The final episode of Life is Strange has released. Within my internet bubble I’ve heard nothing but praise for the game from anyone that’s spent time with it. There’s been a lot of interest in the more realistic approach to human relationships and how we interact with each other… wrapped in a time-traveling puzzle adventure game kind of format. Instead of figuring how to advance into new areas of the world you figure out new branches of dialog to get others to open up to you. Reversing time to insert new conversation points based on discussions that you’ve undone has always felt kind of weirdly evil to me. Manipulating someone’s willingness to speak to you by loading the hand in your favor until you can divulge what you need. If you’ve seen Groundhog Day and how Bill Murray attempts to work his way in with Andie MacDowell’s character you know what I mean. That’s neither here nor-there though, as the main point I want to focus on is that Life is Strange gives us a very different way to interact with the world compared to some of the most frequented games of 2015. It isn’t alone in exploring new ways to convey a story through games as a medium either as Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture is another notable offering this year. It’s fairly common in games to have you explore the world and interact with it through violence. Blowing things up, slaying demons, shooting the opposition, jumping on the heads of enemies, etc. Even in the kid-friendly realm you have titles like Splatoon where you “splat” opposing squidkids that get in the way of your objective of painting the town (not) red. Pulling from VGChartz, here’s some estimated sales so far for 2015…

2015

I threw those red diamonds on there to mark games that can’t be completed without killing / defeating something… oh wait, that’s all of them? For the most part the primary means of interaction in these worlds is to kill your opposition. Sure there are other elements like talking through conflict in Witcher 3 or the puzzling aspects of Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. It isn’t hard to look at these games and understand how to navigate an encounter. They’re familiar, it’s the language of games to kill things. I don’t want that to go away, but I am kind of bummed out by the lack of mature discussion within gaming because of the landscape of AAA. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy at this point. Money is spent on these action games to develop them to their fullest potential because that’s what the consumers are buying, and the consumers seeking the best developed products are going to buy action games because of it. The financial risks involved have gotten too steep so we never see anything outside of the market we have established data on… Working with the known quantities.

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best2015no

“Best” of 2015… I just can’t with these

I love data. I’ve done a few posts on this blog just analyzing data, including reviews. Categorizing things has a very established place within our culture with a swell of options across every medium. Genres exist for this reason as they allow you to find similarly themed or structured experiences. It’s a discovery tool. On top of that you have curators that allow you to venture outside of known elements but may strike a similar enjoyment for you. A good example is when a journalist makes a list of their ten favorite games and you’ve played / loved seven of them? Strong possibility those other three are worth checking out even if you’ve never heard of them. This is a great way to find new games to play for the most part.

Yet I’ve got a bone to pick here with the level these things get to now. With great power comes great responsibility or something like that – And a lot of outlets have squandered their reach. There became this myth of objective reviews based on universal criteria. A rubric to check off or rate in a manner that allows comparison. It provides the ability to suggest whether or not the game is worth your time or money among the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of contemporary options at this point. Unfortunately I hate this approach. I get the need for them to speak to their audience in a way that the audience demands. There comes a point thought where you need to grow the world you want to be in though. Looking five or ten years down the line what will the new consumption model for games be? Will the box just be a list of bullet points and a board of reviewers assigning a score to indicate it’s “value”? Hell, isn’t that what’s basically happening now already? That just seems like a very boring way to find games. It’s removing the human element of it… Which I find it hard to believe that me of all people are vouching for the desire to connect or appeal to the natural aspect of something. Personally I really enjoy finding someone you can identify with and go with their curated list or suggestions. Brilliant way to find games. The only reason I ever gave Persona 4 a chance is because a friend with similar appreciations for Final Fantasy 7 and Kingdom Hearts told me I needed to play it… and then someone else who loved it said I needed to play it as well. Now I absolutely adore P4 (or P4 Golden to be more specific) and want to get others into it. This is the organic way to approach game and is far more rewarding for me.

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ACT I: The Origin Story

Anxiety is a (not so) funny thing. I learned just how much it impacts people in 2014 when a series of events lead me into my first full on anxiety attack. I was traveling back from my wife’s grad school across the state. It was later in the evening, we just enjoyed a meal together and we were hitting the highway for the drive back home. I noticed myself feeling off but didn’t think much of it. A bit of muscle tightness and being in an overly alert state isn’t too out of the ordinary for me. Trips to crowded places like malls or Ikea have gotten me to that point before. Eventually it got worse and I began to feel a bit light headed. Then nauseous… then shaking. We pulled over to a rest stop as I tried to figure out if the meal wasn’t sitting well or what was going on. I felt myself getting red and sweating. I spent some time in the bathroom running cold water over my wrists to come down. The shaking continued which then was intensifying my concern. We were a half hour out from her apartment at school, and 90 minutes from home. I felt my heart racing. Is this what it feels like to have a heart attack? I’m only 30, but after my dad passed at 53 of a heart attack I read the symptoms and watch for them in myself. Don’t ever read the symptoms of anything. This event spiraled into my anxiety causing physical feedback, and the physical feedback was elevating my anxiety. She ended up driving us back to her apartment for the night after things weren’t improving at the rest stop. Thankfully the physical exhaustion was draining enough to let the terror in my mind had die down enough to sleep. Over the next few weeks I’d end up having a few more attacks while my wife was away. Being alone terrified me more and I went to a physician to figure out what was wrong and provide me with some kind of help for this… He’d give it to me in the form of magic pill that brought me down whenever things got out of control. I started to feel overwhelmed for no reason or begin shaking, pop a pill. That in-of-itself was interesting as I almost never take any medication, just the occasional ibuprofen for pain relief. I started this blog for the sole reason of a form of outlet, some self-love, some expression, some release from the circles I would go in mentally when I was alone.

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Been working the daily grind like most folks. Not particularly in love with my career choice, but it’s stable and I enjoy some of the individuals I work with. I’ve been raised on the idea if you do an honest day’s work, bust your ass for your company, that something good comes from it. Corny and idealistic, I know. So far over the past decade it’s worked out well enough for me. Then sometime last week I got a talk from my manager’s manager inquiring what I planned on doing five years from now. I was curious what spawned this or why he was asking as I’ve always been transparent with where I wanted to grow with the company. A seed of doubt was planted at that point as he inquired deeper about what other positions I’ve held. Cutting to the chase, he told me they were looking at promoting me to the next level but I lacked title experience. My current responsibilities mirror the position they wanted to put me into, the same responsibilities I’ve been doing since late 2011. I never thought this was an issue since back in 2013 when the same opening was last posted I was shy by two months. My plan had always just been to go for the position the next time it opened after those two months passed, now I was being told none of that experience applied to the position I was trained for.

Then Tuesday of this week it was confirmed. Meeting with HR clarified the company’s logic behind the move. As it was explained to me it just felt wrong. I felt betrayed, led on, then sucker punched. The carrot dangling on a stick to motivate me to get the goals they wanted without compensating me for my work. Of course this is a skewed view on the events from my perspective. They chalked it up to a simple miscommunication as I feel like I’ve wasted the past two years where I’ve passed on other opportunities. I was frustrated and angry, but everyone that was talking to me about the matter was incredibly nice and genuinely apologetic. That didn’t help. Bottling up all my frustration while my mind raced with scenarios on what my next move might be now. No outlet, no solution, no one to scream at, no great injustice to rally against. I could tell I was about to break from all the emotions. I just wanted to cry.

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I had two posts I was working on before this happened. The first was a growing disdain for Final Fantasy Record Keeper. In a nutshell I feel like it was devaluing the characters and worlds I loved. Final Fantasy was becoming a mundane thing as I chipped away daily at a game with no story or end. The second, I was writing up a full recap of the major E3 2015 briefings to share my take on it, and I was working on it through the unveilings. Then something happened it all stopped. Rumors had swirled earlier that day just as I had every other day of a Final Fantasy 7 remake being announced that night… again, like every other E3 since that PS3 tech demo was shown. Only this time, it actually happened. At that moment I lost any desire to write about anything else.

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I’ve talked across several different topics about gamers and their general unhappiness when it comes to their “favorite” medium. Just grabbing a quick few…

Hopefully you’ve gotten my drift off of those. Sitting back and looking at the larger picture this paints for me is two things. First, I desperately want to address the negativity within games with some hope of making strides towards improving it. Second, we don’t know what games are or how they affect us at all.

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My father used to tell me that all the time. I’ve talked about my relationship with him a bit previously, and always things are more complicated than originally implied. Yes, he was an alcoholic all my life. The strange part about living with an alcoholic that you never really see on TV though is trying to cope with them essentially being two different people. On one hand, when Paul was sober he was an introverted and reserved man. He loved technology and that was apparent in his purchases for the family and himself. Eventually that appreciation would be passed down to me it seems. The other Paul was the aggressive, selfish, bully that was every bit as vile and abusive as you’d see in the movies. Living with that man was unpleasant (to put it kindly), which broke the family apart and drove everyone away from him. The two men that he was couldn’t be any more different from one another. They also never seemed to be aware of the other’s actions so you could never hold one accountable for the other without him staring back at you confused. It was maddening to have someone that looks like your father have you fearing for your life, then the next day offer to take you to McDonalds for a happy meal.

I remember around age five or six him coming home from work one day with a Nintendo Entertainment System. I’d never seen one before or knew what it was. Apparently we had an Atari before that, but all I remember of video games started when he came home that day. He boasted about how great the visuals and how we all had to try it out. That weekend my two siblings and I kept passing the controller back and forth playing Super Mario Brothers / Duck Hunt. My father kind of just enjoyed watching us play. I was too young to remember much else outside of a few trips to the store with him to pick out new games… Double Dragon 2 stands out in my head, pointing at it behind the glass for the clerk to show us. Looking back I realize now he was just excited to give us something fun to do. My sister even did a mock awards ceremony for “best player” and “best games” one time with the family, makeshift podium and all. I’m the youngest and stuck to games the most so I’m sure it was all done just to humor me at the time.

From time to time he’d jest with me when I’d take it too seriously, “life’s not all about video games, ya know?”

NintendoShirt

Me clad in Nintendo, life was good.

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This is something we’ve all heard before. Usually at the start of a system’s life it’s the initial barrier of entry. The Vita has “no games”. The Wii U has “no games”. Now the PS4/Xbox One have “no unique games”. There’s always some weird qualifier to discredit what IS available on a system. Grand Theft Auto 5 is a perfect example, it “doesn’t count” because it’s available on other platforms. Or because it’s a remaster. Or because the wind is blowing east. It really comes down to whoever is making their case skewing the details to reinforce the image of X platform isn’t worth owning. What it (should) all boil down to is the game available on the system, and have you (personally) played it before? Because I’m not sure about you, but there are about a billion games that I should have played per critics and friends that I just never found time to get to. GTA5 is in that category. So why shouldn’t I add that to the pile of reasons for me to own my PS4?

Heart My Babies

I realize this isn’t any great epiphany that fanboys gonna fanboy. It’s still fresh on my mind though as this week saw a blowout of content on PS4. I mean, just look at all this:

  • Tell Tales’ Game of Thrones Episode 3
  • Life is Strange Episode 2
  • Bloodborne
  • Borderlands: Handsome Collection
  • Slender: The Arrival
  • Metal Slug 3

There is probably over 100 hours of quality gaming in there. A lot of people will run down that list and without ever trying the game just write it off though as “nope, not into that kind of game”, running with a bias they formed years ago off a remotely similar game. Which whatever, that’s fine if you want to ignore a new experience. What that means this is really coming down to isn’t “There aren’t any games on X!“, but really “there aren’t any games that I want to give a try on X“. If that’s the case, maybe it’s time you start to try something new?

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Just recently I visited an exhibition at Cranbrook Art Museum titled “Theater of the Mind”. The artwork varied all over, photographs, paintings, and installations. I’m not well versed in art and was unaware of what an installation was exactly years ago. For the most part it can take form in any number of ways, but it refers to a site specific creation to be experienced in that spot. The lighting, the room, the atmosphere, the arrangement of items in the room/on the walls, everything. Entering the museum there was a room off to the left when entering that was a sound based installation. A green bulb was placed beside curtains at the entryway to signal if someone was in there. It requested not to disturb the participant by going dark when the room was in use. Not being able to see inside due to the curtain and unsure of what to expect, my wife and I went on to the rest of the show.

After doing a full round and exploring the museum we came back around to the entry point to that same installation. The bulb was lit green indicating no one was in there. Reading about the work from the posted placard, she decided to go in and see what was going on. After passing through the curtain a minute or two went by before the bulb went dim, discouraging further entries. I thought it was strange, maybe there was a delay of some sort? Anyways, the statement read that it would be about five minutes and to wait patiently. Having a seat, I wondered what was in that room that was required isolation. It seemed odd to me. We had already went into another installation that was completely black with the exception of a curved beam of light projected through twenty feet of space, only visible from the fog machine to create a solid beam of light through the room. If that didn’t isolate the viewers, why did this one? Then my wife popped out through the curtains with a grin, a clear indicator that not only was she intrigued but she knew I was going to appreciate it. Alright, “go-time” I thought. Let’s see what this artist, Hans Rosenström, had created.

Stepping through the curtains took me into a large space. Possibly a 20×20 room that was mostly empty. An old photograph extending out from the wall instead of against it, a chair raised on a pedestal, a large woven piece of art with “1928” on it, a lamp, and another chair with a set of hanging headphones just in front of it. Other than that it was just open space. I took a seat in the headphones chair. It was positioned towards a corner, facing the woven art and lamp. After examining the weave for a moment I put on the headphones danging between me and the wall. It began an audio clip of a man speaking, explaining someone had just sat down in the chair. A story began to be told tying the room together. Bit by bit you learned why everything was in there and what it meant. While I was being told the story I heard someone walking in the room behind me to the right from the entrance. “What the hell… didn’t they see the do not enter message?” – Glancing over my shoulder no one was there. Then I heard the steps walking around the back of me to the left now. Quickly shifting to look left, there was no one there.

Then it clicked. The footsteps were part of the audio clip being played back. A bit of relief washed over me at that point. Knowing the rules of the game now I was all in and listening and appreciating the simulated environment. During the story when necessitated the lamps in the room would dim or turn on. This virtual environment and storytelling completely had my attention. There were points where only slight whispers were being spoken after the footstep and I could swear someone was in the room, leaning over my shoulder and talking to me. It was an eerie, surreal experience… Having someone be there and not at the same time.

Once he had finished telling his story and the lights returned to normal, I looked over the room once more and the old photograph protruding off the wall. It was a powerful storytelling event and left the room with the same spark that I saw my wife leave with. It’s the closest I’ve been to a VR experience, having never tried an Oculus Rift or it’s kin. If those devices can deliver even half of what was crafted in that room though, I’m completely sold. Being able to convince me that I wasn’t alone in that room to the point of anxiously looking about? Then the feeling as if someone was speaking directly to me and not just my character?

“Theater of the mind” indeed. Bravo.

Rose Tinted Shades

Are you remembering games clearly?

Usually you hear warnings about not replaying the games you used to love. The further back it goes, the more likely it is that you realize it wasn’t as good as you thought before. Maybe you’re being told it didn’t age well?

I get that a bit. Every time I replay Final Fantasy 7, the first hour or two I spend thinking that it’ll probably be the last time I play it. Between the models being stuck in a time of low polygons and the simple combat systems it feels like I’ve made a mistake firing the game up for another whirl. Yet I’m saying “every time I replay…”. I always end up loving it a couple of hours in and fall right back into the world I’ve loved so many times before. I’ve lost track at this point how many times I’ve completed it. It’s been more than eight times at this point though. So to those warnings of leaving the games you loved in your past, I call bullshit.

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