Month: November 2016

Pony Island Review — Indie Torture Chamber

by Jed Pressgrove

In its simplest form, Pony Island is an endless-runner game in which you control a pony that must jump hurdles and shoot enemies. But within minutes it’s obvious that designer Daniel Mullins only intends to mess with you, doling out hackneyed meta tricks like the game “crashing” and an omniscient presence telling you what you should do. While some of these jokes might be fun at first (the options screen that goes awry is the most inspired part), Mullins wears out every idea, much like Davey Wreden did in The Stanley Parable, with the apparent goal of impressing easily amused hip gamers.

Like The Stanley Parable, Pony Island encourages the nonsensical, anti-intellectual stance that you can’t talk about the game without spoiling it. Thus, discussing Pony Island can be as big of a joke as the game itself, resulting in everything from Zoe Quinn’s hideous “Top 10 Games of 2014” entry to Angus Morrison’s hesitant interpretation to Jim Sterling’s admittance that Pony Island partly exists to “show off how clever the developer is.”

To my knowledge, no critic has answered this question yet: how clever is it to offer a hacking exercise for numbskulls? Pony Island presents coding puzzles where the only object is to make sure you position arrow icons so that the next part of the game can be unlocked. Other sections reinforce a sense of utter pointlessness, such as when you must chase around a window with a mouse cursor or engage in inane instant-messenger conversations with paranoid characters. Since Pony Island is a game within a game that does not want to be played, the real solution is to stop praising indie sadists like Mullins whose work is just as vapid as the popular, conventional video games they sneer at.

Battlefield 1 Review — The Empathy Dollar

by Jed Pressgrove

With Battlefield 1, publisher Electronic Arts taps into the “empathy” market established by the likes of Journey and Gone Home — games that want you to tear up regardless of whether they say anything substantial. Although many journalists have said otherwise, there is nothing outstanding about Battlefield 1 taking place during World War 1 and trying to be sensitive about the lives that were lost (have most critics forgotten about the admittedly forgettable Valiant Hearts?). Battlefield 1, more than anything else, is a new league for a popular sport with the goal of gaining new fans through the pretense of historical perspective.

Battlefield 1’s intro manages to capture the chaos of war in a way that only a video game can. When you die in this scene, you see the name of your deceased character as well as his fictional date of birth and death before Battlefield 1 throws you into the role of another soldier. The effect is jarring as you sort out where you are in relation to allies and enemies after a character switch, only to fulfill the preceding narrative: “What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.” Despite the intro’s predictable tokenization of the Harlem Hellfighters (you only learn names and dates, not personalities), this sequence holds its own against great opening scenes of war movies like Saving Private Ryan in how it dismantles any notion of glory.

The rest of the single-player campaign reminds one that Battlefield 1 is just another entry in a series that uses history as a playground. While the campaign offers five character arcs, the overall story doesn’t provide any fresh, meaningful context for the conflict, as it limits your perspective to that of the British, Italian, American, and Australian armies and forces led by Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most glorified heroes of World War I. Even if you take these tales for what they are, they come up short against superior fiction. For example, the tank-focused “Through Mud and Blood” arc begs for a comparison with David Ayer’s 2015 film Fury but is far too neat in its depiction of conflict, failing to match Fury’s provocative commentary on the role of masculinity and morality in wartime.

Battlefield 1 proclaims that World War I “ended nothing” but “changed the world forever,” but it’s difficult to feel this statement among contrivances that obliterate the suspension of disbelief needed to instill the sense that you are looking at a war and not a new map for an eSport. Stray too far from a path in order to better flank enemies, and the game will tell you to “return to combat area.” Not only does this prompt announce the real purpose of Battlefield 1 (competition in a regulated space), it shows a lack of imagination from the developers in terms of designing a world that doesn’t seem artificial and behind the times. During “The Runner” arc, I stopped caring altogether about the story and action because blades of grass stopped my bullets while I was on the ground firing a rifle. Every time you die, you see the current protagonist’s name and lifespan before you jump back into an arena of varied and attractive combat options. This monotony reveals the truth: Battlefield 1 desensitizes one to death like most first-person shooters. As long as we keep competing, Electronic Arts doesn’t mind if World War I remains largely misunderstood.

Virginia Review — Cut the Crap

by Jed Pressgrove

“Play Feature.” With this main-menu item, Virginia directors Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny imply their game is a movie waiting to come to life. To their credit, Virginia often incorporates the cut, a common film technique, while you play as protagonist Anne Tarver; most movie-wannabe games reserve cuts for a cutscene, when players tend to only have the option of watching or skipping the scene in question. As such, Virginia’s editing is refreshing in some cases, as when you walk in a hall and suddenly find yourself in a stairwell, knowing you would have arrived there anyway without the cut. Sadly, this good idea can’t save the game’s brutal combination of no dialogue and a rambling plot, which touches on everything from a missing-person case to the dehumanizing effects of internal investigations to a secret society, with metaphors to spare.

At the beginning of Virginia, it’s hard not to think of David Cage’s Heavy Rain (remastered earlier this year) when you take control of FBI agent Anne Tarver as she looks in a bathroom mirror. Besides their obvious debt to movies, both Heavy Rain and Virginia ask the player to engage in mundane activities like getting ready for the day. Such events in Heavy Rain suggest a universality that connects us as human beings, with Cage’s constant requirement of timed button presses serving as a commitment — equally inspiring and laughable — to the repetitions of life. Burroughs and Kenny take a different approach to the mundane in Virginia, putting a little circle in the middle of the screen that represents the center of the player-controlled camera. As Tarver, you look around until that little circle becomes a diamond, which indicates you can press a button to make something happen.

So in the bathroom in Virginia, you press a button to open Tarver’s purse, and you press that button again to apply her lipstick. Compared to similar sequences in Heavy Rain, one could say this action is mercifully brief, but it could have been absent without compromising the tale. In other scenes, you have to advance the story by drinking coffee, which comes across as a weird excuse for the player to move that little circle around to find the diamond. With this throwaway action, it’s almost as if Burroughs and Kenny are struggling to find a reason for Virginia to be a game rather than a full-length movie feature.

With its lack of dialogue, Virginia begs to be compared to silent movies, but this comparison exposes the storytelling of Burroughs and Kenny as cinematic amateurism at best. On the simplest level, Virginia’s plot has too many wacky details, some of which are nothing more than dreams or hallucinations. Given Virginia’s normal-looking town hiding a sordid underbelly, Burroughs and Kenny clearly enjoy the work of David Lynch, but mimicking Lynch in a silent-movie context makes no sense with this story, especially without intertitles to clue the audience in on basics like character relationships and motivations.

Virginia also needs more diverse visuals. As mentioned before, the cuts in Virginia often serve to reduce the time it takes the player to travel, but it’s not compelling to watch this idea multiple times while Tarver rides in the passenger seat of a car for whatever reason. Burroughs and Kenny also utilize flashbacks that, in addition to recycling old imagery, can lead one’s brain astray in a dialogue-less game where events of the present are not always clear. Here we arrive at a wicked irony: while Virginia, with the usage of cuts, presents itself as a game that trims unneeded material, it still seems monotonous and confusing.

The Voter Suppression Trail Review — Partisan Lines

by Jed Pressgrove

The Voter Suppression Trail shows that developing a video game is like playing a guitar: almost anybody can do it, but that doesn’t mean you should. As part of The New York Times’ Op-Docs series, The Voter Suppression Trail parodies the well-known computer game The Oregon Trail under the guise of being a funny, informative indictment of Republican-led strategies to disenfranchise nonwhite voters in the United States. Unfortunately, creators Chris Baker, Brian Moore, and Mike Lacher don’t seem to be aware that their nostalgia-ridden joke doesn’t treat the important issue of voting with the respect it needs in the globally embarrassing election year of 2016.

In The Voter Suppression Trail, you play as either a white, Latino, or black character during an election. I first played as the white voter, and the game only lasted a minute. The character didn’t have to wait in line and faced no obstacles near the voting booth. The message is if you are white, you can vote no matter what, even though the game specifies the character is a Californian programmer — hardly a good representation of the average white person in many states, but the figure does confirm a myopic understanding of the world.

When you play as the Latino and black characters, you immediately join a very long line of people outside of a building, but the situation comes across as a cold presupposition rather than a dramatic event that can lead one to humane understanding. This is when Baker, Moore, and Lacher showcase their juvenile and forced sense of humor. Playing off the famous “You have died of dysentery” line in The Oregon Trail, the game says the following when you play as the Latino voter: “Your son has dysentery. Will you leave the line and pick him up from school?” By shoehorning a reference to a common problem in 19th-century pioneer survival, The Voter Suppression Trail makes its point about voter disenfranchisement difficult to take seriously, eliminating virtually any chance of the game changing how anyone thinks or feels in a political sense.

The black-voter story is not much better. As this character, you are told that you better go back to work instead of staying in line. If you stay in line, the consequence is taking a dock in pay from a boss who, not so coincidentally, supports Donald Trump. Later, the game says one of your coworkers has dysentery. If you don’t agree to take over the coworker’s shift, you get this Telltale-like message: “Your coworker dislikes you.” With cheap line after cheap line, The Voter Suppression Trail trivializes the nonwhite experiences its creators supposedly want the audience to care about. Of course, none of this matters when you consider the real point behind The Voter Suppression Trail: giving Democrat-leaning players a(nother) reason to feel morally superior. Here’s looking forward to swell election commentary in 2020.

Manual Samuel Review — Narrate This

by Jed Pressgrove

When you take control of the massively disabled wealthy protagonist in Manual Samuel, you have to manually perform actions we take for granted in both video games and life: breathing, blinking, and walking. Developer Perfectly Paranormal’s superficial purpose for this concept is physical comedy and challenge; Sam will, for instance, do the splits if you mistakenly press the right- or left-foot button two consecutive times (Manual Samuel is one of the only games that could be smartly called a walking simulator). The experience is a hoot thanks to good animation and how tied up your fingers can get in what is usually a failed attempt to move Sam without awkward pauses. It’s Brian Sommer’s narration, though, that makes Manual Samuel special, infusing the slapstick with class-based schadenfreude, as when you assist Sam with two steps: “Good job, Sam! You are very good at existing!”

The story starts as Sam is having dinner with his girlfriend and being, as Sommer puts it, a douche. From the start, Sommer represents the envy and dislike that players might have for someone like conceited, spoiled, and stupid Sam. Indeed, when Sam needs your help after losing control of his body due to freak injury, you might laugh at his failure even if it’s due to your poor timing. After arm spasms cause Sam to tip his barrister, Sommer takes aim at the character’s previous rich-boy arrogance: “He really was hit hard on the head.”

As you progress in Manual Samuel, you might find yourself more sympathetic for Sam despite Sommer’s almost-hidden glee at seeing the rich in pain. For one, Sam gains perspective on the morbid prospect of being a working-class citizen when he dies and goes to Hell (one of the more memorable depictions of the setting in games), where new arrivals are forced to stand in line to be assigned a job and “become functioning souls of society.” It’s also hard not to feel for Sam when you meet his mean and detached father, who thinks his son doesn’t live up to the high standards that brought the family wealth.

But Manual Samuel cranks up its demands for hand-eye coordination in driving and combat sequences, which, more than likely, will have you thinking more about your own frustrations with such obstacles than any class and interpersonal implications of Sam’s state. The happy ending also pulls away from class-influenced emotion, with little moral point other than Sam not being an asshole to his girlfriend. Thankfully, the script avoids the superiority complex of The Stanley Parable (and its haughty narrator Kevin Brighting) when Sommer berates the game’s own notion of speedrunning through its ridiculous scenes. In the same concluding speech, Sommer reveals he is an American doing a British accent, further cementing one of the best voice-acting jobs in video-game history.