Month: May 2018

Actual Sunlight Review — Actual Marxism

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This article originally appeared in Pixels or Death, a defunct online publication. A special thanks to Pixels or Death Editor in Chief Patrick Lindsey, who edited this article for its original publication and was very enthusiastic about the prospect of it being republished at Game Bias.

“In the midst of winter I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” – Albert Camus

Actual Sunlight‘s insight into power structures and human nature has mostly gone unrecognized. While the critical focus on the game’s portrayal of depression is warranted, developer Will O’Neill’s story goes beyond the mental illness of protagonist Evan Winter. As suggested by Reid McCarter and Patrick Lindsey, Actual Sunlight has a substantial Marxist reading. This reading compels me to reject the common label of “interactive fiction,” a term that says nothing about the power structure that Actual Sunlight opposes from a standpoint of philosophy and genre. Most importantly, a Marxist reading suggests that O’Neill did not necessarily intend for the game to end in the protagonist’s suicide.

From the very start, Actual Sunlight presents a Marxist interpretation of modern society. One of the core ideas of Marx’s theory is that capitalism systematically alienates workers. Early dialogue in Actual Sunlight reflects on this idea, as Evan Winter goes to work and asks, “Do we work in marketing? In finance? For the government? For the people? For good? For evil? Does it matter?” With “[n]o raises, no promotions, no hope, no future,” Winter sees his labor – and therefore his life – as pointless and without immediate or long-term benefits. Paradoxically, Winter’s dedication to alienated labor trumps an early wish for suicide. Shortly after the game begins, you can go to the roof of Winter’s building with the intention to jump, but Winter points out that he must go to work.

Much of the game’s writing highlights the Marxist idea that capitalism exists to exploit workers for the minimum possible cost. The management in the story wants Winter “to do more with less” with a “very, very high quantity of work.” One of Winter’s coworkers, Troy, illustrates how exploitation affects far more than the depressed protagonist. Troy is significantly older than Winter, makes a long commute, and works weekends, but Troy has reaped no rewards for his seniority or dedication. In fact, Troy’s exploitation gives us the game’s title: “I can’t even imagine the last time he [Troy] saw the house he spends every day paying for in the actual sunlight.”

One might ask why Winter continues working if he is so conscious of alienation and exploitation. Actual Sunlight presents more than one explanation, but the most important reason relates to Marx’s idea of the opiate. While people often interpret Marx’s statement that “religion is the opiate of the people” as a personal refutation of faith and spirituality, the phrase is primarily a social critique of how religion gives laborers the illusion that they can be fulfilled human beings under a capitalist system. Similarly, the first line in Actual Sunlight has largely been interpreted as personal, but it is also part of a social critique: “Why kill yourself today when you could masturbate tomorrow?” This question from Winter resembles a depraved but revealing marketing slogan for the capitalist system.

Consider that Winter’s addiction to porn (“so much to jerk off to”) is made possible by modern technology sold in stores. With its emphasis on modern technology, Actual Sunlight confirms the general lack of spirituality in video games. O’Neill therefore substitutes Marx’s opiate of religion with the opiate of consumer electronics (dealt by holy prophets like Steve Jobs). Winter himself describes the powerful opiate effect of consumer electronics in relation to his depression: “There has never been a better time in the history of mankind to be completely, cripplingly, devastatingly alone.” Winter also calls videogames “a shitty, anesthetic way that we have spent our shitty, anesthetized lives.” While modern technology subdues Winter’s suicidal thoughts, he later destroys his consumer electronics out of recognition that they keep him complacent in an oppressive system.

But so what if Actual Sunlight explicitly critiques the capitalist system like Marx? If that represented the contribution of the game, it would be little more than an obvious political statement. What makes Actual Sunlight special is its attention to the theoretical foundation of Marx’s critique: the concept of “species being,” which states that human nature is tied to labor. Marx explains that while animals like beavers and birds also perform labor, humans can change the circumstances of their existence through implementing new ideas that they conceive. Because capitalism tends to prevent humans from fulfilling or controlling their lives through labor, the system perverts human nature itself.

Driven by Marx’s thesis on human nature, Actual Sunlight raises questions about power structures in society and games. For example, game critics might reconsider capitalism as the ultimate power structure in society. O’Neill’s protagonist grapples with his white male privilege throughout the game; he even questions whether he, as a white male, has the right to be depressed. The game’s critique of capitalism, however, shows that not all white males ultimately benefit from the system. As Marx argues, recognition of alienation and exploitation can unite workers across backgrounds.

As an unsentimental RPG, Actual Sunlight provides a clear answer to a question from The Matt Chat Blog: “Are CRPGs good for nothing but reinforcing capitalist values?” This question sounds like the beginning of a rant from Actual Sunlight’s protagonist. With its commentary on alienation, exploitation, the opiate, and the perversion of human nature through an economic system, Actual Sunlight substantially diverges from the typical “light vs. darkness” RPG conflict, as well as the genre’s generally unquestioned emphasis on consumerism, materialism, and loot (see Stephen Beirne’s “Level 99 Capitalist”). Of course, some will immediately disagree with me for suggesting that Actual Sunlight is any sort of RPG. However, like Mattie Brice’s Mainichi, Actual Sunlight gives new sociological meaning to “role playing.” To insist on the banal “interactive fiction” label is to deny that these games play with the power structures within RPGs.

Besides providing insight into power structures, O’Neill’s very creation of Actual Sunlight celebrates Marx’s idea of human nature as inspired labor in action. This claim might seem contradictory given that most critics have interpreted Actual Sunlight as a literal “endgame” with Winter committing suicide. I can understand why this interpretation dominates the conversation about the game. After all, O’Neill breaks the fourth wall early in the game and calls Winter a “corporate dead-ender” who, unlike those under the age of 25, is on a fast track to destruction in his 30s.

Moreover, with a “Yes/Yes” choice, the game forces you to go to the roof of Winter’s building when he has his strongest suicidal urge at the end of the game. The lack of player choice in this particular action leads many to conclude that the game ends with Winter’s death. Dialogue like “You missed your shot” supports this interpretation.

Nonetheless, Winter doesn’t die in the game, contrary to John Walker’s claim that Actual Sunlight “dismisses any possibility for things to get better.” As a player, you have the choice to imagine what ultimately happens to Winter. In light of the game’s Marxist foundation, O’Neill’s ambiguous final image allows a possibility other than suicide. Is it not potentially positive that the final image of the game has Winter seeing the “Actual Sunlight” that Troy has missed in his utter dedication to the system? With this interpretation, Actual Sunlight‘s ending is not unlike a Jim Harrison story: a lost protagonist finding meaning and self-worth in a reconnection with nature (in this case, sunlight).

When O’Neill breaks the fourth wall, he basically declares that Actual Sunlight is not all fiction, tying himself to Winter as a mirror of his experiences. The successful creation of Actual Sunlight implies that Winter, or O’Neill, survives. Instead of committing suicide, Winter goes on to create a game (rather than write more cynical essays). The game is the result of labor not dictated by the capitalist system. The game is here because a depressed man has fulfilled some inspiration in his head despite the unfortunate circumstances of his life.

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Loaded Questions Vol. 6

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.

Julio Cesar: What do you think of good art made by bad people? And I’m not talking about little things like not washing your hands before lunch. I’m talking about really bad, awful, and despicable people, like rapists or Nazis. Should we buy their art and support their careers, knowing that their behavior is not the the best? I don’t think piracy is the answer, because if you look at the case of a film director, more than one person is involved in making a film, so piracy is not fair to the whole crew.

If a director is accused of having child pornography, and we buy his films, aren’t we helping him? I’d like to know what you think.

Jed Pressgrove: I can look at these questions as a critic, and I can look at them as an everyday person who lives under a capitalist system.

Here’s what I think as a critic:

You can’t ignore good art by bad people if you want to be a serious critic. It’s quite likely that critics regularly appraise games that involve immoral artists (or artists they would deem immoral), and they just don’t know. And why should they know what all of these artists do in their spare time? Critics are here to interpret and evaluate art. Although I encourage all critics to consider their moral responses to art, a critic’s purpose is not to judge the personal lives of artists.

One rule I follow as a critic is that I don’t tell people to buy anything. It’s marketers’ jobs to tell people to buy stuff. My work is here because of my urge to express myself.

Here’s what I think as an everyday person who lives under a capitalist system:

I can’t tell anyone how they should spend their money because I’m not sure moral consumption exists. You could argue that if you know someone is bad, you shouldn’t buy, experience, or even talk about their work. But what if you don’t know if someone is bad and they actually are bad? Is your ignorance a good enough excuse, especially given that ignorance isn’t an excuse in other cases of moral character?

Your point about movies being made by multiple people raises another question: should you refrain from purchasing a film just because one person is immoral? What if the rest of the crew is a group of great folks? Should the work they’ve contributed to be completely dismissed and avoided? And if the “knowledge” we have is only an accusation (as in your child pornography example), is it right to assume guilt automatically? Or is it better to not buy any art until you have a good idea of where every artist stands morally?

I realize I’m raising even more questions than you did, but the implicit point here is that people must decide for themselves where they draw the line, as we could spend hours raising different questions about this issue. It’s nowhere near as simple as some make it out to be, and no one should feel forced to comply with another’s philosophy.

Having said all of that, I admit some individual cases could be very straightforward: if there’s an independent guitarist you like but you learn that he is a neo-Nazi, no, I wouldn’t recommend buying his new album titled “Kill ‘Em All, For Real” off his website.

Guillermo Tizón: I’m a 22-year-old dude from Spain who has a short history with video games. I didn’t pay attention to games as a serious thing until one or two years ago, and now I want to study them and their history. How should I, a noob, face video-game history to improve my cultural background on the subject? Any tips? Should I follow a specific path? Also, I can deal with games like Super Mario Bros. 3 or the original Legend of Zelda, but there are others, like the first Metroid or Castlevania III, whose language I find really difficult to understand, like I don’t know what I’m doing or if I’m making any progress.

Jed Pressgrove: This is just a thought, but it’s something I want to mention before I answer the main question: I would never call you or anyone else a “noob.” Gamers often use words like “noob,” “casual,” and “hardcore” to divide themselves, but I believe it would be better to forget all of these terms.

There are a lot of ways you can improve your game-history knowledge. I don’t know what systems/platforms you have access to, but the simplest way to study the history is to play as many games as possible. I’ve learned more playing than I have reading. Pick a genre and start as close to the beginning of that genre as possible. If you ever get a chance to visit an arcade, spread the quarters around. And as you play the games, make sure to look up when they were released. If you can can go into games knowing when they came out, that will allow you to recognize a chronology of trends and ideas organically.

There’s also a lot of good material to read and to use as a reference. You might want to check out a publication that focuses on game history. The magazine Retro Gamer is generally a decent read. Retro Gamer features interviews with classic game designers and often dives into particular franchises or genres. You might also want to tap into a community’s knowledge. Various forums, from Twitter to Reddit, can be used as resources.

You raise a good point about certain games being more difficult to parse depending on who you are. In these cases, I’d recommend watching some longplays on YouTube. Sometimes seeing how other people play can help you advance your skill. Worst-case scenario, you can watch someone beat an entire game and take notes.

I’ve only scratched the surface with what you can do. Sometimes the path depends on what type of games you want to learn about. If you’re looking for anything specific, please feel free to contact me, and if I don’t know the answer, I can try to find someone who does.

Jim Bevan: (1) What is your opinion of theory channels? What separates a good channel that offers a serious look at hidden meanings and implications in a piece of fiction from one that just provides speculative clickbait?

(2) What kind of gaming videos do you like to watch? Do you prefer ones that delve into the science behind elements presented in a game (like Lockstin & Gnoggin), those that look at themes and mechanics (Snoman Gaming, EmceeProphIt, Super Bunnyhop), or those that specialize in obscure facts/trivia (like Guru Larry’s Fact Hunt)?

Jed Pressgrove: I can’t speak about theory channels because I never watch YouTube for theory. My favorite game theorist is Chris Bateman, who happens to be a writer (here’s his blog). One thing I love about Bateman is that he seeks to include rather than exclude. For example, I had a conversation with him about the definition of “role-playing game,” and he was open to considering the perspective of anyone who might use the term; he didn’t suggest that we should pay a greater amount of attention to the Dungeons & Dragons tradition, even though he recognizes this tradition as a critical piece of RPG history. And while he is a fan of games, Bateman analyzes them as a scientific/philosophical observer. Theorists have to be willing to consider multiple angles for me to take them seriously, so I hold them to a different standard than I do critics, who frequently interpret games from particular and personal angles.

I don’t watch a lot of gaming videos. I watch longplays when I need to verify facts or want to learn about certain games. Years ago, I watched a lot of the Angry Video Game Nerd because he effectively parodies the feelings of many people, including me and my sister, who played NES games while growing up. Every once in a while I’ll watch Cyril Lachel’s videos (Defunct Games) because of the rhythm and tone of his voice.

The “science” in games doesn’t interest me for the most part; breaking down things like that can take the fun and magic out of the art form. Here and there I’ll catch a video that looks at themes and/or mechanics. Chris Franklin is really good at what he does, and I saw a recent video by Amr Al-Aaser that I liked. For trivia, I’d rather check out a magazine like Retro Gamer.

Ryan Aston: Have you ever thought about making a game? If so, what kind of game would it be?

Jed Pressgrove: A few years ago I considered the idea of developing a text-based adventure or tile-based dungeon crawler, but that line of thought didn’t last for long. I’m just not interested in making games, and the last thing I would want is to develop a game and then feel led to write an article titled “Go Easy On Us, Critics: Developing Games Is Super Hard.”

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.

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.