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Paratopic Review — Surreally Dull

by Jed Pressgrove

Paratopic will try anything to unnerve you. Hard-to-follow but violent plot? Check. Abnormal-looking humans? Check. Disturbingly garbled dialogue? Check. Dubious VHS tapes? Check. Far from a personal vision, this crude horror tale from developers Jess Harvey and Doc Burford is one of the most derivative and snooze-worthy games of the year.

Right away, Paratopic appears to be an amateurish idea thief that thrives on the devices of other works of art. The opening line of dialogue, “You have an enemy, friendo,” recalls the deadpan, subtly threatening, and amusing language of the No Country for Old Men antagonist Anton Chigurh, but the character who delivers these words carries no significance outside of informing you that you’re playing as a smuggler at the beginning of the game. Paratopic’s introductory scene takes place in a dimly lit hallway, and that, coupled with the PS1-era visuals, forces a comparison to Silent Hill, which comes to mind again later in the game when a mutilated human body with a television for a head stumbles toward you. Such imagery might be more frightening if it didn’t rely on overused concepts and if the game’s script gave one a reason to care about the vaguely defined characters.

In other sequences, Paratopic not only swipes material from another game but also seems to do its damnedest to be as monotonous as possible as part of some uninspired attempt to build suspense or to acknowledge the little things in life. Three times you must steer a car for minutes on uneventful stretches of road. Besides steering and ramming the car into rails (which never results in any damage to the vehicle), you can look around and turn the radio dials to hear ominous-sounding gibberish from commentators. With these driving scenes, Paratopic clearly copies the 2014 independent title Glitchhikers. While Glitchhikers itself is an uneven blend of surrealism and the common human experience of taking a late-night drive, it never comes across as a ripoff of another game like Paratopic.

Paratopic gets close to being subversive when it has the player, on multiple occasions, wander in the woods and take snapshots as a photographer. The picture-taking is quite meaningless by itself. Because this activity isn’t presented as part of a photo mode within a larger game, the scenes in the woods are meant to simulate the mundane actions of a hiker in a strange, isolated place. A more humorous tone might have allowed Paratopic to satirize the cliched fetishization of scenery in games like Firewatch, but the extended walks in the woods ultimately function as a dreary way to build up to a nasty discovery. The photographer, the innocent bystander, is nothing more than another first-person shell from which the player laps up the game’s overly deliberate weirdness. As a story, Paratopic favors mood over substance, but the mood, pathetically, is not even halfway extraordinary.

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Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #5-1

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the intro to this list here, the entries for #15-11 here, and the entries for #10-6 here.

5. Solomon’s Key (1986)

Solomon’s Key, designed by Michitaka Tsuruta, might star a sorcerer who is perpetually trapped in locked rooms, but the game’s central mechanic — the ability to create and destroy square platforms — gives the player a unique type of freedom. Most 2D platformers before and after Solomon’s Key feature platforms that are set in place, so being able to manipulate the very things that inspired an entire genre creates the brilliant illusion that you are a magician. Adding to Solomon’s Key’s sense of magic is the weird secrets throughout its 50 levels. After you accidentally make a few odd discoveries, it’s hard to resist the urge to experiment in all corners of the enchanted rooms, especially since you will be revisiting the levels many times due to the game’s high degree of difficulty. Before Spelunky and Dark Souls, there was Solomon’s Key.

4. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989)

Although Konami’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse keeps the deliberate style of the original Castlevania, it holds a different place in video-game history by reimagining how players might progress through a journey in an action platformer. After you complete certain levels, branching pathways offer distinct challenges as you inch closer to Dracula’s castle; it’s impossible to experience every level on a single playthrough. On these different paths, you can discover multiple secondary characters, each with a completely different style of play and who can replace main protagonist Trevor Belmont with the touch of a button. No matter what path or character you choose, the game is full of ingeniously nerve-wracking sequences, the best of which is the optional Clock Tower level, where you must scale the building then work your way back down through its various mechanisms. Very few platformers can compete with Castlevania III’s epic quality, and none of them can match its emotional tension, partially because of the game’s startlingly articulate soundtrack, which is one of the greatest technical achievements on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

3. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995)

For a sequel to one of the most crowd-pleasing franchise hits of its era, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island has a ton of gall. The game’s hand-drawn art surges with a joyful and nervous energy that has yet to be surpassed among platformers — sometimes it seems like the visuals are about to, elatedly, rip apart at the seams, as when, in one stage, you touch Fuzzy and get dizzy (an unforgettable ode to psychedelic drugs) or when the first boss, initially diminutive, blows up to take up about half the screen. Then there’s Yoshi’s Island’s bizarre and even irritating premise: to survive, the player must take care of a young Mario, who cries and floats off in a bubble whenever Yoshi is hit by an enemy. By daring to turn a Mario game into one long escort mission, producer Shigeru Miyamoto and his team make an uncompromising artistic statement, rejecting the philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And that’s why when people talk about this title, they rarely say, “Super Mario World 2.”

2. Ninja Gaiden (1988)

When director Hideo Yoshizawa decided to transform the 1988 Ninja Gaiden arcade beat ’em up into a cutscene-filled platformer — the birth of “Tecmo Theater” — he changed video-game history. As a story about a young man wanting revenge on the ninja who killed his father, Ninja Gaiden is simple, emotive, and urgent, inspiring scores of developers to try their hand at complementing action with bursts of cinematic aplomb. But no cutscene has yet transcended the Sergio Leone-inspired opening sequence of this game, which, through alternating close-ups of faces and running legs, showcases the anxiety, excitement, and tragedy of a duel. The last image in this montage is the masked visage of a son enraged by what has occurred, and so when the first stage finally starts, the player is already shot with adrenaline as they take control of a hero with quick feet, a beyond-efficient sword slash, and the ability to jump off walls. As the story becomes more complicated after each level, and as the soundtrack evokes everything from energetic rage to demonic mystery, Ninja Gaiden never lets up.

1. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)

It’s not just that the eight worlds of Super Mario Bros. 3 contain enough ideas for several video games. It’s that the realization of the game’s concepts leads to a wide variety of emotional states. The child-like thrill of sliding down a tall hill, taking out multiple foes as you go, and landing into a pool of water. The sense of dread while you jump onto moving tanks and dodge cannon fire and walking bombs. The urge to laugh when you first see the silly oversized goombas. The shock of being swallowed alive by a giant flying fish. Whether you’re in the middle of a level, navigating a world map, or going toe to toe with a friend in Battle Mode (which is more fun than most fighting games), Super Mario Bros. 3 constantly appeals to senses and feelings and, of course, our fascination with moving an avatar on, around, between, above, and under platforms in a wonderful array of fashions.

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #10-6

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the intro to this list here and the entries for #15-11 here.

10. Downwell (2015)

Some might define Downwell as a shooter, but developer Ojiro Fumoto ingeniously riffs on one of the platformer’s most common features: the ability to dispatch an enemy by bopping them on top of the head. In Downwell, you can safely bop certain enemies but get injured by touching others, and it’s this concern that gives this pacey game its fundamental tension as you try to rack up combos or merely survive through the greatest fall in video-game history. The newest game on this list, Downwell shows that Fumoto is a brilliant independent artist who should get more attention from the gaming press (which is too obsessed with, among other things, the randomly generated sci-fi banalities of No Man’s Sky).

9. Kirby’s Adventure (1993)

Kirby’s Adventure doesn’t exactly conform to the standard notion that platforming should involve a distinguished approach to jumping. This Nintendo classic — which has the fingerprints of the late and great Satoru Iwata, in addition to those of long-time Kirby and Super Smash Bros. director Masahiro Sakurai — is more driven by the freedom to fly, and Kirby’s copycat ability both complements the established formula of 1992’s Kirby’s Dream Land and predicts the surreal, morally dubious nature of Super Mario Odyssey. As a game where you can casually advance through its levels or dive deep into its hidden areas through fun uses of the hero’s many powers, Kirby’s Adventure has flexible appeal and is one of the greatest technical achievements of the 8-bit era.

8. Spelunky HD (2013)

I’d like to meet someone who has stopped discovering tricks and quirks in Derek Yu’s Spelunky HD. The fundamentals of this game — the climbing and hanging, the running and jumping, the throwing and dropping — are fine-tuned to an absurd degree, and Yu’s level design strikes an impeccable balance between randomness and familiarity. And pay attention to the game’s underrated satirical undercurrent, where the protagonist’s greed and treachery — the damsel in distress, who is wryly labeled a villain in an in-game notebook, can literally be used as an object — are almost always rewarded with death.

7. Mega Man 3 (1990)

An honorable mention in my 15 greatest shooters list, Mega Man 3 fully realizes the potential of its predecessors. This game’s silky smooth run-and-jump action, a revelation after the slippery play of the first two Mega Man games, is accompanied by faster screen-to-screen transitions and a now-legendary move, the slide, that redefined how the blue hero can travel and react to threats. The game’s kinetic flare makes it hard not to feel propelled through its gauntlet of outstanding villains, from Snake Man to Gemini Man to Top Man. (For more on the greatness of Mega Man 3, read my essay here.)

6. Donkey Kong (1994)

The best remake in video-game history, this Game Boy masterpiece opens with the four levels of 1981’s Donkey Kong before sending the player, as Mario, on an indisputably epic quest. Without a tutorial sucking the creative spirit out of the whole affair, you’ll learn how to create temporary ladders and bridges, ride on the heads of harmless enemies to reach higher ground, take advantage of a highly athletic moveset (a clear inspiration for the acrobatics of Super Mario 64), and more as you identify and then carry a key to open the door to the next stage. This stunning interpretation of Donkey Kong as a limitless well of dynamic action is also an audiovisual home run, with sound effects that pay homage to the arcade classic, an urgent soundtrack that ranks among the best on the Game Boy, and cinematics that amusingly reimagine Mario’s neverending pursuit of the titular antagonist. Jonathan Blow, eat your heart out!

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #15-11

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the introduction to this list here.

15. VVVVVV (2010)

With the press of a button, the protagonist of Terry Cavanagh’s VVVVVV quickly floats to either the ceiling or the floor via gravity. Although VVVVVV wasn’t the first game to feature this concept (see the Mega Man series or, for a less well-known example, 1986’s Terminus), it commits to the idea like no other title. The best segment of the game highlights the excitement of moving from one screen to the next: to nab one item, you must twice guide the hero through a treacherous series of tunnels with spikes as he’s pulled in midair for several successive screens. Later in the game, Cavanagh takes away platforms altogether for a few challenges to achieve an even stronger sense of nerve-wracking vulnerability and physics-defying adventure. VVVVVV looks and sounds retro, but Cavanagh’s willingness to take a premise to the extreme underscores the relentless drive of a modern artist rather any cliched attachment to nostalgic pleasure.

14. Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts (1991)

Let’s forget, for a moment, that Capcom’s Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts requires you to beat its perilous levels two times in order to save, you might have guessed, a princess. The way the game uses platforms to keep the player off-balance is genuinely unpredictable the first time through. In the very first level, sections of the ground shift in extravagant fashion as zombies rise from random spots in the earth. In the next level, you must ride a small raft through a raging ocean, taking special care to account for how the constantly changing sea level can alter the trajectory of your projectiles and the probability of you successfully threading your avatar through deadly traps. In another level, you ride a flying palette of blood and bones during a challenge that wouldn’t be that diabolical if not for the fact that the ceiling, floor, and walls are drunkenly rocking back and forth as aerial enemies do their damnedest to push you off to your doom. Such ingenious and wicked twists, along with an oppressively melodramatic soundtrack, make Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts an essential horror game.

13. BurgerTime (1982)

In Data East’s BurgerTime, the player can’t leap. You can only climb up and down ladders to transition to different platforms. The goal is to literally run on top of ingredients, such as meat and lettuce, to make them fall to a platform below. Eventually, full hamburgers will form at the bottom of the screen. The problem is you’re being hounded by walking food items, like pickles, but if you can manage to make an ingredient fall as one of these pursuers try to cross over it, more points are awarded. The timeless appeal of BurgerTime lies in how it takes the vertical progression of 1981’s Donkey Kong and flips it into an absurd resource-management challenge that often feels like a deadly game of Tag. The game also demonstrates that the potential of platforming is only limited by one’s imagination — that there is no reason a developer’s creation must follow in the footsteps (and jumps) of Mario.

12. Shinobi (1987)

This side-scrolling arcade hit, designed and directed by Yutaka Sugano, has a stealthier bent than its contemporaries despite its shuriken-throwing, sword-slashing action. Taking a page from Namco’s Rolling Thunder, Shinobi allows you to jump to floors above or below the protagonist, and the transition to another plane is faster than that of Rolling Thunder. In some cases, this technique can be used to appear suddenly behind or in front of an unsuspecting enemy. Moreover, you have the ability to walk while crouching, an early example of a common mechanic in modern first-person games. In addition to giving the player the means to cleverly switch and traverse platforms, Shinobi rewards those who proactively line up the small hit boxes of their shurikens with adversaries, sometimes via mega-precise throws during jumps. Shinobi might share a lot in common with beat ’em ups and shooters, but it earns its classic status because of its platforming dynamics.

11. Cave Story (2004)

As the intricate work of one Daisuke Amaya, Cave Story frequently receives praise as a labor of love. But labor lacks personality without style, of which Amaya’s game has plenty, thanks to its quirky storytelling, unique leveling system (where an individual equipped weapon can gain or lose power depending on how often you collect triangular items or take damage), and, yes, a memorable approach to platforming. The hero in Cave Story has one of the most distinctive-feeling jumps in game history. At a glance, the high height of the jump might suggest a floaty sensation, but the actual action seems a bit stiff as you play. This strange feel, combined with the diminutive size of both the protagonist and certain platforms, demands a different kind of precision from players. Interestingly, with a machine gun, you can shoot down and propel yourself to higher positions. Such unusual mechanics come to a head for the monstrous final boss fight, where floating platforms that pass like clouds can either help your aim or hinder your mobility.

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — Intro and Honorable Mentions

by Jed Pressgrove

In video games, jumping is as ubiquitous as shooting, and it’s often considered an essential part of the 2D platformer genre. But that’s not exactly the case from my view. Although the overwhelmingly majority of platformers involve jumping, there are historically significant games where you must move from platform to platform without jumping at all. This list will include entries that fit this description.

Some might wonder why I have chosen to focus on 2D platformers. The short answer is I don’t think 3D platformers have been that impressive on the whole over their roughly two-decade lifespan. I will consider putting together a list of the greatest 3D platformers, but it would be shorter than this one.

The honorable mentions below show that 2D platformers remain vibrant and fascinating. But before I reveal these selections, I do want to say that the 2D platformer, more so than any other video-game genre, is heavily associated with blind nostalgia. Fez, Shovel Knight, Celeste, and others bring shame to the art form by referencing or utilizing aspects of classics without surpassing or interrogating what came before them (see Fez’s Tetris, Mario, and Zelda allusions; Shovel Knight’s easygoing nods to Mega Man, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Super Mario Bros. 3; and Celeste’s pixelated sprites, which look like god-awful mush during the game’s precious zoom-ins). We must look beyond what reminds us so much of the past.

As for why the following five games weren’t simply included as part of a 20 greatest 2D platformers list, I echo what I said in the intro to my 15 greatest shooters list: there are other honorable mentions I could name, but I want to highlight these choices for their unique appeal.

Platformance: Castle Pain (2010)

Unfortunately, this game might be forever lost after Microsoft abandoned support of Xbox Live Indie Games for the Xbox 360, but in case a port pops up somewhere, I must mention Platformance: Castle Pain by Magiko Gaming. This gem is simple: you can walk left or right, jump, or zoom in or out so that you can better detect and avoid obstacles on your way to rescuing a damsel (yeah, that trope is more worn out than a pair of 1980s blue jeans). The zooming mechanic is brilliantly executed. Let’s say you’re at the section where you need to traverse a long platform while jumping over arrows that are being shot at your back. You may want to attempt this trek with the default zoomed-in camera, reacting to the sudden appearance of a projectile behind you, or more cleverly, you can zoom all the way out so that you can see the game’s entire single stage — it resembles an elaborate living picture that one would hang on a wall — and thus the release of the arrows from their origin. Unlike Celeste’s phoned-in visuals, the pixel art here is superb whether it’s in your face or in the distance. The experience is brief like a children’s storybook and accompanied by an uplifting medieval-themed soundtrack, but Platformance: Castle Pain requires perfect timing and spacing to conquer its challenges as you move from checkpoint to checkpoint.

Rock Bottom (2014)

Amy Dentata’s Rock Bottom is a fantasy in which levels that represent a state of depression can be completed by counterintuitive means. The goal of Rock Bottom is to jump to higher platforms, but the only way to increase the power of your jump is to fall to your death. To further strengthen your legs, you must extend your fatal plunge by avoiding platforms as you fall from greater heights. If viewed cynically, Rock Bottom’s concept could be linked to suicide ideation, but I interpret its madness as wry hope for convenient change. Ultimately, the game is an affirmation of life after struggle, as suggested by the ending that celebrates the fact that the protagonist can finally jump without having to worry about escaping a hole.

The Duck Game (2013)

This quirky title from James Earl Cox III, one of the most fascinating and prolific developers of the decade, might not fit the traditional definition of a 2D platformer, but it effectively utilizes platforms in its depiction of a downward spiral of addiction and obsession. Absurdly, the protagonist is preoccupied with the idea of holding the legs of a duck as the bird flies. Unless you elect to hit “Escape” on your keyboard, you get to see what happens when the hero indulges in this practice. In addition to the trippy premise, visuals, and audio, the amusing part of The Duck Game is that the platforms don’t matter. When you’re flying high with the duck, the platforms are unnecessary for vertical advancement, and when flying with the duck becomes a problem (the protagonist stops caring about hygiene and everyday chores as the duck’s strength wanes), you can’t leap well enough to reach your previous high. The implication is that if the duck weren’t in the picture, you could go from platform to platform like a normal video-game character.

Iconoclasts (2018)

Because I played Joakim Sandberg’s Iconoclasts for the first time only a few months ago, and because it’s practically new, I don’t have the critical distance to state that it deserves to be on the main list. That’s what my head says. My heart says the game should go down as an all-time great. Iconoclasts’ combination of combat and puzzle-solving makes for some wonderful platforming moments, but it’s the storytelling I want to focus on here. Not only does this game have the most complex plot of any platformer I can recall, but it has the most conflicted depiction of faith and religion that I’ve seen in any video game, period. With a theatricality that recalls the interweaving dramas of Final Fantasy VI, Iconoclasts never lets you forget that it involves human beings with worldviews shaped by their individual experiences and convictions. This is the most ambitious 2D platformer ever made, and in almost every respect, it succeeds. (See my full review here.)

Octahedron (2018)

Yet another 2018 game that I will continue to keep in mind as I evaluate the history of 2D platformers, Octahedron’s ever-changing mechanics share center stage with a beyond-thirsty electronica soundtrack and neon-infused graphics that recall wild night clubs. The smooth and slippery movements of the platform-creating protagonist complement the pulsing beats and blanket-like textures of the music. A sensual powerhouse from developer Demimonde, this game is so sexy that one can feel dirty exploring every last part of its tunnel-like stages. (See my full review here.)

Loaded Questions Vol. 9

Loaded Questions is a regular 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.

Sam Martinelli: You’ve said in the past that you don’t support the idea of downloadable content (DLC) on principle, noting that games should be finished products once you pay for them. What do you make, then, of the free-to-play model? For example, games like Fortnite, Quake Champions, or Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft can be enjoyed without paying a dime, though shelling out some extra cash for cosmetics or new cards may enhance the overall experience. Is DLC acceptable if the core game is free?

Jed Pressgrove: As with most things, there are degrees of acceptability here. If a game is free to play but requires money for cosmetic changes, it doesn’t seem as bad as a full-priced game — which may or may not be buggy or “complete” at launch — that features cosmetic options via paid DLC.

Having said that, I’m still not a fan of DLC even within the free-to-play model. Minor cosmetic changes mean nothing to me, especially given that the intent behind them has more to do with superfluous virtual-identity customization rather than a meaningful shift in, say, aesthetics. From an artistic standpoint, it would be far more interesting if the “cosmetic” could lead to a richer interpretation of the game, but if you feel this way, you might as well make the case that all such things should be available from the get-go for a one-time price. Makes life a helluva lot simpler. (The game DLC Quest has played its own small role in shaping my views.)

I also do not spend money on any kind of DLC because I don’t want to send the message that I’m in favor of DLC in any way. If you give companies breathing room on this issue, they’ll keep seeing how far they can take the scheme. That’s why some free-to-play games have been called pay-to-win games. When changes via DLC lead to in-game advantages, many players feel the pressure to pay. Yes, people always have a choice, but I frown upon an industry that always says it needs more money as it shows little evidence of higher standards for quality and fairness across the board.

Brant Moon: I know you’re not a huge fan of the term “ludonarrative dissonance” (or maybe just not a fan of its overuse), but I liked that it helped some people consciously consider, “Hey, maybe the gameplay is not jiving with the story.” If you had to name one game (or two) with the best narrative-to-gameplay synergy, what would it be? Conversely, what popular games do you think have the worst synergy?

Jed Pressgrove: You are correct that I despise “ludonarrative dissonance.” It’s a mouthful in that dreadful academic sort of way, and it looks ugly in a sentence. There’s also confusion surrounding the term, which makes me question its usefulness. It seems to me that we can talk about matters of “ludonarrative dissonance” just fine without ever employing the phrase. By avoiding these two words and being specific about our observations, we can sidestep confusion and probably make a decent point.

From my standpoint, your question is much harder to answer than some might think. As I consider what you mean here, I realize that we are often conditioned or encouraged to think of narrative and gameplay as separate entities that, ideally, fit together like puzzle pieces. But this line of thought only represents one approach to how stories can be told or how ideas can be communicated within a game.

Think of something like Missile Command. This is a game that many would say “has no story.” But it does tell a story in how it captures, through its rules and theme and unique arcade cabinet, geopolitical and existential anxiety. Could we then argue that something like Missile Command showcases the purest kind of synergy that you refer to?

Another game that comes to mind while I think about all of this is the original Ninja Gaiden on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Although the cutscenes and player-driven action in this game are undeniably obvious in their separation, the urgency of Ryu Hayabusa’s quest and emotions, as illustrated in the cinematics, comes thundering out that much more when you take control of his avatar. If Ryu weren’t as fast and agile when you play as him (a clear departure from the deliberate pace of Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden’s biggest influence), the storytelling would mean nothing, and the mechanics would betray the conviction of the preceding writing and imagery.

It’s even harder trying to determine the pop game with the worst such synergy. Perhaps many open-world games deserve the most criticism for their nonstop indulgence of meaninglessness. Their big-ass maps and countless isomorphic tasks avoid the entire challenge of expressing something in a game. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, for example, doesn’t really express anything. Who gives a damn whether you stop Ganon again? Nintendo is telling us (like so many other unimaginative developers), “Here it is, player! The world is your oyster! Feast!” And when you read many of the reasons why people think Breath of the Wild is magnificent, it all comes down to what they did in a particular part of a game that features a culturally insignificant, emotionally vapid, and childish sense of morality. Emergent egotism.

Ryan Aston: What are your favorite depictions of Hell in media (games, movies, television, books, etc.)?

Jed Pressgrove: Lately, the depictions of Hell that have impressed me have all come from games. Hell in Will You Ever Return? 2, developed by Jack King-Spooner, has never left me. King-Spooner’s usage of everything from clay to photographs gives the setting an organic yet unreal vibe. What really got to me was how the game employed the Seven Deadly Sins within Hell. The encounter with Lust, outside of satirizing RPG combat norms, inspires you to grapple with the idea of your unborn children. (Also, it was either this 2012 sequel or its predecessor (they both take place in Hell) in which King-Spooner somewhat portends the political rise of Donald Trump.)

I also liked how Manual Samuel depicted Hell as this place where you have to function like a cog within a society. The demented rationalism of the setting deliciously plays off narrator Brian Sommer’s contempt for the wealthy protagonist Sam. It’s like, finally, the spoiled rich kid gets to know what it means to be working class.

Detroit: Become Human Review — Telltale’d Again

by Jed Pressgrove

Developer Telltale Games, known for titles like The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, doesn’t just allow players to make choices in its games; it tells players that their choices matter — incessantly and obnoxiously. With Detroit: Become Human, director/writer David Cage offers a variation of Telltale’s player-choice marketing. After you complete a chapter in Detroit: Become Human, the game shows a flowchart of how your actions, such as talking to a certain character or not killing someone, ultimately resulted in the concluding scene of the chapter, and as a bonus, the chart reveals other paths you could have taken if you had made a different choice. While the narrative of Detroit: Become Human preaches about the potential humanity of futuristic robots, Cage’s presentation of player-driven consequences is distractingly mechanical.

In Detroit: Become Human, you alternate between playing as three androids in the year 2038: Connor, who investigates “deviant” androids, a la Rick Deckard in Blade Runner; Kara, who is designed to do chores for humans; and Markus, who takes care of an aging and ailing artist. The stories of these three characters evolve according to how you play. If you, say, overlook a clue at a crime scene as Connor, you may fail to nab a perpetrator. There are limits to your impact as a player, though: the three protagonists move toward different destinies as outlined by Cage. Connor must come to grips with whether his mission matters more than his shared humanity with the suspects he tracks down. Kara learns what it means to be a parent as she protects a formerly abused little girl. And Markus becomes a leader in a political movement that seeks to end the slavery of androids, who are seen as disposable by humanity at large.

The variety of consequences in Detroit: Become Human is interesting, especially considering that the story never stops moving. There is no Game Over, so a lack of attention to detail on your part can have repercussions that flow through the entirety of the game. But instead of allowing the voice acting, animation, and other audiovisual cues to let players know how their actions impact people in the story, Cage uses contrived text messages in the top-right corner of the screen to spell out how other characters feel about your decision-making.

This “reputation meter” of sorts recalls Telltale’s awkward “He/she will remember that” statement, which appears when a nonplayable character perceives your decision as significant. Although Cage intends for this feature to inform you of character emotions, the messaging cheapens the emotion in generally well-executed scenes. For instance, if you want Markus to be more of a pacifist leader, a woman named North will often show signs of disapproval. But apparently, such signs are not enough for literate audiences. In addition to North’s on-screen reactions, you will see her name at the top of the screen with a downward-pointing red arrow beside it when you disappoint her. Conversely, if you please North, you will see her name and an upward-pointing green arrow beside it.

At best, Cage’s laughable reduction of human dynamics to traffic-light colors and a thumbs-up/thumbs-down binary is unnecessary. At worst, it shatters what the images of the game can say to you. One scene depicts Kara and the little girl snuggled up in an abandoned car. You wouldn’t be unreasonable to perceive warmth and security in such a picture, but during my experience with Detroit: Become Human, a screen message indicated that the child was “Distant.” Not only did this text seem to contradict what the game was illustrating, it also rejected my natural interpretation of the scene itself and asked me to buy into an idea that I personally would have no logical reason to accept without the shoehorned description.

Perhaps this sense of artificiality is intentional on Cage’s part. After all, Detroit: Become Human involves androids having messy awakenings about the purpose of their existence. Take Markus. His story has been criticized for evoking the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. However, these critical accounts have rarely mentioned the other references in Markus’ story: the perspectives of Descartes and Gandhi are alluded to via quotes and actions, and Markus frees the minds and spirits of other androids by touching them, a frequent reference to the miraculous hands of Jesus Christ. Although the allusions can feel like flippantly borrowed ideas with little depth, is it possible Cage is trying to say that androids are rather green and confused in their newfound humanity?

If so, the emphasis on our roles as players with choices throws a monkey wrench into Cage’s goal as an artist. Compared to the protagonists in Cage’s story, the audience of Detroit: Become Human has far more experience with the state of being human. We know that relationships in life often can’t be boiled down to whether someone likes us less or more, as implied by the game’s red and green arrows. We know that sometimes when we make choices, we’re not necessarily thinking of locked and unlocked paths in the vein of the game’s post-chapter flowcharts, which encourage us to admire the story for its replay value rather than its moral value. Despite how engrossing Detroit: Become Human can be, its player-choice marketing is always ready to rear its robotic head, separating the audience from the supposedly visceral and contemplative feelings of its heroes.

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.

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.