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For a long time, I was obsessed with insanely difficult games. I can say quite honestly that I think this thirst for unrelenting self-punishment came from a desire to achieve something, and it all started when I watched the movie King of Kong; a film about a natural born loser who was fighting to get the world record in Donkey Kong. He felt that by defeating the game, and the people in the community surrounding it who seemed hell bent on ensuring his failure, that he he would be able to conquer his own perceived inadequacies. And that was something I related too. I watched that movie dozens of times.
When I finally started to get control of my life back and set a direction for myself, I gradually forgot about the pursuit of an unrelenting challenge in my hobby. I put down Dark Souls and stopped trying to master Tetris. I began to enjoy video games again, not for their challenge, but for what they offered me in terms of escapism. I used them to relax because my real life goals were difficult, time consuming, and physically exhausting.
But there is one game that captured my imagination so thoroughly that I wanted nothing more to immerse myself in the experience of it. And for reasons very different than the ones that I suffered through other punishing games, I decided to tackle its most difficult setting.
I decided to play The Last of Us on Grounded mode.
The Last of Us is an experience. I was highly skeptical of it, and in one of my many seething, cynical rants, I attacked it's vague teaser trailer as a cheap ploy to drum up marketing, and brushed it off as “yet another zombie game.” So when I finally got the game with my replacement PS3 last year, I let it sit on the shelf for weeks before finally popping it in to see what the fuss was all about.
Far more like The Road and a lot less like Dawn of the Dead than I had imagined it to be, The Last of Us was a soul crushing reminder of the innate potential for inhumanity and brutality in all of us. It played more like a Jack London novel than a survival horror game in its themes, all while managing to hold up a very believable and sometimes heart breaking relationship between the two protagonists, Joel and Ellie, while also remaining a consistently paced gruelling action experience with a level of tension unseen in so many other games of its ilk. Despite being completely unrattled by the hype, I was sucked into it. And a year later, I got it again with my PS4, a Christmas gift that has consumed all of my free time these last few weeks.
Before beginning the story over again, I read up everything related to the game that I could just out of interest for the lore and the design behind it, and came across a few articles suggesting the play through of the later added Grounded mode; a difficulty level where resources are almost non-existent, almost every bit of damage your character takes is his last, and where checkpoints are few and far between when you need them the very most.
Having done my original run through on normal, I decided at first that this was a little out of my league. Even on that difficulty I had struggled through many parts of the game, and I am just not the type of dedicated player who has the interest to invest the time and be consistently frustrated, all for the end goal of getting a trophy or bragging rights.
But the thing that intrigued me about Grounded mode was its implications on the story and the experience itself. The idea that being set in a world of such violent brutality, maybe it didn't make sense for me to have the resources to craft endless med-kits, or be shot nine times before death, or what have you. So I decided to give it a whirl.
A couple of weeks of grinding later, and I passed Grounded mode, a sigh of relief sounding my victory at the end.
While I agree to an extent that Grounded mode felt like the true Last of Us experience, there were a few caveats that tainted the play through for me.
For one, The Last of Us is a highly scripted game of events and encounters. And while many of these are passable in multiple ways, there are a few specific times in peppered throughout the game where your options are limited, and where you must play in a way that is not well facilitated by the non-existent ammo drops, resulting in an unfair level of frustration and a weird level of dissonance between the mechanics and the experience itself.
Two key places in the game, the basement in the hotel and the elevator room in the room when you are fighting waves of infected with David come to mind. When finding a single arrow or bullet feels like a huge victory because you know it means taking out a single enemy without having to punch them to death, the true lack of resources in Grounded becomes very apparent. While the game tends to give you most of what you need to survive with just enough ammo drops to continue firing your gun in parts where it is necessary, the meta game of Grounded becomes finding an alternative way to fight and get through each encounter by using as few resources as possible. So these parts of the game feel jarring and out of place, and in the case of the fight with David, it ended up being a luck of the draw for me which fell into a predictable pattern of button presses, timing, and a bit of prayer.
Wait for zombie A to attack david. Throw brick at zombie B to stun him. Stab zombie B in fact. After David has punched zombie A and stunned him, stab zombie A. Try not to get horribly mutilated in between.
The analogy I have heard referenced comparing Grounded to “The Last of Us: Dark Souls mode” is insufficient at best. Dark Souls was challenging due to the high level of reflex and skill it took to survive. And while the highest difficulty of Last of Us requires a tremendous amount of careful skill to navigate, it is also far more scripted and linear than Dark Souls with a careful focus on story and characterization, which is very out of line in my opinion with the repetitive nature of Grounded mode. It is difficult to follow the story when you die thirty times in a single area. It simply pulls you out of the experience.
In my case, I had already experienced the game in normal mode. And while it was challenging, it was far more of a consistent flow from beginning to end that facilitated my enjoyment of the story. Grounded mode was a treat to play simply because it was a new way to enjoy The Last of Us. It encouraged exploring every nook and cranny of the games mechanics in order to learn the skills necessary to survive. It promoted stealth over EVERYTHING else, something that isn't necessarily emphasized in the lighter difficulties due to an overabundance of resources. And while this brings light to a lot of the games design flaws, since you are essentially playing it in the same fashion a game tester might, exploring every single avenue of possible paths and routes in order to play through each encounter as efficiently as possible, it is also thoroughly engaging and addicting after a certain point to see just what might be possible under the harsh restrictions that Grounded mode imposes upon you.
What it did do for me was remind me that every now and again, a good hard challenge can be a fun way to enjoy games. Not just for the bragging rights or the feeling of victory at the end, but just in the fact that when setting the bar to eleven, you are really pushed to dig into the nuances of the game. It taught me a lot about the design of the games mechanics, and illuminated a lot of the finer details of the games world that I passed over when I was rushing to get to the next plot point or cutscene. With so many games coming out all the time, it's not only tough to keep up, it's really easy to treat the game like a one-shot, throw away experience where you pick it up, fire through it as quick as possible, and chuck it back on the shelf to collect dust so you can get to the rest of your intimidating backlog.
After a year of hiatus from The Last of Us, I knew that I wouldn't be able to relive the initial awe I experienced during my original play through. So I found a different way to play, and got a little more life out of a game that I thought had already delivered everything it could my way. Turns out I was wrong. And after my second, roughly 25 hour play through, and one of the most difficult experiences of my gaming life, I sat there staring at the trophy screen and felt a little deflated.
Was it really over? Where could I go from here? Guess I'll play the DLC, read the American Dreams graphic novel, listen to the soundtrack a few times...maybe write a fanfiction?
Grounded mode had not only made me recall the good ol' days of my personal gaming hell, it went on to be one of the most satisfying triumphs I had ever had in a game. I didn't NEED it to make me feel like I was worth a shit. I had figured that out on my own. It was just one very minor, infentisimal achievement I had made that was important to ME, personally, for reasons that are difficult to articulate. For a period of my life, I had lost all of my confidence, and it had been a very painful road to get it back. The defeats in my life were seemingly endless. I just couldn't catch a damn break, and it always felt like I was climbing an avalanche.
Grounded became a bit of an analogue for that experience. A reminder of where I had been, and where I'd made it too. I resolved to beat it not for any other reason than that I KNEW I COULD. Despite my fears of my lack of skill or resolve. I wouldn't rest until I had. And when it was all over, as liberating as it was, it just reminded me that my experience in the game was limited. The story I had gushed over, the characters I had come to care about, they were all just a static narrative projected on a background of polygons on high definition sound. They were finite, and had an end, and the second I finished, I just wanted more.
And then I remembered that the goddamn thing also had a multiplayer mode that wasn't shit.
Like a membership to the jelly of the month club, It really is the gift that keeps on giving.
Success is a man jumping over a cliff and hopefully not falling to his death while the sun sets.
This might be one of the more ironic blogs the C-Blogs has seen if you don't count the odd "this site sucks and you guys are idiots" post that creeps up every now and again. See, I've been here quite awhile both lurking and writing, and I still check the site every day. This is where I got my footing for a short time as a "games blogger enthusiast" which is the appropriate thing to call yourself when you feel like using the term "journalist" but aren't making a dime. The C-Blogs taught me what it was like to have an audience cling to your every word, and lavish you with praises. Or tear you a new asshole like a psychotic grizzly bear, depending on the quality of your work. But what it also eventually taught me is that writing wasn't really for me; at least not in the way I had always envisioned it.
I was one of those weirdo kids who sat in the back of the room and doodled and wrote dumb little baby stories about space aliens and monsters. The kind of kid whose imagination was bigger than his common sense. And it never really payed off. I was told it was alright to dream big, but when you are in your twenties and not really doing anything except playing video games and smoking weed, you start to question the padded lavishness of your own sheltered existence. You start looking at your strict-ass stepdad who nearly tossed your shoes on the highway one day just for leaving them on the floor mat as being pretty rational. Dreams are great to have, but when they start fucking with your every day life, it becomes a bit of a nightmare.
See what I did there? Trying to be clever.
The first time I ever had an audience for my writing was on internet forums. The first time I ever got praise for my work from anyone besides my mom was on the internet. Faceless people on the internet writing positive things about my work. But it was more than enough to kickstart my ego.
If you look at Lulu, or Amazon, you might find thousands of horribly awful books written by nobodies selling for ten dollars or more. Maybe mom or dad put a few five star reviews under them in an effort to bolster sales, or the ego of their precious loved ones. Can anyone blame them? The answer is yes, but the point is, in the age of the internet, everyone is a star. You can write your fanfiction of Dumbeldore fucking Chewbacca or whatever and someone out there will actually read it. In fact, a lot of the time, it's not even worth going through the traditional channels of publishing in order to have your work be seen because with a bit of buzz and know how, it seems like just about anyone can get their dirty fingers in the Paypal moneypit and sell their magnum opus, "A Hundred Ways to Slice Tomatoes" without any real struggle at all. Maybe just to their friends and loved ones, but at the very least, it's usually enough to inspire the inevitable "Part 2" and encourage them to drone on and on to everyone about how they are now a "published" author.
The blog world is affected similarly. When I first found about Destructoid, it was like finding a goddamn infinity stone. I felt invincible. My long never-read blogs about gaming and the discouraging lack of readership that came along with them were no longer a reality. The first couple of posts I made were mediocre attempts, but even having just one or two "faps" was more interaction than I'd had in a long time regarding my writing.
It was like a taste. But the real dose was in my very near future. And that's what had me hooked.
I posted a thing about some things, and in a day, I had a huge response. Multiple tens of faps. Tons of encouraging comments. More pats on the back than that creepy uncle gave Timmy.
I was unstoppable.
After that, every post was a victory. Even if they fell on deaf ears, I was still not discouraged. Angered maybe, to the point of argument, but it helped teach me what people liked and what they didn't like. So I kept writing.
Sometimes I'd let everything else slip away while I wrote. I would skip laundry, or dishes. I wouldn't get my things done. I was "working," you see. Working to pay the bills. The ego bills, that is.
Eventually I pissed people off and realized that I didn't like confrontation much. I was a bit of a social viper in a way. I would feed off of the praise of others, but would turn around and think of them as "idiots" the second they became maybe too critical of me. It's just about the worst thing you can do because having an audience of any kind is a hard fought thing. But for as hard as I thought I worked to entertain people and enjoy the praise that came along with it, it was really nothing compared to people putting themselves out their to the ire and hatred of thousands. And in this sometimes unfortunate community of gamers in general, even to death threats and insults.
I guess I began to get discouraged because the gaming community at large became my weird, pseudo-life. But at the end of it, I didn't have a friend to hang out with and play Street Fighter. The dozens of people I thought I knew lived in the States, or in Italy, or wherever. They knew me by username alone, and the second I failed to continue writing, the second the "glory train" would end.
So while I was bittered and initially critical of the idea of a quick success story that came as a result of the internet at large, I came to realize that ultimately, you'd get out what you put in. And unlike the people slaving their balls off and trying to really, REALLY be successful as writers, I was just pretty lazy about the whole thing. I'd pound stuff out real quick, not really edit it or be too concerned if it was shit. Just as long as people kept seeing my name, I thought, that was what really mattered. Quantity over quality.
When I figured out that there was no quick solution, that despite my initial feelings, the successful journalists, and authors out there really did have to put in an enormous effort to stay relevant and be successful on a level past "enthusiast", I got discouraged. Because writing was just kind of a thing I did. I had a natural knack for it, though was not talented or dedicated enough to stand out among the thousands of other people doing the exact same thing I was.
But before I get to doom and gloom, here...
It ended up being a revelation that worked to my advantage. I had always said "I want to be a writer, because I'm not good at anything else." But when life threw me lemons, I went out and bought a bunch of tools and became a plumber. Now I'm well into the first year of my apprenticeship and have found something else I enjoy and am comfortable doing. It's also something I will eventually profit off of. So while I still enjoy writing, I have realized my own limitations. I will never be willing to put my face on the net, or sacrifice the wee hours of the night to reach deadlines on a piece. I will never feel compelled to proof read or edit, or redo.
I'm not a writer. I'm just a guy who likes writing.
So for all that, I actually attribute Dtoid as a place that gave me wings to fly. Not as a writer, and not as a kickstart to my career as a journalist. It gave me a taste of the reality of what that requires, and told me, "You aren't good enough for that.
Maybe you could be, someday.
But not today.
Because you aren't willing to sacrifice.
You aren't willing to learn, or change.
And that makes you inadequate."
Rather than killing my self esteem, that thought gave me a bit of relief. It took the pressure off. Because just as important as "following your dreams" is understanding your limits and saying, "do I want to push it? Do I want to overcome the hurdles in my way?"
And saying "no" is okay. Because I may not be a journalist, or an author, but I have found SOMEthing. Even if it took a really long time. I became successful in my own mind, regained my confidence after two years of utter abysmal bullshit, and the seed was planted with the intention of becoming a game journalist. It just mutated somewhere along the way.
Last night I wake up with sleep paralysis. It's midnight but it feels like I've been sleeping all night. And I can't stop thinking about how I flushed, like, 120 bucks down the shitter because I just HAD to choose the RIGHT soccer game for me.
When did I even start liking soccer? I had a neighbour once. I guess that's no surprise to anyone. But I knew he was a soccer fan because he wore a Dropkick Murphys sweater. In Canada there is this weird thing people do where they pretend to be European or whatever. "My great grandfathers uncles cousins dog was a scotty dog, so I guess I'm Scottish." People find pride in weird places.
I found work. The kind of work where you don't have time for anything else. The kind of work that equalizes masturbation time with actual sex, instead of keeping it in an unhealthy 9:1 ratio. I'm writing this and my fucking arm is getting tired because my keyboard muscles, possibly the most useless of all the human muscles, has basically atrophied. The last time I wrote anything was my resume, and it was just lightly edited from a template I have had since I was 14. Probably originally in Word Perfect format.
The last four months I've been coming home, eating, sleeping. And maybe taking a poo. Which is always going to be a little ironic since the time I spend in a bathroom now takes up a significant portion of my day as a plumber. I grew up playing Mario, and now I'm finally living the dream. Except Mario's real enemies should have been small dogs and wary stay at home moms who don't trust you in their homes. And there was nothing cheap about the infrastructure of the Mushroom Kingdom, especially those big copper pipes. Do you know how much that stuff is worth? If I was a smarter man, I'd spend my time breaking into C Cans on construction sites and selling the pilfered scrap metal.
But I'm a coward.
I started to get into sports about the same time I discovered Tecmo Super Bowl on the NES. Video games actually introduced me to sports. If you had asked me what my favorite hockey team was I would have said something like "The New England Handjobs" before proceeding to make an obscene gesture with a half clenched fist. Now I record Darts on my PVR because at the end of the day, my book shelf full of occult philosophy and my collection of David Lynch films are exhausting to even think about. I just don't want to use my brain anymore. It's tired. It's fat. It needs a fucking break.
So I go down to Wal-Mart to pick up the brand new Pro Evolution Soccer because I had the one from a few years ago and remember it being fun. I have Destiny and it's not bad. RPG's are a hassle. My collection of sports games are starting to build. You know, for those nights when just passively watching and raising a half baked fist in victory when goalie in your hockey pool has a shut out just aren't involving enough.
The guy behind the counter is a fraud. His meaty thumbs are poking at a mobile game that looks like Journey had an Angry Birds and Flappy Bird sandwich and shit it out into a mold shaped like Luigi. I've become less socially awkward dealing with construction guys who draw pictures of dicks in port-a-potty walls all day so I look at the one girl there who is bombarded by three rednecks buying a television with the extra warranty and say, "Can this fella help me?" He stands up and rolls his eyes with a little smirk and walks away as she tells me "he's not in this department." But all I hear is my own voice screaming back to me "I HATE THIS PLACE." as I picture him getting knocked over gently by a Mercedes Sprinter into a ditch, his flabby torso folding in two as-
They don't have Pro Evolution Soccer. Actually, they don't have anything. They don't have the Maleficent movie my wife asked me to buy her. They don't have soy sauce. They don't have fucking garbage bags. I've been driving around all week. I'm tired of this shit.
I go to my local EB Games and find out my manager from fourteen years ago who I have seen at least once a year has escaped the clutches of the business. He's replaced by a youngster. I'm getting old. A few years ago, that guy would have been my age. I'm going to be thirty in two short years. My old boss has left for the oil business. He went from games to oil and gas. That's what kind of city Calgary has become.
They have the game. I get it home and start playing it and am immediately bombarded with arcane menus and dozens of confusing button combinations. I am trying the skills challenge and for a half hour wrestling to pull off a single trick before I realize I'm using the wrong joystick. I put a dozen matches in before trying to hop online and it doesn't work.
It just won't connect at all.
Normally this wouldn't bother me. "They'll patch it up soon." But I've become THAT guy. The guy who gets a Saturday off like, once a millenium. And it's just a few short hours without kids. And I spent the first hour eating pulled pork, napping, and masturbating, all in an alternating cycle. And I go to sit down with my new game and relax in an online match and it doesn't even fucking work.
Weekend ruined. It's like being five and being able to rent one game for the weekend, and the game is Ghosts and Goblins on the NES and it's so hard it makes you cry.
So I'm fuming! I go back to the first store that sucked ass, but they have Fifa. Sure it takes twenty minutes to find someone to help me. Sure she fucks up and gives me the game to take up to the front of the store and the guy gives ME shit and says "you aren't supposed to be able to bring this up here." Look, this isn't Minority Report asshole. I only considered stealing it for a second.
But I was too much of a coward.
I look at my collection of games and feel a little like a kid putting his toys in a box. Like, I feel bad because I know I just don't have time for any of them anymore. An hour or two of plot before gameplay begins is like taking a journey through the Tibet to find God. It's exasperating. I'm the guy who sits in his dirty work pants and grunts now. I'm the guy who'd probably be okay with Call of Duty if I wasn't too lazy to go out and buy it. Like a musician leaving the scene and telling fake stories about how he was there with RUSH when they recorded 2112, I'm a gaming fraud. I know what Dwarf Fortress is, but I'd immediately have an aneurism and die if I even attempted to play it.
In conclusion, FIFA 15 and PES 15 both make me a little sad.
But FIFA 15 is way better.