earthbound

Loaded Questions Vol. 2

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

Question 1

Taylor Vaughn: What games handle religion/religious belief (either real or fictional) in an interesting way as part of the gameplay (rather than just a theme)?

Jed Pressgrove: There are three main examples that come to mind (from weakest to strongest): The Shivah, Proteus, and Earthbound.

The Shivah is a 2006 point-and-click adventure in which you play as Russell Stone, a Jewish Rabbi who has lost hope and made questionable decisions regarding his congregation. He becomes a detective of sorts when he learns that a former member of his synagogue has been murdered. As in many other point-and-click adventures, you engage in dialogue as the protagonist, and when it’s your turn to respond to a character, the game gives you a few optional lines, one of which is always labeled a “Rabbinical response.” Although I like what developer Dave Gilbert was going for here, this element, which results in a rhetorical question from Stone if I recall correctly, often comes off as contrived or merely amusing. Do note, however, that many critics went ga-ga over Mass Effect’s stilted dialogue choices, as if they were innovative rather than reductive, when it was released in 2007. The Shivah’s handling of this approach was superior to Mass Effect’s.

Many critics see Proteus as a “walking simulator” or “first-person walker” or “non-game.” These are childish labels that trivialize the spiritual daringness of the game, which uses walking and flying to situate the idea of being a Christian disciple and lover of creation in a mythical context (Proteus was the name of a Greek sea god). People frequently recall the main section of Proteus in which you interact with different forms of life on an island. But at the beginning of Proteus, you’re literally walking on water, just as Peter wanted to do with Jesus in the Gospels, before you get to the island. After you start traversing the island, you can eventually move time forward and experience all four major seasons. During the final season, you ascend to the heavens, which, in terms of play, is a major departure from the walking and running you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s an ending of joy that evokes the concept of eternal salvation.

Last but not least, Earthbound’s climax involves a worldwide prayer to defeat an enemy who seems unbeatable. As Paula, the lone female hero of the main party, you could always pray during battle for a random effect, in the game’s joking way. Thus, I never prayed as Paula because of the unpredictability. But when you reach the final battle, you throw everything you can at Giygas, the final boss, and he just keeps surviving and growing more dangerous. The first few times I fought Giygas, I failed because I assumed I could beat him through normal attacks. Then, during one session, it hit me: why not try praying with Paula? It was the only thing I hadn’t tried in previous attempts.

Initially, prayer only does a little damage to Giygas, but as you perform the action round after round, the game cuts to other places of the world where characters you had met sense that they need to pray as well, and the damage steadily increases. By the final time you pray, you’re inflicting massive damage to Giygas, who fades away. Through this unique take on turn-based combat, Earthbound suggests that spiritual unity can help humanity overcome its worst fears and obstacles.

Question 2

Jim Bevan: Has your opinion changed on any games that you were initially very positive or negative towards?

Jed Pressgrove: Yes. The best example of either case was my experience with Final Fantasy Tactics many years ago before I left home for college (I’m 33, for those keeping score). I remember trying to get into it twice and quitting out of frustration both times. Although I started playing turn-based RPGs at around the age of 7, I wasn’t as familiar with the turn-based tactical genre, and Tactics is unrelenting if you don’t think more defensively. I thought it was a miserable excuse for a Final Fantasy game. Thankfully, I tried it a third time and was blown away by everything you could do. I liked it so much that despite getting stuck at the save point right before you face Wiegraf/Belias (I didn’t have the right party to win the fight), I started the entire game over (a loss of 20+ hours) just to properly prepare myself for the Wiegraf/Belias fight. Beating that boss was a great feeling when it finally happened.

Question 3

Ian Mossner: What do you think about the timing of your reviews? For example, Kingdom Come: Deliverance recently got a patch. What if you had reviewed the game after the patch? Your review would have been entirely different.

Another example: upon release, Dragon Ball FighterZ was unfinished, but now that certain elements have been added, if you were to review it, the criticism of it being unfinished could not be repeated by you.

Another example: in your review of Iconoclasts, you mention a dialogue segment where soldiers engage in “locker room” talk, but that segment has been entirely changed based on my recent playthrough. So people who play it now will not experience what you did.

So I guess my question is how important is timing in your reviews?

Jed Pressgrove: It can be important because it can give me the opportunity to show my values as a critic and human being. One of my beliefs is that if you’re going to sell a physical or digital thing, it should be finished. Bottom line, end of story. I don’t care if you’re talking about a car, a song, a shirt, whatever. I grew up in a poor working-class family, so I know how precious money can be. People should finish their work before selling it to anyone. Otherwise, it’s a ripoff, and it shows me that you, as a creator, have little respect for yourself, other people, and the state of the working class.

Here’s one tricky part: what is “finished”? With video games, if the game is in an alpha or beta stage, it’s unfinished. I’m against playing and reviewing early-access titles for this reason. I don’t want to pay for or play anything unfinished, and I don’t want to encourage other people to do it, either, because early access is a bullshit trend that needs to stop.

Although Kingdom Come: Deliverance wasn’t an early-access game on the day of its release, it might as well have been. I can forgive a glitch here and there. I can forgive some imperfections (though I can and will criticize those imperfections). But if just about every part of your game suggests that you didn’t put in the work to release the game in a state that wouldn’t rip off someone, you’re just as bad as the early-access grifters, and your game more than likely looks and plays like crap. And honestly, even though you mention a new patch in your question, I’m still not convinced my review would be that different. There was a patch for the PS4 version before my review was published, and the game still suffered from everything I mentioned in the review. That team of developers is so inept that I have no faith in the game.

But let’s assume Kingdom Come: Deliverance wasn’t the biggest technical failure that I played since last year’s abominable Troll and I. My review would have focused more on the game’s story and attention to realism. Based on what I could gather through my glitch- and bug-ridden experience, the game was still nothing to write home about on any front. From this angle, timing may not matter as far as whether I like the overall game or not, but it would certainly affect the thrust of my essay. Perhaps my review of Kingdom Come: Deliverance would have been more cultural or political in nature.

I haven’t played Dragon Ball FighterZ, so I can’t comment on it specifically. I will say that the trend for fighting games to be “live services” is annoying. The fighting game community never shuts up about tiers and unfairness, so as long as the cycle of player whining and patching continues, who knows what fighting games will look like. At the same time, I have played well more than 100 fighting games, so I can often spot a substandard example of the genre when I play it, even when it receives frequent patches, like Street Fighter V. With this in mind, timing of reviews might be less important for certain genres.

Your example of Iconoclasts is interesting and presents a different kind of potential dilemma. Changed dialogue can change one’s interpretation of a game’s theme or message. So timing in such a case could be extremely critical. Fortunately, that scene you’re referring to in Iconoclasts, if it is indeed different (I haven’t been able to confirm it yet due to my busy schedule), doesn’t play a significant role in my overall interpretation of the game. I just thought it was a fascinating scene that deserved to be mentioned in a largely descriptive sentence.

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Undertale Review — Progressively Pointless

by Jed Pressgrove

If you kill just one monster that threatens you in Undertale, at the end you will be asked, “Is killing things really necessary?” This question isn’t morally serious, as developer Toby Fox’s message goes on to explain that playing through the game again without killing anything will give you a “happy ending.” This awkward moment confirms Undertale as little more than an obstacle course posing as an aspiring pacifist’s wet dream.

Though not marketed to children, Undertale often resembles a patronizing lesson for kids. When monsters start fights with you, you can either kill them to become stronger (the traditional role-playing game outcome) or make them lose their will to fight by talking to them, flirting with them, and so on. For one monster, you can select “Don’t pick on,” and the monster feels much better about itself and can be spared. For another monster, you have to laugh after it tells a joke in order to make peace. However, some enemies must be attacked until they’re too weak to continue, so the “merciful” path isn’t necessarily obvious. Ultimately, showing mercy is another turn-based routine that can be tedious, raising the question of whether it’s violence or monotony that prevents audiences from caring about throwaway characters.

The flaccid stakes in Undertale highlight the lack of a significant message in the killing/mercy dichotomy. Fox wants players to think twice about killing enemies while largely reducing the latter to unfunny punchlines, as when two dark knights finally realize they’re into each other or when a flamboyant robot turns into a pop star diva. Undertale’s depiction of humankind is even shallower despite the trusty find-a-way-back-home plot. Take a long look at the protagonist. The flaw isn’t the lack of next-gen polygons; it’s the absence of soul. (Undertale’s rambling about the souls of humans and monsters doesn’t make up for this limitation, either.)

The off-putting vacancy in the Undertale protagonist’s face is especially puzzling given Fox’s schmaltzy attempt to undercut typical turn-based combat. Almost jokingly, you dodge the attacks of enemies in real time as a heart avatar. Does Fox think the mere shape of a heart can be a stand-in for human depth? If the little snot you play as is supposed to comment on a hollowness about previous role-playing games, Fox takes the lazy route. The silent protagonist cliche, already parodied well by Super Mario RPG, does not complement any inventiveness Fox squeezes out of the monster encounters. And if the hero is meant to resemble a dead fish to show that “anyone can be a hero,” Undertale should come with a bucket to vomit in.

Undertale seems rather desperate when you enter a church and are told “You will be judged for your every action.” After a laughable sermon about RPG design (“[EXP] stands for execution points”), you are instructed to think about your actions in Undertale. But what’s there to contemplate? Either you managed to spare a goofy-looking thing that attacked you or you didn’t. Unlike Jack King-Spooner’s Beeswing and Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2, Undertale pushes make-believe morality — a sort of BioShock bullshit — as opposed to situations that get to the essence of life and struggle.

There’s a part in Undertale where you can pray to remind an enemy of its conscience. Such flippant moments suggest that Fox misinterpreted Earthbound, Undertale’s biggest influence, as merely quirky. Earthbound was strange, but its spiritual consciousness and emotional warmth were striking and genuine, especially in its prayer-centered climax. The final fight in Undertale doesn’t have much to show other than creepy sadism. Before the concluding battle, the game literally turns itself off, and it will turn itself off again if you happen to lose. If you win, the binary choice returns: kill or have mercy. If you want to be “good,” you have to pick mercy over and over and over before Undertale almost shuts up. Fitting that the big bad guy at one point says, “You idiot. You haven’t learned a thing.” That’s a perfect encapsulation of how pointless Undertale’s wannabe progressivism is.

Everybody’s Gone to the Secular Dehumanization Chamber

by Jed Pressgrove

Why do most reviews of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture not address the game’s spiritual and religious themes?

My best guess is that providence, salvation, doubt, and other human concerns would distract many from picking apart video games according to the boring standards that are applied to electronic toys. Does it walk? Does it run? Does it shoot? What all does it say when you press that button? What does this part do?

In 2013, a secular response was also granted to the rerelease of Earthbound, the most spiritually potent video game of all time. That game criticism underestimated Earthbound’s unifying, nihilism-defying prayer suggests that writers are either scared of criticizing faith or fine with faith being ignored by young minds.

Jim Sterling’s and Brendan Keogh’s long-winded yet insignificant comments on genre recall 2013’s other major secular blunder: the soul-sucking, stupid appraisal of Proteus as another “walking simulator” or “anti-game.” Nevermind that Proteus starts with a walk on water and ends with an ascent to the heavens.

If technology is the savior, and if meaning is gained by what we can clearly see and interact with, spirituality has no place in the gaming world (I wonder, do e-sports athletes pray like other athletes?). Hell may very well freeze over before developer The Chinese Room’s references to faith receive the different interpretations that one might predict based on such a theologically, existentially dividing word as “rapture.”

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We can’t blame everything on critics, as tempting as it is. Critic Scott Nichols stated as much when he said, “To me, the lack of religious discussion in reviews [of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture] suggests either the game fails or the reviewer failed, but something definitely failed.”

Something definitely failed alright. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture fails miserably because The Chinese Room internalized the “walking simulator” insult (frequently directed at the studio’s Dear Esther) and, perhaps inadvertently, produced the worst possible parody of the term. With the protagonist’s overemphasized gait in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the developers have made the same mistake as Sterling, Keogh, and countless others, allowing the mechanical (form) to overshadow what defines our humanity (feeling). This repugnant focus on putting one foot in front of the other — though you can’t see the protagonist’s feet — is compounded by the decision to make the complete tale a roughly six-hour exercise.

The most amusing part of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is the absurd inclusion of a “sprint.” You must hold a button for several seconds to move a little faster. Expecting anyone to initiate and acknowledge this negligible effect points to the developers’ incompetence at best. Assuming they’ve played the game, commentators who say reviewers overreacted to a lack of speed should consider the possibility that The Chinese Room holds contempt for its potential audience.

If nothing else, the development team’s poor attention to detail can’t be denied. In certain areas, you can walk on things that you can’t walk on throughout the great majority of the game: discovering this during moments of dialogue turns already amateurish drama into farce. Or wait until you spot the numerous ostensibly bendable plants that appear to be as hard as concrete when you get close to them. Someone could defend these and other things as inevitable artificiality, but as much credit as some give to The Chinese Room for starting something different with Dear Esther, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture seems outdated and lost compared to many recent works, from the good (Off-Peak, 9.03m, Moirai) to the mediocre (Dream.Sim, Curtain) to the bad (The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Gone Home, The Stanley Parable).

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Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture involves humanity and community, but it’s extremely difficult to feel that just by looking as you traverse the town of Yaughton to activate audio diaries, phone conversations, and flashbacks of a sort. In his great review, Ed Smith skewered (among other things) the game’s reliance on voice recordings, which he compared to the flaccid nature of “pressing a button next to a waxwork of Abraham Lincoln.” But the visual approach is more egregious in making Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture inhuman and, thus, intolerable.

In the quasi flashbacks, the characters are depicted as lines and dots of light. Every person has the same form. This silly construction, like the walk/sprint dynamic, points to a fundamental lack of seriousness. The people-as-light conceit not only makes characters hard to remember (dull names are the primary distinguishing factor) but also implies that The Chinese Room is too lazy to care, which further suggests parody of artsy minimalism. In the best-case scenario, this graphics decision reflects a shortcut that had to be taken for some reason, but it’s up to the developers to have some wit about it, such as when film director Frank Capra opened It’s A Wonderful Life with angels and God as light-up blobs, knowing that it would serve his lighthearted but sincere tone. The sight of the talking lights in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is only justified by sci-fi mumbo jumbo.

Going with audio only for the characters might have better suited The Chinese Room’s intention for the audience to use its imagination. At first, one might not suspect Jeremy, for example, is a priest without other characters calling him “Father.” In one of the game’s better moments, Jeremy and an older lady named Wendy trade Bible verses in a talk about holy appearances and judgment, but the artistic inadequacy of their “bodies” distracts from the interaction rather than emboldening it. Similarly, when Amanda expresses her fear and anxiety to Jeremy on a couch, the vagueness of their appearance mocks the emotion. And one can only pretend that a marital affair would matter with sexless figures, yet that’s the preposterous picture you get in Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.

The environments also reveal an absent-minded, passionless illustration of human life. The Chinese Room wants you to discover a once-inhabited place but forgets that simple things explain existence and a lack thereof. The bar in the first segment brings so much attention to its phoniness that one could reasonably believe the developers have never left their homes at night. Beer bottles sit on tables with their caps on, and multiple taps have the same label, yet a cigarette burns in an ashtray. Even stranger, you can go into a house with the notion of learning about a family, only to see hanging pictures of flowers that also appear in a doctor’s office. Such inconsistencies display a deconstructive purpose that says nothing about the upended status quo. Like the scientist Kate says near the beginning, “I keep looking, but it makes no sense.”

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture can’t absolve these sins with what some call “pretty” looks. Without a zoom-in, the game doesn’t value fetishization of minutiae like The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, which utilizes more defined ghosts to articulate its flashbacks. However, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture one advantage over The Vanishing of Ethan Carter does suggest hope: in the former, a church isn’t used to communicate shallow negativity.

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The soundtrack of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture should have forever connected it to spiritual experience. The hymns, Jessica Curry’s best compositions, attempt to inspire reflection on the soul, but the story gradually moves away from this foundation, especially the last segments that reveal The Chinese Room’s deception in evoking theological debate.

Despite the misleading term “Rapture,” you can’t say Dan Pinchbeck’s script throws any curveballs. His story is not the first to encourage an interpretation involving an infatuation with extraterrestrial life rather than heavenly beings, but the build-up and the finale lack the emotional power of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Unlike Pinchbeck’s tentative and unfeeling word choice of “Pattern,” Spielberg’s allegory for supernatural signs and religious conviction doesn’t confuse ambiguity with subtlety. At the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the protagonist receives a clear reward for his commitment, allowing Spielberg to personalize and transcend abduction cliches. The emotional basis of Pinchbeck’s tale merely evaporates with hackneyed Cold War paranoia and formulae scribblings that are cheap, non-universal, and impersonal.

Jeremy’s newfound supplication and Wendy’s belief in the simplicity of a divine plan can’t overcome the fatalism of the blood you keep finding on the trek through Yaughton. Only the infidel couple of Kate and Stephen take any action against this nastiness, with both insisting that the unearthly visitors don’t mean to bring suffering to humankind (Stephen makes this point with a risible anecdote about his dad’s pet fox). Jeremy’s reawakening in particular gets the backhand during one of Kate’s speeches when she says that Jeremy “lies at peace with his God at last,” as if the Christian couldn’t die soon enough. In the same breath, Kate ridiculously implies a human relationship is experientially the same as salvation.

Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture indulges Kate’s obsession with the “Pattern” just as game critics indulge their obsession with basic form and fan service (and the inert politics that arise from these banalities). Rendering the spiritual overtones of Curry’s score futile, the ending acts as a shrine to Kate’s insensitivity and confirms that The Chinese Room has referenced religion gratuitously, with nothing to say about it other than “Oh well.” Faith may not be a prerequisite for empathy, but I see little humanity and zero truth in this game and the predominate commentary that surrounds it.

In Honor of Satoru Iwata, Not Consumerist Fantasy

by Jed Pressgrove

Nintendo President Satoru Iwata is dead. When you look at his history as a developer, executive, and, most importantly, a joyful man, it’s no surprise that perfect strangers have felt intense sadness in the days after his death.

Both Iwata’s amiability and cause of death (cancer) make it difficult to be critical in assessing his impact on video games. Yet it’s important to celebrate what Iwata did versus what some people want him to represent as part of a consumerist fantasy.

Iwata’s passing presents an opportunity to reflect on the role of his enthusiasm and vision in Kirby’s Dream Land, often dismissed as too simple by critics who overlook the elation and originality in the game’s marriage of platforming and storybook appeal. Unfortunately, this artistic milestone hasn’t received as much attention as Iwata’s supposed creation of a “gamer” world. While I have no problem with the term “gamer” by itself, the word has been and will continue to be used to patronize audiences, as in Chris Kohler’s article “Thanks to Nintendo’s Satoru Iwata, We’re All Gamers Now.” Kohler describes Iwata’s legacy as “bringing them [games] to everyone” within the last decade, yet he can only support this notion with a nonexistent scenario: “[T]he perception that games as a medium are not ‘for’ any particular gender or age of person is gone, thanks in great part to Iwata’s pursuit of game hardware that would weaken such barriers and software that would tear them down entirely.”

The suggestion that video games no longer have any possible negative connotations in terms of gender and age is ludicrous, but the bigger problem lies in dollar-sign logic. Intentionally or not, the basis of Kohler’s eulogy has more to do with his belief in Nintendo product than it does with Iwata’s influence. Overstating the effects of Nintendo marketing is different than acknowledging Iwata’s vision for an inclusive gaming mainstream.

Iwata used “gamer” in a context much more articulate than unofficial members of the conservative and progressive gaming parties are likely to admit: “On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.” Iwata’s comment is remarkable not only in its admittance of his privilege but also in its separation of the corporate and the personal. His perspective should inspire us to reconsider “gamer” as an internal conviction rather than as a marker of consumptive standing. If we can’t see the humanity in Iwata’s phrasing or in Kirby’s Dream Land and EarthBound, what’s the point of remembering him?