Getting Back to Work

Hello.

It’s been a weird 2 and a half year for me. In 2015, I decided I would finally start writing games criticism, something I had been wanting to do seriously ever since I was introduced to a plethora of writers and critics who expounded upon their thoughts, ideals, and insights about games in ways I never thought were possible. Since then, I’ve written a handful of pieces, on this site, and two at Paste Magazine, which is I site which I deeply admire for its output (shout out to Garrett Martin). But the time between each piece has been growing and growing. My last big piece, a review for Thimbleweed Park,  was in April, before that, a small blurb 3 months prior, and before that, my first published review…that had been out for more than a year.

I kept promising myself and a handful of people (assuming they even exist!) that I would come back strong and start writing more frequently, but I never did. I had school to deal with. I had depression and insomnia suffocating any kind of innate devotion I had in writing, in general. I have dozens upon dozens of unfinished reviews and essays, all rotting in a computer desktop folder, a record of forced interest, rather than impassioned insight.

So then we come to today, and today, I feel good. Not as good as I wish I could be, but a whole fuckton better than I was months ago. Now that I have drive and, above all, time, I am ready to come back to writing.

Here’s an official list of things to look forward to being on this site very soon (no more throwaway Twitter promises!):

  • Wolfenstein: The New Colossus Game Review
  • The Evil Within 2 Game Review
  • NieR: Automata Game Review
  • DAMN. Album Review
  • Laila’s Wisdom Album Review
  • Rap Album Two Album Review
  • Miscellaneous release of some small reviews I made a few months back that I’m going to polish up and just release as “Quick Thoughts On”. Here’s three that will come sooner than later:
    • Green Inferno
    • Mad Max Fury Road
    • Resident Evil 7

Most importantly, to me, is that I’m going to put up a piece I had promised to do two years ago, and that is, to this day, about a tiny game that is very near and dear to me. Also,

And that’s that! I dunno who I’m writing this for, or if anyone is even reading this, but if you are, thank you for your time and attention.

– Stuart Arias

 

 

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Raps in the Void: Minuscule Observations

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Hip-hop! In Space!

Big K.R.I.T.:  Space, a home to bass heavy grooves and soul note introspection, amalgamated into planet sized grandeur, beaming with Black Southern Pride. An artist bestowed with little life support, journeying into the record label unknown in a cosmic purple Cadillac, propelled by a passion for faith, life, and music. Joy for a Black Planet.

Logic: Space, a canvas in which to scribble empty boasts and tame insights on race and class, delivered with attention-seeking speed. Instrumentals harken back to an age known as the “I Miss the Old Kanye” Era, radiating dim starlight. Frat-boy sci-fi, brought to life by skits as gimmicky as rubix cube free-styling. Directed by Chris Columbus (post-Harry Potter).

Clipping.: Space, a stage for Afro-futurist examinations on slavery. Cries of revolution echo in the form of synths, noise, and staccato rhymes, basking in hip Kubrickian sterility. An overused comparison, admittedly. Here’s another one: clipping. is Lynchian, Lynch-like, the David Lynch of Rap: often filled with hollow implications. Spirituals suffocate in deep space secularism, float in zero-g sentimentality.

So who made the better space-themed hip-hop/rap album?

OutKast.

And the bold explorer that carries their legacy.


Stay tuned to a full piece on one of albums aforementioned. Assuming I’ll have the time to write it.

Thanks to Delilah Sinclair for guidance and advice.

Race the Sun – Glow

RaceTheSun

Rush.

Crash.

Repeat.

Rush.

Crash.

Repeat.

Rush.

          The sun is always there, imbuing this pristine, grey landscape with a vibrant glow. It’s always there, omnipresent. Race the Sun, it’s called. Implications of rivalry. The sun is to be beat. Yet, the sun couldn’t be more essential to one’s survival. Sunlight powers your spacecraft. Without it, you succumb to the shadows of abstract shapes, cube monoliths, leering pyramids protruding from the ground like teeth. The more you journey into the horizon, the more you realize that the sun isn’t a competitor. It’s your anchor. It gives you energy, lights your path, to put it in saccharine terms. You find that you’re not as much racing the sun but racing to it, racing to meet its glow. And once you sync with the game’s rhythm, speeding through this space is almost spiritual. The sun. A virtuous goal, one that is so hard to reach.

Crash.

          Those shapes…fading in, blocking the sun. Minimalist shapes. They all have the semblance, the outline of something our own world. Trees. Mountains. Windmills. However, there’s no interest in creating a world, but creating regions. Region 1. Trees. Rocks. Monoliths. Region 2. Towers, Mountains. Blimps. Pyramids. So on and so forth. Each region ramps the tension, obscures the bright mood, blocks the horizon, grows the shadows. A primal sense of fear begins to settle in. That sense of rhythm and peace begins to thin out. Each obstacle becomes a jolt of adrenaline. Each shadow a monstrous presence. The horizon grows darker, redder. Sun goes down. Time. You realize. Time is the enemy. You drive into power ups that speed you up by rewinding the world back. You need that sun to be up there. You need it. But then… it stops. A bang. A gunshot to the senses. You’ve crashed. You’ve lost energy. It’s over…except…

          Repeat.

          Restart? Race the Sun reveals its rogue-like structure. Die, start from the beginning. Region 1 welcomes you back. You discover that there’s a climb. Beat more objectives, you level up. Get more points, level up. New abilities. Different ways to beat time and obstacles. Rewards, motivators to continue this journey over and over again. One could do without them. Developer FlippFly dip their toes into Terry Cavanagh’s pool of holistic purity and simplicity (Super Hexagon, VVVVVV), yet decide to instead wade within the familiar convention that is gaining capital. Jumping being an unlockable reward is almost comical. Unobtrusive, sure, but unneeded.

Rush.

The glow of the sun.

Crash.

A shot of adrenaline.

Repeat

Welcome back.

Rush.

The flow of time.

Crash.

An impact.

Repeat.

New beginnings.

Rush.

Crash.

Rush.

Rush.

Success.

Off-Peak – On and Off Point

Off-Peak - Cosmo D WIN 1 2015-08-15 19-14-32-60

Artistic expression. Capitalism’s tyrannical grasp over artists. This is the thematic structure of developer Cosmo D.’s off kilter and inspired Off-Peak, a short first person exploration game about uncovering the trials and tribulations of working class people, specifically musicians. It’s a game confident in letting players loose to explore and learn from this surreal space, rather than pander to them like the stale first person mystery game The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. Yet, despite never sinking into the kind of narcissism and self-pity that stories about artists usually have, Off-Peak’s cold and static nature sadly undersells its thoughtful characters and themes.

To the rhythm of Archie Pelago’s brilliant and energetic trip-hop, electro-swing, and neo-jazz soundtrack, you explore an eccentric train station with the express purpose to take a ride to the city where your family lives. Immediately, the game uses this setup to present its understanding and concern towards working class people, specifically musicians. A lap steel player greets you at the start, giving you the objective of searching for the ripped pieces of his own train ticket. “I’m not going anywhere,” he says. Figuratively chained to this station, he is an example of the tragedy behind the many characters you meet. Whether it’s the tired hope of a record album saleswoman, or the melancholy of an ex-viola player turned ramen cook, you are presented with poor souls whose current professions are merely an imposed mask, hiding their true dreams and desires. The cook compares the technicality of viola playing with the craftsmanship of cooking ramen. An old bartender, his back basked by the setting sun, somberly relates the arcane nature of board games. A giant pianist, scared, unable to do his job and play music, while his supervisors look on with confused resentment. There is frustration brewing within the station.

Lack of success or critical backlash isn’t the issue that plagues these denizens, it’s the commoditization and suppression of artistic expression. What may sound cynical is actually deeply compassionate and perceptive. Characters express their stories and thoughts through natural and introspective dialogue, never veering into pretentious monologues like in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman, a film that confused artistic struggle with privileged egomania. For a game so surreal, there’s a groundedness to everything. Everyone’s desires and woes are relatable and human. A refreshing and sincere cure to video games’ current obsession with impersonal melodrama and flashy nihilism. It asks of the player to stand back and listen (or rather, read) to other people and understand them, with no amount of dishonest manipulation standing in the way. And in an era where impoverished artists still fight to make a living within systems that prize consumerism and hype over imagination and craft, Off-Peak’s teachings feel relevant, rooted within our own reality.

However, Off-Peak’s biggest failure is its art gallery presentation. It does make sense thematically: a nearly untouchable, immovable space that represents capitalism’s effect over people, freezing them in a form of social class limbo. But this cold presentation robs the warmth and tragedy of the characters you encounter. You are distant in this unmoving habitat, separate from everything, and the little you can do to affect it feels like cruft. Besides being able to pick up scraps of a train ticket, you’re given the chance to tamper with some people’s establishments. An attempt to be playful and reactive to the player’s actions mostly deflates the game’s underlying purpose: listening and understanding struggling working class people. But hey, here’s a chance to gobble down a chef’s last reserve of pizza and steal a woman’s only hope of getting paid for the month. Of course, you can avoid doing these things, and there is an insignificant end game consequence for doing so, but it feels like a contrived way to create humor and reactivity rather than anything substantive. Off-Peak’s static execution establishes glass walls between the world and the player, leaving one desiring for environmental vibrancy and more considerate interactions that took advantage of the game’s humane surrealism.

Off-Peak ends with salvation. The implication is that you’ve been saved from a fate similar to those experienced by the train station workers. What lies ahead in the sunset horizon is uncertain. But the lasting impression is clear: Off-Peak’s celebration of visual art, architecture, and music is beautiful and insightful. If only if it could break away from its cold hard shell, it’d be transcendent.


Thanks to Jackson Tyler for their guidance and advice. 

Batman: Arkham City – A Numbing Joke

Empty conflict.

Batman: Arkham City is awful. It seems that after the success of the surprisingly effective and confident Batman: Arkham Asylum, Rocksteady found themselves ready to fulfill the awfully boring and hyper-consumerist “Bigger, better, more badass” mantra, which Gears of War creator Cliff “Cliffy B” Bleszinski so famously (infamously?) came up with to hype the overrated Gears of War 2. And much like that game, Arkham City is a well-crafted yet convoluted mess that doesn’t know or care why it exists.

The best thing I can say about Arkham City is that it plays great. It’s a a great improvement over Asylum’s already impressive combat system. Much like its predecessor, it’s preoccupied with flow and rhythm rather than complex button executions. It’s an accessible but still exhilarating form of combat that, even during the game’s hardest moments, tries to instill a sense of player empowerment and communicate the combat mastery that Batman so famously has over his enemies. Same could be said about the game’s stealth. Despite not reaching the high levels of suspense of near perfect stealth games like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Mark of the Ninja¸ and the first two Thief games, Arkham City manages to continue its predecessor’s proficiency at giving players the feeling of being in control of an environment and using it to your advantage. These two factors will be these games’ lasting legacy: Batman, the myth, finally translated into video game form.

But myths are all these games provide. Myths distilled to their very core. This in and of itself isn’t a problem. Arkham Asylum’s goal was to provide a Batman story with little to no pretensions. Despite offering little substance, it was honest and concise in its aim to give context to the player’s actions. Simple, to the point. A classic, unassuming Batman tale. Arkham City, on the other hand, implies that it has *something* going on. It builds intrigue, suspense, hinting at a grand reveal. What is this “Protocol 10” that wasted villain Hugo Strange keeps announcing every few hours? What is the Joker planning really? The revelation is an obvious twist that relies on mere Batman fan pandering. Arkham City treats its final moments with self-important grandiosity that borders on the hilarious. The ending forgets that everything leading up to it is just an awkwardly paced story designed to hold long hours of video game content. If one separates all that “content” from the main storyline, Arkham City would be shorter and quicker. Yet length isn’t the issue; it’s the lack of narrative elaboration. And I don’t mean elaboration in the way AAA video games thinks that means (lore dumps, exposition, etc.) but in a way that focuses on elaborating characters and their motivations to expand the story’s themes. Wasting time seems to be Arkham City’s design ethos and its real underlying purpose. It peppers menial side missions and objectives throughout a drab urban setting that could never match the eerie technological regality of Arkham Asylum.

During the credits, Arkham City has Mark Hamill give his most peculiar and moving performance as the Joker, serenading The Platters’ song “Only You (And You Alone)”. But the game doesn’t deserve this moment. It hasn’t earned Hamill’s heart-wrenching, sickly performance. After hours of cycling through the same formula over and over again, Arkham City attempts to convince the audience that the Joker, deep down, is in love with Batman. Before the ending, this idea is merely suggested in phone messages (audio logs, really) left by the Joker that can easily be missed, seeing how often the game flashes new objectives and updates on the screen. The logs’ reference-heavy style doesn’t say much more than “Have you read The Killing Joke? Are you a Batman fan? Do you get it?” It doesn’t take long to realize that these are half-assed attempts to create intrigue for anyone not familiar with Batman’s history.

Rocksteady Games seems unaware that Arkham City strips its superhero of any kind of human intricacy. The developer appears convinced that it has players on the edge of their seats, waiting for an answer, for a thesis on the legendary Batman. There’s a shot in the last cutscene of the game that tries to create a sense of shock. “Witness this tragedy,” it says. “What has the Batman done?” it asks.  It’s a question with only one answer: he has starred in another video game. Nothing more, and nothing less. Much like the Joker in the game, Batman: Arkham City is a wheezing, coughing mess that works hard to look presentable, every cough mixed in with a smug laugh.


Thanks to Jed Pressgrove and Alex Botts for their edits, guidance, and advice.

ARDENQUEST 2K13 – Respect

ARDENQUEST 2K13

Disclosure: I follow Ripley on Twitter. I’m very sure that this isn’t even close close to an example of “conflict of interest”, but nowadays, people will work hard to call anything a “conflict of interest.” Take that as you will.

UPDATE (12/29/15): I’ve decided to not go through with doing a series and just straight up review Ripley’s work as critique/analysis. Read on what could’ve been here.

There’s a burst of charm that explodes from Arden Ripley’s three very short interactive fiction (IF) stories.  Whether it’s My Kindness Is Not an Invitation for You to Touch Me’s fiery parable about consent in public spaces or ARDENQUEST 2K13s farcical, mildly post-modern comedy story about relationships in a fantasy setting, there’s this sense of excruciating confidence that never veers off into condescension or obnoxiousness. Instead, it’s used to channel substantive stories about asking for -and receiving- respect and understanding in different contexts. Let’s take a not-so-brief look at these brief little games.

Let’s begin with their first Twine game. ARDENQUEST 2K13 is perhaps their most off kilter story (which they humbly admit is due to a lack of sobriety). A story which at first seems to be nothing more than a farcical distraction about a young gay elf named Arden quietly reveals themes about social awkwardness and queer relationships. This game is a perfect example of Ripley’s control over the way they write. Mild post-modern touches (talking to the player, scratching out words, telling the player to “GO BACK TO THE LAST SCREEN”) establish intimacy with the audience on a comedic level. Unlike the popular empty navel gazing in games like the embarrassing Only If, or, on the non-comedic side, the dishonest Hotline Miami and the “gotcha’” moral hand-wringing in Spec Ops: The Line. You don’t feel talked down to but talked TO. You feel as if you were in company of a close friend, excitedly telling a story with the hopes to share small wisdoms. Their writing style helps humanize these stories, creating a feeling of raw proximity, instead of cold, distant misanthropy.

It’s fair to assume that, judging from the title and the main character’s name, one is in for a showcase of egotism or narcissistic self-pity. Instead, these two factors demonstrate the sincerity of the story’s intentions. By putting their flaws and fears on display, Ripley sets up a story that one can connect to on a personal level. It becomes a story about a real person, not a character, within a fantasy setting and narrative. And that narrative is an amusing one. Through their colorful writing, Ripley establishes a fantasy story free of pretensions and convention. It is a set up worthy of a Monty Python sketch, with all the farce yet without the sarcasm. And that is a positive in this case, as the story intends to communicate its themes with no snark.  It builds up classic moments of violent heroism to then suddenly pull them away and instead provides moments of friendly comradeship. From there, we are shown the unexpectedness of human kindness (the cave of hairy elves) and the fruits of trying to understand the plight of others (the “cute” guard). It hints at “VERY GRUELIGN AND EMOTIONALLY CHARGED TRIALS” and instead gives us a simple “you have done it.” You “CHARGE THAT FUCKER WITH YOUR SWORD AAAA” and yet suddenly find yourself between offering to kiss or getting to know that person who you were charging at. It cares about human empathy first and foremost. This goes against the expected obsessions the fantasy genre has for violence and social/political scandals filled with betrayal and cynicism (sounds like an awfully familiar formula). That is not to say, of course, that such “dark” fantasy stories are all useless or bad. It’s just refreshing to see one indulging in care-free joy rather than po-faced grimness. And thankfully, that refreshing feeling doesn’t go to waste.

By the end of the story, young Arden has created new relationships and gained new friends. The Cask of Amontillado quest (a reference that displays the insignificance of fantasy’s obsession with McGuffins over character, as well as a small joke about IP rights) is dropped completely. The wine that Arden so deeply craves isn’t acquired. Instead, ARDENQUEST 2K13 ends with them entering a polyamorous relationship with the guard and the “cute werewolf girl” they had a crush on from the start. Overcoming their shyness and exhibiting new-found self-respect (for their sexuality in particular) and respect for others, they leave behind useless quests and settle down. The last line is uncertain of what the future holds, but it’s hopeful. It begs the audience to keep their heads up in the face of uncertainty. Because, you’ll never know. You may find something and enriching in that future. As long as you live life giving respect and humbly understanding others, things can turn out fine. Or maybe not. As Ripley puts it themselves:

but that’s

all

okay

THE WORKS OF Series: What to Expect

Hi.

So, there a few people who make games that I like for the most part. Or a lot. So, as a way to express my enjoyment and not-enjoyment of those people’s work, I decided that I’d make a maybe monthly (probably not) retrospective on their work.

These creators will probably be, for the most part, people who work alone. Though I will certainly make retrospectives on games by more than one person. Maybe by three people. Perhaps six. Two hundred and thirty one is a bit too much, though.

I will say that I won’t always “be nice”. Even though these will mostly be games by people whom I respect, I’m not going to bow down and kiss their feet. My intentions are always, no matter what, to express my feelings on something. Not to create hype and not to inflate people’s ego. At best, I may perhaps signal boost obscure work, and/or the work of marginalized people.  Yet I shall pull no punches, regardless of anything. And if someone gets the opposite idea from my more positive retrospectives that I’ll write (like the ones I will be posting for this month), then that’s fine. Just take in consideration that isn’t a site about promotion. It’s about criticism, analysis, and expression. One that will evolve the more I learn and grow, as a writer and a critic. Nothing more, nothing less.

“But why make a series? Why not simply review their work separately?” Well, technically I am. I will be looking at these devs’ works one by one, instead of all of it in one piece. But there will be an overarching *point* of analysis that will connect all of them together. A good example would be that if I did a retrospective on Christopher Nolan, my overarching point would be that he is a boring nihilist. And eventually in one of my retrospectives on his movies, I’ll then bring up how it’s an example of Nolan’s boring nihilism.

Expect the first part of my retrospective of Arden Ripley’s three short interactive fiction games later today. Expect less insecure and badly written posts like this. And perhaps more Christopher Nolan bashing. I promise.

That’s about it. Have a nice day.