A radical terrorist group takes control of an Alaskan military base. The dead are walking among us. The only hope for humanity is a group of high school kids who must balance homework and dating with dungeon exploring and demon hunting.
No, that’s not the latest Swery65 experience; it’s a small sample of some of gaming’s most iconic stories (Metal Gear Solid, The Walking Dead, and Persona, for those wondering). Like any artistic medium worth its salt, video games offer a wide range of narrative experiences and settings. However, unlike passive mediums such as literature and film, interactive narrative experiences can be victims of the very active nature that fuels their standout qualities. The most successful games engage players in a way that makes them feel at one with the game’s diegetic world, an integral part rather than a mere spectator. Watching Ellen Ripley evade and outwit the Xenomorph in Alien is thrilling, but it’s a far more immersive and terrifying experience to play as Amanda Ripley in Alien: Isolation and realize that survival isn’t a predetermined outcome. Taking a character’s fate into your own hands promotes a deep-seated sense of identification, raising the emotional stakes of the narrative.
Continue reading “Play Me a Song: The Case for the Musical as an Interactive Narrative”
The following essay contains spoilers for Outlast and its expansion, Whistleblower, as well as a graphic discussion of transphobia and gender confirmation surgery.
For a period of time stretching roughly from 2007 to 2015, horror cinema found itself at the center of a quick-and-dirty form of guerilla storytelling: that of the “found footage” subgenre. Taking liberally from the faux documentary nature of 1999’s The Blair Witch Project, found footage films generally follow the formula of chronicling the final moments of a doomed, camera-obsessed protagonist, who never stops filming even under the direst of circumstances. From supernatural forces in Paranormal Activity to giant monsters in Cloverfield to evil moon rocks in Apollo 18, found footage films encompassed the genre’s highs and lows to the point of oversaturation.
It came as little surprise, then, when an independent developer by the name of Red Barrels realized that found footage horror translated perfectly to first person narrative gaming. The resulting product, 2013’s Outlast, ran the found footage gamut in interactive form, putting players in the role of Miles Upshur, a reckless journalist armed only with a night vision camera, whose excursion into a notorious mental hospital uncovers a supernatural Nazi conspiracy. Despite winning no points for originality – even its gameplay is a hodgepodge of Amnesia: The Dark Descent’s noncombat stealth and Slender’s “find x number of objects” – Outlast’s presentation was slick and effective, successfully translating the grit of found footage movies to an expertly paced roller coaster of tension and jump scares.
Continue reading ““A Woman Has to Suffer Some Things”: Body Horror and Transgender Narratives in Outlast: Whistleblower”
Tokyo Jungle was first released on the PlayStation 3 in the summer of 2012. A survival action game with a strong focus on fast thinking and strategizing, the game places players in the role of one of the survivors of a mysterious apocalyptic event that has scrubbed humanity from the face of the planet. The player must survival the harsh conditions of a crumbling Tokyo, fighting for food, shelter, and survival along the way.
The player is also a Pomeranian dog. Or a panda, or a dinosaur, or one of a wealth of other animal breeds ranging from the everyday to the extinct. It’s a charming blend of challenging gameplay and wacky absurdity, and one of the PS3’s most charming and outright strange titles. It also demonstrates the ability of video games to craft vivid and whimsical worlds with a vocabulary that eschews traditional narrative beats.
You can’t play Tokyo Jungle natively on the PlayStation 4, however. In fact, you can’t play any PS3 games on the PS4, nor can you play PS1 and PS2 games. As part of the hubris that led to the PS3’s obscene price and relative failure, Sony utilized an expensive, difficult to emulate microprocessor for the PS3, referred to as the Cell. As part of its wiser, humbler approach with the PS4, Sony jettisoned the Cell in favor of an internal architecture that more closely resembles that of a common PC. Consequently, the PS4’s ability to play earlier generations of PlayStation games went out the window in favor of reaching a mainstream price point. Unfortunately, this means that the only way to play a game like Tokyo Jungle natively is to do it on the PS3, which necessitates either owning the device or tracking down one of the increasingly aged systems that are out there in the wild.
Continue reading “PlayStation Now is Either the Future of Gaming or the Death of It”
As last week’s blog post might have implied, I’ve been playing a lot of Borderlands lately. My past few nights have gone something like this: finish dinner, sit down in front of my PS4, and make my way through the side content of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel!, working tirelessly to clear out those last few side missions and free myself of my addiction. Sitting beside me on the garish yet comfortable couch in my apartment is my partner. Normally, she would be at my side both in person and in the game, but given her distain for combat-heavy FPS titles, she is instead caught up in a different kind of grind: those of the free-to-play mobile games Neko Atsume and Candy Crush Saga. I look over at her and jest: “Free to play games, huh? You know those are just designed to suck your life away.” I then proceed to return to my umpteenth hour of scouring the same section of Pandora’s moon in search of rare loot.
The hypocrisy in my jab is clear: Borderlands is not altogether different in structure from a game like Neko Atsume. Just swap out guns for cats and you have the same gameplay of enticement (or ensnarement) through rare reward, an environment that encourages frequent returns to the game world in search of a new prize to transform the player experience and further the cycle of play. And yet I will gladly proclaim Borderlands to be a work of art, something that I am happy to probe in my critical analysis of the medium both despite and because of its many flaws. I will not, however, extend the same label to Neko Atsume or Candy Crush or virtually any game that falls under the “free to play” banner. My problem with refusing these games the label of art is not that such games often lack a narrative, nor is it with the fact that they are overwhelmingly games developed for mobile platforms rather than the PC or consoles.
Instead, my problem lies entirely with microtransactions.
Continue reading “The Trouble With Microtransactions”