Month: May 2018

Biased Notes Vol. 6: Okami

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Observations below are based on the first several hours of the HD version of the game.

1. It’s refreshing to play a game where you bring harmony to the natural world through spiritual and artistic means. Okami suggests that faith is a two-way street in terms of how humans relate to deities: sometimes we need a miracle to restore our trust in a higher power, and sometimes a god, for motivation, needs to hear that we believe. That last bit might not be news to anyone, but it’s significant that the game puts you in the shoes of a benevolent god. In Okami, you’re always in “god mode,” just not the mischievous, egotistical, destructive sort we usually see in games. The greatest illustration of omnipotence comes with the game’s most distinct mechanic: when you paint as the white-wolf goddess Amaterasu, the color of the world is sapped out until you finish your brushstrokes, implying that you can operate from another dimension as your physical form rests on earth. Okami is also a feel-good game on a superficial level, thanks to the cute animals and the flowers that pop up as you run and jump (is there any doubt that Okami helped inspire 2009’s Flower?). Now that I’ve gotten this out of the way …

2. I wish the irritating adoration for The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time wouldn’t have happened so that maybe, just maybe, Issun in Okami wouldn’t have happened. Issun, your nagging companion in the game, descends from Ocarina of Time’s Navi, a character that is a tutorial rather than an actual character. To make matters worse, Issun speaks in audible gibberish that would fit snugly into a show or direct-to-DVD movie aimed at three-year-olds. Issun goes beyond hand-holding (which would be condescending enough): when I learned that some villagers had turned to stone, Issue told me that we needed to get to higher ground. At that point, a big arrow appeared to guide me to higher ground, and even though I followed the arrow’s direction, Issun would not stop telling me that we needed to get to higher ground. I would not be a god of patience, I can tell you that.

3. Why is combat in this game? Hours in, I’ve only taken one hit from an enemy. The whole thing goes down like this, almost every time: I run up to a foe, I mash a button like I’m playing a third-rate beat ’em up, the bad guy falls down, I paint a line across the loser. It wasn’t interesting the first time, and it wasn’t interesting the 100th time. The other variation (just as dull): a projectile comes at me, so I paint a line across it to send it right back to its thrower. Does a god even need to fight? (Don’t cite Kratos.)

4. More than once, I have fantasized about being able to play the prologue of Okami. It’s a gripping story (reminded me of Beowulf), and imagine the weirdness of experiencing it from the perspective of the mysterious wolf savior. That you can only watch and listen to the prologue makes me recall my frustration with having to tolerate Issun’s orders. Okami wants you to assume the role of a god, but not without guidance. This tension stems from the fact that it would be hard to feel godly if you didn’t know what was going on. So Okami overcompensates.

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Loaded Questions Vol. 5

Loaded Questions is a new weekly feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Dalton Miller: It seems like Eastern influence is once again dominating the space of major publisher games at large (see The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata, the Dark Souls series, the newfound popularity of the Yakuza series in the West, etc.). Do you agree? If so, do you think this will be a lasting influence, or will the Gears of War-style Western games space return eventually?

Jed Pressgrove: I don’t know if I would say Eastern influence is dominating the market. If we look at the top 10 best-selling games of 2017 in the United States, there’s more Western influence represented in that list, and guess which 2013 Western game made the list? Grand Theft Auto V.

But I would agree there is a shift of a sort. People do seem to be far more interested in Japanese games than they were a few years ago. The Nintendo Switch’s popularity is a clear indicator of that. We can also see this shift in the rapid emergence of games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, which was directly inspired by the Japanese film Battle Royale.

Also, if we’re talking about countries within the Eastern hemisphere, you would have to cite games like The Witcher III. So the influence goes beyond Japan.

It really doesn’t matter to me if this influence is lasting. I’m more interested in what games are doing and saying. It’s also hard for me to predict what the public will gravitate toward. For one thing, my standards often don’t align with the standards of the public. And in the next five years, there could be some cultural or political event that somehow inspires a lot of people to start playing certain games.

Ryan Aston: What is the best video-game boss? What is your philosophy for bosses in general? Do you think they should test how proficient you’ve become with skills learned across the game, introduce new mechanics, or what?

Jed Pressgrove: M. Bison. Beyond his devastating standing kicks and strong horizontal/vertical game, M. Bison embodies everything that’s wrong in Street Fighter II. Think about how important geography is in Street Fighter II. You don’t just pick a fighter. You pick a country to represent, and you fight the champions of other countries. You watch a plane fly around the world. Every character is represented by a specific stage. But you don’t know where Bison comes from. All you know is that you fight him in Thailand, on the same stage that you fight the Thai fighter Sagat, because that’s where Bison is headquartered. He is completely divorced from ethnicity, home, and background, and that, not his brutality, is what makes him more inhuman than anyone else in the game.

My only philosophy on bosses is that they should make for interesting conflicts, which can involve testing what a player has learned, throwing mechanical curveballs, and so much more. In Blazing Lazers, the first boss can be “defeated” without shooting a single bullet. This particular boss can split itself into three different parts, forcing the player to move to different safe spaces. The boss is a cinch to defeat if you are powered up, but if you keep dodging its different parts — as if you and the boss are part of some synchronized dance — the boss will eventually leave, and you get to move on to the second stage.

Jeff Hudspeth: Are there genres you struggle to engage with, and how do you approach them critically? I’m thinking here of my own difficulty getting into real-time strategy games and how game genres seem to contrast with each other more starkly than, say, movie genres.

Jed Pressgrove: There are a few genres I don’t engage with, and I typically don’t or won’t review them because of a lack of interest and/or experience.

Although I am very familiar with a variety of role-playing games, I stay away from massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), primarily because of the money and/or time that they often demand. I’m not interested in being part of a 30-member party and chatting with people before a raid. I have no desire to play a game that controls so many aspects of one’s life.

Sports simulations are another breed that I try to avoid. I love sports (particularly basketball, football, boxing, and mixed martial arts), and sports games can be brilliant (from Blades of Steel to Pyre), but games that attempt to resemble a real sport tend to be uncreative, and they’re pretty much bound to fail. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve played a Madden game, only to marvel at how goofy it is despite a pretense of realism.

The truth is that no game critic can be dedicated to every single genre out there. It takes too much time to play games, and they’re being pumped out at an alarmingly fast rate.

Having said that, I try to cover as many genres as possible. When it comes to fighting games, turn-based strategy, real-time strategy, RPGs, shooters, platformers, adventures, puzzlers, and others, I feel comfortable dissecting them because of my prolonged engagement with them.

Brian: Why do a lot of the arguments in your reviews always amount to a game being either “sexist,” “pandering,” “misogynistic,” or some other overused mainstream word? I’m genuinely curious. Personally, I think games are an art form and should be given the same freedoms as any other art form. Artistic freedom is what makes movies, books, and drawings so interesting to watch, read, and look at. I would write more, but I don’t want to waste your time. Thank you for writing back if you do.

Jed Pressgrove: If the word fits my purposes, I’ll use it. Doesn’t matter to me whether the word is mainstream. I use words that reveal my feelings, thoughts, and personality. I will say, though, that it’s interesting you bring up the terms “sexist” and “misogynistic,” as I don’t use those descriptors that often. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve used those words in any of my reviews this year for Game Bias, Slant, or Unwinnable.

On your point about games as an art form, I agree artists should have the freedom to express themselves. I also believe criticism itself is an art form, so I should have the same freedom as developers. Nothing I do or say should prevent developers from expressing themselves, and vice versa. I have no interest in “changing” games (and I hope developers have no interest in “changing” criticism) — that’s a pointless dream, as no one can control art, and art will never satisfy us. But I will say what I want, and I hope others do the same.

Ian Mossner: What are your thoughts on the criticism of games that don’t have “true” gameplay? I’ve seen multiple tweets like this recently taking aim at Detroit: Become Human.

Jed Pressgrove: There is no such thing as “true gameplay.” People who say otherwise are behind the times. Games have changed, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop that. That’s why I judge games for what they are. I may not end up liking a game that goes in a different direction than the norm, but it’s important for me to experience the game so that I can be informed on a basic level.

One more thing to consider: games directed by David Cage often get judged before anyone plays them. Detroit: Become Human is only the latest example.

Many commentators think they’re cute and smart when they dismiss upcoming games based on preview material like interviews. When people judge games before they come out for whatever reason, they are being fundamentally close-minded, not to mention unoriginal. In an answer above, I admitted that I don’t engage with sports simulations or MMORPGs. Imagine how ignorant I would be if every time a new MMORPG is announced, I started lambasting it based on preview materials and assumptions. A lot of people love speaking from a standpoint of ignorance, especially on Twitter. It’s easy attention and work. Anybody can highlight a couple of sentences from preview materials and go to town as their buddies cheer them on. If the frequent disparity between artistic intent and execution can’t convince these uninspired analysts that it’s mindless and meaningless to judge things they’ve never experienced, I don’t know what will.

God of War (2018) Review — Not Grown Up

by Jed Pressgrove

The latest God of War tries to sell an oxymoron, a sensitive beat ’em up. Paulmichael Contrera, a writer for enthusiast publication PlayStation LifeStyle, inadvertently exposes the con job: “This new narrative tone has heart, and serves to make Kratos much more relatable in his new role as protector, while remaining as brutal as past installments.” The story of killer dad Kratos watching over killer brat Atreus might seem to turn away from the murderous tone of previous God of War games, but its selective morality ultimately sentimentalizes the man-shaping glory of violence.

Many years after destroying the Greek pantheon, Kratos mourns the loss of his wife Faye, whose last request is for Kratos and son Atreus to throw her ashes off the highest peak they can find. The problem? Atreus is quite young and green. And so begins the saga of Kratos teaching the boy how to survive and kill — how to become a tough guy — through a plot that recalls the convoluted artifact logic and secret paths of The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure.

Director/writer Cory Barlog gets the action (i.e., the real reason most people are playing this) off to a rocky start when fellow god Baldur, who is supposedly unkillable, attacks Kratos before the familial journey begins. Baldur’s ambush leads to an overlong cutscene-ridden fight that is foolishly recycled for the game’s climax. It’s like a UFC match with too many rounds against a blabbering baboon who can’t get knocked or choked out. Baldur’s condescending exclamations of “This fight is pointless!” and “This again?” robs players of the lines they should be saying as they play. The monotony of battling Baldur multiple times, all as part of Barlog’s showy one-camera-take experiment, registers as desperate suspense at best: anyone with common sense can predict the eventual death of Baldur at Kratos’ renowned god-killing hands.

Outside of the miserable engagements with Baldur, God of War tends to be a good hack-and-slasher. Kratos has a new axe that can be used as a melee weapon or boomerang projectile (in an ingenious bit of design, the axe can be thrown with one button and will only come flying back with a different button). The bald and bearded hero can also perform combos barehanded and unlock special moves with a shield. While Atreus’ movement is controlled by AI, you can determine when he shoots arrows and summons animal spirits. All of these options (and more) give the player an impressive amount of strategic possibilities, and the game has plenty of weapon and armor customization for those who wish to bolster their strengths and hide their weaknesses.

Between fights, you listen to Kratos berate Atreus with a variety of overbearing maxims (voice actor Christopher Judge delivers Kratos’ words like a Keith David impersonator). Lines like “Do not be sorry. Be better” and “He [a corpse holding an item] can no longer use it. We can” will be treasured as pearls of wisdom by wannabe alpha males. Although Atreus sometimes pokes fun at Kratos’ everlasting cold demeanor, the game wants you to lap up its machismo. To heal, you don’t drink potions; you stomp them. There are special gore kills, a la Doom 2016. And in a pivotal conflict, you don’t listen to the cries of a woman who helped you. You ignore her concerns and fight on.

Perhaps none of these elements would seem out of place if Barlog didn’t intend for players to interpret God of War as some sort of empathetic fable. Kratos is depicted as a man who feels guilt about his violent history and who doesn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. But the scenarios often amount to oversimplified moralizing.

For example, in a realm at war, Atreus implies that perhaps he and his father should do something about dark elves murdering light elves. Kratos, however, says they should stay out of it, as they are only seeing the end of a war and have no idea what the light elves might have done to inspire such violence. You wind up killing all the dark elves anyway, and after doing so, the light elves take back control of the realm, to the naive delight of Atreus. Kratos doesn’t say another substantial word about what happened, and later on, Atreus says he doesn’t regret killing the elves, as they were “dragging us into their little problems.” What is initially presented as morally ambiguous turns into a throwaway concern.

Kratos at one point criticizes Atreus for killing an already weakened god, but the script doesn’t delve into the spiritual implications of Atreus’ sin. Instead, the story focuses more on how the execution results in an inconvenience related to travel. The biggest missed opportunity, though, comes with the final scene featuring Baldur. Here, the game attempts to borrow the ethical dilemma faced by Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, despite the fact that no one in God of War is in any immediate danger of being murdered by Baldur. This failed illustration of tough decision-making is a lot like Barlog’s mega long camera shot: flashy but devoid of depth.

Loaded Questions Vol. 4

Loaded Questions is a new weekly feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Daniel Cánovas: The “gaming is art” topic is becoming less interesting to me each day. Maybe only the act of creating them is art, but that’s not the question I want to ask you. Have you ever heard the expression “To read is to live twice”? With this expression in mind, I decided to compare playing to reading, and I ended up developing a short text that made me reappreciate visual novels. Do you think it’s valid at all to say, “To play a video game is to live twice”?

Jed Pressgrove: It’s possible I have heard someone say “To read is to live twice,” but my memory gets worse every year. Regardless, I am familiar with the sentiment behind that expression. There is a feeling among many readers that literature, more so than any other art form, allows one to tap deeply into the human condition and spirit. I don’t feel this way, mainly because a lot of literature is poorly executed.

That aside, my answer is straightforward: sometimes to play a video game is to live twice. I think of Vaida’s Talks With My Mom. Playing that game was like living in two ways that I’ve never lived. I’ve never had to experience the pressure of fitting into a heterosexual feminine category like the girl protagonist; I’ve also never felt the concern of a mother who just wants life to be traditional and simple for her daughter (and herself). In Nier: Automata, I got a strong sense of the hate, fear, and willful ignorance that can drive one to genocide, especially during the segments where I watched the bodies of robots explode due to the lethal combinations and hacks I performed as 9S.

On a final note, as great as “living twice” can be, I don’t think it has to be the ultimate goal of any game. People who expect games to be just like literature or movies or whatever are unrealistic and shortsighted. Games can be many things. They can be living twice, they can be sports, they can be puzzles. I try to appreciate and criticize them for what they are.

Question 2

Álvaro Rico: What do you think is the most important factor for you personally at the time of writing a good review?

Jed Pressgrove: Conviction. I have to believe in what I’m saying, even if no one shares my opinion. I have to be willing to put my thoughts and feelings out there. Style and technique are important, but if I didn’t have conviction, I wouldn’t bother writing reviews.

Question 3

Serge Soucy: After watching some footage of Detroit: Become Human, I began to think about choice in video games. I’m not talking about how a player would approach a situation (for example, “Should I attack a monster from afar or up close?”), I’m thinking more about games with morality systems that are designed to challenge players’ minds. What are some great examples of games where choices made have real implications that arouse emotions, and what’s the worse case of a game that tries to cash in on this idea but fails to do so?

Jed Pressgrove: To address your first question, the first game that comes to mind is Choice: Texas. In my review, I talked at length about the story of Leah and how the game’s presentation of choice emotionally transcended the dialogue that the United States was having about rape and abortion.

Another game that fits your description is the original Fallout. There are few games with Fallout’s level of freedom. During one game of Fallout, I decided to kill everyone, whether I would deem them bad or good. Just kill every last person I could find. What started out as an amusing diversion for a kid (I was in my teens at the time) ended up giving me an incredibly hollow feeling. It wasn’t just that I had made a complex game one-dimensional; the experience suggested that exterminating life can never satisfy a person.

You might also be interested in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. A pivotal decision in its first chapter has an undeniably large effect on the game’s second chapter and how you perceive the different factions and individuals in the story.

As for your second question, I’d have to go with Telltale’s Game of Thrones. It is by far the best example of a game whose only purpose is to cash in on the idea of emotionally charged choices. Telltale’s work (and its influence) is largely a disgrace to storytelling and game design, and Game of Thrones’ mindless imitation of the HBO television show cannot be excused in any way.

Biased Notes Vol. 5: Sid Meier’s Pirates! (2004)

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Observations below are based on the 2004 remake of the 1987 original.

1. Meier’s revered simulation includes everything from sword fighting to treasure hunting, all in the name of building fame. What sticks out the most is the puerile focus on wooing governors’ daughters. A pirate game’s objectification of women is hardly surprising, but unlike The Witcher series, Meier emphasizes awkward courtship rather than lustful build-ups to sex. To have a chance at furthering a relationship with a governor’s daughter, you must engage in a ballroom-dancing minigame (after creating enough of a reputation so that the woman notices you in the first place). Interestingly, to succeed as the pirate, you must follow the lead of the daughter in the ballroom, clicking the correct sequence of dance moves as she moves faster and faster. The idea subverts the game’s main thrust as a male power fantasy. Plundering, sinking ships, and the like suggest domination through one’s strength and wit, but the ballroom scenes imply that you must be willing to be instructed to impress the upper class, or you can’t reach the ultimate level of fame. I could see this requirement being a turnoff to many wannabe alpha males. (Admittedly, I could also see any person being turned off by the contrived nature of the whole shebang.)

2. So many things in Pirates! are predictable to the point where it’s hard to feel like you’re on an adventure. If you can find one buried treasure, you will have a good idea of how to find more buried treasure (buy a map in a tavern, follow directions to the proper landmass, walk on land and find the treasure based on obvious landmarks). If you see one French governor, you’ve seen them all. And so on and so on. Thus, the details that make the world of Pirates! seem alive tend to stand out. For example, spice is a good you can sell to merchants for gold, but the going price for spice varies across cities, so it can be worth it to sail a little farther to make more of a profit in another place. This economic variation might not seem like much (it’s certainly not as exciting as the trade economy in the second world of Secret of Evermore), but I welcomed anything in the game that could make me think a little more about my decision-making.

3. I didn’t play Pirates! long enough to experience this (I only got to play it at a friend’s for a while), but as time passes, you become a weaker pirate, and eventually you must retire. Because the goal of the game is to accumulate as much fame is possible, this element doesn’t make the simulation any less of a power fantasy than, say, Far Cry 5, but it does make me wonder about the possibilities of an aging mechanic in action games. It could be interesting to see a developer tie this quantitative factor into more explicit storytelling.