The following essay contains a discussion of rape and sexual assault, as well as spoilers for Emily is Away and Spec Ops: The Line.
Amidst the myriad first-person shooters, retro-styled indie games, and simulators of questionable quality to emerge on Steam last year, a game of an entirely different sort slipped through the cracks. Emily is Away, a free-to-download game from developer Kyle Seelay, is a choice-based experience that fuses the modern narrative mechanics of games like The Walking Dead and Life is Strange with an aesthetic that more closely hearkens to the rudimentary text-based adventure games of the 1980s.
The world of Emily is Away is constructed via a pixelated recreation of AOL Instant Messenger. The main character, whose name and AOL username are determined by the player (and will hereafter be referred to as M.C.), holds a series of text conversations with another user going by the alias of emerly35, real name Emily. Though ostensibly the sort of game where players are encouraged to project as much of themselves as possible onto the player character, Emily is Away quickly teaches the player a few inalienable facts about M.C.: M.C. is a high school (later college) student, M.C. is a straight male, and M.C. really likes Emily.
Continue reading ““It All Seems So Planned Out”: Emily is Away and the Troubling Politics of Playing as a Rapist”
The following essay contains spoilers for The Last of Us and its expansion, Left Behind.
Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us is, in many ways, one of the greatest accomplishments in video game history to date. It is a technical marvel: a beautiful, fully realized vision of a nation in the throes of apocalyptic urban decay. Its score, composed by Brokeback Mountain’s Gustavo Santaolalla, masterfully utilizes somber acoustic tones to cast an aura of dread over the player. Its lead actors, Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker, offer tremendous performances that bring emotion and nuance to the tale of Ellie, a teenage girl whose immunity to a parasitic infection holds the key to humanity’s survival, and Joel, a broken and frightening man tasked with escorting her to a hidden medical facility on the other side of the United States.
It is also a devastatingly dull slog through fifteen odd hours of punching and shooting burly men and grotesque zombie-like beings, wherein the player navigates a series of largely linear arenas (dubbed “encounters” by the game) and must rinse and repeat the routine of dispatching nameless generic bad guy stand-ins in a variety of graphic ways. The Last of Us takes an entire season of television’s time to unfold a narrative with barely enough depth to fill a standard two-hour film. In doing so, the game falls disappointingly short as a narrative artistic achievement and only succeeds as a video game if we accept the premise that video games are nothing more than diversions designed to occupy the player’s time for as long as possible, thus maximizing the value of their sixty dollar investment.
Continue reading ““It Can’t Be for Nothing”: The Respective Failures and Successes of The Last of Us and Left Behind”
The Los Angeles Times boldly proclaimed 2015 to be the year when video games “were better when they stepped away from the guns,” marking it as a cornerstone moment for the medium to grow beyond its narrow origins and evolve as an art form. In compiling a list of my personal ten best games of the year, I have a hard time disagreeing with that sentiment. 2015 was a landmark year for the medium, where the best experiences were no longer the games with the shiniest graphics or deepest combat systems, but rather the most insightful exploration of themes like existence, humanity, and love. Even the games that put gameplay before story – and, yes, many games of that sort can be found on my list – put aside a focus on weaponry in pursuit of experiences that capture the imagination and seek to provide a type of fun not seen in many of the industry’s larger, more bombastic titles.
In past years, I have had to cling to a couple of standout titles to fuel my hope that video games would finally achieve their potential as a medium, oftentimes struggling to put together a proper top ten. In 2015, my hope became a reality, as these ten games easily blew me away:
Continue reading “The Ten Best Video Games of 2015”