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Sleepy Hollow, Assassin’s Creed, The New Heroism, & Them Old Pastimes

November 27th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

I’m a few episodes into Sleepy Hollow, starring Nicole Beharie as Lt. Abbie Mills and Tom Mison as Ichabod Crane, who has rip van winkled his way to the modern day after being nearly killed around the time of the Revolutionary War. I like it. It’s cast from the same mold as Elementary with Lucy Liu and Jonny Lee Miller, that kind of cute antagonistic buddy cop wave. (Almost Human is on that, too.) It reminds me of a Kamen Rider show in a lot of ways (stakes, approach to conflict, lighting, plot, more), only instead of a bug-dude riding a motorcycle you have a time-lost British guy.

I’m also a few hours into Assassin’s Creed IV Black Flag, which is much less good than Sleepy Hollow, but a comfortably familiar sandbox murder simulator in a setting I’ve rarely paid any attention to. The fun isn’t where it needs to be, but the new is on-point enough that I keep messing with it.

Both works have a character type I only recently realized is fairly common. Ichabod Crane, upon meeting a black woman in 2013, excitedly asks her if she’s been emancipated and gets offended when he feels that she insinuates he supports slavery. “I’ll have you know I was a proponent of the Abolitionist Act before the New York Assembly,” he says. “Congratulations,” Abbie replies. “Slavery has been abolished 150 years. It’s a whole new day in America.”

Edward Kenway, rakish pirate captain and lead character of Black Flag, is similarly progressive. He frees slaves at will, forces his men to work alongside them despite their prejudices, and is generally a good and honorable guy, despite the theft and murdering.

This is a type of character I’ve seen elsewhere, too. They are generally men who have been removed from their time and placed in ours, though the character type appears in period pieces, too. Despite the time they come from, when horrific misogyny and racism were perfectly fine and accepted pastimes for men to indulge in at their leisure, they are staunch abolitionists or totally okay with giving women the vote or drinking from the same fountain as a…you know. One of those.

Captain America’s a great example of this, I think. I don’t mind it when it comes to him, since my favorite aspect of that character is how he represents everything America often isn’t, and that kind of dissonance makes the character a lot of fun for me. It’s elsewhere, too—Batman’s ancestors helped smuggle slaves to freedom, which is more than a little ridiculous. Even Jonah Hex, veteran of the Confederacy that betrayed their country because they thought chattel slavery was totally cool, has been updated to “hate everyone equally.”

Everybody’s a Schindler, nobody’s a Nazi.

I’ve been thinking about this pretty much ever since I saw Mison-as-Crane get offended that someone thought he’d be okay with slavery. Abolitionists existed, of course. Good, kind, loving people existed who rejected the mores of their time. But at this point, I feel like every guy we see from Not-Now comes off exactly like your average open, accepting, 2013-model White Guy. Sleepy Hollow likes to use Crane to complain about taxes, Starbucks, and bottled water. Kenway’s bootstraps-y “I’ll have any man, if he’s able and willing” philosophy feels like it doesn’t take into account the prevailing attitudes of the time at all. The average is off, tilted in favor of the suspiciously progressive and accepting hero instead of reality.

The characters in our stories, the sassy black women, inexplicably pan-Asian ninja, the gay BFF, nerdy hacker, sad white guy who just needs the love of a good woman, whatever whatever, are stories unto themselves. Whether directly or indirectly, these characters tell us things about ourself and how we view the world we live in. They don’t evolve out of nothing. They represent something.

I think the prevalence of this character type largely comes down to the shifting definition of what we consider a hero. In the past, this kind of anachronistic hero character wasn’t really necessary. I once picked up a James Bond novel by Ian Fleming that was casually and hatefully racist within the first paragraph. World War II was full of government-supported hateful art and propaganda. I have a joke book from the ’50s a friend gave me, and a few books of period pin-up art, and half the punchlines are “haha, women sure are whores, stupid, or both!” It was the times! You can find all types of racial stereotype sidekicks from back in the day, but that number is markedly lower now. Racial and sexual harassment aren’t dead, but we aren’t supposed to enjoy it any more, or as much as we used to, so it’s relegated to the villains, the bad guys, not our heroes.

Lois Lane can never have that moment where she clutches her purse on an elevator because a black dude got on. Being a bigot isn’t in the cool guy repertoire any more. We’re past that, even though there are plenty of good, moral people who are also secretly afraid of black people or occasionally slip and say something untoward about Asian people. Sometimes it’s unconscious, sometimes it’s learned behavior, and sometimes it’s just a slip, but we view good and bad as a binary, not a spectrum, so just one drop of bad taints you. As a result, we avoid and eschew it.

Funnily enough, this extends to the stories we tell about real people, too. The prevailing narrative around the Founding Fathers is that they were saints looking out for truth, justice, and the soon-to-be American Way. In reality, Thomas Jefferson had sex with his slaves and Benjamin Franklin, upon being asked for sex advice from a young friend, told that friend to go after older women and provided a list of eight reasons why, ending on “They are so grateful!

So you get Edward Kenways and Ichabod Cranes, men who came from a time when you could rape and murder people at your leisure, as long as they were inferior to you, being colored or of the fairer sex, but instead choose to be accepting and cool about everything. No awkward slip-ups, no uncomfortable conversations about why you can’t say things, just a lot of truth and justice. It doesn’t feel very true to me, exactly, it doesn’t feel very real, but I do know that if it were more real, I’d hate the characters for being human garbage.

The struggle continues.

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Style, Substance, and Killer Is Dead

September 6th, 2013 Posted by david brothers

This is the first stage of Killer Is Dead, the new game directed by Hideyuki Shin, art direction by Takashi Kasahara, music direction by Akira Yamaoka, with story and executive production by Suda51. It’s called “Episode 1: The Man who Chose the Moon.” The video is about five minutes long.

I made a joke with a friend the other day about how if someone tried to create a Dogme 95-style movement for video games, their list of rules would essentially describe Suda51 games. Lollipop Chainsaw, No More Heroes, Killer Is Dead, all of these are basically the same game, gameplay-wise. One button to hit, one button to guard crush or secondary attack, another button to dodge/counter, and an optional jump button. Vaguely or explicitly annoying minigames. Gameplay that’s just good enough to be rewarding to a certain type of person, but not good enough to be A-list. I think of Suda51 as a dude who is really interested in making sure that the children of today still get to play Dreamcast games, and I appreciate that. All of his games are a solid B, maybe B+, but in terms of being interesting, in terms of being art, in terms of being experiences, Suda51′s games are A+ across the board. Shadows of the Damned and Black Knight Sword break the gameplay pattern, the latter being a throwback to a different genre than the other games and the former being more of a shooter than action/adventure game, but they’re both similarly obtuse and difficult, in terms of skill or patience.

“The Man who Chose the Moon” was my real introduction to Killer Is Dead. I watched a debut trailer, I think in Japanese, but I avoided any info on the game up until the day it came out and I decided to buy it. “The Man who Chose the Moon” is part-tutorial, part-cinema, and the blending of the two is what made it such a lightning strike for me. The only thing you do is walk forward, watch a cinema, and then press a button.

But what got me, what made me realize I was going to see the game through instead of getting bored as quickly as I usually do these days, was the moment you had to press and hold R1. Mondo Zappa, the main character, raises his sword, the screen changes, a voice says “Killer is dead,” and then you’re told to release R1, at which point the sword comes down and Tokio’s head comes off.

There was something about that moment, about a quicktime event being used in this fashion, as opposed to the normally annoying way they’re deployed now. (Do this on short notice, or repeat this section forever!) It felt cinematic and interesting in a way most QTEs don’t. It feels stylish. It blends story and gameplay into one thing, putting you directly into Mondo Zappa’s shoes.

Style is substance. I tend to think of substance as deep gameplay or a rewarding story, something along those lines. Something that takes time to digest, the concrete and quantifiable aspects of video game production. The Last of Us, for example, excelled at substance, even in the multiplayer. I like substance because it feels like I’m getting my money’s worth. Games are expensive, and if I’m dropping sixty on a disc or download, I need to be wowed. The most direct method is substance, but style’s just as good.

Style is harder to quantify. It’s not just visual style, or audio direction, or gameplay. It’s Mondo Zappa murdering people to finance sexual encounters, a grown man having a catchphrase, gameplay that continues to refine a blueprint established forever ago. Style is the aggregate of everything.

Killer Is Dead has style in spades, and the substance derives from that.

Further Reading:
I like this look at Killer Is Dead through the lens of Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle and death drive concepts. It’s deeper than I went, but having played through the game a couple of times, it feels right.

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Devil Survivor Overblogged: 1st day

December 21st, 2012 Posted by david brothers

An ongoing series about my time playing Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked, divided up according to the stages of the game. Once a week, I think, I’m going to hit a few big topics that have stuck in my head and then a lot of little ones. Fridays. I’m still working out the format.

This is like a Let’s Play, but only I get to play and you’re required by law to read it and like it.

1st day

Story So Far: black power, his dumb nerd friend, and his dumb girly-girl friend (but not his girlfriend!) are trapped within the Yamanote Circle. Demons have begun invading, and black power’s cousin Naoya just ever-so-happened to not only give our threesome the devices they need to battle the demons, but also didn’t bother to let them know that Hell on Earth was coming. What a jerk, right?

The Defense Sciences Office spent the night in a park last night, lost and lonely.

Right now: Today is 1st day, the beginning of the end, and it’s time for the Demonic Schoolfriends Cipher to figure out exactly what’s going on, or maybe just escape. Escape is my main guess actually.

black power Status:
Level: 12
HP: 114
MP: 42
St: 9
Ma: 5
Vi: 7
Ag: 7
Move: 4
Speed: 50
Skills: Agi, Zan, Hero Aid, Mana Bonus, Leader Soul

Demon 1: Pixie (Fairy)
Level: 9
HP: 75
MP: 58
St: 4
Ma: 10
Vi: 6
Ag: 5
Skills: Dia, Zio, Charm

Demon 2: Waira (Wilder)
Level: 10
HP: 106
MP: 47
St: 9
Ma: 9
Vi: 5
Ag: 6
Skills: Zan, Dia, Hero Aid, Life Bonus, Devil Speed

Battle Anybody I Don’t Care: I was tricked! This is only barely a strategy RPG. It’s a meta-strategy RPG that is secretly actually an old, old, old school RPG.

Here’s the deal. You dont walk around on your own. You select locations from a menu. After selecting a location, a sub-menu pops up that gives you a chance to talk to your party members, gab with other people, or take a look around. In certain situations, you can get into a fight.

The fight certainly looks like a strategy RPG should. You have a grid you must follow when moving, your move stat determines how far you can move, and you have a selection of attacks you can use before or after going into battle. When you choose Attack, however, Dead Star Orion betrays you.

The actual battle system is the oldest of old school. The kind that existed before Final Fantasy 7, you know? RPGs with a hand crank and a muzzle loader. Enemy characters don’t animate at all. They just sit there, in all their sprite-based glory, and sometimes shake or turn colors as you battle them. You don’t see your squad at all. Selecting a command from a menu results in a minor animation that is overlaid onto the enemy sprite. After your turn is up, you return to the SRPG portion of things, ready to react again.

You could make a case for this giving you fine control over the details of SRPG battles, but I’m going to reject your case in favor of a different one: this is boring. The boringest. Questionable design choices aside — I want to make a “too much booby in the butt” joke here as a twist on Trina’s “too much booty in the butt” but I can’t make it work without sounding stupid — Dark Skies Onlimited is a pretty solid looking game. The sprites are cute, like Paul Robertson’s work on Scott Pilgrim, but RPGs are the absolute last genre that needs to be simplified visually. They’re already geared around math and intricate relationships between elements — why would you make that more boring? Where’s the flash?

Time: Part of David Stop Obscuring is managing your time. You get an email each morning with a list of horrible things that are going to happen to you or others. Since you’re plucky high schoolers, you’re going to go out and save people because… that is what children do? I’m not entirely clear on why we’re doing any of this instead of panicking, but I figure that’s just the plot.

Anyway, I’m curious to see if I can miss out on things. Will characters leave areas if you don’t visit them fast enough? It doesn’t seem like it thus far, but I’m sure it’ll happen eventually. Maybe I’ll have to choose between Yoohoo and Atsuwrong at the end of the game?

Devil Auction: There’s basically eBay for demons. After you fight them, you can bid on them. It works about as you’d expect.

At one point, though, I beat up a demon and he was all, “aughghg i guess i have to have a contract now.” That was weird, because why would he be surprised that humans and demons have contracts when the Devil Auction exists? Is it some kind of underground slavetrading ring? It doesn’t sound like it, though most of the demons are so dumb that it probably isn’t legal for them to enter into any contracts. I swear this tree-based demon I have is senile.

black power is a lie: This was the chapter where I realized that if you pick the “wrong” answer in a dialogue box, people will tell you what you already know and generally be a real jerk about things. So, while I’m still refining the character, I try to play black power as being the most honest and forthright guy in the team. He’ll tell the truth, even when it seems like a bad decision, just so that no one else will beat him to the punch and make me sit through dialogue that tells me things I already know. Call it antagonistic altruism.

It’s weird, though. It feels like admitting the truth in certain situations, and by that I specifically mean telling my friends that there is no exit from the Yamanote Circle, is a bad decision. There’s been nothing in the game to suggest that saying so would bring the team down, but it would, wouldn’t it? So black power lies, just a little, but always in the service of hope.

Yoohoo: Yuzu talks about her sweaty body like, all the time. I know this is a fetish thing in real life, dirty girls or whatever, but is this a nod to fetishists or some kind of weird attempt at verisimilitude? “All I want is a shower to wash all this sticky sweat off my body and now you’re imagining me naked,” says the teenager, ad nauseam. It’s not weird to want a shower when you can’t shower, but it is weird that she says it so often. Does that make sense? It feels significant, but it isn’t, I don’t think.

つづく: “Oh no! We’re in the exact same situation we were in last night! How will we get out of this one, Yoohoo?”

“I’m so sweatyyyyyy, and it’s just pouring in rivers and rivers down my supple–”

“NEXT TIME, on Devil Survivor Overblogged: Silent Heroes for Quiet Storms! We’re gonna survive this, I promise!”

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Devil Survivor Overblogged: day BEFORE

December 7th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I bought a Nintendo 3DS XL, Super Mario 3D Land, and Liberation Maiden. Since I’m me, I decided that two good games simply weren’t enough, so I asked Twitter to recommend me some games and googled around on my own for some recs. I eventually landed on Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor Overclocked. I like the SMT series, though I’m terrible at actually completing them, and having an RPG to poke at every once and a while is nice.

I don’t really read game news (it feels like homework), so here’s a list of things I knew about this game after I ordered it:
-It is in Tokyo.
-It stars teenagers.
-Shigenori Soejima probably didn’t design the characters.
-It is some type of RPG, possibly strategy.
-It is called Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Summoner Overclocked.

So yeah, I went in this so cold that I didn’t even really know the title of the game, despite having paid cash money for it. Now that I’ve played it, I more or less know the title — Didn’t Something Obfuscate? — and the gimmick. I’m not sure how this is going to shake out in terms of longevity, but I’ve got a chance to talk about this game and RPGs in general now so I’m going to take it. I’m going to do a piece per “day” of the game. This one’s rough, since I just decided to do it in the middle of my playthrough, but I think you’ll get something out of it.

Heaven or Hell, let’s rock:

day BEFORE

Crew: I stole this from Wikipedia:
Designer: Shinjiro Takada
Artist: Suzuhito Yasuda, Kazuma Kaneko
Composer: Takami Asano

The only name I’m familiar with off the top of my head is Kazuma Kaneko. He’s been a designer for ages, and he’s done a few things I liked a lot, like the art for Maken X and a few other SMT games. I’m not sure why there’s no director or producer listed, and I don’t have the case for the game nearby.

Setting Up: One thing that kind of drives me crazy about these games is how long it takes to get going. I loved Persona 4, but there was about two hours of set-up, exposition, and world-building before you could do anything on your own. I vastly prefer games (and movies, and books, and and and) that throw you right into the middle of it. Hook me first, and then you can show me where I’m at in excruciating detail.

Devil Survivor Overclocked doesn’t take that long, but it does have a pretty long getting-to-know-you period. Twenty, thirty minutes, maybe? You meet your core cast, get a long-running gameplay tutorial that isn’t actually complete, and get to set out on your own at the end.

There’s no big hook early on, nothing that really wowed me and made me feel like I have to play more of this game. A lot of talking — well-acted, more on that later — and explaining, really. I feel like that’s a missed opportunity, especially for a portable game. But I’m used to it, and I figured that was the score going in.

I like that the game is split up into days. Catherine used a similar gimmick, and playing “day BEFORE” is actually kind of cool. There’s a sense of foreboding there that I hope they can follow-up on. I like games that start with apocalypses, and while DSO already missed that chance, they might make up for it when everyone dies on day one.

Idiotsyncratic: My go-to name for main characters in RPGs has been “black,” all lowercase, pretty much since Final Fantasy 7, my first real RPG outside of Zelda and Startropics. I don’t even remember why, but I’ve stuck with it. I think DSO is the first time I’ve actually had to include a last name for one of these dudes, and I swear it took me five entire minutes. I thought about doing something in Japanese, but didn’t want to google the main character’s canonical name in case. I didn’t have a lot of characters to work with, so I just bit the bullet, fulfilled an unspoken promise from 1997, and named my dude “black power.”

This is me, I guess. Live and direct in 2012. Get at me.

Visuals: The majority of the game is basically a visual novel, at least at this point. It’s not too different in approach from Persona 3 Portable, I don’t think, though not quite as hi-res. The non-combat sections are very visual novel in approach, but the combat is straight out of the Game Boy Advance visual library. It’s not bad, exactly, but it’s a curious choice. Surely the 3DS can do better?

Official art up above from Yasuda Suzuhito. That’s Yuzu, nicknamed Yoohoo (awesome), though she doesn’t wear that in the game. The character design is going to take some getting used to. It’s plainer, or maybe less fashionable, than Soejima’s stuff. There are other problems, too. Yuzu is distractingly busty. I don’t mean that in the “wow look at those boobs, those are great, I just can’t stop looking at those hypnotic things” sort of just-hit-puberty-and-saw-a-lady-in-a-lowcut-dress sorta way either. I mean Yuzu’s breasts are distractingly large, even when they’re hidden behind a text box. It doesn’t feel like good character design so much as “I bet we could make a grip off a few hug pillows and boobie-armrest mousepads.” It feels like cheap fan service. I’m all for sexy characters, but this is like… nah, son. Try again, kid. I’m sure the porn is grotesque.

I din’t understand the weird cables that black power (center) and Atsuro (top left) have, either.

Story So Far: Right, RPGs have stories. In this case, black power’s cousin Naoya gives the main cast three Nintendo DSes, called COMPs in-game, and is generally a myserious jerk about a coming demonic apocalypse. Your crew gets attacked by monsters and you realize that the world is much larger than you thought it was before. Naoya, however, continues being cryptic and weird.

I was kinda disappointed to see the cast break down like pretty much every other RPG’s cast. Yuzu’s the healer, black power can do anything, and Atsuro, the third member of the main cast thus far, is kind of in-between. Yuzu has the only sane response to the catastrophe (freaking out and wanting to go home), but when you compare Yuzu to black power and Atsuro, she looks shrill and very kind of stereotypically anime schoolgirlish. “Kyaaaa, this is all so dumb and scary and math is hard” sorta thing.

Atsuro, of course, takes everything in stride, and black power does whatever I want him to do. It’s nice that you have a chance to actually make decisions and talk to people in the visual novel portions. I assume that’s going to lead to some type of payoff toward the end of the game, but the choices thus far tend to be “I don’t know what’s going on, explain it to me” or “I know exactly what is going on, but explain it to me anyway.”

The writing is okay. The dialogue feels pretty natural and cool, but tends to lean on exposition a whole lot more than I’d like. Characters repeat things you read in an email or that you just heard, presumably for emphasis. It’s strange, but not insurmountable. I can see bursts of really solid writing peeking through, and I figure that feeling will only increase as I play more.

Spoilerwatch: I wanted to find images to illustrate this post, and in doing so, I tripped over the fact that a character I met on 1st day is going to try to kill herself soon. Thanks, internet!

Right now: I’m engaged and interested, but cautiously so. I trust Atlus and the SMT franchise, but it’s a little rocky to begin with. We’ll see where it goes.

つづく: More talk about boobs, a tighter focus on what I’m doing and how I talk about it, some actual gameplay talk, and a look at how time keeps on slipping, slipping.

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Lara Croft and the Abused Hero

June 4th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

One thing Frank Miller and I still have in common is that we looooove abused protagonists. Heroes who get shot, stabbed, blown up, families massacred, high school reunion bombed, dog killed, cat kidnapped, and beds short-sheeted are just better than most other heroes. It’s not out of any creepy gorehound fetish or anything. It’s just that a hero who has had all this stuff done to him earns the end of his story. The getback, which is one of my most favorite things in the entire world, will be glorious. “Rot in hell” spat from a mouth full of blood. Willingly getting stabbed in the stomach just so that you can grab the blade (or walk forward!), immobilize your enemy, and then smile when you take his head. That “Like hell!” moment in Superman: Birthright. Look at Elektra Assassin or your higher quality shonen manga. The hero gets knocked down. The hero gets up again. You’re never gonna keep the hero down. “If you intend to die, you can do anything.”

I like Lara Croft, bka Tomb Raider. Yes, the series came out when I was at the perfect age to be vulnerable to her ridiculous carnival breasts and the (fake, until it wasn’t) idea of a “nude code,” but I’ve always liked platformers, and the Tomb Raider has produced a couple good ones over the years. I first became interested in the new Tomb Raider, after years of apathy, when I saw that they’d turned Lara into something like an actual woman, complete with a build and personality and equipment that seemed great for a lot of gritty climbing.

I didn’t associate Lara with abused protagonists before this latest iteration was announced. Platformers haven’t had a lot of those until fairly recently, I think. Mario is pristine, Ryu Hayabusa is a super ninja, and the Prince of Persia games kept things relatively clean. Which is fine, because the fun of platformers is solving puzzles, jumping, and then fighting. But the new art had her a little bloodied and raw. It looked a little more cool than I expected, a little more realistic, and a little more up my alley. This makes me sound like a blood fetishist, doesn’t it? I don’t mean it that way. Here’s the trailer from last year:

It looks pretty okay, right? Even despite the corny scream/lightning thing. (I hate that so much.) A nice reboot, and the idea that “the extraordinary is in what we do, not who we are” falls right in line with the abused protagonist, and hints that, by the end of the game, you’re gonna get to shoot somebody in the face and not feel bad about it.

Here’s this year’s trailer:

Good news: it looks like it has a dope variety of gameplay and some interesting gimmicks (hunting, bullet time maybe, being set on fire while you try to escape a trap, and what I suspect are semi-interactive cutscenes).

Bad news: Lara is abused way, way, way too much.

I like abused heroes, and I don’t really exclude women from that. They’re a little tougher to list, just as a result of society thinking dudes are the only ones that count, and the awkwardness of depicting severe violence against women; but I don’t think, and don’t want, women excluded from this category. But this trailer, as an advertisement intended to make you want to play a game, does way too much in far too little runtime. Lara gets tied up and hung upside down, watches her friend die, watches another friend get kidnapped, gets stabbed with a steel rod, steps on a bear trap, tied up again, beaten up, threatened with rape, and weeps and whimpers her away across the entire trailer until they finally flash to pure gameplay and you actually see the game you wanted to play.

The thing is, all of the gameplay-related stuff looks dope. It looks like they learned a lot from Uncharted and are gonna give us all types of dynamic chase scenes, both people and wreckage inspired. I’m very happy about that, and then traditional platforming sections look pretty ill, too. The one where Lara is climbing frantically toward light puts me in mind of The Descent, and yes I would very much like to experience that through her eyes.

But that’s a lot of misery to pack into a trailer. It makes the entire game seem like a slog, like a clipshow of Lara getting punched in the stomach every time she stands up. That’s not what makes abused heroes fun. The slings and arrows aren’t the focus. They’re just the staircase leading to the focus. The focus is the hero with a smoking gun, a bloody nose, and a limp off into the sunset. Maybe a one-liner. The point is that a little goes a long way, and when you put a lot into a little (like shoving a few different examples of grievous emotional and physical trauma into three minutes) the tone changes. It changes from “Oh man, I can’t believe she survived that! Such will! Amazing!” to “Oh man. This is really, really depressing.”

Spread out over eight to twelve hours, each bit of abuse wouldn’t be a big deal. A brief burst at the beginning to set up the game, then one or two instances every other chapter until the end seems reasonable. That’s just rising action. But it’s too much for a trailer. It’s off-putting. It’s distilled misery, possibly literally.

Equally off-putting is the rape threat. At this point, sleazy rape threats in fiction are about as played out as the black guy dying first or a lady kicking a sexist pig in the junk as a Statement Of Feminism. It’s almost the icing on the cake for the trailer, really. “Even after all that… she still might get raped, gamer!” Sure, rape threats can be used well, but here? It’s just another brick in the wall. Even worse, it’s boring. Banal. It was more exciting when she was hanging upside down looking at some weird devil worshipping stuff.

My interest in Tomb Raider isn’t shattered or anything dramatic like that. I’ll probably still check it out, but I really hope that the trailer isn’t representative of the entire game. There’s gotta be a balance.

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The Top 15 Best Fighting Game Storylines: Part 3 (5-1)

March 21st, 2012 Posted by Gavok

Part 1!
Part 2!

Before I finish off the list, I want to point out an honorary mention of sorts. When they came out with Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, they changed a lot of the endings. For some, the art was altered to feature different characters. For many, the dialogue was changed and made half as long as in the previous game. Still don’t understand that one. A couple guys from the first game got new endings because the previous ones were pointless. For instance, Ryu’s ending in Marvel vs. Capcom 3 features him facing off against Iron Fist in a Madripoor fighting tournament. Considering Iron Fist is in the upgraded game, there’s nothing special about his surprise reveal. So instead, Ryu’s ending has him discover a new role in the world.

Huge smile on my face when I saw that. Coincidentally, Iron Fist’s ending involves him starting up a new Heroes for Hire with Luke Cage, Misty Knight, Colleen Wing, Ryu, Chun-Li and Rival Schools’ Batsu. I’d easily pay the $3.99 every month for that comic.

5) Jinpache’s Emotional Deaths
Tekken

Jinpachi Mishima was a good man who opposed his evil son Heihachi, but due to some convoluted storytelling, he became imprisoned underground for decades, infected by a gene that’s driving him to destroy everything. He becomes released during the conclusion of Tekken 4 and sets up the tournament for Tekken 5. Part of Jinpachi wants to get all the great fighters out of the way so he can lay waste to the planet. Part of him wants someone to stop him before he goes too far.

The elderly Wang Jinrei has been in the Tekken cast since the beginning, but he’s also been boring as hell while adding nothing of interest. One thing established is that he and Jinpachi were good friends back in the day and that’s one of the reasons Wang is out to stop Heihachi. Throughout the fifth tournament, he gets this strong feeling that something unbearably terrible will happen at the end. When he faces Jinpachi, seeing him in his demonic form, he outright refuses to fight his best friend. Jinpachi begs him, saying that his human consciousness is weakening by the moment and he needs to die soon or else. Wishing there was another way, Wang reluctantly goes to town.

What follows is one of the saddest video game moments, thanks to some fine voice acting (even though one guy is speaking Chinese and the other Japanese) and captivatingly realistic CGI work. Jinpachi lay on the ground, back in his human form. Wang tries to comfort him, saying he shouldn’t have to apologize for what he’s done. Weakly, Jinpachi wishes that they could have one last drink, but then he dies and instantly melts into sand.

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The Top 15 Best Fighting Game Storylines: Part 2 (10-6)

March 17th, 2012 Posted by Gavok

Click here for Part 1!

To answer a question from yesterday’s comments section, I never did get around to playing Blazblue. I really need to rectify that. So if there’s anything on the list you completely disagree with, pretend that if I were to get around to playing through Blazblue, I’d put it in that spot instead. Everybody’s happy.

Now back to the list.

10) Lee Chaolan: The Good Son
Tekken

Tekken’s core storyline is about the world’s most dysfunctional family. Four generations of the Mishima clan beating the shit out of each other. It mainly started with Heihachi Mishima throwing his son Kazuya off a cliff as a training exercise. Kazuya survived by allowing his body to become host to a demonic entity and returned years later to exact his revenge. While the CGI endings for the first Tekken are hilariously dated in appearance, I always enjoyed the big twist in Kazuya’s. By all means, he should be the hero in this situation. He’s a pretty generic design and his father is evil and wronged him, so he should in response be a good guy. So he picks up his father, carries him in his arms while walking forward… then drops him off a cliff before giving an evil smile to the camera. Love it.

At the same time, if Kazuya was to come off as a hero on paper, Lee Chaolan should have been a villain (and he was in the anime, but that’s neither here nor there). Lee was adopted by Heihachi for the intent purpose of making Kazuya jealous and driving him to be better. After the first game, Kazuya takes over Heihachi’s criminal organization, the Tekken Zaibatsu, and makes Lee his underling. Lee hates what his life had become, forced to work for his despised brother and realizes that all his life, he’s been used as nothing but a pawn. After Heihachi comes back to retake the throne, Lee slips away and lays low for several decades. During this time, it’s speculated that the Tekken 3 boss Ogre found and killed him. Luckily, that wasn’t the case.

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The Top 15 Best Fighting Game Storylines: Part 1 (15-11)

March 16th, 2012 Posted by Gavok

I’ve always been a big fan of the fighting game genre in video games. Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, King of Fighters, Soul Calibur, what have you. I can get into nearly any fighter. These days, the games are held under a microscope due to the high-profile competitive nature of tournaments and online gaming. I don’t do tournaments, I don’t play online and I can’t do an infinite combo to save my life. A lot of the time, I mainly care about sitting back and playing it one-player.

I guess it’s the way I grew up. I had Street Fighter 2 for SNES and while it was fun to play against my friends every week or so for an hour or so, there were more hours on lazy afternoons where I had to fly solo. It was about having to play through the game and defeat M. Bison with every single character and see their endings, then try at a harder level. When I rented a new fighter, I had to see every ending. It was the ritual. It was fun.

Behind the gameplay, it’s the characters and the backstory that make it for me. They add the flavor to it all. That’s why I could never bring myself to care about any Virtua Fighter. I know the whole game is deeper than the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, it’s so bland that I can’t bring myself to invest in it. I want one-player campaign modes like in Soul Calibur or the Challenge Tower from the new Mortal Kombat. I want new shit to unlock and I want it to last. I want special introduction animations before matches that happen because both fighters are siblings. And when one of those guys wins, I want them to say something specific about the loser.

As cheesy as they are, I love the characters and storylines in fighting games. Sure, there are only so many ways you can set up “bunch of dudes fight each other one-on-one”, but there’s some creativity and personality in there. It makes me want to play and learn characters who come off as cool, funny and/or dynamic. I don’t care if they aren’t top tier, I never let go of my Venom/Juggernaut/Morrigan team in Marvel vs. Capcom 2 or my Chang/Iori/Rock team in Capcom vs. SNK 2.

Recently, I picked up Street Fighter x Tekken and Soul Calibur 5. SFxT is a crossover that features counterparts from different companies playing off each other while they all reenact It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, only with more punching. Soul Calibur 5 has a weak story mode and an arcade mode that has you play several matches before congratulating you and asking if you want to try again. Guess which one I’ve been playing more.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve played a lot of these babies. Some good, some bad, some ugly. While many fighting game storylines don’t really hold up as anything exceptional on their own, there are some aspects that I still think are awesome. Here are fifteen of them.

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The Top 25 Twisted Metal Endings

February 21st, 2012 Posted by Gavok

“Their emptiness makes me whole. Their weakness makes me strong. Their destruction is my creation.” – Calypso

Just recently, the company Eat. Sleep. Play. released the latest Twisted Metal game onto Playstation 3. I myself love the Twisted Metal games to death and wish I could get my hands on it. Sadly, I don’t own a Playstation 3 and as tempting as it would be, the game (as well as Box Art Mega Man as a console-exclusive character in Street Fighter X Tekken) isn’t enough for me to shell out all that money for the console. Still, I’m not completely bummed because I do have access to YouTube and while the gameplay is the centerpiece in the series, I’ll always have a soft spot for one of the things Twisted Metal does better than most video games: the endings.

For those who don’t know much about the series, the idea is that Twisted Metal is a reckless competition where people drive cars armed to the teeth with all sorts of weapons and have to fight it out until there’s only one car left. These extreme demolition derbies take place in all sorts of settings, especially in public places, where innocent bystanders are ripe for the picking. The whole thing is put together by Calypso, a mysterious and demonic man who is like a genie mixed with a rat bastard. Whoever comes out the winner is granted an audience with him and he’ll grant whatever wish they ask for. Sometimes he’ll give them what they want and they’re happy. Sometimes he gives them what they want and they end up in terrible shape. A lot of the time he openly messes with them by twisting their wishes for his own amusement. There are also those instances when the winner will challenge Calypso himself to varying success.

The story is filled with a million plotholes and to claim it has its own continuity is charitable at best. That said, it’s not meant to be taken seriously and it’s really just a hokey setup meant to be window dressing for the actual game. For the most part, they’re fun to watch and with 124 endings across eight games (released by four different companies), I can’t help but want to celebrate it with a list of my favorites.

Before I get into it, I should point out how different these cutscenes can be and the context of each game. The first Twisted Metal was simply about Calypso hosting the 10th annual competition in Los Angeles. Originally, they spent about $10,000 filming live-action segments for the game as directed by the game’s mastermind David Jaffe. These got canned by the higher ups, not for the hilariously bad acting and cheesy effects, but because they were deemed too violent and sexist. These didn’t see the light of day for years until Jaffe handed them out to a fansite and later put them in the Playstation 2 version of Twisted Metal: Head-On as an extra. The endings were redone for the actual release via scrolling text accompanied by the game’s rocking theme song, a glaring image of live-action Calypso and ending with a shot of the character’s car driving off.

The second game, Twisted Metal 2: World Tour, changed it up by giving us cutscenes done in the style of motion comics. A direct follow-up to the first game, this time Calypso’s realizes that he’s pretty much annihilated Los Angeles off the map and therefore needs to make his contest international. Jaffe’s company Singletrac lost the rights to Twisted Metal after this due to a dispute with Sony and 989 Studios picked it up. They had to start the engine completely from scratch and it ended up being a disaster. The endings were also a casualty, as the CGI segments were only seconds long and existed to have Calypso torture the winner with some kind of lame pun, usually based on a wish that made no sense. Like how the driver of the car Thumper wishes to “forever hang with his homies” and he’s transformed into a hood ornament. The weirdest one is how the police officers who drive Outlaw ask for a world without crime and doing so leads to them being jobless. That… that kind of seems like more than a fair trade. Why is that treated as a bad thing?

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“this would be a beautiful death” [Saints Row the Third]

January 16th, 2012 Posted by david brothers

I took some time off from the internet late last year. It was nice. I went on an actual vacation, played a lot of NBA 2k12 with a friend (we ball so hard his fiancee wanna find me), and then I got home and played through Saints Row: The Third. It was nice. You should’ve come along.

NBA 2k12, despite its various flaws (no classic jerseys online? weird difficulty spikes for no good reason?) is the best game that came out last year. At this point, I’ve done just under one hundred matches online with my friend (I’m 49-45, what what, but he’s up on points at 5497-5481), over one hundred games in My Player, and probably… honestly, we probably did something like 60 games over Christmas break. It was absurd. Appalling, really. But fun. That game never gets old. Infinite replayability.

The only other contender for Game of the Year, by a long sight, is Saints Row The Third, an open world published by THQ, developed by Volition, and sequel to the stellar Saints Row 2. Here’s the opening trailer:

First, the trailer is immaculate. Excellent use of Kanye’s “Power,” one of the most undeniable songs that dude has ever made, to begin with, and then the trailer actually starts running through the characters you see in the game. Angel comes through with the Tornado DDT, Oleg slings a dude off the roof, Johnny Gat protects his boss… it’s good. Tremendously effective.

The thing about Saints Row the Third is that it understands why you played Vice City and San Andreas. It knows that the story was part of it, sure, but the real draw to GTA-style games is in the gameplay. GTA has spent the past few iterations building itself up into a real Hollywood production. The plot has taken over as prime mover from the gameplay, and that’s part of why I’ve backed down from that series. It isn’t as fun as Saints Row, not by a long shot. The story’s nice, but I’m long past the days when I would play a game just for the story.

In contrast to the over-serious and surprisingly humorless stuff that put me off GTA IV, here’s the second mission of Saints Row the Third:

The video is eight minutes long, but essentially, you get captured, you fight your way off an airplane, and then your mid-air dogfight gives way to you rocketing through the cockpit of an airplane and out the back end. In-between and during all of this, there’s a lot of dialogue.

Saints Row the Third is GOTY because it front-loads the mayhem that made Grand Theft Auto such a success. Rather than making the mayhem something to be avoided, or setting up mayhem as a diversion from the real gameplay, SR3 understands that working your way up to a five-star wanted level is why you play sandbox games. It incorporates that into the story by giving you a (completely customizable) main character who makes the same choices you would. Do you need to take over a penthouse so you can have a new hideout? Well good news: you’re going to parachute in and kill your way to victory. None of this sneaking around business or working your way up from the bottom floor. You go all in, and you do it every single time. Laws and rules don’t apply to you.

The mayhem in SR3 is glorious. You can escort tigers or hookers around town, try to cause as much damage as you can in a set amount of time, basejump, grab a plane with VTOL capabilities and go wild, or knock down entire buildings in your quest for more cash and dominance. A floppy sex toy makes for a killer melee weapon. Upgrade your guns enough and you can dual-wield fire-spitting submachine guns. I spent a large portion of the game Supermanning them hoes and then hitting them with a Ric Flair strut after I took out their entire gang. I got into a gunfight with something like sixty or seventy fur suiters. I robbed a bank dressed as my best friend. I stormed a penthouse over online co-op with a friend and we made mincemeat of the enemy while an incredibly well-timed music cue rang in our ears.

Saints Row The Third approaches storytelling from a gameplay perspective first. “How can we make this mission, which is essentially follow someone in a car and shoot them, more fun?” How is storming this building going to be different from storming the penthouse? They find a new answer every time, and that’s delightful. Your character consistently makes bad decisions that make for great gameplay, whether it involves jumping out of one airplane and into another or suiting up for the only good VR mission to appear in a non-Metal Gear Solid game. They even make fighting zombies fun by couching the battle in one of the most amazing lead-in cinemas I’ve ever seen.

The gameplay informs the story, but that doesn’t mean that the story is shallow. It’s heightened to allow for the gameplay, but it’s really a very familiar tale. A gang of criminals hit town and start setting up shop. They take over a few strongholds, buy out local businesses, eliminate the competition, run girls and drugs (or maybe not drugs?), and embark on a campaign to show the cops and rival gangs that they are the wrong people to test.

The cast is diverse, from the adorable ex-FBI agent who does your computer hacking to Hulk Hogan as Angel da la Muerte, disgraced luchador. Jane Valderama, the local news lady, reports on your missions on the radio right after you do them. Citizens react to you with awe or hate, depending on where you are. Steelport is a big city, and littered with minigames and opportunities for some serious mayhem.

Here’s a video of all seven main character voice actors singing a Sublime song, a compilation of something that actually happens in the game while you’re shooting dudes:

Somehow, in the end, it all comes together. The combined effect of the insane gameplay, the story and its constantly escalating transgressions, and the unbelievably charming cast of pimps, thieves, and murderers had me alternating between crying with laughter, texting friends about how amazing the game is right now you just don’t understand it’s so beautiful, and being genuinely bummed out by a few plot twists. The last mission, which leads to one of two endings, features a music cue so unbelievably appropriate that I couldn’t help but be happy with how the game wraps up, even if my ending was probably the lesser of the two. I don’t want to ruin it for you–you can probably youtube it if you’re curious, but it’s worth waiting for and experiencing in context–but the cue ratchets up the drama in a very classic way, and gives the last mission a momentum that a lot of final stages lack (whattup MW3 and an ending that attempts to be a crowd-pleaser but is actually just pretty gross).

Shoving the mayhem into the forefront of the story seems like it would turn your character into an anarchistic terrorist monster, and I guess you make several decisions that are basically on that level, but that doesn’t mean that it’s wall to wall murder. You get to know the entire cast really well, thanks to them being in constant radio contact. They’re all weird in their way. Kinzie is a typically frazzled and innocent computer hacker (though a ludicrously well-timed joke about sex toys suggests otherwise!), Z is your friendly neighborhood autotuned pimp, Oleg is a giant mass of muscle but scarily smart, and Pierce really likes chess. Every character has their own quirk and motivations for getting down with the Saints, and the glimpses into their stories are great.

Saints Row the Third is fun, in the fullest sense of the word. The story, the gameplay, the tone, all of it. It’s a very smart game, despite the constant onslaught of felonies and treasonous actions. It understands the expectations of the audience and then does its level best to not fulfill, but exceed those expectations. I was expecting great things after playing through “Freefalling.” I was surprised and totally in love by the end of the game. I got the game for forty bucks on sale at Amazon. After watching the two endings, I went ahead and dropped twenty bucks on the Season Pass for DLC, something I have never done before. I more than got my money’s worth out of it, and there’s still plenty of gameplay left to go.

It’s very rare that I get into a game like I did with Saints Row The Third, but yo, it happened. I got hooked hard. And tomorrow, the first wave of DLC hits: Genkibowl VII. I still haven’t found Professor Genki in-game, but I’ve been looking. I want that three hundred thousand dollars.

Also, real talk, the only game with better sound direction is Child of Eden, which is in an entirely different genre.

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