We started the week with a To The Bitter End from Anthony John Agnello about Middle-earth: Shadow Of Mordor’s crappy final boss fights and how that anti-climax the game a story of unfulfilling revenge. Down in the comments, Sandler’s List remembered another game that went out of its way to toy with the value of vengeance:
I thought it was brilliant for Red Dead Redemption to roll credits just seconds after vengeance was served, without taking even a moment to reflect on what it might mean for the character or the world of the game. That was something you were left to think about in light of everything that had come before—the game didn’t belabor the point, because it had already given you enough to understand it on your own. That was really cool.
But Classicist thought Red Dead Redemption laid out its message pretty clearly:
I thought it was pretty unambiguous that we (at least as proxies for John Marston) were supposed to be upset that junior got his revenge, even if junior might have been pleased.
It’s a reinforcement of the very cycle of violence John Marston (and America, by proxy) was hoping to escape with the “end” of the violent West. Instead, it just becomes codified in another way and ropes in more people again.
Also this week, Toussaint Egan made his Gameological debut with an essay exploring the influence of Moebius, the iconic French illustrator, on Sony’s Gravity Rush, a relationship that has roots in a long history of artistic exchange between Japan and Europe. Destroy Him My Robots gave us a little lesson about how that exchange shaped the perception of Japanese woodblock prints:
The history of that exchange is actually kind of hilarious. Woodblock prints are surely among the first things that come to mind when thinking about Japanese art, right? In Japan, initially, making woodblock prints was mostly considered a trade, rather than art. Europeans became aware of them at a time when they were mostly interested in Romanticism or the burgeoning Realist movement, so they largely didn’t care either. However, some artists—among them Van Gogh, famously—took a liking to them and began taking inspiration from them (Japonisme). This helped legitimize Japanese woodblock prints as art in Europe, and that, in turn, is what finally truly elevated their reputation in Japan. And when the Japanese realized there was money to be made by selling them to Europeans, they added European techniques such as shading and three-point perspective, which then kind of killed the movement.
Elsewhere, Venerable Monk praised the way Gravity Rush created a sense of speed and uncontrolled flight:
I absolutely loved exploring the city and just taking in the sights in Gravity Rush. I probably can’t identify all of the little touches that contribute to the sense of flight and speed that the game evokes, but I can tell there was a lot of thought put into that deceptively simple action.
First and foremost are the ways that the camera governs, and is affected by, Kat’s flight. You’re taught right away that pressing the gravity button will cause Kat to fall in the direction the camera is facing, and they even provide a circular reticle to help you aim Kat’s “descent.” And while the camera must be pointed at the destination when you active Kat’s gravity shift, there’s nothing stopping you from looking around after you’re moving. You can get some of the best views in the game by setting Kat on a trajectory past the object you want to view and letting her natural motion serve as a slow panning move for the camera.
It’s also clear that the animators spent a ton of effort to make Kat’s in-flight movement look less like superhero flight and more like directional skydiving without a parachute. Probably the best example of this difference is the way Kat tumbles when you do a mid-fall course correction. She’s not banking or rolling like a plane to make those turns, and it’s reflected in the lack of complete control in the way she flips around to adjust to the new “down.”
The animators must have also spent a ton of time making Kat’s hair and scarf look just right. It’s clear they’re proud of the way Kat’s hair still hangs down (in the global sense) no matter what surface she’s standing on, considering they made it the central focus of the box art. But that static image doesn’t do justice to the overlapping bone structure and real-time calculations that are necessary to make her hair blow in the wind convincingly during flight. They have to get the individual sections of hair to shift away from the direction of motion, but they don’t want it to just stick out straight from Kat’s head. It has to ripple and snap in the wind in a way that conveys just how quickly Kat is falling through the air. If you ask me, these touches do most of the heavily lifting when it comes to helping the player feel the sense of scale, speed, and maybe even vertigo this game is supposed to embody.
I had very few video games growing up, so I played the crap out of the ones I had. One game I played all the time was a PC game War in Middle Earth; a strategy game based on The Lord Of The Rings. You get to control all of the events unfolding in the trilogy at once, either sticking with the script or mixing it up. Just listen to its ear bleeding intro music.
Sounds awesome, right? Hold on. At the beginning, you control Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin on their way to Rivendale while trying to avoid the Black Riders. On the way, you can randomly get attacked by wolves (which Hobbits are good at slaughtering, apparently), but if you accidentally come into contact with a Black Rider, you are fucking doomed. For small encounters, you go to a smaller screen where you can see the individual characters fight (after you switch floppy disks) and control their actions. There is no way to win a fight against a Black Rider—at all. However, there is an option to retreat…for three of your four party members. So, you need to determine who you will sacrifice (Sam) in order to let Frodo and the rest escape. It just becomes a game of avoidance in the early going rather than an adventure.
While that is going on, you can control Eomer and Faramir in an attempt to get the rest of Middle-earth prepared for the overwhelming forces that will inevitably attack you. You can use these guys to start moving around set pieces, send them to collect random objects that will give you a strategic advantage in bolstering your forces early on, or you could spend an unbelievable amount of time trying to ford a river. Every unit trying to cross a river without a bridge or mountain range without a pass is utterly confused. The unit will move up and down the river endlessly, until either the computer decides it can actually do it or you get sick of it and have them make the long trek to the closest bridge. In a game that is all about time management, this is infuriating.
Besides that, there’s a bug where you can manage to have two Gandalfs (Gandalf and Gandalf ‘ ) and one where Glorfindel appears but can only be commanded by Gandalf (or Gandalf ‘ ). So if Glorfindel wanders onto the same space as a lower tier unit, you cannot move that unit unless you move Gandalf (or Gandalf ‘ ) over there and tell Glorfindel to fuck off. Also, the game is filled with weapons and items you find that do absolutely nothing. You just pick them up and feel satisfaction that you now have lembas bread.
Despite these maddening flaws, it was one of the only games I had, and as a huge Tolkien nerd, I played it all the time. The big draw for me was being able to do essentially whatever I wanted and amassing a giant army of men, elves, dwarves, and ents, then slaying everything! War In Middle Earth will always have a place in my heart, but I have no desire to ever play that turd again.
Unexpected Dave talked about Star Control 3:
I played the third game before the second, so there was no reference for me to be disappointed. On its own merits, I loved the game—despite dreading every moment of its combat. Some of the ships you could build were so powerful that they turned epic firefights into easy but tedious slogs. And there are long stretches where you have to wait for events to trigger based on the game’s internal calendar.
The game also made a ton of other very questionable creative decisions, which I ended up loving. All the characters are puppets? Yes! Completely nonsensical sci-fi gobbledy gook? Yes! A confusing colony-building system that is almost completely unnecessary given the game’s broken combat balance? Yes!
And through it all, the game had some very entertaining dialogue. The alien species all have rich histories. A lot of the best jokes and tragic stories were recycled from the previous game in the series, but I had no idea at the time. I loved spending time in that universe, I just didn’t want to fight.
Here are a few examples of the nonsensical sci-fi in Star Control 3:
- There’s the idea that “sentience” is a tangible thing that exists in humans, and there’s an evil space Cthulhu that needs to feed on sentience in order to survive.
- There’s an advanced and benevolent race that hides among the lesser races in the guise of space-cows.
- Intelligent species that evolved from mushrooms look like giant mushrooms with human faces.
I’m inclined to revisit the classics of my misanthropic youth and go with Carmageddon. A very fun, very busted game that combined the visual delights of first-wave polygon magic with the tight controls of a shopping cart filled with nitro-glycerine driving on the moon. It’s aged horribly, to the point it can take a minute to even figure out what the jagged blobs on screen are supposed to be, and the pathetically weak AI is even more of a problem with no hope of multiplayer, but there’s a certain primordial joy in making cars go smash and mowing down churchgoers that still calls me back, now and then.
And Wolfman Jew tried to explain why anyone might enjoy that 2006 Sonic The Hedgehog game:
It’s not love by any means—really closer to a painful, mutually hateful addiction—but I played Sonic (2006) to completion twice and will probably play it again for my article series. It’s a truly amazing game to play drunk with friends. Like Heroes or The Room, a lot of the fun comes from questioning why the game is what it is. Why did Sonic Team decide to, say, make a Sonic anniversary extravaganza where Sonic barely matters? Why did the English dub include a voice actor’s flubbed line, left entirely uncut? Why is there a dark version of Shadow The Hedgehog (already a dark version of Sonic), whose power is…turning into crystal?
Finding the right niche or place for a bad game is really hard, and I think this one really hits the sweet spot. It’s a perfect fusion of schadenfreude and laziness and ambition, and starring a character it’s just too easy to gang up on.
That does it for this week, friends. Thank you for reading and commenting. We’ll see you all next week!