Month: February 2015

Dragon Spirit Review — A Strange Absence of Conviction

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of Dragon Spirit in Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary on Xbox. This emulation represents the newer version of the 1987 arcade game that allows you to bypass levels when you start a new game.

In theory, Dragon Spirit is a cool improvement on its predecessor, Xevious. But the more I play Dragon Spirit, the more I dislike how it stacks the deck against you, and the more I see a lack of expression, a lack of technical focus, compared to Xevious.

As in Xevious, you use two buttons to shoot enemies in the air and enemies on the ground, but this time you’re a dragon, and you can upgrade your dragon by collecting flying orbs, which appear when you destroy an egg on the ground or kill a flashing enemy. When fully upgraded, you are a three-headed dragon that can shoot long swaths of fire. This idea is interesting, but what separates Dragon Spirit from Xevious is a better illusion of flight (which, as I argue, is a hallmark of vertical shooters compared to horizontal shooters). Unlike the ship in Xevious, the dragon in Dragon Spirit isn’t a static avatar. The flapping wings complement the feeling that you’re flying.

More significantly, the greater movement in Dragon Spirit creates a high that Xevious never achieved. In Xevious, you can fly on about 60 percent of the screen. In Dragon Spirit, you can fly anywhere on the screen. Accentuating this freedom is limited horizontal screen movement. While the screen always scrolls vertically in Dragon Spirit, you can see different parts of the level by flying to the extreme right or left. In other words, the screen can move just outside of its horizontal boundaries before your dragon hits an invisible wall. An interesting dynamic occurs: don’t like dealing with a particular enemy on the extreme right? Then move as far as you can to the left, though the extreme left might present a greater threat depending on your timing.

Given its freer movement and reptilian charm, Dragon Spirit has joyful moments. Unfortunately, the game nullifies its potential with an unfocused structure. While Xevious is the more challenging, grueling game, Dragon Spirit begs more frustration. The biggest issue comes with the power-ups, that is, the different colored flying orbs you collect for upgrades. Different orbs have different effects (three purple orbs give you an extra life), but besides avoiding the rare orb that downgrades your firepower, the only relevant strategy is actually touching the orbs. Many of the orbs appear after you destroy a red or blue egg on the ground, but you can’t rush toward the destroyed egg with the expectation of nabbing the flying orb — if you rush it, the orb will fly away from you and off the screen, useless. You have to stay back and allow the orb to home in on you. This twist means you have to make sure that you can move to a lower spot of the screen without taking a hit from an enemy. Such effort doesn’t necessarily translate to success: sometimes the orb doesn’t home in on you that well. It’s not out of the question for the orb to fly right by your dragon’s wing.

The other major hindrance is the size of your dragon. You are bigger than most enemies, so you’re more likely to take a hit. One might want to chalk this up as a “design decision” (an overly apologetic phrase — most things in video games are the result of decisions), and Dragon Spirit does allow you to take two hits rather than one for each life. Even so, it can be hard to tell when you’re going to take a hit because of the dragon’s wings. Dragon Spirit gives you some leeway while finding a path through enemy fire, but some deaths seem like the fault of wishy-washy design. In contrast, I don’t have questions about whether I deserve a game over after playing Xevious.

The enemy cues and patterns in Dragon Spirit require basic memorization — the unpredictability of Xevious is gone. Once you learn how to allow the flying orbs to come to you without taking a hit from enemies, none of the nine stages stand much of a chance against your dragon. Granted, it can take dozens of attempts to master one level in Dragon Spirit, and once you lose your lives, it’s game over. But the “new” version of Dragon Spirit lets you start at the beginning of any level when you start a new game. I can understand why this version of the game was created: the majority of the challenge in Dragon Spirit is due to the bizarre flying orbs and the size of the dragon. The concession of a level select suggests a mistake in the original development of the game.

Dragon Spirit essentially trades drama for quirkiness. Xevious shows more articulate thought and urgency in its one level than any of Dragon Spirit’s nine levels. If the lack of a reticle for ground attacks doesn’t illustrate Dragon Spirit’s disregard for precision, the clash of its dorky music against prehistoric environments does. Besides irritation and goofiness, what are you supposed to feel while playing Dragon Spirit? There’s a strange absence of conviction that doesn’t deserve your tolerance.

Silent Hill 2 Review — Horrible Survival

by Jed Pressgrove

Pay Your Respect

Very few video games command as much reverence as Silent Hill 2. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, a critic known for negative reviews of popular games, said Silent Hill 2 was evidence that “gaming is still worth defending” (a paranoid sentiment, but that’s beside the point). Not even Resident Evil, a substantial influence on survival horror, gets as much respect as Silent Hill 2. People often praise Capcom for releasing updated versions of Resident Evil. But when I asked if I should play the HD version of Silent Hill 2, the answer was strictly “No.” The implication was that great art should not be defiled.

Despite this reputation, playing Silent Hill 2 for the first time in 2015 hasn’t given me a greater appreciation of survival horror. Silent Hill 2’s supposed focus on survival is pretentious, as survival is an old idea in video games. One could call Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Dig Dug “survival games,” so it’s a no-brainer that survival is more of a “horror” with counter-intuitive design. Compare survival horror’s tricks with 1993’s Doom, which doesn’t rely on clunky controls to be exhilarating and even frightening.

Silent Hill 2’s cheap scares are stuck in 1996 anyway. Like the original Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2 thinks a human should control like a tank from Atari’s Combat, despite the fact that the Playstation 2 controller has analog control. Like the original Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2 tries to exploit you with bad camera angles, such as when you walk through a door to be attacked by enemies you can barely see. Silent Hill 2 does allow you to strafe and to reposition the camera at times, but other games had better execution of these ideas before 2001, Silent Hill 2’s year of release. But that’s survival horror: take things from games and do them worse (and be hailed for this lack of imagination).

As outdated as the controls are in Silent Hill 2, the game has a surprisingly strong commitment to the Second Amendment and healthcare. Health and ammo seem to be around every corner. I killed almost every enemy in Silent Hill 2 to avoid the inconvenience of dealing with obstacles while going back and forth in halls. You become unstoppable after you collect all of the weapons, none of which are hard to find. Once you have everything, all you have to do is blow an enemy to the ground with the shotgun, then switch to the giant sword and swing as the enemy stands up. Silent Hill 2 gives you so much healing and killing power that the sight of a monster is merely monotonous.

Many suggest Silent Hill 2 isn’t about combat like Resident Evil 6, but that’s baloney. Silent Hill 2 is a lot like Resident Evil 6, only more repetitive. Silent Hill 2 even tells you how many enemies you killed and how much time you took beating everything. Given its pretension, the term “survival horror” doesn’t have much use here. Silent Hill 2 isn’t a survival horror game. It’s a horrible survival game.

Atmosphere Is the Buzzword

Silent Hill 2 is often mentioned with that cloudy word “atmosphere.” If one says “Silent Hill 2 does atmosphere very well” while standing in fog during a pitch-black night, the phrase becomes quite appropriate. In Silent Hill 2, atmosphere is darkness and/or fog.

I exaggerate to an extent. Anyone can understand the praise for Silent Hill 2’s atmosphere when you enter a trashed apartment as foreboding industrial music breaks the silence. One such apartment is inhabited by butterflies. When you examine the bedroom, the protagonist James remarks about a single dead butterfly, evoking a memorable sense of futility. Later in the game, you walk down an almost laughable amount of steps before jumping into one hole after another, not aware of what’s coming next yet knowing there’s no turning back. Does the game end in Hell?, you might wonder.

But in many cases, the atmosphere of Silent Hill 2 amounts to poor visibility due to overuse of fog and darkness. The most challenging part of the game is squinting to make sure you’re not missing any of the game’s essential items. This visual tedium trumps the feelings that producer Akihito Imamura wants to convey.

When Story and Levels Clash

As much as I’d like to believe Silent Hill 2’s greatest character is the town, as Croshaw argues, the game is a series of simple levels with an absurd number of broken door locks. And while the tradition of linearity and boss fights doesn’t suggest an issue by itself, Silent Hill 2 doesn’t serve its story with this approach. As a result, Silent Hill 2 struggles to maintain a serious tone, filling its levels with risible dialogue and boneheaded violence.

For example, look at the apartment level. Some would rather refer to the name of the apartment buildings, but it’s an apartment level. As James, you’re searching for your wife Mary in Silent Hill, but monsters start attacking you on the street, and you find the apartment level. Once you get to the apartment level, James won’t let you leave it, even though he has little to no reason to believe Mary is in the apartment level (in a letter, Mary clearly says she’s waiting for him in their “special place,” a hotel). Alright fine. A traditional game in disguise. But the apartment level, outside of an occasional memorable scene like the butterfly apartment, is incredibly silly.

The level could pass as a parody of a reality show called Apartment Hunting in Hell. In one apartment, you examine a dead body in the kitchen. James wonders “Who could have done this?” Hmmmm … perhaps the monsters you’ve been whipping with a nail board. In another apartment, James catches a glimpse of the monster Pyramid Head. Then in another apartment, he meets Eddie, some random guy throwing up in a toilet. James proceeds to ask Eddie if he is “friends” with the “pyramid guy.” Yeah, Eddie and Pyramid Head are drinking buddies, and Eddie just can’t handle his alcohol as well as Pyramid Head. James leaves Eddie behind, knowing that Eddie could be killed. This lack of concern for Eddie suggests that James really wants to find his wife, right? Yeah, the wife who is obviously not in the apartment building! (You later face Eddie in a boss fight. Just save your rifle ammo and heal often, and Eddie isn’t a problem. After you kill Eddie, James says, “I … I killed a … a human being … a human being.” William Shatner couldn’t have said it better). In any case, the apartment level climaxes with a Pyramid Head encounter, a play on the boss fight tradition. To win, you run around in circles until Pyramid Head walks away, which wouldn’t be remotely stressful if not for the knockoff Resident Evil tank controls.

You could theoretically write off any of this nonsense as part of a surreal nightmare scenario (bonus points if you mention David Lynch). Indeed, Silent Hill 2 is very happy to tell you about an imaginary relationship between grief, mental illness, and sadism. A document in the hospital level — as if any health institution would buy into this drivel — speaks of an illness that can afflict anyone, that can drive you to “the other side” where reality and unreality meet. Silent Hill 2’s link between violence and mental illness is impersonal and out of touch compared to Remigiusz Michalski’s The Cat Lady. Even Edgar Allan Poe’s relatively primitive understanding of madness comes from personal experience. Silent Hill 2’s dime-store psychology doesn’t say anything meaningful about humanity and therefore doesn’t excuse levels that waste time with banalities about locked doors and deranged killers.

Great Ending, Though

Some claim Silent Hill 2 has the best ending in video game history. I agree if by “ending” we mean voice actress Monica Taylor Horgan’s reading of Mary’s full letter to James. Horgan’s passion underlines the truths in Mary’s letter, which portrays both Mary and James as flawed, believable human beings: “I was so angry all the time and I struck out at everyone I loved most. Especially you, James. That’s why I understand if you do hate me.”

Before Horgan reads the letter, Silent Hill 2 portrays James as a confused party before employing that “The protagonist is actually the killer” cliche. As James wanders around Silent Hill bashing and shooting feminine creatures, the game does a disservice to the reality it tries to convey: a wife and husband struggling to reconcile their feelings about permanent separation. The violence emphasizes mindless sadism and unfair punishment to scare players, but these concepts hold little insight about the complex relationship of Mary and James. Horgan’s sincere expression of complicated adult life exposes the combat as contrived game lengthening.

Several hours of flawed game design for one brilliant moment of artistry. That is Silent Hill 2.

Xevious Review — When Shooting Changed

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on the emulation of Xevious in Namco Museum: 50th Anniversary on Xbox.

More than 30 years after its release, Xevious is essential. Developer Masanobu Endō’s technical execution, his distinct style, ensures the timelessness.

The music, a perpetual alarm, sets the tone. Xevious demands alertness: you play one continuous level, you get one hit per life, and destroying enemies means more points for extra lives. The screen always scrolls, though you do have tiny breaks in action as you transition to more challenging sections of the level. Between these breaks, you alternate between shooting enemies in the air and bombing enemies on the ground (each action requires a different button). This dual concept was innovative in 1982, but Endō’s work doesn’t coast on originality. Instead, his design ratchets up the tension in various ways.

With flying enemies, Endō establishes a process that hovers between predictability and unpredictability. Enemies fly in at specific cues in the level. The cues never change, but the type of enemy during a cue can vary from game to game. This variance can throw off your rhythm, as enemy patterns determine whether you should be lower on the screen, to give yourself more time for evasion, or higher on the screen, to take the enemies down before they crowd you. Learning the enemies’ flight and fire patterns precedes a bigger concern. That is, some enemies don’t always fire at you, meaning that recognizing an enemy’s appearance by itself doesn’t erase tension. Initially, enemies fly in groups of one enemy type, but as you advance, different enemy types can fly at you together. One half of this mixture might not fire, or, in the worst scenario, both groups of enemies come out firing, while some individual enemies may only fly toward you. As a result, you constantly question what’s coming next, and your only defense is quick observation followed by precise movement and firing.

Despite the unpredictable elements, shooting enemies in the air is straightforward. Just line up the enemy and fire. Bombing enemies on the ground is not as simple. You have to use a reticle to shoot bombs, and the reticle is always in the same place, a few inches above your ship. So you have to be a few inches below any ground enemy to take it out. The problem is that such a position may put you in a collision course with a flying enemy or a bullet. At first, ground enemies are stationary, but soon you approach ones that move. Using the reticle on mobile ground enemies requires judgment similar to that of the 1980 classic Missile Command. And like flying enemies, sometimes ground enemies withhold fire, sometimes they don’t, and sometimes they fire more than usual.

As the stakes rise, you remain the same. No power-ups. You can only fly on roughly 60 percent of the screen, which becomes backbreaking when you’ve mistimed shots and when bullets crowd spaces of the screen. Your ship moves at a speed that would be an insult if it were any slower. Your movement, whether lateral or vertical, must be carefully considered for either survival or a high score.

Endō’s genius lies in his articulation and improvement of previous concepts. The scrolling and movement in Xevious complicates the foundation of single-screen vertical shooters like Space Invaders and Galaga, and Endō’s inclusion of Missile Command’s anticipatory, strategic aiming creates even more potential for transcendent play. You can shoot enemies in the air while using lateral movement to avoid fire and to position the reticle for a bomb that will take out multiple ground enemies at the same time. Doing this consistently gives Xevious a unique kineticism.

Or you can choose to evade everything without firing a bullet. The level keeps going and juxtaposes mysterious beauty with the action at hand. The cues and positioning of the enemies can be appreciated as a devious art. Get far enough and you’ll see an etching of a giant bird in the dirt. Seeing the bird and wondering about its origin is a relief, a pleasure, a release of tension that transcends whether you have a new high score.

Grow Home: From Birth to Puberty

by Jim Bevan

Grow Home from Ubisoft Reflections is deceptively simple. You control a Botanic Utility Droid (B.U.D.) that must cultivate an alien flower, known as a Star Plant, so that its seeds can be brought to a spaceship for further analysis. The story echoes Jack and the Beanstalk along with Wall-E (see the robot’s janky motions and ability to “speak” through electronic sound effects). But I interpreted B.U.D.’s journey as more than a massive gardening mission. Grow Home is a compelling depiction of the growth from childhood to adolescence.

B.U.D. is very much like a child at the start of the game. Aside from the double meaning of his floral acronym, consider how his adventure begins. Like a newborn baby, he’s launched out of the ship that carried him for more than three years. After landing on the surface, his first movements are unstable and awkward, making it difficult for you to maneuver him. It’s incredibly easy to fall, and the robot often must hold onto surfaces to stay balanced. Aside from providing some challenge, B.U.D.’s loose control hints at damage caused from the massive fall and parallels the struggle of learning to walk.

Grow Home

B.U.D.’s mission is dangerous as he learns about the perils of the world for the first time. Various things seem innocuous until you engage with them. Giant flytraps lay buried under the ground, ready to snap B.U.D. up if he walks over their leaves. Several climbable surfaces have loose rocks that will fall if grabbed, sending the robot hurtling back to the earth. Even spending a small amount of time in the water will short B.U.D. out and cause him to collapse. In a clever stroke that suggests childhood learning, some energy crystals needed to improve B.U.D.’s performance are located near these traps, leaving you to evaluate whether or not the reward is worth the risk, or if there’s another way to obtain the crystal that is safer than the first obvious solution.

The most compelling evidence of Grow Home’s metaphor for personal growth comes from the only dialogue in the game, provided by a computer intelligence referred to as MOM. MOM supervises B.U.D. on his mission, offering advice on how to proceed, providing insight on the parts of the world he discovers, and urging him to “play nice” with the creatures he encounters. It’s a not-so-subtle mother/child relationship, but initially I did have trouble understanding why MOM would say B.U.D. is “doing very good” after he’d been destroyed by falling or drowning. These comments can come off like a sarcastic jab, but they also reflect the parental urge to encourage children when they fail or suffer setbacks.

Grow Home

Some critics, such as Jim Sterling, have suggested that Grow Home contains sexual undertones, particularly in regard to the phallic imagery of the Star Plant’s growths. At first I dismissed these claims as easy jokes, but I can’t deny the connotations. After seeing B.U.D. guide a giant vine straddled between his legs, like Major Kong in the climax of Dr. Strangelove, as well as the pulsations of the growths when they make contact with an energy rock, it’s difficult to say there isn’t some suggestive imagery. But these visuals are an illustration of growth and maturing of the body rather than an immature innuendo.

The growths that B.U.D. activates aren’t the easiest to control. It’s fairly common for the camera angle to become inverted and throw you off as the growths desperately try to find the location of an energy rock and get back on track as quickly as possible. There’s always a risk of crashing the vine into another part of the landscape or of the vine’s growth to stop before reaching the glowing stones. If the growths are genitalia, their unpredictability represents the struggles of puberty, the recklessness associated with raging hormones.

The finale of the game cements the significance of B.U.D.’s journey, both mechanically and metaphorically. Standing atop the now blooming Star Plant, players can look down from their mile-high perch and observe how far they’ve come. Every mistake, every pile of remains from a previous robot that was destroyed, every alteration made to the landscape, all preserved in a persistent state to offer a tangible sense of progress. Yet the task isn’t over. Transporting a seed to the ship is more difficult than it might appear; it’s easy to misjudge the jumping angle or the necessary thrust of a jet pack before you successfully make the leap. The final transition in Grow Home suggests maturation is stressful and satisfying.

Why Vertical Shooters?

by Jed Pressgrove

I will be writing a series of reviews of vertical shooters. Initially, I was going to let the reviews stand by themselves, but I want to share my thinking behind this series.

Let’s start with a definition of “vertical shooter”: a game where your primary ability is shooting vertically, that is, toward the top of the screen (naturally, the tradition doesn’t involve three-dimensional spaces). There are two major forms of the vertical shooter. In one form, you are at the bottom of a fixed screen and have limited movement (in many cases, you can only move left or right). Popular games in this form include Space Invaders, Galaga, and Centipede. In the other form, the screen scrolls vertically, and you have greater movement (in many cases, you can fly anywhere on the screen in any direction).

My reviews will focus on the second form. Space Invaders is fun, but it doesn’t have the thrill of flying and shooting.

But still, why vertical shooters?

It’s a workmanlike genre. As mentioned, I will be reviewing games that allow you to fly anywhere (or almost anywhere) on the screen as the screen scrolls vertically. While some may consider this idea limited in its modesty, the vertical shooter is a great traditional form of expression. On a surface level, the genre captures the feeling that you barely got out alive, as you’re often a lone ship shooting and avoiding hordes of enemies raining from above. And because everything is moving — you, the enemies, numerous types of bullets, and the screen itself — there is an art to the maneuvering that is something to pull off (as a player) and something to see (as a viewer). The stylistic differences in vertical shooters offer a lot to appreciate, whether we are talking about the style in how the player plays — the movement or lack thereof, the use of this power-up over another, the different ways of winning and failing — or the style in how the developer elates us with a form that could easily be stagnant. Of course, not all vertical shooters are worthwhile; my reviews will also cover these games.

Why not horizontal shooters? After all, the only difference between the vertical and horizontal shooter is simple. In one, the shooting, flying, and scrolling are vertical; in the other, they’re horizontal. On the surface, that is the difference. But in a non-3D game, moving up captures the idea of flying better than moving across. Some horizontal shooters are thrilling, but they miss that tiny illusion of flight. Vertical shooters have that illusion because they share less in common with horizontally scrolling platformers like Super Mario Bros.

One final point: you will never see me calling a vertical shooter, or any shooter, a “shmup.” “Shmup” is an abbreviation of shoot-’em-up. One day a toddler tried to say “shoot-’em-up” and “shmup” came out and it stuck.

Life Imitates Telltale: The Shallow Marketing of Player Choice

by Jed Pressgrove

It’s not enough for Life Is Strange to exist as a work of entertainment or art. Piggybacking off a proven marketing model by Telltale Games, Life Is Strange is an extended advertisement of player choice and consequence.

The first episode of Life Is Strange, “Chrysalis,” announces its intent to treat the audience as hoodwinked infants when you start a new game: “Life Is Strange is a story based game that features player choice, the consequences of all your in game actions and decisions will impact the past, present, and future. Choose wisely … ” (Imagine an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie that begins with “This is an action-based movie that features dynamic camerawork, stunts, and the spectacle of violence and destruction.”)

Nevermind that almost every traditional game features player choice and consequences in some form. The Telltale model, which Life Is Strange seeks to perfect, wants the audience to forget that obvious reality.

Telltale’s Rotten Benchmark

The Telltale model dishonestly suggests its use of player choice is significant or innovative, with incessant references to the notion of making game-influencing choices. In reality, player choice is a cornerstone of traditional game design. For example, in BurgerTime you can choose to use pepper to stun enemies so that you can get four condiments on a burger for extra points, but the consequence might be that you get trapped by enemies without any pepper to escape. Ignoring history, Telltale markets player choice as a novelty rather than as a convention.

Throughout Telltale’s games, you select from preset dialogue/narrative choices, an idea that is hardly new (I immediately think of 1990s RPGs like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, but the idea precedes those games by more than a decade at least). To make this old, limited idea seem more special than it actually is, the Telltale model employs three strategies:

1. Telltale bombards the player with suggestive text that affirms the specialness of its product. Often when you make a choice in The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, some text will inform you that “[Character A] will remember that.” Influencing a nonplayable character’s behavior with one’s dialogue is neither a new nor a difficult-to-grasp idea. But the repetitive “[Character A] will remember that” text works as a slogan to reinforce the illusion that Telltale games, unlike the “norm,” are about making significant choices — even when the consequences are next to nothing, like pissing off a nonplayable character for a couple of minutes (oh no!).

2. Telltale makes five of the preset choices in its games the “big decisions” (e.g., the choice to kill a character or not). To add to the appearance of novelty, Telltale presents post-game statistics that show whether your choices for the “big decisions” were selected by the majority of people who played the game. Such statistics trivialize your choices. If the choices are so important and affecting, why can’t the choices stand by themselves within the context of the story and in the player’s memory? Telltale shouldn’t have to remind everyone of the most important decisions, but the reminders serve a purpose: to make the old idea of player choice appear fresh and current (similar to an ad that tells you half of all adults use Old Product A). The post-game statistics also work as a Telltale calling card. Although the statistics add nothing to the story or play, they drive player conversation about choices that Telltale preordains as powerful.

3. Telltale uses an episodic structure to delay some of the consequences of player choice in order to manufacture suspense that might not otherwise be there. The episode format also suggests the player is making a big impact that transcends boundaries (in this case, the boundaries of episodes). The Telltale episodic structure is not comparable to the episodic structure in Kentucky Route Zero or Broken Age, as those games are upfront about the fact that they have stories they want to tell, first and foremost. The Telltale episode structure is a fast-food version of BioWare’s Mass Effect series. Rather than have you wait a year or more to see the consequences of your choices in another game, Telltale’s episodic structure only asks you to wait for a few months between episodes of a game. This release structure can make even the mundane seem urgent and pressing. Finally, the episode format has the potential benefit of delaying criticism. A critic or gamer is more likely to hold back harsh words about an episodic game (“It’s only one episode”), especially one that involves unrevealed consequences of player choice.

Life Is Strange’s Imitation of Telltale

Life Is Strange borrows all three of the above strategies. In fact, if not for the stamps of “Square Enix” and “Dontnod Entertainment,” you could almost swear the game was produced by Telltale. At the same time, Life Is Strange alters the marketing strategies and language enough to make people think they’re playing a fresh spin on the Telltale formula of deception.

Instead of using Telltale’s “[Character A] will remember that” approach, Life Is Strange cements its own slogan: “This action will have consequences … ” This slogan emphasizes anticipation of the player’s general influence rather than a particular character’s memory, but the slogan’s monotonous placement apes the Telltale model. The repetition intends to inflate player ego with the suggestion that “You just made a choice! You are important!” Life Is Strange takes this Telltale marketing to more absurd, almost parodic lengths: “This action will have consequences … ” appears after you water a plant in the protagonist’s dorm room!

Life Is Strange also takes Telltale’s post-game statistics to a new low. While the statistics in The Walking Dead spotlight a few decisions that capture the influence of the player, the statistics in Life Is Strange bring attention to choices that even Telltale might consider negligible, including the aforementioned plant-watering choice. Life Is Strange does separate the “big decisions” from the minor ones, but the increased number of post-game statistics reflects both a lazy attempt to outdo Telltale and a greater trivialization of player choice.

Wait! There Is Something New Here

The time manipulation in Life Is Strange is new insofar as it hasn’t (yet) appeared in a modern Telltale adventure. Nevertheless, the rewind ability is an old idea. But whereas a game like Braid allows rewinding to speak for itself in the context of puzzles, Life Is Strange utilizes time manipulation as a tutorial about player choice.

The impulse to rewind time in Life Is Strange is connected to the “This action will have consequences … ” slogan. Those fateful words appear after every “notable” decision in the game, testing the player’s conviction: will you stick to your choice, or will you rewind because you don’t like the potential consequences of your choice? And if you don’t think about your choices in these terms, don’t worry. Through a tutorial-like voice-over, the protagonist Max will talk about how she maybe should have done things differently. One could argue this voice-over fits the character of Max. But the character’s yammering about choice is yet more evidence that Life Is Strange functions as both a game and an unending commercial about the importance of choice in the game.

The time manipulation doesn’t fully realize the concept of player choice. For example, the first episode features a few puzzles that you, the player, cannot skip. You have no choice but to use the rewind ability to solve the puzzles. I use “solve” loosely: Max pretty much tells you how to advance. Max’s tutorialization is condescending and limits the appeal of the rewind ability.

Choice Matters When You Can’t Tell a Story

The in-game marketing of player choice might conceal the contrivances peddled by Life Is Strange. With the evil stepfather/totalitarian security guard and his collection of guns, Dontnod Entertainment apparently wants leftists to shake in their boots and forget the bipartisan support of the Patriot Act. Some on the right and the left might enjoy the game’s diversity in the form of a black principal defending the out-of-control behavior of rich white kids. And notice the game’s disaster-movie insistence on an incoming storm that is suggestively due to Global Warming (Max’s friend Chloe expresses surprise at the unprecedented weather in Oregon).

Perhaps the best way to convince an audience that cliched writing matters is to keep blathering about choices and consequences.

Tutorialization As an Aesthetic Flaw in Games

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman at international hobo. All replies are welcome.

Dear Chris,

Your post, “The Aesthetic Flaws of Games,” covers a flaw called “perplexity.” I think your first paragraph on the flaw sums it up well:

The final kind of aesthetic flaw I want to draw attention to here is of a slightly different nature, and relates to the Third Rule: no-one plays alone. The essence of this rule is that an artefactual reading of games, treating them as isolated objects, is an incomplete reading of a game, because every game that has ever been made, or ever will be made, is situated in a network of player practices that prepare the player for that experience. The clearest example is with the first person shooter, the control scheme for which is so ingrained among the majority of contemporary players that games using a modified form of this scheme can generate aesthetic displeasure. This is what I am calling perplexity, the experience of re-learning what has already been learned differently, or learning under conditions of insufficient information e.g. a bad tutorial.

This flaw gets at something the Angry Video Game Nerd often says. The Angry Video Game Nerd reviews a lot of games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and he frequently criticizes games that don’t follow the common two-button NES scheme ingrained into players via Super Mario Bros. and other pop games: “B” for attack and “A” for jump (and don’t get AVGN started when the “Select” button performs an attack or jump). Thinking about the NES also draws me to the last word in your paragraph above — tutorial.

The tutorial didn’t exist, to my knowledge, in any NES game. Instead, every game had a manual. The game manual was its own artform. You couldn’t advance in some NES games without using key information from a manual. Some manuals were more pleasurable to read than others. Some of them stood out more than others.

Just like the manual, the tutorial can be an attempt to sidestep the potential aesthetic flaw of perplexity. Unlike the manual, the tutorial often doesn’t stand by itself. Sometimes the tutorial is optional and even accessed from a menu rather than offered through an in-game prompt. But a lot of developers attempt to integrate tutorials into the actual game.

In my experience, the inclusion of an in-game tutorial can result in a significant aesthetic flaw. I’m not talking about a bad tutorial; a bad, uninformative tutorial ties into the flaw of perplexity. The aesthetic flaw I refer to exists because of the attempt to avoid perplexity.

I’d like to call the flaw tutorialization, but perhaps others would call it overtutorialization or something else. I can see this flaw in a couple of different forms. One form is in a game that lays the tutorializing or “help” messages on too thick or to a condescending degree. I immediately think of Life Is Strange Episode 1. For example, Life Is Strange has puzzles, but the protagonist, through a voice-over, tells you exactly how to solve them, defeating the point of the puzzle. Another offender is A Bird Story, which clutters the screens with arrows (as I point out in the penultimate paragraph of my review) even though it is obvious where you can travel.

Another form of this flaw is when the tutorial is pretty much the game for an extended period of time. It can be particularly unappealing, not to mention annoying, when a game tries to pass off tutorializing as part of the story. Shin Megami Tensei IV comes to mind. To start, Shin Megami Tensei IV puts you in a dungeon to train as part of the story. But it’s obvious you’re playing a tutorial, not the game, and the game takes too long saying what it needs to say. I quit playing Shin Megami Tensei before its tutorial ended.

There are a few in-game tutorials that I would call aesthetically pleasing. The best one is in Final Fantasy III on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. You reach the tutorial well after the game has established the story and the familiar turn-based combat system. The tutorial comes in the form of a school in the game’s first city, Narshe. (You could miss this tutorial if you don’t enter every building in Narshe.) When you enter the school, you see a bunch of nonplayable characters who all look the same. These characters look more scholarly than other characters. When you talk to these scholars, they share a unique brief lecture on features or tactics of the game. This in-game tutorial is fun, clever, informative, unobtrusive, and unpretentious. It adds to the aesthetic appeal of Final Fantasy III and to a sense of place in Narshe.

Having said that, I would like to see the game manual artform make a comeback (to please Digital Totalitarianists: if not in paper form, then as an out-of-game document). The tutorial has mainly been an eyesore and an earsore, a distraction from the non-tutorial (i.e., the important) aesthetics of games.


Jed Pressgrove