ground zeroes

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)

Advertisements

Digging Past the Hype

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: I played this game on the 2DS.

Much has been said about Shovel Knight resembling an updated NES game. Whether parts of the game could have worked on the old system amounts to tech trivia and marketing. But that’s far from the silliest commentary: IGN asks, “Is Shovel Knight an early game of the year candidate?” Shovel Knight might have the polished shell of an NES game and the ardent support of critics, but it lacks the soul of a classic.

References to an NES “aesthetic” don’t explain why Shovel Knight is a marvel to watch. Those who compare Kojima’s Ground Zeroes to their favorite tracking shots might instead write books about Shovel Knight’s superior use of motion, framing, lighting, and setting. As you extinguish ghosts in one level, scores of unique portraits come into light (a shift that comments on the life-restoring effect of art). In one short sequence across a bridge, Shovel Knight upstages Limbo’s morbid, trendy use of silhouettes through unexpected color and grander purpose. Shovel Knight’s campfire sequences don’t merely recall Golden Axe’s bonus stage — they graphically evoke healing and, with occasional dreaming, anxiety. The game even manages to inspire joy through the gestures of individual townspeople. The heroism and struggles in Shovel Knight are simply exquisite, with an attention to detail that rivals Muramasa: The Demon Blade and Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Unfortunately, the profound emotional core of the visual storytelling cannot save the game’s lack of suspense and adventure. Shovel Knight has received a lot of good press for borrowing a little, as opposed to a lot, from Dark Souls. Instead of having a lives system, Shovel Knight has checkpoints in main stages that sort of work like the campfires in Dark Souls. If you die, you lose some of your treasure and return to the last checkpoint you reached, and you recover the treasure by getting back to where you died on the first try. However, this idea fails to make the game interesting or challenging for a few reasons:

1. You don’t even lose half your treasure when you die, so the stakes aren’t remotely as high as they are in Dark Souls, which takes all of your currency away when you die.

2. Stages in Shovel Knight tend to have four or five checkpoints, so death rarely puts you in a tough spot. Furthermore, you can exit any stage, regardless of whether you’ve beaten it, through a menu.

3. Despite dying several times on a couple of stages, I was never in need of treasure. I always had enough treasure for the upgrades I wanted/needed, which renders another feature of the game rather pointless: you can destroy a checkpoint for treasure with the trade-off of the checkpoint no longer working, but what difference does it make if you never need treasure?

In fact, Shovel Knight is at times insultingly obvious when it comes to finding treasure, items, and “secrets.” As in Castlevania, you can break certain walls with your primary weapon to find things, but in many cases Shovel Knight marks the exact part of a wall that you can break, robbing the player of discovery.

Similar to A Link Between Worlds, Shovel Knight plays like a dream and thus suffers from coasting. The Mega Man boss fights in Shovel Knight are great concepts that typically can’t withstand how souped up you are: near the beginning of the game, you get an item that renders you temporarily invincible. Of course, you need points to use special items (as in Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden), but I rarely ran out of those points, which can be increased with upgrades via the easily located treasure. Shovel Knight is full of easygoing systems that undermine its potential as a satisfying experience — just another game that you play, not a quest that you conquer.

People should reconsider the absurd comparisons of Shovel Knight to Zelda II, a difficult (for most people) action game that never let you forget that you’re in a rough, vague world. A title can have elements from other games without resembling the essence of those games in practice. As such, all the beautiful visuals and music in Shovel Knight shouldn’t make us ignore its dubious distinction of being the most forgiving game influenced by both NES classics and Dark Souls. It’s almost as if Yacht Club Games made Shovel Knight with the hope that we would forget some of the reasons why we cherish and remember certain games in the first place.

Ground Zeroes Is Bad Television

by Jed Pressgrove

“She also had a message for you: ‘I’m ready for the worst.'”

“Sounded a little too cheerful to me.”

With dialogue like that, would it be surprising if director Hideo Kojima finds inspiration in the dumb nihilism of Telltale’s The Walking Dead? Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes is the latest video game that wants to be a television show. It goes all out: Kiefer Sutherland, a film actor who became a big television star in eight seasons of 24, voices the protagonist Snake (fans disappointed about the absence of David Hayter fail to see the significance). But the game is more silly than shrewd, as evidenced by the villain Skull Face, a mindless idea that hopelessly recalls Killface from the satirical cartoon, Frisky Dingo. More often than not, Kojima’s jealousy of television leads him to stupidity, not brilliance.

“Open world” continues to be nothing more than an advertising slogan for spoiled yet freedom-starved audiences. Essentially, Ground Zeroes is a collection of episodes that all take place in one location — a stealth sitcom. The episodic nature of Ground Zeroes puts it more in line with Batman: Arkham Asylum than Batman: Arkham City. Side missions — tantamount to television filler — have to be unlocked by beating the main mission, which has more cinematic flair than your average television show (similar to “smart TV” like Breaking Bad). The fantastic production values of Ground Zeroes has led some critics to compare it to the filmmaking of Alfonso Cuaron, a man who has risen to limited fame by copying the superior camerawork and framing of Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick.

Rather than do something shockingly different, Kojima hopes to outdo Jack Bauer when it comes to shocking darkness. Ground Zeroes entices its post-9/11 audience — what easy prey! — by blandly referencing real-life politics and war. Kojima believes that acknowledging Guantanamo Bay by itself will allow us to see video games mature before our eyes, but the director’s personal fantasy of revolutionizing video game content somehow results in the gore of Mortal Kombat.

The sight of a tortured woman’s guts in Ground Zeroes signals a new dawn in gamer confusion. At a very basic level, the scene raises the question: am I playing the latest entry in an action franchise or watching torture porn? Others will yell “Misogyny!” as those desensitized to grossness attempt to explain how tacky horror visuals fit into the “Metal Gear Solid universe.” This scene and the rape allusions might make and break connections between people in the video game community. This confusion allows Kojima to continue living his absurd dream of reincarnated film director and savvy television show creator.

Misogyny isn’t the problem with Ground Zeroes. The problem is that some feminists would love Ground Zeroes, and all of its meaningless political posturing, if it didn’t contain a tortured and raped woman prisoner and instead starred an “acceptable” female protagonist. Some gamers, of all political persuasions, have worshiped so much “AAA” and indie cynicism that they are no longer aware of what constitutes an imaginative video game. They don’t care that Ground Zeroes doesn’t innovate stealth (the bullet time is embarrassing shoehorning), contains less humor than the superior Metal Gear Solid III, and feels less fluid than the Arkham games. They just want more crap to talk about before the actual game, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, is released. Kojima, inspired by addictive and trashy television, is ever willing to serve a well-produced package of crap.