mountain

Everything Review — Nothing Upstairs

by Jed Pressgrove

At times you are told to press a button to “think” in David OReilly’s Everything. This command serves as a way for OReilly to smirk at video-game shorthand and offer trite existential dialogue (“Am I really controlling this?”). More ironically, the command is OReilly’s attempt to turn off the player’s brain, as anyone who doesn’t need to be told to think might see that this game, like Mountain, is an unfunny, unintelligent joke.

The premise of Everything is you can play as anything: animals, trees, rocks, grass, planets, and so forth. But you start off playing as one thing — in my case, a donkey. The donkey, like other animals, doesn’t walk as you might expect; it rolls thanks to extremely choppy animation with humorous intentions. So you roll to marked places in the world to talk to other things and learn new functions of the game, such as the ability to get similar things (in my case, other donkeys) to roll with you as sort of an absurd army. Along the way you unlock audio logs of philosopher Alan Watts, whose academic tone clashes with the idiotic sight of rolling donkeys and the game’s many silly and inconsequential lines, such as when a tree says, “I wouldn’t mind a nice jacket, though.” The tonal mismatch becomes even more embarrassing when you hear the pensive violins of the soundtrack.

If you actually listen to Watts’ words about all things being connected (it’s always tempting to turn off the audio logs), you might consider the notion that Watts watered down Buddhist concepts for pretentious westerners. At the very least, OReilly’s goofy vision, where anything from deer to rocks can procreate by dancing in a circle, muddies the contributions of the scholar. That everything in Everything seems to come with kindergarten humor suggests OReilly is hoping Watts can give some depth to an oversimplified portrayal of existence.

The closest Everything gets to genuine insight is how you can see the world from a different perspective depending on what thing, from gigantic to microscopic, you are. Perspective is not just about spatial differences, however. It’s also about different states and patterns of being. Thus, OReilly confirms his lazy intellectualism and design with the fact that animals in Everything travel and multiply in the same way that rocks do (was Watts ever this stupidly literal?). Everything could use the more distinct vantage points of Ryan Thorlakson’s Light’s End, which allows the player to assume the role of any person in the story, as in one memorable sequence where you, as a beggar, experience the prejudice of nonplayable characters. But like his condescending peers Davey Wreden and Toby Fox, OReilly knows it’s easier to create and sell whimsy than wisdom, so the superficial philosophy of Everything seems predestined.

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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)

Mountain vs. Temporality

by Jed Pressgrove

Mountain has received a lot of attention and analysis due to the perception that it isn’t like other games. This hype underlines “mountain simulator” strangeness and only represents a half-truth. Like many video games, Mountain immodestly asks for hours and hours of the player’s time. Without that time, you might not “get it,” you might not properly enjoy it, you might miss something. In contrast, Temporality, a recent game by James Earl Cox III, takes a few minutes to play, and there’s nothing “to get” besides the game’s reflection on the complementary joy and fragility of human existence.

Mountain tends to inspire a mixture of irrelevant reactions. Some describe Mountain as a screensaver, others speculate about the meaning of a polygonal mountain getting struck by random objects after hours and hours, and still others, like Jim Sterling, refuse to criticize the game seriously. The positive/negative hype and guesswork surrounding the game serve no purpose. My review of Mountain also fails to put the game in a meaningful historical context (though I hold that the grandeur of real mountains trump Mountain’s smart-assed messages.)

Mountain’s weirdness and connection to Hollywood — developer David OReilly worked on the Spike Jonze film Her — encourage people to see it as an anomaly worth studying. Tying Mountain to OReilly’s past work, Ian Bogost shares the most articulate interpretation of the game:

Mountain breaks the mold of video games not by subverting its conventions through inactivity, but by offering an entirely different kind of roleplay action as its subject. It presents neither the role of the mountain, nor the role of you the player-as-master, nor the absence of either role. In their place, Mountain invites you to experience the chasm between your own subjectivity and the unfathomable experience of something else, something whose “experience” is so unfamiliar as to be unimaginable. What is a mountain, exactly? It is a stand-in for the intractability of ever understanding what it’s like to be something else. Mountain offers a video game version of a philosophical practice I call alien phenomenology—a sustained and deliberate invitation to speculate on what it’s like to be a thing.

Of course, this articulation is part of a pitch for Bogost’s book, “Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.” For Bogost’s review to register as positive criticism, one must enjoy speculation about the theoretical experiences of things. Even with this academic interest, Mountain offers little universal insight into “mountain experience” with its remarks and objects. The game involves what random thought you have in reaction to a random thing, and for a lot of people, that random thought isn’t going to be “oh, alien phenomenology.” Regardless, like a campaign from a “AAA” game, Mountain can provide hours and hours of fantasy, this time about “Mountain experience” rather than what cool sword you might come across. (Mountain is even vaguer than Dark Souls, but at least the difficulty in conquering the latter can be defined by anyone.)

temporality

Cox’s Temporality defies the video game traditions of vague commentary and fantasy content. The game concerns the life and death of a soldier. The lives of soldiers have been explored often in fiction, so Temporality is not wholly original. Nonetheless, Cox’s delivery of this concept carries an appreciation of time that goes beyond platitudes like “Life is short.”

Like Mountain, Temporality doesn’t have the expected things of video games like talking, collecting, shooting, managing, buying, selling, investigating, sneaking, jumping … the list of traditional game actions goes on and on. Instead, Cox uses a combination of music, pixels, and time manipulation to inspire consideration of a soldier’s sacrifice. Temporality only offers two actions for the player: the ability to move time forward and the ability to move time backward. If the player doesn’t hold down a key to perform either action, the game freezes allowing one to contemplate the gravity of life and death as defined by time and memory.

As you move events forward or in reverse in Temporality, the game depicts life as a series of parallel occurrences in time. Cox’s intention isn’t to show a soldier at death’s door having flashbacks to happier, less dangerous experiences. The game avoids this banality through a cyclical presentation of pivotal moments in the soldier’s life, suggesting that our experiences move together and play off each other, like the individual instruments of a song. Cox’s intellectual understanding of life and time is not forced; it gives the game an emotional, universal power that is amplified by Jon Hopkins’ song “Immunity” (the affecting piano in “Immunity” exposes Mountain’s insulting offering of keyboard notes to the player).

Temporality displays unique beauty that encourages interpretation, whereas OReilly’s floating mountains look like jokes compared to the awe-inspiring landscapes in Brothers: A Tale of Sons (Mountain’s zooming and spinning are backhanded features, not perspectives). While Cox uses primitive pixels in Temporality, the game’s side-scrolling soldiers recall the tracking shots in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan — not as homage but to establish definable emotional stakes. The game’s limited use of color heightens the stakes when the soldier, as a young boy, runs in a bright blue rain. Cox’s child-like appreciation of the past is genuine.

For hours upon hours, you can let Mountain hang in the background of your computer activities. Perhaps the game chimes to signal another (hopefully) revealing message about “what it’s like to be a thing,” or maybe the whole thing is trivial fun. In any case, many point out Mountain only costs $1. So what? Temporality, free, has an indisputable statement to make and doesn’t need text to do it. Mountain is time wasted. Temporality is time considered.

Mountain Isn’t a Mountain, and You’re Not God

by Jed Pressgrove

“God” was the first text I saw when I started Mountain. That’s a powerful word, but others have reported seeing phrases like “What does love look like?” In any case, the game gives you words and phrases with a blank pad. After I saw “God,” I didn’t start drawing with my mouse, so a message eventually appeared at the bottom of the screen: “Hint: Draw Something.” I’m sure we all could think of less smart-assed ways to introduce a novelty game.

After you submit your drawings, the game generates a mountain and proclaims “You are God,” as if gamers and critics need such a boost. You can rotate the mountain, zoom in and out, and play notes on the bottom rows of your keyboard. Things change in the game with time. Day becomes night, night becomes day, sometimes you’ll see rain, sometimes you’ll see snow, and sometimes you’ll see random objects hitting the mountain. You’ll hear a chime when the game is ready to share messages, such as “I’m all about this deep black night,” yet another phrase I could imagine coming from a smart-ass.

At Kill Screen, David Cox logically discusses Mountain in the context of god games (e.g., Populus). Cox argues that Mountain has “an approach more in line with deism—the belief that, while there is a god, he’s probably not too interested in us.” A review at Retro Future Man goes further: “Like a real deity your influence seems to have little to no impact on the world as it is.”

Interestingly, these old reflections about God seem to result in new marketing language. “If you’re going to pick up a mountain simulator this year, make it Mountain,” says Retro Future Man. “We ask, but Mountain says little back,” says Cox. But can these potential catchphrases compete with Mountain developer David OReilly’s other trophies, which include the nauseating “MOTY (Mountain of the Year)”?

“What am I doing?” is a question Mountain shared as my fingers frantically tapped the keyboard in search of that elusive good note. The game can clearly make connections with players, but these connections might be partially based on one’s desire for a “different type of game” rather than fully based on entertaining or edifying qualities of Mountain. At best, the communication between player and game in Mountain is highly open to interpretation. At worst, the communication is muffled. All of this can lead to the following scenario:

Some say Mountain is a good or great game essentially because it’s different. This group typically doesn’t mind different interpretations because that’s part of the game’s appeal. However, this group might label those who think Mountain is the equivalent of OReilly pissing as shortsighted or dumb. Of course, those who think Mountain is piss might label those who enjoy Mountain as shortsighted or dumb. Since no one can say what Mountain is ultimately “about,” any discussion and debate will remain somewhat silly.

Of course, others might say Mountain is just a mountain that you can appreciate. In that case, I’d rather think about the mountains in Idaho. Those mountains never said things that sounded smart-assed to me.