everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Video Games of 2014

by Jed Pressgrove

Game critics often subscribe to a narrow-minded view of “worst” that results in self-congratulatory dogpiling of games like Sonic Boom. The following list shows that games in “working order” can be far more problematic, where an illusion of technical and artistic superiority hides insidious marketing; ignorance of video game and art history; disdain for thoughtful communication and potential audience; soulless repackaging of banal features and practices; fragile and unenlightened creator egos; and misrepresentation of human experience and culture.

Note: You can check out my 10 best video games of 2014 here.

1. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Inspired by dark and trashy television, Ground Zeroes is a sly press release for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Hideo Kojima dresses his “stand-alone prologue” in 24 clothes, that is, Kiefer Sutherland and torture porn. Ground Zeroes’ rape-bomb combo is its answer to Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding and other “shocking,” “must-see” TV moments. Some call Ground Zeroes misogynistic, but the game shows contempt for everyone, not just women. For an appearance of real-world relevance, the game evokes Guantanamo Bay only to utter banalities about hopelessness. The stealth is also a joke, with trendy bullet time for those who thought the superior Metal Gear Solid 3 was unfair.  The incongruous side missions depict a stealth sitcom without the laugh track.

(See full review of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes here.)

2. Mountain

Mountain wins the Most Insignificant Game with a Significant Amount of Press award. The game’s “novel” approach to simulation is presented as a cute and mundane mystery, complete with smart-assed messages and backhanded features that prod players as if they’re cattle. Confusing condescension with creativity, developer David OReilly has nothing to say.

(See a comparison of Mountain to the superior Temporality here.)

3. Fantasy Life

Don’t be misled by the “addictiveness” of Fantasy Life. It’s just an old drug that prefers advertising over truth. The game’s commitment to childish banter and meaningless checklists exposes its cited freedom as a lie. Fantasy Life is only acceptable if one forgets every simulator and role-playing game that has ever been created. If you buy into Fantasy Life’s drivel, walking through a doorway is a quest or work. Publisher/developer Level-5 should be temporarily imprisoned for wasting composer Nobuo Uematsu’s brilliance.

(See full review of Fantasy Life here.)

4. Always Sometimes Monsters

Developer Vagabond Dog’s world of “no right or wrong” is preposterous, yet we’re supposed to be moved by Always Sometimes Monsters’ immature understanding of human experience. This (no shit) feces-obsessed game suckered some publications into thinking its depictions of sexism and racism are profound, but no matter what gender, sexual orientation, or racial group you choose, the story doesn’t recognize the privilege of its whiny protagonist writer. Like the diverse cast of characters, spirituality and labor are tokens on Vagabond Dog’s “progressive” checklist, casually addressed but never detailed in sociological or believable terms.

(See full review of Always Sometimes Monsters here.)

5. South Park: The Stick of Truth

Obsidian Entertainment tries to fool you into thinking The Stick of Truth is a good role-playing game by demonstrating what the fanboy consumer calls “faithfulness to the source material.” Standards in game criticism are so pitiful that if a game can manage to look like an episode of a popular cartoon series, the release will be hailed as a breath of fresh air. In reality, The Stick of Truth offers recycled jokes from the television show and parodic role-playing games, as well as an amateurish combination of Super Mario RPG battles and Elder Scrolls inventories/quests.

(See full review of South Park: The Stick of Truth here.)

6. Child of Light

This Ubisoft swing at the “indie” market pretends to be sophisticated and hopeful, but only the sound design and music suggest talent was involved. With poetry and hip visuals (that is, an awkward combo of bland polygons and water color backgrounds), Child of Light announces itself as an epic. Too bad the creators’ (mis)understanding of rhyming poetry is disrespectful: the game treats the rhymes as a feature rather than as part of a classic artform that requires skill, timing, and inspiration. The role-playing aspirations are similarly out of touch. The battles rely heavily on a real-time helper gimmick, ignoring the variety of turn-based possibilities in Penny Arcade 3. All of this inept execution exposes Child Light as a cynical display of fairy tale marketing.

(See full review of Child of Light here.)

7. The Plan

This five-minute game thinks dreariness amounts to a worthwhile existential statement. The use of Grieg’s classical masterpiece “Peer Gynt Suite No. 1” merely makes The Plan’s pretentiousness laughable. The game’s biggest mistake is prompting players to type words at the conclusion and then sharing previous player-written text (“kkk” was among the stupid things I read last time I played). This ending of uninspired player quotes suggests developer Krillbite Studio is unaware of Chris Johnson’s Moirai (one of the best games of 2013), which used player-to-player text to illustrate moral consequences and misfortune.

(See full review of The Plan here.)

8. Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone

This game, recently praised in The New York Times, ensures its creator’s mystique at the expense of insight. Developer Porpentine deleted this Twine 24 hours after releasing it, with the idea that others would have to curate it to keep it alive (the deletion served as a forced metaphor for the loss of human life). The complexity of the subject matter, suicide and trauma, is equivocated by C-grade horror descriptions (“fridge dimension with endless icy corridors full of condiments and womens dead and mutilated bodies”) and a mathematical structure that requires hundreds (for some, perhaps even thousands) of tedious mouse clicks. The trapped feeling is no more than a wretched aesthetic, a tool designed to toy with your emotions rather than enlighten.

(See full review of Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone here.)

9. Luftrausers

Not even the old-school shooter can escape modern game development’s condescending vision to tutorialize and reward every player (in)action. In Luftrausers, Vlambeer attempts to lend gravity to its mindless instructions via Nazi and wartime suggestions, but the result is too antiseptic to approach an aesthetic. Unlike the remake of Gauntlet by Arrowhead Game Studios, Luftrausers doesn’t understand the strengths and weaknesses of traditional OR contemporary game design.

(See full review of Luftrausers here.)

10. Residue

The intentions behind Residue seem genuine, which makes the game an honest mistake. Awkward movement and choppy animation do enough damage to the seriousness of Residue’s narrative, but the storytelling itself never rises above a hackneyed sense of futility. This game is one more log on the reductive “Middle East sucks” fire.

(See full review of Residue here.)

Dishonorable Mention:

The Wolf Among Us, Episodes 3 and 5 (see review of Episode 5 here)

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Suicide Discussion as an Art Stunt

by Jed Pressgrove

Earlier this month developer Porpentine released a Twine called “Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone” for a limited time only. This event was as much about Porpentine’s statement as anything:

This game will be available for 24 hours and then I am deleting it forever.

You can download it here until then.

What you do with it, whether you distribute, share, or cover it, is up to you.

Suicide is a social problem.

Suicide is a social failure.

This game will live through social means only.

This game will not be around forever because the people you fail will not be around forever.

They are never coming back.

This game’s title:

Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone

This game’s title when you feel uncomfortable with the topic of suicide and would rather indefinitely forestall your inevitable confrontation with reality:

Anyways, this is dedicated to Sasha Menu Courey & all the others.

Suicide is indeed a major and complex social problem, as established by Emile Durkheim’s groundbreaking sociological work, “Suicide.” Porpentine’s game, now hosted at StoryCade (among others), does not address suicide as broadly as Durkheim, who identified several types of suicide and numerous related social facts. Porpentine focuses on a type of suicide caused by abuse and neglect. The developer’s reference of Sasha Menu Courey might seem disrespectful following a flippant “Anyways,” but Courey’s case is significant: Courey committed suicide in 2011 after the University of Missouri failed to respond to Courey’s report that she had been raped by one or more UM football players. I say without hesitation that it’s better to spend time learning about the broken system of UM, and what that says about American culture’s handling of rape and mental illness, than playing Porpentine’s game.

“Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone” comes across as an art stunt. The game’s poetry, addition/subtraction, and suspense don’t promote broad understanding about a serious subject. Rather, these elements, along with the “for a limited time only” approach, appear to be designed to build the mystique of Porpentine as an unconventional artist. And like Porpentine’s accusatory tone, all of these things play with people’s emotions. By distributing, sharing, or covering, the audience becomes part of an art marketing campaign.

(Let’s place the criticism aside: from a purely emotional standpoint, I don’t find Porpentine’s approach edifying. In the last few years, two of my loved ones have committed suicide. I loved both of these people unconditionally, but I still interrogated myself: did I ever do anything, however small, to contribute to their suicide? Was there anything I could have done to let them know that I was there for them? Eventually, I realized I probably wasn’t the only person who has asked these questions. I decided it was best to honor the memories of my loved ones, to discuss with others how important they were as people, and to be mindful of how much my action or inaction might affect people. I imagine almost everyone, at some point, must come to terms with the suicide of a loved one.)

Porpentine’s statements and game don’t acknowledge the complexity of a universal problem. One can be intrigued, impressed, or simply shocked by the game’s limited release, imagery, abstract yet blunt style, and mature subject matter. But the world needs more articulate dialogue about suicide, not more artistic branding.