Category Archives: Games

Stuff about games.

Bioshock

Never before have those three words – “Would You Kindly?” – had such an impact on a video game. Bioshock delivered me a rock solid ride that was just long enough, and touched me at a weak spot: narrative in video games. This narrative proves a lot, and puts just about every other one in a video game to shame. And yes, that includes Half Life 2 and Portal, who both have been critically acclaimed for their great storytelling.

“Hurry, Mister B!”

Bioshock is a first-person shooter featuring the ever-so-popular “silent protagonist”. In layman’s terms, this protagonist doesn’t speak throughout the entire game (one line excluded). Because the action is first-person, this is supposed to raise our immersion in the game: we are no longer supposed to identify ourselves with Mr. Angsty Teen #35 (I’m looking at you, Square Enix), but we can just imagine our little protagonist the way he is.

In Bioshock – much like in Half-Life 2 – our main character has a story, however. A story cleverly implanted in the convoluted web of storylines that is… well, Bioshock: a story that leaves behind all consensus on what a storyline in a first person shooter should look like. No, in this game, there are no aliens, no UFOs, no demons from hell… there is just the race of men, and their fear. The fear which caused people to run and hide on the bottom of the ocean, in a place named “Rapture”, experimenting with genetic experiments.

The story is all around you; even though you are never talking, your surroundings are. As you venture through the underwater world that is Rapture, you find audio diaries, get calls, hear music, see posters on walls, look outside the window… This is a very sensoric game to say the least: it speaks to your senses, and even if you’re not really noticing anything in particular, you’re always noticing some things. Writings in blood splattered accross a wall. A record player playing Buddy Holly. There’s just so many little things in this game that makes every other game feel incredibly stale storywise. It just goes to show that the medium of video games really isn’t used to any truly outstanding storytelling. Bioshock is like a film by Tim Burton, in which the smalles details has been designed especially for the experiene. No room is the same, ever.

Shooting Bees

But what about gameplay? Bioshock is truly a game of this generation: it’s challenging, rewarding and almost never frustrating – three traits good games these days have to have (unless they are especially made for one trait – being especially frustrating for example). With the exception of one (fairly easy) moment, you can never truly die. Dieing takes you back to the nearest “Vita Chamber”, where you are revived. you get to keep all your weapons, plasmids… no penalty whatsoever. This keeps this first person shooter from becoming the next best Quickload fest.

On the other hand, you are out of ammo a lot, which can get pretty frustrating at times. It should be noted however that about half of your arsenal – your “plasmids”, tonics you insert into your veins for special powers – don’t run on ammo and can generally be used a lot longer. Yes, they run on “EVE” (Bioshock’s fancy word for “that blue bar”), but I never had any problems maintaining my EVE level – as opposed to my ammo. The downside to this method was that plasmids tend to be more crowd control and less damage. And in a pickle, you’ll truly swear that you can keep freezing your enemies or send bees at them ad infinitum but never truly kill them. Alas, my plan on playing the entire game with only killer bees soon seemed to cumbersome to bother.

A free man chooses

Shooting things will only get you so far. In order to gain more powers aside from your plasmids, you need to gain a thing called ADAM. Adam enhances your body, giving your extra defensive or offensive abilities, more health, more EVE, … You can harvest it from “Little Sisters” throughout Rapture, and this is where the moral dilemma sets in. Little Sisters are, as you have probably already figured out, little girls. Upon getting to one, you have the option to either harvest it or rescue it – the latter results in fewer Adam for you to spend. On the other hand, it does make you feel better about yourself. Every little sister is in turn protected by a Big Daddy; you have to get through the Big Daddy in order to get to that sweet, delicious Adam. Big Daddies take quite a punch, and you’ll have to be quick and resourceful in order to take them down.

So you can either harvest, rescue little sisters, or even choose to leave them alone. The key word is choice; a key word that swiftly summarizes the entire game: you’re free to choose what you do. You can play it passively, relying on crowd control while sneaking in a corner; or you can go all-out damage. The choice is up to you – and who knows? Trying something different might make for a wonderful second playthrough.

The Sweat of Your Brow…

Bioshock is more than a videogame. Bioshock is a piece of contemporary literature – or at least based off of it (Ayn Rand). It perfectly summarizes the spirit of the people in the first half of the twentieth century: a time where insecurity and fear of nihilism within people led to belief in charismatic leaders who would without a doubt create a perfect society. A society where everyone would be pretty, healthy and smart. More than fifty years later, we of course have long since realized that a society like this is impossible. Bioshock, however, manages to perfectly capture the mood of the era without mocking it. And it is this strange kind of seriousness towards the era and its quirks that makes Bioshock the closest thing to literature, and thus “art”, to date.

And while we wait for a game that will rival this one in its greatness, we might as well ponder the answer to the following question: “Is a Man Not Entitled to the Sweat of His Own Brow?”

Alone in the Dark

What happens when you have an age-old franchise in a dubious, almost-bankrupt company’s hands? They might do something irresponsible with it. Like: lend the franchise to a small production house and let them make it into a big title. And what does that lead to? An extremely, ambitious, great videogame that’s  flawed in the most unbelievable places. This basically sums up my weekend with Alone in the Dark: when it blew me away, it blew me through the roof. When it annoyed me, I blew it through the window.

“You’ve got game in my movie!”

About Alone in the Dark: it’s an almost-revolutionary step in the creating of and thinking about video games. It’s survival horror (like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, …). It does however throw a lot of genre and general conventions out the window. There is no pointless hunting for keys. You simply bash the door in. There is no restriction in what you use as a weapon. This game comes with what Atari and Eden have proclaimed to be “Real World Rules”, and they get the job done: combine a bandage and an alcohol bottle and you got yourself a molotov cocktail. Add tape to said molotov cocktail and you’ve got a sticky bomb. Combine your health spray and a lighter and you can create a  flame thrower. There’s a lot of creative ways to get your work done, and that’s where this game shines.

That’s one way Alone in the Dark changes the way we think about video games. Like GTA IV’s “smash a window to steal a car” novelty left me wondering why all people in GTA: San Andreas left their cars unlocked, this game will cause me to wonder why Resident Evil protagonists don’t just use their fists to beat zombies to a pulp when they run out of ammo. There’s a second way however. This game comes packed as a DVD. You insert the game, and you can “continue” your game where you left off, or select a part in the game you want to play. Can’t get past an annoying section in the game (which will happen, but more on that later)? You can actually just skip it if you want. Want to replay that awesome scene? Just hit the rewind button in your menu, and you’ll be there in no time. While this might sound shady
at best, it’s a really cool tidbit that will get everyone to enjoy 90 % of the game instead of just the beginning. 90 %, because the last “episode” is left locked until some requirements are met. It’s so obvious that these guys are fans of serialized drama shows (and of J.J. Abrams, apparently) and that’s a big plus in my book.

On top of that, it has to be noted that this game oozes with tension. It’s not a scary game, which will undoubtedly put off a lot of gamers. But it’s an action-packed, storydriven adventure game that will have you on the edge of your seat with your heart racing nonetheless. The story’s a bit dodgy – and I’m not a huge fan of the swearing (which means a lot, coming from ME of all people) – but what do you expect from a survival horror game. The first AitD game had you fighting a giant tree – this is not a step down in the least.

A bug’s life

It’s not all cakes and eggs or whatever that is called in ye ol’ English, however. It has to be said that this game is the buggiest thing I’ve seen on a console in a long time. Bugs usually don’t annoy me that much, but in this game, it’s different. You see, the “real world rules” work wonderfully most of the time. Everything burns realistically enough and the combinations make sense. So, the arbitrary point of the game where the most bug testing is done, seriously works. Kudos! What doesn’t always work, however, are the wonderfully cinematic experience the game drags you through. A building is falling apart, and you’re in it, but you’ve got no idea where to go. Run towards the light? Dead. Run in the darkest corner? Dead. Stand still and do nothing? Winner! But what really frustrated almost every game to no extent (it was saved by me thanks to the wonderful music), is the car chase through the apocalyptic New York.

Now doesn’t that seem unbelievably awesome? It would be, if it weren’t for the fact that the trajectory you’re supposed to do isn’t always clear, and the sequence sometimes gets bugged because the other cars can’t seem to get their acts together and decide where to go because the AI doesn’t really work all the time. Seriously, Atari. This game could have been so much better if it had gotten a bit more bug testing on areas where it didn’t seem obvious it was needed. I can forgive the fact that the car doesn’t quite feel like a car – GTA spoiled us – but these bugs are just laziness (or lack of time in design for decent bug testing. Damn you Atari?).

Things I will also not comment on: the complicated control scheme. It’s okay. It works. It’s not broken. I love the fact that you can use the right analog stick to swing burning furniture around, but obviously this leads to complaints amongst people who played this game. It basically means you lose a second analog stick as a camera using device. I personally think this – and the fact that your character moves like Ryo in Shenmue – adds to the tenseness of the game. It’s kind of odd when you’ve got real world rules for everything else though: it’s as if you’re a kitten being pulled out of a cage by paws and pushed back inside by the head. But less painful. Just in a strangeness kind of way.

I also won’t complain about the very small amount of inventory space (check the screenshot to see a view of the inventory, which I
find wonderful). There’s a line to pull between dubious design choices and blatant mistakes. They want to make it realistic? This is a good way to do it. If you’d apply their “real world rules”, however, we’d have to note that our protagonist has pants. Pants with pockets.

The bottomline…

And suddenly, those crazy ratings made a bit more sense: to some people, this game will undoubtedly be broken. In this game, you will die a lot. You will swear a lot. At a lot of times, you will not know what to do. But, on the other hand: you will cheer a lot. You will gasp a lot. Your heart will be racing a lot. But you’ve got to give it a chance. You’ve got to find a way to love this game. If you can’t look past the sluggishness and bugginess in this game, you’ll never be able to enjoy it. If you can, however, you’ll like it. I only hope that developers learn some lessons from Eden’s clever gaming design, where passages can be skipped, real world rules apply and a wonderful sense of tension is created through interactive cinematics.

Oh, and Eden, if you read this: please, please please pretty please release a patch for this. This game is too good to be treated like this. Just fix the rough edges and it’ll be much, much better…

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII

Crisis Core(Note: this review was originally written in two pieces.)

Since, in between of writing papers, going to some classes and waiting for my thesis correction to arrive, there isn’t much to do for me around here, I spend most of my free time either going swimming or playing video games. Most games just don’t manage to really suck me in like they used to, but it’s good enough to pass my time with, I guess. One of these games is Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core – on PSP. And I’m impressed.
When I first played Final Fantasy VII (the original game), I was about fifteen years old. I remember it as being the video game that left the biggest impression on me during my high school years. It’s this strange kind of being flawed that makes this game so legendary: there’s certain unexplained plot devices, and just because they are not or very poorly explained they work so well. You can fill in the blanks and create your own story. And this is basically what Crisis Core is all about: it takes one of these plot holes and expands it.

(If you haven’t played Final Fantasy VII and plan on doing so, you might want to skip this)

In the original game, we have Cloud – our protagonist – and ex-military officer in a group with amongst others a high school friend of his. When he left his little town, he went on and on about “making it in the big city” and becoming famous. And when he comes back all these years later, his head is filled to the brim with stories about big wars, great villains, strange occurances… none of which he actually experienced. In fact, he become so obsessed with an other member of the army – Zack – that he took what happened to Zack and made it into his own story.

The thing is that, whatever happened to Zack is explained in side notes: you activate little cut scenes when you’re at the right place at the right time. There’s not much to these scenes nor do they contribute to the main storyline in Final Fantasy VII. There’s pieces of a bigger puzzle you just can’t figure out.


And this plot hole is exactly what Crisis Core is all about: Zack’s story from A to Z. Some things you already know (his relationship with Aeris, his parents at home, his showdown with Sephiroth, his escape with Cloud… and his death at the edge of Midgar). It’s like you’ve been given a road map with waypoints, but what the route is going to be, you
have no idea.

You might think it’s entirely insane to make a prequel to a game 10 years after it’s been released. But really: it makes
perfect sense. It entered the porcelain store that was FF7’s story and added some vases. Really pretty, tragic looking vases. And maybe, just maybe, it’s so good because I know it’s going to end badly?

How do you write a story if you know your target audience knows the ending? There are American Beauty, or 300 – both stories of which we kind of knew the ending (or great plot twist, in American Beauty’s case) beforehand. Neither of those had me begging that the end would never come. Neither of them grabbed me on an emotional level. Then, how do you do it? Apparently, Final Fantasy VII: Crisis Core knows. It knows how to walk into a porcelain store without breaking anything and make one of the most beautiful vases in that place even more beautiful.
Needless to say, Crisis Core’s ending tore me apart. We knew that after the Nibelheim incident, Zack and Cloud were offcially labeled dead. But they aren’t. We knew they would escape their lab and go back to Midgar. But what we didn’t really know was why: we didn’t know Zack wanted to go back to see his girlfriend, Aeris (yes, exactly, her). We knew they’d get waylayed along the way, and that Zack would come to a most tragic end. But… we didn’t know that it would hurt this much.

What is the answer to my question? I’m not quite sure myself – yet. But Zack’s final battle against his own company tore me apart. I never quite understood the use of the DMW (which is in essence a slot machine displaying all of your friends – if three line up, you get a power up), but during that battle it finally made sense: one by one Zack’s friends start fading away, until no one remains – except for, exactly, her. Every fade is accompanied by a short movie in which the fading friend says good bye. When, in the end, only Aeris remains, and the DMW starts glitching all over the place, she doesn’t say good bye…

She says she’ll be waiting for him until he finally comes back. And, well, if you’ve got someone waiting for you… that just breaks your heart. And that… that’s how it’s done. It had been a while since I was last moved by a story like this.

Square Enix – you just regained my trust!