overrated

Death Stranding Review — More Stupid Than Weird

by Jed Pressgrove

The landscape of pop games is in dubious shape. There are many reasons to reach this conclusion, from the prevalence of open world ideology to the way developers flatter audiences with made-to-order remakes. At first, Death Stranding appears to avoid the cliches we’re all used to seeing, as it involves a protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, whose main skill is carrying cargo on his back, arms, and legs. At one point, Sam bluntly explains, “Killing monsters and terrorists, that’s not what I do.” The line almost sounds sanctimonious when one considers how often “ambitious” games boil down to boneheaded violence. And yet, Sam shares this observation about himself not too long after he obliterates a phantom squid with grenades made from his own piss, and moments after uttering this dialogue, Sam can barrel through bandit-filled territory and punch the lights out of every last person who tries to steal the packages off his body. Director Hideo Kojima, famous for the Metal Gear Solid series and often pitied for his messy separation from Konami, has all the creative freedom in the world, but he can’t stop sabotaging an interesting premise with banal and laughably contradictory moments.

With Death Stranding, Kojima takes a page from modern independent first-person adventures like Proteus in which walking, as opposed to puzzle solving or combat, is the main type of action. But in a stroke of genuine design genius, Sam has it much harder than his counterparts in other traversal-focused releases. He must organize packages on his body in a manner that reduces the likelihood of him stumbling and falling as he treks across treacherous territory. If he starts to sway to the left or right, the player must shift Sam’s weight in the opposite direction to achieve balance. There’s also a stamina gauge to worry about, a meter that depletes rapidly when Sam trudges through a deeper part of a river. If you lose your footing in that situation, Sam will have to paddle himself to his feet and frantically attempt to recover goods the river has claimed. The potential for embarrassing ambulatory disaster is almost endless. With each step comes an appreciation for Sam’s immediate surroundings, whether they’re as intimidating as a steep mountainside or as seemingly innocuous as a jagged medium-sized rock on the ground.

In theory, Death Stranding is the most original and uncompromising big-budget game in a long time. This notion doesn’t hold, though, when you tally the common pop game problems that show up yet again in Death Stranding. The first and most obvious issue is unnecessary length and bloat due to a tremendous lack of editing, which has plagued games as different as Persona 5 and The Witcher 3. Kojima includes a number of missions that do nothing more than serve as contrived tutorials. Why does the simple idea of 3-D printing a bridge, for instance, have to come with its own mission that the player must find by holding down (rather than just pressing) a button near a terminal in order to open a hard-to-read menu from which you can initiate said mission? Kojima also peppers the game with cinematics that have no kinetic or thematic purpose. Why do you have to skip — which can be done by pressing the start button, then selecting “Skip” — three or four cutscenes just to accelerate the process of taking a shower? Why does an activity as boring as a shower even need a single cutscene?

Any sense of basic, decent storytelling is annihilated by Kojima’s idiotic commitment to video game norms. The main theme of Death Stranding is reconnecting a post-apocalyptic United States. To do this, Sam must visit an array of marked locations on a map and talk to holographic images of people. These individuals, with few exceptions, say pretty much the same thing — wow, I haven’t seen items like this in a long time, Sam, you’re a true legend, nothing here looks damaged, blah, blah, blah, blah. The experience is a lot like finding Toad at the end of every stage in Super Mario Bros. and being told the princess is in another castle. The main difference is Super Mario Bros. never claimed to be cinematic or a commentary on the state of a nation. What’s more, Super Mario Bros. didn’t include repetitive messages to massage your ego but to challenge you to keep going farther. In contrast, Kojima doles out titles like “Elite Handler” after a successful mission. One’s sense of self-worth would have to be beyond low to stomach such nonsense.

The nauseating ego-stroking element of Death Stranding is not an accident but a sincere part of its design. The game features a social media component wherein players can help each other by leaving behind ladders, lockers, and other tools in the wild, rugged world. From a mechanical standpoint, Kojima is clearly building on Dark Souls’ weakest concept, but he also nods to both Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey, as gamers can “like” conveniently dropped items from other gamers. In addition, Death Stranding’s fictional characters will give you “likes” for accomplishing missions. In the right hands, Death Stranding could somehow work as a satire of how neurotically obsessed our culture is with fleeting external validation, even as civilized culture crumbles around us, but Kojima plays it like a nincompoop would.

Kojima’s childish sense of reality is confirmed by how he frames the Kumbaya politics of Death Stranding. Throughout the game, Sam (whose last name is Bridges) works for a company called Bridges to connect the disconnected citizens of the former United States of America with digital and literal bridges. Yes, Kojima’s having fun with the dumbest wordplay in video game history, but there’s also no indication that he questions the simplicity of Death Stranding’s proposed political philosophy. Kojima’s outlook on existence itself, as expressed in Death Stranding, suggests that he does want us to grasp for any positive feeling, however silly. “Once there was an explosion,” the game states, referring to the Big Bang, and later on, another line declares the world could experience an explosion “that would be our last.” When presented with this godless and shallowly nihilistic viewpoint, it becomes harder to blame Kojima for encouraging players to cling to Zuckerberg- and Dorsey-endorsed methods of interaction. But to praise this grade-school level of thinking is far more troubling than gazing at the scorched imagery of this turgid stupid game in art-school clothing.

Hypnospace Outlaw Review — Defunct Satire

by Jed Pressgrove

In Hypnospace Outlaw, the object is to scour and flag fictional web pages for violations such as content infringement, harassment, and obscenity. The game’s puzzles, if one can call them that, recall the desk work of a technical editor, and the audiovisuals evoke social networks of the 1990s and early 2000s. Think of this title, then, as Papers, Please meets Myspace — a combination that, on a basic conceptual level, reeks of tedium.

As an enforcer of Internet law in 1999, the player must grapple with an outdated interface, very noticeable loading times, less-than-ideal navigation, and the garish, cheapo imagery of web pages created by precocious children, jealous teenagers, overbearing Christians, douchebag rock musicians, clueless businesses, phony spiritual advisers, and other groups you’ve probably already laughed at while online.

In other words, Hypnospace Outlaw’s satirical vision would’ve seemed daring if it had been released about 20 years ago. Today, this game registers more as a mildly amusing representation of the early days of user-generated profiles on major platforms. Now that we are all used to slicker-looking and more intuitive social media, Hypnospace Outlaw encourages a type of nostalgic, smug laughter. We can cherish how lame we were a couple of decades ago and how much better we look now.

It wouldn’t have been impossible for developer Tendershoot, through reference to history, to say something relevant or, more wishfully, incisive about who we are as a modern online people. But Hypnospace Outlaw mocks the utter naivety of yesteryear too much to function as a commentary on our current struggle — namely, the modern Internet user’s willingness to knowingly reject their own interests in order to have convenient access to products. That we can play Hypnospace Outlaw on Steam, a platform that exploits our culture’s apathy and consumerism (as suggested by the 2015 satire Crime Is Sexy), tells us that the comedy has no fangs.

Hollow Knight Review — Symphony of the Ninja Souls X

by Jed Pressgrove

With gorgeous art, an exquisite score, and an array of places to discover, Hollow Knight resembles a masterpiece. Indeed, the game is very good at resembling things, whether because of its focus on ruin, souls, and hollowness (Dark Souls); its level structure, wherein players can travel new pathways via newly acquired techniques (Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night); its curt swordplay (Ninja Gaiden); and its wall-jumping and dashing mechanics (Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man X). Look beyond its great looks and great sounds, and Hollow Knight more than lives up to to the first word of its title.

In a world of bugs, you play as a warrior on a vague quest in which you have many sorrowful run-ins with destitute and hostile creatures. As such, Hollow Knight is indebted to the storytelling approach of Dark Souls, but it says nothing specific about the human condition. In Dark Souls, a sense of real-world ennui pervades the proceedings as your character goes through the motions of killing, leveling up, and collecting currency, and the game is never shy about showing the deleterious effects of a decaying habitat on the mental states of the characters that you meet. In contrast, Hollow Knight’s friendly nonplayable characters, distinct in their audiovisual quirks, often display a strange level of enthusiasm considering the wretched state of their environments, yet there doesn’t seem to be any philosophy that inspires their general positivity. Worse, the protagonist is but a silent and nameless shell who moves with a ruthless type of efficiency; he’s a cold product of decades of video-game logic with no emotional meaning.

Controlling this brutal killer is pleasurable once you gain enough abilities after combing the game’s interconnected locations several times. You can double-jump to swing your sword up at an aerial enemy, then dash away toward a wall, kick off the wall, slash the foe from the side to eliminate it, dash again in midair, and use your final jump to land safely on a modest platform. You can bounce on adversaries by swinging your weapon downward at them from above. You can perform a few special moves, including a fireball of sorts and a dive-bomb, if you have enough Soul, which also allows you to heal if there’s enough distance between you and an active threat. But looking back at it all, I can’t name a single thing in Hollow Knight that I haven’t done in other games — a realization that creates a feeling of profound emptiness, especially considering the length of the experience.

It’s almost like developer Team Cherry bases Hollow Knight on a disturbingly patronizing pitch: “This time, it’s with bugs!” If all you want is to admire how intricately detailed animation and audio can make you feel as if you are among a wide variety of creepy crawlies (the game’s Deepnest region ingeniously epitomizes this sensation), Hollow Knight is the greatest platformer of all time. Outside of that, it’s simply another title, like Shovel Knight and Axiom Verge, that echoes the past with the vain hope that it too will go down in history.

Night in the Woods — Ode to Millennial Egotism

by Jed Pressgrove

As expressed in The Who’s pop masterpiece “My Generation,” most people don’t like their generation being outright dismissed or insulted. But if millennial gamers sing high praises for Night in the Woods, any defense of themselves will be hard to swallow. Writers Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry have created a puzzling contradiction with protagonist Mae and the small-town setting of Possum Springs: while the latter by itself has palpable authenticity, right down to the humorously varied “Get off my porch” dialogue from a grumbling male, Mae becomes more and more irresponsible as employed, stressed-out people allow her privileged behavior to grow to unbelievable degrees.

Simply put, Mae epitomizes the stereotypical millennial’s disconnection from traditional everyday toil, and the script of Night in the Woods pretends that working-class citizens would not call her out for mooching and breaking the law. In the story, Mae has returned to her hometown to live with her parents again after dropping out of college. From there, you guide Mae through a variety of self-absorbed, immoral activities that include tampering with crime evidence, shoplifting, and unearthing the coffin of a boy, all with little or no consequence. Although the anthropomorphic cast of Night in the Woods gives the writers leeway to indulge in some cartoonish, unrealistic depictions, the story suggests the supporting characters have real-life concerns, especially pulling one’s own weight, that help the player suspend disbelief. Why, then, do these people — family members, friends, and hard workers — excuse, overlook, or laugh off Mae’s flagrantly selfish and stupid actions?

At one point, it seems Benson and Hockenberry will address this glaring question through Bea, Mae’s childhood friend who has been running a business ever since the death of her mother. Bea confronts Mae’s blase attitude toward dropping out of college: “I stayed here and got older, while you left and stayed the same.” Yet Bea inexplicably goes on to support Mae’s thievery and grave defilement (and for some unknown idiotic reason, the populace of Possum Springs doesn’t care about a decades-old corpse being disrespected). Bea’s dedication doesn’t get rewarded, though: in a late scene, Mae embarrasses Bea with callous disregard, which causes Bea to bring up how she wishes she could have had an opportunity to go to college like Mae, who can’t even offer her good friend a reason as to why she quit school. Bea eventually says Mae is “genuinely a good person,” even though the story has only shown evidence of Mae taking advantage of everyone around her, with no effort toward explaining herself or making a contribution to society.

Developer Infinite Fall also excuses Mae’s deplorable acts by gamifying them. Stealing, destroying property, and stabbing are presented as fun, throwaway minigames. This design choice, coupled with the townspeople’s bizarre lack of criticism for Mae’s egomania, implies that sociopathy should be celebrated, not examined. Even if Night in the Woods had a cogent point, Mae would remain an unflattering caricature of a millennial. Benson and Hockenberry’s writing is unacceptable in light of Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition, which demonstrates how the hardships of a capitalist society give millennials and baby boomers more spiritual connectedness than many realize.

Night in the Woods is at its most tedious when Mae drags all of her friends on a ghost-chasing mission, as it’s fairly obvious from the start that there are no ghosts. Benson and Hockenberry use this setup to reveal that Mae and a clandestine Republican-leaning cult are similarly insane. For connecting mental illness to murder (straight out of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”) and all sorts of other unsavory activity, Night in the Woods registers as pandering and cliched Democrat hate on one hand and a demented apology for millennial immaturity on the other.