Streaming Update

As many of you know, I’ve been streaming a bit for the past month or so. As I did, I struggled to find a proper voice. I’m not interested in staying current or in exclusively playing a particular game. I don’t have the time or will to play for hours consistently. However, I also didn’t (and don’t) have a large audience, nor any unifying ethos to build my streams around. So, I took a step back. With some distance and thought, I’ve come to the following conclusions.

  1. I should be telling stories

My primary role in the games space is as a writer. Even writing reviews or analysis of games is a way of telling stories. My streams should be attempting to do the same. This could take the form of explaining critical analysis and playing games I’ve written about, which I will likely do sporadically. However, I’m more interested in how games tell stories in and of themselves. From now on, the stream will be focused on story-based games, with variable choices and/or character building components. As I play, I’ll be trying to get inside the player character’s head, talk through their internal world, and their decisions. I’m fascinated by the way games create spaces where players can fill in the blanks and I’m interested in exploring that process live with an audience. 

  1. I should archive the streams on YouTube

Part of the problem with how things were going earlier was that often I was streaming alone. However, I still felt the need to be entertaining, because people could drop by the stream anytime. If I upload the streams to YouTube and try to tell stories, I’ll always have a good reason to be grounded while I play. Knowing that I’ll be speaking to an audience outside of just the stream itself will make a big difference. Also, even if you miss the stream, you’ll be able to enjoy it in a separate venue.

  1. I should stream less, but make it richer.

I’ll be streaming every Sunday at 2 pm for an hour or two, starting this Sunday, the 17th of June. I might stream otherwise during the week if I feel like it, but this Sunday stream will be consistent. I want to give this project the time and space it deserves. All other streams will be one-offs or separate from the main game I’m playing on Sundays.

  1. This is all subject to change

Maybe this format will be better for let’s plays rather than streams, or maybe these stories won’t be compelling beyond what’s already in the game. I want this project to be experimental and willing to change, especially if things don’t work out as expected.

With all that out of the way, I’m excited! I think this will be a format that will go beyond watching someone play video games and be emotionally and critically resonant. I hope you will tune in.

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The Witching Hour: Intro

There are moments from The Witcher that sit in the back of my mind. A man kisses his ghostly lover, as her spectral, decrepit form transforms to warmth and youth. Our Witcher, “inhuman” monster hunter, looks back at those who find him monstrous with pity and sadness. A daughter stands before her father and declares that this is her story, not his. These moments linger by the fireplace. Occasionally warming their hands, they chat amongst themselves. I sometimes join them and watch as the fire grows in their eyes. They do not address me, but they allow me to sit among them, to come and go as I please.

All fiction stays with us to some extent; whether consciously or buried in some cave of dreams and half-remembered memories. But The Witcher has burrowed into my brain, so pervasively that I’m now writing a series of articles about its 7 books and 3 games. Whatever space these stories have already taken up, they will now take up even more. I will speak with those moments, letting my voice ring by the fireplace. Why?

There are a few superficial answers to that question. The Witcher is a fantasy of freedom and power. The title character, Geralt, is genetically different from humans, he lives longer and is stronger than the average person. Its influences, medieval literature and Slavic folk tales, play outside the usual fantasy gene pool. The Witcher games are, in some ways, the personification of games I wished for as a child. Open worlds with complex moral choices and a multitude of outcomes. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt is what I wanted Fable or Dragon Age to be. While these certainly explain my interest, they do not explain The Witcher’s permanence in my mind.

These stories are important, not because they are essential reading or playing, but because they awaken. They are stories that can trouble our slumber. This is why they so often resemble fairy tales. For the author Andrzej Sapkowski, fairy tales expose the wounds of the world. For us, in a post-Disney culture, such stories often seem clean and easy to digest. The Witcher’s tales resemble their Grimm forebears, twisted and dark. Not because these stories needed blood and sex to become “real,” but because they already are real. We might skip over the darkness in them, the ways in which their monsters resemble our own, but Geralt never will. He knows that that sanitation is for our comfort and not our good. He even says,“People… like to invent monsters and monstrosities. Then they seem less monstrous themselves.” The not-so-monstrous monsters Geralt fights and helps are created by oppression and pain. They lay bare the damage we have caused, and what more we might do. Despite their typical fantasy trappings, these stories force us to examine the way we make the human monstrous, and the evil mundane.

I chose the name The Witching Hour for this series because I thought it was clever, but its thematic significance strikes me now. The Witching Hour is a time when darkness and light, the earthly and unearthly, life and death are closer together. From the first short story to the final moments of The Wild Hunt, these stories force us to consider that space. Geralt himself is neither monster nor man. He represents the problem of convergence. He troubles the binaries that humans set up. Despite these binaries being cloaked in metaphor, their disturbance troubles us too. We make monsters of humans; the Witcher makes them human again.

Furthermore it asks us to act. Geralt often questions his role in the world. His power as a monster hunter grants him some distance from common people, but he also relies on them. He could insist that the common troubles of peasants are not his problem. He could take no time to care for those who hire him. Often he is so callous to ignore. These stories show that callousness as hollow. Geralt pays for choosing distance, and so does the world. The Witcher stories do not only ask us to contemplate injustice, but to act, to make something more out of a fractured world.

So come in. Sit by the fire. Listen to us talk of monsters and men, of peasants and kings, of witches and priests. Then go forth into our world – awakened, disturbed, and refreshed.

Welcome to the Witching Hour.

Special thanks to Andi Boswell for the editing help.

Glitches and Speaking Through The Machine

It was a normal match of Titanfall 2. We were losing, but not by much. If I could have kept my kill rate just a bit further above my death rate, victory would be within our grasp. After a quick death, I re-spawned by a window and began firing at a mech in the distance. And then…

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Thunder and blood was turned into silence. It was serene, almost like the moment before death. I could not move, but had a moment to appreciate the beauty of the landscape. The world around me removed from the noise it was there for. Then, there was no re-spawn, the game quit. I never saw what happened next. It’s easy to extrapolate that this was some final moment. My mech pilot envisioned an end to war that she would not live to truly see.

In film or painting there is always evidence. Thick splatters of paint. Or the shadow of a boom mike. Even the most brilliantly made films or the most painstakingly rendered paintings have these moments of humanity. Games can seem to be distant from that. The mechanical perfection of a Mario or even the punchy gunplay of something like Titanfall can obscure the humans who created it. Our need for the “complete game” makes us feel that a masterpiece is created by some kind of mechanical process. Eventually we’ll create the perfect thing and all other games will cease. Still, video games break. Characters fall through the landscape. AI characters walk into walls and shout random barks over and over again. Code brings something else to life, unanticipated by those who wrote it. Video games are alive and they can never quite be contained. They can never really fit in ideas of masterpieces and 10/10s.

Walter Benjamin describes “[The film actor’s] performance is by no means a unified whole, but is assembled from many individual performances.” When we are with someone, whether on a stage or more casually, we feel their presence, their rippling weight. Films and games defuse the presence of images and people. Sure, big budget games try to compensate with high fidelity and ever skyrocketing team sizes and polygon counts. But the human presence of paint or sweat can never really be captured. Yet, yet… The broken chaos of the world gets through. A voice speaks through the machine. We look at an actors eyes and feel our own weight. We find a moment of peace in a space defined by conflict. Because presence is lost we can find ourselves in what we see. Just as Benjamin said that anyone can be filmed, anyone can play, and anyone can witness the breaking of the game.

Video games aren’t special, but they are real. They are human. As broken and beautiful as anything we create.

Put Away Your Wings: Masculine Identity and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

*Spoilers*

Action games are fascinated with violent men. Even at their most contemplative, they encourage gendered power, exemplified by male first-person heroes like Master Chief or Doom Guy. These are sullen, no nonsense bodies that can power through anything thrown at them. Their games portray violent, patriarchal power with an uncritical eye. Despite its progressive trappings, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is no exception. Although the game’s margins express radical, intersectional politics, its core affirms the “need” for masculine violence.

The game sets up much of its emotional conflict from the start: B. J. Blascowitz, our hero, solider against an omnipresent Nazi threat, and unstoppable killing machine since his first appearance, is gravely wounded. He fears his imminent death. His warrior self has been cut down and he must scramble to fight. In the game’s opening act, B.J. must slide around in a wheelchair as he defends his resistance group’s submarine base from Nazi invasion. Movement is awkward and inhibited; B.J. is unable to crouch or dodge. In one memorable moment, a Nazi solider activates a conveyor belt. B.J. falls out of his wheelchair and must attempt to survive with little control of his movement as he slides down. This aptly encompasses B.J.’s experience throughout the first half of the game. He is afloat. His body has compromised his masculine power. Formerly one of the most able people imaginable, he has been marked by war.

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The first half of the game concerns itself with this problem. B.J.’s body is “useless” to the resistance. He is only able to fight because of a suit of power armor, inherited from his similarly disabled leader, Caroline. B.J. prays to her, asking for her wings to carry him. On the surface, this is a subversion of FPS tropes. In Halo, Master Chief’s power armor is a sign of physical prowess and elite military status. In Wolfenstein, power armor is a sign of weakness. B.J.’s internal monologue wishes for strength from a feminine figure, showing B.J. to be sensitive and contemplative, in contrast to the purely male stoicism of traditional FPS heroes. In addition, there are no female characters who are simply rescued. Rather, characters of different genders help and rescue each other. B.J. does not turn his allies into objects.

However, given the broader context of the game, its criticism or complication of masculine power is toothless. B.J. simply undergoes a midlife masculinity crisis. He feels his worth has been compromised through his wounds. He asks, how can I be of help, if I can’t walk? If I am going to die? Despite the complexity of the question, the game’s only answer is “by being what you has always been.” If the power of men is hard and unchanging, then a differently gendered power must be fluid and shifting. B.J. never changes. The New Colossus plays much the same, if inferior, to the last game. Its light stealth touches are refreshing, but it still deals in the unflinching, overpowering fantasy of Halo or Doom. Although the resistance takes on allies of different colors and creeds, their contributions to the war effort are more invisible than B.J.’s. This is emphasized by how little happens when B.J. is not around. There are months of space when B.J. is absent: from the beginning of the game, when he is in a coma, to its midpoint, when he is waiting for his execution. The characters do not refer to major moments of resistance that occur outside of B.J.’s perspective. He must be present for things to happen. His kind of resistance, that violence, follows. Furthermore, Caroline is killed to allow B.J. to take her armor. The game robs a differently gendered body’s ability to speak. Why couldn’t we play as Caroline? Why couldn’t we explore a different kind of body and its different power? Because the player’s perspective must never be separated from the masculine.

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This is exemplified by the game’s midpoint twist. In brief, B.J. is captured by the villain, Frau Engel. After a failed escape attempt, B.J. is beheaded and the audience watches in horror as Engel holds his head for a blood-ravenous crowd. But, B.J. isn’t dead. Engel drops his head into the waiting drone arms of one his allies’s contraptions. They preserve his head in a jar and then reattach it to a genetically engineered Nazi body.

No matter how bonkers and surprising this turn of events is, it maintains a status quo. The solution to B.J.’s problem is not changing his methods or adjusting to a new body, but regaining the old one. The complexities of age and being a veteran are flattened into an empty power fantasy. For all of B.J.’s pleading with Caroline he finally says, “You can put away your wings, I don’t need them anymore.” Even B.J.’s appeal to femininity is drowned out by the return to power. Unlike the earlier sections of the game, B.J.’s body is refocused to emphasize his strength. Your health jumps from 50 to 100. You gain new powers that let you access previously forbidden areas, primarily through extensions of your body like getting through tight spaces or busting through walls. The problem of B.J.’s usefulness is gone and the rest of the game is violent indulgence.

To be clear, the problem is not so much The New Colossus’s violence, but rather the mode of that violence. The game’s first level is about survival, not domination. B.J.’s internal and external resources are limited and so he must make what he can out of them. Although exaggerated, it is scrappy, frantic and human. The rest of the game, particularly after its twist, is about being more than human. Even early on, Nazi soldiers swap legends of “Terror Billy,” the horrifyingly powerful man. In diary entries, Nazis refer to having nightmares about him. It all serves to gas the player up, to make them powerful and resonant in their toy world. It does so through a overbearing, violent masculinity.

It is the game’s daring moments that make the regressive course of its primary narrative disappointing. The New Colossus’s strongest moments are within its the margins of its world. A former Nazi asserting their place in the resistance. A piece of art from a surprising source inspiring awe. Condemnations of American white supremacy from African-American resistance groups. Moments of doubt in letters by Nazi command. Like its predecessor, this game has the whiff of a real world, despite all the silliness. It takes its gonzo sci-fi premise seriously and often finds real humanity in it.

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The result is a game of constant contradictions. It celebrates the intersectional power of resistance: bringing Communists, ex-Nazis, and Black Panthers together. It also centers the entirety of its narrative and perspective on the most privileged person in the room. It cherishes quiet moments of resistance, in how Max Hass (a disabled adult, who is only able to say his own name) creates astonishing art in the corners of several scenes. However, it most visibly celebrates B.J.’s bombast. The game is split between its need to be a first person destruction playground and its want to be an affecting story of resistance. The encounter with Hitler embodies this. This scene splits itself between a glaring takedown of Nazi ideology and an celebration of the masculine power which enables it.

In brief, B.J. and crew need to obtain the codes to a powerful Nazi war machine, which are only held, you guessed it, on Venus. Auditions for the role of B.J. in an upcoming propaganda film are being held there. So he kidnaps one of the actors, impersonates him, and auditions to play himself. And who is running the audition? The Führer. Brilliantly, Hitler is feeble and childish. He speaks incoherently, takes credit for things he is not capable of doing, and condemns the weakness of Jews and degenerates. He claims that he can smell them from anywhere. The irony is that B.J. Blascowitz is in the room. Jewish, smart, strong and proud, his existence is a direct condemnation of everything Hitler stands for. It’s a smart juxtaposition that says a lot without outright stating much.

In the same scene, the game hides a daring political statement. One of the other actors auditioning is none other than Ronald Reagan. The game refers to his home state of Arizona, and obscures a few relevant letters on his chair. The notion that Reagan would be perfectly fine with living among Nazis, even being reverential to Hitler himself is daring and biting. However, as illustrated by the way it side steps directly mentioning the actor’s real identity, the game chooses to be coy about its politics. The game places this to the side of a moment that is primarily about B.J.’s strength.

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The other actors who audition are seen as weak, even effeminate. In one part of the audition, the actors are asked to fight one of the Nazi guards to show their physical prowess. One actor volunteers to go first. He stretches, gets into a fighting stance, and gets his nose broken. Complaining and whining, he is then shot by Hitler. In contrast, B.J. kills the solider in a sign of masculine strength, winning the part in the process. It’s a moment of resistance, but also one of naked empowerment. B.J. triumphs because he is a true man, unlike the other, weak actor. The scene is made more uncomfortable when you realize that B.J.’s body was genetically engineered by Nazis. B.J. wins the day partially because of a masculine construction created by his enemy.

Perhaps, the game intends this as a subversion. B.J. does use the tools of the Nazis to fight against them and Nazis ironically remark on his Aryan features. However, B.J. is in awe of his new body. He feels like himself in it. As soon as he gets it, he wonders aloud if he is now in heaven. The game is completely uncritical about why that might be. Despite the story’s interest in B.J.’s body and physiology, it does not let him change or evolve. A story about a violent person coming to terms with letting that violence end could be compelling, but the game cannot separate itself from the canonical perspective of its principle character.

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The previous game, The New Order, recognized B.J.’s familiarity with war as monstrous. The violence he commits is necessary, empowering, and cathartic. But he longs for a world in which he would no longer kill. The game often flashes to a dream where he is a father and husband, distant from war. However, he believes that he cannot escape conflict. Violence has left his mark on him and it is a mark he cannot outrun. There is a particularly moving moment, when B.J. says goodbye to his lover, Anya. She says, “I believe there are still places on earth where people can go and live happy.” He replies, “I believe so too, but not for me and for you.”

In this line, B.J. sees that he cannot bring in the new world, but he can help those who can. He sees that his violence is a means to an end and that it cannot be the end. If he continues to be what he is, a world without Nazis won’t need him. Keeping this in mind, he stares down his own death, passing the torch of resistance to Anya. In contrast, The New Colossus is much more gleeful. The retconning of B.J.’s broken body emphasizes the need for his violence. The game ends not in the promise of peace, but in the promise of war. B.J. must not change, because he is forever needed.

There is no doubt that The New Colossus is attacking the right targets, it is what it attacks with, that disturbs. The New Order is almost a game that acknowledges more aspects of resistance, that does not wave off violence because it has the right targets or is for a righteous cause. The New Colossus steps back. Despite all the life in its world-building, its little moments of beauty and truth, it chooses to center the story in a violent masculinity. The moment in which Wolfenstein II came out, in which fascists and racists are emboldened, in which hatred and violence are given room to breathe, deserves a radical, thoughtful game. This is not it.

Reflection: Acceptance and Hatred in Annihilation

This contains spoilers for Annihilation. Which you should all see you punks!!!

Annihilation is fractured. Just as I am, as we are. The film’s shots often focus on light splitting in water. They target Natalie Portman, her face alternating between past and present, reflecting in the surrounding and shifting landscape. The film’s cells, both literal and figurative, replicate. We see those cells in motion for the first time as Lena (Portman, in the performance of a lifetime) teaches a class of college students about mitosis. She refers to an original cell, one that spawned all the others. In this throwaway line, Annihilation sets up its thesis: the fracturing of the world, the things that make us suffer, the visions of humanity in the alien and animal, they are all part of us. They are a part of me. The only way forward is accepting ourselves in all the things that frighten us.

The film literalizes this through an elegant and evocative science fiction device: The Shimmer. A mysterious wall of matter that is growing, consuming everything that enters its borders. Except for Lena’s husband, Kane. Played by a wondrous and terse Oscar Isaac, Kane is the first to return from the Shimmer, lacking both his memory and health. Lena volunteers to go inside with a group of four other women to investigate what happened to her partner. Soon, they discover that the Shimmer refracts everything inside it: light, radio waves, and even DNA. Thus, our selves are recoded. Plants resemble humans; alligators have shark teeth. Everything within is not alien; it is just us re-contextualized. The Shimmer is terrifying, because it forces us to confront ourselves.

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Thus, Annihilation is not about us learning to accept them, but learning to accept us. All of the women who enter the Shimmer, and the men who came before them, are running from themselves. “We’re all damaged goods” says Cass Shepard (played memorably by Tuva Novotny), before listing off all the group’s problems: a dead child, drug addiction, depression, and self-harm. These people are all familiar with self loathing, or as the film puts it: self destruction. They see the open wounds that await confronting their pain, so they run. They know they might die, but would rather perish, than face themselves.

I see myself in this running. It is part of what makes the film one of the most evocative and resonant depictions of mental illness in any form of media. Depression and anixiety force you to run. They force you to lay in bed rather than get up and perchance catch yourself in the mirror. The more you indulge it, the more self-loathing festers, the more appealing it becomes to hide. I too, would rather run from the mirror than look myself in the eye, rather self-destruct than self-realize.

But the irony of self-destruction is that it forces us to confront ourselves anyway. To stab a knife into our own body we have to look. The Shimmer is filled with this looking. We flash back with Lena to her extramarital affair. We watch as she wakes from nightmares. We gaze as her flesh begins to move and shift. The deeper she goes, the more she finds herself, fractured and broken. This plays out in ways that are more than physiological. The film’s most haunting images are of human bodies twisted into new shapes. Fungus and trees bloom into arms and legs and faces. The horror of ourselves is everywhere.

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This imagery illustrates that self-hatred is both external and internal. In one flashback, Lena’s lover tells her that, “You don’t hate me, you hate yourself.” She replies, “No, I hate you too.” Like Lena, we hate ourselves for doing something and we hate the people we did it with for being like us. Self-hatred slips out into the world and twists others into our image. Fungus and tree people only show that twisting. At one point, Lena asks Ventriss, the mission leader, why her husband would go on a mission that would almost certainly result in his death. Ventriss replies, “You’re confusing suicide with self-destruction, and they’re very different. Almost none of us commit suicide, whereas almost all of us self-destruct. Somehow. In some part of our lives. We drink, or take drugs, or destabilize the happy job or happy marriage… Isn’t the self-destruction coded into us? Imprinted into each cell.” This teases at the questions Annihilation asks. If this self-destruction is everywhere, what do we do? How can we escape it?

The beginnings of an exit are found in Tessa Thompson’s character, Josie. Her body carries the most visible sign of self-destruction, the cuts along her arm. In a marvelous turn from Thompson, she is reserved, quiet, and the most visibly shaken by the violence they encounter in the Shimmer. In time, she shows herself to be the most brave. After two members of their group die, Josie reflects. Lena and Ventriss have decided to go further in. While discussing this with Lena, she says, “Ventriss wants to face it. You want to fight it. I don’t know if I want either of those things.” She turns and walks into the reflecting world of the Shimmer. She embraces the change, as flowers grow out of her scars. The damage she has done to herself becomes beautiful. She looks at herself, not with the intent of hurt, but in the spirit of finding truth. It is the acceptance of self, of difference and sameness, of mistakes and truth, that makes her leave. Without her self-destruction, she vanishes from the film. Lena never sees her again.

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Lena’s need for confrontation culminates in facing the Shimmer’s source: a mysterious alien being that clones her, just as it cloned her husband. This shifting metal mirror mimics Lena’s every move, taking punishment, only to give it back. During this scene, I thought of times on my bedroom floor, unable to feel anything except crushing doubt. Times at the corners of parties, silenced by my imagined, frightening crowd. I think of standing before knives and cliff edges. I have faced my own metal mirror, shifting with me and pressing me down.

Her mirror is only stopped by Lena. She tricks the mirror into taking a white phosphorus grenade and runs out of the room. It explodes. Lena looks back and sees herself, terrified and burning. The rest of the Shimmer burns with her. Seeing Lena’s own terrible image just as scared and frightened as she is awakes something in her. Again, this image conjures moments with myself.  Times when I saw how deep my hurt truly was and how much damage I did trying to run away from it. Implied in this moment of both relief and shock is Lena’s same realization.

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The film ends with Lena embracing “Kane,” the new being that contains both her husband and her. He represents her opposite, Kane killed himself to let his clone leave. Lena killed her clone to let herself live. She asks him, “You’re not Kane, are you?” He replies, “I don’t think so. Are you Lena?” At this moment, the sign of her mistakes, of her self-destruction, becomes the possibility of new life. What Kane left behind was not his rage, it was his love. His clone is the sign that her husband still loved her. He is a chance to embrace the other she rejected, as well as accept the her own mistakes. Earlier in the film, the new “Kane” and Lena are split by door-frames and the mediation of cameras. Now, as a glass door closes, they embrace each other and themselves. Lena, once terrified by the herself and the other, now can look and face what she truly is.

Though the terror of The Shimmer, we only find things that meant no harm. When Lena is interrogated by scientists about her experience, they claim that the Shimmer was going to destroy everything. She replies, with a confused and wise expression, “It was just changing things.” The shimmer meant no harm, just as our hormones and natural selves do not. It is the way we grow to hate ourselves that causes the Shimmer’s destruction. Our own fear of change and our denial of self. For both Josie and Lena, the symbols of their sins become symbols of their strength. They embrace the world within themselves and carry it forward. Annihilation boldly proposes that we can only end our cycles of destruction by embracing ourselves and all we are.

The Personal Nostalgic Beauty of Mediterranean Voidland

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In this void, you wander around an island, with tiled roofs, bright clay houses, and ocean blue. It’s fragmented like a memory with different parts of the islands floating above you. You can only reach them through drawings, that act as portals. Thus, these spaces are connected by associations with images, again like memories. A drawing of a chess board leads you to a villa. Hopscotch to a lighthouse. Nonsensical links that you can imagine making a kind of sense, if you knew why. The only audio is music by Palconudo, a band from the Genova, which plays when you click on various water fountains. To me, it seemed foreign and familiar. They sang in a language that I didn’t know, but with voices and pains that I did. It is a startling contrast to the silence that drones if you do not play it.

It is, in other words, a purely aesthetic game. There is no win-state. There is no interaction with the environment, except for movement and playing music. It is nostalgic, but not for any element of popular culture, rather for a particular place and time in one person’s life. It is illogical and fragmented in a way that only games can be, but also is stripped of anything “gamey.” It is… a place.

As I played, I made my way through various drawings. I found myself at the large villa, that hovers over the little town and its lighthouse. As I stood on the edge of that floating island, I wondered what would happen if I jumped off. So I did. I expected an invisible wall to stop my progress, but instead I slipped off. It didn’t go black and I did not drown, it let me fall. I hit the water and looked up. The empty digital architecture exposed, the bones of a digital space, I floated into the blue. Subjectivity and strangeness were unveiled.

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Why do we limit ourselves by thinking a game cannot just be a beautiful place?

Mediterranean Voidland is available for free here.

 

Games I Liked in 2017

I didn’t get to as many video games this year, due to a trip to Europe and two massive open-world games devouring my time, but nevertheless, these are some good ones. As usual, this is simply based on what I played, not what came out, but 3/5 did come out this year. Here’s to progress! As usual, the list is in alphabetical order.

Butterfly Soup – Brianna Lei

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A genuinely hilarious and kind hearted game about growing up gay and asian in California. Butterfly Soup deals with some serious shit: the pain of growing up under restrictive, academic pressure, the oppression of gender norms and the abuse it takes to enforce them, as well as the surreality of realizing that the world might never accept your real self. Its lighthearted tone does not betray a frivolousness with these subjects. Rather it has a relentless, gorgeous optimism. It is filled with affection for its own characters. It believes that all will be alright for them, despite everything. Its dialog-heavy and interaction-light nature might indulge conversations about whether this is “actually a game,” but such dialogs bore me. It’s something beautiful, warm, and powerful. That’s what matters.

You can download Butterfly Soup for free here: https://brianna-lei.itch.io/butterfly-soup

Mirror’s Edge – Dice

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It’s a messy game with a brilliant core. This game lets you inhabit a body unlike any other in games. It’s a platformer that is truly about speed, about subverting a hostile and sterile environment. In its purist form, it exhibits a thrill unlike any other. It’s obscured by design that has to accommodate the worst instincts of AAA development. The combat heavy segments are clumsy and difficult. They cut away from what makes the game most effective. It remains a smart and slick creature. One with a lot to teach modern games.

I wrote about Mirror’s Edge here.

Mirror’s Edge is available on PC, Playstation 3, Xbox 360, and Xbox One through backwards compatibility.

Night in the Woods

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What struck me most while playing this slice-of-life meets small-town-lovecraftian horror is its approach to faith. The game itself most likely believes in “a universe that doesn’t care and people who do.” But the game treats both its faithful and its unfaithful characters with tact and power. The player, in the form of college-dropout Mae, explores a church and its community. They see the way the faithful and nuanced pastor is trying, and sometimes failing to help, see how religion and its power structures have hurt her friends, even as it helps her mother. The result is a nuanced and smart depiction of faith in a world that has failed it. The game has its problems. Its tone is occasionally lopsided and conflicting. There has been a lot of dialog about whether Mae’s character flaws are properly critiqued or too explicitly rewarded. But it remains a powerful picture of people trying to live in a world that doesn’t care, that is even trying to consume them. Night in the Woods is a beautiful, furious attempt to find a way out of that world.

Night in the Woods is available on PC, Mac, and Linux, as well as Playstation 4 and Xbox One

Prey – Arkane Studios

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I still haven’t finished it, but there is so much that will linger in my brain. A corporate dystopia in the Bioshock tradition, Prey places you in a space station gone to hell through a combination of greed and hubris. What elevates Prey above its counterparts is a strong and vibrant commitment to its world. Its progression systems and moment to moment play are grounded in its world-building. Which results in play that is thrillingly tactical, but also terrifyingly compact and detailed. The way in which you upgrade and evolve as you play seems to resemble what happened on Talos 1 itself. It leaves you to wonder what exactly you are becoming. Furthermore, the game leads this intellectual world a startling humanity. Every corner of the offices, lobbies, and living spaces of Talos 1 is filled with human details. Never have the game works of Shock games felt so grounded in human needs and fears. It’s the boldest and most visionary AAA game I played this year.

Prey is available on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.

The Witcher 3 – CD Projekt Red

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This open world epic has plenty of missteps. It callously depicts violence toward women, has the usual problems of whiteness of western fantasy, and occasionally indulges in the worst instincts of open world games. However, all in all this is a triumphant achievement that boldly reimagines video game protagonists. Monster hunter Geralt is not an empty vessel for the player to inhabit, but a man with a complex past that informs the player’s decisions. He has a distinct role in the world, one that the player helps define, but does not create. The entire game is an exercise in empathy, both with Geralt himself, and the innumerable memorable characters you come across. This is a game that respects the downtrodden, the outcast. Despite its epic scope, its most memorable moments are its smallest. Beautifully, it is not always your story. It is a world in which you have a tangible impact, but that emphasizes the ways in which you lack power, just as much as the ways in which you express it. A stunning, hilarious, touching, and soulful achievement.

The Witcher 3 is available on PC, Playstation 4, and Xbox One.