Alien: Isolation: Fighting a Losing Battle

You cannot “beat” Alien: Isolation. The game resists that term with all its might. You can only survive Isolation, rushing from one corner to the next, desperately hoping that what little fuel you still have in your flamethrower can drive away the creature stalking you through the darkness. The sweat on your hands makes even the basic door opening mechanics a life-or-death situation, with every noise a potential dinner bell to your pursuer. Nothing in your arsenal can kill the alien, you understand– only delay it. Death stalks between the stars and it follows the child of Ellen Ripley.

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And it crouches for doors.

Obviously, I loved this game. Everything, from the script to the game mechanics to the level design makes you hyper-aware of your powerlessness against the alien and provides you with a constant sense of being hunted. The game follows a fairly standard design blueprint where you acquire tools that open new up areas as you progress through the game. But unlike in The Legend of Zelda or Metroid, where the tools you acquire mean player empowerment, the tools in Alien: Isolation only make you better at running away and hiding. Make no mistake, no power fantasy exists here. This game makes you excited about picking up flashlight batteries.

The only victory I can glean from the game comes from a.) surviving the experience and b.) seeing where the developers, Creative Assembly, made concessions to the second installment of the movie series, Aliens.

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Not pictured: duct tape.

From the outset, the game makes it clear that it draws its inspiration from Ridley Scott’s 1979 film Alien, not Aliens. No Colonial Marines, no pulse rifles, no queen alien. But there are times when the developers create a situation for themselves where they deliberately acknowledge the legacy of my favorite action movie. For most of the game, the alien stalks you from the shadows of the industrialized space station you share, much like it does in the original film. But when you descend to the reactor core, you open the elevator doors and see something totally unlike anything else in the game, a sight that horrified my character but made me roar with joy.

A hive.

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“Yeah, but it’s a dry heat!”

Just like in Aliens, your character goes into the hive armed with a flamethrower. Just like in Aliens, you watch the floors and ceilings for any sign of a facehugger. Just like in Aliens, the creatures blend in with the walls and stalk you inside their home.

But this amazing sequence makes the critical mistake that Aliens avoids: it treats this sequence as the end of the second act, a build up to the actual climax. Aliens uses this same sequence as a climax and structurally, it works much better. Why would I want to go back to the horror and fear of Alien when I just got a taste of the action and adventure present in Aliens?

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“Microscopic changes in air density my ass!”

Creative Assembly deliberately made an Alien game, not an Aliens game. And that works just fine, but they run into a choice when emulating that original movie. Either they don’t acknowledge anything from the sequel, making their game a more pure successor to Ridley Scott’s original but turning off fans of the sequel (like me), or they insert sequences like the hive assault and then try and return back to their original tone after those sequences.

But just like in the movie series, when you go from Alien to Aliens, you can’t go back. Alien 3 tried rewinding the clock and while I like that movie a good deal more than most people, it still feels like a step back. Some might argue that this sense of escalation leads to a Michael Bay system of upping the stakes each time, but I would say in response that the the threat of the alien doesn’t require expansion past Aliens levels, but it also can’t go back down.

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Easily the best hiding-under-a-desk simulator I have ever played.

Alien: Isolation tries de-escalating in the space of a single game. After you purge the hive, you see multiple aliens burst out and escape. But only one ever stalks you at a time, even after that point! Oh sure, the whole gang of them shows up in the final scene of the game just for the sake of a dramatic reveal, but once you give me Aliens in your game, you can’t go back.

I loved Alien: Isolation. Loved it. But I hope that for their next game with the license, Creative Assembly charges forward into the territory of James Cameron’s film, rather than sticking with the original. Because this time, it’s war.

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Survival Mode: The Unseen Difficulties of Making a “Hard” Game

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Thanks, Dark Souls. I get it.

Recently, I’ve found myself playing two games that appear quite different on the surface: Dark Souls III and Fallout 4. The first, Dark Souls III, comes from a team and a franchise that I had almost no familiarity with before setting out on the latest installment of their infamously punishing series. Fallout 4, on the other hand, may as well live in my disc tray. I’ve taken one character to level 90, but decided recently that I should start over and attack the game from the new angle provided by the developers in a free update: Survival Mode. In Survival Mode, your character must not only avoid death in the traditional first-person shooter manner (i.e. not getting shot), but also remain hydrated, rested, and fed. Dark Souls 3 constructs its difficulty in a similar way, rewarding resource management and punishing the unprepared. Both games limit how and when you can save your progress as well, meaning mistakes cost more than they do in other games. And therein lies the problem with both.

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My Survival Mode character, pictured here alongside her collection of dolls action figures.

You see, to have a game that people consider truly “hard” these days; you must make it so their progress can only get saved at select points. Too many games in the past few years had autosaves and checkpoints, keeping you perpetually unafraid of death. Deaths in those games usually led only to frustration, rather than an erasure of effort. Now, games like Dark Souls III, Alien: Isolation, and Fallout 4‘s Survival Mode make it so that any mistake or ambush sets you back minutes, if not hours, of your time. And I would accept that, if both games ran flawlessly. But they don’t.

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Just look at all the bugs! (I’ll see myself out.)

When your death in a game results in an erasure of significant progress, every death must exist as a consequence of player error. A player will see what they did wrong and feel a compulsion towards correcting their error. But when a death stems from the game’s mechanical failure, and not the player, that makes them shut down their console and consider tossing the game right then and there. For example, Dark Souls III has horrible, and I mean horrible, camera issues. The lock-on function of the game alleviates this problem somewhat, but I have suffered numerous setbacks as a result of the game’s camera suddenly running into a wall and deciding that it simply will not keep up with my character’s momentum, resulting in a loss of player control, a death, and thus an erasure of progress.

That’s abjectly unacceptable. I can wrestle with From Software’s striking enemy and level design or their terrible camera, not both. The same goes for Fallout 4. Though a vast improvement over Fallout 3 in terms of stability, Fallout 4 will still sometimes just decide that it does not want to be a video game today and would instead prefer life as a disc-shaped paperweight. It boots me to the dashboard, it no longer takes input, it slows to 5 frames per second. Ignoring the fact that I had just come across a brand-new armor piece I need to survive in the wasteland of the Commonwealth, the game simply says “no, I think I will erase an hour of your progress because- well, because.”

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My Survival Mode character, pictured here after a strong breeze.

So if you make a game like Dark Souls III or a mode like Bethesda’s Survival Mode for Fallout 4, I would demand that you test your game until it bleeds. Because I will not fight both your game’s enemies and you, the developer. My Survival Mode run has come to a halt for now and Dark Souls III will never touch my PS4 again, at least until I receive assurances from others that I trust that the game actually operates by its own rules.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have nuclear bombs that need disposing of on my level 90 character in Fallout 4. Bombs that I can watch detonate again and again, since I can save right before they go off and then load that save whenever I want.

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And you know I don’t look at those explosions as I slowly walk away from them.

Here’s to hard games.

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In Memory of Darwyn Cooke

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DC Essentials: DC: The New Frontier #1 cover art.

Writer and artist Darwyn Cooke passed away at age 53 today. Everyone will have their own favorite work by the man, because he had a lot of work and a lot of things that could easily become favorites. From his incredible take on the origins of the DC Universe with DC: The New Frontier to his reinvigoration of Catwoman with Ed Brubaker, Cooke’s too-short time with the comics industry changed it concretely for the better and leaves behind a legacy of both innovation and respect for what came before.

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Cooke’s variant cover for Wonder Woman #37.

Cooke’s art has a wonderful, almost indescribable life to it. It sometimes seems as sweet as a Coca-Cola ad, but with far more life than any advertisement could ever possess. Other times, he could plunge into the depths of pulp adventure, muting his color palette and subconsciously reminding his comics reader: “We started here.” But no matter what, his comics conveyed his passion, both in their art and in their word. One never got the sense that Cooke held any degree of animosity towards the medium. His characters never seemed like cynical parodies or ironic commentaries. He loved these characters eagerly and earnestly. Don’t believe me? Read Batman: Ego, where he plumbs the depths of Bruce Wayne’s psyche and treats it as a serious character study rather than a farcical examination of a man who dresses up like a bat every night.

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A teaser for Cooke’s creator-owned title, Revengeance.

The list of achievements goes on and on. In an industry still full of sexism, Cooke insisted on treating his female characters as equally capable. He championed making mainstream comics more accessible to younger readers. He always sought out new challenges, from writing prequels to the near-sacrosanct Watchmen to adapting Richard Stark’s Parker novels.

Cooke’s work affected me long before I knew of the man himself. I can still remember early Saturday mornings spent in front of the television, plate full of pancakes thanks to my father, and eagerly awaiting the start of Batman Beyond. The show seemed different than anything else on Kids’ WB, possessing not only a darker sensibility but an economy of storytelling that I still find lacking in so many shows today, animated or otherwise.

And it starts with this intro by Darwyn Cooke.

In the space of 15 seconds, Cooke and his team have laid every oppositional force out on the table. Apathy. Greed. Corruption. Power. These things still rule Gotham City because Batman Beyond exists in, as Chris Simms writes, “a world where Batman fails.”

But then comes hope. Courage. Honor. And finally, justice. Like Batman: The Animated Series before it, Batman Beyond contains an entire story arc in a single opening title sequence that lasts only one minute. By the time the show actually began, I had already gotten my sugar-addled brain’s fill of excitement and adventure. Then it ran another 22 minutes.

Darwyn Cooke taught me more than any college class could ever tell me about storytelling in one minute. His later works in comics only furthered these lessons, but added one more: Never be afraid to love the things you love for the reasons you love them. Darwyn loved comics because of the characters and the possibilities, not because he felt like deconstructing them or because he thought he could somehow leapfrog into another industry from there. Cooke had done design work out in the world for years before he joined Bruce Timm’s animation team. For him, comics represented the top of the mountain. We should all have such passion. I will leave you with this quote from his Wonder Con panel last year, courtesy of Comic Book Resources:

“There’s nothing like comics,” he said. “With comic books I’m able to create that fully realized experience without having to go to all that miserable trouble [as in film]. Comics is the only place where one man can sit down and put an entire visual story together all on his own and get it out to market for less than $80 million.”

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Call of Duty Black Ops 3: Not Far Enough Down the Rabbit Hole

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Plug in and play.

Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 has far more going for it than going against it. Treyarch have crafted an experience that feels rewarding across every section of the game, with the enhanced movement options lending each mode a sense of kinetic choice that other Call of Duty games have lacked. Even the simplest action, like jumping, feels satisfying with the new possibilities that each action opens up for exploration in combat. It also goes without saying that the game looks visually arresting. Treyarch’s animations and effects look better than ever on the new generation of consoles, no surprise there.

But despite the responsiveness and fluidity of the gameplay itself, the story mode feels like potluck dinner where one person brought chicken, one person brought tofu, and one person brought a bucket full of human limbs. Sometimes, I love media that messes with the audience’s expectations. Other times, like with Black Ops 3, I find myself wishing they had just not brought the limbs.

Full spoilers follow for the game, obviously.

Firstly, let me applaud the game’s writers, Jason Blundell and Craig Houston, for their work. Making a video game remains a grueling experience and that goes double for massive triple-A games. Even with media I don’t like, I try and remember that real people made it and just putting out a product deserves my respect. Only the absolute worst media makes me forget this and I never did that with Black Ops 3.

But my God, did they come close.

I find it doubly frustrating that the game begins on such a powerful note. Black Ops 3 starts with a mission that culminates in the violent dismemberment of your character in first person and while horrific, it works in the sense that you feel powerless before the robot that preforms the forcible relocation of your limbs. After you get your robot limbs as a sort of permanent power-up, you realize that whole first level makes you feel powerless in a brilliant merging of gameplay and storytelling.

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And then this guy shows up.

But the campaign never achieves that level of synchronicity again. Robots go from an unstoppable force in the first level to laughable chumps for the rest of the game. They bum rush you, fire inaccurate barrages of bullets while standing in front of obvious cover, and sometimes just sit in place booting up, as if you would just politely wait for their startup cycle before filling them with lead. The game flirts with your character having PTSD because of his or her robotic dismemberment, but it never commits to it in any way that matters.

Of course, one might argue that the player’s power fantasy requires that they no longer have that terror of the robots they encounter in the game. But I think that excuses too much. Before you become the cyber-soldier that the story makes you, the robots you see are dangerous but not invincible. Making the robots a more infrequent occurrence throughout the game could preserve the player’s sense of terror that comes from the excellent ending to the first level and still show that the player can beat them, if they try hard enough.

Ludonarrative dissonance aside, the game simply has some bad writing. Characters spout insanely awful cliches, like such gems as:”Let’s see how deep this rabbit hole goes.” Let me stop you right there, friendly AI companion. When I hear a character say something that stupid, it makes me put my controller down, fold my hands, and think over just why I’m playing this game. Character motivations remain incredibly unclear throughout the entire game. The player’s character name is… Player. The game’s antagonist, Taylor, who has participated in black operations across the world for 5+ years, suddenly gets a sense of “morality” just so he can become a self-righteous antagonist. Of course, the his sense of morality involves justifying why some criminals are lighting innocents on fire with gasoline, but whatever.

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The most offensive level in the game, no argument.

Honestly, the game misses two huge opportunities at extremely specific points. The first comes when you invade the mind of Sarah Hall, one of the bosses you face and a former friend of the player’s character. You learn that before she surgically inserted bullets into heads at 500 yards, she studied military history in college. Inside her mind, you participate in her version of the Siege of Bastogne. If you’re any kind of sane person, that sounds as awesome to you as it does to me. But then… they don’t push that hard enough! Treyarch has a series that now stretches back to 2007’s World at War, if we follow their own internal continuity. This canon has existed for nearly 10 years. If Treyarch sends me back to World War II, I expect that they will bring the Black Ops saga full circle. Have my augmented super-soldier fight alongside a digital Reznov from World at War! Pay Gary Oldman whatever he wants and DO IT. Treyarch, make the point you’ve built to for nearly ten years: humanity will always win wars. Not bureaucrats, not robots, but humans.

But they don’t do it. And instead you fight direwolves. Look, don’t get me wrong. I love direwolves. I love shooting them too. But I would have liked a thematic union of every Treyarch game for the past ten years just a little bit better. It strikes me as even weirder that the one other element of their games that Treyarch puts in this dream sequence is the Zombies mode that has become their bread and butter. Honestly, that moment gave me chills. Great! Do more of that! I can’t believe that in this day and age I must implore a video game narrative to indulge itself more.

At the conclusion of the game, you go fully into a virtual space that supposedly represents your brain, merged with Taylor’s brain, merged with all the other bosses’ brains. Oh and your “best friend” Hendricks, who has done nothing but act like an ill-tempered rhinoceros on fire the entire campaign. Look, if you go into a virtual space with your narrative, you should use that in a way that takes advantage of the lack of logic that exists in such a space. Give me superpowers, give me bizarre level design, give me horrific enemies-

Or give me every single past Call of Duty: Black Ops protagonist.

Just think about it. Sarah Hall, whose brain exists in this virtual space with you, calls up her research/memories of Alex and David Mason, Viktor Reznov, Dimitri Petrenko, Hell, even Frank Woods can come along for the ride. Picture it: every single protagonist you’ve played as, across two generations of gaming hardware, rushing down a snowdrift with weapons in hands and roaring their fury together, as one. Call of Duty has brought several these guys back from death before, so why not do it one last time in service of an unforgettable moment for fans of the series’ narrative?

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If only it all meant something more.

Black Ops 3 remains fun. One month in and I’m still regularly checking into the multiplayer, getting shot down by teenagers in the blink of an eye. But the narrative hasn’t stuck in my mind. It doesn’t make me think. Even worse for my money, it didn’t make me feel.

 

 

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