attempts to lend gravity to its mindless instructions via Nazi and wartime suggestions, but the result is too antiseptic to approach an aesthetic. Unlike the remake of Gauntlet by Arrowhead Game Studios, Luftrausers doesn’t understand the strengths and weaknesses of traditional OR contemporary game design.

(See full review of Luftrausers here.)

10. Residue

The intentions behind Residue seem genuine, which makes the game an honest mistake. Awkward movement and choppy animation do enough damage to the seriousness of Residue’s narrative, but the storytelling itself never rises above a hackneyed sense of futility. This game is one more log on the reductive “Middle East sucks” fire.

(See full review of Residue here.)

Dishonorable Mention:

The Wolf Among Us, Episodes 3 and 5 (see review of Episode 5 here)