In his review of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Patrick Lee tried to figure out how the game manages to remain cohesive and intimate despite the massive scope and density of its fantasy world. He argued that the answer is in its dedication to a consistent hostility, a tone that permeates every facet of the game. ComradePig read that ugliness another way:
One thing I will say about the tone is that outside of a handful of moments, it feels more melancholy to me than ugly. The subdued exploration music and scattered battlefields go a long way toward that end, and there’s a general atmosphere of tragedy hanging over the world that is rarely gratuitous. (And while we’re comparing the game’s landscapes to art, I get a very Alexei Savrasov vibe from them.)
That and while the game is unquestionably filled with all manner of thieving assholes, liars and fanatical brutes, it’s not something pointlessly nihilistic like Grand Theft Auto V where the ultimate lesson is that everyone sucks. You meet a lot of genuinely good people on your travels, many of whom are being put through the ringer by the ongoing war and the little bastions of warmth they provide you feel earned.
This being said, I love that my general “be good to everyone and everything” way of usually playing RPGs is not always rewarded. Some characters will use your good will and make you into a sucker for it, and it’s refreshing that you actually have to assess who to trust and why rather than simply press the “be a good person” button.
And CrankyKong agreed that it’s often unpleasant but drew a different parallel:
The tone is ugly, but I found it less the ugliness of a Game Of Thrones and more the implied ugliness of classic fairy tales. The game even frequently references them. It does have a remarkable consistency with its unpleasantness, but it’s politics are all over the place. Women (especially sorceresses) have a huge role to play politically and militarily, but you also fight monsters that are basically aborted fetuses that haunt their parents until they kill them. And the dancers at the bars are referred to as strumpets or, more horrifying, captives depending on the area you’re in. And it doesn’t hurt that basically every model of a female in the game is gorgeous while every male looks like some variation of Cletus The Slack-Jawed Yokel.
Zack Handlen broke down the Metroid series and found that its best entries are the ones that allow Samus’ personal narrative to mirror that of the people controlling her—“from relative helplessness to mastery.” A part of that is letting Samus remain an somewhat empty vessel of a character. George_Liquor, though, figures there’s still room to broaden her out:
All too often, Nintendo’s characters suffer from Indiana Jones syndrome: They’re appreciated more for their iconic looks than any character traits they possess. Case in point: Link. He’s literally a different person in nearly every Zelda game, yet we’d hardly know it once he dons the green tunic and goes about the business of being the prophesized savior of Hyrule or whatever. We don’t mind because nothing has ever defined him as a character with a personality. Samus certainly has an iconic look too, but at least she’s the same person in every game. The potential is still there to develop her into something more than a mute avatar for the player.
Elsewhere, discussion turned toward Metroid Fusion, which Zack brought up as an example of a game that retreated from the lack of guidance in the successful Metroid formula. ErikPeter weighed in on its tighter structure:
Replaying Fusion recently, the hand-holding was a mixed blessing. I think Zack’s right that it’s “a retreat from the series’ greatest strengths,” but there are a couple of times where it really subverts your expectations in great ways. Like when you’re heading up this one elevator—something Metroid players have done a thousand times already without incident—and the power shuts off, stranding you in empty back corridors while you make your way to your ship to find a solution. Or the whole restricted area section.
But the flaws start to show near the end when you are funneled toward the final confrontation. In my recent playthrough, I found a secret path in one sector leading to another but told myself I’d go check it out after I’d saved and checked the navigation room. There’s a great story bit here, where the federation puts you on lockdown (dooming the universe to being overrun by X), but your AI/former CO/Love Interest’s Computer Brain lets you out and gives you your final order: Crash the station to annihilate the X. But after that point, I wasn’t able to explore anymore.
I think the story events were a good addition to the series, but they came very close to overdoing it and losing the exploration/wonder aspect. They sometimes reinforced it, though. Security rooms aren’t on the map, so you’ll have to find them yourself. Later in the game, you go completely off the grid and start ignoring your directives to upgrade your equipment. It’s a different kind of bewilderment but an enjoyable one nonetheless.
And Will Riker’s soggy finger (gross) took issue with this whole “Samus losing all her powers at the start of every game” business:
The rigmarole of picking up the same power-ups/items over and over again really needs to go. There’s no reward to collecting them because they’re tools you’ve used hundreds of times before and rarely offer any surprises or excitement when you get to use them. (The only exception I can think of was the grapple beam in Metroid Prime 3, which was given some pretty cool Wiimote functions to pull shields away from enemies and the like.) When I see a bombable wall or a door lock that’s vulnerable to missiles, I don’t look forward to getting the relevant item and exploring further; I’m annoyed by the fact that, after however many games, I’m having to collect those things again.
Samus should start out with the morph ball and bombs, missiles, grapple beam, and maybe the ice beam. In Zelda, Link should have the arrow and bombs accessible from the start or possibly to buy from a shop. Like Mario 64, the game world should be designed knowing the player has those abilities from the outset and challenges them to use those abilities in clever ways before it hands out new stuff. Samus is a gigantic badass sci-fi bounty hunter. That illusion is broken if the first hour or so of each game is spent with her only able to rely on a “power beam” that barely has enough strength to gun through a wet paper bag.
In a For Our Consideration op-ed, Jake Muncy revisited République, an episodic dystopian thriller, to talk about the way it puts the player in the role of both protector and voyeur. Down in the comments, readers suggested a few more games that touched on this dynamic and similar themes of surveillance. DL remembered that old Spy Vs. Spy game and made a few other observations:
This sense of being the voyeur/protector is what I liked about the Spy Vs. Spy game for our Apple II. The screen and interface were like looking through two surveillance monitors (that were also time bombs). The immersion created by giving the player a voyeuristic stance, much like the cartoons, was brilliant, even though you directly controlled a character on one screen. It’s what makes surveillance so interesting: the contrast between intimacy and disconnection, between agency and helplessness.
Time travel games, like Life Is Strange, are also somewhat voyeuristic because they allow you to “harmlessly” peer into the future, deciding whether to alter it or leave it be. Heck, most games, like surveillance, are just a power fantasy. We love to use, or in some cases abuse, this power for our own escape and benefit, whether it’s to become someone else, be there for someone else, or even harm someone else. (The Sims, anyone?) We all think we want to be omniscient.
Josh Tolentino reached back to something more obscure:
There’s an interesting game that plays with the security camera conceit in a way I think is more committed than République. It’s an older PC game called The Experiment (or Experience 112 in Europe), and if I didn’t know better, I’d think République was ripping them off. You play someone trapped in the security room of a derelict ship and have to shepherd an amnesiac woman to safety and mystery-solving. The difference here is that you have no true direct control over your charge. You can only tell her to move somewhere by, say, blinking a light near her destination or causing a door to unlock noisily. You also plumb the ship’s email and document logs to cross-reference puzzle solutions and help her solve mysteries.
I want to talk about a game that I’ve always thought was criminally underrated and so far ahead of its time that people just didn’t get what it was doing: Majestic. Whenever people mention these surveillance style games, like République or Watch Dogs, I always think back to the weird summer I spent playing Majestic—or I guess, “the game was playing me,” as the tagline went.
To catch you up: In 2001, EA took a chance with a $9.95 per month episodic game that was all about unraveling vast government conspiracies. Framed as a game within a game, once you start “playing” Majestic, you start to unravel big picture conspiracies. It would match you up with other players your “level” and set you to task on unraveling the story.
It would call you. (Hilariously, the phone message would start with a recording that said something like, “This is a call from your video game.” My mom would always yell, “KAPPA! IT’S YOUR VIDEO GAME CALLING!”) It would email you, AIM message you, even fax you. It was crazy. If, in the game, someone said they’d email you tomorrow? Yep, tomorrow, you’d get that email.
Why it failed is complicated. Mostly, the subscription model was blamed. But really, I think it was just something people didn’t yet understand. Hell, it began development before The Beast, which is often cited as one of the earliest ARGs. 2001 was prime conspiracy time, but the internet wasn’t quite where it is today. Also, something happened in September that year that sort of stopped people from wanting to think about these sorts of things for a little bit.
And that does it for this week, Gameolos. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!