E3 2017 – Predictions/Anticipation

E3 is still probably the biggest annual event in video games despite a lot of developments that have made it far less important than it used to be. Those in the games industry and commentators adjacent to it have been asking “is E3 still relevant?” for years now, but the conference persists and I’m certainly still interested.

Getting excited about things is fun. Watching big new announcements and seeing how the big companies in the industry react to one another is fascinating and E3 is a concentrated dose of both. I would lament the loss of it.

While I’ve never been to an E3 and likely will never go, watching the press conferences (sometimes with commentary, sometimes not) has become an annual ritual. I guess it’s sort of the same as people who watch the NFL draft or the Grammys. I donno.

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Wonder Woman combines the best of the MCU & DCEU

While it’s not quite as genre-transcendent as The Dark Knight and not quite so emotionally resonant as Spider-man 2, Wonder Woman‘s a well above average superhero movie. The film manages to be thematically satisfying while also ticking all the usual superhero movie boxes. There’s a finely-tuned balance between humor and sobriety; action and character development. Oh, and there’s villain that actually works.

Wonder Woman is the DC Extended Universe’s first good movie. We’ve previously experienced the disappointing, sometimes laughable, sometimes lamentable Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad. I guess fourth time’s the charm?

On the other side, we’ve got the Marvel Cinematic Universe sitting at 15 films (it’ll be 16 in July with the release of Spider-Man: Homecoming and 17 with Thor: Ragnarok in November). I like the Marvel movies less than your average person, but I’d say about 5 of them are pretty good. The rest are mostly competent if uninteresting to me personally.

What’s interesting is the different ways these studios (and I supposed comic book publishing houses before that) have approached their craft.

The Marvel film empire has found success from entirely competent films, but rarely good films. There’s not a lot of depth in your average Marvel Cinematic Universe movie. Lots of times they function more as extended trailers for the next film in the franchise. But they get away with it over and over and over.

Marvel’s secret is likable characters. Not necessarily deep characters. Not challenging, complex characters, but really likable ones. I didn’t even realize how much I liked these characters at first, but they kept me coming back despite often being disappointed by the movies built around them.

DC, conversely, has done a notoriously bad job with its characters beginning with the absolute butchery of Superman in Man of Steel. And I think that’s the main and perhaps only real problem of DC’s films before Wonder Woman. Audiences forgive all kinds of ills if they are presented with likable characters to follow.

DC has been criticized widely for being dark, brooding, and generally lacking in fun. I would say last year’s Batman v. Superman was the height (or the low point) of this. It left me impressed by the visuals, but utterly cold otherwise. It presented a world not worth saving and superheroes who didn’t seem to believe in much of anything. None of them were likable (with the exception of Wonder Woman’s cameo – but she was hardly a developed character in that movie.)

While DC lacks in characters, there is a certain ambition on display in these films – a visionary flair. There’s a grandiose air about them. They skew closer to myth than Marvel’s utilitarian filmmaking.

DC movies desperately want to be About Something. This has lead to grander and more spectacular failure, of course, but you can’t deny the effort. There’s real vision and passion behind the messy final products.

Marvel’s lack of ideas and themes really bores me. Those movies don’t say much of anything about the world, human nature, history, politics, science, spirituality, or even about the heroes themselves. And on rare occasion that a Marvel movie does contain thematic elements (like the surveillance state in Captain America: The Winter Soldier or artificial intelligence in Avengers: Age of Ultron), they’re never developed, never fully formed thoughts.

Sure, sometimes it’s nice see a piece of escapist fiction that doesn’t remind you of real life. But I think it’s cowardly and disingenuous to keep making movies ostensibly about heroes doing good in the world if you’re never saying anything about the world.

Wonder Woman is comparatively a poignant statement about human nature while also being entertaining mythmaking. This film shows that likable characters and interwoven thematic content in a superhero movie works extremely well. I hope we see more like this.

A Shameless Minecraft Post

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Five years ago I did a post about Minecraft. It’s by far the most popular thing I’ve ever written on this site not because it was particularly good (it actually kinda sucks), but because something like 35% of the internet is dedicated to Minecraft.

Incidentally, the second most popular post I’ve written was about Disney buying Star Wars, so, y’know. Popular things are popular. That’s SEO, kids!

In my old post I made this foolish declaration:

No, I haven’t started playing Minecraft nor will I. The game, if you can call it that, seems like a gigantic time suck. It’s the sort of thing I could get into if I had unlimited time on this earth and didn’t feel guilty about such things.

About a month later I bought the game.

A lot has happened in five years – even just to Minecraft. Notch did not make the game open-source. He sold it to Microsoft for buckets of money. The game has continued to receive updates and is now available on pretty much every electronic device with a color screen. Minecraft merchandise is in nearly every retail space that sells stuff to kids or nerds or nerdy kids. And apparently there’s a movie in the works possibly with Steve Carell.

I hope he’s playing Steve.

I don’t really care about any of that. Minecraft has become essentially one thing for me: a replacement for Lego, K’nex, and all the other building toys I grew up with.

You know what? I was right. Minecraft is a huge time sink. In five years, I’ve gone from not playing at all to building all of this.

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My world from the “air”
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A skyline view of the same – or most of it

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Why I Don’t Want to Watch Any Star Wars Trailers

Today begins my quest to avoid trailers, promos, and other spoilers for Star Wars: The Last Jedi (I guess we sorta stopped counting episode numbers?) It will be difficult, I expect.

I will see this movie when I comes out.  They’ve already sold me a ticket. I don’t need to ride the hype train to release day.

I’m avoiding all of this for several reasons. Obviously, I don’t want anything to be spoiled. How many times have we all watched a trailer only to come away feeling like we’d already seen the movie?

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Debug Mode: Top 10 Games of 2016

It’s been a while since I made a Debug Mode video. In fact, I got all the way through 2016 without producing one even though I intended to do so.

I still have a bunch of ideas kicking around for topics. I want to move away from “reviews” like I’ve done in the past and talk more about concepts or specific aspects of games I find interesting.

2016 had so many great games. I wanted to comment on my favorites. So this is still more review-ish than I will probably do in the future, but I’m fairly happy with the way it turned out.

And it’s a list, of course. People like lists. I like lists. Lists are fun. Psychology, eh?

Telltale Games

Telltale Games logoIn the last year, Telltale Games has become one of my favorite game developers. They have, in my mind, supplanted BioWare as the foremost developer of mainstream, story-driven games.

For the uninitiated: Telltale makes episodic adventure games based on existing franchises. They’re shorter chunks of content that come out over a period of time rather than all at once. Usually a single episode about 2 hours long with 5 episodes in a season. They’re heavy on story, dialog, and simple puzzles. They aren’t “difficult” per se. It’s more about experiencing the story and characters rather than developing gameplay skills. It’s kind of like an interactive TV show or a choose-your-own adventure book, but less dumb than that sounds.

The company had limited success until recently. They made a lot of licensed games that were either based on obscure properties (like Homestar Runner or Sam & Max) or more well-known franchises like Back to the Future or Jurassic Park. The obscure ones didn’t sell as well because of their obscurity and the big name franchise games weren’t well received.

The first Telltale Game I played was Strong Bad’s Cool Game for Attractive People which, as a big Homestar Runner fan, I thoroughly enjoyed.

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I will always love Telltale for finally giving us Dangeresque 3

Last year, Telltale had their breakthrough success: a series based on The Walking Dead. Many, including myself, consider it their 2012 Game of the Year.

WD1

Walking Dead changed things up a little bit. Over the course of the five episodes, puzzles were pretty much abandoned altogether. The main game mechanic became making choices. Who do you save? Who do you share your limited supply of food with? Who’s side do you take in an ugly dispute within your group of survivors? It might sound strange, but this works surprisingly well. It’s far more engaging than yet another zombie shooter would have been (…and was). In fact, it ranks as one of my favorite games ever.

I played the entire saga at once. I was completely enthralled the whole way through. The Walking Dead is perhaps the most gut-wrenching piece of media I’ve ever experienced, but the story blew me away and left me in tears. I love it.

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Believe it or not some of the best moments of the game look like this

But I’m a little worried about Telltale now. Was Walking Dead just an anomaly or have they really figured out the magical mix of gameplay and game writing technique? We shall see. Season 2 premieres next week. I’m desperately curious how they’re going to pull off what they’re attempting.

Recently, Telltale announced it will be doing two new series in the coming year: a series based on Borderlands and one based on Game of Thrones. With season 2 of the Walking Dead and the currently-running series The Wolf Among Us, it’s entirely possible that Telltale will have four concurrent game series come 2014. For a company that made only one game last year that’s quite a big leap in output.

This is what really has me concerned. Is Telltale biting off more than it can chew? They’ve hired a lot of new employees in the last couple of years. Rapid expansion is risky in any business but in a creative industry it can be especially problematic. They’re not building a bunch of new coffee shops or burger joints. They’re building story-driven franchise. They’re hiring people to make creative decisions and make things no one has ever made before.

Good creative products always require talent – not just money and manpower. That isn’t something you can just buy. You can hire people you believe to be talented, but it’s always a bit of a gamble. Quick growth means you have a lot of new blood that might not understand the culture and ethos of the your company and the products you’re trying to build.

Point is: I like the Telltale that gave us Season 1 of The Walking Dead and I hope their success and growth as a company doesn’t translate into a reduction in quality. I have no reason to think that yet. The Wolf Among Us is supposed to be great. I’ll be giving it shot soon.

As for the new games announced, Game of Thrones makes all the sense in the world. I don’t have any first-hand experience with the franchise myself. Never read it; never watched it, but from all I’ve heard it sounds like a great candidate for a Telltale-style adventure game. Making difficult choices and dealing with fascinating characters in life-and-death situations worked well in the Walking Dead’s universe. I’m sure it’ll work great in Westeros.

Game of Thrones

I am curious what story they’ll tell. By necessity it almost has to be some kind of side story. Obviously you can’t retread the events of the books because that will limit player choice and spoil the mystery of what’s going to happen.

With Walking Dead, there are as many stories as you care to tell: just make up a group of survivors. Maybe it’s the same way in Game of Thrones? I guess it could be similar. Sounds like more characters get killed off than in Walking Dead.

Tales from the Borderlands was the announcement that really surprised me. I guess in one way it makes a lot of sense: it really fits Telltale’s established art style. But when I think of Borderlands story is waaaaay down on the list of reasons to play it. It might not even make the list.

Borderlands 2 executed its story about 1000 times better than the first game, but that was kind of irrelevant. As long as the game had a billion guns and some wacky dialog we would have played it.

Tales from the Borderlands

I just wouldn’t have thought of this as a franchise ripe for storytelling. I’m sure it’s possible to make something enjoyable out of it. The tricky part will be getting players to care about the world and the characters. They’ve all been pretty disposable up to now. Amusing distractions in between shooting stuff, but that’s it. My guess is they’ll go for comedy over drama. That’s probably good route to take because all of their other licenses are likely to play out as tragedies. Not everything has to be as emotionally gripping and meaningful as season 1 of The Walking Dead. According to the trailer, a lot of people are still going to die in this one, but at least Handsome Jack’s laughing it off.

Far Cry 3: where the insanity lies

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Far Cry 3 is a disappointment. It is not the game it could have been or should have been nor does it deserve the perfect and near-perfect scores it has gotten from mainstream game review sites.

Let’s talk a little franchise history. I bought Far Cry 2 back in 2008 under the false pretense that it was made by the same folks as Crysis which I had an absolute blast playing. It wasn’t.

The Far Cry series was begun in 2004 by Crytek but Far Cry 2 was an Ubisoft product. Apparently the Crysis series was enough for Crytek so they sold the IP. Consequently I was initially very disappointed with Far Cry 2. It didn’t feature anything like the highly empowering Nanosuit of Crysis. It wasn’t even very much like the original Far Cry. In fact, none of the Far Cry games relate to each other at all. They don’t even seem to be set in the same fictional universe.

Over time, Far Cry 2 grew on me despite some glaring annoyances with the game design like the infamous respawning enemy outposts, guns that would jam on you at exactly the worst moment possible, the very limited fast-travel system, and the bland, repetitive mission design. Far Cry 2 was trying to be something that no other shooter was. Its themes were ambitious. Its immersive design was laudable but problematic. But I kind of like the game. I even surprised myself by playing it twice through.

Far Cry 2 was good and different enough to get me interested in the potential of a sequel. My excitement for Far Cry 3 grew when I heard director Dan Hay talk about the themes and story arc this game would tackle. Even better: they understood many of the complaints about the previous game and were taking steps to rectify them! This was going to be awesome: a beautiful open-world shooter with a dark storyline about the protagonist’s descent into insanity.

I wish they’d made that game. They got halfway there. Some of it works. Far Cry 3 is a good game, but like its predecessor, its design and storytelling flaws keep it from being a very good or great game. And it could have been.

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