Wednesday, May 16, 2018

God of War Needs More Hugs

God of War (2018) is doing something that a lot of people refuse to ever do: take stock of itself and its problematic past. The game never straight-up repudiates the old God of War series, but it definitely seems embarrassed by its previous entries. Kratos in 2018 is a quiet, depressed man, where the Spartan in 2005 was a screaming asshole. New God of War wants to be subtle, emotionally complex, and to push its character into being a fully dimensional human being. They even removed the sex minigames. I respect the goals here. Maybe we could try to fix Duke Nukem or Shadow the Hedgehog next?

The problem for me though is that Sony Santa Monica still wants Kratos to be "cool". This is the character's origins conflicting with the new game's goals. In 2005, all Kratos needed to be was an angry avatar of teenage boy id. You pressed Circle and Kratos made things dead in spectacular ways. Or he banged naked chicks with repulsive low-poly boobs. He wasn't a real person and didn't need to be one. In 2018, we expect more from our gaming protagonists, so Kratos can't "just be angry". He's got a son now, he has responsibilities. Kratos needs to get the kid dressed and off to school and maybe later, if he's still got energy, our war god can slay a mythological creature now or then. However no matter how much of a real person Kratos can become, he still has to be cool. And nothing is cooler, apparently, than emotional abuse.

In God of War I really enjoyed the gameplay. I appreciate the reasonably-sized world map. I liked the bosses, especially the Valkyrie superbosses which are the best part of an already good game. The whole style is like that bloodier Zelda that I always wanted the God of War games to be in the first place. (The loot and crafting systems however can go die in Ragnarok.) But I hated Kratos. Kratos starts this game sealed-up in his own edgelord bullshit, unable to even pat his son, Atreus (AKA: "BOY!") on the back. He can't apologize, he can't really open up, and he doesn't "do hugs". He's stuck as a bitter authoritarian, unable to crack a smile. Kratos continues to act out this stunted ultra-masculine fantasy, even as this behavior is clearly toxic.

God of War (2018) tries to make Kratos a good father, and it fails. Because it couldn't make him a good mother.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Why I Deleted Bloodborne

I am addicted to Bloodborne. I also hate Bloodborne.

Since Dark Souls and Bloodborne came around, the games industry found the courage to be hard again, to be niche again, and to be weird again. Our 2011 Zelda was Skyward Sword, our 2017 Zelda was Breath of the Wild. One of those games takes an hour to get started, has a trillion tutorials, and sticks you with an annoying helper who will repeat all instructions twice. The new game just dumps you naked and clueless in the woods and is so much better for it. I never directly played a From Software game before, but I have played games with Dark Souls influence and loved them. Shovel Knight and The Witcher 3 are two of the best games of the decade, and Hollow Knight made my Top 5 in 2017. I am grateful to the Soulsbornes of this world.

And yet, I've never liked what I've seen in Dark Souls. It is an entirely personal problem, I admit. I don't know how useful this post is going to be for anybody other than myself. There's a blank misery to these games that really puts me off. A lot of it is the color pallet. Dark Souls games are gray and muted, and Bloodborne has one color: brown. The game worlds are truly joyless. The developers do not create characters or really much of a story, so there's no personal connection I can draw from whatever I'm doing. Everything is doomed anyway it seems, so why should I bother? Plus the difficulty is "fair" but also incredibly cruel. I said before in my Celeste post that I have a low tolerance for cruelty. I like a proper testicle cruncher of a hard game, but not one that's actively against me.

So having played Bloodborne now (thanks to it being free with PS+ in March) my opinion is unchanged. I still don't see the charm to the atmosphere or the design. Bloodborne has no story progression and no arc, everything looks the same no matter where I go. There's incredibly vague lore, but since this setting is full of jerks who hate me, I don't care. Youtubers make hour long posts to decipher the lore, but lore only matters if I care. The mystery is just a mystery for its own sake, not any kind of depth. Hollow Knight was dark but full of cutesy bug people and friendly NPCs with personality. Bloodborne has one personality: deathly dark death dark, which then mutates into deathly dark death dark but now with an H.P. Lovecraft theme.

However the combat is good, which only tortures me more. Because I haven't mentioned the real problem here: the grind.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Beauty, Terror, and Making Sense of Annihilation

(BIG Spoilers for the movie obviously.)

Annihilation is a SciFi film that is as terrifying as it is beautiful. The film is something along the lines of Andrei Tarkovsky meets John Carpenter - The Thing meets Solaris*. It has all the trappings of a B-horror movie complete with expendable cast members and freaky monsters. But then it evolves into this surreal avant-garde showstopper of a finale. The movie has a folksy acoustic guitar soundtrack that slowly mutates into a bellowing synth nightmare. What you're left with is not the movie you started with. Annihilation is the kind of experience that shoves your brain into a blender and asks you to pull your mind back together again. It's weird on an awesome scale.

But what is Annihilation? That's... gonna take some writing. I can tell you up front that I love this movie. 2018 is still fairly young, but this is probably Movie of the Year already. However, I would not fault you for missing the message or maybe concluding that there isn't one at all. Annihilation doesn't have a villain with a goal or much of a shape. And unlike most SciFi films it doesn't have an easy morale like "robot slavery is bad" or "global warming will kill your children". Even a few critics like Inkoo Kang of Slate seemed totally lost at the end of Annihilation. She dismissed it as "just a mindscrew". Well, I think it's quite a bit more than mindscrew for mindscrew's own sake.

I imagine in a few decades, Annihilation is going to be one of those "pet theory" movies. The Shining is probably the best example of that kind of thing, as seen in the bizarre documentary, Room 234. The Shining is basically just a haunted hotel movie set around a badly dysfunctional family. But throw in some Stanley Kubrick touches and some details that don't add up and then you have legions of fans obsessing over it, seeing everything and anything. The Shining could be about Indian genocide or faking the Moon Landing or a really great flapjack recipe. Annihilation once its been dissected can also be about anything you want. The question is, what do I see in it?

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Celeste Is a Two-Faced Bitch of a Platformer (That I Still Love)

Celeste tries to be different from the usual ultra-hard platformer. Games like I Wanna Be the Guy or Kaizo Mario World are pure sadism. The developers went out of their way to be as unfair and cruel as possible. They're not games you're supposed to beat, they're games that are supposed to troll you. The devs aren't making an experience you see to the end, they're bullies making a practical joke. Every time the apples in I Wanna Be the Guy fly upward to kill me without warning, I can hear in my mind Nelson Muntz guffawing at my humiliation. Celeste, however, is the rare "splatformer" or Kaizu game that isn't laughing at you. Or so it seems.

For that reason, I think Celeste is the only one of these games I actually like. Things like the legendarily hard Mario Maker levels are all difficulty and nothing else. Celeste is only 70% gaming torture. The other 30% is a surprisingly contemplative and personal journey through a young woman's anxieties. No surprise it's friendly, this game is proudly Canadian. The main story mode is tough, but never merciless, and the atmosphere is inviting instead of mocking. The world is bright and the characters are all decent people. Also annoying buttrock music doesn't blare every time you die. Nobody paints the walls in your blood like Super Meat Boy does.

Celeste seems like it doesn't want to be cruel, it wants to be therapeutic. The main character, Madeline, is only climbing the titular Mt. Celeste to overcome her depression. There are many spikes and pits, but no enemies - that is other than the demons she brings with her. For that reason the game doesn't say "haha, fooled you" it says "come on, don't give up". Celeste even has an Assist Mode where you can slow down time, give yourself infinite boosts, and if you need, turn on invincibility. The devs wrote no shame into that mode - you even earn full Trophies like you would on Normal. All this makes for a hyper-challenging platformer that for once feels like it is on your side.

That is, until you reach the ultimate bonus stages, where the therapy aspect falls apart and the true evil reveals itself.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

The Last Jedi and The State of Star Wars

I recently wrote up a piece for Fandom which was actually positive of The Last Jedi. But I kept the scope limited and that was by no means a proper review. I didn't write a proper review because I was more confused than I came off in that piece. I stand by every word, but don't assume that because I liked what director Rian Johnson was going for that he actually succeeded.

The Last Jedi is a strange kind of movie for me. It's easy to praise a great movie and easy to mock a terrible one, it's much harder to review something that's in the middle. All around on an intellectual level I think The Last Jedi was doing the right thing. But in terms of execution? I don't want to watch this movie again.

Now because this is 2017 2018 and the entire universe has gone to shit, The Last Jedi has somehow ended up as yet another front of the endless culture wars that have taken over the entire internet. Men's "rights" "activists" recut the movie without women and random people on Twitter decided to share National Review articles to prove how I was wrong. (And if my take on Star Wars happens to put me on whatever side The National Review is not on, then all the better.) I care deeply about Star Wars but some care a lot more, I guess. It almost makes me want to like The Last Jedi more because a lot of the people who hate it are /r/KotakuInAction scum. But sadly, while those people are wrong, they're less wrong than they usually are. They just hate a mediocre movie for the wrong reasons.

The fact that The Last Jedi blew up into an exhausting GamerGate flamewar exactly the problem. Star Wars isn't fun anymore. It can't be. We won't let it be fun. I said that The Last Jedi might have given the series a chance to live again in my piece. A month later, I think I was wrong. Star Wars is dead and we killed it. Not just the fanboys who can't stand a female Jedi or losing Luke, but you and me. We all killed it. Disney makes The Force Awakens that is pure fanservice from top to bottom. Then we complain that it's too similar to the past. Then they make The Last Jedi which wants to radically remake the formula. Then fans hate it more. Star Wars is an unsolvable problem.