stanley parable

Legendary Gary Review — Meta-Masterpiece

by Jed Pressgrove

Metatexual independent games have become more popular over the last few years, but the works of this movement — The Stanley Parable, Undertale, Pony Island, and Doki Doki Literature Club!, among others — have been more egotistical and shallow than humanistic and insightful. Evan Rogers’ Legendary Gary rejects the cynicism of this trend by daring to have players empathize with a stereotypical unemployed gamer who lives with his Bible-thumping mom. In showing how video games can serve as both escapism and inspiration, Rogers offers a mature cultural perspective that transcends the manipulative tricks of his too-cool-for-school indie peers.

As Gary, you always wind up playing an RPG called Legend of the Spear. This game allows Gary to forget the commentary of his mother and girlfriend and to exist in a world that, while challenging to survive in, lacks the more serious problems of real life. But responsibility soon demands Gary to get a job to support his mother, and as he navigates the very dubious politics at his grocery-store gig, he starts to notice that the events and people in Legend of the Spear mirror those of his everyday life.

Every day after work, you move Gary into his room to resume gaming. The sense of isolation is initially freeing, but when Gary’s worlds start to clash or reflect each other, wake-up calls abound for the protagonist. During one session with Legend of the Spear, Gary abruptly quits the game when he learns his friend has had an overdose. And when Gary begins to see similarities between his boss’ questionable orders and the quests given to him by a reptile queen in Legend of the Spear, his sense of integrity is doubly called into question. Through such occurrences, Gary learns how to care about people other than himself.

This story of coincidental redemption might sound sappy, but Rogers infuses wit throughout Legendary Gary to underscore the silliness of the game’s premise and the hilarity of human behavior and thought. At one point, Gary, tired of his mother’s constant references to her faith, declares that God doesn’t make video games. His mother’s response is sharp, believable, and ridiculous: “How do you know what God makes? Are you his accountant?” In a later scene, Gary’s boss has been fired for her unprofessional approach to management, and Gary is interrogated about his dealings with her by two corporate stooges labeled Serious Man and Other Serious Man. The sliminess of the situation is beyond palpable when one of the men advises Gary, “Just remember to keep it profesh’ from here on out.”

The audiovisual approach of Legendary Gary is a perfect fit for Rogers’ blend of humor and drama. The hand-drawn art of Legendary Gary is cartoony but exquisitely detailed, highlighting both the absurdity and complexity of Gary’s life. The soundtrack is an unusual mix. When Gary engages in turn-based combat in Legend of the Spear, you hear songs that seem like they were composed by a Talking Heads cover band. At first, it feels as if you’re listening to the most unorthodox score for RPG battling ever, but the music complements the dance-like movement of the characters when they all take their turns simultaneously — half spectacle and half nonsense.

Legendary Gary’s conclusion implies that life and video games are better when they have cathartic value, as opposed to when they only seem to suck away our spirit and our time, reducing us to human shells. The final scene is in a graveyard where Gary’s father was buried. Both Gary and his mother come to grips with the massive hole in their family unit, and the newfound bond between them suggests a sense of hope for the future. At the very end, the game visually confirms that every character in Legend of the Spear is an analogue for someone in Gary’s life. Legendary Gary is as meta as they come, but more importantly, it’s far wiser than the norm for imagining a more positive relationship between art and humanity.

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Money and Popularity Have Game Criticism in Check

by Jed Pressgrove

Game critics are drawn to “AAA” and hyped indie games like insects to light bulbs. The urge to discuss what everyone else is discussing is an understandable urge, but we should explore the message that these limited discussions send: money/popularity = greater relevance.

The focus on well-marketed games implicitly comments on what we find valuable in gaming. People often treat “AAA” as a term about budgets, franchises, and marketing, but the capital “A” is clearly associated with “better” (the education system has made sure of that). We expect “AAA” games to be better, and when they are very good, we often proclaim them the best. These expectations, along with the fact that “AAA” games generally cost $60, translate into critical relevance.

Hyped indie games like Braid and Gone Home have somewhat challenged this truism. These games may not be “AAA,” but a lot of people have bought them, so they are relevant and ripe for discussion — some might even nominate or call them Game of the Year. One could see this as an improvement as far as broadening the critical discussion is concerned, but the fact remains that neither “AAA” nor hyped indie games are consistently outstanding enough to warrant critical obsession, unless we believe a lot of discussion automatically makes something relevant or good.

Game criticism should be about fitting ideas and design into an insightful historical, cultural, or political context. When video games were relatively new and a smaller hobby, criticism could focus on fewer games. But now that video games are ubiquitous (developing games is the new playing the guitar), you can only gather so much insight from focusing on “AAA” and hyped indie games. For example, critics have written obsessively about how Bioshock, The Walking Dead, and The Stanley Parable handle the concept of choice, but it’s not because these games have made significant strides addressing or presenting choice (unless you pretend Deus Ex, Fallout, and their predecessors never existed) — it’s because those games are hyped and people are already talking about them. The discussion on hyped games is a cycle of obviousness that ignores video game history and actual innovation.

Meanwhile, a free game like Chris Johnson’s Moirai receives little attention despite its original handling of choice and consequence (first with prepared dialogue options, then with dialogue created by the player, and finally by the decision of another player). Devi Ever’s A Game of Cat and Mouse, another free title involving choice, has inspired some interesting feedback that the developer had to seek out, but the game criticism community is largely unaware of the game’s emotional sophistication. (I would love to see how the smug Stanley Parable would criticize Moirai or A Game of Cat and Mouse. Galactic Cafe should thank God it had Bioshock to pick on — easy target, easy publicity … kind of like Ayn Rand and the United States.)

As video games multiply, critics must do more than comb through games people already know about. They should take pride in reminding people of game history and pointing readers toward exciting and provocative titles outside of the hype. I have criticized writers for citing critic Mattie Brice to forward an agenda, but her advice to broaden one’s video game diet is not a personal agenda — it’s a principle of criticism.

Jazzpunk Review: Are You Ready to Laugh?

by Jed Pressgrove

Sight gags, silly dialogue, running jokes, mindless destruction — no type of humor is too lowbrow for Jazzpunk. This approach rejects an overwhelming seriousness that threatens to stop video games from evolving as entertainment. Some critics may not realize it, but Jazzpunk is a challenge to jadedness and egotism.

Remember how Papers, Please evoked the Soviet era to incite misery and guilt? Jazzpunk’s mockery of intelligence gathering wishes to return us to higher spirits. The game’s irreverent take on globalism recalls the absurdity of the great Marx Brothers political comedy, Duck Soup. Rather than contribute to political or cultural malaise, Jazzpunk looks for every opportunity to cut up (notice that the game’s title reconciles two musical genres at odds). Despite its nods to the Cold War and other things of the past, the game is clearly a comedy for the present.

Before Jazzpunk, I would’ve been hard-pressed to recall a recent game that truly exercised the healing power of laughter. Games like Portal and Saints Row might be funny, but their humor is treated as secondary to gameplay expectations (in the end, no more profound than cute ’em ups like Star Parodier). If the puzzler and action mechanics of Portal and Saints Row had been unfavorable, those games wouldn’t have made much of an impact on gamers. In contrast, Jazzpunk will only make a significant impact if it makes you laugh, as it’s designed to make you laugh by any means possible. Jazzpunk’s story and gameplay are merely subservient, so the game’s success is partially based on whether one is willing to forget the pretenses of story and gameplay. Critics and gamers looking for a traditional or abstract story will be disappointed, and Jazzpunk’s “adventure” gameplay is only fulfilling when it helps make a good joke.

Though somewhat reminiscent of The Stanley Parable, Jazzpunk doesn’t pander to cynicism or self-congratulatory criticism, nor does it insult one’s intelligence by sharing obvious lessons about game design. Jazzpunk has fun at the expense of Street Fighter II, Quake, and the Virtual Boy’s Mario’s Tennis (among others), but it doesn’t dismiss the essence of these games, nor does it shoehorn references to pander to fans (unlike The Stanley Parable’s circle jerk with Minecraft and Portal). Never insistent, Jazzpunk allows you to wander or follow the main mission. Jokes spill out of the game no matter the playing style. The game only denies catharsis to those who don’t laugh.

Unfortunately, by not appealing to the ego of video game critics, Jazzpunk has opened itself up to some lame reviewing. Metro GameCentral complains about the lack of gameplay in Jazzpunk but also calls the more minimalist Gone Home and Stanley Parable “inarguably better games.” Polygon describes Jazzpunk as “a great first-person conversation” (whatever that means). Destructoid’s review says the game “just ends with no real resolution.” Unbridled levity is strange or sinful in a gaming world that often looks for reasons not to laugh.