Dream.Sim Review — Colorful Nothing

by Jed Pressgrove

Some may put OXAM’s Dream.Sim under the same umbrella as Proteus because of its first-person wandering. The similarity ends there: Dream.Sim has a vague, nonspiritual vision. The best moment comes at the beginning when you jump off the balcony of an apartment, defying the laws of life and death to explore a neon city. Look around enough and you’ll find an allusion to nature in a mysterious inky space outside (or within) the metropolis, but the slower walking speed in this area gives one plenty of time to observe a lifelessness that is off-putting compared to Proteus’ active celebration of the natural world and its creation. The most interesting prospect in Dream.Sim is trying to jump onto higher buildings. Unfortunately, high jumps require running, and pressing the run button in the city turns exploration into an ultrasensitive mess of claustrophobic run-ins with black and empty walls. I can’t help but feel I’m staring at nothing despite Dream.Sim’s bright colors and elaborate environment.

REVIEW: Mario in the First Person

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This “review” is inspired by commentary on the obligatory first-person option in next-gen Grand Theft Auto V.

When Nintendo announced the rerelease of Super Mario Bros. with a first-person mode, I thought, “C’mon, you’re just trying to make more money by playing off of next-gen hype.” But now that the game is here, anyone can see what the $60 price is going toward. Playing as Mario for real, for the first time, only adds to the legacy of the original game and its world. Against all odds, a simple change of perspective has given us the definitive version of Super Mario Bros. Once you see the detail in the brick blocks you’ve been busting for years, you’ll bust something else.

A more intimate interpretation of the Mario classic wouldn’t have seemed possible five years ago, much less in 1987 when Super Mario Bros. came to the United States. This transformation of Mario the classic platformer to Mario “the life as you live it” suggests a rare intersection of artistic vision and technological advancement. Unlike the original, this game isn’t just about jumping on enemies, hitting question-mark blocks, or gaining the ability to throw fireballs (I’ll come back to this later!). Finally, you ARE Mario. This game is literally about being Mario and having face-to-face encounters with the enemies who want to stop you. What was once a delightful routine — approaching a Goomba to jump on it — becomes something more profound. You realize what it really means to close the distance between Mario and the Goomba, the latter’s teeth only a few feet away from you. With this added tension, jumping on the Goomba’s head is not a familiar action with a predictable end. You’re fighting for your life.

Indeed, what has been old for years is startlingly new. While the uncountable added details are jaw-dropping, it’s the shift in perspective that makes every classic idea and moment reborn. As you see everything from Mario’s eyes, the truths hit home. Yes, you’re in this to save the Princess, an unquestionably noble effort even in its trope-filled simplicity, yet you’re leaving behind your profession and livelihood to do so. In the traditional Super Mario Bros., the pipes of the Mushroom Kingdom were an oddly endearing method of travel. Here, they’re that and an ironic reminder that your quest has taken away your life as a plumber in Italy — a humble life of sewage and waste that informs your present heroism and sense of hope.

This new perspective rejects the tired label of platformer. Touching the Fire Flower to gain the ability to throw fireballs has always been exciting, but it’s always been claustrophobic in the sense that Mario is forever seen as a platforming mascot. That limitation no longer applies. With the Fire Flower ability in first person, Nintendo has dared to challenge all other first-person shooters. Neither Mario nor first-person shooters will ever be the same again after you watch the Mushroom Kingdom burn.

The ending doesn’t disappoint. For years and years, fans have speculated about some physical bond between Mario and Princess, a connection that goes beyond the tropes and the excuse for another quest. The climax of Mario’s newest adventure is a risky move, just like anytime two people come together and share their vulnerabilities. In a third-person remake, this updated bond might have seemed exploitative or silly. Thank God Nintendo knows that perspective precedes experience.

Betraying First-Person Action Norms

by Paul Schumann

A respect for history, faith, and humanity separates Betrayer from many of its peers. Like other first-person action games, Betrayer features a variety of ranged weapons — bows, flintlocks, and tomahawks — but the most important gameplay function doesn’t involve violence: a listening mechanic allows the player to seek out key sections of the map for audio clues. This mechanic makes Betrayer more aesthetically pleasing, as there is no minimap or obnoxious arrows leading from one objective to the next. Listening also adds to the atmosphere as cursed totems beckon the player in for a trap and lost souls weep into the ether. This design fulfills the purpose of Betrayer’s storytelling.

In the 17th century New World, you play as an anonymous settler/adventurer washed up on the shores of Virginia, the sole survivor of your vessel. You discover you are not alone: a mysterious girl stalks the woods warning you to avoid these lands, a shadow world of ghosts, demons, and skellingtons. You gradually discover how the lives of the former colonists demonstrate the foibles, passions, and potential for brutality of human nature.

From time immemorial, going back to the Garden of Eden, human beings have had the potential to do good or evil. To Betrayer’s credit, the lost souls aren’t presented as backward sods just because they lived centuries before us. They all have their own motivations, whether based in pride, lust, anger, fear, greed, patriotism, faith, or despair. There’s the Catholic who came to the New World for a new start away from the religious persecutions of England, yet he comes to find religious conflict inescapable. There’s the mother who is driven to despair after her son accidentally dies by his own hand. There’s interracial liaisons between settlers and natives. There’s the threat of conflict between marauding Spaniards, hostile natives, and English settlers. Very real human tragedies all.

The manner in which the stories are told further develops Betrayer’s approach to fallen human nature. The truth is only gradually revealed. The first wraiths you encounter can hardly remember more than their names. The ghosts tend to recall only the best parts of the people they were, but pieces of their lives return as you find clues.  One ghost insists his friend died by accident until you reveal evidence showing foul play. Another ghost reminisces about warning his son not to play with a firearm and his sickly wife going for a walk. Finding the graves of his wife and son leads the man to remember that his son had shot himself and that his wife committed suicide in her grief.

The poor souls in Betrayer are cursed to walk the earth until they’ve come to terms with their guilt. The theology is a bit iffy, sounding more like the legend of the Jack O’ Lantern — a soul stuck between heaven and hell — than traditional Catholic eschatology. In that sense, it’s almost fitting that the non-denominational Protestant colonists are cursed to such an obscure fate. The story also explores apparent demonic activity and the supposed presence of witchcraft. The natives regard the deep woods as a dangerous place, not merely for hostile tribes but for evil spirits. Moreover, an accused witch is executed by burning, but the game reveals that nothing supernatural is at play, just mere skulduggery. Betrayer’s handling of witch hunting has historical merit: most instances of witch burning took place under Protestant authority, in contrast to the various Catholic Inquisitions that took a more measured and lenient response to such accusations (see work by sociologist Rodney Stark).

Betrayer’s ideas about treatment of the dead can be traced back to ancient Greece. Daniel Mendelsohn writes in the New Yorker: “The souls of the dead were thought to be stranded, unable to reach the underworld without a proper burial.” From The Iliad and The Odyssey to Sophocles’ Antigone, the necessity of burial as a sacred rite is clear (the protagonist of Antigone states “Hades requires these rights.”). In Betrayer, some ghosts cannot rest because evil spirits have stolen their skulls from their graves.  The endgame of Betrayer begins when you discover the source of the darkness — the brutal double murder of a young woman and her unborn child. The woman’s sister Allison (the sole survivor of the settlement) informs the player that she had attempted to burn the corpse to set her sister’s soul at peace. Yet this was not enough. The sister’s spirit wandered the woods near the scene of her death exacting vengeance on the flora, fauna, and natives.

To resolve this predicament, the player is advised to set the souls of the other settlers at rest before dealing with the sister. What follows is not theologically orthodox but makes for a thought-provoking conclusion. You return to old sections of the map to conclude their stories once and for all. You give the spectres an ultimatum to realize what’s done is done, to leave their haunting grounds, and to face their judgment: “You cannot undo what was done. You must surrender your regrets and be at peace.” The protagonist may sound forgiving or pitiless but is clearly not deciding their fates. At the same time, Betrayer doesn’t show what happens to the souls condemned to torment (as opposed to the souls you release). Likewise, your fate is never revealed. Allison, however, finally buries her sister and releases her to meet her maker. In some respects, Allison resembles Antigone, who uttered these words in Sophocles’ play: “I owe a longer allegiance to the dead than to the living, for in that world I shall abide forever.” Allison will also remain among the dead in the woods, though she still walks in the land of the living.

Wrong-headed and clumsy use of religion in games is usually a point of annoyance for me, but faith and the supernatural in Betrayer are treated without undue scorn and with just enough accuracy to blend into a believable historical backdrop. The game succeeds not with its attempts at theology but in its humanistic insights to the passions driving our choices. Betrayer shows that the fantastical fails without human experience.