Month: April 2017

Night in the Woods — Ode to Millennial Egotism

by Jed Pressgrove

As expressed in The Who’s pop masterpiece “My Generation,” most people don’t like their generation being outright dismissed or insulted. But if millennial gamers sing high praises for Night in the Woods, any defense of themselves will be hard to swallow. Writers Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry have created a puzzling contradiction with protagonist Mae and the small-town setting of Possum Springs: while the latter by itself has palpable authenticity, right down to the humorously varied “Get off my porch” dialogue from a grumbling male, Mae becomes more and more irresponsible as employed, stressed-out people allow her privileged behavior to grow to unbelievable degrees.

Simply put, Mae epitomizes the stereotypical millennial’s disconnection from traditional everyday toil, and the script of Night in the Woods pretends that working-class citizens would not call her out for mooching and breaking the law. In the story, Mae has returned to her hometown to live with her parents again after dropping out of college. From there, you guide Mae through a variety of self-absorbed, immoral activities that include tampering with crime evidence, shoplifting, and digging up the coffin of a boy, all with little or no consequence. Although the anthropomorphic cast of Night in the Woods gives the writers leeway to indulge in some cartoonish, unrealistic depictions, the story suggests the supporting characters have real-life concerns, especially pulling one’s own weight, that help the player suspend disbelief. Why, then, do these people — family members, friends, and hard workers — excuse, overlook, or laugh off Mae’s flagrantly selfish and stupid actions?

At one point, it seems Benson and Hockenberry will address this glaring question through Bea, Mae’s childhood friend who has been running a business ever since the death of her mother. Bea confronts Mae’s blase attitude toward dropping out of college: “I stayed here and got older, while you left and stayed the same.” Yet Bea inexplicably goes on to support Mae’s thievery and grave defilement (and for some unknown idiotic reason, the populace of Possum Springs doesn’t care about a decades-old corpse being disrespected). Bea’s dedication doesn’t get rewarded, though: in a late scene, Mae embarrasses Bea with callous disregard, which causes Bea to bring up how she wishes she could have had an opportunity to go to college like Mae, who can’t even offer her good friend a reason as to why she quit school. Bea eventually says Mae is “genuinely a good person,” even though the story has only shown evidence of Mae taking advantage of everyone around her, with no effort toward explaining herself or making a contribution to society.

Developer Infinite Fall also excuses Mae’s deplorable acts by gamifying them. Stealing, destroying property, and stabbing are presented as fun, throwaway minigames. This design choice, coupled with the townspeople’s bizarre lack of criticism for Mae’s egomania, implies that sociopathy should be celebrated, not examined. Even if Night in the Woods had a cogent point, Mae would remain an unflattering caricature of a millennial. Benson and Hockenberry’s writing is unacceptable in light of Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition, which demonstrates how the hardships of a capitalist society give millennials and baby boomers more spiritual connectedness than many realize.

Night in the Woods is at its most tedious when Mae drags all of her friends on a ghost-chasing mission, as it’s fairly obvious from the start that there are no ghosts. Benson and Hockenberry use this setup to reveal that Mae and a clandestine Republican-leaning cult are similarly insane. For connecting mental illness to murder (straight out of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”) and all sorts of other unsavory activity, Night in the Woods registers as pandering and cliched Democrat hate on one hand and a demented apology for millennial immaturity on the other.

Horizon Zero Dawn Review — Foregone Heroism

by Jed Pressgrove

Horizon Zero Dawn boasts yet another modern open world, but given the unquestionably moral protagonist and cookie-cutter quests (such as killing bandits and wiping out corrupted machines), it would be more accurate to say the game features a big world in which it’s fairly fun to shoot things with a bow. Due to her deer-in-headlights look during dialogue exchanges, Aloy, the red-headed hero at the center of it all, is more interesting for her combat skills than her personality. All of this ultimately makes Horizon Zero Dawn a straightforward action game where the goal is to take out a lot of bad guys as efficiently as possible. And while this simplicity is refreshing when compared to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s more intense pseudo-survival aspects (such as constant weapon breaking and stamina depletion), developer Guerrilla Games doesn’t do enough to ensure drama in the game’s many fight scenes.

With its warring tribes, light settlements, and abundant wildlife, the world of Horizon Zero Dawn recalls that of Far Cry Primal. The main difference is the role of technology: Aloy has a device attached to her ear that can scan her surroundings (think “detective mode”), and the most noteworthy animals in the game are 100 percent machine. Using both natural materials and components salvaged from the mechanical beasts, you produce ammunition for a variety of weapons, which range from a slingshot that fires bombs to a crossbow that slings down ropes that trap enemies. You also wield a spear for melee and stealth attacks, and you level up to activate all of Aloy’s capabilities, the best of which is an ability that slows down time when you aim your weapon while jumping.

Although this game, like Breath of the Wild, opens with tutorialization and exposition rather than a daring invitation to the wilderness, Horizon Zero Dawn surpasses the latest Zelda at keeping the protagonist in exciting motion. There is no stamina meter to distract one from the allure of kineticism, extra ammo can be crafted in the middle of a fight, and Aloy, unlike Link, has weight to her leaping (she can entertainingly scale some mountains in this way if you time and place your jumps well). Horizon Zero Dawn also has an exquisite arrow-shooting system: the longer you hold the fire button, the more Aloy pulls back the string of her bow (you can feel this difference as the controller lightly vibrates), which can improve the trajectory of your shots. Guerrilla Games does misfire by slowing your movement to that of a turtle when you use Aloy’s scanning device, but otherwise the action of Horizon Zero Dawn is allowed to soar.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Aloy’s advantages in combat turn Horizon Zero Dawn into sort of a comedy. The best way to defeat most enemies is to sneak to higher ground and jump and shoot (thus activating slow motion) again and again. This strategy has some challenges, such as anticipating your opponent’s movement and adjusting your aim so that the arrow strikes one of the enemy’s weak points in regular motion once the slow-mo stops, but once you get the hang of it, you are not likely to be taken down, especially if your medicine pouch is leveled up and full. At first, I was delighted to incessantly thrust the game into fits of crawling action, and the pleasure of hearing and feeling Aloy’s feet hit the ground after each John Woo-inspired mini-clip is unlike anything I’ve experienced.

Yet this approach takes the wind out of the game’s dramatic intentions, as the higher ground that you need for the slaughter can be, depending on the threat(s), something as short as a big rock. Watching vicious, technologically souped-up animals circle around a physical structure — one which they should be able to knock me off of — becomes an empty joy, as it exposes Guerrilla Games’ limited kinetic imagination. This problem renders the ho-hum, save-the-tribe story even more inert: in one main quest, you have to fight a giant corrupted machine at a fort, but I dispatched this guardian from a mountain ledge of barely moderate height, despite the monstrosity’s boulder throwing and before I even eliminated all the smaller foes. Aloy is too powerful and too casually heroic for Horizon Zero Dawn to register as anything more than a fleeting curiosity.

Everything Review — Nothing Upstairs

by Jed Pressgrove

At times you are told to press a button to “think” in David OReilly’s Everything. This command serves as a way for OReilly to smirk at video-game shorthand and offer trite existential dialogue (“Am I really controlling this?”). More ironically, the command is OReilly’s attempt to turn off the player’s brain, as anyone who doesn’t need to be told to think might see that this game, like Mountain, is an unfunny, unintelligent joke.

The premise of Everything is you can play as anything: animals, trees, rocks, grass, planets, and so forth. But you start off playing as one thing — in my case, a donkey. The donkey, like other animals, doesn’t walk as you might expect; it rolls thanks to extremely choppy animation with humorous intentions. So you roll to marked places in the world to talk to other things and learn new functions of the game, such as the ability to get similar things (in my case, other donkeys) to roll with you as sort of an absurd army. Along the way you unlock audio logs of philosopher Alan Watts, whose academic tone clashes with the idiotic sight of rolling donkeys and the game’s many silly and inconsequential lines, such as when a tree says, “I wouldn’t mind a nice jacket, though.” The tonal mismatch becomes even more embarrassing when you hear the pensive violins of the soundtrack.

If you actually listen to Watts’ words about all things being connected (it’s always tempting to turn off the audio logs), you might consider the notion that Watts watered down Buddhist concepts for pretentious westerners. At the very least, OReilly’s goofy vision, where anything from deer to rocks can procreate by dancing in a circle, muddies the contributions of the scholar. That everything in Everything seems to come with kindergarten humor suggests OReilly is hoping Watts can give some depth to an oversimplified portrayal of existence.

The closest Everything gets to genuine insight is how you can see the world from a different perspective depending on what thing, from gigantic to microscopic, you are. Perspective is not just about spatial differences, however. It’s also about different states and patterns of being. Thus, OReilly confirms his lazy intellectualism and design with the fact that animals in Everything travel and multiply in the same way that rocks do (was Watts ever this stupidly literal?). Everything could use the more distinct vantage points of Ryan Thorlakson’s Light’s End, which allows the player to assume the role of any person in the story, as in one memorable sequence where you, as a beggar, experience the prejudice of nonplayable characters. But like his condescending peers Davey Wreden and Toby Fox, OReilly knows it’s easier to create and sell whimsy than wisdom, so the superficial philosophy of Everything seems predestined.