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7:04 PM on 03.10.2014

Savestate: Rend the Storm (Demon's Souls)

Demon's Souls is a game without many set piece moments. There are a few, but unlike some games where proceeding through the set piece in the exact manner you're suppose to is the only way forward, Demon's Souls allows you to screw it up and miss out. You can still progress, mind, if you are determined enough/have enough arrows or magic, because most of these moments occur during boss battles. It's just that you'll miss out on what may well be some of the best moments in the game. Considering how fantastic some of these bosses are... Well, allow me to elaborate on one of my personal favorites.


You are a demon slayer, come to the kingdom of Boletaria for reasons entirely your own. Having braved the colorless fog encapsulating the land, you are soon killed by a single blow from an enormous demon. However, you are saved from your ignominious fate by the actions of the mysterious Maiden in Black, who has bound your soul to the Nexus at the center of Boletaria. You soon meet the last Monumental, a guardian of reality, who presses you to slay every last demon in order to draw yourself to their source, the Old One, and lull it back to slumber. Unable to die, and at risk of fading away to nothingness, you embark into the various areas infested by the demonic scourge in order to gather the souls of man and demon, growing ever stronger with their collective power.

Thus, you slash/smash/stab your way through hordes of slavering madmen, hideous demons, and even a dragon or two. Eventually you find yourself in the Shrine of Storms. Here the demons possess the skeletal remnants of the former inhabitants, the Shadowmen, summon the spirits of the dead, and assume the form of their ancient pagan deities. At the top of the Shrine, the dead are judged by the gluttonous Adjudicator, commanded by the golden crow perched on his crown to slice up and devour the unworthy and those who ate birds in their diet (which is kind of funny in a petty sort of way). 
Nearer the bottom of the Shrine, the body of the Old Hero is partially entombed above the exit, where as a punishment for some long forgotten transgression, he was made to overlook the chamber where the worthy dead would be purified in the rain. The presence of souls awakens his spirit, blind as he was in life but just as powerful. 
Beyond the chamber, the final stage of the Shadowmen death ritual involves laying the purified body out to be eaten by the Storm King... So guess who shows up?


Your eyes adjust to the gloomy light outside. An unearthly cry spreads through the air before you see its source emerging from behind the clouds. Slowly flapping through the sky, its long, serpentine tail trailing behind it, comes the Storm King. Lesser storm beasts in the King's likeness roost on its stomach and back, detaching and assaulting you with crystallized lightning as the King observes with a solitary eye, far out of your reach. 

Now here's where you can miss out. It's very likely you will attack and kill the storm beasts and the Storm King with ranged weapons or magic, and you might not even head into the field of standing stones until after the fight, whereupon you would discover the most unique weapon in the game. If, however, you decide to dash madly towards the stones for cover, you may well notice something jutting out of the ground as you hide. A pair of lizards scamper away at your approach, and you draw a curious sword out from the ground at the base of a great, slanted slab. By necessity, you would again take cover from the storm beasts' attacks. Curious about what you found, and secure behind the rune covered stone, you quickly look at your new weapon.

It has solid attack power... And unbelievably low durability. What use could it be?
You check the description.

Storm Ruler

A legendary large sword with a thorny blade, named for one who calms storms. It is said the ancestors of the Shadowmen rended the storms and clouds in the sky with it.

Now abandoned, with much of its power lost, it is an average large sword. However, if it is used in the monolith forest where ancestral spirits slumber, you may be able to reawaken its ancient power to rend the sky.

With nothing to lose you equip the weapon, and test its moveset with a swing. 
Your character holds the blade aloft as wind rushes around it, before coming down with a swipe that unleashes an enormous slash of razor sharp air. Now the playing field has become a bit more even. The storm beasts are felled quickly, being ripped apart by the force of the blade. When the last beast falls, the King dives lower, releasing a barrage of enormous scales before flying away to make another pass. 
Dodging the flurry of scales and countering with Storm Ruler, you eventually bring down the Storm King, who dies after giving one final, unnatural cry. 
Its soul is yours.


Demon's Souls doesn't really give you power all at once. It's really more of a slow drip feed, and when you look at where you are after playing awhile you can see that your growth has been considerable. Spells and miracles aren't massive cannons of force unless you build your character to make them that way, and even the more powerful spells are often limited after a fashion. At the bottom of the Shrine of Storms, you are capable of wielding this sudden and immense power, which is possibly unparalleled with anything that you may have used until or even after that point. It isn't mandatory that you do use it, and it's even probable that you miss it entirely, and you can't use it anywhere else. It's a great and refreshing moment that doesn't break the mold of the game. 

This may be over-thinking it a little, but it could be considered almost symbolic of one of the strongest tenets the Souls series possesses: Options.
You can use this thing, this may be what the designers intended you to do in this situation, but if you don't pay attention you'll be completely oblivious to it. You need to explore to find the best things, even when danger is bearing down on you, but even then, if you don't follow the intended path, you can overcome the challenges presented to you on your own merit, in the way you choose. 

Or maybe it could just be there for players who don't have many ranged attack options.
In any case, using an ancient, spiral-bladed sword to summon whirlwinds that tear apart a demonic, cyclopean (in two senses of the word), flying manta ray manifestation of a dead culture's god, while the sea crashes below and crepuscular rays shine through the cracks in the clouds as they churn majestically in the sky is pretty rad.   read

7:38 AM on 01.06.2014

Save State: 'Car'mic Revenge (Saints Row 2)

For me, Saints Row 2 very well may sit at the top of the sandbox genre, a position that it got out of misunderstanding, targeting the wrong demographic, and laziness.  Please, let me explain.  Actually...there is too much.  Let me sum up:  Saints Row 1 and 2 are both playing the story incredibly straight.  You are a gangster in charge of a mob, and you do gangster like things.  If someone at a bar talks bad about your gang, you crash a bottle across their face.  If someone disrespects one of your homies, you chase them through the streets.  In my mind, the developers intended you to play the game as a young, urban, tatted up gansta in a wifebeater, cruising the streets in your convertible, and making that ass drop with your sweet hydraulics.  Or something.  In character creation, all this begins to change for the unorthodox for most players.  

Where to begin?  First, pick your character’s gender.  Male or female, right?  Actually...Saints Row 2 has a slider for gender, which affects how….lucky...your character was.  If you like, you can leave that bad boy/girl right in the middle.  You can choose your age, and your hairstyle.  I originally enjoyed a fisheyed ginger with good intentions, but on PC I switched to a balding fat man who is basically living like Walter White (in my head).  All of the options for hair and body type felt like they were there just to balance things out...they never intended people to choose the comb over, but they modeled it already, so throw it on the list.  If you have super skinny, you must have super fat, so put those there.  And after character creation, things get even stranger...nothing is restricted to your character.  Meaning my white, obese, middle aged man can run around wearing panties with little hearts on them.  He can have a butterfly tramp stamp.  And he wears these flags proudly as he guns down rival gang members, sprays septic juices onto houses, and smokes a fat blunt.

And is able to completely negate the effects of recoil, apparently

I have found that the dual nature of the self created character with the unironic dialog really adds a whole new dimension to the story and its characters:  where a standard character would be acting like a badass, my guy just seems tired of it all.  No Pierce, you plan sucks.  Jesus, Shaundi, is there anyone that you haven’t slept with?  I know how to run a gang, I know your gang isn’t half the gang mine was, get off my turf or die.  One of my favorite moments was when the character was sitting in a bar, watching the news anchor talk about the Saints latest crimes.  A patron bad mouths the Saints and says to change the channel.  Without missing a beat, my character picks up a bottle, smashes him across the face, and changes the channel with a half drunken self satisfied grin.  It all just fit too perfectly.  It is this Sitcom like entertainment that makes some of the things happen in the game hit harder, because this game gets hella real.

I’m sorry.

The game gets very intense.  If it weren't for the comedy, it would be so much harder to root for the protagonist, and some of the actions might be too much to handle.  Needless to say, 


The Setup:

As you begin to rebuild your gang, you recruit three lieutenants, Carlos, Shaundi, and Pierce.  Carlos is in charge of telling you about the Brotherhood:  the red gang, full of tattoos, who love their cars.  Things start out on a different note with their leader, Maero.  Maero knows who you are and, in fact, respects the Saints.  In their absence, he  has built up quite an empire through gun smuggling, among other illicit activities.  He tells you that because he respects you, he will give you a no questions asked, no favors needed 20% cut.  This, of course, is an egregious insult to the leader of the Saints, and beings your campaign to take back their parts of the city.

This is Maero, the voice of reason in this situation

The first act that you perform is holding up their mechanic (a former member of your gang, who changed allegiance) at gunpoint, forcing him to rig explosives to the gang member’s cars.  This, naturally, sends Maero into a rage at the insolence of the Saints not accepting his rather generous offer.  After harassing the mechanic a bit, life returns to normal…

For the Brotherhood.  The Saints are still planning how to get under that gang’s skin.  As Carlos and you talk on a train, they discuss the two things the gang likes:  cars and tattoos.  Then, you get a light bulb up above your head as you spot a nuclear power plant.  After picking up a Geiger counter, you break into the power plant’s island, and find what you are looking for:  radioactive waste.  Wasting no time, you transport this waste to the local tattoo parlor, to be mixed in with the ink.  The player then gets to watch in either glee or disgust as Maero gets his new tattoo on his face, which promptly begins to burn away.  All because of that 20%....Then, two things happen, almost back to back:

The Moment

You receive a call from Carlos’ phone, but instead of Carlos, you hear Jessica (Maero’s girlfriend) on the other end.  She informs you, after some banter, that they are going to make Carlos’ face match Maero’s.  You transverse the city, and hunt down Donnie the mechanic.  After roughing him up, he finally spills the beans on their plans:  they have kidnapped Carlos and are taking him near the beach.  Flooring it, you drive down to find out what his fate is.

As you approach, you see your objective:  a red pickup truck, a chain tied to the hitch, and Carlos, tied face down, attached by his ankles to the chain.  After an unsettlingly long chase, you force the car to stop, kill the drivers, and get over to Carlos.  As you turn over Carlos, all you can see are ripped clothes, torn skin, and blood.  You attempt to free him from the chains, and fail.  You try to pick him up off the ground, but are only met by wheezing gasps of pain.  He puts up his arm, now with small rivers of blood pouring down, to meet your hand.  And you clasp hands, you pull up a gun in your other hand, and end his pain.

By a stroke of luck, Shaundi is standing near a bank as a red car almost runs her over.  A woman steps out, and talks about how her depositing the contents of a briefcase is going to deal a blow to the Saints.  The name on the car?  Jessica.

Yet again, you put the pedal to the metal as you begin your pursuit.  As you arrive, Jessica is still at the bank.  You begin by using her as a human shield to protect you against all of the police officers in the bank, naturally stealing the money that was in the case in the process.  All while keeping her between you and the SWAT team that is pouring into the bank, you slowly make your way over to her car.  You pop the trunk and stuff her inside.  As you drive your way across the city (and into several cars and SWAT trucks), you can hear her muffled screams and the sounds of her slamming into the metal in the trunk.  Finally, you arrive at your destination:  University Arena.  And today’s spectacle?  A monster truck rally.

You place her car as the last in the long line of cars to be run over.  As Maero, in his monster truck, comes barreling across the other destroyed cars, all you see is him laughing, the audience cheering him on, and Jessica’s terrified screams inside of the trunk.  After going onto its back wheels, Maero’s car catches some air, crashing into the last car with a gut wrenching smash.  He get’s out, triumphant after beating his rival in the race.  Then everything goes quiet as you walk forward, clapping slowly.  After a brief exchange of the usual threats, you throw the keys over to Maero, and make your peace for the night, stating:  “Do me a favor. When you check the trunk, just remember you should have offered me something better than twenty percent.”

As you slowly walk away, we see Maero open the trunk, then immediately fall to his knees.

You can watch the mission here:

The Impact:….That is some straight up Scott Tenorman style revenge that you just got on this guy.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but you made him run over his girlfriend with his own truck, then bore witness as he stares at what are now her remains.  All because a gang leader, who built an empire in your absence, had the balls to offer you 20% of everything he was making in return for nothing.  Nothing at all.  Your character is insane.  Literally insane.  Demented, and twisted.  Looking at GTA4, you had good intentions for what you were doing.  You had to find the man who sold out your family, or help your cousin, or whatever...but this?  There was no doubt at that point in my mind, and likely anyone else’s, that you are not playing a villain at this point.  

I think what shocked me most about this mission is that at no point does it tell the player exactly what you are doing.  You start by finding Jessica, then you steal from her, then you take her hostage.  From there, the game is just telling you to drive.  Do not question where.  Do not question why.  This theme is also in Carlos’ fate, where they only tell you enough to get your curiosity piqued.  You know something big is happening, but you aren’t quite sure what.  Then, moments before the events are taking place in ‘game time’, the player is able to figure out exactly what is going down, but usually at that point it is too late for any kind of deep consideration - events are in motion, the trap has been set.  Maybe this is all some intricate metaphor for what it is like to be insane - on one hand you have the player who has created the character, created the clothing, and makes the actual decision.  On the other hand you have this ruthless gang leader’s spirit inside of your vessel, enacting plans as he sees fit.

The whole scene brings up an incredibly wide range of emotions when I watch it play out.  There is the revenge for what happened to Carlos - a character who is constantly sucking up to you, trying to help out, but most importantly came off as young and somewhat innocent.  Paying back the gang that killed him feels incredibly good.  On the other side is Jessica.  I’m all good with getting revenge, but she was in no way involved in the gang activities...she was just dating the head guy.  Her entire being to the Saints is just a means to an end, an object to be used to send a message, and she is essentially tortured in her last moments alive...battered and bound in a trunk, only to hear an ever increasing engine, wondering if it will ever hit her compartment.  Maybe he will drive over?  But on the other hand, its a big truck, and it is growling louder and louder with each passing moment...That kind of mental agony makes my stomach completely churn over.  You do some twisted things to some other gang leaders later on, but none of it is as harsh as what happened to the girl who dared to date a leader.  It would have been kinder had you just shot her and dropper her body on Maero’s porch.  Then there is the guilt from Maero, and watching him change from triumphant to annoyed then ultimately, devastated.  The ending of his story is like some kind of greek tragedy.  As an observer to this situation, it is hard to know who to root for.  Should we feel justified in our actions, or repelled by just how far the Saints are willing to go?  Can you still root for the protagonist when their methods to get a better cut of something that have no right to demand includes the killing of innocents and torture?  Does this answer change if you are wearing nothing but panties and a bowler while you do it?   read

4:55 PM on 12.02.2013

Save State: Tiamat's Bridge (Final Fantasy 1)

It is strange for me to think that for anyone slightly older than I am, every game was something that they got to experience - something new, but something within memory.  For everyone younger, games as we know them were something that are just a given.  Growing up today, children might see their parents playing games on the Xbox 1 and PS4, and wax nostalgic about those good old days.  As for me, I remember picking up certains games - Secret of Evermore, Earthbound, and 7th Sage, to name a few.  But then there were games like Bubble Bobble, Mario, and Joe and Mac that I just always remember as being there.  One of the games that I took for granted was the original Final Fantasy.  I only remember playing it half from memory, and half from the amazing strategy guide that Nintendo Power provided:

Also, ohmygod nostalgia.

There were many fantastic moments in that game - from the brutal fight with Astos, the Hall of Giants, backwards talking brooms, sailing the open seas, and the absolute freedom of flying aboard a sunken airship.  In fact, just thinking about the fight with Bikke fills my heart with childlike glee.  And then there’s the soundtrack!  But no, today, I wanted to focus on the Flying Fortress, home of the Wind Crystal.  

The Setup

After acquiring the aforementioned airship, you and your party fly out to the desert to find Mirage Tower - home of the Wind Crystal, defended by the last of the four Fiends, Tiamat.  The previous 3 fiends were positively monstrous.  There was Lich - who polluted the earth, Kary - who guarded the crystal of fire inside of an active volcano, and Kraken - who sank the water crystal to a shrine under the sea causing the oceans to rage.  Each Fiend was exponentially more powerful than the last, and each was on a scale like no other.  

It is interesting how the game communicated the sense of enemy size to the player.  The maximum number of enemies the grid could hold was 9, in a 3 by 3 formation.  If the enemies were larger, they were held in a 2 by 2 grid, and this was reserved for giants and trolls.  Then, finally, there was a spot reserved for Fiends:  ancient wicked monsters, larger than giants, and more powerful than time itself.  They took up the entire screen.  Every other fight in the game let you select which target you attacked, but the Fiends only allowed you to select your command...were you planning on hitting something else?  It really gave a sense of scale to these monsters, and made the fights feel unique, and grand.  

The four Warriors of Light ascend up Mirage tower - a pillar made out of sandstone in the middle of the desert - you fight your way through a fairy tale, taking on gorgons, chimeras, vampires, and the occasional blue dragon.  Eventually, at the apex of the tower, you find your goal:  a transporter, along with...a robot?  Sure, why not.  He informs you that you need a CUBE to use the transporter, which as a prepared adventurer, you totally have.  Upon activating the machine, you are whisked away to the Sky Castle.  The Sky Castle contrasts the Mirage Tower as a labyrinth of metal and technology.  After fighting your way through more mythical menageries, you finally reach the top floor.  At the apex of the tower there is a single, ominous bridge, only wide enough for a single party member to cross at a time. At the end of the bridge, you see the object that you have been looking for:  the crystal, and the final Fiend.  One by one, the party starts to walk on the bridge.

The Moment

Now, there are two very distinct things that can happen on the bridge:  the first is nothing remarkable.  You make it to Tiamat, and the fight begins.  Incidentally, Tiamat is one of my favorite bosses in an RPG, for a very specific reason.  See, the manual gives what bosses are strong and weak against.  In the case of Tiamat, he is weak against BRAK (unfortunately, not from Space Ghost fame).  BRAK is a black magic spell that has a chance to instantly kill an enemy.  It was often more fun to see if it would be easier to kill the final Fiend in this game, a monstrous multi headed dragon, by punching him to death or instantly killing him.  It often feels like a race between the two halves of the party, which is really amusing considering how powerful some of the other Fiends will be.  You could walk in to this area underleveled if you were lucky!

Speaking of luck, something else can happen on that bridge, and I remember the odds very clearly.  One in sixty four.  For reference, that is a one and a half percent chance.  Your party may not know it, but that number should have them quaking in fear.  The player does.  After reading about what happens every one in sixty four times you try to cross the bridge, you don't just press the up button on the dpad, you mash up.  You mash it like it makes you run.  Because if you don’t….

As the party crosses the bridge, a distinct whistling sound is heard.  Looking forward and backwards, there is nothing.  It can only be coming...from above?  A massive explosion soon follows, leaving nothing but a mushroom cloud in its wake.  The two mages, unfortunately, didn’t make it past the initial blast.  The black belt is badly injured.  As the fighter tries to make heads and tails of what happened, an audible thud comes from the other side of the flames and smoke.  The sound of gears grinding, steam pumping, pistons pushing suddenly becomes sickeningly loud.  As it clears, you finally see what happens:  the WarMECH.  A gigantic bipedal beast of a monster has sprung to life, and acquired your party as targets, launching a preemptive Nuclear before you could even react.  The fighter draws his sword, and begins to attack, only to meet the hardest steel his sword has ever known.  The WarMECH switches targets, and, with a single stop and gut wrenching crunch, removes the black belt from the fight.  The fighter, ever the warrior, tries valiantly to find where a weak point is, but unfortunately his efforts are fruitless.  The entire party lays slain feet from their final objective, and the key to salvation of the world.  An electronic eye scans the battlefield and finding no signs of life, the WarMECH returns to his hiding spot, activating a sleep protocol, waiting for another unfortunate band of adventurers to make the same mistake.

Without the drama, the WarMECH (official spelling), has a 1/64 chance of spawning.  More often than not, if you are just getting to Tiamat, he will kill you.  He typically gets a preemptive strike on your party as he spawns.  Out of a maximum health of 999 for a single party member, his strikes can do upwards of 250.  For a fighter at this point in the game, it is about half their health.  For a mage, it is almost nearly death.  But for those truly unlucky souls, the WarMECH has been equipped with one special technique.  A spell so powerful, even the most experienced of wizards have to prepare days just to emulate it once:  Nuclear.  Nuclear is the hardest hitting spell in the game, and it hits all party members.  An inexperienced party can be wiped by a single cast.  This means that your entire climb up the Mirage Tower, your fighting through the Flying Fortress?  It was for nothing.  Do it again.  

But the fun doesn’t stop with his offense.  The WarMECH is only weaker than 1 enemy in the entire game:  Chaos.  The last boss.  This randomly spawning monster is worth more experience It has nearly the same defenses as the last boss as well, meaning that it laughs off most of your attacks.  It offers more experience, and more than five times the gold of the boss you are about to fight if you manage to defeat it.  If.  

You can watch the fight here:

The Impact

First of all, can you imagine playing the game without a guide?  I never did.  I always knew that he was lurking.  I knew that the moment I stepped on that bridge, there was a chance that I was dead.  I was dead, and all my progress was lost.  With every.  Single.  Step.  But to a new player, that bridge is just a bridge.  Maybe you played the game five times (not an unpopular idea, back in the days when you only had a few games), and never gave that bridge a second thought.  Nothing more than an odd design meant to ratchet up tension?  Then, out of nowhere, comes a monster slightly smaller than a boss, who clears out your entire party in an instant.  How cool would that be?  The low percent chance of it happening means that anyone encountering him ‘blind’ will fall into a state of shock and awe - pun intended.  Every time you see that bridge, you feel that terror.  You have to make a choice every time that you get there:  how much progress are you willing to lose?  Do you want to run the whole temple again, or is now the time to back know….just in case.

But more than that, this isn’t just an optional boss, or anything like that.  He may like look Final Fantasy’s origin story for enemies like the Emerald Weapon, and things of that sort, but that is incorrect.  When you kill a WarMECH, it isn’t gone.  That thing is a robot, and this fortress is mass producing them.  They are always there.  Always watching.  Always waiting.  The fact that there are infinite amounts leads to, in my opinion, one of the most fun side activities in the game...farming them.  As you prepare to make your way through to the Chaos Shrine to break the endless cycle of the death and rebirth of Chaos and the Fiends, you finally gain enough power to fight this monster head on.  This typically involves a black mage who can cast Nuclear himself, along with FAST on the main source of damage, usually your black belt.  The White Mage typically buffs the entire party, heals the entire party, or casts FADE, the only offensive spell in her repertoire.  The DPS classes do their best to take out the WarMECH’s massive 1000 hit point pool.  

I also just wanted to touch on his attacks, just for a minute.  I don’t mean to put too fine a point on it, but he only has 2 attacks:  null - no description, just hits, and usually two.  In my mind, this was always a cold, hard stomp on whichever party member was closest.  The second attack is Nuclear.  Nuclear…  This is a spell that your party can get by finding a secret magic shop, tucked away in the back of a town, and have minimals casts of.  Not only is the damage massive and the attack spammable, but it is named after the ultimate tool of death.  If my memory serves, he is also the first enemy in the game to be able to use this spell - in the past when the Fiends are at their full power they can also unleash this, but the WarMECH is the first to use it in the present.  The psychological effect of being nuked by a bread and butter enemy is just intense.

Apparently this guy feels like he needs a guard?

I know that when I played this game with my brother, we would grab a sheet of paper when we started the farming route.  With each mech we killed, we would draw a little silhouette with an X through it, signifying our victory.  It only takes about a dozen or so to level your party to an absurd level, but it is a long grind.  Typically, the first WarMECH takes out all of your resources - health, magic, items, bodily fluids...Later there comes a point where you can take on two or three in a single run.

For me, the WarMECH is probably the first thing in a videogame I ever feared, and it covered every aspect of that fear.  It starts off with a lowly one and a half percent of finding you...lurking in shadows, not quite charged up, whatever mythos you give it, you know that it is there, and every step you take it could be the final steps you take.  Every fight you encounter on that tiny bridge is a sigh of relief.  Then just seeing was like spotting a shooting star, only it was heading right for you.  You get the chance to marvel at its beauty before it erases you from existence.  Almost a badge of honor to be wiped from it.  But maybe it doesn’t kill you.  Maybe you can run.  Flee.  After seeing the terror, maybe there is a way to escape.  Then later, it is the apprehension that you might be prepared for it this time.  Standing up to it.  And when you finally triumph over it?  Wonderful.  Just pure awe.  Then to finally return to where it lived just to hunt it down, just to prove that you can.  To silence the nightmare, to assure yourself that you are capable.  It really comes full circle.  

The WarMECH is so many wonderful things.  It is the skulking terror that keeps you on your toes.  It is an unholy, unthinking robot that doesn’t flinch at the use of nuclear weapons to take out 4 humans.  It is a faithful guardian to a 2000 year old god that controls the sky itself.  Then later, it becomes a test of your mettle.  A badge of honor.  Then, finally, it becomes another number.  Another one down.  Another mob.  Another monster.  Then you know that you are truly ready, having conquered all that the world can throw at you.   read

9:32 PM on 08.05.2013

Save State: Optimization (Unknown Flash Game)

Hey, so this is super embarrassing - I have no idea what the name of this game is anymore!  I played it a few years ago, but couldn't find the exact game online.  Huh.  If you know what it is by the description, please let me know.  Because of this, generic screenshots, and placeholder images.  You all like those, right?

Have you ever played a game that opened your eyes?  A game that truly changed your perspective, and shocked your world view?  The Save State blog has often talked about moments that have messed with our perception of games, storytelling, and mentioned times in games that have tugged at our heartstring, but today, I wanted to cover a game that really made me think.

Now, oftentimes, the best games are hidden gems.  It is rare that a AAA game has an incredible lesson, although games such as Spec Ops and Bioshock Infinite have offered an interesting treat.  But no, we are not talking about AAA games.  So surely, this must be a game like Thomas Was Alone, or perhaps Braid, right?  No, today I wanted to talk about a flash game.  A flash game that on the surface has no apparent depth, but when you peel away the layers, explains more than you could ever imagine.  Of course, I am talking about GAMENAMEHERE.


No, you dolt, its a parable about the dangers of unfettered immigration.  Jesus, how do you not get that!

The Setup

At it’s core, GAMENAMEHERE is a very, very simple soccer simulator.  You have anywhere between 4 and 10 people playing on different teams.  Each player is a circle, the teams are different colors, and the ball is a 3rd color.  This game is not advanced.  The goal of the game is exactly the same as soccer:  at the end of a predetermined time period, have more points than your opponent.  It’s incredibly simple, right?

The controls are just as simplistic.  WASD controls movement of your character, and touching the ‘ball’ makes you dribble the ball, in that it is in front of you until someone steals it away by touching it.  Pressing spaces allows you to move the ball in your current forward trajectory as a pass or a shot on goal.  This game boils down the entire sport of soccer into five buttons, which is beautiful for reasons I will soon explain.

Further touches on the game include displaying the nationality of the player - not for a fake team, but of the actual person controlling the circle.  As much as I would like to believe I was only dealing with eagle loving, blue blooded, commie hating Americans, the games were actually pretty diverse, although countries well known for a love of soccer  are well represented.  As an aside, I am American so it is soccer, or at the very least “freedom ball”.  The nationality of the player is displayed, along with a chat window.  The chat is usually inactive in game, but used for only the most basic “gg” in the game, or if your team lost, the chance to yell at your players for not guarding the goal..  

The areas in red being people who are correct.  

Communication in the game is often non verbal - If you see two or three people rushing for a ball and one isn’t you, then you are on defense.  If your opponents have the ball, you get between them and the goal, with one person hanging back on offense in case the ball comes back.  The positions of an individual player can change through the course of the game (there are no rules enforced).  Most of the time, any semblance of strategy just falls into place.

So why am I making such a big deal out of the game?

The Moment:

Sadly, this is not a Frog Fractions moment, where GAMENAMEHERE suddenly turns into a match of Call of Duty with one player playing DDR.  No, it sadly remains as a soccer game.  But the interesting part is which team wins.  As you take a pool of people from the internet with varying levels of experience in the game, eventually a dominant strategy occurs.  You notice that if a team adopts a certain strategy, they win more games, so your team attempts to use the same strategy to beat the opposing team.  You try to rally every future team you are with into using this single, defining strategy of the game.

As I played round after round, different teams attempted different tactics to outwit the opposition.  Occasionally, we could get away with a power play - everyone attempts to play offense.  Many teams were left on the back foot, leaving all of their team members on defense.  Many times this involved all of the players of a team crowding the goal in an attempt to stop anyone from scoring a goal.  None of these strategies compared to the winning strategy.

The winning strategy was:  a goalie.  Half the remaining players took offense.  The other half took defense.  If the remainder was uneven, one player would follow the ball.  

Videogames, game theory, and qwantz, in a blog at one time? I am so proud of myself right now

Typically, this strategy started with someone taking goal, and it seems counter intuitive at first.  This guy, instead of playing offense or defense, is instead just sitting in the goal.  Player instinct screams to run to the ball.  Similarly, sitting on defense when the ball is on the other side of the court is just as frustrating.  Just imagine then how the offense must feel watching their defense crumble.  If only they had another man!  But after a certain amount of games, you know that this is the best strategy.

If you let people play soccer online, turns out, they will play soccer.  Mind.  Blown.

Pictured above:  A revelation

The Impact:

“Taterchimp, thats dumb.  Soccer players use that strategy all the time”  EXACTLY.  That’s amazing!  When you put an infinite number of players into a virtual arena with the rules of soccer (X players on each team, score goals to win), the combination that wins the most is the reason why the players are set up in that way!  It is beautiful to see!  

Think back to the invention of the very game of soccer, when two groups of people had a ball, and someone said:  I bet you I can get it into the net more than you guys can.  For years and years people played this game trying to figure out the optimal configuration of players, and gamers came to the exact conclusion with a simplified version of the game!  It proves that the rules for the team do not exist to restrict the teams, but it is to guide new players that it is the most optimal way to play the game.

Above: Non optimal play

I feel like here I have to tell you why I find this so special.  For the past 4 years I have worked in a Six Sigma department at a well rated company.  My job day in and day out requires me to identify flaws in processes and try and fix them to reduce the defects to a minimal level.  My company doesn’t produce widgets like a factory would, so my job is basically identifying process improvement capabilities - where can we reduce manual processes and improve overall efficiencies? So I definitely have a keen eye for things like this, and I might be slightly biased/over excited when I notice something like this.

Consider any other permutation of a team - too much offense means that your defense has an enormous gap should the opposing offense get the ball on your side of the field.  No goalie means that you cannot stop an offense.  A single player on offense means you cannot hope to escape a defensive rush.  Players are better off not switching sides in the heat of the moment, and maintain their position in case of a change in possession.  It is the most optimal way of playing the game.

Reference all the things!

At its core, this reminds me of the scientific experiments that use nature to fix problems that programmers have spent hours upon hours to program. One such program was to find the most optimal path between a series of points (the traveling salesman problem).  The example I have read the most on is for public transit - what is the most optimal organization of subway lines between cities?  Model after model produced the optimal solution for how everything should be laid out, and thus the entire system was based off of these calculations.  But the same results could be replicated more or less exactly by making each city a food supply for mold, and watching how the mold recreates the path.  All the math, logic, and calculations, reduced to simply asking nature what the best way to do it is.  Nature, truly, does find a way.  There is such a beauty in being able to watch players come up with the best way to play a sport organically, with no rules to bind them, with no instructions, and no penalties.  

As for the personal impact, as soon as I realized what was happening, my mind was kind of blown.  I found myself using the chat function to assign players as goalies, determining if someone should stay on offense or defense.  After realizing that every team should have a plan, it stopped being reactionary to a team having a ball, and started to be a matter of holding our positions.  Then I took myself out of this game, and out of soccer:  this applies to every sport.  Baseball.  Basketball.  Football.  We do not have these rules and regulations because someone wrote them down that way, we have them because it is the best possible way to play the sport.  And because of this, teams aren’t judged by their strategy, but are instead judged by their skill (mostly - there are of course different formations and plays that can be used, but the core configuration remains consistent).

Now, think about how this applies to video games that we play.  When you play Street Fighter and choose Ryu or Ken, are you picking the cheap character, or the best character for the sport?  Are the best players the one’s who use their skills, or the ones who adhere to what the most optimal way to play the game is?  In DOTA or Counter Strike, is there a single optimal strategy that would lead to victory?  Have hours upon hours of playing the game with millions upon millions of people discovered the optimal strategy yet, or are we still playing those games ‘wrong’?

And all that comes from a single, simple, flash game...   read

5:04 PM on 06.24.2013

Save State: A Candid Discussion (Spec Ops: The Line)

One of the biggest letdowns that a gamer can experience is to have an experience spoiled before they get a chance to play the game.  There have been many games that have had a pivotal moment in the narrative that if the player has advanced warning, lack that same impact.  I remember the largest one here on DToid was Bioshock - I didn’t own a 360 when the game first came out, and after a year the spoiler became a running joke in the community.  Sometimes, there is a price to pay for not being in ‘the now’.  As I played through the game, when I reached that pivotal scene, it didn’t blow my mind.  It didn’t warp my perception of player agency, it didn't put me into a state of shock and self questioning, and until a few days ago I wondered if it was because it was spoiled and it didn't resonate with me.

This is the point where I say this blog is about Spec Ops: the Line, and contains spoilers.  

I played Spec Ops back in January, six months after its release.  All of the major scenes had been spoiled for me, but I had still heard it was a harrowing journey into the depths of the human mind and soul.  Even Zero Punctuation liked it!  Surely, this game would resonate with me.  Well, spoilers, the first time I played it I wasn’t impressed.  I played through the campaign to completion, and only felt...confused?  Maybe not confused as much as empty.  I didn’t get it.  It didn’t click.  And that really got under my skin.  I love narrative driven games, why can’t I get into this one?!  So I did as much research as I could stand.  I read up on countless blogs, I watched videos online, and I even considered reading a book.  I didn’t, but I thought about it, and it is the thought that counts, right?  I came to a point where I understood the game and the impact, but it still didn’t resonate with me.

Then, recently, there was a blog posted about the game.  About why they didn’t like the narrative.  And, having done my due diligence, I found myself defending the game, refuting why it was the way that it was.

My understanding of the game was mostly from an academic point of view - I could have written about three quarters of this blog with my understanding before that day and it would have been more or less the same.  Which, incidentally, if someone told me I would write a ten page paper on a videogame for recreational purposes, I wouldn’t have believed them. In my search for items that helped my argument, I pulled up a scene that backed up my argument.  And as I watched that scene, it was like my eyes finally opened to the game.  I found myself screaming out the “oh my gods!” during the scene.  For the first time, it clicked.  I got it.  And I was deeply moved by it.

The Setup

If you are reading, you surely know the plot of Spec Ops:  you play as Captain Walker and are placed in charge of your two squad mates, Adams and Lugo.  Your mission is to provide recon of the wasteland that Dubai has become.  After dust storms ravaged the city, the “Damned 33rd”, lead by Konrad, set out to rescue the citizens.  The US government soon abandoned the effort, but Konrad insisted that he and his troops stay behind, going so far as to disobey orders to leave.  Your job was to see if anyone was left, and your curiosity leads you to find out what happened to Konrad.  

You initially find yourself fighting insurgents who have been fighting against the 33rd.  You also learn that the CIA has been attempting to ‘remove’ the 33rd, so naturally you are mistaken for a CIA agent.  The 33rd open fire on you, forcing you to kill American soldiers.  This is the start the start of your ‘sins’ in the game.  You slaughter soldiers, you kill insurgents, you unleash chemical warfare on innocent refugees, and you doom the city by destroying the water supply.  All in the name of getting to Konrad to solve the mystery of how the city got so bad.  All because Konrad was leading you to do such things.  

At times, the game presents the player with choices that are unclear - one scene has you in front of a rioting mob that just lynched one of your squad members.  The game tells you to shoot to make them disperse.  I know, in my heart of hearts, I was sad to see one of my men go, so I ripped right into the crowd.  Only later did I find out you can fire into the air and they will disperse.  However, some scenes you cannot avoid.  There is a scene where the only way to progress is to unleash white phosphorous on a group of soldiers below - as the smoke clears, you realize that in addition to committing a war crime against Americans, you also destroyed a refugee camp.  To many players, this scene is enough to instill a haunting memory, and I personally will never be able to forget the centerpiece of it all:  the burnt husk of a woman, mouth agape in mid scream with no eyes, only sockets, covering what we presume is her daughter’s eyes from the grotesque scene of burning bodies surrounding her.

In addition to all of this imagery, the game also presents the soldiers you kill as human beings.  Oftentimes, you can sneak up on them in idle conversation, where they are contemplating why they are fighting, talking about their family, reminiscing about being back home.  The game goes out of its way to humanize the enemies you are fighting.

Finally, the game presents ‘tips’ on loading screens that are meant to shake you to your core.  At first, they are things like “this button reloads!”, but they turn to things like “this isn’t your fault”, and “you are still a good person”.  One in particular asks “how many American soldiers have you killed today?”  It knows you will see these as you die or as a scene changes, and uses this opportunity to seemingly scold the player’s actions.  All of the screenshots (except the first one) in this blog are in game 'tips' presented to the player.

The intended effect is that the player feels uneasy while playing.  However, at the end of the game, the player finally encounters Konrad.  And this is where it stops being a game.

The Moment

A bloodied Walker makes his way to where Konrad is.  A dozen troops meet you, claiming they are all that remains of the 33rd- you killed the rest.  They surrender to you, and point you to Konrad.  As you walk to meet him, he asks you “do you feel like a hero yet?”.  

As you find Konrad in his lavish settings, he asks if you think he had gone crazy.  Walker responds that he had hoped so.  He is painting a familiar scene - he is painting the refugees, specifically the woman holding her daughter.  Konrad says his undoing was that he couldn’t escape the reality of what happened in Dubai.  He actions are figuratively pushing the painting in your face, forcing you to stare at the most gruesome consequence of your actions.

“Your eyes are opening for the first time”, he says.

Walker looks at the painting and after a moment declares “You did this”.  “No, You did.  Your orders killed 47 innocent people”.  Konrad then asks who is responsible for what happened?

As the scene continues, we find Konrad assures us that ‘this is no game’.  We then see Konrad in a chair, pistol in hand, aged, and most importantly - dead.  It is clear that we are talking to an illusion at this point.  The background turns black.

The game flashes back to the opening, remind you of your initial mission:  find out if there are survivals, then radio home.  Not to chase down Konrad, not to save the city.  Thinking back to it, Walker says that nothing that happened was in his control, and that he was only trying to help.  Konrad reminds him that everything that happened was based on his actions, and no one was saved - the only thing Walker is good for is killing people.  Scenes of those you have killed flash past.  The illusions that Walker created throughout the game are suddenly revealed.  Then Konrad says that “the truth is, you are here because you wanted to feel like something you are not.  You wanted to feel like a hero”.  He continues to claim that Walker has used him as a scapegoat for his actions.  

At this point, control is returned to the player, and a decision is presented - you can shoot Konrad.  Or you can kill yourself.  Walker mutters that maybe this is all in his head, to which Korad retorts that maybe it is in his.  The player gets the choice to pull the trigger on whoever he or she chooses.

You can watch the entire scene here:

The Impact

Here we learned that Walker is suffering from the stress of a battlefield, and was using Konrad as a scapegoat for his actions.  He disregarded orders from up top because he wanted to prove himself as a hero.  Yay.  The end!


The scene makes sense in the context of the characters, but there are certain phrases that should key you in to what is really happening:  The game isn’t showing you a dialogue between Konrad and Walker.  The game is talking to you.  The game is saying that you the player are Walker, and that Konrad is the developer.  Slowly, it changes the background from what would be expected in a realistic war game to a black screen.  The set is taken down for a minute, the actors stepping out of their roles.  The scene isn’t dialogue between two characters.

This is a message.  From the developer to you.  

And they are pissed.

If you haven’t realized this before, go back up and watch the scene again.  Watch it with Walker as you, personally.  Not as you projecting as Walker.  Not as you pretending to be Walker.  But between you personally and the Yager.  With Walker as nothing more than a puppet that you are controlling.  This is, afterall, what they wanted.  Konrad tells you that this isn’t a game, and he really means that.  They break the fourth wall to get you to pay attention and listen up.  There is also a line where Walker says that maybe it is all in his head.  An illusion.  Konrad says that maybe it is all in his.  It was, afterall, a picture in the mind of those who developed the game.  The developer shows you the burned refugee.  It shows you that it knows that you killed civilians.  It knows that you killed innocent lives.  And it had the ability to predict this, so much that it could paint out the outcome of your actions in the way that would affect you the most.  Of course you would kill them.  Of course you would open fire on Americans.  Because you are a monster.  How would Konrad know that this happens?  Easy.  He doesn’t.  The developer does.

The game reinforces this player agency by showing Konrad dead in a chair, having taken his own life.  He never existed.  He is nothing but a voice in our ear, an audio snippet playing from someone long gone.  A voice in our ear that we were using as an excuse to commit these atrocities.  

The next exchange is simply fantastic.  “You did this”.  Every player who dislikes Spec Ops uses this exact argument.  The developer set up the game in such a way where the only way to progress is to gun down soldiers, to bomb civilians, to doom an entire city  In many places through the game the player has a choice:  like I mentioned above, you can mow down the crowd, or force them to disperse.  Other times, there is seemingly no choice.  Because of this, many feel like the game is unfairly punishing them for doing what the game told them to do.  The only way to progress it to commit a war crime, so why are they holding it in our face.  They made us do this!

The response is that you did this.  Your orders killed the refugees.  Your orders killed American soldiers.  You orders doomed the city.  And not your “orders” as Walker.  But you playing the game.  You saw what the game way presenting.  They made it painfully clear who your enemies were, and what was at stake.  They gave you your mission, then asked you to deviate from it.  The developer gave you a voice in Konrad that prodded you into killing soldiers.  It suggested you should mortar soldiers.  And you obliged.  The game isn’t responsible for you playing it.  Your purchased it.  You played it.  And when it told you to kill, you killed.  The game never forced you to kill anyone.  It allowed you to kill people.  And we, the generation of sociopaths who find pleasure in playing power trip military fantasies were all too eager to oblige them.  We had a choice.  We always have a choice.  The game went too far, and we winced, but we never stopped playing.  If we had stopped, turned around, and remembered what our mission was, we could have saved countless lives.  If we decided that this game crossed the line of what we are willing to do, we would have turned it off and dismissed it.  But we are conditioned to press on and keep playing no matter what the virtual consequences are.  

Then Walker takes the voice of the player yet again:  “I was only trying to help.”  How. Powerless.  Later on he says that he never meant to hurt anyone, and the developer responds with “no one ever does”.  We were playing this game because we thought it was ultimately the right thing to do.  As we continued to kill, we ultimately believed we were doing so because the story would end up where we were doing the correct thing.  We wanted to believe that if we pushed through the brutality, we would find an ending where maybe the city was saved.  What did we get instead?  We received nothing.  Bleak, horrific, nothing.  So why did we do this?

“Because you wanted to feel like something you were not.  You wanted to feel like a hero”.

Has a game ever been so accusing?  Has a developer ever been so blunt?  They flat out say that we are playing game as an empowering escape.  We are killing virtually so we can feel good about ourselves.  We are willing to pump round after round into our fellow digital man if it means we can feel like a hero. We are willing to sacrifice our morals if it means we can escape what we really are for ten minutes:  no one.  But in the power fantasy of the modern shooter, we are all fighting the good fight, we are all the infallible hero.  And here comes Spec Ops saying “no.  You are a gamer, playing a game, wanting to be something you will never be.  You will sacrifice everything for that as long as there is nothing on the line, you loser.”

Finally, the developer gives you a choice.  After all this, what do you do?  Do you try to keep playing the hero?  Do you hold out hope that after all of this you can still get a happy ending?  Or do you admit defeat, allow them to say that they got you, and stop playing now by killing yourself.  If you shoot Walker, you realize that you were wrong, and that they were right.  If you shoot the developer you continue the illusion that you are still ‘right’, and that the violence was justified.

This single scene asks so much more of the player than any other game has.  It isn’t just saying in this game you were a dick because I told you to be a dick.  It is asking you if you really, honestly, think that every military shooter on the market is right.  Is it correct to take people’s lives to live out your own power fantasy?  How far are you willing to go to get the reward of being a hero?  The entire scene is asking you to stop playing games as a kind of Skinner Box - keep killing and we will keep rewarding you - and start questioning your motives and thinking for yourself.  What have they done?  Why am I killing?  Do I have a choice?

From a personal note, I played this game through on my first time going for the last ending.  There was no closure, no fanfare, and I felt empty for it.  I did everything it asked me to, because I knew that if I did I would get another chapter.  I would get another achievement.  If I shot someone in the face with a shotgun, a fountain of blood would pop up with all the fanfare of a coworker giving me a thumbs up in the office.  I felt nothing from the game, except the feeling that I missed something.  I played through again through the scene with the white phosphorous only to get the same empty feeling.  

After watching that scene again, and realizing that they were talking about me?  I feel horrible.  I fell right into their trap.  They were right.  I would pursue any goal, no matter how gory, to advance whatever narrative they drove.  When I mentioned Bioshock above, it wasn’t simply for the community spoiler.  It was also because this game pulls the same “would you kindly?” card.  I am willing to do whatever a game asks me to do, regardless of context, just to advance the game.  We trust that what we are doing is correct.  If a game refused to progress unless you killed an infant, would you?  Would you turn off the game and play something else?  What if the game asked you to open fire on civilians in an airport?  Spec Ops takes a moment to ask, from one reasonable human being to another, what are we willing to do in a game to be entertained?  How far will we go?

For me the answer to that question is, in a word, unsettling.   read

1:18 PM on 06.10.2013

Save State: Courageous Storytelling (Fear Effect)

Ok, seeing as I'm still reeling from the flying knee the Game of Thrones delivered to my knackers Monday just gone, the topic for today’s save state cblog seems especially timely in that it concerns a similarly indelible 'holly shit' moment - a moment that shattered my assumptions and did much to ground my tastes and expectations for many of the games I've played since. The game in question is Fear Effect and the 'moment' - well I'll come to that later - but first let me talk a little more generally about a title that remains, to this day, one of the most satisfying I've ever played: Fear Effect.

Developed for the original Playstation by Kronos Digital and published by Eidos in January 2000, Fear Effect is a cinematic, adventure game with strong survival horror leanings and follows the story of its three mercenary protagonists: Hana Tsu Vachel, Royce Glas and Deke DeCourt, as their plans to find and kidnap Wee Ming Lam, the missing daughter of a Hong Kong triad boss known as Mr. Lam, are unsettled when events take a sudden turn for the supernatural.

Delightfully dystopian, fantastically futuristic and unashamedly mature, dipping back into Fear Effect for the purposes of writing this blog confirmed to me many of the things that first drew me to the game. Easily one of the most visually striking PlayStation titles, Fear Effect combines full-motion-video environments and Japanese-animation-inspired 3-D character graphics to terrific effect. Similarly, the game boasts a magnificently menacing soundtrack, strong vocal performances and engaging plot. Superb stuff!

In any case, seeing as this blog is reading more like a review than it is a commentary on Fear Effects hitherto ‘make Fandango’s tiny little brain take a big shit’ instant, I should probably share with you all the moment that affected me so:

Mind. Fucking. Blown. So, let me get this straight: I* have to pick which of the two remaining protagonists (Deke having earlier been murdered whilst trying to infiltrate a brothel, only to be reanimated as a grotesque demon for the purposes of a boss fight much later on) kills the other? At the games apex, you’re forcing me to murder my one remaining partner in making a choice that either benefits the literal devil or its avatar of destruction? How dare you! Is that even allowed? That’s…that’s fucking awesome!

You know, looking back I can just about recall how conflicted I felt about what was being presented to me.  Trying to reconcile the anger I felt at having Fear Effect place me in a narrative headlock with the surprise, excitement and apprehension I was somehow managing to experience all at once made for a wonderfully heady, hugely enjoyable, genre defining moment – one that’s remained with me to this day. My choice? Well I killed Glas because…well because…*ahem*…well because tits (Anita Sarkeesian forgive me).

Now, uncomfortable admissions notwithstanding, I’ll gladly  hold my hands up and concede now that this ‘revelation’ is nothing like as powerful or sophisticated today as it first appeared to me all those years ago - and yes, playing through the game in ‘hard’ mode yields what many might consider to be an ‘optimum’ ending - but I would posit that there’s still plenty to admire in the conception, courage and delivery of a moment that makes a real commitment to storytelling (and in a way that doesn’t pander to the player).

On that point, I invite you all to take a moment and picture in your minds eye facing a similar choice - this time in the contemporary title of your choice. Me, my mind wandered off to ponder the potential of witnessing the uneasy alliance between Trip and Monkey in Enslaved shift differently in eventually coercing a similarly difficult dilemma. Cool, right? I also thought a little about the unrelenting joys of smashing Tails’ face repeatedly with a 12lb lump hammer, but I digress!

Ok then, seeing as this thing was meant to be a celebration of a favourite gaming moment and not a thinly veiled dig at the current state of the AAA game development, I’ll wrap up this briefest of blogs by saying that Fear Effect is a game that seeded in me an enduring love and respect for all those games that carry with them the courage of their convictions. It’s a game that delivered a hefty kick to my complacency, forcing me to re-evaluate my expectations and appreciate the value of murdering those who do not have awesome virtual boobies. Worthwhile stuff!

Here’s hoping I get to experience something similar again soon (I’m looking at you tails)!

Also, Roose Bolton is a c*nt.

Thanks for reading.

* having played through the game in ‘normal’   read

1:47 PM on 05.27.2013

Save State: Taking One for the Team (Einhander)

Coming from a poor family, a lot of my gaming history comes from going to my cousins’ houses and playing on their consoles instead. I was addicted to my cousin’s PS1 and eventually begged my family to get one of our own. After finally getting one, besides playing X-Men vs. Street Fighter, we would also play demo discs over and over again as if they were full games because we were too poor to afford additional games. There were three demos I distinctly remember playing almost daily as an 8-9 year old kid. Those demos were for Tomba, Destrega, and finally, Einhander.

Einhander is a shoot-em-up, or Shmup, game developed and published by Squaresoft (now Square Enix) and was released in 1998, not too long after the release of Final Fantasy VII. Despite playing the demo more times than I could count, I never went around to purchasing Einhander and eventually forgot all about the game. It was only a few years ago that I remembered this game even existed, and through methods I won’t explain, I got the game running on my PSP and played it from beginning to end. Shmups were slowly reaching its stage of obscurity by the time Einhander was released. The game wasn’t even highly marketed and was most likely treated as a small side project. No one can say they saw this game coming, nor did anyone even want a Shmup from Squaresoft. However, what we got was a surprisingly well-made game, with not only deep gameplay mechanics, but an even deeper narrative.

What’s interesting about the human brain is that we are generally more affected by things we CANNOT see. Subtlety is key to presenting an engaging plot and likeable characters. Plus, it’s not exactly exciting to be spoon-fed information when half the fun of enjoying any story is coming up with questions and finding answers on your own. Oddly enough, I don’t believe Squaresoft was intentionally going down the subtle path and put little effort into exposing the story, as this wasn’t intended to be a huge hit in the first place. 10% of the story was presented in-game, while the rest could simply be found in the game’s physical manual (who reads those nowadays?).

If anyone is like me, and played the game before touching the manual (though in my case, I didn’t even have a manual), you were presented with a vague, yet sad tale of a pilot fighting for his people.

The Setup

Einhander takes place in the distant future of 2092 in which Earth is made up of a single entity called the Empire, and humans who branched out from Earth and created the Moon Colony of Selene. Demanding independence from their Earthly superiors, the people of Selene waged war against the Empire, resulting in 100 years of the “First Moon War.” Despite huge losses from both sides, the Empire had overpowered Selene forces, and they were forced to retreat. Fast forward to 2245 and we now have Selene lacking in essential resources. The colony deemed it necessary to attack the Empire once again, as it was the only planet that housed said resources. Over the course of three years, Selene executes the attack program of Einhander, in which advanced fighter planes are deployed to cause as much damage as possible to lower the Empire’s defenses. You play as one of the pilots of these planes and dive straight into the Empire Capital of Gesetz, which happens to be Stage 1.

The Boss of Stage 1, a very familiar memory since this is when the demo ended

Alarms go off, sirens are blaring, and police officers are shouting at you in a foreign language. It’s clear these guys don’t want you to be here, and if you listen closely, all enemies actually speak German from Stages 1 to 5. According to the manual, the majority of the Earth was left in ruins because of previous battles with Selene. The Empire you see now was built on top of what would be Germany. In between each Stage, the player is given orders from EOS, the on-board AI of the Selene military satellite, Hyperion. This results in most of the story exposition in the game (and the only English you’ll hear in the game as well) as you complete one objective after another. It is until you reach the end of Stage 6 that the player is given a very strange “reward”…

The Moment

After taking down the boss of Stage 6 and saving Selene from a lethal Empire attack, you receive a message from EOS, saying that tests of the latest EOS unmanned fighter are almost complete. For your heroic efforts, you have the honor of being the target of the final test. Upon your death, you will advance two classes and be rewarded with a Sirius decoration…wait what?

You can skip to 4:45 to hear the message

The screen fades to black, and you advance to a cutscene portraying EOS fighters opening fire on you. Before proceeding onto Stage 7, the final stage, the pilot himself questions why his own people are trying to terminate him. He also implies that he was being fed lies by his superiors, as they said Earth was a Utopian-esque society. However, players can see throughout the game that Earth was a barren wasteland not unlike Selene. The pilot comes to a conclusion, stating there was no purpose for further bloodshed if both sides were equally suffering.  Stage 7 begins with another message from EOS, saying you are committing an act of treason and must remove all armaments and surrender. Without further input from the pilot, you take control once again, making your way back to Selene while destroying your fellow people.

Play skillfully enough, and you will reach the final boss of the game: Hyperion itself. After a long and arduous battle, Hyperion is defeated and the pilot speeds off towards the moon, destroying even more Selene forces along the way. The screen fades once again, and you are given a brief epilogue stating the war had come to an end once both sides became aware of their situations. A single entity was credited to bringing about this end, though the exact name was stricken from official history. Only those directly involved in the battle will remember the name: Einhander.

The final stage, including the final Boss battle, and epilogue

The Impact

You are a man on a mission. You follow orders, you perform them exceptionally…and so, you are rewarded with death? What is going on?! Shmups aren’t known to have much…”character.” I’m sure the idea of a pilot doesn’t even cross players’ minds when playing these types of games. But despite the miniscule amount of narrative given in Einhander, getting just a few words from the pilot was enough for me to wonder what this guy was going through, and being hit with that twist at the end of Stage 6 was all the more deep and emotional for me.

Now here’s where the manual comes in handy. If you read the manual, you’ll realize there was a small tidbit I left out about the Einhander program. Yes, the purpose is to send pilots in to deal as much damage as possible, but I never mentioned they were supposed to come back did I? The pilot you control, and all pilots before him are fully aware that Einhander is in fact, a kamikaze mission. But when put in the hands of yourself, this pilot repels all attacks from the Empire and remains standing. So what else is there to do besides go back home, right? Yeah, wrong. You’ve seen Earth in all its barren glory. The higher ups of Selene have been lying to their people to have an excuse to (possibly) completely destroy Earth. Coming back with the information you hold will deem you a heretic. So, Selene basically thinks you are too awesome and flaunts a big promotion in your face that you will literally die for.

While not the most logical follow-up to an RPG like Final Fantasy VII, Einhander definitely delivered in terms of narrative prowess, which is something we all know Squaresoft was known for. Further research on the manual as well as the Japanese version of the game will reward you with even more depth to the story, including various German and Biblical references. Of course, that’s a story for another day. What’s special about Einhander, is that you can create a story by barely having one. Not unlike the highly-acclaimed Journey, the story of Einhander is put together by yourself. Here’s hoping we get an HD release of the game, so gamers of all ages can experience this PS1 Shmup gem.   read

9:37 AM on 05.13.2013

Save State: An Assassin Takes Any Job (Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance)

Ah, the strategy RPG. Is there any genre that’s more in need of love? I highly doubt it. Whereas the current video game industry eats up any First Person Shooter, Western RPG or just straight-up Action game, the SRPG remains a niche genre. In fact, turn based strategy in itself may already be niche, god forbid it has leveling in it. “So it’s basically chess, but the pawns have faces on them?” you’ll hear people ask. To which we of course eloquently reply: “NUH-UH”! But for those of us who do appreciate a good strategy game every once in a while, there is always Fire Emblem.

Fire Emblem, a series that itself was not being released in the West until people playing Super Smash Bros. Melee started wondering “who the hell are Marth and Roy?”. With Lyndis’ story on the GBA, however, Nintendo finally answered the calls of the Western gamers who couldn’t wait to jump into a series that has been so popular in Japan. But even with the GBA game and its sequel, Fire Emblem didn’t really take off until the Nintendo Gamecube got treated to a little game called Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance. Ike and the Greil Mercenaries were responsible for creating many new fans of the series, and Ike himself remains a recognizable face. As we all know, he even replaced Roy in the latest Smash Bros. And that’s when you know you’ve made it as a Nintendo character. 

But one of the most important characters in Path of Radiance has always been shrouded in mystery; little is known about him except that he loves gold. And yet he’s the subject of today’s Save State.

As always, spoilers abound.

The Setup
The basic story of Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance is as follows. Greil, leader of the Greil Mercenaries and father to both Ike and Mist, enjoys a quiet life in the country of Crimea, where him and his loveable band of rogues make their money tossing bandits out of places where they don’t belong. Ike and Mist’s mother, Elena, died when they were both still very young, and Greil has been a single parent ever since. Although the Mercenaries don’t get paid much, it’s always enough and they do good work, ensuring the safety of all.

Of course, this life of relative peace can’t last forever. Crimea’s neighbor Daein, under the rule of the mad king Ashnard, invades the country with brutal efficiency. As a result, the Greil Mercenaries are put on the side of Crimea’s own army, trying to defend themselves against an army that outclasses theirs in every possible way. Rather suspiciously, from the moment of the attacks Greil decides to put Ike in charge of the Greil Mercenaries, something he’s never really done before…almost like he’s preparing Ike for something.

That something soon becomes apparent. In a duel sought out by the greatest general in Daein’s army, the mysterious Black Knight, Greil is mortally wounded. Ike has to watch it happen right in front of him. And not too long after, Greil dies in Ike’s arms. The Black Knight himself is not satisfied; he was obviously expecting more of a challenge, remarking in disappointment: “…no…resistance?”

- Ike and Mist mourn their father at his grave, marked by his weapon of choice: his trusty axe.

With Greil dead, Ike is the only one left to lead the Mercenaries. And that’s where our real story begins.

Not too long after Greil’s demise, a rather suspicious fellow approaches Ike. His name is Volke. He only wants one thing: to speak with Greil. He refuses to even just tell Ike what his business is with his father: Volke will speak to Greil, and Greil alone. That is, of course, until he is told that Greil has recently died. Upon hearing that, Volke reveals that he is in ‘intelligence’, and is willing to share an important report for the 'nominal' fee of 50,000 gold. While the report was meant for Greil alone, Ike is a valid substitute. But it goes without saying that the Mercenaries have nowhere near that amount of cash laying around. So I guess we’ll just send Volke on his merry way, right? How important could that report really be?

- You are SO ripping us off right now.

Well, not exactly.

I mean, Volke looks like a resourceful kind of guy, and it just so happens that the Mercenaries’ next mission involves rescuing a bunch of prisoners. He looks useful, at least. And who knows, perhaps a shady guy like him would know a thing or two about picking locks? As a matter of fact, he does! For a small fee of 50 gold per lock (the money-grubbing bastard!) he’ll be perfectly willing to help out the team for a little bit. And with that, Ike has a new recruit on the team: Volke, the Thief.

As expected, he instantly makes himself useful during the mission that follows. There are lots of locked cells and treasure chests around, and although he charges for each one, the gains far outweigh the costs. From even more new recruits (including fan-favorite Nephenee) to a whole slew of new items, Volke has more than proven his worth.

And we’re in luck! Despite claiming that he’d only help us out for the one battle, it seems that Volke has taken a liking to the Greil Mercenaries. He decides to join Ike and his team for the rest of the way. They have “sparked [his] curiosity”…and I guess he hasn’t got anything better to do? While Ike still has some suspicions, ultimately everyone decides to let Volke tag along. He’s not the most trustworthy guy, but hey. The Greil Mercenaries can use any help they can get their hands on, and he has already proven himself useful once before. Besides, as Soren observes: “He is a dubious character at best, but at least we know his motives. Everything begins and ends with gold. He'll be easy to control.” Finally, having Volke travel with them makes it all the easier to give him his money once they’ve saved up enough. It could take a while, but he doesn’t really seem to mind. For now, Ike knows his team strengthened with a shiny new knife-wielding lock-picking Thief. Permanently, this time.

But how does this rather suspicious guy know Greil in the first place? And why did he suddenly become so cooperative when he learned that Ike was Greil’s son? Not to mention, it seems a tad difficult to believe that a Thief like him would join the Mercenaries just because he’s ‘curious’.

And on top of everything, he’s still got that report to give…

The Moment
A long time after Volke has joined the troupe, Ike is in for a stroke of luck. After an excruciating battle against Daein’s forces, what does he find but a whole fort full of gold! Naturally, because it all used to belong to the Daein army, nobody has any objections to just taking the lot as spoils of war. Ike entrusts the gold to the team’s financial advisor….but there’s the little matter of that 50,000 gold he has a very good use for.  After all this time, Volke has been paid. In full.

And now for that report.


So that’s it? It was all for nothing?
Well, no. It turns out that Volke never had a report that he wanted to give to Greil. But he does have some other information. He just didn’t want to share it with Ike until he deemed him ready to hear…what may be a shocking truth. And the 50,000 gold? Well, he likes gold a lot. What can you say?

Volke, it turns out, once had an important contract with Greil himself. He was to shadow Greil wherever he went, and if necessary…to kill him. Volke explains it all:

Ike’s mother once possessed an historic artifact, Lehran’s Medallion, also known as the Fire Emblem. Upon her death, it went to Mist. However, dark powers rest within the medallion: anyone not pure of heart who touched it would instantly go berserk. And this is the fate that had befallen Greil. Greil was once a high-ranking general in the armies of Daein, but all of that changed when he touched the Fire Emblem. Gone completely berserk, Greil slayed every soldier who crossed his path with little difficulty and even less remorse. He killed enemies, complete strangers, and even friends.

In the end, he even killed that which he loved most: his wife.

And only when he saw his wife impaled by his own sword did he regain his senses. Haunted by the vision of Elena dead by his own hand, he swore never to pick up a sword again. He was serious too: he slashed the tendons of his right arm to make sure it could never happen again. And as a final measure, a failsafe, he hired Volke to kill him if he ever went berserk again.

Volke himself almost refused, because he knew of Greil's reputation. Greil was hailed as one of the best swordsmen in the world, and it was no coincidence that his berserker rage at the hands of Lehran's Medallion caused as much destruction as it did. There's no way even someone as sneaky as Volke would be able to take him down. Only when it has become clear that Greil has crippled himself to the point where he could never hold a sword again does Volke agree to the contract...if just barely.

Finally, Volke had one other job: to tell Ike the entire story once Greil was dead and Ike was mature enough to hear it.

And when he has finally explained all that needed explaining, Volke offers Ike a new contract: to become part of the Mercenaries once more…and to kill Ike, should the need ever arise.

Now knowing the dangers of Lehran’s Medallion, which is still with Mist after all, as well as the true fate of his parents, Ike can't do anything but agree.

And with that, Volke shows his true colors. A thief no longer, he becomes what he has always been:

Volke, the Assassin.

Unfortunately, there’s no good video available, given that this moment is strictly text-based. This Let’s Play page however, does a good job of capturing it.

The Impact
Well, that certainly changes a few things.
There are a couple of reasons for why I particularly like this moment. For one, I feel that it is particularly strong because it just goes to show that in Fire Emblem, any character can be a vital piece of the puzzle. Even a suspicious guy such as Volke, who’s only real interest seems to be in gold, has important extra baggage. This is only strengthened by the fact that, in true Fire Emblem form, any of your team members can permanently die. So your Mage took one blow too many? Who can say, he may have known a thing or two about king Ashnard. And Volke is just a Thief, right? Surely we can miss him! As our moment shows, no you can't. Moreover, I like how the moment is set up way in advance, from the very first moment Volke joins the crew, but has an immense pay-off when it finally arrives. It puts many things in an entirely new light.

Ike lost both of his parents over one strange medallion, and in the worst way possible. He now knows why his father was such a feared warrior, and how his mother passed away. More than that, he knows what the mad king Ashnard and his Black Knight are truly after. Ashnard wants to harness the power inside the Fire Emblem to win the war once and for all, and expand his empire across the entire continent. It was never just about the invasion of Crimea: Ashnard knew that Greil took the Fire Emblem with him into hiding. The Black Knight, meanwhile, just wanted to prove himself against the famous Greil, the most powerful general in Daein's history. And why wasn’t he satisfied with the fight? Because ever since that fateful night, Greil has never again been at his full strength. That is also why he’s still following Ike and co. around: Ike is the only one left who could match Greil’s potential, so the only way for the Black Knight to prove himself the best…is through killing Ike once he has become strong enough to rival his father.

- Which goes about as well as you'd expect, by the way.

But I think the most interesting thing about this moment is Volke himself. He may be an assassin, and he deems himself very good at his job (rightly so, I might add), but there’s just no way he could ever beat Greil. Greil may have crippled himself to make it a bit easier, but he was still able to wield a giant axe with deadly efficiency. On top of that, someone gone completely berserk wouldn’t hold anything back. Volke would face a tireless madman waving a giant axe around, and with a reputation for knowing how to use it. There’s just no way he would ever stand a chance. He knows this.

And yet he takes the job anyway. Was it just for the gold? He never did explain what he needs all that gold for, but it does seem to be his one focus in life. It could be that he simply decided to take the gamble and hope for the best. Or was there maybe something more to it? Perhaps he felt for Greil, who had to live in the knowledge that he killed his own wife, not to mention many of his friends and comrades-in-arms. Perhaps Volke wanted to protect Ike and Mist against their father. Both were still very young at the time, and survived purely by the incredible luck that they weren’t around when Greil touched the Fire Emblem. Could they survive if it happened again? Who knows, maybe Volke himself had a wife once, or children; maybe he knows what it’s like to lose a loved one. Maybe he was unable to save his own family and wanted to save Greil's instead. Or perhaps his mind was more on the grand scheme of things. It could be that he wanted to shadow Greil to prevent the Fire Emblem from ever falling into the wrong hands. He might not be able to take on a berserk Greil, but he can sure stick a knife in some over-enthusiastic bandit’s back. That way, he could make sure that this powerful medallion stayed safe.

Finally, while he already doubted if he could ever kill Greil if something went wrong, he shows no fear of doing the same to Ike. In fact, he himself suggests that Ike make the contract. But Volke knows perfectly well that Ike has trained very hard with his father, that he has the potential to be as great a swordsman as Greil ever was…and no slashed tendons to hamper him. Surely, Volke must realize that he can kill Ike no more than he could kill Greil. So again I ask: just the gold? Maybe. However, in Path of Radiance’s sequel he pays Ike the 50,000 gold right back, seemingly for no good reason.

The greatest thing about this moment is that it makes you wonder. There is a lot of backstory behind this guy which is never really shared, and the game subtly tries to make you fill in the blanks for yourself. Who is Volke really, why did he ever become an assassin, and why would he ever take a job he had no way of carrying out, twice? All that for a character who, when you first meet him, seems like he cares nothing for anything but money. That is something we don't see too often in video games nowadays, and why Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance stands out in my mind.

One thing is for sure, whatever Volke’s real motives. Truly, an assassin takes on any job.   read

4:41 PM on 04.30.2013

Save State: An Impossible Maze (Antichamber)

[Save State is my personal homage to the wonderful Memory Card series that used to be a feature on Destructoid! Want to be part of it? I am thinking about creating a group account for a rotating panel of writers (or whatever) to try and make Save State a regular cblogs feature. If you would like to be a part of writing Save States, please send me a PM, as this is my first attempt to gauge interest.]

Gameplay reaction videos on YouTube always seem to bother me. Usually for scary games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Slender, people seem to really play up their fear. Then there are celebrities playing games and freaking out about whatever minor things are happening in the game that we are all used to by now. I never really get that kind of “I must yell at the monitor” reaction from games, but maybe actively recording yourself has an effect on that reflex. Most of my reactions are more akin to singing out the theme to Team America: World Police, like at the end of Homefront, or a choice set of words to a PvP opponent, mostly in Dark Souls.

That being said, there is one game in recent memory that blew my mind down to the base of my spine so well that I was regularly shouting at my screen the cliche “No way...nuh uhs”, but instead of being out of fear, it was something that I honestly have to call “Magical”. That game is Antichamber. Antichamber released at the end of January of this year after winning several awards related to being an indie game. Many indie games focus on trying to tell a touching story, or to try and recreate a new 8 bit experience, but Antichamber sets it sights on deconstructing a genre that Valve established.

Rooms will be shown, but I will not show or describe the solution to the room, so this one is spoiler free everyone!

The Setup

For those of you who haven’t played Antichamber ( me, you definitely want to play this one!), the game is a first person puzzle based game with a voiceless protagonist stuck in a series of chambers trying to solve puzzles by using a gun that can be either orange or blue. Plot Twist: it isnt anything like Portal! Whereas Portal is all about manipulation of Physics by placing portals, Antichamber is about a complete and reckless disregard for Physics and Euclidian Geometry.

Antichamber is an incredibly strange game. The world evokes what I have learned of quantum mechanics, in that it reacts to what you do and often what you do not do. One of the first rooms you come across has a bridge construct underneath your feet as you walk, but will immediately disappear when you jump. There are rooms that completely change if you turn your back on them. There are panes of glass that reflect an entirely different section of the map when looking at it head on, but from any angle is just a wall. The entire game is basically a videogame version of The Labyrinth. One major place where the game breaks pace with Portal is that instead of being a series of test chambers that you have to progress to, it actually borrows from the MetroidVania school of thought in that different puzzles can only be solved by acquiring a new ability, so you are constantly retracing your steps to solve a puzzle, and trying to maximize the skills that you do have to ‘solve’ each room.

The game has collectables, in that it keeps track of which hint signs you pick up. Hint signs are scattered throughout each puzzle, and generally offer a reflection on how you completed that puzzle, or an amusing anecdote about the puzzle. Often times they serve as a very ineffective warning because you have already fallen for one of the game’s many, many traps. One of these hints gives tells you a variation that sometimes it is about the journey, not the destination, which couldn’t be any more true with this game. I was never concerned with beating it, I was always more preoccupied with what it was going to conjure up next.

The Moment(s)

Within the first ten minutes of the game, you will likely fall down a pit that leads to two paths. One of these leads to a room with two staircases, one going up, and the other going down, but sadly there is no staircase going nowhere just for show. There is a note by the stairs, saying that sometimes in life, you are presented with choices. On my first time, I decided to go for the ‘up’ stairs. At the top of the staircase, I found myself back in the same room. I tried the down staircase. Same outcome. At some point I came back later with a gun that lets you place blocks, and I placed on right on the steps. I then climbed up a flight of stairs, and the block was right where I had left it. Huh. Opposite the hint that I had just read was a new hint: Sometimes, your choices don’t matter. After I laughed that off, I realized that they obviously wanted me to turn around, as I wasn’t getting any further here, and wouldn’t you know it, there was a different path behind me than when I walked in. I walked into the path, and I made a 90 turn around a square pillar. Then another. Then another.

Then another?


THEN ANOTHER!! But...but...

The next room is much later in the game. After solving a puzzle, you drop through the floor to find yourself in a room split into 2 parts, separated by a pane of glass in the middle: there is the ‘red’ part where you are and the ‘blue’ part, where you presumably want to be. There are two exits to the room, “south” and “east”. Being adventurous, I ventured into the east corridor, and found myself in the exact same room except I had clearly emerged from the South exit. Fine! I will take the South exit!...and I came out the East exit. Even more perplexing is that across the room from you, you SEE THE ROOM YOU ARE IN. Meaning that you are standing in, adjacent to, and across from the room you are in.

WHAT?!? That is the space time equivalent of being your own grandfather!

I did my best to capture these two moments in the clip here:

The Impact

I used a word that I rarely use above: Magical. This is the videogame equivalent of being a child and watching someone pull a dove out of their hat. It starts off with that same kind of apprehension of trying to figure out where they are going with this, then after the reveal there is a moment of confusion, bewilderment, and finally excitement. That. Isn't. Possible. Unlike with a magician performing a card trick, there is no gimmick, no setup, no trap door or trick flap. It’s just...the world. Ideas like this have been used before, like the Lost Woods in Zelda games, but this was different. This isn’t scrolling onto the same page, this is leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, climbing up a flight of stairs, and finding your own crumbs. And unlike Portal (it is really hard to talk about this game without bringing up Portal), this game doesn’t give you a sense of how or why. You never get a frame of reference that tells you that there is one room with a set of stairs, or a room connected by portals. The world feels infinite. Every time I climb those stairs I am higher than the last time, I just know it!

It is often talked about how videogames are a unique media because the player has control over their actions. Unlike in a book, you have the option to perform any actions, positive or negative, instead of being forced to watch them unfold as is dictated by the text on the pages. But this game touches on a completely different aspect of what makes videogames so amazing: They don’t have to play by any rules. They don’t have to use the same physics as the real world. Some of the most fun glitches to watch are glitches that abuse this! The fact is though, most games try to emulate reality as hard as they can in the name of immersion. Anitchamber completely disregards this! Why should I have physics? You know what? Why should I even use your geometry! You watch as you take six 90 degree turns around a pillar, and its just...disbelief. That can’t be right. That can’t be real!

The whole game left me feeling like I was in the movie The Labyrinth, as I mentioned above. Absolutely nothing is certain, paths can change, leading to me screaming out the same line of “Thats not fair!”. As much fun as I have had exploring Skyrim, as great as it is to ride through Hyrule, Antichamber has been one of my absolutely favorite worlds to get lost in. In a regular world you can lose immersion if something goes wrong - a giant rockets your companion into outer space, a dog is floating through the streets of New Vegas, or a car is stuck halfway through a wall...but here, you can’t ruin the immersion of being there, because our rules aren’t the game’s rules. To go back to what I was saying above, the best description I can use for this kind of experience is simply magical. It is like if Disney World collided with the Large Hadron Collider, and I was free to walk about the resulting park/science experiment.

I know this might be extraordinarily esoteric, but I absolutely love the book House of Leaves...can you imagine if someone used these principles to create a game based on that book? Dark corridors shifting, the world changing as you progress, a rumbling beast coming from impossible locations. A sense of both exploration and horror tied together in a world not bound by regular rules. I would play that game for at least half an hour before I turned on all the lights and Adventure Time! I could see it being incredibly easy to get lost in that world, because only thing that can stop you from being engrossed in it would be trying to figure out how they created it.

There has to be some kind of warp in a space where you teleport between possible combinations of what is real, right? I honestly don’t know the answer to how they did it, but that’s part of what makes it so special. I can try to come up with ways that I could think they could do it. I can try to come up with how Hollywood might produce a similar effect on a set using rotating walls and an actor, but those are effects. For all I know, in this game world, that could be the actual rules to how matter works, how geometry works, and how math works. Wrap your head around that: In this game, that could be what a corridor could really do. I can’t begin to rationalize that, and I realized the perfect analogy for it: trying to imagine how Antichamber works for me is like trying to imagine a new color. I know that some animals can see more colors that I can, but I don’t know....what colors! My mind has a limitation to what it can perceive based on what I know exists. I know if I turn a cube and look at four faces, I have seen the whole cube, but Antichamber doesn’t. It is the amazing experience to be able to walk in a world where this doesn’t exist. Where I can walk into a corridor attached to a room and come out in the same room that is opposite to itself. I honestly don’t know if the game engine cheats to give this effect or not, and as much as I want to know, I think it would make me sad to figure out how it actually works. To me, it is a chance to just get lost in an impossible maze, outside of anything in our own world.

Load State?
State 01: No One Stops - Nier   read

4:40 PM on 04.30.2013

Save State: No One Stops (NieR)

[Save State is my personal homage to the wonderful Memory Card series that used to be a feature on Destructoid! I don't know if I will write up any others, but I figured might as well set precedent now. Feel free to join in!]

As a male gamer, there are certain privileges that I have: I can play online without prejudice, I can project onto 90% of the protagonists, and I am constantly marketed to. There are a few places where I am not traditionally supposed to tread. One of those things is feeling emotionally attached to a videogame. Taking the dude bro shooters and multiplayer focused games of this generation, the only thing I should be feeling is competition. But I am going to admit in front of you, dear readers, that there are about a dozen games that have made me shed the least manly of tears. From Telltale’s wonderful drama in the Walking Dead, to the conclusion of Deadly Premonition, to seeing a familiar furry face in Ghost Trick, to watching an ally sacrifice themselves to right a wrong from several generations previous in Mass Effect 3, I have had my fair share of pity parties. The one I least like to admit? I actually cried a bit in Gears of War 3. The scene was actually put together really well, in a part of the game where it had some meaningful impact, and a pivotal moment in a series that I had been involved in for several years.

However, at the top of the list of games that make me feel at the bottom is Cavia’s Nier. Sitting on a paltry 68 on Metacritic, Nier has one of the most dedicated cult followings I have seen. Most of the YouTube videos for the game’s fantastic soundtrack are users reminiscing about their experiences, mourning the events of the game, with nary a negative comment in sight. Guys, this game can unite YouTube. That’s how good it is. Most of this comes from how the game sets up all of the characters and their individual motivations. The player, the main character, your party, the NPCs, the antagonist, the bosses, and even the regular enemies each have a reason for doing what they are doing, and as it gets explained, the plot gets complicated. All in all, this leads to probably a half dozen moments in the game that caused me to wipe out all of the eyelashes that just now decided to get stuck - thats my story and I’m sticking to it! Today, I want to focus on one of those moments. Needless to say, MAJOR SPOILERS FOR NIER.

The 2nd top comment is really spot on

The Setup

For those who have never played NieR, here is the basic rundown: You play as a middle aged man taking care of your daughter, Yonah. Your daughter has contracted the Black Scrawl, a plague with no known cure. You start the game by doing your best to gather ingredients to relieve her pain, until you learn that an ancient power in a talking book may possess the ability to cure the scrawl completely. You are told this by Devola and Popola, the caretakers of your home village. Your daughter constantly interacts with you: through cutscenes, through text, and through letters than you can view in the loading screen. And I have the say, the letters are my personal favorite, as they cover subject matter that is so entirely trivial. Whereas most games would probably use these to advance the plot, NieR uses these to fill in the relationship between Nier and Yonah. It covers such things as how she spent time today singing with Devola and Popola to how she tried to make you dinner the other day. It is incredibly endearing, and really helped me associate with being this virtual girl’s father.

Throughout the game, you continually return to your home village to say hello to your daughter, check your crops, return groceries for elderly citizens in town, and visit the local library. The library is your usual place for plot resolution and new quests, given out by Devola. Devola has a twin sister, Popola, who spends her time by the fountain in the town singing. I think half the people who played Nier have spent a few minute just sitting at the fountain to hear her singing. Devola and Popola both take care of the town, and the citizens, which often involves sending you off, and keeping out your less than desirable party members (as
to not scare the citizens).

Everyone spends at least ten minutes here, just relaxing

In the second half of the game, the antagonist called “The Shadowlord” kidnaps your duaghter after a climactic fight in the main village. The second half of the game becomes a quest to find her, and save her from his clutches. After running through the world again, you finally gain all of the keys you need to unlock the path to his keep. One of the first encounters in the Shadowlord’s Keep is Devola and Popola, who have now revealed that they are working for the Shadowlord. They both have dialogue and delivery that has this hint of regret - they aren’t happy for what they have put you through, and they seem like they genuinely wanted things to be different. As you progress further, you encounter them again, and they reveal the entire twist of the game, which is not the moment I am covering but could easily be another Save State: every enemy you have been killing is actually a human. You are not a human, but a shell for the human to return to, once a cure for a worldwide plague has been cured. You are responsible for the death of thousands of humans, some children, some even babies. Every monster you have been fighting has been fighting for its own loved ones, its friends, and its family. They also reveal another important detail: Devola and Popola are the only two ‘shells’ who did not have a human soul. They are the caretakers of the world, entrusted with making sure humans make it back to their bodies, and fixing any shells that break. The only catch is that because they have this responsibility, they cannot be repaired or recreated. Only they know the truth behind what is happening, and they have pulled the trigger to return your shell to its rightful owner, the Shadowlord.

The Shadowlord - This game is....very Japanese. Do not let this get in the way of enjoying it!

Then the boss fight starts.

The Moment

The boss fight is your standard Nier affair: a bullet hell style of attack, mashed up with shmup controls and action RPG elements. What can I say, the gameplay in Nier is definitely...unique! You initially are only fighting Devola, with Popola standing out of range. As you and your party whittle down Devola’s health, she finally falls and a cutscene triggers.

Devola is struck to the ground by the final attack that lands. Popola turns to her sister. The fight immediately stops. Popola cradles her sister in her arms. Popola begins to panic, realizing that she cannot save her sisters life. In the meantime, Devola is using her last words to try and reassure her sister, commenting on how strange it is that her sister feels so sad in this moment, because neither of them actually have a soul. Why would they bother crying if that was the case? Popola pleads, saying that she can’t die, because if Devola dies, she would be entirely alone in the world. With her last words, Devola apologizes, then tells her sister she loves her. Devola’s body falls limp in Popola’s arms. The whole time the camera is showing this dramatic scene: a dying sister trying to give some last comfort to her still living sister. We see in the edges of the frame your party - still standing weapons in hand, but not aggressive.

There is a brief, awkward pause. At this point, Nier comes forward, and suggests that they stop fighting. Devola, while placing her sister on the floor, responds by saying that she can’t - not after you just killed her sister. Emile begins to protest, saying that it doesn’t have to be like that. Before he can finish his sentence, Popola begins to speak. After you cut down her sister, do you really think that she can stop? Is this something she could walk away? It’s too late to stop.

No one stops.

You can watch the scene right here:

The Impact

The entire situation left me feeling the same as I did in Spec Ops, to an extent. I changed from feeling like a hero to questioning why I did that. In a matter of moments, any satisfaction that I might have had for beating that boss was gone. [I know Spec Ops came out WAY later, but I think the emotions that game conjures are more universally recognized than NieRs - one of gaming's greatest shames]

This moment is one of the most ‘real’ moments I have ever experienced in a game. To begin with, the way that the pace changes away from a boss battle is incredible. It never takes on that kind of feeling like a saturday morning cartoon, where the bad guy is clearly vulnerable, so you should pounce. It is a pause, to show respect for the fallen, even if they aren’t on your side. More so, this was one of Nier’s friends, in a past life, and the player has a relationship with them, so it is an awkward moment to be rooting against someone you got to know throughout the course of the game like that. In most games, after you killed Devola, you would immediately fight a powered up Popola, but in Nier, Devola mourns her sister. It is that odd moment where the effects of your violence are so suddenly and shockingly put in your face. It isn’t just these sisters, either: this is what you have been doing the entire game. To lovers, to families, to companions that have done nothing wrong.

The cinematography of the cutscene (for lack of a better word) really does a fantastic job as well. Your party stands idly by, still holding their weapons, seemingly unsure if their guard should be up, or if they should be rushing in. There is that feeling where you know you should say something but there is nothing you can say that would have any meaning. The role of the protagonists change in that scene, because it stops being about a fight, and it is one sister holding the other, while your party stands by, weapons in hand, clearly responsible, yet showing an odd kind of half remorse.

Then there is the dynamic between Devola and Popola. There is something so tragic about how Devola is trying to use her last words to comfort her sister. Her whole speech seems to be trying to calm her sister down, and make it seem like everything will be alright once she is gone. Her final words being “I love you, sis” is just...unreal. More than just the relationships that are built up around those characters though, this was tangible to me as a player. I would never be able to meet a talking book or a skeleton kid, but I can see an interaction between siblings in that situation going very similarly, even in a completely normal setting. It is one of the few times where I had effortlessly placed myself in a character’s situation, and thought about my own personal (theoretical) reaction to similar events. I will never be trying to save the world. I will never fight a dragon. I will never be the man who single handedly stops World War 3. But I have a family. And this scene cuts pretty deep in that regard. And I know what the fear of being alone is like.

In my personal world while playing the game, I had just finished college. Most of my friends had just moved to a different part of the state, country, or world for jobs or other education. I had a pretty solid group of friends, which hinged on three people: my girlfriend, my male friend, and a good female friend. I wound up breaking up with my girlfriend, and my male friend started dating my good female friend. Fearing he would make things awkward, he never spoke to me again. All of my mutual friends from both groups either took the other side, or gradually stopped talking to me, so I became very isolated. There were moments where I would see how long I could go without interacting with another human being, often going on for about 72 hours before I had to say hello in the hallways at work. Even today, one of my biggest concerns is trying to find a meaningful social network after all of that took place, so watching someone lose their connection to the world, someone who deeply understood them, really resonates with me.

As the scene continues, Nier voiced my exact words: Just stop. I don’t want to fight anymore. At this point, I have clearly won, but at what cost? After crying a bit over that, I wasn’t in the mood to fight Popola, too. I just wanted to walk away, and maybe cleanse my conscience a bit as well. We had all seen enough bloodshed. There was no point to any more.

And as much as I would love that to be the case, where we both continue in opposite paths, the response that she gives is perfect. She can’t stop. In that situation, given all that has happened, given her sister’s sacrifice, and the way that she was brutally put down, she can’t walk away. And as the player, as much as it pained me to do so, I completely agreed. Were I in her situation, I would have to do the exact same thing. If the Shadowlord had hurt Yonah, wouldn’t I be obligated to keep fighting? To me, my daughter was the world. To her, it was her sister. It would be impossible to walk away, so we had to fight.

And in that second fight, nobody really won.   read

5:11 PM on 04.29.2013

Save State: Jenny (The Darkness)

It is kind of amazing what you can find in a bargain bin sometimes. Many of my favorite games haven’t been the games I purchased on day one for sixty dollars, but the games that I either purchased years after release, or games that came out below the regular price point. Bulletwitch, for instance, was a pretty fun game for eight dollars. EDF for 20 and Insect Armageddon for 40 are practically steals at that price. Deadly Premonition is actually worth all the money you have. Just open your wallet, pour it out. If you had exactly twenty dollars on you, so much the better. Finally, there is the game I wanted to talk about today: The Darkness.

The Darkness was released in 2007, two years after the launch of the Xbox 360. I picked it up in around 2010 for twenty dollars, and today it sells for approximately three dollars used. Like many games of that era, it isn’t the prettiest, was not the most polished, and has some rather interesting design choices by today’s standard. For starters, the world isn’t a corridor driven shooter, but is actually semi open world, with a train station hub connecting it. In the station and across the world there are side missions you can complete, which reward you with telephone numbers to dial to unlock alternate costumes or concept art. However, the second largest draw of The Darkness is the story. The first largest is Mike Patton, who voices the Darkness without any manipulation to his voice, so the rumor goes. Back on topic though, The Darkness gave me one of the most unexpected moments of my videogame career.

The Setup

In The Darkness, you play as Jackie Estacado, a low level mafia henchman. On the day of your 21st birthday, you are trying to perform a hit that goes terribly wrong. As you fight your way through construction workers, you find the foreman, your target, already dead with a bomb strapped to his chest. A message plays to you from your “Uncle” Paulie (the current mob boss), wishing you a happy birthday, and a painful death. How nice. After surviving the explosion and fighting through a graveyard, you are introduced to your supernatural ally: The Darkness. The Darkness manifests as two black serpents above your shoulders, and serves as your shield, as a melee attack, and as a magic of sorts. You get the ability to use magic guns, summon black holes, and pull forth comic relief minions from portals to Hell to assist you in your fight.

The first time I saw anything about this game, I was over at a friend’s house and was watching him play the game. He had already beaten it several times, so he booted it up on hard to show me what it was like. That first level of the game really does an excellent job of setting the pace for the game, because you don’t start off with the Darkness. Jackie is frail, ammo is scarce, and the gunplay, while occasionally satisfying in the most visceral of ways, is hardly effective. But as you gain the power of the Darkness, all that changes: You have ‘armor’ that regenerates, you have attacks that defeat enemies with little to no problems, you can conjure bullets, and then the difficulty curve suddenly slopes down. All in all, the game quickly makes it apparent what a powerful ally you have in The Darkness.

After getting used to your newfound ability to kill some dorks and eating their hearts to absorb their powers (yes, really) you meet up with your childhood friend, and current girlfriend, Jenny. She invites you up to her new apartment to show you the place, and has even planned a surprise birthday party of sorts for you. She baked you a cake, and she forces you to blow out the candles. Later, you are invited to spend some time with her, sitting on the couch, watching TV together. The player is given a prompt to leave at this point, but not taking that prompt leads to moments of Jenny holding your hand, resting her head on your chest, and eventually falling asleep, giving me one of my favorite achievements in gaming. For a few minutes, all the worries about the mafia, all of the questions have about the Darkness, all the violence, are just gone. It is just two lovers on a couch. There is a narrated scene before, where Jackie explains that Jennie doesn’t know what role he plays in the mafia , that he has killed countless men, or that he has practically made a deal with the devil in exchange for power. It is just the two of the two of them, sitting together, enjoying each other’s company. And that’s the whole story, save state over right? An endearing scene where we see the humanity behind a brutal killer, they fall asleep, and everything is solved, roll credits! Ta da! If only...

The Moment

As the game progresses, Jackie and his family continue to try and get revenge on the Mafia for trying to kill him, a fairly reasonable request. This leads to an escalation back and forth between the two groups that culminates at the orphanage where Jackie had met Jenny. As you walk through the level, there are two different voices in your ear: The first is flashbacks of you and Jenny as orphans. The second is the Darkness, reminding you what you are to it - a puppet, a vessel, nothing more than a body that it is using to get what it wants. By now, you have seen that all the Darkness wants is death and destruction.

You reach a room where Paulie, the mob boss, and the corrupt police chief have taken Jenny hostage. Before you walk in, the Darkness asserts its power, holds your arms, then tells you that you are its puppet.

You walk up to a door, and find Jenny being held at gunpoint by Paulie, with an exchange of cursing and threats between Jenny and Paulie. As Jackie makes an attempt to break down the door, the Darkness holds him back, telling him to stay still and watch. As you struggle, the police chief notices you, and begins to mock you, despite your demonic powers clearly showing. The Darkness eventually asserts that “She’s Mine”, and Paulie begins a monologue, shoving Jenny up against the door. This entire time, Jackie has been doing his best to bring down the door, but every time his arms move, the Darkness holds him back. Jenny, realizing what is about to happen, tells you that it isn’t your fault. Paulie pulls the trigger. All you can do is watch as Jenny falls to the floor. As Paulie pulls the gun up and begins to point it at you, the Darkness immediately breaks down the door, scaring Paulie and the chief off. The Dakrness releases it’s grip on you, and lets you go to her side. After seeing what just happened, Jackie picks up the gun Paulie left behind, turns to a mirror, turns the gun to himself, and shoots.

You can watch the clip here:

The Impact

There are so few scenes in games that have delivered that kind of suckerpunch. It is probably less than a dozen games total that have made my gut wrench to such an extent, that have made me want to turn away. I feel that so many other games would have gone slow mo while Paulie put the gun to Jenny’s head, and you would either have two seconds to shoot him or press a button prompt to have the Darkness kill him. I never expected them to actually let her die. On top of all of that, the whole scene has a simplicity to it that makes it all the more haunting. It isn’t gratuitous, it isn’t flashy, it isn’t some grand sacrifice in the name of a greater good. It is just a cold blooded execution.

The whole scene is put together and set up perfectly to give you the impact that they wanted to give. All that separates you from saving her life is a door. A thin piece of wood. Something that you could smash down even without any supernatural powers, by turning the knob or breaking the glass, but you are held back by the Darkness. When I played through this scene, I was hoping, praying, every second that passed by that I would get control of my character, a prompt, a reticle, ANYTHING that would let me go in there. The Darkness just wants me to know that it can do this to me! I know that now, that’s fine, you can stop me, now please just let me break through that door and save her! But throughout the whole scene, you are completely powerless to stop anything that happens. I was shocked that nothing happened. No one came forward to save her. No plot device, no relative, no darkling, nothing. The shock turned to anger. Real anger. At the Darkness for doing nothing, at Paulie for pulling the trigger, and a little bit at the writers for not giving me any chance to help. It absolutely shows the power that the Darkness has over you, and the lengths that Paulie is willing to go to get revenge on you.

The way that they set up Jenny as a character makes this scene so much worse than it could have been. I don’t know if any game has made me so endeared to a character as quickly as the apartment scene did. Maybe this was something with me, but it reminded me of my first love in just how simple it is. It is a snapshot of the day in the life, just holding hands, her head resting on your chest, watching some television. The stress of the world, any problems that you have in that moment are just gone. Vanished, and replaced with the feeling that kind of sweet puppy love. In the game this was all in such stark contrast to the rest of the game. All of the violence, the swearing, the demons, the all changed for a few moments so we could spend some time with an old friend. At the end of the day though, she was never involved with this, and she barely knows what is really happening in this scene. The rest of the violence in the game is against people who knew the war that they were fighting, and were aware of the risks, but Jenny was innocent.

Even through the end of the scene, she remained your friend. Her final words absolve you from what just happened to her, which is just a tragedy considering that at the end of the day it is completely your fault. Had you not joined the Mafia, you could have saved her. Had you not tried to get revenge, and just moved away, they might not have taken her. If you didn’t have the Darkness, you wouldn’t have been restrained. If only you knew what you were getting into.

The only satisfaction you get from this scene is that it sets the tone for the rest of the game, and gives the player and the protagonist a real sense of purpose in their actions. Watching that unfold before my eyes gave me an energy throughout the rest of the game. The Darkness stopped being some amazing superpower, it became an obstacle that I needed to overcome. Paulie was no longer some faceless antagonist, he is the man who brutally murdered my girlfriend in front of my eyes. Thinking back, this might be the strongest I have ever felt about a revenge plot. It sets up the characters so organically that the player can actually relate to what the protagonist is feeling, which is something that so many games skip over in an introduction cutscene or even just as a given in backstory. Off the top of my head, I go to Metal Gear Solid 3, the relationship between Snake and Boss is taken as a given. I never understood what Snake meant when he talked about their relationship, and how it is a professional quasi love situation. Had Metal Gear Solid 2 been “Snake and the Boss’ Day Out” then I would know what he went through, and I could feel the same betrayal as he did seeing her defect, but instead the game is just saying “trust me”, and I just can’t. Not to get too far off on a tangent, but that is exactly why I love Deadly Premonition so much. Back on point, I really felt connected to her, and I was very upset by the events that took her away from me, so I felt so much closer to what Jackie was feeling throughout the second half of the game, on a rampage to avenge Jenny’s death.   read

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