Author Archives: Simon Ashtear
The Best Game Never Played
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows (Brawler / PC)
Introducing the Genre
This game is actually 2-in-1. For the purchase, you get a classic brawler and a separate new school brawler. God of War defined the new school of brawling and since then there have been many, clones, some better than others, like Dante’s Inferno or Castlevania: Lords of Shadow. TMNT IV: Turtles in Time for the SNES is regularly in the top spot of the greatest brawlers of the older genre, alongside classics like Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, or Golden Axe.. In this game you get to see where the genre came from and where it is now. It does that better than most modern brawlers.
Introducing the Game
This game first came to my attention when I was looking for some information on another iteration of the franchise. At first, it didn’t look to have much potential. I thought it would wind up being the same generic franchise brawler that stains the industry like the Green Lantern game. As time went on, I occasionally looked into the game more and more. I saw some gameplay videos, some interviews, and it looked more and more appealing. By the time I bought it, about a week after release, I wasn’t surprised that it was the most inspired brawler I’ve ever played since TMNT IV: Turtles in Time, this is Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows!
Amazing! This has one of the richest and deepest combat systems in an action or brawling game that I’ve ever seen. I’ll start with the biggest difference that I’ve seen, the combo system. In lots of brawlers, some which get 10/10 from IGN, you can easily rack up 30 hit combos by pressing the same button over and over. In this game, you might be able to do just that, but it would be a deliberate handicap challenge.
TMNT: OotS has a combo combat system, that if you reach 10 hits in a row without being hit, you can perform a finisher on your enemy of choice. Being able to master this system will make the whole game a lot easier. First, rack up some hits on the foot soldiers, then attack the stronger enemy with a finisher. Enemies spend a lot of time on the floor and can soak up repeated knockdowns early on, so finishing will speed up your progress. It can also easily eliminate the special attack enemies or ones who like to block often.
There are two main types of attacks, which is normal for brawlers, but I was amazed at the inspired choices. Instead of “light” and “heavy” attacks or “direct” and “area” attacks, there are “weapon” and “kick” attacks. Weapon attacks deal a lot of damage, assuming the enemy isn’t blocking. Kick attacks, if they connect with a blocking enemy, greatly decrease their block bar, a bar that decreases with every block. You could wear them down with weapon attacks, but that would be a needlessly long battle.
Unlike the previous Turtles brawlers, the AI isn’t as accommodating to let you finish with one enemy before attacking you. Go back and play them, you’ll see an oddly considerate pause before you turn your attention to them. The AI in this game will surround you and attack you all at once, not like the plucky ninjas of the past. To prevent being hit in the back and losing your combo streak, you have to get the counter system down. If you’re late with a counter, you block instead, decreasing your own block bar.
All of this applies to the “Arcade” mode, too. Arcade mode is a throwback to the simpler side-scrolling Turtles games of the past. So you get 2 games for the price of 1.
That’s just scratching the surface and I’ll leave the special attacks up to you to discover. You might be able to button mash your way through the game, but only with great frustration and needless irritation. Their version of combat improves upon any of the others of the genre’s past. I could go on for a few more pages but I should probably move on to other sections. It’s the gameplay that makes this game. Any other wrapping and it’s still solid, but being Turtles just makes it better.
The story is a one-off, isolated, self-contained, and doesn’t do anything to shake up the series. It fits in nicely as just another side story, one of their many adventures. The game’s story is probably the weakest part, but it makes sense within it’s own continuity, so there’s nothing bad about it. It’s not bad storytelling. The most enjoyable parts of the story mode are watching the interactions of the turtles with each other, watching them do what they do best, and just being themselves.
It’s a rather short story. I could easily go for a serving of seconds.
Here is usually where some of the most vocal criticisms come from, but not from me. The “look” of the turtles has changed with just about every iteration, so why complain now? I actually like this design. It’s a blend of the new Nickelodeon series(which is great, it’s great for old fans and a great jumping on point) and the first live action movie’s aesthetic. Donatello has that gap in his teeth, Raphael has that chip in his front upper left plate, Michelangelo is the shortest with big expressive blue eyes. It’s a great big blend, the way the rest of the game blends every other incarnation.
Between levels there are a few comic panel cut-scenes. Most reviewers took this as a bad sign, quoting cheap and bad art. I saw it as a resourceful choice mad by a small, but incredibly passionate studio which reflects the source material’s roots. I can’t knock them for that.
The first treat you’ll hear is the original T-U-R-T-L-E Power song that plays in the opening menu and end credits. That sets up the experience you’re about to have, one heavily influenced by the first movie. In other places, you can hear a re-recorded version that fixes the curious lyric, “…make up the team with one other fellow, Raphael. He’s the leader of the group…” That’s just more proof of all the care and effort put into this game. I just wish they could have licensed more music from the original soundtrack, like Shredder’s Theme, 9.95, and Turtle Rhapsody.
Maybe we can hope for them in a sequel. Those, or maybe some of the old Konami tracks from the NES and SNES eras. The old games definitely influenced this one in many ways, I hope a sequel draws from more of the older music.
The rest of the game’s music is very energetic to fit the pace of combat. It’s original, and it works, which is always risky when you’re dealing with a franchise game. What would LEGO Star Wars or Force Unleashed have been like if they decided to just forget John Williams’ score?
Excellent! A thwack of sword on sword combat, falls, but especially the dialogue. No familiar voices from the movies, which is a shame considering how vocal they are about the strange direction Michael Bay is taking the new film. No actors return from the TV series, which is understandable because they’re working hard on season 2. The new cast is undeniably excellent. Without reference, you’ll be able to tell who delivered which line. This is also a credit to the writer as much as to the voice actors.
I played the game on my PC, so I did not encounter any of the supposed problems that other reviewers complained about. That could just be me. When I played TMNT IV: Turtles in Time, I used all the moves with regular frequency, flips, slides, flying, forward, back, jump, and high kicks, charging, and specials.
Maybe it was because I spent 2 hours marveling at all the different animations, but the controls were never a problem. There is a rich system of combat, combos, blocks, counters, takedowns, evades, aerial attacks, finishers, team attacks, projectiles, and room clearing attacks that seemed to be very natural, at least to me. You can mix and match any attack with almost any other attack. Some work and chain better than others, some combos are faster than others, some combos are faster than others, but that’s not really the game. If you’re not aware of your environment, if you don’t evade or counter properly, you’ll be hit from behind and
I haven’t played the game WITH anyone yet, but I imagine it will be wonderful, like the times I played LEGO anything, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King, Double Dragon, or the original TMNT games with good friends. There’s co-operative play in both story and arcade modes. Once my friend buys it for the PSN, I’ll probably get the chance.
Even without the extensive list of purchasable combos in other brawlers, you start with most of the combat moves already unlocked. I said most. Each turtle has a set of trees to upgrade like fighting, defense, unique skills to them, and team assist skills. Some of these skills have to be purchased as one or another. The game asks if you want to improve your individual turtle or have him contribute more to the team? Personally, I turned Michelangelo into a powerhouse, forsaking everyone else. That’s very much representative of my style. How you customize the team will be up to you.
I’ve replayed level 1 of the arcade mode many times. If you were a fan of the other TMNT brawlers, and found those to be endlessly replayable, then you ought to feel the same about this, or even more. Very soon, I expect to see this game show up in speed runner communities. I spent many hours trying to refine my fighting style and finish enemies faster. I still can’t get enough.
Right when I finished the game, I was ready to go through all over again. I verbally pronounced, “I hope there’s a hard mode!” As if the game heard me, “True Ninja Unlocked.” “Cowabunga!” There are other surprising unlockables to search for but I’ll leave you to find them.
This is nine-tenths of the game that I wanted and previously wrote about in the Perfect 10 section. Compare this game to the speculative, “Perfect 10” review I wrote years ago.
I spent 2 hours in the training room with Michelangelo. Not because it was complicated, but because it was fun!
I played level 1 of the arcade game many many times. Sure, I could have unlocked more, but the flow of fighting was so flawless, it became a tranquil experience.
Two complete games for $15? This could easily have been a $20 experience for either one.
Discovering every easter egg was a real treat! They’re not overt, you have to be a fan and no matter what your favorite incarnation is, you’ll find some kind of callback including the NES games, including the first one, SNES Tournament Fighters, Turtles in Time, original comics, current comics, the micro-series, even a gag about the voice actors.
Everyone needs a little Cowabunga now and then.
Boiling it Down
There’s no reason not to buy this. It’s the game that I’ve wanted for years. Don’t let any other low review score stop you.
The Best Game Never Played
Chantelise – A Tale of Two Sisters (Action RPG/ PC)
Introducing the Genre
I found a great Action RPG on a Steam Summer Sale. I have to emphasize both parts of the genre, it’s not an action game, with RPG elements, it’s not a full RPG, it’s one of the great undiscovered gems that would have been at home with the likes of The Legend of Zelda, Beyond Good & Evil, or the Square and Enix renaissance of the 90s with Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore, Illusion of Gaia, and their kind.
Introducing the Game
I accidentally discovered this game while I was investigating another. I saw another one of Extra Credits’ “Games You Might Not Have Tried” videos where they mention Recetteer: An Item Shop’s Tale, a game where you run the item shop for adventurers. This game was part of a package sale for games from the same publisher and developer. I decided investigate. If this other game was as clever and original and surprising as Recetteer, it’ll be worth it. What I ended up with was actually not as original or as clever. It was actually a throwback to the difficult Action RPGs of the past, the like I haven’t seen or heard of in a long time. It was a welcome challenge trying to beat Chantelise: A Tale of Two Sisters.
The gameplay is simple to learn but difficult to master. Aren’t the best games like that? The best way I can describe this is, “what if The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time had come out much earlier, with the Super Nintendo’s limitations with an early 3D FX chip?” There is a town, roads to dungeons, dungeons, bosses, sword fighting, a little bit of magic, secret items to find, even a little bit of fishing just to finish the Zelda parallels.
Combat from the beginning of the game is not too different from combat at the end of the game. You don’t have to purchase your attacks in order to string together 20-hit combos. You have most of your abilities at the beginning of the game. As you progress, you may find items you can equip to give you one extra ability. You’re forced to choose between special abilities, only able to have a limited number of items equipped at any one time. You can swap out on the fly, sometimes. This forces you to have to come up with some kind of strategy for difficult encounters, and believe me, there will be many difficult encounters.
The first real boss almost made me quit the game entirely, but I gave it another chance. There is a sharp difficulty curve when you reach the first boss, at least there was for me. Don’t get discouraged, you just have to come up with a strategy. Hint: Use magic. You can’t just power attack your way through the game. Figuring out how to defeat each boss is a satisfying challenge. They’re not quite Shadow of the Colossus specific and tricky, but it reminded me of that first time playing The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. I really need to stop comparing it to Zelda.
Once you beat the game, or if, there’s plenty more to keep you occupied. This is the type of game that should come with achievements and trophies, just to prove you’ve done the amazing. There’s in-game counters for secret items, special items to buy, super boss battles to take on, a fishing journal to fill out, even a crafting system if that’s your thing.
There’s an “old” amount of monsters throughout the game. By that, I mean there are few in variety, but there are plenty of pallete swapped versions that show up as you progress. You’ll end up seeing the same flying eyeballs, slimes, and floating wizard sprites again and again. This is actually a positive. The enemy placement is used to devious effectiveness, using what little they have in effective ways. Good old Mario has a limited number of pallete swapped enemies, but that never makes the games any easier. It’s how they’re used and placed that make things tricky. The developers of Chantelise definitely took some notes and implemented that design strategy. They’re not too punishing, but more than you’d expect considering the recent crop of Action RPGs to come out.
I don’t want to say this. I don’t want this to come off sounding derogatory. However, if this is the sort of thing that would turn you off from a game, you probably don’t deserve to play it. The story is very girly. The heroine is a young girl trying to save her sister and break a spell after she’s been turned into a fairy(another Zelda-themed similarity).
The tone of the story is very light and the main characters are very bubbly, which matches the anime shojo art style. Still, be ready to get your pride handed to you by the difficulty of the game. If I had a daughter, this game would serve as an excellent gateway into gaming as a whole.
I briefly mentioned in the last section about how the game is anime-inspired. There are very pretty and handsome male characters with chibi and cute female characters. It matches the tone of the story. No one is over-sexualized, so it’s great for all ages.
Even earlier I mention it’s also 3d. Imagine a 3d environment, but all the characters that you see are 2d sprites. It has slightly more graphical demands than the original Doom. If you’re on a budget PC, you’ll be able to play it, and probably enjoy it more than some other more demanding games.
It’s a shame the soundtrack didn’t come with the game like some other Steam sales. I hope this is the last Zelda comparison I make because the game really does stand on it’s own. The music reminds me of something Koji Kondo, of Zelda fame, would do. Imagine if someone else had scored Zelda, you’d end up with a soundtrack like this.
Voices are all in Japanese, which doesn’t make any real difference. The accompanying text in speech balloons and text windows are all translated into English. Sound effects are very classic game-y, the kind you might have heard on an SNES. If you’re a fan of challenging, but not impossible Action RPGs, it’ll sound just right. The sound helps establish and remind players of the pedigree of the game.
I had no problem with the keyboard for controls. They’re sharp and responsive. Camera control is better than most. Deaths were more due to lack of a strategy than by any hangups caused by the interface. If you have a controller, you can use that, too.
Even though the game is about two sisters who are always together, there is no multiplayer. For most RPGs, action or otherwise, that’s usually for the best. RPGs have never been for the competitive players. It’s hard to tell your own story when there is another player involved. The only multiplayer I can imagine would be asymmetrical like Super Mario Galaxy’s star collecting with the Wii-mote. That might actually make it better for younger players.
Start to finish, the game is very straightforward. There are plenty of perks for traveling off the beaten path, like winning challenge and time attack rooms. Besides bonus items, they help to train and refine your fighting style. If you saw a reward for beating a boss in 2 minutes where it took you 10, it plants the idea in your head that there is a trick you haven’t figured out yet.
I’ve put in 22+ hours into the game and beat the final boss. I’m pretty sure I can double that before completing everything extra. If you’re the kind of player that likes challenges, real challenges, not artificially inflated difficulty, you’ll love this. There’s just as many “easy” challenges to bait you into seriously upping your game and wanting to complete others.
If you can get a group of people to buy the game, this is the type of game you can really talk about and exchange strategies. It’s the kind of game you’d talk about at recess and pass rumors about before people just looked up information on the internet. Sure, I could just do that to find all the hidden treasures, but I’d just be cheating myself and cutting my enjoyment of this wonderful game short.
Some levels are just fun to replay, thankfully this game lets your replay any one of them at will, even the bosses. You can’t XP grind because there are no levels. So replaying levels helps further refine your skills as a player.
If I were to start again, now that I’ve mastered the combat/magic system, I wonder how quickly I can beat the game and cut down that 22 hour time.
I’m SO glad I bought this game. It’s been one of the most satisfying buys, in a long time.
The penultimate boss was harder than the final boss. Classic!
At one point, you fight your shadow, another Zelda-ism. You know, if you were to re-skin everything, this could very well be renamed, “The Adventure of Zelda.”
You can buy riddles to find hidden treasure. They’re not obvious, but just enough to spark a treasure hunting bug.
If you’ve played Recetteer, you will find something familiar about the town’s item shop and the item shopkeeper.
Mastering the magic system, as a player, did wonders to my ability to progress through the game.
I can’t wait to see what else the duo of developer EasyGameStation and publisher Carpe Fulgur LLC come up with. They scored two major hits with this and Recetteer. Maybe I should check out their other collaboration, The Summoner.
Boiling it Down
If you like Zelda, classic difficulty, on a budget computer, for a budget price, this is for you.
The Best Game Never Played
Terminator: Survival (Action Survival / PC, PS3)
Introducing the Genre
Like all great games, this one combines genres in a new and interesting way. There are survival elements with shooter gameplay, a dash of stealth, and RPG character design, having victory dependent on some very tricky problem solving . Some elements seem taken from the old NES Jaws, the indie hit Spy Party, The Sims, The Ship, and the standard 3rd person shooter’s navigation and combat.
Introducing the Game
In the battle of genre vs franchise, I usually compare both. There’s never been a mix of genres to create a game like this, and all the games in the franchise never quite reached this level of emotional investment and recreating the feel of the movie as this one. This is a game that could only have come out now, with the high level of detail for cities, the city’s square mileage, store and building interiors, object physics, high polycount of models, destructible environments, and dense crowd AI. There’s never been a game that perfectly captures the terror of being against the world with the paranoia level of Slender, like this one, Terminator: Survival.
For a long time, I couldn’t imagine how to properly design or play a real Terminator game. What would make it a real Terminator game compared to any other shooter with a robot in them? How would you recreate the feeling and struggle of the characters in the movies?
The game is a mix between open world, sim, role-playing, shooter, and a unique cat & mouse mechanic, like a reverse-Assassin’s Creed. The city is yours to roam like a GTA clone, complete with bystanders and police. All the time, someone is hunting you.
Once you’ve made contact with a soldier from the future, you two are joined at the hip. When you’re on the run, you cannot just camp somewhere in a corner. Remember, being thrown in a hole somewhere for the rest of your natural life is just as good as being dead. You will never be able to do whatever it is that you do to help or threaten Skynet.
Both characters have basic survival needs such as sleep, money, food, water, sanitation, and entertainment. These are reminiscent of the gauges on each Sim from The Sims or for characters in the game, The Ship. The “needs” prevent you from just camping in one spot. Venturing out when you know you’re being hunted adds a certain level of tension.
There is a rich character creator capable of generating unique faces for you, your companion, the Terminator, and the random faces in the crowd. Just because you remember what each one looked like in the last game, it doesn’t mean they’ll have the same face in this game. Since some Terminators are based on real people, your protector from one game might be your nemesis in the next.
Besides cosmetic features, the character creation screen for your character has a skill set that reminds me of some pencil and paper RPGs. You pick skills to have some ranks already developed, the more you use your skills, the more they level up, but only marginally. You cannot max everything out, and there’s a point to that. Your character in this run through will be different from your last, your next, and the one from the player down the street.
Your companion, if you’re able to find them, are generally your opposite. If you created yourself to be some kind of soldier, then your partner is more of an intel/tech specialist. If you have absolutely no knowledge of first-aid, it’s a good bet that your protector will. This fosters a sense of cooperation, reliance, and ensuring that they are always valuable. A word of warning, if your bodyguard dies, then they are dead, that’s it. You should protect them while they are protecting you.
Like Kyle Reese said, it doesn’t feel pity or remorse, it will not stop until you are dead. This can actually work in your favor since a gun wielding maniac attracts it’s own wanted level. Once a T-888 has you in its sights, you can fight or flee. In the opening of the game, fleeing is usually the best option.
Terminating a Terminator is never a straightforward task. Like the movies, Terminators can soak up a ridiculous amount of small arms fire. All that really does is slow it down, force it into hiding to repair itself, or bring the police to bear on the both of you. Having a Terminator on your tail is like having a wanted level in GTA.
An infiltrator robot is of no use if large swaths of skin are torn off, revealing the metal underneath. Once you shake the terminator, it will be in hiding longer based on the amount of damage you’ve dealt. Enjoy the downtime.
In your downtime trying to collect money, food, weapons, and the necessities of life, try not to commit too many crimes. The police can chase after you just as easily as the T-888. If you get arrested, you’ll have to break out. Your resistance partner might be able to help. There’s a good chance that the terminator will hear of your arrest and come to shoot up the police station, just like in the first movie.
Well now you’re an escaped criminal. This is where you’ll be forced to change your appearance, just like the terminator if it had taken severe damage. Fleeing can be on foot can only work for so long. Unless the terminator is severely damaged and limping, a vehicle is usually the best chance of evading.
There could be frequent car chases, or you could use the car as an offensive weapon against the T-888, assuming you don’t have a swarm of police bearing down on you.
Killing it will involve recreating scenes from the movies, as in some kind of industrial equipment, high explosives, thermite, electrocution, crushing, acid, smelting, radiation, or freezing. Those are just some of the more obvious ways. Desperation and creativity may reveal some others. People who watched the TV series might be at an advantage.
“… making this the third victim with the same name in as many weeks.” You hear on a news broadcast that three people with your exact first and last name have been murdered. In the future, the character you create is very important in some way. The specifics aren’t important. What’s important is that Skynet deems you valuable enough to target for termination.
Terminator: Survival expands upon the universe created in the television series and the first two movies. We’ve seen from The Sarah Connor Chronicles that John and Sarah were not the only targets of Skynet.
One terminator, or more, models determined by difficulty level between T-800, T-888, T-1000, or T-X, are sent back to terminate your character. There is also a human resistance member sent back in time to help you. How the game plays out, life or death for you or your companion, is up to you.
This game recreates the story conditions of the first movie. One terminator is sent back in time to terminate a very influential person in the future. Additionally, a resistance member, a very mortal one, has been sent back in time as a bodyguard. You’re outmatched, outgunned, and forced to flee. There are no offensive missions where you can really take the fight to Skynet and attack future Terminator assets like Cyberdine in Terminator 2, or several sites in the TV series, The Sarah Connor Chronicles.
Perhaps if there’s ever a sequel, the developers will shoot for a T-2 vibe and allow you to plan attacks against Skynet, maybe meet up with famous characters like John & Sarah Connor, perhaps have your very own Terminator at your command.
The developers had a grand vision that they were able to achieve with today’s technology. They were able to render a very destructible sandbox world in incredible detail. I think it’s fair to say that the Grand Theft Auto series set the bar in regards to sandbox cities. This raises the bar just a little more with the addition of the “flavors” of the city, industrial districts, commercial districts, residential districts, a port district, an airport, a stadium, destructible elements like storefronts, malls, gun stores, a military base, a police station, warehouses, construction sites, highways, insides of buildings, and more. There is a slight loading time in between some of the different zones, but that’s the trade off for the graphics detail.
Bear McCreary, my favorite robot musician, delivers his signature style and emulation of the original Terminator themes. If you liked what you heard on The Sarah Connor Chronicles, you’ll like what you hear here. The music sets the appropriate mood for when you’re running, hiding, evading, or involved in an all out firefight.
This almost mixes with music, considering who was doing the score. Lots of drums, metal banging on metal. I think the soundfont from the series was used for most of the climactic battles. Voice acting is solid, especially the signature line, “Come with me if you want to live.” Gives me chills every time, no matter who says it.
I was surprised that this game was available for both PC and consoles. Navigating the menus reminded me of how Mass Effect dealt with interaction, weapons, AI commands, and such.
The combat easily shifts between vehicular combat and cover based shooting. When not drawing a weapon, interacting with the rest of the environment is fluid.
This is one of the highlights of the game. It could have been a solid game without multiplayer, but developers went the extra mile. There is a multiplayer battle mode that allows you to play asymmetrically with up to two players as humans, and more as terminators. Or, another game type with terminator on terminator action. Depending on what team you’re on, you have a photograph of your target and must protect it, or terminate. The different models are available for play, T-800, 888, 1000, or T-X.
Single player pauses the game while you choose some options, but in multiplayer, it doesn’t. So you have to be quick. Also, the need for sleep is removed in multiplayer, it’s mostly played in near real-time.
There are a few default skins for your characters, just in case you want to be obvious, like Arnold, Robert Patrick, Kristanna Loken, Linda Hamilton, Lena Heady, and more.
It all takes place, single and multi-player, in the not too distant present/past. There’s no future or post-Judgement Day maps to play on, no bleached skulls and hunter killers(except in Mods). Maybe that’s being saved for a sequel.
With the ever randomizing of character skins, every game begins unpredictably. There might be some games where you never meet your bodyguard. Some games might end quickly, one way or another.
The depth of the skill system gives you challenges and gameplay styles different each time, depending on your mood. One game might make you a perfect burglar, in another game you’re a wealthy philanthropist, in one you’re a hard boiled soldier with a computer hacker sidekick.
Then there’s difficulty levels which determine what model of Terminator is sent at you and how many. In one game you might try to destroy it or them in new and different ways.
Multiplayer gives the game a great party value to play with friends cooperatively or competitively.
Lastly, MOD support, at least for the PC, means this game can have unlimited depth.
The PC version is obviously superior, if only for the MOD support.
Bear McCreary may or may not be an actual robot. I suspect he is, since his career seems to have been tied to robots for a very long time. Bear composed the music for the re-imagined Battlestar: Galactica, with humans at war with the robotic Cylons. He scored Dark Void where humans are at war with a mysterious robotic race. Mr. McCreary accepted the gig since he was inspired by Capcom’s robot war epic Mega Man 2 when he was younger. Lastly, he did the music for The Sarah Conner Chronicles. So, robot? To be determined.
Creating my character’s skills and adding points into things like my finances reminds me of picking my job in Oregon Trail.
Boiling it Down
Recreating the terror of the Terminator movie in a game, perfectly.
The Best Game Never Played
Dear Esther (Interactive Story / PC)
Introducing the Genre
The definition of what can be considered art is sometimes hard to define whenever a new style or genre is created. Gaming culture outsiders have been very adamant that video games can under no circumstances be considered art. Given how early games like Space War and Missile Command began, and how the games which make the news like the Grand Theft Auto series and the Call of Duty series are, it’s no wonder the outsiders can’t see what we see. As games are becoming more and more mainstream, there are more and more developers with more and more different ideas, ideas which will blur the line of what can be considered art.
I’m not sure what to call this genre yet, but there are more and more like it every year, very artistic games from new developers which concentrate on an immersive experience rather than racking up achievements in multiplayer. The objective isn’t as clear as reaching the end of the level or as predictable as anything I’ve seen before. These are games like The Stanly Parable, or the upcoming Gone Home.
These games most closely resemble interactive movies, like Star Trek: Klingon, from the early CD-ROM era. For the sake of differentiating the two, I’ll call these new games, interactive stories.
Introducing the Game
I don’t remember how I first heard about this game, if I read a review, if I saw it on one of the Extra Credits “Games You Might Not Have Tried,” if the description of the game during a Steam sale was interesting enough, or if reading the Wikipedia story of how this mod became a full game convinced me to finally try, Dear Esther.
I reiterate, it’s hard to classify this as a game, to there’s not any real gameplay to it. It’s more of an experience.
I don’t want to be spoiling anything for anyone so I’ll just give a setup. You’re alone on an island, documenting, narrating about your life there to your dear Esther as if you were writing a letter. Before the end, you should be moved by it.
The creatures rendered an extra detailed world with an atmosphere of bleakness I’ve never seen done better. It used the Steam engine which might be considered “dated” by now, but I’m continually and pleasantly surprised how much mileage everyone has squeezed from it. Only those without a sympathetic imagination would complain.
Subtle and bleak, complementing the graphical aesthetic and completing the gloomy atmosphere. You can also buy the soundtrack through Steam. It’ll be worth it, if you like that kind of haunting ethereal style.
There is a wonderful narrator. The ambient noise and weather effects make the island come alive.
The controls should be accessable to anyone. WASD, mouse-look. They will not be a barrier to anyone playing the game. This is not an action-game or a real-time strategy, no one will be befuddled about how to use the controls. It is a bit frustrating having to walk at the character’s walking pace. It’s a bit slow, so you can’t quickly investigate everything. Then again, the main character isn’t the kind to run around mute, rutting through boxes for random items, so it fits. In my eyes, the slow pace of walking is part of what makes each experience unique. The point where I became frustrated and stopped exploring every little nook meant I focused on the story more, and I robbed myself of some storyline.
No, not for this game. That would be like someone reading over your shoulder. It would take you out of this experience. Not that it couldn’t be done, just not for this game.
I finished the game in about 2 hours even. I really don’t find myself yearning to repeat the game because of the slow walking speed. I might try it again and look in every corner, hoping to trigger some monologue I didn’t hear before. I’m sure there were some paths I hadn’t explored before I crossed a point of no return.
A $10(current price, not on sale) for a one-time, two-hour experience that I controlled, it was worth it. If this has sounded interesting so far, it’s worth it. If you’re still on the fence, wait for a sale and it’ll definitely be worth it.
The ending left me so exhausted and depressed that I’m not eager to replay it.
Boiling it Down
You’re buying an experience, not a game. It’s a new genre of entertainment.
Analysis – Violence Part II
I’ve played violent video games, I’ve suffered from depression, I’ve been house bound from injury, and I haven’t killed anyone. Yay, me! And Yay to the 99% of that demographic that can say the same! If “violent video games” were being blamed for several crimes or shooting per week, then I’d agree that something has to be done. Then I’d put it up on the same platform like anti-gang and anti-drug efforts. But for now, I’m going to say they’ve done much more good than harm, not just video games as a whole, I’m going to talk about the violent ones, the fighters, the shooters, the murder sims, and the gore desensitization, the ones that make the news.
I mentioned in part 1 of this analysis that there was a distinct lack of what I called “insiders” in the conversation. There was no one intimately familiar with the sub-culture, no one even pretended to be. There were criminal psychologists and addiction counselors, but no actual gamers except for 2, neither of which blamed games. One person was excellent at gaming and gave it up to play football. He set the controller down and made his choice. The other decided to commit murder for reasons that don’t add up in the official story, but he did not blame games. I consider myself an insider to the gaming sub-culture. I know the jargon, I know the material, I know the sub-sets of gamers, I’ve hosted gaming parties, I’ve played them most of my life and have a relatively large collection. I’ve played the fighters, the shooters, the murder sims, and the gore-fests.
I’m very familiar with the Mortal Kombat series, Manhunt, The Ship, Mass Effect, Diablo, Doom, Quake, Duke Nukem, Grand Theft Auto, and lightly acquainted with the Hitman series. I’m even going to be a nice guy and throw the opposition a few bones and mention a particular moment in Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Hopefully, me, being familiar with these games, having played them, read about them, or see them played through, will qualify me to speak on the subject. Katie Couric, has no such qualifications. Until she decides to embed herself at PAX, QuakeCon, or w00tstock, she had no reason to talk about something she doesn’t understand.
People need to be aware, that other people suck. Violence will be inflicted upon you weather you ask for it, or not. You cannot be protected from it or shielded from it. You cannot choose when this will happen. You must be prepared for it, as best you can, when the time comes. This, I believe, is a parent’s responsibility. Raise your child to be strong enough to handle the world he or she will inherit
I was a very isolated child while growing up. I didn’t associate with many of the neighborhood kids or even kids at school. Later on, when I had moved out, I found out why. People suck, particularly the people in the area where I was raised. Looking back I can see, they were actually terrible terrible people to be around. Associating with them was actually toxic to my well being. So, I had an escape, I had video games. Here I was, isolating myself, withdrawing, no parental interference, when it was actually for the best.
When I mentioned violence happens, I mean that it’s happened to me. I played a fighting game obsessively when I was in 3rd grade and thought I became really good at it. In 3rd grade I was also attending public school. Any 3rd grader in public school knows that at some point, someone will pick a fight with you. When it happened to me, I took some punches. My parents told me not to fight for any reason. This led to a recurring cycle of abuse from my attacker. When the day came that I had had enough, I launched into a combo I’d memorized from my favorite fighting game. This violent video game helped me defend myself, protect myself, protect others, and end a cycle of abuse. It might have saved my life. And it wasn’t the only time that would happen.
There were other solutions, but as any victim knows, they aren’t real solutions. Tell a teacher or a parent, call the school, they’ll do something about it. Well, that never happens. The type of people I had to face, bullies, are predators. They seek out opportunities, they hunt, they prey on weak individuals. They strike when no one is looking, in the bathroom, in the locker room, in the crowded hallways obscured by a sea of other students, surrounded by a circle of onlookers. There’s nothing the staff can legally do unless they catch a student in the act. I was on my own.
This situation reminds me of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy. “Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take up arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing, end them?” Suffering only leads to more suffering. Growth comes from taking up arms, opposing, and ending them. After I stood up to my bully, I was left alone. New bullies came along, I tried to be peaceful about it, I tried talking, I tried understanding, but there are some occasions where people will hate you for no reason. You have the right to protect yourself. You have the right to live free of fear. You sometimes have to do it yourself. Fighting games taught me how to fight.
Years later, the sequel to that fighting game came out. It was supposed to come out with mod tools that would allow you to design your own fighter, your own arena, your own power-ups, modify almost the whole game. Since I was a fan of the franchise, I was ravenous for information. Just for that game, I began learning about 3d graphics, art, animation, and I discovered a hidden passion. I can plug away at polygons for hours before I notice, I probably should have eaten today. This passion is present to this day and is one of the best ways for me to relax. Because of a violent video game, I learned an artistic skill that I want to turn into a career.
Katie Couric mentioned Manhunt with a single sentence description. Since she’s unable or unwilling to do her job, I’ll help. Manhunt is a murder simulator with more points awarded for more violence and gore. You stalk the streets, confronting other computer controlled(no multiplayer) killers, luring them in with decoys, making noise, throwing rocks, and kill them with assorted weapons like glass shards, pipes, 2x4s, plastic bags, and firearms. It doesn’t quite matter as much that this player character is kidnapped and placed against his will into a (nominated best movie of the year!)Hunger Games-style killing game, but with grown adults, not children.
Manhunt is not the only “murder sim” out there. It had a sequel. I played The Ship in which every character on a cruise ship has a portrait of someone else and has to kill them, while someone has your picture, but no one knows who. The graphical depictions are all very Pixar-ish and cartoon-like. If that’s a problem, then Looney Toons should be added to the ban, and anvils. The Ship has a sequel called Bloody Good Time which takes place in a movie studio, same theme. These games and their lessons have served me greatly in my military career. No, I’m not some black op ghost assassin, but I was volunteered to perform risk assessments for bases. I sought out vulnerabilities and came up with measures to mitigate or eliminate them. It served me in a kind of “To catch a thief” sort of way. The faster paced Ship and Bloody Good Time games taught me to be resourceful in a scrape. While I’m glad I have not had to use those lessons, I’m still glad I have them.
Writing this, I’m reminded of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where Spock is recovering in the Enterprise’s sick bay after reaching out and touching V’Ger’s mind. “It knows only that it needs… but like so many of us, it does not know what.” Children need. When parents cannot deliver, children can seek out and find whatever it is. If they have no friends, then an imaginary friend can fill the void, maybe now it’s video games that can serve that purpose. The on-line games where you can play with real people, definitely fit that description. If a child is never taught to fight or to stand up for himself, then a fighting game can be that teacher. If children are not being intellectually stimulated or challenged, then video games like Spec Ops: The Line or Mass Effect can fill that void.
I know Mass Effect wasn’t one of the “violent” video games in question, but it did make the news a few years back for being a game about lesbian pornography. That story really broke my heart to see because I never even played Mass Effect, but I knew it was being taken out of context. In a world where homosexual marriage is becoming more and more accepted every month, this story is already outrageous. What it really reminded me of was the story of Christopher Reeve on Capital Hill testifying in support of stem cell research. A ban on stem cell research was put in place despite Mr Reeve’s pleas. After the vote, he went around to someone who voted against it and asked why. The only answer the rep could give was that the committee he appointed to do research into the matter said, “no.” When the process was explained to the representative, he regretted voting the way he did. In the Mass Effect scene in question, it is a touching lovely passionate scene that makes sense in the context according to what goes on, better than most Hollywood movie hook-ups. Yes, your character can choose to share this scene with men or women, and your character upon creation at the beginning of the game, can be male or female. This entire sensational story could have been easily defused if someone bothered to look into it in even the slightest way, or ask someone who has seen the scene with knowledge of the context.
Early in my military experience I saw many young enlisted men and women go down and blow half their paycheck at the bar while I played video games up in my room. I spent less money than them, and it definitely decreased the chance of me doing something stupid or getting into trouble. It was what we did every weekend. In that regard, playing video games, violent or otherwise, reminds me of fishing, or going to the bar. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing or where you’re going, but who you’re with. When you go fishing, does it matter if you catch any fish? Or is it just an excuse to spend time with people close to you? Sure, some fish might be nice, but that’s never the main reason, is it? Is it? Maybe I just don’t understand the super competitive world of sport fishing. When folk go down to the bar with their crews, what’s the point? Is it to drink? Or is there a social reason? Then again, I could never stand the taste of beer, so maybe I misunderstand the reason for drinking. Either way, violent video games are used as a bonding tool, or a way to keep someone from going out and getting into trouble, there is a strong social aspect to some games, and it’s a better use of money.
Now I want to talk about some violent games that don’t get enough attention, Final Fantasy VII and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. Neither of these games are known for their violence, however they use the act of violence and killing in the story in a way to add an incredible amount of weight to it. There is a tragic scene in Final Fantasy VII where the player, as the main character is given the choice to murder an innocent woman in order to save the planet. This is a person who the player has come to care about, not the main character, but the player. The player has to press a button for each action, drawing his weapon, raising his weapon, and then press a final button to strike. The game puts players into a very uncomfortable position. This is the game that many will be the first to say, made them cry, or is a legitimate work of art.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater is a super spy espionage stealth thriller set during the Cold War. The player, in the end, is forced to kill someone he is very close to, so the Cold War doesn’t become hot. The game does not end until you pull the trigger. The main character Snake has to kill his mentor, his teacher, The Boss. As the story progresses you learn about the complex history these two people had and what they meant to each other. There’s no doubt that these two were intimate. I don’t mean sex, but definitely intimate, something more akin to parent and child. It’s unfair to say you can ever “win” the game, the end is not a reward. The player should feel an incredible feeling of loss.
These two games are just two examples of how violence is used in a deliberate way to upset and disturb the player, not as a visceral visual reward. I would add Spec Ops: The Line, but I haven’t played through it yet, I just know about it’s reputation. These are games that, on the surface, have just as much reason for the “violent video games” protesters to single out, but because no one protesting is an insider, they go unnoticed.
First person shooters seem to be the target of most of the controversy, with Halo and Call of Duty in the spotlight. They’re not the first, they won’t be the last, and there’s already plenty more where they came from. I compared them to the “grind house” level of cinema. One game series from iD software, Quake, could fall into that category, but it elevates itself to something more than that. The first Quake was a leap forward in computer gaming graphics. It was popular enough and that it spawned a whole sub-sport of speed running. Quake also spawned one of the first and one of the largest computer gaming events, QuakeCon. Make no mistake, quake is violent, but if all you focus on is the violence, you’re missing so much more. You’re missing the real worth.
Some games are designed to draw you in with gory graphics and violent imagery. It is attractive to some, and a lot of times, it’s superficial. Action RPGs like the Diablo series, depict rooms full of mutilated bodies, burning crosses, and satanic imagery, sure to draw in any angsty teenagers. Just beneath the surface there are complex mathematical formulae that create a game within a game. I’ve been fortunate to have been blessed with wonderful teachers throughout school, but trying to get kids interested in math is tricky. The students need to find their own motivation, gaming can be that motivation. It involves percentages, fractions, multiplication, probability, statistics, algebra, and possibly geometry. The benefits of the math heavy action RPGs are also many of the same benefits provided by pencil and paper dice-rolling RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons, but we all know what parent groups think about that. Robbing kids of an effective tutor, because you don’t like the packaging, without finding something to replace it, does only harm. Will parents even bother to look past the surface to see it? Is that too much to ask?
This list wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the Grand Theft Auto series, the game that lets you have sex with hookers, kill them, and take your money back. First of all, this game is meant for a specific audience, an audience that should be able to handle the fact that it is all imaginary. Just because a kid plays cops & robbers, doesn’t mean he’s destined for a life of crime or law enforcement. Secondly, the Grand Theft Auto series is one of the most modded games out there. It encourages people to program their own game, their own characters, their own models, their own everything. Some people have even been hired by major developers and made a career out of tinkering because they made a mod of a popular game. GTA made the news over something called the “Hot Coffee” mod, repeat, mod. Someone modded the game in such a way that someone complained and it made the news. The developers originally planned for it to be in the game, but decided to remove it. Someone tinkered with the game and put something in, the developers are not responsible for that one.
Wrapping up, what have we learned here today? I’ve listed problems of bias and shoddy work in reporting real issues and causes of violence unfairly blamed on violent video games. I’ve given positive examples of how violence can be used to affect a story and have an impact on the player, the opposite of desensitizing. I’ve recounted my personal experience and lessons that violent video games have given me. I’ve proposed a solution to prevent any more controversy by having an embedded journalist report back, and by suggesting parents get involved in their kids’ lives. From here on out, no one can ever say that there are no benefits, and no one can ever blame the game. The information is here for anyone who cares to look.
Thank you for reading.
Analysis – Violence Part I
Violence in video games is a very polarizing issue. One one hand, there are people who play “violent video games” and see no problem with them. On the other hand, there are blow hards, propaganda peddlers, fear mongers, and attention seekers who don’t play, “violent video games” that are trying to stir up controversy for their own benefit, like Katie Couric. These are the same type of people who raged against rock music, dirty dancing, pool tables(Trouble with a capital T and that sounds like V and that stand for Video games!), and anything else that was part of a cultural revolution.
I am biased. I admit it with every review and analysis. I specifically asked for a passionate analysis, which is a contradiction in terms. An analysis should be free of bias, it should be objective, it should be a list of parts that make up a whole. To add personal feelings and make something passionate, should destroy all of that. However, I like to think my reviews and analysis still come together to form something useful, insightful, entertaining, and educating.
Katie Couric in her report on violence in video games is biased. The difference between me and Ms. Couric is that I admit to my bias, upfront. Why doesn’t she? I assume it’s either because she is unable to admit her bias, she doesn’t see it as a bias, and she just did an incredibly terrible job of being a professional journalist and investigator. On the other hand, she may just be unwilling to admit her bias. She knows she has it and she knows she’s putting on a one-sided piece with complete disregard to the truth, roots, causes, issues and underlying problems. So, be it unable or unwilling, Katie Couric is either a terrible person, or just terrible at her job. Maybe I’m wrong, I accept the chance of that with everything I type. Maybe I’m missing something. I invite further criticism, I invite discussion, I invite collaboration, and further distancing myself from Katie Couric, I offer more than a 140 character Twitter message to do it.
It’s times like this that I miss journalists and investigators like Hunter S. Thompson and Neil Strauss. They both put themselves into their work, they were part of the story, they did their homework, they infiltrated the sub-cultures that they were investigating. Katie Couric’s surface-skimming fluff-piece is a perfect example of how to not write a story.
I hate to do this, I hate to give her any kind of traffic or support, but in the purpose of fairness, this is the link where I’m getting my information. I still encourage any readers to look at the source for themselves and double check the facts, like any good reporter should.
First video – Interview with Marc Petric
There is an info bar on the bottom that Marc Petric, the guest, “says violent video games turned son into killer.” The event happened in 2007. So Katie had to dig back 6 years to find this gentleman and remind him of the trauma.
When asked, “What role, do you think, Mark, violent video games played in Danny’s actions?” “He became very withdrawn” That could be because he was a teenager. “We were wondering what was going on.” Getting involved and asking seemed like too much trouble, did it? “We did not know he was playing hours and hours and hours on end.” If you did not know that, if you’re unaware of what your teenage children are doing for hours and hours and hours on end, then you’re either lying, or just dropped the parenting ball. Immediately following that sentence, Mark says, “In fact, the longest he ever played Halo 3 was for 72 hours.” So, it sounds like you DID know what he was doing for hours and hours and hours on end? I really have to wonder what this parent considers too much? 24 hours? 48 hours? 60 hours? 70 hours? Nope, 72 is where he draws the line! It turns out that he wasn’t allowed to play those types of games at home, so then how can the games be held responsible if there’s a ban on them in the household? How do you take them away if they aren’t allowed in the house. Either the ban signaled the moment of the attack, or there was something else which triggered the attack.
Second video – Interview with Daniel Petric
“He was lovely, he was smart, he is polite, it was really really difficult to square that with everything we’ve heard about what he’s done.” It sounds like the speaker doesn’t want to acknowledge the possibility that people can change, grow, or be rehabilitated. Once a killer, always a killer, and no good can come from them? Or do I misunderstand again?
The father originally couldn’t understand what happened or why his son had changed. It might be as simple as asking because, when asked, the son straight up says he was an athlete, he had a serious snowboarding accident, hospitalized, on heavy medication and he was layed up at the house. As a person with back problems, I can understand how limiting that can be. The father did not know or understand what his son was going through. Katie says, “You compete with nameless faceless people…” and she’s right. The father was competing with other people for his son’s attention and rather than get involved, ask questions, bond and parent, get to know these people, the father chose to take the kid off of his pain medication, by that I mean the video games which have been clinically proven to reduce chronic pain sufferers. Just look at the Child’s Play charity.
I find it particularly noteworthy, even though no one else does, that Daniel does not blame the video games, he never has, and has always taken full responsibility for his own actions. So I have to wonder, why does everybody blame video games when the only person who can, doesn’t? Other people are telling him that it’s video games. It makes me a little sick.
Third video – Interview back with Marc
“I want to help get the word out to other people so these kinds of things don’t continue to happen like the Sandy Hook shooter… Columbine… They’re all related.” Yes, Marc actually said that. I’ve been saying this for years, that when the Columbine shooters references Doom in their journals, if Doom didn’t exist, it would just be replaced with something else incredibly violent like an action movie, a comic book, or literature like Dante’s Inferno. There was already plenty of evidence that the killers behind Columbine were reacting to bullying or mental illness. To say a kid who plays video games is a warning sign is like saying a kid with ears is at risk of drug use, because he listens to rock music. Video games are just this generations entertainment revolution, and anyone who can’t see that is looking in the wrong place.
Michael Welner, MD, Forensic Psychiatrist and guest submits that in this case Daniel had a pathological attachment to playing video games, and the killing happened when they were taken away from him. But doctor, if these video games weren’t allowed in the house, if Daniel went over to friends’ houses to play them, what was there to take away? Something about this doesn’t make sense or add up.
“The key attachment connection between mass shooters and video game violence is that mass shooters use the video games as training videos.” By that logic, I am Batman.
Aside from that strange first analysis of his, I think the rest of what he says has some merit. But just as he’s making sense and drawing focus away from video games, and put attention on how controlling and constricting the father was, Katie cuts him off. Way to go, Katie.
Fourth video – Quinn Pitcock whos video game addiction cost him his NFL career
Am I the only one who doesn’t feel sorry for an NFL player out of a job, given their salary? Not once during the interview do either of them mention Quinn Pitcock was also diagnosed with depression at the time. This begs the question, do you play video games because you’re depressed or are you depressed because you play video games? Either one could be true, or neither. Though it deserves a look on a case by case basis. I believe depression existed long before video games, it’s merely the most modern and recent coping device, not a cause.
Quinn Pitcock was drafted by the Colts in 2007, again, either this video is very old, or Katie Couric just loves digging up buried tragedies. Since the pastor referenced Sandy Hook, that means this is a recent video, further evidence Katie Couric is a terrible person, or can’t be bothered to find examples less than 6 years old.
On a brighter note, Mr Pitcock has since played for Seattle Seahawks, Detroit Lions, and Orlando Predators. So it seems video games haven’t had such a detrimental impact on his career as Katie would love for you to believe.
Fifth video – Are video games to blame for violent crimes?
“Research is still wrestling with that.” No kidding? “What we’ve been able to establish is that violent video games increase the arousal, increase hostility, in a number of people who play them.” So, some people like violence? He didn’t say majority, or a percent, or any solid figure, just “some.” Way to be scientific. This is not news, we know that imagery can excite people, men like Hefner & Flint have made a living off of it. “Players are desensitized to violence…desensitized to gore.” That might be true, I’ll come back to that and call it a positive.
Now there’s an “addiction specialist.” That’s like asking a plumber’s opinion on an electrical problem. This show keeps using the word addiction, which refers to chemical changes in the brain and a dependency. The word they should be using is “compulsion.” This is part of why I can’t take this show seriously. Go take a look at the Extra Credits guys for a better explanation and exploration of the subject matter.
And this is where Michael Welner, MD loses all credibility. “Sometimes research isn’t needed” That first phrase alone chills me. “…when you have Quinn Pitcock saying he could be the best in his career and he basically threw it all away.” Quinn Pitcock also said he could have been #1 in his video game, he was getting ranked on ladders, but he chose not to. Here was a talented man who could have been excellent in 2 careers, but had to pick. “It’s a familiar story to anyone who’s dealt with the addiction model.” I’m sure video games never made Quinn think about selling his kidney, turning tricks, or waking up in a sleazy motel with no memory of how he got there, and then checking himself into a court appointed rehab facility. Yeah, discounting all those, it’s a familiar story.
“The game is designed to absorb people.” “I don’t think the developers are blameless.” So, if a woman dresses in a way to attract people, she is not blameless for any crimes committed? People still have free will. People still have a choice. Nobody is being Clockwork Orange’d into playing games, except for maybe Chinese gold farmers. “…they have to be dealt with in the same way(as tobacco companies).” The video game industry, unlike the tobacco industry, was NOT ordered to place warnings about content onto games. It was a self-policing measure from the games industry because of the controversy. They heard, they listened, and acted with full cooperation. There is a difference.
The addiction specialist begins to make sense in the next scene, I mean after she compares alcohol addiction to food addiction(compulsive eater, not addiction). “We really have to focus on thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, before, during, and after.” And just as soon as she’s making sense, she’s cut off and Katie talks to someone else.
The next speaker, Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, had the ear of the White House after the Sandy Hook shooting. He claims America has a culture of violence and violent video games are contributing, but can’t be singled out for blame. I can’t argue that. When he says the video game industry is clearly in denial, I might not be able to argue, but I must ask, how does he define the industry? Has he investigated all the games that don’t sell 1,000,000 copies in a month? How pervasive are they? How much violence is in something like Fez or Super Hexagon? So when he wraps up the entire industry in one neat little violent ticking package, I have to wonder why he is ignoring everyone daring to do something different and actually help his cause? He says the industry constantly blames parents, I must agree. Parents may not be the single factor, but contributing, absolutely! We saw just how “involved” the Petric family was when their story didn’t add up.
So the White house proposed $10,000,000 for research into a link between violence and violent video games. According to Mr. Steyer, the video game industry opposed the idea. This is where the simple assistance of one gonzo journalist can help. Is the video game industry protecting themselves from exposure of a dark secret? Or is there really no link? Not one opinion on this show has come from an insider of the culture. I may as well ask a Martian about the weather on Mercury.
Then Katie brings up the labeling, that the industry “fended off government action 20 years ago,” like it was a bad thing. Katie is saying that fully cooperating and fixing a problem yourself is bad? Then Mr Steyer calls it a, “fox guarding a chicken coop. The video game industry is not a fox if it willingly polices itself. Such an uncharacteristic “nice” move is just unbelievable. “How can we let an industry that denies the science…” They don’t deny it, they just disagree, and two of Katie’s “experts” already said the science is still being wrestled with. The White House just put forth $10m to investigate, because there is no science to back it up yet. “All parents have to do is read the box.” I find that totally acceptable. “An industry that actively opposed positive measures.” No, they actively took positive measures before anyone forced legal action. Imagine if you could drive at any speed until you’re pulled over and told to drive the speed limit. Well, the video game industry is nice enough to not want to get ticketed in the first place. I see absolutely no harm, or badness, or ill will in that. The industry’s self-control seems to confuse people.
We knew it would eventually come to free speech. Again, the only arguments I ever hear about this come from outsiders who claim it isn’t, and insiders who claim it is. Who has the greater working knowledge of the sub-culture? I’ll be the last to say Call of Duty Modern Warfare is art, but I won’t judge an entire concept based on one “grindhouse” entry. To deny the epic works of Chrono Trigger, the fantasy adventure of Zelda & Link, the pantomime story from Shadow of the Colossus, the wit and parody of The Bard’s Tale, one of the greatest sci-fi epic trilogies since Star Wars, Mass Effect, the touching mystery and groundbreaking technology in Heavy Rain, is to cheat yourself out of an incredible experience you will not soon forget. The only argument Mr Steyer can muster is, “he’s wrong.” Then he talks about politicians who need courage and the needs of the family which, to me, sounds like nothing more than The Music Man running through River City.
Katie says she reached out to the Entertainment Software Association for comment. On the surface, that seems like good work on her part. Upon slight investigation, the ESA does not represent Activision, Vivendi, or iD, some of the biggest publishers in the business. To target only one representative shows a distinct lack of effort. If she had contacted Konami, Square, Ubisoft, Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, Capcom, EA, Disney, and Atari, and they all turned her down, I’d be disappointed.
Last video – Warning signs!
“If your child becomes a different person” Well, yeah. Video games or not, that means something big has probably happened and needs your attention. That’s universal, not specific. This person is giving parenting advice, not video gaming addiction warning signs. Then he starts listing the symptoms of depression. Next, they start throwing out the same buzzwords I heard to describe the dangers of comic books.
Katie then says, that when you give kids with a predisposition to violence these games, “that’s when they turn into Adam Lanza.” Really? Really, Katie Couric? Adam Lanza already had developmental disorders for his entire life, long before video games entered it. The Columbine shooters also loved Marylin Manson, or has someone already beaten you to it, in making a special about the evils of music? But if you decide to discount evidence, you can compare that sweet innocent 6-year old girl down the street to Pol Pot. I swear at some point she wanted to say, “basement-dwelling.”
Wrapping up, the MD says that it’s important to talk to other parents at a community level. For some reason actually getting involved in their kids’ lives is never once brought up. Hmm? Why couldn’t she have used an example that was less than 6 years old? There are plenty of examples of South Koreans who die at cyber cafes. There’s the viral misogyny and sexism directed at “girl gamers.” There was the Norway shooter who said he used video games to train. With just a cursory amount of effort, she could have made the segment so much more!
The Best Game Never Played
VVVVVV (Action Puzzle / PC)
Introducing the Genre
Genre is always the most difficult to define on the best games because they blend and bend the rules. This game reminds me of a very early “kids’ game” that you can beat with some difficulty, without getting frustrated, but with many difficult challenges for advanced players. It’s a puzzle game that uses gravity, but you have to be quick to solve the puzzles.
Introducing the Game
I saw clips of this game a long time ago and completely forgot about it until the Steam Summer Sale 2012 when I picked it up. It’s a wonderful experience for the price that I can recommend to anyone who wants a mindbending puzzle game that only stresses you out as much as you want it to. The game is named after the action key you’ll be pressing over and over, VVVVVV(that’s 6 Vs).
If you ever played Gravity Man’s stage from Mega Man V, imagine an entire game based around that concept. You have the power to control gravity, for yourself. Up becomes down at your whim. It’s an incredibly innovative, minimalistic gameplay mechanic, but the uses for it and puzzles based around it are incredibly varied in difficulty and nearly endless. It’s “simple” enough that I don’t ever want to admit defeat.
Up and down, it doesn’t seem too hard, does it? You will still die, many, many, times. There are checkpoints, thankfully, littered around the game very very liberally. Sometimes there’s more than one per screen, the puzzles are that deadly. Besides checkpoints, there are teleporters all around the map allowing you to save time when loading up the game.
Your character and a handful of others are exploring outer space when there’s an accident and the laws holding physics and reality are broken. As the captain, it’s up to you to find and rescue your crew. It’s simple, it’s charming, and it’s somewhat engaging. The pace of the story, depending on your skill, moves along at a good and rewarding pace. Scattered around near teleporters, there are small recording devices that tell you bits and pieces as to what happened and why.
The simple graphics and constant smiles on everyone’s faces are endearing and make me care about the crew as if I were a kid again. Your crew return to your ship and you can talk to them. After each member is rescued, there is more to say. This basic interaction is as endearing as their smiling faces and helps you relate to them, and attach yourself emotionally to them. They’re just a dozen or so pixels, but if say, one of them met their end by the hands of Sephiroth, I’d be strongly affected. They all have a child-like innocence which makes this game appropriate for all ages.
This could probably run on a x386. Simplicity! For a game to run on x386 graphics, you have to have great gameplay to back it up. Too often games rely too much on graphics, this game seems to excel in it’s retro asthetic. You could probably play it on an Atari, if it had the memory.
I’ve repeatedly said that music can bring a game from good to great. The composer, Magnus Pulsen is a chiptune genius. I haven’t heard melodies like this since the NES era, and I watch the Penny Arcade show with chiptune themes in every episode. Ever since I first played it, it’s been stuck in my head. Thank goodness the soundtrack is available for purchase!
I was whistling it while walking down the street one day and thought this would be great material for OCRemix or TheSauce. This game’s soundtrack needs more exposure. Not to belittle chiptunes, but I’d love to hear these tracks remade with instruments. Behold, after looking for the soundtrack online, I see Pulsen has an arranged album already available. Awesome!
The music is as much a triumph as the rest of the game.
The sound is a small part of the game. There’s no spoken words, just simple sounds for death, flipping, and teleporting. It’s cute and reminds me of the games of the era this game is representing. It’s charming as the graphics. Even though I died over 416 times(yes, the game keeps track and shows you at the end), the sounds never became annoying.
VVVVVVV, so easy to learn. If you die, it’s never because of the controls.
None. I can barely keep track of myself let alone another person. I might just throw up. Blergh.
In your quest to rescue the crew, you’re likely to run into a “Shiny thing, 1 out of 25.” Many are hidden in out of the way places or behind insidious death traps. BUT – there are just as many non-difficult ones to find. So you can still make progress in your collection without frustrating yourself. There was just as much “easy” bait to drive me to go find the harder ones! Thank goodness for an in-game map. After you finish the game, the locations are all mapped for you. Getting there is half the puzzle!
The music has also kept me coming back. I just wanted to float and fly while trancing out to the chiptunes.
If you’re truly into self-punishment, you can play the alternate unlockable modes that only allow you one life. That will be an ultimate endurance challenge to watch live. You can stumble your way through most of the game, but to lower the death count and refine your skills is an enjoyable “grind.” Sections of this game would be interesting to see in the Penny Arcade competitions at PAX.
Overall, the game is actually pretty short. A younger gamer might take some more time, but I finished it in two sittings of a couple hours each. That’s not a bad thing. It will encourage me to make the trip all over again much sooner than the 60+ hour RPGs.
It’s fun, it’s short, it’s uncomplicated, there’s stuff to do after the main game. They get what replay is about.
I love the aesthetic choice, the music, and the concept! It’s hard not to watch this game or play it and not get excited.
There is the occasional “escort” mission, but it’s not a rehash or repeat of a typical escort. Each one changes things up just a little bit. Things flying at you, multiple things flying at you at once, the occasional auto-scrolling screen, paradoxes, you’ll lose a little bit of your mind and love it! There are parts where you have to think outside the box and plan ahead several seconds in advance.
Boiling it Down
WEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE! Go download the demo and I dare you not to fall in love with it!
The Best Game Never Played
Hoard (Strategy Action / PC)
Introducing the Genre
I’ve never really played a game like this, at least not on the computer. It half-reminds me of a board game, but it’s played in real-time, at the speed of an action game. The closest thing I can compare this to is Hungry Hungry Hippos, but with depth. You can easily employ a strategy and if it’s not working, adapt, change, and implement a new one at any time.
Introducing the Game
Like many games, I saw it when Steam was having it’s annual 2012 Summer Sale. There was a dragon on the cover, so I was immediately drawn to it. I conjured up a game on the Perfect 10 section based on the Dragon’s World fake-documentary. This game seems to have actually taken many of those features and brought it to life. It’s called, Hoard!
There just aren’t enough games out there where you play AS a dragon, living the dragon lifestyle. Raid kingdoms, kidnap princesses, repel knights, fight other dragons, and hoard treasure. You get to do all these in Hoard. Throw in a batch of random power-ups and score multipliers, you’ve got yourself a game. I’ve just never played a game where you live a dragon-life. There are other games that might involve dragons like Breath of Fire, Lair, Panzer Dragoon, but the dragons there are just tools or fancy-looking vehicles. The fact that you’re riding a dragon isn’t played up.
The game plays like a re-imagined “digital” board game, if that makes any sense. There are dozens of maps to play, different game types, and ways to win. You begin with a lair where you will deposit gold. Fly out into the countryside to burn down buildings, supply carts, or crops and take the treasure back to your lair. As time goes on, stakes escalate. Towns become bigger, wizard towers appear, princess can be kidnapped, archers and knights try to take you out, thieves come to steal your hoard, and it all happens in 10 minute sessions. There is a distinct early-game, mid-game, and end-game. There can be multiple dragons on the same map with lairs spread out. You can rob other dragons, destroy towns, have them fear you and pay tribute. There’s many different strategies to implement.
As your hoard increases, your dragon levels up. When this happens, you can increase your flight speed, fire breath power, carrying capacity, and natural armor. Every round you begin fresh. So you can level up all over again, and adapt to changing circumstances with every level. Maybe you want to stay close to your hoard to protect yourself from thievery? So flight speed won’t be important. Maybe you want to fight knights off, so firepower and armor are more desirable? If you play co-operatively, and I love co-op games, you can each customize your dragons to optimize your hoarding strategy.
Your dragon has a health bar that can be affected by archers, wizard towers, other dragons, giants, and knights. When your health reaches zero, you automatically fly back to your lair to heal. The longer you go without reaching zero, or having your hoard robbed by thieves, you gain a gold multiplier up to x3. Every gold piece deposited counts as 3. One strategy I enjoy is to attack other dragons just to remove their multiplier. It really gives you an edge.
This is a fast paced action game, not the Dragon’s World game I imagined, but it’s the closest thing to it. Instead of a long campaign of hatchling to elder, it’s all played in 10 minute bursts. Instead of customizing your own dragon’s appearance, they’re all the same except for color. Instead of a behind-the-shoulder camera, it’s all top-down. Regardless, I’m very happy with this. There’s nothing else like it.
This is an action board game, there really isn’t much of a story other than: You are a dragon. It’s your job to hoard treasure, kidnap princesses, raze the countryside, and fight away knights, thieves, and other dragons.
The graphics are exactly what they need to be. Everything looks a little small because of the “board game” perspective. It looks like a high-resolution version of Warcraft II. I’d love to see more detail on the dragons, but that’s not really necessary. It’s just me wanting more dragons. On the plus side, the simpler graphics mean more computers are able to play it. It’s an excellent game for resource wary computers.
The music is enjoyable, not too repetitive, not of poor quality. It hasn’t been stuck in my head yet.. yet. By the end of the month, it may be. The music is not dynamically generated so that means there are some actual signature tunes in this game. I haven’t played a game with a definitive soundtrack in a long time! Yay!
Since this is an, action board game, it might not be out of place in any arcade, the sounds are very video-gamey. The sounds are simple and distinct so you always know what’s going on in the chaos. It matches the small scale of a board game.
The game is very easy to learn, though I must confess that I failed the first tutorial mission. I quickly recovered and have been enjoying it immensely. The dragons all fly using a combination of WAS and D. Fire is the left mouse button. Activating a power-up is the right mouse button. Leveling up is done with the space bar. This game might do well on the mobile or tablet market. Fly with a digital stick, tap a circle to breathe fire, and double tap to activate a power-up, tap level-up to apply points.
This would be an excellent LAN party game. You can arrange teams verbally, if you like, or just go all out and team up on whoever is winning in a frantic king-of-the-hill climb. The game plays out in 10 minute rounds, so whoever wins, might not hold the title for long.
Even in single player mode, there can be multiple dragons. To me, that feels like playing with bots in Counter-Strike, and that’s good enough for me. The AI dragons all have personalities reflected by their name like, Mr Honorable, Miser, Sheriff, and so on.
Steam offers a 4-pack bundle, 4 being the max number of dragons on a map, so you can gift it to friends. I think I’ll do that before I host the next LAN event.
This game is endlessly replayable. The more gold you hoard, the more powerful your dragon becomes. Each player, human or AI, can customize their dragon. If you find a need early-on, you can invest in one skill above another. Skills are flight speed, fire power and quantity, carrying capacity which increases deposit speed as well as amount, and armor. You might find a preference right off the bat which doesn’t work, you can change easily enough. If you lose, the next game begins in less than 10 minutes. Do you want to fly back and forth to your lair quickly, or gain an advantage over other dragons by defeating them and denying them the score multiplier? It’s the old buff vs de-buff argument. Do you want to increase your hoard, or decrease theirs? Do you want to fight wizard towers and claim large gems? Or kidnap princesses and fend off knights? Maybe you just want to sweep the countryside and capture supply carts? Are you waiting for a particular power-up like max speed, max fire, fireballs, or ice breath to use in your strategy? Do you attack the town without destroying it? That makes it fear you and supply you regularly with gold and tributes. Do you let the towers, towns, and castles grow so they produce more valuable carts, princesses, and wizard gems? Or do you raze everything as fast as you can, keeping the world in the dark ages?
The strategy involved in this game is very interesting compared to a game like Starcraft or Command & Conquer. In those RTS games, you usually have to find a Rock, Paper, Scissors strategy and stick to it. Adapting means wasting an investment. If you immediately made a bunch of upgraded marines, and the enemy invests in area effect tech to wipe them out, you’ve already lost, it’s just a long, long time before it’s official. In Hoard, it’s much easier to come back from a strategy that didn’t work.
Every dragon is personal, every strategy is adaptable. The maps are many, the game modes are varied, the AI is varied, the treasures are varied, there’s enough variation mixed with strategy to keep anyone interested for a long time.
Dragons! What more do you want? Mod tools. There’s got to be some mod tools or a map maker available for this game. Google, ho!
This would be a great first game to introduce young players to.
Boiling it Down
This may be one of the first of a generation of endlessly-replayable, digital family board games, appropriate for all ages. And, dragons!
Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Ultimate Sith Edition (Action / PC)
Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast (FPS / PC)
Introducing the Genre
At the mention of the name Star Wars, any genre of game can come to mind. It’s almost unfair to compare. There have been flight sims, side-scrolling platformers, on-the-rail shooters, a series of FPS games, a Smash Bros fighter, a Tekken style fighter, and pretty much everything short of Jar Jar Teaches Typing. For this article, I’ll be comparing an older Star Wars game, Star Wars: Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast with a modern one to show how graphics and technology do not a game make.
Introducing the Game
I want to start off by saying that I respect what this game was trying to do. I remember watching preview videos and demos showing off the new technology developed just for this game, giving all materials mass and properties so they fly and splinter like wood, or warp and bend like metal. I just didn’t feel what the game was trying to do in a gameplay sense.. It was nothing more than God of War in a Star Wars wrapping. I’m talking about Star Wars: The Force Unleashed.
I’ve just said, it’s God of War in a Star Wars wrapping, full of quick-time events and 10-hit combos. Instead of magic powers like Zeus’s thunderbolt, you have the Force to shoot lightning. By the end of the game, each Starkiller character will be very similar to another. When I went through the game, many of the advanced combos were left unused and unneeded. You’re armed with a lightsabre, and that’s your primary attack weapon. The Force basics such as push, lightning, sabre throw, block, and choke are available.
Throughout Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast, you have the lightsabre, three different fighting styles, a variety of blaster weapons like a pistol, storm trooper rifle, repeater, bowcaster, rocket launcher, thermal detonators, an emp weapon, long range disrupter rifle, flak cannon, trip mines, and detpacks, force powers of push, pull, choke, mind trick, throw, block, speed, jump, and heal.
God of War is an action game that depends on spectacle. Jedi Outcast is, too, but with an FPS mode. The much older game has more to it than the modern era. In Outcast, I always had a variety of tools at my disposal. Throughout Force Unleashed, I mostly repeated the same combo over and over and over. The lightsabre was as effective as a glowing whiffle bat. In Outcast, the lightsabre was immediately effective, lopping off limbs and killing biological creatures in one strike. Just having it out, without attacking, it will sear walls, accidentally stab people, or destroy walkers. Outcast was the first time I ever felt in control of The Force and a lightsabre.
The only real customization you have with Unleashed is the type of lightsabre you weild. Each type has a different ability like, more damage to machines, steals life, increase defense. It’s one feature out of many un-seized opportunities
Outcast’s lightsabre combat was more than just a knife fight. Blaster weapons also remain relevant throughout the game.
The story for The Force Unleashed begins with an amazing concept, when Darth Vader tried to recruit Luke to take down the Emperor at the end of Empire Strikes Back, wasn’t the first time Vader had that idea. Before Star Wars Episode IV, Vader tried it again with a secret apprentice named Starkiller. The story for the first game was interesting enough to get a novelization released, which I bought and read before I played through the game. When the second game came around, the story was the weakest part. In both games, Starkiller is an emotionally stunted individual who is lovestruck and as single-minded as Kratos. They’re both all about revenge, and filled with hate. I suppose that’s what it’s supposed to be, the game was emphasizing the dark side of the force, not the light. Even after he grows, he doesn’t grow much. In the second game, he doesn’t grow at all. The second game’s story was partially sold on the fact that Yoda and Boba Fett appear. They both appear for about a minute of screen time. Weak.
In Jedi Outcast, you play as Kyle Katarn, the hero created for Dark Forces. He’s an established character that has already gone through many adventures and grown. The entire story through Outcast is brand new, using some new and returning characters. Kyle is more interesting, has more to lose, and I was able to get invested in him more than Starkiller. It might be unfair to compare since Katarn has had more previous development, but Starkiller, even after two games, I could not care about.
While Starkiller and Katarn’s playable aspects will be very similar after every playthrough, However the amount of character development that Katarn goes through is much more than Starkiller.
While Force Unleashed is the more technically sophisticated with it’s newer engine and higher polycount, the game is filled with quick-time events that leave the player focused on button prompts rather than studying an enemy’s behavior and taking it out manually. There were several walkers and super troopers in Unleashed that were all defeated the same way. In Outcast, I had a different solution each time. Sometimes it was the EMP, sometimes it was the force, sometimes it was another walker. I had my options. I was able to appreciate the spectacle more in Outcast since my eyes were always on it, rather than “zooming out” looking for a giant X button or a Spacebar prompt.
There’s really no comparison. They both use the established Star Wars sound font and sound track. It’s been recreated since the Atari days, MIDI on the SNES, and full orchestras once the CD era began.
I always love being able to identify the voice actors. Unleashed uses the actor from the Ron Moore Battlestar: Galactica who played Crashdown. He actually looks the part. Outcast uses Billy D. Williams reprising his role as Lando. Kyle is a new actor and they use him for the next game, the same voice actor who played Brooklyn in Gargoyles. Based on that alone, I’m more fond of Outcast. But, that’s a pure subjective opinion. In either game, you’ll enjoy listening to the dialogues.
The Force Unleashed gives you a complex combination of super combos that combine Force powers and attacks, like adding lightning to your sabre, or pushing up in the air for an air-juggle combo. All this really does is extend the time it takes to kill an individual. Certain actions are context sensitive and you can only really “Unleash” your power in scripted scenarios, like pulling a Star Destroyer out of orbit. You can’t use that power at any time.
Jedi Outcast lets you do any action at any time. In Unleashed, there are certain rock, paper, scissors effects set up for certain enemies. In Outcast, you can decide how to take out each enemy. Some strategies are more effective than others, but you never feel restricted to one method over another.
Outcast’s lightsabre takes some getting used to, timing the hit with the time it takes to swing is a strategic choice. Unleashed just lets you wing over and over and over.
Force Unleashed has no multiplayer. Force Unleashed 2 has a Smash Bros style of game attached to it, but only on one version.
Outcast comes with the traditional multiplayer modes of the past Jedi Knight modes. You can allocate how you want to spend your force powers, light, dark, or neutral. The rapid pace deathmatches make for classic LAN fodder. If you ever wished Unleashed was multiplayer, Outcast is what you want to boot up.
The Force Unleashed allows you to replay levels over and over, a level grind to build yourself up. There are hidden items that grant special powers, costumes, or points for leveling up. This encourages replay value, but I wasn’t interested. The actual gameplay and repetitiveness of the same combo over and over did not appeal to me.
Jedi Outcast is a long game, at least it took me longer. I’m not likely to play it through again soon, but it’s definitely more appealing than Unleashed. The story is more enjoyable, the gameplay is more dynamic, and you have more combat choices available to you. Outcast has more depth and greater replayaability.
I enjoyed Jedi Outcast greatly. It’s the best Jedi simulator I’ve ever played, better than the Super Star Wars series on the SNES, better than Force Unleashed, and better than the fighting games.
Unleashed was more of a tech demo than anything else. It introduced a console and computer method of using the force. Unleashed 2 had potential, but it wasn’t used. It was more of the same mediocrity.
Boiling it Down
For a great Star Wars game that puts you in control of the Force, for a good story, go for Jedi Outcast.
The Best Game Never Played
Under A Killing Moon (Adventure / PC)
Introducing the Genre
When adventure games were at their last peak, Sierra and Lucas Arts were leading the pack. I remember playing Sierra’s King’s Quest VI, introducing me to the genre. The rest of the Sierra catalog included the likes of Space Quest, Torin’s Passage. I wasn’t fortunate enough to experience most of the Lucas Arts catalog with titles like Sam & Max, Full Throttle, and Day of the Tentacle.
Double Fine’s Kickstarter campaign to design a new game from some of Lucas Arts’ best, has shown that there’s still a rabid fanaticism for this type of game. Fans, like myself, have been waiting a long time for a return. Foreign studios have been keeping the genre alive, like the French studio Frogware’s Sherlock Holmes series, and the Norwegion studio Funcom’s The Longest Journey duo.
Introducing the Game
Adventure games were one of the first computer games to start using full motion video(FMV). Lucas Arts had been toying around with it since at least 1993 with Rebel Assault, but hadn’t produced an adventure game. Sierra’s Phantasmagoria adventure game came out in 1995. Between those, came a gem of a game came out that wasn’t from the big two, Sierra or Lucas Arts. It was revolutionary for it’s time. It came on four CDs in 1994. It wasn’t until the early-to-mid 2000s, around the changeover to DVDs, that games were routinely that big. (One of the exceptions being Sierra’s Phantasmagoria.) Ever since the mid ’90s, it’s never really left my mind. It’s responsible for shaping my love of pulp, mystery, noir, and possibly part of my sense of humor with it’s main character Tex Murphy, in Under A Killing Moon.
Under A Killing Moon took a great technological step forward for adventure games. Instead of the point and click method of directing an on-screen avatar, you walk around in a 3D world. The normal adventure game genre tropes of collecting random items, solving complicated puzzles with them, interacting with people non-violently, asking questions, and visiting strange locations are all present.
What makes this game such a standout one from its peers at the time is the fact that the game accomplished everything in a 3d environment. Instead of just clicking on a desk and it automatically opening a door, you have to navigate around the desk, look at the drawer, open it, and look inside. That’s common in today’s games like Sherlock Holmes and Dreamfall, but back then, it was the first of its kind.
Under A Killing Moon is part of a series of adventure games starring Tex Murphy. Tex is a down-on-his-luck PI with a quirky sense of humor as a response to just about everything. He loves metaphors as much as Max Payne. The opening “quest” in the game involves looking for work. What begins as a simple case, unfolds into a massive conspiracy, like all good pulp mystery novels.
I have to admit, I never finished the game. I always regretted that. I regretted it so much that years later I went out to find a Let’s Play video. The game and its story, even incomplete, is not a forgettable one.
The early Tex Murphy games were about what you’d expect from the pixelated sprites typical of adventure games at the time, early King’s Quest and Space Quest. Under A Killing Moon’s graphics today don’t seem too impressive, but for their time, they were revolutionary. The world was made of 3d modeled objects and photographic textures placed over many others. What may have been a limitation at the time is played into the story. For example, when you look at the extinguisher that is drawn into the flat wall texture, Tex says, “Hey, this fire extinguisher’s just painted on.” Since the building inspector has one eye and no depth perception, the building manager can get away with that.
Whenever Tex is interacting with people or other objects, the view cuts to a short FMV. These segments are used to advance the story or to give the characters more character. The backgrounds are frequently green screens, exactly like what the TV show Sanctuary is doing now, more than 15 years later.
I have to admit, I wasn’t very good at this game. However, I looked forward to starting a new game over and over because I loved the “Day 1” opening music. The wailing sax is exactly what a noir theme song should be. I’ve mentioned before that music is one of the things that elevate a bad game to just okay, or a good game into an excellent one. I need to go find it again or watch the new Tex Murphy Kickstarter video again.
Again, I’m going to compare this game to the sci-fi TV series, Sanctuary. Amanda Tapping, one of the main characters also acts as one of the show’s producers. Christopher Jones, one of Tex’s creators also plays him in the FMV sequences. This game is a labor of love, and the heart Mr. Jones puts into the character makes sure nothing is lost between page and screen. His noir and humor delivery is perfect, charming, and unforgettable. I haven’t seen as good a sci-fi humor noir since Red Dwarf: Back to Earth a few years ago.
Navigating the world is done through first person view using the arrow keys. You can also duck, and look up and down. If you’re used to first person games of today, the system will seem awkward and hard to get used to. Under A Killing Moon was one of the first of its kind, so there were no great examples to draw from. It had to forge it’s own way. There are A, B, and C buttons for dialogue options, and you can choose a topic from the upper right menu. Everything is pretty intuitive, yet radically different from any other adventure game I’ve played. The interface may take some time to get used to. My biggest roadblock to playing the game was honestly my own imagination. I didn’t think to look up and down, around or inside things. I wasn’t thinking 3 dimensionally yet. Later 3D adventure games refined the interface, but these are the guys who had to do it first.
There is no multiplayer. I’ve never seen an adventure game that includes multiplayer. It doesn’t need to have it. Playing an adventure game is like reading a good book. It’s a mostly solo activity, unless you’re reading to someone else.
I just compared adventure games to a good book, and that’s applicable here. Sometimes there is more than one solution to the same puzzle, but most of the time it’s a single solution from beginning to end. There may be some slight difference in the order which some events occur, the order which you gather objects or talk to people, but by the end of the game, everyone is going to have a shared experience. The world itself is deep, the more you look around at objects, the more history you’ll uncover about San Francisco, World War III, mutants, Tex’s past cases, prior games, and it’s all narrated in Tex’s silly noir style.
Since there’s only one path through the game, at least that I’d seen, there’s not much encouragement to go back and play through again. Except for listening to Tex Murphy’s narration and the soundtrack, and that was enough for me. I just can’t get pulp noir from many other places. I think I still have everything necessary to complete “Day 1” memorized, but I never made it much farther than that.
The fact that this game sticks out, has such a big place in my heart, and is from a developer outside of Lucas Arts or Sierra, speaks volumes about it. It’s also one of the first games I ever played to depend on humor.
As this review went on, I kept thinking about how, “if this game were re-released today” like some of the Sherlock Holmes remastered games, and “with today’s typical interface” it would probably be a hit. I would also probably be better at it than I used to be. Given those thoughts, I can’t wait to see what the developers will do with the series next and how it will evolve. It’s gone from heavily pixelated sprites, full-motion video, what next, I cannot imagine.
I can’t get enough of the way Tex Murphy looks at the world.
I want to hear more from that saxophone player.
I can’t stop wondering what Puppy Rescue Squad could be about.
Boiling it Down
Tex deserves more, but more than that, a new generation of players deserve to be introduced to the Adventure genre. I can’t imagine a better guide than Tex.