Hollow Knight Review — Symphony of the Ninja Souls X

by Jed Pressgrove

With gorgeous art, an exquisite score, and an array of places to discover, Hollow Knight resembles a masterpiece. Indeed, the game is very good at resembling things, whether because of its focus on ruin, souls, and hollowness (Dark Souls); its level structure, wherein players can travel new pathways via newly acquired techniques (Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night); its curt swordplay (Ninja Gaiden); and its wall-jumping and dashing mechanics (Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man X). Look beyond its great looks and great sounds, and Hollow Knight more than lives up to to the first word of its title.

In a world of bugs, you play as a warrior on a vague quest in which you have many sorrowful run-ins with destitute and hostile creatures. As such, Hollow Knight is indebted to the storytelling approach of Dark Souls, but it says nothing specific about the human condition. In Dark Souls, a sense of real-world ennui pervades the proceedings as your character goes through the motions of killing, leveling up, and collecting currency, and the game is never shy about showing the deleterious effects of a decaying habitat on the mental states of the characters that you meet. In contrast, Hollow Knight’s friendly nonplayable characters, distinct in their audiovisual quirks, often display a strange level of enthusiasm considering the wretched state of their environments, yet there doesn’t seem to be any philosophy that inspires their general positivity. Worse, the protagonist is but a silent and nameless shell who moves with a ruthless type of efficiency; he’s a cold product of decades of video-game logic with no emotional meaning.

Controlling this brutal killer is pleasurable once you gain enough abilities after combing the game’s interconnected locations several times. You can double-jump to swing your sword up at an aerial enemy, then dash away toward a wall, kick off the wall, slash the foe from the side to eliminate it, dash again in midair, and use your final jump to land safely on a modest platform. You can bounce on adversaries by swinging your weapon downward at them from above. You can perform a few special moves, including a fireball of sorts and a dive-bomb, if you have enough Soul, which also allows you to heal if there’s enough distance between you and an active threat. But looking back at it all, I can’t name a single thing in Hollow Knight that I haven’t done in other games — a realization that creates a feeling of profound emptiness, especially considering the length of the experience.

It’s almost like developer Team Cherry bases Hollow Knight on a disturbingly patronizing pitch: “This time, it’s with bugs!” If all you want is to admire how intricately detailed animation and audio can make you feel as if you are among a wide variety of creepy crawlies (the game’s Deepnest region ingeniously epitomizes this sensation), Hollow Knight is the greatest platformer of all time. Outside of that, it’s simply another title, like Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge, that echoes the past with the vain hope that it too will go down in history.

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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.

Loaded Questions Vol. 11

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.

Question 1

Daniel Cánovas‏: Out of the games you’ve played, which ones were the longest with the least amount of trivial content? RPGs preferably.

Jed Pressgrove: Off the top of my head, my picks for RPGs of this sort would be Final Fantasy VI, Earthbound, Final Fantasy Tactics, Fallout 2, Planescape: Torment, The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings, Dark Souls, and Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia.

Question 2

Nathan Osborne: After the 2016 election, I heard some people say that one small consolation of a Republican administration is that the culture (music, movies, literature) gets better. A lot of this commentary was centered on the hope for a revival of protest music, but not all of it. There was almost a vague sense that artists, usually open-minded and left-leaning themselves, get challenged into higher terrain when faced with gross reactionaries. So do you notice anything like this in the video-game world? Do Republican or Democratic presidents make for better video games?

Jed Pressgrove: My gut reaction is that people who said the Trump administration will inspire better culture were being hopeful at best and naive at worst. For instance, I don’t think music or film has gotten more interesting since Trump’s election, especially if we’re talking about popular artists. And look at the output of musical and film artists during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Both Democrats and Republicans controlled the executive branch multiple times throughout those decades, but the quality of pop music and pop film in the United States was consistently vibrant during that 30-year stretch. Art is better because of style and execution, not because of whatever the artists might be reacting to. It’s how they react that matters, and right now, music and film seem awfully safe and pandering as a whole, and that’s what capitalists want.

Here’s something to consider specifically in the context of video games: everything isn’t political. Yeah, some people love saying the opposite, but that’s their knee-jerk revolutionary side talking. Here’s where I’m going with this: 2017 was considered by many to be a great year for video games. But when I look at some of 2017’s best games — such as Topsoil, Splasher, Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, Steamworld Dig 2, and Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders — I don’t see much political meaning or inspiration at all. And as for top-notch 2017 games that were ostensibly, if not undeniably, political — such as The Norwood Suite, Nier: Automata, Pyre, Golf Story, and Torment: Tides of Numenera — can we assume that Trump was always a major driving force for their development?

I do think games like Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Far Cry 5 were partially inspired by the Trump administration and people’s reactions to it. But those games have questionable value in almost every respect. So there you go. Artistic style and execution, ahem, trump political inspiration.

In short, people who spend their days and nights thinking politics, politics, politics will say just about anything that they think will impress and patronize their buddies.

Question 3

Doggie: What makes shooters great to you? And why do you think Thunder Force VI is criticized heavily?

Jed Pressgrove: I do believe a lot of shooters are crap. It’s an overcrowded genre, so it’s a simple thing to fall back on because of its history and popularity. But what I like about great shooters is their kinetic brilliance and their ability to tap directly into our animalistic “fight or flight” instincts, to paraphrase Defender and Robotron: 2084 developer Eugene Jarvis. The shooter is one of the earliest video-game genres, so we can learn much about the potential of the medium by understanding them. Beyond that, they’re a very absorbing type of art, an intense experience. And look at some of the notable auteurs who have created shooters: Jarvis, Masanobu Endō (Xevious), Dave Theurer (Missile Command and Tempest), Shinji Mikami (Resident Evil 4). Check out my 15 greatest shooters list if you haven’t. I go into more detail there.

Haven’t played Thunder Force VI, so can’t comment.

Question 4

Serge Soucy: What’s your favorite arcade cabinet?

Jed Pressgrove: Missile Command. Most of the time, when it comes to cabinets that I like, I’m drawn to some good-looking art or an attractive form of advertising. Missile Command’s cabinet gets my attention in a far different way. The art on the cabinet’s side is superb, but I’m more drawn to how the control layout makes me feel like I’m part of a battle station. I wish I could have played it back in the early 1980s (I was born in 1984) when the Cold War was still on everyone’s mind, but even when I played a Missile Command cabinet last year, I still got a strong sense of what it meant politically and culturally. It’s a cabinet that appeals to something far greater than the taste of an aesthete.

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. 10

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.

Question 1

Dani: Do you tolerate tank controls in games like Resident Evil 4 or God Hand? I read a piece where you talk about how this mechanic was awful in Silent Hill 2, but you have praised Resident Evil 4, so I’m curious why.

Jed Pressgrove: I haven’t played God Hand, but the protagonist in Resident Evil 4 controls fine as a tank, and it’s all due to perspective.

Before I go any further, I’ll explain what basic tank controls are for those who may not be familiar with them. In a game with tank controls, pressing “up” on a control pad or joystick will move you forward. To turn, you must press “right” or “left” on a pad or joystick, and when you turn, your avatar stops moving altogether. In other words, you can only move forward when you’re facing in the direction you want to move, but to face another direction, your avatar must pause and turn. Moreover, if you press “down” on a pad or joystick, your avatar will, depending on the game, do nothing or move in reverse without facing the opposite direction.

Regardless of whether you’re playing Resident Evil 4, Silent Hill 2, or Combat (which actually involves tanks), tank controls usually take time to get used to. But perspective, or the position of a game’s camera, can significantly impact your experience using this control scheme.

In Resident Evil 4, the camera is behind the shoulder of the protagonist; thus, the player is always looking in the same direction as the protagonist. This perspective allows tank controls to be more intuitive, as when you press “up,” the protagonist moves “up” into the background that he is facing. And because the perspective never changes, you’re tied to the eyesight of the character, which produces a strong connection between you and the avatar.

In Silent Hill 2, the camera angle changes dynamically depending on where you are walking in the environment, similar to the case in the original Resident Evil. The camera might be behind your character one moment, only to show a side view of your character in the next. And yet, the whole time, you’re expected to keep pressing “up” to move forward. The random changes in perspective are intended to be discombobulating, but I consider this a cheap trick that serves as a contrived reminder that you and your avatar are fundamentally at odds, and let’s not forget, the Resident Evil series already pulled this trick multiple times.

To me, the epitome of Silent Hill 2’s clunky stupidity is the early encounter with Pyramid Head where you have to keep running away from him in circles within a small room. The concept itself is silly and kinetically uninteresting, and the only reason it’s remotely tense is due to your avatar’s weird pauses in movement every time you have to turn (rather than any heightened connection between you and the avatar). The elongated routine completely destroys any suspension of disbelief that one might have, as no one in their right mind would awkwardly pause as they’re running away from such a destructive creature within an enclosed space.

Question 2

Kenji Madaraki: Is replayability a factor for you when deciding if a game is one of the greatest ever? I know that Indie Gamer Chick, for example, has stated that she doesn’t care much at all about replay value and will still put a game in her top 10 even if she liked it drastically less on a second playthrough. Has a game ever fallen out of favor with you to a considerable degree after you played it again?

Jed Pressgrove: I definitely fall more on Cathy’s (Indie Gamer Chick’s) side when it comes to replayability.

First, games are frequently addictive for various reasons, but just because a game is addictive doesn’t mean it’s great. Case in point, if you were to go by hours played to identify my top game of 2016, Street Fighter V would be the clear winner. However, I didn’t play Street Fighter V for hours and hours and hours because it was great. I did it because I’ve been playing the Street Fighter series since I was a young kid, and I’m very competitive when it comes to any of those games. Even though Street Fighter V isn’t that good (see my review here), I still got a rush from beating people online, so I played the game for a ridiculous amount of time.

Second, I don’t call a game “great” before going through a rigorous process of questioning my instincts and feelings and comparing the game’s strengths and weaknesses to those of various other games. There is no objective truth here, though I do have a lot of knowledge and experience to draw from when making these determinations. So while it can be helpful to replay certain games when I’m trying to rank them in a specific order, replayability doesn’t help me evaluate the various qualities of a game in a historical sense.

To answer your final question, sometimes replaying a game might make me think it’s not as good as I thought it was, but I can’t recall a single time when this has happened for a game that I consider one of the greatest ever, and that’s due to the second reason above. I don’t throw around “greatest” lightly.

Question 3

Cesar Marquez: What is art? What isn’t art? How can video games be art and sport at the same time?

Jed Pressgrove: Very broadly, art is something that involves craft and/or personal expression/style, and it can be appreciated by an audience as a display, statement, or performance. This definition allows quite a number of things to be art — from paintings to lawns, from chess to basketball, from cross-stitching to glassblowing. Art is not necessarily good, but I think it should be a very wide umbrella.

The main thing that I exclude from the artistic realm is advertising. If the sole purpose of something is to get you to spend money on something else, that thing is my sworn enemy as a critic and human being.

There is a competitive element to many games, so that’s why they can be sports, which can be art themselves. The art in games can be seen in their individual elements (music, visuals, etc.), what they express as a whole (Nier: Automata as a portrait of discrimination, Earthbound as a statement on the unifying power of faith, etc.), and what players can achieve (Dayo’s come-from-behind victory in Street Fighter III is beautiful and elating).

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 convey how the player’s 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.